When I was working on the Hollywood TV series in the 1970s, I had a challenge from the outset; how to persuade an audience which had contempt for silent films not to switch off. I took a risk: first I showed a rescue from a burning building, made at the beginning of cinema and symbolic of what people imagined all silents to be, and then I cut direct to the lush professionalism of MGM’s The Fire Brigade, from the silent era at its peak. Yes, it was an outrageous thing to do, but I’ll guarantee that that sequence with Charles Ray rescuing a baby from an inferno won us an audience—instantly. The picture, directed by the neglected William Nigh, could have been made in the 1940s. For its professionalism alone it deserves a place in the canon. And it wasn’t lurid melodrama; it had an intelligent, socially conscious storyline involving municipal corruption.
Moving Picture World’s advance review declared: “The conflagration scene is the most stupendous from the standpoint of realism and proportion that has ever been incorporated in a feature production.” The reviewer was dismayed that the MGM publicity department had decided to avoid superlatives “and be cringing in a corner” when describing the equipment used for that scene. MPW interviewed Chief Ralph Scott, who told them that Los Angeles had sixty-five fire companies and that of this total “forty units with 300 firemen transported by forty-five pieces of apparatus representing every known type of vehicle in the fire-fighting world, tore through the film capital until they reached Culver City.”
Margaret Chute, of the British Picturegoer, toured the Hollywood studios gathering material for a 1927 article on “Midnight Movie Making”: “It is the up-to-date custom to photograph scenes supposed to take place during the evening in actual darkness, with the aid of powerful lights concentrated on the right spot, instead of taking these scenes in daylight and then colouring the whole strip of film dark blue or green, as was the method in earlier days.”
She arrived at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios to watch them stage the fire that formed the climax of The Fire Brigade. I quote her at length here, as she provides a compelling eyewitness account of the process as overseen by chief cameraman John Arnold, renowned in the industry for shooting 1925’s The Big Parade:
As our car drove past the silent stages there was a great light in the sky, and turning the corner we came upon a vast open space with ten huge sun-arcs concentrated on the front of a twelve-storey house.
That house looked very solid, but was only a shell in reality. Behind the rows of windows came a plain dark wall, but no rooms lay beyond, merely wooden platforms along which electricians and ‘prop’ men clambered, carrying lighted torches. The open space was filled with a struggling mass of firemen, fire-escapes, fire-engines, a crowd of onlookers engaged in the film, a half dozen cameras with their attendant crews.
Some of the cameras were raised on portable platforms; two were perched on skeleton wooden towers, high above the crowd. Opposite the big house, which represented an orphanage, a special stand seating three hundred people had been constructed. It was filled with an excited audience of film stars, their friends, and representatives of the leading Los Angeles newspapers.
Dark and quiet, the orphanage waited for the great event. Voices shouted, horses rattled their harness, Charles Ray dashed about in his fireman’s uniform. Suddenly, at the striking of a gong, flames broke out above the main door of the orphanage.
Creeping along, licking their way from floor to floor, up they went, relentlessly, till the whole of the front of that sham building was a mass of fire. It was done by means of open gas pipes fixed to each window; on the galleries behind the windows the men with torches—themselves invisible—applied their torches to the pipes and so the flames shot up and up.
Then came the water-hoses, playing over the blazing building; cameras grinding, men yelling. Ten minutes it lasted, while some marvellous fire scenes were caught by the cameras. Then at a signal, the gas was turned off at the main; out went the flames, and in a few minutes the smoke-scorched, fire–proofed building was standing dark and still in the night.
The producer was Harry Rapf (along with Hunt Stromberg). A founding member of MGM, Rapf was regarded initially as one of a ruling triumvirate with Mayer and Thalberg. But he had charge of the second-class features. He had presided over minor but often excellent pictures at Warner Bros., notably the first proper Rin-Tin-Tin, Where the North Begins (1923), and at MGM, Exit Smiling (1926), the enchanting Beatrice Lillie comedy. This was his first spectacular prestige picture. Louis B. Mayer was keen on firemen and twenty-five percent of the film’s profits were to go to the founding of a college for the training of firefighters.
The Fire Brigade was shot in an incredible twenty-eight days (The Scarlet Letter, a simpler production altogether, was allotted forty-eight days) and budgeted at $249,556. According to Thomas Schatz’s Genius of the System, “the second-class status of the project was obvious from the budget, with only $60,000 going for director, cast, story and continuity. But the attractions in The Fire Brigade were spectacle, special effects and fiery destruction rather than star and director. The budget allowed $25,000 for photographic effects and another $66,000 for sets, a relatively high figure since many of the sets had to be not only built and ‘dressed’ but destroyed as well.”
This was one of MGM’s “non-star” pictures, as May McAvoy was classed as a “featured player” and Charles Ray had lost his position at the top of box-office polls. He had specialized in hayseed roles, both funny and poignant, in stories often set on farms. (There was an agricultural slump in the 1920s.) In 1921, Ray had made a picture famous for being without titles, The Old Swimmin’ Hole, which was shown recently at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. While Ray’s acting was skillful, the film has not stood the test of time.
When Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood, he singled out Ray as the best actor in American films. It was thought he would soon rank alongside the great players. Ray became independent and directed and starred in a film about the Mayflower, The Courtship of Miles Standish (1923). He financed it himself and its failure ruined him. The popular William Haines, who had entered pictures in 1922, started out imitating Ray. By 1926, with both under contract to MGM, it seems Ray was imitating Haines. And certainly this young fireman who goes on strike is a role more suitable to Haines, who had risen to stardom playing rebellious (sometimes obnoxious) young men who were redeemed in the last reel.
Director William Nigh, who had come to prominence with My Four Years in Germany (1918) and went on to direct Lon Chaney in two films, had a somewhat scandalous private life (charged with “assault with intent to kill” after getting arrested at a party in Laurel Canyon). However, actress Pauline Frederick called him “a wonderful director who gives you the greatest confidence.”
The appearance of both two-color Technicolor and a new color process invented by Max Handschiegl in the climactic fire scenes must have stunned audiences. Variety called the film “an out-and-out hokum thriller of the type mass audiences eat up”; while Photoplay fully endorsed it: “hokum is a quality that cheats you … This film doesn’t cheat. The thrills in it are not only tremendously exciting, but real.” Despite such enthusiasm, the picture lost money. And late in 1926, William Nigh had his contract canceled. Was it just too realistic, frightening big city audiences who were already paranoid enough about fire?
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius