One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley told the story of a daring rescue by the biggest star in Hollywood.
Charlie Chaplin became a real hero yesterday when he saved little Mildred Morrison from a watery grave…It was down on the beach fronting Topanga Canyon, about 4 o’clock yesterday, that Charlie marked one up for himself in hero’s hall. The little girl whom Charlie saved is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Morrison of New Rochelle, NY. Mr. Morrison being a well-known New York banker and stock broker. Mrs. Morrison and her daughter are spending the summer at Santa Monica. They had gone with a party to spend the day at the beach near Topanga, and the little girl had wandered out onto the rocks at low tide, becoming marooned as the tide grew high.
Charlie’s company was trying to launch a boat, but the big waves were constantly capsizing it, and so the comedian sat on the beach watching. Suddenly he saw something moving, out on the rocks about thirty yards from shore. Next moment he realized it was a little girl frantically waving her tiny hands, and in a second more a huge wave had washed her from the rock. Charlie didn’t wait to take off his funny shoes or anything. He didn’t even think to discard his cane until he got into the water. He just took a big plunge into the high-rolling waves and in two minutes was at the little girl’s side. She grasped at him frantically, succeeding in clasping him tight around the neck, but her weight was nothing to the athletic Chaplin, and in a moment he had her under one arm while he struck out for shore.
The little girl was quickly revived, and when she looked up and beheld her rescuer—well, you can imaging what happened!
‘Really and truly Charlie Chaplin?’ she cried. And then—yes, it’s true—Charlie did just what any hero always does in such cases. He kissed the heroine!
This is an adorable story; unfortunately I suspect it isn’t true. The main strike against it is that I can find no record of a Mildred Morrison of New Rochelle, born around 1910 and the daughter of a banker named Joseph, anywhere in Ancestry.com. There were several Mildred Morrisons in the 1920 Census close to the right age; if the publicist got the name right and nothing else, then the most likely candidates were
• Mildred F. Morrison of Los Angeles, father Wylie, a tree cutter for the telephone company. Born August 3, 1908.
• Mildred Priscilla Morrison of Santa Monica, father Val. T., a wholesale drug supplier. Born May 25, 1912.
• Mildred Sue Morrison of Pasadena, father Thomas V. the owner of a motor supply company. Born April 19, 1911.
However, there’s another problem with the story. Chaplin was shooting The Adventurer at the time, so he was wearing a prisoner’s outfit, not the Little Tramp’s.
The story got picked up by other newspapers, and later ran in film magazines. There were fewer details in the later pieces – maybe they thought it sounded fishy, too. It’s even been blogged about at Discovering Chaplin. Now there’s only one way to find out what really happened: crank up the time machine!
Nevertheless, even if it’s fiction the story isn’t worthless. Film historian John Bengtson (with David Sameth’s help) used Kingsley’s story to track down the location of the film shoot for his book Silent Traces. He notes that Kingsley’s report bore “the signs of a publicist’s handiwork.” (I would also add, and the nice journalist’s need to fill up a Saturday column in the dog days of August.) You can find photos of the sight and more information at his web site. You’ll see that one aspect of the story was true: there are lots of rocks on that beach.
What’s even more important is that the movie is still around. You can find it on the Internet Archive.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was the “high-voltage thriller” Durand of the Bad Lands. Dustin Farnum starred as a highwayman who’s “so busy rescuing deserted kids and distressed maidens there’s quite an impediment in his banditing. But it’s all extremely picturesque and thrilling.” She appreciated the “melodrama played in quick comedy tempo,” the scene when he uses his outlaw skills to “borrow” a cow to feed the kids, and the western judge who uses his six-shooters to keep order in the court. She found the film “as delightful, amusing and refreshing as if there had not been a million frontier picture plays before” which is high praise indeed. It’s a lost film; it was remade in 1925 and that’s lost too.
Kingsley’s best lines this week were in her review of The Long Trail. “Lou Tellegen holds a regular convention of troubles…Every little trouble that didn’t know where else to go just stopped and made its home with Mr. Tellegen, the French-Canadian trapper.” It was some consolation that she thought he looked very good in his Artic costume, particularly his becoming cap. The bulk of his troubles involved a shotgun marriage. It’s a lost film.
Respected theater actress Julia Arthur was in town this week with her patriotic vaudeville act Liberty Aflame, and Kingsley reported on some of her adventures. Arthur visited William S. Hart on his set and told her about the old days when she played Juliet to his Romeo. Kingsley wrote “as long as Julia Arthur remains in town, Bill Hart won’t need any press agent.” Arthur enthused “oh, if the public only knew Mr. Hart as we of the company knew him. He never played a role on stage or screen—this is the truth—that was any nobler or cleaner or finer than he actually is…And as for his acting, he was always splendid.”
Another old friend, vaudeville comic Trixie Friganza, gave Arthur a new experience: she took her out to a birthday lunch at a cafeteria. Arthur was unclear on the concept when she entered. She asked “How do you play this game? Is it a game of chance and do you draw lots and bet? How do you get food, anyway?” Friganza suggested “You might brain the attendant with your tray. Still, this isn’t usually done. I’d suggest you help yourself.” When they got to the meat station, Arthur asked her to distract the man with the big butcher knife in his hand while she got some cold roast beef for herself. Eventually they arrived safely at their table with their food, and she delivered a line worthy of a dowager countess: ‘Do they make you wash your own dishes here, too?”
Maybe it’s hard to believe a working actress had never been to a cafeteria, but Julia Arthur was married to B.P. Cheney, an industrialist and a director of the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe railroad. But the main thing I learned was that Trixie Friganza could really tell a story.