One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that:
America’s Answer, the second official United States war film, now being released by the division of films, has been booked for long-time showings in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In this city it will be exhibited at the Alhambra Theater, where the first of the government’s official films, Pershing’s Crusaders, was shown with such marked success.
L.A. only had to wait a week to see it, and Kingsley’s review pointed out why it would be a marked success too.
By all means don’t miss America’s Answer, the government film on view at the Alhambra this week, and which surely is the most vivid, the most gripping, the most logically arranged, the best photographed of any war film we have ever had. Tremendous crowds all day yesterday stamped and applauded and howled themselves hoarse over it.
So that you, whose son or brother or sweetheart or husband is in the midst of it, need not wait to conjure up pictures of his experiences with imaginings pieced together from his letters. In America’s Answer you may journey with him from the time he embarks on the transport for France until he rejoices in victory or is borne in to some hospital. You may even see him in the trenches and in battle.
She didn’t need to mention a soldiers’ other possible fate – the list of the dead was just a few pages away, and people were all too conscious of it. Audiences were hungry for information, and film could immerse them in the sights in a way that letters and newspaper couldn’t.*
The New York Times (and New York audiences) agreed: “Not a man and not a woman in the crowd that filled the seats failed to feel the pull of the war, the urging of its influence, the sense of participation in it.” The film allowed people to be “seriously and intelligently informed of what the war in all of its departments is really like.”**
America’s Answer was made by the Committee on Public Information, a government agency established on April 13, 1917 just days after Congress declared war. The CPI used film, advertising, posters, radio and public speeches to inform people about recruitment, rationing, war bond drives and why the war was being fought. They made one more documentary, Under Four Flags.
Now America’s Answer is only interesting if you’re a student of World War One (there are a lot of shots of men and goods being taken to Europe). It has been preserved at the National Archives, and is available on You Tube.
It was a sparse week for news because of the Labor Day holiday. Syd Chaplin announced that he was planning to appear in his own films again (he didn’t until 1921) and First National offered Mary Pickford a contract that was the “largest salary ever paid anybody for anything in the world” ($675,000 plus half of the profits for three pictures–she took it) and that was about it. Kingsley took two days off to enjoy the end of the summer. I hope you enjoy a long weekend, too!
*The other film she reviewed that day, The Prussian Cur, fared badly in comparison. Though “an absorbing story thread runs throughout…with those who like their war news sugar-coated with fiction this picture is bound to make a smashing hit.” So ‘those’ weren’t tough enough for real news?
** “America’s Answer Stirs War Spirit,” July 30, 1918, p. 9.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that women were getting new opportunities in the film industry:
With not only a good many of our handsome picture heroes gone to war, but with laboratory workers, cutters, even property men called away, women are rapidly taking men’s places in the picture studios. While it isn’t likely that Dorothy Phillips or Theda Bara will be called upon to don those cute little short pants and play Romeo, or that Mary Pickford or Clara Kimball Young will have to become athletic heroes in gentlemen’s afternoon togs, still it is true that men’s roles are being cut out of scenarios and women are taking men’s places all along the line.*
Already Universal has several women cutters, and a number of laboratory workers were added a few days ago; Lasky reports eight women last week taking the place of men in the shops and laboratories, while Triangle has several women replacing men in the different technical departments.
However, perhaps, the most radical change is developing in the projection departments. Ten girls who have been taught the use of projecting machinery in the school recently established by the Los Angeles exhibitors are no ready to step in to moving picture booths and reel off films, and it is understood each of the ten has either been engaged to go to work shortly or is expecting an appointment within the next few weeks.
This isn’t surprising, because women got to take jobs vacated by men during the war in most industries. Nevertheless, it was newsworthy. With the addition of some more research, Kingsley was able to turn this in to an article for Picture Play Magazine called “The Women Lend a Hand” (March, 1919). One story emphasized an important part of the new opportunities, better salaries:
There is Mrs. Margaret Whistler, the first property woman on the coast, who for years was a character actress at the “big U,” [Universal] and reputedly one of the best-dressed women in filmland—which you’ll agree must have been some well dressed. Now she wears—overalls! And this is how it happened.
One day a few months ago the Western Vitagraph property man in Hollywood was suddenly called overseas to help get hold of a good location on the Rhine for a war picture or something. Other property men were not to be had. So the production manager [W.S. Smith] decided to do the next best thing. He called in Mrs. Whistler, who by that time had deserted “U” for Vitagraph. If, reasoned Mr. Smith, she could make two gowns grow where only one grew before, and for the same money, why shouldn’t she be able to manage properties and build sets both economically and with artistic results?
“But I must have the same salary as I get for acting,” answered Mrs. Whistler briskly.
Mr. Smith accepted the terms, but at the end of the first week, instead of receiving the same salary as she had been getting, she found she was receiving more. And that’s all there is to the story, except “Props” Whistler went shopping at once for a dozen pairs of overalls, and has been on the job ever since.
Margaret Whistler, actress
Her design for Queen of Sheba
Best of all, Kingsley noted, “she seems to like it!” Margaret Whistler, born Louise Margaret Pepper in 1892, had been in show business for many years (though the authors of Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers called her claim of touring England as a lion tamer “inflated or erroneous.”) She had combined film acting and costume design before she got the chance to run Vitagraph’s prop department. Like most women, she didn’t get to keep her new job when the men came home and after the war she went back to designing costumes. Her most famous work was for Queen of Sheba (1921). In 1922 she ran an independent wardrobe company, the Cinema Mercantile Company. She stopped designing when she married Merle Farnsworth, a medical laboratory manager, in the late 1920s, but after he left her she went back to work in Columbia’s costume department. She died in 1939 following an illness.
Kingsley also highlighted the first woman projectionist in L.A.:
Only a few months ago that women operators were unheard of. Miss Nellie Bly Baker was the first woman on the coast to discover the lack and set about filling it. Los Angeles…requires a city license of picture-machine operators.
“Oh, very well,” said Miss Baker, when she heard it, “I’ll get one.” And she did. Inside of a few weeks she had passed both a written and a machine examination, received her license, and began grinding in the ‘tin box’ of one of that city’s biggest theaters.
Nellie Bly Baker and her boss
Nellie Bly Baker in the Eastern Sierras
Nellie Bly Baker was moonlighting on her regular job as Charlie Chaplin’s secretary (though her projectionist skills would be useful in a studio, too). She was born in Oklahoma in 1893, and after high school and a secretarial course, she moved to Los Angeles in 1917 to join her older sister. She continued to work as Chaplin’s secretary and occasionally got small parts in his films until 1924, when she got acting job offers after she played a masseuse in his A Woman of Paris. She played more small roles until the mid-1930’s, when she moved to her favorite vacation spot, the Eastern Sierras. She and her husband John O’Bryan owned and operated resorts at Lake Lundy and Mono Lake. They were most famous for building a tourist attraction, the Upside Down House. She died in Lone Pine, CA in 1984.
Even though there were advantages to having female projectionists–the man who ran the school said, “the girls know electricity and they are artistic. They get plenty of sleep and they don’t smoke in the operating booths”–women didn’t get to keep those jobs, either.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was an adaption of a well-known work:
When a stage play is put on the screen, it’s always a matter of fascinating interest how it will stand the transplanting. Eight Bells was, I understand, a very, very funny farce on the stage. On the screen at the Garrick, with the addition of a lot of hokum and certain miracles of photography, it is still funny, though a bit too long. A lot of small boys shrieked themselves hoarse yesterday at the doings of the professor and the wicked duke and the nice old maid and the escaped convict, and certainly Mack Sennett never dreamed of a funnier scrambling of characters than that. Thousands have laughed at the Byrne Brothers, comedians, when they played it on the stage, and now millions will laugh at them on the screen.
The AFI Catalog has a synopsis of the plot, but it doesn’t really matter very much. Trav SD at Travalanche has written a detailed blog entry about the Byrne Brothers, but in short, they were acrobatic siblings who specialized in pantomime, juggling and knockabout comedy. They had been touring together since 1891. Eight Bells: A Nautical Pantomimic Comedy in Three Acts showcased all of their skills, plus it included special effects like an exploding wagon and capsizing ship. Shot in 1916, this was their only film. It has been preserved at MOMA in New York.
*Now I want to know if men were really being written out during the war. From Kingsley’s news and reviews, it doesn’t seem like there was a shortage of actors in Los Angeles.
“First Girl Operator in L.A.,” Moving Picture World, October 26, 1918, p. 498.
Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins, Creating the Illusion (Turner Classic Movies): A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers, Philadelphia,: Running Press, 2015.
Barbara Moore, “High Sierra Nellie,” The Album: Times & Tales of Inyo-Mono, v.5 no.3, p. 40.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported:
The mother and soldier brother of the famous Helen Keller are to visit Miss Keller next week, and will watch her work in the big feature picture which she is making at Brunton studios.
Her family didn’t just visit, they appeared in the film. Deliverance was a fictionalized version of Keller’s life from the fever that left her blind and deaf at 18 months, through her childhood when Annie Sullivan taught her to communicate, to her graduation from Radcliffe and her adult life, which included writing, lecturing and advocacy for disabled people. Because Hollywood couldn’t make a movie without a love story, they included a dream sequence with an actress playing Keller as Circe, beckoning Ulysses to her island (when she found out about that bit, she laughed a lot).
According to Keller’s biographer Dorothy Herrmann, she made the film because demand for her on the lecture circuit was dwindling and she was broke. Herrmann called the film “a hodgepodge, an early docudrama that combines actual footage of Helen, symbolism, and a fanciful plot line…Deliverance remains an important historical document, capturing a still beautiful and luminous Helen—dancing, reading Braille, answering her correspondence, strolling serenely in the garden with her hovering, ambivalent mother, and taking a ride in a fragile biplane, despite the protests of her family.” Seven of the film’s ten reels have been preserved at the Library of Congress.
It was a box-office failure. Keller was still broke, so she “had no choice but to accept the offer of which they had a lifelong horror,” vaudeville. She and Anne Sullivan Macy worked up a twenty-minute act and they toured, performing it twice daily from February 1920 to the spring of 1924. Sullivan Macy introduced Keller, and then told the story of teaching her to speak. Next Keller demonstrated, giving an inspirational speech in an “odd, barely comprehensible voice.” Show business wasn’t as bad as they feared. Keller later wrote “I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in.” Plus, they were a hit: for a while they were some of the highest-paid performers in vaudeville, headlining for two thousand dollars a week. It paid better than lectures had, and they only had to be on stage for twenty minutes instead of ninety.
Kingsley unexpectedly had a lot of fun at a movie this week:
It was a plum wild and wooly afternoon on the Rialto, yesterday, as far as I was concerned, with western film whooping ‘em up. Over at the Symphony, Harry Carey is appearing in Hell Bent, which is a western with a ‘wengence.’ If you want to forget the h—* whom you want for the next Governor, and other painful subjects, if you want to feel the winds of plain and mountain on your fevered brow, go to the Symphony. There is some wonderful riding stuff in a wonderful mountain country; there is a desert bit, with mirages and sand-storms, and Harry Carey does some marvelous stunts including climbing hand over hand on a rope up the side of a steep cliff and rolling down a mountain side tied to a horse’s back. Altogether as breezy and entertaining a western as we have had in some time.
Someone she didn’t mention is the reason the film is remembered today: it was directed by John Ford, his eighth feature. It seems like he already knew what he was doing.
A disturbing film played at Miller’s Theater this week, entitled At the Mercy of Men. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, a woman is forced to marry her rapist. Kingsley did say it was “a wrong afterward righted in so far as the law could do it” (I’d prefer a long stint in prison for the attacker). Eventually they fall in love and that’s supposed to be the happy ending. Its working title was Ruthless Russia, but the Russians were Allies during World War 1, so it wasn’t made as anti-enemy propaganda. I’m astonished that anybody thought this was a good story to tell. It’s a lost film. Happily, both actors went on to better things. Alice Brady played many socialites in 1930’s comedies including Aunt Hortense in The Gay Divorcee (1934). The rapist was played by Frank Morgan, Mr. Matuschek of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and of course, the Wizard of Oz.
Luckily, Kingsley saw a second movie at Miller’s this week. A “welcome addition to the bill” was a re-issue of “probably one of the best comedies ever made:” Fatty and Mabel Adrift. The short from 1916 will still give you some relief from painful subjects, and it’s on the Internet Archive.
*It seems that it was OK to write “hell” in the newspaper when it referred to a place, but not as a swear.
Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recorded the patriotic fervor of the times in a movie review:
To Hell with the Kaiser isn’t merely the name of a photodrama. It’s an American state of mind. Therefore it would be absurd to expect any red-blooded American to sit down and write a cool analysis of any picture with that name.
It breathes the very spirit of American pep and dash and optimism. It is like a draught of champagne in a dry town. It radiates victory. Some dyspeptic old critic may take a wallop at it, but he can’t hurt it any. The crowds will go see it just the same…Even the possible pale-blooded old critic, snouting after faults, who may allege the thing’s too episodic, that the “dramatic verities” are not preserved, that the American girl is quite too impossible clever, that the patriotism is flamboyant, will have to acknowledge the play’s got a soul and a soul of flame.
For, not content with bringing events down to date, it soon flies the track of events and soars into the illimitable blue of the imaginable future. And it’s so adroitly done—that moving on from the tragedy of the past to the blinding hope of the future. So that when the story leaps at last into buoyant comedy, it seems quite the most natural thing in the world.
That ‘imaginable future’ involved Kaiser Wilhelm getting captured by the Allies, committing suicide and going to hell where Satan, impressed by his horrible deeds, abdicates in his favor. While that’s an understandable revenge fantasy, it’s hard to imagine it as a comedy. The film is lost, so we can’t see how they managed it.
At the time it was extremely popular. The theater had held a preview night for eight hundred soldiers and sailors and they “cheered themselves hoarse” according to Kingsley’s report. Three bands wound up the evening with a rousing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
I couldn’t find a record of the box-office returns, but looks like film did well until the war ended in November. After that, Metro tried their best to keep selling it in December:
Kingsley had a very good time at another movie this week:
The Cook assays about three laughs a minute—that is, unless you just get one laugh out of it and that continuous. In fact, Fatty put the ho-ho in hokum. There is the Salome dance with Fatty wearing all the scullery furniture except the kitchen stove.
The Salome burlesque was an extremely durable bit of business. Arbuckle and company had first filmed it for The Country Hero in 1917; it’s lost, but from the photos it looks like Buster Keaton performed the Salome role. In The Cook, the dance was contagious – a dancer in the restaurant inspired Keaton to imitate her, then Keaton inspired Arbuckle. This was Buster’s last film with Arbuckle before he left to serve in the army. Keaton next used it to entertain the troops when he was part of the 40th Division Sunshine Players. Then the bit acted as a sort of welcome home from his time in the military when it turned up again in Backstage, Keaton’s return to film work in 1919. It was part of “The Falling Reign” portion of stage show in the short. They used more of the Salome story, with Keaton playing the taunting temptress and Arbuckle playing the king who wants to dump her.
Hollywood Revue of 1929
Later, when Buster made personal appearances to support College in 1927, he did it again, calling his act “The Song of the Dance.” Finally he used a version of it in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Like all good vaudevillians, he didn’t let proven material go to waste. No matter which version you see, it’s still a hoot.
Kingsley reported big news for people who know that Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents:
Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, that classic of girlhood’s library, is to be made into a film, after all, despite the difficulties W.A. Brady had in securing screen rights. Mr. Brady will make an elaborate production of the story, on which work has already commenced. The scenes are being made in Concord, Mass., in the very house sacred to the memory of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.
William Brady, a very successful theatrical and film producer, had presented it as a play during the 1912-13 season, so he was familiar with the material. This was second of many, many film adaptations of the novel (the first was a 1917 British production). From the plot description in its Paramount Press Book, it looks like Jo still sacrifices her hair and Beth dies, but Amy doesn’t burn Jo’s manuscript (the worst crime in girls’ literature!) and Jo doesn’t try out independence and move to the city – Prof. Baer already lives in Concord. They really did shoot some of it in Orchard House, so it’s particularly sad that it’s a lost film. If you’d like to see what the rooms look like now, the Alcott Museum has a virtual tour.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noted a milestone:
The Christie Company will celebrate the release of its hundredth comedy in as many weeks on August 19. The consistent release of one comedy a week for 100 weeks is the record which this company had made for itself.
North Americans have been bad at taking vacations for a long time. (Don’t be like that! Enjoy your August!) The name of the short was Does Your Sweetheart Flirt? and it starred Bobby Vernon and Dorothy Dane. According to Motion Picture World, “the efforts of the heroine to cure her young man of flirting creates a great deal of fun.” (October 26, 1918)
The Christie Film Company was founded by brothers Charles and Al Christie in 1916. Charles handled administration, and Al directed the films. They had been making comedy shorts independently since mid-1916. Al got his start in the film business in 1909 at the Nestor Company, then he moved to Universal Films in 1912 where he was in charge of comedies. The Christie Company continued to make a one-reel comedy every week until 1921, but when they started making two-reelers, they slowed down a little bit, releasing 20 films in 1922. They went out of business in 1933. If you’d like to see Al Christie’s thoughts on writing, he wrote a guide for the Palmer Photoplay school.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Still Alarm. She thought it was a reissue of an old picture, but she didn’t mind:
Of course the glory of the American fireman is now totally eclipsed in the glory of the American soldier, nevertheless that two-fisted guy, Thomas Santschi, is able to give us several high-voltage thrills when he goes into that factory fire and saves those girls…Nevertheless, the picture demonstrates the changes that have taken place in picture making of late years. It has become a more polished art, but honestly, did you ever get a more real thrill from melodrama than you get when, all the other firemen having deserted one by one, Santschi rushes into the flames and grabs off the last girl?
The Library of Congress says it was made in 1918, so it wasn’t a reissue, but it was a re-make of a 1911 film by the same studio, Selig-Polyscope. They were based on a very successful melodramatic play by Joseph Arthur that had debuted in 1887—by 1918, the story probably seemed old-fashioned. It’s lost, so we can’t see exactly what made Kingsley think it was an older film.
Tom Santschi had been a film actor since 1908, and continued to play handsome tough guys, often in Westerns, until his death in 1931.
Kingsley reported a notable debut with the new Wallace Reid film this week:
Jimmy Cruze is directing. On account of his life of screen villainy, just abandoned, it is said Jimmy is expert in professional directorial language.
I think she just called directors villainous – or at least their language. The film was called Too Many Millions and it was the first of over 70 directed by Cruze. He had started out in film as an actor at Thanhouser in 1908 and got his big break in 1914 on their serial, The Million Dollar Mystery. In 1916 he moved to Famous Players/Lasky, and they gave him this chance to direct. Too Many Millions got good reviews (Exhibitor’s Herald called it a “delightfully amusing comedy”) and Cruze went on to direct several of Roscoe Arbuckle’s features, The Covered Wagon (1923), Hollywood (1924) and The Great Gabbo (1929).
In 1986, Cruze’s cinematographer, Karl Brown, wrote a remembrance of him in a letter to Kevin Brownlow that was so well-written, Brownlow sent it along to Films in Review as an article. Brown had first met Cruze when they were both working for Kinemacolor in 1912. Here’s a bit if it:
The art of dissimulation seems to have been an inborn gift with Cruze, but it was a strictly limited gift confined to getting the things he wanted to satisfy his rough-hewn, not to say boorish nature. Deciding to play his one trump card to the limit he made his way to New York where he became an actor.
And what an actor! Dressed to the nines he was the perfect picture of what people from the hinterlands imagine actors must be. He wore four changes of costume every day, including strict attention to the protocol of the cane. He never used canes. He wore them. A light featherweight bamboo for morning wear; a different, more sincere Malacca for midday use while a gold headed ebony stick was a must for evening wear. He wore his velour fedora or his Panama straw hat at a 45% angle over his marcelled hair and his clothes were shoutingly strident. If Avon Bill is right in saying the clothes oft proclaim the man Cruze’s get-up fairly screamed “Here…is an ACT-ORE!!
Specificity IS the soul of narrative. With that description, I hardly need to include photographs. (So how can I arrange to write like that?) Brown mentioned that by the early 20’s, Cruze had given up sharp dressing. He wore “the sloppiest clothes he could find: always the same plus-fours and open neck shirt with never a tie at any time for any reason.” I guess directors are supposed to look different from actors.
Unfortunately, Cruze had “the Viking’s love of battle by day and high wassail by night” and he died aged 58 in 1942.
Cruze actually was somewhat villainous. Brown concluded “I spent years—four of them—filming all his output with the result that I know far too much about the rise and fall of Jim Cruze to be able to write anything about him that won’t sound like a merciless vivisection.” If Brown had, it would have certainly been vivid.