One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley inadvertently helped a major studio divert attention from a questionable business practice. She reported on Jesse L. Lasky’s (Paramount’s first vice president) announcement that they were instituting “selective booking”:
a new policy in the making and distribution of Paramount and Artcraft pictures, which promises to result in even a wider circulation of these pictures than before, and a use of even greater care in the selection of the production work itself. Motion pictures are not bits of machinery, but represent today a medium of free artistic expression…Each picture [will] stand on its own merit before the exhibitors and the public.
Selective booking was simple: exhibitors got to rent only the films they wanted to. Lasky promised that it would improve the quality of films, because exhibitors would chose the good ones and producers couldn’t sell bad ones, so they wouldn’t make them.
Kingsley didn’t quote all of his remarks, but Moving Picture World (June 28, 1919) published more of them and she wisely left off some wild over-promises. He said:
each production released under the Selective Booking Plan will have been created as a unit by itself. From now on, unlimited time, money and facilities will be accorded the producers of each film. For the first time in the history of the motion picture, genius will be given absolute and unlimited opportunity to assert itself. The directors will be working months in advance of release dates and the baneful element of haste will be eliminated.
Of course, that wasn’t true. However, unlimited time and money usually aren’t good for films or any other creative enterprise – limitations can help curb self-indulgence!
Noted exhibitor Sid Grauman though it was a terrific idea, saying to the Los Angeles Herald (June 17, 1919): “I believe Paramount-Artcraft corporation, by introducing the selective booking system, is doing more for the exhibitor, the producer and the photoplay industry at large than can at this time be realized.”
Paramount did a lot of publicity about their new plan, including taking out a multi-page ad in Moving Picture World explaining it. They included a list of the recent and soon to be completed films were going to be released under the plan:
However, this wasn’t actually how Paramount was releasing most of its films. In 1918 they had begun to introduce block booking. The studio had the biggest stars under contract, and according to Richard Koszarski:
Paramount was able to insist that prospective exhibitors interested in, say, the Pickford films, acquire them in large blocks along with a quantity of less attractive titles. These block-booking arrangements typically included groups of from 13 to 52 or even 104 titles. Paramount salesmen offered a variety of different product lines, from the top-quality Artcraft releases of Pickford, Fairbanks, and Hart to the more modest Realart productions, in which stars such as Bebe Daniels were being developed. Because these films had not yet been produced, exhibitors were required to “buy blind” from a sketchy prospectus or campaign book.
Other studios followed their example and by the 1930’s it was standard operating procedure. Block booking guaranteed an outlet for everything a studio made, and exhibitors had to take the risks. They were forced to end the practice after the Supreme Court found that it violated anti-trust laws and outlawed it with their decision in the United States v. Paramount case in 1948.
Kingsley enjoyed an unusual film this week:
A picture which I predict will prove something of a sensation before the week is out is Super-Strategy, which is likewise rather an oddity in pictures…We are so used, a lot of us, to remembering those stories of the Bible, supremely rich in drama as they are, as factors in our young Sunday-school lives, either to be avoided, or, on the feat of memorizing the same, to be rewarded with beflowered tickets. In Super-Strategy a number of these same stories have been put to amazingly vivid, dramatic, and at the same time entirely appealing human film form by the director of this unique photoplay. We had forgotten, for instance, how full of drama is the triangular story of Abraham, Sarah, his wife, and Pharaoh; and maybe we never realized how tender is the story of Joseph’s love for Mary, how tragic the incident of his finding her with child. The crucifixion, too, and the resurrection are managed without a trace of clap-trap such as too often mars attempts of this sort in the films.
She admitted, “the whole story is necessarily episodic, but each episode is tremendously absorbing and a human story in itself.”
She was wrong in her prediction: Super Strategy was more of an oddity than a sensation. During its 1918 release in New York it was called Restitution, and the critics there didn’t like it. Peter Milne in Motion Picture News wrote, “such a weird conglomeration of historical data new interpretations of Biblical records, marvelous though quite plainly mechanical scenic effects, and wildly imaginative, almost childish ideas assembled in the span of any number of reels has certainly never been seen before. What the producers have aimed to show is that his Satanic Majesty has been responsible for all the wrong in the world.” (June 15, 1918) Robert C. McElravy in Moving Picture World couldn’t pan the Bible, but he didn’t like the picture: “this subject is one of tremendous scope and many excellences, but its entertainment value is questionable.” (June 8, 1918)
Super-Strategy was the only production of the Mena Film Company. The company’s officers were part of the Bible Student movement, a faction of which changed its name to Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. In 1914 other Bible Students had produced an eight-hour film presenting their beliefs entitled The Photo-Drama of Creation, but the 1918 film was aimed at a more mainstream audience. They hired Hollywood actors and cameramen and selected Howard Gaye to direct. He was most famous for playing Christ in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, and he reprised the role in this. This was the only movie he directed, then he went back to acting. It’s a lost film.
Once again, Kingsley proved she was a pro: she turned the trivial tidbit that Roscoe Arbuckle had moved into the house on West Adams in Silverlake recently vacated by Theda Bara into a whole column that worried he might become highbrow due to the lady’s lingering influence. It was remarkably silly. She wrote:
There have been awful rumors that “Fatty” is slowly but surely sinking from the estate of a rude, two-fisted guy with a wicked wallop in his right and a preference for near beers over pink teas, into a cultured state just too darned refined for anything…No more wild, rude games of poker! Instead Caruso on the Victrola! No busting of Mrs. Miner’s [the house owner’s] best china as an outlet for joyous, man-like emotions—but a little stroll in the tiny Japanese garden.
However, all was not lost: he had installed a punching bag in the side garden. The I Am Not A Stalker blog has several recent photos of the house, and it’s gorgeous.
Richard Koszarski. An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. 1990.