When Rules Were Meant to be (Silently) Broken

Edwin Thanhouser was a successful stage actor, director, and theatre manager when he decided to found a movie studio in 1909. The Thanhouser Company in New Rochelle, New York, produced over 1,000 films and became an important independent company, which had a specific meaning in that pre-Hollywood era.

Thomas Edison tried to monopolize production and distribution through the Motion Picture Patents Company or Patents Trust, which charged high royalties and fees for the use of his equipment. The nine major studios of the era, the primary distributor, and the chief supplier of raw film stock were members of this Trust. In spurning this system, Thanhouser didn’t have access to Edison’s equipment, but made up for it by being prolific and attracting audiences and critics through the care taken with story and production values.

Many independents fled from the New York/New Jersey axis to California not only for the climate but to escape the Edison Trust’s constant legal persecution. Thanhouser, too, extended his reach through auxiliary studios in California, Chicago, and Florida. The Trust finally collapsed in the face of competition and legal decisions. Founded at the end of 1908, it dissolved in 1915, and the viability of Thanhouser was one element in its fall. Most companies that didn’t go West closed by 1917 in the face of a changing industry, Thanhouser among them. Though still in the black, the company shut its doors that year as Thanhouser retired from film.

Alas, he decided to destroy the films as outdated product — a not uncommon attitude at the time — so that fewer than 200 prints of various titles exist today. His grandson, also named Edwin Thanhouser, has worked with the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, the British Film Institute, and other archives to bring what remains of the legacy to home video. So far there are three Thanhouser Collections of three discs each with a booklet, sold through the Thanhouser website.

Vol. 1

Volumes 1, 2 & 3 provide an excellent panorama of the studio’s career. Volume 1 has five one-reelers, running about 12 to 14 minutes each. The stories mix Victorian melodrama and moralism with social conscience. The earliest films eschew close-ups (though such things existed) in favor of letting scenes unfold unblinkingly in the middle distance. The potential staginess is moderated by three qualities: location work, a willingness to string together a wide variety of locations through editing (including different rooms in the same house), and most subtly but importantly, an adroit staging in depth with various framings (such as doorways and mirrors) as the action shifts from fore to back or carries on in different planes simultaneously. Also, Thanhouser or his uncredited directors were enamored from the start with in-camera effects like dissolves and superimpositions to indicate what characters are thinking or to depict visions of the ghosts of dead children or similarly maudlin elements. The results are professional, satisfying, and sometimes downright lovely.

Vol. 2

The first four films date from 1911. Only in the Way has a crippled girl on crutches and a grandma who’s briefly sent to the old folks’ home before family harmony is achieved. Get Rich Quick turns on a money-lending scam and the swindler’s conscience. The Coffin Ship is a romance with picturesque seafront locations and a floundering ship.

Cinderella showcases effects, as does the 1912 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Actor (and future director) James Cruze is credited here, but another actor sometimes doubles for Hyde. One transformation is done by superimposition to showstopping effect, and other transformations use editing brilliantly. The change is made between cuts, once during a cutaway to the butler pounding on the door, and once, strikingly, during the cut of passing through the door from one room to another. Jekyll exits and Hyde enters!

Vol. 3

Thanhouser sold the company to Mutual in 1912 and left for Europe, and the second disc offers five Mutual productions from 1912 to 1914. The first of these, The Cry of the Children, addressed a subject ripped from the headlines: child labor. As a result, this two-reeler attracted a great deal of attention and is probably the studio’s most famous release. It uses editing for dialectical purposes, to contrast the poverty-stricken family who works in the mill and the wealthy couple who owns it. The title cards quote schmaltzy lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s title poem, while the story plays out in a real factory, seemingly taking visual inspiration from the photos of Lewis Hine. The documentary element clashes fascinatingly with the broad Victorian sentimentalism of the story.

The other films on the disc are one-reelers. A pertinent fact about one-reelers of this era is how rich and complicated the stories are, often taking place over weeks or years. They’re like features told economically yet at a careful pace, not the slight anecdotes and character portraits that often make up short films today.

Petticoat Camp (1912) also cross-cuts with a dialectic purpose: to contrast the worlds of men and women. The husbands have taken their wives for a vacation, but the men relax while the women do the same work as at home. The wives declare a strike and relocate (offering some eye candy with bathing beauties), leading to more antics. It’s like the world’s first I Love Lucy episode, with the women winning their point.

The Star of Bethlehem (1912) is the Nativity story. After the busy opening at Herod’s court, with dozens of scantily-dressed extras filling the background, most of the film follows the three wise men through the desert, where they constantly point up toward the effect of the large superimposed star. Cut down from its original three reels, it doesn’t compare favorably with From the Manger to the Cross, released the same year by the rival Kalem Company, but that six-reel epic was shot on location in Jerusalem. Anyway, the Thanhouser version shows that Cecil B. DeMille didn’t invent the cinematic contrast between piety and flesh in the same movie.

The Decoy (1914) once again cross-cuts with a moral purpose, this time between the simply purity of country folk and sharp deceit of city slickers. A Dog’s Life (1914) belongs to the popular child-and-dog school of which Thanhouser cranked out its share, thanks to the admirable talents of Shep, a photogenic and well-trained collie. More dead kids and ghosts, and the final shot breaks the narrative to show the smiling girl and dog as a card tells us not to cry, it’s only pretend — shades of the ending of The Bad Seed.

Thanhouser was lured back by the Mutual board to take over production of his company again in 1915, and Volume 3 has three examples of his ambitious production ideas. The half-hour Crossed Wires (1915) exploits for suspense purposes that new-fangled middle-class technology, the telephone apparatus. Marking this rapidly developing era of film grammar, it also edits together numerous camera set-ups within scenes, such as the trial where an innocent man is convicted of murder as the camera seeks out various characters and angles, even throwing in a couple of emphatic pans. A later shot employs a dramatically gratuitous yet visually effective moment when the heroine enters a dark room and points a flashlight at the camera. There are only a few close-ups, and these tend to be key objects rather than faces. Most amazingly, an insert of a cup of tea or cocoa as it’s carried up the stairs signals that it’s poisoned and foreshadows a similar moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

The Soap Suds Star (1915) is a funny comedy that bases its slapstick on character development and the ambiguous concepts of exploitation and performance. An agent makes vaudeville stars of a bickering couple because the audience thinks they’re a riot even when they’re not pretending. This goes to their heads.

At just over an hour, The World and the Woman (1916) is the longest, most important and satisfying film in this set. It’s the film debut of Broadway star Jeanne Eagels, known today mostly through a biopic starring Kim Novak. Beautiful and intelligent with an expressive face (gracing several close-ups), she plays a prostitute who traces her ruin to one man rather than any particular socio-economic circumstances, although this film also believes implicitly in the contrast between the inherently corrupt and corrupting city and the clean, Christian, rejuvenating power of the country. In this movie as the others, a summary of the trite and improbable plot does nothing to convey the pleasure of its measured, detailed unfolding. The viewer is hooked, charmed by the magic of the image.

Vol. 4

None of the preserved prints in this set or the other two are “restored” in any serious sense, though all are at least watchable. None are tinted (save one film on Volume 8) and all have new organ music.

Moving on to Volumes 4, 5 & 6, the first disc contrasts two “picturizations” of The Vicar of Wakefield, a 13-minute version from 1910 and a 90-minute feature of 1917. Obviously the feature has more characters and incidents (including a swell fire), but what matters is the formal progress from a series of essentially static tableaus, each announced by a title card, to a series of scenes and sequences analyzed by editing, most notably with vivid close-ups of the great stage actor Frederick Warde. (He stars in the 1912 Richard III, the earliest surviving American feature.) The director is his son, Ernest C. Warde.

Vol. 5

The next disc has seven one-reelers containing the staple elements of kids and/or dogs. Actually, only the 1914 Shep’s Race with Death (stop that runaway carriage, Shep!) has the dog, but the others feature various child stars promoted by the studio, including twins Marion and Madeline Fairbanks. Several of these melodramas have self-conscious elements that comment on their own conventions. The Tiniest of Stars (1913) includes the element of child-performance on stage during its plot of family separation and reunion. The child does little but look cute, but it’s enough for the audience within the movie to reward her. Girls play boys in many of these films, and this convention is spoofed in Uncle’s Namesakes (1913), where the twin girls are forced to masquerade as boys for the rich uncle, who pronounces them sissies.

Just a Shabby Doll (1913) is notable as a complex story with flashbacks and dissolves, but the two landmarks here are The Evidence of the Film (1913) and Their One Love (1915).

Vol. 6

The former, which is on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, incidentally reveals another instance of child labor as a small delivery boy is framed for theft. The evidence clearing him is discovered by his sister, an editor for Thanhouser! They happened to be shooting a scene on the street as the boy passed by, thus recording a crucial clue. When she first holds up the frames to examine them, we see them in close-up, but these frames show the scene not from the angle of the camera within the story but from the angle by which the viewer saw the scene earlier. However, when the film is projected, the scene is indeed from the new angle of the diegetic camera. The earlier insert could be seen as a thoughtless error in the editing, since they obviously did shoot footage from the second camera, but it seems to be a deliberate choice to help the viewer recognize the scene and call attention to the “postmodern” nature of this scenario.

Their One Love is a Civil War drama from a year thick with them (the 50th anniversary). It may have been partly inspired by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in that its battle scenes were shot a few weeks after that film’s premiere, but director John Harvey already outpaces Griffith’s scenes for innovative spectacle. They are excitingly staged at night (not day-for-night) with many pyrotechnics, and the editing is terrific. (The story is another vehicle for the twins.)

Volume 6 offers a history of the company’s star system. Thanhouser was an early believer in promoting stars. Ironically, the industry overtook him with a vengeance and created star-personalities who commanded big salaries. Thanhouser resisted this trend, preferring to emphasize legitimate New York stage actors such as Warde and Eagels, who turned out not burn up the box office like Mary Pickford.

The two-reelers She (1911) and Marble Heart (1913) are vehicles for Cruze and Marguerite Snow. The first, based on H. Rider Haggard’s fantasy, offers various effects, including a scene where Cruze plays two roles. She’s climactic death combines several tricks to startling effect, none moreso than the camera’s sudden, dramatic dolly forward and back. Some footage seems to be missing. Marble Heart casts Snow again as a powerful but cold woman, this time causing Cruze to suffer a dream-vision of Ancient Greece. This is cut and staged with about as much sophistication as you can have without close-ups, while the next two films have close-ups galore.

Madame Blance, the Beauty Doctor (1915) dresses star Harry Benham in drag for mild shenanigans. The Fires of Youth (1917), a half-hour re-release cut down from a five-reel feature, pairs the magnetic Warde and Eagels in a story that links labor reform to the factory owner’s personal rejuvenation (and throws in yet another boy played by a girl). In the mill and Eagels’ home are various Rembrandt-esque lighting effects.

Vol. 7

In the final set, Volume 7 offers three of the company’s six Shakespeares. The Winter’s Tale is one of only three surviving films from 1910 among all these sets; these earliest titles have the most primitive style of presentation, and this one is afflicted with obvious nitrate decay. In terms of narrative, it focuses on one or two details glossed over by Shakespeare, such as the queen’s “death,” yet it omits the wondrous “statue” ending. A hunchbacked fool figures prominently in the corner foreground of many shots, cuing our responses. The two-reel Cymbeline (1913) is notable for a few inserts, shadowy lamp-effects, some quoted dialogue, the evidence of the studio’s experiment with filming in Los Angeles, and the women’s curious breastplates.

If these two films string together scenes whose dense purport may sometimes be unclear to viewers unfamiliar with the source, the 36-minute condensation of what was once a five-reel King Lear (1917) is pretty clear, stressing the first act and rather shortchanging the climax. Part of Lear’s meeting with Poor Tom is repeated out of order. Submitting to the new conventions of narrative, Cordelia’s imminent death is cross-cut suspensefully with a rescue party that arrives past the nick of time, and, in an astonishing but after all credible decision, her death is actually shown on-screen. Warde’s attempted subtleties as Lear can hardly be judged in this truncation, especially under his bushy beard. His son Ernest directs and appears as the Fool.

Vol. 8

Volume 8 focuses on more classic picturizations. The half-hour Nicholas Nickleby (1912) is done fluidly and with splendid detail in many multi-shot sequences, featuring about 20 main characters. The director is George O. Nichols. How can a silent short encompass so much of Charles Dickens’ novel? The answer is in the silence. With audible dialogue, it would be necessary to establish all relationships and developments in some kind of natural time, whether lightly or ploddingly. A silent film simply summarizes a scene in a title card and presents an expressive show of swiftly evolving gestures. We instantly grasp an argument or a romantic interest without having to sit through believable banter. All develops quickly at its own decent speed. It’s a trick still employed in TV commercials and music videos. By the way, this production hailed from the company’s auxiliary operations in Jacksonville, Florida, where they eventually built a winter studio.

Vol. 9

At 42 minutes, the three-reel King René’s Daugher (1913) opens by introducing the actors posing in double-exposures with their characters. Then comes a gentle tale of a blind princess in her lovely garden. A magical “Arabian” doctor (a white actor in make-up) cures her in the very effective final scenes. When the titles call him a “famous leech”, this seems to be slang for doctor rather than an insult.

Tannhauser (1913) is a special treat. This three-reeler is the only film in the collection to reproduce the original tinting, for most films of this era were tinted but the dyes invariably wore off the prints. After a bit of plot, our hero (Cruze, looking oddly like the Lone Ranger’s Tonto) is led by the goddess Venus (Florence LaBadie, another popular Thanhouser star) through several in-camera fade-outs and fade-ins at various California locales until they arrive in the land of eye candy and the narrative dissolves into a languid montage of nymphs laughing, swimming, and dancing interpretively. It’s quite deliriously charming and magical. The plot is better abandoned, as it’s a ludicrous allegorical tragedy of the Suffering Artist complete with bits of Richard Wagner’s music, but they do it up with dignity and delicacy and the studio’s usual attention to sets and costumes.

The one-reel The Vagabonds (1915) dramatizes a moralistic poem about the evils of alcohol. Short of any significantly mobile camera, it shows a mastery of modern film language — a fluid string of set-ups, close-ups, and flashbacks bracketed by iris shots. An unusually sharp print, too.

The last disc offers five films of head scenarist Lloyd Lonergan, Thanhouser’s brother-in-law. He wrote more than 800 of the company’s 1,000-plus films and was responsible for their careful story-based style. Four are one-reelers, including When the Studio Burned (1913), an instant fabricated docudrama released within a month of the New Rochelle studio’s actual burning to the ground, thus capitalizing on the national headlines of their own disaster.

The final film here is the 1917 feature The Woman in White, based on Wilkie Collins’ novel. That book’s ingenious narrative devices, which emphasize the fact that the heroine isn’t in control of the events that engulf her, must here be jettisoned for a narrative that often presents her point of view for our sympathy, so that the story’s major twist is no longer a surprise. It becomes a more ordinary women’s-film-as-serial-adventure, though a handsome one.

The films produced by Edwin Thanhouser during the Teens may seem fragile in their faded beauty and quaint devices, but their very age and quaintness become strengths to those of us who admire the style and vigor of silent cinema, when rules were made and broken with each new weekly release.