Week of September 29th, 1917


One hundred years ago this week, actress Rita Jolivet was making plans to travel with her upcoming film, Lest We Forget. It wasn’t an ordinary promotional tour:

Miss Jolivet proposes to show the film in all the large centers of military occupation behind the French front. This will include the camps of the American troops as well.

But her plan wasn’t the main reason the story was headlined “Rita Jolivet is Brave.” That was because she’d survived the Lusitania sinking, and she was willing to cross the Atlantic again in wartime. Despite her intentions, that tour never happened, according to passenger records (she next sailed to Europe in 1921). Instead she toured the United States with the film in early 1918, helping to sell war bonds as well as the film.


What’s unusual is that she played a Lusitania survivor in the film, too. They recreated the sinking for it, which must have been disturbing to relive. She didn’t mention any trauma; instead the press releases said she offered her expert guidance to the director.


I was taught in history class that the sinking wasn’t one of the reasons the United States entered the war because it happened two years before the war declaration, but the publicity for Lest We Forget shows that it was used to remind people why they fought. On July 7, 1918 the LA Times ran the headline “Charging Americans crying ‘Lusitania!’ spread terror among the Huns south of the Somme,” so it certainly wasn’t forgotten. The film has been preserved at the Eastman House and the Library of Congress.

Even now it’s not forgotten: I was surprised by how many people have blogged about Jolivet and the Lusitania. If you’d like to know more about Rita Jolivet visit The Lusitania Resource or Rita Jolivet, Unsinkable.


Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Mysterious Mr. Tiller, which she thought was “the best film of the detective sort since Sherlock Holmes.” She wrote “the story keeps you sitting right on the edge of your seat every minute…you never quite catch up, until the breathless last ten feet.” Ordinarily she was happy to tell everything about a film’s plot, but she liked this one so much that she refused to spoil it. Other writers were less reticent, so since it’s a lost film, I’ll tell you: it turns out that the glamorous woman (Ruth Clifford) is an undercover agent and “The Face,” a master criminal, is actually Prentice Tiller (Rupert Julian), the chief of the Secret Service! And yes, they do recover the stolen necklace.


Roscoe Arbuckle was “arousing his customary roars of merriment at the Garrick this week,” with his new two-reeler Oh Doctor. Kingsley reported on exactly what the audience laughed at the most: “when Fatty, knocking at a door a long time, grows bored, looks away, but keeps on knocking even when his blows fall on the chest of a young lady who opens the door.” However, Kingsley’s favorite bit was the trick automobile that hits pedestrians, furnishing new patients for the doctor. To find out what someone thinks now, read Lea’s recent review at Silent-ology. The short is available on DVD.


Kingsley gave Theda Bara a sort of exit interview this week. The star was about to return to New York City, and she said many complimentary things about California and her beautiful garden. She did have one complaint: “I should have loved the thrill of an earthquake – just a tame one, of course. I didn’t ask for anything spectacular.” As a librarian, I really must disagree with her – even little earthquakes are only thrilling if you enjoy picking up books.


A vaudeville psychic, Leona LeMar (“the girl with a thousand eyes”), visited a film set at Universal City. To test her abilities, the star, Carmel Myers, asked her what the picture was about. “Miss LeMar passed her hand over her eyes, made a few motions in the air and finally answered: ‘well, I don’t know enough about pictures to answer that one.” Scotty Dunlap, the assistant director, promptly answered, “why that’s all right. We don’t know ourselves!”

That sounds like someone trying to politely put a guest at ease until you read the AFI Catalog’s plot summary for the film, The Lash of Power. That now lost film was so weird, it’s no wonder they didn’t know. Enjoy:

John Rand, having lived in a small town his entire life, dreams of possessing wealth and power in New York. Napoleon Bonaparte has long been his ideal, and one day he feels a message from the departed general urging him to take up the fight for world supremacy. He goes to the city ready to begin the battle, and there, aided by his Napoleonic visions, John amasses a great fortune, ruthlessly destroying everyone who presents an obstacle to his lust for power. His ambitions satiated, John becomes the enemy of democracy when he sells a secret formula to an enemy power. He is later killed by an anarchist. John then awakens to find himself in his cottage, secure in his mother’s devotion and the love of Marion Sherwood, the banker’s daughter.


Week of September 22nd, 1917

william fox
William Fox

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley proved that some things about living in L.A. have changed very little in the last one hundred years:

“How’s the second reel of your scenario coming on?” is the question you may quite safely ask of the casual acquaintance you meet in the street car, these days.

Your cook conceals a plot in the porridge, and becomes ambidextrous stirring cake with one hand and writing scenarios with the other. The manicurist, dreaming over your fingernails, is quite as apt as not to leave you in the soap-suds while she figures out how the hero gets out of the dungeon; the barber, first transfixing you safely in your chair, pitilessly relates to you his wild west scenario, and the messenger boy writes stories all over the back of your letter, making it look like a German spy cipher.

Since that was the state of affairs, she printed advice for writers from William Fox, the president of the Fox Film Corporation. Unfortunately, it was so florid and theoretical that it wasn’t terrible useful. He wrote,

the story should be human in its appeal and should possess ingenuity of plot. It must be lighted, glorified and inspired by love…The writers of scenarios, therefore, cannot go amiss if they play on the keyboard of human passion, sounding the impressively dominant theme, the subtlety appealing undertones, compelling overtones, and, most of all, the happy, joyous, sunny notion of love.

So I guess he wants more romances? Kingsley knew it wasn’t helpful; at the end she added, “sounds easy, doesn’t it?’


Fox was busy selling his latest production, The Honor System, a social justice film about prison reform that was Kingsley’s favorite film this week.

If Charles Dickens were alive today and were writing scenarios he might have written The Honor System, Henry Christeen Warnack’s stupendous picture-epic of prison life…There is in The Honor System the same poignancy of situation, the same striking, colorful, intensely human drama against the dun-colored background of tragic circumstance, the same highlights of reliving comedy, the same motley diversity of human types as characterize Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist.

Warnack wasn’t the director; he wrote the story the film was based on. He was the former drama critic for the LA Times, but she didn’t mention that she might be biased towards her coworker. She waited to cite director Raoul Walsh’s work until close to the end but at least she though it was “magnificent.”

However, critics who hadn’t worked with Warnack admired the film too. Peter Milne in Motion Picture News gave it a full page review (three times longer than the average); he wrote “The Honor System has everything for everyone. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you thrill for the welfare of its hero, it makes you love the heroine, it makes you hiss at the villains and, still further, it preaches prison reform by the most dramatic method—contrast.” Charles R. Condon in Motography wrote, “first night attendances are easily lured onto applause, but it takes a picture that is good to hold the people in absolute silence in the tense moments and move them to sob or gasp for the highly dramatic or thrilling scenes, and The Honor System does just that.”

It’s a lost film. Fritzi Kramer visited the prison where much of it was filmed and took pictures; you can see them at Movies Silently.


Warnack had spent most of his career as a newspaper writer and editor, starting in birthplace Knoxville, TN, then he moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, Douglas, Arizon, Yuma Arizona (where he learned about the prison that needed reforming) and finally to Los Angeles. He was the Times drama editor from 1910 to 1913, and he continued to contribute poems and articles. He wrote film scenarios until 1920, and then he went back to journalism, ending his career as a news and features writer at the Long Beach Press-Telegram. He died of pneumonia in 1927, aged 50.


Helen Delaney, a dancer touring with Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step, was in Los Angeles for her first time, and she had an interesting observation about the town. “Why there’s a studio every minute in Hollywood and at Culver City. I saw a place I thought was a college, but they said no, it was the Triangle Studios; and another I thought was the courthouse and that turned out to be Universal City…Just then I caught sight of what afterward was explained to be a church—but it looked just as much like a studio as some of the other places.”

So that’s one thing that has changed in Los Angeles: now the studios look like office buildings.

Week of September 15th, 1917


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Cecil B. De Mille about the immediate future of films. He had just finished shooting his last collaboration with Geraldine Farrar, The Devil’s Stone, and was beginning to think about his next project. He said:

As to the nature and subject of pictures, the suggestive film and that dealing morbidly with sex matters are dead already. Clean, cheerful, human themes will be the favorites. In any case, screen productions will divide themselves into two classes—they are beginning to do so already, in fact—viz., the flashy melodrama and the bright, clever, clean drama appealing to intelligent people.

While the whole industry didn’t follow his lead, this was fairly true for the films he was to make over the next few years, which ranged from the melodrama of a cursed Viking emerald in The Devil’s Stone to the cheerful, not morbid film about sex matters Don’t Change Your Husband (1918).


He was perhaps deliberately vague about the plans for his next film, saying it would not be a war film or a story of international intrigue, but it would be “imbued with a tremendous spirit of patriotism and will be entirely unique in theme.” This turned out to be far from the final result. The Whispering Chorus told the story of an indebted accountant who embezzles money from his employer, fakes his own death by changing clothes with the corpse of a homeless man, then gets arrested for the corpses’ murder and goes to the electric chair for the crime. Ooof! De Mille’s patriotic project must have been shelved. Fritzi Kramer has a review of The Whispering Chorus at Movies Silently.

De Mille’s other prediction didn’t come true as much as I ‘d like. He said that “feature” films of eight or nine reels were doomed, and the ideal length was five. “No matter how good the picture, people grow weary if required to remain a longer time than that called for by the five reeler.” Yes, exactly! If only everybody had listened to him – himself included. But the main lesson from the interview is don’t talk to journalists about your next project until it’s finished or you’ll probably be wrong.


Kingsley’s favorite film this week, Sirens of the Sea, was certainly different from the other pictures out at the time. A group of modern young people visit an island and in a dream sequence are transformed into sirens and Greek warriors; “the sirens long to become mortal and win love and happiness.” She thought that director Allen Holubar “has done it so skillfully, has so artfully transferred the fragile charm of youth to the screen, that the most practical among us is disarmed of prejudice against the too-fanciful, and is placed completely under the spell of the story’s absorbing charm.” She hoped that “this is merely the beginning of Holubar’s work in the realm of poetic fancy.” It’s a lost film.


Unfortunately for Kingsley, Holubar stayed away from fantasy for the rest of his career and mostly made serious dramas, usually featuring his wife, Dorothy Phillips (Lon Chaney’s co-star in the late teens). His next film was Fear Not, a crime drama about drug abuse. He died of pneumonia following gallstone surgery in 1923.


Kinglsey repeated a story from D.W. Griffith’s publicity man this week:

According to authentic reports, those two geniuses, D.W. Griffith and Bernard Shaw, have met. The momentous event occurred in London. It is related Mr. Shaw even ran right home from the dinner party where the two celebrities met, and fetched back a scenario. Mr. Griffith did not, however, so far as can be learned, purchase it. W.E. Keefe, Griffith’s press agent, volunteers the information that he knows the reason. “I’ll bet I know why Griffith didn’t buy it. It didn’t have any pep.”

It’s wise to distrust a publicist, but according to Griffith’s biographer Richard Schickel, the meeting actually did take place — just over lunch, not dinner. Griffith met with lots of famous literary men during his trip to England, including H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton and John Galsworthy, to ask them how he could contribute to the war effort. Schickel (quoting Griffith’s autobiography) said that Shaw was a little cranky and after trying to give Griffith a script, he began to lecture him on what was wrong with American films so the director left the luncheon early. (p.345). However, he didn’t mention pep or lack of it in the scenario.

If Shaw shared his thoughts on Intolerance, it’s no wonder Griffith dined and dashed. In a May 14, 1917 letter to Judge Henry Neil, he wrote “it was the most damnable entertainment and the wickedest waste of money within my experience. It was like turning over the leaves of a badly illustrated Bible (in monthly parts) for three hours that were like three years.” So did he ask for a refund? Their conversation could be the basis for a two-actor play.

Shaw’s plays weren’t adapted to silent films, even though he was offered lots of money for the rights. The first was an experimental talkie made in 1927: an eleven-minute scene from Saint Joan performed by Sybil Thorndike. He went on to adapt two of his plays into a couple of the best British films ever made, Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941).


Kingsley enjoyed “the amusing little comedy” A Stormy Knight, but she noted “a fault in the photoplay is that it has too many automobile chases—so many, in fact, that it might well be suspected a real estate agent and an automobile man had something to do with the staging!” (What would she say about a Fast and the Furious movie?) Franklyn Farnum starred in this now-lost film as a young man whose father wanted him to marry, so the father stages a fake kidnapping, because naturally his son would fall in love with a damsel in distress.

I don’t want to think about how much the land behind the Kops costs now.

I can understand the car salesmen profiting, but I’d never thought about realtors. But of course, in 1917 the chases would go past many houses and vacant lots waiting to be sold and potential buyers throughout the country could see them. Hollywood films really would have been a real estate selling tool.


Week of September 8th, 1917



One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote the “very touching little story” of how Ruby Lafayette got her break in Hollywood at age 73 with the film Mother o’ Mine. Miss Lafayette had a fifty-year long career as a respected stage actress who toured the Midwest with her own company, performing plays like Pygmalion and Galatea* and Damon and Pythias. She and her husband, fellow actor John T. Curran, retired to a ranch in Lampasas, Texas. Kingsley picked up the story from there:

But she lost her husband and things went wrong on the ranch. Not long ago, without giving anybody any inkling of what she intended to do, she packed up and came West, making her appearance early one morning at Universal City. Rupert Julian had long wanted to put the Kipling poem into celluloid drama. He chanced to be passing through the office. He saw the little old lady, turned and took another look, and began to talk with her. She told him of her experience, her eagerness to work. Julian wanted to put Mother o’ Mine right on, but the powers-that-be wouldn’t let him at that time. So Miss Lafayette went back to the Texas farm. Then one day when things were looking the darkest for the brave little old soul, who was trying to make things go all alone and having a hard time of it, she got a letter from Mr. Julian. Mother o’ Mine was to be filmed after all, an nobody would do for the part except Miss Lafayette! So out she came again, and everybody who saw the tender, appealing, delightful characterization which she gave at the Garrick a couple of weeks ago, will rejoice that she is to appear on the screen in other pictures.


Kingsley didn’t know how right she was: Lafayette appeared in at least 30 films over the next 15 years (her Motion Picture Herald obituary estimated it was 200). She billed herself as “the oldest actress on the screen” and she played lots of grandmothers. She died in 1935 when she was 90, after a great third act.

Funnily enough, the same Sunday column opened with observations on how leading ladies were becoming younger and younger. Kingsley wrote “sixteen years old seems to be the popular age, just now,” then she recounted the story of a 22 year old actress “who was told, when she asked for a certain part: “Why my dear, you can’t have that part. You’re older than Methuselah!”


Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Polly of the Circus, which was “a huge success. Never in its palmist stage days did the play achieve the brilliant triumph which its film twin promises, with Mae Marsh in the leading role…And what a wonderful little girl Polly was! We never knew just how wonderful until we saw Mae Marsh play the role…what a creature of imaginativeness, of sensibility, of sturdy loyalty and affectionateness Miss Marsh has made her!”

The audience in Los Angeles were big fans of Miss Marsh, too; “all day and all evening huge crowds waited outside the theater.” Kingsley also appreciated the script that transferred the “quaint charm” of the play to the screen, the photography, and the orchestra and lighting effects. It told the story of a young circus horseback rider who is injured in an accident and stays with a minster while she recovers. Polly was the first film produced by Goldwyn Pictures, and it was the first appearance of the Goldwyn lion mascot that later became the MGM lion. The film was once considered lost, but it was one of the films found in the permafrost of Dawson City, Yukon in 1978.


Kingsley reported that Thomas Ince tried to buy the rights to make Peter Pan from Sir James Barrie. Even though he offered “a fortune,” Barrie refused because he’d had a bad experience with a British production company and he decided to never allow one of his plays or stories to be filmed again. Luckily he changed his mind in the early 1920’s; the 1924 film starring Betty Bronson has become a favorite of silent film fans and was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry in 2000. It’s available on DVD.


Kingsley repeated claims that William Desmond Taylor and his Tom Sawyer cast and crew managed to sneak into St. Petersburg, Missouri, film several scenes and leave before anybody knew they were filming. Townspeople thought that the equipment belonged to government engineers surveying the area, and the hotel proprietor said that the company was so quiet that he couldn’t have known they were film folk. She reported that locals were irritated because they missed the chance to see Hollywood in action.


*Pygmalion and Galatea was written by W.S. Gilbert. It debuted in 1871, just before his first collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. It was a big hit, and it inspired other authors to do their version of the myth, including George Bernard Shaw in 1913.

Elizabeth McGaffey (1922 passport photo)

Note: My profile of Elizabeth McGaffey is up at the Women Film Pioneers site. She was the first studio librarian. I learned about her when I wrote my February 10, 1917 blog post, and of course I needed to know more. Since she was on the WFP “unhistoricized” list, I wrote up what I found and they accepted it. However, now they have new rules: you must apply and submit your CV before you write for them. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.



Week of September 1st, 1917

Entertaining the troops

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on impressive plans to bring entertainment to the troops. “The Young Men’s Christian Association in the United States has made provision for the presentation of 8,000,000 feet of film per week. In 343 cantonments, camps and posts, 1126 programmes will be rendered weekly.”

A film brokerage organization, the Community Motion Picture Bureau, planned to supply the films. Its president, Warren Dunham Foster, said he had a pretty good idea of what kind of pictures to send:

The men don’t want sob stuff. They do not want pictures of home, mother and heaven. At the same time they do not like pictures depicting the soldier as being especially heroic or patriotic. On the other hand, they like romances. Little Mary Pickford is just as popular with the men in the camps as she is with the millions of fans. The men like real war pictures. They also like farces.

Foster didn’t mention what he based his opinions on; his most recent job had been seven years of editing The Youth’s Companion, a weekly illustrated family magazine, so he didn’t have expertise in soldiers or films.


Nevertheless, the scheme worked out just as they’d planned. According to a history of the Bureau,* Foster and his mother, Edith Dunham Foster, “coaxed and cajoled and possibly browbeat theatrical producers, industrialists, and many others who made motion pictures, into donating prints for great war service.” Then Mrs. Foster censored the footage, “cutting out all the pretty ladies, drinking scenes, naughty titles and similar slips which might demoralize the soldiers in the trenches.”** Then the YMCA’s War Work Council distributed them to the camps and posts. The Bureau also supplied films to the Army and the Navy when they went to France. While there’s no record of if the films were precisely what the soldiers wanted, they were probably pretty happy to have anything to take their minds off of their work for a bit.

This wasn’t a new idea. The YMCA in Great Britain had been doing the same thing for their troops since the beginning of the war in 1914, according to Emma Hanna in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.


The Community Motion Picture Bureau tried to continue after the war, supplying educational films to churches, clubs and the Y, but their ads stopped appearing after 1920. Warren Dunham Foster went on to be a patent lawyer, an inventor of film projection equipment and the author of a book, Heroines of Modern Progress (1922).


Just like the soldiers, Kingsley enjoyed Mary Pickford’s films, and her latest was the best film of the week: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Though it seems like Kingsley thought every new film was “the best thing Mary Pickford has done” (she was thoroughly impressed by The Little American), she was also a big fan of the source material, both the novel and the stage version, which she’d seen three times. She thought that the film was something special:

In some instances, the screen version very far improves upon the stage version of the story. For instance, one of the most delicious bits of the screen story is the showing of the circus which Rebecca managed and in which she was also principal bareback rider. Bits of the poetry for which Rebecca is so famous are retained subtitles.

According to Pickford biographer Eileen Whitfield, the film still holds up: “this unpretentious movie lingers in the mind with surprising freshness; its anecdotes attain the depth of life remembered.” It’s available on DVD and from the Internet Archive.


The advertising worked!

Playing opposite Rebecca was the new film by Pickford’s future husband. Kingsley pointed out that “picture fans never can get enough of Douglas Fairbanks, apparently.” They were lined up a hundred deep in front of Down to Earth, in which he “cures” a group of hypochondriacs by taking them to a fake desert island. She called it “a picture that will bear viewing more than once.” It’s available on DVD.


Then the big star was Dorothy Phillips.

Also opening this week was a film with Lon Chaney, and Kingsley wrote a line that critics could have re-used for the next decade or so: “In Pay Me, Lon Chaney, who, when it comes to assuming different characters, has the famous old Merlin looking like a rank amateur.” He played a “flinty-hearted and villainous dance hall keeper.” The plot defies brief description, but there’s an orphan, revenge, a gunfight and a tragic death. It’s a lost film.



*Arthur Edwin Krows, “Motion Pictures—Not for Theaters,” The Educational Screen, March 1939, p. 85-87.

**Pretty ladies are demoralizing? This is the first time I’ve heard that! This can’t possibly be accurate.