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Vintage Hollywood Movie Studios-Part 1

AMERICAN FILM MANUFACTURING COMPANY

One of the most active film industry pioneers was Harry Aitken.  He and his brother, Roy, started with a makeshift theater in their barn near Waukesha, Wisconsin.  Soon they left the farm and opened their first theater in Chicago.  The success from the first venture led them to a string of five theaters.

Visit hollywoodphotographs.com to view a large collection of American Film Manufacturing Co. photos

Harry, however, was more interested in supplying other theaters with films.  He met with realtor John Freuler in Milwaukee and, in February 1908, started the . Western Film Exchange, with Aitken as President.  After more than a year of distributing other peoples’ movies,  they decided to to begin producing their own films.  The two met with H & H Film Service owners, Samuel S. Hutchinson and Charles J. Hite to explore the idea of entering the motion picture business.  After considerable discussion, the four organized the American Film Manufacturing Company (nicknamed the  Flying “A” because of its winged “A”) in October, 1910 and elected Hutchinson as President and general manager.   The company, which eventually dropped “Manufacturing” from the company’s name in 1915, opened its first studio in Chicago.  It raided two of its Chicago competitors, the Essanay Film Company and Selig Polyscope by hiring several of their established actors and support personnel.  After making numerous films in the windy city, the company realized that Chicago’s weather was not ideal for making movies.  Also, by not being a licensed member of the monopolistic Patents Company, they were frequently harassed by the thugs hired by the Trust.  So, in early 1911,  S.S. Hutchinson dispatched a small troupe of eleven people to make westerns on the Pacific Coast.  Included in the troupe were J. Warren Kerrigan, male lead; Jack Richardson and George Periolot, heavies; Louise Lester, comedienne; Pauline Bush, female lead; Marshall Nielan, juvenile; Charlotte Burton, female heavy; Jessalyn Van Trump, ingenue; and Frank Beal, as director. 

American Film Photos

Searching for ideal locations for westerns, the small production unit filmed in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.  The schedule called for two complete, one thousand foot, one-reel productions each week.  As they were completed, they would be sent back to Chicago for processing.  Several one-reelers were shot and sent to Chicago during the first month -- then the delivery of films slowed to a trickle. Hutchinson dispatched Alan Dwan to see what was causing the delay.  Here’s where the story gets a little murky.  Over the course of the last few years of his life, Dwan granted several interviews and wrote numerous letters to film researchers about the early years of his illustrious career.  Probably due to his advanced age, his recollections of where he “hooked up” with the west coast troupe, is not consistent.  In some interviews, he claims to have found them in La Mesa, California -- in other interviews he said they were San Juan Capistrano, California and in others, he located the troupe in Tucson, Arizona.  Regardless of where he met them, he discharged Frank Beal, took over the directorial reins and resumed film production. It wasn’t long before the troupe migrated again, this time to the nearby community of La Mesa, California.  They established a new studio in the Wolff Building on the north side of Lookout Avenue (today La Mesa Boulevard).  The interior of the structure was partitioned into dressing rooms, offices, and developing, drying and finishing rooms.  The adjoining lot was leased providing a total of 7,500 square feet of outdoor space where carpenters erected an open-air stage for filming “interior” scenes.

American operated in La Mesa and environs for over a year, making well over one hundred one-reel westerns. Many of their films were shot outdoors, and by the summer of 1912, much of the available scenery had been photographed.

Photo of American Film Co.

American Film Co. in Santa Barbara

Scouts were sent out all over the state to look for a new studio site. Several areas were carefully considered and it was decided that Santa Barbara, California would be the ideal location.  When the company arrived in Santa Barbara, on July 6, 1912, they had not yet selected any quarters.  Therefore, their first task was to find a suitable location.  A search was made for a temporary site until a more permanent spot could be found and construction could begin.  The company soon learned of an old Ostrich farm that was available on the east side of upper State Street, the main road of the town.  A lease was signed immediately following an inspection of the grounds.  The birds were evicted and with in a few days the first picture was made in the new studio.

A small outdoor stage was built in the back part of the lot.  The house in front was used as offices of the company.  A diffusing system of muslin sheets was constructed over the stage and the entire operation was patterned much like the one that had existed in La Mesa.

The westerns produced by American were well received by the public and they wanted more.  To meet this increasing demand, Dwan established a second production unit with Wallace Reid as his star.  It wasn’t long, however, before a personality clash erupted between J. Warren Kerrigan and Dwan.  Kerrigan, who was the leading man of the original production unit, didn’t like Reid being a star.  To calm things down, Hutchinson came out from Chicago.  After speaking with all parties involved, he fired Dwan and Reid and disbanded the second unit.  Dwan left for Universal Films in May, 1913 and took with him his wife, the popular actress, Pauline Bush.

American Photo

As demand for Flying A’s films continued to increase, it became clear that larger facilities were needed.    A site was found on West Mission Street, bounded by State and Chapala Streets.  The architect’s blueprint specified an administration building, a glassed-in and curtained stage for interior scenes, dressing rooms, carpenter and machine shops, property rooms, art studio, editing rooms and a complete film processing laboratory.  In addition, there were to be several projection rooms and a western town on the back lot.  After several months of construction, the new studio was completed.  Movie magazines of the time were overwhelmed with the new Santa Barbara plan and gave it a great deal of publicity.  The Moving Picture World (February 8, 1913, Vol. 15, Page 1503) stated that “beauty and utility were never better combined than in this plant”.  Another issue stated that “The American Studio is one of the most beautiful plants on the coast”  During the ensuing years, various improvements were made including the largest glass studio on the west coast.

Upon moving into its new plant, in 1913, Flying A’s film production was increased to a feverish pace.  More stars were given contracts and directors were hired to meet the demanding distribution schedule.

For the past year, American’s films had been distributed by the Mutual Film Company, of which Harry Aitken was president.  By 1913, Mutual had more than fifty distributing offices and was releasing films for many studios including, Majestic, Thanhouser. Keystone, Reliance, Kay-Bee, Bronco, American and many more. 

When Harry Aitken was fired as President of Mutual, on June 23, 1915, he withdrew his Reliance-Majestic Company and convinced Kessel and Baumann to do the same with their New York Motion Picture Company which controlled the production of both Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince.  Following their departure from Mutual,  the group formed the Triangle Film Company in July, 1915

American Film Photos

American Film Co. Distribution

Initially, Aitken's departure from Mutual seemed advantageous for American as its films would receive greater distribution.   However, Mutual was now faced with the problem of not having enough films for its outlets.  With Aitken gone, Mutual would never regain the position it held before.  This loss of distribution power would eventually  prove to be disastrous for both Mutual and Flying A.

Tragedy struck, not only Flying A, but also the motion picture industry when it was learned that Charles Hite had been killed in an automobile accident in New York.  He was on his way home and was on a bridge when his vehicle, for reasons unknown, skidded and plunged fifty feet to the ground below. He was thirty nine years old when he died.  In addition to being one of the founding members of Flying A, he was the president of Thanhouser Film Company and had financial interest in other film related companies.

In 1914, Flying A was forced to compete with someone in their own backyard, when the Santa Barbara Motion Picture Company was formed with a studio at 1425 Chapala St.  The new studio owner proceeded to raid Flying A’s staff and hired, among others, cameraman Roy Overbaugh, Scott Beal, Victor Fleming, Carolyn Cooke and Lorimer Johnson. Even with these talented film makers, the Santa Barbara Motion Picture Company could not compete and closed its doors in 1915.

Hutchinson increased the studio’s film production for distribution through Mutual.  From a single-reel film company in 1910, American had grown to twelve production units in 1915.  Its roster of stars and directors read like a “Who’s Who” in the film industry.  The prestigious list included Constance and Joan Bennett, Mary Miles Minter, Pauline Bush, Harry Pollard and his wife Margarita Fischer, King Baggot, Richard Bennett, Frank Borzage, William Frawley (Fred Mertz of the “I Love Lucy” show), Lottie Pickford (Mary’s sister), Wallace Reid, J. Warren Kerrigan, Harold Lockwood, Allan Dwan, Roy Overbaugh, Victor Fleming, Marshall Neilan and many, many others.

It wasn’t long before the public started growing tired of the overwhelming number of “shorts” (one reel films) and western films, so American began work on two-reelers including society and adventure dramas.  This gradual shift from the western began in 1914, and, by 1915, westerns had taken a back seat to dramas.  The titles began to reflect the changes.  “Divine Decree”, “Honeymooners”.  “Love and Labor” and “House of Thousand Scandals” were a few of the notable films of 1915.  Western still were produced such as “Assayer of Lone Gap”, “Exile of Bar K Ranch” and “Castle Ranch.”.

By 1916, Hollywood was beginning to establish itself as the center of the motion picture industry -- and therefore most actors and “extras” were located in Los Angeles.  Because of the meager supply of “bit-players” living in Santa Barbara, Flying A had to import these cast members all the way from Hollywood.  In addition, all the raw film stock, equipment and other necessary materials for the production of motion Pictures had to be shipped from Los Angeles.   Consequently, production cost was greater in Santa Barbara than it was in Los Angeles.   To add to American’s woes, foreign distribution was becoming limited because of World War I.  In addition, the public was demanding “feature” films instead of the short movies that once made Flying A famous.

To meet these challenges, Flying A’s production budgets were slashed which included a reduction in location shooting.  The number of production units was dramatically reduced several times during the the next twelve months.   The biggest blow to American, however, came in 1918 when the Mutual Film Company collapsed, leaving Flying A without a distributor for its films.  Hutchinson immediately contracted with  Pathe to take over the distribution responsibilities. 

By the end of the teens, American was really struggling.  With greatly reduced production schedules, limited film distribution and with only Marguerita Fischer as their contract player, the American Film Company became a footnote in film history when it abandoned its Santa Barbara studio on July, 7, 1920.

The hollywoodphotographs.com website is the largest collection of vintage Hollywood Movie Studios photos. 

 

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