Beware of Optimism: Week of March 6th, 1920

peterpan

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Crashing Hollywood: Week of February 7th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a successful attempt to get hired in Hollywood:

It is reported that Tom Gallery, the enterprising young journalist who entered the ranks of leading men on the screen a few weeks ago, has found the exact size of the third finger of the left hand of that clever young comedienne, Zasu Pitts.

It is a pretty little story which lies back of the romance between these two clever youngsters. During the making of a King Vidor production in which Miss Pitts was the star, Tom Gallery, as the representative of an eastern fan magazine, came over one day to the Vidor studio. He said he wanted to interview Miss Pitts.

Miss Pitts was willing to be interviewed, and proved such good copy that Mr. Gallery stuck around all the afternoon. A day or two later Mr. Gallery went back to ask some question he had forgotten at the time of the first interview.

Some extras were being used in a scene, and Mr. Vidor laughingly asked young Gallery if he didn’t want to be in the scene, to which Gallery, of course, said yes. When the picture was run off that night, the young man showed off to such good advantage that he was hired for a minor role, and then, in the very next picture, he was elected as Miss Pitts’ leading man.

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Bright Skies (1920)

Enterprising is the right word for Thomas S. Galley. It’s amazing that someone could talk his way onto a film set and into an acting job. I could find no evidence that he was a journalist of any kind – he hardly had time to be one. He was only 21 years old when he arrived in Los Angeles, and he’d be busy serving in the tank corps in France during the war. When he told the story the next year, he took that part out. In an interview in Motion Picture Magazine, he didn’t mention visiting the set of King Vidor’s Poor Relations, he said just interviewed for the leading man job on Pitts’ next film, Bright Skies, and she was so taken with him that they had to hire him. In July 1920, the two eloped to Santa Ana, accompanied by King and Florence Vidor to serve as their witnesses.

Gallery went on to be Zasu Pitts’ leading man for two more films, then after the birth of their daughter Ann in 1922, she went back to supporting roles and so did he. His film career ended in 1927; in a 1985 interview with sportswriter Jim Murray, Galley blamed his co-star Rin-Tin-Tin. He claimed he’d been bitten! (Neither of Rinty’s biographers, Susan Orlean and Jeannine Basinger, ever mentioned that.) Moreover, he told Murray he hated acting anyway. Gallery went on to be a boxing promoter at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, and used his industry connections to publicize the fights, inviting actors and actresses to them. He also helped broker deals with TV networks to put live sports like baseball, football and golf on television.

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Pitts and Gallery stayed married until 1932, but their relationship wasn’t happy. During the divorce proceedings, she testified that he deserted her in 1926. Her biographer, Charles Stumpf, says that his lack of career success contributed to their troubles, plus he started being seen around town with a young actress, Madge Evans.

markedmen

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Marked Men. She began her review with a complaint:

And, by the way, just by what mental processes those responsible for the changing of the original name of Kyne’s story, “The Three Godfathers,” arrived at the conclusion that Marked Men was a better title, I can’t imagine. I’ll be if Universal ever puts out Romeo and Juliet they’ll change the title to Frozen Love.

She had a point about the title Frozen Love — it’s never been used for a Hollywood film. It seems like the film’s director, John Ford, agreed with her about Marked Men: when he remade the film in 1948, he restored the title, Three Godfathers. Other versions have been called Broncho Bill and the Baby (1915) Hell’s Heroes (1929) and The Godchild (1974). It’s a durable property!

Other critics were impressed, too.

Kingsley continued:

However, the title’s the only thing to find fault with in this production, which is a real screen classic, both because of its appealing story, which pulls even at the emotions of a hard-boiled critic, whose heart-strings, of course, are popularly supposed to be a banjo, or some such limited instrument; and because of the vivid and sincere characterizations of the trio of ‘godfathers.

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Harry Carey

Kingsley singled out one of the godfathers in particular:

There’s one he-man actor who is so sincere and so dramatically adroit that he sounds the bell every single time he has the right story ammunition, and sometimes even when he hasn’t. That actor is Harry Carey, who has his greatest story in all the years he has been acting in Marked Men at the Superba this week.

Carey had been in over 100 movies at that point, so he had quite a resume. It’s a lost film.

Jim Murray, “Dog Bites Actor, Giving Us Promoter,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1985.

Clyde Stuart, “Mr. and Mrs. Tom,” Motion Picture Magazine Nov. 1921. p.69, 102.

Charles Stumpf, ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career, McFarland, 2010.

“Walked Out,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 27, 1932.

 

Week of May 11th, 1918

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Tea party, 1918 — maybe children had other things to do?

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on decreased film attendance among school children in Los Angeles. However, theater owners had a unique excuse for being concerned about a downturn in ticket sales:

the alarming results in the steady decrease of war tax checks that are sent to the government by the theater owners every month…statistics show that this source of government income decreased fully 25 percent last month. This month’s drop will be even greater, and if the alarming decrease keeps up there is no doubt in the minds of the committee that several of the houses will have to close.

The tax on entertainment did contribute millions to fund the war , but if that was their real concern, they could have bought Liberty Bonds. Exhibitors must have thought that patriotism looked better in the newspaper than concern for profits.

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Teachers weren’t the only ones telling kids what to do with their money

They had an interesting theory on why kids weren’t going to the movies:

The trouble arises, according to reports received by the film men, from teachers in the public schools advising school children to save their money for other purposes and not to visit picture theaters.

They didn’t blame building too many theaters or bad movies or other entertainment options. Teachers have been blamed for many things for a very long time.

To deal with the problem, film exhibitors planned to form a committee and hold a meeting on May 18th. Nearly 100 producers and exhibitors attended, according to Moving Picture World. They didn’t frame it in terms of loss of tax revenue among themselves: they were worried about theaters staying in business. One exhibitor (F.A. MacDonald) stated that 32 theaters had already closed, and he blamed German propaganda – the enemy didn’t want people to see the Red Cross and Liberty Loan slides, speakers and trailers that were being shown. Producer Thomas Ince suggested, “tell people it is patriotic to patronize picture shows.” J.A. Quinn, owner of the Rialto Theater, wanted to start a publicity campaign (after all, President Wilson said that “the moving picture is helping to win the war”), and they resolved to do exactly that.

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Audiences came back

There weren’t any follow-up articles on the publicity campaign, but after things got much worse when the flu epidemic temporarily closed all the theaters later in 1918, film attendance eventually did come back. Weekly paid admissions rose from 40 million in 1922 to 65 million in 1928.

scarlet drop

Kingsley had a funny little criticism of The Scarlet Drop:

Harry Carey is breaking more furniture with the villain at the Supurba this week, than we have witnessed in many a day.

Nevertheless, she enjoyed the addition to the pile of Wild West pictures, because “Harry Carey, being a sincere cowboy, wins us the minute he appears and Molly Malone is just too cute for anything in those ’49 styles.” Sometimes that’s enough from a night at the movies. Now the film is remembered (30 minutes of it survive) because of its director: John Ford.

 

 

 

 

Koszarski, Richard. An Evening’s Entertainment. Berkeley: University of /California Press, 1990.

“Los Angeles Film Men Alarmed,” Moving Picture World, June 8, 1918, p.1403.

“School Teachers’ Advice Closing Coast Theaters,” Variety, May 24, 1918, p.1

 

Children’s tea party photo from the Upper Arlington Historical Society.

Week of August 26th, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported an unusually high number of accidents and injuries. The list included:

  • J. Warren Kerrigan and the cast and crew of The Measure of a Man were in a boat crash when they were returning from filming scenes in Eureka. At one o’clock in the morning a lumber schooner struck their passenger boat and everyone was thrown from their beds. Luckily, both ships were able to get to San Francisco.
  • Val Paul was rehearsing a scene on the shores of Catalina Island in which he saved a boy from a shark attack when a real shark attacked. He managed to grab the boy and escape by climbing onto a rock.
  • Harry Carey, while “performing a perilous feat” in The Underling was thrown against a railroad track and his shoulder was severely injured.
  • Herbert Rawlinson was hurt while filming a fight. He fell and tore the ligaments in his knee. However, they were working at the LA County Hospital at the time, so he saw a doctor right away.
  • Dorothy Phillips was injured when she fell into a bear trap while filming on location in Bear Valley.

Working in film in 1916 was dangerous! Happily, everybody recovered from their trauma and injuries. J. Warren Kerrigan continued to be a leading man until he quit acting in 1924; The Measure of a Man was released in November and Moving Picture World thought it was wholesome, if a bit padded. Val Paul kept acting until the early 20’s, then he became a director, producer, and production manager. Harry Carey became a big star of Westerns, then a character actor and was nominated for an Oscar in 1940 for his role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Underling was re-named The Conspiracy and Motion Picture News thought it was “an entirely satisfactory melodrama.” Herbert Rawlinson also had a long career, though he was less successful, moving from being a leading man in the silent era to doing bit parts in talkies and television. Dorothy Phillips’ career also prospered in the 20’s, then dwindled to occasional bit parts.

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Finally, one accident might have gotten put to good use:

Last Monday Director [Hal] Roach’s car was hit and demolished by a truck while on its way to location, loaded with players. Bebe Daniels and Harold Lloyd were both sent to the hospital while Fred Jefferson and James Crosby suffered minor injuries. The car was completely wreaked, but the cameraman was on the job. Leaping from under the wreckage, he saw that the camera was uninjured, and at once set it up, calling meanwhile to the players the familiar phrase “Hold it!” He got a picture of the wreak, and it’s going to be used in a comedy. Well, some cameramen do have a sense of humor!

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James Crosby

Crosby, the quick-thinking cameraman, had gotten his start in film working at the Selig-Polyscope lab in 1904. When the film industry contracted in 1918, he went back to lab management and in 1933 he invented an automatic film developer.

I can’t find out if they really did use the footage in a film because trade papers rarely reviewed shorts and only 14 of the 67 Lonesome Luke films survived, according to Annette D’Agostino Lloyd. But it seems plausible that it was in Luke the Chauffeur, released on October 29, 1916.

weakness of strength

Kingsley particularly enjoyed The Weakness of Strength this week, saying it was

“the strongest and sincerest photodrama the Symphony [Theater] has shown in many a day…in vain one looks for the impossibly fortuitous circumstance, the villain who villains for the pure joy of villaining, the too-perfect hero…even the happy ending, for which one does not look early in the picture, is so adroitly evolved as to appear quite the natural outcome of events.”

The story involves a clerk who, desperate for money to care for his sick grandmother, embezzles money, but his boss ultimately forgives him (AFI Catalog). It’s a lost film. Now the only remarkable thing about the film is how unremarkable it was. All of the cast and crew had decent careers, but nobody was particularly famous. It’s the sort of movie that kept the entertainment industry running.

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No old-style suits for these ladies.

Kingsley reported one patently absurd item unquestioningly: Mack Sennett ordered “the cutie Keystone bathing girls to return to the old-style bathing suits.” Of course, no such thing happened, and I have no idea why somebody thought that would be a useful bit of publicity.

 

Week of August 5th, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on ambitious plans for a big new film studio. The Success Film Producing Company, with a capitalization of 7.5 million dollars, had been incorporated in New York the week before and they wanted to open a studio in Los Angeles by the end of August. They had bought film rights to several properties and had an option on a theater in New York, and they planned to buy more throughout the country. An article in Motion Picture News on September 2nd sounded much more suspicious of the enterprise, calling the reports rumors without forthcoming details. They also couldn’t find published records of the real estate deal for the theater. Like so many other projects, not much came of it and the company soon disappeared from the press. Motography did announce that Success hired Constance Collier as the lead in The Eternal Magdalene but they never made that film. Collier went on to a six-decade long career in the theater and film. The Eternal Magdalene was filmed in 1917 by a different brand-new production company: Goldwyn Pictures, a company that’s still around as part of M.G.M Studios. In the film business, you never know what will last and what won’t.

Kingsley’s favorite film of the week was Charlie Chaplin’s “One A.M.” She said:

the screen comedian has the magic power, as everybody know, of turning everything he touches into the gold of laughter. So that in One A.M. it is Chaplin as the star with the furniture as supporting company. The taxi speedometer is a veritable burlesque artist, the revolving table is a comedian of rare gift…even the poor old siphon bottle is a funster with finesse, and the trick bed is a clown. Besides, Chaplin has invented all the ways there are of not getting upstairs.

If you want to see what she’s talking about, it’s available on the Internet Archive.

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Filming Love’s Lariat

She also liked the feature that played with it, Love’s Lariat, starring Harry Carey, calling it “quite the most delightful, crisp little comedy we have had in many a day…more power to whoever wrote this play.” According to the AFI Catalog, the plot involved a cowboy who had to live in the East for a year as a condition of an inheritance and the writers were William Blaine Pearson and co-director (with Carey) George E. Marshall. Pearson worked on a few more Westerns and died in November, 1918 (an unverifiable source said it was pneumonia), but Marshall had much better luck. This was his first feature-length film as a director; his last was a Jerry Lewis vehicle Hook Line and Sinker in 1969. Along the way he directed over 80 features including Destry Rides Again (1939) and several Bob Hope comedies. Love’s Lariat is a lost film.

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Mae Marsh in Intolerance

Kingsley was much less impressed by The Marriage of Molly-O, saying that the piffling superficialities of the screenplay weren’t worthy of its star, Mae Marsh. That screenplay writer was D.W. Griffith, writing under a pseudonym.

Griffith got much better press farther along in the same August 7th column, when Kingsley mentioned that Intolerance was test-screened at the Orpheum Theater in Riverside under the title The Downfall of All Nations. She quoted some favorable reviews that called the film “soul-gripping,” and “a stupendous production.” Griffith and several of the stars, including Miss Marsh, Lillian Gish, Constance Talmadge and Robert Harron attended the screening. Two days later she reported that New York would get to see it before Los Angeles because Griffith had signed a deal to take over the Liberty Theater there for the 1916-1917 season.

Otherwise, it was a slow week for film news. Kingsley mentioned that William S. Hart had a particularly strenuous week of stunts, including falling from the back of a horse and rolling 500 feet down an embankment, but Hart said that now nothing short of eating a locomotive worried him. However, he was planning a vacation through Utah, Colorado and the Grand Canyon after the film was finished.