The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Theatre

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Harold Aherne

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The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Theatre

PostSat Mar 31, 2018 11:16 pm

In late March 1929, as part-talking and talking films such as My Man, In Old Arizona and The Broadway Melody were capturing cinema-goers’ imaginations, there was at least one talkie that was such an abject failure that its Broadway engagement was cancelled after one day. An independent project with recording by the Bristolphone process, it likely wouldn’t have made much of a dent in film history in any case, but before its disastrous reception, one of Hollywood’s top studios had flirted with distributing the picture and booked it into one of the nation’s most prestigious theatres. The theatre in question was the Capitol, the studio was MGM, and the movie was The Great Power.

The Great Power began its life as a play by Myron C. Fagan (1887-1972), who already had written two works that had notable runs on Broadway, The Little Spitfire (Aug 1926-Feb 1927, 200 performances) and Jimmie’s Women (Sep 1927-Apr 1928, 216 performances). The Great Power was scheduled for a tryout at the Savoy in Asbury Park, New Jersey from 5-7 July 1928 (1). Another out-of-town tryout was set to begin 27 August at the Adelphi in Philadelphia (2). It received “mixed notices and not much business” in the latter city (3). Its run at Broadway’s Ritz Theatre starting 11 September proved not to be much better; it lasted for only 23 performances and closed by the end of the month. Variety’s review said “Though it may not draw, the new Myron Fagan drama has its merits, one of which is that the screen will probably use it” (4). And how!

The story concerned a hard-nosed financier who has neglected his domestic life, and who tries to ruin the Wray family. But a revelation concerning a Wray family member sends Power into a climactic delirium in which he believes he’s being judged by people in his life. No one is able to say anything good, and a clergyman even says “In the language of the streets you are a ----.” (Redaction in original; the review says “Fagan went into the current violent language mode. The naughty words go for laughs, but there is no other comedy.”) The title comes from the lead character’s name: John Power. He was played by John T. Doyle, and the main Wray protagonist was portrayed by Minna Gombell.

That might have been the end of The Great Power, except that there was indeed a film in the works. And it wouldn’t be cast or filmed in the usual manner: instead of going to Hollywood, or even one of the New York City or New Jersey studios, it would be filmed in Waterbury, Connecticut at the facilities of the W. H. Bristol Talking Pictures Corporation (5), with the Bristolphone sound system, and using the stage cast. The players arrived in Waterbury on Sunday, 30 September with filming to start the following day. Direction was to be handled jointly by the playwright, Myron Fagan, and Joe Rock (1893-1984), a highly prolific film actor, writer, producer and director, especially in short comedies (6).

The original intention was to film it exactly as it was presented onstage, but this quickly proved unfeasible: Variety reported that “rushes revealed that the literal reproduction of a Broadway show as a talker was impossible. Sets photographed flat, without highlights or shadows; the players photographed too white against the drops and terrific candlepower had to be used to get any picture at all from the scenery. Result was overlighting of the performers.” A week’s worth of production had to be scrapped, and a set suitable for filming was rented from MGM. The project was already two weeks over schedule (7). The cost ended up being about $80,000 (8). Herschel Mayall ended up replacing John T. Doyle in the leading role.

Exactly who was behind the film version of The Great Power? The AFI catalogue entry merely gives “Bristolphone” as the production company, while the IMDB gives Franklyn Warner Productions. EDR of 23 October 1928 tells the following story: “With the consummation of a deal between Sol Lesser, Franklyn Warner and W. H. Bristol, head of Bristolphone of the formation of the American Picturephone Corporation comes information that the Sonora Phonograph Company has, together with General Acoustics, gone into a proposition with William H. Bristol and his Bristolphone . . . The new company is privately owned and starts with a production budget of five million dollars . . .” (9).

Ads promoting Bristolphone and The Great Power began appearing with some regularity in journals such as Motion Picture News and Exhibitors Daily Review during the fall of 1928. By mid-November, the film was said to be “nearing completion” (10). Yet it took several months for The Great Power to reach the public, and with more and more familiar names appearing in talking films, The Great Power’s producers must have had some concerns about the salability of their property. It was based on an unsuccessful play, had no real stars and only one name (Mayall) familiar to most filmgoers, and sound-film technique was steadily improving. Finally, in late February a distribution deal was announced with MGM, “closed by Matty Radin, general manager of the producing firm” [given as Franklyn Warner Productions] (11). It was apparently “the first time a Western Electric licensee has handled a sound picture made on other than Western Electric equipment” (12). The film was booked into the Capitol Theatre on Broadway, the flagship of MGM’s parent Loew’s chain, starting Saturday, 23 March 1929.

As a play, The Great Power came and went with little remark, but as a film, it was apparently a fiasco. Variety reported that it was “quietly anesthetized at the Capitol between the first and second shows Sunday. Complaints and disorders multiplied so rapidly that the house rushed in Buster Keaton’s ‘Spite Marriage’ (M-G) to fill the gap” (13). Although some modern writers have suggested that The Great Power played only once, it did in fact have about six showings. Variety roasted the film as being “pseudo-moralistic, the sort of stuff William Hodge has been doing on the road for years.” Of the largely unknown cast: “Minna Gombell, featured, will mean about as much in South Chicago as Sadie Zilch. It is also safe to predict . . . that none of them, with the possible exception of [Herschel] Mayall, will be seen again on a major screen. They are, one and all, conspicuously lacking in screen personalities, sex appeal or sartorial swank.” And finally: “Pretty bad, but might pass in sticks.” (14) A later Variety report mentioned spectators “laughing and jeering” at the film (15).

Although MGM had planned a national release date of 20 April 1929 for The Great Power, according to listings in Harrison’s Reports and Motion Picture News, its dreadful performance evidently caused the studio to have second thoughts. Exhibitors Herald World of 6 July 1929 contains an ad stating that The Great Power was available for Illinois through Greiver Productions and for Indiana through the Midwest Film Co. (16) When P. S. Harrison was finally able to view the film later in the year, it was classified as a states’ rights release (17). Many trade publications weren’t even able to review the film, and it seems that only one exhibitor report was published: George J. Rhein of the Manchester Theatre in Manchester, Wisconsin ran the film on 27-28 September 1929 and pronounced it “Not a small town picture and disc recording bad.” (18) It was still being offered on the states’ rights market in the summer of 1930, and Film Daily’s review declared it a “pretty bad all-around production” with amateurish direction and no film technique (19).

In February 1930, Myron Fagan sued Franklyn Warner for $20,000, saying he was to be paid $25,000 for the screen rights but received only $5,000. It was set for trial in Los Angeles on 14 March. Warner countersued for $500,000, claiming that Fagan’s “incompetency in casting and supervising the picture cost him that much in cancelled booking contracts with Metro over here and with Gaumont in England” (20). I haven’t located the disposition of these suits.

Variety’s prediction that that the players had no future in film did not prove true for Minna Gombell, who was an active supporting player through the early 1950s. Mayall made several more films, and of the supporting cast, Alan Birmingham, Davison Clark, Walter Walker and Helen Shipman also continued to work in motion pictures. No film material of The Great Power is known to exist, but the notoriety of being pulled from the Capitol after just a week makes me wonder if the negative reaction was justified. In the (somewhat improbable) event that it resurfaces, it would provide us with a full-length sample of a 1920s stage drama presented more or less as it was on Broadway.

Information about the runs of Fagan’s plays is from the Internet Broadway Database. Quotes are presented largely as they are in the original sources, save for some correcting of punctuation and spelling (e.g. high lights = highlights). All of the following can be found on the Media History Digital Library:
(1) Variety, 27 Jun 1928, page 52.
(2) Variety, 22 Aug 1928, page 54.
(3) Variety, 5 Sep 1928, page 51.
(4) Variety, 26 Sep 1928, page 54.
(5) Exhibitors Daily Review, 23 Oct 1928, pages 1-2.
(6) Variety, 3 Oct 1928, page 5.
(7) Variety, 24 Oct 1928, page 4.
(8) Variety, 7 Nov 1928, page 4.
(9) Exhibitors Daily Review, 23 Oct 1928, pages 1-2.
(10) Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, 17 Nov 1928, page 40
(11) Film Daily, 28 Feb 1929, page 31.
(12) Film Daily, 5 Mar 1929, page 2.
(13) Variety, 27 Mar 1929, page 9.
(14) Variety, 27 Mar 1929, page 12.
(15) Variety, 10 Apr 1929, page 47.
(16) Exhibitors Herald-World, 6 Jul 1929, page 152.
(17) Harrison’s Reports, 7 Sep 1929, page 142.
(18) Exhibitors Herald-World, 23 Nov 1929, page 67.
(19) Film Daily, 20 Jul 1930, page 15.
(20) Variety, 12 Feb 1930, page 57; and 19 Mar 1930, page 11.

(No, this film isn't an April Fool's joke, although MGM probably wished that it was.)

--HA
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Brooksie

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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostSun Apr 01, 2018 5:30 pm

Interesting stuff. It's amazing to encounter these oddities in trade publications. One idea: I don't know about America, but in England and Australia there were a number of alternate sound systems under development in an attempt to break the Western Electric/RCA duopoly. It could be that the backers of Bristolphone were looking for an inexpensive showcase for their technology.

If MGM were able to develop and license Bristolphone as an in-house recording system that didn't infringe on existing patents or involve paying royalties to one of the Big Two sound companies, it would have been a considerable boon, and worth the outlay on an inexpensive talkie.

It looks like info on Bristolphone is thin on the ground, although this article - http://www.allmovietalk.com/?p=143 - gives some background. It seems that it began as a mechanism to solve the all-important problem of synchronising film and sound-on-disc. Presumably they had branched out beyond this by 1929.

Interesting to note the date of the trade advertisement - less than two months after the debut of The Jazz Singer - and reference to its use in the James Fitzpatrick Music Masters series, which has been discussed on Nitrateville before: http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=13627.
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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostTue Apr 03, 2018 7:02 am

Might be worthwhile to include that illustration here:

Image
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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostTue Apr 03, 2018 12:14 pm

The more I look at the original sources, the more I suspect the film was an experiment designed to test Bristolphone's commercial potential.

Interesting to note that advertisements in late 1928 also mention that the system had been licensed to shoot a second film - Times Square (1929), an obscure part-talkie from a company called Gotham Productions, featuring a number of future heavy hitters - Edward Small (RKO, United Artists), Charles R. Rogers (Universal, Columbia) and Sam Sax (Warner Bros) amongst them.

Times Square sounds very much like the Jazz Singer ripoff it undoubtedly was, and though it was quite well reviewed in the few places that took notice of it, it appears it fared little better than The Great Power. Despite filming a second feature with the equipment, The River Woman, Gotham also ended up suing Bristolphone in April 1930, claiming the company had reneged on their contract to install recording equipment and that the two pictures were 'unsalable'.

Reportage suggests that Bristolphone was considered top flight technology before sound-on-disc was superseded, so it is no surprise that MGM took a punt on them, though it also appears that you needed to have Bristolphone installed in your theatre to show a Bristolphone picture, which is a recipe for disaster.

William H. Bristol passed away a few months after the Gotham suit was filed, aged 72. An ignominious end for someone who appears to have been quite an innovator.
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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostSat Apr 07, 2018 6:38 am

I'd sure be curious to see this movie! But is it interred somewhere?

:D
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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostSat Apr 07, 2018 10:25 pm

If any of the movies discussed here survive in any form, I'd be very surprised. The AFI Catalog synopses for all three are based on trade reviews, so it seems unlikely.
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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostTue Apr 10, 2018 1:51 pm

s.w.a.c. wrote:Might be worthwhile to include that illustration here:

Image


Wonder if the Institute and/or Philadelphia Free Library would have more information on this.
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Harlett O'Dowd

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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostTue Apr 10, 2018 1:57 pm

Harold Aherne wrote:
The Great Power began its life as a play by Myron C. Fagan (1887-1972), who already had written two works that had notable runs on Broadway, The Little Spitfire (Aug 1926-Feb 1927, 200 performances) and Jimmie’s Women (Sep 1927-Apr 1928, 216 performances). The Great Power was scheduled for a tryout at the Savoy in Asbury Park, New Jersey from 5-7 July 1928 (1). Another out-of-town tryout was set to begin 27 August at the Adelphi in Philadelphia (2). It received “mixed notices and not much business” in the latter city (3). Its run at Broadway’s Ritz Theatre starting 11 September proved not to be much better; it lasted for only 23 performances and closed by the end of the month. Variety’s review said “Though it may not draw, the new Myron Fagan drama has its merits, one of which is that the screen will probably use it” (4). And how!

(much snipage)

Variety’s prediction that that the players had no future in film did not prove true for Minna Gombell, who was an active supporting player through the early 1950s. Mayall made several more films, and of the supporting cast, Alan Birmingham, Davison Clark, Walter Walker and Helen Shipman also continued to work in motion pictures. No film material of The Great Power is known to exist, but the notoriety of being pulled from the Capitol after just a week makes me wonder if the negative reaction was justified. In the (somewhat improbable) event that it resurfaces, it would provide us with a full-length sample of a 1920s stage drama presented more or less as it was on Broadway.

Information about the runs of Fagan’s plays is from the Internet Broadway Database. Quotes are presented largely as they are in the original sources, save for some correcting of punctuation and spelling (e.g. high lights = highlights). All of the following can be found on the Media History Digital Library:


--HA


Fagan was quite the character - notoriously prickly prior to, and virulently anti-UN after, the war. His post-war writings and plays would make John Bolton think he was a bit over the top.

It's a pity this film doesn't survive, as I am sure it would be a fascinating artifact of the transitional period. But I suspect it wouldn't be very enjoyable.
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Harlett O'Dowd

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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostTue Apr 10, 2018 2:13 pm

Harlett O'Dowd wrote:
It's a pity this film doesn't survive, as I am sure it would be a fascinating artifact of the transitional period. But I suspect it wouldn't be very enjoyable.


fwiw, worldcat suggests that UCLA may have some material on this title.
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Re: The Great Power (1929): a great flop at the Capitol Thea

PostTue Apr 10, 2018 6:25 pm

Harlett O'Dowd wrote:Fagan was quite the character - notoriously prickly prior to, and virulently anti-UN after, the war. His post-war writings and plays would make John Bolton think he was a bit over the top.


Eek! Looking at Myron Fagan's Worldcat output is really a sight to behold...

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