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Charles Urban was a giant in early cinema and a most fascinating character, an ambitious and forward thinking American tycoon who enjoyed his biggest success on the other side of the Atlantic. Then he returned to his home country during the last year of The Great War, but competition with Hollywood was too great and his fortunes collapsed in a few years. Sadly, so many of his films have been lost over time even though material that he financed got recycled in films made by other companies. Fortunately his stock has been on the rise in recent years, with one researcher working more devotedly than others since the 1990s in bringing the attention he deserves. Luke McKernan published a biography on him in 2013: Charles Urban, Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897 – 1925. According to his website at http://www.charlesurban.com/, we are told the following: “No complete list of all the films that he produced exists, and it would be an almost impossible task to construct one, as he re-edited and re-used his film material so frequently.” Not that I won't try with a small... small “starter” sampling. No, these lists won't be complete. Further more, I am focusing exclusively on the post-1903 period instead of his years with the Warwick Trading Company (which operated with and without him between 1898 and 1915), although I might tackle them on a future date. You folks know that I can't resist the temptation. Born April 14, 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Charles Urban got started in the movie business when marketing Thomas Edison's Kinetoscopes in Detroit, Michigan in 1895. He moved to the United Kingdom while working with Maguire & Baucus, agents of Edison, before becoming a part of the Warwick Trading Company three years later where he held a top position until February 1903. When he left to start up his own company, he ignited a lawsuit with Warwick by taking some top personnel with him, including Alfred Darling, Thomas Grant, George Albert Smith, John “Jack” Avery as a key co-executive and camera operator and Alice Rosenthal, sister of one of Urban's top cameramen Joseph, as a top salesperson. It didn't take long for the Charles Urban Trading Company to ape his former company as a leader of scenic “factuals” shot as far from the British Isles as one could get. These Urban-Bioscope Expeditions traipsed through Borneo, the Swiss Alps, the major destinations of Europe and “darkest” Africa. In addition to all of the pretty scenery, there was no shying away from the human thirst for violence and warfare, even having cameramen Joe Rosenthal and George Rogers tackle the Russo-Japanese War from both sides. The official 1903 and '06 film catalogs are quite a feast for the eyes, offering more for British movie goers than even National Geographic offered American magazine subscribers in its early years: https://archive.org/details/weputworldbefore00unse http://www.cinematheque.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/Expo/Gustave_Doret/Catalogue_Urban_1906.pdf Nickelodeon attendees were also introduced to worlds that weren't so much far away but hard to see with their limited eye sight. F. Martin Duncan made several series featuring amoeba, hydras, bacteria, close-ups of insects, circulation of blood and anything else of interest that required special microscopic lens. By 1908, F. Percy Smith was added to the fold, along with a new sub-company Kineto, with his landmark frame-by-frame time lapse photography of flowers blooming and close-ups of spiders and insects in action. Smith later would work with British Instructional (which I profiled on a separate thread here) and was among the first to document Mother Nature in color as well... Ah, yes, color... or shall I spell it colour? Urban certainly deserves credit as one of the great financial backers in this arena. While still with the Warwick Trading Company, he supported Edward Raymond Turner. He patented a system with Frederick Marshall Lee that involved three filters (red, yellow and blue) attached to a camera that exposed different images on consecutive frames of one black and white film roll. A few film clips survive today that were taken before Turner's untimely death in 1903, resurrected from obscurity by the National Media Museum in 2012: Because this first system was rather cumbersome, Urban had George Albert Smith (famous for such landmark novelties as The Haunted Castle and Grandma's Reading Glass) simplify the process to just two filters, making the results less “colorful” but more practical. (Leon Gaumont, however, would return to Turner's three filter concept with his excellent, but still troublesome, Chronochrome system a full decade later.) The black & white film was exposed with a disc of rotating filters, then shown with a specialized projector with matching filters to present it for the screen. In July 1906, his first experiments were made of Smith's children in Southwick, Brighton. By early 1909, a new name was established for this process, Kinemacolor, along with a new Urban-controlled company, Natural Color Kinematograph. Because each second frame was exposed differently than the frame proceeding it, fast movement of people jumping and horses galloping sometimes created a double-image effect. Over time, the cameramen got around some of this by having much action coming towards the camera and decreasing the amount of side viewed action. The film also had to be projected faster than most other films at 1/32 a second. Some of these issues were fixed later in the U.S. by the competing Prizmacolor and Technicolor companies, which followed the “bi-pack” route of exposing two rolls of film at once, thanks to a special glassware involving two filters, then having the rolls combined as one with special dyes on each side so they can be used in standard 24 frames per second projectors without filters. Urban himself also kept tinkering in later years, even after Kinemacolor ran its course, with his top engineer Henry Joy on another system called “Kinekrom” that almost, but not quite, solved the problems. Like Cinerama in the fifties and IMAX decades later, early Kinemacolor often involved special theaters and special ticket prices, with its biggest showcase being the glamorous Scala Theatre on Charlotte Street, London. Like the later widescreen spectaculars, these films held the same appeal of presenting far away places in a format unlike any other travelogue at the time; top cameraman John Mackenzie even published a book in 1910 called Rambles In Many Lands. Aside from England and France, major countries presented for the first time in color without tints or stenciling included Belgium, Holland, Germany, the United States, Canada, Italy, Algeria, the Balkans, Egypt, India, Spain, Canary Islands, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Japan. Essentially the Urban team was achieving the same goal in motion pictures that Albert Kahn's team did with Lumière Autochrome still photography in Les Archives de la Planète, a collection that survives more complete today. A few separate Kinemacolor companies were established outside of England such as Kinemacolor de France, Luca Comerio operating in Italy and Kinemacolor of America (profiled later on this thread), but the Japanese probably enjoyed the most success with it: Toyo Shokai, renamed Tennenshaku Katsudoshashin Kabushiki Kaisha, maintained a steady output of kabuki play adaptations and scenics through 1917. King Edward VII was the first royal to be filmed both alive and in funeral procession by the Kinemacolor cameras. Then Smith and Urban's team went all out documenting the coronation of George V, followed by his visit to India in 1911-12 titled With Our King And Queen Through India (a.k.a. The Dunbar At Delhi). This and the Kinemacolor of America's Making Of The Panama Canal are sometimes listed as the world's first feature length films in color, but were viewed at the time as presentations of individual short subjects. Not to be outdone, France's President Poincaré became a subject more than once and Kinemacolor of America made sure two presidents in office, Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, were also documented in color. Both the U.S. and U.K. companies covered ex-president Teddy Roosevelt. While educational films garnished Urban much of his critical prestige, it was obvious that the business of movies had to bring in the cash with plenty of fictionalized comedy, drama and adventure. These were done both in black & white and Kinemacolor, probably half of the latter productions being shot in Nice, France which boasted better sunshine than the British Isles. In addition, Urban also set up Société Générale des Cinématographes Éclipse in Paris to increase his entertainment output. Eventually this company broke off as its own independent operation, becoming the fourth largest film company in France before long. Among the more interesting films done in England were directed by Walter R. Booth as part of a then popular “trick” fantasy genre, similar to what George Méliès had been doing earlier. His 1912 part live-action / part stop-motion collaboration with F. Martin Thornton and Edgar Rogers, In Gollywog Land, boasts what may be the earliest animation in color, unless one counts Winsor McCay's hand-tinted Little Nemo of the previous year. (I do include cartoons in this thread for a change.) Another leading director, filming in both countries, was Rotterdam-born Theo Bouwmeester (sometimes listed as Frenkel, his original name, or Bouwmeester-Frenkel, the name I use here). He played Napoleon in Kinemacolor's first fictional production, Checkmated (1910), and later supervised the first western in the process, Fate, set in Texas but filmed in Sussex. The first official color feature (or the first not to be a documentary at least) was F. Martin Thorton's The World, The Flesh And The Devil, a rather torrid melodrama that the critics weren't kind to when it opened at the Holborn Empire on April 9, 1914. There was just one more follow-up feature that summer, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Urban's ambitious move into all-color features was halted due to some court battles involving the competing Biocolour headed by William Friese-Greene, who accused Urban for being monopolistic over color processes. Although Biocolour ultimately was a failure financially (and Gaumont's more competitive system stayed mostly in France), Urban still had to liquidize the Natural Color Kinematograph and re-organize as a new company, Colorfilms Ltd., dropping the key word “natural” on account of all of the bad press Kinemacolor received for its hardly natural two-spectrum system. Adding to the decline in Kinemacolor was a souring relationship between Urban and George Smith, who hardly spoke to each other until the 1930s. The war soon took up a huge chunk of Urban's activities, along with providing much needed subject matter for movie screens. He was appointed to chairman of the British Topical Committee for War Films in 1915, but ran into some controversy the following year when he negotiated with William Randolph Hearst for a U.S. distribution deal; Hearst being sympathetic to Germany while his country was still neutral did not go well with the British press at the time. Two key features Britain Prepared (How Britain Prepared) (December 1915) and The Battle Of The Somme (August 1916) nonetheless did well on both sides of the Atlantic. The former featured some rare Kinemacolor sequences of battle, another Urban first. The second strictly black and white film still holds up as an outstanding documentation with stellar camerawork by J.B. McDowell and Geoffrey Malins that has been recycled in many movies, TV shows and YouTube since. His gradual move of operations to the United States began with his take over of David Horseley's Centaur Film Corporation in Bayonne, New Jersey in March 1917, followed eight months later by the formation of Kineto Company of America at 71 West 23rd Street in New York City to produce a newsreel series called the “Official War Review”. By the autumn of 1918, he had pretty much phased out his British operations and stayed put in America, settling by 1920 with a Stanford White designed building in Irvington, New York and consolidating his companies under Urban Motion Picture Industries, Inc. Unfortunately many of his big ambitions for the American market didn't pan out well, perhaps because he was too ahead of his time. Among his most interesting novelties involving co-engineer Harry Joy (co-developed with Theodore Brown) was the Spirograph, a disc-formatted projector aimed at bringing movies into homes and schools for personal use, a fore-runner to the “home entertainment” explosion of later decades, first with 16mm and 8mm and then VHS and laserdisc by the '80s. Yet it all seemed way too early for 1920. Had his Kinekrom system been successful, many of his Kinemacolor films would have enjoyed a longer shelf life as reissues in later years, but there were still technical issues involved. On the plus side, he boasted a spectacular library of material that, along with some newly filmed footage done in America, got used extensively in several series: “Urban Movie Chats”, “Wonders of the World”, “Kineto Reviews”, “Urban Popular Classics” and “Great American Authors”, the last edited by future Traveltalks guru James FitzPatrick. All of these shorts were part of an ambitious program called “The Encyclopedia of Knowledge”, a “thousand-reel” attempt to provide a motion picture counterpart to every library's reference book section. (He also had some involvement in George McLeod Baynes' earliest “Kinograms”, a newsreel that outlasted all of Urban's own series.) Two somewhat successful features were added in 1921: The Four Seasons, supervised by leading New York zoological celebrity Raymond Ditmars and previewed February 18th, and Permanent Peace, released in November to coincide with the Washington Naval Peace Conference. One later Urban production was a real curio that is likely impossible to view today, if not lost. Evolution: From The Birth Of The Planets To The Age Of Man was supervised by Ditmars with plenty of his own personal animal footage along with some stop-motion dinosaurs by Willis O'Brien (likely lifted from his earlier short The Ghost Of Slumber Mountain). It was first shown at All Angels Episcopal Church in Manhattan, December 1922, despite Ditmars' blatant preference for Darwin over Genesis. Of course, the national publicity over the Scopes' “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee prompted a re-edit and reissue involving Edward J. Foyles of the American Museum of Natural History and the animation team of Max and David Fleischer, whose co-owned Red Seal also handled distribution. By the time this second version was released in July 1925, Urban was forced to close shop. According to July 1924 reports in Film Daily, his “$10, 500, 000 corporation” had been petitioned for bankruptcy. There was a second, but short-lived, rebooting of the company later by investor C.M. Bortman. Max Fleischer's team once again got recruited to edit material for a new and short-lived “Urban Searchlights” series (one of which is posted on this thread). By 1929, Urban was mostly retired and back in England. He lost his second wife, Ada, in 1937; she herself had contributed both financially and as a key supervisor for the company since they married in 1910. Charles passed away on August 29, 1942 while still writing his memoirs. Meanwhile, a large chunk of the Urban library fell through the cracks of court-battled ownership and much valuable source material was either recycled for its chemical components or lost/discarded by accident. This is sad when one considers Urban's motto for many years as “Putting the world before you”, which he pretty much did long before we had cable TV and the internet. What we have today to remember him by are crumbs of a once spectacular film empire. **** Urban backed many critter reels. The BFI site labels this one The Porcupine- A Prickly Subject, but it could be Animal Drolleries (Kineto 1915, minus the parrot), one of the Animal World Series (1916) or just a hodgepodge of several titles. What is nice about these compilation reels is that they preserve so much valuable footage lost in their original state. The bunny and girl shot may go back a good dozen years or so. The otter, badger and jerboa all appeared in their own longer starring roles in previous years, the otter's 1912 performance is also uploaded on this thread.
Going the British route this time with three intertwined companies that have provided some mighty fine shortie material over a cluster of decades. British Instructional Films a.k.a. “BIF” was created by Harry Bruce Woolfe and H.M. Howard in August 1919. Woolfe was the more powerful force of the two, managing his company through its merging with Gaumont British in 1933 until his semi-retirement in 1944. Two major focuses of Woolfe in the early years of his company were the Great War, which he felt disillusioned about and needed psychological therapy from, and Mother Nature, which easily provided therapy from the sound of guns. The former was represented in short films like The Battle Of Jutland as well as feature-length (up to six reels) newsreel compilations like Armageddon (1922), Zeebrugge (1924), Sons Of The Sea (1925), Ypres (1925) and Mons (1926). Yet the latter interest had the biggest impact on the company's fortunes despite being restricted to the 9-11 minute format. Over 30 “Secrets of Nature” one-reelers were in release by February 1923 and these remained a staple of the BIF and later Gaumont-British Instructional library for two decades further, being renamed “Secrets of Life”. Although there were other companies that showed time-lapse flowers blooming and roots penetrating the soil, tadpoles in development, stickleback daddies taking care of baby fish and sundews luring flies to their doom, only this company would make something as offbeat as Mitey Atoms (about cheese mites), microscopic “aquariums” in a wine-glass and Magic Myxies (about whatever they are... alien creatures from outer space?). At least one extinct species was documented for the cameras in Hold All a.k.a. Feeding Time At The Zoo: the thylacine or marsupial Tasmanian “wolf” would never be seen in any zoo after 1936. Apparently Walt Disney was impressed enough to borrow the second umbrella title for his own 1956 True Life Adventure feature; his own series of the post-war forties and fifties used the same tricks of the trade with the only key change being Technicolor. Only a select few later “Secrets of Life” were in Dufaycolor. Apart from that, the only handicap the original series had was no use of electron microscopes and computer technology, only introduced in wildlife and science films tentatively in the 1970s. One reason for their very high quality was the number of professionals fully experienced prior to joining and now at the peak of their skills. For example, Oliver G. Pike was a veteran of bird life films for several other companies since 1907, working at first for Charles Urban's Kineto... a company that also backed more than eighty little reels of Frank Percy Smith (who also made additional all-color reels for Natural Colour Kinematograph). Smith, as the most prolific cameraman for both the “Nature” and “Life” series, even dabbled in stop-motion animation; his Bertie the Bee, a co-star in his 1925 trio of cartoons featuring Archie the Ant, appeared in a few titles as an “expert” on flower pollination. In 1934, Smith collaborated with Mary Field on a book exposing the secrets of Secrets, titled (obviously) The Secrets of Nature. Field took over as director for the series so that Smith could stay focused on his camera work. Keep in mind that there weren't many ladies in such powerful positions in the British and Hollywood film industries at this time. Field was practically second-in-command to executive Woolfe. Even as a recently married woman in 1944, J. Arthur Rank still felt she should be the executive in charge of a company within a company (which I will get into in a bit). Through the twenties and early thirties, both features and shorts of a documentary nature continued to be the BIF bread-and-butter, examples of the longer kind include African “docu-dramas” like Palaver (filmed in Nigeria) and Stark Nature (Sudan). Nelson (1926) marked their first fictional drama featuring all actors and was followed two years later by Shooting Stars, directed by Anthony Asquith. After establishing glossier headquarters in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire during the fall of '28, entertainment features were increased in number to keep another of their key distributors New Era satisfied. By 1930, the bigger British International Pictures had increased its stock in BIF with Pathé also backing them, but the relationship between Woolfe and the new power-house in charge was only tolerated for a few years. In the summer of 1933, Woolfe declared his independence by temporarily forming British Independent Films in an attempt to get back to documentary basics. Then mighty Gaumont gave him a lucrative offer he couldn't refuse. Gaumont was... or shall I say still IS... most famously a French company created by Léon Gaumont (1864-1946) on June 23, 1895. It still produces films today, mostly in Europe, but also with Gaumont International Television operating in the United States. In fact, it holds the distinction for being the oldest movie company still making movies for theaters as well as for smaller screens, older than Hollywood's Paramount and Universal and also older than still chugging away Titanus of Rome and Nordisk of Copenhagen. Only one fellow company started in France can hold the second oldest title: Pathé occasionally produces films even if it is more of a distributor these days, but it was created just one year after Gaumont. Gotta hand it to the French for making companies that last! Gaumont began making films in the United Kingdom in 1898, but the official history of Gaumont British got underway when Isidore Ostrer took control in 1922. (This is where I start covering their pre-British Instructional product on these threads, with just a slight push-back a year or two to accommodate some series. You can read their full filmography in British Film Catalogue: Two Volume Set - The Fiction Film/The Non-Fiction Film edited by Denis Gifford and updated to 1995.) Gaumont-British mostly made feature films and would become an international force in the thirties with Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. A joke made in the Selznick version of A Star Is Born has Janet Gaynor asking if all of the movie studios were located in Hollywood. The response she gets is “all but Gaumont British” since this was the one “outside” company any average movie fan of the thirties could name. Operating now as Gaumont-British Instructional Films, Woolfe and Mary Field continued “Secrets of Nature” under a new logo “Secrets of Life” to avoid legal red-tape. Much of the in-depth analysis of the natural world carried over into man-made ventures like ship building, airplanes, farming and the history of English culture itself. New rising figures of importance during this era included Stuart Legg, J.B. Holmes and Paul Rotha. Perhaps due to the mother company being a British Hollywood factory, great care was put in production polish, with narration, music scores and editing done to make education as entertaining as possible. One curio though: despite Gaumount British making its first Dufaycolor short, Mother of Parliaments, in 1934, only a select few travelogues and nature reels were shot in either that system or Technicolor, unlike rival U.S. companies like MGM's Traveltalks. After Woolfe's retirement, new chief Donald Carter diversified the product further, even opening a new South African unit to accommodate the post-war demand for exotic travels on screen. Children entertainment got a big boost in 1944, a few years after J. Arthur Rank reorganized the General Film Distributors empire that distributed for Gaumont, Gainsborough, Ealing and other prominent companies. He put Mary Field in charge of a special division catering to kiddie matinees and a push into features followed. Bush Christmas (1947), The Adventures Of Dusty Bates (1947, initially a serial), The Little Ballerina (1947), The Lone Climber (1950), The Mysterious Poacher (1950), The Clue Of The Missing Ape (1953), The Gold Express (1955) and Supersonic Saucer (1956) were among the more famous titles. However the shorter films themselves were not overlooked and were brimming with fresh talent both behind and in front of the cameras. Jean Simmons made her debut in Sports Day, filmed in 1944 before super stardom under the wings of David Lean, Lawrence Olivier and Michael Powell. Petula Clark also first appeared in a GB Instructional made the following year, Trouble At Townsend, even if few outside of the UK knew who she was until after their country-by-country “British Invasions” of pop music two decades later and her singing “when you're alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go Downtown”. I will break my golden rule on this forum and add the animated cartoons into the mix here. Rank brought David Hand overseas from Disney to launch a Gaumont British Animation department. Alas... this was a great experiment that didn't last long. After providing animated sequences for the documentaries and making sponsored ad films right after the war, this company enjoyed only a short-lived success with its “Animaland” (featuring characters who would fit in well in Bambi's forest like Ginger Nutt Squirrel, despite his European tufted ears) and the more artistically creative “Musical Paintbox”. The earliest “Animaland” shorts even paid tribute to the series that made their mother company famous: The Cuckoo starts out as a parody on Edgar Chance's 1922 “Secrets of Nature” film covering the live-action bird even if this new character more closely resembles Baby Huey. Sadly the fifties were less kind than the thirties and forties to movie making, with a changing economy, new legislation changes and television taking their toll. The animation staff was the first to go when Rank began some downsizing at the start of the decade. Modest success came in the 16mm field, as this impressive catalog showcases: https://archive.org/details/gb16mmentert1gbeq A few years later, GB Instructional itself became GB “Specialized” Films as it too cut back in production. By the time Donald Carter left to work in Canada, virtually all shorts bearing the GB logo were off shoots of the newsreel division... which itself ended in 1959. However the market for shorts was not dead yet, since Rank Film Distributors continued to back a steady stream of independent travel and human interest reels just as the earlier General Film Distributors had supplemented its GB Instructional product. In fact, the big boss was even prompted to replace his dying newsreel with a very glossy and ambitious all-Eastmancolor weekly called “Look At Life”. This prevented the Rank features from ever getting lonely in theaters during the swinging sixties and, even after they ended, Rank (the company continuing after its founder's death) still released new theatricals and 16mm shorts as late as the 1980s. Below I have arranged everything by series. The dates given are either release dates as described by Gifford (mentioned above) or as trade show presentations (just before theatrical distribution) as listed in vintage Kinematograph Year Books uploaded on the Internet Archive.