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.

sheloves_ad

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.

Week of November 24th, 1917

sateveningpost
Happy holiday!

Even though the Thanksgiving holiday (November 29th in 1917) brought a slow news week, Kingsley didn’t take time off. She gave her readers some cheerful little stories about the stars.

The last bits of the truly imaginative ballyhoo around Theda Bara were being swept away:

At last Theda Bara has told her real name! Not in reckless confidence, however but to a New York court, and in order to have her stage name legalized. The truth about Miss Bara’s name, as revealed in the proceedings, is that it is Theodosia Goodman…And however could a person with such a nice, innocent name as Theodosia Goodman ever expect to become a high-power vampire? The court took one look at Miss Bara and decided that Theodosia wasn’t the name for her at all.

Kingsley also mentioned that Miss Bara was born in Cincinnati, not in the Sahara Desert under the eye of the Sphinx, etc.

Now I suspect the name Theodosia will have a revival, as we all sing along with Mr. Odom.

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I couldn’t find a photo of him bundled up.

According to a recent Stuff you Missed in History Class podcast on Lon Chaney, he wanted to keep his private life out of the press. However, Kingsley managed to run a story that didn’t intrude on that at all:

It was one of those warm days last week, and the scene was the café at Universal City. Enter Lon Chaney for his noon pork-and-bean rations, clad in heavy Eskimo clothing and perspiring freely. ‘What’s the matter, Lon?’ called out a friend. ‘Well,’ said Lon, ‘the matter is I’m in Alaska—but I don’t know it!

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Natalie, Constance and Norma Talmadge

Norma Talmadge revealed one way to keep the audience in their seats. She told Kingsley that when she and her sisters were little “we used to give shows in our cellar. Constance and Natalie and I, we had a very good way of keeping our audiences in until the show was finished. We simply locked the door.”

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Regenerates, which was “surprisingly human and natural, and more than this, it has a fresh and ingenious plot, and there is hardly a superfluous foot of film in the whole thing.” She used it as a stick to beat up other films:

One hardly ever enters the theater with the idea of seeing logic or good sense or naturalness portrayed—that is, one doesn’t expect or demand them. Wherefore, when a picture appears in which characters act like reasonable human beings, viz., sin a bit, repent a bit, love a bit, hate a bit, are sometimes wise and sometimes foolish, and otherwise refuse to be either incarnate virtue or incarnate vice, one registers surprise.

Now the plot summary sounds like it was anything but natural (which just shows what the other films Kingsley was watching were like). It’s so convoluted that it defies summation, so here’s what the AFI Catalog says:

Mynderse Van Dyun, a wealthy old New York aristocrat, has one goal in life, to see his granddaughter Catherine and grandson Pell married; for, although they are cousins, the marriage would perpetuate the family name. Catherine, however, is in love with Paul La Farge and detests her drug-addicted cousin, who seduces and then secretly marries her maid, Nora Duffy. After a son is born to Nora, who dies in childbirth, the infant is taken to the Van Dyun house where, only a few days before, Pell, in a dispute involving drugs, had been thrown from a window by his valet and killed. When the old man refuses to acknowledge the child, Catherine and Paul adopt the baby, leave the Van Dyun house and are married. Five years later, Catherine comes to visit the old man with his great-grandson, and, seeing what a fine boy he is, the old aristocrat is forced to admit that the boy is worthy of bearing his name.

It’s been preserved at the Library of Congress and at the Eastman House.

 

 

Week of September 23rd, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that some big New York magazines had noticed Mack Sennett’s work. George Jean Nathan in his theater review column for The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness praised him, and Kingsley was so surprised that she quoted him at length:

This Sennett is probably the most fecund inventor and merchant of the slapstick masque the civilized world has yet seen. A spectator of but a very few of his opera, I am yet fascinated and not inconsiderably bewildered by the resourceful imagination of the fellow. An erstwhile chorus man in the Casino music shows, Sennett has done the work he set out to do with a skill so complete, with a fertility so copious, that he has graduated himself as the foremost bachelor of custard-pie arts, the foremost professor of the bladder. He is, in short, the very best entrepreneur of low comedy the amusement world has seen. He has made probably twice as many millions laugh as have all of Shakespeare’s clowns and all the music show comedians on earth rolled together.

Nathan actually seems to be sincere in his admiration, beneath the thick layer of pretension (or as Kingsley politely put it: “Of course, Mr. Nathan’s viewpoint is from a very very lofty height, which naturally makes his language sound a bit condescending”). An intellectual such as himself couldn’t have possibly witnessed more than “a very few” Keystone films, nevertheless he could recommend them over “the labored unfunniness of the posturing mimic artists of Broadway.” The whole article is available on Google Books.*

Kingsley also mentioned that the Saturday Evening Post published an article Sennett wrote, “Movie Star Stories,” in which he described the differences between theatrical and film acting and told stories about some of the people who had worked for him, included Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Marilyn Slater has posted a copy on her site, Looking for Mabel.

So in 1916, general interest magazines were already starting to take movies – and comedies at that – seriously. They were well on their way to respectability.

 

In other Keystone news, the place was turning highbrow, but not because of the media attention.

No longer do Keystoners loiter about the big open-air stage, telling Keystone-y stories, playing pinochle, or otherwise amusing themselves in the common, vulgar way. Nowadays the erstwhile footlight comedians, chorus ladies, prize fighters, acrobats and cowboys gather about the phonograph, and nothing short of a Wagnarian trilogy of a Liszt rhapsody will satisfy the artistic temperament of these new disciples of the elevated brow. Louise Fazenda started the movement and everybody chipped in last week and bought a Victrola.

Technology has been ruining society for an awfully long time.

socialsecad

Two comedies made Kingsley laugh this week. Anita Loos’ work was back again, this time with a “whimsically clever” screenplay for The Social Secretary. Norma Talmadge gave a “clear-cut, sparkling interpretation “ to the role of a beautiful woman masquerading as a prim, dowdy social secretary to avoid workplace sexual harassment. Kingsley said “it is refreshing to see Miss Talmadge in a comedy role, after the long series of gloomy, heart-broken females she has played.” Despite her good notices, Talmadge went back to her dramatic roles and only rarely made comedies. The Social Secretary is not a lost film; it’s even available on DVD.

She had fun at Mr. 44 as well, in which a poor factory girl (May Allison) marries a rich man (Harold Lockwood). She wrote “Miss Allison and Mr. Lockwood are always easy to look at, and their fine sense of comedy values places them right among the blue ribboners in brightly humorous plays.” The two were very popular stars at the time, co-starring in over 20 films between 1915 and 1917. Lockwood died of influenza in 1918. Allison kept working until 1927, retiring after she married James Quirk, the editor of Photoplay magazine. Mr. 44 is a lost film.

Kingsley also admired the work of the person who had the most successful career of everyone involved with the film: “Photographer Gaudio shows himself master of his craft in making the pictures of those wonderful Lake Tahoe locations.” Tony Gaudio already had many years of experience; he had been shooting short films since 1903. In the 1920’s he became the Talmadge sisters’ regular DP, and when their studio was bought by Warner Bros. he went along. He shot some of that studio’s most prestigious films, including Little Caesar (1931), Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Letter (1941).

 

 

 

*Buster Keaton fans might want to see Nathan’s article because he reviews the play Seven Chances was based on, calling it “a poor thing at best.”

One other aside: earlier in the article he opined that Sydney Chaplin was a better comic than his half-brother and his film The Plumber was better than all films, including Birth of a Nation. One problem with his argument is that The Plumber was a Charlie Chaplin film – that was an alternate title for Work (1915). So Nathan wasn’t infallible.

Week of July 1st, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an ambitious plan to make Los Angeles one of the most important vaudeville booking centers of the country. John Cort and William Morris had set up offices in the Majestic Theater Building to start hiring acts for their new Cort-Morris circuit. This company didn’t last, but the two businessmen did eventually achieve their real goal: ending the Keith-Albee monopoly on vaudeville booking. Both continued their interesting careers. John Cort allied with the Shubert organization and built a circuit of 1200 theaters, later becoming a Broadway producer (the Cort Theater in New York is named for him). William Morris continued to work at the talent agency he founded in 1898 that’s still in business today as William Morris/Endeavor; over the years they represented Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Bros, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Martin Scorsese.

Independence Day barely rated a mention, other than a note that producer Oliver Morosco added extra matinees for his three shows.

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The Lion and the Girl

Kingsley particularly enjoyed one two-reeler this week, The Lion and the Girl:

Positively there isn’t another thing left for the Keystone comedians to do in the way of thrilling stunts, and Mack Sennett will soon have to resort to the cartoon comedies where the characters do the impossible. This reflection occurs strikingly to one in viewing The Lion and the Girl, which is the comedy at the Palace this week, with Joe Jackson and Claire Anderson in the leading roles. A real live lion plays the villain’s role in this, and the scene in which Claire Anderson drops from the tree into his cage, and the big brute crouches growling above her, is worthy to be immortalized in the wax-works! Jackson wears his familiar tramp make-up, and there are some very amusing touches, as when the officers being on his trail in the field, he ducks his head and stretches out his arms in imitation of a scarecrow. It’s one of the very good Keystone comedies.

The Lion and the Girl was the first of a new Sennett staple, “giant predatory cats turned loose on the set” according to Brent Walker in in Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory.  It’s a lost film, so the reviews are all we have left. This was Jackson’s last film and he went back to vaudeville, but Claire Anderson kept acting in a variety of comedies and dramas until 1925.

Kingsley didn’t like the feature nearly as much; The Children in the House with Norma Talmadge appeared ‘machine-made and uninspired.”

The_Girl_from_Frisco

Kingsley had a chat with Marin Sais, leading woman of the Kalem Company, and learned she was “a real, honest-to-goodness wild westerner. She has taken up a big ranch in Utah, which she will visit this summer, and where she intends to breed racing horses. She already owns a string of three racers at Tia Juana.” Sais did spend most of her career acting in Westerns, retiring in 1953.

The Mexican Revolution intruded briefly on Hollywood. The LA Times Animated Weekly staff (Beverly Griffith and Robert Walters) went to the scene of war activities and sent home footage. Universal actresses, including Ruth Stonehouse and Cleo Madison, took first aid training in case the Mexican war materialized. Happily, it never came to that; American involvement was limited.

SnubPollard
Snub Pollard

There’s some unusual elements to a story Kingsley told about Snub Pollard on July 2nd. She wrote:

Harry Pollard of Phunphilms has distinguished himself as a burglar buster. In the neighborhood where he recently moved, live two pretty young screen artists. One night Mrs. Pollard awakened Harry, saying, “There are burglars next door. I hear them! Harry muttered “Go back to sleep. ’s aw-right.” But before he could regain his slumbers a piercing scream rent the air; he was out of bed and into his dressing gown and in the back yard in less than it takes to clear the studio after the director says, “That’s all for today.” He actually found two bold bad men trying to get in at a window, and what he did to them was right. He suffered a few bruises, but he tells of the discovery of a new punch which he will use on “Lonesome Luke” in the next picture. The girls were scared out of their wits, but they invited the hero in, and attended to his wounds, and later Mrs. Pollard joined them in a little coffee party at 3 am.

From the perspective of 2016, it’s surprising how much she approved of vigilante justice — plus nobody seems to have thought about making a police report afterwards. Also, there was no “Mrs. Pollard” in 1916: he didn’t marry his first wife until 1917. Kingsley was being discrete, and the lady’s identity remains a mystery.

Pollard co-starred with Harold Lloyd in dozens of shorts, in both Lonesome Luke films and some glasses character ones. He went on to make some solo comedy shorts, but he spent most of his silent career as a second banana to comedians like Laurel and Hardy. In the sound era he played the comic relief in low-budget Westerns and uncredited parts in larger films, including being the recipient of Gene Kelly’s umbrella in the “Singin’ in the Rain” number.