Startling Star Salary: Week of June 21st, 1919

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Mary Miles Minter

One hundred years ago this week, Mary Miles Minter signed a “startling” contract, and Grace Kingsley had the details:

The little girl with the biggest motion-picture contract in the world—that’s Mary Miles Minter. But she pays a stern price for it, inasmuch as her personal life is ordered by the rules laid down in the contract, and she is even forbidden to wed during the life of the agreement.

By its terms she will receive in three years the sum of $1,300,000. She is to get $250,000 for her first five pictures, or $50,000 a picture. For the second five she will get $300,000, or $60,000 a picture and for the third five $350,000 or $70,000 a picture, and for the fourth five, $400,000 or $80,000 a picture. No chances were taken with Miss Minter because she happens to be a minor. While she was represented by O’Brein, Malevinsky and Driscoll, the contract was drawn that her every act will come under the supervision of her employer, Mr. Zukor.

A sensational feature provides that, though Miss Minter is but 18 years old,* and therefore might be expected to love social gaiety, she is to order her life according to a set of rules which provide she shall live the quietest kind of a home life, never to be seen in public when it is possible to avoid it, and never associate in public with stage offscreen folk. Also—and this might not be pleasing to a lot of screen stars—she is to receive no interviewers.

Minter was to start work on June 30th, but until then she was on vacation with her mother in Atlantic City, “enjoying to the full the only free social life she is to be allowed to know during the next three years.”

1.3 million dollars was at that point the largest amount promised in one contract to an actor, but others had gotten paid more per film. For example, in 1918 Mary Pickford signed a contract with First National that paid $675,000 for three films, plus half the profits. Minter’s deal was particularly astonishing because her most recent salary at American Films was $2250 a week.

 

Kingsley didn’t ask why Adolph Zukor was willing to pay so much, but Variety was happy to speculate on what film people were calling “Zukor’s madness:”

One explanation is furnished by his former star, Mary Pickford, in letters she has sent to friends here in the East. Whether rightly or wrongly, Miss Pickford is under the impression, an impression strengthened by those few in Zukor’s confidence who have breathed a word about the matter—the impression that the head of Paramount is willing to go to any length and spend any amount of money to replace Mary Pickford in his list of picture offerings. Miss Pickford has been informed that Zukor is “so sore” at her for leaving his management that he will go a long ways to “get even.” (June 13, 1919)

I bet she stopped writing to those friends. Even with a well-funded advertising campaign and complete control over her public image, Zukor wasn’t able to make Minter as big a star as Pickford. The first film she made under her new contract was her biggest hit: Anne of Green Gables, directed by William Desmond Taylor. Now she’s mostly remembered for her relationship with him and for being implicated in his still unsolved murder in 1922. We can’t be sure, but maybe if she’d had more freedom under her contract to socialize away from work she might not have become better known in true crime circles than film histories. She did make 18 of the 20 films under her contract, but the studio dropped her in 1923 and she retired.

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Dempsey–Willard Fight by James Montgomery Flagg

Kingsley mentioned a forthcoming all-star boys road trip:

Carter de Haven, co-starring with his wife in feature comedies at the National studios, will be among the many notables attending the little fracas in Toledo the fourth of next month. He intends leaving on the billion-dollar special, which has been arranged for by the most stellar lights in the photoplay firmament. The train will provide every known deluxe feature. Continuous dining service will be had, not to mention a completely stocked buffet and additional servants to minster to their every want.

Those included in the passenger list, beside Mr. de Haven, are Wally Reid, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Ray, Douglas Fairbanks, Jesse Lasky, Cecil De Mille, Dustin Farnum, William Farnum, Roscoe Arbuckle, Jack Pickford and Sid Grauman.

It sounds like the set-up for a one-act play! The “little fracas” was the heavyweight boxing championship held on the Fourth of July in Toledo, Ohio between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard. It was promoted as “the fight of the century.” However, I haven’t found any evidence that they actually went—nearly five days on a train is a long time to be away from work, even with a buffet. Dempsey beat Willard in three brutal rounds.

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Francis MacDonald played the cad

This week Kingsley saw a movie that made the audience want to yell “That’s good! Hit him again!” It was called The Divorce Trap and

you should have heard the laughs and delighted applause yesterday when the caddish young man, who had tried to frame for divorce the young wife who had tried her best to reform him, got his just deserts, which included a swift kick from his own dad. Naturally the story is a sordid one, but it is tremendously realistic…the manner in which the lightning justice of its events are recorded, make for a certain finesse and high-mindedness of general effect.

This lost film was sold as a serious drama, but it’s a shame that more tragic villains don’t get their due with a kick in the pants.

 

Kingsley told a story that demonstrated how much more relaxed studio security was in 1919. Nine-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr. visited his dad’s workplace dressed in a wild West suit just like his father’s, then:

Little Doug disappeared for a whole half-hour. At the end of that time he reappeared, led by a farmerish looking individual.

“This your boy really?” he demanded of Doug Sr.

No need to answer, as the boy made a frantic and affectionate dive for his dad.

“Well, I found him on these togs out front,” said the man, “and when I asked him who he was, he said Douglas Fairbanks. Poor little tad, I said to myself, to be crazy and him so young! Well, the movies does do it to ‘em, but not usually at his age! Then he explained his dad was named Douglas Fairbanks, too—and I see the point at once, I did, and here he is!”

It seems that kid supervision was more relaxed then, too.

 

*Actually she was 17 at the time, but the age of majority was 21 then.

 

“Adolph Zukor Determined to Supplant Mary Pickford,” Variety, June 13, 1919.

“Testimony in Film Star’s Suit Opens,” Los Angeles Herald, May 19, 1920.

“Zukor Gets Mary Miles Minter by Million Dollar Contract,” Variety, June 27, 1919.

 

Week of June 22nd, 1918

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Enrico Caruso

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a lucrative film contract for a Metropolitan Opera star:

Enrico Caruso, the greatest of all living tenors, will lay his voice away in cotton wool for the summer, and, having listened to the lure of the purring camera and the rattle of chink in the pockets of the picture magnates, will become a picture star for Lasky-Famous Players during his vacation, receiving therefore the princely sum of $300,000 for the services.

It might seem odd that people would want to see him without sound, but his fellow Met star Geraldine Farrar was in the middle of a successful film career so there was a precedent. Also, when Kingsley spoke to Cecil B. De Mille to confirm the report, he assured her that

Enrico Caruso is a corking fine actor as well as the world’s most wonderful tenor…When I was in New York I used to frequently drop into the Metropolitan Operahouse and watch Caruso rehearse, so I know of his splendid ability as an actor, and I think that he will be a big success on the screen, not only from the fact that millions of people have heard of him and will be attracted to see him in the silent drama, but because he will score an artistic success as well.

Enrico Caruso was one of the biggest celebrities of his time. He toured extensively and sold millions of records. However, his film career wasn’t as successful. In his first film, My Cousin, he played a dual role: a poor maker of plaster casts and his cousin, a famous tenor. The tenor helps the artist win back his love after a misunderstanding. When it came out in Los Angeles later that year, LA Times reviewer Antony Anderson admired Caruso’s acting, saying “in opera he didn’t get half a chance, but the camera offered every opportunity and he took them.” He liked the film, too, because “the story has charm, simplicity and tenderness.” He mentioned that during the screening, the orchestra at Grauman’s mostly played music from the operas that Caruso had sung.

The film didn’t sell as many tickets as they’d hoped, and Lasky’s never released his second film, A Splendid Romance, in the United States. That film is lost, but My Cousin survived and is available on DVD.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Lesson, a Constance Talmadge comedy, “so true to life from all angles that one has a guilty feeling of spying through a window to look at it.” She particularly admired the “brilliant and facile” star:

For those who would learn sincerity and naturalness, let them study Miss Talmadge; and these qualities are all the more to her credit in that, being a person of incisive personality, she might easily impose mannerisms upon us. The Lesson is from Virginia Terhune Vandewater’s appealing story of the same name, is human and intriguing, revolving around a wife married to one of those dog-in-the-manger husbands, who while limiting the amount of sauce for the goose, believes in an overdose of that commodity for the gander.

In this lost film, Talmadge’s character dumps the skunk and returns to her small-town sweetheart.

There was a close tie for best line this week. About the latest Mary Miles Minter film Kingsely wrote:

The writer of One in a Million is all wrong; he evidently hadn’t seen many pictures or he would have known that 999,999 of the poor little country girls who go to New York without previous training step right out upon the musical comedy stage and register a big hit.

So that was already a tired trope in 1918. Despite that, she decided “One in a Million is a clean, engaging little comedy which any girl can safely take her mother to see.” The film got a new title, Social Briars. I wonder if the producers read this and decided to change it.

 

Kingsley’s other nifty line was regarding Rupert Julian’s new film, Midnight Madness:

It is chock full of mystery, gobs and hunks of it, so thick as to make the plot rather bewildering.

The story involved a detective tracking down jewel thieves, and Mr. Julian didn’t include the usual scenes in which the investigator stops and theorizes about whodunit. Kingsley thought that was confusing. I hope you don’t have too many gobs and hunks of mystery this week!

 

 

 

Week of May 5th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was inspired by two not very good movies to write:

When will the picture producers be merciful to us, and let those curly-headed cuties, those sophisticated sirenettes, the picture ingénues, grow up? What of the future of the June Caprices, the Marguerite Clarks, the Mary Miles Minters, the Violet Mersereaus, the Ella Halls, the Vivian Martins? They themselves probably wonder at moments quite anxiously what becomes of the ingénue when she gets old…What an awful fate waits the ageless ingénue! Fancy a wild young thing of 50 who hops over tables, hides in barrels, and does all the hundred and one excruciatingly cunning things with which the professional ingénue habitually renews her patently preserved youth.

The films she saw were The Valentine Girl with Marguerite Clark (“as imaginative as a seed catalog”) and A Small-town Girl with June Caprice (“it never really got anywhere, and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor remains the best actor in the picture.”)

None of the six actresses she mentioned stayed in film much longer, in part because movies about curly-haired innocents went out of fashion, and stars were rarely able to change their image. It wasn’t just ageism. Then again, doing something with your life other than appearing in movies isn’t such a terrible thing. Here’s what happened:

  • June Caprice worked steadily until 1921, then retired to have children.
  • Marguerite Clark married in 1918 and retired from acting in 1921.
  • Mary Miles Minter continued to star in big films such as Anne of Green Gables (1919) until scandal surrounding William Desmond Taylor’s murder in 1922 ended her career.
  • Violet Mersereau appeared fewer films after 1919 but she kept acting until 1926.
  • Ella Hall’s career also slowed down in 1919 when she married and had the first of four children; she retired in 1923.
  • Vivian Martin left films in 1921 and went back to acting on the stage.

Kingsley pointed out that things were quite different for men, and the double standard was firmly in place:

As for the male ingénue, the professional screen lover, time and the world are very kind to him. He rants and keeps his waist line, does things to his hair, hides his grandchildren, smiles even when he has rheumatism, and kids the world into accepting him in romantic roles.

Some things really don’t change.

Her favorite film this week came from Keystone. Playing before The Valentine Girl at the Woodley, Mack Swain starred in His Naughty Thought. Kingsley wrote:

if Mack Sennett’s thought had been half as naughty as it was funny, it would have been censored right off the screen. As a matter of fact, the comedy isn’t naughty at all, and would also have to be strained a point to be considered a thought! However, it’s a roistering burlesque, with Mack bequeathed a restaurant by an uncle who “would insist on eating at his own restaurant despite the doctor’s orders.” Whoever wrote those subtitles—I suspect a symposium—deserves a permanent place in the celestial funny columns—if they run one up there.

We still don’t know who wrote them (even Brent Walker couldn’t find out). The film has been preserved at the UCLA Archive. Mack Swain was most famous for being Chaplin’s large antagonist in The Gold Rush, but this week he could be seen in another Chaplin film being revived just a few doors down Broadway at the Garrick Theater. He played Tillie’s father in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and Kingsley felt that anybody who hadn’t seen the film, should, because it was the funniest Keystone had made and “the burlesque of the obvious and mawkish film drama is here so good.” It’s available on the Internet Archive, if you want to follow her advice.

Kingsley managed to dislike a (now lost) film even more than the Clarke and Caprice vehicles this week, God’s Law and Man’s, and was moved to write her best lines: “take a small female in the screen drama, dress her up in beads and one of those shredded wheat skirts, let her talk pidgin English, introduce her to a handsome white man, and heaven knows she’s due for a fall. She just can’t make her fate behave, that’s all.”

I hope that fate behaves well for you this week!