One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the latest scheme aimed at aspiring screenwriters:
Founding schools to teach would-be writers how to write for the screen has become one of the greatest little indoor sports of the age. Any tired waiter who liked pictures or any blacksmith out of a job felt that he was the very little brightness who would tell the seeking soul just how to write scenarios for the picture producers…And now, Miss Scenario Writer, no need to shed any more hot scalding tears on account of viewing your very own pet idea which you sent to the Phony Film Company that for which you were never paid.
That is, these things aren’t going to happen any more if the Palmer Photoplay Corporation, which has just come in to being and which promises to fill a long felt want in the picture producing world has anything to say about it.
The PPC “proposes to smooth out all those crinkles in the road which lies between the freelance scenario writer and the picture producer.” They told her it was not a screenwriting school, but it actually was. At least it was conducted by people who had written professionally. One founder, Frederick Palmer, had been a staff writer for Sennett, Triangle, Fox and Universal. His co-founder, Roy Manker, had been a newspaper writer. He told Kingsley “We feel certain that there are scores of persons with ideas and imagination, and with the will to write scenarios, who could be trained to do so properly if willing to do the required work.”
Kingsley outlined how they intended to proceed:
According to the plan under which the Palmer Photoplay Corporation will work, the writer who feels he has a scenario in his system may confide the fact to the organization, making his communications by mail, as no personal interviews are desired, whereupon the organization will send him a prospectus stating the form a partnership.
‘Partnership’ is an interesting euphemism for a screenwriting course by mail. The aspiring writer was to receive notes for improvement and submit more drafts until the scenario was acceptable “both in form and in matter.” Then the Corporation put its stamp of approval on it and gave him or her a list of studios that were likely to accept it, leaving the writer to send it out (later they started a sales department). Neither the ads nor any of the contemporary articles about the company mentioned how much they charged for their services.
It was the largest and most successful screenwriting school of its time, according to film historian Anne Morey.* By the early 1920’s, she said that with the typical year-long course of instruction, subscribers received several books, twelve lectures, newsletters, a monthly magazine The Photodramatist, and five screenplay critiques. Rates ranged from $76.50 to $90, depending on which plan the student chose.
The company’s downfall began in 1923, with plans for expansion into film production. They did manage to make two films in 1924, Judgment of the Storm and The White Sin. Even though the films acted as an advertisement for the school, it stopped teaching screenwriting and shifted to teaching short story writing in 1925. So they were less fly-by-night than most. Things really hasn’t changed much— just like in a gold rush, it’s much better to be the person selling supplies to aspiring miners; in Hollywood it’s a safer bet to be teaching aspiring filmmakers.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a change of pace for its star:
It looks now as if William Russell would henceforth be Bill Russell. William was the boy with the long, dreamy eyelashes, who took himself and his girl oh, so, seriously…It is in Up Romance Road, at Miller’s this week, that there emerges from the drab chrysalis William, the bright comedy butterfly Bill. Fresh, crisp, delightfully amusing is the story from the fanciful pen of Stephen Fox, which has to do with a young man who is bored with life because events roll too smoothly for him, and who therefore starts out to formulate a plot like those you see in the ‘movies.’ There are delicious touches of whimsy, as when hiring a band of ruffians to kidnap his girl—‘Can you boys furnish references as good, reliable crooks, not from relatives?’ he asks.
He gets mixed up with a real band of crooks, but they aren’t too threatening – he’s able to knock them all out even though he’s tied to a chair, and they forgot to wind up the clock on the bomb they set. She concluded that it was “a rich, new, refreshing comedy vein, this, which it will pay to work.” It’s a lost film.
William Russell didn’t change his name, and he went on to act in all kinds of films, from comedies like Goodbye Girls (1923) to crime dramas like State Street Sadie (1928) before he died of pneumonia in 1929. However, the most famous people from this production were its director and screenwriter.
Director Henry King went on to a decades-long career, making a wide variety of films from Tol’rable David (1921) and Stella Dallas (1925) to talkies like Twelve O’clock High (1949) and Carousel (1956). Stephen Fox was a pseudonym for Jules Furthman (he temporarily used a different name because he thought his real name sounded ‘too German’ during the war). He went on to an equally long career, writing everything from Shanghai Express (1932) to The Big Sleep (1946). He was married to Sybil Seeley (Buster Keaton’s co-star), from 1920 until his death in 1966.
I must tell my brother Bill that he’s a bright comic butterfly. His computer science students will be thrilled.
Kingsley reported on a perk of being famous. Dorothy Dalton, star from the Ince studio, returned from vacationing in New York where
she took a little time off in order to entertain photoplay magazine editors and others of the pen-pushing tribe, who forthwith splashed ink trying to tell how charming her eyebrows and dimple are.
‘Frankly,’ said Miss Dalton the other day, ‘I don’t just hate to hear such things, principally because it in part compensates for having been voted the ugliest girl in the third grade. I had freckles, wore my hair in two tight pigtails, and had first and second teeth crowding each other for window display honors.
I know we’re much more sensitive now, but they couldn’t possibly have had votes for ugly students in school, could they? Her description of her young self sounds adorable, like a Norman Rockwell model. Dalton went on to star in more dramas like Moran of the Lady Letty (with Rudolph Valentino) and she retired in 1924 when she married theatrical producer Arthur Hammerstein, the lyricist’s uncle.
Kingsley’s biggest bunch of nonsense in the week was an item about Roscoe Arbuckle:
With his willowy figure draped in a baby blue bathrobe revealing the beautifully rounded curves of his body, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, the rotund motion picture comedian delivered another secret on how to grow thin, while answering letters from frantic seekers of the truth.
“I can assure my readers that ice or roller skating will be a great aid in reducing, providing one does not remain too long in a sitting position,” said Doctor Arbuckle. “It is absolutely necessary to stay on one’s feet in order to get proper results.”
I suppose a little exercise isn’t a bad idea for most people, but honestly, nobody would write to him for diet advice: he was fine exactly as he was. (I would believe it if someone asked him for advice on dancing or practical jokes – he knew a lot about both.) This was all a set up for something that I think was supposed to be a joke: since people believed that cold-water baths helped people to reduce, skating on thin ice would lead to a dunking and weight reduction. Paul Conlon, his publicist, was really having an off day. Then again, he did manage to get Kingsley to include this…
* Anne Morey, “Fashioning the Self to Fashion the Film: The Case of the Palmer Photoplay Corporation,” In: Hollywood Outsiders: The Adaptation of the Film Industry, 1913-1934. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.