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Betzwood Films

Oh Johnny! (1918)

The first of the Betzwood feature-length cowboy films starring Louis Bennison, Oh! Johnny! was based in part on Bennison’s long running theatrical piece, Johnny Get Your Gun. The production of the Bennison westerns at Betzwood is discussed at some length in the article, The Smilin’ Cowboy.

The film was thought to be lost until the summer of 1992 when the master negatives for this and another Bennison film, High Pockets, were discovered in a barn near Norristown. They were still in their original packing crates with the studio’s labels on them. After the Betzwood Film Archive acquired the negatives, they were taken to the film labs of the Museum of Modern Art where they were conserved and our 16mm   copies were made. The original nitrate negatives were donated to MoMA with the Betzwood Film Archive and MoMA jointly holding the rights to the films. While both films had suffered losses to nitrate decomposition, enough survived to make it possible to screen the films for audiences. In addition to utilizing the western village on the studio lot,  Oh! Johnny! was partly filmed on the Walton estate in Radnor, the property that is now the campus of Eastern University. Some features of the estate seen in the film can still be glimpsed on the University’s campus.

Betzwood Film Company, 1918. Directed by Ira M. Lowry. Starring Louis Bennison, Virginia Lee, Edward Roseman, and Anita Cortez.

Sandy Burke of the U-Bar-U (1918)

The good hearted cowboy Sandy Burke (Louis Bennison), and his Appaloosa horse “Pie,”  have their hands full breaking up bar fights, saving an orphan, bailing out a desperate widow, catching cattle rustlers and wooing the ranchman’s daughter in this tale set in the wild west. The long horn cattle seen in the film were brought from a western ranch by train to roam the meadows at Betzwood and lend authenticity to the scenes.

This film is one of two Betzwood feature length films to survive completely intact.

Betzwood Film Company, 1918. Directed by Ira M. Lowry. Featuring Louis Bennison, J. Allen Dunn, Virginia Lee, Alphonse Ethier, H.H. Pattee, Echlin Gayer, Nadia Gary, Lucy Beaumont, Phil Sanford, Wilson Bayley.

The Misfit Earl (1919)

Film still from The Misfit Earl

Photo: The cowboys come to claim their castle.

Louis Bennison, a favorite star of the Betzwood Studio, plays a cowboy born in to an aristocratic British family that long ago disowned his father and mother. Cowboy Jim and his adopted son Sam live the bachelor life out on the plains until they receive word that they have inherited a fortune, a castle, and a title in England. Traveling there with some reluctance to accept the inheritance, Jim and Sam are soon caught up in a scheme by another relative to put the new heirs out of the picture so that he can inherit everything himself. We are treated to many comic moments in which the director and writer contrast the American and British social class divisions, and other cultural differences. With the help of a lovely lady of the estate, Jim is able to thwart a plot to poison him. Unfortunately, this is where the film abruptly ends, as the original print is not complete, the ending having been lost or damaged. The castle that appears in the film was actually the  Mattison mansion, in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Betzwood Film Company, 1919. Directed by Ira M. Lowry. Starring Louis Bennison.

Library copy: This film ends abruptly before its conclusion. Our video copy is based on the only known surviving print of the original 35mm feature film in the Museum of Modern Art Film Archives.

High Pockets (1919)

historic lantern slide promoting High Pockets filmThis “slightly wounded” cowboy feature was made in 1919.  When the studio closed in 1922, a studio worker rescued the negatives for this and another Bennison cowboy feature from oblivion by removing them to his home. They were subsequently forgotten until 1992 when the family made them available to the Betzwood Archive. That anything survives of these films is truly remarkable. The original foreign release negatives, still in their original packing crates, had suffered some damage due to nitrate decomposition, but were mostly intact. Though most of the first two reels of this film were lost, the bulk of the story and the exciting conclusion survived. A special arrangement between the Betzwood Film Archive and the Museum of Modern Art Film Study Center made possible the cleaning, preservation, and copying of these films onto safety stock. The story line of the first two reels was restored in 1997 by Rusty Casselton of Minnesota, utilizing a number of production stills from the film.

Here’s a film that has everything—drugs, murder, robbery, ghosts, romance, deceit, greed, revenge, and comedy. And that’s just in the three reels that survive!

Betzwood Fim Company, 1919.  Directed by Ira M. Lowry. Starring Louis Bennison, Katherine MacDonald, Edward Roseman, and Andrew Bennison.

Song films (1923-1924)

Film still

The “Sing Them Again” series of song films made in 1923 and 1924 were the very last films ever made at the Betzwood studio. The one-reel films were made by Russell Shields and Norman Jefferies, former studio employees, with the assistance of Van Avery and William Darrow.  The funding and support for their efforts is unclear, but the connections of the two principles would have easily gotten them the use of the vacant studio. The films used actors to portray sentiments or circumstances of old and famous popular songs. The words for the songs appeared on the screen so the audience could sing along.

Only one of these films survives today and it is an incomplete reel that suffered severe nitrate decomposition before it was rescued. The reel was found with the negatives for High Pockets and Oh! Johnny! in the summer of 1992 and was conserved by the Museum of Modern Art. It may be the next to final reel made by the studio, which went out to theaters in December of 1924 under the title, Echoes of Youth. The reel contains images and words for the songs Old Black Joe (film and still above),  Little Annie Rooney, and.Home Sweet Home. Only Home Sweet Home survives intact without nitrate damage.

Echoes of Youth was showing in Norristown’s Garrick Theater in December 1924 when the Betzwood Studio closed for good. Locally, the films were often featured at the Garrick where the combination of Vaudeville and Film lent itself to the presentation of Song Films. As the films often featured local talent, they were popular offerings in local theaters. However, the films did see national and even international distribution as evidenced by ads for them in papers from several other states and Canada.

Other titles in the series included Close Harmonies, Companions, Golden Gems, Memories, Home Again, Lest We Forget, Long Ago, Old Friends, Heart Throbs, Lost Chords, Echoes of Youth, and Melodious Moments.

Photo: A scene from the song, “Old Black Joe.”

Produced by Norman Jefferies, 1923-1924. Directed by Russell Shields, with assistant directors, Van Avery and William Darrow. No actors have been identified.