The 28mm Story


THE 28MM STORY

 

I wrote about the rather neglected importanceof 28mm in the development of Home Movies for "Flickers". Now that all three parts have been published, I thought it was time to add them here.

 

The Start of Something Big

 

28mm was a vital stage in the development of home cinema!

Most people, I suspect, think of 28mm as an oddity that fell by the wayside, a blind alley that was soon abandoned, but this would be a long way from the truth. Let me elaborate.

28mm was the first widely-disseminated gauge designed specifically for home use, and had the absolutely critical feature of using non-flam film, a fundamental choice followed by all other narrow gauge films, even though the professional cinema did not abandon nitrate until the 1950s. 28mm also made available complete films, rather than the odd scraps and snippets from 35mm prints that dominated the toy market and which in fact continued in use until 9.5 came in. It was produced in a way that made it very difficult for cowboys to make copies on flam stock because, after cutting off the perfs, 35mm becomes much less than 28mm wide. New, unperforated stock had to be used and, since there were few suppliers able to provide this, it gave an important protection (in commercial terms as well as safety, of course). Interestingly, exactly the same was true for 9.5 on its introduction a mere 10 years after 28mm. 16mm is also pretty much uneconomic to produce from perforated 35mm stock.

Another important feature of 28mm was that it basically introduced the idea of film rental libraries for home users, bringing film within the reach of a far wider audience. (If you think about it, 35mm libraries were probably not feasible. Too dangerous to store in bulk, too dangerous (and probably illegal) to post, and wide open to piracy.) Film libraries became a mainstay of the home cine enthusiast for decades to come, providing a far wider range of films than most individuals could otherwise afford. The real scale of the success of 28mm is best measured in the splendid catalogues produced by Pathescope Inc. and The United Projector and Film Company in America in the period 1918-1921. Over 1000 different titles, and many more reels, were available, increasingly including the latest features from directors such as D W Griffith and performers such as Chaplin. What better proof of the enormous demand for movies in the home? In addition, two high-quality, intermittent-sprocket projectors had been introduced, giving much better film-handling, more light and greater capacity (up to 1200') than the inherently limited KOK. We in the UK got a much worse deal on both films and projectors.

Why, then, did 28mm fade from the scene, and so quickly? The answer, quite simply, was economics. Once non-flam film stocks were good enough to allow a film as small as 9.5 or 16 to give results of high enough quality, the writing was on the wall for 28mm. Pathé had seen and advertised 28mm as a Salon gauge for the wealthy middle classes who could afford the expensive machines, (or for educational purposes - it survived in this capacity in Canada thru into the 1930s). But there was little 28mm could do even for the wealthy amateur that 9.5 couldn't, and it cost three times as much. No contest in a rapidly expanding and fast-moving business, and entrepreneurs were quick to spot just how much bigger a market could be tapped if prices were so much lower. 28mm did an awful lot to promote the idea of home movies and to develop what was in effect a whole new market, but there must have been an expectation of considerable further potential demand for both Pathé and Kodak to introduce new, smaller films almost simultaneously in 1922 and 1923.

Other factors played a part; WWI was disruptive and probably prevented the development by Pathé in France of a better projector, which was done twice in the USA. However, I think the overriding reason that 28mm disappeared so soon after Pathescope in effect abandoned it for 9.5 (while 9.5 itself has long survived the actual demise of Pathescope), is simply the business model adopted. Because of cost, the films were almost always rented; relatively few copies of films therefore existed, all in the hands of businesses who were quite unemotional about dumping 28mm when an alternative came along and the market changed (look at how fast 17.5mm disappeared in the UK once Pathescope got 9.5 sound off the ground - same rental model, but in spades, with only one library). (I do sometimes wonder, wistfully, what happened to all those lovely 28mm prints - sold for silver recovery, I fear). Amateurs had no substantial stake either in films owned or in home movies shot. I also suspect that, particularly in the US, existing film libraries simply switched to smaller gauges, exploiting the customers and systems they already had in place to accomplish a virtually seamless transition, and actually driving the pace of change. Interestingly, Willard Cooke, who had been one of the chief proponents of 28mm in the US, became the custodian of the Kodascope Library, and Kodak catalogues thru into the 30s still looked just like the Pathescope Inc 28mm catalogues. Victor, too, defected to Kodak, developing and marketing 16mm equipment.

In a very real sense, therefore, 28mm was the victim of its own success, serving as a stepping stone to the world of home movies we came to know. And it did a great service in preserving all we have left of the Perils of Pauline.

Projectors

The Pathé KOK has a horizontal layout similar to that of many 35mm machines of the same era, eg Kinox. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to a sewing machine. This might have been deliberate; the sewing machine, introduced as early as the 1850s, was the first and for a long time the only complex machine in the home and perhaps this gave the KOK a feeling of familiarity. Presumably as part of the strategy of marketing to the nobs, the metal cover was highly decorated.

The first KOK had a large crank handle which drove both the mechanism and the dynamo which powered the 6v 20w lamp, freeing the KOK from any reliance on uncertain local electricity supplies (the dynamo could be used as a motor by applying DC power). Local voltage varied widely and some supplies were DC rather than AC, one factor which helped to prolong the use of the resistance instead of the far more efficient transformer. It is hard to understand now how such a lamp could have 28mmstorygiven an acceptable picture; I suppose homes were darker and films were shown only at night, but even so. Equally, the performance of the dynamo as a generator or as a motor cannot readily be assessed because the permanent magnets have usually lost strength over time. Certainly, to get a picture from a dynamo KOK today can require heroic cranking at worryingly high speed, so this one has had a mains power supply added for the lamp. NB the lens is not original. 28mmstory

Before long, machines were being offered with motors (in place of the dynamo although, at a pinch, the dynamo could be run as a motor) and/or resistances. A non-dynamo, un-motorised version had a much smaller crank handle. The lamphouse was enlarged as much as was feasible, with some measures to help dissipate heat. Scope was limited because of the way the lamphouse hinged back to access the gate, swinging up against the obstacle of the 28mmstorymain frame of the machine and the large single sprocket. The arm supporting the overhead film guide roller had to be extended and swept back to make room for the larger lamphouse. Although the KOK will never be an auditorium machine in terms of light output, at least the relatively cooler QI 28mmstorylamps do allow a respectable picture today. But the rather primitive shutter, designed to allow maximum light through, doesn't do enough to minimise flicker, and its lens is not interchangeable with non-KOK types. (Were there ever different focal length lenses for the KOK?). I have seen a pic of one effort to deal differently with the shutter and lens (right).

The limitation to a maximum 400ft spool must have become irksome as films grew longer, and it is difficult to see how it could have been overcome without a fairly radical re-design. Presumably Pathé was sufficiently distracted by the events of 1914-1919 that they never got round to this before they started thinking 9.5.28mmstory

The contrast between the sewing-machine-like, horizontally-arranged KOK and the vertically-arranged Victor 28mm shows how rapidly design could change. The KOK gave a good steady picture, but as films became longer and projectors brighter, its inherent limitations in terms of spool capacity and light output told against it. If they had not been distracted by WWI, Pathé would no doubt have been forced to come up with a new design which, in the event, was left to the Americans. Note that neither the Victor nor the Premier restricted the range of lenses they could use to a very specific size and pattern as did the KOK.

These two are photographed together for direct comparison. The 28mm Pathescope Premier makes an interesting contrast with Kodak's first 16mm projector, the Model A, although both were designed and built in the US. This one is the Mk II28mmstory Kodascope, with the bigger lamphouse but, even discounting that, it seems quite disproportionately large and cumbersome for what it is. The big drawback of the Premier is, of course, the external shutter, but the rest is a splendidly compact design as, indeed, is the Victor.

The final throw of the dice was an attempt by Victor to make a really cheap machine in the never-to-be-fulfilled hope of keeping 28 alive in the face of 16mm. These pix (pinched from US ebay) are in B/W as the machine is in poor shape and looks better that way.

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28mm Parts 2 & 3

[All film titles are actual films listed in American 28mm catalogues. Details can be seen in my 28mm Catalogue (actually a re-setting of the 2nd Edition of the Pathescope Inc catalogue, now out of print,) The 28mm Catalogue Volume 2 (two catalogue Editions from the United Projector and Film Company) and Volume 3, which includes a cross-referenced indexThose marked with an asterisk can be seen, in whole or in part, on a series of DVDs, see under Catalogue.]

In launching their new film gauge for the home, Pathé had a major asset in their already-extensive 35mm back catalogue. We might as well deal right from the start with the reputation 28mm seems to have had for many years in this country. It has been perceived, with considerable justification, as dominated by boring, dry-as-dust documentaries such as Cockle Fishing on the Normandy Coast, The Octopus, A Brittany Wedding, Crocodile- (Elephant-, Deer-, etc, etc) Hunting in almost anywhere and scores of others, many of which appear again on 9.5. No-one could accuse Pathé of failing to wring every last drop of mileage from their footage.

The rea28mmstorysons for this apparent dearth of what we would now call decent titles are many and varied. 1912 was still a time when the sheer wonder of moving films, most especially in the home, had by no means worn off, which to some extent meant that almost anything would sell, and actually be well received. In their home country, Pathé faced the very considerable power of the Catholic Church, very wary of the potentially damaging moral effects of this new (and therefore almost certainly evil) medium. Some of the stuff Pathé produced, eg the ubiquito28mmstoryus CHRISTUS, only one of several Pathé versions of the Bible story, was designed to placate this power and show how film could be a force for good. Yeah, right.

Pathé also saw considerable commercial potential in the educational market, another area strongly influenced by the Church. There was at this time considerable and genuine interest in using film for such good ends, echoes of which survive (barely) in the BBC's public service remit. To show that they meant it, many entries for science or travel films included one or several References, to which educationalists (or the terminally joyless) might refer for further exciting information. Nowadays, of course, we are far too sophisticated for such nonsense and we know that, so long as it looks stylish and scores big at the Box Office in the first week of release, questions of plot, content, sense, fact, accuracy, character or educational and moral values are irrelevant.

Another reason for the restricted range of 28mm titles in the UK was that the market was controlled from France, and heavily disrupted by WWI which, as I 28mmstory 28mmstorynoted in my previous article, basically stopped any forward movement in Europe, while the Americans took control of the entire film industry and their home 28mm market and raced ahead. Pathé did in the end let American films into their European markets, but new titles seem to have been thin on the ground in Britain after the war and by the time things were in any sense back to normal, Pathé were already heading off down the 9.5 route. Nevertheless, one or two choice items reached at least French 28mm, which had seemingly inexhaustible episodes of MYSTÈRES DE NEW YORK, which conflated three Elaine series. Releases of US films in the UK are more difficult to identify, as they could have been imported. At least one episode of The Hazards of Helen made it here (*THE HUMAN CHAIN, see pix left). I know of one copy of Shoulder Arms (in, apparently, 5 reels) that reached these shores, and some Harold Lloyd comedies (see anon).

Really more a point for my first article, but I have wondered if this problem was something to do with the size of the US market-place. I can easily imagine numerous small entrepreneurs setting up to rent and show films to small audiences in local schools etc, charging a nickel or so and making a profit on two or three shows in the day of hire. This is, after all, The American Way. Such people would rapidly and readily switch to 16mm when the time came, of course. In England, maybe the market was too small, or the KOK unsuited for more than tiny audiences, or maybe we were just all too busy Scouting for Boys.

"Documentary" Films

I include in this definition all those films that are non-fictional in content. Of the 14 categories listed in the 2nd Edition of the Pathescope Inc. catalogue, dating from around 1919, 7 are non-fiction. Some of the categories are weird and small - Military Sports, for example. (It is worth noting that even among the comedies and dramas, some guidance is included as to content to ensure no-one got offended. Indeed, descriptions ranged in length from a single line to virtually a full page.) These 7 categories list 587 titles, very nearly half the total, which strongly suggests that education was paid rather more than lip service (tho' it would be interesting to see the lending records by category). The catalogue boasts that Pathescope had for the fifth consecutive year been awarded the contract for film services to New York schools.

Many of the Natural History films of this era show a callous brutality that I for one find hard to stomach. The motto seems to have been "Travel the World, Find Interesting Animals and Kill Them All", in front of a movie camera. My particular least favourite is the trick of turning an octopus inside out, whereupon the unfortunate creature rapidly suffocates. Perhaps understandably, the production company for A Connecticut Skunk Farm is not listed - I wonder if they had to destroy the camera? (or indeed the cameraman). Presumably the skunks failed to make a go of it as nobody cared to get near enough to buy their product. Mind you, if you were looking for thrills, I'd bet Cow-Baiting in the Landes would take some beating.

Another major type was the travelogue; these can actually be interesting all over again today, showing as they do places long before the curses of industrialisation, capitalism and tourism reached them. My daughter visited Nara, the Park of the Sacred Hind in Japan quite recently, and it sounds as though it may have changed but little. A film of the Ruins of Ancient Rome from nearly 100 years ago, however, might be instructive in showing what has been done or not in the name of conservation. The American Rhine describes the Hudson as "one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.", with "a panoramic view." of Albany. This reminds one just how much of the development of the USA took place in the early years of the 20th century; the emergence of the America we think we know from the talkie era is actually pretty recent.

A third type is the "let's go and look at foreign people and marvel at how primitive and unsophisticated they are compared to us" sort, where we ar28mmstorye invited to patronise almost everyone outside Europe. Some of the synopses for these films in the catalogue make one cringe. Seringapatam; " . A view of the native quarter reveals the primitive method of grinding corn and shows the rude bullock carts." Political correct28mmstoryness may sometimes go too far, but in getting rid of this sort of racist tosh it has done us all a favour. The French even manage to patronise their own countrymen. A Pathé production, Peasant Life in Auvergne, refers to "The picturesque peasant of southern France in the midst of quaint surroundings". Some films were tinted *The Eruption of Mount Etna and *Décazeville (a steelworks) are tinted red overall. Unfortunately, this seems just to make it harder to see the detail.

There are a number of films about the war, many issued at a time when the war was still going on. For perhaps obvious reasons (besides the usual pig-headed paranoia of the military), these films do not appear to have been allowed to show anything either real or ongoing. One in particular, The French Army on the March, left me thinking that if I had been in the French Army, I would have regarded it as my patriotic duty to seek out and destroy all copies of this film for the appalling picture of incompetence and idiocy it presented.

Religious films call for no comment. The historical reconstructions seem silly: *Princess Tarakanowa and Catherine the Great and *Coronation of Napoleon are unrealistic and hammy. The final group I want to mention here is the Pathescope Periodical, of which 14 appear in the second edition of the Pathescope Inc catalogue. Very much of the Pathé Pictorial/Pathétone magazine type, these were culled from Pathé News and usually ended with a cartoon.

Drama

There is a particular class of French releases which dropped from US catalogues quite early. These were short melodramas, one or two reels, rather stagy and overacted in the way we came, wrongly, to regard as the hallmark of all silent cinema. An example is the two reeler,*A Scrap of Paper, dating from 1913. Basically, a husband finds his wife with another man (it's her ne'er-do-well brother) and believes the worst. She is cast out, almost drowns herself, has the baby, finds refuge with a family attended by her doctor husband. All is cleared up and they are re-united. In her place, I would have opted for the river, or justifiable homicide, but there. *A Sister's Devotion from 1912 is another, although the surprisingly modern slant is an absconding wife for whom the sister stands in, as wifey's departure coincides with an accident blinding hubby. I only have Reel 1, but the catalogue says wifey returns before he recovers his sight and her perfidy is thus undiscovered. One wonders what sister was up to in the meantime - only his eyes were damaged, after all. The French seem to have carried on producing essentially the same sort of thing. The six reel film *Calvaire d'une Reine (Martyrdom of a Queen) from 1914 is still stagy, even if rather more refined, and two years would be a long time in this era of the cinemas development.

Features were rapidly becoming longer, with other multi-reelers including *Papa Hulin (6 reels), *An Averted Danger (6), A Huge Dowry (6), *Jean Perlot's Digression (5) and more. Then we see the beginnings of something new, with American Pathé appearing in the production company box in the catalogue. We get a couple with somebody called Baby Marie Osborne, whom I pass over as I hate child actors. But we also get Pearl White in May Blossom (8) and Hazel Kirke (9) Miss Nobody (8) with Gladys Hewlett, The Great Adventure with Bessie Love, Flora Finch, Donald Hall and Chester Barnett. Biograph contribute Enoch Arden, A Beast at Bay (both directed by D W Griffiths), Mary Pickford in Ramona, The Pueblo Legend, The Mender of Nets and The New York Hat (with Lionel Barrymore), Blanche Sweet as The Lonedale Operator, Adam Bede, and Lorna Doone. Essanay come in with The Raven, Vitagraph The Deerslayer and Kalem Helen Holmes in *The Human Chain, one of the Hazards of Helen series. William S Hart appears in THE SQUEALER, in which he is something of an early anti-hero and a title that sounds more Mae West than Western, EVERY INCH A MAN, Tom Mix in THE RUSTLER'S VINDICATION and THE SHERIFF'S BLUNDER, to name , as they say, but a few.

In the separate Detective Stories category, a guy called Nick Winter foils various gangs of villains but for many, the pearl of the entire 28mm canon will be the episodes of THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE and particularly THE PERILS OF PAULINE which, without 28mm, would be lost to us.

By the 3rd Edition of the Pathescope Inc catalogue from 1922, we are getting the De Luxe special Features such as JUDITH OF BETHULIA, directed by Griffiths with Blanche Sweney and both Lillian and Dorothy Gish, William S Hart in THE DISCIPLE, Douglas Fairbanks in American Aristocracy and The Matrimaniac, Norma Talmadge in FIFTY-FIFTY, and there are scores more titles such as The Americano, Trilby, The Moonstone, The Social Secretary, THE SANDS OF DEE, THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH, an early version of the wizard of oz (which seems to bear only a fleeting resemblance to its better-known successor, judging by the blurb). Some of the best and relatively recent work of the American cinema and its stars reached 28mm in its brief heyday. Some of these De Luxe features of maybe 10 reels were charged at $12 per night, presumably plus postage.

The exchange rate then might have been as many as $5 to the £, but it still seems a lot of cash for the time. It might mean only clubs and societies, or the small entrepreneurs I have hypothesised, could afford such rates. Maybe it also suggests the scale of the pent-up demand that 16mm would tap into?

Trick Films

One of the earliest attractions of the movies was the ability to do the impossible by the device of stop motion, coupled with double exposure. Hun28mmstorydreds of films were produced designed to amaze and astonish a relatively unsophisticated audience. The most celebrated exponent of this was, of course, Méliès, but there were many others. These films were not the clever CGI graphics we have now become used to, but crude, slow, obvious and with the joins visible for all to see. Some simply film a stage set, with flat painted scenery, sometimes made movable to add to the effect. *Les Fleurs Fantastiques and *Transformations exemplify this group, the former in particular showing also another well-established 28mmstoryfeature, the (relatively) lightly- or exotically-clad young woman of the opposite sex. The young lady who opens and closes the curtain on this film gives the audience a very come-hither look. A magic show was an obvious device, too, such as *THE ARAB SORCERER and *Magic Screen. I particularly like *The Wonderful Armor and an *untitled short with a man and many, mobile, chairs. These films were among those dropped for the third Edition of the Pathescope Inc catalogue. Today, we see them as among the most interesting of 28mm survivals.

In a related vein, there were also early cartoons such as those starring Mentoultant, known in the US as Colonel Heeza Liar. I recently saw one of these for the first time as a bonus feature on a recently-issued DVD of early Popeye films. I have to say that, although of historical interest, I dont think we missed much - just very crudely animated line drawings (inferior Felix) and very slow in plot terms. Nonetheless, 28mm, at least in the US, was up there giving audiences the latest stuff they could get their hands on. The Katzenjammer Kids and +Krazy Kat also appeared, along with a range of weird and wonderful characters, then appearing in whole series but now unknown, such as +Bobby Bumps, +Quacky Doodles and Goodrich Dirt.

+(The three cartoons marked + all appear on "Popeye The Sailor Volume One 1933-38" from Warner Home Video. This is a Region 1 disc and the only number I can find on it is 79796, but it is an excellent collection with superb transfers of many of the 9.5 favourites.)

Comedies

My final category. We start with a range of early French comedies, often short (maybe 100ft on 28mm), with titles like *NO MORE BALD MEN, *THE INDISCREET LORGNETTE and *THE VACUUM CLEANER, which latter actually belongs more in the trick category. It shows two men absconding with a large street-cleaning vacuum machine and sucking all sorts of people into it. One of the most interesting is *RACE OF POLICEMEN, (aka THE POLICEMEN'S LITTLE RUN and originally LA COURSE DES SERGENTS DE VILLE). This is one of the earliest films I have found on 28mm, dating from 1907. The plot is simple; a dog steals a leg of lamb or similar and is pursued by 20 or so policemen. There is no attempt at reality; it is obvious that the policemen climbing the vertical face of a building are lying on the ground doing swimming motions (with little effort at credibility); when the dog in turn chases the police, it is obvious he would at worst lick them to death; some of the police are female with false moustaches and, basically, the whole thing is a delight. POLICE DOGS is not dissimilar. One of the pleasures of 28mm is the window it affords into some very early cinema.

Far more sophisticated is the comedy of Max Linder, who had at least 40 titles released on 28mm. By far my favourite is *THE MAN WHO HANGED HIMSELF, a film in splendidly bad taste. Max offers for and is rejected by the girl he loves. He therefore decides to hang himself and, with a disconcerting degree of reality, does so, in the woods. He is found by a boy, who brings an old man, who in turn brings etc, culminating eventually in the Mayor, in his ceremonial sash, with a platoon of horse soldiers and half the village. At no point until this cavalcade arrives does anyone make the slightest effort to help, simply exclaiming in horror and rushing off to get more help as Max's eyes and tongue bulge ever more horribly. When Max is finally cut down, he seems lifeless, but is re-invigorated by inflation with a pump provided by a passing cyclist and re-united with his love. The film ends on a still, a painting of a noose. Wonderful.

Another frequent performer is the diminutive Little Moritz, most often with his inamorata, the generously-proportioned Rosalie. In a series of comedies, Little Moritz meets, woos, proposes to and marries Rosalie. Several of these are on the DVDs. There were further films starring a corpulent Rosalie as a stroppy servant, but whether the same person I know not. Toto appears in the two-reeler *A MAD FAMILY. There are all sorts of name problems; for instance, Wiffles, star of yet another series of comic shorts, is apparently Rigadin in French. We have Dolly, Johnny, (and Mrs Johnny) Jane, Gene, Gabrielle, Baby and so on and on. Rarely are they the same in French; perhaps these are the origins of the notoriously slapdash Pathé approach to titles.

As home-grown American material is added to the catalogue, we also have more familiar names. Harold Lloyd is there in his Luke persona, confusingly known as Lui in French, which somehow doesn't translate too happily to IT'S HIM. Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard often join him, for example in *ALL ABOARD. There is a shipboard scene in which Lloyd ends up rolling to and fro across a substantial female as the ship rolls, reminding me irresistibly of Chaplin's immigrant. Which came first?

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Mack Sennet and Mabel Normand appear in THE FICKLE SPANIARD; she also appeared with Fatty Arbuckle in MABEL AND FATTY ADRIFT. Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew (sometimes peculiarly styled The Sidney Drews) seem to have been immensely popular (HER OBSESSION, LEST WE FORGET). A contemporary interview with them can be found on my website. John Bunny and Flora Finch star together in the splendidly-titled PIGS IS PIGS. Chaplin appears in THE BANK, THE CHAMPION, POLICE, with Edna Purviance in THE JITNEY ELOPEMENT, SHANGHAIED and IN THE PARK and with Mabel Normand in LOVE AND LUNCH. Mary Pickford can be seen in LENA AND THE GEESE, THE INDIAN SUMMER and THE ITALIAN BARBER to name, again, but a few.

All this has only scratched the surface of the wealth of information in these American 28mm catalogues. I hope, however, it has gone some way towards redressing the balance for 28mm, which I think has been for too long seen as a Cinderella gauge that was merely a temporary aberration in the smooth development of Home Movies that began with 9.5 and 16mm in 1922 and 1923. In fact, 28mm laid the foundations for that development, creating an infrastructure which later gauges were simply able to appropriate and extend. When technology moved on, with better emulsions and film stocks, 28mm was as naturally replaced by smaller gauges as vinyl was by CD, as VHS has been by DVD, and as I fear film will be by digital.