One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley and the L.A. Times cooperated with Cecil B. De Mille on a successful publicity stunt. They held a contest to find what character Geraldine Farrar should play in her follow up to Joan the Woman, with cash prizes ($100 for first place, $25 for second, three prizes of $10 for third and four prizes of $5 for fourth) for the winners. DeMille held the contest to find out what the audience wanted to see, and he hoped to find a role as good or greater than Joan of Arc. The judges were De Mille, Grace Kingsley, screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, insurance agent/historical photograph collector Sam Behrendt and Southwest Museum director Hector Alliot.
They got thousands of entries. The paper reported that practically every woman of history had been suggested, including Eve, Sappho, Salome, Pocahontas, Carrie Nation and Emmeline Pankhurst. Cleopatra was the woman most mentioned and Mary, Queen of Scots was a close second. One person even suggested Napoleon, but De Mille thought that Farrar was much too feminine for that. They decided that if a character with multiple entries won, the best-written letter would prevail.
They announced the winners on February 13th. De Mille revealed two of the third-place winning entries, “an Aztec character” and Queen Esther, but he didn’t want to divulge the first and second place winners because he was afraid of other companies stealing the ideas. Ruby Archer Doud won the second-place prize. The first place winner forgot to include his name on his entry, so the paper reproduced part of it and asked him to go to the theater where Joan the Woman was playing.
He came forward right away. William Cutler, a 26-year-old gas station attendant, presented the other piece of the torn notebook page that was his entry and received his check. De Mille said that “Cutler’s idea was so good and showed such deep thought that it may be possible to develop the young man into a writer of no mean ability.” That didn’t happen. Instead he enlisted in the Army in November 1917 and became a chauffeur with the 194th Aero Squadron. After his discharge in July, 1919 he started his own dried fruit business on South Hoover Street. He died in November 1959.
It looks like the idea they used was J. Arthur Evans’ third-place winner, because De Mille and Farrar’s next film was about an Aztec character. In The Woman God Forgot (1917), she played Tecza, a fictionalized version of Montezuma’s daughter Tecuichpoch Ixcaxochitzin/Dona Isabel Moctezuma. In the film, she betrayed her people for the love of a Spanish conquistador. When Kingsley reviewed it in December, she was impressed mostly by the “sumptuous settings” the “marvelous photography” and the ”gorgeousness of the costuming.” The film has been preserved at the Eastman House, New York.
This week, Kingsley declared the death of slapstick because Charlie Chaplin was “giving the world something really new in the way of comedy” with Easy Street, and a “bright” and “refreshing” comedy, Her New York, also mixed pathos with humor.
She was tremendously impressed by Chaplin’s latest:
Not in vain has labored Charlie Chaplin, our biggest and best screen comedian…Easy Street is the flower of the Chaplin apprenticeship, it is Chaplin minus the gaucherie and crudeness of many of his former efforts; without the monotony of repetition of tricks; without the obvious effort after fun which has marred some of his pictures. It is spontaneous, bubbling, rib-tickling, unctuous; and yet the story has such skillful blending of pathetic shadings as to make the thing seem at moments a startling cross section of real life.
Critics continue to agree with Kingsley. Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns called it “an exquisite short comedy, humor encapsulated in the regular rhythms of light verse,” and Alan Vanneman in the Bright Lights Film Journal said it “ranks easily as one of the greatest comedy shorts ever made.” It’s available on DVD and on a streaming site that doesn’t help fund film preservation.
Her New York was a 1917 version of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Gladys Hulette played Phoebe Lester, a fresh-from-the country girl who finds New York is
a place where everything comes right in the last reel, the villain reforms, the waif of an infant is discovered to have been preceded by a wedding ring after all, and the young poet, destined to live for awhile by writing rhymes glorifying canned pork and beans, is able at last to unbridle his Pegasus and let him sail right up into the sky.
Kingsley thought it was “an aroma from an old-fashioned garden – despite its sordid setting.” and that Hulette was a “radiant and vivid personality.” Her New York hasn’t been preserved by an archive, but it was made by the Thanhouser Company, whose descendants have done a remarkable job of documenting their films. On their site you can find a page for Her New York and Hulette’s biography.
Kingsley reported that the future of filmmaking in Los Angeles looked extraordinarily bright. Most of the New York companies were planning to move all of their production to Hollywood including Vitagraph, Kalem and Goldwyn, and the companies already here like Fox, Famous Players-Lasky and Balboa had ambitious expansion plans.
The industry had a rough time in the next years with bankruptcies (Balboa) acquisitions (Kalem was sold to Vitagraph, which was sold to Warner Bros.) and mergers (Goldwyn merged with Metro and Louis B. Mayer Pictures). People were happier not knowing what the future was. Of course, she was partly correct: Los Angeles did become the center of film production.
In the least surprising story of the week, Kingsley found actresses dissatisfied with their weight; “the principal topic of conversation at Universal City among the actresses at the present time appears to be the subject of maintaining the proper balance of flesh.” This conversation will probably never end, but the difference is that then three women (Nellie Allen, Irene Hunt and Agnes Vernon) felt they needed to be bigger. The rest wanted to be smaller and they planned to get up at 5 AM and walk at least five miles. Now, no matter how slender, everyone would be setting her alarm clock.