Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): Comeuppance for the "Mirror"

In its issue of March 25, 1911, The Moving Picture World printed a scathing denunciation of The New York Dramatic Mirror, whose film editor, The Spectator, had recently said that trade papers devoted solely to films were of no value. In retaliation The Moving Picture World stated that the film department editor of The New York Dramatic Mirror was part of a class of people who "seldom have anything but superficial knowledge of their subject," whereas trade journals (such as The Moving Picture World) "and those who conduct them supply information not otherwise obtainable."

The article went on to say that

The New York Dramatic Mirror and other general-interest publications have their uses by writing in a light, airy, and agreeable fashion about moving pictures which possibly interest actors, actresses, and some exhibitors. Yet, wonderful to relate, while spurning the title of trade paper, they themselves are not too proud to make money out of the trade that gives them trade information.... The worst of all is that The New York Dramatic Mirror is only half a trade paper. It writes pleasantly, agreeably, but not informatively about the moving picture. Its criticisms from a theatrical point of view are good, although they are no better than those which appear in The Moving Picture World. It prints a lot of effervescent stuff about the identities of those players, but we have watched in vain for two or three years for any trace in the The Spectator's writing for any real fundamental knowledge about the moving pictures' technical, scientific product to appear aside from the mere writing about acting ability.

The Spectator clearly knows nothing about the scientific or the educational side of the moving picture. He does not concern himself with optics or chemistry.... It would have been better for its reputation, I think, if the Dramatic Mirror had been silent on the subject of trade papers. Around here in New York City people are saying it is merely the mouthpiece of the Trust. When I look at its reviews of pictures, its bias is painfully in evidence. It says nice things about Trust pictures and very unpleasant things, indeed, about the Independent pictures. It clearly derives its inspiration from Trust sources. It leans distinctly in one direction.

These were strong words indeed for The Moving Picture World, for it was only occasionally that the publication would print anything unfavorable about a competing journal.

The Poet of the People, released on April 25, 1911, featured Frank H. Crane as Grengoire, an iconoclastic poet in a historical period of oppression in France. Julia M. Taylor played his sweetheart, a ward of the king. The story seems to have been derived from The King's Pleasure, a one-act stage drama in which Edwin Thanhouser played the part of Gringoire (with a slightly different spelling) numerous times in the late 1890s. Seeking to make its reviews more concise, The Moving Picture News instituted a "Film Charts" feature, which proved to be short-lived, and which commented concerning this Thanhouser release: "Start: poetic; finish: popular; Moral: poetry pays - at times; Reception (of the audience): good; Biggest moment: at the gallows."

A popular method of vertical transportation was the focal point of An Elevator Romance, released on April 28th, which told of a shy Westerner in love with a girl who worked in a tall office building. One day a fire breaks out, the regular elevator operator runs away in panic, and our meek hero takes the car up the smoky shaft to rescue the trapped occupants of the burning building. Thanhouser advertised the film as "a masterpiece of realism." Note The Moving Picture News "Film Charts" department noted: "Start: up; Finish: down; Moral: learn to run an elevator; Reception: hearty; Biggest moment: Westerner volunteering to run a car."

The Pillars of Society, released May 2, 1911, adapted from a play by Henrik Ibsen, was the first work of this great playwright to be dramatized for the screen, an accomplishment of which Edwin Thanhouser was very proud and would recall numerous times later in his life.

In the June issue of Motography James V. Crippen told of progress among the Independent producers and stated that several had released noteworthy films. Further:

Perhaps the most interesting of all the films mentioned is Thanhouser's adaptation of Pillars of Society. Ibsen is a typical representative of the ultra high-browed drama. An Ibsen play advertised for performance at a legitimate theatre is enough to send orthodox playgoers running in the opposite direction. To find an Ibsen drama under the guise of a photoplay circulating freely and cordially among the theatres of the presumably 'low-browed' is surely a piquant situation.

In this case the ignorance of the low-browed seems to consist simply in an ignorance of the conventional attitude toward Ibsen; being unaware of the Ibsen bug-bear, they accept his drama without prejudice and enjoy it according to its merits. A low-browed attitude, indeed! Pillars of Society is not the only ambitious Thanhouser offering of recent months. Dramatizations of Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop, George Eliot's Silas Marner, and Tennyson's Lady Clare stand out in memory, and there may have been others.

This sentiment closely followed Edwin Thanhouser's own thinking, as expressed in an article a couple of weeks earlier in The Moving Picture News, April 15, 1911:

"We are trying in our humble way," said Edwin Thanhouser, "to be to the motion picture business what the New Theatre Note is to the theatrical business. We are sacrificing money to art, a little here and a good deal there, but we actually think we are attaining our ideals." With this, the head of the house of Thanhouser gave in a gist the exact name of his moving picture efforts.

"We are after uplift," he stated. "We are essaying the big things that we feel filmdom needs. Subjects that heretofore many film producers have not approached, we are staging with full success. I believe we are making a lasting impression on the public mind, both from an artistic and educational standpoint. Our start in this direction has stood us in good stead, and today observers place us among the best in our particular line."

Mr. Thanhouser led the interviewer to the great raised stage whereon his picture plays are enacted. An impressive scene was in rehearsal. Careful attention to detail marked the settings. The scene as you saw it was clearly the result of most careful preparation. "The detail," said Mr. Thanhouser, "is one of the little items that will make The Pillars of Society a big picture."

"What!" said the News' man, "Ibsen's Pillars of Society?"

"Yes," was his reply, "Henrik Ibsen's story. I was the first man to give it an extended presentation as a play in America. That was at my Milwaukee and Chicago theatres several years ago. As a film it is likely the first of Ibsen's stories to be motion pictures. Now it gives you enough uplift, enough human interest, enough of a moral to make you think - and that's what the motion picture is coming to make mankind do. By this latter, I don't mean that people are no longer going to the picture theatre to smile, but they are now also accustomed to get food for thought and reflection there.

"They get just enough of that in this Ibsen story - just the proper measure. I think this reel is a good example of what I consider 'good material.' It is representative of the results we are aiming at, results that place a moving picture on a higher plane and gain for our particular brand a world wide respect."

The Pillars of Society was favorably reviewed, although one suspects that to have done otherwise might have marked a writer as "low-browed." However, a daring scribe for The Moving Picture World characterized the film as "extremely hard to understand until two or three scenes have passed."

On May 4th an accident occurred in New Rochelle, as reported by The Evening Standard: Note

The nerve and grit of Miss Virginia Nichols, the 15-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James C. Nichols, 67 Franklin Avenue, yesterday afternoon saved three small children who were riding with her in her pony cart from serious injury when the wheel of their cart was wrecked by the big "rubberneck" automobile of the Thanhouser motion picture concern.

Thrown unceremoniously out of the little cart with her tender charges, Miss Nichols clung to the reins and prevented the frightened pony from bolting and dragging the ruined cart over them. Miss Nichols was driving slowly behind a car on Main Street near Rose Street, and in attempting to turn out from behind the car came almost in front of the Thanhouser machine which was filled with actors and actresses in costume and greasepaint. The rear wheels of the big automobile skidded and crashed into the pony cart, smashing one wheel to splinters. The cart tipped over and Miss Nichols and her three little companions were thrown under the cart. All were more or less bruised and shaken up and pretty well frightened. The chauffeur, hearing the crash, stopped his machine and helped carry the children to the sidewalk.

The Sinner, released on May 5, 1911, was another Thanhouser film which treated the shortcomings of circumstantial evidence in a court trial. In general reviewers liked it, and even The New York Dramatic Mirror critic was on his good behavior, perhaps still smarting from the lashing received at the hands of The Moving Picture World's editorial department. The Moving Picture News "Film Charts" rated the film: "Start: accident; Finish: confession; Moral: circumstantial evidence isn't worth much; Reception: attentive; Biggest moment: the sinner touched by the priest's anguish."


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