The 1930s through 1950s are generally seen as Hollywood’s Golden Age. It was a time when major studios had glamorous stars and made blockbuster pictures with casts of thousands.
It was also a time when cheap production companies ground out quickie films on a shoestring budget, and sometimes, just sometimes, created something worth watching.
Welcome to Poverty Row, the result of the world’s insatiable appetite for film. In the days before television, many people went to the movies every day. Not only did they get a movie, but they also got a newsreel, cartoon, and a shorter “B” movie. Neighborhood theaters often showed B-movies as features since they were cheaper to rent and the audience of local kids didn’t care about great production quality, they just wanted to see some cowboys shooting it up. And that’s where Poverty Row came in.
When the Nazi Party took over in 1933, Germany was already a leading nation for film production. From the late 1910s through the early 1930s, its silent films and early talkies were seen all across Europe and were popular in the United States as well. But the year saw a major change in the nation’s film industry as well as its political makeup. Like with every other industry, movie making had to subordinate itself to the goals of National Socialism.
The Nazi party’s first targets were Communists and Socialists, who had fought against them for control of the streets. Many lives were lost on both sides during this era of riots, and one of the more famous of those was a member of the Hitler Youth named Heini Völker, who was killed while distributing Nazi flyers in a Communist neighborhood. There had already been a popular book about the boy published in 1932 titled Hitlerjunge Quex. (“Quex” means “quicksilver”, a nickname Heini got for being such an eager worker). This was turned into a film in the first year Hitler was in power.
In the annals of early silent film, the name Thomas Edison stands out prominently. The American inventor racked up a series of firsts–building the first film studio in the U.S., registering the first copyright for a film in the U.S., making the first sound film in the U.S. (and arguably the world), and many other innovations.
Edison Studios was launched in 1894 and ran until 1918, when an antitrust lawsuit led Edison to sell the company. In that time, the studio’s host of directors made almost 1300 films. The vast majority were shorts, with the earliest efforts being “actualities” such as The Sneeze (1894) and the historically interesting Sioux Ghost Dance (1894). For the first few years of film, simply seeing people moving on screen was enough, but soon audiences wanted stories. Edison Studios churned out dozens of shorts a month, most of them rather forgettable comedies or dramas as well as a few Westerns such as the very first in the genre, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
When movies first became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, the world was already captivated with tales of the Wild West. Dime novels, plays, and traveling shows entertained millions in the U.S. and abroad. Movie directors were quick to pick up on this and Westerns were a popular film genre right from the start.
The first years of film overlapped with the last years of the Wild West. The last corners of the frontier were being settled, and some towns still had the shoot-em-up reputation movie viewers craved. Directors often went on location and hired real cowboys to do their stuff in front of the camera. One of them, Tom Mix, became one of the genre’s enduring stars.
But movie directors wanted bad men too, and they didn’t have to look far. Several real Western outlaws reenacted their crimes on camera.
Last week, I talked about the Spanish master of silent film, Segundo de Chomón. This week, I’d like to talk about another early genre filmmaker who has also been all but forgotten.
Walter R. Booth was an English stage magician who teamed up with film pioneer Robert W. Paul, who was making and screening films as early as 1896 at London’s Egyptian Hall, where Booth did his magic act. In 1899, Booth and Paul co-founded Paul’s Animatograph Works, a production house that specialized in trick films using Paul’s technical know-how and Booth’s skill at magic and illusion. These short films wowed audiences with special effects such as animation, split screen, jump cuts, superimposition, multiple exposures, and stop motion animation.
Fantasy, science fiction, and horror themes have been in the movies since almost the beginning. During the first few experimental years, movies consisted of simple scenes such as a man sneezing or a train pulling into the station, but soon that novelty wore off and audiences wanted stories. Since the medium itself seemed almost magical, directors began to experiment with the fantastic in order to tell gripping tales.
Most film buffs know of Georges Méliès and his 1902 Trip to the Moon, generally considered the first science fiction film. Méliès started out as a stage magician so it’s not surprising he added an element of the fantastic in his pioneering movies. Other early filmmakers such as Auguste and Louis Lumière and Thomas Edison tended to film realistic subjects or historical/adventure stories, although Edison did make a version of Frankenstein in 1910.
Lost amid these famous names is a man who did as much for the development of fantastic film as any of them. The Spanish director Segundo de Chomón pioneered many early special effects techniques and worked on some two hundred films. Having spent much of his career in France and Italy, he’s been claimed by no country and thus has fallen through the cracks of history.