Anticipating Prohibition: Week of May 24th, 1919

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LA Times’ front page, July 1, 1919

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote about one possible side effect of Prohibition:

Now we learn what is to become of all the erstwhile liquor men after July 1! * They’re going to turn into picture exhibitors! And I suppose the bar-keepers will be ticket-takers. At least so it would appear from the reports from every part of the country. This would seem to be a good occupation for the liquor men to fall into, inasmuch as they are following their customers, who have been deserting the saloons for pictures anyhow.

Theater owners were full of optimism at that time. Kingsley noted “the tendency all over the country is toward enlarging the picture exhibiting fields, whether due to prohibition or not.” Trade papers published articles collecting the opinions of people about the future of the film business, and they were looking forward to a windfall because potential customers would have lots of money that they weren’t spending on alcohol.

It looks like the idea of saloonkeepers going in to film exhibition came from Carl Laemmle in Moving Picture Weekly. He told them that ten years earlier when he wanted to expand his film exchange in Illinois, the state prohibited alcohol sales so he convinced 200 bar owners to make over their establishments into theaters and both sides prospered. Of course, it was much easier to turn a bar into a nickelodeon than it would have been to convert one into the sort of posh theater that filmgoers were becoming accustomed to by 1919. In the same article, S.L. Rothapfel, manager of several New York theaters, agreed with him, saying “many people who are in the liquor business are getting out of it and going into the movies instead. The liquor business is absolutely dead.” So perhaps some of them did become exhibitors.

Both men were absolutely certain about what would happen next. Laemmle said “there is no question that the closing of the saloons will increase patronage at moving picture theaters. Men seek amusement when the day’s work is done. Many now find it in the saloon and in the companionship which they find in the saloon. When the saloons close on July 1 they will naturally go to the Movies.” Rothapfel was equally optimistic: “the big future of the motion picture is being made all the bigger by prohibition…It is plainly true that wherever other places of entertainment are closed the motion picture theater profits; and this is especially the case in the matter of the saloon.”

Wid’s Year Book for 1919 included a round up of opinions, and many film producers were similarly looking forward to increased profits. Isidore Bernstein said, “there is no question in my mind that fifty per cent of the money spent on booze will find its way into the box office of the moving picture theater.” Samuel Goldwyn contributed “regardless of what attitude one may have towards prohibition, it is certain that an impartial observation of the fact must show that the immense amount formerly spent in liquor will be in large proportion hereafter go to amusement enterprises.” However, D.W. Griffith had a warning: “effects of prohibition fine at present, but would not chortle too soon as reformers released from that job will be busy with other alleged reforms that may include a censorship on motion pictures.”

Despite their hopes, Prohibition didn’t cause massive movie profits according to historian Michael Lerner on Ken Burns’ Prohibition site. Other expected results that didn’t happen included big increases in clothing, household goods, chewing gum, grape juice and soft drink sales, nor did real estate values near the closed saloons go up.

It’s kind of sweet: people in the film business had so much faith in law-abiding citizens as well as law enforcement that they didn’t predict the illicit trade in alcohol and the rise in organized crime.

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Sid Grauman

Optimism in the future of the film business affected one local theater owner who was increasing his empire:

Sid Grauman yesterday [May 28th] made known the fact that he is about to build a theater in Hollywood. The new picture house will be a palatial affair costing more than $200,000 and will seat 2200…Every possible convenience and comfort will be provided to patrons in the new theater, work on which will be begun within a short time.

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Construction of the new theater took longer than he’d probably thought it would, but the Egyptian was finally ready in 1922 and Grauman had a huge gala opening on October 18th. The first film shown was Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood. It was an impressive event, with speeches delivered by everyone from the mayor to Charlie Chaplin as well as an elaborate prologue featuring over 200 performers in costumes borrowed from the Fairbanks Studio on a duplicate of the Nottingham Castle set.

Edwin Schallert, then the LA Times film critic, attended, and he remembered to mention the new theater in his glowing and florid review of the film (which was “the great picture of the year”):

There is nothing of garishness about the interior. There is naught to distract the eye from the shadowy stage which is the playhouse raison d’etre. Lights and decorations all contribute to the spell of reserved grandeur. The sphinxes that adorn the proscenium imply that silence which is the tribute of appreciation for the visual drama. The Egyptian inscription, perhaps, suggests that mystic incantation of light which gives life to the shadowed surface of the silver sheet. Over all hangs a glorious jeweled sunburst that heralds perhaps the new dawn of the fluent art of the film.

The Egyptian Theater is still there, and has been the home of the American Cinematheque since 1998. The building is staying current with the times: as of April 2019 Netflix is in negotiations to buy it.

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Dorothy Gish

This week Kingsley gave us an idea of just how popular Dorothy Gish was — teenaged girls were imitating her:

You have heard of the Gibson girl stride, of the Laurette Taylor slouch, and now we have the Gish gambol. All the girls are doing it! It’s a combination of a new form of physical exercise and a social accomplishment—like dancing that way. So when you observe a cutie dancing about like a kitten on a hot griddle, expressing nothing except youth and pep, she isn’t really troubled with any nervous disorder, she’s merely gishing, in her artless, girlish way.

In particular, they were imitating her “Little Disturber” character in Hearts of the World. There were age restrictions (between 16 and 20) and there was a uniform too: bobbed hair covered by a tam-o-shanter, a plain skirt and a shapeless little sweater. But the main attribute was “you never, on any account, stand still for a minute.” I feel tired just reading the description. However, if you’d like to try gishing, you can find a pattern for the proper hat at Movies Silently.

Kingsley included a snapshot of how they made films then this week. At the Goldwyn studio:

Geraldine Farrar and Mabel Normand are both acting in the same glass studio. Miss Farrar, at one end of the stage, is playing tragedy to the music of a moaning cello, ever and anon slipping over the organ which is always a part of a Farrar set, and sitting down to play snatches of grand opera. On the other end of the stage Mabel Normand is playing comedy with a jazz band accompaniment. So far no casualties are reported.

Hollywood was able to mix all sorts of art together.

 

*While the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution prohibiting alcohol sales went into effect on January 17, 1920, the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act banning the sale of beverages with more than 1.28% alcohol went into effect on June 30, 1919, even though the war was over. So Prohibition effectively started then.

 

“Prohibition Coming—We Should Worry!” Moving Picture Weekly, February 1, 1919.

“What of Prohibition?” Wid’s Year Book, 1919.

Edwin Schallert, “Robin Hood a Superb Film,” Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1922.

“New Theater Policies are Announced,” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 1922.

“Workmen are Busy,” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1922.

The Heiress: Week of April 5th, 1919

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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.

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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.

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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 February 1st, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol had recently been approved by the enough states and ratified as part of the Constitution. It was to go in to effect on January 16, 1920, and Grace Kingsley spared a thought for screenwriters:

A temperance film lecture in these piping days of prohibition is quite like telling a man in the penitentiary that he mustn’t steal chickens any more, or the little boy on the desert isle that he mustn’t fire off firecrackers. What, by the way, will some of our scenario writers do when prohibition becomes law? How can the good young man be got to steal the papers, and what excuse will the erring husband have for being led astray by the vampire? Also what will become of all those temperance films, with their inevitable red hearafters full of ladies whose sufferings, whatever else these sufferings have effected, have not in the least spoiled the beauty of the ladies’ curves?

Having said all that, she was shocked to actually enjoy the unintentionally funny film on offer this week:

All of which leads up to The Craving, the temperance story starring Francis Ford, at the Symphony this week. Francis Ford obligingly plays the “horrible example.” Yet, after all, where’s the moral, since every time he takes a drink, visions of beautiful ladies arise, from the bottle and the glass—and appropriately clothed for a dip, too! My goodness, won’t every man be asking Francis for the brand? The only other punishment (?) for his drinking was that he yielded up the secret of the formula for a certain high explosive to a morbid gentleman who roached up his hair so as to look like the devil, and who seemed to have no particular use for it when he got it. But hold! Maybe he thought the formula was the secret of the hero’s drink!

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It helped that the film was “wonderfully well produced, acted and directed,” and the trick photography was “remarkable and beautiful.” The Craving has been called the last temperance film, but it didn’t fit the usual trope: reform and sobriety don’t solve the hero’s problems, a big explosion killing the man after the secret does (just like movies made now!)

However, Prohibition did put an end to films based on the Ten Nights in a Bar Room model; after it was repealed in 1933 they were seen as old-fashioned. Later films about alcoholism were more subtle: viewers of A Star is Born or The Lost Weekend could figure out on their own that too much booze was a bad idea.

The Craving been preserved at the EYE Film Institute, and they have made it available on YouTube.

Kingsley announced the founding of yet another production company this week:

by no less a person than Albert Capellani, who ranks as one of the foremost directors in this country, and who for some time has been one of the towers of strength in the directorial department of the Metro Pictures organization.

It was called Capellani Pictures Company. But this is the really eye catching detail: the new company “is backed by Capellani’s own money, for the most part.”

Then and now, it was unusual for somebody to spend his or her own money. Capellani had been making films since 1905; he directed the first adaptation of Les Miserables (1912) that Kingsley had enjoyed so much a year earlier. At Metro Pictures he had just directed Alla Nazimova in The Red Lantern.

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His new company’s first film was Oh Boy! based on the musical by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. After two more films, the company dissolved and he went to work for Famous Players-Lasky. He moved back to France in 1923, but couldn’t get any projects made there. He died of complications from diabetes in 1931.