Two Kinds of Filmmakers: Week of June 25th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley gave her readers a glimpse behind the scenes of the three biggest stars in Hollywood. Even in 1921, she divided them into two kinds of artists: workhorses and geniuses. She began by describing the daily routine for two workhorses, Douglas Fairbanks, then shooting The Three Musketeers, and Mary Pickford, in the middle of Little Lord Fauntleroy:

“Douglas is an early riser, and everybody in the house, guests and all, have to get up when he does,” explained Mary Pickford the other day. Then Doug takes his exercise and cold shower, and the two breakfast together at 7:30 a.m. Both are always at their studios around 8:30 a.m., and are ready for work at 9, when everybody else arrives. Both work all morning like beavers, taking scenes, after short conferences with their directors.

The Three Musketeers

Lunchtime wasn’t time for a rest, instead:

“The two stars, with their business managers and associates, have lunch in the pretty little Japanese lunchroom, which is a dainty bungalow offering a quaint comparison to the haphazard outdoor surroundings of sets, cowboy rough riders, stables, automobiles and rambling frame buildings. They’re really an odd and amusing looking pair at lunch, at present—little Mary in her velvet Fauntleroy suit and her long, yellow curls, looking like a very proper little boy guest of the athlete, and Doug in his picturesque, swashbuckling D’Artangan outfit—especially when the two begin talking about American business.”

Then it was back to work in front of the cameras:

After lunch, which usually consumes an hour or an hour and a half, especially if some of the United Artists officials happen to be present with weighty business questions to be discussed, Mary goes over to her studio at the Brunton lot—she usually drives over, though it’s only across the street from Doug’s studio and the lunchroom, because she doesn’t think it seemly for her to be trotting about in the Fauntleroy duds.

On the Three Musketeers set

They kept working until a time that now seems extraordinarily reasonable:

Douglas and Mary usually stop work with the 5 o’clock whistle, go into their projection rooms with their directors to see the “rushes,” and then they go home to dinner at 7, after which the usually see a picture in their own projection room at their Beverly Hills home. “Usually the picture is a travelogue,” said Mary. “The travelogues are educational as well as being restful and taking us out of our everyday humdrum lives.”

Then Douglas’s French teacher comes, and sometimes Mary sits in with Doug on his lesson, but more often, thoroughly tired from the day’s grind, she goes to bed.

Chaplin was working on The Idle Class

There was no glamour to report on here! Kingsley contrasted their “humdrum grind” with Charlie Chaplin’s working methods:

Charlie Chaplin works in an entirely different fashion. He is a late riser and usually has breakfast in bed. Then he comes down to the studio and usually talks over his scenes and ideas with his company, managers, actors, everybody frequently sits in on the conclaves. But before the discussion takes place Charlie usually wrinkles a bit over the day’s actions. “I usually sweat blood when I first come on the set and see all those people,” declared Charlie to me. “Ideas a fugitive and elusive things, and to track one down is strenuous mental exercise. Don’t talk to me about inspiration. Let’s speak rather of perspiration.”

It must be remembered that Charlie is three people—author, director, and star. The author has the first innings. Charlie the author is always in search of new ideas, new gags. When he arrives in the morning he is likely to go about moodily by himself for an hour. Or sometimes he kids about, playing with the dogs on the lot, of which there are half a dozen, as Charlie always adopts the ki-yis which work in pictures with him.

Then, when an idea strikes him, he mulls it over a little, and then, becoming all animation, dashes over to the set to talk it over with his company—Manager Alfred Reeves, players, and everyone, and then, having held rehearsals and planned the afternoon’s work, he goes to lunch, returning full primed for an afternoon’s hard work.

And when he does get started working, how he does work! He labors so fast and so brilliantly that the ordinary mind can hardly keep pace with him. His ideas are wonderfully clean-cut, and he won’t stop making a scene until it suits him. While to the rest of the company a scene may be right, he frequently sees something wrong with it. He is patience personified in this, despite his usual restless brilliancy. He will work until the daylight fades, as he hates artificial lights, and refuses to have them installed in his studio.

He has a rather mischievously perverse habit, has Charlie, say his professional associates, of loving to find a corner of the set that hasn’t been properly finished, and insisting on its being finished and working in that corner. No other place will do.

It must be trying to work for a genius. His evening habits were also the opposite of the Pickford/Fairbanks homebodies, but according to Kingsley, he was still at work:

The comedian keeps the cook and butler in a constant daily ferment as to whether he’s going to keep his date to dine at home or whether he will go to some café for dinner…He is always seeking ideas and types.

However, this seeking of ideas after work is fairly subconscious for the most part, as usually he’s a gay nighthawk, and the brightest member of any bright party he may join. He likes the company of clever women, and frequently sups with Florence Deshon or most often with May Collins, his reputed fiancée. Miss Collins often, chaperoned by her mother, spends the evening at his home, and here too gather clever writers like Rupert Hughes, Edward Knoblock, Gouverneur Morris and others.

Sid Grauman is a great friend of Charlie’s too, and often Charlie joins Sid in the latter’s midnight vigils at the theater when Sid is rehearsing or trying out new acts, and often as late as 3 o’clock in the morning the two wander into some downtown open-all-night café, where they kid, play practical jokes on each other, or discuss business or artistic matters.

Take him all in all, Charlie belongs to the Sleep-Haters’ Club.

So before the studio era, there wasn’t one way to be a filmmaker. Now what’s striking is that both kinds of filmmakers kept much more humane work hours then nowadays — modern film crews would love a nine to five workday.

A Fractured Flicker: Week of June 18th, 1921

The Toss of a Coin (1911) Mary Pickford, Irvin Willat

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley used revivals as a stick to hit new releases with:

It looks as though the revival disorder was beginning to hit pictures, as well as the stage. Judging from some of the newer features, it doesn’t seem a bad idea at that. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation started it. *

This week there are two other revivals. One is a Norma Talmadge picture, A Daughter’s Strange Inheritance, and the other is a Mary Pickford film of even earlier vintage. The Mary Pickford picture is a pippin. It is at Miller’s, is called The Toss of a Coin, and some wag has written a set of kidding subtitles that are a scream.

The film was made before Kliegs were discovered, when nobody thought of styles of clothes in pictures, and when the simplest story was a wonder and delight. You can tell Mary by her curls; otherwise she might be Sarah Bernhardt or Carrie Nation. All the people in the picture are now well-known film folk, including Miss Pickford, Ethel Grandin, Irvin Willat, Edward LeSaint, and others, and all appear in flashes taken at their homes, as a sort of epilogue to the story, except Miss Pickford. Can’t imagine why she didn’t get clubby and do it too.

She probably didn’t want to even think about The Toss of Coin, because filming it had been a miserable experience, according to Pickford biographer Scott Eyman. It was the first film she made under her contract with Carl Laemmle’s IMP company in 1911. He sent the cast and crew to Cuba to avoid the production being shut down by the Motion Pictures Patent Company (IMP wasn’t a member), but the heat and humidity there made everybody miserable. Furthermore, the script wasn’t very good** and the crew wasn’t experienced, particularly compared to what she’d been working with in her previous job at Biograph. Thomas Ince directed it, but he’d been a director for less than a year. Her leading man, Irvin Willat, wasn’t even an actor, he was a film lab technician–they needed a leading man close to her age. Pickford stuck with it, making more than twenty films in Cuba, but she ended up breaking her contract three months early, saying she’d “taken ill.” She returned to New York, Biograph and D.W. Griffith.

The other participants went on to successful careers in film, and could laugh at their earlier work, but Pickford, who had the most success, was sensitive about it. For a time she did think about burning all her films, so people couldn’t laugh at them – at least that’s what she said in 1931, according to biographer Eileen Whitfield. However, by 1945 she’d changed her mind and donated the prints she had to the Library of Congress.

The Toss of a Coin was playing with erstwhile leading man turned director Irvin Willat’s latest film, Down Home. I think it was probably his idea to give it the Fractured Flickers treatment. In addition to the joke intertitles, the Los Angeles Herald review mentioned “the reel is put on in the nickelodeon style, the out of tune piano accompaniment being a realistic reminder of the days when million-dollar motion picture houses had not even been dreamed of.” It screened only at the one theater. When Kevin Brownlow interviewed Willat in the late 1960’s, he asked if he had kept any films. He showed him his copy of Toss, but by then it had solidly decomposed. I’ll bet that was this print. No other prints have been found.

Kingsley observed, “why is every producer who starts out to make a so-called clean picture obsessed with the idea that its scenes must be laid down on the farm?”

Kingsley really didn’t like Down Home, saying:

 and while it may be cruel to say it, it does seem as if he had used a good deal of the old ‘makin’s’ in this modern film.’ There’s the suffering young heroine with the drunken father (wonder how the poor old fellow could afford it?) the city slicker trying to get the old farm away from the gal because, by heck it has salt deposits on it; the strong, noble young blacksmith hero, and all the rube types.

Down Home has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

It’s possible that Mary Pickford didn’t have the time to film a bit for the epilog. Kingsley reported that she was so occupied making Little Lord Fauntleroy that she:

went shopping for the first time in five months. In fact, she says, all her shopping has to be ‘window shopping,’ she is so busy. As to window shopping, she and Douglas occasionally enjoy an auto trip downtown at night, when she drives past the stores, and has great fun peeking at the styles. She says that if Douglas is bored, he never lets on.


* The week before, a re-edited version of The Birth of a Nation had started playing at the Garrick Theater. It seems to have been selling plenty of tickets:

Irvin Willat in The Toss of a Coin, from Robert S. Birchard, “Conversations with Irvin V. Wiilat,” Film History, v.12, pp. 29-40, 2000. 

** Motion Picture News (August 19, 1911, p. 26) had a recap of The Toss of a Coin, and it’s hard to see how joke intertitles fit in. It is a lot of story for one reel: it nearly takes longer to read it than to watch it!

Dan Gardner, a young man, is down and out. Arrested as a tramp, he is thrown into jail and forced to associate with disreputable characters. He is released and with but a single coin in his pocket.

Arriving at a bridge, he gazes into the water and his thoughts turn to suicide. He reaches in his pocket, extracts the coin and flips it up. Heads he dies and tails he lives. Fate is against him and he is about to carry out the decree when his preserver, Farmer Barton, drives on the scene. Mr. Barton is bound for the village to hire a man to assist him in his farm work. Dan is more than anxious to secure employment and accompanies the kind-hearted farmer home. Dan is fitted out with clothing and takes up his quarters in a detached cabin on the farm.

Alice Barton is the rosy-cheeked daughter of the farmer, and has attracted the attention of Ed White, the sheriff, who released Dan from jail. Dan and the girl are thrown much into each other’s society and the new farmhand loves her. Assisting her one day in the field where she has sprained her ankle, the truth is forced home to him. He realizes the difference in their stations and resolves to leave the farm and go out in the world again. He flips the coin and once more fate decrees that he should do that which is not satisfactory to him.

The two thieves who were released from prison with him come to steal the money of the farmer and, while Dan is temporarily absent from his cabin, Alice comes to bring him some socks she has darned. Ed White, the jealous sheriff, notices the action and mistrusts the girl of being unduly intimate with Dan and informs her parents. Dan arrests the scoundrels, holding them up at the point of a gun, and they are turned over to the sheriff, but his indignant at the accusation of White and is about to leave the farm when his deed of heroism is made clear to the farmer, who has implicit faith in his daughter.

Dan and Alice have a pretty little love scene and Dan is welcomed by the honest old farmer as his prospective son-in-law to the discomfiture of the sheriff, who sought to prejudice the old man against him. All ends happily for Dan and he has at last found a home among kind and loving friends.

An Aspiring Feminist: Week of June 11th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed director Allen Holubar because his latest film, Man-Woman-Marriage, was about to open in Los Angeles. Now he’s forgotten, but back then his opinions were taken as seriously as Cecil B. De Mille’s and Erich von Stroheim’s. He was most known for his female-centered films; Kingsley wrote:

In dwelling on women’s problems in pictures, Mr. Holubar never treats them academically or radically, but always humanly, from the dramatic standpoint. In Hearts of Humanity, it was woman’s suffering through war which was the principal theme; in The Right of Happiness it was woman’s participation in the new economic and social order of things since the war; and in Man-Woman-Marriage the principal story is that of the woman who, having borne all she could from a brutal husband, goes out into the world to earn her own living and incidentally to help other women and their children. In all these pictures, there has been more than mere story—there is in all of them a carefully thought out theme, food for thought in philosophic treatment, and the clash of wills which makes human drama.

In part, he did this to give his wife, actress Dorothy Phillips, meaty roles that could showcase her talents. But he also seems to have thought of himself as a feminist. Unfortunately, his gender essentialism hasn’t aged well. He told Kingsley:

 It is the fear of woman that makes men often unjust to them. Yet men need not fear. The mother instinct in women will make them more or less docile, whether they are armed with power or not. And it is mother instinct that will make women want to take care of the world in politics as well as in the home. There is a powerful revolution going on along feministic lines. Yet when it is fully worked out the changes will all seem quite natural. There is to be a greater equality of sexes in every way.

Mother instinct, bah humbug. Women want to be in charge of things for the same wide range of reasons men do. Nevertheless, he thought that equity was a good thing, and he sounds terribly earnest. You can’t hate a director who says, “my pictures have all been bad,” which Kingsley called “a really humble and seeking spirit toward his chosen art.” His films were quite popular, and critics took them seriously.

Man-Woman-Marriage (Dorothy Phillips, James Kirkwood)

Man-Woman-Marriage told the story of Victoria (Dorothy Phillips) who marries an ambitious young lawyer who runs for Senate. He soon becomes corrupted. To stop him, she decides to run against him. Eventually he gets caught and reformed by her visits to the prison. Throughout the film, she dreams about similar problems faced by women in five earlier times: the prehistoric era, the matriarchal Amazonian times, the age of chivalry, the Roman period, and the dawn of Christianity. This allowed Holubar to include what Kingsley called “a number of spectacular features, including the Court of Constantine, the dances created by Marian Morgan, notably the Amazonian dance, and some thrilling riding of Amazon women.”

Reviews were mixed. Edwin Schallert in the L.A. Times didn’t comment on the feminist themes, he was more concerned about the film’s structure. He wrote that it was not a “great feature, even though it has the qualities which go to make greatness…All the material is there, and it has been handled with expert tools, but the model has been broken up, and the statue that is taken from it is finished piecemeal, so that there is a leg of drama there, a cheek of comedy there, and the glamorous cloak of historical splendor elsewhere.” He felt that the film’s biggest problem was that “the modern story is arbitrary, however, and one loses his perspective along with his sense of proportion at times, while following abrupt changes. Still each section has a full complement of enjoyment, and while the result obtained is at times artistically bad, it is entertainingly good.”

Nevertheless, Man-Woman-Marriage tapped into something the public wanted. It broke attendance records at its East Coast premiere in February, and it played for an extra week in Los Angeles. The Times said “Los Angeles press and public have been united in praising the Holubar spectacle. Clergymen, clubwomen, teachers are telling its virtues and moral lessons.” It has been preserved at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

Allen Holubar, 1921

Allen Holubar was born in 1888 in San Francisco, and he became a theater actor in stock companies. He met his future wife Dorothy Phillips while they were both acting in the play Every Woman, and Phillips described that day for Kingsley:

He had been fishing and hunting on the West Coast, following his engagement as leading man at the Alcazar in San Francisco, and when I looked up, I beheld a very tall, brown, handsome youth gazing at me. Nobody introduced us, but I wished somebody would. Presently Allen came over to talk to me, anyway.

Awww! They got married in 1912. There was a downturn in the theater business, and they both went to work for Essanay Film Company in Chicago as actors. He started directing in 1916 at Universal.

He was famous enough that his name was used to sell his films, also like De Mille and von Stroheim

After Man-Woman-Marriage he only got to make three more films (Hurricane’s Gal 1922, Broken Chains 1922 and Slander the Woman 1923). He got sick while on location in Tennessee shooting The Human Mill and was taken back to Los Angeles for gallstone surgery. He died at home following the surgery on November 20, 1923. He had shot a lot of footage for his final film, and it was on Metro’s “Coming Attractions” list until 1925, but it was never completed. He might have been better remembered today if he’d had the chance to make more films. It’s a shame: it would have been interesting to see how his progressive ideas developed.

“Holubar Picture,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1921.

Man-Woman-Marriage, First National Film, Broke Paterson Attendance Records,” Moving Picture World, February 12, 1921, p. 800.

Edwin Schallert, “Reviews: Man Woman Marriage,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1921.

Advice to Leading Ladies: Week of June 4th, 1921

She recommends snagging Robert McKim, who “has a chance to be as devilish as possible” in this movie. Kingsley also threatened to write a book called The Crimes of Kid McKim because of all the dirty work his characters got up to, including as the villain in Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro

One hundred years ago this week, after seeing The Man of the Forest Grace Kingsley made some good points about bad guys:

If I were a screen heroine I’d marry the villain in the first reel, get me a good band of cowboys to protect me and my husband, and live happily ever after. Because it’s the villain’s faithful love for the heroine that’s always his undoing, despite the fact that he’s a right smart boy and usually a snappy dresser, in the bargain.

He just will kidnap the heroine and then, of course, it’s all off with him. What girl wants to be kidnapped without having even a chance to powder her nose? I really believe if the villain kept on with his cool plotting and didn’t let the heroine go to his head so, that he’d win out in the end.

Don’t wait around to marry Carl Gantvoort in the final reel! Kingsley thought that “Carl Gantvoort in the name part is due to become a film idol with the right opportunity.” That opportunity doesn’t seem to have come. He was former stage musical singer, and after a few more Westerns he left film acting in 1922 and became a real estate agent.

It’s a shame Kingsley didn’t write that movie! It would have added some variety to the usual fare. Of course, silent movie villains came in many shapes and sizes (Fritzi Kramer mentions that now, people need to be reminded that not all silent movie villains were Snidely Whiplash, even if many of them had moustaches that could possibly be twirled). There were many recent villains that I imagine Kingsley would not recommend marrying, like Erich von Stroheim in Blind Husbands or Lon Chaney as Blizzard in The Penalty

Robert McKim and Claire Adams in The Man of the Forest. Kingsley wrote, “Claire Adams as Helen Raynor is lovely, with her work realistic as always.” She later married the film’s producer, Benjamin Hampton, and she had a solid career in silent films until 1927.

The film that prompted these thoughts, The Man of the Forest, told the story of Helen (Claire Adams) who was visiting her uncle’s ranch to assist with a cattle round-up. Milt, aka the man in the forest (Carl Gantvoort), was also there to help and his attentions to her made the nearby ne’er do well bootlegger Harvey (Robert McKim) jealous.  So naturally Harvey kidnaps her and Milt rescues her. You can see why Kingsley’s mind might have wandered to an alternative plot, but it was exactly what the audience wanted; she reported:

Miller’s was packed all day yesterday. The crowds were amply rewarded, for there’s not a dull moment, as attested by their frequent applause.

So even though the film wasn’t a classic, a happy Sunday afternoon at the movies was had by all. It’s been preserved at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.