Week of October 27th, 1917

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Legion of Death (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley paid a visit to the set of an unusual big-budget war film, Legion of Death:

Hup Forward—march! No, it wasn’t any sturdy captain of the Sammies who gave the command, but a slim slip of a woman—Edith Storey, and she was giving her command to still other slim slips of women, a whole drove of them, clad in neat khaki and managing to look like real soldiers instead of chorus girls as one might fear…

Right into a trench Miss Storey marched her feminine cohorts, and then—the battle began. And those girls knew how to use their rifles and bayonets! It was a marvelous sight. They fought like demons with their mock enemies; and pretty soon their pretty caps were all askew, there were actual bloodstains on their faces, and a very real gleam of battle lust in their eyes.

Writer June Mathis (Ben-Hur, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) based Legion on the first women’s combat battalion in modern history. Kingsley said they were planning “a powerful drama of a Russian woman patriot and the formation of the now famous ‘Battalion’ which undoubtedly saved Russia from German invasion during the revolution that shook the world’s largest empire from end to end and resulted in the overthrow of the Romanoff dynasty.”

 

Kingsley talked to the director, Tod Browning, and just like De Mille and Griffith, he emphasized the lengths they were going to for authenticity in his epic film. An army lieutenant trained the actresses to march and carry arms properly. They weren’t allowed to wear wigs: they had to cut off their hair, just like the soldiers did (these clever ladies made the producers pay their salaries before their hair was shorn). Browning demanded real Russian people as extras for the big street and battle scenes; they were so authentic that they didn’t speak any English so he had to hire seven translators. Danny Hogan, the Chief of Properties, couldn’t find what he needed for a Russian palace in stores, so he borrowed a carload of furniture from the Italian Ambassador. All of this added up to “a feature which promises to be the most timely, unique and spectacular picture which Metro has even produced” according to Kingsley.

 

All of their realism didn’t extend to the story, of course. Edith Storey played a princess with a love interest who founds the group, gets captured after a defeat, but is freed to live happily ever after. The real Battalion was proposed by Maria Bochkareva, a decorated front-line fighter who was born to a peasant family. Her goal was to shame Russian male soldiers who were tired of fighting Germans after three years. Minister of War Alexander Kerensky agreed, and allowed Bochkareva to train and lead 300 female recruits as the First Women’s Battalion of Death. They were sent to the front where they were resented by the male soldiers. Even though they performed well in combat, Bochkareva had to disband the unit after a few months because they were treated so badly by their fellow troops. She wrote a memoir in 1919 called Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile. She was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1920. You can read more about the Battalion on the History Buff blog.

 

Kingsley didn’t get to review the finished film, but her co-worker Antony Anderson thought it was “a Metro triumph.” The reason you may have never heard of this epic is because it’s a lost film. A new version of the story, Batalon, was made in Russia in 2015.

 

The Legion/Battalion was so famous at the time that they got mentioned in a much more lighthearted story Kingsley reported this week. Actor Jack Mulhall was in a downtown L.A. department store trying on a ladies corset for an upcoming role, and he told her:

just as they had me all trussed up in a twin-six, ball bearing, 1917 model steel cage somebody yelled fire…Miserable as I was, I forgot all about the corset and made a dash for the street. Outside I met a friend. “What’s the idea?” he demanded gazing at the corset which I had tried on over my trousers and shirt, “going to war?” Just then along came a girl I knew, and I instantly decided I preferred cremation to meeting her, so back I dashed to the corset department. Yes, I’ve worn ‘em in three scenes now—and, believe me, I don’t know that the Legion of Death was making so much of a sacrifice when it took of its corsets and went to war!

The film was called Madame Spy, and it concerned a young man who goes undercover as a baroness to learn the secrets of a German spy ring. Exhibitor’s Herald thought “Jack Mulhall as an impersonator of the fair sex is quite good,” but the story was padded (February 9, 1918).

 

Kinglsey had a happy surprise while watching her favorite film this week, The Co-respondant: the heroine acts with “straightforward sensibleness uncommon in screen heroines” and the hero “contrary to all screen ethics, behaves like a sensible human being.” The film told the story of a star woman reporter (Elaine Hammerstein*) who, in her youth, was almost dragged into an illicit relationships with a ‘rounder.’ Now the cad’s wife has named her as the co-respondent in her divorce case. Complications, including a libel case, false identity and threats of ruin ensue, but her current love (Wilfred Lucas) believes her side of the story implicitly and fights the cad as soon as he can, while the heroine types it up for an article. Kingsley said:

it is a picture play of such tense and deep-rooted human drama that in the development of its big central situation you sit quite breathless; yet it is played so naturally, there is such an utter lack of forced situation, its train of events is so entirely logical, one seems to be looking on a cross-section of life itself. Maybe you don’t believe this. I don’t blame you if you do not; but just go to the Superba and see for yourself.

You can’t go to the Superba Theater any more, but a fragment of the film exists at the Library of Congress.

quinnthursday

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Mae Marsh, Sunshine Alley

Kingsley mentioned that J.A. Quinn, the owner of Quinn’s Rialto Theater, announced that the new Mae Marsh film Sunshine Alley would absolutely play for only one week, and he’d add midnight showings on the last days if needed. Curious, I had a look at the Rialto ads to see if he did. They didn’t tell me: I had completely forgotten that in 1917, films ran continuously and the audience came in whenever they wanted to. So I wondered when film ads in the LA Times began to include starting times. Except for some Cinerama shows, it wasn’t until 1962! So if you really want to re-create the film going experience of earlier times, pick a random chapter on your DVDs and start there.

 

 

 

*She was the songwriter’s cousin.

 

 

Week of April 21st, 1917

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One solution

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley continued her complaints about audiences by listing some of the ways people behaved badly in film theaters, beginning with the simple-minded ‘matinee girl’ who:

reads the sub-titles aloud very slowly, generally omitting the big words, and the 30-year old girl who has written scenarios but can’t get any accepted and comes to scoff at the work of others. And the giggling girl, hysterically desirous of attention. She always comes in twos and giggles and talks so loudly you can’t even hear the sub-titles being read by the other woman. Very often she turns out to be an extra girl employed in the picture. But the matinee hog is the worst of all. Usually this species of noisome creature is of the male sex, and has another of his kind along with him. If he’s seated when you enter, at the end of the row of seats, he never moves to give you room, nor does he rise. He sticks his elephantine feet into the aisle and lets you fall over them…In fact, he’s one big reason you hesitate a lot of times to enter a picture house at all.

So there has never been a time when audiences were well-behaved. They needed a Code of Conduct then as much as we do now.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Aladdin from Broadway, “a delightful high-class screen comedy…Edith Storey indeed surprises by revealing herself as a complete mistress of comedy of a certain volatile, whimsical flavor…it is due to Miss Storey’s vibrant humor, as well as Antonio Moreno’s debonair impersonation of the happy-go-lucky America that the photoplay is sustained in a comedy key throughout, despite some scenes of thrilling adventure.” Other reviewers, like George Shorey in Motion Picture News, were so impressed by the thrilling adventure (particularly a sandstorm that was “one of the most wonderful bits of picture staging we have ever seen”) that he didn’t even mention the funny bits. However, he agreed with Kingsley that it was one of the best films Vitagraph had ever made. Sadly, it’s a lost film.

The big release of the week was She; Kingsley found it “magnificently spectacular,” yet it was a “warmed-over thrill” because despite the breath-catching episodes of burning people and naked cannibals dancing around their victim, the scenes gluing them together were dull. Nevertheless, “Valeska Suratt, as She, entirely vindicates her right to be classed as one of the screen’s big-best actresses.” It’s also a lost film.

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Kingsley reported on the founding of the First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, an association of independent theater owners that “marks the first nation-wide step taken toward open-market buying.” Film producers had been selling their complete program to theaters, but the new Exhibitor’s Circuit would allow them to choose what they showed. It became a great success, controlling over 600 theaters. In 1924 it expanded into film production, changing its name to First National Pictures, and in 1928 they were bought by Warner Bros.

Kingsley had a chat with a young actress, Eva Le Gallienne, touring with a production of The Happy Stranger. Her father Richard was a famous poet, so she answered the obvious question:

“Do I write poetry?” repeated Miss Le Gallienne. “No, I do not. I speak with authority, too. In other words, my judgment has been verified. I used to think I did, but now I know I don’t. I wrote one bit of verse which was published, and thereafter I wrote about ninety-seven poems and sent them each to about ninety-seven publications without success. No, you just ask any of those editors and he will tell you no quite positively. In acting I’ve had much better success—but I shall never cease regretting those ninety-seven poems. It’s just too discouraging writing for the waste basket.”

Le Gallienne probably recovered from her disappointment when she was busy picking up her Tony, Emmy and National Medal of the Arts, playing everything from Peter Pan to Hamlet, appearing on the cover of Time and founding the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, which was the beginning of Off-Broadway theaters. She rarely acted in film, but she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Resurrection in 1980.

Week of September 16th, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced the formation of a new company, the Continental Producing Company, that

will begin active operation next Monday on the production of a big twelve-reel feature, The Spirit of ’76, embodying historical events and characters of the American Revolution…it is said that much painstaking research has preceded the production of the picture.

She didn’t mention the man who is the reason the film is remembered today, its writer/producer, Robert Goldstein. His story was so sad that it wouldn’t make a credible melodrama (the Slate article about him was called “The Unluckiest Man in Movie History”).

Mary Mallory wrote a very through article about the film and Goldstein’s subsequent troubles, but the short version is that the historical events in this patriotic film included British war atrocities. Showing allies in the World War doing such things was suddenly considered pro-German, and he was arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. He served three years of a ten-year sentence. In 1921, he recut the film and it was shown in New York City for three weeks, but he had little success. He left the United States later that year and tried to find film work in Europe, ending up living in Berlin with his aunts. He returned to New York on August 16, 1935 (earlier writers assumed he died in the Holocaust, but his immigration record was recently digitized). He appears in the 1940 Census as an inmate of Riker’s Island, and that’s the final record currently available for him. It’s a shame Robert Goldstein ever wanted to make movies. To add insult to injury, it’s a lost film.

If you’d like to know more about the legal aspects of the case, look at “The Espionage Act and Robert Goldstein’s The Spirit of ’76 (1917): A Historical and Legal Analysis” by Zach Saltz. There is also a book by Anthony Slide called Robert Goldstein and The Spirit of ’76. 

[Update: I visited the New York City Archive in October 2016 and I found only a dead end. Their records for Rikers Island end in 1936. I also checked the burial records for Potters Field but they’re kept by death date, and they’re missing the microfilm reel with records for 1942-1943. Maybe someday more records will be digitized and we can find out what happened to him.]

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Tarantula, a “tense and thrilling drama” about the downfall of a “he-vampire” (it’s about time!) Edith Storey played an innocent young woman seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a married man (Harry Hollingsworth). The baby dies, she becomes a dancer and he goes to one of her shows where she give him a jeweled box. When he passes out from drink, a tarantula emerges from the box, bites and kills him. She marries her faithful suitor (Antonio Moreno). And so we learn that the wages of premarital sex and revenge are to live happily ever after with an extremely handsome man. Hooray! (A few years later Moreno would become a star and rival to Valentino.) The Silent Feature Film Database says there are no archival holdings of The Tarantula, but it seems to be available on some sketchy streaming sites.

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Audrey Munson, 1915

A notorious film came to town, but Los Angeles seemed “entirely apathetic” despite censorship battles waged in New York. Purity starred Audrey Munson as an artists’ model who poses nude to earn enough money to publish her ungrateful boyfriend’s poetry. Kingsley warned filmgoers that it was a bore; she thought that “the part calls for clothes – but there is no answer…there is a story, but it is obviously written merely for the purpose of stringing together through seven reels numberless poses of Miss Munson.” While the censors in L.A. were apathetic, the public was less so — the film played to capacity audiences. The next week, theater manager Seth Perkins learned just how relaxed the local censors were: hoping for a little publicity, he put up a “frank” photo of Miss Munson in the lobby. Unfortunately, not one person or official objected. He sighed to Kingsley: “Oh, for the old censor days!”

Kingsley revealed that even then people could be skeptical about Los Angeles standing in for other places: “The Lasky company apparently has implicit faith in California scenery and their art director. At present there are three features under production, with scenes laid in widely different localities on the earth’s surface.” The locations were Japan, the jungles of South Africa, and New York City.