One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley unknowingly reported a lie from Cecil B. De Mille:
Just as if it weren’t enough to be known as one of the world’s major motion picture directors, now Mr. De Mille has gone and invented a color photography process, on which he has already taken out patents. Maybe you have noted some special tinting in some of the De Mille films—take the flames which surround Farrar in Joan the Woman for instance—these are all the result of Mr. De Mille’s invention.
They were the result of a new invention, but De Mille wasn’t the inventor, Alvin Wyckoff and Max Handschiegl were. Why he felt the need to claim credit I don’t understand. The inventors both worked at De Mille’s studio, Lasky, so maybe he was taking a page from Thomas Edison’s book and claiming credit for his employees’ work.
Wyckoff had been the chief photographer at Lasky since its founding in 1914. He also invented “numerous appliances to aid motion picture photography, as well as a number of inventions used in connection with the laboratory,” according to Motion Picture News.* Handschiegl was a lithographer and engraver who realized that similar techniques could be used on film to print color on selected portions of black and white stock. Their patents for the process were granted on May 13, 1919.
De Mille’s claim was quickly forgotten and the process came to be known as the Handschiegl Process. Handschiegl soon left Lasky and signed a contract with Sanborn Laboratories to do color work. He went on to improve his process (and receive more patents) until his death in 1928. Wyckoff continued to shoot films at Laksy until 1926 when he was blacklisted from the industry for helping to co-found the cameraman’s union, IATSE 659. In 1929 he appeared in advertising for another process, Multicolor Films, but it wasn’t a success. He worked on some low budget films in the 1930’s He died in 1957.
Allowing such an incorrect statement into the newspaper is partly Kingsley’s fault for being too credulous, but she didn’t have Google Patents to check and entertainment writers still rarely do adversarial interviews. You can learn more about color processes at Movies Silently and at the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.
De Mille got to be wrong about another thing that day when he said:
I have come to the conclusion that color photography, in the sense of absolutely faithful reproduction of natural colors, or any other method of coloring where the tints used are of the glaring variety, can never be used universally, as the eye of the spectator would be put to too great a strain, and the variety of color would distract from the story values.
Lucky for him, by the 1930s when Technicolor beat the other color processes to become the standard, everyone had forgotten he said that.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week featured William Farnum, who
looks his darn handsomest when wearing Wild West scenery…The Heart of the Lion is a clean-cut, well-directed drama, and besides is so stirring that even the critic, hardened with three-days-a-week viewing of fire, flood, abductions and sudden death involved in motion picture plots, gets a real thrill.
This lost film told the story of a doctor who, betrayed by his younger brother, goes off to work in a Northwest timber camp to forget. In repentance, the brother becomes a preacher and he gets assigned to the same Northwest town. The doctor ends up defending the brother against the lumber camp toughs. Poor Mr. Farnum: there’s just no escape for older siblings!
Kingsley recorded D.W. Griffith’s daily schedule when he was finishing up Hearts of the World:
- Leave the Alexandria Hotel at 7 a.m. and drive to the studio.
- Review studio business with his manager and plan the day until 8 a.m.
- Start production work: conceiving the scenes, ordering sets, selecting locations on the lot, supervising rehearsals, shooting.
- A short lunch, then work continues until dark.
- Edit the film exposed during the day, and “meanwhile, he has been interrupted many times meeting visitors and settling important matters with subordinates.”
- Have a rapid dinner, then more production work until 11 or later
- Return to his office and handle any “matters at hand.”
- Back to his hotel, where “he can apply himself to creative work.”
And she said he did this seven days a week! I feel tired just reading about it. Nevertheless:
through it all he has a world of fun. To see him directing a melodramatic scene is to have a rare treat. The actors become perplexed in their business, so he jumps up and demonstrates for them. As he portrays the throes and throbs of the scene, he keeps up a continuous patter such as, ‘if Al Woods could see me now, he’d say: “I’ll save you from oblivion: fetch a contract” and then I’d be a regular actor on a regular stage’ all to the accompaniment of delicious burlesque action.
Kingsley mentioned an experiment in comedy:
For the first time in the history of the film industry a comedy will be seen which makes use of no subtitles.
The film was called was called The Slave and it starred Chaplin imitator Billy West. Of course, it wasn’t really the first: the earliest comedies didn’t have intertitles either. Now the lost film is remembered, if at all, as the first film Oliver Hardy made in Hollywood. He’d been working for the King Bee Company in Bayonne, New Jersey and they had moved to Los Angeles in October.
*”Creators of Lasky Photography,” Motion Picture News, October 21, 1916, p. 173.