Joseph Urban and Cosmopolitan Films

Urban and Hearst

As a modern media mogul, William Randolph Hearst had already expanded his media companies from print to film by 1919, including newsreels, cartoons, and a dozen feature films. But even before his mother's death gave him access to all of his family fortune, he created his own studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, an immediate tie-in with his Cosmopolitan magazine. As the trade journals proclaimed, his aim was to create "a new class of motion picture patronage. Every Cosmopolitan reader and their myriad friends, and the countless thousand friends of these friends will want to see the characters — those they enjoyed so much in print —  live."

As described by Hearst biographer David Nasaw in The Chief, "As his newspapers and magazines were distinguished by their layout, design, and use of graphics, so would his pictures be marked by superior and costly settings and visual effects ... To make certain that his films were designed with the same degree of elegance and extravagance, Hearst hired as his art director Joseph Urban, a designer equally at home, as Hearst himself was, in elegant drawing rooms and Ziegfeld's Follies."

On February 19, 1920, Joseph Urban signed a contract with Hearst for his exclusive design work at a salary of $1,286.98 per week for the first year and $1,442.31 per week for the seond and third years. At Urban's insistance, he was granted formal permisison to continue his design work for the Metropolitan Opera, and informally to continue his work for Ziegfeld.

The irony in his film work is that Urban was known for his superb use of color while these films were not only all silent, but were all black and white. As Urban wrote in the pre-color film era, "with proper backgrounds, furniture that belongs to those backgrounds and decorations that suggest color, the mind of the spectator can be made to think in colors even when they are not shown."

In this photograph, Urban is shown with some of the black-and-white "color charts" that he devised to test how different colors and textures appeared on black-and-white film. The photographs of color charts that he kept for his own archive are shown below.

In the photo above, Urban is shown with some of the black-and-white "color charts" that he devised to test how different colors and textures appeared on black-and-white film. The photographs of color charts that he kept for his own archive are shown here.

In this Photoplay Magazine article, published in the issue for October, 1920, editor Julian Johnson describes an actual visit to Urban's studio in Cosmopolitan Productions headquarters, located in the former Sulzer's Harlem River Park and Casino, that Hearst bought in 1919 after the death of his mother allowed him complete control of the family fortune. It occupied the entire block between Second Avenue and the East River, and from 126th Street to 127th Street.

Hearst's reasons for his studio being in New York City were, as he later wrote, that "the city is the center of stage play production." Addiing "It is folly to minimize the screen's real need of the best artists on the stage in the casts of its worthiest productions." And in contrast to those who prefered California sunshine, that "We prefer to produce our pictures in studios with artificial lighting, rather than to depend on uncertainty and varying degrees of sunlight, a condition for which no part of the country is at all seasons exempt."

The photograph of Urban on the first page of this article actually dates from his time as artistic director of the Boston Opera Company, from 1911 until 1914 when the company folded with the start of World War I.

Johnson writes: "For you probably know that Mr. Urban is today the most distinguished master of environment, light and color that we Anglo-Saxons know in the theater ... The thing that has spread Mr. Urban's name about the United States more than any of all his other works has been the Ziegfeld Follies."

And Johnson quotes Urban as follows regarding his reason for going into motion pictures: "The motion picture offers incomparably the greatest field to any creative artist of brush or blue-print today ... It is the art of the Twentieth Century, and perhaps the greatest art of mocern times. It is all so young, so fresh, so untried. It is like an unknown ocean stretching out before a modern Columbus."

This remarkable internal memo was written by an associate Cosmopolitan producer named William Sistrom. By January 28, 1920, when the memo is dated, Urban had worked on three films, although none had yet been released. These were "Humoresque," "The Restless Sex," and "The World and His Wife."

Sistrom writes: "What is a director in our scheme of things has been frequently discussed but never settled."

"Now it has got to be settled because Urban is extrememly unhappy under present conditions and unless something is done we are going to miss the opportunity to be THE concern that gets the credit for the tremendously important contribution to screen technique that Urban is going to make — either now or later with us or with someone else."

Referring to an inciident that had occured during production of "The World and His Wife," Sistrom writes: "It cannot make Urban happy if he must be in close association with people who return without comment a wonderful set of Spanish paintings he had brought out with the idea that they would suggest feeling and atmosphere for a Spanish production and then ask him to agree that a set of colored picture post cards are full of wonderful inspiration."

The mentioned post cards had been of a French chateau in Andalusia. This and other problems with other productions will be described in detail in the discussion of the individual films.

This is the only letter directly written by Hearst to Urban in the Joseph Urban archive. It is undated but was filed with materials for the film "The Young Diana."

Hearst writes: "I just dropped in to tell you how wonderful the snow carnival is. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and the more I see it the more enthusiastic I become over it. I asked for something as good as the ball of the Gods but this is better - much better. It will make the picture a sensation. Very many thanks. Sincerely W R Hearst"

The Ball of the Gods is a scene in "The Restless Sex," Urban's second film for Hearst and Cosmopolitan Productions Number 6.

Alas, "The Young Diana," Cosmopolitan Productions Number 6, is lost, except for Urban's scrapbooks and a few surviving publicity photographs.

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