On the McCutcheons Fils et Père

Well, it’s the night before The Night Before Christmas, but it seemed a reasonable thing to peg this post about the McCutcheons to, in addition to December being the birthday of Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. (1884-1928).

His dad, Wallace McCutcheon, Sr. was by far the more significant of the two, for he was one of the earliest director-cinematographers of the American cinema, helming some of the earliest and most significant films at Biograph and Edison from 1897 to 1908. We’ve not done a post on him yet because (ironically) for a man who documented so much, so very little has been documented about him. Some proper historian should make it their mission to get the definitive answers, not that some haven’t tried, but so far there seems to be nothing reliable about McCutcheon’s birth, death, or background, though it is believed that he spent his early years in the theatre. Most of his career was at Biograph and its predecessor American Mutoscope, but for two years (1906-08) he defected to Edison, where he co-directed films with Edwin S. Porter. He was affectionately known as “Pop” or “The Old Man”, to differentiate him from his son. Shortly after returning to Biograph in 1908 he fell ill, and passed the reins to his inexperienced son who did a terrible job and was fired. His replacement was none other than D.W. Griffith, which launched a whole new phase in cinema history. There is some evidence that McCutcheon, Sr. was hired by Star Films the American branch of the Méliès company, but after that, record of his existence fades away like invisible ink.

The elder McCutcheon is credited with directing the first American comedy chase films, as well as the earliest surviving gangster film The Black Hand (1906), and the first westerns (his 1903 films The Pioneers and Kit Carson came out a few weeks before The Great Train Robbery). When Knights Were Bold (1908) is said to be the first U.S. screen adaptation of a purchased stage property. His dozens of films include some of the 1902 Foxy Grandpa comedies, 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea (1905), The Nihilist (1905), and Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1905). With Porter he co-directed such well-known films as The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), The Teddy Bears (1907) and, yes, The Night Before Christmas (1905). In his early years as a cameraman, he captured (or depicted) such notable events as President McKinley’s funeral, President Roosevelt’s inauguration, and important ship launches and boat races.

A decade after his Biograph debacle, following World War One service Wallace McCutcheon Jr returned to the screen as an actor in such films as The Floor Below (1918) with Mabel Normand and Tom Moore; the serial The Black Secret (1919) starring Pearl White, to whom McCutcheon was married for a brief time; A Virtuous Vamp (1919) with Constance Talmadge; The Phantom Foe (1920) with Warner Oland; The Thief (1920) with White; and Little, But Oh My (1921) with Ernest Truex. White divorced him in 1921, and he subsequently fell prey to the bottle. Like a character in one of those early screen melodramas, in 1928 he ended his own life with a gun to the head. Merry Christmas!

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