Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: University of Texas Press
Title Page, Copyright
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I first learned of Col. William N. Selig when I read Kevin Brownslow's enthralling history of early cinema, The War, the West and the Wilderness. Mr. Brownlow’s nonpareil contributions to film scholarship continue to educate and inspire. I am especially grateful for his selfless guidance, remarkable resources, formidable knowledge, and gracious endorsement of this effort...
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Introduction: The Forgotten Pioneer
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The Academy Awards ceremony held on March 20, 1948, honored what were deemed the best films released in 1947. The event also celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The occasion inspired Academy president Jean Hersholt to spearhead an effort to formally recognize the founders of the American film...
1. The Birth of a Motion Picture Company
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William Nicholas Selig (pronounced see-lig) was born on March 14, 1864, at 10 Kramer Street, Chicago, Illinois, to Joseph Franz and Antonia (Linsky) Selig, the fifth of eight children. Selig’s father, a shoemaker, hailed from Bohemia, his mother from Prussia. Not much is known of “Willy” Selig’s early years except that his German-speaking family was poor and...
2. Making Westerns in the West
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William Selig was among the few pioneering filmmakers to produce actuality (documentary) films in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. The choice of images and the methods for producing these films formed the basis for Selig’s narrative Westerns, for several years distinguishing his production style and content from those of all other filmmakers. However, just as his Westerns would eventually result in a legacy of influence that...
3. The Creation of the Movie Cowboy
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The western was of primary importance in establishing physical action as a defining characteristic of the American motion picture industry. In contrast with the Western melodramas of competitors such as Essanay and Lubin, which featured relatively sedate protagonists, not to mention Pathé Frères, whose “Westerns” were an object of derision in the United States, the...
4. Selig in Eden: The Genesis of Movies in Los Angeles
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During November-December 1907, Francis Boggs directed A thousand-foot version of Alexandre Dumas’ nineteenth-century international best seller, The Count of Monte Cristo. With its title shortened to Monte Cristo, the film was actually a fourteen-minute adaptation of highlights from the popular theatrical version of the novel, which continued to be performed...
5. Selig’s Cinematic Jungles and Zoo
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Whereas William Selig's engagement with developing the essential properties of the cinematic Western seems to have been deliberate, his development of another motion picture genre, the jungle-adventure film, seems to have been almost accidental. The company frequently referred to these films as “Jungle-Zoo Wild Animal Pictures,” and they would for years...
6. Leading the World
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Selig's success wasn't merely the result of cultivating a more dynamic form of cinema; just as important was his establishment of a London-based distribution center that would eventually reach into every corner of the world. Ironically, Selig’s worldwide dominance would ultimately contribute to the demise of his company...
7. Actualities, Expeditions, and Newsreels
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Throughout most of the silent era, actualities was the term used for films that would later become more commonly known as “documentaries.” During the first decade of American commercial cinema, actualities were more widely produced than narratives.1 They were easier and cheaper to make than narrative films, which required a storyline, actors, props, and usually...
8. The Development of the Feature Film
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During the first fifteen years of commercial American cinema, most films were no more than fifteen minutes in length—a single, thousand-foot reel.1 This was partly because projectors could accommodate only one reel at a time. In addition, a full reel’s approximately fifteen-minute running length mimicked the duration of the average small-time vaudeville act. Smalltime...
9. Exiled from Eden
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William Selig reached the pinnacle of his success with the release of The Adventures of Kathlyn and The Spoilers in 1914. The popularity of his jungle-adventure films, which resulted in the construction of one of the world’s largest private zoos and first movie theme park, as well as the international success of the Tom Mix Westerns, all contributed to Selig’s high standing...
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More than a century has passed since William Selig led the motion picture industry to Los Angeles. So many of the things he initiated or was instrumental in developing are so intimately woven into the fabric of the movies that a complete accounting of his accomplishments is all but impossible. Thus it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to suggest that commercial films made after Selig owe something to him, though it’s doubtful if anyone involved...
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Suggested Reading and Selected Selig Filmography
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Publication Year: 2012