One Way to Sell a Screenplay: November 16-30, 1921

Louis V. Eytinge, circa 1910

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on the success of an unusual first-time screenwriter:

From behind the grim doors of the State penitentiary, at Florence Ariz., has come a scenario so clever, so appealing, so full of penetrating realism, that the Universal Film Manufacturing Company has felt impelled to accept it. The scenario is by a man serving a life sentence. His name is Louis V. Eytinge, and the name of his story is “Peter Man.” Peter Man is the slang term in crookdom for a safe-blower, and naturally the hero of the story is a crook, inasmuch as Eytinge has made a special study of the men about him, of their wasted lives, their ways, their philosophies and their petty prejudices.

Just as it happens, Eytinge has had the luck to sell the first story he ever wrote, or rather the first he has submitted. He has been working for many months past at writing and is completing the fourteenth year of his life sentence.

Sixteen years ago Louis Eytinge, scion of a good family and a man of the world, was sent to the penitentiary on a charge of forgery. Never very strong, he contracted tuberculosis, and his sentence was shortened to two years. His family sent him to Arizona for his health. A year later he came across a man he had known as a pal behind the bleak walls of the Ohio prison. They revived their friendship. Then one day the body of the pal was found by a cattleman, and Eytinge was convicted on circumstantial evidence of having slain him.

Remarkably, some of the information Kingsley got from the Universal press release about Eytinge is consistent with other newspaper stories, as well as a biographical article written by Old West historian Leo W. Banks. He called him “a forger, swindler, liar and playboy, probably the most talented and cold-blooded con man early Arizona ever knew.”

The short version of the story is that Louis Victor Eytinge was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1878 to Harry Eytinge, an actor, and Ida Seebohm Eytinge, his much younger drama student wife. Louis didn’t join the family business, instead he became a criminal and he served five years for forgery in Ohio. He did contract tuberculosis, and after he was released in 1907, he went to Phoenix, Arizona. Soon after he arrived, he went on a picnic in the desert with John Leicht, who didn’t return. After the decomposing body was found, Eytinge claimed he’d died by suicide. The murder trial fascinated Arizona newspapers. He was convicted on June 4, 1907 and sentenced to life in prison. He spent 16 years locked up, first in Yuma then in Florence. There he built a thriving mail-order business for prisoner-produced goods, as well as a direct-mail advertising business. He also wrote articles for magazines, often about prison reform.

Exhibitors’ Herald, April 22, 1922, p. 60

His next world to conquer was the movies (apparently, everybody who writes has to try that at some point). So he enrolled in the Palmer scriptwriting course by mail. After his screenplay sold, the company didn’t mind having their name associated with a convicted murderer; instead Fredrick Palmer gave Moving Picture World a letter in which Eytinge gave all credit to that method for his success. He wrote:

My early experience with the Palmer Course was exhilarating. You sent me my first rejection slip, and that served to reduce the egoism that infected Eytinge…The critical comments on my returned scripts were clear, concise and based upon a ripened experience. More than this the Palmer experts did not stop at pointing out defects in my work, for they prescribed remedies and offered serviceable suggestions. It has been a peculiar pleasure to have relations with all the Palmer people and a joy to tackle the task of re-writing and rebuilding, until at last, the reward is here and success in sight.

Gee, he really was good at writing advertising copy! Universal assigned Tod Browning to direct the film and Herbert Rawlinson to star in it, and they quickly completed it. The studio changed the title, because according to Moving Picture Weekly “no one but crooks and detectives understand the meaning of the title “Peterman” and unfortunately these two classes of individuals constitute a very small proportion of those who see moving pictures.” Called The Man Under Cover, the movie told the story of two criminals who are interrupted in a nighttime bank robbery by finding the manager dead by suicide. They learn that he killed himself because he lost the bank’s money to con men selling shares in a fake oil well so the crooks decide to go straight, beat the con men at their own game, and return the money to the townspeople.

Grace Kingsley really enjoyed the finished film, which has been preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She wrote:

Down in Florence Penitentiary Louis Victor Eytinge gazes wistfully out of the window. That is, when they let him. He’s a lifer. So he couldn’t hear the laughter nor fell the thrills that ran through the audience yesterday at the Superba when his picture story, The Man Under Cover, unrolled itself on the screen. The story is not tragedy. It is comedy—bright, sparkling, human, entirely engaging comedy.

Tod Browning and the author have given a new tang to their clever play by holding back revelations and making you use your brains a bit. The subtitles are full of snap and wise cracks. Together with the swift and original action, they keep the house laughing and on the qui vive.

The Man Under Cover is sure to be a great success.

Other critics liked it, but nobody else thought it was a comedy. Maybe it’s because they went to trade screenings in New York instead of seeing it with a regular audience. Exhibitors’ Herald said, “if you are in the market for a refreshingly original crook play, hop out and get this one…It has everything the showman wants in the way of plot, sentiment and good swift action.” Mary Kelly in Moving Picture World wrote:

 With its big dramatic punch, consisting of a scene in which a promoter plays a spectacular hoax on the public to get even with a swindler, this feature has an appeal similar to the Wallingford pictures. It has the thrill of an uncertain business venture, and although not entirely new, is as unhackneyed enough to be popular with many.

Louis V. Eytinge, undated

The Man Under Cover was Eytinge’s only screenplay credit. He got paroled in December 1922, and according to the New York Times, he’d been offered a well-paid job at an advertising firm. Apparently that didn’t work out, because he went back to forgery and conning women out of their savings. Eventually in 1933 he was convicted in Los Angeles of grand theft after he stole money from a nurse. He was released in 1938 and he died in Pennsylvania on December 17, 1938, probably from heart failure.

“Convicts to Select Title for Film,” Moving Picture Weekly, March 4, 1922, p. 17.

Mary Kelly, “The Man Under Cover,” Moving Picture World, April 15, 1922,  p. 760.

Grace Kingsley, “Convict Pens Play that is Sparkling,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1922.

“Man Under Cover,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 29, 1922, p.58.

“Murderer is Freed to be Advertiser,” New York Times, December 31, 1922.

“Palmer Photoplay Sells Big Scenario to Universal Company,” Moving Picture World, December 10, 1921, p.668.

“Rawlinson has an Interesting Crook Story for Latest Vehicle,” Film Daily, April 9, 1922, p.15.

Unable to Move with the Times: November 1-15, 1921

They visited the Penrod set (Exhibitors’ Herald, December 3, 1921, p.36.)

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on the Hollywood arrival of an authentic film pioneer and his favorite actress:

Modestly disclaiming her title of the English Mary Pickford, yet occupying in the heart of the English public very much the place which Mary Pickford occupies in ours, Alma Taylor, British screen star, arrived in Los Angeles and is registered at the Alexandria. She may decide to make pictures here, she says.

Miss Taylor, who is a beautiful young girl of demiblond type, is accompanied by her mother and by her director, Cecil Hepworth, of Hepworth Pictures Corporation, of England. Her director, having faith that the young lady will become as popular throughout the world as any American star, declares that he and Miss Taylor are here looking over the ground with a view possibly to returning this winter and producing pictures. During their present stay they will remain only a week, returning to New York, and thence to England.

“I want not only to make pictures for England, but for the world,” said Miss Taylor earnestly. “And,” she continued modestly, “one must travel to California and see American methods at their best in order to learn those things which shall make us able to compete with Americans.” During the coming week Miss Taylor will visit various studios with her director.

It’s interesting to learn that the most English of all early directors had ambitions to crack the American market! That didn’t work out for him, but he was still important to film history without it.

Cecil Milton Hepworth was “perhaps the leading figure in British silent cinema,” according to film historian Luke McKernan. Born in 1874 in London, England, his father, Thomas Hepworth, was a traveling magic lantern lecturer. The younger Hepworth got his start in moving pictures in 1896 as an assistant to camera inventor/filmmaker Birt Acres. In 1898 he moved to producer Charles Urban’s company. After he got fired in 1899, he and his cousin Monty Wicks started their own production company, Hepwix, later renamed the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, and it became the biggest British film production company before the first world war. In 1905 they had a huge international hit with Rescued by Rover – it was so successful that he had to re-shoot the film twice because they wore out the negatives making prints.

After the war he continued to make features like Alf’s Button (1920) that sold lots of tickets in the United Kingdom, but not in the United States. So it’s no wonder he wanted to see if he could change that. Hepworth, Taylor, her mother Kate, and William Reed, a Hepworth company executive, arrived in New York in late October 1921. Hepworth told Motion Picture News that “it was his intention to produce for a broader market and that this was largely the purpose of his trip.” From there they traveled to Montreal, then to Los Angeles where they visited studios and attended some parties.* In his 1951 autobiography Came the Dawn, Hepworth didn’t have a lot to say about his trip to America. He mentioned that Charlie Chaplin traveled on the same boat to New York as they did, and they saw him at his studio in Los Angeles “and had many most interesting talks with him on his production and allied subjects.” They took the train back to New York and left for London on January 17, 1922.

Before he left, Hepworth arranged for a press screening of Alf’s Button and the response from a Film Daily writer explains why the story of a solider who finds a wish-granting button couldn’t even get distribution: it was just too slow for American audiences. Although it had reportedly made the Prince of Wales laugh, it had “poor direction” and a “badly constructed script,” therefore “just how American audiences can be expected to find the picture amusing when there are such fun makers as Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton and a few others capable of drawing continuous laughs is hard to say.”

Hepworth responded to this criticism with a somewhat confusing essay in Motion Picture News. It shows that he wasn’t interested in learning new things on his trip, he just became more confirmed in his own opinions. He thought that one of the biggest troubles with the films of 1922 was “their gradual divorcement from reality” for

the aim of every good director is to build up gradually, on the sure foundation of reality and experience, a towering structure of beauty, interest and entertainment peopled with living, breathing human creatures living such lives as real people live and doing such things as human beings do or may be believed to do. But there are many directors who have left that sure foundation far, far below them.

He hated the current trend of quick editing and what he thought was the excessive use of close-ups, then he praised himself for using fades between scenes instead of cuts (he thought they were too distracting). Furthermore, make-up on actors was “the greatest destroyer of illusion that we suffer from today.” He wanted the rest of the film industry to be different because he certainly wasn’t going to change.

Hepworth didn’t return to Los Angeles in the winter of 1922 to make movies, as he told Kingsley he might. Instead he tried to get funding for a new company, Hepworth Picture Plays. He launched it in 1922, but in his autobiography he said, “it was almost still-born for it was very badly undersubscribed…I alone am to blame for the unhappy result.”

However, he did manage to make Comin’ Thro’ the Rye (1923). It was a box office failure in U.K. and was never distributed in the U.S. The American fan magazine Photoplay reviewed it in 1925 and said, “in picture production it is about thirty years behind American films. The story is poor, the settings are poor, the costumes are poor, the acting is worse and the whole thing just gives one a desire to shoot everybody that had a hand in its making.” Now in academic film circles it’s greatly respected and considered an important part of the formation of the British national cinema.

Hepworth didn’t stop trying. In 1923 he signed a deal with Burr Nickle, a small states rights distributor, to distribute eight of his features in the U.S. Nickle opened an office in Los Angeles and previewed three of them at the Ambassador Theater in January: Sunken Rocks, Tansy, and Bargains. Nothing came of it and according to Film Daily, they terminated their agreement at some point before February 1924. Hepworth made one more feature, The House of Marney (1927). But as Luke McKernan observed, “he followed the typical pattern of an innovator unable to move with the times.” After Hepworth Picture Plays went bankrupt, he directed trailers and lectured on film history. He died on February 9, 1953.

Alma Taylor in 1921

Alma Taylor also didn’t return to Hollywood. Alma Louise Taylor was born January 3, 1895 in London to John and Kate Taylor. Her father was a metal broker. She started acting in Hepworth’s films in 1907, when she was 12. She appeared in over 150 shorts and features for the Hepworth Company, usually playing girls and girlish women. In a 1915 poll by Pictures and the Picturegoer fan magazine, she was the most popular British-born star (Chaplin came in second).

Alma Taylor in The Shadow of Egypt—she played an artist’s wife who was not at all like a Hepworth heroine.

After Hepworth’s company went bankrupt, she starred in her first film away from him, The Shadow of Egypt (1924). Shot on location, she wrote an essay about it and wearing make-up for the first time for P&P and said, “despite the terrific heat and the attacks of mosquitos, Egypt impressed me very much indeed.” She continued to act in films and on stage, moving on to smaller, more matronly parts. Her final film was A Night to Remember (1958).

In 1935 she helped to demonstrate television transmission at the Crystal Palace in London. She spent nine months working for John Baird, who invented the first working color TV system (The Journal of the Association of Cine-Technicians, August 1935, p.25.) She didn’t just move with the times, she was ahead of them!

She married Leonard Avery in June 1936. Leonard Avery Grimes was born on May 31, 1869 in Queensland, Australia. He enrolled in Wadham College, Oxford, in 1889. He became a physician and was a house surgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London. Taylor was his second wife; he was married to Helen Mary Reeves in 1899, and they had three children: John, Philip and Cynthia. At some point between 1899 and 1901, they changed their last name to Avery. When he married Taylor he was working for Horlicks (the malted milk powder company) as a medical advisor.

They traveled to Australia in June 1937 and stayed a few years. She was in the newspapers several times (hooray for Trove!) including this photo in the The Sun (Sydney), January 12, 1939.

Leonard Avery died in 1953, and Alma Taylor died in 1974.

If you’d like more information about Cecil Hepworth, visit Cecil Hepworth: Cinema’s Forgotten Pioneer, an online exhibit from the Elmbridge Museum.

Other critics loved it too.

The actual Mary Pickford had a premier this month, and even though its subject was as old-fashioned as a Hepworth film, Kingsley really enjoyed it:

Not since Stella Maris has Mary Pickford shown her acting ability as she does in Little Lord Fauntleroy, which opened at the Mission yesterday. And I say this despite the fact that a mother crying with her hand over her mid-Victorian bodice because her small son is going to have his curls cut off, is a bit out of date. Also in spite of the fact that the normal tendency among human beings is to want to kill a boy who is as sweet as Lord Fauntleroy.

But Little Lord Fauntleroy is a great picture. It is great largely because Mary Pickford is great. The double roles of the tender young mother and the quaint, friendly little Cedric shows the wide range of this star’s amazing talent.

However, even super-Pickford fan Kingsley had to admit:

 Infinitely absorbing, charming and appealing as is Little Lord Fauntleroy, but it has one big fault. It is too lengthy and seems to drag in spots. Many shots could be cut out, and many scenes could be cut down without impairing the clarity or the charm of the story and this would not only render it unique, as it is now, but indeed quite perfect.

I suspect that one big fault is what’s keeping modern reviewers away from it, even though it’s available on DVD. Fauntleroy is nearly two hours long, and there are too many other, more zippy Pickford movies to write about.


* Years later Taylor told an Australian journalist about seeing Chaplin at a Hollywood party: “Even when he was entertaining his friends at a big party, and making them convulsive with laughter with his acting I always was conscious of a terrible undercurrent of sadness and tragedy…Being the great man of Hollywood is no fun for Chaplin. He is more or less always surrounded by a body guard because people have done the most ridiculous things, even to throwing themselves under his car to get in touch with him and then play on his sympathies so that he would help them. I remember in Hollywood when we went to parties there would always be a man sitting in the front of the car with a revolver on his lap, just in case of trouble.” What a change from the days when Grace Kingsley could run into him coming out of a theater and have a chat.


“Actress Who Televised Duchess of Kent,” Daily Telegraph (Sydney), June 25, 1937.

“Alf’s Button,” Film Daily, February 19, 1922, p. 10.

“Burr Nickle to Release Here,” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1923.

“A Film Pioneer,” West Australian (Perth), June 1, 1937.

Hepworth, Cecil M. Came the Dawn: Memories of a Film Pioneer. London: Phoenix House Ltd., 1951.

Hepworth, Cecil M. “Director Points Out Defects in Production,” Motion Picture News, November 25, 1922, p.2647.

“Hepworth and Alma Taylor Here,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, October 29, 1921, p.1503.

“Hepworth, Noted British Producer, Here,” Motion Picture News, October 29, 1921, p.2276.

“Hepworth Prod. Formed,” Film Daily, February 6, 1924.

“Historical Production is Novelty,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1922,

“The Most Interesting Man I Ever Met—Charlie Chaplin,” The Sun (Sydney), July 28, 1938.

“Personal Pages, The Herald (Melbourne), June 18, 1937.

“Sailing Tomorrow,” Film Daily, January 16, 1922, p.1.

“The Shadow Stage,” Photoplay, March 1925, p.104.

 Taylor, Alma. “The Land of Mystery,” Pictures and the Picturegoer, January 1925, p.58.