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.