THE PREHISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD
by William M. Drew ©2009
"The Days of '49 in California: Moving Picture History," the article reprinted on this website, was first published in "Wid's 1921 Year Book," annually put out by the motion picture trade publication, "Wid's Daily." Tracing the development of filmmaking in California from the pioneering experiments of Eadweard Muybridge in the late 19th century to the establishment of major production companies in the Los Angeles region by the beginning of the First World War, it is valuable as a concise yet informative account of some of the milestone events that led to the birth of Hollywood. However, as the article long preceded the study of film history as an academic discipline, it was perhaps to be expected that it contained a number of errors even though much of the history it described had occurred only a few years before. What is more, many of these inaccuracies are still being perpetuated to this day. It is the intent of this article to amplify the 1921 publication, as effective as it is, by providing a more consistently accurate documentation of some of the "firsts" in Hollywood history than one often encounters even today.
By far, the longest section in the Wids piece was concerned with Eadweard Muybridge, whose first name was spelled Edward in the article rather than the form preferred by the artist. Muybridge was indeed in many respects the seminal figure in the subsequent development of motion pictures as, more than anyone else, his experiments in the 1870s, 1880s and early 1890s lit the fuse for the outstanding group of scientists and inventors who created the cinema as we know it. However, the author of the article made only passing reference to Edison, Armat, Jenkins and Marey, and none at all to Dickson, Le Prince, Friese-Greene, Skladanowsky and the Lumieres. Clearly, his intent was to link Muybridge's work in Northern California with the emergence, decades later, of Los Angeles in the southern part of the state as the center of American film production, thus implying a kind of inevitability in the eventual triumph of Hollywood.
Certainly, from the perspective of 1921, the victory of the Southern California metropolis over all domestic competitors and its reputation as the movie capital of the entire world appeared so total as to be almost preordained. Yet Hollywood's ascendancy had scarcely occurred without challenge. For much of the preceding decade, impressive studios and production centers had developed all over the country, whether it was in Ithaca, New York, San Antonio, Texas, cities like Chicago and Philadelphia with filmmaking that went back to the very beginning of movies, or such other California communities as Niles, San Rafael, Santa Barbara and San Diego. By the start of the 1920s, however, most of these studios had either gone into a steep decline or vanished altogether with the majority of American studios now located in Los Angeles County. Only in New York City was there still a significant amount of production elsewhere, apparent in the ambitious new studios opened by Fox in Manhattan and Paramount in Queens, and, just north of the city, D. W. Griffith's recently established studio in Mamaroneck. But despite this flourishing activity in and around the city that was responsible for heavily financing West Coast production and was also the home of the Broadway theatrical district that continually provided creative personnel for the films, the general trend in American cinema now steadily flowed to the Pacific.
Even so, while unmentioned in an article solely concerned with Hollywood, the decade of the 1910s had been marked by a vigorous competition between the cities of Fort Lee, New Jersey, Jacksonville, Florida, and Los Angeles, California, each of them attracting the largest number of production companies of any municipality in the United States. It was due to a variety of factors that Los Angeles won out over competitors that clearly had had much to offer the early filmmakers. Major production in Jacksonville, which actually had a jump-start over Los Angeles by a year or two, eventually came into conflict with morally and culturally conservative political leaders opposed to the "free-wheeling" movie people. When the forces of "respectability" triumphed in the 1917 mayoral election, leading production companies began closing down their Florida studios. One year later, production in Fort Lee began to be adversely affected by the fuel shortages at the end of World War I, making it difficult to continue on with studio shooting during what proved to be the coldest winter in many years. With local political and civic support lacking, the production companies either relocated their New Jersey studios across the Hudson to New York or moved their facilities out west.
In contrast to Jacksonville and Fort Lee, the local community in Los Angeles, despite periodic instances of opposition to the moviemakers, remained basically supportive of the new film colony. Additionally, Los Angeles offered proximity to a greater variety of scenery and climate than could be found in a semi-tropical Jacksonville or a Fort Lee subject to the Northeastern winter. Perhaps most of all, however, the very isolation and rawness of Los Angeles from the rest of the nation made it an ideal location for pioneers seeking to create an entirely new art. While it has often been claimed that Hollywood came into being as a result of independent companies fleeing the Motion Picture Patents Trust organized by Edisons interests, only one of the four companies operating in Southern California in 1909 and 1910, the first two years of intensive production in the region, was an independent. The kind of freedom sought by the majority of the first filmmakers in the Golden State was essentially one of creativity and experimentation. In this sense, the "Wid's" article delineating a continuity between Muybridge and Hollywood made a valid point. For the early 20th century Hollywood pioneers coming from other, more traditional sections of the country did indeed recall the odyssey of Muybridge, a migrant from the Old World to the pristine environment of California where he succeeded in reinventing himself and transforming modern communications with the extraordinary experiments that brought the new art of photography into the cinema's first evolutionary steps.
Despite the best efforts of the author of the "Wid's" article to present an accurate chronicle of the rise of filmmaking in California, the piece contained a number of errors starting with the account of Muybridge himself. He did not die an octogenarian soon after his presentation at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and prior to Thomas L. Tally's first California exhibitions in the 1890s. Rather, Muybridge died at the age of 74 in 1904 in his native England to which he had returned for his final years. The article also stated that he took his famous moving pictures of the galloping horse on a race track in Sacramento in 1877. While Muybridge had first experimented with photographing horses' movements in Sacramento in 1872 and 1873, it was only after a tumultuous period marked by his killing of his wife's lover and the ensuing sensational trial and acquittal that he was able to resume his work for Governor Leland Stanford in Sacramento in 1877. However, it was at Stanford's race track in Palo Alto in June 1878 that he succeeded in capturing the moving images of the running horse and his rider that were first publicly projected, along with other motion pictures he had photographed, to an audience at the San Francisco Art Association on May 4, 1880.
The "Wid's" article was also inaccurate in the date of early April, 1897 given for the inauguration of motion picture exhibition in Los Angeles by Thomas L. Tally, assigned an equally erroneous middle initial of "S." by the yearbook's writer. Motion pictures projected on a screen by the Edison-Armat Vitascope had their California premiere at the Orpheum vaudeville theatre in San Francisco on June 8, 1896. Following its three week run there as a featured attraction, it opened at the Los Angeles Orpheum on the evening of July 6 and closed on July 19. As in other American cities that year, the Vitascope was a sensation with Angeleno audiences. So successful was it that the enterprising proprietor of Tally's Phonograph Parlor, who already included Edison's Kinetoscope or peep show in his establishment on 311 South Spring Street, was quick to acquire the Vitascope. On July 25, 1896, one week after its run at the Orpheum, the Vitascope made its bow at Tally's with the projection on a screen of the James J. Corbett-Peter Courtenay prize fight. The showing was an immediate hit, and Tally was in business as the first man in California to regularly exhibit motion pictures.
Other errors, long since corrected, appeared in the "Wid's" article. As examples, "Ramona" was not the first film Griffith made in California in 1910 but rather the next to last, and Florence Lawrence did not accompany Griffith to the Pacific Coast as she was already emerging as a star with IMP. Nor was Mary Pickford's first version of "Tess of the Storm Country" made in 1912 but instead in 1914, while the Lasky Company began production in late 1913, not in early 1914. But while these errors are absent from virtually all modern histories of film, the article included a number of inaccuracies about the origins of film production in California that persist to this day. The succeeding sections of this article are an effort to delineate the most accurate account of the emergence of film production in the Golden State in the years climaxing in 1910.