Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sending Smiles to the Soldiers by the Movies (USA, 1918)

Around October 20, 1918 an estimated 14,000 people gathered in Grant Park, Chicago, for a huge movie project. Friends, relatives and sweethearts of soldiers from the Illinois regiments that were serving in France all gathered to appear before the camera, so the soldiers could see their loved ones on Christmas Eve.



Scene from the "Smile Films": friends and family say hello to Eddie Brand from Chicago


The project was called "Smiles Films" and judging from contemporary reports it was a terrific morale booster. The idea actually was quite original. Usually films were made in Europe for the American home front, but this time it was the other way around. According to film trade reports, the Chicago Examiner - a Hearst newspaper - came up with this idea and joined forces with the Rothacker Film Company for the making of these special films. As production went underway the scope of the project expanded rapidly. At first the makers of "Smile Films" thought about shooting scenes of friends and relatives of soldiers from the 131rd and 132nd Illinois regiments. Then the Black Hawk Division was added to their list, as well as the 149th Field Artillery, the Marines from Illinois and the Afro-American soldiers. In the end director Rex Weber and his crew produced 34 reels of film, totalling 26,683 feet of film.

"Turning Chicago Upside Down"

When the "Smiles Films" were recorded war on the Western Front was still being fought by the American soldiers and no one could have guessed that the war would be over by Christmas. Sending a personal message over there by using movies was something the boys in the trenches would certainly appreciate. During post-production the footage was edited into segments according to the specific name of the military unit, so the film could be shown to the appropriate soldiers through the YMCA. Each film had an introduction by Governor Lowden and Judge Landis who was quoted on an intertitle urging the boys to "give the Germans both barrels". Director Rex Weber, who had made a series of films in 1917 for the American Military Relief Association, also appeared in these movies, announcing what would happen to Chicago when the soldiers returned home. A scene was projected next, showing the streets of Chicago that were turned upside down by tilting the movie camera.

According to film producer Watterson R. Rothacker, director Rex Weber was thoroughly exhausted by this massive film project. In retrospect that turned out to be an ominous statement. On December 9, 1918, shortly before his movies were shown to the American soldiers in France, Weber died - one of the millions of victims of the Spanish flu that was sweeping across Europe and the U.S. at the time.

Unfortunately, we haven't been able so far to find the footage of these "Smiles Films" in the historical film archives, but in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. we came across a fascinating selection of pictures showing the making of these films in Grant Park, Chicago.

You are free to view and download these pictures here on our photo channel.


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