Buster Keaton Blogathon 2019

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This post is part of Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.

For the blogathon, I had hoped to look at how Grace Kingsley covered Buster Keaton in her columns, other than in her reviews and interviews. But there just wasn’t much to look at. He occasionally turned up in little stories, like when Lou Anger said he looked out of spirits, and Buster replied, “I am. Not a drop left!” or when there was news, like when he got married or when he hired a new director. It seems like he was more interested in working on his films than in being a movie star, which isn’t much of a surprise. The most interesting thing I noticed was how much more often he appeared in the paper after he signed that contract with M.G.M., but that only proves that they were a well-oiled publicity machine.

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Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Joe Mitchell, Jean Havez

So instead I’ll tell you about my favorite Keaton article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, “Humorists All at Sea.” Unsigned and published on May 25th, 1924, some lucky writer got to visit the original writing staff at work. A few months earlier, technical director Fred Gabourie, while on loan to another studio for The Sea Hawk, found something his boss might like to use: the Buford, a 450 foot ocean liner being sold for scrap. He was right. So one day Keaton took Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joe Mitchell to visit it at Catalina Island and said, “There’s the boat. Now write me a comedy.” The Times writer watched as they did just that:

As an illustration of the way gag men work, take the methods of Buster’s scenarists. All three inspected the Buford from the lowest deck to the top of the main mast. Everything from the anchor to the smokestack was considered for its possible comedy values. Portholes were inspected, life preserves labeled up, a diver’s suit dragged out on deck, the uniforms of the various members of the crew were considered.

From stem to stern nothing aboard the Buford was overlooked. For two whole days the gag men shot possibilities at each other and Buster while they built up the story. A stenographer sat hard by taking down the suggestions.

At the end of a week of this sort of thing, the stenographer had more than 400 pages of single-spaced gag ideas. These ideas were whipped into story form by Buster and his henchmen in several more days of work.

Only the funniest of the gags and only those which best fitted into the story were retained. And after ten days of talk the first scene of Buster’s comedy, tentatively titled The Navigator, was shot.”

So it was as simple as that! Now that we know, we can all go out and make a masterpiece. The article shows how different writing for movies is from other kinds. As Keaton said in his autobiography, “they were not word guys, at all. They didn’t have to be.”

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Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, Keaton, Jean Havez

Keaton’s original group of gag men had been working with him since his two-reelers, but they were to stay together for just one more film, Seven Chances. The team broke up temporarily in late 1924, when Keaton closed his studio for two months while he went on vacation. It became permanent when Jean Havez died of a heart attack on February 12, 1925. Joe Mitchell co-wrote three more comedies and retired. Clyde Bruckman went to work for Harold Lloyd, but when he read the book The Great Locomotive Chase, he brought it right to his old boss and they made The General.

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Keaton and Capt. John A. O’Brien

The L.A. Times writer mentioned one detail that I hadn’t read elsewhere:

Captain John A. O’Brien, veteran of fifty-eight years of service on the Pacific, materially aided the scenarists. O’Brien told funny stories of past experiences he had or of which he had heard and called in his crew to tell their versions of funny incidents of life shipboard.

obrien_1919Captain “Dynamite Johnny” O’Brien (he once prevented a dynamite explosion) was born in Cork, Ireland in 1851 and he moved to the United States in 1862. According to the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, he’d been a sailor since 1867 and he became a steamer captain in 1888, mostly traveling between Seattle and Alaska. So he really did know a lot about ships; Keaton was clever to ask an expert. After 1919 O’Brien became a pilot in the Puget Sound. He was still working as a mariner, age 79, and living in Seattle according to the 1930 Census. He died the following year.

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The Navigator is recognized as a great silent comedy; in his autobiography Keaton said it and The General were his best. In 2018 it was added to the National Film Registry.

 

Please visit the rest of the Buster Keaton Blogathon!

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Week of February 15th, 1919

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Maxine Elliott

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got experimental and introduced an alter-ego. She started her Sunday column:

“Say, maybe us extra girls have got the book of life all thumbed up and dog eared by the time the ballot-box is pushed around our way, but believe you me, kiddo mine, every once in a while old dame Fate whittles herself our a new quill and jots herself a new episode in the serial!” Ella, the Extra Girl, parked her professional chewing gum under the bench out on the lot, sat on one foot and swung the other one.

And so Ella was ready to tell a friend all about the actress Maxine Elliott, who once caught her eating leftover food on a set and promptly loaned her money to buy groceries then hired her to be an extra on her film, leading to more work. Unfortunately, one of those assignments was with Caesar the Lion, whose claw scratched her and she fainted. Luckily, Elliott was at the studio and she gave her a ride home, where her brother Bob cried then said “this lady is the dame that saved me when the Boches shot hell out o’ me.” He told his sister all about Miss Elliott pulling him out of a ditch after he’d been shot by Germans in Belgium. Ella thought the world of her.

Film and theater star Maxine Elliott was in town this week, touring with the comedy Lord and Lady Algy. As I mentioned last week, perhaps a scheduled interview fell through but Kingsley still needed to fill her column, so she came up with this combination of fact and fiction (for instance, Elliott had done relief work in Belgium during the war, but there’s no record of her rescuing soldiers from ditches).

Kingsley’s article was harmless and said nice things, but it didn’t get at how interesting Maxine Elliot was. She’d been on the stage since 1890 and a star since 1903. When she played in London, there was a rumor she had a relationship with King Edward VII. In 1908, she opened her own Broadway theater which she named after herself. She was fantastically wealthy, having taken financial advice from her friend J.P. Morgan. She made two feature films for Goldwyn – Fighting Odds (1917) and The Eternal Magdalene (1919). She retired from acting in 1920 at age 52 and became a society woman with houses in the U.S., England and France. Her French chateau on the Riviera was so notorious, somebody wrote a whole book about the parties she hosted there. She died there in 1940. Her niece wrote an excellent biography of her, according to the New York Times. So when is somebody going to make her biopic? There must be an actress in her middle years who’d like this part.

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This was the beginning of a monthly series of star profiles using the persona of Ella Dearborn. Kingsley had aspired to be a fiction writer, and Ella was probably fun to write. She thought that she was an expert in Hollywood, and she let readers feel like they were getting an insider’s view. It lasted until December, but five years later Kingsley started another version called Stella the Star Gazer who went along with her to Hollywood parties and said star-struck things a journalist couldn’t say. Stella appeared regularly from 1924 to 1931.

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Kingsley reported on another actress who had a long and eventful life:

Being run away with while horseback riding last Sunday was the thrilling experience of Gloria Swanson…Miss Swanson is a wonderfully accomplished horsewoman, but she met a horse last Sunday that she found it hard to manage. She and a friend were riding across the foothills in Hollywood, when the other girl’s horse became unruly and the two exchanged horses. No sooner had Miss Swanson stepped on to the animal’s back than he began to plunge and buck, and then he started to run. Miss Swanson succeeded in holding on, however, and quieted the horse after a two-mile gallop. “When I was a little girl living in Puerto Rico,” said Miss Swanson, “I used to delight in riding the wildest horses on the ranch, and my knowledge certainly came in handy last Sunday.”

So even an actresses who was starting to play glamorous rich women could be a rough-and-tumble horse expert in the public eye. Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago, but her father was in the Army and she grew up in Puerto Rico. She had stopped making wild comedy shorts for Mack Sennett in 1917 when she moved to Triangle where she starred in serious dramas. After it went bankrupt she went to work for Cecil B. DeMille, and their first film, the sophisticated comedy Don’t Change Your Husband, had just been released. It’s interesting that this bit of publicity made its way to Kingsley, but it seems that even ladylike actresses could be proud of coping with a runaway horse then.

This week, Kingsley found a new way to avoid being damaged by dirty movies when she saw Ashes of Love:

it won’t, I believe, hurt the tenderest sensibilities, inasmuch as one’s mind is kept just too busy for anything doing mental gymnastics in following the fairly bewildering number of characters and the somewhat choppy action. The choppy action is due, no doubt, to the effort of the director to heighten the suspense. Ashes of Love is too long, also—it took six reels, at least, to reduce the hero’s passion to ashes.

So if you’re confused enough, no harm can come to you! Peter Milne in Motion Picture News hated the film too, for the same reason. “Mr. Abramson has made his almost usual mistake of hurling a great number of characters at the spectator in the first reel of his picture so that confusion reigns even before the plot gets under way.” Ashes of Love has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

Director Ivan Abramson had a surprisingly long film career for someone who wasn’t very good at his job (confidence beats competence, once again.) A former newspaper publisher and theater manager, he wrote and directed melodramas with titillating titles like The Sex Lure, first for his own company, Ivan Film Productions, then in 1917 he co-founded the Graphic Film Corporation with William Randolph Hearst (who, in addition to his newspaper empire, owned International Film Service which made newsreels and animated shorts). Hearst left in 1919 but Graphic kept releasing films on a states rights basis until 1922. However, Abramson didn’t become a better director; about his 1920 film A Child For Sale Burns Mantle wrote in Photoplay “Ivan Abramson’s idea of what constitutes a coherent and convincing dramatic story, taking this picture as a sample, offer many opportunities for the raucous hoot and the mirthful snort…His picture is an inartistic jumble of unrelated incidents to me.”

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motheroftruthHis final film was Lying Wives (1925), which starred Clara Kimball Young in her last silent film. He kept trying to make movies as an independent producer and in 1929 he self-published a novel about the evils of monopoly in the film industry called Mother of Truth: a story of romance and retribution based on the events of my own life.* Late that year, he brought a suit charging violation of the Sherman antitrust law against the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and forty-seven corporations and individuals. He wanted 1.3 million dollars in damages. The MPPDA called the suit “ludicrous,” but they settled it out of court just before it went to trial in December 1933. Abramson died on September 15, 1934, age 65.

Abramson reminds me of J.A. Quinn from last month: another guy who blamed his lack of success on the film industry at large, but goes down swinging, with as much publicity as possible. If this keeps up, I’ll have a monthly series of my own! I could call it “Collecting Cranky Coots.”

 

*Book Review Index didn’t list any reviews — I did check.

 

 

 

“Abramson Suit Against MPPDA is Settled,” Motion Picture Herald, December 16, 1933, p.19.

“Ivan Abramson, Movie Man, Dies,” New York Times, September 16, 1934.

“Ivan Abramson Plans Six Feature Pictures,” Film Daily, August 2, 1933, p.2

Mantle, Burns. “The Shadow Stage,” Photoplay, June 1920, p.68.

Milne, Peter. “Ashes of Love,” Motion Picture News, September 21, 1918, p.1911.

 

 

 

Week of February 8th, 1919

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to see a film she was really looking forward to:

Any time that Fred Stone appears as the star in a film comedy, I for one am going to be on hand to see it. And if, in addition, as is the case at Clune’s Broadway in Under the Top, this week, those unctuously humorous and good-humoredly satirical writers, Anita Loos and John Emerson, are the authors of the picture play in which Stone appears, I simply wouldn’t miss the combination for anything.

While Loos and Emerson are still well-known (at least among silent film fans), Fred Stone is nearly forgotten. The writers did a good job of tailoring their script to his impressive talents:

The delicious humor of Under the Top, which has to do with circus folks, lies in the manner of its doing, as conveyed both by action and subtitles. If you told the tale straight it would sound like rank melodrama—save the whimsical twist at the end, which, quite obviously, is gentle satire. The kidnapped heroine, Ella Hall, owner of the circus, is hypnotized into saying she wants to marry one of her guardians who has been stealing her money, with the time set for her awakening at 3 o’clock. The action takes place in the circus tent, and when Fred Stone, the hero, enters to save her, quite obviously he is in the midst of his enemies. So, instead of running away or knocking down the whole tentfull of ruffians, he runs out into the show tent—the circus is in progress before a big crowd—and, awaiting the hour of her awakening, he does all those circus stunts which he used to do in his circus days—bear back riding, trapeze work, leaping over three horses with the villainous circus men at his heels. This serves two purposes: it lets us see Fred in all the stunts he is famous for, and it keeps the suspense at fever heat.

 

Fred Stone was called “the grand old man of the American theater;” his career in entertainment lasted over seventy years (Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1959). He was born in Colorado in 1873, and his first job in entertainment, at 11 years old, was as a tightrope walker in a circus act with his brother. He went on to perform in every kind of venue there was: medicine shows, vaudeville, musical comedy, legitimate theater, silent and talkie films and radio. He was most famous for originating the role of The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz on stage in 1902. No less than P.G. Wodehouse wrote in 1917 “Fred Stone is unique. In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act he stands alone as one who can do everything.” (“Fred Stone and a Few Others,” Vanity Fair, December 1917)

 

Under the Top was his second film, The Goat (written by Frances Marion—he had good luck with his screenwriters) was his first. He made one more for Lasky (Johnny Get Your Gun), then went back to Broadway to star in the hit musical comedy Tip Top. In 1921 he got funding for his own production company and made two films directed by Frank Borzage. He went on to star in more Broadway shows, and he occasionally appeared in talkies, most notably as Katherine Hepburn’s father in Alice Adams (1935). He died in 1959.

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Only a fragment of Under the Top has been preserved at the Library of Congress and UCLA. Still, it’s more than has been preserved of his stage career. I’d like to see his Scarecrow; Ray Bolger was a fan and he based some of his performance on Stone’s. Armond Fields wrote a biography called Fred Stone: Circus Performer and Musical Comedy Star (2002).

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This week Kingsley wrote an unusual vaudeville review. She was so fed up by the running commentary provided by another audience member at the Orpheum that she quoted it at length:

Down at the Orpheum yesterday, sitting right behind me, was one of those self-starting matinee girls. And she told everyone all around what the show was about and why. I thought “What’s the use of my writing the impressions made on my jaded theatrical senses?’ Why not let this fresh young thing tell the public about it right out in the paper. It’s no secret what she thinks—everybody in the orchestra seats must have heard. Why hold out on the rest of the world?

 

When the headliner Stella Mayhew came out on stage:

the sweet young thing was rattling along about her recent experience in learning the ‘shimmy,’ but she desisted long enough to express herself regarding Miss Mayhew. ‘She just is a darlin’ isn’t’ she. She’s a blonde now—self inflicted…She calls her fat her ‘salary’ and she’s afraid she’s going to get thin, she told my manicurist! Isn’t that funny?

Things didn’t get any better as the show continued; the matinee girl observed that singer/piano player Leo Beers could ‘tease the tinklers…And the way he sings, in that quiet, cosy-corner way. Seems as if he’s just calling on you, doesn’t it. My goodness, I wish he were!” and comics Eddie Borden and “Sir” Frederick Courtney “don’t say a thing you can remember to tell the next time you go to a party—it’s such nutty stuff—but you like ‘em while they’re doing it.”

I have no doubt that Kingsley had to endure an irritating loudmoth (even without cell phones, audiences were perfectly capable of being obnoxious then, too) but some of her review must have been fiction. She couldn’t have possibly gotten so lucky as to have somebody else practically write it for her, that’s just too convient.

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However, all that annoyance was worth it, because next Sunday a new creation debuted in her column: Ella the Extra Girl. Ella was opinionated, and a bit of a know-it-all, but much less irritating than the matinee girl. She isn’t talking during a performance; she chats with her friend on a bench outside about how actress Maxine Elliott helped her find work. I imagine Kingsley was staring at the blank page that needed to become her Sunday column (possibly after a scheduled interview fell through) and she didn’t want to churn out another dreary one like last Sunday’s column with “the newest star that has arisen the film firmament” Katherine MacDonald, who talked about her Revolutionary War ancestry and complained about how disillusioned she was with her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s literary and artistic set in New York. So for fun Kingsley created Ella. Whoever that obnoxious young woman was, she was a great help to her work.

 

Week of February 1st, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol had recently been approved by the enough states and ratified as part of the Constitution. It was to go in to effect on January 16, 1920, and Grace Kingsley spared a thought for screenwriters:

A temperance film lecture in these piping days of prohibition is quite like telling a man in the penitentiary that he mustn’t steal chickens any more, or the little boy on the desert isle that he mustn’t fire off firecrackers. What, by the way, will some of our scenario writers do when prohibition becomes law? How can the good young man be got to steal the papers, and what excuse will the erring husband have for being led astray by the vampire? Also what will become of all those temperance films, with their inevitable red hearafters full of ladies whose sufferings, whatever else these sufferings have effected, have not in the least spoiled the beauty of the ladies’ curves?

Having said all that, she was shocked to actually enjoy the unintentionally funny film on offer this week:

All of which leads up to The Craving, the temperance story starring Francis Ford, at the Symphony this week. Francis Ford obligingly plays the “horrible example.” Yet, after all, where’s the moral, since every time he takes a drink, visions of beautiful ladies arise, from the bottle and the glass—and appropriately clothed for a dip, too! My goodness, won’t every man be asking Francis for the brand? The only other punishment (?) for his drinking was that he yielded up the secret of the formula for a certain high explosive to a morbid gentleman who roached up his hair so as to look like the devil, and who seemed to have no particular use for it when he got it. But hold! Maybe he thought the formula was the secret of the hero’s drink!

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It helped that the film was “wonderfully well produced, acted and directed,” and the trick photography was “remarkable and beautiful.” The Craving has been called the last temperance film, but it didn’t fit the usual trope: reform and sobriety don’t solve the hero’s problems, a big explosion killing the man after the secret does (just like movies made now!)

However, Prohibition did put an end to films based on the Ten Nights in a Bar Room model; after it was repealed in 1933 they were seen as old-fashioned. Later films about alcoholism were more subtle: viewers of A Star is Born or The Lost Weekend could figure out on their own that too much booze was a bad idea.

The Craving been preserved at the EYE Film Institute, and they have made it available on YouTube.

Kingsley announced the founding of yet another production company this week:

by no less a person than Albert Capellani, who ranks as one of the foremost directors in this country, and who for some time has been one of the towers of strength in the directorial department of the Metro Pictures organization.

It was called Capellani Pictures Company. But this is the really eye catching detail: the new company “is backed by Capellani’s own money, for the most part.”

Then and now, it was unusual for somebody to spend his or her own money. Capellani had been making films since 1905; he directed the first adaptation of Les Miserables (1912) that Kingsley had enjoyed so much a year earlier. At Metro Pictures he had just directed Alla Nazimova in The Red Lantern.

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His new company’s first film was Oh Boy! based on the musical by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. After two more films, the company dissolved and he went to work for Famous Players-Lasky. He moved back to France in 1923, but couldn’t get any projects made there. He died of complications from diabetes in 1931.

 

 

 

 

 

Week of January 25th, 1919

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Ruth Clifford

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was sick of slapstick comedies, and she gave us a list of everything she’d seen enough of:

Something besides jazz comedy—with its eternal races, its repartee administered by a slapstick on the nether portion of the fat comedian, the wit of the biffing bladder, trick photography showing the thin gentleman tripping along in the sky, airy persiflage in the form of dough thrown at the professor’s whiskers.

Luckily, what she wanted was served up this week:

The pieless comedy is with us at last on the screen…In short, crisp, original farce, written especially for the screen—not mere warmed-over farce adapted from stage plays. If you want to laugh until you cry, go and see The Game’s Up at the Symphony. Never were more adroitly comical complications than arose from Ruth Clifford’s pretending to her small-town chum that she, Ruth, who had gone to a great city, had become a great artist.

She paints menus for a living, which I didn’t know was a career option (so she drew pies instead of throwing them). The chum comes for a visit (oh no!), and with the help of a chauffeur who’s actually a rich man’s son (surprise!) Ruth keeps up the pretense. After “a lot of complications you’ll foresee, but laugh at anyway,” it ends with weddings all around (the son has a nice friend for the chum).

 

This welcome change was brought to Kingsley by a woman director, Elsie Jane Wilson. She was born in Sydney, Australia and had been acting since she was two years old. She met and married fellow actor Rupert Julian and they immigrated to the United States in 1911. They moved to Los Angeles in 1914 and found acting work at Universal Studios. They both became directors; Wilson in 1917 on the family film The Little Pirate. She got to direct 11 films. Unfortunately, The Game’s Up was her last, which is a shame because non-slapstick comedy would become a regular film staple in the next decade and it sounds like she really knew what she was doing. Her husband got to continue directing for Universal, even their prestige picture The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Most of her films, including this one, are lost. However one, The Dream Lady, is on the new Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers DVD.

The star, Ruth Clifford, went on to a very long career as an actress and she was happy to talk to to film historians. Kevin Brownlow wrote her obituary when she died, aged 98.

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Clune’s Auditorium

Live theater was still going strong in Los Angeles, and this week, the opposite of the trend I read about in film histories, happened: Clune’s Auditorium, the 3000 seat theater where some of the most successful films had played, from Birth of a Nation to Cleopatra, switched to back to vaudeville. Owner William Clune had signed with Ackerman and Harris, vaudeville magnates, to link his house to their chain of successful theaters, the Western Vaudeville Association. The opening show was a satirical review called Fads and Fancies plus a vaudeville bill.

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Will King was “possessed of a real drollery which gets the house giggling the minute he comes onstage.”

Kingsley got to review it and said:

success perches high on the dome of Clune’s Auditorium, if last night’s crowd, the greatest in the history of the big theater, which greeted the transformation of the house from a picture palace into the home of musical comedy, is any criterion. It was a good-natured crowd, too—one that wanted to be pleased. But even if it had been much more critical than it was it would have been happy.

So it looks like it was a good business decision. The Auditorium never did go back to showing films. In 1920 it became the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which played there until 1963. It was demolished in 1985 and turned into a parking lot, but now apartments are being built on the site.

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Kingsley got to see a preview of D.W. Griffith’s latest, A Romance of Happy Valley, and she was impressed:

Something entirely different, but just as entirely intriguing as the usual Griffith pictures is A Romance of Happy Valley. The story is an idyll of an old southern town, and full of delightful types, while there are fairly Barrie-ish touches in its whimsicality, especially in the scenes where Lillian, as the heroine, having carried off the absent hero’s coat, which was being used as a scarecrow in his father’s cornfield, holds tender communion with the garment, as though the owner still wore it. And there’s a surprising twist to the exciting plot.

Kingsley really had been seeing too much melodrama, if she thought that attempted filicide was just a ‘surprising twist.’ The film survives, and is available on the Internet Archive.

 

Week of January 18th, 1919

 

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J.A. Quinn

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an ambitious new reform project:

The Motion Picture Co-Operative Association, established by J.A. Quinn, and of which he has been elected president, and which embraces all branches of the industry, exhibitors, producers, distributors, directors, authors, actors and camera men, is now, according to Quinn’s announcement, fully under way, with offices in the Fay Building. This association is the direct culmination of the general upheaval of conditions in the motion picture industry during the past few months, and is established to regulate the entire industry, so that better pictures, stories and casts will be the rule.

One part of the MPCA particularly interested Kingsley:

One of the most important and comprehensive departments to be established by Mr. Quinn is the “service department.” Through the co-operation of exhibitors all over the country, a system of reports will be made upon each production, covering the value of the picture relative to its rental, and the drawing power of each actor.

People in the film industry knew that collecting data would be useful, but nobody had attempted to compile this kind of industry-wide box office statistics. Quinn seems to have quickly given up on the idea; it wasn’t mentioned in any subsequent articles. It was more work than he realized, probably.

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Variety, 1946

Nevertheless, the industry still wanted and needed to know what was selling tickets. No organization attempted this enormous task, instead, the trade paper Variety took it on. In the 1920’s they reported on estimated weekly grosses from individual big-city theaters. Their reporters got the numbers from either cooperative house managers or estimates from rival house managers or sales managers, so it wasn’t necessarily scientific. They had a Tuesday deadline, so they took what they could get. In the 1930’s, both Variety and the Motion Picture Almanac compiled an annual list of film grosses. In 1946, Variety began publishing a weekly National Box Office Survey with data from 25 American cities. In 1976 a company called Centralized Grosses was founded, which, after a series of acquisitions, has become Comscore which compiles box office data today.

However, Quinn continued with his efforts to make “better pictures.” His vague program initially sounded good – who doesn’t want better films — and he signed up lots of famous people to his advisory boards including D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Mary Pickford, Maurice Tourneur, Lois Weber, Douglas Fairbanks and Mabel Normand.

Things began to go South at the MPCA’s second meeting in July held in New York. Quinn stood up and declared the motion picture industry was “the biggest joke in the world” and “rotten to the core.” He spelled out exactly how he wanted to change things in a letter to the Los Angeles Times editor, published August 3rd:

The business improved till about four years ago when we had such reliable production companies as the Biograph and Vitagraph organizations, which made a specialty of producing one and two reel features, and were delivering better stories, more sincerely and convincingly explained in one and two reels then they are now telling in five and eight reels.

There is not one producer or director in the moving-picture industry who does not need supervision and we stand ready to take three of any of their pictures which they have made in rotation and before a representative committee show where the pictures can greatly be improved by cutting, re-editing, recasting and in most cases, entire reconstruction.

He was certainly confident that he had all the answers. He also thought that everyone was getting paid too much, not just undeserving actors (he loathed the star system) but also supervisors and writers. He blamed the end of the Motion Picture Patents Company* and the rise of independent producers for the current “hog eat hog” situation: “fortune after fortune was, and is now being, burned up by the different independent producers in their present attempt to bunk the public and exhibitors into believing that each one was or is better than the other.”

Quinn ended his speech in New York by shouting “They think they can stop me from telling what I know about pictures, but I’m started now, and by God, the only way they can stop me now is to kill me.”

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So much abbreviation!

Meeting attendees weren’t impressed. The Exhibitor’s Herald reporter observed, “nobody in the industry showed any disposition to stop him by killing him or any other method.” Jesse Goldberg, general manager of Frohman Amusement Corporation, stood up and said, “There is no more iniquity in the studios of the picture business than there is in any place else in the world…You talk of the public wanting clean films. Look at what Yankee Doodle in Berlin did at the Broadway. The box office was broken down and women fainted in the crush. And why? Because your clean picture-loving public knew that a number of pretty girls in abbreviated bathing suits would appear. If you want work to do, change the taste of the public.”

Wid’s Daily also weighed in on the meeting, concluding, “you cannot standardize anything—not morals, not drama, not box office receipts. You can only be tolerant and not fail to much in appreciation of what seems to hold the attention of about twenty-five million people who patronize every day the motion picture theaters of America.” This seems like useful advice for all reformers!

Quinn kept going, but he decided try a different angle. In 1920, he changed the name of his organization to The Motion Picture and Theatrical League for Better Pictures. It aimed to “stimulate the production of better pictures by the force of concentrated, organized public support of meritorious films and by the discouragement of untruthful advertising.” This scheme seems to have fizzled out in 1922.

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Quinn’s Rialto, May 28, 1917 (opening day). Quinn sold it to Sid Grauman in 1919.

John Archibald Quinn was quite a character. Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada in 1880, he became a theater owner in Arizona before he moved to Los Angeles in 1911 where he ran four theaters. Incidentally, while he was shouting for reform he was divorcing his wife of 16 years, Lena Wooton Quinn, to marry Lillie Riemann as soon as it was final in December 1919 (she divorced him in 1926).

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John and Lillie Quinn, 1923

After the Better Films project ended, he came back to Los Angeles and became the director of the West Side Improvement Association, whose aim was to coordinate business development from Main Street to the ocean. This didn’t go well, and in November 1929 he was in debtor’s court, stating that he lived on borrowed money and he hadn’t had a salaried position in ten years. At that time he was also involved in a bizarre and unsuccessful scheme to get the Chief of Police thrown out of office with false testimony from a French dancer. In the 1930 Census he was living in Alhambra with no employment but in the 1940 census, he was in Sierra Madre and said he was the director of the Los Angeles Tax Payers Association. He died in 1945.

wjbryan
William Jennings Bryan

Kingsley mentioned an unusual potential vaudeville act:

Grape juice seems destined to take an upward flight in popularity and price. William J. Bryan, described by one New York publication as “Nebraska’s continuous spotlight,” is to go into vaudeville, receiving $2500 per week. He will open in New York, at the Palace, early next month, and is said to be signed up for a coast-to-coast tour.

Bryan, a temperance advocate, former presidential candidate and ex-Secretary of State did no such thing. Variety chased down the story’s origin: “The negotiations for the appearance of William Jennings Bryan did not proceed beyond their preliminary stage, which amounted to Evangeline Weed** submitting Bryan’s name to the big time managers, who rejected it.” It’s fun to speculate on what would his act have been like. He was a famous orator, but vaudeville managers plainly thought that politics didn’t fit among the comics and singers. He didn’t start his crusade against teaching evolution until the 1920’s, so that wouldn’t have been part of it.

ua_founding
Coming soon!

Kingsley had a chat with Syd Chaplin, and got the first hints of a story that would be big in the coming weeks.

Never before in the short but eventful history of the Big Five, which includes D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, have the members of the world famed aggregate been so closely affiliated and so strongly set on carrying out their plan of organization as at present. “We are at present merely working out the details of our plan,” said Mr. Chaplin yesterday, “and we expect to have a detailed statement to make within a few days.

This was the founding of United Artists, and there will be more about it.

 

 

 

*The MPPC was broken up in 1915 because it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. This is the first time I’ve seen someone lamenting its end.

**Evangeline Weed ran a “personality school” to train actors, and was an aspiring Broadway producer. (Harvard Magazine, December 1919, p.31)

eweed

 

 

“All Off for Bryan,” Variety, January 17, 1919, p. 1.

“Another ‘Movement,’” Wid’s Daily, March 24, 1920, p.1.

“Effort to Ruin Davis Revealed,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1929.

“Exhibitor’s Views on Film Producing,” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1919.

Golden, Herb. “How box office reporting was built,” Sime’s Site, http://www.simesite.net:80/muggs.asp?articleid=313

“Groups Unite on the West Side,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1924.

“I Don’t Know Where I Live,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1929.

“Limelight Gradually Dimming on J.A. Quinn and his Reform Plans,” Exhibitors Herald and Motography, July 19, 1919, p. 30.

“Quinn-Goldberg,” Wid’s Daily, July 14, 1919, p. 1, 4.

Week of January 11th, 1919

goldwyn_pictures

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley tried to reassure her readers that the film business was in good shape:

Those immortelle-weavers who love to honk-honk the sad news that now-a-days the lamp of the picture business is glimmering darkly—that in fact it is burning low and smelling of the wick—should go down to Culver City and have a peep at the Goldwyn activities. Then would these crepe-hangers sell out their stock and buy in on fireworks. Commencing next week all the Goldwyn forces, consisting of six companies, will be at work.

She was really working hard to be cheerful, but the film industry was in the middle of a rough patch. Losses from the theater closures lingered, the United States was in a postwar recession and people were still occasionally coming down with the flu (Gloria Swanson came down with it this week, and was quarantined in her bungalow).

Much less reassuring was what Samuel Goldwyn had to say about his plans. He announced: “we have definitely decided to make fewer pictures. No matter how long it takes to complete a picture, we shall not let it go out of the studio until we feel it is a perfect as possible.” That was good news for audiences, but terrible news for people who worked in the industry.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Light of Western Stars, with Dustin Farnum.

The Wild West is rapidly becoming tame, even down in Arizona…But our joy in the Wild West show is perennial; and just now there is a perfectly smashing one on view at the Alhambra. You have only to take a peep into the above-named theater, and view the crowds that are chortling and thrilling in response to vivid melodrama.

The plot was unusual for a Western: Farnum’s character marries on a drunken bet, then he flees after being falsely accused of murder. They managed to work in a “thrilling” cattle round-up and several border raids.

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Ted Gale drew some cartoons, too

To close out the week, Kingsley wrote an odd little novelty article. A lifelong non-driver, she found herself among the 50,000 people attending the Auto Show. To occupy herself, she compared film actors to the latest models.

The Peerless Cloverleaf reminded her of Mary Pickford.

The seven-passenger Pierce-Arrow resembled Douglas Fairbanks.

The Overland family touring car looked like Charlie Chaplin.

I don’t see it, but I’m not bored and stuck at an auto show. It wasn’t her best work, but for a change, her writing appeared in the sports section.