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Chapter XXXVIII

THE MOVIE FIRING LINE IN ENGLAND

Making the Movies by Ernest A. Dench
New York, The Macmillan company, published 1915 (now in the Public Domain)


pp. 168-172

War brings changes in its wake. The motion picture producers, after Britain entered the European conflict, unanimously decided in favor of war photoplays.

Their judgment may have been faulty at the time in neglecting to take the thoughts of millions of fans away from the war, but the craze for the one things spread like a boomerang. It was here, there and everywhere and you could not escape it anyhow. So why criticise the producers for following fashion?

The producers, when war was only in the air, found their extras disappearing suddenly. They soon woke up to the fact that they had been employing Germans to act as British soldiers.

These movie armies made good their losses by securing the services of laborers of all kinds on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, the manual labor of their everyday work fitting them physically for their parts.

This mania -- for it was nothing else -- for war material compelled the stage costumiers to work overtime to cope with the demand for uniforms of the various warring nations. A director friend of mine wanted to equip a British force in khaki, but the required color was not obtainable for love or money. Bless your heart, there are more ways than one of getting over the situation. "Who would detect," he argued to himself, "whether the uniforms were blue, green or red?" So you may rest assured he is mighty thankful that the day of natural color cinematography is not here yet.

You would, were you to inspect the studio grounds of the Barker Company, be inclined to think that you were somewhere in Belgium on the firing line instead of in a peaceful London suburb.

Trenches have been dug and a row of "Belgian" houses is located at one end, while a Red Cross Hospital is located at the other. Then you will probably see an auto bus containing sixty soldiers in khaki about to proceed on a trip for some special scenes.

To show shells exploding presents both difficulties and dangers. The effect is produced by burying land mines in the ground and setting them off by invisible electric wires. I heard quite recently that one of these not only produced a miniature earthquake, but sent debris in the direction of the camera man and broke many windows in the studio close by, besides necessitating many repairs to the roof. The noise produced harmed the hearing of members of the producing forces, many having to wear artificial ear drums in consequence.

The war, however, is going to prove a lesson for the producers. After it is over they will not be able to put on a military drama without theoretical knowledge of their subject, for so many men have served their country that audiences will be hyper-critical. The producers, to begin with, will have to discontinue using powder which produces clouds of smoke and employ the genuine article -- smokeless powder -- in its place. They will, I daresay, find it hard to atone for the loss of much of the spectacular effect which they so heartily like.

If the director attempts, as another instance, to have a shelled house rapidly crumble to nothing, his efforts will not pass muster. Soldiers who have seen active service say that a building only gradually collapses and not all do so in the same way.

The producer has other difficulties than those arising from the dangerousness of the material he handles. Government is the chief source of these.

If these patriotic films were shown in their original state in America they would violate our own neutrality. They are therefore subjected to a severe pruning. If, for instance, the title is "Foiling the Fatherland" it is amended to "A Foreign Power Outwitted"; but nevertheless German uniforms cannot be covered up with a subtitle.

Although the producers are doing their best to assist the recruiting movement, the British authorities are also very sensitive. They have practically tabooed the taking of coast scenes. The other day a certain leading man of a certain company was lounging outside the studio dressed in a khaki uniform, which contained no numbers or buttons, when a too smart policeman took him in charge. That broke up the work for the rest of the day; and they fined him for wearing His Majesty's uniform without serving in the Army!

There is also the spy mania. A well known film company was doing a war subject near a military camp without being aware of the fact. Lo, and behold, if a sentinel didn't observe two "Germans" in suspicious attitudes, for the movies, of course. He didn't think twice about arresting them either! and it took a lot of persuasion and influence to secure their release.


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