Hope and His Dreams: The Tilley Brothers Bring Motion Pictures to Austin
Quick, Austin movie buffs, what was the first movie filmed in Austin that received national distribution? Richard Linklater’s 1991 coming-of-age film "Slacker?" Nope, too recent. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 gorefest "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?" You’re getting closer, but you’re still off by decades. Ever hear of "Their Lives by a Slender Thread?" Don’t feel bad if you haven’t, there’s an excellent chance that your grandparents haven’t either. It might even have eluded the notice of your great-grandparents, given its 1913 release. That’s right, the Austin movie industry’s roots date back a full century.
Austin's first filmmakers, Paul (left) and W. Hope Tilley at work in their studio.
When Illinois native Paul Tilley lost his job with the Gaskill and Munday Carnival band in Charleston, South Carolina in 1906, he decided to try his hand at something other than music. He and another unemployed musician acquired several reels of motion picture film, bought a second-hand projector, and borrowed enough chairs to open a crude theater. Paul’s older brother Hope joined in. Years later Hope recalled showing the serialized silent classic "The Perils of Pauline." “[We showed] Pauline overcoming all her perils for a couple of weeks and went broke.”
Undeterred, the Tilley brothers traveled to central Texas and began circulating among several towns showing movies, slides and advertisements. Along the way they acquired a camera. Near the Alamo in San Antonio they erected a screen on a large pole and invited audiences to watch the films they had produced. This business plan worked well until a nearby building owner painted the side of his building white, installed a projector atop the building opposite and, with his impressively large moving images, lured away the Tilleys’ customers.
Hope Tilley and his camera (from Lone Star Picture Shows, by Richard Schroeder, Texas A&M University Press, 2001).
Paul and Hope persisted in San Antonio for several years, making short films to show along with those purchased from other aspiring filmmakers. They stored their equipment in their grandfather’s garage, but when he died in 1911 they packed up and moved to Austin. Not only the old man’s death spurred the move. A nascent industry still trying to define itself was making life difficult for small filmmakers by limiting the sale of perforated film to those purchasing a license from the Motion Pictures Patents Company. The brothers evaded the stricture by ordering film from France. They evidently believed that detection of their subterfuge would be less likely in Austin.
Once settled in Austin, the Tilleys rented space above the Casino Theatre at 702 Congress Avenue and founded the Texas Bioscope Company, the city’s first movie studio. The company not only produced its own short films, but offered its services to anyone wishing to have something recorded for posterity. Families were a particular target. As one advertisement pointed out, home movies provided “the only real way to record the little one’s antics for future viewing.” The Tilleys’ own films varied from slides to cartoons, from advertisements to newsreels and even short comedies. One of the latter featured bank robber Skinny Pryor rushing out of the American National Bank at Sixth and Congress and being comically chased up the Avenue to the Capitol grounds.
Charles C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle, the smooth-talking dreamer whose extravagant spending habits killed the Tilley brothers' filmmaking dreams.
Enter one Charles C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, a smooth-talking fellow Illinoisan and self-described “film production expert.” Pyle later gained fame when he convinced football star Red Grange to spurn college and turn pro, a move that led biographer Jim Reisler to label him “America’s first sports agent.” Reisler also wrote that his subject “had big ideas, but clearly was no businessman. He also had oceans of chutzpah and a knack for quickly getting back on his feet without looking back.” In January 1913 Pyle teamed up with the Tilley brothers to form the Satex Film Company of Austin, the name “Satex” being either an anagram of “Texas” or an abbreviation of "San Antonio, Texas." His pitch had convinced 25 Austin businessmen, a group that included the Casino Theatre owner, to invest $1,000 each. Pyle would receive $50 a week to manage the company and direct its films, Hope would operate the camera and Paul would serve as film technician.
Actress Martha Russell, who was hired by her husband Charles Pyle to be the Satex Film Company's leading lady.
One factor that likely enhanced Pyle’s appeal to the Tilley brothers was his wife, actress Martha Russell. Charles and Martha had married in 1911 at a time when Russell was establishing herself with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, a Chicago-based studio that included Charlie Chaplin among its stable of actors. Russell made nine films with Essanay in 1912 before signing on with Satex at a salary of $150 a week. Other hires included leading man Robert Kelly, character actors Leopold Lane, William H. Barwald and Virginia Duncan, and several others.
In addition to being America’s first sports agent, Charles Pyle might also have been one of the film industry’s first publicity agents. This notice in the April 19, 1913 edition of the El Paso Herald certainly bears the stamp of a canny promoter:
"Few theatrical stars or photoplayers have risen to prominence with more meteoric headway than has Miss Martha Russell, leading woman now with the Satex Film Company of Austin, Texas. Besides being a dramatic and vaudeville star Miss Russell holds the honor of being one of the most popular photoplayers of the great army of actors and actresses who appear upon the screen."
And if Pyle was behind this quote in the January 15, 1913 New York Dramatic Mirror, he earns points for false modesty:
"It is hard to be the husband of a celebrity. Everybody mentions Charles C. Pyle as 'Martha Russell’s husband,' but we shall try to do better."
On behalf of Satex, Pyle and the Tilleys rented space in the Joseph Goodman Building at 13th and Lavaca streets. An outdoor stage was constructed in front of the building; a sheet of muslin draped overhead helped cut glare to improve lighting. With the confidence engendered by their $25,000 bankroll, the Tilleys began filming three-reel pictures rather than the one-reelers that most other companies were producing at the time. Satex became the first studio south of Saint Louis to produce these longer films.
The Joseph Goodman Building at 13th and Lavaca, home in 1913 to the Satex Film Company, Austin's first movie studio.
By late spring of 1913 Satex had completed three films, all starring Martha Russell and Robert Kelly. Pyle negotiated a distribution deal with Warners Features and in quick succession "Mexican Conspiracy Outgeneraled," "Their Lives by a Single Thread" and "The Kentucky Feud" received nationwide release. No footage has survived the ravages of time so we can only guess at the look of the pictures. But the Tilleys and Pyle strove hard to produce films that would thrill a 1913 audience. According to the March 22, 1913 Evening Standard of Ogden, Utah, "Their Lives by a Single Thread" included a scene with leading man Robert Kelly being flung over the side of a precipice. He could be reached only by lowering a large iron bucket on an aerial cable. “To make the picture realistic,” Russell, whose character aims to save Kelly’s, was placed in the bucket and lifted high into the air to reach Kelly. Once she retrieved Kelly the floor of the bucket swung open, Russell saving herself by clinging to its side with Kelly working feverishly to reattach the floor.
1913 advertisement promoting Mexican Conspiracy Outgeneraled.
The other two Satex pictures also fit within the action/adventure genre. In Mexican Conspiracy Outgeneraled, Russell played a detective of the Tinkerton Detective Agency named Martha Langley. Langley is sent to Mexico to catch Karr, a Mexican rebel spy who has stolen money from a Wall Street banker named Tipps, played by Kelly. The heroine naturally falls into Karr’s hands but is clever enough to escape. She then secures proof of Karr’s complicity in the murder of a Mexican general, thereby saving Tipps, who had been accused of the crime. A happy ending results when Tipps and Langley fall in love, marry, and have a beautiful baby boy.
The Kentucky Feud involves one of those unbelievable contrivances that still drives the plots of many Hollywood films. A young mother is falsely accused by her husband of unseemly conduct with a former beau. She runs off with her daughter to join an opera company but dies, leaving her daughter in the care of the Cain family of Kentucky. Meanwhile, the abandoned husband, who is from the Afton family, adopts a son and moves to Kentucky. The son grows up, falls in love with the daughter and successfully proposes marriage. But wouldn’t you know, a disputed sheriff’s election results in a feud between the Cains and the Aftons. A gunfight breaks out at the wedding but somehow the combatants realize the family connection between the young lovers and the shootin’ irons are tossed aside. All live happily ever after except, of course, the poor souls shot in the gun battle.
Hope Tilley filming for Satex (from Lone Star Picture Shows, by Richard Schroeder, Texas A&M University Press, 2001).
While the Tilleys filmed much of these three pictures in and around Austin, they also shot on location in Mexico. Perhaps unaccustomed to the activities of a film crew, Mexican authorities expressed alarm and indignation at the staging of a particularly noisy gun battle. After hauling the crew off to jail, Mexican police insisted that the Tilleys give up their film. Upon securing their release by yielding some nonessential footage, the brothers hastened back to Texas.
Unfortunately for the Tilleys and their film company, Charlie Pyle spent his firm’s money lavishly down in Mexico. Budgeted at $3,000, Their Lives by a Single Thread cost Satex $5,300 to produce. When suspicious investors investigated and found that Pyle could not account for another several thousand dollars they sued. Satex went belly-up before the end of 1913. Charles and Martha quietly slipped out of town in June and drove to New York via Chicago in a new Haynes touring car. A notice in The Moving Picture World predicted “Miss Russell, in all probability, will make New York her headquarters for some time to come.” The following year Martha directed Victims of Divorce for a new film company founded by Charles. Within months of the picture’s release the couple’s marriage had dissolved.
Charles Pyle and Martha Russell left Austin in June 1913 in a Haynes touring car like the one pictured here, leaving behind two dozen angry investors and a disappointed pair of Tilley brothers.
With admirable persistence, Hope Tilley attempted to organize a new film studio in Austin but couldn’t interest enough investors. He quit the film business for good and set up shop as a music teacher, a profession he adhered to throughout the rest of his life. Paul left show business as well to open a successful commercial sign painting company.
If you’ve ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s "Grindhouse" or Richard Linkalater’s "Dazed and Confused," you’ve probably caught yourself watching the background scenery for Austin landmarks. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the Tilley brothers’ 1913 films available for similar purpose? While we can’t watch "Their Lives by a Single Thread" or "The Kentucky Feud" we do have a Tilley legacy almost as good. Hope Tilley may have retired as a professional filmmaker after the 1913 fiasco with Satex, but he didn’t put his camera away for good. Fortunately for us, Hope continued to shoot home movies around Austin for several decades. This footage may be viewed at the website of Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Of particular note is W. H. Tilley Collection number 1, an eleven minute compilation of film shot during the 1910s and 1920s. I imagine Hope would feel vindicated to know that, after more than a century, people still watch his motion pictures.