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 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.”
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.