Week of June 30th, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that with the departure of two major producers Triangle Film Corporation was falling apart. Founded in July, 1915, Triangle was intended to be a prestige studio based on productions of D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett. They succeeded for awhile, with stars like Roscoe Arbuckle, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, but by mid-1917 they had all left, as had Griffith. Two weeks earlier Thomas Ince had resigned, and on June 30th Kingsley reported that Mack Sennett signed with Paramount Pictures to release all of his future productions. Triangle kept producing films until 1919, but film historian Brent Walker said of their comedies there “was a noticeable drop in quality.”

All of their top talent had gone to where the money was: Paramount and its divisions, Famous Players/Lasky and Artcraft. On July 1st, the company’s vice-president Jesse Lasky announced a very full slate of 27 upcoming films, mostly adaptations from bestselling authors like Mary Roberts Rinehart (Bab’s Burglar) Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer) and Owen Johnson (The Varmint). The company is still around, and is still making films based on familiar properties like Baywatch and Transformers.

Kingsley remarked that comedies were changing, and the subtlest bit of business was no longer the kicking of one gentleman downstairs by another. Her favorite film this week was an example of that, Haunted Pajamas. She wrote:

Speaking of screen comedies, don’t miss that most hilariously funny one of the season, Haunted Pajamas…Harold Lockwood discloses himself as a first rate comedian as the bewildered hero, owner of the bewitched pajamas, the quality of which he does not know, who is certain the whole world has gone mad. If all the magic articles in the Arabian Nights tales had made for as much joy as those pajamas, the Arabs would have laughed themselves to death.

The pink silk nightwear has the power to transform the wearer into someone else; mistaken identity hijinks ensue. The film has been preserved at the Eastman House. Sadly, Harold Lockwood died in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

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If you know one image from 1910’s cinema, it’s probably this one.

Kingsley got to interview Theda Bara on the set of Cleopatra, and she reported that things were going very well. The production “promises to be the most elaborate and ambitious undertaking of this [Fox] film company. Marvelous sets and costumes are being used.” The weather was hot, and Bara declared that it suited the story, and “she was glad it was not an Alaskan story she was doing.” When asked about her startling costumes, she said “I’ve gotten over being self-conscious in regard to my costumes…And to think, I cried for two days and lost fourteen pounds over having to appear in a one-piece bathing suit in A Fool There Was.” She also talked about how she did her work:

I have the scene thought out in a general way, but upon coming into it, I change many things. This seems due to a sort of inspiration, and especially as a matter of fitting my work to that of others in the scene. Mr. Edwards [J. Gordon, the director] kindly allows me to work out my own ideas. I find it very difficult to work while people are watching me, unless they are in through sympathy.

Kingsley complimented Bara on her poise, dramatic sense and power of concentration, as well as her capacity for hard work.

In an early version of Linda Holmes’ scale of how hot it would need to be before you’d go to an air-conditioned theater to see certain films, Kingsley noted that the cooling system at Miller’s Theater was very good, and Patsy was “a very pleasant little comedy with which to while away an afternoon.“ June Caprice starred as another Mary Pickford-esque tomboy who moves to the big city; it’s a lost film. It would probably be a right around The Karate Kid on the Holmes scale.

 

While remarking on the great improvement in film music, Kingsley mentioned one young woman’s comment during a film: “Oh dear, I can’t hear what he’s saying. I wish the music wouldn’t play so loud.” She was so absorbed in the story that she’d forgotten it was a silent film. I hope you get to see a movie as good as that this week!

Week of June 2nd, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Theda Bara arrived in Los Angeles and Grace Kingsley was there:

Bringing with her seventeen trunkloads of clothes, five servants and a parent or two, Miss Theda Bara, most popular of Fox stars and world-famed for putting the “ire” in “vampire,” arrived in Los Angeles yesterday via the Santa Fe. She was met by a delegation of Fox co-workers, who enthusiastically welcomed her with cheers, flowers and fruit. This is Miss Bara’s first trip west, the effete East always having claimed her…Yes, Miss Bara is just as fascinating in real life as on the screen.

She was in town to make her most expensive film yet, Cleopatra. According to her biographer, Eve Golden, she wasn’t happy to leave New York and its museums, libraries, architecture and bookstores, but the desert just couldn’t be replicated in New Jersey, so she took a month-long trip across the country, stopping to do publicity along the way.

 

The day after she arrived Kingsley interviewed her and left a snapshot of Bara at the height of her fame. She wrote:

Surely Theda Bara is quite the most charming woman in the world! At least, within one’s experience. Of course, ‘charming’ covers a multitude of subtle fascinations, so one hastens to specify, because the millions who have viewed the famous screen actress on in the black-and-whites, yet who have never heard her voice, will doubtless want to know just what she is like in the flesh. Elemental, temperamental, with flashing black eye and tigerish movement. Not a bit of it. Miss Bara is the serenest, most quietly-poised woman I have ever met, with a fine and sweet reserve, which yet is not aloofness. That is, she makes you feel she may be aloof from the rest of the world, but not from you to whom she is speaking. You, happy mortal, are entirely in her confidence.

Yet she tells you nothing! That is, nothing about her real name, or where she was born, or if she has a husband. She refuses to be interviewed on these subjects…One mustn’t forget Miss Bara’s voice, which is soft and low and very even and yet oddly colorful and expressive too. Miss Bara talks exceedingly well—on her art, and esoteric Buddhism, and English literature, and the plumbing in California bungalows. And didn’t I think the mission style of architecture wonderful?

Kingsley’s interview leaves the same impression as Golden’s biography: Bara was an intelligent, well-read woman with a sense of humor and not even a little bit like the characters she played.

Kingsley’s favorite movie this week was the first version of A Doll’s House adapted to film. She thought it was “amazingly vivid rendering of the very spirit of the great Norwegian’s play” and that Joseph de Grasses’s work as director was “likely to mark a new era in the advance of picture making.” She said that all the actors brought an “illuminating intelligence” to their roles, particularly Dorothy Phillips as Nora who grew from “amazingly world-ignorant beginnings as wife and mother, to the bewildered awakening, when going away, she answers the futile and monumentally stupid cry of her husband, ‘haven’t you been happy here?’ with the wise sadness of ‘no, only merry.’” Kingsley also praised the actor who played the blackmailer: “how subtly Lon Chaney has portrayed the unconquering pawn of destiny, Nils Krogstad, so full of bitterness of life, so cruel, yet so helpless against fate—with forever that undercurrent of humanity which is inevitably stronger than he is.”

Unfortunately, it’s a lost film. Not everyone agreed with Kingsley; Edward Weitzel in Moving Picture World felt that Ibsen was an acquired taste and his work really required speech to convey all the shades of meaning. This didn’t stop others from trying. Maurice Tourneur made another version one year later with Elsie Ferguson, and Charles Bryant made one in 1922 starring Alla Nazimova.

War news was already affecting people, and W.H. Clune, who ran a 2700-seat theater in downtown Los Angeles, announced “You will see no gloomy photodramas at the Auditorium. The stress of events has lead people to crave diversions, and the shocker type of play, also the melancholy sort, are the farthest from the desire of the great mass of people, who will be entirely satisfied with the gloom they will inevitably get through the news columns.” He had already booked Douglas Fairbanks’ Wild and Woolly and Mary Pickford’s The Little American to make good on his promise.

Tuesday, June 5th was Registration Day, the day all men aged 21-30 had to register for the draft. The governor had declared it a day off in California, and Kingsley reported on what it was like in Los Angeles theaters:

There was a holiday spirit abroad in the theater crowds—a sort of exhilaration, with an undercurrent of tenseness, as of wishing that the waiting were over with, and if war had to commence, it might come swiftly. There were hundreds of khaki uniforms in the theaters and in the darkness of the picture houses the back rows were crowded with youths and their sweethearts, holding hands and whispering in the darkness. There were hundreds of young men in the audience—not the usual spiritless loiterers of weekday audiences, but well-set-up young fellows, fresh from registration, in the spirit of doing their bit.

A khaki-clad, broad-shouldered young fellow sat in front of me at the Woodley, and beside him sat his young wife, with their baby on her lap. He was going away next day, she turned and told an acquaintance beside me.

Suddenly on the screen was flashed a line of marching soldiers. Neither said anything, but he turned to her, and such a look as passed between them!

The Woodley was showing The Dark Road a war-time vampire film set in England which Kingsley liked for its subtle acting and Rembrantish photography, along with Keystone’s Oriental Love, which she thought was so funny, it could have been written by Mark Twain. So the soldier and his wife got to see some entertaining movies on their last night out.

 

Week of March 31st, 1917

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The coming war dominated Kingsley’s columns this week. On Monday, April 2nd President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the German Empire, and they did it on on Friday, April 6th. Kingsley reported on how the film business was ready to assist:

  • The Federal government established a recruiting station on the Universal lot, and many actors had already volunteered.
  • The Lasky studio had formed a 125-men-strong company that drilled twice a week. Members included William and Cecil de Mille, Wallace Reid, and Donald Crisp.
  • Harry Harvey, the director of the Balboa Amusement Company, had bought two machine guns and was training men on their use.
  • The Navy selected Vitagraph’s “Womanhood, the Glory of the Nation” as a recruiting film. It told the story of a woman who raised an American army to fight a fictional war in Europe. The Navy hoped to station a recruiting officer and medical examiner at every screening.

 

Every male aged 21-30 registered – from up-and-coming comics to stars, no exceptions

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However, the government quickly realized that the all-volunteer force wasn’t enough, so six weeks later on May 18th, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required all men living in the United States between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military service.(1) So on June 5th they all went to went to an appointed place, answered some questions and signed the form. In Los Angeles they used the polling places, which was convenient because there was a municipal election the same day so men could vote and register. The Times reporter, John Lloyd, was almost poetic in his description:

Conscription aroused from its nap of fifty years yesterday, and summoned to the registry stations sixty-five thousand of the city’s warrior sons, who may be caught in the rip of the war tide and flung at the foe in France. Not a fistfight, nor brawl, nor riot disturbed the simple ceremony of the largest city in the West, calling forth the names of those selected for the greatest test…Some signed their names as if signing for their death, as figuratively it might well be, and some as though registering for a lark.

Hollywood also began to prepare for the inevitable results of war by helping the Red Cross. Lasky organized a Red Cross company; Mary Pickford, Mae Murray, and Kathlyn Williams were some of the participants. Keystone ran a successful fundraiser for the Red Cross at Levy’s Tavern. Actor/comic Charlie Murray (2) auctioned off a silver cup, netting $800. Then someone yelled “Fill it up with money!” and they collected another $428.

To dispel some of the gloom, Kingsley recommended His Father’s Son, a “sparkling little screen comedy” that starred Lionel Barrymore. While the plot lacked originality, she thought the intertitles were worth the price of admission. Barrymore played a spoiled rich boy whose father forces him to get a job. He gets hired by a detective agency to guard an emerald by impersonating a butler. He’s a fine guard but a bad butler. Kingsley thought that Barrymore’s comic ability was as good as Fairbanks’, and “no drop of comedy is wasted in this story.” It’s been preserved by Archives Du Film Du CNC (Bois d’Arcy).

Kingsley continued her vendetta against bad Theda Bara pictures with a review of Her Greatest Love. Her review for the lost film was such a hoot that I want to share it:

Banishing wives to Siberia can’t be a very common sort of sport even in Russia. Wherefore the event occurring in Her Greatest Love, Theda Bara’s vehicle at Miller’s this week, gives a new thrill to the jaded picture fan. You see, Theda’s husband in the picture is Walter Law. Walter appears as a wicked Russian nobleman with whiskers such as were never worn on land or sea. Theda was only 15 years old, and in short dresses, and she didn’t want to marry him at all, it seems, but in order to save the family name or to get into long dresses, or something, she finally consented. She loved Robert Hilliard, all sweet and gallant and clean-shaven; but in pictures you know a poor girl can’t do a single thing hardly that she wants to.

Discovering in reel no. 3 that her husband had a mistress, she went right up stairs, and in her agony changed her dress to something very neat and nifty with fox furs added, and she was going to leave him flat. But he told her he would send her to Siberia, and she said all right; that would be nice if he would fix up the plumbing in the castle and see that she had a good dressmaker. Anyway, that’s the inference, as she appears in wonderful dresses away off there in the frozen North, and the castle is a very spick and span castle, indeed. Of course, everything comes out all right, with the wicked husband dueled to death.

Poor Miss Bara – she didn’t deserve the scripts Fox was giving her. Later this year, she did get to star in the epic Cleopatra, so her career wasn’t finished yet.

(1) There were two more registration days, one on June 5, 1918 to catch the men who turned 21, and one on September 12, 1918 to register all men aged 18-45.

(2) Lea at Silentlogy wrote a post about Murray.

Week of July 29th, 1916

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that thirty-eight film companies were at work in Universal City, and

“as a consequence art just oozes from the city walls. Every style of picture is being produced, from the psychological brow drama of Hobart Henley and Rupert Julian to…Eddie Lyons and his trick seltzer bottle.”

The Henley film, which he planned to write, direct, and star in was about infantile paralysis and “is said to pack a thrilling punch.” Perhaps it was too thrilling: there’s no record that such a film got made but Henley had a decent career as a director that lasted until 1934. Rupert Julian had been seen carrying around Robert Davis’ novel We Are French that he wanted to make in to a film. He hoped to spend twenty thousand dollars which would pay for the destruction of a French village and desert scenes with 300 Bedouins and 100 camels. This film did get made. Retitled The Bugler of Algiers it was released in November, but none of the summaries mentioned camels or Bedouins. It’s a lost film. Julian also continued to direct until sound came. There’s a web page devoted to him here. Finally, Eddie Lyons did keep making his short comedies like clockwork, one per week, until 1920.

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A scene from The Payment

Her favorite film of the week was The Payment: “as a story of tense dramatic values, the picture has hardly ever been equaled.” She summarized it as the story of a love triangle becoming a quadrangle that “is unflinchingly worked out to a bitter and logical conclusion.” The film (as described in Motography) sounds downright horrifying now: a mill worker’s pretty daughter (Bessie Barriscale) wants to be an artist and a nasty old married letch (Charles Miller) offers to pay for her studies in exchange for sex. Lacking options, she accepts. Years pass, she becomes famous and she meets and falls in love with his brother-in-law Dick (William Desmond). The old letch convinces her that a soiled dove like her couldn’t possibly marry his relative, so she refuses Dick’s proposal; her abject misery is the payment for her ambitions. Yikes! The Payment is a lost film.

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She thought that Douglas Fairbanks’ new film The Half-Breed was a “thoroughly satisfactory and rounded production” (and said of Mr. Fairbanks “physically he presents a striking picture,” which is a very polite way of putting it.) She also mentioned that Theda Bara had one of her best roles ever as the Foreign Legion camp follower Cigarette in Under Two Flags.

Only Chaplin could replace Chaplin at the Garrick Theater. The Vagabond was to finally end its four-week run with a special one a.m. matinee of his next film, One O’Clock. Kingsley thought it would be a treat for milkmen.

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Marie Osborne

She had two stories about tough actresses. Four-year-old Marie Osborne, playing Little Mary Sunshine, was “a dead game sport.” While filming, she fell into a lily pond. The whole company fussed over her, but she said “Oh, stop chattering and go ahead and shoot!” Osborne’s grit undoubtedly helped her throughout her long career in film. After aging out of the child parts she took a break for school, then became an extra and stand-in in 1934. There’s no record that she was the basis for Joan Blondell’s character in The Stand-In (1937), but the stories were awfully similar. However, instead of ending up with an accountant and quitting she joined the wardrobe department and worked until 1977. She died in 2010, age 99.

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Claire Alexander

The second story was about a dainty ingénue:

Claire Alexander is working in an unusually strenuous comedy out of the Horsely studios. And in this hot weather, too. She came into her dressing-room yesterday with a splitting headache and covered with black and blue spots. She had been nipped by a lion, carried head downward for several minutes, had fallen off a bluff and tried to milk a cow outside the cow’s office hours. ‘What is the picture?’ a visitor asked. ‘I don’t’ know,’ answered Miss Alexander, rubbing arnica on her arms. ‘They call it comedy!’

Despite it all, she wasn’t a quitter and she kept making Cub Comedies every week until late 1917. According to her Film Daily obituary, she retired from acting in 1925 and died of pneumonia in 1927.

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Kinglsey’s admiring review of the Kosloff troupe reminded me how diverse vaudeville acts were. She wrote “Theodore Kosloff achieves one of the conquering successes of the Orpheum season in his ballet production of magic beauty and old world grace and majesty. The act was most artistically varied, from a Russian peasant dance to several fine little ballet conceptions.” She liked the other acts, too: Kramer and Morton provided a “crisp comedy turn” with “good jigs and clogs,” Consul and Betty, an educated chimp act provided “high-brow monkey-shines” and Jack McLallen and May Carson “are still the championship skaters.” What an evening’s entertainment! Later she reported that Kosloff’s troupe would be staying at the Orpheum for two more weeks, because they were such a sensation.

There was an update to last week’s story about Dora Mae Howe and her chocolates: at the Monday show when she opened the box, there was no candy, only an old Yale lock. She knew who did it, and her revenge was swift. During the Tuesday show, Paul Harvey found no cigarettes in his case, only rope.