Terry Ramsaye

Open, general discussion of silent films, personalities and history.
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Frederica
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Terry Ramsaye

Unread post by Frederica » Thu Dec 27, 2007 10:02 am

As a Christmas present to myself I finally purchased Terry Ramsaye's "A Million and One Nights" and have been reading it (rather than just cherry-picking sections, as I've previously done). Admittedly my eyes glaze slightly when the writing gets too technical, but I'm fascinated with the business discussions and the biographical/anecdotal materials he inserts into the text.

I know that Ramsaye is not considered wholly trustworthy for some issues, but I don't know what those issues are; I've never seen a detailed discussion of the books strengths and weaknesses. He's the most reliable person I've yet read about the original negotiations with Will Hays and the creation of the MPPDA, which was what triggered me to buy the book in the first place. (It's one of the great unsung mysteries of film history that no one has yet written a scholarly biography of Will Hays.) I'm also interested in the figures Ramsaye quotes for studio costs and profits at the end of the book. Do we know from whence he garnered those figures and are they within the ball park? How trustworthy is his writing on Zukor and the business/legal issues surrounding the creation of Paramount?

Has there ever been a detailed, scholarly study of Ramsaye's book? And besides being a reporter, who in the heck was Terry Ramsaye? How did he know all that stuff? Do we have any idea who his sources were?

Fred

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azjazzman
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Unread post by azjazzman » Thu Dec 27, 2007 12:00 pm

There is a short bio of Ramsaye on Wikipedia, that was mostly cribbed from the "About The Author" on the dust jacket of a 1950's reprint of A Million And One Nights.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Ramsaye

The upshot is that Ramsaye was a newspaperman who went to work at Mutual in 1915. He produced some of the Charlie Chaplin comedies, and founded "Screen Herald".

He later worked in the exhibition side of the business, and as an editor of Motion Picture Herald.

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Unread post by silentfilm » Thu Dec 27, 2007 2:47 pm

It's been several years since I read it. Don't be scared off by the first section of the book, which is basically about pre-cinema. Ramsaye was a newspaper reporter, and took what his subjects said as the truth. Ramsaye's story of Traffic in Souls (1913) was apparently supplied by film editor Jack Cohn. According to the book, this feature film (Universal's first) was made secretly and studio head Carl Laemmle had no knowledge of it. Kevin Brownlow has proven this false in his Behind the Mask of Innocence book.

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Will Hays/Terry Ramsaye

Unread post by DShepFilm » Thu Dec 27, 2007 8:03 pm

Frederica, the Autobiography of Will H. Hays is massive and excellent.

It is a pity that Raysaye didn't annotate his book or preserve his notes, but almost alone among American film historians, he talked with all the horses from the very earliest years of cinema.

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Frederica
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Unread post by Frederica » Thu Dec 27, 2007 8:05 pm

silentfilm wrote:It's been several years since I read it. Don't be scared off by the first section of the book, which is basically about pre-cinema. Ramsaye was a newspaper reporter, and took what his subjects said as the truth. Ramsaye's story of Traffic in Souls (1913) was apparently supplied by film editor Jack Cohn. According to the book, this feature film (Universal's first) was made secretly and studio head Carl Laemmle had no knowledge of it. Kevin Brownlow has proven this false in his Behind the Mask of Innocence book.
Actually, Bruce, I'm not sure if Ramsaye did take these stories as the truth. He acknowledges Scheherezade as his inspiration for the book, and the slightly snarky tone he takes with some of his material gives me the impression he's just recording what he heard, but doesn't necessarily believe it--rather like Herodotus beginning each tale with "This is the story the way it was told to me." In some cases he makes it abundantly clear that he doesn't believe a word of what he's been told. He doesn't come out and say that, but he points at it. It's enjoyable but frustrating.

His legwork on the vexing Hays issue made my inner Occam's Razor very happy, though.

So I suspect that a lot of later research has been done on various aspects of his work which proves/disproves what he says, I just don't know which parts to use the yellow marker on.

Fred

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Frederica
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Re: Will Hays/Terry Ramsaye

Unread post by Frederica » Thu Dec 27, 2007 9:24 pm

DShepFilm wrote:Frederica, the Autobiography of Will H. Hays is massive and excellent.

It is a pity that Raysaye didn't annotate his book or preserve his notes, but almost alone among American film historians, he talked with all the horses from the very earliest years of cinema.
I'll get the Hays autobiography, then. I was happy with Ramsaye's approach to his materials, he innately understood that developments in business and the technology drove the art and he does a good job of interweaving the three elements. It's highly readable, too. I wish he had sourced his stories and listed the people he'd interviewed, though, but that lack was SOP then.

The boundaries between areas of historical scholarship sometimes leave annoying lacunae in the texts, which I was finding with Hays. Political historians wrote about Hays up to the point where he accepted the MPPDA position, but at that point he drops off the face of the planet to them. Film historians usually pick up with "and then they hired the Postmaster General." The only historian I found who documented the sequence of events and the people involved with identifying and approaching Hays was Ramsaye.

Fred

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Bob Birchard
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Re: Terry Ramsaye

Unread post by Bob Birchard » Thu Jan 03, 2008 5:01 pm

Frederica wrote:
I know that Ramsaye is not considered wholly trustworthy for some issues, but I don't know what those issues are; I've never seen a detailed discussion of the books strengths and weaknesses.
Has there ever been a detailed, scholarly study of Ramsaye's book? And besides being a reporter, who in the heck was Terry Ramsaye? How did he know all that stuff? Do we have any idea who his sources were?
Ramsaye is pretty reliable considering the sources that were available to him. The biggest complaint I've heard about the book is that he essentially takes Edison's side in the invention sequence. Gordon Hendricks, in his fascinating but barely readable book "The Edison Motion Picture Myth," has proven pretty conclusively that Edison's claim of 1889 for the invention is bogus, and that the date came up in the later court battles as Edison and his forces essentially lied to protct their patent interests.

I have never read the entries that made up the bulk of the book that first appeaed in "Photoplay" Magazine in the early 1920s. I don't know how huch revision he did between the magazine versions and the book version.

Although Ramsaye had access to some very early rcords, and some that probably do not survive today, I'm sure a lot of the figures he cites are from trade publications rather than company records.

It is also necessary to tip a hat to Robert Grau, who published the book "The Theater of Science" in 1914. Much of Ramsaye's topic organization and outline of events is derived from Grau.

Grau was not an historian, however. He solicited subscriptions to his book, and essentially wrote passages based on what his subscribers told him. So the history is subjective, incomplete, and sometimes one sided. Grau did several such books, although "The Theatre Of Science: A Volume Of Progress And Achievement In The Motion Picture Industry"
[listed as "The Lure of the Silent Drama" for some strange reason in his obit] is the only one that deals with film. However another interesting Grau book, because it deals with many of the theatrical people who later went into film behind the scenes, is "The Business Man in the Amusement World."

Grau died in 1916 of a morphine overdose.

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Frederica
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Re: Terry Ramsaye

Unread post by Frederica » Thu Jan 03, 2008 7:44 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:
Frederica wrote:
I know that Ramsaye is not considered wholly trustworthy for some issues, but I don't know what those issues are; I've never seen a detailed discussion of the books strengths and weaknesses.
Has there ever been a detailed, scholarly study of Ramsaye's book? And besides being a reporter, who in the heck was Terry Ramsaye? How did he know all that stuff? Do we have any idea who his sources were?
Although Ramsaye had access to some very early rcords, and some that probably do not survive today, I'm sure a lot of the figures he cites are from trade publications rather than company records.
And there's the rub, which makes me a bit leary of accepting his figures. Although I get the impression that he knew financial information printed in the trades was subject to the usual studio puffery, so I suppose it's possible he adjusted for that. I don't believe the SEC existed at that point ( :?: ). But the stock was publicly traded and Famous Players was listed on the NYSE, don't know if that means they would have produced annual reports to shareholders. He appears to have had access to relevant court documents.

I have one of the Photoplay articles (the chapter dealing with Hays). The differences are mainly minor word changes, an additional explanatory paragraph or two, but nothing that significantly alters the meaning of the text. That may not apply to other chapters.

Fred

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