Making Dickens knock-offs is harder than it looks: Week of March 26, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw something that was rare in 1921: a fantasy film. And my goodness, but she hated it:

If the inhabitants of Mars haven’t anything more thrilling and novel to tell us than the line of chatter handed out by the Martian in A Message from Mars, then I, for one, don’t care a hang whether we ever set up a line of communication with that planet…It doesn’t seem possible that we were ever intrigued in a play of the stage, by such obvious, unimaginative claptrap and sentimental swash as this screen version purveys.

Swash and claptrap: it couldn’t get much worse. Mars was based on Richard Ganthony’s play of the same name, which debuted in London in 1899 and toured throughout the United States in 1903-05. It was a fairly direct steal of Charles Dickens’ plot in A Christmas Carol (it even also took place on Christmas Eve): Horace Parker agrees to finance the invention of a device that communicates with Mars in exchange for getting credit for inventing it. He falls asleep and a messenger from that planet shows him poverty and suffering. He reforms. That is one durable plot!

Reviewers did admire cinematographer Arthur Martinelli’s double-exposure photography

Other reviewers agreed with Kingsley about the film. Mathew A. Taylor in Motion Picture News wrote, “This screen adaptation of a once popular stage play does not make a picture that moves swiftly enough to command audience attention. It drags along with lukewarm drama and lukewarm comedy and it has an ending as sweet as the final tableaux in a school-children’s Santa Claus play…As a morality picture, and such it is supposed to be, it is not convincing.” Film Daily called it “but mildly interesting entertainment” and concluded “there is very little incident and what there is has been padded at length.” So it really was a stinker. It’s useful to remember that there were just as many dull movies then as there are now – it wasn’t all Keaton and Fairbanks. Because fate and film preservation are arbitrary, A Message from Mars has been preserved by M.G.M., so scholars can see what a critical flop from 1921 looked like.

The film’s star, Bert Lytell, also took a share of the blame. C.S. Sewell in Moving Picture World wrote, “the star’s performance, however, is hardly up to his best work in other productions on account of his tendency to overact which makes the character lose some of its convincing force.” They were probably right, because Film Daily said exactly the same: “Bert Lytell is capable of much better work than he does here. He overacts considerably.” I suspect that Kingsley wanted to be just as direct as they were, but she had to be careful not to offend people she depended on for information, so she wrote:

Poor Bert Lytell! Probably it isn’t his fault that he is seem in miles of footage in this picture, registering nothing but an asinine egotism which fails of interest after the first hundred feet. He does manage a real characterization, of course. He’s too fine an actor to fail in that.

Gee, I wonder who’s fault it was then? Nevertheless, the bad reviews didn’t hurt Lytell’s career. A former stage actor, he’d been staring in films since 1917 and he continued to do so throughout the silent era. He was in a lot of crime movies, playing either crooks, as in The Lone Wolf series or detectives in films like Sherlock Brown(1922) and Steele of the Royal Mounted (1925). After that, he worked in radio and later, television. He was the president of the Actors’ Equity Association (1940-1946) and The Lambs actors’ club (1947-1952). He died in 1954.

However, one cast member emerged from it unscathed. Kingsley mentioned:

The picture serves to reveal a very delightful young actress, Raye Dean, dainty and expressive, of whom we hope to see more.

Sewell concurred, saying “Raye Dean as the girl is not only attractive but acts with great sincerity,” as did Taylor, calling her “an exceptionally appealing leading lady.” Despite her excellent notices, audiences didn’t get more opportunities to see Raye Dean’s work. On May 23, 1921, using her real name, Mildred Bartlett, she married Broadway producer Max Gordon, and he asked her to retire from the screen. His career was enormously successful: his stage productions included The Jazz Singer (1925), The Bandwagon (1931), My Sister Eileen (1940) and Born Yesterday (1946). According to Margaret Case Harriman in Take Them Up Tenderly, the Gordons lived quietly in a hotel in the West Fifties in Manhattan, and “their social excitement is limited to Mrs. Gordon’s bridge parties.” He was so famous that he even got a line in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”:

When Rockefeller still can hoard enough money to let Max Gordon produce his shows–
Anything goes!

That is a successful career! He died in 1978 and she in 1992.

“Bert Lytell’s Latest Mildly Interesting,” Film Daily, March 27, 1921, p. 9.

Margaret Case Harriman, Take Them Up Tenderly: A Collection of Profiles, NY: Knopf, 1944.

C.S. Sewell, “A Message from Mars,“ Moving Picture World, April 2, 1921, p. 518.

Matthew A. Taylor, “A Message from Mars,” Motion Picture News, June 18, 1921, p. 3744.

Getting the Team Back Together: Week of March 19th, 1921

On the set of The Conquering Power: Rudolph Valentino, Alice Terry, Ralph Lewis, Rex Ingram and John Seitz

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on how one director responded to the pressure to follow-up a great big hit:

If the famous boy director, Rex Ingram, hasn’t got gray hair I don’t know why. No sooner does he finish and launch The Four Horsemen than he is scheduled at once to begin work on another important production. The new picture will be a film version of one of the famous Balzac novels, but which one he refuses to tell at the present time. However, there’s an interesting yarn in connection, inasmuch as it is a story which Ingram has wanted to do ever since he first became a director. But never before has he been in a position to film it just as he wanted to.

Mr. Ingram’s leading woman in the Balzac story will once more be Alice Terry, who plays the feminine lead in The Four Horsemen. The remainder of the cast is to be selected within a week. In the meantime Miss June Mathis, who has reached the top pinnacle of scenario writing fame with The Four Horsemen, when she also, you remember, assisted in directing, is busy finishing the script of the French story.

The famous Balzac novel was Eugenie Grandet (1833) and Ingram called his modern-dress version of it The Conquering Power. Nowadays a hugely successful film would demand a sequel (perhaps about the reform and self-sacrifice of Julio’s long-lost wastrel identical twin), but they did things differently then. Ingram instead re-assembled the team that made Four Horsemen a success for a new project; in addition to Mathis and Terry he hired Rudolph Valentino as the leading man and John F. Seitz as the director of photography.

The Conquering Power told the story of a rich but miserly man (Ralph Lewis) who refuses to allow his daughter (Alice Terry) to marry his foppish nephew Charles (Rudolph Valentino). You get one guess about how it ends. It was speedily completed (it was in New York theaters by July), and it got terrific reviews. Edwin Schallert in the L.A. Times wrote: “If true art be determined by its symbols of beauty, its rhythm, it’s formal perfection and its reality, The Conquering Power is the great artistic picture of the year. I might even go further than this and say that because of its failure at any point to offend the esthetic sense—pictorially speaking—it is the one really artistic picture.” (August 11, 1921)

The New York Times admired it even more than the earlier film: “But The Four Horsemen was originally a novel, and, despite Mr. Ingram, it remained a good deal of a novel, rather than a photoplay, on the screen. He showed what he could do in independent cinematography, he did not do all that seemed possible to him. So the production was a fresh promise, as well as a fulfillment – and now comes The Conquering Power to realize much that it foreshadowed.” (“Screen,” July 17, 1921) The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures also thought it outdid the earlier film, saying “The Conquering Power is one of the most consistently beautiful things the motion picture makers have yet shown.” (“In Conquering Power Ingram outdoes Four Horsemen Says the National Board of Review,” Moving Picture World, November 19, 1921, p. 317)

Rudolph Valentino in The Conquering Power

The Conquering Power also did quite well at the box office. Motion Picture News reported that the 37 Loew’s theaters in Greater New York did the biggest business in their history when it played. [“Ingram Picture Goes Big,” November 26, 1921, p.2836]

However, now you probably know of Four Horsemen but might never have heard of The Conquering Power. Added to the Library of Congresses National Film Registry in 1995, Four Horsemen is remembered for its cultural impact: not only did it feature Rudolph Valentino’s star-making role, but it also inspired the tango craze. Most of all, it’s regarded as the first antiwar film (correction: it wasn’t the first, it was only an early anti-war film). You really can’t predict what future audiences will think. It’s a rare film that’s remembered 100 years after it is made.

Ingram didn’t reassemble the team a third time. However, they all went on to do memorable work. Valentino left Metro after the studio refused to raise his salary, according to his biographer Donna L. Hill; additionally he had many disagreements with Ingram. Of course, he went on to star in The Sheik (1921) and The Eagle (1925), which are still enjoyed today. June Mathis continued to be a freelance screenwriter, but she also didn’t work with Ingram again. She wrote two more great parts for Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922) and The Young Rajah (1922), as well as writing the screenplays for Ben Hur (1925) and Greed (1924). Alice Terry married Ingram later in 1921, and they continued to make films together such as The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923). They both retired from film when sound came.

1917 trade ad

However, the crewmember who made the most movies that will be watched on their 100th anniversaries and beyond is the cinematographer, John F. Seitz. During his impressive career (he shot over 160 films) his work included Sullivan’s Travels(1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Blvd. (1950). You can find an appreciation of his work on the later by David Williams on the American Society of Cinematographer’s website.

This was one of his

John Francis Seitz was born June 23, 1892 in Chicago, and in 1909 he went to work for Essanay as a lab tech. In 1916, he became a cinematographer, and he was signed by Metro in 1920. He was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but he never won. In 1960, he retired to work on photographic inventions; he held 18 patents. Karl Brown wrote a charming summation of his character in 1922:

John F. Seitz, A.S.C., is the student type of cinematographer and he is as quiet and self-effacing as a cuckoo clock when it isn’t cuckooing. If you want to know anything about Seitz you have to ask Roy Klaffki, John Arnold, Al Siegler or some of the other members of the Metro staff, for John is too busy doping out the next scene to talk about Seitz…Compared to John F. the oyster is an orator and the starfish a noisy roisterer, but he did loosen up enough to acknowledge that it really was he who photographed The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Say Goodbye to the Top Hat: Week of March 12, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed Douglas Fairbanks’ latest movie. She didn’t know it, but the story of an inventor who, as the intertitle says, “invents things to please his girl, and then invents ways to get out of the trouble his inventions cause him,” was his last silent comedy. After some nut puns that I won’t inflict on you, she wrote:

There’s no doubt that The Nut will be a dough-nut for Doug. It’s bound to make money. One kind of nut Fairbanks never is and that’s a chestnut. And never was he further diverged from that species than in the picture which opened to crowds, both under shelter and in line out in the rain, at the California yesterday. The Nut has the freshest, most spontaneous, whimsical humor which Fairbanks has presented in a long time.

If Los Angeleans were willing to stand in the rain, they really must have wanted to see the movie! Fairbanks made The Nut before he knew what a huge success his most recent film, The Mark of Zorro, was. Kingsley didn’t compare that to this film, but reviewers who did liked The Nut much less than she did; Exhibitors’ Herald thought it didn’t measure up to Zorro and it was “a hodge-podge with much ado about nothing,” (March 26, 1921, p.64) while Film Daily thought it would disappoint fans after the swashbuckler, and it didn’t “provide the star with the sort of opportunities which allow him to employ his usual line of comedy stunts and certainly doesn’t tax his athletic ability.” (March 13, 1921, p.2)

There were enough good reviews for pull quotes in the trade ads, however

Fairbanks biographer Tracey Goessel defends the film, which is available on the Internet Archive. She writes that The Nut is neglected today, “which is a pity, for it represents an unusual genre in the silent era: a screwball comedy.” She also thinks it has “surrealism worthy of Buster Keaton,” especially when he’s trapped outside in his underwear, so he cuts out a suit from a billboard and tries to wear it home. She mentions that it made as much money as many of his other modern day comedies, but not nearly as much as Zorro. That, plus the critical response, must have helped Fairbanks to make his decision to make adventure films. His next one was The Three Musketeers.

The Nut might be neglected by most people now, but not by Ardman animator Nick Park. In Fairbanks’ film, the opening shows him using his own inventions to get him out of bed, drop him in his bath, and dress him. Park introduces his inventor in the same way in The Wrong Trousers (1993).

As an added bonus at the California Theater this week, Kingsley mentioned that the audience was treated to a musical number:

The record for song hits in picture houses was broken yesterday for the singing of “Becky from Babylon” stopped the show, applause continuing for 10 minutes.

The song came from a Broadway hit, The Passing Show of 1921. It was a nifty novelty song, but it’s not obvious why the audience loved it so much. Maybe the singer, not named in any of the ads, was particularly good at putting it over. Here are some lyrics:

Down at an oriental show
I saw a dancer there;
Her name was Princess “Oy-vay-is-meer”
And she was from the east somewhere.
When she removed all of her veils,
I recognized her face,
This Hindoo lady was a Yiddish baby.
And she came from a certain place–
She was

Becky from Babylon
(I know her mother, I know her brother)
Becky from Babylon,
(She’s got it over Madam Pavlowa)
She learned her oriental ways
As a waitress lifting trays,
She got her famous pose
From washing her mother’s clothes.
Becky, She fools with snakes
(Oh what a twister, you can’t resist her)
She’s full of tricks and fakes, Oh,
She’s no daughter of the Pyramids,
Her right name is Becky Bifkowitz,
Ev’ry one thinks
That she is a Sphinx,
But she’s Becky from Babylon (Long Island).

Doubling for Romeo (I’m not convinced that his legs are newsworthy)

Fairbanks also appeared in Kingsley’s column later this week. Will Rogers was shooting a dream sequence for his upcoming film, Doubling for Romeo, that was Fairbanks satire with an athletic sword fight set in the distant past. So after only one movie, that’s what Fairbanks was known for!

Rogers had to wear tights for the part, and Kingsley reported “there was quite a quota of the feminine Goldwyn contingent gathered about the set, with every fair one pronouncing Rogers’ legs very good to look at.” Rogers didn’t mind this a bit, saying, “Course I got good-looking legs. How else do you suppose I managed to stay in the Follies for four years?”

Gee, I wonder who leaked that news to Kingsley. Nevertheless, she also added an interesting bit of trivia: “That prince of make-up artists, Lon Chaney, made up Rogers for the part. Heretofore Rogers hasn’t bothered about make-up.” Who knew that Chaney helped out his fellow actors with their make-up?

Untrustworthy Parents: Week of March 5th, 1921

Jackie Coogan

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed someone who’s now primarily known for his effect on California child labor laws. Knowing how difficult it was to make a chat with a six year old into an interesting article, she accompanied The Kid’s co-star Jackie Coogan and his mother on a trip to Venice Beach and described their adventures. Now that we know his parents spent most of the money he earned, some of the details in the article seem like red flags: they travelled there in “the big Packard limousine which Jackie gave his mother for Christmas,” and when he was asked if he likes school, he said “no ma’am, you don’t make any money there.”

The Giant Dipper roller coaster at Venice Beach, 1916

But in 1921, Kingsley assumed they had his best interests at heart, and she reported that he had a wonderful day at the beach. He rode the roller coaster, the plunging lion and the merry go round, but his mother wouldn’t let him go up in the hot-air balloon. He got to visit with a particularly smelly goat and see the high-powered peanut roaster. He built a sandcastle and ate hot dogs and doughnuts for lunch. He also told her he had plenty of fun working on The Kid, running around the lemon grove next to the studio with Chaplin and studying the bugs and worms they found. She left her readers with this joyful snapshot of him:

“But most of all he loves riding on his one-boy power velocipede, camouflaged as an automobile. He’s a human dynamo, and the last I saw of him the other day as he swooped down the walk in front of his house, he was calling over his shoulder: “Gee, Hollywood’s the place!”

Lillian, Jackie, and John Coogan

That’s part of the reason the public was so shocked when in 1938 Coogan sued his mother and stepfather to recover his earnings. After his success in The Kid, he went on to become one of the top box-office draws in Hollywood, starring in films like Oliver Twist (1922) and A Boy of Flanders (1924). But as he grew into a teenager, his career took a downturn. According to his biographer, fellow child star Diana Serra Cary, he’d been told that his father had saved his earnings and he had a million dollar trust fund, which would begin to be released to him on his 21st birthday. He received only a check for $1000 that day. He hated conflict, so he didn’t speak to his mother and stepfather (John Coogan had died in a car accident in 1935) about the fund until 1938, when, at the urging of his wife, Betty Grable, he asked and learned that there was no trust fund. John and Lillian Coogan had lived off of their son’s earnings, and he’d been lied to for years. He filed a suit against Lillian and her new husband for an accounting of his assets and to retrieve 4 million dollars of what he’d earned. After a long fight in the courts, in 1939 he settled for $126,000.

Jackie Coogan earned his salary!

What the public hadn’t realized was that it was perfectly legal for his parents to spend his earnings: under California law a child’s wages belonged to their parents. The California Legislature quickly passed The Child Actor’s Bill, which made child performers’ earnings their property and requires parents to open a blocked trust fund account (which came to be called a Coogan account) where 15 percent of child performers’ gross earnings must be deposited. The law, which has been amended since then, currently also regulates schooling, work hours, and time off.

There are still a lot of problems with exploitation of children who work in entertainment (and of course, anything else). The other 85% of the money is supposed to be used to pay taxes, commissions, and other job-related expenses, but some greedy parents find ways to keep it for themselves. Just like Jackie Coogan, young stars like Macaulay Culkin and Gary Coleman ended up suing their parents for squandering their wages, according to the Hollywood Reporter. So stronger laws and better enforcement would be a really good idea. Furthermore, there are Coogan laws in only three other states: New York, New Mexico and Louisiana. In the rest, parents still own their child’s earnings.

Jackie Coogan, late 1930’s

Jackie Coogan went on to have an eventful life. He served in the Air Force as a glider pilot in World War 2, and when he returned, he became a television actor. After he played Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, he worked steadily until his death in 1984.

Diana Serra Cary, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003.