Week of October 27th, 1917

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Legion of Death (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley paid a visit to the set of an unusual big-budget war film, Legion of Death:

Hup Forward—march! No, it wasn’t any sturdy captain of the Sammies who gave the command, but a slim slip of a woman—Edith Storey, and she was giving her command to still other slim slips of women, a whole drove of them, clad in neat khaki and managing to look like real soldiers instead of chorus girls as one might fear…

Right into a trench Miss Storey marched her feminine cohorts, and then—the battle began. And those girls knew how to use their rifles and bayonets! It was a marvelous sight. They fought like demons with their mock enemies; and pretty soon their pretty caps were all askew, there were actual bloodstains on their faces, and a very real gleam of battle lust in their eyes.

Writer June Mathis (Ben-Hur, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) based Legion on the first women’s combat battalion in modern history. Kingsley said they were planning “a powerful drama of a Russian woman patriot and the formation of the now famous ‘Battalion’ which undoubtedly saved Russia from German invasion during the revolution that shook the world’s largest empire from end to end and resulted in the overthrow of the Romanoff dynasty.”

 

Kingsley talked to the director, Tod Browning, and just like De Mille and Griffith, he emphasized the lengths they were going to for authenticity in his epic film. An army lieutenant trained the actresses to march and carry arms properly. They weren’t allowed to wear wigs: they had to cut off their hair, just like the soldiers did (these clever ladies made the producers pay their salaries before their hair was shorn). Browning demanded real Russian people as extras for the big street and battle scenes; they were so authentic that they didn’t speak any English so he had to hire seven translators. Danny Hogan, the Chief of Properties, couldn’t find what he needed for a Russian palace in stores, so he borrowed a carload of furniture from the Italian Ambassador. All of this added up to “a feature which promises to be the most timely, unique and spectacular picture which Metro has even produced” according to Kingsley.

 

All of their realism didn’t extend to the story, of course. Edith Storey played a princess with a love interest who founds the group, gets captured after a defeat, but is freed to live happily ever after. The real Battalion was proposed by Maria Bochkareva, a decorated front-line fighter who was born to a peasant family. Her goal was to shame Russian male soldiers who were tired of fighting Germans after three years. Minister of War Alexander Kerensky agreed, and allowed Bochkareva to train and lead 300 female recruits as the First Women’s Battalion of Death. They were sent to the front where they were resented by the male soldiers. Even though they performed well in combat, Bochkareva had to disband the unit after a few months because they were treated so badly by their fellow troops. She wrote a memoir in 1919 called Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile. She was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1920. You can read more about the Battalion on the History Buff blog.

 

Kingsley didn’t get to review the finished film, but her co-worker Antony Anderson thought it was “a Metro triumph.” The reason you may have never heard of this epic is because it’s a lost film. A new version of the story, Batalon, was made in Russia in 2015.

 

The Legion/Battalion was so famous at the time that they got mentioned in a much more lighthearted story Kingsley reported this week. Actor Jack Mulhall was in a downtown L.A. department store trying on a ladies corset for an upcoming role, and he told her:

just as they had me all trussed up in a twin-six, ball bearing, 1917 model steel cage somebody yelled fire…Miserable as I was, I forgot all about the corset and made a dash for the street. Outside I met a friend. “What’s the idea?” he demanded gazing at the corset which I had tried on over my trousers and shirt, “going to war?” Just then along came a girl I knew, and I instantly decided I preferred cremation to meeting her, so back I dashed to the corset department. Yes, I’ve worn ‘em in three scenes now—and, believe me, I don’t know that the Legion of Death was making so much of a sacrifice when it took of its corsets and went to war!

The film was called Madame Spy, and it concerned a young man who goes undercover as a baroness to learn the secrets of a German spy ring. Exhibitor’s Herald thought “Jack Mulhall as an impersonator of the fair sex is quite good,” but the story was padded (February 9, 1918).

 

Kinglsey had a happy surprise while watching her favorite film this week, The Co-respondant: the heroine acts with “straightforward sensibleness uncommon in screen heroines” and the hero “contrary to all screen ethics, behaves like a sensible human being.” The film told the story of a star woman reporter (Elaine Hammerstein*) who, in her youth, was almost dragged into an illicit relationships with a ‘rounder.’ Now the cad’s wife has named her as the co-respondent in her divorce case. Complications, including a libel case, false identity and threats of ruin ensue, but her current love (Wilfred Lucas) believes her side of the story implicitly and fights the cad as soon as he can, while the heroine types it up for an article. Kingsley said:

it is a picture play of such tense and deep-rooted human drama that in the development of its big central situation you sit quite breathless; yet it is played so naturally, there is such an utter lack of forced situation, its train of events is so entirely logical, one seems to be looking on a cross-section of life itself. Maybe you don’t believe this. I don’t blame you if you do not; but just go to the Superba and see for yourself.

You can’t go to the Superba Theater any more, but a fragment of the film exists at the Library of Congress.

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Mae Marsh, Sunshine Alley

Kingsley mentioned that J.A. Quinn, the owner of Quinn’s Rialto Theater, announced that the new Mae Marsh film Sunshine Alley would absolutely play for only one week, and he’d add midnight showings on the last days if needed. Curious, I had a look at the Rialto ads to see if he did. They didn’t tell me: I had completely forgotten that in 1917, films ran continuously and the audience came in whenever they wanted to. So I wondered when film ads in the LA Times began to include starting times. Except for some Cinerama shows, it wasn’t until 1962! So if you really want to re-create the film going experience of earlier times, pick a random chapter on your DVDs and start there.

 

 

 

*She was the songwriter’s cousin.

 

 

Week of August 25th, 1917

 

The future of film, 1917: Jack and the Beanstalk and Sirens of the Sea

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote an essay about trends in Hollywood films, entitled “Fashions Change”:

Photoplay fashions come and go just like fashions in hosiery and hats. And the photoplay you like this week, next week may look as funny to you as Aunt Maria’s lace mitts in the old family album…

Vampires are passé. They may burn oriental incense in their boudoirs until the poor creatures put themselves out with the fumes, and we remain unmoved; they bewitch us not with their weird gowns; their most seductive squirms elicit only laughter from us; we don’t believe that men fall for the cigarette advertisement siren, and even if they do we’re sick of seeing her. No, sir, in order to be a big time vamp nowadays, a woman must show she has brains, also a sense of humor…

Then take the wild west drama. William S. Hart is the only man that can get away with it outside the 5-cent houses. He is just in his zenith, but that’s because there is something to Hart and his art besides a pair of chaps and a sombrero…

The ponderous mythical war play is no more, thanks be! No more are we forced to sit through long hours of hypothetical battles in which we have no interest whatever, and in which anemic saints from another and better land inject themselves into worldly affairs…

What is the outlook? In answer let me point to the Pied Piper of Picturedom, Jack and the Beanstalk and Sirens of the Sea, and to the other fanciful film plays that are being done these days. These lift our spirits above the war-soiled world into the realms of pure fantasy.

She was right about the coming and going part: none of the things she complained about stayed gone. Vampires became exotic temptresses like Pola Negri and Greta Garbo. The death of the Western has been announced regularly since then but it keeps getting revived. Those mythical war movies of the 1910s have nothing on the ponderous battles we get in comic book movies now. The trick seems to be knowing which bits of the past are ready to be recycled.

The difference between her essay on the future of film and the ones that are being posted online right this minute is her optimism. She thought that movies would only get better and better!

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Jury of Fate, directed by Tod Browning. Not at all like the Lon Chaney films that made Browning famous later, his third film had “really fresh charm and ingenuity and quaint quality of the story.” Mabel Taliaferro starred in a dual role of twins Jacques and Jeanne; the father loved the boy and ignored the girl so when Jacques drowns his sister impersonates him. (It must have been impressive: just a few weeks ago, she had complained about too many double roles.) More melodrama ensued, but according the Kingsley, Browning “is to be congratulated on having pared down the story of all the superfluities in the way of action, and yet has given a clear and intriguing yarn.” It’s a lost film.

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What, no Chaplin?

 

She reported on a dissatisfied customer at the Garrick Theater:

“Down the aisle with his dad wandered a 4-year-old youngster, but despite his youth he possessed a pair of lungs like a bellows.

“Charlie Chaplin here?” he shrieked.

“No dear, but—“

“Want to see Charlie Chaplin!” roared the boy.

“Well you can’t today, but some day—“

“Well, why ain’t he here?” blubbered the youngster, and he howled all the way down the aisle. “Cos (boo hoo!) – you know very well I wouldn’ ‘a come only I wanted to see Char—“

“If you don‘t quit I’ll spank you!”

“Well if you do, I’ll never bring you here to see him again! So there!”

The young man had a point: why does anyone bother going to the movies if there’s no Chaplin on the bill?

Week of October 14th, 1916

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From the Los Angeles Herald (the Times didn’t print photographs in 1916)

One hundred years ago this week, Intolerance finally opened in Los Angeles. Grace Kinsley reported on the opening night crowd, which included Douglas Fairbanks, Constance Talmadge, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Thomas Meighan, Mabel Normand, Myrtle Gonzales, Mae Marsh and “scores of other stage and screen people.” Actors who were working that night on stage like Trixie Friganza, Charles Ruggles and Douglas MacLean went to matinees in the following days. It was the biggest film event of the year.

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They New York reviews had been extraordinary when it premiered on September 5th (Photoplay called them “ardent typewriter rhapsodies”) and the Los Angeles reviews equaled them:

Harry Carr, L.A. Times: “With Intolerance, David Wark Griffith has made his place secure as one of the towering geniuses of the world. As a medium for expressing art, moving pictures may not stand the test of time, but Intolerance is greater than any medium. It is one of the mile posts on the long road of art, where painting and sculpture and literature and music go jostling eagerly along together.”

Guy Price, L.A. Herald: “Nobody had dreamed that Intolerance would be so stupendous, so wonderful, so inspiring, so thrilling and so vitriolic, yet so true, an indictment against the universe’ most cherished weaknesses—deceit and bigotry… It was more than the eye anticipated, more than it could understand and digest at a moment when the brain was befuddled from the joyous shock.”

Otheman Stevens, L.A. Examiner: “It is a picture of Life that Mr. Griffith has drawn from the rays of the sun and from the effulgence of his own brain.”

Maitland Davies, L.A.Tribune: “The audience was simply swept off its feet…. It is a great, big, throbbing drama bringing yesterday and today before one in a manner no other man has succeeded in doing.”

George St. George, L.A. Express: “It is worthy of a place among the classics and it stamps Mr. Griffith as an unquestioned genius. …No branch of the theater has ever brought forth anything that is comparable to Intolerance.”

The praise really helped sell tickets at first: Kingsley later reported that 500 people were turned away from the Saturday night screening. But the strong box office didn’t last and the film lost money. By November there was already a critical backlash too. For example, Film Fun ran an unsigned editorial that acknowledged Griffith’s “genius” and the film’s “remarkable spectacular production,” but pointed out “there is too much of it. It is complex rather than finished. Intolerance is bewildering—it is magnificent—but it is patchwork.” Not everyone wants to put themselves through three hours of high art, and this sort of review gave them a reason to skip it.

Karl Brown, who was the camera assistant on the film, had another theory in his autobiography about the film’s box-office failure: “Intolerance was nothing more or less than a good old-fashioned pulpit-pounding hell-fire sermon preaching peace on earth…Griffith had succeeded, not only well but brilliantly so. But he had succeeded with the wrong thing at the wrong time, for the world had changed. People who had been singing about not wanting their boy to be a soldier were now hot for war.”

There’s another measure of how seriously Intolerance was being taken: only men got to write the reviews, even thought there were many female film writers at the time, according to The Complete History of American Film Criticism. Kingsley’s opinion of the film went unrecorded.

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Puppets

She did get to write about the competition; this week it included The Return of Draw Egan, “an extremely brisk picture play” starring William S. Hart as a reformed bandit turned marshal; The Iron Woman, a “sincere human drama” that featured Nance O’Neil as a long-suffering mother; and The Ragged Princess, “a make-believe world, where things happen just as we should like them to,” in which June Caprice played an orphan who is almost swindled out of an inheritance. But the most unusual film Kingsley saw this week was Puppets, a two-reeler directed by Tod Browning, who “has given us something new in screenland, viz., a rare whimsy in form of a pantomime photoplay, done amid exquisite settings of the futuristic order, and with all of the characters dressed like Pantaloon, Pierrot, Pierrette, Columbine, Clown, etc.” French pantomime didn’t often turn up in American movies. It’s a lost film. Browning had been directing for only a little over a year, but he went on to direct several Lon Chaney films as well as Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932).