Week of June 8th, 1918

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lasky_ad

One hundred years ago this week, Famous Players/Lasky Studio held a very successful auction, show, dance and carnival to raise funds for the families of solders and sailors who had been studio employees. A good time was had by all. Not only Lasky stars turned up; Motion Picture News wrote, “Virtually every star of importance in California was present and did something to aid.” Grace Kingsley was there too, and she reported on the highlights:

Clara Kimball Young, who appeared in evening dress and wearing a magnificent hat, auctioned off her wearing apparel, delivering the hat and gloves at first hand, and thereafter retiring behind a screen, over the top of which she sold her dress and some other garments, and whence she emerged following the sale, mysteriously clad in street clothes. Charlie Chaplin purchased a bit of lingerie for $80, and thereafter wore it about his neck.

Even dignified dramatic actresses got to join in the fun. Of course Douglas Fairbanks was there, doing Fairbanksian things:

Douglas Fairbanks offered to box Kid McCoy, but the fight closed after the second round for the simple reason that Mr. Fairbanks, in the heat of the contest, fell into the swimming pool on the platform adjoining which the dance was held.

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William S. Hart in Every Inch a Man

In addition to the auction, they sold food and drinks; the “booths were presided over by Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Constance Talmadge, Gladys Brockwell and many others.” But the most popular area was no surprise:

The bar, which was presided over by William S. Hart and his cowboys, took in a small fortune, and sister Mamie Hart sat near by as a sort of guardian angel to see that nobody drank too much, but even at that Fred Stone reeled away following his fifth chocolate ice cream soda.

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Fred Stone

Moving Picture World added more details, including the reason Stone drank so many sodas: Fairbanks had challenged him to a drinking bout, and he had to quit after five. They reported that it was the first time the studio had ever been open to the public, 1500 people attended and it was “so crowded it was almost impossible to turn around.” They took in $9,000 to assist the families of the 91 men from the studio serving the country, and they had a good time while they were at it. If you ever build a time machine, this might be a fun night to visit.

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Life or Honor?

Kingsley’s favorite film this week wasn’t a timeless classic, but just another pleasant little movie that’s been forgotten.

Getting a criminal to confess by using the spiritualistic medium’s tricks is the unique and fascinating feature of Life or Honor?, which is the offering at the Symphony this week. An incidental exposé of those tricks makes this phase of the story additionally absorbing. There are the old familiar cabinet, the illuminated hand, the floating ghostly forms, and even in the picture these are eerie enough to make you confess anything anybody might want you to confess if used upon you.

She thought the plot was “unusually adroit” and “all the parts are well and humanly played,” and everyone involved continued to work, but nobody became very successful. The film survives at Gosfilmofond in Russia.

 

Kingsley gave a rare negative review to A Soul for Sale, the new Dorothy Phillips film. She pointed out “they are always selling souls in picture plays—usually pretty young women’s souls.” Nevertheless, she liked well enough until the last reel:

Then, alas, it tumbles. The scene, which doubtless the author intended as the great denouement, when the heroine, returning from a midnight visit to the hero’s room, here she went to restore money which had been stolen from him by her mother, meets the two old rakes who have been bargaining for her, takes on the aspect of cheap comedy, and yesterday the audience actually laughed where it should have been spellbound with suspense.

Also in the last scenes it is hard to believe that a steel fireproof skyscraper would be gutted by fire and in addition would show not a single broken window. Here again, the suspense should be extreme, with the lovers in danger of perishing as they stand on the roof, a cheap comedy effect is obtained when firemen tear them apart as they stand oblivious to death clasped in each other’s arms.

Then as now, a critic’s opinion didn’t affect the box office. Later that week the Times said the film “continues to prove a box office attraction extraordinary” and the theater planned to hold it over a second week.

Four of its six reels survive at the Library of Congress (they were part of the Dawson City trove). The last reel didn’t. Maybe that improves it?

 

 

 

G.P. Harleman, “Carnival at Lasky Studio a Success,” Moving Picture World, June 29, 1918, p.1846.

“Lasky Dance and Carnival a Big Success,” Motion Picture News, July 13, 1918, p.2

“Studio Plans Big Home Folks Fete,” Los Angeles Herald, June 6, 1918.

Week of May 18th, 1918

fouryearsposter

One hundred years ago this week, the war filled the rest of the paper and Grace Kingsley promised a lot for an upcoming film on the same topic, My Four Years in Germany:

It hasn’t any plot, it hasn’t any firecracker battle scenes, it’s a war play without any suffering heroine, without any noble hero, whose white soul and white flannels alike come through battles unscathed, without any villain carrying a bomb in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other.

Yet it’s a thrilling war play all the same – with a significance so penetrating, action so vital, truthful events so skillfully welded that it holds you breathless through the unfolding of every inch of its ten reels!

Based on the book with the same name , the film featured actors recreating former American ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard’s experiences dealing with the Kaiser and the German government before and during the war. Unashamedly propaganda, it included scenes of implied rape and murder. Gerard said, “German treachery must be exposed and I know of no better way to get the attention of the multitude than by means of the films.”

 

It was a big hit. One of the producers told Moving Picture World that it was still going strong in early 1919 and credited it with helping exhibitors survive the flu shutdown in 1918.

Kingsley wasn’t the only on who promised at lot for the film. She wrote, “after seeing the film, President Wilson said, “Let the American people see this picture and Kaiserism will be wiped from the face of the earth. This picture will live as long as the American Republic.” The film does survive in several American archives, including the Library of Congress. It’s also available on YouTube. I don’t have the stamina to watch it, but luckily, Herr Graf Ferdinand Von Galitzien did, and his review is a treat (like all of his reviews).

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Now it’s remembered for a different reason: it was the first extremely profitable film produced by Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack Warner, and it inspired them to concentrate on film production instead of distribution. The company is still going today, making all sorts of films. Naturally they made a sequel to their first success entitled Beware, but that wasn’t nearly as successful.

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James W. Gerard had a long and interesting life. Like Franklin Roosevelt, he was born into extraordinary privilege, yet he felt a responsibility to help others as a lawyer, philanthropist and Democratic Party supporter. After he returned from Germany, he spoke at over 500 Liberty Bond rallies and wrote a second book about his war experiences, Face to Face with Kaiserism. He helped Herbert Hoover organize post-war relief for Belgium and France. He shared his expertise in German politics and went on to write a review of Mein Kampf that appeared on front page of the New York Times Book Review in which he condemned Hitler’s anti-Semitism. He strongly supported America’s entry into the Second World War. When he died on September 6, 1951, his obituary was on front page of the New York Times; it said he ranked with Wilson as a national hero during the First World War.

Peace
Coming soon

In other war news, Kingsly wrote a sort of hopeful story. Even though the war was still raging, film companies were thinking ahead:

A number of motion picture makers will go to Europe immediately following the war, according to present plans. Discussion has long been under way, and now it is understood that several of the largest producing firms, including at least three of Los Angeles, plan to send directors abroad…It is understood that French capital has been offered as an inducement to American picture-makers who will produce over there. As is well known, marvelously beautiful and historically interesting ‘locations’ of an entirely new sort may be obtained as backgrounds for picture stories; it is understood that the cost of production abroad is far less than in this country, being indeed but one-fourth.

At least the capitalists had faith that it would end one day.

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Theda and Loro Bara

Theda Bara’s sister Loro told a story from their recent trip to Arrowhead Springs that wasn’t the usual way the emotive actress appeared in the media:

Sister and I went out for a walk and we climbed and climbed. Finally, just as we rounded a curve in the road, we beheld beneath the shade of the trees a brown. wooly creature rambling towards us. I’m sure we thought ‘Bear!’ in the same breath! I turned to run away; nearer and nearer came the softly padding footsteps. I looked around and beheld—a brown spaniel!

Then I looked for sister. And if there wasn’t Miss Theda Bara, Fox star, trying to climb a tree!

Vampires—they don’t want to get eaten by bears, just like us!

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Don’t take any chances with this wild animal!

 

 

“Another Gerard Picture is Coming,” Motion Picture World, February 8, 1919, p.735-6.

Week of May 11th, 1918

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Tea party, 1918 — maybe children had other things to do?

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on decreased film attendance among school children in Los Angeles. However, theater owners had a unique excuse for being concerned about a downturn in ticket sales:

the alarming results in the steady decrease of war tax checks that are sent to the government by the theater owners every month…statistics show that this source of government income decreased fully 25 percent last month. This month’s drop will be even greater, and if the alarming decrease keeps up there is no doubt in the minds of the committee that several of the houses will have to close.

The tax on entertainment did contribute millions to fund the war , but if that was their real concern, they could have bought Liberty Bonds. Exhibitors must have thought that patriotism looked better in the newspaper than concern for profits.

warstamps
Teachers weren’t the only ones telling kids what to do with their money

They had an interesting theory on why kids weren’t going to the movies:

The trouble arises, according to reports received by the film men, from teachers in the public schools advising school children to save their money for other purposes and not to visit picture theaters.

They didn’t blame building too many theaters or bad movies or other entertainment options. Teachers have been blamed for many things for a very long time.

To deal with the problem, film exhibitors planned to form a committee and hold a meeting on May 18th. Nearly 100 producers and exhibitors attended, according to Moving Picture World. They didn’t frame it in terms of loss of tax revenue among themselves: they were worried about theaters staying in business. One exhibitor (F.A. MacDonald) stated that 32 theaters had already closed, and he blamed German propaganda – the enemy didn’t want people to see the Red Cross and Liberty Loan slides, speakers and trailers that were being shown. Producer Thomas Ince suggested, “tell people it is patriotic to patronize picture shows.” J.A. Quinn, owner of the Rialto Theater, wanted to start a publicity campaign (after all, President Wilson said that “the moving picture is helping to win the war”), and they resolved to do exactly that.

audience
Audiences came back

There weren’t any follow-up articles on the publicity campaign, but after things got much worse when the flu epidemic temporarily closed all the theaters later in 1918, film attendance eventually did come back. Weekly paid admissions rose from 40 million in 1922 to 65 million in 1928.

scarlet drop

Kingsley had a funny little criticism of The Scarlet Drop:

Harry Carey is breaking more furniture with the villain at the Supurba this week, than we have witnessed in many a day.

Nevertheless, she enjoyed the addition to the pile of Wild West pictures, because “Harry Carey, being a sincere cowboy, wins us the minute he appears and Molly Malone is just too cute for anything in those ’49 styles.” Sometimes that’s enough from a night at the movies. Now the film is remembered (30 minutes of it survive) because of its director: John Ford.

 

 

 

 

Koszarski, Richard. An Evening’s Entertainment. Berkeley: University of /California Press, 1990.

“Los Angeles Film Men Alarmed,” Moving Picture World, June 8, 1918, p.1403.

“School Teachers’ Advice Closing Coast Theaters,” Variety, May 24, 1918, p.1

 

Children’s tea party photo from the Upper Arlington Historical Society.

Week of April 20th, 1918

swwr_poster

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the Western expansion of another group dedicated to doing their part for the war effort, Stage Women’s War Relief. She interviewed actress Louise Closser Hale, the vice-president and one of the original founders of the group in New York, who was in town to help establish the new branch. Kingsley wrote:

The motion-picture people of the West are responding splendidly, according to Mrs. Hale, to their opportunities for rendering noble aid to the stage men gone to war.

One of these projects, which sounds modest enough, is the workroom now being established in the Mason Operahouse Building; and if the Los Angeles branch approximates the work of similar service rooms in New York and other cities, its work will be of tremendous importance. The service room is a very democratic institution—all varieties of stage workers from stars to scrub women labor together for the common cause. No surgical bandages are made, but sewing, knitting and crocheting are done, all according to patterns furnished by other local war reliefs and every article made is turned over to the Red Cross and other relief agencies. No workers outside the profession are permitted to work here, however, no matter what their station or calling.

“One of our first beneficiaries,” said Mrs. Hale, “was a baby born after its father—a Fox director—was called away to war. We were very excited about it, and I am sure the youngster received about three times as many clothes as it needed.”

Hale and Olive White Farnum were planning a big meeting at the Morosco Theater on Friday, April 26th to kick things off. In addition to the workroom, they wanted to launch a series of benefits and bazars, and the proceeds would go to stage and screen soldiers and their families.

The SWWR Western branch was a success. To raise money they did hold all-star benefit shows, as well as flag drives, garden fetes, and they even auctioned kisses from actresses at their show at the Hotel Alexandria. They also organized entertainment for sailors and soldiers; their first show was at the Submarine base in San Pedro on May 9th. In addition, they opened a tea room that was free for service members

The group held their last meeting where they began, at the Morosco Theater, on December 4th. There they decided to take a new name and purpose. Calling themselves the Players Welfare League, they decided to help stage people down on their luck. They immediately started planning fundraising. Unfortunately, interest in the group petered out, but in 1939 as World War 2 began, the government asked women from the New York branch to reactivate their group. They did, starting a new workroom, raising money, training speakers to sell war bonds and running Stage Door Canteens, which provided food and entertainment for service members. The group got a new name: The American Theater Wing. After the war they began giving grants to theater companies and educating people about live theater, but they’re best known for their annual awards, the Tonys and the Obies.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a “corking” comedy, Twenty-One, starring “that fascinating screen persona, Bryant Washburn.” He had a dual role: a tough prize-fighter and the mollycoddled youth who wants to be a prizefighter. As she pointed out, “naturally (in picturedom) he gets his chance.” The two change places, but the fighter likes the youth’s job so much that he refuses to change back. So the young man must not only fight in the ring, but he also has the beat up the fighter to get his own place back. She really enjoyed it: “the picture is done with sparkle and Washburn invests it with his usual delightfully unctuous humor.” It’s a lost film.

hearts_LAT

Kingsley reported on D.W. Griffith’s comeback success:

When Hearts of the World, Griffith’s latest film masterpiece, began its seventh week at Clune’s Auditorium last night, the audience numbered just twenty less than on the opening night. The film has broken all records at Clune’s Auditorium and has established new records for Griffith’s productions. The end of the run is not in sight.

The photos the New York Post Office doesn’t want you to see!

Kingsley told a story of excessive war rationing:

Again has Annette Kellerman been made to realize that a fine head of hair does not constitute a bathing suit in the eyes of the law. Photographs of Miss Kellerman in her latest Fox picture, Queen of the Sea, and nothing much else, caught the eye of the New York post office authorities, and she has been called upon to explain why she has Hooverized so painstakingly in the matter of bathing suits.

Now the lost film is remembered for being the first movie to be shot on  panchromatic negative film, not for running into trouble with censors. However, I did learn that it’s still illegal to mail what the U.S. Postal Service considers lewd or filthy matter. According to their basic standards for mailing services/domestic mail manual, “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy publications or writings, or mail containing information on where, how, or from whom such matter may be obtained, and matter that is otherwise mailable but that has on its wrapper or envelope any indecent, lewd, lascivious, or obscene writing or printing, and any mail containing any filthy, vile, or indecent thing is nonmailable (18 USC 1461, 1463).”

However, I suspect they don’t think Miss Kellerman is filthy, vile or indecent any more.

 

 

Week of March 16th, 1918

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed D.W. Griffith in his office at the Fine Arts studio. He described what women were doing for the war effort in England, and he had some surprising ideas, for someone known for his girlish Victorian characters:

Maybe it sounds strange to you; but, you see, women are taking the places of men wherever possible, even right behind the firing line…I cannot tell you how much the men appreciate it and respect them for their cheerful unselfishness. They are even serving as officers’ chauffeurs, both in France and in England. I rode behind one, and she beat the mechanic at his own game in an emergency. A fine spirit of camaraderie is growing out of it all—a spirit I feel sure will be a source of permanent understanding between men and women.

Women are becoming economically independent at a great rate. What will the men do when they get back home? Are they going to be content to keep on letting women run things? Well, mark you this, I heard a British Tommy say one day ‘Bless the bloomin’ women, they’re doin’ all right! Let ‘em keep on, I say. What do we care, so the work’s done right.

The brightest outlook for women due to this war is—that they will understand. That’s been the real handicap and the unhappiness of women—they haven’t known life as it really is. The war is teaching it to them. The daughters of this war will understand.

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Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps mechanics at work on a car engine at Abbeville, France

Kingsley was too polite to question his idea that only fighting, pain and suffering is ‘real life.’ The war did temporarily open up new job opportunities for women, but Griffith was too optimistic: after the men came home, they were dismissed from their jobs. There wasn’t much change in assumptions about gender roles, either, according to history professor Susan Grayzel, who wrote “New forms of social interaction between the sexes and across class lines became possible, but expectations about family and domestic life as the main concern of women remained unaltered.”

 

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The Fair Barbarian

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Fair Barbarian. This “highly diverting and amusing comedy” told:

“how a sleepy town in England called Slowbridge—‘where the only thing that travels fast is gossip’—was jolted into the knowledge it is alive, and speeded into high by an American girl…To be sure this apostle of pep from Bloody Gulch, Montana, does a few things not usually done in good society, such as breaking a memorial window in a spirit of girlish glee still she’s so adorably pretty and elfish you’d forgive he if she drank all the communion wine when it is passed!”

The film’s press book helpfully pointed out that it was based on the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett, just like Mary Pickford’s recent success, The Little Princess. Its star, Vivian Martin, usually played parts that were similar to Mary Pickford’s. When films about spunky girls became less popular, she returned to her earlier job: Broadway actress. She later married Arthur Samuels, the editor of Harpers Bazaar. The film has survived at the Cinematheque Francais.

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No need to hurry! (The Bell Boy, 1918)

Buster Keaton once told interviewer George Pratt in that “as a rule, Schenck never knew when I was shooting or what I was shooting. He just went to a preview.” But Kingsley reported that he wasn’t a completely laissez-faire producer:

One of the subjects for which Joe Schenck came West, it develops, is to ascertain whether Fatty Arbuckle may not be speeded up in his work. Mr. Arbuckle, it appears, has been making only eight or ten pictures a year, and Mr. Schenk has discovered that he could easily dispose of Arbuckle comedies one every two of three weeks, that in fact, the public is clamoring for them.

“The makers of comedy are in luck,” said Mr. Schenck yesterday. “So far from the war having damaged the sale of really good comedies, the demand for them has increased. Naturally this is so, when the world is looking for something cheerful to take its mind off the world war, its excitements and depressions.”

Whether Mr. Arbuckle can be persuaded that art can be speeded up, remains to be seen.

She was right to be skeptical: Arbuckle released 6 shorts in 1918 and 7 in 1919. But they’re still being enjoyed by audiences, so they were good value for money!

 

 

 

 

 

Week of January 12th, 1918

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Les Miserables (1917)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed Frank Lloyd, the director of the latest version of Les Miserables, which would be opening in Los Angeles in a few weeks. He told some behind-the-scenes stories from the nine-week shoot took place at the Fox studio in Ft. Lee, New Jersey:

In the making of the battle scenes a brigade of United States Army soldiers stationed in New York was used, and this made the work much easier, as they drilled the handful of extras whom we used, went right to work, and knew exactly what to do. They were husky fellows and took to the game like a duck to water. ‘Hi there!’ they’d yell, ‘we’re fighting for democracy!’ laughing and full of pep, they’d go at it like demons. One boy got stuck in the face with a bayonet, but refused to go to the hospital. ‘This is nothing!’ he exclaimed in scorn as we bound up his wound. We really had an awful time stopping those Sammies from fighting.

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The recruits pose with the film’s star, William Farnum (center)

Of course there was lots of research. All directors emphasized their films’ historical accuracy then, perhaps to make film going seem educational. Lloyd said:

I read Victor Hugo’s novel six times and I consulted every print and painting I could find. The research work alone took several weeks, and indeed was not completed until the picture was finished. For instance, even the paper cartridges in use at the time of the French revolution—the kind that are bitten off by the man who is loading his gun—were used in the battle scenes. Of course, they had to be specially made.

 

franklloydFrank Lloyd had a long and impressive career that included five Oscar nominations for best director and two wins, for The Divine Lady (1929) and Cavalcade (1933). Now his most remembered films are Oliver Twist (1922) The Sea Hawk (1924) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Under Two Flags (1936).

 

We’ll never know what Kingsley thought of the finished product, because the LA Times had a new film reviewer starting on January 14th. His name was Antony Anderson, and he’d been the art critic for the paper since 1906. He continued to write his In the Realm of Art column in addition to film reviews.

There’s no record of why the change was made, but it was done without any fuss. Anderson’s Films column just started running, and movie reviews disappeared from Kingsley’s daily column for a while. She still wrote vaudeville reviews. His reviews were a bit more stuffy and pretentions than hers were; he didn’t tell jokes and seemed to worry more about being taken seriously. His film writing ended in August 1921 and he retired from full-time writing in 1926.

Anderson thought Les Mis was a “notable production” and Hugo’s masterpiece had been given “a noble pictorial setting by Fox, one in accord with the spirit of the novel.”

Jessie Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players/Lasky, told Kingsley about a new way the war was affecting the film industry, fuel shortages:

We have been forced to shut down our New Jersey studios entirely. We cannot get either coal or light. We have rented every available studio in New York City, and even in many of these we cannot get the results we demand. Wallace Reid, who went East to make a production, will probably return to California to finish it. We are also making arrangements to have Elsie Ferguson and Billie Burke come to California and make their productions at one of our studios.

It was just one more step towards making Los Angeles the film capitol. He mentioned that coal shortages were also prompting theaters to help:

Many poor people not able to afford coal and confronted with the possibility of freezing in their own homes, now go to the motion picture theaters, which have been thrown open to them by the managers. Here in the picture houses, they sleep in the boxes and in the aisles. It is nothing unusual to see people enter the theater at night laden down with blankets and pillows.

The crisis was so bad that on January 16th, the Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield ordered all manufacturers (including war industries) east of the Mississippi to close for five days, followed by ten weeks of Monday “holidays” for all factories, saloons, stores (except for grocers), places of amusement and nearly all office buildings.* According to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, the shortage was caused by a railroad distribution logjam, not a supply problem–Garfield had increased the number of mines operating. The reduced demand did allow the trains to catch up on their deliveries and by 1919 there was an oversupply. I knew that 1918 was a really difficult year for everybody, but I hadn’t known about this problem.

Kingsley told the story of “an interesting new member” of Charlie Chaplin’s company, Zasu Pitts:

The story of Miss Pitt’s success reads like a Cinderella tale. It was two years ago that she came to Mary O’Connor, then head of the scenario department of the Triangle…with a letter from friends in Santa Cruz. She has a very expressive face, and Miss O’Connor at once took an interest in the girl, who had absolutely no experience up to that time. The youngster was taught even how to make up, and given small bits and extra parts to play. But she drifted away, after registering merely the fact that she was possessed of the potent but elusive something called personality.

Not long ago she made her appearance at the Lasky studio. She was playing an extra in one of the pictures, and Marshal Neilan caught sight of her as she leaned in a weary and woebegone attitude against a set. He had been trying to find someone to play the pathetic and comical little slavey in The Little Princess. ‘The very girl,’ he exclaimed, and she was engaged at once, registering so great a hit that her services have since been in great demand. Charlie Chaplin saw her, and now she is playing character parts in his pictures.

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Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd

Although she was reportedly under contract to Chaplin, she didn’t appear in his next films, A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms. Nevertheless, she went on to a long and varied career that included silent and sound films, radio, Broadway and television. She was mostly known for comedy (particularly for a series of 17 shorts she made with Thelma Todd for Hal Roach in the early 1930’s) but she was also Erich von Stroheim’s favorite dramatic actress, and her work in Greed (1924) was especially memorable.

 

 

*”Factories Must Close to Save Fuel,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1918, p. I1.

Week of October 27th, 1917

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Legion of Death (1918)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley paid a visit to the set of an unusual big-budget war film, Legion of Death:

Hup Forward—march! No, it wasn’t any sturdy captain of the Sammies who gave the command, but a slim slip of a woman—Edith Storey, and she was giving her command to still other slim slips of women, a whole drove of them, clad in neat khaki and managing to look like real soldiers instead of chorus girls as one might fear…

Right into a trench Miss Storey marched her feminine cohorts, and then—the battle began. And those girls knew how to use their rifles and bayonets! It was a marvelous sight. They fought like demons with their mock enemies; and pretty soon their pretty caps were all askew, there were actual bloodstains on their faces, and a very real gleam of battle lust in their eyes.

Writer June Mathis (Ben-Hur, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) based Legion on the first women’s combat battalion in modern history. Kingsley said they were planning “a powerful drama of a Russian woman patriot and the formation of the now famous ‘Battalion’ which undoubtedly saved Russia from German invasion during the revolution that shook the world’s largest empire from end to end and resulted in the overthrow of the Romanoff dynasty.”

 

Kingsley talked to the director, Tod Browning, and just like De Mille and Griffith, he emphasized the lengths they were going to for authenticity in his epic film. An army lieutenant trained the actresses to march and carry arms properly. They weren’t allowed to wear wigs: they had to cut off their hair, just like the soldiers did (these clever ladies made the producers pay their salaries before their hair was shorn). Browning demanded real Russian people as extras for the big street and battle scenes; they were so authentic that they didn’t speak any English so he had to hire seven translators. Danny Hogan, the Chief of Properties, couldn’t find what he needed for a Russian palace in stores, so he borrowed a carload of furniture from the Italian Ambassador. All of this added up to “a feature which promises to be the most timely, unique and spectacular picture which Metro has even produced” according to Kingsley.

 

All of their realism didn’t extend to the story, of course. Edith Storey played a princess with a love interest who founds the group, gets captured after a defeat, but is freed to live happily ever after. The real Battalion was proposed by Maria Bochkareva, a decorated front-line fighter who was born to a peasant family. Her goal was to shame Russian male soldiers who were tired of fighting Germans after three years. Minister of War Alexander Kerensky agreed, and allowed Bochkareva to train and lead 300 female recruits as the First Women’s Battalion of Death. They were sent to the front where they were resented by the male soldiers. Even though they performed well in combat, Bochkareva had to disband the unit after a few months because they were treated so badly by their fellow troops. She wrote a memoir in 1919 called Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile. She was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1920. You can read more about the Battalion on the History Buff blog.

 

Kingsley didn’t get to review the finished film, but her co-worker Antony Anderson thought it was “a Metro triumph.” The reason you may have never heard of this epic is because it’s a lost film. A new version of the story, Batalon, was made in Russia in 2015.

 

The Legion/Battalion was so famous at the time that they got mentioned in a much more lighthearted story Kingsley reported this week. Actor Jack Mulhall was in a downtown L.A. department store trying on a ladies corset for an upcoming role, and he told her:

just as they had me all trussed up in a twin-six, ball bearing, 1917 model steel cage somebody yelled fire…Miserable as I was, I forgot all about the corset and made a dash for the street. Outside I met a friend. “What’s the idea?” he demanded gazing at the corset which I had tried on over my trousers and shirt, “going to war?” Just then along came a girl I knew, and I instantly decided I preferred cremation to meeting her, so back I dashed to the corset department. Yes, I’ve worn ‘em in three scenes now—and, believe me, I don’t know that the Legion of Death was making so much of a sacrifice when it took of its corsets and went to war!

The film was called Madame Spy, and it concerned a young man who goes undercover as a baroness to learn the secrets of a German spy ring. Exhibitor’s Herald thought “Jack Mulhall as an impersonator of the fair sex is quite good,” but the story was padded (February 9, 1918).

 

Kinglsey had a happy surprise while watching her favorite film this week, The Co-respondant: the heroine acts with “straightforward sensibleness uncommon in screen heroines” and the hero “contrary to all screen ethics, behaves like a sensible human being.” The film told the story of a star woman reporter (Elaine Hammerstein*) who, in her youth, was almost dragged into an illicit relationships with a ‘rounder.’ Now the cad’s wife has named her as the co-respondent in her divorce case. Complications, including a libel case, false identity and threats of ruin ensue, but her current love (Wilfred Lucas) believes her side of the story implicitly and fights the cad as soon as he can, while the heroine types it up for an article. Kingsley said:

it is a picture play of such tense and deep-rooted human drama that in the development of its big central situation you sit quite breathless; yet it is played so naturally, there is such an utter lack of forced situation, its train of events is so entirely logical, one seems to be looking on a cross-section of life itself. Maybe you don’t believe this. I don’t blame you if you do not; but just go to the Superba and see for yourself.

You can’t go to the Superba Theater any more, but a fragment of the film exists at the Library of Congress.

quinnthursday

marsh_sunshine
Mae Marsh, Sunshine Alley

Kingsley mentioned that J.A. Quinn, the owner of Quinn’s Rialto Theater, announced that the new Mae Marsh film Sunshine Alley would absolutely play for only one week, and he’d add midnight showings on the last days if needed. Curious, I had a look at the Rialto ads to see if he did. They didn’t tell me: I had completely forgotten that in 1917, films ran continuously and the audience came in whenever they wanted to. So I wondered when film ads in the LA Times began to include starting times. Except for some Cinerama shows, it wasn’t until 1962! So if you really want to re-create the film going experience of earlier times, pick a random chapter on your DVDs and start there.

 

 

 

*She was the songwriter’s cousin.