Fiddle-Dee-Dee! Frankly, My Dear, We Do Give A Damn!

The biggest sale of Gone With the Wind memorabilia ever is set for next month, with more than 150 lots from the classic film will go under the hammer at Heritage Auctions.

The collection was assembled by Jim Tumblin, who spent 22 years working at the Universal Studios hair and make-up department. The collection began in the 1960s, when Tumblin spotted a dress while doing some research at Western Costume.

“I saw this dress on the floor and a docent told me not to bother to pick it up, because they were throwing it away,” he said.

“I asked if he would sell it to me. I had noticed there was a printed label saying Selznick International Pictures and ‘Scarlett production dress’ was written in ink.”

Tumblin got the dress for $20 — and now bidding for the dress worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara will start at $60,000.

gone with the wind dress up for auction

The entire collection is estimated to go as high as $1 million.

The auction takes place Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Beverly Hills. Online bidding ends April 17th.

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.

A Keystone Production

We’re here working at Exit 55 Antiques in Fergus Falls, MN, and one of the fun parts of working our required day each month is seeing what other new, interesting things have come in from other dealers since the last time we’ve worked. This time, being the camera fan that I am, I immediately gravitated towards this old movie projector that another dealer was selling for $89.


It’s older than most of the other cameras, movie or otherwise, that I’ve ever owned. This fine example of early film projection technology is a Keystone Moviegraph:


My first assumption was, “oh, like the movie studio!”    It could make sense — if you’re making Charlie Chaplin movies, people have to watch them somehow, so why not sell the projectors, too?   Edison and Victrola made big bucks being the single source for both the equipment and the media, so why not Keystone Film Company?

Unfortunately, my guess was incorrect.    People might have watched Keystone Kops on this projector, but it wasn’t because both parts were made by the same company.

Keystone Manufacturing Company was a toy company based out of Boston, Massachusetts,  thousands of miles away from the Keystone movie studios.   This projector was designed to occupy the kids for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, each one taking turns cranking the projector at the right speed.


You’ll note that the ad says it includes just an electric cord — “for connecting to any lamp socket your electric bulb will fit”.   The interior of the projector is a big open space, to stick a lamp inside.


At least they put vents in it, just in case too much heat built up.    But, what could be safer than lettings kids play with an electric lamp, inside a metal box, running flammable nitrate film through a projector by hand?   The 1910s were a different time; this tinderbox was probably the safest thing the kids had to play with.

This neat little aspect of the history of movie theatres was also included in some kits, along with tickets and other accoutrements of the theater world.   Keystone offered a pin to identify yourself as a licensed Moviegraph projectionist.


In the past — and in some places still today — only properly licensed people are allowed to run movie projectors.   Sadly, the several thousand people who carried Moviegraph License No. 79984 were sad to find out their licensing was not transferable to other systems.

As a nerd, of course, I have appreciate the mechanism the camera uses to move the film, a single frame at a time.   I’ve taken a number of projectors apart over the years, and all of them have a different and unique way to advance the film.   This projector uses the most basic gearing system — the geneva drive:

Originally designed for clockmaking, the early film industry grabbed on to it as a technical solution to stopping the film for the split second that the shutter is open, without having to stop the motor from turning:


Despite the high-tech gearing, this projector is missing something I mentioned earlier: there’s no shutter in it. Watching a movie projected by this Keystone projector would be pretty blurry, despite the momentary gear. Well, what can you expect from a toy?


I did speak a bit too soon:  Keystone Manufacturing might not have been the same company as the Keystone movie studio in California, but they did sell film.  Although the projector would work with any silent 35mm movie film, Keystone Manufacturing sold their own reels for the projector-owner’s entertainment.  Most of their Moviegraph reels were lower-quality duplicates of shorts and small portions of full-length features.  So, although they didn’t make movies, they still held on to a large part of the film distribution process as their business model.