Monday, November 16, 2015

Found! Merl laVoy's "Heroic France" (USA, 1917)

Merl la Voy, circa 1920

Long considered lost, Merl la Voy's war film Heroic France (USA, 1917) has been partially retrieved by authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen. La Voy is credited as the only civilian cinematographer from the United States who filmed on the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun with the French army. The authors located four reels of La Voy's war footage, including some fascinating aerial pictures taken above the frontline and scenes showing a German gas attack on the Western Front.

"The Modern Marco Polo"

Motion picture cameraman Merl la Voy (1885-1953) traveled the four corners of the world for Pathé, earning him the title of the Modern Marco Polo. His adventures during the First World War are described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War. When we finished this project, we closed our book with a final observation saying none of la Voy's World War I films had been found. We were wrong about this. On the Internet we located a collection of World War I newsreel segments which could be traced to the CBS Collection at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The intertitle references to La Voy pointed to Heroic France, his first war film made in 1917. We were able to confirm this by checking contemporary reviews for this film.

Merl la Voy filmed with the French army in 1916. On his return to America his film was first shown in Chicago on March 19, 1917. Heroic France was sponsored by a group of pro-French business men from Chicago and exhibitions supported war charity organizations such as the American Red Cross and the American Relief Clearing House. This eight-reel movie was released nationwide in June 1917 by Mutual, shortly after the American intervention in the Great War. The footage that we found comes from reels 3, 4, 5 and 6. It has a total playtime of a little over 35 minutes. The inclusion of pictures showing the Serbian army, as well as the double "5 Series", showing both aerial scenes and footage from the French front on the same reel, is intriguing. La Voy in 1917 went to Serbia for the Red Cross where he shot film at the front. These observations suggest that the four reels found with film from Heroic France had been re-edited by La Voy at a later date, perhaps for lectures.

German prisoners of war, gathering grain, 1916. Photograph by Merl la Voy. Author's collection.

CBS Series on World War I

CBS obtained the original footage from the Sherman Grinberg Collection while assembling film for their World War I TV series in 1964. After the series was edited CBS in a magnificent gesture turned its unused footage over to the National Archives - a real boon for researchers. We also found scenes in the CBS episode on Verdun from this series, which were probably taken by la Voy, featuring the American Lafayette Escadrille pilots who had volunteered to fight for France. Famous aces such as Raoul Lufberry who had been filmed by la Voy appear in this CBS episode, together with his pet lions Whiskey and Soda.

Gardening at the front, 1916. Photograph by Merl la Voy. Author's collection.

Getting mail in the trenches, 1916. Photograph by Merl la Voy. Author's collection. 

We have edited these CBS scenes into the video on our YouTube channel, showing all of la Voy's World War I films that we found, rearranged according to the orginal series of numbers of the reels and scenes on the intertitles.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lest We Forget - The Final Pictures of Lt. Ralph E. Estep (1918)

Ralph E. Estep, 29 October 1918, Driccourt, French Ardennes, eight days before his death

Exactly 97 years ago and just four days before the Armistice, on November 7, 1918, while on a photographic assignment with the 42nd "Rainbow" Division near Sedan, Lieutenant Ralph Edwin Estep was killed in action by a German high explosive shell. He was the only military photographer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I who was mortally wounded. The pictures in his camera recorded his final moments in life.

Not much is known about Estep's background. He probably was born in Winona Lake, Indiana, where at his local high school a memorial tablet was placed to commemorate his untimely death. In 1915, before America entered the Great War, Estep was sent to Europe by Leslie's Weekly to cover the war with the Serbian army. He also was sent to France and appears to have reported on the war at the Italian front. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917 Estep enlisted with the 36th Division and he later was made a Signal Corps photographer. In the Signal Corps collection at the National Archives in Washington, DC., there is a picture taken by Estep in the fall of 1918, showing the 78th Division Photo Unit making pictures of a bridge that had been destroyed by the retreating German army over the Aire River near Grandpre in the French Ardennes. Estep covered the American advance in this area which was under heavy German fire until the very last day of World War I.

Last War Pictures

On November 7, 1918, Estep was near Sedan capturing still photographs with his plate camera of a patrol by a unit of the 42nd "Rainbow" Division into the German lines. The weather was cloudy, it was around 5 PM, dusk was already falling. This was the moment the Germans started shelling the American soldiers in front of him and Estep's camera recorded the men running for cover. There were casualties among the American soldiers and Estep's final picture shows a huge column of flying earth as a result of a shell exploding in front of him. A few minutes later he was dead.

Lieutenant Estep's death was described by Stars and Strips in more detail on November 28, 1918:

Monday, November 2, 2015

Walter Niebuhr and "Pershing's Crusaders" (USA, 1918)

America's first official war film, Pershing's Crusaders (1918), has a stunning opening scene by Walter Niebuhr. As mentioned before in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we wouldn't have found out about this remarkable footage if it hadn't been for Dr. William G. Chrystal who has studied the Niebuhr family for over 35 years and is an authority on theologian and political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. Many thanks, Bill, for providing us with your astonishing research material!

Walter Niebuhr (right) on the Eastern Front

Born in 1890, Walter Niebuhr was a journalist from Illinois. In 1915 he went to Germany to cover the First World War. On his visits to the eastern front Niebuhr frequently accompanied cinematographer Wilbur Durborough, and he also appears in his film On the Firing Line with the Germans which was recently restored by the Library of Congress. After America entered the Great War, Niebuhr was named Associate Director of George Creel's Commitee on Public Information's Division of Film. It was Niebuhr's job to produce America's first war films. The iconic movie poster as well as the opening shots of Pershing's Crusaders (1918) were all based on work by Walter Niebuhr.

German "Rule by Might", designed and played by Walter Niebuhr

Opening Shots 

Pershing's Crusaders begins with a shot of a mounted crusader in armor (Niebuhr’s work), holding a flag in one hand and a shield in the other. On either side of the crusader a doughboy in uniform marches. The narration next reads: "The mailed fist of the 'Rule by Might' (Niebuhr also played that part) lies heavily upon Europe. To it no contract is binding, no obligation is worthy of fulfillment, no word of honor sacred." A point of light appears on the center of the screen, moving outward, as though a drop of acid was spilled on the film, burning it from the center to its edges at a more or less equal rate.  As the entire frame lightens, the viewer sees sand, nothing but sand, sand like that found in the Sahara or Mohave deserts. Suddenly, an arm emerges from the sand, wearing chain mail.  In the throes of an unnamed agony, the arm stretches and contracts, before falling back, into the sand. Symbolically, the mailed fist, "Rule by Might," is defeated. It lies heavily upon the sandy wasteland, an apt visual metaphor for the defeat of Germany.

Viewed from a modern perspective, Pershing's Crusaders frequently appears dreary, but Niebuhr's work on the opening "punch shots" still stands out as a powerful piece of cinematography. After the war, Niebuhr set up the American Cinema Corporation and in the 1930s he tried his hand at documentary production. During the Second World War Niebuhr edited footage shot by the Signal Corps. He died suddenly in August 1946 as a result of a heart attack.

Film Music

Cover picture from E.T. Paull's Pershing's Crusaders March 

The release of Pershing's Crusaders also had an interesting spin-off in the musical industry at the time. The E.T. Paull Music Company in New York City make a tie-in between the film and produced a Pershing's Crusaders March which was copyrighted in October 1918. Apparently, the music used for its first performances was other music than the music that was put together by Samuel E. Rothapfel during the first film exhibitions of this particular movie. So we do not think there is any reason to think that this is part of an original musical score which was written for this CPI film.

Here is a download link to the sheet music of Pershing's Crusader's March.

Footage from Pershing's Crusaders of good quality is hard to find on the internet, but we managed to locate the original opening scenes and uploaded the film with contemporary World War I music added to the film clip.