Blanche Townsend's postcard collection from her time in the Vaudeville circuit
James L. McGee
The better part of my Great Aunt’s cards are from Vaudeville, but among them are some from the silent film era – this card being one of them.
It’s important to note that Vaudeville created the backbone of what is the film industry today. Some of the most prominent vaudevillians successfully made the transition to cinema, though others were not as successful. Film comedies of the 1920s through the 1940s used talent from the vaudeville stage and followed a vaudeville aesthetic of variety entertainment. References to vaudeville continue throughout popular culture today. Source: Wikipedia
At some time in 1915, Great Aunt Blanche followed suit like many other vaudevillians and left Joseph Hart’s Vaudeville company and started working at Colonial Motion Picture Co. on 35th street in New York City as a Wardrobe Mistress. She essentially made costumes for silent films of the time, and according to my Late Grandmom Waldt, even appeared in a silent film as an extra.
When researching this card for James L. McGee, initially, nothing special jumped out at me. But as I dug deeper in newspaper archives and into my aunt’s card collection, I was able to discover so much more. James L. McGee (also known as Jim McGee) was an actor and a manager in the early silent film era. IMBD.com-notes that he starred in the following movies:
Early in 1906, he became a Manager/recruiter/business man for Selig Polyscope Company, the same company he was acting with at the time. And according to William Nicholas Selig, he was very good at his job. Many said that he had a knack for “talking one into doing something they didn’t want to”. On Jan 15, 1922, Mr. Selig told the San Francisco Chronicle that Mr. McGee was the first business manager for his company. He went on to explain how Mr. McGee was able to recruit actors in Central Park for parts in his movies. Back in 1906, film wasn’t seen as something that most vaudeville actors or stage actors were interested in – it seemed more like a novelty to them, so it took a lot of convincing to turn them onto the idea of appearing in a “moving film”. You can view Selig’s whole article here.
James McGee even recruited the legendary Hobart Bosworth, by using his talent of convincing. This is what The Los Angeles times wrote about Hobart Bosworth’s introduction to silent film in an article on May 5th, 1940:
“Hobart had a good reason to not think much of silent film. He had the traditional Shakespearean stage actor’s contempt for the new celluloid medium which then was just beginning to catch public fancy.”
“The film he was recruited for “In The Power of The Sultan” had been able to attract such talent as Bosworth only by means of powerful persuasion – both vocal and financial.”
“Then one day a fellow named James McGee came to see Bosworth, who by this time had started a dramatic school, and asked him how he would like to work in a film for a couple of days. Bosworth was horrified at the idea. But McGee was a good salesman. He offered Bosworth $125 for two days work and promised (to save his pride) that his name would not be used in the film. This convinced the legitimate actor.
So on May 8, 1909, Bosworth reported at the “studio” (ironically a Chinese laundry store because polyscope didn’t have a California studio yet.) There he met some men who were destined to play a great part in the history of films.
Below are 2 additional cabinet cards Great Aunt Blanche had in her collection of James McGee. The one to the left is obviously a very younger version of Mr. McGee, and the one on the right was taken around the same time as the autographed version.
I wasn’t able to 100% nail down which movie the autographed photo and the one above (right) was taken for, but judging from his getup and age in the cards, it was probably taken around the time he filmed the movie, “Told in the Sierras ” in 1911. He played the part of the town deputy, and it was filmed in the Yosemite Valley California, exactly where the card states it was taken. That film was directed by a Francis Boggs. Francis Boggs is best known as the man who brought filming to California. He was the first director to come up with the idea of traveling to California for filming because of it’s moderate climate. Ironically, The very film that James McGee convinced Hobart Bosworth to star in, would be the first silent movie to be fully filmed in California, setting the stage for Los Angeles to become the movie capital of the World. Before this time, only parts of movies were filmed in California, and the rest was filmed on set on the east coast. From 1909-1911 James McGee appeared in movies produced only by Mr. Boggs, until Bogg’s unfortunate death in Oct. 27th 1911.
The below article was in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on Oct 22, 1911, talking about the movie that Mr. McGee and Frances Boggs were filming, called “The Danties”. Only 6 days later Frances Boggs would be shot to death by Frank Minnimatsu, when Minnimatsu, a caretaker and janitor, became violently deranged. Studio owner Selig tried to wrestle the gun away from the man and he too was shot, wounded in the arm. -Source: Wikipedia
My aunt must of had a close relationship with James McGee because she had many photos, and letters from him. He wrote her several times on his way back and forth from traveling from NY to Chicago and then to California to film. When I first started this site, I accidentally identified a card originally that was his as being Joseph Hart’s, but after further review, it turns out that the man in the photo, was actually James McGee, only 5 years older. All 4 of the cards (below) have the same penmanship (something that we are taught to notice in Graphic Design) They use the same “J” and “T” and “N” and “y” and all are signed “Jim”- short for James). Also, the man’s face, ears, nose and wrinkles are the same. They are all wearing the same pocket watch, all have the same chunky ring on his ring finger and they are both holding a cigar in the same hand. Below are those correspondences:
Photo of James L. McGee and a “landlady”. Seems he even convinced her to join him at the San Francisco Fair!
Back of the postcard.
I was unable to find any other photos of James McGee in newspaper archives, nor online. The only photos I had of him were the ones I had in my hands. I also found from his Obituary, that he had no family left when he passed and never married. Which probably explains why not even ancestry.com had any information on him.
This discovery made me sad, and consequently made this post very important to me, as I probably am holding the only proof of Mr. McGee’s personality and image, other then what is written about him in old news paper archives.
James L. McGee and Selig Polyscope single-handily brought many Vaudevillians and stage actors into the film industry, and I feel privileged that I was able to bring a face to one of the main contributors of the changing film era.
Thank you Mr. McGee – for your spirit and passion and never ending ability to convince those actors to appear in your films. May your memory live on for many years to come.