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© David S. Shields
The Story of Mortensen, Kales, Edward S. Curtis & the amazing Ferdinand P. Earle Dec 2, '09 5:23 AM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #188
This is a brief version of a story I tell at length in my book on Photography & Silent Cinema.
Poet, painter, and Bohemian Ferdinand P. Earle first became famous for dumping his wife for his mistress, whom he called 'his soul mate.' The episode popularized the term. He would shuck soul mates several times in his career.
His brother William had become a motion picture director for the Edison company in the mid 1910s. William arranged for Ferdinand to get a job painting art titles, the ornate scenes backing dialogue frames. Trained by Whistler, Ferdinand did this better than anyone in the business, and Nazimova hired him to do special effects and some art direction for one of her movies. This got F. P. Earle thinking. He realized that if he painted the backdrops in miniature for all the scenes of a movie, that movie could have 70-100 scenes, rather than 10 to 15. Besides, location costs would be saved.
He convinced a porcelain bathroom fixtures millionaire to bankroll a movie directed by Earle, with all the scenes painted by a team instructed by Earle. He chose a non-contemporary action and setting, 13th century Persia, for 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He set a gang of artists at work on painting the backgrounds, among them the young painter William Mortensen, who took Earle as a model of visionary daring. He hired the famous Indian photographer Edward S. Curtis to shoot stills, giving the strange scenes the proper ethnographic verisimilitude. Curtis's exhibition of these stills in 1921 was the first ever treatment of movie stills as art works to be esteemed by themselves.
Earle, who came from a wealthy background, was a perfectionist, and kept tweaking aspects of the film, until he irritated his backer, who siezed the film reels. This masterwork was not released. Meanwhile, the painters who worked for Earle drifted over to Douglas Fairbanks's set for 'Robin Hood'. Mortensen was among these. Fairbanks, who used Charles Warrington as his usual still man, was impressed by Earle's notion of getting an artistic photographer to shoot special images of his immense constructed world of Norman England. He got Arthur Kales. Kales produced a set of exquisite miniature views of Fairbanks and the set.
Mortensen latched himself onto Kales who taught the painter photography. He became so adept that Mortensen was added as a 3rd uncredited photographer of the movie--the stills are in the Mortensen collection at the University of Arizona. After finishing work on Robin Hood, Mortensen photographed a book, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, his own vision of the fantasy that had occupied Earle. This costume masterwork got him a job as company photographer at Western Costume Company where he shot under the name Wescosco Studio. I've mentioned elsewhere his great project to shoot fantasy costume scenes of all the major film stars.
Earle meanwhile became special effects director of Ben Hur. He shot some of the more memorable stills from that movie. Novarro's success in the title role led the holders of the Rubiyat print to turn it over to Milton Sills to cut, reorganizing the narrative to give Novarro (who appeared in that film as his first featured role) a prominent part.
Mortensen went own to become a protege of Cecil B. DeMille shooting special photography for King of Kings before setting up his famous studio/school in Long Beach and becoming the antichrist of American photography. David Shields