Beginnings of the Chicago film industry
His New Job featuring Charlie Chaplin at Essanay Studios, Chicago
Essanay Studios was a Chicago pioneer film company established in 1907 by George K. Spoor and G.M. Anderson. Originally named the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, Spoor and Anderson changed the name to Essanay by combining the first two letters of their surnames. Located on the north side on Argyle Street in Chicago, the firm grew to one of the largest film companies in the world before the rise of Hollywood.
The success of Essanay Studio was based on Spoor’s and Anderson’s appetite for innovation. Spoor was intrigued by Edison’s Kinetoscope at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition but thought the invention could be improved. Armed with a vision, Spoor created the Magniscope, which allowed films to be projected onto flat surfaces. Spoor and Anderson installed, operated, and rented the Magniscope to many theaters around Chicago. The Magniscope innovation would eventually create legal battles between Essanay and the Edison Company and end up with the creation of the Motion Picture Patents Company. Anderson’s film prowess came from on-screen achievement. He acted in the production of The Great Train Robbery,and became one of the first western stars. His nickname became, “Broncho Billy”, for his involvement with western films. Due to his love for westerns, Anderson convinced Spoor to establish Essanay branches in Boulder, Colorado and Fremont California. These locations were perfect, especially the California location, because of the steady climate and mountainous landscape.
Essanay Studios in Chicago was the capital of Chicago film in the first decades of the 1900s. Charlie Chaplin started his career in 1915 at Essanay Studios. He was hired in 1915 and paid $1,250.00 per week. Chaplin improvised the scripts that were given to him by adding slapstick humor. Ben Turpin, fellow actor for Essanay, and Chaplin worked together on slapstick projects. Turpin was cross-eyed which made him a natural sidekick to the antics of Chaplin. Chaplin only full feature production at Essanay was called, His New Job. Another notable actress who found a beginning at Essanay Studio was Gloria Swanson. Swanson would later star in many television and film productions including the smash hit, Sunset Boulevard.
Despite booming success under Charlie Chaplin, Essanay Studios soon faced a downturn. Chaplin did not like Chicago due to unpredictable weather conditions. After only one month of work, Chaplin left Chicago to head west. Spoor and Anderson soon hired French comedian, Max Linder, to take the role of Chaplin. Linder’s rye humor was not appreciated by the Chicago audiences. The company suffered economically due to the inability to produce a popular film. In 1918 George Kleine purchased the studio to form a merger between Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig, and Essanay known as V-L-S-E which would eventually absorbed by Warner Brothers. The Essanay location would eventually be taken over by industrial film producer, Norman Wilding. Currently, the remnants of the studio are part of St. Augustine’s College which built a Charlie Chaplin memorial theater on site.
Motion Picture Patents Company
The rise of the Chicago film industry in the early 1900s was a product of technological advancement marked by political strategy. In 1889, Thomas Edison and William Dickson patented the Kinetoscope. The Kinetoscope allowed a single viewer to watch a film reel through a small window. At this time, Edison did not see any practical value to the Kinetoscope and dismissed the invention as a toy. However, aspiring filmmakers began designing and patenting similar projection machines around the Kinetoscope that allowed a film to be shown to a large audience. William Selig and George K. Spoor of Essanay Studios in Chicago, the Biograph Company, and Vitagraph Company all improvised Edison’s work. Film companies of this time period customarily both created movies and established a means of viewing.
Despite initial ignorance to the Kinetoscope, the Edison Manufacturing Company responded to this innovation with legal action. According to the company, film outfits were showing motion pictures illegally because each of the improvised projectors violated the Kinetoscope patent. However, each film outfit had its own patent protection connected with individual innovations. Concurrent formation of a black market for projection equipment exacerbated legal issues. Following legal proceedings, the Motion Picture Patents Company was established on January 1, 1909. This coalition established a trust of the major film outfits in the United States. Firms from Chicago included in the Motion Picture Patents Company were the Vitagraph Company, the Selig Polyscope Company, the Kleine Company, and Essanay Studios. Provisions restricted movie making to these licensed firms. The trust also required outfits to pay the Edison Company royalties for use of the improvised projection equipment. To snuff out competitors, a rental system was put in place. Individuals operating theaters were now required to pay a $2 per week rental for films and projection equipment.
The Chicago independents push back
Exhibitors and filmmakers who refused to pay the newly instituted fees were not stopped by this new legislation. Independent companies were formed outside of this trust almost immediately. Max Lewis, president of the Chicago Film Exchange, announced he would not comply with the $10 monthly licensing fee on projectors. Within 48 hours of the formation of the MPPC, a Chicago-based combine of independents, the International Projecting and Producing Company (IPPC), formed to counter the MPPC’s stranglehold. The IPPC, headed by the John J. Murdoch, general manager of the Western Vaudeville Managers’ Association, dramatically announced the firm’s formation with a $2 million base in the Feb. 6, 1909, issue of Show World magazine.
Individuals risked their own livelihood by operating independently. The major companies in the trust could sue any of these firms for violation of patent rights.