You Could Just Stay Home: Week of April 12th, 1919

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Bessie Barriscale

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley told a story about how to discourage a young person’s misplaced ambitions:

“Before you decide definitely to chose the screen as a profession, I would advise you to read a little book by Dr. Conwell called Acres of Diamonds,” said Bessie Barriscale to a girl who had been bitten by the camera bug and who had come all the way from a New England town to break in to pictures.

The girl took Miss Barriscale’s advice, read the book and decided that her acre of diamonds wasn’t to be found in the pictures at all, but right back there in the little town she came from.

“It is often so,” said the star. “A girl will look far afield for the fortune that lies right at her feet. The screen must have new blood, new talent, new faces, but a girl should be very sure that she is right before she spends time, money and much labor in trying to make good. Such a girl I will help to the limit, but it is unjust to a girl herself to help her when her chances are doubtful.”

 

It’s so unusual to hear something other than “follow your dreams!” Acres of Diamonds was a popular essay by Russell Conwell, a Baptist minister, writer, and the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, adapted from a lecture he gave over 6,000 times. Just as Barriscale said, its main idea was that you don’t need to look elsewhere for opportunity. He told a story about a man who wanted to find diamonds, so he sold his property and went off in search of them. The new owner found a mine on the property. The essay is available on Google Books.

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Another convincing argument against going to Hollywood

Barriscale managed to turn one unpromising newcomer away. A few days later in a review, Kingsley identified the root of the problem:

Probably there isn’t anybody in the world under forty-five who hasn’t in some fleeting moment imagined himself a picture actor—with a sneaking belief that if he had only half a chance he could push Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart right back into the two-a-day.

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The film she was reviewing was The Goat, which featured Fred Stone as an aspiring movie star who leaves his home and his sweetheart to try his luck in Hollywood. He wants to be in films so badly that he agrees to be a stunt man (did the writers of Singing In The Rain see this movie?); unlike many Hollywood aspirants he had real skill, as Kingsley notes: “that’s where Stone has a chance to show how he can defy all the laws of gravitation.” However, this lost film did its part to discourage people from trying to be a performer: he gets badly injured doing a particularly dangerous stunt, so he takes the studio’s hush money and uses it for a honeymoon to Niagara Falls with his sweetheart.

 

Alas, this week Kingsley also ran a story that made stardom sound easy, which didn’t help matters. One morning a few weeks earlier in the Wilson household:

sister Lois started off to work at the studio as usual, and sister Janice told Mamma Wilson she was going downtown to shop. But she didn’t. Instead she went down to the offices of Willis & Inglis, and told them she wanted to play in pictures. She said she had never had any experience—and she didn’t tell them she was Lois Wilson’s sister. Her beauty and evident breeding marked her for honor, however, and the next day she was called to work in a picture with Gladys Brockwell, at a nice little salary of $60 per week. She made good in the picture, and has had one or two engagements since then, but nothing startling.

Then about a week ago, when Mr. [Frank] Keenan started work on his latest and one of his biggest productions, he looked about for a lovely leading woman. As soon as he saw Miss Wilson’s photographs, he decided she was just the girl for the part. And so she is playing opposite him.

Janice Wilson wasn’t a star, but did have a bit of a career in Hollywood, appearing in five films including Keenan’s film, The World Aflame (1919). She stopped acting when she married real estate agent James Bell, in 1922. So even if she didn’t get to be a successful as her sister, her dreams don’t seem to have done lasting damage to her.

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Kingsley’s favorite films this week were two nonfiction shorts:

It was just bound to arrive—painless picture education. And now it’s here, with one clever Rothacker sponsoring it. Maybe you don’t care for travelogues, or maybe you aren’t feeling like plush-chair traveling today. All right. You don’t have to take your travelogues “neat” any more. Mr. Rothacker dishes them up with romantic sauce piquant. Even if you don’t care a picayune in the abstract about how the wild Maoris live or what their dances are like or what they eat for breakfast, you’re just bound to be absorbed in the concrete instance of an idealized love affair of a Maori maid and man. That’s the film I saw at Ray’s Garden yesterday. And while maybe you aren’t excited at all over the way in which brides are given away on the Sahara Desert yet you’re sure to be fascinated over at the Victory by the particular wedding ceremony and journey of a particularly attractive Bedouin bride and bridegroom. And all talked about in subtitles that are human and amusing. In short, these pictures give you a gratifying sense of being educated in an entirely painless way all the while you were being highly entertained.

A Maori Romance and Mid Sahara’s Sands were two of the twenty films made in the Rothacker Outdoor Pictures series. Exhibitor’s Herald also like them for the same reason Kingsley did: “special attention has been given to the titling of these “Outdoor” pictures. The human appeal is conveyed by title which connect the scenic episodes in narrative form, and the title expert has caught the spirit of the subjects and emphasized them with light and humorous touches.” (December 14, 1918, p.15) Other titles in the series included Bad Men and Good Scenery (Jackson Hole, Wyoming), An Eyeful of Egypt, and Peaks, Parks and Pines (Mt. Rainer Washington).

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Bad Men and Good Scenery

There’s a clip of Mid Sahara’s Sands available on the Travel Film Archive site. Now some of the humor seems mean and patronizing, plus seeing a 10-year old Bedouin bride is just sad (she didn’t get to make choices for herself, unlike Barriscale’s visitor). However, it is amazing that you can see what Bedouin people looked and moved like in 1918.

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Rothacker and Conan-Doyle

Watterson R. Rothacker had quite a career. Based in Chicago, in 1910 he co-founded the Industrial Film Company, the first company to specialize in making advertising and educational films. After another co-founder, Carl Laemmle, left to start Universal Films, the company became the Rothacker Film Manufacturing Company. During the war they also made documentaries about the fighting and he ran a film processing laboratory. He’s most famous for hiring special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien to make short films for his company, then following his suggestion to turn The Lost World into a movie. Rothacker bought the film rights from the novel’s author Arthur Conan Doyle, settled various lawsuits with O’Brien’s former business partner, then signed an agreement with First National in December 1923 to finance and distribute the film. It was a great big hit, making 2.6 million dollars. He sold his studio in 1926 and went to work for First National as the managing director. He went on to be vice president of the Motion Picture Producers Association, then vice president of Paramount Pictures. In 1939 he became vice president of the Quigley Publishing Company, publishers of Motion Picture Herald and Motion Picture Daily. He died of cancer in 1960.

 

 

“The Lost World,” in George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p.94-95.

“W.R. Rothacker, Ex-Film Producer,” New York Times, January 27, 1960.

 

Week of July 14th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that cinematographer Billy Bitzer’s wife had gotten a cable telling her that Bitzer and his boss D.W. Griffith would be staying in Europe indefinitely. They stayed until early October, filming exteriors for Hearts of the World.

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Billy Bitzer and Nora Farrell, 1919 passport

Since I’m a cinematographer’s wife myself, I wanted to know more about the woman who stayed home. However, I ran into the usual problem when researching ladies who weren’t famous: she left almost no records. I couldn’t find anyone I was certain was her in magazines, censuses or death indexes, and only one mention and bad photo in Bitzer’s 1919 passport application.

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He did mention a bit about her in his biography, written in 1939 (reviewed at the Century Film Project). Her name was Nora Farrell, and she had blue eyes, tiny hands and feet and ginger-brown hair. Born in Ireland, her “brogue was as thick as a priest’s.” They met in 1899 when he rescued her from a burning building. He said she was ten years older than him, but the passport said it was only three. She drank more beer than he approved of. They both had tempers; Karl Brown in his autobiography remarked on one of their epic fights. She was thrifty, and liked putting money into the savings account. They lived together without benefit of marriage until at least late 1919, when they were on the ill-fated boat trip to the Bahamas that was supposed to last one day but took five (Griffith was making The Love Idol.)* Bitzer didn’t mention why they broke up, or what happened to her; he married a much younger woman in 1923.

So the moral is please leave a record of yourself, and tell your side of the story.

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was the “very excellent” To Honor and Obey. The story of a devoted wife who sacrifices her virtue to rescue her vain, selfish husband’s finances didn’t have “an inch of padding in the whole film” yet the plot and action were “translucent.” Gladys Brockwell played the wife; Kingsley thought that her performance had rare depths, “coupled with a never-failing sense of drama which does not let her overact a scene by a hair’s breadth.” It’s a lost film, so I’ll spoil it: the evil husband commits suicide, and everyone thinks good riddance to bad rubbish. Brockwell had a fine career, usually playing supporting roles like Nancy in Oliver Twist (1922) and the sister in Seventh Heaven (1927). She died following a car accident in 1929.

 

Feature-length films hadn’t been around for very long, but Kingsley had already had enough of dual roles. Bessie Barriscale played twin sisters this week in The Snarl, and Kingsley had some suggestions for screenwriters:

So long as we must have these double role plays, why doesn’t somebody conceive the idea of having both characters either good or bad? Say you make your story twins bad. There are varying degrees of badness, you know, and various assorted kinds of badness, so the story needn’t be monotonous, and I for one am dead sick of seeing a person talking to himself.

Even seeing a man shake hands with himself has lost its pristine thrill and as for seeing a person bullyrag his double, or even murder him, I can look on entirely unmoved. In fact, I’m rather glad of it, as then there is only one of him or her left that we are obligated to view.

So audiences in 1917 weren’t so naive and easy to impress as you might think. Frances Marion must have agreed with Kingsley; when she wrote Stella Maris for Mary Pickford the next year, both sides of the dual role were good. Stella was rich and sheltered, while Unity Blake was poor and had seen too much. Kingsley was right: it could be done.

 

Kingsley reported that Irving Cummings, star of The Whip which was currently in theaters, had been injured in an automobile accident and wasn’t expected to live. Happily, he recovered and went on to act in many films, including The Saphead with Buster Keaton. He became a director, most famously of Technicolor musicals like Down Argentine Way (1940) and The Dolly Sisters (1945).

 

*“Film Stars Missing,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 14, 1919.

 

Week of June 23rd, 1917

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From Lisa K. Stein, Syd Chaplin: A Biography

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported a tidbit of news about the biggest film star in the world:

Charlie has become a real capitalist. Last March he invested $10,000 in a pajama factory. At the time the factory for manufacturing “Sassy Jane” pajamas was started in Los Angeles, three machines were used. The factory has grown so rapidly that fifty machines are now working night and day to meet the demand. Last week Chaplin received over 1000 letters from feminine pajama fans, asking him to furnish them original pajama designs. Not even waiting to cool his blushes, Chaplin went right out and hired two secretaries to fight off the applicants in person who insisted upon consulting him about pajamas. June Rand, who invented the “Sassy Jane” pajama, and who induced Mr. Chaplin to invest his money therein, offered the comedian a full half interest in the business if he would wear a suit of “Sassy Janes” in The Immigrant—but he wouldn’t!

Actually, the real capitalist was Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother, who had invested $40,000 in the company and became its treasurer (his wife Minnie liked the clothes). According to his biographer, Lisa K. Stein Haven, this was the first of Syd Chaplin’s boom-and-bust busness endeavors. Pajamas weren’t the Sassy Jane company’s main product; they were famous for making colorful, comfortable cotton house dresses and aprons. Why fans wrote to Chaplin about the clothes instead of directly to June Rand I don’t understand. “Sassy Janes” were quite popular for a few years but by 1923 styles had changed and the company was bankrupt.

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He made other food funny, too

Kingsley briefly reviewed The Immigrant later this week; she said Chaplin could “make even a ham sandwich the funniest thing in the world.” He was smart to leave housedresses out of it.

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Fires of Rebellion, “a photoplay with a human story worked out by human beings, instead of puppets being jerked along an uninspired road to fulfill the requirements of a dull plot.” Directed by Ida May Park, it told the story of a factory girl who rejects a marriage proposal from the rough but honest foreman and moves to the big city where she almost gets a job as an underwear model, not realizing that she was expected to do more than model. The foreman rescues her in the nick of time. William Stowell played him, and Kingsley believed “he has no peer in the films. Here are no empty heroics, no posings. Yet as a real man, a force among men, battling against hard conditions in public and private life, reserved, even inarticulate when it comes to matters of the emotions, he makes the role stand out like a figure in the old-fashioned stereoscope.” It’s a lost film.

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William Stowell was a veteran film actor who got his start in 1909 when he co-starred with Tom Mix in The Cowboy Millionaire. He made a series of well-reviewed dramas with his Fires of Rebellion co-stars Dorothy Phillips and Lon Chaney at Universal. Sadly, Stowell died only two years later in a rail accident in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He was directing the filming of the Smithsonian African Expedition for Universal and riding in the rear couch of a train when a runaway tank car raced down a hill and smashed into it. Another member of the expedition, Dr. Joseph Armstrong, died on the scene and Stowell was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later. Three other members of the party were injured.

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This isn’t the life of a newspaper reporter?

A film that seems to have been precisely calibrated to annoy Kingsley came out this week, A Hater of Men.

Bessie Barriscale, as the heroine, is supposed to be a newspaper woman ‘who has gained some renown with her pen.’ We view her at first reporting on a great divorce case, after which we do not see her working at her job. Instead, we behold her at wonderful house parties and on boating trips and wearing, oh, such clothes!

That divorce case made the heroine question her engagement so she dumps her fiancé. Then she gets called frivolous by some random guy, changes her mind and goes back to her intended. Kingsley found “as a document of human life it is about as natural and convincing as a tin minnow,” but what really set her off was the way it maligned her profession. She concluded “a newspaper office does not turn out women with so little common sense—not to mention a sense of humor.” John Gilbert (later Garbo’s leading man) played the fiancé, but Kingsley was so busy being annoyed that she didn’t notice him. A complete version of it is in a U.S. archive, but the Library of Congress’ Film Survival Database doesn’t say which one.

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Really, it’s him and his steam roller

Kingsley gave an update on Stan Laurel’s current (and first) production, Nuts in May:

Last week a harmless steam roller, just going along about its business and bothering nobody, was sighted outside the studio grounds. An eagle-eyed member of the Stanley comedy outfit passed the good word along. Before the roller could make its lumbering escape, it was boarded by a gang of film pirates, the driver walked the plank, and Stan himself gave a star performance in the “cab.” After which the scenario writer sat on the curb and wrote the story.

The steam roller gag is the bit of the film that survives because it was re-used in Mixed Nuts (1922). Kingsley’s item is a rare glimpse of how Laurel worked, even in his first film.