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  • Writer's pictureHenry K. Miller

July 1922

M. E. Balcon writes ‘The Film as an Advertising Medium’ for Advertising World magazine’s July issue.

A contributor to the May issue had written that full-length industrial films, i.e. films documenting industrial processes, had no prospect of getting into ordinary cinema programmes. Balcon agreed, but said that the 500ft short had a chance in series of ‘tiny films, each self-contained, and exhibited in a sequence of weeks’. Writing as one who was ‘actually responsible for the conduct of a film publicity organisation’, Balcon had an example ready to hand: his own company’s The Conquest of Oil, ‘consisting of no less than seven “episodes,” dealing with the activities of the Anglo-American Oil Co.’, and considered to be a success.

An image of oil wells from DeMille's Forbidden Fruit (1921))

In February 1921, a few months before they established Victor Saville Ltd., Balcon, Freedman, and Saville (and others) had established Cinema Publicity Service, with a registered address in Birmingham. The Conquest of Oil, trade shown a year later in February 1922, was one of its major productions, though it is unclear precisely how it came about, and how much of it was their own work.

In a publication on Victor Saville published by the National Film Archive, it is said that Saville and Balcon teamed up with Sidney Bernstein to make two films, The Story of Oil and Liquid Sunshine, and that these were edited from an American original, The Conquest of Oil, made by the US Bureau of Mines and the Standard Oil Company, and distributed by Anglo-American Oil, which was Standard Oil’s British affiliate.

The NFA’s synopsis for The Conquest of Oil gives an indicative synopsis that is broken into six parts: ‘How man struck oil’; ‘At the refineries’; ‘Distribution of petroleum products’; ‘Distribution’; ‘Oil for domestic purposes’; ‘Petrol’, and a length of 3,669ft. All of it appears to have been shot in the US. The relevant NFA synopses meanwhile suggest that Liquid Sunshine and The Story of Oil were indeed cut from the same cloth, but that they also included material shot in Britain: the former mentions shots of ‘the works at Purfleet’, which was Anglo-American’s depot in Essex.

Searches of the available digitized newspapers show The Story of Oil being shown in June 1920, i.e. before Cinema Publicity Service came into being, and Liquid Sunshine and Power being shown in September 1921. The serial in distribution in 1922 was definitely titled The Conquest of Oil, and the other two titles fade from view. Without seeing the three films it is impossible to judge how they related to one another, and the identity of the American film is unclear.

Saville’s autobiography says that, as an outgrowth of Victor Saville Ltd. he had formed an advertising agency, Crane Paget & Co., and that this had won a contract to make a documentary for Standard Oil, or more particularly Pratt’s Petroleum, under which name Standard Oil’s product was marketed in Britain. Saville does not mention Cinema Publicity Services or, for that matter, Victor Saville Ltd., and may be mixing things up. Crane, Paget & Co. seems to have come later – during a period when Saville was less involved in the film trade.

But Saville also says: ‘This was my first directorial assignment. On a cold morning, I turned up with a camera crew at the Marquis of Granby pub on the Portsmouth Road to film a motor-car drive up to the first petrol pump in England and fill its tank. There was very little sex appeal in the scene, but at least I looked through a camera for the first time.’ He does not mention filming at Purfleet.

Saville also does not mention the Bernstein connection. In her biography, Caroline Moorehead writes that in 1920 Bernstein had put an ad in Advertising Weekly offering his services, and was commissioned by the Phillips oil company to make a film. Bernstein, she says, shot the arrival of a tanker at Barrow-in-Furness, and the distribution of its contents to depots around the country. Later he filmed a new oil pump after its arrival in England. However, Moorehead also says that Phillips was ‘part of Esso and Standard Oil’ and that its office was in Queen Anne’s Gate. In fact, Phillips Petroleum was not part of Standard Oil, and does not seem to have had a significant presence in Britain in the early 1920s. Queen Anne’s Gate was the home of Anglo-American Oil.

Balcon, in his autobiography, says that the Balcon-Saville-Freedman triumvirate – like Saville he does not mention Cinema Publicity Service by name – won its first commercial contract through Bernstein. He does not explain the connection, but as young men in the film industry with offices virtually across Charing Cross Road from one another, there were multiple points of possible contact. According to Balcon,

Sidney asked us to go and see him one day. He told us he had contacts with the Anglo-American Oil Company and they had sought his advice on the production of an industrial film. Sidney suggested that we might put in a bid. We did so, and got the contract. This not only provided for the production of the film but also for payments to be made to cinemas to induce them to show the film as part of their programme.

It is difficult to know whether Bernstein had made an oil film separately from Saville and Balcon, or contributed to The Conquest of Oil; possibly he travelled to Purfleet rather than far-off Barrow. But this, anyway, was the first venture into film production for the three of them. C. A. Lejeune reviewed the serial on its first showing as intent on persuading you ‘that it is oil that makes the world go round, and that therefore you should instal such-and-such a cooker in your kitchen, or run your car on petrol of such-and-such a brand. These persuasions are lengthy but not convincing.’

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