Week of July 14th, 1917

heartsoftheworld

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 March 17th, 1917

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Buster shows how it’s done

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noticed a new trend at live theater performances: “the habit of applause on the part of the audience appears to be dying out.” She theorized about what was causing it. At the top of the list was moving pictures, because there was no need to cheer for absent actors so people had gotten out of the habit. However, the new, quieter acting style and less melodramatic plays were also part of the problem; she wrote “can you fancy loud cane-whackings on the floor as an expression of gratification at the voicing of a Shaw subtlety, or some of the finer passages of an Ibsen drama?” It had gotten so bad that some theater owners were rumored to hiring professional applauders, to make the performers feel better. Who knew that styles of applause went in and out of fashion?

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a Pauline Frederick film Sapho,

the story of the little street gamin, the flower girl of Paris, who captured one lover after another, is done so as to be entirely convincing…The transition in the girl from the gay butterfly to the sincerely loving woman is accomplished by Miss Frederick with no hypocritical show of demureness.

Sapho was based on a novel by Alphonse Daudet that was frequently adapted, first as a short in 1908, then as a feature in 1913 and then just the year before with Theda Bara in the title role. Other critics agreed that this version was particularly good; George N. Shorey in Motion Picture News even said it “will never be more finely interpreted than in this Famous Players production.” It’s a lost film. Frederick was respected as one of the best actresses of her time; to learn more visit Greta deGroat’s site.

 

outofthewreak
Out of the Wreck

Kingsley took personally a bit of business in a film about political corruption called Out of the Wreck.

The author evidently had a weird idea of newspaper people. The woman in the story apparently always kissed her city editor good morning, and then perched on the arm of his chair for an hour or so!

That wasn’t her only problem with the film; despite the good directing, acting, and photography, she thought the story was “patched together out of the scenario barrel.” It’s been preserved at the Library of Congress.

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Billy Bitzer

Kingsley told a story that proves nobody was surprised when cameraman Billy Bitzer wasn’t able to go to France to shoot the war scenes for Hearts of the World. Griffith wired him to come to New York and from there go to England with him. Bitzer replied “Can’t, I’m German.” Griffith answered “Well, change your name and come on.” Bitzer’s retort: “Might change my name but how can I change my face?” Bitzer did eventually travel to England, but Griffith had to hire another cameraman to visit the front lines.

Kingsley told a cute story about mistaken identity this week:

Harriette Lee, in some poses, especially close up, is a dead ringer for Mabel Normand. The other night both young women were dancing and supping out at Vernon. Three persons in succession passed by Miss Lee’s table, bowing and greeting her as Miss Normand. Each one, on pausing for another look (you always look at as long at Mabel as you can, naturally) in turn apologized, saying, ‘Oh, I beg your pardon!’ Miss Normand really was present at a near-by table, and when the last visitor made his apology, she called out ‘If people don’t stop apologizing to this lady because they’ve accused her of looking like me there’s going to be trouble.’

Harriette Lee was a vaudeville performer, and Kingsley had reviewed her favorably earlier in the week, saying “female ‘nuts’ are rare on the stage, but Harriette Lee is quite the most delicious one growing on the vaudeville tree. She and her partner, Ben Ryan, kid their way through an act that must be seen to be appreciated.” The husband and wife team had originated the “Dumb Dora” act that George Burns later credited as the basis for his act with Gracie Allan.