Ten Reels Of Explosives

My research regarding this photo probably got me put on a half dozen watch lists, thanks to early film technology.  Here’s Kay Johnson to explain, from the September 1930 issue of Screen Romances:


The caption reads:

Do you know what a motion picture is made of?  Kay Johnson shows us the actual chemical constituents of gelatine, water, camphor, acid silver and cotton that went into the ten reels of “Madame Satan.”

As best I can read from the captions in the photo, that’s 40lbs of cotton, 3¾ pounds of gelatine, 3½ pounds of camphor, 2½ pounds of water and nitric acid, and ¼ pound of silver.   The silver is inconsequential: that was used in the image itself, hence the widespread destruction of films over the years to salvage the precious metals.   Madame Satan is partly lost to the sands of time: according to Wikipedia, there’s one lost scene, and all of the original Technicolor prints have been lost.

But, none of those facts are the reason I’ve been making questionable Google queries.  In today’s world full of terrorism and violence, Kay Johnson up there might have gotten a visit from the ATF for having so much of those materials together in one place.

Early film stock was made from something called nitrocellulose.   It was relatively stable, good enough since they considered films to be temporary, not permanently stored.    However, if you compare nitrocellulose’s explosive power, according to Wikipedia, it falls between TNT and Nitroglycerin on the scale.  In small doses, magicians use it for fire effects.   In large doses, CNN worries about teddy bears stuffed with it taking down airplanes.  It’s no wonder movie theaters burned down with such ferocity during the early part of the 20th century:  a 10-reel film by Cecil B. Demille had almost 50 pounds of guncotton wrapped into tight spools, so energetic that it can burn underwater.  Here’s just one reel of film burning, emphasizing why you wouldn’t want to be around when ten reels catch fire.


Kodak invented their “safety film” in 1908, made from a less-flammable acetate, but as you can see the cheaper cellulose nitrate film was still being used for big-budget films in 1930. Kay Johnson’s first credited film on IMDB may be called Dynamite, but I found no evidence of her ever being closer to explosives than in the picture above.  She retired from acting in the forties, just one film in the fifties, and passed away in 1975. Even at the time of Madame Satan, cellulose nitrate film was on its way out, and it was banned entirely in 1951.  Nitrocellulose still has a purpose in media, just not film, and you can buy it in bulk from Dow Chemicals.  Sorry, Homeland Security, I wasn’t actually looking for explosives, I’m just researching the dangerous history of film.

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Derek Dahlsad, husband of Deanna, is a collector of many things, with some expertise in coins and postage stamps. He also writes for the Prairie Public program "Dakota Datebook".

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