The Patent Leather Kid
Thursday, April 19, 2012
The Eltinge Theater in Bismarck was packed with movie stars on this date in 1928. It was the opening day for “The Patent Leather Kid,” a silent film about a New York boxer drafted into World War I and wounded during an act of heroism. The actors in the lead roles didn’t make it, but the soldiers from Fort Lincoln who performed as extras in the battle scenes were excited to see their work on the silver screen.
Fort Lincoln was home for units of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry and the Fourth U.S. Infantry after World War I, and in 1927, troops from both groups were in Washington state for training maneuvers. First National, the studio that produced “The Patent Leather Kid,” had asked the U.S. military to provide soldiers as extras for the battle scenes during filming at Camp Lewis near Olympia, Washington. The epic scale of the war movie meant every available soldier was called in from the surrounding area. The Seventh Cavalry was moved from Vancouver and the Fourth Infantry was called from Fort Lawton, near Seattle.
The troops mustered in the middle of the night, climbed into transports, and drove south to meet up with over five thousand other soldiers, ROTC members, and civilians to stage the critical battle scenes. First National marketed the film on the merit that actual World War I veterans had helped in the production. The realistic explosions, gunfire, and rolling tanks used during the “sham battle” reportedly aggravated the “shell-shock” of some of those veterans during filming. Despite the enormous scale of the movie battle, few injuries were reported, and the action was regarded at the time as the greatest film battle ever seen on the screen.
The movie was filmed in the spring of 1927, and many of the soldiers who participated were back in North Dakota when “The Patent Leather Kid” was released in 1928. Soldiers crowded around still photos on display in the Eltinge Theater lobby to see if they could find themselves in the background. Once the soldiers were in their seats and the lights went down, they were, as one soldier put it, happy to “see themselves as others see them,” fighting for America on the battlefield, even if it was only as a supporting role in “The Patent Leather Kid.”
Dakota Datebook written by Derek Dahlsad
“Soldiers Here Were Actors in Coming Movie,” The Bismarck Tribune, 4/18/1928
“US Army Order of Battle 1919-1941,” Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Steven E. Clay
“Every Resource Known to Screen Goes Into Making of “Patent Leather Kid,” The (Danvile, VA) Bee, 3/26/1928