One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recounted a conversation she had with Mabel Normand:
Everyone has had a try at guessing why pictures on ancient subjects didn’t specially interest the picture fans. Many picture directors have wrung their hands and torn their hair because their favorite pictures depicting Horatius holding the bridge, or the sorrows of some ancient lady of Greece, didn’t get over, while the fact that the picture fans refused to get in a welter over the exciting things that happened in old Rome, has caused the loss of many a penny to fatuous producers. Miss Normand has hit the nail on the head.
“Tell you what it is,” said Miss Normand, the other day as she put on her make-up preparatory to some retakes in Mickey, “the whole secret of public appeal is that the spectator may be able to put himself or herself into the role of the hero or heroine. This trick of the public imagination is one that must be taken into account. When a young man sees a man on the screen, he can’t visualize himself in the role of the hero, if that hero wears queer-looking clothes and lives in a funny looking house and he can’t imagine being in love with a lady in duds all out of fashion.”
The nail that Mable Normand hit wasn’t about the box-office draw of costume dramas, instead she was describing a flavor of film theory that came to be known as spectator identification. It became very popular with psychoanalytic critics like Christian Metz and Tom Gunning. A helpful summary by Millie Schneider is at Spectatorship Theories.
But what Normand was really interested in was what sells movie tickets, and nobody has been able to figure that one out. The only correct answer seems to be William Goldman’s: “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” However, the film she was working on did make plenty of money; in a 1939 interview Mack Sennett said Mickey made 8 million dollars, which would make it a top grosser in 1918.
Kingsley said they were talking about failed Roman history films but I haven’t been able to find what they were referring to. Cabiria came out three years earlier in the U.S. so it probably wasn’t that, and Cleopatra with Theda Bara didn’t come out until October 1917. They might have been discussing the Babylonians of Intolerance and Kingsley changed it to keep them out of trouble.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Tale of Two Cities.
The Fox production completely preserves all the significance of the original, and despite the intricacy of plot and motif, Frank Lloyd, director, is to be congratulated on having given the world a clear, gripping and wholly admirable visualization of one of the greatest of Dickens’ stories. Here, indeed, are we given a fine sense of the tragic whirlwind reaping, which was the French Revolution, conveyed not with a weary repetition of battle scenes, but in a few magnificent flashes and intimate personal touches.
She admired William Farnum in the dual Carlton/Darnay role, but she saved her highest praise for one woman who didn’t even get a credit:
There is a girl not named on the programme, who does one of the most striking bits of acting to be seen in the whole photoplay – she who cheers Carlton’s last moments before execution. It’s only a flash—but in her face are depths of passionate understanding, of a love, hopeless but divine, as she, too, passes under the guillotine.
The actress was Florence Vidor, and that brief scene made her famous, according to E.V. Durling in Photoplay (August 1917). She had come to Los Angeles with her husband, the future director King Vidor, in 1915 and had previously played a few bit parts. She went on to work in some great films, including The Marriage Circle (1924) and Are Parents People? (1925). She quit acting when sound came. A Tale of Two Cities is available on DVD.
Kingsley’s funniest review this week was for The Secret of Eve.
So far as I’m concerned Eve still has her secret intact. It may be this Eve’s secret involves the kind of corset Olga Petrova (Eve) wears and how she manages to retain it under all circumstances. Even as the first woman, when Miss Petrova appears, partly conceled, partly revealed, behind some bushes, clad in some shimmery stuff, her lines reveal that she wears a neatly-fitting pair of stays. As a subsequent reincarnation of an Indian woman, she still wears the corset. And, of course, as the poor little shop girl later, she saves up her money to buy a corset, presumably depending on lacing herself tightly into it to keep herself from being hungry. She’ll go to heaven in that corset, or refuse the invitation.
She went on to call the film “a totally insincere, superficial bit of balderdash.” Peter Milne in Motion Picture News hated it too, writing “the worn portions of the story appear in danger of giving away altogether.” He didn’t mention Eve’s corset, therefore Kingsley’s review was funnier. It’s a lost film.
Kingsley observed that “nothing is too odd or strange for vaudeville” when one of Leo Tolstoy’s sons had been booked by the Orpheum to do a fifteen minute lecture on his father’s life and works. Ilya Tolstoy toured the United States in 1917 and the title of his talk was “The Life and Ideals of my Father.” Vaudeville really did offer a variety!
This week there was an example of how language has changed. Kingsley mentioned that scenarist Capt. Leslie Peacocke had come up with a word for a male vampire: chicken-hawk. That meaning of the term didn’t stick. Unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word history only recognizes the bird-who-kills-chickens meaning, and the Urban Dictionary doesn’t bother with dating their terms, so I don’t know when it came to mean either a man who enjoys the company of boys under the age of consent, or a war-monger with no military experience.