King of the Movies
Long before there was a Hollywood there was a thriving movie business in and around, of all places, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of the largest film studios in the world operated there between 1910 and 1916. Originally located in the city proper, Lubin Studios later expanded to a 350-acre spread at Betzwood next to the Schuykill River and adjacent to what is now Valley Forge National Park, just a few miles down the road from my home. Despite its size and immense output of over 100 films, this has long since fallen into the dustbin of history. So imagine my surprise when I recently heard of this heritage on a local TV talk show as I was waiting for another program to begin. Click on photo to enlarge.
One man, Joseph Eckhardt, a retired professor of history at Montgomery County Community College, changed all that. His book, King of the Movies, traces the history of one Siegmund Lubin (1851-1923), a colorful character if ever there was one. At once a pirate, a prophet, a con-man, a philanthropist, and a successful capitalist, Lubin was one of the very first movie pioneers. His story makes for some engrossing reading.
A MYSTERY SOLVED:
Joe’s book also solves another perplexing mystery that has haunted the Valley Forge National Park’s administrators for decades. We were all taught that no battle was ever fought there; that it was just a winter encampment for George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War. But how to explain the authentic Civil War artifacts that have occasionally turned up on the property? Bullets, pieces of guns, uniform belt buckles? Was a Civil War battle ever fought here? Not according to the record. Well, it seems that Lubin made several Civil War films at this location, and had purchased surplus gear from the 1860s — which was readily available and cheap at the time — to use as props in his productions of the 1910s. And didn’t clean up the “battlefield” afterwards.
THE KILLER FILM:
A serious problem facing those restoring Lubin’s movies, or any others from that era, is the explosive nature of nitrate film. Yes, this stuff can ignite itself as it deteriorates from age, burns furiously, and can actually explode under the right conditions! Later replaced with “safety film” (which cannot burn), nitrate film had to be handled with due care, and required fireproof projection booths to protect audiences. As the film decomposed from age it also lost much of the image detail, making modern restorations difficult and sometimes impossible. A 1914 nitrate-film fire at Lubin’s Philadelphia studio destroyed the original negatives for several unreleased movies, nearly bankrupting the company.
CLICK HERE for the PBS History Detectives program on Lubin and Betzwood. It is the second story on the show; you can go right to it by clicking on the fourth little image at the bottom.
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CHECK OUT the book King of the Movies at Barnes & Noble or at Amazon by clicking on its title in the box below: