Saturday, October 06, 2012

Andrew Erish: Selig Polyscope (Pordenone introduction)

Selig Polyscope
Gli innovatori dimenticati / The Forgotten Innovators

Col. William Nicholas Selig (1864-1948) is probably the least known of the founders of the  American motion picture industry, yet he may be the most important. Born in Chicago, Selig lived and toured for several years throughout the American West as a magician and minstrel show operator before embarking on a career as a producer of motion pictures. It was this firsthand knowledge of the West and foresight into the potential of cinema that led him to produce the first Western narratives in the West starring real cowboys and Native Americans, and later to establish the first movie studio in Los Angeles.

By staging his Westerns amidst spectacularly authentic scenery and featuring performers with athletic skills germane to both the setting and its narratives, Selig established the essential properties of the genre that became the bedrock of American cinema. Because early cinema was largely dependent on clear, sunny skies to provide illumination to properly expose the negative, Selig’s decision to build a Los Angeles studio resulted in virtually year-round production with easy access to a variety of geographical settings. In order to successfully compete, American producers conformed their Westerns to the Selig model, and the fi lm companies that survived were those that followed him to Los Angeles. Because no other filmmaker at that time had fi rsthand knowledge of the West, had it not been for Selig it is possible that the Western might have been short-lived, like the fi re-run and marine genres. Even more likely, without Selig the American film industry would probably have settled in the area around Jacksonville, Florida.

These two achievements alone are enough to qualify William Selig as a major figure in the development of motion pictures. Yet Selig was involved in many other important innovations.

The worldwide success of a bogus Theodore Roosevelt African safari filmed on the backlot of his Chicago studio (Hunting Big Game in Africa, 1909) led Selig to create the jungle-adventure genre. This eventually resulted in him building a 33-acre zoo and jungle backlot in Los Angeles for the production of such stories, which in turn became the first movie-studio theme park open to the public. In partnership with legendary newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Selig produced the first successful American newsreel. William Selig sponsored photographic safaris for the purpose of documenting remote places and peoples throughout the world and also for obtaining valuable second-unit footage to interpolate into his fi ctional narratives. Selig was also among the fi rst to promote his films via novelizations with major publishers and to engage in newspaper promotions, which in one instance boosted the circulation of the Chicago Tribune by 50,000 copies.

Two other major innovations of William Selig continue to affect the industry he helped create. Selig and Vitagraph were the only two American motion picture producers to open their own European sales and distribution offices prior to World War I. This resulted in cultivating an international appreciation for American cinema, which continues to dominate world markets today, long after the demise of both companies. Just as important, William Selig consistently fought resistance from exhibitors to produce longer and more complex narratives. The most important of these productions are The Coming of Columbus, the first 3-reel movie distributed by General Film in America; The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first action-adventure serial produced in America; and The Spoilers, the first 2-hour feature film made by an American producer.

Obviously William Selig did not achieve these accomplishments alone. Three major contributors to his success were Tom Mix, Francis Boggs, and Kathlyn Williams. Tom Mix (1880-1940) joined Selig in 1910 and quickly distinguished himself as the one of the first movie star cowboys, and the only one to have actually been a working cowboy prior to entering pictures. In the more than 300 films he made for Selig through 1917, Tom Mix defined the movie cowboy by emphasizing the skills inherent in that profession and the athleticism of the rodeo performer.

Selig hired stage veteran Francis Boggs (1870-1911) as a writer-director in the autumn of 1907, teaching him the importance of filming action-based narratives in real locations in order to achieve both greater authenticity and box-office success. Boggs’s efforts were so successful that Selig allowed him to operate the first Los Angeles studio with a degree of autonomy none of the company’s other directors ever enjoyed. Of the ten or so Boggs films that survive, most reveal a sophisticated understanding of deep-focus composition and camera movement that was unrivaled in America, with the exception of Griffith. Unfortunately, a fellow employee at Selig’s Los Angeles studio murdered Boggs in October 1911.

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Kathlyn Williams (1879-1960) joined Selig’s Los Angeles company in April 1910 after making her motion picture debut two months earlier in D.W. Griffith’s All Is Not Gold. It was her starring roles in a series of internationally successful jungle-adventure films that would establish Williams as the queen of that emergent genre. She became so popular that William Selig devised a jungle-themed adventure serial with cliffhanger climaxes named in her honor, The Adventures of Kathlyn. Its unprecedented success spawned The Perils of Pauline, The Hazards of Helen, and innumerable other serials. After leaving Selig, Williams appeared in several films for director Cecil B. DeMille, who upon Selig’s death in 1948 admitted that he learned how to make movies by visiting the set of The Adventures of Kathlyn.

Of the 3,500 movies made between 1896 and 1936 by the Selig Polyscope Company and William Selig as an independent producer, only about 225 are known to survive. The 2012 Pordenone Silent Film Festival is proud to present 12 of these films. To learn more about this forgotten pioneer, read my book Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, published by University of Texas Press. – ANDREW ERISH

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