A Year of Unknown Books: Flickering Empire (How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry)

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film IndustryFlickering Empire
by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer
Book #12, reading during October, 2015
Final Book

This is the last book of my year-long project where I read books that other people recommend to me, and this is the perfect title with which to finish strong.  Not only is it about Chicago history, aka my amazing homeland, but is also the first book written by my spouse, Michael Smith.  Published in early 2015, I could either be an awful wife having waited this long to read it, or you could say that I saved the best for last.  Either way, the back cover has been closed, and luckily for me, the dedication to me is typed within a book (yep, that’s right) that I can honestly say was wonderful.

Admittedly, I’m not a big film history buff.  I love specific genres of film, but I’m not studying their origins, so I was a little nervous that the information would be over my head.  In all actuality, some of it was, but mainly the names of the early iterations of film equipment, but those are sparse and you can just glaze over them if you wish (because I obviously did).  The appeal for me as a film ignoramus was all of the firsts.  So much of what this book includes are facts about how things common today first came to be in the early 20th century, and in Chicago.  Because there are too many to describe, here’s list of some of my favorites:

-How seemingly disparate histories intersect, i.e. how Colonel Selig (a studio head) was financially aided in court to fight back against Thomas Edison by the meatpacking company who received bad publicity because of Upton Sinclair’s serial turned novel, The Jungle.

-That absolutely nothing has changed since 1912 regarding the intimate relationship between corruption and Chicago government and police.

-The description of early Chicago has honestly been the only one that I’ve read thus far to make me want to read about historic Chicago.  Charles Dickens, when he visited Chicago is said to have been “shook [so badly by the experience] that some commentators feel that he never really recovered his former optimism” after seeing it as a “dirty, grimy land full of thieves, con artists, and people who lived in poverty and misery…”  I don’t know, it kind of fills me with pride.  Don’t mess with Texas Chicago.

-The progression from still photos to what we view today is astounding, and once moving pictures became so, it seems unjust that so many of the early films have been lost.  It’s also unbelievable that some are merely hiding out, only to be discovered one hundred years later in an entirely different country, such as the new found Chicago-made Sherlock Holmes, unearthed in France in 2014.

-The definition of the word nickelodeon came from nickle theaters in Chicago.

-The first Sherlock Holmes film was made in Chicago, and with his famous hat, which was a creation of the filmmaker, not the actual story.

-Chicago filmed the first film adaptation of the Wizard of Oz.

-One of the disturbing realities of film history is that animals were indeed killed in the making of early Chicago film.

-Thomas Edison was actually a huge asshole (who knew?!) who appropriated the ideas of others while taking the credit on a historical scale.  As they say, history is written by the winners.

-Orson Welles studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.

-And lastly, the gripping description of one of the first African American filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Who knew that Chicago was essentially the birthplace of film?  Not I, but Flickering Empire does a bang up job of setting the scene for early film history in Chicago, and doing it in a way that is anything but textbook.  The authors set the scene for a fledgling time and place where film and city are akin in their voracity to exist and grow.  I couldn’t have planned (and I planned for nothing, as all the books were recommended) for a better title to cap my Year of Unknown Books project.