The most daring girl in the world: March 16-31, 1922

Andrée Peyre in Ruth of the Range (1923)

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on another aspiring actress coming to Hollywood – but this one had a unique skill:

The latest athletic lady to enter the film players’ ranks is Mlle. Andrée Peyre, French aviatrix and stunt flier, who is practically a refugee from her own country because the Paris police compelled her to quit her dangerous exploits in the air, and who has arrived in Los Angeles to play an important role in the Ruth Roland serial, The Riddle of the Range, which will go into production at United studios April 3.

In addition to being an accomplished air pilot, Mlle. Peyre is an actress of considerable ability. Before she came to this country her screen engagements included six productions made at the Pathe studios at Vincennes, France. Her work before the camera, however, has so far been confined to purely dramatic efforts that did not include her abilities as a flier. The forthcoming serial will mark her debut as actress and aviatrix combined. She has been cast for the role of the heavy in the production and has been allotted a part that is intensely dramatic.

Mlle. Peyre is 22 years old and is a graduate of La Dame Blanche College in Paris, a fashionable private school for girls. Toward the end of the war, after three of her four brothers had been killed in action while serving with the French air forces, she took up flying with Capt. Poulet, the French ace, as her instructor. She is licensed as an air pilot in both France and this country. She was engaged for the serial by President Paul Brunet of Pathé, which company will release the production.

Some of that might have even been true! It was certainly part of what other newspapers mentioned when they wrote about her, when they called her “the most daring girl in the world.” Andrée Suzanne Elisabeth Peyre was born November 19, 1899 in Calviac, France. According to her October 1919 immigration papers, she’d been hired by the Fox Film Corporation as an actress and she was going to New York City. She didn’t appear in any cast lists then, but in 1921 newspapers started to write about her aerial stunts; in April she was over Paterson, New Jersey, doing things like climbing from the lower to the upper wing of a plane in flight (New York Tribune, April 17, 1921). In late 1921, she reportedly signed a contract to be in The Leather Pushers serial, however she’s not in the credits for it.

So the opportunity to come to Los Angeles was a big movie career advance for Peyre. She did get to play a villain named Judith in the re-named Ruth of the Range, a fifteen-part serial that debuted October 14, 1923-24. It’s a lost film in which Ruth Roland played a young woman who rescues her coal substitute inventor father from kidnappers.

Ruth of the Range, episode 4

 It was Roland’s last serial for Pathé; she moved on to making feature films. Film Daily called it a “good, fast-moving serial” that “should easily satisfy a serial-loving audience. It has all the usual thrills, rescues and mysteries.” (“Short Subjects,” Film Daily, September 16, 1923).

Meanwhile, Peyre worked to keep her name in the paper and her career going. In March 1923 she distributed fliers from the air to help the Studio Club raise money for their building fund and in April 1923 she performed stunts at the dedication of Clover Field in Santa Monica. On May 27, 1923 she set a new women’s altitude record of 15,000 feet over Rogers Airport in Los Angeles,* breaking  Amelia Earhart’s record of 14,000 feet.** She was in the air for one hour and ten minutes.

She hadn’t abandoned her screen ambitions; in June 1923 she had an interview with Tod Browning about being in his upcoming film The Day of Faith. The interview wasn’t a success: she’s not in the cast list. However, the newspaper reported that she was accompanied by her fiancé, Cyril Turner and that was much more sucessful.

Andrée Peyre and Cyril Turner

Cyril Charles Teesdale Turner was first to use skywriting in advertising. He was baptized on November 25, 1897 in Haringey, England and he’d served in the Royal Flying Corps as an officer during the war. On November 28, 1922 Turner introduced sky advertising in New York City with the words “Hello USA” over City Hall Park. He worked for the Skywriting Corporation of America. In July 1923 the couple went to Seattle where he spent two weeks demonstrating skywriting with 12 performances. He got paid $1,000 per performance. In the first he wrote “Lucky Strike” for the American Tobacco Company.

Peyre at Mitchel Field, 1924

They got married on September 22, 1923 in Los Angeles. They stayed in the United States for a while; in July 1924 she was performing stunts at Mitchel Field, on Long Island. However, by November 6, 1926 she gave her profession as housewife on a ship’s manifest and he was listed as an author. When he died in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England in  September 1967 he was the chairman of the Irving Air Chute company, which designed and made parachutes. She stayed in Hitchin, where she died on July 20, 1994.

*Rogers Airport was at Wilshire and Fairfax – now it’s hard to imagine that as an open field!

** Peyre’s altitude record was broken by Bertha Horchem on July 5, 1923 when she reached 16,399 feet.

“Aviatrix May Become Motion Picture Star,” Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1923.

“Aviatrix Sets New Altitude Record,” Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1923.

“Defies Death in Acrobatic Antics,” Bridgeport Times, May 2, 1921.

“Famous French Flier,” Evening Star (Washington D.C.), April 2, 1922.

“Fliers to Chat Over City Today,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 1923.

“Kansas Aviatrix Breaks Women’s Altitude Record,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1923.

“Nation Accepts Airplane Field,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1923.

“New Ad-Type is Mile Long,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1922.

“Obituaries,” Xenia Daily Gazette, September 26, 1967.

“Skywriter is in Seattle,” Seattle Star, July 3, 1923.

Von Kettler, Wanda. “Skywriter to Scribble on Seattle’s Horizon,” Seattle Star, July 4, 1923.

“Which is More Daring?” Bismarck Tribune, September 19, 1921.

Glittering, Fascinating Junk: March 1-15, 1922

John Davidson and Mildred Harris in Fool’s Paradise

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley wrote a scathing review of a film by Cecil B. DeMille, a director whom she usually admired. Nevertheless, she thought Fool’s Paradise was so bad that even she had to pan it. She began her piece by explaining her admiration of the original source, Leonard Merrick’s short story “Laurels and the Lady:”

There’s no situation more pitiful in all of literature, it seems to me, than that of those two exiles, the befooled poet lover, a failure in his art, living in his fool’s paradise with the woman of the streets whom he believes to be the great singer of grand opera.

As long as the movie stuck to that story she thought it was fine, but:

Beyond that point it is mere glittering junk. Fascinating junk, to be sure, but paste as compared to the gem of purest ray serene* beside which it is set.

The blind lover, instead of dreaming to the end of his days the pitiful but merciful dream that the cook book is really his book of poems, accepted and published, has his sight restored, and pursues a lady, who has been changed by DeMille’s writers from a grand opera singer to a French dancer. His characters chase over the face of the earth in an unreal sequence, arriving at a spot designated with the convenient generality as “the ends of the earth” but which looks a little like the pictures of Burma we see in the travelogues [it was supposed to be Thailand].

There the dancer is studying the sacred dances of Buddha. Here we plainly see the writers pause with a hand on brow, up a stump. What next? “Ah, I know,” says one. “Crocodiles! Crocodiles have never been used! We can throw both the dancer’s lovers into the pit with them!”

DeMille directing Conrad Nagel and some crocodiles

She had a point: large reptiles are usually found in serials, not serious drama.  Then she wrote a bit that must have really hurt: she compared it unfavorably to DeMille’s brother’s recent film:

Do you remember the subject of Miss Lulu Bett, and what William de Mille did with it? Why could not Leonard Merrick’s story have been treated in the same intensive human way? It has a more striking central situation and just as much action. Ah, but then they couldn’t have put in all those glittering scenes, all those exotic dancers, all the beautiful emptiness! And I don’t suppose it would have run the six weeks which Fool’s Paradise is certain to.

Kingsley was nearly right: it played for four weeks in Los Angeles. Plainly her review didn’t keep anyone away. According to the Cecil B. DeMille website, it cost $291,367.56 and grossed $906,937.79. It’s interesting that she didn’t seem to be worried that he would get mad at her, and she’d lose access to him.

Her opinion wasn’t unusual. For example, Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News (December 24, 1921) wrote about the film’s move to the Far East, “these scenes are lavish in the extreme, but they serve no purpose in advancing the story. They merely dazzle the eye. The simple structure of the earlier sequence is lost in a maze of Oriental trappings.” However, he also recognized that the scenes had “box office value.”

Fool’s Paradise has been preserved at the Library of Congress, and DeMille biographer Robert Birchard called it “highly entertaining.” It recently played in Pordenone.

John Davidson

Kingsley had done her part to help publicize the movie. On its opening day, her interview with actor John Davidson, who played the dancer’s royal lover, appeared in the Times. He told her all about the crocodile scene: when DeMille offered him the part, he warned him about it, and said he’d have to be courageous. But he wasn’t completely prepared for how frightening it would be:

But, as they had been starved for some time they were fairly snappy, and the longest moments of my life were those I spent in the pit with the slimy creatures surrounding me, while I pretended to be unconscious and had my eyes closed. We had to do the scene three or four times, too, before Mr. DeMille got what he wanted.

Since he was playing a foreign king, she also asked him “why the women are all going crazy over you dashing, dark devils.” His reply wasn’t bad. He said they were more graceful and natural lovers, and more expressive:

Actors of the American school grit their teeth and clench their fists and that goes for everything, Women like more than one expression in their heroes. Then there is the mystery about foreign men, too—and women are proverbially curious. But the American woman’s common sense usually saves her. But don’t worry about the American woman’s worship of the foreign actor. Her good sense, as well as her sense of humor, will keep her straight. But I think he’s in for a long vogue.

He got that right: Valentino and similar actors were popular for the next few years. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to take advantage of it. John Davidson was born in Petrograd, Russia on December 25, 1886 and by the time he signed up for the 1917 draft, he’d become a naturalized American citizen. He told Kingsley that theatrical producer Charles Frohman was a family friend, and that he told him to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He said he studied there for two years, then he was hired for a bit part in Lady Frederick with Ethel Barrymore. He got promoted to the juvenile role and toured with the production. He then went on to tour in several Frohman productions (I didn’t find any independent confirmation of any of this). He made his Broadway debut in 1911 in the comedy Excuse Me!, and in 1915 he made his film debut in The Alien, a George Beban film, and he went on to work in both movies and on the stage.

When Kingsley interviewed him in 1922 it was the high point of his film career. DeMille told reporters that he was going to train him to be a director, and he was in DeMille’s next film, Saturday Night, but they didn’t work together after that. He continued to work for Paramount Studios in both Los Angeles and New York, and in December 1923 he was back on Broadway, appearing in The Business Widow. He was a working actor for the next five decades. In the early 1930’s, Kingsley often mentioned seeing the handsome John Davidson at the Hollywood parties she reported on. He went to work for Republic Studios, playing villains in their Charlie Chan, Dick Tracey and Captain Marvel serials.  His career lasted so long that he worked in television, too. He retired in 1963 and died of heart failure on January 16, 1968.

*This is from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray. In 1922 she could assume movie review readers knew that!