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.

3 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Filmmakers: Week of June 25th, 1921”

  1. If I were Chaplin I wouldn’t want to waste anytime sleeping either. I recall a film clip of Chaplin, near the end of his life, and though I don’t know the context, his answer was said volumes. “Life,” he said, in that halting shaky voice of his, “is … wonderful.” And I am sure it was.

    Liked by 1 person

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