Adventures in Film Production: Week of August 16, 1919

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Cathrine Curtis

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley’s column had an unusual headline: WOMAN HEADS FILM COMPANY. She wrote:

Cathrine Curtis is the name of the adventurous lady, and the company is known as the Cathrine Curtis Corporation, Miss Curtis herself being president, George M. Taylor vice-president and Dorman T. Connet, secretary and treasurer.

A rare combination of gifts has Miss Curtis, since she possesses both the artistic and business faculties. She will be remembered as playing the role of Sammy in Harold Bell Wright’s picturization of his novel, The Shepherd of the Hills in which she scored an artistic success.

“But I’m fond of business,” said Miss Curtis yesterday, “so I decided on this venture—or maybe you’d call it adventure.”

This announcement was at a lunch the company gave to newspaper writers at the Alexander Hotel, which they’d decorated like a newspaper office, with a feature that hadn’t been tried before (or since, I think):

An electric wire furnished ‘shocks’ and ‘thrills’ to various writers, and while its purpose wasn’t clear at first, it proved another vast improvement over similar occasions, inasmuch as it kept in check anybody who attempted to make a speech. J.C. Hessen, World correspondent, admitted it hampered his style a good deal.

It sounds like Kingsley had had enough of bellicose mansplainers!

Several women had already done the duties of a producer, which include arranging financing, developing a script, hiring the cast and crew, coordinating filmmaking logistics, supervising editing and overseeing marketing and distribution. However, they either directed (like Alice Guy Blache) or acted in (like Mary Pickford) those films. Curtis was if not the first, at least among the earliest of women who were only producers.

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Cathrine Curtis Taylor was born in Syracuse New York on November 9, 1889. Her parents, George M. and Flora Beach Taylor already had one daughter, Blanch.* Flora Taylor died just a few years later in 1897 and Mr. Taylor became a hotel keeper. He ran the Rockwell House in Glens Falls, New York. Curtis later told interviewers that he was a “New York capitalist,” but the Federal and New York censuses disagree.

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Perit Coit Myers

She married Perit Coit Myers, a hardware salesman from Yonkers, in December 1911 and they moved to Phoenix, Arizona where they bought a ranch in June, 1912. They had a daughter, Gretchen, on March 6, 1913.

She met author Harold Bell Wright, a fellow Arizonan, who was preparing to make his novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, into a film. He thought she looked so much like the main female character, Sammy, that he cast her despite her lack of acting experience. Shooting took place from 1917 to 1918 in California and the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. As she told the assembled journalists in 1919: “I became immensely interested in the subject of picture making while playing in Mr. Wright’s feature.”

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The rest of her family also left Arizona: on the day of the 1918 draft Perit Myers was living at the Yonkers YMCA, and by the 1920 Census Gretchen Myers was living with her aunt and uncle, Blanch and Garrett Veeder, in Schenectady, New York (he was the vice president of a paper company there).

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Tom Santschi

After her press luncheon, Curtis got right to work on her first feature, hiring George Foster Platt (who’d just directed Helen Keller in Deliverance) to direct, Edward S. Curtis, noted photographer of Native Americans as the cameraman, and Western star Tom Santschi as the leading man. No leading lady was announced, so there might have been truth in Kingsley’s speculation that Curtis planned to act in it herself. They traveled to Hayden Lake, Idaho for some location shooting. In October, Camera reported that Santschi had been twice kicked by a horse, breaking three ribs and fracturing his arm. He went to the hospital in Spokane, Washington where the local Chamber of Congress honored the cast and crew with a dinner. After that, there was no more news about the project and it was never finished.

Next, in June 1920, she bought what she thought were the rights to make The Lost World, so after quite a bit of script work and planning, she got to be part of the messy lawsuits that were eventually settled after the film got made by First National in 1925.

Undaunted, she dove right in to her next project and had more success. She bought the film rights to Ralph Connor’s book The Sky Pilot and hired King Vidor to direct. Colleen Moore starred as the evil cattle baron’s daughter who gets injured in a stampede, but regains the ability to walk when she saves a minister (aka the sky pilot) from a burning church. They shot it on location in the Canadian Rockies and Truckee, California in September to December 1920. The film opened in New York City on April 17, 1921. It was the only time Vidor and Moore worked together, but they stayed friends for the rest of their lives.

On April 17, 1924 Curtis married Joseph S. O’Neil in Baltimore, MD. He was a lawyer in private practice in Binghamton New York. However, by early November of that year she was living under the name Cathrine Myers at the Hotel Vanderbilt in New York City – that’s the address she gave when she filed a petition for personal bankruptcy. They divorced in July, 1929.

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Cathrine Curtis, 1925

Nevertheless, she kept trying to produce films. In June 1925 the New York Times announced she had bought the film rights to a biography of Buffalo Bill, written by his sister Helen Cody Wetmore. Phil Rosen (The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1924) had signed on to direct. In August, the Exhibitor’s Trade Review wrote that she’d hired a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to round up cowboys to be in the film, but the project disappeared from the press after that. The Cathrine Curtis Company went bankrupt in March, 1926. Her sister Blanch was one of the chief creditors; she was owed $168,000.

Her final attempt to make movies was a collaboration with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs; at their June 1927 meeting they announced that they would sponsor her production of “motion pictures emphasizing the finer qualities of the American home,” with advice from their Motion Pictures Committee. No films got made.

In 1934 Curtis started hosting a biweekly radio show called “Women and Money” for WMAC in New York. In addition to teaching women about basic finances and investing, she used her program to criticize Roosevelt’s New Deal. When the show was canceled in February 1935, she blamed communist sympathizers. Then she founded Women Investors in America in May 1935, a non-profit educational organization. According to historian Karl Frederickson “camouflaged as financial seminars, the national meetings of the Women Investors became forums for criticizing the New Deal.” So in 1939 when FDR wanted to assist Great Britain in their fight against Germany, she quickly organized the Women’s National Committee to Keep the U.S. Out of War. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she eventually supported the war, but not enthusiastically. She continued to support right-wing causes, particularly anti-communism (she was an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy), but her reputation as a financial expert had faded. Her last appearance in the New York Times was in 1958 when she addressed a AT&T shareholders’ meeting:

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They didn’t mention what she had to say. She died in California in August 1962.

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I’ve heard that “meh” reviews are the hardest to write, but Kingsley did a good job of it this week:

One of the Finest is an innocuous little picture, in which nothing happens except that Larry the policeman turns into Larry the lawyer and gets the girl. Both laudable achievements, but nothing to make you chew your fingernails with excitement.

Nevertheless, leading man Tom Moore was charming and leading lady Seena Owen was beautiful, plus as Kingsley observed, “after all, what’s the use of being excited all the time?” It’s a lost film.

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De Mille Field at Wilshire and Fairfax

Grace Kingsley got her excitement outside of a movie theater this week: she got a ride in an airplane! She wrote:

We no longer have champagne. But we have airships! And for exhilarating thrills an airship had champagne looking like denatured bevo.

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What she saw: aerial view of Wilshire and Fairfax, 1920

She loved looking down on all the tiny people below, and the feeling of being all alone in the universe (her pilot, “the handsome Lieut. David Thompson,” was so busy with the controls that he didn’t count) but the very best part was when they glided:

Ah! That’s when you make connections with heaven! The pilot shuts off the motor, and you fly softly along for a few brief seconds—but they are seconds worth living years for. Nobody can call you on the phone; nobody can tell you to get a story; nobody can ask you questions about things you’re supposed to know about and don’t. Nobody can give you good advice; nobody can tell you a funny story; nobody can show you Kodak pictures taken on their vacation. Yes, for just once in your life you’re free! That’s when you fly!

Apparently, life was not all quiet simplicity in the good old days. I think our Miss Kingsley needed a vacation – she’s barely had two days off together in the three years I’ve been writing this blog.

*I have no idea why their parents didn’t like the letter “e,” but they deliberately left it out of both Catherine and Blanche. It wasn’t even helpful to researchers, because they get misspelled often. Harumph.

“AT&T Sounds Optimistic Note,” New York Times, April 17, 1958.

“Broncho Charley Engaged By Miss Curtis For Film,” Exhibitor’s Trade Review, August 15, 1925, p.28.

“Curtis Schedule Filed,” Film Daily, March 4, 1926 p.1.

Davis, Mildred. “Social Fricassee and Capers,” Camera, October 25, 1919.

Frederickson, Karl. “Cathrine Curtis and Conservative Isolationist Women, 1939-1941,” The Historian, v. 58 no.4 (Summer 1996) pp.825-839.

“From Busy Studios to the Tranquility of the Picture Theatres,” New York Times, June 28, 1925.

“Where to find people you know,” Camera, October 11, 1919, p.8

“Women Will Show Movies of Home, New York Times, June 6, 1927.

I happened to be visiting New York, so I stopped by the NYPL Archives to see if the Cathrine Curtis Papers included anything interesting about her film career. There’s only one folder from that time. It holds several letters and telegrams from Harold Bell Wright, begging her to accept the role of Sammy and arranging logistics after she accepted the part. They were all addressed to her in Glen Falls, NY, so it seems her marriage had ended before she got involved with the movies. There’s also one undated letter from him that looks like it was written after they worked together; it’s almost a love letter but not quite (he wrote, “There is so much that I would say if I were permitted…Whatever comes to you and to me I shall never, never forget your wonderful goodness to me.”)

Her clippings folder at the NYPL Performing Arts Library holds only a letter from a rare documents dealer, offering to sell her papers concerning The Lost World for $4800. NYPL didn’t buy them; they ended up archived at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.