Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Oscar Apfel, Paramount’s Forgotten Man


Oscar Apfel in Motion Picture News.

Multi-talented, smart, ambitious, hard-working, Oscar Apfel rose to the top of the early movie industry only to see evolving business practices, lack of luck, and bad choices push him down the ladder into just a small supporting part of the profession he helped create. A man whose contributions to the 1914 film “The Squaw Man” helped create the studio behemoth Paramount is virtually forgotten today, like so many early film pioneers.

Born January 17, 1879 in Cleveland, Ohio to German immigrant parents, young Oscar Carl Apfel applied himself both to education and work, looking for a way to earn a good solid living. The September 13, 1917 Albuquerque Morning Journal reported that he worked as a bank clerk in Ohio while performing as an amateur actor. Yearning for the more exciting life on stage, Apfel quit after he gained a role in the play “The American Girl,” traveling the country performing for 47 weeks in one night stands.

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A Mandarin's Gold

Apfel directs Warner Oland in “A Mandarin’s Gold” in Photoplay Magazine.

For more than 10 years, Apfel trod the boards, not only acting in small roles but serving as clerk, prompter, stage hand, and finally stage manager. Per various news reports, he served as stage manager at places like Chicago’s Opera House, Minneapolis’ Lyric Theatre, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Rochester, New York, before establishing a fine career as actor.

Stories in newspapers praised his talents and revealed his range. 1902-1903 newspapers reported that Apfel served as a member of David Belasco’s touring production of “Zaza,” receiving fine notices from such diverse cities as St. Paul, Minnesota, Detroit, Michigan, New York City, Washington, D. C., and San Francisco, California, with some even calling him “well-known artist.”

He gained fine praise for his singing role in Victor Herbert’s “The Viceroy” when it toured the country in 1907 and 1908 as well. The January 18, 1908 San Francisco Dramatic Review stated, “Oscar Apfel, who impersonates a lazy German, demonstrates that, although brought up in drama, his versatility and fitness can carry him successfully into musical comedy.” The March 31, San Francisco Call reported that he earned his “share of laughs as the stuttering mock heroic character.”


Oscar Apfel in Moving Picture World, 1914, Moving Picture World, 1914.

While in New York in 1911, however, friends finally lured him to try out moving pictures. Edison hired him that year to help stage and direct productions. Apfel told Photoplay Journal in August 1917 that Plimpton of Edison convinced him to join the movies, that he will earn no stigma from working in the field. In a February 16, 1930 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Apfel reported that he began directing one-reelers, some employing the new technology of sound with the “cameraphone,” shooting the two-reeler “Aida” and the one-reeler “Faust,” which featured a Scottish baritone by the name of Ernest Torrence. He claimed that in December 1912, he supervised the first outdoor talking picture, the two-reeler “The Bohemian Girl.”

Apfel also directed his first major action moving pictures for the company in 1911 when he helmed “The Battle of Lexington” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” at their actual locations in Massachusetts, with 200 extras taking part as soldiers, per the April 11, 1911 Variety. In 1912 he directed the first film showing an actor playing dual roles at the same time, when George Lessey acted against himself.

Always looking for challenges and new opportunities, Apfel moved on to Reliance by February 1913, shooting “The Open Road” with Irving Cummings, whom he would work with multiple times over the next decade. Many of his films here featured up-to-date plot elements like labor troubles and financial issues, starring the likes of Cummings and Rosemary Theby. To add authenticity, Apfel often shot films at real locations as he did with the film “The Fight for Right” in the summer of 1913, shooting in Sing Sing Prison. By the end of the year, Apfel worked with both Majestic and Pathe.

Around the same time, old theatrical colleague Jesse Lasky came calling, describing the new company he, Samuel Goldfish, and Cecil B. DeMille were organizing and asking for his help in directing films and training neophyte DeMille for the job as well. The December 11, 1913 New York Sun reported the organization of the company, with Apfel listed as director. DeMille and Apfel traveled across the country together, working on the script for the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company’s first film, “The Squaw Man.”

After renting a small barn from Harry Revier and L. L. Burns at the corner of Selma Avenue and Vine Street in the farming community of Hollywood, Apfel and DeMille organized their first film. Proud of the moment, director-general DeMille arranged for a photographer to record the first day of shooting, December 29, 1913, which reveals Oscar Apfel directing the film and DeMille posing with the actors.


Oscar Apfel with Cecil B. De Mille, Dustin Farnum, Edmund Breese, Edward Beeles and Jesse L. Lasky, Motion Picture News, 1914.

Per trade journals and newspaper accounts, Apfel appears to have directed the majority of their first 4-5 feature productions, with the July 1, 1914 Seattle Star calling Apfel “the chief director of the Lasky Studios.” Jesse Lasky himself in the June 7, 1914 New York Sun also called Apfel the company’s “chief director” as well, describing DeMille working on scripts, budgets, and productions. Trades described his inventive camerawork with silhouettes, special effects, dissolves, and double exposures, looking to add dramatic flavor to stories.

At the same time, Apfel looked for ways to improve technical aspects of the film industry. The Seattle Star article mentioned the director creating a new baby spotlight called “the mercury spot” to enhance the filming of silhouettes, which he patented. Moving Picture World also reported that summer as well that Apfel and Charles de Soria invented and patented perhaps the first known film vault to safely store nitrate film, when they devised small separate concrete vaults, each self-contained with their own individual access to the outside, and kept at 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Apfel continued his drive for authenticity in films as well, with he and the cast of “The Circus Man” spending two weeks on the road with the Barnum & Bailey Circus to get things just right, as well as traveling to a variety of places throughout the Pacific Southwest at which to shoot. DeMille obviously aped many of the techniques and practices of Apfel, as he and his crew went on the road forty years later with Barnum & Bailey’s to make “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

As new film companies came on the scene, many sought out Apfel for his talents and experience. In April 1915 Apfel became director at Morosco-Bosworth, working there several months before going over to Fox Film Corporation, who hired him as director-general for their company. He worked with their top stars Dorothy Bernard and William Farnum, shooting action adventure stories, literary adaptations, and melodramas while showing his triple threat talent as director/writer/producer. Apfel earned the honor of directing the first film at their Edendale studio, “Fighting Blood,” working with cinematographer Alfred Gandolfi who had worked with him since Lasky days.

The October 9, 1915 Los Angeles Herald called his film “The Little Gypsy” “stupendous” and “wonderfully staged,” with tender scenes alternating with those of power. His effects won praise as well. The paper called him Fox’s “star director” in March 1916, with his film “The End of the Trail” described by the Herald as “a big picture, pulsating with human drama, red-blooded and saturated with all of the thrills director Oscar Apfel is capable of injecting… .” Papers sought him out for evolutions in the film business and thoughts about local censorship of productions. The Gem Worker and Idaho Labor Herald on March 23, 1916 stated that the “quality of Oscar Apfel’s work is well known to exhibitors,” and virtually always made money.

In September 1916, Apfel suffered burns while making a Farnum film near the Silver Lake Reservoir. Moving Picture World on September 30, 1916 stated that as the crew sprayed gasoline before shooting a fire scene, some fell on Apfel, and when the location was set ablaze, his clothes caught fire. He ran and jumped into the Reservoir, suffering burns on his hands and body, but laughed about it to the trades.

While at his peak with Fox, Apfel looked to new challenges and opportunities which would unfortunately start his slow demise as director. He left Fox in 1916 to join Yorke-Metro to direct May Allison and Harold Lockwood pictures and gain more control, but by late 1917 left for startup Paralta Pictures to head J. Warren Kerrigan films. In 1918, Apfel departed for World Films. Short stays at studios prevented him from gaining seniority and power at the institutions, which would later haunt his career.


Oscar Apfel, Moving Picture World, 1912.

Apfel somehow found time to relax from his busy shooting schedule, telling newspapers he grew vegetables and roses, raised White Rock chickens, and collected antiques, armor, and firearms.

Though he moved around a lot, the press praised his work, with the June 1, 1918 Moving Picture World described him as “focusing on intimate views of modern life,” greatly improving World’s program with better acting, higher production values, and finer storytelling. Others described him as taking weak material and making it better, adding nuance, storytelling skill, camerawork, and the like to turn out high quality product. Picture Play magazine in 1918 declared that Apfel had taught DeMille the ins and outs of the film business, providing the technical and storytelling training on his road to success.

Selig Studios sought him out in 1918 to direct their ripped from the headlines story “Ravished Armenia,” later changed to “Auction of Souls,” based on young Aurora Mardiganian’s book about her Armenian family’s travails escaping the Turkish genocide and starring the young author. Shot at its Mission Road studio and on location throughout Southern California, the film perhaps represents Apfel’s masterpiece, though only 20 minutes remains today, mixed in with a thirty-year-old Armenian film. What remains is incredibly powerful and moving.

Mardiganian relived the horrors her family endured onscreen, with remarkably realistic footage of she and other young women’s degradation and exploitation recorded, along with the physical torture and punishments many suffered, including hanging from the cross. Director Apfel told the Morning Telegraph, “This picture stands as a monument to truth – its cry is far-reaching and nothing that is true should be too horrible to depict.”

The film earned virtual unanimous praise. Exhibitors Herald’s May 1919 review stated, “It is an offering for the serious-minded and the thoughtful,” “never vulgar or obscene,” and “It is a picturization of one of the saddest pages of modern history.” They also called it spectacular. Apfel’s incredibly powerful and intense film appeared almost as realistic documentary footage in its depictions of massacres, death marches, atrocities, and sexual degradation, offering attractions both to the high-minded and those seeking out sensationalism.

Oct. 28, 1917, Los Angeles Times

After this great success, Apfel again returned to World Film in Fort Lee, New Jersey, with a three year contract to create films released as Apfel Productions, directing many of Evelyn Greeley’s films like “The Oakdale Affair,” which featured Reginald Denny in his first American role, and “Mandarin’s Gold,” one of Warner Oland’s first appearances in yellowface.

After a couple of years, however, Apfel decided to establish his own company, called Oscar Apfel Productions, but instead of taking up with a major distributor, he sought out states-rights releases, a major mistake. Studios were purchasing theatres and establishing their own distribution chains to control their product, taking most of the major theatres off the market to states’ rights releases, mostly dooming them at the box office. His talent preceded him, with the June 26, 1921 New York Times describing him successfully directing everything from train and ship wrecks to car chases, airplane rescues, and explosions, while creating strong stories told through fine camerawork and acting.

In 1922 after his company failed, Apfel found himself in Holland shooting “Bulldog Drummond” with Carlyle Blackwell for a Dutch company. He then freelanced for a variety of companies, shooting a few films for Viola Dana at Metro and for First National, gradually descending to directing for poverty row westerns. While he still received fine notices for his work, lower film receipts meant that only small companies seeked him out for directing work.

During this time Apfel turned to the stage and writing. In 1923, he penned the play, “Morphine,” a tale of a grieving mother who turns to drugs upon the death of her baby and a husband trying to build on that to leave for his mistress. Apfel starred in the film onstage and received fine notices in the LA Times. He also wrote vaudeville sketches for film stars going on the road.

May 20, 1923, Los Angeles Times

Oscar Apfel in “Morphine,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1923.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Apfel turned to film acting in 1926, concentrating his career here by 1928 as did many other former silent film directors like Henry Kolker, James Kirkwood, Emile Chautard, and the like. Appearing in the successful road tour of the stage play “The Royal Family” with Fredric March in 1928 also assisted his transition, as many heard his good speaking voice and fine acting skills. Thanks to his long career, many producers sought out his work, and he played a wide variety of supporting roles, many uncredited, from kindly father figures to scheming businessmen in such films as “the Texan,” “Five Star Final,” “Shopworn,” “the Famous Ferguson Case,” “Skyscraper Souls,” and “Only Yesterday.” He often received credit in stories for his appearances, some praising his acting.

Like many of these other silent film directors or actors, Apfel and his colleagues saw themselves pushed out for younger, newer stars willing to accept less pay and offering something new to audiences. Their age also pushed them into smaller, secondary character parts, as most leads focused on younger and more attractive people.

Beginning in the late 1920s, many trades and newspapers focused back on the early history of the film industry, looking back into the early teens instead of its true beginnings. Many came to Apfel for quotes, or mentioned how he pioneered practices. Most stories about the formation of Paramount Pictures described how instrumental he was in shaping the company’s early film product.

On March 21, 1938, Apfel died of a heart attack at the age of 60, working until the end. Though he had contributed so much both in creating equipment and in shaping technique and film production, Apfel received few notices in the papers. Within a few years his work was all but forgotten. While not a founder of Paramount, Apfel directed its first true film production “The Squaw Man” and passed on his dedication to authenticity, shooting on location, and employment of effects to one of its partners Cecil B. DeMille, who became legend thanks to the foundation of film practices he learned from the talented Oscar Apfel.


About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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