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Frederick Russell Clark and Neighborhood Films

“Local pictures are never-failing drawing cards for every type of theatre.”

This is the philosophy that Chicago’s own Frederick Russell Clark was operating under when he formed the Educational Lecture and Film Service (ELFS). It was 1917, and although the film industry was into its second decade of life, it had not yet been used in a local capacity. Clark, though, envisioned the ability to give exhibitors the means to take films of their neighborhoods and have them added to their regular programs. The subject matter would vary from graduations to church socials, from car accidents to fires, and, in many ways, would act as a predecessor to local TV news.

Of course, the medium was still relatively new, and the average exhibitor would not necessarily have working knowledge of cameras,  or at least have one at their immediate disposal. So, Clark aided them in that way, too. He devised a system that would allow for ELFS reps to be available in all cities to shoot assignments as needed. He also supplied lightweight cameras for those in need, and was working to negotiate for the films to play at one of the large theater chains in Chicago.

Children from the Fort Dearborn production of The Modern Mother Goose.

Although it’s not clear whether Clark was able to get ELFS off the ground, he was certainly no stranger to the industry.  Previously, Clark had established a reputation as president of the Fort Dearborn Photoplays Company.  He specialized in furnishing educational programs to schools and churches, as well as projectors. He focused on wholesome and educational films, planning, ultimately, to “picturize” the textbooks that were being used in schools. Clark sought to film lab experiments and other textbook activities and materials, as well as take the photos that would be included in each textbook to help make the learning experience as consistent as possible.

He also had a knack for producing kid-friendly films that starred kids. After seeing a performance of The Modern Mother Goose, Clark purchased the rights, and hired the child players to portray the play on the big screen. Using resources from the Rothacker Film Manufacturing Co. (including their cameramen) and local scenery (including the Elizabethan room at the Congress Hotel), he created a 5-reel feature that was suitable for kids. After the release of Mother Goose, he turned his attention towards Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, but it’s not clear if these productions were ever completed or released under his direction.

In 1917, Clark once again turned his attention to film, this time in the form of the Titan Film Corporation. In June, he announced he would be producing a series called Follies of the Week. Each installment would take a popular fad or sport and treat it in a humorous manner, usually with the assistance of a well-known stage star. Revenue from these 1–reel comedies was then to be passed along to the American Military Relief Association. The first was entitled Bucking the High Cost of Living (also credited as Knocking the L out of HCL) and featured Raymond Hitchcock.

Like his other endeavors, Clark’s Titan Film Corp. came to an end. When is not clear, but by February of 1918, the company was facing accusations from the Illinois Council of Defense that said it had failed to live up to an agreement that involved screening the picture The Garden of Allah in aid of soldiers and sailors. It was also accused of stockjobbing. By the following year, Clark announced the formation of the Clark Photoplay Company, but it, too, seems to have gone the way of Clark’s previous projects.

Despite his bad luck, Clark’s pioneering film efforts helped pave the way for televised local news, as well as children-focused productions.