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The Cabinet of Curiosities: Biograph Company Pay Slips (1911-1913)

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It’s natural that the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center is associated with film, video, and sound recordings–we are, after all, the custodial Division for the Library’s A/V holdings–but in reality we’re so much more than that. I’ve already featured some of our print material on “Now See Hear!”; for example, copyright descriptions, periodicals, posters, and lobby cards, while I always dip into our 1 million+ photographs to accompany “Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater” posts.

One of the great things about working here is the seemingly infinite variety of oddities that turn up on a regular basis. Today we launch a new “thread” called “The Cabinet of Curiosities” to highlight the unusual and unexpected. These posts won’t always be very long or detailed, but like the Nazi-era driver education film, they will illustrate the breadth and depth of our collection.

For example, not long ago one of my colleagues found an envelope in an unmarked box that was labeled “Kemp bought these years ago.” “Kemp” is surely Kemp Niver, and much to my surprise, the envelope contained forty pay slips from the Biograph Company dated between June 1911 and August 1913! Biograph is well known to film historians as the home studio for D.W. Griffith, although he certainly wasn’t the only director who worked for the company. The vast majority of the names on these slips were actors (Bobby Herron, George Nicholls, Claire McDowell) although some–like G.D. “Dell” Henderson–later became directors.

click image to see all forty pay slips

A couple of things are interesting about these slips. For one, they’re a combination of pay receipt and contract; the actor received money for services rendered and simultaneously consented to “the public exhibition for the purpose of trade or advertising” any films in which he or she appeared. Second, the actors were, at least by today’s standards, modestly paid. This is not to say they were poor, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, an actor making $50 a week in 1913 was earning about $62,500 in 2014 dollars…not exactly Brad Pitt money. The biggest paycheck–a whopping $150–went to Mabel Frenyear in August 1913. Miss Frenyear’s most well-known film came two years later when she co-starred with Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (Fox, 1915), but our research thus far hasn’t turned up any work she did for Biograph, so this large payment remains, for now, something of a mystery.

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