October 29, 2010

Happy Birthday Baby Peggy!

Advertising Slide for Tips (1923)

This week we wish a glorious HAPPY BIRTHDAY to our good friend Diana Serra Cary!  Diana was born this week in 1918, a mere 92 years ago.  She came to fame (very) early in life as one of the first childhood mega-stars in her character "Baby Peggy."  During the course of her career (beginning at age 19 months!) she appeared in almost 150 comedy shorts for for Century Studios, before moving to Universal Studios 1923 to star in full-length feature films.

The Little Flower Girl (1922)
In recent years Diana has published a number of books recalling not only studio years, but also fascinating inquiries into the phenomenon of the child star.  Her books are not cheesy "as told to" Hollywood tales, but rather they are exceptionally well written and researched, and deserve a place on every film lover's book shelf.  I have personally read them all and you simply can't go wrong.
Diana currently lives is central California and is a wonderful personality and still very vibrant and active.  She is a great friend of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum as well as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and is treasured by everybody that has had the good fortune to meet her.
Diana at the 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival flanked (L to R) by Kevin Brownlow, David Shepherd, and Leonard Maltin
 Happy Birthday Diana!

October 22, 2010

Directors Get Into the Picture

True Heart Susie (1919) starred Lillian Gish - apparently "plain" as well as unnamed.
Of all the great directors of the silent era, none was more visibly exploited in slide advertising than David Wark Griffith.

As early as 1919 it was not uncommon to find his profile prominently featured on slides promoting his films [also see D.W. Griffith Meets the Mystery Woman, Sept. 16, 2010].

Of course major directors were often featured prominently in the advertising materials for their films, but generally their stature was signified exclusively by the size and grandeur of the typeface devoted to their name.

For an example of such typographical bombast, one need look no further than Cecil B. DeMille who's name dwarfed even the title as well as that of any actor or contributing artist.

Cecil B. DeMille's name dwarfs all others on slide for The Ten Commandments (1923)
When it comes to photographs however, D.W. Griffith reigned supreme.

In many cases marketing departments apparently believed that Griffith's noble Roman profile would be more attractive to prospective audiences than the fair likenesses Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, or any other star under his direction.

Perhaps even Griffith himself insisted on being pictured.  Having started his career as a stage actor, and as one who appeared in numerous early films before moving behind the camera, it's not unreasonable to assume that Griffith at least encouraged the incorporation of his image in promotional materials.

Lillian Gish braves the icy river in Way Down East (1920) but Griffith dominates the image.
In the category of directors appearing in advertising slides, the only situation in which Griffith is eclipsed is where the director is also the star of the film.

Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim are both prominent in this regard, with Chaplin clearly leading supreme.

Chaplin directed and starred in The Pilgrim (1923)
Erich von Stroheim in Fugitive Road (1934)
Chaplin began directing his own films in 1914 and may not actually appear on any slides in which is is not the director (I have yet to find a slide featuring Chaplin from his Keystone years).

Stroheim, on the other hand, can be found in promotional materials from his years as a combined actor/director as well as in productions in he worked exclusively as a performer.  In all cases such as these, Chaplin and Stroheim consistently appear on the slides in costumer, make-up, and character for their acting role, not as an advertisement for their directorial role.  Promotional departments knew quite well that people went to the cinema to see Chaplin on the screen - not to admire directorial acumen.
Drums of Love (1928)
Barring the exception of special cases of actors/directors, it appears certain that no director was pictured more often in coming attraction slides than D.W. Griffith.  However Griffith was not the last director whose visage came to be identified with his productions.  Fast-forwarding to more modern times, Alfred Hitchcock exceeded even Griffith in using his iconic profile as a branding trademark for his productions.

October 18, 2010

Slides on TV? Don't Touch That Dial!

Excerpt from exhibitor guide for Battle Circus (1953)

The use of lantern slides to advertise coming attractions in the United States faded out in the 1950s, but the medium had not quite gasped its last breath.  Just as the rise of television brought motion pictures into the family living room, coming attraction slides came along for the ride.  These static images were used to advertise upcoming films and programs during broadcast station breaks in very much the same way that slides were used within the cinema to display advertising between films, and in the early days, between reels.

Over the past week I have surveyed the collection of Exhibitors Manuals (also known as "Promotion Manuals"  or "Showman's Guides") at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA).  These manuals were (and are) created by film distributors and provided to theatre operators to assist them in building promotional campaigns.  One particularly useful aspect of these guides is that each contains photos and detailed listings for the publicity material that was created for any given title, such as:  posters, lobby cards, photo stills, banners, handbills, advertising copy, and (of course) slides.  This information not only indicates whether slides were created for a specific film, the data can also be aggregated to provide insight into broader promotional strategies.

Excerpt from exhibitor guide for Take Her, She's Mine (1963)
One surprising byproduct of my recent survey has been the discovery of "Telops" slides, which were essentially the television based replacement for in-cinema slides.

These slides were broadcast on-air to promote currently playing motion pictures and generally featured an announcer's voice-over while the static image occupied the screen.  These spots typically lasted 10 or 20 seconds and often included the broadcaster's station identification announcement.  In fact, the slides were often offered with or without the option of having the broadcaster's identification included on the slide.

The earliest instance of a Telop slide in the PFA's collection of over 800 exhibitor guides is Goldwyn's 1952 production of Hans Christian Andersen, and the latest instance is (of all things) 20th Century Fox's 1965 teenage romp, Wild on the Beach.  I have found no further instances of Telop slides within the PFA collection later than 1965.

As the graph below indicates, the appearance and timing of these Telops slides coincides almost exactly with the demise of in-cinema slides.  In cinematic terms, slide use in the mid-1950's essentially did a cross-fade from cinema audiences to the television audience.  Within their collection, the PFA has 348 exhibitor manuals from the years 1950-1967.  While admittedly this is not a true random sample of American cinema during this period, calculating a percentage of films which included a cinema slide as a promotional item versus those that utilized a Telop slide, clearly indicates the change-over that occurred during that time frame.

Sample of 348 Exhibitor Manuals from PFA collection 1950-1967.  Percentage of manuals offering Telop slides versus those offering traditional in-cinema slides. 
One aspect of this transition is that slides no longer held the privileged position of being exclusively displayed to cinema audiences.  Instead, slide promotion left the cinematic venue and entered the home.  With that transition, slides no longer spoke to cinema audiences, but to prospective audiences.  Telops slides were to indicate what was "now showing" at a cinema, rather what would be coming in the future to the venue in which they were already seated.  In this respect Telops slides came to function not unlike newspaper advertising, displaying their promotional message at large in hopes of attracting an audience to the theatre.

Excerpt from exhibitor guide for Jailhouse Rock (1957)
One last observation on the Telops slides is that even within my relatively small sample set, it is obvious that Telops slides were created only by the larger studios and only for their higher budget productions.  This stands to reason given the cost considerations of television advertising.  While the only cost for in-cinema slide advertising was the 15-25 cents for the physical slide itself, the cost of broadcasting the same image on television would only make sense where a solid return on the investment could be reasonably assured.

Unfortunately I was unable to find video of actual coming attraction Telops broadcast (not surprising actually, I'd be shocked to learn that any were taped and/or that the tapes had survived), but here's a YouTube clip from ABC demonstrating the general idea...

October 14, 2010

The Lost Battalion

The Lost Battalion (USA, 1919)
The "Lost Battalion" is the name given to nine units of the United States 77th Division, roughly 554 men, who became isolated by German forces during World War I after an American attack in the Argonne Forest in October 1918.  The division had quickly advanced into the Argonne under the mistaken belief that their flanks were supported by advancing French and American units.  Instead they advanced beyond the rest of the allied line and found themselves completely cut off and surrounded by German forces.  For six days the division fought off multiple attacks by the Germans.  Of the over five hundred soldiers that entered the Argonne Forest, only 194 were able to walk out unscathed. The rest were killed, missing, captured, or wounded.

The Lost Battalion
In his book Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America, Robert Laplander describes how the story of what became known as the "lost battalion" was in fact the confluence of two separate events, combined and dramatized in a November 16, 1918 article in Collier's Magazine.  More than any other, the Collier's article fired public imagination and rapidly became the accepted version of the action at Charlevaux Ravine.  According to Laplander, the confused story continued to hold public sway despite the publication of contrary accounts accurately conveying the actual sequence of events. 

Though the popular press led the way in mythologizing the story of the Lost Battalion, Laplander credits the 1919 film with permanently muddying the waters of popular understanding:
"Early in 1919, the McManus Film Corporation began shooting a movie in cooperation with the U.S. Army Signal Corps about the Los Battalion, which was ultimately released to the general public in early 1921 as The Lost Battalion.  (It was used extensively before that with veterans groups and was originally released in the fall of 1919.)"
According to Robert Laplander:
"The most fascinating thing about the film is that parts of it were actually shot in France, there in the Pocket where it all happened, and in it several of the men that had been in both entrapments played themselves [...] The story line to the film was itself a combination of the two entrapments, and this served to further cement the incorrect story in the public mind and build upon the legend and myths already beginning to spring up around the episode, as the flick was very well received by the public.  (Most Lost Battalion men themselves however dismissed the film as "ridiculous" which, in large part, it is.)"

Regardless of its historical veracity (or lack thereof) the film was popularly received and its account of the events accepted as factual.  This may have been due in no small part to the fact that many of the lead parts in "re-enactment" are played by men who survived the action:
Intertitle from The Lost Battalion
  • Robert Alexander ... Himself (as Major General Robert Alexander) 
  • George G. McMurtry ... Himself (as Major George G. McMurtry) 
  • Charles W. Whittlesey ... Himself (as Lt. Col. Charles W. Whittlesey) 
  • William J. Cullen ... Himself (as Captain William J. Cullen)
  • Arthur F. McKeogh ... Himself - Adjutant to Col. Whittlesey (as Lt. Arthur F. McKeogh) 
  • Augustus Kaiser ... Himself (as Lt. Augustus Kaiser) 
  • Jack Hershkowitz ... Himself (as Private Jack Hershkowitz) 
  • Philip Cepaglia ... Himself (as Corporal Philip Cepaglia) 
  • Herman J. Bergasse ... Himself (as Sergeant Herman J. Bergasse) 
  • J.J. Munson ... Himself (as Private J.J. Munson)

October 12, 2010

Censored in Chicago - For Women Only

The Unborn (USA, 1916)
This dramatic slide advertises The Unborn, a controversial 1916 film featuring an abortion doctor as a central character.  The director (who obviously felt the need for anonymity) is listed in the credits as "Otis B. Fair," an obvious pseudonym. 

In his book, American Film Cycles:  The Silent Era, Larry Langman describes the plot:
"A young man from the city takes advantage of a young woman from the country [...]  He abandons her and marries a member of his own group while she, now carrying his child, leaves home to work in a New York Factory.  The man, now happily married, does not know he has a son.  The girl he wronged dies, leaving their son to fend for himself as a newsboy.  The man, yearning for a child, meets the boy and adopts him, not knowing the alleged orphan is his own son.  The father accidentally discovers the truth about the boy's identity.  "You are my son," he says to the boy.  "So you are the man who wrecked my mother's life," the youth replies.  He leaves home and returns to selling newspapers.  Awkwardly interspersed into the film are scenes of a doctor who performs illegal abortions.  When the police finally track him down, [and while attempting escape] the doctor shoots wildly.  The boy, noticing that his father happens to be in the path of the bullets, runs forward crying, "Daddy!"  The youth, fatally wounded, forgives his father and dies."
Just to be clear:  The woman dies, the boy is shot and killed, the doctor (presumably) goes to jail, and the "man" is forgiven and goes on with his life.

According to modern reviewer Janiss Garza, the film may have been an attempt to repeat the success of Lois Weber's anti-abortion Where Are My Children? which had been released earlier that same year.

It is unclear how successful the film was at the box office, though Variety reported that it did booming business at the Band Box Theater in Chicago which had instituted a "women only" policy to placate local censors who deemed the film too sensational for a mixed male-female audience.  According to Variety, the venue "hit a [box office] gusher when it decided to bar the men, for the house has been packed every performance since it opened."

The Last Raid of the Zeppelin L-21

The Last Raid of the Zeppelin L-21 (USA, 1918)

New York Times, Sept. 24, 1916
This striking slide from the Commercial Slide & Film Service advertises the 1918 two-reel documentary The Last Raid of the Zeppelin L-21

The History
During WWI the German Navy airship L-21 is credited with carrying out a number of bombing raids and reconnaissance missions over England.  On the September 16, 1916 it participated in the largest airship raid of the war consisting of 16 German zeppelins during which the airship SL-11 was shot down, the first airship to be downed over the British mainland.

Soon thereafter the L-21 met its own fate.  Following a bombing raid on November 27, 1916  it was was intercepted over the North Sea by three Royal Navy Air Service planes and shot down in flames.

For further reading, Tom Morgan offers a vivid accounting in his article:  The Great Zeppelin Raid.

Michigan Film Review, August 16, 1918

The Film and Its Promotion
Though the slide promises the film to be "stupendous, thrilling, realistic" it does not necessarily promise journalistic authenticity.  According to modern reviewer Hal Erickson, "most of the footage was cribbed from earlier newsreels, with a handful of studio re-creations."   Erickson continues, "The film at least offered some close-ups of Flight Lieutenant W.L. Robinson, the man responsible for blasting Zeppelin L-21 out of the skies. For its American release, the film included a prologue featuring Secretary of War Newton Baker."

The film is reputed to have been popularly received at the time of it's release, with the Michigan Film Review of August 16, 1918 reporting a month of solid bookings for the "documentary."