Week of October 20th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that a theater ticket tax was about to go into effect on November 1st and nobody could escape it:

Yea, even though you be a dramatic critic, you will have to pay over your little old ten percent of the price of your ticket. As you do this, you may be thankful you aren’t a theatrical treasurer, who has to “count the house” and the pennies. In fact, it is likely the government may be prevailed upon to provide private asylums for the poor treasurers who will go insane over their tasks.

It really wasn’t that terrible for the treasurers: the ticket sellers had stamps, so when someone bought a ten cent ticket, they also bought a one cent stamp. A fifteen cent ticket required the purchase of a two cent stamp—the government rounded up.* However, five-cent houses were exempt.

Film theaters had another war tax in addition to the 10% ticket tax. It started as a 15-cent per reel per day tax on all films. That proved to be too difficult to collect, so in 1918 it became a five percent tax on film rental fees. There was a side benefit to the tax collection: according to Wid’s Daily (June 14, 1920), this was the first time anyone collected data on how much money film distributors were making in the United States. Between July 1, 1919 and March 31, 1920, taxes on film rentals totaled $347,334.26, so the gross receipts for the industry were $62,520,167.20. They estimated that the total for fiscal year July 1919-June 1920 would be $86,360,222.93. Movies were big business!

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With so many stars, it’s no wonder they owned nearly a third of the market.

Wid’s couldn’t find out how much each company contributed to the total because only one distributor made it’s annual report public, but from Famous Players’ report they were able to estimate that they did 32½% of the business in the entire industry.

Unsurprisingly, the theater owners fought the rental tax every step of the way. It ended on January 1, 1922 when it was repealed by the Revenue Act of 1921. The tax on free admissions ended at the same time, so Kingsley had to fish the pennies out from the bottom of her purse for a good long while.

 

Kingsley’s second favorite film this week was Camille:

The deathless tale of the love of Camille and Armand, with which we all became familiar in our early teens—principally because we were forbidden both book and play—is revived in fine and classic manner by Theda Bara and the Fox company at Miller’s this week. And it matters not how many times you’ve sighed over the sacrifice of Camille and wept at that naughty lady’s deathbed, you’ll do it again for Theda Bara… Miss Bara’s work has improved tremendously since we last saw her. It is characterized by a fine reserve, an artistic restraint, even in the most emotional scenes.

She addressed the first question you would ask about a tuberculosis-ridden character: “One wondered how the undeniably robust-looking actress would manage to look the wasted and ethereal heroine of the story, but she has accomplished it, rather by that subtle spiritual suggestion of a worn-out soul than by any actual physical change.” So acting can do the job instead of some horrific diet. It’s a lost film.

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Her favorite film this week was almost unfair competition to the rest: Chaplin’s The Adventurer.

If you want to laugh until the laughs tumble over each other in their eagerness to let yet another laugh escape, be sure and see The Adventurer…His antics are more of the brain and less of the feet than in any previous picture, with the result every little movement has a joyous meaning all its own. ‘And the story starts just as soon as the picture does,’ naively exclaimed a girl sitting behind me. In other words, Charlie pokes his head out of the sand to look right into the barrel of the guard’s gun.

If you want to follow Kingsley’s advice, you can see it on the Internet Archive.

 

Kingsley reported on an unusual delivery this week:

Fifty pies, varying in make from custard to pumpkin, in color from the dark red of strawberries to the light yellow of cream, in flavor from coconut to sweet potato; fifty pies have been received by Gladys Brockwell.

A commercial baker from Rosedale, Kansas sent them to her because he’d admired her art so much that he wanted her to try his. Kingsley thought that Mack Sennett might have made better use of them, but she didn’t say what became of the desserts.

 

 

The best line this week didn’t come from Kingsley, instead it was from Mary Pickford. She had signed Teddy the Dog, star of several Keystone comedies, for a serious part in her next film (he was to play Stella’s loyal dog in Stella Maris). She said, “I feel sure he’ll be able even to play Hamlet if we want him to. You know, he’s a Great Dane.”

She’ll show herself out.

 

 

*”N.P. Theaters Must Bear Share of U.S. War Tax,” Exhibitor’s Herald, October 13, 1917, p.17.

 

 

Week of October 13th, 1917

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Fan Fan (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the set of the latest Franklin Brothers film, Fan-Fan, an all-kid version of The Mikado. She reported on the “three-ring circus in progress,” and had a chat with the directors about the — the polite word is challenges – of their job:

‘Going over the top’ in the making of “kid” comedies is the accomplishment of the Franklins, and according to these gentlemen, directing in a trench smash hasn’t much on squeezing out the nectar-like juice of genius out of 500 wriggling, restless, contrary kid actors. Nevertheless, it can be done, and the Franklins know all the ways there are to make a naturally fractious small boy or a prissy little miss ‘show off’—which, after all, is all there is to acting.

“The louder I shout, the louder the children shout,” said Sid Franklin the other day, “and the louder they shout the better acting they do.”

For the production they built a Japanese street at the Fox studio and hired Japanese people for the background, but the stars were the Franklins’ regular stock company, Francis Carpenter (Naki-Poo), Virginia Corbin (Yum-Yum) and Violet Radcliffe (Pooh-Bah). The kids had a school teacher on the set and Kingsley reported that “the children are well cared for during the making of pictures.”

The plot of The Mikado doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a children’s film, with coerced marriages and the threats of execution, but Kingsley reassured readers that “this adroit Gilbert and Sullivan satire has been made into a picture play which rather emphasizes the refreshing comedy of the story than reflects any of its satiric vein.” Unfortunately we can’t see how they managed that, because it’s a lost film.

 

 

Chester and Sidney Franklin got their start in film in 1915 when they independently wrote and directed a short, The Baby. It led to them being hired by Majestic Motion Picture Co. to make more comedy shorts starring kids. In 1917 they were hired by Fox to direct features with children. They made five, including Jack and the Beanstalk, which Kingsley had enjoyed a great deal. Despite their cheerful words about working with youngsters, Fan Fan was their last of their children’s features for Fox; they both moved on to separately direct adult actors.

 

 

Chester called the shots on over 50 films; his most famous was the 2-strip Technicolor Toll of the Sea (1922). Sidney had an even more successful career. He made films like The Hoodlum (1919) with Mary Pickford and Smilin’ Through (1922) with Norma Talmadge, then in 1926 he was hired by M.G.M. where he became Irving Thalberg’s protégé. He got to direct big-budget literary films like Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and The Good Earth (1937). After Thalberg’s death he became a producer at the studio; he worked on Ninotchka (1939), Random Harvest (1942) and The Yearling (1946) among others.

 

 

Kingsley visited another studio this week and reported that nobody could find Mary Pickford on the set of her latest film Stella Maris, but there was

a funny looking feminine creature in an old ragged dress, her hair ‘skinned’ back away from her face, and a big basket over her arm….By and by, over the face of the funny little girl spread a whimsical smile—Mary Pickford’s own particularly droll little grin.

“Don’t you think I’m brave to live with this face?” inquired Mary, strolling out of the scene as she waited for the property men to fix up the canvas light reflectors. “You know, my mother could safely leave me out all night any time in this make-up and nobody would steal me. Even with a string of pearls I don’t believe they’d touch me.” Marshall Neilan, her own director, couldn’t find her under her funny make-up the other day.

This wasn’t just hype: as you can see in the photos, her character did look radically different from Pickford, and it was very effective acting and make up. They kept the plot to the film secret from Kingsley, so she thought that Pickford was poor in the first two reels, then became pretty when her fortunes improved. Actually it was a dual role, with Pickford playing both the mistreated orphan servant Unity Blake and the paralyzed, wealthy Stella Maris. The film is available on DVD. Fritzi Kramer called it “one of the finest silent features of the 1910’s and is essential viewing for fans of the era;” you can read her full review at Movies Silently.

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was an adaptation of Edward Everett Hale’s short story The Man Without A Country. In 1863 Hale wrote it to promote enlistment in the Union Army during the Civil War. It told the fictional story of Phillip Nolan, who had been convicted of treason and was sentenced to exile on the sea, forbidden from hearing anything about the United States. In this version, the man is a pacifist “for no particular reason,” even after his Red Cross nurse sweetheart is presumed dead when her ship is torpedoed. He refuses to enlist until he’s given Hale’s story, then after he reads it he sees the error of his ways and joins the army. Kingsley felt it should be compulsory viewing for all pacifists.

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Florence LaBadie

Her review ended on a melancholy note: the leading lady, Florence LaBadie had died on October 13, 1917 of septicemia after an automobile accident, and Kingsley felt in was uncanny to see her still alive on the screen, yet “it seems like a marvelous trick of fate that the last role she played in the films was one embodying such patriotic idealism as this one.” Movies were so young then that this was unusual. The film survives at the Library of Congress and a preview is on the Internet Archive. Cornell University has made the original short story available online.

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Lasky stars do their bit for the war effort.

Kingsley’s best line this week was equally patriotic: a Liberty Loan film playing with Norma Talmadge’s disappointing The Moth was “of such a fascinating nature it would make you steal money to buy bonds.” This enthralling short comedy was called The Great Liberty Bond Hold-Up and it featured Mary Pickford, William S. Hart, Julian Eltinge, Douglas Fairbanks and Theodore Roberts. It was part of the series All-Star Production of Patriotic Episodes for the Second Liberty Loan. Be careful looking at the photo, you don’t know what crimes it might inspire you to commit!

 

Week of October 6th, 1917

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Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance, vacationing in Hawaii, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Charlie Chaplin about his future ambitions. He had no film to promote and was between jobs: he’d just finished his last film for Mutual and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii, after which he would start working for First National. They didn’t mention movies at all, and he seemed to be quite happy to talk about other subjects. He spoke about what he hoped to do in the future:

Chaplin’s big ambition, confided to me the other day, is nothing less than to write and produce a play on the stage. And about this business Charlie cherishes no illusions.

“I’m not nearly ready to do it yet,” he said. “I must work, study and write for at least another five years. In the meantime I must know people who will stimulate thought and imagination—clever people who have accomplished things. Yes, I should wish to write a comedy, of course, but a comedy with a deep and genuine human touch.”

So as early as 1917 he wanted to make Serious Art, but he didn’t imagine he could do that with film. Chaplin never did produce a play. He must have decided that film could be taken seriously enough for his ambitions. Five years later he began shooting A Woman of Paris, a drama about a woman who choses between security and love.

 

He went on to describe being tongue-tied when he met actor/theater manager/founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree: “I managed to yammer out something, but I’m sure it was quite ghastly.” Tree didn’t notice, he was too busy monologing on how he wanted to stage Macbeth, the history of non-Shakespeare Elizabethan playwrights and the benefits of travel for young people. Chaplin didn’t make his escape until Tree’s daughter Iris rescued him.

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Oliver Twist asks for more, by George Cruikshank

He also talked about fiction, and told a sweet story about his favorite author, Dickens:

“I used to imitate Dickens’ characters at school, from the Cruikshank illustrations,” said Charlie, “and one day one of the directors gave me Oliver Twist. It was the first book I ever owned because my mother was too poor to buy us books, and it was the first story I ever read. I carried it home and put it under my pillow, falling asleep that night on my precious book, and I read and reread it until it was soiled and torn.”

Oliver Twist remained his favorite novel for his whole life; he continued to read it over and over, according to his biographer Stephen Weismann.*

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Bondage, which starred Dorothy Phillips as a newspaper writer who marries a lawyer, quits work and promptly gets bored and allows

an old love affair with a worthless cad to obsess her. If the young woman had kept on the job of writing, there would have been no story. But she didn’t. The creative mind is subject to influence which less imaginative souls never feel, and this Miss Phillips has subtlety conveyed.

Kingsley thought it was “Ibsen-esque in its power and insight…a picture which should not be missed by lovers of good drama.” Plus (for a change!) she got to see a female reporter that seemed realistic to her. Bondage was written and directed by Ida May Park More from a story by Edna Kenton. You don’t suppose that if there were more women directing films now we would get more interesting and complicated female characters?

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Her review of Douglas Fairbanks latest, The Man From Painted Post, did the box office no harm, and she got to write some of her funniest lines of the week:

Any old time Douglas Fairbanks can’t hold up and kill off, sometimes one at a pop, sometimes two at a pop, as many as a dozen ruffians, smiling as he does it, he feels his day has been wasted….Nay, more than that, he holds up one rascally poltroon in the dust with nothing more dangerous than the handle of a stewpot! Very subtle satire on the old melodrama stuff, this picture play.

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Too naughty for New York!

An earlier Dorothy Phillips film was running into a little trouble with the censors:

The New York censors, despite experience which might be supposed to be toughening, still have delicate sensibilities; or, at any rate there are large sensitive spots on their sensibilities. The title of the Bluebird feature Hell Morgan’s Girl, contained too strong a wallop for these gentlemen, who have changed the name to A Soul’s Redemption, which, as [film co-star] Lon Chaney justly observed the other day, has about as much punch as “toothbrush.”

 

 

* Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94.

Week of September 29th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, actress Rita Jolivet was making plans to travel with her upcoming film, Lest We Forget. It wasn’t an ordinary promotional tour:

Miss Jolivet proposes to show the film in all the large centers of military occupation behind the French front. This will include the camps of the American troops as well.

But her plan wasn’t the main reason the story was headlined “Rita Jolivet is Brave.” That was because she’d survived the Lusitania sinking, and she was willing to cross the Atlantic again in wartime. Despite her intentions, that tour never happened, according to passenger records (she next sailed to Europe in 1921). Instead she toured the United States with the film in early 1918, helping to sell war bonds as well as the film.

 

What’s unusual is that she played a Lusitania survivor in the film, too. They recreated the sinking for it, which must have been disturbing to relive. She didn’t mention any trauma; instead the press releases said she offered her expert guidance to the director.

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I was taught in history class that the sinking wasn’t one of the reasons the United States entered the war because it happened two years before the war declaration, but the publicity for Lest We Forget shows that it was used to remind people why they fought. On July 7, 1918 the LA Times ran the headline “Charging Americans crying ‘Lusitania!’ spread terror among the Huns south of the Somme,” so it certainly wasn’t forgotten. The film has been preserved at the Eastman House and the Library of Congress.

Even now it’s not forgotten: I was surprised by how many people have blogged about Jolivet and the Lusitania. If you’d like to know more about Rita Jolivet visit The Lusitania Resource or Rita Jolivet, Unsinkable.

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Mysterious Mr. Tiller, which she thought was “the best film of the detective sort since Sherlock Holmes.” She wrote “the story keeps you sitting right on the edge of your seat every minute…you never quite catch up, until the breathless last ten feet.” Ordinarily she was happy to tell everything about a film’s plot, but she liked this one so much that she refused to spoil it. Other writers were less reticent, so since it’s a lost film, I’ll tell you: it turns out that the glamorous woman (Ruth Clifford) is an undercover agent and “The Face,” a master criminal, is actually Prentice Tiller (Rupert Julian), the chief of the Secret Service! And yes, they do recover the stolen necklace.

 

Roscoe Arbuckle was “arousing his customary roars of merriment at the Garrick this week,” with his new two-reeler Oh Doctor. Kingsley reported on exactly what the audience laughed at the most: “when Fatty, knocking at a door a long time, grows bored, looks away, but keeps on knocking even when his blows fall on the chest of a young lady who opens the door.” However, Kingsley’s favorite bit was the trick automobile that hits pedestrians, furnishing new patients for the doctor. To find out what someone thinks now, read Lea’s recent review at Silent-ology. The short is available on DVD.

 

Kingsley gave Theda Bara a sort of exit interview this week. The star was about to return to New York City, and she said many complimentary things about California and her beautiful garden. She did have one complaint: “I should have loved the thrill of an earthquake – just a tame one, of course. I didn’t ask for anything spectacular.” As a librarian, I really must disagree with her – even little earthquakes are only thrilling if you enjoy picking up books.

 

A vaudeville psychic, Leona LeMar (“the girl with a thousand eyes”), visited a film set at Universal City. To test her abilities, the star, Carmel Myers, asked her what the picture was about. “Miss LeMar passed her hand over her eyes, made a few motions in the air and finally answered: ‘well, I don’t know enough about pictures to answer that one.” Scotty Dunlap, the assistant director, promptly answered, “why that’s all right. We don’t know ourselves!”

That sounds like someone trying to politely put a guest at ease until you read the AFI Catalog’s plot summary for the film, The Lash of Power. That now lost film was so weird, it’s no wonder they didn’t know. Enjoy:

John Rand, having lived in a small town his entire life, dreams of possessing wealth and power in New York. Napoleon Bonaparte has long been his ideal, and one day he feels a message from the departed general urging him to take up the fight for world supremacy. He goes to the city ready to begin the battle, and there, aided by his Napoleonic visions, John amasses a great fortune, ruthlessly destroying everyone who presents an obstacle to his lust for power. His ambitions satiated, John becomes the enemy of democracy when he sells a secret formula to an enemy power. He is later killed by an anarchist. John then awakens to find himself in his cottage, secure in his mother’s devotion and the love of Marion Sherwood, the banker’s daughter.

 

Week of September 22nd, 1917

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William Fox

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley proved that some things about living in L.A. have changed very little in the last one hundred years:

“How’s the second reel of your scenario coming on?” is the question you may quite safely ask of the casual acquaintance you meet in the street car, these days.

Your cook conceals a plot in the porridge, and becomes ambidextrous stirring cake with one hand and writing scenarios with the other. The manicurist, dreaming over your fingernails, is quite as apt as not to leave you in the soap-suds while she figures out how the hero gets out of the dungeon; the barber, first transfixing you safely in your chair, pitilessly relates to you his wild west scenario, and the messenger boy writes stories all over the back of your letter, making it look like a German spy cipher.

Since that was the state of affairs, she printed advice for writers from William Fox, the president of the Fox Film Corporation. Unfortunately, it was so florid and theoretical that it wasn’t terrible useful. He wrote,

the story should be human in its appeal and should possess ingenuity of plot. It must be lighted, glorified and inspired by love…The writers of scenarios, therefore, cannot go amiss if they play on the keyboard of human passion, sounding the impressively dominant theme, the subtlety appealing undertones, compelling overtones, and, most of all, the happy, joyous, sunny notion of love.

So I guess he wants more romances? Kingsley knew it wasn’t helpful; at the end she added, “sounds easy, doesn’t it?’

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Fox was busy selling his latest production, The Honor System, a social justice film about prison reform that was Kingsley’s favorite film this week.

If Charles Dickens were alive today and were writing scenarios he might have written The Honor System, Henry Christeen Warnack’s stupendous picture-epic of prison life…There is in The Honor System the same poignancy of situation, the same striking, colorful, intensely human drama against the dun-colored background of tragic circumstance, the same highlights of reliving comedy, the same motley diversity of human types as characterize Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist.

Warnack wasn’t the director; he wrote the story the film was based on. He was the former drama critic for the LA Times, but she didn’t mention that she might be biased towards her coworker. She waited to cite director Raoul Walsh’s work until close to the end but at least she though it was “magnificent.”

However, critics who hadn’t worked with Warnack admired the film too. Peter Milne in Motion Picture News gave it a full page review (three times longer than the average); he wrote “The Honor System has everything for everyone. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you thrill for the welfare of its hero, it makes you love the heroine, it makes you hiss at the villains and, still further, it preaches prison reform by the most dramatic method—contrast.” Charles R. Condon in Motography wrote, “first night attendances are easily lured onto applause, but it takes a picture that is good to hold the people in absolute silence in the tense moments and move them to sob or gasp for the highly dramatic or thrilling scenes, and The Honor System does just that.”

It’s a lost film. Fritzi Kramer visited the prison where much of it was filmed and took pictures; you can see them at Movies Silently.

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Warnack had spent most of his career as a newspaper writer and editor, starting in birthplace Knoxville, TN, then he moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, Douglas, Arizon, Yuma Arizona (where he learned about the prison that needed reforming) and finally to Los Angeles. He was the Times drama editor from 1910 to 1913, and he continued to contribute poems and articles. He wrote film scenarios until 1920, and then he went back to journalism, ending his career as a news and features writer at the Long Beach Press-Telegram. He died of pneumonia in 1927, aged 50.

 

Helen Delaney, a dancer touring with Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step, was in Los Angeles for her first time, and she had an interesting observation about the town. “Why there’s a studio every minute in Hollywood and at Culver City. I saw a place I thought was a college, but they said no, it was the Triangle Studios; and another I thought was the courthouse and that turned out to be Universal City…Just then I caught sight of what afterward was explained to be a church—but it looked just as much like a studio as some of the other places.”

So that’s one thing that has changed in Los Angeles: now the studios look like office buildings.

Week of September 15th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Cecil B. De Mille about the immediate future of films. He had just finished shooting his last collaboration with Geraldine Farrar, The Devil’s Stone, and was beginning to think about his next project. He said:

As to the nature and subject of pictures, the suggestive film and that dealing morbidly with sex matters are dead already. Clean, cheerful, human themes will be the favorites. In any case, screen productions will divide themselves into two classes—they are beginning to do so already, in fact—viz., the flashy melodrama and the bright, clever, clean drama appealing to intelligent people.

While the whole industry didn’t follow his lead, this was fairly true for the films he was to make over the next few years, which ranged from the melodrama of a cursed Viking emerald in The Devil’s Stone to the cheerful, not morbid film about sex matters Don’t Change Your Husband (1918).

 

He was perhaps deliberately vague about the plans for his next film, saying it would not be a war film or a story of international intrigue, but it would be “imbued with a tremendous spirit of patriotism and will be entirely unique in theme.” This turned out to be far from the final result. The Whispering Chorus told the story of an indebted accountant who embezzles money from his employer, fakes his own death by changing clothes with the corpse of a homeless man, then gets arrested for the corpses’ murder and goes to the electric chair for the crime. Ooof! De Mille’s patriotic project must have been shelved. Fritzi Kramer has a review of The Whispering Chorus at Movies Silently.

De Mille’s other prediction didn’t come true as much as I ‘d like. He said that “feature” films of eight or nine reels were doomed, and the ideal length was five. “No matter how good the picture, people grow weary if required to remain a longer time than that called for by the five reeler.” Yes, exactly! If only everybody had listened to him – himself included. But the main lesson from the interview is don’t talk to journalists about your next project until it’s finished or you’ll probably be wrong.

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week, Sirens of the Sea, was certainly different from the other pictures out at the time. A group of modern young people visit an island and in a dream sequence are transformed into sirens and Greek warriors; “the sirens long to become mortal and win love and happiness.” She thought that director Allen Holubar “has done it so skillfully, has so artfully transferred the fragile charm of youth to the screen, that the most practical among us is disarmed of prejudice against the too-fanciful, and is placed completely under the spell of the story’s absorbing charm.” She hoped that “this is merely the beginning of Holubar’s work in the realm of poetic fancy.” It’s a lost film.

 

Unfortunately for Kingsley, Holubar stayed away from fantasy for the rest of his career and mostly made serious dramas, usually featuring his wife, Dorothy Phillips (Lon Chaney’s co-star in the late teens). His next film was Fear Not, a crime drama about drug abuse. He died of pneumonia following gallstone surgery in 1923.

 

Kinglsey repeated a story from D.W. Griffith’s publicity man this week:

According to authentic reports, those two geniuses, D.W. Griffith and Bernard Shaw, have met. The momentous event occurred in London. It is related Mr. Shaw even ran right home from the dinner party where the two celebrities met, and fetched back a scenario. Mr. Griffith did not, however, so far as can be learned, purchase it. W.E. Keefe, Griffith’s press agent, volunteers the information that he knows the reason. “I’ll bet I know why Griffith didn’t buy it. It didn’t have any pep.”

It’s wise to distrust a publicist, but according to Griffith’s biographer Richard Schickel, the meeting actually did take place — just over lunch, not dinner. Griffith met with lots of famous literary men during his trip to England, including H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton and John Galsworthy, to ask them how he could contribute to the war effort. Schickel (quoting Griffith’s autobiography) said that Shaw was a little cranky and after trying to give Griffith a script, he began to lecture him on what was wrong with American films so the director left the luncheon early. (p.345). However, he didn’t mention pep or lack of it in the scenario.

If Shaw shared his thoughts on Intolerance, it’s no wonder Griffith dined and dashed. In a May 14, 1917 letter to Judge Henry Neil, he wrote “it was the most damnable entertainment and the wickedest waste of money within my experience. It was like turning over the leaves of a badly illustrated Bible (in monthly parts) for three hours that were like three years.” So did he ask for a refund? Their conversation could be the basis for a two-actor play.

Shaw’s plays weren’t adapted to silent films, even though he was offered lots of money for the rights. The first was an experimental talkie made in 1927: an eleven-minute scene from Saint Joan performed by Sybil Thorndike. He went on to adapt two of his plays into a couple of the best British films ever made, Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941).

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Kingsley enjoyed “the amusing little comedy” A Stormy Knight, but she noted “a fault in the photoplay is that it has too many automobile chases—so many, in fact, that it might well be suspected a real estate agent and an automobile man had something to do with the staging!” (What would she say about a Fast and the Furious movie?) Franklyn Farnum starred in this now-lost film as a young man whose father wanted him to marry, so the father stages a fake kidnapping, because naturally his son would fall in love with a damsel in distress.

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I don’t want to think about how much the land behind the Kops costs now.

I can understand the car salesmen profiting, but I’d never thought about realtors. But of course, in 1917 the chases would go past many houses and vacant lots waiting to be sold and potential buyers throughout the country could see them. Hollywood films really would have been a real estate selling tool.

 

Week of September 8th, 1917

 

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote the “very touching little story” of how Ruby Lafayette got her break in Hollywood at age 73 with the film Mother o’ Mine. Miss Lafayette had a fifty-year long career as a respected stage actress who toured the Midwest with her own company, performing plays like Pygmalion and Galatea* and Damon and Pythias. She and her husband, fellow actor John T. Curran, retired to a ranch in Lampasas, Texas. Kingsley picked up the story from there:

But she lost her husband and things went wrong on the ranch. Not long ago, without giving anybody any inkling of what she intended to do, she packed up and came West, making her appearance early one morning at Universal City. Rupert Julian had long wanted to put the Kipling poem into celluloid drama. He chanced to be passing through the office. He saw the little old lady, turned and took another look, and began to talk with her. She told him of her experience, her eagerness to work. Julian wanted to put Mother o’ Mine right on, but the powers-that-be wouldn’t let him at that time. So Miss Lafayette went back to the Texas farm. Then one day when things were looking the darkest for the brave little old soul, who was trying to make things go all alone and having a hard time of it, she got a letter from Mr. Julian. Mother o’ Mine was to be filmed after all, an nobody would do for the part except Miss Lafayette! So out she came again, and everybody who saw the tender, appealing, delightful characterization which she gave at the Garrick a couple of weeks ago, will rejoice that she is to appear on the screen in other pictures.

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Kingsley didn’t know how right she was: Lafayette appeared in at least 30 films over the next 15 years (her Motion Picture Herald obituary estimated it was 200). She billed herself as “the oldest actress on the screen” and she played lots of grandmothers. She died in 1935 when she was 90, after a great third act.

Funnily enough, the same Sunday column opened with observations on how leading ladies were becoming younger and younger. Kingsley wrote “sixteen years old seems to be the popular age, just now,” then she recounted the story of a 22 year old actress “who was told, when she asked for a certain part: “Why my dear, you can’t have that part. You’re older than Methuselah!”

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Polly of the Circus, which was “a huge success. Never in its palmist stage days did the play achieve the brilliant triumph which its film twin promises, with Mae Marsh in the leading role…And what a wonderful little girl Polly was! We never knew just how wonderful until we saw Mae Marsh play the role…what a creature of imaginativeness, of sensibility, of sturdy loyalty and affectionateness Miss Marsh has made her!”

The audience in Los Angeles were big fans of Miss Marsh, too; “all day and all evening huge crowds waited outside the theater.” Kingsley also appreciated the script that transferred the “quaint charm” of the play to the screen, the photography, and the orchestra and lighting effects. It told the story of a young circus horseback rider who is injured in an accident and stays with a minster while she recovers. Polly was the first film produced by Goldwyn Pictures, and it was the first appearance of the Goldwyn lion mascot that later became the MGM lion. The film was once considered lost, but it was one of the films found in the permafrost of Dawson City, Yukon in 1978.

 

Kingsley reported that Thomas Ince tried to buy the rights to make Peter Pan from Sir James Barrie. Even though he offered “a fortune,” Barrie refused because he’d had a bad experience with a British production company and he decided to never allow one of his plays or stories to be filmed again. Luckily he changed his mind in the early 1920’s; the 1924 film starring Betty Bronson has become a favorite of silent film fans and was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry in 2000. It’s available on DVD.

 

Kingsley repeated claims that William Desmond Taylor and his Tom Sawyer cast and crew managed to sneak into St. Petersburg, Missouri, film several scenes and leave before anybody knew they were filming. Townspeople thought that the equipment belonged to government engineers surveying the area, and the hotel proprietor said that the company was so quiet that he couldn’t have known they were film folk. She reported that locals were irritated because they missed the chance to see Hollywood in action.

 

*Pygmalion and Galatea was written by W.S. Gilbert. It debuted in 1871, just before his first collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. It was a big hit, and it inspired other authors to do their version of the myth, including George Bernard Shaw in 1913.

emcgaffey
Elizabeth McGaffey (1922 passport photo)

Note: My profile of Elizabeth McGaffey is up at the Women Film Pioneers site. She was the first studio librarian. I learned about her when I wrote my February 10, 1917 blog post, and of course I needed to know more. Since she was on the WFP “unhistoricized” list, I wrote up what I found and they accepted it. However, now they have new rules: you must apply and submit your CV before you write for them. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.