Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 3 (1910): Thanhouser Quality Commended

By the summer of 1910 Edwin Thanhouser's venture had earned the enthusiastic approval of "The Spectator," the otherwise unidentified editor of the motion picture section of The New York Dramatic Mirror, the weekly journal primarily devoted to the opposing Patents Company firms. Certain subscribers in New Rochelle must have enjoyed reading this commentary:

Reviews of Independent films by The Mirror are confined at present to those of the Sales Company branch of the Independent production, for the reason that the Associated Manufacturers, as the insurgents call themselves, are not represented in any theatre in New York where all first runs may be seen, whereas the Sales Company releases are exhibited daily at the Fourteenth Street Theatre.

Speaking generally of the Independent production, as represented by the Sales Company, it must be said that it averages a much higher quality than it did a few months ago, and constantly calls for less and less criticism. IMP films are frequently of considerable merit, showing intelligence in story and direction. Bison films have improved wonderfully over earlier releases, and the productions of that company are now rarely, if ever, weak. Very often they are distinctly good. Ambrosio and Itala films and the Film d'Art productions are generally of superior quality in all respects, ranking well up with the best foreign production. Powers' pictures are also better than they were formerly.

Of the new American producers connected with the Sales Company, the Atlas and Defender both show promise, but both also show need of greater care in detail, and especial care to eliminate "camera consciousness,"and to acquire some degree of realism.

On the other side of the Independent fence, the Thanhouser pictures, of course, rank highest. Indeed, the manner in which this new company without previous experience in picture making has developed in quality, shows what may be done in film manufacture when intelligence and energy are employed.

Other American companies of the Associated Manufacturers are the Nestor, Centaur, Carson, Capitol, Motograph and Electragraff. Of these only the Nestor has come recently under frequent observation of this reviewer, and it was then noted that the company's work was showing improvement. The one Capitol release reviewed in The Mirror was sadly deficient, and the only Carson pictures, seen some time ago, were hardly worth considering.

The imported films on the insurgent side are the Lux, which are usually quite good, the Eclair, which are sometimes good, the Cin-es, which rank fairly well, the LeLion, which are just ordinary for foreign pictures, and the Great Northern, which are sometimes good and sometimes bad, in a dramatic sense, but are always fine photographically.

It will be observed that here are from 25 to 30 reels of new pictures per week to fill the demands of the limited Independent field - more issues than the entire Licensed field absorbs, and the Licensed theatres outnumber the others by at least two to one throughout the country. The danger that confronts the Independents is, therefore, clearly apparent on the very face of things. They are in danger of forgetting quality for the purpose of attaining quantity. It seems to be a race to produce new pictures without sufficient reference to dramatic or photographic art. And this tendency has been evident in the production of nearly every Independent American company for some time. Good as have been a few IMP pictures, and much as the Bison films have improved, nearly all the releases of these companies as well as practically all other Independent American companies, excepting Thanhouser, show haste and lack of thought in their production. Crude stories are crudely handled, giving the impression that they are rushed through in a hurry - anything to get a thousand feet of negative ready for the market. Such pictures, of course, do not cost much to produce, but they are not of a class to make reputation. The Thanhouser company, alone of the Independents, shows a consistent effort to do things worthwhile, and it is an open question as to how long this policy will survive in the face of the increase of production announced by the company to three reels per week. Note If the Independents would establish a legitimate demand for their films they must first pay attention to class and quality. The American public is becoming more critical day by day, and the time is long past when anything, so long as it moves, will answer for a motion picture.

The Playwright's Love, released July 22, 1910, was next on the Thanhouser schedule. Like all of the studio's films of the year, it was of one reel length, which in this particular instance was 950 feet. In practice, nearly all one-reelers were more than 900 feet and less than 1,025 feet. Few measured precisely 1,000 feet, although this length was usually given in advertising.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel which helped ignite the fuse for the Civil War, was dramatized for the screen by Thanhouser and released on July 26th. Barry O'Neil directed Frank H. Crane (Uncle Tom), Anna Rosemond (Eliza), Marie Eline (Little Eva), Grace Eline (Topsy), and other cast members in a film which garnered mixed reviews. "This film did not impress the writer favorably.... The settings were not as good as they might be, and the acting could have been better," noted The Morning Telegraph. On the other hand, The Moving Picture News found "the photography of the best" and felt that "the release is easily up to the Thanhouser standard and should be an easy winner."

The Mermaid, released on July 29th, and Jenks' Day Off, released on August 2nd, were both comedy numbers and were favorably reviewed, although neither was without flaws. The Morning Telegraph commented concerning the first:

There are a few absurdities in the action. For instance, the photographer never once sighted his camera or glanced at the finder to see if it was really pointed at the mermaid. Secondly, the resulting photographs could never have been taken at the distance indicated in the film. Thirdly, the one office boy in the hotel could never have disposed of the arriving guests with such speed. A film ought to be consistent at any rate.

The New York Dramatic Mirror commented on the other half of the split-reeler: "There is clever continuity in this comic plot.... The acting is very good, being quite natural, except as to the wife, who lacks sincerity. Jenks should also have taken more time to write the telegram to himself. Two dashes of a pencil is hardly sufficient." In keeping with Thanhouser practice of the time, the identities of the players who portrayed Jenks and the other characters in the film were not given to the press, so the reviewer could not refer to them except by their cast positions. However, had the writer telephoned Bert Adler in New Rochelle, the names would have been furnished.

After The Restoration, released August 5, 1910, came The Mad Hermit, the first film produced by the Thanhouser Company back in autumn 1909. As Edwin Thanhouser felt that the picture had many amateurish aspects, it had been kept on the shelf until the reputation of the firm had been secured by subjects considered to be more professionally produced. It turned out that his fears were unfounded, for the film was favorably reviewed. The Moving Picture World described it as "a picture which touches the heart and arouses the strongest emotions.... This seems to appeal with unusual power." The New York Dramatic Mirror stated that "the picture proves strongly interesting."

By this time, Bert Adler was calling numerous productions "Thanhouser Classics." Just what a classic was or wasn't seemed to vary, and for some pictures it seemed that Adler himself didn't know. For example, an advertisement for The Restoration began: "This isn't a Thanhouser Classic in the accepted sense of the term, but it is a Thanhouser Classic for all that. It's a subject that will go down through time, as an unusual release can be considered a classic."

There was no question in Adler's mind, however, concerning the next release, Lena Rivers. The scenario was adapted from an 1856 novel by Mary Jane Holmes, who wrote the earlier-used Tempest and Sunshine story as well. Here, indeed, was a "Thanhouser Classic." Reviews were favorable.

The Girl Reporter, released on August 16th, told of a distaff investigator for the Daily Wave who brings about the downfall of a grafter. Next came She Stoops to Conquer, released on the 19th, a film version of Oliver Goldsmith's famous play. A Dainty Politician, distributed on August 23rd, was another social problem film, this one dealing with women's suffrage. A group of determined ladies endeavors to insert a plank for votes for women in a congressional platform but meets rejection. Later, it is discovered, by the "dainty politician" of course, that there were some underhanded doings and a bribe involved.

The Latchkey, a comedy released August 26, 1910, told of a mixup in apartment occupancy brought about when the tenant leaves for vacation and tells a friend that he can occupy the premises in his absence. The landlady, however, sees an opportunity for extra profit and decides to rent the rooms to two girls for the duration. The two lasses, fast asleep in their newly rented quarters, are surprised by a "burglar" who is, of course, the real tenant's friend. After some complications, all ends well, and, contrary to what one might expect from a Thanhouser film, no one falls in love. Not so with The Assisted Elopement, the release of August 30th, which told of two sets of parents who tried to interest their children in marrying each other.

A Fresh Start, released September 2, 1910, told of Jim, a chauffeur, who was discharged for drunkenness. He befriends a child (Marie Eline), who inspires him to throw away his flask and make a new start. Later, little Marie is kidnapped, Jim rescues her, and, no longer an alcoholic, he is offered a lifetime position as chauffeur for Marie's family - a typical happy ending.

Mother, released on September 6th, was described in a four-page house organ called The Thanhouser News, a new periodical produced by Bert Adler and "sent free of charge to all who can show connection with the picture business." Note This publication, printed from time to time in green, brown, and black inks, illustrated scenes from forthcoming films and depicted various Thanhouser actors and actresses. One side of the News could be opened up and displayed as a small poster. As an additional service for theatre owners, Thanhouser offered a lobby display consisting of 12 photographs of players, framed under a sheet of glass measuring 40 inches high and intended to be set up on an easel. Note

The Morning Telegraph, September 4, 1910, commented:

An attractive four-page house organ is being issued by the Thanhouser Company, of New Rochelle, New York. This concern, although in business for a short time, has set the pace for other Independent manufacturers. Their films are the talk of Independents everywhere and are well deserving of praise.

By this time, Marie Eline had appeared in many of the studio's productions and had become the company's best known player. The Doctor's Carriage, released on September 9th, was billed as "the play that was written especially for the Thanhouser Kid." The New York Dramatic Mirror commented: "The little girl performs her part with mature intelligence, doing a number of things that only grown-ups would think of." The reviewer evidently did not know the identities of the other players, for he further noted: "The heroine is a young woman of taste and dramatic sensibility. She does her part with customary grace. The doctor was a good hero."

Next in the Thanhouser lineup of releases were Tangled Lives, September 13th, and The Stolen Invention, September 16th. Not Guilty, a film released on September 20, 1910, contained a scene showing the front page of the New York Herald Tribune, August 27, 1910, which indicates that the typical period time between the production of a Thanhouser film and its release was about three to four weeks, a span confirmed in many other instances.

The Convict, released on September 23rd, was split on a reel with A Husband's Jealous Wife. The former told of a convict, with the stripes of his trouser legs not quite covered by the coat he was wearing, stealthily walking along and watching alertly for passers by. He fails to spot a nearby farmer, who cries "prisoner loose," whereupon a dozen of his fellow rustics join in the pursuit. An accomplice drives up in a carriage and the convict is spirited away, with the farmers not far behind in another wagon. Arriving at a river, the convict jumps from the carriage and leaps into a boat provided by another accomplice, who was waiting for him. At the other shore, he runs to an auto manned by a third accomplice. By this time a troop of policemen and a battalion of townspeople are part of the frantic chase. At last the convict finds refuge in the entrance of the town opera house, where he suddenly assumes a dignified pose right next to a large sign which reads: "Latest Moving Picture - Today's Feature - STUNG! or The Convict's Escape - A Roaring Comedy Now Showing." - more slapstick of the kind Edwin Thanhouser wasn't going to film! But this was Hollywood - er, New Rochelle.

Walton, a reviewer for The Moving Picture News, nit-picked by informing his readers that Thanhouser erred inasmuch as the particular type of convict garb shown had not been used in New York State for at least two years. However, he and other viewers had a good time: "When the revelation came...the theatre rang with laughter. We were all stung and we enjoyed it."


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