Week of February 22nd, 1919

Wallace Reid

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported a story that she had no idea how sad it would become:

An accident, resulting in injury to Wallace Reid and nearly every member of his Lasky company occurred a few days ago while the company was en route to the big trees region in the northern part of the state.

Among the episodes to be photographed was a train wreck, and everything was set for the effect when unluckily the caboose carrying the entire company to the location jumped the track on the trestle bridge near Arcata, turned completely over and ended the work for the day.

Practically every member of the company was more or less injured. Wallace Reid sustained a three-inch scalp wound, which required six stiches to close, but was not seriously hurt. Grace Darmond, leading woman, and others were more or less bruised and cut. None, however, was disabled and the scenes were taken the following day.

According to his biography Reid actually was hurt more seriously than they told Kingsley: his head injury was a deep laceration, he had a gash in his arm and he injured his back. The next day he had blinding headaches. Stopping production on location would have cost $10,000 per day, so studio head Jesse Lasky ordered him to be given morphine so he could work. Reid quickly became addicted.

Even after the film was finished, the studio didn’t give him time off to heal, they just gave him more morphine. He drank too much alcohol, too, which made things worse. After he collapsed on the set of Nobody’s Money in 1922, he went to a sanatorium but it was too late. He died on January 12, 1923, only 31 years old.


Unfortunately, now if he’s remembered it’s as an example of an early Hollywood scandal, like Roscoe Arbuckle’s trials or William Desmond Taylor’s murder. For instance, Karina Longworth did an episode of the You Must Remember This podcast about him. It’s too bad all that hard work has been forgotten. Jeanine Basinger summed up his appeal in Silent Stars: “On-screen, he exuded self-confidence and cheerful good health, and his charm and acting ability were such that he carried his movies, most of which were slight vehicles designed to showcase his stardom. He was one of the most successful of the popular leading men of the teens and early twenties.” The film he was working on, Valley of the Giants, was presumed lost, but it was found in Russia at Gosfilmofond in 2010.


Kingsley got to have some fun at the movies this week:

The last word in fascinating, adroit crook comedies, when crook plays were the vogue on the stage, was Max Marcin’s Cheating Cheaters, [that was 1916] and now, in pictures, it lends itself equally well to the two-dimensional stage at Tally’s Broadway.

The path of the plot is as devious as the soul of the crooks. And what mounting comedy in the scenes in which we are let in on the fact that the two apparently respectable families who live on adjoining estates are really two bands of crooks, neither of whom knows that the other crowd are crooks.

It’s a lost film, so I’ll spoil it: the two ‘families’ figure out they’re all jewel thieves and decide to become one big gang. However, they don’t know that one ‘daughter’ is actually a renowned detective in disguise. She had fallen in love with the other family’s ‘son’ and decides to pardon the whole lot of them if they promise to help her catch crooks in the future. This solid idea for a comedy was made twice more, in 1927 and 1934. The last version was made after the production code was enforced, so he has to go to prison, but she promises to wait for him.

Is this the replacement apron?

In other news, Mabel Normand’s apron got eaten by a goat on location while filming The Pest, and Grace Kingsley turned it into a two paragraph story. She was a pro! Luckily they were able to buy some material and Miss Normand made a new one. Even big Hollywood stars had sewing skills then, it seems.


Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars, New York: Knopf, 1999, p.5

E.J. Fleming, Wallace Reid: The Life and Death of a Hollywood Idol, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007, pp. 143-44.




Buster Keaton Blogathon 2019


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

For the blogathon, I had hoped to look at how Grace Kingsley covered Buster Keaton in her columns, other than in her reviews and interviews. But there just wasn’t much to look at. He occasionally turned up in little stories, like when Lou Anger said he looked out of spirits, and Buster replied, “I am. Not a drop left!” or when there was news, like when he got married or when he hired a new director. It seems like he was more interested in working on his films than in being a movie star, which isn’t much of a surprise. The most interesting thing I noticed was how much more often he appeared in the paper after he signed that contract with M.G.M., but that only proves that they were a well-oiled publicity machine.

Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Joe Mitchell, Jean Havez

So instead I’ll tell you about my favorite Keaton article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, “Humorists All at Sea.” Unsigned and published on May 25th, 1924, some lucky writer got to visit the original writing staff at work. A few months earlier, technical director Fred Gabourie, while on loan to another studio for The Sea Hawk, found something his boss might like to use: the Buford, a 450 foot ocean liner being sold for scrap. He was right. So one day Keaton took Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joe Mitchell to visit it at Catalina Island and said, “There’s the boat. Now write me a comedy.” The Times writer watched as they did just that:

As an illustration of the way gag men work, take the methods of Buster’s scenarists. All three inspected the Buford from the lowest deck to the top of the main mast. Everything from the anchor to the smokestack was considered for its possible comedy values. Portholes were inspected, life preserves labeled up, a diver’s suit dragged out on deck, the uniforms of the various members of the crew were considered.

From stem to stern nothing aboard the Buford was overlooked. For two whole days the gag men shot possibilities at each other and Buster while they built up the story. A stenographer sat hard by taking down the suggestions.

At the end of a week of this sort of thing, the stenographer had more than 400 pages of single-spaced gag ideas. These ideas were whipped into story form by Buster and his henchmen in several more days of work.

Only the funniest of the gags and only those which best fitted into the story were retained. And after ten days of talk the first scene of Buster’s comedy, tentatively titled The Navigator, was shot.”

So it was as simple as that! Now that we know, we can all go out and make a masterpiece. The article shows how different writing for movies is from other kinds. As Keaton said in his autobiography, “they were not word guys, at all. They didn’t have to be.”

Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, Keaton, Jean Havez

Keaton’s original group of gag men had been working with him since his two-reelers, but they were to stay together for just one more film, Seven Chances. The team broke up temporarily in late 1924, when Keaton closed his studio for two months while he went on vacation. It became permanent when Jean Havez died of a heart attack on February 12, 1925. Joe Mitchell co-wrote three more comedies and retired. Clyde Bruckman went to work for Harold Lloyd, but when he read the book The Great Locomotive Chase, he brought it right to his old boss and they made The General.

Keaton and Capt. John A. O’Brien

The L.A. Times writer mentioned one detail that I hadn’t read elsewhere:

Captain John A. O’Brien, veteran of fifty-eight years of service on the Pacific, materially aided the scenarists. O’Brien told funny stories of past experiences he had or of which he had heard and called in his crew to tell their versions of funny incidents of life shipboard.

obrien_1919Captain “Dynamite Johnny” O’Brien (he once prevented a dynamite explosion) was born in Cork, Ireland in 1851 and he moved to the United States in 1862. According to the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, he’d been a sailor since 1867 and he became a steamer captain in 1888, mostly traveling between Seattle and Alaska. So he really did know a lot about ships; Keaton was clever to ask an expert. After 1919 O’Brien became a pilot in the Puget Sound. He was still working as a mariner, age 79, and living in Seattle according to the 1930 Census. He died the following year.


The Navigator is recognized as a great silent comedy; in his autobiography Keaton said it and The General were his best. In 2018 it was added to the National Film Registry.


Please visit the rest of the Buster Keaton Blogathon!




Week of February 15th, 1919

Maxine Elliott

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got experimental and introduced an alter-ego. She started her Sunday column:

“Say, maybe us extra girls have got the book of life all thumbed up and dog eared by the time the ballot-box is pushed around our way, but believe you me, kiddo mine, every once in a while old dame Fate whittles herself our a new quill and jots herself a new episode in the serial!” Ella, the Extra Girl, parked her professional chewing gum under the bench out on the lot, sat on one foot and swung the other one.

And so Ella was ready to tell a friend all about the actress Maxine Elliott, who once caught her eating leftover food on a set and promptly loaned her money to buy groceries then hired her to be an extra on her film, leading to more work. Unfortunately, one of those assignments was with Caesar the Lion, whose claw scratched her and she fainted. Luckily, Elliott was at the studio and she gave her a ride home, where her brother Bob cried then said “this lady is the dame that saved me when the Boches shot hell out o’ me.” He told his sister all about Miss Elliott pulling him out of a ditch after he’d been shot by Germans in Belgium. Ella thought the world of her.

Film and theater star Maxine Elliott was in town this week, touring with the comedy Lord and Lady Algy. As I mentioned last week, perhaps a scheduled interview fell through but Kingsley still needed to fill her column, so she came up with this combination of fact and fiction (for instance, Elliott had done relief work in Belgium during the war, but there’s no record of her rescuing soldiers from ditches).

Kingsley’s article was harmless and said nice things, but it didn’t get at how interesting Maxine Elliot was. She’d been on the stage since 1890 and a star since 1903. When she played in London, there was a rumor she had a relationship with King Edward VII. In 1908, she opened her own Broadway theater which she named after herself. She was fantastically wealthy, having taken financial advice from her friend J.P. Morgan. She made two feature films for Goldwyn – Fighting Odds (1917) and The Eternal Magdalene (1919). She retired from acting in 1920 at age 52 and became a society woman with houses in the U.S., England and France. Her French chateau on the Riviera was so notorious, somebody wrote a whole book about the parties she hosted there. She died there in 1940. Her niece wrote an excellent biography of her, according to the New York Times. So when is somebody going to make her biopic? There must be an actress in her middle years who’d like this part.


This was the beginning of a monthly series of star profiles using the persona of Ella Dearborn. Kingsley had aspired to be a fiction writer, and Ella was probably fun to write. She thought that she was an expert in Hollywood, and she let readers feel like they were getting an insider’s view. It lasted until December, but five years later Kingsley started another version called Stella the Star Gazer who went along with her to Hollywood parties and said star-struck things a journalist couldn’t say. Stella appeared regularly from 1924 to 1931.


Kingsley reported on another actress who had a long and eventful life:

Being run away with while horseback riding last Sunday was the thrilling experience of Gloria Swanson…Miss Swanson is a wonderfully accomplished horsewoman, but she met a horse last Sunday that she found it hard to manage. She and a friend were riding across the foothills in Hollywood, when the other girl’s horse became unruly and the two exchanged horses. No sooner had Miss Swanson stepped on to the animal’s back than he began to plunge and buck, and then he started to run. Miss Swanson succeeded in holding on, however, and quieted the horse after a two-mile gallop. “When I was a little girl living in Puerto Rico,” said Miss Swanson, “I used to delight in riding the wildest horses on the ranch, and my knowledge certainly came in handy last Sunday.”

So even an actresses who was starting to play glamorous rich women could be a rough-and-tumble horse expert in the public eye. Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago, but her father was in the Army and she grew up in Puerto Rico. She had stopped making wild comedy shorts for Mack Sennett in 1917 when she moved to Triangle where she starred in serious dramas. After it went bankrupt she went to work for Cecil B. DeMille, and their first film, the sophisticated comedy Don’t Change Your Husband, had just been released. It’s interesting that this bit of publicity made its way to Kingsley, but it seems that even ladylike actresses could be proud of coping with a runaway horse then.

This week, Kingsley found a new way to avoid being damaged by dirty movies when she saw Ashes of Love:

it won’t, I believe, hurt the tenderest sensibilities, inasmuch as one’s mind is kept just too busy for anything doing mental gymnastics in following the fairly bewildering number of characters and the somewhat choppy action. The choppy action is due, no doubt, to the effort of the director to heighten the suspense. Ashes of Love is too long, also—it took six reels, at least, to reduce the hero’s passion to ashes.

So if you’re confused enough, no harm can come to you! Peter Milne in Motion Picture News hated the film too, for the same reason. “Mr. Abramson has made his almost usual mistake of hurling a great number of characters at the spectator in the first reel of his picture so that confusion reigns even before the plot gets under way.” Ashes of Love has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

Director Ivan Abramson had a surprisingly long film career for someone who wasn’t very good at his job (confidence beats competence, once again.) A former newspaper publisher and theater manager, he wrote and directed melodramas with titillating titles like The Sex Lure, first for his own company, Ivan Film Productions, then in 1917 he co-founded the Graphic Film Corporation with William Randolph Hearst (who, in addition to his newspaper empire, owned International Film Service which made newsreels and animated shorts). Hearst left in 1919 but Graphic kept releasing films on a states rights basis until 1922. However, Abramson didn’t become a better director; about his 1920 film A Child For Sale Burns Mantle wrote in Photoplay “Ivan Abramson’s idea of what constitutes a coherent and convincing dramatic story, taking this picture as a sample, offer many opportunities for the raucous hoot and the mirthful snort…His picture is an inartistic jumble of unrelated incidents to me.”


motheroftruthHis final film was Lying Wives (1925), which starred Clara Kimball Young in her last silent film. He kept trying to make movies as an independent producer and in 1929 he self-published a novel about the evils of monopoly in the film industry called Mother of Truth: a story of romance and retribution based on the events of my own life.* Late that year, he brought a suit charging violation of the Sherman antitrust law against the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and forty-seven corporations and individuals. He wanted 1.3 million dollars in damages. The MPPDA called the suit “ludicrous,” but they settled it out of court just before it went to trial in December 1933. Abramson died on September 15, 1934, age 65.

Abramson reminds me of J.A. Quinn from last month: another guy who blamed his lack of success on the film industry at large, but goes down swinging, with as much publicity as possible. If this keeps up, I’ll have a monthly series of my own! I could call it “Collecting Cranky Coots.”


*Book Review Index didn’t list any reviews — I did check.




“Abramson Suit Against MPPDA is Settled,” Motion Picture Herald, December 16, 1933, p.19.

“Ivan Abramson, Movie Man, Dies,” New York Times, September 16, 1934.

“Ivan Abramson Plans Six Feature Pictures,” Film Daily, August 2, 1933, p.2

Mantle, Burns. “The Shadow Stage,” Photoplay, June 1920, p.68.

Milne, Peter. “Ashes of Love,” Motion Picture News, September 21, 1918, p.1911.




Week of February 8th, 1919


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to see a film she was really looking forward to:

Any time that Fred Stone appears as the star in a film comedy, I for one am going to be on hand to see it. And if, in addition, as is the case at Clune’s Broadway in Under the Top, this week, those unctuously humorous and good-humoredly satirical writers, Anita Loos and John Emerson, are the authors of the picture play in which Stone appears, I simply wouldn’t miss the combination for anything.

While Loos and Emerson are still well-known (at least among silent film fans), Fred Stone is nearly forgotten. The writers did a good job of tailoring their script to his impressive talents:

The delicious humor of Under the Top, which has to do with circus folks, lies in the manner of its doing, as conveyed both by action and subtitles. If you told the tale straight it would sound like rank melodrama—save the whimsical twist at the end, which, quite obviously, is gentle satire. The kidnapped heroine, Ella Hall, owner of the circus, is hypnotized into saying she wants to marry one of her guardians who has been stealing her money, with the time set for her awakening at 3 o’clock. The action takes place in the circus tent, and when Fred Stone, the hero, enters to save her, quite obviously he is in the midst of his enemies. So, instead of running away or knocking down the whole tentfull of ruffians, he runs out into the show tent—the circus is in progress before a big crowd—and, awaiting the hour of her awakening, he does all those circus stunts which he used to do in his circus days—bear back riding, trapeze work, leaping over three horses with the villainous circus men at his heels. This serves two purposes: it lets us see Fred in all the stunts he is famous for, and it keeps the suspense at fever heat.


Fred Stone was called “the grand old man of the American theater;” his career in entertainment lasted over seventy years (Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1959). He was born in Colorado in 1873, and his first job in entertainment, at 11 years old, was as a tightrope walker in a circus act with his brother. He went on to perform in every kind of venue there was: medicine shows, vaudeville, musical comedy, legitimate theater, silent and talkie films and radio. He was most famous for originating the role of The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz on stage in 1902. No less than P.G. Wodehouse wrote in 1917 “Fred Stone is unique. In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act he stands alone as one who can do everything.” (“Fred Stone and a Few Others,” Vanity Fair, December 1917)


Under the Top was his second film, The Goat (written by Frances Marion—he had good luck with his screenwriters) was his first. He made one more for Lasky (Johnny Get Your Gun), then went back to Broadway to star in the hit musical comedy Tip Top. In 1921 he got funding for his own production company and made two films directed by Frank Borzage. He went on to star in more Broadway shows, and he occasionally appeared in talkies, most notably as Katherine Hepburn’s father in Alice Adams (1935). He died in 1959.


Only a fragment of Under the Top has been preserved at the Library of Congress and UCLA. Still, it’s more than has been preserved of his stage career. I’d like to see his Scarecrow; Ray Bolger was a fan and he based some of his performance on Stone’s. Armond Fields wrote a biography called Fred Stone: Circus Performer and Musical Comedy Star (2002).


This week Kingsley wrote an unusual vaudeville review. She was so fed up by the running commentary provided by another audience member at the Orpheum that she quoted it at length:

Down at the Orpheum yesterday, sitting right behind me, was one of those self-starting matinee girls. And she told everyone all around what the show was about and why. I thought “What’s the use of my writing the impressions made on my jaded theatrical senses?’ Why not let this fresh young thing tell the public about it right out in the paper. It’s no secret what she thinks—everybody in the orchestra seats must have heard. Why hold out on the rest of the world?


When the headliner Stella Mayhew came out on stage:

the sweet young thing was rattling along about her recent experience in learning the ‘shimmy,’ but she desisted long enough to express herself regarding Miss Mayhew. ‘She just is a darlin’ isn’t’ she. She’s a blonde now—self inflicted…She calls her fat her ‘salary’ and she’s afraid she’s going to get thin, she told my manicurist! Isn’t that funny?

Things didn’t get any better as the show continued; the matinee girl observed that singer/piano player Leo Beers could ‘tease the tinklers…And the way he sings, in that quiet, cosy-corner way. Seems as if he’s just calling on you, doesn’t it. My goodness, I wish he were!” and comics Eddie Borden and “Sir” Frederick Courtney “don’t say a thing you can remember to tell the next time you go to a party—it’s such nutty stuff—but you like ‘em while they’re doing it.”

I have no doubt that Kingsley had to endure an irritating loudmoth (even without cell phones, audiences were perfectly capable of being obnoxious then, too) but some of her review must have been fiction. She couldn’t have possibly gotten so lucky as to have somebody else practically write it for her, that’s just too convient.


However, all that annoyance was worth it, because next Sunday a new creation debuted in her column: Ella the Extra Girl. Ella was opinionated, and a bit of a know-it-all, but much less irritating than the matinee girl. She isn’t talking during a performance; she chats with her friend on a bench outside about how actress Maxine Elliott helped her find work. I imagine Kingsley was staring at the blank page that needed to become her Sunday column (possibly after a scheduled interview fell through) and she didn’t want to churn out another dreary one like last Sunday’s column with “the newest star that has arisen the film firmament” Katherine MacDonald, who talked about her Revolutionary War ancestry and complained about how disillusioned she was with her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s literary and artistic set in New York. So for fun Kingsley created Ella. Whoever that obnoxious young woman was, she was a great help to her work.


Week of February 1st, 1919


One hundred years ago this week, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol had recently been approved by the enough states and ratified as part of the Constitution. It was to go in to effect on January 16, 1920, and Grace Kingsley spared a thought for screenwriters:

A temperance film lecture in these piping days of prohibition is quite like telling a man in the penitentiary that he mustn’t steal chickens any more, or the little boy on the desert isle that he mustn’t fire off firecrackers. What, by the way, will some of our scenario writers do when prohibition becomes law? How can the good young man be got to steal the papers, and what excuse will the erring husband have for being led astray by the vampire? Also what will become of all those temperance films, with their inevitable red hearafters full of ladies whose sufferings, whatever else these sufferings have effected, have not in the least spoiled the beauty of the ladies’ curves?

Having said all that, she was shocked to actually enjoy the unintentionally funny film on offer this week:

All of which leads up to The Craving, the temperance story starring Francis Ford, at the Symphony this week. Francis Ford obligingly plays the “horrible example.” Yet, after all, where’s the moral, since every time he takes a drink, visions of beautiful ladies arise, from the bottle and the glass—and appropriately clothed for a dip, too! My goodness, won’t every man be asking Francis for the brand? The only other punishment (?) for his drinking was that he yielded up the secret of the formula for a certain high explosive to a morbid gentleman who roached up his hair so as to look like the devil, and who seemed to have no particular use for it when he got it. But hold! Maybe he thought the formula was the secret of the hero’s drink!


It helped that the film was “wonderfully well produced, acted and directed,” and the trick photography was “remarkable and beautiful.” The Craving has been called the last temperance film, but it didn’t fit the usual trope: reform and sobriety don’t solve the hero’s problems, a big explosion killing the man after the secret does (just like movies made now!)

However, Prohibition did put an end to films based on the Ten Nights in a Bar Room model; after it was repealed in 1933 they were seen as old-fashioned. Later films about alcoholism were more subtle: viewers of A Star is Born or The Lost Weekend could figure out on their own that too much booze was a bad idea.

The Craving been preserved at the EYE Film Institute, and they have made it available on YouTube.

Kingsley announced the founding of yet another production company this week:

by no less a person than Albert Capellani, who ranks as one of the foremost directors in this country, and who for some time has been one of the towers of strength in the directorial department of the Metro Pictures organization.

It was called Capellani Pictures Company. But this is the really eye catching detail: the new company “is backed by Capellani’s own money, for the most part.”

Then and now, it was unusual for somebody to spend his or her own money. Capellani had been making films since 1905; he directed the first adaptation of Les Miserables (1912) that Kingsley had enjoyed so much a year earlier. At Metro Pictures he had just directed Alla Nazimova in The Red Lantern.


His new company’s first film was Oh Boy! based on the musical by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. After two more films, the company dissolved and he went to work for Famous Players-Lasky. He moved back to France in 1923, but couldn’t get any projects made there. He died of complications from diabetes in 1931.