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.