This is part of the National Silent Movie Day Blogathon. Be sure to visit the other entries!
To celebrate National Silent Movie Day, I want to remember a lost film. The Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all American silent films are gone. Some are mourned because they were an important part of film history, like Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) and F.W. Murnau’s Four Devils (1928), but most are utterly forgotten, even ones that provided “excellent entertainment.” All we have left of the filmmakers’ hard work are reviews, ads, and still photos.
On this day in 1924, Los Angeles Times film journalist Grace Kingsley noticed how much film people already liked to make movies about themselves in her review of The Legend of Hollywood:
Hollywood is getting to be the greatest heroine of them all! I wonder what she thinks as she sits on her seven or eleven hills and looks at herself in the movies!
She is the heroine again in The Legend of Hollywood, which is the attraction at the California, and which provides excellent entertainment whether you feel that Hollywood is done entire justice to or not.
Everyone having been funny about the town—or melodramatic—Frank Condon, who knows his Hollywood, took it into his head to show up the other side of the pattern that fate weaves about the ambitious screen folk. So he takes a whack at the soul drama.
And what types he gives us! The heroine (ZaSu Pitts) is a perfectly hopeless girl from a small Middle West town, who has about as much chance of making good in pictures as Emily Fitzroy would as a trapeze performer, or as Mildred Harris would have in writing a dictionary.* She is homely, without the slightest sex appeal, with no dramatic gifts and she ends by being a waitress in an actors’ boarding house. The hero (Percy Marmont) is an author, who believes in himself, but who can’t get any producers to put on his stories. Not much of a hero or heroine—just folks, but as such full of the great commonplace drama of the world.
If you expect to see breast-beatings and eye-rollings, don’t go to the California. If you do want to see a bit of plaintive life unrolled, you will like the picture.
Well before Argo (2012) or even Sunset Blvd. (1950), Hollywood has found itself to be fascinating.
Legend was based on an article written by newspaperman-turned-magazine writer Frank Condon, from the March 1924 issue of the fan magazine Photoplay. Film production moved fast then: the movie was funded, written, staffed, shot, edited, and in theaters just five months later!
Condon’s article recounted some gossip he’d heard in a drug store on Hollywood Blvd. and again at a party at Adolph Menjou’s house. A failing scriptwriter’s landlady threatened to evict him in a week, and in desperation, he filled seven glasses with wine, put poison in one of them and shuffled them. He drank one a day. On the seventh day, he drank his final glass. Just as he was certain to die, he received a check for an accepted story. Then he learned that the boarding house maid, who loved him, had replaced the glass. He married her and they presumably lived happily ever after. Condon tried to track down the screenwriter but hadn’t been about to find him. So Photoplay offered a thousand-dollar reward to the man, if he’d let them publish his name and photograph.
By August 1924, nobody had come forward to claim the reward and the mystery hadn’t been solved. It was probably just an urban legend; after all, playing Russian roulette with wine is an excessively strange way to die by suicide. In her review Kingsley pointed out another big problem with the story: Hollywood aspirants didn’t live in boarding houses, “they live in apartments and single rooms, the poor ones cooking and washing for themselves.”
Kingsley wasn’t the only reviewer who appreciated The Legend of Hollywood. Wid Gunning in the trade magazine Film Daily admired it, but he recommended:
Don’t herald this as greatest of the year, but you can sell it pretty hard as exceptionally human and appealing story of real life in Hollywood. Properly exploited it should get good business because of the interesting life of studio workers. It is slender and really is characterization study centered on two players. There is one great idea and some corking suspense developed up to one good climax which makes it much more effective than many yarns that have twenty times as much material with none of it carrying a wallop.
As it is you will have to sell your gang on the fact that this is an exceptionally human, real story of the real struggles of folks who try to get into pictures in Hollywood.
Selling a quiet character study that aspires to art has always been a problem. Variety saw the same difficulty: “The Legend of Hollywood has more substance to it than the average picture for the neighborhood theaters, but it has been spread too thinly over too much territory.”
Legend did not fare well in those smaller theaters. Even in 1924 there was a big disparity between what critics liked and what audiences wanted. Exhibitors’ Herald published notes from theater managers about what the audiences thought of the movies they ran, and their reactions to Legend were blunt and nasty:
- “The Pathe slow motion pictures have nothing on this. It is the slowest dragged-out picture we have ever run. Poor business.” (Crescent Theater, Newark NY, November 29, 1924)
- “Rotten, in fact so rotten that we have had to dodge some of our patrons for the past two weeks. One patron asked for money back—another said he’d have gone mad if it would have lasted 15 minutes longer.” (Kreighbaum Bros. Char-Bell Theater, Rochester IN, March 7, 1925)
- “Absolutely the worst picture I ever played. I can see no excuse for any company issuing such a film as this and also having the crust to charge the price they do. Take my advice, brother exhibitors, and stay clear of this and, if you have it booked, tell them to keep it even if you have to pay for it.” (W.A. Doerschlag, Stand Theater, Ransom KS, April 25, 1925)
Despite this, the people involved with Legend had much better luck in Hollywood than John Smith and Mary Brown. Percy Marmont went on to a long career on stage and screen, including co-starring with Clara Bow in Mantrap (1926) and playing David Livingstone in a 1936 biopic. Zasu Pitts’ career was equally varied. She was mostly known for comedy (particularly for a series of 17 shorts she made with Thelma Todd for Hal Roach in the early 1930’s) but she was also Erich von Stroheim’s favorite dramatic actress, and her work in Greed (1924) was especially memorable. Director Renaud Hoffman continued to direct and produce low-budget films throughout the 1920’s, then he became a screenwriter.
But the most successful crew member was the cinematographer, Karl Struss. He went on to shoot Ben-Hur (1925), Sparrows (1926) and The Great Dictator (1940). He won the first Best Cinematography Oscar, along with Charles Rosher, for Sunrise (1927) and he got nominated three more times, for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Sign of the Cross (1934) and Aloma of the South Seas (1941).
To answer Kingsley’s question about what does Hollywood think of herself, The Legend of Hollywood’s version of the story was that aspiring to make movies is awfully unglamorous, difficult, and often in vain. So let’s preserve what we can of what did get made.
Happy National Silent Movie Day!
*Emily Fitzroy was a theatrical and film actress who often played society women and mothers, and being a trapeze performer probably never crossed her mind. However, Kingsley’s remark about Mildred Harris was unkind. She had been a child actress, so her education might have been inadequate for dictionary writing, but people only thought she was stupid because her ex-husband said she was. When she was 16 years old, 29-year-old Charlie Chaplin married her, and when they separated the following year, he told people she wasn’t his “intellectual equal.” The poor woman had enough trouble without nasty remarks from Kingsley!
Frank Condon, “The Legend of Hollywood,” Photoplay, March 1924, p. 34-36, 114-117.
“The Legend of Hollywood,” Variety, December 3, 1924, p. 31.
“The Legend of Hollywood on the Screen,” Photoplay, August 1924, p. 34.
David Pierce, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.” September 2013.
“Simple But Effective Little Story of a Writer’s Struggles,” Film Daily, December 25, 1924, p. 82.
“What the Picture Did for Me,” Exhibitors Herald, November 29, 1924, p.75.
“What the Picture Did for Me,” Exhibitors Herald, March 7, 1925, p. 80.
“What the Picture Did for Me,” Exhibitors Herald, April 25, 1925, p. 70.