One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced the formation of a new company, the Continental Producing Company, that
will begin active operation next Monday on the production of a big twelve-reel feature, The Spirit of ’76, embodying historical events and characters of the American Revolution…it is said that much painstaking research has preceded the production of the picture.
She didn’t mention the man who is the reason the film is remembered today, its writer/producer, Robert Goldstein. His story was so sad that it wouldn’t make a credible melodrama (the Slate article about him was called “The Unluckiest Man in Movie History”).
Mary Mallory wrote a very through article about the film and Goldstein’s subsequent troubles, but the short version is that the historical events in this patriotic film included British war atrocities. Showing allies in the World War doing such things was suddenly considered pro-German, and he was arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. He served three years of a ten-year sentence. In 1921, he recut the film and it was shown in New York City for three weeks, but he had little success. He left the United States later that year and tried to find film work in Europe, ending up living in Berlin with his aunts. He returned to New York on August 16, 1935 (earlier writers assumed he died in the Holocaust, but his immigration record was recently digitized). He appears in the 1940 Census as an inmate of Riker’s Island, and that’s the final record currently available for him. It’s a shame Robert Goldstein ever wanted to make movies. To add insult to injury, it’s a lost film.
If you’d like to know more about the legal aspects of the case, look at “The Espionage Act and Robert Goldstein’s The Spirit of ’76 (1917): A Historical and Legal Analysis” by Zach Saltz. There is also a book by Anthony Slide called Robert Goldstein and The Spirit of ’76.
[Update: I visited the New York City Archive in October 2016 and I found only a dead end. Their records for Rikers Island end in 1936. I also checked the burial records for Potters Field but they’re kept by death date, and they’re missing the microfilm reel with records for 1942-1943. Maybe someday more records will be digitized and we can find out what happened to him.]
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Tarantula, a “tense and thrilling drama” about the downfall of a “he-vampire” (it’s about time!) Edith Storey played an innocent young woman seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a married man (Harry Hollingsworth). The baby dies, she becomes a dancer and he goes to one of her shows where she give him a jeweled box. When he passes out from drink, a tarantula emerges from the box, bites and kills him. She marries her faithful suitor (Antonio Moreno). And so we learn that the wages of premarital sex and revenge are to live happily ever after with an extremely handsome man. Hooray! (A few years later Moreno would become a star and rival to Valentino.) The Silent Feature Film Database says there are no archival holdings of The Tarantula, but it seems to be available on some sketchy streaming sites.
A notorious film came to town, but Los Angeles seemed “entirely apathetic” despite censorship battles waged in New York. Purity starred Audrey Munson as an artists’ model who poses nude to earn enough money to publish her ungrateful boyfriend’s poetry. Kingsley warned filmgoers that it was a bore; she thought that “the part calls for clothes – but there is no answer…there is a story, but it is obviously written merely for the purpose of stringing together through seven reels numberless poses of Miss Munson.” While the censors in L.A. were apathetic, the public was less so — the film played to capacity audiences. The next week, theater manager Seth Perkins learned just how relaxed the local censors were: hoping for a little publicity, he put up a “frank” photo of Miss Munson in the lobby. Unfortunately, not one person or official objected. He sighed to Kingsley: “Oh, for the old censor days!”
Kingsley revealed that even then people could be skeptical about Los Angeles standing in for other places: “The Lasky company apparently has implicit faith in California scenery and their art director. At present there are three features under production, with scenes laid in widely different localities on the earth’s surface.” The locations were Japan, the jungles of South Africa, and New York City.