Left: Sintzenich making movies at an airfield in Sussex, England, October 1918. Right: Portrait 1st Lieutenant Sintzenich, U.S. Signal Corps, Paris, May 1919
Nicknamed "Snitch", Sintzenich was born in London on August 14, 1884. He is among the best known early cameramen in film history mainly because of his personal diaries that are now at the Library of Congress. From 1913, he recorded his career as a cinematographer in great detail. Nowadays Sintzenich is probably best remembered for his work in the 1920s as a cameraman with director D.W. Griffith. His contribution to the U.S. School of Military Cinematography has remained somewhat underexposed, so this weblog is another attempt to set the record straight and give Sintzenich the credits that he deserves.
Filming Safari, Newsreels and Harry HoudiniSintzenich became a motion picture cameraman in 1909 and his first job in England was with Kinemacolor, the first succesful color system introduced by Charles Urban. Filming his way around the world in the West Indies and Canada, Sintzenich in 1914 went to Africa to capture a safari on film. He then became a newsreel and studio cameraman for Universal in the United States and in 1916 went to the Bahamas to film underwater footage for the movie The Submarine Eye. This experience no doubt also helped him to film the world famous stunt artist Harry Houdini during one of his escape performances.
When America entered the Great War in 1917 Sintzenich applied for a commission as cameraman in the U.S. Signal Corps. He entered the Signal Corps as a master signal electrician in December 1917. The entry of his diary for January 2, 1918, mentions: "Took Carl Gregory up and introduced him to the Captain with the result [that] he was requested [to] apply for a commission right away." Just two days later at Columbia University Sintzenich and Gregory for the first time went over the blue prints for the new facilities that were required for the U.S. School of Military Cinematography. During the next days Sintzenich worked hard on interviewing many applicants for the job of photographic instructor. The entry for January 9, 1918, says: "Made up a final curriculum of instruction with Gregory." Sintzenich also drew up the final plan for the film lab at the campus. Meanwhile Gregory returned from Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1918, with the news that he had been commissioned second Lieutenant and was made "Production Expert" for the new school. The two men worked on the outside plans of the film lab the very same day.
The diary clearly demonstrates that the U.S. School of Military Cinematography was a co-production by the two men, although Sintzenich seems to have done most of the work during the first formative weeks in January 1918. Sintzenich's work stopped suddenly when he was ordered to report in Washington, D.C. for special work. He was called to make movies for the Committee on Public Information, America's wartime propaganda agency, but Sintzenich turned the offer down when he found out he could only do this work as a civilian because of his British nationality.
2nd Lieut. A.H.C. Sintzenich, U.S. Signal Corps, operating a Debrie film camera from Farman Plane No. 1741 and 1st Lieut. A.W. Bevin, A.S. pilot, about to make a flight over the Aerodrome at Sussex, England, October 1918
In February 1918, Sintzenich had finished all of his preparations. Two new labs were ready, new camera equipment had been ordered and he had built up a complete staff of instructors who would teach the recruits how to film and photograph America's entry into World War I. Among the new instructors was Victor Fleming, who would later be President Wilson's official photographer during his first visit to Europe. Fleming after the war became one of America's top film directors. Sintzenich noted on February 16, 1918: "Vic Fleming, cameraman for Douglas Fairbanks, has been put in charge of the movie men, temporarily. An awfully good fellow."
A Day at the U.S. School of Military CinematographySintzenich and Gregory not only set up the new school, they also went to Fort Slocum for basic training with the first batch of fresh recruits. A typical day, as described by Sintzenich, for the soldiers would be as follows:
Wednesday - April 24, 1918: Our usual routine again today. Drills and classes at semaphore. The Motion Picture Office Quarters are moved from the Library to the Havemeyer Hall. The unit carrying over the equipment, etc. In the afternoon I gave them a lecture on camera construction, explaining parts etc, then out for a "hike".
In May 1918, Sintzenich was taken to City Hall and came back an American citizen. He boarded the SS Leviathan in August 1918 and went over to France. If he expected to see any action he was soon disappointed . Most of his photographic work consisted of making identification snapshots of American soldiers. From September 1918 until the Armistice he spent his work for the U.S. Signal Corps photographing American camps, airfields and hospitals in England.
Lt. Sintzenich on the roof of an ambulance, making moving pictures in London of a crowd outside of Buckingham Palace who are celebrating the Armistice, November 1918
Long after the Great War Sintzenich remained active as a cinematographer in Hollywood, the Soviet Union and elsewhere. He spent three years in India, working for the Eastman Kodak Company, and on his return to America in May 1932 Sintzenich again joined forces with Carl Gregory. In a family letter Gregory wrote:
"Hal Sintzenich, a camera friend of mine, comes here every day and works with me in the hope that we can make some stuff we can sell. He has not been able to get anything to do since he came back and so we have been working as best we can without capital to try and make something with what I have here. We are building a [motion picture] machine for trick work ... We started building the machine two weeks ago yesterday and estimate that we have it about half finished. Of course we can't do any work with it to bring in any money. We start to work on it about 9.00 every morning and work until nearly midnight."
Sintzenich died in Charleston, South Carolina, in August 1974.
Information from Sintzenich Diaries courtesy Cooper C. Graham. With special thanks also to Charles "Buckey" Grimm for providing us with some family letters by Carl Gregory.