Week of January 25th, 1919

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Ruth Clifford

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was sick of slapstick comedies, and she gave us a list of everything she’d seen enough of:

Something besides jazz comedy—with its eternal races, its repartee administered by a slapstick on the nether portion of the fat comedian, the wit of the biffing bladder, trick photography showing the thin gentleman tripping along in the sky, airy persiflage in the form of dough thrown at the professor’s whiskers.

Luckily, what she wanted was served up this week:

The pieless comedy is with us at last on the screen…In short, crisp, original farce, written especially for the screen—not mere warmed-over farce adapted from stage plays. If you want to laugh until you cry, go and see The Game’s Up at the Symphony. Never were more adroitly comical complications than arose from Ruth Clifford’s pretending to her small-town chum that she, Ruth, who had gone to a great city, had become a great artist.

She paints menus for a living, which I didn’t know was a career option (so she drew pies instead of throwing them). The chum comes for a visit (oh no!), and with the help of a chauffeur who’s actually a rich man’s son (surprise!) Ruth keeps up the pretense. After “a lot of complications you’ll foresee, but laugh at anyway,” it ends with weddings all around (the son has a nice friend for the chum).

 

This welcome change was brought to Kingsley by a woman director, Elsie Jane Wilson. She was born in Sydney, Australia and had been acting since she was two years old. She met and married fellow actor Rupert Julian and they immigrated to the United States in 1911. They moved to Los Angeles in 1914 and found acting work at Universal Studios. They both became directors; Wilson in 1917 on the family film The Little Pirate. She got to direct 11 films. Unfortunately, The Game’s Up was her last, which is a shame because non-slapstick comedy would become a regular film staple in the next decade and it sounds like she really knew what she was doing. Her husband got to continue directing for Universal, even their prestige picture The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Most of her films, including this one, are lost. However one, The Dream Lady, is on the new Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers DVD.

The star, Ruth Clifford, went on to a very long career as an actress and she was happy to talk to to film historians. Kevin Brownlow wrote her obituary when she died, aged 98.

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Clune’s Auditorium

Live theater was still going strong in Los Angeles, and this week, the opposite of the trend I read about in film histories, happened: Clune’s Auditorium, the 3000 seat theater where some of the most successful films had played, from Birth of a Nation to Cleopatra, switched to back to vaudeville. Owner William Clune had signed with Ackerman and Harris, vaudeville magnates, to link his house to their chain of successful theaters, the Western Vaudeville Association. The opening show was a satirical review called Fads and Fancies plus a vaudeville bill.

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Will King was “possessed of a real drollery which gets the house giggling the minute he comes onstage.”

Kingsley got to review it and said:

success perches high on the dome of Clune’s Auditorium, if last night’s crowd, the greatest in the history of the big theater, which greeted the transformation of the house from a picture palace into the home of musical comedy, is any criterion. It was a good-natured crowd, too—one that wanted to be pleased. But even if it had been much more critical than it was it would have been happy.

So it looks like it was a good business decision. The Auditorium never did go back to showing films. In 1920 it became the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which played there until 1963. It was demolished in 1985 and turned into a parking lot, but now apartments are being built on the site.

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Kingsley got to see a preview of D.W. Griffith’s latest, A Romance of Happy Valley, and she was impressed:

Something entirely different, but just as entirely intriguing as the usual Griffith pictures is A Romance of Happy Valley. The story is an idyll of an old southern town, and full of delightful types, while there are fairly Barrie-ish touches in its whimsicality, especially in the scenes where Lillian, as the heroine, having carried off the absent hero’s coat, which was being used as a scarecrow in his father’s cornfield, holds tender communion with the garment, as though the owner still wore it. And there’s a surprising twist to the exciting plot.

Kingsley really had been seeing too much melodrama, if she thought that attempted filicide was just a ‘surprising twist.’ The film survives, and is available on the Internet Archive.

 

Week of June 2nd, 1917

One hundred years ago this week, Theda Bara arrived in Los Angeles and Grace Kingsley was there:

Bringing with her seventeen trunkloads of clothes, five servants and a parent or two, Miss Theda Bara, most popular of Fox stars and world-famed for putting the “ire” in “vampire,” arrived in Los Angeles yesterday via the Santa Fe. She was met by a delegation of Fox co-workers, who enthusiastically welcomed her with cheers, flowers and fruit. This is Miss Bara’s first trip west, the effete East always having claimed her…Yes, Miss Bara is just as fascinating in real life as on the screen.

She was in town to make her most expensive film yet, Cleopatra. According to her biographer, Eve Golden, she wasn’t happy to leave New York and its museums, libraries, architecture and bookstores, but the desert just couldn’t be replicated in New Jersey, so she took a month-long trip across the country, stopping to do publicity along the way.

 

The day after she arrived Kingsley interviewed her and left a snapshot of Bara at the height of her fame. She wrote:

Surely Theda Bara is quite the most charming woman in the world! At least, within one’s experience. Of course, ‘charming’ covers a multitude of subtle fascinations, so one hastens to specify, because the millions who have viewed the famous screen actress on in the black-and-whites, yet who have never heard her voice, will doubtless want to know just what she is like in the flesh. Elemental, temperamental, with flashing black eye and tigerish movement. Not a bit of it. Miss Bara is the serenest, most quietly-poised woman I have ever met, with a fine and sweet reserve, which yet is not aloofness. That is, she makes you feel she may be aloof from the rest of the world, but not from you to whom she is speaking. You, happy mortal, are entirely in her confidence.

Yet she tells you nothing! That is, nothing about her real name, or where she was born, or if she has a husband. She refuses to be interviewed on these subjects…One mustn’t forget Miss Bara’s voice, which is soft and low and very even and yet oddly colorful and expressive too. Miss Bara talks exceedingly well—on her art, and esoteric Buddhism, and English literature, and the plumbing in California bungalows. And didn’t I think the mission style of architecture wonderful?

Kingsley’s interview leaves the same impression as Golden’s biography: Bara was an intelligent, well-read woman with a sense of humor and not even a little bit like the characters she played.

Kingsley’s favorite movie this week was the first version of A Doll’s House adapted to film. She thought it was “amazingly vivid rendering of the very spirit of the great Norwegian’s play” and that Joseph de Grasses’s work as director was “likely to mark a new era in the advance of picture making.” She said that all the actors brought an “illuminating intelligence” to their roles, particularly Dorothy Phillips as Nora who grew from “amazingly world-ignorant beginnings as wife and mother, to the bewildered awakening, when going away, she answers the futile and monumentally stupid cry of her husband, ‘haven’t you been happy here?’ with the wise sadness of ‘no, only merry.’” Kingsley also praised the actor who played the blackmailer: “how subtly Lon Chaney has portrayed the unconquering pawn of destiny, Nils Krogstad, so full of bitterness of life, so cruel, yet so helpless against fate—with forever that undercurrent of humanity which is inevitably stronger than he is.”

Unfortunately, it’s a lost film. Not everyone agreed with Kingsley; Edward Weitzel in Moving Picture World felt that Ibsen was an acquired taste and his work really required speech to convey all the shades of meaning. This didn’t stop others from trying. Maurice Tourneur made another version one year later with Elsie Ferguson, and Charles Bryant made one in 1922 starring Alla Nazimova.

War news was already affecting people, and W.H. Clune, who ran a 2700-seat theater in downtown Los Angeles, announced “You will see no gloomy photodramas at the Auditorium. The stress of events has lead people to crave diversions, and the shocker type of play, also the melancholy sort, are the farthest from the desire of the great mass of people, who will be entirely satisfied with the gloom they will inevitably get through the news columns.” He had already booked Douglas Fairbanks’ Wild and Woolly and Mary Pickford’s The Little American to make good on his promise.

Tuesday, June 5th was Registration Day, the day all men aged 21-30 had to register for the draft. The governor had declared it a day off in California, and Kingsley reported on what it was like in Los Angeles theaters:

There was a holiday spirit abroad in the theater crowds—a sort of exhilaration, with an undercurrent of tenseness, as of wishing that the waiting were over with, and if war had to commence, it might come swiftly. There were hundreds of khaki uniforms in the theaters and in the darkness of the picture houses the back rows were crowded with youths and their sweethearts, holding hands and whispering in the darkness. There were hundreds of young men in the audience—not the usual spiritless loiterers of weekday audiences, but well-set-up young fellows, fresh from registration, in the spirit of doing their bit.

A khaki-clad, broad-shouldered young fellow sat in front of me at the Woodley, and beside him sat his young wife, with their baby on her lap. He was going away next day, she turned and told an acquaintance beside me.

Suddenly on the screen was flashed a line of marching soldiers. Neither said anything, but he turned to her, and such a look as passed between them!

The Woodley was showing The Dark Road a war-time vampire film set in England which Kingsley liked for its subtle acting and Rembrantish photography, along with Keystone’s Oriental Love, which she thought was so funny, it could have been written by Mark Twain. So the soldier and his wife got to see some entertaining movies on their last night out.