The Blog

Sunshine Film's Distress Signal

In May 1917, after experiencing some success with the release of single reel comedies starring the likes of Floyd Williams and Rose Burkhardt, the Chicago based Sunshine Film Company turned its attention to the release of its first feature film -- the 7-reel S.O.S. Unfortunately, the film itself could be considered a distress call from the studio itself.

Although short subjects were still good business for studios, features were quickly becoming a major point of focus for studios. by 1917, D.W. Griffith had been making features for three years, and even studios who had previously specialized in shorts, like fellow Chicagoans Essanay and Flying A, were concentrating their efforts on features. Sensing that features would help build their brand, Sunshine’s GM Kenneth Scoville began to craft the perfect maiden picture. He enlisted the help of former D.W. Griffith assistant director/actor William N. Buckley and Essanay leading man Richard Travers, along with scenario writer Mildred Considine and American Standard Motion Picture Corporation president Samuel Quinn and began to put the building blocks of the film together.

The $65,000 feature was to be called S.O.S., and Buckley and Travers were to co-direct it. It was to be a 7-reel film, detailing and embracing the idea of eugenic marriage. The scenario was penned by Quinn, and the screenplay was adapted by Considine. Eugenics was one of the hot topics of the period, with advocates and literature speaking in favor of it, and institutions being established in order to separate the inferior from the superior. Although the producers assured audiences and critics that it wouldn’t be blatant propaganda in favor of the practice, it would certainly embrace and show the advantages of it. Travers took the task of addressing the topic to heart and spent weeks in New York researching eugenics to prepare.

Though the company didn’t have a studio of its own, it rented studio space from William R. Rothacker’s Rothacker Film Manufacturing Company, as well as from the American Bioscope Company. The studio also used what resources it did have to help promote the film. It employed two Chicago-based artists to create a line of posters, heralds, window cards and lobby displays to help promote the film.

The film was set to premiere at Chicago’s Bandbox Theatre in the Loop in early June, when it encountered a major setback. Chicago’s chief of the police censor board, Major Funkhouser, had a reputation for refusing screening permits over a number of ridiculous reasons. So much so, that he was often a source of frustration for the film community. Following a trade screening of S.O.S., he refused to issue a permit to allow the studio to release the film. The studio was ready to take legal action when Funkhouser issued a pink permit, preventing teenage and juvenile moviegoers from from seeing it.

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Despite the expense, research and effort that went into the film, it failed to be a blockbuster release. Chicago’s own Louella O. Parsons, then a writer for the Chicago Herald, thought the subject matter was not appropriate for film. “S.O.S., Help, Help! The picture needs it. A combination of Unborn and The Black Stork. Eugenic marriage is the theme chosen to enlighten the ignorant. There is no longer any delicacy in handling subjects of this kind. Our young people nonchalantly discuss these topics and visit the theaters with no idea of impropriety. Perhaps knowledge is golden. I wish, however, it were flaunted less publicly and presented elsewhere than in moving pictures. Some one must prove to me wherein these example pictures. Some one must prove to me wherein these example pictures help. Until then I must enroll myself among those who feel no emotion but disgust.”

Although Sunshine restructured its board, employees and resources, and struck a deal for 10 more feature productions, the company soon disappeared and its principal players moved on.