On a bright early summer day in 1917, people stopped to stare as a big man ran pell-mell along a busy street in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
It wasn’t the man they were staring at – it was the camera crew filming him.
In the 1910s, when the New York-New Jersey region was the epicenter of the growing worldwide motion picture industry, even the Wyoming Valley got into the act. The region was once home to the United States Motion Picture Corporation, which filmed the first silent short comedies for Paramount Pictures under the name “Black Diamond Comedies.”
The studio in Forty Fort is long gone and, until recently, all but forgotten, most of its one-reel productions lost to time and nitrate film deterioration.
But recent efforts, particularly by King’s College English professor Noreen O’Connor and local historian F. Charles Petrillo, are reawakening interest in the glory days when the Wyoming Valley was a sort of Hollywood on the Susquehanna River.
With the surge in popularity of motion pictures in the early 1900s, studios began springing up along the East Coast, including in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
By the 1910s, Wilkes-Barre native Lyman H. Howe’s “high class” moving picture shows had been entertaining crowds for two decades, and his city-based studio pioneered aerial photography in 1911. Lackawanna County had the Scrantonia Photoplay studio, which in 1918 made short comedy films starring San Francisco-born Chinese actor Charlie Fang.
And Wilkes-Barre had the U.S. Motion Picture Corp., headquartered in the Savoy Theatre building on Public Square.
In October 1914, the newly formed company’s vice president Fred W. Hermann put out a call for investors:
“The plant will be located in Forty Fort at Wyoming Avenue and Slocum Street, where we have purchased a very valuable plot of ground,” Hermann stated in an October 1914 ad in Wilkes-Barre’s Sunday Independent newspaper.
“The main part of the building will be of brick and concrete, and the studio or stage almost entirely of steel and glass. The plant, when fully equipped, will be one of the most modern in this or any other country.”
James O. Walsh, a New Yorker, was president of the company. He was the one who interested local guys in the deal – and who had the money to back it.
Rounding out the trio was Daniel L. Hart, the company’s treasurer. Hart had already achieved a degree of fame as a playwright–his works include “Parish Priest” and “A Rocky Road to Dublin.” He would go on to become a popular four-term mayor of Wilkes-Barre.
So by fall of 1916, the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. had the financing, local talent and a brand-new, state-of-the-art studio in Forty Fort.
All the fledgling film company needed was a contract.
Paramount Pictures, founded in 1912, contracted out the production of many of its motion pictures in its earliest days.
The company distributed the films to theaters around the country. Movie houses showed short subjects including comedies, newsreels and documentaries along with the main feature. And in 1916, Paramount needed some humor in the mix.
“Paramount Pictures Corporation will supply the last link in its chain by the addition of single-reel comedies each week to its program,” the trade magazine “Motography” announced in the Sept. 9, 1916, edition. “Contracts have been signed with the Klassic Pictures, Inc., producing the Klassic Komedies, and the United States Motion Picture Corporation, producing the Black Diamond Comedies.”
The first Black Diamond comedy was supposed to be issued on Sept. 25, 1916, but “Nearly a Deserter” didn’t hit theaters until October 1916.
Walsh boasted in the Oct. 21, 1916, edition of the trade publication “Motography” that, “With the advent of the Black Diamond â¦ there begins a new era in the making of the single-reel comedy.”
The U.S. Motion Picture Corp. “worked out a process for trick photography, hitherto unknown to motion pictures,” Walsh wrote.
He didn’t divulge what it was, but noted, “The expense of filming some of the scenes â¦ is considerable, but we contend it makes little or no difference how much a picture may cost to produce if it pleases the public.”
In the first flush of success, Walsh undoubtedly didn’t realize those words would come back to haunt him.
For the rest of 1916 and all of 1917, the company churned out one-reelers at the rate of about one every two weeks. These were shot around the Wyoming Valley and used largely local – and uncredited – talent. The tall and portly Carl Dally was a repeat performer; so was diminutive Billy Thomas. Wilkes-Barre police Chief Russ Taylor was a cameraman.
Particularly striking is advertising for the second Black Diamond Comedy, “Bridget’s Blunder,” about a cook in love with a cop. It shows a car driving up the Luzerne County Courthouse steps.
“Her Fractured Voice,” one of the surviving Black Diamond comedies, features a scene shot in downtown Wilkes-Barre at the fountain in Public Square. The male lead – who likely was a local resident – runs down a side street to get there, to the amusement of passers-by who are more interested in the movie crew filming him.
Another location in “Her Fractured Voice” is Hillside Farms. “Many neighborhood kids were hired to act as extras, particularly in front of the old blacksmith shop nearby,” Mildred Newitt Hogoboom noted in a pamphlet on the history of Jackson Township.
An ad for the Palace Theater in Plymouth for Feb. 18, 1917, indicates the Black Diamond comedy “Braving Blazes” was filmed on South Street in Wilkes-Barre. Likewise, “Wits and Fits,” which showed at Plymouth’s Hippodrome the week of Sept. 16, 1917, featured “all local scenes.” “A Troublesome Trip,” released in November 1916, featured scenes shot on North Street in Wilkes-Barre and Wyoming Avenue in Kingston.
An apparent Black Diamond trick was to make a car look like it was driving on the surface of Harveys Lake. One of the lost comedies, “Their Counterfeit Vacation,” was shot there, Petrillo said.
“If I could find only one film from the company, it would be that one,” he said.
A later comedy, “His Neglected Wife” was filmed in part at the Hotel Sterling; the female lead signs in the register that she’s from Pittston, O’Connor said.
“It’s all local,” she said.
“People think they must be tacky, but they’re not – they were Paramount’s first comedies.”
The Black Diamond comedies proved popular, and an article in the July 7, 1917 edition of “Motography” reported that the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. was enlarging its studio, including an entire section devoted to the trick photography used in the comedies.
“During the past week additional players have been secured by the company which will surround Miss Leatrice Joy, the leading lady who has done clever work and won many admirers,” the article states.
The company established a script writing department that offered $5 per word for every idea of up to 50 words. They received more than 500 submissions.
Unfortunately, the optimism – and expenditures – were misplaced. The U.S. Motion Picture Corp. lost its Paramount contract.
The new studio didn’t materialize, and in 1918, the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. shifted to making Rainbow Comedies, distributed by the General Film Co.
The first of these was a World War I-related short called “Nearly a Slacker,” released in September 1918; another was “Hooverizing,” named for a popular World War I slang term that meant economizing, after Herbert Hoover (who was National Food Administrator at the time).
But by 1920, the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. was in decline. That year saw what was likely the last filming ever done at the Forty Fort studio: “A Woman in Grey,” a 15-part serial starring Arline Pretty.
End of an era
It was after 1918 that the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. went into a decline.
Why did the company fail? Petrillo speculates it was because the studio was underfunded and producing “relics of the silent era.”
“They were producing one-reel comedies, and the art of the silent movie had moved beyond these,” he said.
O’Connor noted that some of the Black Diamond players did go on to Hollywood, like New Orleans native Leatrice Joy who played Susie Speed, a recurring character. Joy, a versatile and talented actress, rose to silent movie stardom in Paramount features throughout the 1920s.
Another U.S. Motion Picture Corp. alumnus, Rex Taylor, who wrote the scripts for the Black Diamond comedies, went on to have a respectable career as a Hollywood scriptwriter.
After “A Woman in Grey” wrapped up, the Forty Fort studio sat idle for few years. The Sunday Independent reported its fate in a June 17, 1923 brief: “The Black Diamond motion picture studio in Forty Fort was sold yesterday to Albert Jones, a school director of Luzerne Borough. The new owner secured title to the property from Freedman and Dattner, who purchased the building and some surrounding ground a short time ago.
“It is the intention of Mr. Jones to convert the studio into a laundry. The building has not been used for picture purposes for several years.”
Jones did, but the “Do Right Laundry” was a washout.
A Jan. 27, 1935, article in the Sunday Independent hinted that money troubles were at the root of the U.S. Motion Picture Corp.’s failure: “There would be no Fox or Lasky or Zukor here. There were to be, however, a few men with dented bank accounts – dented to the extent of $200,000.”
After years of neglect, during which kids broke the many windows with rocks and local men used the basement for poker nights, the studio was demolished.
Revival of interest
In the silent era, motion pictures were made on nitrate film, which was not only highly flammable, but also prone to decay and disintegration.
Petrillo estimates 70 percent to 80 percent of all silent films are lost due to deterioration, including most of the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. productions.
O’Connor discovered the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. through Luzerne County Historical Society Executive Director Tony Brooks, whom she had invited to talk to her New Media class about interesting people from the area.
One of the topics he mentioned was the local film industry.
O’Connor, a native Californian who always loved movies – particularly Charlie Chaplin’s – was intrigued.
“When Tony said there were these films, I said, ‘Tell me more.’ But he didn’t know any more,” she said.
So O’Connor obtained a summer grant from the Shoval Center at King’s and she and her class started researching.
“This project is one where you find a piece and you find a piece and you find a piece,” she said.
O’Connor’s students wrote articles compiled in a blog, blackdiamondcomedies.org, and put together material online for Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Black Diamond page didn’t exist until her students created it, she said.
Then O’Connor tried to track down the films themselves. The Black Diamond production “Her Fractured Voice,” starring Leatrice Joy, exists in San Francisco’s Prelinger Archives and can be viewed online at archive.org. But others are harder to find.
“What’s frustrating is not very many of them survived,” O’Connor said.
Unbeknownst to O’Connor, Petrillo had already been researching the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. Last fall they discovered they had the same idea and helped each other out.
Petrillo managed to unearth a copy of a U.S. Motion Picture Corp. comedy, “His Neglected Wife,” that turned up in a New Zealand archive in 2010.
He found it by “basically fishing around the Internet for any surviving films of the local company.”
In 1918, New York-based Inter-Ocean Film Corp. took on Black Diamond comedies for worldwide distribution.
These foreign markets did not send the movies back: it was too expensive and the films weren’t that valuable, O’Connor said.
As a result, far-flung places have films you can’t find anywhere else, she said.
“His Neglected Wife” is now in the hands of the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco, where it was restored before finding a permanent home at the Eastman House museum in Rochester, N.Y.
“They were kind enough to provide a copy to me,” Petrillo said.
It will be shown at a presentation O’Connor and Petrillo will give at Misericordia University on April 17, along with another film O’Connor discovered.
UCLA has most of the early Paramount Pictures holdings, including one of the Black Diamond films, “Susie Slips One Over,” featuring Leatrice Joy, O’Connor said. She ordered a copy.
Petrillo has a fourth U.S. Motion Picture Corp. movie, but he said it’s so badly deteriorated “you can’t really follow the film, and much of it is nearly unwatchable.”
O’Connor thinks more films may have survived. She received another grant to do research this summer.
“I still wonder if there isn’t something tucked away in an attic somewhere locally,” she said.
If you go: Local historian F. Charles Petrillo and King’s College English professor Noreen O’Connor will give a presentation on the U.S. Motion Picture Corp. and the production of short silent Black Diamond Comedy films in the Wyoming Valley at the Back Mountain Historical Society meeting, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday at Walsh Hall, Misericordia University, in Dallas Twp. Admission is free. Some of the surviving Black Diamond comedies will be shown.
Original story at: http://citizensvoice.com/news/hollywood-on-the-susquehanna-1.1472659