If you head east on Hollywood Boulevard and go for approximately 2,000 miles, you’ll find yourself in the middle of the Ohio Valley in a mid-sized city called Cincinnati. It may not attract tourists and there is a distinct lack of celebrity handprints on the sidewalk, but they make movies there, too.
For example, there is the 1935 feature First Option. It might not be in the AFI catalog, but it’s real and here’s the proof—a Cincinnati Enquirer ad for the film’s premiere:
Conceived, produced, and exhibited on a local level, this is DIY cinema. How did these Cincinnatians do it?
Thousands of amateur photographers have added a movie camera to their battery and are grinding out films for home entertainment. The makers of amateur movies have, in fact, reached the organization stage, with 200 clubs, film exchanges, research bureaus, a league, and even miniature theatres.
-“Amateur Movies An Organized Sport,” The New York Times, June 17, 1934
First Option was the product of a boom in amateur filmmaking kicked off when Kodak introduced the 16mm film gauge in 1923 and supported by magazines such as Movie Makers, the journal of The Amateur Cinema League which was published from 1926 to 1953. Probing issues of Movie Makers gives a sense of the rapid proliferation of amateur film clubs. Obviously large cities had activity—notably the Chicago Cine Club, the Metropolitan Motion Picture Club of New York City, and the Los Angeles Amateur Cine Club—but these organizations sprouted up anywhere that a handful of movie maniacs could find a living room to congregate. The Green Bay Amateur Movie Club, the Sixteen Movie Club of Akron, the Kansas City Cinema League, and the Boston Cinamateur Club were just a few organizations in the 1930s. Even schools sponsored organizations, such as The Central High School Photoplay Club of Newark. Of course, this phenomenon was not contained to the United States. Movie Makers had international coverage of all ACL groups from the Hungarian Amateur Film Club in Budapest to Australia’s Sydney Movie Makers’ Club.
The vast majority of the work of these non-professionals is unaccounted for—and, most likely, never to be seen again—so there’s no way to truly know the breadth of talent found in these backyard auteurs. It’s safe to say that most of these small gauge films were unpolished, perhaps lacking in creative ingenuity, and with content tailored for a local audience. A program list for the Mount Kisco Cinemat in Westchester County, New York gives some insight into the output of a typical club. Movie Makers reported that their screening included a “trick” film, a Yellowstone travelogue, a film documenting a rodeo, Mount Kisco Newsreel, Mount Kisco’s Finest directed by their Police Chief, and Ceramics, “an outstanding study of the art of hand pottery making.” Only the most catholic of film historians and Mount Kisco buffs would be excited to view this lineup now.
Occasionally the clubs embarked on more ambitious—and dare I say more crowd pleasing—projects. The Floradan Cinema Club in Brooklyn made a Western comedy called Came the Dawn. The Flower City Cinema Club of Rochester seemed to have a lively membership, making films such as the comedy For Love or Money, “a two reel melodrama of the gambling halls” titled Chance, and the 400 ft. sci-fi epic Ray of Death, which premiered at the director’s abode.
Being the home of Eastman Kodak, maybe it’s not surprising that Rochester was a hub of amateur film activity. It was in this Western New York city that polymath James Sibley Watson along with Melville Webber made possibly the most famous and influential film of the amateur boom: 1928’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Their club was perhaps less civic-oriented and more goal-oriented. According to Photoplay, “This Rochester group of amateurs has no official name yet. The amateurs have been too busy working at their production to select one.”
Even less occasionally, the clubs took on collaborative efforts to make a feature film…or six. Such was the case for the Rockville Cinema Club on Long Island. In 1938, the club’s president Harry S. Smith wrote an article for Movie Makers discussing the group’s collective approach to their projects, with each member chipping in for anything that needed to be done, whether it be acting a role or applying makeup. Their films—Death Ray (not to be confused with Ray of Death by the Rochester club), Going My Way, Song of Death, Broadway Interlude, East Coast, and Notoriety—all sound like they could be Hollywood programmers. Smith explained that they started off showing their films in homes but had since graduated to a rented hall with a large screen. “Our film presentations,” he enthused, “[…] had become regular social events of the community…”
While not nearly as prolific, the Cincinnati Cine Club went all in with their debut project in 1935. They produced, as the advertisement above states, “The first feature-length sound picture ever made in Cincinnati.” This simple declarative statement begs the question: how did an amateur group produce a sound picture in 1935?
This is where production details and reviews would really come in handy. But before tackling the sound issue, here’s what is known for sure.
The Club was formed in the first half of 1935. An Enquirer article in June of that year announces the club’s two agenda items. They wanted to document the traffic woes that plagued the city in hopes of improving urban street design and then they planned to produce a feature film. Paradoxically, the loftier second goal was realized while the traffic documentary was apparently scrapped. Cincinnati was cursed with road problems for the next 100 years because of this decision, but at least we got a talkie.
The plot of First Option is as slight and silly as a run-of-the-mill Charley Chase short. A man named Samuel Adams invents a new type of gasoline. A ruthless investor, J.P. Norton, intending on brokering a very generous deal on the patent, throws a party with the inventor as the guest of honor. The inventor has too much to drink and provocatively dances with the equally soused lady of the Norton house, causing a scandal. In the midst of this kerfuffle, Adams’ young partner, who happens to be in love with the inventor’s daughter, locates an honest company to sell the gasoline patent. The film ends happily with the young lovers getting married.
In October, a notice went out that the Club needed forty extras for a Sunday morning shoot at Castle Farms, a legendary local dance hall which in its prime had hosted Paul Whiteman, Tommy Dorsey, and Rudy Vallee. The hall, befitting its name, was suitably regal to stand in for the Norton mansion. The garden party scene was shot on an unusually blustering morning but, as the Enquirer reported, “…the actors, actresses, and extras dressed in summer-weight clothing, played their parts in the chilly blasts as though the mercury was in the nineties.” With the utmost confidence that their footage would be usable, the troupe set a premiere date in early December.
With all the professionalism of a big studio crew, the club delivered. Ahead of the premiere at the elegant Taft Theater, which hosted an assortment of programs including live acts, academic lectures, and Ufa films for the large German population, several Hollywood stars with roots in the area paid tribute. Evelyn Venable wrote, “May I take this opportunity of congratulating you and the Cincinnati Cine Club on your splendid work, and of wishing you great success in the delightful work you are doing.” Una Merkel gave her best wishes writing, “My thoughts will be with you on December 3 and I am pulling for all the club’s troupers.” Character actor Don Brodie, who helped direct parts of the film during a summer visit to Cincinnati, likewise sent his encouragement to the Club.
Cast and crew of First Option:
William Sprigg ...Samuel Adams
Stuart Hagen ...Joe Martin
Phyllis Hagen ...Nancy Adams
Charles Evans ...J.P. Norton
Bess McCammon ...The Governor's wife
Dorothy Lampton Marchand ...Dancer at party
Dr. Jay M. Steen ...President of the Cincinnati Cine Club
Margaret Radcliffe ...Director
William C. Sage ...Producer
Dorothy Carr ...Art Director
Earl Derbes ...Cameraman
James Maxwell ...Technical Director
William Warner ...Property Manager
Marcella Sage ...Make-up Artist
Louise Cook ...Wardrobe Mistress
After the premiere, there was no more reporting on the Cincinnati Cine Club. Perhaps they fulfilled their goal and didn’t feel the need to continue. Perhaps the film was viewed as a failed experiment and the members moved on to different hobbies. It’s something of a miracle when a group of people can get together to achieve a singular goal. That a group just quietly dissolves is, sadly, much more common.
The question plagued me: how did an amateur group produce a sound picture in 1935? I thought about this a lot since learning of the existence of First Option. Unfortunately, the film can confidently be described as “lost,” so I couldn’t go back to the source.
Amateurs had extremely limited choices for sound in 1935. At this point, studio films recorded the sound and image on separate 35mm strips and then combined them in post-processing, a comparable process for 16mm was out of reach for amateurs. Sound-on-disc, which was popularly employed by Warner Bros. in their Vitaphone films, could possibly have been done by an amateur but the logistics would be a nightmare. Magnetic tape was in its infancy, and, in 1935, it was exclusive to Germany. Maybe the Cincinnati Cine Club shot sound and image simultaneously on reversal stock, like they did with very early newsreels.
This last choice was a distinct possibility due to the introduction of the RCA 16mm Sound camera in 1934. There was even a dealer in Cincinnati that dealt these cameras, J.C. Haile & Son.
As the RCA ad below explains, with the galvanometer unit and amplifier connected “…the possibilities for sophisticated productions are multiplied many times.” Though the camera was not a commercial success, it did work if you were really dedicated to the process. Footage from this camera taken by amateur filmmaker Archie Stewart can be viewed here—it’s alarming to see and hear 1930s home movies.
If First Option was shot in this manner, it would be an extraordinary artifact of a camera that only lasted about a year on the market.
I had settled on the RCA camera as the answer to the sound question, but knowing the difficulty of microphone placement, lab inconsistencies, and the myriad problems the club would have faced with this piece of equipment, it just seemed unlikely.
I continued researching, reading up on the film’s director, the very accomplished Margaret Radcliffe. First Option was—presumably—her only film project, but she had taught English and drama at local schools and served on a whole host of civic boards. I read what I could find out about her husband, William Sprigg, who played Samuel Adams and was the Cincinnati Cine Club’s business manager. Although I assumed First Option to be a mere footnote to his life, it provided the leading paragraph in his 2005 obituary. His son Richard commented on his father's achievement and explained how it was a sound film: “In addition to the organ music, all of the actors were in the orchestra pit reciting their lines to the movie.”
Mystery solved. First Option wasn’t really a technological marvel at all. In fact, it was a throwback to a method of creating talking pictures from the earliest days of film--have the actors dub it live. You've got to hand it to the Cincinnati Cine Club for out ballyhooing even Hollywood.