Mermaid Clothes: Week of May 31st, 1919

from the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company

One hundred years ago this week, Congress finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution which would eventually allow all American women to vote. It still needed to be ratified by 36 states. Since state legislations weren’t in session year round, it took over a year but the 36th state, Tennessee, approved it on August 18, 1920 and it was signed into law on August 26th, in time for the presidential election

Grace Kingsley, who’s been able to vote since 1911, didn’t mention the big news for she was too busy on an assignment from her editor: getting Annette Kellerman, the Australian Mermaid, on record about clothing, since she was so famous for not wearing much of it. The two career women did as well as could be expected. Grace Kingsley had some jokes about how with a packed rehearsal schedule it was difficult to find Kellerman in street clothes. Kellerman politely answered her questions, but not without saying “doesn’t it seem a bit ridiculous to ask a mermaid about clothes?” She told her that she mostly wore tailored frocks, because that’s what her husband liked. Her advice to other women was “in general, women should dress to suit their personalities. But some people have awfully funny ideas of what their personalities are!” Happily, she included men in that, too.

Oh well, if entertainment journalists cut out all of the ridiculousness they wouldn’t have much to write about.

This week, Kingsley finally found one profession that doesn’t want to be in the movies. While shooting The Speed Maniac on location in San Francisco, Tom Mix and his director Edward Le Saint needed someone to play the part of a pickpocket, and they decided they wanted realistic casting. So Mix went to his friend, the captain of police Dan O’Brien. They looked in the holding cell and chose a likely candidate, However, when they asked him to be in their film, the pickpocket said “Where do you get that stuff? Mug me, would ye, so that I would been seen by all the coppers in the world. Ruin me in me profession! I should say not! Besides, picking pockets is a good enough job for me. I don’t want to be a picture actor. Picture actor! Hunh!” None of the other crooks wanted the job, so they made the second cameraman, Walter Williams, do the dirty work.

Kingsley mentioned that “the wife of Chaplin’s cameraman, Jack Wilson, on May 28, gave birth to a daughter at the Wilson home on Crenshaw Blvd.” Some months later, both Edith Wilsons got to meet the boss on the set of The Kid:

An excuse for a cute photo!


Week of April 20th, 1918


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the Western expansion of another group dedicated to doing their part for the war effort, Stage Women’s War Relief. She interviewed actress Louise Closser Hale, the vice-president and one of the original founders of the group in New York, who was in town to help establish the new branch. Kingsley wrote:

The motion-picture people of the West are responding splendidly, according to Mrs. Hale, to their opportunities for rendering noble aid to the stage men gone to war.

One of these projects, which sounds modest enough, is the workroom now being established in the Mason Operahouse Building; and if the Los Angeles branch approximates the work of similar service rooms in New York and other cities, its work will be of tremendous importance. The service room is a very democratic institution—all varieties of stage workers from stars to scrub women labor together for the common cause. No surgical bandages are made, but sewing, knitting and crocheting are done, all according to patterns furnished by other local war reliefs and every article made is turned over to the Red Cross and other relief agencies. No workers outside the profession are permitted to work here, however, no matter what their station or calling.

“One of our first beneficiaries,” said Mrs. Hale, “was a baby born after its father—a Fox director—was called away to war. We were very excited about it, and I am sure the youngster received about three times as many clothes as it needed.”

Hale and Olive White Farnum were planning a big meeting at the Morosco Theater on Friday, April 26th to kick things off. In addition to the workroom, they wanted to launch a series of benefits and bazars, and the proceeds would go to stage and screen soldiers and their families.

The SWWR Western branch was a success. To raise money they did hold all-star benefit shows, as well as flag drives, garden fetes, and they even auctioned kisses from actresses at their show at the Hotel Alexandria. They also organized entertainment for sailors and soldiers; their first show was at the Submarine base in San Pedro on May 9th. In addition, they opened a tea room that was free for service members

The group held their last meeting where they began, at the Morosco Theater, on December 4th. There they decided to take a new name and purpose. Calling themselves the Players Welfare League, they decided to help stage people down on their luck. They immediately started planning fundraising. Unfortunately, interest in the group petered out, but in 1939 as World War 2 began, the government asked women from the New York branch to reactivate their group. They did, starting a new workroom, raising money, training speakers to sell war bonds and running Stage Door Canteens, which provided food and entertainment for service members. The group got a new name: The American Theater Wing. After the war they began giving grants to theater companies and educating people about live theater, but they’re best known for their annual awards, the Tonys and the Obies.


Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a “corking” comedy, Twenty-One, starring “that fascinating screen persona, Bryant Washburn.” He had a dual role: a tough prize-fighter and the mollycoddled youth who wants to be a prizefighter. As she pointed out, “naturally (in picturedom) he gets his chance.” The two change places, but the fighter likes the youth’s job so much that he refuses to change back. So the young man must not only fight in the ring, but he also has the beat up the fighter to get his own place back. She really enjoyed it: “the picture is done with sparkle and Washburn invests it with his usual delightfully unctuous humor.” It’s a lost film.


Kingsley reported on D.W. Griffith’s comeback success:

When Hearts of the World, Griffith’s latest film masterpiece, began its seventh week at Clune’s Auditorium last night, the audience numbered just twenty less than on the opening night. The film has broken all records at Clune’s Auditorium and has established new records for Griffith’s productions. The end of the run is not in sight.

The photos the New York Post Office doesn’t want you to see!

Kingsley told a story of excessive war rationing:

Again has Annette Kellerman been made to realize that a fine head of hair does not constitute a bathing suit in the eyes of the law. Photographs of Miss Kellerman in her latest Fox picture, Queen of the Sea, and nothing much else, caught the eye of the New York post office authorities, and she has been called upon to explain why she has Hooverized so painstakingly in the matter of bathing suits.

Now the lost film is remembered for being the first movie to be shot on  panchromatic negative film, not for running into trouble with censors. However, I did learn that it’s still illegal to mail what the U.S. Postal Service considers lewd or filthy matter. According to their basic standards for mailing services/domestic mail manual, “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy publications or writings, or mail containing information on where, how, or from whom such matter may be obtained, and matter that is otherwise mailable but that has on its wrapper or envelope any indecent, lewd, lascivious, or obscene writing or printing, and any mail containing any filthy, vile, or indecent thing is nonmailable (18 USC 1461, 1463).”

However, I suspect they don’t think Miss Kellerman is filthy, vile or indecent any more.



Week of February 24th, 1917

Thomas Ince’s studio, 1915

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on some optimistic studio plans:

If those enterprising Culver City people have their way, motion pictures are due to break out in a new place, and switch the map of Alarm Clock Alley* from Hollywood to Culver City. Several of the larger companies are considering removing to that thriving locality, and special inducements are being offered to them. The New York Motion Picture Company, under the management of Thomas H. Ince, was the first to build a great and substantial plant there. The Essanay has opened a studio in another part of town, and is working several companies, while half a dozen corporations whose names are withheld for the present are dickering for sites. Already three large companies hold options on ground, with deals expected to be closed this week.

Feature Film Corporation’s planned studio (April 1, 1917). They disappeared, never to build it.

What’s astonishing about this announcement is that Culver City was only three and a half years old. Harry Culver, a real estate developer, officially opened it in October 1913, and it was incorporated in September 1917. Los Angeles was growing by leaps and bounds.

Culver City did become a motion picture center, but not the center. As Kingsley mentioned, Thomas Ince opened Triangle Studios there in 1915. Essanay took over Max Linder’s studio, but they soon went out of business for the same reason that all of the other big plans came to nothing: the economic turmoil caused by the war and influenza epidemic.

Laurel and Hardy on location in Culver City (they worked for Hal Roach)

After the war, business picked back up. In 1918 Ince/Triangle Studios became Goldwyn, which became M.G.M. and is now Sony Entertainment. In 1919 Ince opened a different studio, which became DeMille, then Pathe, then RKO/Pathe Studio, then Selznick International, then Desilu, and now it’s a rental studio run by a private investment group. Hal Roach built his studio on Washington Blvd. in 1919 and stayed in business there until 1963.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Her Life and His:

which crackles and sparkles with keen plot, swift action and absorbing character study…While the long arm of coincidence may be said to be yanked rather farther than usual in the scene in which the girl, just released from prison, views through the window the man who wrongfully sent her to the penitentiary, about to suicide, and enters in time to prevent him killing himself, still it’s a scene that makes you catch your breath. There are many plots and counterplots—too many to recite here, but they have novelty, and real ingenuity.

That former convict and suicidal man go on to form a partnership to improve prison conditions until a corrupt political ring tries to blackmail him. She comes to his rescue and they live happily ever after. It’s a lost film.

Florence LaBadie

The film starred Florence La Badie, whom Kinglsey thought had “brains, sincerity and a vividly expressive face, and these register even more effectively than mere beauty. Besides, she’s pretty enough for all practical purposes.” Ouch! LaBadie was Thanhouser Films’ biggest star, appearing in their major productions including their 1914-15 serial The Million Dollar Mystery and The Woman in White (1917). She died just a few months later on October 13, 1917 of septicemia two months after fracturing her pelvis in a car accident. You can find more about her at the Thanhouser site.


This week the film page featured a new and different way to make women feel inadequate. An ad for the upcoming A Daughter of the Gods gave far more information than anybody needed about Annette Kellerman’s precise dimensions, concluding that’s what was necessary to be the “perfect woman.” However, the man who declared in 1910 that she was perfectly proportioned, Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent of Harvard, wasn’t just a nut using a “scientific study” as an excuse to measure a lot of young women and pass judgment, he was also an advocate for women’s exercise and an end to tight corsets. An interview with him can be found at the Sunday Magazine blog.


Kinglsey didn’t review the film, but an anonymous Times writer praised Kellerman’s expert swimming and diving and didn’t mention what the lost film is known for now: the first nude scene by a major star.



* Alarm Clock Alley was Kingsley’s nickname for the motion picture colony, because everybody had to get up so early for work. It didn’t catch on.