Competing with Conrad Veidt: Week of May 7th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an unusual Monday morning announcement from the Goldwyn company:

The feature of the first session of the Goldwyn sales convention at the Culver City studios yesterday was the announcement of F.J. Godsol, chairman of the board of directors, that the Goldwyn company owns no German pictures and does not intend to purchase any. This sets at rest the rumors regarding the importation of Teutonic films. Mr. Godsol said:

“The Goldwyn company owns no German pictures and has no intention of buying any. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the only picture with which we have been in any way concerned. We do not own this picture, but merely released it through our distributing corporation. We have no intention of releasing any more German pictures.”

At a time when studio staff members were stampeding to Europe, why would a company suddenly want to disown all German productions? The answer was on Sunday’s front page: there had been a great big protest on Saturday at Miller’s Theater, which was showing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The Goldwyn company wanted to run away from the controversy as fast as they could.

May 5, 1921

That initial story in the L.A. Times made it sound like the reason for the protest was residual anti-German sentiment left over after the war. They reported that hundreds of former servicemen in uniform from the American Legion’s Hollywood Post picketed and rioted in front of Miller’s for more than six hours. During that time, “two mob rushes had been attempted, rotten eggs had been hurled and police and provost guard forces had been reinforced until they numbered thirty-five men.” At 8:30 p.m., the theater owner Fred Miller announced that he would replace Caligari with The Money Changers, and after an attempt by the mob to pull down the theater marquee that still read Caligari, they disbursed—some of them to see the replacement film. The reporter called it a complete victory for the American Legion.

May 9, 1921. The Money Changers was based on an Upton Sinclair novel which told the story of a young newspaper reporter hunting down a gang of opium smugglers.

However, the Legion had a protest partner that the Times didn’t mention until the 14th paragraph: Actors’ Equity (possibly because the paper had a history of being anti-labor). Fanchon Royer, in the pro-actor and pro-union magazine Camera, told a different side of the story:

 Probably the Los Angeles actors’ greatest victory to date was accomplished last Saturday when a concentrated demonstration by them forced those in charge of Miller’s Theater to remove the German-made Goldwyn release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which had been booked, we understand, for an indefinite run at that house, and replace it with an American picture. The film colony, well organized this time, turned out en masse to dignifiedly see justice done. We were present and great was our gratification to observe that the remonstrating crowd was made up not only of the hundreds of screen performers who are unemployed, and have been, in some cases, for months as the results of decreased American production and to whom, therefore, the menace of this foreign intrusion which threatens the very life of our industry, has been brought home; but that it was composed also of many of their more fortunate brothers and sisters who happen to be yet under contract.

You wouldn’t know it from Kingsley’s cheerful columns, but the filmmaking industry in Hollywood was in a slump. Actors’ Equity had been concerned about competition from foreign production for several weeks, after Ernst Lubitsch’s Madam Du Barry, re-titled Passion, played in American theaters. It does make sense to worry about competing with Lubitsch!

The American Legion dropped out of the fight, but Equity took it to Congress and on June 4th, its president John Emerson declared that they won because they’d convinced the Ways and Means committee in the House of Representatives to add a 30% ad valorem duty to foreign made films to a tariff bill. This would bring the cost of them to distributors up to the same level as American productions. However, a bill in a committee is a long way away from a law and Equity dropped the ball. Editorials were written against it; for example Motion Picture News called the duty “our crowning sin of ineptitude” and pointed out that retaliatory tariffs would keep American films out of foreign markets, which would cost American producers 25 million dollars a year. Equity didn’t keep up the pressure on their representatives and by the next April, when the House finally sent the bill to the Senate, the foreign film tariff had been removed. The rest of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff was signed into law on September 21, 1922.

November 6, 1921

Nevertheless, Los Angeles audiences were not deprived of Caligari forever. Several German films including Deception (1920, aka Anne Boleyn) and Gypsy Blood (1920, based on Bizet’s Carmen) had been shown without a peep of protest from either the Legion or Equity, so in November Goldwyn and Miller decided it was time to try again. They had a hit, despite the Los Angeles Herald saying “from all reports the picture is a sure fire cure for people who usually cannot prevent themselves from falling asleep in a movie theater.” A November 23rd editorial in the Times summed it up:

It is rather bewildering to learn that the German picture, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was mobbed out of a Los Angeles theater last spring, is now competing its third big week here at the same house, having packed the seats. A rather amazing reversal of sentiment to say the least.…Sober reflection and a little further investigation have shown them that the German producers are not in danger of sweeping all competition from the earth.

Kingsley ran an anecdote about how two audience members responded to it:

“Don’t know where they get it, but two of ‘em were standing rather unsteadily on their feet out in front of Miller’s the other night after a performance of Dr. Caligari.

“Shay,” said one to the other, “wish you’d tell me what that picshure is (hic) about?”

“Aw, shut up!” said the other. “You ain’t supposed to know what (hic) it’s about. It’s a German picture.”

Eventually, Hollywood delt with competition the way they usually do: just steal from it. On October 13, 1922 Kingsley reported:

It would appear that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is to have an American rival. That is, so far as the weird and uncanny are concerned. The rival is a film version of Earl Carroll’s play, The Attic of Felix Bavu, which Stuart Paton is to produce for Universal…It has a Russian atmosphere of the revolutionary period, and the hero is somewhat crazed by the happenings he has seen in connection to the war. An uncanny series of events promises shudders to the film fans.

Wallace Beery starred in Bavu

The film was called Bavu and it was released in 1923. It’s lost, so we can’t see how much it was influenced by Caligari. When Kingsley got to see a preview, the German film wasn’t at the top of her mind and she wrote “the whole atmosphere of the picture is reminiscent of one of de Maupassant’s most ingeniously tragic tales.” However, Calgari’s lighting and set design did become a building block of Universal’s horror film style, and reams have been written about it.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

“Bavu,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, April 28, 1923, p.1106.

“Plenty of Thrills and Meller Action in Bavu,” Film Daily, April 13, 1923, p.12.

“Bible Picture Episodes Show,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1921.

“Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is Back Again,” Los Angeles Herald, November 7, 1921.

“German Movies,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1921.

“Humbled Again,” Motion Picture News, August 27, 1921, p. 1059.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1921.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1922.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1923.

“The Lancer,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1921.

“Money Changers at Miller’s Theater, Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1921.

“No German Film Here,” Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1921.

“Public Demonstration Wins Withdrawal of Foreign Made Picture,” Exhibitors’ Herald, May 21, 1921, p.35.

Fanchon Royer, “An Anticipated Triumph,” Camera, May 14, 1921, p.3.

“Senate Gets Bill,” Film Daily, April 12, 1921, p.1-2.

“Weirdly New,” Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1921.

“Win Tax Fight on Foreign Made Films,” Los Angeles Herald, June 4, 1921.

4 thoughts on “Competing with Conrad Veidt: Week of May 7th, 1921”

  1. Censorship, isn’t it great? But I’m Royer and everyone else had no problem with the fact that the US films had dominated in foreign countries’ film theatres before the war and in the 1920s too. That’s okay to push foreign production virtually out of business and to dominate public culture in other countries, but one film from one country was going to put all US film actors out of work (it wasn’t the countries but the economy). Same argument white people used to racially profile and subjugate/discriminate against Chinese and Japanese, “They’re stealing our jobs! They’re heathen!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “from all reports the picture is a sure fire cure for people who usually cannot prevent themselves from falling asleep in a movie theater.”
    This appears to be a classic case of what linguists refer to as “misnegation,” or what happens when you pile too many double-negatives on top of each other. A person who “usually cannot prevent themselves” from falling asleep is a person who usually sleeps at movies. If “Caligari” will “cure” this, it means that said person will, in fact, stay awake.
    Which probably isn’t what the writer meant to convey.

    Liked by 1 person

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