Soon after he invented the motion picture camera and projector, Thomas Edison formed his own movie production and distribution company. In 1908, Edison joined with nine other film companies to form the Motion Picture Patents Company, a monopoly that attempted to control the making, distribution, and showing of all movies in the United States. Edison and “The Trust” pledged to make only movies that promoted wholesome, Christian, and “American” values. But on the Lower East Side, a group of entrepreneurial Jewish immigrants used Edison’s inventions to produce and screen their own films, which were shown in thousands of nickelodeons – five-cent movie theaters – in working-class neighborhoods all over the country. These “outlaw” filmmakers started out as vaudeville and burlesque promoters, and many of their movies were sexier, more violent, and far more entertaining than the bland fare put out by the Edison monopoly.
Moral condemnations and court injunctions didn’t stop the proliferation of nickelodeons that showed unseemly fare and violated Edison’s patent, so the inventor and his colleagues hired squads of thugs to shut them down. They seized film, beat up directors and actors, forced audiences out of theaters, smashed the nickelodeon arcades and set fire to entire city blocks where they were concentrated. But fortunately for the Jewish renegades, they lived and operated in neighborhoods where hundreds of soldiers stood ready and able to protect them – men like “Big” Jack Zelig, “Lefty Louie” Rosenberg, “Gyp the Blood” Horowitz, Joe “The Greaser” Rosenzweig, and the leaders of the notorious Yiddish Black Hand, Jacob “Johnny” Levinsky and “Charley the Cripple” Vitoffsky. There were even women ready for the fight – fierce, well-armed “gun-mols” like Bessie London, Tillie Finkelstein, Birdie Pomerantz, and Jennie “The Factory” Morris.The great inventor was furious that “Jewish profiteers” were stealing his patent, getting rich from it, and using it to spread “smut” across America. So too were law enforcement officials. In 1907 a judge in Chicago wrote that the nickelodeons “caused, indirectly or directly, more juvenile crime coming into my court than all other causes combined.” Shortly thereafter the Chicago city council passed an ordinance granting power to the chief of police to censor motion pictures played in the city. In New York in 1907, soon after the police commissioner recommended that nickel shows be wiped out entirely, Mayor George McClellan was so moved by the evidence of immoral motion pictures polluting the minds of his citizens that on Christmas Day he ordered that all of the illicit motion picture houses be shut down.
Cameras, projectors, film, and sound equipment disappeared from the storerooms of Edison companies and showed up on makeshift movie lots on the Lower East Side. Bullets rained down on the Trust’s enforcers from the rooftops of nickelodeons. And massive fires destroyed the Edison distributors’ warehouses in the Bronx, Philadelphia, and Chicago. By 1915 the Trust had disbanded and the outlaw filmmakers moved west, where they could make bigger and better movies. Who were the men who, with the help of their nicknamed friends, fought Thomas Edison and the law and won? They were Marcus Loew of Loews Theatres and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, William Fox of Twentieth-Century Fox, and the brothers Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner.