Monday, September 25, 2017

An American Newsreel Cameraman with the Serbian Army (1915)

The Serbian Film Archives (Jugoslavenska Kinoteka) recently shared with us new information on American cameraman Ariel Varges. As a result, we were able to identify a number of newsreels that were shot by Varges in 1915 when he accompanied the Serbian army during World War I.

Ariel Varges in the trenches. Copied from Editor & Publisher, 27 October 1917

Ariel Varges (1890-1972) was one of the first pioneering newsreel cameramen in American film history. From 1914, he filmed for the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial and he remained a globe trotting war photographer throughout his career. As described in more detail in our book on the American cinematographers of the Great War, Varges came to Europe in December 1914. By using his close contacts with Sir Thomas Lipton, he got on a ship for the Serbian front and filmed the war in the Balkans.

First Foreign Movie Cameraman in Serbia

Varges was by all accounts the first foreign cameraman to film the Great War in Serbia. Upon reaching Belgrade he filed his first report for the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 34 which was shown in the American theaters on April 29, 1915. This newsreel has scenes showing Sir Thomas Lipton with Serbian Red Cross officials, as well as the first pictures shown in the U.S. of Crown Prince Alexander, king regent of Serbia. In the collection of the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka is footage shot by Varges that was released in the United States between July-September 1915. These films are a most valuable addition to the newsreel footage by Varges that we had found earlier on at the Library of Congress in the John E. Allen Collection.

Scene from Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 34, filmed by Ariel Varges. Copied from Motography, May 8, 1915

The first newsreel report by Varges from Serbia that we could identify in the collection of the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka was Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 54 (1915) which has a remarkable close up of Major Vojislav Tankosić, one of the founders of the Black Hand group which was instrumental in recruiting Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, thus propelling Europe into the First World War. The intertitle for this specific scene credits Tankosić for causing World War I which is somewhat exaggerated but the scene is of great historic interest. Our book American Cinematographers in the Great War has more information on how Varges managed to interest this high ranking Serbian officer to pose in front of his movie camera.

Photograph from A. E. Wallace's scrapbook. On the back is marked "Danube Trench", no. 8.  It is clearly a photograph taken in conjunction with Hearst Selig News Pictorial no. 71, September 25, 1915, which was shot by Varges with the Serbian army. Wallace was a colleague of Varges and shot film in wartime Germany. Courtesy Cooper C. Graham

Infantry Engagement

Varges' newsreels taken with the Serbs contain scenes taken in Nish, where the Serbian Army had set up temporary headquarters. In addition, Varges filmed military operations at the Serbian fortress of Semandria, a staged infantry engagement near Belgrade and wounded soldiers arriving on a transport at the American hospital in Belgrade. Altogether we were able to identify four U.S. newsreels that have Serbian war scenes taken by Varges, based on reviews in the trade paper Moving Picture World.

Varges' newsreels were posted online by the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka on the website of the European Film Gateway. We are most thankful to Aleksandar Erdeljanović, Head of the Film Archives, for sharing links to these clips with us. We have added references to the original American newsreels, as well as quotes from the reviews in the movie trade press, to compile this video on Varges' newsreels of the Serbian army during World War I.  All rights to the original footage are held by the Jugoslavenska Kinoteka.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Film Propaganda in the U.S.A.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the United States soon became an important target for foreign propaganda. Both the Entente and the Central Powers tried to influence public opinion in America. The years of neutrality between 1914 and 1917 in fact turned into a 'battleground' which also included the American movie theaters. For the first time in film history movies were used in a professional way by various agencies and governments for wartime propaganda purposes. Sometimes this even resulted in riots in the film theaters between pro-Allied and pro-German Americans.

Albert Dawson, war photographer. Copied from Deutsch-Amerika, 15 September 1917

Case Study

As a case study for one of the earliest attempts to use motion pictures for this purpose, authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen in 2013 published Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company. In this book we described the workings of a secret film campaign that was financed and set up by German officials in Berlin in 1914, and how the German authorities tried to use cinematographer Albert K. Dawson as a front man to make pro-German movies for release in the American theaters. Based on records from the German Foreign Office, the Austro-Hungarian military press office as well as personal information on Dawson's life and work, we offer the reader a unique opportunity to follow this American cameraman into the trenches of the First World War and witness his adventures at the front. The book also explains how Dawson's films were used as propaganda.

Scenes from one of Dawson's war films (1915)

A fifth edition of the book appeared in January 2015 and can be ordered on

For some fascinating background information on film propaganda in America during World War I, which also mentions Dawson and his film company, here is a link to another weblog.

Our book on Dawson has also been reviewed recently in this article online.

Monday, September 4, 2017

How the American Newsreel Men Invaded Mexico (1916)

In a previous weblog we mentioned how in 1916 newsreel cameraman Tracy Mathewson followed the U.S. Army into Mexico during the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa. The war in Mexico was an important training ground for a number of cinematographers who soon after went to Europe and filmed on the battlefields of France.

American film reporters in Chihuahua, Spring 1916. Copied from International Photographer, October 1933

Ignoring official regulations Mexico was invaded by many American cameramen, as this picture shows that we recently found in a 1933 edition of International Photographer. The U.S. Army had agreed on allowing only one official photographer to accompany the military expedition. But in the spring of 1916 - when Pancho Villa's border raid into the U.S.A. was making headlines across America - all the newsreels were represented. A false report had come in that Villa was assassinated at Chihuahua City and all the cameramen immediately grabbed a freight train and went down there.

The Men Behind the Movie Camera

It was on this occasion that this picture was taken. The cameramen from right to left in the back row are: Tracy Mathewson of the Hearst newsreels, Dick Burrud of Gaumont News, next to him Gilbert Warrenton working for the Universal Animated Weekly. The man cranking Warrenton's movie camera is United States consul Letcher. Next to Letcher we have Beverly Griffith of Universal and next to him behind the Universal camera is Nicholas McDonald of the Selig-Tribune Weekly. The Mexican cranking McDonald's camera is the general of the Chihuahua district. The men in the front row are all American newspaper reporters.

Nicholas McDonald (left) with the First Division, American Expeditionary Army, 1919. U.S. Signal Corps photograph from the National Archives. Courtesy Harry B. Kidd

Nicholas McDonald

Nicholas McDonald featured before in an earlier weblog. In February 1917, he got in a plane and with permission of General Pershing filmed the American operations in Mexico.

Here are some interesting contemporary newspaper stories on his film work in Mexico.

After the American entry into the First World War McDonald was attached to the 1st Division as a Lieutenant of the U.S. Signal Corps photographic unit. Later General Pershing promoted him to Captain and assigned him to GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force. McDonald filmed at Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel and the Argonne offensive and twice received citations for bravery. President Poincaré awarded him with the Croix de Guerre. He reportedly did most of the principal photography for Pershing's Crusaders (1918), America's first official war film that was produced by the Committee on Public Information (CPI). After the war, McDonald worked for Walter Niebuhr's American Cinema Corporation. His photographic career came to a sudden end in February 1923 when his flashlight set off a huge explosion. As a result, McDonald lost his right arm.

McDonald (right) filming on the Western Front, October 1918. Signal Corps picture from William Moore's book U.S. Offficial Photographs of the World War (1920)

This news story in the Oregon Daily Journal of September 21, 1919, has more on McDonald's film work during World War I.