Thomas Edison, world famous for his light bulb and phonograph, created a new sensation in 1894 with his Kinetoscope, a 35mm movie viewing device enclosed in an oak cabinet. Although his team developed a working system, Edison failed to appreciate the value of a projector that would enable large audiences to see a film, and this failure opened the way for other inventors and showmen to enter this new world of entertainment. One of his competitors was Siegmund Lubin, who made and sold the Cineograph projector. Lubin also made films, thousands of them in the course of a twenty-year career, including When the Earth Trembled, or the Strength of Love, a story about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The Philadelphia-based Lubin was an optician who made song and travel lantern slides as a sideline. In 1896, he saw the new Jenkins/Armat Phantoscope demonstrated and bought one. He then built the Cineograph projector. Later, he improved both machines by copying the Lumière Cinematographe, which was designed as a projector, camera, and printer. Like other film pioneers, Lubin thought nothing of pirating the films of others and became one of the worst offenders. He bought films and copied them, or he re-filmed them shot for shot with his own actors. For a short while in 1901, he even fled the country to escape prosecution by Edison’s lawyers over patent violations.
When Lubin returned to Philadelphia in 1902, he increased sales of his projectors, expanded his studio to make more films, and opened Cineograph theaters. Other film pioneers around the country were also doing the same: George Spoor supplied projectors and films to Orpheum theaters with his Kinodrome Service, and William Selig made projectors and films at his Selig Polyscope Company. J. Stuart Blackton, William Rock, and Albert Smith were also producing films and projectors at the American Vitagraph Company, as was the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (later home to D.W. Griffith). All of them were fighting lawsuits with Edison.
In 1905 a new era in motion pictures began with storefront theaters, called nickelodeons, dedicated to showing movies day and night. The demand for new films was tremendous, and with it came entrepreneurial film distributors who bought films from the producers and rented them to theater owners, often in a less than businesslike way, delivering damaged or worn-out prints, pitting neighboring theaters against each other by giving them the same releases, or simply not delivering the goods. Everyone was making money, but the system was in chaos.
It took awhile, but the major domestic film producers, including Lubin, Edison, Biograph, Selig, Vitagraph, Essanay, and Kalem, plus one foreign company, Pathé, and one American distributor of foreign films, George Kleine, finally set aside their differences and banded together as the Motion Picture Patents Company. The producers were still competing, but on a controlled release schedule, leasing films to the exchanges with the understanding that worn films should be returned to the producer (usually to be melted down for their silver content). Theaters could have a complete change of films on a weekly basis, several times a week, or daily. Each producer had a regular release schedule; Lubin, for instance, released a one-reel film (about fifteen minutes long) each Monday and another on Thursdays.
Lubin had already released more than one thousand films by the time he joined MPPC, and with the threats of annoying litigation now removed, he released another two thousand films in the coming years. As a member of the Patents Company, Lubin was now in a position to expand to a new studio without any interference. By 1913, Lubin was releasing five one-reel films a week plus a two-reeler. The company had also set up studios in Jacksonville, Florida, another in Los Angeles, California, and took over the five hundred-acre Betzwood estate north of Philadelphia.
The one-reel film was a profitable commodity for Patents Company members, but there was increasing pressure from foreign and independent producers for longer films. The company’s distribution arm ran very efficiently but had trouble with multiple-reel films because of their extra expense and unpredictable demand within the circumscribed run of the regular exhibition schedule. So, a new system was created for these longer films, the Exclusive Service. When Lubin studios made its first three-reel film, When the Earth Trembled, or the Strength of Love, it was offered through this new arrangement.
When the Earth Trembled was an ambitious production with intertwining stories and an impressive reenactment of the San Francisco earthquake, incorporating actuality footage taken by Lubin cameraman Jack Frawley in 1906. More than thirty carpenters worked for five weeks to build breakaway sets that took two minutes to be destroyed on camera. Lubin’s top director, Barry O’Neil, was in charge of the production, supervising every detail, and two of the company’s most popular stars, Harry Myers and Ethel Clayton, took the lead roles as Paul Girard and Dora Sims.
O’Neil began as an actor and stage director before entering films in 1909 for the Thanhouser Film Company, directing the studio’s first release in 1910. He joined Lubin in 1912 and, for three years, directed some of their most important films. Harry Myers, most well known today as the millionaire drunk in Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), came to Lubin from the stage in 1909 and quickly rose to be one of the company’s most popular leading men. In 1913, Myers also began directing films at Lubin.
Ethel Clayton had been a stage actress for almost ten years before she made the transition to movies in 1909 with the Essanay Film Company in Chicago. When she joined the Lubin company in 1912, she was quickly recognized for her talent, costarring with Harry Myers in a series of comedies and dramas. While making When the Earth Trembled, she barely escaped serious injury when a wall collapsed prematurely during the earthquake scene. As she staggered away from it to the middle of the room, a chandelier fell, striking her in the face. She managed to move out of camera range, then fainted.
The Exclusive Service for multi-reel films failed to catch on, lasting a few months, just long enough to have a disastrous effect on the U.S. release of When the Earth Trembled. The film fared much better throughout England and Europe, where the surviving prints have been found. Another reason for the scarcity of prints from Lubin was a vault fire that occurred on June 13, 1914, destroying all the negatives produced by the company from its inception in 1896. The film vault at Twentieth Street in Philadelphia literally exploded, sending burning reels of film through the eight-inch reinforced concrete roof and into the street, catching nearby houses on fire.
Even though the vault was rebuilt, it was the beginning of the end for the company. The next setback came in 1915, when the U.S. government ruled that the Motion Picture Patents Company was a trust and must be dissolved. Siegmund Lubin, who had been planning to establish a new $200,000 studio in San Francisco, said: “We will have to readjust the business to fit the law, but I hardly see now how we can do it. It means millions in expense for us and a big loss.”
“Pop” Lubin, as he was affectionately known in the business, tried to hold on, but was already overextended financially, and his Philadelphia studio had to be sold at auction in 1917. He died in 1923, still hoping for a comeback.
Preceded by the Miles brothers’ A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET, shot days before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, courtesy of Lobster Films.
Also showing: A CANINE SHERLOCK HOLMES (1912) starring Spot the Urbanora Dog. Print courtesy of David Shepard and the Film Preservation Associates.
Presented at SFSFF 2015 with live music by Stephen Horne