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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Week of February 10th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported

No longer does Elizabeth McGaffey soil her dainty fingers with dusty tomes from the Lasky library while she searches through ancient literature to find whether Julius Caesar actually did have a soda fountain right in his palace, or whether Lucrezia Borgia sometimes substituted fishhooks for poison when she was sending boxes of Huyler’s (1) to he enemies. Mrs. McGaffey, in other words, is no longer research librarian for the Lasky-Famous Players Company. She has been promoted to the position of regular scenario writer on the Lasky staff.

Elizabeth Brock McGaffey founded the first studio research department in 1914. Before that, she’d been a feature writer for the Chicago Inter Ocean, a stock actress, and a play reader in New York. She moved to Los Angeles and found a job as a script reader for the Jesse Lasky Studio. Because of her wide experience and excellent memory, people got into the habit of asking her whenever they had a question. She “persuaded them to give her a dictionary, the National Geographic Magazine, and a public library card,” and she started the first research department.(2) Unfortunately, her career as a scenario writer didn’t last long (she was only credited with one story, The Honorable Friend, which she wrote before she was promoted) and she went back to the library. She became one of the “nine women” who helped Cecil B. DeMille make his films. In a 1930 article about studio researchers, her job sounded much more interesting than any librarian job I’ve ever had:

While compiling data for Dynamite, she spent hours down in a mine shaft, absorbing the atmosphere, talking with mining engineers and workers, contacting the Hercules explosive specialists, and making notes on incidents and details so casual that they might never be used. For Madame Satan, DeMille’s latest opus, she traveled about in a dirigible, recording the special phrasing of the officers’ orders and their individual slang. (3)

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Elizabeth McGaffey, 1938

She worked for DeMille until he closed his production office in May 1931 (his contract with M.G.M. wasn’t renewed after two films failed so he traveled to Europe) and McGaffey found a new job as research director at RKO in August. She had that job until she died on March 13, 1944 of heart disease.

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Stuart Holmes, Kittens Reichert and Mary Martin in The Scarlet Letter

Kinglsey’s favorite film this week was yet another adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (this was at least the sixth). She wrote:

It is impossible to praise too highly this latest Fox masterpiece. The adapter has wrung from the realistic tale of tortured souls every drop of dramatic value. The multifold sufferings of Hester Prynne, the covert agony of Dimmsdale, the fortuity of circumstance that drove the young minister on to the branding of himself with the hot iron and his final confession—it is all there, and all colored with the gray austerity of bleak Puritanism. Some liberty is taken with the text in the final scenes, but even this is excusable in light of the marvelous manner in which the atmosphere and character-drawing is preserved all through.

Edward Weitzel of Moving Picture World didn’t agree; the happy ending made him rant “whoever is responsible for this despoiling of a masterpiece must hold the artistic perception of the average screen patron at a very low state” (March 3 1917). The man responsible was Carl Harbaugh, who is now most famous for his gag writing for Hal Roach and Buster Keaton. He’s in my book, Buster Keaton’s Crew. The Scarlet Letter is a lost film.

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The ongoing war appeared in her column this week when Kingsley reported on D.W. Griffith’s plans for his next film.

A few months ago, Griffith was approached by representatives of one of the warring nations, inviting him to come abroad for the purpose of making pictures showing said country’s side of the conflict. At that time he declined because of President Wilson’s proclamation of neutrality. He has since gathered together a company of expert photographers with a view to hastening to Europe at the earliest possible moment.

The warring nation was Great Britain, and Griffith set sail (without the photographers) for England on March 17th. In June, two months after the United States officially declared war, he started work on Hearts of the World, shooting in France and England, then finishing it up in Hollywood. Lea at Silentology wrote about Griffith’s trip and the film.

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Don’t worry Miss Kingsley: some people admire her now!

On Monday Kingsley offered one argument against film preservation that I’d never seen before:

We of today say fatuously—what would we not give to know what Washington looked like! But privately we know that in his pigtail and knee-breeches he must have looked very like a footman or a character in a comic opera…Imagination is the great illuminator, the great aid to deathless fame. As a matter of fact, should not we have found Joan of Arc a big, natural peasant, unused to the gentle use of the hanky?…Won’t school boys of the year 2000 probably laugh at they way President Wilson walks and combs his hair; and who’d be in Theda Bara’s shoes on that same day? No, if you would be kind to our heroes and heroines, and if you would preserve to future generations their ideals, make a bonfire of films.

Her ignorance-is-bliss argument isn’t a strong one. Besides, I don’t think it was film preservation that changed who gets admired by school kids. That they did things differently then is one of the reasons some of us bother to study the past now.

 

 

(1) Huyler’s was once the biggest chocolate and candy company in the United States.

(2) H.G. Percey, “Problems of a Motion Picture Research Library,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, March 1936, p.253.

(3) Dorothea Hawley Cartwright, “Their Job is Looking Up,” Talking Screen, July 1930, p.65.

Week of February 3rd, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley and the L.A. Times cooperated with Cecil B. De Mille on a successful publicity stunt. They held a contest to find what character Geraldine Farrar should play in her follow up to Joan the Woman, with cash prizes ($100 for first place, $25 for second, three prizes of $10 for third and four prizes of $5 for fourth) for the winners. DeMille held the contest to find out what the audience wanted to see, and he hoped to find a role as good or greater than Joan of Arc. The judges were De Mille, Grace Kingsley, screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, insurance agent/historical photograph collector Sam Behrendt and Southwest Museum director Hector Alliot.

They got thousands of entries. The paper reported that practically every woman of history had been suggested, including Eve, Sappho, Salome, Pocahontas, Carrie Nation and Emmeline Pankhurst. Cleopatra was the woman most mentioned and Mary, Queen of Scots was a close second. One person even suggested Napoleon, but De Mille thought that Farrar was much too feminine for that. They decided that if a character with multiple entries won, the best-written letter would prevail.

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They announced the winners on February 13th. De Mille revealed two of the third-place winning entries, “an Aztec character” and Queen Esther, but he didn’t want to divulge the first and second place winners because he was afraid of other companies stealing the ideas. Ruby Archer Doud won the second-place prize. The first place winner forgot to include his name on his entry, so the paper reproduced part of it and asked him to go to the theater where Joan the Woman was playing.

He came forward right away. William Cutler, a 26-year-old gas station attendant, presented the other piece of the torn notebook page that was his entry and received his check. De Mille said that “Cutler’s idea was so good and showed such deep thought that it may be possible to develop the young man into a writer of no mean ability.” That didn’t happen. Instead he enlisted in the Army in November 1917 and became a chauffeur with the 194th Aero Squadron. After his discharge in July, 1919 he started his own dried fruit business on South Hoover Street. He died in November 1959.

It looks like the idea they used was J. Arthur Evans’ third-place winner, because De Mille and Farrar’s next film was about an Aztec character. In The Woman God Forgot (1917), she played Tecza, a fictionalized version of Montezuma’s daughter Tecuichpoch Ixcaxochitzin/Dona Isabel Moctezuma. In the film, she betrayed her people for the love of a Spanish conquistador. When Kingsley reviewed it in December, she was impressed mostly by the “sumptuous settings” the “marvelous photography” and the ”gorgeousness of the costuming.” The film has been preserved at the Eastman House, New York.

This week, Kingsley declared the death of slapstick because Charlie Chaplin was “giving the world something really new in the way of comedy” with Easy Street, and a “bright” and “refreshing” comedy, Her New York, also mixed pathos with humor.

She was tremendously impressed by Chaplin’s latest:

Not in vain has labored Charlie Chaplin, our biggest and best screen comedian…Easy Street is the flower of the Chaplin apprenticeship, it is Chaplin minus the gaucherie and crudeness of many of his former efforts; without the monotony of repetition of tricks; without the obvious effort after fun which has marred some of his pictures. It is spontaneous, bubbling, rib-tickling, unctuous; and yet the story has such skillful blending of pathetic shadings as to make the thing seem at moments a startling cross section of real life.

Critics continue to agree with Kingsley. Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns called it “an exquisite short comedy, humor encapsulated in the regular rhythms of light verse,” and Alan Vanneman in the Bright Lights Film Journal said it “ranks easily as one of the greatest comedy shorts ever made.” It’s available on DVD and on a streaming site that doesn’t help fund film preservation.

Her New York was a 1917 version of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Gladys Hulette played Phoebe Lester, a fresh-from-the country girl who finds New York is

a place where everything comes right in the last reel, the villain reforms, the waif of an infant is discovered to have been preceded by a wedding ring after all, and the young poet, destined to live for awhile by writing rhymes glorifying canned pork and beans, is able at last to unbridle his Pegasus and let him sail right up into the sky.

Kingsley thought it was “an aroma from an old-fashioned garden – despite its sordid setting.” and that Hulette was a “radiant and vivid personality.” Her New York hasn’t been preserved by an archive, but it was made by the Thanhouser Company, whose descendants have done a remarkable job of documenting their films. On their site you can find a page for Her New York and Hulette’s biography.

Kingsley reported that the future of filmmaking in Los Angeles looked extraordinarily bright. Most of the New York companies were planning to move all of their production to Hollywood including Vitagraph, Kalem and Goldwyn, and the companies already here like Fox, Famous Players-Lasky and Balboa had ambitious expansion plans.

The industry had a rough time in the next years with bankruptcies (Balboa) acquisitions (Kalem was sold to Vitagraph, which was sold to Warner Bros.) and mergers (Goldwyn merged with Metro and Louis B. Mayer Pictures). People were happier not knowing what the future was. Of course, she was partly correct: Los Angeles did become the center of film production.

In the least surprising story of the week, Kingsley found actresses dissatisfied with their weight; “the principal topic of conversation at Universal City among the actresses at the present time appears to be the subject of maintaining the proper balance of flesh.” This conversation will probably never end, but the difference is that then three women (Nellie Allen, Irene Hunt and Agnes Vernon) felt they needed to be bigger. The rest wanted to be smaller and they planned to get up at 5 AM and walk at least five miles. Now, no matter how slender, everyone would be setting her alarm clock.

 

 

 

Week of January 27, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley described a quiet work day for Balboa Studios actress, Jackie Saunders:

  • Up at 6 o’clock
  • Practices on piano until 7 o’clock, then has breakfast and conference with maids and cook.
  • Drives to studio.
  • Makes up and drives to location.
  • Is shot in eight or ten scenes, then back to luncheon at 1 o’clock.
  • Drives to Los Angeles, twenty-five miles.
  • An hour at the hairdresser’s.
  • An hour at the dressmaker’s.
  • An hour at the photographer’s.
  • A hasty dinner.
  • Drives back to the studio (It is now 9 o’clock.)
  •  Works until 11 o’clock in indoor studio, and is home by midnight.
  • Up at 6 o’clock again.

And that’s why unions are so important. Jackie Saunders was married to the studio’s secretary/treasurer, so this schedule probably wasn’t worse than most. She was a theatrical actress who got her start in films in 1911 with small parts at D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio, then she moved West to work for Nestor. Balboa hired her in 1914, and she became one of their biggest stars. In her earlier films, she played waifs in need of rescue, but starting in 1917 she moved on to playing either spoiled rich girls or tomboys who got tamed by marriage in the last reel. After Balboa closed in 1918 she worked for Fox, Metro, and Selznick, then retired from acting in 1925.

In her reviews this week, Kingsley exclaimed “Oh, for more picture plays like We Are French…Here indeed is film footage worth viewing.” Also known as The Bugler of Algiers she found it a “swift-moving, clean-cut, thrilling drama” and knew of “no film tapestry on view for lo these many moons which is threaded with such colorful incident as this one.” The film was about Anatole and Pierre, two former soldiers searching for Gabrielle, Anatole’s sister and Pierre’s sweetheart, who vanished after her village was ransacked. The film helped make up for another of the week’s releases, The Devil’s Pay Day, a story of a rich man who marries a poor woman and quickly tires of her; Kingsley called it “futile” “improbable” and “claptrap” – “of such we are weary.” Both films are lost.

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Jeanie MacPherson, 1919

Kingsley got some practical screenwriting advice from a credible source.

There are more good dramas in the pages of the average newspaper than in anything else I know of,” remarked Jeanie MacPherson, author of Joan, the Woman. “A drama is only a reproduction of human emotions and their reactions, and in no place are the emotions more clearly set forth or at least suggested to the imaginative mind than in their terse phrases of the press. Really I got my first thought for writing Joan the Woman from a story I saw in the newspaper. This story told of the French solders seeing visions of the famous Maid of Orleans over their trenches, inspiring them to deeds of bravery…Dramatists may weave productions out of their own imaginations, but stories of actual life which the newspapers contain every day I believe have a far greater appeal and are far more human.”

Jeanie MacPherson had only been writing scripts since 1913, but she went on to collaborate with Cecil B. DeMille until 1930, co-writing hits like Male and Female (1919) and The Ten Commandments (1923). He particularly valued the ideas she brought, according to a 1957 interview cited on her Women Film Pioneer page.

 

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James Van Trees, Sr., 1935 (a photo he shared with his friends at American Cinematographer)

Kingsley mentioned that James Van Trees Jr., five-year-old son of the cinematographer, offered to trade his family’s new baby for a pair of roller skates. There were no takers. This expert problem-solver went on to become an assistant cameraman. His dad had a remarkable career, lasting from 1915 until 1966 when he shot an episode of My Mother the Car.

Kingsley heard from the Universal lot that there’d been a rash of films being renamed by the New York office, for example, Mary, Keep Your Feet Still became Her Soul’s Inspiration (it was the story of a girl who loved to dance). So Rex Ingram complained that his next picture, The Flower of Doom would be transformed into The Poisoned Bathing Suit. The story of kidnapping and an opium den kept its title and came out on April 16, 1917.

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Moving Picture World, March 2, 1918

The Buster Keaton countdown continues. On February 1st, Kingsley reported:

To be personally conducted to New York is the honor in store for Roscoe Arbuckle, lately engaged by Joe Schenck as one of his star picture players. For this purpose, avowedly, no less a person than Lou Anger will see that Arbuckle is not kidnapped by any rival firm between here and New York; also that he does not spend all his substance in poker on the train so he has to draw ahead on Mr. Schenck for his salary when he arrives.

If Anger hadn’t gone, there would have been no one to run into Keaton on the street and take him back to Arbuckle’s studio. Most likely, Keaton would have made his way to films eventually, but who knows how long it would have taken.

 

 

 

Week of January 13th, 1917

 

 

 

One hundred years ago this week, the biggest film event was the West Coast premier of Cecil De Mille’s (no B. yet) latest film, Joan the Woman, a biopic about Joan of Arc starring Geraldine Farrar. When she wrote about it, Grace Kingsley avoided stating her opinion of the film by joking about the “fickle public’s” demand for realism:

Truly, as for realism, it’s quite impossible to hide anything from these experts. They detect in a moment whether a lady of the Louis Quinze period is wearing the right sort of hats or not, and you can’t fool them by coiffing your Roman ladies with the wrong sort of hair-dos…Did Cleopatra have a mole in her shell-like ear? It is correctly recorded in the deathless celluloid. What sort of hemlock was it Socrates ordered up as a last fatal potation? The tireless trekker of truth connected with the motion-picture studio will tell you.

I suspect that both realism-pedants and this film bored her silly. Of course she couldn’t say so, because De Mille was already considered, as she mentioned, one of “the world’s greatest motion picture directors.” He’d been directing films for only three years; before that he worked in the theater.

That fickle public attended this movie in droves, and the picture stayed for eight weeks at the Majestic Theater according to Robert Birchard’s biography, Cecil B. De Mille’s Hollywood* The film is available on DVD.

Women weren’t only war heroes on Los Angeles screens this week. The other movies had a wide variety of roles for them. Mary Pickford got to be the chief of her Scottish clan in The Pride of the Clan, Blanche Sweet played a physician who deals with sexism in The Evil Eye and Emmy Wehlen was a model turned detective in Vanity. A week with so many strong movie characters for women is unimaginable in 2017.

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There was a flashing warning light that the film business was getting overheated on Saturday when Kingsley wrote:

What’s going to happen? That greatest of indoor sports, the formation of motion picture companies, has been sadly neglected during the past week. Which state of things makes folk possessed of tender sensibilities, like actors and press agents and real estate dealers, feel a trifle sad. With the exception of the Hill organization, no new company has come along to muss up the Hollywood scenery and disturb the classic shadows of the Carnegie Library with the sounds of mimic joy and grief. It’s a dull week indeed when no groups of theatrical men or tailors or book-keepers or others who thoroughly understand the picture business foregather to form film companies.

The Hill organization that she mentioned was the Corona Cinema Company, which made one film, The Curse of Eve (1917), before it folded.

This week two more companies were announced, Charles Frohman’s Empire All-Star Corporation and the Nat Goodwin Film Company. Frohman had been a very successful theatrical producer whose hits included Peter Pan; his company continued after his death on the Lusitania in 1915. Empire made 10 films between 1917 and 1918. Nat Goodwin was an actor who got money from a mine owner in Milwaukee to open a studio in San Jacinto but it never happened.

The industry-wide slowdown started later in 1917; by January 1918 the cameraman’s club was writing to their New York branch, warning them that there was little work on the West coast.**

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Teddy at the Throttle, with Teddy, Bobby Vernon and Gloria Swanson

Teddy the dog made his first appearance in her column this week:

The business files in Mack Sennett’s office contain contracts with Raymond Hitchcock, Eddie Foy, Sam Bernard and other celebrities, but not until last week was a contract ever made with a dog. Teddy, the Great Dane dog who is featured in Nick of Time Baby has been advanced from an extra to a regular actor with a contract. Teddy is all but human.

Teddy was the first dog star, and he had a good career, appearing in Sennett comedies like Teddy at the Throttle (1917) and Those Athletic Girls (1918) as well as dramas like Stella Maris (1918). Mary Mallory wrote his biography, which she illustrated with a Kingsley story about him from Photoplay. Film history is a small world.

 

*I didn’t realize until this minute that I stole my blog name from him. Theft is the sincerest form of admiration, I hope.

**Static Club Minutes, January 31, 1918.