One Way to Fix Pictures: Week of October 18th, 1919


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had quite enough of one sort of adventure movie:

Usually when I see advertised, “a thrilling adventure of the frozen north,” I groan inwardly. I say to myself: I know what it’s going to be. It’s going to show a young man “going out to reform in the great clean West, consisting for the most part of a dance hall,” as Harry Leon Wilson said recently in an article on pictures…There will be the stolen claim and a mine they don’t have to do anything to except pick the gold right off the ground and the walls. And there’s a great red-blooded fight, with the hero usually saving himself all he can, and going down just too easily for anything. And of course, there’s the miner’s daughter, dressed in a natty little tam and a fur coat, who can easily walk twenty miles through blinding snow to find her lover, and does, too, goes straight to him, though previously she hadn’t the slightest idea where he was. With lots of far-offs and close-ups of mountains and lakes and things. And that’s all.

Happily, she thought the movie she was reviewing, The Girl From Outside, was much better than that. She wrote, “here is northern drama, ingenious and human, and not depending on sunsets and scenery for its charm.” It was about a lone young woman in Nome, Alaska who opens a hotel with the assistance of a gang of crooks, whom she reforms.

Harry Leon Wilson

The Harry Leon Wilson article she mentioned was called “Film-Flam” and it appeared in the August 2nd edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Wilson was a popular novelist and playwright in the 1910s and 20’s, most famous for Ruggles of Red Gap. The piece was a long, but amusing, list of complaints about the pictures. First he called anyone who nit-picked about continuity errors “my idea of a mental dud,” then he made a turn:

But just a moment! Can we justly blame these critics? What else have they to think about at a moving picture? They know all the plots, all the characters, all the directors’ tricks. After two hundred feet of any picture they could find their way blindfolded along the remaining four thousand eight hundred feet to the fade-out of the lovers.

So he went on to moan, with copious examples, about worn-out plots and characters for a few more pages. Kingsley must have been quoting him from memory because she was a bit wrong, so here’s what he said about Westerns:

The dear out-there motif! What would screenland have done without it! Out there in the great clean spaces where men are men! Out there where God gives a man his chance! Out there beyond the town’s corruption where the game is played square! It’s a bit surprising, too, because out there consists of a brief vista of street lined with saloons. And you don’t stay in the street either. The great clean space where men come to know consists of a roomy saloon with a dancing floor and gaming tables. And I am tired of that saloon.

Luckily, he had a solution (and it wasn’t one I expected). A film executive:

may know that only filmed plays—real plays—will make money, drama being even more essential to the film play than to the spoken play; but he seems not to know that plays cannot be had except at a price…nowadays, real writers get real money.

He didn’t mention it, but he had a drawerful of plays he’d co-written with Booth Tarkington that had been produced on Broadway. So convenient! Paying them a pile of money would solve everything! He did move to Los Angeles in 1920 and join the industry, but the studio bought the rights to his novels, not his plays. (“Heraldgrams, Exhibitors’ Herald, October 2, 1920, p.38.) The experience inspired him to write Merton of the Movies, another best-seller.

Kingsley had a much better method to get rid of hackneyed plots than filming plays (which honestly, doesn’t always work out so well):

Oh, if Charlie Chaplin or Doug Fairbanks or Fatty Arbuckle would only make a Klondike comedy!

She eventually got her wish, and she only had to wait until 1922, when Buster Keaton made The Frozen North. Then Chaplin made The Gold Rush in 1925 and really finished off Northern adventure movies for awhile.

Harry Leon Wilson’s article is on Google Books (starting on page 6), if you’d like to take a look.


This week, Kingsley reviewed a film that was just shown at Cinecon in Los Angeles:

Burglar by Proxy is a sparkling little comedy, with scintillating subtitles. It concerns a young man who is held up by two crooks, not for his money but for his ability to look like a gentleman and his athletic powers which would make him a valuable adjunct to their profession.

I usually don’t know this, but her opinion holds up: it is a pleasant little comedy.


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