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Saturday, 17th May 2008

o you know what the earliest set of cigarette cards depicting cinema actors is?

Who can resist a question like that?

Not me and it opened up a hole can of worms, but more on that later down the line.

I do not know is the simple answer but I am willing to suggest Major Drapkin, Cinematograph Actors [1913] is a pretty good contender. Certainly as a series of 96 cards dealing exclusively with actors of the screen it is pretty impressive.

Actually to suggest I do not know is a bit feeble really but it is the truth, however in looking for the answer I did find out a lot of things I did not previously know so who really cares if I can answer the original question?

I know, the person that asked. Well they had to hear about the fact there were many sets issued with actors and actresses as a theme and some of these would have appeared in films at a later date and it could be suggested that this was the earliest set of cards to depict 'film stars'.

for a period of time was making two films a week

At this point I used my 'get out of jail' free card I had tucked under the computer monitor earlier that week, (which made playing Monopoly a bit tricky). Basically the early films did not include the names of the people within them. It stood to reason really, films might only last ten minutes, when was the last time you saw a credit sequence in a modern film last less than ten minutes? Things were different back then.

You can argue the case that 'The Great Train Robbery [1903] was the most influential film ever, it introduced so many elements of modern film, albeit in a pretty crude way but it is there to be seen and certainly it was the most popular film until the classic 'The Birth of a Nation.' [1915], and that is 2 years away when this set was produced.

Within the 'cast' of 'The Great Train Robbery' was C.M Anderson who appears in the Drapkin set (as does every actor in bold type on this page). He was later (1908) to join the Essanay film company and produce the 'Broncho Billy' westerns and therefore establish himself as one of the, if not the, first cowboy screen star.

Biograph did not include the names of the actors or actresses on title credits in till as late as 1913, so a set issued in 1913 is the first. If a tree falls in a desert and nobody hears it fall, does it make a noise? Well can you be a cinema star if nobody knows your name. So if in doubt employ a bit of pop-philosophy, nod your head wisely and if anyone says, 'What a load of old tosh.' Raise a finger in the air and say, 'Ah but think again, it is a problem people have thought over for centuries.' If they insist it is a lot of old tosh they are probably right.

If you look at the checklist provided you will see a number of things. Although the series is classified as unnumbered some cards actually have numbers on them. Where this is the case I have indicated this by showing the number in brackets. There is no logical sequence to these numbers and for a long while I have wondered about them but the answer is simple (once you know it.) A number of the cards were taken from an earlier numbered postcard issue and for whatever reason the numbers were reproduced on the cigarette card issue.

Also there is some duplication in the set; various personalities appearing more than once although the cards are obviously distinct. This was quite common practice in early sets of cards

One of the cards does not even depict a human but rather a dog which is a nice touch.

Perhaps the easiest way of putting this set into some sort of historical perspective is the fact that in 1911 the film " A Tale of Two Cities " was considered quite something as it ran for three reels instead of the more normal one. Even a three-reeler was unlikely to stretch even the most impatient as a reel lasted 10 minutes.

The short nature of the films being produced at this time in the U.S. was a direct consequence of the Motion Picture Patents Company which sort to control all film output from 1908 until dissolved by court order in 1917. I n Europe there was not this strangle hold on the industry and 10 and 12 reelers were being produced. However I am going a little off message here and threatening to produce something of a 12 reeler myself

It also introduces two of the people mentioned in the series. Florence Turner and Maurice Costello.

Florence had joined Vitagraph in 1906, known as 'the Vitagraph girl' she was one of the most popular actresses of the time. Maurice joined Vitagraph in 1909.

In 1913 Florence Turner left Vitagraph to set up a film company in England which surprised a lot of people as the British film industry was considered inferior to the US film industry at that time. A lot of things about this set remind you the more things change the more they stay the same. That's my last bit of pop-philosophy, honest.

Florence though had a rival, in the form of another Florence, this time Florence Lawrence, better known as 'The Biograph girl' having left Vitagraph in 1908. She was mighty popular and for a period of time was making two films a week, another sign of the times. Many of her films were made with the companies principal actor, Arthur Johnson.

Not willing to let the grass grow under her feet Florence Lawrence decided a move to Independant Motion Picture Co (IMP) was a good idea and affected the move in 1910. This move was to have major effects on the film industry.

Florence Lawrence dropped of the face of the planet at the time of the move and it was soon circulating that she had been killed in a car accident by the newspapers. This was news as she was well known as the Biograph girl and well loved because of this.

However this turned out to be a false rumour and more of a publicity stunt for IMP as she turned up alive and well shortly after the excitement (when you are making two films a week how long do you think a company can afford to keep you hidden?). Her face and name hit the headlines once again and she became the first true star of the screen in the sense she could not get down the street without being set upon by large crowds of people.

It was reputed that this brought about the release of screen credits as companies discovered the draw that stars held for the general public.

One reason the actors were not given credit for their film work in the early period was because of a certain class system within acting. Many of the early actors came from a theater background, naturally. Film work was considered inferior and often they did not want to be recognized in the films.

Although Biograph failed to credit the actors to 1913 in the U.K. market they did issue the names of the early stars to satisfy the British audience.

An interesting consequence of this is the fact a lot of the names were simply wrong. In the Major Drapkin set there are a couple of examples of this. Daphne Wayne is much better known as Blanche Sweet and appears on many cigarette cards with this name.

And just to prove there is nothing new this set contains an error in the sense that one of the people listed Lieut Daring (not Darling as in the official handbook) was in fact a character rather than an actor. The man behind the Lieut. was Percy Moran but was obviously better known for the ficticious character he had been playing since 1911. This is also the case with James Wilson whose real name was Billy Quirk. It should be noted there is still things to lerarn about this set because a number of the names are only best guesses at what might be written on the cards because of the way they have been reproduced. They are good guesses mind.

Also Muriel Fortesque appears later as Mabel Normand. It is slightly unfair to suggest Biograph or for that matter Drapkin got it wrong as changing names was something of an occupation in itself.

Mabel made films with both Biograph and Vitagraph but probably achieved her greatest fame when she joined Mack Sennett's, Keystone Company in 1912 in which she starred in many films with Charlie Chaplin.

Although Chaplin does not appear in this set another early comic export from the UK does in the huge form of John Bunny. He was the archetypal fat man, actually an English import (at which point it should be noted with disappointment Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle [Lowell Sherman] does not feature in this set even though in 1913 he was the featured player at the Sennett studio's. Arbuckle comes to a sad end mind, even though it would seem Keaton helped his old friend out in dire times.

Now though I am straying from the remit of this set, something so very easy to do given the fascinating subject matter. John Bunny produced a prolific quantity of work (Bunny in Bunnyland gives you an idea) having joined Vitagraph in 1910 but died in 1915.

For the last time I bring up the name of Chaplin, to introduce Max Linder. A French comedian who wrote and directed a lot of his work (from 1911 onwards) and has been cited as an early influence on Chaplin.

I am not going down that route. If you thought 2 films a week was tough going wait till you discover Linder managed to make some 400 films between 1905-07. In 1958 there was a reissue of his work but only a fraction had survived to that period.

To stray beyond the scope of this set one last time Linder brought in to replace Chaplin at Essanay films in 1916. However for whatever reason his time in America was not succesful and in 1925 sick and depressed he and his wife commited suicide.

Finally Mary Pickford appears in this set and I have not said a single word about her, I've not forgotten her but she is for another page.

Please do not ask for a set of these cards, they are rare and although I might be able to put one together from all the card collections I know of it is not certain I could, I can get my hands on odd cards if you really must have them but that is not the point of the page. Some pages on this site are just reward enough to write this is one of them.