Convict 711: Week of April 16th, 1921

Sheriff Theo “Budge” Lacy Jr. books Bebe Daniels into the Orange County Jail

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the biggest story in Hollywood: actress Bebe Daniels was actually going to jail for breaking the law. She’d be caught doing 56.25 miles an hour in Orange County in January (the speed limit was 35) and on March 28th she’d been sentenced to ten days in the County Jail. After being allowed to finish shooting her current film, Daniels reported to serve her sentence on April 16th. Kingsley made the whole experience sound not bad at all:

Though jail is supposed to be a very secluded spot, Miss Daniels has received so many visitors, a perfect stream from morning until night, that she is entirely worn out…Among the presents Miss Daniels received yesterday was a file, which, she was, of course, not permitted to keep. Thirty kittens have been offered by school children, who gather just outside the jail every afternoon, and call her to come and talk with them.

Miss Daniels has to reverse the usual order of things and get out of jail in order to get a chance to be lonesome. Scores of telegrams are being received daily by Miss Daniels, besides flowers and other gifts. Roscoe Arbuckle yesterday set her a beautiful gilded basket of fruit, and Mabel Normand about $1,000,000 worth of roses.

The Sunset Inn Jazz Band serenaded her. Kingsley said that the jailer would not permit the piano to be brought in, so they played for her outside. The band included Abe Lyman, Gus Arnheim, Bill Daimond, Rev Fox, Jess Stafford, Charles Pierce, Henry Halstead and Jake Garcia.

Kingsley wasn’t the only L.A. Times journalist unimpressed by the star’s travails. Under a photo captioned “Marie Antoinette Found French Bastille Far Different” on April 17th the unnamed reporter wrote:

Terrors of a life behind prison bars were experienced for the first time yesterday by Bebe Daniels, motion picture actress and undisputed champion speeder of Orange County.

For breakfast, the fair Bebe was compelled to arise at the unearthly hour of 9 a.m. And the only way she could get her food, which consisted of such untasty things as a grapefruit, toast and coffee, was to have it fetched by a high-chested French waiter bedecked in a full-dress outfit.

The writer mentioned that her cell furnishings included an ivory bedroom suit, rugs, drapes, and a Victrola “with only 150 records.” At lunch, the waiter was back with “creamed asparagus, soup, radishes and celery, a luscious steak and strawberry shortcake.” The judge, Justice J.B. Cox, brought her a huge bouquet of roses and she had 50 visitors the first day. When she wasn’t chatting with her visitors, she answered letters and telegrams from well-wishers.

The star, or perhaps her ghost writer, felt differently about it. In July, Photoplay ran an article that they said Convict 711 had written while in jail. (I don’t know when she would have had the time!) The author said that if she were painting the scenes, it would be called “Thoughts on Being Incarcerated in a Damp, Dark Dungeon,” and the melodrama continued:

Today—they have made me a crook and a jail-bird—a member of the underworld. They have taken away my name and given me a number. They led me up the cold stone steps—the great steel door clanged behind me. Think of it!

The Photoplay caption said “this is the way Bebe looked when she finally slowed down in her Stutz and they got her.” They got the car wrong: it was a Marmon Roadster

However, she did realize that her experience was extraordinary. The final total number of names in her guest book was 792, and she received so much candy and so many flowers that she had to send them to children at the local hospital. She mentioned other privileges:

I am grateful too, in my humble way, that they did not make me wear stripes or shave my head. I had some very pretty little jail frocks of pale blue taffeta. The hairdresser comes every morning to do my hair.

Later in life, she admitted that she was actually doing over 70 when she got pulled over. According to film historian Marilyn Slater, looking back on her experience Daniels wrote, “despite the lavish furnishings and the flowers and the excellent food that would be served by the best restaurant in town, I was really very miserable…each night I had the recurring feeling of how awful it was to be locked in a cell.” She did learn her lesson: she said that she never sped again, except for when she was shooting The Speed Girl, the movie they made to capitalize on all the publicity. So while nearly 800 visitors a week is excessive, maybe jail doesn’t have to be completely horrible to promote rehabilitation.

Nevertheless, the manager at Clune’s Broadway didn’t need to wait for The Speed Girl to use the press attention to sell tickets. Her latest movie, Ducks and Drakes, played there this week and Motion Picture News reported that manager Frank L. Browne clipped every newspaper story about her jailing and displayed them in the theater lobby, which “drew attention, much comment and large crowds. There was almost a riot at one time when two factions started disputing as to whether Judge Cox did right in sentencing the beautiful girl for ten days.” He added a telegram to the display, purportedly from Daniels, saying how sorry she was she couldn’t be there. Moti0n Picture News concluded, “needless to say, Mr. Browne got the crowds.”

Happily, once the crowds went in they got to see a pretty good movie, according to Kingsley:

While Bebe Daniels herself is languishing in durance vile—at least pretty vile—down in the Santa Ana jail, presumably repenting of speeding, her celluloid double speeds at Clune’s Broadway in one of the spiciest, cutest, most delightful comedies of the month, called Ducks and Drakes. It was viewed by big crowds yesterday, some of whom are regular Bebe Daniels fans, while others possibly want to see how a jailed young star really looks in action.

Bebe Daniels proves she is a regular comedy queen, full of real humor, and a perfect witch for beauty and allurement.

It’s all about a young girl sentenced to matrimony but bent on finding out about life before she takes the final plunge. Naturally, the heroine herself is always perfectly innocent; it’s only the author who is naughty. So even though she receives strange young men in her boudoir, and runs off with them to house boats, and even though she says, ‘she just doesn’t care what happens to her,’ nothing does happen that would cause anything regrettable to occur to the cheek of the young person, be that person ever so prudish.

Ducks and Drakes has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

Jill Allgood, Bebe and Ben, London: Robert Hale & Company, 1975.

Bebe Daniels (Convict 711), “56 ½ Miles Per Hour,” Photoplay, July 1921, p.52-4, 109-111.

“Bebe Daniels Goes to Jail,“ Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1921.

“Bebe’s Jail Sentence Capitalized by Browne,” Motion Picture News, May 7, 1921, p. 2933.

“Jail Horrors for Fair Bebe,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1921.

Where Hollywood Drew the Line: Week of April 9th, 1921

Clara Smith Hamon

One hundred years ago this week, there was a Hollywood story that was everywhere, except for Grace Kingsley’s column. Even on a slow movie news week like this one, she didn’t feel the need to add to the discussion. The rest of the film world was busy figuring out how to deal with the news that Clara Smith Hamon was coming to town.

Jake Hamon

Until late March, Hamon’s story had been on the front page, not the entertainment page. After a Trial of the Century (they seem to happen regularly) she had been acquitted for murdering her lover, oilman and rising power in the Republican Party Jake Hamon. Their story has been told several times online; the most detailed articles are by Ron J. Jackson Jr. for The Oklahoman and by Paul Johns for the Christian County Headliner News.

The short version is that in 1910, eighteen year old Clara Smith was working as a dry goods store clerk in Lawton, Oklahoma where she met thirty-seven year old Jake Hamon. Even though he was married to Georgia Perkins Hamon, he began a relationship with her and hired her as his “personal secretary.” By 1915 Clara was tired of just being his mistress, but his wife refused to divorce him. In 1917, he wanted to go back into politics so he paid his nephew Frank Hamon to marry and divorce her, so she would legitimately have the name “Mrs. Hamon” when they traveled together. In 1920 he was angling for a Cabinet position in the Harding administration, and Mrs. Harding (Georgia Hamon’s second cousin) told him he could only bring his legitimate family with him to Washington. On November 21, 1920 Clara and Jake were staying at the Randol Hotel in Ardmore, Oklahoma and following a noisy fight, Jake came down the stairs with a gunshot wound. He died five days later. Meanwhile, Clara went to Mexico. By the end of December, authorities convinced her to return, and her trial for murder began on March 1st, 1921. Newspapers covered it daily. She testified that he had attacked her, and the gun in her hand went off when he swung a chair at her. The case went to the jury on March 17th, and after deliberating for 39 minutes they came back with a verdict of “not guilty.”

Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1921 front page

To cap off the trial coverage, on March 19th she held a press conference and she announced she was going to Hollywood to make a movie about her life and the trial. She wanted it to be “a warning to young girls.” William Ernest Weathers, an oil man from Fort Worth, was named as the film producer and her manager.

Reaction from the film industry reaction was swift, because they were already dealing with censorship problems. The Photplaywrights’ League of America immediately issued a resolution asking every exhibitor to refuse to show any film based on the Hamon case; the group’s president said “right now, when everybody is talking about cleaning up the pictures is a poor time to permit the exploitation of a woman like Clara Smith Hamon.” The next day the Affiliated Picture Interests of California had passed a similar resolution condemning the exploitation of vice and crime, and they were followed by exhibitors’ associations in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and New York. *

Next, film workers announced they would boycott the production. The film laboratories in Los Angeles said they would refuse to develop or print the film. The American Society of Cinematographers said they’d throw out any member who shot the film and their magazine, American Cinematographer, praised Rene Guissart when he turned down an offer of $500 a week to shoot it. (directors of photography usually made between $100-150 per week then.) When Andre Barlatier took the job, they made good on their threat and ended his membership (but by 1923, they’d quietly let him back in).

The Los Angeles Times ran some fiery editorials. One that appeared on March 25th said: “if this sort of ‘great moral lesson’ is to be put upon the screen it is desirable that the characters be wholly fictitious and that the shameful sinners win no éclat and profit out of it. The whole moral of any such film production must inevitably be defeated if the soiled heroine is herself exploited in person and profiting handsomely by the ‘horrible example’ … Any talk about lofty moral principles and motives in such a production is sheer cant and pretense on the face of it.”

By July 3rd they hadn’t changed their minds. A piece called “Frightfulness” said, “an incredibly indecent form of mental cruelty is about to be inflicted upon the real Mrs. Jake Hamon and her children if Clara Smith Hamon is permitted to go through with her film production of her sordid life story…The whole thing is disgustingly indecent, superlatively brutal; and any precious ‘moral’ the picture is expected to portray can have no possible weight against this deliberate, cold-blooded torture of living victims.”

Undaunted, Hamon arrived in Los Angeles on April 22nd. She told an L.A. Times reporter that “I am not here seeking pity. I have never asked for it. All I want is a fighting chance to make good. There are some in the motion picture industry who are endeavoring to discredit my sincerity and who are striving to prevent me from producing motion pictures.” 

Nevertheless, Weathers’ film company was able to find people willing to work with them. As Variety observed on June 1st, “there is no fear that the company will be shy of actors, for the studio offices are swamped daily with applicants for work.” They hired John Ince, the brother of Thomas Ince, to play Jake Hamon and they found John Gorman, who had directed a few low-budged features for his own production company, to write and direct. He was promised ten percent of the profits. Director Marshall Neilan said in Variety that nobody in Hollywood had heard of him before.

Fate (John Ince, Clara Smith Hamon)

Work began on the film entitled Fate on June 1st and they finished in mid-August. By the end of that month, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry had called for a ban on showing it. The Los Angeles City Council prevented it from being screened there, so they took it to San Francisco where the local district attorney banned it on September 3rd. Nevertheless it played at the College Theater for one day on September 4th, and the police arrested the film’s producer and confiscated the print. W.E. Weathers asked for a jury trial and was promptly acquitted, so it did have a run at the College Theater, but attendance was bad. An editorial in Photoplay pointed out that even though newspapers gave the story notoriety, the public, “tired of cheap sensationalism, of threadbare emotions, of dirt thinly veneered, it has reacted to the side of the newspapers—and to the side of all right thinking producers and exhibitors the country over. The film was first boycotted in San Francisco. Where record breaking crowds were expected, the picture played to a sparsely filled house. And the film was withdrawn.”

It was shown at a few theaters around the country, but neither the writers at the AFI Catalog nor I could find any reviews of it. Everybody forgot about it pretty quickly, and now it’s lost. But it was a dry run for the industry’s reaction to the Arbuckle and the Taylor scandals that were soon to come.

Clara B. Gorman, photo published in 1932.

Clara Smith Hamon got to live down her notoriety. She married her director John Gorman on August 22nd, just after they finished shooting their film. They divorced on June 23, 1925; she testified that “he was a grouch, and he drank; he made me very unhappy.” By 1930 she was unemployed and living in an apartment in Los Angeles. In 1932 an enterprising L.A. Times writer followed up on her and reported that she hoped to become a professional writer, and she had set sail on January 4th to gather material for articles. Ship records back him up: she arrived back in Los Angeles from France on the President Van Buren on August 14, 1932. However, I haven’t found any articles or books authored by Clara B. Gorman. After that, she disappeared from public records. Perhaps she married again and changed her name.

*I had no idea there were so many local organizations. The film industry really wasn’t centralized yet.

“Brady Brands Film as Offensive Plans Ban,” San Francisco Call, September 3, 1921.

“Cameraman Disciplined,” Variety, June 24, 1921, p.38.

“Call for Ban on Fate,” Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1921.

“Clara and the Films,” Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1921.

“Clara Hamon Film Exhibitor to Fight Ban of S.F. Police,” Los Angeles Herald, September 5, 1921.

“Clara Smith Hamon Freed,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1925.

“Clara Smith Hamon is Acquitted of Murder,” Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1921.

“Clara Hamon’s Here to Fight,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1921.

“Clara Smith Hamon is Making a Pictures,” Variety, June 1, 1921, p.1.

“Clara S. Hamon Weds Director,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1921.

“Close-Ups,” Photoplay, February 1922, p. 39.

A Condensed Course in Motion Picture Photography, NY: New York Institute of Photography, 1920.

Terrel DeLapp, “Jake Hamon’s Women,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1932.

“Equity Against Hamon Film,” Camera, June 4, 1921, p.3.

“Frightfulness,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1921.

“Hamon Girl to Film Her Past,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1921.

“Member of A.S.C. Refuses Record Offer to Film Clara Smith Hamon,” American Cinematographer, May 12, 1921, p.1.

Marshall Neilan, “New Pointers on Pictures from the Trade Schools,” Variety, July 8, 1921, p.30.

“Orders Films Censored Here,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1921.

“Screen Interests Protest Clara Hamon in Films,” Motion Picture News, April 9, 1921, p.2442.

”Screen Writers Protest Alleged Hamon Exploitation,” Camera, March 19, 1921, p.3, 18.

More Dashed Hopes: Week of April 2nd, 1921

Elliott Sparling, 1919

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had news about yet another young actor’s big break:

One of our handsomest war flyers, and a member of the United States Naval Aviation Corps during the late war, is the latest addition to the ranks of motion-picture stars. He is Ensign Elliott Sparling, and he is to be featured in a company just organized by the veteran picture producer, Oliver Sellers, which will be known as the Oliver Sellers Productions.

Under the contract signed by Elliott Sparling yesterday, the young actor is to be featured in a series of pictures adapted from the William Leighton western stories, published in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

Young Sparling is the son of George A. Sparling of Ashland, Wis., who has wide business interests throughout the State. The boy was prominent in theatricals at Wisconsin State University, and later played a short time in vaudeville and in a small stock company in the Middle West. When the war came along, he at once volunteered and was accepted by the flying service, and remained in service four years, during most of the time he was assigned to southern waters.

1905 ad for his father’s store

As usual, only some of that was true. Elliott Walford Sparling was born March 8, 1899 in Ashland, Wisconsin, so he was too young to have served during the first World War. His father was George Sparling, but his business interests were limited to owning the New England Store in Ashland. It was the town’s largest dry goods store (it’s still there, but it’s a gift shop), so the family was comfortable, but not millionaires.  The younger Sparling did attend University of Wisconsin at Madison and was the Freshman class president in 1918-19. He married fellow student Marguerite Krauth on October 25, 1919 and they both left the University. By January 1920 when the Census was taken, the newlyweds were living with their respective parents and he was working as a car salesman. Their daughter Elizabeth Ann was born August 14, 1920.

So after such an eventful few years, he decided to try his luck in Hollywood. He had some reasonably good fortune at first, getting uncredited parts in films like Double Stakes, staring Gladys Brockwell and Charge It with Clara Kimball Young. Then he was hired by former Ince production manager turned director Oliver Sellers, and he played the juvenile lead in The Able Minded Lady, which was based on a William Leighton western story. But he didn’t leave much of an impression on one reviewer: Matthew Taylor in Motion Picture News didn’t bother to catch his name and dismissed his character as “the boob cowboy.” The Leighton stories didn’t become a series, and Sparling didn’t work with Sellers again.

The Power of Love (1922)

After that, his acting career was stalled. But he did something to get it moving that was much more interesting than the usual vanity project. He co-founded the Perfect Picture Company with Don Gamble, who had worked on The Able-Minded Lady with him, and they made the first 3-D feature to be publicly screened. They leased the rights to the stereoscopic process from its inventor, Harry K. Fairall and his business partner, John Seward, and made The Power of Love. Set in Spanish California times, Sparling starred as Terry O’Neill, a sea captain who comes to trade with the ranch owners. He meets Maria (Barbara Bedford) whose father (Noah Beery) has betrothed her to a man she loathes. After various adventures and narrow escapes O’Neill proves the loathsome fiancé is a thief and wins the girl.

The 3-D camera used to shoot The Power of Love

The Power of Love did get attention in the press, but probably not quite what Sparling wanted, because the journalists who wrote about the film ignored the actors and concentrated on the technology. The first screening in Los Angeles on September 27, 1922 was a big success, according to W.E. Keefe in Moving Picture World. The “large audience of motion picture people at the Ambassador Theater” got to see a prologue showing views of the Yosemite Valley, and the five-reel feature, The Power of Love.  Keefe reported that “the entire performance was enthusiastically applauded.” He described how the process worked:

There are projected on the screen simultaneously two positive prints superimposed, which have been photographed at the same time through a single camera having two lenses, separated a distance equivalent to the position of human eyes. Viewing the pictures through the spectacles having a blue and a red lens, which are complimentary colors, makes possible stereoscopic vision, each eye seeing a single picture of its own.

Elliott Sparling and Barbara Bedford

Keefe was mightily impressed by it:

You are apt to forget that you are looking at a picture because the scenes seem so real and lifelike that you imagine you are seeing the living characters enacting their various roles. The picture takes on the aspect of real life and the audience experiences the effect of gazing through an open door upon the real panorama of nature and life itself instead of visualized shadows on the screen. With this process, the third dimension on the screen has graduated from a theory into an actual reality.

Sparling on the set

Even though the process worked well, they only screened it once more in 3-D in New York. According to Exhibitors’ Herald, they tried to sell the film on a combination of a states’ rights basis in some areas, and road shows in the rest of the country, but they didn’t get any buyers. In 3D Power, Daniel L. Symmes speculates that because it required two linked projectors, two prints, and glasses, distributors balked at the cost.

To recoup some of the money they spent, Perfect Pictures retitled the film The Forbidden Lover and in 1923 sold a 2D version to Selznick Distributing Company. Frank Elliott reviewed it in Motion Picture News and said: “The story is laid in southern California in the old Spanish days which theme gives opportunity for eye-pleasing costumes and picturesque interiors. But because of the fact that the action treads along the well beaten track, the interest lags at times as it becomes an easy matter to picture the ending soon after the beginning.” However, “Mr. Sparling, who appears as Terry O’Neill, a sea captain, presents a rather imposing appearance on the screen and looks as though he might do well in heroic roles.” Both versions are considered lost.

Despite the good review, Sparling gave up his acting ambitions. By the time of the 1930 census his wife and daughter had joined him In Los Angeles, and he was working as a real estate agent. In 1940 he was divorced and calling himself an inventor in the census. On his 1942 draft registration, he said he was working in camera manufacturing. He died on October 21, 1945.

Harry K. Fairall

The inventor of the stereoscope process, Harry K. Fairall, did not give up quite yet. Born May 14, 1882, by 1910 he owned his own photography gallery in Highland, California (a small town in San Bernardino County). His 1918 draft registration says he was a cameraman for Douglas Fairbanks and in 1920 he told the census he was a mechanic at a motion picture studio. The failure of The Power of Love to get distribution in 1922 didn’t discourage later investors; in 1925 the Binocular Stereoscopic Film Co. incorporated with $100,00 capital and they planned to manufacture his cameras. The company quietly folded, and by 1930 he was a still photographer at a motion picture studio. He died on July 20, 1958 in Los Angeles.

Frank Elliott, “The Forbidden Lover,” Motion Picture News, September 29, 1923, p.3047.

Forbidden Lover,” Motion Picture News Booking Guide, October 1923, p.22.

W.E. Keefe, “Stereoscopic Films,” Moving Picture World, October 21, 1922, p.660.

“Lee in Camera Company,” Film Daily, November 9, 192, p.1.

Jane S. Smith and Michael J. Goc. Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Ashland The Garland City of the Inland Seas. Friendship WI: New Past Press, 1987.

Power of Love to be a State Right Film,” Exhibitors’ Herald, November 11, 1922, p.32.

Matthew A. Taylor, “The Able Minded Lady,” Motion Picture News, February 11, 1922, p.1030.

Making Dickens knock-offs is harder than it looks: Week of March 26, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw something that was rare in 1921: a fantasy film. And my goodness, but she hated it:

If the inhabitants of Mars haven’t anything more thrilling and novel to tell us than the line of chatter handed out by the Martian in A Message from Mars, then I, for one, don’t care a hang whether we ever set up a line of communication with that planet…It doesn’t seem possible that we were ever intrigued in a play of the stage, by such obvious, unimaginative claptrap and sentimental swash as this screen version purveys.

Swash and claptrap: it couldn’t get much worse. Mars was based on Richard Ganthony’s play of the same name, which debuted in London in 1899 and toured throughout the United States in 1903-05. It was a fairly direct steal of Charles Dickens’ plot in A Christmas Carol (it even also took place on Christmas Eve): Horace Parker agrees to finance the invention of a device that communicates with Mars in exchange for getting credit for inventing it. He falls asleep and a messenger from that planet shows him poverty and suffering. He reforms. That is one durable plot!

Reviewers did admire cinematographer Arthur Martinelli’s double-exposure photography

Other reviewers agreed with Kingsley about the film. Mathew A. Taylor in Motion Picture News wrote, “This screen adaptation of a once popular stage play does not make a picture that moves swiftly enough to command audience attention. It drags along with lukewarm drama and lukewarm comedy and it has an ending as sweet as the final tableaux in a school-children’s Santa Claus play…As a morality picture, and such it is supposed to be, it is not convincing.” Film Daily called it “but mildly interesting entertainment” and concluded “there is very little incident and what there is has been padded at length.” So it really was a stinker. It’s useful to remember that there were just as many dull movies then as there are now – it wasn’t all Keaton and Fairbanks. Because fate and film preservation are arbitrary, A Message from Mars has been preserved by M.G.M., so scholars can see what a critical flop from 1921 looked like.

The film’s star, Bert Lytell, also took a share of the blame. C.S. Sewell in Moving Picture World wrote, “the star’s performance, however, is hardly up to his best work in other productions on account of his tendency to overact which makes the character lose some of its convincing force.” They were probably right, because Film Daily said exactly the same: “Bert Lytell is capable of much better work than he does here. He overacts considerably.” I suspect that Kingsley wanted to be just as direct as they were, but she had to be careful not to offend people she depended on for information, so she wrote:

Poor Bert Lytell! Probably it isn’t his fault that he is seem in miles of footage in this picture, registering nothing but an asinine egotism which fails of interest after the first hundred feet. He does manage a real characterization, of course. He’s too fine an actor to fail in that.

Gee, I wonder who’s fault it was then? Nevertheless, the bad reviews didn’t hurt Lytell’s career. A former stage actor, he’d been staring in films since 1917 and he continued to do so throughout the silent era. He was in a lot of crime movies, playing either crooks, as in The Lone Wolf series or detectives in films like Sherlock Brown(1922) and Steele of the Royal Mounted (1925). After that, he worked in radio and later, television. He was the president of the Actors’ Equity Association (1940-1946) and The Lambs actors’ club (1947-1952). He died in 1954.

However, one cast member emerged from it unscathed. Kingsley mentioned:

The picture serves to reveal a very delightful young actress, Raye Dean, dainty and expressive, of whom we hope to see more.

Sewell concurred, saying “Raye Dean as the girl is not only attractive but acts with great sincerity,” as did Taylor, calling her “an exceptionally appealing leading lady.” Despite her excellent notices, audiences didn’t get more opportunities to see Raye Dean’s work. On May 23, 1921, using her real name, Mildred Bartlett, she married Broadway producer Max Gordon, and he asked her to retire from the screen. His career was enormously successful: his stage productions included The Jazz Singer (1925), The Bandwagon (1931), My Sister Eileen (1940) and Born Yesterday (1946). According to Margaret Case Harriman in Take Them Up Tenderly, the Gordons lived quietly in a hotel in the West Fifties in Manhattan, and “their social excitement is limited to Mrs. Gordon’s bridge parties.” He was so famous that he even got a line in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”:

When Rockefeller still can hoard enough money to let Max Gordon produce his shows–
Anything goes!

That is a successful career! He died in 1978 and she in 1992.

“Bert Lytell’s Latest Mildly Interesting,” Film Daily, March 27, 1921, p. 9.

Margaret Case Harriman, Take Them Up Tenderly: A Collection of Profiles, NY: Knopf, 1944.

C.S. Sewell, “A Message from Mars,“ Moving Picture World, April 2, 1921, p. 518.

Matthew A. Taylor, “A Message from Mars,” Motion Picture News, June 18, 1921, p. 3744.

Getting the Team Back Together: Week of March 19th, 1921

On the set of The Conquering Power: Rudolph Valentino, Alice Terry, Ralph Lewis, Rex Ingram and John Seitz

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on how one director responded to the pressure to follow-up a great big hit:

If the famous boy director, Rex Ingram, hasn’t got gray hair I don’t know why. No sooner does he finish and launch The Four Horsemen than he is scheduled at once to begin work on another important production. The new picture will be a film version of one of the famous Balzac novels, but which one he refuses to tell at the present time. However, there’s an interesting yarn in connection, inasmuch as it is a story which Ingram has wanted to do ever since he first became a director. But never before has he been in a position to film it just as he wanted to.

Mr. Ingram’s leading woman in the Balzac story will once more be Alice Terry, who plays the feminine lead in The Four Horsemen. The remainder of the cast is to be selected within a week. In the meantime Miss June Mathis, who has reached the top pinnacle of scenario writing fame with The Four Horsemen, when she also, you remember, assisted in directing, is busy finishing the script of the French story.

The famous Balzac novel was Eugenie Grandet (1833) and Ingram called his modern-dress version of it The Conquering Power. Nowadays a hugely successful film would demand a sequel (perhaps about the reform and self-sacrifice of Julio’s long-lost wastrel identical twin), but they did things differently then. Ingram instead re-assembled the team that made Four Horsemen a success for a new project; in addition to Mathis and Terry he hired Rudolph Valentino as the leading man and John F. Seitz as the director of photography.

The Conquering Power told the story of a rich but miserly man (Ralph Lewis) who refuses to allow his daughter (Alice Terry) to marry his foppish nephew Charles (Rudolph Valentino). You get one guess about how it ends. It was speedily completed (it was in New York theaters by July), and it got terrific reviews. Edwin Schallert in the L.A. Times wrote: “If true art be determined by its symbols of beauty, its rhythm, it’s formal perfection and its reality, The Conquering Power is the great artistic picture of the year. I might even go further than this and say that because of its failure at any point to offend the esthetic sense—pictorially speaking—it is the one really artistic picture.” (August 11, 1921)

The New York Times admired it even more than the earlier film: “But The Four Horsemen was originally a novel, and, despite Mr. Ingram, it remained a good deal of a novel, rather than a photoplay, on the screen. He showed what he could do in independent cinematography, he did not do all that seemed possible to him. So the production was a fresh promise, as well as a fulfillment – and now comes The Conquering Power to realize much that it foreshadowed.” (“Screen,” July 17, 1921) The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures also thought it outdid the earlier film, saying “The Conquering Power is one of the most consistently beautiful things the motion picture makers have yet shown.” (“In Conquering Power Ingram outdoes Four Horsemen Says the National Board of Review,” Moving Picture World, November 19, 1921, p. 317)

Rudolph Valentino in The Conquering Power

The Conquering Power also did quite well at the box office. Motion Picture News reported that the 37 Loew’s theaters in Greater New York did the biggest business in their history when it played. [“Ingram Picture Goes Big,” November 26, 1921, p.2836]

However, now you probably know of Four Horsemen but might never have heard of The Conquering Power. Added to the Library of Congresses National Film Registry in 1995, Four Horsemen is remembered for its cultural impact: not only did it feature Rudolph Valentino’s star-making role, but it also inspired the tango craze. Most of all, it’s regarded as the first antiwar film (correction: it wasn’t the first, it was only an early anti-war film). You really can’t predict what future audiences will think. It’s a rare film that’s remembered 100 years after it is made.

Ingram didn’t reassemble the team a third time. However, they all went on to do memorable work. Valentino left Metro after the studio refused to raise his salary, according to his biographer Donna L. Hill; additionally he had many disagreements with Ingram. Of course, he went on to star in The Sheik (1921) and The Eagle (1925), which are still enjoyed today. June Mathis continued to be a freelance screenwriter, but she also didn’t work with Ingram again. She wrote two more great parts for Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922) and The Young Rajah (1922), as well as writing the screenplays for Ben Hur (1925) and Greed (1924). Alice Terry married Ingram later in 1921, and they continued to make films together such as The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923). They both retired from film when sound came.

1917 trade ad

However, the crewmember who made the most movies that will be watched on their 100th anniversaries and beyond is the cinematographer, John F. Seitz. During his impressive career (he shot over 160 films) his work included Sullivan’s Travels(1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Blvd. (1950). You can find an appreciation of his work on the later by David Williams on the American Society of Cinematographer’s website.

This was one of his

John Francis Seitz was born June 23, 1892 in Chicago, and in 1909 he went to work for Essanay as a lab tech. In 1916, he became a cinematographer, and he was signed by Metro in 1920. He was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but he never won. In 1960, he retired to work on photographic inventions; he held 18 patents. Karl Brown wrote a charming summation of his character in 1922:

John F. Seitz, A.S.C., is the student type of cinematographer and he is as quiet and self-effacing as a cuckoo clock when it isn’t cuckooing. If you want to know anything about Seitz you have to ask Roy Klaffki, John Arnold, Al Siegler or some of the other members of the Metro staff, for John is too busy doping out the next scene to talk about Seitz…Compared to John F. the oyster is an orator and the starfish a noisy roisterer, but he did loosen up enough to acknowledge that it really was he who photographed The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Say Goodbye to the Top Hat: Week of March 12, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed Douglas Fairbanks’ latest movie. She didn’t know it, but the story of an inventor who, as the intertitle says, “invents things to please his girl, and then invents ways to get out of the trouble his inventions cause him,” was his last silent comedy. After some nut puns that I won’t inflict on you, she wrote:

There’s no doubt that The Nut will be a dough-nut for Doug. It’s bound to make money. One kind of nut Fairbanks never is and that’s a chestnut. And never was he further diverged from that species than in the picture which opened to crowds, both under shelter and in line out in the rain, at the California yesterday. The Nut has the freshest, most spontaneous, whimsical humor which Fairbanks has presented in a long time.

If Los Angeleans were willing to stand in the rain, they really must have wanted to see the movie! Fairbanks made The Nut before he knew what a huge success his most recent film, The Mark of Zorro, was. Kingsley didn’t compare that to this film, but reviewers who did liked The Nut much less than she did; Exhibitors’ Herald thought it didn’t measure up to Zorro and it was “a hodge-podge with much ado about nothing,” (March 26, 1921, p.64) while Film Daily thought it would disappoint fans after the swashbuckler, and it didn’t “provide the star with the sort of opportunities which allow him to employ his usual line of comedy stunts and certainly doesn’t tax his athletic ability.” (March 13, 1921, p.2)

There were enough good reviews for pull quotes in the trade ads, however

Fairbanks biographer Tracey Goessel defends the film, which is available on the Internet Archive. She writes that The Nut is neglected today, “which is a pity, for it represents an unusual genre in the silent era: a screwball comedy.” She also thinks it has “surrealism worthy of Buster Keaton,” especially when he’s trapped outside in his underwear, so he cuts out a suit from a billboard and tries to wear it home. She mentions that it made as much money as many of his other modern day comedies, but not nearly as much as Zorro. That, plus the critical response, must have helped Fairbanks to make his decision to make adventure films. His next one was The Three Musketeers.

The Nut might be neglected by most people now, but not by Ardman animator Nick Park. In Fairbanks’ film, the opening shows him using his own inventions to get him out of bed, drop him in his bath, and dress him. Park introduces his inventor in the same way in The Wrong Trousers (1993).

As an added bonus at the California Theater this week, Kingsley mentioned that the audience was treated to a musical number:

The record for song hits in picture houses was broken yesterday for the singing of “Becky from Babylon” stopped the show, applause continuing for 10 minutes.

The song came from a Broadway hit, The Passing Show of 1921. It was a nifty novelty song, but it’s not obvious why the audience loved it so much. Maybe the singer, not named in any of the ads, was particularly good at putting it over. Here are some lyrics:

Down at an oriental show
I saw a dancer there;
Her name was Princess “Oy-vay-is-meer”
And she was from the east somewhere.
When she removed all of her veils,
I recognized her face,
This Hindoo lady was a Yiddish baby.
And she came from a certain place–
She was

Becky from Babylon
(I know her mother, I know her brother)
Becky from Babylon,
(She’s got it over Madam Pavlowa)
She learned her oriental ways
As a waitress lifting trays,
She got her famous pose
From washing her mother’s clothes.
Becky, She fools with snakes
(Oh what a twister, you can’t resist her)
She’s full of tricks and fakes, Oh,
She’s no daughter of the Pyramids,
Her right name is Becky Bifkowitz,
Ev’ry one thinks
That she is a Sphinx,
But she’s Becky from Babylon (Long Island).

Doubling for Romeo (I’m not convinced that his legs are newsworthy)

Fairbanks also appeared in Kingsley’s column later this week. Will Rogers was shooting a dream sequence for his upcoming film, Doubling for Romeo, that was Fairbanks satire with an athletic sword fight set in the distant past. So after only one movie, that’s what Fairbanks was known for!

Rogers had to wear tights for the part, and Kingsley reported “there was quite a quota of the feminine Goldwyn contingent gathered about the set, with every fair one pronouncing Rogers’ legs very good to look at.” Rogers didn’t mind this a bit, saying, “Course I got good-looking legs. How else do you suppose I managed to stay in the Follies for four years?”

Gee, I wonder who leaked that news to Kingsley. Nevertheless, she also added an interesting bit of trivia: “That prince of make-up artists, Lon Chaney, made up Rogers for the part. Heretofore Rogers hasn’t bothered about make-up.” Who knew that Chaney helped out his fellow actors with their make-up?

Untrustworthy Parents: Week of March 5th, 1921

Jackie Coogan

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed someone who’s now primarily known for his effect on California child labor laws. Knowing how difficult it was to make a chat with a six year old into an interesting article, she accompanied The Kid’s co-star Jackie Coogan and his mother on a trip to Venice Beach and described their adventures. Now that we know his parents spent most of the money he earned, some of the details in the article seem like red flags: they travelled there in “the big Packard limousine which Jackie gave his mother for Christmas,” and when he was asked if he likes school, he said “no ma’am, you don’t make any money there.”

The Giant Dipper roller coaster at Venice Beach, 1916

But in 1921, Kingsley assumed they had his best interests at heart, and she reported that he had a wonderful day at the beach. He rode the roller coaster, the plunging lion and the merry go round, but his mother wouldn’t let him go up in the hot-air balloon. He got to visit with a particularly smelly goat and see the high-powered peanut roaster. He built a sandcastle and ate hot dogs and doughnuts for lunch. He also told her he had plenty of fun working on The Kid, running around the lemon grove next to the studio with Chaplin and studying the bugs and worms they found. She left her readers with this joyful snapshot of him:

“But most of all he loves riding on his one-boy power velocipede, camouflaged as an automobile. He’s a human dynamo, and the last I saw of him the other day as he swooped down the walk in front of his house, he was calling over his shoulder: “Gee, Hollywood’s the place!”

Lillian, Jackie, and John Coogan

That’s part of the reason the public was so shocked when in 1938 Coogan sued his mother and stepfather to recover his earnings. After his success in The Kid, he went on to become one of the top box-office draws in Hollywood, starring in films like Oliver Twist (1922) and A Boy of Flanders (1924). But as he grew into a teenager, his career took a downturn. According to his biographer, fellow child star Diana Serra Cary, he’d been told that his father had saved his earnings and he had a million dollar trust fund, which would begin to be released to him on his 21st birthday. He received only a check for $1000 that day. He hated conflict, so he didn’t speak to his mother and stepfather (John Coogan had died in a car accident in 1935) about the fund until 1938, when, at the urging of his wife, Betty Grable, he asked and learned that there was no trust fund. John and Lillian Coogan had lived off of their son’s earnings, and he’d been lied to for years. He filed a suit against Lillian and her new husband for an accounting of his assets and to retrieve 4 million dollars of what he’d earned. After a long fight in the courts, in 1939 he settled for $126,000.

Jackie Coogan earned his salary!

What the public hadn’t realized was that it was perfectly legal for his parents to spend his earnings: under California law a child’s wages belonged to their parents. The California Legislature quickly passed The Child Actor’s Bill, which made child performers’ earnings their property and requires parents to open a blocked trust fund account (which came to be called a Coogan account) where 15 percent of child performers’ gross earnings must be deposited. The law, which has been amended since then, currently also regulates schooling, work hours, and time off.

There are still a lot of problems with exploitation of children who work in entertainment (and of course, anything else). The other 85% of the money is supposed to be used to pay taxes, commissions, and other job-related expenses, but some greedy parents find ways to keep it for themselves. Just like Jackie Coogan, young stars like Macaulay Culkin and Gary Coleman ended up suing their parents for squandering their wages, according to the Hollywood Reporter. So stronger laws and better enforcement would be a really good idea. Furthermore, there are Coogan laws in only three other states: New York, New Mexico and Louisiana. In the rest, parents still own their child’s earnings.

Jackie Coogan, late 1930’s

Jackie Coogan went on to have an eventful life. He served in the Air Force as a glider pilot in World War 2, and when he returned, he became a television actor. After he played Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, he worked steadily until his death in 1984.

Diana Serra Cary, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Everybody Wants to Make Movies: Week of February 26th, 1921

Penrhyn Stanlaws and Betty Compson

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the latest aspiring filmmaker to get a foot in the door:

He being an expert on beauty, it is perhaps natural that Famous Players-Lasky has signed Penrhyn Stanlaws, the well-known artist, whose cover paintings of beautiful women have been seen on virtually all the foremost magazines. He has been engaged on a five-year contract to direct Paramount pictures.

Mr. Stanlaws has been here during the past few months, studying the art of film making at the Lasky studio. But this isn’t all. As an expert on beauty, he is delighted to know that the first star he will direct will be the lovely Betty Compson, who has also lately signed a five-year contract with Famous Players-Lasky. According to the announcement, the first picture by the combination will be an adaptation of the European success by Ernest Klein, entitled At the End of the World.

At least he studied the craft a bit before he got started at the top. Born Stanley Adamson in Dundee Scotland on March 19, 1877 (he changed his name to avoid confusion with his older brother Sydney, also an illustrator), Stanlaws came to the United States in 1901 to study at Princeton University. After further study in Paris, he returned to the US and became a successful magazine illustrator. Jesse Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players, thought that those skills would be easily transferred to filmmaking:

Mr. Lasky is optimistic in regard to Mr. Stanlaws’ ability to direct. “We anticipate,” he said, “great results from Mr. Stanlaws’ artistic ability and his careful and intensive study of motion picture technique. That his efforts will result in productions in which beauty and charm will predominate, seems a foregone conclusion, but this element will be in addition and in conformity to the qualities of human interest involved.

Penrhyn Stanlaws

Stanlaws’ previous film experience was limited to appearing as an artist drawing a model in a short, Our Mutual Girl No. 26 (1914), but that didn’t concern him. He spoke to Motion Picture News about his career change:

Mr. Stanlaws’ decision to abandon painting in favor of motion pictures is said to be due to his belief that the production of beautiful motion pictures is more worthwhile than the painting of pretty girls’ heads. “The motion picture, because it is a picture of moving things,” said Mr. Stanlaws, “gives an artist a vastly greater opportunity than oil or watercolor or pen and ink drawings. With the immense worldwide audience which the motion picture affords I do not think an artist or writer can afford to ignore this great artistic force. I have always been a student of the drama and, therefore, am intensely interested in this new great dramatic medium.

Stanlaws directed seven films over the next two years, four starring Betty Compson, two with Bebe Daniels and one with Wanda Hawley. As usual, there were no articles on why he stopped in 1922, but on his way out the door, he wrote an article for Screenland magazine (January 1923) called “What’s the Matter with Our Hollywood Women?” in which he insulted the minor physical imperfections of several actresses. He spared no one: the Gish sisters, Mary Pickford, Viola Dana, Gloria Swanson– all got roasted for the size of their heads or noses, etc. He had nasty remarks about all of the stars he’d worked with: Betty Compson had “muscle-bound hips”which limited her grace and her crooked nose and mouth made her face look whimsical,” Bebe Daniels had a good figure, but she slouched and her nostrils were too small and Wanda Hawley was “too fat” and her ankles were too big. Feh. Just what the world really needed, another middle aged guy passing judgement on young women’s appearances. Tamar Lane in Motion Picture News, after mentioning “Penryhn has the reputation about the studios of being one of the choice limburger directors of the business,” asked some of the women their opinion of him. Betty Compson said, “His ears are musclebound. This greatly limits their graceful action.” Wanda Hawley said, “Mr. Stanlaws is what the camerman terms a ‘N.G.’ He needs to be retaken.” Viola Dana had the best retort: “Mr. Stanlaws has a big head and his hat is too small for him.”

After burning his bridges he moved to an artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York and went back to producing paintings for magazine covers. Marilyn Slater has a brief, illustrated biography of him on her Looking For Mabel site.

James A.B. Scherer

Stanlaws wasn’t the only aspiring filmmaker who signed a contract with Lasky that Kingsley reported on this week. The movie bug is so contagious that even respected academics can succumb:

Picturegoers of the nation will soon have the opportunity of seeing the first photoplay from the pen of the first college president to resign his high educational honors to devote his talents to the writing of film stories. Announcement from the Lasky studio is to the effect that “Tall Timbers,” by James A.B. Scherer, will shortly go into production, with Wallace Reid in the leading role.

Dr. James Augustus Brown Scherer was a former Lutheran minister who had been the president of the Throop Polytechnic Institute from 1908-1920. Throop changed its name to California Institute of Technology just before he left. Scherer was the author of several academic books about Japan as well as Cotton as a World Power: A Study in the Economic Interpretation of History. According to an earlier story in the Times, he’d also been writing fiction for years. He’d been on leave from Cal Tech since April, but his physician advised him “it was unwise to go back to his job.” The story also mentioned:

The Scherer contract carries with it the film rights for all his published works and whatever original photoplays he may write during the life of the document, it was stated by Jesse L. Lasky, vice president of the Famous Players concern. Included in it are the stories acquired “The Light of the World,” “The Drama of the April Dawn,” a Civil War story, and “Love at Sea,” a historical treatment of a diplomatic crisis in Japan.

Even college presidents aren’t satisfied with their jobs! Unfortunately, neither “Tall Timbers” nor any of his other stories got made into movies. Scherer’s adventure in Hollywood was politely left out of his obituaries. In 1926 he became the director of Southwest Museum, and he used his expertise in Japan to assist the U.S. Office of War Information during World War 2. He died of heart disease in 1944.

“Artist Will be a Director,” Motion Picture News, June 22, 1920, p.4807.

“Death Takes James A.B. Scherer,” C.I.T. News, March 1944, p.18.

“Dr. Scherer, 73, Ex-President of Caltech, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1944.

“Dr. Scherer Serial Stories,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1921.

Lane, Tamar. “That’s Out,” Motion Picture News, March 1923,p.46.

“Scherer Quits as President,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1920.

Stanlaws, Penrhyn. “What’s Wrong With Our Hollywood Women, ” Screenland, January 1923, pp. 16-23.

“Tall Timbers by Dr. Scherer To Have Wallace Reid as Star,” Moving Picture World, March 26, 1921, p. 396.

Old-Fashioned Pictures: Week of February 19th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater was showing an unusual short:

Everyone in the picture business, and many people outside of it, are flocking to Grauman’s this week to see the picture in which D.W. Griffith, the picture producer, is playing a part. The picture is fourteen years old and is entitled The Stolen Jewels.

The short was only part of the program, according to the anonymous reviewer in the L.A. Times:

Including even the chap who, standing in the spotlight, used to deliver a sermon on lemon drops, everything that went to make up the old picture is represented this week at Grauman’s Theater. It’s the best novelty that the house has offered in weeks, for there’s a laugh in every number.

Especially funny are the illustrated song, with the sentimental, slushy, antique-colored photographs – one of which is upside down, if you please—and the Biograph comedy drama, Stolen Jewels, in which you can hardly tell the difference between D.W. Griffith and Florence Lawrence who are supposed to be featured. Abrupt situations, trade-marks on the scenery, dizzy gestures, show the style or lack of style at the time in picture making. Stolen Jewels is reputed to be D.W. Griffith’s first picture, made some fifteen years ago.

D.W. Griffith

Actually, the camera was so far away that the man they thought was Griffith was Harry Solter; Griffith was only part of a crowd scene. It’s a good thing the reviewer liked the prolog, because they didn’t much care for the feature, The Passionate Pilgrim, and said: “The picture is the kind that you wish had been done in a smaller number of reels, especially after you have gotten into the story. There is a lot of burdensome incident, bookish in character, and a lack of dramatic climax.” That film is about a crusading newspaper reporter (Matt Moore) who fights to publish an expose of a corrupt mayor and his crony (all but reel three has been preserved by the Library of Congress). So it makes sense that Grauman thought the program needed something different to bring in the ticket buyers.

Variety also criticized the short in 1921, saying “Stolen Jewels has about three sub-titles and much exaggerated action when judged from the standpoint of film productions today.” The reviewers weren’t wrong: movies had changed a lot since The Stolen Jewels debuted in 1908 (thirteen years earlier, not fourteen or fifteen). According to Moving Picture World’s recap written then, the theft of Mrs. Jenkins’ (Florence Lawrence) diamonds sets off a run of bad financial luck for her family. Mr. Jenkins (Harry Solter) loses his shirt in the stock market, and they’re forced to sell off their possessions. Then the diamonds are found inside Baby’s toy, and the family can rebuild. It has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

Variety ad, 1908

Students of Griffith know that the writers in 1921 got some details wrong. Griffith’s first film as a director was The Adventures of Dollie, which he’d made three months before The Stolen Jewels. He was already the veteran of more than 20 pictures by the time he directed this one! But you can’t blame them: they didn’t have anywhere to check on this. The information was only in 13 year old back issues of Variety or Moving Picture World, and not very many people (or even libraries) thought to keep them. (We’re so fortunate to have the Media History Digital Library now!) While the study of film history began in 1915, with Vachel Lindsay’s Art of the Moving Picture, his book didn’t include details like this.

The speed of changes to filmmaking stayed rapid, not only with the introduction of sound, but also in everything from editing to lighting. However, the pace of change has slowed down at lot since then. Films that played thirteen years after Grauman’s novelty included It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The Scarlet Empress, The Gay Divorcee, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now they just look like what audiences expect from a movie. Furthermore, in 2021 thirteen year old films don’t seem very different, they’re just markers of how quickly time passes (i.e., it’s been THIRTEEN YEARS since Mamma Mia/The Dark Knight/WALL-E/Slumdog Millionaire came out? How did that happen?)

Next week’s short

Grauman didn’t repeat his creative idea — once was enough. The next week, Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House was supporting William S. Hart in O’Malley of the Mounted.

Grauman also had to try something different to compete with the really big opening at the Ambassador Theater: Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid finally premiered in Los Angeles. Grace Kingsley absolutely loved it:

So once more, clad in his baggy old trousers and derby hat, Charlie ascends his sublimated soap-box throne as king of comedians. It’s something you feel vaguely you’ve been waiting for, for a long time, is The Kid. I mean its utter humor and charm are like a drink of water after a day’s hot thirst.

Something entirely new in form, too, is the picture, yet its method is so simple that like most great achievements one wonders why it wasn’t done before. How one wishes all the solemn dramas of the screen could thus be humanized by humor!

There’s really no classifying The Kid. The best one can do is to say that it has all the old melodramatic material, but so jazzed up with fun and with its drama so simply and humanly played, that it is like life. In this, Chaplin’s supreme art is seen. And who feels his power to evoke laughter and tears, as the happy-go-lucky bum, who has the baby wished on him to care for, will ever deny him the title of artist?

Some movies, and movie reviews, get to stay relevant!

“Back to One-Reelers,” Variety, March 4, 1921, p.45.

“Stories of the Films,” Moving Picture World, October 3, 1908, p.262.

One Way To Break In To Comedy: Week of February 12th, 1921

Esther Howard in The Sweetheart Shop

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed stage actress Esther Howard, who would be appearing in a musical comedy, The Sweetheart Shop, in Los Angeles in a few days. This was the first time Kingsley mentioned that an interview was held long distance over the phone. Now we forget how remarkable and expensive that was.

Howard told her how she managed to get hired for her first comedy:

“Hello!” she exclaimed from the other end of the wire. “Even if it takes ten dollars’ worth of language, I’m going to explain that I’m purely an accident in the fun field. I started out playing Youth in Everywoman back in a St. Louis stock company, and you know what a swell chance a girl has to be funny in that solemn old Gloomy Gus play. The only reason I got my New York job in The Sweetheart Shop, that time I ran over to see if somebody didn’t want to put a new face on Broadway, was because Edgar J. MacGregor, the producer, said that I ‘looked funny.’ Told me that to my face.

“I felt bad a minute when he said that. Then I said, ‘Funny enough for a hit?’ and I grinned at him. I guess the grin got him. Anyway, he engaged me. And nobody could have been more surprised than I was myself at the way people laughed at my antics. I was afraid they were simply making fun of me, but no, they really liked me.”

“Really though, I don’t look so funny,” she explained in an injured sort of tone.

She got to play the Wienie King’s wife in The Palm Beach Story – what more could you want for your resume?

Actually, she was lucky not to look like a typical ingenue – that was part of her later success as a character actress in films. Esther Howard got her first job when she snuck out of high school in Boston during her senior year to audition to be part of a crowd scene with a touring company in Madame X, a Sarah Bernhardt project. Two years later, she joined a stock company in Lynn Massachusetts and after a season, she made her debut on Broadway in Eve’s Daughter (1917). It was a flop, but she continued to find work in dramas, until the fateful day she described.

She played Aunt Sophie in Laurel and Hardy’s The Big Noise (1944)

She continued to work in musical comedies for the rest of her stage career. In 1930 she moved to Los Angeles and became a character actress. She appeared in over 100 films. She had many dramatic roles in films like Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), but she also continued to make comedies. She was part of Preston Sturge’s stock company and was in seven of his films. She was also memorable in several film noirs, including Murder My Sweet (1944) and Born to Kill (1947). As the Cracked Rear View blog said of her, “Her matronly looks and acting talent allowed her to play a rich, haughty dowager or a drunken old floozy with equal aplomb. Esther may not have been a big star, but her presence gave a lift to any movie she was in, big or small.” She retired in 1952 and died following a heart attack in 1965.

Caftan Woman also featured an appreciation of her work.

Kingsley reviewed The Sweetheart Shop a few days later and she liked it, and Howard, a lot:

 There’s a show that for novelty, tunefulness and pep, steals right home on the second inning, over at the Mason this week. It’s called “The Sweetheart Shop,“ is by Anne Caldwell and Hugo Felix, and opening to a capacity house it struck a hit gait right at the start…The other outstanding personality is that of Esther Howard, who has a very clever method all her own, a very pepful, eccentric method, and whose Greenwich Village Vampire satire is one of the real achievements of the season in musical comedy land. She corners the laughs at every turn.

Kingsley’s interview showed that Howard was funny without a script. Because opening night was Valentine’s Day (women in the cast were going to toss candy hearts from the stage), Kingsley asked a silly question: would she marry a Los Angeles man, and Howard said yes, if he weren’t a motion picture actor, because they don’t take marriage seriously enough. She added “Anyhow, line up the prospective bridegrooms at the station when I get in. And please be on hand to help me make a choice.” That’s about the best answer there could be to such a dumb question. She didn’t bother to mention that in 1919 she’d married stage actor Arthur Albertson.

Ethel Shannon

Saturday night there was a star-filled Mardi Gras party at the Ambassador Hotel, and Kingsley reported that the outfits were fabulous, the speeches were short, and “a good time was had by all.” But the best story involved movie actress Ethel Shannon, who, like Howard, had no interest in getting to know a film actor.

That clever young lady sweetly handed the glad old binge to one of our handsomest screen idols in the course of the evening. It seems this handsome screen idol, looking upon Miss Shannon and finding her good, yea easy to look at, bet another man he could cut her escort out. Somehow the little girl found it out, and though she secretly admired him just like all the other girls, she decided to get even with him when he began his fine work with her.

The screen idol was introduced to her under an assumed name. He began telling her how charming she was, and all about what her eyes did to him, but she kept her fingers crossed, and when the repartee along this line began to burn low and smell of wick, the screen idol asked her who her favorite actor was. She answered promptly “Sessue Hayakawa.” “But don’t you like anybody else?” persisted the screen idol. “How about Blank—” naming himself.

“Why,” back-fired little Miss Shannon, “I think he’s the worst idiot on the screen, and you look like him!

Sessue Hayakawa (Miss Shannon had good taste!)

Hee hee. I’m glad Miss Kingsley preserved that story. I wonder who the idol was – it’s just mean that she left that out.

Ethel Shannon went on to star in films like Maytime (1923) and Charley’s Aunt (1925). It seems like she liked screenwriters more than actors: her escort to Mardi Gras was Finis Fox, and in 1927 she married Joseph Jackson and retired from acting.

Axel Nissen, “Madame Noir: Esther Howard in Born to Kill (1947)” In: Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012, p.107-113.