The roaring starts: Week of January 17th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, the new decade had barely begun, and Grace Kingsley noticed that entertainment was already getting naughtier. Previously, if you saw a:

comedy hero of the screen, you may be very sure he isn’t doing the one thing he shouldn’t, because our Anglo-Saxon minds simply refuse to countenance anything naughty in husbands done in a spirit of levity. If a man wants to be gosh-awfully bad he’s got to be solemn about it and go in for the drammer. In comedy it always turns out that the husbands and wives were merely suspected of being unfaithful. The wife really was at her sisters all the while, and hubby spent the night at his club, even if he did have to pay a visit to the purple hussy’s apartments in the early gloaming.

Of course, infidelity was still in plenty of dramas—Blind Husbands was playing for a third week in Los Angeles. However:

the day of the smart, sophisticated, almost-naughty screen comedy is with us…It’s an adroit mix-up Mr. Hobart [George Hobart, the play’s author] has given us, which works out in the meeting of three sets of married people, each with the wrong partner, in that naughty Honeysuckle Inn; and the house actually roared yesterday when the innocent little wife (Doris May), who came to the inn looking for her husband, takes her first drink, gets a very funny jag, and is bourn downstairs by each of the two other husbands, successively, only to be rushed back at meeting the husband (Douglas MacLean) at the foot of the stairway.

So the comedy wife still didn’t actually do anything wrong, it just seemed bad for longer. Nevertheless, all the confusion resulted in a “hilariously funny comedy,” and the theater was packed. Unfortunately, only one reel has been preserved at the Library on Congress.

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Screening just four blocks away (also playing to packed houses) was another then-notorious movie, Toby’s Bow. Kingsley speculated on what was bringing people to the theater:

of course, everybody had heard of that naughty game of strip poker with which the play begins, and just had to see it. However, as it turn out, the Greenwich Village lady who parts with her clothing had evidently prepared for the occasion, because her teddies came away up above and away down below what might be termed the danger lines, and she went right home with a shawl around her as soon as she reached ‘em.

I wonder if this revelation hurt ticket sales? The poker game sets the scene for the lurid world of Greenwich Village writers. But don’t worry: later, at a decadent New York masquerade, the hero (Tom Moore) rushes in just in time to save the charming heroine (Doris Pawn) from “a wicked reveler was laying his hand on her velvet shoulder.” So there was a limit to the naughtiness in this lost film too.

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Of course, it wasn’t only in the movies, though Kingsley blamed them for some of the changes. This week, L.A. audiences were flocking to the play, Up In Mabel’s Room and she pointed out:

commonest of all rooms on our comedy stage nowadays is the bedroom. It used to be the parlor, you remember, eased then into the boudoir, with a glimpse of the bedroom beyond. Pictures have led us into the bedroom, and now we have bathtub comedies, with indications that the bathroom will follow as a location for stage comedies, and with nothing left after that except, perhaps, to make the bathtub transparent!

The play revolves around “the desperate attempts of a stout, but innocent-minded married man, to get back from Mabel, a giddy young widow, a pink chemise which, in a reckless moment, before either of them were married, he had sent to her from Paris, with her name and his embroidered on its bosom.” Of course most of the cast wants to steal it and she keeps it in her room, “thereupon Mabel’s room become the busiest place in the world.” Gee, it sounds like a lot of fun. Oddly enough, it didn’t get made into a movie until 1926.

However, some people were upholding strict standards. Actor Charles Murray told Kingsley that his

beautiful 18-year old daughter has just arrived from New York, where she has been a convent student ever since she was a little girl. Mr. Murray says no-sir-ee his daughter isn’t going to be an actress, not if he knows it. Why, he says, he’ll hardly let her see some of his own Mack Sennett pictures, much less let her ever play in them!

He got one detail wrong: Henrietta Murray was born in 1895, not 1902, so she was about to turn 25. I want to know: what exactly did he think would happen if she saw a Sennett two-reeler? She’d join the Keystone Kops? She was his daughter from a previous relationship, and she grew up in Manhattan, with her mother, actress/writer Lorimer Deane and stepfather, traveling salesman Victor Deane. She did not become an actress; instead she married William McQuaid , a bank manager in Jacksonville, Florida.

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Gloria Swanson’s outfits were part of the changes, too, and Kingsley overhead considerable admiration when a young filmgoer made a very good point:

It was at a showing of Male and Female, and the little girl behind us declaimed, when Gloria Swanson was about to be devoured by the lion, “Oh dear, and will he eat up her lovely gown, too?

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Another view

Priorities were being kept straight in 1920’s Los Angeles!

Week of February 15th, 1919

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Maxine Elliott

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got experimental and introduced an alter-ego. She started her Sunday column:

“Say, maybe us extra girls have got the book of life all thumbed up and dog eared by the time the ballot-box is pushed around our way, but believe you me, kiddo mine, every once in a while old dame Fate whittles herself our a new quill and jots herself a new episode in the serial!” Ella, the Extra Girl, parked her professional chewing gum under the bench out on the lot, sat on one foot and swung the other one.

And so Ella was ready to tell a friend all about the actress Maxine Elliott, who once caught her eating leftover food on a set and promptly loaned her money to buy groceries then hired her to be an extra on her film, leading to more work. Unfortunately, one of those assignments was with Caesar the Lion, whose claw scratched her and she fainted. Luckily, Elliott was at the studio and she gave her a ride home, where her brother Bob cried then said “this lady is the dame that saved me when the Boches shot hell out o’ me.” He told his sister all about Miss Elliott pulling him out of a ditch after he’d been shot by Germans in Belgium. Ella thought the world of her.

Film and theater star Maxine Elliott was in town this week, touring with the comedy Lord and Lady Algy. As I mentioned last week, perhaps a scheduled interview fell through but Kingsley still needed to fill her column, so she came up with this combination of fact and fiction (for instance, Elliott had done relief work in Belgium during the war, but there’s no record of her rescuing soldiers from ditches).

Kingsley’s article was harmless and said nice things, but it didn’t get at how interesting Maxine Elliot was. She’d been on the stage since 1890 and a star since 1903. When she played in London, there was a rumor she had a relationship with King Edward VII. In 1908, she opened her own Broadway theater which she named after herself. She was fantastically wealthy, having taken financial advice from her friend J.P. Morgan. She made two feature films for Goldwyn – Fighting Odds (1917) and The Eternal Magdalene (1919). She retired from acting in 1920 at age 52 and became a society woman with houses in the U.S., England and France. Her French chateau on the Riviera was so notorious, somebody wrote a whole book about the parties she hosted there. She died there in 1940. Her niece wrote an excellent biography of her, according to the New York Times. So when is somebody going to make her biopic? There must be an actress in her middle years who’d like this part.

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This was the beginning of a monthly series of star profiles using the persona of Ella Dearborn. Kingsley had aspired to be a fiction writer, and Ella was probably fun to write. She thought that she was an expert in Hollywood, and she let readers feel like they were getting an insider’s view. It lasted until December, but five years later Kingsley started another version called Stella the Star Gazer who went along with her to Hollywood parties and said star-struck things a journalist couldn’t say. Stella appeared regularly from 1924 to 1931.

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Kingsley reported on another actress who had a long and eventful life:

Being run away with while horseback riding last Sunday was the thrilling experience of Gloria Swanson…Miss Swanson is a wonderfully accomplished horsewoman, but she met a horse last Sunday that she found it hard to manage. She and a friend were riding across the foothills in Hollywood, when the other girl’s horse became unruly and the two exchanged horses. No sooner had Miss Swanson stepped on to the animal’s back than he began to plunge and buck, and then he started to run. Miss Swanson succeeded in holding on, however, and quieted the horse after a two-mile gallop. “When I was a little girl living in Puerto Rico,” said Miss Swanson, “I used to delight in riding the wildest horses on the ranch, and my knowledge certainly came in handy last Sunday.”

So even an actresses who was starting to play glamorous rich women could be a rough-and-tumble horse expert in the public eye. Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago, but her father was in the Army and she grew up in Puerto Rico. She had stopped making wild comedy shorts for Mack Sennett in 1917 when she moved to Triangle where she starred in serious dramas. After it went bankrupt she went to work for Cecil B. DeMille, and their first film, the sophisticated comedy Don’t Change Your Husband, had just been released. It’s interesting that this bit of publicity made its way to Kingsley, but it seems that even ladylike actresses could be proud of coping with a runaway horse then.

This week, Kingsley found a new way to avoid being damaged by dirty movies when she saw Ashes of Love:

it won’t, I believe, hurt the tenderest sensibilities, inasmuch as one’s mind is kept just too busy for anything doing mental gymnastics in following the fairly bewildering number of characters and the somewhat choppy action. The choppy action is due, no doubt, to the effort of the director to heighten the suspense. Ashes of Love is too long, also—it took six reels, at least, to reduce the hero’s passion to ashes.

So if you’re confused enough, no harm can come to you! Peter Milne in Motion Picture News hated the film too, for the same reason. “Mr. Abramson has made his almost usual mistake of hurling a great number of characters at the spectator in the first reel of his picture so that confusion reigns even before the plot gets under way.” Ashes of Love has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

Director Ivan Abramson had a surprisingly long film career for someone who wasn’t very good at his job (confidence beats competence, once again.) A former newspaper publisher and theater manager, he wrote and directed melodramas with titillating titles like The Sex Lure, first for his own company, Ivan Film Productions, then in 1917 he co-founded the Graphic Film Corporation with William Randolph Hearst (who, in addition to his newspaper empire, owned International Film Service which made newsreels and animated shorts). Hearst left in 1919 but Graphic kept releasing films on a states rights basis until 1922. However, Abramson didn’t become a better director; about his 1920 film A Child For Sale Burns Mantle wrote in Photoplay “Ivan Abramson’s idea of what constitutes a coherent and convincing dramatic story, taking this picture as a sample, offer many opportunities for the raucous hoot and the mirthful snort…His picture is an inartistic jumble of unrelated incidents to me.”

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motheroftruthHis final film was Lying Wives (1925), which starred Clara Kimball Young in her last silent film. He kept trying to make movies as an independent producer and in 1929 he self-published a novel about the evils of monopoly in the film industry called Mother of Truth: a story of romance and retribution based on the events of my own life.* Late that year, he brought a suit charging violation of the Sherman antitrust law against the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and forty-seven corporations and individuals. He wanted 1.3 million dollars in damages. The MPPDA called the suit “ludicrous,” but they settled it out of court just before it went to trial in December 1933. Abramson died on September 15, 1934, age 65.

Abramson reminds me of J.A. Quinn from last month: another guy who blamed his lack of success on the film industry at large, but goes down swinging, with as much publicity as possible. If this keeps up, I’ll have a monthly series of my own! I could call it “Collecting Cranky Coots.”

 

*Book Review Index didn’t list any reviews — I did check.

 

 

 

“Abramson Suit Against MPPDA is Settled,” Motion Picture Herald, December 16, 1933, p.19.

“Ivan Abramson, Movie Man, Dies,” New York Times, September 16, 1934.

“Ivan Abramson Plans Six Feature Pictures,” Film Daily, August 2, 1933, p.2

Mantle, Burns. “The Shadow Stage,” Photoplay, June 1920, p.68.

Milne, Peter. “Ashes of Love,” Motion Picture News, September 21, 1918, p.1911.