Merry Men: Week of November 27th, 1920

So merry!

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley overheard a conversation about an opera in an unlikely place:

Among the patrons of art who will see Robin Hood during the coming week at the Mason are Douglas Fairbanks and his two merry men, Bull Montana and Spike Robinson. They were talking about it out at Fairbanks’ studio the other day.

“I’m going to see Robin Hood,” declared Doug, “because I played in it once. I carried a bow and arrow, and as my real bow hadn’t come at the last minute, I rigged up a clothes hanger. But it did pretty well. Anyhow, I hit another of Robin Hood’s merry souls of Sherwood Forest in the eye with it.”

“Who was that guy Robin Hood, anyhow?” demanded Spike Robinson. “Wha’s they call him Robin for?”

“Don’t you know who Robin Hood was?” cried Bull Montana triumphantly. “Why, he was the original Raffles, the gentleman robber. That’s why they calls him Robin; he was always robbin’ somebody.”

Bull Montana and Douglas Fairbanks

The jokes didn’t improve, but Montana went on to question whether everything Mr. Hood stole from the rich was really given to the poor, and to speculate on how successful a Robin Hood Pictures Company would have been (Hood would have properly threatened producers to make them pay bills on time anyway). Montana thought that all of that legitimate money would have reformed the gang.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an amazing discovery of the origins of Fairbanks’ 1922 film. He was a stage actor for fifteen years, so it seemed perfectly plausible that he worked in some low-rent version of Robin Hood without proper props. However, it just wasn’t so. I checked the trade journals in Lantern and the newspapers in Chronicling America and didn’t find him in any Robin Hood cast lists. Furthermore, his biographer Tracey Goessel didn’t turn up any such engagement in her scrupulously researched book. However, she did mention that he could be…untruthful about his early days. It is nice to know that he didn’t really hit somebody in the eye with a clothes hanger/bow.

On the Robin Hood set

Actually, Goessel said that director Allan Dwan brought the project to him in late 1921, and he had to work hard to convince Fairbanks to make it instead of The Virginian (p.281-2). Dwan began by having an impromptu archery contest near where Fairbanks was working. Because he loved anything athletic, Doug wanted to learn how to shoot a bow and gave it a try.  Dwan showed him and explained the nifty tricks he could do with it, then he said “That’s Robin Hood…That’s the guy we want you interested in.” Fairbanks replied: “I don’t know. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” Later he got the idea of combining his interest in the Crusades with the Robin Hood myth. After he got talked out of playing Richard the Lionheart instead of Robin, they were on their way to making great big hit that was also a critical success.

At least we learned that the story crossed his mind in 1920, and that people had time to shoot the breeze on film sets then.

When Fairbanks and company went to the Mason, they got to see a very good show. The version of Robin Hood that inspired the conversation was a light opera in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan by Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith that had debuted in 1890 and was revived several times since then. Kingsley herself went on Monday along with “a house full of enthusiastic music lovers,” and her review was glowing:

Robin Hood itself is imagination and fine music, the letting us into a joyous mimic world, which makes a joke of life, and yet retains the semblance of artistic dignity from which the latter day jazz has cut us entirely off, and Robin Hood, as sung by the Ralph Dunbar Company, is a production of superior beauty and quality. There’s a really gloriously-voiced chorus of men and women who add incalculably to the charm of the piece, and the old romantic tale of the dashing bandit of middle ages, whose exploits were subject of song even in his own day, fitted to the composer’s brilliant and melodious numbers, was played in a fashion to rival the old Bostonian production in its best days.

Walter Hiers, Colleen Moore and T. Roy Barnes in So Long Letty

Kingsley reported on another conversation, this one from the set of the recently opened So Long Letty. Colleen Moore asked co-star Walter Hiers about his thoughts on dieting:

“Don’t believe in it.” replied Hiers. “Ethically, morally and physically it’s wrong. Besides, directors take my figure into consideration when they cast me for a picture. Anyhow, dieting’s all bosh.”

“I’m on a diet,” the winsome Miss Moore informed him. “My doctor was very strict in giving me my orders. He insists that every day I eat candy, cream puffs, all kinds of pastries, lots of sweet stuff—”

“Say,” Hiers interrupted, ”where’s that doctor’s office?”

Who knew: I’m on the Colleen Moore diet! Enjoy your leftover Thanksgiving pie and you can be, too.

Tracey Goessel, The First King of Hollywood, Chicago Review Press, 2016.

A-Ministering They Went: Week of November 20th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recounted a story with a moral: don’t try to find a minister on Thanksgiving Day. According to Fox Sunshine comedy director Hampton Del Ruth, who persisted in his mission to marry actress Alta Allen (nee Crowin), “the paucity of preachers was marvelous indeed.” Kingsley wrote:

In fact, before Mr. Del Ruth found a preacher, he began to fear that the souls of the community were not being cared for as they should be. Incidentally, Miss Crowin changed her religion several times during what might be called the holy chase. And now she doesn’t know what kind of minister married her!

Alta Allen

At first, she was set on having a Presbyterian minister, because when she was a little girl she used to go to a Presbyterian Sunday-school, where they gave her bright-colored cards for being good. So the couple looked up a certain Presbyterian minister’s name in the telephone book, called up his church, but the assistant pastor gave her the sad news that the man she sought had passed to his reward six months. Then, still set on finding a Presbyterian, they tried another, but he said he was going to the races, and unless they could be at his house in five minutes, he couldn’t tie the knot.

They were three miles away so they couldn’t make it. Right there was where Miss Crowin changed her religion. She almost became an Atheist, but thinking better of it, she and Mr. Del Ruth tried St. Paul’s Cathedral, but the janitor was the only man at home, and he said the clergyman had gone to the football game. Time was fleeting…So he called on his old friend [Fox publicity director] Carl Downing, and once more they went a-ministering.

Mr. Downing suggested they just drive nonchalant-like down Sunset Boulevard and sneak up on the first church they came to, in the hope of thwarting what seemed a determined adverse fate. Three churches were visited, and at one place they did find the pastor, but just as he was getting on his robes of office, the telephone called to tell him he was a daddy, and away he went.

Finally, wearied and jaded, the two had grown so tired and cross, Miss Crowin said, they had almost decided they didn’t want to be married at all, when they spied a little brown church, which gave the cheering news that the pastor lived next door. His name was Dr. P.P. Carroll, and he was in a cheerful and quiescent mood. So the two lovers were wed.

It seems that in 1920, despite this evidence, you couldn’t just crash into an officiant for an instant wedding! (Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow, 1920).* Gee whiz.

In case you were wondering, Rev. Carroll was a Methodist. This saga could have been a two-reel comedy. If you’re a Silent Comedy Watch Party fan, you might notice a resemblance to Lyons and Moran’s Waiting at the Church (1919), except they were hunting down a different member of the wedding party.

They worked together on The Marriage Chance (1922)

This was Hampton Del Ruth’s third wedding, so he should have been better at it by then. Born on September 7, 1879 in Delaware, by 1910 he was living in San Francisco with his first wife, Grace. She was a cashier in a hotel while he worked as a clerk. He moved to Los Angeles the following year and became an actor at smaller studios, then in 1914 Mack Sennet hired him. At Keystone, he was promoted to scenario editor, then supervising director and production manager. His second wife was Keystone actress Helen Carlyle. In 1918 he became the production manager at the Fox Sunshine Studio, where he met actress Alta Allen. This was her first marriage, which is not surprising, because she was only 16 years old. Nevertheless, they stayed together for quite a long time: they were still married when he filled out his World War 2 draft registration card in 1942.  At that point, he was working for the Hal Roach Studio. After he stopped directing in 1928, he’d been a screenwriter, novelist, and playwright. I haven’t found a record of a divorce, but she wasn’t listed as a survivor in his 1958 obituary and she lived until 1998.

The wedding wasn’t added to the marriage register untill the following Monday

And why did they need to get married right away? They (and the helpful publicity director Downing) told Kingsley that they were in a hurry “owing to the overwhelming chorus of congratulations from his friends, not to mention the raid they were making on his private stock in order to drink the health of himself and bride.” That sounds fishy, but nobody could resist a chance to make a Prohibition joke then. They both could have been working so much that they wanted to take advantage of a rare day off.

Thanksgiving in Los Angeles 1920 was much more low-key than it is now. Stores were closed, U.S.C played a football game against Oregon and automobile races were run in Beverly Hills, but Kingsley was working. She was at her desk, typing up this story for the Friday paper, and probably grateful to have something to write about on a sparse news day.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

*Del Ruth wasn’t misinformed about preacher availability by The Scarecrow; while it was released elsewhere on November 17th, it didn’t open in Los Angeles until January 4, 1921.

More than Wild West Show Absurdities: Week of November 13th, 1920

Tsianina Redfeather

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed a film that First Nations historians wish they could see:

Somebody has said there is nothing so painful as a new idea, and sometimes you feel that way about it in regard to motion pictures when you see a good idea floundering, gasping and going down for the last time, drowned in a sea of stupidity and poor visualization.

How delightful, then, to behold a brand new thought worked out with artistry and finesse, as supremely visible at the California this week, in that beautiful Indian two-reel feature—I suppose it was two reels, but really lost track of the time—From the Land of the Sky Blue Water.

This little film gem commences with the telling of an Indian legend of a princess beloved of one of the men of her own tribe and by a brave of an enemy clan. White Eagle, the lover of her clan, is slain. Then the story glides quite imperceptibly, but with infinite rhythm and poesy into Charles Wakefield Cadman’s song. Princess Tsianina and White Eagle are featured and enrich the portrayal.

From the Land of the Sky Blue Water has apparently vanished without a trace. Kingsley was wrong – it was only one reel long. Its star and producer, Tsianina Redfeather, was famous for her mezzo-soprano voice and for educating people about Native American culture. She founded the American Indian Film Company and its motto was “of the Indian, by the Indian and for the Indian.”

Cadman and Redfeather

Redfeather was born December 13, 1882 in Eufaula, Oklahoma; her family was of Cherokee and Creek ancestry. At boarding school, a teacher recognized her musical talent and sent her to Denver for formal musical training. There her voice teacher introduced her to composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, a Caucasian who gave lectures and recitals about First Nations music. She toured with him from 1909 to 1916; his composition “From the Land of the Sky Blue Water” became her signature song.

Here are the lyrics:

From the land of the sky-blue water
They brought a captive maid,
And her eyes, they were lit with lightning;
Her heart was not afraid!
And he steals to her lodge at dawning
And woos her with his flute.
She is sick for the sky-blue water,
The captive maid is mute.

Sky Blue Water wasn’t her first experience with filmmaking. In 1915, she had the leading role in a film directed by J.W. Early for the Columbia Amusement Company, a vaudeville circuit. Shot in Colorado to make full use of the beautiful landscape, it has also disappeared.

Entertaining the troops

During the first World War, she organized an entertainment group to tour Allied camps in France and Germany. According to historian Wendi Bevitt, “this experience reinforced her knowledge that the majority of Europeans and Euro-Americans believed that American Indians live lives of massacrers or wild west show absurdities.” So when she returned, she founded her film company to help counteract that. She hired experienced Nestor Studio director Louis William Chaudet to oversee the production and Cadman to write the score.

Kingsley said the feature was “so mixed with obvious plot hokum, plus an asinine finish, the picture is all very unconvincing and insulting to common sense.” It’s preserved at a Belgian archive because film survival is random and unfair.

Even though Kingsley thought it was an artistic success, the film didn’t make enough money to keep the company going and Redfeather went back to singing. She had also collaborated with Cadman on an opera based on her life called Shanewis (The Robin Woman), which premiered at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1918. It toured the United States, and she got to perform it in Denver in 1924 and in Los Angeles in 1926. She retired from singing in 1935. She worked as an activist for Indian education, co-founding the American Indian Education Foundation. She died in 1985, age 102. Her grand-niece and namesake, Tsianina Lomawaima, is a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in the history of American Indian schooling and indigenous performers in the 20th century.

Maybe one day her film will be found: archives should be on the lookout! The can labeled “From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters” might not be a Hamm’s beer commercial (yes, the jingle was based on the song).

Bebe Daniels on a different boat, Captain Kidd’s Kids (1919)

We also learned this week that Bebe Daniels could make the best of trying circumstances. She had gone rowing alone on Big Bear Lake and lost track of time. A search party, including Seymour Tally (son of Tally’s Broadway owner) set out to find her:

and finally she was discovered, just as the sun was setting, rowing up into a bijou, quite away from the camp landing place. Miss Daniels was duly glad to be rescued, no doubt, but what she said was:

“Well, if these picture exhibiters aren’t the limit! They can’t stand to let us out of their sight a minute!”

No wonder she had the grit to live and work through the London blitz twenty years later!


Wendi M. Bevitt, “The Daughter of the Dawn and the Promotion of American Indian Culture,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Summer 2019, pp. 134-135.

Muriel Lee, “Indian Singer to Lead in Red Man Film.” Moving Picture World, October 9, 1915, p.306

Edwin Schallert, “Don War Paint,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1920

Edwyna Synar “Remember the Ladies,” Muskogee Phoenix.

‘A Feast of Tears and Laughter’: Week of November 6th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley spoke to Winfield R. Sheehan, the general manager of the Fox Film Corporation. He was full of optimism about his company’s future. In particular, he predicted great things for their new release, Over the Hill to the Poorhouse:

Probably no picture, not even The Birth of a Nation is destined to greater success. It has run ten weeks in New York, and now the Lyric Theater has been engaged for twenty-six weeks. The picture will be shown here some time during the winter, the date not being fixed as yet.

Of course, this was hyperbole (Griffith biographer Richard Schickel estimates Birth made 60 million dollars in its first run) but Over the Hill was a great big hit. Now it’s been completely forgotten, even though a print exists at the Archives Du Film Du CNC (Centre Nationale du Cinema). It told a story that’s fallen out of fashion: five thankless brats won’t look after their toil-worn mother in her impoverished old age, so she gets shipped off to the poor house. The sixth who is the family’s black sheep gets out of prison (he took the rap for his ne’r do well father) and rescues her. Victorian sentimentality wasn’t dead yet, plus after years of war and influenza, a story about a mother’s sacrifices scorned yet eventually rewarded was exactly what audiences wanted.*

It didn’t open in Los Angeles until May 9th, 1921 where it played for seven weeks at the 2225-seat-capacity Philharmonic Auditorium. As usual, Kingsley didn’t get to review a big film, her editor Edwin Schallert did. Now his prose seems overripe, but it helps to make sense of why the film was so popular then.

Mother love in all the divine of its beauty, in all the beauty of its simplicity, scattered the bloom of its joys and gathered the harvest of its sorrows before a public that has seldom if ever been so deeply moved by a motion picture at the first showing of Over the Hill last night at the Philharmonic Auditorium. Eyes that are seldom tear-dimmed knew once again the worth of tears; hearts that react often to the lighter manifestations of joy knew once again its depth. And the pulses of finer human feeling beat high once again in the hearts of all at the view of William Fox’s great picture story that is not only a picture, but a heart-throb from life itself.

He liked everything about it from Mary Carr’s “unforgettable” performance to Harry Millarde’s direction, “imbued with the rarest sentiment and feeling.”

The New York critics agreed with him. Matthew A. Taylor in Motion Picture News wrote:

 Here is a production that is going to take its place among the season’s best by universal acclimation…Over the Hill is going to win director Harry Millarde a seat in Moviedom’s Hall of Fame…it is eight reels of a “mother” picture without mawkish sentiment or strained artificial pathos—a feast of tears and laughter that will satiate the appetite of the box office. (October 2, 1920)

‘Wid’ Gunning in Film Daily also predicted great success for the film:

Everyone is going to enjoy this picture except the snobs and you don’t have to bother about them. Rest assured that the great rank and file of people in America are going to come and see this and cry over it and enjoy themselves while doing so.

Over the Hill to the Poor-house is a beautiful picture of many sobs and heart wracking moments… Director Harry Millarde has created scene after scene which wrench tears from the eyes no matter what the cynicism or hardness of their owners. (September 26, 1920)

So even at the dawn of the Roaring 20’s, there was still plenty of room for sentiment.

Harry Millarde didn’t get a seat in the film hall of fame, never matching the success of Over the Hill, but he had a perfectly respectable career. A former actor, he directed 46 films, many of the staring his wife, June Caprice. He died following a heart attack in 1931.

The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919)

One of Winfield Sheehan’s other pronouncements hasn’t aged nearly so well:

The report that Germany is making good films is false, says Mr. Sheehan. They are about on par with American 1908 pictures, which means they have no class at all.

I guess his informant wasn’t a fan of The Golem, Caligari or Ernst Lubitsch. Coincidentally, the first adaptation of Over the Hills to the Poorhouse came out in 1908. It doesn’t look a bit like those films:

Elinor Glyn isn’t interested in nonsense from anybody

This week, Kingsley also got to interview a writer who catered to different taste in popular culture, Elinor Glyn, the bestselling erotic romance novelist. She’d come to Los Angeles to write scripts for the Lasky studio. Answering her male critics, she had plenty of what she described in her 1927 novel as It: “self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not.”

Mrs. Glyn took a wallop at American pictures and at American literature as put forth in current fiction. “I’m amazed that so intelligent a nation as you should stand for so much trash,” she exclaimed. “I stand for the truth and I always tell the truth. That’s why my story Three Weeks, which tells the truth about love, is selling now at the rate of 50,000 a year, after fifteen years.

Like the rest of her work, Three Weeks had been roundly criticized as trash. The title refers to the length of the affair between a young man and an older married woman. Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, tells me it was based on her affair with a younger man, except hers didn’t produce a son and she wasn’t murdered by her husband. She had a successful screenwriting career, staying in Hollywood until 1930. Additionally, several of her books were adapted to films; the most famous were Beyond the Rocks (1922) and It (1927).


*I wonder if once COVID-19 has been subdued, this kind of story will make a comeback. Probably not; the best we can hope for is fewer zombie movies.