An Unbeatable Second Act: Week of January 15th, 1921

Justine Johnstone

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had to find words to discuss yet another showgirl turned movie actress:

It’s a darned slow week on Film Row that doesn’t see some beauteous lady from the Follies making her debut. Justine Johnstone, one of the prettiest of them all, is who appears for the first time in pictures at Clune’s Broadway this week. She debuts in a crook drama called Blackbirds.

Miss Johnstone has great beauty and grace, and while she never risks spoiling her face for the sake of getting drama over, she nevertheless seems possessed of an innate sense of expressiveness. The fans were out in numbers to get their first look at her yesterday.

What a polite way to call her a bad actress! However, the now-lost movie really wasn’t any good. Kingsley’s word was “shopworn,” and she gave a full description of the plot:

As for Blackbirds, this is another case of a forgiven lady. The heroine starts out as a high-class crook, though chemically pure withal. She confines her naughtiness to hooking and smuggling diamonds and rare paintings from Europe; but reforms, saying a little prayer to the Virgin Mary in a painting she is about to steal, just as the detective hero comes upon her, so that he knows her repentance is genuine.*

What Kingsley, and nobody, could have known at the time was what an interesting career Johnstone was to have after she quit acting. Before she went into film, her resume was unsurprising for a Ziegfeld Follies star. Born in 1895 in New Jersey, at fifteen she was discovered by a Broadway press agent, Walter Kingsley (no relation), when she was on her way to a modeling job. She made her Broadway debut in a show called The Blue Bird. After a second show flopped, she went back to school and graduated in 1914. She got hired by Flo Ziegfeld to be in his Watch Your Step (1914) (with Vernon and Irene Castle) and his 1915 and 1916 editions of Follies. The press called her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” In 1917 Lee Shubert produced Over The Top for her to star in (it also featured the Broadway debuts of Fred and Adele Astaire). She married former production assistant and World War 1 aviator Walter Wanger in 1919, and they both went into film: he as a producer at Paramount and she as an actress.

Justine Johnstone and Walter Wanger

By 1926 she got tired of the roles she was being offered, so she quit. However, unlike so many of these stories, she neither disappeared into the domestic sphere nor succumbed to substance abuse or some other sort of tragedy. Instead she audited classes at the Pharmacology Department of Columbia University and found a new job there: medical researcher. She became part of the team that developed the IV drip and a cure for syphilis, and she was a co-author of peer-reviewed papers about their discoveries. In 1931 she moved with her husband to Los Angeles, where he continued to produce films and she went to work at Cal Tech, assisting with oncology research. He was a chronic philanderer, and she divorced him in 1938.

She continued her scientific work, and also contributed to social and political causes, like finding work for blacklisted writers, fighting for women’s equality, and raising money for hunger campaigns. Newspaper writers tried to interview her after her career change, but she politely declined. She didn’t think she had anything to say that was interesting, and she enjoyed her privacy. She died in 1982 of congestive heart failure.

Published by McFarland

She had a great second act! Such a varied and interesting life deserves a biography and in 2018 she got one, written by Kathleen Vestuto. She summed up her subject this way: “she sought out challenges and enjoyed hard work.” The reviewers on Good Reads think it’s a fine book.

*Somebody must have said something to Kingsley about her habit of spoiling the endings of movies, because in this review she justified it:

I don’t feel that I’m really giving anything away in telling the end of the story, inasmuch as nobody outside an Eskimo or South Sea Islander or two will but guess the outcome from the beginning.

What Does Quebec Want?: Week of January 8th 1921

Unless you’re in Quebec

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that an old-fashioned story still had the power to shock censors:

Just what the Province of Quebec, in Canada, wants in their way of film entertainment, it is hard to say, but the fact remains that the Board of Censors there has pronounced against Griffith’s Way Down East, according to word just received. In the meantime thirteen Way Down East prints are doing a business of $191,00 per week in this country. So D.W. Griffith probably isn’t worrying.

Griffith did worry about it enough to issue a statement through his general manager, Albert L. Grey:

“The news that the Quebec censors have condemned Way Down East seems on the face of its record in this country so absurd that I scarcely know what to say. In American the story and its treatment in picture form has been so widely praised by ministers, judges, editors, federal and civic authorities, statesmen, professional men and other good citizens, that I am at a loss to understand the attitude of the Quebec censors. I suppose our only remedy is to take the issue before the courts there…The essence of our story which they have singled out for attack is the very part of the production which the preachers and moral proponents of the presentation have used as illustrations for their praise.” (“Ban Griffith Film,” Film Daily, January 8, 1921, p.1)

Stay away from him, Miss Gish! (Lowell Sherman and Lillian Gish)

However, in Canada the courts would have been no use to him: at the time, the eight provincial censor boards had the last word on what could and could not be shown in film theaters.* All anyone could do was to try and sway public opinion, so Grey and the Griffith corporation’s attorneys traveled North and “placed the matter before the prime minister, and the secretary of the province.” They also showed the film to high school students at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s, and the heads of both schools endorsed it. Additionally, the Montreal Star received hundreds of letters protesting the board’s ruling.  According to Exhibitors’ Herald, if none of that worked, they hoped that since the Ontario board had passed it and Toronto was getting to see it, the Montreal public would pressure the Board to change their minds. (“Quebec Censor Board Stands Pat on Ruling,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 29, 1921, p.44.)

It wasn’t as if the film made the Wages of Sin attractive

Quebec did eventually get to see Way Down East, but it took an awfully long time. In November, Motion Picture News reported:

Some months ago there was considerable excitement over the decision of the Quebec Board of Moving Picture Censors to condemn Way Down East in its entirety for alleged religious and other reasons. The Griffith production was readily passed in all other Provinces of the Dominion. At this late date, the Quebec censors changed their views regarding the feature, apparently, with the result that it was presented at the Imperial Theater, Montreal, at advanced prices starting October 28th. (“Canada,” Motion Picture News, November 5, 1921, p.2438)

The Montreal Gazette gave it a positive review and found it “quite safe, even for sophisticated modern children, and their elders need entertain no fears for themselves.” They also reported on what actually happened:

It is now said that the real reason for placing the film under the ban when first offered here was due to the precipitate action of those who brought it to the censors. They were, it appears, very brisk men in a hurry who desired that everything be dropped in order to examine the film and allow them to hurry on their journey. They resumed their journey all right, but the censors being accustomed to perform the duties of their office in quiet dignity did not have time to view it between trains. (“Way Down East Has Real Thrill,” Montreal Gazette, October 24, 1921, p.6.)

So they weren’t particularly prudish in Quebec. The film distributors were jerks, and the Board showed them who was boss. Ha!

Nevertheless, just not showing the film at all is better than what Pennsylvania censors did to it, according to a Photoplay article about bad decisions from censor boards in the United States:

Griffith has been one of the heaviest sufferers from censorship because he is a fearless leader and refuses to be bound, come what may. In Pennsylvania they eliminated the basic idea of Way Down East by trimming out the mock marriage. Naturally the mock honeymoon went, too. Likewise, the scene where the heroine tells of approaching motherhood. The board scrapped all hints at maternity and childbirth. Imagine the surprise of Pennsylvania fans when the baby, utterly unexplained, bursts upon the screen just before its death. Altogether, then Pennsylvania board made sixty cuts in the film play in reference to the baby. (Frederick James Smith,  “Foolish Censors,” Photoplay, October 1922, p.39.)

Unlike the film industry in the U.S. that eventually convinced most local censor boards to disband in favor of the Hayes Office, in Canada eight out of ten provinces had its own censorship authority until the 1960’s when Manitoba’s board became the first to give ratings instead of censoring films. Eventually the other provinces joined them.

In her review of Her Beloved Villain this week, Kingsley pointed out that American producers much preferred to avoid this kind of trouble and practiced self-censorship:

By the time a French farce reaches either stage or screen in this country it’s apt to be pretty pale stuff—an oyster cocktail without tabasco, a denogged eggnog—because we don’t like quite so much spice on this side of the ocean, or at least we don’t like to admit we like it. But some French farces have piquancy even with the wickedness extracted, and such a one is Her Beloved Villain, adapted from the play La Veglione.

The story is about a youth who wins his bride by telling his rival that she’s a naughty woman and that all her people are entirely too gay. When the bride finds it out, she teaches him a good lesson.

According to the review in Moving Picture World (December 4, 1920) the bride declares “I’ll go home and do all the things he said of me!” but she only pretends to spend the night with her lawyer. I’m guessing that in the original, she didn’t pretend. Naturally, in the end all is forgiven.

They took pictures of the meeting

Kingsley also had a story that showed the some of the pressure Charlie Chaplin was under:

“Trust Will Rogers to hit the nail on the head. Charlie Chaplin was visiting the Goldwyn studio the other day, and the two comedy kings were treating each other to imitations each of the other. When Rogers commenced to stand with feet turned out, after the famous Chaplin fashion, Charlie called out:

“Hey there, that isn’t the way I stand!”

Quick as a wink, Rogers came back, but with a disarming grin: “Why Charlie, you ain’t made a comedy in so long, nobody knows how you stand.”

It had been quite a while since a Chaplin film had come out: his most recent was A Day’s Pleasure, which premiered on December 15, 1919. However, The Kid was about to arrive. It debuted in New York on January 21st, so everybody could just stop complaining. The Kid went on to be the second highest grossing film of 1921, behind Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Since then, it’s been recognized as one of the greatest silent films ever made. A guy can take a little time to do that.

*Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island relied on other provinces’ boards.

Not a Sob-Sister Story: Week of January 1st, 1921

Charlotte Woods

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed yet another aspiring movie star. This one was different, because the money that was going to support her rise to the top was coming from an unusual source: her uncle, a famous sculptor:

We’ve just found out something, Charlotte Woods and I, and that is that those old stories about fairy godmothers and fairy godfathers especially godfathers, really are true. Miss Woods is the young ingenue creating a mild flurry among the fans, last week in Bebe Daniels’ picture O, Lady, Lady at Clune’s Broadway, and who previous to that played in a series of Wild West dramas with William Fairbanks. She’s a sort of rare and radiant maid, is Charlotte, blond and innocently alluring, not one of those intensely cute cuties—the sort you feel you’ll have to kill if they get any cuter—but natural and genuinely sparkling; in short, she puts the “new” in “ingenue.”

Her uncle, noted sculptor David Edstrom, had lost track of his sister’s family as he was making a name for himself in Europe. . .Then David Edstrom came back to this country. And now that her experience and hard work have fitted her to do better things, she is to be placed either in her own company, backed by Mr. Edstrom and his rich friends, or she is to become a member of an all-star cast in a picture to be made abroad, probably the latter, so that she will have all the benefits of foreign travel. Are fairy godfathers still on the job? Charlotte Woods will say they are.

Motion Picture Magazine writer Helen Carlisle later told the story of how Charlotte Woods became an actress. She couldn’t help invoking fairies either:

Little Charlotte Woods reversed the order of things by entering the motion picture studio as a stenographer, later becoming an actress. Her story reads like a fairy tale. Charlotte was bending patiently over her typewriter one day, out at the Thomas H. Ince studios, when Mr. Ince himself, strolling through the offices, spied her. He walked right up to her and said: “Young lady, how would you like to play a second lead with Charles Ray in his next picture? You’re just the type we’re looking for.” Naturally, Charlotte nearly passed out with excitement. Scores of girls, besieging the casting office for the role, while she, without effort, had it offered to her!

Well—she played the part, that of a country girl in His Mother’s Boy, and after that she played more parts, filling in with extra work when nothing better was forthcoming.

David Edstrom

Unfortunately, Charlotte Woods’ part as a society girl whose fiancée temporarily seems to be cheating on her with Bebe Daniels in the now lost Oh Lady Lady was her biggest role. She appeared in only one more film with Charles Ray, The Girl I Loved, made in 1922. It turned out that there are no fairy goduncles in Hollywood. David Edstrom, most famous for his sculptures Caliban (1900), The Cry of Poverty (1903), and The Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1918), hanging out in Paris with Gertrude Stein before World War 1, and helping to organize the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, did not help his niece with her career. He did have one Hollywood connection: he sculpted busts of Gloria Swanson and Josef von Sternberg.

The real twist to Woods’ story came in Helen Carlisle’s article in 1924, which had a happy ending:

But Charlotte’s back at her typewriter now, working as secretary to Perley Poore Sheehan, director and scenario writer at Universal City. And if she thinks back on the fairy-tale days, sometimes, she doesn’t long for their return. Mr. Sheehan, it may be stated, thinks he has the very best secretary in California.

You see, it would be pretty hard to write a sob-sister story about these girls who have abandoned their screen careers. They’re all so contented and prosperous!

In the scenario and stenographic departments of the studios, in the research libraries and publicity offices, in the laboratories and cutting-rooms, you’ll find dozens of energetic young women who have put their make-up boxes away and have won economic independence in the broad field open to them behind the motion picture camera.”

Woods, born Charlotte Skogerson, was able to support herself throughout her life as a studio clerical worker. Hooray for economic independence!

Helen Carlisle, “They’re Not Afraid to Fight,” Motion Picture Magazine, February 1924, p.37

Carver Edstrom Hildebrand, “David Edstrom, Swedish American Sculptor,” Swedish American Genealogist, v.10 no. 1, 1990.

“Newslets for Your Program,” Motography, November 17, 1917.

A Ready-made Bohemia: Week of December 25th, 1920

Oliver Morosco

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a story about every Los Angelean’s favorite subject, real estate:

A sublimated Greenwich Village and a real Bohemia are to be built in our very midst by Oliver Morosco, according to the far-visioned theatrical magnate, who yesterday gave out full details of his remarkable plans. The new enterprise is to be a city within a city, to be known as Morosco’s Greenwich Village and located at Melrose and Western Avenues on a twenty-acre plot just purchased. It will be a building enterprise unique in the city’s history and perhaps in that of any country.

It will be a home or artistic expression through the theater, music, painting, dancing and allied arts, but it will also be a real dwelling place for artists, in homes designed for comfort as well as beauty. Already a number of writers, painters and musicians have signaled their desire to live there.

The Bohemian feature will be seen at its best in a labyrinth of underground chambers to be used as odd atmospheric cafes—some Spanish, some Italian, some French as of the Latin quarter, and in the cabarets and bazaars where articles will be sold.

Morosco also planned to build an art museum where all the artists would exhibit their work, and a swimming pool that was a duplicate of a Roman bath. His development would feature a shopping district with gowns direct from France and “no cheap dance halls of other shoddy amusement features.” He said got the idea while driving around L.A. in the summer, and he thought the existing architecture was “unimaginative, lacking in distinctive color.” So he wanted to copy buildings from other places, with streets duplicating distinctive blocks in France, Italy, Spain, Russia and New York City. He also wanted to use those streets as permanent sets for his proposed new Oliver Morosco film studio. He announced that he already had millions of dollars from “active business leaders” of Los Angeles behind him, and building was to begin the first week of January. The article concluded: “In short, Morosco’s Greenwich Village will be a dream city within its own walls; and it should prove a splendid art center for Los Angeles, as well as a unique place of entertainment and high-class business resort.”

Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro

You’ve probably already spotted a big problem: Bohemias grow from cheap rent, not developer’s plans, and replicas like Epcot and some Las Vegas hotels have no pretentions to art. A cranky and unsigned opinion piece appeared in the L.A. Times two days later pointing this out:

Oliver Morosco and his millionaire backers will probably succeed in building a Los Angeles replica of Greenwich Village on their twenty-acre tract out at Melrose and Western avenues; it will be a dilettante’s paradise, not a new Bohemia. For the real Bohemia has no more in common with opulence and luxury than sculpture with street cleaning. Bohemia is not a suburb and cannot be…Successful artists might incline to a life in a Greenwich Village and dilettantes might swarm there like files to a honey pot, but there are not enough millions in the Federal Treasury to build in Los Angeles or elsewhere a “new Bohemia.”

Despite this drawback, the project seemed to go well at first. On February 27th, the Times reported that while building hadn’t started yet, they had opened a sales, leasing and rental office on the corner of Western and Melrose. The syndicate of Oliver Morosco and unnamed “Los Angeles capitalists and merchants” had signed two contracts to construct commercial buildings: a store on the corner of Western and Marathon, and a series of artist’s studios based on Parisian Latin quarter studios. The article said they’d had 125 applications for space from “merchants and amusement purveyors,” and they had plans to build a Swiss chalet and a woman’s club building. The name of the development had been changed to Moroscotown.

Vanity Fair, September 1921

However, by September, still nothing had been built. That month, ads ran in Vanity Fair for stock in the company (Morosco’s business associates were later jailed for mail fraud because of this) and they sold off a prime parcel to restaurateur Morrie Rauch. On November 6th, Morosco announced that he wanted to sell the rest of the land. From New York, he ordered his business manager via telegram: “Close out my present Moroscotown holdings immediately as tract is not big enough for greater and more magnificent Moroscotown.” So the project never got far enough off the ground to be part of the fantastic Never Built L.A. museum exhibit.

Oliver Morosco

Oliver Morosco had such a track record of success, it’s not surprising he thought he could make Moroscotown work. Born Oliver Mitchell in 1875, when he was six he became an acrobat to help support his family after his father deserted them. He was discovered by San Francisco theater owner Walter Morosco, who became his foster father and gave him a job in his ticket office. With the his financial support, in 1899 young Morosco took over the struggling Burbank Theater in downtown Los Angeles and made it a huge success by producing new plays instead of old standards. He was able to send the successful ones, like Peg O’ My Heart, to the east coast, which earned him the name “The Oracle of Broadway.” In 1908 he started acquiring a chain of theaters along the West Coast, beginning with the Majestic, also in downtown. In 1913 he built one himself, calling it the Morosco, and in 1917 he built another namesake theater in New York City. He also founded a film production company in 1914, the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company, which became a subsidiary of Famous Players-Lasky in 1916.

Unfortunately, 1920 was the pinnacle of his career; he went bankrupt in February 1926. The New York Times reported that the failure of Moroscotown was only part of his problems. He’d lost 2 million dollars in that stock swindle, “as well as long drawn out and costly marital troubles, ventures in theatrical productions and real property for theatrical purposes, along with an occasional display of poor judgment concerning the value of a play, were the causes, it was said, of his complete financial smash.” In conclusion: “for the last four years practically everything attempted by Mr. Morosco to raise his fallen fortunes has failed.”

After he went bankrupt, he tried to write and produce plays, but nothing succeeded. He died August 25, 1945, after being hit by a streetcar in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly, nobody has written a biography about him. Such a rags to riches to rags story seems ripe for the telling.

 

“Active Work to be Started,” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1921.

Morosco, Oliver. The Life of Oliver Morosco: The Oracle of Broadway Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers,1944.

“Morosco Bankrupt, His Debts $1,033,404.” New York Times, February 19, 1926.

“Morosco Soon to Build,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1921.

“Novel Café for Western Avenue,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1921.

“Plan Expansion of Greenwich Village,” Los Angeles Herald, January 8, 1921.

Rasmussen, Cecilia. “A Three-Hankie Tale of Dashed Dreams,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1998.

“To Sell Out Interests in Moroscotown,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1921.

 

Movies Are Good For You: Week of December 18th, 1920

The International Reform Bureau

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that reformers were bothering Hollywood again, and Samuel Goldwyn, president of the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, had something to say about it:

He has sent the following telegram to the Rev. Wilber F. Crafts, superintendent of the International Reform Bureau, Washington, D.C., which is seeking to take the sun out of Sunday by closing motion-picture theaters and prohibiting other forms of amusement. The Goldwyn wire says:

“The movement to close motion-picture theaters on Sunday, fostered by your organization, is a dangerous encroachment on the liberties of the people, and is an effort to take away from them beneficial entertainment. I maintain that motion pictures have a tremendous influence for good on the public.

I ask you in all fairness to reflect for a minute on the motion pictures, which you may have seen. Is it not a fact that right and virtue triumph in every photoplay?

The basis of all drama is that the sympathy of the audience must be aroused, and this can be done only by a sympathetic (that is a good) character. A thousand moralists in a thousand lectures could not drive home their lessons with as much force as these film stories.”

In addition to the usual argument that people should be able to decide for themselves how to spend their Sundays, I was surprised to learn that Goldwyn, just like Roger Ebert, thought that film is an empathy machine. Movies are good for you! Goldwyn really wanted to get their attention: that was one expensive telegram (I couldn’t find out what the per-word rate was in 1920, but they weren’t cheap). Sharing it with the newspaper made them notice, too.

Wilbur F. Crafts

However, no matter how excellent Goldwyn’s argument was, he wasn’t going to sway Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, who, with his lobbying firm the International Reform Bureau, had been advocating various kinds of reform for 27 years. According to Crafts’ New York Times obituary, he had “an influential part in enacting prohibition, of laws to restrict the use of narcotics and of legislation of a similar nature…To the general public Dr. Crafts was, of course, best known for his attacks on popular amusements. Screen vampires, close dancing, ‘joy rides,’ which he said ‘often proved a ride of lifelong shame and woe;’ Sunday baseball, and cigarettes were a few of the objects of his tireless reforming zeal.” He had long opposed any amusements on Sundays; his book The Sabbath for Man was published in 1884 and had been reprinted in many editions. Since 1915, the IRB had occasionally called for film censorship, but late in 1920 he decided to go all in against films.

Of course, it wasn’t just Goldwyn’s telegram against Sunday closings. On January 1st, the Exhibitors’ Herald reported the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America and the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry joined together to fight the IRB. William A. Brady, president of the NAMPI, gave them a statement about

the small self-appointed guardian angels who have taken it upon themselves to endeavor to regulate and set to their own satisfaction the minds, morals and mode of life of this commonly considered free country… By what right does the International Reform Bureau propose to dictate to the American worker how he shall spend the one day in the week that he has to himself for pleasure? The members of the bureau are simply profiteering in morality, attempting to force their narrow-gauge views down the throats of the public, which is not paying enough attention to its personal liberty.

The industry tried to mollify Crafts by inviting him to a meeting of the NAMPI. He did go, and on March 5th, 1921, they came to an agreement: he would stop lobbying Congress and they would self-regulate, adopting thirteen standards for photoplays. Crafts promptly reneged and started lobbying for even more control over the industry.  He urged Congress to pass a bill licensing all producers, distributors and exhibitors of film, putting them under the supervision of an Interstate Motion Picture Commission, just as the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated railroads. According to an interview he gave to Exhibitors’ Herald, that Commission would not only close theaters on Sundays but would also censor the stories, set admission prices, and approve advertising, “every step of production, distribution and exhibition would be carefully supervised.”

In a later interview with the Exhibitors’ Trade Review, Crafts said that he originally wanted Congress to introduce the bill for the Commission in Fall, 1921, but he decided to wait until later, because pending tax and tariff bills were more important. The bill never got introduced, and Crafts died of pneumonia on December 27, 1922, aged 73. Rev. Robert Watson took over leading the IRB, but there’s no evidence it continued after 1923. Other groups took up the film industry reform cause. However, it’s interesting that there were reform movements just before the big scandals that are usually credited with inflaming reformers, like the Arbuckle case and the Taylor murder.

Christmas was just a few days away, and it sounds like Kingsley had enough of the festive season already:

If some day you’ve been traveling through the desert of late Christmas shopping, buying things you don’t want to, for friends who don’t want them, until, parched and weary, your feet and head both aching, and yourself feeling as though you would like to hurl the gifts you have purchased at your dear friends’ heads, while you exclaim, “Take your darned old present!”—don’t despair. There’s at least one spot in town where you can enter the enchanted portals and drink of the refreshing fountain of real romance and comedy.

Grauman’s is the name of the oasis, and the title of said enchanting fountain is The Charm School, which is the freshest, most whimsical little comedy you ever saw. Added to which it has those two delightful (please excuse the old word—had to shop in the basement for adjectives today) troupers, Wallace Reid and Lila Lee in the leading parts.

The picture’s a capital comedy about a young man who inherited a young ladies’ school…After he gets it all running nicely with all the parents romping in to enroll their daughters, a will is found which shows he doesn’t own the school after all. But he does have a chance to run a string of banks on the strength of his success so all’s sweetness and light after all.

We can’t go out shopping this year, don’t need to worry about exhausted friends hurling unwanted presents at our heads, or even watch The Charm School (it’s lost) but I’m glad to be reminded that not everything about the usual holiday season is wonderful. Have a safe and healthy holiday!

“Crafts Outlines His Scheme for Government Control of Motion Picture; Says Bill Has Backing of Rockefeller Foundation,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, October 8, 1921, p.1292a.

“Declarations of Reformers Arouse Industry and Public,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 1, 1922, p. 35.

“Dr. Wilbur F. Crafts, Crusader, Dies At 73,” New York Times, December 28, 1921.

“Herald to Supply Slides for Public Rights League,” Exhibitors’ Herald, October 15, 1921, p.45.

“Industry Splits with Reformer,” Motion Picture World, April 2, 1921, p.464.

“Reform Bureau Determined to Establish Dictatorship Over Entire Film Industry,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 16, 1921, p.35l

Bon voyage!: Week of December 11, 1920

Mary Hamilton O’Connor

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley attended a farewell party for the latest Hollywood studio staff member joining the stampede to Europe:

A whole roomful of literary celebrities foregathered last night at the Los Angeles Athletic Club to give a farewell dinner party in honor of Mary O’Connor, head of the Lasky-Famous Players scenario department, on the eve of her departure for Europe, where she will oversee pictures for her company, which will be made in England, Spain, Italy and France. The dinner was given by the Screen Writers’ Guild of the Authors’ League of America. Brilliant writers made brilliant speeches.

Unsurprisingly, the best of those speeches was made by screenwriter Anita Loos reading a burlesque scenario entitled The Hereditary Taxidermist, “which had the true Loos tang.” It’s almost frightening to think what that movie would have been like — taxidermy as entertainment? 

Mary Hamilton O’Connor was one of many successful female screenwriters at the time. Born in 1872, she had worked as a journalist and novelist before she was hired by the studio her actress sister Loyola worked for, Vitagraph, in 1913. She went on to write scenarios for Mutual and Triangle, where in 1917 she became the head of the scenario department. In 1918 she moved to Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount). So she was there when they needed help in their London office. *

Just like most of the other nomads, it was temporary assignment. She came back to Los Angeles in September 1921 and gave Kingsley a full report. Film production had really bounced back after the war.

It seems that Pathe is pounding away at picture making in Paris, Berlin, represented by the Ufa, is scuddling along with their costume plays, and English producers are awakening to the need of taking film production seriously…

In Paris, Miss O’Connor declares, the Pathe Company is making wild western pictures to satisfy the French thirst for that form of drama. “The picture I saw was laid in 1912,” said Miss O’Connor. “It showed a miner’s shack located on Market Street in San Francisco! But little things like that evidently didn’t trouble the French director or audience. The story was a hectic one and had to do with bags of gold. These the hero and villain tossed back and forth like beanbags!”

She mentioned that she got to London in time to fix director Paul Powell’s plot problems with The Mystery Road, and she also wrote the screenplay for Dangerous Lies. But mostly she told Kingsley about her travels. She loved everything about London (especially the theater) except for the cold toast at breakfast. She said, “I feel I have only had a look in on it all; I would never expect to know London. I don’t believe anyone does…But the taxi drivers are wizards there. They give you one look and know which street you would like to be taken to!”

She got to meet J.M. Barrie, who was busy helping to prepare the script for Peter Pan, and she mentioned details only another writer would notice:

“Even if he weren’t Barrie he’d be interesting to know. He’s as modest as a violet and as canny as a thistle. His clothes are most unassuming. In fact, they say he hasn’t bought a new overcoat in seventeen years and the pockets of his trousers, where they had evidently become frayed, had apparently been mended by himself, with long, black stiches.”

Her time away didn’t hurt her career. She became the head of the story department at the Paramount Studio, where she stayed until they moved the job to New York in January 1926. She retired then, but she stayed active in the Screen Writers’ Guild. She died September 3, 1959 in Los Angeles.

Viora Daniel

This week, Kingsley interviewed up and coming actress Viora Daniel. The interview was a fairly standard one of a sweet ingenue happy to be in Hollywood, except for one story. When she was a teen, she was thrown by a horse and had to spend some time in a hospital where a kindly nurse read novels aloud to her–the sort her father wouldn’t allow at home. She told Kingsley that “they were of cultural value, she says, being mostly French.” Kingsley mentioned:

She insisted on getting the full value of the culture, too, so when the nurse skipped some stuff—Viora says she could always tell when the nurse was skipping—she’d manage to get the book and read those parts.

I didn’t realize there were such…educational? novels available in the 1910s!

*According to Liz Clarke on the Women Film Pioneers site, her family thought that the transfer meant she was “put out to pasture,” but that’s an awfully nice pasture, and her career continued undamaged for several years.

“Abandons Story Dept.,” Variety, January 20, 1926.

Grace Kingsley, “Europe Moves Pictureward,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1921.

“Mary O’Connor Back at Paramount Post,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1925.

All Aboard!: Week of December 4th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw feature films whose annoyances ranged from “many holes in its logic” (The Master Mind) to “choppy and careless continuity” (West is West), but she could find no fault with the short she saw:

There’s a very delicious new type of comedy, to become a series I believe, called The Toonerville Trolley that Meets All Trains. It has an old rube driver of a funny suburban streetcar, who pulls teeth with the trolley, marries runaway couples, being also a justice of the peace, and is all-round handy man for the community. The very most delightful and novel idea the funmakers have produced in a long while.

Photo by Toonerville cameraman Portus Acheson, from the Betzwood Film Company Archive, Montgomery Community College Library

She was right: it did become a monthly series. Based on Fontaine Fox’s syndicated Toonerville Folks newspaper comic, the films starred veteran vaudevillian Dan Mason as the streetcar driver. While it wasn’t precisely innovative, gentle stories about daily life outside of cities were quite popular in the early 1920s; Tol’able David was to be a big hit in 1921.

Toonerville Folks (1917) by Fontaine Fox

What was particularly interesting about the Toonerville films is where they were made: the Betzwood Studios in West Norriton Township, Pennsylvania, twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. Not all film production had moved to Hollywood yet! Betzwood was built by film pioneer Siegmund Lubin in 1912 and was bought by the Wolf Brothers in 1917 after creditors seized it. They made Westerns there until 1919. When less realistic Westerns made in the East became less profitable, they decided to try comedies. They hired Fontaine Fox and he wrote some scripts and came to Pennsylvania to supervise the filming. According to historian Joseph P. Eckhardt, the first Toonerville films were a critical and commercial success. However, it was hard to maintain their quality and competition in film comedy was fierce (they were up against people like Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton), so after seventeen films, the company folded. Only seven of them are known to survive and Meets All the Trains isn’t one of them.

Nevertheless, the company’s records have been preserved at the Montgomery County Community College Library. Eckhardt and his collaborators College Archivist Lawrence Greene, Emerging Technologies Librarian Jerry Yarnetsky and Film archivist Katherine Pourshariati have created an excellent website, where you can learn more about Lubin, tour the Betzwood Studios, and see one of the surviving Toonerville films (unfortunately, according the Eckhardt, it isn’t one of the best). Hooray for local historians and librarians!

Joseph P. Eckhardt, “Clatter, Sproing, Clunk, Went the Trolley,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Summer, 1992.

Joseph P. Eckhardt, “The Toonerville Trolley Films of the Betzwood Studio,” Griffithiana, May, 1995.

Merry Men: Week of November 27th, 1920

So merry!

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley overheard a conversation about an opera in an unlikely place:

Among the patrons of art who will see Robin Hood during the coming week at the Mason are Douglas Fairbanks and his two merry men, Bull Montana and Spike Robinson. They were talking about it out at Fairbanks’ studio the other day.

“I’m going to see Robin Hood,” declared Doug, “because I played in it once. I carried a bow and arrow, and as my real bow hadn’t come at the last minute, I rigged up a clothes hanger. But it did pretty well. Anyhow, I hit another of Robin Hood’s merry souls of Sherwood Forest in the eye with it.”

“Who was that guy Robin Hood, anyhow?” demanded Spike Robinson. “Wha’s they call him Robin for?”

“Don’t you know who Robin Hood was?” cried Bull Montana triumphantly. “Why, he was the original Raffles, the gentleman robber. That’s why they calls him Robin; he was always robbin’ somebody.”

Bull Montana and Douglas Fairbanks

The jokes didn’t improve, but Montana went on to question whether everything Mr. Hood stole from the rich was really given to the poor, and to speculate on how successful a Robin Hood Pictures Company would have been (Hood would have properly threatened producers to make them pay bills on time anyway). Montana thought that all of that legitimate money would have reformed the gang.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an amazing discovery of the origins of Fairbanks’ 1922 film. He was a stage actor for fifteen years, so it seemed perfectly plausible that he worked in some low-rent version of Robin Hood without proper props. However, it just wasn’t so. I checked the trade journals in Lantern and the newspapers in Chronicling America and didn’t find him in any Robin Hood cast lists. Furthermore, his biographer Tracey Goessel didn’t turn up any such engagement in her scrupulously researched book. However, she did mention that he could be…untruthful about his early days. It is nice to know that he didn’t really hit somebody in the eye with a clothes hanger/bow.

On the Robin Hood set

Actually, Goessel said that director Allan Dwan brought the project to him in late 1921, and he had to work hard to convince Fairbanks to make it instead of The Virginian (p.281-2). Dwan began by having an impromptu archery contest near where Fairbanks was working. Because he loved anything athletic, Doug wanted to learn how to shoot a bow and gave it a try.  Dwan showed him and explained the nifty tricks he could do with it, then he said “That’s Robin Hood…That’s the guy we want you interested in.” Fairbanks replied: “I don’t know. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” Later he got the idea of combining his interest in the Crusades with the Robin Hood myth. After he got talked out of playing Richard the Lionheart instead of Robin, they were on their way to making great big hit that was also a critical success.

At least we learned that the story crossed his mind in 1920, and that people had time to shoot the breeze on film sets then.

When Fairbanks and company went to the Mason, they got to see a very good show. The version of Robin Hood that inspired the conversation was a light opera in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan by Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith that had debuted in 1890 and was revived several times since then. Kingsley herself went on Monday along with “a house full of enthusiastic music lovers,” and her review was glowing:

Robin Hood itself is imagination and fine music, the letting us into a joyous mimic world, which makes a joke of life, and yet retains the semblance of artistic dignity from which the latter day jazz has cut us entirely off, and Robin Hood, as sung by the Ralph Dunbar Company, is a production of superior beauty and quality. There’s a really gloriously-voiced chorus of men and women who add incalculably to the charm of the piece, and the old romantic tale of the dashing bandit of middle ages, whose exploits were subject of song even in his own day, fitted to the composer’s brilliant and melodious numbers, was played in a fashion to rival the old Bostonian production in its best days.

Walter Hiers, Colleen Moore and T. Roy Barnes in So Long Letty

Kingsley reported on another conversation, this one from the set of the recently opened So Long Letty. Colleen Moore asked co-star Walter Hiers about his thoughts on dieting:

“Don’t believe in it.” replied Hiers. “Ethically, morally and physically it’s wrong. Besides, directors take my figure into consideration when they cast me for a picture. Anyhow, dieting’s all bosh.”

“I’m on a diet,” the winsome Miss Moore informed him. “My doctor was very strict in giving me my orders. He insists that every day I eat candy, cream puffs, all kinds of pastries, lots of sweet stuff—”

“Say,” Hiers interrupted, ”where’s that doctor’s office?”

Who knew: I’m on the Colleen Moore diet! Enjoy your leftover Thanksgiving pie and you can be, too.

Tracey Goessel, The First King of Hollywood, Chicago Review Press, 2016.

A-Ministering They Went: Week of November 20th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recounted a story with a moral: don’t try to find a minister on Thanksgiving Day. According to Fox Sunshine comedy director Hampton Del Ruth, who persisted in his mission to marry actress Alta Allen (nee Crowin), “the paucity of preachers was marvelous indeed.” Kingsley wrote:

In fact, before Mr. Del Ruth found a preacher, he began to fear that the souls of the community were not being cared for as they should be. Incidentally, Miss Crowin changed her religion several times during what might be called the holy chase. And now she doesn’t know what kind of minister married her!

Alta Allen

At first, she was set on having a Presbyterian minister, because when she was a little girl she used to go to a Presbyterian Sunday-school, where they gave her bright-colored cards for being good. So the couple looked up a certain Presbyterian minister’s name in the telephone book, called up his church, but the assistant pastor gave her the sad news that the man she sought had passed to his reward six months. Then, still set on finding a Presbyterian, they tried another, but he said he was going to the races, and unless they could be at his house in five minutes, he couldn’t tie the knot.

They were three miles away so they couldn’t make it. Right there was where Miss Crowin changed her religion. She almost became an Atheist, but thinking better of it, she and Mr. Del Ruth tried St. Paul’s Cathedral, but the janitor was the only man at home, and he said the clergyman had gone to the football game. Time was fleeting…So he called on his old friend [Fox publicity director] Carl Downing, and once more they went a-ministering.

Mr. Downing suggested they just drive nonchalant-like down Sunset Boulevard and sneak up on the first church they came to, in the hope of thwarting what seemed a determined adverse fate. Three churches were visited, and at one place they did find the pastor, but just as he was getting on his robes of office, the telephone called to tell him he was a daddy, and away he went.

Finally, wearied and jaded, the two had grown so tired and cross, Miss Crowin said, they had almost decided they didn’t want to be married at all, when they spied a little brown church, which gave the cheering news that the pastor lived next door. His name was Dr. P.P. Carroll, and he was in a cheerful and quiescent mood. So the two lovers were wed.

It seems that in 1920, despite this evidence, you couldn’t just crash into an officiant for an instant wedding! (Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow, 1920).* Gee whiz.

In case you were wondering, Rev. Carroll was a Methodist. This saga could have been a two-reel comedy. If you’re a Silent Comedy Watch Party fan, you might notice a resemblance to Lyons and Moran’s Waiting at the Church (1919), except they were hunting down a different member of the wedding party.

They worked together on The Marriage Chance (1922)

This was Hampton Del Ruth’s third wedding, so he should have been better at it by then. Born on September 7, 1879 in Delaware, by 1910 he was living in San Francisco with his first wife, Grace. She was a cashier in a hotel while he worked as a clerk. He moved to Los Angeles the following year and became an actor at smaller studios, then in 1914 Mack Sennet hired him. At Keystone, he was promoted to scenario editor, then supervising director and production manager. His second wife was Keystone actress Helen Carlyle. In 1918 he became the production manager at the Fox Sunshine Studio, where he met actress Alta Allen. This was her first marriage, which is not surprising, because she was only 16 years old. Nevertheless, they stayed together for quite a long time: they were still married when he filled out his World War 2 draft registration card in 1942.  At that point, he was working for the Hal Roach Studio. After he stopped directing in 1928, he’d been a screenwriter, novelist, and playwright. I haven’t found a record of a divorce, but she wasn’t listed as a survivor in his 1958 obituary and she lived until 1998.

The wedding wasn’t added to the marriage register untill the following Monday

And why did they need to get married right away? They (and the helpful publicity director Downing) told Kingsley that they were in a hurry “owing to the overwhelming chorus of congratulations from his friends, not to mention the raid they were making on his private stock in order to drink the health of himself and bride.” That sounds fishy, but nobody could resist a chance to make a Prohibition joke then. They both could have been working so much that they wanted to take advantage of a rare day off.

Thanksgiving in Los Angeles 1920 was much more low-key than it is now. Stores were closed, U.S.C played a football game against Oregon and automobile races were run in Beverly Hills, but Kingsley was working. She was at her desk, typing up this story for the Friday paper, and probably grateful to have something to write about on a sparse news day.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

*Del Ruth wasn’t misinformed about preacher availability by The Scarecrow; while it was released elsewhere on November 17th, it didn’t open in Los Angeles until January 4, 1921.

More than Wild West Show Absurdities: Week of November 13th, 1920

Tsianina Redfeather

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed a film that First Nations historians wish they could see:

Somebody has said there is nothing so painful as a new idea, and sometimes you feel that way about it in regard to motion pictures when you see a good idea floundering, gasping and going down for the last time, drowned in a sea of stupidity and poor visualization.

How delightful, then, to behold a brand new thought worked out with artistry and finesse, as supremely visible at the California this week, in that beautiful Indian two-reel feature—I suppose it was two reels, but really lost track of the time—From the Land of the Sky Blue Water.

This little film gem commences with the telling of an Indian legend of a princess beloved of one of the men of her own tribe and by a brave of an enemy clan. White Eagle, the lover of her clan, is slain. Then the story glides quite imperceptibly, but with infinite rhythm and poesy into Charles Wakefield Cadman’s song. Princess Tsianina and White Eagle are featured and enrich the portrayal.

From the Land of the Sky Blue Water has apparently vanished without a trace. Kingsley was wrong – it was only one reel long. Its star and producer, Tsianina Redfeather, was famous for her mezzo-soprano voice and for educating people about Native American culture. She founded the American Indian Film Company and its motto was “of the Indian, by the Indian and for the Indian.”

Cadman and Redfeather

Redfeather was born December 13, 1882 in Eufaula, Oklahoma; her family was of Cherokee and Creek ancestry. At boarding school, a teacher recognized her musical talent and sent her to Denver for formal musical training. There her voice teacher introduced her to composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, a Caucasian who gave lectures and recitals about First Nations music. She toured with him from 1909 to 1916; his composition “From the Land of the Sky Blue Water” became her signature song.

Here are the lyrics:

From the land of the sky-blue water
They brought a captive maid,
And her eyes, they were lit with lightning;
Her heart was not afraid!
 
And he steals to her lodge at dawning
And woos her with his flute.
She is sick for the sky-blue water,
The captive maid is mute.

Sky Blue Water wasn’t her first experience with filmmaking. In 1915, she had the leading role in a film directed by J.W. Early for the Columbia Amusement Company, a vaudeville circuit. Shot in Colorado to make full use of the beautiful landscape, it has also disappeared.

Entertaining the troops

During the first World War, she organized an entertainment group to tour Allied camps in France and Germany. According to historian Wendi Bevitt, “this experience reinforced her knowledge that the majority of Europeans and Euro-Americans believed that American Indians live lives of massacrers or wild west show absurdities.” So when she returned, she founded her film company to help counteract that. She hired experienced Nestor Studio director Louis William Chaudet to oversee the production and Cadman to write the score.

Kingsley said the feature was “so mixed with obvious plot hokum, plus an asinine finish, the picture is all very unconvincing and insulting to common sense.” It’s preserved at a Belgian archive because film survival is random and unfair.

Even though Kingsley thought it was an artistic success, the film didn’t make enough money to keep the company going and Redfeather went back to singing. She had also collaborated with Cadman on an opera based on her life called Shanewis (The Robin Woman), which premiered at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1918. It toured the United States, and she got to perform it in Denver in 1924 and in Los Angeles in 1926. She retired from singing in 1935. She worked as an activist for Indian education, co-founding the American Indian Education Foundation. She died in 1985, age 102. Her grand-niece and namesake, Tsianina Lomawaima, is a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in the history of American Indian schooling and indigenous performers in the 20th century.

Maybe one day her film will be found: archives should be on the lookout! The can labeled “From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters” might not be a Hamm’s beer commercial (yes, the jingle was based on the song).

Bebe Daniels on a different boat, Captain Kidd’s Kids (1919)

We also learned this week that Bebe Daniels could make the best of trying circumstances. She had gone rowing alone on Big Bear Lake and lost track of time. A search party, including Seymour Tally (son of Tally’s Broadway owner) set out to find her:

and finally she was discovered, just as the sun was setting, rowing up into a bijou, quite away from the camp landing place. Miss Daniels was duly glad to be rescued, no doubt, but what she said was:

“Well, if these picture exhibiters aren’t the limit! They can’t stand to let us out of their sight a minute!”

No wonder she had the grit to live and work through the London blitz twenty years later!

 

Wendi M. Bevitt, “The Daughter of the Dawn and the Promotion of American Indian Culture,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Summer 2019, pp. 134-135.

Muriel Lee, “Indian Singer to Lead in Red Man Film.” Moving Picture World, October 9, 1915, p.306

Edwin Schallert, “Don War Paint,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1920

Edwyna Synar “Remember the Ladies,” Muskogee Phoenix.