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.
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.
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.