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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

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