Saturday, May 26, 2018

"When the Movies Went West"

Los Angeles in 1910 was a pretty happening place.

From Longreads, May 15:

When the Movies Went West
Scorned by stage actors and mocked by the theater-going upper classes, filmmakers nevertheless developed a bold new art form — but they needed better weather.
Gary Krist | Excerpt adapted from The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles | Crown | May 2018 | 14 minutes (3,681 words
Toward the end of 1907, two men showed up in Los Angeles with some strange luggage in tow. Their names were Francis Boggs and Thomas Persons, and together they constituted an entire traveling film crew from the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago, one of the first motion picture studios in the country. Boggs, the director, and Persons, the cameraman, had come to finish work on a movie — an adaptation of the Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo — and were looking for outdoor locations to shoot a few key scenes. As it happened, the harsh midwestern winter had set in too early that year for them to complete the film’s exteriors in Illinois, so they had got permission to take their camera and other equipment west to southern California, where the winters were mild and pleasant. Since money was tight in the barely nascent business of moviemaking, the film’s cast could not come along. So Boggs intended to hire local talent to play the characters originated by actors in Chicago. Motion pictures were still such a new and makeshift medium that audiences, he figured, would never notice the difference.

In downtown Los Angeles, they found a handsome if somewhat disheveled young man — a sometime actor who supplemented his income by selling fake jewelry on Main Street — and took him to a beach outside the city. Here they filmed the famous scene of Edmond Dantès emerging from the waves after his escape from the island prison of the Château d’If. Boggs had a few technical problems to deal with during the shoot. For one, the jewelry hawker’s false beard had a tendency to wash off in the Pacific surf, requiring expensive retakes. But eventually the director and Persons got what they needed. After finishing a few more scenes at various locations up and down the coast, they wrapped up work, shipped the film back to Chicago to be developed and edited, and then left town.
A year and a half later, on the morning of May 6, 1909, a former stage actor named Hobart Bosworth was sitting in his office at the Institute of Dramatic Arts, a small acting school on South Broadway that he had opened the previous January. Now forty-one years old, Bosworth had been a well-known thespian, but a lifelong struggle with tuberculosis had ruined his once rich and resonant voice. He had been forced to quit his job with the local Belasco theater company and resort to teaching the skills he’d once practiced. But although his name was still respected in L.A. theatrical circles, the school he’d founded was, by his own admission, “not a tremendous financial success,” and he found himself chronically strapped for cash.

On this pleasant Thursday morning, Bosworth received a visit from “a quiet gentleman in fashionable clothes” who identified himself as James L. McGee, business manager of the Selig Polyscope Company. McGee and director Francis Boggs were in town to make some motion pictures. (The owner of the company, Colonel William N. Selig, had apparently been pleased with the results of the Monte Cristo film released the previous year.) Would Mr. Bosworth be interested in performing the lead role in one of them?
McGee was persistent. No one, he insisted, would ever know that Bosworth had taken the job. The picture would be shown only in little Main Street nickelodeons, where his friends would never set foot.
Bosworth, a rather proud Shakespearean specialist who claimed to be a descendant of Miles Standish, found the question outrageous. “I was shocked,” he later wrote, “and insulted and hurt by turns.” He told McGee that he barely knew what a motion picture was, having seen only one — a film of the Jeffries-Sharkey boxing match of 1899. He had not been tempted to see any others, let alone act in one. Indeed, Bosworth felt sure that his old New York theatrical manager “would turn over in his grave were he to feel that I had debased my art so completely.”

But McGee was persistent. No one, he insisted, would ever know that Bosworth had taken the job. The picture would be shown only in little Main Street nickelodeons, where his friends would never set foot; Bosworth’s name would never be used in association with the production. And then McGee mentioned what the actor would be paid: $125, for two days of work.

“Alas, my code of ethics fell before the onslaught of Capital,” Bosworth admitted. “The prostitution of art began then. I was the first to fall.”...