One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley told which film would be replacing Intolerance on January 1st at the 3,000-seat Clune’s Auditorium: The Eyes of the World. Pre-sale tickets were available by mail order only and requests would be filled in order of their receipt. This was extremely unusual, but it worked. They sold all 6,000 tickets for the two screenings on New Years Day, setting an attendance record according to Moving Picture World (February 3, 1917).*
It was a success with the Los Angeles critics, too. The unsigned review in the L.A. Times called it a “a master picture” that should be “added to the list of the few really great screen dramas.” Otheman Stevens in the Examiner said “it is intense in its action, mingling the most naturally intimate traits of humanity in a series of dramatic incidents, and saturated throughout with the ultimate of idealized romance.” George St. George in the Express wrote that “the story is handled in splendid style” and reported on the audience reaction:
climax piles upon climax and bursts in the tremendously dramatic fight on the narrow ledge of rock thousands of feet up the cliff. This scene is one of the most effective bits that ever has found its way into a picture, and it held the whole audience spellbound yesterday afternoon. There was absolute stillness in the theater while it lasted and a sigh of relief and a burst of applause as it finished.
The film was adapted from Harold Bell Wright’s 1914 bestselling novel of the same name. It told the story of Aaron King, an artist who was pursuing fame and money by painting flattering portraits of society women. He meets Sybil, an innocent young woman, and after rescuing her from a kidnapping, paints his masterpiece: her portrait. It was unusual for a ten-reel long film of the time because it was a love story, not a war movie. Its producer, William Clune, later told Kingsley why he did that:
the future of the photodrama depends not upon great spectacle, but upon the portrayal of essentially human scenes. Time has proven that it is a grave mistake to permit spectacle to infringe upon the gripping personal drama. A good story needs no fireworks. (December 31, 1916)
He had an interesting theory, but it wasn’t the future of film and Eyes was the last movie he produced. He went back to running his chain of theaters.
The Eyes of the World is a lost film, but that’s not the only reason it’s been forgotten. The film, like the book, included some heavy-handed allegory that’s fallen out of fashion.** Here’s a sample conversation from the book between Aaron King and his novelist friend:
Before the film opened, Kinglsey mentioned it many more times in her columns including this story about the actress who played the society woman who commissioned a portrait:
Miss Kathleen Kirkham … gave up a big legacy to gratify her histrionic ambitions. She early developed a passion to make acting her life work, and her grandfather in Menominee, Michigan who opposed her desires, stipulated in his will that $100,000 was to be given her only in the event she abandoned her notions.
Unfortunately, this story is too good to be true. While Kirkham’s grandfather, Jacob Leisen, was a wealthy brewer, any attempt to influence her career from beyond the grave would have had to have been awfully early: he died in 1900 when she was only five years old. Kirkham married an insurance manager and retired from acting in 1926. Incidentally, she was a cousin of director Mitchell Leisen (Easy Living 1937, Midnight 1939).
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Pearl of Paradise. She called it
most beautiful and alluring, and at the same time the most insidiously naughty picture Broadway has perhaps ever seen is “The Pearl of Paradise” at the Superba this week. Not that there is anything the censor could put his finger on. There isn’t.
Margarita Fischer provided the naughtiness; she played a woman who grew up on a deserted island who’s hobbies were swimming and dancing in the moonlight naked. Kingsley particularly admired the cameraman’s work, saying “even in these days of remarkable photography, The Pearl of Paradise is noteworthy because of its lovely settings.” Unfortunately, there’s no record of who the cinematographer was. The Static Club (forerunner to the American Society of Cinematographers) had been fighting for cameramen to receive on-screen credit for their work since early 1914, but they hadn’t yet won the battle.
Kingsley also singled out Mabel Taliaferro’s work in The Sunbeam: “For radiance and delightful play of facial expression none can approach her, not even Mary Pickford.” She was playing a Pollyanna of the slums, part of the spate of movies about plucky girls who meddle in other peoples’ lives. Kingsley pointed out that
Pollyannas are apt to be wearisome and irritating in real life, with their monotonous optimism and their perfectly illogical jags of joy. But Miss Taliaferro manages not only to make you tolerate such a character, but to thoroughly sympathize with her.
That’s an accomplishment! Taliaferro was never as hugely successful as Pickford, but she had a good career. Her Broadway debut was in “Children of the Ghetto” when she was only two years old and she worked regularly on stage, screen and television until 1956. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Breaking into screenwriting has always been difficult. Under the heading “It’s no Use, Fellows” Kingsley reported that the Keystone studio had bought only two original scenarios in the past two years. One was written by one of their stage carpenters that they were afraid of losing if they didn’t buy it, and the other had a plot that was almost identical to one they were in the middle of filming, and they were afraid of being accused of plagiarism.
We can start the countdown to the one hundredth anniversary of Buster Keaton going into movies. On December 15th, Kingsley reported that Joseph Schenck was building a large motion picture studio in New York where his wife Norma Talmadge and Roscoe Arbuckle would make films. In just a little more than three months, Keaton would visit that studio, spend an hour looking at the camera, lights, cutting room and dallies then decide it was for him. March 19th will be here soon: start planning the parties!
*It was a record for paid admissions – it beat Birth of a Nation and Intolerance because they didn’t let anyone in to Eyes for free.
**To defend Wright’s work a bit, none of the other books on Publishers’ Weekly top ten bestsellers list for 1914 are read very often now either. The only book published that year that has lasted is Dubliners by James Joyce.