Harry E. Aitken

The Aitken Brothers Harry and Roy were born on a farm near Goerke's Corners. They both grew up to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. They owned an operated the Keystone Film Company., headquartered in Waukesha. They were also associated with Keystone Studios in Hollywood, famous for its Keystone Kops series of short film comedies.

Harry Aitken and his brother Roy started with a makeshift theater in their barn near Waukesha, Wisconsin. Soon they left the farm and opened their first theater in Chicago. The success from the first venture led to a string of five theaters.

Harry was more interested in supplying other theaters with films. He met with realtor John Freuler in Milwaukee and started a partnership. In July 1906, the Western Film Exchange was born in Freuler's real estate office.

The new concept of renting movies to the theaters caught on quick and Western grew rapidly. Soon the company had established branch offices in other markets such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Joplin, Missouri. By February 1908, Western was officially incorporated at Milwaukee with Harry Aitken serving as the first president.

This all came to a halt literally overnight in 1908 because of lawsuits initiated by Thomas Edison. Costly litigation tied up cash flows as well as valuable production time. The independent studios retaliated by producing their films in secret.

Edison was persuaded to make peace with nine of the larger film studios. Together they formed the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) with the announcement that they held a monopoly on the film market. Any studio that was not a member of MPPC would not be licensed to produce films; any theater or exchange that did not subscribe to the membership and royalty payments was declared "outlaw" and not allowed to operate.

Aitken and Freuler decided to make their own films and in 1910 incorporated the American Film Manufacturing Company. Soon the legal pressure from the MPPC caused them to move their operation to Santa Barbara, California. It was reported that studios were able to operate on the west coast and had the Mexican border close if they had to dodge litigation.

Soon American Film was cranking out films and Western distributing them to several thousand theaters.

Aitken also worked on forming a second motion picture production company, Majestic Film which he used to supply a new distribution company he formed with several other 'outlaw' studios called the Motion Picture Distribution and Sales Company (called the Sales Company).

In 1911, Aitken lured away the rising star of one of studios that was part of the Sales Company named 'Little Mary' Pickford. This caused a major problem with the other studios involved with the Sales Company to the point that Aitken removed Majestic and formed another studio he called Reliance.

After Aitken's departure, Carl Laemmle, the head of the Sales Company, renamed the Sales Company—the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.

With Majestic, Reliance, and American all producing films at a dizzying rate, Freuler began to think about a Milwaukee showplace in which to present them, so they opened the Butterfly theater

In March 1912, John Freuler and Harry Aitken created the Mutual Film Corporation to house their satellite film studios, exchanges, and theaters. Aitken was installed as the first president. The new company's logo featured a winged alarm clock and the legend, "Make Time Fly". At the same time, Aitken used Mutual to acquired Thanhauser Films from another former Milwaukee resident.

In 1913, Aitken made another major acquisition, by luring D.W. Griffith away from Biograph. Even though other studios like Fox, Zukor at Paramount and Laemmle from Universal offered more money, Aitken offered freedom and control.

By 1914, all branches of the Western Film Exchange had been superseded by new Mutual exchanges. Once consolidated, Mutual also acquired Keystone, KayBee and Bison studios.

In 1915, Mutual had offices in 45 cities which in turn supplied the films to over 7,000 theaters. They also opened branch offices in London, Berlin, Rome, and Paris. The foreign offices were overseen by Roy Aitken from the London headquarters.

Problems soon arose however with the conviction of Griffith to make an epic full length feature which had never been done. Griffith held Aitken to his promise of freedom while the heavy cost soon threw Aitken and the board of Mutual into full battles. The board refuse to cover the expenses of a single film that would cost over $100,000 to make and run 120 minutes

Aitken turned to private sources for financing. He obtained money from friends and business acquaintances who invested in the project when Aitken offered his personal guarantee that their money was safe. In this fashion, Aitken raised nearly $100,000. In addition to his reputation, Aitken's personal fortune was on the line. With this funding, Griffith and Aitken formed Epoch Producing Corporation.

Furious at the situation, the Mutual board fired Aitken.

Birth of a Nation, premiered in Los Angeles and was a huge success, even at the astronomical price of $2.00 a ticket. When the film went out on the road with traveling orchestras for extended runs in 20 major cities, the returns were staggering. The New York City engagement alone ran 48 weeks at the Liberty theater on Broadway. Griffith was being lavished with praises and Harry Aitken was riding high on the biggest gamble of his life.

Aitken accumulated a personal fortune from The Birth of a Nation. He then organized the illustrious Triangle Pictures Corporation. Triangle was envisioned as a prestige studio based on the producing abilities of ace filmmakers D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett. Aitken offered smaller partnerships in Triangle to Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann, producers of the Kay Bee films. In one swift stroke, Aitken crippled Mutual by taking their top directors and over half of their major film-producing companies.

Triangle launched itself with Griffith's film Intolerance. Aitken was in big trouble; Intolerance was a colossal flop. Cash became tight, payrolls were missed, and stars began departing for other studios at a record rate. One by one, Griffith, Ince, and Sennett also left the company. The final blow came when Triangle's Culver City studios were sold for 10 cents on the dollar. The triangle-shaped Culver City lot was sold to Goldwyn Pictures, later to become the home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

With his limited remaining resources, Harry Aitken was able to buy back some of his old films. These he took back to his home in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he resided until his death in 1956.

Source: Lamp's Pioneer Series