Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 3 (1910): Shakespeare on the Screen

The Winter's Tale, released on May 27, 1910, was the first of several Shakespeare plays that Thanhouser was to adapt for the screen over the years. While to a modern viewer the film appears to be a succession of costumed players in scenes tied together by subtitles, with a beforehand knowledge of the story necessary to its understanding, in 1910 it is apparent that the lines of the play were familiar to a significant percentage of viewers, sufficiently so that The Morning Telegraph could write: "The story of Shakespeare's play will not be repeated here, but suffice it to say that it is a good one and has good photography."

The Moving Picture World used the occasion to praise Thanhouser to the skies:

THE THANHOUSER TRIUMPH. In The Moving Picture World of March 12th there appeared an article describing the Thanhouser moving picture plant in New Rochelle. In the same number amongst our advertisements appeared an announcement of the company's first release called The Actor's Children. Between the latter date, namely March 15th, and the moment when we are writing this article, May 17th, barely two months, or 60 days have elapsed, yet in that short space of time, one-sixth of the year, Edwin Thanhouser has emerged from the darkness of obscurity, from the realms of the unknown, and by sheer force and personal merit has won the respect of the moving picture field, and by absolutely high-class quality has secured for his pictures both dramatically and photographically a splendid reputation.

Only two months in business and daring to release a Shakespearean production in a film! When we heard of it we said to ourselves, in the current locution: 'This is going some even for progressive America.' It was a daring attempt. Even the attempt deserves commendation. We do not think in the whole history of moving picture making there has been another instance of such an attempt. Even so, the world is full of surprises. When we first met Edwin Thanhouser, a quiet, cultured, far-seeing impresario who made a striking success in the theatrical world, we felt that we had a man whose determination and ability were to make himself a factor in the moving picture field and in the only possible way that commends itself to a man of his stamp: by force of good quality work....

But to the picture on the screen. We have seen The Winter's Tale on a regular stage produced by many high-class companies.... Dealing with kings and queens, of course, gives an opportunity for magnificence of mounting, costumes and the like of which Mr. Thanhouser is taking full advantage. We come now to the acting, and for this we have none but the highest praise. We have never seen better acting in any moving picture that has come before our eyes. All the parts struck us as properly cast, and throughout the entire production we thought, nay, we are sure, we saw the master hand of an accomplished producer. Every movement, every gesture, every action, was suited to the text of the story.

From the point of view of film production Thanhouser's The Winter's Tale is a masterpiece. And, think of it now, the man who made and produced this picture was absolutely unknown in the moving picture field three months ago. The record then assuredly belongs to Edwin Thanhouser, whom we cordially congratulate on his triumph and whom, to be perfectly frank, we expect to outdo even his present best as his opportunities and outlook broaden. He is a distinct acquisition to the science of moving picture making and he should have and we hope will have a career of uninterrupted success.

We have omitted until the latter part of this article reference to the photographic quality of this picture. We have seldom looked upon a moving picture film which gave us greater pleasure and respect for its photography.... He (Thanhouser) has had the wisdom and ability to people his factory with photographers of remarkable ability who can accurately expose a negative, accurately develop it, and make from that negative a positive which in respect to freedom from defects, excellence of color deposit, and gradation, leaves nothing to be desired. This is very high praise, but it is thoroughly well deserved.... There is no reason why he should not go from triumph to triumph, and we cordially hope he will.

The next Thanhouser film, released on Friday, June 3, 1910, was remembered by Edwin Thanhouser in a later interview: Note

A funny thing happened when we were taking a one-reel subject called A Girl of the Northern Woods. A minor part of a woodsman was entrusted to an ambitious young actor. His principal work consisted of sitting in front of a log cabin and smoking. He had rehearsed this scene with becoming modesty and restraint, but all the while he was plotting to steal the center of the camera for himself. When the photographer began to turn the crank my woodsman at the same time began to smoke, and he smoked and smoked and smoked - like the consolidation of seven chimneys, his idea being that an unusual column of smoke would rivet all eyes upon him. When we developed the negative we found the scene so clouded in smoke that the entire action was lost in dense haze - the effect of one pipe and an overzealous actor.

Whether this particular film was a "thriller" or not was difficult to determine from a review printed in The Moving Picture World: "The picture is not a thriller, but a high-class drama that may thrill you through and through." The Girl of the Northern Woods was to have been the first Thanhouser release through the Motion Picture Distribution and Sales Company, but a squabble arose with Carl Laemmle, its organizer, and it was not until July 18th that the distribution arrangement was consummated.

The Two Roses, released on Tuesday, June 7, 1910, marked the first of the "two a week" Thanhouser films and was followed on Friday by The Writing on the Wall. In The Two Roses Marie Eline was billed as the Thanhouser Kid for the first time. In a letter sent to Thanhouser publicity director Bert Adler, S.H. Clark, manager of the Bijou Theatre in Corning, New York, wrote, "She is known as the Thanhouser Kid here." The nickname stuck, and for the next several years the Thanhouser Kid was a mainstay of the company's advertising.

The Woman Hater, released June 14th, was next on the schedule, followed on the 17th by The Little Hero of Holland, which told the famous story of the Dutch lad who plugged a hole in a dike with his hand, nearly freezing to death in the process. It was filmed on Glen Island, an amusement park in New Rochelle which was to be the site for many later Thanhouser pictures.

Of all personalities in the news in 1910, none received more coverage than Theodore Roosevelt, former president of the United States, who was in retirement and enjoying leisure pursuits, including big game hunting in Africa. June 18, 1910 was the date of his scheduled return to New York aboard the ship Kaiserina Augusta Victoria, and Thanhouser announced that a cameraman would be on hand to film the proceedings. Trade paper advertisements were placed:

Coming - A great Thanhouser Special. ROOSEVELT'S RETURN. The arrival - New York - June 18, 1910. To be filmed in the Thanhouser way, and released immediately after the filming. Exhibitors: write your exchange for it now. Exchanges: wire your orders now. Remember, this is a "Special" and it is imperative that everybody take quick action on it. Get busy!

Little is known about what happened after that, but years later Note Edwin Thanhouser noted that this film was a "special release." The trade papers covered the event, but the publicity was reserved not for the cameraman who came from New Rochelle but for the Vitagraph Company which used two steam yachts, one special tug, two official tugs, 12 cameras, and 24 cameramen to record the proceedings. What happened to the Thanhouser effort was not mentioned.

Following the release on June 21st of Thelma, an adaptation of an 1887 novel, the Thanhouser Company issued The Governor's Daughter, which was advertised: "The wreck of a $40,000 railroad passenger car is in this picture!" What was one company's misfortune was another's gain, and from time to time during the next few years Thanhouser cameramen hurried to film scenes of disasters so that they could be featured as film episodes in scenarios which were written after the fact.

Then followed Tempest and Sunshine, released on June 28, 1910, an adaptation of Mary Jane Holmes' 1854 novel of the same name. Although others had produced films made from famous novels and plays, this type of film became a specialty with Thanhouser that met with a favorable reception. At the same time, Edwin Thanhouser was careless about obtaining permission from the copyright owners, and several authors and publishers threatened him with lawsuits. In all known instances they were settled out of court. At the time the rights of a motion picture company to film a literary property or a public event such as a boxing match, or to dramatize the actions of individuals involved in crimes and other situations, were not clearly defined by the courts. Trade papers often carried accounts of litigation in this regard. Note

Next on the schedule of releases came The Flag of His Country, on July 1st, just in time for Independence Day. The tale told of the aptly-named Walter North, who cast his lot with the Union side during the Civil War, while his brother-in-law signed with the Confederacy. "A love story based upon what purports to be the division of a husband and wife by the late war," noted a reviewer for The Moving Picture World, who went on to say: "He chose his flag instead of his Southern wife and went to war. Long years afterward they are reunited through their grandchild losing herself and her grandfather finding her. There is much of pathos and much of loyalty, some of it mistaken, perhaps, but nonetheless earnest. Eventually they come together with only one flag over them, united like their country."

These were the days of the happy ending in films, and with relatively few exceptions those broken apart were reunited, those in poverty found wealth, the lonely found companionship, and a gallant deed done for a damsel in distress was rewarded by a trip with her to the altar.

Gone to Coney Island, released on July 5th, was one of several Thanhouser films to be set in America's premier amusement park of the era, with rides, exhibits, concessions, and other pleasures only a short drive from the studio. The New York Dramatic Mirror commented:

This film gives opportunity for showing a number of the attractions at Coney Island, but it has little interest as a picture story. The young maid working for a prim old lady quits her job to go with her young man to Coney Island, where she is to have a position as ticket seller. The old lady and an escort follow to reclaim the girl, and we see the pursuit as each party visits the various novel attractions. In the end they come together, when the old lady concludes that Coney Island is not such a bad place after all.'

Two years later, Frankfurters and Quail Note told of a poor couple who come into an inheritance but find that life in a mansion is not as appealing as good old Coney Island, and on separate pretexts they steal away to the park, only to meet each other there and decide that hot dogs are indeed delicious, even when compared to a fancily-prepared bird.

Coney Island itself, without any scenario plot involved, was enough to make a film successful, as Edison, American Biograph, Vitagraph, and other companies found out in the early days. Note A review of Thanhouser's Gone to Coney in The Moving Picture World didn't even mention the plot:

It is useless to describe this film. The very spirit of Coney Island has been caught and reproduced in the picture. That is all there is of it. He who has seen Coney will appreciate this. He who has never seen it can rest assured that the motion picture is bringing him as much of the real Coney as it is possible to reproduce in a life photograph. Note

Appended to the end of Gone to Coney Island was a short comedy filler, Booming Business, which must have been of the slapstick variety, if a review in The New York Dramatic Mirror is to be believed:

This "comic" is not up to the usual Thanhouser standard. In fact, it is rather silly all through, the only laughs being brought about by blows, falls, and smashing furniture. The principal character comes down to the camera and indicates the things he intends doing all through the picture, robbing it of every element of reality. He has a small store and adopts various schemes to boom business, such as giving health treatments with a magnetic battery, teaching boxing, and so on. Everything turns out badly and ends in general confusion. Note

Among the pressing social questions of the era were labor conditions, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, and women's suffrage. Over a period of time Thanhouser addressed all of these concerns, with the initial effort being The Girl Strike Leader, released on July 8, 1910. Studio publicist Bert Adler prepared advertising copy for the film: "Dealing with the most momentous of national problems - the labor question. Your patrons will like this solution. Please them!" Whether the Thanhouser Company solved the labor question is open to debate. Patrons were treated to a scenario which, according to the synopsis, went something like this: "If the owners of factories could investigate working conditions firsthand, that is by intimate association with the workers, labor questions would be in a better way of answer. In the picture under discussion a factory owner's son does the investigation stunt."

Walton, a reviewer for The Moving Picture News, submitted this obsequious commentary: "You struck the right note here, Thanhouser folk. You tell whereof we know. Preach to us! Talk to us like this and we, with the audience, will sit at your feet - gladly."

The Lucky Shot, released on July 12th, told of a poor mother and her child, who plays at archery in the living room of an old homestead. By means of "the lucky shot" a stray arrow "hits a secret spring of the treasure vault and the accident puts the boy and mother beyond want," according to a contemporary notice. Deus ex machina again.

The film had some shortcomings according to a reviewer for The New York Dramatic Mirror, but it was not clear if acting was one of them:

There is not as much appealing interest in this picture as we usually note in the films of this company, but the story is not at all a bad one, and is acted with considerable ability.... One day the little chap with his bow and arrow shoots into an old painting on the wall and lo! the treasure is revealed. It consists of paper money and bags of gold - all stage money, because one of the bags that should have weighed 40 or 50 pounds is lifted by the child with one finger. Some of the scenes have little to do in advancing the story, and some of the acting appears to be without feeling, evidently because there was no feeling to express.

The idea of a treasure hidden in a needy home, a treasure so close yet unknown to the occupants, was too good to use only once, and two years later, on November 26, 1912, a similar scenario was found in The Thunderbolt, which was advertised thus: "It struck the house, wrecked the old stone chimney and sent the fragments crashing into the room. After the fragments came gold, lots of it. The chimney had been the hiding place of a stolen fortune."

After the release of The Converted Deacon on July 15th, Thanhouser issued another social question film, The Girls of the Ghetto, which was filmed on the East Side of New York City and dramatized the working conditions there. Typical for films of the era, a synopsis was printed in the trade papers, with that in The Moving Picture World being representative:

Bella is an immigrant girl doing sweatshop work in the ghetto of a great city. But by saving for some time, she manages to get enough money to send to the old country for her two little sisters. She meets them at Ellis Island and escorts them across Battery Park to their new home. The three girls live with an uncle and aunt in one poor room in a tenement.

The smallest of the sisters while playing on the sidewalk one day gets lost and suddenly finds herself in Chinatown. She is dismayed at the entirely strange surroundings, and is weeping bitterly when found by John Magie, Note a young settlement worker. He dries her tears and takes her safely to her sweatshop home. John is at once attracted by Bella, whom he meets for the first time when he brings the little one back. He does the family many little kindnesses, bringing them flowers and books, and induces the girls to attend the classes at the settlement.

While teaching his class one evening, John is suddenly attacked with a fever, which is epidemic at that time. All his pupils flee from him in fear, except Bella, who remains and nurses him back to health. Upon his recovery John makes Bella his wife and they take up together the work of bringing knowledge and happiness to the poor of the East Side.

The Morning Telegraph commented on the film:

The story of this picture is fairly good, but the details are wrong. In the first place, the producers evidently never were in a sweatshop, or else they would not have represented a sweatshop as a store like a custom tailor shop, doing a thriving business. The people who are supposed to be Hebrews hardly resemble them. The next objection is, when the settlement worker falls into a faint, the girl is very slow in picking him up.

Colin, a reviewer for The Moving Picture News, stated:

There isn't a lot to the story, but the acting is of the class which still finds favor with the public. The pictures taken in Chinatown do not go quite far enough in depicting East Side conditions; the photography of these particular scenes is not the ideal of Thanhouser productions. Maggie [sic; the synopsis says Bella], the heroine, plays a good part in the film, and "The Kid" and 'The Leading Lady of New Rochelle' do good work, too, in the production of this picture.

A reviewer for The New York Dramatic Mirror seemed to like it best of all, but not unreservedly:

This picture story is a fairly good one, and is well acted, although there are parts calling for criticism. It tells a simple story of the arrival in this country of a young Jewish girl with two little children. They are seen landing from Ellis Island and are next seen living with a family on the East Side, where a custom tailoring business appears to be carried on. The title tells us it is a sweatshop, but it is far from it, the kindly old proprietor being an independent businessman in a small store and employing little help.

In the interior scene the workers are all shown with backs to the only light there could have been, which would have come from the front of the store. This inconsistency is due to the evident desire to have all the players facing the camera. A young settlement worker, who is teaching the language to a class of new arrivals, including the young Jewish girl, is introduced in the story. He is taken ill, and she comes to his assistance, a little slowly for real life, and in the end she marries him.


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