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The Camera Speaks (1934)

An elderly night watchman at the Vitagram movie studio falls asleep and dreams about the old days.


(story) (as Billy Bitzer), (dialogue)


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Credited cast:
Leo Donnelly ...
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Himself (archive footage)
(archive footage)
(archive footage)
(archive footage)
(archive footage)
(archive footage)


An aged night watchman at a movie studio dreams that he and his outdated movie camera have a chat about the good old days while he naps late one night. We see the marquee of a Jack London film, John Barleycorn; we watch Dorothy Dalton wait in a swamp for Charlie Ray to come calling; a young Gloria Swanson and her dog rescue a baby with some accidental help from Bobby Vernon; Louise Glaum, the Mae West of her day, ensnares a businessman and takes his reputation; and, William Jennings Bryan gives a speech in Union Square. These were the real pioneers notes the talkative camera before the watchman's alarm clock wakes him at 16 to 1 in the morning to go on his rounds. Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Short | Drama





Release Date:

11 August 1934 (USA)  »

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Did You Know?


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User Reviews

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear
6 September 2008 | by See all my reviews

This unusual Vitaphone short offers a retrospective look at the early days of the movies, and the most striking thing about it is the revelation that filmmakers of 1934 already regarded the movies of 1915 or so as relics of the dim, distant past. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising, for when the bloggers of today discuss their online experiences circa 1994, the Internet of that time seems about as primitive as early silent films must have looked at the dawn of the talkie era. I've seen a number of shorts from the 1930s and '40s that look back on the silent era, and the attitude can range from misty-eyed nostalgia to harsh, wise-cracking sarcasm. For the most part The Camera Speaks belongs in the 'sentimental journey' category, but with occasional, rather jarring touches of mockery.

Our story begins late at night on the lot of the Vitagram Studio, which bears a suspicious resemblance to Vitaphone headquarters in Brooklyn. Two young cameramen who have been covering the premiere of a new feature film arrive and ask Pop, the elderly night watchman, if they can store their camera in his office overnight. One of them notices an ancient movie camera already there, and makes a disparaging remark about it. Later, Pop falls asleep and dreams—and then, just like Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., he rises in ghostly fashion from his chair. He is startled when his old camera comes to life and speaks, thanks to the double-exposure of an actor's grinning face superimposed over its lens. Pop, apparently a former cameraman himself, apologizes to his old friend on behalf of the two young whippersnappers who insulted him earlier, and assures the camera he's still "aces high" as far as he's concerned.

The two oldsters proceed to reminisce about their shared cinematic triumphs of bygone days, and this is where we're treated to a lot of fascinating archival footage. We see politician William Jennings Bryan on the stump delivering a speech, and a 1906 fireman's parade in Newburgh, New York, footage which looks remarkably good for its age. The bulk of the short consists of excerpts from three films from the 'teens: an unidentified Keystone comedy starring Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon, a dramatic feature starring Charles Ray and Dorothy Dalton, and a laughable 'Vamp' melodrama from 1916 called The Wolf Woman, starring Louise Glaum. The narration is respectful where Miss Swanson is concerned, but I was sorry to hear a gratuitous swipe aimed at Charles Ray, whose performance in the excerpt we're shown looks perfectly natural and low-key, and hardly worthy of ridicule. The Glaum melodrama is ludicrous and doesn't need any wisecracks from the narrator to provoke laughter. Over all, however, and despite these lapses, it appears that the folks who made this short regarded the early days of the movie industry with fondness, even if they recognized that some of the products of those days hadn't aged so well.

The only actor identified is narrator Leo Donnelly. Legendary cameraman Billy Bitzer, celebrated for his work with D.W. Griffith, is credited with the story. No director is named, but my guess is that Joseph Henabery was in charge. Henabery, best remembered as the actor who played Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, was a motion picture veteran who'd known Bitzer since the early days, and who directed dozens of Vitaphone shorts in the 1930s. I'd imagine that any conversation between Henabery and Bitzer about their youthful adventures in the brand-new movie business would have sounded a lot like the dream conversation between Pop and his old camera in this intriguing film.

P.S. This short is included as a special feature in the recent DVD release of the James Cagney Hollywood satire, Lady Killer.

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