Adventures in Film Production: Week of August 16, 1919

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Cathrine Curtis

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley’s column had an unusual headline: WOMAN HEADS FILM COMPANY. She wrote:

Cathrine Curtis is the name of the adventurous lady, and the company is known as the Cathrine Curtis Corporation, Miss Curtis herself being president, George M. Taylor vice-president and Dorman T. Connet, secretary and treasurer.

A rare combination of gifts has Miss Curtis, since she possesses both the artistic and business faculties. She will be remembered as playing the role of Sammy in Harold Bell Wright’s picturization of his novel, The Shepherd of the Hills in which she scored an artistic success.

“But I’m fond of business,” said Miss Curtis yesterday, “so I decided on this venture—or maybe you’d call it adventure.”

This announcement was at a lunch the company gave to newspaper writers at the Alexander Hotel, which they’d decorated like a newspaper office, with a feature that hadn’t been tried before (or since, I think):

An electric wire furnished ‘shocks’ and ‘thrills’ to various writers, and while its purpose wasn’t clear at first, it proved another vast improvement over similar occasions, inasmuch as it kept in check anybody who attempted to make a speech. J.C. Hessen, World correspondent, admitted it hampered his style a good deal.

It sounds like Kingsley had had enough of bellicose mansplainers!

Several women had already done the duties of a producer, which include arranging financing, developing a script, hiring the cast and crew, coordinating filmmaking logistics, supervising editing and overseeing marketing and distribution. However, they either directed (like Alice Guy Blache) or acted in (like Mary Pickford) those films. Curtis was if not the first, at least among the earliest of women who were only producers.

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Cathrine Curtis Taylor was born in Syracuse New York on November 9, 1889. Her parents, George M. and Flora Beach Taylor already had one daughter, Blanch.* Flora Taylor died just a few years later in 1897 and Mr. Taylor became a hotel keeper. He ran the Rockwell House in Glens Falls, New York. Curtis later told interviewers that he was a “New York capitalist,” but the Federal and New York censuses disagree.

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Perit Coit Myers

She married Perit Coit Myers, a hardware salesman from Yonkers, in December 1911 and they moved to Phoenix, Arizona where they bought a ranch in June, 1912. They had a daughter, Gretchen, on March 6, 1913.

She met author Harold Bell Wright, a fellow Arizonan, who was preparing to make his novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, into a film. He thought she looked so much like the main female character, Sammy, that he cast her despite her lack of acting experience. Shooting took place from 1917 to 1918 in California and the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. As she told the assembled journalists in 1919: “I became immensely interested in the subject of picture making while playing in Mr. Wright’s feature.”

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The rest of her family also left Arizona: on the day of the 1918 draft Perit Myers was living at the Yonkers YMCA, and by the 1920 Census Gretchen Myers was living with her aunt and uncle, Blanch and Garrett Veeder, in Schenectady, New York (he was the vice president of a paper company there).

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Tom Santschi

After her press luncheon, Curtis got right to work on her first feature, hiring George Foster Platt (who’d just directed Helen Keller in Deliverance) to direct, Edward S. Curtis, noted photographer of Native Americans as the cameraman, and Western star Tom Santschi as the leading man. No leading lady was announced, so there might have been truth in Kingsley’s speculation that Curtis planned to act in it herself. They traveled to Hayden Lake, Idaho for some location shooting. In October, Camera reported that Santschi had been twice kicked by a horse, breaking three ribs and fracturing his arm. He went to the hospital in Spokane, Washington where the local Chamber of Congress honored the cast and crew with a dinner. After that, there was no more news about the project and it was never finished.

Next, in June 1920, she bought what she thought were the rights to make The Lost World, so after quite a bit of script work and planning, she got to be part of the messy lawsuits that were eventually settled after the film got made by First National in 1925.

Undaunted, she dove right in to her next project and had more success. She bought the film rights to Ralph Connor’s book The Sky Pilot and hired King Vidor to direct. Colleen Moore starred as the evil cattle baron’s daughter who gets injured in a stampede, but regains the ability to walk when she saves a minister (aka the sky pilot) from a burning church. They shot it on location in the Canadian Rockies and Truckee, California in September to December 1920. The film opened in New York City on April 17, 1921. It was the only time Vidor and Moore worked together, but they stayed friends for the rest of their lives.

On April 17, 1924 Curtis married Joseph S. O’Neil in Baltimore, MD. He was a lawyer in private practice in Binghamton New York. However, by early November of that year and she was living under the name Cathrine Myers at the Hotel Vanderbilt in New York City – that’s the address she gave when she filed a petition for personal bankruptcy. They divorced in July, 1929.

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Cathrine Curtis, 1925

Nevertheless, she kept trying to produce films. In June 1925 the New York Times announced she had bought the film rights to a biography of Buffalo Bill, written by his sister Helen Cody Wetmore. Phil Rosen (The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1924) had signed on to direct. In August, the Exhibitor’s Trade Review wrote that she’d hired a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to round up cowboys to be in the film, but the project disappeared from the press after that. The Cathrine Curtis Company went bankrupt in March, 1926. Her sister Blanch was one of the chief creditors; she was owed $168,000.

Her final attempt to make movies was a collaboration with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs; at their June 1927 meeting they announced that they would sponsor her production of “motion pictures emphasizing the finer qualities of the American home,” with advice from their Motion Pictures Committee. No films got made.

In 1934 Curtis started hosting a biweekly radio show called “Women and Money” for WMAC in New York. In addition to teaching women about basic finances and investing, she used her program to criticize Roosevelt’s New Deal. When the show was canceled in February 1935, she blamed communist sympathizers. Then she founded Women Investors in America in May 1935, a non-profit educational organization. According to historian Karl Frederickson “camouflaged as financial seminars, the national meetings of the Women Investors became forums for criticizing the New Deal.” So in 1939 when FDR wanted to assist Great Britain in their fight against Germany, she quickly organized the Women’s National Committee to Keep the U.S. Out of War. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she eventually supported the war, but not enthusiastically. She continued to support right-wing causes, particularly anti-communism (she was an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy), but her reputation as a financial expert had faded. Her last appearance in the New York Times was in 1958 when she addressed a AT&T shareholders’ meeting:

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They didn’t mention what she had to say. She died in California in August 1962.

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I’ve heard that “meh” reviews are the hardest to write, but Kingsley did a good job of it this week:

One of the Finest is an innocuous little picture, in which nothing happens except that Larry the policeman turns into Larry the lawyer and gets the girl. Both laudable achievements, but nothing to make you chew your fingernails with excitement.

Nevertheless, leading man Tom Moore was charming and leading lady Seena Owen was beautiful, plus as Kingsley observed, “after all, what’s the use of being excited all the time?” It’s a lost film.

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De Mille Field at Wilshire and Fairfax

Grace Kingsley got her excitement outside of a movie theater this week: she got a ride in an airplane! She wrote:

We no longer have champagne. But we have airships! And for exhilarating thrills an airship had champagne looking like denatured bevo.

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What she saw: aerial view of Wilshire and Fairfax, 1920

She loved looking down on all the tiny people below, and the feeling of being all alone in the universe (her pilot, “the handsome Lieut. David Thompson,” was so busy with the controls that he didn’t count) but the very best part was when they glided:

Ah! That’s when you make connections with heaven! The pilot shuts off the motor, and you fly softly along for a few brief seconds—but they are seconds worth living years for. Nobody can call you on the phone; nobody can tell you to get a story; nobody can ask you questions about things you’re supposed to know about and don’t. Nobody can give you good advice; nobody can tell you a funny story; nobody can show you Kodak pictures taken on their vacation. Yes, for just once in your life you’re free! That’s when you fly!

Apparently, life was not all quiet simplicity in the good old days. I think our Miss Kingsley needed a vacation – she’s barely had two days off together in the three years I’ve been writing this blog.

*I have no idea why their parents didn’t like the letter “e,” but they deliberately left it out of both Catherine and Blanche. It wasn’t even helpful to researchers, because they get misspelled often. Harumph.

 

“AT&T Sounds Optimistic Note,” New York Times, April 17, 1958.

“Broncho Charley Engaged By Miss Curtis For Film,” Exhibitor’s Trade Review, August 15, 1925, p.28.

“Curtis Schedule Filed,” Film Daily, March 4, 1926 p.1.

Davis, Mildred. “Social Fricassee and Capers,” Camera, October 25, 1919.

Frederickson, Karl. “Cathrine Curtis and Conservative Isolationist Women, 1939-1941,” The Historian, v. 58 no.4 (Summer 1996) pp.825-839.

“From Busy Studios to the Tranquility of the Picture Theatres,” New York Times, June 28, 1925.

“Where to find people you know,” Camera, October 11, 1919, p.8

“Women Will Show Movies of Home, New York Times, June 6, 1927.

I happened to be visiting New York, so I stopped by the NYPL Archives to see if the Cathrine Curtis Papers included anything interesting about her film career. There’s only one folder from that time. It holds several letters and telegrams from Harold Bell Wright, begging her to accept the role of Sammy and arranging logistics after she accepted the part. They were all addressed to her in Glen Falls, NY, so it seems her marriage had ended before she got involved with the movies. There’s also one undated letter from him that looks like it was written after they worked together; it’s almost a love letter but not quite (he wrote, “There is so much that I would say if I were permitted…Whatever comes to you and to me I shall never, never forget your wonderful goodness to me.”)

Her clippings folder at the NYPL Performing Arts Library holds only a letter from a rare documents dealer, offering to sell her papers concerning The Lost World for $4800. NYPL didn’t buy them; they ended up archived at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

 

 

 

 

A Night On The Town: Week of August 9th, 1919

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This week at the Mason

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that “all the film actors, especially those who formerly graced the stage, are on hand at the Mason every Monday night.” The Mason Opera House was the top theater in Los Angeles for traveling Broadway productions from 1903 until the mid-1940’s; it seated around 1600 people. I don’t know which is more astonishing: that the actors had the energy to get dressed and go out on a work night, or that they could just sit with everybody else in the audience without any security precautions.

Kingsley spent more time watching the stars in the audience than watching the show. She reported on their habits:

Douglas Fairbanks likes to slide in for an act and make his getaway.

Charlie Chaplin is a restless little wight, who likes to rush out and smoke between acts, but always a little apart, where he can watch the crowd.

Dorothy Gish and Bobby Harron, the Gold Dust twins of picturedom, are the most decorous in the crowd. Dorothy doesn’t gish at all—nary a gish. She sits like a little lady with her hands folded in her lap, according to the manners Mommer Gish taught her years ago, and Bobby goes out an smokes one cigarette between acts one and two and brings Dorothy back a box of candy.

Mabel Normand isn’t an inveterate first-nighter but she’s likely to come flitting in with Edna Purviance.

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Mabel Normand and Cullen Landis in Upstairs

Miss Normand also appeared in Kingsely’s favorite film this week, Upstairs:

there’s a real sparkler on the Rialto this week, with that high candle-power comedienne, Mabel Normand in the star part. The name of it is Upstairs; it is adapted from Perley Poore Sheehan’s story, and it is on view at the Alhambra, and don’t miss it if you want to see a really breezy, diverting fun film, with Mabel Normand at her very brilliant best.

There’s a light but skillfully-spun plot about a poor girl in love with a bellboy of a big hotel, who sets about getting a thrill out of city life in her own way, deciding the best playground for the game is the hotel…she starts to sample the hotel’s delights, from tea dansant down to running the elevator rapidly from top to bottom until they shut off the power. In short, Mabel is the mischievous little sprite we know and love, in a setting that is suited to her cleverness.

Unfortunately, it’s a lost film.

Kingsley mentioned that even movie stars could be star struck. Zasu Pitts suffered a bout of it when she went to tea with Nazimova. Kingsley wrote:

Miss Pitts tells about the meeting in characteristic fashion:

“What did you do when you met Nazimova?”

“Oh, I don’t know—guess I just skipped around some.”

“What did you say to her?”

“Why,” answered ZaSu, “I didn’t say anything. She said all the right and nice things, of course, but poor me—my mouth got so dry I couldn’t speak at all! I guess she thinks I’m an actress of the silent drama all right!”

This week, Kingsley interviewed theater actress Carroll McComas, who had returned from entertaining the troops in France. She mentioned something that doesn’t usually turn up in biographies about General John J. Pershing:

“Though he’s military in bearing and very dignified most of the time, “ said Miss McComas, “when he unbends there’s a sweet and wholesome boyishness about him which is completely captivating. After the show there was a dance, and please let the world know, Gen. Pershing is a wonderful dancer!”

 

‘The Timeliest Picture Ever Filmed’: Week of August 2nd, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley went to a preview of a movie ripped from the headlines:

Bolshevism on Trial is the name of a vivid satire on Bolshevism just put out by the Mayflower Photoplay Corporation. It was given a private showing at the Alexandria last Friday night and was received with acclaim by the crowd of producers, critics and other who were present…Bolshevism on Trial is capital entertainment which doesn’t preach at all except indirectly. Two young idealists, a girl and a youth, decide to uplift humanity. The boy is a millionaire’s son, and pledges money to a Bolshevist organization for the purchase of an island for which to try out the theories of the crowd who belong to the society. Needless to say, human nature soon begins to work, everybody wants to be the fellow to run things.

The charm of the picture, in fact is its utter logic. There is no vilifying of anybody—merely a situation is worked out to its reasonable conclusion according to the laws of human nature.

The summer of 1919 was right in the middle of the first Red Scare. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had frightened industrialists and the government; they feared that Communism might spread to the United States. It also briefly energized the labor movement. There were a record number of strikes in 1919, according to Adam J. Hodges in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (2019). The Scare culminated in the brutal arrests of hundreds of suspected leftists in the Palmer Raids later this year. Public alarm over the violence, plus less labor unrest, helped calm things down until the post-World War 2 Red Scare.

Bolshevism on Trial didn’t get a public showing in Los Angeles until early November, when it ran for four days right after the first Palmer Raids. It played at the Hippodrome, which was usually a vaudeville theater, and it was on a bill with acts like Miller and Rainey (comedians and saxophone players) and Sherman and Rose (variety dancers). It seems like film theater owners either wanted to avoid politics or they didn’t think it would be a money maker. It you’d like to take a look at it, it’s available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Kingsley reported that this week, Samuel Goldwyn held a lunch for newspaper and trade journal writers, where he “dispensed not only good food, but information and movie wisdom.” He mentioned that costume dramas were making a come back (he was currently producing two of them) then the subject moved on to censorship.

Concerning the subject of censorship, that ever-fertile topic of conversation where two or three film folk are gathered together, Mr. Goldwyn expressed the belief that the cure for the virulent sort of censorship which had been hacking right and left in film plays would come about when producers possessed part ownership at least in picture theaters.

He didn’t explain how a change in theater ownership would affect local censorship laws (though it would certainly increase his profits). Next, luncheon guest Rex Beach, the adventure novelist, spoke on the topic, suggesting:

that censorship be laughed to death, and he said the way to make the public laugh would be to show to the people of the big cities of any given state in one or two reels, handed gratis to the exhibitors, portions of a number of notable film productions which had been cut out by censors in other States, but which they themselves had been privileged to see. As censors never agree as to what should and should not be shown, the results of the Beach plan would be to reveal to people how utterly inadequate, piffling and ridiculous film censorship is.

Nothing came of that idea–it was probably too much work. Nobody was interested in making a stand for either art or the First Amendment, they just wanted one set of rules. As Beach alluded to, there were hundreds of inconsistent decency laws throughout the country. Discussions about how to solve the multiple jurisdiction censorship problem went on until 1934, when the Production Code started to be rigidly enforced.

This week, Kingsley reported on a novel advertising campaign for a comic actress in her first drama:

If a little blue Salvation Army bonnet should drop right down and land on top of your head today, don’t be surprised. The fact of the matter is it will be a message from Billie Rhodes of the National Studios, who is going to fly over the city in an airplane today and drop these mementos, which will serve the double purpose of calling your attention to the Salvation Army and its works and to The Blue Bonnet, her feature photoplay which is coming to the Kinema next week…Speaking of her projected trip, Miss Rhodes admitted flying was a bit scary (she’s already been up twice) “especially,” she said, “when they go into nose and tail spins. However, I like it, and I mean to own a machine of my own some day.”

Motion Picture News (September 13, 1919) reported that her trip aloft to drop 5,000 paper bonnets was only part of the “spectacular advertising” effort that “worked wonders in putting the Rhodes feature across.” They also reconstructed a set from the film in the theater and installed a large paper mache bonnet over the marque:

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Additionally, at four of the evening screenings Rhodes appeared at the theater and sang with a newsboy quartet. I think I’d like that more than the Q&A sessions we occasionally get now.

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Plenty of entertainment!

 

 

Crushed Hopes: Week of July 26th, 1919

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Grace Gordon

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on yet another attempt to break into the film business:

It appears that Hollywood isn’t a wild enough place any more for the making of Wild West picture plays. Anyhow, that’s what Messrs E.D. Ulrich, Wallace D. Coburn, Charles M. Bair and others think. Consequently they have organized the Circle C Film Company, to produce photoplays on western subjects, but have decided that the proper place is in Montana, the home of the picturesque cowboy and the long-horn.

Coburn and Bair were both ranchers in Billings, Montana; I couldn’t find any information on Ulrich. Bair had made a fortune during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 selling equipment to prospective miners, then he went back to sheep ranching. Coburn, owner of the Circle C Ranch, had produced and starred in one film in 1918, The Sunset Princess, which was shot in Montana and based on his story. So they planned to do more of the same.

The Circle C Film Company never did make a film. Their high hopes came to nothing, which isn’t particularly unusual in Hollywood. Other than Kingsley, nobody reported on it. The final paragraph shows how she learned about the company:

Securing of players for the company is going forward, and the Circle C officials announce the engagement of a young woman whom they consider a find in the film world as their leading woman. She is Grace Gordon, an actress of 18, formerly a dancer, but who has of late, during the past year, been playing small parts in various studios. Miss Gordon not only is possessed of much beauty and talent, but she is an accomplished horse woman.

Kingsley didn’t mention that among her attributes, Grace Gordon was her niece. Her mother was Kingsley’s sister, Mildred Kingsley Mossman. Her father Edward Mossman had died in 1915, so they were sharing a house with her grandparents as well as Kingsley, just a bit north of downtown Los Angeles on Solano Avenue. The house is still there.

 

Despite occasional mentions in her aunt’s columns, Gordon’s career was confined to supporting and uncredited roles. She married physician Stuart Nolan in 1928 and retired from acting. This just shows how hard finding work in film was, even with publicity in the biggest daily newspaper in town. Sometimes because history is all about the people who were successful, it’s easy to forget how rare it is.

In just this one week, several actors announced hopeful new ventures, but none of them worked out the way they wanted them to:

  • Monroe Salisbury, “one of the screen’s most popular idols,” was starting the Monroe Salisbury Players. Kingsley wrote: “it is understood the new organization has ample backing and that it has secured the services of several well-known writers of magazine and screen stories. No expense is to be spared.” Salisbury had been a leading man with Cecil B. De Mille and at Universal. His most famous role was Alessandro in Ramona (1916). However, his own production company only made one film, The Barbarian (1921). After that, he appeared in only one more film for a small company then he retired.
  • Rita Stanwood, theatrical and film actress, was returning from maternity leave to play opposite her husband H.B. Warner in a new Jesse D. Hampton production, Gray Wolf’s Ghost (1919) but that was that. She had two more children, and returned to the screen only once more, in 1935 after she divorced Warner, a successful supporting actor.
  • Priscilla Dean made arrangements to start her own company, if she could amicably end her contract with Universal. They didn’t let her go, but it wasn’t so bad. She got to work with director Tod Browning and star in films like Under Two Flags (1922) and White Tiger (1923).
  • Theda Bara was looking in to forming her own company, because Fox didn’t want to pay the $10,000 per week she was asking. She never did; instead she got married and retired in 1921. She tried a comeback in 1925 with The Unchastened Woman, but it wasn’t a hit.
  • Theodore Kosloff, a Russian dancer signed with Famous Player-Lasky. His first film was to be directed by Cecil B. De Mille and it would be based on the play The Wanderer. This fell through, but he got to star in Tree of Knowledge (1920) directed by De Mille’s brother William. He went on to appear in supporting roles in several films C.B. De Mille directed including Affairs of Anatole (1921) and King of Kings (1927).

It’s never been easy to work in film.

This week, Kinglsey got to see two enjoyable movies, Nugget Nell, a Western burlesque full of “sparkling originality” in which Dorothy Gish captures “bands of desperadoes by the power of her wit and her strong right arm” and Misleading Widow, a fresh and entertaining comedy that turns into a bedroom farce in which Billie Burke wears terribly sophisticated clothes. However, her best review was of a stinker so bad that all she could do was point and laugh at it:

A fellow had an awful lot of bad luck in Ruling Passions at the Victory. First a girl promised to marry him, but only for his money, then another fellow he had taken in and given a home to and made a partner of in business stole the girl, though the man distinctly told him to “keep away from her.” And right on top of this the doctor ordered him not to smoke any more.

No wonder he was so sore that when the picture opens he is enjoying a perfect orgy of peevishness—just chewing up the scenery and everything. He had a nurse, and the valet was the guy that let us in on the poor man’s troubles, she wanting to know why he never smiles. And when the man tells the nurse he’s going to watch a ‘dispossess’ of one of his tenants because they can’t pay the rent, and states with a fiendish, but somewhat naïve glee that he “just loves to see people suffer,” she decides that what he needs is a good dose of common sense—and a smoke…

Certainly he was a changed man from the first moment that the pretty nurse lighted a cigarette for him. He forgave everybody, pressed money into the hands of the “dispossessed” and wiped away a tear, and, instead of ruining his rival on Wall Street, took the rival’s child into his arms and kissed it. Oh, good. So that, when the reformed man says to the nurse “I’ve been acting like a fool!” we echo a heartfelt acquiescence.

 

Ruling Passions was supposed to be a serious drama about a millionaire’s reformation. We can’t see just how bad it was now because it’s lost. I suppose that critics get paid for suffering through the dull ones, not having fun at Dorothy Gish movies.

 

 

 

The First Flat Stanley: Week of July 19th, 1919

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Dana C. De Hart and Douglas Fairbanks (photo by Charles Townley Chapman)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on Douglas Fairbanks’ continuing love of airplanes:

Drat the boy Douglas Fairbanks – he just will take all kinds of chances with his precious young life! The other day at De Mille Fields, during a chance visit of Fairbanks, a scout plane, one-seater, and its aviator happened to be visiting. Mr. Fairbanks expressed a desire to make an ascent in the plane.

“But it has only one seat.” said the driver.

“Never mind, I’ll hold on!” exclaimed Doug.

And nothing to do but he must make the ascent, clinging to what the layman would call the running board alongside the plane. They went up 1500 feet, sailed around in the empyrean for several minutes and when they alighted the champion smiler of the world declared it was the most refreshing trip he’d ever taken.

And I thought flying Southwest was bad! I imagine life insurance salesmen never bothered him at parties. I went looking for a picture of Fairbanks and an airplane, and found the one that’s above. Then I fell into a research rabbit hole, figuring out where and when it was taken. The answer was at College Park Airfield near Washington D.C. on October 16, 1918. It was part of a publicity stunt to raise money for the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive. Fairbanks said that if they’d airmail him to New York City, he’d ask bank president Pliny Fisk to match financier Bernard Baruch’s one million dollar bond subscription.

Officials were happy to take him up on his offer. Regular airmail service was quite new in the Untied States; it had just started on May 15, 1918, so it was an attention-grabbing feat and the Washington Times made it a front-page story. They reported that Assistant Postmaster General Otto Prager had Fairbanks step on a scale, then put an aerial stamp on his forehead, canceled it and sent him off. Since he weighed 162 pounds (2592 ounces) and the charge was 16 cents an ounce, the stamp cost $414.72.

The Sun had an imaginative story about Fairbanks’ adventures once he arrived. He ran right over to Fisk’s office and said:

“I want to see Mr. Fisk,” cried Doug to the office boy, who tried to bar his way. “Tell him Douglas Fairbanks—“

The office boy gasped and dropped in a semi-comatose state. Over the boy’s prostrate body leaped Doug and landed on the desk side of the Fisk inner office partition.

“Action, Mr. Fisk!” cried Mr. Fairbanks. “I could have gone to the office of Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie or any of those guys, but just because I like you and always did I give you an option on matching Barney Baruch’s million buck subscription. Dig!”

“But,” said Mr. Fisk, “our firm and I personally have subscribed for bonds till it pinched and so I don’t think—“

“Pinch yourself again,” cried Doug. “I’ve taken my life in my hands all afternoon by flying here from Washington with a nut aviator named De Hart, whose chief diversion on the way over was to pick out cemeteries all through Maryland, Delaware and Jersey and then make a beezer dive at the tallest and sharpest marble shaft in the graveyard. And why did I do it? Because I knew you’d subscribe for a million to match Barney Baruch.”

And even while Doug was talking Pliny Fisk was uncapping the trusty old fountain pen. He signed a check for $1,000,000, handed the check to Doug, who had vaulted out of the office and was gone before Pliny Fisk could ask for a receipt.

Alas, it probably didn’t happen that way: the Washington Times reported that Fairbanks telephoned Fisk before he left, so his arrival wasn’t a surprise. Oh well, that’s how it should have happened! His airplane ride was true anyway, and it’s no wonder his quick trip up in 1919 seemed refreshing, not cold and frightening.

According to the more reliable Washington Times, he collected over 6 million dollars worth of subscriptions in New York, then flew back to D.C. with another airmail pilot, Robert Shank, on October 18th. He delivered them personally to the Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo on the day before the subscription drive ended, helping them to exceed their Liberty Bond quota.

Fairbanks sent himself through the mail, just like Flat Stanley. Unlike Stanley Lambchop, he didn’t need to be squashed by a bulletin board to travel via the mail, nor did he have to fold himself into an envelope so he could visit his friends. Now to encourage literacy the Flat Stanley Project asks children to mail Stanley “to a school, a celebrity, a family member, a politician or anyone of interest and the recipient returns the little flat guy along with a completed journal and perhaps some souvenirs such as post cards, photos, or special items.”

This week, Kingsley confessed to doing something she rarely did:

I’d rather see Mary Pickford in Daddy Long Legs the second or even third or fourth time than most people and plays for the first time! When this delightful picture was at the Kinema a few weeks ago, I said you didn’t know the star or the play either until you had seen Daddy Long Legs, and on –well, I’ll confess it—a third view of the picture at Tally’s Broadway now, I’m even more of the opinion… Miss Pickford’s humor is of so human a sort, there is much whimsicality, so much unction to it, and yet there is always an underlying wistfulness and appeal about her, too, and often gives a tug at your heart-strings even when you are laughing the hardest. That’s what keeps her always in a niche far above all the others, I’m sure.

This is even more remarkable because it wasn’t a bad week for films – she liked the ones she reviewed, and Fairbanks’ The Knickerbocker Buckaroo was playing, too. So it wasn’t only Chaplin who brought in the repeat customers.

Her favorite film this week other than Daddy Long Legs was The Weaker Vessel, a satire on social expectations of gender. It told story of a small town girl (Mary Maclaren) who flees the rich creep her parents made her marry (John Cook), moves to the big city, becomes a waitress and reforms an alcoholic actor (Thurston Hall). Kingsley thought it was a “radiant, human, bubbling story done with charming ease and sincerity.” She recounted her favorite scene, in which the husband is convinced to divorce her:

One bit of skill lies in the fact that certain situations which might easily be farcical are rendered genuinely human by their treatment, as when the heroine, being shut up alone in the bedroom, whiter her no-account husband whom she left on her wedding night because of his drunkenness and sordidness has followed her, first implores him to let her go and then beats him up. When the hero—the bombastic actor played by Hall—comes in with a pistol and says “I will protect you!” the husband replies faintly—“Don’t protect her; protect me!”

Now we know that spousal abuse of any sort is wrong, but then it seemed like she was taking care of her own problems – no wonder Kingsley liked it. It’s a lost film.

 

“District Over Quota,” Washington Times, October 19, 1918, p. 1.

“’Doug’ Flying to New York to get Mr. Fisk’s Million,” Washington Times, October 16, 1918, p. 1.

“Doug To Walk Till He Gets $1,000,000” The Sun (New York City), October 17, 1918, p. 13.

 

 

Plans That Came to Nothing: Week of July 12th, 1919

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Let’s go make movies someplace else!

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley indulged in hyperbole:

One of the biggest announcements of the year in filmdom is to the effect that Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin are going to South America next fall to make pictures. The announcement was made yesterday at the Fairbanks studio.

The trip is to be made on a boat, either specially built or chartered for the occasion. The company will embark at San Pedro, and will stop along the coast, wherever the fancy of the famous pair or the interests of the picture business may dictate…The boat in which the two world-famed comedians will travel will be equipped with laboratories, projection room, developing room, and all necessary photographic paraphernalia connected with the development ant printing of films.

Never have these two screen idols been more popular than they are at present, and their reception in South American will, of course, be an ovation. As both speak Spanish to a certain extent, it may be expected the trip will prove a great holiday as well as a wonderful business venture.

Fairbanks said they probably wouldn’t be going until late October or early November, because he had two films to finish before he could leave.

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They never went. Chaplin got busy making The Kid, and Fairbanks had plenty to do in Los Angeles, between making films, setting up United Artists, and convincing Mary Pickford to marry him (which she did the following March). Daydreams about escape are pleasant for movie stars, too! This shows why it’s a bad idea to tell a newspaper reporter every stray thought that crosses your mind, even if you’re Douglas Fairbanks.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Crimson Gardenia, an adventure-comedy adapted from a Rex Beach short story. Set during Mardi Gras, a bored millionaire (Owen Moore) meets a pretty women (Hedda Nova) and is promptly mistaken for an escaped prisoner who is being chased by both the police and a gang of cut-throats. Such a durable plot! Kingsley wrote:

Which really, after all, doesn’t give you the least notion of the fresh, crisp charm which Reginald Barker, director, has put into Mr. Beach’s story. And let him who thinks there is no such thing as subtlety on the screen, who believes that delicate nuance is not conveyable in the medium, and that a story, nicely balanced, so as to dip thrillingly one moment toward romance and adventure and next into the frothiest suggestion of comedy, just take a peep at this thoroughly delightful film.

I’m sold. Do you suppose he escapes? Could he marry the woman? An incomplete version survives at the Eastman House.

The director Kingsley admired, Reginald Barker, directed nearly 100 films during a fine career that lasted until 1935, but the most successful crewmember was Hugo Ballin, the art director. In just a few months, he started his own production company because he wanted to direct. His films included Jane Eyre (1921) and Vanity Fair (1923), but they weren’t very successful. He went back to his first career as a artist, and he went on to create some of the most memorable public art in Los Angeles, including the murals at the Griffith Observatory:

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Caroline Luce has written an excellent, fully illustrated website about him called Hugo Ballin’s Los Angeles.

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This week, Kingsley reported a bathing girl controversy – but it wasn’t the usual one about the immorality of scantily-clad women:

“Can Chicago rightfully boast prettier bathing girls than Los Angeles?” inquires a dispatch from Chicago.

The question was asked by Chuck Reisner, usually Chaplin’s assistant director but he’d been lured to Chicago by fledgling film producer William S. Bastar to direct bathing beauty comedies. He continued:

“Chicago bathing girls are prettier, more attractive and make better actresses than the girls of any other city in the world,” said Reisner the other day, according to word just received.

Naturally, Kingsley printed a rebuttal from the genre’s originator:

“How can that be?” retorts Mack Sennett. “Can’t our girls bathe and swim all year round in the ocean, whereas your girls can only be outdoor girls, so far as bathing is concerned, a few months a year. Besides, bathing in a lake is pretty tame—something like bathing in a big bath tub!”

Despite Reisner’s skill at getting publicity, only one short in Chicago was completed, Dog Days. It played in Los Angeles in early December, but it barely appeared in the theater’s listing or advertising. The promoter emphasized the live show featuring young women who sang and danced while wearing bathing suits. It was so popular, it got held over for a second week. Reisner was already back to work for Chaplin as the assistant director on The Kid. He got to be a director again in a few years, first on a series of Brownie the Dog shorts, and later with Syd Chaplin (The Better ‘Ole) and Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill, Jr.).

 

 

New Faces Overnight: Week of July 5th, 1919

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“Would You Like a New Nose?” Photoplay, August 1930

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was alarmed by a new trend: some actors weren’t satisfied with what Mother Nature gave them–

judging from the experience of our best little picture stars who get their features changed while you wait. Noses are “chiseled” over night, the lady with the beak comes out with a feature that makes Clytie [a water nymph from Greek mythology] look like a prize-fight Amazon; the vinegar queen we were afraid to speak to returns to the studio with an expression so sweet we at once begin to feel we could borrow money from her…When you kiss your favorite motion picture star good-bye, and she says she’s going to the mountains for her health, at once the heart-broken inquiry presents itself—“Shall I ever see her again?” What we mean is—will she come back to us bearing that unvarying similarity to herself?

She was very concerned about the terrible day when Douglas Fairbanks decided to turn his impressive nose into a turned-up trifle or if Bill Hart were to have a dimple installed in his chin. It was all very distressing. She summed up the whole problem with elective cosmetic surgery: “it looks as if the whole world were soon to become monotonously beautiful, and there just won’t be anybody we can look at and say ‘Well, thank God, I don’t look like that.’”

I had no idea that this sort of cosmetic surgery was even available in 1919, however, the first recorded nose reconstruction was done in India in 800 B.C.! Many new plastic surgery techniques were developed during the First World War, for soldiers with facial injuries.

Nevertheless, Kingsley was one of the earliest to write about stars and surgery. Articles in  the media history database Lantern mention it as a plot element in films, for instance the villain of a serial The Hidden Hand (1917) is a master plastic surgeon and he rearranges his henchman’s features so he looks just like the hero. The first magazine article in the database about Hollywood stars’ surgical experiences appeared in the August 1930 issue of Photoplay. Called “Would You Like a New Nose?’ writer Harry Lang claimed that “over 2000 of our stars and near stars have had their faces shuffled and reassembled for the screen.” However, he could name only a few names of mostly not very well-know actors, because both the stars and their doctors wanted to keep it secret. Now it’s surprising if an actor hasn’t had work done and you can find online articles that list the exceptions.

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Grace Kingsley interviewed Charlie Chaplin this week, and reported that for his first feature film, he was planning to leave aside slapstick and play:

a character role of an appealing as well as of a humorous nature, so that those gifts for portraying wistful pathos which the world’s most famous comedian has evinced often in the midst of his jazz comedies will have full play. In short, it looks as if the comedian were about to come into his own.

That’s exactly what he did. He told her he’d already written the story and he couldn’t wait to get started on it, but he needed to finish up making shorts for his current contract with First National.

She also asked his about the birth of his son on Monday. He was delighted to be a father, and the boy was named Norman after Mabel Normand, because she was the one who told Mack Sennett to hire him. He didn’t work on Tuesday and he celebrated “by dismissing, with paychecks, the same as if they had worked, a big crowd of extras who had assembled.”

Sadly, Norman Spencer Chaplin died on Wednesday, July 10th. According to the doctors, while he seemed healthy at birth, he was missing a “vital organ.” Now the most shocking part of the story was that they kept the news of his inevitable death from his mother, because they thought she was too delicate to hear it. They didn’t tell Mildred Harris Chaplin anything until after he died.

Styles of writing about such a sad story have changed a lot. Here’s how it was reported on the front page of the second section of the LA Times:

Sorrow sits enthroned in the Hollywood home of Charlie Chaplin and the bubbles of happiness have floated through the windows of the little white nursery and vanished. Dreams of the spinner of laughs have been shattered and his air castles have crumbled—for Charlie Chaplin’s baby boy is dead.

It wasn’t just the Times—the Los Angeles Herald had several paragraphs about the dust-laden toys in the nursery that would never be played with.

The official Chaplin site says his loss helped inspire the feature he told Kingsley about, The Kid. He decided not to wait until after he finished the shorts and started working on it ten days after Norman died. It took nine months to complete (he quickly make A Day’s Pleasure in the middle, because First National wanted something to release) and it came out in February 1921 to universal and continuing acclaim.