How Quickly They Forget: Week of October 4th, 1919

They were so happy, just last December!

One hundred and one years ago this week, all of the theaters in Los Angeles were about to be closed to help prevent the spread of influenza. They didn’t re-open until December 2nd. One year later, neither Grace Kingsley nor anybody else wrote about the anniversary. Only three very short articles about flu appeared in the LA Times in late 1919: two reporting that the State Board of Health said the return of the epidemic was improbable, and one about insurance payouts for flu deaths. The trade papers also ignored the anniversary, except to give theater closures as a reason that revenues were down the previous year.

This was the beginning of people forgetting all about the epidemic, which now seems to be the first thing everybody mentions if they do cover it. For instance, The Guardian’s article on the hundredth anniversary was called “A century on: why are we forgetting the deaths of 100 million” and the Backstory Radio podcast episode was titled Forgotten FluNobody paused to be happy that they got to go about their ordinary business. Perhaps they were saving it for the Armistice Day celebrations coming up next month.

No surprise, Kingsley’s favorite film this week came from her favorite actress:

That amazing young woman, Mary Pickford, has done it again! She has succeeded in The Hoodlum, which is at the Kinema this week, in again putting over a film blue-ribboner. The surprising thing about this young lady is that she never fails to surprise you…In fact, Miss Pickford seems to be slowly but surely evolving a fresh, new quality—a power that has nothing whatever to do with pouts and curls, but depends on a really brilliant mind, a keenness of dramatic perception, and an unlimited sense of humor and of fun.

The Hoodlum tells the story of a spoiled rich girl who goes to live with her sociologist father in the New York slums. There, after learning how to play craps and shimmie, she meets a wrongfully accused young man whom she is able to exonerate by stealing papers from her grandfather. However, as Kingsley noted, that wasn’t the attraction:

But the plot, ha ha! Like the dentists’ ads say, doesn’t hurt a bit. It’s Mary Pickford’s bubbling, genuine humor, which will charm dull care away if you’ll let it. That a lot of people want to let it was shown by the crowds which besieged the Kinema yesterday.

The Hoodlum is available on DVD.

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Kingsley had news of Pickford’s soon-to-be husband as well:

That arch kidder, Douglas Fairbanks, made the life of Charlie Chaplin more or less miserable, the other night down on Broadway. Charlie and Doug had been dining together, and as they sat in the machine awaiting the coming of other friends to join the party, Douglas would ever and anon arise in his seat, wave his arms, and announce to whoso would listen:

“This is the great Charlie Chaplin! None other! Take a good look at Charlie Chaplin!”

Poor Charlie shrunk back inside his overcoat, and looked as if somebody bit his dog.

Oh, Mr. Fairbanks. It’s only surprising that the story doesn’t end with “so Charlie bopped him in the nose and no jury would convict.”

From a review of The World to Live In I learned a new word: tinpanner, which is a young woman who consorts with rich old men. It was invented by W. Carey Wonderly, the author of the 1918 novel the film was based on. Another writer, Owen Johnson, tried to call them “salamanders” in his 1913 novel of that name (and 1916 film), but neither word caught on the way the term Jack Lait came up with did in his 1916 book, Beef, Iron & Wine: gold digger. The Oxford English Dictionary says that was the first time it was used in that sense (and tinpanner isn’t in the OED at all). I guess Wonderly was playing off of that, since you use a tin pan to find gold in a stream. While is seems like there can never be enough words to insult women with, “gold digger” is easier to catch the meaning of if you don’t already know it. I can see why it won out.

Nevertheless, The World to Live In wasn’t a bad little movie, even if it utterly failed as a cautionary tale:

But if the author didn’t want all our little Maudie Freshies to go right out and be tinpanners, he shouldn’t have made this one have such an awfully good time, with numberless rich and devoted beaus, and come out all unscorched and unscathed as she did, from numberless fascinating adventures.

Gee, just like Anita Loos did a few years later in her book, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In this story, Rita Charles (Alice Brady) meets a handsome settlement worker (William P. Carelton) with a “noble pompadour—why is it, pompadours look so noble in pictures?” and marries him, ending her tinpanning ways. Overall, Kingsley thought this now lost movie was very entertaining and not in the least profound.

 

 

Week of January 11th, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley tried to reassure her readers that the film business was in good shape:

Those immortelle-weavers who love to honk-honk the sad news that now-a-days the lamp of the picture business is glimmering darkly—that in fact it is burning low and smelling of the wick—should go down to Culver City and have a peep at the Goldwyn activities. Then would these crepe-hangers sell out their stock and buy in on fireworks. Commencing next week all the Goldwyn forces, consisting of six companies, will be at work.

She was really working hard to be cheerful, but the film industry was in the middle of a rough patch. Losses from the theater closures lingered, the United States was in a postwar recession and people were still occasionally coming down with the flu (Gloria Swanson came down with it this week, and was quarantined in her bungalow).

Much less reassuring was what Samuel Goldwyn had to say about his plans. He announced: “we have definitely decided to make fewer pictures. No matter how long it takes to complete a picture, we shall not let it go out of the studio until we feel it is a perfect as possible.” That was good news for audiences, but terrible news for people who worked in the industry.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Light of Western Stars, with Dustin Farnum.

The Wild West is rapidly becoming tame, even down in Arizona…But our joy in the Wild West show is perennial; and just now there is a perfectly smashing one on view at the Alhambra. You have only to take a peep into the above-named theater, and view the crowds that are chortling and thrilling in response to vivid melodrama.

The plot was unusual for a Western: Farnum’s character marries on a drunken bet, then he flees after being falsely accused of murder. They managed to work in a “thrilling” cattle round-up and several border raids.

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Ted Gale drew some cartoons, too

To close out the week, Kingsley wrote an odd little novelty article. A lifelong non-driver, she found herself among the 50,000 people attending the Auto Show. To occupy herself, she compared film actors to the latest models.

The Peerless Cloverleaf reminded her of Mary Pickford.

The seven-passenger Pierce-Arrow resembled Douglas Fairbanks.

The Overland family touring car looked like Charlie Chaplin.

I don’t see it, but I’m not bored and stuck at an auto show. It wasn’t her best work, but for a change, her writing appeared in the sports section.

 

 

Week of December 21st, 1918

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley described how quickly Los Angeles had bounced back from the closures during the flu epidemic:

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Nazimova

Some Rialto it is that our little old Broadway is becoming once more! What with all the theaters racing their curtains up every night, what with Nazimova and Charlie Chaplin promenading the gash-deck of the Alexandria, with handsome army officers tangoing nightly in the hotel dining-rooms with Mary MacLaren and Edna Purviance, with the deep-sea-going automobiles of D.W. Griffith, Bill Hart, Mary Pickford, Cecil De Mille, and Mable Normand parked in bunches along Broadway, with all the lights turned on, and even the elusive sugar-bowl trekking back to café tables,* really life grows brighter and brighter—Los Angeles is herself again.

 

Broadway was one of the oldest streets in Los Angeles, and for fifty years it was the main commercial and theater district. After the Second World War, it went into decline when everything moved to the suburbs, but it’s making a comeback now.

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She reported more proof that business was good: the safe at the Palace Theater was broken in to, and the burglars got away with $1000 in cash and a “considerable” amount of Liberty Bonds. The thieves’ methods were worthy of a movie: they blew the safe up with nitroglycerin, after wrapping the it with the theater’s water-soaked curtains and wall hangings to deaden the noise. There was no report in the Times or the Herald that they were ever caught.

 

Kingsley had an exceptionally bad week at the movies; other than the new Roscoe Arbuckle short, The Sheriff  she wasn’t wild about anything she saw. She thought that Tongues of Flame, a tale of jealousy set in a redwood forest, was slow moving and badly cast even if the photography of the redwoods was beautiful, and Mae Marsh’s sister Marguerite in Conquered Hearts was “quite expressionless,” as was the story. Worst of all was Oh Johnny, which was “rather of the vintage of 1915 when we didn’t do things on the screen as we do now. The story is as full of kidnappings and attempted arsons and burglaries and murders as a Main-street serial.” The film was made in 1918 by a small company in Pennsylvania, Betzwood Film. The local community college library there has a very nice website devoted to it; they’ve also put Oh Johnny on it as well. (Hooray for local historians!)

Exhibitors weren’t cleaning out their shelves during a slow time: Kingsley was just having a run of bad luck. Douglas Fairbanks’ Arizona opened on Christmas Eve, and Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms was in its second week as was Griffith’s The Greatest Thing in Life.

 

 

 

*Sugar wasn’t rationed in the U.S. during World War 1, but because it was imported people were encouraged to use domestic honey or maple syrup instead.

Week of December 14th, 1918

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to see an unusual show before D.W. Griffith’s new film, The Greatest Thing in Life:

The prologue is one of the most beautiful and artistic spectacles of the sort that the stage has seen. So far as its meaning is concerned, a part of its artistry lies in the fact it settles nothing for you. What do you think is the greatest thing in life? is the query which trails the showing of the beauties of life and love and comradeship and self-sacrifice.

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Motion Picture News gave a detailed description of the half-hour long show. It opened with a dark stage, which is slowly brightened. Out of the hazy background came a voice:

“The greatest thing in life – what is the greatest thing in life?”

Second voice: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

First voice: “the greatest thing in life is-is-is (soft music) wait-wait-wait, here come the singers and dancers, they know what life is. Light hearts of the world—music, dancing, wine, women, life itself-that is the greatest thing in life.’

After a tenor solo, the first voice said “Ah, the search for love eternal—that is the greatest thing in life, ” then a couple performed a modern dance. This was followed by an “ultra” jazz number, then four soldiers representing duty and heroism, then more dancers, representing shadows from the “land of the silver sheet” as a bridge to the film itself.

Motion Picture News said the piece entitled Voices got eight minutes of applause and calls from the audience of 3000 on opening night. Now the prologue is remembered, if at all, because of one of the forty performers. Rudolpho Di Valentina did that modern dance with Clarine Seymour. MPN had reported earlier “Rudolpho Di Valentina continues the merry dance in Griffith’s prologue to The Greatest Thing in Life, and the big audience applauds him at every program.”

 

 

In 1918, Valentino was an aspiring actor who’d arrived in Hollywood the year before. He’d had a few bit parts in films but his career didn’t take off until 1921 after he streamlined his name and starred in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If you’re interested in his early career, you can find an extract about it from Dark lover: the life and death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider in The Guardian. To learn more about Valentino in general, visit Donna Hill’s site, Falcon Lair.

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Gish, studying, in The Greatest Thing

After seeing the prologue, Kingsley chatted with Lillian Gish and learned that she

entertains ambitions to go on the stage. But she’s very backward about discussing it, approaching the possibility in most modest fashion. “I don’t think,” she said, “I could possibly be ready for so great an undertaking before I’m 30—so I have some years to go. But—yes—I really want to go on the stage, and I really mean to do it when I feel I’m ready. In the meantime I’m studying, studying.”

 

 

This surprised me, because Gish had been a stage actress from 1902 to 1912: it was nothing new for her. After her film career slowed down, she did go on the stage. However, it wasn’t until seven years after she turned 30, in 1930, when she appeared in her first production after becoming famous, Uncle Vanya. But it seems like her stage career wasn’t second-best to being in films – she planned it.

This week, several film executives came back to Hollywood, and each and every one of them had big plans for expansion for their businesses in 1919.

  • S.L. Rothapfel said wanted to build theaters in Paris and London that would be similar to his New York theaters, the Rialto and the Rivoli. He said “There is no doubt American films will be more popular even than before the war, and there is no doubt that the thousands of photoplays now reposing on the shelves of American producers will be eagerly welcomed by the people of the allied countries.” (bad news for writers trying to sell new material!)
  • Samuel Goldfish (still not yet Goldwyn) told her that his studio would make fewer, but better pictures, taking more time and care with each of them. He hoped to add a number of new stars to his roster.
  • Winfield Sheehan, the general manager at Fox, said “To me, the outlook is splendid. I look forward to 1919 with every feeling that it will be one of the greatest in the history of the industry. The Fox Film Corporation is laying plans for the biggest year of its career. We not only intend to improve the high standard of our pictures, but we are going to make more of them. After four years of war, people must have amusement.”
  • Cecil B. De Mille concluded “in the five years that I have been producing I have never found conditions more satisfactory, nor promising a more brilliant future for the entire industry.”

Lucky for them, their optimism was well-founded: the industry did recover. 1919 was a much better year all around, but the troubles of 1918 weren’t quite finished.

 

 

People were still coming down with the flu. Actress Ruth Roland was ill at home with it, and work on her current serial had stopped until she recovered. Happily, she did. According to O’Leary, the number of new cases in Los Angeles was declining rapidly in December with a small resurgence after holiday celebrations. The epidemic was almost over.

 

 

They weren’t done with war movies, either. Kingsley reported on the audience reaction to Me und Gott, at the Alhambra:

That it strikes a popular chord was testified to yesterday by the applause and hisses that marked its devious progress. It has some really breathless moments, particularly that in which we wait for the munitions plant to blow up.

Unfortunately, the film was trying to teach people that German-Americans weren’t the enemy. It seems like the audience didn’t get the message, they just were there for spectacle.

 

“Griffith Himself Stages Prologue for ‘Greatest Thing in Life’ in Los Angeles, Motion Picture News, February 4, 1919, p. 88.

“News,” January 18, 1919, p. 410)

Pieter M. O’Leary, “The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly, v.86 no.4 (Winter 2004), pp. 397-8

 

 

 

Week of November 23rd, 1918

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Ted Gale had had enough of the flu closures, too. (November 23, 1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley scraped the bottom of the story barrel: her main Sunday story for a second week in a row was a round up of all the improvements theaters had made during the flu closure. Plainly, this thing had gone on long enough. This time she was even more optimistic and fulsome:

Hurray! The Rialto is on tip-toe, preparing to celebrate! The footlights will soon spring into multi-colored flowering, canned romance will commence to once more unwind, and orchestras will resume again their melodious tootings, hittings and blowings!

Pretty sad looking places those closed theaters have been; but it’s a busy lot of brains behind those doors, where managers are thinking pink thoughts about how best to dazzle their patrons once the dread flu ban is raised and when the public once more in long streams is purchasing pink slips from the pretty girl with self-indicted blond hair who decorates the little glass cage in front of the theater. And as for health measures—say the theaters are so clean and hygienic that any lone germ which happens to wander into one of them will feel as lonely as a Boche at a Fourth of July celebration.

She went through a similar list of theater improvements that she did last Sunday: they were cleaning, painting, and refurbishing everything they could think of. She added the promise of coming attractions from Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett.

However, not everything would go back to the way it was (but cleaner), because the end of the war would cause big changes:

not only as regards the character of offerings, but as regards the personnel of companies, since a large number of artists will be released from service and will return to this country.

She was right. Audiences soon stopped wanting to see films about the war, and the return of servicemen caused women to lose their new jobs in film production.

There was one interesting side effect from the war. All of its disruption caused people to see new things and meet new people. As Will Wyatt, manager of the Mason vaudeville theater, put it:

…the war will affect a great mutual interchange of artists and of dramatic productions between England and this country, I am sure, which will naturally make for a fusion of ideas and a consequent raising of standards in dramatic art in both countries.

 

 

Poor Grace Kingsley couldn’t find very much else to write about this week. Mary Pickford started shooting Daddy Long-Legs. Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s co-star, was in a car accident, but she was only shaken up, not injured. The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry had a six-hour meeting in New York where they complained about “ruinous” taxes and high star salaries (businessmen wanted to keep more money for themselves—what a surprise). Happily, this was the last week of closed theaters. The re-opening wasn’t a moment too soon.

Week of November 16th, 1918

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Who could she be?

One hundred years ago this week Grace Kingsley wrote about her very odd interview of an aspiring star and her director. They refused to tell her name:

Her identity is to remain a mystery for the present, and the public is later to be asked to name her through a magazine contest…You find out by looking at her, though, that she is beautiful, statuesque, a brunette, and you speedily learn from Mr. Taylor that she was a Southern belle.

Mr. Taylor was Charles A. Taylor, an established playwright who had been writing screenplays since 1916. He was most famous for being theatrical actress Laurette Taylor’s first husband, and he declared that the mystery woman was to follow in the famous Laurette’s footsteps. He discovered her one evening at the Hollywood Hotel, and

he liked the way she smiled and carried herself, and his attention was completely engaged by the intangible something known as charm and personality, which she possessed.

So he asked her if she’d like to be in pictures, and she answered, “Ask Poppa.” Her father said yes, so Taylor “began skirmishing” for the money, wrote a story about a circus rider for her, and they made the movie.

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Mrs. Tom Sawyer and Nancy Sawyer, 1920

This, of course, was nonsense. After a bit of searching, I learned that the actress who came to be called Prudence Lyle was actually Emily Griffith Sawyer, and “Poppa” was A.B. Griffith, a cotton magnate from Texas. According to Motion Picture News, he funded the film. There never was a contest to name her; “Lyle” was her husband, Tom Sawyer’s*, middle name. They did a good job of hiding the connection between the funding and the star, but it was a vanity project. (I only figured it out by comparing a photo of Mrs. Tom Sawyer and Prudence Lyle.)

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The picture was first called The Girl and the Horses and later, Through Eyes of Men. The now-lost film was sold on a states-rights basis. The plot showed how Taylor earned his reputation as the “master of melodrama;” here’s how the AFI Catalog recounts it:

One day, while on the beach, wealthy Franklyn Allen sees circus performer Leila Leighton cavorting in the surf and immediately falls in love. Leila, fearful of the knowledge that circus owner Berkaro has of her early life, discourages the romance. Tormented, Leila takes Little Billy, a child performer in the circus for whom she is caring, places him in a convent and disappears. Franklyn traces her to the circus, where she has gone after learning that Berkaro had lured Billy from the convent. Berkaro attempts to kidnap Leila and the boy, but Franklyn chases him through the surf on horseback and, in the ensuing struggle, the circus owner is killed. His death elicits Leila’s confession that she was the only surviving member of the royal house of Hesthonia, after the rest of her family was murdered in a coup. Her terrible secret thus revealed, she is accepted by Franklyn’s family and marries the man she loves.

It didn’t play in Los Angeles until 1921 when it was on a double bill with The Daughter of Devil Dan. The paper didn’t review it.

Though Motion Picture News mentioned A.B. Griffith had plans to build a studio in Dallas, that never happened and Through the Eyes of Men was Prudence Lyle’s only film. Eventually Emily Griffith Sawyer moved back to Texas, split up with her husband and married Richard Ommo Meents, a geology professor. She had two more children, became a clerk to the Texas Senate and died in 1979. Charles Taylor became the head of the scenario department at Morosco Studio and went on to direct The Half-Breed (1922) for them. He died in 1942.

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Tally’s Broadway: no germs there!

Meanwhile, the Health Commissioner and the City Council dithered over whether they should re-open the theaters or not (the title of the article on Thursday was “Ban Off and On Again”). No one doubted that one fine day it would end, and Grace Kingsley wrote a cheerful article on the improvements the owners had made during their involuntary break:

You won’t know those familiar places, the theaters and picture houses, when you enter them again! A spring housecleaning in New England is an orgy of dirt compared to the drastic cleansing which the city’s theaters have undergone during the space of time when King Flu has been reigning on the Rialto and the theaters were merely dark holes in the wall. And as for decorations, every theater owner has apparently been doing nothing but cudgel his brains and read The Theater Beautiful Magazine.

Most of the theaters were repainted and replaced their carpets and draperies; several installed new lighting and ventilation systems. T.L. Tally of Tally’s Broadway assured the public that “germs would have no more use for his house than a mermaid would have for a buttonhook.” So they were all ready to go, just as soon as the Council gave the word.

Elsewhere in the paper, the holidays were just around the corner, and The Hub wanted to help you get ready for Thanksgiving:

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It just doesn’t have the ring of Easter bonnet. If only Irving Berlin had written about it…

 

* Yes really. Thomas Lyle Sawyer was born in 1881, five years after the book came out but three years before Huck Finn. It was just bad luck—his parents would have had no idea it would become a literary classic.

 

“Here and There,” Motion Picture News, December 11, 1920, p. 4443.

“Moving Pictures,” Variety, February 28, 1918, p.58.

“Wealthy Texan Forms New Producing Company,” Motion Picture News, March 1, 1919, p. 1330.

 

Week of November 2nd, 1918

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Cartoons by Ted Gale

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote abut how people were occupying themselves in Los Angeles without any public amusements. Some activities were exactly what you would expect:

Everybody, young people included, are conspiring to swamp the Public Library and all the branch libraries. It is reported that 4000 more books were sent out from the general circulation department alone last week than were given out during the corresponding week of last year.

She reported that the most popular subjects were history and war. In addition, bookstores were doing a booming business and magazine sales were up. Bookstores were also selling a lot of a surprising item:

Many persons are buying decks of cards with the statement they want them to tell fortunes with! No wonder, either, is it, that in these hazardous days, we should want to find out what’s going to happen to us and ours.

She mentioned that “it’s the open season for self-made music” sales and rentals of pianos were strong, and “the ukulele disorder” was becoming unusually severe. There was a great run on phonographs and player pianos as well.

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Here’s how Ted Gale amused himself

She pointed out one problem I hadn’t considered:

How are the women managing to enjoy themselves, now that there are no women’s clubs, and, what with the dance halls and theaters closed, nothing really left to reform?

Oh dear! I suppose they could always go pick on the librarians (I’m glad she didn’t suggest that). Schools were closed, too, but it seems that kids weren’t suffering at all:

These schooless days are just one long, joyous picnic for the youngsters with neighborhoods resounding to high adventure. They’re playing war mostly, it seems, with a real neighborhood war breaking out over and anon because naturally nobody wants to be the Germans. And when they can be persuaded to work at all, the youngsters demand exorbitant pay of mother for jobs done around the house, with threats if she doesn’t pay up promptly they’ll go out and get the “flu” on her!

But romance youth simply must have! Our young lovers should worry that a lot of park cops have got the “flu.” Instead of holding hands in the back of a dark picture theater the park pepper trees* are now the setting for love’s young dream.

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Kingsley remembered another group that wasn’t suffering, as well:

Some people, of course, are having the time of their lives right now—those folks that have more fun gargling and snuffing and telling how they feel when they get up in the morning, and about that queer feeling in their eyelids when they go to bed.

I don’t know which of her relatives was a hypochondriac, but I suspect it was a near one.

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Kingsley’s regular columns were filled with optimistic plans for the future:

  • D.W. Griffith was working on a “governmental propaganda photodrama” that was to be as big as Birth of a Nation, documenting the current war. It was to include Congress passing the conscription bill, scenes from training camps, and scenes of American men in action. It would also introduce Griffith’s latest discovery, Carol Dempster. The end of the war didn’t deter Griffith; this became The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919).
  • Mary Pickford bought the rights to the play Daddy Long-Legs for $40,000. It was her next film and the first made under her new First National contract.
  • Alexander Pantages intended to station shows of six acts in each of the forty towns where he had theaters, so they’d be ready to go as soon as they reopened. He also had twenty emergency acts in Chicago, ready to travel, in case any were disrupted.
  • The Theater Owners Association adopted a resolution for a “house-cleaning” of the industry. Kingsley wrote: “The scope of the house cleaning includes not only the elimination of bad stories from moral, technical and literary standpoints, but applies also to advertising methods, to the abolition of wild-cat productions, the elimination of overproduction, bad direction, etc.” This was all quickly forgotten once they got back to work.

 

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Sunset Blvd. was lined with pepper trees in 1900

*I learned that pepper trees then are what palm trees are now to LA. I had no idea! KCET has an interesting article about them, “When Pepper Trees Shaded the Sunny Southland.

 

 

Week of October 26th, 1918

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The Million-Dollar Theater stayed empty

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on how theater owners were getting through the influenza epidemic-caused closure:

Landlord owners of theaters are waiving collection of rents of theaters during the closing of their houses due to the prevalence of Spanish influenza, according to reports given in at the meeting of the Theater Owners’ Association, held yesterday [October 28th] at the offices of William H. Clune in the Knickerbocker Building, at which a majority of members was present. That is, 95 per cent of said landlords have already asserted their willingness to forego collections, and the other 5 per cent are said to be wavering on the side of generosity. Authorities have also waived license money, and payment for film has been rebated by film exchanges.

The members of the association are taking the closing situation with cheerful optimism, especially as they feel certain that business will be heavier that ever as soon as the theaters reopen. All report that their houses have been fumigated and thoroughly cleaned, and that in many cases managers have taken the opportunity to have their theaters entirely renovated from top to bottom, including dressing-rooms and lounging rooms, with installation of additional ventilating apparatus.

Kingsley didn’t mention what the TOA was doing behind the scenes to change the order. According to historian N. Pieter M. O’Leary, they were its most vocal opponents and had been working hard to influence the city council to reopen the theaters, sending petitions since the beginning of the shutdown. He wrote:

Within days of the passage of the closing order, the Owners’ Association circulated a petition arguing that the “partial closing law” was failing to check the number of influenza cases in Los Angeles because the public was “permitted and encouraged to congregate in all places other than theaters, churches and schools.” The petition called for the “closing of all places of business except drug stores, groceries and meat markets.” Arguing that their industry was unfairly closed, the Theater Owners believed that if a complete closing order were implemented, a speedier recovery could be made, which would allow all theaters to reopen sooner.

The city council didn’t buy their argument, and the theaters were to remain closed for a little over a month more.

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Brunton Studios, 1918. Amazingly, movies are still being made there — Paramount took over the property in 1926.

After two weeks of being stuck in the office, Kingsley escaped with a trip to Brunton Studios, which was a lot that rented out stages to independent producers. She wrote an optimistic piece:

Even though at some of the picture studios they’re sadly warbling “if the flu doesn’t get you, the grocery bill must!” while lifeless stages lift skeleton fingers of framework pointing regretfully up at a sky full of sunshine, many of the studios are beginning to get ready for work, including the Goldwyn studios at Culver City, Metro and others.

And as for Brunton Studios, they’re as busy as a gopher on a tin roof! In fact, out there in the sweet sunshine of Hollywood the broad acres of the Brunton Studios look like a cross section of this little old globe, with their colorful bits of pretty nearly every country in the world represented in its picturesque sets.

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Kitty Gordon

Among the films in production were a Dustin Farnum western, A Man in the Open, a Bessie Barriscale comedy, Two-Gun Betty, and a Paris-set crime drama written by Sarah Bernhardt, It Happened in Paris. Kingsley’s best anecdote came from the set of Adele, which was one of the last war movies made. Directed by Wallace Worsely, it starred Kitty Gordon and Wedgewood Nowell:

Having been thoroughly choked and kissed by Villian Nowell, director Worsley informs Miss Gordon she’s got to kill him early tomorrow morning.

“What? Kill a man before breakfast?” exclaims Miss Gordon. “Why, I never do!”

So the epidemic didn’t stop independents from working. However, Guy Price, Kingsley’s rival at the Los Angeles Herald mentioned a detail she left off:

Mr. Robert Brunton isn’t taking any chances. For instance, out at his Melrose Avenue studios, he has stationed at the gate a Red Cross nurse with a 100 per cent anti-flu spray, and every person who enters, employee or visitor, gets a generous sprinkling. Some of the actors—the stars are not immune either—are doused five of six times daily, each dousing representing the number of times they exit and enter the studio.

He didn’t say what the spray was, but it had “an odor that would asphyxiate a horse.”

Influenza was causing other problems:

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This was one that hadn’t occurred to me!

 

 

 

Pieter M. O’Leary, “The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly, v.86 no.4 (Winter 2004), pp. 397-8. (He found the petitions in the Los Angeles City Archives.)

Guy Price, “Footlights and Flickers,” Los Angeles Herald, November 2, 1918.

 

 

 

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.

turnintheroad

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 October 12th, 1918

 

From Photoplay (January 1919), by R.F. James

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a major announcement from a film studio: because of the influenza epidemic, they would be shutting down production for a month. Frank Garbutt, vice president and West Coast manager of Lasky and Morosco Studios, wrote in a letter to her:

All of the leading producers of the country have agreed to shut down for the month, and those stars who are now finishing will take their month’s lay-off on completion of their present pictures, for the reason that to shut down in the middle of a picture would entail enormous and unnecessary loss. Our stars at Lasky and Morosco Studios will take four weeks lay-off, which in the case of those now working will commence on the completion of the pictures upon which they are engaged. In this way we will avoid the necessity of completely closing our studios, as the shut-downs will not come at all the same time, and this will enable us to keep many of the smaller people at work.

Influenza had a huge effect on the film industry. After the epidemic was over, Alfred A. Cohn in the fan magazine Photoplay (January 1919) described it:

To the stars, four weeks of idleness came as a relief. To the majority of the lesser lights it was more or less a hardship. Although the impression prevailed throughout the country that the manufacture of films had become extinct because of he ravages of the epidemic, actual figures indicate that the decrease in production was not more than forty percent.

campingout
Arbuckle kept working

A forty percent decrease is still a lot! Cohn said the shut-down happened because with theater closures, profits had been cut by two-thirds and all the banks were “using their spare change to help out the Liberty Loan drive,” so borrowing wasn’t possible. The studios simply had to stop spending money. The stars accepted a four-week vacation without pay, with the lost time tacked on to the end of their contracts. Lasky, Universal, Fox, Vitagraph, American, and World all followed the plan. Metro and Goldwyn were busy moving West, so they weren’t making films anyway. A few companies did not stop, including Sennett and Ince, while Roscoe Arbuckle kept shooting Camping Out on location at Catalina Island.

Photoplay summed up the epidemic’s effects in a box:

photoplay_summary

The IMDB has a more complete list of flu casualties from the film industry here.

Kingsley wrote about how much people missed the pictures:

Romance, comedy and thrills are all locked away in a little tin box, and all because that unpleasant autocrat, Spanish Flu, stalks the Rialto. Dear me, we never realized before how much of our romance was measured by the foot!

In 1918, most people had lived in a world without regular trips to the cinema, and they knew how to otherwise occupy themselves. But they’d gotten used to them. It’s a little like if the Internet was shut off for two months: most of us remember getting along without it but we really wouldn’t want to. Bloggers would have to go back to writing ‘zines (I think I can remember how to operate a mimeograph machine).

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Seattle, 1918

Live theater had also been banned, and Kingsley reported on how they were dealing with the uncertainty of how long it would last:

And then there are the playhouses and vaudeville shows. For the first time in twenty-five years there was no Monday show at the Orpheum yesterday. Nevertheless, all the new acts not already here will arrive this morning, in order to be in readiness in case the closing order should be rescinded this week; and in any case all acts on the Orpheum, also on the Pantages circuit, have been ordered to touch base in the town in which they are billed, whether they actually play there or not.

Unfortunately, theater actors were about to get an involuntary vacation too.

 

Kingsley knew that one day they’d go back to making movies, so on Sunday she wrote about trends in popular actresses, declaring the end of girlish heroines and beginning of roles for more robust women.

Dear, dear! How styles in girls do come and go! No girl can really feel sure of her popularity for a minute! I don’t mean, of course, the ordinary or lay girl, whose popularity isn’t measured by the pound. I mean the picture girl, the heroine of fillums. For now, it’s the Big Girl, the Gibson Girl, who has come back—who is to have her innings…Probably it’s the war that has done it, through some subtle subconscious workings in our national psychology. We like to think of the mothers of soldiers as husky ladies with deep chests and sturdy shoulders.

How we used to rave, didn’t we, over the curly-haired cuties—try to do our hair like theirs and everything. Why, the number of five-foot-eight girls with Mary Pickford curls was alone appalling. How excruciatingly cute we thought the pink-gingham ingénue when she biffed the villain over the head with a doughnut, and oh, was there ever anything so side-splittingly funny as the sun-bonneted cutie trying to milk a cow! But if she was ragged as well as cute—well, we just laid down and let her walk all over us.

She thought that some smaller women were going to stay popular because they were artists, like Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, and Dorothy Gish, but the rest were fading. However, Kingsley’s crystal ball was faulty. They weren’t replaced by big girls or even adult women — the jaunty flapper was coming soon. Some, like Colleen Moore, were former curly-haired cuties. Popular taste is unpredictable.

 

 

 

Alfred A. Cohn, “The Spanish Invasion,” Photoplay, January 1919, p. 76, 97.