Beware of Optimism: Week of March 6th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had reports of optimistic expectations for the film industry. Adolph Zukor, president of Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, predicted that the motion picture industry was “about to enjoy the most prosperous period in its history.” He had good reason for his confidence: his company had bought the rights several J.M. Barrie plays, including Peter Pan. When the movie version came out in 1924, it was a great big hit.

Other hopeful and ambitious companies announced their big plans this week:

• Film producer Sam Rork and two theater owners (E.J. Carroll and Eugene Roth) were organizing a new production company that was so new that it didn’t have a name yet. The money was coming from “a New York source not announced.”

• F. Tarkington Baker, the general manager of Universal Film, planned to resign and found his own production company, Baker Productions. It was “backed by Eastern capital.”

• The Historical Film Corporation took over the old Rollin Studio on Bunker Hill. They planned to film Bible stories, starting with The Prodigal Son. The company was financed by J.A. McGill, the owner of a chain of theaters in the Northwest.

• Marion H. Kohn “a San Francisco capitalist” was setting up M. H. Kohn Productions to make short comedies. He “brought his money and that of some of his northern capitalist friends south to invest it.”

Sam Rork

The net result of all of this investment and activity was one two-reel religious film and 12 one-reel comedies. So (no surprise) money was lost in the movie business. Sam Rork and his associates tried get a film called Isobel off the ground, but nothing came of it. He didn’t give up; he later organized Sam Rork Productions, and produced nine feature films between 1923 to 1927.

Tarkington Baker didn’t work on any finished films after leaving Universal and died of heart failure in 1924.

Irene Aldwyn in As We Forgive

The Historical Film Corporation decided to start with a different story, and in August they finished their first two-reeler called As We Forgive about St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. The company disappeared after that.

The most successful entrepreneur from this week was Marion Kohn. He wasn’t as inexperienced with the business as the description “San Francisco capitalist” sounds, he was the former president of Consolidated Film of San Francisco, a film distributor for Metro. He knew he didn’t know about production, so he hired people who did, including Grace Cunard, Polly Moran and ‘Smiling’ Bill Jones. Most of his shorts featured Moran’s established character, Sheriff Nell. He quit being a producer in 1922 and later became the assistant general manager at Columbia Studio.

It’s difficult to find out why they failed. Beginnings get announced with fanfare, but endings are quiet. Sometimes the trade papers report on bankruptcy court proceedings, but usually the investors take their losses and the companies go away. Getting started in moviemaking in the ‘good old days’ were just as difficult as in the present ones. It’s mind-boggling the amount of money that has been thrown at the business over the years.

The ad doesn’t match the description.

Kingsley was happy to see a film that seemed realistic this week:

There’s a very good picture, indeed, over at the Alhambra this week, entitled The Devil’s Riddle. It has that vital and expressive actress, Gladys Brockwell, in the leading role, and it unfolds a charming romance that has good acting, naturalness, sincerity and real humanness as its outstanding characteristics.

The story gets you from the first. It has to do with a girl who dwells in the wilds of Canada with a drunken step-father. Into her life steps from out of a furious storm a young doctor, played most engagingly and sincerely by William Scott. Afterward, owing to a series of misunderstandings, the two part, the girl goes on the stage with a barnstorming company, and leaves for New York. She does not (unusually) at once make good, but has a struggle.

A simple enough story, but done with real poignancy and dramatic appeal, as well as simply and with no chewing of scenery, no fights or automobile wreaks, house burnings or other jazzings too often called “drama” by screen-writers. As a matter of fact, despite its sensational title, The Devil’s Riddle is one of the best pictures from many standpoints that we have seen in many a day. It is refreshing in contrast to the wild tales that so often unfold themselves on the screens.

Moving Picture World didn’t know what the riddle was

Poor Grace Kingsley, it sounds like she’d been seeing some really bad movies. We’ll have to take her word for this film’s virtues, it’s lost. I looked around, but none of the reviews mention what the devil’s riddle in the title was. The author of the original short story, Edwina LeVin, named it.

Wid’s Daily said that the collie was the best part of the movie

Finally, Kingsley demonstrated that using the word vampire to mean a seductive woman hadn’t quite disappeared yet:

All the famous vampires of the screen will pass in review before Harry Carey, Reeves Easton, his director, and Fred Datig, Universal’s casting director, within the next few days. In Carey’s next production, Crossed Claims, the author has written one of the best feminine “heavy” roles of recent months, for which a “super-vamp” must be secured.

The “super vamp” they chose was Fontaine LaRue and they changed the title to Human Stuff. The story didn’t really give anything super vampy to do, she was just ordinarily villainous. LaRue’s character Boka lies to a woman who’s mistaken for Harry Carey’s mail-order bride about him, then kidnaps her. Of course there’s a rescue and a wedding. Theda Bara wouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed for such a part.



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