Week of March 23rd, 1918

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited the West Coast branch of Vitagraph, and left a record of just how busy the studio was:

‘Whoop! Look out! This pony’s a wild one!’

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Nell Shipman

It was William Duncan that called out to us, as he came tearing down a Wild West street at the Vitagraph studio, and around the corner came Nell Shipman, clad in khaki, with five fierce Malamute dogs pulling at the leash on which she held them. ‘Yes, they bite,’ she warned us.

But just then up drove Earle Williams in his nifty 1918 model sky-blue enameled Packard, while Grace Darmond, dolled up in the evening clothes of society with the morning sunshine flashing on her diamonds, stepped daintily into the tiny Japanese garden, where came director Tom Mills barking through his megaphone to Pete Props to ‘turn the hose on the Japanese lake!’

All of which is typical of the fact that Vitagraph isn’t just a romping kid any more, but is all grown up, civilized and dressed in long pants. As a matter of fact, Vitagraph was 21 years old on St. Patrick’s Day.

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Vitagraph’s West Coast studio

She was there to look at their plans to expand their West Coast studio. One year earlier, they had one company working there; by 1918 they had seven. They were getting ready to build a new glass studio and “luxurious dressing rooms” with heat and running water. They were gradually moving all their productions from the East coast.

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Founded in 1897 by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackman, Vitagraph was unique in its longevity. Kingsley concluded, “other companies may come and go, but Vitagraph goes on forever.”

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The studio now

Of course, nothing lasts forever but they had a respectable run. It was sold to Warner Bros. in 1925. The studio property is currently called Prospect Studios and is owned by the Walt Disney Company; many A.B.C. television shows have been made there. Tim Lussier wrote a short history of Vitagraph available on Silents Are Golden.

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Kingsley reported that on Saturday, nearly one hundred actors and crew members were working on the now-lost The Guilt of Silence in the High Sierras for Universal, when:

came a more-or-less expected telegram for cameraman Virgil Miller from a physician in Los Angeles, informing Mr. Miller that he was a dad, that Mrs. Miller was the mother of a twelve-pound boy, but that she was not expected to live, and urging Mr. Miller’s return to the city.

Then it was that Universal and Elmer Clifton, director, proved themselves regular guys. Notwithstanding the fact that delay in the taking of the picture meant a money loss as well as loss of time, Clifton, without a moment’s hesitation, provided Miller with a fast dog team and sled, and the trip over the snow to Truckee in a blinding snowstorm was made in record time, while action was halted on the picture. To the delight of members of the company, the happy dad returned yesterday [Tuesday] with the glad tidings that mother and child were doing well.

Clifton telegraphed Henry MacRae, Universal’s West Coast manager, telling him what he had done.

‘Right-o,’ MacRae telegraphed back, ‘ask Miller to have a drink on me.’

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Myrtle Bowers Miller, 1935

Myrtle Bowers Miller and Harlan continued to do well, but now it seems astonishing how little was expected of fathers in 1918. She was very pregnant and looking after four year old Joaquin and two year old Wendell, and her husband seems to have thought nothing of heading off for a job in a remote location. Even after this experience, she did it twice more: Loren was born in 1919 and Donald was born in 1921. She divorced Miller after the children were grown and married Edward Fowler; she died in 1970 aged 79.

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Lee Miller as Sgt. Brice in Perry Mason

Harlan Leroy Miller became an actor, Lee Miller. His most notable part was a recurring role on Perry Mason, Sgt. Brice. He died in 2002, aged 84.

Since Myrtle Miller took care of their home so well, Virgil Miller had plenty of time to build an interesting and varied career. In 1913 he was teaching physics and electrical engineering at Kansas State University when, on a visit to Los Angeles, he heard that Universal Studios wanted someone to supervise the introduction of electrical lighting for their films. He got the job. He was the head of their electrical department until 1915 when they transferred him to the camera department. When Elmer Clifton needed a substitute for an ill cameraman in 1917, he got the job. Clifton liked his work so much that he became his regular DP. He didn’t work on “important” films, but he shot over 100 features, and he spent eight years as the head of Paramount’s camera department (1929-1936). He finished up his career by shooting 113 episodes of You Bet Your Life, Groucho Marx’s show. He died in 1974, aged 86.

splintersHe wrote an autobiography, Splinters from Hollywood Tripods, in 1964, but he didn’t include the story of racing through a snowstorm in a dog sled to see his feared-dying wife. That had to have been memorable. In fact the only mention of her and his five sons was in a story about some actresses who demanded a married cameraman to shoot a semi-nude scene. Maybe the divorce was so awful, that he didn’t want to mention her.