The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin

When the movie industry in America was young, too young to venture all the way to Hollywood, there was a breed of film entrepreneur that could either be considered a wily gambler, a showman, a pirate or a business wizard. Siegmund Lubin could claim all of these attributes and even those of a hero. Lubin shared the same basic characteristics of many of the early moguls. He was a Jewish immigrant from Europe who suffered crushing financial hardship within a pervasive climate of anti-Semitism. Moreover, he had a burning desire to achieve fame and fortune no matter what.

Able to exercise his ambition and business acumen in the free enterprise system of the United States, he achieved supreme success before the turn of the century in the newly born and rapidly growing motion picture industry. For Lubin, everything about motion pictures gave him pause for possible investment and development, from multiple theater exhibition to refining motion picture technology including the exploration of sound with film. Because of this, Lubin was one of the rankling thorns in Thomas Edison’s side during the motion picture patent and distribution wars. One has to realize what a stranglehold Edison exercised to protect his patents and his monopoly by challenging virtually all comers who would threaten his supremacy. Lubin stood his ground, but a few years later he would concede and join Edison’s Motion Picture Patent Company.

In any case, this early mogul could not remain a force unto himself indefinitely, for the fledgling industry was growing too big for its nest. A never-ending flood of opportunists with big dreams were all trying to strike it rich in the movie business. While Lubin had the opportunity to remain secure in his stature with the Motion Picture Patent Company, he was not content just to be a part of Edison’s empire. He wanted to shape the future of film production. One way he achieved this was by deftly straddling two opposite worlds – the world of Protestant control of business in America that actively and often aggressively excluded outsiders and the budding Jewish talent that was trying to gain a foothold in the new industry. Future success stories that were directly, although covertly, assisted by Lubin were the great Sam Goldwyn, Paramount mogul Jesse L. Lasky and the highly successful Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman, the owners of the New York Motion Picture Company where Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett forged their powerful positions at the top of the industry.

Lubin, who adopted America as his own and became a citizen, was also one of the first socially conscious producers. He became the first on record to market films with stories designed to combat the tide of anti-Semitism. His fictional photoplays were popular as well. Lubin appreciated talent and boosted the early screen careers of serial queen Pearl White, screen ingenues Florence Lawrence and Helen Jerome Eddy, prolific character actors Alan Hale and Spottiswoode Aitken, comedians Oliver Hardy, Lloyd Hamilton and Marie Dressler and future directors Henry King and Clarence Badger. However, he really was drawn to the idea that motion pictures could revolutionize and uplift the human condition by utilizing the art to elevate education, science and medicine.

During his prime, Siegmund Lubin displayed the appearance and warmth of a beloved grandfather. He was affectionately called “Pop” by both his relatives and his extended loyal family in the movie business. While he commanded respect in the industry for his successes and was considered a visionary of sorts, he was hardly an angel. It took thick skin, fearsome tenacity and a savvy to survive the cutthroat business he wholly embraced to attain and maintain his level of success. His ego being healthier than most, he thrived on an approach to self-promotion that gave chutzpah a whole new meaning. In the process, he dubbed himself “The King of the Movies.” This was a moniker that graced many deserving personalities who earned uncommon recognition for being successful and influential in their time – during the golden age of both silent and sound film. Lubin’s was no idle boast, though. The author presents compelling examples that qualify Lubin as the original bearer of the title. His colorful personality barely concealed a natural ham who occasionally got a kick out of appearing in cameos in his own releases (รก la Hitchcock decades later).

Kings and their empires are mortal and must inevitably make way for their successors. Lubin had his rise, his reign and his fall. It is a recurring theme throughout the history of film studios that kings are toppled and replaced on a regular basis. Even the richest of coffers could be completely drained seemingly overnight by this mercurial and expensive industry. The myopic mindset is that the cash cow will never die. But it did for Pop, complete with business setbacks, a studio fire that destroyed countless films and vital production records, a changing industry, law suits and finally bankruptcy. By 1916, the glory years of Lubin had all but faded. “The King of Movies” would survive in reluctant abdication for another seven years, all the while hoping to return to the industry that was his life’s breath. At the time of his death in 1923 at age 72, much of the first wave of moguls: the Lubins, Edisons, Seligs and Selznicks, had passed the torch to their successors: the Mayers, Thalbergs, Warners and Cohns.

It’s hard to believe that a figure as important and influential as Siegmund Lubin, clearly a formidable rival of Edison in this field, had been relegated to the shadows. But maybe not. The things that made Lubin obscure is that this early era of movie making is difficult to reconstruct, plus the fact that only a little more than 200 Lubin produced films (and their records) from hundreds survive today. In addition, a silent film researcher has to be part archeologist. Thanks to Joseph Eckhardt’s skillful excavation of the obscured career of this amazing force, Lubin himself has been restored and preserved. His research and writing style is as precise as it is illuminating. The accompanying photos generously infused throughout the book beautifully complement the text. The King of the Movies is one of the finest analyzations of the American social climate, industry practices and public awareness when a brand new form of communication and entertainment was in its infancy.

For nearly two decades, Joseph Eckhardt has devoted himself to the study of this pioneer mogul and his era. He is actively involved in live exhibition of Lubin’s surviving films through the Betzwood Film Archive and Film Festival in Pennsylvania. In addition, Eckhardt’s expertise was invaluable in the identification of the presumed to be lost film The Silver King which contains the only known surviving footage of Siegmund Lubin in a cameo – a rediscovery that Pop would have keenly appreciated.

Madison Morrison