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Wisconsin brothers Harry and Roy Aitken - Silent Film Pioneers | Wisconsin Historical Society

Feature Story

Wisconsin Brothers Become Early 20th Century Motion Picture Pioneers

Wisconsin brothers Harry and Roy Aitken - Silent Film Pioneers | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeFilm Still The Girl and the Mummy, 1916. WHI 92739.

Film Still from 'The Girl and the Mummy', 1916

This film still depicts an actress wrapped as a mummy. View the original source document: WHI 92739

EnlargeBoss of the Lazy 'Y', 1918. WHI 92160.

Film Still from 'Boss of the Lazy 'Y', 1918

This film still depicts Actress Josie Sedgwick as Betty Clayton and six other men, some with guns, holed up in a ranch house, shooting toward a window. One of the men stands with arm across his forehead, and another man holds Betty by the wrist. View the original source document: WHI 92160

EnlargeBattle scene from film, soldiers and KKK. WHI 96565.

Film Still from 'Birth of a Nation', 1915

This film still depicts a street battle between African-American soldiers on foot and members of the Ku Klux Klan on horseback. View the original source document: WHI 96565

By Rick Pifer, Director of Public Services for the Library and Archives

What do a mummy, a western gunfight, and the Ku Klux Klan have in common? They are all in films produced by Wisconsin-born silent film pioneers Harry and Roy Aitken.

Documentation about these films, "The Girl and the Mummy" (1916), "Boss of the Lazy 'Y'" (1918), and the racially charged "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) can be found in the Harry and Roy Aitken Papers in the Society's Archives.

'The Clodhopper', 1917

Watch a three-minute clip from this silent film directed by Victor Scherzinger for Kay-Bee (a unit of the New York Motion Picture Corporation) and released by Triangle. In this scene, a country boy proves a surprise sensation at a New York cabaret with his eccentric dancing, including his signature "Clodhopper Glide." Source: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research

Harry (1878-1956) and Roy (1882-1978) Aitken grew up on a farm in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. They entered the film business in 1905 when they established four nickelodeons in downtown Chicago. Nickelodeons were small storefront movie theaters showing the one-reel silent films of the day. On that foundation, the brothers went on to build one of the earliest Hollywood production companies.

Between 1910 and 1920, the brothers formed and financed a number of major film studios, including Majestic, Reliance, Keystone, Fine Arts, New York Motion Pictures and its subsidiaries, Broncho, Domino, and Kay-Bee.

The film industry went through a revolution during the 1910s as filmmakers refined their techniques and business and marketing became more sophisticated. The Harry and Roy Aitken Papers, 1909-1940, includes materials on all aspects of production, distribution, and financing. The collection also offers a rich resource of scripts and scenarios for approximately 150 silent films produced by the brothers.

The Aitken brothers were prolific in the film industry, producing an estimated 2,500 films. Their film portfolio includes Westerns, melodramas, and comedies (many feature the Keystone Cops).

They employed luminaries of the silent film era such as Anita Loos, D.W. Griffith, William S. Hart, Mae Marsh, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Thomas Ince, Harold Lloyd, Billie Burke, Mack Sennett, Charles Ray, Douglas Fairbanks, Dorothy Dalton, Hedda Hopper, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson.

Charlie Chaplin appeared in 39 films for the Aitken brothers. Three of his films released in 1914, "Caught in a Cabaret", "Dough and Dynamite", and "His Trysting Place", are in the Harry and Roy Aitken collection.

Between 1914 and 1917, the Aitken studio at 4500 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, produced films that were released as Majestic Motion Pictures, Reliance Motion Pictures, Komic Films, and D.W. Griffith Productions.

Under the name Fine Arts Films, D. W. Griffith and Harry Aitken produced "The Birth of a Nation" at the Aitken studio. This racially charged movie about the Civil War and postwar reconstruction in the South is considered the first American feature film. The studio’s financial records document this and other films produced at the studio.

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The North American History and Genealogy blog is written by staff and highlights the world class collections, recent research, acquisitions, and services available through the Wisconsin Historical Society's Library and Archives.