One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had regrettable news for comedy fans:
Like Alexander, Mack Sennett, king-pin comedy maker, is sighing for new worlds to conquer. And now, to change the figure, having been the means of launching a score of his comedy girls into fame in the screen drama, Sennett himself is going to make the plunge into a wider sea. As announced yesterday through his veracious press department, Mr. Sennett is to make comedy-dramas. Of course, no one can tell what may happen later, and it may be that some time Mr. Sennett may go in for the tragedy stuff, but right now he’s contented to do semiserious stories.
In order to make his start right, Mr. Sennett is engaging the best talent for his first production, which will be called Heartbalm. . .Mack Sennett is seeking the honors that await the successful creator of legitimizing film drama.
If only comedy could get some respect! Heartbalm did get made, but it had a difficult production history under three different titles. Sennett historian Brent Walker said that it was first edited in both nine-reel and seven-reel lengths as Heartbalm, then it was cut down to a two-reeler entitled For Love or Money. When that didn’t play well (Photoplay called it “disappointing,”) it was re-edited into a six-reel feature under its final title, The Crossroads of New York. Its final negative cost was $211,191.
In 1921, Kingsley got to see one of the Heartbalm versions, and she thought it was a satire of melodramas. Her description makes it sound like a mess, but she liked it:
Mr. Sennett is not coy. He has gone to the thrilling ultimate. They’re all there, his old characters, but with the grins ironed out of their faces, and in Sunday solemn attire. Charlie Murray is a judge, but as shorn of comedy as of whiskers; even the Keystone cops are in it but turned into real administrators of justice; the fun has gone out of their walloping sticks. The villain, the hero and the heroine, in the last reels, where the villain lures the heroine into the mountain lodge, together with her poor old father, and the hero comes to rescue them, all give and endure Herculean whacks over the head and gigantic wallops amidships…The heroine, among other troubles, Pearlwhites over a 1,00 foot precipice, and the villain’s auto is knocked over a cliff. Ah, but despite the antiquity of it all, it is thrilling! But it’s not drama, but melodrama.
Peeping through almost every scene is the Sennett grin, praise be! It’s revealed in a hundred touches of mirth, sometime satiric, sometimes broadly comic as anything in one of his hokumest comedies. In any case, you’re sure to get a kick out of Heartbalm. Don’t miss it. (June 7, 1921)
According to Sennet biographer Gene Fowler, this wasn’t what Sennett intended. He really did want to make a serious drama. At the opening night,
Less than fifty feet of Heart Balm had been unwound when the audience commenced to shriek. These convulsed folk thought Sennett’s grimly conceived tale one of the funniest to emerge from the Keystone cornucopia. Sennett was startled. The world’s leading dealer in the commodity of mirth had never been misled by such a furor. Here was genuine laughter. (Father Goose, p.306-7)
Sennett, being a businessman, decided to change it into a comedy. He shot some more scenes and added new title cards. When Kingsley reviewed it as Crossroads in 1922, she approved of the changes, calling it “very much better.” Additionally:
That sparkling satire and rollicking burlesque have a very definite place on the screen nobody can deny who has the good luck to see The Crossroads of New York, which opened yesterday at Miller’s. It is a Mack Sennett opus, and marks the highest point yet reached in this form of entertainment as purveyed by Sennett or perhaps by anybody else. It upsets a lot of dramatic rules, say the high-brows, but the fellow who goes to see it will laugh and thoroughly enjoy himself, so what do high-brows matter.
The story is bult around a scheming actress, a theatrical magnate, a beautiful young girl torn from her true love, and all the rest of the well-known hokum, but sly fun is poked at all the old rubber stamp situations. Nevertheless, there is thrill enough for the thrill hounds among fans. (June 16, 1922)
It sounds wild. Unfortunately, only a fragment of it survives at the Deutsche Kinemathe, according to the Silent Film Survival Database.
Later this week, Kingsley reported on a big opportunity for an assistant director:
The Universal scenario department announces the purchase of It’s Never Too Late to Mend, by Helene Christine… Leo McCarey, who has been assistant to Tod Browning, and who has been recommended for directorship by his chief, will handle the megaphone on this production under Browning’s supervision.
This was quite a promotion for McCarey, who’d only been an assistant director for a year. The film’s title was changed to Society Secrets and it told a story was about a son so embarrassed by his old-fashioned rural parents that he didn’t want his fiancée to meet them. Disguised as a schoolteacher, she visits them, and they ask for lessons in city ways. With some up-to-date clothes they have a very nice trip to the city. The reviews were good enough; Film Daily said:
Perhaps it is a bit overdrawn and at times implausible, but it isn’t going to detract much from the picture’s appeal for Society Secrets is a really interesting glimpse into rural life and there is a sympathetic strain running through it and a genuine heart interest that will please most anybody. (February 20, 1921)
However, it failed at the box office, according to Dave Kehr and Steve Massa, and McCarey went back to being Browning’s assistant until 1923. Then he went to work for Hal Roach, where his career really took off. He spent three years directing Charley Chase and learning his craft. He had better luck with his career change then Sennett did, when he moved from making comedies like Laurel and Hardy’s Liberty (1929), the Marx Brothers’Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937) and started making dramas like Love Affair (1939) and Going My Way 1944).
However, he didn’t forget his debut. Twenty-five years later when he was casting The Bells of St. Mary’s, he called up Eva Novak and asked her to report for some retakes on Society Secrets – that’s how she found out that she’d been hired.
“Eva Novak Returns,” Motion Picture Herald, December 22, 1945, p. 9.
Gene Fowler, Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett, New York, Covici, Friede, 1934.
Brent E. Walker, Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.