Wilder west: 'Versus Sledge Hammers' (1915) made in Niles by the Essanay Film Company played the annual Broncho Billy festival last weekend. (Photo courtesy Niles Essanay)

Niles Essanay's Voguing Eunuchs, Raving Madmen

Mary B. Scott July 1, 2008

Squint your eyes as you walk down main street Niles and you can almost see Charlie Chaplin with his paramour, Edna Purviance, strolling over to the local Nickelodeon to catch a film in 1915. Not much looks changed in the historic town of Niles (now a part of the conglomerate city of Fremont—but don’t call it Fremont in front of Niles locals.) Having just spent three invigorating days in Niles watching crowds cheering as world-class musicians improvised brilliantly to films from the years between 1903 and 1917, I can report that silent films are alive and well.

This town was home to the Essanay Film Studios from 1912 to 1917, the first permanent movie studio on the West Coast. Essanay also had offices in Chicago and produced over 2000 films although Niles resident projectionist and historian David Kiehn believes that only around 200 survive at most. The enthusiastic audience got to see a great sampling of those films on Sunday night with all in attendance falling for character Sophie Clutts as the ranch boys, including Slippery Slim and Alkali Ike vied for her attention in the Wild West of Niles Canyon.

Over the course of the weekend, we all got to time travel back not only to the Niles of the early 20th century but also to the rooftops of New York City where a pair of broke vaudevillians lead a string of creditors on a merry chase, to an insane asylum in Chicago where Francis X. Bushman escapes to terrorize his father, to the skies above L. A. where Mabel Normand eludes Chubby in an early flying machine. The range of film plot-lines seen are simply mind-boggling.

All of this occurred in a genuine Nickelodeon built in 1913 and frequented by such local stars as Chaplin, Ben Turpin (he of the maniacally crossing eyes,) and Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson. George Spoor and Anderson were the S and A of Essanay films. They formed the company in 1907, hired Chaplin in 1914, made approximately two films a week in and around the still-picturesque town of Niles.

The theme of this year’s fest (the Eleventh Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Fest) was the Motion Picture Patents Company known most often as Edison’s Trust. This was the group of studios that formed the most powerful organization in the film industry up until that time. The group included Vitagraph, Biograph, Lubin, Kalem, Selig, Essanay, Pathe, Kleine, and Edison’s own studio. They attempted to control production and distribution by pooling their patents and stopping any independent producers that dared to make films by any means necessary. According to silent film megastar, Diana Serra Cary, known in films as Baby Peggy, Edison’s Trust was known to send out thugs to break up cameras on location and engage in other unsavory activities. Now I had always seen "The Trust" as the bad guys, the ones who were more concerned with their own assets to bother taking the time to make quality films. For me, this weekend festival was a real eye opener.

The group at Niles always provide great, rousing entertainment but they also function as an important film history museum and repeatedly include world-renowned historians, preservationists, collectors and silent film geeks of every stripe. Well-known film historian and author Bob Birchard introduced each segment of the festival spotlighting one of the studios of the Trust with background information that set the stage for the fabulously inventive and entertaining films. Every single one of the 33 films screened was accompanied by amazing musicians who improvised their ways through films they had often not seen before and whose plots were at times not as crystal clear as we are now accustomed to from our paint-by-numbers, let’s-just repeat-what-the-audience-liked-last-year Hollywood brand of writing.

I cannot even begin to detail the marvelously convoluted plots of the comedies, adventures, serials, costume dramas, and hybrids thereof to which we were treated. Highlights included a dark tale of possibilities dashed in The Passer-by, Edison 1912; an early partner-less Oliver Hardy as a boxing instructor named Arm. Strong in The Simp and the Sophomores, Edison 1915 (this one was shown on a hand-cranked projector;) Legal Advice given by a lady lawyer to Tom Mix, Selig 1916; tough-guy jailbird Paul Hurst getting revenge on a judge in The Fatal Opal, Kalem 1914; and of course the incredibly sensuous and sexual vampire dance in 1913’s The Vampire, Kalem. Let’s not forget The Girl from Frisco, the fighting heiress, Kalem, 1916 wherein our intrepid gal ignores the ineffectual cowboys, jumps on a horse and solves a mystery about sheep rustling or the Vitagraph masterpiece where a couple’s love is so strong that the man fakes not only a suicide but glaucoma to set up his motive. All of this is done so his wife can feel free to pursue a romance with a feminist, socialist polo player in Playing Dead, 1915.

When we got to Lubin, a company I had barely heard of, we had a spoiled college boy proving himself a man by working as a fisherman in the visually stunning A Man’s Making, 1915; a tragic tale of three friends who promise to reunite before they take very different paths in Until We Three Meet Again, 1913. Biograph studio was more familiar to many with films by Mack Sennett and D. W. Griffith but no one was prepared for the real nail-biting tension created by Griffith’s superior directing coupled with Blanche Sweet’s great acting and Phil Carli’s riveting piano work in The Lonedale Operator, 1911. It was really obvious that DWG was determined to make features in the tale of Judith of Bethulia, 1914 with its thousands of extras doing battle in chariots while the curvaceous Judith first seduced and then beheaded Hotofernes. This was the one that featured the trusted eunuch whose costumes and dancing were amazingly several decades ahead of their time. We ended with the local products from Essanay and they were splendid indeed. The aforementioned Francis X. Bushman (my mother’s own favorite matinee idol) was truly demented in The Madman, 1911 and Broncho Billy showed why he was the first and foremost movie cowboy of them all in the made-in-Niles Broncho Billy and the Claim Jumpers, 1915. The lovable Sophie played by Margaret Joslin charmed one and all in the truly strange Snakeville comedy, Versus Sledge Hammers, 1912 restored by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum this last year.

All in all, it was exhausting, exhilarating, informative, mind-blowing and really fun to spend a weekend in Niles. This same Edison Theater located at 37417 Niles Blvd. shows silent films with live music every Saturday year-round and plans more festivals including a 90th birthday celebration for Baby Peggy this coming November where her classic Captain January 1924 will be shown. Visit their website.

When Mary Scott isn’t feasting on obscure silent films, she teaches Film Studies and Video Production at both San Francisco State University and College of San Mateo. She will be teaching in London this coming Fall and hopes to journey to the Pordenone Silent Film Fest in Italy in October.

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