Highbrow in Hollywood: Week of January 31st, 1920

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had news about the latest attempt to make movies respectable:

Just wait long enough and the motion pictures get ‘em all. Now it’s no less a person than Maurice Maeterlinck, the famous Belgian poet and dramatist, best know in this country, perhaps, as the author of The Blue Bird, who has signed up to write picture plays for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation…Under his contract with Goldwyn, the author will write and co-operate in the production of but one photoplay a year. Goldwyn directors will direct the features, but Mr. Maeterlinck will be at hand at all times to oversee details of production. Just what the nature of the stories will be is not known at present, but as Maeterlinck’s works are all characterized by a touch of mysticism, it is likely that some such quality will be a characteristic of his picture plays.

You get one guess at how well this worked out: contemporary highbrow literature and Hollywood movies often don’t mix. While there are notable exceptions among Maeterlinck’s fellow Nobel laureates, particularly Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw, whose work was turned into terrific movies, his radical symbolist work was light on plot and full of fatalism and mysticism, and not really what Goldwyn was looking for. Goldwyn (and his ghostwriter Corinne Lowe) wrote about his dealings with Maeterlinck in his memoir, Behind the Screen (1923). He said that during negotiations Maeterlinck hadn’t heard of any of the other eminent authors Goldwyn had signed up, but he was quite impressed by the $1,000 he offered him: “and then at last M. Maeterlinck’s face beamed with intelligence.” (p.250) However, Goldwyn said that the results were disappointing.

His first attempt at camera material revolved abut a small boy with blue feathers and, as I remember, a feather bed. While admitting the impotence of “trifles light as air,” the scenario department rejected this absolutely. “Write us a love story,” suggested Mr. Lehr, my associate…The foreign author thereupon set himself to a less fanciful theme. This time he submitted a love-story, but alas! The type was anything but censor-proof.

Maurice Maeterlinck was known as the Belgian Shakespeare. Born in 1862 in Ghent, he spent most of his working life in Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911; the committee said it was “in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers’ own feelings and stimulate their imaginations.” His most famous play, The Blue Bird (1908), was adapted to film several times, the first in 1910. Maurice Tourneur directed a 1918 version and it’s on the National Film Registry. He was also know for his avant-guard play Pelieas et Melisande (1893) as well as his poetry and philosophical essays. After Goldwyn rejected his work, Maeterlinck went back to France. Hollywood didn’t learn its lesson, however. MGM signed him to write three screenplays in 1925, but they didn’t result in finished films either.

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Mme. and M. Materlinck

The next day Kingsley reported on another reason Maeterlinck signed:

Mme. Maeterlinck, the poet’s beautiful young wife, is to have a chance to prove whether or not she is fitted for stardom in the films, and to that end will appear in several of the productions, the stories of which will be written by her husband…Of late she has expressed a desire to play in pictures, providing her talent was of such caliber as to place her in the star cast. And it is known that one of the conditions under which the Maeterlinck contract was signed was that Mme. Maeterlinck should have a chance to prove her ability before the camera.

The new Mme. Maeterlinck was known professionally as Renee Dahon, and they had met when she was acting in one of his plays eight years earlier. The 58-year-old writer married the 26-year-old actress in 1919 after his partner of twenty-three years, actress Georgette LeBlanc, had enough of sharing him and left. Dahon also didn’t get a career in Hollywood. The two stayed together until his death in 1949.

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She Loves and Lies 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week demonstrated how popular fiction is easier to adapt to commercial films. Based on a Wilkie Collins short story from 1885, this “delightful entertainment” had been updated to modern times, because producers had become leery of costume dramas.

We have dear old entertaining Wilkie Collins, all be-modernized, be-risquéd, be-slanged, and be-New Yorked at the California [Theater] this week in She Loves and Lies, with Norma Talmadge scintillating through the role of the heroine. I’m sure dear old Wilkie would have blushed his face to a cinder* at the naked model and the bedrooms and the negligees that serve to add the paprika to his clever tale.

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Kingsley recounted the tangled plot that involved Talmadge disguising herself as a middle-aged woman to assist the hero with his finances by means of a marriage of convenience, then says:

The great point is, the picture serves to reveal Norma Talmadge as a bright sparkling comedienne as she is a dramatic actress, in fact, and as entirely at home in comedy as though she played nothing else all her life.

Unfortunately for comedy fans, Talmadge mostly returned to making dramas, but she did make one more comedy, Kiki, in 1926.

Greta de Groat, Talmadge scholar and keeper of the Unsung Divas web site, got to see the incomplete version of She Loves and Lies, preserved at the Library of Congress, and wrote, “I wasn’t expecting much of this film but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Quite a fun comedy despite the bizarre plot–this woman chooses the world’s most convoluted way to meet a guy!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Probably not. Collins was such a bohemian that he didn’t marry either of the women he divided his time between, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd.

 

https://www.wilkie-collins.info/family_caroline_graves.htm

 

https://www.wilkie-collins.info/family_martha%20rudd.htm

 

“Maeterlinck Weds Mlle. Renee Dahon,” New York Times, March 7, 1919.

 

“Maurice Maeterlinck Now with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” Moving Picture World, February 14, 1925, p.713.