Everybody Wants to Make Movies: Week of February 26th, 1921

Penrhyn Stanlaws and Betty Compson

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the latest aspiring filmmaker to get a foot in the door:

He being an expert on beauty, it is perhaps natural that Famous Players-Lasky has signed Penrhyn Stanlaws, the well-known artist, whose cover paintings of beautiful women have been seen on virtually all the foremost magazines. He has been engaged on a five-year contract to direct Paramount pictures.

Mr. Stanlaws has been here during the past few months, studying the art of film making at the Lasky studio. But this isn’t all. As an expert on beauty, he is delighted to know that the first star he will direct will be the lovely Betty Compson, who has also lately signed a five-year contract with Famous Players-Lasky. According to the announcement, the first picture by the combination will be an adaptation of the European success by Ernest Klein, entitled At the End of the World.

At least he studied the craft a bit before he got started at the top. Born Stanley Adamson in Dundee Scotland on March 19, 1877 (he changed his name to avoid confusion with his older brother Sydney, also an illustrator), Stanlaws came to the United States in 1901 to study at Princeton University. After further study in Paris, he returned to the US and became a successful magazine illustrator. Jesse Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players, thought that those skills would be easily transferred to filmmaking:

Mr. Lasky is optimistic in regard to Mr. Stanlaws’ ability to direct. “We anticipate,” he said, “great results from Mr. Stanlaws’ artistic ability and his careful and intensive study of motion picture technique. That his efforts will result in productions in which beauty and charm will predominate, seems a foregone conclusion, but this element will be in addition and in conformity to the qualities of human interest involved.

Penrhyn Stanlaws

Stanlaws’ previous film experience was limited to appearing as an artist drawing a model in a short, Our Mutual Girl No. 26 (1914), but that didn’t concern him. He spoke to Motion Picture News about his career change:

Mr. Stanlaws’ decision to abandon painting in favor of motion pictures is said to be due to his belief that the production of beautiful motion pictures is more worthwhile than the painting of pretty girls’ heads. “The motion picture, because it is a picture of moving things,” said Mr. Stanlaws, “gives an artist a vastly greater opportunity than oil or watercolor or pen and ink drawings. With the immense worldwide audience which the motion picture affords I do not think an artist or writer can afford to ignore this great artistic force. I have always been a student of the drama and, therefore, am intensely interested in this new great dramatic medium.

Stanlaws directed seven films over the next two years, four starring Betty Compson, two with Bebe Daniels and one with Wanda Hawley. As usual, there were no articles on why he stopped in 1922, but on his way out the door, he wrote an article for Screenland magazine (January 1923) called “What’s the Matter with Our Hollywood Women?” in which he insulted the minor physical imperfections of several actresses. He spared no one: the Gish sisters, Mary Pickford, Viola Dana, Gloria Swanson– all got roasted for the size of their heads or noses, etc. He had nasty remarks about all of the stars he’d worked with: Betty Compson had “muscle-bound hips”which limited her grace and her crooked nose and mouth made her face look whimsical,” Bebe Daniels had a good figure, but she slouched and her nostrils were too small and Wanda Hawley was “too fat” and her ankles were too big. Feh. Just what the world really needed, another middle aged guy passing judgement on young women’s appearances. Tamar Lane in Motion Picture News, after mentioning “Penryhn has the reputation about the studios of being one of the choice limburger directors of the business,” asked some of the women their opinion of him. Betty Compson said, “His ears are musclebound. This greatly limits their graceful action.” Wanda Hawley said, “Mr. Stanlaws is what the camerman terms a ‘N.G.’ He needs to be retaken.” Viola Dana had the best retort: “Mr. Stanlaws has a big head and his hat is too small for him.”

After burning his bridges he moved to an artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York and went back to producing paintings for magazine covers. Marilyn Slater has a brief, illustrated biography of him on her Looking For Mabel site.

James A.B. Scherer

Stanlaws wasn’t the only aspiring filmmaker who signed a contract with Lasky that Kingsley reported on this week. The movie bug is so contagious that even respected academics can succumb:

Picturegoers of the nation will soon have the opportunity of seeing the first photoplay from the pen of the first college president to resign his high educational honors to devote his talents to the writing of film stories. Announcement from the Lasky studio is to the effect that “Tall Timbers,” by James A.B. Scherer, will shortly go into production, with Wallace Reid in the leading role.

Dr. James Augustus Brown Scherer was a former Lutheran minister who had been the president of the Throop Polytechnic Institute from 1908-1920. Throop changed its name to California Institute of Technology just before he left. Scherer was the author of several academic books about Japan as well as Cotton as a World Power: A Study in the Economic Interpretation of History. According to an earlier story in the Times, he’d also been writing fiction for years. He’d been on leave from Cal Tech since April, but his physician advised him “it was unwise to go back to his job.” The story also mentioned:

The Scherer contract carries with it the film rights for all his published works and whatever original photoplays he may write during the life of the document, it was stated by Jesse L. Lasky, vice president of the Famous Players concern. Included in it are the stories acquired “The Light of the World,” “The Drama of the April Dawn,” a Civil War story, and “Love at Sea,” a historical treatment of a diplomatic crisis in Japan.

Even college presidents aren’t satisfied with their jobs! Unfortunately, neither “Tall Timbers” nor any of his other stories got made into movies. Scherer’s adventure in Hollywood was politely left out of his obituaries. In 1926 he became the director of Southwest Museum, and he used his expertise in Japan to assist the U.S. Office of War Information during World War 2. He died of heart disease in 1944.

“Artist Will be a Director,” Motion Picture News, June 22, 1920, p.4807.

“Death Takes James A.B. Scherer,” C.I.T. News, March 1944, p.18.

“Dr. Scherer, 73, Ex-President of Caltech, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1944.

“Dr. Scherer Serial Stories,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1921.

Lane, Tamar. “That’s Out,” Motion Picture News, March 1923,p.46.

“Scherer Quits as President,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1920.

Stanlaws, Penrhyn. “What’s Wrong With Our Hollywood Women, ” Screenland, January 1923, pp. 16-23.

“Tall Timbers by Dr. Scherer To Have Wallace Reid as Star,” Moving Picture World, March 26, 1921, p. 396.

Old-Fashioned Pictures: Week of February 19th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater was showing an unusual short:

Everyone in the picture business, and many people outside of it, are flocking to Grauman’s this week to see the picture in which D.W. Griffith, the picture producer, is playing a part. The picture is fourteen years old and is entitled The Stolen Jewels.

The short was only part of the program, according to the anonymous reviewer in the L.A. Times:

Including even the chap who, standing in the spotlight, used to deliver a sermon on lemon drops, everything that went to make up the old picture is represented this week at Grauman’s Theater. It’s the best novelty that the house has offered in weeks, for there’s a laugh in every number.

Especially funny are the illustrated song, with the sentimental, slushy, antique-colored photographs – one of which is upside down, if you please—and the Biograph comedy drama, Stolen Jewels, in which you can hardly tell the difference between D.W. Griffith and Florence Lawrence who are supposed to be featured. Abrupt situations, trade-marks on the scenery, dizzy gestures, show the style or lack of style at the time in picture making. Stolen Jewels is reputed to be D.W. Griffith’s first picture, made some fifteen years ago.

D.W. Griffith

Actually, the camera was so far away that the man they thought was Griffith was Harry Solter; Griffith was only part of a crowd scene. It’s a good thing the reviewer liked the prolog, because they didn’t much care for the feature, The Passionate Pilgrim, and said: “The picture is the kind that you wish had been done in a smaller number of reels, especially after you have gotten into the story. There is a lot of burdensome incident, bookish in character, and a lack of dramatic climax.” That film is about a crusading newspaper reporter (Matt Moore) who fights to publish an expose of a corrupt mayor and his crony (all but reel three has been preserved by the Library of Congress). So it makes sense that Grauman thought the program needed something different to bring in the ticket buyers.

Variety also criticized the short in 1921, saying “Stolen Jewels has about three sub-titles and much exaggerated action when judged from the standpoint of film productions today.” The reviewers weren’t wrong: movies had changed a lot since The Stolen Jewels debuted in 1908 (thirteen years earlier, not fourteen or fifteen). According to Moving Picture World’s recap written then, the theft of Mrs. Jenkins’ (Florence Lawrence) diamonds sets off a run of bad financial luck for her family. Mr. Jenkins (Harry Solter) loses his shirt in the stock market, and they’re forced to sell off their possessions. Then the diamonds are found inside Baby’s toy, and the family can rebuild. It has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

Variety ad, 1908

Students of Griffith know that the writers in 1921 got some details wrong. Griffith’s first film as a director was The Adventures of Dollie, which he’d made three months before The Stolen Jewels. He was already the veteran of more than 20 pictures by the time he directed this one! But you can’t blame them: they didn’t have anywhere to check on this. The information was only in 13 year old back issues of Variety or Moving Picture World, and not very many people (or even libraries) thought to keep them. (We’re so fortunate to have the Media History Digital Library now!) While the study of film history began in 1915, with Vachel Lindsay’s Art of the Moving Picture, his book didn’t include details like this.

The speed of changes to filmmaking stayed rapid, not only with the introduction of sound, but also in everything from editing to lighting. However, the pace of change has slowed down at lot since then. Films that played thirteen years after Grauman’s novelty included It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The Scarlet Empress, The Gay Divorcee, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now they just look like what audiences expect from a movie. Furthermore, in 2021 thirteen year old films don’t seem very different, they’re just markers of how quickly time passes (i.e., it’s been THIRTEEN YEARS since Mamma Mia/The Dark Knight/WALL-E/Slumdog Millionaire came out? How did that happen?)

Next week’s short

Grauman didn’t repeat his creative idea — once was enough. The next week, Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House was supporting William S. Hart in O’Malley of the Mounted.

Grauman also had to try something different to compete with the really big opening at the Ambassador Theater: Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid finally premiered in Los Angeles. Grace Kingsley absolutely loved it:

So once more, clad in his baggy old trousers and derby hat, Charlie ascends his sublimated soap-box throne as king of comedians. It’s something you feel vaguely you’ve been waiting for, for a long time, is The Kid. I mean its utter humor and charm are like a drink of water after a day’s hot thirst.

Something entirely new in form, too, is the picture, yet its method is so simple that like most great achievements one wonders why it wasn’t done before. How one wishes all the solemn dramas of the screen could thus be humanized by humor!

There’s really no classifying The Kid. The best one can do is to say that it has all the old melodramatic material, but so jazzed up with fun and with its drama so simply and humanly played, that it is like life. In this, Chaplin’s supreme art is seen. And who feels his power to evoke laughter and tears, as the happy-go-lucky bum, who has the baby wished on him to care for, will ever deny him the title of artist?

Some movies, and movie reviews, get to stay relevant!

“Back to One-Reelers,” Variety, March 4, 1921, p.45.

“Stories of the Films,” Moving Picture World, October 3, 1908, p.262.

One Way To Break In To Comedy: Week of February 12th, 1921

Esther Howard in The Sweetheart Shop

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed stage actress Esther Howard, who would be appearing in a musical comedy, The Sweetheart Shop, in Los Angeles in a few days. This was the first time Kingsley mentioned that an interview was held long distance over the phone. Now we forget how remarkable and expensive that was.

Howard told her how she managed to get hired for her first comedy:

“Hello!” she exclaimed from the other end of the wire. “Even if it takes ten dollars’ worth of language, I’m going to explain that I’m purely an accident in the fun field. I started out playing Youth in Everywoman back in a St. Louis stock company, and you know what a swell chance a girl has to be funny in that solemn old Gloomy Gus play. The only reason I got my New York job in The Sweetheart Shop, that time I ran over to see if somebody didn’t want to put a new face on Broadway, was because Edgar J. MacGregor, the producer, said that I ‘looked funny.’ Told me that to my face.

“I felt bad a minute when he said that. Then I said, ‘Funny enough for a hit?’ and I grinned at him. I guess the grin got him. Anyway, he engaged me. And nobody could have been more surprised than I was myself at the way people laughed at my antics. I was afraid they were simply making fun of me, but no, they really liked me.”

“Really though, I don’t look so funny,” she explained in an injured sort of tone.

She got to play the Wienie King’s wife in The Palm Beach Story – what more could you want for your resume?

Actually, she was lucky not to look like a typical ingenue – that was part of her later success as a character actress in films. Esther Howard got her first job when she snuck out of high school in Boston during her senior year to audition to be part of a crowd scene with a touring company in Madame X, a Sarah Bernhardt project. Two years later, she joined a stock company in Lynn Massachusetts and after a season, she made her debut on Broadway in Eve’s Daughter (1917). It was a flop, but she continued to find work in dramas, until the fateful day she described.

She played Aunt Sophie in Laurel and Hardy’s The Big Noise (1944)

She continued to work in musical comedies for the rest of her stage career. In 1930 she moved to Los Angeles and became a character actress. She appeared in over 100 films. She had many dramatic roles in films like Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), but she also continued to make comedies. She was part of Preston Sturge’s stock company and was in seven of his films. She was also memorable in several film noirs, including Murder My Sweet (1944) and Born to Kill (1947). As the Cracked Rear View blog said of her, “Her matronly looks and acting talent allowed her to play a rich, haughty dowager or a drunken old floozy with equal aplomb. Esther may not have been a big star, but her presence gave a lift to any movie she was in, big or small.” She retired in 1952 and died following a heart attack in 1965.

Caftan Woman also featured an appreciation of her work.

Kingsley reviewed The Sweetheart Shop a few days later and she liked it, and Howard, a lot:

 There’s a show that for novelty, tunefulness and pep, steals right home on the second inning, over at the Mason this week. It’s called “The Sweetheart Shop,“ is by Anne Caldwell and Hugo Felix, and opening to a capacity house it struck a hit gait right at the start…The other outstanding personality is that of Esther Howard, who has a very clever method all her own, a very pepful, eccentric method, and whose Greenwich Village Vampire satire is one of the real achievements of the season in musical comedy land. She corners the laughs at every turn.

Kingsley’s interview showed that Howard was funny without a script. Because opening night was Valentine’s Day (women in the cast were going to toss candy hearts from the stage), Kingsley asked a silly question: would she marry a Los Angeles man, and Howard said yes, if he weren’t a motion picture actor, because they don’t take marriage seriously enough. She added “Anyhow, line up the prospective bridegrooms at the station when I get in. And please be on hand to help me make a choice.” That’s about the best answer there could be to such a dumb question. She didn’t bother to mention that in 1919 she’d married stage actor Arthur Albertson.

Ethel Shannon

Saturday night there was a star-filled Mardi Gras party at the Ambassador Hotel, and Kingsley reported that the outfits were fabulous, the speeches were short, and “a good time was had by all.” But the best story involved movie actress Ethel Shannon, who, like Howard, had no interest in getting to know a film actor.

That clever young lady sweetly handed the glad old binge to one of our handsomest screen idols in the course of the evening. It seems this handsome screen idol, looking upon Miss Shannon and finding her good, yea easy to look at, bet another man he could cut her escort out. Somehow the little girl found it out, and though she secretly admired him just like all the other girls, she decided to get even with him when he began his fine work with her.

The screen idol was introduced to her under an assumed name. He began telling her how charming she was, and all about what her eyes did to him, but she kept her fingers crossed, and when the repartee along this line began to burn low and smell of wick, the screen idol asked her who her favorite actor was. She answered promptly “Sessue Hayakawa.” “But don’t you like anybody else?” persisted the screen idol. “How about Blank—” naming himself.

“Why,” back-fired little Miss Shannon, “I think he’s the worst idiot on the screen, and you look like him!

Sessue Hayakawa (Miss Shannon had good taste!)

Hee hee. I’m glad Miss Kingsley preserved that story. I wonder who the idol was – it’s just mean that she left that out.

Ethel Shannon went on to star in films like Maytime (1923) and Charley’s Aunt (1925). It seems like she liked screenwriters more than actors: her escort to Mardi Gras was Finis Fox, and in 1927 she married Joseph Jackson and retired from acting.

Axel Nissen, “Madame Noir: Esther Howard in Born to Kill (1947)” In: Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012, p.107-113.

Ghastly Gray-Green Grief?: Week of February 5th, 1921

King Vidor

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned that director King Vidor made a claim about an experiment he was conducting in his upcoming movie:

“It looks as though the day is near when color is to be used in motion pictures to suggest varying moods of human nature as well as of objective nature. Colored photography is one of the improvements on which picture producers have been working for years. Now it seems King Vidor has really discovered a new process, and the result will be seen in his latest picture, The Sky Pilot. In this, almost every foot of film is not only colored, but colored in tones and tints that are true to nature. As though this were not enough, Mr. Vidor, according to his statement, has successfully induced moods in the drama through color suggestions.

What King Vidor claims to have done is to have “scored” the photoplay for color. He has not only used various different tints to suggest different hours of the day, but to induce certain moods he has scientifically played upon the varying degrees of happiness and sorrow with suggestive colors. The heights of joy, says Mr. Vidor, are enhanced with a delicate pink glow, while the depths of grief call for a ghastly gray-green tone.

Mr. Vidor was very emphatic as to the effectiveness of his coloring. “You see,” he said, “I have spent about twelve hours a day for the last three weeks in our laboratory, working to achieve this effectiveness.”

Gus Peterson, director of photography, and King Vidor shooting The Sky Pilot

If only the amount of time we devoted to our experiments guaranteed their success! Kingsley did poke fun at his idea a bit, saying “fancy coloring some lady pure white who ought to have at least a touch of purple!” Exhibitors’ Herald offered more details about his announcement, along with more skepticism:

King Vidor has issued a statement to the effect that he has suddenly stumbled upon an important scientific fact in film tinting that he believes will have strong bearing upon this angle of the motion picture industry. His production of The Sky Pilot will be, he claims, the first photodrama ever made in which every foot of film is colored in tones and tints true to nature. He also attests that he has successfully induced moods in the drama through color suggestion.

He has used various tints to accord with the times of day and night in which the scenes were shot—soft violet for the early dawn, pale yellow for the post-sunrise time, amber for noon and night interiors, and deep blue for the moonlight scenes. Exteriors have verdure tinted with delicate green and snow scenes are steel blue. Varying shades of pink and green were used in the expression of joy or sorrow. Vidor claims that the screen patronage will be unconscious of the coloring to the extent that it will not distract from the force of the theme. (“King Vidor Claims to have Originated Film Tinting Idea,” Exhibitors’ Herald, March 5, 1921, p.68.)

Pink for joy and green for sorrow didn’t catch on with other filmmakers, and Vidor didn’t try it again. He wasn’t the first young filmmaker to claim he’d invented something entirely revolutionary. He went on to try new things in his later movies that worked very well, like featuring the ordinary toil of an office worker in The Crowd (1928) and making the first all-African America musical, Hallelujah (1929). He went on to a long (67 years!) and very successful career. Nominated five times for the Best Director Oscar, his work included The Big Parade (1925) Show People (1928) and a lot of talkies like Stella Dallas (1937) and Duel in the Sun (1946).

Cathrine Curtis was one of the earliest female film producers

One thing Vidor did get right: the patronage was unconscious of his color schemes. Kingsley’s editor, Edwin Schallert, reviewed it when it opened in Los Angeles in July, and he didn’t notice the colors at all. He admired some of the film:

There’s human interest, and spectacle, and thrills, but there is little or no suspense of the growing kind and the whole business of the cattle stealing intrigue and the attendant scrapes explodes just about as excitingly as a package of damp firecrackers. Still, Director Vidor is to be congratulated on the beauty of his settings, the charm of his direction as exhibited in the handling of his people if not the story, and his daring picturing of the cattle stampede. (Edwin Schallert, “The Sky Pilot,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1921.)

Summer Smith in Moving Picture World gave it a much stronger review, but also made no mention of effect color had:

In every respect this picture, directed by King Vidor, makes good. His excellent judgement is noticeable throughout in the characterizations of the players, the staging of the big scenes and the general atmosphere of the picture. (Summer Smith, “The Sky Pilot,” Moving Picture World, April 30, 1921, p.994.)

The Sky Pilot was recently digitally restored and screened at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. However, it is only partially tinted, so we can’t see what his experiment looked like. The Obscure Hollywood blog has a modern discussion of the film.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has written a whole book about his thoughts on color in film.

Filmmakers are still trying to figure out what color does to audiences, but they run into some problems. Not only is color perceived differently by different people—anatomy, language, culture and environment affect that – but also its action on emotions is complicated. Furthermore, in movies color isn’t in a vacuum. Motion pictures add sound and movement, so it’s hard to tease out exactly what is causing the emotion that filmmakers are aiming at. Cinematographer Daniel Berens wrote an interesting dissertation on the role of colour in film (he’s British) if you’d like to read more about it. He has the good fortune to have a neuroscientist for a brother, so the paper is informed by science.