Week of November 17th, 1917

birthLAtimes

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noted that an unusual documentary film was still playing:

Birth seems in for a run at the Majestic, the third week commencing yesterday. Women are intensely interested in these vital facts of life as portrayed in the film, and while a few may come out of morbid curiosity to view the scene wherein a life is brought into the world, most of them go out of a real desire to learn how to care for the youngsters that are theirs or that they hope for.

She had gone into more detail in her initial review on November 5th:

Oh screen, what thrill is there left for you? Yesterday at the Majestic, a crowd of women which packed the theater gasped as they witnessed a real birth on the screen! It was no half-lighted affair, either, but a whole breath-taking business in a clear light…Despite the frankness of the film, there is, after all, nothing revolting about the picture, at least, to a woman, for, after all, it is merely a part of the great drama of nature. In fact, the whole thing is only a common sense revelation which it will do no harm to any woman to view.

The film’s advertising did emphasize the sensational scene, but all of the reviewers agreed with Kingsley: it was primarily an educational film. Keeping men out seems to have been a successful promotional gimmick. After a few days into the Los Angeles run, the theater allowed the audience to vote on letting men in; they overwhelming voted “yes” so men were admitted but they had to sit in the balcony.

 

In 1917 there were no restrictions on showing childbirth on film; that wasn’t forbidden until the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect in 1930. In 1938, there was a much bigger fuss among censors over a similar film, Birth of a Baby, a documentary mostly about prenatal care. Despite being endorsed by the AMA, the YWCA, the U.S. Public Health Service and Eleanor Roosevelt it couldn’t get a seal from the Hayes Office and it was forbidden by some city and state censorship boards.

birthNYad

Now every episode of Call the Midwife presents realistic-looking childbirth scenes, but something about the film that Kingsley didn’t mention is much more disturbing: it was made by the Eugenic Film Company. The eugenics movement wanted to make “better babies.” If their goal was to improve infant health through excellent pre- and postnatal care, as Birth advocated, that would have been great. However, they strove to improve humanity through selective breeding and prevent “the unfit” from reproducing. It led to compulsory sterilization laws that mostly affected poor, nonwhite and mentally disabled women. California was a leader; by 1921 80% of all forced sterilizations were happening here. The movement is mostly now associated with inspiring Nazi death camps.

 

Kingsley spoke to director Chet Whithey, who was “fervently glad to be back on the western Broadway,” because studios in New York were more crowded and photographing on the streets was nearly impossible. He said, “it all resolves itself into tipping the cops with one hand and keeping you limousine-enclosed camera away from the crowd with the other. The wealthy people are not so nice about permitting their property to be used as are the western millionaires.”

Despite the problems, he had gotten good results and his film Nearly Married was Kinglsey’s favorite this week. An “airy soap bubble of comedy,” it involves a divorcing couple trying to reconcile, but they’re thwarted by a professional co-respondent, legal quirks and other complications. She thought, “all the honey of humor has been extracted from the comedy flower.” It’s been preserved at the Library of Congress.

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Brownie Vernon told Kingsley a story about her the hazards of shooting on location in downtown L.A. for Fear Not. She needed to make a costume change, so she ran into a building.

She went into a back room, empty apparently except for some long cases, and locked the door. As she proceeded to dress Miss Vernon’s eyes became accustomed to the light, she also discerned there was an odor of drugs in the place, and then glancing around she discovered a man lying in one of the cases. This was awfully embarrassing to Brownie. Then she saw another man occupying another of the boxes. She was blushing a deep crimson by this time. Suddenly she realized that all these men were ‘dead ones’!

Without any lost motion whatsoever she seized her garments and tore out of the gruesome place. The other members of the company, waiting outside, caught only a fleeting glimpse of the young actress as she dived into a nearby limousine. There were no dead men in the machine—but neither were there live ones—and Brownie completed her toilette in the car she usurped.

At first, she thought she had discovered a wholesale order of crime, but on going around to the front door of the house she had invaded the mystery was quickly explained. A sign in the window read: “Blank and Blank, Undertakers.”

Modern actors with trailers to change in have no idea. This didn’t put Agnes “Brownie” Vernon off of adventures; a few years later she moved to Australia to make a few films in their nascent industry.

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A Country Hero

Kingsley had a report about another star’s challenges at Balboa Studio from the set of A Country Hero:

“Fatty” Arbuckle had two chairs and an upright piano broken over him while carrying on a stage fight with five men. But as “Fatty” is his own director and instigator of most of his own film troubles, he has only himself to blame.

Anything for his art might have been his motto. A Country Hero is a lost film, but a contemporary review says there’s a scene with lots of furniture getting smashed, including a piano. Lea at Silent-ology gives a round-up of what’s known about the film.

 

Kinglsey’s best line this week was in a review of A Painted Madonna: “according to moving pictures, a girl has only to make up her mind to lure men to their doom and to get a lot of money while she is about it, to have the thing an accomplished fact.”

So there was a second educational movie playing in Los Angeles this week! Here’s some trivia: the woman who played that painted Madonna was billing herself as Sonia Markova, a Russian actress. She was actually Chicago-born Grace Barrett, who usually acted under the name Gretchen Hartman. She’d been acting in films since 1911, but some of the press bought her temporary name change. She married actor Alan Hale in 1914, and they stayed married until his death in 1950. They had three children, including Alan Jr. Yes, the Skipper’s mom once lured men to their doom.

 

 

Week of November 10th, 1917

menu

smallsuet1917 Thanksgiving menu for Camp Williams, France, from the George C. Marshall Foundation Library. It’s not radically different from a 2017 menu, except for the dessert: suet pudding instead of pumpkin pie. Suet pudding involves suet (beef or mutton fat), flour, bread crumbs, raisins, and spices (it sounds nicer when its called Spotted Dick or plum pudding).

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was reporting on stars’ plans for the upcoming holiday:

Despite the war and the various vicissitudes of life, the picture play people are planning to enjoy themselves at Thanksgiving time. Their Hooverizing* for the most part will take the form of expansive hospitality.

Most of them were looking forward to a big meal with their friends and families, including Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Gish sisters. However, some had alternate plans:

  • Both Tom Mix and William S. Hart were arranging big dinners for their film companies;
  • Dorothy Phillips, who had been working night and day, was looking forward to spending the day at home, thankful for a little extra sleep;
  • Franklyn Farnum and Gladys Brockwell both intended to go hunting;
  • Edith Storey wanted to continue her custom of taking a long hike, then dining wherever she found herself;
  • The Fox kiddies (Virginia Corbin, Violet Radcliffe, Francis Carpenter) “all declared in a chorus they meant to just eat all day long—but their parents bring me private information to the contrary;”
  • Lon Chaney planned to treat his wife to a café dinner.

 

 

The war was affecting some peoples’ festivities:

  • Triangle Studios was sponsoring benefit shows for patriotic charities featuring their stars, including Texas Guinan, William Desmond and Alma Reuben;
  • Mary Pickford hoped to dine with the 600 soldiers she “adopted” at Camp Kearny;
  • “Jackie Sunders, though lonely without the brother who has gone to the front, will try and keep Popper and Mommer Saunders from thinking about it.”

Finally, only one star was willing to admit how Los Angeleians really spend the day: Viola Dana “intends to stay out of doors as much of the day as she has left over from dinner, and look at the snow-clad mountains and gloat over the fact she doesn’t have to trot around in the New York slush.”

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Outsider:

A barrage of mystery surrounding a plot is the proper thing nowadays on both stage and screen, and The Outsider has one guessing from start to finish…it tells of robbers robbing other robbers, and has as many ingenious twists as a Sherlock Holmes story.

She thought it was “the best picture Metro has shown in many moons.” She also mentioned “by the way there is a lot of beautiful photography in this picture.” Unfortunately, it was cinematographer John M. Bauman’s second to last film. A former Thanhouser cameraman, after he shot Life’s Whirlpool (1917) he quit the film business and went to work as a salesman for the Storage Battery Company. I guess good reviews don’t pay the bills. Happily, The Outsider survives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

 

 

In her review of A Mormon Maid, Kingsley used the cinematography to deliver a frank opinion about the rest of the film: “there is some bewilderingly beautiful photography in the picture—so lovely, in fact, that it almost takes your mind off the story.” That might seem like an exaggeration until you learn that the DP was Charles Rosher, and unlike poor Mr. Bauman, he went on to have a spectacular career. He soon became Mary Pickford’s chief cameraman, and he and Karl Struss won the first cinematography Oscar for their work on Sunrise (1927). Later he shot Technicolor films like Showboat (1951) and The Yearling (1946), for which he won his second Oscar.

 

 

On Saturday, Douglas Fairbanks and his A Modern Musketeer company returned from a location shoot at the Grand Canyon. Director Allan Dwan told of Fairbanks’ first impression:

“Oh, I’m so disappointed!”

“Disappointed? Why?” asked Dwan.

“Because I can’t jump it,” explained Fairbanks.

If anyone could, it would have been him.

 

 

Kingsley told of one star’s sensible plan for keeping nervous drivers off the road. Louise Fazenda:

owns a fine automobile, but she is afraid to run it. ‘I just let it stand in front of my bungalow so folks will know I own one,’ she confided, ‘but when I want to ride, I hire a machine with a chauffeur attached.’

If only more bad drivers did the same!

 

*Herber Hoover at that time was in charge of the U.S. Food Administration, and he was calling on all Americans to economize on food for the war effort.

 

Week of November 3rd, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, D.W Griffith returned to Los Angeles from his trip to France and England and he dominated Grace Kingsley’s columns. She went to the station Friday evening to meet his train, and “he looked as calm and freshly groomed as though he had just returned from a tea party, instead of having taken part in the tremendous action being staged ‘over there.’” Of course he gave her an interview and described what he’d seen:

I was within fifty yards of the Roches, on the Ypres front, at one time. How did I feel? Well, I was so frightened I didn’t know what was happening. Yes, I was actually under fire, and men were killed within a few feet of me. I wore the war helmet and the gas mask. At one time we were in a dugout, with a big gun, and even as we were leaving the long range guns were trained on the spot, and the gun was shot to pieces in a few minutes.

Kevin Brownlow has seen footage of Griffith at Ypres, and described it in his book The War The West and the Wilderness (p. 144). It doesn’t quite match Griffith’s story:

The center of Ypres by 1917 has been so heavily shelled that the cathedral-like Cloth Hall has been blasted to a slender Islamic minaret. The other buildings, too, have been knocked into such extraordinarily delicate fingers of stone that there seems no way for them to remain vertical. Into this chilling scene steps a tall, jaunty figure in a smart tweed suit of an English cut, a bow-tie—and a tin hat. It is David War Griffith…

Griffith, dressed for a grouse shoot, appears to be on a thoroughly pleasant outing in the midst of the bloodiest war in history.

Maybe the camera was off when they were under fire? Kingsley asked Griffith how he thought the war would end and he was accurate:

I could make a lot of prophecies, but I won’t. I’ll merely say that I feel sure that even if Russia drops out for the time being and Italy is beaten, Great Britain, France and the United States will win the war.

sfquarterly Griffith gave lots of interviews about his trip, and several of them have been collected in the Silent Film Quarterly, Spring 2017.

Kingsley also asked if the rest of the company was frightened, and he answered “Yes I guess they were pretty frightened, and Dorothy said if the soldiers were as scared as she was when she heard those cannon they’d all run into the sea and that would be the end of the war.” Sensible Dorothy! On Monday Kingsley let the Gish sisters speak for themselves, and they told her:

 

We passed through village after village which were partially demolished, but the inhabitants were living very contentedly*  in the undestroyed parts of the towns…We traveled in automobiles, and there was a constant stream of travel, going in both directions—soldiers, ambulances, horses, cannon, trucks and trucks of provisions and ammunition.

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Lillian and Dorothy Gish

But the air raids in London were much more exciting. A bomb burst just a short distance from the Savoy Hotel, where we were stopping, at 12 o’clock one night, just as we were retiring. It struck a trolley car and killed a dozen people…And in the morning, we found a ‘dud’ under the windows of the Savoy. If that bomb had done its duty, we wouldn’t be here to tell the tale!”

“You feel ashamed,” explained Lillian, “to think of your own petty ambitions in the face of all that. I wonder if after this war, the women of the whole world won’t rise in their might and declare there shall never be war any more?”

 

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It’s a shame her prediction didn’t come true, too. By Tuesday Kingsley was reporting that Griffith was back to work and planning to shoot some additional scenes for his war film, maybe at the Lasky studio. Then on Thursday Kingsley wrote that he was planning to build his own studio, probably at LaBrea and De Longpre, near to Chaplin’s. He was in talks with an architect, and it was to be up-to-date in every particular. He never did build a new studio in Los Angeles; instead he used the stages at his old Fine Art studio three miles away from La Brea. He didn’t build his own studio until 1919, in in Mamaroneck, New York.

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Scarlet Pimpernel

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Scarlet Pimpernel:

 Those of us who in other days chewed our fingernails and panted over the exciting scenes of the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel will be delighted with its excitements as transferred to the screen by Dustin Farnum, Winifred Kingston, William Burress and company…A fundamentally intriguing and effectively staged photodrama this, with much excellent photography to its credit.

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That excellent photography was by Dev Jennings, who went on to be Buster Keaton’s chief cameraman. You can learn all sorts of things about him in my book, Buster Keaton’s Crew. (every home should have one!)

 

 

Kingsley gave a moral to the story that I hadn’t considered before: it “only goes to show that when you join the Knights of Pythias or the Elks, you’d better let you wife know about it.” This was first filmed version of Orczy’s novel. According to the IMDB, there have been 4 other versions completed and 3 more are currently in development. Those Frenchies will be seeking him everywhere for a long time. This version, however, is a lost film.

Kingsley related a story from “Rosalie Ashton, the clever young scenario writer at Fox Studio.” She had gotten a job application:

I am a young man of 24, five feet eleven in perfectly good stockinged feet, weigh 150 pounds, typical young American of the Douglas Fairbanks type, and my friends tell me I am robbing the screen if I do not get into the movies. I am an aesthetic dancer, light and graceful on said feet. Won’t you please give me a chance to prove that I can act?

Miss Ashton answered:

My Dear Sir: We regret to advise that at the present writing there is no vacancy…However, permit me to say that our beloved Uncle Sam is badly in need of virile, health young Americans of about five feet eleven inches, in good physical condition, and, since you are so light and graceful on your feet, you would be adept in dodging bullets.

However, the joke was on her. The day after that story appeared, Ashton was getting her own chance to serve her country: she’d been asked to go the France to be an interpreter for the government. She left for Washington, D.C. the next day. Fate laughs at smart-alecks.

Rosalie Ashton was a former New York Times and magazine writer who had a brief screenwriting career in the late teens. She co-wrote films like The Undertow, Humility and The Trail That Leads Nowhere. She wasn’t an interpreter for the government for very long: in February 1918 she was hired by Goldwyn’s scenario department.

 

*I’m guessing that might not have been the word the French people would have used.

Week of October 27th, 1917

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Legion of Death (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley paid a visit to the set of an unusual big-budget war film, Legion of Death:

Hup Forward—march! No, it wasn’t any sturdy captain of the Sammies who gave the command, but a slim slip of a woman—Edith Storey, and she was giving her command to still other slim slips of women, a whole drove of them, clad in neat khaki and managing to look like real soldiers instead of chorus girls as one might fear…

Right into a trench Miss Storey marched her feminine cohorts, and then—the battle began. And those girls knew how to use their rifles and bayonets! It was a marvelous sight. They fought like demons with their mock enemies; and pretty soon their pretty caps were all askew, there were actual bloodstains on their faces, and a very real gleam of battle lust in their eyes.

Writer June Mathis (Ben-Hur, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) based Legion on the first women’s combat battalion in modern history. Kingsley said they were planning “a powerful drama of a Russian woman patriot and the formation of the now famous ‘Battalion’ which undoubtedly saved Russia from German invasion during the revolution that shook the world’s largest empire from end to end and resulted in the overthrow of the Romanoff dynasty.”

 

Kingsley talked to the director, Tod Browning, and just like De Mille and Griffith, he emphasized the lengths they were going to for authenticity in his epic film. An army lieutenant trained the actresses to march and carry arms properly. They weren’t allowed to wear wigs: they had to cut off their hair, just like the soldiers did (these clever ladies made the producers pay their salaries before their hair was shorn). Browning demanded real Russian people as extras for the big street and battle scenes; they were so authentic that they didn’t speak any English so he had to hire seven translators. Danny Hogan, the Chief of Properties, couldn’t find what he needed for a Russian palace in stores, so he borrowed a carload of furniture from the Italian Ambassador. All of this added up to “a feature which promises to be the most timely, unique and spectacular picture which Metro has even produced” according to Kingsley.

 

All of their realism didn’t extend to the story, of course. Edith Storey played a princess with a love interest who founds the group, gets captured after a defeat, but is freed to live happily ever after. The real Battalion was proposed by Maria Bochkareva, a decorated front-line fighter who was born to a peasant family. Her goal was to shame Russian male soldiers who were tired of fighting Germans after three years. Minister of War Alexander Kerensky agreed, and allowed Bochkareva to train and lead 300 female recruits as the First Women’s Battalion of Death. They were sent to the front where they were resented by the male soldiers. Even though they performed well in combat, Bochkareva had to disband the unit after a few months because they were treated so badly by their fellow troops. She wrote a memoir in 1919 called Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile. She was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1920. You can read more about the Battalion on the History Buff blog.

 

Kingsley didn’t get to review the finished film, but her co-worker Antony Anderson thought it was “a Metro triumph.” The reason you may have never heard of this epic is because it’s a lost film. A new version of the story, Batalon, was made in Russia in 2015.

 

The Legion/Battalion was so famous at the time that they got mentioned in a much more lighthearted story Kingsley reported this week. Actor Jack Mulhall was in a downtown L.A. department store trying on a ladies corset for an upcoming role, and he told her:

just as they had me all trussed up in a twin-six, ball bearing, 1917 model steel cage somebody yelled fire…Miserable as I was, I forgot all about the corset and made a dash for the street. Outside I met a friend. “What’s the idea?” he demanded gazing at the corset which I had tried on over my trousers and shirt, “going to war?” Just then along came a girl I knew, and I instantly decided I preferred cremation to meeting her, so back I dashed to the corset department. Yes, I’ve worn ‘em in three scenes now—and, believe me, I don’t know that the Legion of Death was making so much of a sacrifice when it took of its corsets and went to war!

The film was called Madame Spy, and it concerned a young man who goes undercover as a baroness to learn the secrets of a German spy ring. Exhibitor’s Herald thought “Jack Mulhall as an impersonator of the fair sex is quite good,” but the story was padded (February 9, 1918).

 

Kinglsey had a happy surprise while watching her favorite film this week, The Co-respondant: the heroine acts with “straightforward sensibleness uncommon in screen heroines” and the hero “contrary to all screen ethics, behaves like a sensible human being.” The film told the story of a star woman reporter (Elaine Hammerstein*) who, in her youth, was almost dragged into an illicit relationships with a ‘rounder.’ Now the cad’s wife has named her as the co-respondent in her divorce case. Complications, including a libel case, false identity and threats of ruin ensue, but her current love (Wilfred Lucas) believes her side of the story implicitly and fights the cad as soon as he can, while the heroine types it up for an article. Kingsley said:

it is a picture play of such tense and deep-rooted human drama that in the development of its big central situation you sit quite breathless; yet it is played so naturally, there is such an utter lack of forced situation, its train of events is so entirely logical, one seems to be looking on a cross-section of life itself. Maybe you don’t believe this. I don’t blame you if you do not; but just go to the Superba and see for yourself.

You can’t go to the Superba Theater any more, but a fragment of the film exists at the Library of Congress.

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Mae Marsh, Sunshine Alley

Kingsley mentioned that J.A. Quinn, the owner of Quinn’s Rialto Theater, announced that the new Mae Marsh film Sunshine Alley would absolutely play for only one week, and he’d add midnight showings on the last days if needed. Curious, I had a look at the Rialto ads to see if he did. They didn’t tell me: I had completely forgotten that in 1917, films ran continuously and the audience came in whenever they wanted to. So I wondered when film ads in the LA Times began to include starting times. Except for some Cinerama shows, it wasn’t until 1962! So if you really want to re-create the film going experience of earlier times, pick a random chapter on your DVDs and start there.

 

 

 

*She was the songwriter’s cousin.

 

 

Week of October 20th, 1917

pennies

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that a theater ticket tax was about to go into effect on November 1st and nobody could escape it:

Yea, even though you be a dramatic critic, you will have to pay over your little old ten percent of the price of your ticket. As you do this, you may be thankful you aren’t a theatrical treasurer, who has to “count the house” and the pennies. In fact, it is likely the government may be prevailed upon to provide private asylums for the poor treasurers who will go insane over their tasks.

It really wasn’t that terrible for the treasurers: the ticket sellers had stamps, so when someone bought a ten cent ticket, they also bought a one cent stamp. A fifteen cent ticket required the purchase of a two cent stamp—the government rounded up.* However, five-cent houses were exempt.

Film theaters had another war tax in addition to the 10% ticket tax. It started as a 15-cent per reel per day tax on all films. That proved to be too difficult to collect, so in 1918 it became a five percent tax on film rental fees. There was a side benefit to the tax collection: according to Wid’s Daily (June 14, 1920), this was the first time anyone collected data on how much money film distributors were making in the United States. Between July 1, 1919 and March 31, 1920, taxes on film rentals totaled $347,334.26, so the gross receipts for the industry were $62,520,167.20. They estimated that the total for fiscal year July 1919-June 1920 would be $86,360,222.93. Movies were big business!

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With so many stars, it’s no wonder they owned nearly a third of the market.

Wid’s couldn’t find out how much each company contributed to the total because only one distributor made it’s annual report public, but from Famous Players’ report they were able to estimate that they did 32½% of the business in the entire industry.

Unsurprisingly, the theater owners fought the rental tax every step of the way. It ended on January 1, 1922 when it was repealed by the Revenue Act of 1921. The tax on free admissions ended at the same time, so Kingsley had to fish the pennies out from the bottom of her purse for a good long while.

 

Kingsley’s second favorite film this week was Camille:

The deathless tale of the love of Camille and Armand, with which we all became familiar in our early teens—principally because we were forbidden both book and play—is revived in fine and classic manner by Theda Bara and the Fox company at Miller’s this week. And it matters not how many times you’ve sighed over the sacrifice of Camille and wept at that naughty lady’s deathbed, you’ll do it again for Theda Bara… Miss Bara’s work has improved tremendously since we last saw her. It is characterized by a fine reserve, an artistic restraint, even in the most emotional scenes.

She addressed the first question you would ask about a tuberculosis-ridden character: “One wondered how the undeniably robust-looking actress would manage to look the wasted and ethereal heroine of the story, but she has accomplished it, rather by that subtle spiritual suggestion of a worn-out soul than by any actual physical change.” So acting can do the job instead of some horrific diet. It’s a lost film.

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Her favorite film this week was almost unfair competition to the rest: Chaplin’s The Adventurer.

If you want to laugh until the laughs tumble over each other in their eagerness to let yet another laugh escape, be sure and see The Adventurer…His antics are more of the brain and less of the feet than in any previous picture, with the result every little movement has a joyous meaning all its own. ‘And the story starts just as soon as the picture does,’ naively exclaimed a girl sitting behind me. In other words, Charlie pokes his head out of the sand to look right into the barrel of the guard’s gun.

If you want to follow Kingsley’s advice, you can see it on the Internet Archive.

 

Kingsley reported on an unusual delivery this week:

Fifty pies, varying in make from custard to pumpkin, in color from the dark red of strawberries to the light yellow of cream, in flavor from coconut to sweet potato; fifty pies have been received by Gladys Brockwell.

A commercial baker from Rosedale, Kansas sent them to her because he’d admired her art so much that he wanted her to try his. Kingsley thought that Mack Sennett might have made better use of them, but she didn’t say what became of the desserts.

 

 

The best line this week didn’t come from Kingsley, instead it was from Mary Pickford. She had signed Teddy the Dog, star of several Keystone comedies, for a serious part in her next film (he was to play Stella’s loyal dog in Stella Maris). She said, “I feel sure he’ll be able even to play Hamlet if we want him to. You know, he’s a Great Dane.”

She’ll show herself out.

 

 

*”N.P. Theaters Must Bear Share of U.S. War Tax,” Exhibitor’s Herald, October 13, 1917, p.17.

 

 

Week of October 13th, 1917

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Fan Fan (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the set of the latest Franklin Brothers film, Fan-Fan, an all-kid version of The Mikado. She reported on the “three-ring circus in progress,” and had a chat with the directors about the — the polite word is challenges – of their job:

‘Going over the top’ in the making of “kid” comedies is the accomplishment of the Franklins, and according to these gentlemen, directing in a trench smash hasn’t much on squeezing out the nectar-like juice of genius out of 500 wriggling, restless, contrary kid actors. Nevertheless, it can be done, and the Franklins know all the ways there are to make a naturally fractious small boy or a prissy little miss ‘show off’—which, after all, is all there is to acting.

“The louder I shout, the louder the children shout,” said Sid Franklin the other day, “and the louder they shout the better acting they do.”

For the production they built a Japanese street at the Fox studio and hired Japanese people for the background, but the stars were the Franklins’ regular stock company, Francis Carpenter (Naki-Poo), Virginia Corbin (Yum-Yum) and Violet Radcliffe (Pooh-Bah). The kids had a school teacher on the set and Kingsley reported that “the children are well cared for during the making of pictures.”

The plot of The Mikado doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a children’s film, with coerced marriages and the threats of execution, but Kingsley reassured readers that “this adroit Gilbert and Sullivan satire has been made into a picture play which rather emphasizes the refreshing comedy of the story than reflects any of its satiric vein.” Unfortunately we can’t see how they managed that, because it’s a lost film.

 

 

Chester and Sidney Franklin got their start in film in 1915 when they independently wrote and directed a short, The Baby. It led to them being hired by Majestic Motion Picture Co. to make more comedy shorts starring kids. In 1917 they were hired by Fox to direct features with children. They made five, including Jack and the Beanstalk, which Kingsley had enjoyed a great deal. Despite their cheerful words about working with youngsters, Fan Fan was their last of their children’s features for Fox; they both moved on to separately direct adult actors.

 

 

Chester called the shots on over 50 films; his most famous was the 2-strip Technicolor Toll of the Sea (1922). Sidney had an even more successful career. He made films like The Hoodlum (1919) with Mary Pickford and Smilin’ Through (1922) with Norma Talmadge, then in 1926 he was hired by M.G.M. where he became Irving Thalberg’s protégé. He got to direct big-budget literary films like Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and The Good Earth (1937). After Thalberg’s death he became a producer at the studio; he worked on Ninotchka (1939), Random Harvest (1942) and The Yearling (1946) among others.

 

 

Kingsley visited another studio this week and reported that nobody could find Mary Pickford on the set of her latest film Stella Maris, but there was

a funny looking feminine creature in an old ragged dress, her hair ‘skinned’ back away from her face, and a big basket over her arm….By and by, over the face of the funny little girl spread a whimsical smile—Mary Pickford’s own particularly droll little grin.

“Don’t you think I’m brave to live with this face?” inquired Mary, strolling out of the scene as she waited for the property men to fix up the canvas light reflectors. “You know, my mother could safely leave me out all night any time in this make-up and nobody would steal me. Even with a string of pearls I don’t believe they’d touch me.” Marshall Neilan, her own director, couldn’t find her under her funny make-up the other day.

This wasn’t just hype: as you can see in the photos, her character did look radically different from Pickford, and it was very effective acting and make up. They kept the plot to the film secret from Kingsley, so she thought that Pickford was poor in the first two reels, then became pretty when her fortunes improved. Actually it was a dual role, with Pickford playing both the mistreated orphan servant Unity Blake and the paralyzed, wealthy Stella Maris. The film is available on DVD. Fritzi Kramer called it “one of the finest silent features of the 1910’s and is essential viewing for fans of the era;” you can read her full review at Movies Silently.

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was an adaptation of Edward Everett Hale’s short story The Man Without A Country. In 1863 Hale wrote it to promote enlistment in the Union Army during the Civil War. It told the fictional story of Phillip Nolan, who had been convicted of treason and was sentenced to exile on the sea, forbidden from hearing anything about the United States. In this version, the man is a pacifist “for no particular reason,” even after his Red Cross nurse sweetheart is presumed dead when her ship is torpedoed. He refuses to enlist until he’s given Hale’s story, then after he reads it he sees the error of his ways and joins the army. Kingsley felt it should be compulsory viewing for all pacifists.

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Florence LaBadie

Her review ended on a melancholy note: the leading lady, Florence LaBadie had died on October 13, 1917 of septicemia after an automobile accident, and Kingsley felt in was uncanny to see her still alive on the screen, yet “it seems like a marvelous trick of fate that the last role she played in the films was one embodying such patriotic idealism as this one.” Movies were so young then that this was unusual. The film survives at the Library of Congress and a preview is on the Internet Archive. Cornell University has made the original short story available online.

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Lasky stars do their bit for the war effort.

Kingsley’s best line this week was equally patriotic: a Liberty Loan film playing with Norma Talmadge’s disappointing The Moth was “of such a fascinating nature it would make you steal money to buy bonds.” This enthralling short comedy was called The Great Liberty Bond Hold-Up and it featured Mary Pickford, William S. Hart, Julian Eltinge, Douglas Fairbanks and Theodore Roberts. It was part of the series All-Star Production of Patriotic Episodes for the Second Liberty Loan. Be careful looking at the photo, you don’t know what crimes it might inspire you to commit!

 

Week of October 6th, 1917

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Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance, vacationing in Hawaii, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Charlie Chaplin about his future ambitions. He had no film to promote and was between jobs: he’d just finished his last film for Mutual and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii, after which he would start working for First National. They didn’t mention movies at all, and he seemed to be quite happy to talk about other subjects. He spoke about what he hoped to do in the future:

Chaplin’s big ambition, confided to me the other day, is nothing less than to write and produce a play on the stage. And about this business Charlie cherishes no illusions.

“I’m not nearly ready to do it yet,” he said. “I must work, study and write for at least another five years. In the meantime I must know people who will stimulate thought and imagination—clever people who have accomplished things. Yes, I should wish to write a comedy, of course, but a comedy with a deep and genuine human touch.”

So as early as 1917 he wanted to make Serious Art, but he didn’t imagine he could do that with film. Chaplin never did produce a play. He must have decided that film could be taken seriously enough for his ambitions. Five years later he began shooting A Woman of Paris, a drama about a woman who choses between security and love.

 

He went on to describe being tongue-tied when he met actor/theater manager/founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree: “I managed to yammer out something, but I’m sure it was quite ghastly.” Tree didn’t notice, he was too busy monologing on how he wanted to stage Macbeth, the history of non-Shakespeare Elizabethan playwrights and the benefits of travel for young people. Chaplin didn’t make his escape until Tree’s daughter Iris rescued him.

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Oliver Twist asks for more, by George Cruikshank

He also talked about fiction, and told a sweet story about his favorite author, Dickens:

“I used to imitate Dickens’ characters at school, from the Cruikshank illustrations,” said Charlie, “and one day one of the directors gave me Oliver Twist. It was the first book I ever owned because my mother was too poor to buy us books, and it was the first story I ever read. I carried it home and put it under my pillow, falling asleep that night on my precious book, and I read and reread it until it was soiled and torn.”

Oliver Twist remained his favorite novel for his whole life; he continued to read it over and over, according to his biographer Stephen Weismann.*

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Bondage, which starred Dorothy Phillips as a newspaper writer who marries a lawyer, quits work and promptly gets bored and allows

an old love affair with a worthless cad to obsess her. If the young woman had kept on the job of writing, there would have been no story. But she didn’t. The creative mind is subject to influence which less imaginative souls never feel, and this Miss Phillips has subtlety conveyed.

Kingsley thought it was “Ibsen-esque in its power and insight…a picture which should not be missed by lovers of good drama.” Plus (for a change!) she got to see a female reporter that seemed realistic to her. Bondage was written and directed by Ida May Park More from a story by Edna Kenton. You don’t suppose that if there were more women directing films now we would get more interesting and complicated female characters?

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Her review of Douglas Fairbanks latest, The Man From Painted Post, did the box office no harm, and she got to write some of her funniest lines of the week:

Any old time Douglas Fairbanks can’t hold up and kill off, sometimes one at a pop, sometimes two at a pop, as many as a dozen ruffians, smiling as he does it, he feels his day has been wasted….Nay, more than that, he holds up one rascally poltroon in the dust with nothing more dangerous than the handle of a stewpot! Very subtle satire on the old melodrama stuff, this picture play.

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Too naughty for New York!

An earlier Dorothy Phillips film was running into a little trouble with the censors:

The New York censors, despite experience which might be supposed to be toughening, still have delicate sensibilities; or, at any rate there are large sensitive spots on their sensibilities. The title of the Bluebird feature Hell Morgan’s Girl, contained too strong a wallop for these gentlemen, who have changed the name to A Soul’s Redemption, which, as [film co-star] Lon Chaney justly observed the other day, has about as much punch as “toothbrush.”

 

 

* Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94.