Week of June 23rd, 1917

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From Lisa K. Stein, Syd Chaplin: A Biography

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported a tidbit of news about the biggest film star in the world:

Charlie has become a real capitalist. Last March he invested $10,000 in a pajama factory. At the time the factory for manufacturing “Sassy Jane” pajamas was started in Los Angeles, three machines were used. The factory has grown so rapidly that fifty machines are now working night and day to meet the demand. Last week Chaplin received over 1000 letters from feminine pajama fans, asking him to furnish them original pajama designs. Not even waiting to cool his blushes, Chaplin went right out and hired two secretaries to fight off the applicants in person who insisted upon consulting him about pajamas. June Rand, who invented the “Sassy Jane” pajama, and who induced Mr. Chaplin to invest his money therein, offered the comedian a full half interest in the business if he would wear a suit of “Sassy Janes” in The Immigrant—but he wouldn’t!

Actually, the real capitalist was Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother, who had invested $40,000 in the company and became its treasurer (his wife Minnie liked the clothes). According to his biographer, Lisa K. Stein Haven, this was the first of Syd Chaplin’s boom-and-bust busness endeavors. Pajamas weren’t the Sassy Jane company’s main product; they were famous for making colorful, comfortable cotton house dresses and aprons. Why fans wrote to Chaplin about the clothes instead of directly to June Rand I don’t understand. “Sassy Janes” were quite popular for a few years but by 1923 styles had changed and the company was bankrupt.

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He made other food funny, too

Kingsley briefly reviewed The Immigrant later this week; she said Chaplin could “make even a ham sandwich the funniest thing in the world.” He was smart to leave housedresses out of it.

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Fires of Rebellion, “a photoplay with a human story worked out by human beings, instead of puppets being jerked along an uninspired road to fulfill the requirements of a dull plot.” Directed by Ida May Park, it told the story of a factory girl who rejects a marriage proposal from the rough but honest foreman and moves to the big city where she almost gets a job as an underwear model, not realizing that she was expected to do more than model. The foreman rescues her in the nick of time. William Stowell played him, and Kingsley believed “he has no peer in the films. Here are no empty heroics, no posings. Yet as a real man, a force among men, battling against hard conditions in public and private life, reserved, even inarticulate when it comes to matters of the emotions, he makes the role stand out like a figure in the old-fashioned stereoscope.” It’s a lost film.

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William Stowell was a veteran film actor who got his start in 1909 when he co-starred with Tom Mix in The Cowboy Millionaire. He made a series of well-reviewed dramas with his Fires of Rebellion co-stars Dorothy Phillips and Lon Chaney at Universal. Sadly, Stowell died only two years later in a rail accident in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He was directing the filming of the Smithsonian African Expedition for Universal and riding in the rear couch of a train when a runaway tank car raced down a hill and smashed into it. Another member of the expedition, Dr. Joseph Armstrong, died on the scene and Stowell was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later. Three other members of the party were injured.

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This isn’t the life of a newspaper reporter?

A film that seems to have been precisely calibrated to annoy Kingsley came out this week, A Hater of Men.

Bessie Barriscale, as the heroine, is supposed to be a newspaper woman ‘who has gained some renown with her pen.’ We view her at first reporting on a great divorce case, after which we do not see her working at her job. Instead, we behold her at wonderful house parties and on boating trips and wearing, oh, such clothes!

That divorce case made the heroine question her engagement so she dumps her fiancé. Then she gets called frivolous by some random guy, changes her mind and goes back to her intended. Kingsley found “as a document of human life it is about as natural and convincing as a tin minnow,” but what really set her off was the way it maligned her profession. She concluded “a newspaper office does not turn out women with so little common sense—not to mention a sense of humor.” John Gilbert (later Garbo’s leading man) played the fiancé, but Kingsley was so busy being annoyed that she didn’t notice him. A complete version of it is in a U.S. archive, but the Library of Congress’ Film Survival Database doesn’t say which one.

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Really, it’s him and his steam roller

Kingsley gave an update on Stan Laurel’s current (and first) production, Nuts in May:

Last week a harmless steam roller, just going along about its business and bothering nobody, was sighted outside the studio grounds. An eagle-eyed member of the Stanley comedy outfit passed the good word along. Before the roller could make its lumbering escape, it was boarded by a gang of film pirates, the driver walked the plank, and Stan himself gave a star performance in the “cab.” After which the scenario writer sat on the curb and wrote the story.

The steam roller gag is the bit of the film that survives because it was re-used in Mixed Nuts (1922). Kingsley’s item is a rare glimpse of how Laurel worked, even in his first film.

 

 

Week of June 16th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley demonstrated what a pro she was: in a remarkably slow week for entertainment news (she even mentioned why the monkey performing at the Burbank Theater had a tummy ache – he ate make-up) she managed to stretch a short conversation with Douglas Fairbanks over several day’s columns. We learned that:

  • inspired by the nasty heat wave they were suffering, he declared that he his next film would have no stunts. He made good on his promise: Down to Earth was about an outdoorsy man who reforms a bunch of wealthy hypochondriacs by taking them away from their sanitarium and making them exercise;
  • his trainer, “Bull” Montana, discovered that he liked tea better than whiskey;
  • Teddy Roosevelt was his ideal of a real man, and he’d follow him into war anywhere;
  • he started a Red Cross fund, and was asking Wild and Woolley (his current film) audiences across the country to contribute. He autographed 3,000 photographs to be given to donors;
  • he also bought $100,000 worth of Liberty Bonds;
  • he attended a dance at the Los Angeles Athletic Club gym to benefit French orphans.

Once again Fairbanks was really good at being a movie star, and Kinglsey was happy to have so much material for her columns.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Some Boy. It was right up her alley because George Walsh played a beginner press agent who learns his craft from a text book called One Hundred Ways to get Newspaper Publicity. She particularly enjoyed his masquerade as a handsome young widow, remarking that “he looks exceedingly well in women’s clothes.” It was brave of him to wear a dress: just a few months earlier, he’d been criticized for not being manly enough because his hair was too long. Maybe he didn’t care what critics said; after all, none of it hurt his career.

In other Walsh family news, his brother Raoul decided never to appear in front of the camera again. The director had appeared in a few scenes of his latest film, The Innocent Sinner, but when he saw the dallies, he realized he “had committed one of the crimes ever unforgiven by directors—he looked at the camera as he walked off stage.” For the most part, he kept his word: he played only one more part in his own films, Gloria Swanson’s boyfriend in Sadie Thompson (1928).

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“You only see the horses” could have been a selling point

In her review of The Whip, Kingsley pointed out one of the best things about cinema that all fans of historical films need to be grateful for: “you don’t have to smell it. The stage version, you will remember, was very horsey.”

I hope that this week, you have more to report on than monkey gastrointestinal distress!

 

Week of June 9th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noted that in response to the war, the film world was moving away from heavy dramas and making more comedies. Every organization had a comedy company at work, and the latest to add one was Bernstein Film Productions. They had hired a successful vaudevillian who had worked with Chaplin in the Fred Karno troop named Stan Jefferson. He had recently appeared at the Hippodrome Theater in Los Angeles under his other name in a sketch called “Raffles, the Dentist.”

The Stanley Comedies Company made only one short film, Nuts in May, and Isadore Bernstein went back to being a production manager and writer. Jefferson played a mental patient who believed he was Napoleon Bonaparte. According to Cecil Adams, this is the first time the Napoleon Complex gag was ever filmed. Only about sixty seconds of it have been preserved, because they were re-used in a 1922 two-reeler called Mixed Nuts. This makes the hundreds of thousands of Jefferson’s fans sad (even if neither film is very good), because of course, soon after he made Nuts, Arthur Stanley Jefferson permanently changed his name to Stan Laurel. So much has been written about him, but if you’d like a short biography by an expert, check out Stan Laurel’s Life in Laughter by Randy Skretvedt.

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Pleased to meet you.

This was the first time Kingsley mentioned Laurel. Norvell “Babe” Hardy, despite having made his first film in 1914, would have to wait until November 30, 1921 when she announced his marriage to Myrtle Reeve.

While visiting the theaters on Broadway Kingsley ran into Jefferson’s former co-worker and had a chat about his future plans. Charlie Chaplin said he was considering “three very tempting offers,” but he hadn’t decided which was best. He was also working on ideas for his next film, and told her “he thinks he will make it a burlesque on Bill Hart’s Wild West stories.” He may have just said that to appease Kingsley (Hart had a new film playing near them on Broadway that day which might have inspired his remark); his next project was a prison escape story, The Adventurer. It was his final film for Mutual, and he signed with First National next.

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Venice Bathing Parade winners

Kingsley reported a “record-eclipsing event” from Sunday: the cameramen from Keystone filmed their Bathing Beauties at the Venice Bathing Parade, and they got the film processed and on the screen at the Mack Sennett-owned Woodley Theater by that evening. The parade didn’t start until 1:30, so they did work quickly. Two hundred “neatly attired bathing-suit girls” rode in forty-one cars past a crowd of 75,000 people and four judges. Most of the prizewinners were actresses, but only Keystone women got their pictures in the paper. (Sennett never missed an opportunity!) Mary Thurman (Keystone), in an electric blue and white sailor suit with matching parasol, shared first place with Priscilla Dean (Universal) in a modest white and black silk suit and Jessie Hallet (New York Motion Picture Co.) dressed as a Red Cross girl in red and white. Second prizes went to Juanita Hansen (Keystone) in a metal gold cloth and blue outfit and Margaret Gibson (Christie) wearing red and white.

The parade footage played with another Keystone short that was Kingsely’s favorite film this week, Cactus Nell. She felt it was the answer to the eternal question “Why are there mellers? They were made for Keystoning purposes!” The star, Polly Moran, was “queen of the jazz comediennes” a “high-power fun-maker who keeps things moving at the rate of a million revolutions per minute.” She described the best bit: “Does Polly’s big boob lover desert her for a vampire? He does, and Polly follows and lassos him, with the help of her trusty cowboys, who, by a comic mechanical device, are shot onto the backs of their horses at her first call for help.” Moran went on to a long career as a slapstick comic, first with Sennett and later at MGM.

 

 

Week of June 2nd, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Theda Bara arrived in Los Angeles and Grace Kingsley was there:

Bringing with her seventeen trunkloads of clothes, five servants and a parent or two, Miss Theda Bara, most popular of Fox stars and world-famed for putting the “ire” in “vampire,” arrived in Los Angeles yesterday via the Santa Fe. She was met by a delegation of Fox co-workers, who enthusiastically welcomed her with cheers, flowers and fruit. This is Miss Bara’s first trip west, the effete East always having claimed her…Yes, Miss Bara is just as fascinating in real life as on the screen.

She was in town to make her most expensive film yet, Cleopatra. According to her biographer, Eve Golden, she wasn’t happy to leave New York and its museums, libraries, architecture and bookstores, but the desert just couldn’t be replicated in New Jersey, so she took a month-long trip across the country, stopping to do publicity along the way.

 

The day after she arrived Kingsley interviewed her and left a snapshot of Bara at the height of her fame. She wrote:

Surely Theda Bara is quite the most charming woman in the world! At least, within one’s experience. Of course, ‘charming’ covers a multitude of subtle fascinations, so one hastens to specify, because the millions who have viewed the famous screen actress on in the black-and-whites, yet who have never heard her voice, will doubtless want to know just what she is like in the flesh. Elemental, temperamental, with flashing black eye and tigerish movement. Not a bit of it. Miss Bara is the serenest, most quietly-poised woman I have ever met, with a fine and sweet reserve, which yet is not aloofness. That is, she makes you feel she may be aloof from the rest of the world, but not from you to whom she is speaking. You, happy mortal, are entirely in her confidence.

Yet she tells you nothing! That is, nothing about her real name, or where she was born, or if she has a husband. She refuses to be interviewed on these subjects…One mustn’t forget Miss Bara’s voice, which is soft and low and very even and yet oddly colorful and expressive too. Miss Bara talks exceedingly well—on her art, and esoteric Buddhism, and English literature, and the plumbing in California bungalows. And didn’t I think the mission style of architecture wonderful?

Kingsley’s interview leaves the same impression as Golden’s biography: Bara was an intelligent, well-read woman with a sense of humor and not even a little bit like the characters she played.

Kingsley’s favorite movie this week was the first version of A Doll’s House adapted to film. She thought it was “amazingly vivid rendering of the very spirit of the great Norwegian’s play” and that Joseph de Grasses’s work as director was “likely to mark a new era in the advance of picture making.” She said that all the actors brought an “illuminating intelligence” to their roles, particularly Dorothy Phillips as Nora who grew from “amazingly world-ignorant beginnings as wife and mother, to the bewildered awakening, when going away, she answers the futile and monumentally stupid cry of her husband, ‘haven’t you been happy here?’ with the wise sadness of ‘no, only merry.’” Kingsley also praised the actor who played the blackmailer: “how subtly Lon Chaney has portrayed the unconquering pawn of destiny, Nils Krogstad, so full of bitterness of life, so cruel, yet so helpless against fate—with forever that undercurrent of humanity which is inevitably stronger than he is.”

Unfortunately, it’s a lost film. Not everyone agreed with Kingsley; Edward Weitzel in Moving Picture World felt that Ibsen was an acquired taste and his work really required speech to convey all the shades of meaning. This didn’t stop others from trying. Maurice Tourneur made another version one year later with Elsie Ferguson, and Charles Bryant made one in 1922 starring Alla Nazimova.

War news was already affecting people, and W.H. Clune, who ran a 2700-seat theater in downtown Los Angeles, announced “You will see no gloomy photodramas at the Auditorium. The stress of events has lead people to crave diversions, and the shocker type of play, also the melancholy sort, are the farthest from the desire of the great mass of people, who will be entirely satisfied with the gloom they will inevitably get through the news columns.” He had already booked Douglas Fairbanks’ Wild and Woolly and Mary Pickford’s The Little American to make good on his promise.

Tuesday, June 5th was Registration Day, the day all men aged 21-30 had to register for the draft. The governor had declared it a day off in California, and Kingsley reported on what it was like in Los Angeles theaters:

There was a holiday spirit abroad in the theater crowds—a sort of exhilaration, with an undercurrent of tenseness, as of wishing that the waiting were over with, and if war had to commence, it might come swiftly. There were hundreds of khaki uniforms in the theaters and in the darkness of the picture houses the back rows were crowded with youths and their sweethearts, holding hands and whispering in the darkness. There were hundreds of young men in the audience—not the usual spiritless loiterers of weekday audiences, but well-set-up young fellows, fresh from registration, in the spirit of doing their bit.

A khaki-clad, broad-shouldered young fellow sat in front of me at the Woodley, and beside him sat his young wife, with their baby on her lap. He was going away next day, she turned and told an acquaintance beside me.

Suddenly on the screen was flashed a line of marching soldiers. Neither said anything, but he turned to her, and such a look as passed between them!

The Woodley was showing The Dark Road a war-time vampire film set in England which Kingsley liked for its subtle acting and Rembrantish photography, along with Keystone’s Oriental Love, which she thought was so funny, it could have been written by Mark Twain. So the soldier and his wife got to see some entertaining movies on their last night out.

 

Week of May 26th, 1917

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Col. Jasper Ewing Brady

One hundred years ago this week, Universal engaged a new head of their scenario department, ex-Army officer/playwright/novelist/magazine writer/former Vitagraph screenwriter Col. Jasper Ewing Brady. He promptly announced:

I don’t want any war stuff, nor do I want religious themes and above all I will not consider sex themes. Crime and sex should be taboo from pictures. Wholesomeness should prove their predominating note. We want comedies, dramas, and comedy-dramas of one, two, three and five reels.

Grace Kingsley had already seen enough movies by 1917 to know that this wouldn’t work; she wrote:

We believe he’s going to have a rather hard time finding absorbing stories which have neither crime nor sex in them, unless he produces only comedies of the most superficial sort. Also the war is going to yield some gripping literary by-products, which cannot be overlooked. We think the development of picture literature would meet with a severe retardation if nothing is to be shown in a picture theater which would not do for a Sunday-school entertainment.

Of course Kingsley was right. Brady’s next writing credit was for a film called The Divorce Trap, so his taboo on sex didn’t last long. Brady stayed at Universal for a year, then moved on to Metro. In 1920 he published a lecture called “The Necessity of Original Photoplay Material” [available on Google Books); it’s mostly about how few good screenplays come across his desk, buried beneath a mound of unprofessional trash. There’s not a word about wholesomeness or avoiding war, crime or sex. Moralizing has always been a temporary idea for the movies.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Call of Her People, the story of a Roma woman who is torn from her new husband and sent to live with her birth family, which is wealthy and white. After abandonment, imprisonment, a murder and a chase, it turns out that she isn’t their daughter and she returns to her husband and people. Even though it was “undiluted melodrama” Kingsley thought it “holds the spectator in its grip through the last inch of film” particularly due to its star, Ethel Barrymore, who “is one of the few actresses who can press emotion home to our imaginations as well as envision it to our eyes.” The film has been preserved at the Eastman House.

However, the most entertaining thing she saw this week was a sketch at the Orpheum, “Our Little Bride.” Rosalind Coghlan played the young woman who

in seeking to obviate the necessity for marrying a very rich, very disagreeable old man, becomes the champion long-distance, high-geared fiancée of the world’s history, engaging herself to four young men within fifteen minutes. She loses them one by one, and then gets them all back together again in comical confusion.

Kingsley found it “an antidote to numberless soggy picture dramas.” Better yet, according to actor Donald Bowles, the story was based on his niece, who did escape her family’s choice of husband and lived happily ever after with the fiancé she wanted.

Kingsley talked to theatrical impresario Oliver Morosco about the many actors who were sacrificing lucrative contracts to fight in the war, for example, Lewis Stone who “gave up a three-year contract with me at a salary graduating from $350 a week the first year, $400 a week the second year to $500 a week the third year.” Stone came back safely from his service in the Calvary and made up for any lost wages with a long film career that included seven films with Greta Garbo and fifteen Andy Hardy movies–he played Judge Hardy, Andy’s father.

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Poster for The Silent Lie re-release in 1920

Kingsley’s best line this week was in a review of a Raoul Walsh film, The Silent Lie. She wrote that it “is composed of events which never would have happened at all if the people concerned had used a bit of sense.” Movies haven’t changed much in 100 years! Walsh went on to make better films like High Sierra (1941) and White Heat (1949).

Week of May 19th, 1917

 

One hundred years ago this week, Kingsley offered a glimpse of a woman director at work:

Ruth Ann Baldwin’s middle name is efficiency. Miss Baldwin is a Universal director. She has been the busy bee looking like a wounded snail some days out on location. The sun, not having fulfilled his promise to shine, she gets out her trusty typewriter, which she carries always with her on such occasions, and goes to work on a new scenario. She talks while she types, too.

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Baldwin was a former newspaper reporter who became a scenario writer at Universal. In late 1916 they gave her the chance to direct and in the next year she made ten shorts and two features, including a Western parody ’49-‘17.

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You don’t often get to see “director motion pictures” on the bride’s side of a marriage certificate!

In 1917 she also got married on February 19th to the actor who frequently starred in her films, Leo Pierson. Her directing career lasted only one year, then she returned to screenwriting. Her last credit was Puppets of Fate (1921), and she was last mentioned in the L.A. Times in 1925, when a columnist said she was living on a desert ranch. She disappeared from public records after that. You can read more about her on the Women Film Pioneers Project site.

None of the films Kingsley reviewed this week were outstanding, though she mentioned that Flora Finch provided some excellent laughs in a parody of The Common Law. (the lost short was called Guess What.) However, her complaints about Yankee Pluck have been echoed by filmgoers since then: “if the film were a two-reeler it would have been a corker but it is stretched mighty thin over five reels.” Furthermore, “there ought to be a society for the formation of rules as to what trivialities must be omitted from a photoplay with a penalty of imprisonment in a studio projection room.” In this case, ten or twelve feet of film were wasted settling a taxi bill. It’s a lost film. I’m glad Kingsley never had to see some of the bloated films we have now!

Kingsley reported that sweet-natured Chaplin leading lady Edna Purviance actually registered a protest while shooting The Immigrant. She declared that she learned to hate beans

because of the many necessary retakes of scenes in which Miss Purviance must eat plates and plates of beans.

‘It’s no use Charlie,’ she exclaimed; ‘I simply can’t swallow another one.’

‘Great Scott!’ retorted Charlie, ‘how am I going to get my gagging over, then?’

‘I give it up,’ replied Edna. ‘If you’d been gagging as much as I have for the past five hours you wouldn’t want to gag any more!’

Oh well, if she had to suffer at least it was for something still being watched 100 years later. The Library of Congress included The Immigrant in their National Film Registry and it’s available on the Internet Archive. If you’d like to learn more about Purviance, visit Linda Wada’s site, A Journey to Paradise.

 

 

Week of May 12th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an innovation in short films:

The Universal Film Manufacturing Company has hit upon a decided novelty in picture production. It is nothing more nor less than putting popular songs into picture form. Thus not only will the lover of “Poor Butterfly,” for instance, be able to hear his favorite popular song, but he will also see the story, as suggested by the number, unrolled on the film before his eyes.

These films were part of a series called Song Hits in Photoplay, and they were halfway between older sing-along song slides and music videos. The plan was to hire a local soloist to sing while the film was shown, and invite the audience to join in the chorus, which was helpfully printed on the film. Just like MTV, the aim was to sell new songs to the public.

The first song was Irving Berlin’s latest, “The Road that Leads to Happiness” (he later changed the title to “The Road that Leads to Love”) which was released on May 8th. Blossom Seeley, a vaudeville performer, and Ted Snyder, a music publisher, starred in the 5 minute long film. No description of it is available, but Moving Picture Weekly recapped the second in the series, George W. Meyers’ and Edgar Leslie’s “Let’s All Be Americans Now:”

Mr. Myers and Mr. Leslie are seated in their office discussing the compulsory draft, and each one decides that he has some disability which will prevent the government from utilizing his services. They decide to write a song, and the process is shown in the film. After more changes, due to the necessity of more martial vigor and ‘pep,’ they finish the song, and then the question is “Who shall sing it?’ At this moment in walks [Broadway and vaudeville star] Emma Carus, looking for a patriotic song. ‘We have it,’ said Leslie. ‘Just wrote it this minute. Sit down and sing it.’ Miss Carus, who looks as though she had been preparing for the draft herself complies, and in a jiffy the whole office is buzzing with “Let’s All Be Americans Now.”

It was released at the end of May. Two more songs, “For Me and My Gal” and “Indiana,” came out, then they took a break and rethought the idea. In January 1918 Universal announced that Song Hits in Photoplay would be back as a series of twelve films starring Universal actors; for example, one film would feature Franklyn Farnum leading “Over There” and “Homeward Bound.”

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Harry Cohn

The idea for Song Hits came from an enterprising song seller, Harry Cohn, whose brother Jack worked for Universal. Harry Cohn also directed them. While neither series seems to have been a success, they did help him move from the music publishing business to film. In 1918 he became Universal’s head Carl Laemmle’s secretary, then in 1919 he co-founded a production company with his brother and Joe Brandt, CBC Film Sales, which in 1924 was incorporated as Columbia Pictures. He became its president in 1932. The competition for most unpleasant Golden Age movie mogul is stiff, but the quote “I don’t have ulcers, I give them” was attributed to him. You can find a biography of Cohn by Marc Wanamaker at Sony Pictures Museum site.

The films haven’t survived, but the UCSB Cylinder Project has versions of the first four songs, all recorded in 1917.

This was a good week to go to live theater, not the pictures, according to Kingsley. The best she could say of the five-reel-long crime drama The Flashlight Girl was “not once will you look at your watch while viewing” (though the outdoor scenery was beautiful), and the comedy Happiness had “striking” inter titles (though Enid Bennett gave a fine performance). However, The Snow Queen was so good that Hans Christian Andersen himself  “couldn’t have brought to life his tale more entrancingly than did the big cast at the Majestic last night.” The Snow Queen is an extraordinarily durable property; it’s most recent version was Disney’s Frozen (2013), and the live theater version of that is set to debut on Broadway in Spring, 2018.

 

 

 

Sources for Song Hits:

“Song Hits in Photoplay,” Moving Picture Weekly, April 14, 1917, 15.

“Let’s All Be Americans Now,” Moving Picture Weekly, June 2, 1917, 26.

“Animated Songs Feature Universal Stars,” Moving Picture World, January 26, 1918, 544.