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.

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