As part of this year’s European Month of Culture, we focus on scholars from European Union member states who have conducted research at the Library of Congress Kluge Center.
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Joel Frykholm, Kluge Fellow
At the dawn of the silent movie era, George Kleine was a titan of the industry. In 1904, Kleine was the leading distributor of motion pictures in the United States. But by 1920, the business had changed and Kleine and other early pioneers were left on the margins of a Hollywood that was rapidly expanding and commercializing. Kleine was on his way to being a forgotten name in film history.
Joel Frykholm of Sweden came to the Kluge Center to research Kleine and re-establish his place in American film history. The Library of Congress holds the George Kleine papers, which contain the correspondence, legal papers, and files of Kleine’s business relationships with Thomas Edison, Eastman Kodak Company, Motion Picture Patents Company, and Biograph Co. Frykholm, a scholar of American film, came to the Library as a Kluge Fellow after earning his Ph.D. from Stockholm University in 2009. His dissertation, titled “Framing the Feature Film: Multi Real Future Film and American Film Culture in the 1910’s,” was awarded the best dissertation published by Stockholm University’s Faculty of the Humanities. He currently is a post-doctoral research associate at Stockholm University where he teaches in the Division of Cinema Studies within the Department of Media Studies.
Frykholm was struck by Kleine’s failure to adapt to the industry as it expanded and changed in the early part of the 20th century. Kleine struggled to finance and distribute films with high box office value—what today we may think of as blockbusters. In his failed attempts to come up with a winning blockbuster formula, Kleine re-issued old films, continually cast aging female stars, and adapted theatrical plays for the screen. None proved to be highly profitable. According to Frykholm, as Kleine struggled to adapt to changing tastes and market forces, he lamented what he saw as the emerging Hollywood business model: quantity over quality. Studios produced a large volume of films, only a few of which generated enough box office revenue to support the studios’ mass production. Kleine implored Hollywood to make fewer total films, which would enable a greater number of films to be of higher quality. But Kleine’s business model, and especially his reluctance to seek Wall Street financing, was out of step with the rapidly expanding industry. Kleine drifted to the margins of the commercial mainstream of the movie business, clinging to the idea that each film should have artistic and historical value.
Kleine eventually grew disillusioned with American films, Frykholm writes. He spoke out against the deluge of vampire movies and numerous formulaic romances. Kleine especially did not enjoy that such films were sent abroad, showing the world a poor picture of the United States. No one heeded his objections. The moral of Kleine’s rise and fall, then, is not so much the transitory nature of the film industry but rather one of its enduring central tensions. Since its early days, Hollywood film directors have had to compromise the desire to make high art with the commercial necessities of entertaining the masses.
Kleine quipped in a letter to an associate that one day a man would be born with a mathematical certainty in selecting and making winners. “When he happens,” Kleine wrote, “he will get all of the money in the world.” Perhaps Kleine’s prophecy will soon be fulfilled, as computers and algorithms deliver to us personalized recommendations that give us exactly what we want, when we want it. Kleine foresaw that there was great fortune to be made in predicting the tastes of the American consumer. He never would be the one to profit from it.
Learn more about Frykholm’s work:
Additional posts in this series:
- EU Month of Culture Spotlight: Bulgaria
- EU Month of Culture Spotlight: Cyprus
- EU Month of Culture Spotlight: Poland
- EU Month of Culture Spotlight: Italy
Check back all month for additional posts in this series.