Cruel Satires?: Week of September 25th 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that an actress took great offense at a musical revue called Satires of 1920:

At last the awful gulf between stage and screen has been bridged, and those cruel satires on motion pictures which Fanchon and Marco use in their revue at the Mason are going to be toned down, if Carmel Myers has anything to say about it. In fact, so hurt was the young Universal star last Monday night when she saw the awful things Fanchon and Marco have done to her pet artistic medium, that Miss Myers invited the two artists over to Universal to see for themselves if picture players don’t sometimes express great things and all that. The satirists went, had their pictures taken with Miss Myers, promised, cross their hearts and hope to die, they’d cut some of the venom out of their satires.

I suspect that they didn’t change much: their two-week run in Los Angeles was ending on Saturday, so it only had a few days to continue to offend Miss Myers. The show went on to tour all over the United States, from towns like North Platte, Nebraska to cities like New York.

Now Satires is mostly remembered because it introduced the song “Ain’t We Got Fun.”

The show didn’t bother other people in Hollywood. When Kingsley reviewed it, she said “the first half of the show is devoted to a burlesque of motion picture activities, which was greatly enjoyed by the big number of professionals in the house.” Overall, she thought it was “full of pep and spice and everything nice” even if some of the lines were so old that “surely some of those jokes have long been household words in the best phonograph parlors.” She blamed the man who wrote the show’s book, veteran vaudeville write Jean Havez, who was also writing gags for Buster Keaton at the time.

Carmel Myers’ annoyance didn’t hurt them: Fanchon and Marco went on to a long career in the film industry. Mary Mallory wrote a detailed biography of them. The Wolff siblings went on to stage live prologs to films for the Pacific Coast Theater chain, and in 1928 they were hired by the Fox Studios to make shorts. Fanchon Wolff Simon also choreographed musical numbers in films until the 1950’s. Her son, William Simon Jr., maintains a website about them.


Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Penalty starring Lon Chaney. She’d been tremendously impressed by Chaney since The Price of Silence (1916) and his work in this film was even better. It was:

one of the finest characterizations the screen has ever seen, viz.: Lon Chaney’s portraying of Blizzard in Gouverneur Morris’s The Penalty at the California. I cannot indeed imagine any actor of either stage or screen interpreting the legless and contradictory-natured Blizzard with a finer artistry, discrimination and intelligence than does Chaney. His acting, in fact, heresy though it may sound, in my estimation ranks with Barrymore’s in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Morris’s Blizzard was the embodiment of a terrible vitality, mesmerizing power, love of art, imagination, and sardonic humor, blended with sensuality, brutality, and fiendish ingenuity. Yet men and women who came under his sway loved him. The portrayal of that nature and its acts was Chaney’s big task, and he accomplished it. Nay, more. Even more than Morris made you believe it in his written story, Chaney makes you believe it on the screen.


Now The Penalty “is considered by many critics to be one of Chaney’s finest performance and certainly one of his best films,” according to Chaney expert Jon Mirsalis (it’s available in DVD and Blu-Ray). Current film historian Fritzi Kramer likes it as much as Kingsley did, but she noticed part of his technique that Kingsley missed:

Blizzard is a complex character. He is intelligent, witty and has a shred of sentimentality still clinging around the edges of his personality. Chaney captures all this and, due to his extreme ability to control his own body, makes the audience truly believe that he is an amputee. Blizzard’s lair is full of ropes and ladders and poles, devices designed for a man shortened by the loss of his legs and with his arms built up through constant use. Chaney uses these devices casually, as if he has been living with them for years. They are not props, they are part of his world. (So many actors have attempted this sort of characterization and failed that I hardly need to emphasize how impressive this is.) This ability to utterly inhabit his characters and pour himself into their physicality is, I think, Chaney’s single greatest asset.

She concluded that it’s not only one of her favorite Chaney films, it’s one of her all-time favorite silent films.

She became less demure (Rodeo)

In other dance news, Kingsley visited Theodore Kosloff’s dance school once again, but this time she saw the girls’ classes where “miniature Mary Pickfords are turning into split-pint Pavlovas.” Among notes on Altah Behrend from the Booth Tarkington ‘Edgar’ shorts and the currently-at-Sennett Madelaine Parker, she mentioned that “Agnes and Margaret De Mille are two pretty, demure and clever little girls, daughters of William De Mille, who are going to walk off with class honors if the others don’t watch out.”

She even got her own stamp in 2004!

That’s exactly what happened, at least for Agnes. She became a Broadway choreographer and she was credited with being the first to integrate story and dance in Oklahoma! (1943). Her other work included Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947) and Paint Your Wagon (1951). According to her autobiography Dance to the Piper, things didn’t begin so well. When she was 13, she auditioned for Kosloff and “he said my knees were weak, my spine curved, that I was heavy for my age and had ‘no juice’ meaning not limber. But he took me on.” Unlike Kingsley’s report, De Mille said “the plain truth is I was the worst pupil in the class.” Nevertheless, by the time she was 14 she felt that she’d found her life’s work so she kept going.


‘An Epidemic of Epidermis’: Week of September 18th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noticed another trend that would make the 1920’s so different from the staid Edwardian times: the new ‘cloth famine’ in the movies:

Heigho, summer is gone and the bumper crop of Godiva photodramas is about ready to harvest! Didn’t I behold a scene in a Priscilla Dean picture, the other day out at Universal, in which a man posed as a statue wearing only a simple coating of bronze and a shield, and a woman on the same set, also posing as a statue, didn’t wear any shield at all, not even a dress shield?

She was able to trace the regression of clothing from the stage to the movies:

How it crept upon us, this undress drama! We are crediting naughty old Paris with it, but it really sneaked in via the species of Follies known as morality plays. Vide Experience, The Wanderer, Everywoman and others. Next we showed our ladies nude, but kept ‘em in their own bathrooms. After that the wide, wide ocean became their playground, as in Capt. Peacock’s Neptune’s Bride.

However, not all kinds of films got to participate:

All the big directors are Mack Sennetting now-a-days. Only, of course, when it’s comedy, they have to put something on the girls, but when it’s serious drama with a moral, it’s perfectly al right to have all their ladies trotting about as the naked truth.

So if they’re wearing clothes, it’s a comedy

The new, more permissive standards didn’t particularly bother Miss Kingsley, but that didn’t stop her from letting some of the air out of pretension:

Curious, by the way, how many things a nude woman can illustrate, according to the directors. With a few carefully placed bead and some thing-um-bobs the dancer can illustrate anything from the legend that truth always wins out in the end to an argument that you shouldn’t eat pie for breakfast.

It’s really nice of the directors, though, because we do get the moral better that way.

Wallace Beery in Last of the Mohicans

Un-hunh. I bet that’s exactly what the teenaged boys in the audience thought. Nevertheless, at least the new standards were equal opportunity. She wrote: “Why, they’re even undressing the men these days!” after learning of 500 scantily clad young men in the upcoming The Last of the Mohicans, and the male extras “clothed with smiles and a few well-chose beads” in a Jacques Jaccard South Sea Island story. Fair is fair!

Otis Skinner, Elinor Fair in Kismet

Kingsley didn’t forget to mention the ones who had to suffer for the directors’ art—the poor performers:

They do really get cold sometimes. I heard an assistant director say to a girl on the Kismet set one cool morning:

“Look here, kid, we can’t give you no close-up: you got gooseflesh! Quit shivering, can’t you? This ain’t no shimmy-shaking contest, this ain’t!”

Actresses were also suffering from a new plot point: heroines’ new terrible compulsion to hop into water outdoors. As soon as they saw water, there was

nothing to do but she must take off her clothes and get into that brook. And it wasn’t Saturday night, either. Of course the hero comes along. No matter how many pictures that girl sees in which the hero happens along when the heroine is bathing in the pool, she never seems to learn the lesson.

The hero couldn’t possibly fall in love if he didn’t see her in the altogether, it seems. Kingsley asked an expert about what this kind of scene was like:

Does the actress like that bathing-pool business? She does not. I asked Ruth Roland the other day about it, and she exclaimed: “Like it? Heaven forbid! It may look all nice; but I give you my word it is always dirty; there is green scum on the top, and the place is full of wiggly pollywogs! Ugh! No girl that wasn’t a congenital idiot ever would go into that pool if she didn’t have to!”

Aren’t you glad you’re not a dramatic actress in the 1920’s?


This article was such a hit that Kingsley was able to expand it and sell it to Picture Play Magazine, where it ran in February 1921 as “The Naughty Nude New Year.” However, the editor felt the need to dump cold water all over it. Just a few pages later “The Observer” column said:

Looking at it from a serious point of view, we do not believe that the new year is going to be quite as nude as predications would have it…the successful producer wants his pictures to be shown in the best theaters, and those are the theaters that want the steady patronage of clean Americans. Indecent pictures play in dirty theaters, and the producers are few and far between who set out to make pictures for that sort of place.

He’s going to be in for a shock as the decade goes on!



Early Edutainment: Week of September 11th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw a documentary that was extraordinarily entertaining:

“Once in a while real life outstrips the movies. One of the most remarkable features that was ever filmed is being shown at the Palace. Shipwrecked Among Cannibals is the title, and for a real thriller this picture is 100 per cent entertainment. The picture was taken among the Kia Kia head hunters of Dutch New Guinea, by two American motion-picture men who were shipwrecked on the shores of cannibal land. Their introduction to the natives, the manner in which they were received, the cannibals bearing down upon them along the shore, a surprise attack, the cannibal slaughter ceremony, the head dance, the Kia Kia children with human skulls as their playthings and every type of savage warrior are shown in this remarkable film, with which the two men returned to civilization.”

Alas, the thrilling bits weren’t true: the shipwreck was fiction, and the ‘cannibal’ attack was scripted, according to Leonard Maltin’s Classic Film Guide. Furthermore, indigenous people in New Guinea had abandoned cannibalism in the previous century. Nevertheless, the rest of the hour-long film showed American audiences parts of the world they otherwise would have never gotten to see, including Javanese volcanoes, a tiger hunt in Thailand, and tribal customs of Borneo.


The two motion-picture men were William Alder of the Southern California Academy of Sciences and Edward Laemmle of the Universal Film Company (its president, Carl Laemmle, was his uncle). They left on a 13-month expedition from Universal City on April 17, 1919 and they also visited Japan, China, Indonesia, Australia and the South Sea Islands. It was often hard going even without a shipwreck, for instance, when they sailed up the Baram River in Borneo:

This trip entailed many hardships, for after reaching the head of navigation, they embarked in native boats, practically cutting their way through the jungle, and walking the last forty miles through swamps and dense undergrowth.  (“Expedition in Fruitful,” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1920)

After they returned to Los Angeles on May 22, 1920, they quickly got their film ready for its New York premier in early July. The critics there were just as enthusiastic as Kingsley was; The New York Evening Sun said,

“For realism, it outstrips the wildest scenario ever drafted. It is one of the most thrilling films ever displayed here.”

So it looks like it wasn’t widely known that it was part-scripted (but honestly, who stops to film when you’re being chased by angry locals?) Shipwrecked is lost, so we can’t see how plausible it was, or how much it would make modern documentarians and anthropologists cringe. Of course, we’re no better now: some people believe ‘reality’ television is true.

The ad campaign made sure that nobody thought it was a dull educational travelogue:

Or did the chief say “On no, not more anthropologists! Go study yourselves!”
Happily, this ad was wrong. Indigenous people in Papua-New Guinea have been able to keep their traditions alive.


The ads really worked: according the Universal, Shipwrecked Among Cannibals was their first film to make a million dollars.


The trip wasn’t a total loss for recording something about indigenous people’s customs. William Alder wrote two books based on his travels, The Isle of Vanishing Men (1922) and Men of the Inner Jungle (1924). Alder had a life of great variety. Born in Oil City, Pennsylvania on July 28, 1886, after high school in Chicago he spent three seasons touring in vaudeville as a magician. Then he settled down in Cleveland where he helped install theater equipment. By 1910 he’d become a portrait photographer in Rock Island, Illinois before he moved to Los Angeles and switched to moving pictures. He worked for several production companies, including Sterling, Fred Balshofer, Kennedy, Quality Pictures and Triangle-Ince.

After the expedition he also wrote a novel, The Lagoon of Desire, which he adapted and filmed in Tahiti as Fire Bride (1922). Then he became an inventor, patenting devices that increased heat transfer and measured sound, as well as a camera attachment that simulated 3-D in moving pictures with the use of revolving mirrors. Cinematographer Gregg Toland shot tests using it in 1935 and he wrote in the New York Times that the images were “startlingly clear,” but the method didn’t take off. Alder retired in Aptos, California (near Santa Cruz) and wrote a book of art criticism, Peril on Parnassus (1954) (he disliked Modernism and Picasso intensely). He died on January 9, 1956 in Ventura, California.


This week, we learned that actress Louise Fazenda could really keep a secret. Kingsley reported:

Louise Fazenda, who has just returned from making personal appearances in San Francisco speaking in connection with the presentation of Mack Sennett’s Married Life, is rumored to be about to find out all about what she is talking about. If you get me.

Fazenda was already married, but Miss Kingsley (and her readers) had no idea. Her husband was Sennett director Noel M. Smith and they’d been wed since 1919. Fazenda biographer Lea Stans  doesn’t know why it was secret, and the two separated in 1923 and divorced in 1926.




Taking Movies Seriously: Week of September 4th, 1920

George Bernard Shaw

One hundred years ago this week, George Bernard Shaw made some surprising appearances in Grace Kingsley’s columns. To introduce her interview with Cecil B. DeMille, she wrote:

I might call him the George Bernard Shaw of the films. But that’s too absurdly unfair to him. When a man molds a new element to new art forms, he deserves to have a fresh niche all to himself, not be crowded in behind some other fellow in his little old niche.

Now, DeMille’s work would never be compared to Shaw, even though some of his early films like Male and Female (1919) deal with class differences, and they both made social satires. But DeMille’s Biblical epics have crowded out his early films in most people’s memories.

She described DeMille as “a picturesque figure, in his khaki-colored trousers, puttees and cream-colored silk shirt (it positively wouldn’t be Cecil DeMille without that sort of sartorial scenery).

However, that Kingsley would compare him to the preeminent playwright of his time shows how movies were being taken more seriously than before. Some directors were regarded as artists, with their every pronouncement attended to.


And pay attention to him she did, when she visited the set where he was busy directing his latest film about ‘the marriage problem,’ Forbidden Fruit. Before getting an earful about the bad old prudish days when granny wouldn’t speak of nightgowns, she asked him about the themes of his films, and he said he wanted to be widely appealing:

“People ask me why I make so many plays with sex themes. I do it, I tell them, because sex is universal—it’s the one thing that everybody has. Marriage is therefore the best theme for a play, because it’s a relation involving sex, a relation which everybody has had, has, is going to have, or wants to have. So those in it are interested, and those outside are interested in finding out about it.”

That does sound better than saying he wants to sell lots of tickets, I suppose. Forbidden Fruit was more serious than his recent hits like Why Change Your Husband? While Kingsley promised, “it has enough comedy to be classed in with his former bright satires,” the story of a seamstress married to a wastrel gambler-turned-blackmailer really wasn’t funny and it wasn’t as successful.

Bernard Shaw himself made an appearance in Kingsley’s column later this week. Jesse Lasky had announced director Donald Crisp’s departure for London on Wednesday, and on Friday Kingsley reported on their production plans:

Now watch out for something good! Donald Crisp, Famous Players-Lasky director is going to direct a film version of Bernard Shaw’s Cashel Bryon’s Profession over in London, and Shaw is going to be right there to supervise. Oh well, Crisp went all through the Boer War!

This project never happened, and Shaw waited for sound before any of his works were filmed. Cashel Bryon’s Profession was the story of a boxer ashamed of his job. Written in 1882-3 but not published until 1886, it was Shaw’s second to last novel. In 1884, he quit novel writing and was hired to be a book and music (and later, theater) critic while he worked on his playwriting skills. His first success came in 1894 with Arms and the Man.

He did direct and appear in Buster Keaton’s The Navigator 

There’s no evidence that Donald Crisp ever even met Shaw, however, there’s quite enough evidence that he was nowhere near South Africa in 1899-1902. Crisp told lots of lies, and digging them all up was some of the most fun I had when I wrote Buster Keaton’s Crew. During the Boer War he was living with his parents in his birthplace, the Bow neighborhood of London, and working as a carman (the driver of a vehicle to transport goods). He later made up stories about his time at Lasky’s in London. In 1942 he claimed to have spied on the Bolsheviks in Russia for British Intelligence then, flying in and out of Russia twice a week. How he managed that on top of making eight films he didn’t explain.


But his very best lie came later, after he’d gone back to acting full-time: that he was from Scotland, born in Aberfeldy in Perth. He didn’t become Scottish until the late 1930’s. The first mention I’ve found of Crisp’s Northern origins was in Hedda Hopper’s column in March 1938. While praising his acting in the film Jezebel, she wrote “his Scotch heather got a bit into the Southern dialect, but that added zest to me.” He seems to have take up his new nationality with a vengeance; later that year, L.A. Times columnist E.V. Durling wrote “Donald’s a Scot and as the party nears its close insists on reciting such gems as “Wee Laddie’s First Soiree,” “Kirsty Lindsay’s Goose,” “A Flae in the Lug,” “Tibble and the Minister,” and “The Goal Keeper’s Ghost.”

I did wonder why he wanted to be Scottish instead of English. One reason he might have done it was to change his image as he grew older, so he could continue to get work. If so, it was a terrific success. After he proclaimed his Scottishness, he got lots of crusty yet warmhearted patriarchal roles, including the one that brought him an Academy Award: Gwilym Morgan, the Welsh father in How Green Was My Valley. He had similar roles in several Lassie movies throughout the 1940’s, and National Velvet. Or maybe he just liked spinning stories and seeing what he could get away with.

1942 acting Oscars: Gary Cooper, Joan Fontaine, Mary Astor and Donald Crisp

He’s still getting away with it, sometimes. His IMDB page is a mixture of correct birth information and wild stories about his ‘military service.’ He actually only served in the United States Army Reserves during World War II. He toured the country, selling war bonds with Sergeant Gale Sondergaard. He wore his uniform when he picked up his Oscar.