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.

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