The Film Bench--A Sweetest Day Reverie


The team of O’Connor and Pettibone produced the one-reel music film The Sweetest Story Ever Told in 1933, featuring the 1853 ballad “Juanita” along with Robert Morrison Stults’ 1892 composition from whence the film’s title was taken. Who are O’Connor and Pettibone, you might ask? It's a great question. Despite my best research skills, I have not been able to find out their first names or whether they even exist. Contemporaneous reviews confirm the release date and note that it was distributed by Sol Lesser’s Principal Pictures. Beyond that, not much information is available. The film was cast aside like a Valentine from a clumsy adolescent. It is—purely coincidentally—Sweetest Day today, so what better occasion to examine discarded sentiment.


I recently bought several films from a fellow enthusiast, including one he described as an early color film, possibly from the 1940s, with a romantic Irish melody. When the box arrived, this little 50 ft. reel with mysterious contents was the first one I ran through the projector. From the color alone, I could tell it was early 1930s. If the slightly misaligned color registration and predominantly blue/green palette combined with a soft graininess wasn’t a big enough giveaway, the static camerawork and tinny soundtrack confirmed the era. The budget of the film was clearly limited; there is a man and woman, a canoe excursion through a park, a few ducks, and some pretty foliage. Unfortunately, my print is just the latter half of the film—around four minutes. I will have to imagine the scenery that accompanied “Juanita,” or perhaps I could hire a model and reconstruct the film myself.


This would probably not be the best choice to show an audience. It would no doubt be met with snores or, at best, stony silence. However, it is precisely the type of film I adore--obscure, at odds with modernity, and postcard-pretty. Ever since watching, I’ve been humming “The Sweetest Story Ever Told” and listening to all the 78 rpm recordings available on archive.org. The fact that it’s filmed on a long-forgotten color stock, Magnacolor, makes me even more enamored of this orphaned scrap of celluloid.


Above is an example of Magnacolor film stock from a 1940 “Unusual Occupations” Paramount short. Introduced in 1931, Magnacolor was a “bi-pack” process meaning two strips of black and white film ran through the camera with emulsion sides facing each other. The film closest to the lens was sensitive to blue rays; the film behind it was sensitive to red. The exposed film cartridge had to be shipped off to Consolidated Film Industries, who had labs in New York and Hollywood, to be developed in a patented processing system.

Cinematographer Nicholas Rogalli (sometimes spelled Rogelli) of Irvington-on-the-Hudson’s Photo-Color Studio is probably solely responsible for this film. His calling card lists The Sweetest Story… along with several other shorts which likely served as demonstration reels establishing his competency with color photography. The independent features listed are from forgotten East Coast companies Starmark Productions, Inc., Falcon Pictures Corporation, and, most interestingly, Oscar Micheaux’s production of Harlem After Midnight (1934).


Here is the final shot of the film. The languid romantic encounter in the park was but a dream induced by a long and boring book of love. The girl opens her eyes, stretches, and drifts back into the reverie.


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