Week of January 12th, 1918

sammiesacting
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.

sammiesfarnum
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.

pittstodd
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.

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