MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And Im Michele Norris.
Independent cinema is as old as movies themselves. Were about to hear now about an independent movie company from the early 1900s. It mostly made one-reel films, they cost a nickel to watch in storefront theatres called Nickelodeons.
Most of the little start-up studios are forgotten, but as Bellamy Pailthorp of KPLU reports, some of the companys films have been saved thanks to the efforts of the founders grandson.
BELLAMY PAILTHORP: Nickelodeons were once as common as coffee shops, and most of the silent films they showed, as disposable as YouTube videos.
Professor KATHRYN FULLER-SEELEY (Professor of Media Studies, Georgia State University): We dont know 90 percent of the history of this fascinating early period.
PAILTHORP: Historian Kathy Fuller-Seeley teaches media studies at Georgia State University. She says the dominant movie studios of the day squashed the little guys and stole the limelight.
Prof. FULLER-SEELEY: Edison and Biograph tried to completely dominate film production. But the demand for new motion pictures from these thousands of little nickelodeon theatres that were spreading across the country was so great that these few studios couldnt satisfy all their needs.
PAILTHORP: One man who saw opportunity in that was Edwin Thanhouser, who ran a theatre company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His grandson, Ned, now travels the country, telling people how the family business wound up in a trendy suburb just 45 minutes from Broadway.
Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible).
Mr. NED THANHOUSER (President, Thanhouser Company): Yep. They were founded in 1909, a hundred years ago.
Unidentified Man #1: Thats when Dick Van Dyke was filming.
Mr. N. THANHOUSER: Thats you are absolutely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PAILTHORP: Thanhouser is in the lobby of the historic Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon, selling DVDs at a table. And Oregon is just warming up before a special screening of some of the Thanhouser movies, which Ned introduces with a PowerPoint presentation.
Mr. N. THANHOUSER: The entertainment industry went from live performers on stage that were somewhat unreliable in terms of showing up, or being sober, to being able to capture it on film once and then project it many times.
PAILTHORP: The new medium promised to be a money machine at a time when theatre attendance was declining. Edwin Thanhouser saw the writing on the wall.
Mr. LLOYD THANHOUSER: My dad needed a studio to make pictures in.
PAILTHORP: So he leased a roller rink, said Lloyd Thanhouser, Edwins son, Neds father, in a 1980 interview.
Mr. L. THANHOUSER: The problems facing the moviemaker in those days were horrendous.
PAILTHORP: For years, Lloyd Thanhouser told his son that all the films had gone up in smoke, says Ned. They were made of highly inflammable nitrate, which was expensive to store.
Mr. N. THANHOUSER: And he determined, in the 20s, that these films were really worthless. They were like pulp fiction. They were read and throw away. So he was given a bill
Mr. L. THANHOUSER: and he said, not on your life. Thats expensive, theyre no good. Theyre no use to anybody, nobody wants them, burn them up. And they did.
PAILTHORP: But what Lloyd Thanhouser never told his son was that for every negative that was burned, there were 30 or 40 prints made, some of them ended up in film archive. Ned learned of their existence through a public television show. Then he discovered a wealthy collector in New Hampshire had written a manuscript about the company.
Mr. N. THANHOUSER: The Thanhouser Encyclopedia by David Bowers that has 3,000 articles, transcriptions of all of the reviews from every film that was made. He transcribed all of that information onto a computer disc and then I converted it into a CD-ROM.
PAILTHORP: Which he now sells on his Web site. Ned created a nonprofit called Thanhouser Film Preservation. He runs it in his spare time.
Prof. FULLER-SEELEY: Ned Thanhousers efforts are truly changing the way we understand this period of early film history.
PAILTHORP: Historian Kathy Fuller-Seeley says Thanhouser films were different from the beginning.
Prof. FULLER-SEELEY: They really stand out as trying to attract middle-class movie viewers, who had been suspicious of sort of the low-class, pie-in-the-face, slightly tacky nature of some early films.
PAILTHORP: The Thanhouser Company made literary adaptations of classics such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Cinderella. They made a serial thriller called The Million Dollar Mystery that earned more than that for the studio and launched the career of its star, James Cruze. But Edwin Thanhousers company didnt make it.
Prof. FULLER-SEELEY: Like many other of the small independent studios of the day, they end up getting subsumed, bought out, shutting down as the new generation of Warner Bros. and what would become MGM were growing out on the West Coast. Its not his fault. He did the best he could.
PAILTHORP: Thanhouser Films closed down in 1918.
Unidentified Man #2: This is what hes been able to recover right here.
PAILTHORP: Back at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Neds son, studio founder Edwins great-grandson, is helping his dad get the word out. He says he and his brothers used to roll their eyes at their fathers obsession with the old films. But he too caught the bug.
Unidentified Man #3: The history lesson. You can look at the bigger studios, the MGMs and stuff, and you get a much more glossed version. I think the independent film movement in the early industry is really, really overlooked. From another perspective, its just the content itself. Some of the best films are really interesting to watch, you know, theyre still fascinating and they still tell a good story.
PAILTHORP: The Thanhousers have located nearly 200 of the companys movies so far. They continue to search for artifacts and prints of more than 800 Thanhouser films they know were made, but havent seen yet.
For NPR News, I am Bellamy Pailthorp in Portland, Oregon.