An Unseen Enemy

Making Movies in New York: 1912

November 10–11, 2012

Guest curator: Richard Koszarski, Rutgers University, author of Hollywood on the Hudson 

One hundred years ago, even while most local studios already maintained some sort of winter quarters in Florida, Arizona, or Southern California, New York was still the center of the American movie industry.

In this second annual review of the local filmmaking scene as it existed exactly a century ago, it is clear that New York filmmakers never limited themselves to New York stories. Few of these films take place on city streets, and most of the action seems to occur in generic small towns and suburbs. Still, the influence of local history and culture (and regional or ethnic performance traditions) is unavoidable. Studios in Chicago and Philadelphia made a lot of movies, too, but the cosmopolitan sensibility that would mark New York for the rest of the century can already be seen in these pictures.

While the established Biograph, Vitagraph, and Edison studios dominated the marketplace in 1912, new studios were going up throughout the metropolitan region, and independent producers like Solax and Thanhouser were finding their own ways of winning audiences. Pushing aside the business model of the old Motion Picture Patents Company, many of these independents formed new combinations that year, including umbrella operations, like Universal and Paramount, out of which the future of the American motion picture industry would develop.

Most of the studios represented here would soon move to feature-length pictures, aiming at downtown audiences and upscale ticket prices. But in 1912 they were all still working on a smaller canvas, packing as much comedy or melodrama as possible into every thousand-foot film reel.