April 7, 2016, Blue Bell, Pa.—On Saturday, May 7, 2016, at 8 p.m., the Betzwood Silent Film Festival will pay tribute to America’s earliest pioneering “disaster films.” An illustrated lecture explaining how the Lubin Film Company staged hair-raising spectacles at their Philadelphia and Betzwood studios will be followed by a screening of the 1913 feature film, When The Earth Trembled, or the Strength of Love.
Tickets cost $15 and can be ordered by calling the Box Office at 215-641-6518 or visiting mc3.edu/livelyarts.
“Spectacles and Disasters” were the staples of Philadelphia film pioneer Siegmund Lubin’s movie production enterprise a century ago. Regardless of the expense, trains were wrecked, factories set ablaze, and whole villages destroyed to create films that thrilled movie audiences of the silent era. One hundred years later, When The Earth Trembled is the only one of these legendary Lubin “disaster” films to survive.
The 1913 production of When The Earth Trembled required the building of a series of elaborate and expensive sets in the Lubin studio in Philadelphia. Rigged to collapse on cue, these sets made it possible to create realistic scenes set in the destructive chaos of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake. While it took four months to build the movie sets, it only took seconds to destroy them when the cameras started to roll. The collapsing floors and ceilings and cascades of debris put the actors’ lives at risk, and one actress was injured when a chandelier fell on her face. The stunning footage, unprecedented for its time, amazed audiences around the world.
Long thought to be lost, portions of When The Earth Trembled turned up in several American and European archives some years ago, allowing the film to be meticulously restored by a noted film conservationist associated with the San Francisco Silent Film Association.
When The Earth Trembled was an international success in 1914, as this French poster makes clear.
The restored film has been shown to audiences in Amsterdam, London, San Francisco and New York City. Now patrons of the Betzwood Silent Film Festival will have a chance to see this remarkable film in all its original glory. The May 7th program will also include two short comedies starring famed silent comedian, Billie Reeves. Films will be accompanied live on the theater organ by the incomparable Don Kinnier, who has prepared a special score, with sound effects, for the occasion.
MCCC is home to the largest known archive of Betzwood movie studio artifacts in the world thanks to Joseph Eckhardt, emeritus professor of History at MCCC. Eckhardt is the author of the first Lubin biography, The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin, which details Lubin’s transformation from an immigrant optician into the first successful movie mogul, credited with the first attempt at the “mass marketing” of movies.
In 2015, Eckhardt published a dual biography, Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason about one of one of America’s earliest “out and proud” same-sex couples. Actress Hervey captivated audiences with her portrayal of Powerful Katrinka, a hefty, innocent creature oblivious to the extent of her own physical strength, in the Betzwood studio’s Toonerville Trolley series. Off screen, Hervey was a skilled portrait painter, award-winning enamel artist and hostess of some of the Catskills’ wildest parties that made her a legend. She was joined in her life adventures by Nan Mason, the surprisingly tall daughter of Wilna’s Toonerville co-star, Dan Mason. The girls met while filming at Betzwood.
Only 30 Betzwood films and fragments have survived the ravages of time, and MCCC is fortunate to have copies of 25 of these in its Betzwood Film Archive. For the past quarter-century, the College has screened films from its Betzwood collection for the public during its annual festival.
In 2012, Eckhardt donated a variety of Betzwood artifacts – including manuscripts, photo albums, tape recordings and studio props that he acquired through this extensive research – to the archive, which is housed in a climate controlled space in MCCC’s Brendlinger Library in Blue Bell. The archive has recently been digitized and is now accessible online to the general public at mc3betzwood.wordpress.com.
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- Diane VanDyke
Actress Ethel Clayton was injured during the making of this scene as the sets collapsed around her. There was only one take!