One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on how quickly a new company was getting ready to make films:
Hiram Abrams, former president of the Paramount Pictures Corporation and former vice-president of the Famous Players-Lasky Company, was yesterday appointed general manager of the United Artists’ Distributing Corporation. This is the organization made by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith.
The four had signed the articles of incorporation just a few weeks earlier, on February 5th. They had already appointed a president, Oscar A. Price, the former U.S. Assistant Director of Railroads, and he’d just opened their New York office. They hired William McAdoo, the former Secretary of the Treasury, as Chief Counsel. Benjamin Schulberg was appointed as assistant general manager under Abrams; he’d been his assistant at Paramount.
They were also busily getting their physical plant ready:
Douglas Fairbanks yesterday finished his final picture to be made by him under his contract with the Paramount Corporation. The title of the picture is The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Mr. Fairbanks has leased the Clune Studio on Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, and the work of moving the Fairbanks properties from the quarters of the star has long occupied at the Lasky studios will begin today [March 5th].
His brother Robert was in charge of renovating the studio, and it was to include an outdoor gymnasium so his brother could “retain his customary vigor and vim.” It’s remarkable how quickly they were able to set up a new company.
The founders motive was more control over their money and creative decisions. Motion Picture News called the idea that filmmakers would produce and distribute their own films “the most revolutionary move in the history of the film industry.” (“Inside Story of the Combine Now Told,” Feb. 1, 1919, p. 685)
Fairbanks made their first film, His Majesty, the American and it was a hit. However, even though they had big moneymakers like Way Down East (1920) the company ran into trouble producing enough films to support their distribution network. So in 1924 they hired Joseph Schenk as the president, and he brought films from his wife Norma Talmadge and in-laws Constance Talmadge and Buster Keaton. In addition they began distributing the work of independent producers including Samuel Goldwyn. The company is still around after passing through a long list of owners, doing business under the name United Artists’ Digital Studios.
Another one of the United Artists, Mary Pickford, appeared in the second installment of Ella The Extra Girl. Kingsley was able to include a detail missed in most star profiles: Pickford included chewing gum with the lunches she provided for the extras. Ella approved: “I’m askin’ you if that ain’t looking after her extras?” This month Kinglsey made up a story of how Miss Pickford found a home for an orphan named Mousie. While that was harmless fan fiction, maybe the gum part was true.
Later this week Kingsley reported that Pickford was taking three whole days off between making Daddy Long Legs and The Hoodlum to shoot publicity photos and go to the dentist. After that she owed one more film to First National (Heart o’ the Hills), then she started work at United Artists.
Kingsley remarked on the difference in what audiences say they want versus what they actually pay money to see:
From the hullabloo raised a few months ago by mothers’ clubs and like institutions concerning suitable motion pictures for children, one would have thought even the Pansy Books and the Trotty Series, if produced in films, would be a riot, and that the Rollo stories, if shown on the screen, would simply cause mothers to trample each other to death in the rush to get in and see the show.*
Wherefore the Fox Company took these good souls at their word, and produced a series of supremely artistic and delightful fairy tales under direction of Chet and Sidney Franklin. The first one was a tremendous success; then they died. Then they put the Lee kids on in a series of comedies, which were fairly successful, but not as popular as they should have been. The now defunct Balboa Amusement Company made pictures with Baby Marie Osbourne, and while they gained a fair amount of popularity, there are no records of disaster caused by the youngsters and mothers of the land breaking their necks to get in to houses where the pictures were shown. It appears the young ones still hollered for Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle and Bill Hart and Mary Pickford.
So children are people, not an alien race who want kiddie films? There’s a lesson for studio heads.
Kingsley (and her rivals) appeared in the newspaper ad for her favorite film from last week:
It seems that exhibitors have been using critics’ pull quotes to bring in customers for a long time.
*All three had been best sellers, but they were very much of the previous century. The Rollo stories were by Jacob Abbott, a minister who in the 1830’s became the first writer of multivolume series for children. Rollo didn’t have many adventures or much personality, but he learned lots of moral lessons. Pansy was the pen name of Isabella Macdonald Alden, and from 1865 to 1931 she wrote equally wholesome stories that taught life lessons for Christians. I can imagine them irritating a young, bookish Grace Kingsley.
Trotty, and his author, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, were more interesting. He was a mischievous four-year-old boy who had adventures in a series of short stories published in the 1860’s and ‘70’s. She was a prolific author for children and adults who with her Gypsy Breton series, set the pattern for tomboyish heroines like Jo March. Best of all, she advocated clothing reform. She was a corset burner! Here’s what she wrote in What to Wear (1873):
Burn up the corsets! … No, nor do you save the whalebones, you will never need whalebones again. Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.
A biopic about her could teach some handy life lessons: we can all appreciate our emancipated thoraxes.