Siegmund Lubin

Active - 1914  |   Born - Apr 20, 1851 in Breslau (now Wroclaw), Silesia  |   Died - Sep 10, 1923   |  

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Siegmund Lubin was one of the early, pioneering movie producers, coming into the field in the final years of the 19th century, when the motion-picture business wasn't far from its infancy. He was among the earliest of studio chiefs (before there even was a studio system, or a Hollywood), and employed and fostered a wide array of major names among actors and filmmakers at the outset of their respective careers. He was born Siegmund Lubszynski, to a Jewish family in Silesia. In 1876, at the age of 25, he emigrated to the United States, and he later married Annie Abrams and settled in Philadelphia, where -- after training as an optician -- he opened his first shop in 1885. By 1890, Lubin had begun making what were then called magic lantern slides -- what we would call the "software" for the earliest slide projectors -- as part of his business, and over the next few years he became fascinated by the notion of moving pictures and the mechanisms used to shoot them and project them.

Lubin bought his first motion picture camera in 1896, and among the earliest subjects that he filmed with it was his horse eating hay, which became an actual release, Horse Eating Hay; another release that same year was titled Daughters' Pillow Fight. These might not sound very ambitious, but the earliest movies didn't have to be -- audiences were fascinated by the mere fact of capturing motion, even relatively mundane events, on film and being able to project and replay them. The following year, Lubin began making and selling his first projectors and also began shooting films of his own, on what amounted to a primitive but workable motion-picture stage in his backyard. He also began shooting staged reenactments of sporting events. He was sued by the Edison company for patent infringement over his Lubin Cineograph in 1898, the first of a string of legal actions that he would face during the next nine years as he sought to enter and compete in the movie business as a producer. He understood the new marketplace, however, and was a very hands-on filmmaker. Among his other efforts in the year 1898, he did a reenactment of the Passion of the Christ in which Lubin himself played Pontius Pilate, and also directed many of these movies as well.

In 1899, Lubin expanded his business vastly, opening his first movie theater and also starting to export his movies and his projectors and other devices to Germany. Lubin received patents on most of these devices and also on his film, and was content to continue in business despite the ongoing legal conflicts with the Edison company. By 1900, he'd opened a second theater, operating in the warmer months of the year in Chicago, and that same year his cameras took a giant leap forward in the as-yet-unnamed field of newsreels when Lubin captured such actual events as the aftermath of a hurricane in Galveston and the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. He also pioneered the field of home movies with his introduction of a new, simpler, and relatively affordable projector to be used in what were then called parlors (i.e., living rooms).

Over the next few years, Lubin and the Edison company made various moves and countermoves, and at one point Lubin transferred his whole operation to Germany to get beyond Edison's reach. But he was back in Philadelphia by 1902, and he built and opened bigger and more permanent movie theaters, in Philadelphia and Baltimore; he also moved into the distribution end of the business, with his first film exchange. Meanwhile, he continued to produce, and sometimes direct and act in new films, including an adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1903. In was early the following year that he took advantage of a huge gap in the existing copyright law by going head-to-head with Edison on the latter's most important movie to date, The Great Train Robbery. The film, released in December of 1903, was an instant and massive success, popularly and critically. Early the following year, using the Reading Railroad outside of Philadelphia, Lubin produced a shot-for-shot remake called Great Train Robbery, which was in theaters by April 1904 and did a massive business of its own. That very same year, Lubin also tried to introduce an early form of sound film, without any success.

Lubin spent the next few years growing his business despite Edison's legal disputes, and even began offering a package of equipment and contracts that would allow any potential entrepreneur to start his own movie theater. In 1907, he and Edison came to an agreement and Lubin took his first license from his former legal antagonist; by that time, he was successful enough that his business was based in the Lubin Building right in the middle of Philadelphia's business district. At that time, the motion picture business in the United States was centered in New York City and northern New Jersey, and Philadelphia was close enough to both that Lubin had access to as much top talent as anyone else in the industry -- in 1908, he actually turned down D.W. Griffith when the latter came to him for a job.

Also in 1908, Lubin made an impact on the history of narrative film with The Yiddisher Boy (which he also directed), which included the first recognized use of a flashback sequence in an American film. He was big enough in the business by then that he and Edison ended up joined at the hip as co-founders of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which, over the next few years, would try to hold something of a monopoly over the technology underlying the movies. It was also during this period that Lubin became fully aware of the movies' ability to present ideas and persuade audiences, and he made a series of films in response to anti-Semitism, of which The Yiddisher Boy was a part.

During 1909 and 1910, Lubin would greatly expand his production business after selling his theaters off, and he opened a new studio, designated Lubinville, in North Philadelphia. By 1912, Lubin had expanded his operation to include studios in Jacksonville, FL, and also the Southwestern United States. It was around this time that he began to see the potential for feature-length movies, as opposed to the short subjects that most producers had been specializing in. Lubin remained a major force in movies right into the middle of the decade, and played a key role in the early film career of producer Samuel Goldwyn.

The middle of the 1910s saw Lubin encounter the worst business reversals of his life. The government destroyed the Motion Picture Patents Company with an antitrust action and a fire destroyed Lubinville, and then the outbreak of the First World War cut him off from the lucrative foreign markets that he'd always cultivated, especially in Germany. He struggled along in 1915, trying to regroup and closing the Jacksonville studio, but his debts kept growing, and by 1917 he was in bankruptcy. He returned to the retail optical business, and although he participated in some production activity as a businessman, and tried several times to organize new production companies, he never again ran a studio or produced movies. Lubin died at home, of a heart attack at age 72, in 1923.