Film Folks Dance: Week of November 29th, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on “the great impeccable occasion of the year in Filmland, the Thanksgiving Ball.” Held every year since 1915 by the Motion Picture Directors Association at the Alexandria Hotel, the dance gave everyone in Hollywood something else to do other than rush off to family obligations. This year it was on the night before Thanksgiving, so people wouldn’t have to get up early for work the next day (Black Friday wasn’t a day off then).

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It was quite an event: the MPDA hired two orchestras, which alternated turns so they were always “full of vim and vigor,” and they served a late supper. Nevertheless, Kingsley reported that ”the party got to such a slow start that Clara Williams threatened to start a pinochle game,” but soon things got going and Kingsley was able to gather some pleasant, gossipy stories.

Bebe Daniels had a fine time at the party, even though she was well chaperoned:

The handsome Wallace MacDonald wore make-up on his coat – mostly Bebe Daniel’s. Miss Daniels was clothed in that siren shade of Viennese red and vamped whenever mommer Phyllis Daniels wasn’t looking, just like an old-fashioned coquette.

How scandalous! Daniels was only 18 years old at the time, so she was being developmentally appropriate.

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Lew Cody

Prohibition had changed things, and Kingsley was able to report:

There was only one genial gentleman who had apparently imbibed. He was, we blush to say, a playwright. He invited a nice girl to dance with him, but found it hard to make the grade, and Lew Cody, always willing to save a girl dashed into the arena, as it were, and seized the young lady from the genial gentleman.

Good for Mr. Cody! Getting drunk would have been difficult at this party; Kingsley mentioned that they served temperance punch, and “it was rumored around late in the evening that nearly a whole cup of claret, first and last, had been poured into one of the punch-bowls and there was quite a rush.”

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Charley Parrott, later Chase

But the nicest story she told involved director (soon to be with Hal Roach) and future comedy star Charley Chase, who was then known by his real name, Charley Parrott.

One of the belles of the ball was little Ella Wickersham, who used to dance and work in pictures before accident and her wheelchair overtook her, and she had a little flock of beaux around her most of the time. Charley Parrott begging her to ‘give him three dances, please, in spirit, you know,’ and sitting them all out with her, while half a dozen lively misses languished for his smile.

Ella Wickersham was a regular at Hollywood parties for three decades. Formerly at Balboa Studio and a vaudevillian, she had a dance act with her brother, Billy Wickersham. One day when she was 15 they were dancing and he accidentally dropped her, which broke her back and left her paralyzed. He looked after her for the rest of her life and became a studio publicist and newspaper reporter. She went on to write the “Hollywood Parade” column for the Los Angeles Examiner. She was friends with all sorts of famous people; an article in Screenland article about her was called “The Most Popular Girl in Hollywood” (December 1930, p. 58). She died in 1946.

Kingsley reported on a film that was a great big hit this week:

With lovely woman as a theme, and especially with it advertised that Eve, in the original birthday clothes, was on the programme, naturally Maurice Tourneur’s latest photodramatic spectacle, Woman packed Clune’s Auditorium to the doors last night, men making up about two-thirds of the audience.

Clune’s held 2,700 people, so that was a lot of tickets. Female nudity wasn’t the only attraction; it also offered plenty of misogyny. The film begins with a modern man reading a book about women in history. As Kingsley pointed out “really, I think that man must have had a naughty mind, because he picked out all the bad ones to read about!” They including Eve, Heloise, and Messalina. However, eventually women redeemed themselves. Kingsley wrote, “it would appear at the end that it was only because of the war that women were made good!”

While the theme was irritating, Kingsley did admire the cinematography: “pictorially, Woman is a marvel of beauty.” Sadly, the cameraman died while making this film. John van den Broek got swept out to sea while shooting on a cliff near Bar Harbor, Maine. He was only 23 years old. According to his obituary in Moving Picture World he was on a ledge close to the water when a high wave came in and took him and his camera (July 20, 1918, p.391). They quoted Maurice Tourneur: “Van den Broek was an artist, and didn’t consider his own safety when he saw the opportunity of taking a beautiful effect. He risked his life many times and in the end gave his life for his art. For more than four years the boy worked with me every day, from morning to night…He was more than a cameraman; he was a lovely, sensitive, delicate artist. My intention was to surprise him by making him a director next fall, and he would have been among the best ones. He was loved by everybody.”

Kingsley also had news of Al St. John, “that pepful young man, who lately broke off from the family stem of comedians brought fourth by the radiant good fellowship of Roscoe Arbuckle’s studio.” He had signed a contract with Paramount to make solo comedies, and he’d just gotten good news: his first two-reeler, Speed, “was being shown in no less a place than the Capitol Theater in New York, where it was sending ‘em into gales of laughter and creating a great hit.” Speed is a lost film.

A few days later, Kingsley reported that heavyweight fighter Jack Dempsey, who was getting ready to make his own movies, visited the set: “Al and his company were pulling a jazzerie by wreaking a set in a big fight, but Al dashed out long enough to shake hands and exclaim “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mr. Dempsey!” Later that day:

Dempsey and St. John did some acrobatics and the big boy threw Al around as if he were going to break something with him. As a parting salute, Al St. John did two falls downstairs, jumped off the top of the set, and fought three fellows to the finish; and Jack Dempsey was heard to heave a refined sigh as he exclaimed under his breath: “Gee, but I’m glad I’m going to be a dramatic actor!

They also took the time to pose for this nifty photo:

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This week, Kingsley also printed a list from Louise Glaum, who had just finished wokring on Sex. It was an excellent summary of the then-current Hollywood star clichés:

“In novelty’s name one film star has jotted down what she is not, thus delivering the long-suffering public from the usual hyperbolic encomiums directed at screen favorites by their publicists.

I have not:

  • Decided to quit pictures after I make eight more.
  • Adopted a Polish orphan.
  • Started an aeronautic company, even on paper.
  • Got a houseful of cats, canines, goldfish and birds.
  • Become my own press agent, nor yet my own writer, director, producer, property man, or dressmaker.
  • Written a book on “How I Became a Great Actress.”

Gee, most of these still appear in star profiles, if you substitute “African” for “Polish” and “make-up” for “aeronautical.”

 

 

More Movie Cliches: Week of November 22nd, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley once more complained about tired movie clichés:

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She never saw Mr. Hiddleston’s marcel

There are three dear old standbys in the way of heroines in the deathless drama of the fillums, who, when all else fails, may be dragged from the shelf by the scenario writer, dusted off and galvanized into a more or less lifelike presentment, and who may be depended on to put a kick, even if somewhat mechanical, into the celluloid drama. These are the preternaturally gifted and niftily dressed stenographer of 19 or 20, whom groups of bankers call into conference when they get stuck on a hefty business problem, standing around in awestruck attitudes as the words of wisdom about how to hamstring the bulls or bears drop from her pure young lips; the chemically pure young dance hall queen, whom “somethin’ somehow always kept from goin’ the limit,” (maybe it’s the marcelled hair of the men who try to win her, and we don’t blame her) and lastly, the weepy lady who never even seems to have Sundays off from grief, and whose only relaxation seems to be going to the dressmaker. We saw them all yesterday.

So this must be where today’s films found their young female computer experts and hookers with the hearts of gold.

The film Kingsley was reviewing was called Her Kingdom of Dreams and the lucky actress who got to do it all was Anita Stewart. It did involve a trusted secretary in a bank whose advice to avoid a swindler goes unheeded, so she moves West. The misery is provided by a big misunderstanding with her true love. Kingsley summed it up: “Her Kingdom of Dreams is not by any means the best story Miss Stewart has had; yet it is absorbing enough.”

Anita Stewart had been acting in films since 1911, when she began her career at the Vitagraph Company. In 1918 she started Anita Stewart Productions with a rookie producer, Louis B. Mayer. She was more than an actress; Hugh Neely, in a biography of her for the Women Film Pioneers site, pointed out that she made the daily production decisions because Mayer usually wasn’t on the set. She was to act in and produce 17 features for her company between 1918 and 1922, then she went to work at Cosmopolitan Productions for William Randolph Hearst. She retired from film acting in 1928 and became a singer.

Now Stewart has been nearly forgotten. Kingsley’s and other critics’ lack of admiration for her films might be part of it, plus many of them are lost. However, in 1919 the crowd at Her Kingdom of Dreams was completely satisfied. Kingsley wrote:

Miss Stewart has the tremendous advantage of being a great favorite with both men and women, as was shown by the comments that buzzed around me yesterday; also she is one of the comparatively few stars whom her admirers will go see no matter what the picture in which she appears.

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Already a masterpiece!

This week, Kingsley had news about a filmmaker that has had better luck with posterity:

Erich von Stroheim is feeling very much elated these days. His first picture production, Blind Husbands, was bid for by the biggest exhibitors in America, and was finally auctioned off to S.L. Rothapfel, who has secured first-run rights for the California Theater. Von Stroheim is best known to the public for his characterization of the hated Hun in The Heart of Humanity. Not only did her direct Blind Husbands, but he also wrote the story and acted the leading role. It will be given its western premier about Christmas.

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The ad took up the whole left column of the Sunday Arts section’s front page!

It’s really not a jolly holiday family movie. Nevertheless, it did open at the California Theater on December 21st. Kingsley didn’t get to review it; her boss Edwin Schallert kept it for himself. He admired it: “both in its emotion and its form, the picture has a newness which remove it completely from hum-drum triangle melodramas.”

Now, along with Broken Blossoms, Daddy Long-Legs, and maybe The Dragon Painter, it’s one of the few films from 1919 that are remembered.

 

 

 

Setting Up Shop: Week of November 15th, 1919

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the hopeful beginnings of many new film companies:

  • Lottie Pickford Rupp (Mary’s sister) was planning her own production company. They were choosing a story for the first film and Martin Justice had been hired to direct. In her column, Kingsley didn’t hesitate to butter up the whole family: “big success is prophesized for Miss Pickford, who is considered quite in a class with her brilliant brother and sister.”
  • The Hermann Film Corporation was building “a large plant on a five-acre tract in Santa Monica.” The owner, E.P. Hermann, planned on having three companies working there: one dramatic, one comedy and one serial. The dramatic company had already produced one film, That Some Thing starring Margery Wilson, Charles Meredith and Carl Ullman.
  • The new Jesse D. Hampton studio at Santa Monica Blvd. and La Brea was nearly ready, and Blanche Sweet’s next film, Simple Souls would start shooting there the following Monday.
  • Actor Taylor Holmes had founded his own independent production company, and had bought the film rights to three properties, Nothing But the Truth, The Very Idea and Nothing But Lies. All three had been stage vehicles for William Collier.
  • Polly Moran had gotten her own company, and was at work in a Culver City studio.
  • Harry ‘Snub’ Pollard was getting his own series, with Mildred Davis as his leading lady, because Harold Lloyd was recovering from the explosion that injured his hand.
  • Finally, there was this little note: “Roscoe Arbuckle seems to bring good luck to all his players. Now it’s Buster Keaton who is shortly to have his own company, and adorn the film firmament as a star. Keaton is an exceedingly clever young comedian, and here’s wishing him luck.”

There was so much optimism in the post-war film business world! These projects had various degrees of success.

lottie_pickfordLottie Pickford’s film with Martin Justice did get made but it didn’t come out until 1921. Called They Shall Pay, it told the story of a woman seeking revenge for her father from crooked business associates. Her leading man, Allan Forrest, became her second husband. It was her last leading role; she had small parts in one of her sister’s films (Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall) and one of her brother in-in-law’s films (Don Q Son of Zorro) but that was all.

ephermannThe Hermann Film Corporation told the press about lots of plans for other films over the following months, but they only finished the one Kingsley mentioned. The company had abandoned the lot at 25th Street and Wilshire Blvd. by the summer of 1922, and it went on to greater fame than the film company ever did: Douglas Aircraft leased it, and that’s where the company that became McDonnell-Douglas built its first successful airplanes.

The Jesse D. Hampton studio also went out of business and was bought by a famous company; in 1922 it became Pickford-Fairbanks Studios. It’s still open today as Warner Hollywood Studios. ****Mary Mallory helpfully corrected me: Warner’s no longer owns what was Pickford Fairbanks. It is now called The Lot and is owned by a real estate company.**** Hampton made only one more film after that, The Spoilers (1923), but he kept trying to get productions off the ground until at least 1925.

holmesTaylor Holmes did make all three films he had the rights to, but then his production company went out of business. It didn’t harm his work prospects, however. He appeared in four plays on Broadway from 1920-1923, then he had a long career, alternating between stage and screen and later, television.

 

pollardSnub Pollard did star in two shorts, Red Hot Hottentotts (Film Daily thought it showed “a falling off of quality”) and Why Go Home? (Film Daily said it had “several corking situations”), but as soon as Harold Lloyd recovered, Pollard went back to being the second banana. Like Holmes, he also had a long film career. (here’s some trivia: who does Gene Kelly hand his umbrella to after he Sings in the Rain? Snub Pollard!)

Polly Moran did make a series of shorts in 1920-22, starting with Sherriff Nell’s Comeback, and she kept working until 1940, with a brief comeback in 1949.

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Not fair to compare: Keaton and Joe Roberts in The Scarecrow

But only one of the new enterprises had a spectacular success (really, it isn’t fair to compare the others to him). Buster Keaton was about to get started on his solo career. People are still seeing and writing about his two-reelers, including me: I wrote synopses of them all for the International Buster Keaton Society almost twenty years ago (Ouch! Where did the time go?).

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Almost A Husband, Will Roger’s first film under his new Goldwyn contract. Kingsley wasn’t aware that he’d appeared in two previous movies, so she didn’t know if he could transition from his vaudeville act to silent film. She thought it worked out well:

Will Rogers has done it. He has shown that there’s more to him than his lariat and his professional chewing gum and the power to deliver himself of epigrams three to a minute, all hot and home made. In short, I think the crowds who crushed their way into the California [Theater] yesterday, to view the famous lariat artist in his first picture, will back me up in the statement that there has arrived among us a new and vivid screen personality, equipped to take his place with the top-notchers of Filmdom.

Transplanting a popular idol from stage to screen is a mighty delicate operation, and every once in a while some such idol gets busted in the process. Not so Mr. Rogers. He has arrived intact. Nay, his quaint and genial personality, his trenchant wit, his radiant drollery are actually vivified, it seemed to me, by his celluloid double.

They used “brilliant” intertitles to bring his jokes to the screen; according to his biographer (Ben Yagoda) Rogers “often wrote or helped write them.”

The now lost film was “full of thrills and laughter,” wrote Kingsley. Rogers played a homely schoolteacher who marries the prettiest woman in town in a fake ceremony, only to learn it was legal. Since she didn’t want to marry the man her father chose for her, they stay married in name only. Naturally, after he outwits the villain she falls in love with him.

Speaking of weddings, Kingsley reported on one that was to take place on Saturday, November 15th—if:

the groom-to-be’s director allows him to shave off his mustache and beard. Otherwise, says the bride, there’ll be nothing doing!

Not to keep you in suspense any longer the parties to the romance are none other than Lloyd Whitlock playing a star part in one of George Beban’s productions and Miss Myrtle Gibsone, partner of Mabel Condon in the Mabel Condon Exchange.

The facts about the beard are really touching. You see, it’s this way. Since Mr. Whitlock is playing a role which demands beard and mustache, Mr. Beban says it’s imperative that his production should not be ruined by such a silly excuse as a mere whim of a prospective bride. On the other hand, Miss Gibsone declares that you never heard of such a thing in motion picture plots or elsewhere as a hero with a beard. That is, a picture hero may have a beard, but he always is considerate enough to shave it off before the last reel and the clinch.

“I simply won’t have a bridegroom with whiskers!” wailed Miss Gibsone. On the other hand, Beban is firm that the offending ivy must be retained until at least Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. So you can see for yourself how matters stand. And in the meantime the suspense is simply killing us all!!!

Myrtle Gibsone was not joking: she’d already postponed the wedding twice. The beard was still there on Saturday, so she didn’t hesitate to postpone the ceremony again. She set Monday, November 24th for the next attempt. According to Photoplay, Beban hurried to finish filming One Man in a Million by then, and “wedding bells rang out.” Though it took awhile to get started, the marriage lasted until Whitlock died in 1966.

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Sue Whitlock, 1939 UCLA Yearbook

The couple had met six years earlier when they were both working for Kalem, she as a manager and he as an actor. At the time she got married, Mary Evelyn Myrtle Gibsone Whitlock was an actor’s agent at the Mabel Condon Exchange. She took some time off from work when she had a daughter, Suzanne, in 1921. The she became a script supervisor at Universal Studios. She retired in 1963. Lloyd T. Whitlock kept acting, appearing in nearly 200 films. Coincidentally, he played the villain opposite Lottie Pickford in They Shall Pay. He retired in 1949. They had an ordinary, middle-class life in Hollywood.

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It really happened! From the California County Birth, Marriage and Death Records database.

 

A.H. Gieble, “West Coast Picture Folk Frolic,” Moving Picture World, December 13, 1919, p.821.

“Plays and Players,” Photoplay, March 1920, p.102.

 

“Los Angeles Did Not Forget”:Week of November 8th, 1919

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Hamburger’s had everything you needed

One hundred years ago this week, the first anniversary of Armistice Day was celebrated in Los Angeles. Mayor Snyder proclaimed it a general holiday, and asked stores and offices to close for it. (It didn’t become a legal holiday in the United States until 1938.)

The city had a busy day planned. Happily, all of the soldiers and sailors had been demobilized by then so they could be there to celebrate, too. The main event was at Exposition Park starting at 2 pm; it included a band concert, songs from the community chorus, speeches and flag dedications. More than fifty thousand people attended (far fewer than the half million that crowded the streets of downtown for the unofficial celebration when the war ended a year earlier). LA Times reporter Otis M. Wiles described the celebrants:

Los Angeles did not forget. Though a year of peace on earth had brought happiness back to the little cottage on the hillside and the mansion on the boulevard, the scenes that were revealed at the dawning of November 11, 1918 had not been erased from the minds of those crowding the gates of Exposition Park…

Scattered through the jubilant throng were many happy scenes, the olive drab uniform of the soldiers and the blue of the gobs mingling with the gaily-colored gowns of happy women and girls. Tanned doughboys bounced little tots on their knees. Mother clung to the arms of their boys who had returned to them. Red Cross nurses and canteen workers flitted through the crowds, selling tickets to the American Legion Victory Ball. But here and there was seen a veil, hiding a sorrowful face of one whose son had not returned. And many gold stars shone like the star of Bethlehem from black bands on many sleeves.

There were more events in other parts of the city, including an eagle show at the Selig Zoo, aviation stunts at the Mercury Field, a rally at the Bible Institute, and in the evening, the dance the nurses were selling tickets to at the Shrine Auditorium. The Victory Ball was organized by the American Legion to raise money for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau, a group that helped veterans find jobs. It had been a taxpayer-funded enterprise, but the Legion was about to take it over in January, 1920.

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Helen Walker of the Merchant Marie helped advertise the Ball

That’s where film stars would be doing their part, as Grace Kingsley reported:

Up at 324 Byrne Building, headquarters for the Big Victory Ball and Peace Pageant which the American Legion is giving at Shrine Auditorium tonight the telephone never stops. And it’s all on account of the “lucky dances” they are going to feature. Ever since the papers announced that Madge Kennedy, Betty Blythe, Carroll McComas, Gladys Brockwell, Enid Bennett, Antoine Moreno, William Russell, Tom Forman, Bryant Washburn and Wallace Reid would take part in a dance in which names drawn from a box would determine who the stars’ partners would be for the dance, the telephone has never stopped.

“Is it true that I’ll be able to dance with Wallace Reid, if I come to your dance at Shrine Auditorium?” a sweet young voice will ask when the receiver is lifted. When assured that she has that chance, confused sounds of delight ensue from the other end of the wire.

The Ball was a big success: over seven thousand people attended. The paper reported that everybody was so eager to dance, that when the band struck up a tune before the Peace Pageant, they all jammed the dance floor and the authorities had a terrible time getting them to sit back down again.

A few days later, Kingsley said that Blythe and Russell provided a little show for the people who didn’t win a dance with a star:

When you’re going to do a Brodie,* take a quiet spot—advice from Betty Blythe and Billy Russell, who should know. You see, while waiting for Charlie Condon to find a lost overcoat at the Shrine Auditorium ball the other night, the two stars seated themselves clubbily and dramatically on a table in the hall. And just as they were striking the most beautiful poses before the admiring eyes of a hundred fans, down came the table beneath them.

Ouch! No permanent damage was done to the actors.

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This week, Grace Kingsley mentioned a story that shows there was once an alternate scene in Roscoe Arbuckle’s The Garage:

Huh! Those smarty aleck scenario writers had better look to their laurels! Molly Malone, Roscoe Arbuckle’s leading woman, yesterday thought up a remark right out of her own head, so clever it is going to be used as a subtitle in Mr. Arbuckle’s current comedy. And she did it right in the middle of a scene, too.

It seems that the scene was a thrilling one, in which Miss Malone’s clothes are supposed to be burned from her. The action occurs in the interior of the house and Mr. Arbuckle calls out to her after her clothing is destroyed:

“Jump out of the window, Molly, jump!”

“I can’t,” called back Miss Malone, “the board of censors won’t let me!”

Students of Arbuckle’s films know that there’s no such scene in the final film. In the version available now, Malone is taking a bath when she realizes that the building is on fire, gets dressed, goes to the window and jumps into a net and bounces into the telephone wires. Buster Keaton and Arbuckle rescue her from them, she collects their car and they fall in and drive off.

Malone has plenty of clothes on in the final cut

Maybe her remark helped them realize her lack of clothing was too much for the censors, so smarty scenario writer Jean Havez re-wrote the ending.

 

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Happy Armistice Day to all. Blog readers don’t forget, either.

 

 

*Steve Brodie claimed that he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge; after that, spectacular falls were called Brodies.

 

“Armistice Day Made Holiday,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1919.

“Brilliant Victory Ball Concludes Celebration,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1919.

“To Honor Those Who Offered All,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1919.

Wiles, Otis M. “Write Peace in Blood and Gold,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1919.

“The Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place:” Week of November 1st, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had news about an important American novelist:

Booth Tarkington, world famed as portrayer of boy characters in books and on the stage, is going to break out in a new spot. In other words, on the screen. He has just signed up a contract with Goldwyn, whereby he will produce twelve two-reel comedies. For this purpose Mr. Tarkington has created a new boy character named Edgar, and the name of the comedies will be the Edgar Comedies.

They did make all twelve episodes, and they called the series “The Adventures and Emotions of Edgar Pomeroy.” The first was Edgar and the Teacher’s Pet (1920) and when Kingsley reviewed it on March 1, 1920, she thought it was deliciously droll, with a “keen understanding of child life…In short, the small childish hypocrisies, the unexpected frankness, the delight in fair play, the spirit of adventure that characterize childhood are all embodied in this fresh and sparkling conception of boy life.”

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At this time, Booth Tarkington was at the peak of his career. People thought he was the equal of Mark Twain. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction; in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons and in 1922 for Alice Adams (the only other two writers who have done that are William Faulkner and John Updike). In 1922 a poll in Literary Digest called him the greatest living American writer.

Nevertheless, now most people haven’t heard of him. As novelist Thomas Mallon asked in an essay in The Atlantic, “how does such a ubiquitous and, for a time, honored figure disappear so quickly and completely?” He had some theories. Tarkington was a “wildly uneven writer” with a “vast body of mediocre work” who primarily wrote about regretful nostalgia for a simplified past. His racism didn’t help, either. Ultimately, he thought Tarkington is a writer who didn’t have much to say to current readers.

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This reminds people, too

Despite that, Tarkington still has champions. Author Greg Wright maintains a Tarkington website; he says “It is my view, however, that the sum total of Tarkington’s work presents nothing less than a masterfully preserved vision of Middle-America’s loss of innocence during the first half of the Twentieth Century.” Conservative political writer David Frum has blogged about his admiration of Alice Adams, he wrote “Almost a century after it was published, Alice Adams will still touch, delight, and comfort any young women (and open the eyes of any young man!) who plucks it off the dusty shelf.”

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Tarkington is back in print: in the summer of 2019 the Library of America published a compilation of Ambersons, Adams and a short story collection.

It does make me wonder about which current ‘important’ writers will be ignored in a few decades.

Kingsley filed a report this week that showed as early as 1919, directors wanted to escape studio control over their work:

A combination of film powers in the process of formation, according to well-authenticated report, is that involving some of the biggest directors of the business. These directors are Allan Dwan, George Loane Tucker, Marshall Neilan, Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince and Maurice Tourneur. While it was impossible yesterday to secure any statement from any of these, it is understood these six famous ones have entered into an agreement to form their own organization, to go into effect somewhere about the middle of next year, when their present contracts will all have expired. The plan, according to the report, is for each director to produce separately, but to form their own releasing organization. The new organization, if it goes into effect, including, as it does, six of the greatest directors in the business, will be the most unique and powerful of its sort ever formed in the picture business.

The organization did go into effect and it was called Associated Producers. Like Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin at United Artists, the directors said they wanted artistic and financial control of their films. They let other directors like Fred Niblo and Wesley Ruggles release films through their company, too. They made a total of twenty-five films and their most successful release was Tourneur’s Last of the Mohicans (1920). However, the company struggled financially, and in 1921 they merged with First National Pictures. United Artists really was extraordinary, lasting as long as it did.

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Kingsley rarely got to review legitimate theater (though she did get to write about the Orpheum’s vaudeville show every week). But this week, it looks like nobody else wanted to touch the abomination at the Burbank Theater so she got to perform the evisceration:

The author of The Divorce Question, William Anthony McGuire, evidently knew more about the tenets of the Catholic church than he did about play construction, as he seems quite at home with the former, but is very creaky as to the latter. It is full of such dramatic gems as “Not that, not that, my gawd, not that” and “it is my child!”

The play concerns two divorced people who come together in the priest’s sacristy of the church, where their two children whom they have carelessly lost sight of after they married other people are brought in, the girl having been forced into a life of sin, from which the boy, a dope fiend, has just rescued her by shooting her traducer. The girl dies of heart disease. She is lucky. She doesn’t have to see the last act.

Ouch! It seems like Kingsley performed a public service, warning people about this one. William Anthony McGuire’s career survived this stinker. He went on to write several plays for Eddie Cantor and he got an Oscar nomination for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936.

 

 

Entertaining But Clean: Week of October 25th, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the latest attempt to make kid-appropriate films:

For a long time now, mothers, women’s clubs and others have been asking for human, bright, entertaining but clean pictures…Now comes that Mark Twain of the screen, Judge Willis Brown, with a picture which is sponsored, even owned, by the women’s clubs of the country. It is entitled Surprising Carlotta, and it is on view at the Alhambra, and it fulfills all the exactations of those who have been calling for “human, bright, entertaining but clean” pictures. It is, indeed, a classic of childhood, with an understanding of and sympathy with boy nature which is fairly uncanny. It is humorous, human, sympathetic, comparable indeed only to, and almost a unctuously funny as Huckleberry Finn and Penrod [a popular Booth Tarkington novel, now forgotten], containing also a highly appealing little love story between the young lady heroine and the handsome hero, though this latter is submissive to the story of childhood. There is no preaching in it, and no moral, except, possibly, a sly poking of fun at the pompous stupidity of older people in dealing with childhood.

Unusually, instead of just complaining about not enough films for children, a group formed by women’s clubs called the National Federation of Better Film Workers were paying the Alhambra to run Surprising Carlotta for two weeks. They put their money where the mouth was!

However, it didn’t have a very successful run, according to an article by Kingsley’s co-worker Myra Nye; she wrote that Carlotta’s box office receipts were “surprising, but not surprising enough….By Tuesday night the manager at the Alhambra doubted if the play could run two weeks as it was booked.” It did stick around for a second week, since the Federation had paid for the theater, but after that, it disappeared. As Kingsley observed before, people say they want clean movies, but they don’t buy tickets for them.

Judge Willis Brown, the producer behind Carlotta, had quite a varied career. First he was the manager of the Oregon Fruit Union, a growers’ advocacy group. Around 1898, he formed the Anti-Cigarette League, headquartered in Chicago, and he gave speeches in support of their work. In 1905 he was appointed judge of the juvenile court in Salt Lake City, but his powers were limited because he wasn’t qualified to be a judge in Utah (he hadn’t lived there long enough; later they found out he wasn’t a lawyer). He continued his speaking tours; for example, in 1906 his speech in Los Angeles was called “The Devil’s Sunday School” – he said that saloons were the devil’s church and cigarette smoking was its Sunday school teachings. The L.A. Times was impressed by his delivery and impact:

The enthusiasm of this boyish-looking judge is infectious, and that he had made his presence felt here was demonstrated by the fact that an eager and interested audience—larger than any that has ever before greeted a speaker along similar lines—was present and applauded frequently.

Nevertheless, he was asked to resign from the Salt Lake City court in early 1907, and after a fight, he did. So he continued on the lecture circuit, and he used his earnings to start Boy City in Charlevoix, Michigan, a home for unwanted boys. Later he opened a second branch in Gary, Indiana. His first brush with the movies was in 1910, when Selig Polyscope made a short documentary about his organization called The City of Boys. This inspired him to form his own film production company in 1913, the Youth Photo Play Company, and he hired John M. Stahl to direct a feature-length film, The Boy and the Law, about a wild boy reformed by a stint in Boys City. (Stahl went on to direct classics like Imitation of Life (1934) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945).) Brown moved to Los Angeles and started a new production company in 1917, Boy City Film, to make a series of twenty shorts. He hired King Vidor (The Crowd (1928), Stella Dallas (1937), to direct. The first, Bud’s Recruit, holds up pretty well, according to Michael at Century Film Project:

Given the heavy-handed intentions and presumably limited budget, it is a very effective movie, especially in terms of its comedy. The boy actors are charming, and always seem to give the adults a run for their money…The movie comes across as innocently naïve, where it could have easily been foolish or preachy.

Surprising Carlotta was the end of Brown’s film career. When I say it disappeared, I mean it completely disappeared: after the Los Angeles showing, there’s nothing in digitized newspapers or the Media Digital History Project about it, and it’s not in the AFI Catalog, IMDB or the Silent Film Survival database. Judge Willis went back to the lecture circuit. He died following a heart attack at home in Los Angeles on April 30, 1933, leaving a widow and three children. (no, Wikipedia and IMDB, he wasn’t the Willis Brown who was shot by a spurned lover in Columbus Ohio, nor was he formerly known as James Willhenry Brown—I’ll send them a correction.)

Kingsley’s favorite film this week, The Temperamental Wife, had a “brilliant photoplay” by some of her favorite writers, Anita Loos and John Emerson. She said:

the story is full of fresh ideas, humorous situations and scintillating subtitles….The photoplay is full of clever touches for which the Loos-Emerson combination is famous and it is quite impossible to convey a sense of its amusing quality in the small space allotted me. Perhaps the best guaranty I can give you is the fact that the audience yesterday was kept in a constant uproar by the fun of the action and the amusing subtitiles.

A complete copy of it is at the Library of Congress, but the plot (a jealous wife learns that her husband’s secretary is -gasp- a woman!) might be what’s keeping anybody from releasing it on DVD.

 

 

“Former Utah Jurist Drops Dead in L.A.,” San Pedro News Pilot, May 1, 1933.

S.J. Griffin, “Judge Willis Brown,” Ogden Standard, May 29, 1909.

“Juvenile Judge Won’t Quit,” Deseret Evening News, January 24, 1907.

Grace Kingsley, “Making the Boys Behave,” Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1919.

“National Fruit-Growers Association,” Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1896.

“New Court to Open Soon,” Salt Lake Herald, April 10, 1907.

Myra Nye, “Commercializing Goodness in Films,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 1919.

“Willis Brown Appointed Judge,” Salt Lake Herald, March 31, 1905.

 

One Way to Fix Pictures: Week of October 18th, 1919

girloutside

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had quite enough of one sort of adventure movie:

Usually when I see advertised, “a thrilling adventure of the frozen north,” I groan inwardly. I say to myself: I know what it’s going to be. It’s going to show a young man “going out to reform in the great clean West, consisting for the most part of a dance hall,” as Harry Leon Wilson said recently in an article on pictures…There will be the stolen claim and a mine they don’t have to do anything to except pick the gold right off the ground and the walls. And there’s a great red-blooded fight, with the hero usually saving himself all he can, and going down just too easily for anything. And of course, there’s the miner’s daughter, dressed in a natty little tam and a fur coat, who can easily walk twenty miles through blinding snow to find her lover, and does, too, goes straight to him, though previously she hadn’t the slightest idea where he was. With lots of far-offs and close-ups of mountains and lakes and things. And that’s all.

Happily, she thought the movie she was reviewing, The Girl From Outside, was much better than that. She wrote, “here is northern drama, ingenious and human, and not depending on sunsets and scenery for its charm.” It was about a lone young woman in Nome, Alaska who opens a hotel with the assistance of a gang of crooks, whom she reforms.

hlwilson
Harry Leon Wilson

The Harry Leon Wilson article she mentioned was called “Film-Flam” and it appeared in the August 2nd edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Wilson was a popular novelist and playwright in the 1910s and 20’s, most famous for Ruggles of Red Gap. The piece was a long, but amusing, list of complaints about the pictures. First he called anyone who nit-picked about continuity errors “my idea of a mental dud,” then he made a turn:

But just a moment! Can we justly blame these critics? What else have they to think about at a moving picture? They know all the plots, all the characters, all the directors’ tricks. After two hundred feet of any picture they could find their way blindfolded along the remaining four thousand eight hundred feet to the fade-out of the lovers.

So he went on to moan, with copious examples, about worn-out plots and characters for a few more pages. Kingsley must have been quoting him from memory because she was a bit wrong, so here’s what he said about Westerns:

The dear out-there motif! What would screenland have done without it! Out there in the great clean spaces where men are men! Out there where God gives a man his chance! Out there beyond the town’s corruption where the game is played square! It’s a bit surprising, too, because out there consists of a brief vista of street lined with saloons. And you don’t stay in the street either. The great clean space where men come to know consists of a roomy saloon with a dancing floor and gaming tables. And I am tired of that saloon.

Luckily, he had a solution (and it wasn’t one I expected). A film executive:

may know that only filmed plays—real plays—will make money, drama being even more essential to the film play than to the spoken play; but he seems not to know that plays cannot be had except at a price…nowadays, real writers get real money.

He didn’t mention it, but he had a drawerful of plays he’d co-written with Booth Tarkington that had been produced on Broadway. So convenient! Paying them a pile of money would solve everything! He did move to Los Angeles in 1920 and join the industry, but the studio bought the rights to his novels, not his plays. (“Heraldgrams, Exhibitors’ Herald, October 2, 1920, p.38.) The experience inspired him to write Merton of the Movies, another best-seller.

Kingsley had a much better method to get rid of hackneyed plots than filming plays (which honestly, doesn’t always work out so well):

Oh, if Charlie Chaplin or Doug Fairbanks or Fatty Arbuckle would only make a Klondike comedy!

She eventually got her wish, and she only had to wait until 1922, when Buster Keaton made The Frozen North. Then Chaplin made The Gold Rush in 1925 and really finished off Northern adventure movies for awhile.

Harry Leon Wilson’s article is on Google Books (starting on page 6), if you’d like to take a look.

burgbyproxy

This week, Kingsley reviewed a film that was just shown at Cinecon in Los Angeles:

Burglar by Proxy is a sparkling little comedy, with scintillating subtitles. It concerns a young man who is held up by two crooks, not for his money but for his ability to look like a gentleman and his athletic powers which would make him a valuable adjunct to their profession.

I usually don’t know this, but her opinion holds up: it is a pleasant little comedy.