One hundred years ago this week, two Los Angeles theaters were showing films appropriate for Christmas, which then as now, means Dickens adaptations. As Grace Kingsley noted, “Dickens’ stories are all particularly adapted to the screen, I think, owing to their clean-cut drama and vivid types.” She admired both of them.
The first was a version of Dickens’ most popular story called The Right to be Happy. Kingsley said:
The warm and radiant Christmas spirit as embodied in the well-loved “Christmas Carol” is preserved with wonderful effectiveness and artistry in the picture play at the Superba this week, and one laughs and weeps through the joys and sorrow of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchett and Old Scrooge, and shudders realistically at the appearance of Marley’s Ghost. The picture is done in a really remarkable manner. There are no sumptuous settings, no famous names to carry it; yet, I got more joy out of this little photoplay than I have from half-a-dozen so-called features.
On Christmas morning, the Advertising Club sponsored a special screening of the film for the newsboys of Los Angeles. The Times called it “the treat of their lives.”
Competing for holiday filmgoers at a theater three blocks down Broadway was a larger production that Kingsley liked just as much:
Are you one who loves the appealing figures of the immortally wistful little Oliver Twist…If so, don’t fail to go to the Woodley this week and see how Marie Doro… and the others bring the familiar characters to life. No lay figures these, but real incarnations of the vivid beings whom Dickens, the great champion and lover of humanity, has made immortal. The Lasky Company is certainly to be congratulated. Not only is the photoplay picture perfect—even the old Cruikshank illustrations have been followed in some instances—but the very spirit of the brilliant genius of Dickens lives again.
By 1916 there had already been many filmed Dickens adaptations. According to Michael Pointer in Charles Dickens on the Screen, he was one of the first authors to have his work filmed when in 1897 the American Mutoscope Company made “The Death of Nancy Sykes,” from a gristly scene in Oliver Twist. Between then and 1916, adaptations had ranged from extracting the story of one character from a novel like Dolly Varden (1906) to attempts to condense whole books into seven reels, like David Copperfield (1913). Unfortunately, neither film that Kingsley wrote about survives but there are lots more to chose from. The IMDB says that as of this writing there have been 364 completed projects and five more in the planning stages.
Playing in the theater across the street from Oliver Twist was another adaptation from an author who didn’t have the good fortune to be timeless like Dickens. If he’s remembered at all today it’s because of his now-startling name: Winston Churchill. The American Churchill wrote bestselling historical fiction and in 1916 was much more famous than the man who at the time was a Member of Parliament. The British one had to publish his books as Winston S. Churchill, to avoid confusion.
The novelist had good luck with the film version of his work; Kingsley thought that the filmmakers had “made the Churchill characters live” so that “thousands who have enjoyed Winston Churchill’s novel The Crisis may well be expected to find distinct pleasure in the pictured version of the same.” The book, published in 1901, was a Civil War story set in St. Louis, where there was a mix of Northern and Southern supporters. The film is held at the Library of Congress.
There have been a few articles written about the writer, all amazed that there was another Winston Churchill.
- “Tale of Two Winstons” by Macy Halford in the New Yorker.
- “The Other Winston Churchill” by Elaine Krewer in The American Catholic.
- “Forgotten Fiction: The Other Winston Churchill” on the Toronto Public Library Reference Blog.
Grace Kingsley didn’t write a year-end review of 1916, but neither did anybody else. A Lantern search turns up the first top ten films list on February 9, 1922, when Film Daily evaluated the movies from 1921 and put The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the top of their honor roll. They didn’t bother with any explanation or justification for the choices, but the next year they said the list was based on a survey of newspaper, trade and fan magazine critics.