One hundred years ago this week, an actor chose an unusual scene to tell Grace Kingsley about from the religious film he was currently working on:
The famous character of the Drain Man is being played by Jack Curtis, who says he has always longed to appear in that big role. But as a fly comes with every box of ointment in the world, so Mr. Curtis didn’t relish crawling through that noisome bit of sewer in Chinatown last week, and art might have gone hang for all of him when it came to playing the scene in the drain where a hundred rats were his co-actors. However, he went through the scene bravely though he says he found the rats altogether too enthusiastic in their energetic desire to play their parts thoroughly, with the result the battle he had with the creatures is very realistic indeed.
I imagine the crew enjoyed their surroundings just as much. The project was The Servant in the House, the film version of a well-known play, and the director Jack Conway was doing his best to make it cinematic by including “certain features of the play, merely suggested in the stage version, which lend themselves to fairly sensational and spectacular effect” like actually showing the symbolic sewer (what a treat!)
Servant told the story of Robert, the Drain Man, who sacrificed for his brother Bill’s education that allowed him to become a vicar. Robert then grew resentful of Bill and the church. Bill’s bishop, disguised as a servant (with a startling resemblance to Christ), visits and effects a reconciliation. The sewer is beneath the church and it needs cleaning up – that’s where the rats come in.
This early publicity proved to be very much too early: the film wasn’t released until late 1920 because it was caught up in litigation as Triangle Films fell apart. According to Photoplay, Harry Orville Davis, the company’s vice-president and general manager, sued for breach of contract, wanting to recover $83,000 in back salary. They compromised; Davis surrendered his 100,000 shares of stock and his interest in the corporation in exchange for the exclusive rights to Servant.* He sold it to the Film Booking Office, which released it through independent exchanges.
When it finally did come out, Kingsley thought it was exceptional. “Once in a while some free soul among the picture makers throws off the shackles of tradition, arises and produces an epoch-making picture. That’s what Jack Conway did…So delicate is the treatment of the spiritual influence of a mystic and mysterious servant in a household divided against itself, that it would appear to be a difficult subject for the screen. But in the transcription Jack Conway proves himself to be an artist.” It’s now a lost film.
Jack Conway had a long and successful career. He was a contract director at MGM from 1925-1948, so while you might not know his name, you probably know the names of the films he directed, like Red Headed Woman (1932) Tale of Two Cities (1935) and Dragon Seed (1944).
H.O. Davis produced one more film, The Silent Call, in 1921. Then he left the film industry and became the editor of the Ladies Home Journal for a year. After that he was the Pacific Regional Director of Hearst Newspapers. He briefly tried retirement, then he worked on the executive council of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He and his wife Laura later moved to Palm Desert where he bought and operated two date gardens. They celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary in 1964.** He died later that year.
This week, Kingsley was back to writing film reviews. Antony Anderson was still writing about the “notable” films like William S. Hart’s Wolves of the Rail, but she got to cover Madame Du Barry (a Theda Bara drama), The Fibbers (a Bryant Washburn comedy) and The Beauty and the Rogue (Mary Miles Minter’s best film “in a long time”). She liked Du Barry best, because Bara’s performance was so strong – she went from from “the elfish, witty, adorably natural and ingenious Du Barry of the early scenes” to her end, with unforgettable “terror in her eyes as she looks about on the sea of unfriendly faces, as the crowds thrust her up to the guillotine.” Kingsley summed it up as “a masterpiece of Miss Bara.”
Kingsley reported that two Orange County cities, Santa Ana and Anaheim, were competing to be the new home for Roscoe Arbuckle’s studio, and both were offering to build it for him. She mentioned that his production company spent an estimated $300,000 to make eight comedies per year (I hadn’t seen a cost estimate before). She speculated that Santa Ana might have an edge, because Arbuckle had spent some of his childhood there. It was just like states offering tax incentives to film productions now. However, neither city won: Arbuckle chose to move to Edendale (now called Echo Park) not far from downtown Los Angeles. Kingsley didn’t mention why he wanted to leave his current studio site in Long Beach.
Kingsley wrote that Charlie Chaplin had led a tour of his studio for a group of sailors, and “not one feature of the big studio was left unexplained by the artist.” Even more remarkably: “the welcome sign has been hung out at the Chaplin plant for all of Uncle Sam’s soldiers and sailors. In the future they will be permitted to visit the new studios, either singly or in a body, after 4:30 every afternoon.” Can you imagine a modern film studio doing that now?
* “Plays and Players,” Photoplay, May 1919, p.90.
**”Birthday, Wedding Anniversary Feted,” Desert Sun, July 28, 1964.