[I’ve written about this promo before, but here is the case study from my recently published article in the special issue of Frames Cinema Journal devoted entirely to promotional materials: “Working in the World of Propaganda: Early Trailers & Modern Discourses of Social Control.” It’s a remarkable piece of film marketing that also represents the only existing footage from this popular and successful 15 episode serial.]
The exhibitor’s reel for Hands Up! (1918) —one of the oldest promotional treasures in UCLA’s collection—is not strictly a trailer because it is not addressed to ticket buyers but to the theater owners Pathe Exchange wants to exhibit its new 15-part western series. In industry jargon, it’s called a promo, which is a trailer edited to appeal to buyers and exhibitors.
A scant six years into the trailer era, this promo contains nearly all the elements met with since: titling; graphic design; copy; excerpted scenes; cast run; production credits; focused marketing appeals; genre cues; story details; and scheduling information. After a introductory sequence of title cards and key art, a succession of interstitial cards appear specifying characteristics and qualities of the film including its production team, stars, setting, plot points and visual attractions. Following this trailer-esque section, the promo moves into its business argument, wherein the various advertising “helps” that Pathe provides are enumerated. Finally it closes with the distributor logo, a visual appeal to Pathe’s reputation.
On its opening title card, featuring a graphic image of a masked rider on a galloping horse carrying a swooning victim, Hands Up! calls itself “ A Cyclonic Western;” on the next, it refers to itself as “the most ambitious Western ever filmed.” The first is fine sounding nonsense; the second is hyperbole, though not absurdity. Pathe includes its brand slogan, “The House of Serials,” on the second card to indicate its mastery of the format.
The next cards introduce us to the writer and producer, shown working together, and to the Supervising Director, George Fitzmaurice, flanked by his production staffers and a camera. This production is the first serial from the distinguished feature filmmaker.
Stars Ruth Roland and George Chesebro are introduced before they appear, talking to and smiling at the camera. Next, fellow players are described then shown. First, the Phantom Rider, whose mysterious identity is intended to draw the curious, episode-by-episode. Then come the villains: the Gentleman Rancher, an outlaw by night, lurks behind a building and ties a kerchief over his face; next, the Adventuress, a scheming socialite and romantic rival to Roland, appears. Close-ups reveal eyes narrow and calculating. Finally, the Incan priests, “custodians of treasure” in Pre-Columbian regalia, make their appearance.
A series of genre appeals follows. “From the start, there is love interest,” captions an embrace between Chesebro and Roland. Next, “Stunts and thrills galore,” are promised backed by celluloid evidence. Chesebro and Roland, on horseback, are framed in a medium shot. Roland darts left and we cut to a rear shot of her riding toward a tree. She hits a branch and tumbles off. Chesebro, meanwhile, has started after, first toward the camera, then seen from behind as he approaches, dismounts and, in close-up, cradles the awakening damsel in his “manly hero” arms. She eyes him suspiciously in an even closer shot.
Without transition beyond a card introducing “The Escape from the Tower,” scenes of Roland imprisoned and imperiled unspool. The editing is fast (>1 cut per second) and the action is kinetic: Roland shelters in a tower, slamming the door on her swarming pursuers, shown medium and in close-up. Cut to Roland in the bell tower about to descend a rope. She falls into the horde below. Chesebro rides to the tower, guns at the ready, and enters on horseback. Cut to the interior where, framed tightly in a circular mat, he addresses Roland’s captors with a cocked pistol in each hand.
Roland is suspended over a blazing pit as her tormentors revel. Despite the threatening pyrotechnics, Chesebro prevails. Roland runs to him, mounts in front and together they ride out. Cut to an exterior shot of their exit and then to a longer shot of their escape up an adjacent hill.
In the next scene, Roland has been imprisoned in a cell over an archway. Building a human pyramid from unidentified compatriots, Chesebro climbs the ladder of flesh and helps her descend. Watching these representative scenes, an attentive exhibitor would derive a good idea of the picaresque story and the “cliff-hanger” hinges between episodes.
Hands Up! turns now from story to setting: “Here’s a sample of the rugged Western country in which Hands Up! is being filmed,” declares a card. A long shot, panning upward, reveals a spectacular alpine waterfall. Next, “lavish sets” and expenditure are promoted. The “Throne Room of the Incas” and the “Sacrificial Chamber” constitute evidence of both, shown by an exterior to interior dissolve.
Transitioning from product characteristics to marketing considerations, a card from Pathe explains, “What we are doing to help you cash in big profits.” I’ve characterized the visual evidence in parentheses below.
–“A nationwide Billboard campaign on ‘Hands Up!’ has been undertaken by Pathe. These stands will be posted by Pathe in upward of 500 cities.” (Key art is shown)
–“Ask Pathe representatives for details of our offer of these magnificent posters absolutely free of charge.” (Three different posters are displayed)
–“’Hands Up!’ in serial form will run in the Motion Picture Magazine on sale early in August. The October cover features picture [sic] of Ruth Roland. This story will be read by over two million people.” (Roland appears on the cover)
–“Here is a list of the advertising helps we have prepared in order to help you cash in Big Profits with Hands Up!” (1,3 & 6 sheet ad-slicks are specified, as well as lobby photos and key-art/title graphics)
–“Magnificent banners” are promised, printed “in five colors on linen.”
–“Cuts with mats” of Chesebro and portraits of Roland are also available.
Still, Pathe’s strongest argument remains this one: “Mr. Exhibitor, listen to this. By running Hands Up! at your theater you will be guaranteeing fifteen weeks of prosperity. You will be selling seats fifteen weeks in advance.”
If a moviegoer in 1918 had little more than a dime and free time at risk, the prospective exhibitor of Hands Up! is asked to commit significant resources. Consequently, he required strong, verifiable arguments. Yet, in this proposal, the business claims, while extensive, are unexceptional; it’s the aesthetic ones that are special. By 1918, exhibitors knew that a good serial was a good booking; they knew which marketing “helps” were valuable and which less so. What was unknown was the product and whether it would meet expectations. Though an exhibition contract stipulates the terms of the rental and the extent of the marketing support (posters, lobby cards, a magazine tie-in) the quality of the product has to be deduced from excerpted scenes. The trailer is the claim (and evidence) of whether the film is any good.
Does the trailer depict chemistry between the stars? Is the feature well shot and professionally directed? Are the stunts thrilling, the sets extensive and spectacular? Is the scenery interesting? Is the genre well developed? For answers, an exhibitor, then as now, depends on the distributor’s (re)presentation, the central feature of which is the trailer. A shrewd exhibitor in 1918 would have learned to consume such representations with a jaundiced eye.
The Hands Up! promo implies that the exhibitor’s benefit is foremost to the distributor, (viz: “what we’re doing to help you make money!”) although no mention of factors that might interfere with full houses and overflowing tills is made. The argument from experience is trotted out as well: Ms. Roland, Mr. Chesebro, Mr. Fitzmaurice and Pathe are established, bankable collaborators who have lent their reputations to the undertaking. Roland’s beauty offers an additional source of authority. Hands Up! must be, by rhetorical logic—if not the analytic variety– not only legitimate but excellent.
[There is much more in this article than the promo analysis above, parts of which I’ll be reprinting in this space in days to come. Or, to read the whole 6500 word piece, click on this link.]
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License