It all begins with the sound of the clapperboard and the director saying, “Action!”
The world of filmmaking is magical. It evokes emotions of wonderment, love, sadness or fear, and grants the audience the freedom to laugh. Movies bring to life stories that entertain, as did the presentation Mac Burns gave at the March 30 History and Hops speaker series.
Burns, who is the executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society, gave an account of the history of filmmaking in Clatsop County and illustrated the relationship Oregon has had with Hollywood, or “Hollywood North” as it is often referred to in the movie industry, said Burns.
One obscure person who was key to making movies possible and popular in Oregon was William Selig. “He’s probably the most important person in the history of Hollywood that know one has ever heard of,” said Burns.
Selig was the son of Polish immigrants. He was raised in Chicago and became a vaudeville performer as a magician known as Selig the Conjuror, traveling the country with his troupe of performers.
In 1894 while performing at the Texas State Fair, Selig came across an exhibition of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope. This enthralled him and upon returning to Chicago, Selig opened a studio and became involved in optical trades. To get out of paying Edison patent rights or buying Edison equipment, Selig began to modify Edison’s kinetoscope. “This happened a lot during this time period,” said Burns, causing Edison to sue people over the years. Two years later, Selig started the Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago and released his first movie called “The Tramp and His Dog.”
In the early years of commercial filming, Burns explained why movies were 15-minutes in length. Print rolls were 1,000 feet which was approximately 15 minutes of running time; movies were shown in vaudeville houses and most vaudeville performances were about 15 minutes; projectionists were not trained on how to do reel-to-reel changeovers; and, lastly, “it was determined to be the average attention span of the average American.”
After “The Tramp and His Dog,” Selig’s company made what was called “actuality shorts” or industry documentaries. He made more than 60 of these films including travel logs, agriculture and livestock shorts. In 1908, Selig opened the first studio in Los Angles, and that same year, made his first narrative film “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Soon, the company was widely known for its early Westerns and authentic looks using wild animals, shooting outdoors, historical subjects, and using movie extras and Native Americans; everything to make his movies more realistic and authentic.
Selig made stars out of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and cowboy Tom Mix. He was the first American to make a horror movie in 1908 — “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and in 1910, he made the first film production of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” He popularized the first cliffhanger in 1913 with “The Adventures of Kathlyn,” and pioneered the second unit film crew.
Overall, Selig made more than 1,000 films in his career beginning with 15-minute shorts to full-length features, including 14 experimental talking movies. He is best known for “The Spoilers,” a 1914 two-hour feature and Selig’s first talkie.
“Probably one of the reasons why this is his best-known film is that it still exists,” said Burns. “Most movies from this time period have disappeared, nitrate dissolves the film, they’ve been lost, or theaters threw them away; but this is an earlier one that actually survived.”
Not only was Selig instrumental in establishing the film industry in Hollywood, but in 1909, the Selig crew set out to make Westerns and outdoor dramas against natural landscapes such as Yosemite Valley, Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, Hood River Valley and the Columbia River. “The Fisherman’s Bride” was the first movie made professionally in the State of Oregon with a plot, Burns said. “There have been some documentaries, but this is strictly a piece of fiction and it was filmed here in Clatsop County, in Astoria.”
There have been 400 movies made in Oregon, nine in Clatsop County: “Come See the Paradise,” “Free Willy,” “Kindergarten Cop,” “Short Circuit,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “The Goonies,” “Ring Two” and “The Road.”
After the overwhelming support from the 20th anniversary celebration of the movie “The Goonies,” plans got underway to create a film museum. Seven years ago, the old county jail in Astoria became home to the Oregon Film Museum.
In addition to the old county jail and the Goonies house as popular movie attractions, the Glam Tram has a direct connection to Selig. Abandoned and left for scrap in a junkyard, Jeff Daly of Astoria, found, rescued and restored a 1963 people mover from being crushed in 2015. Before that, the tram was used to transport people around the lot of the Los Angeles Zoo, which first opened as the Selig Zoo in 1913 to house the exotic animals Selig used in his movies.
And, that’s a wrap!