One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to visit a brand-new theater, Grauman’s Hollywood, and she was mightily impressed. She promised readers that when they visited, they would “step right out of the humdrum of Main Street into the beauty and mystery and atmospheric charm of an Egyptian temple.” She didn’t stint on her adjectives when she described her first impressions:
At the risk of sounding like a regular press-agent, I’m going to say that a vista of exquisite beauty, filled with sparkling fountains, colored lights, huge bas-reliefs, softly tinted hieroglyphics, and flowers bursts on your view as you enter the long court leading to the pillared temple.
Lining the court on one side is a string of shops devoted to objects of art and refreshment, and decorated in keeping with the general scheme. Lining the other side are bas-relief figures, Egyptian paintings and fountains, while among the palms are placed ornamental stone garden seats. Entering the pillared portico, you come to the main entrance, and inside huge mirrors reflect the vista of beauty. Beyond is a huge lounge, flanked by luxuriously appointed rest-rooms and smoking apartments.
The theater itself is gorgeous in color and yet exquisitely toned. The stage and proscenium are calculated to give the illusion of depth, with pillars and a huge figure of the sphinx on either side. Above one seems to be looking into the blue depths of the sky with a sunburst crowning the proscenium. Every color is used in marvelous shades to and exquisite blending of effect.
Remarkably, it’s still a movie theater. Until recently, the American Cinematheque and the annual Cinecon and TCM movie conventions held screenings there. Bill Counter at the Los Angeles theaters blog has written a through history of what came to be called the Egyptian Theater. The short version is that movie theater magnet Sid Grauman started building his first theater in Hollywood in 1921. He’d hoped to open it in November of that year, but like most construction projects, it took longer. It cost $800,000, and it was the first theater with an Egyptian decorative scheme.
Kingsley also mentioned the big plans for opening night, the premier of Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood:
The opening of the theater Wednesday night promises to be the most brilliant occasion of the kind in the city. Well-known stage and picture stars, famous writers, artists and musicians will be among the guests of Mr. Grauman.
Of course she didn’t get to attend, her boss Edwin Schallert sent himself to the jam-packed event (the National Guard had to supplement the local police to keep the crowds in line, Exhibitors’ Herald reported). Schallert admired the theater as much as Kingsley did, calling it
a true theater of the picture type—one in which taste dominates. There is nothing of garishness about the interior. There is naught to distract the eye from the shadowy stage which is the playhouse raison d’etre.
He said the evening lived up to its promise: after “everyone in starland” heard speeches from several dignitaries and even Charlie Chaplin, who “indicated that too many speeches palled on him” (perhaps Kingsley didn’t regret missing them). Cecil B. De Mille then presented a laurel wreath to Grauman, on behalf of all the film folk.
Eventually the feature began, and Schallert thought it was even better than the event and the theater:
a panorama of fantasy, a magical pictorial procession, a gay, dashing pageant of daring exploits and chivalric deeds, seen through the mists of legends and lighted by the moonbeams of romance, Robin Hood, the long-awaited, the clarioned, unfurled the radiant tapestry of its presence last night in Hollywood…Certainly, this is the great picture of the year. Undoubtedly, too, it is the most artistic picture in the history of ocular narrative.
Purple prose was awfully common on the movie page back then! Nevertheless, filmgoers agreed that the movie was terrific and Robin Hood won Photoplay’s Gold Medal of Honor for 1922 as the best picture of the year. It sold plenty of tickets, too. Grauman’s Hollywood could seat 1760 people, and the film played until April 1923.
The theater was unique in another way: Sid Grauman had introduced a new plan with reserved seating and only two shows a day, not continuous showings. You could buy tickets up to a week in advance. It made movie-going into an event. Also, because it was the only theater where Robin Hood would be playing in Southern California until the end of the year, travelers wanted to be guaranteed admission. People liked it, the Times said three weeks after the opening. Demand was so high that the box office had to install a private branch telephone exchange at the theater. They took reservations by telegraph, too.
Hopefully, it will be a theater again, once it’s current owner, Netflix, finishes their remodel. Happy 100th birthday to the Egyptian Theater!
This month, Kingsley also had some interesting observations about a new process, Prizma Color:
Just so everybody has been contending for a long time, with most marvelous plausibility, that colored photography wasn’t suitable for picture drama, and anyway that it couldn’t be done nicely. Whereas it’s just what the poor old drooping photodrama needed to pep it up and make it seem real once more, and lure folks into the theaters.
All of which is prefatory to telling you that The Glorious Adventure, which is at the California, is infinitely much more of a glorious adventure because it is done in glorious color. Never mind if in spots it does a wee bit resemble animated picture postcards. The stimulating effect of its colors on one’s senses and mind, the depth of perspective gained, the gorgeous beauty of many of the scenes, adds so incalculably to the convincingness and interest of the story that one is disposed to utter a Hallelujah whoop of joy.
Color photography does indeed bring the pictures far, far closer to the stage than they have ever been. It is quite likely that in future there won’t be orgies of color as there are in some spots in The Glorious Adventure, but that some system will be found to temper the hues to mood and theme—perhaps through dressing of actors and sets and choice of backgrounds; but in the meantime let’s be thankful for what the gods and J. Stuart Blackton have provided.
The Glorious Adventure was the first feature-length film shot in Prizma Color, which had been invented by William Van Doren Kelly and Charles Raleigh in 1913. Their company had been releasing short color films since 1919. The Prizma camera shot two strips of film simultaneously, one sensitive to red-orange and the other to blue-green. Both negatives were developed and printed on to one film, so it could be shown on any projector.
Now Prizma Color doesn’t look as good as it did to Kingsley (we’re spoiled by all the processes still to come). The trade paper reviewers saw more limitations with the process than Kingsley did. The writer for Exhibitors’ Trade Review said:
The scenes during the great fire of London are pictured with splendid realism and the reflection of the flames on buildings and passers-by is quite the most convincing effect that has been produced by the use of color. However, in the matter of clothes and background throughout, the picture seems to suffer from ill-proportioned reds and bluish greens.
Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News was even more specific about Prizma Color’s limitations:
While the figures are in movement their faces are almost indistinguishable. It is as if the colors merged too readily, leaving the spectator in a maze guessing their identities. Particularly this is noticeable in the long shots. The close-ups compensate for making the effort as the players in repose bring out the desired effect…Not so much success seems to have been made in bringing forth cerises, pinks, blues, oranges, and yellows. Red and green are dominant.
What seems really remarkable now is that some people were opposed to color in film. Kingsley quoted an expert filmmaker:
Mary Pickford told me once that she believed color photography would detract from the effect of drama. But just this once little Mary is wrong, at least as far as I’m concerned. The color rather induces keener perception and appreciation.
It was also all too much for Fritz Tidden of Moving Picture World:
The color photography has given many of the scenes much beauty, especially so as the period of the story was in a time when vivid costumes were the fashion. But at times there seems to be such an amount of coloring that the onlooker becomes rather bewildered.
Other than the opinions on the technical innovation, overall reviews ranged from “the story is a bit confusing, too many characters being introduced, many of whom really are immaterial to the main plot” in Exhibitors’ Herald to Kingsley’s enjoyment of a “regular swashbuckler, full of go.” However, she couldn’t stand the lead actress. Lady Diana Manners, who:
has the distinction of being the very worst actress on the screen. She never forgets she is Lady Diana. Neither fire, nor murder at her door, nor anything else, cause one quiver of astonishment of fear or hate or anything else to cross her aristocratic face.
Ouch! Other reviewers were more kind; Tidden felt she just lacked experience. If you’d like more information about Prizma Color, visit the Timeline of Historical Film Colors website. You can see scenes from the film on You Tube:
“Brilliant Assembly Attends Opening of Grauman Temple,” Exhibitors’ Herald, November 4, 1922, p. 33.
“Old Egypt Transplanted,” Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1922.
“Patrons are Pleased with Robin Hood,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1922.
“Robin Hood Run Approaches End.,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1922.
Edwin Schallert, “Robin Hood Superb Film,” Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1922.
“The Glorious Adventure,” Exhibitors’ Herald, May 13, 1922, p. 59.
“The Glorious Adventure,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, May 6, 1922, p. 1681.
Laurence Reid, “The Glorious Adventure,” Motion Picture News, May 6, 1922, p. 2592.
Fritz Tidden, “The Glorious Adventure,” Moving Picture World,” May 6, 1922, p. 91.