Cashing In on Notoriety: December 16-31, 1921

Fred Beauvais, Fred Bezerril and Christina McNulty in The Lonely Trail

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on one man’s attempt to make some money from inconvenient and unexpected fame:

There’s been a great row on in New York between film exhibitors and the motion-picture theater owners’ chamber of commerce regarding the showing of the first film in which Fred Beauvais, Indian guide prominent in the Stillman divorce case, has appeared as a star. The picture is entitled The Lonely Trail.

The Shubert vaudeville people have taken the bit in their teeth, however, and announced yesterday that the picture will be shown at the Forty-Fourth Street Theater in New York beginning next week, in spite of the ban of the above-named organization.

Kingsley didn’t need to explain who the Stillmans were, the front section of the newspaper had been taking care of that for months. James A. Stillman had been the chairman of the National City Bank of New York, a position he’d inherited from his father, James Jewett Stillman, who when he died in 1918 was one of the richest men in America. (The movie director Whit Stillman is his great-grandson.) The younger Stillman married Anne Urquhart Potter in 1901 and they had four children. He was a philanderer, and on September 17, 1918 his mistress, show girl Florence Lawlor Leeds, gave birth to his son, Jay.

However, the tabloid-ready scandal didn’t begin until July 18, 1920 when he filed a suit against his wife, charging that their youngest son Guy had been fathered by Fred Beauvais, a man who worked at their hunting lodge in Lake Dawson, Quebec. The story really got going when she counter-sued him, accusing him of infidelity with Miss Leeds. 

This wire service photo from the film ran in many newspapers (Hanford Journal, December 31, 1921)

In the middle of the front page stories in New York’s Daily News that included evidence that he’d paid ‘attention’ to at least ten other women and a set of allegedly forged letters from the employee to Anne, Fred Beauvais decided that the newspapers shouldn’t be the only ones profiting from the situation so he made a movie. According to the New York Times, he not only starred in it but also “wrote the scenario himself, hired a camera man to shoot it and placed the completed film with a New York broker” in early November. They filmed on the Caughnawaga Reservation near Montreal, and in the woods near Trois Rivereres, Quebec, close to the hunting lodge, so the curious could see where it all allegedly happened, but the story wasn’t the Stillman story. Instead, according to the Film Daily review, the movie was about a Native American guide who “meets man who betrayed his sister but finally cannot bring himself to avenge the wrong because of his love for a white girl.”

Just as Kingsley reported, NYMPC passed The Lonely Trail on Monday, December 19th and in late December the Theater Owners Chamber of Commerce objected to it. A January 14 article in Exhibitors’ Herald clarified their position; they said the film itself “is harmless—in fact so harmless as to be almost inane. The injunction was made on the grounds that the theater owners objected to use a picture whose only value was the doubtful one of wide publicity given in the newspapers to the unsavory details of a divorce case.”

Primex Pictures bought The Lonely Trail and planned to distribute it. They managed to stay in business for one edition of the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, published in 1921.

Nevertheless, the film did play for a week at the 44th Street Theater on a spilt vaudeville/film bill, and the Shuberts planned to send it around their circuit.  The reviews were absolutely brutal. Film Daily titled theirs “Very crude attempt to make a motion picture” and called it “amateurish” and “feeble,” with a star who “cannot act and has no screen personality.” They also reported on the audience reaction:

Judging from the conversations overheard in a Broadway house where the picture is being shown, it would appear that curiosity will be the chief reason for the majority wanting to see the picture especially women who were overheard to remark on the star’s attractiveness or lack therof.

Fritz Tidden wrote in Moving Picture World that Beauvais’ acting was “so poor that it is ludicrous. He trotted out of the Canadian woods to go on parade, his open claim to fame being his notoriety. It is an insult to real stars of the screen…It commits the crime of killing motion picture entertainment. It is dull.” He concluded: “Back to the woods, Beauvais, and take the film with you.”

Harriette Underhill in the New York Tribune helpfully gave an example of how bad the movie was by quoting a title card: “He betrayed my sister and broke her heart, and after he bid her goodbye she learned he was a bad man who had ruined thousands.”

New York Times, January 1, 1922

‘Fred’ wrote the best summation of the film’s business prospects in Variety :

If there is enough curiosity regarding ‘the Indian guide,’ the picture will pull in money, which it evidently did at the Shubert 44th Street Monday (holiday) afternoon, but it will not entertain. As a picture it is one of the saddest bit of screen production shown anywhere near Broadway in a long, long time.

He also mentioned how they were selling the show:

A ballyhoo of Indians was used in front of the house, but Broadway Indians are not as impervious to the cold as those of the North Woods. It wasn’t long before they were in the lobby hugging a couple of steam radiators.

Poor Broadway Indians! During the film’s run, Variety reported that New York censors did order all references to the Stillman case to be removed from advertising of The Lonely Trail. William A. Brady, president of the Motion Picture Association said,

If Clara Harmon and Roscoe Arbuckle are barred by popular sentiment from appearing on the screen the same holds good in the case of Fred Beauvais…If one can become famous through murder, divorce or scandal, then encouragement only goes to spread the present wave of crime.

Between the bad reviews and the limit on advertising, the film didn’t make as much money as they’d hoped. In mid-February Exhibitors’ Herald reported:

One week of it seemed to satisfy the Shuberts and The Lonely Trail ended right there, so far as the Shuberts were concerned. Now the Primex Pictures Corporation is suing for $4800 for breach of contract, the plaintiff company alleging it was guaranteed twelve weeks’ booking on Shubert time.

On March 3rd Variety said that the judge granted a motion to dismiss the case, because the complaint was faultily drawn. It looks like they never filed an amended complaint.

The Lonely Trail did play for one night in a few random theaters, including at the Bijou in Hammond, Indiana on February 18, 1922 and the Ingomar in Alexandria, Virginia on June 1, 1922.

Eventually the scandal wrapped up. In September 1922 the court found that there was no justification of adultery against Anne Stillman, and Guy was James Stillman’s legitimate child and could not be disinherited. His divorce suit was denied; she later withdrew hers and they tried to reconcile. They were both dropped from the social register. In 1926, after Florence Leeds brought a suit against James Stillman, he was forced to acknowledged Jay Ward Leeds was his son and he agreed to child support.

In 1931, Anna Stillman finally got her divorce on the grounds of infidelity. On the same day it was granted, she married Fowler McCormick. He was the heir to the International Harvester millions, 21 years younger than she was, and a family friend who had served as her son’s best man at his wedding. A pretty good novel could be based on her eventful life.

Fred Beauvais went on to sue James Stillman in 1926 for $500,00 for “libel, slander, and defamation of character.” He said that the bad publicity he’d gotten made people refuse to hire him as a guide. The 1940 Voters List said that Fred K. Beauvais lived in Saint Lawrence, Quebec, and his job was listed as “gentleman,” so perhaps they settled out of court. The 1965 Voters List placed him on the Indian Reserve of Caughnawaga and he was working as a night watchman. He died on December 20, 1971, age 78.

News readers still follow the twists and turns in modern celebrity divorces. But once they’re done, the scandals aren’t remembered like the ones involving murder. It seems like people only want fresh divorce dramas, not recycled ones.

“Between You and Me,” Moving Picture World, January 28, 1922, p. 403.

“Beauvais’ Film Suit,” Variety, February 3, 1922, p.3.

“Beauvais Suit,” Variety, March 3, 1922, p.15.

“Beauvais to be Seen on Screen,” Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1921.

“Beauvais to Star in Broadway Movie,” New York Times, December 22, 1921.

“Board Bar Reference to Stillman Divorce in Beauvais Feature Ads,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 14, 1922, p. 33.

‘Fred.,’ “The Lonely Trail,” Variety, January 6, 1922, p.43.

‘Fred.,’ “New Shows This Week: 44th St.,” Variety, January 6, 1922, p.21.

“Half-Breed Guide Named by Stillman in Divorce Suit,” New York Times, March 12, 1921.

“J.A. Stillman Sue for $500,00 by Guide,” New York Times, September 9, 1926.

“Mrs. J.A. Stillman Gets Divorce, Weds Fowler M’Cormick,” New York Times, June 6, 1931.

“Mrs. Stillman Film Star,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1921.

“News of the Films,” Variety, January 6, 1921, p.44.

“Shuberts May Adopt Spilt Program Over Entire Chain,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 14, 1922, p. 35.

Fritz Tidden, “Newest Reviews and Commets,” Moving Picture World, January 14, 1922, p. 205.

Harriette Underhill, “On the Screen,” New York Tribune, January 4, 1922.

“Very Crude Attempt to Make a Motion Picture.” Film Daily, January 15, 1922, p. 7.

“The Week in New York,” Exhibitors’ Herald, February 18, 1922, p. 36.

A Coming Attraction: December 1-15, 1921

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley got to visit the set of The Prisoner of Zenda. She had announced the film was starting production on October 4th, when she got “a glimpse of the scenario for the picture, which has already been completed by Mary O’Hara, reveal[ing] the tremendous scale on which it will be filmed.” The studio also promised elaborate sets, fabulous costumes, big stars and enormous crowd scenes. Since early publicity had helped with the success of director Rex Ingram’s earlier Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the studio was happy to invite her to see the shoot for herself.

Alice Terry and Rex Ingram

Zenda was already such a popular story that she didn’t need to tell her readers the several-times-adapted-to-theater-and-film plot of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, which involves a king kidnapped by his evil brother and a look-alike tourist who steps in as a temporary substitute. She could assume they all knew who King Rudolf, Grand Duke Michael, and Mr. Rassendyll were, so she began by calling the shoot Ingram’s honeymoon, because he’d married his leading actress Alice Terry in the middle of it. In his interview, he was in his best promotion mode, saying “I believe this is the greatest love story which has ever been put on the screen.” She also reported that he felt he had discovered the secret to making a popular historical drama; he said:

“Characterization is the thing. The trouble with costume plays in the early days, and the thing that killed them with the public was that people in the were mere animated costumes.”

He went on to tell her about how much effort they were putting in to making the film realistic, even though it was set in Ruritaina, a fictional kingdom. The experts advising them included John Howell, former valet to King Edward VII; Ingram told Kingsley:

“He can tell you everything about a king’s behavior from the way he behaves when he gets up in the morning and goes into his cabinet, to the etiquette regarding calling up the family physician to cure the royal stomach-ache.”

Handsome uniforms!

He’d also hired Col. Sterrett Ford to make sure the military detail was correct, even though the “army of soldiers wearing handsome new uniforms which cost $80,000, who are used principally for decorative purposes, as there are no war scenes in the picture.”

Another new star

While hanging out on the set, Kingsley also got to chat with an up-and-coming new star Ramon Samaniegos. She wrote:

This Samoniegos is a brilliant new screen personality whom Ingram has lately discovered. He will doubtless become a star following the release of Zenda, according to Ingram, who certainly does know how to choose his players. Even as Valentino was made by The Four Horsemen, so it seems likely now that this handsome young Spaniard will become world-famous overnight. He said “Now sometimes I’m so happy I’m unhappy!”

Samoniegos was different from most of the other up-and-comers Kingsley wrote about, because after a name change to Novarro, he did become a star. His most famous role was the lead in Ben Hur (1925). Unfortunately, now he’s mostly known for his tragic death—he was murdered in 1968.

Kingsley concluded: “But the play’s the thing. And in The Prisoner of Zenda Rex Ingram and Metro have a sure-fire story.”

In February, they released a photo of Mr. Samoniegos. He changed his last name to Novarro just before Zenda came out.

It’s remarkable how much work studio publicity departments put in to ballyhooing their big films (and how accommodating the press was to all their material). Zenda wasn’t in theaters until nearly a year later, but they kept up a steady flow of information about it before then.

Exhibitors’ Herald ran photos from the film in late April

In April the company issued a press release promising an amazing spectacle that got widely quoted. Exhibitors’ Trade Review wrote about some of the film’s impressive statistics, from the salaries (“probably the most heart-breaking a task as any in the making of The Prisoner of Zenda was the writing of checks. Signing the post-office payroll is not unlike it,”) to the 23,000 people who worked on in, in one way or another. Its scenario contained 1622 pages of single-spaced typewritten material, and so many extras appeared in the big scenes that Ingram had to use a radiophone communicate with the assistant directors to direct them. The costumes for the principles in the coronation scene alone cost $105,000, and just that took two weeks to shoot. The film’s total cost came to $1,118,453.16. No expense was spared! I guess they thought that people would like to see what a million dollars looked like on the screen.

New York based L.A. Times writer Frederic James Smith got to attend the trade preview, but his response probably wasn’t what they were looking for. He wrote:

the good old Anthony Hope marshmallow adventure did not stir us overmuch. Metro apparently slathered on the dollars in making the picture and Rex has tried to escape his penchant for beautiful dramaless pictures in favor of action, but the results don’t measure up to The Four Horsemen…The much-touted Ramon Samaniegos reminds us of a successful dentist—and nothing more.

Oddly enough, Mr. S’s father was a dentist. Nevertheless, the trade papers viewed it through a different lens: they thought that Zenda would sell loads of tickets. Film Daily said:

There is enough romance, drama, adventure and love interest in The Prisoner of Zenda for several big features, but Rex Ingram kept them carefully knitted together and as a result has welded a splendid box office, sure fire picture which Metro will release for the coming season.

They also liked Samaniegos/Novarro more than Smith did, saying “he is a devilish villain, but on the whole very charming.”

Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1922

The film arrived in Los Angeles in September, and naturally Kingsley didn’t get to review it. Her editor Edwin Schallert wrote a mixed review, saying:

Mr. Ingram’s picture is an earnest effort to visualize the events of the story and something of its stimulating charm. he hasn’t caught the delicate aroma—the bouquet of the original, but he has manufactured a palatable substitute. In the main, his Zenda is zestful, and in the artistry of sets and imitations of sets, and in types it possesses great pictorial allurement, while the actual drama evinces more climax than Mr. Ingram has heretofore been able to put on screen…What seems particularly lacking in the picture are the finer semblances of reality. I don’t know that the original story showed these in any greater degree fundamentally, but we weren’t so aware that the characters were made out of pasteboard…There are flashes of ability from Ramon Navarro, the much-heralded find of Mr. Ingram, but for the most part he indulges in clownish mugging.

Nevertheless, the film was on Film Daily Yearbook’s Top Ten Best Films of 1922 list and it did sell plenty of tickets. Zenda is available on DVD now, but according to Fritzi Kramer it suffers in comparison to the 1937 version (but honestly, most movies do).

It was so popular that Lewis Selznick made a version of the novel’s sequel in 1923, but it didn’t involve anyone who worked on Zenda. It’s a lost film. It might seem odd that they didn’t do the same in 1938, but the story is much too sad: too many characters die who ought not.

“Ingram has Produced Another Real Picture in This One,” Film Daily, April 30, 1922, p. 3.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Rex Ingram’s Nest,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1921.

Edwin Schallert, “Reviews: Myths and Fancies,” Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1922.

Frederic James Smith, “Color Film Sensation,” Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1922.

“Statistics of Prisoner of Zenda,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, April 15, 1922, p.1390.