Saturday, January 12, 2019

WWI Camouflage, Motion Pictures and Surrealism

Charlie Chaplin disguised as tree trunk in Shoulder Arms (1918)
Above Screen grab from Charles Chaplin's famous film, Shoulder Arms (1918) about the surrealist dimension of being a doughboy during World War I , in the process of which he disguises himself as a tree trunk. In fact, it wasn't entirely absurd, since it was not unheard of to make use of steel-lined imitation tree trunks as elevated observation posts (see close-up below).

Phony tree trunk observation post (c1918)

Camouflage has everything to do with film-making, from costumes and make-up, to camera work and scenic design. Elsewhere we have talked about a few of the contributions made by Hollywood-based special effects designers, but there are many (many) more points of connection (in both World Wars), the majority of which are waiting to be documented.

Speaking of Surrealism (which I tend to think of as Dada + Freud, thanks to André Breton), the German-born American photographer and designer Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) once made a Dada-inspired photo collage portrait of Chaplin (below), in which he appears to be wearing an image-adorned WWI trench helmet. The image on the helmet is from a well-known Dadaist poster from 1922.

Erwin Blumenfeld, collage portrait of Charlie Chaplin


Melvin W. Riddle, CAMOUFLAGE! Concerning One of the Major Arts of Motion Pictures. The Atlanta Constitution. Sunday, October 24, 1920—

A new word—coined during the great war by the French, to denote an art which was highly developed during the war. A new word, but an age-old art—old as war itself, older than mankind, for even Nature made use of it as a means of protection for animals and plants. Truly, an age-old idea, but only in the last few years has it been developed by mankind to that state of perfection wherein it might be called an art.

Camouflage saved from distruction during the war innumerable lives and properties of inestimable value. Now that the war is over, one might think that the word and the art would temporarily become passé and useless until another war should come along to revive them. But such is not the case, for camouflage is an art without a knowledge of which, one of the greatest industries of today—the motion picture industry—could hardly exist.

Camouflage and the Movies
The art of camouflage is a vital factor—in fact, it might be said, almost a prime factor in the production of motion pictures, and it is with that phase of camouflage that this article is concerned.

It is the general impression, perhaps, that the war itself first developed the art of camouflage. This impression, however, is erroneous. For long before the war began, the art had been developed to a high degree by the industry of motion picture production, but as developed by this industry, it was an unidentified art because it was an art without a name. The truth of this assertion is proven by the fact that when America entered the war, men from the motion pictures studios, who had gained a knowledge of the art of scenic deception, formed an important part of the ranks of special camouflage corps which were sent over there. This was because these men had already a practical knowledge of this great study and had only to adapt this knowledge to the particular requirements of defense in war.

The one great difference between camouflage as practiced in motion pictures and as practiced in war is that war camouflage, although deceiving to the human optics, is readily detected by the camera, while in motion pictures the camouflage is especially arranged and prepared to deceive the eye of the camera, although it sometimes also deceives the human eye, unless a very close-up view is obtained. Primarily, it is the camera lens upon which the deception is practiced, however, for the eye of the camera is ultimately the eyes of the motion picture audience.

Vital Necessity
Motion pictures, before the beginning of the war, did more and are now doing more to develop the art of camouflage on a large scale than any other industry or even possibly could do. Camouflage is the very life of a motion picture—a vital necessity. Of course, the art has been employed from time immemorial in the theatrical profession—in the dressings of stage settings for legitimate productions, but camouflage, as used on a stage, is very limited in its scope, and is admittedly camouflage, for this reason loses its very effectiveness. It is when camouflage is mistaken for the genuine and the delusion is unquestioned, that it really serves the purpose for which it is intended.

Examples of some of the numerous instances where camouflage is employed in motion pictures might be of interst. At the Lasky studio, for instance, which is one of the largest of west coast film plants, one might see on every hand the evidences of this great art.

To begin with, the very make-up of the players is often the most perfect camouflage. The feeble-looking old man or the dissipated, rum-soaked hobo might be, in reality, one of the most gentle and best-appearing young men on the lot, hiding his real identity under a skillful application of camouflage.…

Even the most conscientious, exacting and painstaking producers, who fairly dote on realism in their productions and always secure it whenever possible, are never slow to admit the importance and the value of the art of camouflage, and the great frequency and regularity with which it is employed in the production of motion pictures.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Jabberwocky Meets Kaiserwocky | WWI Parody

Above John Tenniel's illustration of the Jabberwock.


Aha! Now here's a great find. It's a terribly funny take-off on Lewis Carroll's famous nonsense poem titled "Jabberwocky," which he published in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872). For those who have never heard of Alice In Wonderland or Lewis Carroll, I haven't any comment. But, to appreciate the parody, you have to have read the original poem.  It goes as follows—

JABBERWOCKY  |  Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood a while in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

And now on to the parody (author uncredited), called "Kaiserwocky," which was apparently published in the New York Evening Post, then reprinted in The Minneapolis Morning Star Tribune, May 16, 1918, p. 14, as follows—


'Twas Marnen, and the tommy ats
Did wyem secate in their trench;
All belgiumed with the tinny-hats,
And blank-blank potsdam french.

“Beware the Camouflage, my son!
The Cootie’s bite, the Barbwire’s scratch,
The Ausespiel’s place in the sun;
Verbote the redcrost patch!”

He took his kruppy in his hands:
Long time a blighty foe he sought,
Some scrappy papered Soixaute-quinze,
All poilued in its thought.

And as he kultured his moustache,
The Camouflage rheims through the wood.
And fraicaised o’er with rongetnoir,
Alsaced him where he stood.

Einzwei! Einzwei! And high and dry
He kieled that camouflage gun;
Then prussly monocled his eye
And taubel to Pop when done.

“And host thou kieled the Camouflage!
Come to my lefty arm, my boy!
Dertag is won—’tis au verdun!”
He vonklucked in his joy.

’Twas persching, and the tammy ats
Were numans landing from their tench;
All sammied were the tinney-hats,
The Kamrads deutschly blench.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Process of Applying Ship Camouflage | 1918

USS Calala (1918)
Above Dazzle camouflage scheme as applied to the USS Calala (1918). In the photographs below that show the process of painting a ship, it is not the Calala but a transport steamer named the USS City of Atlanta.


Marguerite E. Harrison, THE RECORD OF THE FIRST DAY’S WORK IN THE SHIPYARD: Clad in Overalls, The Appearance of Sun Reporter at Sparrows Point an Event—Enrolled and Examined, She Tells the Story of Her First Day as a Shipbuilder. The Baltimore Sun, May 9, 1918 (p. 16) and May 10 (p. 4) [this is one of best eyewitness accounts of the process of applying dazzle camouflage to a ship in harbor]—

Camouflaging a Tanker
Mr. Champagne, the manager, assigned me to camouflage work that afternoon, as a large oil tanker was being camouflaged. First of all I was to help the camoufleur, an artist in the employ of the Shipping Board. When I arrived on the dock a goodly crowd was already assembled to watch the camoufleur, and when I joined him it increased in numbers. We were certainly a comic pair. Every time I stopped to think about us I chuckled. The artist, Dalton Murphy, of Boston [more likely, Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945), painter and frame designer who served as an “inspector of camouflage for the US Shipping Board”], was exceedingly tall and thin. He had grizzled red-gray hair, gold-rimmed eyeglasses, and a long and painfully sunburned nose. He was dressed in gray tweeds, with a gray sweater pulled up around his throat, and slung over his shoulder he had a shiny new tan-leather document case, worn like a knapsack. In his hand was a bamboo fishing pole at least 24 feet long, and at the very end, fastened at right angles, was a dinky little paint brush dripping white paint. With this brush he was making fantastic and apparently aimless dabs at the hull. They were not aimless, however, for he was a skilled draughtsman, and he was laying it off for painting. He had already finished the masts and the deckhouses. I followed him in my overalls, carrying a sketch of the ship, drawn to scale and colored exactly as the ship was to be painted—in black, white, gray and blue.

It was the new dazzle system, invented by Norman Wilkinson, the British artist, who has just been in this country, and who so successfully camouflaged the Leviathan, our biggest transport, formerly the Hamburg-American Liner Deutschland [sic, Vaterland]. It consists of angles and curves designed to break up the perspective and make a perfectly new ship look like the veriest old derelict, or disappear altogether.

Labeling paint color areas

Found—A Use for a Cubist!
Mr. Murphy told me that he had already camouflaged three ships, and that he was one of 15 or 20 artists employed by the Shipping Board for this purpose.

“I was one of the first to offer my services to the Government,” he said, “and it took nine months to convince the Shipping Board of the practicability of the scheme. It is a wonderful way for us older fellows to help, and besides,” he added laughing, “it’s the only use that has ever been found for a cubist painter.” As he spoke he dabbed away at the sides of the ship, consulting the plan I held, and placing little dots here and there. Then he connected the dots with lines, and there was the outline of an irregular shape on the hull. Inside he marked “BG” for blue-gray and went on to the next figure.

After helping the artist for some time I was turned over to J.R. Esley, foreman of the paint shop. He took me through the beautifully neat shops where the paints are stored and mixed. There wasn’t a brush out of place, and not a drop of paint spilled on the floor. Then he went out to the ship.

“I’m sure you can paint,” he said. “I never saw a woman who couldn’t. My wife is a great painter, and once when she wanted to paint the vestibule and didn’t have a brush handy she made a great job with my shaving brush. The only thing is,” he continued, “You’ll have to climb a ladder.”

“That’s nothing,” I said promptly, but I thought differently when I saw the ladder.

Applying the colors

Worse Yet Coming Down
It rose almost straight up into the air—about 60 feet it looked to me—and at the top there was a most perilous feat to be performed. You had to climb over the railing. It was bad enough going up, but it didn’t take any nerve at all compared to coming down. However, I was most casual about it, and the foreman never knew. As for the men, they just gasped. Once on board the ship, I was given a big can of nice, smooth blue paint and I set to work to put weird shapes on the deckhouse and to obliterate the angles of hatch covers.

While I was working a man came up to me and watched me for a while. Finally he said:

“You certainly have got a nerve.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m blessed if I’d dress up like a girl and go where there were 7,000 girls working. I couldn’t stand the kiddin’!”

I laughed. “You’ve let me down so easy here,” I said, “that I haven’t minded at all.”

“You women gonna take our places?” he demanded.

“Not until we are needed, and then I think you’ll agree with me that we can.”

A finished painted wall

Crime to Stop Too Soon

The camouflage work was very interesting. I worked hard all afternoon, and only stopped when the whistle blew. One day I made the mistake of stopping a few minutes beforehand, and a man with a stern gleam in his eye walked up to me.

“Did the foreman give you leave to quit?” he asked severely.

“No,” said I, quaking inwardly.

“Docked an hour,” he said briefly. “Don’t do it again.”

The waster of time by stopping work before time is up is productive of much loss to the plant, and the company has a number of Sherlock Holmeses to watch for this very thing. Smoking is another practice that is taboo and it is very hard to stop. Many a time I came upon a fellow in a secluded spot enjoying the forbidden pipe or cigarette.

I always found the trip up on the train an unfailing source of information and amusement. On Tuesday I sat with a skilled mechanic who had worked for four years with the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit. He was a bachelor, he told me; he liked the work and wages, but housing facilities around Baltimore were “rotten.”

Gouging vs. Germans
“I’m perfectly willing to pay a good price, as high as $5 a week, for a room,” he said, “but I must have decent comforts. They just gouge you here, and the company does nothing to prevent it. I advertised and went to a number of places before I found a comfortable room. Then there were two German women in the house, and they talked so bad there’d a been murder if I stayed there, so I moved on.”

“Where I am now,” he continued, “there’s no privacy. The other day I come home and found three children sitting on the floor playing with my suspenders. That didn’t suit me. I’m a single man.”

He also told me that unless he could find better accommodations he would have to go to another city, and he said that many other respectable workmen had had the same difficulty. In the evening at home I took stock of damages. Besides two aching knees and a dab of blue paint in one eye I was pretty well off. I felt I was getting into my stride. I had gotten a glimpse at two of the important phases of shipyard work, and I had had a close range view of the new science of camouflage.…