Angry Young Men: Week of March 13th, 1920

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Theda Bara in Kathleen Mavourneen,

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned a shocking incident at a movie screening:

No infuriated and excited Irishmen have torn holes in the screen of the Symphony, nor smashed the projecting machine as they did in San Francisco, on the occasion of the first showing of Kathleen Mavourneen, featuring Theda Bara, where they were incited by the showing of the home of an Irish family wherein the family horse, chickens and goat were kept in the house.

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Yes, the horse was in the house

There had been a riot at the Sun Theater in San Francisco on February 8th. Here’s some of the report from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Objecting to scenes of dire poverty in Ireland as portrayed by Theda Bara in Kathleen Mavourneen at the Sun Theater, a gang of young men attempted to wreak the theater, smashed the projecting machines and destroyed or took away the films last night…The rioters objected to scenes in the picture showing two pigs in parlors of Irish cottages, chickens fluttering on stairways and other examples of dire poverty on the Emerald Isle. At last night’s performance a number of young men ranging in age from 19 to 22, according to [theater manager Abe] Markowitz, secured seats in the gallery near the projecting room, and during the picture yelled their disapproval of the film.

When the picture was through one yelled “Get the picture,” and a crowd made a rush for the operating room. The operator [William Ulrich] was pinned to the wall, and with bundles of carbons the men smashed the machines and other machinery in the room… After smashing everything possible in the operating room, the crowd tore down railings, broke chairs, and did other damage in the upper gallery, and then ran carrying with them two reels of the picture. Two more reels were torn during the excitement.

Before the smashing started, one man said to Markowitz “I’m a member of the American Committee for Irish Freedom and we don’t want any of that ___ British propaganda shown in San Francisco,” but that group denied having anything to do with it. The police never caught the rioters. Markowitz estimated that the total damage added up to $5000. He withdrew Mavourneen and replaced it with Vagabond Luck, a “happy, snappy racing comedy.”

According to historian Gary D. Rhodes, this wasn’t the first Irish-American protest against the film. In October 1919 a group of organizations wrote a letter to the theater manager in Bayonne, New Jersey before it opened, and he decided not to show it. In November, the manager of the Palace Theater in Hartford, Connecticut cut the objectionable scenes and it screened without incident. Markowitz at the Sun previewed the film with two Catholic priests earlier in the day, and cut some scenes at their suggestions. But this censorship wasn’t enough to appease the young men.

So going out to the movies could sometimes be dangerous even in 1920. This appears to worst incident in the film’s run, though according to Bara biographer Eve Golden, some Irish-American groups also objected to a Jewish woman playing an Irish woman. The film soon disappeared and now it’s lost.

Kathleen Mavourneen was based on a popular Civil War era song that became a play. Kathleen is forced to abandon her true love and marry the local squire, then the true love is framed for murder and hung (ballads are awfully bleak!). There had already been three earlier films based on the story. The 1919 version had a twist: instead of ending tragically, it turned out it was all a dream she had on the eve of her wedding, and Kathleen marries her true love.

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In Los Angeles, the film ran without much comment. It was billed as part of a St. Patrick’s Week special that included Henry King’s rendition of the original song. Kingsley’s problem with the film was that it was boring:

Kathleen Mavourneen unfolds its peaceful five reels without anything more exciting happening to it than the orchestra. It’s in truth, a charming little story nicely produced and acted with many picturesque touches showing Theda as the very poor little colleen.

Which does prove the rioters’ point: it seems she thought that rooming with the livestock was ordinary Irish poverty. It least she didn’t much care for the film, preferring something else on the bill: “There’s a hilariously funny Christie comedy, which to my mind is the best part of the Symphony show this week.” Unfortunately, nobody said which one it was.

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Charles Brabin

Bara made only two more films for Fox Films, then she retired. Mavourneen was the first time she got to work with the man who became her husband in 1921, director Charles Brabin. They were happily married until her death in 1955.

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Constance Talmadge and Rockliffe Fellowes

Kingsley had much more fun this week at a film made by some of her favorite artists:

The lady in search of a perfect devil of a man is found embodied with happy whimsicality in the Constance Talmadge—Anita Loos—John Emerson combination of star and comedy at the Kinema this week. It is entitled In Search of a Sinner, and it shows all three of these clever ones at their clever best.

Though nobody can guess how it all happened, short of chloroforming her, we find Constance tied up at the beginning of the story with one of those awfully good dullards who gets her out of bed at 7 in the morning to play golf and on holidays takes her to the Metropolitan Museum. He dies ere long, however, and then, as a young widow, Constance starts out to find a wild man. Oh, of course, in New York; where else does wildness become, so to speak, so nicely finished? She finds him finally in a restaurant.

Alas, it turns out he’s a perfectly respectable friend of her brother-in-law so she needs to make him naughtier. She succeeds too well: ”he gets wilder than she intends and follows another wild woman off.” Oh no! Whatever will she do? Kingsley concluded: ”there are series of humorous complications and touches such as only Anita Loos and John Emerson know how to give, and Miss Talmadge, of course, as usual reflects their comedy brilliantly.”

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Other critics liked it too

It’s been preserved at UCLA and at the Library of Congress, but it hasn’t been released on DVD. You don’t suppose she marries him?

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Bebe Daniels kept fit

Physical fitness has always been important for performers. Kingsley visited a class teaching the latest fad for Hollywood actresses: classical dance. One afternoon at the Theodore Kosloff ‘s school she saw Alla Nazimova, Gloria Swanson, Bessie Love, Ruth Stonehouse, Bebe Daniels and May Allison all “learning to express the poetry of their souls.” Kingsley observed:

If you would be an up-to-the-minute star, go and study pantomime and classic dancing! That’s what many of our most famous screen luminaries are doing these days.

Honestly, it now appears that unless you can go up on your toes without falling over on your nose you’re in no condition to promise the beautiful hero with the Catalina-seal hair that you will wait for him undo death, or tell the villain where to head to.

All of the actresses were enthusiastic about their studies. Bebe Daniels said, “Why, he can teach you to express in a couple of kicks and a nod of the head even such abstractions as that your mother is a Methodist and your father a Democrat!”

Kingsley concluded with a secret: “Kosloff also has another ‘prospect.’ Sh! He’s Fatty Arbuckle!”

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Roscoe Arbuckle already knew how to dance.

So fitness fads have always been a part of Hollywood. Learning classical dance was certainly less extreme than the muscle-building regimes of modern Marvel stars.

 

 

 

“Mob Raids Sun Theater: Irish Film Wrecked,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 1920.

Gary D. Rhodes, “Irish American Film Audiences, 1915-1930,” Post Script, June 22, 2013.

Vagabond Luck New Film at the Sun,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 12, 1920.

 

Week of July 15th, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had heard news about D.W. Griffith’s upcoming release:

The name of the big feature film which David Griffith has had in course of production for over a year, which he has called The Mother and the Law, is said to have been changed to Intolerance. The picture is nearly ready for public showing. Nothing has so far been made public regarding the feature. Huge mystery has surrounded its making. If an attaché of the Griffith studio was asked anything about it, he would look hurriedly to right and left and say “Oh, you mustn’t say anything about that.” A worker caught developing some film the other day turned pale, and hurriedly shooed everybody from the room.

Griffith and his staff had done a remarkably good job of keeping a lid on all information about the film, judging by the articles available on Lantern. In 1915 there were reports that some prison scenes were actually filmed at San Quentin, and on January 1st, 1916 Motion Picture News ran a story about the “interesting rumors…regarding a series of huge special masterpieces which may issue from the Triangle Studio.” Not everything they heard ended up in Intolerance; one film was to be about the life and death of Sardanapalus, a profligate Assyrian monarch. However, they’d also heard that there was a prolog depicting the fall of Babylon, which was a major episode in the final film.

Kinglsey didn’t get to review it for the Times when it opened in Los Angeles on October 16th, but Harry Carr did and said “David Wark Griffith has made his place secure as one of the towering geniuses of the world.” The rest of his review was equally rapturous, with words like tremendous, gripping, and amazing. Kingsley interviewed Griffith as few days later, and he did his best to say it wasn’t at all high brow, it was mostly a love story (he wanted to sell tickets, after all).

Her favorite film of the week was Masque of Life. It loomed

like a beacon above the commonplaceness which fill our screens week after week. And this in spite of many crudities of staging and directing. Even Mack Sennett will have to look to his laurels when it comes to that throat-gripping, hair-raising scene where the circus girl climbs the brick smokestack many hundred feet above the highest buildings, and rescues the squirming, kicking baby which a baboon has placed on the very top edge of the smokestack…And the story. Real human drama, with the action growing, as all real human drama does from out the men and women themselves, with no resort to petty superficial makeshifts of plot.

At least it did until the end, which she thought was improbably happy. Masque of Life was an edited-for-American-audiences version of an Italian film, Il Circo della Morte, which still exists at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome. That she barely mentioned where the film came from shows how easily films could cross borders.

It was a slow week for films otherwise. She did think that the acting in Lois Weber’s Shoes was good, but the character motivation were improbable (an impoverished girl turns to prostitution to get a pair of shoes) She didn’t like Douglas Fairbanks’ Good Bad Man but it was partially redeemed by his grin. And Chaplin’s The Vagabond, held over for a second week, was beginning to grow on her. She found it a relief after slogging through the melodrama of The Greater Will, in which a girl is hypnotized and tricked into marriage.

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Kingsley wrote that John Emerson had left Triangle to direct Mary Pickford at Famous Player/Lasky, with the hope that he’ll find better stories for her. She was reportedly unhappy at Lasky because she was given inferior ones. He did direct her next film, Less Than the Dust, which was about an abandoned English girl raised in India who returns to England. When it came out in November Kingsley praised the “all-around excellence of the photoplay.” Emerson, with his wife Anita Loos, went on to write comedies for Pickford’s future husband, Douglas Fairbanks.

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Diane of the Follies

Kingsley got to talk to Lillian Gish, who, after only four years in movies, was already tired of the way she’d been pigeonholed.

Lillian Gish is appearing in Diane of the Follies at Fine Arts studio, under the direction of Christy Cabanne. Miss Gish plays the title role, that of a chorus girl. She declares it is entirely different from any she has ever assumed. “I hold the record as champion deserted wife in the films,” said Miss Gish. “I counted up the other day and find I’ve been deserted fifteen times. In this play, I’m delighted to say, I leave my husband flat. And there’s no villain to pursue me either., which, of course, will make it rather lonely at first, but I shall get used to it in time.

Unfortunately, critics weren’t as happy. Thomas C. Kennedy in Motography thought that Gish’s acting was fine, but the story was terrible, and Peter Milne in Motion Picture News agreed, writing “just why the Fine Arts scenario department unearthed the story presented in Diane of the Follies is not exactly clear, judging from the ultimate effect created by the picture.” The film was written by D.W. Griffith under a pseudonym, and comedy really wasn’t his strong suit. It’s a lost film, so we can’t see for ourselves.

Kingsley reported one story that wouldn’t happen in 2016. Peggy Custer, actress at Universal and Gen. George Custer’s great-niece, was sent a gift by an admirer: a cow and her calf. Luckily she was living on a ranch at Lankershim with her aunt, actress Lule Warrenton, and she was able to send them there. Peggy Custer married cinematographer Jack MacKenzie in May 1917 and quit acting.