A Study in Reds
Miriam Bennett, 20 min., 16mm, 1932
Preserved by the Wisconsin Historical Society
Added to National Film Registry: 2009
Essay by Daniel Eagan
By some measures over 200,000 filmmakers belonged to amateur film clubs in the 1930s. And more than 250 local clubs aligned themselves with the Amateur Cinema League (ACL), founded in 1926, about five years before the introduction of Kodak 16mm film stock to the consumer market.
The ACL embraced several standards and definitions of amateur filmmaking, from sophisticated works of art by Ralph Steiner to more commonplace celebrations of family life: weddings, birthdays, holidays. Miriam Bennett’s A Study in Reds falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, a film more ambitious than most home movies, but one initially intended for a fairly small audience of family members and friends.
Born in 1891, Miriam Bennett was the daughter of H.H. Bennett, a photographer and inventor who helped develop the Wisconsin Dells as a resort destination. Miriam and her younger sister Ruth grew up with the expertise to design and shoot A Study in Reds, which features dissolves, double-exposures, and animation along with interior night scenes, a few moving shots, and other technical challenges. Perhaps due to her father, Miriam also understood the value of publicity and self-promotion.
In addition to publishing Movie Makers magazine, promoting moviemaking guides and endorsing manufacturers like Kodak, the ACL helped popularize the concept of competitive filmmaking. In theory, films chosen for the ACL’s annual “Ten Best” list were not supposed to be sponsored, but even for amateurs, filmmaking in the 1930s was expensive. The Forgotten Frontier, an “Honorable Mention” title in 1930, was conceived as a promotional film for the Frontier Nursing Service.
Miriam Bennett most likely had access to her father’s lighting equipment and may have even been able to borrow a 16mm camera from him. Her father’s standing in the community may have helped her secure access to some of the locations in A Study in Reds, like a printing plant and machine shop.
Bennett and her sister were also members of the Tuesday Club, a study group with chapters in several Wisconsin towns. Members (all women) would deliver talks on current affairs and other topics, followed by tea. The premise of A Study in Reds builds from a talk on “reddest Russia” that leads to a fantasy sequence in which the members are transported to a comic version of the Soviet Union.
Right from its animated title sequence, A Study in Reds positions itself as something more than a home movie. It’s a narrative, with ideas and techniques taken from feature filmmaking, and a larger goal than simply shooting friends having fun. Bennett lifts gags from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, borrows a blurred-focus technique to introduce her fantasy sequence, and parodies Soviet documentaries extolling workers.
It’s tempting to categorize Bennett as a sort of amateur savant who achieved her effects by accident. But she knew how to plan a production that stretched from late winter to spring, with several locations and some two dozen performers (not counting the film’s horses, pigs, chickens, and dogs). She knew how to write a script with fantasy sequences and joke intertitles. She knew what wide shots and inserts she needed to tell her story properly. She took the time to assemble two separate sets of costumes, to prepare visual props like Soviet-style posters, and to devise dramatic lighting for her emotional scenes.
Like her father, she also took the time to advertise her efforts. A Movie Makers column called “Closeups—What amateurs are doing” served as a kind of notice board for filmmakers. Just like vaudevillians would announce their engagements in Variety, amateurs could report on their projects. In March, 1932, along with notices about En Familia (with “a stunning sextuple exposure”), An Autobiography of Dad by Harry Wilson, a Kodacolor account of the Yorktown Celebration in Virginia, and local advice about shooting at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Miriam Bennett announced the start of her new film:
“How, during the reading of a dreary paper on Russia, one member of a women’s club falls asleep and dreams of a quixotic existence in a sovietized America, is the story of a women’s club film in production by Miriam Bennett, A.C.L., of Kilbourn, Wis.”
(Citizens later voted to change the name of Kilbourn to Wisconsin Dells.)
In August, 1932, Bennett reports again, this time next to notices about Olin Potter Geer, Paul Hugon, and travelogue pioneer Burton Holmes (“still a true amateur in spirit”):
“A Study in Reds, that women’s club film of a sovietized America, has been successfully completed and the club, a very pillar of society in its community, has been made safe, by the experiment, for Democracy. The Five Year Plan called for the production of ten eggs a day, so that there was none left for the onetime owner of the chickens; children seemed to get mixed on their return from the communistic nursery; and the police ate all the tidbits from the workers’ lunches, so that in the end the good ladies of the club returned contentedly to the stultifying, but more reassuring, banalities of private ownership. Miriam Bennett, ACL, of Wisconsin Dells, was the director and cameraman of this reversal of the customary Sovkino drama.”
Notable in Bennett’s tongue-in-cheek account is her ambiguity towards the Tuesday Club, as well as her description of jokes and scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut.
And then — silence. A Study in Reds did not make the ACL’s Ten Best list, which included The Last Entry, “a seven reel mystery drama of extraordinary technical excellence,” and Lot in Sodom (called Lot here), by the team behind The Fall of the House of Usher, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber.
According to Virginia Corvid, who helped produce a DVD master of A Study in Reds for the Wisconsin Historical Society, Bennett continued to shoot movies over the years, including films in Florida, California, and Mexico. She shot her extended families, the Bennetts, Reeses and Dyers; Wisconsin Dells events; and expected home movie subjects: park dedications, pets, “Horse and Buggy Days,” a raft race.
Bennett screened A Study in Reds for club members through the years, and periodically newspapers would run articles about it. Ruth Bennett Dyer’s daughter Jean, who played one of the children exiled to a Soviet nursery school, eventually took over the Bennett studio with her husband Oliver Reese. They preserved her grandfather’s glass-plate negatives, which they later donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society. The H.H. Bennett Studio is now a WHS Historical site.
Patricia R. Zimmerman, a professor in the Department of Cinema, Photography, and Media Arts at Ithaca College, and Pamela Wintle, senior film archivist for the Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institute, screened A Study in Reds at the Second Annual TFMS Film Series at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2009. With support from Mark Rhoda, a co-organizer of the series, and his Film History students, Ms. Wintle nominated A Study in Reds for the National Film Registry in the spring of 2009.
Daniel Eagan is a film writer and author of America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry.