You Could Just Stay Home: Week of April 12th, 1919

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Bessie Barriscale

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley told a story about how to discourage a young person’s misplaced ambitions:

“Before you decide definitely to chose the screen as a profession, I would advise you to read a little book by Dr. Conwell called Acres of Diamonds,” said Bessie Barriscale to a girl who had been bitten by the camera bug and who had come all the way from a New England town to break in to pictures.

The girl took Miss Barriscale’s advice, read the book and decided that her acre of diamonds wasn’t to be found in the pictures at all, but right back there in the little town she came from.

“It is often so,” said the star. “A girl will look far afield for the fortune that lies right at her feet. The screen must have new blood, new talent, new faces, but a girl should be very sure that she is right before she spends time, money and much labor in trying to make good. Such a girl I will help to the limit, but it is unjust to a girl herself to help her when her chances are doubtful.”

 

It’s so unusual to hear something other than “follow your dreams!” Acres of Diamonds was a popular essay by Russell Conwell, a Baptist minister, writer, and the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, adapted from a lecture he gave over 6,000 times. Just as Barriscale said, its main idea was that you don’t need to look elsewhere for opportunity. He told a story about a man who wanted to find diamonds, so he sold his property and went off in search of them. The new owner found a mine on the property. The essay is available on Google Books.

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Another convincing argument against going to Hollywood

Barriscale managed to turn one unpromising newcomer away. A few days later in a review, Kingsley identified the root of the problem:

Probably there isn’t anybody in the world under forty-five who hasn’t in some fleeting moment imagined himself a picture actor—with a sneaking belief that if he had only half a chance he could push Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart right back into the two-a-day.

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The film she was reviewing was The Goat, which featured Fred Stone as an aspiring movie star who leaves his home and his sweetheart to try his luck in Hollywood. He wants to be in films so badly that he agrees to be a stunt man (did the writers of Singing In The Rain see this movie?); unlike many Hollywood aspirants he had real skill, as Kingsley notes: “that’s where Stone has a chance to show how he can defy all the laws of gravitation.” However, this lost film did its part to discourage people from trying to be a performer: he gets badly injured doing a particularly dangerous stunt, so he takes the studio’s hush money and uses it for a honeymoon to Niagara Falls with his sweetheart.

 

Alas, this week Kingsley also ran a story that made stardom sound easy, which didn’t help matters. One morning a few weeks earlier in the Wilson household:

sister Lois started off to work at the studio as usual, and sister Janice told Mamma Wilson she was going downtown to shop. But she didn’t. Instead she went down to the offices of Willis & Inglis, and told them she wanted to play in pictures. She said she had never had any experience—and she didn’t tell them she was Lois Wilson’s sister. Her beauty and evident breeding marked her for honor, however, and the next day she was called to work in a picture with Gladys Brockwell, at a nice little salary of $60 per week. She made good in the picture, and has had one or two engagements since then, but nothing startling.

Then about a week ago, when Mr. [Frank] Keenan started work on his latest and one of his biggest productions, he looked about for a lovely leading woman. As soon as he saw Miss Wilson’s photographs, he decided she was just the girl for the part. And so she is playing opposite him.

Janice Wilson wasn’t a star, but did have a bit of a career in Hollywood, appearing in five films including Keenan’s film, The World Aflame (1919). She stopped acting when she married real estate agent James Bell, in 1922. So even if she didn’t get to be a successful as her sister, her dreams don’t seem to have done lasting damage to her.

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Kingsley’s favorite films this week were two nonfiction shorts:

It was just bound to arrive—painless picture education. And now it’s here, with one clever Rothacker sponsoring it. Maybe you don’t care for travelogues, or maybe you aren’t feeling like plush-chair traveling today. All right. You don’t have to take your travelogues “neat” any more. Mr. Rothacker dishes them up with romantic sauce piquant. Even if you don’t care a picayune in the abstract about how the wild Maoris live or what their dances are like or what they eat for breakfast, you’re just bound to be absorbed in the concrete instance of an idealized love affair of a Maori maid and man. That’s the film I saw at Ray’s Garden yesterday. And while maybe you aren’t excited at all over the way in which brides are given away on the Sahara Desert yet you’re sure to be fascinated over at the Victory by the particular wedding ceremony and journey of a particularly attractive Bedouin bride and bridegroom. And all talked about in subtitles that are human and amusing. In short, these pictures give you a gratifying sense of being educated in an entirely painless way all the while you were being highly entertained.

A Maori Romance and Mid Sahara’s Sands were two of the twenty films made in the Rothacker Outdoor Pictures series. Exhibitor’s Herald also like them for the same reason Kingsley did: “special attention has been given to the titling of these “Outdoor” pictures. The human appeal is conveyed by title which connect the scenic episodes in narrative form, and the title expert has caught the spirit of the subjects and emphasized them with light and humorous touches.” (December 14, 1918, p.15) Other titles in the series included Bad Men and Good Scenery (Jackson Hole, Wyoming), An Eyeful of Egypt, and Peaks, Parks and Pines (Mt. Rainer Washington).

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Bad Men and Good Scenery

There’s a clip of Mid Sahara’s Sands available on the Travel Film Archive site. Now some of the humor seems mean and patronizing, plus seeing a 10-year old Bedouin bride is just sad (she didn’t get to make choices for herself, unlike Barriscale’s visitor). However, it is amazing that you can see what Bedouin people looked and moved like in 1918.

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Rothacker and Conan-Doyle

Watterson R. Rothacker had quite a career. Based in Chicago, in 1910 he co-founded the Industrial Film Company, the first company to specialize in making advertising and educational films. After another co-founder, Carl Laemmle, left to start Universal Films, the company became the Rothacker Film Manufacturing Company. During the war they also made documentaries about the fighting and he ran a film processing laboratory. He’s most famous for hiring special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien to make short films for his company, then following his suggestion to turn The Lost World into a movie. Rothacker bought the film rights from the novel’s author Arthur Conan Doyle, settled various lawsuits with O’Brien’s former business partner, then signed an agreement with First National in December 1923 to finance and distribute the film. It was a great big hit, making 2.6 million dollars. He sold his studio in 1926 and went to work for First National as the managing director. He went on to be vice president of the Motion Picture Producers Association, then vice president of Paramount Pictures. In 1939 he became vice president of the Quigley Publishing Company, publishers of Motion Picture Herald and Motion Picture Daily. He died of cancer in 1960.

 

 

“The Lost World,” in George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p.94-95.

“W.R. Rothacker, Ex-Film Producer,” New York Times, January 27, 1960.

 

Week of February 8th, 1919

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to see a film she was really looking forward to:

Any time that Fred Stone appears as the star in a film comedy, I for one am going to be on hand to see it. And if, in addition, as is the case at Clune’s Broadway in Under the Top, this week, those unctuously humorous and good-humoredly satirical writers, Anita Loos and John Emerson, are the authors of the picture play in which Stone appears, I simply wouldn’t miss the combination for anything.

While Loos and Emerson are still well-known (at least among silent film fans), Fred Stone is nearly forgotten. The writers did a good job of tailoring their script to his impressive talents:

The delicious humor of Under the Top, which has to do with circus folks, lies in the manner of its doing, as conveyed both by action and subtitles. If you told the tale straight it would sound like rank melodrama—save the whimsical twist at the end, which, quite obviously, is gentle satire. The kidnapped heroine, Ella Hall, owner of the circus, is hypnotized into saying she wants to marry one of her guardians who has been stealing her money, with the time set for her awakening at 3 o’clock. The action takes place in the circus tent, and when Fred Stone, the hero, enters to save her, quite obviously he is in the midst of his enemies. So, instead of running away or knocking down the whole tentfull of ruffians, he runs out into the show tent—the circus is in progress before a big crowd—and, awaiting the hour of her awakening, he does all those circus stunts which he used to do in his circus days—bear back riding, trapeze work, leaping over three horses with the villainous circus men at his heels. This serves two purposes: it lets us see Fred in all the stunts he is famous for, and it keeps the suspense at fever heat.

 

Fred Stone was called “the grand old man of the American theater;” his career in entertainment lasted over seventy years (Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1959). He was born in Colorado in 1873, and his first job in entertainment, at 11 years old, was as a tightrope walker in a circus act with his brother. He went on to perform in every kind of venue there was: medicine shows, vaudeville, musical comedy, legitimate theater, silent and talkie films and radio. He was most famous for originating the role of The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz on stage in 1902. No less than P.G. Wodehouse wrote in 1917 “Fred Stone is unique. In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act he stands alone as one who can do everything.” (“Fred Stone and a Few Others,” Vanity Fair, December 1917)

 

Under the Top was his second film, The Goat (written by Frances Marion—he had good luck with his screenwriters) was his first. He made one more for Lasky (Johnny Get Your Gun), then went back to Broadway to star in the hit musical comedy Tip Top. In 1921 he got funding for his own production company and made two films directed by Frank Borzage. He went on to star in more Broadway shows, and he occasionally appeared in talkies, most notably as Katherine Hepburn’s father in Alice Adams (1935). He died in 1959.

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Only a fragment of Under the Top has been preserved at the Library of Congress and UCLA. Still, it’s more than has been preserved of his stage career. I’d like to see his Scarecrow; Ray Bolger was a fan and he based some of his performance on Stone’s. Armond Fields wrote a biography called Fred Stone: Circus Performer and Musical Comedy Star (2002).

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This week Kingsley wrote an unusual vaudeville review. She was so fed up by the running commentary provided by another audience member at the Orpheum that she quoted it at length:

Down at the Orpheum yesterday, sitting right behind me, was one of those self-starting matinee girls. And she told everyone all around what the show was about and why. I thought “What’s the use of my writing the impressions made on my jaded theatrical senses?’ Why not let this fresh young thing tell the public about it right out in the paper. It’s no secret what she thinks—everybody in the orchestra seats must have heard. Why hold out on the rest of the world?

 

When the headliner Stella Mayhew came out on stage:

the sweet young thing was rattling along about her recent experience in learning the ‘shimmy,’ but she desisted long enough to express herself regarding Miss Mayhew. ‘She just is a darlin’ isn’t’ she. She’s a blonde now—self inflicted…She calls her fat her ‘salary’ and she’s afraid she’s going to get thin, she told my manicurist! Isn’t that funny?

Things didn’t get any better as the show continued; the matinee girl observed that singer/piano player Leo Beers could ‘tease the tinklers…And the way he sings, in that quiet, cosy-corner way. Seems as if he’s just calling on you, doesn’t it. My goodness, I wish he were!” and comics Eddie Borden and “Sir” Frederick Courtney “don’t say a thing you can remember to tell the next time you go to a party—it’s such nutty stuff—but you like ‘em while they’re doing it.”

I have no doubt that Kingsley had to endure an irritating loudmoth (even without cell phones, audiences were perfectly capable of being obnoxious then, too) but some of her review must have been fiction. She couldn’t have possibly gotten so lucky as to have somebody else practically write it for her, that’s just too convient.

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However, all that annoyance was worth it, because next Sunday a new creation debuted in her column: Ella the Extra Girl. Ella was opinionated, and a bit of a know-it-all, but much less irritating than the matinee girl. She isn’t talking during a performance; she chats with her friend on a bench outside about how actress Maxine Elliott helped her find work. I imagine Kingsley was staring at the blank page that needed to become her Sunday column (possibly after a scheduled interview fell through) and she didn’t want to churn out another dreary one like last Sunday’s column with “the newest star that has arisen the film firmament” Katherine MacDonald, who talked about her Revolutionary War ancestry and complained about how disillusioned she was with her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s literary and artistic set in New York. So for fun Kingsley created Ella. Whoever that obnoxious young woman was, she was a great help to her work.