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Chesterfield Pictures

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Company's logo in 1931.
Company's logo in 1931.

Chesterfield Motion Pictures Corporation, generally shortened to Chesterfield Pictures, was an American film production company of the 1920s and 1930s. Its low-budget films were intended as second features, which played on the lower-half of a double bill. The company head was George R. Batcheller, and the company worked in tandem with its sister studio, Invincible, which was led by Maury Cohen.[1] The production company never owned its own studio and so rented space at other studios, primarily Universal Pictures and RKO.[2]

It was one of a number of Poverty Row studios taken over by Herbert Yates in 1935 and merged into his newly formed Republic Pictures in an attempt to create a dominant low-budget producer with enough power to take on the major studios.[3] Republic was more or less successful in achieving this over the next twenty years.

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  • The Curious Copyright Case of "It's A Wonderful Life"


This Filmmaker IQ Lesson is proudly sponsored by RØDE Microphones Premium Microphones and Audio Accessories for Studio, Live and Location Recording. Hi, John Hess from and today we’re going to open a curious copyright case and sort through the web of rights surrounding the holiday classic: It’s a Wonderful Life So you still think killing yourself would make everyone feel happier eh? I dunno... I guess you're right. suppose it been better if I had never been born at all. What did you say? I said I wish I'd never been born. It’s A Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey a man who always seems to put his dreams on hold to help others in need - until one day a crisis brings him to the edge of suicide. Tasked save him his guardian angel Clarence shows how the world would be worse off had he never been born. But you already knew that. Produced in 1946, It’s A Wonderful Life was Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra’s first post war film. During the war Stewart served in the air force while Capra worked behind the lines producing a series of films for the US Army entitled Why We Fight. It’s a Wonderful Life was filmed on RKO’s studio backlot in Encino California taking up nearly 4 acres which included a 300 yard main street with 75 stores and buildings and a residential neighborhood. Capra even installed 20 full grown Oak Trees to create Bedford Fall’s central street. Production started on April 15, 1946 and ended on July 27 - exactly hitting its 90 day schedule. To be eligible for that year’s Oscar ceremony, the release date was moved up to December 20, 1946. Unfortunately, the film opened to lukewarm reviews. Although it was in the top movie earners of that year, it didn’t do enough business to recoup production costs. The following March at the Academy Awards, It’s A Wonderful Life was up for Five Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing and Best Sound Design - but it walked away none of those - instead picking up an Academy Award for RKO’s special effects department which invented a new kind of chemical snow for film. The old method of snow used painted cornflakes - the constant crunching would have been murder on the sound recordist. The new method was a type of soap bubble - which you can kind of see from these shots of the final scene. As a box office loss and with no major Academy award wins, It’s a Wonderful Life slipped away into obscurity. Through a clerical error or just lack of interest, the copyright on the film was not renewed in 1974 and the film fell into the public domain. And that’s when It’s a Wonderful Life began to earn its wings. Here’s a film starring one of Hollywood’s biggest classic era stars - Jimmy Stewart - directed by a big name director - Frank Capra - centered around the Christmas Holiday season… and wait for it… it was free to broadcast on Television. Well, it was a no brainer. TV stations ran It’s A Wonderful Life again and again - raking in ad revenue without paying a single cent in royalties. It was a good movie to begin with - but the constant exposure through the 70s and 80s simply cemented it’s place in American pop. It’s a Wonderful Life became a Christmas Tradition even finding its way to AFI’s top 100 Greatest American Films. From a flop to a family favorite. That is… until the early 90s when all those television rebroadcasts suddenly stopped. Now that you know the basic story, let’s dig deeper into the rabbit hole and take a look at the high stakes game of studios and copyright. Let’s back up to the beginning. In 1939 a Civil War Historian by the name of Philip Van Doren Stern had a dream. This would become the basis for a short story called “The Greatest Gift” - After working on it for a few years and being unable to find a buyer, he sent this 4,000 word short story out as Christmas Cards in December of 1943 - well not so much Christmas Cards, more like Christmas pamphlets. One of the 200 or so pamphlets made its way to RKO Producer David Hempstead. Hempstead thought this would be a perfect vehicle for Cary Grant and showed it to the actor who also like the idea. RKO struck a deal with Stern and bought the rights for the princely sum of $10,000. Hempstead got to work on the idea right away, commissioning scriptwriters to adapt the short story. Three separate screenplays were written but they just didn’t have “it” So the project was halted and RKO started looking for ways to unload the project. They find a buyer in Frank Capra. Capra sees something in the story and buys it off RKO for 10 grand. RKO throws in the three scripts for free. Capra along with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett begin reworking the script with additional scenes written by Jo Swerling. Not long after the screenplay was ready to go… Capra announces that it would be the first feature produced by his very own brand new “independent” production company: Liberty Films. In the late 30s there was a movement of stars and producers against the established studio system of classic Hollywood. In 1941, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Alexander Korda, and Walter Wanger formed The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers to tackle the big studios and fight for independents production. This group would be the lead the charge on legal cases against studios and their anticompetitive practices. Frank Capra had become friends with many of these people, having been director and president of both the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the Director’s Guild for multiple terms. After working pretty much independently for the government during World War II, Capra had little interest in going back and working inside the the studio system. Capra had toyed with going independent before the war, but now he was ready strike out on his own. In 1945 Capra started Liberty Films with former Columbia production executive and long time friend Samuel J. Briskin. Directors William Wyler and George Stevens joined in partnership soon after. Part of the strategy of starting a production company and becoming equity shareholder was a way to avoid the 90% tax bracket of the top dollar wage earners at a studio - being an equity owner meant you could sell your shares a few years later and pay only the 25% capital gains tax. But Capra also saw an opportunity to have more control in his projects. He saw a future of directors who were also producers and Liberty Films would be the financial and creative umbrella for him and others to create their film. As partner and fellow director William Wyler still owed Samuel Goldwyn a movie on a pre-war contract, the first film venture under the Liberty Films banner would be Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Striking a distribution deal with RKO, Liberty produced the film for $2.3 million dollars, the most expensive Capra movie to date. After the box office returns had been counted, Liberty Films was in the hole for $525,000. To add insult to injury, Liberty Films partner William Wyler’s film for Samuel Goldwyn would turn out to be “The Best Years of Our Lives” which would go on to take in $11 million dollars at the box office and sweep the Oscars including winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor all of which were in direct competition with It’s a Wonderful Life. Liberty Films was about the crack after it’s first film out and the partners began looking for a buyer. In May of 1947, Paramount pictures would come in and buy up the company for $3.5 million dollars in Paramount stock. Capra, Wyler and Stevens were all given five picture contracts with Paramount and the studio inherited the rights to Liberty’s three movie properties: It’s a Wonderful Life, I Remember Mama (which George Stevens was working on at RKO) and State of the Union which was still in preprodution. In April of 1951, Liberty Films was completely dissolved. Capra would go on to direct a few Television specials and a handful of movies before taking an early retirement after his last film, an industrial for the World’s Fair in 1964. When Paramount bought Liberty Films, It’s A Wonderful Life was added to it’s pre-1950 Library. Then in 1955, Paramount sells this Library to U.M.&M. TV which was buying up shorts and cartoons to be turned around and syndicated on Television. Included in this deal are over 1600 short subjects and cartoons for $3.5 million dollars. Well it wasn’t under U.M.& M.’s control for very long as the next year the catalog is bought by National Telefilm Associates - NTA - for a $4 million. In the 1957, NTA purchases what’s left of Republic Pictures - a lower tier studio started in 1935 which in itself was a merger of 6 Poverty row studios: Monogram Pictures, Mascot Pictures, Liberty Pictures (not to be confused with Liberty Films), Majestic Pictures, Chesterfield Pictures and Invincible Pictures. Republic had made a lot of western serials and when Television first arrived and all the studios were in bunker mode, Republic was one of the first to approach broadcasters to syndicate their old film library. And that’s how they made their money. By mid to late 50s, Republic had pretty much shut down most of their production, relying mainly on television syndication - turn around specialist Victor M. Carter would further diversify B-film studio into Republic Corporation and also dealt in plastics and appliances. Back to NTA. So for about 20 years NTA makes a lot of money off the Republic library and in 1983 NTA buys the rights to the name and logo and resurrects the brand Republic Pictures. During this time, the copyright renewal papers for It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t get filed and the film fell into public domain. Under the 1909 Copyright act, Intellectual properties were protected for 28 years with an option at the end to renew for an additional 28 years. No one renewed and Frank Capra who had retired from filmmaking didn’t force the issue. Capra died in 1991. Shortly after Republic Pictures saw a way to regain control over the holiday favorite, using a court case involving another Jimmy Stewart Film. The grounds for reclaiming It’s A Wonderful Life come from a key case in copyright law regarding Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. Let’s rewind again and start at the beginning of this story. A prolific crime noir writer by the name Cornell Woolrich pens “It Had to Be Murder” for Dime Detective Magazine in 1942. In 1945, he sells the movie rights to his stories to BG De Sylva Productions for $9,250. In 1953, Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock form Patron, a production company which buys the rights to “It Had To Be Murder” from BG De Sylva Productions for $10,000 to make Rear Window in 1954. In the agreement Patron is given permission to use the copyright during the first copyright period and the renewal period. But in 1968 - Cornell Woolrich dies leaving no family or next of kin. The rights to the story are handled by the executor of his estate, Chase Manhattan Bank for the benefit of Columbia University. In 1969 - just shy of 28 years after the original publication, Chase Manhattan files the renewal of copyright for an additional 28 years and then sells the rights to literary agent Sheldon Abend for $650 plus 10% of all proceeds from the story. Abend buys another 100 or so movie and story rights. In 1971 - the producers of Rear Window strike a deal to show the film on ABC. Abend immediately sues in the US District Court in New York - the second circuit - saying he has rights to the original story and that showing it on Television without permission infringed on his rights. Even though the original author Woolrich made a deal that filmmakers could use the story after the renewal, he died before he could renew it therefor the filmmakers would have to reach a new agreement with the new copyright holder. They settle out of court for $25,000 Then in 1977 a case reaches the United States Court of Appeals 2nd circuit (that’s the New York circuit again) called Rohauer v. Killiam Shows Inc. In that case, the author of the book “Sons of the Sheik”, which became a successful 1926 Rudolph Valentino movie, died before he could renew the copyright. His daugher, renewed it, and assigned the rights to distributer Raymond Rohauer. Rohauer sued Killiam Shows for showing the movie without consent. The lower district court held for Rohauer but the higher ranking court of appeals held for Killiam - saying they could show the film which was a derivative work, without the permission of the copyright holder of the work that inspired it. Well this gave the producers of Rear Window some encouragement. In 1983 they re-rereleased Rear Window for theaters, on cable TV, and on videocassettes and Laserdic. By 1988, they had brought in 12 million dollars in revenue. Abend sues again demanding half of the movie’s proceeds, but this time the 9th Circuit, the California circuit - which often differs in opinion from the 2nd - which was where Rohaurer was decided.. That district court dismisses the case finds for the studio based on Rohaurer - Abend appeals and the Appellate court finds for Abend - his tactic works. Then the Studio appeal and now the Supreme Court has to weigh in on this disagreement between the circuits. On April 24th 1990, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court decides in favor of Abend. Even though Woolrich agreed that Patron would have the rights after renewal, he died before he could carry out that promise - that makes the promise is an unfulfilled contingency. The court decided that you cannot bind the statutory successor to the same deal that author made. Had the author lived to renew the copyright, no problem. But because he dies before the renewal, the successor gets to chose what happens to the property. Why is that? Well the Court justified it because reasoning behind the renewal clause of the 1909 Copyright law was to allow the author of a work who may have sold it very cheaply, a second chance to get a better deal once he or she has become more established, or in this case, the successor after the author becomes more dead. The Abend case shook up Hollywood - lots of films based on short stories, books and plays could potentially be in danger. Even though the Abend case was a very specific application it laid the legal precedent that owners of the original stories could still lay claim on the derivative works - something Republic would exploit to regain control over “It’s a Wonderful Life” Once “It’s a Wonderful Life” fell into the public domain - it was stuck there for good - there’s no way of recopyrighting it. But Republic Pictures did still own the copyright to the 4,000 word short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. For good measure, Republic bought up the rights to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score in 1993 (which was rather ironic as Capra had cut out a lot of Tiomkin’s score for the final cut, leading to animosity and the two long time collaborators never working with each other again). Armed with Stewart v Abend, Republic Pictures who now owned the rights to the short story and the score, sent out letters to TV stations stating they intended to protect their interests in the film. The free-for-all was over - nobody legally challenged Republic’s claim. Republic set up a long term deal with NBC which paid royalties to run the Capra film a couple of times a year around the holidays. In 1994, TV megaproducer Aaron Spelling buys controlling shares in Republic and sells off the video rights to Artisan Entertainment. By 2000, Spelling Entertainment is bought out Viacom and it’s film holdings get folded into Paramount Pictures a Viacom subsidiary- who is currently the distributor for “It’s a Wonderful Life” The Copyright Act of 1976 raises the length of Copyright to the life of the author plus 50 years so this kind of legal shenanigans is not likely to happen again. In 1999, the Copyright Term Extension Act, called the Sonny Bono Act, raises it to life plus 70 years and grants works of corporate authorship (which films would fall under) to 120 years after the creation or 95 years after publication, which ever endpoint is earlier. The copyrights of properties made before January 1, 1978 were extended to a flat 95 years after their original publication date. This means Stern’s “The Greatest Gift” copyright will expire in 2038 and Tiomkin’s score will expire in 2041. Then, assuming Congess doesn’t extend copyright terms even longer, “It’s a Wonderful Life” will truly fall into public domain. There’s no question in my mind that It’s a Wonderful Life’s decade or two of public domain status propelled it to a classic. The rebroadcasts made it part of happy holiday memories - it’s innocence and optimism in the human spirit fit so perfectly in the yule-tide tradition. But the authors of a piece of art are entitled to the fruits of their labor - and in saying that - so are the families of those artist or whoever designated as the inheritor of those copyrights. On the same token, Corporations who finance and employ hundreds of people, raising and spending millions of dollars, they too are entitled to rewards of their work. But remember just because a work is under copyright protection doesn’t mean it’s not part of our collective culture, it just means somebody has a monopoly over the financial gain of that property. But at some point we as a society must say, that is long enough - that formulation of an idea now belongs to all of us - we all can build upon it freely. How long is that? Is the current statute too long? Is it too short? These are debates we can have - that we have to have. As much research as I’ve put into this series of videos, all I can say for certain is this is not a cut and dried topic despite what anyone on an internet video says. We as a society have been dealing with mass media for less than 100 years - digital - barely 20 years and our laws are still being fine tuned for stuff that was written at the beginning of last century. Trust me, this is a complicated matter that needs you to look at it from all sides and we are just barely starting to figure it out. But we will. It’ll be messy and it will take time but we will. In the meantime Go make something that will have the power to inspire someone in 50, 100, 200 years. Go make something great. I’m John Hess, I’ll see you on

See also


  1. ^ Conlan, Mark Gabrish (April 16, 2012). "Forgotten (Chesterfield/Invincible/Universal, 1933)". Movie Magg. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
  2. ^ Pitts p.83
  3. ^ Balio p.322


  • Balio Tino. Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Entertprise 1930-1939. University of California Press, 1995.
  • Pitts, Michael R. Poverty Row Studios, 1929–1940: An Illustrated History of 55 Independent Film Companies, with a Filmography for Each. McFarland & Company, 2005.
This page was last edited on 15 October 2021, at 09:25
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