The prison, circa 1929

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On my way out of Eastern State Penitentiary after re-visiting the Cardiff/Miller “Pandemonium,” I happened upon a real treat — a silent movie made in 1929 commemorating the prison’s 100th anniversary. The film, restored and edited down from its original 30 minutes to a succinct 8-minutes, is available to view in one of the cells. Don’t miss it.

The industrial film is a great virtual immersion in the prison’s yesteryear. The piece conveys truth, of a sort. But, like all public relations vehicles, is a bit beyond belief.

Copies of the film were made and given to ESP board members, and only one copy survived that anybody knows of. That one copy, from which the new version was made, belonged to the granddaughter of James Gallagher, secretary of the 1929 board of Eastern State Penitentiary.

The silent movie has those old fashioned narrative cards to introduce the scenes and it’s even got a wonderful “animated” sequence of a truck carrying prisoners from the street through three levels of gates.

As I watched the film with the scenes of prisoners — always shown without shackles — working in the kitchen, the laundry or in the various craft rooms (a caning room, a hook rug room) I was struck by how civilized it all looked. I’m sure the piece was sanitized for its 1929 audience of trustees, none of whom would have wanted to see riots, breakouts, or rancor. So if you imagine that there was some succinct editing and just enjoy the visuals of the old prison, it’s pretty trippy, considering how “good” the prison looked back then and the state the place is in at the moment.

My camera caught two scenes together here, the narrtive card announcing the mess hall, and the scene of prisoners going through the line to get their food.


There were several scenes of great-looking flowers and grass on the grounds.

Apparently some inmates got on buses that took them to Graterford Prison to work each day. There is a sequence showing prisoners running to catch the bus.


Here’s a car exiting the building. That’s about it. Go see it.

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