A Melodramatic Love Life: Week of September 17th, 1921

Ruth Renick and Edward Hearn in The Fire Bride (1922). Hearn played a first mate, not a captain, but close enough

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley told a cute story about an actress who went on to have an even more eventful love life:

Going down to the South Sea Islands doesn’t seem to have taken a bit of pep out of Ruth Renick, who plays the leading feminine role in the Far East Production’s feature, The Lagoon of Desire, which is being made in Tahiti. Here’s an excerpt from her diary, which she sent me in lieu of a letter:

First day out: Sea rough, but am not seasick.

Second day: Gave the first-class passengers the once over and found them rather uninteresting.

Third day: Met the captain and found him exceedingly interesting.

Fourth day: Walked with the captain on the promenade deck. He wanted to kiss me, but nothing doing.

Fifth day: The captain swore that he would sink the ship if I refused to kiss him.

Sixth day: Saved a thousand lives.

What a brave act of self-sacrifice! I’m sure her fellow passengers were grateful.

Renick and the film crew had left for Tahiti in August, and they returned to Los Angeles in November. Their movie’s title was changed to The Fire Bride, and it told the story of American treasure hunters looking for gold on a South Sea island. When it came out in 1922, C.S. Sewell in Moving Picture World thought that the tropical scenery was striking and beautiful, but the story wasn’t always convincing, and the cast was merely satisfactory. It’s a lost film.

Ruth Renick

Even though the film wasn’t a big hit, Ruth Renick continued to work in both film and on stage. Born Ruth Griffith in Colorado City, Texas in 1893, she got her start as an actress in stock companies in the 1910’s. She became a film actress in 1919; her most remembered role was as Douglas Fairbanks’ leading lady in The Mollycoddle (1920).

Douglas Fairbanks and Ruth Renick, The Mollycoddle (1920)

She returned to the stage at the Fulton Theater in Oakland, and that’s where her personal life again got featured in the newspapers. In early 1924, her family got a telegram that she’d married one Wellington L. Belford. As the Newspaper Enterprise Association Service (January 15, 1922) reported,

He was a brilliant conversationalist, was clever with magic tricks and claimed to possess hypnotic powers. The romance was short and snappy. Marriage followed quickly. In fact, it happened so mysteriously that relatives of Miss Renick investigated.

It turned out that the wedding was mysterious because it wasn’t real. An Associated Press story (January 13, 1922) told what happened next:

Wellington L. Belford was arrested today in the honeymoon suite of a fashionable Oakland hotel as a result of information furnished by J.C. Walden, brother-in-law of Miss Ruth Renick, screen and vaudeville actress, who claims to be Belford’s bride. Belford, who is charged with impersonating an army officer, is quoted as saying he was not married.

Perth Amboy Evening News, February 4, 1924.

I thought that fake marriages only happened in fiction! Apparently, that wasn’t as much of a problem as impersonating an Army major. When a judge asked him why he was wearing an officer’s uniform, Belford said “It pleases my vanity.” He told the police that he was a screenwriter. He paid $500 bail and promptly disappeared, last seen “on the seat of a baggage truck which was taking his belongings from an expensive suite at the Hotel Oakland.” He had a good reason to leave: the police soon got a telegram from authorities in Detroit where he was wanted on a charge of embezzling $15,000. Then detectives in New York chimed in, with news that he was implicated in a bank swindle at New Rochelle.

The cops finally tracked him down in 1925, and they tricked him into crossing the Canadian border near Seattle where they promptly arrested him and sent him back to Detroit. There were no more newspaper stories about what happened next (except for one in 1928 that said the impersonating an officer charges were dismissed), but if the papers were correct and his name really was Martin Livingston Belfort, then by 1930 he was still in Detroit and working as a sales manager for a car company. In 1933 he married Anna Mae Pulver, a public school teacher, and they divorced in 1939. In 1940 he remained in Detroit, but he’d opened his own insurance agency. He died on September 26, 1968.

Newspapers mentioned that Renick tried to annul the marriage, but the courts told her they couldn’t annul something that didn’t happen. Renick got through the public embarrassment and continued to act on stage and in film. She married James F. Lee Jr., a newspaper reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner, on June 25, 1936 and she died on May 7, 1984 in Los Angeles, where she’s buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetary.

“Belford May Be Wanted in Detroit; Girl’s Mother Comes,” Santa Cruz Evening News, January 14, 1924.

The Fire Bride,” Moving Picture World, March 25, 1922, p.404.

“Hypnotism—Or Wedding?” Perth Amboy Evening News, February 4, 1924.

“’Love Pirate’ Gets Case Dismissed,” San Francisco Examiner, September 16, 1928.

“Maj. Bedford Arrested in Oakland, Cal.” Marshall Evening Chronicle, January 15, 1924.

“’Major’ Belford is Wanted in Swindle,” Los Angeles Daily News, January 15, 1924.

“Number Seek Bogus Major,” San Bernardino Sun, January 16, 1924.

“Police Intrude on Unlicensed Honeymoon and ‘Groom’ Jailed,” Humboldt Times, January 13, 1924.

‘A Jitney Jury:’ Week of September 10th, 1921

Virginia Rappe

One hundred years ago this week, a tragedy occurred that still has writers like James Reidel and Popegrutch trying to figure out exactly what happened. Grace Kingsley didn’t offer her opinion about what went on, but she was there to describe some of what people in Hollywood had to say about it:

The Los Angeles motion-picture colony is stirred as never before in its somewhat lively history by the sensational Arbuckle-Rappe case and the indictment of Roscoe Arbuckle on the charge of manslaughter. There’s a jitney jury on every studio set, sitting out the death watch. Groups of picture players gather about at every pause in the film work to discuss developments in the case. Opinions and sympathies are as diverse as the four quarters of the earth regarding the truth of the charges made against Arbuckle and concerning the outcome of his probably trial.

Some paint Arbuckle as a behalo’d saint. Others are busy all day hacking his monogram.

Buster Keaton

Gloom so thick you can cut it with a knife has gathered over most of the picture folk, especially in studios where Arbuckle is intimately known. Buster Keaton’s studio suspended work for two days following the arrest of the comedian. Mr. Keaton was one of Arbuckle’s comedians before he branched out as a star on his own.

“We just couldn’t work,” said Buster with a real choke in his voice and tears in his eyes. To those who know Buster this rare show of feeling reveals how deep his emotions in this matter really are.

At the Lasky studio, where Arbuckle was so well known and so well liked, and at the Realart studio, the crepe stuff is simply gumming up the breezes. Comedians are playing their scenes with the muffler on; leading ladies in sob stories find it very easy to weep. Every edition of the papers is brought to the studios, and a running fire of explosive comment accompanies the reading of each fresh page, along with the murmured obbligato of independent conjecture and gossip.

Wallace Reid — his death due to morphine addiction in 1923 caused another scandal

Not everybody wanted to be part of that jitney jury: some just wanted the subject to go away. At a party at Wallace Reid’s house, they tried to chat and play billiards, “but there was an indefinable sadness over everybody. Somebody said something about how dreadful it all was, and Mr. Reid turned quickly. ‘We aren’t talking about that,’ he remonstrated sharply.”

Like Kingsley, I don’t have a useful opinion to add to the enormous pile of stuff already written about the case. Gilbert King wrote an even-handed summary of it for the Smithsonian Magazine, if you want an overview. 

April 15, 1922

However, I did learn how eager some filmgoers were to forgive Arbuckle after he was acquitted at his third trial on Wednesday, April 12, 1922. His movie Gasoline Gus had been withdrawn from the Million Dollar Theater on the same day that the first newspaper reports appeared that linked Arbuckle to Rappe’s death (September 10, 1921), and the film was returned to the screen nearly as quickly after the acquittal. It opened at the New Garrick Theater on April 15th, 1922 and Kingsley’s report and review appeared on the 17th. She mentioned that he was back in Los Angeles, then said:

Fatty’s celluloid double came back in Gasoline Gus, too, at the Garrick, and was greeted by crowds, who cheered and applauded him, both Saturday and yesterday.

If the comedian had arranged a professional come-back himself, he couldn’t have stage-managed the job as Fate did it for him. For the audiences weren’t professional audiences who greeted him, but the fans who have waited all this time for another booming laugh, such as only Fatty and a few others can give them. And they cheered his first appearance on the screen and applauded when the picture was finished and laughed in between.

Gasoline Gus is perhaps the best picture which Fatty Arbuckle ever made. In it he has returned to his old jazz comedy, the comedy of whimsical gags, of funny falls and of his own peculiar style of romping through the picture. Yet there is pathos, too, and there is a lot of thrilling suspense and action. It was showing at Grauman’s and was taken off when Arbuckle was arrested.

April 16, 1922

So it seemed like audiences were ready to go to his movies. On April 17th, the Times reported that Paramount studio president Adolph Zukor had wired the West Coast studio that they would immediately release three pictures that Arbuckle had already finished for them, Gasoline Gus, Freight Prepaid and Leap Year.  Zukor said, “We are confident the American public is eminently fair and realize by this time that Arbuckle has been the victim of unfortunate circumstances.”

However, on April 18th, Will Hays, in his first act as the head of the brand-new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors organization, officially banned Arbuckle from appearing on the screen. Bert Lennon, the publicity director at the New Garrick Theater, told the Times that they would abide by his decision. They replaced Gasoline Gus with a Cecil B. De Mille comedy, Saturday Night, which had run earlier that year. Hays changed his mind eight months later, but by then it was too late, and Arbuckle never had the same success as a film actor. Needing work, he returned to touring in vaudeville and directing films.

“Arbuckle Film Withdrawn,” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1921.

“Ban Put on Arbuckle,” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1922.

“Fatty Has Three Releases,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1922.

“Mystery Death Takes Actress,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1921.

Edwin Schallert, “Reviews,” Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1921.

A Cheerful Home: Week of September 3rd, 1921

The Hollywood Studio Club on Carlos Ave.

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley told readers that young aspiring actresses weren’t always victims of leering studio bosses, if they lived at the Hollywood Studio Club:

“Oh, what a beautiful, big, cheerful home,” I had exclaimed an hour earlier, as we rounded a corner of Carlos Street, out in Hollywood, when there burst on my view a big colonial house, its windows all alight, while the sound of cheerful voices floated out to me from all the windows.

The club is for all the world like a college girls’ sorority.

Fundraising for the HSC

The article’s purpose wasn’t only to reassure the public that women in Hollywood could live in a clean, affordable, and chaperoned place, they were also starting a fundraising drive to build another dormitory to house “young girls who came in crowds to the city, seeking work in pictures.” Kingsley thought it was a worthwhile project, and said:

Let those who rail against the motion-picture business take a peep at this home. Then let them stop howling for a moment, while they dig down in their jeans to help the cause, focusing their minds carefully, meanwhile, on the hardships and trials of these girls, with their earnest ambitions, their struggles, their determination to keep their lives wholesome and straight at any cost.

At least the industry acknowledged that there was a problem of skeevy men preying on vulnerable women, and they helped fund the Club. The Hollywood Studio Club was founded in 1916 by a librarian, Eleanor Jones, who had noticed aspiring actresses forming a play-reading club at the Hollywood Branch library. She was worried about their safety, so she asked the YWCA to help start a place for them to gather. She went on to get donations from studios and businesses, and they rented that house on Carlos Avenue with enough space for 20 women to live.

The fundraising efforts that Kingsley wrote about took awhile, but in 1926, they built a larger building on Lodi Place, designed by architect Julia Morgan. It could house 88 women. Open to any woman who was looking for a career in motion pictures, they offered two meals a day, performing arts classes, job bulletin boards and rehearsal rooms. Residents were limited to living there for 3 years.

The second Hollywood Studio Club

The HSC provided a home for thousands of women over the decades, but by the mid-1960’s ideas about women being able to look after themselves had changed and it began to lose money. It closed in 1975. Since 2018 it’s been crisis housing for women, run by the city of Los Angeles.

A few of the women who lived there did succeed in the movie business, including ZaSu Pitts, Janet Gaynor, Linda Darnell, Marilyn Monroe, and Rita Moreno, but most did not, including the woman Kingsley chose as a sample resident, Ethel Kaye. Here’s her story:

One day she sat looking about her apartment. It wasn’t a bit of trouble to see it all from where she sat. And from that vantage point she saw also that her cupboard resembled Old Mother Hubbard’s in the painful particular in the childish classic. She shook her purse, and no cheerful jingle proceeded therefrom. Just then (even at the risk of having this sound like a melodrama, I’ve got to tell the truth), in came the landlady with the usual conversation about the rent. So she’d have to leave. And she didn’t have money enough to buy her dinner!

But at that very moment, the telephone rang, knocking in the head the usual take-your-trunk-and-get-out business.

“Come on over to the Studio Club, dearie!” came a voice over the wire. “We’ve got a room for you now!” Never was message so sweet to a girl’s ears. The girl went over to the Hollywood Studio clubhouse and was met at the door by Miss [Marion] Hunter.

“Do—do I have to pay in advance?” she asked in trembling tones.

“Come in, my dear! Of course not! You may wait until you get work.”

That really happened, and the girls was a picture actress who is well on her way to fame now. Her name is Ethel Kaye. She has just been engaged to play the lead in the Goldwyn feature, Hungry Hearts.

“And I could never have held on,” explained Miss Kaye to me, “if it hadn’t been for the Studio Club.”

Kingsley didn’t know it, but Ethel Kaye was an excellent example, because like so many women who lived at the Studio Club, she didn’t become a star. After small roles in The New Moon (1919) and a serial called Trailed By Three (1920) in New York, she came to California where she had another small part in Heroes and Husbands (1922). Then she had that big break Kingsley mentioned, which she had announced a few days earlier:

Another young genius has been discovered by Samuel Goldwyn, who is doing a vast lot of Columbusing these days. She is Ethel Kaye, a very beautiful young girl, a Russian, and she is to play the leading role in Anzia Yezierska’s Hungry Hearts, when that picture goes into production soon…Singularly enough Miss Kaye has undergone some of the difficulties, hardships and some of the spectacular adventures as well, which she will portray on the screen, and which the author herself suffered.

The stuff about her adventures and being from Russian herself was probably nonsense; she told the 1930 census taker she was born in New York to parents from New York and Connecticut. Sadly, just as she thought her career was turning around, she got sick and was replaced as the lead in Hungry Hearts by Helen Ferguson. Kaye didn’t appear in any more movie credits after that. The following year she decided to give up and return to New York, where she married a dentist, James Henegan. Nevertheless, the Hollywood Studio Club did exactly what it was supposed to do for her: gave her a safe place to live until she realized her dreams of stardom weren’t going to happen. She didn’t become a cautionary tale for other young women.

Hungry Hearts with Helen Ferguson and Bryant Washburn

Ironically, the Studio Club article appeared in the paper during the same Labor Day weekend that Virginia Rappe went to a party in Roscoe Arbuckle’s hotel room in San Francisco, and people are still discussing what happened there. Kingsley’s stories about that will start next week.

If you’d like to learn more about the Hollywood Studio Club, Mary Mallory has blogged about it and Cari Beauchamp wrote an article for Vanity Fair.

“Ethel Kay to Flit,” Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1922.

“Goldwyn Studio Activities,” Motion Picture News, October 22, 1921, p.2179.

In just a few weeks, it will be National Silent Movie Day! If you’d like to contribute a blog post, visit Silent-ology or In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for more information.

Not Enough Tiger Bites: Week of August 6th, 1921


Now all that’s left are the posters. You can find reprints for sale online

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had some unrealistic expectations when she visited a theater:

The Symphony is still jungling but if you go down there expecting to see in Miracles of the Jungle anything of the miracles of natural history, you’ll be disappointed. There’s darned little nature, except as revealed in naked forms, and no history natural or otherwise. The miracles are like unto the ancient serial ones, disclosed in The Perils of Pauline, the Cuttings of Kathleen, and such-like film literature of ancient vintage.

In short, it’s all pretty much like the naïve blood-and-thunder stuff that Penrod used to write, out in the old barn. There are buryings alive, poisoned bathing suits, and such-like cheerful carryings on, with the hero and heroine always escaping just in time to kick old man Death in the eye. The king-pin miracle man is the death-proof Zeda, who is another Maciste in his ability to break down doors and smash chains.

They’re a funny lot, those characters in serials, aren’t they? They never seem to learn anything. They may be gagged and bound and carried off and dropped down wells a hundred times, and the next time anybody whistles down an alley, there they are all ready and fresh for a new adventure. I suppose they’d think it was awfully dull if they weren’t nearly drowned or burned or hanged several times each day.

In the present Book of Jungle Miracles, the chief aim and ambition of everybody seems to be to get the lions and tigers to bite somebody. But they never do it. Even when the animals have the best chance in the world, they don’t do it. I guess maybe the play didn’t fool them either.

Grace Kingsley had had enough! She really shouldn’t have expected a documentary: the ads made it clear that it wasn’t educational. The L.A. Times rarely reviewed shorter films, but the Symphony was showing six to eight reels each week of the thirty-reel serial as a feature. Maybe serials are better in smaller doses, and eight reels at one sitting are just too much.

She didn’t bother to catch the actors’ names, but that was just as well, because she didn’t think much of them:

There’s a fat, musical comedy king, and there’s a vamp in modish jungle attire, viz, a couple of tiger skins torn in all the becoming places, there’s giant Zeda, who wears only an inadequate little curtain and a heroine in khaki. There’s also a mad prince. I should think he would be mad, the way people leave him in the lurch and lose themselves in jungles.

Well, one thing you can say for the Miracles, there are no dull moments. Either Zeda is chewing up a tree, the tiger is taking a peek at the human menu, or the heroine is finding something new to fall off of or into.

No dull moments—what else do you want from a movie in the middle of August? I bet her negative review sold some tickets. Other reviewers who went in expecting a serial hated it much less than she did. C.S. Sewell in Moving Picture World wrote, “Judging from the first three episodes, the thrills are of such quality and quantity as to satisfy the most exacting serial fans… the action deals with two secret service men who are sent from America to find a man in Africa who is suspected of murder.” Exhibitors’ Herald had equally realistic expectations, and said: “the first three episodes of this serial indicate that it stands out above the usual wild animal serial. The story is more or less plausible, and the thrills are very well directed.”

The man responsible for directing it well was Edgar Allen Martin. A former stage actor, he began in the film industry as a writer for Selig in 1911, and he became a director there in 1913, beginning with one-reel dramas like Her Stepmother (1913). In 1914 he started mostly specializing in shorts that featured animals, like The Lion Hunter (1914) and Perils of the Jungle (1915). In 1920 he made his first serial The Lost City, and they made Miracles of the Jungle to capitalize on its success. Unfortunately, it was his last film. In October, Selig announced plans to make another jungle serial, but it never got made. After working with William Selig for his whole movie career, in December 1921 Martin took him to court to recover $18,950 he said he was owed. There was no further news about it in paper, so they might have settled. Martin died in 1926.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that they lied in some of the publicity material. Miracles was shot in darkest Edendale, not Africa, and it was a showcase for the animals of the Selig Zoo. Mary Mallory has written about its history; they tried to make it a theme park but that didn’t work out.

Grace Kingsley’s vacation didn’t come a moment too soon. She took the next few weeks off, and so will the blog. Enjoy your August!

 

“Jungle Film’s Second Book at Symphony,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1921.

“New Selig Animal Jungle Serial,” Motion Picture News, October 8, 1921, p. 1893.

“Open Trial of Suit Against Producer,” Los Angeles Herald, December 1, 1921.

“Reviews,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 30, 1921, p. 64.

C.S. Sewell, “Miracles of the Jungle,” Moving Picture World, April 23, 1921, p. 881.

“Some Unusual Jungle Heroes at Symphony,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1921.

Getting Ahead of a Problem: Week of July 30th, 1921

Editing Foolsih Wives

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a film executive who did his best to anticipate trouble:

It is estimated at Universal City that Foolish Wives, the $1,000,000 super-feature, will be released early in October. Erich von Stroheim, who directed it, is now making the first screen cut. It will be ready for its preview on the 15th when censors will arrive at Universal City from all over the country to view the production, and confer with Irving G. Thalberg, general manager, at Universal, as to whether Foolish Wives needs the scissors in spots, or whether it may be shown just as it stands.

Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg was good at his job. Only 22 years old, it’s no wonder he’d been promoted so quickly at Universal. There was plenty in his studio’s million-dollar investment to horrify censors; von Stroheim’s story of a con artist who seduces and swindles rich women in Monte Carlo featured lechery, adultery, gambling, murder, arson, suicide, plus abuse of a mentally disabled girl. Von Stroheim made sure that his villain was utterly villainous! So Thalberg planned a week-long junket to flatter a collection of censors. The Los Angeles Times reported on his program:

Members of the official censor boards of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and of the cities of Detroit and Kansas City, assembled in Chicago as guests of Carl Laemmle of the Universal Film Company, will leave today for Los Angeles.

The party will arrive in Los Angeles at 2:40 p.m. Sunday, August 14, over the Santa Fe. Harry M. Berman, general sales manager of Universal, will be in charge of the delegation.

After a brief reception at the station at which Mr. Thalberg will welcome the members of the commission to Southern California on behalf of Carl Laemmle, the party will be motored to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Stanley Anderson, managing director of the hostelry, will participate in entertaining them. Following a dinner at the hotel, the censors will receive Los Angeles newspaper writers, representatives of the motion-picture trade publications and correspondents of news services.

Festivities during the first day of the censors’ stay include a luncheon at the studio, a tour of Universal City, a trip to Santa Monica, sea bathing and a barbecue. In the evening the members will be the guests of the Emanuel Presbyterian Brotherhood at a meeting of particular interest to those concerned in censorship.

Tuesday will be devoted to a personally conducted tour of other picture studios, where the censors may see for themselves just how things are done, and to a luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel, followed by a motor trip through Pasadena.

As by this time the censors should be in high, good humor, they are to experience the “great moment” of their visit. They’re going to be allowed to take a peek at Eric von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives.

Wednesday will be a gala day. The guests will be conveyed to Universal city early in the morning for an animal circus at the Universal City arena. A.C. Stecker, chief animal trainer, will put on a thrilling animal act. On the same day the censors will meet such celebrities as Priscilla Dean, Harry Carey, Gladys Walton, Frank Mayo, Eddie Polo, Marie Prevost, Art Acord, Eileen Sedgwick, Lee Moran, Bert Roach and the battalion of noted Universal directors.

This event will lead up logically to the entertainment at Sunset Inn of the noted guests, with no less seductive a person than Priscilla Dean as hostess. And just as if this weren’t enough merriment for one week, the censors will be the guests next day of Harry Carey at his western ranch.

Once more Foolish Wives will be shown the censors, this event happening on Thursday evening, when the guests will be asked to comment on the picture. Eric von Stroheim will be present, too, and will make a little talk.

If there is anything in the picture’ the censors don’t like, it is likely to be forgotten next day, when they will be taken on a trip to Catalina Island, where they will be the guests of William Wrigley, Jr., and Sunday will be devoted to religious services according to the preference of the visitors.

They kept them busy! Thalberg’s wining and dining of the censors worked, at first (no wonder people called him the Boy Genius). According to Motion Picture News, by the end of their trip the censors gave Foolish Wives their official approval; after seeing a 24-reel version of it they

were sincere in their praise and but a few minor changes were suggested. “The consensus of our opinion,” said Harry Knapp, who acted as chairman of the censors in their convention, and who is also chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors, “is that the picture will prove a highly interesting entertainment when it is finally shipped into the more contracted shape required for public exhibition.

What happened next was beyond Thalberg’s control. Over the following weekend the events leading to the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal happened, and he was arrested on September 17th. Public opinion turned against the perceived corrupting influence of Hollywood. Thalberg responded by ordering extensive editing of Foolish Wives, which delayed its release.

By the end of November, Exhibitors Herald reported that von Stroheim was off the project. They thought that it was at his own request: “After having attempted for several months to get the world’s most expensive motion picture production cut down to exhibition length, Eric von Stroheim has given up the task. Either that of General Manager Irving Thalberg of Universal has taken it away from von Stroheim—probably the former.”

Foolish Wives premiered in New York in January 1922, and the controversy didn’t hurt it a bit. On January 14th, Kingsley reported:

Now that von Stroheim’s great feature picture, Foolish Wives, has made a sensational hit in New York, as—according to a telegram received yesterday by Irving G. Thalberg, from President Carl Laemmle—it has, Universal officials are drawing a long breath, and are preparing for the biggest invasion of the field of picture are which Universal has ever known.

However, the New York State Censorship Board demanded more cuts even after it opened. According to von Stroheim’s biographer, Richard Koszarski, another 3500 feet were eliminated; “audiences attending New York’s Central Theater during January 1922 could watch the film wasting away, literally day by day, until it had lost a full hour.”

It opened in Los Angeles in that ten-reel version a month later on February 15th. Kingsley’s boss Edwin Schallert reviewed it, and had a mixed reaction: “There is much, nay a tremendous lot, to admire in settings, acting and photography. There is a great deal, on the other hand, to find fault with in the matter of continuity, drama, and theme. This much is certain, however, that Foolish Wives is utterly different from anything that has come to the silver screen. There is nothing commonplace or trite about its manner or its method.”

It stayed at the Mission Theater until the end of March; they estimated over 100,000 people saw it at that one theater alone.

Now it’s a considered a classic. In 2008, it was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry. People still write about it, and it has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes!

 

Jay Balfour, “Von Stroheim Gives Up Task of Cutting Special,” Exhibitors Herald, November 26, 1921, p.36.

Harry Hammond Beall, “Personality of Film Folks has Conquered Censors,” Exhibitors Herald, September 3, 1921, p. 32.

“Censors Approve of Foolish Wives,” Motion Picture News, September 3, 1921, p.1195.

“Censors Enjoy Varied Views of Studioland,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1921.

“Censors Pleased with Foolish Wives; Few Suggestions of Eliminations Made. Moving Picture World, September 3, 1921, p. 52.

“Censors Show Their Talents in Acting,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1921.

“Film Censors Coming Here,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

“Foolish Wives is to Close Tuesday,” Los Angeles Times, March 26, 1921.

Grace Kingsley,” Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1921.

Richard Kosazrski, Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim, New York: Limelight, 2004.

Edwin Schallert, “Foolish Wives Haut Realism,” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1921.

Summer Doldrums: Week of July 23rd, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, movie news was stuck in the late July doldrums and Grace Kingsley was at her desk, reporting on other people’s plans to get out of town. Actress Ruth Renick was off to Montecito and Virginia Valli was touring Southern California in her car. Among the directors, Frank Lloyd was sailing to Hawaii for a month, and Rex Ingram was mapping out of tour of Europe, where he planned to make movies.

Yikes! If Ingram hadn’t gone to Europe, we might not have I Know Where I’m Going — director Michael Powell had his first film experience on the set of Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1926) in Nice, France

Kingsley didn’t just have to write about other people’s fun, the movies she had to review weren’t particularly good. Little Italy was “a sort of jitney Romeo and Juliet with two American-born young Italians of rival families.” However, the film begins with their wedding, and she thought there wasn’t a good reason for the feud to continue. Eventually a baby solves everything. Kingsley observed “how many a suffering scenario writer, up a stump as to finishing a story, has been found with child, and all was sweetness and light!”

She also sat through Raoul Walsh’s The Oath, which to her was “another fine superstructure built on sand. Built so that it topples at a comic and absurd angle, just when it should be most compelling.” This one was about a Jewish girl who marries a gentile boy, but it descended into melodrama when the boy is suspected of murdering his father and the girl “goes around tearing her hair and beating her breast for no reason whatever, except to spin the yarn out to five reels, and at the end she goes and stands on a rock like a bathing beauty, waiting to suicide.”

The stills from The Fighting Lover that Moving Picture World ran are a little dark.

Finally, she endured The Fighting Lover, a mystery involving diamond theft starring Frank Mayo that had a real problem: “The scenes are always so very dark that you haven’t an idea of what is happening.”

Matters were so dire, that she was reduced to complaining about the stuff publicists were pitching her:

Whatever would the poor publicity men do nowadays without the stories concerning—

* The faithful old gate man who didn’t know the picture producer on his own lot, and tried to put him off, but was so much appreciated that he got promoted to being inside doorman?

* The joke about “stills” and prohibition?

* The heroine rescuing the heavy man from a watery grave?

* The crowd not knowing it was a picture being taken, etc., etc.

* The father that found his long lost when he sighted her working as an extra in a picture?

* Not to mention the young ladies who get lost and wander away into the brush?

Luckily, Kingsley had only two more weeks until her vacation began.

I hope your summer is more fun than hers was!

They had a lot to correct: Week of July 16th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the set of the first commercially released feature film made by Chinese-Americans.* She reported that the production company was named Wah Ming Motion Picture Company and they were headquartered in Boyle Heights. Their movie was called The Lotus Blossom and it was based on a Chinese fable, “The Soul of the Great Bell,” which told the story of a bronze bell whose making required a virgin sacrifice. They had been working on it for three months and were almost done. The production cost around $100,000 and they already had a distributor lined up, the National Exhibitors’ organization.

They had high hopes for their film. The star, Lady Tsen-Mei, told Kingsley, “I want to make the world see that Chinese people are as artistic, as intelligent, as capable of accomplishment as any nation in the world.” The supervising director and scriptwriter, Leong But Jung, also wanted to educate audiences, saying, “you see, we can appeal to the whole world for China through the pictures. Therefore, we are carefully maintaining a balance. We are making them according to universal appeal, full of feeling and action, and yet we are remaining true to Chinese history and tradition.”

Unfortunately, the drawings that illustrated Kingsley’s piece as well as some of the rest of the article demonstrated exactly why they needed to inform the public. Robert Day’s cartoons were straight-up racist, with pidgin English and captions like “most people think the Chinese are tongmen or laundrymen.” Kingsley at least admitted to embarrassment for assuming Lady Tsen Mei didn’t speak English and asking a companion if “the dear little heathen’s daddy wears a pig-tail” right in front of her. The star quickly interrupted, “displaying utter savoir-faire in not permitting me to further entangle myself,” and Kingsley was able to recover and chat about the project. The actress must have gotten a lot of practice fending off ignorant remarks.

Lady Tsen-Mei

Lady Tsen-Mei told Kingsley some untruths about herself; she said she was born in Canton to a noble family and came to the United States when she was three. After graduating from the law school at Columbia University she went into vaudeville. She was actually born in Philadelphia in 1888, and her name was Josephine Moy. She didn’t get to attend college, but she did go into vaudeville as a singer and actress in 1915. In 1918, she starred in a film for the Betzwood Film Company, For the Freedom of the East. After The Lotus Blossom, she went back to vaudeville. She was in one more film, The Letter (1929). If you’d like to learn more, Ramona Curry is working on a biography about her.

At the premier, actresses Bessie Wong and Anna May Wong were among the people who greeted the audience.

The Lotus Blossom premiered in Los Angeles in November 1921. The L.A. Times main critic, Edwin Schallert, admired it, writing “it contains much of the beauty which is associated with the Far East of high imagining. It doesn’t flinch, either, at an unhappy ending, although there is an epilogue which shows the lovers, who have been separated by death, reunited as shadows. Except for some abruptness in the approach to the climax, the story is a very interesting and a truly appealing one. It is told with a fine sympathy for the leading characters.”

The Lotus Blossom only ran for a week on Los Angeles, but it did get distributed nationally, on a state’s rights basis.

1919 trade ad. Before he made The Lotus Blossom, he was a technical advisor.

To coincide with the film opening, Kingsley interviewed Leong But Jung, who had anglicized his name to James B. Leong. He had dissolved the Wah Ming Company and founded the Chung Wah Motion Picture Company. He was planning to make four films per year, and the first was to be called The Bond of Matrimony. Set in Korea, he said it would illustrate ancestor worship. Eventually he hoped to start a studio in China. Unfortunately, the company disappeared after that. Leong became a character actor in Hollywood. In 1930, he re-named his film Daughter of Heaven and it played at the Filmarte Theater in Los Angeles. A fragment has been preserved at the UCLA and can be seen on the More Treasures from American Film Archives DVD.

If you’d like to learn more, Rudy Martinez, a member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board, wrote a well-researched three-part blog series about the film.

* In 1917, Marian Wong made the first Chinese American film in Oakland, California, a six-reel feature called The Curse of Quon Gwon, but it didn’t get commercial distribution. You can read more about it at the Women Film Pioneers site. 

Kicking Up their Heels: Week of July 9th, 1921

Cocoanut Grove

One hundred years ago this week, an estimated 100,000 Elks invaded Los Angeles (population 576,573 in 1920) for their annual Grand Lodge Reunion, aka convention. According to Grace Kingsley, they were everywhere. Of course, they sampled the local night life, and she reported:

The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador is a lively little jungle these days, with the Elks and picture stars foregathering there every night for a little stepping, with tonight the night of the grand ball.

Buster Keaton unselfishly introduced his bride, Natalie Talmadge, to no less than twenty-five admiring Elks. One of these Elks, by the way, insisted on dancing with Natalie three times in succession. Evidently he hadn’t caught her name when introduced, and he didn’t know she was married. He was an energetic stepper, a trifle stout, and between steps he managed to remark “Wish I might call to see you some day!” “We’d be pleased to see you,” answered Natalie demurely, and that seemed to be all there was going to be of the incident for the time being. But when they stopped dancing the Elk managed to whisper to Keaton:

“She’s a peach. I like her.”

“She is,” acquiesced Buster. “So do I.”

“Let’s call on her,” suggested the Elk.

“All right,” said Buster.

And isn’t that Elk going to be surprised.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge

Keaton and Talmadge had just been married on May 31st, and plainly at that point no Elk would come between them. What’s remarkable now is that movie stars could go out in public without worrying about their safety.

Mary Newcomb

Kingsley had another tale of an Elk getting swatted down. Mary Newcomb, who was playing a journalist on stage in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath at the Majestic, got a mash note from a man in the audience:

Dear Miss, I’m a poor lonely Elk, wandering the wilderness of Los Angeles and scared every minute of being shot or, anyway, half shot. I think you’re the cutest girl I ever saw on stage. Will you take supper with me this evening?

Somehow, that invitation did not tempt her, and she graciously declined.

The Elks were a bunch of party animals! The convention lasted five days, with events held in different, far-flung locations* each day. Monday was Redondo Beach Day, and the Los Angeles Herald reported, “The Elks took a flying start yesterday on their week of festivities and landed in Redondo Beach with such a wallop that the earth vibrations will not cease for many days to come.” Tens of thousands of them turned up in the small town. In the morning, they gathered at the local Elks clubhouse for a reception and barbeque. Many lodges had their own band, and they played under every tree. Elks went for a swim and visited the boardwalk, and “the streets throbbed with their shouts of greeting and their laughter.” They held swimming and diving competitions. At 4 o’clock, they had a Marine Fashion Review, which was a parade with 85 women in bathing suits riding in cars followed by Elk marching bands and drill teams from Michigan, Texas, Colorado, California, and Washington. From 5 to 7 o’clock the bands went back to performing throughout Redondo Beach, and at 8 o’clock they held a dance. The fireworks were at 9:30, and the day ended with a midnight “girlie” show (no other details were given in the family newspaper about that event).

There weren’t enough hotels to hold them all, so some Elks camped out in Exposition Park. Here are Mr. and Mrs. William Sparks and their tent.

Tuesday was Santa Monica’s turn, and on Wednesday they were in Inglewood, Thursday in Long Beach and Friday in Pasadena. No one place could withstand the invasion for too long!  Exposition Park also hosted drill and band competitions and barbeques, and the city closed the streets of downtown several times for parades, including an evening electrical parade put on by the movie studios. The local newspapers helpfully published the program, so locals could observe or avoid the proceedings as they chose.

The new Grand Exalted Ruler, W.W. Mountain 

A little club business did get done; on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings they had meetings at the Philharmonic Theater in downtown L.A., where they elected W.W. Mountain their new Grand Exalted Ruler (the president) and the rest of their leadership, and they picked a place for next year’s convention, Atlantic City. However, the Herald reported: “meanwhile the 100,000 or more Elks and their friends and families who are guests of Los Angeles were kicking up their heels at the beaches and other Southern California amusement centers. They eschewed business worries, leaving such affairs to the officials of the lodge, who are supposed to look after these things.”

 

Busch Gardens, 1921

They also made the tourist rounds, with sightseeing trips to the movie studios, boat trips to Catalina, and a visit to Busch Gardens.

By all reports, the convention went smoothly, and everyone had a pretty good time. As Kingsley observed, “how the Elks will ever be able to go back to their humdrum lives now, I don’t see.” But afterwards, I bet the locals were happy to have a little humdrum back in their town.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was staying true to its founding principles: it got its start in 1868 as a social club for minstrel show performers called the Jolly Corks. As a private club, they didn’t have to obey tavern opening laws. As their web site now emphasizes, the group raises money for worthy charities, veterans, and college scholarships, in addition to socializing. However, for a long time the organization left a lot of people out; black men couldn’t join until 1973 and women weren’t allowed in until 1995 (though there were unofficial ladies’ auxiliaries). Atheists and anyone not an American citizen are still excluded.

*The whole convention was an amazing logistical feat. Redondo Beach is about 24.5 miles Southwest of downtown L.A., Santa Monica is 15.5 miles West, Inglewood 17.5 miles Southwest, Long Beach 24.5 miles Southwest and Pasadena is 9 miles North. Tens of thousands of Elks got around the city by the Pacific Electric Railway. Even though our public transportation has improved a bit lately, I don’t think it could be done today.

Jake Berman made this much easier to read map in 2018

Girls Will Be Boys: Week of July 2nd, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noticed a worrying trend in movie-going:

Is it going to be the fashion this summer in our picture houses to present vaudeville acts and musical numbers which shall overtop the film features? It begins to look that way.

The California is stepping right out this week with a vaudeville star in the person of Kathleen Clifford, who sings the same sort of daintily spicy little songs, and dances the dainty dances which she gave us at the Orpheum a few seasons ago. Miss Clifford is a rare little artist in her own field, in fact there’s no one quite like her, and the applause she received yesterday must have gratified her. Her songs are the piquantly naughty “She Took Mother’s Advice” and “It Can’t Be Done in Crinoline,” with costumes to match.

Kathleen Clifford, 1920

Kathleen Clifford had been on the stage for nearly two decades, often in a kind of act I’d never read about before: she was a male impersonator. While Kingsley had written about female impersonators like George Peduzzi and the young women who sometimes played boys in films, like Shirley Mason in Treasure Island, I hadn’t known that there were several successful male impersonators in vaudeville; so many that a book has been written about them, Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage by Gillian M Rodger.

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1887, Kathleen Clifford started out in a Broadway chorus in 1902, and was promoted to supporting player in musical comedies in 1903. She moved into vaudeville in 1909, when she introduced her solo act in which she played both male and female characters. She was billed as “The Smartest Chap in Town,” and she sang comic songs and danced. When she played the Orpheum in June 1918, Kingsley’s review said, “one of the big hits of the year was scored by Kathleen Clifford, the pocket Venus, with her daintiness and vivacity, her piquant comedy and her “chappie” songs.”

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

In 1917 Paramount Studio hired her to make a serial called Who Is Number One, in which she played a boy. She alternated between movies and the stage for the rest of her show business career, appearing as a woman in When the Clouds Roll By (1919) with Douglas Fairbanks, Kick In (1922) and The Love Gamble (1925), and both a boy and a girl in Grandpa’s Girl(1924) for Christie Studio. In 1926 she married Miomir Peter Illith, a vice president of the United California Bank, and retired a few years later.

Outshining the feature that day might not have done her career a favor, because she was its leading lady. Then again, it sounds like she couldn’t have saved it: even kindly Kingsley thought it stunk:

They’re certainly digging deep down into grandpa’s barrel of best sellers in Boyhood Blood-and-Thunder Books when they put on a story like Cold Steel. It’s all about a man wrongfully accused of murder by a pack of cattle kings out West and how his son went out there to build a dam and clear his father’s name. The villains were going to blow up the dam while the workers were away at a dance. As a man sitting back of me put it— “They were going to blow out the dam while the hero was away at a damn blow-out.” Only, of course, the hero arrived in time to shoot away the dynamite fixing (from a distance of about half a mile apparently) before the villains could complete their hellish work. Of course, there were kidnappers and kidnappings and wild chases. And, of course, the king-pin villain drives over a cliff. It’s all very wild indeed.

In short, Cold Steel is a cold steal from all the old mellers that ever were thought of.

Kingsley made no mention of Clifford’s acting ability, saying only “Miss Clifford happens also to be the heroine of the feature picture, Cold Steel.” It’s a lost film.

Two Kinds of Filmmakers: Week of June 25th, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley gave her readers a glimpse behind the scenes of the three biggest stars in Hollywood. Even in 1921, she divided them into two kinds of artists: workhorses and geniuses. She began by describing the daily routine for two workhorses, Douglas Fairbanks, then shooting The Three Musketeers, and Mary Pickford, in the middle of Little Lord Fauntleroy:

“Douglas is an early riser, and everybody in the house, guests and all, have to get up when he does,” explained Mary Pickford the other day. Then Doug takes his exercise and cold shower, and the two breakfast together at 7:30 a.m. Both are always at their studios around 8:30 a.m., and are ready for work at 9, when everybody else arrives. Both work all morning like beavers, taking scenes, after short conferences with their directors.

The Three Musketeers

Lunchtime wasn’t time for a rest, instead:

“The two stars, with their business managers and associates, have lunch in the pretty little Japanese lunchroom, which is a dainty bungalow offering a quaint comparison to the haphazard outdoor surroundings of sets, cowboy rough riders, stables, automobiles and rambling frame buildings. They’re really an odd and amusing looking pair at lunch, at present—little Mary in her velvet Fauntleroy suit and her long, yellow curls, looking like a very proper little boy guest of the athlete, and Doug in his picturesque, swashbuckling D’Artangan outfit—especially when the two begin talking about American business.”

Then it was back to work in front of the cameras:

After lunch, which usually consumes an hour or an hour and a half, especially if some of the United Artists officials happen to be present with weighty business questions to be discussed, Mary goes over to her studio at the Brunton lot—she usually drives over, though it’s only across the street from Doug’s studio and the lunchroom, because she doesn’t think it seemly for her to be trotting about in the Fauntleroy duds.

On the Three Musketeers set

They kept working until a time that now seems extraordinarily reasonable:

Douglas and Mary usually stop work with the 5 o’clock whistle, go into their projection rooms with their directors to see the “rushes,” and then they go home to dinner at 7, after which the usually see a picture in their own projection room at their Beverly Hills home. “Usually the picture is a travelogue,” said Mary. “The travelogues are educational as well as being restful and taking us out of our everyday humdrum lives.”

Then Douglas’s French teacher comes, and sometimes Mary sits in with Doug on his lesson, but more often, thoroughly tired from the day’s grind, she goes to bed.

Chaplin was working on The Idle Class

There was no glamour to report on here! Kingsley contrasted their “humdrum grind” with Charlie Chaplin’s working methods:

Charlie Chaplin works in an entirely different fashion. He is a late riser and usually has breakfast in bed. Then he comes down to the studio and usually talks over his scenes and ideas with his company, managers, actors, everybody frequently sits in on the conclaves. But before the discussion takes place Charlie usually wrinkles a bit over the day’s actions. “I usually sweat blood when I first come on the set and see all those people,” declared Charlie to me. “Ideas a fugitive and elusive things, and to track one down is strenuous mental exercise. Don’t talk to me about inspiration. Let’s speak rather of perspiration.”

It must be remembered that Charlie is three people—author, director, and star. The author has the first innings. Charlie the author is always in search of new ideas, new gags. When he arrives in the morning he is likely to go about moodily by himself for an hour. Or sometimes he kids about, playing with the dogs on the lot, of which there are half a dozen, as Charlie always adopts the ki-yis which work in pictures with him.

Then, when an idea strikes him, he mulls it over a little, and then, becoming all animation, dashes over to the set to talk it over with his company—Manager Alfred Reeves, players, and everyone, and then, having held rehearsals and planned the afternoon’s work, he goes to lunch, returning full primed for an afternoon’s hard work.

And when he does get started working, how he does work! He labors so fast and so brilliantly that the ordinary mind can hardly keep pace with him. His ideas are wonderfully clean-cut, and he won’t stop making a scene until it suits him. While to the rest of the company a scene may be right, he frequently sees something wrong with it. He is patience personified in this, despite his usual restless brilliancy. He will work until the daylight fades, as he hates artificial lights, and refuses to have them installed in his studio.

He has a rather mischievously perverse habit, has Charlie, say his professional associates, of loving to find a corner of the set that hasn’t been properly finished, and insisting on its being finished and working in that corner. No other place will do.

It must be trying to work for a genius. His evening habits were also the opposite of the Pickford/Fairbanks homebodies, but according to Kingsley, he was still at work:

The comedian keeps the cook and butler in a constant daily ferment as to whether he’s going to keep his date to dine at home or whether he will go to some café for dinner…He is always seeking ideas and types.

However, this seeking of ideas after work is fairly subconscious for the most part, as usually he’s a gay nighthawk, and the brightest member of any bright party he may join. He likes the company of clever women, and frequently sups with Florence Deshon or most often with May Collins, his reputed fiancée. Miss Collins often, chaperoned by her mother, spends the evening at his home, and here too gather clever writers like Rupert Hughes, Edward Knoblock, Gouverneur Morris and others.

Sid Grauman is a great friend of Charlie’s too, and often Charlie joins Sid in the latter’s midnight vigils at the theater when Sid is rehearsing or trying out new acts, and often as late as 3 o’clock in the morning the two wander into some downtown open-all-night café, where they kid, play practical jokes on each other, or discuss business or artistic matters.

Take him all in all, Charlie belongs to the Sleep-Haters’ Club.

So before the studio era, there wasn’t one way to be a filmmaker. Now what’s striking is that both kinds of filmmakers kept much more humane work hours then nowadays — modern film crews would love a nine to five workday.