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The Forgotten Pioneer
The Academy Awards ceremony held on March 20, 1948, honored what were deemed the best films released in 1947. The event also celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The occasion inspired Academy president Jean Hersholt to spearhead an effort to formally recognize the founders of the American film industry. Four elderly men were honored with special Oscars: Colonel William N. Selig, Albert E. Smith, George K. Spoor, and Thomas Armat. Selig and Smith were able to attend the ceremony.
Moments before receiving his Oscar, Col. Selig, squat with wire-rimmed glasses and bushy white mustache, confirmed in a tremulous voice for Hersholt and a worldwide radio audience listening to the ceremony that he was responsible for starting the motion picture industry in Los Angeles back in 1909, and that he had entered the business in 1896. Earlier that week, he had celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday.
Four months after being feted with an Academy Award, William Selig would be remembered once more. The occasion was his death. He then faded back into oblivion.
How is it possible that the man who brought the American motion picture industry to Los Angeles and who created so many other foundational elements of the medium is so unknown to film buffs and historians? The easy answer is that the colonel’s studio, the Selig Polyscope Company, stopped making films in 1918, although he remained sporadically active as an independent producer through the 1930s. Few of his productions are known because no present-day entity perpetuates his work. However, a formidable archive of information regarding the Selig Polyscope Company has been available to historians and researchers for over sixty years. In 1946–1947, William Selig donated his business records to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library. Added to other company documents in the library’s collection, the William Selig papers comprise fifteen linear feet and include correspondence, production files, scripts, and scrapbooks. Selig also donated six linear feet of photographs, including production stills from more than five hundred now mostly lost films. In fact, of the more than 3,500 films released by Selig between 1896 and 1938, only about 225 are known to have survived to the present. Many of those that do exist are seminal productions in the development of commercial cinema. Unfortunately, this wealth of material has been virtually ignored by all but a few specialized researchers.
A great deal of film history continues to be based on the ancient puffery of press releases, self-serving memoirs, a notoriously fictive fan press, and inaccurate accounts of the early industry. For instance, widespread myth attributes the founding of Hollywood to Cecil B. DeMille, who co-directed The Squaw Man there in 1914. The reality is that William Selig had long been in Los Angeles by that time. His early success served as a beacon to other American film companies, and Los Angeles was already a thriving film city by the time DeMille and company arrived. In fact, upon Selig’s death, DeMille noted that when he arrived in LA he visited the Selig lot to learn how to make movies.
D. W. Griffith has also been identified as the inventor of Hollywood. In 1972, his unfinished memoirs were published as The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D. W. Griffith. It is indisputable that Griffith was responsible for establishing a visual grammar for film that endures to the present, but his innovations were largely confined to how screen images are presented and arranged. While such technique remains the cornerstone of cinematic construction, “Hollywood” encompasses much more.
Neal Gabler’s critically acclaimed An Empire of Their Own is subtitled How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Like most conquering armies, the second generation of American filmmakers rewrote the history of the medium to further their own interests and enhance their legacies. Yet many of the innovations attributed to the film moguls profiled by Gabler had already been established by Selig, who aided many of those same producers as they started in the industry. Jewish filmmakers relocated from the Northeast to Los Angeles not so much to escape persecution as to follow Selig’s successful business and aesthetic models, which included filming amidst a climate and wide-ranging geography that invited year-round production.
In order to better appreciate William Selig as the man who invented Hollywood, consider the following innovations and accomplishments. Selig
- consistently produced longer, more complex stories than his competitors, from the first two-reel narrative film to the first two-hour-long feature made in America;
- produced the first American movie serial with cliffhanger climaxes;
- established the promotion of individual films via innovative exploitation in partnership with newspaper syndicates and publishing houses;
- made the first series of industrial films for a large corporate client;
- produced the first Westerns in the West, with real cowboys and Native Americans, while establishing authentic geography as a primary convention of the genre;
- initiated and developed the jungle-adventure film
- constructed a movie studio as the site for a public theme park;
- produced the first horror film in America;
- developed the first successful American newsreel (in partnership with William Randolph Hearst);
- established the first American studio production complex with extensive backlot;
- encouraged actors under contract to write and direct;
- cultivated a worldwide audience for his films, significantly contributing to American domination of the medium;
- produced a film that resulted in the Catholic church lifting its ban on the viewing of motion pictures
- sponsored archaeological expeditions to remote areas of the world that yielded valuable documentaries and second-unit footage that enhanced exotically set melodramas and adventure films;
- helped the second generation of producers to get a foothold within the industry, which led to the establishment of Warner Brothers, MGM, and Fox; and
- utilized Southern California as a second-unit site, later producing the first fictional films shot in LA and ultimately constructing the first permanent studio in Los Angeles
As this list indicates, everybody followed Selig, not only by imitating film and business practices, but also by trailing after him to Los Angeles.
For virtually all fans of commercial cinema from the World War I era to the present, Hollywood refers to more than just a neighborhood within the city of Los Angeles; it’s both a style of film and the business that supports it, which in reality extends beyond the city and Los Angeles County. Director John Ford once said, “Hollywood is a place you can’t geographically define. We don’t really know where it is.” The closing credits for many MGM films produced during that company’s heyday read: “The End, Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.,” yet its studios and offices were actually located in Culver City. The same goes for Warner Brothers, which for most of its history has been located in Burbank. It is doubtful that anyone would have considered making films anywhere near Los Angeles had Selig not gone there first and proved its superiority as a production site.
Although hundreds of people contributed their talents to Selig Polyscope productions, William Selig was intimately involved with the vast majority of films bearing his name. An article published in 1911 noted that the man and his studio were synonymous: “When one says the ‘Selig Polyscope Company’ one really means W. N. Selig himself, who is the presiding genius and leading spirit of the establishment. His eye is on every detail of the business at all times.”
There is a single book about Selig—Motion Picture Pioneer: The Selig Polyscope Company, edited by Kalton C. Lahue. It is a starting point, offering a brief text in support of hundreds of production stills that span a seven-year period of the company, supplemented by a dozen contemporary articles and reviews.
This present book is intended to build on Lahue’s work. It does not claim to be a definitive history; both the man and the people who worked for him were involved in the development of far too many facets of the motion picture industry to be covered in a single volume. And, while this investigation does offer aesthetic analysis for some of Selig’s most important productions, it does not engage in the kinds of theoretical musings that dominate the discourse in cinema studies. Rather, this work aims to provide a more complete and accurate history of Selig and early cinema than has ever before been available, filling in gaps and correcting long-held misunderstandings concerning the founding and development of the motion picture industry.
It is hoped that this work will challenge film scholars to investigate primary source material from other neglected or underutilized sources, and inspire additional research into this heretofore neglected innovator and pioneer.