In a discussion of the popularity of spectacle in current films, Grace Kingsley mentioned
One experiment which has been tried over and over again with bad artistic results is the blending of the spoken and visual drama. George Beban, strong and competent actor that he is, and an artist of true sensibility, while he drew our tears in the pathetic scenes of The Sign of the Rose, gave us a jerky sense of new and too sudden adjustment when he passed before our eyes from the screen and back again to the screen, when the production was shown at Clune’s Auditorium.
Also known as The Alien, Beban’s experiment debuted in Los Angeles on April 12, 1915 and toured throughout the United States. (1) Produced by Thomas Ince, it told the story of an Italian immigrant who after his daughter is killed in a car accident, gets accused of kidnapping a millionaire’s little girl. It was based on a vaudeville sketch that Beban played for five seasons, then turned into a three-act play in 1911.
Orson Meriden in The Theater called the 1915 version “half reel and half real” saying “in this was given, for the first time in the history of the stage, a serious combination of the silent and the spoken drama. Opening with nine reels of motion picture, the story was brought to a crucial point, at which there was sudden darkness in the theater, and the curtain rose, disclosing the same players standing in the same scene in the same positions as they were when the picture flashed out. The effect was startling as well as novel.” (2)
In an interview with The Theater, Beban was asked what the advantages of combining the two. He said “When the actors appear in person after having been seen on the screen, they appear to the audience in the light of old friends, and as a result there is a warm spirit of intimacy created between the players and the audience…another distinct advantage of the screen, and perhaps the principal reason why I believe it will be made much of in the drama of the future, is its true realism. The motion picture has spoiled the public by its real thrills.” He cited the daughter’s death in the film, which they were able to show, not just tell about.
Some critics liked The Alien in 1915. Peter Milne in Motion Picture News wrote, “It is truly a great production, about the best Thomas H. Ince has given us, fully deserving the prominent place in theatricals that it is receiving. It is a production that will bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened” (June 12, 1915). Kingsley didn’t write a review of it then but by 1917 she felt free to criticise the experiment.
Beban didn’t combine film and live theater again. He continued to play Italian immigrants on the screen and made an ordinary silent version of The Sign of the Rose in 1922. Both versions are lost films. He retired in 1926 after his wife died, and he died after being thrown from a horse in 1928.
Miller’s Theater made a terrible booking mistake: they ran the latest Theda Bara film alongside There’s Many a Fool, a parody of vamps that was Kingsley’s favorite film this week. Hank Mann played the fool, notable mostly for his seasickness during a voyage to Italy. Carmen Phillips starred and according to Kingsley her “burlesque of Miss Bara’s haughty manner, eye-work and cigarette smoking are capital.” Phillips’ best bit was “when her trunk, with herself seated on it, slides across the hall to the fool’s sitting room, she cries ‘Ah, you see it was fate!’”
Carmen Phillips was a former stage actress; in addition to Fox, she also worked at Universal, Vitagraph, Horsley and Paramount until 1926. Then she disappeared — even Brent Walker couldn’t find out much about her.
Theda Bara’s “uninspired vehicle” was called The Tiger Woman; Kingsley said “its scenes have nothing new to offer…That the Fox vampire plays are about through – at least the sort they have been giving us—is proven by their own travesty on this sort of thing. It is also proven by the laughs with which the audience greets some of Miss Bara’s most vampirey scenes in The Tiger Woman. ’I wish they’d change all the ‘vamp’ plays into burlesques’ sighed the girl next to me. And a lot of us echoed ‘Amen.’”
Despite this one audience’s reaction, according to Bara’s biographer Eve Golden “The Tiger Woman was one of those films which critics hated and audiences loved: fans shrieked with delight as Theda wrought her wicked work.” That work included robbing her husband, poisoning her lover, and forcing another lover to kill his father, all in six reels. It’s a lost film. Bara’s box office appeal didn’t fail until the release of A Woman There Was in June 1919.
Like every frequent moviegoer since then, some contrivances were beginning to get on Kingsley’s last nerve this week, moving her to write:
There’s apparently just no end to the valuable information one can glean from the flickering photographs…Here are some valuable chunks of learning which I brought away with me.
- Lady reporters always wear white gloves and keep them on all the time.
- A doctor can tell by looking at a man’s tongue that the bullet wound he has just received will not be fatal.
- An artist who has just painted a picture invariably sticks the wet canvas under his arm to carry it home.
- Elevated railways were not unknown in George Washington’s time.
- Lightning may come right into a house and kill the villain, while nobody else feels even a shock.
At least now filmmakers have come up with new and different absurdities (i.e. why did the Empire blow up their only archive planet?)
This might be the last of the Keaton countdown. Roscoe Arbuckle’s farewell banquet was held on February 16th at the Alexandria Hotel. Kingsley reported that “Adolph Zukor, Mr. Arbuckle and others made brilliant and telling speeches.” He left for New York the next morning, where he would teach Buster Keaton all about filmmaking.
- It was the next attraction after Birth of a Nation, and they were able to charge the same high ticket prices, according to Motion Picture News (May 1, 1915).
- Orson Meriden, “Silent and Spoken Drama,” The Theater, August 1915, p.62.