Week of July 6th, 1918

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Kingsley at work

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited someone who “promises to put the ‘new’ in ‘ingenue’”:

bearWith a high-power comedy bear and comedy curls, Theda Bara has wrapped her misery cloak in mothballs…It was a Spanish interior set out at the Fox studio, and naturally you expected to see Theda Bara glide vampirishly forth, dolled up in a slinky frock, or leap into the scene with a nice shiny dagger held aloft, or drag herself sorrowfully in and drop down on the soggy sofa. Nothing of the sort.

Out through the door with its festoons of dried peppers dances a new Theda Bara. This Theda Bara is a mischievous sprite, who reminds you a bit of Dorothy Gish in her pepfullest moments, with just a dash of Constance Talmadge’s Mountain Girl.

And then Miss Bara was called away for the love scenes between herself and Al Roscoe, the hero. And such a love scene as it was! Though it was hedged in and embroidered with comedy—joyous, sparkling comedy—it was such a love scene as to make to palpitate the hearts of all the matinee girls from 16 to 60. Indeed, it is these touches of genuine drama, embroidering the comedy, as it were, which promise to give the world a new type of comedy drama. In other words, as Miss Bara says “The comedy has tragedy relief.”

In short, I think you’re going to be amazed when you see The Little She-Devil.

Unfortunately, Theda Bara’s attempt to expand her range wasn’t a success. They trimmed both the title (it was released as The She Devil) and the film: it’s lost, but it looks like they cut the comedy scenes. None of the trade magazine plot synopses say that anything was particularly funny, and they didn’t mention a comedy bear. Critics didn’t enjoy what remained. Kingsley wrote that it “is not a particularly good vehicle for her, being a sort of jitney Carmen…For an ordinary star, The She Devil would have been a piquant and acceptable story—but not for Theda Bara.” (January 20, 1919) P.S. Harrison in Motion Picture News agreed, writing “either there is a scarcity of stories, or some one has blundered in selecting this one for Theda Bara. Not only is it illogical, but unfitting her particular talents as well.” (November 9, 1918). That makes something Bara said to Kingsley sad:

But on one point Miss Bara is determined. Never, never again will she play a vampire role, if she can help it. She declared so herself.

That didn’t happen. She-Devil wasn’t a financial success, either, so it was back to the melodramas. According to Bara biographer Eve Golden, the box office failure wasn’t necessarily because of the bad reviews but because it was a victim of bad timing, being released in New York the day before the Armistice was signed, and people weren’t going to the movies that week.

Bara’s next one was The Light (1919), in which she played “the wickedest woman in Paris, quite an accomplishment when one considers the completion” wrote Golden. But the return to her usual stories didn’t help; the popularity of vampire films was passing, and her film career was coming to an end. In 1933, writer Frederick L. Collins interviewed her and found her a “lovely, gracious woman of the world,” who was reconciled to the idea that the average span of a picture star’s career was 5 years, so she sensibly stopped at four and a half. She married director Charles Brabin, traveled, became a gourmet cook, had lots of interesting friends and gave fantastic parties. Furthermore, as Golden points out, unlike most of the stars of 1918 she’s still remembered now.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a more successful comedy:

Well, they’ve done it, praise be! Ruggles of Red Gap, Harry Leon Wilson’s breezy story, unctuously funny, whimsically satirical, drolly human, has really been transferred to the screen.

It’s all there—the naïve horror of Ruggles at being introduced as ‘Col Ruggles of the British army,’ the sly humor of Cousin Egbert in putting Ruggles into Red Gap society when he has had him wished on him as a valet, the gentle satire on Anglomaniacs, the revelation of the genuineness and good-sportsmanship of Ruggles under his veneer of servant snobbery and his naïve misunderstanding of everything not English.

So the classic 1935 version of the story with Charles Laughton wasn’t the first. This version is lost.

Keaton couldn’t resist the challenge

To top it off, the additional feature was Roscoe Arbuckle’s Good Night, Nurse in its second week. Kingsley didn’t review it; Antony Anderson had the week before and he said “when Fatty becomes a lady nurse himself it is certainly up to you—you can’t resist the challenge—to redouble the loudness of your laughter. In short, Good Night Nurse is one of Roscoe’s best.” What a night at the movies!

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Kingsley reported an unusual story about how far film can reach:

After having been given up for dead as his name could nowhere be found on the list of survivors of a recent ocean tragedy, Charles Spere, the young actor who is distinguishing himself in motion pictures as a juvenile, was located last week through his screen likeness by his father, an eastern traveling man.

Milton Spere happened to catch a screening of The Desert Wooing, which featured Charles as the heroine’s brother. He sent a telegram, and the two were reunited in Hollywood a few days later. Kingsley continued, “Spere Sr. has announced that he intends to lease a bungalow, give up his travelling and let friend son support him in his old age.”

You might wonder if this is really a happy ending, but Milton didn’t move in and freeload on his son. They lived in separate houses and he opened Spere and Hill, Auto Painters, according to the 1920 City Directory. Charles Spere had a brief career playing young men, then he became a manager in a clothing store.

Kingsley mentioned that dramatic actress Olga Petrova had made an announcement about forsaking the industry:

I don’t think I shall ever do any more pictures,” said the actress. “The stage is much more satisfactory to the artist and for that matter, I have made enough money, so it doesn’t matter to me financially whether I work any more or not. But being full of energy, I suppose I shall work at something, and, as it happens, the things I care most for are uncommercial.

The remarkable thing is that’s exactly what she did! Usually retirement declarations like this are actually vacation notices. She had gotten her start in film in 1914, so her five years were almost up, if Theda Bara’s star longevity theory is accurate. She was getting out when the getting was good. Petrova’s The Secret of Eve was the topic of one of Kingsley’s funnier pans.

 

 

 

Eve Golden. Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Vestal, NY: Emprise Publishing, 1996.

 

Frederick L. Collins. “The Mystery of the Vanishing Vampire,” New Movie Magazine, March, 1933, p. 40.

Week of April 14th, 1917

 

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley proved that she paid no attention whatsoever to the sports page. On Sunday she mentioned an upcoming charity event, a baseball game between comedians and tragedians to raise money for the Red Cross. Unfortunately, somebody was giving her old information: the game had already taken place two weeks earlier, and the Times had done its part to publicize it, promising “a ball game that has never been equaled.” The team captains revealed their strategies to the paper: Wallace Reid believed “when he pitches a ball it will burn such a hole in the air that it will be weeks before the hole fills up again,” and Charlie Chaplin said “when he pitches those hard ones, I’ll fool him. I won’t bat at them and after a while he will get weak with so much hard work and then watch me.” The Tragics team included Eugene Pallette, Jack Pickford, Lew Cody and George Beban, and the Comics included Harold Lloyd, Bobbie Dunn, Eric Campbell, Charlie Murray, Chester Conklin and Hank Mann. The Times mentioned “at present the members of the opposing teams are practicing for the big event in a way that would make your blood curdle.” All contestants were asked to report to Charlie Murray at 2:30 pm on March 31st to receive their first aid bandages.

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1939 program

The Saturday afternoon game was a great success, raising nearly $8000 for the Red Cross. However, nobody bothered to report which team won the game. In the 1930’s, the Comedians vs. Leading Men baseball game became an annual charity event.

None of the other films released this week had a chance at being Kingsley’s favorite because a Chaplin film came out. She said:

The Cure – is! If you’ve got the blues, or don’t like your mother-in-law, or have a pain in your chest, don’t consult a physician or your lawyer, but go and see Charlie Chaplin at the Garrick. View Charlie disporting himself among the old ladies and gentlemen at the health resort; watch him drink the water; see him go through the evolutions superinduced by the attentions of the masseur; watch the effect of the bottles of liquor which the attendant spills into the cure-all waters; see Charlie in a bathing suit—and laugh. You will: I’ll guarantee it.

People still enjoy The Cure; the official Chaplin site calls it “perhaps the funniest of the Mutuals.” If you need a laugh, you can see it on the Internet Archive.

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A Jewel in Pawn: Walter Belasco, Maie and Ella Hall

Maybe exhibitors didn’t want to compete, because some particularly badly reviewed films were in the theaters this week. A Jewel in Pawn starring Ella Hall irritated Kingsley so much that she recounted the plot, with commentary:

You see Ella’s mama in this picture is very, very poor, and they live in the slums. Suddenly mama remembers she has a rich dad, and conceives the not unreasonable idea of returning to him together with daughter. But she has no money to buy her railroad ticket. Then Ella has a bright idea. Why shouldn’t mama pawn her, daughter, to get the money? The pawnbroker is an elderly widower, dwelling alone at the back of his shop, with whom she has but a slight acquaintance, and some evil-minded person sitting back of me suggested he hardly thought that a nice, loving, careful mama would pawn her beloved daughter.

So audiences then weren’t as innocent as we might believe. A Jewel in Pawn is a lost film, and between the anti-Semitic stereotype of the pawnbroker and the story’s uncomfortable nearness to pedophilia, I can see why it was never remade.

Bad as that was, the latest Olga Petrova film was worse, and Kingsley’s annoyance stretched over two days’ worth of columns. On Monday, she said The Waiting Soul was “a simple, one-stringed tale, with the sub-titles lending an air of stiltedness to the thing” (Petrova played a woman with a “purple” past that threatens her marriage). By Tuesday she was calling it an example of why some films really ought to be censored, and while they’re at it they could “make it a misdemeanor to destroy a helpless pie in the interests of comic art” and suppress some of those “sunny-curled ingénues.” So that’s one way to improve the pictures. The Waiting Soul has been preserved at the Eastman House.

 

 

Week of March 10th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley recounted a conversation she had with Mabel Normand:

Everyone has had a try at guessing why pictures on ancient subjects didn’t specially interest the picture fans. Many picture directors have wrung their hands and torn their hair because their favorite pictures depicting Horatius holding the bridge, or the sorrows of some ancient lady of Greece, didn’t get over, while the fact that the picture fans refused to get in a welter over the exciting things that happened in old Rome, has caused the loss of many a penny to fatuous producers. Miss Normand has hit the nail on the head.

“Tell you what it is,” said Miss Normand, the other day as she put on her make-up preparatory to some retakes in Mickey, “the whole secret of public appeal is that the spectator may be able to put himself or herself into the role of the hero or heroine. This trick of the public imagination is one that must be taken into account. When a young man sees a man on the screen, he can’t visualize himself in the role of the hero, if that hero wears queer-looking clothes and lives in a funny looking house and he can’t imagine being in love with a lady in duds all out of fashion.”

The nail that Mable Normand hit wasn’t about the box-office draw of costume dramas, instead she was describing a flavor of film theory that came to be known as spectator identification. It became very popular with psychoanalytic critics like Christian Metz and Tom Gunning. A helpful summary by Millie Schneider is at Spectatorship Theories.

But what Normand was really interested in was what sells movie tickets, and nobody has been able to figure that one out. The only correct answer seems to be William Goldman’s: “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” However, the film she was working on did make plenty of money; in a 1939 interview Mack Sennett said Mickey made 8 million dollars, which would make it a top grosser in 1918.

Kingsley said they were talking about failed Roman history films but I haven’t been able to find what they were referring to. Cabiria came out three years earlier in the U.S. so it probably wasn’t that, and Cleopatra with Theda Bara didn’t come out until October 1917. They might have been discussing the Babylonians of Intolerance and Kingsley changed it to keep them out of trouble.

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William Farnum and Florence Vidor

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Tale of Two Cities.

The Fox production completely preserves all the significance of the original, and despite the intricacy of plot and motif, Frank Lloyd, director, is to be congratulated on having given the world a clear, gripping and wholly admirable visualization of one of the greatest of Dickens’ stories. Here, indeed, are we given a fine sense of the tragic whirlwind reaping, which was the French Revolution, conveyed not with a weary repetition of battle scenes, but in a few magnificent flashes and intimate personal touches.

She admired William Farnum in the dual Carlton/Darnay role, but she saved her highest praise for one woman who didn’t even get a credit:

There is a girl not named on the programme, who does one of the most striking bits of acting to be seen in the whole photoplay – she who cheers Carlton’s last moments before execution. It’s only a flash—but in her face are depths of passionate understanding, of a love, hopeless but divine, as she, too, passes under the guillotine.

The actress was Florence Vidor, and that brief scene made her famous, according to E.V. Durling in Photoplay (August 1917). She had come to Los Angeles with her husband, the future director King Vidor, in 1915 and had previously played a few bit parts. She went on to work in some great films, including The Marriage Circle (1924) and Are Parents People? (1925). She quit acting when sound came. A Tale of Two Cities is available on DVD.

 

Kingsley’s funniest review this week was for The Secret of Eve.

So far as I’m concerned Eve still has her secret intact. It may be this Eve’s secret involves the kind of corset Olga Petrova (Eve) wears and how she manages to retain it under all circumstances. Even as the first woman, when Miss Petrova appears, partly conceled, partly revealed, behind some bushes, clad in some shimmery stuff, her lines reveal that she wears a neatly-fitting pair of stays. As a subsequent reincarnation of an Indian woman, she still wears the corset. And, of course, as the poor little shop girl later, she saves up her money to buy a corset, presumably depending on lacing herself tightly into it to keep herself from being hungry. She’ll go to heaven in that corset, or refuse the invitation.

She went on to call the film “a totally insincere, superficial bit of balderdash.” Peter Milne in Motion Picture News hated it too, writing “the worn portions of the story appear in danger of giving away altogether.” He didn’t mention Eve’s corset, therefore Kingsley’s review was funnier. It’s a lost film.

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Ilya Tolstoy

Kingsley observed that “nothing is too odd or strange for vaudeville” when one of Leo Tolstoy’s sons had been booked by the Orpheum to do a fifteen minute lecture on his father’s life and works. Ilya Tolstoy toured the United States in 1917 and the title of his talk was “The Life and Ideals of my Father.” Vaudeville really did offer a variety!

This week there was an example of how language has changed. Kingsley mentioned that scenarist Capt. Leslie Peacocke had come up with a word for a male vampire: chicken-hawk. That meaning of the term didn’t stick. Unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word history only recognizes the bird-who-kills-chickens meaning, and the Urban Dictionary doesn’t bother with dating their terms, so I don’t know when it came to mean either a man who enjoys the company of boys under the age of consent, or a war-monger with no military experience.

Week of November 25th, 1916

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Lillian Gish in The Children Pay

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that a new film had struck a nerve.

This department is in receipt of several letters from various persons praising in the highest terms [writer] Frank Woods’ picture “The Children Pay” at Clune’s Broadway. The story deals with the sufferings and humiliations suffered by children whose parents are divorced. In fact, the picture seems to have had a wide appeal, not only because of its purpose, which is worked out in a natural and unforced way, but because of the fact that Lillian Gish has several fetching comedy scenes which apparently have caught the public taste.

The Children Pay told the story of Millicent (Lillian Gish) and Jean (Violet Wilky), sisters who have been separated because of their parent’s divorce. To reunite, Millicent marries her lawyer and takes custody of Jean. (Gish was 23 at the time, so it looked less like pedophilia.)

This was unusual because Kingsley rarely mentioned the response she got to her columns. She didn’t entirely disagree with the letter writers; her review said that despite the questionable legality of a minor girl being appointed guardian of her younger sister and marriage without her parents’ consent, the film was “a logical, human and appealing little story, though dragged out tiresomely in some scenes.” She agreed with the letter writers that Gish “shows herself possessed of a quaint but keen sense of fun, and it is very pleasing to view the young lady whom we have been accustomed to see weeping, playing a prankish part.” The review ran on Wednesday and she mentioned the letters on Friday, so the various persons were annoyed enough to write in right away.

Kevin Brownlow wrote that divorce had been the subject of films since Detected (1903) and while it was commercial, The Children Pay was the first film to treat it with concern and its victims with compassion (Behind the Mask of Innocence, p.34). The film has been preserved at the Danish Film Institute.

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The Prince of Graustark

Kinglsey liked some of the week’s other releases more than The Children Pay. Her favorite film was a “bright, clean-cut and sparkling romantic comedy” The Prince of Graustark because it “discusses no ‘problems,’ nobody chest heaves or emotes and there is no villain. It is simply a delightfully ingenious comedy, with a smashing surprise finish!”

It’s been preserved at the Eastman House, but in case you’re not planning a trip to Rochester soon I’ll spoil the surprise: Prince Robin must save his country from bankruptcy by marrying a neighboring princess. He refuses and sails to the United States where he meets a wealth financier who agrees to give him the money with the hope that he’ll marry his daughter Maud. He meets a woman whom he thinks is Maud, they go back to Graustark, but she’s not the financier’s daughter, she’s the princess! (I bet you didn’t see that coming!) The novel it was based on is fun, too, and it’s available on the Internet Archive.

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Thanksgiving was this week, but Kingsley didn’t miss a column and it barely rated a mention. Special holiday matinees were at the Morosco and Burbank Theaters, and backstage at the Majestic, where A Trip Through China was in its third week, the local Chinese community planned a Chinese Thanksgiving dinner with birds’ nest soup and chop suey for Benjamin Brodsky and his associates.

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Olga Petrova

This was also the week of salary news:

  • Mae Marsh was leaving D.W. Griffith and going to work for Samuel Goldfish, who planned to pay her $2000 per week.
  • Olga Petrova left Metro for Lasky, where she was to be paid $4000 per week.
  • Douglas Fairbanks was offered $10,000 per week to star in his own company, but his current contract with Triangle prevented him for taking it.
  • The Palace Theater in New York announced that dancer Maud Allan was to get $7500 per week, the largest salary ever paid a vaudeville attraction. She was to do a series of dramatic dances. She didn’t get to keep the whole $7500; she was responsible for paying her own orchestra and company.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, in 1915 the average man made $687 per year and the average woman made half that. So it’s no wonder people were astonished by entertainers’ salaries.

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Kingsley mentioned an actor’s fashion prediction. “Charles Ray, Ince star, has made the discovery that wrist-watches worn by men are not effeminate – not when you know how they originated and you wear them in the proper spirit—So there!” He pointed out that the custom started among soldiers fighting in the Boer War, who didn’t have a pocket to put them in. He continued “and believe me, the day is coming when more American men than you can count will agree that it is a convenience, not just a fad.”

Of course he was right, but it took soldiers fighting in World War 1 to really change public opinion, according to History.com. Wristwatches had been stereotyped because the first ones were pieces of jewelry worn by women (and obviously, if women do something it must be questionable).

 

Ray was a popular star until 1923, when the big-budget The Courtship of Miles Standish failed at the box office. He continued to act, but he filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up playing bit roles until his death in 1943.

Finally, Kingsley mentioned that inter titles had hit a new low, when one of the films playing that week included “the announcement of the fact that the heroine’s gentleness is softening the villain: ‘A softening influence has stripped the husks from the eagle’s heart.’” I haven’t been able to find out where it came from; none of the ten films playing seem an obvious candidate for this monstrosity. It’s useful to remember that people in 1916 were not fans of the purplest prose. They had standards, too.