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.

 

Week of April 7th, 1917

 

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Shooting The Escape (1914). Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith, Henry B. Walthall

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that opportunities in Hollywood were drying up for scenario writers:

That about 50 per cent of the ordinary present-day writers of ‘original’ scenarios are doomed to extinction by the mere process of elimination, seems to be a foregone conclusion… And nowadays the weeding-out process has begun in the scenario departments of all the big producing companies. Only such as have already gained distinction or who have shown unusual ability are retaining their jobs.

Instead of hiring people to write original stories, companies were adapting existing material. She cited Selig’s version of Rex Beach’s The Spoilers and Griffith’s “picturization” of The Escape as early successes, then Birth of a Nation from Thomas Dixon’s work proved they could be financial and artistic successes.

Of course, original stories weren’t replaced by adaptations, and somebody had to do the adapting. Instead, this was part of the industry-wide contraction that lasted until after the war concluded. Film has always been an uncertain career.

Her favorite film this week happened to be an adaptation, one based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story. She liked The Bottle Imp because it was so different from anything else she’d seen. Sessue Hayakawa starred as the imp who lived in a magic bottle, “the owner of which must not be caught dead with it, or his soul will be destroyed, but who, while he possesses it makes its imp the servant of his will.” She said “There are many spectacular scenes, such as the magic building of a palace before your eyes and the beautifying of diverse ugly people.” Julian Johnson in Photoplay agreed completely, exclaiming, “would that there were more photoplays of imagination such as The Bottle Imp!” It’s been preserved at the Eastman House.

The war was very much on everyone’s minds; Kingsley reported that during the afternoon vaudeville show at the Orpheum, “the smiling audience was looking up in expectation of Lew Dockstader’s appearance; the stage manager stepped forth in wholly untheatrical manner and stated that two army officers in the audience, naming them, were wanted at once at their barracks. That was all – but there was a hushed silence for a full half minute, while we were in the grip of the realization of war.” She also mentioned that at every vaudeville house patriotic musical numbers were played, and the crowds stood up.

If only actors knew more about film history, they could save themselves from so much misery! Jane Gail, the leading actress from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea told everyone that working underwater was no fun. She had thought it would be wonderful to see the bottom of the sea, but “I wouldn’t do it again. I’d rather fall over a cliff or out of a balloon than ever go through that experience again.” She married a writer and stopped acting in 1920. Kinglsey reviewed the film later that week and thought the dry land scenes were dry indeed, but the wet bits were gripping and dramatic.

Week of March 31st, 1917

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The coming war dominated Kingsley’s columns this week. On Monday, April 2nd President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the German Empire, and they did it on on Friday, April 6th. Kingsley reported on how the film business was ready to assist:

  • The Federal government established a recruiting station on the Universal lot, and many actors had already volunteered.
  • The Lasky studio had formed a 125-men-strong company that drilled twice a week. Members included William and Cecil de Mille, Wallace Reid, and Donald Crisp.
  • Harry Harvey, the director of the Balboa Amusement Company, had bought two machine guns and was training men on their use.
  • The Navy selected Vitagraph’s “Womanhood, the Glory of the Nation” as a recruiting film. It told the story of a woman who raised an American army to fight a fictional war in Europe. The Navy hoped to station a recruiting officer and medical examiner at every screening.

 

Every male aged 21-30 registered – from up-and-coming comics to stars, no exceptions

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However, the government quickly realized that the all-volunteer force wasn’t enough, so six weeks later on May 18th, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required all men living in the United States between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military service.(1) So on June 5th they all went to went to an appointed place, answered some questions and signed the form. In Los Angeles they used the polling places, which was convenient because there was a municipal election the same day so men could vote and register. The Times reporter, John Lloyd, was almost poetic in his description:

Conscription aroused from its nap of fifty years yesterday, and summoned to the registry stations sixty-five thousand of the city’s warrior sons, who may be caught in the rip of the war tide and flung at the foe in France. Not a fistfight, nor brawl, nor riot disturbed the simple ceremony of the largest city in the West, calling forth the names of those selected for the greatest test…Some signed their names as if signing for their death, as figuratively it might well be, and some as though registering for a lark.

Hollywood also began to prepare for the inevitable results of war by helping the Red Cross. Lasky organized a Red Cross company; Mary Pickford, Mae Murray, and Kathlyn Williams were some of the participants. Keystone ran a successful fundraiser for the Red Cross at Levy’s Tavern. Actor/comic Charlie Murray (2) auctioned off a silver cup, netting $800. Then someone yelled “Fill it up with money!” and they collected another $428.

To dispel some of the gloom, Kingsley recommended His Father’s Son, a “sparkling little screen comedy” that starred Lionel Barrymore. While the plot lacked originality, she thought the intertitles were worth the price of admission. Barrymore played a spoiled rich boy whose father forces him to get a job. He gets hired by a detective agency to guard an emerald by impersonating a butler. He’s a fine guard but a bad butler. Kingsley thought that Barrymore’s comic ability was as good as Fairbanks’, and “no drop of comedy is wasted in this story.” It’s been preserved by Archives Du Film Du CNC (Bois d’Arcy).

Kingsley continued her vendetta against bad Theda Bara pictures with a review of Her Greatest Love. Her review for the lost film was such a hoot that I want to share it:

Banishing wives to Siberia can’t be a very common sort of sport even in Russia. Wherefore the event occurring in Her Greatest Love, Theda Bara’s vehicle at Miller’s this week, gives a new thrill to the jaded picture fan. You see, Theda’s husband in the picture is Walter Law. Walter appears as a wicked Russian nobleman with whiskers such as were never worn on land or sea. Theda was only 15 years old, and in short dresses, and she didn’t want to marry him at all, it seems, but in order to save the family name or to get into long dresses, or something, she finally consented. She loved Robert Hilliard, all sweet and gallant and clean-shaven; but in pictures you know a poor girl can’t do a single thing hardly that she wants to.

Discovering in reel no. 3 that her husband had a mistress, she went right up stairs, and in her agony changed her dress to something very neat and nifty with fox furs added, and she was going to leave him flat. But he told her he would send her to Siberia, and she said all right; that would be nice if he would fix up the plumbing in the castle and see that she had a good dressmaker. Anyway, that’s the inference, as she appears in wonderful dresses away off there in the frozen North, and the castle is a very spick and span castle, indeed. Of course, everything comes out all right, with the wicked husband dueled to death.

Poor Miss Bara – she didn’t deserve the scripts Fox was giving her. Later this year, she did get to star in the epic Cleopatra, so her career wasn’t finished yet.

(1) There were two more registration days, one on June 5, 1918 to catch the men who turned 21, and one on September 12, 1918 to register all men aged 18-45.

(2) Lea at Silentlogy wrote a post about Murray.

Week of March 24th, 1917

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Chaplin and Fairbanks do their bit for Liberty Bonds

One hundred years ago this week, war-related news had spread to Grace Kingsley’s film business column.

In the present great national crisis a ‘mobilize the movies’ campaign was quite inevitable. Can you imagine any sort of catastrophe or adventure in which the ubiquitous motion picture would play no part? If the sacred second coming were to happen today there’d be pictures of the event on the market tomorrow! … And now it’s the impending war in this country which is being press-agented. That motion pictures may be of vast assistance in developing the country’s military resources is, of course, indisputable. The Associated Motion Picture Advertisers, Inc., are thoroughly convinced of this, and last week went so far as to institute a campaign throughout the country having preparedness as its object.

The Association, founded in 1916, was made up of the publicists from most of the producing companies. They planned to make two feature-length films and some shorts, as well as fourteen recruiting slides with slogans and patriotic appeals. They hoped that newspapers and magazines would donate advertising space.

 

AMPA had good intentions, but there’s no record of any results. The work they proposed to do, and more, was done by the Committee on Public Information, a government agency established on April 13, 1917 just days after Congress declared war. The CPI used film, advertising, posters, radio and public speeches to inform people about recruitment, rationing, war bond drives and why the war was being fought. Hollywood did its bit, especially helping to sell war bonds.

With so much worry about the coming war, its no surprise that Kingsley’s favorite film this week was optimistic and cheerful.

All of the grave maxims of the copy books, regarding the virtues and efficacy of economy and thrift, are gaily upset in Skinner’s Dress Suit…After all, the most dramatic moments of the lives of us workaday folks who make up the majority of the world’s population aren’t spent being ejected from our homes by cruel fathers, or in foiling the villain who has the ‘papers,’ or in dodging would-be seducers of our virtues. The men constituting our villains in real life are, viewed from some other man’s standpoint, pretty human sort of fellow—the really decent old gentleman for instance, who refuses to raise your wages because he thinks you aren’t worth any more than he his paying you…This is the prosaic sort of problems which are played upon with such jovial philosophy, such cheery optimism, such kindly satire and whimsical humor.

Skinners Dress Suit told the story of a young man who fails to ask for a raise at work despite his wife’s encouragement. He lies to her about it, and she makes him buy a dress suit so they can go out and celebrate. In his new outfit he’s able to meet rich people and negotiate a big deal for his firm, thereby earning a raise and promotion for real. It’s a lost film. It sold so many tickets that they made two sequels that year: Skinner’s Bubble and Skinner’s Baby.

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Horace B. Carpenter

Kinglsey reported on a mystery:

Is any western writer responsible for the authorship of A Regular Guy? If so, let him at once speak up and receive a check from Artcraft. The story was recently accepted by Douglas Fairbanks, but the author of the scenario carelessly failed to place his name, address, laundry mark, or any other means of identification on his manuscript. And it certainly does pain Artcraft to have to go ahead and stage a thousand dollar scenario without paying for it.

The author did come forward and get his credit (and presumably his check). Horace B. Carpenter was a former newspaper writer turned actor who was currently playing leads at Famous Players-Lasky. This was the first scenario that he sold, but he went on to write and direct several Westerns in the 1920s. He continued to act in sound Westerns, primarily in bit parts, until his death in 1945.

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The film’s title was changed to Wild and Woolley and the story suited Fairbanks to a T. (Anita Loos’ contributions to the script probably didn’t hurt, either.) Fairbanks plays an East-coast fan obsessed with Western dime novels. To cure him, his railroad president father sends him to Bitter Creek, Arizona where the townspeople want a rail line. To impress the young fan, they disguise their home as an Old West town with a fake train holdup and Indian raid. Then there’s a real raid and kidnapping. Gee, could anyone save the day? The Exhibitor’s Herald thought it was better than anything they’d done before, and Fairbanks’ biographer Tracey Goessel called it one of his best early films. In 2002 the Library of Congress selected it for National Film Registry, so it’s a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film.” It’s available on DVD.

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Marshall Neilan

Film people in 1917 worked nonstop. Director Marshall Neilan even edited one while travelling on a train. Kingsley reported that he was about to leave for a location when the studio decided to move up the release date for the last film he’d shot, so he loaded his editing equipment and the film into a train car and did the work en route to Santa Cruz. Neilan made 9 features and one short in 1917. He’s most famous for his work with Mary Pickford; he directed Stella Maris (1918) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1924).

Sometimes working while you travelled could be too exciting. Kingsley wrote that when the train carrying the cast and crew of The Hidden Spring was coming back to Los Angeles from Jerome, Arizona, the train buckled on a turn on a steep grade and the last two cars became separated from the rest and slid down the mountain. Cameraman Tony Gaudio had just set up his camera on the back platform and he managed to turn the crank with one hand and hold on with the other for the whole trip. She mentioned that the camera got damaged, but the negative was fine. However, she didn’t’ report how Gaudio fared! He did go on to a long and successful career that included five Oscar nominations, one win (for Anthony Adverse (1936)) and collaborating on one of the best Technicolor films, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The plot description of The Hidden Spring doesn’t include a thrilling backwards train ride. Maybe the footage got used in another movie.