"Los Angeles is no longer the place to take pictures in that it used to be, as everyone in the business now has one or two companies out there, and the suburbs of the city are fuller of picture takers than the woods of Coytesville, [New Jersey]. Naturally also the prices for everything have increased under the competition, and our California negatives are now costing us very much more than formerly."
These words would warm the hearts of the film commissioners of half a dozen states as they seek to persuade producers to forsake Hollywood for greener filmic pastures. But they were written in 1912 by Frank J. Marion, general manager of the Kalem Company - and despite its many drawbacks, Hollywood remains a film capital.
Kalem (the name is an amalgum of the initials of its founders: Kleine-Long-Marion) was one of the earliest film producing companies organized in the United States, and by i9iz had established studios in New York, Jacksonville, and New Orleans, as well as Los Angeles - but Kalem's most popular pictures had been produced on location in Ireland in 1910, and Frank J. Marion hoped that lightning would strike twice when he suggested sending a production unit to Egypt and Palestine to film the life of Christ. He selected Sidney Olcott, who had directed Kalem's first Irish pictures, to head the company; and the film that resulted, From the Manger to the Cross, became one of the first feature-length pictures produced by an American studio.
A number of Frank Marion's letters to Sidney Olcott during the production of From the Manger to the Cross have recently come to light, and they provide a fascinating glimpse of picture making in the nickelodeon age. The earliest, dated November z 5, 1911, was addressed to the director at Kalem's Jacksonville, Florida studio:
I was pleased to receive your telegram this morning favoring the Egypt and Holy Land trip and have been very busy trying to shape up plans so that you could take the [liner] Adriatic.
- It does not appear that scenarios are at all essential as we do not plan to do anything original but merely to reproduce some of the most famous stories in the Bible in simple form on the exact locations where they were supposed to have happened, depending as much on the pictures of the environment as on the dramatic action. I think it is clear that a series of simple Bible stories done in this way would have a tremendous sale the world over.
yours very truly,
Kalern Company by F.J. MARION
Marions's assumptions to the contrary, even the Bible needs a shooting script if it is to be translated to film, and Gene Gauntier, actress and prolific screen writer, was to accompany Olcott on the location trip. Other members of the company included Robert G. Bignola (in later years a prominent director), Jack Clark, J.P. McGowan (also soon to become a director and famed for the Hazards of Helen series), and cameraman George K. Hollister. They sailed on December i, 1911.
Sidney Olcott first met Frank Marion when they were both employed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1906 - Olcott as a director, Marion as an executive. With the rising popularity of the movies, Marion sought a larger slice of the pie and formed his own company with a $600 dollar cash investment. He asked Olcott to join the new company, and the director's departure from Biograph paved the way for D.W. Griffith's ascendency at that studio.
In the intervening years the "movies" had become extremely popular. Leaders of the industry and writers in the trade magazines carried on a lively discussion in print about whether they should be called "moving pictures" or "photoplays" or "motion pictures" After all, the "movies" was so slangy and impolite. But the public paid no attention to the fine points of the argument. The movies they were, and the movies they would remain. Meanwhile, the producing companies sought to exploit the popularity of the new medium, and the Kalem trip to the Holy Land was highly touted by Frank Marion as a "new development in dramatic art."
Of course, the "new development" encompassed more than the Bible. Just for good measure Olcott turned out such gems as A Prisoner of the Harem, Captured By Bedouins, A Tragedy of the Desert, and Winning a Widow -
My Dear Sid:
We have just run your "How Photo Plays are made in Egypf (finally released as Making Photo Plays in Egypt] and I want to say that it is the most interesting motion picture that I have ever seen. - I think you handled that mob in a most masterly manner. Not once did I see an eye directed toward the camera and the illusion of being actually present while the picture is being made is perfect. The photography is immense, and with the (sepia) toning we are doing, it certainly seems like the finest stuff ever made with a moving picture camera.
Marion and Olcott were also making plans for another series of Irish pictures, which the director would produce after he finished from the Manger to the Cross.
We have offered Mrs. [Dion] Boucicault (widow of the Irish playwright) $ soo for the exclusive rights, both European and American, to "Con the Shaugran." The copyrights are still effective both here and in Europe and we have got to pay for both. I believe that inside of a week, we will have this the most celebrated Boucicault play corked up tight for your use in Ireland.
We have finally located Joe Murphy. He is spending the winter in St. Petersburg, FIa. His brother, who is a jeweler on Maiden Lane, has the necessary power of attorney from him and we expect to buy the exclusive rights to "Kerry Gow" and "Shaun Rhue" within a week. When these matters are finally arranged we will of course cable you, and you can use your best judgment as to when you will do them.
Glad to see you all looking so well in the picture. It certainly did seem good to be with you again if only on the screen.
Marion was particularly fastidious when it came to acquiring literary properties for the Kalem Company. He had been burned before.
In 1907 he thought a one-reel production of Ben-Hur was just what the nickelodeon audiences were clamoring for, and to this end he set Gene Gauntier to work on a script for the production. Olcott was the director, and the racetrack at Sheepshead Park served as an adequate substitute for a Roman colosseum.
Audiences may have liked Kalem's abreviated version of General Lew Wallace's novel, but the General's heirs, Harper & Brothers, and theatrical producers Klaw and Erlanger did not. They filed suit for copyright infringement. Kalem's defense was that the film was of inestimable advertising value in promoting the book and the play adapted from it. The complainants were not impressed. Neither was the court, and Kalem was asked to ante up $z5,000 for its literary indiscretion. Five hundred dollars for the screen rights to Con the Shaugran must have seemed like a bargain by comparison.
Of course, after paying for the rights to the plays of Boucicault and Murphy, Kalem did what movie producers have done ever since:
Emmett Campbell Hall writes that he thinks he has succeeded in making [a script for] a two-reel production of "Shaun Rhue" although very little of the original plot is left. I think we will give it a different name with a subtitle "Based on joe Murphy's famous Irish play Shaun Rhue."
- There is a great deal of interest in your coming Irish productions. One independent rental exchange in the west has just gotten hold of a secondhand [print of] Arrah-Na-Pogue (one of Olcotfs 1910 productions) from England and is making a great fuss over it. Selig's much talked of The Coming of Columbus (The Selig-Poly scope Company was another early producer) is not in it as a money-maker for the exhibitor with Arrah-Na-Pogue and Colleen Bawn.
As the "Jesus of Nazareth" production will be put out as a special it will be necessary to have from you at an early date an estimate of its cost. This should be just as high as you can possibly make it and every item that you can possibly think of which can reasonably be charged to this negative should be added, as under the new system governing such releases by the General Film Company (distributor of the Kalem films), we are paid our negative expenses, whatever they may be, and we supply the prints at cost. The profit, if any, comes out of a division of the percentage earned by the General Film Company.
Very truly yours,
Kalem Company, by FJ. MARION
The business details revealed in these letters might clash with our vision of early filmmakers as happy-go-lucky innocents - unsophisticated and naive. Actually, very little but styles have changed since 1912 - although it is doubtful that any studio executive today would commit these instructions to writing!
Work on From the Manger to the Cross continued through the early months of 1912.. Olcott filmed the Nativity, the flight into Egypt, and scenes from the boyhood of Jesus; then in April he journeyed to London to engage an actor to play the Christ. He selected R. Henderson Bland, actor and poet, for the role, and there was some jealousy in the company that the director would choose an outsider.
Those who knew Olcott remember him as a kind and generous man; but he was also noted for his total preoccupation with his work, and he could be a stern taskmaster. A surviving call sheet outlines what he expected of his actors:
"All people engaged in scenes must be ready and made up for parts not later than 7:45 A.M., unless otherwise notified.
"It is expected and absolutely understood that Wardrobe and Properties shall be returned in as good a condition as when taken out, barring ordinary wear, except in case of accident or call for misuse in scenes.
"All concerned are to be present at the reading of Scenarios, notice of which will be found on the Call Board.
"All must study the characters assigned them, in a painstaking and thorough manner, with a view of giving a performance that will be a credit to themselves and the Company."
Of course, Olcott's foreign productions did not make up the entire Kalem release schedule. By 1912. there were more than 10,000 movie theaters in the United States-each theater running three to five reels on a program, and changing programs daily. The need for product was tremendous.
My Dear Sid: -
I have just returned to New York after an extended trip which ... included a visit to our various producing companies in the United States.
I think I wrote you that there were many things to be straightened out in California, and I am pleased to say that everything is satisfactorily arranged out there. We are making our headquarters in a business block in Glendale.
Melford's work of late has been averaging very well (George Melford would later direct Rudolph Valentino in The Sheikj, and we have been keeping [Pat CJ Hartigan's company on short comedies, for which Miss [Ruth] Roland seems to be well adapted.
The new studio which I established in New Orleans under the directorship of George Le Soir has not made much of a showing to date due very largely to bad weather and bad photography. The studio is ideally arranged and the location corresponds very much to that at Jacksonville, and ought to turn out good work. I am in hopes that we will see great improvement there before long.
In Jacksonville I found [Kenean] Buel most comfortably settled, and with all the preliminary work so well done by you [that he is] in the best position of all of our producers to turn out good stuff. He has confined his work exclusively to [Civil] War dramas, and so far has been quite successful. The weather, however, has been very bad in Florida this year, and he is three weeks behind.
Business continues very good with us in the States, but the Foreign trade has shown a slight falling off.
The recent decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Patent case has, until some new legislation is passed, completely legalized the licensing of manufacturers and the fixing of prices of a patented article, so that we now have no fear of the results of a Federal investigation under the Sherman Law.
Marion's reference to the patents wars that were raging in the industry is especially interesing because it is one of the few candid observations by a member of the so-called "Film Trust" that we have. When the first bitter patents battle erupted in 1908, George Kleine had persuaded the leading producers (Edison, Vitagraph, Biograph, Lubin, et. al.) to combine under the Motion Picture Patents Company and to release their films jointly through the General Film Company. In 1910 General Film began a push to swallow up the independent film exchanges, and thereby close the industry to all but their own product. The independents fought back by producing their own pictures. It is clear that Marion was fully aware of the implications of the Patents Company's monopolistic position, and that he did not really believe that this favored position could last indefinitely.
After finishing From the Manger to the Cross, Olcott returned to Ireland. The negative was shipped to New York where it was assembled, and on July 15, 191 z Marion wrote his director about his reaction to the film:
My Dear Sid:
We have just run the Life of Christ positive and 1 hasten to write my impressions. I think it will prove all you have hoped for it. it is complete, dignified, reverent, and convincing. So far as I can observe the only criticism that is likely to be made is the doubling of jack Clark (Marion refers to the fact that Clark played several pans in the film, not that another actor doubled for him). It was very noticeable to us all, but perhaps will not be so apparent to others who are not as familiar with his face. The effects are for the most part good tho the Star is not very well done and docs not look like a star. Perhaps we can improve on it (The star of Bethlehem was accomplished through a crude splitscreen, blacking out the sky and allowing a pinpoint of light to shine through. It is not convincing, and was not improved upon.). The toning is good and the night scenes very impressive. I presume Miss Gauntier (who had by this time returned to the States) will be on toward the end of the week to pass on the arrangement (of the scenes). My heartiest congratulations to you all.
Marion's obvious enthusiams puts a lie to the oft-repeated idea that Kalem was surprised to have a five-reel feature on its hands rather than a series of one-reel shorts. When From the Manger to the Cross was released in the fall of 1912, it was an immediate success. In England the picture was banned in Liverpool, but when church leaders were persuaded of the reverent tone of the production the city fathers lifted the ban, and the controversy only helped spur its success. The film was reissued many times over the years - including a sound scored version in 1942.. seen today, From the Manger to the Cross is rather static - a series of motion tableaux rather than a dramatic motion picture, but there are impressive moments. One wonders why the company bothered to go to the Holy Land - many of the scenes could have been staged in New Jersey with no loss in effect. But the novelty of shooting on location was a powerful enticement to audiences in the early 'teens.
Naturally, Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier supposed that their efforts on behalf of the Kalem Company would not go unrewarded. Olcott was making $zoo a week during the production, but there would be no bonus and no raise.
My Dear Bid:
Since the receipt of your cable announcing your return about September 28, Mr. Long and I have been talking over our plans for the future and we decided that in justice to you we should let you know immediately that in view of the menace of the Government suits and also in view of increasing competition and falling off in sales, we cannot see our way clear to renew your contract on the same basis for another year.
We have understood for some time that you were contemplating going in business for yourself and as your plans might include operating abroad we feel that you should know our position before your return. We see no reason why you should not succeed for yourself now that you have both experience and capital and without doubt the market is in better shape now than it will be again. If there is anything at any time that we can do to help you within the scope of our license (with the Motion Picture Patents Company) we will be glad to do so. You can buy everything you need in the way of apparatus abroad.
In the event of your preferring to stay with us we will be glad to have you do so on the basis of $ 150. ï ï per week net.
Olcott did stay with Kalem until the end of the year, when he formed a company with Gene Gauntier. Later he joined Paramount, and had a distinguished career throughout the silent era. Marion kept the Kalem Company going as long as there was a market for short films. In 1917 he shut down production and retired as a wealthy man. The Kalem assets were sold to Vitagraph, and Vitagraph was in turn sold to Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers' pre-i948 film properties were sold to United Artists, and United Artists was sold to M-G-M. If there is anything to be learned it is that 1911 or 1984 the picture business is the picture business.…