Archive for the 'History' Category

What Does Identity Mean?

Posted by on Aug 27 2014 | Behind The Scenes, Exhibitions, Exploring the Archive, History, Other, Photography

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose — by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare wrote these lines for Juliet to speak in the play “Romeo and Juliet” and the question they pose is sometimes relevant to the cataloguing of a photograph.

Images such as “Migrant Mother,” “Powerhouse Mechanic,” and “Afghan Refugee Girl” are familiar to us by these acquired names, sometimes merely descriptive, sometimes alliterative and even poetic ones.

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895 - 1965). Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, printed ca. 1973. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Gift of Robert J. Doherty.

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895 – 1965). Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, printed ca. 1973. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Gift of Robert J. Doherty.

But it is also human nature to want to look behind the curtain, to know the narrative behind the iconic image, “just the facts, Ma’am” (as Sgt. Friday on the TV show Dragnet would say), the who, what, when and where of that image.

In the past year or so, new information about the identity of a solemn, bearded man in a brimmed hat in a Lewis Hine photograph has brought both clarity and resolution as well as prompting some consideration about the significance of a title and of inscriptions and the overall meaning and impact of certain historical photographs.

The portrait, now titled by Eastman House “A Yemenite Jew from Palestine” and dated 1926 in the exhibition Lewis Hine-from the Collections of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film was the springboard of these discussions. The image is a powerful one and like the familiar saying it “speaks a thousand words.”

Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874 - 1940), A Yemenite Jew from Palestine, 1926. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Transfer from Photo League Lewis Hine Memorial Committee; ex-collection of Corydon Hine.

Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874 – 1940), A Yemenite Jew from Palestine, 1926. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Transfer from Photo League Lewis Hine Memorial Committee; ex-collection of Corydon Hine.

In the case of this man’s portrait however, this road led to conflicting pieces of information for the cataloguer, creating, for a time, more confusion than clarity.

In 1901, Hine was one of several mid-westerners that progressive educator Frank Manny brought with him when he took over the position as supervisor of the Ethical Culture School in New York City. Hine began to photograph at Ellis Island in 1905 and wanted his pupils “[to] have the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they have for the Pilgrim who landed at Plymouth.”

As former Eastman House curator Alison Nordstrom tells us, “he was not on assignment in those years and he did not expect to make a living at it. His photographs were not “mug shots,” he strove to enoble-and not to accuse. He established a connection with his subjects and wanted the resulting images to tell their stories.”

We also know that in response to the new US government imposition of immigrant quotas, he returned to Ellis Island to make the same kind of portraits of new-arrivals in 1926.

The Eastman House’s Lewis Hine archive contains over 7000 photographs and 4000 negatives, along with manuscript and other materials and is generally acknowledged to be the most comprehensive collection of his work in the world. However, one should not be surprised that his work is widely represented in other museum collections and at historical sites, including the New York Public Library, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the University of Maryland and other places. Photography is, after all, a reproductive and a disseminating medium, and one negative can yield up many prints. What gives significance and value to most photographs is not that it is the only one, but that it is a vintage one, made by the photographer himself or under his close supervision, around the time the negative was exposed. And, not incidentally, a good print in fine condition will be valued over a poor one.

There are 2 small negatives of the bearded man at Ellis Island in the Eastman House Collection, each taken from a slightly different angle, probably moments apart. There are also 2 vintage photographs that correspond to each of these negatives.

This particular image is generally known through past exhibitions and their catalogues by the title “Armenian Jew, Ellis Island” and is sometimes dated 1905 and sometimes as 1926. An enlarged image in the second floor Great Hall at the Ellis Island National Monument bears the evocative caption, “Armenian Jew, Ellis Island” 1926, followed by: “This Armenian Jew probably left his native land to escape the Turkish persecution of the post-war period.”

Eastman House cataloguers were contacted in April 2010 by a visitor to Ellis Island, a man with an interest in Turkish history, who questioned this caption information on multiple fronts and argued dispassionately and persuasively that all of these facts could not be right at the same instance: nationality, religious affiliation, date, and historical events in the sequence and timing of last years of the Ottoman Empire.

The information written on the 4 portraits of this man by Hine in the Eastman House did little to resolve the issue and his concerns, since the information Hine had written on the prints was indeed “Armenian Jew Emigrant at Ellis Island 1926” but in contrast, he had written on the envelopes containing the negatives “Syrian Jewish Immigrant, Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, Ellis Island, 1905” With 2 nationalities and 2 dates, one is left with 4 distinct possibilities for the title. We knew from experience with Hine’s conflicting notations on the material at Eastman House that this was not unusual: The same portrait of an elderly woman could be identified as “Slovakian Grandmother”, “Jewish Grandmother” or “Polish Grandmother for instance and all could be variously dated from his two forays into Ellis Island. Hine did not recorded the identity of the subjects he photographed, although in some cases (as with children working in factories), he noted their height or other physical attributes.

The question of the identity of the portrait of the bearded man was raised again from a different source in late 2013. A family from New York City who had long believed that the Ellis Island enlargement was a relative (and even posed under it for snapshots), decided to come forward after seeing the image used in a review of the Eastman House exhibit on Lewis Hine at the International Center of Photography, published in the Wall Street Journal. The Goldzweig family contacted the newspaper and one of the staff writers, Angela Chen recognized a good story and took on the project.

Naomi and Yitzchak Goldzweig seated, with Ariella, far left, and Mazal Goldzweig, look at photos and information about their loved one Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal.

Goldzweig family look at photos and information about their loved one. Photo credit: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal.

Cataloguing staff were naturally cautious. An identification made on a resemblance alone is often a subjective judgment and people often disagree, perhaps especially when the stakes are high (think… a portrait that “looks like” Abraham Lincoln). But in the end, all of the information provided by the family lined up nicely, and the “mug shot” (in this case) on a May 6, 1926 “Document of Identity to an Applicant who cannot obtain a National Passport” was compelling.

His passport picture. Photo credit: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal

His passport picture. Photo credit: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal

So, much was gained through this communication. The bearded man was Rabbi Shalom Haim Nadoff. He was the son of Rabbi Meir Elnadaf of Jerusalem and his wife Bedur who had immigrated to Palestine from Yemen around the time of his birth in 1901. His family had produced generations of Torah scholars, some of whom had worked to preserve Yemenite Torah and religious works and heritage during the early waves of immigration to Palestine.

He was trained in the customary Yemenite order of Torah study before pursuing advanced studies at Yeshivat Etz Chayim in Jerusalem, with its emphasis on the analytical methods of the Eastern European yeshivot. He was ordained there in 1922.

He was also a graduate of Bezalel Art Institute in Jerusalem where he trained as a silversmith. He was an accomplished designer and craftsman of jewelry and religious articles, who exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembly, England in 1925.

Hine had noticed and photographed an educated young married man, an ordained Rabbi and a graduate of a prestigious school for craftsman. One might add that Rabbi Nadoff exhibited his works in silver at the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1933. He and his wife Mazal Sofer Nadoff and their five children initially resided in Brooklyn, New York before moving to Chicago, Illinois where in 1933, he displayed his work at the Century of Progress Exhibition. In Chicago, he established himself as the senior rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of the Portuguese Israelite Fraternity, where he served for the next forty years. During this period, the congregation grew to include Sephardim of Middle Eastern and Northern African extraction, in addition to the original Spanish-Portuguese constituency. Although of Yemenite heritage, he was familiar with Sephardic and Ashkenazic culture and practice. He did not favor Yiddish and conversed only in Hebrew, English and Arabic. He was also able to use some Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) with his congregation.

He was a dedicated proponent of the establishment of a Jewish State and in 1974, he and his wife became residents of Bayit VeGan in Jerusalem, where they lived for the rest of their lives. He died there in 1986, four months after the death of his wife.

All of this information is now in the catalogue record of the Eastman House Data Management System.

However, as noted above, the title of the photograph is “A Yemenite Jew from Palestine” rather than the name of this man. The cataloguer’s reasoning was that this was also Lewis Hine’s photograph and the photographer was taking these images not as “mug shots” as stated above, not even as individual portraits (though he surely sought out an evocative face), but really to “ give a face” to the experience of an Immigrant to America in 1926.

The conflicting captions needed to be resolved, of course, as well as the misleading narrative used in the Ellis Island Caption. Both of the correspondents, the man with interest in Turkish history and the family of Rabbi Nadoff expressed satisfaction over these decisions. This information was shared with both the New York Public Library and the Ellis Island site. The Wall Street Journal published Angela Chen’s article, illustrated with photos of the Goldzweig family and using quotes from Eastman House on December 15, 2013 under the heading ”Rightly Identified – At Last.”

As a final note, the world was intrigued by the National Geographic documentary when photographer Steve McCurry returned to Afgahnistan after the removal of the Taliban government by American troops and local allies in 2001. He eventually located the subject of his compelling photograph, Sharbat Gula, then around the age of 30. Nevertheless, the photograph itself will probably never be known as “Sharbat Gula.” Like other iconic images, it stands for our collective, human identity, which in the best cases, transcends the identity of an individual.

Steve McCurry (American, b. 1950). Afghan Refugee Girl, ca. 1985, printed later. Chromogenic development print. George Eastman House. Courtesy Steve McCurry. © Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry (American, b. 1950). Afghan Refugee Girl, ca. 1985, printed later. Chromogenic development print. George Eastman House. Courtesy Steve McCurry. © Steve McCurry



 
The exhibition Lewis Hine is on view though September 7, 2014 George Eastman House. This major retrospective of the celebrated documentary photographer, reformer, and educator features more than 150 original prints dating from 1905 to 1937, including “A Yemenite Jew from Palestine.”

 

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Music Cue Sheet Digitization Project

Posted by on May 28 2014 | Behind The Scenes, History, Motion Pictures, Other, Student Work

The experience of watching a silent film has never been truly noiseless. From the early teens well into the late 1920’s, silent films were almost always projected with some form of musical accompaniment, the nature of which varied according to the individual film and the scope of the theatre and clientele. Special releases premiering in big cities at important theatres were often accompanied by original scores performed by 40-plus piece orchestras, while screenings of the same film in smaller cities and towns might be accompanied by a single musician, usually a piano player or organist, improvising the musical accompaniment. Compiling, not to mention learning, enough appropriate music for countless reels of film was a formidable task that was resolved with two essential documents for the musician: music cue sheets and photoplay music.

Music cue sheets are highly detailed lists of musical suggestions, tailored to the narrative sequencing of a specific film. They were first produced by the Hollywood studios, but were also sold by musical entrepreneurs outside the studio system. Some, such as the “musical synopsis” for Across the Continent, simply listed the names of these musical suggestions along with their proper place in the film. Others, such as the “thematic music cue sheet” for Abraham Lincoln, featured the beginning melody of each suggested piece on a musical staff under the “cue” of an intertitle or action seen on screen.

Across the Continent

 

Abraham Lincoln

The second important element, photoplay music, is a sort of umbrella term. It is used to describe a series of compositions or musical arrangements, sometimes original but more often lifted from popular classical melodies, used to accompany a film. Photoplay music includes everything from venue and orchestra specific original scores for larger releases, to musical arrangements simple enough to be played by a single accompanist, but substantial enough to be fleshed out for small ensembles or large orchestras. Cue sheets suggested specific arrangements of photoplay music for a film but it was the conductor or accompanist who ultimately decided which photoplay music to purchase and what to play during the film.

Photoplay Example

Here at George Eastman House we have a valuable collection of both cue sheets and photoplay music, donated by the estate of the late Theodore Huff, a collector, archivist, professor, biographer, and silent film accompanist. Perhaps even more impressive than the sheer volume of this collection is the intersection between the two elements. An active silent film accompanist and music collector himself, many of Huff’s photoplay music scores correspond directly with the musical suggestions listed on his music cue sheets. And that’s where I come in.

Kate Scanning

I am a Masters student here at the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and the University of Rochester and I have spent the past few months initiating the process of digitizing this important collection. Cue sheets are still used to accompany screenings of silent films, but they are also incredibly useful research tools for archivists and scholars by virtue of their meticulous cataloging of running times, footage counts, projection speed, cues between scenes and more. Take for example the cue sheet for The Famous Mrs. Fair, which on just the first page offers up a wealth of information about the film. This is especially important for lost films for which music cue sheets constitute an important point of access, both in terms of technical specifications and narrative atmosphere as indicated by the musical suggestions, to films we might otherwise know nothing about.

Famous Mrs. Fair 1 Famous Mrs. Fair 2

The scope of the current project addresses the collection of music cue sheets for nearly 900 films. Once completed, we hope to continue into a second phase of digitizing over 1,600 pieces of photoplay music – the actual music pieces suggested in the cue sheets – for a comprehensive digital library of silent film music that will be accessible to archivists, scholars, musicians, and others. It’s a daunting but an exciting project and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get the process started.

 

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Yours Very Truly, George Eastman’s Legacy in Letters

Posted by on May 14 2014 | History

One of the neatest facets of the George Eastman Legacy Collection is the personal and business correspondence of George Eastman. Our vault contains 154 boxes of loose, incoming letters and 40 bound volumes containing Eastman’s outgoing letters in Letterpress format.

201202510355 blog

 

Over the years, hundreds of researchers have come to peruse Eastman’s letters as they researched his business sense, love for music, home and gardens, philanthropy, travels, and much more. In order to preserve the fragile Letterpress volumes and aid people in their research, two years ago we embarked upon an ambitious project: scanning the copies of George Eastman’s outgoing letters in high resolution so that they could eventually be OCR’d and thus be word searchable.

With the help of Kirtas Technologies and Iris Resources, the 40 bound volumes were carefully photographed. It was a tedious process as clean, white sheets of paper had to be put behind each thin, translucent page so the blue text could be legible. Once we had our hi-res images (each volume contained either 500 or 1,000 pages), an indispensable volunteer of ours, Peter Thomas, ran the images through Photoshop, getting rid of unneeded space and heightening the contrast so the text could be as easy to read as possible. Then he ran the images through Abbyy, an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software that “reads” the text and generates word-searchable PDFs.

While Peter spent months doing his part in Photoshop and Abbyy, some volunteers and I spent the same period typing up the handwritten indexes in the back of each volume that Eastman’s secretary, Alice K. Whitney, had created after wrapping up Eastman’s affairs. Now we have a complete, chronological index of every letter that Eastman wrote through his secretaries. (If Eastman personally handwrote a letter to someone, we wouldn’t have a copy – unless it’s been donated to us).

Now when a researcher asks if Eastman wrote to a particular person or company, I can quickly look their name up in our spreadsheet and see if and when Eastman corresponded with them. Getting the appropriate image number from that spreadsheet allows me to pull up the appropriate PDF(s) in seconds, saving time and preserving the original volumes.

Spreadsheet Example

 

Because of the nature of the often-blurry text on the thin paper, the OCR is not perfect. But we’re convinced we did the best we could with current technology available to us. At its best though, we can search the PDFs for particular words like Labrador or Brownie and find when Eastman talks about particular subjects.

We intend to make these searchable letters available online in a yet-to-be-determined format. Stay tuned.

Original Letter

Original Letter

 

Plain text version that was "read" and captured by Abbyy.

Plain text version that was “read” and captured by Abbyy.

 

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday, Mary Pickford

Posted by on Apr 08 2014 | History, Motion Pictures

In honor of Mary Pickford’s birthday today, we look beyond her famous golden curls at her close association with George Eastman House and her early film preservation efforts.

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On November 9, 1949, Mary Pickford was on hand to cut the ribbon at the ceremony for the opening of George Eastman House as a museum for photography and film. She was the sole celebrity representing motion pictures at the opening, but was joined by other noteworthy guests such as photographer Edward Steichen and poet Carl Sandberg.

Eastman House director Oscar Solbert, Mary Pickford, and Kodak president Thomas J. Hargrave

Eastman House director Oscar Solbert, Mary Pickford, and Kodak president Thomas J. Hargrave

In November 1955, George Eastman House held the first Festival of Film Artists (later called the George Awards). Conceived by the museum’s first director Oscar Solbert and organized by James Card, the first curator of motion pictures, the awards honored twenty living film artists of the silent era — five in each category of actor, actress, director, and cinematographer — “for distinguished artistic contribution to the universal medium of motion pictures” for the period 1915 to 1925. Ballots were sent out to people in the industry from that era, asking them to select their top five choices of film artists in each category. Pickford received the most votes by far of all the actresses on the ballot — 383 votes, the next highest being Lillian Gish with 236 votes.

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Someone at the museum had the forethought (or curiosity) to note the name of the person who returned each ballot, so we can actually see how some of these luminaries voted. It’s good to see that Pickford had the class not to vote for herself. (There were many others on the ballot who did vote for themselves!)

Lillian Gish, Oscar Solbert, and Mary Pickford

Lillian Gish, Oscar Solbert, and Mary Pickford

Pickford flanked by emcee Jesse L. Lasky (far left) and two of her directors and fellow 1955 George Award winners: Frank Borzage (left) and Marshall Neilan (right)

Pickford flanked by emcee Jesse L. Lasky (far left) and two of her directors and fellow 1955 George Award winners: Frank Borzage (left) and Marshall Neilan (right)

The awards were repeated two years later in October 1957, this time honoring film artists for the period 1926-1930. Pickford was a second-time winner and returned to Rochester for the awards ceremony, which was again held at the Eastman Theatre.

Pickford and husband Charles “Buddy” Rogers are greeted at the Rochester airport by Oscar Solbert and James Card

Pickford and husband Charles “Buddy” Rogers are greeted at the Rochester airport by Oscar Solbert and James Card

Pickford with fellow 1957 award winners Harold Lloyd, Janet Gaynor, and Lillian Gish

Pickford with fellow 1957 award winners Harold Lloyd, Janet Gaynor, and Lillian Gish

Pickford receiving her award from emcee Rouben Mamoulian at the Eastman Theatre

Pickford receiving her award from emcee Rouben Mamoulian at the Eastman Theatre

As a result of the connections made during the first and second Festivals of Film Artists, George Pratt, assistant curator of motion pictures, embarked on an oral history project in 1958 whereby he interviewed 27 pioneers of the silent film era, including many of the winners of the George Awards. Mary Pickford was one of them and the interview was conducted at Pickfair, her legendary home in Beverly Hills.

During the interview, Pickford recounts her early days on stage with David Belasco and on film with the Biograph Company, her less than favorable experiences with director Ernst Lubitsch (whom she brought to the U.S. from Germany to direct her in Rosita), acting with alligators in Sparrows, and cutting off her hair in 1928 (at the age of 36):

I wanted to be free of the shackles of curls and playing little girls. And I thought that was one step toward it. Of course I had the most indignant letters, insulting letters. And I thought, if that’s all, after all these years, a lifetime in the theatre and motion pictures, if it’s a bunch of eighteen curls that’s keeping me on screen, it’s about time I retired.

Perhaps one of the nicest moments, caught on tape during the testing of the tape recorder, is Pickford telling Pratt that she thought “Mama, Lottie, and Jack ought to be with us” during the interview as well, referring to a photograph she had with her of her mother, sister, and brother, all long ago deceased.

In 1959, James Card wrote an article for Eastman House’s Image magazine, assessing Pickford’s career. He felt compelled to counter the prevailing remembrance of Pickford’s performances as “the epitome of saccharine banality, sweetness and light and all permeated with the philosophy of Pollyanna,” due in large part, he believed, to the unavailability of her films at that time for screenings at film societies and festivals. He firmly defended her as:

. . . a battling hellcat, morally and physically committed to all-out attack against the forces of evil, bigotry or malicious snobbery that sought to frustrate the proper denouement of a triumphant, lovely girl appropriately presented in stunning close-up, her incomparable curls backlighted and the Botticelli smile shimmering through the last glittering remnants of any left-over teardrops.

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Pickford struggled with the idea of preserving her legacy on film. In 1931, and with what turned out to be only one more role on screen in her future, she told an interviewer for Photoplay magazine, “[W]hen I go, my films go with me. They are to be destroyed. I am buying all my old films for this purpose. I would rather be a beautiful illusion in the minds of people than a horrible example on celluloid. I pleased my own generation. That is all that matters.” Fearing that she and her films would be misjudged according to modern tastes — sound films had recently supplanted silent films as the industry standard — she reacted in this extreme manner. Fortunately, she had a change of heart and by the mid-1940’s was negotiating with the Library of Congress for the donation of her nitrate films for preservation. Much bureaucratic wrangling with funding and reorganization within the institution, however, made the preservation copying of her films from nitrate to safety film stock a decades-long endeavor.

George Eastman House played a significant role in the preservation of some of Pickford’s films during this muddled period. In 1951, Pickford allowed Eastman House to assist in the stalled copying of her films at the Library of Congress, and in five years eight of her feature films were copied by Eastman House onto acetate film. To further speed up the process, Pickford donated funds to Eastman House for the preservation of 26 additional feature films and 25 Biograph shorts. Card concludes his article by assuring us that:

Mary Pickford’s pictures are shown repeatedly to the public in the Dryden Theatre of Eastman House. In these continuing encounters, Mary’s art stays wonderfully alive . . . . For Mary still charms and always will. The poet [Vachel Lindsay], too, was right – there is something heavenly about Mary Pickford. It is a quality, we must admit, most uncommon in motion pictures.

And so today, we celebrate Mary Pickford’s legacy in motion pictures, and her foresight in preserving her films for future generations to study and enjoy.

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All images are from the George Eastman House Collection, Moving Image Department.

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A Magic Carpet Ride with Douglas Fairbanks

Posted by on Mar 29 2014 | History, Motion Pictures

90 years ago this month, Douglas Fairbanks released his fantasy spectacle The Thief of Bagdad. This was Fairbanks’ biggest and most prestigious film produced to date and was one of the most expensive films of the 1920s with a budget of over $1,000,000. Fairbanks wrote, produced, and starred in the film, and was able to bring his artistic vision to the screen with the exceptional assistance of director Raoul Walsh, production designer William Cameron Menzies, and cinematographer Arthur Edeson. The special effects and immense sets were the film’s biggest selling points – in addition to the star power of Fairbanks in the lead, of course.

The Stills, Posters and Paper Collection in the Moving Image Department has many wonderful artifacts for this film that have safely survived the 90 years since the film’s release. This souvenir program was sold at theatres during The Thief of Bagdad‘s exclusive roadshow engagements in larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Inside is the cast and personnel list, a retelling of the film in story form, quotes from the critics, and information about the art design, all beautifully illustrated with scenes from the film. Note the cover price of 25¢ (roughly equivalent to $3.50 today).

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For those who didn’t want to spend 25¢ for the souvenir program, there was also a free program available to pick up inside the lobby of the theatre. This one is from the Liberty Theatre in New York City, where the film premiered on March 18, 1924, and includes the basic information about the film — cast, production personnel, and a brief synopsis of the story — less elaborately presented than in the souvenir program.

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A common form of advertising movies during the 1920s was the movie herald. These small flyers were handed out at local theatres to advertise films coming soon to that theatre. They were, in effect, heralding the coming attractions. This tri-fold herald for The Thief of Bagdad was handed out at the Lyceum Theatre in Rochester, NY. It manages to pack in a synopsis, praise from the critics, and blurbs about the fantastic sequences in the film, all amidst a striking graphic display of images.

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A music cue sheet for The Thief of Bagdad was provided to theatres to help their accompanists prepare the music to play with the film, whether a lone accompanist on piano or organ, or a multiple piece ensemble or orchestra. It gives suggestions for music pieces to be played for each scene in the film, cued to either an intertitle or an action that the accompanist would see on screen.

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The Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection at George Eastman House is a treasure chest full of images from The Thief of Bagdad, which boasts the largest number of still negatives for any of Fairbanks’ films in this collection – over 1,700. In addition to the typical stills shot of scenes in the film, there are amazing behind-the-scenes and production shots that show the cast and crew at work, construction of sets, and costume and makeup tests.

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Douglas Fairbanks on set with director Raoul Walsh:
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These rare stills show Fairbanks posing before the camera to test how effectively the makeup work depicted scars his character suffered after receiving a flogging when he is discovered to be a thief:

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Most fascinating of all these are the production stills showing how some of the magic of the film was created, such as the construction of the fanciful sets, the underwater sequence, and the flying magic carpet.

The staircase in the Princess’s bedroom, during construction and once completed:
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The underwater sequence, where Fairbanks is tempted by the beckoning sirens:

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And the spectacular magic carpet ride:

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Finally, discoveries in internal correspondence and in one of the Technicolor collections at George Eastman House raise the question of whether Fairbanks was considering filming The Thief of Bagdad in what was then Technicolor’s two-color process. After completing Robin Hood in 1922, Fairbanks began planning his next film, which he wanted to be a pirate story. He felt that a pirate story would best be filmed in color as he “could not imagine piracy without color.” However, he was not at all satisfied with the technical aspects and limitations of filming in color. At about the same time that he was exploring his pirate film, he received as a gift a book of tales of the Arabian Nights, and he then shifted his attention to The Thief of Bagdad.

Although he had put off the pirate film for the time being, color was no doubt on Fairbanks’ mind in 1923 and 1924 while The Thief of Bagdad was in production. Anna May Wong, who played the Princess’s duplicitous slave in the film, talked about working on the film in a 1957 letter to George Pratt, assistant curator of motion pictures at George Eastman House. Wong stated that starring in The Toll of the Sea, the first full length Technicolor film (produced in 1922), established her in the public’s mind and also attracted producers’ attentions to her dramatic efforts. One of the producers was Douglas Fairbanks, “who at that time was very interested and studying different color processes with the intention of making his forthcoming film in color.” Fairbanks signed Wong to a contract, but “decided at the eleventh hour to continue using black and white film for making The Thief of Bagdad.”

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It’s not too far of a leap to venture that Fairbanks was likely testing the waters with Technicolor to see what they could do for him and his desire to produce a film in color. A test frame in Technicolor’s research files for its two-color process shows actress Etta Lee posing in an exotic costume much like those seen in The Thief of Bagdad:

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Lee was in the cast of The Thief of Bagdad, playing the Slave Girl of the Sand Board. Although none of Lee’s costumes in the film is the one seen here in the test frame, the top of a musical instrument can be seen in the background. Compare this with a still from the film, showing the Slave of the Lute, played by Winter Blossom:

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Whether Fairbanks was considering filming The Thief of Bagdad in Technicolor, or if he just made use of his current production to have color tests made for his anticipated pirate film, is mere speculation. Perhaps Technicolor, knowing of Fairbanks’ interest in making a film in color — as well as his dissatisfaction with the limitations of the color process — was trying to court him and keep him interested. After all, a Fairbanks feature film in Technicolor would undoubtedly have been a major achievement for the company in advancing its color process. Perhaps Technicolor initiated and offered further testing at Fairbanks’ studio, using actors, costumes, and props that may have been on hand for his current production. Whatever the case, these artifacts certainly give valuable clues to further study of the film, Fairbanks, and the technical achievements of the time.

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All images are from the George Eastman House Collection, Moving Image Department.

 

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