Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): The Sales Company Ball

On February 3, 1911 the Independents gathered for a ball held under the auspices of the Sales Company at Alhambra Hall, at the corner of 126th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. Music was provided by an orchestra under the direction of A.L. Ferguson, a well-known ensemble whose regular home was in Stauch's Pavilion at Coney Island. Each of the leading Independent producers occupied a special box. Representing the Thanhouser Company was publicist Bert Adler in a new brown suit, accompanied by cameraman Carl Louis Gregory. Nearby in the IMP box was Carl Laemmle, "with his usual smile and a glad hand for everybody," who was to stay awake through the night and make up for his lack of sleep when he left for Chicago on the 20th Century Limited train the next afternoon, and slept for 18 hours! Note

Advance publicity stated that open dancing would be held until 11 in the evening, after which a program of 24 dances would be presented, one for each manufacturer, with appropriate music for each. However, reality was somewhat different, as The Moving Picture World was to report:

Everybody who was anybody (with a few unavoidable exceptions) was there with bells on. And it certainly was a live evening, except for one thing. The one thing that proved an exception to a lively time was the introduction of moving pictures between dances. There is nothing wrong about moving pictures between dances, if they do not hand out "weepers." But unfortunately, the guests were handed the choicest collection of tragedies that were ever projected on the screen in one single evening. It seems that every manufacturer deliberately dug out the most doleful subject that he could lay his hands on to contribute to the gaiety of the occasion. Not a comedy in the lot, out of perhaps a dozen reels that were shown. This is a good indication of the forgetfulness on the part of manufacturers in general that comedy is the thing.... Outside of that it was fine. Everybody was bright and happy and had a good time. Nobody overdanced, because the pictures make good rests between the dances.

Next on the Thanhouser release schedule of films was Adrift, first publicly screened on February 3rd. Directed by Lucius J. Henderson, the picture featured Lucille Younge, Katherine Horn, William Garwood, and Marie Eline. Katherine Horn, also known as Kitty Horn, acted in several Thanhouser films during the early years of the studio's activities. She was not a full-time member of the stock company. Thanhouser's advertisement Note suggested an appeal to a special audience:

A useful film with a big, simple moral that would do much to reconcile the church to the motion picture - if the former knew that this sort of film was so much in evidence. Therefore, in billing and announcing this reel, make appeal to the churchfolk in your district and see if it doesn't go to change the picture views of even the most conservative. For the American church-goer...will concede the motion picture has an influence for morality and honest living just as soon as he knows what it is.

Adrift related the unsuccessful efforts of a young artist whose family was on the verge of starvation. Deciding to commit suicide he takes a gun and leaves his home. His young daughter follows him and convinces him to change his mind and return. The mother drops to her knees, and holding her child she raises her eyes heavenward in a prayer of thankfulness. The synopsis continues: "Jack, looking up suddenly, sees the beautiful group of mother and child, with a light as if from heaven upon them. Realizing that there is the inspiration for the subject for which he has sought in vain, he calls for them not to move, and at once begins his great painting of them, which brings him fame and wealth." Upon gaining recognition, the artist becomes dissatisfied with his wife and becomes involved with a society woman whose portrait he has painted. The woman visits the studio one day and sees the artist's little girl crying.

The synopsis continues: "Though she has contemptuously ignored the wife, she feels that she cannot ruin the life of the helpless child, even to win the artist's love. On the spur of the moment, she writes a farewell note to Jack, and gives it to the child, saying that it will cure all her sorrow. Then she goes out of their lives forever. Jack realizes, when he sees that his child is the messenger, why Julia has broken with him. An outsider had made a sacrifice to save the future of little Marie, when he, her father, who had always loved her, had selfishly forgotten his duty. Remorsefully, he tears up the letter, and destroys the painting, not angrily, but as a symbol that he had cast the original out of his life. Then he makes peace with his wife and daughter, who are joyfully ready to forgive, and tells them that their love will keep him in the right path for the rest of his life, and that the lesson he has been taught will never be forgotten."

The New York Dramatic Mirror reviewed Adrift:

This is a good drama and holds the interest because of the naturalness of its presentation, which is marred only by the scene where the artist attempts to kill himself. It is not believed that the little girl would have dogged her father's footsteps, for the previous scene did not apparently indicate that she knew of her father's intention. Her simple coming upon him would have been more natural. Returning home, the sight of his child in its mother's arms inspired a painting that went with such success that he was lifted to prosperity. A young society woman who came to pose for her portrait threatens to upset the happiness of the home, but learning the state of affairs from the little daughter, she saw that they had been drifting on dangerous ground and took her departure. The little girl is a very accomplished little actress.

At the time it was the practice of many theatres to accompany motion pictures with music, usually provided by a pianist, but sometimes with one or two other musicians as well. None of the film manufacturers issued musical scores, and it was left up to the individual accompanist to work out a suitable program. From time to time, theatre owners wrote to the trade journals and shared musical programs which they found to be effective. Such was the case with Adrift, when a suggestion from an unnamed Oklahoma correspondent appeared in The Moving Picture World: Note

Open with waltz until friend pats him on the shoulder, All I Get is Sympathy until he picks up his hat. I Don't Know Where I'm Going until next scene, then Life's A Funny Proposition until he pulls gun out of pocket, then soft hurry (crescendo for climax).

When he picks up the girl, go back to Life's A Funny Proposition until he is sitting down in the house, then What's the Use of Dreaming; when friend comes in and shakes hands, Gee, But It's Great to Meet a Friend. Waltz for gallery scene until friend shows his picture, then Some Day When Dreams Come True. When he is introduced to lady, How Do You Do Miss Josephine. When she leaves, So Long Mary. No Place Like Home for next scene. When wife sees he is getting cold toward her, All I Ask is Love.

Scene in studio I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid, then Be Sweet to Me Kid, Next to your Mother, etc. But for the girl crying scene I use Nobody's Little Girl. These are about the only waltzes that I use for this picture. If you think I am playing right and using good judgment let me know. If not, tell me my weakness. I have studied hard to learn to play for pictures, and I never get to see them only at night at the show. I play them at sight.

The following Thanhouser film, The Westerner and the Earl, a comedy released on February 7, 1911, had a plot which involved a society woman who had a bungalow in the West, an English earl who comes to visit, and a Wild West show managed by "Rattlesnake Bill." Next on the program came the February 10th release of The Norwood Necklace, starring Julia M. Taylor, the third film in the "Violet Gray, Detective" series. Reviewers liked it, with Walton, in The Moving Picture News, commenting:

A film where the lady detective looms large and acts her part succinctly well. The story moves along smoothly and one does not need to worry as to what it's all about. The kind of film the man not over-endowed with brains likes, because it tells its own story as any well conceived and acted play does. A valuable necklace is stolen, passed on to a confederate, who gets on the train, learns the authorities are wise, and hides it in a child's doll. Note To get it back is the trouble, the detective as a maid gets a clue, and the scornful lady is marched to duress hard and plenty.

For Her Sake, issued on February 14th, was built around a Civil War story, always a popular theme in an era in which memories of the war between the states were still vivid, and the Grand Army of the Republic veterans held annual encampments. In the film, two lovers, one a Union soldier and the other a Confederate, vie for the same girl's hand.

While the use of circumstantial evidence to obtain convictions in the courts was not at the top of the list of pressing social problems in 1911, it was a matter of concern for Thanhouser's main scenario writer, Lloyd F. Lonergan. Over a period of time he constructed several plots around the shortcomings of the system. Checkmate, released on February 17th, was heralded thus: Note

Checkmate carries a message and a lesson to those who value the 'circumstantial evidence' process by which so many convictions are obtained in our criminal courts. The reel demonstrates how easily evidence of this sort may be made to entangle and ensnare a totally innocent man, and how it may leave him without a jot of hope for the vindication that should be his - that will drag his good name, and that of all who claim relationship to him, down into the mire of calumny. So the worth of 'circumstantial evidence' is to be carefully weighed and considered by all fair-minded people, and we are glad that this reel will bring some attention to it.

The intended gravity of the circumstantial evidence question was apparently lost on a reviewer for The Billboard, who was even able to find some humor in the feature:

This is the story of a European baron and an American lad in love with the same girl. The nobleman and the title-mad aunt conspired to remove the Yankee from the daughter's affection, but they are most sadly outwitted. The American suitor is arrested on a charge of circumstantial evidence because of the pretended suicide of the baron, who, however, finds that his plot works exactly opposite his expectations, and he is himself taken to jail, while the young girl and the young suitor are happily united. There is comedy in this film that will be pleasing. Detail has been watched, and the photography is above censure. While this film is nothing above the ordinary, it will meet with the approval of nickelodeon audiences.

On the other hand, The New York Dramatic Mirror didn't like Checkmate at all:

Nothing more improbable or inconsistent has been seen on the screen in some time than this latest offering of the Thanhouser Company. It borders on the silly, which is a strange thing for so excellent a company to be guilty of. From the moment when the American lover of the girl assaults the count in the parlor, because he finds him making love too ardently, until the final scene when the count enters the parlor again in blissful ignorance that the hero has been pardoned from prison, the incidents furnish one improbability after another. The amazing celerity with which the hero finds himself in convict's stripes in prison after being charged with making a murderous assault with a dull knife that inflicted no wounds is only equaled by the ease with which the hero escaped from the penitentiary by leaving a double in his place. The story must have been dreamed up by a ten-year-old girl.

Each year important holidays and observances such as Washington's Birthday, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas gave film producers the opportunity to release topical subjects suitable for the occasion. Such was the situation for Thanhouser in February 1911, when For Washington was released on February 21st, in time for the birthday of the first American president. The film had been titled The Patriot Maid of '76 in advance publicity, but then it was discovered that another Independent firm, the Rex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, had declared a release titled A Heroine of '76. To avoid confusion, Thanhouser obligingly made a change. Katherine Horn played the role in the fanciful tale of a young maiden who mingles with Hessian mercenary troops and plies them with drink, after which she steals away and reports their plans to General Washington.

The Morning Telegraph described the plot as containing "so far unrecorded facts" and then went on to say that the film was "well acted and proved highly entertaining." The Billboard praised its every aspect, and The Moving Picture World found it spellbinding, but it was left to The New York Dramatic Mirror to point out that: "The scene of the crossing of the Delaware is an acceptable and painstaking copy of the well-known painting of this event. In the march the flag, it should be noted, is an anachronism as the flag was not adopted by Congress until June 14, 1777, six months after the famous crossing."

The Newsboy Hero, released on February 24th, told of a drunken husband, Jack, and his loving wife, May (Jack and May once again), who eventually finds life with him unbearable, so she takes her child, little Marie, and wanders out into the snow, finally falling into a deep sleep preceding what seems to be a sure death. After a succession of incidents all ends well. The Billboard, The Morning Telegraph, and The Moving Picture News found the film to be quite worthwhile. The reviewer for The New York Dramatic Mirror evidently took extensive notes while watching the screen, for he was to pen this detailed critique:

This story reminds one of the old sentimental and maudlin melodrama. Nobody does anything as it would be done in life. A little girl makes friends with a newsboy, with a lot of other children standing around watching a motion picture being taken. He takes her home for no good reason; he was not of the sentimental age. Next comes a scene where the title says the husband drove the wife and child from home, but the following action did not bear it out. He was drunk, but he did not drive. The newsboy found the woman and girl in the snow, as everyone knew he would, and two people in an automobile, who had no place in the story, came along and took the two not to the almshouse or hospital, but to the newsboy's hut, and left them there.

The mother is next seen doing washing at the newsboy's abode. The father, after a lapse of two weeks (it would seem as if he would have done something sooner, and the news would have been quicker in traveling), reads in the paper that a mother and child have been lost in the snow. He goes down to the wharf to commit suicide. The Salvation Army suddenly takes it into its head to march down to the water's edge. It remains discreetly in the background, while the leading man and the newsboy vent their emotions on the camera, and then comes up and saves the husband's soul. The newsboy carries the news to the mother and daughter, and the identity of the man is discovered by a locket. They seek him and find him a member of the Army, and all is well. The only commendable feature of the production is the good acting. The story is, of course, a rehash of other films, made different and cheaper by the addition of the newsboy.

Thanhouser in advertising Note its release on February 28th featured nine-year-old Marie Eline: "The Little Mother is the very latest 'Thanhouser Kid' feature and all the picture-going kids in town will implore their parents to take them to your show if you show your 'Thanhouser Kid today' sign the day you show this reel. The boys and girls of today are the men and women of tomorrow. With the youth of today favorably disposed toward the moving picture, look to a long life for business. Get the kids impressed right by giving them pictures that are right. Especially strive to convince them that justice wins out in the end, and that knavery doesn't go for much these days, as this reel well brings out." Reviews were mostly favorable, and even The New York Dramatic Mirror found it to be "admirably staged and acted."

Stage Struck, released on March 3rd, was advertised as an uplifting influence, another contribution to the motion picture industry's defense of itself against those who complained of the negative influence of the medium: Note

Another Thanhouser moral-pointer. You see we constantly back up our belief that the motion picture can send forth the reforming message as effectively as the pulpit. Here you have a frail, tenderly-reared little girl, who attempts the stage by a devious route - the runaway route. Understand that she is upright in thought and conduct, and that she is not a 'little wild' - merely a little ambitious. But she was not intended for the hardships that were sure to be hers, and as sure to be the others' who may follow in her footsteps, and it is here that you have your moral at its best. This reel may save some heartaches. Be sure to show it.

The plot was concerned with a country girl who runs away and joins a company of itinerant Shakespearean players, who give her a small part in Romeo and Juliet. Note The company runs out of funds, the girl is stranded, she finds her way home, and, miracle of miracles, upon her return home she soon receives an offer of a lead part in a Broadway play and a proposal of marriage as well. The film garnered generally favorable reviews.

The Mummy, released on March 7, 1911, told of a 65-year-old Egyptologist who finds the body of Princess Khufu, now 3,000 years old, in a mummy case he buys in a curio shop. By translating hieroglyphics he learns that she is not dead, just sleeping. Touched by an electric spark, Khufu awakens and, according to the scenario synopsis, "makes violent love" to a bystander. The farce ends with the princess marrying the professor who bought her. Reviews were enthusiastic, and that in The Billboard was especially so: "This is a great film - a jim dandy - undoubtedly one of Thanhouser's best."

The Spirit Hand, released on March 10th, told of the unmasking of a spiritualist, a plot not unlike that of Thanhouser's Hypnotized released the preceding December 30th. His Younger Brother, issued on March 14, 1911, included Marguerite Snow as a cast member, her second Thanhouser film, following her screen debut in Baseball and Bloomers.

Next on the Thanhouser release schedule came Robert Emmet, on March 17th, Saint Patrick's Day. The story was told of Emmet, played by Martin J. Faust, a real-life Irish folk hero who was executed by hanging after he instigated an abortive revolution. The role of his sweetheart, Sarah Curran, was taken by Julia M. Taylor. Appearing for the first time before the Thanhouser camera was Mignon Anderson, who would go on to achieve recognition as one of the most famous actresses of the company. An interview with Mignon Anderson published in film historian Anthony Slide's The Idols of Silence told of her entry into films:

After completing school I started posing for clothes, and I met people who were working in the picture business, who were also posing for clothes. I was invited to go to the Thanhouser Company and meet Mr. Thanhouser, because, in those days. I was supposed to look like Mary Pickford - I really didn't. That's what Thanhouser advertised me as, 'The Second Mary Pickford.' Note I started right in and I was put under contract and stayed with them for six years. I started at $75 [per week]. That was a lot of money in those days. Mr. Thanhouser was wonderful to me. Then I was raised to $100, and from then on, every so often, I would get a small raise. I finished at $300 when I left there.

In an interview with another writer Note Miss Anderson reminisced:

"I used to do all my own stunts, and my own makeup and hair. One time I had to jump out of a window into a tree, and in another picture I had to fall into the water, and I couldn't even swim - they had a circle of men in the pond, waiting there to catch me! Once I had to learn to drive a Stanley Steamer so I could be in a race with a train - and it was a big fella! When I worked in pictures there were no doubles. When the 'talkies' came in, then the actors had doubles. But it was fun doing those things. In the silents you used to make two to four pictures Note a day, but it was fun. Was it hard work? Noooo!" Mignon almost giggles.

Various theatre owners wrote letters to Thanhouser with praise, suggestions, and other comments, some of which were used in the studio's advertising. For example, Harry D. Mates of the Fairyland Theatre Waterloo, Iowa had this to say: "We are using two Thanhousers a week and would use more if we could get them. We never miss a chance to advertise and feature them, especially the Thanhouser Kid, who is a great favorite with our patrons."

Sidney Jacobson, manager of the Crystal Theatre, 612 7th Street NW, Washington, D.C. was quoted as writing: "We are now getting two Thanhousers instead of one each week. We ran Robert Emmet the other day and must say they don't come any better."

Divorce, distributed on March 21, 1911, was "a well-directed blow at the divorce evil," according to a Thanhouser advertising notice. Note A précis appeared as part of a review in The New York Dramatic Mirror:"Although the subject matter is old, the excellent management and acting with new details makes this film welcome. Father and mother quarrel over nothing that can be discovered and determine on a divorce. The father comes to claim his personal belongings, and he and his wife come upon their two children who are playing at divorce and gravely deciding on the ownership of two dolls. The force of the argument brings the two parents to their senses; they conclude they cannot divide their children. So they make it all up and happiness reigns once again." Waiting at the Church, a short comedy, appeared at the end of this split-reel release.

A new aid to theatre owners was the "Thanhouser Lobby Decorator," which consisted of a poster with photographs. A new one accompanied each release. It was hoped that the interest of patrons would be aroused by learning of current and coming attractions in this way. The Moving Picture World, April 1, 1911, noted:

The Thanhouser Lobby Decorator, illustrated herewith, Note is the latest proof of the film manufacturer's desire to cooperate with the theatre man. Every now and then we are reminded of this pleasing 'weakness' of the picture maker. Photos, halftones, synopses, bulletins - indeed everything that ingenuity can devise to aid the exhibitor to popularize his pictures - are his for the mere asking. This latest device to come to our attention is sent on request by the Thanhouser Company, New Rochelle, New York, to readers who will state their connection with the moving picture business.

The Tramp, released on March 24th, pleaded the cause for a down-and-out element of society: "A new thing in hobo stories, one that throws aside stamping him an out-and-out marauder, and chooses him as a man of honor who likes to rove but hasn't the money to do it in Pullmans. At least this holds good of one half of the knights of the road. Favored with wealth, they would be called globe-trotters. Minus gold (often because of motives that were too pure and too lofty to sanction the illicit, worldly ways of getting it), they are 'bums,' 'hobos,' outcasts whom 'honest' men must shun, as indeed, our hero is shunned." Note All of the trade magazine reviewers liked it.

The Impostor, a Civil War story released on March 28th, was followed on March 31st by a dramatization of George Eliot's famous story, Silas Marner, in which Frank H. Crane took the title role, while Marie Eline was the little waif, ostensibly an orphan, who came to the miserly weaver's door and who grew up under his loving care. At the time, Thanhouser emblazoned its "T. Co." trademark on many objects in films, but the practice in Silas Marner went too far, according to a writer for Motography, Note who complained that the logotype on the cottage wall gave the impression that its inhabitant had rented the premises from the Thanhouser Company! The story was necessarily condensed into the one-reel format of the time, but Thanhouser more than made up for this a few years later when a seven-reel version was released on February 19, 1916, a rare instance in which the company produced two versions of the same classic story. Note


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