Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film Makingby Greg Merritt
Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Filmmaking documents this rich history, showing what it meant to be "independent" in the 1930s and what it means today. Author Greg Merritt distinguishes between indie and semi-indie productions, explores the genres represented under the independent umbrella, and addresses the question of what makes a
Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Filmmaking documents this rich history, showing what it meant to be "independent" in the 1930s and what it means today. Author Greg Merritt distinguishes between indie and semi-indie productions, explores the genres represented under the independent umbrella, and addresses the question of what makes a movie independent -- its "spirit" or the budget backing the production. From one-reel flicks at the turn of the century to the blockbusters of the ‘90s, Celluloid Mavericks takes readers on a fascinating tour of the industry.
- Da Capo Press
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- 1 ED
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- 6.02(w) x 9.09(h) x 1.22(d)
Read an Excerpt
The moving picture, although a growth of only a few years, is boundless in its scope and endless in its possibilities.
D. W. GRIFFITH
The last light dimmed. From out of the black abyss below came the first note of the forty-piece orchestra. It wrenched something deep in his soul. He would later describe this "throb through the darkness" as the "low cry of the anguished South being put to torture." The curtain went up.
It was the week of Valentine's Day, 1915. The Liberty Theater screen looked down upon the stage where Thomas Dixon's play had been performed nine years earlier. Though popular in the writer's beloved South, The Clansman was lambasted by New York critics in 1906 and had bombed on Broadway. Fearing the worst, Dixon sat alone in the balcony on that February morning so he could escape unnoticed if the silent, celluloid version of his popular and controversial novel and play failed to stir emotions.
Not counting the orchestra and the chorus of singers, there were less than a hundred people in the Liberty for the private screening. Among them was one of the greatest film directors in the world, a few weeks past his fortieth birthday. The director, D. W. Griffith, had been at the premiere screening in Los Angeles the week before, where the audience had showered him with ovation after ovation. Griffith was confident of his creation.
Dixon sat mesmerized as his Confederacy was ravaged by Civil War,as the defeated Southerners returned home, as President Lincoln was assassinated, and as the Ku Klux Klan grew to avenge the vilest caricatures of African-Americans and their allies. In the coming months, when the KKK was framed in silhouette against the setting sun, stampeding to the rescue accompanied by the heroic sounds of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," viewers would stand and cheer, but on this February morning the theater was large, the audience was small, and the orchestra drowned out any applause. The square-jawed writer was moved almost to tears, but he could scarcely see or hear another soul.
He was overjoyed with the screen adaptation of his novel; he'd been swept away by its epic splendor. But he wondered if his judgment was impaired, like that of parents blind to the faults of their child. So when the lights came up and the curtain went down, he descended the stairs carefully, cautiously, frightened by the prospect of men and women quietly pulling on hats and gloves, sighing as they stepped out into the daylight.
When he reached the lobby, he was greeted by what he would later describe as "the loudest uproar I ever heard from seventy-five people." He grinned. He shook a hand. A hand slapped his back. And he gazed across the regal room to the director, D. W. Griffith, the man who had risked his financial future and creative reputation to bring such an explosive tale to the screen. Dixon told Griffith that The Clansman was too tame a title for so powerful a story: "It should be called `The Birth of a Nation.'"
Dixon had been a North Carolina legislator, a minister, a lecturer, and, finally, a rabidly racist scribe. His friend of thirty years that he met while in graduate school had been a professor, Princeton administrator, governor of New Jersey, and, in 1912, was elected President of the United States. On February 18, 1915, the writer went to Washington, D.C. and persuaded Woodrow Wilson to watch The Birth of a Nation. This poisonous fable of the KKK rescuing America is believed to be the first film to play at the White House. Afterwards, Wilson reportedly told Dixon, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
At a time when many venues changed films daily, The Birth of a Nation played at New York's Liberty Theater for eleven months. When the price of most tickets was fifteen cents, it commanded two dollars. The film stirred up controversy wherever it went, and it went almost everywhere, distributed on a state's-rights basis, traveling as a special attraction, an event not to be missed. The best estimates are that it made $60 million in its initial marathon run, a staggering sum (nearly $1 billion in today's dollars). It was the world's first movie blockbuster. Three hours long, in sweeping scope, with a synched musical score and single tinted colors, it launched the feature film, revolutionized motion picture production, and wrote much of the language of movies.
It was also inescapably racist, a depiction of the basest hatred, a propaganda piece that resurrected the Ku Klux Klan and launched them to their greatest power. It would be picketed, protested, censored, editorialized against, and banned. It was a work of art, a bold gamble that paid off, and a twisted exploitation flick. And like the majority of the most daring and controversial landmarks of cinema, it was made outside the studios, financed by two freelancing brothers, hundreds of individuals, and, occasionally, when film stock ran low, the contents of Griffith's hat after it was passed around a room.
It was, for better and for worse, America's first major independent film.
In the Beginning
The earliest publicly screened motion pictures in America were shown at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York on April 23, 1896. On that day popular cinema was born with a series of one-minute flicks screened between vaudeville acts. They were mostly burlesque and theatrical vignettes, each shot in a single unedited take with a stationary, hand-cranked camera. One flick, featuring a shot of waves breaking on a beach, caused the audience to recoil with fears of getting drenched.
That day's extravaganza had been produced by Thomas Edison, "The Wizard of Menlo Park," inventor of the carbon microphone, the phonograph, the incandescent lamp, and the profit-at-any-cost, slash-and-burn motion picture studio. Edison was never an independent. He took credit for creation of the moving-picture camera and peepshow-viewing apparatus when he patented them in 1891, but they were actually invented by his employee, W. K. L. Dickson. When the Lumière brothers of France publicly screened moving pictures in the final days of 1895, Edison, ever the business visionary, scrambled for his own projector. He arranged to manufacture and promote (as the "Edison Vitascope," no less) a projector developed by Thomas Armat.
That is how "The Wizard" came to screen the umbrella dance and crashing waves on Broadway in April of 1896. By the hottest days of summer there were half a dozen theaters in New York showing moving pictures, and a Vitascope Parlor had opened in Los Angeles. Three companies emerged that would produce most of the earliest films: Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph. They were the first studios, with talent under contract and a monopoly on equipment. Because the studios each peddled their own projection systems, they had to keep churning out something to project. Prints were purchased by theaters for the same low price (around $5) regardless of quality.
Lawyers were the greatest beneficiaries of these early films, as the three New York studios battled each other with patent claim lawsuits. Meanwhile, a number of independent producers dodged the Big Three's attorneys, utilizing bootlegged equipment or imports from Europe which were prone to patent suits. Inventors, portrait photographers, vaudeville and circus people, all manner of men made movies. Most were also their own projectionists. Screening their creations in tents or any available public building, they traveled where the Big Three wouldn't tread. They went to all forty-five states, and the territories too, from cotton plantations in Mississippi to the gold camps of Juneau, Alaska. These adventures brought the wonder of movies to rural America. While a renegade would usually disappear the moment one of the Big Three threatened litigation, others soon emerged to take his place, out for a fast buck in an exciting new industry.
The earliest films were often just scenic shots, brief vignettes from existing theatrical presentations, or depictions of everyday life. These flicks quickly lost their novelty and were relegated to the role of vaudeville "chaser," a segment that signaled to the audience that the real show was over and it was time to go. Cinema as art and commerce was in danger of dying before it had truly begun.
One unique, if marginal, form of independent film premiered at the St. Louis Exhibition of 1904 when George C. Hale, former Kansas City fire chief, presented Hale's Tours and Scenes of the World. A mock "conductor" stamped patrons' tickets as they entered a viewing area that resembled a railway coach. As the car rumbled and swayed, images were projected on the front wall using scenic footage that had been shot from an actual moving train. Hales Tours appeared in scattered cities as a short-lived precursor to storefront theaters with five-cent admissions.
It was the phenomenal success of Edison's The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed by Edwin Porter, that aimed motion pictures towards their future: longer length, a story structure, motivated editing, and violent crime.
Nickelodeons sprouted up across the country between 1905 and 1910. These venues either consisted of rows of hand-cranked machines that showed movies to one viewer at a time or they projected flicks overhead in red rooms containing less than 200 chairs (to avoid expensive licensing regulations). All catered primarily to the urban working class and the millions of recent immigrants who could respond to the universal sign language of chases and pratfalls even if they couldn't read the intertitles.
The business structure also took shape. In the earliest years of the twentieth century, motion pictures were sold outright to exhibitors. With multi-flick programs that often changed daily, exhibitors were forced to buy a lot of celluloid. Exchanges were set up to act as middlemen, purchasing films and renting them to one theater after another, allowing everyone from the studio to the exhibitor to make a profit. Independent companies were often left out of this arrangement or received an exchange's lowest rate.
The major studios had been suing each other for a decade. They finally declared a truce and, in September of 1908, Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph pooled their patents and formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, joined by several major signatories who paid royalties and fees to the Kodak company. This Trust with a capital "T" (a title the companies smugly accepted despite a popular tide against big business) was created to maximize the profits of the Big Three and squash their smallest competitors. Only the ten signatories of the Trust could utilize an American camera or projector, purchase Kodak film stock, or sell to the most desirable exchanges.
What was intended as a roadblock instead opened up new trails. Between 1907 and 1910 the number of nickelodeons in America multiplied from 3,000 to 10,000. As the Trust tried in vain to attract middle-class viewers, exchanges needed moviesany movies. Companies (many owned by European immigrants) leaped into the fray to supply the poorest theaters with products. Fox, Keystone, Thanhouser, Rex, and the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP) were among the key challengers to the Big Three. It was still possible for independents to find a national exchange to distribute their films, but some genuine mavericks found other ways.
The cinematic roadshow was one such route. Through this method, which had roots in the earliest days of film, a motion picture toured with its own company: an advance man to stir up interest, a lecturer/projectionist, and a manager who secured opera houses and town halls. In 1912, actress Helen Gardner became the first star to form her own production company. She produced and performed the title role in Cleopatra, which her husband, Charles Gaskill, wrote and directed. They circulated it as a roadshow attraction with much fanfare. "Event pictures" and exploitation flicks relied on the roadshow for decades to come.
An important distribution method was developed by an unlikely man named Pliny P. Craft. Craft had been a publicist for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a popular touting event that had earlier featured Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley. Inspired by the successful moving picture of the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries boxing match, Craft convinced Buffalo Bill to let him film the western show. When national exchanges rejected the unique event picture, Craft found showmen throughout the country willing to book it. Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East Show was a hit in 1911. Its release strategy of leasing to small exchanges in regional territories (usually individual states) became known as "state's-rights," and it was popular in the teens before the studios developed their own exchanges. Through the 1970s, state's-rights remained a common method of circulating independent features.
Craft went on to import and distribute two Italian epics using roadshows. His perfected exhibition strategy included souvenir programs, novelty merchandising, and two-dollar tickets. After he exhausted the roadshow potential, he sold off the state's-rights. Others followed Craft's lead.
Meanwhile, the Big Three stubbornly clung to the rules from their earliest days, when selling projectors took precedence over the quality of film that clattered through them. As a policy, in order to squelch the salaries of nameless talent, the Big Three did not present credits on-screen. This allowed them to market their pictures solely on the strength of their company's lofty reputation. In 1910, defiant Carl Laemmle, head of IMP, hired Florence Lawrence away from Biograph. She was famous until then only as "The Biograph Girl," but Laemmle splashed her name everywhere. Soon audiences weren't so concerned with companies. They wanted their favorite actors. And the star system was born.
The Trust also held onto the dated nickelodeon formula that moving pictures should be one reel (approximately fifteen minutes) or less and shown as part of a program. It was those battling the Trust who released three-reelers. Then, in 1912, independent producers created the feature film: a photoplay long enough to stand alone. H.A. Spanuth presented his five-reel Oliver Twist, starring Broadway's Nat Goodwin. To much greater fanfare, Adolph Zukor's new Famous Players Company (later Paramount) released an import from France, the four-reel Queen Elizabeth, starring European stage legend Sarah Bernhardt. Its monumental success rocked the industry.
By 1913, six-reelers were not uncommon, and the twelve-reel The Birth of a Nation was right around the corner. Features attracted the middle class and women to legitimate theaters. Ticket prices soared to fifteen cents or more. Movie palaces with velvet curtains, ornate pipe organs, and pseudoclassical names were constructed to show longer photoplays, while musky storefront nickelodeons with flat floors and rows of folding chairs closed in droves. Profits ballooned as the country went movie mad. Between 1908 and 1914, motion picture attendance in America virtually doubled.
In 1912 the so-called "independent" companies matched the output of the Trust. As the patent war raged on, Edison slapped the larger outsiders with lawsuit after lawsuit. The Big Three hired detectives to monitor renegades. They sent thugs to break equipment and sometimes to break bones. "Independents" countered with armed security and occasionally went to great lengths to avoid lawsuits. Because the technology to make the sprocket holes was among the many thing patented by the Trust, the Eclair Company actually had an employee work full-time in a dark room hand-punching holes into the borders of negative film!
The need to escape the physical and legal assault of the Trust led some as far from New York as they could getto a place with year-round sunshine, terrain that could fit most any story, cheap labor, and a nearby Mexican border to flee to in case someone paid a visit with a summons or a shotgun. Before the filmmakers arrived in a dusty town called Hollywood, the dirt roads through its orange and lemon groves were more likely to be traveled by a horse than a horseless buggy.
The motion picture business was passing the Big Three by. In a role reversal, the lawsuit-happy Trust members were named as defendants, charged with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Trust lost the lengthy case in 1915 and the appeal in 1918. By then, however, most of its companies, including Edison and Biograph, were already out of business.
Things changed fast. The renegade "independents" soon deposed the Big Three as the new Goliathlike studios (precursors to the modern Universal, Fox, and Paramount); Los Angeles had replaced New York as the motion picture production center; once nameless performers like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were achieving world fame; and the feature film, playing in legitimate theaters in respectable neighborhoods, was pulling in a mass audience of all ages and classes, achieving ever greater popularity.
As a young man, Winsor McCay (1871-1934) painted posters for traveling circuses. In 1898 he worked as a staff cartoonist for a newspaper in Cincinnati, and in 1903 was hired by a New York tabloid, achieving fame with his detailed, hallucinatory comic strips "Little Nemo in Slumberland" and "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend." He entered the vaudeville circuit in 1906, fast-drawing cartoons on stage. Edwin Porter directed a live-action version of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend that year, and cofounder of Vitagraph and ex-cartoonist J. Stuart Blackton made the first truly animated film, Humorous Phases of a Funny Face.
Shortly thereafter, encouraged by his friend Blackton, McCay began the tedious task of bringing his cartoon creations to life. The short animated photoplay Little Nemo was produced with 4,000 separate drawings created in toto (no repeating backgrounds) on rice paper. Each was hand-colored, though shot in black-and-white. Filmed at the Vitagraph studios in 1909 and distributed by that studio, this dream-logic combination of live action and cartoons was shown as part of McCay's vaudeville act in 1911. Assisted only by his teenage neighbor, John Fitzsimmons, McCay followed with The Story of a Mosquito (1912), another mixture of live action and moving drawings. McCay sold it to IMP with the stipulation that it couldn't be shown in America while he utilized it in his vaudeville act.
His most famous movie, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), is a short made up of 16,000 outline drawings inspired by his invitation from the American Historical Society to bring to life skeletons of prehistoric animals through pictures. During McCay's traveling show, he stood onstage in front of the screen (often a sheet) and appeared to work in tandem with the friendly brontosaurus. Dressed as an animal trainer wielding a whip, he barked out commands to which Gertie responded. The highlight was when he tossed a real apple to the dinosaur and she appeared to catch and eat it on-screen.
The fact that McCay toured with his first films while still under contract to produce newspaper cartoons severely limited their circulation in America (though not in Europe, where they enjoyed greater fame). When news tycoon William Randolph Hearst ordered his employee to stay in New York City, McCay gave up the circuit, and his movies went into wider release.
McCay's next photoplay was distributed by Universal, and it too was a groundbreaker. The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) is a somber, documentary-style recreation of the tragic 1915 event that became a rallying cry for the United States entering World War I. It took nearly two years to painstakingly create. Comprised of 25,000 drawings and presenting a variety of angles, The Sinking of the Lusitania features McCay's most distinctive animation: detailed views of the ship going under and bodies bobbing helplessly in the waves.
All told, McCay made ten animated shorts. He capped off his film career with the inventive series Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1921), which brings fantasies to life in three shorts. In Bug Vaudeville there are boxing beetles and ballet-dancing butterflies. In The Flying House a husband and wife fly into outer space in their home. And The Pet features a dog that turns into a giant monster, devouring everything in its path.
McCay inspired other pioneering animators such as John Randolph Bray, Earl Hurd, Max Fleischer, and Paul Terry, who invented crucial timesaving techniques. By the mid-teens, animation studios has sprung up. The absence of sound and color impairs early cartoons, and character movements are often jerky by modern standards (McCay's are smoother than those of his contemporaries), but the results are monuments to persistence that defined much of the unique logic of the animated genre. Winsor McCay was a tireless and skilled craftsman and a true motion picture pioneer.
Meet the Author
Greg Merritt is a screenwriter and also wrote How to Produce an Independent Film. He lives in Culver City, CA.
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