Charlie Chaplin strolls through Niles Canyon for his iconic walking scene in 'The Tramp' (1915). He spent three months in Niles (Fremont, California) shooting for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.

Film Arts: How Cinema Was Born by the Bay

Margarita Landazuri October 26, 2010

Editor's note: This article appeared originally in the November, 2006 issue of Release Print magazine, published by Film Arts Foundation. Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's David Kiehn was recently featured in a 60 Minutes investigation into the roots of A Trip Down Market Street.

The quaint East Bay hamlet of Niles (technically, a section of Fremont, California) isn’t much. Just three blocks deep, bounded by the hills on one side and a creek on the other, with a few blocks of early 20th century downtown storefronts, it could be any village abandoned by the railroad decades ago. Little hints at the fact that for a brief time in the early 20th century, Niles was the center of the nascent movie industry. For it was in 1912 that the silent-film cowboy star Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, a partner in the Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, built a studio in Niles. It was only the second film studio in California. Charlie Chaplin made five films at Essanay, and filmed his iconic walk away from the camera in The Tramp (1915) on a country road in Niles Canyon.

Today, downtown Niles Boulevard looks much like it did in Anderson’s time. The 1913 Edison Theater is now the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (, housing memorabilia and a collection of films, books, posters, photos, and documents. Rows of seats from an earlier era have racks under the seat for men to stash their hats. Upstairs, the projection booth walls are covered with the original tin, a safety precaution because of the highly flammable nitrate film stock in use at the time. Every Saturday night, the museum becomes a working movie theater, screening a silent feature and two shorts with live piano accompaniment. In June it hosts the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

Overseeing the collection is resident historian, Museum board member, and projectionist David Kiehn. The soft-spoken, unflappable Kiehn is the author of a well-researched book, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company (2003), and is probably the most knowledgeable source of information about Bay Area film history around. He hopes to expand the work of Geoffrey Bell, whose 1984 book, The Golden Gate and the Silver Screen has been the definitive history of early Bay Area filmmaking. Kiehn has uncovered additional material that Bell didn’t have access to, and has already filled several fat binders with photocopies of memos, correspondence, and newspaper clippings. His research offers a fascinating glimpse of local film history.

The Picture Moves
The story of Niles is the story of what might have been, of how the Bay Area could have become the film capital of the world. But before Niles, the case could be made that the Bay Area was the birthplace of the motion picture. In the 1870s, photographer Eadweard Muybridge, financed by wealthy industrialist Leland Stanford, undertook a series of experiments in photographing motion. By 1878, Muybridge had invented a spring-release camera shutter and lined up 24 cameras at a racetrack to capture multiple images of a galloping racehorse. After further experiments, Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope machine, a combination zoetrope and magic lantern that projected the still images as continuous action. In the spring of 1880, Muybridge and Stanford demonstrated the device at the San Francisco Art Association, to great acclaim, paving the way for the development of the motion picture.

As the public’s appetite for moving pictures grew in the first years of the new century, four brothers set up a film exchange company in San Francisco to acquire films and rent them to exhibitors around the country. The Miles Brothers opened their office in 1903, and two years later began producing films as well. At first, their films were actualities (mostly raw nonfiction capturing people, places, travels), but in 1906, they built a studio on Market Street, intending to make narrative films. On April 14, 1906, they shot the actuality A Trip Down Market Street (originally titled A Trip Through Market Street) from a cable car traveling down Market Street toward the Ferry Building. Four days later, Harry and Joe Miles were on a train headed for New York with the film when they heard about the earthquake in San Francisco. Today the film survives as a fascinating record of pre-quake San Francisco. The Miles Brothers studio withstood the seismic damage, only to be destroyed by the ensuing fire. The company continued to operate, but within three years became a victim of a changing film industry, as several film production companies merged and independent companies like Miles Brothers were forced out of business.

In December of 1908, Broncho Billy Anderson first arrived in San Francisco, looking for a place to make his westerns. A vaudeville performer, Anderson got into movies early—he played several roles in The Great Train Robbery (1903)—and soon thereafter began to direct, write, and act in his own westerns. In 1907, Anderson teamed up with George K. Spoor to form the Essanay (“S and A”) Film Manufacturing Company in Chicago. Spoor handled the business end and Anderson the creative. Anderson’s most fervent desire was to make his films authentic. “Most westerns of the day were shot in New York and New Jersey, and Anderson started making his westerns in Colorado with real cowboys,” says Kiehn. “He’d never been to California, but he’d heard about the sunny state, and he figured this was the place to be. He brought his cameraman Jess Robbins and comedian Ben Turpin. They were going to make a film in San Francisco, but they got rained out.” He shot that film in Los Angeles, but kept trying northern California, filming in Los Gatos in 1910, and San Rafael in 1911. He finally sent Robbins to scout locations, and Robbins found Niles in 1912.

Niles was ideal—plenty of sunshine, great scenery in Niles Canyon, and it was close to San Francisco. Niles was also on the railroad line, so even though it was small and rustic, it was accessible. The locals also seemed to be a bit more tolerant of show business folk than they were in southern California. Some of the townspeople were even extras in the films, including the town constable, Frank Rose, who played a convict in one of them. Anderson arrived in Niles in April of 1912. He and his crew moved into the town’s three hotels, and the cowboys camped in tents. Anderson immediately began buying land to build cottages to house his company. “He hired every carpenter in town that was available and built those first six in three months,” according to Kiehn. Eventually, there would be ten cottages, just a block from the studio that Anderson built. Those cottages are the only things that survive of Essanay in Niles today. One of the Museum’s board members bought one a couple of years ago, and Kiehn moved into it in 2005.

A Tramp Underfoot
Anderson was already a big star when he went to Niles. In 1915, another arrived. Charlie Chaplin had been making $150 a week at Keystone Studios, when Anderson hired him away for $1250 a week plus a $10,000 signing bonus. “Anderson gave Chaplin a free hand, “ says Kiehn. “He was allowed to improvise, he had his pick of who he wanted to work on his films, and he had his own crew.” Chaplin also found an important new leading lady in San Francisco. Edna Purviance was a Nevada native and business school graduate when she answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle that read, “Wanted—the Prettiest Girl in California.” Chaplin and Purviance were soon romantically involved, and David Kiehn believes the relationship “greatly influenced his filmmaking style. If you look at his Keystone films, nobody was safe. But with Edna, he doesn’t kick her, he doesn’t mess her up.” She was a love object, and that’s most obvious in the last film Chaplin made in Niles. “That’s a love story, and a tragic love story. Happy and sad parts; that was absent totally in his Keystone stuff.”

Niles residents may have loved Chaplin onscreen, but he did not endear himself to the townspeople during the short time he lived there. “He was a shy person off-camera, and I think he tried to make up for it by pretending to be outgoing,” says Kiehn. “There are stories that at baseball games he would go under the bleachers and pinch the bottoms of women.” After years of poverty, Chaplin was also tight with a buck. A teenage boy who had a part in a Chaplin film later recalled an instance when he went to the movies with Chaplin, who fumbled for money in his pocket for so long that the boy disgustedly paid the admission for both of them. After three months, Chaplin and Niles had had enough of each other, and Chaplin made the rest of his Essanay films in Los Angeles. After a year with Essanay, Chaplin was bigger than ever, and when it came time to negotiate a new contract, he asked for $10,000 a week. George Spoor refused, and Chaplin signed with Mutual.

Distribution Blues
Anderson himself was getting frustrated. More and more feature films were being made, and “Anderson was stuck in these one- and two-reel films, when he wanted to make features,” according to Kiehn. “And his partner in Chicago had all the money and control.” So Anderson sold his share in Essanay, hoping to form a company with Chaplin. “Anderson actually filmed a feature film here at the very end, and took it with him. He tried to release it later on, but Spoor stopped it for two years, and by that time, it was outdated. He never got decent distribution.” Anderson retired from acting to pursue theatrical production.

Distribution was also a problem that plagued other studios in the Bay Area. Cinematographer Hal Mohr, who went on to win an Oscar for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), was one of the founders of Italia-American Corporation in San Francisco in 1914. World War I had put a stop to the importation of films from Europe, and the goal of the company was to make films in Italian for the Italian-American market. Mohr made one film, but it was never distributed. Other studios in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco had similar problems. “It was a little difficult for film companies to get established here and make films continuously,” Kiehn says. “There was so much talent in Los Angeles by 1915, and so many companies, that an actor or technician could go down there and go from one company to another and work continuously. Up here, it was kind of hit and miss. Plus film companies here didn’t have the distribution outlets, which was really the key.”

One high-profile failure was the California Motion Picture Corporation, financed by San Francisco Comstock mining heir Herbert Payne and operated by another prominent San Franciscan, George Middleton. The company set up shop in San Rafael in 1913, with the stated goal of making adaptations of literary classics. Its leading lady was the glamorous diva Beatriz Michelena, who had married Middleton in 1907. She appeared in her first film, Salomy Jane, in 1914. Although her publicity emphasized her exoticism—she was given to posing with her pet greyhound—Michelena was an expert horsewoman and quite at home in westerns. But in spite of the quality of the company’s productions, and the size of its bankroll, “They just couldn’t sustain it,” according to Kiehn. “They were making bad distribution deals. And for some reason, they just did not get things in line so they could pare down expenses to make the next film. They were losing 10, 20, 30 thousand dollars with each production.”

Location Infatuation
Even though local studios weren’t making it, the Bay Area was a favorite destination for Hollywood companies to shoot on location in the teens and twenties, because of its scenic beauty and San Francisco’s sophistication. Parts of Mary Pickford’s films The Little Princess (1917), Daddy Long Legs (1919), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) were shot in Burlingame and Pleasanton. San Francisco’s famous cable cars were part of the action in Pickford’s Amarilly of Clothesline Alley (1918). For the modern sequence of The Ten Commandments (1923), which deals with an architect building a cathedral, Cecil B. DeMille shot the Saints Peter and Paul church in North Beach, then under construction. Erich von Stroheim filmed part of his epic masterpiece Greed (1925) in San Francisco, using actual interiors. San Francisco’s Embarcadero was the background for Rudolph Valentino’s seafaring saga, Moran of the Lady Letty (1921).

In 1915, popular comedy duo Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand made the short Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco. In the charming film, the pair comically takes in the sights of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, which celebrated San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. Six years later, San Francisco would prove to be Arbuckle’s downfall, when a party held in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel ended in the death of a starlet. Arbuckle was tried three times for her death, and finally acquitted, but his career was destroyed.

Hollywood maintained its fleeting forays into the Bay Area, but local studios could not gain traction. The Bay Area’s final bid to become a production center was Pacific Studios, later Peninsula Studios, in San Mateo. Built in 1920, the state-of-the-art studio had two enormous glass stages, as well as separate buildings for administration, laboratories, and dressing rooms. What it didn’t have was business. The studio produced one film, White Hands (1921), starring Hobart Bosworth, but was unable to attract any interest from Hollywood producers.

It was not until the 1970s that Bay Area filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were able to bring large-scale filmmaking to the Bay Area on an ongoing basis. When Lucasfilm, one of the Bay Area’s great success stories, bought the archive collection (intertitle cards, still photo negatives, and business records) of the California Motion Picture Corporation, arguably the region’s most spectacular failure, the history of Bay Area filmmaking came full circle. Although the early Bay Area film industry never took off the way Hollywood did, the pioneering spirit that the Niles Essanay Museum and Stanford’s Muybridge collection celebrate is alive and well in the work of independent Bay Area filmmakers today.

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