Thursday, May 21, 2009

George Masa, and his link to a dubious 'Producer'.

I received a question from Louisa Trott of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound asking about additional information on George Masa. With the help of Zoe Rhine we've told her what we know (see below). It seems Masa was mentioned by a producer who showed up in Knoxville to shoot a 'movie' of sorts, and Masa was hired as his cameraman. This is a curious story that reflects on the booming state of the economy in the area during the roaring 1920s. One thing I find interesting is the fact that he sold sponsors to be included in the film, whats called 'integrated advertising' today was used in films here in the south back in 1925!

We've known for some time that Masa was a newsreel photographer and had cinema equipment, but the fact that he was involved in shooting motion pictures, at this time and of this type is new. Masa enjoyed new challenges and was always interested in making a buck, so none of this surprises me. Finding these films would be great, they would be important documents of this period.

Here is a portion of her original request. Followed by two responses from Zoe Rhine at Asheville's Pack Library.

Dear Mr Bonesteel,

We're writing an article about itinerant filmmakers in East Tennessee during the early part of last century. One in particular, J.B. "Slim" Brolund, came to Knoxville in 1925 to make a movie using local people as actors, with funding procured from local businesses who would pay to be 'advertised' in the film.
In July 1925, a Knoxville Sentinel article reports that:

"Work is scheduled to begin July 27. [...] Mr Brolund prides himself on procuring the services of George Massa [sic], of Pathe News, for camera man. Mr Massa is the only motion picture photographer who has ever been allowed to "shoot" a set in "Biltmore," the estate of Mrs George K Vanderbilt. He is the official Pathe News camera man for all of North and South Carolina."

Brolund also states that he has been in Asheville making a movie entitled "Land of the Sky" (with George Masa?).

To cut a long story short, it seems that Brolund was most likely a con-artist. The Sentinel covers every aspect of the making of the movie - "A Knoxville Romance" - practically every day right up to the point where Brolund is reported to be delayed in NY processing and editing the film (you can practically hear the penny drop!). But on the day that the film is scheduled to premiere in Knoxville ... not a word is mentioned in the newspaper, and nothing thereafter. We think Brolund may have carried out this scam in other towns across the country - - there are accounts of him in St Petersburg, FA and Chicago in 1926.

So, we were wondering if you had ever come across any mention of George Masa's involvement with any of the above films. If he was a Pathe News cameraman, he would certainly have had the right equipment for the job. Have you ever come across any movie references/material related to Masa? Any knowledge of the Biltmore piece? That was probably for Pathe News.

Zoe's response:

We have an "Asheville Citizen" newspaper article, Aug. 17, 1924 titled "George Masa Opens Biltmore Studio." It reads, in part, "Opening of the Asheville-Biltmore Film Co. by George Masa, formerly with the Plateau Studio, was announced yesterday. Mr. Masa's new studio is a t 3 Plaza, Biltmore, but he will also maintain uptown offices at 24 Broadway.
Mr. Masa, who is an expert photographer, has been in Asheville a good many years and has specialized in the past in commercial work, still and moving Pictures. This work he will continue in the future, and he will also continue as Pathe News representative for North and South Carolina, supplying that news film syndicate with all pictorial news from these two states.
The new studios are outfitted with the newest equipment, adequate in every detail to the latest requirements, he said. . . "
We also have a copy of an ad in a magazine, "Diversion" for 12/24/1921 which is for Plateau Studios with his name at bottom and it says, "Photography in all its branches still or animated."
We have a 1931 Asheville City Directory where he has a large ad for his business The Asheville Photo Co. and it reads: "Commercial Photography/Photo finishing for amateurs; movies for Commercial Purposes."
We do not have any articles mentioning his filming in Knoxville in 1925.
The film Paul mentioned, The Conquest of Canaan, 1921, is listed in the book, "The North Carolina Filmography" by Jenny Henderson and she lists that George Masa did the stills. We have a partial recording of that film on DVD. [Brolund is not listed in her index.] UNC at Asheville, Ramsey Library Special Collections has some of these images.
As I am here going through our files, I was about to put away copies of articles regarding "The Asheville Motion Pictures Corporation." We have coverage beginning 4/17/1925. The last article is a group shot of the cast of a movie recently made in Asheville, and I stopped to read the names, and it includes J.B. Brolund. So I've stopped and am sending on to you what I can make of it. The first ad lists a board of directors and lines like, "It is your civic duty to support this enterprise. 5/31 reports the work of filming "An Asheville Romance." "J.B. Brolund, who wrote the scenario and will direct the production, will play comedy parts." Then all of the scenes are described while naming the local people who will also be in it. A full page ad of 5/31/1925 appears in the Asheville Times newspaper. "Aiding N. C's Progress" and "Why the Public is Asked to Invest." The photo I mentioned is dated 6/30/1925 and another photo appears 7/1/1925 of the cast
and includes Brolund. That is all the coverage we have in the file. Curious, it is. I will try to follow this up and see if I can find out if the movie was actually played or what.
Zoe Rhine,

North Carolina Reference Desk
Buncombe County Public Libraries

And then this from Zoe.

Well, the film was shown in Asheville for three days. When I read the plot of the film, I thought, "Oh brother!" and later reviews confirm my hunch. ""Though primarily an advertising stunt of particular interest to merchants, it is also unparalleled as a heralder of the beauty and progressiveness of Asheville itself..." The end of this article of 7/5/1925 from the Asheville Citizen reads: Mr. Brolund goes next to Knoxville, Tenn., where he will undertake the same plan for the Knoxville Sentinel. From there he goes to Charlotte and thence to Greenville, S.C. Inquiries have been received from five states which have heard of the project. George Masa, local photographer, made the pictures and will travel with Mr. Brolund." The gist of the story is that a young man receives a large inheritance the day after he is attracted to a young woman, whose father pulls her away, as he is a poor man. The next day, being suddenly rich, they are permitted to marry so they go on a shopping spree which includes a neighborhood here just being developed and they pick out a lot, and then they go to a construction firm who will build their house. Because of this, many merchants are shown in the film, I believe 22. It seems obvious that besides whatever the newspaper kicked in, the businesses shown were also the ones putting up money. During the showing, some businesses ran ads, such as one prominent hardware store ran an ad saying something like, "while you watch "The Asheville Romance" let it remind you where to go buy your hardware." That was one of the particular businesses that the couple went to for hardware for their new house. I looked through the week after the showing and did not find any more articles about how worthy or unworthy that Asheville felt the adventure turned out to be.
The whole thing reminds me a lot of a book in our collection that was published the year before,
Azure-lure : a romance of the mountains : souvenir of Asheville and western North Carolina which has a terrible romantic plot but which has some of the best photographs in it of anything we have, including the only documentation of the interiors of hotels that we have.
That said, we realize we need to pursue all avenues to see if there are any existing copies of this film, as it would be invaluable as a historical document.
I am noticing that the first ad that appeared for the Asheville Motion Pictures Corportation says that "Hamilton Smith and Arthur A. Cadwell, experienced producers of Smith-Cadwell Productions, have been engaged by the Asheville Motion Pictures Co. to produce a series of feature motion pictures in Asheville."
It seems likely that the newspaper would have retained a copy of the film, which is at least a place to start.
Again, let us know if you'd like for us to send you copies of all or any of this Asheville coverage. I'm wondering if perhaps Asheville was his first adventure, and was used as a promotion by Brolund in other cities?
One of the articles mentions that he has lived mostly in California, but was now planning on moving to Asheville. I did not find him anywhere in the 1920 or 1930 census.
Thanks so much for directing our attention to this film.
Zoe Rhine

North Carolina Reference Desk

Buncombe County Public Libraries


  1. This just in; Zoe heard back from Jenny Henderson (author of "The N.C. Filmography") and they have checked through Charlotte, N.C. newspaper microfilm, and found that J.B. "Slim" Brolund went to Charlotte after filming in Asheville, and produced, with George Masa as cameraman, "A Charlotte Romance." It played in Charlotte at the Imperial Theater October 5, 6, 7 1925 and at the Alhambra Theater October 8, 9, 10 1925.

    1. Update: we found out that the Knoxville movie got lost in transit but Brolund (and Masa?) went back to Knoxville to reshoot it. The full story is available in an article published in the Moving Image Journal, Spring 2010. ~Louisa