August 31, 2010

"Headin' South" with Douglas Fairbanks

Studio produced slide for Headin' South (1918)
Hand-made slide negative for Headin' South (1918)
While researching the slide collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, I came across the negative for a hand-made photographic slide advertising the early Douglas Fairbanks feature Headin' South (1918).

The negative caught my eye because I remembered seeing the studio produced poster for the film and there seemed to be a distinct similarity between image on the slide and my memory of the artwork on the poster.  From this I jumped (incorrectly) to the conclusion that the negative for the slide had been produced by photographing the poster art.

Later, taking a closer look, I confirmed that the slide is indeed based on the same graphic as the poster but what I failed to notice on my initial examination was that despite their similarity, the image on the slide is not a reproduction of the poster art.

Reversed negative for Headin' South
Notice that the image on the poster (a beautiful full-color stone lithographic print) is a artist's rendition of the two men grappling.  Conversely, the image on the slide is an actual photograph.  (Look at the faces and the difference is obvious.)

Where at first I had assumed that the slide was based on the poster, the obvious conclusion seems to be that the slide, as well as the poster, are based on a separate original source - most likely a still publicity photograph. 

Poster for Headin' South
While the representations of the two figures in the slide and poster are identical in almost every respect, for some reason the knife in Frank Campeau's hand (the man on the right) has been crudely cropped out of the slide photograph. 

Was the knife excised due to a specific editorial reason?  It doesn't appear that its removal was necessary in order accommodate text or other graphic elements.

Interestingly (at least to me), the absence of the knife in the slide provides more leeway for interpretation.

In the poster, it is clear that the men are fighting.

But in the slide?

Perhaps they are dancing The Tango.

Hand-made slide images for this article courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

August 30, 2010

Going Negative

Slide negative for His First Vacation (c. 1914-18)
In DIY Coming Attractions I presented examples of hand-made slides that had been created by exhibitors to promote specific programs or venues.  The procedures and examples described in the article focused on non-photographic techniques for applying text (and often color) to glass, such as writing, drawing, or etching.  While such slides could use imaginative typography and line drawing to heighten interest and enhance visual appeal, they obviously lacked the ability to depict complex graphics, stills from the film, or most importantly, images of the stars.

Fortunately, exhibitors wishing to create their own slides were not limited to hand drawing or etching on glass.  With a little effort they could also photographically create custom slides which presented several advantages.

Reversed negative for His First Vacatio
Photographically reproducing slides meant that multiple copies of the same slide could be created from a single negative.  More importantly, photographic slides had the advantage that images of popular stars could be included in the advertisement.

In his 1915 manual, A Guide to Kinematography (Projection Section) for Managers, Manager Operators, and Operators of Kinema Theatres, Colin N. Bennett describes the process for printing slides in his section titled "Photographic Still Slides."

According to Bennett, 
"For best results, hand-done originals should be drawn in liquid Indian ink on dead white paper."
Slide negative for The Night Owls (c. 1914-18)

The original artwork is then photographed and the negative developed:
"Still view negatives are made by photography with a still view camera, either a snap-shot hand camera or a 'field' or 'studio' stand camera.  The most convenient size of a plate to use for the negatives when making lantern slides by contact printing is 'quarter plate' or 4 ¼  by 3 ¼ in.  Exposure, development, fixing, and washing are done on the same lines as laid down for kinematograph film, but the mechanical side of the work is simplified by there being only one single picture to develop instead of a long ribbon of different pictures."

From the resulting photographic negative, positive prints on glass are:
"...produced by printing off a photographic still view negative upon sensitive 'lantern plates.' obtainable at any chemist's or photographic dealer's shop. Those readers who have an acquaintance with kinematograph camera work will already have a clear idea of the operations involved in making a negative, and also in printing a positive transparency from it."

Reversed negative for The Night Owls
The photographic emulsion on the pre-coated lantern slide plates is exposed using a contact printing technique: 
"To make the actual lantern slide from the negative, place a sensitive lantern plate, emulsion to emulsion, against the negative in a photographic printing frame and expose to artificial 'white' light [...]"

"Fix, wash, and dry and [...] bind up the plate with a clear-glass cover-slip, interposing between the two a black paper mask to give neat edges to the slide on the screen.  See that both plate and mask are bone dry before binding them together, and store completed slides in a bone dry, baize-lined, airtight box.  If so kept they will not darken or 'sweat' during projection."

Recently while researching the slides held at the Margaret Herrick Library, I was thrilled to find a small number of these hand-made negatives within their collection.  The three examples I've used to illustrate this article reinforce the notion that hand-made photographic slides were important in capitalizing on the drawing power of popular stars since they all feature the greatest star of the silent era.

Slide negative promoting Tally's Electric Theater, Los Angeles
These slides for The Night Owls and His First Vacation are particularly interesting because neither of them are studio-released Charlie Chaplin titles.  To capitalize on Chaplin's immense popularity, it was not uncommon for exhibitors to re-title older releases and pawn them off as new, or to combine footage from several prints in order to create a "new" film.  Evidently this is the case with both of these titles, which may provide another explanation for why these are hand-made instead of professionally produced slides.

Having only the title as evidence, perhaps The Night Owls is a retitled release of the two-reel Essanay release A Night Out (1915) in which Chaplin and Ben Turpin wreak drunken havoc at a restaurant and later a hotel.

Reversed negative promoting Tally's Electric Theater, Los Angeles
I'm at a complete loss when it comes to guessing patrimony of His First Vacation.  My guess is that it is a pastiche of scenarios from several different films.  My reasoning for this is that, with the exception of Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) Chaplin never released a comedy as long as three reels until Shoulder Arms (1918) while I think it's safe to assume that His First Vacation is comprised of much earlier footage.  In addition, a film about a "vacation" would provide an easy plot device that would explain stitching together episodes from several different comedies into a single narrative.

In either case, it may well be that these slides are the last remaining evidence of these ersatz Chaplin classics - unless someone out there turns up a print that is...

Slide images for this article courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

August 28, 2010

Take Flight with "Dirigible"

Dirigible (1931)
Budgeted at $650,000, Dirigible (1931)  was Columbia's most expensive production to date.  According to Joseph McBride, "making Dirigible was Harry Cohn's attempt to put Columbia on an equal footing with the major studios."  Frank Capra directed the production, which paired Ralph Graves and Jack Holt, who had earlier co-starred in Capra's successful early-talkie Submarine (1928).  I had the great pleasure of seeing Sony's new restorations of both films at the 2009 Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, and while the Capra's cinematography is gorgeous, and the documentary aspects of lighter-than-air travel are first rate, the inane plot and wooden acting by the principals leave much to be desired.

Fortunately, this isn't a movie review.  We're here to talk about coming attraction slides and this one is a beauty.  Of course I'm a sucker for aviation themes, but this slide for Dirigible is especially well composed.  It's also quite reminiscent of the slide for Howard Hughes Hell's Angels (1930) [discussed on July 21] which had been released the previous year.  Both slides graphically combine the primary plot elements of dirigibles and women (take it away Mr. Freud!) with just a splash of red flame to (literally) spark to the mixture.
Hell's Angels (1930)

As Lisa Kernan points out in her book Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers, movie trailers were combined diverse themes in order to attract different audience segments.  Unlike movie trailers which do this by including different clips from the film, slides achieve the same effect through graphic collage.  The slide for Dirigible employs the technique by including action scenes (something for the men) as well as the romantic element (something for the women).

Within its single frame the slide also conveys a fairly comprehensive plot summary.  The newspaper headline tells us about a plane crash at the South Pole (a very topical subject, coming only two years after Admiral Richard E. Byrd first flew over the pole), there are injured men in parkas, a burning dirigible on the ice, Fay Wray imploring the lantern-jawed Jack Holt, and of course the text "He went through hell for a woman who did not want him!"  There's so much of the plot in the slide that you don't really need to see the film.

But do see it anyway - the photography is wonderful.

August 23, 2010

"Peaks of Destiny"

Peaks of Destiny (1926)
Released in Germany under the title Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926);  Peaks of Destiny made its way to American screens the following year.  The film is representative of the uniquely German "mountain film" sub-genre (somewhat analogous to westerns and American cinema).  Directed by Arnold Fanck who specialized in these films, Peaks of Destiny is also notable in in that features the screen debut of his most celebrated (and some might say notorious) protegee, Leni Riefenstahl.

In his book Leni Riefenstahl:  A Life, Jurgen Trimborn explains:
Der heilige Berg was a typical example of the constellation of Arnold Fanck's mountain epics:  the male bonding of the mountain climbers triumphs over temporary temptation by a female.  ...Riefenstahl plays Diotima, a ballet dancer whose life is entirely devoted to dance and to the mountains, and whose character in the film is the very personification of threatening femininity." 

"Diotima dances on the stage of the Grand Hotel in Zermatt, where she captures the attention of two particular members of the audience.  The two men, skiers and mountain climbers [...] are soon vying for her affection, and the film develops into a tale of jealousy that ends in the deaths of both men in the mountains.  Following a bitter struggle over the woman, they plunge in the abyss, after which Diomita leaves the Alps and returns, alone and broken, to the sea."
Leni Riefenstahl dances by the sea in the closing shot from Peaks of Destiny
The film premiered December 1926 at Ufa's Palast am Zoo, the company's flagship theatre in Berlin.  The professional reviews were mixed;  Vienna's Wiener Neuweste Nachrichten proclaimed that Reiefenstahl was "one of the world's greatest screen actresses," while the Berliner Morgenpost countered that she "...offered nothing in the way of acting" and that "her jumping around is, in places, hard to bear." 

Regardless of the critical response, the film was exceptionally popular and was the first international success of Fanck's career.  Capitalizing on this acclaim, Riefenstahl would go on to play the lead in Fanck's subsequent mountain epics:  Der große Sprung (1927), White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), Avalanche (1930), and White Ecstasy (1931).

August 21, 2010

"Three Weekends" with Clara Bow

Three Weekends (1928)

To get the weekend off to a spirited start, we give you Clara Bow in Three Weekends (1928), her final film of the silent era.

The title for Three Weekends (aka Three Week Ends) was derivative of the scandalous Elinor Glyn novel Three Weeks which had been adapted for film in 1924.  The provocative writer Glyn was often paired with Bow, most famously with It (1927), a screen adaptation of Glyn's novel in which Bow played Betty Lou Spence, better know today as The It Girl. 

Three Weekends is representative of Paramount's Clara Bow vehicles.  These comedies, such as It, Red Hair (1928), and Get Your Man (1927) each faithfully stuck to the proven formula of which came to be mockingly described as  "Bow plus Glyn equals underwear."

In his book Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild, biographer David Stenn describes the film's critical reception:

Clara Bow in Red Hair (1928)
"Though Clara approached her role in Three Weekends with characteristic gusto and professionalism, she could not save a plot as skimpy as the wardrobe.  Influential film critic Richard Watts, Jr., denounced the insipid formula for her films, charging that 'because Miss Bow has had the misfortune to be labeled the 'It' Girl, she must be a sort of Northwest Mounted Policeman of sex, who gets her man even if she has to bludgeon him.  The result is a series of films in which a particularly engaging star gets coy and elfin all over the landscape, battering down the resistance of some man who, for some unaccountable reason, is cold to her loveliness.  The formula is particularly annoying when applied to one of the most pleasing stars of the cinema.'"

Then, like today, box office results often failed to coincide with the artistic quality.  Though it may have been only a repeat of a worn out formula, Three Weekends was successful at the box office, generating approximately the same profits as Bow's earlier comedies.

What would we think of the film today?  Undoubtedly Bow sparkles on the screen despite the formulaic plot line.  Tragically, it's unlikely that we'll ever have the opportunity to judge for ourselves.  Like so many films from the era, Thee Weekends is considered to be a lost film and no prints are known to exist.

August 18, 2010

DIY Coming Attractions

From UK cinema, scratched-in slide for double feature (c. 1956)
Professionally produced slides were not the only projected images that theaters used to advertise their upcoming shows.  The exhibitors themselves often crafted hand-made slides.  These slides generally consisted exclusively of written text and lacked any but the most primitive graphic elements.  Though the slides often lacked aesthetic interest, they had the practical benefit of flexibility as well as the ability to very specifically address the details of an upcoming program.

British scratched-in slide for (c. 1944)
For example, handmade slides were useful for advertising an entire program, such as a double feature, on a single slide.  Custom made slides also allowed for of insertion of specific dates or times, commentary or tag lines ("Back by popular demand!), or local censorship ratings.

Custom slides could also be quickly fabricated in order to flash an immediate message to the screen. 

Film historian Kevin Brownlow recently related a personal anecdote in an email which illustrates the point.  I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I shared it here:

British scratched-in slide (c. 1956)
"When I was a few months old, my parents went to the local cinema in Crowborough, Sussex, leaving my aunt looking after me. I must have sensed what was going on, because I roared so furiously that my aunt had to telephone the cinema and they projected a slide (over the film - sacrilege!) with handwritten lettering saying 'Would Mrs Brownlow please return to Kevin.'  So I had my name on the screen at six months."

Projectionists had several different processes by for laying their message on glass, all of which essentially boil to two different approaches.

The first approach is to simply take an appropriately sized pane of glass and write on it using ink, paint, or grease pencil.  When projected, the resulting image is a white background with black or colored text.  This technique is described in the 1915 manual, A Guide to Kinematography (Projection Section) for Managers, Manager Operators, and Operators of Kinema Theatres by Colin N. Bennett.
Hand written slide for St. Louis Great Western Grain Company (c. 1910)
Bennet describes how to create these "Painted-on Announcement Slides":
"Simply paint or write on the clear glass.  For painting, any opaque mixture will serve.  Light red or ultramarine blue water colour paints are good, and the glass can easily be cleaned off again.  To write in words with a pen, use a ball-pointed or broad-pointed nib and a mixture of ordinary writing ink and ultramarine blue of the consistency of very thin paste.  Electric lamp lacquer (white spirit varnish coloured with alcohol soluble aniline dye) may be flowed over the uncoated side of the announcement slides to introduce colour and make them less glaring on the screen."
Ad typed on cellophane then sandwiched between glass panes, Seattle (c. 1920)
An alternate method for creating a custom slide was to coat the entire surface of the glass with an opaque material, and then to etch the message through the coating.

This process had the advantage that the projected image appeared on the screen as light against a dark background instead of the other way around.  Another advantage was that the scratched out areas could be covered by a color wash, thus affording the opportunity for multicolor text and embellishment.

Returning to Bennett's manual, he describes the Preparation of Scratched-in Announcement Slides":
"Cover a clean 3 ¼ inch square of glass [note the standard British slide dimension] with any opaque coating that can be scratched off in fine lines with a sharp pointed instrument, such as a sharpened knitting needle, or a darning needle stuck for support in a cork, leaving the point jutting out half an inch.  White, or light green, Hall's water distemper is a simple announcement slide coating..."  Bennett then continues to recite half a dozen alternatives for uniformly coating the glass, and then concludes "...the finest possible lines can then be cleanly made.  The wording of all scratched-in announcement slides projects white on a dark background."

This "Scratched-In" process apparently later became quite popular, so much so that a British company, Morgans's Slides Limited, developed pre-coated blank slides and sold them under the trade name MORROPAQUE.  The coating on these slides was pre-ruled with very fine lines to assist the exhibitor in aligning their written text.  The coating also easily accepted color dye, so that that exhibitors could creatively color them as well.
MORROPAQUE slide and the resulting projected image
Though these hand made slides lack the drama and striking visual appeal of professionally produced studio slides, they have a certain charm that I've come to appreciate.  Not only do they provide insight into typical programming practices, they also wonderfully demonstrate the lost art of good penmanship.

August 16, 2010

Passport to Destiny

Slide for Passport to Destiny (1944)
Motion picture advertisements are supposedly designed to give you just enough information to lure you to see the picture but not so much that it gives it all away.  When I first encountered the slide for Passport to Destiny with all of its fine-print I thought it would be the perfect example of a slide that tells too much, but after reading the synopsis I came to realize that it merely scratches the surface.

Paraphrasing liberally from TCM's synopsis, the film goes something like this: 
Lobby card for Passport to Destiny (1944)
London scrubwoman Ella Muggins (who achieved cinematic immortality as the Bride of Frankenstein) reminisces about her late husband, Sergeant Major Albert Muggins, a spinner of tall tales. Then while cleaning the attic one day, Ella opens a trunk and finds the magic eye that her husband claimed would protect its bearer from all harm. Ella remains skeptical about the powers of the eye until it "saves her life" during an air raid.

Convinced that the eye will render her invincible, Ella decides to go to Berlin and assassinate Hitler. Carrying her washbucket, Ella stows away onboard a ship bound for the continent. Forced to abandon ship when the vessel is attacked by German bombers, Ella and the crew board a lifeboat and paddle across the English Channel. When they land, German soldiers arrest the crew, but Ella hides in the bottom of the boat and escapes capture. Posing as a deaf and dumb cleaning woman, Ella scrubs her way across the continent to Germany.

On a train bound for Berlin, she overhears a conversation between Franz Von Weber, a German officer, and his uncle Frederick Hausmeister. When Frederick warns Franz, a member of the underground, that his sweetheart Grete has been imprisoned for her political activities, Franz vows to free her. Upon arriving in Berlin, Ella follows Hitler's guards to his headquarters and, posing as a deaf and dumb charwoman, she wins the sympathy of the officers and is awarded a job. When Ella overhears Karl Dietrich, the German commandant, discussing Grete's imprisonment in the Mobic jail, she passes the information to Franz by writing the words "Grete-Mobic" with a bar of soap on the floor. Curious, Franz waits for Ella to leave work that day, and when he hears her singing, he approaches her.  Ella informs Franz that his sweetheart is being held at the Mobic jail and gives him her magic eye for protection, imploring him to return it to her later that night.

 At the prison, Franz orders that Grete be released into his custody, and Dietrich instructs his men to comply. Hoping that Franz will lead them to other members of the underground, Dietrich orders him followed. The soldiers trail him to Ella's room, where he asks her to use the magic eye to secure some travel permits. After Franz arranges for his uncle to pick up the permits at headquarters, Ella borrows his gun to shoot Hitler. The next day, Ella is watched by Dietrich and Lord  George Haw Haw, a British traitor who has been broadcasting German propaganda into England. After stealing the permits, Ella passes them to Frederick, who is promptly arrested by the gestapo.

 To trap Ella, Dietrich removes the guards from Hitler's door, luring her into his office. Inside the office, Ella rehearses her plan to kill Hitler, which is overheard on the intercom by Dietrich. When Lord Haw Haw enters the office to beg Ella to help him escape from Germany, Dietrich appears and confronts them. After Dietrich's men disarm Ella, she is taken to his office for questioning. There she is joined by Frederick, Franz and Grete, who have also been arrested. After confiscating Ella's lucky eye, Dietrich begins to interrogate Franz. Taunting Ella about the silly superstitions of the English, Dietrich contemptously returns the eye. At that moment, British bombers attack. In the raid, Frederick is killed, but Ella, Franz and Grete escape and speed to the airport, where Franz hijacks a plane and flies them to London. Ella is hailed as a hero and is interviewed by the press. Asked by the reporters where she found the magic eye, Ella takes them to the attic, and when she opens the trunk, she discovers a box full of eyes.
I guess I no longer feel like they crammed too much into the slide.  What amazes more is how they crammed this much plot into a 65 minute movie!

August 12, 2010

The Mystery of St. George and the Dragon

St. George and the Dragon (1912)
I came across title St. George and the Dragon while searching the list of slides in the George Eastman House collection.  This film immediately caught my eye because I know of only two silent era releases with this title:  a 1910 release from the Edison Manufacturing Company, and a 1912 film by Milano Film originally released in Italy under the title San Giorgio cavaliere.

My research up to this point has indicated that 1913 was earliest that lantern slides were used to advertise motion picture coming attractions.  If this slide were for either of these two films then perhaps the practice started earlier than I had thought.  Furthermore, if it was for the Italian film, itwould be my first example of a silent era slide from continental Europe.

My excitement was heightened (and confounded) when Nancy Kauffman, Archivist of the Paper and Photographic Collections in Motion Picture Department at Eastman House, kindly emailed to me scans of the slide image and a photograph of the slide frame.

Slide with Frame St. George and the Dragon (1912)

Two things immediately caught my eye.  The handwritten section of the slide, which read "To-morrow - Domoni" bilingually announcing in English and Italian that the film would be showing "tomorrow."  This seemed to confirm that the slide might apply to the 1912  release from Milano Film.

The odd thing was that the slide was manufactured by Standard Slide Company in New York.  From what I have been able to determine, Standard Slide produced coming attraction slides during the years 1915 through 1924.  Obviously the slide itself was not Italian, nor was it likely to have been manufactured in 1912.

While I scratched my head and pondered the mystery of these disjointed circumstances, Nancy dug in and found the answer.  She related (and I paraphrase from her emails):

Handbill for Ruggieri exhibition of St. George and the Dragon
The slide for St. George and the Dragon – is from, the Ruggieri Collection, which includes a lot of paper promotional materials for this film.  Ruggieri was an Italian immigrant exhibitor, who exhibited Italian films to Italian immigrants in NYC in around 1929-1940, and possibly earlier and later as well.  It was not unusual for him to show older films, even silent films.  He also showed Italian language films, American films dubbed in Italian, and American films produced in Italian for Italian immigrant audiences.  Subject matter was typically religion, the home country, and mother.  A lot of the prints Ruggieri showed were ones that he owned, so as long as St. George kept running through the projector, it was still fair game.  Based on this, the slide of St. George and the Dragon probably dates from much later in the future than when the film was produced.
Poster from Ruggieri exhibition of St. George and the Dragon
 Nancy also attached:
"...images of a poster (clearly home made) and programs for St. George and the Dragon.  As you can see, these were not typical theatrical exhibitions – one program is from showing(s) at a church.  Note the Milano Film logo on the other confirms it as the 1912 Italian production."
Program for Ruggieri exhibition of St. George and the Dragon

Thanks to Nancy's wonderful research, the mystery was solved - and in the end it only confirmed the status quo:   1913 remains the earliest coming attraction slide I've found, and the search for a silent era example from continental Europe continues...

All images in the article courtesy of the George Eastman House, Motion Picture Department.

August 7, 2010

Sliding Down Under

Call of the Flesh (1930)
I am continually on the hunt to discover new (to me) geographies and time frames where lantern slides were used to advertise coming attractions.  Most recently I was able to locate a number of Australian slides dating back to 1930. 

Prior to this "discovery," 1942 was the earliest example I had been able to locate.  The full date range I have established for Australian slides now begins with Call of the Flesh (1930) and ends with Poltergeist (1982).  Of course I fully anticipate (and fervently hope) that this range will expand as new examples come to my attention. 

I am especially keen to find examples from the silent era but for now all I've found are "talkies." 

Poltergeist (1982)
Starring Ramon Novarro and Dorthy Jordan, Call of the Flesh was released by MGM in 1930 and though synchronized sound pictures had been around for a couple of years, the slide emphasizes that the film is "an all talking picture."  

While Call of the Flesh is the earliest example I have found, my favorite is The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933).  I love the graphics, I love the color, and Barbara Stanwyck?  Well, no wonder the censor's mark on the slide advises that the film is "Not Suitable for General Exhibition."

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Like their British counterparts, Australian slides measure a 3 ¼ inch square which is usually reflected with a square graphic design.  The graphic designs for the later years seem to universally take on a horizontal orientation, probably to take advantage of modern wide screens, even though the physical slide itself retains the standard dimension.
The Suspect (1942)

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

Of all the Australian slides I have located thus far, only one (Man in the Trunk, 1942) uses the cardboard frame design.  In one respect this only mildly interesting, but the cardboard frame designs often have the advantage that they manufacturers information can also be found printed on the frame.  In the case of all the other Australian slides there are few clues as to where the slides themselves originated.  The only lead thus far can be found with The Suspect (1942), wherein the attribution "Linton slide" is printed directly on the image above the censor's advisory. 

Secret Command (1944)
Man in the Trunk (1942)

Finally, it is interesting to note that all of the slides I have located exclusively promote Hollywood pictures.  Were slides created to promote Australian films?  So far that is a question that remains unanswered - for now.

August 6, 2010

Shelley Stamp: Lois Weber and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"

Please welcome a very special guest contributor to STARTS THURSDAY!   Film scholar, historian, author, and friend: Shelley Stamp.

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1917)

One of the most forceful films ever made in support of legalizing birth control, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle features director and screenwriter Lois Weber playing a doctor’s wife arrested and imprisoned for illegally disseminating family planning information.  It was one of many films on the subject released in 1916 and 1917 just as Margaret Sanger, the era’s most celebrated family planning advocate, stepped up her campaign for “voluntary motherhood.”  Produced even as Sanger’s legal battle unfolded, the films drew explicitly on her headline-generating activism.  In 1916 Weber had written and directed her first film on the topic, Where Are My Children?, a title so popular it was Universal’s top money-maker that year.  The film’s portrayal of a doctor tried for circulating contraceptive advice was  “plainly indicative of the Margaret Sanger case,” according to one critic.  Sanger devised the idea of making her own film while imprisoned on obscenity charges that same year.  In Birth Control, released in 1917, Sanger guides viewers through a series of arguments in favor of legalizing contraception illustrated with incidents from her own storied career.
Detail from slide:  Lois Weber (center) in her last screen role.

If even disseminating contraceptive advice remained a felony during these years, it is no wonder that films like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle encountered significant censorship battles.  When the film opened in New York, just two weeks after Sanger’s Birth Control, that city’s license commissioner attempted to stop the premiere, as he had done with Sanger’s film, on the grounds that a subject which itself remained illegal did not constitute legitimate “theatrical entertainment.”  Universal defended its release in an aggressive publicity campaign waged in the city’s dailies:  newspapers and magazines have carried extensive discussions of the issue, the studio noted, and “the legitimate stage has no difficulty in presenting the topic when it wishes.”  In fact, contraception was being discussed everywhere “except on the screen,” Universal protested.  Why should those who could not afford two-dollar theater tickets be prevented from forming an opinion at 25-cent movie shows?  But the studio’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.  Following its legal troubles in New York, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle played mainly in southern and western states, avoiding powerful censorship boards in the northeast and Midwest.  As a result, it did not attain the record-breaking attendance set by Where Are My Children? the previous year.  When The Hand That Rocks the Cradle opened at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles that June, Weber appeared on stage, bitterly denouncing attempts to alter or suppress her film.
Lois Weber

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is now lost, but the surviving script and accompanying marketing materials make it clear that Weber mounted an unstinting argument in favor of “voluntary motherhood.”   The film’s politics, barely alluded to in this slide’s tag line – “Shall a Mother lose her birth right? – were stated much more boldly in the film’s original title, “Is a Woman a Person?”  Weber’s character, Louise Broome, is intent on circulating family planning information to privileged and impoverished women alike.  But, as one of the film’s heralds explains, police “forbade her to speak to women about the great secret which was an open one to rich women; a closed one to the poor.”  Arrested and imprisoned, Louise refuses to back down from her cause and begins a hunger strike.  After she is pardoned in the end, Louise’s husband finally agrees that physicians ought to provide patients with instructions on family planning.  At the film’s close, newspaper headlines announce that birth control may soon be legal in the state of Illinois, asking viewers “Why do you think?”

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle marked Weber’s last appearance on screen and her final project for Universal where she had made a series of popular features on other social issues like poverty, addiction and capital punishment.  Shortly after completing the film, she formed her own production company, signing such a lucrative distribution deal with her old studio that she became the highest paid director in the business.  Although Weber vowed to abandon the “heavy dinners” she had made at Universal in favor of lighter fare, the films she would write and direct for Lois Weber Productions, including The Blot and Too Wise Wives, contain pointed commentary on marriage, class, domesticity and relations between the sexes.


Shelley Stamp is the author of Movie-Struck Girls:  Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon and numerous essays on women and early film culture.  Her audio commentary can be heard on recent DVD releases of The Blot, Traffic in Souls and Where Are My Children?  She is Professor Film & Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

August 4, 2010

Attractions Across the Atlantic

She's Working Her Way Through College (1952)
Here is a look at ten different slides from England spanning the years 1948-56.  While this sample size is too small to draw generalized conclusions, having a look at this eight-year time span does allow some space for free range theorizing - a temptation which I find irresistible.

The ten slides in this mini-collection include:

* Lulu Belle (1948)
* The Man from Colorado (1948)
* South of St. Louis (1949)
* King Solomon's Mines (1950)
* The Miniver Story (1950)
* Right Cross (1950)
* Fort Worth (1951)
* Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951)
* She's Working Her Way Through College (1952)
* The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)

The films are all American features, predominantly romances, musicals, and westerns.  Ronald Reagan even makes an appearance in She's Working Her Way Through College (1952).  That's him at the left getting smooched by a couple of coeds.  The tag line for the film states "This is a story with a lot of twists!" Yes indeed, more than they could have possibly imagined.

One of the collection's most obvious aspects is revealed by way of the slide for The Eddie Duchin Story, a film released in 1956.  This is the most recent date I've found for a British slide and comes four years later than the latest slide I've found in the United States (Retreat, Hell!, 1952).  Were slides used in the UK later than this date?  Probably so, but so far I have yet to find an example.
1948 Columbia features The Man from Colorado and Lulu Belle
All of the slides are physically constructed using the double-pane design (no cardboard frame) and lack any sort of information printed in the margins.  The fabrication materials are identical for all ten slides, which leads me to the conclusion that all ten were manufactured by the same company.  Of course the slides all adhere to the UK standard 3 ¼ inch square dimensions, compared to the American standard 3 ¼ x 4 inch rectangle.

King Solomon's Mines (1950)

Because the physical slide is square it just as easily accommodates a vertically oriented graphic design, while American slides must consistently adhere to a horizontal orientation.

Another stylistic difference from American slides is that the British slides lack the blank space below the image which was used by exhibitors to manually handwrite the screening dates.  Instead, the British slides all feature a choice of four different scheduling messages printed near the corners of every slide:  "Coming Shortly," "Next Week," "Monday Next," and "Thursday Next."  Before projecting the slide, the projectionist would black-out three of the four options, leaving only one which would be visible when the slide was projected.  Aside from the tidiness of this approach, it seems clear that Monday and Thursday were the standard days for program changes during this period.

1950 MGM features The Miniver Story and Right Cross
In America the late 1940s and early 1950s was the period in which coming attraction slides gradually faded into oblivion.  Over this same time frame the design of these UK slides evolved as well.  The earliest slides in this group, 1948-50 were quite clearly represent designs specifically tailored for the lantern slide medium.  The graphics feature a single image against a neutral background and the text is large and bold.
1951 features Fort Worth and Painting the Clouds with Sunshine
One other thing I note in the 1948-50 slides is the overall consistency of typeface, design, and color.  The two 1948 slides are feature pictures from Columbia and display identical graphic designs.  Likewise, the same is true with the two slides for the 1950 MGM films.  Were these designs specific to the studios or just a case of styles changing over time?  ...or is it just coincidence?  With a sample size this small it is impossible to say.

South of St. Louis (1949)
1951 it appears to be the beginning of general shift in design strategy.  From this point forward the slides become significantly more poster-like.  The orientation of the image rectangle changes from horizontal to vertical (like a poster) and the graphic design appears to simply replicate what might be the one-sheet poster.  The graphics also become significantly more complicated, with multiple and multi-sized images and the typeface sizes ranging from large block letters to exceptionally fine print. 

There is obviously more work to be done in this area, but from this meager evidence it appears that 1951 was the year that the creation of individual designs for lantern slides gave way to simply reproducing the poster onto glass.

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
Interestingly, the design for the most recent slide, The Eddie Duchin Story (1956) appears  to return to the traditional slide design (horizontal orientation, single graphic image, etc.)  Or does it?  Taking a close look, it appears that this slide was created by cutting up a poster, rearranging the elements, and then photographing the result.  Judging from the cut-out outlines around each text block, it seems obvious that little effort was made to conceal the seams in the patchwork design.  If only they'd had PhotoShop back then...

August 3, 2010

Thomas Gladysz: Louise Brooks and "The American Venus"

It gives me great pleasure to introduce special guest contributor: Thomas Gladysz!  Thomas is an arts journalist, author, founder of the Louise Brooks Society, and great friend of STARTS THURSDAY!

The American Venus (1926)
The coming attraction slide for “The American Venus” heralded the arrival of a major new release in early 1926. The film, from Paramount (then known as Famous Players Lasky), was a romantic comedy set at a beauty pageant. Typical for its time, the film featured plenty of pretty girls in bathing suits - and even less, as certain groups in the American Midwest were to complain.

The film was billed as a “novel and magnificent beauty-comedy special.” What made it special was not only its all-star cast, but also the fact that some scenes were filmed in Technicolor. “The American Venus” was one of the earlier films to feature the then new color process.

Parts of “The American Venus” were shot at the 1925 Miss America contest in Atlantic City, New Jersey - where Oakland, California resident Fay Lanphier was crowned that year’s Miss America. It’s her image depicted on the coming attraction slide.

Exhibitor's manual for The American Venus
As the winner of the beauty contest, Lanphier was given a movie contract and starring role in “The American Venus.” The film was directed by reliable Frank Tuttle, and was based on a story by Townsend Martin (a Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald). And, according to the New Yorker and other publications, humorist Robert Benchley wrote the inter-titles.

The cast includes lovely Esther Ralston (nicknamed the “American Venus”), San Francisco-born leading man Lawrence Gray, comedian Ford Sterling, and up-and-comer Louise Brooks in her second film. Renowned artist W.T. Benda, character actor Ernest Torrence, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also have supporting roles.

In the 1920’s, national beauty contests were a recent phenomenon. And in this age of ballywho, considerable press coverage was given over to just about every facet of the contest. That’s why Lanphier – then enjoying the peak of her celebrity – was featured on the glass slide. This was the nation’s chance to see moving pictures of the current Miss America!

Promotions price list for The American Venus
As with other films, the coming attraction slide was only one aspect of the studio’s overall promotional campaign. On this rough photocopy of the Paramount press book for “The American Venus,” the “announcement slide” (lower left corner) is shown along with window and lobby cards.  Such materials were made available through the studios and local film exchanges, which supplied exhibitors with an array of promotional materials. The glass announcement slide costs 15 cents, the same price as a one sheet poster.

Fay Lanphier enjoyed considerable fame after winning the 1925 Miss America contest; she wrote articles, judged local beauty contests, and made personal appearances around the country – many in conjunction with the screening of “The American Venus.” However, her movie career never developed. Lanphier appeared in only one other film, a Laurel and Hardy short entitled “Flying Elephants” (1928). Later, the honey-blond beauty worked as a stenographer in Hollywood.

Today, “The American Venus” is considered a lost film. All that remains are its ephemeral material culture – like glass slides, lobby cards, movie heralds, and a couple of trailers uncovered in Australia in the late 1990’s.

Trailer for The American Venus


Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and author. Recently, he wrote the introduction to the new “Louise Brooks edition” of Margarete Böhme's classic novel, The Diary of a Lost Girl (PandorasBox Press). He writes and blogs about early film from his book and DVD filled apartment in San Francisco. Gladysz loves reading and writing and old movies. More at

August 2, 2010

The Same - But Different

Poster for Robin Hood (1922)
Slide for Robin Hood (1922)
Many slides reflect the design elements and motifs utilized in a film's other promotional material such as posters, handbills, and lobby cards.  This is especially the case with studio produced slides, though handmade slides created by exhibitors often duplicate visual elements from studio advertising as well.

Poster for The Goat (1921)
Slide for The Goat (1921)

Here are a handful of examples where the correlation between the poster and slide is obvious.  These slides are not exact duplicates of the posters, but the imagery has clearly been adapted from the poster into the lantern slide medium.  Looking closely, there are often subtle differences.  For example, it's clear that the poster and slide backgrounds for Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932) are different, but spotting the differences between the slide and poster for The Goat (1921) requires closer examination (hint:  look at Buster's necktie.) 

Poster for Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932)
Slide for Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932)
Aside from comparing the visual elements, The Goat slide is also interesting because it correctly credits Mal St. Clair as the co-director (with Buster Keaton) while the directorial credits on the poster inaccurately attribute Eddie Cline as Keaton's co-director.

One final example comes by way of this page from the exhibitor's manual for Conflict (1945).  This excerpt from the 26-page manual nicely demonstrates the visual consistency between the poster, herald, window cards,lobby cards, and (of course) the lantern slide (15 cents!).
Exhibitor's manual for Conflict (1945)