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.
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.
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.