Beware of Optimism: Week of March 6th, 1920


One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had reports of optimistic expectations for the film industry. Adolph Zukor, president of Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, predicted that the motion picture industry was “about to enjoy the most prosperous period in its history.” He had good reason for his confidence: his company had bought the rights several J.M. Barrie plays, including Peter Pan. When the movie version came out in 1924, it was a great big hit.

Other hopeful and ambitious companies announced their big plans this week:

• Film producer Sam Rork and two theater owners (E.J. Carroll and Eugene Roth) were organizing a new production company that was so new that it didn’t have a name yet. The money was coming from “a New York source not announced.”

• F. Tarkington Baker, the general manager of Universal Film, planned to resign and found his own production company, Baker Productions. It was “backed by Eastern capital.”

• The Historical Film Corporation took over the old Rollin Studio on Bunker Hill. They planned to film Bible stories, starting with The Prodigal Son. The company was financed by J.A. McGill, the owner of a chain of theaters in the Northwest.

• Marion H. Kohn “a San Francisco capitalist” was setting up M. H. Kohn Productions to make short comedies. He “brought his money and that of some of his northern capitalist friends south to invest it.”

Sam Rork

The net result of all of this investment and activity was one two-reel religious film and 12 one-reel comedies. So (no surprise) money was lost in the movie business. Sam Rork and his associates tried get a film called Isobel off the ground, but nothing came of it. He didn’t give up; he later organized Sam Rork Productions, and produced nine feature films between 1923 to 1927.

Tarkington Baker didn’t work on any finished films after leaving Universal and died of heart failure in 1924.

Irene Aldwyn in As We Forgive

The Historical Film Corporation decided to start with a different story, and in August they finished their first two-reeler called As We Forgive about St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. The company disappeared after that.

The most successful entrepreneur from this week was Marion Kohn. He wasn’t as inexperienced with the business as the description “San Francisco capitalist” sounds, he was the former president of Consolidated Film of San Francisco, a film distributor for Metro. He knew he didn’t know about production, so he hired people who did, including Grace Cunard, Polly Moran and ‘Smiling’ Bill Jones. Most of his shorts featured Moran’s established character, Sheriff Nell. He quit being a producer in 1922 and later became the assistant general manager at Columbia Studio.

It’s difficult to find out why they failed. Beginnings get announced with fanfare, but endings are quiet. Sometimes the trade papers report on bankruptcy court proceedings, but usually the investors take their losses and the companies go away. Getting started in moviemaking in the ‘good old days’ were just as difficult as in the present ones. It’s mind-boggling the amount of money that has been thrown at the business over the years.

The ad doesn’t match the description.

Kingsley was happy to see a film that seemed realistic this week:

There’s a very good picture, indeed, over at the Alhambra this week, entitled The Devil’s Riddle. It has that vital and expressive actress, Gladys Brockwell, in the leading role, and it unfolds a charming romance that has good acting, naturalness, sincerity and real humanness as its outstanding characteristics.

The story gets you from the first. It has to do with a girl who dwells in the wilds of Canada with a drunken step-father. Into her life steps from out of a furious storm a young doctor, played most engagingly and sincerely by William Scott. Afterward, owing to a series of misunderstandings, the two part, the girl goes on the stage with a barnstorming company, and leaves for New York. She does not (unusually) at once make good, but has a struggle.

A simple enough story, but done with real poignancy and dramatic appeal, as well as simply and with no chewing of scenery, no fights or automobile wreaks, house burnings or other jazzings too often called “drama” by screen-writers. As a matter of fact, despite its sensational title, The Devil’s Riddle is one of the best pictures from many standpoints that we have seen in many a day. It is refreshing in contrast to the wild tales that so often unfold themselves on the screens.

Moving Picture World didn’t know what the riddle was

Poor Grace Kingsley, it sounds like she’d been seeing some really bad movies. We’ll have to take her word for this film’s virtues, it’s lost. I looked around, but none of the reviews mention what the devil’s riddle in the title was. The author of the original short story, Edwina LeVin, named it.

Wid’s Daily said that the collie was the best part of the movie

Finally, Kingsley demonstrated that using the word vampire to mean a seductive woman hadn’t quite disappeared yet:

All the famous vampires of the screen will pass in review before Harry Carey, Reeves Easton, his director, and Fred Datig, Universal’s casting director, within the next few days. In Carey’s next production, Crossed Claims, the author has written one of the best feminine “heavy” roles of recent months, for which a “super-vamp” must be secured.

The “super vamp” they chose was Fontaine LaRue and they changed the title to Human Stuff. The story didn’t really give anything super vampy to do, she was just ordinarily villainous. LaRue’s character Boka lies to a woman who’s mistaken for Harry Carey’s mail-order bride about him, then kidnaps her. Of course there’s a rescue and a wedding. Theda Bara wouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed for such a part.



Startling Star Salary: Week of June 21st, 1919

Mary Miles Minter

One hundred years ago this week, Mary Miles Minter signed a “startling” contract, and Grace Kingsley had the details:

The little girl with the biggest motion-picture contract in the world—that’s Mary Miles Minter. But she pays a stern price for it, inasmuch as her personal life is ordered by the rules laid down in the contract, and she is even forbidden to wed during the life of the agreement.

By its terms she will receive in three years the sum of $1,300,000. She is to get $250,000 for her first five pictures, or $50,000 a picture. For the second five she will get $300,000, or $60,000 a picture and for the third five $350,000 or $70,000 a picture, and for the fourth five, $400,000 or $80,000 a picture. No chances were taken with Miss Minter because she happens to be a minor. While she was represented by O’Brein, Malevinsky and Driscoll, the contract was drawn that her every act will come under the supervision of her employer, Mr. Zukor.

A sensational feature provides that, though Miss Minter is but 18 years old,* and therefore might be expected to love social gaiety, she is to order her life according to a set of rules which provide she shall live the quietest kind of a home life, never to be seen in public when it is possible to avoid it, and never associate in public with stage offscreen folk. Also—and this might not be pleasing to a lot of screen stars—she is to receive no interviewers.

Minter was to start work on June 30th, but until then she was on vacation with her mother in Atlantic City, “enjoying to the full the only free social life she is to be allowed to know during the next three years.”

1.3 million dollars was at that point the largest amount promised in one contract to an actor, but others had gotten paid more per film. For example, in 1918 Mary Pickford signed a contract with First National that paid $675,000 for three films, plus half the profits. Minter’s deal was particularly astonishing because her most recent salary at American Films was $2250 a week.


Kingsley didn’t ask why Adolph Zukor was willing to pay so much, but Variety was happy to speculate on what film people were calling “Zukor’s madness:”

One explanation is furnished by his former star, Mary Pickford, in letters she has sent to friends here in the East. Whether rightly or wrongly, Miss Pickford is under the impression, an impression strengthened by those few in Zukor’s confidence who have breathed a word about the matter—the impression that the head of Paramount is willing to go to any length and spend any amount of money to replace Mary Pickford in his list of picture offerings. Miss Pickford has been informed that Zukor is “so sore” at her for leaving his management that he will go a long ways to “get even.” (June 13, 1919)

I bet she stopped writing to those friends. Even with a well-funded advertising campaign and complete control over her public image, Zukor wasn’t able to make Minter as big a star as Pickford. The first film she made under her new contract was her biggest hit: Anne of Green Gables, directed by William Desmond Taylor. Now she’s mostly remembered for her relationship with him and for being implicated in his still unsolved murder in 1922. We can’t be sure, but maybe if she’d had more freedom under her contract to socialize away from work she might not have become better known in true crime circles than film histories. She did make 18 of the 20 films under her contract, but the studio dropped her in 1923 and she retired.

Dempsey–Willard Fight by James Montgomery Flagg

Kingsley mentioned a forthcoming all-star boys road trip:

Carter de Haven, co-starring with his wife in feature comedies at the National studios, will be among the many notables attending the little fracas in Toledo the fourth of next month. He intends leaving on the billion-dollar special, which has been arranged for by the most stellar lights in the photoplay firmament. The train will provide every known deluxe feature. Continuous dining service will be had, not to mention a completely stocked buffet and additional servants to minster to their every want.

Those included in the passenger list, beside Mr. de Haven, are Wally Reid, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Ray, Douglas Fairbanks, Jesse Lasky, Cecil De Mille, Dustin Farnum, William Farnum, Roscoe Arbuckle, Jack Pickford and Sid Grauman.

It sounds like the set-up for a one-act play! The “little fracas” was the heavyweight boxing championship held on the Fourth of July in Toledo, Ohio between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard. It was promoted as “the fight of the century.” However, I haven’t found any evidence that they actually went—nearly five days on a train is a long time to be away from work, even with a buffet. Dempsey beat Willard in three brutal rounds.

Francis MacDonald played the cad

This week Kingsley saw a movie that made the audience want to yell “That’s good! Hit him again!” It was called The Divorce Trap and

you should have heard the laughs and delighted applause yesterday when the caddish young man, who had tried to frame for divorce the young wife who had tried her best to reform him, got his just deserts, which included a swift kick from his own dad. Naturally the story is a sordid one, but it is tremendously realistic…the manner in which the lightning justice of its events are recorded, make for a certain finesse and high-mindedness of general effect.

This lost film was sold as a serious drama, but it’s a shame that more tragic villains don’t get their due with a kick in the pants.


Kingsley told a story that demonstrated how much more relaxed studio security was in 1919. Nine-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr. visited his dad’s workplace dressed in a wild West suit just like his father’s, then:

Little Doug disappeared for a whole half-hour. At the end of that time he reappeared, led by a farmerish looking individual.

“This your boy really?” he demanded of Doug Sr.

No need to answer, as the boy made a frantic and affectionate dive for his dad.

“Well, I found him on these togs out front,” said the man, “and when I asked him who he was, he said Douglas Fairbanks. Poor little tad, I said to myself, to be crazy and him so young! Well, the movies does do it to ‘em, but not usually at his age! Then he explained his dad was named Douglas Fairbanks, too—and I see the point at once, I did, and here he is!”

It seems that kid supervision was more relaxed then, too.


*Actually she was 17 at the time, but the age of majority was 21 then.


“Adolph Zukor Determined to Supplant Mary Pickford,” Variety, June 13, 1919.

“Testimony in Film Star’s Suit Opens,” Los Angeles Herald, May 19, 1920.

“Zukor Gets Mary Miles Minter by Million Dollar Contract,” Variety, June 27, 1919.


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.