Selig Polyscope Week: What Ever Happened to Colonel Selig?

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Selig Polyscope Week continues both here and at White City Cinema.

Of all the early Chicago filmmakers, Selig is the one I end up respecting the most. Spoor, of Essanay, got so complacent as a part of Edison’s trust that he pretty much gave up on quality and innovation (though he redeems himself at the end, spending his later years in his north side apartment, spending his money on new inventions). Selig was a born innovator, even when he was in “the trust.” He made some of the first color films, some of the first full length films, and, towards the end, he took the first shot at making a combination movie studio/theme park with the Selig Zoo in California.

More than anything else, though, you really get the impression that Selig loved his work. He loved setting up his studio for a recreation of the Ft. Dearborn Massacre one day, and as a jungle the next, with a street scene on the other side of the lot. “It’s a fascinating business,” he said. “Once it, you can’t leave it alone.”

In a 1916 interview, he looked back in awe at the wonders he had created. “I guess I was one of the three real beginners,” he said. “And of all the other, smaller concers that started in about that time (circa 1895) there are none left now except we three: Biograph, Edison, and myself.”

He also realized the importance of star power better than Spoor (who let Chaplin slip away) and Edison (whose refusal to sign up major stars is a large part of why his phonographs ended up being trounced in the market by Victrolas.” Selig’s biggest star at the time was Kathlyn Williams, who starred in the “Adventures of Kathlyn” serial (another “first” for Selig – the first successful adventure serial) and was one of the first actresses, if not the first, to say “I really want to direct” (and, when she did, she became one of the first female directors).

“I’ve seen some of them (movie stars) looking pretty unhappy,” said Selig. “They ought to remember that their company spent a lot of money in making them…Miss Williams, for instance, owes a great deal to us, but she is loyal to us, and so are we to her. We will always keep her, even when she doesn’t play much anymore.” He gave both Williams and another employee, Tom Sanchini, a Selig symbol set in diamonds to celebrate five years of service.

Selig also spoke enthusiastically of where he was going – he was planning to film “The Crisis,” a Civil War drama that was intended as a response to “Birth of a Nation” (it should also be noted that he leased space in his studio complex to black director Oscar Mischeuax, who filmed his own response to “Birth of a Nation,” “Within Our Gates,” there). He spoke of his plans for his new studio in Los Angeles. “Yes,” he said, “I do get a lot of pleasure out of my business – and that’s the main thing that counts.”

And yet, within a few years, Selig would be out of business.

What happened?

Part of the problem was that World War 1 cut into everyone’s profits. Part of it was that he threw entirely too much money into the Selig Zoo, which never really got off the ground. But his fatal flaw was that, despite his innovative nature, he simply lost sight of where the industry was going. The same interview in 1916 reveals his mistake.

“You don’t think,” the interviewer asked, “the day of the little picture is done?”

“Oh, no,” said Selig. “We’ll always have little pictures, just as we’ll always have vaudeville. Some people only want to look at the short pictures and see several in a row, and then other people enjoy the big things, and they have a future, too.”

Selig could have continued to carve out a niche for himself, but, alas, he failed to realize that the future of short subjects would be on the radio, and, eventually, television. It’s easy to speculate that he could have had fun making short subjects for radio, but there was no call for lavish sets and animals in that world. In 1920, he sold the block at Irving and Western to a crooked car company for $400,000.

This concludes Selig week, but we’ll back back with more articles on the subject in the future!


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