Ars Gratia Artis: Week of January 3rd, 1920

marcus_loew
Marcus Loew

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that Marcus Loew had bought all of the stock of the Metro Film Corporation:

The deal is said to involve several million dollars, according to advices from the East. This will be Mr. Loew’s first invasion of the picture-producing field. Metro is to retain its stars, it is announced, including Alla Nazimova, May Allison, Viola Dana, Alice Lake, Bert Lytell, and Francesca Bertini…The purchase will not interfere with Metro’s business affairs, which will be conducted as in the past, nor will if affect Metro’s dealings with other exhibitors.

mgmlogoThis was part of the consolidation of the film industry that happened in the early 1920’s. Marcus Loew owned one of the largest chain of theaters in New York, Loew’s Inc., and he wanted a steady supply of films. His company is still in business today. In 1924 Loew merged with Goldwyn Pictures and with Mayer Pictures in 1925, creating MGM. The studio went on to make the most memorable and prestigious films of Hollywood’s classic age from Grand Hotel (1932) to The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singing in the Rain (1952). Unfortunately, he didn’t get to live to see the success it became. He died of heart failure in 1927, when he was 57 years old.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Luck of the Irish, which came from “the genius of Allan Dwan.” She wrote:

If you want to be completely intrigued and charmed away even from the remembrance of the high cost of living and such sordid things, go the Grauman’s this week and look at Allan Dwan’s Luck of the Irish. You’re lucky to have the chance.

He has been uniquely successful, but that smoothness of production characterizing The Luck of the Irish, the hundred touches that make for naturalness and most of all the intimate something which makes the walls of the theater melt away, leaving us in a world peopled only by Dwan’s characters, these are the things that can only be the fruit of years of effort. And Mr. Dwan may rest content with the reflection that in The Luck of the Irish he has achieved such heights of seeming naturalness, and that his characters are so vital, one seems always peeing through a window at real scenes and real people rather than gazing at mere shadows. The subtitles are sparkling and round up the laughs.

The story of the picture has to do with a husky young plumber, who does his ‘plumbing’ in a basement and who falls in love with a pair of neat ankles which pass his window each day. Of course, he meets the owner and becomes her gallant knight in the MacGrathish [Harold MacGrath, the story’s author] troubles besetting her on a trip around the world. To tell this is nothing—to see the picture is to be entirely charmed.

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The plot is fairly outlandish: the heroine does go on a tour of foreign cities, meets the plumber on the boat and winds up imprisoned in a house of prostitution (that last bit hasn’t turned up in recent rom-coms). It’s a lost film, but Dwan went on to make lots of charming movies, including Robin Hood (1922) and Brewster’s Millions (1945) so it’s entirely possible that this one was too.

This week, Kingsley got to have some fun with a review of a “monumental comedy dud” (that didn’t go on the poster). Lew Cody played “a professional lover who has fairly to carry a club about with him to keep the ladies away” in The Beloved Cheater. In particular, the screenplay irked her:

I take no issue with the morals of the play; in fact, it has not the courage to be immoral. I merely take issue with the good taste of the thing, that and its naiveté. No authorship is announced, and so I feel free to guess it was written by the office boy, in collaboration with the Sweet Singer of Michigan.*

The authors didn’t remain anonymous. The story was by Jules Furthman, who went on to have an impressive screenwriting resume including Shanghai Express (1932) and The Big Sleep (1946). The screenplay was by the film’s producer Louis Gasnier, who worked on Max Linder’s early films and directed Perils of Pauline (1914), and Lew Cody himself.

Other critics didn’t question the morality or the taste of the film. J.S Dickerson in Motion Picture News (December 6, 1919) thought it was “an interesting study of the ‘he-vamp’ at his favorite recreation,” and was very happy that Cody did not reform in the end. Jane McCloskey in Moving Picture World (January 24, 1920) wrote that she enjoyed seeing the story from the ‘other man’s’ perspective – “a novelty of treatment to an old theme that is most refreshing.” Kingsley also reported that “many in the audience seemed to like the picture, even though it does seem to me personally that Cody muffed it sadly”. It’s a lost film, so we can’t find out for ourselves.

 

 

*The Sweet Singer of Michigan was the nickname of Julia A. Moore (1847-1920), a notoriously bad poet. Even Mark Twain parodied her, according to a terrific blog post from the Paris Review. They mentioned “a critic in the Rochester Democrat wrote of her work, “Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead.”

 

 

 

Week of September 14th, 1918

arizona poster

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley left a little mystery in her column:

Albert Parker, who directed Douglas Fairbanks in Sic ‘em Sam, the propaganda picture made by Fairbanks for the fourth Liberty Loan campaign, has been selected to direct the athletic actor in the elaborate picturization of Augustus Thomas’s play, Arizona. Parker succeeds Allan Dwan, whose contract with Fairbanks terminated last week.

A contract is “terminated” in the middle of a shoot with no explanation? Dwan had directed Fairbanks in his recent hit films, A Modern Musketeer and Headin’ South. I bet Kingsley’s original readers wondered why he left, too.

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Allan Dwan

Unfortunately, it’s still a mystery! Dwan’s biographer Frederic Lombardi speculated that it was the “frantic pace of work” that was making him unhappy, which in turn put a strain on Dwan’s marriage (he divorced Pauline Bush in 1919). Lombardi examined business records from the Douglas Fairbanks Film Corporation and found that Dwan’s contract was supposed to have lasted until October 15, but in September he signed an agreement to terminate it immediately by mutual consent. So whatever caused it, they ended things in an orderly way—nobody stormed off in a snit.

Fairbanks’ biographer Tracey Goessel went a bit further in assigning blame:

Something—likely we shall never know what—was also bothering director Dwan. In the middle of production he quit—or was fired….Just what was making Dwan unhappy is not clear. But his unhappiness must have been acute to cause such a break…One suspects that the offender in this dispute was Fairbanks. Dwan was of an easygoing nature, patient with his rambunctious, effervescent, practical joker boss. But patience, even that of Dwan, is not infinite, and Fairbanks was not of a temperament to back down in the face of a quarrel.

There was no credited director for Arizona in the reviews or posters. No one is certain how much Dwan did before he left, but the AFI Catalog says that Parker directed it. The film sold lots of tickets, based on Fairbanks’ appeal, but the reviews weren’t good. Lombardi wrote that “Arizona was quickly forgotten,” and it’s a lost film. Goessel mentioned that around this time, Fairbanks began to rethink his films. In a few years he moved from comedies to adventure movies. So if this is how we got Thief of Bagdad, I’d like to thank Arizona.

However, this didn’t end their working relationship. As Goessel points out, “Dwan and Fairbanks would heal the breach within a few years—each needed the other more than he needed his pride.” Dwan went on to direct Fairbank’s huge hit, Robin Hood (1922), as well as The Iron Mask (1929). He went on to a long career, working until 1961. The IMDB says he directed 407 films, but his New York Times obituary quotes him estimating it was 1850. Whichever was closer to the truth, it was a lot.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week sounds like lots of fun. George Walsh appeared:

in the most brilliant burlesque on the old type of melodrama which we have ever had, entitled The Kid is Clever…The young hero is sent to South America, as otherwise the money in a certain mysterious will will revert to the nearest villain. Of course there is a lovely young woman—Violet Ray—and they are kidnaped by Jazzbando Bullion, the villain, and taken ashore, where the hero beats the whole army. Sailors from a man-of-war get word and come to the rescue. They are constantly flashed on the screen a few hundred yards from shore, but it takes ‘em all day to arrive…The subtitles are corking, and—oh well, why aren’t all the picture melodramas turned into satires of themselves? It would be a happier world.

Kingsley certainly preferred comedies to the dramas of the time. Like so many other Fox productions, it’s a lost film.

At another theater, Kingsley got to enjoy a golden oldie entitled Her Fighting Chance (from the ad you can see why she thought it was called Lady Lou of the Yukon):

Every once in a while some exchange or exhibitor will pull down an old film from his shelf, brush it off, change some of the subtitles, and show it as a new picture. Usually such a film really is a classic, deserving of living, and such a one is Lady Lou of the Yukon at the Palace this week…So clean-cut is the direction, so splendidly does the plot march, that Lady Lou of the Yukon is well deserving of resurrection. Besides which, it has all the virility which marked those earlier western dramas, and which never perhaps will be equaled.

By ‘earlier’ she meant 1917: things changed quickly then! (nobody is talking about the good old days of 2017 now.) Her Fighting Chance was made by a small production company, A.H. Jacobs Photoplays, and distributed on a state’s rights basis so it isn’t odd that it took a while to appear in Los Angeles. It told the story of a murder investigation by a corrupt Northwest Mounted Policeman, and ended in a big chase. It’s a lost film, so we can’t find out if it was a classic.

 

 

 

 

Tracey Goessel, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016.

 

Frederic Lombardi, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.