Wednesday, October 4, 2017

World War I Combat Camera Edwin F. Weigle Found!

Radford Polinsky recently contacted us with some intriguing news about the discovery of an original combat movie camera that was cranked in 1918 by Lt. Edwin F. Weigle, one of the top American cinematographers in the First World War.

Edwin Weigle, demonstrating his Bell & Howell 2709 movie camera to General Peter Traub, Western Front, October 1918

As described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, Weigle was the "star" cameraman for the Chicago Tribune who accompanied the Belgian and the German army. His films On Belgian Battlefields (1914) and The German Side of the War (1915/1916) were among the most popular contemporary World War I films released in America. When the United States entered the Great War Weigle was also one of the first officers to set up a photographic division for the U.S. Signal Corps.

Vintage Bell & Howell Movie Camera 2709

Weigle's camera is a Bell & Howell 2709, serial number # 250. The camera was identified by Jim Elyea who found a note saying this camera was picked up at the [Bell & Howell]  factory by Lt. E. I. [sic] Weigle for the Signal Corps on June 1, 1918. The cameras are part of of his rental collection for History for Hire, a prop house that was started by Jim in 1985, which features a large vintage media collection. Jim explained: "It is one of four 2709s in our collection. I have no memory of when or where we got it. Right now, it has no movement, but if need be, we could probably install one from one of the other cameras."

We recently discovered Weigle went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma in June 1918 to film operations at the U.S. Army Artillery School. This previous weblog has more information on Weigle's film report. Given the date, Weigle probably used this specific Bell & Howell film camera to shoot these scenes. Shortly afterwards, Weigle was assigned to the 35th Division of the American Expeditionary Force. He went to France in the summer of 1918 and in October 1918 we have him shooting film of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Here is some of Weigle's footage taken with the 35th Division, that we found at the Imperial War Museum in London.

In our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, we reproduced a picture that was taken shortly after this offensive in late October 1918, showing Weigle demonstrating a Bell & Howell 2709 to General Peter Traub, the commanding officer of his Division. Again, this seems to be the very same movie camera that is now in the collection of History for Hire.

U.S. Signal Corps Photo Section Motion Picture Unit in action. Sgt. 1st class Polinsky (left) served as camera operator, with Pvt. Maxwell as camera assistant. The camera is a 35 mm U.S. Signal Corps Liberty model from 1918. Photo courtesy Radford Polinsky. 

Classic Hollywood Motion Picture Camera

Bell & Howell produced the 2709-types in different batches. Mary Pickford owned a 2709, serial number # 230 which was sold in February 1918. The Thomas Ince Studio bought a 2709, serial number # 241, sold on February 23, 1918. It stands to reason serial number # 250 was sold shortly afterwards in 1918, which ties in with the date on the note that was found by Jim Elyea. The first all metal camera with a four lense turret and twin compartment magazines, the 2709 Bell & Howell became a classic Hollywood motion picture camera. The design was so good that the basic camera body remained in production unaltered until 1957.

A film history fan, Radford Polinsky has participated with costumed World War I reenactors, using historic movie cameras from Jim Elyea's remarkable collection. "I work in the motion picture industry, and happily I went though film school back when they actually used film, so I have a basic grounding in the technology of film. I borrowed and brought a Signal Corps Liberty Model 35 mm hand cranked motion picture camera to show how some of the motion picture imagery used in World War I newsreels was captured. The owner of the camera is interested to let us use the Signal Corps Liberty Model to document World War I Centennial events. Now that we are well into the Centennial, we are getting serious about it!"

Check out the website of the Great War Historical Society for more  photos of the 1918 U.S. Signal Corps Photo Section Motion Picture Unit in action at the Los Angeles National Cemetery Memorial Day event for 2010.

Great job, Radford and Jim. And many thanks for sharing this information with us. We hope you take good care of Weigle's film camera!


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