1912 - Vaudeville comedian Mack Sennett forms Keystone Studios in California. Drawing from French farce, Sennett’s slapstick comedies feature manic cops, prancing beauties, and high-energy antics. Vaudevillians Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand get their start in Sennett’s comedies. In 1914, English music hall performer Charlie Chaplin joins Keystone and, within a year, becomes the company’s most popular performer. Chaplin’s fame skyrockets along with his salary, earning him more money than any entertainer in history.
1912 – Thomas Ince creates the first modern movie studio, “Inceville”, in Santa Monica, CA, and begins mass-producing westerns. Three years later, Carl Laemmle acquires 230 acres in the sparsely-populated San Fernando Valley and creates the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, with an entire functioning city – Universal City – devoted to making movies. Laemmle opens his studio to tourists, who can watch the filmmaking action on the set.
1910-1920 – Since the majority of early movie audiences are women and children, moviemakers begin producing adventure serials with women in lead roles, including actress Pearl White, dubbed “the queen of the serials”. Female writers and directors are common behind-the-scenes: Alice Guy-Blaché breaks ground as a highly prolific director in the pre-Hollywood era, while Lois Weber becomes the highest paid director during Universal’s early years. Journalist Frances Marion is hired as a screenwriter and writes over 250 films, including THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL for Mary Pickford, already one of the country’s most respected actresses. Pickford’s rewarding partnership with Marion helps forge a new type of celebrity: the movie star.
A former actor, Kentucky-born David Wark Griffith was hired by Edison’s filmmaking company for typical melodrama fare before begrudgingly taking a job as a director at one of Edison’s rivals, Biograph. With a keen eye for film’s narrative capabilities, D.W. Griffith made more than 400 short films in his five years at Biograph. In 1915, Griffith begins ambitious plans for a risky new feature-length film, THE BIRTH OF A NATION. With its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, vilification of African Americans (played by white men in blackface), and tendency towards revisionist history, the film inspires condemnation, protests, and even riots. But the film’s mark on moviemaking is undeniable: THE BIRTH OF A NATION is an incredible financial success, and helps usher in a new era of high-profile cinematic epics.
The audience’s fascination with the recurring actors and actresses onscreen helps establish the first incarnation of the star system. With a bevy of successful films under their belts, Pickford and Chaplin negotiate higher salaries and cuts from merchandising revenue. To counter the increasing costs of performers, in 1915 William Fox manufactures his own movie star, Theda Bara (an anagram of “Arab death”). Nicknamed “the Vamp” and touted as the love child of a French artist and his Egyptian mistress, mysterious Bara entrances and titillates audiences as an exotic, sensual femme fatale – despite being little more than the Cincinnati-born daughter of a Jewish tailor. Bara’s persona was entirely manufactured, but it did the trick: audiences ate her up.
While the films of Pickford, Chaplin, and Bara offer escapism, other filmmakers seek to portray a harsher reality. In 1913, Carl Laemmle agrees to distribute TRAFFIC IN SOULS, an exposé on the illicit practice of luring immigrant girls into prostitution. Despite warnings of box office poison, the film is a financial success and the message is applauded by critics. In 1916, Thomas Ince produces CIVILIZATION, one of American film’s first grand epics and an anti-war plea for peace. But the film comes too late: the United States enters the Great War in April 1917. By the war’s end, the once-unstoppable French and Italian movie industries are crippled by the conflict in their backyards, but American moviemaking survives unscathed. What was once a market ruled by international film is now Hollywood’s for the taking.