The roaring starts: Week of January 17th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, the new decade had barely begun, and Grace Kingsley noticed that entertainment was already getting naughtier. Previously, if you saw a:

comedy hero of the screen, you may be very sure he isn’t doing the one thing he shouldn’t, because our Anglo-Saxon minds simply refuse to countenance anything naughty in husbands done in a spirit of levity. If a man wants to be gosh-awfully bad he’s got to be solemn about it and go in for the drammer. In comedy it always turns out that the husbands and wives were merely suspected of being unfaithful. The wife really was at her sisters all the while, and hubby spent the night at his club, even if he did have to pay a visit to the purple hussy’s apartments in the early gloaming.

Of course, infidelity was still in plenty of dramas—Blind Husbands was playing for a third week in Los Angeles. However:

the day of the smart, sophisticated, almost-naughty screen comedy is with us…It’s an adroit mix-up Mr. Hobart [George Hobart, the play’s author] has given us, which works out in the meeting of three sets of married people, each with the wrong partner, in that naughty Honeysuckle Inn; and the house actually roared yesterday when the innocent little wife (Doris May), who came to the inn looking for her husband, takes her first drink, gets a very funny jag, and is bourn downstairs by each of the two other husbands, successively, only to be rushed back at meeting the husband (Douglas MacLean) at the foot of the stairway.

So the comedy wife still didn’t actually do anything wrong, it just seemed bad for longer. Nevertheless, all the confusion resulted in a “hilariously funny comedy,” and the theater was packed. Unfortunately, only one reel has been preserved at the Library on Congress.

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Screening just four blocks away (also playing to packed houses) was another then-notorious movie, Toby’s Bow. Kingsley speculated on what was bringing people to the theater:

of course, everybody had heard of that naughty game of strip poker with which the play begins, and just had to see it. However, as it turn out, the Greenwich Village lady who parts with her clothing had evidently prepared for the occasion, because her teddies came away up above and away down below what might be termed the danger lines, and she went right home with a shawl around her as soon as she reached ‘em.

I wonder if this revelation hurt ticket sales? The poker game sets the scene for the lurid world of Greenwich Village writers. But don’t worry: later, at a decadent New York masquerade, the hero (Tom Moore) rushes in just in time to save the charming heroine (Doris Pawn) from “a wicked reveler was laying his hand on her velvet shoulder.” So there was a limit to the naughtiness in this lost film too.

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Of course, it wasn’t only in the movies, though Kingsley blamed them for some of the changes. This week, L.A. audiences were flocking to the play, Up In Mabel’s Room and she pointed out:

commonest of all rooms on our comedy stage nowadays is the bedroom. It used to be the parlor, you remember, eased then into the boudoir, with a glimpse of the bedroom beyond. Pictures have led us into the bedroom, and now we have bathtub comedies, with indications that the bathroom will follow as a location for stage comedies, and with nothing left after that except, perhaps, to make the bathtub transparent!

The play revolves around “the desperate attempts of a stout, but innocent-minded married man, to get back from Mabel, a giddy young widow, a pink chemise which, in a reckless moment, before either of them were married, he had sent to her from Paris, with her name and his embroidered on its bosom.” Of course most of the cast wants to steal it and she keeps it in her room, “thereupon Mabel’s room become the busiest place in the world.” Gee, it sounds like a lot of fun. Oddly enough, it didn’t get made into a movie until 1926.

However, some people were upholding strict standards. Actor Charles Murray told Kingsley that his

beautiful 18-year old daughter has just arrived from New York, where she has been a convent student ever since she was a little girl. Mr. Murray says no-sir-ee his daughter isn’t going to be an actress, not if he knows it. Why, he says, he’ll hardly let her see some of his own Mack Sennett pictures, much less let her ever play in them!

He got one detail wrong: Henrietta Murray was born in 1895, not 1902, so she was about to turn 25. I want to know: what exactly did he think would happen if she saw a Sennett two-reeler? She’d join the Keystone Kops? She was his daughter from a previous relationship, and she grew up in Manhattan, with her mother, actress/writer Lorimer Deane and stepfather, traveling salesman Victor Deane. She did not become an actress; instead she married William McQuaid , a bank manager in Jacksonville, Florida.

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Gloria Swanson’s outfits were part of the changes, too, and Kingsley overhead considerable admiration when a young filmgoer made a very good point:

It was at a showing of Male and Female, and the little girl behind us declaimed, when Gloria Swanson was about to be devoured by the lion, “Oh dear, and will he eat up her lovely gown, too?

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Another view

Priorities were being kept straight in 1920’s Los Angeles!