Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): 1911 in Review

As the 1911 year came to a close, the motion picture industry was in a period of strong growth. The Sales Company distribution program was doing well, but it was now in the same position that the Patents Company had found itself in earlier: members did not want to share the fruits of the cartel. Note Three aspiring newcomers - Lux American; Shamrock, of St. Louis; and Ortho, of New York - were turned away, and they considered forming another distribution group. In the meantime, as a report noted, the recently-formed National system "has perhaps caused more stir among the ranks of the Patents Company and the Sales Company than any other faction," and observed that "its early failure is being hoped for by its competitors, and its success assured by those in connection with it."

During the year 1911 both the Patents Company and Independent members increased their production by about 50% to a combined output of 72 reels per week by December, not counting occasional two-reel and three-reel films released by Kalem, Vitagraph, and other Patents companies. Note While Thanhouser, as a member of the Sales Company program, had to be content earlier in the year with releasing its multiple-reel features such as Romeo and Juliet and David Copperfield one reel at a time, the competing Patents program would permit longer films to be released all at once. However, in December, Thanhouser's She was released in two reels on the same day. Now the Sales Company schedule was on an equal footing with the Patents Company program. By the end of the year the upstart National program was challenging the two older programs by putting an impressive 21 reels on the market each week.

The Aitken brothers made the news with regularity. Note Harry E. Aitken, a long-term exchange operator, and a partner with John R. Freuler in the highly successful Western Film Exchange and other enterprises, went to Europe in the autumn, where he opened a new agency for Reliance, through his brother, Roy E. Aitken, who controlled the Western Import Company. The Aitken brothers and Freuler were heavy investors in the American, Reliance, and Majestic film companies, and all would soon play important parts in the fortunes of Edwin Thanhouser.

That the quality of motion pictures improved in 1911 was suggested by The New York Dramatic Mirror: Note

On the whole the standard has shown improvement. Motion pictures are generally better than they were a year ago, and this in spite of the great increase in the number of productions.... When a company doubles its output, as many did, it could only be done by overworking its producing force or increasing the force in proportion, and either method could only mean a lowered standard. Happily, the representative companies accompanied their increases of production by enlarging their forces, and while this resulted for a time in the raw recruits turning out more or less inferior films, it was only for a limited period, and it was not long before the old standard had been regained, and even passed in some instances. The net result is that better motion picture films and many more of them are being issued today than was the case in 1910, and in their production twice as many players are given employment.

Of these players, a truly astonishing number have become popular favorites.... How many players are now employed in motion picture work in America? The answer can only be approximate, as the forces of all companies are continually changing. The Biograph Company, producing but two reels a week, took about 50 regular players to Los Angeles, where, as occasion may require, extra people may be added. Taking 25 people as an average for each reel of pictures for the American output of 31 reels of Licensed films and 33 reels of Sales Company films (about eight reels are imported), we have in these two groups 1,600 players. In addition to these, the players in free-lance companies, whose negatives are sold by the foot to the National Company, and others employed in irregular ways, would probably swell the grand total of American picture players to close to 2,000. Quite a respectable army, it would appear.

It is doubtful if the standard of acting improved very much during 1911, except among the new recruits. The great advance in that branch of art took place prior to 1911. Who can look back on the methods of picture playing three and four years ago, without a shudder? In those days the actors were told to step high in walking or running. Each player called by gesture on high heaven to witness each assertion. Talking, gesticulating, and grimacing at the camera was the constant habit. Slapstick farce was the only known form of fun; the harder a poor devil fell or the more crockery he smashed the greater comedian he was supposed to be. Actors and actresses of any self respect refused to work for the films, or if circumstances compelled them to earn the money they carefully concealed their identity. The vast change that has taken place is nowhere more apparent than in this very difference in the attitude of professional people toward motion picture employment, a state of affairs for which the Mirror feels justified in claiming some credit. The companies can now have their pick of all but the most exclusive stars, and distinction in the films is eagerly sought by the best of them.

The account in the Mirror went on to relate that scenarios were improving as well, and perhaps that among several thousand ambitious writers there were undoubtedly many promising candidates for future glory. This situation was not true, of course, for the Thanhouser Company, where Lloyd F. Lonergan continued to write each scenario, with occasional help from Gertrude Thanhouser.

"Directing skill has undoubtedly improved," the Mirror account continued, "and to the extent that these active gentlemen and the scenario editors have participated in story construction there has also been story improvement. Certain points in the management of scenes and action are now much better done than formerly. It would take more space than is now available to point out the many particulars in which all this is apparent. One or two illustrations will suffice: "Where formerly no attention was paid to the direction in which players left one scene and entered another, the best directors are now careful to aid the illusion by making the scenes harmonize. So, too, in the matter of time lapse, directors now take care, or most of them do, that the spectator shall not be too greatly shocked...."

For Thanhouser the 1911 year saw the production of several multiple-reel films, the completion of its first full year in business, and the solidification of its reputation for producing films of high quality.


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