2/15/2007

Vintage: Ads For Artists, Part 2

Posted in Vintage at 12:24 pm by Sam

Continuing the theme of Ads For Artists, Part 1, let’s look at some more accomplished filmmakers of 1927 that were featured in full page ads in the Film Daily Yearbook. Last time, I drove home the point that so many of the big names of the day no longer even ring a bell, but this time let’s kick off with one that’s, if anything, bigger now.

Frank Capra

If Frank Capra had stopped making films by, oh, 1933 or so, today he’d be even more forgotten than Harry Langdon, who, in his day, was the fourth major silent comedian after Chaplin and Keaton and alongside Harold Lloyd. A rare literate IMDb poster describes Langdon’s career as “meteoric,” in that he rose to fame and popularity every bit as suddenly as he declined from it. His two best known films are Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) with a young Joan Crawford, and the one mentioned here, The Strong Man (1926).

It was Frank Capra’s first feature film (he had directed one short in 1922) and his most esteemed credit for eight years. It just goes to show how sometimes you never know when somebody’s just going to suddenly start shining. Little did audiences of the 20s know that Frank Capra would go on to direct one of the more enduringly entertaining Best Picture winners, It Happened One Night (1934), another rare comedic Best Picture winner in You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and the timeless classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), a story we can only wish would happen to real life politics.

Oh yes, and then he made a little film called It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

In 1927, if you were asked whether Frank Capra or Irvin P. Willat, from the previous Ads For Artists post, stood a greater chance of being recognized in 80 years, you’d probably get an interesting diversity of answers.

Frank Capra

Alfred A. Cohn, on the other hand, is probably not a familiar name to you. He started writing movies about when Frank Capra started directing, and he did stop making movies around 1933 or so, which makes one wonder if he might have been a name like Frank Capra is today if only he had stuck it out. Probably not. But you never know.

But he’s an interesting guy. His best film credits are shown in this ad: writing the German Expressionist classic The Cat and the Canary (1927) by Paul Leni, and writing the screen adaptation of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), although much of the dialogue in that film was improvised by Al Jolson.

His writing career spanned the silent and sound eras, but it was only one chapter in a professional life that started as a journalist in Cleveland and ended as the police commissioner for Los Angeles. In between, he ran a paper in Texas and served as secretary to the Arizona constitutional convention during the time of its admittance to the union.

Just goes to show that it’s not always the enduring names with the interesting stories.

Charles Rosher

Now here’s something I find quite fascinating. Cinematographers get as much coverage in the film literature of the 1920s as anybody. The Film Daily Yearbook would contain long lists of credits, pages and pages’ worth, for directors, stars, writers, and cinematographers, and as many of the ads, like this one for Charles Rosher, were for cinematographers as for other professions.

Today, we pay far less attention to cinematographers, and perhaps part of that is because there were a lot fewer key crew members needed to make a silent film. Once you add in a whole sound crew, outside attention gets divided and therefore more selective.

But we probably should care about cinematographers more than we do. Cinematographers (and editors) make film film. You can have a director, a writer, a bunch of actors, set designers, costume designers, make-up artists, lighting technicians, sound technicians, and a caterer, and you still don’t have the ingredients for a film. You never get anywhere near the medium until you have a cinematographer, and that key ingredient is what distinguishes the medium of film from any other form of expression. Cinematographers define the medium.

Anyway, Charles Rosher was the first full-time cameraman in Hollywood, having been brought over from New Jersey when David Horsley moved his production company out there, apparently for the better weather. Later, Rosher became the highest paid cinematographer in the world. And on the basis of his work on the (American) German Expressionist masterpiece Sunrise (1927) alone, he established himself as one of the field’s master innovators. Sunrise has a pitch perfect look to it, haunting and exciting and a substantial technical challenge. In fact, he won the very first Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on the film.

The most interesting stories about him, however, seem to concern his involvement with Pancho Villa, one of the key leaders in the Mexican Revolution notorious for his tactical innovation and cavalry raids.

Charles Rosher’s first film was the lost documentary Life of Villa (1912), which chronicled Pancho Villa’s attempts to overthrow the Mexican dictator Porifirio Diaz. Basically, co-directors Christy Cabanne and Raoul Walsh (the latter now considered one of the greats) took a film crew out and followed Pancho Villa around. Villa played himself, in both actual and reenacted footage of his exploits, including a scene Villa insisted on filming, an execution of federal soldiers. (Ultimately, the studio cut the scene.)

Anyway, during the filming, Charles Rosher was captured by the federal soldiers and nearly executed as a spy. Ultimately, he was released as part of a deal between the American and Mexican governments, wherein Mexican troops were allowed to cross through American territory to launch a surprise attack on Villa from the rear.

The other story about Rosher and Villa is that Villa asked Rosher to film the funeral of a friend. Rosher did so, perhaps expecting that the half day’s worth of film he had would be enough. But the funeral lasted three days. Fearing that he would be shot, Rosher spent the rest of the time pretending to film the funeral.

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