Saturday, July 24, 2010

SFSFF 2010—Introductory Remarks to The Flying Ace (1926)

Library of Congress film curator Mike Mashon (affiliated with the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, aka MBRS) has become a familiar and welcome face at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF).

Mashon explained that he has been working with the
Norman Studios to strike a new print of The Flying Ace (1926) to bring to his "favorite film festival". The Library of Congress had been given a nitrate print by Capt. Richard Norman, Jr., the son of the founder of the studio. In 1980, they did a preservation of The Flying Ace and showed it occasionally during the '80s. He felt the SFSFF would be the perfect opportunity to strike a new print of the film and, since he had the power to do so, he picked up the phone and got the ball rolling only to discover that it was the "project from Hell", though well worth it.

The nitrate print in the Library of Congress dates back to the film's original release in 1926 by the Norman Studios, which was not a wealthy studio and thus the print was poorly exposed with lots of changes within the film between scenes. The exposure was all over the place. The folks in Mashon's lab—particularly their chief timer Ken Kuban—went back and retimed the film. There were more than 2000 timing changes! Mashon hopes the folks in his lab who deserve all the credit will still be speaking to him after their brilliant efforts striking a new print of The Flying Ace, which holds the record for the fastest turnaround in delivery to the SFSFF. The print was finished only a few days before its scheduled screening at the festival and for the last couple of days they have been blowing the chemicals dry up in the booth. Mashon asserted they will never try to beat this record in the future, even though the results are spectacular.

Mashon introduced Ann Burt and Carolyn Williams of the Norman Studios. Burt advised that in 1908 Jacksonville, Florida was invaded by fledgling filmmakers from New York. Along with a year-long temperate climate, Jacksonville offered a varied shooting locale, with the beautiful St. Johns River, coastal beaches, a modern cityscape (since they had just rebuilt from their great fire in 1901), and nearby farms which had been former plantations. Jacksonville was a perfect location for shooting Civil War films, jungle and tropical isle films, westerns and more. Several motion picture companies took advantage of these winning attributes, such that by 1916, Jacksonville telephone directories listed more than 30 motion picture companies. Jacksonville became known as the "Winter Film Capital of the World."

But this was not to last. According to some, the industry had a scandalous nature and the antics of film crews (such as pulling fire alarms to draw crowds or inciting riots to film mob scenes) turned the burgeoning movie industry into a political issue. In the hotly contested mayoral race of 1917, the film opposition candidate emerged the victor. Jacksonville's welcome mat was pulled in and the fledgling film industry shifted to where they were welcome, which was Hollywood, California. The rest, as they say, is history. "And I can tell you," Burt quipped, "we're real sorry about that. We are spending a lot of money in trying to get them to come back."

Not everyone made the exodus to California, Williams continued. The Norman Brothers appeared in Jacksonville just as the movie industry was decamping "to that other town, which we won't mention." They made history for the kinds of films they made. Though Oscar Micheaux's "race films" have achieved historical recognition, less well known were the efforts of white filmmaker Richard E. Norman, even though the Norman Studios were "at the top of the heap in terms of making the kind of films that would counteract the very negative impact on African Americans."

Williams mentioned that the Norman Studios helped introduce the practice of
"colorism"—prevalent even today in such films as Precious—where light-skinned Blacks are advantaged over dark-skinned Blacks. A little of this can be seen in The Flying Ace and many of the race films supported colorism. Lighter complected Blacks were cast as more positive characters whereas darker complected Blacks were usually comic relief or, worse, villains.

Of particular significance to Williams is the statement The Flying Ace makes regarding gender. The Flying Ace can be characterized as the typical damsel-in-distress film; however, the lead actress Kathryn Boyd was billed as "a female daredevil"; a reference to Bessie Coleman who basically inspired the film. As briefly mentioned in Megan Pugh's essay for the souvenir program, Richard Norman contacted Coleman hoping to include more daredevilry in the film. The Flying Ace, however, ended up not including any plane stunts.

The Norman Brothers, particularly Richard Norman, made a tremendous impact. His films were not just efforts to make money in terms of their relevance but made important contributions to African American representation in early film that reflected realities bypassed by the mainstream media.

The structures that housed the Norman Studios production company still exist in Jacksonville, largely due to the key efforts of Ann Burt who has spearheaded efforts to convert them into a museum that not only tells the story of the Norman Studios but of filmmaking in Jacksonville as a whole.

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