How to honor the man who founded the Los Angeles motion picture industry–who released over 3,500 films during a career that spanned more than four decades, who produced the first American movie serial, horror film, Western, and two-hour-long feature film? Nor were these Colonel William N. Selig’s only accomplishments. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the Colonel (who never served in the military but attached the honorific to his name in the fashion of the day) a special Oscar in 1948. Four months later, he was dead. Since then, film historians have largely forgotten him. Enter Andrew A. Erish with Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood to make amends for this inexplicable neglect.
After providing William Selig’s birth date (14 March 1864) and a handful of facts about his upbringing, Erish begins the biography proper with the Colonel already twenty-nine years old and living in San Francisco, primarily for health reasons. By then, Selig had tried his hand as upholsterer, decorator, dime-show magician, fruit and health ranch manager, and co-owner of two itinerant minstrel companies. While on tour in Dallas, Selig saw his first Edison kinetoscope, which changed his life and cinema history. As Erish explains, the Colonel “resolved to develop a means of projection along the lines of popular magic-lantern shows that would provide a simultaneous viewing experience for theater-sized audiences and thus offer the potential for greater profits” (9). Selig continued pulling rabbits from hats, among other jobs, to finance development of his own projection camera. He enlisted the services of a mechanic who had been working on a knockoff version of the Lumière camera-projector, which in turn was based on an Edison design. Because Edison had failed to apply for a foreign patent, the mechanic and Selig believed themselves to be immune from patent infringement. This legal miscalculation would have enduring ramifications for what was to become the Selig Polyscope Company.
Frequently using archival stills (because most of the Colonel’s films have been lost to time), Erish demonstrates how many of Selig’s early experiments and innovations antedated film techniques and elements that we now take for granted. A camera mounted on the back of a streetcar while shooting a horse-drawn fire engine in Denver Fireman’s Race for life (1902), for example, offers a tracking shot in a moving frame. Selig’s Humpty Dumpty (1903) consists of multiple scenes that can be viewed independently as self-contained episodes or together as a continuous narrative. And When We Were Boys (1907), wherein two old men reminisce about their mischievous youth, may present the first use of flashbacks in American cinema history.
Selig’s most lasting contributions to cinema may lie within the quintessentially American genre of the narrative Western. As Erish explains, the [End Page 65] Colonel began by filming actualities of Western landscapes from moving trains and exhibiting them not only throughout the United States but in Canada, Mexico, England, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain as well. Occasionally, chance intervened. Runaway Stage Coach (1902) began as an actuality featuring attractive young ladies out for a ride. Rounding a bend, the horses became frightened by the unfamiliar sight of a cameraman, giving the film its title and the Western a familiar visual idiom. And long before German director Werner Herzog was celebrated for casting South American natives in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarratdo (1982), Selig was hiring members of the Great Sioux Nation as actors and advisors to ensure authenticity in his films. Indeed, his On the Little Big Horn; or, Custer’s Last Stand (1909) featured Native American survivors of the eponymous battle. And Selig made a fortuitous choice in hiring the athletic and seemingly indestructible Tom Mix to star in his Westerns. For the sake of cinematic immortality, the cowboy actor at various times allowed himself to be filmed being dragged along the ground from a horse’s tail, rolling down...