Col. William N. Selig: The Man Who Invented Hollywood by Andrew A. Erish. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. Cloth, $60.00, 303pp, illustrated. ISBN: 978-0-292-72870-7.
Anyone writing about a pioneer of cinema wants to claim at least one “first” for his subject, but Andrew Erish, in his biography of William N. Selig, has garnered a whole slew of them for the Colonel.1 Before you have a chance to crack the spine, the author announces one of the boldest in the book’s subtitle. Claiming Selig as the inventor of Hollywood is a sly nod to reader expectations: the movie industry might well have originated in some sort of big bang, but perhaps, like the creationists needing a creator, it’s only natural that we should want the American film machine to have an inventor. Whether we can call the result — Hollywood — an intelligent design is another discussion, but Erish’s monograph makes a solid case for Selig not just setting up Hollywood in LA, but also for the Colonel being the mastermind behind the unstoppable entertainment juggernaut that is the American film industry.
Indeed, as he quite soberly casts light into the dim corners of early American filmmaking, one of Erish’s chief aims is to debunk and demythologize preconceptions about the origins of the Hollywood zeitgeist. His effort to load so many innovations onto the back of Selig — not exactly a household name — is surprisingly credible. Conveniently for the reader the author lists Selig’s innovation in the preface — the bullets run to 16 in all — but the Colonel’s life story is something of an eye-opener anyway, and it’s revelatory because of the depth of Erish’s research, which he impeccably documents in citations that take up more than 60 pages in the rear of the book. As an academic, Erish more or less writes like one, but if the prose is somewhat dry, so is the wit that occasionally leavens it. More to the point, it’s the book’s sobriety and factual clarity that make it compelling.
Throughout his life, William Nicholas Selig (1864-1948) remained strictly a businessman, but with an uncommon zest for whatever entertainment vehicle he happened to be selling. Back in the 1890s when he began his career, minstrelsy was still mainstream showbiz, and by 1896 Selig had swiftly acquired two minstrel companies, in the meantime giving an unknown Bert Williams his first break. Hiring Williams was probably Selig’s first act of entertainment prescience; the black comedian went on to become one of vaudeville’s biggest stars.
Selig’s involvement with minstrelsy ended abruptly when he encountered Edison’s coin-operated kinetoscope machines in the mid-1890s. Erish claims that Selig, more or less concurrently with Edison, envisioned the need to break free of the individually viewed kinetoscope machines with a device that would project the moving images to groups of people (and thus make more money), but Edison beat Selig to the punch — by 1896, the inventor had a functioning projector and audiences watching movies on a screen. Undeterred, Selig went on to construct his own projector, doing his best to circumnavigate the specifications of Edison’s so as to avoid a patent suit.
Major legal battles with Edison were down the road, however. In 1897 Selig began producing and selling short films, which in the years before the nickelodeon were shown in circus tent shows and vaudeville houses where Selig also sold his projector. Business was good until 1900, when Edison, who’d been seeking monopoly over film production and showings, began his relentless ten-year series of litigations against Selig and other competitors. As the public demand for the new medium grew, Edison’s monopoly became untenable, and in 1909 a compromise was reached between the inventor and the smaller independent companies, resulting in the formation of The Motion Picture Patents Company.
With Edison mollified, Selig hit the ground running, establishing a production troupe in Los Angeles that same year. Pushing Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1904) aside, Erish credits Selig with producing the first true westerns. By utilizing authentic locale, Native Americans, and actual cowpokes, Selig’s early westerns were more historically accurate than Porter’s effort and arguably than most of those in the following decades. His 1909 reenactment of the battle at Little Big Horn featured three Sioux that had participated in the actual 1876 engagement with Custer. Selig had hoped the trio, acting additionally as historical consultants, could provide even more authenticity to the filmed proceedings, but they said the historical battle had been over so quickly that they remembered very little of it.
By 1910, going full-steam with his westerns, Selig had hired Tom Mix (right), the first cowboy star, giving Mix, by Erish’s estimation, the status as the original action hero, a genre-defying concept that refuses to die to this day. Selig very nearly produced the first Tarzan movie, too, but the book’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who initially had wanted Selig to make it, eventually produced Tarzan of the Apes himself in 1918, casting Elmo Lincoln in the title role.
Still, Burroughs elected to have the film shot at Selig’s zoo studio in East Los Angeles. The entrepreneur had opened his zoo — zoos being a fledgling concept in America at the time — in 1914, as both a park opened to the public and an open-air location at which Selig could photograph his popular series of jungle-adventure pictures. It was these films — featuring the live exotic animals Selig had imported to his zoo — that interested Burroughs in the first place; one of Selig’s last jungle movies (in 1917) was an adaptation of a Burroughs story.
Tarzan films, of course, became a massive Hollywood franchise over the next half a century, but a more generalized category of jungle adventure also held sway well into the latter part of the twentieth century. America’s fascination with the jungle was perhaps first ignited by President Theodore Roosevelt’s African safari in 1909 — for which Selig desperately campaigned to be the documenter. When the President rejected his offer to film the expedition, the Colonel hired a Roosevelt impersonator to star in a reenactment staged while the chief executive was still at large in the Dark Continent. The film, Hunting Big Game in Africa — premiering with a scene included of Roosevelt shooting a lion a mere two weeks after the actual event — was a hit with nickelodeon audiences and led to a hugely successful jungle-film craze that was fanned back into full blaze two decades later by the efforts of Merian C. Cooper, with films like The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933), and She(1935). Perhaps the final flowering of the jungle picture (we can only hope) came with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park films, the first of which unintentionally pays homage to Selig by placing its action in an artificial, controlled jungle — a zoo, in fact, like Selig’s.
The most far-reaching innovation that Erish grants Selig is the development of the feature-length film in America. As ever with Selig — and, of course, with Hollywood ever since — the motivation behind lengthening the running time of his films was to make more money. Selig believed that the only way to lure the middle class into the lower-class (i.e., working-class) nickelodeons was with more complex plots and interesting characters. He may have also made the first 2,000-foot feature film in America, Damon and Pythias, in 1908, but with The Spoilers (1914), he produced the first two-hour American feature.
Few of Selig’s films exist, but for the ones that do, there has been little enthusiasm for restoration, revival, or home video resuscitation. A print of The Spoilers (above) survives, however, and Erish’s description of it makes you want to see it. Adapted from Rex Beach’s 1903 bestseller, Selig’s production was the first, by my count, of a total of five adaptations of it for the big screen.2 Starring William Farnum — the originator of the role of Ben Hur on the stage — the film highlights one of Selig’s touchstones for his western films: a dedication to reproducing a realistic setting for the action. According to Erish, the sets recreating the town of Nome, Alaska, feature weathered, three-dimensional-looking structures fronting muddy streets, populated with authentically costumed extras, and a fully functional, grungy saloon enlivened by dancing girls and blackface performers.
This might seem like the kind of retro frontier specificity sought after by Robert Altman in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) or by David Milch’s HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006).3 In 1913-1914, however, a drive for authenticity need not be considered retro, since frontier realities weren’t so long in the past; indeed, they probably still lingered here and there in backwoods America. Regardless, any such recreation can be brought off more convincingly in a black-and-white silent film than in a Technicolor sound production. Erish also reveals a level of cinematic sophistication in The Spoilers, such as the placement of panoramic establishing shots, which most commentators would point to Griffith originating in Birth of a Nation (1915). If The Spoilers can actually be considered an American classic, wouldn’t it be nice if an enterprising home video concern like Kino or Flicker Alley would resurrect it?
If only the most dedicated film scholars — like Kevin Brownlow — seem to know of Selig’s existence, it’s probably because Selig, however much he innovated, remained solely a producing and promoting force, rather than, in addition, a creative one, like Griffith.4 But like Griffith, and other early filmmaking pioneers, Selig self-financed his projects, a business model that wouldn’t survive much past the early twenties, as the big studios emerged and the Hollywood picture became bank-financed. As a film producer, Selig barely made it into the twenties before he mostly shut down in that role, although he fitfully produced a few projects into the thirties.
Erish wisely doesn’t try to dramatize Selig’s less than precipitant fall from prominence; it’s a story that lacks the juice of scandal, suicide, or even simple public humiliation. Selig, out of business as a producer, merely shifted to a less lucrative but still profitable business plan. Selling scenarios to the studios from a massive store of novels and plays to which he’d brokered the rights back in the day (some he’d actually written himself), he maintained, on Sunset Boulevard, an office as “Playbroker and Author’s Agent” well into the ’40s. He died, quietly, in 1948, at the age of eighty-four.
- The honorific was self-applied by Selig, who adopted it, presumably, as a bid for respectability, laboring as he did in the stables of entertainment that were considered less so. [↩]
- After Selig’s 1914 version, The Spoilers returned to the screen in 1923, 1930, 1942, and 1955. The 1942 picture starred John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. [↩]
- Although both Altman and Milch, while keeping their streets muddy, sought to up the ante on frontier realism by making their buildings look newly constructed. [↩]
- To clarify this point, it’s obvious that Selig was creative in his drive to innovate, to promote the realism in his westerns, and so on. But from Erish’s descriptions of them, it seems that the majority of the films themselves were mostly lowest-common-denominator, mass-market creations with no pretensions, as Griffith and von Stroheim self-consciously held for their productions, of advancing the art of the feature film. [↩]