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Acting tips from Chicago's early days of silent film

Written by
Adam Selzer

A century ago, Chicago was winding down its era as a major movie-making hub—for a brief period, the North Side was a sort of prototype for Hollywood. Stars like Francis X. Bushman, Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson got their starts here, with Bushman installing a spotlight on the dashboard of his purple car so that people could see him as he drove by. Chicago introduced the world to the adventure serial with the Adventures of Kathlyn serials, the first Sherlock Holmes film (which was considered lost until a print was found in France last year), early color films and many of the other innovations that drove movies forward in their infancy.

Today, you can live in a silent film studio. The condo building at Claremont Avenue and Byron Street was built in the original Selig Polyscope studio, which anchored a lot that took up the whole block. Three flats now sit on the artificial lake used in filming, and the "greenhouse" atop the building where they did the filming is long gone, though the company's Diamond-S logo is still carved above the door. 

At its height, actors working for Selig might be in a couple of films per week. In 1910, "Colonel" William Selig of Selig Polyscope released a list of tips for actors who wanted to be featured in silent films, including:

"Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up."
"When kissing your sweetheart, do so naturally—not a peck on the lips and quick breakway."
"Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions."
"When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart...she must not show her joy by kissing it. This is overdone."

He also including a warning: "Use no profanity in the pictures: There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of the lips." 

Among his other "firsts," Selig is often credited as being the first to start a film studio in the section of Los Angeles now known as Hollywood. Only a few years later, Hollywood had become the movie city, and few films were still made in Chicago.  

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