Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): Edwin Thanhouser Interviewed

The Declaration of Independence, Thanhouser's patriotic release of July 4, 1911, saw George Lessey in the role of John Hancock, Julia M. Taylor as Polly Quincy, Frank H. Crane as Paul Revere, Justus D. Barnes in the part of Samuel Adams, and David H. Thompson portraying Thomas Jefferson. Justus D. Barnes, earlier with the Edison studio, came to Thanhouser in 1910 and remained there throughout the company's existence, playing minor and supporting roles. David H. Thompson, formerly with Edison and Biograph, arrived at the Thanhouser portals in 1911 and stayed there until 1915, during which period he performed many duties, from acting to interviewing prospective employees, from scouting locations for filming to lending a hand with directing. An ambitious individual, Thompson traveled extensively and was also involved in local organizations. The July 4th film, advertised Note as "the most pretentious patriotic picture ever attempted," earned favorable reviews as a documentary portrayal of that parlous time in American history.

The New Rochelle Evening Standard carried an interview with Edwin Thanhouser in its issue of July 6th. The pioneer film maker told of the firm's quest for quality: "If a publicist went to the Chamber of Commerce and offered to advertise the city for nothing, the proposition would not have time to cool before it would be snapped up. Now that is what Edwin Thanhouser is doing for New Rochelle when twice a week in every prominent city and town in this country and in many cities abroad, he throws on hundreds of screens the name of the company and New Rochelle as its place of business.

Then again he took a building that was once used as a roller skating rink that let in the inclement weather like a sieve and made it into a profitable manufactory that practically exudes money in the town instead of absorbing it as heretofore. In plain words, 100 people found employment there and some of their wages have to get into local business channels. It was a case of making a blade of grass grow where none had ever grown before.

An Evening Standard reporter saw Mr. Thanhouser today and during a chatty session he said: "The attainment of mechanical perfection has been the big achievement of the year and a quarter that has gone by since you first interviewed me. Even in those early days we had no fears here about the story and the production end of matters. Our first release, The Actor's Children, was well plotted and well produced. So was our first classic, St. Elmo, our first comedy, Done it Again, Note our first split reel, Wanted a Hero Note and The Cigars His Wife Bought, our first patriotic, The Flag of His Country, and our first sensational, The Governor's Daughter, but I will not say that these first pictures, meritorious as they were, are as perfect mechanically as, say, the latest classic, Lorna Doone, the latest comedy, Courting Across the Court, the latest drama, The Court's Decree, the latest split-reel, Motoring and Mr. Henpeck, or the latest patriotic, Declaration of Independence."

While the reporter was shown different stages of film making, Mr. Thanhouser said, "We have gone to great distances and expense to obtain good machinery. The fact that a film making machine or part of a machine was of exclusive foreign make did not especially determine us in the purchasing of factory equipment, but if it was of exclusive foreign make we spared no pains and no expense to land it, bring it over to America and try it out. So today it is likely that the best American machines are at New Rochelle together with the best foreign stuff.

"The winter and spring business has been the best in the history of the moving picture industry, judging from the amount of business we did here at New Rochelle, and Bertram Adler, who looks after the sales end of things, tells me every representative exchange is taking both releases right through the summer."

Mr. Adler is kept pretty busy, for in addition to these duties he edits the Thanhouser News, which is an attractive house organ of convenient size and different from anything sent out to the trade. The company's pictures are very popular everywhere, and time and again they draw out applause in New York theatres while many other makes in the same bill do not elicit any special demonstration.

Mr. Thanhouser showed the reporter several letters that he had received from different parts of the country. Some with fulsome praise, others full of humor, and many with a pathetic strain running through them. It is said by people in the business that Mr. Thanhouser's motto is "not how cheap but how good," whether it applies to men and women or material in the making of the pictures. Hats off then to the motion picture industry of New Rochelle.

The Court's Decree, released on July 7th, featured Julia M. Taylor and was the last of four "Violet Gray, Detective" films. Reviews were uniformly favorable, with The Billboard commenting:

This is a finely-constructed story, finely put on. The theme is one with which anyone is sufficiently familiar to be interested in it and it works out in a pleasing manner. A mother, deprived of the care of her four-year-old daughter [played by Marie Eline] by a court decree during a divorce case, seeks the new home of the child in disguise and becomes its governess. She kidnaps the child, but was later apprehended. Her stratagem and love for the child is so admired by the child's father, who had been appointed legal guardian by the court, that reconciliation takes place between the parents.

When a Man Fears, released July 11, 1911 and billed as "one of the most dramatic love stories we've ever spun for you," Note garnered excellent reviews from every quarter, although The Moving Picture World took issue with a segment of the picture: "In despair he is about to hurry the end by shooting himself. This is the weakest part of a good film. These suicides are not typical, healthy, or original. We see too many of them in the pictures."

Clearly, the Thanhouser Company was hitting its stride, and many of the technical, directing, acting, and photography problems of earlier times were behind it. The bad review became a rare exception. At the time, Thanhouser stood high and proud among the Independents and was recognized as one of America's most important motion picture studios. The days of uncertainty and experimentation were past, and Edwin Thanhouser's bank account was continually enhanced by a stream of deposits.

Elsewhere among the Independents, the aggressive and ever-innovative Carl Laemmle changed from a brisk trot to a run, and his IMP enterprise was growing by leaps and bounds. Other Independents were a mixed bag. New ones started up, old ones folded, and a few were steadily creating solid niches for themselves. Scenarios, photography, acting, and other aspects of Independent production improved, and by the summer of 1911 a typical Nestor, Thanhouser, or Solax picture was competitive in quality with those turned out by Edison, Lubin, Selig, or other of the Patents firms, although among the firms in the latter cartel, the products of Biograph and Kalem in particular were widely acclaimed. Note

Won by Wireless, released on July 14, 1911, was well reviewed, although The New York Dramatic Mirror found a little too much "melo" in the drama, and both The Morning Telegraph and The Moving Picture World pointed out that the yacht, supposedly plowing along at high speed in the waters of Long Island Sound, was filmed in a stationary position with nary a ripple to be seen.

That's Happiness, released on July 18, 1911, can be considered a social commentary film inasmuch as it took its theme from one of the most tragic disasters of the era: the fire which occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory high on the top floors of the Asch Building in Manhattan, late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 25th of the same year. When flames broke out, the girl workers were seized with panic when they found that the few narrow escape routes were blocked. Within 20 minutes at least 146 people were killed by the flames and from jumping out the windows. The factory owners were later prosecuted on the charge of having the exit doors locked, in violation of the fire code.

Thanhouser sent out a synopsis of the picture:

Susie Smith was thoroughly happy, though she was poor and an orphan. She had health, a steady job in a factory, and a sweetheart, and really did not worry because of her lack of money. But everything took a change for the worse when she became a heroine.

There was a fire panic in the factory where she worked, and Susie was the only person who could cope with the emergency. The other girls, thinking of previous disasters, became panic stricken and tried to jump out of the window. But Susie drove them back, scared them into obeying her, formed them into line, finally, and marched them out of the building in some kind of order. There really was no fire as it turned out, but had it not been for the work of one quick-witted girl there would have undoubtedly been a heavy loss of life.

The papers lauded Susie to the sky, especially when they found that she had broken her arm in an effort to restrain the frightened workers. And a rich woman read about her, decided that poor little Susie should have a chance, and took her to her rich home. The girl had everything that money could buy, but strange to say, she was unhappy. She missed her old friends, the dances where she could "spiel," and that shabby sweetheart of hers. And she stole away one night, reappeared at the factory, got her old job back, and was again thoroughly, genuinely happy, for she was among the people she understood and who understood her, and did not have to worry about what the butler thought, or what was good or bad for her.

Two Little Girls, with Marie Eline as the forlorn stepsister, was released to good reviews on July 21, 1911. The Smuggler, with William Garwood in the title role, was distributed on July 25th to mostly favorable reviews, although The Moving Picture World felt that one scene "doesn't convince us as a picture of American life today."

A Doll's House, the second Ibsen play to be dramatized for the screen by Thanhouser, was released on July 28th. Reviews were favorable, although some technical faults were mentioned. That the filming was a formidable challenge was noted by The Morning Telegraph:

Henrik Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, like all of the writings of this distinguished author and dramatist, is a subject any motion picture producer should approach with extreme caution. The dialogue of Ibsen, like that of his British contemporary, George Bernard Shaw, is unapproached in its individuality, and hence to endeavor to present the play as a photo drama reflects all the more credit on those who succeed in such an attempt.


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