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Background on Thanhouser Films CD-ROM

The Thanhouser Company, including its successor, Mutual's Thanhouser Film Corporation, was an extraordinarily active and energetic film company which thrived from 1909 through 1917 in New Rochelle, New York. Founder Edwin Thanhouser was the first head of a motion picture studio who had a substantial background in the theater, and was an important leader in the rebellion of the "Independents" against the Motion Picture Patents group associated with Thomas Edison. Thanhouser produced and released to world-wide distribution over 1,000 silent films. Of those productions, only 160 Thanhouser prints are known to have survived, and are located in archives and private collections around the globe. Important Thanhouser screen personalities include James Cruze, who rose to fame as a Hollywood director during the 20's and 30's; Broadway star Jeanne Eagels; and popular Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde, star of the recently discovered 1912 feature film Richard III.

An extensive record of documents, photographs, posters and other early motion picture industry materials for American studios is rare for this time period. Large collections of pre-1915 material record the Edison Company and the Biograph Company, both of which are important pioneers, but neither company was significant after 1912. Thanhouser entered the field and grew to be significant at the time when Edison and Biograph were peaking and then going into decline. Hence, Thanhouser is an important element in bridging the gap between the earliest pioneers and the establishment of the "Hollywood" industry we know today.

Much of the material on the CD-ROM has been inaccessible, except as items scattered throughout film archives, museums, libraries, and in the hands of private collectors. In addition to researching all the standard trade publications of the day, Mr. Bowers extended his efforts to contemporary newspapers, as well as university and library collections, including over nine hundred scrap books in the Robinson Locke Collection at the New York Public Library. His research efforts included materials from public and private collections in New Rochelle, headquarters for the Thanhouser studios; Jacksonville, Florida, where Thanhouser opened a winter studio in 1912; and Los Angeles, where another Thanhouser studio was set up in 1912 and 1913. Archival photographs were generously shared by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Museum of the Moving Image, Dominick Bruzzese, Ralph Graham, the Thanhouser family, and many other private collectors.

The CD-ROM is divided into three sections:

  1. A Narrative History of the Thanhouser enterprise, beginning with Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser's early life and career in theater during the 1890's, continuing through the closing of the company in 1918, including photographs and magazine advertisements.

  2. A Filmography with entries on over a thousand Thanhouser films, identifying the people who made in them, synopses, selected articles and reviews from contemporary publications, photographs, and over 30 minutes of film clips from many of the surviving films.

  3. A Biographies section which gives information on the lives of over a thousand Thanhouser players and employees associated one way or another with the Thanhouser studio, including photographs on many of Thanhouser's most important actors and actresses.

Significance of the Thanhouser Film Enterprise

The story of the Thanhouser Company records elements of popular theater in the Midwest and the transition from work in the theater to the production and distribution of motion pictures. The founder, Edwin Thanhouser, and his wife, Gertrude Homan, began their careers in theater in the 1890's. Edwin graduated from acting in the theater to owning theaters and stock companies in Milwaukee and Chicago in the early 1900's. In 1909, Edwin sold his interests in the theater and established Thanhouser Company, a film production company, in New Rochelle, New York, a popular residential community for people in the New York theater, as evidenced by George M. Cohen's "Forty-Five minutes from Broadway," a well-known song of the time.
During the Thanhouser era, the motion picture industry was experiencing tremendous growth and development. As one of the early independent studios, Thanhouser was an important pioneer in this fledgling industry. How the company adapted to increasing competition and to a rapidly maturing market is detailed in its history. Two key trends had significant impact on Thanhouser: the emergence of the Motion Picture Patents Company
1 and the development of the "Star System."2

Edwin Thanhouser established his studio as an Independent, choosing to work outside the Motion Picture Patents Company which attempted to maintain a world-wide monopoly on equipment, film, and distribution, by charging high royalties and licensing fees. "Patents" production studios, with the exception of Biograph, turned out technically good but generally uncreative films, while Independents like Thanhouser often were innovative in content and style.

Early Thanhouser films were one reel in length (twelve to fourteen minutes as dictated by the Patents group marketers) and, because of Edwin Thanhouser's theatrical background, based mostly upon a library of plays which were adapted to the silent screen. In the studio's later years, feature-length pictures of four to five reels (more than forty minutes) had become common and relied much more on original scenarios, character development, camera technique, and post-production editing. The result was an interesting mix of popular melodramas and comedies catering to the tastes of a mass market, mixed with dramas and classics.

Thanhouser releases included titles such as The Last of the Mohicans (one reel, 1911); She (two reels, 1911); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (one reel, 1912); The Cry of the Children (two reels, 1912); King René's Daughter (three reels, 1913); a 23-episode serial, The Million Dollar Mystery (1914); The Picture of Dorian Grey (two reels, 1915); The Mill on the Floss (five reels, 1915); King Lear (five reels, 1916); and The World and the Woman (five reels, 1916).

During this crucial transition from single-reel production to feature-film production, Thanhouser was particularly active. Two subsidiary companies were added: Princess (1913-1915) produced films featuring the popular actress Muriel Ostriche, and Falstaff (1915-1916) produced only comedies. Specialized production companies like these were spun off by other film companies also, but only a few are well known. Thanhouser was also an important component of Mutual Movies, and during its final years released through the American branch of Pathé.

Included on the CD-ROM are studio publicity photographs depicting scenes from individual films, advertising from trade magazines of the day such as Motion Picture World, Reel Life, and Moving Picture News, and photographs of key events in the Thanhouser studio history, such as when the Thanhouser production facility burned to the ground in January, 1913. Also included are over 30 minutes of film clips from dozens of surviving Thanhouser films obtained from archives around the world.

In 1909, actors and actresses had no personal identity in the marketing of films; production companies received top billing in advertisements. By 1917, the star system was firmly established, and Thanhouser drew from many top New York legitimate actors and actresses as well as unknowns to star in its films. The CD-ROM documents this shift in advertising by Thanhouser to capitalize on the public's new interest in "movie stars."

Some of the more well-known Thanhouser players whose portraits are included in the CD-ROM are James Cruze, who went on to become a notable Hollywood director in the 1920's and 1930's; Marguerite Snow, who married and later divorced Cruze; Florence LaBadie, who in 1913 was voted the second-most-popular film star in America; Muriel Ostriche, who went on to become the "Moxie" girl; Mignon Anderson, popular Thanhouser actress from 1911 to 1916; and Broadway star Jeanne Eagels, whose life story was portrayed by Kim Novak in the 1957 film Jeanne Eagels.

The Thanhouser Company was born, grew up, and died in New Rochelle. Unlike the majority of its contemporaries, Thanhouser did not merge with another company, or disappear by being absorbed into something else. Except for its involvement with Mutual Films Corporation, Thanhouser stood on its own. To say that the story of Thanhouser films is the story of the motion picture industry would not be true, for the story of the industry is composed of many companies, and Thanhouser was distinct from Lubin, Kalem, Edison, or Universal. However, certain problems encountered by Thanhouser were common to all film companies, and without question, Thanhouser was a vital stone in the foundation of this industry.

1Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915, History of the American Cinema, Vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), 21-36. - back

2Anthony Slide, "The Evolution of the Film Star," Aspects of American Film History Prior to 1920 (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1978), 1-6. - back


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