Week of February 23rd, 1918


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the set of the next Mary Pickford film, M’liss. The twenty-five year old star did a good job of reminding fans that she was an adult who only played the part of a child:

“There are such a lot of stunts I always wanted to do when I was a youngster, and mother wouldn’t let me. Now she can’t help herself, when it’s in the cause of art, and whenever I get a new picture, I beg them to put in some of these stunts. I always wanted to ride bareback, and when I was a little kid, and used to visit my aunt in Canada, she let me go out to the ranch and ride to my heart’s content, but as soon as mother came, it was all off. I’m doing some wild bareback riding that I learned in my childish days in Canada, and I’m also getting the sling-shot fever out of my system.

You see when I was little, they always used to let Jack, my brother, have a sling-shot, and we used to play Goliath and David. He wanted awfully to be the giant, but he also wanted to keep the sling-shot, but finally, though torn between the two desires, I got him to let me be David, and we cracked mother’s new mirror and I accidentally killed a bird—I couldn’t have hit it if I had tried—and after that no more sling-shots for me until this picture.”

Her childhood was firmly in the past. This is also much rosier picture than what her life was actually like when she was young. Her father died when she was six and her brother was 18 months old, and she had been an actress to help support her family since she was seven. But that story wouldn’t have helped publicized M’Liss. Pickford knew what the public wanted to hear.

Unfortunately, Kingsley still wrote about her as a child:

M’liss is being rushed through to completion on account of some mysterious mission which Miss Pickford has in the East in connection with Red Cross activities, and which promises to be quite the biggest mission such a little girl ever had to perform.

That ‘little girl’ was embarking on the third Liberty Loan drive and according to her biographer Eileen Whitfield she outsold Chaplin and Fairbanks. Moreover, “a single speech in Pittsbugh was reported to have raised five million dollars.” (p. 180)

M’Liss is available on DVD, and Fritzi Kramer has a modern review of it on Movies Silently. She found it “a curious mix of humor, death and jaw-dropping inappropriateness.”

At the Million Dollar Theater, owner Sid Grauman experimented with a new way to get customers in the door:

Almost the entire cast of Flare Up Sal, a Thomas Ince production starring Dorothy Dalton, has been engaged to appear in a special prologue to the play. This prologue, arranged by Mr. Grauman and rehearsed under his direction by the original company with the big orchestra and organ, will reproduce scenes in the ‘Loo-Loo Bird,’ the notorious dance hall of the old mining camp of Jimtown…Many of the stage settings for these scenes have been obtained from the original sets in the Ince Studios, and the members of the company wear the costumes in which they appeared before the camera.

This was Grauman’s first prologue. He continued to feature them at his theaters because they worked: he stayed in business when so many others didn’t.

Flare Up Sal told the story of a dance hall singer in a California gold rush camp. She falls in love with a bandit disguised as the new town minister. Complications ensue, but after the saloon burns down they leave town, resolving to reform. L.A. Times film critic Antony Anderson commended its “wild midnight rides, escapes, gunfights, fires, adventures that stir the blood and quicken the pulse.” The film survives at the Library of Congress.


Kingsley told a humbling story from Roscoe Arbuckle:

While crossing the continent recently Fatty was enjoying life and everything in the prospect of getting back to his native sunny California. Shortly after leaving New York along came a sour-visaged conductor in his ticket expedition. Fatty extracted one of those lengthy strips of paper which the railroads are pleased to call tickets and handed it to the conductor. As that worthy individual glanced at the name he remarked:

“Oh your name is Arbuckle?”

“Yes,” acknowledged Fatty, trying to appear modest.

“Well, I’ll declare,” said friend conductor, “this is the first time I’ve met up with that Arbuckle coffee name in years.”

Arbuckle concluded, “fame is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

With this little story I stumbled into the history of American coffee. It seems that before the 1860’s when John Arbuckle invented a glaze that allowed roasted coffee to stay fresh, people had to buy green coffee beans and roast them at home. This wasn’t just another chore in the morning: coffee burns easily so people were drinking some horrible stuff. Arbuckle’s Coffee other innovation was selling it in convenient one pound sacks. The company is still in business.

Week of February 16th, 1918

Motion Picture Magazine, August 1918

One hundred years ago this week, an actor chose an unusual scene to tell Grace Kingsley about from the religious film he was currently working on:

The famous character of the Drain Man is being played by Jack Curtis, who says he has always longed to appear in that big role. But as a fly comes with every box of ointment in the world, so Mr. Curtis didn’t relish crawling through that noisome bit of sewer in Chinatown last week, and art might have gone hang for all of him when it came to playing the scene in the drain where a hundred rats were his co-actors. However, he went through the scene bravely though he says he found the rats altogether too enthusiastic in their energetic desire to play their parts thoroughly, with the result the battle he had with the creatures is very realistic indeed.

I imagine the crew enjoyed their surroundings just as much. The project was The Servant in the House, the film version of a well-known play, and the director Jack Conway was doing his best to make it cinematic by including “certain features of the play, merely suggested in the stage version, which lend themselves to fairly sensational and spectacular effect” like actually showing the symbolic sewer (what a treat!)

Servant told the story of Robert, the Drain Man, who sacrificed for his brother Bill’s education that allowed him to become a vicar. Robert then grew resentful of Bill and the church. Bill’s bishop, disguised as a servant (with a startling resemblance to Christ), visits and effects a reconciliation. The sewer is beneath the church and it needs cleaning up – that’s where the rats come in.


This early publicity proved to be very much too early: the film wasn’t released until late 1920 because it was caught up in litigation as Triangle Films fell apart. According to Photoplay, Harry Orville Davis, the company’s vice-president and general manager, sued for breach of contract, wanting to recover $83,000 in back salary. They compromised; Davis surrendered his 100,000 shares of stock and his interest in the corporation in exchange for the exclusive rights to Servant.* He sold it to the Film Booking Office, which released it through independent exchanges.

When it finally did come out, Kingsley thought it was exceptional. “Once in a while some free soul among the picture makers throws off the shackles of tradition, arises and produces an epoch-making picture. That’s what Jack Conway did…So delicate is the treatment of the spiritual influence of a mystic and mysterious servant in a household divided against itself, that it would appear to be a difficult subject for the screen. But in the transcription Jack Conway proves himself to be an artist.” It’s now a lost film.

Jack Conway

Jack Conway had a long and successful career. He was a contract director at MGM from 1925-1948, so while you might not know his name, you probably know the names of the films he directed, like Red Headed Woman (1932) Tale of Two Cities (1935) and Dragon Seed (1944).

H.O. Davis produced one more film, The Silent Call, in 1921. Then he left the film industry and became the editor of the Ladies Home Journal for a year. After that he was the Pacific Regional Director of Hearst Newspapers. He briefly tried retirement, then he worked on the executive council of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He and his wife Laura later moved to Palm Desert where he bought and operated two date gardens. They celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary in 1964.** He died later that year.

Madame Du Barry (1917)

This week, Kingsley was back to writing film reviews. Antony Anderson was still writing about the “notable” films like William S. Hart’s Wolves of the Rail, but she got to cover Madame Du Barry (a Theda Bara drama), The Fibbers (a Bryant Washburn comedy) and The Beauty and the Rogue (Mary Miles Minter’s best film “in a long time”). She liked Du Barry best, because Bara’s performance was so strong – she went from from “the elfish, witty, adorably natural and ingenious Du Barry of the early scenes” to her end, with unforgettable “terror in her eyes as she looks about on the sea of unfriendly faces, as the crowds thrust her up to the guillotine.” Kingsley summed it up as “a masterpiece of Miss Bara.”

Arbuckle gets some help with moving from Buster Keaton and Al St. John

Kingsley reported that two Orange County cities, Santa Ana and Anaheim, were competing to be the new home for Roscoe Arbuckle’s studio, and both were offering to build it for him. She mentioned that his production company spent an estimated $300,000 to make eight comedies per year (I hadn’t seen a cost estimate before). She speculated that Santa Ana might have an edge, because Arbuckle had spent some of his childhood there. It was just like states offering tax incentives to film productions now. However, neither city won: Arbuckle chose to move to Edendale (now called Echo Park) not far from downtown Los Angeles. Kingsley didn’t mention why he wanted to leave his current studio site in Long Beach.

Chaplin meets the Navy, 1918

Kingsley wrote that Charlie Chaplin had led a tour of his studio for a group of sailors, and “not one feature of the big studio was left unexplained by the artist.” Even more remarkably: “the welcome sign has been hung out at the Chaplin plant for all of Uncle Sam’s soldiers and sailors. In the future they will be permitted to visit the new studios, either singly or in a body, after 4:30 every afternoon.” Can you imagine a modern film studio doing that now?




* “Plays and Players,” Photoplay, May 1919, p.90.

**”Birthday, Wedding Anniversary Feted,” Desert Sun, July 28, 1964.

Buster Blogathon 2018

This post is part of Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.

He liked to read the paper, if not to appear in it

Nearly one hundred years ago, Grace Kingsley interviewed Buster Keaton twice for the Los Angeles Times. He turned up in her news and gossip columns quite often, but unlike Chaplin and Fairbanks (the two chattiest stars of the time) he sat down and answered her questions only early in his solo career. Alma Whittaker, Kingsley’s Times colleague, said in 1926 that he was afraid of interviews, and “it took Papa Keaton, Lew Cody, Roscoe Arbuckle and the trusty P.A. [press agent] to help me interview Buster.”* Fear might have been part of his reluctance, nevertheless doing publicity went with the job of being a star, and he wasn’t bad at it.

Kingsley first spoke to him just before his career took off in 1920, when he was publicizing The Saphead. The piece was called “Buster Busts Into Stardom.” Keaton was very funny about how acting in a drama was so different from comedy, because “the role of Bertie the Lamb does cramp Buster’s style something awful!” He told her all his work troubles:

“I gotta do some sad scenes. Why, I never tried to make anybody cry in my life! And I go ‘round all the time dolled up in kippie clothes – wear everything but a corset! Can’t stub my toe in this picture nor anything! Just imagine having to play-act all the time without ever getting hit with anything!”

“Don’t know why they chose me for the part, anyhow, only I’ve got a blank pan. Saw a nice fluffy pie on the set the other day that would’ve looked good on the hero’s face, but he got away just in time.”

“Fatty won’t speak to me in these clothes,” went on Buster, mournfully, “and neither will Luke, Fatty’s dog. I’m losing all my friends. And on top of all this, I gotta do some love scenes. And I never did make love before in my life. What? Oh, yes, of course, I mean before the camera. But, anyhow,” and Buster loosened the Arrow collar around his neck, “but anyhow, the camera can’t catch my blushes!”


Despite his misgivings about his current project, life wasn’t all bad; as Kingsley pointed out “the agony won’t last much longer, because Buster has his own comedy company now, you know.” She asked him about his plans:

He says he’s following Fatty Arbuckle’s method, get a plot first, then build the picture, leaving all the plot out. He says it works fine. The first story is to be about a portable house and a young married couple, which certainly does sound like a jazzy combination for comedy.**

She was right: One Week (1920) was a jazzy combination.

There’s no evidence that he was scared of talking to Kingsley, and Keaton did a fine job of saying things that made good copy–though I’m not convinced they were Keaton’s exact words, because he didn’t call Arbuckle ‘Fatty.’

Her second interview happened a little over a year later, when Kingsley visited Keaton and his new wife at home. It’s an unusual piece, because he rarely used his personal life in publicity — he’d rather talk about work.

She wrote a sweet description of the newlyweds:

“My goodness, where are the parents of these children?” That’s the first thing that pops into your head when you take a peek at Buster Keaton and his bride, who used to be Natalie Talmadge, in their new home. They are regular kids together, and Buster grins enough then to make up for all his solemnity in his pictures.

Regular kids together

Kingsley told the story of their courtship, from meeting on a Roscoe Arbuckle set, through correspondence while Keaton served in France during World War 1, to their New York/Los Angeles long-distance engagement and wedding. The couple was obviously happy, but he had an image to maintain:

Not that you can get a word of romance out of Buster. He’d die, I suppose, rather than say anything sentimental. And he acted like somebody had caught him stealing sheep when I happened to catch him putting a little shawl around his wife’s shoulders to shield her from the draught.

She caught something you don’t get to see in Keaton biographies: Natalie Keaton’s fun side:

She looks like a little Quaker, does Natalie, and she has the sweetest expression in her eyes of any girl I have ever known. But there’s a spice of mischief, too. “Nobody else ever really had a chance for a minute,” said Natalie. “But I thought I’d keep everybody guessing a bit.”

It does take the quiet ones, doesn’t it? And just as you are looking at the shy face with an expression so demure that you expect her to say, ‘Will I meet thee at prayer hour tonight?’ she gives a smile like a ministering angel and says: ‘Let’s go for a race in my new Mercer! I can certainly make that old bus hum!”

It’s nice to see how well they started out, even knowing how sadly the marriage ended.

Keaton’s 1920’s fluffy celebrity interviews are very different from the ones he did in the 1950s and 60’s, which are collected in Buster Keaton: Interviews. After the interviewers realized that if you wanted to get him to talk, you just asked him how he and his crew solved a filmmaking problem, the articles became much more interesting. Maybe he didn’t particularly enjoy talking about himself.


Grace Kingsley, “Buster Busts into Stardom,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1920.

Grace Kingsley, “Now is Homey Little Wife,” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1921.


*Joe Keaton ended up doing most of the talking that day, telling about their time in vaudeville. However, Buster did contribute an interesting idea about why Three Ages and Go West didn’t make as much money as The Navigator: “the audience was cheated out of seeing him in dire woe. His current release, Battling Butler, had plenty of “agonized misery on his behalf” and so it was sure to be a big success. (Alma Whitaker, “Buster Smiles for this Scribe,” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1926.)

** By the time of this interview, The High Sign had already been shot in January-February 1920 and Keaton had decided to shelve it, allowing One Week to be his first solo two-reeler released in September, 1920.

Please visit the rest of the Buster Keaton Blogathon!


Week of February 9th, 1918

One hundred years ago this week, the war was again intruding on Grace Kingsley’s columns in all sorts of ways:

If you chance to see three score pretty young women, clad in regimentals, marching down the street with flags flying and the band playing, don’t be frightened; they won’t hurt you. The pretty girls in regimentals will be the first company of feminine soldiers organized in any picture studio in the world.

Josie Sedgwick, an up-and-coming actress at Triangle Studio, came up with the idea and executed it. She and other actresses at the studio, including Olive Thomas, Texas Guinan and Gloria Swanson, spent their evenings drilling, supervised by a regular army officer and chaperoned by the studio matron. Their goal was to perform at entertainments to raise money for the Red Cross and other war relief.

“We girls all want to do something for our country,” said Miss Sedgwick, “and we don’t feel as if merely knitting and making surgical bandages is enough, though we do that too…Our uniform? Well, we wanted trousers, but you know some girls can wear trousers and some can’t, so we decided on short shirts and leggings, with khaki shirtwaists and cute little caps.”

I haven’t been able to find any other mention or photos of the drill team. No wonder Triangle was running into business difficulties, if they couldn’t capitalize on pictures of young ladies in cute little caps.

Some film workers were leaving to serve as real soldiers. Wheeler Oakman, former Selig star, enlisted in the army, giving up “a long-term contract at a large salary with Metro Picture Corporation”. Kingsley said he was the first leading man actually under contract in Los Angeles to voluntarily do his bit.* He said, “I’m going into the regulars as a plain private…There’s a fine bunch of ‘grizzlies’ down at Camp Kearney, and I’ll be glad to be among them and to learn the ropes from them.”

That was exactly what he did: as part of the 144th Field Artillery, aka the California Grizzlies, he shipped out from New York as a private on August 15, 1918 and served in France until his unit was sent home from Bordeaux on December 23, 1918. He’d been promoted to corporal.** He came home safely and went back to acting. He worked steadily, often playing villains and henchmen, until his death in 1949.

Western star William S. Hart found a different way to express his patriotism:

It’s not kosher to make any unpatriotic cracks before Bill Hart, as a certain inhabitant of this town can tell you. Mr. Hart was dining at a restaurant the other night, which happened to be a porkless night. In came a loud-spoken stranger and demanded ham and eggs. The waiter explained to him courteously that it was a porkless day. The stranger arose from the table, flung down his napkin, and made some unpleasant remarks about the food conservation measure and started to leave.

As he went past Hart’s table, Bill looked up, fixed the stranger with his glittering eye, and drawled in a clear, high voice: “Shouldn’t think a pig would mind a porkless day!”

The stranger gave him a malevolent look, but sizing up Bill’s strong jaw and broad shoulders, took a second thought and dropping his grandiose manner, sneaked out.


Saturdays were the porkless day. The United States Food Administration had been asking people to conserve food by abstaining from eating meat on Tuesdays and wheat on Wednesdays since October, the added the porkless Saturdays was added on December 13th. It was a voluntary program, but Mr. Hart probably wasn’t the only one to ‘encourage’ compliance.

D.W. Griffith reading the rest of the paper

Finally, D.W. Griffith was hurrying to finish Hearts of the World, but then somebody handed him a newspaper with the headline “War to Last Six Years.” He promptly said, “Come on boys. We’ve got time. Let’s go to lunch.”


Kinglsey also offered some comic relief this week, with a story abut Teddy the Dog:

Talk about leading a dog’s life! Teddy, the wise canine actor of Mack Sennett’s comedy company, not only pays for his own license, but he pays an income tax on his salary!

A few months later, she was able to spin this anecdote into a one-page Photoplay article, “A Dog That Pays an Income Tax” (June 1918 p.62). That’s being a professional writer.




*I haven’t been able to confirm that he was the first.

**U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger List, August 15 1918 and December 23, 1918.



A research note: Digitization is helping me find amazing things. In the Wheeler Oakman story, he mentioned that his father Frank Eichelberger had fought for the Union army and was captured at Chickamauga. Knowing how actors can sometimes exaggerate things, I did some searching to see if it was true and found Pvt. Frank Eichelbergers’s testimony on how horrible being a Confederate prisoner was in a digitized book called Narrative of Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers and Soldiers while Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Rebel Authorities by United States Sanitary Commission, published in 1864. I would have never known to look for such a book. Hooray for all the people who do the very dull task of digitization!


Week of February 2, 1918

Frederick ‘Wid’ Gunning

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned that an important film journalist was visiting:

‘Wid’ Gunning, famous picture-play critic, is making his first visit to California, and, of course everybody is showing him the climate and everything. Gunning declares he will make his home here, especially on account of his small son, whom he wants to grow up to be a regular guy he says.


At the time, his publication Wid’s Film Daily was based in New York, and his visit and plans to move were part of the whole film industry’s migration to Hollywood.


Frederick Charles ‘Wid’ Gunning was an energetic entrepreneur. Born January 30, 1886 in Chillicothe, Ohio, he worked as a newspaper reporter, advertising agent and theater manager in his hometown. He moved to New York City in 1913 and became the publicity and sales manager of American Eclair Company, a film production company and a branch of the French camera manufacturers. He then went to work as a film editor and publicist for Warner’s Features, headed by L.J. Selznick and P.A. Powers. In June 1914 he and Sidney Olcott, a film producer, traveled to Europe to make movies, but the war started and they returned to New York in September. He became the film editor of the New York Evening Mail. He’d really become what he called himself on his World War 1 draft registration: a film specialist. So he quit his newspaper job in August 1915, married his childhood sweetheart, Helen Fickhardt, on September 30, 1915 and started his own film trade paper. He must have had great confidence in his new enterprise.

Wid’s Film Daily was a success. It provided information that film exhibitors needed: reviews, advice on how to sell each film, news stories and reports from theater owners on which ones brought in the customers, all written in a conversation style.

For example, the review of the now-lost Douglas Fairbanks film Bound in Morocco (1918) said “Doug certainly proves himself a real star in this because there isn’t another feller in the pictures who could put over a story that is absolutely devoid of plot as this one is, and not only get away with it but make you like it.”

It took him awhile to make his move to Los Angeles; the L.A. office first appeared on the masthead on May 4, 1919. They expanded the brand by publishing an annual, Wid’s Year Book, starting in 1920. In 1922 he decided to move on and the magazine changed its name to Film Daily; they stayed in business until 1970.

Wid Gunning went on to be a film distributor, then a producer of films like Babe Comes Home (1927) and Hot Stuff (1929) for First National. He left film and according to his 1942 World War 2 draft card, he had his own business, advising newspapers on developing local advertising. He died on April 5, 1963 in Los Angeles. His work is still extremely useful for silent film researchers, and quite a bit of it is available on Lantern.


The Kinema Theater continued to hold Red Cross teas with special appearances by Hollywood stars to raise money for the war, and Kingsley reported on the latest:

It remained for Douglas Fairbanks to bring in the blue ribbon for raising the biggest amount so far realized at a Red Cross tea riot. Fairbanks did it yesterday, when he took in $55 as the result of his acting as host during a couple of hours in the afternoon. Hitherto Mary Pickford had held the record with $45 to her credit.

Two days later Kingsley issued a correction:

And now Bill Hart arises to remark that his batting average on Red Cross tea drinking, despite all reports to the contrary, is really the highest of any so far.

“My tea drunk [sic] came off on January 29th, and I scored 195 cups,” declares Hart.

However, Hart’s math was a bit off. The Red Cross charged one quarter per cup of tea, so Hart made $48.75 for them, beating Pickford but still behind Fairbanks’ 220 cups.


Finally, Cleopatra was still playing and it seems like the film was known for one thing only. Kingsley wrote on Saturday:

Disappointing as the announcement may be to some of the patrons of Clune’s Auditorium, it is true that the young lady ushers are not dressed in imitation of the heroine’s costume this week. NB—the play is Cleopatra.

And then on Monday:

Overheard at Clune’s Auditorium at the Cleopatra performance last Saturday night, “Oh, doesn’t Theda get Bara and Bara.”

Since the image above is how the film is now remembered, things haven’t changed a bit.