TRI-STATE MOTION PICTURE COMPANY was an important Cleveland-based motion picture studio in the 1930s. Tri-State specialized in making SPONSORED FILMS. Theatrical films are movies made for showing in theaters to paying customers. Sponsored or industrial films are movies made for a client company for a specific purpose. They are usually shown in classrooms, business, and social meetings and occasionally as “shorts” or “documentaries” in theaters. Usually, there is no charge for watching a sponsored film. The first mention of Tri-State operating in Cleveland appeared in the PLAIN DEALER in 1926.
Sponsored film studios are traditionally small operations with a limited staff. Due to this, a series of tragedies brought about the untimely end to the studio. In 1936, the President of Tri-State, Jack Flanagan, was killed in a tragic accident filming a motor speed run at the Boonville salt flats near Salt Lake City in 1936. Filming from the top of a moving automobile, Flanagan was knocked off by a telegraph wire strung the night before. Later that year, Xavier Francis Sutton, the studio's sales manager, was severely hurt in a car accident coming home from a company picnic at the home of the new studio president, Ira R. Cope. In 1940, the Tri-State production manager, William Morell, was killed when his car hit a traffic light on West Blvd. and Lake Avenue. Losing these three key executives marked the end of the studio. In 1940, Tri-State was acquired by the General Broadcasting System, a sponsored film studio in Detroit.
While theatrical films are cataloged in film databases like the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), there is no comparable database of sponsored films, which makes compiling a list of films created by a studio extremely difficult. A search of the Plain Dealer archives found that Tri-State produced several notable films, including: From Now On (1937), Bill Howard R.F.D. (1937), The World’s Largest Electrical Workshop(1938), and The Romance of Iron and Steel (1938).
From Now On (1937) was shot in Hollywood and Cleveland and featured General Electric consumer products in a romantic tale. Irvin S. Cobb, the first true “movie star” to be grabbed up by the expanding sponsored film industry, got top billing. In addition to Cobb, the movie starred Alan Baxter, Louise Stanley, Regis Toomey, Jack Mulhall, Dorothy Christy, twelve-year-old Wally Albright, and others. The head cameraman was Alvin Wyckoff. Phil Meek of Tri-State managed the film. The film premiered at the Center Theatre at New York's Rockefeller Center on May 24, 1937.
W. WARD MARSH, the film critic for the Plain Dealer, wrote, "I had the feeling that when "From Now On" first opened, I was in for a new kind of treat – a documentary picture of the first order. "The scenes were in a huge power plant with the generators in operation, but the spectator goes with the current from the plant to the lines to the relay stations and then by wires to a home, and there a romance begins."
Made with the same care that goes into Hollywood theatrical releases, the film is designed so that the audience is not aware that the home is a General Electric model home filled with GE appliances. From Now On was a forerunner of today's advertisers' method of product placements in movies and television shows.
Another notable Tri-State film sponsored by General Electric was Bill Howard R.F.D. (1937), a six-reel (60 minutes) black & white film starring CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE actors – KIRK WILLIS, Tom Ireland, John Roberts, Pat (Mrs. Tom) Ireland, Dorothy Paxton, Stan Anderson, Lorain Bell, and George Roberts.
The film tells the story of a farm family's inner conflicts – the struggle between the old and the new. The young Howard couple cannot convince Bill's father of the value of new methods in farming and housekeeping until they present him with a grandson. The newborn child's need for modern conveniences convinces the grandfather, and the fight for rural electrification is won. A review of the film in Better Farm Equipment and Methods gushed that Bill Howard R.F.D was “one of the most fascinating, appealing and entertaining pictures ever filmed on rural electrification.”
The 1938 Tri-State film, The World's Largest Electrical Workshop, provides "an intimate glimpse into America's greatest workshop where General Electric scientists, engineers, and craftsman contribute to the art of better living and the production of democracy in the forward march of electricity." As a huge electrical storm wages outside, the film opens peering through a window to see a grandfather explaining electricity to his granddaughter.
Several famous scientists appear in the film, including Willis Whitney, an American chemist and founder of the GE research laboratory; Irving Langmuir, a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry for his discoveries and surface chemistry investigations; Ernst Frederick Werner Alexanderson, a pioneer in radio and television development; and William David Coolidge, famous for his work with X-rays and developing "ductile tungsten" for the incandescent light bulb.
The World's Largest Electrical Workshop takes the viewer to GE's research and manufacturing facilities at NELA PARK in Cleveland and other GE plants, where radios, refrigerators, televisions, turbines, and a myriad of other electronic and electric devices are developed.
RAY CULLEY, a founder of CINECRAFT PRODUCTIONS INC., directed all three films.
Another film Culley directed for Tri-State, The Romance of Iron and Steel (1938), is a twenty-minute black & white movie sponsored by the American Rolling Mill Co. (ARMCO). The script attributes the film to Tri-State, but the finished credits list the studio as a "Cinecraft Business Film." A copy of the film is posted in the Hagley Library digital collection.
“The Romance of Iron and Steel” builds on the central theme of the steel exhibits held in Cleveland at the 1936-37 GREAT LAKES EXPOSITION. The sequences on how steel is made are beautifully choreographed, given the equipment available. A one-minute-long continuous overhead shot follows a sheet of steel as it passes through a half dozen steps in the steel-making process. Lighting the picture and tracking the steel as it speeds through the rollers was also challenging, given the day's equipment.
George M. Verity, the ARMCO founder, appears at the film's end. The film is narrated by Basil Ruysdael, who started his career as an opera singer before becoming an actor.
In a review of the film, W. Ward Marsh, the Plain Dealer movie critic, wrote, "for perfection in all departments (camera work, editing, narration, etc.) neither Hollywood with its too infrequent excursion into the documentary, nor England with its boastful specializing in the documentary have produced anything to beat it. So excellent is the technical work and so genuinely informative is the picture that I urgently recommend it be edited down to single reel length and be issued to movie theaters."