“The Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place:” Week of November 1st, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had news about an important American novelist:

Booth Tarkington, world famed as portrayer of boy characters in books and on the stage, is going to break out in a new spot. In other words, on the screen. He has just signed up a contract with Goldwyn, whereby he will produce twelve two-reel comedies. For this purpose Mr. Tarkington has created a new boy character named Edgar, and the name of the comedies will be the Edgar Comedies.

They did make all twelve episodes, and they called the series “The Adventures and Emotions of Edgar Pomeroy.” The first was Edgar and the Teacher’s Pet (1920) and when Kingsley reviewed it on March 1, 1920, she thought it was deliciously droll, with a “keen understanding of child life…In short, the small childish hypocrisies, the unexpected frankness, the delight in fair play, the spirit of adventure that characterize childhood are all embodied in this fresh and sparkling conception of boy life.”

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At this time, Booth Tarkington was at the peak of his career. People thought he was the equal of Mark Twain. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction; in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons and in 1922 for Alice Adams (the only other two writers who have done that are William Faulkner and John Updike). In 1922 a poll in Literary Digest called him the greatest living American writer.

Nevertheless, now most people haven’t heard of him. As novelist Thomas Mallon asked in an essay in The Atlantic, “how does such a ubiquitous and, for a time, honored figure disappear so quickly and completely?” He had some theories. Tarkington was a “wildly uneven writer” with a “vast body of mediocre work” who primarily wrote about regretful nostalgia for a simplified past. His racism didn’t help, either. Ultimately, he thought Tarkington is a writer who didn’t have much to say to current readers.

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This reminds people, too

Despite that, Tarkington still has champions. Author Greg Wright maintains a Tarkington website; he says “It is my view, however, that the sum total of Tarkington’s work presents nothing less than a masterfully preserved vision of Middle-America’s loss of innocence during the first half of the Twentieth Century.” Conservative political writer David Frum has blogged about his admiration of Alice Adams, he wrote “Almost a century after it was published, Alice Adams will still touch, delight, and comfort any young women (and open the eyes of any young man!) who plucks it off the dusty shelf.”

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Tarkington is back in print: in the summer of 2019 the Library of America published a compilation of Ambersons, Adams and a short story collection.

It does make me wonder about which current ‘important’ writers will be ignored in a few decades.

Kingsley filed a report this week that showed as early as 1919, directors wanted to escape studio control over their work:

A combination of film powers in the process of formation, according to well-authenticated report, is that involving some of the biggest directors of the business. These directors are Allan Dwan, George Loane Tucker, Marshall Neilan, Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince and Maurice Tourneur. While it was impossible yesterday to secure any statement from any of these, it is understood these six famous ones have entered into an agreement to form their own organization, to go into effect somewhere about the middle of next year, when their present contracts will all have expired. The plan, according to the report, is for each director to produce separately, but to form their own releasing organization. The new organization, if it goes into effect, including, as it does, six of the greatest directors in the business, will be the most unique and powerful of its sort ever formed in the picture business.

The organization did go into effect and it was called Associated Producers. Like Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin at United Artists, the directors said they wanted artistic and financial control of their films. They let other directors like Fred Niblo and Wesley Ruggles release films through their company, too. They made a total of twenty-five films and their most successful release was Tourneur’s Last of the Mohicans (1920). However, the company struggled financially, and in 1921 they merged with First National Pictures. United Artists really was extraordinary, lasting as long as it did.

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Kingsley rarely got to review legitimate theater (though she did get to write about the Orpheum’s vaudeville show every week). But this week, it looks like nobody else wanted to touch the abomination at the Burbank Theater so she got to perform the evisceration:

The author of The Divorce Question, William Anthony McGuire, evidently knew more about the tenets of the Catholic church than he did about play construction, as he seems quite at home with the former, but is very creaky as to the latter. It is full of such dramatic gems as “Not that, not that, my gawd, not that” and “it is my child!”

The play concerns two divorced people who come together in the priest’s sacristy of the church, where their two children whom they have carelessly lost sight of after they married other people are brought in, the girl having been forced into a life of sin, from which the boy, a dope fiend, has just rescued her by shooting her traducer. The girl dies of heart disease. She is lucky. She doesn’t have to see the last act.

Ouch! It seems like Kingsley performed a public service, warning people about this one. William Anthony McGuire’s career survived this stinker. He went on to write several plays for Eddie Cantor and he got an Oscar nomination for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936.

 

 

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