Week of March 16th, 1918

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed D.W. Griffith in his office at the Fine Arts studio. He described what women were doing for the war effort in England, and he had some surprising ideas, for someone known for his girlish Victorian characters:

Maybe it sounds strange to you; but, you see, women are taking the places of men wherever possible, even right behind the firing line…I cannot tell you how much the men appreciate it and respect them for their cheerful unselfishness. They are even serving as officers’ chauffeurs, both in France and in England. I rode behind one, and she beat the mechanic at his own game in an emergency. A fine spirit of camaraderie is growing out of it all—a spirit I feel sure will be a source of permanent understanding between men and women.

Women are becoming economically independent at a great rate. What will the men do when they get back home? Are they going to be content to keep on letting women run things? Well, mark you this, I heard a British Tommy say one day ‘Bless the bloomin’ women, they’re doin’ all right! Let ‘em keep on, I say. What do we care, so the work’s done right.

The brightest outlook for women due to this war is—that they will understand. That’s been the real handicap and the unhappiness of women—they haven’t known life as it really is. The war is teaching it to them. The daughters of this war will understand.

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Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps mechanics at work on a car engine at Abbeville, France

Kingsley was too polite to question his idea that only fighting, pain and suffering is ‘real life.’ The war did temporarily open up new job opportunities for women, but Griffith was too optimistic: after the men came home, they were dismissed from their jobs. There wasn’t much change in assumptions about gender roles, either, according to history professor Susan Grayzel, who wrote “New forms of social interaction between the sexes and across class lines became possible, but expectations about family and domestic life as the main concern of women remained unaltered.”

 

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The Fair Barbarian

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Fair Barbarian. This “highly diverting and amusing comedy” told:

“how a sleepy town in England called Slowbridge—‘where the only thing that travels fast is gossip’—was jolted into the knowledge it is alive, and speeded into high by an American girl…To be sure this apostle of pep from Bloody Gulch, Montana, does a few things not usually done in good society, such as breaking a memorial window in a spirit of girlish glee still she’s so adorably pretty and elfish you’d forgive he if she drank all the communion wine when it is passed!”

The film’s press book helpfully pointed out that it was based on the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett, just like Mary Pickford’s recent success, The Little Princess. Its star, Vivian Martin, usually played parts that were similar to Mary Pickford’s. When films about spunky girls became less popular, she returned to her earlier job: Broadway actress. She later married Arthur Samuels, the editor of Harpers Bazaar. The film has survived at the Cinematheque Francais.

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No need to hurry! (The Bell Boy, 1918)

Buster Keaton once told interviewer George Pratt in that “as a rule, Schenck never knew when I was shooting or what I was shooting. He just went to a preview.” But Kingsley reported that he wasn’t a completely laissez-faire producer:

One of the subjects for which Joe Schenck came West, it develops, is to ascertain whether Fatty Arbuckle may not be speeded up in his work. Mr. Arbuckle, it appears, has been making only eight or ten pictures a year, and Mr. Schenk has discovered that he could easily dispose of Arbuckle comedies one every two of three weeks, that in fact, the public is clamoring for them.

“The makers of comedy are in luck,” said Mr. Schenck yesterday. “So far from the war having damaged the sale of really good comedies, the demand for them has increased. Naturally this is so, when the world is looking for something cheerful to take its mind off the world war, its excitements and depressions.”

Whether Mr. Arbuckle can be persuaded that art can be speeded up, remains to be seen.

She was right to be skeptical: Arbuckle released 6 shorts in 1918 and 7 in 1919. But they’re still being enjoyed by audiences, so they were good value for money!

 

 

 

 

 

Week of January 6, 1917

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Lois Weber and her husband/studio manager Philip Smalley

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kinglsey observed that any movie star worthy of the name had gotten her own company. However:

the last word in screen progress is said, when the announcement is made that a motion-picture director is to be installed in a separate studio, in order to work out individual ideals and ideas. Lois Weber, the world’s best-known woman motion-picture director, sets the pace. On the 1st of February or thereabouts, she will take possession of her own studio in Hollywood, where it is said she is to have full swing in the development of many original ideas which she has in mind. She will be backed by eastern capital, some of it rumored to be connected with Universal.

Weber had been directing films since 1911. Her work included the first American feature directed by a woman, The Merchant of Venice (1914) as well as several films about controversial social issues like capital punishment, drug abuse, poverty and contraception. In 1916, she became the first (and for a long time, only) woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association.

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Trade ad, 1921

Weber’s new venture was a success for several years. Her films about marriage and domestic life were popular until tastes changed in the early 1920’s and audiences wanted films a about flappers and fun, not social justice. If you want to know more about Weber, film historian Shelley Stamp has written a lot about her including an entry at the Women Film Pioneers Project.

Kingsley had an unusual favorite film this week: a one-reel travelogue. She wrote:

Tally’s Broadway is featuring one this week that is based on an entirely new idea. Its views are those of the far northwest in winter, and these alone are sufficient to hold the enchanted attention of the lovers of travel pictures and of nature. But the subtle new feature is the introduction of a man and a dog. You don’t know anything about them: therefore they are full of interest, and you make up your own story about them. Whence do they come, and whither are they bound? What is their lonely mission in this ice-locked land? It’s very fascinating, indeed, and appeals to the imagination not deadened by the too obvious picture plots.

The man’s name was Robert C. Bruce and his dog was a Great Dane named Love. Land of Silence was his first film. He told Motion Picture Magazine in 1919 that he was a former lumber man and failed ranch owner from Washington state who studied how scenic pictures were made at his local movie theater. He hired a crew and they filmed his (and his dog’s) hike around Mount Adams. Pathe bought his film and his new career was launched.

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Bruce (1926)

Other critics admired it, too. Margaret I. MacDonald in Motion Picture World (March 31, 1917) said “it is unusually beautiful in subject and photography, and pictures a man and his dog wandering off into a land of mountains and snow, of mirror lakes and silence and peace…the picture is truly delightful.” Maitland Davies in the Los Angeles Tribune (January 9, 1917) was even more impressed, writing “in daily visits to the movie palaces during the last few years I have never found anything so impressively beautiful as The Land of Silence.”

Bruce went on to make almost 150 short travelogues between 1916 and 1934 for his own production company, distributed by Educational Films. Because they were shorts, they haven’t been included in the Film Survival Database so I don’t know how much of his work is still around. Land of Silence was such a success that he made two sequels, Me and My Dog (1917) and Hound of the Hills (1918). He also worked for Paramount where he shot documentary shorts. You have heard his son, Robert C. Bruce, Jr.: he was a voice actor and the narrator on many Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.

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When she saw The Price of Silence this week, a relative newcomer caught her eye, Lon Chaney:

The day of the beautiful motion-picture hero, with the long dreamy eyelashes, the marcelled hair and the be-dimpled chin, is past. It’s the virile one who gets away with the honors now-a-days. Not that Lon Chaney isn’t good-looking enough, but after all it’s his strength of personality, his conveying a sense of power that will get him the praise he deserves for his fine work in this picture.

Kingsley’s predication that beautiful actors were on the way out still hasn’t come true, but she was right about Chaney’s acting skills. The official Lon Chaney website says that his first critical acclaim wasn’t until 1919 for The Miracle Man, but Kingsley noticed him much sooner. It’s also an unusual review, because later critics usually praised his versatility and technical skills, not his virility. The Price of Silence has been preserved in France at the Archives du Film du CNC.

 

This week, Kingsley did something she rarely did: she wrote about a film she absolutely hated. Redeeming Love was “a cheaply sensational, unreal bit of dramatic piffle.” Kathlyn Williams, in her first film for the Morosco studio, played a wronged girl involved in a thoroughly predictable plot “we knew that, following her sumptuous life in the gambling hell, she would don her misery cloak and make her way to a place beneath the inevitable stained-glass window, where her beloved held forth of a Sunday morning.” That beloved, played by Thomas Holding, “is a whining, white-livered nincompoop with as much blood as your leather pocketbook…the only merciful thing about that picture is that we couldn’t hear the sermons.” This film has been preserved at the Library of Congress.

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Coming soon!

The Keaton countdown continues. On the 10th, Kingsley reported that Roscoe Arbuckle would be leaving the Keystone Company on February 1st to go to New York and start a new company with his partner Joe Schenck. Buster’s film debut is only a few months away.