Week of October 6th, 1917

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Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance, vacationing in Hawaii, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Charlie Chaplin about his future ambitions. He had no film to promote and was between jobs: he’d just finished his last film for Mutual and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii, after which he would start working for First National. They didn’t mention movies at all, and he seemed to be quite happy to talk about other subjects. He spoke about what he hoped to do in the future:

Chaplin’s big ambition, confided to me the other day, is nothing less than to write and produce a play on the stage. And about this business Charlie cherishes no illusions.

“I’m not nearly ready to do it yet,” he said. “I must work, study and write for at least another five years. In the meantime I must know people who will stimulate thought and imagination—clever people who have accomplished things. Yes, I should wish to write a comedy, of course, but a comedy with a deep and genuine human touch.”

So as early as 1917 he wanted to make Serious Art, but he didn’t imagine he could do that with film. Chaplin never did produce a play. He must have decided that film could be taken seriously enough for his ambitions. Five years later he began shooting A Woman of Paris, a drama about a woman who choses between security and love.

 

He went on to describe being tongue-tied when he met actor/theater manager/founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree: “I managed to yammer out something, but I’m sure it was quite ghastly.” Tree didn’t notice, he was too busy monologing on how he wanted to stage Macbeth, the history of non-Shakespeare Elizabethan playwrights and the benefits of travel for young people. Chaplin didn’t make his escape until Tree’s daughter Iris rescued him.

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Oliver Twist asks for more, by George Cruikshank

He also talked about fiction, and told a sweet story about his favorite author, Dickens:

“I used to imitate Dickens’ characters at school, from the Cruikshank illustrations,” said Charlie, “and one day one of the directors gave me Oliver Twist. It was the first book I ever owned because my mother was too poor to buy us books, and it was the first story I ever read. I carried it home and put it under my pillow, falling asleep that night on my precious book, and I read and reread it until it was soiled and torn.”

Oliver Twist remained his favorite novel for his whole life; he continued to read it over and over, according to his biographer Stephen Weismann.*

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Bondage, which starred Dorothy Phillips as a newspaper writer who marries a lawyer, quits work and promptly gets bored and allows

an old love affair with a worthless cad to obsess her. If the young woman had kept on the job of writing, there would have been no story. But she didn’t. The creative mind is subject to influence which less imaginative souls never feel, and this Miss Phillips has subtlety conveyed.

Kingsley thought it was “Ibsen-esque in its power and insight…a picture which should not be missed by lovers of good drama.” Plus (for a change!) she got to see a female reporter that seemed realistic to her. Bondage was written and directed by Ida May Park More from a story by Edna Kenton. You don’t suppose that if there were more women directing films now we would get more interesting and complicated female characters?

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Her review of Douglas Fairbanks latest, The Man From Painted Post, did the box office no harm, and she got to write some of her funniest lines of the week:

Any old time Douglas Fairbanks can’t hold up and kill off, sometimes one at a pop, sometimes two at a pop, as many as a dozen ruffians, smiling as he does it, he feels his day has been wasted….Nay, more than that, he holds up one rascally poltroon in the dust with nothing more dangerous than the handle of a stewpot! Very subtle satire on the old melodrama stuff, this picture play.

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Too naughty for New York!

An earlier Dorothy Phillips film was running into a little trouble with the censors:

The New York censors, despite experience which might be supposed to be toughening, still have delicate sensibilities; or, at any rate there are large sensitive spots on their sensibilities. The title of the Bluebird feature Hell Morgan’s Girl, contained too strong a wallop for these gentlemen, who have changed the name to A Soul’s Redemption, which, as [film co-star] Lon Chaney justly observed the other day, has about as much punch as “toothbrush.”

 

 

* Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94.

Week of September 1st, 1917

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Entertaining the troops

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on impressive plans to bring entertainment to the troops. “The Young Men’s Christian Association in the United States has made provision for the presentation of 8,000,000 feet of film per week. In 343 cantonments, camps and posts, 1126 programmes will be rendered weekly.”

A film brokerage organization, the Community Motion Picture Bureau, planned to supply the films. Its president, Warren Dunham Foster, said he had a pretty good idea of what kind of pictures to send:

The men don’t want sob stuff. They do not want pictures of home, mother and heaven. At the same time they do not like pictures depicting the soldier as being especially heroic or patriotic. On the other hand, they like romances. Little Mary Pickford is just as popular with the men in the camps as she is with the millions of fans. The men like real war pictures. They also like farces.

Foster didn’t mention what he based his opinions on; his most recent job had been seven years of editing The Youth’s Companion, a weekly illustrated family magazine, so he didn’t have expertise in soldiers or films.

 

Nevertheless, the scheme worked out just as they’d planned. According to a history of the Bureau,* Foster and his mother, Edith Dunham Foster, “coaxed and cajoled and possibly browbeat theatrical producers, industrialists, and many others who made motion pictures, into donating prints for great war service.” Then Mrs. Foster censored the footage, “cutting out all the pretty ladies, drinking scenes, naughty titles and similar slips which might demoralize the soldiers in the trenches.”** Then the YMCA’s War Work Council distributed them to the camps and posts. The Bureau also supplied films to the Army and the Navy when they went to France. While there’s no record of if the films were precisely what the soldiers wanted, they were probably pretty happy to have anything to take their minds off of their work for a bit.

This wasn’t a new idea. The YMCA in Great Britain had been doing the same thing for their troops since the beginning of the war in 1914, according to Emma Hanna in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

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The Community Motion Picture Bureau tried to continue after the war, supplying educational films to churches, clubs and the Y, but their ads stopped appearing after 1920. Warren Dunham Foster went on to be a patent lawyer, an inventor of film projection equipment and the author of a book, Heroines of Modern Progress (1922).

 

Just like the soldiers, Kingsley enjoyed Mary Pickford’s films, and her latest was the best film of the week: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Though it seems like Kingsley thought every new film was “the best thing Mary Pickford has done” (she was thoroughly impressed by The Little American), she was also a big fan of the source material, both the novel and the stage version, which she’d seen three times. She thought that the film was something special:

In some instances, the screen version very far improves upon the stage version of the story. For instance, one of the most delicious bits of the screen story is the showing of the circus which Rebecca managed and in which she was also principal bareback rider. Bits of the poetry for which Rebecca is so famous are retained subtitles.

According to Pickford biographer Eileen Whitfield, the film still holds up: “this unpretentious movie lingers in the mind with surprising freshness; its anecdotes attain the depth of life remembered.” It’s available on DVD and from the Internet Archive.

 

The advertising worked!

Playing opposite Rebecca was the new film by Pickford’s future husband. Kingsley pointed out that “picture fans never can get enough of Douglas Fairbanks, apparently.” They were lined up a hundred deep in front of Down to Earth, in which he “cures” a group of hypochondriacs by taking them to a fake desert island. She called it “a picture that will bear viewing more than once.” It’s available on DVD.

 

Then the big star was Dorothy Phillips.

Also opening this week was a film with Lon Chaney, and Kingsley wrote a line that critics could have re-used for the next decade or so: “In Pay Me, Lon Chaney, who, when it comes to assuming different characters, has the famous old Merlin looking like a rank amateur.” He played a “flinty-hearted and villainous dance hall keeper.” The plot defies brief description, but there’s an orphan, revenge, a gunfight and a tragic death. It’s a lost film.

 

 

*Arthur Edwin Krows, “Motion Pictures—Not for Theaters,” The Educational Screen, March 1939, p. 85-87.

**Pretty ladies are demoralizing? This is the first time I’ve heard that! This can’t possibly be accurate.

Week of June 2nd, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Theda Bara arrived in Los Angeles and Grace Kingsley was there:

Bringing with her seventeen trunkloads of clothes, five servants and a parent or two, Miss Theda Bara, most popular of Fox stars and world-famed for putting the “ire” in “vampire,” arrived in Los Angeles yesterday via the Santa Fe. She was met by a delegation of Fox co-workers, who enthusiastically welcomed her with cheers, flowers and fruit. This is Miss Bara’s first trip west, the effete East always having claimed her…Yes, Miss Bara is just as fascinating in real life as on the screen.

She was in town to make her most expensive film yet, Cleopatra. According to her biographer, Eve Golden, she wasn’t happy to leave New York and its museums, libraries, architecture and bookstores, but the desert just couldn’t be replicated in New Jersey, so she took a month-long trip across the country, stopping to do publicity along the way.

 

The day after she arrived Kingsley interviewed her and left a snapshot of Bara at the height of her fame. She wrote:

Surely Theda Bara is quite the most charming woman in the world! At least, within one’s experience. Of course, ‘charming’ covers a multitude of subtle fascinations, so one hastens to specify, because the millions who have viewed the famous screen actress on in the black-and-whites, yet who have never heard her voice, will doubtless want to know just what she is like in the flesh. Elemental, temperamental, with flashing black eye and tigerish movement. Not a bit of it. Miss Bara is the serenest, most quietly-poised woman I have ever met, with a fine and sweet reserve, which yet is not aloofness. That is, she makes you feel she may be aloof from the rest of the world, but not from you to whom she is speaking. You, happy mortal, are entirely in her confidence.

Yet she tells you nothing! That is, nothing about her real name, or where she was born, or if she has a husband. She refuses to be interviewed on these subjects…One mustn’t forget Miss Bara’s voice, which is soft and low and very even and yet oddly colorful and expressive too. Miss Bara talks exceedingly well—on her art, and esoteric Buddhism, and English literature, and the plumbing in California bungalows. And didn’t I think the mission style of architecture wonderful?

Kingsley’s interview leaves the same impression as Golden’s biography: Bara was an intelligent, well-read woman with a sense of humor and not even a little bit like the characters she played.

Kingsley’s favorite movie this week was the first version of A Doll’s House adapted to film. She thought it was “amazingly vivid rendering of the very spirit of the great Norwegian’s play” and that Joseph de Grasses’s work as director was “likely to mark a new era in the advance of picture making.” She said that all the actors brought an “illuminating intelligence” to their roles, particularly Dorothy Phillips as Nora who grew from “amazingly world-ignorant beginnings as wife and mother, to the bewildered awakening, when going away, she answers the futile and monumentally stupid cry of her husband, ‘haven’t you been happy here?’ with the wise sadness of ‘no, only merry.’” Kingsley also praised the actor who played the blackmailer: “how subtly Lon Chaney has portrayed the unconquering pawn of destiny, Nils Krogstad, so full of bitterness of life, so cruel, yet so helpless against fate—with forever that undercurrent of humanity which is inevitably stronger than he is.”

Unfortunately, it’s a lost film. Not everyone agreed with Kingsley; Edward Weitzel in Moving Picture World felt that Ibsen was an acquired taste and his work really required speech to convey all the shades of meaning. This didn’t stop others from trying. Maurice Tourneur made another version one year later with Elsie Ferguson, and Charles Bryant made one in 1922 starring Alla Nazimova.

War news was already affecting people, and W.H. Clune, who ran a 2700-seat theater in downtown Los Angeles, announced “You will see no gloomy photodramas at the Auditorium. The stress of events has lead people to crave diversions, and the shocker type of play, also the melancholy sort, are the farthest from the desire of the great mass of people, who will be entirely satisfied with the gloom they will inevitably get through the news columns.” He had already booked Douglas Fairbanks’ Wild and Woolly and Mary Pickford’s The Little American to make good on his promise.

Tuesday, June 5th was Registration Day, the day all men aged 21-30 had to register for the draft. The governor had declared it a day off in California, and Kingsley reported on what it was like in Los Angeles theaters:

There was a holiday spirit abroad in the theater crowds—a sort of exhilaration, with an undercurrent of tenseness, as of wishing that the waiting were over with, and if war had to commence, it might come swiftly. There were hundreds of khaki uniforms in the theaters and in the darkness of the picture houses the back rows were crowded with youths and their sweethearts, holding hands and whispering in the darkness. There were hundreds of young men in the audience—not the usual spiritless loiterers of weekday audiences, but well-set-up young fellows, fresh from registration, in the spirit of doing their bit.

A khaki-clad, broad-shouldered young fellow sat in front of me at the Woodley, and beside him sat his young wife, with their baby on her lap. He was going away next day, she turned and told an acquaintance beside me.

Suddenly on the screen was flashed a line of marching soldiers. Neither said anything, but he turned to her, and such a look as passed between them!

The Woodley was showing The Dark Road a war-time vampire film set in England which Kingsley liked for its subtle acting and Rembrantish photography, along with Keystone’s Oriental Love, which she thought was so funny, it could have been written by Mark Twain. So the soldier and his wife got to see some entertaining movies on their last night out.

 

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.