Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925

Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925

by Luke McKernan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780859898829
Publisher: University of Exeter Press
Publication date: 08/15/2013
Series: University of Exeter Press - Exeter Studies in History Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

 Luke McKernan is a film historian and Lead Curator of Moving Image at the British Library.

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Charles Urban

Pioneering the Non-fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897â"1925

By Luke McKernan

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2013 Luke McKernan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-882-9


'That Slick Salesman in the Silk Hat'

On 23 August 1897 at 8.45 a.m. a smartly dressed man in silk hat and frock coat knocked on the door of Maguire & Baucus, film sales agents, at Dashwood House, New Broad Street, in the City of London. There was no reply. It was another forty-five minutes before a member of staff turned up to open the door and let in the silk-hatted gentleman, remarking that it was pleasant to see him, but they had hardly expected him to arrive so early. The newcomer was Charles Urban, a 30-year-old American who had been brought over to wake up the company's happy-go-lucky London business. This he was to achieve in no small measure.

Charles Urban very swiftly became the most prominent and influential person in the British film industry, and with the Warwick Trading Company (formed out of Maguire & Baucus the following year) became responsible for the production or distribution of perhaps as much as three-quarters of the film titles in Britain at the turn of the century, as well as supplying many of the cameras and projectors that fuelled the emergent British cinema industry, and beyond. His first day in Britain illustrates in microcosm his effect on the native industry: a go-as-you-please, middling business, content to ride the tide of the new craze, motion pictures, while it lasted, woken up by the American in the silk hat knocking at its door while it was still sleeping.

The silk hat is important. Terry Ramsaye described the young Charles Urban as 'that slick salesman in the silk hat', and people were always impressed by their first sight of the immaculately dressed man, invariably with cigar in hand, with a look about him that his colleague G.A. Smith described as 'the quiet twinkling confidential air of one letting you in for a good thing'. His appearance of quality was the best advertisement for the quality of the goods he had on offer. He knew his business and where it was going. He used his super-salesman's image of superiority and quality to shape a cinema based on information, science, education and wonder at what was natural. This chapter shows the impact that Charles Urban the salesman made on the nascent British film business, and the beginnings of the distinctive route that he forged for himself through the production of films of actuality, news and travel.

American Beginnings

He was born Carl Urban on 15 April 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the second child of ten of Joseph Urban, a sign painter from Ronsberg, Austro-Hungary, and Anna Sophie (née Glatz) from Koenigsberg, East Prussia. His childhood was not a happy one, family life being soured by the ill temper and improvidence of a father who had failed in business, then by a baseball accident at the age of 12 which caused him to lose all sight in his left eye.

Urban left school in 1882, changed his name to Charles, and swiftly made his mark as a book agent, selling fine-art publications to the wealthy Germans of Ohio. A natural salesman who gravitated towards quality products and a select clientele, Urban's experience as a book agent established the course for his future career. To be associated with quality, a world of riches, to possess it, control it and then to be able to sell it: this marked out the man, and was the cue for his own distinctive and important contribution to the growth of motion pictures.

He moved to Michigan in 1889 and opened a stationery store in Detroit. Stationery stores existed to cater for the needs of the expanding number of business offices and could offer them a range of novel devices of automation. The typewriter was the first in a chain of technologies driving on the modern world which Urban found it was his vocation to sell to that world. The typewriter was an aid to business, but it was also more generally a means of transcribing, preserving and retransmitting information. Through dictation, it converted spoken words into text, and through devices such as carbon paper and the Edison Mimeograph (a combination of a stencil process with a rotary drum, which Urban also sold) it facilitated the easy distribution of such knowledge. It was a documentary device with strong commercial appeal, and as such prefigured the motion pictures Urban would soon encounter, which in turn he would promote for their utilitarian, communicative and documentary qualities.

Urban next marketed Edison's Phonograph. Although it would find popular acceptance as an entertainment medium, the Phonograph was initially marketed as a business machine, and it was as such that Urban became interested in it. As with the typewriter, here was an aid to business, which converted what was verbally transmitted into a medium which documented this information and made it available for distribution. It made lived experience reproducible, the evanescent permanent. As such, it promised far wider applications for the dissemination of information and entertainment than the high-minded applications that Edison predicted for the machine, such as dictation, teaching elocution, talking to blind people, and the preservation of the words of great men. Urban made a success of the Phonograph as a business tool, contrary to the experience of many Phonograph salesmen, but found it necessary also to cultivate its growing popularity as a medium of entertainment, putting on concerts for schools and private parties, and making recordings of singers, choirs and organists for local distribution. The necessities of business brought together the educational and the entertainment possibilities of the phonograph for Urban, and gave the first indication of the two concepts in synthesis within Urban's salesman mind.

From the phonograph it was a natural step to Edison's Kinetoscope, a peepshow device which showed tiny moving images on a loop of film. The Kinetoscope arrived in Detroit on 19 November 1894, and in early 1895 Urban merged his Phonograph business with the local Kinetoscope concession. His business thrived, but at this stage Urban saw nothing in motion pictures to attract his attention. The Kinetoscope films were diverting, but fundamentally trivial. Like so many others, what converted Urban was film projected on a screen. Having seen the Edison Vitascope projector in New York in 1896, and how what it showed so moved an audience, Urban acquired the local concession though his Michigan Electric Company, but sought also to develop his own projector. He was greatly bothered by the Vitascope's dependency on an electrical supply, when many areas of Michigan still lacked any electrical facilities. He was further frustrated by the breaks in the programme caused by the need to lace up a new film each time, the Edison films being 50 foot or less in length. He wanted a projector that was safe, easy to use, hand-operated, could show an extended amount of film without a break, and did not infringe Edison's patents.

A projector was developed to Urban's designs by a New York engineer, Walter Isaacs. They named it the Bioscope. Its most distinctive feature was the absence of a shutter, a drastic solution to the problem of flicker that so annoyed early film audiences. The removal of the shutter ended the problem of flicker entirely, but the result meant that audiences could see the pull-down of each succeeding image, giving the blurred effect known as 'ghost' or 'rain'. The Bioscope also employed the eccentric 'beater' movement for its intermittent, an invention plagiarized from French photographer Georges Demeny The Bioscope became notable for the steadiness of its picture, and increased illumination and rapid pull-down further counteracted any problems caused by the absence of a shutter. Urban understood the needs of the showmen and lecturers who exhibited films. The Bioscope made motion pictures portable, freeing them from the theatres or an electricity supply, taking them to the audience, wherever it might be found. It was an attitude which would recur throughout Urban's motion picture career.

The Bioscope brought Urban to the attention of Edison film concessionaires Maguire & Baucus, who were looking to free their product from Edison's control, and needed a new manager for their British operation. Urban spent six months at the company's New York office, then journeyed out to London in August 1897. A shipment of Bioscopes had preceded him, but staff at the London office could not work out how to operate one, and had to await Urban's arrival, something that only added to his aura as the brilliant young man who was coming to revitalize the company.

A Yank in Britain

Urban came to Britain as part of 'the American invasion'. This was the name given by apprehensive British to the influx of American imports, and with it American businessmen, business methods and general cultural influence, that made its mark at the turn of the century. Britain was still the world's leading economic power, accounting for three-quarters of the world's foreign investments and a fifth of all world trade. But its long-held industrial monopoly had come to an end, and since 1870 both America and Germany had exceeded its industrial output. The rise of the United States as an economic world power, moving from immature debtor nation in 1873 to a creditor nation by 1914–18—an advance described by H.C. Allen as 'probably the most important happening in the economic history of mankind since the Industrial Revolution in Britain'—radically altered relations between the two nations.

While some commentators resorted to jingoism and protectionism, others picked up on a mood of political rapprochement between the two nations that was to find greater expression following the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895–96, when a boundary dispute between the British colony of British Guiana and Venezuela could have led to conflict between Britain and America, but instead produced a desire for mutual understanding. One such commentator was Daily Mail journalist, G.W. Steevens. Americans, for Steevens, were a new kind of Anglo-Saxon, and he selected an Edisonian image of the 'highly electric Anglo Saxon' to make his point, equating the Americans with their most familiar technology. Whatever the questionable racial assumptions made by Steevens, Charles Urban was the highly electric Anglo-Saxon par excellence. He represented, to British eyes, rationalism, efficiency and progress, the human embodiment of the American technology that he espoused. 'Mr Urban is a man of movement,' said one profile, equating his dynamism with the specific technology of motion pictures. He differed wholly from his peers in attitude, aspirations and style.

Maguire & Baucus initially operated in Britain under the outlet of the Continental Commerce Company. On 17 October 1894 the Continental Commerce Company had displayed the first Kinetoscopes in Britain, at its original London address at 70 Oxford Street, thus ushering in motion picture exhibition to the country for the first time. The company soon opened another three Kinetoscope parlours in London, but rival 'kinetoscope' shows were also appearing, as Edison had famously neglected to patent his invention in Europe. Nevertheless the company was encountering favourable press notices, and started to expand its operations by establishing subsidiary operations throughout Europe and as far as Australia, though they again found instant competition from rival concerns capitalizing on Edison's oversight. The company itself remained based in London.

Edison had, not for the first time, left those who had paid handsomely for a supposedly exclusive concession with a less than secure business operation. Maguire & Baucus strove not to be wholly dependent on Kinetoscopes and Kinetoscope films, and by the time Urban joined them they were also agents for Lumière films in Britain and America, in the Edison four-hole perforation format. Moreover, motion pictures were not their only business. Maguire & Baucus had speculative interests in a number of ventures. Urban records that they had begun securing costly contracts for a variety of novel appliances, including weighing machines, receptacles for underground cables, and machines for embossing names on aluminium strips; in London street directories for 1901 and 1902 they are described as 'dealers in electric railway supplies'. Maguire & Baucus lingered on the fringes of the American invasion, hoping to pick up contracts on the back of the boom in electrical engineering; their interest in motion pictures was passive and short term. They imported the films and the equipment; their only worth was as an exclusive agency for Edison and Lumière in Britain.

The Warwick Trading Company

Urban was unimpressed by the lackadaisical nature of the company he had joined and was soon making suggestions for turning round its fortunes. He advocated relocation and a different name.

I soon realized that Broad Street was no location for the Motion Picture Business. Here were principally Office buildings occupied by Brokers, Lawyers and Commission Agents, Banks and Eating Houses. I noted that various firms dealing in Optical or Camera Goods were located along High Holborn and Oxford Street. I classified our business in this same category and suggested to Mr Baucus, that the first effective move to be made would be to find a location somewhere about the Holborn, Chancery Lane and Gray's Inn district.

Urban discovered a building at 4–5 Warwick Court, a short street directly off High Holborn. Maguire & Baucus had moved there by September 1897, just one month after Urban's arrival. It had presumably been part of Maguire & Baucus's plan that it would soon establish a British-registered business (both Maguire & Baucus and the Continental Commerce Company remained American companies with offices in Britain; neither were incorporated as British businesses), and they went along with Urban's next suggestion, which was to adopt a name with native appeal:

I was also fairly impressed with the importance of changing the name of the Firm, as it was difficult to do business under the Maguire & Baucus or Continental Commerce Co Ltd names, as these simply 'stank' in the nostrils of business men, as one of our friends put it. I thought 'Warwick' was a good solid British name. 'Warwick' the King Maker—so I proposed that we choose the title 'Warwick Trading Co. Ltd' register under that name and start afresh from Warwick Court.

Urban told Terry Ramsaye that he also found 'that the competition was using anti-American propaganda against his concern', and that this led him to change the name of the company and to make it British, 'for trade purposes at least'.

Urban's policy was to conduct a balancing act between the demand for American product and the nationalistic attitudes that accompanied it. The Warwick Trading Company was not the only American business prominent in the British film trade. The Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate, an offshoot of the American Mutoscope Company, was incorporated as a British business in July 1897, supporting the exhibition of 70mm film at London's Palace Theatre under the title of 'the American Biograph'. It would swiftly take a prominent position in the British market, becoming the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in January 1899; as with Warwick, blending British identity with American product. Other British businesses assumed the glamour of America, or more particularly Thomas Edison, in their names, if nothing else, such as the North American Entertainment Company (later to become Walturdaw, a leading renting firm), the Anglo-American Bio-Tableaux (run by major Urban customer Walter Gibbons), and the shameless Edison Thomas, promotional name of showman A.D. Thomas (another Urban customer). Finally, two of the three major manufacturers of celluloid film in Britain were American: Eastman Kodak and the European Blair Camera Company (the third was French, namely Lumière). From the raw stock, to the cameras, to the projection equipment and exhibited film, there was little mistaking the invasion of the British photographic business that the American innovators represented. In seeking a British identity to bring solidity to such innovation, Warwick Trading Company was an inspired choice of name. Urban understood that it would need to be supported by equally British products.

The Warwick Trading Company was formed on 5 May 1898. Maguire & Baucus offered Urban not only the management but the complete control of the company, taking over the responsibility for the film agency and all debts of the London office. Urban was unwilling to take on such a risk so early into British business life, and he declined the offer. Instead, he proposed to invest an amount in the new business, if they would raise the £10,000 he considered necessary for the business expansion plan they envisaged. Maguire & Baucus located Alfred Jackaman Ellis, a Moorgate Street tailor, as their City financier. The company was registered with capital of £25,000. The sum of £14,000 was required for the balance—after the allotment of shares and personal purchase by Urban and Ellis—of which only £7,000 had been raised at the time the company was registered on 11 May 1898.

The object in creating the Warwick Trading Company was to break free of Edison projectors and films, developing an independent film business that would capitalize on the evident audience excitement for the new medium by supplying the many showmen keen to cater for this new public. They therefore needed their own films, their own camera, their own projector, as well as all of the attendant mechanical accessories.


Excerpted from Charles Urban by Luke McKernan. Copyright © 2013 Luke McKernan. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations




1 ‘That Slick Salesman in the Silk Hat’

2 We Put the World Before You

3 The Eighth Wonder of the World

4 The Motion Picture Object Lesson for America

5 The Living Book of Knowledge



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