With his last book devoted to the formation of the first cinema studios and to the early beginnings of the organisation of Hollywood, Marc Vernet offers a tight historical reconstruction that accounts for the multiple facets of this process. The author studies, indeed, the setting up of the cinema companies, initially on the East Coast, then their migration to the West Coast, as well as the intermingling of the industrial projects and the artistic ambitions of the various players. He builds up the history of the short-lived Triangle Film Corporation (the firm that regrouped the three most famous filmmakers at that time: David Wark Griffith, Thomas H. Ince, and Mack Sennett), tracking the successes and failures of the company since its foundation during the summer of 1915, up to 1919 when it ceased operations, and to its dissolution in 1923, while putting them in the perspective of earlier attempts. His approach is what he calls, quoting the French historian Paul Veyne, a mise en intrigue (“introducing a plot”) of this period and the preceding one, following carefully alliances, conflicts and competition (between firms but also between filmmakers, and between actors).
Vernet stresses his departure from straightforward monograph approaches, as well as the mere description of a specific adventure (and furthermore of the listing of the great filmmakers and great works), so as to be able to combine the various dimensions of a period, which, in spite of being key for the foundation of the cinema industry, did not receive much attention from historians of cinema, being stuck in between early cinema (1895-1907), and the period of the so-called classic cinema (from 1920 on). Such an approach was made possible through progress in the knowledge and administration of film archives. Vernet himself is a well-known expert in this field, hence the focus on the Triangle’s archives. One should note that this allows him to document, in a very precise fashion, the way the production work was organised, for instance the role of continuity scripts (some examples are included in the book), but also charting some of the costs, of the actors, for the films… even the amount spent at the canteen.
Within a few years, from 1909 to 1916, the growing US film industry started to organise itself at all levels: production, organisation, distribution and theatres, generating a game of musical chairs between each player from the different segments, each of them aiming, one after the other, at hegemony in the cinema world. The industry progressively moved part of its production activities from the East (New York, but also Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia) toward the West, setting up studios there. The New York region was characterised by the concentration of access to funding, but also of headquarters, studios and labs, as well as various skillsets like those originating from the theatres of Broadway.1 Repertory theatre could not only provide themes for future films (i.e. the adaption of successful plays) but an array of other expertise beyond the actors (skills but also reputation: the “famous players”), producers, directors, stage designers… The cost of real estate was not the only reason for the migration of the movie crews toward more friendly skies, toward natural sceneries that will play a role in the “Americanisation of cinema through the cinematographisation of the United States” (p. 2382), or toward even some more “exotic” landscapes3 that allowed filming all year through, benefiting from spectacular views (backed by the equipment of the period: the sensitivity of the film to natural light, short focal lenses) that differed from recorded theatrical plays. It was then possible, to cut the expenses for the provision of electricity thanks to locations that did not need any strong electric network, and therefore could be situated at the edge of urban areas (Universal City, Inceville, Long Beach). Moving to Hollywood only came later.
What is at play during this period is the organisation of production through alliances, but above all of distribution, a highly complex issue when covering such a vast territory (which included Canada, but also Europe…and even Tasmania!) that requires significant logistics (not to mention issues of censorship left to each of the states): creation of exchanges, repositories for copies in each state, where theatres could collect the films from the distributor. Two types of distribution schemas emerged: “road showing” inherited from the theatre industry, which centred on prestigious shows, and “states right” a pattern where distributors were granted an exclusive right of distribution for a specific state. The distributor can either ink an agreement with a theatre for the regular supply of films (the “program” or “service” model), or the theatre owner may try to override the distributor to buy the films he needs (the “open market” model) so as to directly set up his own program. The growth of this last model can be seen in the rising power of theatre owners: theatre managers created a trade association of in 1917, while the First National signed up an exclusive deal with Charlie Chaplin. The former saw his status as an independent actor-player-producer enhanced, and theatre owners benefitted from his brand.
The author shows the evolution of the relationships between the different players in the cinema industry, relationships that took some time to stabilise: the theatre owner at the turn of the century becomes a distributor and then a producer so as to keep supplying his theatre, then the producer mandates his own terms so as to plan its production, eventually the distributor claims a privileged position between production and consumption, pushing its brand as guarantee for quality. Initially, regardless of the sector, the industry was highly fragmented, hence a growing amalgamation among companies in order to increase control over the product (the film) or its exploitation (distribution and theatres). For example, as of 1908, the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), the so-called “Trust”, brought together producers under the management of Edison and Eastman-Kodak, which held a quasi-monopoly over the production of films. The following year, the same players created the General Film Company for distribution. The MPPC held its power from the patents owned by Edison.
This initial concentration led independent producers to try to organise themselves through various forms of regroupings (of production units, within a distribution firm, or through vertical integration). It also triggered the first anti-trust case of the cinema industry,4 a legal action led successfully by Fox and other independent producers and distributors against the “Trust”. One should stress that such conflict and competition between players should not be reduced to its sole economic dimension, it was also a struggle to impose the way movie theatres were run (shorts or long feature-films, the number of films) and consequently more diversified forms of production (drama, comedy). In other words the industry was trying to invent the mode of consumption and the concomitant business model.
Against this backdrop, the Triangle was planning to set up, within a program that was being now arranged on a weekly basis, a double program, which consisted of prestigious “feature films” (five reels), as a follow up to the success of Birth of a Nation, on the one hand, and of short slapstick films, on the other hand. This was as much about promoting a film format, the feature film, as a way to support the format (by including a long and a short film within a single show). This exploitation regime was adopted by the distribution company according to the aesthetic choice as to what kind of work was seen as most fitting, therefore production was entrusted to recognised figures such as Griffith, Ince, and Sennett.
The analysis of the way the company was working reveals how the division of labour was organised in the cinema industry, especially the role of the “supervisor” (in this case Griffith, Ince and Sennett) who managed the installations and the production units of films (Kay Bee, Keystone, and Fine Arts for the Triangle), greenlit the scripts and selected the filmmakers on the West Coast. The continuity script played a leading role in preparation, coordination and management, but also in the liaison between the different teams involved in each phase of the production. It allows to understand the part played by the managing editor during the film-making process and that include Keystone’s slapstick films, a far cry from the myth of the unbridled improvisation of Keystone’s gagmen.
The historical analysis also shows how what Vernet describes as the “star-producer-unit-system” (a production unit managed by a star like Chaplin, Fairbanks, or Pickford) was added to the former model of production, the “producer-unit system” under the management of a filmmaker, and the “central-producer unit system” under the direction of a central producer, to use the wording borrowed from Janet Staiger. This last system led to the creation, in 1919, of United Artists by the three aforementioned stars (joined by D.W. Griffith), which represented a single distributor managing their respective independent productions.
The rather complex case of the short history of the Triangle, a complexity whose threads Vernet takes great care to disentangle, like the multiple interactions between the various protagonists within the company (personalities coming from the world of finance, from filmmaking, from distribution), shows some successes. And yet the story ended in failure, a fate which reveals the numerous tensions and conflicts in an evolving system, characterised by a strong competition as well as artistic and technical rivalry, each player trying to make the best out of the innovations and successes of the others. Nevertheless, the company did contribute to the constitution of an industrial inter-city network, where Hollywood became a kind of Silicon Valley for cinema. By the same token, the company laid one of the cornerstones for the foundation of the studio system. For instance, Ince installed electrical generators as early as 1915.
My review is probably slightly unbalanced because of its focus on economic forces, but the book is more diverse and brings more elements into play, which is also due to its use of images.5 The book further highlights the interaction between economic parameters and the aesthetic dimension. On top of the film formats we noted, we are given an analysis of a number of the films produced, of some of the themes and schemas that were adopted and subsequently flourished, like the “last-minute rescue” introduced by Griffith, as well as some stereotypes like the “greedy Mexicans”. The history of the Triangle, concludes the author, shows that in Hollywood “nothing gets lost, everything holds together” (p. 239): geography, the organisation of the aesthetic work, film formats and the management of film theatres. For instance, as shooting real fires became possible due to the fact that the filming locations on the West Coast were far away from urban areas, it ushered in the ability to assert one filmic specificity: the representation of a catastrophe in natural sceneries.
The book also treats the articulation between film production and the policies of the US government, as illustrated by the commitment of the Triangle to a policy of neutrality during World War I, with films like Civilization (Thomas H. Ince, 1915) and Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916). At the same time, it was an opportunity to gain advantage over the European film industry (Gaumont, Pathé and Méliés were all active in the US market at the time), shifting to US productions, thereby proceeding with the “Americanisation of the cinema”.
Marc Vernet, Ainsi naquit Hollywood. Avant l’âge d’or, les ambitions de la Triangle et des premiers studios (Paris, Armand Colin, 2018)
- Cecil B. de Mille is an exemplary case, since he came from the world of theatre. Vernet stresses, and rightly so, that this positive relationship with theatre is very often forgotten in histories of the cinema. ↩
- All translations are my own unless otherwise noted. ↩
- With exotic animals as well. Studios were often equipped with zoos, or hosting a Sioux tribe and some 150 horses at Inceville. ↩
- This began in 1912 under the Sherman Antitrust Act. The most famous case of the US film industry is that of Paramount (United States v. Paramount Pictures: 334 U.S. 131 (1948)). This antitrust was initiated in 1938, the decision was sustained by the Supreme Court in 1948: the major film studios were forced to divest themselves of their movie theatre chains. ↩
- Which represent documents d’exception (“exceptional documents”) according to the cover. The book also contains a glossary, and a chronology of the introduction of new techniques. ↩