Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 3 (1910): The First Release

In the early production schedule was The Actor's Children, photographed by Blair Smith. Released on March 15, 1910, this was the first Thanhouser film to be distributed to the public. Frank H. Crane was cast as the father, and two children, Orilla Smith and Yale Boss, were hired for the juvenile parts. Smith and Boss, both of whom had prior film experience elsewhere, apparently were hired for work only in this single film, and after The Actor's Children were not mentioned again in connection with Thanhouser. Little is known of Orilla Smith, but Yale Boss, who was 11 when he worked for Thanhouser, went on to become a leading juvenile actor for Edison.

Years later, Edwin Thanhouser recalled: Note

Our first release was called The Actor's Children, a one-reel subject with "heart interest." At this time there was only the Patents Company supplying regular releases. We Independents, five in number, were in the early months of our careers. Note We had no established market and we had to sell our pictures to such scattered exchanges throughout the country who were unable to purchase the product of the Patents Company and who longed to get into the business.

I took a chance and boldly made 19 copies of The Actor's Children without a single bona fide advance order and sent them out to 19 dealers throughout the United States. Most of the exchanges were unprepared for the sudden responsibilities of buying a thousand-foot subject without thinking the matter over several weeks. The result was that out of the 19 copies sent out 10 were returned, most of them with letters saying that they were agreeably surprised at the interesting production we had turned out, and if we expected to make another one to be sure and let them see it, as they would enjoy looking at it. Some said they had all the films they needed that month....

In the early days I produced Jane Eyre, another picture play from a novel, and Thelma, a picturization of the novel and play. Soon Note we put out Romeo and Juliet - the first company among the Independents to put out a two-reel subject, and the first to put out a Shakespearean production. Romeo and Juliet in two reels was too much for our exchanges to absorb at one time, so we had to put out one reel at a time - a week apart.

The Actor's Children was a simple story - much less complex than the shelved-for-the-moment footage of The Mad Hermit - which told of two young married stage players with two children. Temporarily unemployed between productions, the breadwinners are destitute and, showing a contract for work in a play to begin soon, they beg their hard-hearted landlady for an extension on the rent. The woman assents, but when a prospective tenant comes around she rents him the room and casts the two children out into the street while their parents are away. They fall into the hands of a wily organ grinder, who beats them while training them to become beggars. Luckily, a kind theatre manager sees them at work dancing to organ music in the street and spirits them away to his theatre where they receive parts in a high-class program. The parents, who in the meantime have fallen heir to a rich relative's fortune, frantically look for their offspring without success, until they enter the theatre, see the little darlings on stage, and effect a joyous reunion.

Lloyd F. Lonergan, the scriptwriter, was fond of the deus ex machina dramatic technique whereby a fortune is found or inherited unexpectedly, or lightning strikes, or a meteor falls from the sky, or something else equally improbable happens to provide an unexpected and quick answer to a problem which is seemingly insoluble. Numerous Thanhouser films conclude with such a device.

In early March 1910 a reporter for The Moving Picture World Note visited New Rochelle and with Edwin Thanhouser as host saw two films: "He took us into an exhibition room, where we were shown what will be his first and second releases, The Actor's Children (March 15th), a clean and attractive story, and St. Elmo (March 22nd), a dramatization of the famous novel with the same name. It did not take many scenes to convince us that a master hand had directed their production. The acting was free and natural, the setting was convincing, and there was nothing lacking, even in the quality of the photography. It places the work on a par with concerns who have been in the business years instead of months, and infinitely superior to much that has been and is being produced.

"We can say no more until the films have had their chance upon the public screen, except this, that Independent exhibitors will make no mistake by insisting on having these films on their programs. Exchanges may order, subject to screen approval, for, Mr. Thanhouser says, that films are 'made to sell on their merit.'"

The Moving Picture World divided its interest and coverage between the Patents Company members and the Independents, seemingly without a clear preference for one side or the other. As was typical of trade journals of the era, the magazine concentrated on promoting the motion picture industry and was careful not to bite the hand of anyone who fed its checking account. Few large advertisers were strongly criticized or condemned, and even though a company might be unethical, insolvent, managed by scoundrels, or a discredit to the industry, little adverse mention was ever made in print, until, perhaps, a bankruptcy notice appeared, and there was no longer any potential for advertising revenue from the firm.

Reviews of films printed in The Moving Picture World tended to be gentle, and what few criticisms there were had the flavor of a father talking to a favored son. A negative comment was usually balanced by two or three positive sentiments, if not for the film reviewed, then for the next Thanhouser production to come under its purview. Of The Actor's Children it said: Note

A most excellent beginning for a new concern. The story is clear and clean and the acting is very good indeed in some scenes. There is, however, too much evidence of the production having been put on by a man whose experience has been gained on the living stage. Cutting out one or two scenes and substituting printed titles would improve the film, and less time should be given to the supposed speaking parts. No doubt this is evident to the producer after seeing the story on the screen where action speaks louder than words, and the fault will be remedied in the future. In fact it has already been much corrected in St. Elmo, the second picture of the new company, to be issued this week. In photography their work ranks well with that of older concerns and is far superior to some. The Actor's Children is a film that will please.

More about the same film appeared in the March 26, 1910 of The Moving Picture World:

Here is a picture which will interest by its fidelity to life and thrill with its appeal to the emotions. There is pathos, there is humor. Love and hate, the two most powerful passions of the human soul, are clearly depicted. In some respects this picture appeals even more strongly than the average which undertakes to illustrate those emotions which the principal controlling agency is in human life. The acting seems convincing and there is evident comprehension on the part of the actors which adds to the film's attractiveness. The firm is to be congratulated upon thus developing a subject and then reproducing it with adequate photographic work.

The Moving Picture News, the weekly journal catering to Independent news and advertising - a counter to The Film Index of the Patents Company - often printed pithy reviews, including one of The Actor's Children in the issue dated March 5, 1910:

Here is a subject in human interest - rich and real human interest - the kind that appeals to the men, women, and young folks alike - in village, town or city - everywhere, all the time....

The New York Dramatic Mirror, best known as a weekly journal of the stage acting profession, had a section titled "Motion Pictures" devoted to films. Edited by Frank E. Woods, who used the nom de plume "The Spectator," the news and reviews were primarily oriented toward Patents Company pictures. Indeed, with only a few exceptions at the time, news articles were illustrated with photographs provided by Edison, Lubin, and other Patents Company firms and most advertisements were placed by Patents Company members.

The publication printed frank reviews, but there were two biases: one toward Patents Company members, and one toward those firms who rewarded the coffers of the magazine with advertising revenue. Even with the latter, Independents who advertised usually received reviews which seemed to be more critical than those given to Patents Company firms. Over a period of years those who advertised the most received the greatest coverage. The Thanhouser Company, which included The New York Dramatic Mirror in its initial advertising budget, would continue to advertise intermittently and in a small way during the next several years and was thus rewarded with coverage and reviews, although the latter were often quite critical. Later, when Thanhouser did not advertise, reviews and news coverage of its pictures dropped to virtually nothing.

The March 20, 1910 issue of The New York Dramatic Mirror noted:

This is the first film put on the market by the new concern, and deserves commendation. The photography throughout the entire film is good and the story is pleasing....

This was a prelude to a commentary in the next issue, March 26, 1910:

This is the first release of the new Thanhouser Company, and had been looked forward to with unusual interest for that reason. The impression created by the picture is, on the whole, distinctly favorable. It tells an interesting, though childish story, with remarkable clearness for a new producer, and the acting is delightfully natural, if we except the two children. The photography is also excellent, especially considering that the company is new to the business.

As for the faults, they are all of a class that we may expect to see remedied. The children are painfully conscious and continually turn toward the camera, not appearing to enter into the spirit of the action. For that matter, the acting of the entire company lacks expression. There is too much walking through the parts and not enough real feeling. The story itself has the same fault, there being too much attention to the development of unimportant parts of the tale at the expense of the vital moments. And yet, despite these faults, the picture pleases, which indicates that it has merits that outweigh its defects....

Other critical reaction to The Actor's Children was equally enthusiastic - for several reasons: First, Edwin Thanhouser was a well-known personality in the entertainment business. Even many of those in the Patents Company camp were his friends, and it is to be remembered that after he applied for and was denied Patents Company membership, he publicly stated that he would not solicit talent from other film companies, even from Patents firms. Ever the gentleman, Edwin Thanhouser was liked and respected.

Second, many writers and editors for trade columns and magazines hoped that the Independents would succeed and would furnish strong competition to the Patents Company, to relieve the stranglehold the latter was trying to put on the industry. Edwin Thanhouser, of all Independent producers, was the only one with extensive stage experience, indeed any significant stage experience at all, so he was the "great white hope" of the publications not affiliated with the Patents Company. They wanted him to do well, and if they could say a kind word, they would do so.

Third, as noted, the Thanhouser Company was viewed as a source for advertising revenue, and with the possible exceptions of the motion picture columns in the New York Morning Telegraph and The New York Dramatic Mirror, critics of the era were loath to say much of a negative nature, and if they did they would immediately balance it with several or more favorable comments. Even a wretched film was apt to receive a review which pointed out at least a favorable aspect or two.

Fourth, The Actor's Children may have been a film of high quality worthy of a favorable review.


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.