William Nicholas Selig

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Date: 1974
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 893 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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About this Person
Born: March 14, 1864 in Chicago, Illinois, United States
Died: July 16, 1948 in Hollywood, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Movie producer
Other Names: Selig, William Nicholas
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Selig, William Nicholas (Mar. 14, 1864 - July 15, 1948), early motion picture producer, was born in Chicago, Ill., the fourth son and fifth of seven children of Joseph Francis and Antonia (Lunsky) Selig. His father, a shoemaker, had come to Chicago in the mid-1850's from Bohemia; his mother was a native of Prussia. William Selig attended Chicago public schools and in his youth worked as an upholsterer. Around 1888 he turned to the theatre, and for most of the next ten years, sporting the title "Colonel," he toured as an actor and theatrical manager, specializing in parlor magic and minstrel shows.

Already conversant with photography, in 1895 Selig saw an Edison kinetoscope while in Dallas, Tex., and undertook to develop a motion picture projector. The result was the Selig Polyscope, which he began marketing the following year, forming a company by that name. Between 1902 and 1918 he took out ten patents on motion picture devices, none of any great originality. The first, the Selig Standard Camera, was a copy of the machine built by the Lumière brothers of France and was substantially identical to the Warwick camera used by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (later the Biograph Company) of New York. Nonetheless, in this germinal stage of the film industry, suppliers of equipment, with only a modest cash investment, were able to garner a substantial return. Several, like Selig, George K. Spoor of Chicago, and Sigmund Lubin of Philadelphia, moved into film production soon after the advent of nickelodeons (small five-cent movie theaters) in 1905.

Selig had begun photographing primitive movies around 1900--extremely short incidents, filmed in the streets of Chicago, that served as novelty fillers in vaudeville theatres. Like other producers, he turned to story films after the success in 1903 of Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery. Three years later, lured by reports of southern California's abundant sunshine, Selig sent a crew to Los Angeles to complete the filming of the one-reel The Count of Monte Cristo (1908), the first commercial film made in California. Selig established in 1909 what has been called the first permanent studio in the Los Angeles area, housed in a small downtown building behind a Chinese laundry. This was two years before the Nestor Film Company opened the first studio in Hollywood. Selig soon moved to outlying Edendale, where he set up a studio. Occupying a full city block, it was surrounded by a high brick wall with an ornate Spanish-style gate. The bulk of the several hundred pictures he released between 1912 and 1917 under the "Diamond-S" label were made either in Edendale or in his large plant in Chicago, which he continued to operate until 1914.

One element in the exodus of filmmakers to California was the desire to escape litigation. A prolonged "patent war" swept the industry beginning in 1897, as pioneer companies like Edison and Vitagraph sought to enforce their patents against interlopers. A federal court in Chicago held in 1907 that Selig's camera infringed on the Edison claims. In December 1908, in a compromise settlement, the contending interests joined forces in a patent-pooling trust, the Motion Picture Patents Company, with the Selig Polyscope Company as one of the ten members. The combination encountered serious opposition from independents within the industry beginning in 1912 and was dissolved as a result of federal antitrust action in 1917.

Meanwhile, Selig was prospering in California. One of his early discoveries was the cowboy star Tom Mix. Mix made his first film appearance in Selig's Ranch Life in the Great Southwest in 1910 and remained with the Company until 1917. Selig was the first to specialize in films using wild animals as part of the dramatic action, and for years he maintained his own menagerie. His first such film, Big Game Hunting in Africa (1909), was inspired by former President Theodore Roosevelt's expedition and featured the actual killing of a superannuated lion. In conjunction with the Chicago Tribune, Selig made the first motion picture serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913-1914). Starring Kathlyn Williams, it was the predecessor of the more famous The Perils of Pauline, which immortalized Pearl White.

Selig joined the trend toward longer "feature" films with The Coming of Columbus (1912). To assure an adequate supply of story material, he signed contracts with such popular authors as Zane Grey and Rex Beach. His production of Beach's The Spoilers (1914) opened the 3,300-seat Strand Theatre in New York City, the first of the large new metropolitan movie houses with a graduated admission scale. The film's success made Selig a substantial fortune.

After 1917 the motion picture industry was vastly transformed by large aggregations of capital and integrated control, and Selig's company went into eclipse. He made only a handful of films between 1920 and 1922 and then dropped out altogether.

Selig married Mary H. Pinkham of Stockton, Calif., on Sept. 7, 1900. They apparently had no children. He was an Episcopalian in religion and a Republican in politics. He died of a coronary thrombosis at his Los Angeles home at the age of eighty-four; his remains were cremated.

Among movie pioneers, Selig ranks high for his part in elevating the industrY&Rsquo;s technical standards. Before 1915, he had few peers in the use of studio and natural environments to achieve realistic effects, with a fidelity to detail that satisfied increasingly sophisticated audiences.


[Information about Selig's career has been pieced together from a variety of sources. On his background and early life, see city directory listings, 1856-1900 (courtesy of Larry A. Viskochil, Chicago Hist. Soc.); census of 1880 (Ill. State Archives); death record of Selig's father (Jan. 18, 1890, Cook County records). On his film career: Benjamin B. Hampton, A Hist. of the Movies (1931); Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights (2 vols., 1926); Kenneth Macgowan, Behind the Screen (1965); Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the Am. Film (1939); Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By (1968); Kalton C. Lahue, Continued Next Week (1964); George N. Fenin and William K. Everson, The Western (1962); Fred J. Balshofer and Arthur C. Miller, One Reel a Week (1967); Frederick A. Talbot, Moving Pictures (rev. ed., 1912); Moving Picture World, Aug. 21, 1909, pp. 247-248; Motography, July 1911, pp. 7-19; Robinson Locke Scrapbook Collect., Theatre Collect. of N.Y. Public Lib. at Lincoln Center; information from Margaret Herrick, executive director, Acad. of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles. See also: Who Was Who in America, vol. II (1950), which transposes the given names of Selig's father; N.Y. Times obituary, July 17, 1948; death certificate, Calif. Dept. of Public Health. A photograph of Selig is in Photoplay, Feb. 1923, p. 49.]

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310003776