Somebody Loves a Fat Man: Week of September 27th, 1919

 

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Walter Hiers

One hundred years ago this week, Kingsley interviewed an up-and-coming actor and wrote:

“What did I tell you? That fat rascal, Walter Hiers, is climbing right up toward stardom. Next to Arbuckle, Hiers is doubtless the funniest heavyweight film man in the world.”

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Hiers had just gotten a supporting role in Going Some, a comedy about a footrace and two rival ranch families. Alas, playing Berkeley Fresno didn’t make him a star, but he was an actor who worked regularly throughout his twenty-year long career, which is better than most. Kingsley highlighted the most interesting thing about his earlier roles:

Mr. Hiers holds an odd record in one respect. Nobody loves a fat man is a truism, you know. Mr. Hiers will tell you it’s true, anyhow for the purposes of screen comedy. He says he has been refused exactly eighty-nine times in pictures, and this doesn’t count the number he’s been refused by the same girl in the same picture, either!

“Why, do you know,” said Hiers, “I’m actually scared to propose to a girl in real life. That mimic failure of mine on the screen has got my goat. I’ve been declined with scorn, with contumely, with everything the screen could register, including pots and pans. I’ve been refused in the moonlight and under the scorching sun, and even in the dark where they couldn’t see me.”

Poor guy! Arbuckle himself usually got the girl in the end; Hiers just needed different writers. In 1922 he overcame the anxieties those “mean old scenario writers” who put “ice down Cupid’s back whenever Mr. Hiers appears” gave him and he proposed to Adah “Peaches” McWilliams. A newspaper writer had the nerve to ask her why she said yes, and she replied:

“They say ‘Nobody loves a fat man.’ I just wanted to be contrary. But why shouldn’t a girl love a fat man? When I go to the beach I’ll just walk along in Walter’s big shadow. When we pass through a crowd, I’ll just walk behind him and not be jostled. He likes the old-fashioned waltz, and if I’m terribly tired he can take me across the floor on his feet. They can stand it.”

She probably couldn’t get away with saying “Why ever would you ask such a question?” They married on January 12, 1923 and were together until his death from pneumonia in 1933. His grave maker says “Beloved Husband.” If you’d like to know more about Hiers, Thanhouser has a short biography.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Dragon Painter. She wrote:

Either Sessue Hayakawa is the most exquisitely artistic producer of screen plays in the world today, or else the Japanese settings lend themselves so beautifully to dramatic production that we are lured into believing this is true…I mean simply that he has the power, above anyone I know, to project those stories upon the screen amid the most ideally suitable and beautiful settings—settings which, besides charming with their loveliness, include even touches of mood; and yet he does this by some magic means which enhances the spectator’s feeling for the drama, rather than distracting his attention….As to this play, it is a film poem.

The Dragon Painter was thought to be lost, but a print was found and restored by the Eastman House. Both Fritzi Kramer on Movie Silently and Tristan Ettleman on Medium still think it’s gorgeous and they illustrated their articles with screen grabs, so you can see too. In 2014 it was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry, and Daisuke Miyao wrote an essay for them on that occasion.

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While Kingsley’s Dragon Painter review was thoughtful, her review of her least favorite film this week was more fun to read. She suffered through The Sundown Trail and wrote:

I cannot remember any “Western” situation that is left out of the story, though there may possibly be one or two. The result is a rather jolty course of narrative.

There is a western mining town without any ‘wimmin,’ and though there were many of the sex in the next town, they weren’t the ‘nice’ kind, and while the citizens of Sundown drank their liquor neat and gambled oh, like anything, they just couldn’t abide scarlet ladies. If they had, you see, there wouldn’t be any story. So they voted one night to import some from old Virginia…There was also the ragdoll heroine, a widow whose child was stolen. She lost her mind about it, away off up in the mountains, but it didn’t matter much because it didn’t seem to be much of a mind anyhow.

Oooof – she’d really had enough of vapid heroines. It’s a lost film. The Sundown Trail had one redeeming quality: Clyde Fillmore’s broad shoulders were “good to look at.” He played the slick gambler Velvet Eddy. He happened to be in town at the Morosco Theater, in the long–running play (14 weeks so far!) Civilian Clothes. He had a long career on stage and screen and was most famous for starring in von Stroheim’s Devil’s Pass Key.

Kingsley mentioned that screenwriter June Mathis asked leading man Bert Lytell if he’d heard from female impersonator Julian Eltinge lately. He said:

“No, but he sent me a fine bottle of whiskey before he went away—I’m saving it for medicinal purposes, of course,” responded Lytell.

“Oh, don’t do that,” said Miss Mathis, “sell it and go to Europe why don’t you?”

People were definitely not happy about liquor prices after Prohibition!

 

 

 

James W. Dean, “Who Loves a Fat Man?” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 8, 1922, p.3.

 

 

 

 

 

Week of March 8th, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced that another vaudeville star was going to give feature films a try:

That man of mystery, Harry Houdini, having made up his mind that he can be even more deeply, darkly mysterious through the medium of the celluloids than on stage, is going to give the whole world a chance to guess how he does it. In short, Houdini has just signed up with Famous Players-Lasky to make a six-reel feature… Mr. Lasky promises it will be absolutely unique and unlike anything of the sort ever attempted on the screen.

What’s particularly interesting is that she assumed her readers didn’t know much about him. He had only appeared in Los Angeles once, in September 1907. So she introduced him:

Beginning life as a locksmith, Houdini soon learned to open any lock ever made, and it occurred to him one day to capitalize on his talents. Starting in vaudeville with his handcuff act, he toured the world and has had a record-breaking success in all countries. For the past three years he has been one of the featured performers in the New York Hippodrome.

hh_cardsMost of that was correct, but he’d started out as a tie-cutter, not a locksmith. There are lots of web sites devoted to him, like Wild About Harry, but the short version is he was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, and he moved with his family to Wisconsin in 1876. He got interested in conjuring when he read a magician’s biography, and came up with an act with doing card tricks and sleight-of-hand, which he performed with circuses and medicine shows. Then he developed a handcuff act. Calling himself “The Handcuff King,” he got a big break in 1899 when he was hired for the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. In 1908 started doing other escape acts, freeing himself from chains, ropes, straightjackets and locked, water-filled milk cans.

In 1918 his unusual set of skills were featured a serial called The Master Mystery. He played a detective, and the bad guys inevitably tied him up at the end of an episode so he could escape at the beginning of the next. It must have been a success, because Jesse Lasky hired him to make two features. In the first, The Grim Game, he played a man jailed for a murder he didn’t commit, so he escapes and pursues the real killer who has kidnapped his fiancée. The most exciting scene was unplanned: two biplanes collided while they were filming, yet both pilots managed to land. The film was thought to be lost, but in 2014 the Houdini Museum found it (they tell the story on their web site) and Turner Classic Movies restored it.

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Houdini’s other film for Lasky was called Terror Island (1920), then he made two more for his own production company but in 1923 decided film wasn’t profitable enough. He added debunking spiritualists to his magic and escape act, offering $10,000 to any medium that could do something he couldn’t explain. He never had to pay it. He died of peritonitis in 1926.

The most astonishing thing about Houdini is that he’s still famous, when most live performers are quickly forgotten. His act really wasn’t like anybody else’s.

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Much more typical is the fate of the act that irritated Kingsley at the Orpheum this week:

If it amuses you to listen to two grown people imitating the vocal amours of back-yard cats and barnyard fowls, you will find Charles and Madeline Dunbar amusing. Otherwise you will find staying at home and playing checkers with grandpa more thrilling.

Most of the rest of the bill was equally disappointing; “with only the thought that you pay but a trifle over 8 cents an act to sustain you through some of the numbers.”

Other people actually liked the Dunbars; they toured with their impersonation act for fifteen years. In 1921 Variety’s critic wrote about their show at the Colonial Theater (Dec. 16, 1921, p.19.):

Charles and Madeline Dunbar resumed after intermission with their now standard “Animalfunology.” The man has the most expressive face of any mimics remembered. It’s a pan that glows and that has a mobile quality of particular aid. His “tom cat talk” is what landed strongest, with Miss Dunbar’s clever aid…The act was a deserved hit.

They kept going until 1932 when Charles Deagan (Dunbar was their stage name) died of heart failure in New York City, just after he made his debut in radio.*

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Heart in Pawn staring Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki. Based on Shadows, a play written by Hayakawa, it was a bit like Madame Butterfly but with extra suffering. Aoki plays a young wife who sells herself as a geisha to fund her husband’s medical studies in America. While he’s away, she murders a customer by mistake and goes to prison. In the States, he’s told that she died so he remarries and adopts a girl from Japan. They visit his home country and learn that not only that the girl is his daughter, his first wife isn’t dead. She helpfully solves his problems by drowning herself. Kingsley hated this “happy” ending, but she still thought it was a “tremendous drama” and the production had “faultless physical beauty.” Furthermore:

If anything more were needed to make us believe that Sessue Hayakawa is a genius of versatile and brilliant order, it is furnished here in the fact that Hayakawa not only produced this picture in exquisite fashion from every standpoint of artistry, that he not only enacts the principle role with depth and sincerity not excelled anywhere, but that he wrote that human, absorbing story himself.

It’s a lost film.

 

“Vaudeville Actor Dies in New York,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1932; “Charles Deagan,” Variety, July 26, 1932, p.47.

Week of December 8th, 1917

 

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed George Melford, who had just returned from directing the first feature film shot in Hawaii, Hidden Pearls.* Some of the stories he told her wouldn’t encourage others to try it:

On the island of Maui, where we took many scenes, we lived in native huts, which have only the ground for a floor. Here naturally we were pestered with the uncannily big centipedes and spiders, whose bite is not dangerous, and by swarms and swarms of mosquitos which nearly ate us up.

Film people were a hardy bunch. For one “sensational” scene, actress Margaret Loomis was set adrift in a canoe among a swarm of sharks, which she did “without a tremor.” Nevertheless, one of his stories strained credibility:

Members of the company took big chances when they descended with their native guides a goodly distance into the crater of the volcano of Mauna Loa, where on a ledge only twelve feet above the boiling lava a number of scenes were taken. “And hardly had we left the place,” said Melford, “when that ledge tumbled into the boiling mass below.”

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Mauna Loa

Lava’s temperature is between 1,292 to 2,192 degrees Fahrenheit. While film crews often have little regard for their own safety, they and their equipment couldn’t have survived being that close. Furthermore, Mauna Loa is one of the world’s largest volcanoes and it was difficult to get there. People have very odd ideas about volcanoes, but Kingsley might have known better: her widowed sister with whom she was living had been married to a Hawaiian, and had lived there for several years.

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Of course, there were compensations. They were able to shoot beautiful scenes that weren’t “beaten by anything ever shown on the screen.” Local people were hired as extras, and Melford said “never have I found such marvelous natural actors.” The company was royally entertained at several festivals, and they found the feasts and hula “lively.” It was an adventure.

The Hidden Pearls survives at the CNC French Film Archives. Now it’s mostly interesting as a document of what Hawaii looked like then.

Melford went on to have a solid career. He directed many films over the next twenty years, including The Sheik (1921) and the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931). When he retired from directing, he became a character actor, and was part of Preston Sturges’ stock company.

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Fanatics

Kingsley’s favorite film this week also featured a red-hot spectacle

A film story of unusual power and depth (despite its dime-novel title) is The Lure of Wanton Eyes…The plot has a number of threads, but all deftly woven into a most clear, colorful and entertaining plot pattern…A fanatical anarchist is a big figure of the story, and furnishes a highly dramatic moment when in a frenzy of one of his speeches to the millworkers, hurls himself to a spectacular death in the red-molten iron.

The studio changed this lost film’s name to Fanatics (somebody at Triangle must have agreed with her about the title). The story involved an unfaithful husband, murder and revenge.

 

 

It seems like December was a time when weaker films were released. Kingsley’s best line this week summed up one of them: “All the five reels of trouble between husband and wife in Alimony at Tally’s Broadway could have been explained away in about three words.” Unfortunately, the big misunderstanding trope is still alive and well. Second place for best line went to her description of Her Hour: “a story characterized by many sorrows and much wardrobe.” Back in the good old days, people knew the difference between a count noun and a mass noun!

 

She also reported on a new hit song:

Twenty thousand dollars seems a lot of money for one song, but it was the amount received by George M. Cohan for “Over There.” This lively composition is played as an accompaniment to the picture Over There at Tally’s this week.

This was just the beginning of earnings from that song for Mr. Cohan, which has stayed popular for much longer than the film (another recruitment tool about a young man learning the error of his pacifist ways). “Over There” was so significant that when it turned 100 years old, NPR did a story.

 

 

 

*Hawaii’s Film Office mentions some shorts that were filmed there earlier. You can find their list here.

Here’s another photo of Mauna Loa (see the comments):

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The United States Geological Service has a FAQ page, if you’d like more fun facts.

Week of April 7th, 1917

 

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Shooting The Escape (1914). Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith, Henry B. Walthall

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that opportunities in Hollywood were drying up for scenario writers:

That about 50 per cent of the ordinary present-day writers of ‘original’ scenarios are doomed to extinction by the mere process of elimination, seems to be a foregone conclusion… And nowadays the weeding-out process has begun in the scenario departments of all the big producing companies. Only such as have already gained distinction or who have shown unusual ability are retaining their jobs.

Instead of hiring people to write original stories, companies were adapting existing material. She cited Selig’s version of Rex Beach’s The Spoilers and Griffith’s “picturization” of The Escape as early successes, then Birth of a Nation from Thomas Dixon’s work proved they could be financial and artistic successes.

Of course, original stories weren’t replaced by adaptations, and somebody had to do the adapting. Instead, this was part of the industry-wide contraction that lasted until after the war concluded. Film has always been an uncertain career.

Her favorite film this week happened to be an adaptation, one based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story. She liked The Bottle Imp because it was so different from anything else she’d seen. Sessue Hayakawa starred as the imp who lived in a magic bottle, “the owner of which must not be caught dead with it, or his soul will be destroyed, but who, while he possesses it makes its imp the servant of his will.” She said “There are many spectacular scenes, such as the magic building of a palace before your eyes and the beautifying of diverse ugly people.” Julian Johnson in Photoplay agreed completely, exclaiming, “would that there were more photoplays of imagination such as The Bottle Imp!” It’s been preserved at the Eastman House.

The war was very much on everyone’s minds; Kingsley reported that during the afternoon vaudeville show at the Orpheum, “the smiling audience was looking up in expectation of Lew Dockstader’s appearance; the stage manager stepped forth in wholly untheatrical manner and stated that two army officers in the audience, naming them, were wanted at once at their barracks. That was all – but there was a hushed silence for a full half minute, while we were in the grip of the realization of war.” She also mentioned that at every vaudeville house patriotic musical numbers were played, and the crowds stood up.

If only actors knew more about film history, they could save themselves from so much misery! Jane Gail, the leading actress from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea told everyone that working underwater was no fun. She had thought it would be wonderful to see the bottom of the sea, but “I wouldn’t do it again. I’d rather fall over a cliff or out of a balloon than ever go through that experience again.” She married a writer and stopped acting in 1920. Kinglsey reviewed the film later that week and thought the dry land scenes were dry indeed, but the wet bits were gripping and dramatic.

Week of September 2nd, 1916

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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.

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The Honorable Friend

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.

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Tsuru Aoki, Sessue Hayakawa and Shoki

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.

 

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.