They’re In the Money: Week of May 22nd, 1920

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Moving Picture World, November 13, 1920, p. 181.

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote a story that shows how the film industry was beginning to consolidate in the early 1920’s:

Articles of incorporation were filed this week for a new distributing organization to be known as the Educational Film Exchange of Southern California. Sol Lesser and the Gore Brothers are interested in the enterprise and Dave Bershon, general manger of the First National exchange, will have supervision.

The company will handle for Southern California and Arizona the Christie comedies, the Chester Outing pictures, the Chester screenics, the Educational Films and a number of other short-reel comedies, travelogues and scenic.

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They bought a First National franchise only three months earlier.

The addition of an Educational Films distribution franchise (there were eight others) was just a small part of the rapidly expanding Abe and Mike Gore and Sol Lesser empire. They already owned the First National Exchange for Southern California and Arizona as well as a chain of theaters that included the Kinema in downtown Los Angeles.* Just four months later in September, they announced they were incorporating their four distribution companies (they’d also acquired the All-Star Feature Distributors and Equity Films Corporation) as West Coast Exhibitors Booking Corporation. Notices about their plans to build more theaters regularly appeared in the trade papers, and in November they signed a lease for the theater in the Ambassador Hotel. In February 1921, they decided to merge everything they owned into one company called West Coast Theaters. At that point their holdings included thirty-two theaters, four film exchanges and real estate holdings for theaters under construction. According to Camera magazine, “the policy of the West Coast Theaters Company will be the expansion and enlargement of businesses by erecting and operating picture theaters on the Pacific Coast and in Arizona.” That’s exactly what they did — the film business was really booming then!

A few years later, the company was part of the next big trend in the film business: studios buying up theaters and distributors, so they could control all aspects of selling movies to the public. In 1925 West Coast Theaters was bought out by the Fox Film Corporation. But Lesser and the Gores were fine. Sol Lesser had also been producing films, so he had plenty to keep him busy. Both Abe and Mike Gore stayed with Fox West Coast Theaters and continued to build theaters; Mike Gore’s obituary in Variety said they built at least 400 of them (August 1953).

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This week, Kingsley got to interview Orpheum headliner and retired film star Olga Petrova, who managed to shock her during lunch by lobbing this “conversational bomb”:

Marriage is largely merely an economic question…My husband and I maintain separate ménages. Yet we’re deeply devoted as two people can be. My husband, you see, is a man of whom I’m very proud. I’m quite sure he feels the same way about me. He is Dr. John D. Stewart of New York, head of a big hospital there. His labors are many and heavy. So are mine. So I have my own home on Long Island, where I write and think and plan. When my husband comes to my home it is as my guest. If I happen to be too busy to see him I tell him so frankly. It works like a charm for us.

Petrova’s marriage did work for a long time: she was still married to Stewart during the 1930 census, but by the 1940 census she had divorced him and married Louis Willoughby. Kingsley seemed to find this interview much more interesting than one with the latest ingénue.

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This week, Kingsley sat through a stinker, The Girl in Number Twenty-Nine. The woman of the title is prevented from committing suicide by a nice young man, who “from then on finds himself hounded by a gang of mysterious gentlemen, whose mission in life, it seems, is to get innocent people to shoot themselves, though the gang seems to carry no guns of their own. The hero gets deeper and deeper in trouble, but never thinks to tell the police.”

Seeing a bad movie is a perfectly ordinary occurrence, but what’s interesting in this case is that the director was John Ford. It’s useful to remember that not all lost Ford films are undiscovered gems. Furthermore, in the good old days, a director could make a turkey and not torpedo his career.

 

 

*You might remember that Kingsley wrote about the Kinema reopening last January, under Thomas Tally’s new ownership. Just two weeks later he sold it to Lesser and the Gores. (“Lesser Buys Out Tally,” Film Daily, January 27, 1920, p.1)

 

 

“First National Becomes Important Factor in Big West Coast Circuit.” Exhibitors’ Herald, July 25, 1925, p.25.

“Gore Brothers and Sol Lesser Exchanges Merged to Create One Distributing Center,” Moving Picture World, October 30, 1920, p.1257.

“Lesser and Gore Brothers Merge Big Interests,” Motion Picture News, November 20, 1920, p.3872.

“Lesser and Gore in Four Booking Groups,” Motion Picture News, September 25, 1920, p. 2407.

“New Theater Company” Camera, February 26, 1921, p.7.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say It Ain’t So, Grace! : Week of May 15th, 1920

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Pickford and pots, a few years later (My Best Girl, 1927)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley felt that she needed to relive her conscience with a confession:

It’s about those pictures and publicity stunts in general. Remember, for instance, the picture you saw once of Mary Pickford wearing a smile and a Sassy Jane and which showed her holding a ladle in one hand and a frying pan in the other, while underneath was inscribed the legend “Mary Loves to Cook?’

Well, she doesn’t. Not a darned bit. I helped to pose that picture, and I know. Even while she was doing it she told me the truth about her cooking. Every once in a while she lets the regular cook get the family breakfast. I liked Mary for being frank that way.

Good for Miss Pickford, leaving it to the professionals! Nevertheless, this shows that film publicity folk have been creative since the very beginning. Kingsley went on with more revelations that probably didn’t shock her readers any more than they do you:

Then take Pauline Frederick. You remember that picture of her standing up in the front of a yacht with her dress all open at the chest and her hair blowing out? Well, she can’t sail a boat any more than a hairdresser can. She gets awfully seasick, too, and all she thought about that day, she says, was getting the picture-taking business over before anything awful, well, you know, happened.

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Betty Blythe didn’t care for bagpipers

Kingsley also debunked the notion that Lillian Gish owned a pet alligator (“she says they smell too bad”) and that Betty Blythe started a fund for ancient bagpipers (“as she rightly says, what did bagpipers ever do for her?”), then she concluded that there was no end in sight:

Oh, I hear the telephone! It’s the editor, who wants me to come and help pose Clara Kimball Young as another ‘most perfectly formed woman in the world’! Well, I know she is, but why pick on me? Page Eddie Schallert!

Schallert was her fellow film writer at the Times. Like the photographs, Kingsley’s ‘expose’ was harmless fun, allowing her readers to feel as if they were wise to the way Hollywood works.

Unfortunately, the only photo I’ve been able to track down that resembles any of the ones she mentioned looks like it’s from the same Pauline Frederick photo shoot (this picture is windless), but it must be purchased from Getty for the low, low price of $175 for a small copy or $499 for a large one. Here’s the link, because that’s beyond this blog’s budget. I’ll give you a nice public domain ad for the film she was publicizing, Bonds of Love (1919), instead:

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Elsewhere this week, Kingsley reported that United Artists, which had already inspired a group of directors to form their own distribution company, was having the same effect on four screenwriters:

News of one of the most important producing combinations ever formed in the film world came to light yesterday. Four of the most famous picture writers have an organization to make their own photoplays. The combining authors are John G. Hawks, John Lynch, C. Gardner Sullivan and Monte Katterjohn. It is understood that a former official of the Mayflower [Isaac Wolper] is sponsoring the new outfit and that a tremendous amount of eastern capital is backing it. The new organization will begin work about September 1.

The four men named are among the best known in picturedom. They have perhaps more screen successes than any other film authors in the business, and the announcement of their combination to make their own productions is therefore of unique importance.

Film history can be forgiven for forgetting about this, because there’s no record that the company lasted long enough to even get a name. Isaac Wolper soon went to work with director Herbert Blache, and J.G Hawks signed a new contract with Goldwyn. The writers went on to many more years of success in Hollywood, ranging from Katterjohn’s script for The Sheik (1921) and Hawks’ adaptation of The Sea Hawk (1924) to Sullivan’s work on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Their announcement didn’t say, but they probably wanted the same thing the United Artists did: artistic control and more money. It’s interesting that the actors succeeded where directors and writers failed.

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A Modern Salome

This week, Kingsley proved that she could sometimes fall for publicity when she noted the appearance of a new actress:

A beautiful new star appears on Broadway this week. She is Hope Hampton, and she is on view at Tally’s. That A Modern Salome, the picture in which she appears, is a poor story, badly directed, is a misfortune, but one which doubtless the young woman’s beauty and undeniable talent will later overcome. For this is her very first picture, in fact, the first time she has been before the camera…It’s hard to tell what A Modern Salome is all about, so poor is the continuity.

Now Hampton is remembered for an unflattering reason. She became film executive Jules Brulatour’s third wife in 1923, and he financed both her film career (including A Modern Salome) and later, her opera career, neither of which were distinguished. So that’s why people think Orson Welles used her as the template for Charles Foster Kane’s second wife.

 

 

 

“Four Authors May Form Own Company,” Exhibitors’ Herald, June 5, 1920, p. 48.

“J.G. Hawks Signs Contract to Continue as Head of Goldwyn Editorial Forces,” Moving Picture World, November 6, 1920, p.92.

 

 

Under the Sea: Week of May 8th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley found something new at the movies:

When some great, new, startling thing is achieved, one wonders why somebody didn’t do it before. That’s what you think as you view what is doubtless the greatest undersea picture drama ever placed on the screen, this week at the Rialto, under the rather unobtrusive title, Below the Surface. It stars Hobart Bosworth and was written by Luther Reed. Irvin Willat directed.

The film is vivid, striking melodrama concerning deep-sea divers, and it would be great even though it had no novel setting, for the treatment of the theme is poignant and human. But the setting, with its dramatic undersea action, raised the production to a unique position; it pioneers in a new field…There are a dozen angles of striking dramatic appeal in the story, which I have no space to comment upon. Suffice it there is not a moment of its unrolling that you will even think of looking at the clock.

Students of film history probably know that she was wrong: J.E. Williamson pioneered undersea moving-picture photography in 1914. He invented something he called the “photosphere,” which was an iron tube that led to a windowed chamber under water. With this, he shot Thirty Leagues Under the Sea (aka Terrors of the Deep), which featured the murder of a real shark and a fight between a diver and a mechanical, but realistic-looking octopus. In 1916, he and his device were on the team that made the feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You can learn more about Williamson on the Science Friday website.

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Kingsley had visited the set for 20,000 Leagues in 1916, but it was the recreation of a Hindu City on the Universal lot, not the one in the Bahamas where they shot the underwater sequences. It seems like she’d forgotten about it four years later.

So in 1920, underwater photography was able to impress even jaded filmgoers like Kingsley. It was remarkably difficult to do. Director Irvin Willat and his director of photography J.O. Taylor didn’t steal the photosphere idea to make their film, they used a different piece of equipment to get to the sea bed, as described in an LA Times article:

It required a regular fleet to carry the apparatus to the particular spot selected as location off the Coast. There a diving bell had to be specially constructed, which served as the deep sea-going craft for the director and the cameraman, who had to take a camera to the bottom of the ocean and keep it there several hours at a time.

This required the building of a huge derrick on the deck of a boat. From this the diving bell was suspended over the water by means of heavy iron chains. In construction this bell followed the principle of an inverted tumbler on stilts, and was made of iron with portholes for the cameraman and director. On its being lowered the fresh air apparatus and telephonic communication were put in place. When it reached the bottom it rested on its stilts, being kept in place by enormous weights. The men wore their ordinary clothes, and complained of no discomfort after they got used to the terrific pressure.

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The Times also mentioned that actors took risks, too:

The most dramatic episode occurs when the life line of one of the divers becomes entangled in the wreckage. The men above pull and find the rope taunt. The only way to save the unfortunate man is for some one to dive down and cut the ropes. That is where Hobart Bosworth made his sensational eighteen-foot dive, remaining under water long enough to cut the rope, all without a diver’s suit.

They didn’t have to only go through this once, as Motion Picture News reported in January:

It has been found necessary for the Irvin Willat-Hobart Bosworth-Ince Company to return to Catalina Island for the making of additional undersea scenes for Below the Surface. The company spent three weeks there, but because of heavy seas, it was found the films would practically all have to be retaken.

So it’s no wonder why Kingsley’s predication didn’t come true, that “Below the Surface will probably be the first of a big crop of undersea dramas. Why, indeed, hasn’t anybody done some great thing in this line before?” It was just too difficult. Happily, all of that hard work hasn’t been lost: Below the Surface survives at the Library of Congress and has been released on DVD. It’s also available from the EYE Filmmuseum, with Dutch intertitles. Fritzi Kramer summed it up as “one of the best silent dramas you’ve never heard of.”

Now undersea movies are much less rare, in fact, according to Den of Geek, The Abyss (1989) inspired a spate of underwater horror films.

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This week, Kingsley helped promote an upcoming live show with an interview of two former teachers turned show girls (or maybe their photo did the job), and it shows just how badly teachers were paid in the 1910’s. Dolorez Suarez made $40 per month as a K-2 teacher in East Lake, Alabama, while Clara Lind was paid $45 per month “teaching sticky-faced children in Kansas.” They were both making $75 per week as part of the touring company of The Passing Show of 1918, which was about to debut in Los Angeles the following week. They recommended life in the chorus over school teaching. Suarez pointed out “I have plenty of time for myself. Here in the show all we do is dance and sing; all the rest of our time we can study as we chose. We can, can’t we Clara?” “We certainly can,” said Clara. “Why, I’ve learned more real knowledge in the chorus than I learned in six months of school teaching in Kansas!”

I bet it was educational! It’s too bad that the show girl option isn’t available to more teachers. I couldn’t find either of them in Ancestry, so I don’t know what happened to them next. They were probably using stage names.

By way of comparison, before she worked for the Times Kingsley herself had been the L.A. County School Superintendent’s secretary and in 1899 she made $60.00 a month (the L.A. Herald published all the county workers salaries annually).

 

“Actors Invade Deep,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1920.

“Jottings From the Coast,” Motion Picture News, January 10, 1920, p.666.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excellent Music: Week of May 1st, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley raved about part of one movie theater’s evening of entertainment she usually didn’t think to mention:

a synchronization for music so happy that at moments it seems inspired, and at highly dramatic moments even gives the effect of grand opera, so happily does it fit the story.

Such a case is that of the melody entertainment at Tally’s Broadway this week, where Rio Grande, from Augustus Thomas’ vivid melodrama, is the attraction. So excellent is this music, and so cunningly selected, that I’m sure its effect largely aids in evoking the cheers and applause frequently punctuating the showing of this picture, not to mention the hisses at the villain.

The man who was responsible for that inspired soundtrack was C. Percival Garratt, Tally’s Broadway musical director and organist. By 1920, he already had seven years experience as a theater organist. According to an article about him in the San Diego Union and Daily Bee, “it was largely due to his efforts that leading theaters on the Pacific coast today have organs.”

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C. Percival Garratt

Charles Percival Garratt was born in Surrey County, England on November 12, 1868. His father, Charles Augustus Garratt, was also a noted organist and music teacher. In the mid-70’s the growing family moved to Hamilton, Ontario, and by the end of the decade they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Around 1890 C.P. Garratt moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and in 1894 he became the music director at the University of Tennessee. He graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1899. In 1912 he moved to Southern California and was hired to play the organ at the Santa Ana Presbyterian Church.

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March 1917

So in 1913 when theater owner Robert W. Woodley wanted to build a much fancier theater, he was available. Mary Mallory wrote about the new place:

A consummate showman, Woodley bought what the September 25 issue of the Los Angeles Times called a “super organ,” “equipped with full orchestra, brass, strings, drums, and grand piano,” for his flashy organist C. Percival Garratt. Per the paper, Woodley first purchased the organ before designing a theater to hold it, and then bought the property on which to build. Woodley’s swanky theater featured all-leather seats with two-seat divans in the loges and solar ventilation that helped heat and light the structure.

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1928

In April 1917 Garratt moved to San Diego to play at the Pickwick Theater, but he returned to Los Angeles in 1918. He rarely got mentioned in the paper, but according to census records, he mostly made his living as a music teacher. He died in 1954.

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About the now-lost film itself Kingsley said “the picture is too long, and would be better by being clipped a bit at each end.” Nevertheless, it was “fascinating,” showing what a difference the music can make for films.

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Kingsley had much less enjoyment at another theater this week:

Norma Talmadge is packing ‘em in at the Kinema this week with The Woman Gives, a story that is good without being anything out of the ordinary, and which would be much improved if the action had not been so slow, also if there had been fewer close-ups of the star. Miss Talmadge is remarkably expressive, and gets thought and feeling over vividly by the expressions of her face, but there are far too many close-ups of her in the picture.

The Woman Gives is a human story, having to do with a superior girl in love with a mediocre artist, who is jealous of the fine man through whose influence both get their chance in life…The suspense of the drama arises from the fact one cannot imagine which of the two men the girl will finally accept in marriage. How much longer, I wonder, will Miss Talmadge continue to hold her hordes of admirers merely with intelligence, beauty and cleverness, but minus first-class story material?

Ouch! I’ve never seen “too many star close-ups” as a criticism. Variety agreed with her pan, saying “Norma Talmadge’s unusual talents are wasted on such stuff.” Nevertheless, her career survived quite nicely. The Woman Gives has been preserved at the Library of Congress, and Talmadge biographer Greta de Groat saw it and said, “this was fairly interesting, though I would have liked it better if Norma had not been quite so saintly.”

 

 

 

“Ebell Club,” Highland Park News-Herald & Journal, February 24, 1912, p. 1

“Organist Will Make Home Here,” San Diego Union and Daily Bee April 25, 1917, p.1

University of Tennessee Register for 1899-1900.

 

Who Needs Job Security?: Week of April 24th, 1920

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1912

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a film industry veteran’s latest job:

C.A. Willat, a pioneer in motion pictures and reputed to be one of the best-informed men in the industry, has been appointed general manager of the West Coast studios of the National Film Corporation of America, according to announcement made by Capt. Harry Rubey, National’s president.

Mr. Willat has been actively connected with the industry since 1904. He is credited with many innovations in production, and was largely responsible for the organization of the New York Motion Picture Corporation, makers of the famous Kay-Bee, Broncho, Domino and Keystone brands of picture play. Under Willat’s management the National will resume its output of features. Mr. Willat is now negotiating with several particularly luminous stars.

Kingsley wasn’t being hyperbolic–he really was part of many production innovations. However, she didn’t mention the one that he’s mostly remembered for: he worked for the Technicolor Film Company in its early days. Willat’s career shows how temporary all jobs in the movies were (and are) outside of the golden days of the studio system. Even for people on the business side it’s an unstable profession.

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1914

Alfred Carl “Doc” Willatowski* was born November 22, 1878 in Detroit, Michigan. In 1900 he was a salesman living in DeLand, Florida. According to his bio in the 1921 Motion Picture Directory, he became a film exhibitor in 1905, then went to work for Vitagraph in Brooklyn in 1906. Three years later he went to work for Carl Laemmle as the general manager of Imp (he was part of the group that ran away to Cuba to escape the Motion Picture Patents Company enforcement), then in 1911 he was hired to re-organize the New York Picture Corporation. In 1914 he struck out on his own and founded the Willat Studios and Laboratories in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. That only lasted for two years, then he went to work for Techincolor. He was the supervising producer for their first feature, The Gulf Between.

In 1919, he was still working for Technicolor Corporation, and he traveled to London on their behalf to help London Films reorganize their studio. However, with the commercial failure of The Gulf Between, the company had money problems so he left and moved to Los Angeles, where he took the job that Kingsley announced.

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Later this year in July, he took on a second job as General Manger of his younger brother’s production company, Irvin V. Willat Productions. (Irvin had been directing films since 1917.) He did both for six months, then he left First National in December.

The Willats built their own studio in Culver City, and Irvin shot his films there until 1924. Its administration building was unique:

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Historian Marc Wanamaker has an entertaining post about the building, which was moved and is now a house in Beverly Hills, at the Culver City Historical Society site.

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1923

In 1923, Carl Willat went back to work for Technicolor as their Hollywood studio manager. So in 1924 when Paramount was ready to make their first Technicolor film, Wanderer of the Wasteland, they hired Irvin to direct it.

By 1927, C.A. Willat had gotten out of the industry and he had become a real estate broker. He died of pneumonia in 1937. George Eastman said that “Doc” Willat did more for the technical advancement of the motion picture than any other man, according to Kevin Brownlow.

Willet’s brother Irvin lived long enough to chat with film historians, and Kevin Brownlow found him to be quite a character. He wrote about his interview with him for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Irvin Willat died in 1976.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Silver Horde. But first, she had to complain about the state of pictures:

All of the plots and combinations of plots having been used up in pictures long ago, so far as the human equation is concerned, it seems as if there remains only the device of placing characters in a new physical setting to give freshness to a screen story, with the setting sharing somewhat in interest.

It was only 1920 and it already seemed like everything had been done before! However have they managed to fill up production schedules over the next 100 years? Nevertheless, she managed to find some entertainment value in a movie this week:

Take Rex Beach’s The Silver Horde, on view at the California, for instance. This has to do with a fight for fishing rights on an Alaskan river between an unscrupulous owner of a great cannery and three gritty pioneers who don’t propose to be put out.

Rex Beach has the knack of writing stories that when produced on the screen are quite actor-proof, director and producer proof. Nevertheless it is pleasant to record that Goldwyn and Frank Lloyd, using a very good cast, have given us a fine and vivid picturization and regards novelty the pictures of the running of the salmon, taken up north, are interesting in themselves.

The Silver Horde has been preserved by MGM, but it doesn’t seem to be available on DVD or streaming.

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Kingsley continued to rail against the lack of novelty in a second review, while noting a trend that really irritated her:

Are our picture shows becoming mere dramas of duds? It would rather seem so.

Not but that Irene Castle’s latest picture, The Amateur Wife, at Grauman’s, isn’t a fairly entertaining story. It is. But there’s nothing particularly new in it but the clothes Miss Castle wears. There are more duds than drama. But perhaps that’s what women go to see. I remember a number of ladies at a tea party I attended decrying Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. “What’s the matter? I asked, expecting to hear there’d be some hue-and-cry regarding the morals of the play, instead of which, one sweet young blond thing answered, “Oh, there are no gowns in it!

In the film’s defense, The amateur Wife told the story of a frumpy girl who is made over into a sophisticated woman, so what she wore would have to be a big part of that. The now lost feature probably made that young blond thing very happy, for it did supply plenty of clothes to look at:

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*His nickname “Doc” came from his veterinary studies. His Motion Picture Directory bio says he attended Harvard Veterinary College.  That school was at the real Harvard — they used to have such a college, but it closed in 1901.

“News of the Week in Headlines,” Film Daily, December 19, 1920.

C.A. Willat, “A Plan for Cutting Film Costs,” Film Mercury, July 29, 1927.

 

Ballyhoo: Week of April 17th, 1920

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Down on the Farm

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a blockbuster film release:

Who says you can’t make five reels of burlesquey, jazzy comedy and keep your audience amused right through? Mack Sennett is the boy that has done it in Down on the Farm, which kept capacity audiences roaring all day yesterday at the Kinema. Crowds lined the street, testifying to the popularity of Mr. Sennett and his works.

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She wasn’t exaggerating

Down on the Farm is a roaring farce; that is, when it isn’t burlesque of melodrama, or plain “hokum,” but who cares a hang about that old hocus-pocus “dramatic form” in Sennett films, anyway? The great point is, you laugh, and you keep right on laughing for a straight hour. The plot, when there is a plot, isn’t new, but the incidental comedy is. The story burlesques the stock yarn of the girl who has to marry the villain to save the family name. It rises to real heights of farce when the girl, to get rid of the villain, pretends to be ruined, naming as seducer “an artist—the man who painted our barn.” The villain exclaims, “Oh, ain’t that romantic!”

There’s a grand mix-up, with everybody thinking everybody else is crazy, and the heroine runs away with the child. Thereupon ensues one of the very funniest chases in all picturedom. You will laugh at it until you weep, even if you think beforehand that you’re tired of comedy picture chases.

Jack Callicott, the managing director of the Kinema, worked hard to bring that roaring audience in. He convinced the local ball team, the Los Angeles Angels, to hold a “Sennett Day” event before their game against the Vernon Tigers on the Saturday before the big opening. But first the Sennett crew had to get to Washington Park, so they had a parade. Exhibitor’s Herald reported it was:

a procession, the like of which never before made its way through this or probably any other city, wound through the downtown streets and made for the ball park. Everything that moves and has its being on farm was in that cavalcade—everything except a mortgage. Aged vehicles in which old Dobbin might have been hitched thirty-five years ago were occupied by Sennett representatives garbed and made up to resemble the Sennett principles. . . Horses of farcical mien and horses of noble deportment, and a huge and mild-eyed cow passed by, bearing a banner announcing the obvious, “This is no bull,” and continuing with the assurance that it was no bull that ‘Mack Sennett’s Five-Part Super-Comedy Down on the Farm opens tomorrow at the Kinema Theater.’

Once they arrived, they put on a fifteen-minute show. Moving Picture World described it:

The Sennetters invaded the ball park and gave a ballyhoo that amounted to something. Teddy [the Great Dane] was there dragging his trainer in a kid’s express wagon, the balky mule was in line, as was the Sennett baby actor and some grown-ups, gotten up in impersonation of the stars. Every old wagon on the Sennett lot was paraded around the park, and some seemingly impromptu stunts were pulled off…The event had been widely advertised as “Sennett Day” and most of the town was out in the bleachers.

 

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After people succumbed to the advertising and went to the theater, Callicott gave them quite a show in addition to the film. Exhibitor’s Herald said that the prolog:

is a gem of humor called “Trials and Tribulations Around a Barnyard.” The hero is a mule with a mind of its own and a disposition not to be moved, though the heavens fall and the earth be dipped in the sun. The scene is an ensemble of everything that is expected in a farmyard and some things not expected. Pigs and cows, goats and dogs, hens and geese, and finally Teddy himself ramble through the mélange in which lively dancing of “hoe-down” type and effective singing add to the effect, and all beautifully illuminated and staged.

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Callicott succeeded beyond all expectations. According to Moving Picture World, the film broke Kinema box-office records for every day of the week. Exhibitor’s Herald added that Sunday’s receipts were the largest ever in a single day at the theater and the records were exceeded by four to seven hundred dollars each day. They concluded:

It was a great success, and the credit for the event is due Managing Director Jack Callicott of the Kinema Theatre…Experts on exploitation concede to Mr. Callicott credit for what is probably the most sensational and successful publicity stunt put over in the city where such efforts are events of nearly every week.

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Feature-length films with Sennett-style comedy were in their infancy in 1920, but things were about to change. This one was still just a longer version of one of his shorts. Louis Reeves Harrison reviewing it in Moving Picture World wrote that it was “mostly composed of two-reel material. There is a slender thread of story running through the production, but it is not essential.” Nevertheless, he concluded it was “good entertainment.” In his autobiography, Buster Keaton pointed out the difference in shorts and features: “the faster the gags came in most short comedies, the better. In the features, I soon found out that one had to present believable characters in situations the audience accepted.” (p. 173) In a few years he’d put that into practice. Even sooner, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid premiered nine months later in January 1921, showing how a story and gags could co-exist.

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Down on the Farm is not lost, and people still think it’s pretty good. Brent Walker in Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory wrote “it “ranks among the best and funniest of Sennett’s surviving feature films.” If your library has Kanopy (LAPL does), you just need a library card to watch it.

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The night after Kinsley saw Sennett’s movie, she got to see a live theater show that she liked even more, the 1919 edition of Hitchy-Koo:

It has smart lines, as well as pretty girls, it romps through two hours and a half of hilarious joy as though they were but minutes.

How hilariously grateful and how appreciative the audience was for this brilliant three or four shows in one, because that’s what Hitchy-Koo is. There’s the funniest burlesque on the old villain-and-mortgage plot ever thought up, done by a picture company. Then there are swift-moving and brilliant dance pageants…There’s a vastly spectacular, hilariously amusing historical scene of Pocahontas and John Smith, with jazz dances by the Indians. The cutey Duncan sisters romp and chirp their way through a couple of songs that fit’em like their curls, and then, for no reason whatever, but with every excuse in the world, the show melts away into a barber shop scene, with George Moore, of happy “you don’t know the half of it dearie” memory, cutting up in his usual supremely more-is fashion. And through it all pops up ever and anon the quite indescribably comical Mr. Hitchcock.

You’ll have to see the show to thoroughly appreciate it. That hungry-to-howl house certainly did.

Opening night was star studded: that howling house included Thomas Meighan, Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Bryant Washburn, Clara Kimball Young, Lew Cody and Ruth Roland. However, Kingsley didn’t mention the person responsible for the songs that propelled the show and the reason musical fans today wish they could have seen it: writing the words and music for Hitchy-Koo of 1919 was one of Cole Porter’s earliest jobs, and his first hit, “Old-Fashioned Garden,” was part of the show. We can only imagine what the staging for “My Cozy Little Corner in the Ritz” and “I’m an Anesthetic Dancer” was like.

 

 

Louis Reeves Harrison, “Down on the Farm,” Moving Picture World, May 8, 1920, p.862.

“Kinema’s Down on the Farm Parade Breaks Theater’s Attendance,” Exhibitor’s Herald, May 22, 1920, p. 55-6.

“Mack Sennett Day at the Ball Park,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1920.

Epes Winthrop Sargent, “Advertising and Exploitation,” Moving Picture World, May 15, 1920, p. 945.

Crowds of Villains and Crocodile Dens: Week of April 10th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the return of a serial unit from a really long (and presumably expensive) shoot:

The film folks at Universal City were all busy yesterday shaking hands with Marie Walcamp, Harland Tucker, Henry MacRae, Eleanor Fried and the dozen other Universalites who composed the expedition to the Orient and who have just returned home after an absence of seven months. Director MacRae reports that the entire serial has been completed with the exception of several sequences of interiors, which will be filmed here within the next few days.

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Distant travels made good publicity, too (LA Times, November 25, 1919)

I had no idea that a studio would spend so much money on a serial in 1919-20! The film came to be called The Dragon’s Net, and in an article about the shoot two months later, Kingsley summarized the current state for that part of the film marketplace: “serials for the most part belong to what might be called the ‘early Universal’ period of pictures. They aren’t being used at all this season in our best theaters.” Nevertheless, she paid tribute the fun they provided:

But do you remember how you used to sit and bulge out your eyes at the wild adventures of the brave hero…who didn’t think he had enough for a mess unless he killed at least five crooks at a throw! As for the heroine, what a trustful girl she was, to be sure. No matter how often she got caught by the villains and thrown into dark wells and crocodile dens and amidst crowds of villains, the sweet young thing would get up any time in the middle of the night at the call of a total stranger’s voice, and hike out to get caught again! That girl never did seem to learn any sense.

However, The Dragon’s Net was innovative:

“But now there’s a new order of things in the serial world. It has just been invented by Henry MacRae. The new serial is a combination of story and travelogue, and you have no idea of the zest in those fresh and inherently interesting backgrounds!”

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They got to see far-away places. (Moving Picture World, November 25, 1920, p.4)

Kingsley watched fifteen reels of the now-lost film, and she enthused that she “never wearied for a moment, so adroitly has the historical and travelogue feature been worked into the thrilling story.” Universal got their money’s worth, it seems. Based on a 1917 Adventure magazine story by J. Allan Dunn, “The Petals of Lao-Tze,” the plot was a normal serial plot: eight lotus leaves hold the secret for eternal life, and Marie Carlton (Marie Walcamp) and Harland Keeler (Harland Tucker) decide to hunt them down while being pursued by the villains. They survive kidnappings, robberies, torture, fights, poison gas, etc.

Kingsley also interviewed its director, Henry MacRae, about the time they spent in Japan, China and the Philippines. Filming locations included the Great Wall, the Dowager Empress’s summer palace in Peking, Mongolia (where the locals had never seem films being shot), the old Japanese capital Kamakura, and historic buildings in Manila. They met all sort of people, from a Chinese woman who didn’t want to be photographed (“the one pretty girl in the world who doesn’t want to be a picture actress”) to the Filipino man in Cebu who would only act with his shirt on, because even though the Americans were shirtless he didn’t want the world to think Filipino people were uncivilized. The Americans were surprised by how things were done; for example, “one of the first sights the party glimpsed on entering Shanghai was a line of Chinese people carrying baskets slung across their shoulders. The contents turned out to be gold and silver, and these they will carry long distances through the country without any guards.” It was quite an adventure. They even had a love story:

The bright touch of romance on the trip was furnished by the marriage of Marie Walcamp and Harland Tucker, the two stars of the organization, over whom the soft, warm moonlight nights of the South Seas cast their spell, and who were married in Japan.

They stayed married until Walcamp’s death in 1936.

Henry MacRae continued to make serials, and he went on to be the serials production chief for Universal until his death following a heart attack in 1944. His Variety obituary said: “a constant exponent of action in films, MacRae directed action dramas, serials and westerns by choice rather than stepping into higher budgeted production.” (October 4, 1944)

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It seems that studios needed to pay for location shoots, because audiences were becoming more demanding about authenticity if Kingsley’s review of The Virgin of Stamboul this week is any indication. She complained about other films

tricked out in Oriental* duds, and masquerading as Oriental stories, when the characters and theme were about as Oriental as a mess of beans. And how sick we are of pseudo-Oriental scenes in which Broadway beaus, who never got further East than Coney Island, are tricked out in swathing Eastern robes, and wherein a harem scene consists of a couple of shimmying extra girls, against a background made up of a set painted to represent marble and decorated with three thirstless palms!

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Harumpf! They solved the authenticity problem a different way in Kingsley’s favorite film this week by setting it in an imaginary country:

Vividly fanciful and intriguing as some old Japanese legend, and played in exactly the right light key, with occasional glints of comedy in an aerial satire, is Sessue Hayakawa’s latest film play, The Beggar Prince, which is unrolling its charming length at Miller’s. It shows us Mr. Hayakawa in a new light. The tale is of a prince and a poor fisherman of some legendary land who accidentally change places, with the arrogant prince learning common sense ad human kindliness through his hardships.

Mr. Twain’s Prince and the Pauper plot is certainly durable! The dual role in this lost film let Hayakawa act as both his usual brooding sex symbol and in a rare comic part. However, according to Kingsley the best thing about that imaginary land was that there “princes wear gorgeously barbaric raiment, very becoming to Mr. Hayakawa.” See if you agree:

 

 

 

 

*According to the OED, in the 1920’s “Oriental” meant anything not Western, not just East Asia. It also wasn’t a slur yet.