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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Essanay Studios

One of the motion picture industries earliest studios, Essanay Studios, was co-founded by Highland Park, Illinois resident, George K. Spoor (1871-1953). 

George Spoor in his office at Essanay Studios, Chicago. Amet Collection, Dunn Museum.
Spoor had co-managed the Phoenix Opera House in Waukegan, and from about 1895-1899 managed the business end of inventor Edward Amet's motion picture interests. In 1907, Spoor and cowboy actor/director “Broncho Billy” Anderson, opened Essanay Studios at 1333-45 W. Argyle Street in Chicago. 

"Essanay" was the phonetic spelling of the founders' initials S & A, for Spoor and Anderson. The studio produced hundreds of films, featuring stars such as Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder. The Studio's "Indian" head logo, seen in the photo below, was designed by Spoor's sister, Mary Louise. The photo shows the Studio's entrance on Argyle and an unknown starlet.
Essanay Studio's entrance on Argyle Street in Chicago. Amet Collection, Dunn Museum.
A collection of Essanay's lantern slides were donated to the Bess Bower Dunn Museum (formerly Lake County Discovery Museum) in 1964. They are a remarkable glimpse into early motion picture history and the beginnings of American cinematic culture.

Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966) was one of Essanay's top stars. At the peak of his career, this matinee idol was described as the "Handsomest man in the world."

The slide above is for the 1915 film, “Graustark,” starring Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne. Directed by Fred E. Wright, it was one of Essanay’s most popular movies. Dunn Museum, Dunlap Collection

Bushman was often photographed in profile for publicity stills to accentuate his good looks. He is also remembered for his role on CBS radio's soap opera "Those We Love" which aired from 1938-1945.

Another colorful lantern slide is from the 1916 film, “Vultures of Society,” directed by E.H. Calvert, and starring Lillian Drew and E.H. Calvert. Note the Essanay logo in this slide and others. Dunn Museum, Dunlap Collection 64.32.34.

In 1917, W.S. Van Dyke directed “Land of Long Shadows,” starring Jack Gardner and Ruth King. Dunn Museum, Dunlap Collection 64.32.34.

There were several Jack Gardner film stars, so it is sometimes difficult to credit the correct one. This one is possibly the stage actor who was married to popular actress, Louise Dresser. The "mountain man" attire looks stereotypical, but is perfect for this silent-era western. I also love the braided rug at his feet. Braided rugs were a pioneer development and a necessity of frontier living, making it an authentic prop for this movie. It is interesting to note that braided rugs were popularized as home decor with the Arts & Crafts Movement of the 1880s to 1910s, and would've been a familiar household accessory at the time the movie was made.

One of the more curious productions by Essanay, produced between late 1917 and February 1918, was an autobiographical film written by and starring, Mary MacLane. Dunn Museum, Dunlap Collection 64.32.10.

I was initially drawn to this slide by its Arts and Crafts motif with the hand drawn pastoral landscape and floral border. After scanning and enlarging the slide, my attention shifted to the title of the film, "Men Who Have Made Love to Me."

For her day, Mary MacLane (1881-1929) was a controversial, feminist writer and was considered “wild and out of control." The movie is now believed lost, so we can only wonder about its content though it was probably far less risquee than the title implies. A surviving cast list gives some insight with Mary MacLane as "Herself" and other character names such as: the callow youth, the bank clerk, the prize fighter, and the husband of another.

Around 1916, Essanay Studios relocated to California along with many other film studios. It went out of business about 1918.

If you liked this post, you may enjoy reading about George K. Spoor's sister, children's book illustrator, Mollie Spoor Brand


Harold Henderson said...

Hi Diana -- I think that in the 1910s, the term "made love" was not used as we do, but was more likely to mean something like "courted." -- Harold

D_Dretske said...

I'm certain the term "made love" was used differently than we do today. That's why I was having a bit of fun with it, noting that the film was not as risquee as we would like to think.

Anonymous said...

This is brilliant! Thanks for sharing.

As you can see, I'm doing some catch-up. :)


Petrarca Press said...

"Men Who Have Made Love to Me" is a fascinating story - we'll be telling some of it, and returning as much as possible of the rest of Mary MacLane's life and work to print in 2011. Let us know if you'd be interested. :)

Anonymous said...

I’m curious to know why the logo was of a Native/Indian ? Was the sister asked to design that specifically? Any native connections? Thank you in advance - Isaiah

Diana Dretske said...

A Spoor descendant shared with me that George Spoor asked his sister to design a "Chief" image for the logo. Co-founder, Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson, was a cowboy star in Western films, and the Studio produced a number of Westerns. Definitely a theme that was romanticized by many Americans. I also wonder if the logo was an attempt to tie into Chicago's history.

I'm certain George Spoor thought about the impact a logo can have on grabbing people's attention and sparking their imagination.

Hope that helps!