Belle Bennett

By Shannon Rowan

Belle Bennett stars as Truth Eldridge in the United States Moving Picture Corporation’s 1922 production of “Flesh and Spirit.” The Luzerne County Historical Society in Wilkes-Barre Pennstylvania holds a print of the film in its archives.

Belle Bennett is no longer a household name, but during the 1920s she was, starring in minor silent films such as Flesh and Spirit, and later much more well-known silent films such as Stella Dallas.  She was born on April 22, 1892 to parents William and Hazel Bennett, circus owners.  It is here that her love for performing was born and nurtured.  She first appeared before the public at the age of 13 as a trapeze performer in her parents’ circus.

After her trapeze act, she moved to New York to star on Broadway under the direction and guidance of A.H. Woods, where she appeared in productions of Happy Go Lucky, Lawful Larceny,  and The Wandering Jew.  She began to pursue a career in the nascent east coast  film industry as early as 1913, appearing in one-reel shorts produced by a variety of early film companies. By 1918, she had starring roles in full length features with the Triangle Film Corporation, including The Lonely Woman. In 1922,  she starred in the  United States Motion Picture Corporation’s production  of  Flesh and Spirit.  The Luzerne County Historical Society in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania holds one of the only surviving copies of Flesh and Spirit.

When the film industry shifted to the west coast, Bennett moved to Hollywood, where she got her big break starring in Stella Dallas. In the role of mother in Stella Dallas, she developed a genuine connection with Lois Moran who played the role of her daughter.  Perhaps because the role was awarded to her right after  she learned about the death of one of her sons, Bennett poured the love and passion she had for her son into her role as Stella Dallas. Bennett was and was thereafter typecast as in very maternal roles.

Her career managed to survive the transition from silent film to “talkies” until November 4, 1932, when she lost her battle with cancer.  At the time of her death, Bennett had appeared in 87 films and had received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  She was an actress of the screen, stage, and vaudeville.  Bennett had a very successful career, and might have been even more well known if her life had not been cut so short.

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Sounds for Silence: An Interview with Dos Noisemakers

Alex Sergay and Rich Hancuff of Dos Noisemakers will provide live music for the silent films “Her Fractured Voice,” “His Neglected Wife,” and “Flesh and Spirit.”

If you were worried about spending your Friday evening in total silence, never fear! Dos Noisemakers are here! The duo will provide musical accompaniment for Friday night’s screening of Her Fractured Voice, His Neglected Wife, and Flesh and Spirit.

Richard Hancuff, uno of the Dos Noisemakers, said their accompaniment adds authenticity and fun to the silent film experience, “One thing live music does is recreate the experience of the silent films as they were originally shown.”

With no scores to base their music upon, Hancuff and his partner Alex Sergay have created the score from scratch by altering music of the time period.

“We have been looking at older traditional music from the 1920’s through 1940’s as well as some tunes that were written by a member of Alex’s band in Michigan. One song we’ve been working on is Fats Waller’s ‘Jitterbug Waltz,’” Hancuff said, “We’re working on a new experience with these films.”

Sergay researched musicians of the time to inform the duo’s musical choices. “I found the musicians would play pretty much anything they could get their hands on,” he said.

Although the films are silent, these two musicians have tried to create a score that will let the films speak for themselves and enhance the audience’s experience. “You want the music to help set the mood, but you don’t want people to notice the music too much or have it distract from the film itself,” Hancuff said.

Sergay agreed, adding, “Live music always brings excitement to an event.”

Sergay in particular brings some accompaniment experience to the event. He once provided the music for Circus Opus, a mime, acrobatics and fire twirling show. “I started as a musician playing sound effects and music for Gerry the Fool, a mime popular in Detroit back in the 80’s.”

Hancuff and Sergay have worked together in the past, but are collaborating on a musical project for the first time. They will debut as Dos Noisemakers at Friday’s screening and play their own unique music to support our three silent films. “We hope we help the audience experience a silent movie much in the same way audiences did when these movies were made,” Sergay said, “It’s been fun working on these songs, it should be a good show.”

With the combination of three films and the debut of Dos Noisemakers, if you love film, music, or anything 1920s, you certainly don’t want to miss Flesh and Spirit tonight at 6 in the Burke Auditorium at King’s College!

Forgotten Films: The Loss of Silent Movies

By Kellie LoGrande

This still taken from the United States Motion Picture Corporation’s one-reel comedy “His Neglected Wife” (1919) shows some of the damage that nitrate films can suffer without careful preservation.

You may have seen a few silent films, such as Metropolis or Nosferatu, but the silent films available today are just a small percentage of all the silent films ever made. Today, very few silent films exist, and many of the films which do exist are incomplete. A staggering number of silent films in America are considered to be lost — approximately eighty-three percent. But why are so many of these films unavailable today? It’s all in the materials and preservation.

Today’s films are made from cellulose acetate plastic film, and are distributed via DVD and digital download. Cellulose acetate plastic film, known as “safety film,” replaced its predecessor in the 1950s. Its predecessor? Cellulose nitrate. Cellulose nitrate, or silver nitrate, is the type of film stock upon which silent films were recorded. Nitrate is an unstable film stock, one which can decompose if not stored properly and one which can catch fire easily.

There is one very serious problem with silver nitrate film stock, a problem which led to its replacement in the 1950s: nitrate film stock is highly flammable. Nitrate film is flammable in a perfect state; however, as it ages and decomposes into a brown powder, it progressively becomes more and more flammable. This is why the replacement for nitrate, acetate plastic, is called “safety film.” Nitrate films have been known to easily catch fire, with the fire spreading to other highly flammable films near it; this accounts for the large amount of movie vault fires, and for the loss of the films as a result of those fires.

Decomposition, especially due to improper storage, is the main cause of silent film loss. When nitrate films decompose, the top layer of the film will separate from the base, resulting in missing patches of the film and visual imperfections – some of which can hardly make the film viewable. This is illustrated well in the recently-discovered United Staes Motion Picture Corporation Comedy, His Neglected Wife, where some sections of the film are obscured by large blotches. Even properly storing the film does not guarantee its survival. This is why so many silent films are of poor viewing quality, with issues such as black or white blotches across the screen. The deterioration of nitrate film can also lead to certain parts of a film being unviewable altogether, thus destroying certain scenes. In fact, entire films have been destroyed; this is why most silent films are considered “lost.”

Many of the films of the United States Motion Picture Corporation and the United States Moving Picture Corporation seem to have suffered that final fate, with the acidic nature of the films even destroying parts of the documents — summaries and manuscripts – which accompanied them. While films such as Flesh and Spirit survive, they survive only through the efforts of those who clamor to preserve early film. Flesh and Spirit was transferred onto safety film in 1966 by Andrew Sordoni, and was later transferred by Charles Petrillo, in 2010, into a digital format. Unfortunately, the preservation of other early silent films is often limited by insufficient funds to perform the restoration. With the clock ticking away on the life spans of these films, with the nitrate decomposing more and more, early films cannot wait and, eventually, can be lost with the passage of time.

Information on the preservation of early silent film, including the U. S. Motion Picture Corporation film His Neglected Wife, and information on how you can get involved in the preservation of early silent film can be found on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website: www.filmpreservation.org

The “Silent” Revival of a Roaring Era

By Sarah Scinto

1920s culture has become a part of youth culture, and even the film world has recognized this resurgence and begun to tailor itself to fit this new interest in the market

If you were to log on to Tumblr, the popular social blogging site, and scroll through some of the top posts, you might notice a trend. The bloggers of Tumblr are primarily millenials, people born after 1980 who came of age in the new millennium. However, despite the age of the site’s users, Tumblr is overflowing with photos and content reminiscent of eras past, particularly the style and art of the 1920s.

This generation has harnessed new media to recall and aggregate evidence of old media through photos, scanned documents, and even film clips that are sometimes converted into moving image files known as gifs. Further digging through the Tumblr dashboard might lead you to a blog dedicated specifically to silent film intertitles, spreading their quirk words of wisdom through a medium their creators could scarcely imagine.

It seems that this generation has latched to the “vintage” culture of the 20s; it is not uncommon to see people dressing as flappers for Halloween or toting their copies of The Great Gatsby as they travel (perhaps with one of the Barnes and Noble bags that prominently display the novel’s cover). In fact, I have heard the term “Gatsby Party” used in conversation among multiple circles of people, and I’m certain this will only continue with the release of a new film adaptation of the novel. One of my best friends once dreamed of holding a Gatsby style speakeasy party for her 21st birthday and carries her books in a Kate Spade bag sporting one design of the novel’s many covers.

When Michael Hazanavicius’s The Artist hit screens in 2011, no one expected the quirky, silent, black and white film to become the runaway success it did. It began in limited release, taking up space in independent movie theatres, until the buzz surrounding it grew and prompted a wide, mainstream release of the film. In a time when we are told that people’s attention spans have greatly diminished, the fact that a 100 minute film with no spoken words whatsoever could hold and captivate an audience’s attention is nothing short of remarkable.

I typically pay attention to independent releases, but when The Artist hit theatres, I was far from the only person who knew about it. People my age were blogging, posting, and tweeting about a film that you’d assume they’d ignore in favor of the latest superhero blockbuster. One of my friends, who had recently dragged me to see Transformers 3, asked if I wanted to see The Artist with her, much to my pleasant surprise.

The Artist, a 100-minute silent film, captured attention and major film awards in 2011

It seems my friends knew something about film after all. By the end of its theatrical run, The Artist achieved much more than success at the box office. This film from a bygone era left the 2012 Academy Awards with 5 statuettes, including the award for Best Motion Picture.

Our film, the 1922 Flesh and Spirit, comes from the silent film tradition that The Artist honored, emulated, and made wildly popular once again. While the silent style of The Artist may seem like a quirky novelty to today’s audiences who are so accustomed to full sound and color, actual films from the 20s era were silent out of necessity. Flesh and Spirit did push the boundaries of filmmaking in its time: innovations in special effects allowed the makers of Flesh and Spirit to create ghostly touches. Drawers open and close on their own and characters appear translucent long before the advent of the sleek, seamless, computerized special effects moviegoers have become accustomed to.

With the resurgence of 20s culture and interest in silent filmmaking, it seems as though we could not have chosen a better time to screen Flesh and Spirit. It is a part of the silent film culture that informed the making of The Artist, and if one small, silent film can win the Academy Award, who’s to say our little screening won’t be wildly popular among the Wilkes-Barre community and beyond?

Times Leader: “Quiet on the Set” by Matt Hughes (October 21, 2012)

The dimpled darling of the dairy has a voice not even the cows can tolerate.

When she croons out a tune, they take off running, along with the chickens, and even her father chases her from the farmhouse with a long-barreled rifle.

But where others cringe, the city stranger with his Broadway air and Sixth Avenue hair sees opportunity, and whisks the farmer’s daughter away to the city.

Thus begins the comedy Her Fractured Voice, one of more than 50 silent films attributed to the United States Motion Picture Corp., a Forty Fort film studio active in the years around 1920.

Little historical record remains of the production studio that once sat at the corner of Wyoming Avenue and Slocum Street; Her Fractured Voice is one of only a scant few of the films produced there under the Black Diamond Comedies and Rainbow Comedies brands to survive.

But several local historians are seeking to reconstruct the remaining historical artifacts the studio left behind.

One is Noreen O’Connor, a professor of English at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre who is leading a research project into the studio’s early Black Diamond Comedies series with one of her undergraduate classes.

Public viewing on Friday

In conjunction with the Luzerne County Historical Society, O’Connor and her class will host a screening of Her Fractured Voice and another recently discovered film produced by the studio on Friday, at the Burke Auditorium on the King’s campus. Live music will accompany the showings as well as another, feature-length silent film.

The United States Motion Picture Corp. was one of numerous film companies to spring up on the East Coast in the early days of cinema, prior to the industry’s consolidation in Hollywood.

The film business then revolved around Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey, which had patented and supplied much of the equipment used in film production, O’Connor said.

Later it moved over to Hollywood, but it really didn’t move to the West Coast until after World War I, O’Connor said.  “There really is kind of this little Hollywood here.”

Opened in 1915, the studio was a glass-walled structure that looked like a greenhouse from the outside, allowing natural light needed for filming to penetrate interior sets.

An article in an August 1915 issue of The Moving Picture World, a publication of the Moving Picture Exhibitors’ Association, called its glass-and-steel construction a radical departure that its builders claimed would allow 30 percent greater light efficiency inside than out.

The studio was surrounded by a track used to film chase scenes, according to Carol Nelson–Dembert of Waverly, a film enthusiast who authored a book and produced a documentary about local film pioneer Lyman Howe.

The company also filmed outdoor scenes in and around Wilkes-Barre. When the dairy darling of Her Fractured Voice arrives in the city of the film, the fountain that occupied Public Square and the streetcar that circumscribed it in the early 20th century are visible.

Another surviving film features exterior shots of Wilkes-Barre’s Hotel Sterling, according to O’Connor, and a 1916 advertisement for Bridget’s Blunder, a lost Black Diamond Comedy, shows an early automobile parked comically on the staircase of the Luzerne County Courthouse.

From 1916-20, the studio produced two series of one-reel comedy shorts, the first called the Black Diamond Comedies and the second called the Rainbow Comedies. The shorts lasted about 15 minutes each and were shown before feature films produced by Paramount Pictures Corp.

After the closure of the U.S. Motion Picture Corp., the studio was briefly taken over by another film company, Serico Producing Corp., which produced one film in 1922, a 15-part serial photoplay titled The Woman in Gray.

Deteriorating film

The movies were printed on nitrate film, an early film stock that deteriorates quickly, O’Connor said. Her Fractured Voice is the only film in the Black Diamond series known to exist today. O’Connor said a 1950s reproduction of Suzie Slips One Over, one of the Rainbow Comedies, is held by UCLA’s film library in Los Angeles and she is communicating with the university about making a digital copy of the print.

A second Rainbow comedy called His Neglected Wife was discovered in a cache of 75 early U.S. films uncovered in New Zealand in 2010.

Attorney Charles Petrillo of Wilkes-Barre, who has been researching the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. for the past two years, helped underwrite its conversion to digital format and recently obtained a copy. The film will be screened together with Her Fractured Voice at the King’s event.

The show also will feature Flesh and Spirit, one of two full-length films that had been attributed to the company. Petrillo recently discovered evidence the film was not produced by the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. but by another company with a very similar name, but O’Connor said she will still screen it because it’s a great ghost story for Halloween featuring early use of special effects.

Though both were disappointed to learn the film was not produced locally, O’Connor said her recent meeting with Petrillo is exactly the sort of connection she hoped this project would foster.

She likes to think that somewhere, in someone’s attic, additional copies of these films survive.

There’s going to be people who know some of this, she said. And some of it is going to take just going out and talking to people, and getting some oral history.

If you go

What: King’s College and the Luzerne County Historical Society present two silent film shorts produced at the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. in Forty Fort, Her Fractured Voice, and His Neglected Wife, as well as the feature-length silent film, Flesh and Spirit. Musical accompaniment provided by Dos Noisemakers.

When: Friday, 6 p.m.

Where: Burke Auditorium, King’s College McGowan School of Business

Admission: Free, and complimentary refreshments will be served

Attire: Guests are encouraged but not required to wear 1920s attire for a costume contest held in conjunction with the screenings

Original story: http://timesleader.com/archive/61229/stories-quiet-on-the-set219649

Paramount . . . in Wilkes-Barre?

By Ashley Panko

The chandelier at the Kirby is a scaled-down replica of a fixture in the main lobby of the Empire State Building

Step back in time and picture yourself as a member of the roaring twenties. Are you there? Excellent. If you earned an average income in the 1920s, it would be very common for you to go to the theater for entertainment. And not just any theater either: a movie palace.

Movie palaces of the 1920s were far more extravagant than the movie theaters we know today. They were massive in size–even 1,000 seats would still be considered a small theater–and decorated in plasterwork. The atmosphere of the theater was equally, if not more, important than the film itself.

The architecture of these palaces was often gaudy and modeled after Asian or Middle Eastern design, thoroughly bedecked in marble, chandeliers, and luxurious carpets. Movie-goers felt like royalty in these grandiose establishments.

Finding it hard to imagine such a luxurious movie experience? Well some of these theaters are still around and available to tour, while some others have been renovated as cultural centers for the surrounding area. Even in our own Wilkes-Barre the Kirby Theater was in fact once a Paramount Movie Palace.

Originally opened in August of 1938 as the Comerford Theater, this Paramount movie house was a paragon of excellence within the Wilkes-Barre community. Decorated in art-deco style, the theater was bedecked with fluted columns, spacious lobbies, and rose-colored mirrors which enhanced the romantic mood. Decorations were accented in rich tones of copper and metallic blue, while the centerpiece of a fabulous chandelier hovered above the movie goers.

The first film shown in the Comerford was Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and people flocked to see it. There was an immense media presence and the Wilkes-Barre Record noted that it was the largest gathering of people in Public Square since the signing of the Armistice.

The building of the Comerford, now known as the Kirby Center, was a symbol of local wealth, as well as local pride. The community rallied around it as a physical representation that Wilkes-Barre was a force to be reckoned with.