Week of October 6th, 1917

chaplin_hawaii
Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance, vacationing in Hawaii, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Charlie Chaplin about his future ambitions. He had no film to promote and was between jobs: he’d just finished his last film for Mutual and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii, after which he would start working for First National. They didn’t mention movies at all, and he seemed to be quite happy to talk about other subjects. He spoke about what he hoped to do in the future:

Chaplin’s big ambition, confided to me the other day, is nothing less than to write and produce a play on the stage. And about this business Charlie cherishes no illusions.

“I’m not nearly ready to do it yet,” he said. “I must work, study and write for at least another five years. In the meantime I must know people who will stimulate thought and imagination—clever people who have accomplished things. Yes, I should wish to write a comedy, of course, but a comedy with a deep and genuine human touch.”

So as early as 1917 he wanted to make Serious Art, but he didn’t imagine he could do that with film. Chaplin never did produce a play. He must have decided that film could be taken seriously enough for his ambitions. Five years later he began shooting A Woman of Paris, a drama about a woman who choses between security and love.

 

He went on to describe being tongue-tied when he met actor/theater manager/founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree: “I managed to yammer out something, but I’m sure it was quite ghastly.” Tree didn’t notice, he was too busy monologing on how he wanted to stage Macbeth, the history of non-Shakespeare Elizabethan playwrights and the benefits of travel for young people. Chaplin didn’t make his escape until Tree’s daughter Iris rescued him.

oliver
Oliver Twist asks for more, by George Cruikshank

He also talked about fiction, and told a sweet story about his favorite author, Dickens:

“I used to imitate Dickens’ characters at school, from the Cruikshank illustrations,” said Charlie, “and one day one of the directors gave me Oliver Twist. It was the first book I ever owned because my mother was too poor to buy us books, and it was the first story I ever read. I carried it home and put it under my pillow, falling asleep that night on my precious book, and I read and reread it until it was soiled and torn.”

Oliver Twist remained his favorite novel for his whole life; he continued to read it over and over, according to his biographer Stephen Weismann.*

bondage

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Bondage, which starred Dorothy Phillips as a newspaper writer who marries a lawyer, quits work and promptly gets bored and allows

an old love affair with a worthless cad to obsess her. If the young woman had kept on the job of writing, there would have been no story. But she didn’t. The creative mind is subject to influence which less imaginative souls never feel, and this Miss Phillips has subtlety conveyed.

Kingsley thought it was “Ibsen-esque in its power and insight…a picture which should not be missed by lovers of good drama.” Plus (for a change!) she got to see a female reporter that seemed realistic to her. Bondage was written and directed by Ida May Park More from a story by Edna Kenton. You don’t suppose that if there were more women directing films now we would get more interesting and complicated female characters?

painted_poster

Her review of Douglas Fairbanks latest, The Man From Painted Post, did the box office no harm, and she got to write some of her funniest lines of the week:

Any old time Douglas Fairbanks can’t hold up and kill off, sometimes one at a pop, sometimes two at a pop, as many as a dozen ruffians, smiling as he does it, he feels his day has been wasted….Nay, more than that, he holds up one rascally poltroon in the dust with nothing more dangerous than the handle of a stewpot! Very subtle satire on the old melodrama stuff, this picture play.

hell_ad
Too naughty for New York!

An earlier Dorothy Phillips film was running into a little trouble with the censors:

The New York censors, despite experience which might be supposed to be toughening, still have delicate sensibilities; or, at any rate there are large sensitive spots on their sensibilities. The title of the Bluebird feature Hell Morgan’s Girl, contained too strong a wallop for these gentlemen, who have changed the name to A Soul’s Redemption, which, as [film co-star] Lon Chaney justly observed the other day, has about as much punch as “toothbrush.”

 

 

* Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94.

Week of January 20th, 1917

ge_mpnews
Motion Picture News 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw a promising young actor:

Great Expectations never was one of Dickens’s favorites with his public. It is too somber, too uncanny, too much lacking in the saving humors, the droll character portrayals which make most of his books so brilliant and attractive. Jack Pickford has achieved a real victory in characterization in his playing of Pip—a characterization appealing, sincere, but from the very nature of the role so unobtrusive that its excellence may be easily overlooked, and probably will be by lovers of the obvious type of chest-heaving, swashbuckling hero. His great moment is when, full of vain revulsion against fate, bitterness, humiliation, outraged pride, he discovers the old convict to have been his benefactor. Pickford rises to the occasion in a bit of flawless acting.*

Pickford had been appearing in small parts since 1909; Pip was his second major role and it was his big break. He specialized in all-American boy next-door roles and his next film, Tom Sawyer, was such a hit that they made a sequel, Tom and Huck. Unfortunately like Pip, things didn’t turn out very well for him. His career was hampered by scandals and he died of multiple neuritis caused by alcoholism in 1933. Last century film histories portrayed him as a wastrel who never lived up to his potential but this century there have been spirited defenses of him. Steve Vaught wrote a series of three blog posts titled “You Don’t Know Jack,” and Shane Brown wrote another for the Bright Lights Film Journal.

Now it’s odd to think of Great Expectation as less-popular Dickens: it was Number 1 on Publisher’s Weekly’s Top 10 Dickens. Tastes have changed, even in Victorian novels.

This version of Great Expectations is a lost film, according to the Film Survival Database.

This week, Kingsley noticed increasing consolidation and vertical integration in the film industry:

Closer and closer is the relationship developing between the picture exhibitor, the picture exchanges and the producing companies. This has always been the case with Universal; the Triangle producing organization is composed of a class of men who brought about a union of effort; the Paramount has lately been purchased by the Lasky-Famous Players-Morosco organization, and is now extending its activities to control the output of certain outside stars, the latest of whom is Roscoe Arbuckle.

Here’s the beginnings of classical Hollywood cinema and the studio system in 1917, just like the film history textbooks say. Newspapers really do write the first draft of history! Vertical integration didn’t end until 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that production had to be separate from distribution and exhibition.

chaplin_1915

Kingsley gave her readers the “real beginnings” of Charlie Chaplin’s genius. Back on the Keystone lot when he was a “humble knock-about comedian” it wasn’t recognized. Furthermore:

As a matter of fact, he was scolded by the stars whenever they wanted anybody to vent their temperament on, and looked upon without faith by the directors. One who knew him well in those days declares that all the directors, one after another, tried to bend Charlie to their ways. Because he wouldn’t respond, they all gave him up as a bad job one day, and said in sheer desperation: “Aw, let’s leave the idiot to his own devices!” They did. And out of the ashes of dead hopes (Charlie shared them, it is said!) rose the Phoenix of Fun—the unique figure in world dramatic history – the greatest laugh-getter in the world, Charlie Chaplin.

Without realizing it, Kingsley pointed out a weakness in the coming studio system: nobody would be able to afford to just leave some idiot to his own devices any more.

*She didn’t worry about spoilers for a 56-year-old novel.

Week of December 23rd, 1916

charles_dickens_-_project_gutenberg_etext_13103
Charles Dickens

One hundred years ago this week, two Los Angeles theaters were showing films appropriate for Christmas, which then as now, means Dickens adaptations. As Grace Kingsley noted, “Dickens’ stories are all particularly adapted to the screen, I think, owing to their clean-cut drama and vivid types.” She admired both of them.

The first was a version of Dickens’ most popular story called The Right to be Happy. Kingsley said:

The warm and radiant Christmas spirit as embodied in the well-loved “Christmas Carol” is preserved with wonderful effectiveness and artistry in the picture play at the Superba this week, and one laughs and weeps through the joys and sorrow of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchett and Old Scrooge, and shudders realistically at the appearance of Marley’s Ghost. The picture is done in a really remarkable manner. There are no sumptuous settings, no famous names to carry it; yet, I got more joy out of this little photoplay than I have from half-a-dozen so-called features.

On Christmas morning, the Advertising Club sponsored a special screening of the film for the newsboys of Los Angeles. The Times called it “the treat of their lives.”

Competing for holiday filmgoers at a theater three blocks down Broadway was a larger production that Kingsley liked just as much:

Are you one who loves the appealing figures of the immortally wistful little Oliver Twist…If so, don’t fail to go to the Woodley this week and see how Marie Doro… and the others bring the familiar characters to life. No lay figures these, but real incarnations of the vivid beings whom Dickens, the great champion and lover of humanity, has made immortal. The Lasky Company is certainly to be congratulated. Not only is the photoplay picture perfect—even the old Cruikshank illustrations have been followed in some instances—but the very spirit of the brilliant genius of Dickens lives again.

By 1916 there had already been many filmed Dickens adaptations. According to Michael Pointer in Charles Dickens on the Screen, he was one of the first authors to have his work filmed when in 1897 the American Mutoscope Company made “The Death of Nancy Sykes,” from a gristly scene in Oliver Twist. Between then and 1916, adaptations had ranged from extracting the story of one character from a novel like Dolly Varden (1906) to attempts to condense whole books into seven reels, like David Copperfield (1913). Unfortunately, neither film that Kingsley wrote about survives but there are lots more to chose from. The IMDB says that as of this writing there have been 364 completed projects and five more in the planning stages.

Playing in the theater across the street from Oliver Twist was another adaptation from an author who didn’t have the good fortune to be timeless like Dickens. If he’s remembered at all today it’s because of his now-startling name: Winston Churchill. The American Churchill wrote bestselling historical fiction and in 1916 was much more famous than the man who at the time was a Member of Parliament. The British one had to publish his books as Winston S. Churchill, to avoid confusion.

The novelist had good luck with the film version of his work; Kingsley thought that the filmmakers had “made the Churchill characters live” so that “thousands who have enjoyed Winston Churchill’s novel The Crisis may well be expected to find distinct pleasure in the pictured version of the same.” The book, published in 1901, was a Civil War story set in St. Louis, where there was a mix of Northern and Southern supporters. The film is held at the Library of Congress.

There have been a few articles written about the writer, all amazed that there was another Winston Churchill.

Grace Kingsley didn’t write a year-end review of 1916, but neither did anybody else. A Lantern search turns up the first top ten films list on February 9, 1922, when Film Daily evaluated the movies from 1921 and put The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the top of their honor roll. They didn’t bother with any explanation or justification for the choices, but the next year they said the list was based on a survey of newspaper, trade and fan magazine critics.