Methodists and Movies: Week of April 26th, 1919

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Self censorship, at its finest

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that the pictures were going to church:

Now that the Methodist-Episcopalian church has officially decided that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong about motion pictures, it does seem as if the last objection to the flickers had been removed. In fact, the breach between pictures and the church would seems to have been entirely healed, for when the church above mentioned gathers its delegates together in June at Columbus Ohio, motion pictures will be part of the program.

It seems a picture pageant is to be prepared, showing the hundreds of Hindus, Japanese and Chinese who are to be present at the meeting, and who will work in the interests of foreign missions. Just what other action will be taken by the meeting is not known, but it has been whispered that pictures of a suitable nature may later be adopted as a part of entertainments and lectures given in the Methodist church.

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Charles Edward Locke

It seems it wasn’t all Methodists who objected to the pictures, it was mostly one in Los Angeles: Charles Edward Locke, pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church. He had given a fiery sermon about them on July 7th 1918. Kingsley misremembered it a bit, because he didn’t condemn all films. He conceded that motion pictures had great possibility for instruction, and “the desire for recreation and amusement is legitimate and within certain bounds be encouraged.” Why, he had even recommended films from the pulpit that would provide uplift. However, he had also “severely criticized and denounced the increasing tendency to prostitute the high art of the motion picture into an insidious debauchery of the young and old.” Furthermore, “pictures have never been so daring and prurient and salacious and indecent as they are today.” His knickers were in quite the twist.

It got even better. Knowing which side his bread was buttered on, Locke blamed filmmakers, saying “the producers and not the patrons are wholly responsible.” He told of “a gentleman who is fond of elevating pictures and who visits most of the motion-picture houses tells me that he is almost continuously offended by the inexcusable introduction of scenes which are utterly degrading and repulsive.” Poor man, it must have been exhausting to be continuously offended. How terrible that the big mean theater owners forced him to hand over his quarters and then marched him into such dens of inequity!

To solve the problem, Locke declared “a censorship should be established as will make it impossible for these despicable creatures to carry forward their schemes of moral degradation.” He asked his congregation to call on the Mayor and City Council for “immediate legislation that will raise the moral standard of motion pictures and that will prohibit the exhibition of flagrantly offensive films.”

There’s no evidence that anything came of this. The reports from Council meetings said that they was busy arguing over if their new blue laws that closed stores on Sundays should apply to drug stores too, and whether a new road should be built to the harbor. Los Angeles citizens were too busy worrying about the war to spend time on film censorship. The next Sunday, even Locke had forgotten about it, and he preached an equally fiery sermon against the Kaiser. But it seems to have stuck in Kingsley’s head, so she could be glad the Methodists gotten over their objections to the pictures.

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The meeting that Kingsley mentioned was a very big deal indeed. Held June 20th to July 13th, the Centenary Celebration of American Methodist Missions attracted over 100,000 visitors to Columbus, Ohio where they walked through eight large pavilions displaying missionary work from around the world. It was a Methodist World’s Fair. They also had popular entertainment, including a Ferris wheel, a Wild West show, concerts by the Cincinnati Symphony, and a ten-story film screen, where they showed both ethnographic films about their missionary work, and movies from Hollywood. In 2012, Christopher Anderson published two books about it.

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Kingsley had a cute story about D.W. Griffith’s newest protégé:

Carol Dempster, the lovely new Griffith star, who is playing the leading role in The Girl who Stayed at Home at Graumans, has a devoted and solicitous admirer in her small nephew, Dempster Glines. Dempster went to the show the other night and nearly broke it up. Whenever the bullying Germans grabbed Carol, he shouted aloud, “Quit that! You let my auntie alone!” And when the wicked German was finally shot, the youngster shouted, so his voice carried to the uttermost parts of the gallery, “Hooray! Give it to him! Give it to him good!”

I’m glad Carol Dempster had family who stood up for her: film fans haven’t always been kind to her memory. Dempster was 6 years old in 1919. He changed his name to James when he grew up, tried acting, worked as a shipping clerk and served in the National Guard during the Second World War.

Another young actress, Bessie Love, was looking forward to a notable achievement:

Little Bessie Love ought to be awarded the palm for thoroughness. What do you think? Little Bessie is to graduate from the Los Angeles High School in June!

You see Bessie quit school at the beginning of her senior year, just three years ago, to become a picture actress. And she worked so hard for a while that she had no time for school. Then she began to wish she had finished the isms and ologies she had forsaken, so she began to attend night school. And now her teachers do say that she has qualified herself to receive, with the graduating class which goes out into the cold world in June, a sheepskin duly equipped with the credentials which ought to bear on them, if they do not, the legend, “For a good little girl.”

Calling a 20-year-old woman a good little girl is awfully infantilizing, but that’s how she was sold in the ads for her films. Kingsley herself only got to complete one year of high school before she had to go to work as a stenographer.

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Kingsley’s best line this week was in a review of All For A Kiss, the musical comedy at the Burbank Theater that she thought rivaled shows at New York’s Winter Garden. It actually had a plot, and:

It’s a cunningly devised plot, too—that is, I mean it is cunning devised so as to hang on it as many bathing suit scenes and tropical island costumes and hula dances and comic numbers by the three comedians as possible.

You really don’t need to know anything more about it: this entertainment was thoroughly free from any moral uplift. Rev. Locke probably didn’t attend.

 

 

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Here’s a digression from this week’s news that I stumbled on while researching Rev. Locke. In his anti-film sermon he mentioned one particularly evil example that

resulted in action looking toward a proper censorship by the City Council, but the purposes of their wise legislation were defeated by assurances from the large picture producers that if the whole matter were left to them the evil tendencies would be corrected. The Council was betrayed.

Of course I had to see what that was about. On December 21, 1917 Mayor Woodman had ordered Free and Equal to be suppressed because it was “immoral.” A delegation of 50 producers, distributors and exhibitors showed up at his office right after Christmas, denounced that exhibitor as a “wildcatter,” and begged for the whole industry to not be punished for one irresponsible person. The said they’d already started a committee of their own, and would do the censoring themselves. The Mayor promised to wait two weeks before he did anything, and it seems that everybody promptly forgot about the whole thing, except for Rev. Locke.

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It played only one night

Remarkably, it wasn’t sex or violence that they were censoring; it was a film about intermarriage between black and white people. (Once again, the past is a foreign country!) Now lost, Free and Equal told the story of a white judge who believes there will be equality if black and white people can marry – until his daughter marries a mixed-race man who is committing bigamy. Then the husband murders another young woman as he was getting ready to rape her, mostly because they’re dealing in hypersexual racist stereotypes but also partly because it was a Thomas Ince melodrama from 1917. He ends up in prison and the judge quits believing in equality. It was certainly a reprehensible film, but the NAACP dealt with it in a much smarter way when it finally did get shown, as the anonymous AFI Catalog writer reported:

According to information in the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress, the National Office of the NAACP sent an official to the opening on 19 April 1925, after having received over a period of a few months “more or less mysterious intimations” about the film “which was characterized as being much worse than The Birth of a Nation.” The official judged the film to be “very offensive,” and surmising that “the intimations sent us were a bid for publicity,” the NAACP decided to take no action to protest the film. After a week in New York, it was withdrawn.

 

“Film Men Ask To Aid Mayor,” Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1917.

“Mayor Orders a Film Suppressed,” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1917.

“Must Prohibit Vicious Films,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1918.

 

 

Week of July 28th, 1917

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a production at Universal that was more exciting than it really needed to be. While filming a bar room shoot-out for a two-reel Western called Phantom Gold, director W.B. Pearson asked actor Clarence Hodge to fire a rifle at the film’s star, Fred Church, and instructed him

to place his shots as near as he possibly could to Church’s head without taking the grave chance of “drilling” the leading man. Hodge started to produce excitement from the very outset of the scene. The first shot bored through the edge of the bar above Church’s shoulder. The next whizzed past the place where his forehead had been a moment ago. Ping! Ping! Ping! As fast as the marksman could work the ejector the bullets clipped the edge of the bar within a few inches of Church’s stooping form, and he was showered with flying splinters. The twelve shots in the magazine of the first rifle were fired, and Hodge seized another and kept up the fusillade. The hail of lead was striking so close to the leading man that the director’s nerve gave out, though Church himself was as brave as a Frenchman in battle.

Suddenly the closest shot of all ripped away a piece of wood within two inches of Church’s head, imbedding a splinter the size of a lead pencil in the player’s neck. Right then the director threw up his hands and stopped the action. Twenty-one bullets of 30 caliber were fired, and every one of them landed within three inches of the edge of the bar, which was shattered completely. Church’s hair—which may be assumed to have been in a upright position—was matted with splinters, which also were stuck in his neck and shoulders so that he had the bristling aspect of a scared porcupine. While the handsome film idol declares he had perfect faith in Hodge’s marksmanship, still he admits to a hoping in his inmost soul there will be no retake.

And that’s why unions and workplace safety regulations are so important! From the beginning, actors usually used blanks in guns, not live ammunition. They just didn’t show the effects of bullets hitting things. Now squibs (miniature explosive devices) are used to simulate bullet impacts. Wikipedia (I know, not the best source) says they were first used in Pokolenie (A Generation), a 1955 Polish film.

Phantom Gold is so lost that there isn’t even an IMDB page for it, but it was mentioned in Motion Picture News (July 21, 1917). Clarence Hodge, who learned to shoot in the Army, gave up acting in the early 1920s and went to work for a refrigeration company. Fred Church made it through that workday and had a good long life, dying in 1983 at age 93 of congestive heart failure – not of bad decisions by a director. He mostly acted in Westerns until the mid-1930s, when he retired. Poor W. B. Pearson didn’t fare as well: he died only fifteen months later, in the influenza epidemic.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a circus story: ‘all innocent of fights, automobile accidents, fires and seductions as it is, yet The Sawdust Ring, at Clune’s Auditorium, holds you completely charmed.” Bessie Love starred as a girl, deserted by her father, who with a neighbor boy runs away to the big top. Kingsley didn’t catch they boy’s name, but she thought he rivaled Jack Pickford and “he is certainly some little actor!” He was Harold Goodwin, and he went on to work in film and television continuously until 1968, most memorably in Buster Keaton’s College and The Cameraman, as well as in Keaton’s TV shows. The film survives in a shortened version at the Pacific Film Archive and at the BFI.

Here’s how the newspaper used to cover salacious gossip:

The pages of Frances White’s supposedly private affairs continue to be painfully public. Eastern papers carry the story that detectives on the trail of Miss White’s husband, Frank Fay, discovered him living at a Philadelphia hotel with another woman, and in the meantime, Frank Fay, just to keep things moving, is suing Billy Rock, Miss White’s professional partner, for the alienation of Miss White’s valuable affections.

It was so much more polite! Of course I had to know what happened next. White, a successful vaudeville singer, got her divorce (the marriage lasted all of two months) and Fay’s suit was dismissed – White and Rock were strictly professional partners. Fay went on to have a lucrative career as a stage comedian and master of ceremonies, but his personality didn’t improve: he became a white supremacist. The title of Trav S.D.’s article about him was “The Comedian Who Inspired Hatred.” He was also Barbara Stanwyck’s first husband and their story was rumored to have been the basis for A Star is Born.

Why would someone want to withstand his charm?

Grace Kingsley was wrong about something this week in her review of a Pauline Frederick film, Her Better Self. She seemed to think that it was a problem with the picture when every young woman in the film fell in love with Thomas Meighan: “no feminine being who meets him seems able to withstand his charm, and this though he doesn’t vamp ‘em one bit.” As anyone who has seen him in The Canadian (1926) knows, this is pure realism and solidly logical. To prove my point, here are some more photos.