Christmas in August

Written by archivist and filmmaker Dwight Swanson. Dwight resides in Baltimore where he maintains the home office of the Center for Home Movies.

Amateur movie making as a popular activity in the United States is generally thought to have begun in earnest in 1923, when Kodak began marketing its 16mm system. Prior to that, the equipment and film was prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest or most committed hobbyist. Within a few years, there were enough amateur movie makers in action that the Amateur Cinema League (ACL) was created to “promote amateur cinematography as a national sport,” in the words of its opening mission statement. The League was a confederation of amateur film clubs around the country (with some international representation, as well). It encouraged filmmakers to exchange films and published technical manuals, but its main product was its monthly magazine “Movie Makers” (known originally as “Amateur Movie Makers”).

In December 1930, at the end of the League’s fourth full year as an organization, the editors of “Movie Makers” began an annual Ten Best  list “from the films that they had seen which had been sent to the Amateur Cinema League for review and suggestion.” The list became the most coveted prize in the growing world of amateur filmmaking–a virtual Academy Awards without the red carpet.

The Ten Best for 1935 included the only film from Maryland to ever make the list–CHRISTMAS NUTS, directed by Paul Braun and Howard Goodman of Baltimore. Everything I currently know about the film comes from the brief description by the editors of “Movie Makers,” which focuses mostly on its craftsmanship:

Christmas Nuts, presented with a sound on film recording on a separate 16mm. film, produced by Paul Braun and Howard Goodman, is not only an interior color picture of exceptional beauty and impeccable technical quality but is also one of the best puppet films thus far created.  With a camera technique paralleling that of the latest theatrical, animated talkie cartoons, the story of a wolf “hijacking” Santa Claus and the consequent near calamity for the two squirrels is unfolded in a completely cinematic fashion.  The camera moves freely from medium shot to closeup, the mechanics of the sets are not obtrusive and the puppets move with agility and grace.  The sets, which were designed and constructed with great care, are very handsome and exquisitely finished so that no imperfections are revealed in the enlarged picture of them on the screen.  The sets, in combination with the colored lights used in part to illuminate them, embody the producers’ theory of “created color.” That is, no attempt is made to simulate nature, but rather to produce pleasing, vivid color combinations, as in the illustrations of a child’s story book.  A cleverly compiled dialog, song and music accompaniment has been synchronized with the picture, although recorded, at present, on a separate film.

For several years now I have been on a hunt for the film or for more information about its makers. The film itself has remained frustratingly elusive. It is never possible to know for certain how many prints of an amateur film exist. In most cases there is only the camera original, but it is possible that more ambitious filmmakers (and that would have included Braun and Goodman) might have made copies of their films, especially if they hoped to have it shown to other ACL clubs.

Howard Goodman has so far remained a mystery to me. There were six Howard Goodmans in the 1935 Baltimore City directory, none of which offered any clues to which one was the filmmaker. The only other mention I have found of him so far is in a long article in the June 1936 issue of “Movie Makers,” in which Paul Braun describes the production of his 1934 historical documentary A STORY OF EARLY MARYLAND. “At this point, Howard Goodman entered the field, bringing with him a lot of experience as an amateur movie maker,” wrote Braun, without any further elaboration.

Paul Braun, on the other hand, was fairly well-known in Baltimore, so there is a relative wealth of information available about him in addition to his A STORY OF EARLY MARYLAND article. A man of many talents, he won several awards in an annual drawing competition sponsored by the Baltimore Sun. A 1926 Sun article about him described him as “slight, hazel-eyed, ambitious…nervously energetic and Baltimorean.” An alumnus of the Maryland Institute (now MICA), he was working at the time as a professional illustrator and splitting his time between Baltimore and New York City.

Eight years later, the Sun published an article about his career as a puppeteer, since by then he had become the most prominent marionette artist in town (a minor distinction, admittedly). Still describing him as “slight, hazel-eyed, ambitious…and nervously energetic,” the Sun reporter added that “he smokes a lot and sometimes tosses the butts around the studio in his home at 102 Clay Street. Puppets lean here and there against the walls, which are decorated with his sketches.” The article lists a variety of Braun’s artistic endeavors, but doesn’t mention that that same year he copyrighted “Stop That War (a play in three acts)” along with the playwright and author Harry Granick.

PaulBraunSadly, Braun’s next mention in the local press would be his obituary, following his suicide on August 3, 1940. “The artist had been ill for a year and had been treated for a nervous ailment,” the article says. By that point his career in puppetry was clearly well-established, since it was said that “to mention marionette shows in Baltimore was to mention Mr. Braun.,” and “more than 115 characters came to life under Mr. Braun’s hands. But the favorite by far was Sappo, the midget clown who introduced all of Mr. Braun’s plays, from ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ and ‘Br’er Rabbit,’ to adaptations of the tales of Boccacio.”

Any leads on the creators of this film or the film itself would be greatly appreciated.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s