‘The Timeliest Picture Ever Filmed’: Week of August 2nd, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley went to a preview of a movie ripped from the headlines:

Bolshevism on Trial is the name of a vivid satire on Bolshevism just put out by the Mayflower Photoplay Corporation. It was given a private showing at the Alexandria last Friday night and was received with acclaim by the crowd of producers, critics and other who were present…Bolshevism on Trial is capital entertainment which doesn’t preach at all except indirectly. Two young idealists, a girl and a youth, decide to uplift humanity. The boy is a millionaire’s son, and pledges money to a Bolshevist organization for the purchase of an island for which to try out the theories of the crowd who belong to the society. Needless to say, human nature soon begins to work, everybody wants to be the fellow to run things.

The charm of the picture, in fact is its utter logic. There is no vilifying of anybody—merely a situation is worked out to its reasonable conclusion according to the laws of human nature.

The summer of 1919 was right in the middle of the first Red Scare. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had frightened industrialists and the government; they feared that Communism might spread to the United States. It also briefly energized the labor movement. There were a record number of strikes in 1919, according to Adam J. Hodges in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (2019). The Scare culminated in the brutal arrests of hundreds of suspected leftists in the Palmer Raids later this year. Public alarm over the violence, plus less labor unrest, helped calm things down until the post-World War 2 Red Scare.

Bolshevism on Trial didn’t get a public showing in Los Angeles until early November, when it ran for four days right after the first Palmer Raids. It played at the Hippodrome, which was usually a vaudeville theater, and it was on a bill with acts like Miller and Rainey (comedians and saxophone players) and Sherman and Rose (variety dancers). It seems like film theater owners either wanted to avoid politics or they didn’t think it would be a money maker. It you’d like to take a look at it, it’s available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Kingsley reported that this week, Samuel Goldwyn held a lunch for newspaper and trade journal writers, where he “dispensed not only good food, but information and movie wisdom.” He mentioned that costume dramas were making a come back (he was currently producing two of them) then the subject moved on to censorship.

Concerning the subject of censorship, that ever-fertile topic of conversation where two or three film folk are gathered together, Mr. Goldwyn expressed the belief that the cure for the virulent sort of censorship which had been hacking right and left in film plays would come about when producers possessed part ownership at least in picture theaters.

He didn’t explain how a change in theater ownership would affect local censorship laws (though it would certainly increase his profits). Next, luncheon guest Rex Beach, the adventure novelist, spoke on the topic, suggesting:

that censorship be laughed to death, and he said the way to make the public laugh would be to show to the people of the big cities of any given state in one or two reels, handed gratis to the exhibitors, portions of a number of notable film productions which had been cut out by censors in other States, but which they themselves had been privileged to see. As censors never agree as to what should and should not be shown, the results of the Beach plan would be to reveal to people how utterly inadequate, piffling and ridiculous film censorship is.

Nothing came of that idea–it was probably too much work. Nobody was interested in making a stand for either art or the First Amendment, they just wanted one set of rules. As Beach alluded to, there were hundreds of inconsistent decency laws throughout the country. Discussions about how to solve the multiple jurisdiction censorship problem went on until 1934, when the Production Code started to be rigidly enforced.

This week, Kingsley reported on a novel advertising campaign for a comic actress in her first drama:

If a little blue Salvation Army bonnet should drop right down and land on top of your head today, don’t be surprised. The fact of the matter is it will be a message from Billie Rhodes of the National Studios, who is going to fly over the city in an airplane today and drop these mementos, which will serve the double purpose of calling your attention to the Salvation Army and its works and to The Blue Bonnet, her feature photoplay which is coming to the Kinema next week…Speaking of her projected trip, Miss Rhodes admitted flying was a bit scary (she’s already been up twice) “especially,” she said, “when they go into nose and tail spins. However, I like it, and I mean to own a machine of my own some day.”

Motion Picture News (September 13, 1919) reported that her trip aloft to drop 5,000 paper bonnets was only part of the “spectacular advertising” effort that “worked wonders in putting the Rhodes feature across.” They also reconstructed a set from the film in the theater and installed a large paper mache bonnet over the marque:

bonnet_marque

Additionally, at four of the evening screenings Rhodes appeared at the theater and sang with a newsboy quartet. I think I’d like that more than the Q&A sessions we occasionally get now.

LAT_bbad
Plenty of entertainment!

 

 

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