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).
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:
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.
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!
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).
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.
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
“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.