William Selig is one of the unsung heroes of the early days of cinema in Los Angeles.
A jack-of-all-trades, he worked as a vaudeville performer and even produced a traveling minstrel show. In 1894, the Chicago native saw Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope at an exhibition in Dallas and realized he wanted to get into the film business. Two years later, he founded one of the first motion-picture studios in the country, the Selig Polyscope Co. in Chicago. Thirteen years later, Selig and his main director, Francis Boggs, opened up the first movie studio in Los Angeles, in Edendale (now parts of Echo Park and Silver Lake).
Tonight, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrates the legacy of Selig and other early L.A. film pioneers -- which culminated in 1914 with the release of the feature-length westerns, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Squaw Man” and Selig’s “The Spoilers” -- with an evening of rarities from 1909 to 1912 titled “Movies! Moguls! Monkeys! And Murder!” at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
In conjunction with the screening is the “Los Angeles Motion Picture Studio Centennial Exhibition,” featuring posters, letters and photographs, in the lobby of the Linwood Dunn through Aug. 30.
Selig, academy programmer Randy Haberkamp says, isn’t a household name like Edison or D.W. Griffith because his original studio was in Chicago. “The other guys were New York-based and their companies survived or got absorbed into other companies.”
Boggs hailed from Los Angeles and Selig also had spent time out here, so they knew of the diverse landscape and clement weather the Southland offered. They also knew, Haberkamp says, that “their films had a very stage-bound look. They also realized that western stories were very popular and a western [shot] in Chicago or New Jersey just wasn’t it.”
Selig initially sent Boggs to Denver where he made a few short films. Then Boggs came to Los Angeles to shoot a beach insert for their 1908 production “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which is one of the films being screened this evening.
“It’s really hilarious,” Haberkamp says. “You have this clearly stage-bound film and all of a sudden, you have a guy climbing onto a rock in the middle of the ocean. It’s not the same actor and his makeup is all different.”
The following year, Selig and Boggs opened their West Coast studio. “One of the reasons, he came out here was for the western, but another reason was jungle pictures. He had monkeys and tigers and lions.”
And he even opened the Selig Zoo down the street from the theater in 1915. “He built this entranceway with all of these concrete sculptures,” Haberkamp says. “When he closed the zoo [in the early ‘20s], the animals became part of the L.A. Zoo collection.”
The 15 sculptures of lions and elephants were sent to storage. In 2000, they were discovered.
The seven lion sculptures were restored and, as of last week, are now on display at the L.A. Zoo.
Besides westerns and jungle-themed films, Selig also produced what is considered the first serial, 1913’s “The Adventures of Kathlyn.”
He gave several stars and directors their start including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Tom Mix and actor-director Robert Z. Leonard.
Selig’s company made headlines in 1911 when Boggs was shot dead by a “gentleman” Japanese gardener in the director’s employ. Selig was also shot trying to wrestle the gun out of the hands of the gardener.
“What we know is that he was probably shot because there was some tension between Boggs and his wife and the gardener,” Haberkamp says. “But who knows what all was going on?”
Within six months of arriving out here, two more studios arrived in Los Angeles. “The New York Picture Co. brought out their Bison unit, which made westerns, and Biograph and D.W. Griffith came out,” Haberkamp says. “But they only came out on a seasonal level. It took them another year to have a permanent studio.”
By 1918, Selig Polyscope closed up shop. Selig worked as an indie producer and even a literary agent before his death in 1948 at 84.
For more information, go to www.oscars.org.
The academy is also celebrating the centennial of the Oscar-winning writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve,” “Cleopatra”) Thursday night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater with a panel discussion hosted by his nephew Ben Mankiewicz and featuring Joseph’s son Tom, as well as actors Sidney Poitier and Martin Landau, culminating with a screening of his restored 1959 classic “Suddenly, Last Summer,” starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. www.oscars.org
Fritz Lang’s atmospheric 1941 cat-and-mouse thriller “Man Hunt” (Fox, $15) makes its DVD debut this week. Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett and George Sanders star in this gripping adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s bestseller, “Rogue Male.” Pidgeon plays an English big-game hunter accused by the Gestapo of trying to kill Hitler. Look for young Roddy McDowall in his film debut.