Getting Ahead of a Problem: Week of July 30th, 1921

Editing Foolsih Wives

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a film executive who did his best to anticipate trouble:

It is estimated at Universal City that Foolish Wives, the $1,000,000 super-feature, will be released early in October. Erich von Stroheim, who directed it, is now making the first screen cut. It will be ready for its preview on the 15th when censors will arrive at Universal City from all over the country to view the production, and confer with Irving G. Thalberg, general manager, at Universal, as to whether Foolish Wives needs the scissors in spots, or whether it may be shown just as it stands.

Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg was good at his job. Only 22 years old, it’s no wonder he’d been promoted so quickly at Universal. There was plenty in his studio’s million-dollar investment to horrify censors; von Stroheim’s story of a con artist who seduces and swindles rich women in Monte Carlo featured lechery, adultery, gambling, murder, arson, suicide, plus abuse of a mentally disabled girl. Von Stroheim made sure that his villain was utterly villainous! So Thalberg planned a week-long junket to flatter a collection of censors. The Los Angeles Times reported on his program:

Members of the official censor boards of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and of the cities of Detroit and Kansas City, assembled in Chicago as guests of Carl Laemmle of the Universal Film Company, will leave today for Los Angeles.

The party will arrive in Los Angeles at 2:40 p.m. Sunday, August 14, over the Santa Fe. Harry M. Berman, general sales manager of Universal, will be in charge of the delegation.

After a brief reception at the station at which Mr. Thalberg will welcome the members of the commission to Southern California on behalf of Carl Laemmle, the party will be motored to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Stanley Anderson, managing director of the hostelry, will participate in entertaining them. Following a dinner at the hotel, the censors will receive Los Angeles newspaper writers, representatives of the motion-picture trade publications and correspondents of news services.

Festivities during the first day of the censors’ stay include a luncheon at the studio, a tour of Universal City, a trip to Santa Monica, sea bathing and a barbecue. In the evening the members will be the guests of the Emanuel Presbyterian Brotherhood at a meeting of particular interest to those concerned in censorship.

Tuesday will be devoted to a personally conducted tour of other picture studios, where the censors may see for themselves just how things are done, and to a luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel, followed by a motor trip through Pasadena.

As by this time the censors should be in high, good humor, they are to experience the “great moment” of their visit. They’re going to be allowed to take a peek at Eric von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives.

Wednesday will be a gala day. The guests will be conveyed to Universal city early in the morning for an animal circus at the Universal City arena. A.C. Stecker, chief animal trainer, will put on a thrilling animal act. On the same day the censors will meet such celebrities as Priscilla Dean, Harry Carey, Gladys Walton, Frank Mayo, Eddie Polo, Marie Prevost, Art Acord, Eileen Sedgwick, Lee Moran, Bert Roach and the battalion of noted Universal directors.

This event will lead up logically to the entertainment at Sunset Inn of the noted guests, with no less seductive a person than Priscilla Dean as hostess. And just as if this weren’t enough merriment for one week, the censors will be the guests next day of Harry Carey at his western ranch.

Once more Foolish Wives will be shown the censors, this event happening on Thursday evening, when the guests will be asked to comment on the picture. Eric von Stroheim will be present, too, and will make a little talk.

If there is anything in the picture’ the censors don’t like, it is likely to be forgotten next day, when they will be taken on a trip to Catalina Island, where they will be the guests of William Wrigley, Jr., and Sunday will be devoted to religious services according to the preference of the visitors.

They kept them busy! Thalberg’s wining and dining of the censors worked, at first (no wonder people called him the Boy Genius). According to Motion Picture News, by the end of their trip the censors gave Foolish Wives their official approval; after seeing a 24-reel version of it they

were sincere in their praise and but a few minor changes were suggested. “The consensus of our opinion,” said Harry Knapp, who acted as chairman of the censors in their convention, and who is also chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors, “is that the picture will prove a highly interesting entertainment when it is finally shipped into the more contracted shape required for public exhibition.

What happened next was beyond Thalberg’s control. Over the following weekend the events leading to the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal happened, and he was arrested on September 17th. Public opinion turned against the perceived corrupting influence of Hollywood. Thalberg responded by ordering extensive editing of Foolish Wives, which delayed its release.

By the end of November, Exhibitors Herald reported that von Stroheim was off the project. They thought that it was at his own request: “After having attempted for several months to get the world’s most expensive motion picture production cut down to exhibition length, Eric von Stroheim has given up the task. Either that of General Manager Irving Thalberg of Universal has taken it away from von Stroheim—probably the former.”

Foolish Wives premiered in New York in January 1922, and the controversy didn’t hurt it a bit. On January 14th, Kingsley reported:

Now that von Stroheim’s great feature picture, Foolish Wives, has made a sensational hit in New York, as—according to a telegram received yesterday by Irving G. Thalberg, from President Carl Laemmle—it has, Universal officials are drawing a long breath, and are preparing for the biggest invasion of the field of picture are which Universal has ever known.

However, the New York State Censorship Board demanded more cuts even after it opened. According to von Stroheim’s biographer, Richard Koszarski, another 3500 feet were eliminated; “audiences attending New York’s Central Theater during January 1922 could watch the film wasting away, literally day by day, until it had lost a full hour.”

It opened in Los Angeles in that ten-reel version a month later on February 15th. Kingsley’s boss Edwin Schallert reviewed it, and had a mixed reaction: “There is much, nay a tremendous lot, to admire in settings, acting and photography. There is a great deal, on the other hand, to find fault with in the matter of continuity, drama, and theme. This much is certain, however, that Foolish Wives is utterly different from anything that has come to the silver screen. There is nothing commonplace or trite about its manner or its method.”

It stayed at the Mission Theater until the end of March; they estimated over 100,000 people saw it at that one theater alone.

Now it’s a considered a classic. In 2008, it was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry. People still write about it, and it has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes!

 

Jay Balfour, “Von Stroheim Gives Up Task of Cutting Special,” Exhibitors Herald, November 26, 1921, p.36.

Harry Hammond Beall, “Personality of Film Folks has Conquered Censors,” Exhibitors Herald, September 3, 1921, p. 32.

“Censors Approve of Foolish Wives,” Motion Picture News, September 3, 1921, p.1195.

“Censors Enjoy Varied Views of Studioland,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1921.

“Censors Pleased with Foolish Wives; Few Suggestions of Eliminations Made. Moving Picture World, September 3, 1921, p. 52.

“Censors Show Their Talents in Acting,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1921.

“Film Censors Coming Here,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

“Foolish Wives is to Close Tuesday,” Los Angeles Times, March 26, 1921.

Grace Kingsley,” Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1921.

Richard Kosazrski, Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim, New York: Limelight, 2004.

Edwin Schallert, “Foolish Wives Haut Realism,” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1921.

Summer Doldrums: Week of July 23rd, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, movie news was stuck in the late July doldrums and Grace Kingsley was at her desk, reporting on other people’s plans to get out of town. Actress Ruth Renick was off to Montecito and Virginia Valli was touring Southern California in her car. Among the directors, Frank Lloyd was sailing to Hawaii for a month, and Rex Ingram was mapping out of tour of Europe, where he planned to make movies.

Yikes! If Ingram hadn’t gone to Europe, we might not have I Know Where I’m Going — director Michael Powell had his first film experience on the set of Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1926) in Nice, France

Kingsley didn’t just have to write about other people’s fun, the movies she had to review weren’t particularly good. Little Italy was “a sort of jitney Romeo and Juliet with two American-born young Italians of rival families.” However, the film begins with their wedding, and she thought there wasn’t a good reason for the feud to continue. Eventually a baby solves everything. Kingsley observed “how many a suffering scenario writer, up a stump as to finishing a story, has been found with child, and all was sweetness and light!”

She also sat through Raoul Walsh’s The Oath, which to her was “another fine superstructure built on sand. Built so that it topples at a comic and absurd angle, just when it should be most compelling.” This one was about a Jewish girl who marries a gentile boy, but it descended into melodrama when the boy is suspected of murdering his father and the girl “goes around tearing her hair and beating her breast for no reason whatever, except to spin the yarn out to five reels, and at the end she goes and stands on a rock like a bathing beauty, waiting to suicide.”

The stills from The Fighting Lover that Moving Picture World ran are a little dark.

Finally, she endured The Fighting Lover, a mystery involving diamond theft starring Frank Mayo that had a real problem: “The scenes are always so very dark that you haven’t an idea of what is happening.”

Matters were so dire, that she was reduced to complaining about the stuff publicists were pitching her:

Whatever would the poor publicity men do nowadays without the stories concerning—

* The faithful old gate man who didn’t know the picture producer on his own lot, and tried to put him off, but was so much appreciated that he got promoted to being inside doorman?

* The joke about “stills” and prohibition?

* The heroine rescuing the heavy man from a watery grave?

* The crowd not knowing it was a picture being taken, etc., etc.

* The father that found his long lost when he sighted her working as an extra in a picture?

* Not to mention the young ladies who get lost and wander away into the brush?

Luckily, Kingsley had only two more weeks until her vacation began.

I hope your summer is more fun than hers was!

They had a lot to correct: Week of July 16th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the set of the first commercially released feature film made by Chinese-Americans.* She reported that the production company was named Wah Ming Motion Picture Company and they were headquartered in Boyle Heights. Their movie was called The Lotus Blossom and it was based on a Chinese fable, “The Soul of the Great Bell,” which told the story of a bronze bell whose making required a virgin sacrifice. They had been working on it for three months and were almost done. The production cost around $100,000 and they already had a distributor lined up, the National Exhibitors’ organization.

They had high hopes for their film. The star, Lady Tsen-Mei, told Kingsley, “I want to make the world see that Chinese people are as artistic, as intelligent, as capable of accomplishment as any nation in the world.” The supervising director and scriptwriter, Leong But Jung, also wanted to educate audiences, saying, “you see, we can appeal to the whole world for China through the pictures. Therefore, we are carefully maintaining a balance. We are making them according to universal appeal, full of feeling and action, and yet we are remaining true to Chinese history and tradition.”

Unfortunately, the drawings that illustrated Kingsley’s piece as well as some of the rest of the article demonstrated exactly why they needed to inform the public. Robert Day’s cartoons were straight-up racist, with pidgin English and captions like “most people think the Chinese are tongmen or laundrymen.” Kingsley at least admitted to embarrassment for assuming Lady Tsen Mei didn’t speak English and asking a companion if “the dear little heathen’s daddy wears a pig-tail” right in front of her. The star quickly interrupted, “displaying utter savoir-faire in not permitting me to further entangle myself,” and Kingsley was able to recover and chat about the project. The actress must have gotten a lot of practice fending off ignorant remarks.

Lady Tsen-Mei

Lady Tsen-Mei told Kingsley some untruths about herself; she said she was born in Canton to a noble family and came to the United States when she was three. After graduating from the law school at Columbia University she went into vaudeville. She was actually born in Philadelphia in 1888, and her name was Josephine Moy. She didn’t get to attend college, but she did go into vaudeville as a singer and actress in 1915. In 1918, she starred in a film for the Betzwood Film Company, For the Freedom of the East. After The Lotus Blossom, she went back to vaudeville. She was in one more film, The Letter (1929). If you’d like to learn more, Ramona Curry is working on a biography about her.

At the premier, actresses Bessie Wong and Anna May Wong were among the people who greeted the audience.

The Lotus Blossom premiered in Los Angeles in November 1921. The L.A. Times main critic, Edwin Schallert, admired it, writing “it contains much of the beauty which is associated with the Far East of high imagining. It doesn’t flinch, either, at an unhappy ending, although there is an epilogue which shows the lovers, who have been separated by death, reunited as shadows. Except for some abruptness in the approach to the climax, the story is a very interesting and a truly appealing one. It is told with a fine sympathy for the leading characters.”

The Lotus Blossom only ran for a week on Los Angeles, but it did get distributed nationally, on a state’s rights basis.

1919 trade ad. Before he made The Lotus Blossom, he was a technical advisor.

To coincide with the film opening, Kingsley interviewed Leong But Jung, who had anglicized his name to James B. Leong. He had dissolved the Wah Ming Company and founded the Chung Wah Motion Picture Company. He was planning to make four films per year, and the first was to be called The Bond of Matrimony. Set in Korea, he said it would illustrate ancestor worship. Eventually he hoped to start a studio in China. Unfortunately, the company disappeared after that. Leong became a character actor in Hollywood. In 1930, he re-named his film Daughter of Heaven and it played at the Filmarte Theater in Los Angeles. A fragment has been preserved at the UCLA and can be seen on the More Treasures from American Film Archives DVD.

If you’d like to learn more, Rudy Martinez, a member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board, wrote a well-researched three-part blog series about the film.

* In 1917, Marian Wong made the first Chinese American film in Oakland, California, a six-reel feature called The Curse of Quon Gwon, but it didn’t get commercial distribution. You can read more about it at the Women Film Pioneers site. 

Kicking Up their Heels: Week of July 9th, 1921

Cocoanut Grove

One hundred years ago this week, an estimated 100,000 Elks invaded Los Angeles (population 576,573 in 1920) for their annual Grand Lodge Reunion, aka convention. According to Grace Kingsley, they were everywhere. Of course, they sampled the local night life, and she reported:

The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador is a lively little jungle these days, with the Elks and picture stars foregathering there every night for a little stepping, with tonight the night of the grand ball.

Buster Keaton unselfishly introduced his bride, Natalie Talmadge, to no less than twenty-five admiring Elks. One of these Elks, by the way, insisted on dancing with Natalie three times in succession. Evidently he hadn’t caught her name when introduced, and he didn’t know she was married. He was an energetic stepper, a trifle stout, and between steps he managed to remark “Wish I might call to see you some day!” “We’d be pleased to see you,” answered Natalie demurely, and that seemed to be all there was going to be of the incident for the time being. But when they stopped dancing the Elk managed to whisper to Keaton:

“She’s a peach. I like her.”

“She is,” acquiesced Buster. “So do I.”

“Let’s call on her,” suggested the Elk.

“All right,” said Buster.

And isn’t that Elk going to be surprised.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge

Keaton and Talmadge had just been married on May 31st, and plainly at that point no Elk would come between them. What’s remarkable now is that movie stars could go out in public without worrying about their safety.

Mary Newcomb

Kingsley had another tale of an Elk getting swatted down. Mary Newcomb, who was playing a journalist on stage in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath at the Majestic, got a mash note from a man in the audience:

Dear Miss, I’m a poor lonely Elk, wandering the wilderness of Los Angeles and scared every minute of being shot or, anyway, half shot. I think you’re the cutest girl I ever saw on stage. Will you take supper with me this evening?

Somehow, that invitation did not tempt her, and she graciously declined.

The Elks were a bunch of party animals! The convention lasted five days, with events held in different, far-flung locations* each day. Monday was Redondo Beach Day, and the Los Angeles Herald reported, “The Elks took a flying start yesterday on their week of festivities and landed in Redondo Beach with such a wallop that the earth vibrations will not cease for many days to come.” Tens of thousands of them turned up in the small town. In the morning, they gathered at the local Elks clubhouse for a reception and barbeque. Many lodges had their own band, and they played under every tree. Elks went for a swim and visited the boardwalk, and “the streets throbbed with their shouts of greeting and their laughter.” They held swimming and diving competitions. At 4 o’clock, they had a Marine Fashion Review, which was a parade with 85 women in bathing suits riding in cars followed by Elk marching bands and drill teams from Michigan, Texas, Colorado, California, and Washington. From 5 to 7 o’clock the bands went back to performing throughout Redondo Beach, and at 8 o’clock they held a dance. The fireworks were at 9:30, and the day ended with a midnight “girlie” show (no other details were given in the family newspaper about that event).

There weren’t enough hotels to hold them all, so some Elks camped out in Exposition Park. Here are Mr. and Mrs. William Sparks and their tent.

Tuesday was Santa Monica’s turn, and on Wednesday they were in Inglewood, Thursday in Long Beach and Friday in Pasadena. No one place could withstand the invasion for too long!  Exposition Park also hosted drill and band competitions and barbeques, and the city closed the streets of downtown several times for parades, including an evening electrical parade put on by the movie studios. The local newspapers helpfully published the program, so locals could observe or avoid the proceedings as they chose.

The new Grand Exalted Ruler, W.W. Mountain 

A little club business did get done; on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings they had meetings at the Philharmonic Theater in downtown L.A., where they elected W.W. Mountain their new Grand Exalted Ruler (the president) and the rest of their leadership, and they picked a place for next year’s convention, Atlantic City. However, the Herald reported: “meanwhile the 100,000 or more Elks and their friends and families who are guests of Los Angeles were kicking up their heels at the beaches and other Southern California amusement centers. They eschewed business worries, leaving such affairs to the officials of the lodge, who are supposed to look after these things.”

 

Busch Gardens, 1921

They also made the tourist rounds, with sightseeing trips to the movie studios, boat trips to Catalina, and a visit to Busch Gardens.

By all reports, the convention went smoothly, and everyone had a pretty good time. As Kingsley observed, “how the Elks will ever be able to go back to their humdrum lives now, I don’t see.” But afterwards, I bet the locals were happy to have a little humdrum back in their town.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was staying true to its founding principles: it got its start in 1868 as a social club for minstrel show performers called the Jolly Corks. As a private club, they didn’t have to obey tavern opening laws. As their web site now emphasizes, the group raises money for worthy charities, veterans, and college scholarships, in addition to socializing. However, for a long time the organization left a lot of people out; black men couldn’t join until 1973 and women weren’t allowed in until 1995 (though there were unofficial ladies’ auxiliaries). Atheists and anyone not an American citizen are still excluded.

*The whole convention was an amazing logistical feat. Redondo Beach is about 24.5 miles Southwest of downtown L.A., Santa Monica is 15.5 miles West, Inglewood 17.5 miles Southwest, Long Beach 24.5 miles Southwest and Pasadena is 9 miles North. Tens of thousands of Elks got around the city by the Pacific Electric Railway. Even though our public transportation has improved a bit lately, I don’t think it could be done today.

Jake Berman made this much easier to read map in 2018

Girls Will Be Boys: Week of July 2nd, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noticed a worrying trend in movie-going:

Is it going to be the fashion this summer in our picture houses to present vaudeville acts and musical numbers which shall overtop the film features? It begins to look that way.

The California is stepping right out this week with a vaudeville star in the person of Kathleen Clifford, who sings the same sort of daintily spicy little songs, and dances the dainty dances which she gave us at the Orpheum a few seasons ago. Miss Clifford is a rare little artist in her own field, in fact there’s no one quite like her, and the applause she received yesterday must have gratified her. Her songs are the piquantly naughty “She Took Mother’s Advice” and “It Can’t Be Done in Crinoline,” with costumes to match.

Kathleen Clifford, 1920

Kathleen Clifford had been on the stage for nearly two decades, often in a kind of act I’d never read about before: she was a male impersonator. While Kingsley had written about female impersonators like George Peduzzi and the young women who sometimes played boys in films, like Shirley Mason in Treasure Island, I hadn’t known that there were several successful male impersonators in vaudeville; so many that a book has been written about them, Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage by Gillian M Rodger.

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1887, Kathleen Clifford started out in a Broadway chorus in 1902, and was promoted to supporting player in musical comedies in 1903. She moved into vaudeville in 1909, when she introduced her solo act in which she played both male and female characters. She was billed as “The Smartest Chap in Town,” and she sang comic songs and danced. When she played the Orpheum in June 1918, Kingsley’s review said, “one of the big hits of the year was scored by Kathleen Clifford, the pocket Venus, with her daintiness and vivacity, her piquant comedy and her “chappie” songs.”

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

In 1917 Paramount Studio hired her to make a serial called Who Is Number One, in which she played a boy. She alternated between movies and the stage for the rest of her show business career, appearing as a woman in When the Clouds Roll By (1919) with Douglas Fairbanks, Kick In (1922) and The Love Gamble (1925), and both a boy and a girl in Grandpa’s Girl(1924) for Christie Studio. In 1926 she married Miomir Peter Illith, a vice president of the United California Bank, and retired a few years later.

Outshining the feature that day might not have done her career a favor, because she was its leading lady. Then again, it sounds like she couldn’t have saved it: even kindly Kingsley thought it stunk:

They’re certainly digging deep down into grandpa’s barrel of best sellers in Boyhood Blood-and-Thunder Books when they put on a story like Cold Steel. It’s all about a man wrongfully accused of murder by a pack of cattle kings out West and how his son went out there to build a dam and clear his father’s name. The villains were going to blow up the dam while the workers were away at a dance. As a man sitting back of me put it— “They were going to blow out the dam while the hero was away at a damn blow-out.” Only, of course, the hero arrived in time to shoot away the dynamite fixing (from a distance of about half a mile apparently) before the villains could complete their hellish work. Of course, there were kidnappers and kidnappings and wild chases. And, of course, the king-pin villain drives over a cliff. It’s all very wild indeed.

In short, Cold Steel is a cold steal from all the old mellers that ever were thought of.

Kingsley made no mention of Clifford’s acting ability, saying only “Miss Clifford happens also to be the heroine of the feature picture, Cold Steel.” It’s a lost film.