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.

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