A Closer Look at J S Stembridge #1939TheMiracleYear

A Closer Look at J S Stembridge

In my last post for – 1939 The Miracle Year, I mentioned J. S. Stembridge who rented out  weapons for use in movies. It didn’t seem on point to write more about him at that time for it would have been a huge rabbit trail. So I thought – why not give him his own post.

James Sidney Stembridge was born in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1869. The town had been the capital of Georgia until displaced by Atlanta just the year before. Though it was a great place in which to grow up, its struggle to keep financially solvent, may have been the reason James wound up in Baltimore as a clerk by the 1890s. It was from that metropolis in 1893 that he landed in his calling as a soldier, the experiences from which formed the basis for his future success in his rather unique business.

By the time of the Spanish American War he was a sergeant in the US 18th Infantry and was dispatched to the Philippines where the US Army’s mission was the pacification of that new territory. He reupped in Manila in August 1898 – a “Most excellent sgt.,” finishing out his term a year later at the Presidio in San Francisco.

From this first encounter with the Golden State, he felt the need to return to family on the east coast after his discharge. Both parents were gone by this time, but his eldest sister and her family in Sanford FL gladly took in the ailing veteran. He had contracted malaria in the Orient and such were his doubts about his longevity that he decided to forswear ever marrying. This notion may have been reinforced when his sister’s husband Herbert Munson died in 1905 from tuberculosis and as a result she descended into madness and was incarcerated in an insane hospital. (Their two daughters, his nieces, later worked for Stembridge).

By 1906, James wound up on his own in Jacksonville FL working as a salesman for a shoe retailer. The pull of family had him back in Georgia by 1910, near Waynesboro, working as a salesman in a drugstore – most likely for his younger brother Henry, who was a pharmacist there. (Henry’s son James Edward, born in 1913, would later join his uncle in his gun rental business in 1933, taking over from him upon his death in 1942).

In investigating Stembridge’s move back to CA from GA, the timing has proven problematic. Most credit his connection early on to Cecil B DeMille when the director was creating ‘The Squaw Man’ in 1914. The story goes that DeMille was exasperated over some extras playing soldiers who acted anything but soldierly. Stembridge, being a former drill sergeant, volunteered his services – to the grateful satisfaction of the director. But the LA city directory for 1914 does not list Stembridge. Neither does the one for 1915.  He does show up finally as a shoe salesman in 1916 which seems appropriate, given his work history. And he did not appear in any of the LA directories with a film industry occupation until 1920. (Stembridge did have a few acting parts in the early 1920s and for such he was listed).

    Loose threads sprouted as I passed down this particular rabbit trail. Just when I thought I was set to close this post, I could not, not so long as questions dangled without answers.

What I uncovered in pursuit of those answers has given me a negative proof of sorts that Stembridge was not in California in 1914 and probably not involved with film in 1915.

In looking through DeMille films that would have utilized extras as soldiers, besides The Squaw Man of 1914, I discovered two that were made back to back in 1915 – The Unafraid and The Captive. Both are stories with the Balkan War of 1912-13 as a backdrop, and called for extras to portray Montenegrin and Turkish troops.

     During the filming of the second a serious tragedy occurred. An extra was accidentally shot and killed. According to DeMille’s own account, he had called for live ammunition to be fired outside a house at its door before they were to rush it. In preparation for the follow up scene DeMille had ordered blanks to be loaded instead. One rifle, sadly, did not have its live round replaced.

     No mention was made of a firearms expert on set. If there had been, the fault would have rested squarely with him. DeMille carried the guilt and arranged for a pension for the victim’s widow.

If Stembridge had been present it is easy to imagine that the tragedy would not have occurred. (And the converse, if it had happened despite his presence, he would no longer have been employed as such).

     So, to my mind, it seems all the more likely that Stembridge was not involved in the industry until late in 1916 or in 1917. DeMille remade The Squaw Man in 1918, just four years after the first version. This may align the timing better to another statement that claimed Stembridge was called on to drill studio employees facing a call up with the US entry into the World War (April 1917).

It would seem that the circumstances in the studio at this later time were more conducive to bringing the ex-soldier on board. War movies, at least patriotic ones, were being pushed into production.

What at first was a maintenance position at the studio, blossomed into a unique relationship. By 1919 it seems Stembridge convinced DeMille and Jesse Lasky (the principals of Paramount Studios)  to advance the capital to set him up as a supplier for gun rentals, both for the studio itself and to rent out to other productions at other lots. They set aside space at the studio to warehouse the weapons and in which he could repair and service them and to manufacture the crucial blank ammunition.

His stock of guns was limited at first, so part of his job was to hunt down the requisite arms as needed. In 1924, he had a particularly hard time putting together enough period correct weapons for The Devil’s Cargo, an adventure set in gold rush California. It seems gun collectors, then on the rise, had snapped up the readily available supply.

A big break for his firm came in 1925 when director King Vidor came to him to solve some tricky problems with the automatic weapons needed for his film – The Big Parade – set against the background of the recent World War. Vidor’s home studio (MGM) had given up on firing blanks from machine guns, declaring it impossible.  The recoil was not strong enough with the lesser force from the smaller charges in the blanks to eject the shell casing and chamber the next round.  Stembridge, with the help of his assistant Fritz Dickie solved the problem. Their success brought more work when Howard Hughes tapped them to supply weapons (a record 1200) for his war film – Hell’s Angels (in production between April 1927 and July 1928; released in 1930).

By 1930, Stembridge had 6,000 weapons in his collection and he reported that the only gun he did not possess was a Chinese matchlock, an antique flintlock dating from the 1600s.

This decade saw the rise of the gangster film, which meant even more business for the Thompson sub machine guns in his collection. Warners came calling with its Public Enemy for 1931, and Hughes brought him back for Scarface, released in 1932. And RKO had him train his guns on King Kong.

Besides all the 1939 film titles listed in the prior post, the Miracle year also saw the re-release in September of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ an anti-war film, based on the Erich Maria Remarque bestseller, which gave the flip side of the World War from the perspective of German soldiers in the trenches. Back in 1929, Universal had hired Stembridge and 800 of his guns to bring it to life.

Aside: I recently watched All Quiet on DVD. It is a stunning achievement of cinematic art. The art direction behind the staging of the scenes is particularly striking, giving the whole a reality that is palpable. The German machine guns [supplied by Stembridge] sweep the field from their positions in the trenches and add greatly to that authenticity. They are only details, passing minutia, but underpin the actions and emotions of the cast, as they “live” out before us their hopes and fears.

Stembridge Gun Rentals continued on through the 1940s under his nephew, James Edward “Ed” Stembridge. Their services rose in demand throughout the 1950s what with all those Westerns populating the TV networks. This slowed down as the 1960’s advanced. Yet the Westerns were replaced by the rise of spy themed and sci-fi based TV shows and movies, calling for more exotic and at times fantastic weaponry, and Stembridge was at the forefront (e.g. Han Solo’s blaster fashioned from a Mauser machine pistol).

“Ed”’s son Sydney R Stembridge took over in 1978, and the following year their stay at Paramount ended, (two years after my wife and I saw them on the lot, completely unaware of all this history- see old post).

They were “back” with more exotic weaponry for Schwarzenegger in the 80s and 90s. But by 1999, things wound down and the firm was dissolved, as the family members sought to cash in on the most valuable pieces in the collection. A private investor took over the firm with Syd managing and in this downsized form they have hung on.

Surprisingly in researching this post I glimpsed Stembridge Gun Rentals in the credits for early video games- listed under the sound credits:

EA’s Agent Under Fire (James Bond) which I have enjoyed playing, and

Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon.

Thunderball, Mr French

Thunderball, Mr French

We had a color TV in our little two room apartment. It sat on its own little cart with casters and we could wheel it from the sitting room through the double sliding door opening into our bedroom – a room that was normally empty save for a dresser and a couple of chairs, which chairs would be moved aside to make way for the murphy bed that folded down from the back wall.

One Sunday, after working the matinee (I was now assistant manager at Mann’s Fifth Avenue, and no longer at the UA Cinemas), my wife and I were looking forward to our evening meal and catching the broadcast of Sean Connery as James Bond in Thunderball. The meal out of the way, we settled in to watch the show from bed.

We did not get to see the whole show.  Sometime in the first half hour I was jolted by a stabbing pain in my backside. I vaulted upright and something was stuck in me, something from within the mattress. The something was a bedspring that had broken loose from its weld, its sharp edge having sliced into me and caught there like a fish hook.

[Aside – in Thunderball, Sean “James Bond” Connery upon despatching one of the evil minions with a speargun quips, “I think he got the point.”]

Though the actual wound was small, little more than an half inch long it was about a similar amount deep, so a trip to the emergency room was in order. Though when we got to Virginia Mason, no stitches were deemed necessary. A single butterfly bandage was applied.

The Sheridan apartments paid for it all of course (or their insurance did). And the manager was very solicitous. So much so that he made it a point to introduce us to his “star” tenants – Mr Sebastian Cabot and his wife.

I recognized the rotund actor as the British butler Mr French from the TV sitcom Family Affair. He was caught off guard and self conscious. Though his voice was very recognizable, his speech was halting and a bit slurred. Both my wife and I could sense he was a little embarrassed, so we did not not invite ourselves to dinner or any other such imposition. We rather excused ourselves at the earliest convenience, and thanking them for the acquaintance. And I didn’t tell him that another bloke from the UK had a hand in our meeting.

[Aside – I did some research on Mr Cabot and discovered that he suffered a stroke in July of 1974. This left his right side paralysed and impaired his speech. Before this he had just completed voice work for Disney – on Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. He and his family had some property outside of Vancouver BC, which he briefly alluded to in our conversation, and kept this apartment as a residence stateside].

Poppins or Bond

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The streets of downtown Boston were gray and cold, but the windows of the department stores we had come to town to view were bright and cheery. The evening was all planned out. It was Christmas time and the displays at Filene’s and Jordan Marsh were doing their jobs, collecting hosts of shoppers. Our family among them.

The street vendors were out in full force too, crowding the sidewalks and causing blockages. Despite all that we were able to get in close to the windows.  The fact that we were children, probably helped. In the main, of course, they were desiged to capture our imagination. Models of picturesque villages under a blanket of snowy cotton. Always with something in motion, such as mechanical figureskaters making prescribed movements atop a mirror pond, or circling airplanes, trailing banners with holiday wishes.

I’m not sure if a surprise was planned, but that’s how it turned out.

The plan was to see the sights and then to see the sight.  Mary Poppins was playing first run downtown. It was in a small venue though. And when we arrived it was sold out.

My folks found another spoonful of sugar to help get that pill of disappointment down.

Also downtown was that monster sized theater, with over 4000 seats, called the Metropolitan. Though crowded, there was still room to catch a performance of the current blockbuster – Goldfinger. We made our way up to the balcony, which was Titanic-sized, and like the Paramount in Salem, you couldn’t see the main floor below from there. We sat somewhere on the right, at least I remember the wall on that side, and that side only. It’s strange that I can only remember two sides to the “box” we were in. It was like the other half of the auditorium didn’t exist. Perhaps I noticed it, then turned my head to the screen and stopped and kept my aim there.

The brassy sound of the intro music (and Shirley Bassey) set the tone for the adventure that was to follow. We jump right into the action, as Bond blows up a secret facility hidden in a fuel tank. And then segue into the main story as Bond meets the challenge of a card cheat, cum golf cheat, cum gold smuggler and villain with a plan for world economic domination – Auric Goldfinger. And all with the help of the silent,  heavy (and cool) henchman, Oddjob, who even had his own music motif. But then there was that masterpiece of Q’s lab wizardry, the fully tricked out Aston Martin DB5. To a kid the stuff that dreams are made of.

One way or another we were to spend an evening with a Brit, who was practically perfect in every way.

The Summer of Bond, James Bond

Summer of Bond James Bond

As I related before my father held down two jobs in Salem, one as driver for the Salem Laundry and the other as assistant manager at the Paramount Theater. Around about 1964, an opportunity came to him to apply to a new up and coming theater circuit – General Cinema Corporation of Boston. They were the proponents of twin theaters, two cinemas served by one common lobby between them. (My father tells me it was all an accident. Their plans for a single screen cinema in the Peabody Northshore Mall, included a bowling alley and a restaurant.  When no takers came forward for the restaurant, someone in the home office of GCC proposed making it another screen instead. And the rest is history). The plus side, with two films running, the chances for success doubled.
The plus side for my dad – only having one job. For he got the position, and started at this complex in Peabody, just north of Salem. What it meant to me, was a whole new venue to watch movies in, and like the Paramount, for free.
My dad has some photos taken in and around the theater for special events. One clearly shows my brother and sister sitting in the front row for a re-issue of Cinderella. The opening day festivities were accompanied by a Disney artist and Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck. Where I was, my father can’t say.
If it was summer, I was probably next door watching Sean Connery. For that was the summer of Bond, James Bond. This was the beginning. Dr No, debuted in 1963 followed by From Russia with Love in the spring of 1964. Someone at United Artist had the bright idea to pair them up for the summer, and the Peabody Cinema played this double bill. (Cue – James Bond theme). It went gangbusters, and held over week after week. And I was there to watch them every Saturday.  After the thrill of the first viewing, it was fun to sit there in anticipation of observing the crowd react to their first viewing.
The following year, I started my bubblegum collection of Bond cards. This first series was in black and white and covered the first three films. Of all my card collections this is the only one that is complete.