Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bringing History to Life in the 1920s

Pocahontas and John Rolfe, after their wedding in the Jamestown church, from Jamestown, one of the Chronicles of America Photoplays.

If you had been sitting in the Hastings school auditorium on Friday, September 16th, 1932, you might well have seen the wedding of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. It would have been in black and white, and without any sound – but at least there would have been movement, history brought to life on the silver screen.

How do we know what a high schooler would have been doing on that particular day? Well, we were recently looking through the public school handbook for 1932-33, which is in our pamphlet file, and we became curious about several entries in the school calendar. Sandwiched between the G.O. elections and the Aloha Club dance are three days where the scheduled activity is “Chronicles of America”. A quick google supplied the information that the Chronicles of America Photoplays were films on American history. This series of fifteen silent movies, with titles like The Pilgrims, Peter Stuyvesant, The Declaration of Independence, Dixie, and The Frontier Woman, was one of the earliest educational film series. It was produced between 1923 and 1924 by Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a studio established in 1906 that has been called the “first modern motion picture plant in the country.”

The real Hastings connection here is a person – Arthur E. Krows, who was scenario editor at the Vitagraph company. Krows wrote the scripts for the first two films in the series, Columbus and Jamestown. Krows lived on Farragut Avenue, directly across from the school, with his wife, known to the entire town as an animal lover and host to all the stray dogs and cats in the neighborhood. Krows’ brother was “Doc” Earl Krows, a local dentist, who lived on Euclid Avenue. It seems likely that Arthur Krows was the man responsible for obtaining, or encouraging the school to obtain, copies of the film reels to show to students.

The Chronicles of America Photoplays were based on a set of books called Chronicles of America published by Yale University Press between 1918 and 1922. “This series of fifty volumes,” declared the publishers, “is designed to tell the story of the United States, as it has never before been told… to present the entire history of our country in living form, so related that the reader will be given a real vision of his country from the beginning to the present day." And almost as soon as the first volumes went to press, the publishers had the idea of developing accompanying films that would further the goal of bringing history to life.

Director-General Peter Stuyvesant gives way to fury as the Councilors urge him to accept the English terms for surrendering the Colony of New Amsterdam, from the film Peter Stuyvesant.

The publishers contacted Krows at Vitagraph, who was enthusiastic about the project and agreed to become secretary of the Chronicles of America Picture Corporation, a joint venture between Yale University and Vitagraph. He set to work on the first two scripts and made arrangements for filming to begin. Richard Koszarski in his 2008 book Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff describes the process. “Production soon began on Columbus, and the company was lucky enough to locate a full-scale reconstruction of the Santa Maria that had been floating in Chicago’s Jackson Park Lagoon since the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Although the Nina and the Pinta were by now considerably beyond repair, the Santa Maria was towed out into Lake Michigan for a few impressive establishing shots. Back in New York, an estate at Mount Kisco doubled for the palace of King John of Portugal, the La Rabida monastery was shot in Huntington, and beach scenes showing Queen Isabella’s messenger overtaking Columbus were filmed along the shores of Montauk. Interiors were built at the Vitagraph studio in Flatbush.”

The book series took history from the Indians to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Vitagraph was able to produce only fifteen films out of the proposed forty, and only got as far as the Revolutionary War before the combination of incredibly high production costs, conflict between the historian/editors and the filmmakers, and the collapse of the Vitagraph studio brought an end to the photoplays. (Arthur Krows himself resigned as secretary of the Chronicles of America Picture Corporation after an argument over changes that the Yale historians wanted to make in his scripts.)

But though the films may not have recouped their costs, they were popular enough with museums, schools, and local clubs that they helped establish a real market for educational film. As late as the 1950s, prints were still being circulated by various institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Pathe company, and in 1941 the Chronicles of America Photoplays became the first documentary film series to be shown on American television.

Congress assembled in Independence Hall on June 7, 1776 to vote on a resolution for independence, from the film The Declaration of Independence.

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