Such Hard Work: Week of January 24th, 1920

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had news from Mamaroneck, New York:

A highly interesting letter has just been received from Lillian Gish, star of D.W. Griffith productions, and of late director of Dorothy in a comedy entitled She Made Him Behave. Miss Lillian related just how it feels to be a director, also, how the company likes, or rather doesn’t like, New York.

“What do you think of my turning director? I never dreamed it was such hard work. It makes one get into condition where one can’t sleep or eat. I really don’t understand how the directors direct and live! I certainly understand why Lois Weber goes to the hospital between pictures. I have seen the picture so much that I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but Dorothy says it is her best.”

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The film’s title was later changed to Remodeling Her Husband and it was Lillian Gish’s only attempt at directing. It’s a lost film. The plot involved newlywed Dorothy Gish catching her flirtatious husband (James Rennie) in questionable situations with other young, pretty women and she eventually leaves him. After he threatens suicide, they reconcile. Variety was not impressed; they said the story “was not a world-beater but with the action Dorothy supplies it gets by with laughs.” (December 31, 1919)

Plainly, Lillian Gish didn’t enjoy directing at all and she never changed her mind about the job, even after her initial exhaustion wore off. Later in 1920, she explained to Motion Picture Magazine, “There are people born to rule and there are people born to be subservient. I am of the latter order. I just love to be subservient, to be told what to do.” So there was at least one person in Hollywood who didn’t want to direct!

She had no idea how much cold was in store for her (Way Down East, 1920)

Gish also reported on how the Griffith company were all faring in snow country:

“Here we are,” writes Miss Gish, “all the Gishes in New York, living out in the country in an old-fashioned house where the pipes freeze and the water won’t run in or out, and the heat—well sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t—it all depends. The snow looks perfectly beautiful, but I do miss my California. It’s a joke around the studio. If anyone starts to even talk about Los Angeles you see tears in the eyes of the property boys, the electricians and the actors. We are all of us having a good case of homesickness.”

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Griffith’s Studio

They had only been away from Los Angeles a few months, having left in September, so it’s no wonder they were homesick. The company was to stay in Mamaroneck for five years, until Griffith was forced to sell the studio to cover its debts. They had several more cold winters to get through.

This week, Kingsley also reported a piece of gossip I hadn’t heard before:

Lovely Constance Talmadge, picture star, is engaged to wed Irving Berlin, noted popular music composer, according to word just received from New York by intimate friends of Miss Talmadge in this city. Just how soon the marriage is to occur is not ready to be announced.

Miss Talmadge and Mr. Berlin have been acquainted for several months; in fact, she met him in New York during a visit some time ago, before she finally went East, and the two have been good friends for a long time, but no news of the romance developing between the pair has heretofore been disclosed.

In June, 1920 the Los Angeles Herald even reported that the two were married, but they never did. Instead she married John Pialoglou, a Greek tobacco importer, on December 26, 1920. It was a double wedding with Dorothy Gish and her Remodeling co-star, James Rennie. Gish and her husband stayed married until 1935, but Talmadge divorced Pialoglou in 1922.

After the divorce, Photoplay ran an article about Talmadge called “The Most Engaged Girl in the World.” (October, 1923) It listed five past fiancés: Irving Berlin, Irving Thalberg, the film executive, John Charles Thomas, a singer, Kenneth Harlan, a film actor, and William Rhinelander Stewart Jr., a millionaire and “society favorite.” Talmadge told them what she was looking for in a husband: a “good bad man. You know, the man who’s been a regular Bluebeard, but is willing to give it all up for our sweet sakes.” Given that, it’s not too surprising that her three future marriages didn’t work out.

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Ellin and Irving Berlin

Berlin had much better luck. He was happily married to Ellin Mackay for 63 years from 1926 until her death in 1988. It seems he knew quite well what Talmadge was like; when Anita Loos asked him for a suggestion for title for a script she’d written for her, he said “A Virtuous Vamp.”

13th

Kingsley’s favorite film this week as The Thirteenth Commandment, and she used it as a stick to beat tired movie tropes with:

Amidst the dreary desert of turgid trash, the pale piffle, the mawkish flapdoodle which the screen reviewer has weekly to drag wearily through, is found once in a while a resting place, a green and flourishing oasis in the shape of a story which is sane and wholesome and normal, and yet which really reflects life vividly in a mirror. Once in a while, in other words, some director will fold the much-worn and mangy tiger skin of purple passion away in moth balls, send the vampire home to rest up and get her face fixed against the ruination of another batch of weak-minded males; will send the sweet little ingénue back to the family flat to look after her husband and babies…

Such a story is The Thirteenth Commandment, adapted from Rupert Hughes’s story, in which Ethel Clayton is starring at Clune’s Broadway this week. Its theme is the eternal problem of civilized latter-day womanhood, the alternative of economic dependence or independence, done into a human, absorbing story with sidelights of natural and inherent and unforced humor, and with every character vividly and logically drawn.

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Ethel Clayton

Ethel Clayton played a small-town girl with extravagant tastes who learns the error of her ways when she moves in with her brother and sister-in-law. They teach her that 13th Commandment, “Don’t spend more money than you make.” A title card explains why they skipped a few numbers: “It’s called the thirteenth, because it’s so unlucky to break it!” Kingsley particularly enjoyed Clayton’s performance, saying “Miss Clayton as usual blends rare intelligence with fine dramatic feeling and gives us a portrayal many-hued in its revelations of the character of a young modern woman.” Sadly, it’s a lost film.

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Tsuru Aoki

Prohibition continued to beleaguer everybody this week:

We’ll say Tsuru Aoki is a real philanthropist. A physician recently prescribed champagne for one of the Universal actresses taking part in Miss Aoki’s picture. But, owing to red tape necessary to get the drink by prescription, also owing to its cost, it looked as if the suffering lady would have to do without any bubbles in her diet. Then came forward Miss Aoki and donated several bottles of champagne, and now the invalid is reported doing as well as could be expected.

Tsuru Aoki was a fine and generous person, but my question is: what disease could it possibly have been? Just like wine, champagne has health benefits. It contains the same antioxidants that prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce bad cholesterol and prevent blood clots, lowering the risk of heart illnesses and strokes. But researchers didn’t confirm the link until this century. I have no idea what the unfortunate actress suffered from – though it sounds like Miss Kingsley wanted a slight case of it, so she could have her own prescription.

 

“Constance Talmadge Weds Irving Berlin,” Los Angeles Herald, June 4, 1920.

Hall, Gladys. “Lights! Says Lillian!” Motion Picture Magazine, April–May 1920, p. 30-31, 102.

 

Week of March 8th, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced that another vaudeville star was going to give feature films a try:

That man of mystery, Harry Houdini, having made up his mind that he can be even more deeply, darkly mysterious through the medium of the celluloids than on stage, is going to give the whole world a chance to guess how he does it. In short, Houdini has just signed up with Famous Players-Lasky to make a six-reel feature… Mr. Lasky promises it will be absolutely unique and unlike anything of the sort ever attempted on the screen.

What’s particularly interesting is that she assumed her readers didn’t know much about him. He had only appeared in Los Angeles once, in September 1907. So she introduced him:

Beginning life as a locksmith, Houdini soon learned to open any lock ever made, and it occurred to him one day to capitalize on his talents. Starting in vaudeville with his handcuff act, he toured the world and has had a record-breaking success in all countries. For the past three years he has been one of the featured performers in the New York Hippodrome.

hh_cardsMost of that was correct, but he’d started out as a tie-cutter, not a locksmith. There are lots of web sites devoted to him, like Wild About Harry, but the short version is he was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, and he moved with his family to Wisconsin in 1876. He got interested in conjuring when he read a magician’s biography, and came up with an act with doing card tricks and sleight-of-hand, which he performed with circuses and medicine shows. Then he developed a handcuff act. Calling himself “The Handcuff King,” he got a big break in 1899 when he was hired for the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. In 1908 started doing other escape acts, freeing himself from chains, ropes, straightjackets and locked, water-filled milk cans.

In 1918 his unusual set of skills were featured a serial called The Master Mystery. He played a detective, and the bad guys inevitably tied him up at the end of an episode so he could escape at the beginning of the next. It must have been a success, because Jesse Lasky hired him to make two features. In the first, The Grim Game, he played a man jailed for a murder he didn’t commit, so he escapes and pursues the real killer who has kidnapped his fiancée. The most exciting scene was unplanned: two biplanes collided while they were filming, yet both pilots managed to land. The film was thought to be lost, but in 2014 the Houdini Museum found it (they tell the story on their web site) and Turner Classic Movies restored it.

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Houdini’s other film for Lasky was called Terror Island (1920), then he made two more for his own production company but in 1923 decided film wasn’t profitable enough. He added debunking spiritualists to his magic and escape act, offering $10,000 to any medium that could do something he couldn’t explain. He never had to pay it. He died of peritonitis in 1926.

The most astonishing thing about Houdini is that he’s still famous, when most live performers are quickly forgotten. His act really wasn’t like anybody else’s.

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Much more typical is the fate of the act that irritated Kingsley at the Orpheum this week:

If it amuses you to listen to two grown people imitating the vocal amours of back-yard cats and barnyard fowls, you will find Charles and Madeline Dunbar amusing. Otherwise you will find staying at home and playing checkers with grandpa more thrilling.

Most of the rest of the bill was equally disappointing; “with only the thought that you pay but a trifle over 8 cents an act to sustain you through some of the numbers.”

Other people actually liked the Dunbars; they toured with their impersonation act for fifteen years. In 1921 Variety’s critic wrote about their show at the Colonial Theater (Dec. 16, 1921, p.19.):

Charles and Madeline Dunbar resumed after intermission with their now standard “Animalfunology.” The man has the most expressive face of any mimics remembered. It’s a pan that glows and that has a mobile quality of particular aid. His “tom cat talk” is what landed strongest, with Miss Dunbar’s clever aid…The act was a deserved hit.

They kept going until 1932 when Charles Deagan (Dunbar was their stage name) died of heart failure in New York City, just after he made his debut in radio.*

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was A Heart in Pawn staring Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki. Based on Shadows, a play written by Hayakawa, it was a bit like Madame Butterfly but with extra suffering. Aoki plays a young wife who sells herself as a geisha to fund her husband’s medical studies in America. While he’s away, she murders a customer by mistake and goes to prison. In the States, he’s told that she died so he remarries and adopts a girl from Japan. They visit his home country and learn that not only that the girl is his daughter, his first wife isn’t dead. She helpfully solves his problems by drowning herself. Kingsley hated this “happy” ending, but she still thought it was a “tremendous drama” and the production had “faultless physical beauty.” Furthermore:

If anything more were needed to make us believe that Sessue Hayakawa is a genius of versatile and brilliant order, it is furnished here in the fact that Hayakawa not only produced this picture in exquisite fashion from every standpoint of artistry, that he not only enacts the principle role with depth and sincerity not excelled anywhere, but that he wrote that human, absorbing story himself.

It’s a lost film.

 

“Vaudeville Actor Dies in New York,” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1932; “Charles Deagan,” Variety, July 26, 1932, p.47.

Week of September 2nd, 1916

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported some very good news for film workers who are always looking for their next job: Samuel Goldfish, chairman of Famous Players-Lasky, intended to move production to Hollywood. He had been visiting Los Angeles for four weeks, and just before he left for New York he issued a press release:

…we are convinced that Los Angeles is the ideal motion picture producing center. Heretofore most of the Famous Players pictures have been made in New York; in the future the majority of the Famous Players-Lasky pictures will be produced here. …We shall practically have to double our force of employees at the Lasky studio to handle the increase in producing directors. As soon as possible we will erect new office buildings and stages. The increased output will practically triple our expenditures.

Unfortunately for all of those cameramen and production managers, this didn’t happen the way he planned. When Goldfish returned to New York, his boss Jesse Lasky asked him to resign (another executive, Adolf Zucker, had engineered his removal), so he did, effective September 14th. Goldfish quickly got back into the business; he announced the incorporation of his new company in early December. He joined Edgar Selwyn to form the Goldwyn Company, changed his last name to match the company and went on to the sort of career that 510 page (plus notes) biographies are written about. He did move his production headquarters to Los Angeles in 1918.

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The Honorable Friend

Kingsley was impressed by the novelty of The Honorable Friend this week. Unusual because it featured only Japanese characters (the one Caucasian actor was in yellow face), it was “frankly melodramatic, but melodrama beautifully and naturally done. The Japanese atmosphere and tradition are so cunningly intermingled that it seems a very great drama.” It seems that unfamiliarly raised the film’s quality for her, because she wasn’t kidding about the melodrama: the story involves a handsome gardener, an innocent young woman, an unscrupulous rich man, kidnapping, murder, revenge and self-sacrificing false confessions. It’s a lost film, which is a shame because it was one of the few American films in which Sessue Hayakawa got to play an ordinary man and a hero, not a villain or exotic, forbidden lover.

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Tsuru Aoki, Sessue Hayakawa and Shoki

Kingsley admired the actors; Hayakawa was “subtle and admirable” and Tsuru Aoki “played the decorous but fiery-hearted little Japanese woman to perfection.” Hayakawa went on to a very long career in America, Europe and Japan that included an Oscar nomination for his part in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). His wife Aoki often co-stared with him until 1924 when she retired from acting to raise their three children.

 

Kingsley was fairly appalled by the hackneyed themes of another release this week, The Unwelcome Mother, but she noted the “rare and distinctive beauty” of its “new and fascinating screen personality,” Valkyrien. It was her first film for Fox, and she was being heavily promoted. Photoplay went completely nuts with their description of her:

Behold a Danish girl, Valkyrien, whose yellow, gold-tipped hair reaches to her knees; her eyes are the deep blue of the Norse sea; her skin is like the young ivory faint-flushed with rose-petal pink…Her age is nineteen; in stature she is a mean between Psyche and Venus; she has the solid, rounded outline of limb and figure of the Ancients, combined with natural grace and nimbleness.

The author (wisely) didn’t sign this piffle. All of this promotion came to nothing; she had been promised top billing for The Unwelcome Mother but she didn’t get it so she sued Fox, which for the most part ended her career. Her Women Film Pioneers Project biography does a good job of debunking the nonsense written about her, but she’d still make an interesting biopic subject.