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Early Career


 “The old Essanay Company had a studio in Chicago. It was a long way from home, but I could reach it after school by the street car….”


   Forgotten by most people is that before Los Angeles solidified its position as the center for American film production and the name “Hollywood” became synonymous with the dream factor, films were produced throughout the country. Many regions around the country vied for film dominance, realizing the advantages in publicity and income that the motion picture companies could bring with them. Florida, for example, advertised the advantages offered by its typically bright, sunny climate. However, with summer, the humidity in Florida would shoot up which could cause problems: cameras made with mahogany bodies could warp; cameras made with teak were less common. As cameras were made increasingly with steel, static electricity became a problem. Florida was also in the path of the annual Atlantic hurricanes.

   The big banks were in New York, and motion pictures ran on money. Rooftop studios were not uncommon, the serials were shot across the Hudson in Fort Lee, and the city built its share of studio spaces; Zukor’s Astoria studio exists to this day under the name Kaufman Astoria Studios. Even so, New York was subject to bitter winters which could reduce production time.

   Chicago was a good compromise between the extremes of Florida and New York: prairies available for outdoor films and westerns, more real estate to build studios, and the advantage of being the national hub of railway travel. If, in the Old World, all roads led to Rome, then in the New World all railroads led to Chicago. Most of the biggest studios was represented in Chicago. The presence of those studios proved an irresistible draw to young Kathleen Morrison, and fortunately for her she had family in the city. Her Aunt Liberty Kelly, “Aunt Lib,” had married journalist Walter Howey and the two had relocated to Chicago. Chicago had higher summer temperatures but lower relative humidity, so whenever her Aunt Liberty and Uncle Walter extended an invitation to visit, Kathleen jumped at the opportunity. “…I adored going, if only to watch the fights.” Walter and Lib engaged in some truly epic shouting matches, typically breaking down into fits of laughter. And besides the entertaining fights and tantalizing presence of motion pictures, Chicago was home to the Cubs. She was a great baseball fan.

colleen early.jpg

   For a time the Howeys lived 4161 Sheridan according to the 1910 Federal Census. During the years Kathleen would stay with them, they would move several times. The 1912 Chicago Blue Book has them living at 4942 Sheridan Road. From either of these addresses, the Northwestern L would have run right by their house at grade. The Essanay Studios were among the biggest film companies of the day. Located at 1333 – 1345 W. Argyle, the studio was less than a mile and a half from either of the Sheridan Street addresses. The nearest streetcar stop was about two blocks away from the Northwestern L. Whether Kathleen appeared in any motion pictures before her arrival in Los Angeles is a mystery. There are people who swear she appears quite recognizably as a maid in The Prince of Graustark, though there are not records of the appearance. She would have been in Chicago when the film was being made, and close enough to the studio to make the trip a tantalizing possibility.

   Colleen would write in Silent Star tat she started her career after her relocation out west, with the Triangle Film Corporation, but that was not always her story. In May 1929, at the height of her career, and towards the end of her silent career, Colleen wrote in an article entitled “How She started Screen Career,” said that her film career started at the Essanay Studios. It was a claim not outside the range of possibility.

   She wrote that she appeared in at least one mob scene, and although she never mentioned The Prince of Graustark, there are those who insist her spitting image appeared in the film.. Her parents did not approve with her motion picture silliness, so; “Without a word to our families we (herself and Helen Ferguson, who was to go on to make documented films with Essanay) dressed in our best clothes and visited the studio the following Saturday morning. At first we were refused admission, but our downcast looks finally made an old doorman relent.” An assistant director gave them the once-over and told them to come back the following Thursday morning. A school day, they ditched and went over to the studio, but the casting director said no extras were needed. They went back 2 and 3 times a week until they were used for a mob scene.”

   True or not, young Kathleen leveraged her aunt and uncle to get a break into the industry in 1916. Her uncle Walter was a newspaperman, and she would write that D.W. Griffith owed him a favor after his assistance in getting the film Intolerance past the Chicago censors. At that time, Griffith has combined his studio with the studios of Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett, under the direction of Harry Aiken, forming the Triangle Film Corporation. Kathleen worked on her Aunt Lib, who in turn worked on Uncle Walter, who cashed in the favor owed to him by Griffith. Everybody had a young daughter o niece who wanted to go into films.

   Through Griffith, she was able to wrangle a six-month film contract with Triangle and not with Griffith’s Fine Arts Studio. The word came to Kathleen while she was back in Florida. The contract came with the proviso, however, that she could pass a film test: she had been born with one blue eye and one brown eye, and there was the possibility that the two might photograph at different enough shades of gray to be a distraction.  Kathleen’s parents were doubtful, she would write, but they figured that she could stand to miss six months of school, and if she got the acting bug out of her system, she could return after six months and resume her education. So she departed first for Chicago with her mother and grandmother for the film tests.

   The tests, shot at the Essanay studio. Actress Helen Ferguson would tell Kevin Brownlow many years later that Essanay casting director Charles Babille brought Colleen to her just before that test, saying "...they were going to shoot a film of Kathleen Morrison to send to DW Griffith." Harry Beaumont directed that test. "Well, there was a buzz around the studio, as there always was when something had happened. I hoped it meant Kathleen had done well. When I saw her, her eyes were all red. She had been crying. She had been told to act jealous so she cried. I asked her ‘How did you cry?’ ...she said ‘You know how I love Charlie Chaplin and you know how I hate spotted neckties? Well I thought of Charlie Chaplin wearing spotted neckties and I cried!’” In fact, she had taught herself to cry at will as a child, anticipating the day that skill would come in useful on the stage or before the camera. At the Essanay studio, it worked. 

   The test was successful; her eyes photographed close enough so as not to be a distraction to movie viewers. From Essanay, Colleen continued on to Los Angeles.

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