Welcome to Thanhouser Films: An Encyclopedia and History



by Anthony Slide


Thanhouser was the name of an extraordinarily active and energetic film company which thrived from 1909 through 1917. Of course, in answer to the clichéd question, what is in a name?, the answer here is much; not the least of which is a clarification of the confusion which has existed for many years concerning the pronunciation of Thanhouser. Should it be "Tanhouser," after Wagner's glorious 1845 opera Tannhäuser, or should it be "Fanhouser," as at least two old-time film stars have suggested, or what should it be? The answer is just one of a myriad of facts which emerge from this definitive volume on the Thanhouser Company and its successor, the Thanhouser Film Corporation.

I use the word definitive with great sincerity, and also considerable trepidation in that it is thrown around a great deal these days in describing film books. Books which consider silent film strictly based on a study of extant films are considered definitive. Books which tell the story through interviews are called definitive. Worse yet, books which gloss over or simply ignore the silent era's first 20 or so years are also hailed as "definitive." Believe me, this book is definitive. You will not find one fact, one moment in Thanhouser's life which is not recorded here. The narrative text is as thoroughly researched as any academic tome in any sphere of study. Complete seems almost an understatement in describing the filmography and biographies.

The Thanhouser Film Corporation was one of the more important of the early independent companies, unassociated with Thomas Edison and the Motion Picture Patents group. Certainly, it was nowhere near as big or as prominent as Carl Laemmle's Universal or the William Fox Company, and it seems to have remained totally aloof from the politics of early filmmaking and the legal fights which helped bring about the demise of the industry's first producers and the rise of the movie mogul as exemplified by Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) and others. In deed or manner, Edwin Thanhouser bore little resemblance to the stereotype movie mogul. He is best viewed as a theatrical businessman who concentrated on doing two things and doing them well: producing and selling films.

Apart from two 1914 serials, The Million Dollar Mystery and Zudora, the first screen adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1912, and some screen versions of H. Rider Haggard novels, Thanhouser's films are not that widely known among historians or film buffs. To my way of thinking, the company's importance lies more in the stars whom it helped to create, notably Marguerite Snow, Mignon Anderson, Muriel Ostriche, Florence LaBadie, William Russell, and James Cruze, the last-named of whom was to become a prominent director of the silent era. I wonder how many people are aware that the American cinema's first Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was also the director of such 20s classics as The Covered Wagon, Hollywood, Beggar on Horseback, The Pony Express, and Old Ironsides? I wonder, also, how many are aware that one of the legendary figures of 20th-century American theatre, Jeanne Eagels, was a prominent actress in three Thanhouser films in 1916 and 1917.

The company was located in New Rochelle, which is, as the George M. Cohan song reminds us, "only 45 minutes from Broadway." Such location may not have given New Rochelle a parity with Hollywood, but it certainly places it in the same league as Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a number of early film companies were based, or Santa Barbara, California, which was the home of the American (Flying "A") Company.

Although I do not know or understand the reasons why, Thanhouser has always fascinated me. Back in November 1975 I wrote a brief history of the company for Films in Review, and subsequently revised that article as a chapter in Aspects of American Film History prior to 1920 (Scarecrow Press, 1978). I can even recall gathering together a collection of major pieces on Thanhouser from the pages of The Moving Picture World, and depositing the end result with various film-related libraries. What enthusiasm we "silent film historians" once had! I remember my amazement and genuine excitement upon receiving a telephone call some years back from Edwin (Ned) Thanhouser, who identified himself as the grandson of the company's founder.

I suppose it was that telephone call more than anything else which acted as a catalyst for this book. It prompted me to urge Dave Bowers to compile a complete history of the company. He had already provided much valuable documentation on Thanhouser in his 1987 volume on Muriel Ostriche, and it seemed appropriate to expand that research. I only wish that I might have had the time, or for that matter the energy, to have helped him more fully in his work. (Not that Dave Bowers needs me or anyone else to tell him how to write or research film history.)

I have had the good fortune to know one member of the Thanhouser Company, and that was Mignon Anderson, nicknamed "Filet Mignon" by co-worker James Cruze. From 1971 until her death in 1983, I used to have dinner with her from time to time in her small, immaculately neat and tidy apartment a couple of blocks away from the Burbank Studios. I always thought she was rather a sad little being, confused by today's society and morality. It was an endless source of grief to her, for example, that the couple next door were living together and not married. Until the time I approached her I doubt she had given much thought to her career, which ended in 1922. Quite frankly, she had little worthwhile to say on the subject, and had long ago destroyed all her still photographs. As she lived in contemporary Los Angeles, Thanhouser must have seemed worlds away, geographically, physically and mentally.

Considering the volume of material published in recent years on American film history, it is staggering what few books have become available documenting the history of this country's early film companies. Certainly, there are the pictorial histories of Paramount, M-G-M, United Artists, Warner Bros., and Universal, but they pay only scant attention to the work of those producers during the silent years. As far as I am aware, the only companies which are subjects of English-language books are Vitagraph, Fine Arts, Selig, Triangle, Keystone, and American Biograph. (And the last two are primarily devoted to the central figure of each company, Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith.) One looks in vain on library shelves for book-length studies of Kalem, Essanay, Edison, First National, or a producer as crucial to silent film history as Thomas H. Ince. Does any American city lack a definitive history as do so many early American film companies?

It goes without saying (or writing) that Q. David Bowers' book on Thanhouser fills an important gap on the film bookshelf. Hopefully, it will also serve as a role model for other company histories, for certainly no other books published to date - including my own - provide anything approaching this amount of primary documentation. Having put together my own history of the Vitagraph Company (The Big V), I know how much work was involved in the compilation of a filmography listing only titles, release dates and numbers of reels. I don't think I can even comprehend the amount of time and effort that must have gone into compiling the Thanhouser filmography, which is more detailed than any filmography on any company or player yet published.

There is not a source that Q. David Bowers has not researched in the compilation of this volume. He and his research associates have literally scoured the country in search of materials - trade papers, books, newspapers, family histories, legal records, personal recollections - all of which have been minutely examined and dissected. Even many good film historians will limit their researches to one trade paper, The Moving Picture World. That is not David Bowers' approach. Any and every contemporary trade paper, not just The Moving Picture World, but also The Motion Picture News, The New York Dramatic Mirror, Motography, Variety, and others, has been read and notated.

By occupation, Q. David Bowers is a business executive, not a film historian, academic, or professional writer. Yet in each of these fields, as this book proves, he is a master. Certainly, I will agree that he documents rather than indulges in heavy analytical prose. His methods, therefore, are perhaps closer to the study of popular culture than those applicable to current standards in academia - a statement which may be taken, quite frankly, as a criticism of many in the academic film community. As such, the present volume should serve as a permanent documentation of the Thanhouser enterprise, not a dated, opinionated work which evaluates the Thanhouser effort in comparison to the films and culture of the 1980s.

No, Q. David Bowers' profession is not that of film historian but, rather, that of an internationally-known dealer in rare coins. It is a field about which I know absolutely nothing. All I can say is that based on the standards which he employs in his work in film history, I would have no hesitation in buying any number of rare coins from this man. I don't think there is any more worthy compliment that I can offer.


Anthony Slide


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