One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported
No longer does Elizabeth McGaffey soil her dainty fingers with dusty tomes from the Lasky library while she searches through ancient literature to find whether Julius Caesar actually did have a soda fountain right in his palace, or whether Lucrezia Borgia sometimes substituted fishhooks for poison when she was sending boxes of Huyler’s (1) to he enemies. Mrs. McGaffey, in other words, is no longer research librarian for the Lasky-Famous Players Company. She has been promoted to the position of regular scenario writer on the Lasky staff.
Elizabeth Brock McGaffey founded the first studio research department in 1914. Before that, she’d been a feature writer for the Chicago Inter Ocean, a stock actress, and a play reader in New York. She moved to Los Angeles and found a job as a script reader for the Jesse Lasky Studio. Because of her wide experience and excellent memory, people got into the habit of asking her whenever they had a question. She “persuaded them to give her a dictionary, the National Geographic Magazine, and a public library card,” and she started the first research department.(2) Unfortunately, her career as a scenario writer didn’t last long (she was only credited with one story, The Honorable Friend, which she wrote before she was promoted) and she went back to the library. She became one of the “nine women” who helped Cecil B. DeMille make his films. In a 1930 article about studio researchers, her job sounded much more interesting than any librarian job I’ve ever had:
While compiling data for Dynamite, she spent hours down in a mine shaft, absorbing the atmosphere, talking with mining engineers and workers, contacting the Hercules explosive specialists, and making notes on incidents and details so casual that they might never be used. For Madame Satan, DeMille’s latest opus, she traveled about in a dirigible, recording the special phrasing of the officers’ orders and their individual slang. (3)
She worked for DeMille until he closed his production office in May 1931 (his contract with M.G.M. wasn’t renewed after two films failed so he traveled to Europe) and McGaffey found a new job as research director at RKO in August. She had that job until she died on March 13, 1944 of heart disease.
Kinglsey’s favorite film this week was yet another adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (this was at least the sixth). She wrote:
It is impossible to praise too highly this latest Fox masterpiece. The adapter has wrung from the realistic tale of tortured souls every drop of dramatic value. The multifold sufferings of Hester Prynne, the covert agony of Dimmsdale, the fortuity of circumstance that drove the young minister on to the branding of himself with the hot iron and his final confession—it is all there, and all colored with the gray austerity of bleak Puritanism. Some liberty is taken with the text in the final scenes, but even this is excusable in light of the marvelous manner in which the atmosphere and character-drawing is preserved all through.
Edward Weitzel of Moving Picture World didn’t agree; the happy ending made him rant “whoever is responsible for this despoiling of a masterpiece must hold the artistic perception of the average screen patron at a very low state” (March 3 1917). The man responsible was Carl Harbaugh, who is now most famous for his gag writing for Hal Roach and Buster Keaton. He’s in my book, Buster Keaton’s Crew. The Scarlet Letter is a lost film.
The ongoing war appeared in her column this week when Kingsley reported on D.W. Griffith’s plans for his next film.
A few months ago, Griffith was approached by representatives of one of the warring nations, inviting him to come abroad for the purpose of making pictures showing said country’s side of the conflict. At that time he declined because of President Wilson’s proclamation of neutrality. He has since gathered together a company of expert photographers with a view to hastening to Europe at the earliest possible moment.
The warring nation was Great Britain, and Griffith set sail (without the photographers) for England on March 17th. In June, two months after the United States officially declared war, he started work on Hearts of the World, shooting in France and England, then finishing it up in Hollywood. Lea at Silentology wrote about Griffith’s trip and the film.
On Monday Kingsley offered one argument against film preservation that I’d never seen before:
We of today say fatuously—what would we not give to know what Washington looked like! But privately we know that in his pigtail and knee-breeches he must have looked very like a footman or a character in a comic opera…Imagination is the great illuminator, the great aid to deathless fame. As a matter of fact, should not we have found Joan of Arc a big, natural peasant, unused to the gentle use of the hanky?…Won’t school boys of the year 2000 probably laugh at they way President Wilson walks and combs his hair; and who’d be in Theda Bara’s shoes on that same day? No, if you would be kind to our heroes and heroines, and if you would preserve to future generations their ideals, make a bonfire of films.
Her ignorance-is-bliss argument isn’t a strong one. Besides, I don’t think it was film preservation that changed who gets admired by school kids. That they did things differently then is one of the reasons some of us bother to study the past now.
(1) Huyler’s was once the biggest chocolate and candy company in the United States.
(2) H.G. Percey, “Problems of a Motion Picture Research Library,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, March 1936, p.253.
(3) Dorothea Hawley Cartwright, “Their Job is Looking Up,” Talking Screen, July 1930, p.65.