The Year Was 1938 – May 21st

Robert Montgomery in ‘Yellow Jack’
  • Robert Montgomery’s 34th birthday. Until September he was the president of the Screen Actors Guild. The Oscar nominated actor, for 1937’s ‘Night Must Fall,’ has his next film coming out in six days – ‘Yellow Jack’ about the fight against yellow fever in Cuba during the Spanish American War in 1898. The following month Montgomery launched an investigation into Willie Bioff at IATSE, which revealed his criminal past and connections to the Frank Nitti gang in Chicago. [He has one credit for 1939 – a mystery comedy ‘Fast and Loose.’ This may have been due to the fact that when WW2 broke out in Europe in September of that year, he went to London and enlisted in the American Field Service and drove an ambulance in France until the defeat at Dunkirk. (His daughter, little Elizabeth “Bewitched” Montgomery, was then six)].
  • Negotiating committees between the producers and actors about an amendment to the basic minimum contract call a halt until both parties can go through the cross demands. (Producers had presented a 100 pages worth). The producer committee had conferred with the casting directors and other studio execs to look into cost estimates based on the acceptance of the actors’ demands.
  • Columbia contract player, Ann Doran was recovering from a case of kleig eyes suffered when working on Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take it with You.’ [Long exposure to the arc lights used to light the sets could result in conjunctivitis and eye watering. Twelve films lay ahead for Doran in 1939, including Capra’s ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’].
  • Lola Lane’s 32nd birthday. Busy in 1938 at WB, playing the lead in ‘Torchy Blane in Panama,’ and with her sisters, Priscilla and Rosemary in ‘Four Daughters’ (which introduced John Garfield), and in its follow up for 1939, ‘Four Wives.’

Burning Hellzapoppin’

Burning Hellzapoppin

[Warning – actual film stock was destroyed in the “making” of this post. I didn’t do it. I was just a witness. Please don’t do this at home.]

This all took place on a Saturday morning. I was not scheduled to work at the Fifth Avenue theater (not the matinee anyway). We had some time set aside to shoot some film. We had a script and some actors on call (all friends connected to the UA Cinemas).

My friend Pat and I drove out to Walt Coy’s house to pick up the Auricon camera and his camera dolly/crane. Walt brought us into his shop where he stored his equipment. He pulled them out from their places, and ran over what we needed to know to use them. And though the Auricon could record sound, he advised us to use his Nagra recorder instead. It had a pulse that synched with the camera. Somehow we got on to the topic of nitrate film. Probably, he had asked us what kind of stock we planned to use for the day. We told him, but all I can remember now was that it was black and white. Any other details such as ASA, etc., I do not recall.

Keying off of this discussion, Walt treated us to a “science experiment.” He pulled out a big white five gallon bucket and filled it with water. He rummaged around and came up with a spool of film – a little bigger than the size of your fist. He told us it was some footage from the film “Hellzapoppin.’” (This was was an Olsen and Johnson musical comedy from 1941. I surmise that he had played it at one of his theaters back in the day, needed a replacement reel, and kept the damaged one).

He held onto one end and let the rest unspool into the bucket. The bulk of the coil hit the bottom of the bucket and sat there. Walt took out a lighter, struck it, and set the flame to the end in his hand. We watched in amazement as that film end burst into flames. It looked like a burning fuse, the kind you see in old WB cartoons or movie serials. And raced down the length still exposed to the air.

The flame reached the surface of the water, and rather than being extinguished, actually seemed to speed up, following the ribbon of film and continuing to burn under water. It was eery seeing those white hot flames under water like that. Soon it hit the ball of film at the bottom and the flames flared in intensity. There were so many bubbles coming up that it looked to be boiling.

“The thing about nitrate film is,” Walt explained, “it creates its own oxygen in the very act of combustion.” He then went on to regale us with horror stories about projectionists dying in projection booth fires. Of note was a local example. The projectionist in this case, he told us, was suicidal. He unspooled every stitch of nitrate film onto the booth floor. He then got out a cigar, struck a match, lit the cigar and dropped the flaming stick into the mass. The resultant conflagration triggered the safety mechanisms that sealed the booth, automatically entombing him.

Oh, yes, I now recall one other thing about our film stock. It was “safety” film.

Clip from Hellzapoppin’