Week of January 6, 1917

loiswebercamera
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.

weberproductions
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.

bruce_1926
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.

price_poster

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.

comingsoon
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.

Week of October 28th, 1916

 

One hundred years ago this week, on Thursday Grace Kingsley reported that Sid Grauman was planning an “added attraction” on election night at his theater, the Majestic: the presidential election returns (gathered from a private telegraph wire) would be displayed during the musical production, A Night at the World’s Fair. The next day, the Mason Operahouse announced that they would also have a direct wire, and patrons would be able to enjoy orchestra music from seven to midnight while the returns flashed on the screen. By Sunday, all of the theaters announced they would include election news in their programs.

crowdlat
The crowd at the L.A. Times building, election night, 1916

In 1916 there weren’t many ways to hear the results of the presidential election. People who lived close enough to New York could have heard the first radio broadcast of election results from Dr. Lee De Forest’s lab. But in Los Angeles, besides the theaters and a few restaurants with telegraph lines, people could go to the L.A. Times Building at First and Broadway or to the branch office on Spring Street to see the results projected on screens, or they could telephone the newspaper office for them. The next day the paper reported immense crowds of nearly seven thousand people at each location had gathered to read the bulletins. They also put out multiple editions of the paper throughout the night. Their rival, the Evening Herald, also had a stereopticon bulletin board in front of their office as well as extra night newspapers.

However, this year all of the election watchers were disappointed: it was a very close race between the incumbent Woodrow Wilson and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, and nobody knew the final results until the following Wednesday, November 15th. In the November 8th 5 AM edition of the Times, they reported that Hughes had apparently been elected, but they warned that people should wait until more of the returns had been counted. This turned out to be good advice, because the election wasn’t decided until California finished counting ballots. When they did, Wilson won by the state by 3800 votes so he got the state’s 13 electoral votes and won the election.

Kingsley herself wasn’t allowed to vote. California women got the right to vote in local and state elections in 1911, but federal female suffrage didn’t come until 1920.

jwk
J. Warren Kerrigan

Kingsley reported that star J. Warren Kerrigan quit in the middle of filming Lois Weber’s  The Mysterious Mrs. Musselwhite when his contract with Universal expired. They hadn’t come to an agreement about a new contract because Kerrigan wanted more money than they were offering. Universal said that there was “an understanding” that he’d complete the film but Kerrigan said that he’d given twenty days notice and he warned them that they probably wouldn’t finish it in time. According to Variety, Universal sued Kerrigan for $8,000 for breach of verbal agreement, but they never reported on the outcome. The suit was probably dropped.

Kerrigan’s hardball negotiation paid off: he left Universal and got his own production company with Paralta Plays. While his new studio was being built in early 1917, he went on a four month long tour of the United States to keep his name before the public. That’s when he made a comment that damaged his career. In Denver, a reporter asked if he was going to serve in the military and Kerrigan said no, because first “the great mass of men who aren’t good for anything else” should go, not artists like himself. He did continue to make films until 1924 (and he wasn’t drafted), but it hurt his popularity. He had invested in real estate and annuities, so he was able to live comfortably with his partner, James Vincent.

ford-maclaren
The Mysterious Mrs. M. with Harrison Ford and Mary MacLaren

Lois Weber recast her film with up-and-coming actor Harrison Ford and re-shot all of Kerrigan’s scenes. It was re-named The Mysterious Mrs. M; Motion Picture News thought it was “a delightful business builder” when it opened in February 1917. The first two reels survive at the Library of Congress.

enid_markey
Enid Markey

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was War’s Women, (aka The Despoiler or The Awakening) which was a melodrama about the horrors war inflicts on women that was “simple and elemental in its appeal and told with luminous clearness.” Enid Markey starred as a girl who sacrifices herself for the safety of the other women in her community, and Kingsley thought she “raises herself to the topmost rank of screen actresses.”

Markey didn’t get to be at the top rank of actresses, but she did have an exceptionally long career, from originating the role of the Jane in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) to playing Gomer Pyle’s grandmother in television. War’s Women is a lost film.

stuartholmes
Stuart Holmes

Kingsley’s funniest review this week was for Love and Hate, a melodrama about a homewrecker:

Stuart Holmes, the villain de lux of the films, has the proud distinction of being hated and knocked about by more fascinating screen ladies than any other film villain…By the by, Mr. Holmes now wears a toupee, probably the result of always loving the heroine, who, while a sweet woman in other ways, invariably spurns his affection. He’s a good-looking fellow, too, with lots of brains. If he could just keep from falling in love with the heroine, who is usually some other man’s wife, and get a girl of his own, he’d not always have to die in the last reel.

Coincidentally, Mary Murillo wrote Love and Hate and just a few weeks ago she’d written Kingsley favorite film of the week, which shows that a screenwriter can’t win ‘em all. It’s a lost film.

Like Markey, Stuart Holmes also had an exceptionally long career. He played villains through the silent era then moved into bit parts in talkies and television, appearing in over 500 films. He was also a sculptor and his work was on display at the Masquer’s Club and at the Oceanside, Bell and Claremont post offices.

 

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.

pickford_less

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.

dianefollies
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.