«The Reward of Courage (1921) A rediscovered cancer film of the Silent Era David Cantor, PhD Office of History, National Institutes of Health ...»
If the ASCC was cautious about film because it threatened to undermine its public health message, it was also cautious of it because of difficulties of distribution. By February/March 1922, the organization had distributed 22 copies of the film in different parts of the country.62 But only a small number of states seem to have shown the movie. Table 2, compiled from post — National Cancer Week reports, suggests the film was shown in 9 states (not including Rhode Island, where the film was shot),63 and other evidence suggests it was also shown in Maryland,64 Texas,65 Washington state,66 and perhaps South Dakota, which acquired a copy of the film at about this time.67 Thus for all its early enthusiasm for film as a tool of public health education, The Reward of Courage was not quite the centerpiece of the 1921 National Cancer Week the ASCC had originally hoped.68 The point is backed up by the lack of attention given to the film in the ASCC’s post—Cancer Week assessments. In December 1921, an introduction to a cancer society report on National Cancer Week claimed that 500,000 people had been reached by lectures; several hundred thousand more by short addresses in churches, lodges, and theatres; upwards of 5,000,000 pieces of literature had been distributed; countless other thousands saw display posters or lantern slides on the screens of moving picture houses; and the newspaper and magazine publicity covered more or less the whole reading public of the country.
A) Dr. Powers’ slide shown in Denver. B) Two slides prepared and financed through the efforts of Mrs. Samuel Adams Clark for the 1921 “Cancer Week” in New York City. These last two slides could be purchased from the ASCC on glass for 16 cents each and on mica for 8 cents each. Sources: “Announcement of the Plans and Organization of the National Cancer Week. October 30–November 5, 1921,” Campaign Notes. American Society for the Control of Cancer, 3, 7 (July, 1921): [1–4], p. . “Suggested Plans for National Cancer Week November 12–18, 1922,” Campaign Notes of the American Society for the Control of Cancer 4, 8 (August, 1922): [1–4], p. .
Yet, despite this caution The Reward of Courage remained an important part of the ASCC’s educational efforts. The following year — following complaints about the amount of work involved in the 1921 Cancer Week — Charles Powers recommended a more streamlined plan for the 1922 Cancer Week, focused on three “prime essentials”72 — written articles, scientific meetings and public lectures, and motion picture theatres. The last of these — motion picture theaters — was selected in part because of the popularity of the venue as a place of entertainment in the 1920s — the social stigma attached to film and film audiences had disappeared during the late 1910s and early 1920s, and the composition of movie audiences had shifted from being predominantly working class and immigrant to include the middle class. In Powers’ view, these theatres were to be the sites of lantern slide screenings, four-minute lectures prepared by the ASCC, the distribution of cancer leaflets (especially at matinees attended by adult women), and showings of The Reward of Courage. The plans for the campaign also noted that the film was already being widely used in many picture theatres.
Thus while the film might not have lived up to early expectations, it remained a key part of ASCC education efforts during the 1920s, screened and screened again, often alongside other educational efforts. It is impossible to document all these events. However, in 1922 Joseph Bloodgood presented a series of lectures to accompany the film.73 Also, in Denver during the second (1922) annual Cancer Week, it was shown alongside an educational street banner, an exhibit on cancer, and the poster “If Daddy had only known this!”74 (Fig. 1) The following year, 1923, it was screened in a number of Maine movie houses (together with some lantern slides and cancer talks),75 and in Cincinnati where it was used alongside public education radio talks, lectures, booklets, and leaflets.76 Also in 1923, the ASCC sent a copy of the film to each state and province for use during its campaign, urging members to assist their state and provincial chairman to keep this film busy by arranging with local movie houses to have it shown.77 The film prompted the Argentine Ambassador to mention to Charles Powers that he wanted the cancer film translated into Spanish for use in the Argentine.78 It was also shown abroad in Canada79 and Australia.
The Reward of Courage not only remained in use during the 1920s, it was the stimulus for the production of other cancer films. During the 1922 Cancer Week, the ASCC reported the existence of a 75-foot cancer film carried as a trailer by all the largest theatres in Michigan, and a 60-foot film shown in picture houses in Omaha and Lincoln, and the cancer society reported that other local committees might also have produced or distributed their own films.80 In 1923, there is mention of another short film (probably a theater newsreel) produced by Fox News Weekly about the St. Lukes Hospital X-ray clinic, apparently seen by some 30 million persons.81 The ASCC itself produced a second film, A Fortunate Accident, in 1925, also produced by the Eastern Film Corporation,82 and a third movie was produced in 1929. By The Way (Visugraphic Pictures,
1929) was a motion picture trailer for an educational booklet, in which animated cartoons from the booklet stepped forward from the screen and introduced themselves.83 Lost and Found The Reward of Courage remained in circulation for much of the 1920s and early 1930s, after which it was gradually dropped from the ASCC’s educational programs as new educational films were produced, the original prints deteriorated with time and use, the visual aesthetics of motion pictures changed, and new technologies such as sound came in. The film likely came to have a dated feel, and many prints were scratched or damaged in other ways.
The ASCC made additional prints before 1923, and the version in the digital collections of the National Library of Medicine is from a 1925 print.84 Copies remained in some film libraries for a while long after new prints were no longer produced.85 But the film was fragile, and it gradually disappeared from these and other collections. By the time I joined the National Library of Medicine in 2002, the movie seemed long gone.
One of my research interests was the history of cancer and especially cancer education. It turned out that the National Library of Medicine had perhaps the world’s largest collection of historical medical movies—films used in medical training, public health education, medical advertising, as part of scientific or medical experiment or practice, or some combination of all. Some were made just for fun or to demonstrate virtuosity and skill in the operating room, laboratory, or clinic. Some were home movies, some difficult to watch (because of the subject matter), and some quite fun (also because of the subject matter).
The Library had copies of films by Disney, Hanna-Barbera Productions, Hugh Harman Productions, United Productions of America (UPA), and other entertainment filmmakers, though it doesn’t generally collect entertainment films. All of these companies made public health education and other historical medical films, the focus of the Library’s collection.
So I counted myself lucky and went looking for cancer films, only to be disappointed. Although the Library had some public education films about cancer (especially from the 1940s and 1950s), and some fairly gruesome surgical training films, in general it did not have a strong collection of cancer education and training films. I began compiling a list of cancer films from the publications of the ACS, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and other cancer organizations, and my suspicions that the collection was seriously deficient were confirmed. I was lucky enough to find copies of some films elsewhere, including the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the ACS itself, which had kept many of its films. But some movies on the list were missing, including The Reward of Courage.
Then I heard about a collection of films at the Library of Congress that had not been fully cataloged. It was little more than an inventory when I looked through it, like a long electronic packing slip. But in amongst the list of films was a title called Reward of Courage. It was a movie about cancer, but dated 1925, not 1921,86 and it was unscreenable since it was still in nitrate form (see reverse text in Figure 4), and held in a secure location at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where the Library of Congress held some of its film collections at that time. So on April 20, 2006, I took a plane to Dayton, and arrived at the military base.
Nitrate films are highly unstable.87 As they age they can suffer from shrinkage, fading, and brittleness, and release gases that damage the emulsion, among other forms of physical deterioration. Perhaps most seriously, they become highly flammable at relatively low temperatures, and nitrate fires are almost impossible to put out since the film stock creates its own oxygen when it burns.
Disastrous fires have consumed numerous film collections, and lives and buildings have been lost because of this early form of film. So I was hardly reassured when I turned up at Dayton, to go through military security, to be met by a film archivist and escorted to a remote corner of the base, to a building far removed from any other. No one was taking any chances of a fire in the film collection affecting anything else on the base. The building seemed like a giant refrigerator: storage at low temperatures being a means of delaying decomposition. It was a beautiful, warm day outside, as I recall, and I was plunged into what seemed like sub-arctic conditions inside, and led through corridors and dark spaces, to a small room where my film was laid out on a table.
It was at that point that I was told that I could not screen it. It was too precious and fragile to be run through a projector. I misheard what they said, and thought that they meant I could not view it at all, in which case why had I come to Dayton? In fact what they meant was that I would have to watch it frame by frame on a light table. This was a table with a translucent top illuminated from below, and with reels at either end onto which the film would be mounted. I would have to wind the entire film by hand from one reel to the other, stopping to view each frame or series of frames as they passed over the illumination.
There was no magnification, and the individual images were difficult to see until someone loaned me a magnifying glass. The two reels of this film — normal running time 30 minutes — would take an entire day to view, and I would just make my flight back to Washington.
But, I was in luck. This was the Reward of Courage that I was looking for, and in beautiful condition. The movie was a silent movie — it was made in 1921 — and it was tinted: parts of it — often the sad parts — tinted blue, other parts — mainly the happy parts — tinted pink, and the rest was a standard amber color.
(Fig. 6) The movie was one of a number of American films that had been returned from the Australian National Film and Sound Archive.88 Australia was the end of the distribution line, and American films that ended up out there often did not return. So The Reward of Courage had at some point gone out there, and stayed until it was shipped back along with many others in 1998, repatriated to the Library of Congress. It doesn’t seem to have been used very much in Australia. Other films of this vintage are badly scratched and faded, with broken sprockets and split spices, and often the ends of the film are missing, since these were the bits that were jammed time and again into projectors and often broke.
It is true that there were some scratches and a few broken sprockets in this film, mostly at the ends of the film, but very little as compared to others.89 It was either used with extreme care, or perhaps hardly used at all, and stored in excellent conditions before being shipped back to the United States.