Home Entertainment: May 16-31, 1922

Louise Lorraine

One hundred years ago this month, a new medium entered Grace Kingsley’s columns: radio. Commercial radio was just getting started in Los Angeles. She wrote about one little change it was causing:

The radio is going to increase some lucky newspaper’s circulation by at least one, take it from no less an authority than Louise Lorraine, who has installed apparatus in her apartment in Hollywood.

“I’m becoming a regular news hound,” explained Miss Lorraine, “whereas before I had this radio machine I never read a newspaper. Now, since listening in on this radio broadcasting arrangement, I’ve decided to take two newspapers instead of only one, and what’s more I just can’t wait nowadays to find out all about Russia, and I’m getting an awful kick out of the Irish situation, too.”

Lorraine was about to star in The Radio King, a ten-part serial about the earlier use of the airways, two-way communication.

Louise Lorraine was an actress who appeared in many Universal serials. For her, being able to hear news over the radio was not a threat to newspapers’ well-being. However, other negative effects of the new technology were being proposed; the following day Kingsley blamed it for triple-decker novels’ decline in popularity. In her review of The Count of Monte Cristo she pointed out that the story was “from a time when they wrote novels, they wrote volumes, which people with no telephones or radios had time to read.” Nevertheless, she thought the movie was a delight.

Using radio for something other than communicating with ships or as a replacement for telegraphy had been going on for quite a while: amateur operators had been playing music over the airways since 1906, according to the American Experience site. But the United States government had only recently begun to issue licenses for commercial stations. The first went to KDKA in Pittsburgh. They got their license from the Department of Commerce in October 1920. Their first scheduled broadcast was on November 2, 1920, and their first transmission of a professional baseball game was on August 5, 1921.

From Radio Receiving for Beginners, by Rhey T. Snodgrass and Victor F. Camp, 1922.

By early 1922, there were four small stations in Southern California: one at Hamburger’s Department Store (operated by the Meyberg Company), one in the Kinema Theater Building (Western Radio Electric Company), one in Hollywood at the Electric Light and Supply Company and one in Pasadena run by J.J. Dunn at his car battery service store. You could even see the one at Hamburger’s in action. Installed next to the boy’s department in August 1921, they broadcast live concerts several times a week. For example, on December 5th the program included songs like “Sweetheart,” “Say It with Music,” and a saxophone solo called “Saxophobia.”

April 12, 1922

Then a big company entered the market: the Los Angeles Times. A station with the call letters KHJ was installed at their downtown building, and on April 11th they broadcast a fifteen-minute test at 12:15 p.m. The program featured Cyrena Van Gordon of the Chicago Grand Opera singing Azucena’s aria from “Il Trovatore” and “Lift Up Thine Eyes” with piano accompaniment. The Times article still called the technology a “wireless telephone.” The test went well and the following day the station was formally dedicated and opened. The newspaper reported:

The Times was host last night to the great Southwest! Its radio broadcasting station was the throbbing heart of an area bounded by hundreds of miles. It is estimated that more than 200,000 Southland dwellers listened in. By the fireside, in mountain fastness, at public places the pealing notes of grand opera singers were heard and applauded by a history-making audience.

While the station couldn’t charge listeners, the equipment to listen was really expensive. Dean Farran, the engineer who installed the Times’ station, said that a set for family service would cost $125 (roughly $1,750 today), but the ideal set would cost $400. Even with the high price, the Times reported a shortage of equipment: “Realizing the great future possibility of regular entertainment in the homes, residents of the Southland have flooded the market with demands for apparatus, yet to be manufactured and delivered.” Prices did drop in the following years; according to encyclopedia.com, by the middle of the decade the price for a decent set was $35.00.

New stations were opening daily. In March 1922 the Radio Service Bulletin listed 67 professional stations, but by June 1922 it had jumped to 378 stations. You can find all kinds of information about the early days at Thomas H. White’s Early Radio History website

In the early 1920’s very few people were concerned that radio would take audiences away from live music, sports, or theater. I found only one article from 1921 about the musicians’ union opposing it, because they were worried about unemployment among their members. In the beginning, people were optimistic about the wonders of the new medium. Edwin Schallert, the Times’ entertainment editor, gave a speech over the airways on April 25th, and he proclaimed, “the destiny of music is now linked definitely with the radiophone.” He thought it would democratize music because:

there was a day when music was reserved for the narrow confines of princely palace…Now music travels on the wings of electric energy, now it reaches into each separate household and makes it a princely domain.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what effect radio had on live events and print media. There was some speculation, but no hard evidence. For example, radio (and later television) pioneer David Sarnoff, who at the time was the general manager of the Radio Corp of America (RCA), said in an address at the Sphinx Club in New York City in early 1925 that while many worried it would shrink attendance at the theaters and the concert halls and would even hurt newspaper circulation, he thought such fears were “groundless.” Talking Machine World reported he said:

“The broadcast of musical events has had the effect of increasing attendance at the theater. As proof of this he cited the case of a New York theater which regularly broadcasts its Sunday night musical programs, with the result that the attractions play to a packed house all week.”

Sarnoff thought that “radio will prove to be one of the greatest accelerants, both from the standpoint of circulation and advertising, that newspapers and magazines have even known…radio gives but the headlines and the listeners must read the papers to get the necessary details.” Just like Miss Lorraine was inspired to learn more about the news after she got her radio. It seems that people had enough free time to listen to the radio, on top of everything else they were doing.

John S. Daggett, “Times Radio Station Dedicated Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1922.

“David Sarnoff Discusses Radio Relationships,” Talking Machine World, February 15, 1925, p.86.

“Great Throng Hears Radio,” Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1922.

“Radio Brings Music Home,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1922.

“Radio Grand Opera Today,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1922.

“Radiophone Concert is Heard Far Away,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1921.

“The Times Dedicates Radio Telephone Broadcasting Station,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1922.

“Times Radio Service Near,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1922.

“Times Radio Club Growing,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1922.

“Unions Protest the Use of Radio Music,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1921.

E.M. Wickes, “Melody Mart,” Billboard, March 18, 1922, p.54.

An Unusual Critical Favorite: May 1-15, 1922

And Women Must Weep

One hundred years ago this month, there were plenty of comedy shorts in the theaters, but only one tragedy short. Playing with a feature-length comedy called The Ruling Passion, Grace Kingsley was impressed by the now lost And Women Must Weep:

“You may, in fact, both laugh and weep this week at the California. For there’s tragedy on the bill as well—a perfect gem of a two-reeler illustrating Charles Kingsley’s poem, “Three Fishers,” and “The Fisher’s Widow.”

She got two details wrong: it was just one reel, and the second poem was by Arthur Symons. But director Robert C. Bruce packed a lot into ten minutes. His film got excellent reviews everywhere it played. The anonymous film writer in the New York Times admired it so much that he or she had little to say about the feature, a Revolutionary War melodrama called Cardigan, and devoted most of the review of what was playing at the Capitol Theater that week to And Women Must Weep:

It is an emphatic success. There is scenery in the picture, magnificent inspiring views of the sea and the seaside, and also a tense dramatic episode which, it would seem, must break through the most artificial human crust and touch responsive heart-chords. It is the simple story of three fishermen’s wives and their husbands who do not come back. It is especially the story of the youngest wife, who searches in vain for the body of her man, all the time hoping, you may be sure, that she will not find it, so that she may cling to her hope that he will come back alive. But when the other two women, who found the bodies of their men, have at least the solace of taking flowers to their graves, the young wife has to stand at the cemetery gate watching them forlornly, without even the comfort of a headstone and a mound on which to kneel.

It is a sincere, true little tragedy, effectively photographed, staged with convincing simplicity and humanly acted.

Sumner Smith in Moving Picture World was equally impressed, writing that it was:

without qualification a wonder. Bruce has caught the spirit of the poem and carried it out in every scene. The views of the sea and the shore, shot from many angles, are marvelously beautiful…There are no broad gestures here, no suggestion of hysterical melodrama when the fishermen put out to sea and when their bodies are discovered after the storm, but the poignancy of Kingsley’s poem is intensely conveyed.

The highest praise came from the National Board of Reviews in their publication Exceptional Photoplays. Motion Picture News pointed out that they had never before reviewed a one-reeler. The Board thought it was opening up new possibilities for the medium of film:

 And Women Must Weep may be called an attempt to transfer the images and the emotion of a poem to the motion picture screen. In this attempt this little one reel film is at moments decidedly successful…It presents one of the few instances where the actual transfers of written poetry has been made to screen in terms of movement in pictures. This is the shot from the top of the cliff, where one looks down at a long shadowy line of swells moving slowly in to shore, and experiences the exact sensations to be received from reading the lines “And the harbor bar be moaning…”

But that one image of the moaning bar, with its movement like sound, is tremendously suggestive of what may yet be done in literal and spiritual rendering of written poetry on the screen.

Movies could be Art! That notion was just beginning in the early 1920’s. The National Board of Reviews went on to include And Women Must Weep on their year-end list of the forty best pictures of the year, along with better remembered films like Nanook of the North, Grandma’s Boy, and Blood and Sand.

According to the distributor it wasn’t just the critics that enjoyed it; Moving Picture World reported that after the New York City screenings they said “prolonged applause from the audience marked the final fadeout every time the picture was shown during the week.” Now it’s hard to imagine a popular movie based on a poem — audiences just aren’t familiar with poetry any more.

Mayo Methot

One of the actors was noticed by critics. The New York Times thought all of the acting was fine, especially “the unnamed young woman who plays the part of the desolate wife.” Moving Picture World also singled her out for “special mention” and identified her: Mayo Methot. At the time she was working for the Baker Stock Company in Portland, Oregon, but she soon married the cameraman on Weep, Jack LaMond, and they moved to New York City where she became a noted Broadway actress. They divorced in 1927, and in 1930 she moved to Hollywood and found work in film. She has the misfortune of being remembered now mostly because she and her third husband had a terrible marriage. They both drank too much and fought, then he cheated and dumped her for a much younger woman. But her marriage to Humphrey Bogart was many years away.

And Women Must Weep was the first of a ten film series made by Robert C. Bruce called Wilderness Tales. They were released one per month. The others weren’t based on poems, and they didn’t get quite as much praise (it would have been hard to beat) but they were admired. Film Daily wrote:

Bruce has achieved in this new series a classical form of pictorial entertainment…This latest Bruce series is certainly the very best that he has done. It offers a classical entertainment that can be used in high class programs and safely shown to discriminating audiences.

In their jokey “Ain’t It Grand” column, Film Daily pointed out how useful good shorts could be. Headed “Man, man; make some more” they said about Weep:

An’ whatta picshure! Get it. It’ll help. An’ if th’ feature ain’t so awful good, it may steal the show. Sea stuff. Great photography. Bully all th’ way. 

Thank goodness this style of writing has died out! The distributor, Educational Films, sold the series not only with advertising in the trade papers but also with a sixteen-page rotogravure brochure. It contained mostly photographs, plus the positive reviews they got. According to Exhibitors’ Trade Review:

the idea of the brochure now being prepared is not to present advertising arguments for the pictures, but to provide a pamphlet so beautiful that most exhibitors and others who receive it will want to preserve it for the sheer beauty of the work and of the pictures reproduced.

This was really unusual for movie advertising then:

There will be very little reading matter in the brochure. What little there is will be superimposed on beautiful scenic pictures, and will be incidental to the photographic art.

Unfortunately, it looks like exhibitors didn’t preserve it — I checked WorldCat and Ebay and didn’t find any copies.

The series was a financial success, too. The Capitol contracted for the whole series, and so did other large first-run houses in Newark, Brooklyn, Boston and Chicago, according to Moving Picture World.

A surviving Wilderness Tale called Flowers of Hate is on the Internet Archive.

“Ain’t It Grand?” Film Daily, February 14, 1922, p. 4.

And Women Must Weep,” Exceptional Photoplays, January-February 1922, p. 6.

And Women Must Weep Has Premier at Capitol,” Moving Picture World, March 11, 1922, p. 164.

“Capitol and Other First Runs Taking Entire New Bruce Series,” Moving Picture World, March 25, 1922, p. 364.

“Educational Films to Issue Brochure,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, March 18, 1922, p.1111.

“Scenic Tale Still Making a Hit,” Moving Picture World, September 8, 1923, p. 192.

“Short Reels,” Film Daily, February 12, 1922, p. 20.

Sumner Smith, “And Women Must Weep,” Moving Picture World, February 11, 1922, p. 662.

“Wilderness Tales Approved,” Motion Picture News, July 8, 1922, p. 193.

Failure Proof: April 16-30, 1922

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley and the audience had pretty good time at the movies, even if she had some reservations:

Valentino’s vogue, Elinor’s Eros, Gloria’s gowns—that’s the blessed triumvirate which seems to be entirely failure proof. They’re on again at Grauman’s Rialto. Valentino and Gloria are appearing in Elinor Glyn’s Beyond the Rocks, which opened yesterday to tremendous business.

Beyond the Rocks will not, I fear, be beyond the rhetorical rocks of the critics. The story is commonplace, and might have been written by any Trotty Two-Shoes of the scenario department.

On the other hand, it is without the special Glyn tang; it’s a de-nogged egg-nogg. Rudy Valentino kisses with the meter on. In short, it’s quite entirely censor-proof, and any girl may safely take her mother to see it.

The story is as romantic as a Bertha M. Clay* yarn. It concerns the eternal triangle. A beautiful young girl marries an old millionaire. Then she meets Rudy, and it’s all off with Josiah. But they battle nobly against their love, and the most Rudy accomplishes is a chaste kiss on his lady’s fingertips.

Much too chaste!

Kingsley was very clear on what she wanted from a Valentino movie. Her point that the film wasn’t dirty enough was unique among the critics, who, just as she predicted, had plenty of other complaints. The unsigned review in the New York Times was particularly scathing:

Gloria Swanson can wear clothes. So can Rodolph Valentino. And the talents of each are given full play in the Elinor Glyn story, Beyond the Rocks, as it has been screened and brought to the Rivoli this week…the leading characters do little else but wear clothes, and if, also, much of the action takes place on apparently artificial mountains and before what seem to be painted backdrops, can the result be called an interesting photoplay? Not by those who want a little character and a little truth in their entertainment, anyway. (May 8, 1922)

One of the beautiful gowns.

The costumes were certainly part of why audiences enjoyed the movie; Kingsley mentioned “Gloria Swanson does good work and suffers in about 500 beautiful gowns.” However, underlying most of the commentary was the usual contempt for the people the movie was designed to appeal to: female movie fans. Film Daily thought it was a “first-rate production” despite  its “very obvious plot, one in which you can see the ending the minute you meet all the characters and you aren’t disappointed in your conjectures,” but then the writer condescendingly quoted observations from women in the audience: “Miss Swanson’s close fitting gowns were harshly judged and an audible preference for a soft coiffure was expressed, while they didn’t seem to think Valentino photographed as well in this one. He still insists on making his black hair shine.”

His hair did shine.

The writer failed to say what was wrong with chatting about that. People take their fun from seeing movies in all kinds of ways. Kingsley wasn’t immune from this sort of distain; she called the story “an opus in servant-girl literature” and quoted the final title card as an example: “Then only thing eternal and divine in this old world is the love that beautifies.” OK, it wasn’t Shakespeare. Nevertheless, she didn’t look down on audiences who enjoy a melodrama involving two attractive actors. Different people bring a variety of perspectives, and that’s why we need diverse film critics.

One point the critics agreed on was that Beyond the Rocks was going to be a great big hit. Film Daily described standing room only crowds in New York. Exhibitor’s Herald managed to be a bit nasty even with that expectation, saying it “will undoubtably prove one of the season’s most successful attractions. At least with feminine fans.” They were correct about the ticket sales. According to Variety, it set a record at the Rivoli in New York City, grossing $28,750 in its first week. Nobody minded taking feminine fans’ money!

In the “Alps”

Now Beyond the Rocks is also remembered in histories of special effects because it included travelling matte shots in the scenes in which Valentino rescues Swanson in the Swiss Alps. This was the earliest notable use of the process invented by Frank Williams. While keeping his day job as a cameraman, he had been working on his traveling matte idea since 1912, usually in the bathroom of wherever he was living.  Stationary mattes had been used in filmmaking since the earliest days; it was a technique borrowed from still photography.  Actors were filmed with part of the negative blocked and left unexposed, then the film was re-wound and another image was shot on the unexposed area.  The two images formed a composite.  However, actors had to stay within a set portion of the image.  With the Williams Process, the whole background could be replaced, and the actors could move freely.

Williams shot some of Chaplin’s earliest films

In 1917, Adolf Zuckor of Paramount Studios gave him space in his lab to work on it, but he couldn’t overcome the problems of inaccurate cameras and printers and crude film stocks.  But then he had a breakthrough: he built his own printer, accurate to one ten-thousandth of an inch, used a motor-cranked camera and a better grade of film, and it worked. He was granted a patent on the process and he opened his own film lab, becoming one of the first businesses dedicated to special effects.

Apparently the technique wasn’t a complete success yet — the New York Times critic thought the scenes looked artificial in this film. However, Williams was able to improve his process and provided spectacular scenes in The Lost World (1925) of dinosaurs roaming London.  The destruction of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Ben Hur (1925) was also Williams’ work, as were the battle scenes in The Big Parade (1925). 

Beyond the Rocks was thought to have been lost until it was found in 2003 in a private collection. It was restored by the Nederlands Film Museum and the Hagheflim Conservation and is now available on DVD.

*Bertha M. Clay was the pen name of Charlotte M. Brame (1836-1884), a tremendously popular romance writer. She was best known for Dora Thorne, which most reviewers on Good Reads gave four or five stars.

“Beyond the Rocks,” Exhibitors’ Herald, May 27, 1922, p.47.

“Beyond the Rocks,” New York Times, May 8, 1922.

“First Joint Appearance of Swanson and Valentino Looks Like a Box Office Bet,” Film Daily, May 14, 1922, p. 3.

“Glyn Story with Valentino Pulls Record for Rivoli,” Variety, May 19, 1922, p.44.

Curran D. Swint, “Beyond the Rocks is California Magnet,” San Francisco Call and Post, May 8, 1922.

One Last Spectacular Contribution: April 1-15, 1922

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley announced a highly anticipated film opening in Los Angeles:

Orphans of the Storm will have its local premier next Wednesday at the Mission Theater. This elaborate film, having as its background the French revolution, is D.W. Griffith’s latest spectacular contribution to screen drama.

This was all she got to say about the film; more and more she was being relegated to reviewing movies that weren’t considered serious. However, she never let any annoyance show. I think she still loved her job.

The early trade ad didn’t even mention the story or the stars–Griffith’s reputation was enough

People in Los Angeles had been hearing about Orphans of the Storm for quite a while. It opened in Boston on December 28, 1921 and in New York City on January 3, 1922, where the L.A. Times’ New York correspondent, Frederick James Smith, saw it. He was fairly impressed:

For half its length it has no compelling force and it is not until the second half that the tragedy of the two orphans—separated and alone in hunger-torn Paris—accumulates a compelling strength. Here the Griffith genius—and I may add the Lillian Gish genius—flashes…We doubt if Orphans of the Storm will ever make the money attracted to the box office of Way Down East, but in even perfection of workmanship it stands some planes ahead of most Griffith efforts, but several below Broken Blossoms. Yet there was a wild reception for Mr. Griffith and Lillian Gish who were called upon for speeches. Reports from Boston indicate that Orphans of the Storm is doing a land-office business there. You never can tell.

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Other reviewers were much more glowing; John S. Spargo in Exhibitors’ Herald set expectations almost impossibly high:

To say that Orphans of the Storm is a great picture—or even a great Griffith picture—is giving but mild praise to this wonderful photoplay. It is a living, moving, almost breathing triumph of pictorial perfection, and it gives to posterity a new historical viewpoint from which to study one of the most turbulent and trying times in the world’s history—the French Reign of Terror. As a photoplay it is a masterpiece; as a box-office attraction it has few limitations.

When Los Angeles Times film editor Edwin Schallert saw it in April, he was nearly as impressed:

He has done daring and outrageous things with history, but he has made a magnificent picture. He has visioned France from his own perspective, but he has made his visioning beautiful. He has given you familiar tricks and subterfuges, but he has told you a story that touches the heart strings and makes them vibrate to the more thrilling harmonics of conflict and struggle and life. Therefore, Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith’s romance of the French revolution, peals forth a revelation of his comprehension and his genius.

Now we know that Orphans was Griffith’s last wildly successful film, both artistically and at the box office. The following week, the Times reported that it was an overnight sensation, “playing to capacity houses at the Mission Theater.” However, even at the time people realized that nothing lasts forever. Schallert’s review predicted what happened next:

The question of Griffith’s prestige has within the past year or so become a matter of some doubt, especially here. The picture business is far from being a one-man affair any more. Yet the respect for the Griffith skill and flair still persist. He is still reckoned the greatest, although the race is on.

The poster didn’t try to fool people into thinking it was an art film

Some of that respect for Griffith did last for the rest of the decade, even when a critic didn’t like the film he was writing about. Frederick James Smith reported from New York that Griffith’s next film, One Exciting Night, was:

a mere potboiler—a fair average program picture. One Exciting Night is highly disappointing coming from the workroom of Mr. Griffith. You see, we expect so much…We see the film as merely another dire Dream Street.

Mae Marsh and Neil Hamilton

The White Rose fared somewhat better. In May 1923, a different New York correspondent, Helen Klumph, reported that the general opinion from preview audiences was that “Griffith is still our most effective director,” even if she thought the film was to long. Edwin Schallert concurred in his review:

The beauty of the natural settings and the work of the principals under the Griffith guidance are what make the picture—this and a story simply told…There is, to be sure, a certain endlessness to the manner in which the story is told. In fact, there is not enough story really for so long a play.

None of those films were the sort of big-budget epics the Griffith was best known for. The real test came in 1924, when America opened. Its Los Angeles premiere was at a brand-new theater, the Forum, which despite its location away from the downtown theater district, Schallert called “a dazzling, glittering blazing focal point of interest.” It was as star-studded as the opening of Intolerance in 1916:

I have been to a dozen theater openings and premieres in the past year, but with the possible exception of one or two right in the downtown district, this was the most exciting. The people literally rushed the doors of the theater and crowded around the approaching automobiles to obtain a glimpse of Norma Talmadge, Corinne Griffith, Pola Negri, Charles Chaplin, or any other of the celebrities who attended the premiere.

Even though he got to see it surrounded by famous people, Schallert managed to recognize the limitations of the film:

America is really far from being D.W. Griffith at his best in certain points, but it is certain of a big appeal because of its theme. The fact that you get to see Washington, Hancock, Adams and other characters struggles for that break which was eventually to mean a great free nation—greater than any other indeed—stirs something in the heart that cannot be repressed…There was a time, of course, when Griffith was regarded as the great pioneer, but America, from a technical standpoint, discloses none of his customary innovations or advances. In some respects his manner of the treating of the story is even antiquated.

Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster

Griffith’s time at United Artists was coming to an end. On July 20, 1924 Schallert reported that he was working on his last feature for them, called The Dawn (it got re-named Isn’t Life Wonderful). Schallert felt that he had only two outstanding productions in the last five years, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, plus The White Rose was as interesting as those two. However, he said that Dream Street, One Exciting Night and America “are a pretty sad lot.”

Nevertheless, just because Griffith’s contributions were no longer spectacular or critically acclaimed doesn’t mean they were worthless. His biographer Richard Schickel wrote:

 Maybe Griffith’s films of this decade, even the best of them, do not compare with the works of men like Eisenstein, Gance, Murnau, Vidor, Lubitsch, all of whom, in their best films, worked at levels of technical and intellectual sophistication that were to Griffith’s new work what Intolerance had been to his competitors. But for the ordinary filmgoer his films were generally more than acceptable. And when even films as weak as One Exciting Night did reasonably well at the box office, and when his more imposing works grossed as well as Pickford’s and Fairbanks’ big films (which by and large they did), then one must argue that Griffith’s problems generally lay on the cost side of the ledger, not on the receipts side. (p.475)

D.W. Griffith

Kingsley continued to cover news about Griffith, who didn’t give up. In 1936, after she’d retired from full-time writing for the Times, she interviewed him and he was still full of plans for the future. He intended to make movies either in Hollywood or England, and said he’d turned down an offer to re-make Birth of a Nation as a sound film, because he couldn’t replace Mae Marsh and Henry Walthall. He didn’t get to direct again (his last film was The Struggle, made in 1931), and he died in 1948.

Instead of going to glitzy premiers of serious films, Kingsley had to sit through movies that sound much worse than the films Griffith made in the 1920’s, like The Night Rose. Despite the good work of its two stars, Lon Chaney and Leatrice Joy, Kingsley was tired of tales about the criminal underworld:

From the moment the really good girl is turned out of her home without a hearing by a hitherto loving mother, because she has been arrested in a café raid, through a wearisome succession of scenes in which Lon Chaney keeps her a prisoner in order to use her lover as a stool pigeon, up to the time Chaney is shot by the adventuress, you don’t believe a minute of it nor care an hang about it.

However, there were bright spots in her work day. The Night Rose played with an Al St. John short called The Studio Rube, which brought “the sunshine back” for her and the audience:

He has many wild adventures, at which the audience laughs, until the wildest one of all. When he unwittingly enters a house that’s to be blown up (for a scene, I mean), locks the door and throws away the key. He then learns what his fate is to be, tries to break through a boarded-up window, and, by some odd stroke of fate, is left standing there by the window when the rest of the house is blown to kingdom come. Then he crawls out of the window. That’s when the audience yells.

Getting paid to write about sunny two-reel comedies isn’t such a bad job! The Studio Rube has been preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. If you’d like to know more about it, Steve Massa and Ben Model showed it at their Cruel and Unusual Comedy festival in 2013, and they wrote program notes for it.

Grace Kingsley, “D.W. Griffith Tells Plans Which Include Picture Making,” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1936.

Helen Klumph, “D.W. Renews Claim to Fame,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1923.

Edwin Schallert, “Forum’s Opening Brilliant,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1924.

Edwin Schallert, “Orphans of the Storm,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1922.

Edwin Schallert, “The White Rose,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1923.

Edwin Schallert, “Will Griffith Regain Sway?” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1924.

Frederick James Smith, “Exciting, But Mostly in Name,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1922.

Frederick James Smith, “Gotham Sees Griffith Epic,” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1922.

“Griffith Production Playing to Capacity,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1922.

“Orphans Reshows at the Alhambra,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1922.

Richard Schickel, D.W.Griffith: An American Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

The most daring girl in the world: March 16-31, 1922

Andrée Peyre in Ruth of the Range (1923)

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on another aspiring actress coming to Hollywood – but this one had a unique skill:

The latest athletic lady to enter the film players’ ranks is Mlle. Andrée Peyre, French aviatrix and stunt flier, who is practically a refugee from her own country because the Paris police compelled her to quit her dangerous exploits in the air, and who has arrived in Los Angeles to play an important role in the Ruth Roland serial, The Riddle of the Range, which will go into production at United studios April 3.

In addition to being an accomplished air pilot, Mlle. Peyre is an actress of considerable ability. Before she came to this country her screen engagements included six productions made at the Pathe studios at Vincennes, France. Her work before the camera, however, has so far been confined to purely dramatic efforts that did not include her abilities as a flier. The forthcoming serial will mark her debut as actress and aviatrix combined. She has been cast for the role of the heavy in the production and has been allotted a part that is intensely dramatic.

Mlle. Peyre is 22 years old and is a graduate of La Dame Blanche College in Paris, a fashionable private school for girls. Toward the end of the war, after three of her four brothers had been killed in action while serving with the French air forces, she took up flying with Capt. Poulet, the French ace, as her instructor. She is licensed as an air pilot in both France and this country. She was engaged for the serial by President Paul Brunet of Pathé, which company will release the production.

Some of that might have even been true! It was certainly part of what other newspapers mentioned when they wrote about her, when they called her “the most daring girl in the world.” Andrée Suzanne Elisabeth Peyre was born November 19, 1899 in Calviac, France. According to her October 1919 immigration papers, she’d been hired by the Fox Film Corporation as an actress and she was going to New York City. She didn’t appear in any cast lists then, but in 1921 newspapers started to write about her aerial stunts; in April she was over Paterson, New Jersey, doing things like climbing from the lower to the upper wing of a plane in flight (New York Tribune, April 17, 1921). In late 1921, she reportedly signed a contract to be in The Leather Pushers serial, however she’s not in the credits for it.

So the opportunity to come to Los Angeles was a big movie career advance for Peyre. She did get to play a villain named Judith in the re-named Ruth of the Range, a fifteen-part serial that debuted October 14, 1923-24. It’s a lost film in which Ruth Roland played a young woman who rescues her coal substitute inventor father from kidnappers.

Ruth of the Range, episode 4

 It was Roland’s last serial for Pathé; she moved on to making feature films. Film Daily called it a “good, fast-moving serial” that “should easily satisfy a serial-loving audience. It has all the usual thrills, rescues and mysteries.” (“Short Subjects,” Film Daily, September 16, 1923).

Meanwhile, Peyre worked to keep her name in the paper and her career going. In March 1923 she distributed fliers from the air to help the Studio Club raise money for their building fund and in April 1923 she performed stunts at the dedication of Clover Field in Santa Monica. On May 27, 1923 she set a new women’s altitude record of 15,000 feet over Rogers Airport in Los Angeles,* breaking  Amelia Earhart’s record of 14,000 feet.** She was in the air for one hour and ten minutes.

She hadn’t abandoned her screen ambitions; in June 1923 she had an interview with Tod Browning about being in his upcoming film The Day of Faith. The interview wasn’t a success: she’s not in the cast list. However, the newspaper reported that she was accompanied by her fiancé, Cyril Turner and that was much more sucessful.

Andrée Peyre and Cyril Turner

Cyril Charles Teesdale Turner was first to use skywriting in advertising. He was baptized on November 25, 1897 in Haringey, England and he’d served in the Royal Flying Corps as an officer during the war. On November 28, 1922 Turner introduced sky advertising in New York City with the words “Hello USA” over City Hall Park. He worked for the Skywriting Corporation of America. In July 1923 the couple went to Seattle where he spent two weeks demonstrating skywriting with 12 performances. He got paid $1,000 per performance. In the first he wrote “Lucky Strike” for the American Tobacco Company.

Peyre at Mitchel Field, 1924

They got married on September 22, 1923 in Los Angeles. They stayed in the United States for a while; in July 1924 she was performing stunts at Mitchel Field, on Long Island. However, by November 6, 1926 she gave her profession as housewife on a ship’s manifest and he was listed as an author. When he died in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England in  September 1967 he was the chairman of the Irving Air Chute company, which designed and made parachutes. She stayed in Hitchin, where she died on July 20, 1994.

*Rogers Airport was at Wilshire and Fairfax – now it’s hard to imagine that as an open field!

** Peyre’s altitude record was broken by Bertha Horchem on July 5, 1923 when she reached 16,399 feet.

“Aviatrix May Become Motion Picture Star,” Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1923.

“Aviatrix Sets New Altitude Record,” Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1923.

“Defies Death in Acrobatic Antics,” Bridgeport Times, May 2, 1921.

“Famous French Flier,” Evening Star (Washington D.C.), April 2, 1922.

“Fliers to Chat Over City Today,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 1923.

“Kansas Aviatrix Breaks Women’s Altitude Record,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1923.

“Nation Accepts Airplane Field,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1923.

“New Ad-Type is Mile Long,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1922.

“Obituaries,” Xenia Daily Gazette, September 26, 1967.

“Skywriter is in Seattle,” Seattle Star, July 3, 1923.

Von Kettler, Wanda. “Skywriter to Scribble on Seattle’s Horizon,” Seattle Star, July 4, 1923.

“Which is More Daring?” Bismarck Tribune, September 19, 1921.

Glittering, Fascinating Junk: March 1-15, 1922

John Davidson and Mildred Harris in Fool’s Paradise

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley wrote a scathing review of a film by Cecil B. DeMille, a director whom she usually admired. Nevertheless, she thought Fool’s Paradise was so bad that even she had to pan it. She began her piece by explaining her admiration of the original source, Leonard Merrick’s short story “Laurels and the Lady:”

There’s no situation more pitiful in all of literature, it seems to me, than that of those two exiles, the befooled poet lover, a failure in his art, living in his fool’s paradise with the woman of the streets whom he believes to be the great singer of grand opera.

As long as the movie stuck to that story she thought it was fine, but:

Beyond that point it is mere glittering junk. Fascinating junk, to be sure, but paste as compared to the gem of purest ray serene* beside which it is set.

The blind lover, instead of dreaming to the end of his days the pitiful but merciful dream that the cook book is really his book of poems, accepted and published, has his sight restored, and pursues a lady, who has been changed by DeMille’s writers from a grand opera singer to a French dancer. His characters chase over the face of the earth in an unreal sequence, arriving at a spot designated with the convenient generality as “the ends of the earth” but which looks a little like the pictures of Burma we see in the travelogues [it was supposed to be Thailand].

There the dancer is studying the sacred dances of Buddha. Here we plainly see the writers pause with a hand on brow, up a stump. What next? “Ah, I know,” says one. “Crocodiles! Crocodiles have never been used! We can throw both the dancer’s lovers into the pit with them!”

DeMille directing Conrad Nagel and some crocodiles

She had a point: large reptiles are usually found in serials, not serious drama.  Then she wrote a bit that must have really hurt: she compared it unfavorably to DeMille’s brother’s recent film:

Do you remember the subject of Miss Lulu Bett, and what William de Mille did with it? Why could not Leonard Merrick’s story have been treated in the same intensive human way? It has a more striking central situation and just as much action. Ah, but then they couldn’t have put in all those glittering scenes, all those exotic dancers, all the beautiful emptiness! And I don’t suppose it would have run the six weeks which Fool’s Paradise is certain to.

Kingsley was nearly right: it played for four weeks in Los Angeles. Plainly her review didn’t keep anyone away. According to the Cecil B. DeMille website, it cost $291,367.56 and grossed $906,937.79. It’s interesting that she didn’t seem to be worried that he would get mad at her, and she’d lose access to him.

Her opinion wasn’t unusual. For example, Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News (December 24, 1921) wrote about the film’s move to the Far East, “these scenes are lavish in the extreme, but they serve no purpose in advancing the story. They merely dazzle the eye. The simple structure of the earlier sequence is lost in a maze of Oriental trappings.” However, he also recognized that the scenes had “box office value.”

Fool’s Paradise has been preserved at the Library of Congress, and DeMille biographer Robert Birchard called it “highly entertaining.” It recently played in Pordenone.

John Davidson

Kingsley had done her part to help publicize the movie. On its opening day, her interview with actor John Davidson, who played the dancer’s royal lover, appeared in the Times. He told her all about the crocodile scene: when DeMille offered him the part, he warned him about it, and said he’d have to be courageous. But he wasn’t completely prepared for how frightening it would be:

But, as they had been starved for some time they were fairly snappy, and the longest moments of my life were those I spent in the pit with the slimy creatures surrounding me, while I pretended to be unconscious and had my eyes closed. We had to do the scene three or four times, too, before Mr. DeMille got what he wanted.

Since he was playing a foreign king, she also asked him “why the women are all going crazy over you dashing, dark devils.” His reply wasn’t bad. He said they were more graceful and natural lovers, and more expressive:

Actors of the American school grit their teeth and clench their fists and that goes for everything, Women like more than one expression in their heroes. Then there is the mystery about foreign men, too—and women are proverbially curious. But the American woman’s common sense usually saves her. But don’t worry about the American woman’s worship of the foreign actor. Her good sense, as well as her sense of humor, will keep her straight. But I think he’s in for a long vogue.

He got that right: Valentino and similar actors were popular for the next few years. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to take advantage of it. John Davidson was born in Petrograd, Russia on December 25, 1886 and by the time he signed up for the 1917 draft, he’d become a naturalized American citizen. He told Kingsley that theatrical producer Charles Frohman was a family friend, and that he told him to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He said he studied there for two years, then he was hired for a bit part in Lady Frederick with Ethel Barrymore. He got promoted to the juvenile role and toured with the production. He then went on to tour in several Frohman productions (I didn’t find any independent confirmation of any of this). He made his Broadway debut in 1911 in the comedy Excuse Me!, and in 1915 he made his film debut in The Alien, a George Beban film, and he went on to work in both movies and on the stage.

When Kingsley interviewed him in 1922 it was the high point of his film career. DeMille told reporters that he was going to train him to be a director, and he was in DeMille’s next film, Saturday Night, but they didn’t work together after that. He continued to work for Paramount Studios in both Los Angeles and New York, and in December 1923 he was back on Broadway, appearing in The Business Widow. He was a working actor for the next five decades. In the early 1930’s, Kingsley often mentioned seeing the handsome John Davidson at the Hollywood parties she reported on. He went to work for Republic Studios, playing villains in their Charlie Chan, Dick Tracey and Captain Marvel serials.  His career lasted so long that he worked in television, too. He retired in 1963 and died of heart failure on January 16, 1968.

*This is from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray. In 1922 she could assume movie review readers knew that!

Knowing When to Quit: February 16-28, 1922

Helen Ferguson

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley interviewed actress Helen Ferguson, ”a beautiful young woman with brains and a sense of humor that never misses a tick,” and learned all about shooting Westerns in out-of-the-way places in California. Ferguson let fans know that it really wasn’t glamorous:

When Miss Ferguson went recently to Big Bear to make a picture with William Russell, she was ill at the time with tonsillitis. “They kidded me into working,” she said. “I had to do some horseback stunts. Bill had to chase me around a tree on a horse. We had an awful time getting those scenes, because Bill’s horse was wild. Either I wouldn’t run around the right tree or Bill’s horse wouldn’t. I thought I should never get through those scenes.

Horses had caused her trouble for quite a while. She had learned to ride one on the first movie she made with Russell, Shod with Fire, in 1920. After her initial ride, of course she was sore. Her co-workers told her to walk five miles from the location to cure it, but that didn’t help. So Russell told her to come to a dance that evening, and she managed to dance a little with another limping actor, but she hurt more than ever. She told Kingsley, “The company said, ”Well, if you ride again tonight, you won’t be stiff.” That was the last straw. “When won’t I be stiff?” I demanded sarcastically.”

Of course, filmmaking wasn’t all working when you didn’t feel well. The crew sometimes made their own fun on horseback, but her story also showed why civilians should never let anyone film in their town:

Up at Pleasanton, where Miss Ferguson went with ‘Buck’ Jones, the company got started on a wild game of “Follow the Leader,” went right through the theater and onto the stage where a picture was showing. But the natives were good-natured, and received them with applause, made the players do stunts, and then ‘Buck’ treated everybody, audience and all, to ice cream cones.

She didn’t report what the theater owner had to say about the horses inside his theater. She also told Kingsley about another drawback to location shoots: if there was only one girl in the company, the men won’t pay any attention to her.

“For fear,” explains Miss Ferguson, “that the other men will think he is trying to steal her away from the others. So it’s not nearly as much fun as it sounds, being the only girl in the company. There’s a sort of sense of chivalry which binds the men together to protect the girl, but not to pay her too much attention.”

Helen Ferguson, 1917

Now she’s nearly forgotten, but Helen Ferguson had a pretty good career. She was born July 23, 1901, in Decatur, Illinois. * In her first interview in 1917 with Motography she told how she left high school and broke into films in 1915:

I visited the Essanay studio every day it was open for four months. They wouldn’t even give me a chance until one day, in a court-room scene, they had one vacant chair. They had pressed into service stage hands and everyone else obtainable to fill other seats and finally, in desperation, the director grabbed me for the last chair. That was the beginning. I made good as a court-room spectator, so I got extra work from time to time until finally I was a regular.

Her first credited role was as a pretty girl that Max Linder winks at in Max Wants a Divorce, a short comedy released in March 1917. She had a leading part in the feature Fools for Luck with Taylor Holmes which was released in October 1917, however Essanay soon closed their Chicago studio, so she first tried her luck on the East Coast, then moved to Los Angeles where she signed a contract with Fox. She was speaking to Kingsley because she’d gotten a new contract with Goldwyn in 1921. Her career was about to take off. She replaced the poor hopeful Ethel Kay in Hungry Hearts, and her good reviews for that helped her get the lead in dramas like The Flaming Hour (1922) and comedies like Racing Luck (1924).

William Russell and Helen Ferguson

She married her former co-star William Russell in 1925, but he died of pneumonia in 1929. She then married Richard L. Hargreaves, president of the Beverly Hills First National Bank, in 1930. She left film and became a stage actress, then retired from that in 1933. After Hargreaves died in 1941, she went on to a truly impressive second act: she became one of the top publicity agents in Hollywood, working with clients that included Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyek, Loretta Young, Pat O’Brien, Robert Taylor and Jeanette MacDonald. She retired from that in 1967 and died on March 14, 1977 in Clearwater, Florida.

Magda Lane

This month, Kingsley ran into someone who got out of acting even earlier in her career, and she also enjoyed her new line of work:

Some people aren’t worrying a bit about the fate of pictures, even if they did formerly work in them. Take Magda Lane, for instance, who used to play leads. Miss Lane has no wolves at her door these days. She has accepted a position as private secretary to a stock broker, and is not only doing that work but is also selling stock and taking in nice little commissions now and then. Yesterday when I met her on the street she showed me a check for $200 which she had just earned as commission.

“And I’m just as happy as I can be—wouldn’t go back into pictures for anything,” said Miss Lane. “No, I’m not a bit worried about people saying that I’ve gone into trade.”

I’m always impressed by people who know when to quit and try something new. Magdalene Baur was born on May 22, 1896 in Zurich, Switzerland to Sebastian and Marie Mangold Baur.** She immigrated to the United States on November 12, 1913 and went to her sister, Suzanne Linderman, in New York City. According to a studio publicity article, she was discovered by Carl Laemmle at the home of a mutual friend. She went to work for Universal in 1918 and she appeared in over 25 short Westerns there. Her biggest role was as The Mystery Woman in an Eddie Polo serial, Do or Die (1920). Better parts didn’t follow, so she got out of acting while the getting was good. A few months after she ran into Kingsley, the L.A. Times had another article about her post-Hollywood work. They wrote that after taking a course at a Los Angeles business college, she had:

forsaken a motion picture career for plain, honest-to-goodness, brass tacks business…Yesterday it was learned that the erstwhile star of the screen has accepted a position with the Motor Service Corporation. She is the Hollywood representative of that concern with offices at 6408 Hollywood Boulevard and has five—count ‘em, five—sales people working under her direction.

Baur married fellow car salesperson Percival Edward Chamberlin on June 13, 1924 in Detroit. He continued to work in the auto industry. By 1941 she was a housewife and they were living in Millersville, Maryland, near Baltimore, when she filed her naturalization papers. In 1944 he was working in the piston ring division of the Koppers Company. He died on May 3, 1946. She survived him for several decades, and died in Santa Barbara, California on August 6, 1984.

*Helen Ferguson was 8 years old when the 1910 census was taken, so I think that other online sources that give her birth year anywhere between 1892 and 1901 aren’t accurate.

Here’s Magda Lane’s passport photo from 1920. Even pretty actresses take bad ones!

**Other online sources have been led astray by Miss Lane’s hastily filed 1920 passport application.  On December 6, 1920 she was about to travel from New Orleans to Cuba to work on Do or Die, and she quickly needed a passport. It must have been more difficult for a foreign national to do the proper paperwork, so she signed an application that said she was born in San Francisco, and they got an assistant hotel manager as well as the company’s young stuntman, Jean E. Perkins, to attest that she and her parents were American citizens. I think the naturalization papers she filed in November 1941 are correct. They’re backed up by her 1924 marriage record and a 1913 passenger list.

“New Chicago Charmer,” Motography, October 6, 1917, p. 743.

“Quits Films for Business,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1922.

“Universal Favorite in New Polo Serial,” Moving Picture Weekly, May 21, 1921, p. 29.

100 Years of Speculation: February 1-15, 1922

William Desmond Taylor

One hundred years ago on February 2nd, Grace Kingsley wrote a brief item that with hindsight is really sad:

If William D. Taylor ever gets another vacation, I don’t suppose he will know what to do with himself. There’s none in sight now at any rate for him to stop and play marbles. He is to begin production Monday on W. Somerset Maugham’s original story, “The Ordeal,” adapted by Beulah Marie Dix, and in which Agnes Ayers will be the star.

Taylor never did direct The Ordeal, because the night before this appeared he was murdered. The crime still has not been solved. Paul Powell stepped in to direct the picture and it came out in May. The film business didn’t stop for anyone.

Mabel Normand’s photo appeared above the fold.

The following day the Los Angeles Times began to cover the story and Kingsley’s work was on the front-page for a second time (the first was about the Arbuckle scandal; the news about the deadlocked jury in his second trial shared the front page with the Taylor murder on February 3rd). She had attended a press conference given by the last known person who saw Taylor alive, Mabel Normand, and she described the event:

“Mabel Normand, seen at her home at Seventh Street and Vermont Avenue yesterday, was much agitated over the murder of her old friend, William D. Taylor. She gave a clear and frank statement of her movements Wednesday afternoon and evening. J.A. Waldron, the Mack Sennett studio manager, was with her all day, answering phone calls and receiving messages, Miss Normand stated.”

Mabel Normand, 1923

Kingsley went on to sum up Normand’s detailed statement. She had spent the afternoon downtown dealing with income taxes and banking, then she phoned home for messages. Taylor had called to say he had a book she’d wanted, so after buying some magazines and peanuts, her chauffeur drove her to his house. He was on the phone discussing his taxes, and she went in after he finished, at about five minutes after 7. The chatted about books, the upcoming cameraman’s ball, and his servant Henry Peavey’s legal trouble that meant he had to go to court the next day. She needed to be at the studio by 7 a.m. the next day, so he walked her out and they said good-bye. She went home, had dinner and was in bed and asleep by 8 p.m.

Normand first heard of his death from Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s co-star who lived next door to Taylor. She said, “Edna Purviance called me up this morning and said ‘Have you heard the terrible news? William D. Taylor’s valet is running up and down the court screaming he is dead. They say he died of heart failure.’ Afterward I learned he was murdered.”

Just like everybody else at the time, it seems like Normand was trying to put suspicion on Taylor’s former servant, Edward Sands.  She told the press, “I hear that Mr. Taylor told Mrs. Berger [his tax preparer] he wished that he had called off the warrant that he had against Sands. I understand that he felt apprehensive of harm from him. There were, I hear, all sorts of mysterious telephone calls and all that. Sands was one of those servile human beings apparently all devotion to Mr. Taylor.”

She said the legal trouble involved theft, blackmail and check forgery. She concluded her statement by denying that she and Taylor were engaged, though he had previously asked her to marry him. They had become “just good pals.”

Even the respectable L.A. Times sounded like a tabloid for this story. (February 3, 1922)

Normand was questioned, but police didn’t consider her a suspect. Nevertheless, her proximity to the scandal didn’t do her career any favors. It was still on her mind when she died of tuberculosis on February 23, 1930; she reportedly said, “Do you think God is going to let me die and not tell me who killed Bill Taylor?”

The unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor has fascinated people for 100 years now. Since nobody has conclusively proven who shot him, the story has become an evergreen true-crime tale. I was astonished by how many theories there are out there: the sheer volume of research and writing produced from the case is impressive.  The most through examination is on Taylorology by Bruce Long, but there have been some podcasts, several books, and countless blog posts. Theories about the perpetrator have ranged from actress Mary Miles Minter, her mother Charlotte Selby, a mysterious group of drug dealers, and even the original suspect, Edward Sands, who was never heard from again. Simon Louvish has written a helpful summary of the case on his blog, William Desmond Taylor: His Life, Work, and Murder.

However, since even after years of research, Bruce Long couldn’t figure it out, I simply don’t have anything to add. Noted film historian David Bordwell wrote: “My own hunch is that too much evidence has been destroyed to permit a plausible conclusion.” Just like Miss Normand, nobody will be telling us who killed Bill Taylor.

Already At the Very Top: January 16-31, 1922

Harold Lloyd, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced that Harold Lloyd had arrived as a top comedy star when she wrote up his first long interview with the L.A. Times. There was only one other to compare him to:

Harold Lloyd has a personality much like that of Charlie Chaplin, except for Charlie’s moodiness. He kids about like Charlie and has Charlie’s magnetism and charm. He is reserved and shy with strangers, just as Chaplin is, but when he knows people well, he likes to talk.

Of course, Lloyd had turned up in her columns before, like when he got a new contract in March 1919 and when he injured his hand later that year. Kingsley also occasionally mentioned his shorts when the played with features she reviewed; for instance in 1918 she said his Sic’em Towser was “a lot of laughs.” She adored his final two-reeler, Never Weaken.

Lonesome Luke, 1915

Harold Lloyd had been acting in films since 1913, when he was hired as an extra for The Old Monk’s Tale. He met another extra, Hal Roach, and in 1915 when Roach started his own company he hired Lloyd to make one-reel comedies. Like many others, they began by making shorts similar to Chaplin’s, first featuring a Little Tramp-like character called Willie Work, then a similar one called Lonesome Luke. Luke was very popular, and they made 71 one-reelers. In 1917 they got tired of him and moved on to an original character, Lloyd’s “glasses” character, a hard-working boy next door who was always on his way to success. His films kept getting better and better, and now their years of work were paying off.

Kingsley’s article began with something surprising: people didn’t recognize Lloyd without his character’s glasses! She called them “those magic specs of Harold Lloyd’s” and she told her readers:

The Harold of the pictures is a serious young man in tortoise-rimmed glasses. The Harold Lloyd of real life is a smiling youth who has a friendly grin on his face most of the time…He is, in fact, as different in looks as possible from his comedy appearance. People do not recognize him readily, meeting him for the first time. I heard him kidded unmercifully at a party one night.

“Do you think you’re Harold Lloyd?” somebody asked him. He rose to the occasion and turned the joke.

“Sh!” he exclaimed. “I’m pretending to be!”

He told her that he was able to use this to his advantage.

“At the theaters where his pictures are being shown, usually nobody recognizes Lloyd, and he talks to people about himself and many a time with a view to finding out what they think of his work—what they like and what they dislike about it. The system is a good one, judging from the results, as Lloyd is now one of the two or three at the very top comedians.

“Yes, lately I’ve been fortunate in what I have overheard about myself,” said Lloyd. “But when I was playing Lonesome Luke—well, I felt pretty lonesome sometimes on overhearing people’s remarks. I want to forget that phase of my career!”

Harold and Gaylord Lloyd

This was Kingsley’s only reference to how he did his work, other than a mention that he could be a bad dancer when he was too busy thinking up gags. Her article’s purpose was to tell about his personality, so she visited him at home where he lived with several members of his family, including his brother Gaylord, his sister-in-law Maye Belle Gates Lloyd and their newborn son Gaylord Harold. Kingsley said that his hobbies were solving puzzles and doing parlor magic, and he hated fishing, but he went along with his friends when they went. But what he really enjoyed doing was home renovation. She observed:

The Lloyd’s house is really homey to the last degree.  You might just expect this comedian to spend the last of his days there, judging from his enthusiasm about improving it, and the atmosphere of comfort it gives out.

Kingsley was premature in her predication: this house at 369 S. Hoover Street was just practice, and he didn’t start building his dream house, Greenacres, until 1926. You can read all about it on Mary Mallory’s blog.

His permanent Christmas tree

Nevertheless, Lloyd in 1922 was very much the person he continued to be. He always insisted on having a Christmas tree. “That’s partly because when he was a little fellow, the family, which had always had a tree, was too poor to purchase one. He wept himself to sleep. Ever since that time, no matter what happened, there was a Christmas tree in the house.” After he moved to Greenacres, he put up a permanent Christmas tree there. Lea Stans at Silent-ology wrote all about it.

Lloyd was able to make his real estate dream come true because he stayed at the top until sound came. His first feature, A Sailor Made Man, had opened in Los Angeles on January 1st and it set an attendance record in its seven weeks at the Symphony Theater of 78,500 ticket-buyers. The record was promptly broken in June by his second feature, Grandma’s Boy, with 85,000 attendees, and all the rest of his films were incredibly popular. To learn more about Lloyd, visit Annette D’Agostino Lloyd’s blog, Harold Lloyd dot US

“Raises his own Attendance Mark,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1922.

A Different English Comedian: January 1-15, 1922

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley briefly announced yet another new arrival:

Lupino Lane, the English comedian, who has been appearing in Afgar, has arrived in California. He will at once commence work as a filmer with Fox.

People just kept coming to Hollywood to try their luck, but Lane had more reason than most to think he’d be a success: his style of acrobatic comedy works well in silent film.  I think the reason Kingsley kept it so short was that Afgar didn’t play in Los Angeles, and only the most dedicated readers of New York-based papers would have heard of him. Exhibitors’ Herald gave their readers a better introduction:

With his original and screamingly funny pranks and acrobatic works he broke through the toughened shell of the blasé first-nighters and make them hold their sides in laughter…Lupino Lane was not a sudden find or a comedy genius discovered overnight. He was dedicated to his career as a funmaker at 3 years of age. In keeping with English and Continental tradition, he is descended from a long aristocracy of stage folk.  He is a member of the famous family of Lupino whose name was famous at old Covent Garden.

Lupino Lane deserves more attention now. According to Matthew Ross, who blogs at The Lost Laugh, “Lupino Lane was a unique and wonderful performer, for my money one of the most underrated silent comedians… To watch a Lupino Lane comedy is to see centuries of comedy expertise distilled with concision, into a small but perfectly formed package.”

Father and son in pantomime: Jack and Jill, 1907-8

Exhibitors’ Herald was correct that he came from a famous stage family; Henry George Lupino was born June 16, 1892 to Harry and Charlotte Lane Lupino and both sides of his family were noted actors and theater managers in Great Britain. However, he managed to wait until he was 4 years old to make his debut, not 3. He changed his name at the request of his aunt Sara Lane, who didn’t want her surname to die out. He was to work steadily in show business for the rest of his life.

By 1915 he’d become a stage star, and he realized his act would work well on film. He made several shorts independently in the U.K. for the O.G. Film Company with some theatrical friends, filming during the day and appearing on stage at night. Then Ideal Films hired him, and between 1917 and 1919 he made more shorts, sometimes co-staring his wife Violet Blythe whom he married in 1917. Picture Show magazine called his Clarence Crooks and Chivalry (1919) “frolicsome” and said, “some of the stunts in it are said to out-rival anything attempted by the great Charlie Chaplin himself.” *

In 1920, he and Blythe made their American debuts in the show Agfar, a musical comedy with a Moorish setting and gorgeous costumes. Its main draw was the first appearance in the United States of a French actress, Alice Delysia, who was hugely popular in London, but according to the review in the New York Times, Lane held his own:

Stunning Delysia, however, was obliged to share the honors of the evening with Lupino Lane, one of those Lupinos whose comedy and knockabout talents have so long provided the most amusing interludes of the London pantomimes. He is not of a style familiar on this side of the water; he is perhaps best comparable to Fred Stone. He has all of Stone’s comedy knack and a good deal of his acrobatic talent, if not his versatility. Last night his acrobatics definitely halted the show in the first act.

A representative from the Fox studio caught a performance, and William Fox gave him a contract. He arrived in Hollywood in January 1922 where he made three shorts and one feature all directed by John Blystone, who had been making two-reel comedies with stars like Chester Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Tom Mix since 1915 (now he’s most famous for co-directing Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923), plus 70 other silent and sound features).

Theodore Roberts played Little Lord Fauntleroy in the Hollywood Follies

While Lane was in Los Angeles, he had got to perform on stage with all sorts of actors in the Hollywood Follies. Put on by the Screen Writers’ Guild, the all-volunteer performance on April 22nd was just for fun, not for a noble fundraising cause. L.A. Times film editor Edwin Schallert reviewed the “good-natured burlesques on the films, the censors, California and other things” that played to a packed house and said:

The time, so the program informed us, was any day except Sunday; the place was Hollywood, and the rest you may guess if you like, but it won’t be as much fun as if you had actually seen the Writer’s Revue, which was staged under the auspices of the screen scribes by the stars of the picture firmament last night at the Philharmonic Auditorium. You missed a new thrill and a lot of entertainment if you didn’t.

The satires on current films included Dumbbell Wives and The Four Horsemen of the Apothecary. Schallert singled out Lane’s D’Artagnan in a Three Musketeers sketch as a highlight. The closing act was Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on the Nile in a sketch called Our Movie Queen; she “was accorded a tremendous ovation.”

Lane returned to the London stage before his movies were released. They got terrific reviews. The first one, The Reporter, came out on August 20th and Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News predicted he’d be as successful as Keaton and Clyde Cook. Furthermore:

The much advertised Lupino Lane and his first comedy will be accepted as clever entertainment everywhere. The English comedian has seemingly set a high standard for himself with his initial effort…Lane has something of Doug’s ability to execute stunts. He is not only a stunt artist, but he knows something about novel and up-to-date gags. One stunt, especially, will earn a big laugh. It shows Lane plodding along with a telegraph pole tied to his back and tumbling about the ground. His effort to adjust himself by pulling one leg over the other is good for a large guffaw anywhere.

Lane has arrived.

His second short, The Pirate, impressed Moving Picture World just as much:

Lupino Lane’s unique skill as a comedian scores again in this Fox release in two reels. As a minstrel in Venice he is a ragged romanticist, realizing the narrow line between pathos and humor, that always marks the work of the most successful comedian. He submits to a generous amount of ungentle treatment and gets some very ludicrous effects by contortionist stunts…This is an exceptionally good comedy.

Reviews for his third short, My Hero, haven’t been digitized yet

He also made a five-reel feature called A Friendly Husband. The plot involved Lane setting off on vacation with his wife in a travel trailer, and he manages to stay amiable even as their vacation is ruined by an assortment of her relatives joining them. Then he saves her from a gang of bandits. The movie came out in January 1923 and Exhibitors’ Trade Review anticipated great things for it:

Here is a comedy that should get over big in any place that it is shown. There are of course many of the laugh provoking stunts that have been used but also a wealth of new fun that is bound to please.

We imagine that there will be one continuous roar of laughter from the beginning to the end when this picture is shown to the public..Lupino Lane is a comedian of real worth and his ability to do this sort of thing is well displayed in this picture. He possesses every requirement of expression, acting before camera, and he is a clever acrobat.

A Friendly Husband (1923)

Both A Friendly Husband and The Pirate have been preserved at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

After such good reviews, there were plans for him to come back to Hollywood. In October 1922, Motion Picture News reported that he wrote from London and said he’d be back in January 1923 for more film work. Unfortunately, according to Glenn Mitchell in the booklet accompanying a Lane DVD, while they did well with test audiences, the Fox films didn’t make money so the studio didn’t renew his contract.

Despite this, Lane went on to a very successful career.  He continued to be a star on the London stage, and he signed a contract to make shorts for Educational Films in 1925 where he stayed for four years. He also appeared in several features including Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929). He left Hollywood for good in 1931 and made films in the U.K. throughout the 1930’s. He also co-produced two big hits on stage, Twenty to One and Me and My Girl; the latter’s success made him rich. It featured a dance number, “The Lambeth Walk,” which became a fad around the world.

 

The dance was so big that they called the 1939 film The Lambeth Walk, not Me and My Girl.

Lupino Lane died on November 10, 1959 in London.

I think Lane is due for a revival, just like Charlie Bowers got a few years ago. Matthew Ross is working on a biography of him, and David Glass and David Wyatt put together a DVD with some of Lane’s Educational shorts. Here’s a trailer for it:

 

*Surprisingly, Lane wasn’t often compared to Chaplin in reviews, even though they were both from the English music hall tradition. Perhaps it was because by the early 1920’s Chaplin had moved away from acrobatic comedy. In 1915 he did perform a Charlie Chaplin number called “That Charlie Chaplin Walk” in the show Watch Your Step at the Empire, London, in which he and 20 members of the chorus were made up like the movie star. Variety reported “it scored strongly.”

 

“Delysia Resplendent,” New York Times, November 9, 1920.

“Educational Head is Here for Conference,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1925.

“A Friendly Husband,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, January 20, 1923, p.425.

“Hollywood Follies Huge Local Premier,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1922.

“London’s Chaplin Number, Variety, September 15, 1915, p.4

“Lupino Lane Signed by Fox Film to Star in Two-Reel Special Comedies,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 7, 1922, p. 55.

“Lupino Lane Signs with Fox,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1923.

“Lupino on the Screen,” The Picture Show, January 17, 1920, p. 3.

Laurence Reid, “The Reporter,” Motion Picture News, October 28, 1922, p. 2185.

Edwin Schallert, “Film Revue Real Frolic,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1922.

“The Pirate,” Moving Picture World, October 7, 1922, p. 509.

“Studio and Player Brevities,” Motion Picture News, October 28, 1922, p. 2206.