Charles Urban

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, Charles Urban 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, before developing his own projector, the Bioscope. 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 the Bioscope.

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 Urban's brother-in-law 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, however, was with G.A. Smith. Urban first handled Smith's films and employed him as a film processor, then in 1902 directed Smith to work on an improvement to the experimental, unworkable Lee and Turner film colour process. Kinemacolor, a two-colour additive system employing red and green filters, patented by Smith in 1906 and launched publicly in 1908, was the first successful natural motion picture colour system 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 system invented by William Friese Greene resulted in the invalidation of the Kinemacolor patent in Britain and the end of Urban'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, though he had little success until America joined the war itself. In 1917-18 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 with George McLeod Baynes. 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. Urban placed all of his faith in supplying the growing American educational market, but his business empire collapsed in 1924, and he retired from the film industry, returning to Britain by 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.

Adapted from Who's Who of Victorian Cinema (BFI, 1996) eds. Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan.