Week of May 26th, 1917

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Col. Jasper Ewing Brady

One hundred years ago this week, Universal engaged a new head of their scenario department, ex-Army officer/playwright/novelist/magazine writer/former Vitagraph screenwriter Col. Jasper Ewing Brady. He promptly announced:

I don’t want any war stuff, nor do I want religious themes and above all I will not consider sex themes. Crime and sex should be taboo from pictures. Wholesomeness should prove their predominating note. We want comedies, dramas, and comedy-dramas of one, two, three and five reels.

Grace Kingsley had already seen enough movies by 1917 to know that this wouldn’t work; she wrote:

We believe he’s going to have a rather hard time finding absorbing stories which have neither crime nor sex in them, unless he produces only comedies of the most superficial sort. Also the war is going to yield some gripping literary by-products, which cannot be overlooked. We think the development of picture literature would meet with a severe retardation if nothing is to be shown in a picture theater which would not do for a Sunday-school entertainment.

Of course Kingsley was right. Brady’s next writing credit was for a film called The Divorce Trap, so his taboo on sex didn’t last long. Brady stayed at Universal for a year, then moved on to Metro. In 1920 he published a lecture called “The Necessity of Original Photoplay Material” [available on Google Books); it’s mostly about how few good screenplays come across his desk, buried beneath a mound of unprofessional trash. There’s not a word about wholesomeness or avoiding war, crime or sex. Moralizing has always been a temporary idea for the movies.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Call of Her People, the story of a Roma woman who is torn from her new husband and sent to live with her birth family, which is wealthy and white. After abandonment, imprisonment, a murder and a chase, it turns out that she isn’t their daughter and she returns to her husband and people. Even though it was “undiluted melodrama” Kingsley thought it “holds the spectator in its grip through the last inch of film” particularly due to its star, Ethel Barrymore, who “is one of the few actresses who can press emotion home to our imaginations as well as envision it to our eyes.” The film has been preserved at the Eastman House.

However, the most entertaining thing she saw this week was a sketch at the Orpheum, “Our Little Bride.” Rosalind Coghlan played the young woman who

in seeking to obviate the necessity for marrying a very rich, very disagreeable old man, becomes the champion long-distance, high-geared fiancée of the world’s history, engaging herself to four young men within fifteen minutes. She loses them one by one, and then gets them all back together again in comical confusion.

Kingsley found it “an antidote to numberless soggy picture dramas.” Better yet, according to actor Donald Bowles, the story was based on his niece, who did escape her family’s choice of husband and lived happily ever after with the fiancé she wanted.

Kingsley talked to theatrical impresario Oliver Morosco about the many actors who were sacrificing lucrative contracts to fight in the war, for example, Lewis Stone who “gave up a three-year contract with me at a salary graduating from $350 a week the first year, $400 a week the second year to $500 a week the third year.” Stone came back safely from his service in the Calvary and made up for any lost wages with a long film career that included seven films with Greta Garbo and fifteen Andy Hardy movies–he played Judge Hardy, Andy’s father.

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Poster for The Silent Lie re-release in 1920

Kingsley’s best line this week was in a review of a Raoul Walsh film, The Silent Lie. She wrote that it “is composed of events which never would have happened at all if the people concerned had used a bit of sense.” Movies haven’t changed much in 100 years! Walsh went on to make better films like High Sierra (1941) and White Heat (1949).

Week of May 19th, 1917

 

One hundred years ago this week, Kingsley offered a glimpse of a woman director at work:

Ruth Ann Baldwin’s middle name is efficiency. Miss Baldwin is a Universal director. She has been the busy bee looking like a wounded snail some days out on location. The sun, not having fulfilled his promise to shine, she gets out her trusty typewriter, which she carries always with her on such occasions, and goes to work on a new scenario. She talks while she types, too.

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Baldwin was a former newspaper reporter who became a scenario writer at Universal. In late 1916 they gave her the chance to direct and in the next year she made ten shorts and two features, including a Western parody ’49-‘17.

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You don’t often get to see “director motion pictures” on the bride’s side of a marriage certificate!

In 1917 she also got married on February 19th to the actor who frequently starred in her films, Leo Pierson. Her directing career lasted only one year, then she returned to screenwriting. Her last credit was Puppets of Fate (1921), and she was last mentioned in the L.A. Times in 1925, when a columnist said she was living on a desert ranch. She disappeared from public records after that. You can read more about her on the Women Film Pioneers Project site.

None of the films Kingsley reviewed this week were outstanding, though she mentioned that Flora Finch provided some excellent laughs in a parody of The Common Law. (the lost short was called Guess What.) However, her complaints about Yankee Pluck have been echoed by filmgoers since then: “if the film were a two-reeler it would have been a corker but it is stretched mighty thin over five reels.” Furthermore, “there ought to be a society for the formation of rules as to what trivialities must be omitted from a photoplay with a penalty of imprisonment in a studio projection room.” In this case, ten or twelve feet of film were wasted settling a taxi bill. It’s a lost film. I’m glad Kingsley never had to see some of the bloated films we have now!

Kingsley reported that sweet-natured Chaplin leading lady Edna Purviance actually registered a protest while shooting The Immigrant. She declared that she learned to hate beans

because of the many necessary retakes of scenes in which Miss Purviance must eat plates and plates of beans.

‘It’s no use Charlie,’ she exclaimed; ‘I simply can’t swallow another one.’

‘Great Scott!’ retorted Charlie, ‘how am I going to get my gagging over, then?’

‘I give it up,’ replied Edna. ‘If you’d been gagging as much as I have for the past five hours you wouldn’t want to gag any more!’

Oh well, if she had to suffer at least it was for something still being watched 100 years later. The Library of Congress included The Immigrant in their National Film Registry and it’s available on the Internet Archive. If you’d like to learn more about Purviance, visit Linda Wada’s site, A Journey to Paradise.

 

 

Week of May 12th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an innovation in short films:

The Universal Film Manufacturing Company has hit upon a decided novelty in picture production. It is nothing more nor less than putting popular songs into picture form. Thus not only will the lover of “Poor Butterfly,” for instance, be able to hear his favorite popular song, but he will also see the story, as suggested by the number, unrolled on the film before his eyes.

These films were part of a series called Song Hits in Photoplay, and they were halfway between older sing-along song slides and music videos. The plan was to hire a local soloist to sing while the film was shown, and invite the audience to join in the chorus, which was helpfully printed on the film. Just like MTV, the aim was to sell new songs to the public.

The first song was Irving Berlin’s latest, “The Road that Leads to Happiness” (he later changed the title to “The Road that Leads to Love”) which was released on May 8th. Blossom Seeley, a vaudeville performer, and Ted Snyder, a music publisher, starred in the 5 minute long film. No description of it is available, but Moving Picture Weekly recapped the second in the series, George W. Meyers’ and Edgar Leslie’s “Let’s All Be Americans Now:”

Mr. Myers and Mr. Leslie are seated in their office discussing the compulsory draft, and each one decides that he has some disability which will prevent the government from utilizing his services. They decide to write a song, and the process is shown in the film. After more changes, due to the necessity of more martial vigor and ‘pep,’ they finish the song, and then the question is “Who shall sing it?’ At this moment in walks [Broadway and vaudeville star] Emma Carus, looking for a patriotic song. ‘We have it,’ said Leslie. ‘Just wrote it this minute. Sit down and sing it.’ Miss Carus, who looks as though she had been preparing for the draft herself complies, and in a jiffy the whole office is buzzing with “Let’s All Be Americans Now.”

It was released at the end of May. Two more songs, “For Me and My Gal” and “Indiana,” came out, then they took a break and rethought the idea. In January 1918 Universal announced that Song Hits in Photoplay would be back as a series of twelve films starring Universal actors; for example, one film would feature Franklyn Farnum leading “Over There” and “Homeward Bound.”

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Harry Cohn

The idea for Song Hits came from an enterprising song seller, Harry Cohn, whose brother Jack worked for Universal. Harry Cohn also directed them. While neither series seems to have been a success, they did help him move from the music publishing business to film. In 1918 he became Universal’s head Carl Laemmle’s secretary, then in 1919 he co-founded a production company with his brother and Joe Brandt, CBC Film Sales, which in 1924 was incorporated as Columbia Pictures. He became its president in 1932. The competition for most unpleasant Golden Age movie mogul is stiff, but the quote “I don’t have ulcers, I give them” was attributed to him. You can find a biography of Cohn by Marc Wanamaker at Sony Pictures Museum site.

The films haven’t survived, but the UCSB Cylinder Project has versions of the first four songs, all recorded in 1917.

This was a good week to go to live theater, not the pictures, according to Kingsley. The best she could say of the five-reel-long crime drama The Flashlight Girl was “not once will you look at your watch while viewing” (though the outdoor scenery was beautiful), and the comedy Happiness had “striking” inter titles (though Enid Bennett gave a fine performance). However, The Snow Queen was so good that Hans Christian Andersen himself  “couldn’t have brought to life his tale more entrancingly than did the big cast at the Majestic last night.” The Snow Queen is an extraordinarily durable property; it’s most recent version was Disney’s Frozen (2013), and the live theater version of that is set to debut on Broadway in Spring, 2018.

 

 

 

Sources for Song Hits:

“Song Hits in Photoplay,” Moving Picture Weekly, April 14, 1917, 15.

“Let’s All Be Americans Now,” Moving Picture Weekly, June 2, 1917, 26.

“Animated Songs Feature Universal Stars,” Moving Picture World, January 26, 1918, 544.

Week of May 5th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was inspired by two not very good movies to write:

When will the picture producers be merciful to us, and let those curly-headed cuties, those sophisticated sirenettes, the picture ingénues, grow up? What of the future of the June Caprices, the Marguerite Clarks, the Mary Miles Minters, the Violet Mersereaus, the Ella Halls, the Vivian Martins? They themselves probably wonder at moments quite anxiously what becomes of the ingénue when she gets old…What an awful fate waits the ageless ingénue! Fancy a wild young thing of 50 who hops over tables, hides in barrels, and does all the hundred and one excruciatingly cunning things with which the professional ingénue habitually renews her patently preserved youth.

The films she saw were The Valentine Girl with Marguerite Clark (“as imaginative as a seed catalog”) and A Small-town Girl with June Caprice (“it never really got anywhere, and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor remains the best actor in the picture.”)

None of the six actresses she mentioned stayed in film much longer, in part because movies about curly-haired innocents went out of fashion, and stars were rarely able to change their image. It wasn’t just ageism. Then again, doing something with your life other than appearing in movies isn’t such a terrible thing. Here’s what happened:

  • June Caprice worked steadily until 1921, then retired to have children.
  • Marguerite Clark married in 1918 and retired from acting in 1921.
  • Mary Miles Minter continued to star in big films such as Anne of Green Gables (1919) until scandal surrounding William Desmond Taylor’s murder in 1922 ended her career.
  • Violet Mersereau appeared fewer films after 1919 but she kept acting until 1926.
  • Ella Hall’s career also slowed down in 1919 when she married and had the first of four children; she retired in 1923.
  • Vivian Martin left films in 1921 and went back to acting on the stage.

Kingsley pointed out that things were quite different for men, and the double standard was firmly in place:

As for the male ingénue, the professional screen lover, time and the world are very kind to him. He rants and keeps his waist line, does things to his hair, hides his grandchildren, smiles even when he has rheumatism, and kids the world into accepting him in romantic roles.

Some things really don’t change.

Her favorite film this week came from Keystone. Playing before The Valentine Girl at the Woodley, Mack Swain starred in His Naughty Thought. Kingsley wrote:

if Mack Sennett’s thought had been half as naughty as it was funny, it would have been censored right off the screen. As a matter of fact, the comedy isn’t naughty at all, and would also have to be strained a point to be considered a thought! However, it’s a roistering burlesque, with Mack bequeathed a restaurant by an uncle who “would insist on eating at his own restaurant despite the doctor’s orders.” Whoever wrote those subtitles—I suspect a symposium—deserves a permanent place in the celestial funny columns—if they run one up there.

We still don’t know who wrote them (even Brent Walker couldn’t find out). The film has been preserved at the UCLA Archive. Mack Swain was most famous for being Chaplin’s large antagonist in The Gold Rush, but this week he could be seen in another Chaplin film being revived just a few doors down Broadway at the Garrick Theater. He played Tillie’s father in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and Kingsley felt that anybody who hadn’t seen the film, should, because it was the funniest Keystone had made and “the burlesque of the obvious and mawkish film drama is here so good.” It’s available on the Internet Archive, if you want to follow her advice.

Kingsley managed to dislike a (now lost) film even more than the Clarke and Caprice vehicles this week, God’s Law and Man’s, and was moved to write her best lines: “take a small female in the screen drama, dress her up in beads and one of those shredded wheat skirts, let her talk pidgin English, introduce her to a handsome white man, and heaven knows she’s due for a fall. She just can’t make her fate behave, that’s all.”

I hope that fate behaves well for you this week!

Week of April 28th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley put a Hollywood spin on the upcoming war tax.

Of course, to be within the charmed circle of picture stars and picture magnates who receive salaries which soar up into the rarified atmosphere occupied by high art and the income tax is an enviable position. Nevertheless now that these poor struggling picture folk are to have their salaries submitted to further pickings on account of the war – in other words, now they are liable to have to yield up to 40 per cent of their incomes as war tax—fancy how they will suffer. They will not be able to afford more than three or four cars and chauffeurs apiece, they will have to be satisfied with old second-hand diamonds, they will be able to buy only a few hundred dollars worth of government bonds at a time, and will have to cut over last year’s ermine and make it do for another winter…However, these patriots are keeping a noble silence on the subject, so we presume they are willing to sacrifice in the cause of patriotism.

She listed some of the people who made over $100,000 who would be affected, including D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Francis X. Bushman, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Sennett, William S. Hart and Clara Kimball Young.

Many changes were made to the War Revenue Act of 1917 before it passed in October, and it wasn’t just wealthy people affected. In 1916, people making less than $20,000 didn’t have to bother with income tax at all; this act lowered the threshold to $2,000. However, the average annual household income was about $800 so many people still didn’t have to file. The tax was graduated starting at 4 percent, rising to 31 percent for incomes of $100,000 and 67 percent for $2,000,000 or more.

Personal income tax wasn’t the only way the country paid for the war, they also raised corporate taxes, added more tax to luxury items like cars and sold bonds. Even with these measures, they didn’t cover the whole cost of it and the national debt rose from one billion in 1915 to twenty billion in 1920.

Kinglsey’s favorite film this week was The Clock, and as usual there was only one charming actor she could compare the lead to:

Franklyn Farnum comes near stripping bare the brow of Douglas Fairbanks in this buoyantly cheerful little tale. Mr. Farnum plays the role of a happy-go-lucky young scamp with an irresistible smile and a breezy manner, by which he gets away with quite incredible but always cheerful impertinences. The story has to do, along in the third reel, with a clock left the hero by a mysterious uncle along with an inheritance of five thousand a year on the end of a codicil string, which requires the young man to go to bed at 10 and arise at six. Probably there is a moral about it somewhere, but its entirely painless.

Unfortunately it’s a lost film. Farnum was a former vaudevillian who was nearly 40 when he appeared in The Clock. He went on to a very long career primarily in Westerns with 618 credits on the IMDB.

Kinglsey’s best line of the week was in her review of The More Excellent Way: “The story is one of those which smuggles smut to the hypercritical and snuffling sisterhood.” Anita Stewart played a “spineless female” who marries a man she doesn’t love and “who maunders through five reels between divorce and broken-hearted silence.” Eventually she realizes she loves him. It’s also a lost film.

Kinglsey typed some nonsense this week, but she couldn’t keep sarcasm out of it. Under the headline “Rapid Evolution Note” she said that the “Hawaiian” actress, Miss Lehua Waipahu, of The Bottle Imp had changed her name to Margaret Loomis, and had managed to learn to speak English quite fluently. She wrote, “as a tribute to our climate, be it known her complexion has suddenly turned very fair.” Waipahu/Loomis wasn’t the least bit Hawaiian; she was born in San Francisco in 1893 to Charles (from California) and Georgia (from Iowa) Loomis, and grew up in Los Angeles. She studied dance at the Denishawn School and toured with Ruth St. Denis before she became an actress. I don’t know who suggested she be temporarily Hawaiian for the film, but by a 1920 Picture-Play Magazine interview she dropped all of the Lehua Waipahu silliness and just described The Bottle Imp as one of her “good roles.” She worked for Paramount Studios until the mid-1920s when she married and retired.

Kinglsey reported that F.H. Richardson, “one of the greatest experts on motion picture projection in America” had arrived in Los Angeles as part of his North American tour to preach “the gospel of perfect projection to the house managers.” He got a reception at Universal City, gave a lecture at the Superba Theater, and was given a banquet at a downtown café. It’s a shame we don’t have perfect projection preachers being feted by film companies now. Secondly, I’m still amazed by what’s available online: the Screening Room Services site has a biography and collection of his lectures here.

 

 

 

Week of April 21st, 1917

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One solution

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley continued her complaints about audiences by listing some of the ways people behaved badly in film theaters, beginning with the simple-minded ‘matinee girl’ who:

reads the sub-titles aloud very slowly, generally omitting the big words, and the 30-year old girl who has written scenarios but can’t get any accepted and comes to scoff at the work of others. And the giggling girl, hysterically desirous of attention. She always comes in twos and giggles and talks so loudly you can’t even hear the sub-titles being read by the other woman. Very often she turns out to be an extra girl employed in the picture. But the matinee hog is the worst of all. Usually this species of noisome creature is of the male sex, and has another of his kind along with him. If he’s seated when you enter, at the end of the row of seats, he never moves to give you room, nor does he rise. He sticks his elephantine feet into the aisle and lets you fall over them…In fact, he’s one big reason you hesitate a lot of times to enter a picture house at all.

So there has never been a time when audiences were well-behaved. They needed a Code of Conduct then as much as we do now.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Aladdin from Broadway, “a delightful high-class screen comedy…Edith Storey indeed surprises by revealing herself as a complete mistress of comedy of a certain volatile, whimsical flavor…it is due to Miss Storey’s vibrant humor, as well as Antonio Moreno’s debonair impersonation of the happy-go-lucky America that the photoplay is sustained in a comedy key throughout, despite some scenes of thrilling adventure.” Other reviewers, like George Shorey in Motion Picture News, were so impressed by the thrilling adventure (particularly a sandstorm that was “one of the most wonderful bits of picture staging we have ever seen”) that he didn’t even mention the funny bits. However, he agreed with Kingsley that it was one of the best films Vitagraph had ever made. Sadly, it’s a lost film.

The big release of the week was She; Kingsley found it “magnificently spectacular,” yet it was a “warmed-over thrill” because despite the breath-catching episodes of burning people and naked cannibals dancing around their victim, the scenes gluing them together were dull. Nevertheless, “Valeska Suratt, as She, entirely vindicates her right to be classed as one of the screen’s big-best actresses.” It’s also a lost film.

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Kingsley reported on the founding of the First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, an association of independent theater owners that “marks the first nation-wide step taken toward open-market buying.” Film producers had been selling their complete program to theaters, but the new Exhibitor’s Circuit would allow them to choose what they showed. It became a great success, controlling over 600 theaters. In 1924 it expanded into film production, changing its name to First National Pictures, and in 1928 they were bought by Warner Bros.

Kingsley had a chat with a young actress, Eva Le Gallienne, touring with a production of The Happy Stranger. Her father Richard was a famous poet, so she answered the obvious question:

“Do I write poetry?” repeated Miss Le Gallienne. “No, I do not. I speak with authority, too. In other words, my judgment has been verified. I used to think I did, but now I know I don’t. I wrote one bit of verse which was published, and thereafter I wrote about ninety-seven poems and sent them each to about ninety-seven publications without success. No, you just ask any of those editors and he will tell you no quite positively. In acting I’ve had much better success—but I shall never cease regretting those ninety-seven poems. It’s just too discouraging writing for the waste basket.”

Le Gallienne probably recovered from her disappointment when she was busy picking up her Tony, Emmy and National Medal of the Arts, playing everything from Peter Pan to Hamlet, appearing on the cover of Time and founding the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, which was the beginning of Off-Broadway theaters. She rarely acted in film, but she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Resurrection in 1980.

Week of April 14th, 1917

 

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley proved that she paid no attention whatsoever to the sports page. On Sunday she mentioned an upcoming charity event, a baseball game between comedians and tragedians to raise money for the Red Cross. Unfortunately, somebody was giving her old information: the game had already taken place two weeks earlier, and the Times had done its part to publicize it, promising “a ball game that has never been equaled.” The team captains revealed their strategies to the paper: Wallace Reid believed “when he pitches a ball it will burn such a hole in the air that it will be weeks before the hole fills up again,” and Charlie Chaplin said “when he pitches those hard ones, I’ll fool him. I won’t bat at them and after a while he will get weak with so much hard work and then watch me.” The Tragics team included Eugene Pallette, Jack Pickford, Lew Cody and George Beban, and the Comics included Harold Lloyd, Bobbie Dunn, Eric Campbell, Charlie Murray, Chester Conklin and Hank Mann. The Times mentioned “at present the members of the opposing teams are practicing for the big event in a way that would make your blood curdle.” All contestants were asked to report to Charlie Murray at 2:30 pm on March 31st to receive their first aid bandages.

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1939 program

The Saturday afternoon game was a great success, raising nearly $8000 for the Red Cross. However, nobody bothered to report which team won the game. In the 1930’s, the Comedians vs. Leading Men baseball game became an annual charity event.

None of the other films released this week had a chance at being Kingsley’s favorite because a Chaplin film came out. She said:

The Cure – is! If you’ve got the blues, or don’t like your mother-in-law, or have a pain in your chest, don’t consult a physician or your lawyer, but go and see Charlie Chaplin at the Garrick. View Charlie disporting himself among the old ladies and gentlemen at the health resort; watch him drink the water; see him go through the evolutions superinduced by the attentions of the masseur; watch the effect of the bottles of liquor which the attendant spills into the cure-all waters; see Charlie in a bathing suit—and laugh. You will: I’ll guarantee it.

People still enjoy The Cure; the official Chaplin site calls it “perhaps the funniest of the Mutuals.” If you need a laugh, you can see it on the Internet Archive.

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A Jewel in Pawn: Walter Belasco, Maie and Ella Hall

Maybe exhibitors didn’t want to compete, because some particularly badly reviewed films were in the theaters this week. A Jewel in Pawn starring Ella Hall irritated Kingsley so much that she recounted the plot, with commentary:

You see Ella’s mama in this picture is very, very poor, and they live in the slums. Suddenly mama remembers she has a rich dad, and conceives the not unreasonable idea of returning to him together with daughter. But she has no money to buy her railroad ticket. Then Ella has a bright idea. Why shouldn’t mama pawn her, daughter, to get the money? The pawnbroker is an elderly widower, dwelling alone at the back of his shop, with whom she has but a slight acquaintance, and some evil-minded person sitting back of me suggested he hardly thought that a nice, loving, careful mama would pawn her beloved daughter.

So audiences then weren’t as innocent as we might believe. A Jewel in Pawn is a lost film, and between the anti-Semitic stereotype of the pawnbroker and the story’s uncomfortable nearness to pedophilia, I can see why it was never remade.

Bad as that was, the latest Olga Petrova film was worse, and Kingsley’s annoyance stretched over two days’ worth of columns. On Monday, she said The Waiting Soul was “a simple, one-stringed tale, with the sub-titles lending an air of stiltedness to the thing” (Petrova played a woman with a “purple” past that threatens her marriage). By Tuesday she was calling it an example of why some films really ought to be censored, and while they’re at it they could “make it a misdemeanor to destroy a helpless pie in the interests of comic art” and suppress some of those “sunny-curled ingénues.” So that’s one way to improve the pictures. The Waiting Soul has been preserved at the Eastman House.