Anne Richardson

Category: Harry Smith

Timeline illuminating the minor cinemas of Oregon, 1910-1965

 

What role did the minor cinemas (newsreels, educational films, industrial films, experimental films, animation, home movies) play in Oregon’s overall film history?

I drew up this timeline for Sheldon Renan, noting the early appearance of our regional specialty, the independent writer-director-producer.

I italicize figures whose entire careers take place outside the state lines. Some people don’t consider these artists part of Oregon film history. I do.

Three time Oscar nominee James Ivory made fourteen low budget independent features before his first Oscar nomination, for ROOM WITH A VIEW, in 1987.

Part One: 1910-1928, Silent Oregon

William L. Finley (1876-1953), Oregon’s first nationally distributed independent writer-director-producer, made nature themed newsreels. His name carried enough weight so that it appeared in endorsements for home movie cameras in national print advertising campaigns. His filmmaking was mission driven – he was an ornithologist and conservationist. Finley doesn’t wear his filmmaker hat in Larry Lipin’s OHQ article about his good roads advocacy.

Jesse Sill (1881-1981), Portland based filmmaker specializing in local and national newsreels. He used the business model (later adopted by Lew Cook and Norm Dimick), of offering both filmmaking and film processing services. In addition to shooting regional events for national newsreels, Sill created an entirely local newsreel series for local movie theater audiences, the Webfoot Weekly. He was active in both the silent era and the sound era, eventually working as a cameraman for Portland television news stations. Amos Burg (1901-1986), was taught by him. Walt Dimick, Ron Finne, Gary Lacher all knew him. Ellen Thomas’ masters thesis, Commercial Motion Picture Production in Portland Oregon, 1910-1928, discusses him.

Lewis Moomaw (1889-1980), writer-director-producer. One of the founders of American Lifeograph, a full scale film studio which opened in 1910 on SE Yamhill. Directed several Portland based live action feature length films. THE CHECHACOS (1924), shot on location in Alaska, has been restored and preserved. His last feature film in Portland, FLAMES (1926), was written by Alfred Cohn, who the following year was Oscar nominated for his screenplay for THE JAZZ SINGER. Eugene O’Brien, a big star, was the leading man in FLAMES; Jean Hersholt and Boris Karloff in supporting roles. The coming of sound moved Moomaw to Hollywood, not sure what he did there.

Pinto Colvig (1892-1967), writer-director-producer. Born and raised in Southern Oregon, educated by a combination of Oregon Agricultural College and the circus, Pinto began animating in San Francisco. Some film historians list his lost film, CREATION (1916), as the first animated feature. Moving to LA, he did animated special effects for silent film, and then, with the coming of sound, the voice work which made him famous.

Lew Cook (1909-1983) was trained by Jesse Sill to shoot newsreels while still in high school. He worked for Sill, then went out on his own. He made THE LITTLE BAKER, a stop motion animated short, in the 1920s. Spent most of his career in Portland, with the exception of his WWII years, and some post-WWII years, in the military. Founder of OHS Moving Image Archive, he selected and trained his successor, Michele Kribs. He mentored Homer Groening and Jim Blashfield, who later paid tribute to him in a ten minute profile for OPB.

Every one of these filmmakers made work which was seen nationally. Not a farm team. When film was brand new, Hollywood did not yet have the monopoly on content.

Part Two: 1929-1965, Sound Era Oregon

The regionally made independent feature disappeared with the coming of sound. Too expensive! On the smaller screens, home movies thrived, as did films made for classrooms, sales conventions, and grange halls.

Figures whose careers took place entirely outside the state are italicized.

Luther Cressman (1897-1994) used film to document archeological field work. Arriving at UO in 1930 as a sociologist, by 1939 he was making films as an archeologist. In Bali, at the exact same time, his ex-wife Margaret Mead was doing the same thing.

Lester Beck (1908-1977) used film to document UO psychology experiments, then started writing and “supervising” (does this mean directing? producing?) educational films. After HUMAN GROWTH (1947), a nationwide sex education hit, Beck became head of USC’s film department. USC film student James Ivory remembers fulminating against Beck’s emphasis on short, non fiction filmmaking. Beck left USC to teach psychology at Portland State College in 1955. He brought one of his USC faculty, Andries Deinum, future founder of PSU’s Center For The Moving Image,with him. Beck continued making educational films throughout the 1960s. From Malheur County.

Stephen B. Kahn (1910-2007) combined the journalism he studied at UO and the law he studied at University of Tennessee as a PR man for Bonneville Power Administration. He hired Woody Guthrie to compose songs for THE COLUMBIA (recorded in 1941, film completed in 1949). Raised on radical politics in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Kahn’s last chapter of life was spent as a lumber man and philanthropist in Northern California.

Norm Dimick (1910-1991) began making films while still in high school (as did Lew Cook, his near exact Portland contemporary.) Taking a page from the long career of Jesse Sill, Dimick Motion Picture Services on NE Sandy offered production, post production, and film processing services. The stability of Dimick’s diversified business model meant he was around to provide crucial assists to the re-emergence of independent film in sound era Portland. Viewmaster used his lab to process their film in the 1940s; brand new filmmaker Homer Groening hired Dimick for sound editing in the late 1950s; young Berkeley undergraduate Will Vinton came by for advice (and parts) crucial to an aspiring stop motion animator in the 1960s.

Frank Hood (1912-1987) made training films and sales films for a brand new start up named Tektronix in the mid-1950s. He left Tektronix to found Teknifilm, a processing lab, in 1964. In Hood, we see the flicker of a return of the writer-director. When Hood moved Teknifilm into Portland’s Film Row buildings on NW 19th, he was bridging Portland’s silent and sound eras. His lenient approach to payment schedules made loyal customers of Will Vinton, Jim Blashfield, Gus Van Sant, who located their studios nearby.

Andries Deinum (1918-1995), writer-director-producer. Blacklisted in Hollywood, Deinum arrived in Portland in 1957, and opened PSU’s Center For The Moving Image, the first film school in the PNW, in 1969. His students included Brooke Jacobson and Bob Summers, who co-founded Northwest Film Center in 1971, music video pioneer Jim Blashfield, cinematographer Harry Dawson, and historian Michael Munk. Oregon Encyclopedia notes: “Deinum’s innovative television series Urban Mosaic, begun in 1965, offered “weekly scrutinies of our immediate environment and its impact on human values.” The mosaic consisted of discussions, confrontations, filmed reports and interviews assembled each week within a flexible time slot. He made the show a place where Portland’s officials, architects, realtors, and diverse citizens might encounter one another.” Deinum was invited to Portland by Lester Beck, his former boss at USC.  Heather Petrocelli’s masters thesis, Portland’s “Refugee from Occupied Hollywood”: Andries Deinum, his Center for the Moving Image, and Film Education in the United States, examines his PSU years.

Homer Groening (1919-1996) writer-director-producer. Exposed to filmmaking as an account executive at Botsford Constantine & Gardner, Groening struck out on his own in 1958, taking the Jantzen account with him. As Homer Groening, Inc., he made commercials, documentaries, industrial films, promotional films, and experimental short films. His merging of business success and artistic independence inspired the independent filmmakers who followed him: Will Vinton, Bill Plympton, Matt Groening.

Harry Smith (1923 -1991), writer-director-producer. Born in Portland, raised in Bellingham & Anacortes. Experimental animator, music ethnologist, anthropologist. The second generation black sheep scion of a powerful salmon canning family, he was a disciple of Franz Boas, as was Luther Cressman. Too important to leave out of Oregon film history, so I always include him. Wildly influential.

John Parker Jr (1925-1981), writer-director-producer. The son and heir of a Portland theater chain mogul, Parker made Oregon’s first sound era independent feature, DEMENTIA (1953), in Los Angeles. Highly stylized, low budget, black & white, with a score by George Antheil, Parker’s first and only film was made for a hybrid art house/exploitation audience no one else dreamed existed.

James Ivory (b. 1928), writer-director-producer. Oregon’s most distinguished filmmaker. A titan in the history of independent film. Not often seen that way, because Hollywood distributed his (resolutely independent) films. Founded Merchant Ivory Productions in 1961. His decades long collaboration with producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala began with THE HOUSEHOLDER (1963), shot in Delhi. Ivory received Oscar nominations for ROOM WITH A VIEW (1987), HOWARD’S END (1993), and REMAINS OF THE DAY (1994). He graduated from Klamath Union High School in 1946 and UO (art history) in 1951. Classmate of James Blue.

James Blue (1930-1980), writer-director-producer. Oregon’s first Oscar nominated filmmaker began making films at age 12. Like James Ivory, his career breakthrough happened overseas. THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE (1962), shot in Algeria, was good preparation for the cultural and political complexities of THE MARCH (1963), shot on the Washington Mall. After the Oscar nomination of A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM (1969), Blue spent the last decade of his life teaching, making experimental documentaries, and advocating on a national level for regional film. He graduated from Jefferson High School in 1949 and UO (theater) in 1953. Classmate of James Ivory.

Ken Kesey (1935-2001), writer-director-producer. Kesey’s home movies of his 1964 cross country bus trip were made during a time experimental filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of the medium. He continued to edit and re-edit the 1964 footage throughout his life, while continuing to document his live shows on film/video. I believe it is fair to describe Kesey as an experimental filmmaker. Paul Newman and Milos Forman adapted Kesey’s region-centric novels into feature films, but Kesey’s interests lay elsewhere – in film as a happening. I classify this part of his career as underestimated and misunderstood, perhaps even by himself. Graduated from Springfield High School in 1953, UO (speech & communication) in 1957.

I will pick up the timeline as it continues into the 1970s, when independent filmmaking returns to Portland.

Sources: 

I learned about Jesse Sill from Ellen Thomas, UO masters thesis; Pinto Colvig from Ben Truwe (2015 OFHI); Lew Cook from Michele Kribs; Lester Beck from Elizabeth Peterson (2017 OFHI) & Michael Aronson; Stephen B. Kahn from Libby Burke (2016 OFHI); Norm Dimick from Walt Dimick (2015 OFHI); Frank Hood from Robert Zurcher; Andries Deinum from Brooke Jacobson (2015 OFHI) and Heather Petrocelli, PSU masters thesis; Homer Groening from Lisa Groening & Matt Groening (OCI Mid Century Oregon Genius); Harry Smith from Sheldon Renan (OCI Harry Smith PDX, 2015 OFHI); John Parker Jr. from JD Chandler and Joshua Fisher; James Ivory from James Ivory (OCI Mid Century Oregon Genius); James Blue from Richard Blue (OCI Mid Century Oregon Genius, 2016 OFHI).

 

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Harry + Homer: Mid Century Oregon Genius @ Hollywood Theatre/Jan. 16 & 17

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 On Friday Jan. 16 and Saturday Jan. 17, 2015, the Mid Century Oregon Genius series returns to the Hollywood Theatre to celebrate Harry Smith (1923-1991) and Homer Groening (1919-1996).

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Harry Smith was born in Portland. He grew up in Bellingham, Washington, a second generation black sheep whose paternal grandmother was a member of the most powerful family in town, the Deming family, whose Pacific American Fisheries had more than 30 canneries in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. An artist from childhood, he began making abstract animated films in San Francisco as an extension of his painting.

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This screen shot of Oregon Cartoon Institute’s 2013 screening of Heaven And Earth Magic at the Hollywood Theatre was taken by Paul Wolfe.

On Jan. 16, 2015 at 7:00 PM, film historian Dennis Nyback will return to the Hollywood with his multi-projector recreation of Harry Smith’s 1962 expanded cinema masterpiece HEAVEN AND EARTH MAGIC. Using meticulous cut out animation and a sound track composed entirely of sound effects, Smith tells an eerie, austere story of a woman, a toothache and a watermelon.

After HEAVEN AND EARTH MAGIC, Mississippi Records owner Eric Isaacson and Harry Smith historian Chuck Pirtle will join Dennis Nyback onstage to discuss Harry Smith’s dual identities as collector and artist, and to explore the connection between collecting and creating.

Homer Groening, Harry Smith’s generational cohort, grew up in Albany, Oregon, and spent his entire adult life in Portland. He opened his own advertising agency in 1958, and began making award winning short art films on the side in the early 1960s.

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On Jan. 17, 2015 at 7:00 PM, Mid Century Oregon Genius will present a program of Selected Short Films Of Homer Groening. Two time Oscar nominee Bill Plympton will introduce. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by Lisa Groening. She will discuss her father with three people who knew him as friend, colleague and role model: Tom Shrader, Ted Mahar, and Bill Plympton.

Thank you to the Groening family for their generous loan of films for this program!

Strange but true: although their lives and career paths diverge in every other way, Harry Smith and Homer Groening were both, in the early 1960s, making non narrative experimental films. A STUDY IN WET, by Homer Groening, uses a sound track composed of found sounds of water dripping, just as the score for Harry Smith’s stop motion animated feature, HEAVEN AND EARTH MAGIC, is composed entirely of sounds taken from one (1) sound effects record.

Just as Harry Smith appropriated images from 19th century mail order catalogs to populate his dream landscape, in A STUDY IN WET, Homer Groening turns an ordinary object, his surfboard, into Japanese calligraphy.

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Harry Smith and Homer Groening are a study in contrasts. One similarity: Both remained independent artists who chose their own projects, and reaped their own rewards. Since this was true for  James Blue and James Ivory, the other two filmmakers celebrated in Mid Century Oregon Genius,  it appears the independent writer-director-producer is, like wine, beer, salmon, stripping, and rain, a regional specialty.

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Posters and video by Josh Winsor. Thank you, Josh.

Tickets for the Jan. 16 screening of Harry Smith’s Heaven And Earth Magic and the Jan. 17 screening of Selected Short Films Of Homer Groening are available at www.hollywood.org.

See you there!

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Mid Century Oregon Genius is supported by grants from Kinsman Foundation and Miller Foundation, and is fiscally sponsored by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.

The Jan. 17 screening of Selected Short Films Of Homer Groening is co-sponsored by MovieMaker Magazine.

James + James: Mid Century Oregon Genius @ Hollywood Theatre/Oct. 10 & 11

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When Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner won their Oscar in 1975, independent filmmaking in Oregon seemed to be entering a new stage. But the truth is that Oregon already had produced four successful independent filmmakers: James Ivory (b. 1928), James Blue (1930-1980), Harry Smith (1923-1991) and Homer Groening (1919-1996). All four artists had emerged a decade before Vinton and Gardiner made their breakthrough film.

Ivory made his cinematic debut from India.

Blue made his from Algeria.

Smith made his from New York City.

Groening remained in Portland, splitting his time between his advertising work and his short art films, which he sent to film festivals around the world.

In the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series, we unite these four Oregon mid-century film artists under one umbrella. One film is shot in an Algerian war zone. One stars a Hollywood heart throb. One is shot on an animation stand which doubled as a bed for the filmmaker. Some are shot underwater.

On Oct. 10 at 7:00 PM, three time Oscar nominee James Ivory comes to Portland to introduce MAURICE (1987), starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves. Handpicked by Ivory for the screening series, MAURICE is on the short list of films for which he served as both screenwriter (with Kit Hesketh-Harvey) and director.

James Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1951.

On Oct. 11 at 11:00 AM at the Hollywood, we will screen James Ivory’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PRINCESS (1977), starring Madhur Jaffrey and James Mason. Ivory chose AUTOBIOGRAPHY specifically to complement James Blue’s THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, which shares its theme of post colonial identity crisis.

On Oct. 11 at 1:00 PM, Richard Blue, the brother of director James Blue, will introduce THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, an extremely rare film which won the Critics Prize at Cannes in 1962.

James Blue grew up in Portland and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1953. He and James Ivory worked together on at least one drama production at UO. Did they have any idea they would become Oregon’s first Oscar nominated directors?

And that they both would launch careers from outside this country?

On Oct. 11 at 2:30 PM, following the screening of THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, there will be a panel discussion titled  James Blue, a life in conversation.

Three panelists will talk us through James Blue’s life and career. Using archival photos from the Blue Collection to structure the narrative, we will travel conversationally from Tulsa to Portland, Eugene, and Paris, to Blue’s professional breakthrough in Algiers, his subsequent embrace of documentary, and his dual identity as filmmaker and educator.

The panelists are Richard Blue, the brother of James Blue; James Dormeyer, Blue’s classmate at L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris and a close friend; Gill Dennis, the screenwriter of Blue’s 1969 Oscar nominated doc, A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM.

Tickets for individual events, and for the entire series, will be available online through The Hollywood Theatre and at the door.

The Mid Century Oregon Genius screening of The Olive Trees Of Justice is co-sponsored by The James and Richard Blue Foundation.

The second half of the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series will take place on January 15 & 16, 2015. Two back to back evenings will celebrate the work of independent filmmakers Harry Smith and Homer Groening.

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More information: http://midcenturyoregongenius.wordpress.com

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The Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series is supported by grants from Kinsman Foundation and Miller Foundation. It is presented by Oregon Movies, A to Z, which is fiscally sponsored by Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, a 501 © 3 private non profit organization.