One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had some big news about a Broadway star:
George M. Cohan, famous actor, playwright and producer, has at last fallen for the ‘filums.’ According to telegraphic advices received last night, he is going into the motion picture field full tilt, and will organize a company with himself as producer, player and author. Not only will he put many of his older plays into pictures, but he promises new stories as well as startling innovations in production and photographic effects.
The next day she had more details to add. The company was to be called the George M. Cohan Film Corporation and the films were to be distributed by Artcraft (the same company that released Mary Pickford’s films). He planned to film many of his stage hits, including Little Johnny Jones, George Washington, Jr. and The Man Who Owns Broadway. Cohan had been unobtrusively studying filmmaking at some of the New York studios.
Cohan did make three films for Artcraft. Even though he was famous for his song and dance skills, he knew the limitations of silent film so for his first film he chose a straight comedy. Broadway Jones told the story of a bored small-town chewing gum factory scion who moves to New York where he goes broke living it up. He almost marries a rich widow to fund his new lifestyle, but he inherits the factory and decides to return to his sweetheart and home.
Transferring Broadway success to the silent screen was a big challenge, but reviewers thought he pulled it off. George W. Graves in Motography said:
George M. Cohan’s first appearance on the screen is a triumph from all angles. First, the story lends itself most happily to screen restrictions and has plenty of dash and interest, second, the star’s inimitable personality registers with smashing effect without the voice, which is largely made possible by subtitles that have the spontaneity of conversational repartee and the true Cohan touch of humor…the irresistible Cohan facial expressions are brought into much more intimate view, revealing splendid subtlety necessarily lost in the distance on the legitimate stage.
Peter Milne in Motion Picture News seconded the praise, writing:
Broadway Jones scintillates with some of the best feature comedy ever shown on the screen…that Mr. Cohan is a natural comedian goes without saying…The production accorded Broadway Jones is extraordinary. When director Joe Kaufman wanted to have a cabaret scene at Murray’s, to Murray’s he went.
Edward Westant in Moving Picture World also agreed completely:
Comedian Cohan’s screen debut is all kinds of a success and patrons of the silent drama are going to like the man and his methods with the same warm admiration that characterizes the many theatergoers who are familiar with his career on the spoken stage. The creator of Broadway Jones has the snap and the brand of humor which appeal to followers of film, and the Cohanesque school of acting quickly adapts itself to the new medium of expression.
Of course it’s a lost film. He made two more silents: Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917) (the only one to survive; it’s at the Library of Congress) and Hit-the-Trail Holiday (1918). He had plenty of material, so why didn’t he make more? None of the trade papers reported on a disagreement. Cohan devoted only three paragraphs to his film career in his 1925 autobiography; he claimed that the contract was only for three pictures and while he “wouldn’t have missed the experience for worlds” he was much too busy with the theater to work in film. He did make two talkies, but according to his New York Times obituary “Mr. Cohan had little use for Hollywood.”
As an aside, if someone’s looking for a big biography subject, it’s time for another one about Cohan. There have been two, but the most recent was published in 1973.
Kingsley interviewed Benjamin Brodsky, the general manager of China Cinema Company Ltd. of Hong Kong who called himself the D.W. Griffith of the Orient. He was in town to promote his documentary, A Trip Through China. He said some astonishing things about film in Asia:
Motion picture making in China, with native companies, is an exceedingly interesting occupation, and many were Brodsky’s mishaps and adventures when, ten years ago, he began his work. He established his first picture theater in Hong Kong eight years ago, showing American films. “I had to hire my audiences,” said Brodsky. “Every Chinese is from Missouri—he’s got to be shown. For several days I paid Chinese 25 cents a head to see my show. Crowds gathered outside, and it wasn’t long before we had them coming. My two companies are made up of Chinese, and the pictures filmed are all historical. The Chinese like American slap-stick, but they won’t stand for seeing a Chinaman making a fool of himself. Also, there must be realism. When we have a hanging in a picture we are forced to hire a man from prison under sentence of execution.
I have no idea how much of that was true, but Brodsky was an important part of early film in China as a film maker, producer and distributor according to an article in China Daily. A Trip Through China gave American viewers their first look at Asia; according to scholar Li-Lin Tseng “Brodsky’s presentation did not altogether misrepresent the people and nation. Perhaps his travelogue should be viewed less as a false image of the country than as a coherent but ‘incomplete’ picture.” Eight reels of it are preserved at the Taipei Film Archive.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Less than the Dust, which was Mary Pickford’s first film under her new contract. Kingsley wrote:
she retains all the old charm and spontaneity, the elfish change of mood, alternating with rare moments when she seems pure spirit. But there is likewise a new depth, and entirely unexpected revelation of dramatic power with a deeper sincerity as its keynote…It has long been the favorite indoor sport of scenario writers, writing for Miss Pickford, to start her out as a child of nature, and wind up with a boarding school heiress finish in which Mary has fun with the finger bowls and corset strings of civilization. Hector Turnbull has done this again in Less than the Dust but it must be admitted he has made a very good job of it.
With this film, Mary Pickford proved she knew exactly how to manage her career for herself. It’s been preserved at UCLA, the Eastman House and at the Library of Congress and is available on DVD.
That week, just one block down Broadway at the Symphony Theater you could see an earlier Pickford as the second in a double bill with a Lionel Barrymore movie. It demonstrated how quickly film changed in the 1910’s. Kingsley said Hearts Adrift was “of the vintage of 1914, the day of childishly improbable film story.” She had a point; the movie involved shipwreck, bigamy and suicide and was much more melodramatic than what Pickford was currently doing. However, in 1916 readers of Motion Picture Magazine voted to include it on a list of great photoplay classics — “screen paintings that have made a lasting place for themselves in the new and wonderful art of Motion Pictures.” The list also included some films that are still called classics, like Caberia and Birth of a Nation as well as others that have been forgotten, like A Price for Folly. The editors mentioned that the castaway drama was Pickford’s most popular film. Hearts Adrift is now lost.