Home Video in the Jazz Age: How the French Cracked the Code

Nowadays, watching the biggest and latest movies legally in the comfort of our own home is as simple as waiting a few months (or less!) and then firing up the Roku or popping a disc into a player. It’s hard to remember a time when movies were the exclusive property of theaters.

This is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. Check out the other amazing entries!

Go play with your flammable nitrate, Johnny!

I was born at the height of the VHS boom. VHS combined affordability with convenience and made film collecting a popular pastime for a more people than ever before but the home theater market didn’t start there.

16mm, 8mm, Super 8… All these formats are familiar but today we are going to step out of the Kodak box and discuss the origins of the affordable personal home theater. To do that, we are going to flash back to France in the year 1922.

“Going to the movies” had morphed from a fad into a cultural phenomenon by the early 1910s but cinema lovers were looking for something more. They wanted to enjoy their favorite films again and again at their convenience.

In his book Seductive Cinema, film historian James Card recalled the thrill of getting a Keystone Moviegraph (one of the toy projectors on the market) in the early 1920s. His model played 25 feet of 35mm film in a continuous loop, though he quickly tinkered with it so that he could see longer reels of film. (This was nitrate film, by the way. What better way to entertain the kiddies than with flammable material and a hot light? “Mommy’s busy, Johnny. Go play with your toy that spontaneously combusts and burns an inextinguishable flame.” I would like to know how humanity has survived this long.)

Impractical though they were, the toy projectors did have timeless appeal. A brief snippet of silent film played in a continuous circle, often for humorous effect? What does this remind us of?

bat-slightest-idea

But something more elaborate (and less likely to kill children) was in the works.

For Christmas of 1922, the French Pathé company took the idea a step further and found the formula for success with a film format and projector that were designed for the home theater, rather than re-purposed theatrical equipment and film. The Pathé Baby projector and its 9.5mm film were “the first conception of the cinema designed purely for use in the home” according to Gerald McKee’s book Film Collecting. (Per McKee, Pathé initially sold only projectors for 9.5mm film, not cameras, though they soon followed. In contrast, Eastman Kodak’s 16mm film had both projector and camera and was marketed for amateur and low-budget filmmaking, as well as the home viewing of studio productions.)

Side note: 28mm film was introduced in 1912 but it did not have the same low cost, mass appeal and longstanding popularity as 9.5mm. Roughly speaking, 28mm is to 9.5mm what laserdisc is to DVD.

Here's the film with a standard pencil alongside for comparison.
Here’s the film with a standard pencil alongside for comparison.

I will not be digging to deeply into the technical aspects of 9.5mm and the physical properties of Pathé‘s cleverly designed projector. Rather, I will be focusing on the actual experience of watching these films. However, here is a very brief look at this innovative technology.

The most obvious difference between traditional movie film and 9.5mm is that there are no sprocket holes on the side. Instead, the film had one large hole punched in the center line between frames. 9.5mm was not dangerous nitrate but safety stock, which made it harder for junior to burn down the house with his toy.

9.5mm-2

Like VHS, two of the main components to Pathé‘s success with the new format were affordability and ease of use. The film was wound onto a cartridge, which would be rewound once the film was over. At first, films were released as 30′ cartridges (about 90 seconds, though this could vary as the projector was hand-cranked). Later, this was expanded to 60′ and in 1928 Super Reel format was introduced, which allowed for a whopping 300′ feet of movie footage. This meant that a Super Reel of 9.5mm film could match the runtime of a reel of 35mm film.

Here is a video of a collector loading, projecting and rewinding one of these early cartridges, WWI actuality footage in this case.

I mentioned affordability. One of the innovations that allowed Pathé‘s 9.5mm releases to save on film was the ability of the projectors to “freeze” on the title cards of a silent film (thanks to specially-designed notches on the title card frames) and resume at normal speed once the audience had read the dialogue and exposition. This reduced the required amount of film considerably, though it did limit how powerful the projector’s lamp could be. (Long exposure to strong light on just one frame is extremely damaging, even to safety film.)

9.5mm-3

9.5mm films were a success and Pathé released educational shorts in this format but they also licensed narrative films made by Europe and Hollywood. A fair number of these films still exist in the hands of private collectors. The Pathé films had different brand names depending on the target release market. For example, UK releases were branded as Pathé Baby, while American and German releases went under the brand name of Pathex.

By the way, the images of the actual 9.5mm film are from the home release of my beloved Michael Strogoff. Here’s what it looks like projected. Not bad, eh?

Not bad at all.
Not bad at all.

But back to tech stuff!

Due to the cartridge size and the need to keep prices down, films licensed to Pathé for home sales were whittled down considerably. Later, the invention of a projector attachment and the Super Reel allowed Pathé to release longer cuts but films were still abridged to keep prices low and consumers happy. For example, a five-reel (about an hour) film might be sliced down to under ten minutes. The trick with these abridgements, of course, was maintaining some semblance of a narrative in a fraction of the runtime. Reduced movie length was also common for later 16mm and 8mm releases. For example, here is a 7-minute version of Hitchcock’s Psycho released on 16mm.

What about the silents? Were these cuts successful? What were these 9.5mm releases like? We’re about the find out.

Case Study: The Gun Fighter (1917) in three versions

British filmmaker and collector (and friend of the site) Christopher Bird has generously shared not only his expertise but also footage and background material on a William S. Hart western, The Gun Fighter, which was released in the UK under the Pathé Baby banner. To make things even more interesting, Grapevine Video recently released a DVD containing American Pathex version of the same film.

Vintage capsule review. They didn't believe in spoiler warnings.
Vintage capsule review. They didn’t believe in spoiler warnings.

No complete prints of The Gun Fighter are known to exist in either 16mm or 35mm formats so these 9.5mm releases are glimpses of a film that would otherwise be lost.

Hart has one of the best film survival rates of any of the major stars of the ‘teens. Only a few of his pictures are lost but, unfortunately, The Gun Fighter seems to be one of them. There are many, many titles with snippets of footage that only survive in 9.5mm format; alternate angles, takes and some scenes that exist nowhere else.

Alternate angle from Abel Gance's "Napoleon"
Alternate angle from Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” (Christopher Bird’s Collection)

A quick reminder is in order. William S. Hart’s westerns were usually violent and almost always featured ruthless villainy or near-villainy from the leading man. His dark breed of western fell out of style by the twenties and was not truly revived for nearly half a century.

gun-fighter-06

As you will see, the British Pathé Baby release is consistently closer to the original story. The U.S.A. Pathex release takes the footage and completely reworks it, removing the antihero angle wherever possible, likely to make it more suitable for family viewing. (The western genre was well on its way to being infantilized by the time these home releases were sold in the late twenties or early thirties.)

The comparison of the different versions of The Gun Fighter is valuable for several reasons. First, it shows how easily silent films could be reworked to fit the censorship and political needs of their target audience. Second, it shows the differences between the perceived needs of American and British markets at the time these abridgements were released. (Or the opinions of an enthusiastic hobbyist. More on that in a bit.) Third, it gives us two different lenses through which to view this (almost) lost film. Enjoy!

A longer vintage review
A longer vintage review

By the way we can thank technology for this comparison. The Gun Fighter was released to theaters in 1917 and the home media versions were released approximately a decade later. It is unlikely that anyone viewing these 9.5mm prints would have the photographic memory required to notice all the changes made to the story.

Note: All tinted screen grabs are from the Pathex release (likely added when the film was prepared for DVD release). All black and white screen grabs are from the Pathé Baby release. Obviously, there will be no screen grabs for the presumed-lost original.

Title
Original ad
Original ad

Original: The Gun Fighter (the original title was The Killer)

Pathe Baby Title
Pathé Baby: The Gunfighter, though most Pathé Baby releases are titled The Outlaw, just to add to the confusion. It is thought that this particular print was retitled by an enthusiastic collector. Oh, historians have a picnic trying to identify some of these films.

Also note that the leading lady is listed as Norma Wright. That is actually the name of the heroine and the actress who plays her is Margery Wilson. You may know her as Brown Eyes in Intolerance but don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing her. She was also a writer, producer and director.

Pathex Title
Pathex: The Border Sheriff

Protagonist

Original: Cliff “The Killer” Hudspeth, leader of an outlaw gang. His hobby is killing killers and his body count is around thirty (he knows, he keeps a list). He is warned to stay out of the territory of another gang leader named El Salvador. This challenge cannot stand and the Killer decides to ply his trade once again. Fancy a spot of murder? Hudspeth rides into town with his gang to annihilate El Salvador.

Our first look at our hero.
Our first look at our hero.

Pathé Baby: William Cliff, leader of an outlaw gang. He is warned to stay out of the territory of another gang leader named El Salvator. This challenge cannot stand and so he rides into town with his gang to settle the territory boundaries once and for all.

Did his mom call him Big or Battle?
Did his mom call him Big or Battle?

Pathex: Big Battle, generic cowboy type. His friend was murdered by a man named Alvarez, who worked for an outlaw gang led by the infamous El Jucaro. Battle rides into town with a band of vigilantes to avenge his pal’s death.

Act I

Original: Upon receiving a warning note from El Salvador, Hudspeth rides for town. Our baddie is there, attempting to flirt with Norma, the milliner. She snubs him and he departs but one of his cronies, Cactus, has stayed with a gang of nogoodniks and is terrorizing the populace.

Hudspeth and company ride in, confront Cactus and his gang in the saloon and the two men agree to a duel. Hudspeth guns Cactus down in the street. No one seems too bothered as a bad guy just killed a worse guy.

Ready for a fight.
Ready for a fight.

Norma is not pleased. She calls Hudspeth a murderer. (By the way, Norma is on her own with just her kid brother, Jimmy, for company.) That stings. Boy, does that sting.

Pathé Baby: Cliff arrives in town and heads straight for the saloon. He finds a member of El Jucaro’s gang bragging that he will take down the infamous William Cliff. Cliff challenges him to a duel. He warns Norma the milliner to stay off the street and then guns his man down.

When this guy tells you to stay off the street, you'd best take his advice.
When this guy tells you to stay off the street, you’d best take his advice.

Pathex: Big Battle rides into town to confront the guy who killed his pal. He issues the challenge and then finds the dead man’s sister, Kate, the local milliner. He tells her he is going to avenge her brother and then shoots the murderer down in the street.

Same scene, whole different meaning.
Same scene, whole different meaning.
Act II

Both the Pathex and Pathé Baby versions opted to shorten the film by completely eliminating the second act. Here is what the original film contained:

Hudspeth is stung by Norma’s contempt and carries her off to his hideout. It’s all very awkward because he regrets what he has done and Norma is still calling him a murderer. Which tends to happen when you kill a few dozen people, right?

Anyway, Hudspeth gets drunk and relives his various kills in a scene full of dissolves and double exposure. It sounds very cool. So guilt overwhelms him, he opens up to Norma, she forgives him and he returns her to her shop with the promise that he will never kill again.

Hart in a vintage caricature.
Hart in a vintage caricature.

These scenes are almost all character development for Hudspeth. While it is understandable that they would be the easiest to cut, it is a pity that action was put before character. But then again, slicing an hour-long film down to ten minutes is not an easy task.

Act III

Original: Hudspeth is offered a full pardon if he will act as a bounty hunter for the state of Arizona and rid the state of El Salvador. Hudspeth forgets his whole “no more killing” promise and is sworn in as a special officer. Norma is peeved that he went back on his word. I don’t know. It seems a bit impractical to be an old west special officer who cannot use lethal force against a known killer who packs a mean pistol.

Hudspeth realizes that he will always be seen as a killer in Arizona. I think the solution is moving to Texas or California or some other state once the El Salvador business is cleared up but that would be the easy way. Hudspeth decides he is going to take El Salvador in alive, darn it!

Cliff and Norma
Cliff and Norma

Just then, El Salvador’s gang attacks. After a fierce gunfight, the villainous villains set the town ablaze (thanks to leftover footage from Hell’s Hinges) and El Salvador kidnaps Norma, who should probably be getting used to this by now. Jimmy begs Hudspeth to save his sister.

In a lonely cabin, El Salvador is threatening Norma with the requisite Fate Worse Than Death. It’s night and the lamp has been extinguished. Hudspeth decides that the whole “not killing” thing is for the birds. He illuminates the cabin with his first shot and then kills El Salvador with the rest of his bullets. He puts Norma on his horse and sends her back to town. El Salvador had time to fire, you see, and Hudspeth’s wounds are fatal. He collapses in the sand and dies.

Pathé Baby: Cliff is summoned by the local law and offered a pardon and a sheriff’s badge if he will rid Arizona of El Salvator. Cliff takes the job but Norma approaches him on the street and tells him he’s a murderer. Cliff takes it in stride and tells her killing bad guys is kind of his thing.

Nice quiet town, huh?
Nice quiet town, huh?

El Salvator’s gang attacks the town and he makes off with Norma. Jimmy, her little brother, runs to Cliff for help and he promises a rescue. Meanwhile, El Salvator is threatening Norma with a Fate Worse Than Death. Cliff shoots him through the window but is shot in the process. He lifts Norma onto his horse and has her ride away. Redeemed, he collapses on the ground and dies.

Oh yes, go on. I'll be fine. Don't worry about me.
Oh yes, go on. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.

Pathex: Big Battle gets pardoned and sworn in as a deputy because no one liked the guy he killed anyway. The sheriff wants him to bring in El Jucaro. Battle tells Kate that he will marry her when he gets back.

Never fear! Big Battle's here!
Never fear! Big Battle’s here!

Speak of the devil! Look who has just come to town! El Jucaro gets revenge on Big Battle by kidnapping Kate. Jimmy runs to tell our hero that his sister is in peril. Big Battle follows El Jucaro to his cabin, where Kate is being threatened with a Fate Worse Than Death. Our hero shoots the villain and rides off into the sunset with Kate. (The footage of the climactic ride was taken in low light conditions and the motion makes it impossible to see if there are two riders or one. Pathex was quite safe in inventing this happy ending.)

Guess how many are on the horse. Go on, guess!
Guess how many are on the horse. Go on, guess!
Other differences

Racism: The original script and the Pathex version include some pretty coarse racial insults (most directed at the villains by the heroes) while the Pathé Baby release omits them. The original script makes clear that there is a racial aspect to the gang war and it directs that Cliff Hudespeth’s gang must not include any Latino actors while El Salvador’s gang is repeatedly described as Mexican.

Oh dear.
Oh dear.

The Pathex film merely makes it clear that all the villains are Latino and the above title card illustrates the film’s attitude toward their ethnicity. (In this sanitized and censored print, our hero cannot have dark impulses or a propensity for violence but racism is A-okay. Told you this would be a fascinating look into past attitudes.) The Pathé Baby film keeps the Latino identity for the main villain but does not employ slurs in the title cards.

Hardly deathless prose but less offensive.
Hardly deathless prose but less offensive.
Mixing our accents, are we? "In 'ertford, 'ereford and 'ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly hever 'appen." (Pro tip: The American western accent does not involve dropping one's H."
Mixing our accents, are we, British title writer?
Pro tip: The American western accent does not involve dropping one’s H. That’s why you will rarely hear a cowboy saying, “In ‘ertford, ‘ereford and ‘ampshire, ‘urricanes ‘ardly hever ‘appen.”

(No comments about “context” please. “Context” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card when discussing early film and the overuse and misuse of the term is robbing it of its meaning. It is possible to discuss problematic elements of historical entertainment while still enjoying or admiring other aspects.)

Baby Talk: Jimmy is about five years old and his title cards vary drastically between versions. When the baddie kidnaps Norma, Jimmy runs to William S. Hart’s character for help. The original film opted for the simple and poignant “I want my sister back.”

Tasteful? Simple? Feh! This calls for some baby talk!

The Pathex version opts to paint the lily by having Jimmy say this:

Pathex 01

Mildly annoying but not terrible. It’s mostly funny in hindsight because Mr. Big has been the name of several famous fictional characters. My favorite Mr. Big appears in Rocky and Bullwinkle.

On the other hand, the Pathé Baby film goes nuts with the baby talk:

Pathe Baby 01

I dare you to read that card without rolling your eyes. And I refuse to believe that William S. Hart would ever consent to being called Willy. Bad show, Mr. Mysterious Retitling Collector.

Action: It’s interesting to see which set pieces were included and how much of them made the final edit. The best scene in the film is the rescue in the cabin. It’s set on a moonless night and the gunfire lights up the scene with a strobe effect. Very modern and very stylish. Neither 9.5mm cut includes the mention that Hart uses his first shot to illuminate the cabin so he can tell the heroine from the villain. I thought it was a nice western touch.

Hart strikes
Hart attack

So, which cut is better? Well, the Pathex version is valuable as it shows just how different the same scene can be with new titles. However, the UK version captures the dark spirit of the original. I’m handing this one to the British. In spite of their weird dialogue cards.

All in all, it’s a fun and fascinating exercise to compare versions of this almost-lost film. Check your attics, kids, because I am dying to see the rest of this thing.

A huge thanks to Mr. Bird for sharing background material, footage, transfers and his expertise on the 9.5mm format. He made this post possible.

14 Replies to “Home Video in the Jazz Age: How the French Cracked the Code”

  1. Wonderful article, Fritzi! I really enjoyed getting to learn a little bit about not only the film itself but the methods in which it was presented.

    One of your very best! (Or, in the spirit of the altered title cards, should I say, “Good job, Miss Fwitzi! Gweat awticle!” haha)

  2. I love how thin and elegant the 9.5mm film looks. It makes wider film formats look chunky and, well, more primitive!

    I love the idea of having a home projector, but wow – what a lot of patience and precision to load the film. That’s not my thing, but your screen shots look like the effort would certainly be worth it.

    Thanks for sharing this with us (your fan base). I had no idea this was a “thing”!

    1. Glad you enjoyed! Yes, it’s an ingenious film format and it’s responsible for saving quite a few movies that would be otherwise lost. Hurrah for 9.5mm!

  3. It’s interesting to see how the home theater market has changed so much in the span of nearly a century, and how it will continue to change in the future. Even 20-30 years ago, I don’t think people really expected how much the internet would change everything and how now movies are available from home with such simplicity!

    Thank you for such an in-depth article!

  4. My request timed out, so I am trying this again. I apologize if it is a duplicate. That was a great idea to compare the different versions of the Hart film. I loved hearing the projector. I miss projector sounds. The Castle Psycho abridgement was nice. I think I remember it advertised in the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Castle had a nice deal with Universal so they had all the Universal monsters and Abbott and Costello.

    1. Glad you liked it! Yes, there quite a few of these abridgements on YouTube. It’s intriguing to see what were considered to be the “good parts”

  5. Very nice article, Fritzi. I had no idea such items for made for home use in the silent era. The system sort of reminds me of the Kenner Easy-Show movie projector (which used sound-free film cartridges) from the mid-’60s. It was a step up for kids from the Give-a-Show slide projectors, and along with the Castle Super 8 one-reelers, which I saw ads for in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, gave me the idea of one day amassing a movie library. Thanks for shining a light (sorry) on an interesting topic, and for co-hosting the blogathon.

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