Tuesday, June 02, 2015

An "Autumn Fire" Update

In my recent post on the Baltimore filming locations of Herman G. Weinberg's 1931 short film, Autumn Fire, I wrote about the city's appearance in this important early work from the American avant garde film movement, and identified some of the locations used in the film, specifically the view of the Baltimore Trust Company and First National Bank buildings as seen from the Inner Harbor. However, there were a few other locations used in the film that I was not able to identify, though the presence of the actors in those shots suggested that these, too, had been filmed in Baltimore.

I'm pleased to report that one more location has been identified. The credit for this ID must go to my mother, Pamela Barry, who recognized the distinctive stairs leading into the Preston Gardens Park, located at the corner of Saratoga Street and St. Paul Street. Knowing of my interest in identifying the locations that appear in Autumn Fire, she visited Preston Park to take photos of the stairs as they appear today, which I have included below, and also sent me the following notes:

"While I was watching Autumn Fire, I was struck by those sweeping stone stairways. I knew that I had seen them somewhere before. When I was a girl, my mother would drive us into the city by way of St.Paul Street as there was no Jones Falls Expressway or 83 South at that time. My favorite part of the drive came when we passed that little green space known as Preston Park. I thought those stairs were beautiful and the image always stayed with me."

The steps used in the film appear to be on the right side of this unique staircase (if you're facing it as in the photo above). Here is the staircase as it appears in the film:

Of the photos my mother sent me, it was this one that provided the positive ID when we looked at them together:

It is taken from a slightly different angle than the one from the film reproduced above, but a look at the spot where the two adjoining staircases meet provides the clue: the slight, straight ledge where actor Willy Hildebrand rests his arm in the film. Immediately to the right is the adjoining staircase banister, with its distinctive L-shape at the top, and to the left is the wavy banister that is clearly visible in front of Hildebrand in the screenshot from the film above.

Here is another view of the staircase from the film, which matches a bit more clearly the one in the present day photo, as it is taken from a similar perspective:

Below is a cropped version of the present day photo to match more closely the above screenshot from the film:

Here is another screenshot from the film, taken from the top of the stairs:

The steps today (seen from a different angle than in the film):

These glimpses of Baltimore, as seen in Herman G. Weinberg's Autumn Fire in 1931, are valuable for providing a filmed record of the city for posterity. In the previous post, the comparison between the "then and now" photos demonstrated how much the city's skyline and Inner Harbor area has changed and developed in the intervening 85 years. These photos from Preston Park reveal a unique piece of architecture that has survived intact to the present day.

Autumn Fire, in addition to being an important work in the early American avant garde film movement, also serves as a record of the architecture and urban development (as so many early films inadvertently do) of Baltimore, and is a precious filmed snapshot of the city from a time when so few moving images of it survive.

Present day photos of Preston Gardens Park courtesy of Pamela Barry.

Update July 5, 2015:
I took additional photos of the locations, including the exact staircase from the same angles as in the film, and have provided these shots here for then-and-now comparison:

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