Week of July 28th, 1917

 

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a production at Universal that was more exciting than it really needed to be. While filming a bar room shoot-out for a two-reel Western called Phantom Gold, director W.B. Pearson asked actor Clarence Hodge to fire a rifle at the film’s star, Fred Church, and instructed him

to place his shots as near as he possibly could to Church’s head without taking the grave chance of “drilling” the leading man. Hodge started to produce excitement from the very outset of the scene. The first shot bored through the edge of the bar above Church’s shoulder. The next whizzed past the place where his forehead had been a moment ago. Ping! Ping! Ping! As fast as the marksman could work the ejector the bullets clipped the edge of the bar within a few inches of Church’s stooping form, and he was showered with flying splinters. The twelve shots in the magazine of the first rifle were fired, and Hodge seized another and kept up the fusillade. The hail of lead was striking so close to the leading man that the director’s nerve gave out, though Church himself was as brave as a Frenchman in battle.

Suddenly the closest shot of all ripped away a piece of wood within two inches of Church’s head, imbedding a splinter the size of a lead pencil in the player’s neck. Right then the director threw up his hands and stopped the action. Twenty-one bullets of 30 caliber were fired, and every one of them landed within three inches of the edge of the bar, which was shattered completely. Church’s hair—which may be assumed to have been in a upright position—was matted with splinters, which also were stuck in his neck and shoulders so that he had the bristling aspect of a scared porcupine. While the handsome film idol declares he had perfect faith in Hodge’s marksmanship, still he admits to a hoping in his inmost soul there will be no retake.

And that’s why unions and workplace safety regulations are so important! From the beginning, actors usually used blanks in guns, not live ammunition. They just didn’t show the effects of bullets hitting things. Now squibs (miniature explosive devices) are used to simulate bullet impacts. Wikipedia (I know, not the best source) says they were first used in Pokolenie (A Generation), a 1955 Polish film.

Phantom Gold is so lost that there isn’t even an IMDB page for it, but it was mentioned in Motion Picture News (July 21, 1917). Clarence Hodge, who learned to shoot in the Army, gave up acting in the early 1920s and went to work for a refrigeration company. Fred Church made it through that workday and had a good long life, dying in 1983 at age 93 of congestive heart failure – not of bad decisions by a director. He mostly acted in Westerns until the mid-1930s, when he retired. Poor W. B. Pearson didn’t fare as well: he died only fifteen months later, in the influenza epidemic.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a circus story: ‘all innocent of fights, automobile accidents, fires and seductions as it is, yet The Sawdust Ring, at Clune’s Auditorium, holds you completely charmed.” Bessie Love starred as a girl, deserted by her father, who with a neighbor boy runs away to the big top. Kingsley didn’t catch they boy’s name, but she thought he rivaled Jack Pickford and “he is certainly some little actor!” He was Harold Goodwin, and he went on to work in film and television continuously until 1968, most memorably in Buster Keaton’s College and The Cameraman, as well as in Keaton’s TV shows. The film survives in a shortened version at the Pacific Film Archive and at the BFI.

Here’s how the newspaper used to cover salacious gossip:

The pages of Frances White’s supposedly private affairs continue to be painfully public. Eastern papers carry the story that detectives on the trail of Miss White’s husband, Frank Fay, discovered him living at a Philadelphia hotel with another woman, and in the meantime, Frank Fay, just to keep things moving, is suing Billy Rock, Miss White’s professional partner, for the alienation of Miss White’s valuable affections.

It was so much more polite! Of course I had to know what happened next. White, a successful vaudeville singer, got her divorce (the marriage lasted all of two months) and Fay’s suit was dismissed – White and Rock were strictly professional partners. Fay went on to have a lucrative career as a stage comedian and master of ceremonies, but his personality didn’t improve: he became a white supremacist. The title of Trav S.D.’s article about him was “The Comedian Who Inspired Hatred.” He was also Barbara Stanwyck’s first husband and their story was rumored to have been the basis for A Star is Born.

Why would someone want to withstand his charm?

Grace Kingsley was wrong about something this week in her review of a Pauline Frederick film, Her Better Self. She seemed to think that it was a problem with the picture when every young woman in the film fell in love with Thomas Meighan: “no feminine being who meets him seems able to withstand his charm, and this though he doesn’t vamp ‘em one bit.” As anyone who has seen him in The Canadian (1926) knows, this is pure realism and solidly logical. To prove my point, here are some more photos.

Week of October 21st, 1916

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D.W. Griffith (from a 14-page long article in Photoplay about Intolerance)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed D.W. Griffith and he did his best to sell his current release:

David Griffith, producer of Intolerance, which is hailed as the greatest motion picture ever made, wants it distinctly understood that Intolerance isn’t ‘high-brow,’ in spite of all its historical atmosphere and embodying of historical fact. Mr. Griffith smiled his quizzical, enigmatic little smile, the other night, as he explained that he himself had some horrible doubts that it might be ‘high-brow’ until he found that ‘Kid’ Broad and ‘Spike’ Robinson, honorable prize fighters both*, to use their own phrase ‘just ate it up’. ‘Really, the main interest is the love story,’ said Mr. Griffith.

Kingsley pointed out how shrewd he was calling it Intolerance, so nobody would dare to attack it for fear of being labeled intolerant, and Griffith laughed and answered “Well you said that. I didn’t.”

He complained that the film wasn’t getting enough publicity because corporation-owned magazines were making excuses not to write about it and only three publications were printing stories. This simply wasn’t true, but Kingsley was too polite to say so.

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Anita King and Thomas Meighan

Kinglsey’s favorite film this week was The Heir to the Hoorah (the Hoorah was a mine). She wrote “if you want to see a picture thoroughly human, charming and natural, yet holding enough of the unusual in plot to add a stimulating sauce piquant, you must view The Heir to the Hoorah.…Miss King, as the young girl whose society mother goes husband hunting for her, reveals a depth of sincerity and an understanding of dramatic values which she has had no opportunity heretofore to display. There are no false notes…Thomas Meighan is strong and effective as ever in the role of the rough young millionaire mine owner who marries for love.”

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Anita King

Several of the people who worked on Heir went on to successful careers: its director William C. de Mille made some fine dramas in the 1920’s including Miss Lulu Bett (1921); its cinematographer Charles Rosher shot Mary Pickford’s best films as well as Sunrise (1927), then he became an expert in Technicolor and shot many films for M.G.M including The Yearling (1946) and Show Boat (1951); and Thomas Meighan was a major leading man of the 20’s. But the least well-known of the people involved also had an interesting life. Anita King was a former racecar driver. In 1915 she had become the first woman to drive alone cross-country from Hollywood to New York City; the publicity stunt for Paramount Pictures took 49 days. She quit acting in 1919, married twice and became a thoroughbred racehorse owner.

An incomplete version of Heir is preserved at the Library of Congress.

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An early sign of Chaplin’s seriousness about his filmmaking appeared on the 27th:

“Charlie Chaplin, whose contract with Mutual expires in January, has been offered a renewal on the old terms. But Chaplin, it is said, is holding to the idea of being given more time for the production of his pictures, claiming he cannot do his best work under the present time limit.”

Chaplin did get what he wanted from Mutual: he kept the old financial terms of his contract (they were paying him $10,00 a week, making him one of the highest paid people in the world) but instead of producing one two-reel film every four weeks, he made only four films before the contract ended in October. However, they were four of his best films: Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer.

Kingsley gave an update from The Spirit of ’76 production (discussed in my September 16th blog post):

A Harvard professor who happened to the in the mountains of Northern California when Mr. Robert Goldstein was there with his company making exteriors for his historical pageant “The Spirit of ’76,” was much interested in the work and especially in the title of the play. Mr. Goldstein told him that it was a historical picture and gave him the script to look over. Meeting him the next day he asked what he thought of it. ‘Well’, said the professor, ‘I feel as Mark Twain did when he saw Adam’s tomb in Palestine. He said he guessed it was all right, as nobody was there to deny it.

Poor Mr. Goldstein didn’t seem to recognize the professor’s joke. The Harvard man was wise not to comment on or expect historical accuracy in film – it hasn’t been there since the beginning.

Goldstein also lied to Kingsley, claiming that novelist Jack London was helping them with their production. That’s impossible because at that time London was dying a painful death from kidney failure, and he only had a month to live.

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Finally, a film company asked for submissions from the public.

The Oliver Morosco Film Company announces it want strong, dramatic stories for its stars…The company offers to pay $1500 each for complete stories adapted to its needs, or upon which a complete photoplay may be founded. This story may be either in synopsis form, 500 to 2000 words each, or may be in the form of a book or story. The company especially desires modern society dramas with comedy relief, with carefully worked-out and logical plots, happy surprises, small casts and good acting parts, rather than the general run of ‘mechanical dramas’.

They might have regretted this announcement after they saw what arrived in the mail. In 1914 Kingsley had written a story, “How’s Your Scenario,” where she described how every barber, milliner, bank president, and travelling salesman had a script in his or her back pocket. Then she told the strange stories of some of the amateurs that scenario departments had to discourage, like the man who said he was qualified to write thrilling pictures because he’d actually been in a cyclone and a car wreak (they advised him to get an accident insurance policy instead of a writing career). Some things about the film industry haven’t changed a bit.

 

* Former prize fighters is a more accurate description: by 1916 they were both actors. William M. Thomas (aka Kid Broad) went on to play boxers in a few films and Walter Charles Robinson had been working with Griffith since 1910.

Week of September 30th, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported “there is a new wizard in the motion picture field. His name is Louis H. Tolhurst.” Tolhurst had invented a mechanism that allowed him to film microscopic particles, and Kingsley commented:

Just as if we hadn’t enough actors already, Mr. Tolhurst has succeeded in making screen actors of microbes…With his apparatus this scientist pursues a bacilli, runs him to earth and makes him ‘act’ for the screen with ease and sangfroid. It matters not whether the subject be the blood coursing through arteries, a microbe dashing madly about in a pin-point of water, or a dust germ actually floating through the air—Mr. Tolhurst’s apparatus grabs them all and reveals them to the screen in such a size that the smallest animalcule resembles a mastodon, as it glares at its motion picture audience.

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Writer William Wing at Triangle Studio quickly figured out how to use Tolhurst’s invention in a fiction film, The Microscope Mystery, in which a doctor examines a murder weapon under his instrument and determines who the killer was. Nevertheless, Thomas C. Kennedy in Motography felt that the footage of bacilli had “little to do with the story, except they make it last longer.”

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Tolhurst put his invention to more successful use a few years later with a series of one-reelers, Secrets of Life. He filmed insects like flies and bees, then Walter Anthony contributed dramatic and funny intertitles; American Cinematographer called the films a “cinematographic triumph.” (Anthony had an impressive list of title writing credits including Foolish Wives, The Sea Hawk and The Cat and Canary.)

Tolhurst, a graduate of Stanford Law School, blamed his interest in microscopy for his failure in half a dozen jobs (he also owned an auto repair shop for several years). He got his start when he was fifteen and his father, a dentist, gave him a microscope for Christmas. After Secrets of Life he continued to invent and patent camera apparatuses, including one to make composite images. He didn’t have commercial success with them, so he quit and he got interested in racing his yacht, the Malabar VII. His 1960 L.A. Times obituary didn’t even mention his film work .

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The Straight Way

Kingsley’s least favorite film this week was an “old-time thriller” The Straight Way. However, it was her best review. She wrote:

Valeska Surratt cares not how many troubles she has, so long as she can have the right clothes for the occasion…Miss Surratt, in an exquisite flowered satin, is suspected by her husband; she defies the villain in tasty taffeta; she weeps becomingly over her infant in the most exquisite lingerie; she is train-wreaked in a tailor suit, and her husband takes her back in a splendid crepe de chine evening gown…but there are several inaccuracies which get the laughs. For instance, while Miss Surratt is weeping over her babe, the infant nearly rolls off her lap; a house is struck by lightening but nobody in it feels even a shock except one woman, who is instantly killed.

The movie sounds like an absolute hoot. Unfortunately, just like all eleven of Surratt’s films, it is lost. She was primarily a Broadway and vaudeville actress, famous for her outfits.

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Frances Ring and Thomas Meighan

Kingsley mentioned that actor Thomas Meighan admitted, “in spite of his numerous friends in Los Angeles, he’s just plain lonesome for his wife’s company.” Frances Ring was visiting her sister. Ring and Meighan were happy together; according to his New York Times obituary “The marriage safely weathered all the vicissitudes of fame and fortune, a fact which prompted one Hollywood writer to remark a few years ago that ‘Thomas Meighan and Rin Tin Tin were the only Hollywood stars who had never seen a divorce court.’”

Finally, in this week’s “the past is a foreign country:” Douglas Fairbanks returned to Los Angeles, and “he was met by a crowd of cowboys, who, as a special mark of their affection, treated their hero to a travesty lynching.” Affectionate lynching? They did do things differently there.

Week of August 19th, 1916

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Comic by Edmund Waller “Ted” Gale

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley scored an interview with Charlie Chaplin on the set of his new film, The Count. She rarely wrote up stand-alone interviews; instead she would incorporate them in her regular news column. But Chaplin was already such an important figure in film–only two years after his debut–that she made an exception.

She found a melancholy man who “takes life and himself seriously, and wants you to take them seriously, too.” She told of his impoverished beginnings, his working methods and the inspiration for his walk. She also demonstrated how well he could tell a story; one night he was gloomy, so he and Thomas Meighan went slumming at a saloon in San Pedro. The proprietor became suspicious of the two, and

…he openly voiced the opinion that we weren’t there for any good. Finally our evidence of overwhelming wealth – we had spent six bits by that time—caused him to decide that such reckless spenders must be from Alaska. After a while, though, he began to look at me closely. A look of amazement stole over his face. “You ain’t – it can’t be Charlie Chaplin,” he cried. “Pshaw,” I answered, “of course not, I’m a travelling man.” “I’ll bet you are Charlie Chaplin” he insisted. But when I coyly admitted I was indeed that very person –

“Aww, no you ain’t,” he veered around. “No man that made $670,000 a year would come to a dump like this!” And no amount of persuasion or proof could convince him.

The whole article was reprinted in Charlie Chaplin Interviews and the editor, Kevin Hayes, credits her with figuring out how to have a good interview with him: make it seem like a conversation, not an interview.

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Clayton, Montague Love and Blackwell in A Woman’s Way

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Woman’s Way. She wrote:

it is perhaps the best high comedy of its class which the local screen has seen…That shades of dramatic feeling, that delicate finesse of the mind’s workings, that adroit play of wit on wit may be shown on the screen, is proven in this clever story of how a woman, about to lose her husband to a vampire, sets her wits to work and wins the battle.

It stared Ethel Clayton (“a through mistress of her art”) and Carlyle Blackwell (“the artist as always, and a handsome and magnetic one”). Clayton had the depressingly typical actress’s career: she was a leading lady until the mid-1920s, then she played mothers, then she took bit parts. Blackwell continued to get leading men parts until sound ended his film career.

Margaret I. MacDonald at Moving Picture World disagreed with Kingsley; she found it only “moderately entertaining…will no doubt please the average audience.” It’s not a lost film, and has been preserved at the Amsterdam Filmmuseum.

The most successful person involved with the film was its writer, Frances Marion. Adapted from a stage play, A Woman’s Way was one of her 20 (!) film credits for 1916. She was best know for her work with Mary Pickford (see the book Without Lying Down), as well as Stella Dallas and Son of the Sheik. Marion also won an Oscar for The Champ.

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Mary Pickford, at work on the first film of her new contract, Pride of the Clan (1916)

Marion’s soon-to-be collaborator made some news this week:

Mary Pickford will head her own company hereafter, producing big features which will be released independent of any programme. It was formally announced yesterday that the Mary Pickford Film Corporation had been organized and offices opened in the Godfrey Building in New York. Miss Pickford personally is to direct and supervise every detail of her productions. It is announced that she will surround herself with the best brains and skill the motion picture field will yield.

Pickford was still working for Famous Players-Laksy, but she had signed a contract that her biographer Scott Eyman called “a small masterpiece of employee demand and employer humiliation.” Running for two years, in addition to full approval of directors and actors and independence from block booking, she got 50 percent of her films’ net profits and a private studio. She really did surround herself with the best brains and skill, hiring directors like Maurice Tourneur, Cecil B. DeMille and Marshall Neilan, cinematographer Charles Rosher, and of course Frances Marion.

D.W. Griffith’s publicity man earned his pay this week, keeping his boss’s not-yet released film in the news. Kingsley quoted W.E. Keefe, who had so successfully used fights with censors to publicize Birth of a Nation:

Intolerance seems to be just prejudice proof. Here I expected a nice, juicy lot of opposition from most everybody, and all the different sects come up and shake Griffith’s hand and tell him it’s fine. Today my last hope died. I got a message from the Mayor saying he’d like to see me privately. ‘Ha! Says I, ‘here’s where we start something!’ But all he wanted was that Mr. Griffith, Sir [Herbert Beerbohm] Tree and De Wolf Hopper should be guests of the city and go and look at the Greek Theater. What’s the use?

Intolerance was subjected to censorship in some markets (particularly the shots of seminude woman) but it was nothing compared to Birth. Russell Merrith found that “many of the censor brawls have the whiff of staged publicity stunts meant to draw attention both to the movie and to the naked women.” Keefe tried his best to drum up interest, but the film sold far fewer tickets than Birth. William Earl “Bill” Keefe was a former newspaper writer. He became a production manager at Griffith’s studio, and later worked for an advertising agency.

Kingsley delivered two pretty good one-liners this week. When describing Leah Herz’s dance act at the Orpheum, she wrote “it is a great novelty, and for those of us whose imaginations find it difficult to understand and interpret the gyrations of the ballet, and don’t know that two kicks this way means ‘I love you’ and that draping yourself over the fountain means ‘don’t bring your mother-in-law home for dinner,’ such an act is a godsend.” Who knew that going to vaudeville could be so much intellectual work!

She also mentioned that the California historical romance Daughter of the Don “continues to attract big crowds of loyal Angelinos, some of whom had been here all of a month.” Kingsley herself was a non-native – she didn’t arrive until 1879, when she was six.