Setting Up Shop: Week of November 15th, 1919

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the hopeful beginnings of many new film companies:

  • Lottie Pickford Rupp (Mary’s sister) was planning her own production company. They were choosing a story for the first film and Martin Justice had been hired to direct. In her column, Kingsley didn’t hesitate to butter up the whole family: “big success is prophesized for Miss Pickford, who is considered quite in a class with her brilliant brother and sister.”
  • The Hermann Film Corporation was building “a large plant on a five-acre tract in Santa Monica.” The owner, E.P. Hermann, planned on having three companies working there: one dramatic, one comedy and one serial. The dramatic company had already produced one film, That Some Thing starring Margery Wilson, Charles Meredith and Carl Ullman.
  • The new Jesse D. Hampton studio at Santa Monica Blvd. and La Brea was nearly ready, and Blanche Sweet’s next film, Simple Souls would start shooting there the following Monday.
  • Actor Taylor Holmes had founded his own independent production company, and had bought the film rights to three properties, Nothing But the Truth, The Very Idea and Nothing But Lies. All three had been stage vehicles for William Collier.
  • Polly Moran had gotten her own company, and was at work in a Culver City studio.
  • Harry ‘Snub’ Pollard was getting his own series, with Mildred Davis as his leading lady, because Harold Lloyd was recovering from the explosion that injured his hand.
  • Finally, there was this little note: “Roscoe Arbuckle seems to bring good luck to all his players. Now it’s Buster Keaton who is shortly to have his own company, and adorn the film firmament as a star. Keaton is an exceedingly clever young comedian, and here’s wishing him luck.”

There was so much optimism in the post-war film business world! These projects had various degrees of success.

lottie_pickfordLottie Pickford’s film with Martin Justice did get made but it didn’t come out until 1921. Called They Shall Pay, it told the story of a woman seeking revenge for her father from crooked business associates. Her leading man, Allan Forrest, became her second husband. It was her last leading role; she had small parts in one of her sister’s films (Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall) and one of her brother in-in-law’s films (Don Q Son of Zorro) but that was all.

ephermannThe Hermann Film Corporation told the press about lots of plans for other films over the following months, but they only finished the one Kingsley mentioned. The company had abandoned the lot at 25th Street and Wilshire Blvd. by the summer of 1922, and it went on to greater fame than the film company ever did: Douglas Aircraft leased it, and that’s where the company that became McDonnell-Douglas built its first successful airplanes.

The Jesse D. Hampton studio also went out of business and was bought by a famous company; in 1922 it became Pickford-Fairbanks Studios. It’s still open today as Warner Hollywood Studios. ****Mary Mallory helpfully corrected me: Warner’s no longer owns what was Pickford Fairbanks. It is now called The Lot and is owned by a real estate company.**** Hampton made only one more film after that, The Spoilers (1923), but he kept trying to get productions off the ground until at least 1925.

holmesTaylor Holmes did make all three films he had the rights to, but then his production company went out of business. It didn’t harm his work prospects, however. He appeared in four plays on Broadway from 1920-1923, then he had a long career, alternating between stage and screen and later, television.

 

pollardSnub Pollard did star in two shorts, Red Hot Hottentotts (Film Daily thought it showed “a falling off of quality”) and Why Go Home? (Film Daily said it had “several corking situations”), but as soon as Harold Lloyd recovered, Pollard went back to being the second banana. Like Holmes, he also had a long film career. (here’s some trivia: who does Gene Kelly hand his umbrella to after he Sings in the Rain? Snub Pollard!)

Polly Moran did make a series of shorts in 1920-22, starting with Sherriff Nell’s Comeback, and she kept working until 1940, with a brief comeback in 1949.

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Not fair to compare: Keaton and Joe Roberts in The Scarecrow

But only one of the new enterprises had a spectacular success (really, it isn’t fair to compare the others to him). Buster Keaton was about to get started on his solo career. People are still seeing and writing about his two-reelers, including me: I wrote synopses of them all for the International Buster Keaton Society almost twenty years ago (Ouch! Where did the time go?).

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Almost A Husband, Will Roger’s first film under his new Goldwyn contract. Kingsley wasn’t aware that he’d appeared in two previous movies, so she didn’t know if he could transition from his vaudeville act to silent film. She thought it worked out well:

Will Rogers has done it. He has shown that there’s more to him than his lariat and his professional chewing gum and the power to deliver himself of epigrams three to a minute, all hot and home made. In short, I think the crowds who crushed their way into the California [Theater] yesterday, to view the famous lariat artist in his first picture, will back me up in the statement that there has arrived among us a new and vivid screen personality, equipped to take his place with the top-notchers of Filmdom.

Transplanting a popular idol from stage to screen is a mighty delicate operation, and every once in a while some such idol gets busted in the process. Not so Mr. Rogers. He has arrived intact. Nay, his quaint and genial personality, his trenchant wit, his radiant drollery are actually vivified, it seemed to me, by his celluloid double.

They used “brilliant” intertitles to bring his jokes to the screen; according to his biographer (Ben Yagoda) Rogers “often wrote or helped write them.”

The now lost film was “full of thrills and laughter,” wrote Kingsley. Rogers played a homely schoolteacher who marries the prettiest woman in town in a fake ceremony, only to learn it was legal. Since she didn’t want to marry the man her father chose for her, they stay married in name only. Naturally, after he outwits the villain she falls in love with him.

Speaking of weddings, Kingsley reported on one that was to take place on Saturday, November 15th—if:

the groom-to-be’s director allows him to shave off his mustache and beard. Otherwise, says the bride, there’ll be nothing doing!

Not to keep you in suspense any longer the parties to the romance are none other than Lloyd Whitlock playing a star part in one of George Beban’s productions and Miss Myrtle Gibsone, partner of Mabel Condon in the Mabel Condon Exchange.

The facts about the beard are really touching. You see, it’s this way. Since Mr. Whitlock is playing a role which demands beard and mustache, Mr. Beban says it’s imperative that his production should not be ruined by such a silly excuse as a mere whim of a prospective bride. On the other hand, Miss Gibsone declares that you never heard of such a thing in motion picture plots or elsewhere as a hero with a beard. That is, a picture hero may have a beard, but he always is considerate enough to shave it off before the last reel and the clinch.

“I simply won’t have a bridegroom with whiskers!” wailed Miss Gibsone. On the other hand, Beban is firm that the offending ivy must be retained until at least Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. So you can see for yourself how matters stand. And in the meantime the suspense is simply killing us all!!!

Myrtle Gibsone was not joking: she’d already postponed the wedding twice. The beard was still there on Saturday, so she didn’t hesitate to postpone the ceremony again. She set Monday, November 24th for the next attempt. According to Photoplay, Beban hurried to finish filming One Man in a Million by then, and “wedding bells rang out.” Though it took awhile to get started, the marriage lasted until Whitlock died in 1966.

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Sue Whitlock, 1939 UCLA Yearbook

The couple had met six years earlier when they were both working for Kalem, she as a manager and he as an actor. At the time she got married, Mary Evelyn Myrtle Gibsone Whitlock was an actor’s agent at the Mabel Condon Exchange. She took some time off from work when she had a daughter, Suzanne, in 1921. The she became a script supervisor at Universal Studios. She retired in 1963. Lloyd T. Whitlock kept acting, appearing in nearly 200 films. Coincidentally, he played the villain opposite Lottie Pickford in They Shall Pay. He retired in 1949. They had an ordinary, middle-class life in Hollywood.

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It really happened! From the California County Birth, Marriage and Death Records database.

 

A.H. Gieble, “West Coast Picture Folk Frolic,” Moving Picture World, December 13, 1919, p.821.

“Plays and Players,” Photoplay, March 1920, p.102.

 

“Los Angeles Did Not Forget”:Week of November 8th, 1919

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Hamburger’s had everything you needed

One hundred years ago this week, the first anniversary of Armistice Day was celebrated in Los Angeles. Mayor Snyder proclaimed it a general holiday, and asked stores and offices to close for it. (It didn’t become a legal holiday in the United States until 1938.)

The city had a busy day planned. Happily, all of the soldiers and sailors had been demobilized by then so they could be there to celebrate, too. The main event was at Exposition Park starting at 2 pm; it included a band concert, songs from the community chorus, speeches and flag dedications. More than fifty thousand people attended (far fewer than the half million that crowded the streets of downtown for the unofficial celebration when the war ended a year earlier). LA Times reporter Otis M. Wiles described the celebrants:

Los Angeles did not forget. Though a year of peace on earth had brought happiness back to the little cottage on the hillside and the mansion on the boulevard, the scenes that were revealed at the dawning of November 11, 1918 had not been erased from the minds of those crowding the gates of Exposition Park…

Scattered through the jubilant throng were many happy scenes, the olive drab uniform of the soldiers and the blue of the gobs mingling with the gaily-colored gowns of happy women and girls. Tanned doughboys bounced little tots on their knees. Mother clung to the arms of their boys who had returned to them. Red Cross nurses and canteen workers flitted through the crowds, selling tickets to the American Legion Victory Ball. But here and there was seen a veil, hiding a sorrowful face of one whose son had not returned. And many gold stars shone like the star of Bethlehem from black bands on many sleeves.

There were more events in other parts of the city, including an eagle show at the Selig Zoo, aviation stunts at the Mercury Field, a rally at the Bible Institute, and in the evening, the dance the nurses were selling tickets to at the Shrine Auditorium. The Victory Ball was organized by the American Legion to raise money for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau, a group that helped veterans find jobs. It had been a taxpayer-funded enterprise, but the Legion was about to take it over in January, 1920.

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Helen Walker of the Merchant Marie helped advertise the Ball

That’s where film stars would be doing their part, as Grace Kingsley reported:

Up at 324 Byrne Building, headquarters for the Big Victory Ball and Peace Pageant which the American Legion is giving at Shrine Auditorium tonight the telephone never stops. And it’s all on account of the “lucky dances” they are going to feature. Ever since the papers announced that Madge Kennedy, Betty Blythe, Carroll McComas, Gladys Brockwell, Enid Bennett, Antoine Moreno, William Russell, Tom Forman, Bryant Washburn and Wallace Reid would take part in a dance in which names drawn from a box would determine who the stars’ partners would be for the dance, the telephone has never stopped.

“Is it true that I’ll be able to dance with Wallace Reid, if I come to your dance at Shrine Auditorium?” a sweet young voice will ask when the receiver is lifted. When assured that she has that chance, confused sounds of delight ensue from the other end of the wire.

The Ball was a big success: over seven thousand people attended. The paper reported that everybody was so eager to dance, that when the band struck up a tune before the Peace Pageant, they all jammed the dance floor and the authorities had a terrible time getting them to sit back down again.

A few days later, Kingsley said that Blythe and Russell provided a little show for the people who didn’t win a dance with a star:

When you’re going to do a Brodie,* take a quiet spot—advice from Betty Blythe and Billy Russell, who should know. You see, while waiting for Charlie Condon to find a lost overcoat at the Shrine Auditorium ball the other night, the two stars seated themselves clubbily and dramatically on a table in the hall. And just as they were striking the most beautiful poses before the admiring eyes of a hundred fans, down came the table beneath them.

Ouch! No permanent damage was done to the actors.

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This week, Grace Kingsley mentioned a story that shows there was once an alternate scene in Roscoe Arbuckle’s The Garage:

Huh! Those smarty aleck scenario writers had better look to their laurels! Molly Malone, Roscoe Arbuckle’s leading woman, yesterday thought up a remark right out of her own head, so clever it is going to be used as a subtitle in Mr. Arbuckle’s current comedy. And she did it right in the middle of a scene, too.

It seems that the scene was a thrilling one, in which Miss Malone’s clothes are supposed to be burned from her. The action occurs in the interior of the house and Mr. Arbuckle calls out to her after her clothing is destroyed:

“Jump out of the window, Molly, jump!”

“I can’t,” called back Miss Malone, “the board of censors won’t let me!”

Students of Arbuckle’s films know that there’s no such scene in the final film. In the version available now, Malone is taking a bath when she realizes that the building is on fire, gets dressed, goes to the window and jumps into a net and bounces into the telephone wires. Buster Keaton and Arbuckle rescue her from them, she collects their car and they fall in and drive off.

Malone has plenty of clothes on in the final cut

Maybe her remark helped them realize her lack of clothing was too much for the censors, so smarty scenario writer Jean Havez re-wrote the ending.

 

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Happy Armistice Day to all. Blog readers don’t forget, either.

 

 

*Steve Brodie claimed that he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge; after that, spectacular falls were called Brodies.

 

“Armistice Day Made Holiday,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1919.

“Brilliant Victory Ball Concludes Celebration,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1919.

“To Honor Those Who Offered All,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1919.

Wiles, Otis M. “Write Peace in Blood and Gold,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1919.

Pickford’s Dream House: Week of May 3rd, 1919

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Her plans included a library (still from The Hoodlum)

One hundred years ago this week, while visiting Mary Pickford on the set of The Hoodlum, Grace Kingsley got an earful about a house building project:

“That’s one thing I’ve always wanted—my own room—and now I’m going to have it. I guess the first thing people always think of when they’re building a house is a nice big fireplace, so we’re going to have a whole flock of ‘em, including one in my room…I’m going to have a pretty room, all done in dark-colored enamel furniture, relieved with bright colors.”

Her mother Charlotte wanted a lot of bay windows and window seats, but Pickford made a good point about them: “I just can’t see ‘em myself, but mother has overruled me. So bay windows and window seats there will be. Window seats look so cosy—and aren’t. Nobody ever uses ‘em. They are something you just look at and say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll start sitting on those things next week.’”

Pickford had been talking about buying a mountain and building a house on it for awhile, and she said she’d found one overlooking Santa Monica Bay. She told Kingsley she’d made plans on paper, and it would be “somewhat in the old English style, with thatched-roof effect. It is to be in gray and white with a green roof, and it is to have twelve rooms and four baths.” Those rooms would include suite for her niece (bedroom, playroom and bath) right next to next to a bedroom for her sister, Lottie Pickford Rupp.

Mary Pickford and her family never did live in a house overlooking the bay. According to the 1920 Census (taken January 4th, 1920) they and their six servants were all living in a very nice rented house at 141 Westmoreland Place in West Addams, near Hollywood. Paradise Leased has a post about the neighborhood.

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This was her next house

So why did she go to the trouble of telling Kingsley this story? I think it’s an example of how good she was at controlling her own publicity. She needed to repair her reputation, because a year earlier she’d been in the news for having an affair with Douglas Fairbanks when they were both married to other people. Here she’s a good girl, planning a home for herself, her mother and sister while her then-current husband, Owen Moore, is never mentioned. She divorced him on March 2, 1920 and married Fairbanks on March 28, 1920. This story is another piece in the puzzle of how she survived what might have been a career-ending scandal.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was For Better, For Worse, the new Cecil De Mille movie that she thought was “one of the smashing picture hits of the year.”

How well Mr. De Mille ‘puts over’ his stories, as they say in vaudeville! We’re freshly impressed with the fact with every picture of his. In this one, there’s not an iota of dramatic value that is lost, there’s not a second of poignant situation from which every drop of effectiveness is not wrung. All gained by a cunning holding of suspense by a hundred telling touches, by flawless acting on the part of a cast picked each for faithfulness to character, and lastly, by faultless photography.

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Swanson’s outfits were fabulous in this one, too

It starred Gloria Swanson, but this one hasn’t been as fondly remembered as their other collaborations like Don’t Change Your Husband (1920), probably because the melodrama seems thick, not poignant now (she marries a soldier leaving for war instead of her true love, a doctor who does more good at home; she realizes her mistake after she injures a child in an accident and he successfully treats her; her disfigured husband does come home but he wants to leave her for his own true love so everybody ends up with the proper person – it’s a lot). It’s been preserved at the Eastman House.

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With friends like these…

On Wednesday Kingsley reported that Buster Keaton was back in town after serving in France, and by Friday she already had a story about a prank on the Arbuckle lot:

The rotund comedian had been working over at the Sennett in a very noisy comedy, next to another equally noisy Sennett comedy. When he came back to his own quiet studio, he complained his ears hurt him a bit, and he was afraid he was losing his hearing. That started it.

As soon as his company began working, he told them he couldn’t hear them—that he wished they’d speak a little louder. His leading woman came over and told him she was speaking as loud as she could and what was the matter with him anyhow? He looked around, troubled. “Louder!” he exclaimed. The whole company went through motions as though yelling at the top of their lungs. Just then a fire engine went by with a clang, and Fatty was on.

Dealing with co-workers like that was an occupational hazard for silent comics! Kingsley didn’t say who thought up the prank, however, Keaton had sadly lost some of his hearing while serving. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d used his own problem as inspiration.

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In her review of Pitfalls of a Big City, Kingsley gave a plaintive wail:

Why doesn’t somebody invent a new crook play? Why does the girl or guy always decide to ‘go straight,’ and then ‘go back to the old life,’ for fear ‘me pal will squeal on me and me little innocent kid sister will find out about me?’

I’m sure she wasn’t holding her breath for new plots any time soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buster Keaton Blogathon 2019

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This post is part of Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.

For the blogathon, I had hoped to look at how Grace Kingsley covered Buster Keaton in her columns, other than in her reviews and interviews. But there just wasn’t much to look at. He occasionally turned up in little stories, like when Lou Anger said he looked out of spirits, and Buster replied, “I am. Not a drop left!” or when there was news, like when he got married or when he hired a new director. It seems like he was more interested in working on his films than in being a movie star, which isn’t much of a surprise. The most interesting thing I noticed was how much more often he appeared in the paper after he signed that contract with M.G.M., but that only proves that they were a well-oiled publicity machine.

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Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Joe Mitchell, Jean Havez

So instead I’ll tell you about my favorite Keaton article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, “Humorists All at Sea.” Unsigned and published on May 25th, 1924, some lucky writer got to visit the original writing staff at work. A few months earlier, technical director Fred Gabourie, while on loan to another studio for The Sea Hawk, found something his boss might like to use: the Buford, a 450 foot ocean liner being sold for scrap. He was right. So one day Keaton took Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joe Mitchell to visit it at Catalina Island and said, “There’s the boat. Now write me a comedy.” The Times writer watched as they did just that:

As an illustration of the way gag men work, take the methods of Buster’s scenarists. All three inspected the Buford from the lowest deck to the top of the main mast. Everything from the anchor to the smokestack was considered for its possible comedy values. Portholes were inspected, life preserves labeled up, a diver’s suit dragged out on deck, the uniforms of the various members of the crew were considered.

From stem to stern nothing aboard the Buford was overlooked. For two whole days the gag men shot possibilities at each other and Buster while they built up the story. A stenographer sat hard by taking down the suggestions.

At the end of a week of this sort of thing, the stenographer had more than 400 pages of single-spaced gag ideas. These ideas were whipped into story form by Buster and his henchmen in several more days of work.

Only the funniest of the gags and only those which best fitted into the story were retained. And after ten days of talk the first scene of Buster’s comedy, tentatively titled The Navigator, was shot.”

So it was as simple as that! Now that we know, we can all go out and make a masterpiece. The article shows how different writing for movies is from other kinds. As Keaton said in his autobiography, “they were not word guys, at all. They didn’t have to be.”

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Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, Keaton, Jean Havez

Keaton’s original group of gag men had been working with him since his two-reelers, but they were to stay together for just one more film, Seven Chances. The team broke up temporarily in late 1924, when Keaton closed his studio for two months while he went on vacation. It became permanent when Jean Havez died of a heart attack on February 12, 1925. Joe Mitchell co-wrote three more comedies and retired. Clyde Bruckman went to work for Harold Lloyd, but when he read the book The Great Locomotive Chase, he brought it right to his old boss and they made The General.

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Keaton and Capt. John A. O’Brien

The L.A. Times writer mentioned one detail that I hadn’t read elsewhere:

Captain John A. O’Brien, veteran of fifty-eight years of service on the Pacific, materially aided the scenarists. O’Brien told funny stories of past experiences he had or of which he had heard and called in his crew to tell their versions of funny incidents of life shipboard.

obrien_1919Captain “Dynamite Johnny” O’Brien (he once prevented a dynamite explosion) was born in Cork, Ireland in 1851 and he moved to the United States in 1862. According to the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, he’d been a sailor since 1867 and he became a steamer captain in 1888, mostly traveling between Seattle and Alaska. So he really did know a lot about ships; Keaton was clever to ask an expert. After 1919 O’Brien became a pilot in the Puget Sound. He was still working as a mariner, age 79, and living in Seattle according to the 1930 Census. He died the following year.

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The Navigator is recognized as a great silent comedy; in his autobiography Keaton said it and The General were his best. In 2018 it was added to the National Film Registry.

 

Please visit the rest of the Buster Keaton Blogathon!

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Week of August 10th, 1918

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recorded the patriotic fervor of the times in a movie review:

To Hell with the Kaiser isn’t merely the name of a photodrama. It’s an American state of mind. Therefore it would be absurd to expect any red-blooded American to sit down and write a cool analysis of any picture with that name.

It breathes the very spirit of American pep and dash and optimism. It is like a draught of champagne in a dry town. It radiates victory. Some dyspeptic old critic may take a wallop at it, but he can’t hurt it any. The crowds will go see it just the same…Even the possible pale-blooded old critic, snouting after faults, who may allege the thing’s too episodic, that the “dramatic verities” are not preserved, that the American girl is quite too impossible clever, that the patriotism is flamboyant, will have to acknowledge the play’s got a soul and a soul of flame.

For, not content with bringing events down to date, it soon flies the track of events and soars into the illimitable blue of the imaginable future. And it’s so adroitly done—that moving on from the tragedy of the past to the blinding hope of the future. So that when the story leaps at last into buoyant comedy, it seems quite the most natural thing in the world.

That ‘imaginable future’ involved Kaiser Wilhelm getting captured by the Allies, committing suicide and going to hell where Satan, impressed by his horrible deeds, abdicates in his favor. While that’s an understandable revenge fantasy, it’s hard to imagine it as a comedy. The film is lost, so we can’t see how they managed it.

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At the time it was extremely popular. The theater had held a preview night for eight hundred soldiers and sailors and they “cheered themselves hoarse” according to Kingsley’s report. Three bands wound up the evening with a rousing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

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I couldn’t find a record of the box-office returns, but looks like film did well until the war ended in November. After that, Metro tried their best to keep selling it in December:

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Kingsley had a very good time at another movie this week:

The Cook assays about three laughs a minute—that is, unless you just get one laugh out of it and that continuous. In fact, Fatty put the ho-ho in hokum. There is the Salome dance with Fatty wearing all the scullery furniture except the kitchen stove.

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The Country Hero

The Salome burlesque was an extremely durable bit of business. Arbuckle and company had first filmed it for The Country Hero in 1917; it’s lost, but from the photos it looks like Buster Keaton performed the Salome role. In The Cook, the dance was contagious – a dancer in the restaurant inspired Keaton to imitate her, then Keaton inspired Arbuckle. This was Buster’s last film with Arbuckle before he left to serve in the army. Keaton next used it to entertain the troops when he was part of the 40th Division Sunshine Players. Then the bit acted as a sort of welcome home from his time in the military when it turned up again in Backstage, Keaton’s return to film work in 1919. It was part of “The Falling Reign” portion of stage show in the short. They used more of the Salome story, with Keaton playing the taunting temptress and Arbuckle playing the king who wants to dump her.

Later, when Buster made personal appearances to support College in 1927, he did it again, calling his act “The Song of the Dance.” Finally he used a version of it in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Like all good vaudevillians, he didn’t let proven material go to waste. No matter which version you see, it’s still a hoot.

Kingsley reported big news for people who know that Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents:

Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, that classic of girlhood’s library, is to be made into a film, after all, despite the difficulties W.A. Brady had in securing screen rights. Mr. Brady will make an elaborate production of the story, on which work has already commenced. The scenes are being made in Concord, Mass., in the very house sacred to the memory of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.

William Brady, a very successful theatrical and film producer, had presented it as a play during the 1912-13 season, so he was familiar with the material. This was second of many, many film adaptations of the novel (the first was a 1917 British production). From the plot description in its Paramount Press Book, it looks like Jo still sacrifices her hair and Beth dies, but Amy doesn’t burn Jo’s manuscript (the worst crime in girls’ literature!) and Jo doesn’t try out independence and move to the city – Prof. Baer already lives in Concord. They really did shoot some of it in Orchard House, so it’s particularly sad that it’s a lost film. If you’d like to see what the rooms look like now, the Alcott Museum has a virtual tour.

 

 

 

Week of March 16th, 1918

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed D.W. Griffith in his office at the Fine Arts studio. He described what women were doing for the war effort in England, and he had some surprising ideas, for someone known for his girlish Victorian characters:

Maybe it sounds strange to you; but, you see, women are taking the places of men wherever possible, even right behind the firing line…I cannot tell you how much the men appreciate it and respect them for their cheerful unselfishness. They are even serving as officers’ chauffeurs, both in France and in England. I rode behind one, and she beat the mechanic at his own game in an emergency. A fine spirit of camaraderie is growing out of it all—a spirit I feel sure will be a source of permanent understanding between men and women.

Women are becoming economically independent at a great rate. What will the men do when they get back home? Are they going to be content to keep on letting women run things? Well, mark you this, I heard a British Tommy say one day ‘Bless the bloomin’ women, they’re doin’ all right! Let ‘em keep on, I say. What do we care, so the work’s done right.

The brightest outlook for women due to this war is—that they will understand. That’s been the real handicap and the unhappiness of women—they haven’t known life as it really is. The war is teaching it to them. The daughters of this war will understand.

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Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps mechanics at work on a car engine at Abbeville, France

Kingsley was too polite to question his idea that only fighting, pain and suffering is ‘real life.’ The war did temporarily open up new job opportunities for women, but Griffith was too optimistic: after the men came home, they were dismissed from their jobs. There wasn’t much change in assumptions about gender roles, either, according to history professor Susan Grayzel, who wrote “New forms of social interaction between the sexes and across class lines became possible, but expectations about family and domestic life as the main concern of women remained unaltered.”

 

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The Fair Barbarian

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Fair Barbarian. This “highly diverting and amusing comedy” told:

“how a sleepy town in England called Slowbridge—‘where the only thing that travels fast is gossip’—was jolted into the knowledge it is alive, and speeded into high by an American girl…To be sure this apostle of pep from Bloody Gulch, Montana, does a few things not usually done in good society, such as breaking a memorial window in a spirit of girlish glee still she’s so adorably pretty and elfish you’d forgive he if she drank all the communion wine when it is passed!”

The film’s press book helpfully pointed out that it was based on the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett, just like Mary Pickford’s recent success, The Little Princess. Its star, Vivian Martin, usually played parts that were similar to Mary Pickford’s. When films about spunky girls became less popular, she returned to her earlier job: Broadway actress. She later married Arthur Samuels, the editor of Harpers Bazaar. The film has survived at the Cinematheque Francais.

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No need to hurry! (The Bell Boy, 1918)

Buster Keaton once told interviewer George Pratt in that “as a rule, Schenck never knew when I was shooting or what I was shooting. He just went to a preview.” But Kingsley reported that he wasn’t a completely laissez-faire producer:

One of the subjects for which Joe Schenck came West, it develops, is to ascertain whether Fatty Arbuckle may not be speeded up in his work. Mr. Arbuckle, it appears, has been making only eight or ten pictures a year, and Mr. Schenk has discovered that he could easily dispose of Arbuckle comedies one every two of three weeks, that in fact, the public is clamoring for them.

“The makers of comedy are in luck,” said Mr. Schenck yesterday. “So far from the war having damaged the sale of really good comedies, the demand for them has increased. Naturally this is so, when the world is looking for something cheerful to take its mind off the world war, its excitements and depressions.”

Whether Mr. Arbuckle can be persuaded that art can be speeded up, remains to be seen.

She was right to be skeptical: Arbuckle released 6 shorts in 1918 and 7 in 1919. But they’re still being enjoyed by audiences, so they were good value for money!

 

 

 

 

 

Buster Blogathon 2018

This post is part of Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.

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He liked to read the paper, if not to appear in it

Nearly one hundred years ago, Grace Kingsley interviewed Buster Keaton twice for the Los Angeles Times. He turned up in her news and gossip columns quite often, but unlike Chaplin and Fairbanks (the two chattiest stars of the time) he sat down and answered her questions only early in his solo career. Alma Whittaker, Kingsley’s Times colleague, said in 1926 that he was afraid of interviews, and “it took Papa Keaton, Lew Cody, Roscoe Arbuckle and the trusty P.A. [press agent] to help me interview Buster.”* Fear might have been part of his reluctance, nevertheless doing publicity went with the job of being a star, and he wasn’t bad at it.

Kingsley first spoke to him just before his career took off in 1920, when he was publicizing The Saphead. The piece was called “Buster Busts Into Stardom.” Keaton was very funny about how acting in a drama was so different from comedy, because “the role of Bertie the Lamb does cramp Buster’s style something awful!” He told her all his work troubles:

“I gotta do some sad scenes. Why, I never tried to make anybody cry in my life! And I go ‘round all the time dolled up in kippie clothes – wear everything but a corset! Can’t stub my toe in this picture nor anything! Just imagine having to play-act all the time without ever getting hit with anything!”

“Don’t know why they chose me for the part, anyhow, only I’ve got a blank pan. Saw a nice fluffy pie on the set the other day that would’ve looked good on the hero’s face, but he got away just in time.”

“Fatty won’t speak to me in these clothes,” went on Buster, mournfully, “and neither will Luke, Fatty’s dog. I’m losing all my friends. And on top of all this, I gotta do some love scenes. And I never did make love before in my life. What? Oh, yes, of course, I mean before the camera. But, anyhow,” and Buster loosened the Arrow collar around his neck, “but anyhow, the camera can’t catch my blushes!”

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Despite his misgivings about his current project, life wasn’t all bad; as Kingsley pointed out “the agony won’t last much longer, because Buster has his own comedy company now, you know.” She asked him about his plans:

He says he’s following Fatty Arbuckle’s method, get a plot first, then build the picture, leaving all the plot out. He says it works fine. The first story is to be about a portable house and a young married couple, which certainly does sound like a jazzy combination for comedy.**

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She was right: One Week (1920) was a jazzy combination.

There’s no evidence that he was scared of talking to Kingsley, and Keaton did a fine job of saying things that made good copy–though I’m not convinced they were Keaton’s exact words, because he didn’t call Arbuckle ‘Fatty.’

Her second interview happened a little over a year later, when Kingsley visited Keaton and his new wife at home. It’s an unusual piece, because he rarely used his personal life in publicity — he’d rather talk about work.

She wrote a sweet description of the newlyweds:

“My goodness, where are the parents of these children?” That’s the first thing that pops into your head when you take a peek at Buster Keaton and his bride, who used to be Natalie Talmadge, in their new home. They are regular kids together, and Buster grins enough then to make up for all his solemnity in his pictures.

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Regular kids together

Kingsley told the story of their courtship, from meeting on a Roscoe Arbuckle set, through correspondence while Keaton served in France during World War 1, to their New York/Los Angeles long-distance engagement and wedding. The couple was obviously happy, but he had an image to maintain:

Not that you can get a word of romance out of Buster. He’d die, I suppose, rather than say anything sentimental. And he acted like somebody had caught him stealing sheep when I happened to catch him putting a little shawl around his wife’s shoulders to shield her from the draught.

She caught something you don’t get to see in Keaton biographies: Natalie Keaton’s fun side:

She looks like a little Quaker, does Natalie, and she has the sweetest expression in her eyes of any girl I have ever known. But there’s a spice of mischief, too. “Nobody else ever really had a chance for a minute,” said Natalie. “But I thought I’d keep everybody guessing a bit.”

It does take the quiet ones, doesn’t it? And just as you are looking at the shy face with an expression so demure that you expect her to say, ‘Will I meet thee at prayer hour tonight?’ she gives a smile like a ministering angel and says: ‘Let’s go for a race in my new Mercer! I can certainly make that old bus hum!”

It’s nice to see how well they started out, even knowing how sadly the marriage ended.

Keaton’s 1920’s fluffy celebrity interviews are very different from the ones he did in the 1950s and 60’s, which are collected in Buster Keaton: Interviews. After the interviewers realized that if you wanted to get him to talk, you just asked him how he and his crew solved a filmmaking problem, the articles became much more interesting. Maybe he didn’t particularly enjoy talking about himself.

 

Grace Kingsley, “Buster Busts into Stardom,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1920.

Grace Kingsley, “Now is Homey Little Wife,” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1921.

 

*Joe Keaton ended up doing most of the talking that day, telling about their time in vaudeville. However, Buster did contribute an interesting idea about why Three Ages and Go West didn’t make as much money as The Navigator: “the audience was cheated out of seeing him in dire woe. His current release, Battling Butler, had plenty of “agonized misery on his behalf” and so it was sure to be a big success. (Alma Whitaker, “Buster Smiles for this Scribe,” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1926.)

** By the time of this interview, The High Sign had already been shot in January-February 1920 and Keaton had decided to shelve it, allowing One Week to be his first solo two-reeler released in September, 1920.

Please visit the rest of the Buster Keaton Blogathon!

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Week of July 21st, 1917

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Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, the first draft lottery for the Great War was held in Washington, D.C. and Grace Kingsley reported on how the news was received in Hollywood:

On the various “lots” were gathered throughout the afternoon, little knots of actors, directors, extras, employees—all in a democracy for once, with the lines of professional caste forgotten. With stolid faces or with an air of suppressed excitement, according to the nature of the individual, crowds of actors and actresses read the draft lists in the papers.

And there was something mighty fine, something that made your proud you were an American in the attitude of those boys who had claimed no exemptions and whose names were printed in the fateful lists. No swank or swagger, no murmuring either—for the most part brave silence, with just sometimes a quick little catch in a tense throat, a slight unconscious squaring of shoulders, a quick, excited little laugh. The women were the agitated ones, grasping at the lists, eagerly questioning, turning away sometimes with quick little sighs of relief or with sparkling eyes, rallying the boys whose names appeared—but there were tenderness and pride in the rallying, too.

Every man who registered for the draft on June 5th was assigned a number between 1 and 10,500. The numbers were drawn in a lottery held at 9:30 am in the Senate Office Building, and the results were sent by telegraph to newspapers throughout the country. The men whose numbers were selected had five days to report to their local exemption board which determined if they had dependents, or if their job was more important to the war effort than being a solider. They were also examined by a doctor for physical disabilities. Kingsley was slightly inaccurate: men who claimed exemptions on their registration did get called before the board if their number came up.

Among the 15,000 men chosen from Southern California in the first group were actors Wallace Reid and Charles Ray, directors Marshal Neilan and Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), and producer Hal Roach. None of them served, because they all had wives and children and were granted exemptions. Fighting was left to volunteers and unmarried men. Selective Service rules have changed; since 1973 marital status has no effect on your draft status.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Sudden Jim starring draft lottery ‘winner’ and “fascinating young actor” Charles Ray. She found it was both a “crackling yarn” and a “corking story:” a clothes-pin manufacturing heir whose wood supply is threatened by a crooked businessman saves his business by seizing a loaded train from the lumber camp. A thrilling chase ensues, and Ray drives the train through a mountain fire and across a burning trestle just before the bridge is dynamited. I wonder if Buster Keaton or his writing staff on The General saw this now lost movie, then added a second train for this:

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Kingsley addressed why people still went to the movies this week.

Those curious persons who are never happy unless inquiring into the whys and wherefores of things, many of whom looked upon motion pictures as a fad, are now asking why they continue popular.

She came up with four reasons:

  1. All-star casts. Every film in the theaters that week had at least two stars; one had four notable players that people wanted to see.
  2. Inferior actors could never be substituted – it was always the “original New York cast.” Plus, nobody slumped through his or her work in matinees.
  3. Picture theaters were very pleasant places to be: cool and restful, with good music playing, far away from the vexatious, humdrum affair that life generally is.
  4. No reservations were needed – you could drop in any time.

I’m a little disappointed that she didn’t include “because live theater can’t show you thrilling train chases.” Her reasons still hold up; the only surprise is that there was anybody left still calling films a fad in 1917. However, this sort of think piece hasn’t gone out of fashion, either.

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Poor Charlie Chaplin had more health problems (just seven months ago, he’d been injured while making Easy Street). This time he’d spent ten days bedridden due to two carbuncles (clusters of boils) on his legs. They had been lanced as soon as he noticed them and the doctor ordered him to rest, but Chaplin didn’t follow his advice and the next day he was bedridden in terrible pain. Two doctors were able to prevent sepsis  (she didn’t say how) and after some undisturbed rest, he was able to go back to work. Before antibiotics, carbuncles could be dangerous: in 1916 Roscoe Arbuckle had one on his leg so severe that the doctors considered amputation.

No matter how many carrots I eat, I don’t look like this.

Keystone actress Myrtle Lind offered beauty advice this week. Since she thought that health is beauty, she’d become a vegetarian, saying “elimination of meat from the daily diet, in conjunction with outdoor exercise, is the thing for California. The idea that one has to eat a lot of meat if he leads an active life, I am sure, is wrong, for few people lead a more strenuous existence than do Keystone girls.” I think she might be missing something here: I exercise regularly and eat little meat, nevertheless, I look nothing like a Bathing Beauty. Could it be a bad idea to take advice from celebrities? (Nevertheless, at least she wasn’t selling something like they do nowadays!)

Keaton met the camera today

One hundred years ago today, Buster Keaton was introduced to the moving picture camera. Considering what Keaton did with it, the day really ought to be an international holiday.

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Childs Restraunt breakfast menu, 1917. Did he get rye, corn meal, buckwheat or wheat  griddle cakes? It’s been lost to history.

Monday, March 19, 1917 started out unremarkably for him. According to biographer Rudi Blesh, he got up early, restless and worried about his solo act. Twenty-one years old, he’d never worked onstage without his family, and he’d signed a contract to appear alone in The Passing Show, the Shubert’s Broadway variety show. It was the day before rehearsals were to begin. Unsettling news of the war in Europe filled the front page of the New York Times; three American boats had been sunk by German submarines, but Russia vowed to keep fighting alongside their allies, despite their revolution. Keaton went to a Childs Restaurant (it was a chain), ordered pancakes, but he couldn’t touch them. It was a cold morning (35 degrees) but dry and he went for a walk. He ran into Lou Anger, an old friend from vaudeville who was working for Roscoe Arbuckle. He talked Keaton into coming along for a visit to the studio. Anger introduced Arbuckle, who asked him to do a bit in the next scene of The Butcher Boy but Keaton turned him down. Arbuckle invited him to stay and see how they worked, then called for a twenty-minute break. He asked what he wanted to see first. The camera, Keaton replied. So they went over to the cameraman, Frank Williams.

Frank Williams
Frank Williams

Keaton and Arbuckle must have been persuasive, because most cameramen wouldn’t let a stranger (even worse, an actor) get anywhere near their equipment. Nevertheless, Williams let him, as Blesh put it, all but climb inside the camera, inspecting the gears, sprockets, and shutter. Then Keaton looked at the lights, the cutting room, and watched some dailies. Blesh continued, “This, he saw, was for him. As the last frame of the last rush faded on the screen, he stood up in the darkness. The twenty-minute break had been nearly an hour. ‘Let’s do that scene,’ he said.” And that’s how Buster Keaton became a filmmaker.

Grace Kingsley was busy working 3,000 miles away, so she had no idea that one of her soon -to-be favorite comics was getting his start in film. On this day she reported that theaters were going to stop using the American flag in advertising to restore some dignity to it “in the present grave crisis of national affairs” (Congress declared war on Germany just three weeks later, on April 6th) and she reviewed the week’s films, including Out of the Wreak (“another of those obvious stories, patched together out of the scenario barrel”) and The Barricade (“a new and refreezing twist on the defaulting broker theme”).

Two days later she mentioned that she’d gotten a letter from Arbuckle’s publicity man, Jimmie Tynan, who’d gone “east with Roscoe Arbuckle to try and get that man a little much-needed publicity.” He didn’t mention any clever recent hires, but he told her that while New York life was very exciting, they all missed California and “Mrs. Arbuckle’s sister had never seen snow before — and she hasn’t seen anything else since, in the way of climate, anyway.” No wonder the company moved back to Los Angeles in October. Minta Durfee Arbuckle’s sister Marie was born in Los Angeles in 1893, so the story might have even been true.

Unfortunately, when The Butcher Boy was released in Los Angeles in late April, Kingsley didn’t like it very much. She called it “pretty much the old jazz stuff as regards action and plot” but she conceded that Arbuckle in girls’ clothes is always funny. She didn’t mention the guy with the bucket at all.

 

 

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1924 Chicago Tribune ad

[Of course I had to find out what Bulgarzoon on the Childs menu was. It was a yogurt drink like Kefir, according to Dining Chicago.]

 

Buster Keaton Blogathon 2017

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This post is part of Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology. Please visit Silent-ology to see all of the other participating blogs.

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One hundred years ago, Grace Kingsley got to be a Buster Keaton fan before any of us. She first mentioned him on November 21,1919 when she reported that he was getting his own company. She added “Keaton is an exceedingly clever young comedian, and here’s wishing him luck.”

 

Before he got to work at Buster Keaton Comedies, he took a short detour to star in a “high” comedy, The Saphead, and Kingsley admired his work:

Buster Keaton makes the most of his fine opportunities. In fact, he realizes a really high standard of mimetic art by investing the role of Bertie with scores of really fine touches of kindly satire and pathos, as well as of nicely balanced comedy…in short, Buster Keaton is about five-sixths of the picture. (December 13, 1920)

She rarely reviewed anybody’s two-reelers other than Chaplin’s. However, she mentioned that in The Paleface Keaton was “tremendously amusing” (May 22, 1922) and Day Dreams delivered “a laugh a second or so,” furthermore

Keaton is an artist. And he knows a dash of sympathy is good material even in a comedy. So he gets in just as he always does. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know, except that it is via his smileless face, his pathetic smallness, his constant failure.” (April 9, 1923)

She didn’t get to write about Three Ages: the new editor of the paper’s movie magazine got to see it early and wrote the review.(1)

However, she was happy to be back for Our Hospitality; she thought it was

perfectly delicious. It is a rollicking Romeo and Juliet….but boy oh boy, the thrills. That edge-of-the-water-falls stuff may be a delicate kidding of Griffith in Way Down East, but it surely makes your hair stand on end. Buster must have taken big chances. (December 10, 1923)

She also didn’t get to record her opinion of Sherlock Jr.,(2) but her enthusiasm for The Navigator was unequivocal:

My motto is always “Buster Keaton or Bust!” I have a record for never being absent or tardy when a Keaton comedy comes to town. And never does my typewriter leap more joyously from exclamation point to exclamation point than when descanting on the merits of a Keaton opus. The Navigator hasn’t one inch too much film in all its four or five reels, and every inch is a howl.

Buster Keaton is giving all the glad boys of comedy something to think about in this one, too. For, in that undersea stuff, he certainly darts a lap ahead. It is novel, it is thrilling, besides being the most hilariously funny stuff in the world—this big sequence in which Buster puts on a diver’s suit and goes to the ocean bottom to mend a leak in the ship. The rest of the comedy is all A-1, but this tops it all. (October 6, 1924)

Happily, Buster Keaton was appreciated in his own time, and in his hometown newspaper, too.

Thank you, Lea at Silent-ology, for organizing the Buster Keaton Blogathon!

(1) Hallet Abend saw Three Ages alone in a projection room with no music, and still laughed, so absorbed that he didn’t notice that his cigarette burned holes in his shirt. (July 18, 1923)

(2) Kenneth Taylor thought Sherlock Jr. was better than Our Hospitality and when Buster stepped into the screen it was “one of the funniest bits of business Keaton has ever offered.” (April 28, 1924)