Week of December 7th, 1918

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The boss

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed Hollywood’s newest film producer:

“Here I am—all alone in the world, without an alibi!” That’s what Mary Pickford, now a producer for the First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, said the other day, with her humorous little smile. She meant there’s nobody to lay the blame on if her pictures go wrong.

“I sued to be able to say, when I was with Artcraft, and anything went wrong, ‘Well, now if Mr. Zukor had let me do so and so—And now I haven’t a single person to blame if Daddy Long Legs and Pollyanna don’t turn out to be the successes I of course hope they will be.”

 

In this interview, Mary Pickford was no longer the girlish actress of the February 23, 1918 article; she was in control of her own films and being very well paid for it. Kingsley spoke to her while she was hiring actors for her next film, Daddy Long Legs, and she made it plain that the casting decisions were all Pickford’s, not director Marshall Neilan’s. Pickford also had final say on the screenplay being written by Agnes Johnston. She thought it was “an awful responsibility,” but didn’t mention the other side: she got the credit if it all went well, which it did.

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Forming United Artists, 1919

The man who directed her first films in 1909, D.W. Griffith, stopped by, and he reminisced:

“What do you think of our young lady now? Such a rich girl! Do you know I remember the awful time I had keeping Mary in the old Biograph days because she wanted $30 a week. ‘Thirty dollars’ exclaimed the business head of that concern, ‘Mary wants thirty dollars a week! Why I never heard of such a thing! There ain’t no picture actor in the world worth thirty dollars a week!’”

Both Pickford and the movie industry had come a long way since she quit Biograph for the first time in 1910! For the rest of her career, she managed her anxieties about responsibility, and continued to be in charge of her films through her last one, Secrets, in 1933.

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Coming attraction

Later this week, Griffith announced the film he was currently working on, based on a story from a collection called Limehouse Nights, “a story far removed from war subjects.” He changed the name to Broken Blossoms, and while it was completely different from his earlier successes, it turned out to be one of his best films. It was added to the Library of Congresses National Film Registry in 1996.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a comedy, but there was a melancholy tinge to it:

It’s rather an odd trick of fate which causes us to see the late Harold Lockwood for the last time in a role in which he plays the part of one returned from the dead, as he does in the capital comedy drama, Pals First, which is on view at Clune’s Broadway. And it’s a matter of congratulation with us who knew and were fond of the popular film idol that his last role was one that fitted his talents so well and that he did his very best work of his career in the part….Harold Lockwood plays delightfully the role of the nonchalant, happy-go-lucky crook of fascinating manners.

This wasn’t the last Lockwood film to be released; three more came out in 1919. Nevertheless, it sounds like the story of a tramp impersonating an aristocrat thought to be lost at sea suited him. P.S. Harrison in Motion Picture News also thought it was one of Lockwood’s best, and the film “holds one in constant suspense.” It’s presumed lost.

 

Week of October 19th, 1918

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Harold Lockwood

One hundred years ago this week, news about the influenza epidemic ran throughout Grace Kingsley’s columns this week:

  • Leading man Harold Lockwood died of pneumonia caused by influenza on October 19th in New York City. He had been appearing at Liberty Loan events while shooting The Yellow Dove; some obituaries blamed overwork for his death. He was 30 years old.
  • Similarly, Metro director John Collins died from pneumonia following the flu on October 23 in New York. He was only 28. His wife, actress Viola Dana, also had a bad case but she recovered.
  • More fortunately, reports of actor William Russell’s death were incorrect: he had suffered from the flu, but he recovered.
  • Actors reportedly had a variety of reactions to the theater shutdown, from “Well I was going to take a vacation anyway,” to “I tell ‘em, when they get ready for me to go back to work they can just come get me out of the County Jail. I’ll be in there for debt.”
  • Kingsley heard a story from Dorothy Gish. She was tired after a long day of work, and took a crowded streetcar downtown.

dgish“I got a seat, too,” she said. “Three men got right up and went out on the platform.”

“How did you manage it?” someone asked.

“Just sneezed,” explained Dorothy.

Karma caught up with her: on November 6th Kingsley mentioned that Dorothy Gish was suffering from the flu. Luckily, she recovered.

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Kingsley reported that not all film production had ceased despite the epidemic and economic problems (it seems that hope springs eternal in film producers). One company was hard at work:

The Brentwood Film Corporation is the latest producing organization to enter the Hollywood field, planning to do a series of features with all-star casts. The Brentwood people have leased the Mena Film Corporation at no. 4811 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood, and the first picture is now well under way under the direction of King W. Vidor…The Turn in the Road is the title under which the first Brentwood feature will be released, about the end of November.

Brentwood Film was a group of nine doctors who wanted to make movies, so they might not have known what the rest of the industry was doing.

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King Vidor, 1920

This was King Vidor’s first feature-length film. It didn’t premier in Los Angeles until the end of December, but it sold enough tickets to get picked up for distribution by a larger company, Robertson-Cole. It’s a lost film. Vidor went on to a long and successful career; his work included The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928) and War and Peace (1956).

Week of August 18th, 1917

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Paradise Garden, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley rewrote an effective press release:

“Have you a little vampire in your home?” This was almost a general call sent out a few weeks ago by producer Fred J. Balshofer and Harold Lockwood, Yorke-Metro star, when they were practically stumped in finding a beautiful and youthful vampire for a leading role in Paradise Garden….

“It can’t be done,” said the casting directors at the studios to which Balshofer and Lockwood applied. But someone had to be found to play the Marcia Van Wyck of the story. This girl is a beautiful young thing of the top rungs of society, who knows a lot about a number of things that grandma never dreamed of. Marcia is quite some girl and her vamping is of an entirely new and original variety.

And at last she was found—but, just for fun, the prodigy’s name is not to be disclosed until the picture is released. Then maybe—oh boy!—you’ll say the search was worth while.

The “baby vampire” who got the big build-up was Virginia Rappe, who is sadly now remembered more for the circumstances of her death than for her life. In 1921, she died a few days after attending a party in Roscoe Arbuckle’s hotel room, which lead to Arbuckle being accused of manslaughter and undergoing three trials. There’s been an awful lot written about it, but if you’d like to see a version that doesn’t demonize Rappe, look at this interview with Joan Myers.

 

 

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Virginia Rappe

It’s melancholy to see the promising launch of Rappe’s career. Marion Howard, writing about Paradise Garden in Moving Picture World said, “watch Virginia Rappe, for she has a great future as vampire or heroine.” (November 3, 1917, p. 689) Unfortunately we can’t, it’s a lost film. Rappe did go on to star in shorts for Henry Lehrman Comedies.

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Jack and the Beanstalk. She wrote: “Don’t miss it! Your being grown up won’t matter a bit. Even if you’ve grown crabbed and dull, this picture play, reviving the old fairy tale, will tap the dry rock of your imagination and turn loose the floods of youthful dreams. This picture play marks the beginning of a new era in the picturization of fairy tales…here we have splendid romance, thrilling adventure, spine-prickling excitement, rib-tickling humor.”

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Jack and the Beanstalk

She reported that the audience loved it too: Miller’s Theater was jam-packed with children and “I’ve never in my life seen little ones sit quietly as they did through two hours and fifteen minutes of entertainment. I didn’t think it could be done.” The special effects particularly impressed her, and so did the performances of the child actors. She concluded, “it is quite impossible to convey on paper the wonderful charm and delightful thrill of the production.”

Other critics agreed with Kingsley. George W. Graves in Motography called it “one of the biggest film events of the year,” and he also thought that adults would like it as much as the children did. It was a big hit. The following week the theater manager told Kingsley that despite the long running time, it was almost impossible to get some of the children to leave the theater: they stayed for a second viewing. Fox soon released another kids’ film with the same stars and directors, Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. An abridged version of Jack is at the George Eastman House Archive and sixteen minutes of its ten reels are on the Internet Archive.

 

 

Playing opposite Jack was a movie she liked so much less that she felt she needed to advise the protagonist: “if there a half-dozen people following you with guns, dynamite and other high explosives, who are always subjecting you to the uncomfortable process of being lassoed or thrown over a cliff or dropped down a well, wouldn’t you after a while suspect they somehow disliked you?” Apparently poor H.B. Warner playing John Howland in The Danger Trail took a long time to figure it out, but the scenic Canadian wilds were nice to look at. It’s a lost film.

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Fairbanks on his peak

Kingsley reported that Douglas Fairbanks received a great honor: an official at Yosemite named a peak for him. He was shooting Down to Earth in the park at the time, and they held a short ceremony. Then “the energetic Douglas, overcome with emotion, not only thanked the official for the honor, but, looking upon the same as a sort of a challenge, proceeded to prove his appreciation thereof by executing a handstand plump on the edge of a dizzy precipice of the mountain.”

Thanks to Kathleen Kosiec and the Wisconsin Historical Society, we know it’s true. The spectacular photo above is part of their collection. However, she discovered that park officials didn’t formally name it, so it isn’t called Douglas Fairbanks Peak today. Sic transit gloria mundi. If you’d like to read Kosiec’s essay on Fairbanks, visit “Douglas Fairbanks: No Stuntman Required.

 

 

Week of June 30th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that with the departure of two major producers Triangle Film Corporation was falling apart. Founded in July, 1915, Triangle was intended to be a prestige studio based on productions of D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett. They succeeded for awhile, with stars like Roscoe Arbuckle, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, but by mid-1917 they had all left, as had Griffith. Two weeks earlier Thomas Ince had resigned, and on June 30th Kingsley reported that Mack Sennett signed with Paramount Pictures to release all of his future productions. Triangle kept producing films until 1919, but film historian Brent Walker said of their comedies there “was a noticeable drop in quality.”

All of their top talent had gone to where the money was: Paramount and its divisions, Famous Players/Lasky and Artcraft. On July 1st, the company’s vice-president Jesse Lasky announced a very full slate of 27 upcoming films, mostly adaptations from bestselling authors like Mary Roberts Rinehart (Bab’s Burglar) Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer) and Owen Johnson (The Varmint). The company is still around, and is still making films based on familiar properties like Baywatch and Transformers.

Kingsley remarked that comedies were changing, and the subtlest bit of business was no longer the kicking of one gentleman downstairs by another. Her favorite film this week was an example of that, Haunted Pajamas. She wrote:

Speaking of screen comedies, don’t miss that most hilariously funny one of the season, Haunted Pajamas…Harold Lockwood discloses himself as a first rate comedian as the bewildered hero, owner of the bewitched pajamas, the quality of which he does not know, who is certain the whole world has gone mad. If all the magic articles in the Arabian Nights tales had made for as much joy as those pajamas, the Arabs would have laughed themselves to death.

The pink silk nightwear has the power to transform the wearer into someone else; mistaken identity hijinks ensue. The film has been preserved at the Eastman House. Sadly, Harold Lockwood died in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

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If you know one image from 1910’s cinema, it’s probably this one.

Kingsley got to interview Theda Bara on the set of Cleopatra, and she reported that things were going very well. The production “promises to be the most elaborate and ambitious undertaking of this [Fox] film company. Marvelous sets and costumes are being used.” The weather was hot, and Bara declared that it suited the story, and “she was glad it was not an Alaskan story she was doing.” When asked about her startling costumes, she said “I’ve gotten over being self-conscious in regard to my costumes…And to think, I cried for two days and lost fourteen pounds over having to appear in a one-piece bathing suit in A Fool There Was.” She also talked about how she did her work:

I have the scene thought out in a general way, but upon coming into it, I change many things. This seems due to a sort of inspiration, and especially as a matter of fitting my work to that of others in the scene. Mr. Edwards [J. Gordon, the director] kindly allows me to work out my own ideas. I find it very difficult to work while people are watching me, unless they are in through sympathy.

Kingsley complimented Bara on her poise, dramatic sense and power of concentration, as well as her capacity for hard work.

In an early version of Linda Holmes’ scale of how hot it would need to be before you’d go to an air-conditioned theater to see certain films, Kingsley noted that the cooling system at Miller’s Theater was very good, and Patsy was “a very pleasant little comedy with which to while away an afternoon.“ June Caprice starred as another Mary Pickford-esque tomboy who moves to the big city; it’s a lost film. It would probably be a right around The Karate Kid on the Holmes scale.

 

While remarking on the great improvement in film music, Kingsley mentioned one young woman’s comment during a film: “Oh dear, I can’t hear what he’s saying. I wish the music wouldn’t play so loud.” She was so absorbed in the story that she’d forgotten it was a silent film. I hope you get to see a movie as good as that this week!

Week of September 23rd, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that some big New York magazines had noticed Mack Sennett’s work. George Jean Nathan in his theater review column for The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness praised him, and Kingsley was so surprised that she quoted him at length:

This Sennett is probably the most fecund inventor and merchant of the slapstick masque the civilized world has yet seen. A spectator of but a very few of his opera, I am yet fascinated and not inconsiderably bewildered by the resourceful imagination of the fellow. An erstwhile chorus man in the Casino music shows, Sennett has done the work he set out to do with a skill so complete, with a fertility so copious, that he has graduated himself as the foremost bachelor of custard-pie arts, the foremost professor of the bladder. He is, in short, the very best entrepreneur of low comedy the amusement world has seen. He has made probably twice as many millions laugh as have all of Shakespeare’s clowns and all the music show comedians on earth rolled together.

Nathan actually seems to be sincere in his admiration, beneath the thick layer of pretension (or as Kingsley politely put it: “Of course, Mr. Nathan’s viewpoint is from a very very lofty height, which naturally makes his language sound a bit condescending”). An intellectual such as himself couldn’t have possibly witnessed more than “a very few” Keystone films, nevertheless he could recommend them over “the labored unfunniness of the posturing mimic artists of Broadway.” The whole article is available on Google Books.*

Kingsley also mentioned that the Saturday Evening Post published an article Sennett wrote, “Movie Star Stories,” in which he described the differences between theatrical and film acting and told stories about some of the people who had worked for him, included Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Marilyn Slater has posted a copy on her site, Looking for Mabel.

So in 1916, general interest magazines were already starting to take movies – and comedies at that – seriously. They were well on their way to respectability.

 

In other Keystone news, the place was turning highbrow, but not because of the media attention.

No longer do Keystoners loiter about the big open-air stage, telling Keystone-y stories, playing pinochle, or otherwise amusing themselves in the common, vulgar way. Nowadays the erstwhile footlight comedians, chorus ladies, prize fighters, acrobats and cowboys gather about the phonograph, and nothing short of a Wagnarian trilogy of a Liszt rhapsody will satisfy the artistic temperament of these new disciples of the elevated brow. Louise Fazenda started the movement and everybody chipped in last week and bought a Victrola.

Technology has been ruining society for an awfully long time.

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Two comedies made Kingsley laugh this week. Anita Loos’ work was back again, this time with a “whimsically clever” screenplay for The Social Secretary. Norma Talmadge gave a “clear-cut, sparkling interpretation “ to the role of a beautiful woman masquerading as a prim, dowdy social secretary to avoid workplace sexual harassment. Kingsley said “it is refreshing to see Miss Talmadge in a comedy role, after the long series of gloomy, heart-broken females she has played.” Despite her good notices, Talmadge went back to her dramatic roles and only rarely made comedies. The Social Secretary is not a lost film; it’s even available on DVD.

She had fun at Mr. 44 as well, in which a poor factory girl (May Allison) marries a rich man (Harold Lockwood). She wrote “Miss Allison and Mr. Lockwood are always easy to look at, and their fine sense of comedy values places them right among the blue ribboners in brightly humorous plays.” The two were very popular stars at the time, co-starring in over 20 films between 1915 and 1917. Lockwood died of influenza in 1918. Allison kept working until 1927, retiring after she married James Quirk, the editor of Photoplay magazine. Mr. 44 is a lost film.

Kingsley also admired the work of the person who had the most successful career of everyone involved with the film: “Photographer Gaudio shows himself master of his craft in making the pictures of those wonderful Lake Tahoe locations.” Tony Gaudio already had many years of experience; he had been shooting short films since 1903. In the 1920’s he became the Talmadge sisters’ regular DP, and when their studio was bought by Warner Bros. he went along. He shot some of that studio’s most prestigious films, including Little Caesar (1931), Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Letter (1941).

 

 

 

*Buster Keaton fans might want to see Nathan’s article because he reviews the play Seven Chances was based on, calling it “a poor thing at best.”

One other aside: earlier in the article he opined that Sydney Chaplin was a better comic than his half-brother and his film The Plumber was better than all films, including Birth of a Nation. One problem with his argument is that The Plumber was a Charlie Chaplin film – that was an alternate title for Work (1915). So Nathan wasn’t infallible.