Week of June 23rd, 1917

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From Lisa K. Stein, Syd Chaplin: A Biography

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported a tidbit of news about the biggest film star in the world:

Charlie has become a real capitalist. Last March he invested $10,000 in a pajama factory. At the time the factory for manufacturing “Sassy Jane” pajamas was started in Los Angeles, three machines were used. The factory has grown so rapidly that fifty machines are now working night and day to meet the demand. Last week Chaplin received over 1000 letters from feminine pajama fans, asking him to furnish them original pajama designs. Not even waiting to cool his blushes, Chaplin went right out and hired two secretaries to fight off the applicants in person who insisted upon consulting him about pajamas. June Rand, who invented the “Sassy Jane” pajama, and who induced Mr. Chaplin to invest his money therein, offered the comedian a full half interest in the business if he would wear a suit of “Sassy Janes” in The Immigrant—but he wouldn’t!

Actually, the real capitalist was Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother, who had invested $40,000 in the company and became its treasurer (his wife Minnie liked the clothes). According to his biographer, Lisa K. Stein Haven, this was the first of Syd Chaplin’s boom-and-bust busness endeavors. Pajamas weren’t the Sassy Jane company’s main product; they were famous for making colorful, comfortable cotton house dresses and aprons. Why fans wrote to Chaplin about the clothes instead of directly to June Rand I don’t understand. “Sassy Janes” were quite popular for a few years but by 1923 styles had changed and the company was bankrupt.

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He made other food funny, too

Kingsley briefly reviewed The Immigrant later this week; she said Chaplin could “make even a ham sandwich the funniest thing in the world.” He was smart to leave housedresses out of it.

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Fires of Rebellion, “a photoplay with a human story worked out by human beings, instead of puppets being jerked along an uninspired road to fulfill the requirements of a dull plot.” Directed by Ida May Park, it told the story of a factory girl who rejects a marriage proposal from the rough but honest foreman and moves to the big city where she almost gets a job as an underwear model, not realizing that she was expected to do more than model. The foreman rescues her in the nick of time. William Stowell played him, and Kingsley believed “he has no peer in the films. Here are no empty heroics, no posings. Yet as a real man, a force among men, battling against hard conditions in public and private life, reserved, even inarticulate when it comes to matters of the emotions, he makes the role stand out like a figure in the old-fashioned stereoscope.” It’s a lost film.

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William Stowell was a veteran film actor who got his start in 1909 when he co-starred with Tom Mix in The Cowboy Millionaire. He made a series of well-reviewed dramas with his Fires of Rebellion co-stars Dorothy Phillips and Lon Chaney at Universal. Sadly, Stowell died only two years later in a rail accident in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He was directing the filming of the Smithsonian African Expedition for Universal and riding in the rear couch of a train when a runaway tank car raced down a hill and smashed into it. Another member of the expedition, Dr. Joseph Armstrong, died on the scene and Stowell was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later. Three other members of the party were injured.

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This isn’t the life of a newspaper reporter?

A film that seems to have been precisely calibrated to annoy Kingsley came out this week, A Hater of Men.

Bessie Barriscale, as the heroine, is supposed to be a newspaper woman ‘who has gained some renown with her pen.’ We view her at first reporting on a great divorce case, after which we do not see her working at her job. Instead, we behold her at wonderful house parties and on boating trips and wearing, oh, such clothes!

That divorce case made the heroine question her engagement so she dumps her fiancé. Then she gets called frivolous by some random guy, changes her mind and goes back to her intended. Kingsley found “as a document of human life it is about as natural and convincing as a tin minnow,” but what really set her off was the way it maligned her profession. She concluded “a newspaper office does not turn out women with so little common sense—not to mention a sense of humor.” John Gilbert (later Garbo’s leading man) played the fiancé, but Kingsley was so busy being annoyed that she didn’t notice him. A complete version of it is in a U.S. archive, but the Library of Congress’ Film Survival Database doesn’t say which one.

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Really, it’s him and his steam roller

Kingsley gave an update on Stan Laurel’s current (and first) production, Nuts in May:

Last week a harmless steam roller, just going along about its business and bothering nobody, was sighted outside the studio grounds. An eagle-eyed member of the Stanley comedy outfit passed the good word along. Before the roller could make its lumbering escape, it was boarded by a gang of film pirates, the driver walked the plank, and Stan himself gave a star performance in the “cab.” After which the scenario writer sat on the curb and wrote the story.

The steam roller gag is the bit of the film that survives because it was re-used in Mixed Nuts (1922). Kingsley’s item is a rare glimpse of how Laurel worked, even in his first film.

 

 

Week of June 9th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley noted that in response to the war, the film world was moving away from heavy dramas and making more comedies. Every organization had a comedy company at work, and the latest to add one was Bernstein Film Productions. They had hired a successful vaudevillian who had worked with Chaplin in the Fred Karno troop named Stan Jefferson. He had recently appeared at the Hippodrome Theater in Los Angeles under his other name in a sketch called “Raffles, the Dentist.”

The Stanley Comedies Company made only one short film, Nuts in May, and Isadore Bernstein went back to being a production manager and writer. Jefferson played a mental patient who believed he was Napoleon Bonaparte. According to Cecil Adams, this is the first time the Napoleon Complex gag was ever filmed. Only about sixty seconds of it have been preserved, because they were re-used in a 1922 two-reeler called Mixed Nuts. This makes the hundreds of thousands of Jefferson’s fans sad (even if neither film is very good), because of course, soon after he made Nuts, Arthur Stanley Jefferson permanently changed his name to Stan Laurel. So much has been written about him, but if you’d like a short biography by an expert, check out Stan Laurel’s Life in Laughter by Randy Skretvedt.

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Pleased to meet you.

This was the first time Kingsley mentioned Laurel. Norvell “Babe” Hardy, despite having made his first film in 1914, would have to wait until November 30, 1921 when she announced his marriage to Myrtle Reeve.

While visiting the theaters on Broadway Kingsley ran into Jefferson’s former co-worker and had a chat about his future plans. Charlie Chaplin said he was considering “three very tempting offers,” but he hadn’t decided which was best. He was also working on ideas for his next film, and told her “he thinks he will make it a burlesque on Bill Hart’s Wild West stories.” He may have just said that to appease Kingsley (Hart had a new film playing near them on Broadway that day which might have inspired his remark); his next project was a prison escape story, The Adventurer. It was his final film for Mutual, and he signed with First National next.

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Venice Bathing Parade winners

Kingsley reported a “record-eclipsing event” from Sunday: the cameramen from Keystone filmed their Bathing Beauties at the Venice Bathing Parade, and they got the film processed and on the screen at the Mack Sennett-owned Woodley Theater by that evening. The parade didn’t start until 1:30, so they did work quickly. Two hundred “neatly attired bathing-suit girls” rode in forty-one cars past a crowd of 75,000 people and four judges. Most of the prizewinners were actresses, but only Keystone women got their pictures in the paper. (Sennett never missed an opportunity!) Mary Thurman (Keystone), in an electric blue and white sailor suit with matching parasol, shared first place with Priscilla Dean (Universal) in a modest white and black silk suit and Jessie Hallet (New York Motion Picture Co.) dressed as a Red Cross girl in red and white. Second prizes went to Juanita Hansen (Keystone) in a metal gold cloth and blue outfit and Margaret Gibson (Christie) wearing red and white.

The parade footage played with another Keystone short that was Kingsely’s favorite film this week, Cactus Nell. She felt it was the answer to the eternal question “Why are there mellers? They were made for Keystoning purposes!” The star, Polly Moran, was “queen of the jazz comediennes” a “high-power fun-maker who keeps things moving at the rate of a million revolutions per minute.” She described the best bit: “Does Polly’s big boob lover desert her for a vampire? He does, and Polly follows and lassos him, with the help of her trusty cowboys, who, by a comic mechanical device, are shot onto the backs of their horses at her first call for help.” Moran went on to a long career as a slapstick comic, first with Sennett and later at MGM.