The Lubin Film Company

". . . its rise, its reign, its requiem"

by Tim Lussier

Lubin Film Company operated studios throughout the country. The one in Philadelphia was the most modern, state-of-the-art studio of its day. At its peak ,the company owned a chain of more than 100 theatres along the East Coast, manufactured and sold motion picture cameras and projectors, employed more than 2,000 actors, writers, directors and technicians and was turning out more than a film a day. In spite of all these successes, though, it suffered possibly the swiftest decline and, ultimately, dissolution, in motion picture history.

Born in 1851, Sigmund "Pop" Lubin was a German-Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in 1876. He was a traveling peddler, did some gold prospecting, and was known for his storytelling ability, which brought him a contract offer as a vaudeville comedian. He finally settled in Philadelphia where he opened an optical shop. It was his knowledge of lenses that led to an interest in photography and then to the design and development of his own motion picture projector. It was this optical shop that soon became the home of "S. Lubin ­ World's Largest Manufacturer of Life Movies." The company's logo was a logo representing the Liberty Bell and accompanied by the slogan, "Clear As a Bell" emphasizing the quality of its films.

Lubin's films before the turn of the century were no different than those being turned out by other film companies of the day. For example, one short film showed Lubin's two daughters in a pillow fight. Another was of a horse eating hay.

In 1897, he employed two Pennsylvania railwaymen to re-enact the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, reading an account of the fight for the "actors" to following accordingly. His recreations of prize fights proved to be very popular. These were filmed on the roof of a building Lubin rented in the red light district of Philadelphia. He would give specatators one dollar each to bet on the fight in return for their appearance in these films. It was not unusual to have a few hundred spectators on the roof shouting and screaming followed by raid from the Philadelphia Fire Department.

Movie-making was not Lubin's only enterprise. He also manufactured and sold a patented projector he called the Cineograph. In 1899 he became an exhibitor when, in Philadelphia, he constructed what was probably the first theatre built solely for the exhibition of motion pictures. Soon, he had over 100 theatres all along the East Coast.

In 1898, Edison filed suit against Lubin for copyright infringement. As a result, he returned to Germany, but was back in a short time producing pictures once again. Edison's claims of copyright infringement led to a 10-year battle that Edison not only waged against Lubin, but many other film companies, as well. During this time, quite a few tactics were used to disrupt filming, and Edison wasn't beyond sending out thugs to bring a stop to a day's shooting. One of Lubin's favorite tricks to deal with these situations was to set up a fake film crew. While they were taking the thugs on a merry chase, the real film company would be in some other location completing their day's work.

To make matters worse, Lubin, like many other filmmakers of his day, was not exactly "ethical" in his practices. For example, he was known to remake someone else's film scene for scene and shot for shot. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter had directed "The Great Train Robbery" for Edison. Immediately afterwards, Lubin produced "The Bold Bank Robbery" with a very similar story.

However, the legal troubles with Edison came to an end in 1909 when the Motion Picture Patents Company was formed with Edison and each of the companies he claimed were infringing on his copyrights. The companies agreed to pay Edison a royalty, and Edison acknowledged the legality of their various patents. Also, all parties agreed to pay royalties to the owners of the various patents for the use of their devices. The "Trust," as it was called, survived until an anti-trust suit brought the MPPC to an end in 1916.

In 1910, Lubin built the most modern, up-to-date studio in the world. The glassed-in structure boasted editing rooms, laboratories, machine shops where his cameras and projectors were made and the largest artificially lit stage in the world with one of the world's most powerful indoor lighting systems. The studio permitted five films crews to work at once. Located in Philadelphia and known as "Lubinville," the studio turned out films that were known for their production values, technical sophistication and sharp images.

Two years later, he purchased a 500 acre estate in Betzwood, near historic Valley Forge, which was the home of brewer John Betz. He transformed this estate into a studio and lot that was reknowned for its scenic beauty. The $2 million dollar complex was outfitted with state-of-the-art technology that included air-conditioned, automated labs.

The Betzwood studio provided locations for almost any kind of story. Westerns were a very popular product of the Lubin Film Company, and the grounds of the estate were perfect for filming these "Eastern Westerns." Lubin even hired real cowboys who lived on the grounds of the estate. One of his most famous productions, "The Battle of Gettysburg," was filmed at the Betzwood location. The Betz home provided an ideal backdrop for a European mansion and other story lines involving "the wealthy." The estate also included four complete farms all filled with livestock, a deer park and a two-mile stretch of the Schuylkill River.

But Lubin expanded beyond the East Coast and had studios throughout the country, though none nearly so large as Lubinville in Philadelphia and the Betzwood studio. He even owned a studio in Berlin. These other studios were employing some individuals whose names have gone down as some of the most famous in motion picture history.

During this time, film pioneers working for Lubin included Arthur Johnson, Florence Lawrence, Ethel Clayton, Lottie Briscoe, Rosemary Theby, Ormi Hawley, Edwin Carewe and many others. Harry Myers, who is best remembered as the drunken millionaire in Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" (1931), was a leading director and scriptwriter for the company. Frank Borzage, who later became one of Hollywood's most prestigious directors, started as an actor with Lubin.

Ethel Clayton was one of the company's most popular stars during the 'teens. Her first appearance in a movie for Lubin was "When the Earth Trembled" in 1912. She and House Peters co-starred in one of Lubin's last productions, the 1916 feature, "The Great Divide."

Future director Henry King made his acting debut in Lubin Films at the Los Angeles studio.

At the Jacksonville, Fla., studio in 1913, a young bystander named Oliver Hardy was given his first chance at acting and continued honing his craft with the Lubin company for the next two years.

An unusual actor known as Romaine Fielding was Lubin's leading male star for a time and made films in the Southwest that became popular for their psychological implications. The authenticity of the westerns he made for Lubin earned him the reputation as "The Man Who Put 'Real' in Realism." He made history when he wrote, produced, directed and played the only two roles in a film entitled "The Toll of Fear," itself a film of daring subject matter and innovative treatment.

The beginning of the end for the Lubin Film Company came on June 13, 1914, when a massive film vault explosion destroyed the master film negatives for all of Lubin's films. Two months later, World War I broke out drying up Lubin's, and other filmmakers', foreign market.

The dissolution of the Motion Picture Patents Company came about soon afterward causing Lubin to lose millions of dollars and adversely affecting his health, too.

The downhill spiral couldn't be stopped, and, on Sept, 1, 1917, the Lubin Film Company closed its doors forever.

Lubin spent the last years of his life tinkering with radios and ended up back in his original optical shop in Philadelphia also dabbling in optical and photographic work. The world lost one of its greatest film pioneers September 11, 1923, when "Pop" Lubin passed away at his home in Ventnor, N.J.


For more information on the life of Sigmund Lubin, go to the Lubin web page.

For a book on the life of Sigmund Lubin, check out THE KING OF THE MOVIES: FILM PIONEER SIEGMUND LUBIN by Joseph P. Eckhardt. To order this book, click on the Amazon link below and type the book's title or author in the search field.

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copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

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