Week of July 27th, 1918

Du Theatre au Champ d’Honneur

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that the biggest entertainment event in Los Angeles wasn’t film-related, it was on a vaudeville stage, and the most-respected actress of her time was appearing:

It was a hushed house, the silence of which held something akin to reverence, that greeted Sarah Bernhardt, the world’s divine Sarah, at the flag-decked Orpheum yesterday afternoon, when she appeared in Du Theatre au Champ d’Honneur (From the Theater to the Field of Honor) a one-act play written by a French officer…When the curtain went up, the crowd greeted with tremendous cheering the slim little figure in its soldier’s togs, seated beneath a mimic tree in a mimic forest.

The playlet was a story that would only work with the heightened emotions of wartime:

She is a soldier boy, who, on being wounded, has hidden the flag of France to protect it, ere he swooned, and on coming to himself cannot remember where he has hidden it; whose one and only thought is for his country, who is indifferent to the nurses and stretcher bearers who came to find him, and who suddenly remembers that the flag is hidden in the tree, reaches it by an effort, thereby opening his wounds afresh, and passing away as he unfurls the bullet-ridden flag.


The text is available on the Internet Archive.

The performance was interrupted when a woman stood up to cry “Bravo,” fainted, and fell across the balcony railing. Kingsley assumed she was French and was overcome by feelings of patriotism. She wasn’t the only patriot; Kingsley said that “when she cried “God bless America” the audience fairly tore the roof off.”

Sarah Bernhardt, 1862

This was a stop on Bernhardt’s fourth American farewell tour, but this one really was the last. She was 73 years old at the time and still working, despite losing a leg to gangrene in 1915. She died just five years later, in 1923.


It was vaudeville so there were other acts on the bill. It must have been a hard act to follow and they got short-changed for attention in her column, too. “A remarkable bill surrounds the star, including Carl McCullough, with clever travesties of well-know stage stars, Ruth Budd, the marvelous ring and rope worker, Marion Weeks, a dainty young girl with a lovely, bird-like voice; Eddie Carr and company, in a fairly amusing sketch entitled The Office Boy, and the holdovers, Norton and Melnotto, Bensee and Vaird, and Hahn, Weller and O’Donnell.” At least they had a chance to get their acts seen by a large audience.


Kingsley reported on another member of the entertainment industry making a sacrifice for the war effort:

Giving up a $50,000-a-year contract to write film plays for Famous Players-Lasky Company, the brilliant young scenario writer, Frances Marion, who has been able to suit Mary Pickford with roles which fitted like the proverbial glove, is to leave for France next Monday on a patriotic mission.

Miss Marion has received a commission from the government to travel the Allied countries in search of material which will be used as propaganda and which will be published in various magazines and newspapers in this country and possible in England, Australia and Canada. The nature of the material is to relate to the human interest and home side of the war.

She expected to be gone for a year, and first visit France, then Great Britain and later Russia, Japan, China, India and Egypt. However, because the war ended much more quickly than most people expected, her trip didn’t last so long. According to her biographer Cari Beauchamp,* Marion sailed for France on September 18th and reported for duty at the Committee for Public Information in Paris. She was assigned to film the work of Allied women, including nurses, telephone operators, interpreters and entertainers. She saw the devastation brought by the war when she was attached to units traveling to Verdun and later Luxembourg to treat wounded troops during the German retreat. She was flown back to Paris on November 10th, so she was there for the Armistice celebrations the next day. There she caught influenza, but unlike so many pandemic victims, she recovered. She returned to New York in early February 1919, and went on the write all kinds of successful screenplays, from Stella Dallas (1925) to The Champ (1931).


Kingsley’s review of Her Body in Bond this week had some prime complaining:

There are two Mammoth Caves in the United States. One is located in Kentucky, the other under the hat of the man who would change the name of the delightful story from The Eternal Columbine to Her Body in Bond… Of course the change was made ‘for advertising purposes’ (and perhaps the end justifies the means during the present lax season on the photoplay rialto) but whether the clientele that craves bodies in bond and souls for sale will appreciate the daintiness of much of this Universal production is another question.

I was surprised because it had the same plot as Breaking the Waves. A woman “whose love for her partner-husband is so deep that she is ready to barter her body to purchase his recovery from serious illness.” This version was more straightforward – Mae Murray’s Polly got money from an old coot to pay for her husband’s treatment, not some sort of quasi-religious magic. At least Kingsley enjoyed the film, despite the title.

The Kinema Theater added a new selling point this week:


Cigars in an enclosed public space? I’m glad some things have changed in the last 100 years!


*Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997, pp. 92-100.

Week of July 14th, 1917


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that cinematographer Billy Bitzer’s wife had gotten a cable telling her that Bitzer and his boss D.W. Griffith would be staying in Europe indefinitely. They stayed until early October, filming exteriors for Hearts of the World.

Billy Bitzer and Nora Farrell, 1919 passport

Since I’m a cinematographer’s wife myself, I wanted to know more about the woman who stayed home. However, I ran into the usual problem when researching ladies who weren’t famous: she left almost no records. I couldn’t find anyone I was certain was her in magazines, censuses or death indexes, and only one mention and bad photo in Bitzer’s 1919 passport application.


He did mention a bit about her in his biography, written in 1939 (reviewed at the Century Film Project). Her name was Nora Farrell, and she had blue eyes, tiny hands and feet and ginger-brown hair. Born in Ireland, her “brogue was as thick as a priest’s.” They met in 1899 when he rescued her from a burning building. He said she was ten years older than him, but the passport said it was only three. She drank more beer than he approved of. They both had tempers; Karl Brown in his autobiography remarked on one of their epic fights. She was thrifty, and liked putting money into the savings account. They lived together without benefit of marriage until at least late 1919, when they were on the ill-fated boat trip to the Bahamas that was supposed to last one day but took five (Griffith was making The Love Idol.)* Bitzer didn’t mention why they broke up, or what happened to her; he married a much younger woman in 1923.

So the moral is please leave a record of yourself, and tell your side of the story.


Kingsley’s favorite film this week was the “very excellent” To Honor and Obey. The story of a devoted wife who sacrifices her virtue to rescue her vain, selfish husband’s finances didn’t have “an inch of padding in the whole film” yet the plot and action were “translucent.” Gladys Brockwell played the wife; Kingsley thought that her performance had rare depths, “coupled with a never-failing sense of drama which does not let her overact a scene by a hair’s breadth.” It’s a lost film, so I’ll spoil it: the evil husband commits suicide, and everyone thinks good riddance to bad rubbish. Brockwell had a fine career, usually playing supporting roles like Nancy in Oliver Twist (1922) and the sister in Seventh Heaven (1927). She died following a car accident in 1929.


Feature-length films hadn’t been around for very long, but Kingsley had already had enough of dual roles. Bessie Barriscale played twin sisters this week in The Snarl, and Kingsley had some suggestions for screenwriters:

So long as we must have these double role plays, why doesn’t somebody conceive the idea of having both characters either good or bad? Say you make your story twins bad. There are varying degrees of badness, you know, and various assorted kinds of badness, so the story needn’t be monotonous, and I for one am dead sick of seeing a person talking to himself.

Even seeing a man shake hands with himself has lost its pristine thrill and as for seeing a person bullyrag his double, or even murder him, I can look on entirely unmoved. In fact, I’m rather glad of it, as then there is only one of him or her left that we are obligated to view.

So audiences in 1917 weren’t so naive and easy to impress as you might think. Frances Marion must have agreed with Kingsley; when she wrote Stella Maris for Mary Pickford the next year, both sides of the dual role were good. Stella was rich and sheltered, while Unity Blake was poor and had seen too much. Kingsley was right: it could be done.


Kingsley reported that Irving Cummings, star of The Whip which was currently in theaters, had been injured in an automobile accident and wasn’t expected to live. Happily, he recovered and went on to act in many films, including The Saphead with Buster Keaton. He became a director, most famously of Technicolor musicals like Down Argentine Way (1940) and The Dolly Sisters (1945).


*“Film Stars Missing,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 14, 1919.


Week of August 19th, 1916

Comic by Edmund Waller “Ted” Gale

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley scored an interview with Charlie Chaplin on the set of his new film, The Count. She rarely wrote up stand-alone interviews; instead she would incorporate them in her regular news column. But Chaplin was already such an important figure in film–only two years after his debut–that she made an exception.

She found a melancholy man who “takes life and himself seriously, and wants you to take them seriously, too.” She told of his impoverished beginnings, his working methods and the inspiration for his walk. She also demonstrated how well he could tell a story; one night he was gloomy, so he and Thomas Meighan went slumming at a saloon in San Pedro. The proprietor became suspicious of the two, and

…he openly voiced the opinion that we weren’t there for any good. Finally our evidence of overwhelming wealth – we had spent six bits by that time—caused him to decide that such reckless spenders must be from Alaska. After a while, though, he began to look at me closely. A look of amazement stole over his face. “You ain’t – it can’t be Charlie Chaplin,” he cried. “Pshaw,” I answered, “of course not, I’m a travelling man.” “I’ll bet you are Charlie Chaplin” he insisted. But when I coyly admitted I was indeed that very person –

“Aww, no you ain’t,” he veered around. “No man that made $670,000 a year would come to a dump like this!” And no amount of persuasion or proof could convince him.

The whole article was reprinted in Charlie Chaplin Interviews and the editor, Kevin Hayes, credits her with figuring out how to have a good interview with him: make it seem like a conversation, not an interview.

Clayton, Montague Love and Blackwell in A Woman’s Way

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Woman’s Way. She wrote:

it is perhaps the best high comedy of its class which the local screen has seen…That shades of dramatic feeling, that delicate finesse of the mind’s workings, that adroit play of wit on wit may be shown on the screen, is proven in this clever story of how a woman, about to lose her husband to a vampire, sets her wits to work and wins the battle.

It stared Ethel Clayton (“a through mistress of her art”) and Carlyle Blackwell (“the artist as always, and a handsome and magnetic one”). Clayton had the depressingly typical actress’s career: she was a leading lady until the mid-1920s, then she played mothers, then she took bit parts. Blackwell continued to get leading men parts until sound ended his film career.

Margaret I. MacDonald at Moving Picture World disagreed with Kingsley; she found it only “moderately entertaining…will no doubt please the average audience.” It’s not a lost film, and has been preserved at the Amsterdam Filmmuseum.

The most successful person involved with the film was its writer, Frances Marion. Adapted from a stage play, A Woman’s Way was one of her 20 (!) film credits for 1916. She was best know for her work with Mary Pickford (see the book Without Lying Down), as well as Stella Dallas and Son of the Sheik. Marion also won an Oscar for The Champ.

Mary Pickford, at work on the first film of her new contract, Pride of the Clan (1916)

Marion’s soon-to-be collaborator made some news this week:

Mary Pickford will head her own company hereafter, producing big features which will be released independent of any programme. It was formally announced yesterday that the Mary Pickford Film Corporation had been organized and offices opened in the Godfrey Building in New York. Miss Pickford personally is to direct and supervise every detail of her productions. It is announced that she will surround herself with the best brains and skill the motion picture field will yield.

Pickford was still working for Famous Players-Laksy, but she had signed a contract that her biographer Scott Eyman called “a small masterpiece of employee demand and employer humiliation.” Running for two years, in addition to full approval of directors and actors and independence from block booking, she got 50 percent of her films’ net profits and a private studio. She really did surround herself with the best brains and skill, hiring directors like Maurice Tourneur, Cecil B. DeMille and Marshall Neilan, cinematographer Charles Rosher, and of course Frances Marion.

D.W. Griffith’s publicity man earned his pay this week, keeping his boss’s not-yet released film in the news. Kingsley quoted W.E. Keefe, who had so successfully used fights with censors to publicize Birth of a Nation:

Intolerance seems to be just prejudice proof. Here I expected a nice, juicy lot of opposition from most everybody, and all the different sects come up and shake Griffith’s hand and tell him it’s fine. Today my last hope died. I got a message from the Mayor saying he’d like to see me privately. ‘Ha! Says I, ‘here’s where we start something!’ But all he wanted was that Mr. Griffith, Sir [Herbert Beerbohm] Tree and De Wolf Hopper should be guests of the city and go and look at the Greek Theater. What’s the use?

Intolerance was subjected to censorship in some markets (particularly the shots of seminude woman) but it was nothing compared to Birth. Russell Merrith found that “many of the censor brawls have the whiff of staged publicity stunts meant to draw attention both to the movie and to the naked women.” Keefe tried his best to drum up interest, but the film sold far fewer tickets than Birth. William Earl “Bill” Keefe was a former newspaper writer. He became a production manager at Griffith’s studio, and later worked for an advertising agency.

Kingsley delivered two pretty good one-liners this week. When describing Leah Herz’s dance act at the Orpheum, she wrote “it is a great novelty, and for those of us whose imaginations find it difficult to understand and interpret the gyrations of the ballet, and don’t know that two kicks this way means ‘I love you’ and that draping yourself over the fountain means ‘don’t bring your mother-in-law home for dinner,’ such an act is a godsend.” Who knew that going to vaudeville could be so much intellectual work!

She also mentioned that the California historical romance Daughter of the Don “continues to attract big crowds of loyal Angelinos, some of whom had been here all of a month.” Kingsley herself was a non-native – she didn’t arrive until 1879, when she was six.