William Kennedy Dickson and Biograph

August 3 was the birthday of cinema pioneer William Kennedy Dickson (1960-1935).

Somehow or other, I have managed to write about just about all of the major early American film studios (Edison, Keystone, Vitagraph, EssanayKalemLubin, Selig, George Kleine, etc) while ignoring the pivotal one founded by Dickson, Biograph. Dickson is interesting in that he was sort of a citizen of the three countries that had a major hand in developing the art of the motion picture in its infancy: born in France, raised in the U.K., moved to the U.S. (His mother was American, his father Scottish). He had been a key member of Edison’s team in developing early motion picture technology, but very early on (1895), peeled off to start his own breakaway company, initially known as the American Mutoscope Company, later changed to the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, and finally just the Biograph Company. To avoid infringing on Edison’s patents, Dickson initially manufactured different kinds of cameras and viewing machines (the Mutoscope flipped still pictures on a sort of paddle wheel, rather than strips of film). Initially based at 841 Broadway at 13th Street (a building that still stands), the studio later moved to 11 East 4th Street, then finally to the Bronx.

As is well known, Biograph became an industry leader in 1908 with the hiring of D.W. Griffith, who made major contributions to the art of narrative storytelling through film. Griffith’s acolytes included Mack Sennett, who went off to found Keystone in 1912, and Mary Pickford, who became one of the silent screen’s biggest stars, as well as one of the founders (in 1919) of United Artists. Biograph’s other stars included the Gish Sisters, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Florence Lawrence, Lionel Barrymore, Owen Moore, Dorothy Davenport, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, and Mabel Normand (who of course left with Sennett).

Griffith departed in late 1913 over the issue of his ambitions to expand films to feature length, a goal he would realize the following year with his problematic The Birth of a Nation. Biograph then struck a deal with Klaw and Erlanger to adapt their plays into films, not unlike the strategy of Famous Players-Lasky (which had major theatre talent like Cecil B. DeMille and his brother William in the bullpen) and Sam Goldfish, Lasky’s brother-in-law, who partnered with the Selwyn Brothers to found Goldwyn Pictures). But the move was late and unsuccessful. The newer outfits soon eclipsed Biograph, which ceased production in 1916.

For more on silent movie history, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.