Brighton and Hove people: U

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UPTON, Elizabeth Albana
See Frederick William Hervey, 1st Marquess/5th Earl of Bristol.
URBAN, Charles
Charles UrbanBorn in Cincinatti, Ohio, Urban became manager of a Kinetoscope parlour in Detroit, then took on the rights to Edison’s Vitascope for Michigan before joining the distributors Maguire & Baucus in New York. He came to England as the manager of the firm’s London office in August 1897 and quickly built up the business, moving it to Warwick Court and renaming it Warwick Trading Company. The Warwick catalogue soon included films from, among others, George Albert Smith, for whom Urban arranged construction of a studio at St Ann’s Well Gardens in Hove. By September 1900 Smith’s enterprise became known as the Brighton Film Works of the Warwick Trading Company. Disagreements and his ambitions led Urban to leave Warwick in February 1903 to form Charles Urban Trading Company in July, where hecontinued to develop his sense of showmanship andto expand the business.
      To some extent Urban worked on a European scale. He commissioned Georges Méliès to film The Great International Automobile Race for the Gordon-Bennett Trophy in Hamburg in June 1904 and took other films from him. He also worked with Frank Mottershaw at Sheffield Photo Company c1904 and regularly with Walter R Booth c1909-1910. The American Film institute (AFI) Catalog of Feature Films (‘feature’ being a loosely used term) lists 171 films from the Charles Urban Trading Company between 1903 and 1910, only a couple of them from G A Smith, whose film-making activity more or less came to a temporary halt as Urban’s company began. In 1901 Urban had backed Edward Turner’s development of a three-colour film system, which was still unfinished when Turner died in 1903. Urban acquired the patents and asked G A Smith to continue the work. This led to a two-colour system, for which Smith applied for a patent on 24 November 1906. Also in 1906 Urban formed a French production company, Eclipse.
      Charles Urban became a naturalised British subject in June 1907. During that year he bought the rights to the Spirograph, a system of recording film images on a 10-inch celluloid disc that was patented by Theodore Brown. He also formed another company, Kineto Ltd, to make educational and scientific documentaries. His new headquarters, Urbanora House, at 80 Wardour Street, London—the first film company in what later becomes the film street—were inaugurated on 1 May 1908 with the first demonstration of Smith’s two-colour system, which was shortly thereafter named Kinemacolor.
      Urban was a leading delegate at the Congrès International des Editeurs du Film (CIEF: International Film Publishers Congress) in Paris in February 1909 to discuss the problems facing producers under threat from the United States. He and Smith attended the US launch of Kinemacolor at Madison Square Garden, New York on 11 December 1909, which concluded with a film of 2,000 children forming the American flag.
      Urban resigned as head of Charles Urban Trading Company in January 1910 to concentrateon developing Kinemacolor. The Kinemacolor Company of America was founded in June. The UK firm, the Natural Colour Kinematograph Company, took over the Williamson studios in Cambridge Grove, Hove and opened a studio in Nice, France. In February 1911 Urban leased Edmund Distin Maddick’s Scala Theatre off Tottenham Court Road in London for a year to showcase Kinemacolor. Tregular shows began on 11 April. The first major success was with a film of the unveiling of the Victoria Monument in front of Buckingham Palace on 16 May. Pageantry always went down well and the addition of the rich colours enhanced the appreciation of audience and critics alike. It wasfollowed with the film of the coronation of George V on 22 June.
      The high point of Urban’s career and the most important Kinemacolor production was the filming of the royal visit to India in December 1911 and January 1912, the centrepiece of which was the Coronation Durbar on 12 December. The film was edited into a programme that ran for two and a half hours, screened at the Scala amid a stage set of the Taj Mahal on 2 February 1912. it ran for two years and was visited by the king and queen on 11 May with an entourage that included the Russian empress. Urban was absent, however, recovering from an operation for a perforated gastric ulcer. Several Kinemacolor shows were held on command throughout the year at royal residences as well as at the Scala.
      The real problems for Kinemacolor began in October 1911 when Urban (perhaps unwisely) sued Walter Speer's newly formed Biocolour—formed to exploit William Friese Greene's colour film patent—for claiming to have the only true natural colour film system. Biocolour counter-sued by claiming Kinemacolor breached Friese Greene’s patent, which pre-dated G A Smith’s. The case escalated, Urban at first winning the bitter argument but losing in the Court of Appeal, leaving Kinemacolor without patent protection and effectively dead. Urban’s final appeal to the House of Lords upheld Friese Greene’s claims.
      As part of the war effort he produced a feature documentary, How Britain Prepared, in 1915 and the following year edited the ground-breaking feature-length The Battle of the Somme, produced by Edmund Distin Maddick, then left for America in August 1916 to promote British war documentaries, with some success. With America newly in the war, Urban opened a film factory at Bayonne, New Jersey in April 1917 and formed a company, Urban Spirograph Corporation (to exploit Theodore Brown’s invention), followed in November by Kineto Company of America. Meanwhile, he took on the editing of the Official War Review newsreel for the Committee on Public Information. After the war he continued to specialise in newsreels and cinemagazines. A huge building at Irvington-on-Hudson was bought for $150,000 in November 1920 to serve as a corporate headquarters for Urban Motion Picture Industries and most of the business moved there in August 1922. The scheme was too ambitious and the company was declared bankrupt in July 1924. Refforts by the receiver to rescue it over the next 18 months failed.
      The Urbans returned to England c1929 and Charles announced that he was retiring from the film industry, as indeed he more or less did. In 1932 he joined Cinema Veterans (1903), the society for the early pioneers. His wife died in October 1937 and at the end of the year he donated all his papers to the Science Museum. He moved to Brighton in September 1938 and was reconciled with G A Smith; the two had barely spoken since 1911. Charles Urban started to write his memoirs in April 1942 but his health deteriorated and he went into the Lees Nursing Home, where he died in August.
7 Clarendon Mansions, 82 East Street [residence 1938-1942]
Lees Nursing Home, 61 (then 12) Dyke Road [deathplace 1942]
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Page updated 27 June 2021