One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was sick of slapstick comedies, and she gave us a list of everything she’d seen enough of:
Something besides jazz comedy—with its eternal races, its repartee administered by a slapstick on the nether portion of the fat comedian, the wit of the biffing bladder, trick photography showing the thin gentleman tripping along in the sky, airy persiflage in the form of dough thrown at the professor’s whiskers.
Luckily, what she wanted was served up this week:
The pieless comedy is with us at last on the screen…In short, crisp, original farce, written especially for the screen—not mere warmed-over farce adapted from stage plays. If you want to laugh until you cry, go and see The Game’s Up at the Symphony. Never were more adroitly comical complications than arose from Ruth Clifford’s pretending to her small-town chum that she, Ruth, who had gone to a great city, had become a great artist.
She paints menus for a living, which I didn’t know was a career option (so she drew pies instead of throwing them). The chum comes for a visit (oh no!), and with the help of a chauffeur who’s actually a rich man’s son (surprise!) Ruth keeps up the pretense. After “a lot of complications you’ll foresee, but laugh at anyway,” it ends with weddings all around (the son has a nice friend for the chum).
Elsie Jane Wilson, actress…
This welcome change was brought to Kingsley by a woman director, Elsie Jane Wilson. She was born in Sydney, Australia and had been acting since she was two years old. She met and married fellow actor Rupert Julian and they immigrated to the United States in 1911. They moved to Los Angeles in 1914 and found acting work at Universal Studios. They both became directors; Wilson in 1917 on the family film The Little Pirate. She got to direct 11 films. Unfortunately, The Game’s Up was her last, which is a shame because non-slapstick comedy would become a regular film staple in the next decade and it sounds like she really knew what she was doing. Her husband got to continue directing for Universal, even their prestige picture The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Most of her films, including this one, are lost. However one, The Dream Lady, is on the new Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers DVD.
The star, Ruth Clifford, went on to a very long career as an actress and she was happy to talk to to film historians. Kevin Brownlow wrote her obituary when she died, aged 98.
Live theater was still going strong in Los Angeles, and this week, the opposite of the trend I read about in film histories, happened: Clune’s Auditorium, the 3000 seat theater where some of the most successful films had played, from Birth of a Nation to Cleopatra, switched to back to vaudeville. Owner William Clune had signed with Ackerman and Harris, vaudeville magnates, to link his house to their chain of successful theaters, the Western Vaudeville Association. The opening show was a satirical review called Fads and Fancies plus a vaudeville bill.
Kingsley got to review it and said:
success perches high on the dome of Clune’s Auditorium, if last night’s crowd, the greatest in the history of the big theater, which greeted the transformation of the house from a picture palace into the home of musical comedy, is any criterion. It was a good-natured crowd, too—one that wanted to be pleased. But even if it had been much more critical than it was it would have been happy.
So it looks like it was a good business decision. The Auditorium never did go back to showing films. In 1920 it became the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which played there until 1963. It was demolished in 1985 and turned into a parking lot, but now apartments are being built on the site.
Kingsley got to see a preview of D.W. Griffith’s latest, A Romance of Happy Valley, and she was impressed:
Something entirely different, but just as entirely intriguing as the usual Griffith pictures is A Romance of Happy Valley. The story is an idyll of an old southern town, and full of delightful types, while there are fairly Barrie-ish touches in its whimsicality, especially in the scenes where Lillian, as the heroine, having carried off the absent hero’s coat, which was being used as a scarecrow in his father’s cornfield, holds tender communion with the garment, as though the owner still wore it. And there’s a surprising twist to the exciting plot.
Kingsley really had been seeing too much melodrama, if she thought that attempted filicide was just a ‘surprising twist.’ The film survives, and is available on the Internet Archive.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an ambitious new reform project:
The Motion Picture Co-Operative Association, established by J.A. Quinn, and of which he has been elected president, and which embraces all branches of the industry, exhibitors, producers, distributors, directors, authors, actors and camera men, is now, according to Quinn’s announcement, fully under way, with offices in the Fay Building. This association is the direct culmination of the general upheaval of conditions in the motion picture industry during the past few months, and is established to regulate the entire industry, so that better pictures, stories and casts will be the rule.
One part of the MPCA particularly interested Kingsley:
One of the most important and comprehensive departments to be established by Mr. Quinn is the “service department.” Through the co-operation of exhibitors all over the country, a system of reports will be made upon each production, covering the value of the picture relative to its rental, and the drawing power of each actor.
People in the film industry knew that collecting data would be useful, but nobody had attempted to compile this kind of industry-wide box office statistics. Quinn seems to have quickly given up on the idea; it wasn’t mentioned in any subsequent articles. It was more work than he realized, probably.
Nevertheless, the industry still wanted and needed to know what was selling tickets. No organization attempted this enormous task, instead, the trade paper Variety took it on. In the 1920’s they reported on estimated weekly grosses from individual big-city theaters. Their reporters got the numbers from either cooperative house managers or estimates from rival house managers or sales managers, so it wasn’t necessarily scientific. They had a Tuesday deadline, so they took what they could get. In the 1930’s, both Variety and the Motion Picture Almanac compiled an annual list of film grosses. In 1946, Variety began publishing a weekly National Box Office Survey with data from 25 American cities. In 1976 a company called Centralized Grosses was founded, which, after a series of acquisitions, has become Comscore which compiles box office data today.
However, Quinn continued with his efforts to make “better pictures.” His vague program initially sounded good – who doesn’t want better films — and he signed up lots of famous people to his advisory boards including D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Mary Pickford, Maurice Tourneur, Lois Weber, Douglas Fairbanks and Mabel Normand.
Things began to go South at the MPCA’s second meeting in July held in New York. Quinn stood up and declared the motion picture industry was “the biggest joke in the world” and “rotten to the core.” He spelled out exactly how he wanted to change things in a letter to the Los Angeles Times editor, published August 3rd:
The business improved till about four years ago when we had such reliable production companies as the Biograph and Vitagraph organizations, which made a specialty of producing one and two reel features, and were delivering better stories, more sincerely and convincingly explained in one and two reels then they are now telling in five and eight reels.
There is not one producer or director in the moving-picture industry who does not need supervision and we stand ready to take three of any of their pictures which they have made in rotation and before a representative committee show where the pictures can greatly be improved by cutting, re-editing, recasting and in most cases, entire reconstruction.
He was certainly confident that he had all the answers. He also thought that everyone was getting paid too much, not just undeserving actors (he loathed the star system) but also supervisors and writers. He blamed the end of the Motion Picture Patents Company* and the rise of independent producers for the current “hog eat hog” situation: “fortune after fortune was, and is now being, burned up by the different independent producers in their present attempt to bunk the public and exhibitors into believing that each one was or is better than the other.”
Quinn ended his speech in New York by shouting “They think they can stop me from telling what I know about pictures, but I’m started now, and by God, the only way they can stop me now is to kill me.”
Meeting attendees weren’t impressed. The Exhibitor’s Herald reporter observed, “nobody in the industry showed any disposition to stop him by killing him or any other method.” Jesse Goldberg, general manager of Frohman Amusement Corporation, stood up and said, “There is no more iniquity in the studios of the picture business than there is in any place else in the world…You talk of the public wanting clean films. Look at what Yankee Doodle in Berlin did at the Broadway. The box office was broken down and women fainted in the crush. And why? Because your clean picture-loving public knew that a number of pretty girls in abbreviated bathing suits would appear. If you want work to do, change the taste of the public.”
Wid’s Daily also weighed in on the meeting, concluding, “you cannot standardize anything—not morals, not drama, not box office receipts. You can only be tolerant and not fail to much in appreciation of what seems to hold the attention of about twenty-five million people who patronize every day the motion picture theaters of America.” This seems like useful advice for all reformers!
Quinn kept going, but he decided try a different angle. In 1920, he changed the name of his organization to The Motion Picture and Theatrical League for Better Pictures. It aimed to “stimulate the production of better pictures by the force of concentrated, organized public support of meritorious films and by the discouragement of untruthful advertising.” This scheme seems to have fizzled out in 1922.
John Archibald Quinn was quite a character. Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada in 1880, he became a theater owner in Arizona before he moved to Los Angeles in 1911 where he ran four theaters. Incidentally, while he was shouting for reform he was divorcing his wife of 16 years, Lena Wooton Quinn, to marry Lillie Riemann as soon as it was final in December 1919 (she divorced him in 1926).
After the Better Films project ended, he came back to Los Angeles and became the director of the West Side Improvement Association, whose aim was to coordinate business development from Main Street to the ocean. This didn’t go well, and in November 1929 he was in debtor’s court, stating that he lived on borrowed money and he hadn’t had a salaried position in ten years. At that time he was also involved in a bizarre and unsuccessful scheme to get the Chief of Police thrown out of office with false testimony from a French dancer. In the 1930 Census he was living in Alhambra with no employment but in the 1940 census, he was in Sierra Madre and said he was the director of the Los Angeles Tax Payers Association. He died in 1945.
Kingsley mentioned an unusual potential vaudeville act:
Grape juice seems destined to take an upward flight in popularity and price. William J. Bryan, described by one New York publication as “Nebraska’s continuous spotlight,” is to go into vaudeville, receiving $2500 per week. He will open in New York, at the Palace, early next month, and is said to be signed up for a coast-to-coast tour.
Bryan, a temperance advocate, former presidential candidate and ex-Secretary of State did no such thing. Variety chased down the story’s origin: “The negotiations for the appearance of William Jennings Bryan did not proceed beyond their preliminary stage, which amounted to Evangeline Weed** submitting Bryan’s name to the big time managers, who rejected it.” It’s fun to speculate on what would his act have been like. He was a famous orator, but vaudeville managers plainly thought that politics didn’t fit among the comics and singers. He didn’t start his crusade against teaching evolution until the 1920’s, so that wouldn’t have been part of it.
Kingsley had a chat with Syd Chaplin, and got the first hints of a story that would be big in the coming weeks.
Never before in the short but eventful history of the Big Five, which includes D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, have the members of the world famed aggregate been so closely affiliated and so strongly set on carrying out their plan of organization as at present. “We are at present merely working out the details of our plan,” said Mr. Chaplin yesterday, “and we expect to have a detailed statement to make within a few days.
This was the founding of United Artists, and there will be more about it.
*The MPPC was broken up in 1915 because it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. This is the first time I’ve seen someone lamenting its end.
**Evangeline Weed ran a “personality school” to train actors, and was an aspiring Broadway producer. (Harvard Magazine, December 1919, p.31)
“All Off for Bryan,” Variety, January 17, 1919, p. 1.
“Another ‘Movement,’” Wid’s Daily, March 24, 1920, p.1.
“Effort to Ruin Davis Revealed,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1929.
“Exhibitor’s Views on Film Producing,” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1919.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley tried to reassure her readers that the film business was in good shape:
Those immortelle-weavers who love to honk-honk the sad news that now-a-days the lamp of the picture business is glimmering darkly—that in fact it is burning low and smelling of the wick—should go down to Culver City and have a peep at the Goldwyn activities. Then would these crepe-hangers sell out their stock and buy in on fireworks. Commencing next week all the Goldwyn forces, consisting of six companies, will be at work.
She was really working hard to be cheerful, but the film industry was in the middle of a rough patch. Losses from the theater closures lingered, the United States was in a postwar recession and people were still occasionally coming down with the flu (Gloria Swanson came down with it this week, and was quarantined in her bungalow).
Gloria Swanson, 1919
Samuel Goldwyn, 1919
Much less reassuring was what Samuel Goldwyn had to say about his plans. He announced: “we have definitely decided to make fewer pictures. No matter how long it takes to complete a picture, we shall not let it go out of the studio until we feel it is a perfect as possible.” That was good news for audiences, but terrible news for people who worked in the industry.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Light of Western Stars, with Dustin Farnum.
The Wild West is rapidly becoming tame, even down in Arizona…But our joy in the Wild West show is perennial; and just now there is a perfectly smashing one on view at the Alhambra. You have only to take a peep into the above-named theater, and view the crowds that are chortling and thrilling in response to vivid melodrama.
The plot was unusual for a Western: Farnum’s character marries on a drunken bet, then he flees after being falsely accused of murder. They managed to work in a “thrilling” cattle round-up and several border raids.
To close out the week, Kingsley wrote an odd little novelty article. A lifelong non-driver, she found herself among the 50,000 people attending the Auto Show. To occupy herself, she compared film actors to the latest models.
The Peerless Cloverleaf reminded her of Mary Pickford.
The seven-passenger Pierce-Arrow resembled Douglas Fairbanks.
The Overland family touring car looked like Charlie Chaplin.
I don’t see it, but I’m not bored and stuck at an auto show. It wasn’t her best work, but for a change, her writing appeared in the sports section.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the newest person to try his luck in Hollywood:
The problem of finding employment for returned soldiers is one to which Douglas Fairbanks is devoting serious attention to these days. In fact, to such an extent is Mr. Fairbanks interested in the welfare of the nation’s heroes that whenever possible he engages returned soldiers to work with him in pictures….The latest acquisition of Fairbanks along this line is none other than William A. Wellman, famous ace of the Lafayette Flying Corps, who has seven Hun planes to his credit. Being among the first five aviators to receive his honorable discharge, Wellman visited the Fairbanks studio in Southern California…This resulted in his being cast for an important part in the new Douglas Fairbanks production, Something for Somebody.
Kingsley’s version of the story wasn’t completely right. Wellman had originally met Fairbanks in Boston at a hockey game before the war, and Fairbanks said he had the looks to be an actor. Instead, Wellman enlisted as an ambulance driver in France, then joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned to the Lafayette Flying Corps. He did shoot down seven enemy planes and earned the Croix de Guerre, before he was shot down by anti-aircraft guns. He got a medical discharge due to his injuries, and returned to the United States where he joined the Army Air Service to teach air combat fighting. When he was stationed in San Diego, he would fly his plane to Los Angeles and land on Fairbanks’ polo field for weekend visits.
Wellman did appear in Fairbanks next film, renamed The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. He played a juvenile named Henry; unfortunately the part wasn’t important enough to be mentioned in the synopses of the AFI Catalog or the Motion Picture News. It’s a lost film.
Wellman next acted in a film directed by Raoul Walsh, Evangeline, but after getting fired for slapping the leading lady (who happened to be Miriam Cooper, the director’s wife) he decided that he wanted to be a director, not an actor. He worked his way up, starting as a messenger boy, property man, assistant cutter and assistant director before directing his first film in 1923. He went on to make classics like Wings (1927), A Star is Born (1937) and Beau Geste (1939).
Kingsley gave us a new verb in her description of The Cabaret Girl, starring Ruth Clifford, which opened
quite fascinatingly with Miss Clifford annettekellering in a pool. However, for some mysterious reason not unconnected with good sense—and though it’s just simply never done in pictures—she actually wears a bathing suit. Of course, the hero comes along—what hero wouldn’t—just as her clothes are stolen, and he loans her his automobile robe. She dreams of him thereafter—but it doesn’t occur to her to return the robe. Having seen the young lady pass the acid test of wet stringy hair and dripping features, he naturally wants to know her; but he doesn’t until she becomes a cabaret singer. Then quite suddenly, he wants to marry her, though he’s very rich and lives in a house with stone lions on the steps.
You will never guess how it ends. Just a few weeks back after the theaters reopened and nonsense in movies was already irritating Kingsley. Nevertheless, it was part of a “mighty nice little bill at the Symphony.” The film survives at the EYE Institute, Amsterdam.
Poor Ruth Roland, the serial star, was just back to work after recovering from the flu when she had a hideous case of poison oak. The actor who was playing a villain had been collecting plants in the forest, then he strangled her for a scene “with such artistic fervor that he transferred the poison to the star’s delicate skin, with the result her face, arms and throat are in terrible condition.” Even worse, the actor was immune to the plant’s effects. What a terrible way to start the new year! Roland recovered from this, too, and kept acting in films until 1930.