One hundred years ago this week, the war was again intruding on Grace Kingsley’s columns in all sorts of ways:
If you chance to see three score pretty young women, clad in regimentals, marching down the street with flags flying and the band playing, don’t be frightened; they won’t hurt you. The pretty girls in regimentals will be the first company of feminine soldiers organized in any picture studio in the world.
Josie Sedgwick, an up-and-coming actress at Triangle Studio, came up with the idea and executed it. She and other actresses at the studio, including Olive Thomas, Texas Guinan and Gloria Swanson, spent their evenings drilling, supervised by a regular army officer and chaperoned by the studio matron. Their goal was to perform at entertainments to raise money for the Red Cross and other war relief.
“We girls all want to do something for our country,” said Miss Sedgwick, “and we don’t feel as if merely knitting and making surgical bandages is enough, though we do that too…Our uniform? Well, we wanted trousers, but you know some girls can wear trousers and some can’t, so we decided on short shirts and leggings, with khaki shirtwaists and cute little caps.”
I haven’t been able to find any other mention or photos of the drill team. No wonder Triangle was running into business difficulties, if they couldn’t capitalize on pictures of young ladies in cute little caps.
Some film workers were leaving to serve as real soldiers. Wheeler Oakman, former Selig star, enlisted in the army, giving up “a long-term contract at a large salary with Metro Picture Corporation”. Kingsley said he was the first leading man actually under contract in Los Angeles to voluntarily do his bit.* He said, “I’m going into the regulars as a plain private…There’s a fine bunch of ‘grizzlies’ down at Camp Kearney, and I’ll be glad to be among them and to learn the ropes from them.”
That was exactly what he did: as part of the 144th Field Artillery, aka the California Grizzlies, he shipped out from New York as a private on August 15, 1918 and served in France until his unit was sent home from Bordeaux on December 23, 1918. He’d been promoted to corporal.** He came home safely and went back to acting. He worked steadily, often playing villains and henchmen, until his death in 1949.
Western star William S. Hart found a different way to express his patriotism:
It’s not kosher to make any unpatriotic cracks before Bill Hart, as a certain inhabitant of this town can tell you. Mr. Hart was dining at a restaurant the other night, which happened to be a porkless night. In came a loud-spoken stranger and demanded ham and eggs. The waiter explained to him courteously that it was a porkless day. The stranger arose from the table, flung down his napkin, and made some unpleasant remarks about the food conservation measure and started to leave.
As he went past Hart’s table, Bill looked up, fixed the stranger with his glittering eye, and drawled in a clear, high voice: “Shouldn’t think a pig would mind a porkless day!”
The stranger gave him a malevolent look, but sizing up Bill’s strong jaw and broad shoulders, took a second thought and dropping his grandiose manner, sneaked out.
Saturdays were the porkless day. The United States Food Administration had been asking people to conserve food by abstaining from eating meat on Tuesdays and wheat on Wednesdays since October, the added the porkless Saturdays was added on December 13th. It was a voluntary program, but Mr. Hart probably wasn’t the only one to ‘encourage’ compliance.
Finally, D.W. Griffith was hurrying to finish Hearts of the World, but then somebody handed him a newspaper with the headline “War to Last Six Years.” He promptly said, “Come on boys. We’ve got time. Let’s go to lunch.”
Kinglsey also offered some comic relief this week, with a story abut Teddy the Dog:
Talk about leading a dog’s life! Teddy, the wise canine actor of Mack Sennett’s comedy company, not only pays for his own license, but he pays an income tax on his salary!
A few months later, she was able to spin this anecdote into a one-page Photoplay article, “A Dog That Pays an Income Tax” (June 1918 p.62). That’s being a professional writer.
*I haven’t been able to confirm that he was the first.
**U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger List, August 15 1918 and December 23, 1918.
A research note: Digitization is helping me find amazing things. In the Wheeler Oakman story, he mentioned that his father Frank Eichelberger had fought for the Union army and was captured at Chickamauga. Knowing how actors can sometimes exaggerate things, I did some searching to see if it was true and found Pvt. Frank Eichelbergers’s testimony on how horrible being a Confederate prisoner was in a digitized book called Narrative of Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers and Soldiers while Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Rebel Authorities by United States Sanitary Commission, published in 1864. I would have never known to look for such a book. Hooray for all the people who do the very dull task of digitization!