Sidney Olcott

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Sidney Olcott
Sidney Olcott001.jpg
Olcott in 1922
John Sidney Allcott

(1872-09-20)September 20, 1872
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
DiedDecember 16, 1949(1949-12-16) (aged 76)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
OccupationFilm director, producer and screenwriter
Years active1904–1942
Spouse Valentine Grant (m.19141949, her death)

Sidney Olcott (born John Sidney Allcott, [1] September 20, 1872 [2] December 16, 1949) was a Canadian-born film producer, director, actor and screenwriter.



Born John Sidney Allcott in Toronto, he became one of the first great directors of the motion picture business. With a desire to be an actor, a young Sidney Olcott went to New York City where he worked in the theater until 1904 when he performed as a film actor with the Biograph Studios.

In 1907, Frank J. Marion and Samuel Long, with financial backing from George Kleine, formed a new motion picture company called the Kalem Company and were able to lure the increasingly successful Sidney Olcott away from Biograph. Olcott was offered the sum of ten dollars per picture and under the terms of his contract, Olcott was required to direct a minimum of one, one-reel picture of about a thousand feet every week. After making a number of very successful films for the Kalem studio, including Ben Hur (1907) with its dramatic chariot race scene, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), [3] Olcott became the company's president and was rewarded with one share of its stock.

In 1910 Sidney Olcott demonstrated his creative thinking when he made Kalem Studios the first ever to travel outside the United States to film on location.

Of Irish ancestry, and knowing that in America there was a huge built-in Irish audience, Olcott went to Ireland where he made a film called A Lad from Old Ireland . He would go on to make more than a dozen films there and later on only the outbreak of World War I prevented him from following through with his plans to build a permanent studio in Beaufort, County Kerry, Ireland. The Irish films led to him taking a crew to Palestine in 1912 to make the first five-reel film ever, titled From the Manger to the Cross , the life story of Jesus.

The film concept was at first the subject of much skepticism but when it appeared on screen, it was lauded by the public and the critics. Costing $35,000 to produce, From the Manger to the Cross earned the Kalem Company profits of almost $1 million, a staggering amount in 1912. The motion picture industry acclaimed him as its greatest director and the film influenced the direction many great filmmakers would take such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. From the Manger to the Cross is still shown today to film societies and students studying early film making techniques. In 1998 the film was selected for the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress.

Despite making the studio owners very rich men, they refused to increase his salary beyond the $150 a week he was then earning. From the enormous profits made for his employers, Olcott's dividend on the one share they had given him amounted to $350. As a result, Sidney Olcott resigned and took some time off, making only an occasional film until 1915 when he was encouraged by his Canadian friend Mary Pickford to join her at Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount Pictures. The Kalem Company never recovered from the mistake of losing Olcott and a few years after his departure, the operation was acquired by Vitagraph Studios in 1916.

Olcott's grave in Toronto, Ontario Olcott Grave Toronto.jpg
Olcott's grave in Toronto, Ontario

Olcott was a founding member of the East Coast chapter of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a forerunner to today's Directors Guild of America and would later serve as its president. Like the rest of the film industry, Sidney Olcott moved to Hollywood, California, where he directed many more successful and acclaimed motion pictures with the leading stars of the day.

Olcott married actress Valentine Grant, the star of his 1916 film, The Innocent Lie .

During World War II, Olcott opened his home to visiting British Commonwealth soldiers in Los Angeles. In his book titled Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood, writer Charles Foster tells of this period in Olcott's life, and of how he was introduced to many members of Hollywood's Canadian community through Olcott. Sidney Olcott died in Hollywood, California, in the house of his friend Robert Vignola where he lived after the death of Valentine Grant. He is buried in Park Lawn cemetery in Toronto, Ontario. [1]

Partial filmography





















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<i>From the Manger to the Cross</i> 1912 film by Sidney Olcott

From the Manger to the Cross or Jesus of Nazareth is a 1912 American drama film directed by Sidney Olcott, written by Gene Gauntier, and stars Robert Henderson-Bland as Jesus of Nazareth. Filmed on location in Egypt and in Palestine, it tells the story of Jesus' life, interspersed with verses from The Bible.

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<i>Ben Hur</i> (1907 film) 1907 American film

Ben Hur is a 1907 American silent drama film set in ancient Rome, the first screen adaptation of Lew Wallace's popular 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Co-directed by Sidney Olcott and Frank Oakes Rose, this "photoplay" was produced by the Kalem Company of New York City, and its scenes, including the climactic chariot race, were filmed in the city's borough of Brooklyn.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">James W. Horne</span> American actor, screenwriter, and film director

James Wesley Horne was an early American actor, screenwriter and film director. He began his career as an actor under director Sidney Olcott at Kalem Studios in 1913 and directed his first film for the company two years later.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Robert G. Vignola</span> American artist

Robert G. Vignola was an Italian-American actor, screenwriter, and film director. A former stage actor, he appeared in many motion pictures produced by Kalem Company and later moved to directing, becoming one of the silent screen's most prolific directors. He directed a handful of films in the early years of talkies but his career essentially ended in the silent era.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kalem Company</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Valentine Grant</span> American actress (1881–1949)

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">George K. Hollister</span> American cinematographer and actor (1873-1952)

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Frank J. Marion</span>

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<i>The Lad from Old Ireland</i> 1910 film

The Lad from Old Ireland, also called A Lad from Old Ireland, is a one-reel 1910 American motion picture directed by and starring Sidney Olcott and written by and co-starring Gene Gauntier. It was the first film appearance of prolific actor/director J.P. McGowan.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jack J. Clark</span> American film director

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arthur Donaldson (actor)</span> Swedish-American actor

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<i>The Colleen Bawn</i> (1911 American film) 1911 American film

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<i>The Shaughraun</i> (film) 1912 American film

The Shaughraun is a 1912 American silent film produced by Kalem Company and distributed by General Films Company. It was directed by Sidney Olcott with himself, Gene Gauntier, Alice Hollister and Jack J. Clark in the leading roles.

<i>Bold Emmett Irelands Martyr</i> 1915 American film

Bold Emmett Ireland's Martyr is an American silent film produced by Sid Films and distributed by Lubin Manufacturing Company. It was directed by Sidney Olcott and played by Valentine Grant, Sidney Olcott and PH O'Malley in the leading roles. Shot in 1914 it was released in 1915.


  1. 1 2 Resting Places
  2. "Sidney Olcott - Blog".
  3. 1 2 Workman, Christopher; Howarth, Troy (2016). "Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era". Midnight Marquee Press. p.43. ISBN   978-1936168-68-2.
  4. "Enjoying Life Silently: Film History in Shadow and Light". PopMatters. 2017-11-03. Retrieved 2019-11-11.