The modern era of the fan film begins with Batman: Dead End, a truly moronic thing where Batman meets the Predator*. But fan films, in which amateurs make shorts or features based on properties to which they do not have the rights, have been with us for a long, long time. Last year we brought you this 1969 Spider-Man fan film, one of many made by future writer Donald F. Glut.
The very, very first known fan film, though, was made in 1925, and it sprang from a fascinating tradition of itinerant filmmakers. These filmmakers would travel from town to town with their primitive silent movie equipment and film the locals, either in a stand-and-wave documentary style or integrate them into little narratives. These shorts would play at the new local cinema, or just projected on a sheet in some gathering spot. For the people of the time this would have been an incredible experience, as consumer cameras more or less didn't exist. Getting your portrait shot was a big deal, let alone being captured in all your moving glory.
While hundreds, if not thousands, of these sorts of films were made in the years before WWII, almost none still exist. Nobody bothered archiving or cataloguing them, and they were never copyrighted and often weren't even named. Some may sit moldering in antique shops or attics, turning into vinegar. But some have survived and made their way into the hands of collectors and museums. One such film, known as Anderson Our Gang, is the first known example of a fan film.
It's important to know what a fan film isn't. Nosferatu, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, isn't a fan film. A fan film isn't intended for commercial release, so any commercial variation on a copyrighted property is simply a knock-off. A fan film generally isn't a parody; there's an authentic attempt to recreate the original property or to further explore it, not make fun of it. That doesn't mean a fan film has to be serious, but the purpose of the fan film isn't to mock the original property.
Anderson Our Gang fits the bill pretty well. It's a variation on Hal Roach's Our Gang shorts, but set in, and starring the youth of, Anderson, South Carolina. Only one reel of the two-reeler still exists, but it indicates that the itinerant filmmakers behind the production were aping the Our Gang shorts fairly closely, even having a black kid named Farina in the ensemble.
In 1926 two men came to Anderson and met with Perry Osteen, the owner of the Egyptian Theater. They convinced him that they came from Hollywood, and that he should bankroll a new Our Gang short. It's unclear whether the men - who went under the almost-certain psuedonyms Sammy Fox and RR Beatty - made Osteen think this would be an official production; a newspaper report at the time indicates they claimed to be from Pathe, the company that distributed Our Gang comedies.
The production must have been an enormous event in Anderson. One scene has hundreds of kids running through the town square, while another finds the young ensemble watching the circus come to town. The short opens with a pan of the Our Gang auditions, which happened at the Egyptian Theater.
What's the 'plot?' The surviving reel is housed at the University of South Carolina and is not online (although bits of it can be seen in this footage shot at the Orphan Film Symposium in 2006). Dan Streible, writing in Highbeam Business, has a description of the film:
After the opening titles, a reflexive moment establishes the place, sponsor and cast. Outside of the Egyptian Theatre stand dozens of children dressed more or less as little rascals. A banner over the box office tells us why they have assembled: 'Hey Kids, Get in on Our Gang Comedy. Be here 9:30 a.m. Saturday.' Cut to a shot panning several dozen more preteens facing the camera and waving, followed by a pan across the white members of the 'Gang' proper, identified as Freckles, Mary, Fat, Toughy and Jackie. Then more than a hundred kids, under police supervision, march across Anderson's downtown square.
A string of comic vignettes follow, connected by peculiar intertitles (e.g. 'Toughy sold papers??? when he was through fighting') and often centering on the Farina character. Like his Hollywood counterpart, this Farina is played by an African-American boy and is both the butt of racist jokes and a sympathetic instigator of action. He first appears on a sidewalk. When an adult couple of white passers-by call on him to dance, he does a Charleston (the national dance craze born in South Carolina in the 1920s). Mickey and Toughy engage in a fight, staged before a large group of kids, who scatter (in a fast-motion camera effect) when a cop arrives. The Gang members next interact with Main Street merchants. Fat and the others play a trick on Farina to get his ice cream cone. Then Farina creates a traffic jam in the town square by misdirecting automobile drivers. He runs away (in a second bit of undercranking) when the policeman reappears. Next Farina buys bananas for the Gang, but finds himself left with the worst of the bunch. The six pranksters then encounter 'old man Grouch' and give him a pie in the face (despite his being on crutches). The kids do a street dance for newlyweds 'Ima Sap' and 'Izzy Goffy' [Goofy?], then badger them for a ride in their car. As police intervene, a card tells us 'The Gang gets "A Free Ride" '. The reel ends with a fascinating curio: the amateur actors watch several hundred performers from the Sparks Circus parade through Anderson, replete with camels, elephants, horse-drawn wagons, calliopes, brass bands, clowns, and a wild west show featuring Sioux Indians. The lost second reel concluded with the rascals sneaking under the circus tent, being caught by police, but let in by the soft-hearted owner who gives them ice cream (and a 'free ride').
This is only one of a dozen known Our Gang fan films of the 1920s. Project Muse has collected an Itinterant Filmography, and has found local Our Gang comedies from Manitoba, New Mexico, Syracuse, Boston and other small towns. It's likely these are just the tip of the iceberg and that there were hundreds upon hundreds of local Our Gang films made. Which I suppose matches the hundreds upon hundreds of Batman fan films out there online.
* Some might say it begins with Troops, but I consider that more of a parody than a straight fan film.