Getting Ahead of a Problem: Week of July 30th, 1921

Editing Foolsih Wives

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a film executive who did his best to anticipate trouble:

It is estimated at Universal City that Foolish Wives, the $1,000,000 super-feature, will be released early in October. Erich von Stroheim, who directed it, is now making the first screen cut. It will be ready for its preview on the 15th when censors will arrive at Universal City from all over the country to view the production, and confer with Irving G. Thalberg, general manager, at Universal, as to whether Foolish Wives needs the scissors in spots, or whether it may be shown just as it stands.

Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg was good at his job. Only 22 years old, it’s no wonder he’d been promoted so quickly at Universal. There was plenty in his studio’s million-dollar investment to horrify censors; von Stroheim’s story of a con artist who seduces and swindles rich women in Monte Carlo featured lechery, adultery, gambling, murder, arson, suicide, plus abuse of a mentally disabled girl. Von Stroheim made sure that his villain was utterly villainous! So Thalberg planned a week-long junket to flatter a collection of censors. The Los Angeles Times reported on his program:

Members of the official censor boards of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and of the cities of Detroit and Kansas City, assembled in Chicago as guests of Carl Laemmle of the Universal Film Company, will leave today for Los Angeles.

The party will arrive in Los Angeles at 2:40 p.m. Sunday, August 14, over the Santa Fe. Harry M. Berman, general sales manager of Universal, will be in charge of the delegation.

After a brief reception at the station at which Mr. Thalberg will welcome the members of the commission to Southern California on behalf of Carl Laemmle, the party will be motored to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Stanley Anderson, managing director of the hostelry, will participate in entertaining them. Following a dinner at the hotel, the censors will receive Los Angeles newspaper writers, representatives of the motion-picture trade publications and correspondents of news services.

Festivities during the first day of the censors’ stay include a luncheon at the studio, a tour of Universal City, a trip to Santa Monica, sea bathing and a barbecue. In the evening the members will be the guests of the Emanuel Presbyterian Brotherhood at a meeting of particular interest to those concerned in censorship.

Tuesday will be devoted to a personally conducted tour of other picture studios, where the censors may see for themselves just how things are done, and to a luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel, followed by a motor trip through Pasadena.

As by this time the censors should be in high, good humor, they are to experience the “great moment” of their visit. They’re going to be allowed to take a peek at Eric von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives.

Wednesday will be a gala day. The guests will be conveyed to Universal city early in the morning for an animal circus at the Universal City arena. A.C. Stecker, chief animal trainer, will put on a thrilling animal act. On the same day the censors will meet such celebrities as Priscilla Dean, Harry Carey, Gladys Walton, Frank Mayo, Eddie Polo, Marie Prevost, Art Acord, Eileen Sedgwick, Lee Moran, Bert Roach and the battalion of noted Universal directors.

This event will lead up logically to the entertainment at Sunset Inn of the noted guests, with no less seductive a person than Priscilla Dean as hostess. And just as if this weren’t enough merriment for one week, the censors will be the guests next day of Harry Carey at his western ranch.

Once more Foolish Wives will be shown the censors, this event happening on Thursday evening, when the guests will be asked to comment on the picture. Eric von Stroheim will be present, too, and will make a little talk.

If there is anything in the picture’ the censors don’t like, it is likely to be forgotten next day, when they will be taken on a trip to Catalina Island, where they will be the guests of William Wrigley, Jr., and Sunday will be devoted to religious services according to the preference of the visitors.

They kept them busy! Thalberg’s wining and dining of the censors worked, at first (no wonder people called him the Boy Genius). According to Motion Picture News, by the end of their trip the censors gave Foolish Wives their official approval; after seeing a 24-reel version of it they

were sincere in their praise and but a few minor changes were suggested. “The consensus of our opinion,” said Harry Knapp, who acted as chairman of the censors in their convention, and who is also chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors, “is that the picture will prove a highly interesting entertainment when it is finally shipped into the more contracted shape required for public exhibition.

What happened next was beyond Thalberg’s control. Over the following weekend the events leading to the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal happened, and he was arrested on September 17th. Public opinion turned against the perceived corrupting influence of Hollywood. Thalberg responded by ordering extensive editing of Foolish Wives, which delayed its release.

By the end of November, Exhibitors Herald reported that von Stroheim was off the project. They thought that it was at his own request: “After having attempted for several months to get the world’s most expensive motion picture production cut down to exhibition length, Eric von Stroheim has given up the task. Either that of General Manager Irving Thalberg of Universal has taken it away from von Stroheim—probably the former.”

Foolish Wives premiered in New York in January 1922, and the controversy didn’t hurt it a bit. On January 14th, Kingsley reported:

Now that von Stroheim’s great feature picture, Foolish Wives, has made a sensational hit in New York, as—according to a telegram received yesterday by Irving G. Thalberg, from President Carl Laemmle—it has, Universal officials are drawing a long breath, and are preparing for the biggest invasion of the field of picture are which Universal has ever known.

However, the New York State Censorship Board demanded more cuts even after it opened. According to von Stroheim’s biographer, Richard Koszarski, another 3500 feet were eliminated; “audiences attending New York’s Central Theater during January 1922 could watch the film wasting away, literally day by day, until it had lost a full hour.”

It opened in Los Angeles in that ten-reel version a month later on February 15th. Kingsley’s boss Edwin Schallert reviewed it, and had a mixed reaction: “There is much, nay a tremendous lot, to admire in settings, acting and photography. There is a great deal, on the other hand, to find fault with in the matter of continuity, drama, and theme. This much is certain, however, that Foolish Wives is utterly different from anything that has come to the silver screen. There is nothing commonplace or trite about its manner or its method.”

It stayed at the Mission Theater until the end of March; they estimated over 100,000 people saw it at that one theater alone.

Now it’s a considered a classic. In 2008, it was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry. People still write about it, and it has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes!


Jay Balfour, “Von Stroheim Gives Up Task of Cutting Special,” Exhibitors Herald, November 26, 1921, p.36.

Harry Hammond Beall, “Personality of Film Folks has Conquered Censors,” Exhibitors Herald, September 3, 1921, p. 32.

“Censors Approve of Foolish Wives,” Motion Picture News, September 3, 1921, p.1195.

“Censors Enjoy Varied Views of Studioland,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1921.

“Censors Pleased with Foolish Wives; Few Suggestions of Eliminations Made. Moving Picture World, September 3, 1921, p. 52.

“Censors Show Their Talents in Acting,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1921.

“Film Censors Coming Here,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

“Foolish Wives is to Close Tuesday,” Los Angeles Times, March 26, 1921.

Grace Kingsley,” Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1921.

Richard Kosazrski, Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim, New York: Limelight, 2004.

Edwin Schallert, “Foolish Wives Haut Realism,” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1921.

Summer Doldrums: Week of July 23rd, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, movie news was stuck in the late July doldrums and Grace Kingsley was at her desk, reporting on other people’s plans to get out of town. Actress Ruth Renick was off to Montecito and Virginia Valli was touring Southern California in her car. Among the directors, Frank Lloyd was sailing to Hawaii for a month, and Rex Ingram was mapping out of tour of Europe, where he planned to make movies.

Yikes! If Ingram hadn’t gone to Europe, we might not have I Know Where I’m Going — director Michael Powell had his first film experience on the set of Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1926) in Nice, France

Kingsley didn’t just have to write about other people’s fun, the movies she had to review weren’t particularly good. Little Italy was “a sort of jitney Romeo and Juliet with two American-born young Italians of rival families.” However, the film begins with their wedding, and she thought there wasn’t a good reason for the feud to continue. Eventually a baby solves everything. Kingsley observed “how many a suffering scenario writer, up a stump as to finishing a story, has been found with child, and all was sweetness and light!”

She also sat through Raoul Walsh’s The Oath, which to her was “another fine superstructure built on sand. Built so that it topples at a comic and absurd angle, just when it should be most compelling.” This one was about a Jewish girl who marries a gentile boy, but it descended into melodrama when the boy is suspected of murdering his father and the girl “goes around tearing her hair and beating her breast for no reason whatever, except to spin the yarn out to five reels, and at the end she goes and stands on a rock like a bathing beauty, waiting to suicide.”

The stills from The Fighting Lover that Moving Picture World ran are a little dark.

Finally, she endured The Fighting Lover, a mystery involving diamond theft starring Frank Mayo that had a real problem: “The scenes are always so very dark that you haven’t an idea of what is happening.”

Matters were so dire, that she was reduced to complaining about the stuff publicists were pitching her:

Whatever would the poor publicity men do nowadays without the stories concerning—

* The faithful old gate man who didn’t know the picture producer on his own lot, and tried to put him off, but was so much appreciated that he got promoted to being inside doorman?

* The joke about “stills” and prohibition?

* The heroine rescuing the heavy man from a watery grave?

* The crowd not knowing it was a picture being taken, etc., etc.

* The father that found his long lost when he sighted her working as an extra in a picture?

* Not to mention the young ladies who get lost and wander away into the brush?

Luckily, Kingsley had only two more weeks until her vacation began.

I hope your summer is more fun than hers was!

They had a lot to correct: Week of July 16th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the set of the first commercially released feature film made by Chinese-Americans.* She reported that the production company was named Wah Ming Motion Picture Company and they were headquartered in Boyle Heights. Their movie was called The Lotus Blossom and it was based on a Chinese fable, “The Soul of the Great Bell,” which told the story of a bronze bell whose making required a virgin sacrifice. They had been working on it for three months and were almost done. The production cost around $100,000 and they already had a distributor lined up, the National Exhibitors’ organization.

They had high hopes for their film. The star, Lady Tsen-Mei, told Kingsley, “I want to make the world see that Chinese people are as artistic, as intelligent, as capable of accomplishment as any nation in the world.” The supervising director and scriptwriter, Leong But Jung, also wanted to educate audiences, saying, “you see, we can appeal to the whole world for China through the pictures. Therefore, we are carefully maintaining a balance. We are making them according to universal appeal, full of feeling and action, and yet we are remaining true to Chinese history and tradition.”

Unfortunately, the drawings that illustrated Kingsley’s piece as well as some of the rest of the article demonstrated exactly why they needed to inform the public. Robert Day’s cartoons were straight-up racist, with pidgin English and captions like “most people think the Chinese are tongmen or laundrymen.” Kingsley at least admitted to embarrassment for assuming Lady Tsen Mei didn’t speak English and asking a companion if “the dear little heathen’s daddy wears a pig-tail” right in front of her. The star quickly interrupted, “displaying utter savoir-faire in not permitting me to further entangle myself,” and Kingsley was able to recover and chat about the project. The actress must have gotten a lot of practice fending off ignorant remarks.

Lady Tsen-Mei

Lady Tsen-Mei told Kingsley some untruths about herself; she said she was born in Canton to a noble family and came to the United States when she was three. After graduating from the law school at Columbia University she went into vaudeville. She was actually born in Philadelphia in 1888, and her name was Josephine Moy. She didn’t get to attend college, but she did go into vaudeville as a singer and actress in 1915. In 1918, she starred in a film for the Betzwood Film Company, For the Freedom of the East. After The Lotus Blossom, she went back to vaudeville. She was in one more film, The Letter (1929). If you’d like to learn more, Ramona Curry is working on a biography about her.

At the premier, actresses Bessie Wong and Anna May Wong were among the people who greeted the audience.

The Lotus Blossom premiered in Los Angeles in November 1921. The L.A. Times main critic, Edwin Schallert, admired it, writing “it contains much of the beauty which is associated with the Far East of high imagining. It doesn’t flinch, either, at an unhappy ending, although there is an epilogue which shows the lovers, who have been separated by death, reunited as shadows. Except for some abruptness in the approach to the climax, the story is a very interesting and a truly appealing one. It is told with a fine sympathy for the leading characters.”

The Lotus Blossom only ran for a week on Los Angeles, but it did get distributed nationally, on a state’s rights basis.

1919 trade ad. Before he made The Lotus Blossom, he was a technical advisor.

To coincide with the film opening, Kingsley interviewed Leong But Jung, who had anglicized his name to James B. Leong. He had dissolved the Wah Ming Company and founded the Chung Wah Motion Picture Company. He was planning to make four films per year, and the first was to be called The Bond of Matrimony. Set in Korea, he said it would illustrate ancestor worship. Eventually he hoped to start a studio in China. Unfortunately, the company disappeared after that. Leong became a character actor in Hollywood. In 1930, he re-named his film Daughter of Heaven and it played at the Filmarte Theater in Los Angeles. A fragment has been preserved at the UCLA and can be seen on the More Treasures from American Film Archives DVD.

If you’d like to learn more, Rudy Martinez, a member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board, wrote a well-researched three-part blog series about the film.

* In 1917, Marian Wong made the first Chinese American film in Oakland, California, a six-reel feature called The Curse of Quon Gwon, but it didn’t get commercial distribution. You can read more about it at the Women Film Pioneers site. 

Kicking Up their Heels: Week of July 9th, 1921

Cocoanut Grove

One hundred years ago this week, an estimated 100,000 Elks invaded Los Angeles (population 576,573 in 1920) for their annual Grand Lodge Reunion, aka convention. According to Grace Kingsley, they were everywhere. Of course, they sampled the local night life, and she reported:

The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador is a lively little jungle these days, with the Elks and picture stars foregathering there every night for a little stepping, with tonight the night of the grand ball.

Buster Keaton unselfishly introduced his bride, Natalie Talmadge, to no less than twenty-five admiring Elks. One of these Elks, by the way, insisted on dancing with Natalie three times in succession. Evidently he hadn’t caught her name when introduced, and he didn’t know she was married. He was an energetic stepper, a trifle stout, and between steps he managed to remark “Wish I might call to see you some day!” “We’d be pleased to see you,” answered Natalie demurely, and that seemed to be all there was going to be of the incident for the time being. But when they stopped dancing the Elk managed to whisper to Keaton:

“She’s a peach. I like her.”

“She is,” acquiesced Buster. “So do I.”

“Let’s call on her,” suggested the Elk.

“All right,” said Buster.

And isn’t that Elk going to be surprised.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge

Keaton and Talmadge had just been married on May 31st, and plainly at that point no Elk would come between them. What’s remarkable now is that movie stars could go out in public without worrying about their safety.

Mary Newcomb

Kingsley had another tale of an Elk getting swatted down. Mary Newcomb, who was playing a journalist on stage in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath at the Majestic, got a mash note from a man in the audience:

Dear Miss, I’m a poor lonely Elk, wandering the wilderness of Los Angeles and scared every minute of being shot or, anyway, half shot. I think you’re the cutest girl I ever saw on stage. Will you take supper with me this evening?

Somehow, that invitation did not tempt her, and she graciously declined.

The Elks were a bunch of party animals! The convention lasted five days, with events held in different, far-flung locations* each day. Monday was Redondo Beach Day, and the Los Angeles Herald reported, “The Elks took a flying start yesterday on their week of festivities and landed in Redondo Beach with such a wallop that the earth vibrations will not cease for many days to come.” Tens of thousands of them turned up in the small town. In the morning, they gathered at the local Elks clubhouse for a reception and barbeque. Many lodges had their own band, and they played under every tree. Elks went for a swim and visited the boardwalk, and “the streets throbbed with their shouts of greeting and their laughter.” They held swimming and diving competitions. At 4 o’clock, they had a Marine Fashion Review, which was a parade with 85 women in bathing suits riding in cars followed by Elk marching bands and drill teams from Michigan, Texas, Colorado, California, and Washington. From 5 to 7 o’clock the bands went back to performing throughout Redondo Beach, and at 8 o’clock they held a dance. The fireworks were at 9:30, and the day ended with a midnight “girlie” show (no other details were given in the family newspaper about that event).

There weren’t enough hotels to hold them all, so some Elks camped out in Exposition Park. Here are Mr. and Mrs. William Sparks and their tent.

Tuesday was Santa Monica’s turn, and on Wednesday they were in Inglewood, Thursday in Long Beach and Friday in Pasadena. No one place could withstand the invasion for too long!  Exposition Park also hosted drill and band competitions and barbeques, and the city closed the streets of downtown several times for parades, including an evening electrical parade put on by the movie studios. The local newspapers helpfully published the program, so locals could observe or avoid the proceedings as they chose.

The new Grand Exalted Ruler, W.W. Mountain 

A little club business did get done; on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings they had meetings at the Philharmonic Theater in downtown L.A., where they elected W.W. Mountain their new Grand Exalted Ruler (the president) and the rest of their leadership, and they picked a place for next year’s convention, Atlantic City. However, the Herald reported: “meanwhile the 100,000 or more Elks and their friends and families who are guests of Los Angeles were kicking up their heels at the beaches and other Southern California amusement centers. They eschewed business worries, leaving such affairs to the officials of the lodge, who are supposed to look after these things.”


Busch Gardens, 1921

They also made the tourist rounds, with sightseeing trips to the movie studios, boat trips to Catalina, and a visit to Busch Gardens.

By all reports, the convention went smoothly, and everyone had a pretty good time. As Kingsley observed, “how the Elks will ever be able to go back to their humdrum lives now, I don’t see.” But afterwards, I bet the locals were happy to have a little humdrum back in their town.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was staying true to its founding principles: it got its start in 1868 as a social club for minstrel show performers called the Jolly Corks. As a private club, they didn’t have to obey tavern opening laws. As their web site now emphasizes, the group raises money for worthy charities, veterans, and college scholarships, in addition to socializing. However, for a long time the organization left a lot of people out; black men couldn’t join until 1973 and women weren’t allowed in until 1995 (though there were unofficial ladies’ auxiliaries). Atheists and anyone not an American citizen are still excluded.

*The whole convention was an amazing logistical feat. Redondo Beach is about 24.5 miles Southwest of downtown L.A., Santa Monica is 15.5 miles West, Inglewood 17.5 miles Southwest, Long Beach 24.5 miles Southwest and Pasadena is 9 miles North. Tens of thousands of Elks got around the city by the Pacific Electric Railway. Even though our public transportation has improved a bit lately, I don’t think it could be done today.

Jake Berman made this much easier to read map in 2018

Girls Will Be Boys: Week of July 2nd, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noticed a worrying trend in movie-going:

Is it going to be the fashion this summer in our picture houses to present vaudeville acts and musical numbers which shall overtop the film features? It begins to look that way.

The California is stepping right out this week with a vaudeville star in the person of Kathleen Clifford, who sings the same sort of daintily spicy little songs, and dances the dainty dances which she gave us at the Orpheum a few seasons ago. Miss Clifford is a rare little artist in her own field, in fact there’s no one quite like her, and the applause she received yesterday must have gratified her. Her songs are the piquantly naughty “She Took Mother’s Advice” and “It Can’t Be Done in Crinoline,” with costumes to match.

Kathleen Clifford, 1920

Kathleen Clifford had been on the stage for nearly two decades, often in a kind of act I’d never read about before: she was a male impersonator. While Kingsley had written about female impersonators like George Peduzzi and the young women who sometimes played boys in films, like Shirley Mason in Treasure Island, I hadn’t known that there were several successful male impersonators in vaudeville; so many that a book has been written about them, Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage by Gillian M Rodger.

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1887, Kathleen Clifford started out in a Broadway chorus in 1902, and was promoted to supporting player in musical comedies in 1903. She moved into vaudeville in 1909, when she introduced her solo act in which she played both male and female characters. She was billed as “The Smartest Chap in Town,” and she sang comic songs and danced. When she played the Orpheum in June 1918, Kingsley’s review said, “one of the big hits of the year was scored by Kathleen Clifford, the pocket Venus, with her daintiness and vivacity, her piquant comedy and her “chappie” songs.”

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

In 1917 Paramount Studio hired her to make a serial called Who Is Number One, in which she played a boy. She alternated between movies and the stage for the rest of her show business career, appearing as a woman in When the Clouds Roll By (1919) with Douglas Fairbanks, Kick In (1922) and The Love Gamble (1925), and both a boy and a girl in Grandpa’s Girl(1924) for Christie Studio. In 1926 she married Miomir Peter Illith, a vice president of the United California Bank, and retired a few years later.

Outshining the feature that day might not have done her career a favor, because she was its leading lady. Then again, it sounds like she couldn’t have saved it: even kindly Kingsley thought it stunk:

They’re certainly digging deep down into grandpa’s barrel of best sellers in Boyhood Blood-and-Thunder Books when they put on a story like Cold Steel. It’s all about a man wrongfully accused of murder by a pack of cattle kings out West and how his son went out there to build a dam and clear his father’s name. The villains were going to blow up the dam while the workers were away at a dance. As a man sitting back of me put it— “They were going to blow out the dam while the hero was away at a damn blow-out.” Only, of course, the hero arrived in time to shoot away the dynamite fixing (from a distance of about half a mile apparently) before the villains could complete their hellish work. Of course, there were kidnappers and kidnappings and wild chases. And, of course, the king-pin villain drives over a cliff. It’s all very wild indeed.

In short, Cold Steel is a cold steal from all the old mellers that ever were thought of.

Kingsley made no mention of Clifford’s acting ability, saying only “Miss Clifford happens also to be the heroine of the feature picture, Cold Steel.” It’s a lost film.

Two Kinds of Filmmakers: Week of June 25th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley gave her readers a glimpse behind the scenes of the three biggest stars in Hollywood. Even in 1921, she divided them into two kinds of artists: workhorses and geniuses. She began by describing the daily routine for two workhorses, Douglas Fairbanks, then shooting The Three Musketeers, and Mary Pickford, in the middle of Little Lord Fauntleroy:

“Douglas is an early riser, and everybody in the house, guests and all, have to get up when he does,” explained Mary Pickford the other day. Then Doug takes his exercise and cold shower, and the two breakfast together at 7:30 a.m. Both are always at their studios around 8:30 a.m., and are ready for work at 9, when everybody else arrives. Both work all morning like beavers, taking scenes, after short conferences with their directors.

The Three Musketeers

Lunchtime wasn’t time for a rest, instead:

“The two stars, with their business managers and associates, have lunch in the pretty little Japanese lunchroom, which is a dainty bungalow offering a quaint comparison to the haphazard outdoor surroundings of sets, cowboy rough riders, stables, automobiles and rambling frame buildings. They’re really an odd and amusing looking pair at lunch, at present—little Mary in her velvet Fauntleroy suit and her long, yellow curls, looking like a very proper little boy guest of the athlete, and Doug in his picturesque, swashbuckling D’Artangan outfit—especially when the two begin talking about American business.”

Then it was back to work in front of the cameras:

After lunch, which usually consumes an hour or an hour and a half, especially if some of the United Artists officials happen to be present with weighty business questions to be discussed, Mary goes over to her studio at the Brunton lot—she usually drives over, though it’s only across the street from Doug’s studio and the lunchroom, because she doesn’t think it seemly for her to be trotting about in the Fauntleroy duds.

On the Three Musketeers set

They kept working until a time that now seems extraordinarily reasonable:

Douglas and Mary usually stop work with the 5 o’clock whistle, go into their projection rooms with their directors to see the “rushes,” and then they go home to dinner at 7, after which the usually see a picture in their own projection room at their Beverly Hills home. “Usually the picture is a travelogue,” said Mary. “The travelogues are educational as well as being restful and taking us out of our everyday humdrum lives.”

Then Douglas’s French teacher comes, and sometimes Mary sits in with Doug on his lesson, but more often, thoroughly tired from the day’s grind, she goes to bed.

Chaplin was working on The Idle Class

There was no glamour to report on here! Kingsley contrasted their “humdrum grind” with Charlie Chaplin’s working methods:

Charlie Chaplin works in an entirely different fashion. He is a late riser and usually has breakfast in bed. Then he comes down to the studio and usually talks over his scenes and ideas with his company, managers, actors, everybody frequently sits in on the conclaves. But before the discussion takes place Charlie usually wrinkles a bit over the day’s actions. “I usually sweat blood when I first come on the set and see all those people,” declared Charlie to me. “Ideas a fugitive and elusive things, and to track one down is strenuous mental exercise. Don’t talk to me about inspiration. Let’s speak rather of perspiration.”

It must be remembered that Charlie is three people—author, director, and star. The author has the first innings. Charlie the author is always in search of new ideas, new gags. When he arrives in the morning he is likely to go about moodily by himself for an hour. Or sometimes he kids about, playing with the dogs on the lot, of which there are half a dozen, as Charlie always adopts the ki-yis which work in pictures with him.

Then, when an idea strikes him, he mulls it over a little, and then, becoming all animation, dashes over to the set to talk it over with his company—Manager Alfred Reeves, players, and everyone, and then, having held rehearsals and planned the afternoon’s work, he goes to lunch, returning full primed for an afternoon’s hard work.

And when he does get started working, how he does work! He labors so fast and so brilliantly that the ordinary mind can hardly keep pace with him. His ideas are wonderfully clean-cut, and he won’t stop making a scene until it suits him. While to the rest of the company a scene may be right, he frequently sees something wrong with it. He is patience personified in this, despite his usual restless brilliancy. He will work until the daylight fades, as he hates artificial lights, and refuses to have them installed in his studio.

He has a rather mischievously perverse habit, has Charlie, say his professional associates, of loving to find a corner of the set that hasn’t been properly finished, and insisting on its being finished and working in that corner. No other place will do.

It must be trying to work for a genius. His evening habits were also the opposite of the Pickford/Fairbanks homebodies, but according to Kingsley, he was still at work:

The comedian keeps the cook and butler in a constant daily ferment as to whether he’s going to keep his date to dine at home or whether he will go to some café for dinner…He is always seeking ideas and types.

However, this seeking of ideas after work is fairly subconscious for the most part, as usually he’s a gay nighthawk, and the brightest member of any bright party he may join. He likes the company of clever women, and frequently sups with Florence Deshon or most often with May Collins, his reputed fiancée. Miss Collins often, chaperoned by her mother, spends the evening at his home, and here too gather clever writers like Rupert Hughes, Edward Knoblock, Gouverneur Morris and others.

Sid Grauman is a great friend of Charlie’s too, and often Charlie joins Sid in the latter’s midnight vigils at the theater when Sid is rehearsing or trying out new acts, and often as late as 3 o’clock in the morning the two wander into some downtown open-all-night café, where they kid, play practical jokes on each other, or discuss business or artistic matters.

Take him all in all, Charlie belongs to the Sleep-Haters’ Club.

So before the studio era, there wasn’t one way to be a filmmaker. Now what’s striking is that both kinds of filmmakers kept much more humane work hours then nowadays — modern film crews would love a nine to five workday.

A Fractured Flicker: Week of June 18th, 1921

The Toss of a Coin (1911) Mary Pickford, Irvin Willat

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley used revivals as a stick to hit new releases with:

It looks as though the revival disorder was beginning to hit pictures, as well as the stage. Judging from some of the newer features, it doesn’t seem a bad idea at that. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation started it. *

This week there are two other revivals. One is a Norma Talmadge picture, A Daughter’s Strange Inheritance, and the other is a Mary Pickford film of even earlier vintage. The Mary Pickford picture is a pippin. It is at Miller’s, is called The Toss of a Coin, and some wag has written a set of kidding subtitles that are a scream.

The film was made before Kliegs were discovered, when nobody thought of styles of clothes in pictures, and when the simplest story was a wonder and delight. You can tell Mary by her curls; otherwise she might be Sarah Bernhardt or Carrie Nation. All the people in the picture are now well-known film folk, including Miss Pickford, Ethel Grandin, Irvin Willat, Edward LeSaint, and others, and all appear in flashes taken at their homes, as a sort of epilogue to the story, except Miss Pickford. Can’t imagine why she didn’t get clubby and do it too.

She probably didn’t want to even think about The Toss of Coin, because filming it had been a miserable experience, according to Pickford biographer Scott Eyman. It was the first film she made under her contract with Carl Laemmle’s IMP company in 1911. He sent the cast and crew to Cuba to avoid the production being shut down by the Motion Pictures Patent Company (IMP wasn’t a member), but the heat and humidity there made everybody miserable. Furthermore, the script wasn’t very good** and the crew wasn’t experienced, particularly compared to what she’d been working with in her previous job at Biograph. Thomas Ince directed it, but he’d been a director for less than a year. Her leading man, Irvin Willat, wasn’t even an actor, he was a film lab technician–they needed a leading man close to her age. Pickford stuck with it, making more than twenty films in Cuba, but she ended up breaking her contract three months early, saying she’d “taken ill.” She returned to New York, Biograph and D.W. Griffith.

The other participants went on to successful careers in film, and could laugh at their earlier work, but Pickford, who had the most success, was sensitive about it. For a time she did think about burning all her films, so people couldn’t laugh at them – at least that’s what she said in 1931, according to biographer Eileen Whitfield. However, by 1945 she’d changed her mind and donated the prints she had to the Library of Congress.

The Toss of a Coin was playing with erstwhile leading man turned director Irvin Willat’s latest film, Down Home. I think it was probably his idea to give it the Fractured Flickers treatment. In addition to the joke intertitles, the Los Angeles Herald review mentioned “the reel is put on in the nickelodeon style, the out of tune piano accompaniment being a realistic reminder of the days when million-dollar motion picture houses had not even been dreamed of.” It screened only at the one theater. When Kevin Brownlow interviewed Willat in the late 1960’s, he asked if he had kept any films. He showed him his copy of Toss, but by then it had solidly decomposed. I’ll bet that was this print. No other prints have been found.

Kingsley observed, “why is every producer who starts out to make a so-called clean picture obsessed with the idea that its scenes must be laid down on the farm?”

Kingsley really didn’t like Down Home, saying:

 and while it may be cruel to say it, it does seem as if he had used a good deal of the old ‘makin’s’ in this modern film.’ There’s the suffering young heroine with the drunken father (wonder how the poor old fellow could afford it?) the city slicker trying to get the old farm away from the gal because, by heck it has salt deposits on it; the strong, noble young blacksmith hero, and all the rube types.

Down Home has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

It’s possible that Mary Pickford didn’t have the time to film a bit for the epilog. Kingsley reported that she was so occupied making Little Lord Fauntleroy that she:

went shopping for the first time in five months. In fact, she says, all her shopping has to be ‘window shopping,’ she is so busy. As to window shopping, she and Douglas occasionally enjoy an auto trip downtown at night, when she drives past the stores, and has great fun peeking at the styles. She says that if Douglas is bored, he never lets on.


* The week before, a re-edited version of The Birth of a Nation had started playing at the Garrick Theater. It seems to have been selling plenty of tickets:

Irvin Willat in The Toss of a Coin, from Robert S. Birchard, “Conversations with Irvin V. Wiilat,” Film History, v.12, pp. 29-40, 2000. 

** Motion Picture News (August 19, 1911, p. 26) had a recap of The Toss of a Coin, and it’s hard to see how joke intertitles fit in. It is a lot of story for one reel: it nearly takes longer to read it than to watch it!

Dan Gardner, a young man, is down and out. Arrested as a tramp, he is thrown into jail and forced to associate with disreputable characters. He is released and with but a single coin in his pocket.

Arriving at a bridge, he gazes into the water and his thoughts turn to suicide. He reaches in his pocket, extracts the coin and flips it up. Heads he dies and tails he lives. Fate is against him and he is about to carry out the decree when his preserver, Farmer Barton, drives on the scene. Mr. Barton is bound for the village to hire a man to assist him in his farm work. Dan is more than anxious to secure employment and accompanies the kind-hearted farmer home. Dan is fitted out with clothing and takes up his quarters in a detached cabin on the farm.

Alice Barton is the rosy-cheeked daughter of the farmer, and has attracted the attention of Ed White, the sheriff, who released Dan from jail. Dan and the girl are thrown much into each other’s society and the new farmhand loves her. Assisting her one day in the field where she has sprained her ankle, the truth is forced home to him. He realizes the difference in their stations and resolves to leave the farm and go out in the world again. He flips the coin and once more fate decrees that he should do that which is not satisfactory to him.

The two thieves who were released from prison with him come to steal the money of the farmer and, while Dan is temporarily absent from his cabin, Alice comes to bring him some socks she has darned. Ed White, the jealous sheriff, notices the action and mistrusts the girl of being unduly intimate with Dan and informs her parents. Dan arrests the scoundrels, holding them up at the point of a gun, and they are turned over to the sheriff, but his indignant at the accusation of White and is about to leave the farm when his deed of heroism is made clear to the farmer, who has implicit faith in his daughter.

Dan and Alice have a pretty little love scene and Dan is welcomed by the honest old farmer as his prospective son-in-law to the discomfiture of the sheriff, who sought to prejudice the old man against him. All ends happily for Dan and he has at last found a home among kind and loving friends.

An Aspiring Feminist: Week of June 11th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed director Allen Holubar because his latest film, Man-Woman-Marriage, was about to open in Los Angeles. Now he’s forgotten, but back then his opinions were taken as seriously as Cecil B. De Mille’s and Erich von Stroheim’s. He was most known for his female-centered films; Kingsley wrote:

In dwelling on women’s problems in pictures, Mr. Holubar never treats them academically or radically, but always humanly, from the dramatic standpoint. In Hearts of Humanity, it was woman’s suffering through war which was the principal theme; in The Right of Happiness it was woman’s participation in the new economic and social order of things since the war; and in Man-Woman-Marriage the principal story is that of the woman who, having borne all she could from a brutal husband, goes out into the world to earn her own living and incidentally to help other women and their children. In all these pictures, there has been more than mere story—there is in all of them a carefully thought out theme, food for thought in philosophic treatment, and the clash of wills which makes human drama.

In part, he did this to give his wife, actress Dorothy Phillips, meaty roles that could showcase her talents. But he also seems to have thought of himself as a feminist. Unfortunately, his gender essentialism hasn’t aged well. He told Kingsley:

 It is the fear of woman that makes men often unjust to them. Yet men need not fear. The mother instinct in women will make them more or less docile, whether they are armed with power or not. And it is mother instinct that will make women want to take care of the world in politics as well as in the home. There is a powerful revolution going on along feministic lines. Yet when it is fully worked out the changes will all seem quite natural. There is to be a greater equality of sexes in every way.

Mother instinct, bah humbug. Women want to be in charge of things for the same wide range of reasons men do. Nevertheless, he thought that equity was a good thing, and he sounds terribly earnest. You can’t hate a director who says, “my pictures have all been bad,” which Kingsley called “a really humble and seeking spirit toward his chosen art.” His films were quite popular, and critics took them seriously.

Man-Woman-Marriage (Dorothy Phillips, James Kirkwood)

Man-Woman-Marriage told the story of Victoria (Dorothy Phillips) who marries an ambitious young lawyer who runs for Senate. He soon becomes corrupted. To stop him, she decides to run against him. Eventually he gets caught and reformed by her visits to the prison. Throughout the film, she dreams about similar problems faced by women in five earlier times: the prehistoric era, the matriarchal Amazonian times, the age of chivalry, the Roman period, and the dawn of Christianity. This allowed Holubar to include what Kingsley called “a number of spectacular features, including the Court of Constantine, the dances created by Marian Morgan, notably the Amazonian dance, and some thrilling riding of Amazon women.”

Reviews were mixed. Edwin Schallert in the L.A. Times didn’t comment on the feminist themes, he was more concerned about the film’s structure. He wrote that it was not a “great feature, even though it has the qualities which go to make greatness…All the material is there, and it has been handled with expert tools, but the model has been broken up, and the statue that is taken from it is finished piecemeal, so that there is a leg of drama there, a cheek of comedy there, and the glamorous cloak of historical splendor elsewhere.” He felt that the film’s biggest problem was that “the modern story is arbitrary, however, and one loses his perspective along with his sense of proportion at times, while following abrupt changes. Still each section has a full complement of enjoyment, and while the result obtained is at times artistically bad, it is entertainingly good.”

Nevertheless, Man-Woman-Marriage tapped into something the public wanted. It broke attendance records at its East Coast premiere in February, and it played for an extra week in Los Angeles. The Times said “Los Angeles press and public have been united in praising the Holubar spectacle. Clergymen, clubwomen, teachers are telling its virtues and moral lessons.” It has been preserved at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

Allen Holubar, 1921

Allen Holubar was born in 1888 in San Francisco, and he became a theater actor in stock companies. He met his future wife Dorothy Phillips while they were both acting in the play Every Woman, and Phillips described that day for Kingsley:

He had been fishing and hunting on the West Coast, following his engagement as leading man at the Alcazar in San Francisco, and when I looked up, I beheld a very tall, brown, handsome youth gazing at me. Nobody introduced us, but I wished somebody would. Presently Allen came over to talk to me, anyway.

Awww! They got married in 1912. There was a downturn in the theater business, and they both went to work for Essanay Film Company in Chicago as actors. He started directing in 1916 at Universal.

He was famous enough that his name was used to sell his films, also like De Mille and von Stroheim

After Man-Woman-Marriage he only got to make three more films (Hurricane’s Gal 1922, Broken Chains 1922 and Slander the Woman 1923). He got sick while on location in Tennessee shooting The Human Mill and was taken back to Los Angeles for gallstone surgery. He died at home following the surgery on November 20, 1923. He had shot a lot of footage for his final film, and it was on Metro’s “Coming Attractions” list until 1925, but it was never completed. He might have been better remembered today if he’d had the chance to make more films. It’s a shame: it would have been interesting to see how his progressive ideas developed.

“Holubar Picture,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1921.

Man-Woman-Marriage, First National Film, Broke Paterson Attendance Records,” Moving Picture World, February 12, 1921, p. 800.

Edwin Schallert, “Reviews: Man Woman Marriage,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1921.

Advice to Leading Ladies: Week of June 4th, 1921

She recommends snagging Robert McKim, who “has a chance to be as devilish as possible” in this movie. Kingsley also threatened to write a book called The Crimes of Kid McKim because of all the dirty work his characters got up to, including as the villain in Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro

One hundred years ago this week, after seeing The Man of the Forest Grace Kingsley made some good points about bad guys:

If I were a screen heroine I’d marry the villain in the first reel, get me a good band of cowboys to protect me and my husband, and live happily ever after. Because it’s the villain’s faithful love for the heroine that’s always his undoing, despite the fact that he’s a right smart boy and usually a snappy dresser, in the bargain.

He just will kidnap the heroine and then, of course, it’s all off with him. What girl wants to be kidnapped without having even a chance to powder her nose? I really believe if the villain kept on with his cool plotting and didn’t let the heroine go to his head so, that he’d win out in the end.

Don’t wait around to marry Carl Gantvoort in the final reel! Kingsley thought that “Carl Gantvoort in the name part is due to become a film idol with the right opportunity.” That opportunity doesn’t seem to have come. He was former stage musical singer, and after a few more Westerns he left film acting in 1922 and became a real estate agent.

It’s a shame Kingsley didn’t write that movie! It would have added some variety to the usual fare. Of course, silent movie villains came in many shapes and sizes (Fritzi Kramer mentions that now, people need to be reminded that not all silent movie villains were Snidely Whiplash, even if many of them had moustaches that could possibly be twirled). There were many recent villains that I imagine Kingsley would not recommend marrying, like Erich von Stroheim in Blind Husbands or Lon Chaney as Blizzard in The Penalty

Robert McKim and Claire Adams in The Man of the Forest. Kingsley wrote, “Claire Adams as Helen Raynor is lovely, with her work realistic as always.” She later married the film’s producer, Benjamin Hampton, and she had a solid career in silent films until 1927.

The film that prompted these thoughts, The Man of the Forest, told the story of Helen (Claire Adams) who was visiting her uncle’s ranch to assist with a cattle round-up. Milt, aka the man in the forest (Carl Gantvoort), was also there to help and his attentions to her made the nearby ne’er do well bootlegger Harvey (Robert McKim) jealous.  So naturally Harvey kidnaps her and Milt rescues her. You can see why Kingsley’s mind might have wandered to an alternative plot, but it was exactly what the audience wanted; she reported:

Miller’s was packed all day yesterday. The crowds were amply rewarded, for there’s not a dull moment, as attested by their frequent applause.

So even though the film wasn’t a classic, a happy Sunday afternoon at the movies was had by all. It’s been preserved at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

Joe Millionaire, 1921: Week of May 28th, 1921

Sid Grauman, 1930

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley included a story that shows people did really stupid things in public back then, too:

“For a sensational method of selecting a bride, there’s a young man in town who makes Lochinvar* look like a pike, tenderfoot, lounge lizard. He’s from Arizona, his name is John Edington, he’s a rich miner and good looking in the bargain. And he wants to choose a wife from among the fifty beauteous girls who are to appear at the Actors’ Fund Festival, in Sid Grauman’s act, at the Beverly Hills Speedway Saturday.

It happened this way. Mr. Grauman was rumpling his hair and wrinkling over the details of his big future movie star contest, which he is arranging for the Actors’ Fund Festival, when the door opened to admit a stranger, tall and handsome.

“My name is John Edington,” stated this intruder, “and I came to Los Angeles to get a wife, because I think the most beautiful girls in the world are right here. I have read something of the fifty beautiful girls you are picking for your gigantic act, and I have a proposition to make you. I am rich and I believe I amiable. At any rate even a collar button at its most rampageous and cussedest moment cannot upset me. I am willing to marry the girl who will make me the best wife.”

The outcome of the matter is that Mr. Grauman is turning his act into a marriage market. A huge pedestal has been erected at the Speedway, and on this will be seated the fifty girls, with the wife-seeking miner at the center. At the big show, each girl is to give her reasons for believing that she will make him the best wife. The audience, after listening to the pleas of each girl, will vote on the one they believe will be best suited to the handsome miner.

And here is the big kick: the miner has absolutely agreed to marry the girls selected by the audience! Of course, the girl remains to be heard from, and in case of any hitch, the audience may vote again.

The story was so absurd that Kingsley had to say, “Sid Grauman declares that every word of the story is true and vouches for the fact that the man was sane, sober and with nothing on the hip at the time he made the offer.”

Map of the Actors’ Fund Festival, June 4, 1921

So Married at First Sight, Ninety Day Fiancé, etc. are not the harbinger of civilization’s decline: we’ve always been ridiculous. Kingsley didn’t comment about what an atrocious idea marrying whoever an audience who’d been out all day eating fair food and watching rodeo told you to was. But that’s exactly what happened, according to the L.A. Times report after the festival (Grauman had gotten his name wrong: the prospective groom was George Endres).

Sid Grauman offered a beauty show and matrimonial contest. He displayed fifty girls of all ages, arrayed in all their beauty, and who were contending for the hand of a love-sick swain—name, George Endres—who had promised to marry the girl who gained the largest number of votes. All of them wanted him—and his money—but he didn’t seem to get such a kick out of it.

The reporter didn’t describe the winning speech, but he couldn’t have known which woman would win. The next day, the paper had a follow-up:

As an aftermath to the festival, Justice Handy put the finishing touches to an unusual romance when at midnight Saturday he united in marriage Miss Marion Breakwell and George Endres, the Arizona miner who appealed to Sid Grauman to help him find a wife. Mr. Grauman’s response to the plea was the “Matrimonial Market,” in which fifty girls, who had agreed that the one chosen by the public should marry Mr. Endres, appeared. Miss Breakwell was selected and the wedding followed.

L.A. County marriage records back up that report, with the wedding being officially recorded on the following Tuesday:

But here’s the shocking part: their marriage lasted until George Endres died in 1948. My goodness! However did they manage that? A little more searching in the vital records solves that puzzle: Endres and Breakwell had been married since 1915.

Endres lied a little about his age: he was only 19 as well

Oh Sidney Patrick Grauman, you great big liar. He must have decided that a parade of pretty girls who wanted to be movie stars wasn’t entertaining enough, especially since he was competing with a harem show three buildings over. Nevertheless, even 100 years later I’m relieved two strangers didn’t marry based on a vote from overheated fairgoers. So it seems that people in 1921 were much smarter than reality show contestants are now. I hope Grauman paid the couple well.

George Albert Endres wasn’t actually a miner from Arizona–Grauman lied about that, too—but at least he was young. He was born on October 5, 1895 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He married Miriam (she preferred Marion) Hodgin Breakwell (born November 24, 1895) on May 1st, 1915. By the 1917 draft registration, he was an assistant stock keeper for the Globe Wernicke furniture company in Cincinnati. They moved to Long Beach, California sometime after that. By 1930, he’d become the manager of a clothing store and in 1940 he was the credit manager at a department store. They had a daughter, Barbara, in 1942. He died in 1948 and Marion died in 1980 and they’re buried together in Forest Lawn, Long Beach.

The Actors’ Fund Festival was quite something. Kingsley called it “the greatest event of the sort ever staged in the West, with the hundreds of famous names on the program,” and she wasn’t exaggerating. Here’s the ad for it, from the Los Angeles Herald:

The Times reported that it was a big success; on June 5th they said, “from early morn until late last night dollars by the tens of thousands flowed like rivers into the fund that will relieve the sick and destitute of the profession for the year to come.” On June 6th, they quoted the man in charge, Daniel Frohman, who estimated that they’d made $100,000 for the Actors’ Fund. However, it took quite a while to give it to the people who needed it. They didn’t form the committee to oversee the disbursement until September 21, 1921 and they planned to have weekly meetings to review all of the applications for assistance. The Actors’ Fund is still helping people in the entertainment industry, and it looks like nowadays they’re much more efficient at providing emergency assistance.

* Lochinvar was the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion (1808). He swoops into his beloved’s wedding feast, saving her from a dastardly groom.

“Actors’ Benefit Fest to Thrill,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1921.

“Add Hundred Thousand to Actors’ Fund,” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1921.

“Frohman Names Charity Body,” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1921.

“Raise Pleasure Palaces,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1921.

Otis M. Wiles,” Stream of Gold Pours into Thespians’ Fund,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1921.