Sleuthing the Origins of an Early Film Portrayal of Emperor Norton
At the recent San Francisco History Days fair at the city's landmark Old Mint building, Stephen Parr of the San Francisco Media Archive and Oddball Films screened a number of "cinema rarities" from the Oddball archive — including a 1947 film titled Emperor Norton.
The set-up of this 9-minute film short is that a group of 4-5 modern-day stock traders in an office suite are chatting about the day's business when one of them brings up Emperor Norton, whom the others have never heard of. This opening conceit introduces a series of vignettes involving the Emperor. The film ends back at the office, with the Norton-savvy trader telling his colleagues, Paul Harvey-style, that now they know the rest of the story. (Good...day!)
The 1947 dating of the film that Stephen Parr screened is technically correct: Parr notes that the "edge code" on the reel itself, indicating the date that the reel was printed, says 1947.
But it appears that this is a reissue — and, very possibly, a mirror — of a film originally made in 1936.
Alas, there doesn't appear to be a digital, shareable version of this charming (if stilted and socially retrograde) little film. Being able to see "the goods" would help to bring the present exploration into sharper focus.
Even so, there still is much to learn. Read on!
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For some time, we've been aware of the existence of a 1936 film about Emperor Norton. Reference is made to the film in this Library of Congress record and in this very similar record from the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley.
A few things to note from these records:
- Mention is made of both Columbia Pictures Corporation and the Academic Film Company — but the copyright of 28 December 1936 is by Columbia Pictures alone.
- The listed "title per copyright" is The Story of Norton I: Emperor of the United States — not Emperor Norton, as it appears at the top of both of these records.
- The film is part of a Strange As It Seems series.
- It is "inspired by the newspaper column by John Hix."
- The "LC [Library of Congress] copies are from a reissue, probably for television."
The film screened at the History Days fair, i.e., the film itself, featured credits for the Academic Film Company — with no mention of Columbia Pictures.
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Details about this film are scant. But here, as best I can tell, is how it all shakes out...
The Strange As It Seems film series was part of a larger media franchise, created by John Hix (1907-1944), that was a rival to Ripley's Believe It or Not! Originating with a syndicated cartoon strip that Hix began writing and drawing in 1928, the franchise also included books, comic books, a radio program, film shorts and exhibitions. (To learn more, have a look at this terrific 6-minute video profile of Strange As It Seems by John Hix's great nephew, Jeff Hix.)
When Paramount Pictures starting releasing Ripley's Believe It or Not! film shorts in May 1930, Universal Studios responded by signing John Hix to create Strange As It Seems film shorts based on his cartoons. Universal made 39 of these films between August 1930 and May 1934 — all scripted by John Hix and co-produced by Jerry Fairbanks.
When Fairbanks left Universal for Paramount in mid 1934, Universal continued to make Hix-inspired shorts — now under the series title Stranger Than Fiction. Universal continued to make these Stranger Than Fiction films until August 1942.
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But, in late 1936, Columbia Pictures entered the, well...picture...and started to make a series of John Hix-scripted shorts under the original series title, Strange As It Seems.
One of these films — copyrighted in late December 1936, so probably released in early 1937 — was The Story of Norton I.
The film was inspired by this Hix cartoon originally published in April 1934.
According to Greg Hilbrich, the creator and curator of the Web site The Columbia Shorts Department, Columbia made only eight of these Strange As It Seems films over the course of a little more than a year.
The following page from the 13 January 1937 edition of The Film Daily includes a "review" — more of a blurb, really — for The Story of Norton I.
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Fast forward to 1947.
This is when the Academic Film Company — the other company mentioned in the Library of Congress and Berkeley records — reissued the Columbia series of Strange As It Seems shorts for the 16mm non-theatrical rental market (schools, clubs, etc.).
In commenting about these Academic reissues, Greg Hilbrich notes: "For the most part, the prints were pretty much straightforward and mirrored what audiences would have seen when originally released, with the exception of Academic completely redoing the title cards (or maybe altering the original release title a bit) and dropping all references to Columbia Pictures or anything else that would tip off that they were made for theatrical release."
So it was with the Oddball Films print of the reissue of The Story of Norton I that was screened here recently: No references to Columbia Pictures, only to the Academic Film Company. And the title had been changed to Emperor Norton.
Corroborating the 1947 edge code for Oddball's print, an Academic Film Company ad for its full set of Strange As It Seems reissues, including Emperor Norton, appeared in the February 1947 issue of See & Hear: International Journal of Audio-Visual Education. And, in the annual Educational Film Guide, the first listings for Emperor Norton and for the full set of reissues appear in the September 1947 edition, here (film) and here (set).
The reissue does include a couple of elements that make it difficult for the viewer to judge whether what s/he is watching is, in fact, a mirror of the original film and/or that everything on the screen was shot in 1936.
For example, Stephen Parr is inclined to think that the sets in the modern sequences are a little too modern to have been created in 1936.
Hilbrich acknowledges the possibility, also suggested by a couple of respondents on the listserv of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), that certain scenes were reshot for the reissue, to modernize the film.
The only way to know for sure would be to watch the 1947 reissue alongside the 1936 original. Alas, it appears that the Library of Congress and Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive — the two research institutions that have the film catalogued — have only the reissue in their respective collections. And, so far, a print or copy of the original film has yet to surface anywhere else.
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The other "eyebrow raiser" in the reissue is a scene with a character — a restaurant waiter — in blackface.
Hilbrich agrees: "The character appearing in blackface does seem odd that late in the game...even for 1936 (unless there is some "minstrel show" subplot going on). That doesn't mean it didn't still happen on screen. The Our Gang kids did a short at MGM in the early '40s called Ye Olde Minstrels...and The Three Stooges don blackface in a Civil War-era comedy from 1945. Also, a few Moran & Mack comedy shorts were reissued theatrically around 1946-47. They were blackface comedians known as "The Two Black Crows....[I]t may very well be stock footage, but most likely, whenever the blackface scene was shot, it appeared in the original 1936 release."
Randy Riddle, an archivist in the AMIA community, picks up on the stock footage possibility: "Could this short of Norton have come from an earlier film? These types of shorts would often use stock or recycled footage from other movies....Did [Columbia] make a silent or early sound film that might have shown Norton as a character? Maybe one that takes place in 19th-century San Francisco? It might have even come from some obscure feature or short that doesn't exist now and they just happened to have access to the footage."
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Certainly, Emperor Norton would have made a fitting subject for silent film, which relied more heavily on spectacle and sight gags.
Riddle's speculation highlights a set of questions that underscore this entire exploration:
Does Columbia Pictures' 1936 film short, The Story of Norton I, show the earliest film portrayal of the Emperor? If so, was the portrayal actually shot in 1936 — or does it point to an earlier film, perhaps even a "lost film"?
Of course, the realm of lost films places us in the Rumsfeldian borderland of "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns."
But it does appear that, within the realm of "known knowns," this 80-year-old film about Emperor Norton is the earliest one out there.
And now you know the rest of the story.
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