A New Fun Factory: Week of August 23, 1919

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Henry Lehrman’s first independent comedy

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley announced that there was a new film studio in town:

After many months of preliminary activity, actual production of the first of the Henry Lehrman comedies for the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit was started this week, at the new Lehrman studios in Culver City. This marks the entry of Mr. Lehrman into the ranks of independent producers as the head of Henry Lehrman Productions, Inc., under a long contract with the First National, and the inauguration of a series of pictures in which he will be permitted unhampered scope in every detail of production. The first subject is expected to set new standards for Lehrman productions, and will be made without regard to time or expense.

Gee, they always liked to claim they were throwing unprecedented amounts of time and money at filmmaking in these sorts of announcements. Lehrman was a comedy veteran: in 1912 he went to work as an actor at Keystone, then he became Mack Sennett’s assistant and in 1913 he started directing. He founded L-KO Comedies in 1914 at Universal, then in 1917 he moved to Fox where he started their Sunshine Comedies unit. So with that much experience, it wasn’t unreasonable to think he could run his own comedy studio. According to his biographer, Thomas Reeder, independence and full artistic control were Lehrman’s dream. He knew it was a risk, saying he’d “either end up in a palace or the poorhouse.”

Unfortunately it was the poorhouse. He made a total of five shorts, then went bankrupt, losing his studio and his house by July, 1921. Worse was yet to come, and now it’s what he’s most known for: after his leading lady and fiancée Virginia Rappe died in September, he inserted himself into the biggest scandal of the early 1920’s, the Roscoe Arbuckle trials. He continued to find occasional directing and writing jobs until his death in 1937.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was one she saw in a preview:

The Miracle Man is a miracle picture! Its like, as I saw it revealed at the Kinema the other morning, has never been made before: that of faith healing. I do not doubt it will be the sensation of this year, and maybe of many years, in its particular field….The great crashing thrill of the play is adroitly worked up to. It occurs when the four crooks, seeking to exploit the poor old Miracle Man of the hills—a simple soul, deaf, dumb and nearly blind—and staging a fake healing, are appalled to see tow real cripples, a little boy and a beautiful young girl, throw down their crutches and run to the Miracle Man, healed!

That one scene is among the few bits of the film that aren’t lost. It got preserved in a Paramount “best of “ reel called Movie Milestones No. 1. It really must have been exceptional. However, the film is occasionally still remembered because it was a huge hit, and it was the breakout film for Lon Chaney, who played The Frog, a con man who pretended to be handicapped then healed.

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George Loane Tucker

However, Kingsley barely mentioned him in her review. Instead she predicted, “George Loane Tucker, who directed this film, doubtless will achieve a reputation as one of the few great directors of screen plays.” Unfortunately, he didn’t get much chance to do that. The following year he came down with kidney disease and he died on June 20, 1921, only completing one more film, Ladies Must Live.

This week, Natacha Rambova, a future noted costume and set designer, appeared for the first time in Kingsley’s column (though photos of her dancing had run in the Times before). Unfortunately, it was buried inside a piece about a man who really had more than his fair share of ego.

Kingsley got invited to a dinner party at dancer turned De Mille actor/costume designer Theodore Kosloff’s house, which he shared with two members of his dance troop, Natacha Rambova and Vera Fredowa. Her article began by reassuring her readers that despite the rumor she’d heard that “Mr. Kosloff is a wee bit in love with either Mlle. Rambova or Mlle. Fredowa,” absolutely nothing untoward was going on. There was a chaperone (a distant “austere” relative of Kosloff’s). Furthermore:

and then you learn he has a wife and baby in England to whom he is deeply devoted. So it’s just no use your trying to stir up a romance for him, though he is so very picturesque and romantic in his tweeds and his open-throated artist’s collar.

Of course he was in the midst of an affair with 19-year-old Rambova. Kingsley went on to describe the party, which involved listening to Kosloff monolog about his rare books and prints, as well as his efforts at painting. Then they got to hear him play his violin. Meanwhile, Rambova served her “delicious Russian cookery.”* It’s a shame she didn’t say more about her.

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Natacha Rambova

Surprisingly, it took awhile for Rambova to leave him, even after he tried to steal the credit for some of her costume designs and shot her in the leg! She soon got hired by Nazimova as a costume designer and art director, who introduced her to her future collaborator and husband, Rudolph Valentino. You can learn more about her at the Women Film Pioneers site.

 

 

*She wasn’t actually Russian; she was born Winifred Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Week of August 18th, 1917

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Paradise Garden, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley rewrote an effective press release:

“Have you a little vampire in your home?” This was almost a general call sent out a few weeks ago by producer Fred J. Balshofer and Harold Lockwood, Yorke-Metro star, when they were practically stumped in finding a beautiful and youthful vampire for a leading role in Paradise Garden….

“It can’t be done,” said the casting directors at the studios to which Balshofer and Lockwood applied. But someone had to be found to play the Marcia Van Wyck of the story. This girl is a beautiful young thing of the top rungs of society, who knows a lot about a number of things that grandma never dreamed of. Marcia is quite some girl and her vamping is of an entirely new and original variety.

And at last she was found—but, just for fun, the prodigy’s name is not to be disclosed until the picture is released. Then maybe—oh boy!—you’ll say the search was worth while.

The “baby vampire” who got the big build-up was Virginia Rappe, who is sadly now remembered more for the circumstances of her death than for her life. In 1921, she died a few days after attending a party in Roscoe Arbuckle’s hotel room, which lead to Arbuckle being accused of manslaughter and undergoing three trials. There’s been an awful lot written about it, but if you’d like to see a version that doesn’t demonize Rappe, look at this interview with Joan Myers.

 

 

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Virginia Rappe

It’s melancholy to see the promising launch of Rappe’s career. Marion Howard, writing about Paradise Garden in Moving Picture World said, “watch Virginia Rappe, for she has a great future as vampire or heroine.” (November 3, 1917, p. 689) Unfortunately we can’t, it’s a lost film. Rappe did go on to star in shorts for Henry Lehrman Comedies.

 

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Jack and the Beanstalk. She wrote: “Don’t miss it! Your being grown up won’t matter a bit. Even if you’ve grown crabbed and dull, this picture play, reviving the old fairy tale, will tap the dry rock of your imagination and turn loose the floods of youthful dreams. This picture play marks the beginning of a new era in the picturization of fairy tales…here we have splendid romance, thrilling adventure, spine-prickling excitement, rib-tickling humor.”

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Jack and the Beanstalk

She reported that the audience loved it too: Miller’s Theater was jam-packed with children and “I’ve never in my life seen little ones sit quietly as they did through two hours and fifteen minutes of entertainment. I didn’t think it could be done.” The special effects particularly impressed her, and so did the performances of the child actors. She concluded, “it is quite impossible to convey on paper the wonderful charm and delightful thrill of the production.”

Other critics agreed with Kingsley. George W. Graves in Motography called it “one of the biggest film events of the year,” and he also thought that adults would like it as much as the children did. It was a big hit. The following week the theater manager told Kingsley that despite the long running time, it was almost impossible to get some of the children to leave the theater: they stayed for a second viewing. Fox soon released another kids’ film with the same stars and directors, Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. An abridged version of Jack is at the George Eastman House Archive and sixteen minutes of its ten reels are on the Internet Archive.

 

 

Playing opposite Jack was a movie she liked so much less that she felt she needed to advise the protagonist: “if there a half-dozen people following you with guns, dynamite and other high explosives, who are always subjecting you to the uncomfortable process of being lassoed or thrown over a cliff or dropped down a well, wouldn’t you after a while suspect they somehow disliked you?” Apparently poor H.B. Warner playing John Howland in The Danger Trail took a long time to figure it out, but the scenic Canadian wilds were nice to look at. It’s a lost film.

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Fairbanks on his peak

Kingsley reported that Douglas Fairbanks received a great honor: an official at Yosemite named a peak for him. He was shooting Down to Earth in the park at the time, and they held a short ceremony. Then “the energetic Douglas, overcome with emotion, not only thanked the official for the honor, but, looking upon the same as a sort of a challenge, proceeded to prove his appreciation thereof by executing a handstand plump on the edge of a dizzy precipice of the mountain.”

Thanks to Kathleen Kosiec and the Wisconsin Historical Society, we know it’s true. The spectacular photo above is part of their collection. However, she discovered that park officials didn’t formally name it, so it isn’t called Douglas Fairbanks Peak today. Sic transit gloria mundi. If you’d like to read Kosiec’s essay on Fairbanks, visit “Douglas Fairbanks: No Stuntman Required.