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.

The Puzzle of Midshipman Morgan Lewis Ogden Jr. Part 1

The Puzzle of Midshipman Morgan Lewis Ogden Jr. Part 1

The first puzzle about Midshipman Morgan Lewis Ogden jr. was his appointment from New York state to the US Naval Academy. I only called it into question because his state of birth was listed as Alabama. I thought it might just have been a transcription error on my part, writing down that particular southern state designation meant for another midshipmen. But the designation kept popping up in other records: the NY state census for 1855, and three federal censuses, two for 1860 and one for 1870. (He is listed twice in the 1860 census, once in Annapolis [as Wm L Ogden] and also for Washington DC Ward 1). His father and all his siblings list New York as their birth state. Only Morgan and his mother are different, though her state of Maryland is closer to the New York than his.

This mystery was cleared up by an Ogden family history. His father was down in Mobile Alabama in the 1840’s, working with his brother Charles W. Ogden in a cotton shipping business. There he married Eliza Glendy McLaughlin, and the future midshipman was born a year later. The 1855 NY state census indicates that the family relocated to New York City sometime in 1846. So this put him in the right place for his appointment from the 7th NY Congressional District when he was fifteen and a half.

The family history also brought up some interesting points about his ancestors. Through his father’s mother they are related to the Lewis family of New York. Her uncle was Morgan Lewis (hence their name sake), a soldier in the Revolution and the governor of New York in the early 1800s. And this same Lewis line traces back to Francis Lewis one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Morgan jr.’s naval career was a short one – two years – both of them in the plebe class. The total of his demerits were well below the threshold for dismissal, and were generally of the nature of absences of one form or another (seven the first year and five the next). The more serious ones involved the use of tobacco, either smoking, or the chewing and spitting variety; and one during the school year for intoxication. After this drinking incidence, he must have been called on the carpet, and had to give exacting promises never to repeat the offense.

So what happened?

Like Stephen Austin McCarty referenced in the last research post, Morgan became embroiled in the Foote Outrage. Like McCarty he was dismissed from the service on 4/27/1859, and like McCarty he was reinstated on 5/20/1859 and required to ship out on the USS Plymouth for the summer cruise. It was on this cruise that he again ran afoul of the bottle.

On September 20, 1859, George Blake, the Superintendent of the Naval Academy reported to Isaac Toucey, the Secretary of the Navy:

“The Department directed that the usual
indulgence of leave on shore should not be accorded
to these young gentlemen & it will be seen that in
contempt of this positive order they separated
themselves from Lieut. Carter under whose charge
they were sent on shore at Plymouth [England] on duty &
that Actg Midn Ogden was taken alongside the
ship intoxicated to utter insensibility & in that
condition was lifted on board by sailors.”

And goes on:

“Mr Ogden’s general conduct at the Academy
has been bad.-  He has been once found deficient
in his studies & put back.-  I have had occa-
sion to report him to the Department twice before
to recommend his dismissal last spring in which
recommendation the department concurred.-
Under his most solemn assurances of amendment
I subsequently ventured to suggest his restoration
in which the Department was also pleased
to concur.-  I fully concur with Commander
Craven in earnestly recommending the immediate
dismissal of Actg Midn Ogden.-“

Three days later Morgan received his dismissal from Secretary Toucey. He returned to his family. Which brings us back to the First Ward of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia where the family was living at the time of the 1860 census. Here his father is listed as a lawyer, and Morgan jr. a law student.

When the war came, like McCarty, Morgan joined the army, (the regular army not a state unit) receiving a commission as first lieutenant in the US 18th Infantry. Unlike McCarty he did not make a switch to the navy. Morgan had pretty effectively burnt that bridge. He served along the Mississippi (Vicksburg and Jackson), then on to the Tennessee campaign, followed by that of the move on Atlanta. He was brevetted a captain for his gallant service in the battle of Murfreesboro, in which he was also wounded. The 18th Infantry was part of the US Ninth Army Corps, and he served that organization in the commissary of musters department, i.e. recruiting. The last year of the war he spent in that service, first in Wisconsin, and then in Indianapolis.

After the war, he remained in the US 18th Infantry as it served in the Dakotas against the Sioux. He ended his career in Columbia, South Carolina in 1877, as the 18th was then posted to the Military Department of the South (involved in the reconstruction of the southern states). The ending was not a happy one. He was dismissed from the service by court martial. I do not know what the charges were against him, though I suspect “demon” rum may have reared its ugly head again.

There were a couple of surprises that popped up in my research about Morgan and his family, both touching on Abe Lincoln. When in Indianapolis on recruiting duty, Morgan stood honor guard on April 30, 1865 when the Lincoln funeral train made its stop there on its slow journey to Springfield, Illinois.

He may have met the President earlier in 1861. His little seven year old brother Sydney had. Sydney was about Tad Lincoln’s age, and had been invited over to play “soldier” at the White House. Either Tad or his older brother Willie recruited Sydney into their company – “Mrs. Lincoln’s Zouaves.”

This last item I find particularly fascinating. My third screenplay was about Willie and Tad, and seeing their famous father from their view. The sequel I have planned covers some of the “famous battles” of this unit.