Written and Directed by Arthur Maude
20 min.; U.S.A.; Color; Silent
This post is part of the 1927 Blog-a-Thon
Right now Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Pepper's are tearing through "Black Bottom Stomp" in iTunes. Ah, 1927. Napoleon, Sunrise, Metropolis, Wings, Flesh and the Devil, It—no wonder film historian Kevin Brownlow once referred to this fabled year as a "rather special vintage." Discussions of cinema '27 sometimes stall on Vitaphone and The Jazz Singer (1927), but movies come in flavors other than feature films, and other technical innovations were being explored in 1927 besides synchronized sound pictures. Going to the movies meant more than just seeing a feature back then, of which more anon, so I've decided to reach a little farther down the bill and take a look at a Technicolor short subject for this weekend's blog-a-thon.
Arthur Maude's The Flag (1927) was the initial film in the Great Events series, short dramatized episodes from history produced by Technicolor for MGM between 1927 and 1929. Fifty shorts were planned though according to Technicolor's corporate history only twelve were produced. Other produced titles include Buffalo Bill's Last Fight (1927), and Napoleon and Josephine (1927).
This particular Technicolor short retells the legend of Betsy Ross (Enid Bennett) and the creation of the United States flag. Whether or not Ross actually designed the U.S. flag is disputed but director Arhtur Maude doesn't let that interfere with his version of the event. The film is subtitled "a story inspired by the tradition of Betsy Ross," which doesn't offer much hope of historical accuracy. If you think about it, "a story inspired by a tradition" leaves the widest possible margin for interpretation; it could mean just about anything. At least Maude is up front about it. Anyway, the real reason to watch the film remains the same reason it was made in the first place—to see an experiment with Technicolor.
A year into the American Revolution, General George Washington (Francis X. Bushman) attends a reception in Philadelphia with Betsy Ross when learns of a landing of British troops on Staten Island. He plans to halt their advance, but representatives from various colonies argue over which colony's flag Washington's army will march under. The general informs them that he and Ross have planned a new flag. Ross explains the symbols within the proposed flag by comparing it to an evening sky and then starts sewing.
Too bad Bennett's Betsy Ross is so reserved and bashful; there's little indication that she's the creative engine who conceived the national emblem. Bushman's George Washington only illustrates that the "King of the Movies" has a thorough command of posing (interesting to note that Bushman had recently starred as Messala in Ben Hur (1925) which also features sequences in Technicolor). To be fair, the screenplay doesn't give these characters much to do so we can't only fault the actors for the dull performances. At least Bennett allows some emotion to pour out in her close-ups; Bushman's face remains rusted shut throughout, even when he discovers a spy in their midst. The lack of any real action, the absence of creative direction, the rainbow array of costumes and abundant color combinations in the mis-en-scene remind me of The Toll of the Sea (1922). I wonder if these shorts weren't a kind of color test series adapted for release to the movie-going public. Without seeing any of the others though that's hard to tell. That said, the Technicolor process looks different but good here; the colors are vibrant, truer than in Toll, especially skin tones, and the flag itself pops off the screen nicely. More work yet lay ahead for Technicolor as the blue part of the spectrum still seems to be a problem; in places water, dresses, uniforms appear greenish, brown or even black.
So why was the Great Events series of shorts made? That's a tough question and unfortunately the corporate history doesn't provide an answer, and otherwise thorough web histories fail to mention them at all. Feeling as fearless as a Jazz Ager today, I'm willing to make a guess. After the moderate financial success of Technicolor Process Number Two film Toll of the Sea, Technicolor opened a laboratory in Hollywood to "more effectively service directors and studio heads..." Though color was used in sequences in films like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) and George Fitzmaurice's Cytheria (1924), Technicolor's costs were high. To get the kind of financial backing necessary to promote the concept of color films to audiences and convince studios to invest in it Technicolor needed the box office power of a star. Enter swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks in the feature length Technicolor adventure The Black Pirate (1926)—the film was popular with audiences and raised Technicolor's profile. However, exhibitors remained skeptical of color features because of technical issues projectionists suffered with the two-color prints. Technicolor Process Number Three, which solved the technical problems associated with the previous process, was developed in 1926, and the company's next move was producing this Great Events series of shorts for MGM. Why shorts and not a feature? I'm still trying to answer that question. Trouble is I haven't been able to find out if these shorts are in Process Number Two or Process Number Three. But, if the series are in Process Number Three then perhaps these shorts were a convenient way to test the new system before tackling the high cost of a feature film. If Technicolor was looking for studio investment and if MGM wasn't completely convinced about color yet, then a series of shorts, like the Great Events series, would provide a temporary solution for both parties. Short subjects would keep costs lower, projectionists could learn to work with the prints, Technicolor could continue perfecting their process and MGM could offer color to their exhibitors, gauge audience reaction and be in a position to make a color feature when the time was right. Technicolor did indeed produce a full length feature, The Viking (1928), in Process Number Three that was released by MGM. Then the company was flooded with orders for sound productions. As for the motivation to produce a series of shorts I won't know for sure until I can examine the appropriate documents or discover that somebody else has already done that leg work. Update: located the library where the documents reside now I need to arrange a visit.
Is The Flag great? No. Is it good? Not really. Is it worth a look anyhow? Sure, it's a Technicolor short from 1927—that's reason enough in my book. Vivek Maddala, a 2000 Grand Prize winner in Turner Classic Movies Young Composer's Competition composed, orchestrated and conducted a new score for it. If you want to hear Maddala's work and marvel at the singular richness of a Technicolor film from 1927 you can watch this short 29 April 2007 at 1:30 a.m. on TCM.
One last look back at 1927. November 1927 at the Capitol Theatre in New York—The Flag is part of the bill with Body and Soul (1927), a drama in which Lionel Barrymore tries to brand Aileen Pringle with a hot iron. Going to the movies is a whole day or evening out at the Capitol in '27. For your 50¢ - $1.00 you enjoy the feature, the Technicolor short, an orchestral overture of "Stars and Stripes Forever," For Crimes Sake (1927), a Krazy Kat cartoon, the comedy of The Ritz Brothers, a sing along with a mandolin expert, and the wild music of Vincent Lopez and his Orchestra. Those were the days!
Glorious Technicolor: An Illustrious Legacy Corporate History (revised 1 September 2006).
Mordaunt Hall. "The Mad Doctor," New York Times (8 November 1927): 33.
"Eisenstein's Technique," New York Times (25 December 1927): X5.