Beautifully engraved certificate from the Urban Motion Picture Industries, Inc. issued
in 1922 or earlier. This historic document has an
ornate border around it with a vignette of an eagle perched upon a rock with a sunset and a waterfront town in the background. This item is hand signed by the company’s president, Charles Urban, and its secretary and is over 97 years old.
The most significant figure in the early British film industry was an American of German parentage who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1867. First establishing himself as a travelling book salesman, he moved to Detroit in 1889 and ran a stationery shop before becoming a phonograph salesman. By 1895 he was managing a Kinetoscope and phonograph parlour in Detroit. In 1896 he obtained the agency rights for the Edison Vitascope projector for Michigan. In 1897 he was made manager of the English branch of the American firm of Maguire and Baucus, agents for Edison films in Europe. Establishing the business in London's Warwick Court, in 1898 he reformed the film business as the Warwick Trading Company and began to produce his own films, as well as marketing his own Bioscope projector.
Urban's powerful, ebullient personality and drive lay at the heart of what was soon to become the most prominent British film company of the period, with its reputation firmly based on documentary and news film. Warwick became particularly noted for its travel and war films. John Benett-Stanford and Joseph Rosenthal covered the Anglo-Boer War, and other noted cameramen working for Warwick at the turn of the century were Jack Avery, F. Ormiston-Smith (who filmed an ascent of Mont Blanc) and F.B. Stewart. The Warwick Trading Company were also agents for a number of British and French firms, including Frank Mottershaw, James Williamson, Lumière and Georges Méliès. The latter was commissioned by Urban to produce a celebrated record of the coronation of Edward VII, filmed at Méliès's studio in Montreuil. Meticulous in its attention to detail, the film was completed before the event took place, but its release had to be postponed when the King fell ill with appendictis. Warwick also sold cinematographic equipment manufactured largely by Alfred Darling.
Urban's most notable professional association was, however, with G.A. Smith. Urban first handled Smith's films and employed him as a film processor, and in 1902 directed Smith to work on an improvement to the experimental Lee and Turner film colour process. Kinemacolor, a two-colour additive system employing red and green filters and patented by Smith in 1906, was the most successful colour process of the early cinema period and added considerable lustre to Urban's name. In 1903 Urban broke away from Warwick to form the Charles Urban Trading Company (trademark Urbanora, slogan 'We Put the World Before You'), reinforcing his reputation as a supplier of quality documentary film, but also diversifying to form the Natural Color Kinematograph Company (exploiting Kinemacolor), the Kineto company, and the French firm Éclipse. He had a particular interest in encouraging the scientific film, with such series as The Unseen World, showcasing the microcinematography of F. Martin Duncan, and the zoological studies of Percy Smith. Kinemacolor, however, remained his chief interest, and his greatest achievement was the colour film record of the Delhi Durbar of 1911, the spectacular ceremony held in India in celebration of the coronation of King George V. However a court case in 1913 brought against Urban by a rival colour film company led to the end of Kinemacolor's great commercial advantage.
Urban remained a figurehead for the industry up to the First World War. Employed by British propaganda outfits to produce first the prestigious documentary feature film Britain Prepared (1915) and later editing the greatest battle film of the time, The Battle of the Somme (1916), he went to the USA to promote the British war effort on American cinema screens. In 1917 he edited the American propaganda newsreel Official War Review, and after the war sought to re-establish himself in America. He founded the Kineto Company of America, whose chief product was the cinemagazine series Movie Chats (largely composed of pre-war Urban library film), and co-founded the newsreel Kinograms. He moved his business to Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and tried to develop Kinekrom, an improvement on Kinemacolor, and the Spirograph projector, which showed films on a celluloid disc. But Urban's business empire collapsed in 1924, and he retired from the film industry, returning to Britain in 1930. His later years were spent in some obscurity, and when he died in Brighton in 1942 his great contribution to British filmmaking, and in particular in nurturing a native talent for the film of actuality, was largely forgotten.
1867 Carl (later Charles) Urban is born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 15 April 1867, the second child and eldest son of Joseph Urban (34), a sign painter from Ronsberg, Austro-Hungary, and Anna Sophie (née Glatz) (33) from Koenigsberg, East Prussia. They have ten children: Emma (born 1866), Charles (1867), Clara (1869), Ida (1870, later known as Edith), Alfred (1872), Ernest (1874), Otto (1875, later known as Ralph), Robert (1876) and Hilda (1878), with Arthur (1885) who dies in childhood.
1871 Joseph Urban moves the family to Louisville, Kentucky, and starts a window blind and wallpaper business with a Mr. Tummel.
1872 The Louisville business collapses when Tummel absconds with all funds, and the Urban family returns to Cincinnati. Joseph Urban is seriously affected by the downfall in his fortunes and becomes a morose and vindictive character.
1873 Charles Urban, aged 6, starts school.
1879 Urban loses the sight in his left eye following a baseball accident.
1880 The Urban family are living at 530 Walnut Street, Cincinatti, in the 'Over-the-Rhine' district, where the substantial German community is concentrated.
1882 Urban leaves school, aged 15, changing his name to Charles, and becomes an errand boy for the Cincinnati News Company, being later employed by Perry and Morton, J.R. Hawley & Co., Perry and Morton again, and a year later Woodruff Cox & Co., all of Cincinnati.
1885 His father Joseph Urban leaves home and Charles takes over providing for the family.
1886 In November Urban leaves Cincinnati for a job at Eaton and Lyons Book Store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also first meets his future wife, Julia Avery. Her half-brother Jack Avery becomes a good friend and will later join Urban as a cameraman in Britain.
1887 Urban's mother Anna dies, aged 41. He leaves Eaton and Lyons for De Forges & Co. Book Store, Milwaukee, working there for nine months. He then starts work as a book agent in Chicago, moving thereafter to Des Moines, Iowa, then St. Louis, Missouri, where he specialises in selling a luxurious illustrated work entitled The Stage and its Stars.
1888 The marriage takes place on 20 December between Charles Urban and Julia Lamereux Avery at 121 South Union Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan, after which they move to Chicago.
1889 Urban succeeds in selling a copy of The Stage and its Stars to the dry goods magnate and multi-millionaire Marshall Field. In the summer of 1889 Urban moves to Detroit, where he meets a former Eaton and Lyons employee John T. Doan. They form a partnership in a stationery business at 141 Griswold Street, selling Densmore typewriters, the Edison mimeograph and Edison phonographs.
1893 Urban establishes an independent phonograph agency at 133 Griswold Street, Detroit, joining the North American Phonograph Company as a phonograph salesman covering part of the Michigan territory on 1 September.
1894 Urban markets phonographs as an office tool as well as an entertainment device, and makes some local recordings. He encounters motion pictures for the first time when he sees the Edison kinetoscope exhibited in Detroit at 184 Woodward Avenue in November.
1895 Urban now manages a phonograph and kinetoscope parlour at 101 Woodward Avenue, on behalf of the Michigan Electric Company.
1896 Urban sees the Edison Vitascope and Lumiere Cinematographe projectors exhibited in New York in April and May. He acquires the agency rights to the Vitascope for Michigan, and exhibits throughout 1896 with the Vitascope. He also invites a New York phonograph engineer, Walter Isaacs, to construct his own projector for him, which he names the Bioscope.
1897 In February 1897 Urban resigns from the Michigan Electric Company and joins Maguire & Baucus, New York agents for Edison motion picture products overseas. At the same time Walter Isaacs delivers the first Biocope projectors. After a trial period in New York, Urban is sent to London in August to become general manager of the London branch of Maguire & Baucus. Charles and Julia Urban take up residence at 7, Gower Street, London, and Urban starts work at the Maguire & Baucus offices at Dashwood House, 9 New Broad Street.
1898 Photographic expert Cecil Hepworth joins Maguire & Baucus after he makes successful modifications to the Bioscope. In March he films their first production (previously the company has dealt in Edison and Lumiere films only), showing the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. The Maguire & Baucus business moves to 4-5 Warwick Court, London, and the Warwick Trading Company is incorporated in May, with Urban as manager. Hepworth designs an automatic developing system for the company, but is sacked, and the processing work is taken on by G.A. Smith of Brighton. Another Brighton resident, engineer Alfred Darling, takes on the production of the Bioscope and other Warwick equipment.
1899 F. Marshall Lee and Edward Turner patent their proposed three-colour motion picture system in March. Warwick puts the small gauge (17.5mm) Biokam projector on the market. The Anglo-Boer War starts in October, and Urban first uses film taken by the independent John Benett-Stanford before sending out his chief camera operator, Joseph Rosenthal. South African theatre impresario Edgar Hyman also films scenes related to the War for Warwick.
1900 The Urbans move for a short while to Notting Hill Gate.
1901 Edward Turner approaches Urban for assistance in the further development of his three-colour film system, and Alfred Darling constructs a protoype camera.
1902 Warwick opens its Paris branch at 33 Passage de l'Opera. Georges Méliès films a recreation of the coronation of Edward VII for Urban at his Paris studio, though its release is delayed when the coronation is postponed owing to the King's appendicitis. Dr. Gregory Mantle goes to India to film the Delhi Durbar (celebrating Edward VII's coronation) for Warwick in December. The Urbans move back to 7 Gower Street.
1903 Urban leaves the Warwick Trading Company in February after disagreements with Franck Maguire, Joseph Baucus and his co-manager Alfred Ellis. In March Edward Turner dies, and G.A. Smith takes over the experimental work in colour cinematography. In July Urban forms the Charles Urban Trading Company, with directors Urban, Alfred Darling, G.A. Smith (who resigns 31 August) and Thomas Grant, based at 48 Rupert Street. Warwick try to bring bankruptcy proceedings against Urban, but several key members of their staff leave Warwick and join Urban.
1904 Urban begins the 'Urbanora' scientific and travel programmes at the Alhambra music hall, including a series of microscopic films taken by F. Martin Duncan, entitled The Unseen World.
1905 In January Joseph Rosenthal films the entry of the Japanese into Port Arthur for Warwick at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War. Henry Joy joins Urban as engineer. Urban's bankruptcy hearing takes place in May and is annulled.
1906 G.A. Smith happens on the idea for a two-colour (red-green) colour film system as an acceptable substitute for the seemingly impossible three-colour system, and the first film tests are made. A patent is applied for on 24 November, Urban naming the system Kinemacolor. Formation of Urban's French production company, Eclipse.
1907 Urban is made a Fellow of the Zoological Society for his work in popularising the study of animal life. He becomes a naturalised British citizen in June. Theodore Brown patents the Spirograph, a means of viewing miniature moving images on a disc, and Urban purchases the rights. A petition is filed for divorce between Charles and Julia Urban on the grounds of her adultery. Formation of Urban's subsidiary film company, Kineto Limited, for the production of scientific and interest films.
1908 On 1 May Urban opens 'Urbanora House' in May, thus establishing the first film business in Wardour Street, and gives the first demonstration of Kinemacolor. A second demonstration is given before the Lord Mayor of London in July. In the same month the 'Urbanora' shows finish at the Alhambra, and start up again in August at the Palace Theatre. The Urbans' divorce is finalised in November. G.A. Smith lectures to the Royal Society of Arts on Kinemacolor in December.
1909 The European Convention of Film Manufacturers and Publishers is held in Paris in February, with Urban a prominent delegate. On 26 February there is a special matinee launch of Kinemacolor at Palace Theatre, with its main run beginning on 1 March and lasting for 18 months. The Natural Color Kinematograph Company is founded in the same month for the production of Kinemacolor films, and Kinemacolor shows open in Berlin and Paris. Smith sells his interest in Kinemacolor to Ada Aline Jones for £5,000, and he and Urban soon quarrel and part on bitter terms. Royalty sees Kinemacolor for first time on 6 July. Urban resigns the directorship of his French company Eclipse in November. Kinemacolor makes its triumphant debut in the USA at Madison Square Gardens on 11 December.
1910 In January Urban resigns as managing director of the Charles Urban Trading Company, and now concentrates entirely on the promotion of Kinemacolor. Chales Urban marries Ada Aline Jones (nee Gorecki) at St. George Hanover Square registry office on 22 February. They live at 34 Half Moon Street. Ada has two children from her previous marriage, Anna Marguerite ('Margot') and Maxwell Jardine, and Urban adopts the daughter. The Kinemacolor Company of America is formed by Gilbert H. Aymar and James K. Bowen. Kinemacolor House (80-82 Wardour Street) opens in June. The former Williamson studios in Hove are taken over for Kinemacolor use, and a studio is opened in the south of France. The first Kinemacolor drama, The Story of Napoleon, is released in November.
1911 Percy Smith, whose ingenious nature films are among the most popular of Urban's productions, makes his celebrated The Birth of a Flower in Kinemacolor. In December Urban and a team of cameramen travel to India to film the Delhi Durbar (in celebration of the coronation of King George V) in Kinemacolor.
1912 The Delhi Durbar film opens at the Scala Theatre on 2 February, and becomes Urban's greatest triumph. Urban undergoes an operation for a perforated gastric ulcer on his birthday and takes a number of weeks to recover, missing the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to see the Durbar films at the Scala on 11 May. Kinemacolor de France is founded under Urban's chairmanship in August.
1913 Kinemacolor studios open at Bushey Park. The tide starts to turn for Urban: in December the Theatre Edouard VII in Paris begins exclusive Kinemacolor shows on the same lines as the Scala, but proves to be a costly disaster; and a court case brought against Urban by inventor William Friese-Greene on behalf of his rival colour film system, Biocolor, begins.
1914 Urban originally wins the Friese-Greene court case, but in March loses on appeal. The Natural Color Kinematograph Company goes into voluntary liquidation, trading thereafter as Color Films Ltd. In August the World War breaks out.
1915 The final House of Lords decision in the Urban/Friese-Greene case falls in the latter's favour. Urban is invited to join the British Topical Committee for War Films, representing Kineto. The Theatre Edouard VII closes. Urban is invited to join another propaganda outfit, the Wellington House Cinema Committee, and in September signs an agreement with the Navy to film the propaganda feature film documentary Britain Prepared for Wellington House. The film, showing impressive scenes of Britain's military preparedness (with some Kinemacolor sequences) is first screened at the Empire Theatre, London in December.
1916 Urban leaves for America in February to promote Britain Prepared. It is first shown (as How Britain Prepared) at the Wurlitzer Fine Art Hall, New York, on 9 March. Urban meets William J. Robinson of Patriot Film Corporation, to whom are assigned the rights to British war films in USA. The gala opening of How Britain Prepared takes place at the Washington Belasco Theatre on 15 May. Urban returns to Britain in June and edits the war footage that becomes the outstanding feature film documentary The Battle of the Somme. He returns to the USA in August, and initiates a deal with William Randolph Hearst's International News Service to promote How Britain Prepared and other British war documentaries. In October the Evening News in Britain publishes allegations that Urban has offered the British war films to German interests (i.e. Hearst). Henry Joy takes out a patent for Kinekrom, a modification of Kinemacolor, and an exhibition of the first such films is given at New York's Wurlitzer Hall in November. In December nationwide distribution of British official films in USA is organised through the General Film Corporation.
1917 In January W.K. Vanderbilt becomes head of Official War Films, taking over from the failed Patriot Film Corporation. Urban's new American company, the Kineto Company of America, is incorporated in November, with offices at 71 West 23rd Street New York .
1918 Urban works for the American propaganda organisation Committee on Public Information, editing the newsreel Official War Review, and printing such films at the Kineto Company of America.
1919 Urban and George McLeod Baynes found the newsreel Kinograms, though Urban's subsequent involvement is minor. The Kineto Company of America prints Kinograms and another newsreel, Selznick News. The Urban Spirograph Corporation is set up at Bayonne, New Jersey, hoping to put in production the much-delayed Spirograph. In December Urban launches two cinemagazine series, Movie Chats and Kineto Review.
1920 In November Urban purchases the Cosmopolitan Building at Irvington-on-Hudson for $150,000, and the following month he announces that Urban Motion Picture Industries Inc. He plans to move everything to this building, to be renamed the Urban Institute, though business continues at this stage to be conducted from New York.
1921 First stockholders' meeting of Urban Motion Picture Industries in May. Release in September of the nature documentary The Four Seasons, and in November the mildly political Permanent Peace. Work continues on the Spirograph.
1922 The majority of the Urban organisation moves to Irvington in August. In the same month, Urban visits Britain for a five week trip.
1924 Urban Motion Picture Industries goes bankrupt in July.
1925 Urban Motion Pictures and the Kineto Company of America are sold by the receivers to the Urban-Kineto Corporation, headed by former investor C.M. Bortman, with the hope of continuing it as a business. The effort ends in December.
1926 The Urban-Kineto production Evolution is released in Britain.
1927 Urban is living at the Hotel White, Lexington Avenue, New York.
1929 The Urbans return around this time to Britain, and Urban announces his retirement from the film industry. They take up residence once again at 34 Half Moon Street.
1932 Urban joins the Cinema Veterans (an association made up of members of the British film industry whose careers started before 1903) and becomes a committee member.
1935 Urban visits Ronsberg, now part of Czechoslovakia, where his father was born and where his father's sister had lived and died just six months before.
1936 The Urbans moves to Park Mansions, London, following a serious financial loss resulting from his involvement in a scheme to market a new kind of metal bottle top.
1937 Urban is interviewed by South African researcher Thelma Gutsche. Ada Urban dies in October, aged 69. Urban donates all of his papers to the Science Museum in London in December.
1938 Urban moves to 7, Clarendon Mansions, East Street, Brighton, in September. He befriends once more Kinemacolor inventor G.A. Smith, from whom he had been estranged since 1910.
1942 In April Urban starts writing his memoirs. They are unfinished at the time of his death (aged 75) on 29 August, at a nursing home at 12 Dyke Road, Brighton. He leaves £466 14s 3d to his adopted daughter, Anna Marguerite.
The above historical information was provided by Luke McKernan at his website, Charles Urban, Motion Picture
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