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.

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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.

 

 

Week of October 20th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that a theater ticket tax was about to go into effect on November 1st and nobody could escape it:

Yea, even though you be a dramatic critic, you will have to pay over your little old ten percent of the price of your ticket. As you do this, you may be thankful you aren’t a theatrical treasurer, who has to “count the house” and the pennies. In fact, it is likely the government may be prevailed upon to provide private asylums for the poor treasurers who will go insane over their tasks.

It really wasn’t that terrible for the treasurers: the ticket sellers had stamps, so when someone bought a ten cent ticket, they also bought a one cent stamp. A fifteen cent ticket required the purchase of a two cent stamp—the government rounded up.* However, five-cent houses were exempt.

Film theaters had another war tax in addition to the 10% ticket tax. It started as a 15-cent per reel per day tax on all films. That proved to be too difficult to collect, so in 1918 it became a five percent tax on film rental fees. There was a side benefit to the tax collection: according to Wid’s Daily (June 14, 1920), this was the first time anyone collected data on how much money film distributors were making in the United States. Between July 1, 1919 and March 31, 1920, taxes on film rentals totaled $347,334.26, so the gross receipts for the industry were $62,520,167.20. They estimated that the total for fiscal year July 1919-June 1920 would be $86,360,222.93. Movies were big business!

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With so many stars, it’s no wonder they owned nearly a third of the market.

Wid’s couldn’t find out how much each company contributed to the total because only one distributor made it’s annual report public, but from Famous Players’ report they were able to estimate that they did 32½% of the business in the entire industry.

Unsurprisingly, the theater owners fought the rental tax every step of the way. It ended on January 1, 1922 when it was repealed by the Revenue Act of 1921. The tax on free admissions ended at the same time, so Kingsley had to fish the pennies out from the bottom of her purse for a good long while.

 

Kingsley’s second favorite film this week was Camille:

The deathless tale of the love of Camille and Armand, with which we all became familiar in our early teens—principally because we were forbidden both book and play—is revived in fine and classic manner by Theda Bara and the Fox company at Miller’s this week. And it matters not how many times you’ve sighed over the sacrifice of Camille and wept at that naughty lady’s deathbed, you’ll do it again for Theda Bara… Miss Bara’s work has improved tremendously since we last saw her. It is characterized by a fine reserve, an artistic restraint, even in the most emotional scenes.

She addressed the first question you would ask about a tuberculosis-ridden character: “One wondered how the undeniably robust-looking actress would manage to look the wasted and ethereal heroine of the story, but she has accomplished it, rather by that subtle spiritual suggestion of a worn-out soul than by any actual physical change.” So acting can do the job instead of some horrific diet. It’s a lost film.

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Her favorite film this week was almost unfair competition to the rest: Chaplin’s The Adventurer.

If you want to laugh until the laughs tumble over each other in their eagerness to let yet another laugh escape, be sure and see The Adventurer…His antics are more of the brain and less of the feet than in any previous picture, with the result every little movement has a joyous meaning all its own. ‘And the story starts just as soon as the picture does,’ naively exclaimed a girl sitting behind me. In other words, Charlie pokes his head out of the sand to look right into the barrel of the guard’s gun.

If you want to follow Kingsley’s advice, you can see it on the Internet Archive.

 

Kingsley reported on an unusual delivery this week:

Fifty pies, varying in make from custard to pumpkin, in color from the dark red of strawberries to the light yellow of cream, in flavor from coconut to sweet potato; fifty pies have been received by Gladys Brockwell.

A commercial baker from Rosedale, Kansas sent them to her because he’d admired her art so much that he wanted her to try his. Kingsley thought that Mack Sennett might have made better use of them, but she didn’t say what became of the desserts.

 

 

The best line this week didn’t come from Kingsley, instead it was from Mary Pickford. She had signed Teddy the Dog, star of several Keystone comedies, for a serious part in her next film (he was to play Stella’s loyal dog in Stella Maris). She said, “I feel sure he’ll be able even to play Hamlet if we want him to. You know, he’s a Great Dane.”

She’ll show herself out.

 

 

*”N.P. Theaters Must Bear Share of U.S. War Tax,” Exhibitor’s Herald, October 13, 1917, p.17.

 

 

Week of September 29th, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, actress Rita Jolivet was making plans to travel with her upcoming film, Lest We Forget. It wasn’t an ordinary promotional tour:

Miss Jolivet proposes to show the film in all the large centers of military occupation behind the French front. This will include the camps of the American troops as well.

But her plan wasn’t the main reason the story was headlined “Rita Jolivet is Brave.” That was because she’d survived the Lusitania sinking, and she was willing to cross the Atlantic again in wartime. Despite her intentions, that tour never happened, according to passenger records (she next sailed to Europe in 1921). Instead she toured the United States with the film in early 1918, helping to sell war bonds as well as the film.

 

What’s unusual is that she played a Lusitania survivor in the film, too. They recreated the sinking for it, which must have been disturbing to relive. She didn’t mention any trauma; instead the press releases said she offered her expert guidance to the director.

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I was taught in history class that the sinking wasn’t one of the reasons the United States entered the war because it happened two years before the war declaration, but the publicity for Lest We Forget shows that it was used to remind people why they fought. On July 7, 1918 the LA Times ran the headline “Charging Americans crying ‘Lusitania!’ spread terror among the Huns south of the Somme,” so it certainly wasn’t forgotten. The film has been preserved at the Eastman House and the Library of Congress.

Even now it’s not forgotten: I was surprised by how many people have blogged about Jolivet and the Lusitania. If you’d like to know more about Rita Jolivet visit The Lusitania Resource or Rita Jolivet, Unsinkable.

 

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Mysterious Mr. Tiller, which she thought was “the best film of the detective sort since Sherlock Holmes.” She wrote “the story keeps you sitting right on the edge of your seat every minute…you never quite catch up, until the breathless last ten feet.” Ordinarily she was happy to tell everything about a film’s plot, but she liked this one so much that she refused to spoil it. Other writers were less reticent, so since it’s a lost film, I’ll tell you: it turns out that the glamorous woman (Ruth Clifford) is an undercover agent and “The Face,” a master criminal, is actually Prentice Tiller (Rupert Julian), the chief of the Secret Service! And yes, they do recover the stolen necklace.

 

Roscoe Arbuckle was “arousing his customary roars of merriment at the Garrick this week,” with his new two-reeler Oh Doctor. Kingsley reported on exactly what the audience laughed at the most: “when Fatty, knocking at a door a long time, grows bored, looks away, but keeps on knocking even when his blows fall on the chest of a young lady who opens the door.” However, Kingsley’s favorite bit was the trick automobile that hits pedestrians, furnishing new patients for the doctor. To find out what someone thinks now, read Lea’s recent review at Silent-ology. The short is available on DVD.

 

Kingsley gave Theda Bara a sort of exit interview this week. The star was about to return to New York City, and she said many complimentary things about California and her beautiful garden. She did have one complaint: “I should have loved the thrill of an earthquake – just a tame one, of course. I didn’t ask for anything spectacular.” As a librarian, I really must disagree with her – even little earthquakes are only thrilling if you enjoy picking up books.

 

A vaudeville psychic, Leona LeMar (“the girl with a thousand eyes”), visited a film set at Universal City. To test her abilities, the star, Carmel Myers, asked her what the picture was about. “Miss LeMar passed her hand over her eyes, made a few motions in the air and finally answered: ‘well, I don’t know enough about pictures to answer that one.” Scotty Dunlap, the assistant director, promptly answered, “why that’s all right. We don’t know ourselves!”

That sounds like someone trying to politely put a guest at ease until you read the AFI Catalog’s plot summary for the film, The Lash of Power. That now lost film was so weird, it’s no wonder they didn’t know. Enjoy:

John Rand, having lived in a small town his entire life, dreams of possessing wealth and power in New York. Napoleon Bonaparte has long been his ideal, and one day he feels a message from the departed general urging him to take up the fight for world supremacy. He goes to the city ready to begin the battle, and there, aided by his Napoleonic visions, John amasses a great fortune, ruthlessly destroying everyone who presents an obstacle to his lust for power. His ambitions satiated, John becomes the enemy of democracy when he sells a secret formula to an enemy power. He is later killed by an anarchist. John then awakens to find himself in his cottage, secure in his mother’s devotion and the love of Marion Sherwood, the banker’s daughter.

 

Week of September 1st, 1917

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Entertaining the troops

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on impressive plans to bring entertainment to the troops. “The Young Men’s Christian Association in the United States has made provision for the presentation of 8,000,000 feet of film per week. In 343 cantonments, camps and posts, 1126 programmes will be rendered weekly.”

A film brokerage organization, the Community Motion Picture Bureau, planned to supply the films. Its president, Warren Dunham Foster, said he had a pretty good idea of what kind of pictures to send:

The men don’t want sob stuff. They do not want pictures of home, mother and heaven. At the same time they do not like pictures depicting the soldier as being especially heroic or patriotic. On the other hand, they like romances. Little Mary Pickford is just as popular with the men in the camps as she is with the millions of fans. The men like real war pictures. They also like farces.

Foster didn’t mention what he based his opinions on; his most recent job had been seven years of editing The Youth’s Companion, a weekly illustrated family magazine, so he didn’t have expertise in soldiers or films.

 

Nevertheless, the scheme worked out just as they’d planned. According to a history of the Bureau,* Foster and his mother, Edith Dunham Foster, “coaxed and cajoled and possibly browbeat theatrical producers, industrialists, and many others who made motion pictures, into donating prints for great war service.” Then Mrs. Foster censored the footage, “cutting out all the pretty ladies, drinking scenes, naughty titles and similar slips which might demoralize the soldiers in the trenches.”** Then the YMCA’s War Work Council distributed them to the camps and posts. The Bureau also supplied films to the Army and the Navy when they went to France. While there’s no record of if the films were precisely what the soldiers wanted, they were probably pretty happy to have anything to take their minds off of their work for a bit.

This wasn’t a new idea. The YMCA in Great Britain had been doing the same thing for their troops since the beginning of the war in 1914, according to Emma Hanna in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

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The Community Motion Picture Bureau tried to continue after the war, supplying educational films to churches, clubs and the Y, but their ads stopped appearing after 1920. Warren Dunham Foster went on to be a patent lawyer, an inventor of film projection equipment and the author of a book, Heroines of Modern Progress (1922).

 

Just like the soldiers, Kingsley enjoyed Mary Pickford’s films, and her latest was the best film of the week: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Though it seems like Kingsley thought every new film was “the best thing Mary Pickford has done” (she was thoroughly impressed by The Little American), she was also a big fan of the source material, both the novel and the stage version, which she’d seen three times. She thought that the film was something special:

In some instances, the screen version very far improves upon the stage version of the story. For instance, one of the most delicious bits of the screen story is the showing of the circus which Rebecca managed and in which she was also principal bareback rider. Bits of the poetry for which Rebecca is so famous are retained subtitles.

According to Pickford biographer Eileen Whitfield, the film still holds up: “this unpretentious movie lingers in the mind with surprising freshness; its anecdotes attain the depth of life remembered.” It’s available on DVD and from the Internet Archive.

 

The advertising worked!

Playing opposite Rebecca was the new film by Pickford’s future husband. Kingsley pointed out that “picture fans never can get enough of Douglas Fairbanks, apparently.” They were lined up a hundred deep in front of Down to Earth, in which he “cures” a group of hypochondriacs by taking them to a fake desert island. She called it “a picture that will bear viewing more than once.” It’s available on DVD.

 

Then the big star was Dorothy Phillips.

Also opening this week was a film with Lon Chaney, and Kingsley wrote a line that critics could have re-used for the next decade or so: “In Pay Me, Lon Chaney, who, when it comes to assuming different characters, has the famous old Merlin looking like a rank amateur.” He played a “flinty-hearted and villainous dance hall keeper.” The plot defies brief description, but there’s an orphan, revenge, a gunfight and a tragic death. It’s a lost film.

 

 

*Arthur Edwin Krows, “Motion Pictures—Not for Theaters,” The Educational Screen, March 1939, p. 85-87.

**Pretty ladies are demoralizing? This is the first time I’ve heard that! This can’t possibly be accurate.

Week of July 21st, 1917

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Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1917

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One hundred years ago this week, the first draft lottery for the Great War was held in Washington, D.C. and Grace Kingsley reported on how the news was received in Hollywood:

On the various “lots” were gathered throughout the afternoon, little knots of actors, directors, extras, employees—all in a democracy for once, with the lines of professional caste forgotten. With stolid faces or with an air of suppressed excitement, according to the nature of the individual, crowds of actors and actresses read the draft lists in the papers.

And there was something mighty fine, something that made your proud you were an American in the attitude of those boys who had claimed no exemptions and whose names were printed in the fateful lists. No swank or swagger, no murmuring either—for the most part brave silence, with just sometimes a quick little catch in a tense throat, a slight unconscious squaring of shoulders, a quick, excited little laugh. The women were the agitated ones, grasping at the lists, eagerly questioning, turning away sometimes with quick little sighs of relief or with sparkling eyes, rallying the boys whose names appeared—but there were tenderness and pride in the rallying, too.

Every man who registered for the draft on June 5th was assigned a number between 1 and 10,500. The numbers were drawn in a lottery held at 9:30 am in the Senate Office Building, and the results were sent by telegraph to newspapers throughout the country. The men whose numbers were selected had five days to report to their local exemption board which determined if they had dependents, or if their job was more important to the war effort than being a solider. They were also examined by a doctor for physical disabilities. Kingsley was slightly inaccurate: men who claimed exemptions on their registration did get called before the board if their number came up.

Among the 15,000 men chosen from Southern California in the first group were actors Wallace Reid and Charles Ray, directors Marshal Neilan and Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), and producer Hal Roach. None of them served, because they all had wives and children and were granted exemptions. Fighting was left to volunteers and unmarried men. Selective Service rules have changed; since 1973 marital status has no effect on your draft status.

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Sudden Jim starring draft lottery ‘winner’ and “fascinating young actor” Charles Ray. She found it was both a “crackling yarn” and a “corking story:” a clothes-pin manufacturing heir whose wood supply is threatened by a crooked businessman saves his business by seizing a loaded train from the lumber camp. A thrilling chase ensues, and Ray drives the train through a mountain fire and across a burning trestle just before the bridge is dynamited. I wonder if Buster Keaton or his writing staff on The General saw this now lost movie, then added a second train for this:

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Kingsley addressed why people still went to the movies this week.

Those curious persons who are never happy unless inquiring into the whys and wherefores of things, many of whom looked upon motion pictures as a fad, are now asking why they continue popular.

She came up with four reasons:

  1. All-star casts. Every film in the theaters that week had at least two stars; one had four notable players that people wanted to see.
  2. Inferior actors could never be substituted – it was always the “original New York cast.” Plus, nobody slumped through his or her work in matinees.
  3. Picture theaters were very pleasant places to be: cool and restful, with good music playing, far away from the vexatious, humdrum affair that life generally is.
  4. No reservations were needed – you could drop in any time.

I’m a little disappointed that she didn’t include “because live theater can’t show you thrilling train chases.” Her reasons still hold up; the only surprise is that there was anybody left still calling films a fad in 1917. However, this sort of think piece hasn’t gone out of fashion, either.

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Poor Charlie Chaplin had more health problems (just seven months ago, he’d been injured while making Easy Street). This time he’d spent ten days bedridden due to two carbuncles (clusters of boils) on his legs. They had been lanced as soon as he noticed them and the doctor ordered him to rest, but Chaplin didn’t follow his advice and the next day he was bedridden in terrible pain. Two doctors were able to prevent sepsis  (she didn’t say how) and after some undisturbed rest, he was able to go back to work. Before antibiotics, carbuncles could be dangerous: in 1916 Roscoe Arbuckle had one on his leg so severe that the doctors considered amputation.

No matter how many carrots I eat, I don’t look like this.

Keystone actress Myrtle Lind offered beauty advice this week. Since she thought that health is beauty, she’d become a vegetarian, saying “elimination of meat from the daily diet, in conjunction with outdoor exercise, is the thing for California. The idea that one has to eat a lot of meat if he leads an active life, I am sure, is wrong, for few people lead a more strenuous existence than do Keystone girls.” I think she might be missing something here: I exercise regularly and eat little meat, nevertheless, I look nothing like a Bathing Beauty. Could it be a bad idea to take advice from celebrities? (Nevertheless, at least she wasn’t selling something like they do nowadays!)

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

 

escape
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

recruitment

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.