A Trip Through Wonderland: October 16-31, 1921

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on yet another new arrival. For a change, she wasn’t an actress:

Ethel Sands, who has been writing a series of articles for Picture-Play Magazine, arrived in Los Angeles a day or two ago, and will be a guest of the Studio Club for the next few weeks while she gathers material in our studios for another series of “Adventures in Movieland.”

Miss Sands is not a professional writer, except by chance. She is just a fan who has worshiped the stars from afar since the early days of motion pictures. Many a motion-picture star has answered her request for an autographed photograph with a personal letter, because her letters are always so interesting and so full of genuine enthusiasm.

It was, indeed, her letters to the editor of Picture-Play that led to her present visit. They were so entertaining that he decided to have her write for his readers.

There followed many adventures for Ethel Sands. She made a test picture with Corinne Griffith; she appeared as an extra in a picture with Bert Lytell; she went shopping with Elsie Ferguson for the many wonderful gowns in Footlights; and the one and only D.W. Griffith invited her to Mamaroneck, N.Y. and showed her his studio. All these adventures she has already written of in Picture-Play, and now she has come to California to get some fresh thrills.

Ethel Sands did indeed get those fresh thrills, and her thoughts about them were published from March 1922 to March 1923 among other long-running series like “The Revelations of a Star’s Wife” and Kingsley’s own “Romances of Famous Film Folk.” * In the May 1922 issue of Picture-Play the editors said why they had commissioned it: they wanted their readers to feel that the magazine belonged to them, and Sands’ adventures were “a veritable trip through the wonderland seen as you would see it.”

Bebe Daniels’ mother accompanied her to a location shoot, and they had a pleasant chat.

However, a cynical modern person like me notices that her description of the film industry and its inner workings was incredibly wholesome and innocent at a time when the Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor scandals were raging. The Hollywood she wrote about was a place where star’s mothers cooked cozy dinners for their quiet parties, a big day out was a trip to the beach boardwalk, and everybody worked very hard. There wasn’t one cocktail or sex pest in sight!

A wild Hollywood party with Helen Ferguson. Noted stills photographer Donald Biddle Keyes took pictures of her adventures. Mary Mallory wrote a biographical article about him for her blog. 

Ethel Sands really was an ordinary movie fan. Her parents Paul and Louise Rodriguez named her Ethel Pauline when she was born in Manhattan, New York on March 10, 1901. Her father was a steam fitter. By 1910 her father had died and she was living in Queens where her mother was a live-in housekeeper for widower Clarence Miller (he was then a railroad flag man and later a house painter) and his four children. On April 2, 1912 her mother married Miller and by 1915 they’d moved to Plainfield, New Jersey.

In her first Picture-Play article (February 1921) Sands told how she got the job:

It’s funny how things will just be going on in a drab sort of fashion, and then all of a sudden something wonderful will happen that simply changes your whole life. That was the way with me; I’d been going to school and reading library books and spending my allowance on tickets to the movies—and then right out of a clear sky came a letter from the editor of Picture-Play, saying that he’d been interested in the letters I’d written to the magazine, and that he’d decided that I was a typical fan. And he went on to say that he’d like to have me come to New York and go to different studios, meeting the stars, seeing how pictures are made—all that sort of thing—and then write down my impressions of what I saw for Picture-Play. Well, you can imagine how excited I was.

Already, some of this wasn’t true. According to the census, by early 1920 she was 19 years old, had already finished her schooling, and was working as a saleslady in a department store. Perhaps they wanted her to seem younger than she was. I also don’t know why the editors didn’t want to use her real last name (she signed the one published letter I found “Ethel Rodriguez”), but I suspect that they thought their readers were prejudiced against Spanish and Mexican people.

Before she arrived in Los Angeles she had written a multi-part series about meeting East coast based film stars that Kingsley mentioned, and according to the fan letters the magazine published it was popular. Cora May Brentner of Cairo, Illinois wrote:

 When you started running the story of Ethel Sands’ adventures in the motion-picture studios, I just thought to myself that some reporter was going to try to be funny. I had a terrible suspicion that the whole thing was a fake! But before I had read very far in her first article, I knew she was real. In fact, she was the realest writer I had ever read, because she found out just the sort of things I’d like to if I were in her place.

Betty Phillips from London, England agreed: “Miss Sands tells us just what we really want to know about the movie folk and makes them seem very real people indeed.”

She had “simple, wholesome fun” with Harold Lloyd

Sands continued to seem real, and really enthusiastic, in her reports from Hollywood. She wrote “My, but it’s exciting—meeting one famous person right after another!” That’s exactly what she did during her many adventures, which included:

  • A surprise airplane ride with Betty Compson when they were supposed to be having tea (“It was a glorious sensation—I felt like a skyrocket!”);
  • Five visits to location shoots, including Buster Keaton’s in Chatsworth Park for The Paleface and Bebe Daniels’ on the water near San Pedro for A Game Chicken (“On a location trip everyone in the company seems to feel as though they’re out on a picnic, and you can get acquainted much better than in a studio.”);
  • Looking at the star’s homes with Lila Lee and Theodore Roberts (“They seem to be fond of having everything foreign…The streets are lined with palm, pepper, and eucalyptus trees—the strange types of houses all colors of the rainbow—seem so unfamiliar we almost forget we’re in the U.S.”);
  • Having dinner at Colleen Moore’s house (“the most enthusiastic person I have ever met in or out of pictures”) with her mother and grandmother, then a trip to the circus;
  • Visiting Santa Monica and Venice Beaches with Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis, where they bought balloons, ate hot dogs and cotton candy, and rode roller coasters, bumper cars, and flying boats. (“No one can ever tell me movie stars, no matter how famous they are, can’t enjoy simple, wholesome fun.”);
  • Attending a dinner party with Helen Ferguson at her mother’s house where they played parlor games and ate ice cream after dinner (“Parties are one of the main features of life in Hollywood, you know…It might have been any informal gathering back in my own town, except that the movie folks seem to get more fun out of things.”).
Sands had her hair done exactly like Gloria Swanson’s by Hattie Wilson, the stylist at Lasky Studio. To learn more about Wilson, visit Donna Hill’s blog

She noted every detail, down to what was in the box lunch served on the Bebe Daniels’ shoot: “a pint bottle of milk, two different kinds of meat sandwiches, a piece of cake or pastry, a bag of potato chips, some crackers, and an apple.”

She got to work as an extra in a bazaar scene of an Alice Lake film, Kisses. She appeared in a beautiful black gown with full hair and make-up, and she could even be seen in the finished film. She reported that they had to do the scenes several times and everybody but her was tired–she speculated that they were worried about their next jobs–and the director, Maxwell Karger, was yelling and tearing his hair out.

Her name was on the cover when her Valentino article appeared

However, her biggest thrill was meeting Rudolph Valentino on the set of Moran of the Lady Letty.  It was quite an experience:

He speaks in a low, deep, steady voice with just the slightest trace of an accent which makes it all the more alluring. I don’t know just what it was he said at first, because all I could do was just stare as if I was hypnotized. Then I looked at Dorothy Dalton [his co-star] to see if she was being affected that way too, but she didn’t seem a bit dazed, strange as it may seem, and was arguing about what was the hardest part of learning to ride horseback.

Then a publicist decided that Valentino should teach her how to ride. The studio’s wardrobe department loaned her riding clothes and a few days later they went to the Beverly Hills Riding Academy. The lesson didn’t go very well; he was quite patient, but she barely managed to stay on her horse. However, she was able to tell the fans exactly what they wanted to know:

When he looks at you his gaze is steady and inscrutable. In real life his eyes are more enigmatic than expressive, I think. He rarely changes his expression, it being nearly always a calm, rather somber look which keeps you puzzled and wondering just what are his real thoughts and feelings—except when he suddenly flashes a smile and coming unexpectedly as it does, you are more or less dazzled.

He revealed that he didn’t really like his role in Moran, and she mentioned that he smoked a great deal. He drove her back to the Studio Club and told her “it was a great pleasure.” She said she remained dazed for days after.

She finished up her series with an article called “What My Movie Adventures Taught Me.” She felt that her trip was a “post-graduate course,” and summed up her new knowledge:

I had an idea that life in Hollywood must be exactly like a Cecil De Mille picture…Perhaps it’s because his pictures overflow with riches and extravagance, and to the uninitiated the film business seems to be one of wealth and extravagance galore with its million-dollar productions and thousand-dollar-a-week salaries…It’s so hard to realize that film players are just regular human beings. The screen gives them such and illusive quality that they seem a people apart, just as most of Mr. De Mille’s characters, for example, are so different from any people we know. But my first ride through Hollywood dispelled my preconceived ideas about it. It looks like such a nice, new, little town you’d wonder how you could have ever thought such wild things about it.

She hadn’t realized how much people worried about the success of their pictures, but she wasn’t disillusioned about the industry: “to know the truth about the movies helps you to a clearer understanding of the business, to appreciate the best in pictures and players, to discriminate and lavish your admiration on that which is worthy.”

Ethel Sands seems like a nice young lady with plenty of enthusiasm. I think her articles presented what people wanted to believe the movie industry was like, and I’m glad that she had the opportunity to see and do so much. I’m sure it was a change from the department store.

Valentino in 1924

She returned to the pages of Picture-Play a few more times with articles from a fan’s point of view. In the June 1924 issue she reported on her visit to the set of Valentino’s Monsieur Beauclaire on Long Island to find out if he had changed. She wrote, “he seems older and not so boyishly handsome as he was two years ago but his smile has the same dazzeling effect.” Nevertheless, he was “the same unassuming and fascinating young man that he was before.” In August 1925 they published her interviews with up-and-coming actresses Mary Brian and Esther Ralston. Her final article appeared in the December 1925 issue. Entitled “A Fan Returns to Movieland,” she visited the set of A Kiss for Cinderella at the Lasky Studio in New York and she was still thrilled to be reporting on movie making.

In early 1926 Sands married Andrew John Krog, who was a public health inspector for Plainfield, New Jersey. In 1930 she was working as a trimmer in a hat factory. She had a daughter, Sandra Joan, in the mid-1930s. Ethel Krog died in Houston, Texas on January 3, 1977, where she had moved to in 1973 to be near her daughter and two grandsons. Her obituary mentioned that she “had been a writer for Picture-Play magazine and had met and interviewed many famous stars of the silent period.”

Charlie Chaplin’s house in 1921

Sands didn’t get to meet all of the famous people: she only got to see the outside of the house belonging to the star of Kingsley’s most glowing review this month. Charlie Chaplin lived in:

the most fascinating little place, at the summit of a hill all by itself, with little turrets and towers—it looks just right for the king of the movies to live in. To me it seems for all the world like a little castle in Spain.

Kingsley loved The Idle Class, and so did the audience:

It’s quite impossible on seeing Chaplin in his latest picture not to make the old rubber-stamp remark. “There’s only one Charlie Chaplin!” His comicality impresses you afresh, his sure touch of humor is clean-cut as ever, the deft, crisp way of landing comedy points so that they never miss fire tickle your ribs just the same as though seen for the first time. Its sparkling spontaneity never could happen in a comedian’s first picture; its clean-cut humor wasn’t born of a brain groping its way in an initial venture. In other words, it’s a work of art.

Crowds who roared with joy greeted the picture yesterday, the Kinema echoing with laughter at Chaplin.

Surprisingly, The Idle Class played for only two weeks when Harold Lloyd’s Never Weaken ran for seven at a rival theater. During its first week the main feature sounds like it wouldn’t have hurt ticket sales; Kingsley enjoyed Bing Bang Boom with David Butler, a “Charles Ray type.” It told the story of a young man who buys a run-down hotel, then makes a fortune by converting it to a weight-loss spa –“which tale sounds commonplace, but is delightfully told with just a strong enough thread of suspense to hold you, and with a score of fresh twists in the unfolding.” However, during the second week the added feature was The Seranade, a melodrama of the mission days that “had been pieced together from the good old dramatic hokum barrel, and I think they used up all the hokum there was, too.” Nevertheless, Kingsley reminded her readers that even though The Idle Class didn’t have the drawing power of Shoulder Arms or The Kid, “from any other comedian it would be considered a knockout.” Chaplin would make only two more shorts, Payday (1922) and The Pilgrim (1923), before he switched permanently to features.

 

* Kingsley wasn’t the only one moonlighting, her boss Edwin Schallert worked there too and he later became the editor.

 

Unfortunately, the March, October, and November 1922 issues of Picture-Play aren’t yet in the Media Digital History Database. Among the missing adventures are a trip to Wallace Reid’s house and interviews with the Talmadge sisters.

“Mrs. Ethel Sands Krog,” Courier-News, January 15, 1977, p.5.

Ethel Sands, “A Fan Returns to Movieland,” Picture-Play, December 1925, pp.50-53, 98.

Ethel Sands, “Has Valentino Changed?” Picture-Play, June 1924, pp.21-23, 114.

Ethel Sands, “Representing the Younger Set,” Picture-Play, August 1925, pp.24, 100, 109.

“To Whom Does a Magazine Belong?” Picture-Play, May 1922, p.6.

“What the Fans Think,” Picture-Play, July 1921, p.72.

“What the Fans Think,” Picture-Play, September 1921, p.72.

 

One thought on “A Trip Through Wonderland: October 16-31, 1921”

  1. Thanks for the link to the Donald Biddle Keyes post. I enjoyed this. You’re probably right, a story about the innocence and easy going nature of Hollywood would try to calm the waters during scandalous times.

    Liked by 1 person

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