“A new kind of thrill:” Week of December 27th, 1919


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that there was actually something new in film:

It was just bound to happen, the exciting melodrama of the air. And when in that melodrama appears no less a famous a person than Lieut. Locklear, you know it’s a foregone conclusion that crowds are going to see it. Locklear himself is the hero of the photodrama, The Great Air Robbery, which is on view at the Surburba.

Of course, the big scene is where Locklear changes from one airplane to another while the machines are high in the air. It is this feat and the fact that the public has the chance to view the real hero of the war, which makes the real punch of the picture. Of course, there is an intricate plot and there is a love story, but these are negligible as against the other two points of attraction…. Nevertheless, airships are the source of a new kind of thrill, ever as one who only looks on, and The Great Air Robbery is fascinating at furnishing a view of all sorts of air stunts, shown with the clearest detail and most excellent photography.

Even though it was set in the future (1925), and had the newest kind of thrill, The Great Air Robbery had the oldest plot: the villain steals a gold shipment and Locklear has to chase him down. That didn’t bother anybody, and the now-lost film was a critical and commercial hit.

Ormer Locklear

Ormer Locklear had gotten his pilot training after he joined the Army Air Service in 1917. He wasn’t a war hero (in fact, he never saw combat) but he was famous for his post-war barnstorming shows full of daring aerial stunts. Unfortunately, he and his co-pilot Milton Elliot crashed and died in 1920 while filming his second film, The Skywayman.

The person who had the most successful career after this film was the assistant cameraman, Elmer Dyer. He went on to specialize in aerial photography, and (this was the part that surprised me) he did not die in a plane wreck–instead it was in 1970, after a long illness. He was among the cameramen who photographed Hell’s Angels (1930) and he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Air Force (1943). After serving in the Army’s Motion Picture Unit during World War 2, he opened his own stock footage company.

This week, Kingsley reported on a novel promotion:

Colleen Moore, Hugh Dierker photodrama star, has just finished work on an eight-reel picture as yet unnamed, and concerning the theme of which is a deep, dark mystery, known only to a few hundred newspaper people throughout the land, all of whom have promised not to say a word about it until told they may.

Unfortunately for the producer, a check of the Chronicling America database shows that the newspaper people not only didn’t break that promise, but even after the film came out they didn’t give it a lot of coverage. Entitled When Dawn Came, it was released in April 1920 but didn’t premier in Los Angeles until April 1921, and nobody at the Times wrote a review. Here’s the deep dark secret: Colleen Moore played a blind girl whose sight is restored by a reformed drug addict/alcoholic/atheist doctor, which in turn restores his faith. It was Mrs. Hugh Dierker’s lone screenwriting credit. Moore had to wait a few more years for her star-making film, Flaming Youth (1923).

June Mathis at work

Another film was getting publicity unusually early, too, but it went on to much bigger success:

June Mathis returned to the Metro studio from her vacation in New York City, and immediately started the scenario of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. On her way West the Screen Classic scenario chiefess stopped in Chicago to discuss with Vicente Blasco Ibanez plans for filming his famous novel.


Four Horsemen didn’t premier in Los Angeles until March 1921 but there was plenty of pre-release publicity in the Times over the next fifteen months, including a long (for the newspaper) interview between Kingsley and the director, Rex Ingram, in August 1920. He mostly talked about the attention they paid to details and his desire to keep things realistic.

More effective publicity! It helped Rudolph Valentino’s career, too.

Four Horsemen became a top-grossing film in 1921, so the publicists knew what they were doing. It was a critical success too. Edwin Schallert, the Times head film critic, wrote, “in the realism of its characters and the quality of its atmosphere, the Four Horsemen reflects superlative credit on its makers.” It’s still respected, and it’s on the Library of Congress Film Registry.





The Fame and Fortune Contest:Week of December 20th, 1919


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the latest aspiring movie star:

Universal announces the arrival of a beautiful new star. In fact, she has begun work on her first picture. Her professional name is Virginia Faire, and she arrived from New York two weeks ago, being the winner of the “Fame and Fortune” contest…She was the winner among some 12,000 candidates. As she is but 16 years old, she was apprenticed to the Universal Film Manufacturing Company for a term of five years.

Kingsley mentioned that her real last name was Brown, “but whoever obtained distinction before the footlights or on the screen under that humble name?” However, she didn’t really like the name Faire and she soon added Brown back to the middle. Born Virginia Cecelia Labuna in Brooklyn in 1904, she had adopted her stepfather’s last name. She was still in high school when she won the contest; her contract with Universal stipulated that she had to live with her mother and remain unmarried for the duration.


Brown Faire didn’t become a big star, but she was a working actress who appeared in over 70 films. She even made the transition to sound; her film career lasted until 1935. Her most memorable role was Tinkerbelle in Peter Pan (1924). Later she starred low-budget films, but Classic Images called her “the Rolls Royce of Poverty Row” in 1987. After she retired from the movies, she worked in radio in Chicago. She died of cancer in 1976. She left her papers to UCLA Special Collections, so there might be enough material for a biography.

Brown Faire was actually one of four winners of the Brewster Publications “Fame and Fortune” contest in 1919, and she was the most successful of the group. They each got a magazine cover and an interview featured in the magazine, and they all appeared in a short along with the runners-up, The Dream of Fair Women. Here’s what happened to the other three:

  • Anetha Getwell was in Love’s Redemption (1921) directed and produced by the publisher of Motion Picture Classic Eugene Brewster. A criminal is rehabilitated through – you guessed it—love. She married stockbroker Paul Schoppel on December 24, 1919 and seems to have retired.
  • Blanche McGarity was also in Love’s Redemption (1921), as well as Rangeland (1922), a Western, and Little Miss Bluebonnet (1922), a travelogue of of her native San Antonio. According to the website My San Antonio, her father, a claims adjuster, tried to set up a production company for her but it quickly dissolved. She stayed in her parent’s house and had become a near recluse by the 1950’s. She died in 1973.
  • Anita Booth played a supporting part in The Shadow of Rosalie Byrnes (1920), then she had a short career on Broadway with roles in The New Poor (1924) and Out of Step (1925). I wasn’t able to find out what became of her, because according to the New York Evening World, Anita Booth was her professional name and they didn’t know her real one. (“News Notes of Motion Players,” April 8, 1916, p.7) Her publicity said she came from a wealthy family, so she was probably OK.


The “Fame and Fortune” contest was strictly a beauty contest—acting ability wasn’t a part of it. Contestants mailed a photograph of themselves, with this form glued to the back:


Anyone who had not “played prominent roles on the stage or screen” could enter. Men were invited to participate, but not many did. You could send in as many portraits as you liked. The judges included Cecil B. De Mille and Mary Pickford.

The following year, they ran the contest again but they changed the outcome so there was one grand prize winner, Corliss Palmer. She had a short film career, but her biographer, Jennifer Ann Redmond, said it was the worst thing that ever happened to her (the book’s title is From Southern Belle to Hollywood Hell and Leonard Maltin gave an overview in his review). The winner in 1921 did become a star, Clara Bow.


Kingsley wrote one of her rare negative reviews this week about some “weak and watery pabulum”:

Most of the material of More Deadly than the Male might have been pieced together from the cuttings of a serial, having to do with murders, swift night auto rides taken involuntarily by ladies bound and gagged, etc. And all this takes a surprise twist at the end, as the trumped-up plan of the heroine, who is an actress and theatrical manager, to make the hero stay and do helpful work at home instead of trekking off to the African desert of some place equally wild, smacks of sophomoric attempts at novel dramatic effect.

Kingsley wasn’t the only one who thought it was a stinker; Film Daily said, “if you have selective booking, let the other fellow select this one” (December 14, 1919). It’s a lost film.


This week, a small item showed just how international Hollywood had become at this time:

The Universal players who are appearing with Tsuru Aoki, the Japanese star, in The Breath of the Gods, were gathered at the world’s film capital from every corner of the earth. Miss Aoki was born in Japan, Stanhope Wheatcroft was born in New York; Arthur Carewe is from Armenia; Pat O’Malley’s name speaks for his nativity. Barney Sherry first looked upon the world in staid old Philadelphia, Ethel Shannon learned to ride horseback at the age of one in Denver, Paul Weigel hails from Vienna, Mai Wells is from Australia, and M. Seki was born on a Japanese ship, which touched at Cape Town, South Africa, just as he let out his first cry.

Then as now, American cinema steals the best from everywhere!




Tarzan’s Producer: Week of December 13th, 1919

Sol Lesser

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that yet another optimist had gone into the filmmaking business:

The latest film luminary to branch out as a producer is Sol Lesser. Not only is he to handle at least four stars in the near future, but he will build a new studio in Hollywood, according to announcement made yesterday. At present Mr. Lesser has two stars signed up, viz. George Beban and Annette Kellerman.


Sol Lesser had been part of the industry from close to the beginning. He inherited his father’s nickelodeon in 1907, which he built into a chain of theaters. He went on to a very successful career. He didn’t build the studio Kingsley mentioned, but he remained an independent film producer until he retired in 1958 (except for six months as an executive at RKO in 1941, where he got bored and quit). He made over 100 films, including Jackie Coogan’s movies in the 1920s like Oliver Twist (1922), the Tarzan films of the 1930’s-40’s, and the all-star Stage Door Canteen (1943). He won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1956 for Kon-Tiki, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1960.

Remarkably, much of his success came about because he wasn’t a jerk. For instance, in 1932 MGM was making Tarzan the Apeman, but Lesser had the rights from Edgar Rice Burroughs, which the courts upheld. He asked them for only a nominal fee. They released the film, it made lots of money, and he was left with a much more popular character to feature in sequels (and he made many, many sequels). You can learn more about him at the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers site, or if you want the full Lesser experience, you can rent his former estate in Palm Springs.


Kingsley’s favorite film this week was “one of the comedy hits of the year.”

It is pleasant to be able to announce that it seems this subtlest form of dramatic art, viz: satirical comedy, has come to filmland to stay.

It seems to me with the impression of Strictly Confidential freshly with me, that this is the very most delightful one of the sort ever filmed, with Miss [Madge] Kennedy shining at last in a supremely suitable vehicle for her very original and sparkling comedy talents. It has to do with the daughter of a servant maid in a staid, conservative old English nobleman’s house coming back to the castle where all the servants are her relations, through a series of incidents, as the wife of Lord Bantock. Whereupon the old butler tries to run the house according to precedent, but fails, an ‘the first Lady Bantock’ is given as and example to the young mistress. It turns out, however, that the first Lady Bantock was a butcher’s daughter, so everything comes out right.

Unfortunately, all that remains of it is reel 2, preserved at the Library of Congress. I’d like to see if the comedy holds up. Strictly Confidential was based on a play by Jerome K. Jerome called Fanny and the Servant Problem (1909). Now he’s mostly remembered for his novel, Three Men and a Boat (1889), which has stayed in print since it was first published. It’s still a hoot.


The most dad remark made in Kingsley’s columns in a long time came from Will Rogers this week:

That frisky Will Rogers has made a swift trip to San Francisco in his big car, accompanied by his wife and four children. The lariat expert hit the high spots, spending only twelve hours and a half aboard his car. He says he could have made it in twelve, but the kids insisted on stopping for lunch.

Kingsley didn’t mention the real feat of human endurance from the story: his four children were all under the age of 8 (Will Jr. was 7, Mary was 6, Jim was 4 and Fred was 1). That couldn’t have been fun for any of the participants—no wonder he drove fast. I hope your holiday travels are better than theirs!





“But comedy likes him:” Week of December 6th, 1919

“Oh yes and he’s just as handsome off as on!”

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley introduced a newly-minted theater star to her readers:

So many matinee girls from 15 to 50 years of age are asking me about Edward Everett Horton, the new matinee idol now enshrined at the Majestic, that I just had to end the awful suspense. Here’s all about him.

He likes serious drama, but comedy likes him.

If there’s anything he does love it’s an argument, which proves something which isn’t so. For instance, he’s perfectly fascinated by that learned somebody who proved in a volume five inches thick that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare.

She mentioned that after graduating from Columbia University, he’d taught school, and “for five years he kept wondering how long it would be before the public got onto him and sent him back to learn some more about school-teachering,” but he’d had lots of success in Los Angeles so he was beginning to suspect he wouldn’t have to.

He liked riding his motorcycle, but “he says he has had eight accidents, three of which were fatal. Anyhow, he thought they were at the time.”

The surprise for classic film fans is that Horton once was a motorcycling matinee idol–he didn’t always look like the fretful characters that he played in so many talkies in the 1930’s-40’s. He really was hot stuff: on October 23rd, Edwin Schallert reported “Tuesday evening they hung a set of Edward Everett Horton’s pictures in the Majestic lobby, and yesterday afternoon as a sequel the actor had already received seventeen requests for autographed photographs—and this before he has even made his first appearance on the stage.”

Horton was born in 1886 in Brooklyn, and began his stage career in 1906. He came to Los Angeles in 1919 as part of the Wilkes stock company to star in Never Say Die, a farce, and Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. He was such a hit that he joined the company at the Majestic and stayed in Los Angeles. In 1922 he made his film debut in Too Much Business. Now he’s mainly remembered as Fred Astaire’s foil in five Astaire/Rogers musicals, and for his narration of Fractured Fairy Tales in the Bullwinkle show, but he played his fussy support role in everything from Trouble in Paradise (1932) to Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). He also continued his successful career in legitimate theater.

Horton, 1923

The part of Kingsley’s article that makes modern readers groan a bit is this:

As for his taste in girls. He likes blondes. Also brunettes. He like thin girls. Also fat ones. He likes intellectual girls. Also simps. In fact, to be frank with you, he likes girls…But most of all, he says, he likes a girl who can ask intelligent questions about his work, because, oh, how an actor loves to talk about himself. He isn’t married nor even thinking of marriage now.

Gavin Gordon

Mr. Horton couldn’t discuss his personal life in the newspaper without ending his career, but his longtime companion was actor Gavin Gordon. However, he was very good at deflecting that question. When he was 79 years old, Hedda Hopper asked him why he’d never married and:

“He shrugged. ‘I have a nice disposition. I have lovely furniture. I thought last leap year I’d a least have an offer, but nobody proposed.’”

He stayed active until just a month before his death from cancer in 1970.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was another “brilliant comedy” featuring Bryant Washburn, It Pays to Advertise. Based on a popular play, it was screening at Clune’s Broadway:

where crowds looked and laughed at it all yesterday: and if you want to register more chuckles to the square inch than you’ve chuckled in a year, be sure and see it. “Thirteen Soap—Unlucky for Dirt” has brought more luck to actors and managers of the stage than almost any comedy of the past ten years. Now it’s bringing equal luck to Washburn, who, if any doubt existed before as to the fact that he is one of the foremost comedians of the screen, is thoroughly established in that happy niche.

Papa, you remember, turned his son out when he finished college and refused to work. Enter the girl, papa’s secretary, who was asked to make son go to work. She did, but not until papa had turned them both out, on finding they were engaged. It’s then, on suggestion of the son’s friend, the press agent, that a campaign of advertising of soap is entered upon. Papa falls for it, is made nearly insane by the unique ads of Thirteen Soap, which greet him at every turn. This is all done with the snappiest action, the smoothest flow of the story, and the most original subtitles.

Unfortunately it’s a lost film.

Eugene and Emma Zukor, 1923 passport

This week, a studio mogul’s son was behaving in such an atypical way, it needed reporting: Eugene Zukor (Adolph’s son) was engaged to marry Emma Dorothy Roth, a schoolteacher. Kingsley wrote:

Yes, passing all the dangers of chorus girls, not to mention the fascination of picture bathing girls, young Zukor apparently has made up his mind to marry as far out of the profession as possible. Papa Zukor admits he has long known the father and mother of his son’s fiancée, and that he thoroughly approves of the match. The romance had its beginnings so long ago as the San Francisco World’s Fair [1915], when the two young people met for the first time.

Zukor and Roth got married in Chicago on May 6th, 1920. There’s something to be said for marrying someone with a normal job: they were together for 73 years, until Emma Zuckor died in 1994.