‘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.

3 thoughts on “‘A Feast of Tears and Laughter’: Week of November 6th, 1920”

  1. Over the Hill to the Poorhouse is mentioned in the book Cheaper by the Dozen (it makes the father cry so much that he has to wring out his handkerchief by the end), and the title has stuck with me ever since we read the book in seventh grade. I hadn’t realized that it was such a big hit at the time (it’s not one that you ever hear mentioned now), so thank you for all of the information on it.

    Liked by 2 people

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