One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported a tidbit of news about the biggest film star in the world:
Charlie has become a real capitalist. Last March he invested $10,000 in a pajama factory. At the time the factory for manufacturing “Sassy Jane” pajamas was started in Los Angeles, three machines were used. The factory has grown so rapidly that fifty machines are now working night and day to meet the demand. Last week Chaplin received over 1000 letters from feminine pajama fans, asking him to furnish them original pajama designs. Not even waiting to cool his blushes, Chaplin went right out and hired two secretaries to fight off the applicants in person who insisted upon consulting him about pajamas. June Rand, who invented the “Sassy Jane” pajama, and who induced Mr. Chaplin to invest his money therein, offered the comedian a full half interest in the business if he would wear a suit of “Sassy Janes” in The Immigrant—but he wouldn’t!
Actually, the real capitalist was Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother, who had invested $40,000 in the company and became its treasurer (his wife Minnie liked the clothes). According to his biographer, Lisa K. Stein Haven, this was the first of Syd Chaplin’s boom-and-bust busness endeavors. Pajamas weren’t the Sassy Jane company’s main product; they were famous for making colorful, comfortable cotton house dresses and aprons. Why fans wrote to Chaplin about the clothes instead of directly to June Rand I don’t understand. “Sassy Janes” were quite popular for a few years but by 1923 styles had changed and the company was bankrupt.
Kingsley briefly reviewed The Immigrant later this week; she said Chaplin could “make even a ham sandwich the funniest thing in the world.” He was smart to leave housedresses out of it.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Fires of Rebellion, “a photoplay with a human story worked out by human beings, instead of puppets being jerked along an uninspired road to fulfill the requirements of a dull plot.” Directed by Ida May Park, it told the story of a factory girl who rejects a marriage proposal from the rough but honest foreman and moves to the big city where she almost gets a job as an underwear model, not realizing that she was expected to do more than model. The foreman rescues her in the nick of time. William Stowell played him, and Kingsley believed “he has no peer in the films. Here are no empty heroics, no posings. Yet as a real man, a force among men, battling against hard conditions in public and private life, reserved, even inarticulate when it comes to matters of the emotions, he makes the role stand out like a figure in the old-fashioned stereoscope.” It’s a lost film.
William Stowell was a veteran film actor who got his start in 1909 when he co-starred with Tom Mix in The Cowboy Millionaire. He made a series of well-reviewed dramas with his Fires of Rebellion co-stars Dorothy Phillips and Lon Chaney at Universal. Sadly, Stowell died only two years later in a rail accident in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He was directing the filming of the Smithsonian African Expedition for Universal and riding in the rear couch of a train when a runaway tank car raced down a hill and smashed into it. Another member of the expedition, Dr. Joseph Armstrong, died on the scene and Stowell was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later. Three other members of the party were injured.
A film that seems to have been precisely calibrated to annoy Kingsley came out this week, A Hater of Men.
Bessie Barriscale, as the heroine, is supposed to be a newspaper woman ‘who has gained some renown with her pen.’ We view her at first reporting on a great divorce case, after which we do not see her working at her job. Instead, we behold her at wonderful house parties and on boating trips and wearing, oh, such clothes!
That divorce case made the heroine question her engagement so she dumps her fiancé. Then she gets called frivolous by some random guy, changes her mind and goes back to her intended. Kingsley found “as a document of human life it is about as natural and convincing as a tin minnow,” but what really set her off was the way it maligned her profession. She concluded “a newspaper office does not turn out women with so little common sense—not to mention a sense of humor.” John Gilbert (later Garbo’s leading man) played the fiancé, but Kingsley was so busy being annoyed that she didn’t notice him. A complete version of it is in a U.S. archive, but the Library of Congress’ Film Survival Database doesn’t say which one.
Kingsley gave an update on Stan Laurel’s current (and first) production, Nuts in May:
Last week a harmless steam roller, just going along about its business and bothering nobody, was sighted outside the studio grounds. An eagle-eyed member of the Stanley comedy outfit passed the good word along. Before the roller could make its lumbering escape, it was boarded by a gang of film pirates, the driver walked the plank, and Stan himself gave a star performance in the “cab.” After which the scenario writer sat on the curb and wrote the story.
The steam roller gag is the bit of the film that survives because it was re-used in Mixed Nuts (1922). Kingsley’s item is a rare glimpse of how Laurel worked, even in his first film.