A 1916 Film Diary: Tennessee’s Pardner
Although she did not mention the film in her diary, perhaps Margaret enjoyed The Cheat better than we are aware. At the end of a difficult month, she revisited the film’s star, Fannie Ward, in Tennessee’s Pardner. The venue was Waddington’s Strand Theatre, which once sat on Pitt Street, approximately across the road from the still-extant Strand Arcade. It was demolished in 1928 amidst ambitious plans to construct a new shopping arcade between Pitt St and Castlereagh St which were never realised - at least, not until many decades later.
The tale of Tennessee’s Pardner was adapted from the famous short story about the ‘Forty Niners’, or participants in the California Gold Rush, by American frontier author Bret Harte. The adaptation was a very loose one - for one thing, the ‘Tennessee’ of the original version was not even a woman. “Apart from the title of the setting … the play has not much in common with Bret Harte’s story,” grumbled Melbourne’s Punch. ”All the same, it it a fine drama well produced and acted.”
The Tennessee of this version was a ‘waif of the plains, a child of the desert,’ according to the Sunday Times - a baby who is abandoned by her mother after her father is shot, and brought up by a group of kindly ‘Forty Niners’ who christen her ‘Tennessee’. One of the miners, Jack Hunter (Jack Dean) vows to make the girl his ‘partner’ in every gold discovery he makes. The baby grows up into a beautiful young woman, who becomes curious to know about her parents. Little does she know that the man who killed her father now has romantic designs upon her.
"No expense has been spared, by the producer to build up the surroundings of the great past as a fit setting for the picture," reported the Sunday Times. “In a break we are taken back to those roaring days of ‘49, with all their brutality, their charm, and their dangers. Bret Harte was a ‘Forty-niner himself, and he knew what he was writing about when he told his wonderful story. [Producer, Jesse L.] Lasky has not failed in his efforts to make the picture ring true.”
A number of beautiful sequences were shot at the famous San Fernando Mission in California. “This wonderful mission, with its many rooms and outbuildings, was built by the Jesuit priests, with the assistance of the Indians, in the early days of the 19th century,” explained Sydney’s Referee. “It was in one of these missions that the little girl Tennessee was brought up under the guidance of an old priest, before being taken to the little mining town of Sandy Bar.”
It was the leading lady who scooped the lion’s share of critical plaudits. “Rarely has a woman artist brightened the screen more delightfully than Fannie Ward in this picture,” raved Moving Picture World. Character actor Raymond Hatton also received admiring notices. He would go on to appear in literally hundreds of Westerns, the last of which he shot almost exactly fifty years after filming his role in Tennessee’s Pardner.
Margaret seems to have been very fond of the Western genre, and gave Tennessee’s Pardner one of her best reviews of the year: “Splendid.” The film survives in full in a beautiful 35mm print, which appeared several years ago at the annual Cinecon classic film festival in Hollywood.
Part of the curious fascination of Fannie Ward was her preternaturally girlish appearance. By the time she made The Cheat, she had already been a well known stage actress for a quarter of a century, and when she played a teenager in Tennessee’s Pardner, she was 44 years old. Much speculation centred on exactly how she maintained her youthful looks, one theory suggesting that she injected her face with paraffin wax, which occasionally melted under the stage lights!
Ward claimed that her looks were the product of nothing more than skipping breakfast, eschewing white bread and red meat, and a daily application of ice to the face as a ‘muscle tightener’. The rather taut smile she displayed in later years suggests that an early form of plastic surgery made the greater contribution. Ward delicately avoided questions, admitting that she supported what was already called ‘face lifting’ when it was absolutely necessary, though adding “Most women don’t need facial surgery. They could do a lot for themselves without it.”
Ward continued to play on her youthful looks well into the late 1920s when, aged sixty, she opened her own beauty parlour called The Fountain of Youth, and appeared on vaudeville as ‘The Miracle Woman’.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Saw Louise Lovely”
“Two terrible years of war,” Margaret says in her diary for 4 August, a day when she received further bad news - her younger brother Jack had been injured in combat. Friends rushed to the Higgins household to hold a vigil as they waited for news.
Families were often told very little after a soldier was injured, other than that their condition was stable and non-serious, and they would be notified immediately of any change. It was over a week before Jack was able to cable his parents from his hospital bed in London, and inform them that his injury - a gunshot wound to the arm - was fortunately a minor one.
Nor was there any further word on the fate of Margaret’s friend, still missing without trace, though she recognises that the possibility of good news is very slim. ”Oh unhappy day,” she says on the 13th. “Poor Frank McKay missing since July 20th. No hope. Lord have mercy on his poor soul. I cannot realise it.”
There was a welcome respite on the 11th, when Margaret travelled to the Haymarket Theatre for a special occasion: the release of Tangled Hearts, the first American film of the Australian-born film star Louise Lovely.
The notion that Louise Lovely was Australia’s first international star of film is somewhat overstating the matter - Marrickville-born swimming star Annette Kellerman is just one of several candidates for that role - but there is no doubt that she became one of the highest profile.
It appears that it was the canny marketing of Universal Pictures that suddenly inspired Australians to remember the vaudevillian named Louise Carbasse who had appeared on their stages with her husband, Wilton Welch, only a few years earlier. Though she had also appeared in several Australian films, they had not received wide promotion or distribution, and as far as many Australian viewers knew, the film that Margaret saw was Louise’s film debut.
It seems that Margaret did not attend vaudeville - at the time considered a rougher cousin to legitimate theatre and potentially unsavoury entertainment for a Catholic girl - so it is unlikely that she ever saw Louise Carbasse on stage, but the fact that she was thrilled that a young Australian woman like herself was making a name in the film business can be judged from the fact that whenever Margaret saw one of her films during 1916, she noted not the name of the film, but the name of the star.
Tangled Hearts, which is now lost, told a rather melodramatic story that was outlined by Sydney’s redoubtable Sunday Times. It is a peculiarity of silent era reviews that crucial plot details were frequently revealed - a possible annoyance for readers of the time, but fortunate for us today when they are all that remain of many pictures:
Montgomery Seaton (Hayward Mack) and his wife, Lucille (Louise Lovely), are society folks. Among their friends are John Hammond (Lon Chaney) and his wife, Enid (Agnes Vernon). Enid and Montgomery were once sweethearts, and she confides in him. Before marriage she had a child, and through the death of a friend she had now to find a new home for the child. Lucille sees them together and is jealous. Montgomery pretends to Hammond that he wants to find a home for his child, the mother threatening to expose him unless he looks, after it. Hammond agrees, and Enid has her own child.
Vera Lane and her wooer, Ernest Courtney, are also friends of the Seatons. Lucille finds some verses Montgomery has written for Ernest to give Vera, and her jealousy grows. Her suspicions increase when she hears that Montgomery has taken a girl, Enid’s daughter, to the Hammond home.
Vera consoles Lucille, and tells her to try to win her husband back by flirting with other men. Enid writes a letter to Montgomery, expressing her gratitude to him for getting her child into her home. Hammond finds it, and is shocked to learn that the child is his wife’s and, presumably, Seaton’s. Hammond confronts Enid and Montgomery with a revolver. Hammond takes Enid home, and Vera persuades him to forgive her.
Louise would make a number of films with Lon Chaney - later legendary as a horror actor, but an equally fine dramatic character actor - as well as with her female co-star, Agnes Vernon. Renamed “Brownie” Vernon, the latter would go on to repay the favour to Australia, to which she would travel in 1919 to become the leading lady for another local star, Reg “Snowy” Baker.
The fact that Baker himself later found some success in Hollywood is a reminder that Louise was by no means the only famous Australian in the film capital during the silent era. Aside from Baker and Annette Kellerman, she was in the company of Harry ‘Snub’ Pollard, Billy Bevan, Leon Errol, Enid Bennett, Arthur Shirley, Sydney Deane, J.P. McGowan, Clyde Cook, Sylvia Breamer, Paul Scardon, Sidney Bracey, Marc Macdermott, Mae Busch, Hazel Deane, Dorothy Cumming and May Robson, just to name a few. Australian performers were so numerous in Hollywood that they even gained a nickname - the ‘Gum Leaf Mafia’.
Known during her stage career as Louise Carbasse, Louise loathed the syrupy name given to her Universal Pictures scion Carl Laemmle, the circumstances of which were explained by Melbourne’s Punch:
When she first arrived in America, or rather when her first picture arrived, there were neverending mistakes in the spelling of her name, until wires were shooting all over the country to ask how she spelt herself. Laemmle, who was at the first showing of her picture at the Universal offices, kept saying “Isn’t she lovely ?” Everybody said the same. Then the head of the Universal ask ed her name, and everyone said something different, till finally, Laemmle exclaimed, “Oh, let’s call her Louise Lovely !” And Louise Lovely she is.”
It seems that the matter was even more complicated than that. Numerous trade reports agreed that Louise had decided to eschew ‘Carbasse’ as too difficult to spell, but had settled upon her married name, Louise Welch, as the alternative. No later had this been announced than she was rechristened a third time. ”General Order No. 9360 - To all Universal Publicity Men: Kindly arrange to have Louise Carbasse-Welch-Lovely reach at least an approximate decision regarding her name before October,” joked Motion Picture News in early 1916. “The next issue of Motion Picture News Studio Directory goes to press then, and we want to know who she’s going to be.”
Universal’s choice may have had less to do with pronunciation and more to do with positioning Louise as a challenger to another ‘lovely’ screen star - Mary Pickford.
A 1916 Film Diary: “To ‘Butterfly’ with Mum”
July had been a dreadful month for Margaret, marked by illness and tragedy. Her mother must have had a particular treat in mind when she took her daughter to a screening of Madame Butterfly at the Theatre Royal on 31 July. Since the introduction of Triangle Pictures double feature bills earlier in the year, the Waddington’s chain, which was now in alliance with J.C. Williamson, was the latest to feature the innovation, pairing the main feature with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat.
Like Birth of a Nation earlier in the year, Madame Butterfly was a luxury presentation, for which a premium 2/- was charged for the best seats. This time, the Theatre Royal was decorated to resemble a picturesque Japanese tea house, with attendants costumed in kimonos. This was not just a film - this was, according to promotions, a ‘photo-opera’, with the redoubtable Gustave Slapoffski and his orchestra not only providing highlights from the Puccini opera of the same name, but Madame Slapoffski contributing vocals for two songs that were sung during the film - ‘The Garden of My Heart’ and ‘One Fine Day’. ‘Other picture managements might pay more attention to this side of the show,’ noted the Mirror of Australia.
The blonde and blue-eyed Mary Pickford would seem an odd selection to play Cho Cho San, the tragic Japanese heroine who falls in love with an American soldier (Marshall Neilan), only to find herself abandoned and alone with a new baby. Reviews played up the novelty of the atypical role, noting that it was also Pickford’s ‘first Oriental part’. She had played many different ethnicities earlier in her career, something which was not considered at all unusual at the time.
Pickford, always one of the most eloquent defenders of the silent cinema art, saw the silent film as an ideal venue for a story of Madame Butterfly's nature. ”The little shadowy Cho-Cho San suffers as only a real Japanese maiden can - in silence,” she told Film Fun. “I had not only the stage to compete with, but the opera standards as well; but I felt, after my study of the Japanese femininity, that the screen play is the best medium of all - the silent heart ache.”
Film Fun, January 1916
Pickford was particularly taken by the part Japanese, part American baby who played her son. “In the scene in which I wash the baby, we all laughed so much that it almost ceased to be a rehearsal and became just a baby frolic.” Once the film came out, Moving Picture World proclaimed that the unnamed baby “‘hogs the show.’ He is great. The mothering he gets from Cho-Cho-San seems more like life than art.”
Setting aside the ethnicity of his leading lady, director Sidney Olcott was determined to avoid silly mistakes that would mark the film as inaccurate to anyone in the know. Members of the Japanese community were consulted for assistance in set decoration and the presentation of such things as an authentic Japanese tea ceremony
'The Orient' simultaneously occupied two mutually exclusive parts of the public mind in countries such as America and Australia. On one hand, it was a world of romantic feudal societies, beautiful scenery, gorgeous costuming, and quaint customs, as conjured by such stage confections as The Mikado.
On the other hand, it would not have been seen as contradictory for someone whose entire house had been decorated in the popular ‘Japonisme’ style to be a passionate supporter of the White Australia policy, or for the same women who had cooed over Cho Cho San’s cute baby to be appalled by the idea of a child being born of mixed race in real life. In some ways, the storyline of Madame Butterfly itself symbolised this anomaly. Japan was a pretty plaything; its people were decorative but not quite real.
Even despite the large Asian population of Sydney, Asian culture was seen to sit outside the Australian mainstream. A symbol of this separation existed not far from Margaret’s home. The Sze Yup Temple, established by Chinese immigrants in 1898, sat nestled amongst typical suburban housing where, as a curious schoolgirls attending the nearby St Scholastica’s College, Margaret may well have peered over its fence, or smelled the incense that constantly burned at its altars, wondering at this symbol of exotica in her midst.
To a modern viewer, the casting of Pickford would seem all the more ironic given the choice of supporting feature, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat. The success of this rather sensational film turned its leading man, Sessue Hayakawa, into Hollywood’s only major star of Japanese descent. Hayakawa plays a sinister loan shark with designs on a wealthy socialite (Fannie Ward), whose stockbroker husband (Ward’s real-life husband, Jack Dean) has fallen into financial trouble. The scene where Hayakawa ‘brands’ the socialite as his property using a hot iron became the most talked about in the picture, which was considered De Mille’s first great success and, according to at least one Australian review, a superior work to the main feature.
As an Asian man in Hollywood, Hayakawa was forced to stride the two Asias - the imaginary and the real. He soon tired of playing stereotypical tyrants or semi-mystical heroes, independently producing several films that attempted to give a more realistic view of Japanese society and foster a true sense of understanding between races.
Completing the bill was the now customary Topical Budget newsreel, plus a curious short named The Artful Dodger, featuring a unique animal star known as ‘Jack Spratt’s Parrot’.
Miraculously, both of the features that were shown that evening survive today. Madame Butterfly is held by several archives, while a 1918 reissue version of The Cheat is available on DVD from Kino Lorber.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Poor Frank Never Answered His Roll Call Today”
If a month of miserable illness were not enough, Margaret received the very worst news from the battlefields of France on the 20th of July - news so terrible that she uses red ink to record it in her diary:
"Poor Frank never answered his roll call today."
Frank McKay was a close family friend - so close, that it seems the Higgins family regarded him almost as a son. His service papers reveal that he worked as a motor mechanic prior to his enlistment. Though he lived at Glebe - possibly even with the Higgins family - his family hailed from ‘Oakwood’, a rural property at Ariah Park near Temora, in the Riverina. According to another soldier, the 23 year old was large and powerfully built, and gained for himself the nickname of ‘Big Mac’.
Much as the two comrades at the centre of the film Gallipoli (1981) shared a passion for running, McKay and the Higgins brothers had a talent for boxing - one which Frank, Michael and Jack continued to indulge even on the troop ship as they together set out for Telakebir in Egypt. Like Margaret’s brother Cecil ‘Eddie Corrigan’ Higgins, who remained home from the war as a result of a family decision, Frank boxed under a pseudonym, and was known in the ring as ‘Frank Deane’.
Cecil Higgins wrote a heartfelt tribute to his lost friend to the editor of the Sydney sporting journal, The Arrow - one that perhaps betrays some of his own mixed feelings at not going to battle:
"On Sunday we also received the bad news that poor ’Frank Deane’ was missing since July 20. You will remember him asking you by letter the best way to get into the boxing game at Brisbane, and on your advice went up North and won three contests, knocking out his opponents in the second, third, and sixth rounds. He also won the heavyweight division of the R. and T. tourney and was runner-up in the middleweight division of the £1500 Olympia Club’s tourney. On the way to Egypt he won both middle and heavy divisions.
The Saturday Referee and Arrow's report of the aforementioned tourney at the Olympia Club in Newtown suggests that McKay might have had a big future ahead of him as a professional athlete:
MIDDLE-WEIGHTS. Frank Dean, of Tommy Hanley’s gymnasium, created a great surprise by knocking-out Jim McMahon, a pupil of Jim Barron, in the third round. In the absence of his tutor, McMahon fought very wildly— so wildly, in fact, that one could hardly credit he had received lessons from anyone, to say nothing of such an instructor as Barron. Had ‘Sunny Jim’ been present, he would, no doubt, have had a beneficial effect, although his charge would probably have been beaten by Dean, who is a cool, calculating youngster with a kick, as was evidenced by the manner in which he crossed his right with sufficient force to drop and out the superbly built young North Shore boxer.
It is interesting to note that both Frank McKay and the Higgins brothers would have been well acquainted with the manager of the Olympia Stadium, the multi-talented sportsman Reg ‘Snowy’ Baker - in fact, there is at least one fight on record between Baker and ‘Eddie Corrigan’. Within a few years, Baker would retire from sports and attempt to establish himself as Australia’s first major star of local film. Ultimately, he made his home in Hollywood, counting such people as Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks amongst his close friends.
Cecil continues his tribute to his fallen comrade:
My elder brother, Arthur Higgins, is also a boxer. He was beaten in the semi-final of the R. and T. middle division. He must have come through all right, as they say no news is good news. He trained Jack, Frank, and myself for all of our contests. Frank’s correct name is McKay. The three of them lived together, boxed together, enlisted together, went away together, fought together, fell together, and yet people say boxers are shirkers and Stadium cowards. They went away with the Sportsmen’s Battalion, but on the field of battle were gunners in the Machine Gun Section.”
The weekday Referee also contained a short tribute:
Frank Dean, a lad who was well known at the Newtown Olympia among the middleweights, was killed in France in recent fighting, according to a cable received during the latter part of last week. He was one of Bluey McCarthy’s protégés.
Further newspaper tributes to McKay appeared as far afield as Forbes, Wagga Wagga, and Singleton.
Such was the confusion of the war that the young man’s death could not even be immediately confirmed. In such cases, a Court of Inquiry was convened, and witnesses interviewed about the soldier’s possible whereabouts. The Red Cross also conducted its own separate inquiry. Several other members of Frank’s company had been taken as Prisoners of War. There was still some slim hope that he might be amongst them. It was not until 17 September 1917, after over a year of agonised waiting, that what everyone had feared was confirmed, and Frank was officially declared killed in action.
Corporal Albert E. Howard provided the Red Cross with the details of his friend’s demise, which took place at Fleurbaix, shortly after the 14th Machine Gun Brigade had been ordered to retreat:
The morning of the 20th of July last when we had a raid, he and I were together all the time; we were over in the German lines and when the order came that we had to retire to our own front line, we came back as far as the German front line together, but I got into the sap leading across No Man’s Land first and he stood up on the parapet, and said he would hop down in a minute. Well, I walked about 50 yards away from him and looked back, and he was missing, but just where I had left him a shell had fallen … you can rest assured that Private F.W. McKay met his death on the 20th July 1916, fighting for his country.”
The two days of intense fighting in which McKay perished became known as the Battle of Fromelles. Over 1,700 men were killed in his brigade alone, one of the most deadly days for the Australian forces during all of World War I.
Notices soon appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Arthur and Jack Higgins contributing a tribute that was simple but genuine: "Our cobber, one of the best."
The Higgins family continued to publish annual newspaper memorials to Frank for several years. Margaret, meanwhile, treasured the photo that Frank had sent her from the battlefields, and held on to it for the rest of her life.
It is important to remember that the world of films and plays that Margaret inhabited was one where people sought not only leisure, but solace from a world that seemed to have gone mad. These activities provided those on the home front with a brief but blessed release from the appalling tragedy that was unfolding in other lands.
Frank McKay is one of the many victims of the Battle of Fromelles who is commemorated at the V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial.
A 1916 Film Diary - The Dog Days of July
Parramatta Rd as Margaret would have known it. Photo courtesy State Library of NSW.
With her illness worsening, Margaret’s nerves were further shaken on the 10th of July. “Met with accident, a tram and a dray on Parramatta Rd”. Sydney’s newspapers were regularly peppered with reports of such calamities between the new-fashioned public transport and the slower and older vehicles that were still common on the city’s streets. Though fatalities were common, it appears that no lives were lost in this case. The scene still left Margaret ”very shaken up indeed.”
Her illness shows no signs of abating, and she remains bedridden for most of the rest of the month, even missing her fiancée Fred’s birthday on the 12th. ”If my head does not ease aching, I will go silly,” she says on the 17th. “Dr Litchfield at night.”
Dr Litchfield was the neighbourhood doctor, his residential practice on Glebe Point Road sitting only a few blocks away from Margaret’s home. He was an expert on childrens’ health, and an advocate for better standards in babies hospitals and foundlings homes, and Margaret would already have known him very well through her advocacy of the Royal Alexandria Hospital for Children.
Despite the doctor’s best efforts, Margaret lost her voice to bronchitis for most of the remainder of the month. Eventually she is prescribed medicine and a throat spray which, to her shock, costs a whole pound - an enormous amount equivalent to a week’s rent.
This does the trick - but worse is yet to come during July.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Ne’er Do Well
'No pictures. Tired of being sick,' wrote Margaret on 28 June. By that weekend, she had recovered well enough to see The Ne’er Do Well at the Crystal Palace.
If she had enjoyed The Rosary earlier in the year, it would seem to follow that The Ne’er Do Well would also be to her taste, as the third in a series of films featuring the same major cast, director and production company, Selig.
Based on a novel by Rex Beach, who also wrote The Spoilers, The Ne’er Do Well is the story of Kirk Anthony (Wheeler Oakman), “an irresponsible, but likeable young male animal of good nature and heavy sex-punch,” according to the Sunday Times. One night, he is drugged and finds himself on a ship bound for Panama. Here, he meets the unhappily married Mrs Cortlandt, played by Kathlyn Williams and described as “a pretty woman, at what [playwright] Karen Michaelis termed ‘the dangerous age’” The two begin an affair.
Amidst picturesque scenes of the Panama Canal under construction, young Kirk undergoes various tests of character, eventually meeting and falling in love with a Spanish girl. Things end happily for Kirk, but not for Mrs Cortlandt.
When describing the risqué affair between a young man and a married older woman, reviews tried hard to have it both ways. Kathlyn Williams’ performance was both “a masterful, reposeful study, so faultless in deportment that no censor can reasonably delete a foot of her,” and one “ablaze with the dammed-up passion of an over-healthy woman, prisoned in humdrum.”
It is clear that American critics considered The Ne’er Do Well a major achievement. When most of their reviews were two paragraphs long, Moving Picture World dedicated a page and a half to discussing the film in detail. It was also lavishly praised in Australian reports. “The picture is a thing as big and fine as The Spoilers of two seasons ago, which at that time was the world’s best photoplay,” said the Sunday Times. “The film production actually improves on the story. It is in nine reels, every foot of the line reels is interesting, and in these days of much presentation and small satisfaction, any thing that, holds one past five reels must be great.”
How well the film had justified its length was a major theme of many reviews, at a time when film-makers were facing increasing accusations of stretching thin material with long passages of eye candy or unnecessary subplots. ‘He has built a photoplay of great length virtually without padding,’ wrote Motion Picture News of the film’s director, Colin Campbell. “It is action - action - action all the way.” “It is a film well worth spending an evening on,” agreed the Sunday Times.
Nevertheless, the fact that one reel was excised for Australian release - leaving a film that was still very long for the time - suggests local distributors feared audiences were not quite ready to dedicate so much time to a single film. It seems they need not have worried, as the Crystal Palace reported long queues for every showing of The Ne’er Do Well.
Perhaps Margaret was still feeling out of sorts, as this was one case when she disagreed with both the critics and the crowds, describing The Ne’er Do Well as a ’rotten programme’.
The Ne’er Do Well survives, and is in the collection of the USA’s Library of Congress.
The Crystal Palace had always been the centrepiece of George Street’s ‘Picture Block Theatres’. As The Ne’er Do Well made its debut, there was a major announcement that the Picture Block, now under the control of Union Theatres, would be rebadged as the Union Picture Theatres.
Union Theatres were a rising entity in the local distribution market. In less than a decade, they would become the most powerful single organisation in the Australian film industry, making forays into exhibition, distribution and production, under the energetic leadership of managing director Stuart F. Doyle.
The Union Theatres logo can be seen on the Crystal Palace’s curtains in this early photograph.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Circus of Death
There could not have been a greater contrast between Esmeralda and the second film Margaret saw on June 26 - one which had appeared in its native Italy under the title L’onore di Morire but was released in Australia as The Circus of Death.
Following the worldwide success of Cabiria (1914), Italy’s film industry had earned a reputation for screen extravaganzas of a scale that was unrivalled even by Hollywood. The Circus of Death was no exception, featuring detailed circus sequences containing hundreds of performers, and a dramatic Big Top fire.
Even these paled beside the film’s highlight, described as one of the most horrifying and unusual scenes ever captured on film.
Through various plot convolutions, a member of the circus abandons his wife and baby. The couple’s pet monkey is disturbed by the cries of the distraught mother, and steals the child, carrying it with him to the summit of a massive smokestack. The baby struggles free, and begins to crawl perilously close to the lip of the chimney. The fire department arrives, but even their tallest ladder cannot reach the top.
A female acrobat, having recently lost her own baby, volunteers to climb up and rescue the child. As she reaches the top, the chimp begins to attack her - an element some reports claimed was not in the script, but which the circus performer, real-life acrobat Mademoiselle Evelyn, was forced to take into her stride. However, “She soon mastered the ape, a kick sending him with a terrible shriek down the inside of the stack.”
It was claimed that the crucial sequence employed no special effects whatsoever, and was shot from a neighbouring smokestack using a telephoto lens. When the film was released in America in re-edited form as The Masque of Life, even more extravagant claims were made. Three humans and nine animals had lost their lives in the course of production! The chimp had been given a doll to carry up the chimney - which had now grown to 350 feet (105 metres) - but threw it away, taking the real baby instead! The director had been so horrified by the baby’s peril that he had attempted to commit suicide!
All of this is extremely unlikely, but the claims themselves demonstrate the way in which such thrill sequences were sold to an audience eager for ever-increasing spectacle. The idea that the participants were in genuine danger only added to the excitement.
Unfortunately, animal cruelty was not uncommon in Italian epics of the time. Early reports admitted that the poor chimpanzee, badly injured in the fall, had had to be put down. This did not stop a number of entrepreneurs in both America and Australia bringing different trained chimps to vaudeville, hyping them as the one that appeared in The Circus of Death's famous stunt.
Circus of Death marked the opening of the newly renovated Empress Theatre, and proved a sensation, with long queues reported for each session. After finishing at the Empress, it was transferred to the larger Lyric Theatre for a further week.
It is tempting to speculate that the smokestack sequence sat in the back of the mind of producer Meriam C. Cooper, only to emerge when he began to plan his famous epic of the 1930s - King Kong (1933).
A 1916 Film Diary: Esmeralda
The cold Margaret had contracted earlier in the month proved hard to shake. With a new system of accounting to be introduced at the brushwork factory, she managed to drag herself in to work, but ended up spending several days bedridden with bronchitis.
To celebrate her emergence from the sickroom, Margaret attended no less than two films on the same day - Mary Pickford’s Esmeralda at the Globe Theatre, and Circus of Death, at the Lyric Theatre.
Esmeralda was one of a number of Pickford’s films that were based on works by Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Famous Players-Lasky reported having received many requests to transform Esmeralda, a popular stage play, into a starring vehicle for ‘Little Mary’.
The rags-to-riches storyline of Esmeralda was cautionary rather than aspirational. When valuable ore is discovered on her family farm, Esmeralda’s mother (Ida Waterman) begins to scorn their former life. Rather than see her marry her humble childhood sweetheart, David (Charles Waldron), the mother claims that he has died, and instead pairs her with a slimy and secretly impoverished Count. David discovers the ruse on Esmeralda’s wedding day, and a dramatic confrontation ensues.
It seems that Esmeralda was emblematic of the difficult transition from shorts to feature films. Several critics noted the thinness of the story - it took four reels to tell but, according to one critic, might easily have been compressed into one - while Variety felt the film ended abruptly and without a proper resolution.
It is possible that audiences were expected to be so familiar with the source material that the subtleties of the plot need not be spelt out - a relatively common practice at the time, and one which can make some early features difficult to follow today. In any case, Variety concluded that ”Esmeralda as a feature picture could be called as of the old school. Feature picture making has passed beyond it.”
As was so often the case, it was the charismatic presence of Mary Pickford that lifted Esmeralda above the realms of the average. “Such a sympathetic characterisation does Miss Pickford render in the title role that Esmeralda and Little Mary will forever appear as one in our eyes,” said Motion Picture News. Audiences seemed unconcerned with any deficiencies in filmic technique; Moving Picture World reported that attendances at its initial season at New York’s Strand Theatre were second only to Pickford’s first enormous feature hit, Tess of the Storm Country (1914).
Though Margaret does not mention it, Esmeralda shared a bill with a comedy short, Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen, with Chaplin’s longtime leading lady Edna Purviance making a parody of the role that Margaret had so recently seen Theda Bara play.
Though she once considered destroying her older films in the fear that they may appear out-dated, Mary Pickford was ultimately a scrupulous stewardess of her own work, meaning that the vast majority of her feature films are still extant in good copies. Sadly, Esmeralda is a notable exception, the last known copy having been lost to decomposition during the 1950s.
Margaret judged the film “v[ery] good.”
A 1916 Film Diary: Martha’s Vindication
Like Let Katy Do It, which Margaret is likely to have seen earlier in the year, Martha’s Vindication was a five-reel Triangle Picture, directed by the Franklin brothers, though with D.W. Griffith’s name again featured prominently in advertisements despite his actual participation being minimal. Once again, Margaret saw it at the Audley Theatre.
Martha’s Vindication was the tale of two best friends, the virtuous Martha (Norma Talmadge) and the intransigent Dorothea (Seena Owen). When Dorothea gives birth out of wedlock, Martha promises to keep the secret. Some years later, Martha is accused of being the actual mother, and Dorothea, now married, refuses to admit to the truth. Martha becomes the subject of a moral witch-hunt before the truth is revealed.
The Mirror of Australia called it “one of the best and most enjoyable pictures yet shown by Triangle. The story works up to a fine, gripping climax in the last reel, which keeps excitement at high pitch.” Moving Picture World noted that the story, while complex, was skilfully wrought - a great advantage when many features suffered from being padded out to the length that audiences now demanded - but Motion Picture News considered that it relied too heavily on intertitles to spell out its story, an indication that the art of feature film writing still had some way to go.
It seems that the film had much in common with Lois Weber’s The Hypocrites, Moving Picture World noting that it contained “a strong undercurrent of protest against religious bigotry, particularly that of organisations which arrogate to themselves the privilege of making a superficial examination of the lives of members and of bringing about social destruction where social helpfulness would be more in accord with the spirit of Christianity.”
Sydney’s Sunday Times considered the film ‘superbly acted. It is a combination of many of the dramatic elements of Peggy and Tess of the Storm Country.’ Aside from Tully Marshall as the master of an orphanage and Josephine Crowell as his sanctimonious wife, two of the era’s loveliest stars appeared in the main roles of the two friends.
Seena Owen was born in Spokane, Washington of Danish and American parents. An unusually large number of future silent film stars lived in this area, and it was through one, director Marshall Neilan, that Seena gained her start in films. Later in 1916, she would make a notable appearance in the Babylonian sequences of D.W. Griffith’s follow-up to Birth of a Nation, Intolerance.
Norma Talmadge was widely considered one of the most beautiful women of the era, though it was not still photographs but moving pictures that showed her to her greatest advantage. This is ironic, because only a small proportion of Norma’s pictures survive today, and even fewer are widely available. Martha’s Vindication is another of her lost films.
By now, Triangle Pictures had established a policy of showing one film from each of its contributing producers on the same bill - a Mack Sennett comedy short, an Ince drama, and a Griffith romance. The notion of showing more than one feature on the same bill was quite revolutionary at the time, and yet it would become more popular in Australia than perhaps any other market.
Once the films moved to the suburban cinemas, only the Mack Sennett short was retained in support. It is likely that Sennett’s two-reel short, The Village Blacksmith, appeared alongside Martha’s Vindication as it showed in smaller cinemas. Either the Audley Theatre departed from this practice or Margaret did not think the film worth mentioning, as it does not appear in her diary.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Syd Saw ‘It Pays to Advertise’ “
Margaret was very busy during the early part of June, several times staying back at work after hours, or coming in to work on a Sunday. Before she knew it, another nasty cold had begun to take hold. This, combined with another late evening, might have been why she did not accompany Fred’s brother Syd to a performance of It Pays To Advertise, which was playing at the Criterion Theatre. The play marked the return of Hale Hamilton and Myrtle Tannehill, whom Margaret had seen earlier in the year in Twin Beds.
The Sunday Times suggests that Margaret missed a good night’s entertainment: “It Pays to Advertise is a comedy that is responsible for more hearty laughter than has been heard at the Criterion Theatre for a long time. This play has many moments of unadulterated farce, but it bubbles on unconcernedly from one act to another, carrying the audience with it by reason of the droll sayings and the infectious humor of the situations.”
Featured in a small role was Nancye Stewart, daughter of two of the Australian theatrical world’s most prominent figures: the legendary actress Nellie Stewart, sometimes described as Australia’s Sarah Bernhardt, and George Musgrove, the theatrical promoter who had passed away earlier in the year. Nancye’s career would extend well into the 1960s, and extend to radio and television.
It Pays To Advertise, a satire on the modern advertising industry, provided material for two films - a silent in 1919, and a sound film in 1931, which is today best known for providing Carole Lombard with one of her earliest sound roles, and Louise Brooks with one of her last.
Fred, Margaret, Syd, and Fred’s mother, 1919.