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.