One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned a shocking incident at a movie screening:
No infuriated and excited Irishmen have torn holes in the screen of the Symphony, nor smashed the projecting machine as they did in San Francisco, on the occasion of the first showing of Kathleen Mavourneen, featuring Theda Bara, where they were incited by the showing of the home of an Irish family wherein the family horse, chickens and goat were kept in the house.
There had been a riot at the Sun Theater in San Francisco on February 8th. Here’s some of the report from the San Francisco Chronicle:
Objecting to scenes of dire poverty in Ireland as portrayed by Theda Bara in Kathleen Mavourneen at the Sun Theater, a gang of young men attempted to wreak the theater, smashed the projecting machines and destroyed or took away the films last night…The rioters objected to scenes in the picture showing two pigs in parlors of Irish cottages, chickens fluttering on stairways and other examples of dire poverty on the Emerald Isle. At last night’s performance a number of young men ranging in age from 19 to 22, according to [theater manager Abe] Markowitz, secured seats in the gallery near the projecting room, and during the picture yelled their disapproval of the film.
When the picture was through one yelled “Get the picture,” and a crowd made a rush for the operating room. The operator [William Ulrich] was pinned to the wall, and with bundles of carbons the men smashed the machines and other machinery in the room… After smashing everything possible in the operating room, the crowd tore down railings, broke chairs, and did other damage in the upper gallery, and then ran carrying with them two reels of the picture. Two more reels were torn during the excitement.
Before the smashing started, one man said to Markowitz “I’m a member of the American Committee for Irish Freedom and we don’t want any of that ___ British propaganda shown in San Francisco,” but that group denied having anything to do with it. The police never caught the rioters. Markowitz estimated that the total damage added up to $5000. He withdrew Mavourneen and replaced it with Vagabond Luck, a “happy, snappy racing comedy.”
According to historian Gary D. Rhodes, this wasn’t the first Irish-American protest against the film. In October 1919 a group of organizations wrote a letter to the theater manager in Bayonne, New Jersey before it opened, and he decided not to show it. In November, the manager of the Palace Theater in Hartford, Connecticut cut the objectionable scenes and it screened without incident. Markowitz at the Sun previewed the film with two Catholic priests earlier in the day, and cut some scenes at their suggestions. But this censorship wasn’t enough to appease the young men.
So going out to the movies could sometimes be dangerous even in 1920. This appears to worst incident in the film’s run, though according to Bara biographer Eve Golden, some Irish-American groups also objected to a Jewish woman playing an Irish woman. The film soon disappeared and now it’s lost.
Kathleen Mavourneen was based on a popular Civil War era song that became a play. Kathleen is forced to abandon her true love and marry the local squire, then the true love is framed for murder and hung (ballads are awfully bleak!). There had already been three earlier films based on the story. The 1919 version had a twist: instead of ending tragically, it turned out it was all a dream she had on the eve of her wedding, and Kathleen marries her true love.
In Los Angeles, the film ran without much comment. It was billed as part of a St. Patrick’s Week special that included Henry King’s rendition of the original song. Kingsley’s problem with the film was that it was boring:
Kathleen Mavourneen unfolds its peaceful five reels without anything more exciting happening to it than the orchestra. It’s in truth, a charming little story nicely produced and acted with many picturesque touches showing Theda as the very poor little colleen.
Which does prove the rioters’ point: it seems she thought that rooming with the livestock was ordinary Irish poverty. It least she didn’t much care for the film, preferring something else on the bill: “There’s a hilariously funny Christie comedy, which to my mind is the best part of the Symphony show this week.” Unfortunately, nobody said which one it was.
Bara made only two more films for Fox Films, then she retired. Mavourneen was the first time she got to work with the man who became her husband in 1921, director Charles Brabin. They were happily married until her death in 1955.
Kingsley had much more fun this week at a film made by some of her favorite artists:
The lady in search of a perfect devil of a man is found embodied with happy whimsicality in the Constance Talmadge—Anita Loos—John Emerson combination of star and comedy at the Kinema this week. It is entitled In Search of a Sinner, and it shows all three of these clever ones at their clever best.
Though nobody can guess how it all happened, short of chloroforming her, we find Constance tied up at the beginning of the story with one of those awfully good dullards who gets her out of bed at 7 in the morning to play golf and on holidays takes her to the Metropolitan Museum. He dies ere long, however, and then, as a young widow, Constance starts out to find a wild man. Oh, of course, in New York; where else does wildness become, so to speak, so nicely finished? She finds him finally in a restaurant.
Alas, it turns out he’s a perfectly respectable friend of her brother-in-law so she needs to make him naughtier. She succeeds too well: ”he gets wilder than she intends and follows another wild woman off.” Oh no! Whatever will she do? Kingsley concluded: ”there are series of humorous complications and touches such as only Anita Loos and John Emerson know how to give, and Miss Talmadge, of course, as usual reflects their comedy brilliantly.”
It’s been preserved at UCLA and at the Library of Congress, but it hasn’t been released on DVD. You don’t suppose she marries him?
Physical fitness has always been important for performers. Kingsley visited a class teaching the latest fad for Hollywood actresses: classical dance. One afternoon at the Theodore Kosloff ‘s school she saw Alla Nazimova, Gloria Swanson, Bessie Love, Ruth Stonehouse, Bebe Daniels and May Allison all “learning to express the poetry of their souls.” Kingsley observed:
If you would be an up-to-the-minute star, go and study pantomime and classic dancing! That’s what many of our most famous screen luminaries are doing these days.
Honestly, it now appears that unless you can go up on your toes without falling over on your nose you’re in no condition to promise the beautiful hero with the Catalina-seal hair that you will wait for him undo death, or tell the villain where to head to.
All of the actresses were enthusiastic about their studies. Bebe Daniels said, “Why, he can teach you to express in a couple of kicks and a nod of the head even such abstractions as that your mother is a Methodist and your father a Democrat!”
Kingsley concluded with a secret: “Kosloff also has another ‘prospect.’ Sh! He’s Fatty Arbuckle!”
So fitness fads have always been a part of Hollywood. Learning classical dance was certainly less extreme than the muscle-building regimes of modern Marvel stars.
“Mob Raids Sun Theater: Irish Film Wrecked,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 1920.
Gary D. Rhodes, “Irish American Film Audiences, 1915-1930,” Post Script, June 22, 2013.
“Vagabond Luck New Film at the Sun,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 12, 1920.