Week of January 26th, 1918


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley offered a preview of yet another movie palace to open in downtown Los Angeles, Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater:

The moment you step out of the work-a-day world into the outer foyer the charm of the place is upon you. There, lining either side wall, are two immense mural paintings in pastel shades but of heroic design. Then there’s the handsome lobby, from which lead wide stairways to the mezzanine, which is heavily carpeted and which yields visions of tapestries, statuary and mural panting in bold and brilliant design.

Ah, but it is the long vista of Gothic arched galleries which will charm you into some age-old dream. And a surely as you have imagination, this dim, beautiful vista, whose somewhat severe beauty is relieved only by the classic sweep of its arches, the soft carpets and half a dozen niched bronze statues, will carry you back to some feudal castle of long ago, and you’ll forget that butter has gone up and that street assessments are due.

The carvings, murals and statuary together re-told John Ruskin’s “The King of the Golden River,” which she thought was quaint and delightful, and it gave “a romantic quality to the whole decorative scheme.” The story, written in the style of a fairy tale, told of two greedy brothers who abuse their kind younger brother and grow rich through their evil enterprises. The younger brother inherits the money when the elder ones get what they deserve. Ruskin wrote his only work of fiction for his future wife Effie Grey when she was 12 years old (their story has been told many times, most recently in Effie Grey (2014)).

William S. Hart and Sid Grauman in the new theater

The opening film was The Silent Man with William S. Hart, who made a personal appearance. There was also had a special musical program for that night, with a thirty-piece orchestra, a guest organist, Jessie Crawford, and a coloratura soprano from La Scala named Lina Reggian, who was beginning an engagement of several weeks. All the stars in Hollywood turned out for the event, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Gish sisters. The line to get in was four abreast, jammed like sardines, and it stretched more than two blocks down Broadway.*

From the bad old days

It’s remarkable how much movie viewing had changed in a very short time. Kingsley included a picture of what theaters were recently like:

Remember the picture houses we used to attend only four short years ago? Dark, smelly little holes in the wall, most of them, at the door of which a mechanical orchestrion ground out a dreary round of tunes which didn’t pretend to have any relation whatever to the picture or its theme…and where seats on the sawdust-covered aisle were much sought by the tobacco-chewing fraternity.

Nowadays, cell phones in theaters are bad, but at lest we don’t have men spitting in the aisles! She contrasted this with a trip to the cinema in 1918:

It’s getting so nowadays when a friend asks you to go and see a picture, you take for granted the invitation includes a lot of other things. There’s a concert by a symphony orchestra, a loitering trip through long vistas of gallery fitted up with pictures and statuary, a smoke (if you wish) and a bit of a flirtation in the luxurious lounging parlor, even a nice dish of lady-like tea if you desire.

Grauman needed lots of customers

The Million Dollar Theater was the third 2500-3000 seat venue to open in the previous year at a time when the population of Los Angeles was only 576,673, according to the L.A. Almanac. While people went out to the movies more often then now, that was a lot of seats to fill. It’s no wonder that the owners of the other recently opened big theater, the Kinema, couldn’t make a profit and sold it in 1919.


Sid Grauman, 1920

Sid Grauman had much better luck. The Million Dollar (reports were that it cost that much) was his first theater in Los Angeles. He had gotten his earliest experience as a theater builder in Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush (as you probably saw in Frozen Time), and he and his father went on to operate several more in the San Francisco area. He was to build the Egyptian Theater (1921) and the Chinese Theater (1927) in Hollywood.

Grauman was busy with his Hollywood theaters so he sold the Million Dollar to Paramount in 1924. It had a variety of owners until 1950, when Frank Fouce bought it and made it a Spanish-language film and stage venue. Grace Kingsley was still writing for the Times, and she attended that grand opening too:

Like a blooming matron with lifted face and full of vitamins, the handsome, durable Million Dollar renews her youth. Beautiful decorations and furnishings make the place glamorous. It recalls that first opening on February 18, 1918**, when Sid Grauman brought myriads of stars to the theater…On that occasion, too, just like last night, crowds blocks long waited to get into the theater. The late Antony Anderson, critic, fairly lifted this reviewer out of a crowd that threatened to crush her.***


She also really enjoyed the Cantinflas film that opened it, Puerta, Joven. (aka El Portero) Even without English subtitles, “so vivid is his pantomime that it is likely the story can be traced even by non-Spanish speaking spectators.” The film was Cyrano crossed with City Lights.


The theater became a church in 1993 and was closed in 1998, but it was restored and reopened in 2008. Now it’s available for film shoots, special events, and even occasional film screenings. What’s really amazing is that much of what Kingsley described is still there: the murals are just waiting behind a drop ceiling and covered walls, according to the L.A. Conservancy. Somebody with big bags of money could restore them.




*”Opening’s Brilliant of Million-Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1918.

**It was actually February 1, 1918. Ooops!

***Grace Kingsley, “Gala Premiere Reopens Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1950.




Week of January 19th, 1918

Grace Kingsley at work, by Ted Gale

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to visit Charlie Chaplin’s brand new studio. It was a “little bit of a quint old English street amidst the pampas plumes and tiny orchards of Hollywood.” She went on:

The camouflage is very deceptive. Inside the building which looks like a church, for instance, there is a mean old commercial time clock, like a conscience, where the workmen ring in, and where dwell—shades of St. John the Scribe—the Chaplin Boswells, the publicity department. Also, just as you fancy there will step from one of the half-timbered Elizabethan doors a clanking knight of old, instead there emerges an overalled Pete Props. ‘”Say,” he says, “whada you thing the boss wants now? A crowd o’ tarantulas! I ain’t no tarantula hound, and I don’t know no tarantulas. Can you beat it?”


Chaplin himself showed her and LA Times cartoonist Edmund “Ted” Gale around, “making amusing little comments:”

“I think I could like this place if I didn’t work here…See, here’s a lemon orchard back of the stage…No, I’m not going to live in the studio—Brother Sid and Mrs. Sid [Minnie Gilbert Chaplin] are going to try it, but none of the put-out-the-dog-and-let-in-the-cat-and-lock-the-cellar-door stuff for me at my workshop. But you see I’ve got a beautiful apartment”—it’s a large corner room, where there are bay windows and odd little dormer windows—“this is to be a combination office and reception-room, and there’s a door I can dodge out of and climb a tree in the lemon orchard if I want to get away from anybody…Yes, there’s a nice big swimming pool and there’s a tennis court, both to be used for business and pleasure.”

There was also a film lab, a screening room, dressing rooms, a garage, a film vault and stables. She observed that “so far as the studio is concerned, Charlie is like a kid with a new toy.”


Chaplin Studio today

The lemon orchard soon became the back lot, where they built open-air sets. Chaplin kept the studio until the end of his film career. He made his most famous films there, including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). After he shot Limelight (1952) there and moved to Switzerland in 1953, he sold it to a real estate development firm who leased it to a television production company. Over the years it was owned by Red Skelton, CBS, A&M Records and most recently, the Jim Henson Company. It’s still a studio.

If you’d like to see what Kingsley saw, here’s Chaplin’s documentary about his studio called How to Make Movies (1918):

John Bengtson has a photo-filled chapter about the studio in his book about Chaplin, Silent Traces. He also blogged about his visit to the studio at Silent Locations.



Kingsley reported that advance sales for Cleopatra at Clune’s Auditorium were brisk, and she repeated a story from Theda Bara’s secretary:

A lady interviewer called at the studio to see Miss Bara, who was dressing, and who sent out word. ‘I cannot possibly see you now. I have nothing on at all.’

The lady interviewer wrote on a card, and sent it in, ‘My dear Miss Bara, Shouldn’t recognize you if you did.’

The journalist was sent right in. Theda Bara had a fine sense of humor.


Because a new film critic had started last week, Kingsley was devoting more of her column space to vaudeville. She mentioned that despite wartime transportation problems, the Orpheum was still sending big acts, like Gertrude Hoffman and her fifty-person dance troupe and Joseph E. Howard and his song and dance company of forty. I had no idea that touring vaudeville acts could be so large.

Week of January 12th, 1918

Les Miserables (1917)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed Frank Lloyd, the director of the latest version of Les Miserables, which would be opening in Los Angeles in a few weeks. He told some behind-the-scenes stories from the nine-week shoot took place at the Fox studio in Ft. Lee, New Jersey:

In the making of the battle scenes a brigade of United States Army soldiers stationed in New York was used, and this made the work much easier, as they drilled the handful of extras whom we used, went right to work, and knew exactly what to do. They were husky fellows and took to the game like a duck to water. ‘Hi there!’ they’d yell, ‘we’re fighting for democracy!’ laughing and full of pep, they’d go at it like demons. One boy got stuck in the face with a bayonet, but refused to go to the hospital. ‘This is nothing!’ he exclaimed in scorn as we bound up his wound. We really had an awful time stopping those Sammies from fighting.

The recruits pose with the film’s star, William Farnum (center)

Of course there was lots of research. All directors emphasized their films’ historical accuracy then, perhaps to make film going seem educational. Lloyd said:

I read Victor Hugo’s novel six times and I consulted every print and painting I could find. The research work alone took several weeks, and indeed was not completed until the picture was finished. For instance, even the paper cartridges in use at the time of the French revolution—the kind that are bitten off by the man who is loading his gun—were used in the battle scenes. Of course, they had to be specially made.


franklloydFrank Lloyd had a long and impressive career that included five Oscar nominations for best director and two wins, for The Divine Lady (1929) and Cavalcade (1933). Now his most remembered films are Oliver Twist (1922) The Sea Hawk (1924) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Under Two Flags (1936).


We’ll never know what Kingsley thought of the finished product, because the LA Times had a new film reviewer starting on January 14th. His name was Antony Anderson, and he’d been the art critic for the paper since 1906. He continued to write his In the Realm of Art column in addition to film reviews.

There’s no record of why the change was made, but it was done without any fuss. Anderson’s Films column just started running, and movie reviews disappeared from Kingsley’s daily column for a while. She still wrote vaudeville reviews. His reviews were a bit more stuffy and pretentions than hers were; he didn’t tell jokes and seemed to worry more about being taken seriously. His film writing ended in August 1921 and he retired from full-time writing in 1926.

Anderson thought Les Mis was a “notable production” and Hugo’s masterpiece had been given “a noble pictorial setting by Fox, one in accord with the spirit of the novel.”

Jessie Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players/Lasky, told Kingsley about a new way the war was affecting the film industry, fuel shortages:

We have been forced to shut down our New Jersey studios entirely. We cannot get either coal or light. We have rented every available studio in New York City, and even in many of these we cannot get the results we demand. Wallace Reid, who went East to make a production, will probably return to California to finish it. We are also making arrangements to have Elsie Ferguson and Billie Burke come to California and make their productions at one of our studios.

It was just one more step towards making Los Angeles the film capitol. He mentioned that coal shortages were also prompting theaters to help:

Many poor people not able to afford coal and confronted with the possibility of freezing in their own homes, now go to the motion picture theaters, which have been thrown open to them by the managers. Here in the picture houses, they sleep in the boxes and in the aisles. It is nothing unusual to see people enter the theater at night laden down with blankets and pillows.

The crisis was so bad that on January 16th, the Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield ordered all manufacturers (including war industries) east of the Mississippi to close for five days, followed by ten weeks of Monday “holidays” for all factories, saloons, stores (except for grocers), places of amusement and nearly all office buildings.* According to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, the shortage was caused by a railroad distribution logjam, not a supply problem–Garfield had increased the number of mines operating. The reduced demand did allow the trains to catch up on their deliveries and by 1919 there was an oversupply. I knew that 1918 was a really difficult year for everybody, but I hadn’t known about this problem.

Kingsley told the story of “an interesting new member” of Charlie Chaplin’s company, Zasu Pitts:

The story of Miss Pitt’s success reads like a Cinderella tale. It was two years ago that she came to Mary O’Connor, then head of the scenario department of the Triangle…with a letter from friends in Santa Cruz. She has a very expressive face, and Miss O’Connor at once took an interest in the girl, who had absolutely no experience up to that time. The youngster was taught even how to make up, and given small bits and extra parts to play. But she drifted away, after registering merely the fact that she was possessed of the potent but elusive something called personality.

Not long ago she made her appearance at the Lasky studio. She was playing an extra in one of the pictures, and Marshal Neilan caught sight of her as she leaned in a weary and woebegone attitude against a set. He had been trying to find someone to play the pathetic and comical little slavey in The Little Princess. ‘The very girl,’ he exclaimed, and she was engaged at once, registering so great a hit that her services have since been in great demand. Charlie Chaplin saw her, and now she is playing character parts in his pictures.

Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd

Although she was reportedly under contract to Chaplin, she didn’t appear in his next films, A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms. Nevertheless, she went on to a long and varied career that included silent and sound films, radio, Broadway and television. She was mostly known for comedy (particularly for a series of 17 shorts she made with Thelma Todd for Hal Roach in the early 1930’s) but she was also Erich von Stroheim’s favorite dramatic actress, and her work in Greed (1924) was especially memorable.



*”Factories Must Close to Save Fuel,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1918, p. I1.

Week of January 5th, 1918

Joan the Woman (1917), courtesy of Fritzi Kramer, Movies Silently 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley unknowingly reported a lie from Cecil B. De Mille:

Just as if it weren’t enough to be known as one of the world’s major motion picture directors, now Mr. De Mille has gone and invented a color photography process, on which he has already taken out patents. Maybe you have noted some special tinting in some of the De Mille films—take the flames which surround Farrar in Joan the Woman for instance—these are all the result of Mr. De Mille’s invention.

They were the result of a new invention, but De Mille wasn’t the inventor, Alvin Wyckoff and Max Handschiegl were. Why he felt the need to claim credit I don’t understand. The inventors both worked at De Mille’s studio, Lasky, so maybe he was taking a page from Thomas Edison’s book and claiming credit for his employees’ work.

Wyckoff had been the chief photographer at Lasky since its founding in 1914. He also invented “numerous appliances to aid motion picture photography, as well as a number of inventions used in connection with the laboratory,” according to Motion Picture News.* Handschiegl was a lithographer and engraver who realized that similar techniques could be used on film to print color on selected portions of black and white stock. Their patents for the process were granted on May 13, 1919.

Phantom of the Opera (1925): the improved process

De Mille’s claim was quickly forgotten and the process came to be known as the Handschiegl Process. Handschiegl soon left Lasky and signed a contract with Sanborn Laboratories to do color work. He went on to improve his process (and receive more patents) until his death in 1928. Wyckoff continued to shoot films at Laksy until 1926 when he was blacklisted from the industry for helping to co-found the cameraman’s union, IATSE 659. In 1929 he appeared in advertising for another process, Multicolor Films, but it wasn’t a success. He worked on some low budget films in the 1930’s He died in 1957.

Allowing such an incorrect statement into the newspaper is partly Kingsley’s fault for being too credulous, but she didn’t have Google Patents to check and entertainment writers still rarely do adversarial interviews. You can learn more about color processes at Movies Silently and at the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

Mr. Goring was starved for Technicolor, not distracted by it.

De Mille got to be wrong about another thing that day when he said:

I have come to the conclusion that color photography, in the sense of absolutely faithful reproduction of natural colors, or any other method of coloring where the tints used are of the glaring variety, can never be used universally, as the eye of the spectator would be put to too great a strain, and the variety of color would distract from the story values.

Lucky for him, by the 1930s when Technicolor beat the other color processes to become the standard, everyone had forgotten he said that.


Kingsley’s favorite film this week featured William Farnum, who

looks his darn handsomest when wearing Wild West scenery…The Heart of the Lion is a clean-cut, well-directed drama, and besides is so stirring that even the critic, hardened with three-days-a-week viewing of fire, flood, abductions and sudden death involved in motion picture plots, gets a real thrill.

This lost film told the story of a doctor who, betrayed by his younger brother, goes off to work in a Northwest timber camp to forget. In repentance, the brother becomes a preacher and he gets assigned to the same Northwest town. The doctor ends up defending the brother against the lumber camp toughs. Poor Mr. Farnum: there’s just no escape for older siblings!

He sat down sometimes.

Kingsley recorded D.W. Griffith’s daily schedule when he was finishing up Hearts of the World:

  • Leave the Alexandria Hotel at 7 a.m. and drive to the studio.
  • Review studio business with his manager and plan the day until 8 a.m.
  • Start production work: conceiving the scenes, ordering sets, selecting locations on the lot, supervising rehearsals, shooting.
  • A short lunch, then work continues until dark.
  • Edit the film exposed during the day, and “meanwhile, he has been interrupted many times meeting visitors and settling important matters with subordinates.”
  • Have a rapid dinner, then more production work until 11 or later
  • Return to his office and handle any “matters at hand.”
  • Back to his hotel, where “he can apply himself to creative work.”

And she said he did this seven days a week! I feel tired just reading about it. Nevertheless:

through it all he has a world of fun. To see him directing a melodramatic scene is to have a rare treat. The actors become perplexed in their business, so he jumps up and demonstrates for them. As he portrays the throes and throbs of the scene, he keeps up a continuous patter such as, ‘if Al Woods could see me now, he’d say: “I’ll save you from oblivion: fetch a contract” and then I’d be a regular actor on a regular stage’ all to the accompaniment of delicious burlesque action.

Kingsley mentioned an experiment in comedy:

For the first time in the history of the film industry a comedy will be seen which makes use of no subtitles.

The film was called was called The Slave and it starred Chaplin imitator Billy West. Of course, it wasn’t really the first: the earliest comedies didn’t have intertitles either. Now the lost film is remembered, if at all, as the first film Oliver Hardy made in Hollywood. He’d been working for the King Bee Company in Bayonne, New Jersey and they had moved to Los Angeles in October.



*”Creators of Lasky Photography,” Motion Picture News, October 21, 1916, p. 173.