Melodrama Everywhere: Week of June 26th, 1920

Fannie Hurst, 1914

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned that another writer was ready to earn some Hollywood cash:

If old Bill Shakespeare were alive today he’d probably be writing for the movies. Everybody in authorland is doing it. The latest famous scribe to sign up is Fannie Hurst, who has just put her name to a contract to write a number of stories for Universal.

It seems it was while she was on her way to San Francisco to the Democratic convention that Miss Hurst arranged this. After the convention she will return to Los Angeles to begin writing for Priscilla Dean and other Universal stars.

Hurst had sold to Universal the rights to a story called “A Petal on the Current” a few months earlier and it seems that they liked what they bought. She did come to Hollywood where she rented a bungalow and wrote “Oats for Women,” which became The Day She Paid, directed by Rex Ingram. But that was enough for her–she returned to New York where she stayed until her death in 1968.

Her short stay might not have only been caused by a New Yorker’s dislike of California; she also had a previous commitment to New York-based Cosmopolitan Pictures which had the rights to her published works. They were already filming Humoresque, which turned out to be a great big hit. Many more classic films were based on her works, including Back Street (1932 and 1941) Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959) and Four Daughters (1939) and its two sequels. Hurst became one of the best-paid writers in America. It’s interesting that she was content to write the stories, and let others adapt them into scripts. It seems like she knew what she was good at. In the 1950’s and 60’s, her writing was scorned because it was melodramatic, but since the 1990’s critics have taken her works about marginalized women more seriously. Naturally, there’s been a biography.


Kingsley also reported that actress Tsuru Aoki returned to Los Angeles this week after a four month long trip to Japan:

This was Miss Aoki’s first trip to Japan since she came to this country. She was 8 years old then. She was educated here, and took special training at Stanford University. She visited her relatives in Japan, including her famous aunt, the actress Sada Yacco.

Sada Yacco

Aoki’s mother’s older brother, Otojiro Kawakami, was to married Sada Yacco, who had the sort of life that’s begging for a biopic to be made (an English-language biography came out in 2004). Left at a geisha house when she was 4, she was trained as an apprentice. She became the Prime Minister’s mistress at age 15. That ended when she was 18. She married Kawakami when she was 22 and she joined his acting troupe. In 1899 they left Japan to tour the United States and Europe, where she was a huge sensation. She retired from acting in 1917.

Tsuru Kawakami, 1899

I noticed something missing in every biography of Tsuru Aoki: they all mention that she came to America with her uncle and aunt in 1899, but her relatives left her at their first stop in San Francisco, where she was adopted by an artist, Toshio Aoki. But there’s no mention of what happened to her parents. There’s one article in Photoplay by her childhood friend, Louise Scher, who said that Tsuru Aoki’s father had been killed in the Russo-Japanese War so her mother asked her older brother to look after her child. More information isn’t available because Japan has extraordinarily strict privacy laws for access to koseki records (family registry) – it’s limited to people named in them, their direct descendants, and lawyers if needed for a proceeding. The koseki has the same function as birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and the census in other countries – everything researchers rely on for biographical information. Furthermore, the records aren’t digitized, so you have to know which city hall to write to. So unless the law changes, or a descendent decides to write a biography, we’ll never know about her early years.

What little we know is unbearably sad if Scher’s story is true. Tsuru Aoki lost her father, was given up by her mother, and was taken to to a strange country with a new language then left with a middle-aged bachelor. He died when she was 20, so she needed to become self-supporting. Fortunately, she was a good actress and was able to find work on stage and in films. With such sudden reversals of fortune in nonfiction, it’s no wonder people liked melodramatic stories–they must have seemed completely plausible.




Louise Scher, “A Flower of Japan,” Photoplay, June 1916, pp.110-112.

“U Signs Hurst,” Film Daily, July 3, 1920, p.1.



‘That Radiant Rascal’: Week of June 19th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had an announcement that was a “sensation”: the “two of the most famous film folk in the world” planned to costar in a picture.

That’s exactly what Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who are now honeymooning together in London, intend to do, according to private advices received by friends of theirs here. So you see these two devoted ones won’t be separated even in the studio.

No, they’re not going to do a stroke of work while they’re abroad. But when they get home, they’re going to appear in a film version of Johnston McCully’s “The Curse of Capistrano,” published serially in a popular magazine.

However, it seems as if Doug may have rather the best of it, in a way, as he will play a dual role. But perhaps they’ll put enough of Mary in her own sweet person, to make up for Doug’s double impersonation.

As you probably know, those friends were misinformed about Pickford co-staring in Fairbanks’ next movie (she would have been fine as Lolita Pulido, but she needed to make her own films to keep their new company, United Artists, afloat), but the rest was correct. Renamed The Mark of Zorro, it went on to be a huge hit and a turning point in Fairbanks’ career.


Fairbanks’ staff spilled the beans to Kingsley fast. According to his biographer Tracey Goessel, the newlyweds got on the boat to England on June 12th, and during the trip Pickford read McCully’s story, which his staff had recommended. She immediately saw that it was perfect for him. He trusted her judgment and wired instructions to buy it (he didn’t read it himself until they were on the train home from New York to Los Angeles).

Opening night crowds were immense. Here’s Fairbanks leaving the show. (Exhibitor’s Herald, January 8, 1921)

After they returned in August, he got right to work and the movie debuted at the new Mission Theater in Los Angeles on December 1st (publicity wasn’t the only thing that moved quickly then). Kingsley didn’t get to review it; her editor Edwin Schallert kept the assignment for himself. Most of his piece was a description of the new theater. After five paragraphs of that, he got around to the movie, writing “It is a picture notable chiefly for its mystery and excitement, which carries the interest steadily. Fairbanks himself is seen in a role of moderate opportunities for his type. There is a good sweep of picturesqueness in the locale and setting which enriches.”

Goessel points out that many of the ads didn’t leave anyone guessing about who was behind the mask. Marguerite De La Motte was his leading lady.

His dismissiveness wasn’t typical; for instance, Film Daily said “’Doug’ probably gives one of the best performances in his screen career” (December 5, 1920). The audience loved Zorro and it played at the Mission for over a month, at a time when most films stayed for a week.

This ad is prettier.

He’d already begun to make another comedy, The Nut, but after that he made the adventure movies that he’s most famous for now, starting with The Three Musketeers.

Now Zorro is considered a classic. Fairbanks himself made a sequel in 1926 and it gets remade regularly. Fritzi Kramer reviewed and really enjoyed it in 2013.


This week, Kingsley showed how a review of a Fairbanks movie ought to be written:

“Leave ‘em smiling when you say good-bye” is evidently the motto of that radiant rascal Doug Fairbanks. He made The Mollycoddle, which is on view at the Rialto this week, and then he went away on a honeymoon, giving those of us who see that last clever picture spasm of his every reason to wish he’d hurry back. Anybody who has an idea that Fairbanks is passing away professionally has only to go take a look at the line in front of the Rialto, and listen to the roars of joy issuing therefrom, to realize he’s got another guess coming.

Once again the comedian yanks comedy out of thrills and puts thrills into comedy…The Mollycoddle is itself vivid, high-power comedy, with something snappy doing every minute, and with a fresh background and droll ideas. There are some wild doings, too, so that at moments it appears like a sort of sublimated serial.

So the change in Fairbanks’ career wasn’t completely abrupt, other than the new costumes.







Tracey Goessel, First King of Hollywood, Chicago Review Press, 2016.

Businessman Billy Anderson: Week of June 12th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed a film pioneer who was the first cowboy movie star. He had made a career change:

Bronco Billy used to be a loud, tough-spoken guy, but he has been so long gone in the effete East that nobody knows now just how to treat him; whether to shake his hand or kiss him. But after all he seemed the other night to be pretty much the same old Billy, a little grey around the temples, maybe, with a boiled shirt setting a little better on him, and knowing how to pronounce the French things on the bill of fare a little more trippingly on the tongue, but fit and hard as in days of yore.

Gilbert M. Anderson was there to promote a stage show he’d produced, The Frivolities of 1920, which was stopping in Los Angeles for a week at the Mason Opera House. His interview with Kingsley was mostly a series of complaints about the habits of the women of the chorus. He felt that since cowboys could get up at 5 AM, chorus girls could certainly be there for 11 AM rehearsals. Kingsley sought the opposing viewpoint; one young lady said, “My gawd, I never knew there was such hours, leastways not to be got up by.” Anderson had made a collection of their excuses for being late that he threatened to send to the Smithsonian “to compare ‘em with the excuses of the chorus girls to be found on the Egyptian obelisks.” Some of the better ones were:

  • blocked by a mob in a shop while trying on a bathing suit;
  • detained by a stranger to find out if she was a descendent of Lillian Russell;
  • sprained a leg fighting off a suitor bound to kidnap and marry her and
  • reading Shakespeare and forgot about the time.


Putting together a touring musical revue was just a continuation of Anderson’s entrepreneurial activities. Born Maxwell Henry Aronson on March 21, 1880, he moved to New York in 1902 and worked in vaudeville. He met director Edwin S. Porter there and in 1903 he was hired for three roles in The Great Train Robbery. The film was such a success that Anderson decided to quit the stage and make pictures. In 1907 he co-founded with George Spoor a company they called Essanay (their initials “S” and “A”) Studios in Chicago. Spoor stayed in Chicago to take care of the business side and Anderson went to Niles, California, because it looked like the Wild West. He made over 300 shorts, and appeared in many of them as Broncho Billy.

He sold his interest in Essanay in 1916 and retired from acting. He undertook several business ventures, including building two theaters in San Francisco, starting a new film production company, and co-founding the Frand Theater Company in New York. So that’s what he was doing in the “effete East” when he got the idea to produce an annual musical revue, like the Ziegfeld Follies.

The Frivolities cast and crew in Denver, June 5, 1920.

The Frivolities of 1920 had out-of-town tryout in Providence, Rhode Island in late 1919; according to the New York Clipper it was much too long. After pruning, it played for four weeks in Boston then made its debut on Broadway in January. The Clipper thought it was pretty good: “the play, as witnessed last Thursday night, proved to be an elaborate array of scenery, beautiful costumes and well formed femininity…There is still room for pruning and revision, but taken all in all, it looks as if the dream of an annual Frivolities has been realized.” They also mentioned that Anderson had spent more than $70,000 on it.

Alexander Woollcott in the New York Times had quite a different opinion:

the Anderson production reaches lower levels of vulgarity and laborious coarseness than are yet familiar to the mere patrons of Broadway theaters. Despite its wealth in pretty girls and its prodigality of setting and costume, it would be unfair to test it except by the standards of the older and lower forms of out-of-the-way burlesque houses.


Oh dear, how the poor man was soiled by such goings-on (Kingsley thought those “vulgar” gags from Joseph Rolley and Edward Gallagher were “some of the best war jokes that have been squeezed from the late unpleasantness”). In Los Angeles, it opened to a packed house, and Kingsley enjoyed it:

Richard Bold sang some nice little love ditties, Dolly Best danced, Kitty Kelly and the other thirty-two girls looked, and on the whole it was a pleasant little evening. Nothing musical enough to make the late Patti haunt anybody for spite, nothing epigrammatic enough to cause Oscar Wilde to get wild, but bright and snappy, tuneful, well-costumed and well-girled enough to make it worth anybody’s while to leave home for an evening.

Frivolities continued on to Sacramento in August, where Myra D. Steele neatly summarized the “merry concoction”: “There were girls, songs, girls, comedy, girls, dancing, girls, scenery and more girls.”

The tour ended soon after that. According to film historian David Kiehn, Anderson lost money on his shows. In 1922 he founded the Amalgamated Producing film company but it went out of business in 1923. He moved to San Francisco and lived a quiet life there until 1942, then he followed his daughter Maxine (a casting agent) to Los Angeles. In 1958 he got a special Oscar for his early work in the film industry. In 1964 he went to live at the Motion Picture Country House in Woodland Hills and he died in 1970.

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum has an annual Broncho Billy Film Festival. This year, due to the current unpleasantness, it will be online, July 24-26. They also have some of his films online here.


Kingsley also enjoyed a comedy this week, with one complaint: “The screen neglects to ascribe any authorship to A Desperate Hero, which is a pity, for the story is well worth the labeling…The subtitles to A Desperate Hero are unusually clever, full of the right sort of pep and carry the plot forward on ripple of laughter. Again we aver that the author’s name should be flickered at least once on the film.”

A sad story is hiding here. The writer of this now lost film was Zelda Crosby. She wrote one more screenplay, Wedding Bells, for Constance Talmadge. She died by suicide in June of the following year. At the time Variety lumped her death in with other scandals that happened in 1921: “it is reported that one of the big men in the industry was responsible in a measure for her taking an overdose of veronal* which caused her death. The chances are that the result of the investigation will bring to light the name of the man and also that there is no legal procedure under which action can be brought against him, but the fact remains that this scandal will add additional fuel to the already roaring blaze sweeping the world against the entire industry.”

That investigation by the New York Medical Examiner, Dr. Charles Norris, found that her death was a suicide after her mother produced a letter. It wasn’t made public, but Norris said in a statement: “the letter clearly indicated that the daughter was despondent and in ill health and was about to take her life. I am satisfied that she committed suicide.” No film executive’s name was mentioned, and after the examiner’s statement other stories distracted the press. Zelda Schuster Crosby was allowed to rest in peace. Poor Zelda. At least Grace Kingsley admired your work.


*Veronal was the brand name of a barbiturate used as a sleep aid.


Broncho Billy Anderson:

David Kiehn, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, 2003.

“Frivolities of 1920 Opens and Scores After Many Mishaps,” New York Clipper, January 14, 1920, p.25

Myra D. Steele, “Girls, Dancing Feature Show,” Sacramento Union, August 16, 1920.

Alexander Woolcott, “The Broncho Billy Follies,” New York Times, January 9, 1920.


Zelda Crosby:

Harry Carr, “Maude Adams in Picture,” Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1921.

“Finds Miss Crosby Committed Suicide, ”San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 1921.”

“N.Y. Film Love Victim’s Name Is Disclosed,” New York Times, September 22, 1921.

“World-Wide Condemnation of Pictures as Aftermath of Arbuckle Affair,” Variety, September 23, 1921, p. 46.







Laughing at the Law: Week of June 5th, 1920

Lew Cody

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an unusual feature that was part of Lew Cody’s recent real estate deal:

Now it’s Lew Cody who has just bought a place on Morgan Hill in Hollywood, with at least fifteen acres. There is also a cellar. The cost to Mr. Cody was something like $50,000, I understand, and there are those who do say that Mr. Cody paid $20,000 for the place and $30,000 for the cellar, but these are probably jealous souls. Mr. Cody admits that he has lately learned how to make a very particular kind of mint julep, and that he had to have a house to fit the julep.

So the law hadn’t even been in effect for one year, and Prohibition was already being laughed at in a gentle gossip column in a family newspaper. It’s amazing that it stayed in effect for so long!

Cody’s house at 1939 Morgan Place (movie stars could still safely list their address in the City Directory) included stables and a barn, so he could have horses and cows ”if Mr. Cody becomes rural enough in his tastes.” His house isn’t there any more, and hordes of houses have been built on those fifteen acres.

May Allison in Fair and Warmer (1919)

In other illicit activity news, Kingsley had a chat with May Allison about her family:

Miss Allison’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown a few weeks ago. She was sent to the hospital and came home somewhat improved, but not as well as her affectionate daughter thought she should be, so she took her to Coranado, never dreaming of anything so wild as a trip to Tia Juana. But when mother heard that all the picture stars were going over, nothing to do but she must take the trip, too, so over she went, and she had such a good time she didn’t get home until the scandalous hour of 10:30 o’clock. But, Miss Allison reports, her mother’s health has been better ever since.

Kingsley didn’t mention if it was the alcohol or the gambling in what was nicknamed Satan’s Playground that cured Nannie Virginia Wise Allison. Maybe it was both.

The photographer didn’t record their names.

In addition, May Allison had a telegram from her sister Verda Allison Wright who lived in Tennessee; she’d been appointed to be a delegate to the Democratic Convention which was being held in San Francisco June 28th to July 6th. Miss Allison reported that her mother said “I certainly feel as if I’m an up-to-date mother, with one daughter in the movies and the other in politics. Ah, when a daughter is born nowadays, a mother may look at the babe proudly and remark, “Maybe my daughter will be President of the United States some day!”

Oh, sigh. Progress takes such a long time. At least the first step towards a woman president was taken at that convention, when two women were put forward to be the Democratic candidate for president, Laura Clay and Cora Wilson Stewart. They both got one vote each on the first ballot. After 43 more ballots, James M. Cox was selected and Franklin D. Roosevelt was chosen as his running mate. They went on to lose to Warren Harding in November.