¡Basta!: September 16-30, 1922

This was the certain picture

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley did an interview with a studio executive in which he trivialized a legitimate complaint:

“Villains of the screen will have to be men without country,” said Irving G. Thalberg, director-general of Universal City, the other day, in course of an interview discussing the suggestion which has been made that a State Department for the motion-picture industry be appointed, in order to keep us out of trouble with temperamental nations.

The idea was suggested by some well-known picture men, when Mexico banned the entire output of one company until a certain picture in which Mexico’s dignity was rumpled, is withdrawn from the screen.

Mr. Thalberg has just transmitted an order from Carl Laemmle on the subject. “The national dignity of all peoples must be respected,” the order reads. “A villain must be a villain because of his actions, not because of his nationality.”

“Now that Mexico has taken drastic and expensive protest,” said Mr. Thalberg,” “other countries are noticing the tendency of American producers to make the villain almost anything but an American. It will be the work of the motion-picture State Department if appointed, to survey the international temperament and card index those delicate points which lure forth the national goat.”

You can see what bothered Mexico in the top left corner.

Laemmle’s order doesn’t seem so outrageous–in fact, it could make for more interesting movie plots–particularly when you learn that the film that provoked Mexico to ban the importation and exhibition of all Paramount films was a fairly mediocre and otherwise forgettable Gloria Swanson vehicle called Her Husband’s Trademark.*  The bandits who murder her n’er do well husband, allowing her to marry her True Love, did not need to be from any particular country. Mexico was especially irritated because only one month before the film was released in March, President Alvaro Obregon had notified the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) that Mexico would forbid importation and exhibition of denigrating films, according to film historian Laura I. Serna.

So they were ready to do exactly what they promised and take some action. The Associated Press reported on April 28th:

Juarez customs officials today received orders from Mexico City barring all Paramount motion picture films from that country unless Her Husband’s Trademark, a picture starring Gloria Swanson, is withdrawn from circulation. Several scenes of fights with Mexican “revolutionists” are shown and the customs order says, “Mexico is placed in an untrue and shameful light.”

Paramount did not withdraw the film, so on May 1st Mexico refused to allow 236 Paramount films into their country, according to the L.A. Times. Moving Picture World added the details that that the Mexican postal service had advised the U.S. postal service that their President had ruled against the importation of Paramount films, and they would return all shipments.

Mexico continued to stand firm, and added Famous Players Lasky, Metro, and Educational Films to their embargo. In September, the MPPDA sent a special representative to Mexico City, Bernon T. Woodle, and after a month of negotiations in which he promised that Hollywood would stop making offensive films, they signed an agreement on November 6th lifting the ban and stipulating that some previously released films were exempted.

You’ve probably noticed that Hollywood continued to make offensive films. For a little while film producers moved settings to mythical South American countries, but that wasn’t particularly helpful. At least there was a tiny acknowledgement that some movies included ugly and thoughtless stereotypes.

Mexico really had a point. The conventions were so accepted that United Statsian (we do need a word for that) critics writing about Her Husband’s Trademark were blind to them and barely mentioned the offensive characters, or even worse, said “Mexican types are true to life,” as Exhibitors Trade Review did. Laura I. Serna wrote the Mexican diplomatic staff “complained that American films provided a one-sided view of Mexico as a nation of impoverished peasants completely given over to their baser instincts,” and the diplomats only wanted Hollywood to show that there was both good and bad there, as in every other country.

Irving Thalberg

The rest of the Thalberg interview wasn’t any better. He thought that all nations were being equally insulted:

Mexico, it is clear, does not like to have all villains in all western pictures look like Pancho Villa. England would perhaps be gratified if all Englishmen were not depicted as nit-wits or made to resemble a cross between a gopher and a rabbit. France has long been weary of screen Frenchmen who act like female impersonators, and Ireland is tired of having its men constantly called upon to confirm the Darwin theory.

Of course there were plenty of non-rabbity British actors like Charlie Chaplin in American films, and The Three Musketeers, which is chock-full of macho French characters, had just been a huge hit. It’s useful to know that people in the past were just as offended by stereotypes in movies as they are now, but the men in power could more easily get away with belittling them if they complained.

Pola Negri

This month, Grace Kingsley wrote about the arrival of another well-dressed star. Modern divas can line up for a master class in swanning into town from Pola Negri, and Kingsley did a good job of recording it:

The palpitating moment has passed. Pola Negri, rated by many critics as the world’s greatest film actress, has arrived among us. Miss Negri tripped off the train at Pasadena and you know her at once for that brilliantly fascinating, carefully artless heroine of Passion and Gypsy Blood.

Oh, it was quite carefully staged, that appearance. There were any number of maids and secretaries and others, who came out first until the suspense grew perfectly awful.

Then there she was, a vision in grey, her gown a long one of pan velvet trimmed with grey squirrel, while a little tippy-tilty hat shaded her face saucily, so that you barely caught the jade color of her eyes. But there were the red, red lips of that wonderfully mobile mouth, and the ivory skin, and the pearls of teeth flashing in what would have been a sweet grin of welcome in anybody except the screen’s greatest artist.

Unfortunately, the photo the Times ran was badly digitized.

A small, barefoot newsboy handed her a flower (Kingsley suspected it had been prearranged), then:

Cameras to the right of her, cameras to the left of her! Then we got a chance to speak to the famous lady. We learned already that she loathes short dresses and that Paris dressmakers are trying to make us think they thought of them first!

Miss Negri was very happy to be there except for the heat—she “loves California, aside from the fact that it isn’t Paris.” Furthermore: “She also wears the largest diamond I have ever seen on the middle finger of her left hand. We thought Pauline Frederick owned the largest diamond in the world, but Miss Negri’s is even larger.”

It’s a shame that current celebrities don’t put on such a show when they roll into town!

*Her Husband’s Trademark was so minor that neither the L.A. nor the N.Y. Times bothered to review it, they just mentioned it was playing. Film Daily’s title of their review offered a good summation: “Suitable Vehicle for Gloria Swanson but Otherwise Not Distinctive.” They went on to say that it “does not gain any laurels for itself. The basic idea is not new, for there have been other screen husbands who have used their beautiful screen wives to rope in unsuspecting business men as victims of unscrupulous deals.”

“Back From Mexico,” Film Daily, December 21, 1922, p.1.

“Bars Picture,” Morning Press, April 29, 1922.

“Companies Banned,” Moving Picture World, November 25, 1922, p. 316.

“Foreign Field Better,” Film Daily, July 7, 1922, p. 1, 4.

“Her Husband’s Trademark,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, March 4, 1922, p. 1007.

“Mexico Bans Imports of American Films; Reason Kept Secret,” Moving Picture World, June 3, 1922, p. 462.

“Oppose Film in Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1922.

“Paramount Arranges for its Film Distribution in Mexico,” Moving Picture World, January 21, 1922, p. 299.

Laura I. Serna, “’As a Mexican I Feel It’s My Duty:” Citizenship, Censorship, and the Campaign Against Derogatory Films in Mexico, 1922-1930,” Latin American Film History, October 2006, pp225-244.

“Suitable Vehicle for Gloria Swanson But Otherwise Not Distinctive,” Film Daily, February 26, 1922, p. 18.

Cast and Crew Aflame: September 1-15, 1922

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on her visit to a private screening and ended up describing an utterly unsafe workplace:

The very last word in picture conflagrations occurs in Reginald Barker’s Hearts Aflame. Because it is not only hearts that are aflame, but a whole forest, and part of the time, literally, the hero, played by Craig Ward, and the heroine, played by Anna Q. Nilsson.

A private view of these scenes proved hair-raising, even to the thrill-proof, hard-boiled critic. While looking at them yesterday, it was comforting to reflect that Craig Ward was safely out of the hospital, having just crawled forth at noon, and Anna Nilsson’s beauty will not be marred by her burns.

Anna Q. Nilsson and Craig Ward in Hearts Aflame

But it was not only the humans who went through the fire. Wild animals are seen making their escape, and the escaping didn’t need any rehearsing, either, says Mr. Barker.

The great fire scenes, though they set your hair on end, were quite carefully made to order—except, of course, the injury to the players, which was not contemplated at all, inasmuch as the fireman and engineer made the trip, and everything was set when Miss Nilsson took the throttle. However, you can never tell just what 6000 gallons of gasoline will do. That amount had been poured on the made-to-order forest and had been set off in a score of places simultaneously by the use of electric sparks. The trip was to take half a minute. But the flames sizzled at the window of the engine cab, Miss Nilsson did something all wrong to the throttle as she grabbed for a blanket to put around her legs, and the engine slowed down! However, with superhuman quickness, the star got going again, and everything was over.

Percy Hilburn, on a safer set

The cameramen, headed by Percy Hilburn, proved real heroes. They did their photographing of close-ups of the hero and heroine from little cabinets built each side of the engine’s boiler. How easily the film might have caught fire and made a holocaust of them nobody knew better than themselves. Yet they never quit, even when their little cabinets caught fire. And those cabinets were only charred boxes when they arrived at their journey’s end.

Good lord, this just seems horrifying. No entertainment is worth this kind of danger and destruction – not to mention the cruelty to animals and environmental damage. The scenes were shot in Pacoima Canyon, which is northeast of Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley. They spent eight weeks planning and preparing for the scenes, uprooting pine trees from the mountains and replanting them.

Even worse, the company had recently had a brush with fire danger only a few weeks earlier when they were on location in Canada.* Exhibitors’ Herald reported that the production had been “dangerously imperiled in a big forest fire near Cranbrook, B.C.” The Canadian fire wardens rescued the whole company. Some members had been burned by cinders but first aid was all that they needed, and they lost only a tripod and a case of unexposed film.

Apparently it didn’t teach them to respect fire: after they had that near miss, they still thought it would be a good idea to soak six acres of pines in gallons of gasoline, set them on fire and drive a train stocked with highly flammable nitrate film through it.  I honestly do not understand this. Does working on a movie break peoples’ brains?

Reginald Baker

Even Reginald Barker later admitted it was a bad idea, and he gave a sort of explanation of what he was thinking. He was interviewed by the L.A. Times when the film came out in early January 1923, and he said, “I wouldn’t duplicate that forest fire for $1,000,000. Knowing now what broad chances have to be taken to stage such a spectacle, I wouldn’t want to accept the responsibility for the lives that were risked. The thing kind of grew on all of us at the time, and we took chances without thinking, but to stand off now and plan the event with full knowledge of the risks to everybody involved is quite a different matter.”

The burning forest did impress the critics. Exhibitors’ Herald said “the fire scenes in the final reel are some of the most realistic and thrilling ever photographed.” Film Daily agreed, saying “Barker’s climax is certainly an unusually spectacular effort that is going to send them out wondering how they ever did it. Coloring in this sequence of the picture makes it all the more vivid and forceful. The shots showing the animals of the forest coming out of their lair into the shelter of the pools are mighty beautiful…The view of the locomotive ploughing through flames is another fine touch.” They predicted big box office.

The unsigned review in the L.A. Times reported that they were correct; the line outside the theater stretched down the block and the attendance was record-setting. While he or she thought the conventional plot was redeemed by good acting, it was the conclusion that set the movie apart: “This is by all odds the biggest blaze that has ever been screened. And you will be thrilled to the very center of your backbone watching Anna Q. Nilsson and Craig Ward dash through it on the antique steam engine, with the flames flying in their faces, and the trees and branches crackling and falling all around them.”

After all of their trouble, Hearts Aflame is a lost film.

Workplace safety really isn’t any better on film sets nowadays. There’s a truly horrifying list of film and television set accidents on Wikipedia, and Hearts Aflame isn’t even on it. In 2022, following cinematographer Halyna Hutchins’ death on the set of Rust and the subsequent investigation,  Variety Intelligence Platform put out a special report on production safety, and as the site observed, “if you’ve followed the related data and the general history of on-set deaths and injuries, such incidents have long resulted in similar questions and suggestions for how set environments can be fortified with proper protocols and legal consequences that ensure these production casualties become exceedingly rare… it’s imperative for the industry to address the reality of catastrophic on-set accidents not being random occurrences but rather the result of systemic issues that Hollywood has failed — and often fought — to properly address for decades.”

They can’t point to any actual changes being made. It seems like nobody is ever going to seriously consider if this sort of risk and danger is worth it.

This month Kingsley also took a special trip to see a movie from Sweden:

If Charles Dickens had been Swedish his “Scrooge” would have been much like The Stroke of Midnight, made by the Swedish Biograph and on view at Clune’s Broadway. It has the theme of redemption of a hardened man through a dream, only it is a New Year’s dream instead of a Christmas dream and is treated with the somberness characteristic of the Norseman. In fact, the Norse predilection for the tragic is appeased finally in the death of the heroine.

Yet despite this, there is a sort of authoritativeness about the picture, a grand, sweeping reality that carries you along with it. Maybe it is partly due to some of the finest acting the screen has seen; partly its stark revealment of human nature at moments, that courageous handling of a sordid theme for which foreigners are noted; partly due to the impressive treatment of the legend of the Grey Cart of Death which forms one of the mainspring of action… Despite the sinister story, the sordid settings, the fact that there is no love theme at all, the fans will find a fresh thrill in this picture. In fact, if you want to inject a little tragedy relief into the general saccharinity and hopeless optimism of you film entertainment, don’t miss it.

Astrid Holm and Lisa Lundholm

The movie she admired so much was a cut-down version of The Phantom Carriage, which is now regarded as a classic of world cinema and director Victor Sjöström’s masterpiece. It tells the story of Edit, a tuberculous-wracked Salvation Army worker on her deathbed who wants to see the man she tried to reform from alcoholism, David Holm, before she goes. At that time he’s drinking with buddies in a graveyard and talking about the legend of the Phantom Carriage, which picks up souls when they die. His friends try to drag him to her, he refuses, and he dies after getting hit on the head. The death cart appears, and his once happy, then dissolute life is shown in flashbacks. Then the carriage visits Edit, and she says she feels guilty for not saving him. He forgives her so she can die peacefully. Then the driver shows Holm his wife who is planning to poison herself and their children. He regains consciousness in the graveyard, rushes home, saves them, and convinces her that he has reformed.

Victor Sjöström

The American edit that Kingsley saw, which cut a 106-minute-long film down to 60 minutes, got rid of the flashback structure and begins with Holm as a drunk vagrant. The he visits Edit at the Salvation Army but he goes right back to his addiction.  He ends up drinking in the graveyard, where the carriage comes to get him.  It drives him to see Edit dying, then to his home where the poisoning is proceeding. He awakens in the graveyard, runs home, and saves his family and promises to reform.

Hilda Borgström and Victor Sjöström

Kingsley had no idea how much the film had been changed to try to cater to American tastes, and she even blamed foreign audiences for the film’s faults:

It seems to me there is always a certain naivete in the stories of the foreign pictures, a certain something that seems to be intended for a childish audience. It exists in this story.

It wasn’t their fault: it was the studio’s low opinion of their customers in the States. The studio who cut and released it, Metro, didn’t publicize that they changed it (though the New York Times reviewer guessed that it had been done because, “sometimes its continuity is broken—it has been badly edited for American circulation.”) Almost half the original was gone. It’s a wonder anything made any sense!

All aboard!

Kingsley had an opinion that I haven’t seen elsewhere: The Stroke of Midnight wasn’t depressing enough, and she blamed Swedes specifically for it.  She wrote: “I wonder whether the Swedish picture makers are answering a demand among Swedish film fans for saccharine finishes that this man’s vision turned out to be only a dream instead of a stark tragedy, as would be the evident logic of the tale.” Apparently, she wanted everybody to die and hop on board the phantom carriage. And she called Nordic people somber!

It sure was’t the L.A. Times ad that convinced her to see it.

Most of all, this review shows that Grace Kingsley took her job seriously, and made an effort to see innovative art films. At this time, many movies got no review at all in the L.A. Times and she didn’t visit Clune’s Broadway every week. She knew to go because the New York reviews had alerted her in early June. The unsigned New York Times review stated that ninety-nine out of a hundred directors would have made a dull film out of the story, but Sjöström was the hundredth director and it was “compellingly interesting.” Additionally, they praised the “acting that is intense and positively expressive and yet always restrained, as truly forceful acting must be.” Exhibitors’ Trade Review agreed that the performances were outstanding, as well as the photography, saying, “A remarkably fine enacted picture is The Stroke of Midnight, which has been produced by the Swedish Biograph Company. The story itself is the spookiest of spooky; ghosts, the cart of death, and possibly a few stray ectoplasms, all of which have been photographed with seemingly the greatest precautions to register the proper creeps.” Film Daily acknowledged it might have limited appeal because “many people avoid pictures which have no bright side.” Nevertheless “as a picture, it is decidedly worth seeing and will be best appreciated by the better classes, those who look at the advancement of pictures as an art,” as well as photography that was “probably some of the best double exposure work ever accomplished.”

For many years The Phantom Carriage was only available in bad prints, until the Swedish Film Institute did a restoration in 1975. It’s available on Kanopy.

*There’s wrong information on the Internet, you won’t be shocked to learn. Some sources like this 2013 Vancouver Sun article say that the gasoline-soaked forest was in Canada but reports from trade papers in 1922 make it clear that there were two fires: one in British Columbia before August 15th that trapped the company, and the other they set themselves in Pacoima Canyon on August 29th.

“Eberle to Make Visit of Studios,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1923.

“Film Stars Burned in Big Forest Fire,” Exhibitors’ Herald, August 26, 1922, p. 48.

“Fortune Spent on Film Scene,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1923.

Hearts Aflame,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 6, 1923, p. 59.

“Looks Like Santa Was Good This Year With This One in Sight,” Film Daily, December 24, 1922, p.3.

“Twenty Acres of Pines Swept by Fire for Scene in Film, Hearts Aflame,Daily News Leader (San Mateo), March 19, 1923.


“An Interesting and Very Unusual Picture But Appeal May Be Limited,” Film Daily, June 4, 1922, p. 3.

“The Screen,” New York Times, June 5, 1922.

The Stroke of Midnight,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, June 17, 1922, p. 185.