Saturday, August 03, 2019

The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin

There is so much more to the story of the early American film industry than the Edison-to-Porter-to-Griffith trajectory that gets passed down in the textbooks. Joseph P. Eckhardt fills in some more of those gaps with his book "The King of the Movies", which chronicles the life and career of motion picture pioneer Siegmund Lubin (1851-1923), a Jewish German immigrant who settled in Philadelphia, setting up shop first as an optometrist and then as an all-around film producer-distributor-showman.

Lubin was one of Edison's opponents in the patent wars of the wild and woolly early days of the picture business, gaining a reputation as film pirate for illegally duping and distributing films by other producers including Georges Melies. Although Lubin later joined forces with Edison in the Motion Picture Patents Company, he struggled to be fully accepted by Edison and the other members of the group. Lubin remained something of an outsider in the film industry throughout his career, fiercely independent and stubborn by the same turn. Lubin's critics attacked the poor quality of his original productions, which were often seen to be lacking in the acting and production values of his peers, but Lubin plowed forward with production at his main base in Philadelphia, dubbed "Lubinville".

Philadelphia would remain the central hub of Lubin's cinematic empire, even as he expanded his operations, maintaining production units in different regions throughout the US including Los Angeles and Jacksonville. In addition to his role as a producer and distributor, Lubin also moved in to exhibition, opening a chain of theaters in cities across the country. An interesting story involves Lubin helping out independent producers Sam Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, and Cecil B. DeMille when they ran in to trouble with their inaugural production, THE SQUAW MAN, due to a technical error in the printing process. Lubin -- himself a member of the Patents Trust -- covertly aided the rival independents by devising a solution to their problem and rescuing them from personal and professional ruin. Even after joining the establishment, Lubin was still something of a maverick at heart.

Lubin would remain a major player in the industry throughout the first half of the 1910s, but changes in the industry, including those brought about by the first World War, lead to his studio closing by 1917, ending his reign as one of the important pioneers of the American film business. Little of Lubin's output survives today, as most of his films were destroyed in a horrific studio fire in 1914, thus making evaluation of his work difficult. Lubin would return to his optometry business in the final years of his life prior to his death in 1923.

Eckhardt has written an extensively-researched portrait of Lubin as a visionary who saw seemingly endless possibilities in the infant medium of motion pictures, and further expands the historical record of the formative years of the American film industry.

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