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1909 Movies and Progress JENNIFER M. BEAN Talk of progress was everywhere in the air. I mean this quite literally if we recall that one sunny July afternoon Orville Wright flew a two-seater airplane with a passenger for just over sixty minutes at an average speed of forty miles per hour. The landing was safe, a record was set, and what followed marked the onset of military aviation: the Wright brothers sold the aircraft to the Army’s Aeronautical Division, the U.S. Signal Corps. Then again, what the airplane did for the army, the railway did for another government agency, the U.S. Postal Service. On 22 May the front page of the New York Times revealed that “the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Northern Pacific Railroads have combined to inaugurate a service from Chicago to Seattle that will annihilate distance,” promising that “the transmission of mails from NY to Seattle in four days is a certainty.” Such speedy delivery to the Northwest certainly enhanced East Coast correspondence with the Pacific-Alaska-Yukon Exposition (P-A-Y), which opened on 1 June to an eager public with the express purpose of “boom[ing] Seattle as the shortest road to the fields of trade extension in the Orient” (New York Times SM4). To move higher, faster, further: this is what it means to speak of progress more generally. The powerful mobility implied by the term “progress” thus conveys something of its privileged status as the ubiquitous catchword of industrial America, a nation proud of its capacity for seemingly infinite expansion, development, and growth. It also conveys something of the spirit that led one writer for the New York Times to make a bold historical claim in an “inventory” of the “history of the nation’s progress”: “In the Hundred and Twenty Years Since Washington’s Inauguration the Country’s Progress Has Been Continuous.” Gliding deftly over tense “resting points” of recent memory—like the Money Panic of 1907—the writer calculates “astounding records” of “material progress” in the country’s production of iron and steel, the vast spread of railway and shipping routes, the proliferation of telephones and telegraph stations, the advances in electricity and manufacturing techniques, and the steady increase in per capita 225 wealth and bank clearances, life insurance policies, newspaper circulation, and the college student population. Emboldened by such evidence, the writer envisions an ever-greater America, a country marching to the tune of ongoing progress following the inauguration of President William Taft, which was slated for the coming week. The buoyant tone of the prophecy, however, depends little on the perceived capacities of Taft’s leadership. It depends instead on the writer’s assessment of a particular trend in American corporate structures during the most recent period of growth (1885–1909), specifically the “enormous development of public companies and the centralization of industrial control,” a trend emblematized in the field of manufacturing by the “bigness” of the “Steel Trust” (“Nation’s Story”). The newly formed film “Trust” may seem modest by comparison. But the centralization of industrial control for film production, distribution, and exhibition in America offered hitherto unimaginable stability for those companies entering the year as licensed members of the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC). It also ensured their dominance of the market. At base, the MPPC functioned as a patent-pooling organization, with sixteen of the most crucial patents—for such things as cameras and projectors— previously held by Edison, Biograph, the Armat Company, and Vitagraph combined and transferred to a holding company, the Empire Trust. Members included the most powerful and well-established production companies —Edison, Vitagraph, Selig Polyscope, Lubin, and Biograph as well as two French firms, Pathé Frères and Georges Méliès’s Star Film—while stretching to incorporate two relative newcomers: Kalem and Essanay. A tricky bit of negotiation with George Kleine, of Kleine Optical in Chicago, the largest domestic distributor of foreign films, solidified the Patent Company ’s monopolistic control by foreclosing the American market to the majority of European firms and setting quotas on the importation of foreign footage. A prime objective, the MPPC revealed to exhibitors in early February , was to “eliminate the cheap and inferior foreign films which have been forced upon the market” (qtd. in Rosenbloom 46). The Patent Company, in turn, quite effectively forced their films upon the market. The control of key patents, as well as an exclusive contract with Eastman Kodak for the supply of...


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