The Heiress: Week of April 5th, 1919

nellshipman
Nell Shipman

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley heard about some good fortune coming to an actress:

Some people do have all the luck. As though it were not enough to have her own company and a tremendous salary, now Nell Shipman, star of the Shipman-Curwood Picture Company, has become an heiress.

Miss Shipman, who has just returned from Canada, learned of her good fortune only a few days ago, when a letter from England apprised her of the fact that a grand-aunt on her mother’s side whom she did not even know, had died leaving Miss Shipman a fortune amounting in American money to something over $100,000.

A few days later, Kingsley did an interview with her, and got a corrected version of the story. It seems that Shipman hadn’t actually inherited anything yet, but she found documents (probably among her recently deceased father’s papers) that said she and her brother would be splitting her grandmother’s estate, which was valued at one million pounds.* Because her grandmother was in poor health, Shipman was already planning to make a film in the West Indies, because “the inheritance of the fortune would not prevent her going on with her work, but would merely offer her greater opportunities to pursue her profession.” She also had some charitable schemes.

 

Nell Shipman was counting her chickens before they hatched. Her grandmother, Eliza Jevons Foster-Barham, lived until 1924. Furthermore, her father was one of eleven children, so Shipman was well-supplied with surviving aunts and uncles as well as cousins who had a claim to the estate. There was no mention of any inheritance in Shipman’s autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart.

backtogods

This was a tumultuous time in Shipman’s life. She had been sick with influenza and nearly died during the 1918 epidemic. Her mother Rose had died in December, 1918 and her father Arnold died in March, 1919. Her only brother Maurice had been wounded fighting in France and he’d just traveled back to the States on a hospital ship, arriving in Hoboken on April 2nd. She had just spent two very cold months north of Calgary, Canada shooting what became her most successful film, Back in God’s Country. Later this year, she divorced her husband and business manager Ernest Shipman and moved in with her Back in God’s Country co-star Bert Van Tuyle. They decided to form an independent production company, Nell Shipman Productions. They went on to make The Girl from God’s Country (1921) and The Grub Stake (1923). You can learn more about her at the Women Film Pioneers site. The Boise State University Archives, where her papers have been preserved, also have a short biography.

 

Kingsley got to have a very good time at the movies this week:

Oh boy! Whenever you see by the signboards that Tom Mix has mixed in, there you’re going to find drammer that’s pep in the original package. And just the thrillingest, hair-raising-est, breeziest of ‘em all is Treat ‘em Rough at the Alhambra. It’s the essence of all other Wild West dramas boiled down, and yet having so distinctive a flavor of its own you won’t forget it. A crowded house saw it yesterday, and frequently got so excited it applauded.

It’s too bad that critics don’t get to be so enthusiastic these days. The thrills included great riding, roping and branding, as well as a cattle stampede during a prairie fire – and they were running straight for the heroine, of course. You might be able to find out if Tom Mix saved the day, because two reels have been preserved at the Eastman House in Rochester New York. Remarkably, this was just one of EIGHT films he released this year.

prohibition
Not yet

Kingsley left a reminder that Prohibition was only eight months away. A wine merchant made a big delivery to one of the studios, because everybody was stockpiling supplies.

One of the stars, on his way home, stopped to pick up his little case of sherry. He was glancing around at the names on the cases.

“What are you doing,” asked a director. “Can’t you find yours?”

“Certainly,” responded the star. “I’m only studying my visiting list for next year.”

Unlike modern blind items, Kingsley gave no hint of who the star was.

 

 

*This wasn’t quite as heartless as it sounds. Her parents had moved from England to Canada before she was born, so she only met her grandmother once on a family trip.

Week of July 8th,1916

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that a director wasn’t sure that an interesting film could be set at a newspaper. Now it’s a reliable (if sometimes well-worn) setting, but in 1916 Paul Powell had “always yearned to film a motion play with a newspaper office locale. However, he has had his doubts as to whether it could be done.” Powell did make his newspaper film, The Rummy, and when it came out in September, Moving Picture World liked it at lot. They thought it was “a faithful representation of conditions that actually exist in a newspaper office” and “The Rummy is as strong and well told a story as has been seen on the screen in many days.“ While several earlier features had been about reporters, according to the AFI Catalog, few had newsroom scenes (The Fourth Estate, released in January 1916, was one). So Powell had good reason to doubt. He was a former newspaper reporter, and he went on to direct Douglas Fairbanks in The Matrimaniac and Mary Pickford in Pollyanna. The Rummy might still exist at the Archives du Film du CNC (Bois d’Arcy), but the FIAF database doesn’t guarantee its availability or completeness.

Kingsley reviewed several films this week. She praised the atmosphere of The Valiants of Virginia (a drama about a family feud), and admired the scenery in Nell Shipman’s God’s Country and the Woman (a melodrama set in the Far North) but enjoyed Flirting with Fate the most:

Head and shoulders above the ordinary screen comedy is Flirting with Fate, in which Douglas Fairbanks is starred at the Palace this week. Its subtitles alone are worth the price of admission and its plot is one of the whimsically humorous sort which will appeal to the film fan with ideals above slapstick. Douglas Fairbanks does quite the best bit of work I have seen him accomplish.

Fairbanks plays a depressed man who hires a hit man to kill him then changes his mind (Bulworth and I Hired a Contract Killer later stole the plot). What’s most remarkable now is that this film is not lost. It’s available on DVD from Flicker Alley and streaming through the Internet Archive.

She didn’t like the Chaplin film of the week but the crowd did. She thought that he played his character in The Vagabond for sympathy, and she “did not believe this is a good thing…the mixing of farce and drama would seem to be bad art. However, the crowd belongs to Chaplin, and he can do what he wills with it.” The BFI calls The Vagabond “Chaplin’s first masterpiece;” so a critic can’t win them all.

Henry-King
Henry King

Kingsley left a snapshot of an up-and-coming Henry King, who was just making the transition from actor to director. He needed to buy a typewriter because he “has such a big correspondence regarding his art, and his photos, and locks of hair, that he had either to hire a blonde or an Oliver, and chose the latter for some unfathomable reason.” King become a noted director of films like Tol’able David, Stella Dallas and The Winning of Barbara Worth as well as some talkies, too (Twelve O’clock High, Carousel).

Kingsley told a story I hadn’t come across before. She wrote:

Dorothy Gish, starring in the Fine Arts feature Gretchen Blunders In, has proved that she is as much at home in the water as when acting before a motion picture camera. She plunged overboard from a gasoline launch and probably saved Natalie Talmadge, sister of Norma, from drowning. Dorothy was working in a scene for Gretchen Blunders In, and the company was aboard a steam launch about a mile from San Pedro Harbor. A lurch of the boat threw Miss Talmadge in the water. “Gee, it spoiled my make-up,” was the only comment offered by Miss Gish. “I hope you don’t want a re-take!

The story could be a publicist’s exaggeration (the only other source I could find for it was an August 7th piece by Daisy Dean, a syndicated gossip columnist who wrote “News Notes from Movieland”), but if it’s true, it would interest Buster Keaton fans – Natalie Talmadge was his first wife. His life would have certainly been different if things had gone otherwise.

The film was renamed Gretchen the Greenhorn and is not lost. It’s available in the More Treasures from American Film Archives set, and it’s an entertaining little movie.

Mexican War worries continued. A Southern California regiment that included seven actors from Universal left for Sacramento to prepare for service against Mexico, and Ed Sedgwick (then a comedian at Universal) announced his intention of organizing a military company made up entirely of comedians. “He said his company will not only be able to fight, but can do funny falls and things to keep the other soldiers amused when not fighting.” This bad idea never came to anything, and the United States (for the most part) stayed out of this war.

20000-Leagues-Under-the-Sea
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Not once but twice this week Kingsley reported on an epic film in progress, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Her writing resembled the breathless reporting we see now before a Star Wars or Marvel film. On July 10th she wrote, ”The film promises to be one of the most spectacular and thrilling productions ever made.” She emphasized the length and difficulty of the shoot — the director, Stuart Paton, had been working on it for nearly a year and they estimated another 6 months of shooting. The undersea scenes had been shot in the Bahamas, and “Eugene Gaudio, the chief cameraman of the feature, is said to have risked life many times.” She described the massive set in Los Angeles where they were currently shooting: “The Hindu city, where from 2000 to 3000 supernumeraries will be used in many scenes, is a beautiful creation. Besides the big temple, it has several two-story buildings and a massive gateway and adjoining battlements.” Of course, the massive cost needed to be reported as well, “so far the picture is said to have cost more than $100,000.”

She got to visit the set, and on the 14th she continued:

One of the biggest and most spectacular battle scenes ever staged in motion pictures occurred last night at Universal City, when the East Indian city built for the picturization of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was bombarded and burned. Three thousand people took part in this episode of the film. From the hills surrounding the mimic city the bombardment took place, and staged at night as it was, with the shadowy human figures on the hills hurling their missiles and shooting their guns, while the eerie flames of the burning city lightened the struggling, frenzied mass of human beings within the town walls, the scene was one so nearly approximating reality in effect that the spectator could hardly conceive himself that it was being done only for the camera.

The film did get released in December, and its final cost was reported to be $200,000. It also hasn’t been lost, and you can see the spectacle for yourself at the Internet Archive.