Parts 14 in a History of Film Series by Larry Telles
William Nicholas Selig was born on March 14, 1864 and raised in Chicago in a Bohemian-Polish immigrant family. After starting as a furniture upholsterer, he worked as a vaudeville performer and produced a traveling minstrel show in San Francisco while still in his late teens. Selig saw Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope at an exhibition in Dallas, Texas and returned home to Chicago. He opened a small photography studio and began investigating how he might make his own moving pictures without paying a patent fee to Edison’s company. Together with his machinist, were able to build their own camera, the Selig Standard Camera.
In 1896, Selig founded the Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago, which was one of the first motion picture studios in America. He began making actuality shorts, travelogues and industrial films for Chicago businesses. During this time the Colonel began dabbling with slapstick films that rarely exceeded 50 feet in length. He later shifted his attention to animal pictures. That was the result of a denied request to join Theodore Roosevelt as he hunted big game in Africa. When Selig’s cameraman was denied permission to accompany Roosevelt on his expedition, Selig did the next best thing. He arranged a wild game hunt using retired circus animals. He released Hunting Big Game in Africa in May 1909. This was the first of many animal pictures he made.
Selig became well respected as a pioneer in the genres he produced. He sent teams of players, directors and cinematographers west to make westerns and animal pictures. In 1909, Selig was the first producer to expand film making operations to the West Coast where he set up studio facilities in the Edendale area of Los Angeles with director Francis Boggs. Southern California’s climate allowed outdoor filming for most of the year. Los Angeles also offered geographical isolation from Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), a cartel which Selig later reluctantly joined.
Selig brought popular stories to the big screen, including some of the earliest film adaptations of The Wizard of Oz and Orphans of the Storm. He is credited as the pioneer of the two-reeler. The Sergeant, a Western short shot in Yosemite and produced and directed by Boggs for the Selig Polyscope Company was released in September 1910. In 1911, Boggs was murdered by a Japanese gardener employed by the company. Selig was shot and wounded in the arm while trying to defend him.
William N. Selig had a long period of success. He produced stars like Kathlyn Williams, Myrtle Stedman, Roscoe Arbuckle, Colleen Moore and Tom Mix. Selig also popularized the cliffhanger format through the serial The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913). The Spoilers (1914), a western set in Alaska, is often cited as his greatest success.In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified all of Edison’s MPPC patents, breaking the cartel and allowing increased competition.
Next Issue: Part 15 – The Fall of the Studio – Selig Polyscope