The Selig Polyscope Company and the Birth of Film in the Windy City
“Colonel” William Selig
By the time William N. Selig died in 1948, he had produced thousands of films via the Selig Polyscope Company, discovered a number of silent film stars, and had been recognized as a true pioneer in the film industry. Yet, his name isn’t nearly as widely known as it should be. So, who was this man, and what was the company that he created?
This, he created this.
The Selig Polyscope Company was founded in 1896. Although Selig (known as Colonel Selig despite having no military experience) is credited with erecting the first permanent studio in southern California, he actually got his start in his native Chicago. After spending time in California with a traveling minstrel show, Selig returned to the Windy City with a wealth of theater management experience and an interest in the Kinetoscope. Using drawings of the Lumiere Cinematographie, Selig, along with his machinist, mastered the art of building their own cameras, resulting in the Selig Standard Camera.
Initially setting up shop on 20 Peck Court, Selig began experimenting with slapstick films that rarely exceed 50 feet in length. He began dabbling in industrial films, and with industrial film came his first big contract.
He began dabbling in industrial films, and with industrial film came his first big contract. In 1901, Armour & Co. was reeling from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The novel had focused on the lives of immigrants in Chicago and other industrialized cities in the U.S., and, in the process, had brought to light the health violations and unsanitary conditions taking place in the meatpacking industry. Armour was eager to have their meat processing plant shown in a good light and contracted Selig to do just that. The end result was, as Moving Picture World described it, the greatest advertisement the company ever had. By 1904, Selig began experimenting with other genres and made his first “real” film — “Humpty Dumpty.”
The more he experimented with genres, the greater success he saw. He moved his plant to Irving Park Blvd. and Western Ave. and established the Edendale plant in LA. The studio specialized in westerns, dramas and comedies, but soon became best known for its animal pictures. Selig was also a film genre pioneer; he produced newsreels in association with William Randolph Hearst, created the first film serial (“The Adventures of Kathlyn”), and even produced the first two- and three-reel films in the US. He also, perhaps more-so than any other early producer, saw the potential in producing film adaptations of popular novels, stories and plays. He was even one of the first to produce versions of “The Two Orphans,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and “The Crisis.”
Despite a long period of success, and discovering and nurturing stars like Kathlyn Williams, Myrtle Stedman, Colleen Moore and Tom Mix, Selig’s reign was brought to an end in the mid-1910s. The Chicago branch of the studio closed in 1915 and Selig himself went into independent production until eventually closing up shop.
The Great Depression caused Selig to lose his assets. Fortunately, the story and novel rights he had acquired during the heyday of the studio saved him. In his later years, he became a literary agent, re-selling the story rights to films he had made during the 1910s.
Though he retired from the film industry, Colonel Selig’s contributions were recognized by Hollywood shortly before his death. Like fellow Chicago pioneers G.M. Anderson and George K. Spoor, was honored for his contributions to the film industry in 1948 with a special Academy Award.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub