One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an ambitious new reform project:
The Motion Picture Co-Operative Association, established by J.A. Quinn, and of which he has been elected president, and which embraces all branches of the industry, exhibitors, producers, distributors, directors, authors, actors and camera men, is now, according to Quinn’s announcement, fully under way, with offices in the Fay Building. This association is the direct culmination of the general upheaval of conditions in the motion picture industry during the past few months, and is established to regulate the entire industry, so that better pictures, stories and casts will be the rule.
One part of the MPCA particularly interested Kingsley:
One of the most important and comprehensive departments to be established by Mr. Quinn is the “service department.” Through the co-operation of exhibitors all over the country, a system of reports will be made upon each production, covering the value of the picture relative to its rental, and the drawing power of each actor.
People in the film industry knew that collecting data would be useful, but nobody had attempted to compile this kind of industry-wide box office statistics. Quinn seems to have quickly given up on the idea; it wasn’t mentioned in any subsequent articles. It was more work than he realized, probably.
Nevertheless, the industry still wanted and needed to know what was selling tickets. No organization attempted this enormous task, instead, the trade paper Variety took it on. In the 1920’s they reported on estimated weekly grosses from individual big-city theaters. Their reporters got the numbers from either cooperative house managers or estimates from rival house managers or sales managers, so it wasn’t necessarily scientific. They had a Tuesday deadline, so they took what they could get. In the 1930’s, both Variety and the Motion Picture Almanac compiled an annual list of film grosses. In 1946, Variety began publishing a weekly National Box Office Survey with data from 25 American cities. In 1976 a company called Centralized Grosses was founded, which, after a series of acquisitions, has become Comscore which compiles box office data today.
However, Quinn continued with his efforts to make “better pictures.” His vague program initially sounded good – who doesn’t want better films — and he signed up lots of famous people to his advisory boards including D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Mary Pickford, Maurice Tourneur, Lois Weber, Douglas Fairbanks and Mabel Normand.
Things began to go South at the MPCA’s second meeting in July held in New York. Quinn stood up and declared the motion picture industry was “the biggest joke in the world” and “rotten to the core.” He spelled out exactly how he wanted to change things in a letter to the Los Angeles Times editor, published August 3rd:
The business improved till about four years ago when we had such reliable production companies as the Biograph and Vitagraph organizations, which made a specialty of producing one and two reel features, and were delivering better stories, more sincerely and convincingly explained in one and two reels then they are now telling in five and eight reels.
There is not one producer or director in the moving-picture industry who does not need supervision and we stand ready to take three of any of their pictures which they have made in rotation and before a representative committee show where the pictures can greatly be improved by cutting, re-editing, recasting and in most cases, entire reconstruction.
He was certainly confident that he had all the answers. He also thought that everyone was getting paid too much, not just undeserving actors (he loathed the star system) but also supervisors and writers. He blamed the end of the Motion Picture Patents Company* and the rise of independent producers for the current “hog eat hog” situation: “fortune after fortune was, and is now being, burned up by the different independent producers in their present attempt to bunk the public and exhibitors into believing that each one was or is better than the other.”
Quinn ended his speech in New York by shouting “They think they can stop me from telling what I know about pictures, but I’m started now, and by God, the only way they can stop me now is to kill me.”
Meeting attendees weren’t impressed. The Exhibitor’s Herald reporter observed, “nobody in the industry showed any disposition to stop him by killing him or any other method.” Jesse Goldberg, general manager of Frohman Amusement Corporation, stood up and said, “There is no more iniquity in the studios of the picture business than there is in any place else in the world…You talk of the public wanting clean films. Look at what Yankee Doodle in Berlin did at the Broadway. The box office was broken down and women fainted in the crush. And why? Because your clean picture-loving public knew that a number of pretty girls in abbreviated bathing suits would appear. If you want work to do, change the taste of the public.”
Wid’s Daily also weighed in on the meeting, concluding, “you cannot standardize anything—not morals, not drama, not box office receipts. You can only be tolerant and not fail to much in appreciation of what seems to hold the attention of about twenty-five million people who patronize every day the motion picture theaters of America.” This seems like useful advice for all reformers!
Quinn kept going, but he decided try a different angle. In 1920, he changed the name of his organization to The Motion Picture and Theatrical League for Better Pictures. It aimed to “stimulate the production of better pictures by the force of concentrated, organized public support of meritorious films and by the discouragement of untruthful advertising.” This scheme seems to have fizzled out in 1922.
John Archibald Quinn was quite a character. Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada in 1880, he became a theater owner in Arizona before he moved to Los Angeles in 1911 where he ran four theaters. Incidentally, while he was shouting for reform he was divorcing his wife of 16 years, Lena Wooton Quinn, to marry Lillie Riemann as soon as it was final in December 1919 (she divorced him in 1926).
After the Better Films project ended, he came back to Los Angeles and became the director of the West Side Improvement Association, whose aim was to coordinate business development from Main Street to the ocean. This didn’t go well, and in November 1929 he was in debtor’s court, stating that he lived on borrowed money and he hadn’t had a salaried position in ten years. At that time he was also involved in a bizarre and unsuccessful scheme to get the Chief of Police thrown out of office with false testimony from a French dancer. In the 1930 Census he was living in Alhambra with no employment but in the 1940 census, he was in Sierra Madre and said he was the director of the Los Angeles Tax Payers Association. He died in 1945.
Kingsley mentioned an unusual potential vaudeville act:
Grape juice seems destined to take an upward flight in popularity and price. William J. Bryan, described by one New York publication as “Nebraska’s continuous spotlight,” is to go into vaudeville, receiving $2500 per week. He will open in New York, at the Palace, early next month, and is said to be signed up for a coast-to-coast tour.
Bryan, a temperance advocate, former presidential candidate and ex-Secretary of State did no such thing. Variety chased down the story’s origin: “The negotiations for the appearance of William Jennings Bryan did not proceed beyond their preliminary stage, which amounted to Evangeline Weed** submitting Bryan’s name to the big time managers, who rejected it.” It’s fun to speculate on what would his act have been like. He was a famous orator, but vaudeville managers plainly thought that politics didn’t fit among the comics and singers. He didn’t start his crusade against teaching evolution until the 1920’s, so that wouldn’t have been part of it.
Kingsley had a chat with Syd Chaplin, and got the first hints of a story that would be big in the coming weeks.
Never before in the short but eventful history of the Big Five, which includes D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, have the members of the world famed aggregate been so closely affiliated and so strongly set on carrying out their plan of organization as at present. “We are at present merely working out the details of our plan,” said Mr. Chaplin yesterday, “and we expect to have a detailed statement to make within a few days.
This was the founding of United Artists, and there will be more about it.
*The MPPC was broken up in 1915 because it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. This is the first time I’ve seen someone lamenting its end.
**Evangeline Weed ran a “personality school” to train actors, and was an aspiring Broadway producer. (Harvard Magazine, December 1919, p.31)
“All Off for Bryan,” Variety, January 17, 1919, p. 1.
“Another ‘Movement,’” Wid’s Daily, March 24, 1920, p.1.
“Effort to Ruin Davis Revealed,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1929.
“Exhibitor’s Views on Film Producing,” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1919.
Golden, Herb. “How box office reporting was built,” Sime’s Site, http://www.simesite.net:80/muggs.asp?articleid=313
“Groups Unite on the West Side,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1924.
“I Don’t Know Where I Live,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1929.
“Limelight Gradually Dimming on J.A. Quinn and his Reform Plans,” Exhibitors Herald and Motography, July 19, 1919, p. 30.
“Quinn-Goldberg,” Wid’s Daily, July 14, 1919, p. 1, 4.