Week of September 8th, 1917



One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote the “very touching little story” of how Ruby Lafayette got her break in Hollywood at age 73 with the film Mother o’ Mine. Miss Lafayette had a fifty-year long career as a respected stage actress who toured the Midwest with her own company, performing plays like Pygmalion and Galatea* and Damon and Pythias. She and her husband, fellow actor John T. Curran, retired to a ranch in Lampasas, Texas. Kingsley picked up the story from there:

But she lost her husband and things went wrong on the ranch. Not long ago, without giving anybody any inkling of what she intended to do, she packed up and came West, making her appearance early one morning at Universal City. Rupert Julian had long wanted to put the Kipling poem into celluloid drama. He chanced to be passing through the office. He saw the little old lady, turned and took another look, and began to talk with her. She told him of her experience, her eagerness to work. Julian wanted to put Mother o’ Mine right on, but the powers-that-be wouldn’t let him at that time. So Miss Lafayette went back to the Texas farm. Then one day when things were looking the darkest for the brave little old soul, who was trying to make things go all alone and having a hard time of it, she got a letter from Mr. Julian. Mother o’ Mine was to be filmed after all, an nobody would do for the part except Miss Lafayette! So out she came again, and everybody who saw the tender, appealing, delightful characterization which she gave at the Garrick a couple of weeks ago, will rejoice that she is to appear on the screen in other pictures.


Kingsley didn’t know how right she was: Lafayette appeared in at least 30 films over the next 15 years (her Motion Picture Herald obituary estimated it was 200). She billed herself as “the oldest actress on the screen” and she played lots of grandmothers. She died in 1935 when she was 90, after a great third act.

Funnily enough, the same Sunday column opened with observations on how leading ladies were becoming younger and younger. Kingsley wrote “sixteen years old seems to be the popular age, just now,” then she recounted the story of a 22 year old actress “who was told, when she asked for a certain part: “Why my dear, you can’t have that part. You’re older than Methuselah!”


Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Polly of the Circus, which was “a huge success. Never in its palmist stage days did the play achieve the brilliant triumph which its film twin promises, with Mae Marsh in the leading role…And what a wonderful little girl Polly was! We never knew just how wonderful until we saw Mae Marsh play the role…what a creature of imaginativeness, of sensibility, of sturdy loyalty and affectionateness Miss Marsh has made her!”

The audience in Los Angeles were big fans of Miss Marsh, too; “all day and all evening huge crowds waited outside the theater.” Kingsley also appreciated the script that transferred the “quaint charm” of the play to the screen, the photography, and the orchestra and lighting effects. It told the story of a young circus horseback rider who is injured in an accident and stays with a minster while she recovers. Polly was the first film produced by Goldwyn Pictures, and it was the first appearance of the Goldwyn lion mascot that later became the MGM lion. The film was once considered lost, but it was one of the films found in the permafrost of Dawson City, Yukon in 1978.


Kingsley reported that Thomas Ince tried to buy the rights to make Peter Pan from Sir James Barrie. Even though he offered “a fortune,” Barrie refused because he’d had a bad experience with a British production company and he decided to never allow one of his plays or stories to be filmed again. Luckily he changed his mind in the early 1920’s; the 1924 film starring Betty Bronson has become a favorite of silent film fans and was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry in 2000. It’s available on DVD.


Kingsley repeated claims that William Desmond Taylor and his Tom Sawyer cast and crew managed to sneak into St. Petersburg, Missouri, film several scenes and leave before anybody knew they were filming. Townspeople thought that the equipment belonged to government engineers surveying the area, and the hotel proprietor said that the company was so quiet that he couldn’t have known they were film folk. She reported that locals were irritated because they missed the chance to see Hollywood in action.


*Pygmalion and Galatea was written by W.S. Gilbert. It debuted in 1871, just before his first collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. It was a big hit, and it inspired other authors to do their version of the myth, including George Bernard Shaw in 1913.

Elizabeth McGaffey (1922 passport photo)

Note: My profile of Elizabeth McGaffey is up at the Women Film Pioneers site. She was the first studio librarian. I learned about her when I wrote my February 10, 1917 blog post, and of course I needed to know more. Since she was on the WFP “unhistoricized” list, I wrote up what I found and they accepted it. However, now they have new rules: you must apply and submit your CV before you write for them. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.



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)

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.

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.


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.

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.