Week of February 16th, 1918

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Motion Picture Magazine, August 1918

One hundred years ago this week, an actor chose an unusual scene to tell Grace Kingsley about from the religious film he was currently working on:

The famous character of the Drain Man is being played by Jack Curtis, who says he has always longed to appear in that big role. But as a fly comes with every box of ointment in the world, so Mr. Curtis didn’t relish crawling through that noisome bit of sewer in Chinatown last week, and art might have gone hang for all of him when it came to playing the scene in the drain where a hundred rats were his co-actors. However, he went through the scene bravely though he says he found the rats altogether too enthusiastic in their energetic desire to play their parts thoroughly, with the result the battle he had with the creatures is very realistic indeed.

I imagine the crew enjoyed their surroundings just as much. The project was The Servant in the House, the film version of a well-known play, and the director Jack Conway was doing his best to make it cinematic by including “certain features of the play, merely suggested in the stage version, which lend themselves to fairly sensational and spectacular effect” like actually showing the symbolic sewer (what a treat!)

Servant told the story of Robert, the Drain Man, who sacrificed for his brother Bill’s education that allowed him to become a vicar. Robert then grew resentful of Bill and the church. Bill’s bishop, disguised as a servant (with a startling resemblance to Christ), visits and effects a reconciliation. The sewer is beneath the church and it needs cleaning up – that’s where the rats come in.

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This early publicity proved to be very much too early: the film wasn’t released until late 1920 because it was caught up in litigation as Triangle Films fell apart. According to Photoplay, Harry Orville Davis, the company’s vice-president and general manager, sued for breach of contract, wanting to recover $83,000 in back salary. They compromised; Davis surrendered his 100,000 shares of stock and his interest in the corporation in exchange for the exclusive rights to Servant.* He sold it to the Film Booking Office, which released it through independent exchanges.

When it finally did come out, Kingsley thought it was exceptional. “Once in a while some free soul among the picture makers throws off the shackles of tradition, arises and produces an epoch-making picture. That’s what Jack Conway did…So delicate is the treatment of the spiritual influence of a mystic and mysterious servant in a household divided against itself, that it would appear to be a difficult subject for the screen. But in the transcription Jack Conway proves himself to be an artist.” It’s now a lost film.

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Jack Conway

Jack Conway had a long and successful career. He was a contract director at MGM from 1925-1948, so while you might not know his name, you probably know the names of the films he directed, like Red Headed Woman (1932) Tale of Two Cities (1935) and Dragon Seed (1944).

H.O. Davis produced one more film, The Silent Call, in 1921. Then he left the film industry and became the editor of the Ladies Home Journal for a year. After that he was the Pacific Regional Director of Hearst Newspapers. He briefly tried retirement, then he worked on the executive council of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He and his wife Laura later moved to Palm Desert where he bought and operated two date gardens. They celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary in 1964.** He died later that year.

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Madame Du Barry (1917)

This week, Kingsley was back to writing film reviews. Antony Anderson was still writing about the “notable” films like William S. Hart’s Wolves of the Rail, but she got to cover Madame Du Barry (a Theda Bara drama), The Fibbers (a Bryant Washburn comedy) and The Beauty and the Rogue (Mary Miles Minter’s best film “in a long time”). She liked Du Barry best, because Bara’s performance was so strong – she went from from “the elfish, witty, adorably natural and ingenious Du Barry of the early scenes” to her end, with unforgettable “terror in her eyes as she looks about on the sea of unfriendly faces, as the crowds thrust her up to the guillotine.” Kingsley summed it up as “a masterpiece of Miss Bara.”

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Arbuckle gets some help with moving from Buster Keaton and Al St. John

Kingsley reported that two Orange County cities, Santa Ana and Anaheim, were competing to be the new home for Roscoe Arbuckle’s studio, and both were offering to build it for him. She mentioned that his production company spent an estimated $300,000 to make eight comedies per year (I hadn’t seen a cost estimate before). She speculated that Santa Ana might have an edge, because Arbuckle had spent some of his childhood there. It was just like states offering tax incentives to film productions now. However, neither city won: Arbuckle chose to move to Edendale (now called Echo Park) not far from downtown Los Angeles. Kingsley didn’t mention why he wanted to leave his current studio site in Long Beach.

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Chaplin meets the Navy, 1918

Kingsley wrote that Charlie Chaplin had led a tour of his studio for a group of sailors, and “not one feature of the big studio was left unexplained by the artist.” Even more remarkably: “the welcome sign has been hung out at the Chaplin plant for all of Uncle Sam’s soldiers and sailors. In the future they will be permitted to visit the new studios, either singly or in a body, after 4:30 every afternoon.” Can you imagine a modern film studio doing that now?

 

 

 

* “Plays and Players,” Photoplay, May 1919, p.90.

**”Birthday, Wedding Anniversary Feted,” Desert Sun, July 28, 1964.

Buster Blogathon 2018

This post is part of Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.

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He liked to read the paper, if not to appear in it

Nearly one hundred years ago, Grace Kingsley interviewed Buster Keaton twice for the Los Angeles Times. He turned up in her news and gossip columns quite often, but unlike Chaplin and Fairbanks (the two chattiest stars of the time) he sat down and answered her questions only early in his solo career. Alma Whittaker, Kingsley’s Times colleague, said in 1926 that he was afraid of interviews, and “it took Papa Keaton, Lew Cody, Roscoe Arbuckle and the trusty P.A. [press agent] to help me interview Buster.”* Fear might have been part of his reluctance, nevertheless doing publicity went with the job of being a star, and he wasn’t bad at it.

Kingsley first spoke to him just before his career took off in 1920, when he was publicizing The Saphead. The piece was called “Buster Busts Into Stardom.” Keaton was very funny about how acting in a drama was so different from comedy, because “the role of Bertie the Lamb does cramp Buster’s style something awful!” He told her all his work troubles:

“I gotta do some sad scenes. Why, I never tried to make anybody cry in my life! And I go ‘round all the time dolled up in kippie clothes – wear everything but a corset! Can’t stub my toe in this picture nor anything! Just imagine having to play-act all the time without ever getting hit with anything!”

“Don’t know why they chose me for the part, anyhow, only I’ve got a blank pan. Saw a nice fluffy pie on the set the other day that would’ve looked good on the hero’s face, but he got away just in time.”

“Fatty won’t speak to me in these clothes,” went on Buster, mournfully, “and neither will Luke, Fatty’s dog. I’m losing all my friends. And on top of all this, I gotta do some love scenes. And I never did make love before in my life. What? Oh, yes, of course, I mean before the camera. But, anyhow,” and Buster loosened the Arrow collar around his neck, “but anyhow, the camera can’t catch my blushes!”

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Despite his misgivings about his current project, life wasn’t all bad; as Kingsley pointed out “the agony won’t last much longer, because Buster has his own comedy company now, you know.” She asked him about his plans:

He says he’s following Fatty Arbuckle’s method, get a plot first, then build the picture, leaving all the plot out. He says it works fine. The first story is to be about a portable house and a young married couple, which certainly does sound like a jazzy combination for comedy.**

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She was right: One Week (1920) was a jazzy combination.

There’s no evidence that he was scared of talking to Kingsley, and Keaton did a fine job of saying things that made good copy–though I’m not convinced they were Keaton’s exact words, because he didn’t call Arbuckle ‘Fatty.’

Her second interview happened a little over a year later, when Kingsley visited Keaton and his new wife at home. It’s an unusual piece, because he rarely used his personal life in publicity — he’d rather talk about work.

She wrote a sweet description of the newlyweds:

“My goodness, where are the parents of these children?” That’s the first thing that pops into your head when you take a peek at Buster Keaton and his bride, who used to be Natalie Talmadge, in their new home. They are regular kids together, and Buster grins enough then to make up for all his solemnity in his pictures.

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Regular kids together

Kingsley told the story of their courtship, from meeting on a Roscoe Arbuckle set, through correspondence while Keaton served in France during World War 1, to their New York/Los Angeles long-distance engagement and wedding. The couple was obviously happy, but he had an image to maintain:

Not that you can get a word of romance out of Buster. He’d die, I suppose, rather than say anything sentimental. And he acted like somebody had caught him stealing sheep when I happened to catch him putting a little shawl around his wife’s shoulders to shield her from the draught.

She caught something you don’t get to see in Keaton biographies: Natalie Keaton’s fun side:

She looks like a little Quaker, does Natalie, and she has the sweetest expression in her eyes of any girl I have ever known. But there’s a spice of mischief, too. “Nobody else ever really had a chance for a minute,” said Natalie. “But I thought I’d keep everybody guessing a bit.”

It does take the quiet ones, doesn’t it? And just as you are looking at the shy face with an expression so demure that you expect her to say, ‘Will I meet thee at prayer hour tonight?’ she gives a smile like a ministering angel and says: ‘Let’s go for a race in my new Mercer! I can certainly make that old bus hum!”

It’s nice to see how well they started out, even knowing how sadly the marriage ended.

Keaton’s 1920’s fluffy celebrity interviews are very different from the ones he did in the 1950s and 60’s, which are collected in Buster Keaton: Interviews. After the interviewers realized that if you wanted to get him to talk, you just asked him how he and his crew solved a filmmaking problem, the articles became much more interesting. Maybe he didn’t particularly enjoy talking about himself.

 

Grace Kingsley, “Buster Busts into Stardom,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1920.

Grace Kingsley, “Now is Homey Little Wife,” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1921.

 

*Joe Keaton ended up doing most of the talking that day, telling about their time in vaudeville. However, Buster did contribute an interesting idea about why Three Ages and Go West didn’t make as much money as The Navigator: “the audience was cheated out of seeing him in dire woe. His current release, Battling Butler, had plenty of “agonized misery on his behalf” and so it was sure to be a big success. (Alma Whitaker, “Buster Smiles for this Scribe,” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1926.)

** By the time of this interview, The High Sign had already been shot in January-February 1920 and Keaton had decided to shelve it, allowing One Week to be his first solo two-reeler released in September, 1920.

Please visit the rest of the Buster Keaton Blogathon!

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Week of February 9th, 1918

One hundred years ago this week, the war was again intruding on Grace Kingsley’s columns in all sorts of ways:

If you chance to see three score pretty young women, clad in regimentals, marching down the street with flags flying and the band playing, don’t be frightened; they won’t hurt you. The pretty girls in regimentals will be the first company of feminine soldiers organized in any picture studio in the world.

Josie Sedgwick, an up-and-coming actress at Triangle Studio, came up with the idea and executed it. She and other actresses at the studio, including Olive Thomas, Texas Guinan and Gloria Swanson, spent their evenings drilling, supervised by a regular army officer and chaperoned by the studio matron. Their goal was to perform at entertainments to raise money for the Red Cross and other war relief.

“We girls all want to do something for our country,” said Miss Sedgwick, “and we don’t feel as if merely knitting and making surgical bandages is enough, though we do that too…Our uniform? Well, we wanted trousers, but you know some girls can wear trousers and some can’t, so we decided on short shirts and leggings, with khaki shirtwaists and cute little caps.”

I haven’t been able to find any other mention or photos of the drill team. No wonder Triangle was running into business difficulties, if they couldn’t capitalize on pictures of young ladies in cute little caps.

Some film workers were leaving to serve as real soldiers. Wheeler Oakman, former Selig star, enlisted in the army, giving up “a long-term contract at a large salary with Metro Picture Corporation”. Kingsley said he was the first leading man actually under contract in Los Angeles to voluntarily do his bit.* He said, “I’m going into the regulars as a plain private…There’s a fine bunch of ‘grizzlies’ down at Camp Kearney, and I’ll be glad to be among them and to learn the ropes from them.”

That was exactly what he did: as part of the 144th Field Artillery, aka the California Grizzlies, he shipped out from New York as a private on August 15, 1918 and served in France until his unit was sent home from Bordeaux on December 23, 1918. He’d been promoted to corporal.** He came home safely and went back to acting. He worked steadily, often playing villains and henchmen, until his death in 1949.

Western star William S. Hart found a different way to express his patriotism:

It’s not kosher to make any unpatriotic cracks before Bill Hart, as a certain inhabitant of this town can tell you. Mr. Hart was dining at a restaurant the other night, which happened to be a porkless night. In came a loud-spoken stranger and demanded ham and eggs. The waiter explained to him courteously that it was a porkless day. The stranger arose from the table, flung down his napkin, and made some unpleasant remarks about the food conservation measure and started to leave.

As he went past Hart’s table, Bill looked up, fixed the stranger with his glittering eye, and drawled in a clear, high voice: “Shouldn’t think a pig would mind a porkless day!”

The stranger gave him a malevolent look, but sizing up Bill’s strong jaw and broad shoulders, took a second thought and dropping his grandiose manner, sneaked out.

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Saturdays were the porkless day. The United States Food Administration had been asking people to conserve food by abstaining from eating meat on Tuesdays and wheat on Wednesdays since October, the added the porkless Saturdays was added on December 13th. It was a voluntary program, but Mr. Hart probably wasn’t the only one to ‘encourage’ compliance.

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D.W. Griffith reading the rest of the paper

Finally, D.W. Griffith was hurrying to finish Hearts of the World, but then somebody handed him a newspaper with the headline “War to Last Six Years.” He promptly said, “Come on boys. We’ve got time. Let’s go to lunch.”

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Teddy

Kinglsey also offered some comic relief this week, with a story abut Teddy the Dog:

Talk about leading a dog’s life! Teddy, the wise canine actor of Mack Sennett’s comedy company, not only pays for his own license, but he pays an income tax on his salary!

A few months later, she was able to spin this anecdote into a one-page Photoplay article, “A Dog That Pays an Income Tax” (June 1918 p.62). That’s being a professional writer.

 

 

 

*I haven’t been able to confirm that he was the first.

**U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger List, August 15 1918 and December 23, 1918.

 

 

A research note: Digitization is helping me find amazing things. In the Wheeler Oakman story, he mentioned that his father Frank Eichelberger had fought for the Union army and was captured at Chickamauga. Knowing how actors can sometimes exaggerate things, I did some searching to see if it was true and found Pvt. Frank Eichelbergers’s testimony on how horrible being a Confederate prisoner was in a digitized book called Narrative of Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers and Soldiers while Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Rebel Authorities by United States Sanitary Commission, published in 1864. I would have never known to look for such a book. Hooray for all the people who do the very dull task of digitization!

 

Week of February 2, 1918

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Frederick ‘Wid’ Gunning

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned that an important film journalist was visiting:

‘Wid’ Gunning, famous picture-play critic, is making his first visit to California, and, of course everybody is showing him the climate and everything. Gunning declares he will make his home here, especially on account of his small son, whom he wants to grow up to be a regular guy he says.

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At the time, his publication Wid’s Film Daily was based in New York, and his visit and plans to move were part of the whole film industry’s migration to Hollywood.

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Frederick Charles ‘Wid’ Gunning was an energetic entrepreneur. Born January 30, 1886 in Chillicothe, Ohio, he worked as a newspaper reporter, advertising agent and theater manager in his hometown. He moved to New York City in 1913 and became the publicity and sales manager of American Eclair Company, a film production company and a branch of the French camera manufacturers. He then went to work as a film editor and publicist for Warner’s Features, headed by L.J. Selznick and P.A. Powers. In June 1914 he and Sidney Olcott, a film producer, traveled to Europe to make movies, but the war started and they returned to New York in September. He became the film editor of the New York Evening Mail. He’d really become what he called himself on his World War 1 draft registration: a film specialist. So he quit his newspaper job in August 1915, married his childhood sweetheart, Helen Fickhardt, on September 30, 1915 and started his own film trade paper. He must have had great confidence in his new enterprise.

Wid’s Film Daily was a success. It provided information that film exhibitors needed: reviews, advice on how to sell each film, news stories and reports from theater owners on which ones brought in the customers, all written in a conversation style.

For example, the review of the now-lost Douglas Fairbanks film Bound in Morocco (1918) said “Doug certainly proves himself a real star in this because there isn’t another feller in the pictures who could put over a story that is absolutely devoid of plot as this one is, and not only get away with it but make you like it.”

It took him awhile to make his move to Los Angeles; the L.A. office first appeared on the masthead on May 4, 1919. They expanded the brand by publishing an annual, Wid’s Year Book, starting in 1920. In 1922 he decided to move on and the magazine changed its name to Film Daily; they stayed in business until 1970.

Wid Gunning went on to be a film distributor, then a producer of films like Babe Comes Home (1927) and Hot Stuff (1929) for First National. He left film and according to his 1942 World War 2 draft card, he had his own business, advising newspapers on developing local advertising. He died on April 5, 1963 in Los Angeles. His work is still extremely useful for silent film researchers, and quite a bit of it is available on Lantern.

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The Kinema Theater continued to hold Red Cross teas with special appearances by Hollywood stars to raise money for the war, and Kingsley reported on the latest:

It remained for Douglas Fairbanks to bring in the blue ribbon for raising the biggest amount so far realized at a Red Cross tea riot. Fairbanks did it yesterday, when he took in $55 as the result of his acting as host during a couple of hours in the afternoon. Hitherto Mary Pickford had held the record with $45 to her credit.

Two days later Kingsley issued a correction:

And now Bill Hart arises to remark that his batting average on Red Cross tea drinking, despite all reports to the contrary, is really the highest of any so far.

“My tea drunk [sic] came off on January 29th, and I scored 195 cups,” declares Hart.

However, Hart’s math was a bit off. The Red Cross charged one quarter per cup of tea, so Hart made $48.75 for them, beating Pickford but still behind Fairbanks’ 220 cups.

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Finally, Cleopatra was still playing and it seems like the film was known for one thing only. Kingsley wrote on Saturday:

Disappointing as the announcement may be to some of the patrons of Clune’s Auditorium, it is true that the young lady ushers are not dressed in imitation of the heroine’s costume this week. NB—the play is Cleopatra.

And then on Monday:

Overheard at Clune’s Auditorium at the Cleopatra performance last Saturday night, “Oh, doesn’t Theda get Bara and Bara.”

Since the image above is how the film is now remembered, things haven’t changed a bit.

Week of January 26th, 1918

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley offered a preview of yet another movie palace to open in downtown Los Angeles, Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater:

The moment you step out of the work-a-day world into the outer foyer the charm of the place is upon you. There, lining either side wall, are two immense mural paintings in pastel shades but of heroic design. Then there’s the handsome lobby, from which lead wide stairways to the mezzanine, which is heavily carpeted and which yields visions of tapestries, statuary and mural panting in bold and brilliant design.

Ah, but it is the long vista of Gothic arched galleries which will charm you into some age-old dream. And a surely as you have imagination, this dim, beautiful vista, whose somewhat severe beauty is relieved only by the classic sweep of its arches, the soft carpets and half a dozen niched bronze statues, will carry you back to some feudal castle of long ago, and you’ll forget that butter has gone up and that street assessments are due.

The carvings, murals and statuary together re-told John Ruskin’s “The King of the Golden River,” which she thought was quaint and delightful, and it gave “a romantic quality to the whole decorative scheme.” The story, written in the style of a fairy tale, told of two greedy brothers who abuse their kind younger brother and grow rich through their evil enterprises. The younger brother inherits the money when the elder ones get what they deserve. Ruskin wrote his only work of fiction for his future wife Effie Grey when she was 12 years old (their story has been told many times, most recently in Effie Grey (2014)).

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William S. Hart and Sid Grauman in the new theater

The opening film was The Silent Man with William S. Hart, who made a personal appearance. There was also had a special musical program for that night, with a thirty-piece orchestra, a guest organist, Jessie Crawford, and a coloratura soprano from La Scala named Lina Reggian, who was beginning an engagement of several weeks. All the stars in Hollywood turned out for the event, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Gish sisters. The line to get in was four abreast, jammed like sardines, and it stretched more than two blocks down Broadway.*

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From the bad old days

It’s remarkable how much movie viewing had changed in a very short time. Kingsley included a picture of what theaters were recently like:

Remember the picture houses we used to attend only four short years ago? Dark, smelly little holes in the wall, most of them, at the door of which a mechanical orchestrion ground out a dreary round of tunes which didn’t pretend to have any relation whatever to the picture or its theme…and where seats on the sawdust-covered aisle were much sought by the tobacco-chewing fraternity.

Nowadays, cell phones in theaters are bad, but at lest we don’t have men spitting in the aisles! She contrasted this with a trip to the cinema in 1918:

It’s getting so nowadays when a friend asks you to go and see a picture, you take for granted the invitation includes a lot of other things. There’s a concert by a symphony orchestra, a loitering trip through long vistas of gallery fitted up with pictures and statuary, a smoke (if you wish) and a bit of a flirtation in the luxurious lounging parlor, even a nice dish of lady-like tea if you desire.

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Grauman needed lots of customers

The Million Dollar Theater was the third 2500-3000 seat venue to open in the previous year at a time when the population of Los Angeles was only 576,673, according to the L.A. Almanac. While people went out to the movies more often then now, that was a lot of seats to fill. It’s no wonder that the owners of the other recently opened big theater, the Kinema, couldn’t make a profit and sold it in 1919.

 

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Sid Grauman, 1920

Sid Grauman had much better luck. The Million Dollar (reports were that it cost that much) was his first theater in Los Angeles. He had gotten his earliest experience as a theater builder in Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush (as you probably saw in Frozen Time), and he and his father went on to operate several more in the San Francisco area. He was to build the Egyptian Theater (1921) and the Chinese Theater (1927) in Hollywood.

Grauman was busy with his Hollywood theaters so he sold the Million Dollar to Paramount in 1924. It had a variety of owners until 1950, when Frank Fouce bought it and made it a Spanish-language film and stage venue. Grace Kingsley was still writing for the Times, and she attended that grand opening too:

Like a blooming matron with lifted face and full of vitamins, the handsome, durable Million Dollar renews her youth. Beautiful decorations and furnishings make the place glamorous. It recalls that first opening on February 18, 1918**, when Sid Grauman brought myriads of stars to the theater…On that occasion, too, just like last night, crowds blocks long waited to get into the theater. The late Antony Anderson, critic, fairly lifted this reviewer out of a crowd that threatened to crush her.***

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She also really enjoyed the Cantinflas film that opened it, Puerta, Joven. (aka El Portero) Even without English subtitles, “so vivid is his pantomime that it is likely the story can be traced even by non-Spanish speaking spectators.” The film was Cyrano crossed with City Lights.

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The theater became a church in 1993 and was closed in 1998, but it was restored and reopened in 2008. Now it’s available for film shoots, special events, and even occasional film screenings. What’s really amazing is that much of what Kingsley described is still there: the murals are just waiting behind a drop ceiling and covered walls, according to the L.A. Conservancy. Somebody with big bags of money could restore them.

 

 

 

*”Opening’s Brilliant of Million-Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1918.

**It was actually February 1, 1918. Ooops!

***Grace Kingsley, “Gala Premiere Reopens Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, August 31, 1950.

 

 

 

Week of January 19th, 1918

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Grace Kingsley at work, by Ted Gale

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to visit Charlie Chaplin’s brand new studio. It was a “little bit of a quint old English street amidst the pampas plumes and tiny orchards of Hollywood.” She went on:

The camouflage is very deceptive. Inside the building which looks like a church, for instance, there is a mean old commercial time clock, like a conscience, where the workmen ring in, and where dwell—shades of St. John the Scribe—the Chaplin Boswells, the publicity department. Also, just as you fancy there will step from one of the half-timbered Elizabethan doors a clanking knight of old, instead there emerges an overalled Pete Props. ‘”Say,” he says, “whada you thing the boss wants now? A crowd o’ tarantulas! I ain’t no tarantula hound, and I don’t know no tarantulas. Can you beat it?”

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Chaplin himself showed her and LA Times cartoonist Edmund “Ted” Gale around, “making amusing little comments:”

“I think I could like this place if I didn’t work here…See, here’s a lemon orchard back of the stage…No, I’m not going to live in the studio—Brother Sid and Mrs. Sid [Minnie Gilbert Chaplin] are going to try it, but none of the put-out-the-dog-and-let-in-the-cat-and-lock-the-cellar-door stuff for me at my workshop. But you see I’ve got a beautiful apartment”—it’s a large corner room, where there are bay windows and odd little dormer windows—“this is to be a combination office and reception-room, and there’s a door I can dodge out of and climb a tree in the lemon orchard if I want to get away from anybody…Yes, there’s a nice big swimming pool and there’s a tennis court, both to be used for business and pleasure.”

There was also a film lab, a screening room, dressing rooms, a garage, a film vault and stables. She observed that “so far as the studio is concerned, Charlie is like a kid with a new toy.”

 

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Chaplin Studio today

The lemon orchard soon became the back lot, where they built open-air sets. Chaplin kept the studio until the end of his film career. He made his most famous films there, including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). After he shot Limelight (1952) there and moved to Switzerland in 1953, he sold it to a real estate development firm who leased it to a television production company. Over the years it was owned by Red Skelton, CBS, A&M Records and most recently, the Jim Henson Company. It’s still a studio.

If you’d like to see what Kingsley saw, here’s Chaplin’s documentary about his studio called How to Make Movies (1918):

John Bengtson has a photo-filled chapter about the studio in his book about Chaplin, Silent Traces. He also blogged about his visit to the studio at Silent Locations.

 

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Kingsley reported that advance sales for Cleopatra at Clune’s Auditorium were brisk, and she repeated a story from Theda Bara’s secretary:

A lady interviewer called at the studio to see Miss Bara, who was dressing, and who sent out word. ‘I cannot possibly see you now. I have nothing on at all.’

The lady interviewer wrote on a card, and sent it in, ‘My dear Miss Bara, Shouldn’t recognize you if you did.’

The journalist was sent right in. Theda Bara had a fine sense of humor.

 

Because a new film critic had started last week, Kingsley was devoting more of her column space to vaudeville. She mentioned that despite wartime transportation problems, the Orpheum was still sending big acts, like Gertrude Hoffman and her fifty-person dance troupe and Joseph E. Howard and his song and dance company of forty. I had no idea that touring vaudeville acts could be so large.

Week of January 12th, 1918

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Les Miserables (1917)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed Frank Lloyd, the director of the latest version of Les Miserables, which would be opening in Los Angeles in a few weeks. He told some behind-the-scenes stories from the nine-week shoot took place at the Fox studio in Ft. Lee, New Jersey:

In the making of the battle scenes a brigade of United States Army soldiers stationed in New York was used, and this made the work much easier, as they drilled the handful of extras whom we used, went right to work, and knew exactly what to do. They were husky fellows and took to the game like a duck to water. ‘Hi there!’ they’d yell, ‘we’re fighting for democracy!’ laughing and full of pep, they’d go at it like demons. One boy got stuck in the face with a bayonet, but refused to go to the hospital. ‘This is nothing!’ he exclaimed in scorn as we bound up his wound. We really had an awful time stopping those Sammies from fighting.

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The recruits pose with the film’s star, William Farnum (center)

Of course there was lots of research. All directors emphasized their films’ historical accuracy then, perhaps to make film going seem educational. Lloyd said:

I read Victor Hugo’s novel six times and I consulted every print and painting I could find. The research work alone took several weeks, and indeed was not completed until the picture was finished. For instance, even the paper cartridges in use at the time of the French revolution—the kind that are bitten off by the man who is loading his gun—were used in the battle scenes. Of course, they had to be specially made.

 

franklloydFrank Lloyd had a long and impressive career that included five Oscar nominations for best director and two wins, for The Divine Lady (1929) and Cavalcade (1933). Now his most remembered films are Oliver Twist (1922) The Sea Hawk (1924) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Under Two Flags (1936).

 

We’ll never know what Kingsley thought of the finished product, because the LA Times had a new film reviewer starting on January 14th. His name was Antony Anderson, and he’d been the art critic for the paper since 1906. He continued to write his In the Realm of Art column in addition to film reviews.

There’s no record of why the change was made, but it was done without any fuss. Anderson’s Films column just started running, and movie reviews disappeared from Kingsley’s daily column for a while. She still wrote vaudeville reviews. His reviews were a bit more stuffy and pretentions than hers were; he didn’t tell jokes and seemed to worry more about being taken seriously. His film writing ended in August 1921 and he retired from full-time writing in 1926.

Anderson thought Les Mis was a “notable production” and Hugo’s masterpiece had been given “a noble pictorial setting by Fox, one in accord with the spirit of the novel.”

Jessie Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players/Lasky, told Kingsley about a new way the war was affecting the film industry, fuel shortages:

We have been forced to shut down our New Jersey studios entirely. We cannot get either coal or light. We have rented every available studio in New York City, and even in many of these we cannot get the results we demand. Wallace Reid, who went East to make a production, will probably return to California to finish it. We are also making arrangements to have Elsie Ferguson and Billie Burke come to California and make their productions at one of our studios.

It was just one more step towards making Los Angeles the film capitol. He mentioned that coal shortages were also prompting theaters to help:

Many poor people not able to afford coal and confronted with the possibility of freezing in their own homes, now go to the motion picture theaters, which have been thrown open to them by the managers. Here in the picture houses, they sleep in the boxes and in the aisles. It is nothing unusual to see people enter the theater at night laden down with blankets and pillows.

The crisis was so bad that on January 16th, the Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield ordered all manufacturers (including war industries) east of the Mississippi to close for five days, followed by ten weeks of Monday “holidays” for all factories, saloons, stores (except for grocers), places of amusement and nearly all office buildings.* According to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, the shortage was caused by a railroad distribution logjam, not a supply problem–Garfield had increased the number of mines operating. The reduced demand did allow the trains to catch up on their deliveries and by 1919 there was an oversupply. I knew that 1918 was a really difficult year for everybody, but I hadn’t known about this problem.

Kingsley told the story of “an interesting new member” of Charlie Chaplin’s company, Zasu Pitts:

The story of Miss Pitt’s success reads like a Cinderella tale. It was two years ago that she came to Mary O’Connor, then head of the scenario department of the Triangle…with a letter from friends in Santa Cruz. She has a very expressive face, and Miss O’Connor at once took an interest in the girl, who had absolutely no experience up to that time. The youngster was taught even how to make up, and given small bits and extra parts to play. But she drifted away, after registering merely the fact that she was possessed of the potent but elusive something called personality.

Not long ago she made her appearance at the Lasky studio. She was playing an extra in one of the pictures, and Marshal Neilan caught sight of her as she leaned in a weary and woebegone attitude against a set. He had been trying to find someone to play the pathetic and comical little slavey in The Little Princess. ‘The very girl,’ he exclaimed, and she was engaged at once, registering so great a hit that her services have since been in great demand. Charlie Chaplin saw her, and now she is playing character parts in his pictures.

pittstodd
Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd

Although she was reportedly under contract to Chaplin, she didn’t appear in his next films, A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms. Nevertheless, she went on to a long and varied career that included silent and sound films, radio, Broadway and television. She was mostly known for comedy (particularly for a series of 17 shorts she made with Thelma Todd for Hal Roach in the early 1930’s) but she was also Erich von Stroheim’s favorite dramatic actress, and her work in Greed (1924) was especially memorable.

 

 

*”Factories Must Close to Save Fuel,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1918, p. I1.