Week of March 24th, 1917

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Chaplin and Fairbanks do their bit for Liberty Bonds

One hundred years ago this week, war-related news had spread to Grace Kingsley’s film business column.

In the present great national crisis a ‘mobilize the movies’ campaign was quite inevitable. Can you imagine any sort of catastrophe or adventure in which the ubiquitous motion picture would play no part? If the sacred second coming were to happen today there’d be pictures of the event on the market tomorrow! … And now it’s the impending war in this country which is being press-agented. That motion pictures may be of vast assistance in developing the country’s military resources is, of course, indisputable. The Associated Motion Picture Advertisers, Inc., are thoroughly convinced of this, and last week went so far as to institute a campaign throughout the country having preparedness as its object.

The Association, founded in 1916, was made up of the publicists from most of the producing companies. They planned to make two feature-length films and some shorts, as well as fourteen recruiting slides with slogans and patriotic appeals. They hoped that newspapers and magazines would donate advertising space.

 

AMPA had good intentions, but there’s no record of any results. The work they proposed to do, and more, was done by the Committee on Public Information, a government agency established on April 13, 1917 just days after Congress declared war. The CPI used film, advertising, posters, radio and public speeches to inform people about recruitment, rationing, war bond drives and why the war was being fought. Hollywood did its bit, especially helping to sell war bonds.

With so much worry about the coming war, its no surprise that Kingsley’s favorite film this week was optimistic and cheerful.

All of the grave maxims of the copy books, regarding the virtues and efficacy of economy and thrift, are gaily upset in Skinner’s Dress Suit…After all, the most dramatic moments of the lives of us workaday folks who make up the majority of the world’s population aren’t spent being ejected from our homes by cruel fathers, or in foiling the villain who has the ‘papers,’ or in dodging would-be seducers of our virtues. The men constituting our villains in real life are, viewed from some other man’s standpoint, pretty human sort of fellow—the really decent old gentleman for instance, who refuses to raise your wages because he thinks you aren’t worth any more than he his paying you…This is the prosaic sort of problems which are played upon with such jovial philosophy, such cheery optimism, such kindly satire and whimsical humor.

Skinners Dress Suit told the story of a young man who fails to ask for a raise at work despite his wife’s encouragement. He lies to her about it, and she makes him buy a dress suit so they can go out and celebrate. In his new outfit he’s able to meet rich people and negotiate a big deal for his firm, thereby earning a raise and promotion for real. It’s a lost film. It sold so many tickets that they made two sequels that year: Skinner’s Bubble and Skinner’s Baby.

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Horace B. Carpenter

Kinglsey reported on a mystery:

Is any western writer responsible for the authorship of A Regular Guy? If so, let him at once speak up and receive a check from Artcraft. The story was recently accepted by Douglas Fairbanks, but the author of the scenario carelessly failed to place his name, address, laundry mark, or any other means of identification on his manuscript. And it certainly does pain Artcraft to have to go ahead and stage a thousand dollar scenario without paying for it.

The author did come forward and get his credit (and presumably his check). Horace B. Carpenter was a former newspaper writer turned actor who was currently playing leads at Famous Players-Lasky. This was the first scenario that he sold, but he went on to write and direct several Westerns in the 1920s. He continued to act in sound Westerns, primarily in bit parts, until his death in 1945.

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The film’s title was changed to Wild and Woolley and the story suited Fairbanks to a T. (Anita Loos’ contributions to the script probably didn’t hurt, either.) Fairbanks plays an East-coast fan obsessed with Western dime novels. To cure him, his railroad president father sends him to Bitter Creek, Arizona where the townspeople want a rail line. To impress the young fan, they disguise their home as an Old West town with a fake train holdup and Indian raid. Then there’s a real raid and kidnapping. Gee, could anyone save the day? The Exhibitor’s Herald thought it was better than anything they’d done before, and Fairbanks’ biographer Tracey Goessel called it one of his best early films. In 2002 the Library of Congress selected it for National Film Registry, so it’s a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film.” It’s available on DVD.

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Marshall Neilan

Film people in 1917 worked nonstop. Director Marshall Neilan even edited one while travelling on a train. Kingsley reported that he was about to leave for a location when the studio decided to move up the release date for the last film he’d shot, so he loaded his editing equipment and the film into a train car and did the work en route to Santa Cruz. Neilan made 9 features and one short in 1917. He’s most famous for his work with Mary Pickford; he directed Stella Maris (1918) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1924).

Sometimes working while you travelled could be too exciting. Kingsley wrote that when the train carrying the cast and crew of The Hidden Spring was coming back to Los Angeles from Jerome, Arizona, the train buckled on a turn on a steep grade and the last two cars became separated from the rest and slid down the mountain. Cameraman Tony Gaudio had just set up his camera on the back platform and he managed to turn the crank with one hand and hold on with the other for the whole trip. She mentioned that the camera got damaged, but the negative was fine. However, she didn’t’ report how Gaudio fared! He did go on to a long and successful career that included five Oscar nominations, one win (for Anthony Adverse (1936)) and collaborating on one of the best Technicolor films, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The plot description of The Hidden Spring doesn’t include a thrilling backwards train ride. Maybe the footage got used in another movie.

Week of September 23rd, 1916

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that some big New York magazines had noticed Mack Sennett’s work. George Jean Nathan in his theater review column for The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness praised him, and Kingsley was so surprised that she quoted him at length:

This Sennett is probably the most fecund inventor and merchant of the slapstick masque the civilized world has yet seen. A spectator of but a very few of his opera, I am yet fascinated and not inconsiderably bewildered by the resourceful imagination of the fellow. An erstwhile chorus man in the Casino music shows, Sennett has done the work he set out to do with a skill so complete, with a fertility so copious, that he has graduated himself as the foremost bachelor of custard-pie arts, the foremost professor of the bladder. He is, in short, the very best entrepreneur of low comedy the amusement world has seen. He has made probably twice as many millions laugh as have all of Shakespeare’s clowns and all the music show comedians on earth rolled together.

Nathan actually seems to be sincere in his admiration, beneath the thick layer of pretension (or as Kingsley politely put it: “Of course, Mr. Nathan’s viewpoint is from a very very lofty height, which naturally makes his language sound a bit condescending”). An intellectual such as himself couldn’t have possibly witnessed more than “a very few” Keystone films, nevertheless he could recommend them over “the labored unfunniness of the posturing mimic artists of Broadway.” The whole article is available on Google Books.*

Kingsley also mentioned that the Saturday Evening Post published an article Sennett wrote, “Movie Star Stories,” in which he described the differences between theatrical and film acting and told stories about some of the people who had worked for him, included Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Marilyn Slater has posted a copy on her site, Looking for Mabel.

So in 1916, general interest magazines were already starting to take movies – and comedies at that – seriously. They were well on their way to respectability.

 

In other Keystone news, the place was turning highbrow, but not because of the media attention.

No longer do Keystoners loiter about the big open-air stage, telling Keystone-y stories, playing pinochle, or otherwise amusing themselves in the common, vulgar way. Nowadays the erstwhile footlight comedians, chorus ladies, prize fighters, acrobats and cowboys gather about the phonograph, and nothing short of a Wagnarian trilogy of a Liszt rhapsody will satisfy the artistic temperament of these new disciples of the elevated brow. Louise Fazenda started the movement and everybody chipped in last week and bought a Victrola.

Technology has been ruining society for an awfully long time.

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Two comedies made Kingsley laugh this week. Anita Loos’ work was back again, this time with a “whimsically clever” screenplay for The Social Secretary. Norma Talmadge gave a “clear-cut, sparkling interpretation “ to the role of a beautiful woman masquerading as a prim, dowdy social secretary to avoid workplace sexual harassment. Kingsley said “it is refreshing to see Miss Talmadge in a comedy role, after the long series of gloomy, heart-broken females she has played.” Despite her good notices, Talmadge went back to her dramatic roles and only rarely made comedies. The Social Secretary is not a lost film; it’s even available on DVD.

She had fun at Mr. 44 as well, in which a poor factory girl (May Allison) marries a rich man (Harold Lockwood). She wrote “Miss Allison and Mr. Lockwood are always easy to look at, and their fine sense of comedy values places them right among the blue ribboners in brightly humorous plays.” The two were very popular stars at the time, co-starring in over 20 films between 1915 and 1917. Lockwood died of influenza in 1918. Allison kept working until 1927, retiring after she married James Quirk, the editor of Photoplay magazine. Mr. 44 is a lost film.

Kingsley also admired the work of the person who had the most successful career of everyone involved with the film: “Photographer Gaudio shows himself master of his craft in making the pictures of those wonderful Lake Tahoe locations.” Tony Gaudio already had many years of experience; he had been shooting short films since 1903. In the 1920’s he became the Talmadge sisters’ regular DP, and when their studio was bought by Warner Bros. he went along. He shot some of that studio’s most prestigious films, including Little Caesar (1931), Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Letter (1941).

 

 

 

*Buster Keaton fans might want to see Nathan’s article because he reviews the play Seven Chances was based on, calling it “a poor thing at best.”

One other aside: earlier in the article he opined that Sydney Chaplin was a better comic than his half-brother and his film The Plumber was better than all films, including Birth of a Nation. One problem with his argument is that The Plumber was a Charlie Chaplin film – that was an alternate title for Work (1915). So Nathan wasn’t infallible.