Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 6 (1913): Flames and Misrepresentation

When the Studio Burned, originally titled A Thanhouser Heroine, Note produced in a rush after the January 13th fire and released on February 4th, might have been better titled What Didn't Happen When the Studio Burned, for it was largely a piece of fiction. Bert Adler wasn't about to provide the truth, either, for the dramatic tales of heroism that circulated around the nation were ever so much more interesting than what really happened. A Thanhouser advertisement stated: "The press of the whole country...printed an advance synopsis of this film for you."

If one remembers that in actuality Marguerite Snow was away from the studio having a quiet lunch when the fire occurred, and that the film being worked on at the studio that day featured Mignon Anderson and Harry Benham in Sherlock Holmes Solves The Sign of the Four, the following typical article, taken from The Dayton Journal, February 16, 1913, is quite amusing:

Being a heroine in the movies and being a heroine in real life are, of course, two very different propositions. Many a heroine of the films, no doubt, is nothing but a bundle of nerves in real life and would be one of the first to flee in a real catastrophe just as surely as she invariably rises to the occasion in the movies. On the other hand, there are, doubtless, some moving picture heroines who would prove just as brave and resourceful in the face of real peril as they do when contending against make believe dangers of the movies. Not all of them get a chance to show it, however.

Such a chance came a few weeks ago to Miss Marguerite Snow, leading woman of the Thanhouser Film Corporation. Miss Snow has long been a favorite among those who follow the movies. Playing the part of the heroine in most of the films, she has come in for a good deal of the veneration which falls to the brave in real life. She had a chance the other day to show that her courage is not all make believe. Her company was rehearsing a film at the Thanhouser plant in New Rochelle. The film was to be called A Foolish Punishment. Note The opening scene is laid in a dining room in a tenement house and shows a mother scolding a child for disobedience. The child answers back, and then the mother locks her in a closet for punishment.

The mother takes up a book to read and suddenly remembers she hasn't bought the things for dinner. Closing up her book, she puts on her hat and coat and starts out for the store, forgetting all about the child in the closet. As she nears her house on her way back she hears the engines and quickens her pace, a half-fear that her own house may be the destination of the fire engines suddenly possessing her. She sees people running past her and she starts to run herself. Soon she finds she can get no further, the street is choked with people. Standing on tip-toe she looks over the heads of the crowd and then she sees that it is her own house which is in flames.

Growing frantic, she bursts her way through the crowd. She is nearly at the entrance when she meets her maid and asks where her child is. The maid shakes her head and shows surprise that the child is not with the mother. Then the mother remembers the child's disobedience and the punishment in the closet! Breaking through the fire lines, the crazed mother flies up the stairs. As she fumbles at the keyhole in her excitement, she hears the cries of her youngster from within, and she redoubles her efforts. Driven to desperation, she rushes at the door and bursts it in. She releases the child and tries to make her way back through the smoke, but she finds that the staircase is now enveloped in flames. She returns to the flat, the flames following her through the open door.

The next scene shows her at the window with the child in her arms. She is three flights up, and the crowd is begging her not to jump. Flames are bursting from the floor below and she can be seen but dimly through the thick black smoke. The flames are licking at her feet, but she refuses to jump, knowing that serious injury, perhaps death for herself and child, may be the result. Then the firemen succeed in getting a ladder to her. Still she refuses to leave unless they take the child first. The child is lowered down from fireman to fireman and the heroine falls fainting from the sill, but is caught in the strong arms of the firemen.

Of course, the Thanhouser company didn't intend to stage all of this drama in their plant. Real engines were necessary for the set and a real tenement house would have to be used, too. But there were a number of parts which the company could rehearse and these were being gone over. Miss Snow took the part of the mother, Miss Grace Eline, the maid, and little Helen Badgley the Thanhouser Kidlet, the child. Several other members of the company took the parts of firemen, policemen, onlookers, etc.

The main object on the afternoon in question was to coach little Helen in the part she was to portray. She didn't like the idea of being locked in a closet, even for the movies, especially when she heard what happened to the child whose part she was supposed to portray. "I'm afraid of the fire ingines, Aunt Maggie," complained the child to Miss Snow, who is very fond of her and whom the child has come to refer to as Aunt Maggie. At length her fears were overcome and she consented to enter a closet - one of the closets used by the members of the company for their wraps. They didn't lock the door, but they got so busy with the rehearsal that they forgot all about little Helen in the closet, and she was too much of a little actress to come out before she got her cue.

Suddenly from downstairs came the report of an explosion. It was not very loud and created no particular alarm until one of the members of the company said she smelled smoke, and the next moment the engines were heard in the distance. Then the cry of "Fire, Fire!" was heard through the building, and then it was a case of everyone for himself. The company had been rehearsing on the top floor of the building. They rushed for the stairway but found it already in flames. Back again they came to the windows, but many of them were afraid to make the jump, and they ran about the place as if crazy.

In the midst of all the excitement Miss Snow thought of the child in the closet and called to her to come out. There was no response. Downstairs could be heard the crackling of the flames, which burst though the wooden building as if driven by a tempest, fed, as they were, by the stores of films and other highly inflammable material used in the factory. The shouts of the scores of panic-stricken men, women, girls and boys employed in the place added to the horror of the moment. Miss Snow retained her presence of mind, although many of the other members of the company were terror-stricken.

Dashing to the closet Miss Snow threw open the door and found little Helen on the floor asleep. The child awoke as Miss Snow picked her up. "What's all the noise Aunty Maggie?" she asked, as the chugging of the engines and the shouts of the firemen and onlookers came to her ears. "Don't be scared, honey, it's all for the film, you know. The Foolish Punishment." Thus reassuring the child she dashed to one of the windows. There she found Miss Eline in a dead faint.

Throwing up the sash Miss Snow climbed out on the sill, and then with the child in her arms jumped to the ground a distance of fully 15 feet. She landed on a pile of tarpaulins that the firemen had piled there and was unhurt, except for a wrenched ankle. Handing the child to a bystander, she dashed back of the building before any one could stop her, and climbing up a rain pipe reached the stage floor again and made her way to the window, where she had left Miss Eline. The young woman was still there unconscious. Lifting her in her arms, Miss Snow dragged her to the window. The fresh air seemed to revive her, and as Miss Snow steadied her and commanded her to jump, they came hurtling through the air together. Miss Eline was unhurt, but Miss Snow wrenched again her previously damaged foot and fainted when she tried to get up.

Fifty minutes after the fire had started the whole plant was just a heap of ashes. Not a wall was left standing. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars' worth of property was lost, but not a single one of the employees was seriously hurt, thanks to the bravery and presence of mind of Miss Snow.

Miss Snow had often played the heroine for the films, but this time she wasn't thinking of her audience at all. Nevertheless, she will have an audience, for the enterprising movie men got out their cameras soon after the fire started and got moving pictures of the whole affair, including Miss Snow's two brilliant rescues. What took place inside they were, of course, unable to get, but for the sake of the film, which turned out a success and which is now being shown as When the Studio Burned, Miss Snow was prevailed upon to repeat for the films what actually occurred inside the studio when the rehearsal was broken up by the alarm of fire.

To the Thanhouser Film Corporation's discredit, all of this fiction was never disavowed. In fact, Bert Adler helped to create it. That even some in the motion picture industry were misled is evidenced by a review in The New York Dramatic Mirror:

When the studio burned there were some exciting scenes around the Thanhouser studio, if we are to judge by this picture, which is supposed to have been taken at the time of the New Rochelle fire. The film is entertaining and interesting, especially for admirers of Thanhouser releases. It will satisfy a certain demand and act as a good advertisement. The Thanhouser Kid and Kidlet are worked into the picture in a pleasing manner.

A surviving print owned by the Library of Congress reveals that When the Studio Burned shows no authentic January 13, 1913 fire footage at all, as, of course, is to be expected from the fact that no Thanhouser motion picture photographer was on hand when the conflagration occurred. What purports to be the studio ablaze is depicted by a wooden doorway, as in a warehouse, from which some smoke issues and drifts away, without a flame or fire engine in sight. The film-within-a-film of the Thanhouser Kidlet in a closet is not a part of this print, and as the Library of Congress print seems to show continuity, the closet sequence was probably not a part of any original print. So, anyone hoping to see what the phony newspaper accounts related were fooled a second time - for none of the fake drama within the studio walls, indeed nothing at all within the studio confines, is included. A synopsis created by the present author, based upon this print, follows, with the original subtitles given in capital letters:



Players exit down stairs from a two-story wooden building representing the film studio. Helen Badgley (the Thanhouser Kidlet) is carried down the steps.



The Kidlet and Marguerite Snow are left behind at the curb as the company departs in an open automobile. Snow and the Kidlet go back to the building, where James Cruze comes out to meet them, after which all three go inside. The scene shifts to the company automobile driving through a residential district, heading toward the desired location.



The company members stop at a small general store and ask directions of the shopkeeper. Soon, the company, including Marie Eline (the Thanhouser Kid), reaches the desired spot, a location on a residential street, and all alight from the vehicle.



A wooden door opening is seen, from which smoke is issuing. Cruze emerges from the doorway and passes round metal film cans to another person. Others exit, gasping from the smoke. Snow, Cruze, and others re-enter the studio, soon to emerge holding the Kidlet. The frame around the doorway appears charred, but not smoking, as if from an earlier fire. Cruze carries the Kidlet away to safety. More film cans are saved. Snow takes the Kidlet to the porch of a neighboring house. The shopkeeper - the one who gave instructions to the company earlier - is telephoned, and he runs to the players and tells them there is important news. The director goes to the shop and spends what seems to be an unduly long time listening to the news first-hand on the telephone. Distraught, the director returns to the players and tells them of the fire.



The Thanhouser Kid, in tears, clutches first the director and then another man. In the meantime, back at the studio a camera and a few other things are saved.



The Kidlet's mother, a member of the group of players out on location, is beside herself with anxiety. The company's automobile (New York license #49324) is summoned to take the players back to the studio.



The players return to the ruins (a scene apparently photographed a day or two after the actual fire, for everything is charred rubble, no fire-fighting equipment is in sight, etc.). The Thanhouser Kid's mother finds and hugs her. The Kidlet's mother spies the Kidlet in the arms of Marguerite Snow, who is on the porch of a nearby house, and a joyous reunion follows. The entire group of players and other employees join the Kidlet and her mother in an enthusiastic celebration.



The Thanhouser Kidlet and her mother, apparently homeless, are welcomed by the Kid to a fire-blackened, but still livable, home near the ruins.



The Kid helps the Kidlet get undressed for bed, and then jumps in bed with her. The two little girls fall asleep on fluffy pillows.


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