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Hollywood on the prairie

Before the action went west, the center of the celluloid world was in Chicago

April 01, 2012|By Ron Grossman

Before Oprah and Rosie came and went, Chicago said hello and goodbye to Charlie. In the opening decades of the 20th century, the city was a moviemaking mecca, the Hollywood of the hinterland. Among the stars who made films here were Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Ben Turpin, Francis X. Bushman and the greatest of them all, Charlie Chaplin.

“I think I’m going to like it here — nice people, nice studio, etc,” Chaplin told the Tribune after arriving in Chicago in December 1914. “With conditions favorable a man can do so much better work, you know.”

Lured from the West Coast by a salary of $1,250 per week, a veritable king’s ransom, Chaplin made a film appropriately titled “His New Job,” at the Essanay Studio on Argyle Street. He initially lived with the studio owner’s family in an apartment at Kenmore and Lawrence Avenues. There was a baby and a Christmas tree. It seemed like Chaplin, who came from a dysfunctional family and spent time in an orphanage, had found a home in Chicago.

The movies themselves got to Chicago two decades before Chaplin. Visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 could peer into Thomas Edison’s pioneering kinetograph. “This is to the eye what the phonograph is to the ear,” Edison explained upon visiting the fair, in an interview the Tribune printed. “Every shade of expression and every gesture can be produced on a screen.”

Also on exhibit at the fair were replicas of Columbus’ ships, sent over from Spain, which remained in Jackson Park and were filmed by William Selig for his 1912 movie “The Coming of Columbus.” On the silver screen, America’s discoverer of record stepped ashore on a Chicago beach. A 1909 movie about big game hunters was filmed with a live lion in an artificial jungle on Western Avenue. Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson, another early filmmaker, shot a 1908 move about the Jesse James gang in Riverview, the Chicago amusement park.

Having played three roles in “The Great Train Robbery,” the first narrative film, Anderson had the experience and vision to turn movies from a novelty to a storytelling form. With a plethora of theaters, Chicago was a natural place to make them, so he formed a partnership with George Spoor, and their Essanay Studios produced them wholesale — at times, grinding out six a week. (The studio’s name derived from the first letters of their last names: S and A.)

The process was akin to putting on a play — but without an audience or dialogue in those silent-film days.

“The actors in these little heart-stirring dramas kill each other, rob each other, and make love to each other without the reward of applause,” a Trib reporter noted in 1908 upon visiting Selig’s studio, which occupied a whole block at the southeast corner of Western Avenue and Irving Park Road. For Chicagoans, the city’s movie-producing days provided a peek into a world of glitter and glamour. In 1914, the Trib took readers for a backstage visit to Essanay with Bushman, the great heartthrob, reporting: “Girls, he’s adorable — perfectly adorable!”

Bushman understood his audience. “It’s romance, just romance,” he told Photoplay, a movie-fan magazine. “We know that the peddler on Halsted Street and the bricklayer and the teamster have loves, and hates, and hopes, and disappointments.”

The movies also provided an employment base, albeit for temps. “Yoo-hoo! Girls!,” the Tribune alerted Chicagoans in 1915. “The Essanay company wants 400 girls about 20 years old to work in a court scene.” For one Northwest Side teenager, Essanay’s door was a portal to Tinseltown. There 16-year-old Gloria Swanson was hired to play opposite Wallace Beery in “Sweedie Goes to College.”

“Gloria’s cocoon stage was bounded by Logan Square,” the Tribune noted after Swanson followed Beery to Hollywood, married and divorced him and became a star in her own right.

It wasn’t just the unknown and unwashed who got a grab at the brass ring when movies were made in Chicago. So, too, did a mayor’s wife, as the Tribune reported in 1915: “Mrs. Carter H. Harrison had the unique experience yesterday of directing her first moving picture play. The Essanay company recently purchased the photoplay rights to Mrs. Harrison’s novel, ‘The Lady of the Shows.’”

“This is the first time I ever saw moving pictures being taken,” Harrison said of her day on the set, “and it is a most interesting sight.”

Alas, that window of opportunity was destined to close, at least in Chicago. Chicago filmmakers got involved in a bitter struggle over rights to the moviemaking process, even as the industry was centralizing in Hollywood. Already during Chicago’s heyday, its studios were hedging their bets with satellite facilities on the West Coast, and by the 1920s, Chicago’s chapter in movie history was closing.

California had a resource our city couldn’t match.

Only a few weeks after gushing over the creative potential and warmth of family life Chaplin found in Chicago, he went back to California, transferring to Essanay’s studio there. As the Los Angeles Times reported upon Chaplin’s arrival: “He said Chicago was ‘too damn cold’ to work in.”

Editor’s note: Thanks to Tom Lewis of Shorewood for suggesting this Flashback.

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  • posted at 6:16 am
  • August 3, 2012

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