“HANDS UP!” PROMO-TRAILER REDUX: Retraction and Reappreciation

RUTH ROLAND on the Cover of Motion Picture Magazine, promoting her latest film, HANDS UP! (1918)

[Note: I visited UCLA’s Archive Research Study Center the other night to watch again this 1918 promo in order to fill in some gaps in my handwritten notes and prior to submitting a draft of an academic paper on early trailers. I’m glad I did, because I nearly went to publication with inaccurate and indefensible claims. Here, is a revision of the post from January 15th.]

The exhibitor’s reel for Hands Up! (1918) –which, after the trailer for The Red Circle (1915) represents the oldest recognizable promotional “treasure” in UCLA’s collection—is not strictly a trailer because it is not addressed to ticket buyers but rather to the theater owners Pathe Exchange hopes will exhibit its new 15 part western series. In contemporary industry jargon, we call this a promo since it is pitched to a business audience that expects business arguments. With words, scenes and images, it tells why they should schedule this feature and shows how they can advertise it to audiences, audiences who will then reward them with full houses and brimming coffers.

A mere six years into the trailer era, this promo contains all the elements we still meet with today: titling; graphic design; copy; excerpted scenes; cast run; production credits; focused marketing appeals; genre cues; story details; and scheduling information. It opens on a title card, featuring a graphic image, the credit block and a marketing tagline.

Following that introduction, a succession of interstitial cards appear specifying various characteristics and qualities of the film such as its production team, stars, setting, plot points and visual attractions. After that extensive trailer-esque section, the promo moves into its business argument, wherein the various advertising “helps” that Pathe Exchange, the serial’s distributor, will provide are enumerated. Finally it closes with the distributor logo, a visual appeal to provenance given Pathe’s long and successful track record.

Hands Up! is described on its title card as “ A Cyclonic Western,” and on the next, as “the most ambitious Western ever filmed.” The first is fine sounding but nonsensical marketing speech; the second is hyperbole, but not absurdity. The next cards introduce us to the writer and producer, who are then shown working amicably together in an office, and to the Supervising Director, George Fitzmaurice, who is presented flanked by his production staffers among whom a motion picture camera is prominent. This production is, we are told, the first serial from the distinguished feature filmmaker.

We next meet stars Ruth Roland and George Chesebro, introduced on cards before they appear, talking and smiling at the screen. Next, their fellow players are described before being shown. First, there’s the Phantom Rider, whose mysterious identity is literally positioned as an attraction to draw the curious, episode-by-episode. Then come the villains: the Gentleman Rancher who is an outlaw ringleader by night. We see him tying a kerchief around his face. Next, the adventuress, a scheming socialite and romantic rival to Ms. Roland. We see two shots of her, eyes narrow and calculating. Then, the Incan leaders, “custodians of treasure” who repeatedly imperil our heroine, are shown in Pre-Columbian regalia.

A series of genre appeals follows. “From the start, there is love interest,” we are told before being shown an embrace between George and Ruth. Then, “Stunts and thrills galore,” are advertised, followed by the celluloid proof. George and Ruth are framed in a medium shot, side-by-side, on horseback. Ruth darts left and we cut to a rear shot of her galloping horse, heading toward a tree. She hits a branch and tumbles off. George, meanwhile, has started after, first toward the camera, then shot from behind as he approaches, dismounts and in close-up, cradles the awakening Ruth in his “manly hero” arms, as she eyes him with suspicion in an even closer shot. (They certainly did have faces and eyes, if not yet voices.)

Without transition beyond a new card, we enter a succession of scenes of imprisoned and imperiled heroines, rescued from bloodthirsty Incans by the intrepid George, pistols blazing and horse capering. The editing of the scene is fast, kinetic and skilled, as Ruth seeks shelter in a tower, slamming the door on her indigenous pursuers in close up, before a cut to her in the bell tower, preparing to climb down a rope to safety. She falls (or is pushed) from the rope into the horde below, a stunt that earned her double severe bruises along with her day’s pay. George rides to the tower, guns at the ready, and enters on horseback. We cut to the interior where, in a close-up circular optical effect, George addresses her Incan captors with a cocked pistol in each hand.

Ruth has been suspended over a fire pit as her tormentors revel in her terror. It’s a pyrotechnically involved threat, but George resolves it in their favor. She runs to him, mounts in front as they ride out, cutting to an exterior shot of them exiting, and before cutting to a longer shot of them riding away up an (adjacent?) hill.

In the next scene, Ruth has been recaptured and imprisoned in a cell over an archway. Building a human pyramid with some unidentified compatriots, George climbs the tower of flesh and helps Ruth descend. From the foregoing, an attentive exhibitor will have derived a clear idea of the picaresque story and the “cliff-hanger” hinges connecting one episode to its successor.

While its widely understood that lowly trailer (often montage) editors had to work with outtakes and scraps, these scenes are not obviously cutting room material and the kinetic, continuity editing, with its realistic management of space and time and use of optical effects and dissolves, represents a qualitative advance over The Red Circle’s very basic and visually simple trailer of a mere 3 years earlier.

The promo then turns from imperiled heroine to setting: “Here’s a sample of the rugged Western country in which Hands Up! is being filmed.” A long shot, panning upward reveals a rocky alpine waterfall. Next, the “lavish sets” and expenditure of the production is promoted. The “Throne Room of the Incas” and the “sacrificial chamber” are shown as evidence of spectacle. A nifty dissolve takes us from exterior to interior.

Now, switching into power-point mode, a card from Pathe Exchange directly addresses its audience to explain, “What we are doing to help you [the exhibitor] cash in big profits.” Specifics follow, card by card. I’ve characterized the visual evidence in parentheses.

“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 key art posters are shown)

“’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.” (The Motion Picture Magazine cover featuring a glamour shot of Ruth Roland is shown.)

Still more cards describe promotional materials available to exhibitors:
“Here is a list of the advertising helps we have prepared in order to help you cash in Big Profits with Hands Up!” On cards, 1,3 & 6 sheets are mentioned, as well as lobby photos, title cards and “Magnificent banners,” available in five colors on linen. Portraits of Ruth and one and two column “cuts with mats” of George are also available as “advertising helps,” that will deliver a week of profit for every week of the series. But perhaps the best argument is this: “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.”

Whereas a moviegoer in 1918 had little more than a dime and free time at risk, the potential exhibitor of Hands Up! is asked to commit significant resources and opportunity. He (or she) would have required strong, verifiable arguments. Yet, in this animated proposal, the business claims are modest relative to the aesthetics ones. Presumably, the exhibitor already knows that a good serial is a good investment. What’s critical is for the film to meet or exceed expectations and for the distributor to deliver the marketing support promised. While an exhibition contract stipulates talent, production staff, number of episodes, genre bonafides, release schedule, posters, lobby cards and a magazine tie-in, etc., the exhibitor can’t know, except from the excerpted scenes, whether the film, qua film, is any good.

Is there chemistry between the stars? Is it well shot and professionally directed? Are the stunts thrilling? Are the sets extensive and spectacular? Is the scenery interesting? Is it likely to please the audience? For answers, an exhibitor, then as now, depends on the distributor’s presentation, the central feature of which is the trailer. And, as an industry professional, the exhibitor will have learned to consume such representations with an experienced and thereby jaundiced eye.

The Hands Up! promo insists that the financial upside of the exhibitor is foremost in the mind of the distributor, whose investment in sets, staff and stars constitutes an earnest of that commitment. “Spend money to make money” the promo urges as it were, avoiding mention of any of the multiple factors that might scotch a scenario of full houses and overflowing tills. The argument from experience is trotted out as well: Roland, Chesebro, Mr. Fitzmaurice and Pathe are well known, bankable collaborators, each authorities in their own way, who have lent their imprimatur to the undertaking. Ruth’s beauty is underlined, as a source of her authority. Hands Up! must be, by rhetorical logic, not only legitimate but excellent.

Finally, whereas I earlier described this promo trailer as editorially simple in my earlier post, watching it again the other night, I was struck by how sophisticated it actually was. Although there’s no montage, cross cutting grid or quick-cutting sequence to speak of, this is an ambitious piece of filmmaking, running to 7 minutes that combines copy, graphic design, excerpted scenes and marketing insight into an involving, compelling and entertaining sales presentation. It speaks to the film lover and the businessman, using language and appeals that both can appreciate.

I’d invite you to check it out, but you’ll need a UCLA library card and completion of an online request form to watch it yourself.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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