One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that yet another optimist had gone into the filmmaking business:
The latest film luminary to branch out as a producer is Sol Lesser. Not only is he to handle at least four stars in the near future, but he will build a new studio in Hollywood, according to announcement made yesterday. At present Mr. Lesser has two stars signed up, viz. George Beban and Annette Kellerman.
Sol Lesser had been part of the industry from close to the beginning. He inherited his father’s nickelodeon in 1907, which he built into a chain of theaters. He went on to a very successful career. He didn’t build the studio Kingsley mentioned, but he remained an independent film producer until he retired in 1958 (except for six months as an executive at RKO in 1941, where he got bored and quit). He made over 100 films, including Jackie Coogan’s movies in the 1920s like Oliver Twist (1922), the Tarzan films of the 1930’s-40’s, and the all-star Stage Door Canteen (1943). He won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1956 for Kon-Tiki, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1960.
Remarkably, much of his success came about because he wasn’t a jerk. For instance, in 1932 MGM was making Tarzan the Apeman, but Lesser had the rights from Edgar Rice Burroughs, which the courts upheld. He asked them for only a nominal fee. They released the film, it made lots of money, and he was left with a much more popular character to feature in sequels (and he made many, many sequels). You can learn more about him at the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers site, or if you want the full Lesser experience, you can rent his former estate in Palm Springs.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was “one of the comedy hits of the year.”
It is pleasant to be able to announce that it seems this subtlest form of dramatic art, viz: satirical comedy, has come to filmland to stay.
It seems to me with the impression of Strictly Confidential freshly with me, that this is the very most delightful one of the sort ever filmed, with Miss [Madge] Kennedy shining at last in a supremely suitable vehicle for her very original and sparkling comedy talents. It has to do with the daughter of a servant maid in a staid, conservative old English nobleman’s house coming back to the castle where all the servants are her relations, through a series of incidents, as the wife of Lord Bantock. Whereupon the old butler tries to run the house according to precedent, but fails, an ‘the first Lady Bantock’ is given as and example to the young mistress. It turns out, however, that the first Lady Bantock was a butcher’s daughter, so everything comes out right.
Jerome K. Jerome
Unfortunately, all that remains of it is reel 2, preserved at the Library of Congress. I’d like to see if the comedy holds up. Strictly Confidential was based on a play by Jerome K. Jerome called Fanny and the Servant Problem (1909). Now he’s mostly remembered for his novel, Three Men and a Boat (1889), which has stayed in print since it was first published. It’s still a hoot.
The most dad remark made in Kingsley’s columns in a long time came from Will Rogers this week:
That frisky Will Rogers has made a swift trip to San Francisco in his big car, accompanied by his wife and four children. The lariat expert hit the high spots, spending only twelve hours and a half aboard his car. He says he could have made it in twelve, but the kids insisted on stopping for lunch.
Kingsley didn’t mention the real feat of human endurance from the story: his four children were all under the age of 8 (Will Jr. was 7, Mary was 6, Jim was 4 and Fred was 1). That couldn’t have been fun for any of the participants—no wonder he drove fast. I hope your holiday travels are better than theirs!
Allan Forrest and Lottie Pickford in They Shall Pay
One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the hopeful beginnings of many new film companies:
Lottie Pickford Rupp (Mary’s sister) was planning her own production company. They were choosing a story for the first film and Martin Justice had been hired to direct. In her column, Kingsley didn’t hesitate to butter up the whole family: “big success is prophesized for Miss Pickford, who is considered quite in a class with her brilliant brother and sister.”
The Hermann Film Corporation was building “a large plant on a five-acre tract in Santa Monica.” The owner, E.P. Hermann, planned on having three companies working there: one dramatic, one comedy and one serial. The dramatic company had already produced one film, That Some Thing starring Margery Wilson, Charles Meredith and Carl Ullman.
The new Jesse D. Hampton studio at Santa Monica Blvd. and La Brea was nearly ready, and Blanche Sweet’s next film, Simple Souls would start shooting there the following Monday.
Actor Taylor Holmes had founded his own independent production company, and had bought the film rights to three properties, Nothing But the Truth, The Very Idea and Nothing But Lies. All three had been stage vehicles for William Collier.
Polly Moran had gotten her own company, and was at work in a Culver City studio.
Harry ‘Snub’ Pollard was getting his own series, with Mildred Davis as his leading lady, because Harold Lloyd was recovering from the explosion that injured his hand.
Finally, there was this little note: “Roscoe Arbuckle seems to bring good luck to all his players. Now it’s Buster Keaton who is shortly to have his own company, and adorn the film firmament as a star. Keaton is an exceedingly clever young comedian, and here’s wishing him luck.”
There was so much optimism in the post-war film business world! These projects had various degrees of success.
Lottie Pickford’s film with Martin Justice did get made but it didn’t come out until 1921. Called They Shall Pay, it told the story of a woman seeking revenge for her father from crooked business associates. Her leading man, Allan Forrest, became her second husband. It was her last leading role; she had small parts in one of her sister’s films (Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall) and one of her brother in-in-law’s films (Don Q Son of Zorro) but that was all.
The Hermann Film Corporation told the press about lots of plans for other films over the following months, but they only finished the one Kingsley mentioned. The company had abandoned the lot at 25th Street and Wilshire Blvd. by the summer of 1922, and it went on to greater fame than the film company ever did: Douglas Aircraft leased it, and that’s where the company that became McDonnell-Douglas built its first successful airplanes.
The Jesse D. Hampton studio also went out of business and was bought by a famous company; in 1922 it became Pickford-Fairbanks Studios. It’s still open today as Warner Hollywood Studios. ****Mary Mallory helpfully corrected me: Warner’s no longer owns what was Pickford Fairbanks. It is now called The Lot and is owned by a real estate company.**** Hampton made only one more film after that, The Spoilers (1923), but he kept trying to get productions off the ground until at least 1925.
Taylor Holmes did make all three films he had the rights to, but then his production company went out of business. It didn’t harm his work prospects, however. He appeared in four plays on Broadway from 1920-1923, then he had a long career, alternating between stage and screen and later, television.
Snub Pollard did star in two shorts, Red Hot Hottentotts (Film Daily thought it showed “a falling off of quality”) and Why Go Home? (Film Daily said it had “several corking situations”), but as soon as Harold Lloyd recovered, Pollard went back to being the second banana. Like Holmes, he also had a long film career. (here’s some trivia: who does Gene Kelly hand his umbrella to after he Sings in the Rain? Snub Pollard!)
Polly Moran did make a series of shorts in 1920-22, starting with Sherriff Nell’s Comeback, and she kept working until 1940, with a brief comeback in 1949.
But only one of the new enterprises had a spectacular success (really, it isn’t fair to compare the others to him). Buster Keaton was about to get started on his solo career. People are still seeing and writing about his two-reelers, including me: I wrote synopses of them all for the International Buster Keaton Society almost twenty years ago (Ouch! Where did the time go?).
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Almost A Husband, Will Roger’s first film under his new Goldwyn contract. Kingsley wasn’t aware that he’d appeared in two previous movies, so she didn’t know if he could transition from his vaudeville act to silent film. She thought it worked out well:
Will Rogers has done it. He has shown that there’s more to him than his lariat and his professional chewing gum and the power to deliver himself of epigrams three to a minute, all hot and home made. In short, I think the crowds who crushed their way into the California [Theater] yesterday, to view the famous lariat artist in his first picture, will back me up in the statement that there has arrived among us a new and vivid screen personality, equipped to take his place with the top-notchers of Filmdom.
Transplanting a popular idol from stage to screen is a mighty delicate operation, and every once in a while some such idol gets busted in the process. Not so Mr. Rogers. He has arrived intact. Nay, his quaint and genial personality, his trenchant wit, his radiant drollery are actually vivified, it seemed to me, by his celluloid double.
They used “brilliant” intertitles to bring his jokes to the screen; according to his biographer (Ben Yagoda) Rogers “often wrote or helped write them.”
The now lost film was “full of thrills and laughter,” wrote Kingsley. Rogers played a homely schoolteacher who marries the prettiest woman in town in a fake ceremony, only to learn it was legal. Since she didn’t want to marry the man her father chose for her, they stay married in name only. Naturally, after he outwits the villain she falls in love with him.
Lloyd Whitlock (she lost one battle)
Speaking of weddings, Kingsley reported on one that was to take place on Saturday, November 15th—if:
the groom-to-be’s director allows him to shave off his mustache and beard. Otherwise, says the bride, there’ll be nothing doing!
Not to keep you in suspense any longer the parties to the romance are none other than Lloyd Whitlock playing a star part in one of George Beban’s productions and Miss Myrtle Gibsone, partner of Mabel Condon in the Mabel Condon Exchange.
The facts about the beard are really touching. You see, it’s this way. Since Mr. Whitlock is playing a role which demands beard and mustache, Mr. Beban says it’s imperative that his production should not be ruined by such a silly excuse as a mere whim of a prospective bride. On the other hand, Miss Gibsone declares that you never heard of such a thing in motion picture plots or elsewhere as a hero with a beard. That is, a picture hero may have a beard, but he always is considerate enough to shave it off before the last reel and the clinch.
“I simply won’t have a bridegroom with whiskers!” wailed Miss Gibsone. On the other hand, Beban is firm that the offending ivy must be retained until at least Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. So you can see for yourself how matters stand. And in the meantime the suspense is simply killing us all!!!
Myrtle Gibsone was not joking: she’d already postponed the wedding twice. The beard was still there on Saturday, so she didn’t hesitate to postpone the ceremony again. She set Monday, November 24th for the next attempt. According to Photoplay, Beban hurried to finish filming One Man in a Million by then, and “wedding bells rang out.” Though it took awhile to get started, the marriage lasted until Whitlock died in 1966.
The couple had met six years earlier when they were both working for Kalem, she as a manager and he as an actor. At the time she got married, Mary Evelyn Myrtle Gibsone Whitlock was an actor’s agent at the Mabel Condon Exchange. She took some time off from work when she had a daughter, Suzanne, in 1921. The she became a script supervisor at Universal Studios. She retired in 1963. Lloyd T. Whitlock kept acting, appearing in nearly 200 films. Coincidentally, he played the villain opposite Lottie Pickford in They Shall Pay. He retired in 1949. They had an ordinary, middle-class life in Hollywood.
It really happened! From the California County Birth, Marriage and Death Records database.
A.H. Gieble, “West Coast Picture Folk Frolic,” Moving Picture World, December 13, 1919, p.821.
“Plays and Players,” Photoplay, March 1920, p.102.