THE BELL & HOWELL 2709
Bell & Howell Company, Chicago, Illinois 1927
The Bell & Howell Company was formed in Wheeling, Illinois in 1907, by Donald Joseph Bell, a motion picture promoter and projectionist and Albert Summers Howell, an engineer and machinist. Both had worked together prior to this, repairing motion picture machines and this continued under the new company. During this period, Chicago, New Jersey, New York and to some degree Jacksonville, Florida, became the earliest areas of motion picture production before the migration of filmmakers to Hollywood.
Albert Howell made patented improvements to the frame registration mechanism on George K. Spoor's Kinodrome projector (Patent No. 862,559 dated August 6, 1907), which had originally been built by Donald Bell for Spoor about 1897/1898. Per an article in The International Photographer, April,1929, the company's first hand-cranked 35mm motion picture camera was referred to as their "Box Model Camera". Equipped with 200-foot internal magazines, it was built in late 1907 and sent to Essanay Studios. Essanay, founded that same year in Chicago by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson, was originally known as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company. On August 10, 1907, the name was changed to Essanay, the name derived from Spoor's and Anderson's first initials "S" and "A". Constructed with a wooden body typical of professional cameras of the day, only eight were reportedly built:
Bell & Howell's first 35mm motion picture camera, the Model A from 1907
As to why the camera's construction changed, Jack Fay Robinson's book, Bell & Howell Company, A 75 Year History states that "The first Bell & Howell cinematograph camera was produced in 1910. It was made entirely of wood and covered with black leather. The following year, moving picture explorers, Martin and Osa Johnson, wrote that their camera had been destroyed by termites and mildew in Africa." This version of the story has been challenged, by the suggestion that the Johnsons hadn't traveled to Africa before 1920. Whatever the real truth, this first model was short-lived and Bell & Howell was determined to build a more indestructible camera. As seen below, Martin Johnson would go on to use the new 2709:
From The American Cinematographer, October, 1931
The new 2709 B was made of cast aluminum weighing about 27 pounds, with the now familiar "Mickey Mouse ears" shaped film magazines. The silhouette of these magazines, whether mounted on a Bell & Howell or a Mitchell, is and forever will be Hollywood's most iconic symbol.
Below, Jackson Rose, ASC, is shown with one of the very first 2709's. I've been told that the first twelve 2709's were produced with heavier turrets and a number of other design differences that would change on subsequent cameras. This heavier turret is evident in the clipping below:
From The International Photographer, April, 1929
Introduced by 1912, the 2709 incorporated such state of the art features as a 4-lens turret, permitting the quick change of lenses simply by rotating the desired one into position. It also incorporated a film registration system whereby each frame was drawn in by a claw mechanism and held steady by the gate during exposure. Equipped with its standard Unit-I shuttle movement, it was also offered with an Ultra-Speed Attachment (high-speed movement). Later on, the 2709 DD model made specifically for high-speed work, came standard with this movement which was capable of 200 frames per second. Reportedly, only twelve of these Model DD's were built.
The 2709 was equipped with a unique sliding-rack tripod mount. This feature permitted the camera to be slid over, so that critical focusing could take place through the selected taking lens in its filming position. The selected lens was then rotated 180 degrees, now being set in the taking position when the camera was slid back.
From The American Cinematographer, February 1, 1922
Through the years, many changes were made to the 2709 by Bell & Howell and by others, all aimed at improving the camera in a variety of applications. With the advent of the Mitchell Camera and the Mitchell Standard 35mm's, many of Mitchell's components such as viewfinders and matte boxes were found to be easier to use. Many were adapted to fit the 2709 and as a result, most 2709's became modified over time. One example was Bell & Howell's original viewfinder for the 2709. When viewed through, the image was inverted as one would see if using a still view camera. Introduced later on, Mitchell's Erect Image Viewfinder corrected the problem and it became very popular with 2709 cameramen. Charlie Chaplin used the Bell & Howell extensively, eventually equipping his 2709's with Mitchell viewfinders.
The 2709 was hand-cranked at 16 frames per second, which was the industry standard at that time. In 1920, Bell & Howell introduced their Cinemotor as an option to hand-cranking. The Cinemotor attached at the camera's rear, as seen below in a 1923 advertisement:
From the American Cinematographer August, 1923
With the Cinemotor and the Ultra Speed Attachment, higher frame speeds could be realized. Later on, improvements were made to the lens angle indicator. Bell & Howell's original footage counter with tiny graduations, was difficult to read and of limited use. With the advent of Veeder counters that could be mounted in conjunction with the crank handle or to the motor port at rear, film production and documentation was greatly enhanced. Special effects, such as a double exposure in transitioning from one scene to another, could now be achieved with a higher degree of accuracy. This saved time, reduced costs and resulted in less wasted film. Larger capacity 1,000-foot magazines would also become available.
Most 2709's contain Bell & Howell's trademark badge with the company's name, serial number and model number, along with another plate noting additional patents. Today, these two plates help in establishing the date of manufacture, and to whom the camera was sold originally. The camera's serial number can also be found stamped on the camera's top, where the film magazine mates with the body. Having the serial number in several areas helps to reaffirm the camera's identity and provides at least one number should the factory badge be missing. Collectors should be aware that reproduction badges for Bell & Howell equipment are available. Although correct in size, this particular reproduction tag lacks the refinement of a factory original:
Reproduction Bell & Howell manufacturer's tag
Original Bell & Howell manufacturer's tag (not from a 2709 camera as 2709 Serial No. 128 would have been a Model B)
Note the distinctness of the lettering on the original tag above, in comparison to the reproduction tag shown.
The 2709 quickly became the new Hollywood standard around 1916, having eclipsed the equally famous Pathe Professional 35mm then in widespread use since about 1908. By 1919, almost all Hollywood production was being undertaken with the 2709. It was said to have cost about as much as an average home in 1918, making it available to the select few wealthy enough to afford one. Charlie Chaplin was among those that purchased the 2709 (No. 227) and his Charlie Chaplin Studios (1919-1953) would go on to own at least four of them. Famous actress, producer and studio owner Mary Pickford purchased No. 230. The 2709's reputation and reliability was second to none, but with the introduction of the Mitchell Standard 35mm and the transition from silent movies to "talkies", the 2709's inherently noisy film gate became a problem for sound production. Efforts were made to silence the 2709, either by encasing it within a sound-proofed booth, or by wrapping the camera in blankets referred to as "barneys". Eventually, most studios transitioned to the Mitchell 35mm which had an inherently quieter movement. Later on, some Bell & Howell and Mitchell cameras would substitute metal gears with phenolic (laminated resin composite) gears to further reduce the sound. Many Mitchell's were "blimped" (encased within a sound retardant metal clamshell) to muffle the sound. Even as the 2709's popularity waned in Hollywood, it still remained in use for animation and special effects work well into the 1980's. For all its improvements and modifications, the camera's basic design remained virtually unchanged over the course of its approximate 46-year production run.
The example shown here, Bell & Howell 2709 B, Serial No.797, no longer retains its original footage counter. It's equipped with the Unit I shuttle movement, a 170-degree shutter, a Mitchell viewfinder and a 2709-compatible motor that is unidentified as to maker. As shown in Bell & Howell's sales record for Serial No. 797 shown below, this 2709 was sold to Paramount Famous Lasky, Times Square, New York, New York, on September 29, 1927:
My Sincere Thanks to Michael Madden of handcrankcameras.com for providing a copy of the factory record for this 2709
The Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation had just been established in September, 1927, when this camera was purchased by them. The studio would operate under this name for three years, after which time the name changed to Paramount Publix Corporation. By 1936, the studio would be known as Paramount Pictures, Inc., known today as Paramount Pictures Corporation or just Paramount.
A plate affixed to the camera has patent dates of September 17, 1912 (Motion Picture Machine) and February 13, 1917 (Film Magazine for Cinematograph or Motion Picture Cameras). These patents covered the 2709's movement and a safety gate that automatically closed, when the camera's side door was opened, preventing the exposure of film in the magazine or the entrance of dust.
The 2709 B featured here, shown in the opening photo with a 400-foot magazine, is mounted on a period-correct Bell & Howell tripod from the 1920's. Shown below is the same camera mounted with three different film magazines to illustrate the size differences:
200' Film Magazine
400' Film Magazine
1000' Film Magazine
Approximately 1,225 cameras of all models of the 2709 were built, and very few exist in their original configuration. Whether original or modified, it's not known how many in total survive. But the 2709 in any form is rather scarce, with the earliest models being extremely rare. Prices in the 1990's remained high, with the camera being both usable and collectible. Today, the 2709 is used more as a movie prop or in a very limited production capacity. Some 35mm motion pictures continue to be made, but with the film industry's transition to digital, the 2709 has become one of the last vestiges of Hollywood's "Golden Age".
Bell & Howell letterhead 1915
From The International Photographer, May, 1929
1000' Film Magazine
Bell & Howell manufacturer's tag from the 1000' film magazine above
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Footage (Veeder) counter (earlier model)
Footage (Veeder) counter (later model)
Ultra-Speed Attachment (high-speed movement)
Unidentified cameraman with a Bell & Howell 2709, probably taken in the mid-to-late teens or the early 1920's
Bell & Howell 2709 on the set of La Boheme 1926, with left to right, Cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, Director King Vidor, Producer Irving Thalberg and Lillian Gish
Charlie Chaplin filming The Gold Rush in Truckee, California, 1925 with a cadre of Bell & Howell 2709's. Cameraman Roland Totheroh with the beard, dark sweater and knitted cap is seen just to the left behind Chaplin
Rudolph Valentino (seated at center) on the set of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1920, surrounded by cast, crew, a number of Bell & Howell 2709's and one Pathe Professional at the left
Bell & Howell Authorized Dealer Merit Award
Please bear with me while I set up the next shot!
This Bell & Howell 2709 was purchased on eBay, probably having been posted just minutes before I began a search of vintage photographica. It was listed only as "Bell & Howell Standard Cinemachinery", taken by the seller from the maker's plate on the camera. With no "2709" or "35mm" in the auction title, the camera no doubt garnered less immediate attention, than had it been labeled better. Purchased as a "Buy-It-Now" for $250, it was essentially a hulk, having no crank, magazine, viewfinder or lenses. I didn't even know whether the mechanism inside was still present. But I knew it was a bargain at this price, and wouldn't have lasted long. As it would turn out, the camera's mechanicals were all present and in working condition.
And, just when I think this story couldn't get any better, I already had an original 2709 hand crank and an Astro-Berlin f2.3 75mm lens for a 2709 mount. Both of these items had been sitting on a shelf, having been acquired at no cost along with some 16mm movie cameras and other miscellaneous items from an estate sale some five years prior. I had no idea at the time, that the crank or the lens fit the 2709. Subsequently, I acquired a Veeder (film) counter and a high-speed movement for the 2709 on eBay as well. Both are Bell & Howell factory items, which came from one lot of miscellaneous cine equipment at the bargain price of $231. Since then, I've been able to acquire another Veeder counter, a few magazines, several lenses, a viewfinder, a compatible motor and a Bell & Howell tripod. This has all been a great learning experience, for what has become just an unbelievable find!
Interestingly, the 2709 was offered by a recycling firm located less than 50 miles from Hollywood. They picked up this camera, along with a Mitchell camera and numerous other items, from a well known motion picture studio. Likely misplaced over the years and relegated to junk, this 2709 may narrowly have escaped being processed for its scrap value.
Sadly, most of Hollywood's early motion picture equipment has ended up this way. Hopefully, through the Internet and a greater appreciation for preserving our cinematic past, less history will be lost going forward. Sometimes, timing is everything, and finds like this are still out there waiting to be discovered.