Flickering Empire


Review by Therese Grisham, Editorial Committee, desistfilm


Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry is about the prolific and important early film industry in Chicago between 1896 and 1918. It concentrates on the rise and decline of the two major studios founded and operating in Chicago during this period–the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company and Selig Polyscope. The industry in Chicago in this era–although short-lived (as it was in all film capitals in the US before the industry’s centralization in Hollywood)–is fascinating for its film production techniques, enterprising inventions, the early movie stars who worked or got their start in it, and its involvement in significant cultural and social moments in the history of the city. This is an under-appreciated, under-analyzed, but vital time in the life of Chicago, as well as in the early film industry. Most of the important players at this time started out in Chicago–such as Gilbert “Broncho Billy”Anderson–or worked in Chicago (Chaplin, Micheaux), so the omission of Chicago from histories of early film is egregious. Flickering Empire rectifies this omission.

The book makes a significant and original contribution to the field. As the co-author of a manuscript on this subject, whose focus is quite different from that of Flickering Empire, I have been very satisfied to find that Smith and Selzer’s study is thorough, detailed, and well researched. Its style is scholarly, yet engaging. Our manuscript’s anecdotal style forms both a complement and contrast to Smith and Selzer’s book, because it uses archives given to my father, William F. Grisham, by relatives of George K. Spoor, the founder of Essanay Studios, and includes film archives and interviews with those who worked in the industry, such as Luther Pollard, the founder of the all-black-cast Ebony Studios. These archives have been donated to the Chicago History Museum, and fragile films and film fragments to The Library of Congress, where they are now on safety film. Flickering Empire covers the most crucial time in the early life of Essanay and Selig Polyscope, while our manuscript continues through the Century of Progress 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago where George Spoor failed to deliver a much-publicized 3-D film.

Flickering Empire is particularly interesting for the way it is organized: while it follows a chronology, it revolves around significant events and changes that led to the rise and fall of the industry, from pre-filmic inventions and the Columbian Exposition to the decline of each studio. The inclusion of the role of the censorship code in the studios’ decline is fascinating.

There are few other books published on Chicago as a capital of early film. In fact, Chicago is notorious for having had little interest in its early film industry. David Kiehn’s  self-published Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company is an accurate, thoroughgoing work on G.W. Anderson, George K. Spoor’s partner at Essanay, but there is little overlap between Flickering Empire and Kiehn’s work, which centers on Essanay West, in Niles, California. Kiehn’s book complements that of Smith and Selzer, but to my mind, Flickering Empire needs to be read first, since it tells an earlier story on which to base an understanding of Essanay’s developments outside Chicago. There is one other book, Bernstein and Corcoran’s Hollywood on Lake Michigan, which is, frankly, poorly researched and hastily written. Yet it is the book that has received the most local press, media attention, and praise. Flickering Empire provides a good antidote to it, and I hope will appear widely, inspiring Chicagoans, too, to take an interest in this lively part of their history.

Scholars in early film studies should definitely read this book, and recognize the importance of Chicago in the development of film. I will order it for my students in a history of film course as a case study in the development of the early film industry and as an opportunity to give them a tour of the still extant locations for Chicago studios. Essanay Studios is a case in point, since its principal building still stands on the North Side of Chicago, complete with the company’s logo. My personal history is also bound up with this text, since my father was crucial to saving that building from destruction. In addition, this book will be attractive to general readers who are interested in Chicago history and culture or are film buffs. It can even be used in a community-based film class, such as at Facets Multimedia in Chicago, or in continuing and adult education classes, where extant films could be shown. What these films are and where they can be found is a question anticipated by Smith and Selzer: they offer a much-needed practical guide to the films.

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer

Wallflower Press, 2015