Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Advertising War Films with the Magic Lantern

In October 2016, the authors found a remarkable glass slide of Wilbur H. Durborough's World War I feature film On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915). Advertised as "the greatest scoop of the war", the picture sheds some new light on how war films were promoted in the American theaters during the First World War.

Unknown photographer. Greatest Scoop of the War: On the Firing Line with the Germans, 1915. From the collection of the International Center of Photography. Gift of Ray F. Tomorowitz in memory of Joseph R. Tomorowitz, 2011 

Ever since movies were first shown on the screen glass slides were an integral part of the early cinema experience. The first theaters were often equipped with only one projector and films were usually one or two-reelers. While changing films the audience needed to be entertained and because of this slides were projected, displaying lyrics and illustrations of popular songs. By the 1910s theaters also used the "Magic Lantern" to project slides on the screen, showing upcoming films. These slides were often referred to as “lantern” slides because of their origin in pre-cinema magic lantern shows.

Glass slides sent to a movie theater in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1917 to show between films giving current news on events involving World War I 

The glass slide advertising Durborough's film is of a specific type and appears to have been part of a promotional kit that was distributed to exhibitors to advertise his war film. The Durborough film slide consist of two panes of glass held closely together. The inside surface of the glass has been imprinted with a positive image of the coming attraction, showing Kaiser Wilhelm II and Field Marshal von Hindenburg. There is a solid black border on both panes on the outside of the image. The two panes measure exactly 3 1/4” by 4”, and they are held together with pieces of black tape on the edges of the two panes. Usually there is a blank border left inside this type of slide for listing local show days. The “black tape” type was mostly made from the earliest silents through the mid-1930s.


We found the glass slide on the website of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City and contacted Claartje van Dijk, the assistant curator. The ICP, she said, unfortunately doesn't have any information other than that this is a lantern slide taken by an unidentified photographer. It was donated in 2011 to the International Center of Photography. So, while the provenance of this glass slide remains a mystery, we do get a interesting glimpse how Durborough's film was advertised in the American theaters during World War I.

Based on our research Durborough's film On the Firing Line with the Germans (1915) last year has been restored by the Library of Congress and was shown again for the first time since 1917 at the Pordenone Festival of Silent Film in October 2015. The Library of Congress announced the online release of Durborough's restored World War I film in this weblog on November 11, 2016.

We recently prepared a new, extended story on Durborough's photographic work during World War I. You can read this Durborough Film Annotation here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Battle of Alost" (GB/USA 1914)

On September 27, 1914, the Belgian city of Aalst (Alost) was the scene of heavy fighting. In a desperate attempt to push the invading Germans back, Belgian soldiers defended the banks of the river Dender. On the spot was cinematographer Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore who made a remarkable film of the battle of Alost.

Long considered lost, parts of the film were found recently by Dirk Meert in the German Federal Archives. The credit for identifying the cameraman goes to Walter De Swaef, co-author of a book on Aalst at the outbreak of the Great War. Walter did a terrific job researching the events in Aalst when local citizens were brutally executed by the German army.

The Cameraman

Arthur Dugmore (1870-1955)

Arthur R. Dugmore was an Irish-born pioneering American naturalist and wildlife photographer who took part in photo-safaris in Newfoundland and Kenya. He also studied painting at the Bell' Arte in Naples and at the Academy of Design in New York. In 1914, Dugmore went to Belgium and filmed the invasion of this country by the German army. According to a tradepaper article in Moving Picture World, he managed to gain access to the frontline because his brother had a commission in the British army.

The Movie

Dugmore later described his experiences as a frontline cameraman in his book When the Somme Ran Red. Together with another American journalist, Arthur Gleason, he reached Alost on Sunday, September 27, 1914. After having been declared crazy by the local military commander for trying to film the fighting, he joined a company of Belgian soldiers who had set up a barricade in the streets. Nothing much was happening at this moment, and Dugmore suggested staging a movie scene. In the surviving footage we see some of these soldiers supposedly falling dead behind a barricade with a machine gun car in the background. This barricade actually was built in order to film Dugmore's scene.

Released as The Battle of Alost in Great Britain, Canada and Australia the movie was a great commercial success. In the United States the film was released by the Lubin Company in November 1914. An important reason for the popular interest abroad is that the film tied in quite closely with the public feelings at the time. In belligerent as well as neutral countries there was a huge amount of sympathy for the suffering of the Belgians who were overrun by the German army.

Up until his final years when he wrote his autobiography Dugmore insisted his film coverage during World War I was authentic. However, as Walter De Swaef's research clearly shows, the movie on the battle of Aalst was a fake. In the book Walter produces several witnesses who described how Dugmore elaborated on the truth. One should not forget that journalism at the time already was commercialized. Also, reporters wanted to get the picture and in order to film the war scenes were frequently staged.

Scene from The Battle of Alost  (1914)

Lost Footage

In the meantime, Walter De Swaef continues his impressive research on films that were taken around Aalst during World War I. The American trade press indicates Dugmore's film was widely released by the Lubin Company nationwide, including scenes that have not been found so far, showing Belgian cavalry and artillery passing through Aalst, the armored motor cars and Red Cross wagons in the city. Hopefully more scenes shot by Dugmore may be found either in the European or American film archives.

Apart from a description of Dugmore's film Walter De Swaef's and Peter D' haeseleer's book Duitse Oorlogsgruwel in Aalst (ISBN 978908232650) contains some interesting photographs taken from Dugmore's movie. Here you see an illustration that was used in a contemporary French postcard. Note the damage that was added to the window shops by applying a photo retouching job for dramatic purposes.

Streetfighting in Alost. French postcard. Courtesy Peter d' haeseleer.

In 1916 during the battle of the Somme Dugmore was gassed but he survived the war. He remained active throughout his life as a painter and photographer. By 1931 he was known for his films The Wonderland of Big Game and The Vast Sudan as well as his many books on wild animals.

Here is an interview by Lowell Thomas from the Oakland Tribune (January 5, 1930) on Dugmore's experiences as a cameraman during World War I in Belgium.  

We have uploaded the surviving footage shot by Dugmore in the streets of Aalst to our YouTube channel.

With special thanks to Walter De Swaef for his input on this weblog.