Anticipating Prohibition: Week of May 24th, 1919

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LA Times’ front page, July 1, 1919

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote about one possible side effect of Prohibition:

Now we learn what is to become of all the erstwhile liquor men after July 1! * They’re going to turn into picture exhibitors! And I suppose the bar-keepers will be ticket-takers. At least so it would appear from the reports from every part of the country. This would seem to be a good occupation for the liquor men to fall into, inasmuch as they are following their customers, who have been deserting the saloons for pictures anyhow.

Theater owners were full of optimism at that time. Kingsley noted “the tendency all over the country is toward enlarging the picture exhibiting fields, whether due to prohibition or not.” Trade papers published articles collecting the opinions of people about the future of the film business, and they were looking forward to a windfall because potential customers would have lots of money that they weren’t spending on alcohol.

It looks like the idea of saloonkeepers going in to film exhibition came from Carl Laemmle in Moving Picture Weekly. He told them that ten years earlier when he wanted to expand his film exchange in Illinois, the state prohibited alcohol sales so he convinced 200 bar owners to make over their establishments into theaters and both sides prospered. Of course, it was much easier to turn a bar into a nickelodeon than it would have been to convert one into the sort of posh theater that filmgoers were becoming accustomed to by 1919. In the same article, S.L. Rothapfel, manager of several New York theaters, agreed with him, saying “many people who are in the liquor business are getting out of it and going into the movies instead. The liquor business is absolutely dead.” So perhaps some of them did become exhibitors.

Both men were absolutely certain about what would happen next. Laemmle said “there is no question that the closing of the saloons will increase patronage at moving picture theaters. Men seek amusement when the day’s work is done. Many now find it in the saloon and in the companionship which they find in the saloon. When the saloons close on July 1 they will naturally go to the Movies.” Rothapfel was equally optimistic: “the big future of the motion picture is being made all the bigger by prohibition…It is plainly true that wherever other places of entertainment are closed the motion picture theater profits; and this is especially the case in the matter of the saloon.”

Wid’s Year Book for 1919 included a round up of opinions, and many film producers were similarly looking forward to increased profits. Isidore Bernstein said, “there is no question in my mind that fifty per cent of the money spent on booze will find its way into the box office of the moving picture theater.” Samuel Goldwyn contributed “regardless of what attitude one may have towards prohibition, it is certain that an impartial observation of the fact must show that the immense amount formerly spent in liquor will be in large proportion hereafter go to amusement enterprises.” However, D.W. Griffith had a warning: “effects of prohibition fine at present, but would not chortle too soon as reformers released from that job will be busy with other alleged reforms that may include a censorship on motion pictures.”

Despite their hopes, Prohibition didn’t cause massive movie profits according to historian Michael Lerner on Ken Burns’ Prohibition site. Other expected results that didn’t happen included big increases in clothing, household goods, chewing gum, grape juice and soft drink sales, nor did real estate values near the closed saloons go up.

It’s kind of sweet: people in the film business had so much faith in law-abiding citizens as well as law enforcement that they didn’t predict the illicit trade in alcohol and the rise in organized crime.

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Sid Grauman

Optimism in the future of the film business affected one local theater owner who was increasing his empire:

Sid Grauman yesterday [May 28th] made known the fact that he is about to build a theater in Hollywood. The new picture house will be a palatial affair costing more than $200,000 and will seat 2200…Every possible convenience and comfort will be provided to patrons in the new theater, work on which will be begun within a short time.

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Construction of the new theater took longer than he’d probably thought it would, but the Egyptian was finally ready in 1922 and Grauman had a huge gala opening on October 18th. The first film shown was Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood. It was an impressive event, with speeches delivered by everyone from the mayor to Charlie Chaplin as well as an elaborate prologue featuring over 200 performers in costumes borrowed from the Fairbanks Studio on a duplicate of the Nottingham Castle set.

Edwin Schallert, then the LA Times film critic, attended, and he remembered to mention the new theater in his glowing and florid review of the film (which was “the great picture of the year”):

There is nothing of garishness about the interior. There is naught to distract the eye from the shadowy stage which is the playhouse raison d’etre. Lights and decorations all contribute to the spell of reserved grandeur. The sphinxes that adorn the proscenium imply that silence which is the tribute of appreciation for the visual drama. The Egyptian inscription, perhaps, suggests that mystic incantation of light which gives life to the shadowed surface of the silver sheet. Over all hangs a glorious jeweled sunburst that heralds perhaps the new dawn of the fluent art of the film.

The Egyptian Theater is still there, and has been the home of the American Cinematheque since 1998. The building is staying current with the times: as of April 2019 Netflix is in negotiations to buy it.

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Dorothy Gish

This week Kingsley gave us an idea of just how popular Dorothy Gish was — teenaged girls were imitating her:

You have heard of the Gibson girl stride, of the Laurette Taylor slouch, and now we have the Gish gambol. All the girls are doing it! It’s a combination of a new form of physical exercise and a social accomplishment—like dancing that way. So when you observe a cutie dancing about like a kitten on a hot griddle, expressing nothing except youth and pep, she isn’t really troubled with any nervous disorder, she’s merely gishing, in her artless, girlish way.

In particular, they were imitating her “Little Disturber” character in Hearts of the World. There were age restrictions (between 16 and 20) and there was a uniform too: bobbed hair covered by a tam-o-shanter, a plain skirt and a shapeless little sweater. But the main attribute was “you never, on any account, stand still for a minute.” I feel tired just reading the description. However, if you’d like to try gishing, you can find a pattern for the proper hat at Movies Silently.

Kingsley included a snapshot of how they made films then this week. At the Goldwyn studio:

Geraldine Farrar and Mabel Normand are both acting in the same glass studio. Miss Farrar, at one end of the stage, is playing tragedy to the music of a moaning cello, ever and anon slipping over the organ which is always a part of a Farrar set, and sitting down to play snatches of grand opera. On the other end of the stage Mabel Normand is playing comedy with a jazz band accompaniment. So far no casualties are reported.

Hollywood was able to mix all sorts of art together.

 

*While the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution prohibiting alcohol sales went into effect on January 17, 1920, the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act banning the sale of beverages with more than 1.28% alcohol went into effect on June 30, 1919, even though the war was over. So Prohibition effectively started then.

 

“Prohibition Coming—We Should Worry!” Moving Picture Weekly, February 1, 1919.

“What of Prohibition?” Wid’s Year Book, 1919.

Edwin Schallert, “Robin Hood a Superb Film,” Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1922.

“New Theater Policies are Announced,” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 1922.

“Workmen are Busy,” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1922.

Week of February 3rd, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley and the L.A. Times cooperated with Cecil B. De Mille on a successful publicity stunt. They held a contest to find what character Geraldine Farrar should play in her follow up to Joan the Woman, with cash prizes ($100 for first place, $25 for second, three prizes of $10 for third and four prizes of $5 for fourth) for the winners. DeMille held the contest to find out what the audience wanted to see, and he hoped to find a role as good or greater than Joan of Arc. The judges were De Mille, Grace Kingsley, screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, insurance agent/historical photograph collector Sam Behrendt and Southwest Museum director Hector Alliot.

They got thousands of entries. The paper reported that practically every woman of history had been suggested, including Eve, Sappho, Salome, Pocahontas, Carrie Nation and Emmeline Pankhurst. Cleopatra was the woman most mentioned and Mary, Queen of Scots was a close second. One person even suggested Napoleon, but De Mille thought that Farrar was much too feminine for that. They decided that if a character with multiple entries won, the best-written letter would prevail.

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They announced the winners on February 13th. De Mille revealed two of the third-place winning entries, “an Aztec character” and Queen Esther, but he didn’t want to divulge the first and second place winners because he was afraid of other companies stealing the ideas. Ruby Archer Doud won the second-place prize. The first place winner forgot to include his name on his entry, so the paper reproduced part of it and asked him to go to the theater where Joan the Woman was playing.

He came forward right away. William Cutler, a 26-year-old gas station attendant, presented the other piece of the torn notebook page that was his entry and received his check. De Mille said that “Cutler’s idea was so good and showed such deep thought that it may be possible to develop the young man into a writer of no mean ability.” That didn’t happen. Instead he enlisted in the Army in November 1917 and became a chauffeur with the 194th Aero Squadron. After his discharge in July, 1919 he started his own dried fruit business on South Hoover Street. He died in November 1959.

It looks like the idea they used was J. Arthur Evans’ third-place winner, because De Mille and Farrar’s next film was about an Aztec character. In The Woman God Forgot (1917), she played Tecza, a fictionalized version of Montezuma’s daughter Tecuichpoch Ixcaxochitzin/Dona Isabel Moctezuma. In the film, she betrayed her people for the love of a Spanish conquistador. When Kingsley reviewed it in December, she was impressed mostly by the “sumptuous settings” the “marvelous photography” and the ”gorgeousness of the costuming.” The film has been preserved at the Eastman House, New York.

This week, Kingsley declared the death of slapstick because Charlie Chaplin was “giving the world something really new in the way of comedy” with Easy Street, and a “bright” and “refreshing” comedy, Her New York, also mixed pathos with humor.

She was tremendously impressed by Chaplin’s latest:

Not in vain has labored Charlie Chaplin, our biggest and best screen comedian…Easy Street is the flower of the Chaplin apprenticeship, it is Chaplin minus the gaucherie and crudeness of many of his former efforts; without the monotony of repetition of tricks; without the obvious effort after fun which has marred some of his pictures. It is spontaneous, bubbling, rib-tickling, unctuous; and yet the story has such skillful blending of pathetic shadings as to make the thing seem at moments a startling cross section of real life.

Critics continue to agree with Kingsley. Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns called it “an exquisite short comedy, humor encapsulated in the regular rhythms of light verse,” and Alan Vanneman in the Bright Lights Film Journal said it “ranks easily as one of the greatest comedy shorts ever made.” It’s available on DVD and on a streaming site that doesn’t help fund film preservation.

Her New York was a 1917 version of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Gladys Hulette played Phoebe Lester, a fresh-from-the country girl who finds New York is

a place where everything comes right in the last reel, the villain reforms, the waif of an infant is discovered to have been preceded by a wedding ring after all, and the young poet, destined to live for awhile by writing rhymes glorifying canned pork and beans, is able at last to unbridle his Pegasus and let him sail right up into the sky.

Kingsley thought it was “an aroma from an old-fashioned garden – despite its sordid setting.” and that Hulette was a “radiant and vivid personality.” Her New York hasn’t been preserved by an archive, but it was made by the Thanhouser Company, whose descendants have done a remarkable job of documenting their films. On their site you can find a page for Her New York and Hulette’s biography.

Kingsley reported that the future of filmmaking in Los Angeles looked extraordinarily bright. Most of the New York companies were planning to move all of their production to Hollywood including Vitagraph, Kalem and Goldwyn, and the companies already here like Fox, Famous Players-Lasky and Balboa had ambitious expansion plans.

The industry had a rough time in the next years with bankruptcies (Balboa) acquisitions (Kalem was sold to Vitagraph, which was sold to Warner Bros.) and mergers (Goldwyn merged with Metro and Louis B. Mayer Pictures). People were happier not knowing what the future was. Of course, she was partly correct: Los Angeles did become the center of film production.

In the least surprising story of the week, Kingsley found actresses dissatisfied with their weight; “the principal topic of conversation at Universal City among the actresses at the present time appears to be the subject of maintaining the proper balance of flesh.” This conversation will probably never end, but the difference is that then three women (Nellie Allen, Irene Hunt and Agnes Vernon) felt they needed to be bigger. The rest wanted to be smaller and they planned to get up at 5 AM and walk at least five miles. Now, no matter how slender, everyone would be setting her alarm clock.

 

 

 

Week of January 13th, 1917

 

 

 

One hundred years ago this week, the biggest film event was the West Coast premier of Cecil De Mille’s (no B. yet) latest film, Joan the Woman, a biopic about Joan of Arc starring Geraldine Farrar. When she wrote about it, Grace Kingsley avoided stating her opinion of the film by joking about the “fickle public’s” demand for realism:

Truly, as for realism, it’s quite impossible to hide anything from these experts. They detect in a moment whether a lady of the Louis Quinze period is wearing the right sort of hats or not, and you can’t fool them by coiffing your Roman ladies with the wrong sort of hair-dos…Did Cleopatra have a mole in her shell-like ear? It is correctly recorded in the deathless celluloid. What sort of hemlock was it Socrates ordered up as a last fatal potation? The tireless trekker of truth connected with the motion-picture studio will tell you.

I suspect that both realism-pedants and this film bored her silly. Of course she couldn’t say so, because De Mille was already considered, as she mentioned, one of “the world’s greatest motion picture directors.” He’d been directing films for only three years; before that he worked in the theater.

That fickle public attended this movie in droves, and the picture stayed for eight weeks at the Majestic Theater according to Robert Birchard’s biography, Cecil B. De Mille’s Hollywood* The film is available on DVD.

Women weren’t only war heroes on Los Angeles screens this week. The other movies had a wide variety of roles for them. Mary Pickford got to be the chief of her Scottish clan in The Pride of the Clan, Blanche Sweet played a physician who deals with sexism in The Evil Eye and Emmy Wehlen was a model turned detective in Vanity. A week with so many strong movie characters for women is unimaginable in 2017.

corona

There was a flashing warning light that the film business was getting overheated on Saturday when Kingsley wrote:

What’s going to happen? That greatest of indoor sports, the formation of motion picture companies, has been sadly neglected during the past week. Which state of things makes folk possessed of tender sensibilities, like actors and press agents and real estate dealers, feel a trifle sad. With the exception of the Hill organization, no new company has come along to muss up the Hollywood scenery and disturb the classic shadows of the Carnegie Library with the sounds of mimic joy and grief. It’s a dull week indeed when no groups of theatrical men or tailors or book-keepers or others who thoroughly understand the picture business foregather to form film companies.

The Hill organization that she mentioned was the Corona Cinema Company, which made one film, The Curse of Eve (1917), before it folded.

This week two more companies were announced, Charles Frohman’s Empire All-Star Corporation and the Nat Goodwin Film Company. Frohman had been a very successful theatrical producer whose hits included Peter Pan; his company continued after his death on the Lusitania in 1915. Empire made 10 films between 1917 and 1918. Nat Goodwin was an actor who got money from a mine owner in Milwaukee to open a studio in San Jacinto but it never happened.

The industry-wide slowdown started later in 1917; by January 1918 the cameraman’s club was writing to their New York branch, warning them that there was little work on the West coast.**

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Teddy at the Throttle, with Teddy, Bobby Vernon and Gloria Swanson

Teddy the dog made his first appearance in her column this week:

The business files in Mack Sennett’s office contain contracts with Raymond Hitchcock, Eddie Foy, Sam Bernard and other celebrities, but not until last week was a contract ever made with a dog. Teddy, the Great Dane dog who is featured in Nick of Time Baby has been advanced from an extra to a regular actor with a contract. Teddy is all but human.

Teddy was the first dog star, and he had a good career, appearing in Sennett comedies like Teddy at the Throttle (1917) and Those Athletic Girls (1918) as well as dramas like Stella Maris (1918). Mary Mallory wrote his biography, which she illustrated with a Kingsley story about him from Photoplay. Film history is a small world.

 

*I didn’t realize until this minute that I stole my blog name from him. Theft is the sincerest form of admiration, I hope.

**Static Club Minutes, January 31, 1918.