Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): Filming a Disaster

A departure from Thanhouser's normal modus operandi was the release in early October of a 750-foot documentary film depicting a flood which devastated Austin, Pennsylvania shortly after two in the afternoon of Saturday, September 30th, when a dam 530 feet wide and 49 feet high collapsed and sent a wall of water sweeping through the industrial town of 3,200 inhabitants. The next day The New York Times reported: "NEARLY 1,000 DEAD IN AUSTIN, PA., DEVASTATED BY FLOOD AND FIRE." The account, datelined the 30th, continued: "Fire followed the flood, and tonight from 850 to 1,000 persons are dead and 2,000 men, women, and children are homeless. By late tonight 149 bodies had been recovered." On October 2nd, the Times modified its story, stating that fewer than 200 had died, with 60 bodies found to date. The property loss was estimated at $6 million. On October 3rd the same paper revised its figures to 27 bodies recovered and 86 missing.

The Moving Picture World reported Thanhouser's involvement:

THANHOUSER GETS AUSTIN FLOOD PICTURES. The heart-rending scenes of suffering, horror and devastation wrought by the Austin Flood, the most disastrous flood since the Johnstown, were filmed by the Thanhouser Company. As soon as the news of the breaking of the Bayless Dam was flashed across the country, the Thanhouser Company dispatched a staff of cameramen down to the seat of the calamity. The men were back Monday with 2,000 feet; 750 feet of the most remarkable of the pictures taken were used. By Monday evening, prints were exhibited in the Thanhouser studio. This is one of the most remarkable feats recorded, and is an example of the enterprise and working facilities of the Thanhouser Company.

The pictures graphically show the havoc that has been done and the chaos created by the sweeping of 25 feet of water over an entire city, washing away with battering-ram force blocks of houses, factories and trains of railway cars, bearing beneath its current more than 100 lives. The pictures also show the work of rescue, clearing of the debris, and the state constabulary protecting property. They show the conditions of the streets and houses, and the bereaved people. The heroic work of rescue presents a striking picture of self-sacrifice. Laborers and town people, bent on finding the bodies of friends or relatives, move about the destroyed town with ceaseless and indefatigable energy. Many charitable folks have come to the rescue, and their work in alleviating the suffering is a striking example of American generosity.

However, Thanhouser may have been scooped by Lyman Howe, whose Feature Amusement Enterprises Company, of Pittsburgh, offered The Austin, Pa. Flood and Fire to the trade: Note "We were first on the ground, Sunday, October 1. Secured the finest moving pictures. One reel 800 feet. $200; for two reels, 1600 feet, $375. Selling outright to anyone. Guaranteed original moving pictures."

The Higher Law, released on October 10, 1911, was reviewed by The Moving Picture World:

A young widow, too poor to support her child, has left it in the minister's care and has taken a position as a companion with a woman who travels much. This woman leaves her fortunate situation and comes back for her child. The minister loves the child. He claims that the child is his by every right. The mother, he claims, cannot even recognize her among other children. The mother tries and truly cannot. But the child's heart needs a mother's sympathy. The child by chance meets the mother, they soon are great friends. The minister, finding them together, recognizes the higher law and gives up the child. It is well acted and commendable.

George O. Nichols, who directed The Higher Law, came to Thanhouser in 1911 from Biograph, where he was known as George O. Nicholls and where he acted in dozens of films from 1908 onward. Remaining with Thanhouser through mid-1912, Nichols would direct numerous pictures for the New Rochelle studio.

The Tempter and Dan Cupid, released on October 13th, featured Marie Eline as Cupid, a familiar role for her, as she had taken the title part in Cupid the Conqueror a few months earlier. Cupid bested Satan in a duel of wits, all to the approbation of reviewers.

The following day, Saturday, October 14th, saw the second Sales Company ball, held at Alhambra Hall in New York City, the site of the first gathering the preceding February. Once again Stauch's Pavilion Orchestra provided the music. Those parting with the requisite dollar admission were given a souvenir pillow with the trademark of the Sales Company outlined in colored thread.

Among the Independent companies reserving boxes were Thanhouser, Solax, American, Champion, Great Northern, Eclair, Lux, IMP, New York Motion Picture Company, Nestor, Reliance, Powers, Rex, Majestic, Republic, and the newly-formed Comet. The contingent from New Rochelle included Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Thanhouser, Mr. and Mrs. George O. Nichols, Mr. and Mrs. Lucius J. Henderson, William Russell, Marguerite Snow, James Cruze, Florence LaBadie, Harry Benham, and Mrs. Grace Eline, who chaperoned her daughter Marie.

While Thanhouser and the other Independents were releasing one-reel films, certain of the Patents Company firms were engaged in more ambitious projects, none more so than Kalem, which dispatched a company to Ireland to film a three-reel picture, The Colleen Bawn, directed by Sidney Olcott from a script which writer-actress Gene Gauntier adapted from the play by Dion Boucicault. Shown at selected theatres in September 1911 and released officially on October 16th, Colleen Bawn was a sensation, a high-quality film backed up by an imaginative advertising campaign which included importing some original "auld sod" Irish earth and sending it to theatres so it could be displayed in boxes out front for all to see and step upon. The three-reel Arrah-Na-Pogue, by the same Kalem crew, followed in December.

At New Rochelle a three-reel film was also in the offing. However, unlike The Colleen Bawn and the three-reel Vitagraph production of Uncle Tom's Cabin released the preceding August, the Thanhouser product would not be released all at once. Rather, it would be issued over a period of time, as was done with the two-reel Romeo and Juliet. All was well, profits were rolling in, and Edwin Thanhouser was enjoying his success.

After many news announcements and months of press notices, the American Eclair Company, a branch of a Paris firm which had been distributing films in the United States for some time, announced that its first American-made film would be released on November 21, 1911 under the title Hands Across the Sea in '76. Eclair would go on to achieve great success during the next several years, with its well-equipped Fort Lee studio and film laboratory drawing especial notice, after which it would fade from the scene, primarily because of problems with its parent company during the World War.

An editorial in The Moving Picture World, October 21, 1911, despaired at the overproduction of Western-theme pictures, while other writers wondered from time to time if there were too many companies making too many films of all categories for the market. The Sales Company and Patents Company programs were becoming crowded, and any producer wishing to expand his output and issue an additional reel each week would gain the enmity of his peers. There was no ideal solution to the problem, except to create new releasing networks, and in the years to come this was done.

In the autumn of 1911 a new releasing outfit, the National Film Distributing Company, placed numerous advertisements in trade journals in an effort to set up a third network in addition to the Sales and Patents groups. Foreign producers as well as small domestic manufacturers, including Plantation, Rose, and Deutsche Biograph, were part of the combine. By November 1911 their schedule consisted of 21 reels per week, released at the rate of three reels each day of the week. Skepticism was voiced concerning the solidity of National. The Moving Picture World reported in its issue of November 21st that one of their writers saw some of the releases on the program, and that they were divided about evenly between American and European pictures. The latter half was considered the stronger and the hope was expressed that, in time, the American segment would improve.

For the week beginning Monday, October 16, 1911, the lineup of releases on the Sales Company and Patents Company schedules was as follows:



Monday: American, Champion, Eclair, IMP, Yankee

Tuesday: Bison, Powers, Thanhouser

Wednesday: Ambrosio, Champion, Nestor, Reliance, Solax

Thursday: American, IMP, Rex

Friday: Bison, Lux, Solax, Thanhouser, Yankee

Saturday: Great Northern, Itala, Powers, Reliance, Nestor



Monday: Biograph, Kalem (The Colleen Bawn in 3 reels), Lubin, Pathé, Selig, Vitagraph

Tuesday: Edison, Essanay, Gaumont, Pathé Weekly (newsreel), Selig, Vitagraph

Wednesday: Edison, Eclipse, Kalem, Lubin, Pathé, Vitagraph

Thursday: Biograph, Essanay, Lubin, Méliès, Pathé, Selig

Friday: Edison, Essanay, Pathé (2 reels), Selig, Vitagraph

Saturday: Edison, Essanay, Gaumont, Lubin (2 reels), Pathé, Vitagraph


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