One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced a retirement, quoting a statement from William S. Hart:
On August 29, 1917, Fritz made his last appearance before the camera in the closing scene of The Narrow Trail, my first Thomas H. Ince production for Artcraft. Hereafter he will live in retirement with all the comforts of horse life.
I have ridden Fritz constantly for more than two years, and he has served me so faithfully, and has been so steadfast and courageous whenever called to perform a hazardous feat, that I feel all who have been so kind to us in our work upon the screen will know and understand my motives. I love the old fellow dearly, and cannot, after all his loyalty, subject him further to a chance of injury.
I wish to tell all who like the little Pinto that he will go right with me wherever I may go—until the boss ranger comes along and summons one or both of us across the big divide.
There had been an accident on the set. Fritz and Hart were crossing a gorge on a log bridge, and it lurched, sending the two seventeen feet down to the bottom. Neither was badly injured, but Hart said he didn’t want Fritz to take ay more chances.
The Narrow Trail was playing that week and Kingsley attended their personal appearance at the Kinema Theater. She reported that
a double line, a block long last night waited to greet Mr. Hart and the equine actor, Fritz, outside the portals, and once inside they fairly raised the roof, not only three-cheering these two, who appeared on the stage in person, but the thrilling episodes of the picture itself.
She admired Fritz’s performance, saying “no horse ever performed as does Hart’s pinto pony,” particularly in “the most breathless horse race you ever beheld on the screen, with Hart making a flying leap from the grand stand to his horse’s back, grabbing the girl and making a getaway all in one mad rush.” The Narrow Trail has survived, and it’s available on DVD.
Fritz only stayed retired for Hart’s next fifteen films. Since they made so many then, that was about two years. Fritz hadn’t stopped working to sleep and eat grass, it was part of Hart’s contract negotiation with Thomas Ince: he wanted a higher salary, according to Hollywood Hoofbeats by Mitchum and Paiva. Once that was settled, Fritz returned in Sand (1919).
Naturally, Hart didn’t mention money when in 1922 he ghostwrote Fritz’ side of the story in an autobiography, Told Under a White Oak. After the fall down the gorge:
I was a mess. My left side (my falling side) was all cut up with sharp rocks. Gee! I was cut all over; and Bill said “Pardner, whether you like it or not, you’re going to eat grass for the rest of your days. No more pictures or work for you.” That’s the real inside dope of how I come to lay idle for two years. That’s the real how of why the Boss had to ride them other dogies for fifteen pictures. But the Great American Public, and some of the Great European ones, too, had something to say about that, and just wouldn’t have it. They kept writing to me and Bill all the time a-saying Bill was jealous of me and that’s why he put me out of the game. Oh! They said all kinds of things just to show they meant it. Of course, I don’t know if Bill was really jealous of me or not, but he wouldn’t stand the gaff and brought me back.
If you’d like to read more of Fritz’ book, its available on Google Books. I need to warn you, however: it includes some thoroughly racist language – commonplace then, but shocking now.
The early retirement was a ploy, but the love was real. Hart did take good care of him his whole life. After they both left the screen, Fritz in 1924 and Hart in 1925, they lived at Hart’s ranch in Newhall, California, which is now a museum. Fritz died there in 1938, age 31.
As much as she enjoyed the Hart film, Kingsley’s favorite picture this week was a different kind of action movie:
The most vivid, crackling, smashing story of the present world war, which has so far reached the screen, is on view at the Sennett this week, and is entitled The Zepplin’s Last Raid. Here are vividly crystalized for any who wishes to see the mad clash of battle, the fear-frenzied madness of helpless women and children, as well as many other things which cannot fail to live with the spectator.
In addition to the spectacle, the most interesting part was “the showing of what is said to be an exact reproduction of the working and official paraphernalia of a Zep.” The film told the story of a conscious-stricken commander who choses to stop bombing civilians and blow up his own Zeppelin. It’s a lost film.
Kingsley ran an interview with Frank Woods, the supervising director of Lasky-Famous Players-Artcraft Studio, and he said he preferred to adapt existing stories rather than produce original photoplays. Moreover, contributors to major magazines like Harpers, the Saturday Evening Post and Scribners were besieging him, and
the motion picture scenario has been admitted into the best society, it is not now referred to in a sneering whisper by the intellectually elite, it is no longer taboo, but a recognized branch of the dignified profession of writing. And this, by the very men and women who, a couple of years ago, when they deigned to notice the existence of such a thing as a scenario, did it with as much mud-flinging as their aristocratic sensibilities would permit.
Now it doesn’t seem surprising that writers wanted work. Nevertheless, it was another step in making films respectable, and it happened much earlier than I’d thought it did.
Many of the downtown picture theaters planned special New Years Eve screenings starting at 11 p.m., so theater-goers would be let out just in time “to join the glad throngs on the street, and take part in the noise with which it is traditionally customary to usher in the new year.” They deserved to have some fun: the next year was a rough one. Here’s hoping that 2018 won’t be as bad, and I hope you have fun while you wait for midnight, too!
The photo is from the San Diego History Center.