Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Century of Cinema

Here's a book you don't see every day. It's A Century of Cinema In Sacramento 1900 - 2000, by Andrew Flink. The copy pictured here is the revised (and expanded?) edition of the author's earlier self-published book. This edition was also self-published, apparently within the last few years. We recently came across a copy of this hard-to-find title at a book show & sale in Sacramento. [Thanx to silent film collector and dealer Tom Tolley who pointed it out.]

The back of the book reads: "Andrew Flink, author of A Century of Cinema In Sacramento ~ 1900 to 2000, has compiled a history of theaters in the River City from a native Sacramentan's point of view. He has shown the rise and fall of the earlier theaters and the evolution of technology that brought movies to what they are today. He covered, also, the outward movement from the earlier show houses in the city, to theater locations in outlying areas of Sacramento County.

From the Sacramento waterfront, location of the Eagle Theater built for the miners in 1849, to the innovative IMAX in 1999, there has been consistent outreach keeping pace with Sacramento's growth. Because of this cinema has become an entertainment staple that shows no signs of going away."

Fink's book is chock full of interesting information and images.There are dozens of pictures of local theater marque's, lobbies, interiors, and stages, as well as advertisements for locally shown films. (Many of the images come from the the Sacramento Room in the City's Central Library, from the State Library, Sacramento Bee archives, and from the collection of Bay Area collector and author Jack Tillmany.) The book is composed of a decade-by-decade look at Sacramento's cinema history, as well as a location list of local theaters.

In the chapter on the Twenties, Flink devotes a number of pages to the glorious Alhambra Theater. There are a handful of images of the building's attractive Spanish-Moorish exterior and interior, certainly one of the finest in Northern California. The building debuted to much acclaim. At its opening in 1927, the first film screened was the Cecil B. DeMille produced The Fighting Eagle, with Rod LaRoaque and Phyllis Haver. At the opening, there was also a "Revue of DeMille Stars," which featured in-person appearances by Marie Prevost, Vera Reynolds, Elinor Fair, Sally Rand, Julia Faye, Harrison Ford and others.

A Century of Cinema In Sacramento 1900 - 2000 joins a small shelf of other worthwhile books on local film and theater history, including Geoffrey Bell's groundbreaking The Golden Gate and the Silver Screen (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), Gary Lee Parks' Theatres of San Jose (Arcadia), and Jack Tillmany's Theatres of San Francisco (Arcadia) and Theaters of Oakland (Arcadia). All together, they help tell the story of our local history of film.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Keeping it local

A few weeks ago, we blogged about locally made films and their local exhibition in local communities across Northern California. Many of these films were "sponsored films," motion pictures commissioned by businesses, organizations, advocacy groups, charities, or state or local governments. Most of them were meant to promote something local.

We recently came across yet another newspaper advertisement promoting these sort of films. This one, for the National Theatre, comes from Marysville, California. This small town is located near Yuba City, which is north of Sacramento. Each town had one or two theaters at various times during the silent film era. As a matter of fact, Marysville and Yuba City are so close that the local newspapers for each town carried advertisements for the local theaters in the other.

This advertisement notes that local motion pictures would be shown throughout the week - as the ad proclaims, "Come to the National and see these excellent pictures of local scenes and local people." One of the films being shown depicts the opening of the local Natatorium - or indoor swimming pool.

The always valuable Cinematreasures.org website has a page on the National - which in turn contains historical bits and links to a couple of images. There is even a website devoted to postcard images of Natatoria from around the world - and it contains a small image of the Marysville Natatorium. As can be drawn out of this advertisement, local newspaper ads can be a great source of information on local history - which in turn is part of the larger history of film.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Weekend update #3

Here are some brief bits of news - offered on a regular basis - from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the world of silent film:

1) Variety reports that Technicolor has donated its archive, one of the most important collections relating to color in film, to the George Eastman House. The gift is reportedly worth millions. According to Variety, "The Technicolor gift, which has been moved to a new Eastman House facility in Rochester, N.Y., includes rare cameras, documents and drawings, photographs, printers and processing machines, as well as corporate records going back to 1915." Of course, a handful of silent films are known for their early use of Technicolor, such as The Black Pirate (1926), which was shot entirely in two-strip technicolor - and The American Venus (1926), which featured Technicolor sequences.

2) A follow-up to the recent posts about online silent film magazines. Previously, we have covered some of the American, Brazilian and Spanish magazines which have been digitized and placed on the internet. There are also French, Italian, and English periodicals online, as well a few from other countries.An excellent guide to finding and accessing those titles can be found on the always excellent Bioscope blog at http://bioscopic.wordpress.com/2010/02/28/silent-film-journals-online/

3) The curiously named Eskimo Spit Bath Orchestra website is host to a fantastic collection of "fan photos" - those once ubiquitous and once inexpensive 5 x 7 photographs with printed or stamped signatures and inscriptions. (Few were actually signed by the stars.) As a matter of fact, there are so many - more than 380 - that the images have been divided into two pages, Cinema Stars 1924-30 A-L and Cinema Stars 1924-30 M-W. Here are a couple that caught our eye. Virginia Valli is on the left. Harry Langdon is on the right.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Silent Mystery and Detective Movies

The McFarland publishing company recently issued Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography, by Ken Wlaschin. This illustrated, 285 page encyclopedic guide to silent films with mystery and detective content lists and describes more than 1,500 titles in one of the movie world's most popular and enduring genres. While most of the films examined in the book are from North America, other films from around the world are also included.

Also included are a few titles shown in past years at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, such as A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) - shown in 2007, The Cat and the Canary (1927) - shown in 2009, and even Sherlock Jr. (1924) - shown in 2009.

Ken Wlaschin is a resident of Palm Springs, California and the author of a couple of other recommended books on film including the Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen (Yale, 2004) and The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896–1929 (McFarland, 2009). He is also the former director of creative affairs at the American Film Institute, and headed the Institute’s National Film Theater and founded its Los Angeles film festival. Wlaschin previously directed the British Film Institute’s National Film Theater and London film festival for 14 years.

Silent Mystery and Detective Movies is available on-line or through better independent bookstores. And if all goes according to plan, copies should be available at the book table at this summer's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. [More on this new book at examiner.com.]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More vintage film magazines online: Spain

Yesterday, we wrote about a couple of vintage Brazilian film periodicals which can be found online.Today, we look to Europe and and in particular Spain.

The Biblioteca Nacional de España (the National Library of Spain) has a handful of digitized film titles on its website which date from the silent film era. They are part of an even larger collection of general interest Spanish magazines and newspapers. Most of the titles come from Madrid, while others originate in Barcelona, Seville, Cadiz, Valencia and Granada.

Did we also see one or two titles from Cuba, Argentina or Mexico? It's hard to say, as there are literally hundreds available!

We mention these general interest publications because they also contain material about the movies. There are articles, reviews, gossip, pictures and more. And, happily, individuals can search this huge database by keyword.  And yes, there is an English-language interface.

Keyword searches can be conducted from this page. For example, you can look up your favorite film star or director. Movie titles, of course, were often but not always translated into Spanish or given a suitable Spanish-language equivalent. And sometimes, so were the names of certain film stars. For example, Rudolph Valentino was known as Rodolpho Valentino, and Louise Brooks became Luisa Brooks. (See the scan of La Vanguardia below.)

Curiously, one of the best titles we came across was one with an English-language title,  Popular Film. Happy hunting.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More vintage film magazines online: Brazil

Last week, we wrote about some of the vintage American film periodicals which can be found online. Among them are old trade and fan magazines like Photoplay, Motion Picture ClassicMoving Picture World, and The Reel Journal (the predecessor to Boxoffice). 

[We forgot to mention then that the Internet Archive also has a long run of the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, dating from 1930-1954, along with a synopses of papers published 1916-1930.]

Of course, American film periodicals are not the only ones which can be found online. Magazines from other countries are being added on a slow but steady basis. For example, if one knows where to look online, the industrious researcher can also find English, Swedish, Austrian, French, Italian, and Spanish magazines from the silent film era. 

Today, we highlight two vintage magazines from Brazil.

Each of these Brazilian magazines is part of the Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetaculo. The site has digitized runs of A Scena Muda (1921-1955) and Cinearte (1926-1942). While it’s certainly helpful to know Portuguese, without a knowledge of the language one can still glean information from the reviews, articles, photographs, and advertisements contained within. And then their are the covers,  which often feature American stars like Leatrice Joy,  Rudolph Valentino, Dolores Del Rio and Clara Bow. These covers are a visual feast in themselves.

The site is relatively easy to navigate. Under "Revistas," there is a drop down menu for each of the Brazilian titles. Choose one, and you will be presented with secondary drop-down menus which enable browsing by year or issue number.

A search by year, for example, will result in a row of thumbnails depicting the front covers of various issues. Click on one. And then use the directional arrow keys to navigate through the periodical. The magazines are in PDF format, and don’t appear to be searchable. However, there is an advanced search option, found under "Pesquisa" on the main page, where one can search across both journals by key word or name.

There is a lot to be found - including a lot of material about various American and European stars and films. And of course, there is a good deal of material about the Brazilian motion picture industry. The table of contents found in each issue is also useful in figuring out what's what.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Anna May Wong


Attention blog readers in Great Britain (we know you are out there): The acclaimed documentary Anna May Wong ~ Frosted Yellow Willows is screening along with Piccadilly (1929) at the Bradford International Film Festival in Bradford, England on Wednesday, March 24. That's this Wednesday! More information on this great double-bill and on the Festival as well can be found at http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/biff/10/film_detail.asp?filmid=8871

Anna May Wong ~Frosted Yellow  Willows: Her Life, Times, and Legend is the story of a the first Asian American international film star - a Chinese American woman who endured hardships and heartaches and achieved a worldwide following.

From humble beginnings in a Chinese laundry in Los Angeles, she went on to star in such films as the first two strip Technicolor picture Toll of the Sea (1922), Douglas Fairbanks' Thief of Bagdad (1924), E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), and Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). Never one to rest on past accomplishments, Anna May Wong utilized her fame to aid her country and the country of her ancestors before and during the second World War (including appearances at rallies here in San Francisco). Wong was also the first Asian American to have her own television show. All together, her body of work establishes her as a true star of the cinema (silent and otherwise) and an inspiration to many who followed.

Anna May Wong ~ Frosted Yellow Willows is directed by Elaine Mae Woo and narrated by Nancy Kwan. Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin are among tthe film historian  featured in the film. The documentary soundtrack is performed by Bay Area musician Jon C. Mirsalis.

Director Elaine Mae Woo has a strong interest not only in Anna May Wong in particular, but also in silent film in general. Woo attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event this past December. She is pictured here at the Castro Theater with your humble narrator.

More about Anna May Wong ~ Frosted Yellow Willows can be found on the director's website at http://www.anna-may-wong.com/  There are clips, links, and additional information about the actress and those involved in the making of this excellent documentary.

Anna May Wong ~ Frosted Yellow Willows premiered at the Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy in 2007 and has been shown on  television on Turner Classic Movies as well as elsewhere in England, Asia and across the United States (including here in San Francisco in September of last year).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Weekend update #2

Here are some brief bits of news - offered on a regular basis - from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the world of silent film:

1) A few days ago, the Los Angles Times ran an article about one man's struggle to make a documentary about his search for the lost sets of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent version). An epic film - the sets were in turn a "colossal Egyptian dreamscape" located along the California Coast. Year's later, in his autobiography, DeMille considered the prospect that his lost city would be unearthed: "If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe . . . . I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization . . . extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America."

More than 30 years ago, film school graduate Peter Brosnan embarked on a journey that has yet to end - a quest to find DeMille's set, exhume it, and produce a documentary about this unusual piece of Hollywood history. Read more here 

2) A follow-up to our March 19th blog about a recently begun project to digitize old American film publications and put them online. As of now, the Internet Archive hosts four years of Photoplay, and one volume each of Motion Picture Classic and Moving Picture World, with more to come. Researchers, film historians, and silent film enthusiasts should also be aware of another website, Issuu, which also hosts vintage film publications. (Issuu is a Flickr-like site for pdf documents - both vintage and contemporary.) When last we checked, Issuu had long runs of both The Reel Journal and Boxoffice on it's site. A keyword search on either title will turn up plenty!

3) Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle is an elaborate and truly amazing miniature "doll house" created by the silent film star in the 1930s. It is full of antiques and priceless one-of-a-kind objects - all in miniature. The Fairy Castle includes murals painted by Walt Disney; chandeliers adorned with real diamonds; the tiniest Bible ever written (dating to 1840); and ancient statues more than 2,000 years old. There are also pieces donated by Rudolph Valentino, and what is reported to be "a sliver of the true cross." The library is full of minature books - most handwritten editions by authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In 1949, Moore donated the Fairy Castle to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where it remains on display. If you should ever find yourself in the Windy City, be sure and check it out. [Picture below of actress Colleen Moore within her Fairy Castle via the Museum of Science and Industry website.]

Friday, March 19, 2010

Vintage film magazines coming to a computer near you

"A goldmine for research" is the way film historian Leonard Maltin described it on his website, Movie Crazy. "Exciting news . . . I'm thrilled and am hopeful" was the response from experienced researcher and Valentino scholar Donna Hill. University of Arizona grad student Amanda Howard heard about it from a professor, "Wow, I've already found things I've never seen before."

What's the buzz all about?

Just the other day, David Pierce put out the word on Nitrateville about a new project  - called the Media History Digital Library - to digitize old trade and fan magazines and put them online. On Nitrateville, Pierce wrote:
I've been working on a project to digitize trade and fan magazines, and the first batch, from the collection of the Pacific Film Archive, is now on-line.
http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=%22media%20history%20digital%20library%22

There are eight volumes (four years) of Photoplay, and one volume each of Motion Picture Classic (1920) and Moving Picture World (April-June 1913). Thanks to Nancy Goldman of the Pacific Film Archive for working with me on this group of materials.

As always with the Internet Archive, you can download high-quality PDFs, embed their viewer on your webpage, and download the original full-quality scans. 


I have grant funding to do much more (it costs about 10c per page) and am working with several other libraries and archives to coordinate scanning of material from their collections. . . . . I hope to do another batch of materials in the next few months.
This is indeed exciting news - and a future boon to film researchers. The brochure for the Media History Digital Library, which outlines this ambitious project, can be found at http://www.mediahistoryproject.org/

The scanned texts found in the Media History Digital Library also offer something even the best library, with bound copies or microfilm of these publicaions, could never provide - the ability to do keyword searches! Here is a sample, just one of the handful of works already on-line.



If you’d like to contribute to the project, or if you have bound volumes of trade journals or periodicals you’d be willing to loan, contact David Pierce at prizma2@gmail.com.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Edison's Frankenstein - "It's Alive!"

Today is a historic day in film history. It was 100 years ago on March 18th that the Edison Manufacturing Company of East Orange, New Jersey released the very first cinematic adaption of Frankenstein. This less than 15 minute work can rightly be considered the first horror movie, though it certainly wasn't thought of in those terms when it was first shown in 1910.

We won't wish "it" a happy birthday, of course - because as everyone knows, both motion pictures and Frankenstein monsters are made, not born. Nevertheless, here it is in all its crude and glorious wonder - the very first Frankenstein.


[Earlier on this blog, we noted the release of a new book which tells the story of this historic film. Edison's Frankenstein, by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr., is available directly from the author, from BearManor, or through amazon.com or better independent bookstores. We recommend purchasing directly from the author. A two-disc version featuring a CD-Rom of the book and DVD of the restored film is also available through TCM. We expect copies of the printed book will be available at the book table on the Castro mezzanine at this summer's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Happy birthday Frankenstein. Oops, we meant to say "It's alive!"]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

History Detectives & the silent cinema

A while back, the PBS series "History Detectives" ran an episode that included a piece on  the pioneering Lubin studio in Philadelphia. It was a fascinating account of the discovery of a century old photo album which documented the beginnings of the American movie industry. That episode can be viewed online on the PBS website devoted to the show. 

LUBIN PHOTOS (Season 7, Episode 4)

"History Detectives" has run other episodes touching on silent film. Each of the episodes listed below includes a "Watch Video" link, ta ranscript of the episode, links to related "History Detectives" stories, and links to other related webpages (including related film clips), and more.

GREAT MEXICAN WAR POSTERS (Season 5, Episode 5)

SILENT FILM REEL (Season 4, Episode 6)

FIRST MOVIE STUDIO (Season 2, Episode 4)

MOVIE PALACE (Season 1, Episode 2)

If you, like Declan MacManus, enjoy watching the detectives, then you will enjoying watching these past episodes. Check em out.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Buster Keaton in Oakland

Attention silent film lovers and Buster Keaton buffs in Oakland, Berkeley, and beyond. 

On Friday March 19th and Sunday March 21st, the Oakland East Bay Symphony will present Buster Keaton's The General (1927) with live musical accompaniment. Each screening will take place at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, and will feature organ accompaniment by Christoph Bull.

The screenings are set for Friday March 19th at 8 pm and Sunday March 21st at 2 pm. Each performance will be preceeded by a pre-concert talk by conductor John Kendall Bailey. (The talks will start one hour prior to the film.) After each screening, the Oakland East Bay Symphony will perform Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 "Organ Symphony" (1886), with Cristoph Bull at the organ.

The General is one of Buster's best - and Bull will play his own original score to the film. More information on this special event can be found at http://www.oebs.org/page/march19-21.htm

Monday, March 15, 2010

A little more on Mack Sennett

This blog has been on something of a Mack Sennett kick of late . . . . there have been posts about the recently released Mack Sennett's Fun Factory, by Brent E. Walker, and the 2009 release The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture, by Rob King. Each are very different books, and each is worth checking out.

Another book we want to call your attention to is The Keystone Krowd, by Stuart Oderman. It was released by BearManor Media in late 2007 / early 2008. The book's subtitle is "Mack, Mabel, the Kops and the Girls (1908-1915)."

It is an informal, anecdotal, and personal history of the greatest comedy studio of the silent film era. What makes it special is that Oderman knew a few of the individuals and accompanied some of films of which he writes. The publisher describes this book as "a document of the twilight years of many of Sennett's innovators, who were still able to recall their early days when filmmaking was in its infancy. Come read their last opportunity to leave their impressions of themselves and their times from a golden era."

Oderman, of course, is best known as a pianist and silent film accompanist. His career as a musician has lasted more than 50 years, many of which have been spent as the silent film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is also the author of a handful of other books about early film including Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Biography Of The Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933. That title was released by McFarland in softcover in 2005, and is partly based on Oderman's friendship with Minta Durfee, Arbuckle's first wife

There should be a copy or two available of each of Stuart Oderman and Mack Sennett-related books at the book table at this summer's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Otherwise, copies of Oderman's The Keystone Krowd are available on-line or through better independent bookstores.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Weekend update #1

Here are some brief bits of news from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the world of silent film:

1) Today's New York Times ran a splendid article on actress Norma Talmadge, and her sister Constance. The article by Dave Kehr, "An Independent Woman, Nobly Suffering in Silents," was occasioned by the recent release of two Talmadge sister DVD's. Until now, only a handful of her earlier movies have been available on home video. The new KINO discs, which received a write-up on this blog back in January, should be available this summer at the book & DVD table at the SFSFF's July event (if you can wait that long). 

Once a superstar, the article lamented the decline of Norma Talmadge's reputation, and concluded "Like a character in one of her own films, this much-abused woman deserves to have her reputation restored." We suggest attending the SFSFF in July and see what all the fuss is about. One individual who has long championed Norma Talmadge is longtime Festival attendee Greta de Groat, who along with her "excellent Talmadge Web site (stanford.edu/~gdegroat/NT/home.htm)" received a shout out in the New York Times piece

2) Our friends and colleagues at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York have recently named a new curator of motion pictures. Earlier this month, Dr. Caroline Frick Page, who has worked in film preservation at Warner Bros., the Library of Congress, and National Archives, was named the sixth curator of motion pictures in the museum’s 61-year history. More on the appointment can be found here.

3) What becomes of old theaters - especially the movie palaces of the 1920's? Well, in the case of one splendid theater in Bueno Aires, it became a bookstore. BoingBoing has a small piece on the Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which was recently profiled as one of the best bookshops in the world by the Guardian (UK) newspaper. Elsewhere on the net, this English-language travel guide to Bueno Aires relates the history of the building, which began as a live theater in 1919 and started showing motion pictures in 1929. One can imagine Argentinian writers / film enthusiasts Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares having spent many an afternoon or evening in this theater of the imagination. Thanks to lukas_y2k for the photo below.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Actress Dorothy Janis Dies

According to Alt Film Guide and other websites, actress Dorothy Janis has died. Janis was widely regarded as one of the last living actors who had at least one major adult role in a silent film. Janis was thought to be 100 years old, and was the widow of the once popular bandleader Wayne King (known as the "Waltz King").

Janis, pictured right, was photographed by Ruth Harriet Louise in 1929.

Janis' film career was brief. The high point was a role as the half-white heroine in W. S. Van Dyke’s The Pagan (1929), one of Ramon Novarro’s big box-office hits. The Pagan was a transitional film - it has no dialogue but features a music score. 

Earlier, Janis had parts in three minor films. Her only sound film was Lummox (1930). It was based on the Fannie Hurst novel and was directed by Herbert Brenon.

Born in Texas, Dorothy Janis lived in Arizona at the time of her death. The Alt Film Guide page has a couple of clips from The Pagan. The film has also been made available through Warner Bros. Home Video (on demand), where a clip from the film can also be seen.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

More on Mack Sennett

One other recent book on Mack Sennett and his work is The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture, by Rob King. The author is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and History at the University of Toronto. The book was published by the University of California Press in 2009.

According to the publisher, "From its founding in 1912, the short-lived Keystone Film Company - home of the frantic, bumbling Kops and Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties - made an indelible mark on American popular culture with its high-energy comic shorts. Even as Keystone brought 'lowbrow' comic traditions to the screen, the studio played a key role in reformulating those traditions for a new, cross-class audience. In The Fun Factory, Rob King explores the dimensions of that process, arguing for a new understanding of working-class cultural practices within early cinematic mass culture. He shows how Keystone fashioned a style of film comedy from the roughhouse humor of cheap theater, pioneering modes of representation that satirized film industry attempts at uplift. Interdisciplinary in its approach, The Fun Factory offers a unique studio history that views the changing politics of early film culture through the sociology of laughter." 

With its handful of illustrations, the book is an interesting and readable academic study worth checking out. More information, including a Google book preview, can be found on the publisher's page. There should be a copy or two available at the book table at this summer's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Otherwise, copies are available on-line or through better independent bookstores.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mack Sennett and his fun factory

One of the big film books of the year is certainly Mack Sennett's Fun Factory, by Brent E. Walker. This mighty handsome, nearly two inch thick, almost four pound, 663 page history of all things Mack Sennett is a remarkable work of scholarship - as well as a great read. And, it is chock full of surprising detail. 

Did you know, for example, that Natalie Kingston, a leading lady in Sennett films starring the likes of Ben Turpin, Billy Bevan, and Harry Langdon was born and raised in nearby Vallejo, California. And that her great grandfather, General Vallejo, was the city’s namesake. Or that the "master of the slow burn" - the great comedic actor Edgar Kennedy  who played in more than 60 Keystone and Sennett comedies (sometimes as the chief of the Keystone Cops), was born in Monterey County? 

Full of information, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory is a comprehensive career study of the pioneering film producer and twice honored Academy Award winner known as the "King of Comedy." Today, Sennett is best remembered as the co-founder of Keystone Studios, home to the Keystone Cops and other greats of early slapstick.

The filmography included in this massive book covers more than 1,000 motion pictures produced, directed, written by, or featuring Sennett made between 1908 and 1955. It includes casts, credits, synopses, production and release dates, locations, cross-references of remade stories and gags, footage excerpted in compilations, and even identification of prints existing in archives around the world. This is some reference work.

There is also a more than 200 page historical overview of Sennett and the movies, some 280 photographs, biographies of the several hundred performers and technical personnel connected with Sennett and his prodigious output, as well as an extensive index which makes using this huge tome EASY.

Mack Sennett's Fun Factory was published by McFarland and is available on-line or through better independent bookstores. If you can wait, we hope to have copies of this mighty tome available for purchase at the book table at this summer's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. [Remember, a portion of book sales helps benefit the SFSFF.] And with any luck, we'll even have signed copies.

But what's more, sometime in the near future, the books' author has promised to write a guest blog highlighting some of little known local connections regarding Sennett productions made in the San Francisco Bay Area. Until then, stay tuned and keep smiling. 

[More on this book can be found on examiner.com.]

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cinema's first Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's just released 3D version of Alice in Wonderland is only the latest in a long line of films inspired by Lewis Carroll's classic 1865 story. In 2003, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Alice's Wonderland (1923), which featured a live action girl  interacting with cartoon characters. At that special event, Virginia Davis (who played Alice) was in attendance.

Now comes word that the British Film Institute has recently unveiled the first ever Alice in Wonderland. This short film dates from 1903, just five years after the death of author Lewis Carroll. And what's more, the BFI has restored and put the extant film online. (Less than 10 minutes remain of the original 12 minute work, which at the time it was released, was the longest film produced in England.)


Only one incomplete print is known to survive of this fascinating, entertaining and historically important film. For more about the history and efforts to preserve it, visit this page on the BFI website.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

See Santa Cruz in the Movies II

Here is another interesting vintage newspaper advertisement. It promotes a film being shot in the Santa Cruz area. The ad dates from May, 1928.

It's not known which film was in production (perhaps you, dear reader, might know?), but what can be gleaned from this clipping is that the Fox Film Corporation was involved. Fox was in Santa Cruz "making the greatest Rural Comedy of the year." Some 70 well known stars were in attendance.


Oh, and by the way, their will be music and singing by the Fox Famous Hawaiian Orchestra. Along with laughs, thrills, excitement and $75.00 in Cash Prizes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

See Santa Cruz in the Movies

As promised, another example of of a newspaper advertisement for sponsored films from the silent film era. This ad dates from 1928 and comes from Santa Cruz, California. These short films, titled together "Santa Cruz Community Movies," were shown at the local Unique Theatre.

Little is known about the Unique Theater in Santa Cruz. The otherwise comprehensive Cinema Treasures website doesn't seem to have a page on it. However, a Santa Cruz Public Library webpage notes that "The Unique Theatre was located on Pacific Avenue (north of the Del Mar Theater). It opened on August 8, 1904 as a seven-hundred-seat vaudeville house and was later turned into a movie theater. In 1936, it was demolished." The SCPL also has a picture of the theatre which screened these silent era sponsored films.

Interestingly, another webpage reports that "Back in 1910, Mack Swain ran the Unique Theatre about where New Leaf market now operates. Big old hairy Mack Swain went to Hollywood and was Charlie Chaplin's co-star in such classics as The Gold Rush."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

See Livermore in the Movies

Continuing this blog's recent theme of the "local" . . . . Here are a couple of interesting newspaper advertisements for what might be termed "sponsored films." Each date from early in 1928, and are typical of the sort of advertisements for local-interest films made all across the United States during the silent film era.

Our friend Rick Prelinger at the Prelinger Archives has written about sponsored films in the past. He has also collected thousands of examples and posted them on the Internet Archive, where they can be viewed online. Recently, Prelinger screened two compilations of these sponsored films, "Lost Landscapes of San Francisco," and "Lost Landscapes of Detroit." Each offers a look at a place and time which no longer exists.

What are sponsored films? Like the films described in the two ads shown below, they are motion pictures commissioned by businesses, organizations, charities, advocacy groups, state or local governments, and others. To describe them as ephemeral would be an understatement. Many of them had a short shelf life, and simply no longer exist.

However, these often short non-fiction films play a role in the history of film. And from what can be clearly seen in these advertisements, they were shown in mainstream theaters as an added attraction alongside regular feature film.


The films promoted in these advertisements were news reels shot by the local Livermore Herald newspaper. (The aerial news reels were shot by C. A. Svensson.) Each contained "events of interest and people you know." Each ephasized the "local." (To better read each advertisement, double click on the image to call-up a larger scan.)


Its not known if these films still exist, and they don't seem to part of the Prelinger Archive collection. Are any Livermore residents familiar with these films? Does anyone know if they still exist? [This post is the first of a small number of posts about silent era film making in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Tomorrow, Santa Cruz!]

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

High school days

As noted in yesterday's blog, the movies were very much a community affair during the silent film era - especially in small towns

Despite partial studio ownership of some theaters, and practices such as block booking, the managers and local owners of at least some theaters did manage to have a say in the nature of motion picture exhibition in their communities.

And, as has also been pointed out in prior posts, films could be seen just about anywhere - even in churches, under tents, and in fire stations. Here are a couple of advertisements for motion pictures which were screened at local high schools in California. 

The first, for Down the Stretch (1927) starring Marion Dixon, was shown in the High School Gym in Fall River Mills. At the time this newspaper advertisement was run in November of 1927, Fall River Mills was a very small community in Shasta County in the northern most reaches of the state. However, despite the fact that only a few hundred people lived there, Fall River Mills seemed to need at least two venues for films. According to the Cinema Treasures website, movies were also shown once a week in the local Town Hall. And, apparently, they were also shown in the high school gym. 

Also on the bill along with Down the Stretch was Fighting with Buffalo Bill (1926), a Universal release. That's two feature films for 50 cents! And the following night, there would be a high school basketball game. "Good game assured," the ad reads.

The second advertisement, for It's the Old Army Game (1926) starring W.C. Fields, promotes a screening which took place in the High School Auditorium in Gonzales, California. Gonzales was then a small rural community in Monterey County. Readers of the local newspaper might have noticed this discrete advertisement - meant to resemble a ticket or coupon, or they may have noticed larger and bolder ads for films in neighboring Salinas. In any case, admission for this single feature was still half-a-buck. One wonders what was the nature of the seating.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The personal touch, with smallpox

Since its inception, this blog has posted a handful of vintage newspaper advertisements for various films. They help illustrate whatever the subject of the post might be about. One interesting, though little noticed aspect of old movie advertisements is the "personal touch" sometimes found in them - especially ads from smaller towns and cities. For your amusement and edification, here are a few examples.

This newspaper advertisement, for the Sonora Theatre in the Sonora, California dates from November, 1927. As can be seen in the ad, the theatre was showing Paradise for Two  (1927) staring Richard Dix on November 26th, and The Midnight Sun (1926) starring Laura LaPlante on November 27 and 28th. [Apologies for any difficulty in reading this advertisement, but that is how photocopies off worn microfilm often come out.]

What's striking, and even a little bit sad, about this piece is the personal message from the theatre manager. "This is our closing program" states manager A.G. Clapp, who was leaving and would no longer "conduct" his venue. Seemingly, Clapp loved his job - and he loved programing the Sonora and presenting movies to the people in this small community in Tuolumme County.

Its uncertain why Clapp left, but the Sonora Theatre closed soon after this advertisement ran in the local paper. Perhaps he found a job somewhere else. Perhaps the competition from the local Star Theater was too much. Perhaps there weren't enough movie patrons to go around in Sonora. Whatever the case, this farewell message is one example of the kind of personal touch found in old movie ads.

It should also be noted that advertisements in the Teens and Twenties, including those for theatres, were sometimes "signed" by a manager or owner. Advertisements might read, the such-and-such theatre is under the management of . . .. Attribution not only imparted personality, but they let patrons know who ran the place. It was thought important, and it tied a venue or business to its community.

A very different sort of personal touch can be found in this advertisement for the Colfax Theatre in Colfax, California. (Colfax is located north of Auburn and south of Grass Valley and Nevada City.) This advertisement dates from January, 1926. Among other films, the theatre was showing Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), a silent Western from Paramount starring Jack Holt and Billie Dove. This film was the third feature to be photographed entirely in Technicolor.

The advertisement's personal touch comes from Mrs. S. K. Williams, who can be assumed to have been the manager of the Colfax. (The theatre still stands - and still shows movies.)

In her unintentionally funny screed, "Notice to the Public," Williams writes that the local kiddies are getting out of hand. Not only are they getting a bargain patronizing her theatre (compared to the one in Auburn), but in return they are tearing up the place. Williams considers children "generally a nuisance, expensive and annoying to the management, [and] annoying to the public."

And what's more, they have defaced the advertising materials (not realizing they would be future collectibles on eBay). To retaliate, Williams is raising the price of admission for children by a nickel, and will do so every time there is "offensive conduct in or about the theatre." One simply must read the entire ad to appreciate it.

Old movie advertisements with the "personal touch" relay all kinds of curious and even sometimes strange information. For example, in the same June, 1929 issue of the North Sacramento Journal that carried an advertisement for a local showing of The Canary Murder Case (1929), starring William Powell, Louise Brooks, and Jean Arthur - the newspaper also ran an informational ad nearby concerning a supposed smallpox infestation at the same local theater, the Del Paso. That ad is reproduced here.

According to Wikipedia, "Transmission of smallpox occurs through inhalation of airborne variola virus, usually droplets expressed from the oral, nasal, or pharyngeal mucosa of an infected person. It is transmitted from one person to another primarily through prolonged face-to-face contact with an infected person, usually within a distance of 6 feet, but can also be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects (fomites) such as bedding or clothing. Rarely, smallpox has been spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains."

Apparently it was believed at least by some people back in 1929 that one could become infected with smallpox while sitting in a theater. Whether or not it was possible, the local Del Paso theatre was concerned enough with public perception to place a newspaper advertisement. 

The ad was placed by the local Blumenfeld Theatre circuit of San Francisco, which built and operated a number of theatres around the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout Northern California. They weren't any articles in subsequent issues of the newspaper to indicate whether or not patrons stayed away from the Del Paso - and whether or not it was smallpox the killed the Canary. [The Del Paso theater, located at 2120 Del Paso Blvd, opened in 1928 and burned down in 1942.]

All told, these advertisements indicate not only the tenor of the times, but offer a slice of local color along with a bit of local history.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Roseville redux

Just for fun, here is another vintage newspaper advertisement from Roseville, California. 

During the first week of December, 1927 the New Roseville theatre screened the  "marvel picture of the age," Metropolis, a Hoot Gibson film, W.C. Fields in Runnin' Wild, and then "at last - at last - at last" a three day run of The Big Parade.

That's a futuristic German film, a Western, an American comedy (with vaudeville), and a war epic described as "the most talked of picture of all-time" - all within the course of a week. That's variety! 

And remember, this wasn't the big city. This was Roseville near Sacramento in Placer County. Roseville was a relatively small, somewhat rural town in 1927. It was the silent film era. And these were the kind of films one might chance to see where ever you might have lived.

In past years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has screened The Big Parade. And this summer, it will screen Metropolis.

If you missed the futuristic German film when it showed at the New Roseville in 1927, then make your way to the Castro in July. You won't want to miss Metropolis twice.