One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley attended a benefit performance that showed how Hollywood stars were still happy to do a good deed for veterans. She announced the upcoming event on May 19th:
Do you want to see your favorite film stars actually speaking lines behind the footlights? Your chance will soon be here. What will doubtless be the most brilliant assemblage of photoplayers ever appearing together on such an occasion in the history of pictures will appear in Augustus Thomas’s Arizona at the Auditorium. Three performances will be given, on consecutive evenings, commencing June 3. The proceeds will be given to the Hollywood Post of the American Legion.
Arizona had been a theater staple since its premier in 1899. When it debuted on Broadway in September 1900, the New York Times gave it a glowing review and summed up the plot with appropriately melodramatic vocabulary:
Indeed, the entire dramatic fabric of Mr. Thomas’s play belongs to the stock-in-trade of every playwright. Theatrical counterparts of the elderly husband with a young wife, the tempter, the noble young man who foils the tempter’s wicked game, the fair sister of the wife for whose sake the noble youth acts, the other victim of the tempter, her father seeking his child’s betrayer—have been often employed in melodrama, while the mere forms of many of the situations in which they now figure have done duty over and over again. But the skill with which these situations are now used is exceptional.
It was also a familiar property to filmgoers, having been adapted twice, once in 1913 in a version directed by its author and again in 1918. The second version starred Douglas Fairbanks, who played the noble young man, Lt. Denton. Kingsley’s announcement said that in the new theatrical production, he would be playing Tony Mostano, a cowboy who in a subplot courts waitress Lena Kellar, who was to be played by his new wife Mary Pickford. They bowed out three days later because they decided to leave for their honeymoon. Their first stop, coincidentally, was Holbrook, Arizona.
However, another cast member from Fairbanks’ film, Theodore Roberts, was slated to not only recreate his role as Henry Canby, the father of the young wife and fair sister, but also to stage manage the whole production. He was a real Arizona veteran: he originated the part in 1899 at its debut in Chicago, and went on to play Canby on Broadway.
Naturally, Kingsley didn’t miss such a big event, and she raved about it:
A whole big stage full of noted stars attracted a full capacity house at Philharmonic Auditorium last night, the occasion being the opening of a three night run of Augustus Thomas’s famous melodrama, Arizona, given as a benefit for the American Legion, Hollywood Post. Great was the delight and noise of the big audiences as there stepped out on the stage people known for the most part only in the silence of picture houses. Scores of picture stars were in the audience, too. A procession of flowers like those handed out to members of a graduating class followed the close of the first act.
She praised all of the actors, but she singled out Mr. Arbuckle, who played a cavalry surgeon.
Looking as natural as a drink of water, Roscoe Arbuckle astonished even those who knew him best by the ease and cleverness with which he put over all his lines, both comedy and drama, in the role of Dr. Fenion; he never missed a tick.
So his years of stage training didn’t desert him. Nor did her years of practice leave the actress who played the tempted young wife of the elderly man:
Clara Kimball Young’s voice was naturally a matter of curiosity, and it proved a beautiful one, looking an eerie sort of feeling due to hearing her fit spoken lines to gestures we know so well. She played Estrella Bonham with all the fine sincerity and intensity we are accustomed to associate with her on the screen.
This was her first time on stage in 9 years. Apparently, acting on the stage is like riding a bicycle, it’s something you don’t forget.
Kingsley mentioned one disadvantage of such a famous cast:
Charlie Murray, hero of a hundred bloodless battles for sweet charity’s sake, was so camouflaged behind a moustache, a uniform and a German accent as Capt. Kellar that the audience didn’t know him at first, but when recognition dawned he was applauded to the echo, and everybody laughed at what he said thereafter, whether he meant to be funny or not.
Fairbanks’ and Pickford’s replacements did a fine job too; William Desmond “cut a gallant figure as Tony Mostano,” and Ruth Renick “was pretty, sincere and appealing as Lena.”
The audience enjoyed the show as much as Kingsley did:
And oh, how the gallery did come back last night! Surely never was virtue more volubly approved nor wickedness more hissingly hated than at the performance.
Guy Price in the Los Angeles Herald agreed with all of them.
No theater audience, anywhere, has been privileged to witness Augustus Thomas’s tremendously human and entertaining drama of the West so splendidly or so notably produced… Many of the actors and actresses who made up the cast have not heard their voices on the stage in many years, and if the experience was a thrill to them, then it was more than that to those who sat out in front and wondered if they could “come back.” They all did—with a whoop.
There was no follow-up report on how much money they made, but the American Legion planned to use the proceeds to build a clubhouse with a theater, and it was built. The theater was refurbished in 2018 and you can rent it.
In other news this week, Kingsley reported that Erich von Stroheim was back in town with a multiyear contract from Universal and plans for his next film, Foolish Wives. He was already very good at building his brand; she wrote:
Foolish Wives is to be filmed for the most part at Catalina Island, where a mammoth reproduction of Monte Carlo will be built. Mr. Von Stroheim says that inasmuch as during a season or two some time past, he wasted a lot of his father’s money at the famous foreign gambling resort, he feels there will be poetic justice in getting a part of it back through his art.
Benno Stroheim was a middle class hat maker in Vienna, and young Erich Oswald Stroheim didn’t misspend his youth tossing his father’s money away at some casino. Nevertheless, he sure could do a good job of playing a spoiled scion of privilege and he had the courtesy to make up interesting lies for us. He didn’t get to shoot Foolish Wives on Catalina, instead he made it on the Universal backlot. He still managed to spend lots more than his original budget – exactly how much is disputed.
“Arizona by Augustus Thomas Acted Here at Last,” New York Times, September 11, 1900.
“Legion Plans a Drama League,” Los Angles Times, May 30, 1920.
“Screen Stars Score Hit in Arizona” Los Angeles Herald, June 4, 1920.