One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Cecil B. De Mille about the immediate future of films. He had just finished shooting his last collaboration with Geraldine Farrar, The Devil’s Stone, and was beginning to think about his next project. He said:
As to the nature and subject of pictures, the suggestive film and that dealing morbidly with sex matters are dead already. Clean, cheerful, human themes will be the favorites. In any case, screen productions will divide themselves into two classes—they are beginning to do so already, in fact—viz., the flashy melodrama and the bright, clever, clean drama appealing to intelligent people.
While the whole industry didn’t follow his lead, this was fairly true for the films he was to make over the next few years, which ranged from the melodrama of a cursed Viking emerald in The Devil’s Stone to the cheerful, not morbid film about sex matters Don’t Change Your Husband (1918).
He was perhaps deliberately vague about the plans for his next film, saying it would not be a war film or a story of international intrigue, but it would be “imbued with a tremendous spirit of patriotism and will be entirely unique in theme.” This turned out to be far from the final result. The Whispering Chorus told the story of an indebted accountant who embezzles money from his employer, fakes his own death by changing clothes with the corpse of a homeless man, then gets arrested for the corpses’ murder and goes to the electric chair for the crime. Ooof! De Mille’s patriotic project must have been shelved. Fritzi Kramer has a review of The Whispering Chorus at Movies Silently.
De Mille’s other prediction didn’t come true as much as I ‘d like. He said that “feature” films of eight or nine reels were doomed, and the ideal length was five. “No matter how good the picture, people grow weary if required to remain a longer time than that called for by the five reeler.” Yes, exactly! If only everybody had listened to him – himself included. But the main lesson from the interview is don’t talk to journalists about your next project until it’s finished or you’ll probably be wrong.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week, Sirens of the Sea, was certainly different from the other pictures out at the time. A group of modern young people visit an island and in a dream sequence are transformed into sirens and Greek warriors; “the sirens long to become mortal and win love and happiness.” She thought that director Allen Holubar “has done it so skillfully, has so artfully transferred the fragile charm of youth to the screen, that the most practical among us is disarmed of prejudice against the too-fanciful, and is placed completely under the spell of the story’s absorbing charm.” She hoped that “this is merely the beginning of Holubar’s work in the realm of poetic fancy.” It’s a lost film.
Unfortunately for Kingsley, Holubar stayed away from fantasy for the rest of his career and mostly made serious dramas, usually featuring his wife, Dorothy Phillips (Lon Chaney’s co-star in the late teens). His next film was Fear Not, a crime drama about drug abuse. He died of pneumonia following gallstone surgery in 1923.
Kinglsey repeated a story from D.W. Griffith’s publicity man this week:
According to authentic reports, those two geniuses, D.W. Griffith and Bernard Shaw, have met. The momentous event occurred in London. It is related Mr. Shaw even ran right home from the dinner party where the two celebrities met, and fetched back a scenario. Mr. Griffith did not, however, so far as can be learned, purchase it. W.E. Keefe, Griffith’s press agent, volunteers the information that he knows the reason. “I’ll bet I know why Griffith didn’t buy it. It didn’t have any pep.”
It’s wise to distrust a publicist, but according to Griffith’s biographer Richard Schickel, the meeting actually did take place — just over lunch, not dinner. Griffith met with lots of famous literary men during his trip to England, including H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton and John Galsworthy, to ask them how he could contribute to the war effort. Schickel (quoting Griffith’s autobiography) said that Shaw was a little cranky and after trying to give Griffith a script, he began to lecture him on what was wrong with American films so the director left the luncheon early. (p.345). However, he didn’t mention pep or lack of it in the scenario.
If Shaw shared his thoughts on Intolerance, it’s no wonder Griffith dined and dashed. In a May 14, 1917 letter to Judge Henry Neil, he wrote “it was the most damnable entertainment and the wickedest waste of money within my experience. It was like turning over the leaves of a badly illustrated Bible (in monthly parts) for three hours that were like three years.” So did he ask for a refund? Their conversation could be the basis for a two-actor play.
Shaw’s plays weren’t adapted to silent films, even though he was offered lots of money for the rights. The first was an experimental talkie made in 1927: an eleven-minute scene from Saint Joan performed by Sybil Thorndike. He went on to adapt two of his plays into a couple of the best British films ever made, Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941).
Kingsley enjoyed “the amusing little comedy” A Stormy Knight, but she noted “a fault in the photoplay is that it has too many automobile chases—so many, in fact, that it might well be suspected a real estate agent and an automobile man had something to do with the staging!” (What would she say about a Fast and the Furious movie?) Franklyn Farnum starred in this now-lost film as a young man whose father wanted him to marry, so the father stages a fake kidnapping, because naturally his son would fall in love with a damsel in distress.
I can understand the car salesmen profiting, but I’d never thought about realtors. But of course, in 1917 the chases would go past many houses and vacant lots waiting to be sold and potential buyers throughout the country could see them. Hollywood films really would have been a real estate selling tool.