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The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago

The most significant extant film to be made in Chicago after the Lumiere brothers’ 1896 Chicago Police Parade is probably the Edison Manufacturing Company’s Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago. Made only one year after the Lumieres’ pioneering effort, the Edison film, copyrighted in July of 1897, is a fifty-foot, one shot actuality that depicts exactly what the title states. However, like most of “Edison’s movies,” Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago was not made by Thomas Edison himself but rather by his favorite director/cinematographer team of James H. White and William Heise. Although both men had been prolific in the motion picture business since the pre-projection days of 1890, it does not appear as though their technique had much improved in the ensuing seven years. When viewed alongside of Chicago Police Parade, with its incredible use of depth of field and impeccably composed diagonal lines, Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago offers an object lesson in the difference between Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers (i.e., the difference between approaching movies as a business vs. approaching them as an art).

Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago shows a jumbled mass of people, horses and trolley cars in Chicago’s Loop as they hurriedly move in every conceivable direction at the same time. Some of the subjects are carrying large placards advertising “BOATING” and “ELECTRIC POOL.” Just as Chicago Police Parade is of interest because it proves that 99% of all Chicago cops had mustaches in the late 19th century, so too is Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago of interest because it proves that 100% of all Chicago civilians, including women, wore hats during this same era (and in the middle of summer no less!). In terms of style, it appears that White and Heise have taken little care with the composition of the image, which looks particularly chaotic when compared to the clean lines and artful compositions associated with the Lumieres. Still, however slapdash its technique, it is of tremendous interest (like so many films of its era) for being an evocative portrait of a specific time and place.

The complete description of Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago from the Edison Films Catalogue reads:

“The busiest corner in Chicago. Cable cars and street traffic of all descriptions. Hundreds of shoppers. Fine perspective view looking north toward the Masonic Temple. 50 feet. $7.50.”

The film can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, courtesy of the Library of Congress, here (although at only 25 seconds, the speed of this particular transfer appears to be too fast):

It should be noted that Andrew Erish, in his excellent new biography Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, claims that Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago was a Selig Polyscope film that Edison pirated and copyrighted as his own. Most other sources, however, cite it as an authentic Edison film. Edison copyrighted Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago along with several other Chicago-shot films on July 31, 1897 (Sheep Run, Chicago Stockyards, Armour’s Electric Trolley, Cattle Driven to Slaughter, etc.) Selig Polyscope copyrighted the similarly-titled State and Madison Sts., Chicago in 1903.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

One response to “The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago

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