Week of August 24th, 1918


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.

mw_mercantileBest 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.

Upside Down House

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.

Poster for the live version of Eight Bells

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.

6 thoughts on “Week of August 24th, 1918”

  1. “*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.”
    The closest thing I ever heard was that they were re-writing Westerns due to a lack of horses, not men. At least, that was the story at last year’s screening of “Shark Monroe,” a William S. Hart movie set in Alaska, at Cinecon. I can believe it: we tend to forget that horse transportation was still enormously important during the First World War, despite the use of locomotives and early automobiles. Horses could go where tracks and roads didn’t exist, and they could still haul a heavy load.


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