I jumped at the chance to introduce two Louise Lovely films when they were screened on September 29 as part of the Spring Silents 2012 season at Arc Cinema.
The Sydney-born silent film actress appeared in 50-plus films during her career in Australia and the United States. Surviving film prints of these productions — very few in number — are mainly in US and British archives, so this was indeed a rare opportunity.
The two films programmed for that Saturday session were both made at Universal Studios, under the Bluebird brand name. The program was also part of an on-going Arc cinema retrospective of Universal Studios, marking its centennial and position as the oldest surviving major Hollywood studio. Fellow Australian Rupert Julian directed The Gift Girl (1917) and also played the role of Malec, a merchant. Another Australian, Winter Hall, played Usan Hassan. Joseph DeGrasse directed The Grasp of Greed (1916).
As an additional pleasure, a small group of Louise Lovely scholars also attended a private screening on Sunday September 30, during which we saw of The Field of Honour (1917). This was released under Universal’s Butterfly brand, and was directed by Alan Holubar – who, like Rupert Julian, also played a lead role in his own film.
I don’t think that anyone would claim that these films — made quickly, cheaply, and amidst a welter of other films within 11 months of each other — are cinematic masterpieces (although the renowned US film scholar David Bordwell makes an interesting case for the “extremely polished” style of The Field of Honour). However, seeing them as we did, almost one after the other, established that they vary greatly in quality. This surprised me, because streamlined production at the studios was aimed at turning out standardised commodities; their predictability was a selling point both to exhibitors and to audiences.
The different brands were important studio strategies. Like other companies, Universal released different ‘labels’ — such as Red Feather, Rex and Bison — aimed at different audiences, who chose their viewing on the basis of the brand. This differentiation was particularly important for Universal, which did not own any theatres. Rather than having long runs in big-city theatres, its films were likely to be shown on country circuits, in theatres which changed their programs two or three times a week.