One hundred years ago this week, during the hottest part of the summer, film news had slowed to a trickle. Grace Kingsley found herself reviewing a movie made in 1918 that had been plucked from the shelf, dusted off and put in a theater. To her surprise, she enjoyed it! She put her finger precisely on why it was worthwhile:
You’ll sometimes see a play that is a perfectly good play, and yet somehow you don’t care a hang about it—and then again you’ll see a play that isn’t a good play, judged by many high-brow standards, but you’ll sit on the edge of your seat until it is finished.
High-quality trash is hard to come by! At the moment, the film was called The Married Virgin, so you know it wasn’t afraid of melodramatic tropes. Kingsley summed up the plot:
The cold-blooded, fascinating rascal of a fortune-hunting Spanish count, beloved of the married woman several years his senior, plots with her to wed himself to the woman’s step-daughter in order to get her money so the two can elope.
That’s not nice! What could possibly happen next? The Married Virgin (a.k.a. Frivolous Wives) survives at the Library of Congress, and people still watch it because that rascally Spanish count was played by Rudolph Valentino, back when he was still called Rodolfo Di Valentina (Kingsley thought his performance was “true to life”). People still enjoy it the same way she did; Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently wrote “the movie is never boring and is a prime example of an over-the-top silent melodrama…Still, if the film is bad, it is entertainingly bad.”
After that review, Kingsley abandoned her typewriter and escaped the newsroom for two whole weeks. The blog will follow her excellent example. I hope you all can take some time off from your regular work and find something entertaining to watch, too.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to see “a different sort of production” that was “bound to awaken fresh and enthusiastic interest on the part of picture fans,” The Wonder Man, starring French boxer Georges Carpentier. It had something for everybody. For boxing fans,
Four rounds are fought by Carpentier in his best manner, with a boy who is no slouch of a fighter himself. Yesterday the progress of the scrap was accompanied by cheers and applause, and for a minute or two there was a pale replica of the Vernon noise on the best nights. The fighting is all open, and probably the best bout ever registered on the screen, at least outside a regular prize fight.
And for the audience who never visited the boxing ring in Vernon (the only nearby town where prize fights were legal), the film had a different attraction:
The gentle little matinee girls won’t be disappointed, either, for not only is Carpentier a lithe and accomplished fighter, but he is possessed of a handsome and fascinating personality, and its hard to envisage him as a fighter until he gets into action, when his whole face changes amazingly. Also he is a very good actor, and any day the fight game gets too hard for him, he can go on the screen as a film idol, I’m sure.
The Wonder Man, now lost, told the story of a French secret service agent/boxer who’s on the trail of a thief. Honestly, it doesn’t sound that different from other movies, but maybe in the depths of summer Kingsley felt less picky.
He fought Jack Dempsey…
…and the Germans
Now Georges Carpentier is most famous for fighting heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in the first prizefight to sell over $1 million worth of tickets. It was held on July 2, 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey and he lost. But he was in 108 other fights, winning 88 of them, and according to boxing historian Ian Murphy, many regard him as the greatest European fighter ever. He was also a war hero, receiving the Croix de Guerre for his service in the French Air Force. He didn’t become a matinee idol, but he appeared in a few more films, and after he retired from boxing in 1927 he became a vaudeville singer and dancer, touring the United States and Britain. In 1934 he quit show business to manage a bar in Paris, Chez Georges Carpentier. He died following a heart attack in 1975.
Much as she enjoyed the boxing film, the best thing Kingsley saw this week was in Mack Sennett’s latest feature Married Life, with Ben Turpin:
Probably the funniest and most original bit of hokum is when Turpin takes gas before an operation and is blown up like a balloon, floating about the hospital and scaring everybody.
This was Turpin’s first starring role, and he made the most of it; she wrote, “as for Ben Turpin, he is making rapid strides as a comedian. He seems to have a faultless sense of the comic and of his own peculiar comedy talents.” But she thought the whole film was very good:
Married Life is really farce, inasmuch as it has a story, even if it is a thin one; but on it is hung a brilliant array of comic hokum gems, the brightest, in fact, have emanated from the Sennett studios in many moons, and it is to these the comedy owes its big punch.
See it and laugh, that’s all.
Which is exactly what anybody could want in a summer movie. It was a big success, bringing crowds to the Kinema and the following week, to the Victory. Kingsley wasn’t the only critic who liked it; Peter Milne in Picture-Play Magazine wrote, “you can’t afford to miss Married Life—it is a perfect burlesque—the greatest of Sennett’s pictures.” Unfortunately, we can’t: it’s a lost film.
Peter Milne, “The Screen in Review,” Picture-Play Magazine, September 1920, p.37.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had some objections to a current trend in Westerns:
Oh, those cowless cowboys of the motion pictures! Those guys that wear all the cowboy’s scenery and go ‘round dressed up like a merry-go-round, but who never seem to have any work to do!
Sometimes you think the cowboys are going to work. You see a bunch of them at a round-up of cattle and you say to yourself, “Well, after all, they are an industrious bunch. I’ve probably been doing them a great wrong.” Next minute along comes the hero and says his girl has been stolen or his bank robbed, and whoopee, they’re off! Those cows can go jump in the lake for all of them. The boys wheel around, oh, so grandly, and the ranch owner can go whistle for his cattle. I don’t know why the ranch owner keeps on paying ‘em.
Cowboys in pictures have three accomplishments. They can ride horseback, they can roll cigarettes with one hand, lighting matches with their thumbnails, and they can play the accordion. That accordion playing is one of the things that reconciles us to the silent drama being silent.
I’m sure that Miss Kingsley didn’t expect realism from the movies, but this one strain of unreality really grated on her this week (honestly, nobody wants to watch a realistic portrayal of any job, they’d be bored to death). Her real complaint is that Westerns were getting tired. Happily, the genre would soon get refreshed by frontier stories like Maurice Tourneur’s The Last of the Mohicans (1920) and James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923).
And if she didn’t like seeing accordion-playing cowboys, she is not going to enjoy the similarly cowless singing cowboys in the 1930’s and 40s.
Continuing the crankiness, Kingsley absolutely loathed the ending to an otherwise inoffensive drama this week:
When the hero of The Sacred Flame throws up his hands and drops over dead because he sees the girl he jilted but recently in the company of another man, you throw up your hands, too, and say, “Good Lord, what’s the use?”
She wasn’t exaggerating. According to the AFI Catalog, at the end of the movie Lionel Brooks just ups and dies of a broken heart. The actress who played the jilted Rosalie, Emily Stevens, made one more film then returned to the legitimate theater after this. There’s no record of if she said, “what’s the use,” but I wouldn’t blame her if she did.
This week, Kingsley also mentioned a dance that was worth reporting on even before it was shot:
Beatrice Dominguez, a talented Spanish dancer, has been engaged to play in the Metro production of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which Rex Ingram is directing. Miss Dominguez is well known on the Pacific Coast; her best work having been at the San Francisco Exposition in a dancing set. She has also appeared in vaudeville. Miss Dominguez will do a dance with Rudolph Valentino of the Ingram picture.
That’s exactly what happened and it’s still the standout sequence in the film. Their tango helped make Valentino a star, but tragically, it couldn’t help her career. She died before the film debuted.
Beatriz Dominguez was born September 6, 1896, either in in San Bernardino, California (according to an interview she gave to Motion Picture Classic) or in Mexico, from which she immigrated to California in 1901 (according to the 1920 census). She learned to dance in the Spanish style from her mother, also named Beatriz. She called herself “La Bella Sevilla” and she performed at both the San Francisco and the San Diego Expositions. But she also wanted to act in films. In 1914 she made her debut in two Vitagraph shorts, The Masked Dancer and The Sea-Gull. In 1919 she was hired by Universal where she appeared in films like The Sundown Trail (1919) (as “the Mexican girl”) and serials like The Moon Riders (1920) (as “Rosa the housekeeper’s daughter”). In her Motion Picture Classic interview, she made the best of being considered a foreign type:
I should not like to play ingénues or straight leads. I think I have been most fortunate in being cast for character parts, for heavies with strong emotional parts. That is real training in acting. When my time comes as a star, I shall have had much experience, and then I shall not be afraid; I shall only know that it is a time to work harder than ever to deserve success.
Poor hopeful young lady! She became sick while filming another Universal serial, The White Horseman, and died in the Clara Barton Hospital after two operations for appendicitis on February 27, 1921. At least her dance with Valentino remains.
“Actress Dies,” Exhibitors’ Herald, March 26, 1921, p.26.
“Film Star Dies Who Won Way to Fame with Feet,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1921.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley did her bit to encourage movie attendance:
Speaking of cool summer resorts, there are a whole flock of them right in our midst. If you don’t happen to feel like boarding a crowded car for the beach, or the parks, you’ll find a deliciously cool retreat in almost any theater you want to enter. Managers are wisely seeing to it that, no matter what the expense, their houses are cool. That the public is aware of this effort was evidenced by the fact that yesterday, despite the heat, the theaters held the usual crowds.
Theater cooling systems in 1920 weren’t quite modern air conditioning (that came along in 1922), but plainly they were better than the 88 degrees that Kingsley was dealing with outdoors. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s History of Air Conditioning, early systems were heating systems modified with refrigeration equipment. They produced hot, muggy conditions in the balcony and temperatures that were so low downstairs that people wrapped their feet in newspapers.
One thing that hasn’t changed, what’s playing matters less when the weather is awful:
Just across the threshold of the California, for instance, one stepped into a deliciously cool auditorium where two charming pictures and some good music took one’s mind entirely off the heat outside.
The films were Madge Kennedy in The Truth (“a frothy thing, but amusing”) and a Booth Tarkington ‘Edgar’ short, Edgar’s Jonah Day (“abundantly amusing” but “several degrees less fanciful” than the others). It sounds like Kingsley was just particularly annoyed with the weather this week. Poor woman, she had a long time to wait for improvement: it stays hot and miserable in Los Angeles until around November first. It’s a good thing she had the theaters to visit.
Kingsley also had a story about annoying neighbors. Honeymooners Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman moved in to their new house on Hawthorne Drive in Hollywood, and
Next morning the exclusive neighborhood was horrified to hear indignant squeals, pitiful squeals, pleading squeals and also strident squeals proceeding apparently from the newcomers home.
“Are they going to keep pigs?” exclaimed the horrified neighbors. And while impromptu indignation meetings were held up and down the block among outraged housekeepers the lone piglet responsible for the excitement continued his squealing, but with the noise shifting. This time it came from the next block, where Tod Browning lives. The shift occurred on the director’s birthday and it turned out the pig was a present to Browning on behalf of the Outside the Law company, before whom he had incautiously expressed his deep longing for a porker, in order to do some ranching on a small scale.
And now Browning has to keep his word and buy a ranch.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley remarked that yet another actor had succumbed to the lure of Hollywood:
It’s only a matter of time and the films will get them all. The latest staunch cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die stage partisan star to affix his signature to a contract is George Arliss, famous on the stage in Disraeli and other plays.
According to report received yesterday from his agents, Mr. Arliss has just signed with A.J. Callaghan, head of A.J. Callaghan Productions, to appear in a picturization of his stage play The Devil, in which he starred some ten years ago.
George Arliss was one of the lucky few actors who got both critical respect and big box office returns. His middlebrow historical films and domestic comedies aren’t very popular with classic movie fans now, but he was a big star for two decades.
Arliss was born in London in 1868 and he became a stage actor when he was 18. He toured Great Britain and the United States, and he became a Broadway star in 1908 playing Dr. Muller in The Devil, so it makes sense that he chose that as his first film.
He was a success, and he went on to reprise another of his stage roles, Benjamin Disraeli, both in a 1921 silent and a 1929 talkie. He won the Best Actor Academy Award for the latter. Throughout the 1930’s he played all sorts of historical figures, including the Duke of Wellington, Cardinal Richelieu, and Alexander Hamilton. He retired in 1939.
Current audiences have different ideas about how history should be put on film, but Arliss hasn’t been completely forgotten. Robert M. Fells has written a biography, and maintains a blog about him.
Charlie Chaplin’s publicists were working overtime this week. Kingsley reported:
In one of his coming releases for First National, Mr. Chaplin has taken the other side of the muchly-abused police argument, and for the first time perhaps in all history since there have been police, that husky fraternity is to be lionized. In fact, it is rumored that Mr. Chaplin has attached a pair of wings to each comedy policeman in the picture.
Chaplin’s publicity department managed to keep his name in the paper without giving away anything about the plot of the film he was working on, The Kid, or even anything about the dreamland sequence where the winged cop appears. They were good at their job!
Kingsley’s favorite film this week, Old Lady 31, was of a type that is even more rare now:
Who says there’s a deadline on romance? Tommy and Aggie, aged 16, think romance means moonlight and ice cream soda tete a tetes, and dreamy fox trots with their faces frozen together, and that anything of this sort beyond the age of 21 is mush—just mush, that’s all! But–and this is by the by–even the deadline on that sort of romance, folks are apt to find pushed further back as they grow older!
When Rachel Crothers wrote Old Lady 31, which ran as a play in New York for two years, and which is showing at the Victory this week, she manifested a magic sort of skill and genius for comedy that joyously skimmed the great truths of life. In kindly humorous and brilliantly delicious and human fashion she epitomized the sorrows and joys of and elderly couple turned out of their home, the old lady to enter the old ladies’ home and the old man the poor farm. The old lady, heartbroken at leaving her partner of her lie’s joys and troubles, so appeals to the sympathies of the other “girls” of the home that they vote to take the dear old boy in as Old Lady 31.
The story manages to find jokes in a sad situation, because the twenty-nine ladies pay so much attention to Abe that he plots to escape in this lost film. There’s still a deadline on romance in films – that doesn’t seem to change.
Finally, Kingsley reported that an annoying co-worker got his just desserts this week:
When you see the villain submit to his final knockout in The Best of Luck at the California this week, don’t get the impression that you are looking at a make-believe fight. Frederic Malatesta, the bad man in question, sustained an injury so serious that it took a surgeon with a needle and thread to make him whole again. It all happened because Malatesta insisted on realism.
“Really fight me! Fight me as if you meant it!” he shouted to Kathryn Adams, costar in the production.
At first Miss Adams refused to take him at his word. Then goaded to exasperation by his insistence, she heaved the heaviest piece of furniture at hand in his direction, with the result that the blow struck its mark.
Mr. Malatesta seems to have learned his lesson, and he went on to a solid career in silent films followed by small parts in talkies until 1941.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was the first to forget the name of one funny woman:
“There’s a Sunshine Comedy, called Monkey Business, which is a regular humdinger. It was a big beauty chorus, with one of the prettiest, most expressive girls on the screen in the leading role, though I’ve forgotten her name. Anyhow she’ll probably be starring in a drama pretty soon. Among the principle actors are the dog, Teddy, and a monkey. The most hilarious episode is the chase, supposedly after the baby, though it turns out to be the monkey, carried away by some balloons and deposited on a rock by the ocean.”
The mystery actress was Ethel Teare, and unfortunately now she’s been forgotten because most of her films are lost.
However, Steve Massa in his book Slapstick Divas remembers her. He wrote that by 1920 she was a comedy veteran. Born in Arizona in 1894, she toured in vaudeville for six years before she found work in film at the Kalem Company in 1914. She was soon the leading lady in one-reel comedies there; she was often the love interest in their Ham and Bud shorts. In 1916 they let her headline her own series of shorts. She moved to Keystone in 1917, but she was too similar to their star Louise Fazenda, so she moved on to the Fox Sunshine company in 1918. Monkey Business was one of eighteen shorts and one feature she made there; Massa says she was at the top of her career then.
Kingsley was proven wrong with her predication: unlike other successful comediennes at the time like Gloria Swanson or Bebe Daniels, Teare didn’t abandon comedy. She stayed at Fox until 1921, then she worked with comic Bert Roach at Universal. She took a break from film and returned to vaudeville, appearing with the Marx Brothers in their Twentieth Century Revue. In 1924, she was featured in two Hysterical History comedies for Universal, then she retired and married Bank of American vice president Frank Risso. They moved to San Mateo, California and she raised their twins Marjory and Mario.
If Mr. Cupid were twins he really couldn’t be any busier than he has been among the film folk. The very latest announcement is that concerning Jack Ford, Universal Director. Mr. Ford, it seems, lost his independence on Independence Day, but is glad of it. In other words, he was married to Mary Smith of New York at the San Juan Capistrano Mission. The bride is the daughter of Charles E. W. Smith of the New York Stock Exchange, and the niece of Surgeon General Rupert Blue and of Admiral Blue.
Mr. Ford managed to keep his wedding a secret until yesterday, when his joy burst all bounds and he let the story right out. After that it wasn’t hard to find out that he and Mrs. Ford would spend their honeymoon in the East, leaving this morning. They will visit Mr. Ford’s people in Maine and Mrs. Ford’s people in Washington and New York, so that both sets of parents will have a chance to look them over.
According to Ford’s biographer Joseph McBride it was “an often contentious but devoted relationship,” but it lasted until his death in 1973. They met at a Saint Patrick’s Day dance just a few months earlier. McBride said that Mary Smith was a 28-year-old trained nurse with “a salty, sarcastic wit and a taste for bootleg liquor that matched Ford’s own growing fondness.” Kingsley got one detail wrong: they couldn’t marry at a Catholic church because she was a divorced Presbyterian, so they got married at the L.A. County Courthouse (he didn’t want his very observant parents to know that). Among the reasons their marriage lasted so long was that she had no interest in being in the movies, and he kept his work and home strictly separate. She said in a 1977 interview with Anthony Slide and June Banker “I was very happy to be what I was, with a lovely home and good friends.”
Kingsley also mentioned that there was a new trendy drink among Hollywood’s elite:
Talking about picture stars and the Alexandria, have you any mate in your house? No, no—not spouse! I mean, have you contracted the habit of drinking the new beverage, lately imported from South America, to which the picture stars are fast becoming addicts, it is said. The name is pronounced as if spelled “Mattie.”
No, mate is not a strong drink. It is a sort of tea, but it’s full of pep and if you haven’t mated, you don’t know the thrill you’re missing.
I had no idea that the mate had been a fad before — nothing is ever new! Now people tout its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, in addition to its caffeine kick. I’ll keep an eye out for other food trends in her columns, so we can know what’s coming next.
Steve Massa, Slapstick Divas. Albany, GA: Bear Manor Media, 2017, pp. 87-95.
Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford, New York, St. Martins, 2003.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned that another writer was ready to earn some Hollywood cash:
If old Bill Shakespeare were alive today he’d probably be writing for the movies. Everybody in authorland is doing it. The latest famous scribe to sign up is Fannie Hurst, who has just put her name to a contract to write a number of stories for Universal.
It seems it was while she was on her way to San Francisco to the Democratic convention that Miss Hurst arranged this. After the convention she will return to Los Angeles to begin writing for Priscilla Dean and other Universal stars.
Hurst had sold to Universal the rights to a story called “A Petal on the Current” a few months earlier and it seems that they liked what they bought. She did come to Hollywood where she rented a bungalow and wrote “Oats for Women,” which became The Day She Paid, directed by Rex Ingram. But that was enough for her–she returned to New York where she stayed until her death in 1968.
Four decades of Fannie Hurst movies!
Her short stay might not have only been caused by a New Yorker’s dislike of California; she also had a previous commitment to New York-based Cosmopolitan Pictures which had the rights to her published works. They were already filming Humoresque, which turned out to be a great big hit. Many more classic films were based on her works, including Back Street (1932 and 1941) Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959) and Four Daughters (1939) and its two sequels. Hurst became one of the best-paid writers in America. It’s interesting that she was content to write the stories, and let others adapt them into scripts. It seems like she knew what she was good at. In the 1950’s and 60’s, her writing was scorned because it was melodramatic, but since the 1990’s critics have taken her works about marginalized women more seriously. Naturally, there’s been a biography.
Kingsley also reported that actress Tsuru Aoki returned to Los Angeles this week after a four month long trip to Japan:
This was Miss Aoki’s first trip to Japan since she came to this country. She was 8 years old then. She was educated here, and took special training at Stanford University. She visited her relatives in Japan, including her famous aunt, the actress Sada Yacco.
Aoki’s mother’s older brother, Otojiro Kawakami, was to married Sada Yacco, who had the sort of life that’s begging for a biopic to be made (an English-language biography came out in 2004). Left at a geisha house when she was 4, she was trained as an apprentice. She became the Prime Minister’s mistress at age 15. That ended when she was 18. She married Kawakami when she was 22 and she joined his acting troupe. In 1899 they left Japan to tour the United States and Europe, where she was a huge sensation. She retired from acting in 1917.
I noticed something missing in every biography of Tsuru Aoki: they all mention that she came to America with her uncle and aunt in 1899, but her relatives left her at their first stop in San Francisco, where she was adopted by an artist, Toshio Aoki. But there’s no mention of what happened to her parents. There’s one article in Photoplay by her childhood friend, Louise Scher, who said that Tsuru Aoki’s father had been killed in the Russo-Japanese War so her mother asked her older brother to look after her child. More information isn’t available because Japan has extraordinarily strict privacy laws for access to koseki records (family registry) – it’s limited to people named in them, their direct descendants, and lawyers if needed for a proceeding. The koseki has the same function as birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and the census in other countries – everything researchers rely on for biographical information. Furthermore, the records aren’t digitized, so you have to know which city hall to write to. So unless the law changes, or a descendent decides to write a biography, we’ll never know about her early years.
What little we know is unbearably sad if Scher’s story is true. Tsuru Aoki lost her father, was given up by her mother, and was taken to to a strange country with a new language then left with a middle-aged bachelor. He died when she was 20, so she needed to become self-supporting. Fortunately, she was a good actress and was able to find work on stage and in films. With such sudden reversals of fortune in nonfiction, it’s no wonder people liked melodramatic stories–they must have seemed completely plausible.
Louise Scher, “A Flower of Japan,” Photoplay, June 1916, pp.110-112.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had an announcement that was a “sensation”: the “two of the most famous film folk in the world” planned to costar in a picture.
That’s exactly what Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who are now honeymooning together in London, intend to do, according to private advices received by friends of theirs here. So you see these two devoted ones won’t be separated even in the studio.
No, they’re not going to do a stroke of work while they’re abroad. But when they get home, they’re going to appear in a film version of Johnston McCully’s “The Curse of Capistrano,” published serially in a popular magazine.
However, it seems as if Doug may have rather the best of it, in a way, as he will play a dual role. But perhaps they’ll put enough of Mary in her own sweet person, to make up for Doug’s double impersonation.
As you probably know, those friends were misinformed about Pickford co-staring in Fairbanks’ next movie (she would have been fine as Lolita Pulido, but she needed to make her own films to keep their new company, United Artists, afloat), but the rest was correct. Renamed The Mark of Zorro, it went on to be a huge hit and a turning point in Fairbanks’ career.
Fairbanks’ staff spilled the beans to Kingsley fast. According to his biographer Tracey Goessel, the newlyweds got on the boat to England on June 12th, and during the trip Pickford read McCully’s story, which his staff had recommended. She immediately saw that it was perfect for him. He trusted her judgment and wired instructions to buy it (he didn’t read it himself until they were on the train home from New York to Los Angeles).
After they returned in August, he got right to work and the movie debuted at the new Mission Theater in Los Angeles on December 1st (publicity wasn’t the only thing that moved quickly then). Kingsley didn’t get to review it; her editor Edwin Schallert kept the assignment for himself. Most of his piece was a description of the new theater. After five paragraphs of that, he got around to the movie, writing “It is a picture notable chiefly for its mystery and excitement, which carries the interest steadily. Fairbanks himself is seen in a role of moderate opportunities for his type. There is a good sweep of picturesqueness in the locale and setting which enriches.”
His dismissiveness wasn’t typical; for instance, Film Daily said “’Doug’ probably gives one of the best performances in his screen career” (December 5, 1920). The audience loved Zorro and it played at the Mission for over a month, at a time when most films stayed for a week.
He’d already begun to make another comedy, The Nut, but after that he made the adventure movies that he’s most famous for now, starting with The Three Musketeers.
Now Zorro is considered a classic. Fairbanks himself made a sequel in 1926 and it gets remade regularly. Fritzi Kramer reviewed and really enjoyed it in 2013.
This week, Kingsley showed how a review of a Fairbanks movie ought to be written:
“Leave ‘em smiling when you say good-bye” is evidently the motto of that radiant rascal Doug Fairbanks. He made The Mollycoddle, which is on view at the Rialto this week, and then he went away on a honeymoon, giving those of us who see that last clever picture spasm of his every reason to wish he’d hurry back. Anybody who has an idea that Fairbanks is passing away professionally has only to go take a look at the line in front of the Rialto, and listen to the roars of joy issuing therefrom, to realize he’s got another guess coming.
Once again the comedian yanks comedy out of thrills and puts thrills into comedy…The Mollycoddle is itself vivid, high-power comedy, with something snappy doing every minute, and with a fresh background and droll ideas. There are some wild doings, too, so that at moments it appears like a sort of sublimated serial.
So the change in Fairbanks’ career wasn’t completely abrupt, other than the new costumes.
Tracey Goessel, First King of Hollywood, Chicago Review Press, 2016.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed a film pioneer who was the first cowboy movie star. He had made a career change:
Bronco Billy used to be a loud, tough-spoken guy, but he has been so long gone in the effete East that nobody knows now just how to treat him; whether to shake his hand or kiss him. But after all he seemed the other night to be pretty much the same old Billy, a little grey around the temples, maybe, with a boiled shirt setting a little better on him, and knowing how to pronounce the French things on the bill of fare a little more trippingly on the tongue, but fit and hard as in days of yore.
Gilbert M. Anderson was there to promote a stage show he’d produced, The Frivolities of 1920, which was stopping in Los Angeles for a week at the Mason Opera House. His interview with Kingsley was mostly a series of complaints about the habits of the women of the chorus. He felt that since cowboys could get up at 5 AM, chorus girls could certainly be there for 11 AM rehearsals. Kingsley sought the opposing viewpoint; one young lady said, “My gawd, I never knew there was such hours, leastways not to be got up by.” Anderson had made a collection of their excuses for being late that he threatened to send to the Smithsonian “to compare ‘em with the excuses of the chorus girls to be found on the Egyptian obelisks.” Some of the better ones were:
blocked by a mob in a shop while trying on a bathing suit;
detained by a stranger to find out if she was a descendent of Lillian Russell;
sprained a leg fighting off a suitor bound to kidnap and marry her and
reading Shakespeare and forgot about the time.
Putting together a touring musical revue was just a continuation of Anderson’s entrepreneurial activities. Born Maxwell Henry Aronson on March 21, 1880, he moved to New York in 1902 and worked in vaudeville. He met director Edwin S. Porter there and in 1903 he was hired for three roles in The Great Train Robbery. The film was such a success that Anderson decided to quit the stage and make pictures. In 1907 he co-founded with George Spoor a company they called Essanay (their initials “S” and “A”) Studios in Chicago. Spoor stayed in Chicago to take care of the business side and Anderson went to Niles, California, because it looked like the Wild West. He made over 300 shorts, and appeared in many of them as Broncho Billy.
He sold his interest in Essanay in 1916 and retired from acting. He undertook several business ventures, including building two theaters in San Francisco, starting a new film production company, and co-founding the Frand Theater Company in New York. So that’s what he was doing in the “effete East” when he got the idea to produce an annual musical revue, like the Ziegfeld Follies.
The Frivolities of 1920 had out-of-town tryout in Providence, Rhode Island in late 1919; according to the New York Clipper it was much too long. After pruning, it played for four weeks in Boston then made its debut on Broadway in January. The Clipper thought it was pretty good: “the play, as witnessed last Thursday night, proved to be an elaborate array of scenery, beautiful costumes and well formed femininity…There is still room for pruning and revision, but taken all in all, it looks as if the dream of an annual Frivolities has been realized.” They also mentioned that Anderson had spent more than $70,000 on it.
Alexander Woollcott in the New York Times had quite a different opinion:
the Anderson production reaches lower levels of vulgarity and laborious coarseness than are yet familiar to the mere patrons of Broadway theaters. Despite its wealth in pretty girls and its prodigality of setting and costume, it would be unfair to test it except by the standards of the older and lower forms of out-of-the-way burlesque houses.
Oh dear, how the poor man was soiled by such goings-on (Kingsley thought those “vulgar” gags from Joseph Rolley and Edward Gallagher were “some of the best war jokes that have been squeezed from the late unpleasantness”). In Los Angeles, it opened to a packed house, and Kingsley enjoyed it:
Richard Bold sang some nice little love ditties, Dolly Best danced, Kitty Kelly and the other thirty-two girls looked, and on the whole it was a pleasant little evening. Nothing musical enough to make the late Patti haunt anybody for spite, nothing epigrammatic enough to cause Oscar Wilde to get wild, but bright and snappy, tuneful, well-costumed and well-girled enough to make it worth anybody’s while to leave home for an evening.
Frivolities continued on to Sacramento in August, where Myra D. Steele neatly summarized the “merry concoction”: “There were girls, songs, girls, comedy, girls, dancing, girls, scenery and more girls.”
The tour ended soon after that. According to film historian David Kiehn, Anderson lost money on his shows. In 1922 he founded the Amalgamated Producing film company but it went out of business in 1923. He moved to San Francisco and lived a quiet life there until 1942, then he followed his daughter Maxine (a casting agent) to Los Angeles. In 1958 he got a special Oscar for his early work in the film industry. In 1964 he went to live at the Motion Picture Country House in Woodland Hills and he died in 1970.
Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum has an annual Broncho Billy Film Festival. This year, due to the current unpleasantness, it will be online, July 24-26. They also have some of his films online here.
Kingsley also enjoyed a comedy this week, with one complaint: “The screen neglects to ascribe any authorship to A Desperate Hero, which is a pity, for the story is well worth the labeling…The subtitles to A Desperate Hero are unusually clever, full of the right sort of pep and carry the plot forward on ripple of laughter. Again we aver that the author’s name should be flickered at least once on the film.”
A sad story is hiding here. The writer of this now lost film was Zelda Crosby. She wrote one more screenplay, Wedding Bells, for Constance Talmadge. She died by suicide in June of the following year. At the time Variety lumped her death in with other scandals that happened in 1921: “it is reported that one of the big men in the industry was responsible in a measure for her taking an overdose of veronal* which caused her death. The chances are that the result of the investigation will bring to light the name of the man and also that there is no legal procedure under which action can be brought against him, but the fact remains that this scandal will add additional fuel to the already roaring blaze sweeping the world against the entire industry.”
That investigation by the New York Medical Examiner, Dr. Charles Norris, found that her death was a suicide after her mother produced a letter. It wasn’t made public, but Norris said in a statement: “the letter clearly indicated that the daughter was despondent and in ill health and was about to take her life. I am satisfied that she committed suicide.” No film executive’s name was mentioned, and after the examiner’s statement other stories distracted the press. Zelda Schuster Crosby was allowed to rest in peace. Poor Zelda. At least Grace Kingsley admired your work.
*Veronal was the brand name of a barbiturate used as a sleep aid.
Broncho Billy Anderson:
David Kiehn, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, 2003.
“Frivolities of 1920 Opens and Scores After Many Mishaps,” New York Clipper, January 14, 1920, p.25
Myra D. Steele, “Girls, Dancing Feature Show,” Sacramento Union, August 16, 1920.
Alexander Woolcott, “The Broncho Billy Follies,” New York Times, January 9, 1920.
Harry Carr, “Maude Adams in Picture,” Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1921.
“Finds Miss Crosby Committed Suicide, ”San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 1921.”
“N.Y. Film Love Victim’s Name Is Disclosed,” New York Times, September 22, 1921.
“World-Wide Condemnation of Pictures as Aftermath of Arbuckle Affair,” Variety, September 23, 1921, p. 46.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an unusual feature that was part of Lew Cody’s recent real estate deal:
Now it’s Lew Cody who has just bought a place on Morgan Hill in Hollywood, with at least fifteen acres. There is also a cellar. The cost to Mr. Cody was something like $50,000, I understand, and there are those who do say that Mr. Cody paid $20,000 for the place and $30,000 for the cellar, but these are probably jealous souls. Mr. Cody admits that he has lately learned how to make a very particular kind of mint julep, and that he had to have a house to fit the julep.
So the law hadn’t even been in effect for one year, and Prohibition was already being laughed at in a gentle gossip column in a family newspaper. It’s amazing that it stayed in effect for so long!
Cody’s house at 1939 Morgan Place (movie stars could still safely list their address in the City Directory) included stables and a barn, so he could have horses and cows ”if Mr. Cody becomes rural enough in his tastes.” His house isn’t there any more, and hordes of houses have been built on those fifteen acres.
In other illicit activity news, Kingsley had a chat with May Allison about her family:
Miss Allison’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown a few weeks ago. She was sent to the hospital and came home somewhat improved, but not as well as her affectionate daughter thought she should be, so she took her to Coranado, never dreaming of anything so wild as a trip to Tia Juana. But when mother heard that all the picture stars were going over, nothing to do but she must take the trip, too, so over she went, and she had such a good time she didn’t get home until the scandalous hour of 10:30 o’clock. But, Miss Allison reports, her mother’s health has been better ever since.
Kingsley didn’t mention if it was the alcohol or the gambling in what was nicknamed Satan’s Playground that cured Nannie Virginia Wise Allison. Maybe it was both.
In addition, May Allison had a telegram from her sister Verda Allison Wright who lived in Tennessee; she’d been appointed to be a delegate to the Democratic Convention which was being held in San Francisco June 28th to July 6th. Miss Allison reported that her mother said “I certainly feel as if I’m an up-to-date mother, with one daughter in the movies and the other in politics. Ah, when a daughter is born nowadays, a mother may look at the babe proudly and remark, “Maybe my daughter will be President of the United States some day!”
Oh, sigh. Progress takes such a long time. At least the first step towards a woman president was taken at that convention, when two women were put forward to be the Democratic candidate for president, Laura Clay and Cora Wilson Stewart. They both got one vote each on the first ballot. After 43 more ballots, James M. Cox was selected and Franklin D. Roosevelt was chosen as his running mate. They went on to lose to Warren Harding in November.