Film Folks Dance: Week of November 29th, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on “the great impeccable occasion of the year in Filmland, the Thanksgiving Ball.” Held every year since 1915 by the Motion Picture Directors Association at the Alexandria Hotel, the dance gave everyone in Hollywood something else to do other than rush off to family obligations. This year it was on the night before Thanksgiving, so people wouldn’t have to get up early for work the next day (Black Friday wasn’t a day off then).

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It was quite an event: the MPDA hired two orchestras, which alternated turns so they were always “full of vim and vigor,” and they served a late supper. Nevertheless, Kingsley reported that ”the party got to such a slow start that Clara Williams threatened to start a pinochle game,” but soon things got going and Kingsley was able to gather some pleasant, gossipy stories.

Bebe Daniels had a fine time at the party, even though she was well chaperoned:

The handsome Wallace MacDonald wore make-up on his coat – mostly Bebe Daniel’s. Miss Daniels was clothed in that siren shade of Viennese red and vamped whenever mommer Phyllis Daniels wasn’t looking, just like an old-fashioned coquette.

How scandalous! Daniels was only 18 years old at the time, so she was being developmentally appropriate.

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Lew Cody

Prohibition had changed things, and Kingsley was able to report:

There was only one genial gentleman who had apparently imbibed. He was, we blush to say, a playwright. He invited a nice girl to dance with him, but found it hard to make the grade, and Lew Cody, always willing to save a girl dashed into the arena, as it were, and seized the young lady from the genial gentleman.

Good for Mr. Cody! Getting drunk would have been difficult at this party; Kingsley mentioned that they served temperance punch, and “it was rumored around late in the evening that nearly a whole cup of claret, first and last, had been poured into one of the punch-bowls and there was quite a rush.”

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Charley Parrott, later Chase

But the nicest story she told involved director (soon to be with Hal Roach) and future comedy star Charley Chase, who was then known by his real name, Charley Parrott.

One of the belles of the ball was little Ella Wickersham, who used to dance and work in pictures before accident and her wheelchair overtook her, and she had a little flock of beaux around her most of the time. Charley Parrott begging her to ‘give him three dances, please, in spirit, you know,’ and sitting them all out with her, while half a dozen lively misses languished for his smile.

Ella Wickersham was a regular at Hollywood parties for three decades. Formerly at Balboa Studio and a vaudevillian, she had a dance act with her brother, Billy Wickersham. One day when she was 15 they were dancing and he accidentally dropped her, which broke her back and left her paralyzed. He looked after her for the rest of her life and became a studio publicist and newspaper reporter. She went on to write the “Hollywood Parade” column for the Los Angeles Examiner. She was friends with all sorts of famous people; an article in Screenland article about her was called “The Most Popular Girl in Hollywood” (December 1930, p. 58). She died in 1946.

Kingsley reported on a film that was a great big hit this week:

With lovely woman as a theme, and especially with it advertised that Eve, in the original birthday clothes, was on the programme, naturally Maurice Tourneur’s latest photodramatic spectacle, Woman packed Clune’s Auditorium to the doors last night, men making up about two-thirds of the audience.

Clune’s held 2,700 people, so that was a lot of tickets. Female nudity wasn’t the only attraction; it also offered plenty of misogyny. The film begins with a modern man reading a book about women in history. As Kingsley pointed out “really, I think that man must have had a naughty mind, because he picked out all the bad ones to read about!” They including Eve, Heloise, and Messalina. However, eventually women redeemed themselves. Kingsley wrote, “it would appear at the end that it was only because of the war that women were made good!”

While the theme was irritating, Kingsley did admire the cinematography: “pictorially, Woman is a marvel of beauty.” Sadly, the cameraman died while making this film. John van den Broek got swept out to sea while shooting on a cliff near Bar Harbor, Maine. He was only 23 years old. According to his obituary in Moving Picture World he was on a ledge close to the water when a high wave came in and took him and his camera (July 20, 1918, p.391). They quoted Maurice Tourneur: “Van den Broek was an artist, and didn’t consider his own safety when he saw the opportunity of taking a beautiful effect. He risked his life many times and in the end gave his life for his art. For more than four years the boy worked with me every day, from morning to night…He was more than a cameraman; he was a lovely, sensitive, delicate artist. My intention was to surprise him by making him a director next fall, and he would have been among the best ones. He was loved by everybody.”

Kingsley also had news of Al St. John, “that pepful young man, who lately broke off from the family stem of comedians brought fourth by the radiant good fellowship of Roscoe Arbuckle’s studio.” He had signed a contract with Paramount to make solo comedies, and he’d just gotten good news: his first two-reeler, Speed, “was being shown in no less a place than the Capitol Theater in New York, where it was sending ‘em into gales of laughter and creating a great hit.” Speed is a lost film.

A few days later, Kingsley reported that heavyweight fighter Jack Dempsey, who was getting ready to make his own movies, visited the set: “Al and his company were pulling a jazzerie by wreaking a set in a big fight, but Al dashed out long enough to shake hands and exclaim “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mr. Dempsey!” Later that day:

Dempsey and St. John did some acrobatics and the big boy threw Al around as if he were going to break something with him. As a parting salute, Al St. John did two falls downstairs, jumped off the top of the set, and fought three fellows to the finish; and Jack Dempsey was heard to heave a refined sigh as he exclaimed under his breath: “Gee, but I’m glad I’m going to be a dramatic actor!

They also took the time to pose for this nifty photo:

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This week, Kingsley also printed a list from Louise Glaum, who had just finished wokring on Sex. It was an excellent summary of the then-current Hollywood star clichés:

“In novelty’s name one film star has jotted down what she is not, thus delivering the long-suffering public from the usual hyperbolic encomiums directed at screen favorites by their publicists.

I have not:

  • Decided to quit pictures after I make eight more.
  • Adopted a Polish orphan.
  • Started an aeronautic company, even on paper.
  • Got a houseful of cats, canines, goldfish and birds.
  • Become my own press agent, nor yet my own writer, director, producer, property man, or dressmaker.
  • Written a book on “How I Became a Great Actress.”

Gee, most of these still appear in star profiles, if you substitute “African” for “Polish” and “make-up” for “aeronautical.”

 

 

Week of July 7th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Mary Pickford gave a speech before the premier of her latest movie and Grace Kingsley was there to describe it.

Last night 10,000 people swarmed Clune’s Auditorium. They jammed the entrances and overflowed around the block, and it took at least a dozen policemen to keep them in order and prevent their trampling each other…Probably there are about five other persons in the United States who could draw so big a crowd—President Woodrow Wilson, and a few others of similar note.

Ten thousand persons started out to see Mary last night, and about seven thousand accomplished their purpose at the two showings. The big auditorium was jammed to its topmost gallery with the people who wanted to see Miss Pickford and her ghost in The Little American. She made two simple and natural speeches that were received with thunderous applause.

According to Kingsley, the film did not disappoint; the story of an American girl who goes to France to visit her aunt and gets caught up in the war was “a great light illuminating the dark and bloody doings on the other side. It has a poignancy that must touch every one; its concrete incidents, its individual scenes, have a thousand counterparts in the things that are happening across the sea…The Little American is without a doubt the most poignantly vivid and significant picture of the year, and one of the greatest in the history of films.”

Other people at the time agreed completely with Kinglsey. Motography (July 21, 1927) printed a round-up of reactions and they said that exhibitors, critics and the public were unanimous in praising it, and even hot weather wasn’t preventing record-breaking business. It was also “one of the best aids to recruiting which the government has” and the Army stationed recruiting officers outside of screenings. (Motography, August 11, 1917). However, like most wartime propaganda, The Little American was of its time and hasn’t aged well. Fritzi Kramer expressed her dislike well at Movies Silently. It’s available on DVD.

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The Rough House

No other film could compete with that this week, though Roscoe Arbuckle’s “The Rough House” featured one of the funniest things she’d ever seen in a slapstick film: “the view of the rotund comedian in his nightie, setting his bed a-fire with a cigarette and then trailing nonchalantly back and forth from the kitchen with a cup of water at a time to extinguish the blaze, stopping once to drink it when exhausted.” It’s available on DVD, and my synopsis is still up on the Damfinos’ website.

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Love or Justice

Her least favorite film this week was easy to spot; Love or Justice featured Louise Glaum as a woman living in sin. Kingsley pointed out that such women in the movies “do wear such elegant clothes, and run such elegant motors, and live in such elegant flats!” She could see no reason why the man didn’t just marry her, but she knew “of course, in that case Miss Glaum couldn’t have suffered; and darn it all, if Miss Glaum can’t suffer, she just doesn’t think life worth living. She never even takes a day off if she can help it.” Poor Grace Kingsley really needed a break from melodramas. The film has been preserved at the Eastman house.

There was an update to last week’s story about Triangle falling apart with the departure of Ince and Sennett. The studio didn’t go down without a fight: this week they announced that they bought sixteen acres of land adjoining their Culver City studio, and were planning on doubling their production capacity. They also began hiring more staff, including director Jack Conway. He worked hard, making 12 films in 18 months, but they couldn’t replicate the earlier success.

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In her review of the vaudeville show at the Pantages, Kingsley wrote a line that you might want to borrow one day: “The only way to enjoy “The Beauty Orchard” is to sidestep it to the aisle as “H” flashes on the annunciator, and look at the pictures in the lobby.” The sketch involved comics Frank Sinclair and Cliff Dixon and six pretty women; the act’s original title was “Six Peaches and a Pair.” Another column called it “a musical tabloid” (I think they meant tableaux) but nobody bothered to describe it in detail.

Week of September 9th, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley told a story about a newsreel cameraman, B.F. Reynolds, who filmed a mountaintop explosion at a rock quarry:

Hobnobbing with earthquakes, fires and other disasters is just second nature to a pictorial news gatherer…Reynolds placed his camera at a point which the superintendent of the quarry said was dangerously near. “Oh, I guess I’ll take the chance,” answered Reynolds. “I’m used to this sort of thing. We have all kinds of explosions in our pictures, you know, and I’ve even been on intimate terms with a cyclone. I feel pretty safe here. Let her go.” Reynolds remained where he was, and when the explosion occurred the rock fell all around him, but fate lent a kind hand and he escaped injury.

This fearlessness would serve him well in over next decade, when he was Erich von Stroheim’s director of photography. Benjamin Franklin Reynolds was born on July 21, 1890 in Woodville, Michigan, and when Kingsley was writing about him, he was working for the Los Angeles Times-Universal Animated Weekly Newsreel. In 1917 he moved from nonfiction to fiction and went to work for another division at Universal, Bison Motion Pictures. His first movie was The Scrapper (1917), a Western short written, directed, and staring John Ford. He worked with Ford for a year and a half, then he got assigned to work with first-time director Erich von Stroheim on Blind Husbands (1919). He collaborated with von Stroheim on all of his features, including the infamously difficult Greed (1924). They spent 37 summer days filming the final sequence in Death Valley, the hottest place in North America. You can see them hauling their equipment by mule in this short newsreel.

After Greed, he married stenographer Adelaide Bader and they took a long honeymoon in Europe. They came back to Los Angeles in late 1924 and he went back to work. In between von Stroheim films, he was under contract at M.G.M. and Universal, so he shot comedies like The Waning Sex (1926, with Norma Shearer) and dramas like Freedom of the Press (1928, with Lewis Stone), but his career was still tied to the director. When the von Stroheim got fired from Queen Kelly (1929), Reynolds’ career suffered too. He shot some early sound shorts for Warner Bros., then he got a contract at the less-prestigious (at the time) Paramount Studios where he worked on Westerns and comedies, including W.C. Field’s The Old Fashioned Way (1934). His final film was It’s A Great Life (1935), an Eddie Cline-directed comedy about working for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In July 1935 his story turned tawdry. A 21-year old bit player, Julia Graham, with whom he was having an affair, committed suicide in his house. The County Coroner cleared him of any blame, but the story was picked up in the newspapers and it ended his film career. Adelaide Reynolds didn’t leave him but they did move to a new house. He got a job as a gas station attendant, and she went to work in a studio script department.

The American Society of Cinematographers also didn’t abandon him. He’d been a member since 1917 when they were still called the Static Club, and their magazine continued to mention him in their “A.S.C. on Parade” column. His final appearance was in 1941, when he reminisced about shooting in Death Valley after Greed had a revival screening at the Academy. He died on February 14, 1948, age 57. Adelaide Reynolds remarried and moved to Anaheim, California where she died on November 1, 1991.

Kingsley’s most enjoyable trip to the movies this week was to a double bill of Anita Loos films. The short Laundry Liz was “the very best little gloom-chaser…a delicious travesty on the silent ‘drawma’ and the methods of its producers, and it mercilessly reveals and satirizes the weakness and faults of the business.” The feature was a tragedy, The Little Liar, about a slum girl (Mae Marsh) who uses fiction to help her cope with her grim life. Kingsley thought that Marsh did “some of the best work of her career.” They are both lost films.

It wasn’t difficult to program an Anita Loos double feature in 1916, because she had at least 18 films to her credit that year (including the intertitles for Intolerance). Now best known for the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she wrote over 100 screenplays including San Francisco (1936) and The Women (1939).

Kingsley gave “the blue ribbon for the suppression of mashers” to screen vampire Louise Glaum this week. Glaum, who was second only to Theda Bara for her exotic temptress roles, was working on the boardwalk near Venice Beach, and between scenes

a dandy of the jellyfish type approached, apparently hoping that Miss Glaum would think him a suitable subject for vamping. Miss Glaum does not, however, believe in carrying professionalism into private life. The man began to talk to her, and she thought for a moment of leading him to the police station. But it was a warm day and the police station was some distance away.

Suddenly she hit upon a new plan. She pretended she was deaf and dumb, and began to talk on her fingers. But the man persisted. Soon Miss Glaum observed Charles Ray, Howard Hickman and some of the other men from the studio standing in a group. She lead the masher directly into the crowd, and suddenly exclaimed, as though bored to death:

“Boys will you please rid me of this thing? It’s been following me for ten minutes!”

The thing turned and fled.

This happened while they were shooting The Wolf Woman, which told “the pitiful story of a siren’s fall, a fall that carried her far into the depths of depravity—but not until she had been robbed, by a cruel trick of fate, of her one potent weapon, beauty” according to Motography (August 5, 1916). Kingsley reviewed the film a week later, and said that Glaum was an entirely convincing vamp in her “spider-web gown, the most insidiously naughty gown that’s been seen on the Rialto this season,” unlike the “dames on the screen whom we know couldn’t get a rise out of a half blind and one-legged rag-and-bottle man.” It’s a lost film.

Glaum was a former stage actress who got her start in films as a comedian with Nestor Studios in 1912. She became a vamp when she signed with the Ince Company in 1915. Her film career lasted until the early 20’s and she returned to live theater.

 

Note: There’s a blog post about Julia Graham at The Unsung Joe, however, some of the information in it about Ben Reynolds is inaccurate so I can’t vouch for the rest of it.