1928 short film made Medford residents stars, sort of

Alarge crowd already had gathered at the Mail Tribune offices by the time a rather portly fellow joined the throng.

The horde was there for the same reason that brought this moon-faced newcomer — to apply for a position as a reporter for the paper. The stout applicant eventually worked his way to the front of the assembled multitude and ultimately secured the coveted position.

Of course, everyone knew that there was no job being offered. The crowd was actually a group of local extras, and the corpulent correspondent was, in reality, Gene "Fatty" Layman, star of silent comedy shorts throughout the 1920s.

In the spring of 1928 George A. Hunt, owner of the Craterian and Rialto theaters, arranged to bring to town the H.I.L. Production Co. to film a short, utilizing many local residents. Hunt was a creative marketer, always spawning promotional gimmicks to bring people into his theaters.

Charles Dorety was in charge of the H.I.L Production Co., and the man who would direct the filming. Playing opposite Fatty was Nancy Cornelius, who had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies at the age of 8 and had made several short films.

Dorety and company arrived in Medford on April 1 and announced that a casting call would be held at Hunt's Rialto Theater on the morning of the third, with shooting to begin that afternoon. It was estimated that filming would continue for the remainder of the week, with a "premiere" of the rough cut scheduled for April 9.

In keeping with the nature of comedy shorts in general, the plot for the film they would call "The Reporter" was a simple one, relying primarily on sight gags and Layman's expressive face. The first scene depicts the aspiring reporter's arrival by plane at Medford's Newell Barber Field and follows him downtown to the newspaper office.

He arrives to find a crowd of nearly 100 people already gathered, eagerly seeking a job as a newspaper reporter. The comedy ensues as the ample young man works his way through the throng, eventually reaching the front of the crowd and, of course, securing the job.

Almost immediately an alarm is sounded and the Medford Fire Department rushes to a simulated fire at the adjacent Holland Hotel, giving the new reporter his first assignment.

The firemen quickly erect a lifesaving net and the camera catches the action as a person leaps from an upper floor of the hotel to the safety of the net below. Fatty interviews Fire Chief Roy Elliott at the scene, but he soon succumbs to the temptations of a nearby restaurant instead of doing his job.

Other scenes follow our hero around town as he insinuates himself into community activities. In the course of shooting all of these scenes, the camera continually captures the faces in the crowds for the later enjoyment of the local audience.

With the completion of the shoot, the exposed film was rushed to San Francisco on a Pacific Air Transport plane for processing, then returned for preliminary editing. Dorety worked feverishly over the weekend and did not complete his work until three o'clock in the morning of the scheduled premiere date.

The premiere of the "The Reporter" was held at the Rialto as scheduled on April 9. Large crowds arrived over the following two days as the extras and their friends and neighbors crowded in to see what they looked like on the big screen.

"Despite the handicaps under which the picture was made, inasmuch as Director Charles Dorety worked with inexperienced but willing people, the comedy is a creditable piece of work," the Mail Tribune reported the following day. "Layman, assisted by Nancy Cornelius, pulled off a number of good gags and outside the fact that the film has never been thoroughly edited or cut, the possibilities of the comedy are regarded as good as the average made in Hollywood."

After three days at the Rialto, Dorety and his crew packed up their gear and the print of "The Reporter" and headed back to Hollywood. It was the director's stated intention to re-edit the footage, removing some of the crowd shots included primarily for the benefit of the local audience. The original cut would be edited to two reels in preparation for national and worldwide distribution.

It never happened.

Sadly, "The Reporter" is one of the countless early motion pictures that has been lost to us. Everything we know about it comes from newspaper accounts and local archives. No mention of it appears in any of the biographies of the principal participants or in the database of the American Film Institute. Perhaps someday it will turn up in some forgotten corner of a Hollywood film vault.

Bill Alley is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, Wash.

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