Introduction: The Legacy of Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen

For more than thirty years, William F. Buffalo Bill Cody entertained audiences across the United States and Europe with his Wild West show. Scores of books have been written about Cody's fabled career as a showman, but his involvement in the film industry--following the dissolution of his traveling show--is less well known. In Buffalo Bill on the Silver Screen, Sandra K. Sagala chronicles the fascinating story of Cody's venture into filmmaking during the early cinema period.

Edison and Cody

One of the leading innovators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) developed countless inventions during his lifetime, the lightbulb and direct-current electricity among them. The motion picture camera, however, is the one invention that Edison never expected to be profitable. Still, he submitted a patent for the Kinetoscope camera after several years of experimentation on August 24, 1891. Edison's initial skepticism regarding the financial viability of this invention was reversed when he realized profits could be made by developing projectors that allowed several people to view a film simultaneously (Sagala, 12).

Wild West Pictures

As the nineteenth century transitioned to the twentieth, an increasingly popular line of thinking held that the American frontier was no more. According to the 1890 U.S. Census, the American people had sufficiently populated the continent from Maine to California for the government to officially declare that the frontier (calculated as land settled by less than 2 people per square mile) was gone. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) argued that the frontier had been the most important factor in shaping a distinctly American character and differentiating America from Europe. In his 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", Turner theorized that once the American frontier disappeared, the American spirit would diminish with it, and the U.S. would cease to be the dynamic country it had been in the past.

Cody as Filmmaker

Throughout his years in show business, William F. Cody failed as often as he succeeded. Although the Wild West Show continued to be popular throughout the 1890s and the early 1900s, it became more and more difficult for Cody finance the show, and he came close to bankruptcy several times. One of the ways he avoided financial ruin was by negotiating a merger between his Wild West show and Gordon “Pawnee Bill” Lillie's Far East show in 1909.