Westmont Magazine A Flight of Fantasy

By John Blondell, Ph.D., Professor of Theatre Arts at Westmont And Founding Artistic Director Of Lit Moon Theatre Company

(Adapted from his Westmont Downtown lecture delivered February 16, 2023)

Forty years ago, one of my first directing mentors told me something I still remember. During my graduate study at UC Santa Barbara, Robert Egan said he was always looking for material he wanted to direct. If he found something that didn’t exist as dramatic material, he created it. For example, he adapted and directed a version of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.”

A Centennial Celebration

John Blondell Directs "Diamond" Actors
John Blondell Directs "Diamond" Actors

I thought of Egan in 2012, when the Pollock Theater at UC Santa Barbara hosted a centennial celebration of the founding of the American Film Manufacturing Company, also known as Flying A Studios. Based in Chicago, the company established a branch in Santa Barbara and made more than 900 films here from 1912 to 1920. I invited my friend and longtime collaborator Michael Bernard, an actor, playwright and instructor at UC Santa Barbara, to join me at the event. We were blown away by the significance of the Flying A and the silent film industry to Santa Barbara. At the same time, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum presented an exhibition of Flying A material. As we wandered around the museum, I told Michael, “I would love to direct a comedy about making a Flying A movie — one of those comedies where everything seems to go wrong.” Only later did I learn that in film things always seem to go wrong!

Michael loved the idea and quickly drafted a treatment. We talked about it, but the energy for the project waned as we pursued other ideas. Last spring, as I thought about productions for my students at Westmont, I wondered about this yet-to-be written play, the gloried past of Santa Barbara and the actors who walked the same streets I do and dreamed of ways to tell stories. I talked with Mitchell Thomas, my colleague at Westmont who chairs the theatre arts department. I talked with Michael. Could we pull this off the back burner? The answer was a resounding, “Yes.” We commissioned Michael to write the script for “Diamond to Dust: A Flying A Fantasy.” We presented the production at Westmont in late February and early March.

It Takes a Team

Little Glass, one of the Flying A studios
Little Glass, one of the Flying A studios

I knew it should be a comedy, and I knew a silent movie should be part of the performance. I knew I wanted to direct the movie, but I’ve never directed a movie. I’ve directed more than 100 plays, but never a movie. I knew I needed help. I needed a team.

I called Michael Mortilla, a longtime friend and the first composer for Lit Moon Theatre Company, who creates music for silent films and composes for theater, dance and other productions. He jumped at the chance to be involved — he was in.

Michael introduced me to Dana Driskel, professor emeritus of film at UC Santa Barbara and the producer and creator of the documentary about the Flying A, “An American Film Company.” He also hosted and produced the centennial celebration that Michael and I attended and that inspired the project. I wrote to him while in London teaching for Westmont’s London Theatre Mayterm. He planned to be in London while I was there, and we met at the British Film Institute and watched some Flying A films. I asked him to participate — he said yes!

I quickly enlisted Darcy Scanlin, visionary theater designer and film art director; the marvelous costume designer Lynne Marie Martens ’08, a Westmont and Cal Arts graduate; and Jonathan Hicks to technically direct and design lights. I’ve put actors in Jonathan’s lovely lights for nearly 20 years, so the team was nearly complete.

But I worried about the filmed parts of the play. Dana would help me direct, but what about equipment, editing and shooting? Would we shoot using the department’s video camera? Would it be enough? Then I started talking to Erik Rodkey ’11 at an event on campus. He works for Verité Studios, a film and video production company in Santa Barbara. I learned about his love for early film and that he wanted to be involved in the project.

The Golden Age of Santa Barbara Filmmaking

Diamond to Dust Actors in Action

The western unit of the American Film Manufac­turing Company moved to Santa Barbara in the summer of 1912. Previous iterations existed in the southwest and Orange and San Diego counties. The producer, Sam Hutchinson, leased a former ostrich farm at State and Islay, where the company set up shop. Shooting took place in and around the city. The headquarters in Chicago ran the business and printed and promoted the films.

Hutchinson looked for prop­erty he could purchase for his growing unit, settling on a spot at Mission and Chapala. Part of the original structure survives to this day. American soon took over more than one and a half city blocks with about 10 working companies that made westerns, social dramas, social comedies and one of the most popular forms of the day: the serial. These romantic adventure stories always ended in a cliffhanger.

American artists included some of the most famous actors of the day — Lottie Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Jack Kerrigan and director William Desmond Taylor. A young Victor Fleming, who later directed “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” worked as cinematographer at American. Shooting took place in one of two glass studios (nicknamed Little Glass and Big Glass) that looked much like greenhouses and allowed the studio to shoot on multiple stages using natural light.

Diamond to Dust Actors in Action

The central action of “Diamond to Dust” focuses on the popular serial “The Diamond from the Sky,” adapted from the romantic novel of the same name by Roy L. McCardell. American began shooting in 1915 with Lottie Pickford, Irving Cummings, Charlotte Burton and William Russell. Ultimately, American shot 60 reels of footage in 30 episodes, about 15 hours of film. No footage of the film exists today.

The main subplot of the play revolves around another famous Flying A film: “Damaged Goods,” made in 1914. Richard Bennett, one of American’s matinee idols, wanted to raise awareness of the significance and dangers of venereal disease. Bennett had a play by the French playwright Eugene Briaux translated, and he appeared in it on stage in New York and across the country. Upton Sinclair got interested in the project and adapted the play into a novel, which American then adapted for the screen. Though controversial, it was a popular and critical success. Only the 428 frames used to obtain a copyright, now in the Library of Congress, exist today.

American disbanded in 1920 for global and industry reasons, including America’s entry into World War I, the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1918, changes in distribution practices and access to capital. By the close of 1921, that golden age of Santa Barbara filmmaking had ended.

Dana Driskel considers American’s legacy to be significant. The company existed at an important time in the silent-movie era, and it was big and important enough to create hundreds of films. The industry was still figuring out what movies were. American’s work creates an important portrait of early 20th century filmmaking.

A Made-up Story about a Real Place

The imagined ending to "The Diamond in the Sky"
The imagined ending to "The Diamond in the Sky"

While the story and events of “Diamond to Dust” are fantasy, most of the characters are based on people who worked at or for American, although not at the same time or in the same films. Our version includes: actors Lottie Pickford, Mary Miles Minter and Jack Kerrigan (only Pickford appeared in “The Diamond from the Sky”); producer Sam Hutchinson; director William Desmond Taylor; and cinematographer Victoria Fleming (inspired by Victor Fleming).

The play is set in 1915, before the War to End All Wars, when American wrapped up shooting of “The Diamond from the Sky.” The action takes place in four locations: the studio’s screening room; producer Sam Hutchinson’s office; a boarding house where many of the actors live (one of the houses where Flying A actors lived still exists on De La Vina); and the studio itself. The action concerns efforts to get “Diamond” finished, along with shooting a comedy short by the company’s comedy team — Li’l Larry and Frances — based on Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. At the same time, the director, William Desmond Taylor, itches to make something bigger and grander and to move out of serials into features. Hutchinson will have none of it.

We watch some dailies at the beginning of the play; we see some scenes get shot; we head to the boarding house where coverups, mistaken identities, hiding, romantic misalliances and door-slamming comprise some of the events in a beautifully crafted farce scene. We head back to Hutchinson’s office, where Taylor, who wants to direct “Damaged Goods” as a feature, pitches it to Hutchinson; we return to the studio to shoot “Diamond”; we head back to Hutchinson’s office, where Hutchinson woos a would-be investor and unveils a new business plan that asks the artists to sign a per-picture contract rather than the standard per-week one; we return to the boarding house, where much of the company has turned down Hutchinson’s new contract offer and are heading to Hollywood. We end at the studio, where we see some final goodbyes and watch the last few minutes of “The Diamond from the Sky.”

Michael has written a truly wonderful comedy, inspired by early 20th century comics and comedy teams, silent films, Preston Sturges movies, early Hollywood and French theatrical farce. He has written a big play with a big imagination and a ton of comic invention. He has also written a photoplay — the word for the script in silent movies — that ends the play. He’s written a play for a big cast despite the trend toward smaller productions because of the costs of making comedies with a lot of actors. The play is about the whole motley crew of Michael’s version of American during the middle teens. He’s taken lots of liberties, put folks together in places where they weren’t — this is theater, this is imagination, this is a made-up story about a real place.

In the play, everyone involved is invested in making movies in Santa Barbara, and they live and love and shoot “Diamond” and try to shoot “Damaged Goods.” By the play’s end, though, the lure of Hollywood has beckoned, and most of the folks have left or are leaving, though a few characters remain and start work on “Damaged Goods.” It’s a great story with a wistful longing for something that existed for only a chapter. Michael creates a version that invites us to imagine what it must have been like and dream about what once was.

A Cast of Characters

The story focuses on four figures — including three who played central roles in American’s success. Sam Hutchinson, the producer and owner of the studio, helped advance technology and made popular movies and serials. He had an interesting double life, with two families living nearly side by side in Chicago. In the play, his choices about dealing with his artists leads to the demise of the studio.

Hancock, the writer, is fictional, influenced by Eddie Bracken in “The Miracle at Money Creek” or “Hail the Conquering Hero” and Ben Stiller in the “Meet the Parents” movies and “There’s Something About Mary.” At the end of the play, he gets the opportunity to write “Damaged Goods,” and it looks like he might direct it. But the artists have gone, and Hutchinson’s wife, who has never acted, might be the studio’s new star.

William Desmond Taylor, who longs to direct something significant, is an opportunist and serial womanizer. He leaves for Hollywood by the end of the play, hopefully to work in one of four studios there. The real William Desmond Taylor was killed in an early Hollywood murder scandal in 1922, perhaps by Charlotte Shelby, the mother of the young star Mary Miles Minter — both of whom play significant roles in our production.

Lottie Pickford, who starred in “The Diamond from the Sky,” was the sister of the most famous movie star of the day: Mary Pickford. In our play and in life, Lottie battled alcoholism, which leads to some wild events and memorable moments on stage. By the end, we see her significance to the entire story, witness the popular appeal of a magnetic actor and experience a kind of artistic transfiguration, where she takes the commonplace and makes it remarkable.

Setting the Scenes

As a director, the most crucial work for me involves developing the right kind of space to see and experience the play. So I always begin with work on the set. For me, everything comes from space; the set is not just ornamentation, decoration or location but a machine for the play, the instrument through which actors unleash action.

I sent Darcy Scanlin some inspiration, ideas and images. She created four cool ideas, and I loved them all, but they weren’t quite right, so we kept working. I sent her a few short words of description about the essential theatricality of a white cube and a reminder that American shot in glass studios. I also said we needed a structure that could contain interior spaces: an office, a studio, a boarding house, a projection room. She soon came back with an ingenious plan, with a twist that propelled the production out of the realm of realism into imagination and fantasy. She created a white cube with six doors for all sorts of comic and theatrical effect in all the scenes. In her coup d’theatre, all scenes of everyday life are in white, with characters dressed in white clothes. Everything related to the film, however, appears in color — resplendent, wild, wonderful color!

So scenes in Hutchinson’s office, for instance, are all white, but in the studio the actors/characters wear colorful clothing, “filmed” against a painted backdrop of the location in color! What a great metaphor. The scenography — everything we see — takes on a large metaphorical and emotional meaning. It highlights the significance of movies in our lives as a place for dreams, fantasy, color, vividness, escape and romance. This modern/postmodern idea contains a romantic notion in an historical sense. The romantic hero gives energy to the group, and, of course, the movies give energy to our lives, replacing the common with the spectacular — at least they offer that possibility. In a world where we’re emerging from the gray of COVID and we see the darkness of life everywhere, our scenography suggests that movies provide some color, some difference, some grand glitter.

As I developed the show, I kept thinking about “The Sunken Cathedral,” a gorgeous and haunting piano piece by Claude Debussy. The work reflects an ancient Breton myth about a cathedral rising out of the water on a windless day in a transparent sea. Debussy’s music evokes the cathedral as bells chime, priests chant, and the organ plays. It exists for a resplendent day, then sinks slowly back into the water to stay until summoned again. The piece inspired me to bring something out of the past, out of the depths, out of the water, to live again. I wanted to bring American into the present in the spirits and hearts and bodies of these Westmont students. We bring American back only to let it go.

A Film Within a Play

We end the play by screening our imagined ending to “The Diamond in the Sky” serial. I find I enjoy directing movies! It has an entirely different rhythm than the theater and demands incredible energy. Film requires work every day; you must get the shots or you fall behind, and time is money, and people wait for and rely on you. We did four days of filming for the various things screened in the show. Three of them stand as some of the most memorable days of my life.

I particularly enjoy directing silent movies, because I can do all the side directing I want! I can rant and scream and be as over-the-top as I am while rehearsing a play. I love the partnership with the actors, which always inspires — and exhausts me. Silent films are made for music, and music is made for them. With language out of the way, the expressive rhythm and passion of music reveals the film — and vice versa. Dana Driskel says no two silent film performances were the same, as the piano player changed from night to night and theater to theater. This brings movies closer to the stage, where no two performances are alike. Dana describes silent films as a kind of hybrid, with an open system interacting with a closed one. Music, the open system, changes, amplifies and transforms the film, the closed system.

I find it deeply moving that our students play characters inspired by real people who walked around Santa Barbara. They all had their shortcomings and demons. But they were trying to do something new and worthwhile, and maybe they loved the ocean, mountains and sun as much as I do. We tried to be careful as Michael invented the characters, as they had real lives and tragedies. It’s always a joy to work with my students at Westmont since they’re so careful, discerning, wise and sensitive in their approaches. And they make me laugh.

I’m also moved that the only footage in existence from this popular serial, which represented much of American’s work in a year more than a century ago, will be the film we shot for this show. We’ve added something to American’s legacy. We’ve somehow become a part of the company, inextricably linked.

It’s been a wonderful project, and I’ve enjoyed the new colleagues and the size and expansiveness of the collaborations. I’ve deeply enjoyed the laughter, conversations and engagement with a lovely cast.