Sidney Olcott, le premier oeil

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October 19, 2019





Sequences of The Right Way (1921) available on Vimeo

Neil Novello's "The Right Way" @The Castle, Producer's Commentary from Neil D. Novello on Vimeo.

I just discovered that part of a film by Sidney Olcott that I thought lost is now visible. Four of eight reels of The Right Way, shot in 1919 but released in 1921, have survived. There are kept at the George Eastman House, in Rochester NY. Sequences are featured in a video, TMO@The Castle directed by Neil D. Novello and posted on the Vimeo platform, dedicated to The Castle, the nickname for the US Navy's Portsmouth Prison in Kittery, Maine.

The Right Way is a kind of UFO in the chaotic turn that has taken Sidney Olcott's career for some time. Here are some benchmarks.

September 1916, Sidney Olcott resigns from Famous Players of which he is one of the leading directors. He wants to regain his freedom . He produces and directs in 1917 The Belgian which is released in January 1918.

At the end of June 1918, when the war was in full swing and the Americans' contribution finally seemed decisive, Olcott was asked by the US government with nine other filmmakers to support the war effort. In the meantime, he has to face distribution problems for The Belgian which are settled in court.

September 1918, hired by the new Frank A. Keeney production company, Olcott shoot in New York A Marriage for Convenience with Catherine Calvert, the star actress of the company. The film is released in February 1919.

At the end of December 1918, Olcott embarked for England. He is accompanied by Valentine Grant and, according to the British professional press (The Bioscope, 13/02/1919, p.19) he came to "this country with the object of making motion pictures here". On July 15, 1919, he returned to the United States.

It is past this date that he shoots The Right Way, a militant film. The author is Thomas Mott Osborne (1859-1926) former Warden of Sing Sing, the famous New York State Prison, then of Portsmouth Naval prison. He is the only civilian commander of this prison. All his life he worked for an improvement of the conditions of detention of the prisoners in America. He has been lecturing, writing books and finally imagining a film to highlight his reform ideas and convince the American public.

Sidney Olcott is known to be interested in the fate of inmates. He is the president of The Motion Picture Players Entertainment League for Prisoners, which he created in 1916. The league also offers soldiers held in military jails film screenings on Sundays afternoon in the presence of actors. Is this the reason why the production chose it to direct the shooting?

November 1919, The Moving Picture News, a trade papers, announces in an echo that Edward A. MacManus, film producer to whom we owe The Lost Battalion puts the final touch to the adaptation to the cinema of a story written by Thomas Mott Osborne.

A month later, the same magazine brings clarifications: it is Sidney Olcott who is the director; 62 sets were needed for indoor scenes; 350 extras and 50 actors of cinema; and « In addition there was a number of former inmates of prisons who had endured ans survived such cruelties of the « old system » as the head stage, the ball and the chain, whippings, strait jacket, and long periods of incarceration in dark cells, and who were not averse to re-enact some of the bitter experiences they went through while under punishment ».

January 1920, the producer announces his upcoming release. The titling having been done, the film will be called The Gray Brother. Then nothing or almost nothing. In October a short article from The Moving Picture World reports that Osborne's "films" were screened at Auburn N.Y., the creator's city of the Mutual Welfare League. "Films"? The magazine does not name them.

It is still necessary to wait until February 28, 1921 for a film to be previewed to the public in Syracuse, N.Y., at the Wieting Opera House. It's no longer called The Gray Brother but Making Good. Variety (11/02/1921) provides some information on production, given by Osborne himself. Its production lasted one year; it cost $ 100,000; 70,000 feet of film were filmed which had to be reduced to 90 minutes, or about 7,500 feet.

And then calm flat, the trade papers report that such distributor has bought the rights in such distant state. Finally, on October 8, 1921, The Motion Picture News publishes a full page of advertising for distributors. The movie has changed again. It's now called The Right Way. It has been successfully tested in two territories: Ohio and Washington DC. He stayed two weeks at the Gift's Theater in Cincinnati, O and one week at Allen's Million Dollar House in Cleveland, O. So "Hurry up! "

The production also organizes a private screening for the press. So critics f bloom. They are generally good. In late November, the film is finally distributed in the states of New Jersey and New York.

Thomas Mott Osborne multiplies conferences to accompany the screening of the film. According to Neil D. Novello, Osborne was not happy with the first editings. As a result, he will supervise the following ones. This may explain the delay between the shooting and the release of the film. But he will regret the lack of success of the film accusing the distributors of negligence to the point that he will raise funds to do it himself.

Sorry for my English

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©2009 Michel Derrien