Week of September 21st, 1918

sheriff

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley used her Sunday column (usually devoted to an interview) to write an appreciation of Roscoe Arbuckle in The Sheriff:

Up the street gallops Fatty’s steed with the whooping cowboys close at his heels. They’re gaining on him, and he wants to escape, so he does exactly what you’d never expect a man built like Fatty to do. He makes a flying leap right up the side of a church and bounces onto the roof. After which you realize that Fatty isn’t really fat at all—that he’s made of India rubber. He bounces to the belfry and hangs on to the church spire.

Then you laugh until you weep, probably. For the spire suddenly bends in his grasp, then sways this way and that under Fatty’s weight, while the chubby comedian dodges the bullets from the guns of his pursuers.

And right there is where you “get” Fatty, and realize there are other ways to Boswell a man besides using long words to write about him. For in The Sheriff, Fatty admittedly give us a perfectly delicious and at the same time the most kindly and gentle of satires on the world’s most famous athletic comedian. In fact, Arbuckle takes the ‘ire’ out of ‘satire.’ And to Roscoe Arbuckle’s genius must go a huge share of praise for his radiant and cheerful comedies, in which he provides the warm glow of humor around which humanity eagerly hovers in these stressful days.

Unfortunately, this cheerful comedy can’t help our current stressful days: it’s a lost film. So Kingsley’s description of his impressive stunt work, as well as the publicity and other materials written about the film, are all we have left. It seems that Arbuckle’s sheriff was a Douglas Fairbanks super-fan who must rescue his kidnapped sweetheart. I’m sorry we don’t get to see that!

sheriff2
Arbuckle and Betty Compson

Kingsley had a point about what makes Arbuckle films so enjoyable: they aren’t mean, the way some slapstick comedies can be (I’m not sure I’ve recovered from a Ham and Bud short I saw a few years ago that involved gassing a houseful of people). I’m glad that Kingsley called the character he played Fatty, but the filmmaker was Roscoe, which was exactly what he wanted.

shoulder_ad

After months of anticipation, Kingsley got to see a preview of Charlie Chaplin’s new film:

I have no hesitancy in saying the world is going to pronounce it is the greatest picture comedy that has ever been made. And the preview was perfectly ‘dry’, too! If one were disposed to go into a high-brow analysis of it, one would say that Chaplin has succeeded by his artistry in fairly creating a new art form. For, despite the fact that Shoulder Arms has a ripple of laughter running all through it, which rises to the happy crescendo of laugher in its boisterous moments, it has all the time a resonant undertone of war’s rumblings and war’s mighty pathos.

Chaplin was clever to let her see it early – he thought she was important, even if her editors didn’t let her review the big films. Kingsley was one of the first critics to call Shoulder Arms great, but other film writers at the time admired it nearly as much. Peter Milne in Picture-Play Magazine said it was “proof conclusive that Charles Spencer Chaplin is the king of all comedians” (February 1919) while Film Daily gave it the highest praise possible from a trade paper: “if you don’t clean up with this Chaplin, you should get out of show business.” (November 17, 1918)

 

Kingsley’s favorite film in the theaters this week was yet another re-release. The intervening three years had turned it into an unusual film for its leading lady:

My goodness, how we used to sob over the sorrows of those lovely and hapless virgins, The Two Orphans, in the good old days of beer-barrel thunder and paper snowstorms! But there was something vital and fascinating in the old drama, else it never would have played all through the years. And now screen magic has touched it, as it touches so many of the beautiful old stories, and has turned it into quite a fresh new play by reason of the showing of the scenes that heretofore we’ve been obliged merely to conjure up in our imaginations, due to the limitations of the stage. The Two Orphans is on view at Miller’s this week, with no less a persona than Theda Bara in he leading role. The story is beautifully played—even if it is hard to imagine Miss Bara an orphan after the opulent orgies of Salome.

Orphans was made a few months after Bara made such an impression as a vamp in A Fool There Was in 1915, but before her studio typecast her. This lost film was based on the same play as Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921); Bara played Henriette, the sighted orphan who gets kidnapped. The blind orphan, Louise, was played by Jean Sothern, who’d already quit acting in films by 1918. Bara’s popularity in 1918 must have been immense, because the film hadn’t done well at the box office when it was originally released, so it’s a little surprising they’d try it again. Maybe wartime austerity was another reason Fox mined their back catalog. Bara’s next picture in 1915 was a return to bad women with Sin, which was a great big hit and sealed her fate as a vamp.

Kingsley mentioned an unusual contribution to the war effort:

That athletic hero, Douglas Fairbanks, set a wartime example of abstemiousness by disposing of his automobile, and will be the first star in Los Angeles to go riding in his own handsome carriage. He has a fast trotting and racing pony, which will draw his equipage down Broadway.

It’s a shame that they didn’t print a picture of him and his carriage, navigating the streets of downtown Los Angeles. But here’s a nice one of Fairbanks in 1918 with the car he wasn’t using instead.

fairbanks_car1918

Week of September 14th, 1918

arizona poster

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley left a little mystery in her column:

Albert Parker, who directed Douglas Fairbanks in Sic ‘em Sam, the propaganda picture made by Fairbanks for the fourth Liberty Loan campaign, has been selected to direct the athletic actor in the elaborate picturization of Augustus Thomas’s play, Arizona. Parker succeeds Allan Dwan, whose contract with Fairbanks terminated last week.

A contract is “terminated” in the middle of a shoot with no explanation? Dwan had directed Fairbanks in his recent hit films, A Modern Musketeer and Headin’ South. I bet Kingsley’s original readers wondered why he left, too.

dwan_photo
Allan Dwan

Unfortunately, it’s still a mystery! Dwan’s biographer Frederic Lombardi speculated that it was the “frantic pace of work” that was making him unhappy, which in turn put a strain on Dwan’s marriage (he divorced Pauline Bush in 1919). Lombardi examined business records from the Douglas Fairbanks Film Corporation and found that Dwan’s contract was supposed to have lasted until October 15, but in September he signed an agreement to terminate it immediately by mutual consent. So whatever caused it, they ended things in an orderly way—nobody stormed off in a snit.

Fairbanks’ biographer Tracey Goessel went a bit further in assigning blame:

Something—likely we shall never know what—was also bothering director Dwan. In the middle of production he quit—or was fired….Just what was making Dwan unhappy is not clear. But his unhappiness must have been acute to cause such a break…One suspects that the offender in this dispute was Fairbanks. Dwan was of an easygoing nature, patient with his rambunctious, effervescent, practical joker boss. But patience, even that of Dwan, is not infinite, and Fairbanks was not of a temperament to back down in the face of a quarrel.

There was no credited director for Arizona in the reviews or posters. No one is certain how much Dwan did before he left, but the AFI Catalog says that Parker directed it. The film sold lots of tickets, based on Fairbanks’ appeal, but the reviews weren’t good. Lombardi wrote that “Arizona was quickly forgotten,” and it’s a lost film. Goessel mentioned that around this time, Fairbanks began to rethink his films. In a few years he moved from comedies to adventure movies. So if this is how we got Thief of Bagdad, I’d like to thank Arizona.

However, this didn’t end their working relationship. As Goessel points out, “Dwan and Fairbanks would heal the breach within a few years—each needed the other more than he needed his pride.” Dwan went on to direct Fairbank’s huge hit, Robin Hood (1922), as well as The Iron Mask (1929). He went on to a long career, working until 1961. The IMDB says he directed 407 films, but his New York Times obituary quotes him estimating it was 1850. Whichever was closer to the truth, it was a lot.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week sounds like lots of fun. George Walsh appeared:

in the most brilliant burlesque on the old type of melodrama which we have ever had, entitled The Kid is Clever…The young hero is sent to South America, as otherwise the money in a certain mysterious will will revert to the nearest villain. Of course there is a lovely young woman—Violet Ray—and they are kidnaped by Jazzbando Bullion, the villain, and taken ashore, where the hero beats the whole army. Sailors from a man-of-war get word and come to the rescue. They are constantly flashed on the screen a few hundred yards from shore, but it takes ‘em all day to arrive…The subtitles are corking, and—oh well, why aren’t all the picture melodramas turned into satires of themselves? It would be a happier world.

Kingsley certainly preferred comedies to the dramas of the time. Like so many other Fox productions, it’s a lost film.

At another theater, Kingsley got to enjoy a golden oldie entitled Her Fighting Chance (from the ad you can see why she thought it was called Lady Lou of the Yukon):

Every once in a while some exchange or exhibitor will pull down an old film from his shelf, brush it off, change some of the subtitles, and show it as a new picture. Usually such a film really is a classic, deserving of living, and such a one is Lady Lou of the Yukon at the Palace this week…So clean-cut is the direction, so splendidly does the plot march, that Lady Lou of the Yukon is well deserving of resurrection. Besides which, it has all the virility which marked those earlier western dramas, and which never perhaps will be equaled.

By ‘earlier’ she meant 1917: things changed quickly then! (nobody is talking about the good old days of 2017 now.) Her Fighting Chance was made by a small production company, A.H. Jacobs Photoplays, and distributed on a state’s rights basis so it isn’t odd that it took a while to appear in Los Angeles. It told the story of a murder investigation by a corrupt Northwest Mounted Policeman, and ended in a big chase. It’s a lost film, so we can’t find out if it was a classic.

 

 

 

 

Tracey Goessel, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016.

 

Frederic Lombardi, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.

Week of September 7th, 1918

ch_photo
Moving Picture World, June 14, 1919

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned a man that might be the first Korean-American actor in Hollywood:

A Chinese imitator of Charlie Chaplin is the latest thing in Filmland. His name is Chai Hong and he works for the L-Ko Company. His impersonation occurs in a scene of Playing Movies, a comedy directed by Jim Davis, wherein Hong, seeing a picture company at work, decides he can be Charlie Chaplin.

CHarrival

It’s not Kingsley’s fault that she thought he was Chinese: that’s how they sold him. Chai Young Hong was part of the first wave of Korean immigrants to the U.S. who came to work on the Hawaiian sugar plantations.* By 1918 he was in Los Angeles, possibly working as a bellhop at the Alexandria Hotel,** then he went to work for L-Ko Komedies. His first part was a bit as “The Chinese Man” in The Blind Pig, but he was already the lead in his third film. Moving Picture World announced:

A genuine Oriental makes a bid for popularity in the comedy field in the L-Ko comedy, A Clean Sweep. His name is Chai Hong, and according to Julius Stern, head of the L-Ko aggregation, he is due to make a decided impression on photoplay fans. Chai Hong has a style peculiarly his own…The L-Ko’s new comedian enacts the role of a Celestial laundry magnate, who helps to run smoothly the course of true love as it exists between the daughter of a neighboring ‘lady barber’ and the son of a nearby butcher. (July 27, 1918)

ch_movingpictureweeklyJuly201918

Later in the same issue they reviewed it and said it was “full of funny tricks and amusing slapstick situations and winds up with a hilarious chase, in which the family washing is carried through the streets between two autos.”

The film Kingsley mentioned became A Movie Riot. Moving Picture Weekly (Universal’s trade paper) gave a disjointed plot summary:

School is out because the village schoolmaster has had his digestion spoiled by the children continually making him sick with their antics. So the two worst culprits, Hoptoad Hal and Tadpole Ted, went to work on the farm. What should arrive but the Fillibuster Film Company to stage a few scenes of their great drama, The Romance of a Young Butcher?

Right here Charlie from the Orient makes his presence felt and Lady Vere de Voop simply cannot escape the tender advances of the young but worldly-wise butcher. Of course, the kids get continually in the way as they always do when love scenes threaten. Then movies begin to riot all over the place and even ‘the child’ and the storm—just like Way Down East. But just before you begin to cry the happy ending comes. (April 5, 1919)

That doesn’t make very much sense, but Moving Picture World reviewed the short and said “there is not much plot, but several good features. The burlesque melodrama is funny, and the rescue of the baby from the miniature train by a dog makes an exciting close.” (May 17, 1919)

ch1920census1920LAdirectory

He’s in the 1920 Census and the 1920 LA City Directory

ch_orientalromeo

Hong wasn’t a Chaplin imitator dressed in baggy pants like Billy West, it just looks like they were implying that he was as funny as Chaplin. He worked for L-Ko until it went out of business in 1919, then he moved to another comedy company distributed by Universal Films, Rainbow Comedies, until 1920. Unfortunately, few of his film survive. According to the IMDB, over the next two years he had three small parts for independent companies. After that, he disappeared. There are Chai/Charles/CY Hongs in Ancestry.com, but their birth years don’t match his. I hope he had a happy life.

chai_hongapperance

He got to make a personal appearance in Los Angeles on July 15, 1919.

salome

Kingsley’s favorite this week was Theda Bara’s last big film:

Score another one—high up, this time—for Theda Bara, J. Gordon Edwards, William Fox. All for Salome, which without a doubt is the greatest Biblical spectacle so far made in the history of films. And one of the greatest photodramas ever made…the spectacle is so interwoven with the human drama of it as to amount to a triumph. There is the miracle wrought by John the Baptist when the thunderbolt blasts its way into the king’s palace, there is the majesty of John and his rabble followers in the wilderness; there is the mad dance of the seven veils; there is the execution of John and the pitiful bloody head held aloft; there is the devastating tornado which tears the palace twain, and last there is the death of Salome on the spears of the soldiers.

And for me—and, probably for thousands of others—Salome, the alluring, the cruel, will always be the colorful, intricate characterization of Theda Bara. The house was packed from pit to dome with a brilliant and enthusiastic audience.

There was no way anybody could predict that Bara’s popularity would be ending just next year.

broadway

Miller’s Theater revived an older comedy two-reeler this week, and Kingsley wasn’t happy about it:

Fatty Arbuckle’s picture, Fatty and the Studio Stars, is a Keystone of the vintage of 1915, and serves principally to illustrate by mental comparison what a lot Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle have learned since than.

That’s undoubtedly true, and it’s a good reminder of how rapidly filmmaking developed then. However, now people like it much more. Known as Fatty and the Broadway Star, Brent Walker in Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory says it “offers a glimpse of the Keystone lot circa Fall, 1915. Arbuckle plays a hapless sweeper who manages to disrupt a series of shoots on the lot, with every major Keystone star appearing as themselves (with a special emphasis on the Broadway performers, naturally). In an interesting dream sub-plot, crooked stage manager Al St. John ties up Sennett in his office while his cohorts set fire to the building.” I’d like a glimpse of that!

 

 

 

*The National Association of Korean Americans has more information on their website.

**Jenny Cho, Chinese in Hollywood, Mt. Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013, p.18. She didn’t cite a source, but it’s certainly plausible that he was a bellhop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Week of August 31st, 1918

aa_LATad

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that:

America’s Answer, the second official United States war film, now being released by the division of films, has been booked for long-time showings in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In this city it will be exhibited at the Alhambra Theater, where the first of the government’s official films, Pershing’s Crusaders, was shown with such marked success.

L.A. only had to wait a week to see it, and Kingsley’s review pointed out why it would be a marked success too.

By all means don’t miss America’s Answer, the government film on view at the Alhambra this week, and which surely is the most vivid, the most gripping, the most logically arranged, the best photographed of any war film we have ever had. Tremendous crowds all day yesterday stamped and applauded and howled themselves hoarse over it.

So that you, whose son or brother or sweetheart or husband is in the midst of it, need not wait to conjure up pictures of his experiences with imaginings pieced together from his letters. In America’s Answer you may journey with him from the time he embarks on the transport for France until he rejoices in victory or is borne in to some hospital. You may even see him in the trenches and in battle.

She didn’t need to mention a soldiers’ other possible fate – the list of the dead was just a few pages away, and people were all too conscious of it. Audiences were hungry for information, and film could immerse them in the sights in a way that letters and newspaper couldn’t.*

aa_poster2

The New York Times (and New York audiences) agreed: “Not a man and not a woman in the crowd that filled the seats failed to feel the pull of the war, the urging of its influence, the sense of participation in it.” The film allowed people to be “seriously and intelligently informed of what the war in all of its departments is really like.”**

aa_poster1

America’s Answer was made by the Committee on Public Information, a government agency established on April 13, 1917 just days after Congress declared war. The CPI used film, advertising, posters, radio and public speeches to inform people about recruitment, rationing, war bond drives and why the war was being fought. They made one more documentary, Under Four Flags.

Now America’s Answer is only interesting if you’re a student of World War One (there are a lot of shots of men and goods being taken to Europe). It has been preserved at the National Archives, and is available on You Tube.

daddylonglegs
Pickford’s first film for First National

It was a sparse week for news because of the Labor Day holiday. Syd Chaplin announced that he was planning to appear in his own films again (he didn’t until 1921) and First National offered Mary Pickford a contract that was the “largest salary ever paid anybody for anything in the world” ($675,000 plus half of the profits for three pictures–she took it) and that was about it. Kingsley took two days off to enjoy the end of the summer. I hope you enjoy a long weekend, too!

 

 

prussiancur*The other film she reviewed that day, The Prussian Cur, fared badly in comparison. Though “an absorbing story thread runs throughout…with those who like their war news sugar-coated with fiction this picture is bound to make a smashing hit.” So ‘those’ weren’t tough enough for real news?

 

 

 

** “America’s Answer Stirs War Spirit,” July 30, 1918, p. 9.

Week of August 24th, 1918

mw_saw

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that women were getting new opportunities in the film industry:

With not only a good many of our handsome picture heroes gone to war, but with laboratory workers, cutters, even property men called away, women are rapidly taking men’s places in the picture studios. While it isn’t likely that Dorothy Phillips or Theda Bara will be called upon to don those cute little short pants and play Romeo, or that Mary Pickford or Clara Kimball Young will have to become athletic heroes in gentlemen’s afternoon togs, still it is true that men’s roles are being cut out of scenarios and women are taking men’s places all along the line.*

Already Universal has several women cutters, and a number of laboratory workers were added a few days ago; Lasky reports eight women last week taking the place of men in the shops and laboratories, while Triangle has several women replacing men in the different technical departments.

However, perhaps, the most radical change is developing in the projection departments. Ten girls who have been taught the use of projecting machinery in the school recently established by the Los Angeles exhibitors are no ready to step in to moving picture booths and reel off films, and it is understood each of the ten has either been engaged to go to work shortly or is expecting an appointment within the next few weeks.

This isn’t surprising, because women got to take jobs vacated by men during the war in most industries. Nevertheless, it was newsworthy. With the addition of some more research, Kingsley was able to turn this in to an article for Picture Play Magazine called “The Women Lend a Hand” (March, 1919). One story emphasized an important part of the new opportunities, better salaries:

There is Mrs. Margaret Whistler, the first property woman on the coast, who for years was a character actress at the “big U,” [Universal] and reputedly one of the best-dressed women in filmland—which you’ll agree must have been some well dressed. Now she wears—overalls! And this is how it happened.

One day a few months ago the Western Vitagraph property man in Hollywood was suddenly called overseas to help get hold of a good location on the Rhine for a war picture or something. Other property men were not to be had. So the production manager [W.S. Smith] decided to do the next best thing. He called in Mrs. Whistler, who by that time had deserted “U” for Vitagraph. If, reasoned Mr. Smith, she could make two gowns grow where only one grew before, and for the same money, why shouldn’t she be able to manage properties and build sets both economically and with artistic results?

“But I must have the same salary as I get for acting,” answered Mrs. Whistler briskly.

Mr. Smith accepted the terms, but at the end of the first week, instead of receiving the same salary as she had been getting, she found she was receiving more. And that’s all there is to the story, except “Props” Whistler went shopping at once for a dozen pairs of overalls, and has been on the job ever since.

mw_mercantileBest of all, Kingsley noted, “she seems to like it!” Margaret Whistler, born Louise Margaret Pepper in 1892, had been in show business for many years (though the authors of Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers called her claim of touring England as a lion tamer “inflated or erroneous.”) She had combined film acting and costume design before she got the chance to run Vitagraph’s prop department. Like most women, she didn’t get to keep her new job when the men came home and after the war she went back to designing costumes. Her most famous work was for Queen of Sheba (1921). In 1922 she ran an independent wardrobe company, the Cinema Mercantile Company. She stopped designing when she married Merle Farnsworth, a medical laboratory manager, in the late 1920s, but after he left her she went back to work in Columbia’s costume department. She died in 1939 following an illness.

nbb_projector

Kingsley also highlighted the first woman projectionist in L.A.:

Only a few months ago that women operators were unheard of. Miss Nellie Bly Baker was the first woman on the coast to discover the lack and set about filling it. Los Angeles…requires a city license of picture-machine operators.

“Oh, very well,” said Miss Baker, when she heard it, “I’ll get one.” And she did. Inside of a few weeks she had passed both a written and a machine examination, received her license, and began grinding in the ‘tin box’ of one of that city’s biggest theaters.

upsidown
Upside Down House

Nellie Bly Baker was moonlighting on her regular job as Charlie Chaplin’s secretary (though her projectionist skills would be useful in a studio, too). She was born in Oklahoma in 1893, and after high school and a secretarial course, she moved to Los Angeles in 1917 to join her older sister. She continued to work as Chaplin’s secretary and occasionally got small parts in his films until 1924, when she got acting job offers after she played a masseuse in his A Woman of Paris. She played more small roles until the mid-1930’s, when she moved to her favorite vacation spot, the Eastern Sierras. She and her husband John O’Bryan owned and operated resorts at Lake Lundy and Mono Lake. They were most famous for building a tourist attraction, the Upside Down House. She died in Lone Pine, CA in 1984.

Even though there were advantages to having female projectionists–the man who ran the school said, “the girls know electricity and they are artistic. They get plenty of sleep and they don’t smoke in the operating booths”–women didn’t get to keep those jobs, either.

byrne_tourposter
Poster for the live version of Eight Bells

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was an adaption of a well-known work:

When a stage play is put on the screen, it’s always a matter of fascinating interest how it will stand the transplanting. Eight Bells was, I understand, a very, very funny farce on the stage. On the screen at the Garrick, with the addition of a lot of hokum and certain miracles of photography, it is still funny, though a bit too long. A lot of small boys shrieked themselves hoarse yesterday at the doings of the professor and the wicked duke and the nice old maid and the escaped convict, and certainly Mack Sennett never dreamed of a funnier scrambling of characters than that. Thousands have laughed at the Byrne Brothers, comedians, when they played it on the stage, and now millions will laugh at them on the screen.

The AFI Catalog has a synopsis of the plot, but it doesn’t really matter very much. Trav SD at Travalanche has written a detailed blog entry about the Byrne Brothers, but in short, they were acrobatic siblings who specialized in pantomime, juggling and knockabout comedy. They had been touring together since 1891. Eight Bells: A Nautical Pantomimic Comedy in Three Acts showcased all of their skills, plus it included special effects like an exploding wagon and capsizing ship. Shot in 1916, this was their only film. It has been preserved at MOMA in New York.

 

 

 

 

*Now I want to know if men were really being written out during the war. From Kingsley’s news and reviews, it doesn’t seem like there was a shortage of actors in Los Angeles.

“First Girl Operator in L.A.,” Moving Picture World, October 26, 1918, p. 498.

Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins, Creating the Illusion (Turner Classic Movies): A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers, Philadelphia,: Running Press, 2015.

Barbara Moore, “High Sierra Nellie,” The Album: Times & Tales of Inyo-Mono, v.5 no.3, p. 40.

Week of August 17th, 1918

 

kellers
Helen, Phillips and Kate Keller

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported:

The mother and soldier brother of the famous Helen Keller are to visit Miss Keller next week, and will watch her work in the big feature picture which she is making at Brunton studios.

Her family didn’t just visit, they appeared in the film. Deliverance was a fictionalized version of Keller’s life from the fever that left her blind and deaf at 18 months, through her childhood when Annie Sullivan taught her to communicate, to her graduation from Radcliffe and her adult life, which included writing, lecturing and advocacy for disabled people. Because Hollywood couldn’t make a movie without a love story, they included a dream sequence with an actress playing Keller as Circe, beckoning Ulysses to her island (when she found out about that bit, she laughed a lot).

According to Keller’s biographer Dorothy Herrmann, she made the film because demand for her on the lecture circuit was dwindling and she was broke. Herrmann called the film “a hodgepodge, an early docudrama that combines actual footage of Helen, symbolism, and a fanciful plot line…Deliverance remains an important historical document, capturing a still beautiful and luminous Helen—dancing, reading Braille, answering her correspondence, strolling serenely in the garden with her hovering, ambivalent mother, and taking a ride in a fragile biplane, despite the protests of her family.” Seven of the film’s ten reels have been preserved at the Library of Congress.

It was a box-office failure. Keller was still broke, so she “had no choice but to accept the offer of which they had a lifelong horror,” vaudeville. She and Anne Sullivan Macy worked up a twenty-minute act and they toured, performing it twice daily from February 1920 to the spring of 1924. Sullivan Macy introduced Keller, and then told the story of teaching her to speak. Next Keller demonstrated, giving an inspirational speech in an “odd, barely comprehensible voice.” Show business wasn’t as bad as they feared. Keller later wrote “I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in.” Plus, they were a hit: for a while they were some of the highest-paid performers in vaudeville, headlining for two thousand dollars a week. It paid better than lectures had, and they only had to be on stage for twenty minutes instead of ninety.

hellbent_ad

Kingsley unexpectedly had a lot of fun at a movie this week:

It was a plum wild and wooly afternoon on the Rialto, yesterday, as far as I was concerned, with western film whooping ‘em up. Over at the Symphony, Harry Carey is appearing in Hell Bent, which is a western with a ‘wengence.’ If you want to forget the h—* whom you want for the next Governor, and other painful subjects, if you want to feel the winds of plain and mountain on your fevered brow, go to the Symphony. There is some wonderful riding stuff in a wonderful mountain country; there is a desert bit, with mirages and sand-storms, and Harry Carey does some marvelous stunts including climbing hand over hand on a rope up the side of a steep cliff and rolling down a mountain side tied to a horse’s back. Altogether as breezy and entertaining a western as we have had in some time.

Someone she didn’t mention is the reason the film is remembered today: it was directed by John Ford, his eighth feature. It seems like he already knew what he was doing.

mercy

A disturbing film played at Miller’s Theater this week, entitled At the Mercy of Men. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, a woman is forced to marry her rapist. Kingsley did say it was “a wrong afterward righted in so far as the law could do it” (I’d prefer a long stint in prison for the attacker). Eventually they fall in love and that’s supposed to be the happy ending. Its working title was Ruthless Russia, but the Russians were Allies during World War 1, so it wasn’t made as anti-enemy propaganda. I’m astonished that anybody thought this was a good story to tell. It’s a lost film. Happily, both actors went on to better things. Alice Brady played many socialites in 1930’s comedies including Aunt Hortense in The Gay Divorcee (1934). The rapist was played by Frank Morgan, Mr. Matuschek of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and of course, the Wizard of Oz.

Luckily, Kingsley saw a second movie at Miller’s this week. A “welcome addition to the bill” was a re-issue of “probably one of the best comedies ever made:” Fatty and Mabel Adrift. The short from 1916 will still give you some relief from painful subjects, and it’s on the Internet Archive.

 

 

 

*It seems that it was OK to write “hell” in the newspaper when it referred to a place, but not as a swear.

 

Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.

 

 

 

Week of August 10th, 1918

tohell_bigad

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recorded the patriotic fervor of the times in a movie review:

To Hell with the Kaiser isn’t merely the name of a photodrama. It’s an American state of mind. Therefore it would be absurd to expect any red-blooded American to sit down and write a cool analysis of any picture with that name.

It breathes the very spirit of American pep and dash and optimism. It is like a draught of champagne in a dry town. It radiates victory. Some dyspeptic old critic may take a wallop at it, but he can’t hurt it any. The crowds will go see it just the same…Even the possible pale-blooded old critic, snouting after faults, who may allege the thing’s too episodic, that the “dramatic verities” are not preserved, that the American girl is quite too impossible clever, that the patriotism is flamboyant, will have to acknowledge the play’s got a soul and a soul of flame.

For, not content with bringing events down to date, it soon flies the track of events and soars into the illimitable blue of the imaginable future. And it’s so adroitly done—that moving on from the tragedy of the past to the blinding hope of the future. So that when the story leaps at last into buoyant comedy, it seems quite the most natural thing in the world.

That ‘imaginable future’ involved Kaiser Wilhelm getting captured by the Allies, committing suicide and going to hell where Satan, impressed by his horrible deeds, abdicates in his favor. While that’s an understandable revenge fantasy, it’s hard to imagine it as a comedy. The film is lost, so we can’t see how they managed it.

tohell_success

At the time it was extremely popular. The theater had held a preview night for eight hundred soldiers and sailors and they “cheered themselves hoarse” according to Kingsley’s report. Three bands wound up the evening with a rousing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

tohell_poster

I couldn’t find a record of the box-office returns, but looks like film did well until the war ended in November. After that, Metro tried their best to keep selling it in December:

kaiser_afterwar

Kingsley had a very good time at another movie this week:

The Cook assays about three laughs a minute—that is, unless you just get one laugh out of it and that continuous. In fact, Fatty put the ho-ho in hokum. There is the Salome dance with Fatty wearing all the scullery furniture except the kitchen stove.

Keaton167 copy
The Country Hero

The Salome burlesque was an extremely durable bit of business. Arbuckle and company had first filmed it for The Country Hero in 1917; it’s lost, but from the photos it looks like Buster Keaton performed the Salome role. In The Cook, the dance was contagious – a dancer in the restaurant inspired Keaton to imitate her, then Keaton inspired Arbuckle. This was Buster’s last film with Arbuckle before he left to serve in the army. Keaton next used it to entertain the troops when he was part of the 40th Division Sunshine Players. Then the bit acted as a sort of welcome home from his time in the military when it turned up again in Backstage, Keaton’s return to film work in 1919. It was part of “The Falling Reign” portion of stage show in the short. They used more of the Salome story, with Keaton playing the taunting temptress and Arbuckle playing the king who wants to dump her.

Later, when Buster made personal appearances to support College in 1927, he did it again, calling his act “The Song of the Dance.” Finally he used a version of it in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Like all good vaudevillians, he didn’t let proven material go to waste. No matter which version you see, it’s still a hoot.

Kingsley reported big news for people who know that Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents:

Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, that classic of girlhood’s library, is to be made into a film, after all, despite the difficulties W.A. Brady had in securing screen rights. Mr. Brady will make an elaborate production of the story, on which work has already commenced. The scenes are being made in Concord, Mass., in the very house sacred to the memory of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.

William Brady, a very successful theatrical and film producer, had presented it as a play during the 1912-13 season, so he was familiar with the material. This was second of many, many film adaptations of the novel (the first was a 1917 British production). From the plot description in its Paramount Press Book, it looks like Jo still sacrifices her hair and Beth dies, but Amy doesn’t burn Jo’s manuscript (the worst crime in girls’ literature!) and Jo doesn’t try out independence and move to the city – Prof. Baer already lives in Concord. They really did shoot some of it in Orchard House, so it’s particularly sad that it’s a lost film. If you’d like to see what the rooms look like now, the Alcott Museum has a virtual tour.