One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley tried to reassure her readers that the film business was in good shape:
Those immortelle-weavers who love to honk-honk the sad news that now-a-days the lamp of the picture business is glimmering darkly—that in fact it is burning low and smelling of the wick—should go down to Culver City and have a peep at the Goldwyn activities. Then would these crepe-hangers sell out their stock and buy in on fireworks. Commencing next week all the Goldwyn forces, consisting of six companies, will be at work.
She was really working hard to be cheerful, but the film industry was in the middle of a rough patch. Losses from the theater closures lingered, the United States was in a postwar recession and people were still occasionally coming down with the flu (Gloria Swanson came down with it this week, and was quarantined in her bungalow).
Gloria Swanson, 1919
Samuel Goldwyn, 1919
Much less reassuring was what Samuel Goldwyn had to say about his plans. He announced: “we have definitely decided to make fewer pictures. No matter how long it takes to complete a picture, we shall not let it go out of the studio until we feel it is a perfect as possible.” That was good news for audiences, but terrible news for people who worked in the industry.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Light of Western Stars, with Dustin Farnum.
The Wild West is rapidly becoming tame, even down in Arizona…But our joy in the Wild West show is perennial; and just now there is a perfectly smashing one on view at the Alhambra. You have only to take a peep into the above-named theater, and view the crowds that are chortling and thrilling in response to vivid melodrama.
The plot was unusual for a Western: Farnum’s character marries on a drunken bet, then he flees after being falsely accused of murder. They managed to work in a “thrilling” cattle round-up and several border raids.
To close out the week, Kingsley wrote an odd little novelty article. A lifelong non-driver, she found herself among the 50,000 people attending the Auto Show. To occupy herself, she compared film actors to the latest models.
The Peerless Cloverleaf reminded her of Mary Pickford.
The seven-passenger Pierce-Arrow resembled Douglas Fairbanks.
The Overland family touring car looked like Charlie Chaplin.
I don’t see it, but I’m not bored and stuck at an auto show. It wasn’t her best work, but for a change, her writing appeared in the sports section.
One hundred years ago this week, Los Angeles city officials began to take the influenza epidemic very seriously. Following the recommendation of the newly-formed Medical Advisory Board, Mayor Frederick Woodman closed all schools, churches, theaters, and any other places of amusement starting at 6 p.m. on October 11th. He also banned all public gatherings, like Liberty Loan drives. Violators could be fined up to $500.00 or imprisoned for up to six months. Trying not to panic the public, he said that the restrictions might be lifted in a week. That wasn’t how it worked out — they lasted until December 2nd.
It all happened suddenly. Here are the theater ads from Thursday, October 10th:
And here’s the only ad from the 11th:
In hindsight, Mayor Woodman made the right decision: this disease was utterly devastating. In fourteen months, about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. It was estimated to have killed 50 million people (675,000 of them in the United States), according to the Centers for Disease Control, far more than the 15 million men killed on battlefields in World War 1,
Cinematographer Karl Brown, then serving in the army at Camp Kearny, wrote about his experience in his autobiography:
Then came one fateful evening after retreat, when it was quite dark, and when Captain Thompson came to my squad tent, which I shared with seven others. Somebody caught the glint of those two silver bars and barked “’Ten-shun!”
We all sprang to our feet, including me, even though I had been feeling horribly bad for the past two days. The trouble was that I couldn’t keep my feet under me and that I swayed forward and fell into the arms of Captain Thompson, who eased me to the floor of the tent. He felt my forehead briefly and then commanded, “Get an ambulance for this man. On the double!”
I must have fallen into a deep sleep, because I kept dreaming that I was hearing the Chopin Funeral March being played over and over again. Then, when I finally managed to achieve some semblance of awareness, I discovered that I was in a hospital bed along with ranks and ranks of other men, all in bed and all on a very long screened-in porch facing a roadway. It was daylight, and I was at least partially awake, because the Funeral March was being played by a military brass band as it moved slowly along the road, followed by a caisson carrying a flag-draped coffin.
It was hardly out of sight before another cortege came hard on the heels of the first, groaning out the same funeral march. And then another. And another. And this was to go on day after day for the unknowingly long time I was destined to stay in the base hospital.
It was the flu, of course, killing without mercy and much more efficiently than the armies on the fighting front.
Between the war and the epidemic, this was a very dark time for everybody. So they did their best to keep busy. Most people still went to work, including Grace Kingsley. This week, she had the story of the Goldwyn Company moving to Los Angeles, observing:
Count the day lost whose low descending sun sees no picture company trekking to the land of the setting sun.
Goldwyn stars like Mae Marsh, Geraldine Farrar, Pauline Fredericks and Mabel Normand were making their travel plans, according to studio president Samuel Goldfish (the name change hadn’t happened yet). He tried telling her that moving West and giving up their Ft. Lee studio was a sacrifice to conserve coal to aid the government. She wasn’t buying it, and gently mocked him for his “a perfect halo of pure patriotism” which is much more polite than calling him out.
Kingsley wrote two last movie reviews on Monday. Luckily she enjoyed them both. The first was one of John Ford’s early films, and she identified a recurring problem with his female characters.
There’s a capital Wild West story with a fairly Bret Harte-ish flavor at the Symphony this week, in which the three r’s of Wild West drama, viz, riding, romping and rowing (accent on the “ow”) are all played up strong. The Three Mounted Men is its name…Harry Carter is as horrid a villain as ever wore a checked suit and shaved his neck, while Neva Gerber is one of those lovely ragdoll heroines who had nothing to do but see to it that she’s not torn apart when they drag her on and off horses. While the story is about bandits, it is fresh and unhackneyed in treatment, with the whole company behaving like human beings.
Her second review was a sort of preview of things to come for the film industry. During the epidemic, most studios stopped production for a month so distributers re-issued older films to the theaters that hadn’t been closed. However, some companies were already doing that. The two she saw were made in 1914 and 1916, but audiences still enjoyed them:
Dear, dear, how we do love to take a peek once in a while at those old fillums of Mary Pickford’s and Charlie Chaplin’s! The Eagle’s Mate with little Mary as the heroine—she was just as long on hair, but shorter on art than in these days—and Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. are at the Garrick this week, and are drawing crowds, too, despite their ancient vintage. The Eagle’s Mate belongs to the film day when they carried maidens off to a mountain fastness and chased off sheriffs just as easy!—and the heroine always married the rough diamond hero despite stylish relatives and his table manners. Yet there’s a naïve charm and freshness about it—a zest in the doing which arouses our enjoyment and leaves us cold to the modern dramas with their boudoir hounds.
Without film and vaudeville reviews, her columns did shrink a bit, but she still presented news from interviews and press releases. And things would get better: the end of the war was only a month away.
“May Soon Lift Closing Order,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1918.
“To Wage War on Influenza,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1918.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported some very good news for film workers who are always looking for their next job: Samuel Goldfish, chairman of Famous Players-Lasky, intended to move production to Hollywood. He had been visiting Los Angeles for four weeks, and just before he left for New York he issued a press release:
…we are convinced that Los Angeles is the ideal motion picture producing center. Heretofore most of the Famous Players pictures have been made in New York; in the future the majority of the Famous Players-Lasky pictures will be produced here. …We shall practically have to double our force of employees at the Lasky studio to handle the increase in producing directors. As soon as possible we will erect new office buildings and stages. The increased output will practically triple our expenditures.
Unfortunately for all of those cameramen and production managers, this didn’t happen the way he planned. When Goldfish returned to New York, his boss Jesse Lasky asked him to resign (another executive, Adolf Zucker, had engineered his removal), so he did, effective September 14th. Goldfish quickly got back into the business; he announced the incorporation of his new company in early December. He joined Edgar Selwyn to form the Goldwyn Company, changed his last name to match the company and went on to the sort of career that 510 page (plus notes) biographies are written about. He did move his production headquarters to Los Angeles in 1918.
Kingsley was impressed by the novelty of The Honorable Friend this week. Unusual because it featured only Japanese characters (the one Caucasian actor was in yellow face), it was “frankly melodramatic, but melodrama beautifully and naturally done. The Japanese atmosphere and tradition are so cunningly intermingled that it seems a very great drama.” It seems that unfamiliarly raised the film’s quality for her, because she wasn’t kidding about the melodrama: the story involves a handsome gardener, an innocent young woman, an unscrupulous rich man, kidnapping, murder, revenge and self-sacrificing false confessions. It’s a lost film, which is a shame because it was one of the few American films in which Sessue Hayakawa got to play an ordinary man and a hero, not a villain or exotic, forbidden lover.
Kingsley admired the actors; Hayakawa was “subtle and admirable” and Tsuru Aoki “played the decorous but fiery-hearted little Japanese woman to perfection.” Hayakawa went on to a very long career in America, Europe and Japan that included an Oscar nomination for his part in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). His wife Aoki often co-stared with him until 1924 when she retired from acting to raise their three children.
Adele Frede/Valda Valkyrien/Baroness Dewitz
Kingsley was fairly appalled by the hackneyed themes of another release this week, The Unwelcome Mother, but she noted the “rare and distinctive beauty” of its “new and fascinating screen personality,” Valkyrien. It was her first film for Fox, and she was being heavily promoted. Photoplay went completely nuts with their description of her:
Behold a Danish girl, Valkyrien, whose yellow, gold-tipped hair reaches to her knees; her eyes are the deep blue of the Norse sea; her skin is like the young ivory faint-flushed with rose-petal pink…Her age is nineteen; in stature she is a mean between Psyche and Venus; she has the solid, rounded outline of limb and figure of the Ancients, combined with natural grace and nimbleness.
The author (wisely) didn’t sign this piffle. All of this promotion came to nothing; she had been promised top billing for The Unwelcome Mother but she didn’t get it so she sued Fox, which for the most part ended her career. Her Women Film Pioneers Project biography does a good job of debunking the nonsense written about her, but she’d still make an interesting biopic subject.
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on ambitious plans for a big new film studio. The Success Film Producing Company, with a capitalization of 7.5 million dollars, had been incorporated in New York the week before and they wanted to open a studio in Los Angeles by the end of August. They had bought film rights to several properties and had an option on a theater in New York, and they planned to buy more throughout the country. An article in Motion Picture News on September 2nd sounded much more suspicious of the enterprise, calling the reports rumors without forthcoming details. They also couldn’t find published records of the real estate deal for the theater. Like so many other projects, not much came of it and the company soon disappeared from the press. Motography did announce that Success hired Constance Collier as the lead in The Eternal Magdalene but they never made that film. Collier went on to a six-decade long career in the theater and film. The Eternal Magdalene was filmed in 1917 by a different brand-new production company: Goldwyn Pictures, a company that’s still around as part of M.G.M Studios. In the film business, you never know what will last and what won’t.
Not up the stairs yet
Kingsley’s favorite film of the week was Charlie Chaplin’s “One A.M.” She said:
the screen comedian has the magic power, as everybody know, of turning everything he touches into the gold of laughter. So that in One A.M. it is Chaplin as the star with the furniture as supporting company. The taxi speedometer is a veritable burlesque artist, the revolving table is a comedian of rare gift…even the poor old siphon bottle is a funster with finesse, and the trick bed is a clown. Besides, Chaplin has invented all the ways there are of not getting upstairs.
If you want to see what she’s talking about, it’s available on the Internet Archive.
She also liked the feature that played with it, Love’s Lariat, starring Harry Carey, calling it “quite the most delightful, crisp little comedy we have had in many a day…more power to whoever wrote this play.” According to the AFI Catalog, the plot involved a cowboy who had to live in the East for a year as a condition of an inheritance and the writers were William Blaine Pearson and co-director (with Carey) George E. Marshall. Pearson worked on a few more Westerns and died in November, 1918 (an unverifiable source said it was pneumonia), but Marshall had much better luck. This was his first feature-length film as a director; his last was a Jerry Lewis vehicle Hook Line and Sinker in 1969. Along the way he directed over 80 features including Destry Rides Again (1939) and several Bob Hope comedies. Love’s Lariat is a lost film.
Kingsley was much less impressed by The Marriage of Molly-O, saying that the piffling superficialities of the screenplay weren’t worthy of its star, Mae Marsh. That screenplay writer was D.W. Griffith, writing under a pseudonym.
Griffith got much better press farther along in the same August 7th column, when Kingsley mentioned that Intolerance was test-screened at the Orpheum Theater in Riverside under the title The Downfall of All Nations. She quoted some favorable reviews that called the film “soul-gripping,” and “a stupendous production.” Griffith and several of the stars, including Miss Marsh, Lillian Gish, Constance Talmadge and Robert Harron attended the screening. Two days later she reported that New York would get to see it before Los Angeles because Griffith had signed a deal to take over the Liberty Theater there for the 1916-1917 season.
Otherwise, it was a slow week for film news. Kingsley mentioned that William S. Hart had a particularly strenuous week of stunts, including falling from the back of a horse and rolling 500 feet down an embankment, but Hart said that now nothing short of eating a locomotive worried him. However, he was planning a vacation through Utah, Colorado and the Grand Canyon after the film was finished.