KALEM COMPANY: Manufacturers of Moving Picture Films

By Birchard, Robert S | American Cinematographer, August/September 1984 | Go to article overview

KALEM COMPANY: Manufacturers of Moving Picture Films


Birchard, Robert S, American Cinematographer


"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:

Dear Sir:

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. …

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