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.

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