A compelling form of advertising from its beginnings thanks to its emotional power and ability to manipulate, film has been employed to sell and brand products as well as educate audiences on social, cultural, and educational issues virtually since its inception. The medium’s ability to move audiences through the visceral impact of editing and dynamic action created a worldwide language while sometimes subtly advancing political movements. By the 1920s, many realized the medium’s potent ability to inflame viewers’ passions and issues and thus influence and sometimes subvert political campaigns.
Long before German Leni Riefenstahl produced the poetic though propagandist Olympia in 1938, another German would produce one of the first American political commercials with a two-reel film in Los Angeles. Though not as powerful or artistic as Riefenstahl’s opus, stuntman/actor Richard Talmadge’s action thriller Soldiers of Security advocated for pay raises for Los Angeles’ firefighters and policemen before the April 1926 local election.
Richard Talmadge, born December 3, 1892, in Kornburg, Germany, as Silvio or Sylvester Metzetti, immigrated with his family to United States in 1901. The family organized the Metzetti Troupe and began performing in vaudeville in 1907. Originally known as the 11 Metzettis, the act consisted of three women, seven men, and one child, Talmadge, traveling the Orpheum Circuit wowing audiences with their acrobatics. Talmadge gained a reputation as the most athletic and talented member of the group for his ability to complete three somersaults in air before landing on the shoulders of a teammate.
Over the years, members departed the group, dropping the troupe’s size to eight in 1912 and five by 1914, though continuing to amaze audiences with their gymnastics prowess and Talmadge’s showmanship. Their tumbling talent placed them on Orpheum bills with such performers as renowned cartoonist Winsor McCay and actor Claude Gillingwater.
By 1920 the Metzettis arrived in Hollywood, with Talmadge gaining small roles in Sunshine Comedies completing dangerous stunts for others. Perhaps Douglas Fairbanks or a colleague witnessed his daring acrobatic skills, as Talmadge found himself hired to double for the sporty hero on the film The Mollycoddle after the star injured himself performing a physical trick when a horse startled. Fairbanks’ biographer Tracey Goessel noted that the savvy stuntman acknowledged performing the film’s most striking physical feat – leaping from a cliff edge onto a villain perched in a tree – to biographer Booton Herndon in order to keep the Fairbanks’ film on schedule.
Impressed with his grace and skill, Fairbanks employed Talmadge as stunt performer for the films The Mark of Zorro, The Nut, and The Three Musketeers to learn new techniques and to gain a backup in case of injury. Talmadge demonstrated new tricks and skills repeatedly for Fairbanks to study and master before executing them on camera, and performed dangerous physical exploits that could seriously injury the action superstar.
While devising and completing stunts for Fairbanks, Talmadge began performing as an actor in B action pictures in 1921 as well in the film The Unknown. The young man turned to acting full time in 1922 for Phil Goldstone Productions, starring in and creating/performing his own audacious stunts. Perhaps impressed or enchanted with acting queens and sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge, he changed his name to the more refined and Anglo sounding Richard Talmadge.
While a competent actor, Talmadge’s talent lay in performing dangerous and attention grabbing stunts that kept audiences on the edge of their seats. Action loving fans ate it up, from watching him dive from buildings or moving train cars into automobiles, fly off speeding motorcycles, or even jump from planes. His low budget but action-packed films did well at the box office, leading him to sign with higher class producers who could afford better budgets and casts. Moving Picture World soon reported “that in this fearless, reckless young man there is the making of a big box office asset. He has a carefree, bold manner, that, mingled with a rare personality, will endear him to most moving picture enthusiasts. But he most be exploited carefully and systematically.”
Over the next four years, “human kangaroo” Talmadge gained greater renown, advancing beyond poverty row to Film Booking Office and later Universal as distributors and releasing organizations starring in films with such titles as Prince of Pep, Doubling With Danger, and Danger Ahead. One trade described his work: “He was considered a corker when he did sensational stuff for Doug and he is doing all the old tricks with a lot of new ones thrown in for good measure.”
In the spring of 1926, Los Angeles emergency responders promoted Proposition 2, which would provide raises for firefighters and police officers. This proposition would increase salaries for all, unlike other propositions on the ballot that would only increase pay for patrol officers and keep them at a rate below that of San Francisco police officers.
Perhaps because of connections with local police working on location shoots, Talmadge donated his own time and money to produce a short film demonstrating the dangerous and life-saving skills of Los Angeles’ emergency professionals. Realizing the gripping visceral impact of his daring exploits, Talmadge determined to perform the sensational stunts himself, and thus influence voters in supporting the measure.
Spending $5,000 of his own money, Talmadge devised a thrilling two-reel fictional film demonstrating the dangers responders faced daily, from saving a drowning child to rescuing people from a burning home. Police and firefighters played themselves, providing trucks, cars, and equipment in shooting the movie. Title writer Malcolm Stuart Boylan (The Red Kimona, What Price Beauty, What Price Glory) donated his services in providing titles and adapting the original working title Soldiers of the Silent Watch into Soldiers of Security.
Packed with thrilling action and location scenes throughout the city, Soldiers of Security featured Talmadge playing a police officer and a firefighter. As a police officer, he dove into Eastlake Park to save a drowning child, while as a firefighter he rushed into a burning building to rescue residents trapped inside. The film also included spectacular speed races of firetrucks and police cars through downtown and around cars and streetcars on their way to rescues. Adding an even more gut-wrenching touch, the film opened with city leaders eulogizing a lost emergency responder.
On the morning of April 17, Soldiers of Security premiered at the Million Dollar Theatre downtown showing the film debuts of Police Chief James E. Davis, Police Commission Chair I. W. Birnbaum, and Deputy Fire Chief F. C. McDowell with the men in attendance. The Hollywood Citizen News stated that “Thrilling scenes in the daily lives of the guardians of Los Angeles safety, members of the police and fire departments, were depicted in the picture, the principal roles of which were carried by the policemen and firemen.”
The Van Nuys News reported on April 20 that the movie would play the next day at the Van Nuys Theatre, promoting passage of Proposition 2 on the April 30 city ballot before screening at other theatres across the city. Soldiers of Security also played at downtown Loew’s State Theatre on April 21 for city firefighters and police officers, with Mayor George Cryer, I. W. Birnbaum, Chief Davis, Fire Chief Ralph Scott, and Governor Friend W. Richardson invited to attend.
Proposition 2 passed handily on April 30. Venice Police Capt. L.L. McClary praised the results, telling the Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, “It is indeed gratifying to us to know that we have won a clean fight and to feel that the citizens of the community recognize the services of their protectors, the policemen and firemen.”
Soldiers of Security marked Talmadge’s only foray into political advertising and campaigning, but provided an early example of how emotion grabbing issues could galvanize voter sentiment, a typical issue of today’s advertising, interviews, and rallies.