Archival Spaces 251
The Thanhouser Collection DVD, Vols. 13, 14 & 15 (1911-1916)
Uploaded 11 September 2020
Ned Thanhouser, the grandson of the founder of the Thanhouser Film Company, Edwin Thanhouser, has been busy over the past decade, finding lost films and preserving them in conjunction with various film archives, including the British Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the Academy, UCLA and George Eastman Museum. He has now released a three-DVD set that includes twenty one-reel films, made by the Thanhouser Company between 1911-1916, which American film historians consider the “transitional era” from a cottage industry of individual producers of short films to the vertically integrated studio era, uniting production, distribution, and exhibition. The Thanhouser DVD Collection, Volumes 1 through 12 with 57 films from 1909 to 1917, had been previously made available. Releasing them also online (https://www.thanhouser.org/index.html), makes Thanhouser one of the best-documented film companies of the period. The DVD sets can be ordered at the same site.
Founded in New York in 1909 by Edwin Thanhouser, his wife, Gertrude, and brother-in-law Lloyd Lonergan (the company’s chief writer), the Thanhouser film Company evolved from Edwin’s work in legitimate and vaudeville theatres in Milwaukee and Chicago. The studio began producing films in New Rochelle at the very end of 1909, quickly establishing a stock company of actors who would appear repeatedly in the Company’s films over the next seven years, including Marie Eline, Florence LaBadie, James Cruze, Muriel Ostriche, William Russell, Marguerite Snow, and Harry Benham, among others. In 1912, Thanhouser was absorbed by the Mutual Film Corp., a newly formed distributor that brought together other independent producers, like Keystone, Majestic, and Kay-Bee, in order to protect them from the monopolization efforts of the Motion Picture Patents Trust. After the New Rochelle studio burned to the ground in January 1913, Thanhouser moved operations to Florida and Los Angeles, before returning in May 1913 to a rebuilt studio in New Rochelle, with other films were still being shot in Florida/California and in Chicago.
Vol. 13 opens with two adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, The Pillars of Society (1911) and A Doll’s House (1911); produced on tiny stages in medium-long shots with actors and furniture crowded together, both short films reduce complex dramas to melodrama. The adaptation of literary works by Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, George Elliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde, etc. became a specialty for Thanhouser. Next, The Austin Flood (1911), one of Thanhouser’s few actualités, documented the complete destruction of the town of Austin, PA., Northeast of Pittsburgh, a day after the Bayless Dam broke, killing 78 inhabitants. While the great majority of Thanhouser films portrayed members of the middle class, The Star of the Side Show (1912) is a somewhat perverse look at “freaks” in a circus sideshow, including a romance between little people. Shot in a Florida orange grove, The Girl of the Grove (1912) is a melodrama with a feminist twist, in which a philandering husband is sent packing by a young woman he attempts to seduce after she has rescued his wife from suicide. In The Thunderbolt (1912), money embezzled by a broker finally makes it back to its owner after lightning reveals its hidden location.
Vol. 14 continues with the melodramas, Cross Your Heart (1912), Idol of the Hour (1913), The Girl in the Cabaret (1913), Coals of Fire (1914), and Their Best Friend (1914), all of which involve middle class families, often children, threatened by greed, avarice, and lust. All are ultimately resolved happily, the exception being Idol, which follows the slow decline of an artist model from toast of the town to charwoman. No longer stage-bound, these films include many outdoor scenes in city and country that visualize American life before World War I. One of the great pleasures of these films is really seeing the fashions, the faces, the cars, architecture, body language, and other signs of modernism. Far from modernist, but charming, the DVD also includes the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk (1913).
The final DVD, Volume 15, begins with The Mother of Her Dreams (1915), a touching melodrama of an orphan girl who yearns to find a family. She dreams of a fairy mother who guides her to a real lost little rich boy in the woods. In the missing final scene, the boy’s family adopts the girl. Thanhouser’s success rested on its policy of good cheer, a policy directed specifically at the American middle classes, who were beginning to venture into the cinema in ever greater numbers. The Twins of the GL Ranch (1915) is a western that visualizes a robbery/rescue and features the famous “Thanhouser Twins,” Madeline and Marion Fairbanks, who appeared in over thirty films between 1912 and 1916. The volume continues with three comedies, John T. Rocks and the Flivver (1915), Toodles, Tom and Trouble (1915), and Guiders (1916). Like Twins, the first two comedies feature extended chase sequences, while a gaggle of Keystone-like cops make an appearance in Guiders, shot in Florida, partially on ostrich and alligator farms.
The DVD concludes with a “bonus,” An American in the Making (1913), part industrial, part immigrant story. Financed by U.S. Steel with scenes shot in Chicago (e.g. at Berghoff’s famous German restaurant, where I ate as a kid) and at a steel mill in Gary, IN., the film highlights safety features in industrial work, while showing a young European immigrant establishing a family in America, thanks to his job in the steel industry.
Given the fact that these films have been digitized from preserved analog sources, without a significant amount of digital clean-up, the visual quality of the films is generally good with nitrate decomposition only marring a single early title. All the films are accompanied by well-known silent film musicians, Nathan Avakian, Stephen Horne, and Ben Model, making this collection a delightful journey into a past, now over 100 years gone