Week of May 4th, 1918

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Billie Rhodes and ‘Smiling Bill’ Parsons in Dad’s Knockout (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley enjoyed a new two-reeler from “Smiling Billy” Parsons:

Of course, nature endowed Mr. Parsons with his make-up, but that elusive something called “personality” is his own. Billy’s Baby, which, I believe, is his initial comedy production, is funny enough to make into a stage farce, and has to do with an engaged young man who has gambled away the engagement ring he was to give his fiancée, and who steals a baby to put into a baby show in order to win a prize and buy another ring. Billy is a newspaper reporter who starts out owing $500—which in itself is, of course, funny enough to get a laugh.

Some comedy shorts had a real mean streak in the good old days – now baby theft doesn’t seem funny. Nevertheless, William Parsons was not a typical aspiring comic. Born in in 1877 or 78 (sources differ), he studied medicine then he became a successful life insurance agent and executive. By 1910, he and his wife Bertha had moved to Los Angeles where he was a manger for the Prudential Company. Then in his late 30’s he got bitten by the movie bug. He became an actor for the Lubin Company and appeared in short dramas like A Girl of the Cafes (1914) and Love’s Savage Hate (1915).

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In the spring of 1915, he became even more ambitious and with five partners and $100,000 he co-founded the National Film Corporation. They signed contracts with up-and-coming stars Norma and Constance Talmadge. Unfortunately, the first films they made weren’t successful, including the short comedy Parsons made with Constance, You Can’t Beat It. Moving Picture World quite liked it:

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His wife divorced him in 1917, but he kept acting and producing films. Film historian James Neibaur wrote “Parsons had a strong reputation for being a rather dazzling and persuasive salesman and his success was often based on his friendliness and likability resulting in a successful deal.”

In 1918 Parsons had his greatest success: he produced Tarzan of the Apes, the first Tarzan film. It was such a hit that the National Film Corp made a sequel, Romance of Tarzan. They also launched the “Smiling Billy” series, which sold well enough that they made over a dozen of them. Parson’s co-star was comedienne Billie Rhodes, and they soon married.

 

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Sadly, Parsons died suddenly on September 28, 1919 either in a diabetic coma or due to kidney problems – source differ on that, too. At least he got to realize his ambitions – not many people get to be a successful film executive and comic film star!

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Madame Sphinx

Kingsley demonstrated how hot gossip was written in 1918:

Nowadays, declares Wallace MacDonald, who is playing opposite lovely Alma Rubens, Triangle star, in Madame Sphinx, whenever there is a love scene between himself and the charming Alma, a mysterious interruption always occurs. In other words, whether due to thought transmission or what not, a certain ardent suitor in Los Angeles always seems to be tipped off at the psychological moment, with the result that Miss Rubens is invariably wanted on the phone, and when she returns her thoughts are always far away (Franklyn Farnum please confirm).

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Alma Rubens

The story of two single people courting wasn’t particularly scandalous, and Rubens married Farnum a month later. Unfortunately it was an unhappy marriage: they were together only for a few weeks and she accused him of physical abuse in her divorce petition. She went on to star in successful dramas like Humoresque (1920), but her life took a turn for the worst after she became addicted to heroin. She died in 1931 of pneumonia, only 33 years old.

 

Kingsley reported on one of the biggest hits of 1918:

Charlie Chaplin continues to play the Pied Piper to the fans at Tally’s Broadway this week in A Dog’s Life, every show being packed.

Since it was three reels long, it had a different co-feature each week. This week it was running with a Constance Talmadge film (her career had improved since her National Film days). The Shuttle was based on a Frances Hodgson Burnett story and Talmadge played “the smart American girl who flies to the aid of her sister married to a bullying English lord.” Kingsley declared it one of the best films of her screen career, and one of the best films Tally’s had shown.

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This was the last week

Tally’s ad warned that this was the last week for A Dog’s Life, but it lied. The film played one more week (on the 15th, Kingsley noted that people were seeing it two or three times), then it got replaced by a Clara Kimball Young film, The Reason Why.

 

Sources for William Parsons:

1910 U.S. Census

“Billie Rhodes,”

“Clothes Cost Her Fortune,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1917.

“National Film Capitalized at $100,000,” Motion Picture News, May 29, 1915, p. 65.

Neibaur, James L. “Women in Silent Comedy: Billie Rhodes.

“Roll of States,” Motography, May 29, 1915, p. 895.

“’Smiling Bill’ Parsons, L.A. Film Producer, Dies,” Los Angeles Herald, September 29, 1919.

 

 

Week of April 28th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley put a Hollywood spin on the upcoming war tax.

Of course, to be within the charmed circle of picture stars and picture magnates who receive salaries which soar up into the rarified atmosphere occupied by high art and the income tax is an enviable position. Nevertheless now that these poor struggling picture folk are to have their salaries submitted to further pickings on account of the war – in other words, now they are liable to have to yield up to 40 per cent of their incomes as war tax—fancy how they will suffer. They will not be able to afford more than three or four cars and chauffeurs apiece, they will have to be satisfied with old second-hand diamonds, they will be able to buy only a few hundred dollars worth of government bonds at a time, and will have to cut over last year’s ermine and make it do for another winter…However, these patriots are keeping a noble silence on the subject, so we presume they are willing to sacrifice in the cause of patriotism.

She listed some of the people who made over $100,000 who would be affected, including D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Francis X. Bushman, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Sennett, William S. Hart and Clara Kimball Young.

Many changes were made to the War Revenue Act of 1917 before it passed in October, and it wasn’t just wealthy people affected. In 1916, people making less than $20,000 didn’t have to bother with income tax at all; this act lowered the threshold to $2,000. However, the average annual household income was about $800 so many people still didn’t have to file. The tax was graduated starting at 4 percent, rising to 31 percent for incomes of $100,000 and 67 percent for $2,000,000 or more.

Personal income tax wasn’t the only way the country paid for the war, they also raised corporate taxes, added more tax to luxury items like cars and sold bonds. Even with these measures, they didn’t cover the whole cost of it and the national debt rose from one billion in 1915 to twenty billion in 1920.

Kinglsey’s favorite film this week was The Clock, and as usual there was only one charming actor she could compare the lead to:

Franklyn Farnum comes near stripping bare the brow of Douglas Fairbanks in this buoyantly cheerful little tale. Mr. Farnum plays the role of a happy-go-lucky young scamp with an irresistible smile and a breezy manner, by which he gets away with quite incredible but always cheerful impertinences. The story has to do, along in the third reel, with a clock left the hero by a mysterious uncle along with an inheritance of five thousand a year on the end of a codicil string, which requires the young man to go to bed at 10 and arise at six. Probably there is a moral about it somewhere, but its entirely painless.

Unfortunately it’s a lost film. Farnum was a former vaudevillian who was nearly 40 when he appeared in The Clock. He went on to a very long career primarily in Westerns with 618 credits on the IMDB.

Kinglsey’s best line of the week was in her review of The More Excellent Way: “The story is one of those which smuggles smut to the hypercritical and snuffling sisterhood.” Anita Stewart played a “spineless female” who marries a man she doesn’t love and “who maunders through five reels between divorce and broken-hearted silence.” Eventually she realizes she loves him. It’s also a lost film.

Kinglsey typed some nonsense this week, but she couldn’t keep sarcasm out of it. Under the headline “Rapid Evolution Note” she said that the “Hawaiian” actress, Miss Lehua Waipahu, of The Bottle Imp had changed her name to Margaret Loomis, and had managed to learn to speak English quite fluently. She wrote, “as a tribute to our climate, be it known her complexion has suddenly turned very fair.” Waipahu/Loomis wasn’t the least bit Hawaiian; she was born in San Francisco in 1893 to Charles (from California) and Georgia (from Iowa) Loomis, and grew up in Los Angeles. She studied dance at the Denishawn School and toured with Ruth St. Denis before she became an actress. I don’t know who suggested she be temporarily Hawaiian for the film, but by a 1920 Picture-Play Magazine interview she dropped all of the Lehua Waipahu silliness and just described The Bottle Imp as one of her “good roles.” She worked for Paramount Studios until the mid-1920s when she married and retired.

Kinglsey reported that F.H. Richardson, “one of the greatest experts on motion picture projection in America” had arrived in Los Angeles as part of his North American tour to preach “the gospel of perfect projection to the house managers.” He got a reception at Universal City, gave a lecture at the Superba Theater, and was given a banquet at a downtown café. It’s a shame we don’t have perfect projection preachers being feted by film companies now. Secondly, I’m still amazed by what’s available online: the Screening Room Services site has a biography and collection of his lectures here.