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 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.
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.
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.