Summer movies: Week of July 31st, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to see “a different sort of production” that was “bound to awaken fresh and enthusiastic interest on the part of picture fans,” The Wonder Man, starring French boxer Georges Carpentier. It had something for everybody. For boxing fans,

Four rounds are fought by Carpentier in his best manner, with a boy who is no slouch of a fighter himself. Yesterday the progress of the scrap was accompanied by cheers and applause, and for a minute or two there was a pale replica of the Vernon noise on the best nights. The fighting is all open, and probably the best bout ever registered on the screen, at least outside a regular prize fight.

And for the audience who never visited the boxing ring in Vernon (the only nearby town where prize fights were legal), the film had a different attraction:

The gentle little matinee girls won’t be disappointed, either, for not only is Carpentier a lithe and accomplished fighter, but he is possessed of a handsome and fascinating personality, and its hard to envisage him as a fighter until he gets into action, when his whole face changes amazingly. Also he is a very good actor, and any day the fight game gets too hard for him, he can go on the screen as a film idol, I’m sure.

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Matinee idol? Why not?

The Wonder Man, now lost, told the story of a French secret service agent/boxer who’s on the trail of a thief. Honestly, it doesn’t sound that different from other movies, but maybe in the depths of summer Kingsley felt less picky.

Now Georges Carpentier is most famous for fighting heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in the first prizefight to sell over $1 million worth of tickets. It was held on July 2, 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey and he lost. But he was in 108 other fights, winning 88 of them, and according to boxing historian Ian Murphy, many regard him as the greatest European fighter ever. He was also a war hero, receiving the Croix de Guerre for his service in the French Air Force. He didn’t become a matinee idol, but he appeared in a few more films, and after he retired from boxing in 1927 he became a vaudeville singer and dancer, touring the United States and Britain. In 1934 he quit show business to manage a bar in Paris, Chez Georges Carpentier. He died following a heart attack in 1975.

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Married Life

Much as she enjoyed the boxing film, the best thing Kingsley saw this week was in Mack Sennett’s latest feature Married Life, with Ben Turpin:

Probably the funniest and most original bit of hokum is when Turpin takes gas before an operation and is blown up like a balloon, floating about the hospital and scaring everybody.

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This was Turpin’s first starring role, and he made the most of it; she wrote, “as for Ben Turpin, he is making rapid strides as a comedian. He seems to have a faultless sense of the comic and of his own peculiar comedy talents.” But she thought the whole film was very good:

Married Life is really farce, inasmuch as it has a story, even if it is a thin one; but on it is hung a brilliant array of comic hokum gems, the brightest, in fact, have emanated from the Sennett studios in many moons, and it is to these the comedy owes its big punch.

See it and laugh, that’s all.

Which is exactly what anybody could want in a summer movie. It was a big success, bringing crowds to the Kinema and the following week, to the Victory. Kingsley wasn’t the only critic who liked it; Peter Milne in Picture-Play Magazine wrote, “you can’t afford to miss Married Life—it is a perfect burlesque—the greatest of Sennett’s pictures.” Unfortunately, we can’t: it’s a lost film.

 

Peter Milne, “The Screen in Review,” Picture-Play Magazine, September 1920, p.37.

 

 

 

Cowless Cowboys: Week of July 24th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had some objections to a current trend in Westerns:

Oh, those cowless cowboys of the motion pictures! Those guys that wear all the cowboy’s scenery and go ‘round dressed up like a merry-go-round, but who never seem to have any work to do!

Sometimes you think the cowboys are going to work. You see a bunch of them at a round-up of cattle and you say to yourself, “Well, after all, they are an industrious bunch. I’ve probably been doing them a great wrong.” Next minute along comes the hero and says his girl has been stolen or his bank robbed, and whoopee, they’re off! Those cows can go jump in the lake for all of them. The boys wheel around, oh, so grandly, and the ranch owner can go whistle for his cattle. I don’t know why the ranch owner keeps on paying ‘em.

Cowboys in pictures have three accomplishments. They can ride horseback, they can roll cigarettes with one hand, lighting matches with their thumbnails, and they can play the accordion. That accordion playing is one of the things that reconciles us to the silent drama being silent.

I’m sure that Miss Kingsley didn’t expect realism from the movies, but this one strain of unreality really grated on her this week (honestly, nobody wants to watch a realistic portrayal of any job, they’d be bored to death). Her real complaint is that Westerns were getting tired. Happily, the genre would soon get refreshed by frontier stories like Maurice Tourneur’s The Last of the Mohicans (1920) and James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923).

And if she didn’t like seeing accordion-playing cowboys, she is not going to enjoy the similarly cowless singing cowboys in the 1930’s and 40s.

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Continuing the crankiness, Kingsley absolutely loathed the ending to an otherwise inoffensive drama this week:

When the hero of The Sacred Flame throws up his hands and drops over dead because he sees the girl he jilted but recently in the company of another man, you throw up your hands, too, and say, “Good Lord, what’s the use?”

She wasn’t exaggerating. According to the AFI Catalog, at the end of the movie Lionel Brooks just ups and dies of a broken heart. The actress who played the jilted Rosalie, Emily Stevens, made one more film then returned to the legitimate theater after this. There’s no record of if she said, “what’s the use,” but I wouldn’t blame her if she did.

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They look like they had fun

This week, Kingsley also mentioned a dance that was worth reporting on even before it was shot:

Beatrice Dominguez, a talented Spanish dancer, has been engaged to play in the Metro production of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which Rex Ingram is directing. Miss Dominguez is well known on the Pacific Coast; her best work having been at the San Francisco Exposition in a dancing set. She has also appeared in vaudeville. Miss Dominguez will do a dance with Rudolph Valentino of the Ingram picture.

That’s exactly what happened and it’s still the standout sequence in the film. Their tango helped make Valentino a star, but tragically, it couldn’t help her career. She died before the film debuted.

Beatriz Dominguez was born September 6, 1896, either in in San Bernardino, California (according to an interview she gave to Motion Picture Classic) or in Mexico, from which she immigrated to California in 1901 (according to the 1920 census). She learned to dance in the Spanish style from her mother, also named Beatriz. She called herself “La Bella Sevilla” and she performed at both the San Francisco and the San Diego Expositions. But she also wanted to act in films. In 1914 she made her debut in two Vitagraph shorts, The Masked Dancer and The Sea-Gull. In 1919 she was hired by Universal where she appeared in films like The Sundown Trail (1919) (as “the Mexican girl”) and serials like The Moon Riders (1920) (as “Rosa the housekeeper’s daughter”). In her Motion Picture Classic interview, she made the best of being considered a foreign type:

I should not like to play ingénues or straight leads. I think I have been most fortunate in being cast for character parts, for heavies with strong emotional parts. That is real training in acting. When my time comes as a star, I shall have had much experience, and then I shall not be afraid; I shall only know that it is a time to work harder than ever to deserve success.

Poor hopeful young lady! She became sick while filming another Universal serial, The White Horseman, and died in the Clara Barton Hospital after two operations for appendicitis on February 27, 1921. At least her dance with Valentino remains.

 

“Actress Dies,” Exhibitors’ Herald, March 26, 1921, p.26.

“Film Star Dies Who Won Way to Fame with Feet,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1921.

“La Bella Sevilla,”August 1920 Motion Picture Classic, pp.32-33, 66-67.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only July, and it’s been summer long enough: Week of July 17th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley did her bit to encourage movie attendance:

Speaking of cool summer resorts, there are a whole flock of them right in our midst. If you don’t happen to feel like boarding a crowded car for the beach, or the parks, you’ll find a deliciously cool retreat in almost any theater you want to enter. Managers are wisely seeing to it that, no matter what the expense, their houses are cool. That the public is aware of this effort was evidenced by the fact that yesterday, despite the heat, the theaters held the usual crowds.

Theater cooling systems in 1920 weren’t quite modern air conditioning (that came along in 1922), but plainly they were better than the 88 degrees that Kingsley was dealing with outdoors. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s History of Air Conditioning, early systems were heating systems modified with refrigeration equipment. They produced hot, muggy conditions in the balcony and temperatures that were so low downstairs that people wrapped their feet in newspapers.

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By then, everyone took the cooling system for granted – they didn’t bother to mention it in the advertising

One thing that hasn’t changed, what’s playing matters less when the weather is awful:

Just across the threshold of the California, for instance, one stepped into a deliciously cool auditorium where two charming pictures and some good music took one’s mind entirely off the heat outside.

The films were Madge Kennedy in The Truth (“a frothy thing, but amusing”) and a Booth Tarkington ‘Edgar’ short, Edgar’s Jonah Day (“abundantly amusing” but “several degrees less fanciful” than the others). It sounds like Kingsley was just particularly annoyed with the weather this week. Poor woman, she had a long time to wait for improvement: it stays hot and miserable in Los Angeles until around November first. It’s a good thing she had the theaters to visit.

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Kingsley also had a story about annoying neighbors. Honeymooners Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman moved in to their new house on Hawthorne Drive in Hollywood, and

Next morning the exclusive neighborhood was horrified to hear indignant squeals, pitiful squeals, pleading squeals and also strident squeals proceeding apparently from the newcomers home.

“Are they going to keep pigs?” exclaimed the horrified neighbors. And while impromptu indignation meetings were held up and down the block among outraged housekeepers the lone piglet responsible for the excitement continued his squealing, but with the noise shifting. This time it came from the next block, where Tod Browning lives. The shift occurred on the director’s birthday and it turned out the pig was a present to Browning on behalf of the Outside the Law company, before whom he had incautiously expressed his deep longing for a porker, in order to do some ranching on a small scale.

And now Browning has to keep his word and buy a ranch.

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Now Tod Browning is remembered for helping to create the horror genre with films like Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932) and ten Lon Chaney films. His 1995 biography is called Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre. However, once upon a time his co-workers went to a lot of trouble to give him joke birthday presents.

 

 

 

 

 

Films got them all: Week of July 10th, 1920

garliss

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley remarked that yet another actor had succumbed to the lure of Hollywood:

It’s only a matter of time and the films will get them all. The latest staunch cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die stage partisan star to affix his signature to a contract is George Arliss, famous on the stage in Disraeli and other plays.

According to report received yesterday from his agents, Mr. Arliss has just signed with A.J. Callaghan, head of A.J. Callaghan Productions, to appear in a picturization of his stage play The Devil, in which he starred some ten years ago.

George Arliss was one of the lucky few actors who got both critical respect and big box office returns. His middlebrow historical films and domestic comedies aren’t very popular with classic movie fans now, but he was a big star for two decades.

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Arliss was born in London in 1868 and he became a stage actor when he was 18. He toured Great Britain and the United States, and he became a Broadway star in 1908 playing Dr. Muller in The Devil, so it makes sense that he chose that as his first film.

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Louise Huff and George Arliss in Disraeli (1921)

He was a success, and he went on to reprise another of his stage roles, Benjamin Disraeli, both in a 1921 silent and a 1929 talkie. He won the Best Actor Academy Award for the latter. Throughout the 1930’s he played all sorts of historical figures, including the Duke of Wellington, Cardinal Richelieu, and Alexander Hamilton. He retired in 1939.

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Somehow they told the story of Hamilton without any rap battles. Imagine that!

Current audiences have different ideas about how history should be put on film, but Arliss hasn’t been completely forgotten. Robert M. Fells has written a biography, and maintains a blog about him.

Charlie Chaplin’s publicists were working overtime this week. Kingsley reported:

In one of his coming releases for First National, Mr. Chaplin has taken the other side of the muchly-abused police argument, and for the first time perhaps in all history since there have been police, that husky fraternity is to be lionized. In fact, it is rumored that Mr. Chaplin has attached a pair of wings to each comedy policeman in the picture.

Chaplin’s publicity department managed to keep his name in the paper without giving away anything about the plot of the film he was working on, The Kid, or even anything about the dreamland sequence where the winged cop appears. They were good at their job!

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week, Old Lady 31, was of a type that is even more rare now:

Who says there’s a deadline on romance? Tommy and Aggie, aged 16, think romance means moonlight and ice cream soda tete a tetes, and dreamy fox trots with their faces frozen together, and that anything of this sort beyond the age of 21 is mush—just mush, that’s all! But–and this is by the by–even the deadline on that sort of romance, folks are apt to find pushed further back as they grow older!

When Rachel Crothers wrote Old Lady 31, which ran as a play in New York for two years, and which is showing at the Victory this week, she manifested a magic sort of skill and genius for comedy that joyously skimmed the great truths of life. In kindly humorous and brilliantly delicious and human fashion she epitomized the sorrows and joys of and elderly couple turned out of their home, the old lady to enter the old ladies’ home and the old man the poor farm. The old lady, heartbroken at leaving her partner of her lie’s joys and troubles, so appeals to the sympathies of the other “girls” of the home that they vote to take the dear old boy in as Old Lady 31.

The story manages to find jokes in a sad situation, because the twenty-nine ladies pay so much attention to Abe that he plots to escape in this lost film. There’s still a deadline on romance in films – that doesn’t seem to change.

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Finally, Kingsley reported that an annoying co-worker got his just desserts this week:

When you see the villain submit to his final knockout in The Best of Luck at the California this week, don’t get the impression that you are looking at a make-believe fight. Frederic Malatesta, the bad man in question, sustained an injury so serious that it took a surgeon with a needle and thread to make him whole again. It all happened because Malatesta insisted on realism.

“Really fight me! Fight me as if you meant it!” he shouted to Kathryn Adams, costar in the production.

At first Miss Adams refused to take him at his word. Then goaded to exasperation by his insistence, she heaved the heaviest piece of furniture at hand in his direction, with the result that the blow struck its mark.

Mr. Malatesta seems to have learned his lesson, and he went on to a solid career in silent films followed by small parts in talkies until 1941.

Domesticity as an option: Week of July 3rd, 1920

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Ethel Teare, Harry Booker and Tom Kennedy in Monkey Business

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was the first to forget the name of one funny woman:

“There’s a Sunshine Comedy, called Monkey Business, which is a regular humdinger. It was a big beauty chorus, with one of the prettiest, most expressive girls on the screen in the leading role, though I’ve forgotten her name. Anyhow she’ll probably be starring in a drama pretty soon. Among the principle actors are the dog, Teddy, and a monkey. The most hilarious episode is the chase, supposedly after the baby, though it turns out to be the monkey, carried away by some balloons and deposited on a rock by the ocean.”

The mystery actress was Ethel Teare, and unfortunately now she’s been forgotten because most of her films are lost.

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However, Steve Massa in his book Slapstick Divas remembers her. He wrote that by 1920 she was a comedy veteran. Born in Arizona in 1894, she toured in vaudeville for six years before she found work in film at the Kalem Company in 1914. She was soon the leading lady in one-reel comedies there; she was often the love interest in their Ham and Bud shorts. In 1916 they let her headline her own series of shorts. She moved to Keystone in 1917, but she was too similar to their star Louise Fazenda, so she moved on to the Fox Sunshine company in 1918. Monkey Business was one of eighteen shorts and one feature she made there; Massa says she was at the top of her career then.

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Kingsley was proven wrong with her predication: unlike other successful comediennes at the time like Gloria Swanson or Bebe Daniels, Teare didn’t abandon comedy. She stayed at Fox until 1921, then she worked with comic Bert Roach at Universal. She took a break from film and returned to vaudeville, appearing with the Marx Brothers in their Twentieth Century Revue. In 1924, she was featured in two Hysterical History comedies for Universal, then she retired and married Bank of American vice president Frank Risso. They moved to San Mateo, California and she raised their twins Marjory and Mario.

One of her Fox shorts is known to exist, Her First Kiss (1919). It’s been preserved and put online by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

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The Fords: Patrick, John, Barbara and Mary

Kingsley also reported on a wedding this week:

If Mr. Cupid were twins he really couldn’t be any busier than he has been among the film folk. The very latest announcement is that concerning Jack Ford, Universal Director. Mr. Ford, it seems, lost his independence on Independence Day, but is glad of it. In other words, he was married to Mary Smith of New York at the San Juan Capistrano Mission. The bride is the daughter of Charles E. W. Smith of the New York Stock Exchange, and the niece of Surgeon General Rupert Blue and of Admiral Blue.

Mr. Ford managed to keep his wedding a secret until yesterday, when his joy burst all bounds and he let the story right out. After that it wasn’t hard to find out that he and Mrs. Ford would spend their honeymoon in the East, leaving this morning. They will visit Mr. Ford’s people in Maine and Mrs. Ford’s people in Washington and New York, so that both sets of parents will have a chance to look them over.

According to Ford’s biographer Joseph McBride it was “an often contentious but devoted relationship,” but it lasted until his death in 1973. They met at a Saint Patrick’s Day dance just a few months earlier. McBride said that Mary Smith was a 28-year-old trained nurse with “a salty, sarcastic wit and a taste for bootleg liquor that matched Ford’s own growing fondness.” Kingsley got one detail wrong: they couldn’t marry at a Catholic church because she was a divorced Presbyterian, so they got married at the L.A. County Courthouse (he didn’t want his very observant parents to know that). Among the reasons their marriage lasted so long was that she had no interest in being in the movies, and he kept his work and home strictly separate. She said in a 1977 interview with Anthony Slide and June Banker “I was very happy to be what I was, with a lovely home and good friends.”

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Kingsley also mentioned that there was a new trendy drink among Hollywood’s elite:

Talking about picture stars and the Alexandria, have you any mate in your house? No, no—not spouse! I mean, have you contracted the habit of drinking the new beverage, lately imported from South America, to which the picture stars are fast becoming addicts, it is said. The name is pronounced as if spelled “Mattie.”

No, mate is not a strong drink. It is a sort of tea, but it’s full of pep and if you haven’t mated, you don’t know the thrill you’re missing.

I had no idea that the mate had been a fad before — nothing is ever new! Now people tout its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, in addition to its caffeine kick. I’ll keep an eye out for other food trends in her columns, so we can know what’s coming next.

 

 

 

Steve Massa, Slapstick Divas. Albany, GA: Bear Manor Media, 2017, pp. 87-95.

Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford, New York, St. Martins, 2003.