Who Needs Job Security?: Week of April 24th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a film industry veteran’s latest job:

C.A. Willat, a pioneer in motion pictures and reputed to be one of the best-informed men in the industry, has been appointed general manager of the West Coast studios of the National Film Corporation of America, according to announcement made by Capt. Harry Rubey, National’s president.

Mr. Willat has been actively connected with the industry since 1904. He is credited with many innovations in production, and was largely responsible for the organization of the New York Motion Picture Corporation, makers of the famous Kay-Bee, Broncho, Domino and Keystone brands of picture play. Under Willat’s management the National will resume its output of features. Mr. Willat is now negotiating with several particularly luminous stars.

Kingsley wasn’t being hyperbolic–he really was part of many production innovations. However, she didn’t mention the one that he’s mostly remembered for: he worked for the Technicolor Film Company in its early days. Willat’s career shows how temporary all jobs in the movies were (and are) outside of the golden days of the studio system. Even for people on the business side it’s an unstable profession.


Alfred Carl “Doc” Willatowski* was born November 22, 1878 in Detroit, Michigan. In 1900 he was a salesman living in DeLand, Florida. According to his bio in the 1921 Motion Picture Directory, he became a film exhibitor in 1905, then went to work for Vitagraph in Brooklyn in 1906. Three years later he went to work for Carl Laemmle as the general manager of Imp (he was part of the group that ran away to Cuba to escape the Motion Picture Patents Company enforcement), then in 1911 he was hired to re-organize the New York Picture Corporation. In 1914 he struck out on his own and founded the Willat Studios and Laboratories in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. That only lasted for two years, then he went to work for Techincolor. He was the supervising producer for their first feature, The Gulf Between.

In 1919, he was still working for Technicolor Corporation, and he traveled to London on their behalf to help London Films reorganize their studio. However, with the commercial failure of The Gulf Between, the company had money problems so he left and moved to Los Angeles, where he took the job that Kingsley announced.


Later this year in July, he took on a second job as General Manger of his younger brother’s production company, Irvin V. Willat Productions. (Irvin had been directing films since 1917.) He did both for six months, then he left First National in December.

The Willats built their own studio in Culver City, and Irvin shot his films there until 1924. Its administration building was unique:


Historian Marc Wanamaker has an entertaining post about the building, which was moved and is now a house in Beverly Hills, at the Culver City Historical Society site.


In 1923, Carl Willat went back to work for Technicolor as their Hollywood studio manager. So in 1924 when Paramount was ready to make their first Technicolor film, Wanderer of the Wasteland, they hired Irvin to direct it.

By 1927, C.A. Willat had gotten out of the industry and he had become a real estate broker. He died of pneumonia in 1937. George Eastman said that “Doc” Willat did more for the technical advancement of the motion picture than any other man, according to Kevin Brownlow.

Willet’s brother Irvin lived long enough to chat with film historians, and Kevin Brownlow found him to be quite a character. He wrote about his interview with him for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Irvin Willat died in 1976.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Silver Horde. But first, she had to complain about the state of pictures:

All of the plots and combinations of plots having been used up in pictures long ago, so far as the human equation is concerned, it seems as if there remains only the device of placing characters in a new physical setting to give freshness to a screen story, with the setting sharing somewhat in interest.

It was only 1920 and it already seemed like everything had been done before! However have they managed to fill up production schedules over the next 100 years? Nevertheless, she managed to find some entertainment value in a movie this week:

Take Rex Beach’s The Silver Horde, on view at the California, for instance. This has to do with a fight for fishing rights on an Alaskan river between an unscrupulous owner of a great cannery and three gritty pioneers who don’t propose to be put out.

Rex Beach has the knack of writing stories that when produced on the screen are quite actor-proof, director and producer proof. Nevertheless it is pleasant to record that Goldwyn and Frank Lloyd, using a very good cast, have given us a fine and vivid picturization and regards novelty the pictures of the running of the salmon, taken up north, are interesting in themselves.

The Silver Horde has been preserved by MGM, but it doesn’t seem to be available on DVD or streaming.


Kingsley continued to rail against the lack of novelty in a second review, while noting a trend that really irritated her:

Are our picture shows becoming mere dramas of duds? It would rather seem so.

Not but that Irene Castle’s latest picture, The Amateur Wife, at Grauman’s, isn’t a fairly entertaining story. It is. But there’s nothing particularly new in it but the clothes Miss Castle wears. There are more duds than drama. But perhaps that’s what women go to see. I remember a number of ladies at a tea party I attended decrying Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. “What’s the matter? I asked, expecting to hear there’d be some hue-and-cry regarding the morals of the play, instead of which, one sweet young blond thing answered, “Oh, there are no gowns in it!

In the film’s defense, The amateur Wife told the story of a frumpy girl who is made over into a sophisticated woman, so what she wore would have to be a big part of that. The now lost feature probably made that young blond thing very happy, for it did supply plenty of clothes to look at:






*His nickname “Doc” came from his veterinary studies. His Motion Picture Directory bio says he attended Harvard Veterinary College.  That school was at the real Harvard — they used to have such a college, but it closed in 1901.

“News of the Week in Headlines,” Film Daily, December 19, 1920.

C.A. Willat, “A Plan for Cutting Film Costs,” Film Mercury, July 29, 1927.


Ballyhoo: Week of April 17th, 1920

Down on the Farm

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a blockbuster film release:

Who says you can’t make five reels of burlesquey, jazzy comedy and keep your audience amused right through? Mack Sennett is the boy that has done it in Down on the Farm, which kept capacity audiences roaring all day yesterday at the Kinema. Crowds lined the street, testifying to the popularity of Mr. Sennett and his works.

She wasn’t exaggerating

Down on the Farm is a roaring farce; that is, when it isn’t burlesque of melodrama, or plain “hokum,” but who cares a hang about that old hocus-pocus “dramatic form” in Sennett films, anyway? The great point is, you laugh, and you keep right on laughing for a straight hour. The plot, when there is a plot, isn’t new, but the incidental comedy is. The story burlesques the stock yarn of the girl who has to marry the villain to save the family name. It rises to real heights of farce when the girl, to get rid of the villain, pretends to be ruined, naming as seducer “an artist—the man who painted our barn.” The villain exclaims, “Oh, ain’t that romantic!”

There’s a grand mix-up, with everybody thinking everybody else is crazy, and the heroine runs away with the child. Thereupon ensues one of the very funniest chases in all picturedom. You will laugh at it until you weep, even if you think beforehand that you’re tired of comedy picture chases.

Jack Callicott, the managing director of the Kinema, worked hard to bring that roaring audience in. He convinced the local ball team, the Los Angeles Angels, to hold a “Sennett Day” event before their game against the Vernon Tigers on the Saturday before the big opening. But first the Sennett crew had to get to Washington Park, so they had a parade. Exhibitor’s Herald reported it was:

a procession, the like of which never before made its way through this or probably any other city, wound through the downtown streets and made for the ball park. Everything that moves and has its being on farm was in that cavalcade—everything except a mortgage. Aged vehicles in which old Dobbin might have been hitched thirty-five years ago were occupied by Sennett representatives garbed and made up to resemble the Sennett principles. . . Horses of farcical mien and horses of noble deportment, and a huge and mild-eyed cow passed by, bearing a banner announcing the obvious, “This is no bull,” and continuing with the assurance that it was no bull that ‘Mack Sennett’s Five-Part Super-Comedy Down on the Farm opens tomorrow at the Kinema Theater.’

Once they arrived, they put on a fifteen-minute show. Moving Picture World described it:

The Sennetters invaded the ball park and gave a ballyhoo that amounted to something. Teddy [the Great Dane] was there dragging his trainer in a kid’s express wagon, the balky mule was in line, as was the Sennett baby actor and some grown-ups, gotten up in impersonation of the stars. Every old wagon on the Sennett lot was paraded around the park, and some seemingly impromptu stunts were pulled off…The event had been widely advertised as “Sennett Day” and most of the town was out in the bleachers.



After people succumbed to the advertising and went to the theater, Callicott gave them quite a show in addition to the film. Exhibitor’s Herald said that the prolog:

is a gem of humor called “Trials and Tribulations Around a Barnyard.” The hero is a mule with a mind of its own and a disposition not to be moved, though the heavens fall and the earth be dipped in the sun. The scene is an ensemble of everything that is expected in a farmyard and some things not expected. Pigs and cows, goats and dogs, hens and geese, and finally Teddy himself ramble through the mélange in which lively dancing of “hoe-down” type and effective singing add to the effect, and all beautifully illuminated and staged.


Callicott succeeded beyond all expectations. According to Moving Picture World, the film broke Kinema box-office records for every day of the week. Exhibitor’s Herald added that Sunday’s receipts were the largest ever in a single day at the theater and the records were exceeded by four to seven hundred dollars each day. They concluded:

It was a great success, and the credit for the event is due Managing Director Jack Callicott of the Kinema Theatre…Experts on exploitation concede to Mr. Callicott credit for what is probably the most sensational and successful publicity stunt put over in the city where such efforts are events of nearly every week.


Feature-length films with Sennett-style comedy were in their infancy in 1920, but things were about to change. This one was still just a longer version of one of his shorts. Louis Reeves Harrison reviewing it in Moving Picture World wrote that it was “mostly composed of two-reel material. There is a slender thread of story running through the production, but it is not essential.” Nevertheless, he concluded it was “good entertainment.” In his autobiography, Buster Keaton pointed out the difference in shorts and features: “the faster the gags came in most short comedies, the better. In the features, I soon found out that one had to present believable characters in situations the audience accepted.” (p. 173) In a few years he’d put that into practice. Even sooner, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid premiered nine months later in January 1921, showing how a story and gags could co-exist.


Down on the Farm is not lost, and people still think it’s pretty good. Brent Walker in Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory wrote “it “ranks among the best and funniest of Sennett’s surviving feature films.” If your library has Kanopy (LAPL does), you just need a library card to watch it.


The night after Kinsley saw Sennett’s movie, she got to see a live theater show that she liked even more, the 1919 edition of Hitchy-Koo:

It has smart lines, as well as pretty girls, it romps through two hours and a half of hilarious joy as though they were but minutes.

How hilariously grateful and how appreciative the audience was for this brilliant three or four shows in one, because that’s what Hitchy-Koo is. There’s the funniest burlesque on the old villain-and-mortgage plot ever thought up, done by a picture company. Then there are swift-moving and brilliant dance pageants…There’s a vastly spectacular, hilariously amusing historical scene of Pocahontas and John Smith, with jazz dances by the Indians. The cutey Duncan sisters romp and chirp their way through a couple of songs that fit’em like their curls, and then, for no reason whatever, but with every excuse in the world, the show melts away into a barber shop scene, with George Moore, of happy “you don’t know the half of it dearie” memory, cutting up in his usual supremely more-is fashion. And through it all pops up ever and anon the quite indescribably comical Mr. Hitchcock.

You’ll have to see the show to thoroughly appreciate it. That hungry-to-howl house certainly did.

Opening night was star studded: that howling house included Thomas Meighan, Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Bryant Washburn, Clara Kimball Young, Lew Cody and Ruth Roland. However, Kingsley didn’t mention the person responsible for the songs that propelled the show and the reason musical fans today wish they could have seen it: writing the words and music for Hitchy-Koo of 1919 was one of Cole Porter’s earliest jobs, and his first hit, “Old-Fashioned Garden,” was part of the show. We can only imagine what the staging for “My Cozy Little Corner in the Ritz” and “I’m an Anesthetic Dancer” was like.



Louis Reeves Harrison, “Down on the Farm,” Moving Picture World, May 8, 1920, p.862.

“Kinema’s Down on the Farm Parade Breaks Theater’s Attendance,” Exhibitor’s Herald, May 22, 1920, p. 55-6.

“Mack Sennett Day at the Ball Park,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1920.

Epes Winthrop Sargent, “Advertising and Exploitation,” Moving Picture World, May 15, 1920, p. 945.

Crowds of Villains and Crocodile Dens: Week of April 10th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the return of a serial unit from a really long (and presumably expensive) shoot:

The film folks at Universal City were all busy yesterday shaking hands with Marie Walcamp, Harland Tucker, Henry MacRae, Eleanor Fried and the dozen other Universalites who composed the expedition to the Orient and who have just returned home after an absence of seven months. Director MacRae reports that the entire serial has been completed with the exception of several sequences of interiors, which will be filmed here within the next few days.

Distant travels made good publicity, too (LA Times, November 25, 1919)

I had no idea that a studio would spend so much money on a serial in 1919-20! The film came to be called The Dragon’s Net, and in an article about the shoot two months later, Kingsley summarized the current state for that part of the film marketplace: “serials for the most part belong to what might be called the ‘early Universal’ period of pictures. They aren’t being used at all this season in our best theaters.” Nevertheless, she paid tribute the fun they provided:

But do you remember how you used to sit and bulge out your eyes at the wild adventures of the brave hero…who didn’t think he had enough for a mess unless he killed at least five crooks at a throw! As for the heroine, what a trustful girl she was, to be sure. No matter how often she got caught by the villains and thrown into dark wells and crocodile dens and amidst crowds of villains, the sweet young thing would get up any time in the middle of the night at the call of a total stranger’s voice, and hike out to get caught again! That girl never did seem to learn any sense.

However, The Dragon’s Net was innovative:

“But now there’s a new order of things in the serial world. It has just been invented by Henry MacRae. The new serial is a combination of story and travelogue, and you have no idea of the zest in those fresh and inherently interesting backgrounds!”

They got to see far-away places. (Moving Picture World, November 25, 1920, p.4)

Kingsley watched fifteen reels of the now-lost film, and she enthused that she “never wearied for a moment, so adroitly has the historical and travelogue feature been worked into the thrilling story.” Universal got their money’s worth, it seems. Based on a 1917 Adventure magazine story by J. Allan Dunn, “The Petals of Lao-Tze,” the plot was a normal serial plot: eight lotus leaves hold the secret for eternal life, and Marie Carlton (Marie Walcamp) and Harland Keeler (Harland Tucker) decide to hunt them down while being pursued by the villains. They survive kidnappings, robberies, torture, fights, poison gas, etc.

Kingsley also interviewed its director, Henry MacRae, about the time they spent in Japan, China and the Philippines. Filming locations included the Great Wall, the Dowager Empress’s summer palace in Peking, Mongolia (where the locals had never seem films being shot), the old Japanese capital Kamakura, and historic buildings in Manila. They met all sort of people, from a Chinese woman who didn’t want to be photographed (“the one pretty girl in the world who doesn’t want to be a picture actress”) to the Filipino man in Cebu who would only act with his shirt on, because even though the Americans were shirtless he didn’t want the world to think Filipino people were uncivilized. The Americans were surprised by how things were done; for example, “one of the first sights the party glimpsed on entering Shanghai was a line of Chinese people carrying baskets slung across their shoulders. The contents turned out to be gold and silver, and these they will carry long distances through the country without any guards.” It was quite an adventure. They even had a love story:

The bright touch of romance on the trip was furnished by the marriage of Marie Walcamp and Harland Tucker, the two stars of the organization, over whom the soft, warm moonlight nights of the South Seas cast their spell, and who were married in Japan.

They stayed married until Walcamp’s death in 1936.

Henry MacRae continued to make serials, and he went on to be the serials production chief for Universal until his death following a heart attack in 1944. His Variety obituary said: “a constant exponent of action in films, MacRae directed action dramas, serials and westerns by choice rather than stepping into higher budgeted production.” (October 4, 1944)


It seems that studios needed to pay for location shoots, because audiences were becoming more demanding about authenticity if Kingsley’s review of The Virgin of Stamboul this week is any indication. She complained about other films

tricked out in Oriental* duds, and masquerading as Oriental stories, when the characters and theme were about as Oriental as a mess of beans. And how sick we are of pseudo-Oriental scenes in which Broadway beaus, who never got further East than Coney Island, are tricked out in swathing Eastern robes, and wherein a harem scene consists of a couple of shimmying extra girls, against a background made up of a set painted to represent marble and decorated with three thirstless palms!


Harumpf! They solved the authenticity problem a different way in Kingsley’s favorite film this week by setting it in an imaginary country:

Vividly fanciful and intriguing as some old Japanese legend, and played in exactly the right light key, with occasional glints of comedy in an aerial satire, is Sessue Hayakawa’s latest film play, The Beggar Prince, which is unrolling its charming length at Miller’s. It shows us Mr. Hayakawa in a new light. The tale is of a prince and a poor fisherman of some legendary land who accidentally change places, with the arrogant prince learning common sense ad human kindliness through his hardships.

Mr. Twain’s Prince and the Pauper plot is certainly durable! The dual role in this lost film let Hayakawa act as both his usual brooding sex symbol and in a rare comic part. However, according to Kingsley the best thing about that imaginary land was that there “princes wear gorgeously barbaric raiment, very becoming to Mr. Hayakawa.” See if you agree:





*According to the OED, in the 1920’s “Oriental” meant anything not Western, not just East Asia. It also wasn’t a slur yet.

Film vs. Book: Week of April 3rd, 1920

Shirley Mason and Lon Chaney, Treasure Island

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed the latest adaptation of Treasure Island and made fiction lovers’ usual complaint about movie adaptions: it wasn’t like the book:

If he had not christened it Treasure Island, Maurice Tourneur would have had a picture at Grauman’s Theater this week that, while not actually above criticism, would be a wild and rollicking romance of buccaneers, with comparatively few of the flaws to which such stories are subject. As it is, there is one might fault with the production of the Stevenson story—it is not Stevenson.

This does not destroy the value of the picture, except if you start in to make the very natural comparison….Much of the skidding away from the original is due to the effort to short cut to the main episodes of the island fight, which affords the best and most thrilling scenes in the play.

It sounds like Tourneur got to the interesting bits as quickly as possible. After all, you can’t fit a whole novel into six reels. Film Daily thought he didn’t cut enough of the opening set-up. As it was, “the first reel of the offering is exceedingly slow to the point of tedium.” However, they said that things soon picked up and the picture became “a real, thrilling pirate tale…one which happily came to the screen under the guidance of a man capable of realizing on the artistic opportunities presented by the story as well as its many bloodcurdling moments.” We can’t decide for ourselves who was right because the film is lost.

Kingsley also objected to the casting of Shirley Mason as Jim Hawkins:

which—even though that young lady plays her part very well—is an effeminizing taint in the virile story.

Heaven forefend, there can’t be effeminizing taints in the movies! In the bad old days girls didn’t get to set off on hunts for buried treasure or fight pirates. Now a woman in a breeches role would make the story more interesting to female viewers and gender scholars. The story would be even better if it turned out she was a girl disguising herself as a boy for the sake of adventure.

An interview with Mason in Photoplay to promote Treasure Island assured readers that she had many feminine traits, like adoring sweet peas.

Photo-play Journal was much more enthusiastic about her performance: “Shirley Mason is just the right sort of a Jim Hawkins. I felt a bit skeptical, I must admit, about a girl taking the part, but no boy could have done as well. Jim Hawkins had a highly developed love for romance together with a large amount of courage, and Shirley Mason is able to show these qualities as well as add a little wistfulness.”

Despite her objections, Kingsley decided Treasure Island was “a remarkably absorbing affair…a brilliant achievement in general construction, photographically and by virtue of most of the acting.”

Shirley Mason was having had quite a week in Kingsley’s columns. Another (also now lost) film she starred in opened in Los Angeles this week, Her Elephant Man, and Kingsley wrote:

Shirley Mason really puts the “new” in “ingénue.” If rightly handled, this young woman, I believe, would become one of the biggest favorites of the screen. And instead of the Mary Pickford curls on the heads of our ingénues hereafter, look out for bobbed hair.

Despite the fact that it’s all quite unbelievable, and that it’s even naïve in spots, there’s a fresh charm in this story…Shirley as Joan begins life as the child of an African missionary, and ends as a circus bareback rider.

She’s right—who needs believability when you can have an excuse for this:

Shirley Mason really did ride a horse bareback and did stunts in the circus—no mistake about it, because you can see her plain as day, and this certainly is a refreshing change from the everlasting “double.”

Even with all of her hard work, Mason didn’t become a superstar like Pickford, but she had a very solid career. By 1920, she really wasn’t new: she’d been acting since 1910 when she was 10 years old. Born Leonie Flugrath in Brooklyn, she tagged along with her older sisters Edna Flugrath and Viola Dana when they were hired to act at the nearby Edison Studios. She went on to appear in over 100 films, including Lord Jim (1925) and Sally in our Alley (1927). She retired in 1929.

A 1920’s yacht, but not Mason’s.

To round off her big week, Kingsley had news about Mason’s vacation plans:

A yachting trip to Santa Cruz is the reward which fate had in store for a good, hard-working little picture star known as Shirley Mason. Miss Mason left yesterday on her own sixty-five foot gasoline yacht, which she had just purchased. She was accompanied by sister Viola Dana and husband Berney Durney.

Maybe she developed a taste for boats while making Treasure Island. There’s no word if they ran into pirates in the Channel Islands. She would have known how to fight them, if she did.



“Colorful Production Furnished Stevenson’s Classic Pirate Tale,” Film Daily, April 18, 1920, p.12.

Nadeyne Ramsay, “Shirley Tomboy,” Photoplay, July 1920, p.28.

“Treasure Island,” Photo-Play Journal, May 1920, p. 46.