From Photoplay (January 1919), by R.F. James
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a major announcement from a film studio: because of the influenza epidemic, they would be shutting down production for a month. Frank Garbutt, vice president and West Coast manager of Lasky and Morosco Studios, wrote in a letter to her:
All of the leading producers of the country have agreed to shut down for the month, and those stars who are now finishing will take their month’s lay-off on completion of their present pictures, for the reason that to shut down in the middle of a picture would entail enormous and unnecessary loss. Our stars at Lasky and Morosco Studios will take four weeks lay-off, which in the case of those now working will commence on the completion of the pictures upon which they are engaged. In this way we will avoid the necessity of completely closing our studios, as the shut-downs will not come at all the same time, and this will enable us to keep many of the smaller people at work.
Influenza had a huge effect on the film industry. After the epidemic was over, Alfred A. Cohn in the fan magazine Photoplay (January 1919) described it:
To the stars, four weeks of idleness came as a relief. To the majority of the lesser lights it was more or less a hardship. Although the impression prevailed throughout the country that the manufacture of films had become extinct because of he ravages of the epidemic, actual figures indicate that the decrease in production was not more than forty percent.
A forty percent decrease is still a lot! Cohn said the shut-down happened because with theater closures, profits had been cut by two-thirds and all the banks were “using their spare change to help out the Liberty Loan drive,” so borrowing wasn’t possible. The studios simply had to stop spending money. The stars accepted a four-week vacation without pay, with the lost time tacked on to the end of their contracts. Lasky, Universal, Fox, Vitagraph, American, and World all followed the plan. Metro and Goldwyn were busy moving West, so they weren’t making films anyway. A few companies did not stop, including Sennett and Ince, while Roscoe Arbuckle kept shooting Camping Out on location at Catalina Island.
Photoplay summed up the epidemic’s effects in a box:
The IMDB has a more complete list of flu casualties from the film industry here.
Kingsley wrote about how much people missed the pictures:
Romance, comedy and thrills are all locked away in a little tin box, and all because that unpleasant autocrat, Spanish Flu, stalks the Rialto. Dear me, we never realized before how much of our romance was measured by the foot!
In 1918, most people had lived in a world without regular trips to the cinema, and they knew how to otherwise occupy themselves. But they’d gotten used to them. It’s a little like if the Internet was shut off for two months: most of us remember getting along without it but we really wouldn’t want to. Bloggers would have to go back to writing ‘zines (I think I can remember how to operate a mimeograph machine).
Live theater had also been banned, and Kingsley reported on how they were dealing with the uncertainty of how long it would last:
And then there are the playhouses and vaudeville shows. For the first time in twenty-five years there was no Monday show at the Orpheum yesterday. Nevertheless, all the new acts not already here will arrive this morning, in order to be in readiness in case the closing order should be rescinded this week; and in any case all acts on the Orpheum, also on the Pantages circuit, have been ordered to touch base in the town in which they are billed, whether they actually play there or not.
Unfortunately, theater actors were about to get an involuntary vacation too.
Kingsley knew that one day they’d go back to making movies, so on Sunday she wrote about trends in popular actresses, declaring the end of girlish heroines and beginning of roles for more robust women.
Dear, dear! How styles in girls do come and go! No girl can really feel sure of her popularity for a minute! I don’t mean, of course, the ordinary or lay girl, whose popularity isn’t measured by the pound. I mean the picture girl, the heroine of fillums. For now, it’s the Big Girl, the Gibson Girl, who has come back—who is to have her innings…Probably it’s the war that has done it, through some subtle subconscious workings in our national psychology. We like to think of the mothers of soldiers as husky ladies with deep chests and sturdy shoulders.
How we used to rave, didn’t we, over the curly-haired cuties—try to do our hair like theirs and everything. Why, the number of five-foot-eight girls with Mary Pickford curls was alone appalling. How excruciatingly cute we thought the pink-gingham ingénue when she biffed the villain over the head with a doughnut, and oh, was there ever anything so side-splittingly funny as the sun-bonneted cutie trying to milk a cow! But if she was ragged as well as cute—well, we just laid down and let her walk all over us.
She thought that some smaller women were going to stay popular because they were artists, like Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, and Dorothy Gish, but the rest were fading. However, Kingsley’s crystal ball was faulty. They weren’t replaced by big girls or even adult women — the jaunty flapper was coming soon. Some, like Colleen Moore, were former curly-haired cuties. Popular taste is unpredictable.
Alfred A. Cohn, “The Spanish Invasion,” Photoplay, January 1919, p. 76, 97.