One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that cinematographer Billy Bitzer’s wife had gotten a cable telling her that Bitzer and his boss D.W. Griffith would be staying in Europe indefinitely. They stayed until early October, filming exteriors for Hearts of the World.
Since I’m a cinematographer’s wife myself, I wanted to know more about the woman who stayed home. However, I ran into the usual problem when researching ladies who weren’t famous: she left almost no records. I couldn’t find anyone I was certain was her in magazines, censuses or death indexes, and only one mention and bad photo in Bitzer’s 1919 passport application.
He did mention a bit about her in his biography, written in 1939 (reviewed at the Century Film Project). Her name was Nora Farrell, and she had blue eyes, tiny hands and feet and ginger-brown hair. Born in Ireland, her “brogue was as thick as a priest’s.” They met in 1899 when he rescued her from a burning building. He said she was ten years older than him, but the passport said it was only three. She drank more beer than he approved of. They both had tempers; Karl Brown in his autobiography remarked on one of their epic fights. She was thrifty, and liked putting money into the savings account. They lived together without benefit of marriage until at least late 1919, when they were on the ill-fated boat trip to the Bahamas that was supposed to last one day but took five (Griffith was making The Love Idol.)* Bitzer didn’t mention why they broke up, or what happened to her; he married a much younger woman in 1923.
So the moral is please leave a record of yourself, and tell your side of the story.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was the “very excellent” To Honor and Obey. The story of a devoted wife who sacrifices her virtue to rescue her vain, selfish husband’s finances didn’t have “an inch of padding in the whole film” yet the plot and action were “translucent.” Gladys Brockwell played the wife; Kingsley thought that her performance had rare depths, “coupled with a never-failing sense of drama which does not let her overact a scene by a hair’s breadth.” It’s a lost film, so I’ll spoil it: the evil husband commits suicide, and everyone thinks good riddance to bad rubbish. Brockwell had a fine career, usually playing supporting roles like Nancy in Oliver Twist (1922) and the sister in Seventh Heaven (1927). She died following a car accident in 1929.
Feature-length films hadn’t been around for very long, but Kingsley had already had enough of dual roles. Bessie Barriscale played twin sisters this week in The Snarl, and Kingsley had some suggestions for screenwriters:
So long as we must have these double role plays, why doesn’t somebody conceive the idea of having both characters either good or bad? Say you make your story twins bad. There are varying degrees of badness, you know, and various assorted kinds of badness, so the story needn’t be monotonous, and I for one am dead sick of seeing a person talking to himself.
Even seeing a man shake hands with himself has lost its pristine thrill and as for seeing a person bullyrag his double, or even murder him, I can look on entirely unmoved. In fact, I’m rather glad of it, as then there is only one of him or her left that we are obligated to view.
So audiences in 1917 weren’t so naive and easy to impress as you might think. Frances Marion must have agreed with Kingsley; when she wrote Stella Maris for Mary Pickford the next year, both sides of the dual role were good. Stella was rich and sheltered, while Unity Blake was poor and had seen too much. Kingsley was right: it could be done.
Kingsley reported that Irving Cummings, star of The Whip which was currently in theaters, had been injured in an automobile accident and wasn’t expected to live. Happily, he recovered and went on to act in many films, including The Saphead with Buster Keaton. He became a director, most famously of Technicolor musicals like Down Argentine Way (1940) and The Dolly Sisters (1945).
*“Film Stars Missing,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 14, 1919.