One hundred years ago this week, there was a Hollywood story that was everywhere, except for Grace Kingsley’s column. Even on a slow movie news week like this one, she didn’t feel the need to add to the discussion. The rest of the film world was busy figuring out how to deal with the news that Clara Smith Hamon was coming to town.
Until late March, Hamon’s story had been on the front page, not the entertainment page. After a Trial of the Century (they seem to happen regularly) she had been acquitted for murdering her lover, oilman and rising power in the Republican Party Jake Hamon. Their story has been told several times online; the most detailed articles are by Ron J. Jackson Jr. for The Oklahoman and by Paul Johns for the Christian County Headliner News.
The short version is that in 1910, eighteen year old Clara Smith was working as a dry goods store clerk in Lawton, Oklahoma where she met thirty-seven year old Jake Hamon. Even though he was married to Georgia Perkins Hamon, he began a relationship with her and hired her as his “personal secretary.” By 1915 Clara was tired of just being his mistress, but his wife refused to divorce him. In 1917, he wanted to go back into politics so he paid his nephew Frank Hamon to marry and divorce her, so she would legitimately have the name “Mrs. Hamon” when they traveled together. In 1920 he was angling for a Cabinet position in the Harding administration, and Mrs. Harding (Georgia Hamon’s second cousin) told him he could only bring his legitimate family with him to Washington. On November 21, 1920 Clara and Jake were staying at the Randol Hotel in Ardmore, Oklahoma and following a noisy fight, Jake came down the stairs with a gunshot wound. He died five days later. Meanwhile, Clara went to Mexico. By the end of December, authorities convinced her to return, and her trial for murder began on March 1st, 1921. Newspapers covered it daily. She testified that he had attacked her, and the gun in her hand went off when he swung a chair at her. The case went to the jury on March 17th, and after deliberating for 39 minutes they came back with a verdict of “not guilty.”
To cap off the trial coverage, on March 19th she held a press conference and she announced she was going to Hollywood to make a movie about her life and the trial. She wanted it to be “a warning to young girls.” William Ernest Weathers, an oil man from Fort Worth, was named as the film producer and her manager.
Reaction from the film industry reaction was swift, because they were already dealing with censorship problems. The Photplaywrights’ League of America immediately issued a resolution asking every exhibitor to refuse to show any film based on the Hamon case; the group’s president said “right now, when everybody is talking about cleaning up the pictures is a poor time to permit the exploitation of a woman like Clara Smith Hamon.” The next day the Affiliated Picture Interests of California had passed a similar resolution condemning the exploitation of vice and crime, and they were followed by exhibitors’ associations in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and New York. *
Next, film workers announced they would boycott the production. The film laboratories in Los Angeles said they would refuse to develop or print the film. The American Society of Cinematographers said they’d throw out any member who shot the film and their magazine, American Cinematographer, praised Rene Guissart when he turned down an offer of $500 a week to shoot it. (directors of photography usually made between $100-150 per week then.) When Andre Barlatier took the job, they made good on their threat and ended his membership (but by 1923, they’d quietly let him back in).
The Los Angeles Times ran some fiery editorials. One that appeared on March 25th said: “if this sort of ‘great moral lesson’ is to be put upon the screen it is desirable that the characters be wholly fictitious and that the shameful sinners win no éclat and profit out of it. The whole moral of any such film production must inevitably be defeated if the soiled heroine is herself exploited in person and profiting handsomely by the ‘horrible example’ … Any talk about lofty moral principles and motives in such a production is sheer cant and pretense on the face of it.”
By July 3rd they hadn’t changed their minds. A piece called “Frightfulness” said, “an incredibly indecent form of mental cruelty is about to be inflicted upon the real Mrs. Jake Hamon and her children if Clara Smith Hamon is permitted to go through with her film production of her sordid life story…The whole thing is disgustingly indecent, superlatively brutal; and any precious ‘moral’ the picture is expected to portray can have no possible weight against this deliberate, cold-blooded torture of living victims.”
Undaunted, Hamon arrived in Los Angeles on April 22nd. She told an L.A. Times reporter that “I am not here seeking pity. I have never asked for it. All I want is a fighting chance to make good. There are some in the motion picture industry who are endeavoring to discredit my sincerity and who are striving to prevent me from producing motion pictures.”
Nevertheless, Weathers’ film company was able to find people willing to work with them. As Variety observed on June 1st, “there is no fear that the company will be shy of actors, for the studio offices are swamped daily with applicants for work.” They hired John Ince, the brother of Thomas Ince, to play Jake Hamon and they found John Gorman, who had directed a few low-budged features for his own production company, to write and direct. He was promised ten percent of the profits. Director Marshall Neilan said in Variety that nobody in Hollywood had heard of him before.
Work began on the film entitled Fate on June 1st and they finished in mid-August. By the end of that month, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry had called for a ban on showing it. The Los Angeles City Council prevented it from being screened there, so they took it to San Francisco where the local district attorney banned it on September 3rd. Nevertheless it played at the College Theater for one day on September 4th, and the police arrested the film’s producer and confiscated the print. W.E. Weathers asked for a jury trial and was promptly acquitted, so it did have a run at the College Theater, but attendance was bad. An editorial in Photoplay pointed out that even though newspapers gave the story notoriety, the public, “tired of cheap sensationalism, of threadbare emotions, of dirt thinly veneered, it has reacted to the side of the newspapers—and to the side of all right thinking producers and exhibitors the country over. The film was first boycotted in San Francisco. Where record breaking crowds were expected, the picture played to a sparsely filled house. And the film was withdrawn.”
It was shown at a few theaters around the country, but neither the writers at the AFI Catalog nor I could find any reviews of it. Everybody forgot about it pretty quickly, and now it’s lost. But it was a dry run for the industry’s reaction to the Arbuckle and the Taylor scandals that were soon to come.
Clara Smith Hamon got to live down her notoriety. She married her director John Gorman on August 22nd, just after they finished shooting their film. They divorced on June 23, 1925; she testified that “he was a grouch, and he drank; he made me very unhappy.” By 1930 she was unemployed and living in an apartment in Los Angeles. In 1932 an enterprising L.A. Times writer followed up on her and reported that she hoped to become a professional writer, and she had set sail on January 4th to gather material for articles. Ship records back him up: she arrived back in Los Angeles from France on the President Van Buren on August 14, 1932. However, I haven’t found any articles or books authored by Clara B. Gorman. After that, she disappeared from public records. Perhaps she married again and changed her name.
*I had no idea there were so many local organizations. The film industry really wasn’t centralized yet.
“Brady Brands Film as Offensive Plans Ban,” San Francisco Call, September 3, 1921.
“Cameraman Disciplined,” Variety, June 24, 1921, p.38.
“Call for Ban on Fate,” Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1921.
“Clara and the Films,” Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1921.
“Clara Hamon Film Exhibitor to Fight Ban of S.F. Police,” Los Angeles Herald, September 5, 1921.
“Clara Smith Hamon Freed,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1925.
“Clara Smith Hamon is Acquitted of Murder,” Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1921.
“Clara Hamon’s Here to Fight,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1921.
“Clara Smith Hamon is Making a Pictures,” Variety, June 1, 1921, p.1.
“Clara S. Hamon Weds Director,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1921.
“Close-Ups,” Photoplay, February 1922, p. 39.
A Condensed Course in Motion Picture Photography, NY: New York Institute of Photography, 1920.
Terrel DeLapp, “Jake Hamon’s Women,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1932.
“Equity Against Hamon Film,” Camera, June 4, 1921, p.3.
“Frightfulness,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1921.
“Hamon Girl to Film Her Past,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1921.
“Member of A.S.C. Refuses Record Offer to Film Clara Smith Hamon,” American Cinematographer, May 12, 1921, p.1.
Marshall Neilan, “New Pointers on Pictures from the Trade Schools,” Variety, July 8, 1921, p.30.
“Orders Films Censored Here,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1921.
“Screen Interests Protest Clara Hamon in Films,” Motion Picture News, April 9, 1921, p.2442.
”Screen Writers Protest Alleged Hamon Exploitation,” Camera, March 19, 1921, p.3, 18.