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.

What Tech Had to Do with It #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What Tech Had to Do with It

By 1939 the technology behind filmmaking had attained a comfortable maturity. It was a decade after the innovation of sound so that element of the process had been integrated into the studio factory system  (Inroads also were being made for the standardization of sound systems in the field for better quality – for the equipment in theaters tended to be a hodgepodge mix).

Sound was now a reliable instrument in the tool-belt of the artistic minds charged with creating the projects. In fact coming to grips with the disciplines that good sound recording called for, led to other time and money saving innovations. For instance advances in process backgrounds like rear-projection and matte shots (originally developed to get around noisy environments), were now saving money.

Add to this the special effects and miniature departments (the film King King, for instance) which opened the imagination to become filmed ‘reality.’ If someone could think it, they could figure a way to capture it on film.

Improvements also came to the very basics – the film stock – faster and finer grain panchromatic films made for crisper black and white pictures – first introduced by Agfa-Ansco – and then right behind them, Eastman Kodak. One could almost “see” color in black and white for the range of gradations was expanded. As for color film, though fifteen different companies claimed to have their own version in the works, only Technicolor was then in use. And it was glorious and gorgeous.

Advances in cameras did their part. The Mitchell swaddled in its hood (aka ‘the blimp’) kept the noise of the camera machinery from intruding upon the soundtrack. And Walt Disney’s multi-plane camera would lead to more and better advances in the field of animation.

It was indeed a good time to have a studio in Hollywood.

Before the Wind Came

before-the-wind-came

In writing my most recent Memories post (The SoCal Trip 1975), I was curious about one of the sites we visited on that particular vacation, so I did a little research.

The site was (and is) the Selznick Studio, which is wedged away in a small enclave in Culver City, California. (It still does business but now under the name of the Culver Studios). Formed in 1919 when Thomas Ince broke away from Triangle Pictures (whose other two partners of the troika were D. W. Griffith and Hal Roach), it has changed hands a number of times over the years. After the mysterious death of Mr. Ince in 1924, Cecil B. DeMille moved into the lot. He merged the concern with the Pathe company in 1926, which in turn was acquired by RKO in 1932. Selznick leased the lot from RKO in 1936.

[Check out this history, that chronicles some of the films (and TV shows) done on the lot. Of particular note were the old sets on the lot (i.e. ones for King Kong, etc.) that were torched for the burning of Atlanta sequence for GWTW.]

When doing some research for another project, I came across this brief article in Variety for October 30, 1935 p 7.

Shearer-Garbo in with Selznick-Whitney Prods.

Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo are among those who are reported tied in financially with the new Dave Selznick producing firm in which Jock Whitney is also concerned.

I realized this article heralded the genesis of Selznick’s involvement at the Culver Studio (then RKO). Shearer and Garbo disappear from any connection to Selznick, in so far as any corporate involvement is concerned. He had been pursuing Garbo prior to this for the role that finally went to Bette Davis in “Dark Victory” when the rights were sold to WB. Instead Garbo chose to do “Anna Karenina” as one of Selznick’s last projects as a producer in the employ of MGM. Garbo was close to Shearer and her husband Irving Thalberg, so this conjunction of their names is not unusual. The untimely death of Thalberg the following year and the subsequent turmoil may explain their absence from the concern going forward.

This article also set me off on another “rabbit trail,” in so far GWTW was involved.

The name in the last phrase, Jock Whitney, was completely new to me, and it proved fascinating to learn more about him.

Whitney was the young well-to-do scion of an East Coast family (who inherited 20 million from his father after 1927, and 80 million from his mother after 1944). His full name – John Hay Whitney gave the first clue to his family history. To anyone who has read about Abraham Lincoln, John Hay is a familiar name. He was one of Lincoln’s secretaries during his time in office. Later he was appointed ambassador to London, and later still served as Secretary of State under both McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. And Jock Whitney is his grandson and namesake. His other grandfather, served as Naval Secretary under Cleveland.

  Whitney graduated from Yale, and was a member of the Scroll & Key secret society while there, (his father also was an alumnus, but a member of the Skull & Crossbones secret society). He started as a clerk in a banking house. But once he came into money, he invested in personal interests. He was a major “angel” for Broadway productions during the 1930s. – “Here Goes the Bride,” “Life with Father,” and “Jumbo.” From there it was short hop to film.

He had been brought into the film business by Merian C. (“King Kong”) Cooper, then a producer and head of production at RKO. By 1933, Jock founded his own production company, Pioneer Films.  And around the same time he acquired a 15% interest in Technicolor. He used the process in making a musical short “La Cucaracha,” and later the first technicolor (three strip process) feature “Becky Sharp.” Pioneer was merged with Selznick Int’l Pictures in 1936, and Whitney ended up as chairman of the board of the new company.

Together on the Culver lot they were responsible for such films as “A Star is Born,” “Nothing Sacred,” “Rebecca,” and “Gone with the Wind.” In fact, it was through Whitney’s direct investment that Selznick acquired the rights to the Margaret Mitchell novel, which laid the foundation for what would be Selznick’s “signature” film.

In the Yale yearbook for 1926, in its write up about Whitney it noted that his future plans looked to an occupation in either the field of literature or diplomacy. Actually he “checked off both boxes.” The thirties and forties mark his time of involvement with literature as literary projects were translated to the stage and to the screen (in the 1940 census he lists himself as an executive in the Motion Picture Industry). He was an Eisenhower supporter in the fifties, and was consequently appointed the US ambassador to London, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather.