The Entrepreneur

Charles Urban (1867-1942) was a highly successful salesman before he became the manager of a kinetoscope-phonograph parlor in Detroit in 1895.[1] In 1896, he acquired the Michigan rights to the Edison vitascope and spent the year touring the state to exhibit motion pictures in every community where he could find a source of electricity compatible with the Edison machine. Urban modified the vitascope by increasing the capacity of the takeup spool and then contracted with a New York phonograph engineer named Walter Isaacs to construct a projector that not only incorporated the more efficient takeup system but also operated by means of a hand crank, free of electricity. Isaacs completed work on the projector, called the Bioscope, in early 1897, at about the same time that Urban joined Maguire & Baucus, the New York-based firm licensed to distribute Edison products overseas.[2]

When Urban left The U.S. in August 1897 to take over the Maguire & Baucus London office, he took his Bioscope with him. Isaacs had added a mechanism for ensuring intermittent motion and an enlarged spool bank for projecting reels much longer than those used on the vitascope. Once in England, Urban hired Cecil Hepworth, an inventor of photographic equipment (see Biographical Sketch 5.1), to correct remaining defects in the Bioscope. Hepworth added an improved shutter and takeup system (see Figure B5.6), and by March 1898, Urban was selling Bioscope projectors through Maguire & Baucus, which did business in Britain as the Continental Commerce Company.[3]

See the moving picture


    Georges Méliès, Le Sacre d’Édouard VII,

       Star-Film/Warwick Trading Co., 1902

Warwick—“A Good Solid British Name”

  In September 1897, Urban moved the Continental Commerce Company to Warwick Court and the growing center of the London film business. In May of 1898, he reincorporated the firm as the Warwick Trading Company (which he deemed “a good solid British name”). He quickly secured the distribution rights to the films of several prominent English producers, including George Albert Smith, James Williamson, and Frank Mottershaw, as well as those of the French filmmaker Georges Méliès (see Chapter 3.2). In 1902 (the same year in which he opened a Warwick branch in Paris), Urban commissioned Méliès to make a newsreel recording the coronation of Britain’s King Edward VII. Méliès, already a master of l’actualité reconstituée—the reconstructed newsreel—built a replica of Westminster Abbey, hired actors to portray the king and his consort, and re-created the entire pageant in his studio—all before the event itself actually took place. Urban inserted Méliès’ footage between shots of the royal coach’s arrival and departure and showed the six-minute “newsreel” as part of Warwick’s regular screening on the night of Coronation Day itself.[4]


Joseph Rosenthal in South Africa, ca. 1901

During the first four years of Urban’s management, Warwick’s sales increased by 400 percent.[5] Warwick itself, for which Urban had begun producing films in 1898, specialized in actuality films—newsreels with considerably more journlalistic integrity than Le Sacré d’Édouard VII—made by a team of traveling cameramen which included Joseph Rosenthal (1864-1946), whom Urban had dispatched to South Africa to cover the Anglo-Boer War in 1901. The documentary footage shot by Rosenthal and other Urban correspondents went a long way toward establishing the legitimacy of the fledgling motion-picture industry in the eyes of the British public (see Figure B5.7).[6] Its successful distribution also solidified Urban’s position as a major figure in the industry, and in 1903, he left Warwick to found the Charles Urban Trading Company.

The Impresario of the Educational

Urban marketed the products of his new company on the basis of quality and an appeal to educated interests. His specialty continued to be actuality film, especially travel and topical subjects, including footage of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War taken by Rosenthal and other correspondents. To burnish the image of the industry as a whole, Urban also began producing and promoting scientific films. In 1903, he launched The Unseen World, in which naturalist F. Martin Duncan combined the microscope with still photography to detail the activities of water fleas, cheese mites, and other miniscule life forms. Billing the technique as the “Urban-Duncan Micro-Bioscope,” Urban installed the series (which he dubbed “Urbanora” scientific and travel programs) in the Alhambra Theatre and promoted the attraction as “Nature on the stage!” (Figure B5.8).[7]

In 1906, Urban established both Kineto Ltd., a subsidiary for producing scientific subjects, and Eclipse, a Paris-based company for making fiction films. In May 1908, he moved his headquarters to Wardour Street (which soon became and still remains the center of the film business in London), into a building that he named “Urbanora House” (Figure B5.9). His new slogan was “We Put the World before You,” and he continued to specialize in scientific and educational films (now shown at the Palace Theatre). He had first discovered the work of Percy Smith (1880-1945), a Board of Education clerk whose hobby was making magnified photographs of natural subjects (especially insects), in 1907. The Balancing Bluebottle (1908—Figure B5.10), which revealed the unsuspected talents of the titular insect, so amazed viewers that still images were reprinted in newspapers.[8]

See the moving picture


       Percy Smith, The Birth of a Flower,

                    Kineto Ltd., 1910

Even more noteworthy was The Birth of a Flower (1910—Figure B5.10), which displayed Smith’s improved techniques for time-lapse photography . It was also in color. In 1901, Urban had acquired the distribution rights to films made with an experimental three-color additive process—one in which images taken through different colored filters (red, green, and blue) were added to one another to create a composite full-color image on black-and-white film stock. With typical enthusiasm, Urban commissioned an improved camera and financed continued work on the projection process. When the inventor died in 1903, he bought the patent rights and went into partnership with G.A. Smith, who took on the task of solving the remaining technical problems. After three years, Smith achieved adequate color representation with just two filters—red-orange and a combined green-blue.[9]

The Commitment to Kinemacolor

Urban and Smith took out a patent for Kinemacolor in November 1906, conducted further experiments for two years, and gave the first press screening, at Urbanora House, in May 1908. Urban bought out Smith’s interest in the process and formed the Natural Color Kinematograph Company in 1909. (Soon afterward, a rift developed between the two men, Smith arguing that Urban had cheated him in their business dealings and Urban claiming that Smith had sold proprietary secrets to his rivals.) In 1910, Urban moved his operations to another Wardour Street address, this one christened “Kinemacolor House,” giving up management of the Charles Urban Trading Company and devoting himself almost exclusively to developing and marketing his new color-film process (see Figure B5.11).

See an excerpt


Charles Urban, Producer, The Delhi Durbar,

   Natural Color Kinematograph Co., 1912

For Urban, Kinemacolor was as much a vehicle for spectacle as for realism. After releasing a series of short Kinemacolor films—mostly newsworthy pageants such as The Funeral of Edward VII (1910) and The Coronoation of George V (1911)—Urban focused his energy on a major project: filming the spectacular celebration in India of the visit of Britain’s King George V. Heading a team of eight cameramen who filmed a series of official ceremonies at several sites, Urban returned to England and assembled two and a half hours’ worth of footage (see Figure B5.12). The Delhi Durbar (also known as With Our King and Queen through India) premiered on 2 February 1912 at the Scala Theatre, where Urban commissioned a replica of the Taj Mahal and regaled patriotic attendees with a 48-piece orchestra, a 24-voice choir, and a 20-bagpipe fife-and-drum corps. Subsequent road-show tours of Great Britain and Ireland were immensely profitable, and the film was easily Urban’s biggest success as a producer.[10]

Urban managed to maintain his monopoly on “natural” color for five years and made a great deal of money between 1911 and 1914, not only from the exhibition of Kinemacolor films but from the sale of patent and foreign-distribution rights. In 1915, however, a series of court cases ended with the verdict that the Urban-Smith patent was insufficiently detailed and thus invalid. (One of the plaintiffs was William Friese-Greene [see Chapter 2], whose new Bicolor process had been shut out of the market by Kinemacolor.)[11]

The War and After

See an excerpt


 The Battle of the Somme, British Topical

         Committee for War Films, 1916

World War I broke out in August 1914, and as a member of the British Topical Committee for War Films, Urban produced Britain Prepared, a propaganda feature with some Kinemacolor sequences. In 1915, he took the film to the United States, where he worked to drum up American support for the British war effort. In the following year, he oversaw the editing of The Battle of the Somme, which recorded the first stages of one of the war's bloodiest battles. Filmed on the battlefield in June and July 1916 and supplemented with staged sequences produced later in July, the final film, running for 62 minutes, consisted of five parts diivided and summarized by intertitles (see Figure B5.13). It was released in Britain in August 1916 (while the battle still raged), and despite its graphic depiction of trench warfare, sold 20 million tickets in its first six weeks. It was later released in 18 other countries.[12] Upon a second trip to the U.S. (in 1917), Urban became involved in Official Government Pictures, which took over the American distribution of British propaganda films after the United States had entered the war.[13]

By April 1917, Urban had turned his attention back to his own entrepreneurial ventures, setting up the Urban Spirograph Corporation to produce miniature moving images on a celluloid disc (he had purchased the patent in 1907) and the American Kineto Company, a firm specializing in travel and industrial films. He established Urban Motion Picture Industries Inc. as a parent firm in 1922, but his overarching concept of the cinema as an educational tool, though visionary and ambitious, was impractical, and the company went bankrupt in 1924. Urban lived in the U.S. until 1929, when he returned to Britain, and in 1938 moved to Brighton, where he was at long last reconciled with G.A. Smith. His memoirs were unfinished when he died in 1942.[14]

[1] See esp. Luke McKernan, Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925 (Exeter, UK: Exeter Univ. Press, 2013). See also: McKernan, Charles Urban, Motion Picture Pioneer (2015), at (accessed June 20, 2016); Charles Urban, A Yank in Britain: The Lost Memoirs of Charles Urban, ed. McKernan (East Sussex: The Projection Box, 2014); McKernan, ed., “A Yank in Britain” [excerpts], Charles Urban (2015), at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “‘That Slick Salesman in the Silk Hat,’” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Charles Urban” (2004), Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Urban, Charles (1867-1942),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 20, 2016). For a lively (though somewhat anecdotal) account of Urban’s career, see Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture through 1925 (1926; rpt. New York: Touchstone, 1986), pp. 358-65.

[2] See Frank Gray, “Franck Zeveley Maguire and Joseph Delaney Baucus” (2015), Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Biographies,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016).

[3] See McKernan, “A View of Life,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016); see also John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England (London: David & Charles, 1976), p. 172.

[4] See Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975), pp. 53-54.

[5] See McKernan, “A Good Solid British Name,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016). On Warwick, see also Rachael Low and Roger Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906 (1948; rpt. London: Unwin Brothers Ltd., 1973), pp. 25-26.

[6] McKernan, “A Good Solid British Name,” Charles Urban, at Also consulted: Alex Rankin, “Chapter Two: The Boer War, Synchronised Sound and Pantomime (1900-1902),” The History of Cinema Exhibition in Exeter 1895-1918 (The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, March 30, 2012), at (accessed November 23, 2012). On Rosenthal, see Stephen Bottomore, “Joseph Rosenthal: The Most Glorious Profession,” Sight and Sound 52:4 (Autumn 1983), pp. 260-65; Bottomore, “Joseph Rosenthal,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Biographies,” Charles Urban, at

On Warwick and the Boer War, see John Barnes, Filming the Boer War (London: Bishopsgate Press, 1992). Elizabeth Grottle Stebel, “Primitive Propaganda: The Boer War Films,” Sight and Sound 46:1 (Winter 1976/77), pp. 45-47; rpt. “Imperialist Iconography of Anglo-Boer War Film Footage,” in Film before Griffith, ed. John Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 264-71. McKernan, The Boer War (1899-1902): Films in BFI Collections, National Film and Television Archive, 2nd ed. (London: National Film and Television Archive, 1999), at (accessed June 20, 2016). British Film Institute, “Films about the Boer War,” (2004-2016), at (accessed June 20, 2016).

[7] See McKernan, “We Put the World before You,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Biographies,” Charles Urban, at; see also Michael Chanan, The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 272.

[8] McKernan, “We Put the World before You,” Charles Urban, at See also Oliver Gaycken, “The Cinema of the Future: Visions of the Medium as Modern Educator, 1895,1910,” in Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, ed. Devin Orgeron et al. (Oxford, UK, and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), esp. pp. 78-81, at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Biographies,” Charles Urban, at; Bryony Dixon, “Smith, Percy (1880-1945),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 20, 2016).

[9] On Kinemacolor, see esp. McKernan, “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “The Brighton School and the Quest for Natural Colours,” in Visual Delights Two: Exhibition and Reception, ed Vanessa Toulmin and Simon Popple (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing, 2005), pp. 205-18; Paolo Cherchi Usai, “Origins and Survival,” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 9; “Kinemacolor: The First Successful Color System,” The American Widescreen Museum (1996-2004), at (accessed June 20, 2016); Kieron J. Casey, “Meet the Inventor of Kinemacolor, the First Successful Colour Film Process” (Bradford, UK: National Media Museum, June 2013), at (accessed June 20, 2016); Stephen Herbert, “Colour Cinematography,” The Projection Box (London: The Museum of the Moving Image, 2014), at (accessed June 20, 2016); Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, pp. 562-72. As one of the largest investors in the Kinemacolor company, Urban’s wife Ada was co-owner and among the most powerful women in the British film industry at the time; see McKernan, “Ada Aline Urban,” Women Film Pioneers Project, ed. Jane Gaines et al. (New York: Columbia Univ. Libraries, 2013), at (accessed June 20, 2016).

[10] See McKernan, “‘The Modern Elixir of Life’: Kinemacolor, Royalty and the Delhi Durbar,” Film History 21:2 (2009), pp. 122-36; McKernan, “The Delhi Durbar,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016); “The Delhi Durbar,” The Bioscope (Urbanora, December 11, 2011), at (accessed June 20, 2016).

[11] See McKernan, “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” Charles Urban, at; see also Armes, A Critical History of the British Cinema, p. 25.

[12] Lawrence Napper, “Amid the Guns Below,” Sight and Sound (July 2016), pp. 12-13; “Battle of the Somme: British War-Propaganda,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 3:2 (1983), pp. 99-115; Roger Smither, “‘A Wonderful Idea of the Fighting’: The Question of Fakes in ‘The Battle of the Somme,’” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 13:2 (1993), pp. 149–68; “The Battle of the Somme”: Viewing Guide (London: Imperial War Museum, 2008), at (accessed June 20, 2016); United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “The Battle of the Somme,” Memory of the World Register 2005, at (accessed June 20, 2016).

[13] McKernan, “The Motion Picture Object Lesson for America,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Propaganda, Patriotism and Profit: Charles Urban and British Official War Films in America during the First World War,” Film History 14:3/4 (2002), pp. 369–89.

[14] McKernan, “The Living Book of Knowledge,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016); McKernan, “Broke to the World,” Charles Urban, at (accessed June 20, 2016).

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