Week of December 8th, 1917

 

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed George Melford, who had just returned from directing the first feature film shot in Hawaii, Hidden Pearls.* Some of the stories he told her wouldn’t encourage others to try it:

On the island of Maui, where we took many scenes, we lived in native huts, which have only the ground for a floor. Here naturally we were pestered with the uncannily big centipedes and spiders, whose bite is not dangerous, and by swarms and swarms of mosquitos which nearly ate us up.

Film people were a hardy bunch. For one “sensational” scene, actress Margaret Loomis was set adrift in a canoe among a swarm of sharks, which she did “without a tremor.” Nevertheless, one of his stories strained credibility:

Members of the company took big chances when they descended with their native guides a goodly distance into the crater of the volcano of Mauna Loa, where on a ledge only twelve feet above the boiling lava a number of scenes were taken. “And hardly had we left the place,” said Melford, “when that ledge tumbled into the boiling mass below.”

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Mauna Loa

Lava’s temperature is between 1,292 to 2,192 degrees Fahrenheit. While film crews often have little regard for their own safety, they and their equipment couldn’t have survived being that close. Furthermore, Mauna Loa is one of the world’s largest volcanoes and it was difficult to get there. People have very odd ideas about volcanoes, but Kingsley might have known better: her widowed sister with whom she was living had been married to a Hawaiian, and had lived there for several years.

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Of course, there were compensations. They were able to shoot beautiful scenes that weren’t “beaten by anything ever shown on the screen.” Local people were hired as extras, and Melford said “never have I found such marvelous natural actors.” The company was royally entertained at several festivals, and they found the feasts and hula “lively.” It was an adventure.

The Hidden Pearls survives at the CNC French Film Archives. Now it’s mostly interesting as a document of what Hawaii looked like then.

Melford went on to have a solid career. He directed many films over the next twenty years, including The Sheik (1921) and the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931). When he retired from directing, he became a character actor, and was part of Preston Sturges’ stock company.

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Fanatics

Kingsley’s favorite film this week also featured a red-hot spectacle

A film story of unusual power and depth (despite its dime-novel title) is The Lure of Wanton Eyes…The plot has a number of threads, but all deftly woven into a most clear, colorful and entertaining plot pattern…A fanatical anarchist is a big figure of the story, and furnishes a highly dramatic moment when in a frenzy of one of his speeches to the millworkers, hurls himself to a spectacular death in the red-molten iron.

The studio changed this lost film’s name to Fanatics (somebody at Triangle must have agreed with her about the title). The story involved an unfaithful husband, murder and revenge.

 

 

It seems like December was a time when weaker films were released. Kingsley’s best line this week summed up one of them: “All the five reels of trouble between husband and wife in Alimony at Tally’s Broadway could have been explained away in about three words.” Unfortunately, the big misunderstanding trope is still alive and well. Second place for best line went to her description of Her Hour: “a story characterized by many sorrows and much wardrobe.” Back in the good old days, people knew the difference between a count noun and a mass noun!

 

She also reported on a new hit song:

Twenty thousand dollars seems a lot of money for one song, but it was the amount received by George M. Cohan for “Over There.” This lively composition is played as an accompaniment to the picture Over There at Tally’s this week.

This was just the beginning of earnings from that song for Mr. Cohan, which has stayed popular for much longer than the film (another recruitment tool about a young man learning the error of his pacifist ways). “Over There” was so significant that when it turned 100 years old, NPR did a story.

 

 

 

*Hawaii’s Film Office mentions some shorts that were filmed there earlier. You can find their list here.

Here’s another photo of Mauna Loa (see the comments):

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The United States Geological Service has a FAQ page, if you’d like more fun facts.

Week of December 1st, 1917

 

One hundred years ago this week, the war continued; on the seventh, the United States declared war on Austria-Hungary. Grace Kingsley gave lots of advanced publicity for the biggest war-related event in entertainment:

Today’s the day–Red Cross Day on the Rialto, when benefit performances will be given at all the theaters, with proceeds to go to the Red Cross. All artists, electricians, box-office employees, ushers and stage hands have given their services to the big cause, and according to present signs, a big sum will be realized.

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Trixie Friganza

While everybody did his or her bit, the hardest working supporter was comedian Trixie Friganza. She sold tickets on the street and by telling Kingsley about her adventures, she provided even more publicity for the event. She wasn’t shy about pressuring people to buy. She recounted one particularly disagreeable back and forth:

“Will you buy a ticket?”

“Red Cross?” he inquired.

“Yes,” she said.

“Not a cent’s worth.”

“You’d better go back to Germany,” she told him.

“Wish I could!” he exclaimed.

Friganza assumed he was a German spy, but he slipped away before the authorities could deal with him. She had more success with another customer. Kingsley wrote:

There was an old grouch “with the corners of his mouth dropping down so far he could hitch his socks to ‘em,” as the joyous Trixie put it. “Say, he was one of those people who wouldn’t pay four bits to see the Lord’s Supper with the original cast—I’ll be he wouldn’t pay a nickel for the Resurrection—I smiled and smiled til it hurt, but he wouldn’t come through. But he had a youngster along with him—a boy—and the kid called out right before the crowd “oh, that’s the funny woman that fell off the roof in Canary Cottage. Oh Grandpa, I wanna go see her fall off the roof.” So the old gentleman who plays so close to the vest loosened up and bought like a good fellow.”

Friganza and her bass.

On they day itself, she did double-duty: she headed the bill at the Orpheum’s morning show, then performed at the Mason Operahouse during the evening show. Kingsley had described her act earlier in the week: “Bringing with her her artistic clumsiness and her carefully-arranged wink, Miss Frigzana presents us with an elaboration of her last season’s act, getting started off better than she did last time, as she introduces some very clever new songs, besides comedying with a big bass viol.”

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New York Times, December 6, 1917

Overall, Red Cross Theater Benefit Day was a success. Nationwide, they collected a total of $97,198.20.* The three Los Angeles theaters brought in about $2,900. However, it was a failure in New York City, despite having many more theaters, they raised only about $2,400.** Theater managers there blamed it on poor publicity. I think it was because they didn’t have Trixie Friganza. Kingsley summed up her effect:

Can you imagine our desolation if Trixie were to go off and be a Red Cross or a Blue Star nurse or anything? Why such a catastrophe would be just like taking the vote away from the American people!

 

Kingsley recommended more comedy to help cope with all of the sad news. She advised:

Whatever something-less days you may have this week, be sure you don’t make this your Sennett-less week! Viewing that gloom-chasing burlesque, An International Sneak, the newest Sennett comedy, which is unwinding joyously at the Sennett Theater, one wishes that all solemn clap-trap and buncombe which is place on the screen as “serious drama” were made over into comedies of the quality of this week’s Sennett, which burlesques with boisterous gaiety the spy photoplays which are so prolific now-a-days.

In particular she praised Chester Conklin, calling him “one of the really original and really droll screen actors of the day, and An International Sneak has a hundred funny bits of “business,” with Conklin putting them over in great style.” He had been working with Sennett since 1913 and went on to have a long career, with parts in such diverse films as Greed (1925), Modern Times (1936) and several Three Stooges shorts. He was also part of Preston Sturges’ stock company in the 1940’s.

 

*”Red Cross Appreciative,” Variety, January 17, 1918, p. 8.

** “Red Cross Matinees Fail to Fill Houses,” New York Times, December 8, 1917, p.13.

Week of November 24th, 1917

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Happy holiday!

Even though the Thanksgiving holiday (November 29th in 1917) brought a slow news week, Kingsley didn’t take time off. She gave her readers some cheerful little stories about the stars.

The last bits of the truly imaginative ballyhoo around Theda Bara were being swept away:

At last Theda Bara has told her real name! Not in reckless confidence, however but to a New York court, and in order to have her stage name legalized. The truth about Miss Bara’s name, as revealed in the proceedings, is that it is Theodosia Goodman…And however could a person with such a nice, innocent name as Theodosia Goodman ever expect to become a high-power vampire? The court took one look at Miss Bara and decided that Theodosia wasn’t the name for her at all.

Kingsley also mentioned that Miss Bara was born in Cincinnati, not in the Sahara Desert under the eye of the Sphinx, etc.

Now I suspect the name Theodosia will have a revival, as we all sing along with Mr. Odom.

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I couldn’t find a photo of him bundled up.

According to a recent Stuff you Missed in History Class podcast on Lon Chaney, he wanted to keep his private life out of the press. However, Kingsley managed to run a story that didn’t intrude on that at all:

It was one of those warm days last week, and the scene was the café at Universal City. Enter Lon Chaney for his noon pork-and-bean rations, clad in heavy Eskimo clothing and perspiring freely. ‘What’s the matter, Lon?’ called out a friend. ‘Well,’ said Lon, ‘the matter is I’m in Alaska—but I don’t know it!

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Natalie, Constance and Norma Talmadge

Norma Talmadge revealed one way to keep the audience in their seats. She told Kingsley that when she and her sisters were little “we used to give shows in our cellar. Constance and Natalie and I, we had a very good way of keeping our audiences in until the show was finished. We simply locked the door.”

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Regenerates, which was “surprisingly human and natural, and more than this, it has a fresh and ingenious plot, and there is hardly a superfluous foot of film in the whole thing.” She used it as a stick to beat up other films:

One hardly ever enters the theater with the idea of seeing logic or good sense or naturalness portrayed—that is, one doesn’t expect or demand them. Wherefore, when a picture appears in which characters act like reasonable human beings, viz., sin a bit, repent a bit, love a bit, hate a bit, are sometimes wise and sometimes foolish, and otherwise refuse to be either incarnate virtue or incarnate vice, one registers surprise.

Now the plot summary sounds like it was anything but natural (which just shows what the other films Kingsley was watching were like). It’s so convoluted that it defies summation, so here’s what the AFI Catalog says:

Mynderse Van Dyun, a wealthy old New York aristocrat, has one goal in life, to see his granddaughter Catherine and grandson Pell married; for, although they are cousins, the marriage would perpetuate the family name. Catherine, however, is in love with Paul La Farge and detests her drug-addicted cousin, who seduces and then secretly marries her maid, Nora Duffy. After a son is born to Nora, who dies in childbirth, the infant is taken to the Van Dyun house where, only a few days before, Pell, in a dispute involving drugs, had been thrown from a window by his valet and killed. When the old man refuses to acknowledge the child, Catherine and Paul adopt the baby, leave the Van Dyun house and are married. Five years later, Catherine comes to visit the old man with his great-grandson, and, seeing what a fine boy he is, the old aristocrat is forced to admit that the boy is worthy of bearing his name.

It’s been preserved at the Library of Congress and at the Eastman House.

 

 

Week of November 17th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noted that an unusual documentary film was still playing:

Birth seems in for a run at the Majestic, the third week commencing yesterday. Women are intensely interested in these vital facts of life as portrayed in the film, and while a few may come out of morbid curiosity to view the scene wherein a life is brought into the world, most of them go out of a real desire to learn how to care for the youngsters that are theirs or that they hope for.

She had gone into more detail in her initial review on November 5th:

Oh screen, what thrill is there left for you? Yesterday at the Majestic, a crowd of women which packed the theater gasped as they witnessed a real birth on the screen! It was no half-lighted affair, either, but a whole breath-taking business in a clear light…Despite the frankness of the film, there is, after all, nothing revolting about the picture, at least, to a woman, for, after all, it is merely a part of the great drama of nature. In fact, the whole thing is only a common sense revelation which it will do no harm to any woman to view.

The film’s advertising did emphasize the sensational scene, but all of the reviewers agreed with Kingsley: it was primarily an educational film. Keeping men out seems to have been a successful promotional gimmick. After a few days into the Los Angeles run, the theater allowed the audience to vote on letting men in; they overwhelming voted “yes” so men were admitted but they had to sit in the balcony.

 

In 1917 there were no restrictions on showing childbirth on film; that wasn’t forbidden until the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect in 1930. In 1938, there was a much bigger fuss among censors over a similar film, Birth of a Baby, a documentary mostly about prenatal care. Despite being endorsed by the AMA, the YWCA, the U.S. Public Health Service and Eleanor Roosevelt it couldn’t get a seal from the Hayes Office and it was forbidden by some city and state censorship boards.

birthNYad

Now every episode of Call the Midwife presents realistic-looking childbirth scenes, but something about the film that Kingsley didn’t mention is much more disturbing: it was made by the Eugenic Film Company. The eugenics movement wanted to make “better babies.” If their goal was to improve infant health through excellent pre- and postnatal care, as Birth advocated, that would have been great. However, they strove to improve humanity through selective breeding and prevent “the unfit” from reproducing. It led to compulsory sterilization laws that mostly affected poor, nonwhite and mentally disabled women. California was a leader; by 1921 80% of all forced sterilizations were happening here. The movement is mostly now associated with inspiring Nazi death camps.

 

Kingsley spoke to director Chet Whithey, who was “fervently glad to be back on the western Broadway,” because studios in New York were more crowded and photographing on the streets was nearly impossible. He said, “it all resolves itself into tipping the cops with one hand and keeping you limousine-enclosed camera away from the crowd with the other. The wealthy people are not so nice about permitting their property to be used as are the western millionaires.”

Despite the problems, he had gotten good results and his film Nearly Married was Kinglsey’s favorite this week. An “airy soap bubble of comedy,” it involves a divorcing couple trying to reconcile, but they’re thwarted by a professional co-respondent, legal quirks and other complications. She thought, “all the honey of humor has been extracted from the comedy flower.” It’s been preserved at the Library of Congress.

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Brownie Vernon told Kingsley a story about her the hazards of shooting on location in downtown L.A. for Fear Not. She needed to make a costume change, so she ran into a building.

She went into a back room, empty apparently except for some long cases, and locked the door. As she proceeded to dress Miss Vernon’s eyes became accustomed to the light, she also discerned there was an odor of drugs in the place, and then glancing around she discovered a man lying in one of the cases. This was awfully embarrassing to Brownie. Then she saw another man occupying another of the boxes. She was blushing a deep crimson by this time. Suddenly she realized that all these men were ‘dead ones’!

Without any lost motion whatsoever she seized her garments and tore out of the gruesome place. The other members of the company, waiting outside, caught only a fleeting glimpse of the young actress as she dived into a nearby limousine. There were no dead men in the machine—but neither were there live ones—and Brownie completed her toilette in the car she usurped.

At first, she thought she had discovered a wholesale order of crime, but on going around to the front door of the house she had invaded the mystery was quickly explained. A sign in the window read: “Blank and Blank, Undertakers.”

Modern actors with trailers to change in have no idea. This didn’t put Agnes “Brownie” Vernon off of adventures; a few years later she moved to Australia to make a few films in their nascent industry.

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A Country Hero

Kingsley had a report about another star’s challenges at Balboa Studio from the set of A Country Hero:

“Fatty” Arbuckle had two chairs and an upright piano broken over him while carrying on a stage fight with five men. But as “Fatty” is his own director and instigator of most of his own film troubles, he has only himself to blame.

Anything for his art might have been his motto. A Country Hero is a lost film, but a contemporary review says there’s a scene with lots of furniture getting smashed, including a piano. Lea at Silent-ology gives a round-up of what’s known about the film.

 

Kinglsey’s best line this week was in a review of A Painted Madonna: “according to moving pictures, a girl has only to make up her mind to lure men to their doom and to get a lot of money while she is about it, to have the thing an accomplished fact.”

So there was a second educational movie playing in Los Angeles this week! Here’s some trivia: the woman who played that painted Madonna was billing herself as Sonia Markova, a Russian actress. She was actually Chicago-born Grace Barrett, who usually acted under the name Gretchen Hartman. She’d been acting in films since 1911, but some of the press bought her temporary name change. She married actor Alan Hale in 1914, and they stayed married until his death in 1950. They had three children, including Alan Jr. Yes, the Skipper’s mom once lured men to their doom.

 

 

Week of November 10th, 1917

menu

smallsuet1917 Thanksgiving menu for Camp Williams, France, from the George C. Marshall Foundation Library. It’s not radically different from a 2017 menu, except for the dessert: suet pudding instead of pumpkin pie. Suet pudding involves suet (beef or mutton fat), flour, bread crumbs, raisins, and spices (it sounds nicer when its called Spotted Dick or plum pudding).

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was reporting on stars’ plans for the upcoming holiday:

Despite the war and the various vicissitudes of life, the picture play people are planning to enjoy themselves at Thanksgiving time. Their Hooverizing* for the most part will take the form of expansive hospitality.

Most of them were looking forward to a big meal with their friends and families, including Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Gish sisters. However, some had alternate plans:

  • Both Tom Mix and William S. Hart were arranging big dinners for their film companies;
  • Dorothy Phillips, who had been working night and day, was looking forward to spending the day at home, thankful for a little extra sleep;
  • Franklyn Farnum and Gladys Brockwell both intended to go hunting;
  • Edith Storey wanted to continue her custom of taking a long hike, then dining wherever she found herself;
  • The Fox kiddies (Virginia Corbin, Violet Radcliffe, Francis Carpenter) “all declared in a chorus they meant to just eat all day long—but their parents bring me private information to the contrary;”
  • Lon Chaney planned to treat his wife to a café dinner.

 

 

The war was affecting some peoples’ festivities:

  • Triangle Studios was sponsoring benefit shows for patriotic charities featuring their stars, including Texas Guinan, William Desmond and Alma Reuben;
  • Mary Pickford hoped to dine with the 600 soldiers she “adopted” at Camp Kearny;
  • “Jackie Sunders, though lonely without the brother who has gone to the front, will try and keep Popper and Mommer Saunders from thinking about it.”

Finally, only one star was willing to admit how Los Angeleians really spend the day: Viola Dana “intends to stay out of doors as much of the day as she has left over from dinner, and look at the snow-clad mountains and gloat over the fact she doesn’t have to trot around in the New York slush.”

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Outsider:

A barrage of mystery surrounding a plot is the proper thing nowadays on both stage and screen, and The Outsider has one guessing from start to finish…it tells of robbers robbing other robbers, and has as many ingenious twists as a Sherlock Holmes story.

She thought it was “the best picture Metro has shown in many moons.” She also mentioned “by the way there is a lot of beautiful photography in this picture.” Unfortunately, it was cinematographer John M. Bauman’s second to last film. A former Thanhouser cameraman, after he shot Life’s Whirlpool (1917) he quit the film business and went to work as a salesman for the Storage Battery Company. I guess good reviews don’t pay the bills. Happily, The Outsider survives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

 

 

In her review of A Mormon Maid, Kingsley used the cinematography to deliver a frank opinion about the rest of the film: “there is some bewilderingly beautiful photography in the picture—so lovely, in fact, that it almost takes your mind off the story.” That might seem like an exaggeration until you learn that the DP was Charles Rosher, and unlike poor Mr. Bauman, he went on to have a spectacular career. He soon became Mary Pickford’s chief cameraman, and he and Karl Struss won the first cinematography Oscar for their work on Sunrise (1927). Later he shot Technicolor films like Showboat (1951) and The Yearling (1946), for which he won his second Oscar.

 

 

On Saturday, Douglas Fairbanks and his A Modern Musketeer company returned from a location shoot at the Grand Canyon. Director Allan Dwan told of Fairbanks’ first impression:

“Oh, I’m so disappointed!”

“Disappointed? Why?” asked Dwan.

“Because I can’t jump it,” explained Fairbanks.

If anyone could, it would have been him.

 

 

Kingsley told of one star’s sensible plan for keeping nervous drivers off the road. Louise Fazenda:

owns a fine automobile, but she is afraid to run it. ‘I just let it stand in front of my bungalow so folks will know I own one,’ she confided, ‘but when I want to ride, I hire a machine with a chauffeur attached.’

If only more bad drivers did the same!

 

*Herber Hoover at that time was in charge of the U.S. Food Administration, and he was calling on all Americans to economize on food for the war effort.

 

Week of November 3rd, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, D.W Griffith returned to Los Angeles from his trip to France and England and he dominated Grace Kingsley’s columns. She went to the station Friday evening to meet his train, and “he looked as calm and freshly groomed as though he had just returned from a tea party, instead of having taken part in the tremendous action being staged ‘over there.’” Of course he gave her an interview and described what he’d seen:

I was within fifty yards of the Roches, on the Ypres front, at one time. How did I feel? Well, I was so frightened I didn’t know what was happening. Yes, I was actually under fire, and men were killed within a few feet of me. I wore the war helmet and the gas mask. At one time we were in a dugout, with a big gun, and even as we were leaving the long range guns were trained on the spot, and the gun was shot to pieces in a few minutes.

Kevin Brownlow has seen footage of Griffith at Ypres, and described it in his book The War The West and the Wilderness (p. 144). It doesn’t quite match Griffith’s story:

The center of Ypres by 1917 has been so heavily shelled that the cathedral-like Cloth Hall has been blasted to a slender Islamic minaret. The other buildings, too, have been knocked into such extraordinarily delicate fingers of stone that there seems no way for them to remain vertical. Into this chilling scene steps a tall, jaunty figure in a smart tweed suit of an English cut, a bow-tie—and a tin hat. It is David War Griffith…

Griffith, dressed for a grouse shoot, appears to be on a thoroughly pleasant outing in the midst of the bloodiest war in history.

Maybe the camera was off when they were under fire? Kingsley asked Griffith how he thought the war would end and he was accurate:

I could make a lot of prophecies, but I won’t. I’ll merely say that I feel sure that even if Russia drops out for the time being and Italy is beaten, Great Britain, France and the United States will win the war.

sfquarterly Griffith gave lots of interviews about his trip, and several of them have been collected in the Silent Film Quarterly, Spring 2017.

Kingsley also asked if the rest of the company was frightened, and he answered “Yes I guess they were pretty frightened, and Dorothy said if the soldiers were as scared as she was when she heard those cannon they’d all run into the sea and that would be the end of the war.” Sensible Dorothy! On Monday Kingsley let the Gish sisters speak for themselves, and they told her:

 

We passed through village after village which were partially demolished, but the inhabitants were living very contentedly*  in the undestroyed parts of the towns…We traveled in automobiles, and there was a constant stream of travel, going in both directions—soldiers, ambulances, horses, cannon, trucks and trucks of provisions and ammunition.

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Lillian and Dorothy Gish

But the air raids in London were much more exciting. A bomb burst just a short distance from the Savoy Hotel, where we were stopping, at 12 o’clock one night, just as we were retiring. It struck a trolley car and killed a dozen people…And in the morning, we found a ‘dud’ under the windows of the Savoy. If that bomb had done its duty, we wouldn’t be here to tell the tale!”

“You feel ashamed,” explained Lillian, “to think of your own petty ambitions in the face of all that. I wonder if after this war, the women of the whole world won’t rise in their might and declare there shall never be war any more?”

 

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It’s a shame her prediction didn’t come true, too. By Tuesday Kingsley was reporting that Griffith was back to work and planning to shoot some additional scenes for his war film, maybe at the Lasky studio. Then on Thursday Kingsley wrote that he was planning to build his own studio, probably at LaBrea and De Longpre, near to Chaplin’s. He was in talks with an architect, and it was to be up-to-date in every particular. He never did build a new studio in Los Angeles; instead he used the stages at his old Fine Art studio three miles away from La Brea. He didn’t build his own studio until 1919, in in Mamaroneck, New York.

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Scarlet Pimpernel

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Scarlet Pimpernel:

 Those of us who in other days chewed our fingernails and panted over the exciting scenes of the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel will be delighted with its excitements as transferred to the screen by Dustin Farnum, Winifred Kingston, William Burress and company…A fundamentally intriguing and effectively staged photodrama this, with much excellent photography to its credit.

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That excellent photography was by Dev Jennings, who went on to be Buster Keaton’s chief cameraman. You can learn all sorts of things about him in my book, Buster Keaton’s Crew. (every home should have one!)

 

 

Kingsley gave a moral to the story that I hadn’t considered before: it “only goes to show that when you join the Knights of Pythias or the Elks, you’d better let you wife know about it.” This was first filmed version of Orczy’s novel. According to the IMDB, there have been 4 other versions completed and 3 more are currently in development. Those Frenchies will be seeking him everywhere for a long time. This version, however, is a lost film.

Kingsley related a story from “Rosalie Ashton, the clever young scenario writer at Fox Studio.” She had gotten a job application:

I am a young man of 24, five feet eleven in perfectly good stockinged feet, weigh 150 pounds, typical young American of the Douglas Fairbanks type, and my friends tell me I am robbing the screen if I do not get into the movies. I am an aesthetic dancer, light and graceful on said feet. Won’t you please give me a chance to prove that I can act?

Miss Ashton answered:

My Dear Sir: We regret to advise that at the present writing there is no vacancy…However, permit me to say that our beloved Uncle Sam is badly in need of virile, health young Americans of about five feet eleven inches, in good physical condition, and, since you are so light and graceful on your feet, you would be adept in dodging bullets.

However, the joke was on her. The day after that story appeared, Ashton was getting her own chance to serve her country: she’d been asked to go the France to be an interpreter for the government. She left for Washington, D.C. the next day. Fate laughs at smart-alecks.

Rosalie Ashton was a former New York Times and magazine writer who had a brief screenwriting career in the late teens. She co-wrote films like The Undertow, Humility and The Trail That Leads Nowhere. She wasn’t an interpreter for the government for very long: in February 1918 she was hired by Goldwyn’s scenario department.

 

*I’m guessing that might not have been the word the French people would have used.

Week of October 27th, 1917

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Legion of Death (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley paid a visit to the set of an unusual big-budget war film, Legion of Death:

Hup Forward—march! No, it wasn’t any sturdy captain of the Sammies who gave the command, but a slim slip of a woman—Edith Storey, and she was giving her command to still other slim slips of women, a whole drove of them, clad in neat khaki and managing to look like real soldiers instead of chorus girls as one might fear…

Right into a trench Miss Storey marched her feminine cohorts, and then—the battle began. And those girls knew how to use their rifles and bayonets! It was a marvelous sight. They fought like demons with their mock enemies; and pretty soon their pretty caps were all askew, there were actual bloodstains on their faces, and a very real gleam of battle lust in their eyes.

Writer June Mathis (Ben-Hur, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) based Legion on the first women’s combat battalion in modern history. Kingsley said they were planning “a powerful drama of a Russian woman patriot and the formation of the now famous ‘Battalion’ which undoubtedly saved Russia from German invasion during the revolution that shook the world’s largest empire from end to end and resulted in the overthrow of the Romanoff dynasty.”

 

Kingsley talked to the director, Tod Browning, and just like De Mille and Griffith, he emphasized the lengths they were going to for authenticity in his epic film. An army lieutenant trained the actresses to march and carry arms properly. They weren’t allowed to wear wigs: they had to cut off their hair, just like the soldiers did (these clever ladies made the producers pay their salaries before their hair was shorn). Browning demanded real Russian people as extras for the big street and battle scenes; they were so authentic that they didn’t speak any English so he had to hire seven translators. Danny Hogan, the Chief of Properties, couldn’t find what he needed for a Russian palace in stores, so he borrowed a carload of furniture from the Italian Ambassador. All of this added up to “a feature which promises to be the most timely, unique and spectacular picture which Metro has even produced” according to Kingsley.

 

All of their realism didn’t extend to the story, of course. Edith Storey played a princess with a love interest who founds the group, gets captured after a defeat, but is freed to live happily ever after. The real Battalion was proposed by Maria Bochkareva, a decorated front-line fighter who was born to a peasant family. Her goal was to shame Russian male soldiers who were tired of fighting Germans after three years. Minister of War Alexander Kerensky agreed, and allowed Bochkareva to train and lead 300 female recruits as the First Women’s Battalion of Death. They were sent to the front where they were resented by the male soldiers. Even though they performed well in combat, Bochkareva had to disband the unit after a few months because they were treated so badly by their fellow troops. She wrote a memoir in 1919 called Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile. She was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1920. You can read more about the Battalion on the History Buff blog.

 

Kingsley didn’t get to review the finished film, but her co-worker Antony Anderson thought it was “a Metro triumph.” The reason you may have never heard of this epic is because it’s a lost film. A new version of the story, Batalon, was made in Russia in 2015.

 

The Legion/Battalion was so famous at the time that they got mentioned in a much more lighthearted story Kingsley reported this week. Actor Jack Mulhall was in a downtown L.A. department store trying on a ladies corset for an upcoming role, and he told her:

just as they had me all trussed up in a twin-six, ball bearing, 1917 model steel cage somebody yelled fire…Miserable as I was, I forgot all about the corset and made a dash for the street. Outside I met a friend. “What’s the idea?” he demanded gazing at the corset which I had tried on over my trousers and shirt, “going to war?” Just then along came a girl I knew, and I instantly decided I preferred cremation to meeting her, so back I dashed to the corset department. Yes, I’ve worn ‘em in three scenes now—and, believe me, I don’t know that the Legion of Death was making so much of a sacrifice when it took of its corsets and went to war!

The film was called Madame Spy, and it concerned a young man who goes undercover as a baroness to learn the secrets of a German spy ring. Exhibitor’s Herald thought “Jack Mulhall as an impersonator of the fair sex is quite good,” but the story was padded (February 9, 1918).

 

Kinglsey had a happy surprise while watching her favorite film this week, The Co-respondant: the heroine acts with “straightforward sensibleness uncommon in screen heroines” and the hero “contrary to all screen ethics, behaves like a sensible human being.” The film told the story of a star woman reporter (Elaine Hammerstein*) who, in her youth, was almost dragged into an illicit relationships with a ‘rounder.’ Now the cad’s wife has named her as the co-respondent in her divorce case. Complications, including a libel case, false identity and threats of ruin ensue, but her current love (Wilfred Lucas) believes her side of the story implicitly and fights the cad as soon as he can, while the heroine types it up for an article. Kingsley said:

it is a picture play of such tense and deep-rooted human drama that in the development of its big central situation you sit quite breathless; yet it is played so naturally, there is such an utter lack of forced situation, its train of events is so entirely logical, one seems to be looking on a cross-section of life itself. Maybe you don’t believe this. I don’t blame you if you do not; but just go to the Superba and see for yourself.

You can’t go to the Superba Theater any more, but a fragment of the film exists at the Library of Congress.

quinnthursday

marsh_sunshine
Mae Marsh, Sunshine Alley

Kingsley mentioned that J.A. Quinn, the owner of Quinn’s Rialto Theater, announced that the new Mae Marsh film Sunshine Alley would absolutely play for only one week, and he’d add midnight showings on the last days if needed. Curious, I had a look at the Rialto ads to see if he did. They didn’t tell me: I had completely forgotten that in 1917, films ran continuously and the audience came in whenever they wanted to. So I wondered when film ads in the LA Times began to include starting times. Except for some Cinerama shows, it wasn’t until 1962! So if you really want to re-create the film going experience of earlier times, pick a random chapter on your DVDs and start there.

 

 

 

*She was the songwriter’s cousin.