One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had news about yet another young actor’s big break:
One of our handsomest war flyers, and a member of the United States Naval Aviation Corps during the late war, is the latest addition to the ranks of motion-picture stars. He is Ensign Elliott Sparling, and he is to be featured in a company just organized by the veteran picture producer, Oliver Sellers, which will be known as the Oliver Sellers Productions.
Under the contract signed by Elliott Sparling yesterday, the young actor is to be featured in a series of pictures adapted from the William Leighton western stories, published in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.
Young Sparling is the son of George A. Sparling of Ashland, Wis., who has wide business interests throughout the State. The boy was prominent in theatricals at Wisconsin State University, and later played a short time in vaudeville and in a small stock company in the Middle West. When the war came along, he at once volunteered and was accepted by the flying service, and remained in service four years, during most of the time he was assigned to southern waters.
As usual, only some of that was true. Elliott Walford Sparling was born March 8, 1899 in Ashland, Wisconsin, so he was too young to have served during the first World War. His father was George Sparling, but his business interests were limited to owning the New England Store in Ashland. It was the town’s largest dry goods store (it’s still there, but it’s a gift shop), so the family was comfortable, but not millionaires. The younger Sparling did attend University of Wisconsin at Madison and was the Freshman class president in 1918-19. He married fellow student Marguerite Krauth on October 25, 1919 and they both left the University. By January 1920 when the Census was taken, the newlyweds were living with their respective parents and he was working as a car salesman. Their daughter Elizabeth Ann was born August 14, 1920.
So after such an eventful few years, he decided to try his luck in Hollywood. He had some reasonably good fortune at first, getting uncredited parts in films like Double Stakes, staring Gladys Brockwell and Charge It with Clara Kimball Young. Then he was hired by former Ince production manager turned director Oliver Sellers, and he played the juvenile lead in The Able Minded Lady, which was based on a William Leighton western story. But he didn’t leave much of an impression on one reviewer: Matthew Taylor in Motion Picture News didn’t bother to catch his name and dismissed his character as “the boob cowboy.” The Leighton stories didn’t become a series, and Sparling didn’t work with Sellers again.
After that, his acting career was stalled. But he did something to get it moving that was much more interesting than the usual vanity project. He co-founded the Perfect Picture Company with Don Gamble, who had worked on The Able-Minded Lady with him, and they made the first 3-D feature to be publicly screened. They leased the rights to the stereoscopic process from its inventor, Harry K. Fairall and his business partner, John Seward, and made The Power of Love. Set in Spanish California times, Sparling starred as Terry O’Neill, a sea captain who comes to trade with the ranch owners. He meets Maria (Barbara Bedford) whose father (Noah Beery) has betrothed her to a man she loathes. After various adventures and narrow escapes O’Neill proves the loathsome fiancé is a thief and wins the girl.
The Power of Love did get attention in the press, but probably not quite what Sparling wanted, because the journalists who wrote about the film ignored the actors and concentrated on the technology. The first screening in Los Angeles on September 27, 1922 was a big success, according to W.E. Keefe in Moving Picture World. The “large audience of motion picture people at the Ambassador Theater” got to see a prologue showing views of the Yosemite Valley, and the five-reel feature, The Power of Love. Keefe reported that “the entire performance was enthusiastically applauded.” He described how the process worked:
There are projected on the screen simultaneously two positive prints superimposed, which have been photographed at the same time through a single camera having two lenses, separated a distance equivalent to the position of human eyes. Viewing the pictures through the spectacles having a blue and a red lens, which are complimentary colors, makes possible stereoscopic vision, each eye seeing a single picture of its own.
Keefe was mightily impressed by it:
You are apt to forget that you are looking at a picture because the scenes seem so real and lifelike that you imagine you are seeing the living characters enacting their various roles. The picture takes on the aspect of real life and the audience experiences the effect of gazing through an open door upon the real panorama of nature and life itself instead of visualized shadows on the screen. With this process, the third dimension on the screen has graduated from a theory into an actual reality.
Even though the process worked well, they only screened it once more in 3-D in New York. According to Exhibitors’ Herald, they tried to sell the film on a combination of a states’ rights basis in some areas, and road shows in the rest of the country, but they didn’t get any buyers. In 3D Power, Daniel L. Symmes speculates that because it required two linked projectors, two prints, and glasses, distributors balked at the cost.
To recoup some of the money they spent, Perfect Pictures retitled the film The Forbidden Lover and in 1923 sold a 2D version to Selznick Distributing Company. Frank Elliott reviewed it in Motion Picture News and said: “The story is laid in southern California in the old Spanish days which theme gives opportunity for eye-pleasing costumes and picturesque interiors. But because of the fact that the action treads along the well beaten track, the interest lags at times as it becomes an easy matter to picture the ending soon after the beginning.” However, “Mr. Sparling, who appears as Terry O’Neill, a sea captain, presents a rather imposing appearance on the screen and looks as though he might do well in heroic roles.” Both versions are considered lost.
Despite the good review, Sparling gave up his acting ambitions. By the time of the 1930 census his wife and daughter had joined him In Los Angeles, and he was working as a real estate agent. In 1940 he was divorced and calling himself an inventor in the census. On his 1942 draft registration, he said he was working in camera manufacturing. He died on October 21, 1945.
The inventor of the stereoscope process, Harry K. Fairall, did not give up quite yet. Born May 14, 1882, by 1910 he owned his own photography gallery in Highland, California (a small town in San Bernardino County). His 1918 draft registration says he was a cameraman for Douglas Fairbanks and in 1920 he told the census he was a mechanic at a motion picture studio. The failure of The Power of Love to get distribution in 1922 didn’t discourage later investors; in 1925 the Binocular Stereoscopic Film Co. incorporated with $100,00 capital and they planned to manufacture his cameras. The company quietly folded, and by 1930 he was a still photographer at a motion picture studio. He died on July 20, 1958 in Los Angeles.
Frank Elliott, “The Forbidden Lover,” Motion Picture News, September 29, 1923, p.3047.
“Forbidden Lover,” Motion Picture News Booking Guide, October 1923, p.22.
W.E. Keefe, “Stereoscopic Films,” Moving Picture World, October 21, 1922, p.660.
“Lee in Camera Company,” Film Daily, November 9, 192, p.1.
Jane S. Smith and Michael J. Goc. Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Ashland The Garland City of the Inland Seas. Friendship WI: New Past Press, 1987.
“Power of Love to be a State Right Film,” Exhibitors’ Herald, November 11, 1922, p.32.
Matthew A. Taylor, “The Able Minded Lady,” Motion Picture News, February 11, 1922, p.1030.