Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 8: 1915 Edwin Thanhouser on Film Quality

Readers of the October 2nd issue of Reel Life were greeted by an article, "Film Power - Intermittent or Consistent?" bearing the byline of Edwin Thanhouser:

Since my return from Europe after an absence of almost three years, my friends in the industry invariably greet me with the same query: "How do you find things as compared to what they were before your retirement?"

To be asked this question, often might tend to indicate that my position is different from that of most film producers. Well, it is, and my answer is that while in a thousand instances time has made changes, there are certain conditions which make me feel that things are quite the same; by that I mean that certain rules which I laid down to guide me in film production six years ago are more practical today than ever. They are practical to me because I am again called upon to release on the program plan. Note If this were not so my story might be different.

While the motion picture audience has changed, human instincts have not. They still want pep in stories - they still want realism in acting, and they still want settings from life itself. These are the requirements which the layman demands of the moving picture manufacturer.

The exhibitor makes requirements as well. He wants not only a good product - one that will have drawing power that will bring business to him - but he wants that quality in production which holds business. I have heard so many film bookers say that it is comparatively easy to secure new business, but that the difficulty is in holding an account. This takes me back to my experience when I first began to produce films. I saw at that time among my confreres a policy of cost balance which was entirely wrong.

One week an entirely acceptable production would be released, and the next week would see the release of a picture which, on its face, showed unwarranted, extreme economy. The explanation for this always was: "If we made every picture like that big one we would be losing money. We have got to follow an expensive picture with one on which the margin of profit is more satisfactory."

It is this line of reasoning which helped me figure out the plan of action which eventually brought success and popularity to the Thanhouser product. It was a simple matter - an even adjustment of the cost system to replace the spasmodic method. It appeared to me that to make exceptionally good pictures, and follow them with unquestionably poor ones, is like running around in a circle - you make no progress and when you have done it long enough you fall over. I set my mind on the proposition that there must be a happy medium, that the line of demarcation between both kinds of pictures I have mentioned must be the standard of quality. It also appeared to me that to establish such a standard and maintain it was my business. Far be it from me to dwell here on the task I faced or how I undertook to accomplish it, but the fact remains that the Thanhouser product reached its strong position because it was recognized as being consistently good. Every exhibitor knew that there was full value in every Thanhouser film; he knew that there was a certain minimum, but he was positive about the minimum - that his audience would not be disappointed.

In taking my place in the Mutual's $8,000,000 program today, I feel that while the standard of requirements has certainly risen, the matter of consistency in the product is just as essential as ever it was. I often put myself in the place of the solicitor for a film exchange, mentally, and picture his feelings when he invites a prospective customer into his exhibition room and shows him a production which he knows will win that man's account. The picture is run and if the solicitor's judgment is right the exhibitor says: "If you can give me pictures like this, I need you in my business." The man is signed up and his service begins. After a day or three days, or a week or three weeks, something happens. Mr. Exhibitor tells Mr. Exchange Manager that he has not made good his promise, that while some of the pictures were excellent, others were very poor and unsatisfactory; therefore he is sorry to say that his service will be discontinued next Saturday! What was it that lost this account? It was intermittent film power! While one picture was strong enough to stampede Mr. Exhibitor, another was so weak that he could not be induced to hang on a while longer in the hopes of getting better value for his money. Film power, as created by the moving picture manufacturer, is as much motive power to a film exchange as steam is motive power to a locomotive. The Twentieth Century Limited would not be possible if steam power were intermittent. You would never know, on starting a trip, when the locomotive would be forced to suspend action and wait for more power. But fortunately it is not so; you know when you step on board this wonderful train that the motive power service on which you are depending to take you a thousand miles across the earth is consistent power and, barring the most unusual of accidents, you would stake your all that it is going to bring you to your destination. It is the consistency of the thing which gives you your confidence.

It is the same way with film power today as it was six years ago. It must take the exhibitor a certain minimum number of miles. His destination is a satisfied audience; not only to make them satisfied but to keep them satisfied. Intermittent quality in films will only bring praise one day and censure the next. It will not instill confidence - it will destroy it. It takes many times a thousand feet of film to bring the exhibitor to his destination. Those thousands of feet must be smooth, consistent, dependable, reliable.

To illustrate this best let us consider all the work of the Thanhouser studios without regard as to whether it is the Thanhouser brand, Falstaff comedy, Than-O-Play or Masterpicture. You will find in the comedy element of our work a certain minimum standard. The work of Riley Chamberlin, Claude Cooper, Arthur Cunningham and Frances Keyes Note always pleases and makes good, yet it will be noted that such a picture as When Hungry Hamlet Fled is so high above the usual comedy standard that it gives the product a sudden burst of speed; yet, to be perfectly frank with my reader, I must admit that this comedy did not interfere with the even balance of my production system. We are always doing our best. It simply happened that it was a corking vehicle for the work of these same comedians.

In drama let us consider a two-reel release called Which Shall It Be? This picture brought tears into the eyes of the newspaper men who came to review it. What was there about it? Great, expensive settings? Thousand-dollar-a-week actors? Tremendous ensembles? No, none of these! Just a simple little story, pathetically worded titles, and sincere, convincing acting by people who can do what is expected of them. Yet, if the criterion of drama is an audience in tears, this little picture made good with all the power that a million dollars of expenditure could have encompassed. The Price of Her Silence is another illustration of consistent motive power from a point of view of human interest. While it may not bring tears as readily as other dramas we have made, it is of that rare quality which holds attention from the first foot to the last. This is a scenario virtue which, while only one ingredient of the acceptable photoplay, is nevertheless the vehicle for talent and construction - you might term it the foundation of the house.

The Mutual's new $8,000,000 program is as consistently constructed a fabric as I have ever seen in my analysis of things film both here and abroad. But the most pleasing feature of the entire situation is that the exhibitor has shown himself appreciative of it. I want him to know what encouragement that is to the man who makes the films. Satisfaction, enthusiasm and hard work form the greatest institution in the world.


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