Fire Prevention: Week of January 29th, 1921

It really brought out the crowds!

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a scheme to promote the short comedy Fire Bugs on offer at the Superba, not the feature:

Speaking of firebugs, starting Monday night at 7:30 and again on Wednesday and Friday nights at the same hour, Chief Scott will send to the Superba Theater several of his officers, who will make addresses in the theater and to the waiting crowds, outlining briefly the “Don’ts” which will prevent the cost of lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars annual through conflagrations. Harry Sweet, star comedian of Fire Bugs, will likewise be on hand to help.

This made a lot of sense, because in her review Kingsley said that Fire Bugs “gets over hilariously” while the feature The Torrent made her wonder “whether it was worth directing at all.” Considering how strong many comedy shorts were at the time, they must have been often used to prop up weak features.

They used fire hoses to decorate

Motion Picture News had more details about this combination of a public service announcement and free advertising:

A new way to turn a comedy into a feature was demonstrated recently by Manger Nobel Hearne of the Superba Theater, Los Angeles, when he used the Century comedy Fire Bugs to show the fallacy of attempting to fight fire when you do not know how, and members of the Los Angeles Fire Department to lecture and give practical suggestions along the proper lines of preventing disastrous conflagrations.

Twice each day a big fire engine with complete staff drove at breakneck speed to the front of the Superba Theater. Here Chief Scott and his men spoke to the crowd on the street, giving proper instructions as to the proper way to fight fire and later from the stage of the theater gave practical demonstrations of their instructions.

How exciting! If the photo at the top of the post is any indication, it really got people’s attention. Moving Picture Weekly reported on the clever young man (only 21 at the time!) who thought it all up:

Nobel Hearne recently became manager of the Superba after serving as assistant manager for more than a year. During that time he had charge of arranging the lobby displays and special features for the program and his capable handling of this work led to his promotion to the managership.

Before he moved to Los Angeles, Hearne had “considerable experience in this work with the Saenger Amusement Company of New Orleans.” Nobel J. Hearne had quite a variety of jobs and residences; the list I can gather from his records is probably incomplete. By 1922, he was managing the Frolic Theater in San Francisco. By 1930 he had gotten out of the theater business and was managing a grocery store in Yonkers, New York. The 1940 census found him running a ranch in Blanco City, Texas. In 1942 he enlisted in the Veterinary Corps in Texas. When he died in 1947 from coronary thrombosis following an intestinal obstruction, he was the postmaster and a merchant in San Antonio.

Elmer Harris

This week, Kingsley had some librarian news. Screenwriter Elmer Harris had a reference question, so he telephoned Elizabeth McGaffey, head of the Lasky research department. He needed everything she could find at the public library about sleepwalking. So:

Two days passed, and Mrs. McGaffey telephoned Mr. Harris, saying, “Well, I have the books you wanted, but it was awfully hard work to get them. I had to go through the police authorities, and heaven knows what red tape!”

“Police?” demanded Mr. Harris, mystified.

“Yes, and I hope you never put me on any subject like that again,” said Mrs. McGaffey. “I may not be a little young girl, but still—”

“In heaven’s name, what’s the matter?” demanded Harris, irritated. “What are you getting so prudish about? Well, send the books along.”

The books arrived at the studio in due course. And Elmer Harris nearly fell out of his chair when he read the titles. They were all on the subject of street-walking!

Harris’ film currently in theaters was called The Education of Elizabeth, and his question certainly contributed to the education of one Elizabeth.

After all McGaffey’s work, Elmer Harris really should have made a movie about prostitution, but he never did. However, he wrote that film featuring sleepwalking, The Girl on the Stairs (1924).

Elizabeth McGaffey. I don’t think she was researching a new profession

As an ex-public librarian, I have questions. What was WRONG with the reference librarians? Why did they involve the police? What other topics inspired them to call? This goes against everything I learned in library school about the right to access information and my profession’s fight for intellectual freedom! Harumph! I sadly learned that it wasn’t always so: the American Library Association didn’t adopt their Library Bill of Rights until 1939, and their Office for Intellectual Freedom wasn’t established until 1967. So in the bad old days this sort of thing happened. At least McGaffey got the information she needed. Now you can feel free to research streetwalkers all you want and librarians won’t call the cops on you.

Abenteuer im Wilden Westen: Week of January 22nd, 1921

An 1893 edition (maybe Ziehm shouldn’t have been so surprised)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had another chat with an executive who went to Europe to have a look at the film business there:

Arthur Ziehm, the foreign sales manager for the Goldwyn Distributing Company, had just come back from a tour of Europe. He reported yesterday that he is convinced that there is no reason for American film manufacturers to be alarmed over the possibility of serious competition from foreign producers.

Film executives did love to reassure newspaper writers that American pictures were the best! He continued:

“But one of the surprises of my visit,” said Mr. Ziehm, “was to find that some really good Wild West pictures are being turned out at the German studios. They recall the rapid action type of melodrama popular when Broncho Billy was at the height of his picture fame.”

German people absolutely loved stories about the American West, it also surprised me to learn. It seems that just like for Americans, the fantasy West offered an escape from urban, industrialized everyday life, plus there weren’t many German pop culture heroes at the time. People in Germany still enjoy visiting it, if the popularity of the Cowboy Club of Old Texas in Berlin is any indication.

The man most responsible for Germany’s view of the Wild West was prolific author Karl May. He had been writing travel, crime, and adventure stories when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show played in Munich in 1890. It was hugely popular, so he started writing about the adventures of Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant cowboy, and Winnetou, a Native American. May never visited the U.S., so facts or realism didn’t intrude on his tales. These stories fueled German interest in Native American culture (Deutsche Indianertümelei) and are still being adapted to film and television. He is one of the most successful German writers ever. May’s books have sold over one hundred million copies, according to Rivka Galchen in the New Yorker, and his birthplace had been turned into a museum. The museum’s website says, “in the U.S., he is known to but a close-knit minority.” Now you are part of that minority too!

Winnetou and Old Shatterhand are still popular in 2020

That surprised film executive Arthur Ziehm had the language skills to understand what he was seeing. Born January 6, 1883 in Deuben, Germany, he came to the United States in 1905.  After serving the in United States Calvary in the Philippines, he found work in film import and export. He had a long career, later working for Inter-Globe Export Company in the 1920’s, the General Foreign Sales Corporation in the 1930’s and eventually starting his own company, the International Cinemart Corporation in the 1950’s. He died in 1966.

By 1925, all was forgiven. Chaplin, Lita Grey Chaplin, and Elinor Glyn

In other news this week, Kingsley reported that lucky Charlie Chaplin didn’t have to put up with nonsense from anybody:

That Charlie Chaplin remains a perfectly killing cut-up. The other day, for instance, a certain lady authoress, well known for writing those stories which scorch the begonias if accidentally left on the front porch, looked Charlie all over, put her hands on his shoulders, finally, and said patronizingly: “Why, you wear nice clothes! You don’t look nearly so freaky as I had thought you would!” Whereas Charlie put his hands on the lady’s shoulders and exclaimed: “Madame, let me return the compliment!

That’s a useful comeback to keep on hand! I’m certain Kingsley was referering to Elinor Glyn, who was in town and well-known for her begonia-scorching abilities. 

An Unbeatable Second Act: Week of January 15th, 1921

Justine Johnstone

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had to find words to discuss yet another showgirl turned movie actress:

It’s a darned slow week on Film Row that doesn’t see some beauteous lady from the Follies making her debut. Justine Johnstone, one of the prettiest of them all, is who appears for the first time in pictures at Clune’s Broadway this week. She debuts in a crook drama called Blackbirds.

Miss Johnstone has great beauty and grace, and while she never risks spoiling her face for the sake of getting drama over, she nevertheless seems possessed of an innate sense of expressiveness. The fans were out in numbers to get their first look at her yesterday.

What a polite way to call her a bad actress! However, the now-lost movie really wasn’t any good. Kingsley’s word was “shopworn,” and she gave a full description of the plot:

As for Blackbirds, this is another case of a forgiven lady. The heroine starts out as a high-class crook, though chemically pure withal. She confines her naughtiness to hooking and smuggling diamonds and rare paintings from Europe; but reforms, saying a little prayer to the Virgin Mary in a painting she is about to steal, just as the detective hero comes upon her, so that he knows her repentance is genuine.*

What Kingsley, and nobody, could have known at the time was what an interesting career Johnstone was to have after she quit acting. Before she went into film, her resume was unsurprising for a Ziegfeld Follies star. Born in 1895 in New Jersey, at fifteen she was discovered by a Broadway press agent, Walter Kingsley (no relation), when she was on her way to a modeling job. She made her Broadway debut in a show called The Blue Bird. After a second show flopped, she went back to school and graduated in 1914. She got hired by Flo Ziegfeld to be in his Watch Your Step (1914) (with Vernon and Irene Castle) and his 1915 and 1916 editions of Follies. The press called her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” In 1917 Lee Shubert produced Over The Top for her to star in (it also featured the Broadway debuts of Fred and Adele Astaire). She married former production assistant and World War 1 aviator Walter Wanger in 1919, and they both went into film: he as a producer at Paramount and she as an actress.

Justine Johnstone and Walter Wanger

By 1926 she got tired of the roles she was being offered, so she quit. However, unlike so many of these stories, she neither disappeared into the domestic sphere nor succumbed to substance abuse or some other sort of tragedy. Instead she audited classes at the Pharmacology Department of Columbia University and found a new job there: medical researcher. She became part of the team that developed the IV drip and a cure for syphilis, and she was a co-author of peer-reviewed papers about their discoveries. In 1931 she moved with her husband to Los Angeles, where he continued to produce films and she went to work at Cal Tech, assisting with oncology research. He was a chronic philanderer, and she divorced him in 1938.

She continued her scientific work, and also contributed to social and political causes, like finding work for blacklisted writers, fighting for women’s equality, and raising money for hunger campaigns. Newspaper writers tried to interview her after her career change, but she politely declined. She didn’t think she had anything to say that was interesting, and she enjoyed her privacy. She died in 1982 of congestive heart failure.

Published by McFarland

She had a great second act! Such a varied and interesting life deserves a biography and in 2018 she got one, written by Kathleen Vestuto. She summed up her subject this way: “she sought out challenges and enjoyed hard work.” The reviewers on Good Reads think it’s a fine book.

*Somebody must have said something to Kingsley about her habit of spoiling the endings of movies, because in this review she justified it:

I don’t feel that I’m really giving anything away in telling the end of the story, inasmuch as nobody outside an Eskimo or South Sea Islander or two will but guess the outcome from the beginning.

What Does Quebec Want?: Week of January 8th 1921

Unless you’re in Quebec

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that an old-fashioned story still had the power to shock censors:

Just what the Province of Quebec, in Canada, wants in their way of film entertainment, it is hard to say, but the fact remains that the Board of Censors there has pronounced against Griffith’s Way Down East, according to word just received. In the meantime thirteen Way Down East prints are doing a business of $191,00 per week in this country. So D.W. Griffith probably isn’t worrying.

Griffith did worry about it enough to issue a statement through his general manager, Albert L. Grey:

“The news that the Quebec censors have condemned Way Down East seems on the face of its record in this country so absurd that I scarcely know what to say. In American the story and its treatment in picture form has been so widely praised by ministers, judges, editors, federal and civic authorities, statesmen, professional men and other good citizens, that I am at a loss to understand the attitude of the Quebec censors. I suppose our only remedy is to take the issue before the courts there…The essence of our story which they have singled out for attack is the very part of the production which the preachers and moral proponents of the presentation have used as illustrations for their praise.” (“Ban Griffith Film,” Film Daily, January 8, 1921, p.1)

Stay away from him, Miss Gish! (Lowell Sherman and Lillian Gish)

However, in Canada the courts would have been no use to him: at the time, the eight provincial censor boards had the last word on what could and could not be shown in film theaters.* All anyone could do was to try and sway public opinion, so Grey and the Griffith corporation’s attorneys traveled North and “placed the matter before the prime minister, and the secretary of the province.” They also showed the film to high school students at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s, and the heads of both schools endorsed it. Additionally, the Montreal Star received hundreds of letters protesting the board’s ruling.  According to Exhibitors’ Herald, if none of that worked, they hoped that since the Ontario board had passed it and Toronto was getting to see it, the Montreal public would pressure the Board to change their minds. (“Quebec Censor Board Stands Pat on Ruling,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 29, 1921, p.44.)

It wasn’t as if the film made the Wages of Sin attractive

Quebec did eventually get to see Way Down East, but it took an awfully long time. In November, Motion Picture News reported:

Some months ago there was considerable excitement over the decision of the Quebec Board of Moving Picture Censors to condemn Way Down East in its entirety for alleged religious and other reasons. The Griffith production was readily passed in all other Provinces of the Dominion. At this late date, the Quebec censors changed their views regarding the feature, apparently, with the result that it was presented at the Imperial Theater, Montreal, at advanced prices starting October 28th. (“Canada,” Motion Picture News, November 5, 1921, p.2438)

The Montreal Gazette gave it a positive review and found it “quite safe, even for sophisticated modern children, and their elders need entertain no fears for themselves.” They also reported on what actually happened:

It is now said that the real reason for placing the film under the ban when first offered here was due to the precipitate action of those who brought it to the censors. They were, it appears, very brisk men in a hurry who desired that everything be dropped in order to examine the film and allow them to hurry on their journey. They resumed their journey all right, but the censors being accustomed to perform the duties of their office in quiet dignity did not have time to view it between trains. (“Way Down East Has Real Thrill,” Montreal Gazette, October 24, 1921, p.6.)

So they weren’t particularly prudish in Quebec. The film distributors were jerks, and the Board showed them who was boss. Ha!

Nevertheless, just not showing the film at all is better than what Pennsylvania censors did to it, according to a Photoplay article about bad decisions from censor boards in the United States:

Griffith has been one of the heaviest sufferers from censorship because he is a fearless leader and refuses to be bound, come what may. In Pennsylvania they eliminated the basic idea of Way Down East by trimming out the mock marriage. Naturally the mock honeymoon went, too. Likewise, the scene where the heroine tells of approaching motherhood. The board scrapped all hints at maternity and childbirth. Imagine the surprise of Pennsylvania fans when the baby, utterly unexplained, bursts upon the screen just before its death. Altogether, then Pennsylvania board made sixty cuts in the film play in reference to the baby. (Frederick James Smith,  “Foolish Censors,” Photoplay, October 1922, p.39.)

Unlike the film industry in the U.S. that eventually convinced most local censor boards to disband in favor of the Hayes Office, in Canada eight out of ten provinces had its own censorship authority until the 1960’s when Manitoba’s board became the first to give ratings instead of censoring films. Eventually the other provinces joined them.

In her review of Her Beloved Villain this week, Kingsley pointed out that American producers much preferred to avoid this kind of trouble and practiced self-censorship:

By the time a French farce reaches either stage or screen in this country it’s apt to be pretty pale stuff—an oyster cocktail without tabasco, a denogged eggnog—because we don’t like quite so much spice on this side of the ocean, or at least we don’t like to admit we like it. But some French farces have piquancy even with the wickedness extracted, and such a one is Her Beloved Villain, adapted from the play La Veglione.

The story is about a youth who wins his bride by telling his rival that she’s a naughty woman and that all her people are entirely too gay. When the bride finds it out, she teaches him a good lesson.

According to the review in Moving Picture World (December 4, 1920) the bride declares “I’ll go home and do all the things he said of me!” but she only pretends to spend the night with her lawyer. I’m guessing that in the original, she didn’t pretend. Naturally, in the end all is forgiven.

They took pictures of the meeting

Kingsley also had a story that showed the some of the pressure Charlie Chaplin was under:

“Trust Will Rogers to hit the nail on the head. Charlie Chaplin was visiting the Goldwyn studio the other day, and the two comedy kings were treating each other to imitations each of the other. When Rogers commenced to stand with feet turned out, after the famous Chaplin fashion, Charlie called out:

“Hey there, that isn’t the way I stand!”

Quick as a wink, Rogers came back, but with a disarming grin: “Why Charlie, you ain’t made a comedy in so long, nobody knows how you stand.”

It had been quite a while since a Chaplin film had come out: his most recent was A Day’s Pleasure, which premiered on December 15, 1919. However, The Kid was about to arrive. It debuted in New York on January 21st, so everybody could just stop complaining. The Kid went on to be the second highest grossing film of 1921, behind Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Since then, it’s been recognized as one of the greatest silent films ever made. A guy can take a little time to do that.

*Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island relied on other provinces’ boards.

Not a Sob-Sister Story: Week of January 1st, 1921

Charlotte Woods

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed yet another aspiring movie star. This one was different, because the money that was going to support her rise to the top was coming from an unusual source: her uncle, a famous sculptor:

We’ve just found out something, Charlotte Woods and I, and that is that those old stories about fairy godmothers and fairy godfathers especially godfathers, really are true. Miss Woods is the young ingenue creating a mild flurry among the fans, last week in Bebe Daniels’ picture O, Lady, Lady at Clune’s Broadway, and who previous to that played in a series of Wild West dramas with William Fairbanks. She’s a sort of rare and radiant maid, is Charlotte, blond and innocently alluring, not one of those intensely cute cuties—the sort you feel you’ll have to kill if they get any cuter—but natural and genuinely sparkling; in short, she puts the “new” in “ingenue.”

Her uncle, noted sculptor David Edstrom, had lost track of his sister’s family as he was making a name for himself in Europe. . .Then David Edstrom came back to this country. And now that her experience and hard work have fitted her to do better things, she is to be placed either in her own company, backed by Mr. Edstrom and his rich friends, or she is to become a member of an all-star cast in a picture to be made abroad, probably the latter, so that she will have all the benefits of foreign travel. Are fairy godfathers still on the job? Charlotte Woods will say they are.

Motion Picture Magazine writer Helen Carlisle later told the story of how Charlotte Woods became an actress. She couldn’t help invoking fairies either:

Little Charlotte Woods reversed the order of things by entering the motion picture studio as a stenographer, later becoming an actress. Her story reads like a fairy tale. Charlotte was bending patiently over her typewriter one day, out at the Thomas H. Ince studios, when Mr. Ince himself, strolling through the offices, spied her. He walked right up to her and said: “Young lady, how would you like to play a second lead with Charles Ray in his next picture? You’re just the type we’re looking for.” Naturally, Charlotte nearly passed out with excitement. Scores of girls, besieging the casting office for the role, while she, without effort, had it offered to her!

Well—she played the part, that of a country girl in His Mother’s Boy, and after that she played more parts, filling in with extra work when nothing better was forthcoming.

David Edstrom

Unfortunately, Charlotte Woods’ part as a society girl whose fiancée temporarily seems to be cheating on her with Bebe Daniels in the now lost Oh Lady Lady was her biggest role. She appeared in only one more film with Charles Ray, The Girl I Loved, made in 1922. It turned out that there are no fairy goduncles in Hollywood. David Edstrom, most famous for his sculptures Caliban (1900), The Cry of Poverty (1903), and The Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1918), hanging out in Paris with Gertrude Stein before World War 1, and helping to organize the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, did not help his niece with her career. He did have one Hollywood connection: he sculpted busts of Gloria Swanson and Josef von Sternberg.

The real twist to Woods’ story came in Helen Carlisle’s article in 1924, which had a happy ending:

But Charlotte’s back at her typewriter now, working as secretary to Perley Poore Sheehan, director and scenario writer at Universal City. And if she thinks back on the fairy-tale days, sometimes, she doesn’t long for their return. Mr. Sheehan, it may be stated, thinks he has the very best secretary in California.

You see, it would be pretty hard to write a sob-sister story about these girls who have abandoned their screen careers. They’re all so contented and prosperous!

In the scenario and stenographic departments of the studios, in the research libraries and publicity offices, in the laboratories and cutting-rooms, you’ll find dozens of energetic young women who have put their make-up boxes away and have won economic independence in the broad field open to them behind the motion picture camera.”

Woods, born Charlotte Skogerson, was able to support herself throughout her life as a studio clerical worker. Hooray for economic independence!

Helen Carlisle, “They’re Not Afraid to Fight,” Motion Picture Magazine, February 1924, p.37

Carver Edstrom Hildebrand, “David Edstrom, Swedish American Sculptor,” Swedish American Genealogist, v.10 no. 1, 1990.

“Newslets for Your Program,” Motography, November 17, 1917.