Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wisconsin Silent Movie Moguls - Image Gallery Essay

Harry and Roy Aitken

Wisconsin Silent Movie Moguls | Wisconsin Historical Society
Actress Josie Sedgwick as Betty Clayton and six other men, some with guns, holed up in a ranch house, shooting toward a window.

Silent Movie Film Still, 1918

California. Film still from "The Boss of the Lazy 'Y.'" Actress Josie Sedgwick as Betty Clayton and six other men, some with guns, holed up in a ranch house, shooting toward a window. View the original source document: WHI 92160

The Harry and Roy Aitken gallery showcases photographic stills from silent films produced by the Aitken brothers between 1913 and the early 1920s. The Wisconsin-born brothers were pioneers of the American movie industry. While there are few remaining intact films from the Aitken portfolio, the Wisconsin Historical Society gallery contains a variety of materials from nearly 150 Aitken films. In addition to film and publicity stills, the collection contains scripts, scenarios (stories), synopses, production notes, continuity scripts, title cards, budget information sheets, script location lists, state film board licenses, copyright documents and similar papers relating to movie production. Now 61 film stills and promotional posters are available online and constitute another in a series of photographic galleries within the Wisconsin Historical Society's Wisconsin Historical Images collection.

From a Wisconsin Farm to Hollywood and London

Harry and Roy Aitken joined the wave of film production and distribution that grew with the advent of silent, one-reel, black-and-white films shown in small storefront spaces, the "nickelodeons." The brothers' interest in motion pictures and creating a movie business for themselves was probably an unlikely choice of career given their early life and upbringing on a farm in Waukesha, Wisconsin, but their entrepreneurial spirit moved them off the farm and on to other adventures. With the exceptions of acting and directing films, the brothers participated in all the stages of the movie business. They were nickelodeon operators, film salesmen, projectionists, exchange owners, financiers and movie producers. From 1905 to 1915 they rose from operating nickelodeons to producing "The Birth of a Nation," the first American feature film, which was distributed in 1915 through Triangle Film (the principal Aitken company). They also expanded their business to London to serve European markets.

EnlargeSyd Chaplin at the periscope in a scene still from A Submarine Pirate (Keystone).

Syd Chaplin, 1915

Syd Chaplin at the periscope in a scene still from "A Submarine Pirate" (Keystone). View the original source document: WHI 43916

A Bygone Era of Movie Making

Included in the gallery are photographic stills taken on the set during movie production and used for promoting the films. The stills show the style of storytelling at the time, often with exaggerated facial expressions since there was no dialogue to convey emotion, drama or comedy. To depict African-American characters, Caucasian actors donned blackface. Actresses sometimes played male roles. Costumes, sets and makeup conveyed the idea of stories from places the public would find exotic, such as India.

The Aitken film portfolio included Westerns, melodramas and comedies, many including the Keystone Cops. Charlie Chaplin appeared in 39 films for the Aitken brothers. Three of his films, "Caught in a Cabaret," "Dough and Dynamite" and "His Trysting Place," are in the Society's Aitken collection.

Pioneers in Publicity and Advertising

The Aitkens were the first to use publicity and advertising to promote their films. They prepared publicity releases for the newspapers and paid their film actors to attend style shows featuring new fashions. These events were filmed and shown in movie theaters before the feature films. Included in the Aitken Collection are advertising releases and movie posters.

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Learn More

A three-minute clip on the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research website.