February 22, 2011

Chaplin at (and after) Keystone

W.H. Productions slide for The Roustabout (1918), originally released by Keystone as The Property Man (August 1, 1914)
Charles Chaplin began his film career at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in 1914, debuting in Making a Living (February 2, 1914).  He appeared in 36 films during his year at Keystone before defecting to the Essanay Film Company in early 1915.  With the exception of the six-reel Tillie's Punctured Romance (December 21, 1914) Chaplin's Keystone output consisted primarily of short one-reel comedies (25), with a handful of two-reelers (7) and short split-reel shorts (3) as well.
W.H. Productions slide for Oh! What a Night (1918), originally released by Keystone as The Rounders (September 7, 1914)
Since the practice of using lantern slides to advertise motion pictures began in the US in 1912 (according to the earliest evidence I have found), it seems reasonable to ask whether Keystone used slide advertising to capitalize on the skyrocketing popularity of their new star.  Based on all evidence I have found to date, the answer appears to be "no."  I base this conclusion first on the fact I have never seen an example of an original Chaplin Keystone slide, but more empirically on all available evidence that Keystone didn't begin using slide advertising until late 1915.  The earliest Keystone slides I have discovered thus far advertise comedies released in November and December 1915 - seven months after Chaplin's departure for greener pastures.
Slide for Tower Film re-issue of Tillie's Puntured Romance, originally released by Keystone December 21, 1914
It is well known that prints of Chaplin's early comedies continued to circulate for decades after his departure from Keystone.  Battered bootleg prints continually found their way to the screen, but legitimate re-issued copies also circulated.  The four Chaplin "Keystone" slides featured today are the product of one of these legitimate re-issuing distributors.  The slides feature a 1918 re-issue of Tillie's Punctured Romance as well as three retitled Chapin Keystone shorts which were possibly (probably?) pawned off on the public as "new" Chaplin releases.
W.H. Productions slide for The Jazz Waiter (1918), originally released by Keystone as Caught in a Cabaret (April 27, 1914)
Ted Okdua and David Maska's fascinating volume Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp provides interesting insight into the background of these 1918 re-issues:
"The Mutual Film Corporation, through an arrangement with the New York Motion Picture Company, originally distributed most of the early Keystone Comedies. [...] In 1915, the New York Motion Picture Company was sold to the Triangle Film Corporation, formed by D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett.  Sennett continued to produce films, which were now released as Triangle-Keystone Comedies.  Sennett left Triangle in 1917, and prior to the company's collapse the following year, Harry Aitken, one of its founders, reissued a number of Keystone films, including several Chaplins.

Several film production companies were shut down during the influenza epidemic of 1918, resulting in a shortage of marketable product, especially where comedies were concerned.  Seizing the opportunity, newly-formed "states' rights" companies [...] began issuing re-edited versions of Keystone comedies.  Two such outfits were Tower Film Corporation and Jans Producing Corporation.

Also in 1918, W.H. ("Wonderful Hits") Productions, another states' rights distributor, re-edited 750 Keystone comedies and reissued them under new titles, including several Chaplin shorts.  It wasn't widely known at the time that Harry Aitken and his brother Roy owned both W.H. Productions and Tower Film Corporation.  Rival distributors complained to the Federal Trade Commission that these old movies were being passed off as new product, so W.H. Productions agreed to call attention to the fact that they were re-releases.  Hence, the title credits for W.H. reissues would read "Charlie Chaplin in The Good-for-Noting, Former Title His New Profession" and so forth.  The opening titles for W.H. reissues also carried 1918 copyright notices, although many of the films had never been copyrighted to begin with.  This was just a ruse on the part of W.H. to deter other distributors from bootlegging its own releases."
 Ironically, the fact of these re-issues are one reason why the Chaplin's Keystones still exist today.  According to Okdua and Mazaka, "Many Keystone comedies survive today thanks to W.H. Productions.  Unlike the the products of major studios which were rented to movie theaters and then returned to the studio's vaults, the films of W.H. productions were sold outright to regional distributors for $80 a reel.  Thus the W.H. Keystones "escaped" from the owner's control and passed from hand to hand as time went on."

It seems apparent that slide advertisements were never produced for the Chaplin's original Keystone output, but just as the re-issuers may inadvertently saved the Keystone films, so too are they to thank for leaving behind these 3x4" glass remnants of their promotion.

February 18, 2011

For the Love Film Blogathon: Louise Platt, Forgotten No Longer

Slide for Forgotten Girls (1940) starring Louise Platt
The 2011 For the Love of Film (Noir): Film Preservation Blogathon continues today with Forgotten Girls (1940).  This proto-noir featured Louise Pratt as Judy Wingate, a young lady sentenced to prison for a murder she didn't commit (actually she started the job with a frying pan, but somebody else finished him off).  Fortunately her stepmother's underworld friends spring Judy from her cell through a scheme involving a dynamited corpse.  Though Judy's flight to freedom might seem to be a step in the right direction, as you might expect, complications inevitably arise...

Louise Platt (center) in Stagecoach (1939)
Louse Platt made only a handful of films during her career but there is considerable range among these limited offerings.

She played Lucy Mallory in John Ford's epic Stagecoach (1939), appeared in a handful of late-1930s and early-1940s noirish dramas including Street of Chance (1942), and is remembered by classic soap opera fans from her role as Ruth Jennings Holden in The Guiding Light (1958-59).

When Loise Pratt passed away in 2003 she was the last surviving cast member from Stagecoach.

Louise Platt
Donate Here
Though Loise has left us for the great sound stage in the sky, I feel confident that she would join me in encouraging you to consider donating to this years Film Preservation Blogathon.

The funds collected in this year's campaign go directly to support preservation of film noir classic The Sound of Fury (1950), an intense drama long overdue for preservation and return to the big screen.

Now quit yer stalling.  Click the link and toss your pocket change in the kitty.

Louise will love you for it.

February 17, 2011

For the Love of Noir: The Film Preservation Blogathon

Slide for Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944)
Today's featured slide comes to you in support of the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.  Last year the one-week blogathon successfully raised $30,000 in donations and matching contributions and saved two important short films from the 1910s.  This year the blogaton leaves the silent era and heads for the dark side, raising much needed cash for the restoration of Cy Endfield's 1950 noir classic, The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me).

Donate Here

Film preservation?  What's that?  Don't you just digitize everything?

Our motion picture heritage is rapidly diminishing.  Film titles are lost - forever - every day.  Less than 20% of the titles from the silent era survive, even in fragmentary form, and perhaps more astonishingly, only half of all films created before 1950 still exist.  There are myriad reasons which have contributed to this situation, with short sightedness, indifference and neglect topping the list.

Contrary to popular belief, digitization is not the answer.  Some believe that digital copies may be a reasonable alternative to film for exhibition purposes, but there is wide consensus that digital is not a preservation medium.

For long term survival, film must be preserved on film.  Even today's newest digital productions are ultimately printed back to film in order to ensure long term preservation.  35mm film is a worldwide universal standard, it is human readable, fault tolerant, degrades slowly, and when stored under proper conditions can survive over 500 years.  On the other hand, digital media degrades in often less than ten years, becomes obsolete even faster, can only be understood by devices with their own obsolesce cycle, and requires constant migration to accommodate new media and software standards in order to survive.

Lloyd Bridges in The Sound of Fury (1950)
Donate Here

Which brings us back to the Blogathon and this year's mission to save The Sound of Fury.  The film recalls the same plot of Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) [thus providing the tie-in to today's featured slide] and is based on the 1933 kidnapping and murder of Brooke Hart and the subsequent lynching of the two kidnapping suspects by vigilantes.  Directed by Cy Endfield (later blacklisted) and starring Lloyd Bridges as one of the crazed killers, this powerful film cries for a return to the big screen.

Your donation can help make this a reality.  This is a grassroots movement - no amount is too small (though larger amounts are certainly not discouraged).  Consider what you paid the last time you went to a movie, that might be the perfect amount to pitch in to save this important title for yourself, if not for future generations.  ...and once the work is done and you see The Sound of Fury back on the screen you'll be well justified in cheering extra-loud when you see the Blogathon in the preservation credits.

Here's that donation link again:  Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. 

C'mon!  You know you want to.

February 14, 2011

Oh... So That's What That Stuff Is

WWI Propaganda slide manufactured using isinglass transparency
Last December I posted an article on the topic of WWI propaganda slides.  The article described the slide content and the context of their exhibition, and also noted the unique means of their manufacture. 

Some of the slides were constructed using prevailing double-pane class design, but others were created by either stencil-cutting text into metal sheets or by printing directly on to a transparent material which I mistakenly identified as cellophane.

After having a look at the article (which incidentally featured slides from their collection) my friends at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum suggested that it was isinglass, not cellophane, which was used as the transparent material in the cheap government slides. 

Isinglass?  What the heck is that?
Modern isinglass product

As it turns out, there are two different substances that go by the name isinglass.  The first is a form of collagen created from dried fish bladders which today is used primarily for clarifying wine and beer.  Yes my Irish friends, the Guinness you're drinking may contain traces of fish bladder. 
My $6.69 isinglass sample
But even though your favorite beverage may be fishier than you thought, our lantern slides decidedly are not.  That's because these slides were fabricated using a substance created from thin transparent sheets of mica that also happens to be called isinglass. 

In the "olden days" isinglass (mica) was used in place of glass in certain circumstances.  For example, Model T cars were equipped with canvas curtains featuring isinglass peep holes.  Even today isinglass is often used instead of glass to cover peep holes in boilers and wood burning stoves because it less likely to shatter when exposed to extreme temperatures.

As part of my in-depth scientific inquiry, I recently purchased an isinglass stove window ($6.69 on eBay) to test and compare to the WWI slides in the Niles collection.  Eureka!  It's the same stuff.  It is lightweight with a color that is just slightly yellowish, and it behaves very much like plastic.  I was able to easily staple through my sample with a standard office stapler, cut it with scissors, and write on it with a ball point pen.  The only thing different about it is that it won't burn - a very useful property for a material that would have been subjected to the heat of carbon arc projection lanterns.
"...The wheels are yeller, the upholstery's brown
The dashboard's genuine leather
With isinglass curtains y' can roll right down
In case there's a change in the weather
Two bright sidelight's winkin' and blinkin'
Ain't no finer rig I'm a-thinkin'..."
-- The Surrey With The Fringe On Top from the Rodgers And Hammerstein musical OKLAHOMA!

February 7, 2011

La Boheme: "Virtually Flawless"

Coming attraction slide for La Boheme (1926)
This coming attraction slide for MGM's 1926 La Boheme presents a constellation of stars, unsubtly promoting the picture's all-star cast.  Though the starry motif was probably cliché even by 1926 standards, the designer's intent of calling attention to the production's high-wattage star power is certainly understandable.

The driving force behind La Boheme was Lillian Gish.  Empowered by a contract providing her with significant creative control, she was highly influential in putting the film together.  Her ideas for casting the film were clearly influenced by an early pre-release peek at two reels from The Big Parade (1925), after which she requested that King Vidor assume the directorial duties for La Boheme.  In addition to snagging The Big Parade's directors, Gish also scooped up the film's leads John Gibert and Renée Adorée, as well as supporting actors Roy D'Arcy and Karl Dane.

MGM's investment in star power paid off handsomely for the studio.  The film was not only critically acclaimed, with The New York Times calling it "a production that is virtually flawless," it was also one of their highest grossing releases of the year.

Bay Area audiences will have the opportunity to judge for themselves this Saturday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event at the Castro Theatre.  Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer, La Boheme plays as the showcase evening performance of this sixth annual mini-festival.