The Slim Princess (1915)

Genres - Comedy  |   Release Date - May 29, 1915 (USA)  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Richard Gilliam

The Slim Princess is a lost film, with no known surviving copies, and is precluded from any sort of current-day first hand critical observations. What can be reviewed is the historical importance of the film, and how it represents both the zenith of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company and the visible start of the studio's rapid decline.

Essanay had been founded in 1907 in a partnership between businessman George K. Spoor and western film actor Gilbert M. "Bronco Billy" Anderson. Operating out of Chicago, by the mid-teens the studio could boast having Francis X. Bushman and Charlie Chaplin as its leading stars, as well as such emerging talent as Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson. Riding a string of box-office hits, and with Spoor's reputation for tightly controlling production costs, the studio was seemingly poised for even greater success. Yet less than two-years later the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company lay in ruins, never to rise again.

In the early days of the industry, Thomas Edison attempted to gain a monopoly by controlling the patents for the equipment needed to produce and exhibit films. As a part of this, in 1908 he created the Motion Picture Patents Company which licensed technology to strategically partnered film studios. Essanay was one of those studios, which meant that it was also a defendant when independent companies began to use the courts to challenge the MPPC. By 1912 the Edison film empire was in trouble. In October, 1915, the MPPC was ruled to be an illegal monopoly, and two years later, when the Supreme Court upheld the decision, both Essanay and the MPPC were finished.

Nonetheless, it is largely untrue that Essanay was destroyed by the Motion Picture Patents Corporation lawsuit. Essanay had plenty of other problems that likely would have led to the collapse of the company.

What was innovative in film production in 1907 was by 1915 passé. Essanay's business model depended on a constant flow of new product each week to the theaters. Working at the company's facilities in Niles, California, Anderson churned out a regular volume of "Bronco Billy" films, while Spoor at the Chicago offices oversaw production of everything else. Essanay got a big boost in 1911 when Bushman joined the company and quickly developed into a major box-office draw, and then another boost in 1914 when Anderson hired Chaplin away from Keystone.

1915 was Essanay's watershed year. First, Chaplin found that he disliked Chicago's winters quite a bit and disliked Spoor even more. He made one minor comedy (His New Job, which lampooned his bosses at Keystone) and left to play out his contract at Anderson's camp in California. Bushman, meanwhile, didn't like being the studio's #1 draw and not being its highest paid star. As often occurs in companies whose central management is geographically separated, Anderson and Spoor were frequently at odds with each other. Plus, on top of all those problems, the film industry was changing in ways that Essanay was unable to adapt.

Where Essanay had thrived producing short films lasting thirty minutes or less, on February 8, 1915, the rules of the game changed overnight with audiences flocking to see D. W. Griffith's three-hour epic, The Birth of a Nation. Essanay's response was to add an extra reel of travelogue footage to The Slim Princess, a clear case of too little too late.

The end came rapidly. On May 1, 1915, Bushman terminated his relationship with Essanay. Essanay still had three Bushman films, including The Slim Princess, in the can, but they were hardly enough to sustain the company for more than a few months. Chaplin was likewise dissatisfied and waiting for his contract to expire. With the extra whammy of the court ruling in October, by the start of 1916 Essanay was in shambles, reduced to re-releases of old Bushman films to try to make ends meet.

It's interesting that contemporary reviews of The Slim Princess slight Bushman's performance. Certainly he would have already been looking to leave Essanay by the time his scenes were shot. Most of the praise for the film went to supporting performer Beery, whose stardom would come, but not until long after Essanay collapsed. The location footage shot in Washington, D.C. seems to have been added to beef up the production to "feature" length. Overall, The Slim Princess received moderately positive reviews. So far as can be known, it appears to have been popular at the box-office. Public tastes were changing, however. Short "feature" films of the type that Essanay had been so successful in producing were giving way to longer and more complex productions. The Slim Princess represents the cusp of things for Essanay -- that point by which the company had failed to sufficiently adapt to a changing environment, and thus its decline accelerated and became irreversible.