Plans That Went Awry: Week of October 30th, 1920

Mack Sennett

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.

Sennett wasn’t joking!

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)

Billy Bevan, Ethel Grey Terry, and Ben Deeley in Heartbalm (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.

Leo McCarey

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.

Third Time Lucky: Week of October 23rd, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed a serious filmmaker, but she didn’t ask about his important theories about Art. Since Erich von Stroheim was publicizing his upcoming release Foolish Wives, her first question was just who are those wives? He responded with some nonsense:

The foolish wife, according to the famous Universal director, is one who not only doesn’t study her own husband, but who doesn’t study masculine psychology in general, accept certain facts, and learn how to cope with them.

“You’ll smile at the suggestion,” he said, “but I believe that girls should be taught this along with domestic economy. And they should be taught male psychology…For instance, if my wife told me I couldn’t smoke in bed I would be perfectly miserable.”

Kingsley was too polite to say: so, you mean put up and shut up? An eye-roll, not a smile, seems like a better response to his suggestion. However, she was annoyed enough to point this out:

“Mr. von Stroheim, who is now a bridegroom and has been married three times, should be something of an authority on the question of wives, shouldn’t he?”

He told her about his former wives, but lots of it wasn’t particularly true (he didn’t only lie to the press about his imaginary aristocratic origins). He said his first wife died of tuberculosis. Margaret Knox did die in 1916, but they were divorced before that; the marriage lasted from 1913-1915. According to his biographer Arthur Lennig, he couldn’t find work and they fought a lot. Stroheim said he met his second wife while working as a lifeguard at Lake Tahoe. She was supposedly from a rich Oakland family and they divorced because she wanted to accept money from her family, and he didn’t. This also wasn’t true. He met Mae Jones in New York City while working on a Douglas Fairbanks film, His Picture in the Papers. Her stepfather was a salesman, and she became a dressmaker after they divorced in July 1919, so her family wasn’t rich.

Erich and Valerie von Stroheim

However, he seems to have been truthful about his current wife. He did meet Valerie Germonprez when he played a lecherous Hun in Allan Holubar’s The Heart of Humanity (1918). She had a small part as an ambulance driver. He noticed that her costume was wrong and he helped her pick the correct uniform, then

“We at once became friends. We became engaged soon after, and I owe more than I can say to her constant companionship, advice and sympathy. I feel sure ours is really the ideal marriage.”

He was quite fortunate that he’d married her; she played an important part on his film sets according to Lennig:

Sometimes Stroheim would go into an absolute rage about some detail. At this point, his wife Valerie, always with him on the sets as a sort of steadying wheel for his moods, would try to soothe his ruffled nerves. He would never work without her. The two would talk over the problem, after which he would then return, the storm over.

They parted in 1936 when he moved to France, but they never divorced. He moved in with actress Denise Vernac in 1939 but continued to send money and “effusive notes on birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas and Easter.” Lennig doesn’t know if it was guilt or love.

In an essay entitled “Blind Biographers: The Invention of Erich von Stroheim,” Ealasaid A. Haas comes to a useful conclusion about Stroheim’s stories:

Whatever his motivation for remaking himself, he was certainly skilled at it. And no wonder – he was a gifted screenwriter, and he turned that talent to constructing his past as he wished it might have been.   One can look at it as his greatest creation, for it was not edited by other hands. For once, he had complete artistic control.

Stroheim mentioned that his next project would be based on Arthur Schnitzler’s seven one-act play cycle about the loves and disappointments of a playboy in fin de siecle Vienna, Anatol. He was probably unhappily surprised when just next week, Cecil B. De Mille announced his next film was to be The Affairs of Anatol, and he’d already chosen his cast: Gloria Swanson, Wallace Reid Wanda Hawley, Bebe Daniels and Agnes Ayers. According to De Mille biographer Robert Birchard, it was a big hit. But it’s a shame von Stroheim didn’t make it anyway – the two films would have been so different!  Stroheim was so good with louche characters.

At this point, he was on his way to the U.S.

Speaking of canonical filmmakers, Kingsley reported that one of them was trying to get his most famous film made much earlier than anybody knew:

They do say that if Carl Laemmle will let him do it, Mr. Browning is hoping to filmize that novel shocker entitled Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Tod Browning could have beat Nosferatu (1922) to the theaters by two years if he’d gotten started right away. He was still thinking about it in 1921, when Lillian Gale reported in Motion Picture News that he “recently threatened” to adapt Dracula to the screen. (“Live Notes from the Studios,” May 14, 1921, p. 3069) After that, the project doesn’t appear in the Media History Digital Library until 1930, and the rest is horror movie history. Letting the idea cook for a decade probably helped make it a better film. The play version that they ended up basing the screenplay on didn’t come out until 1924. Besides, Bela Lugosi didn’t arrive in the U.S. until December 1920.

In a review of “the good old crook comedy” Officer 666, Kingsley thought that a remarkable part of the play didn’t translate well to the screen:

A lot of the chases, unaccompanied by the dialogue of the play not only were bewildering but meaningless.

We know why this stinker needed chasing

How in the world did they louse that up? Movie chases had been successfully filmed since L’Arroseur Arrosé  in 1895! Has anybody ever been confused by a Keystone Kops chase? The film is lost, so we can’t see exactly how it went wrong, but J.S. Dickerson in Motion Picture News (November 13, 1920, p. 3811) mentioned that they used lines directly from the play as intertitles, and:

The result is a picture that interests only so far as reading the script would interest and has a handicap of much running in and out by various characters and the squad of police, that will be confusing to those who do not read titles quickly or are not familiar with the stage version.

So there were too many different groups chasing and being chased. It sounds bad indeed.

Arthur Lennig, Stroheim, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Throwback Theater: Week of October 16th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an experiment:

“In order to complete the renovation of the house, Walker Theater has postponed its opening date until Saturday. The first showing of the Cinema Short Story Magazine will then be given.

The Walker is one of the first theaters in America to adopt the policy of a motion-picture magazine, but it is the original unit in what is to be a chain of twenty-four theaters. Adventure, travel, news events, comedy, drama, science, art, industry, literature, natural history, scenic pictures are some of the features which the magazine is to exhibit.”

San Diego’s Cabrillo Celebration, sometime between 1918-1930

Promising “a picture show that’s different,” the first two-hour long program included “views of the Cabrillo Celebration, the football game between U.S.C and Stanford, cartoon comedies, travel pictures, and a number of other features, including Herbert Kaufman’s miniature drama, Content, a quaint oriental study with Leslie King as the star, supported by a full Chinese cast.” In addition to shorts produced by studios, the theater had equipped camera cars, to photograph local events.

This was a great idea twenty years earlier, when film programs were a collection of shorts, and it worked well again in 1929, when the first American newsreel theater was founded (they lasted until the mid-1960’s, when news on television replaced them). But it looks like 1920 was not the time for it because the Cinema Short Story Magazine format only lasted for nine days, October 23-31. The Walker went back to showing feature films, and the chain of theaters never happened. If you’d like to know about the theater’s history, visit the Los Angeles Theaters blog.

This week, Kingsley got to complain a lot about The Hope. Her review was a catalog of what seemed old-fashioned in 1920:

It’s vintage stuff, and the film spirit of 1914 has not improved with age as does another kind of spirit. The Hope has the overdue mortgage, with the folks put out on ten minutes’ notice. Later playwrights have studied law more and know that common law doesn’t permit any such things being done. Then there are the letters put into wrong envelopes; in fact, the play makes use of as many notes as President Wilson. There’s the wronged girls and the villain who intercepts letters, and other dear old bits of hokum.

It sounds like it wasn’t even trashy enough to be fun. Adapted from a Drury Lane melodrama, the plot involved an impoverished aristocrat courting a young woman only for her father’s money. After he comes into an inheritance, he jilts her. Pregnant, she runs away to Italy. There Kingsley found something novel to be appalled by:

But the picture has one great original touch. That’s the earthquake. It’s the most singularly behaving earthquake in all history. For it doesn’t quake at all. You see the volcano in the distance, and all about the actors the walls topple and fall, but there’s nary a real quake or shake. Also all sorts of things fall around the hero and heroine, and they aren’t hurt, but a puny post knocks the villain down and does for him.

Kingsley and her readers would know all about that: in June there’d been a 4.9 quake whose epicenter was in Inglewood, about 12 miles southwest of downtown L.A. Critics in New York didn’t find fault with the ridiculous natural phenomena, but they agreed with her about the movie overall. Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News (September 4, 1920) wrote:

The regulation plot, presenting the orthodox hero, the outraged heroine and the super villainous heavy, in a conflict for the love-stakes, is not the kind of material which will appeal to the patron with twentieth century ideas. . .The Hope is old stuff. It will probably appeal to those who cater to time worn melodrama.

A complete copy of this film has been preserved at the Eastman House.


“The Line Up,” Los Angeles Herald, October 23, 1920.

“Notes on the Theaters,” Los Angeles Herald, October 21, 1920.

One Smart Woman: Week of October 9th, 1920

Jim Colosimo and Dale Winter

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley left out the most important detail of a story she reported:

When that great New York hit Irene comes to the Mason sometime this fall, it will have as one of its stars a highly fascinating and interesting personality, no less a person than Dale Winter, the widow of “Big Jim” Colosimo, and who was formerly of stage and cabaret fame, and has just come back to the fold in the new musical comedy hit after an absence of many months.

Dale Winter’s story reads like an O. Henry yarn. She went to Chicago six years ago as a member of a sister act which became stranded there. Having her family dependent on her, she got a job as singer in Colosimo’s Café. The owner of the café found her a great drawing card, because of her beauty and voice, and because of her beauty he found it necessary to give special instructions to his waiters to look out that no patron annoyed her with his attentions. After being divorced from his wife, Colosimo became attentive to the lovely Miss Winter, and later married her. That was last spring. He settled a fortune on her.

But within a week after the pair returned to Chicago from the honeymoon trip the café keeper was found murdered in his office. Thereupon the bride refused to keep the money settled on her, insisting on surrendering the fortune to two brothers of Colosimo whom he had not seen for many years. She kept nothing, not even the half-interest in the café, which yielded $50,000 a year. The widow dropped from sight for a while, but came to New York a month ago, took a modest apartment, and started preparing a vaudeville act.

1917 ad

You’ve probably already guessed what’s missing from the story: “Chicago café keeper” was a euphemism for “mobster.” By walking away from the money and disappearing for a bit, Dale Winter got to live 76 more years. She was only 19 when her husband died, but smart enough not to touch the Mafia’s money.

It wasn’t only Kingsley who wouldn’t write the words “organized crime” in her column: the words simply didn’t appear together in the L.A. Times in the early 1920’s.* The word “mob” was only applied to groups of protesters, and “Mafia” didn’t appear at all.  One group’s name, the Black Hand, was used when members were in court for kidnapping, murder or extortion charges. So she wasn’t necessarily naïve or ill-informed, she might have been following the newspaper’s style guide. People were probably used to reading between the lines. It’s also possible that before the crime movies of the 1930’s or 1970’s (and T.V. shows of the 2000’s) Los Angeleans were less aware of organized crime.


The Chicago Daily Tribune was much less reticent when they reported on the murder (May 12, 1920):

“Big Jim” Colosimo was shot to death in his café yesterday afternoon by a person who came upon him alone, sent a single bullet through his brain and then sped away unobserved. By his death Mrs. Dale Winter Colosimo, his wife for only three weeks, was widowed. Mrs. Vittoria Moresco Colosimo, divorced only a month, became the feature in a city-wide search by the police.

Chicago’s underworld was in turmoil. The Enright murder, the Coleman murder, all the crimes that have emphasized Chicago’s Camorra as a thing beyond the law, all came under police scrutiny for clues to this latest and boldest of assassinations. Only the slayer saw Jim Colosimo die.

The murder is still officially unsolved, but a 1987 Chicago Tribune article had some theories:

Some say Al Capone did it; others, New York gunman Frankie Yale…The most popular theory is that Big Jim’s nephew, Johnny Torrio, thinking his liaison with Winter made his uncle “go soft” and that a “reformed” Colosimo would be unable to hold the city’s crime syndicate together, ordered the assassination.

After Winter lay low for a few months, she was overheard practicing for her act in New York and got hired for a touring company of the hit musical Irene. It opened in Springfield, Massachusetts on September 29, 1920 and didn’t make its way to Los Angeles until June 1921. Times critic Edwin Schallert thought it was outstanding: “No mistake, Irene must have come from a paradise of musical shows.” He was also impressed by the leading lady:

Dale Winter’s Irish eyes were smiling most alluringly last night…You’ll like her every minute that she sings and when she talks for she starts the show all wound up like an eight-day clock.

Dale Winter, Henry Duffy

The article about the show before it opened still thought the most interesting thing about her was her murdered husband, retelling her refusal to accept any inheritance (including fifteen barrels of fine old whisky) without referring to the mob. Eventually articles stopped mentioning her first husband, particularly after she married actor and stock company owner Henry Duffy in 1924. They went on to own nine theaters on the West Coast and Winter often appeared in plays ranging from The Patsy to Michael and Mary at the El Capitan in Los Angeles. They had a son and a daughter. Their company went bankrupt in 1941 and they divorced in 1945. She married twice more and died in San Bernardino in 1985.

If you’d like to know more about the case, visit the Mob Museum’ blog.

*They printed the phrase “organized crime” once between 1920 and 1921, in a short article imagining how terrible it would be if criminals were as organized as the I.W.W. labor union (the Times was rabidly anti-union at the time). Ironic, hunh?

“Colosimo Slain: Seek Ex-Wife Just Returned,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 12, 1920.

“Henry Duffy, Producer of 2,000 Plays, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1961.

“Is Heiress To Whisky By Barrels” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1920.

June Sawyers, “Way We Were,” Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1987.

Delayed comings and goings: Week of October 2nd, 1920

His travels were more comfortable than this (The Immigrant 1917)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had news about the world’s most famous film star’s plans. On Wednesday she had a report from New York City that:

Charlie Chaplin will make a trip to Europe before coming home and may remain there to produce pictures several months, at least. The comedian is anxious to lease his studio here, but, it is said, wants $1250 a week for it, which is considered a rather exorbitant price by those desiring studio space.

By Friday he’d already had a taker:

That Charlie Chaplin does not intend to return to Los Angeles for at least a year is evidenced from the fact that yesterday, through his brother Sydney Chaplin, he closed negotiations with Ben. H. Cohen, manager of the Carter De Haven Productions, for the lease of the Chaplin studio for one year. The lease takes effect today and the rental to be paid is $1250 per week.

According to word of friends yesterday, Chaplin will go abroad as soon as his affairs are straightened out in regard to his latest picture, The Kid, and after some manner of settlement is arranged with Mildred Harris Chaplin.

Chaplin in London, 1921

He’d been uncharacteristically absent from her column for the last few months, busy with both finishing his feature-length film The Kid and his divorce negotiations. However, by Saturday he’d already changed his mind about going to Europe. He still had a contract with First National to make three more shorts. He did get his European vacation, but not until September 1921.


Chaplin quit the negotiations after he “heard disquieting rumors coming from the camp of his wife’s lawyers,” so she proceeded with the divorce in Los Angeles. It was granted on November 12th. Chaplin didn’t attend. He went back to work on January 18, 1921, taking his studio back from Carter De Haven, who had finished shooting The Girl in the Taxi, and only needed a place to edit it. He planned to make all three shorts that he owed First National in the next five months, but only The Idle Class got finished. De Haven went on to work with Chaplin as the assistant director on Modern Times (1936) and the assistant producer on The Great Dictator (1940).

Astonishingly, the lease is available online through the Chaplin Archive. That man saved everything! Somebody misinformed Kingsley: the rent was $650 per week.

D.W. Griffith

She also had an update on another United Artist:

That D.W. Griffith is returning to the West to produce was learned yesterday from authoritative sources. The famous director will arrive for the premier of Way Down East at Clune’s Auditorium October 18. The exact date of his arrival is not announced, but it will be several days before the premier of the picture which the critics have universally declared to be a masterpiece, is surmised.

Just where Mr. Griffith will set up his camera is not yet known, but it is reasonable to suppose that he will work at the old studio on Sunset Boulevard made famous for the workshop in which were filmed The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Broken Blossoms. With Mr. Griffith, or soon after, will come members of his company, including Carol Dempster, Richard Barthelmess and other players, together with William Bitzer, his cameraman, and others. Announcement of his picture plans will be made later.

Those authoritative sources turned out not to be so: Griffith didn’t even come out for the premier of Way Down East, let alone return to filmmaking here. He stayed at his Mamaroneck, New York studio until 1925. She was always so hopeful he’d be back!


Griffith didn’t need to come to the premier to help publicize it: the film was a huge hit, “breaking all paid admission records in the history of motion pictures” according to Moving Picture World (October 30, 1920). They even changed which theater it was shown in, from Clune’s to the Philharmonic. As usual, Kingsley didn’t get to go. Her boss Edwin Schallert did, and he couldn’t have praised it more highly:

Making the forces of nature subject to the all-embracing eye of the camera, D.W. Griffith, with a general’s power of organization, has marshalled a new wealth of pictorial beauty to shine before the bedazzled eyes of the beholder in Way Down East, which had its first presentation last night at the Philharmonic Auditorium. The feature represents his annual tour de force in the drama of the cinema, and it again marks a triumphant phase of the director’s genius as an innovator.

“Chaplin to Return Here and Get Busy,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1920.

“Mildred Harris Chaplin Gets Divorce and Cash,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1920.

Grace Kingsley, “Charlie Chaplin Resumes,” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1921.