Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): A Hidden Fortune

Thanhouser on June 16th released another fire film, Flames and Fortune, which was photographed in New Rochelle when the old Sicard house was destroyed to make room for a church, all done under the watchful eyes of local firemen. An advertisement noted: Note "The famous fire picture that was mentioned in all the leading newspapers in the country when a house in New Rochelle was burned down expressly for it. We took many hundreds of feet more film of the fire than we needed, and reserved the most realistic of it for this reel. The picture is even more sensational than our recent Railroad Builder and will prove a striking example of what Thanhouser skill, Thanhouser brains, and Thanhouser enterprise can do for your box office. You will be amazed at the rescue of the child, the bravery of the bucket brigade, the total destruction of the house." The story told of a destitute family in an old house. When it burns down, the little girl, played by Marie Eline, "comes upon the treasure hidden years and years ago by the faithful servant of her ancestors," a plot along the lines of certain other Thanhouser films, including The Lucky Shot (July 12, 1910) and The Thunderbolt (November 26, 1912).

An account of the local conflagration was carried in the New Rochelle Evening Standard, April 22, 1911:

Hundreds of people saw the destruction of one of New Rochelle's oldest houses yesterday afternoon when the old Sicard residence, one of the first dwellings erected in New Rochelle, was burned to the ground for the benefit of a motion picture concern. Fully 500 people watched the blaze, the rescue of a child, the excitement of villagers, and the futile attempts of a bucket brigade in rural costume to save the building. They saw the flames rapidly destroy the once pretty homestead, saw the roof fall in, the walls crumble in a cloud of smoldering cinders, and at the end the young owners mourning over the blackened ruins.

The real sentiment, however, was not for the actors but was because of the destruction of one of the few remaining ancient landmarks of old New Rochelle. The fire was watched by Fire Chief James Ross, assistant chief C. B. Dunkel and the members of Olympia Hose Company who were on hand with their apparatus ready should the sparks set fire to the John H. Trenor mansion which was within 200 feet of the fire.

The little house stood on property recently purchased by the new Saint Paul's Church Corporation on which the church is to be erected. When the land was purchased of Mr. Trenor the stipulation was made that the house and the stone barn recently built for Mr. Trenor on the property be removed. The barn was torn down but Mr. Trenor thought the house was not worth tearing down, so he decided to have a big bonfire. The motion picture firm, hearing of Mr. Trenor's intention, obtained permission to burn it for its own benefit.

Mr. Trenor, who watched the fire from a settee on his lawn, told a representative of The Evening Standard yesterday afternoon that the house was one of the first built in New Rochelle and was over 200 years old. It was erected by the Sicard family, he said, and originally faced North Avenue. Mr. Trenor purchased the property of Dr. Reed, a member of the Secord [sic] family, descendants of the original Sicord [sic] family some years ago and recently moved it to the rear of his own mansion facing Mayflower Avenue. Six years ago Mr. Trenor's gardener occupied it and remained in it until three months ago when the land on which it stood was sold. Since Mr. Trenor owned it, the old house has been repaired and shingled.

C.H. Claudy, he of the disparaging review of The Railroad Builder, reared his head, or at least his pencil, again with another try: Note

Thanhouser's Flames and Fortune was a disappointment, and for the life of me I don't know why! I had heard of it and read of it and looked forward to seeing it, and so, I suppose, I had come to look upon it as something quite remarkable indeed, and when I found that it was just a pretty little play with the usual rank spot, set off by a very splendid fire indeed, I suppose I sort of dropped, suddenly, from the heights of expectation to the level of reality.

But I have not real right to be disappointed. The scenery is good, the photography excellent, and the acting sincere, and the house burns really and truly until there isn't anything left of it, and everything in the play is natural except - oh, these exceptions. I shall have gray whiskers if I don't find a photo play soon without any! Everything in the play went along smoothly and naturally except when the poor little girl, who refused her rich lover because she doesn't like him, refuses her poor lover because she is poor. He, while apparently not rich, looks amply able to provide for her. But she will injure him by marrying him because she is poor. She would much rather sacrifice herself and marry the rich suitor - otherwise she will be ejected from her home! Well, this is the "except" plus the fact that, later, she quite properly gives up the rich suitor and accepts the one she loves, and all without any apparent change in her fortunes except the burning down of her home, making her still poorer! Why, one wants to know, have an "except" like that when it would be so easy to do without it?

However! The little girl sets the house ablaze quite naturally, playing with forbidden matches, and is also rescued quite naturally, without too many heroics, by the lover who later gets the girl, after the rich suitor has refused to try out for the rescue. And finally, after the fireworks are over, the innocent cause of all the mischief finds the old box of jewels, the hiding of which, in war time, and the subsequent loss, by killing of the only person who knew where they were, forms the opening scene of the play.

The Coffin Ship, filmed on Long Island Sound not far from the New Rochelle studio, was released on June 20, 1911 and related the dramatic tale of a miserly ship owner who sends his captain to sea in a vessel which is in poor condition and long overdue for repairs. Unknown to the owner, his daughter has secretly married the captain and has gone with him into the open ocean. The inevitable happens, and all hands are lost. Overcome with sorrow and remorse, the miser is about to end his life, when - wait! - he hears his daughter's voice! She and the captain, adrift at sea, have been rescued. The synopsis finishes the tale:

They did not have a chance to ask the father's forgiveness. He humbled himself to them and diffidently asked them to accept his love. He realized that the tragedy was due to him and him alone, but determined that the lesson he had been taught would never be forgotten, and that he would do his duty to the men who risked their lives to bring him wealth and never count the cost when human lives were at stake.

Reviews were uniformly enthusiastic, but a follow-up article in The Moving Picture World a week later dissected the film for technical flaws. The writer of the analysis wondered if the sailors aboard the ship, which had a cargo of lumber, should be dressed in navy uniforms, and was puzzled by the captain showing the owner the deck of the ship to demonstrate its lack of seaworthiness - he should have gone below. He noted that the ship seemed to be in still water, hardly the kind that would precipitate a disaster in the open sea, and he wondered why onlookers should cheer the return of the ship's captain when all of his sailors apparently perished at sea.

Foxy Grandma, the Thanhouser release of June 23, 1911, brought forth a response from "Tadpole" in a column titled "Croak No. 1" in The Moving Picture World: "Oh you dear, darling Foxy, why did you not come sooner - we have been waiting so long - and please will you leave many children and grandchildren to follow you. Films of your kind are required to lift onto a higher plane the financial appetites of most producers.

The riff-raff that some of the producers put out make us turn with longing eyes to you - but oh, granny, why with all your wit, after showing up the fortune hunter, did you so readily agree to the parasitic attachment of your granddaughter to that whimpering weeper in the person of the farm boy? I say parasitic attachment because she would have to support him; no man having a spirit or grit enough to keep a wife would be so unmanly as to whimper and weep because the girl of his choice turned him down. No, grandma dear, what you ought to have given him was a bottle of milk - and a rubber tube. You certainly made a mistake, though you do stand so high in moving picture comedy. Ah, well, the best of men make mistakes sometimes - even I, the vinegar-souled Tadpole.

Courting Across the Court, released on July 27, 1911, incorporated a scenario built around a recent suffragette parade and marathon race, both held on the same day in New York City. Most reviewers liked it, but The Billboard felt that the use of the parade and race was overdone.

Lorna Doone, released on June 30th, dramatized a famous old novel. Gladys Hulette was hired for a small part, after which she went on to other work elsewhere. She returned to Thanhouser several years later, in 1915, to achieve prominence with the company. Reviewers gave such comments as "excellently told," "well put on," "more than pleased," "interesting," and "well conceived," amid some minor pejoratives.

An item in The New Rochelle Pioneer, July 1, 1911, noted that Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser had as their guests for a week in their Rochelle Heights home Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd F. Lonergan, who probably came to escape the New York City heat. Lloyd F. Lonergan's mind never rested, and even during his vacation moments he scrutinized newspapers, observed people around him, and studied the surrounding world to gain ideas for scenarios. Although Gertrude Thanhouser found some time for scenario editing and other studio work, she devoted most of her attention to her two young children, Lloyd and Marie.

In a letter published a few weeks later Note in The Moving Picture World, William D. Friel, who ran a theatre in East Hampton, Massachusetts, asked why film companies did not give cast members' names. He related that he was frequently asked questions by his audiences, and the public wanted to know. The editor replied: "Edison, Pathé, Gaumont, Eclair, Great Northern, Selig, Vitagraph, and others introduce the leading characters at the beginning of important reels. If that is what our correspondent means, his wishes are being anticipated already."

The preceding list did not include Thanhouser, and the New Rochelle company would wait a long time before changing its policy. Those interested enough to apply to Bert Adler at the studio could have all the cast information they wanted, but it was not sent out in normal news releases, nor was it included with printed scenarios distributed to trade journal editors. In the vast majority of instances reviewers remained in the dark, and although most knew who Marie Eline was by now, the identities of William Garwood, William Russell, Marguerite Snow, Mignon Anderson, Harry Benham, and a host of other Thanhouserites were not known or were quickly forgotten.

The situation at the Biograph Company was worse, and cast inquiries made to the company's headquarters were tossed in the wastebasket. The Motion Picture Story Magazine, which was to become very popular during the next several years, advised readers again and again not to bother asking questions about Biograph films. At the time the film editor of The New York Dramatic Mirror Note chided a correspondent: "You say you are a constant reader. You don't prove it by asking for the names of Biograph players. Don't let this little mistake happen again." The English distributors for Biograph films, thwarted in their quest for identities, did an end run by the simple expedient of making up their own names, and the public was none the wiser! As examples, Kate Bruce was given the name Phyllis Forde, Robert Harron became Willie McBain, Florence LaBadie was known as Gertrude Gordon, Mabel Normand was known as Muriel Fortescue, Mary Pickford became Dorothy Nicholson, Mack Sennett was assigned the name Walter Terry, Ford Sterling was known as Albert Williams, and Blanche Sweet was known to British viewers as Daphne Wayne. Note


A review of the hundreds of trade advertisements published in The Moving Picture World during this period reveals that just one company, Edison, consistently listed the names of actors and actresses in its publicity. In its September 9, 1911 issue the same publication would institute an inquiries column, similar to the column edited by The Spectator in The New York Dramatic Mirror, and similar in general to one of the most popular features of The Motion Picture Story Magazine. Inquiries concerning cast names, production methods, etc. were fielded with varying degrees of success.


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