James Sibley Watson Jr., “Lot in Sodom”, 1933, Black and White Film, Twenty-Seven Minutes, Co-Producer: Melville Weber, Musical Score: Alex Wilder, Starring Friedrich Haak, Hildegarde Watson, Dorothea Haus, Lewis Whitbeck
Born in Rochester, New York in August of 1894, James Sibley Watson Jr. was an American medical doctor, publisher, photographer and experimenter in motion pictures. As an heir to the Western Union telegraph fortune created by his grandfathers, Don Alonzo Watson and Hiram Sibley, he grew up in a wealthy family that cultivated appreciation for the arts and encouraged an active, generous engagement in the Rochester community.
In June of 1916, Watson graduated from Harvard where he made two lifelong friends: poet, art collector and future business partner Scofield Thayer and poet-playwright E. E. Cummings. After graduation, Watson married the singer and actress Hildegarde Lasell who shared Watson’s passion and generous support for all fields of the arts. Despite his shy personality, Watson had several successful careers during his life. He became not only a practicing medical doctor but also contributed in both the publishing and film industries.
James Sibley Watson was directly involved in the Modernist literary movement through his association with the modernist magazine “The Dial”. Originally an editorial reader, he and Scofield Thayer purchased the magazine in 1918 and produced their first issue in January of 1920. The magazine would feature works by friends of Thayer and Watson such as Cummings and the versatile sculptor Gaston Lachaise. After Thayer suffered a nervous breakdown in 1926, poet and critic Marianne Moore took his place as editor. These three figures developed “The Dial” into one of the most influential magazines of American Modernism.
In the waning years of “The Dial” before it ceased publication in 1929, Watson became increasingly interested in experimental short films. He was joined in his endeavors by fellow Harvard graduate Melville Folsom Webber, who would become his permanent partner in film. The first film produced was a 1928 seventeen-minute ethnographic film entitled “Nass River Indians” which was distributed solely in Canada. Later in 1928, they produced a short avant-garde film “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, this film achieved widespread success and was hailed as a major contribution to motion film. The third film of their collaboration was a lesser known work, the 1930 parody of sound-film melodrama “Tomatos Another Day”.
James Watson and Melville Webber’s next serious avant-garde film was the 1933 “Lot in Sodom” based on the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Directed by Watson and Webber, the twenty-seven minute film used multiple experimental techniques, avant-garde imagery and presented strong allusions to sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Composer Alec Wilder, a close friend of Watson, recruited the actors for the production, acted as assistant director and composed the original experimental soundtrack. The cast included Friedrich Haak as Lot, James’s wife Hildegarde as Lot’s wife, Dorothea Haus as Lot’s daughter and Lewis Whitbeck as the angel.
Watson and Webber also produce a 1931 industrial film in collaboration with optical company Bausch & Lomb entitled “The Eyes of Science”. Multiple exposures, lap dissolves, color and micro-cinematography, as well as a number of unusual photographic effects, gave this film a technical interest much above the average. In 1938, Watson, this time in collaboration with filmmaker Ken Edwards, was engaged by the Kodak Research Laboratories to produce an industrial film on its manufacturing process for film and cameras. In “Highlights and Shadows”, Watson used the multiple exposure imagery he had used in his previous films to make the tool and die drill presses, assembly lines of camera parts, and the film coating process every bit as expressive and interesting as an MGM historic drama. The film featured a score performed by the symphony orchestra of the Eastman School of Music directed by Dr. Howard Hanson.
After his work with “The Dial” and motion pictures, James Sibley Watson continued his medical career, with a specialization in gastrointestinal studies. The first color photographs of the stomach’s interior have been credited to him. Watson kept up his correspondence with E. E. Cummings, Alex Wilder and others from his days at “The Dial”. In the 1980s, he founded a private press, the Sigma Foundation, with writer and publisher Dale Davis. After Watson’s death in March of 1982, his second wife Nancy Watson Dean appointed Davis as executor and sold the Watson papers that Davis had compiled to the New York Public Library.
Note:The full-length 1933 “Lot and Sodom” by James Sibley Watson Jr. can be found at the Internet Archive located at: https://archive.org/details/Lot_in_Sodom_1933
An excellent 1975 article written by James Sibley Watson Jr. on his production of the films “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Lot in Sodom” was published in the University of Rochester Library Bulletin. The article can be found at: https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/3507
The 1938 black and white film “Highlights and Shadows” and an article on its production can be found at the online Eastman Museum site located at: https://www.eastman.org/highlights-and-shadows
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “James Sibley Watson Jr.”, circa 1930-1940, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester
Remaining Insert Images: James Sibley Watson Jr, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, 1928, Film Scene Gifs