A 1916 Film Diary: Hell’s Hinges
It is tempting to suggest that Hell’s Hinges, which Margaret saw with fiancee Fred at the Audley Theatre on 18 October, was Fred’s selection - and yet, to defy the stereotype, Margaret had already demonstrated a partiality for both star William S. Hart and the Western genre in her other movie selections during the year.
Unlike its initial season at the Lyceum Theatre in the city, it is not likely that either The Little Schoolma’am or 1 a.m. played in support. If anything did, it may well have been the first episode of the serial The Iron Claw - of which more later.
It had been some time since Margaret had seen one of the much-hyped Triangle photo plays - maybe, after declaring The Ne’er Do Well ‘rotten’, she had decided that their quality did not live up to the hype. In any case, Hell’s Hinges was a wonderful choice, and one of the few films Margaret saw in 1916 that is still considered a legitimate classic today. It was a product of Thomas Ince’s Kay-Bee Films, one of the three companies that made up the ‘triangle’ of Triangle Pictures.
Blaze Tracy is the epitome of the ‘good bad man’ who William S. Hart had by now made his signature character - an outsider, a loner, and somewhat of a cynic who, emboldened by love, proves more innately virtuous than the hypocritical bastions of so-called decency. Here, this was represented by a weak-willed missionary (Jack Standing) whose attempts to tame the rough town of Hell’s Hinges are immediately rejected.
Tracy is the most feared man in Hell’s Hinges, and yet he develops a soft spot for the preacher’s gutsy sister (Clara Williams), who is able to look beyond his tough exterior. Though Tracy sees to it that the preacher can establish his church in peace, the reverend’s spineless ways lead him to alcohol and the clutches of a vamp, Dolly (Louise Glaum) and the townspeople are soon on the warpath. In setting the wrongs right, Hart not only gets to do some first-class gunslinging and impressive stunts but demonstrate the slow-burning, unpretentious style of acting that had made him a favourite. Said the New York Herald:
"William S. Hart is beginning to typify certain things in the film world. He is ever stoical, slow to anger, but possessed of the powers of a hundred men when aroused. He is a big, bluff, wholesome fellow, whose ideas are frequently a little peculiar, and he goes about matters in exclusively his own way. But when the showdown arrives, depend upon it, William S. Hart will be found lined up on the side of righteousness. This week, for example, Hart is appearing at the Knickerbocker Theatre in Hell’s Hinges. Hart has the opportunity to do some good riding, to carry a drunken minister on his back, to shoot the villain and some sub-villains, to set the town afire and to marry the minister’s sister. The Kaiser himself has appeared in pictures and done less.”
Though greatly admired by Variety and Motion Picture News, it is surprising that some reviews for Hell’s Hinges were quite tepid, given the esteem in which it is held today. Whilst describing the film ‘brilliant in subtitle, strong in treatment, with occasional notes of true pathos,’ Moving Picture World also believed ”William S. Hart should try himself out in some other role, or, at least, in some more decided variation of story in which he quite regularly appears.”
In Australia, Hell’s Hinges also received an unusually middling review from The Mirror of Australia, at a time when most newspapers kept their film coverage light and objective. ’Although the Triangle Co. must have spent a whole lot of good money in producing Hell’s Hinges, the result was not particularly captivating,” wrote The Mirror. Though considering the camera work good, the reviewer declared that “the theme of the picture is particularly foolish.”
It is interesting to note that Hart himself felt it necessary to dispel the notion that interest in the Western - which would prove one of the most enduring genres of the 20th century - was already on the wane. “William S. Hart is out all the time to prove that the day of the Western drama is by no means past,” reported the Sunday Times. “His contention is that it is only just dawning … the Westerns that Hart is producing are far different, however, to the old style, inasmuch as unlimited gun-play has no place in them.”
In the same way that Charlie Chaplin had helped to bring nuance to slapstick comedy, William S. Hart helped to show not only that the Western could be more than a simplistic battle of ‘goodies versus baddies’, but that the matter of who was truly on which side could be a complicated one.
Today, Hell’s Hinges is regarded by many not only as Hart’s best film, but one of the greatest and most influential Westerns of all time. It is also one case when the modern viewer can easily make up their own mind, the film not only being extant but widely available.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Big Push
"Conscription staring us all in the face," wrote Margaret on 16 October, shortly after receiving another letter from France from her brother Jack. She still showed no sign of having a clear position on the issue. Perhaps she thought that viewing The Big Push, which she attended the with her mother at the Crystal Palace, would help her make up her mind.
Margaret and her mother must have been amongst the first Sydney audiences to see the film, which had arrived only that morning, screening continuously from 11:30am until 9:30pm at night. Union Theatres clearly anticipated huge public interest, screening the picture simultaneously at two of its major theatres, the Crystal Palace and the Lyceum.
In both cases, the film formed one half of an incongruous double bill. Alongside the regular British Illustrated Gazette and Australasian Gazette, some audiences saw a slapstick Keystone comedy. Audiences at the Lyceum saw Madcap Ambrose, starring Mack Swain; while at the Crystal Palace, Margaret and her mother would have seen Sennett’s zany The Surf Girl, starring Raymond Griffith. Advertisements specifying the starting time of the main features suggest that many chose to skip it. Later in the season, an episode of the serial The Iron Claw was substituted.
The Big Push was described as ”a series of five reels of official British War Office pictures of the fighting during the advance on the Somme.” Why the film was released in Sydney under this title is a mystery. It had made its Australian premiere in Victoria and Western Australia earlier in the month under the title by which it is now generally known, The Battle of the Somme, though the fact that some advertisements used both titles suggests that the battle itself was not yet recognised under any particular name in Australia.
The Battle of the Somme, the birthplace of modern warfare, was one of the most appalling incidents that mankind has ever known. The brutal machinery available to the modern soldier was capable of carnage on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Sixty thousand British soldiers died on the first, dreadful day of the ‘big push’ alone. Over one million men would would perish over the course of the battle, including 23,000 Australians. Such figures remain staggering, even a century later.
For a person of 1916, to see rose-tinted and heroic depictions of scenes at the Front in the newspaper was one thing. Being the first ever civilians capable of witnessing the battle for themselves through the medium of the motion picture was another; a dubious privilege indeed. “Every face, tired or cheery, passes before the spectator,” observed the Sydney Morning Herald, in full realisation that many faces were making their first and last appearance.
Most people who saw The Big Push would never before have witnessed such graphic images as a person in the process of being shot, or a dead body. Various publications made arguments in support of the film’s unflinching view. ”Not the glory of war do the pictures depict, but war - war in all its grim, murderous reality and hideous ruin,” reported Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “[It is] relieved only from utter repulsiveness by the heroic companionship and cheerful suffering of the human souls overshadowed and dwarfed by the gigantic powers of destruction around them.”
Despite the horror it depicted, the film was considered potent propaganda, and New South Wales’ Premier J.H. Holman clearly felt it would create a new groundswell of support for conscription. “These pictures of the advance on the Somme are by far the most realistic group of battle pictures I have ever seen anywhere,” he said. “Their wide dissemination is likely to have a most educational effect on the public, and help enormously in the efforts we are now making to create an understanding of the real position.”
With the knowledge that their brothers and sons were in the process of living through this horror, The Big Push must have made confronting viewing for Margaret and her mother - or indeed for anyone. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Margaret spent a good deal of the following week taking in much lighter fare as she continued to ponder her very difficult decision.
The Big Push, considered one of the most important surviving records of World War I, was also one of the first films to be deliberately preserved and archived, a process which began in 1920. It has recently been restored and is available on DVD under its more common title, The Battle of the Somme.
A 1916 Film Diary: Salvation Joan
The star of the film Margaret and her mother saw at the Crystal Palace on 11 October, was advertised so prominently that Margaret can be excused for recording in her diary as Edna May, which she mistook for its actual title, Salvation Joan. Though it was barely Spring, it was already time to mail Christmas parcels to France for Arthur and Jack, the latter of whom had just celebrated his 19th birthday. Perhaps it was after a day’s shopping for food and gifts that the women spent a relaxing afternoon in the cinema.
Edna May had begun her career in her native America, but made her fame in England. Though it had only been a moderate success in her homeland, London audiences made The Belle of New York one of the greatest stage hits of the 1890s, and in the key role of Violet Gray, the Salvation Army girl, Edna became the toast of the town, her beauty making her the subject of endless picture postcards, and earning her a string of wealthy admirers.
Since her marriage to millionaire sportsman Oscar Lewisohn in 1907, Edna had retired from the stage, and had since made only a handful of appearances at benefit performances. It was only the notion of helping one of her favourite charities that inspired her to agree to a film role. She donated her entire salary for Salvation Joan to the Red Cross.
Salvation Joan was written by Marguerite Bertsch, Vitagraph’s former editor-in-chief of scenarios, who had recently been promoted to become the company’s first female director. The story told of a society girl (with the rather extraordinary name of ‘Joan Crawford’!) whose compassionate nature inspires her to join the Salvation Army. She soon falls in love with Bill (Harry T. Morey), an apparent crook from the slums who may have a better side to him, unlike her fiancee Philip (L. Rogers Lytton), the millionaire who turns out to have a very bad side. International espionage unexpectedly enters the story, leading to a nail-biting finale.
Its more sensational elements aside, the scenario was clearly designed to reference Edna’s most famous role. Publicity noted that she even wore the same iconic poke bonnet she had worn on stage as Violet Gray.
Reviewers agreed that Edna May had lost none of her beauty and charm in the years since she last appeared before the public. ‘The one time famous musical comedy artist can act; she plays naturally, without affectation,’ said Moving Picture World, with which Motion Picture News thoroughly agreed: ’Not the least gratifying thing about Miss May is her command of quiet emotion; her restraint; her complete avoidance of cheap acting - of which there is altogether too much on the screen.’
However, the latter identified that ongoing problem that bedevilled so many features during the transitional period of 1914-16: ’Much of the action is too slow. There is considerable padding, and a number of scenes which do not help the story along materially.’ The pace picked up after the fourth reel, when the espionage mystery began to dominate the action and built to a strong climax. By the time the film reached Australia, the film’s seven reels had apparently been trimmed to six, and was probably the better for it.
Despite the sudden death of her husband the following year and the subsequent discovery that his wealth had dwindled to only a small amount, Edna May resisted most attempts to bring her back to the stage or screen, and was content to live out her days in Europe as a society matron. Salvation Joan, which proved to be her only major film role, is now lost.
As she did throughout the year, Margaret omitted to mention the Keystone comedy that showed on the same bill as Salvation Joan - The Judge, starring Louise Fazenda and Charlie Murray.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Stop Work Day to Discuss Conscription”
October 1916 began with several days of torrential rain. “[Commemoration of the] 8 Hour Day. Rained all day, no procession," Margaret notes on 2 October, though she braved the weather to attend a film (again unnamed) at Glebe Pictures. The following day, it is "still pouring." Rain also disrupts an important event the day after that: “Stop Work day to discuss conscription.”
The national debate over conscription, evocatively dramatised by Frank Hardy in his classic novel Power Without Glory (1950), brought fault lines within Australian society to the fore.
The appalling loss of life at Gallipoli had sent shockwaves across Australia and created serious doubts about British military strategy. Many young men who might have enlisted in the understanding that a glorious (and ultimately victorious) adventure awaited them now reconsidered their plans. Australia had committed 5,500 troops to Britain in the immediate short term and yet, despite spirited recruitment campaigns, the number of men signing up for duty was dwindling.
The Australian Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, was a strident advocate of conscription. In fact, his Government already held the right to conscript young men for home defence under the Defence Act 1903, and only an act of Parliament was required to extend this right to overseas actions. However, Hughes was facing internal dissent within his own ruling Labor Party over the idea, with enough members willing to cross the floor in the Senate to imperil a parliamentary vote.
Though usually described as a referendum, the public vote which Hughes scheduled for 28 October 1916 would actually be a plebiscite - a direct appeal to the people, with which Hughes hoped to form a mandate to persuade his own dissidents to fall into line.
Those in favour of conscription pointed to what was considered an inalienable allegiance to ‘The Mother Country’. Britain had been promised 50,000 Australian reinforcements, and could not be let down. Certainly, many Australians had died in her defence, but proponents argued that abrogating the responsibility to help those that remained was a poor way of honouring their memory. Those who chose not to enlist were derided as ‘shirkers’ and ‘slackers’.
Those who opposed conscription cited a number of different reasons. Why should Australia be obliged to make a commitment so disproportionate to its small population? Opposition was particularly strong in rural areas, where farmers argued they were already doing plenty to keep the country afloat, and would face financial ruin if forced to abandon their properties.
Both sides were guilty of certain scare tactics, the Pro side building up the unlikely scenario of a German invasion on Australian shores, and the Anti warning of a flood of cheap immigrant labour replacing Australian workers forced to go to war.
It might also be noted that opponents of the war itself were frequently portrayed as radicals or lunatics - if they were mentioned at all.
Further divisions existed in the Catholic community, of which Margaret and her family were active members. The recent Easter Uprising in Ireland had radicalised many young Irish-Australian men. Why should they sacrifice their lives for a country that was an enemy to their cause? The fact that their community was overwhelmingly working class also led some to regard conscription as a form of class warfare. Margaret’s family would not have been the only one to hold back a son for economic as well as compassionate reasons.
Trade unions were particularly wary of conscription, and several had combined to convene the national Stop Work day that Margaret mentions. In Sydney, the rally was held at The Domain, traditionally host to Sydney’s largest political meetings, though reports bear out Margaret’s recollection that it was ’too wet.’ Some 5,000 participants adjourned to the Sydney Town Hall to continue the meeting, passing a number of resolutions - none of them supportive of conscription.
From the perspective of most of the world, it was extraordinary that Margaret had a right to vote in this plebiscite at all. Australian women were amongst the earliest in the world to gain suffrage, in 1902. While Margaret was becoming a thoughtful participant in democracy, her equivalents in England and America were still battling for the same right.
Advocates of both sides were well aware that young women such as Margaret would play a major role in determining the result of the vote, and they were the target of many a direct appeal. On one hand, should a mother send another woman’s son to his death? On the other, could any woman not wish to avenge the atrocities committed against the women and children of France and Belgium?
In his typically thunderous style, Prime Minister William Morris Hughes gave the following speech to a gathering of South Australian women during his national tour in support of conscription:
Women of Australia, mothers, wives, sisters, will you condemn to death those gallant men who have gone to fight for you to preserve your honour, your liberty, your bodies, from those foul outrages inflicted upon the poor Belgian women and children? For if you do not send them support you basely abandon them, and by your abandonment, you do abandon them to death, you do trample to the dust the great sacrifices they have made for you, you dishonour the brave who have died for you, you quench every spark of hope in the hearts of the mothers and wives and sisters of those 300,000 brave men— the glorious dead and the no less glorious living who face death every day for your sakes; you cover with the mantle of eternal shame the country that bore you and to which you owe everything.
It is clear that Margaret herself did not dogmatically subscribe to either camp, and found herself genuinely torn on the issue. She would farewell two other close family friends, Eddie and Ken Ash, during the month, the pair joining a deployment of 4,800 soldiers departing aboard the HMS Ceramic. A letter from the Front reminded her that it was now three months since her brother Jack was wounded, and that the family and friends of Frank McKay were still in the dark as to his fate.
Margaret spent much of October weighing up the difficult decision on conscription, attending many different meetings supporting both sides of the argument. Perhaps as a counterbalance, she also spent more time than ever at the movies.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Confession at St James, Pictures.”
On Saturday 30th September, Margaret went to see a film - most likely at the Glebe Theatre - after attending confession at her local parish, St James. The church, which sat only a few blocks away from her home, today remains much as it was that Saturday evening - and, for that matter, as it was when Margaret and Fred Wilkins were married there a year later.
The Glebe Theatre was low in the pecking order of Sydney’s second run theatres, meaning the feature she saw would have already appeared in one of Union Theatres’ major city cinemas as much as two months earlier.
Did she see Douglas Fairbanks in The Good Bad Man? Probably not - Doug being one of her favourites, she would certainly have mentioned him by name in her diary. The same principle would tend to exclude William S. Hart’s The Apostle of Vengeance and The Primal Lure, both of which were shown in the city at around the same time.
Thomas Ince’s Going Straight, starring Norma Talmadge, is one possibility, or perhaps Acquitted, starring Wilfred Lucas - but to take various factors into account, the most likely film is The Pawn of Fate, starring Doris Kenyon and George Beban, who was also credited with the story. It was a product of the Fort Lee, New Jersey—based World Pictures.
Reviews suggest that The Pawn of Fate was so beautifully staged that the simplicity of the story of a naive Normandy farmer who is duped by an artist who falls in love with his wife, was easy to excuse. ”It is all so delightful that we do not care whether there is a plot or not, because the beholder is lost in the spell of fascination that nature uses to make the whole world kin,” reported Motography, one of many reviews that make the film sound like an ancestor to F. W. Murnau’s remarkable Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans. We will probably never know whether The Pawn of Fate was a similar masterpiece, as it is a lost film.
The Pawn of Fate provided the first major screen role for Doris Kenyon, who would go on to be a very well known and prolific actress in silent and sound film, and eventually television. Likewise, director Maurice Tourneur went on to be a major force in Hollywood, as would the film’s assistant director, Clarence Brown.
George Behan is a less recognised name today, but was already well known as a stage actor by the time he entered films via Thomas Ince’s The Italian in 1915. Born in America to a Croatian father and Irish mother, but frequently appeared on screen as an Italian. As did Sessue Hayakawa for the Japanese, he strove to find more flattering roles for Latin actors than the usual mafiosi. He died tragically, contracting uremic poisoning after a fall from a horse in late 1928.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Louise Lovely This Time,” and “A Terrible Explosion”
The SS Wairuna
“A terrible explosion, six men killed," Margaret writes in her diary for Wednesday, September 27th - speaking not of the war, but of a dreadful industrial accident in which her brother Cecil was involved. A boxer by night, Cecil toiled as a day labourer for a living and was currently at the shipyards of Darling Harbour, where he was one of eighteen men working on the SS Wairuna. Fortunately, ”Cecil had a wonderful escape" - one of only nine men who did.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “An explosion of benzine [sic] occurred in number 2 hold of the steamer Wairuna, in Darling Harbor. Six men were killed and three injured.” Local firemen worked valiantly to locate any survivors, ‘caught like rats in a trap’ as one report put it, who had to crawl through thick smoke and benzene fumes to reach safety. Many had been thrown several metres by the explosion.
The story made national headlines, and paranoid rumours of a German conspiracy began to circulate. A coronial inquiry eventually delivered an open verdict, though evidence suggested that the culprit was an unnamed worker who lit a tobacco pipe whilst inside the hold.
Ironically, German sabotage did eventually prove the Wairuna's downfall. Only a few months after being damaged in a French air raid in 1917, the ship was raided and sunk by the German SMS Wolf, and its crew taken as prisoners of war.
No doubt shaken by her brother’s close escape, Margaret took in a movie that evening, starring her current favourite: “Gilded Spider, Louise Lovely this time." The Haymarket Theatre had recently inaugurated a policy of changing their program twice weekly, so the venue was the Australian Picture Palace, yet another of the new Sydney theatres that had opened in 1916.
Like the nearby Majestic Theatre, the Picture Palace hoped to build a clientele of working-class Hyde Park shoppers such as Margaret. The distinctive rounded building was a feature of Liverpool Street until the late 1970s, when it was yet another victim of the establishment of the nearby George Street cinema complex. It is now the location of the Hyde Park Plaza.
The Gilded Spider was a baroque tale that found Louise playing Leonita, the danseuse wife of Italian sculptor Giovanni (Lon Chaney). Captivated by her beauty, an American millionaire, Cyrus (Gilmore Hammond), drugs Giovanni and kidnaps his wife. As in The Grip of Jealousy, Louise’s character suffers a tragic demise early in the film, drowning in her attempt to escape from Cyrus’ yacht - but this time, she’s allowed to return in the personage of her own daughter, as the film skips ahead to show Giovanni’s attempts to avenge his wife’s death.
The cast was considered above reproach, and the visual polish of the film was highly praised by critics, but Bluebird Photoplays were quickly gaining a reputation for subordinating effective storytelling to high production values. ”Bluebird seems to have the idea that spending a lot of money on a production, with a good cast, is all that is required for the turning out of successful features,” grumbled Variety. “It has long been an axiom in legitimate theatricals that the first requisite to success is a good play. The same applies to motion pictures.”
The film was also one of the first to be reviewed by Photoplay, which began publication in July 1916 and would become the best known and most trusted of all of Hollywood’s film magazines. Its reviewer, Julian Johnson, came to a similar conclusion: ”A good cast, almost sensationally opulent surroundings and much feminine beauty are wasted on a noisily impossible melodrama.” Margaret may have agreed, as she broke her habit of seeing every new Louise Lovely film, skipping her next starring feature, Bobbie of the Ballet. Nor do any of Bluebird’s subsequent productions of 1916 appear to have interested her.
Like the majority of Louise Lovely’s films, The Gilded Spider is now lost.
The Gilded Spider was one of a number of films from 1915-1916 in which Louise co-starred with the legendary Lon Chaney, whose film career was only a few years old at this point. Though Chaney is best known today as ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’, thanks to his mastery of screen makeup, and as star of grotesque dramas and horror films such as The Phantom of the Opera (1926), this tends to obscure the fact that he was one of the greatest dramatic actors the silent screen ever produced. As the son of two deaf-mute parents, non-verbal communication came naturally to him.
Chaney’s only talking film, a remake of the silent The Unholy Three (1930), showed he was equally adept at sound drama. Undoubtedly, he would have played a vital role in the film industry of the 1930s and beyond, had he not succumbed to throat cancer in 1930, at the age of 47.
A 1916 Film Diary: “First Taste of Grand Opera”
On 21 September, Margaret makes mention of receiving her ‘first taste of Grand Opera, La Boheme.’ The play was a production of Italy’s Gonsalez Opera Company which, displaced from their usual European touring route by the war, were on a groundbreaking tour throughout the Southern hemisphere, allowing audiences in places such as India to see a full Italian opera for the first time.
The company was brought by Australia by promoter George Marlow, who was generally known for lighter theatrical fare. As a mark of the seriousness of his venture, Marlowe rebranded his Adelphi Theatre, at which Margaret had seen the pantomime Dick Whittington earlier in the year and was generally used for vaudeville and revues, as the Grand Opera House.
The season was anticipated as an ideal introduction to grand opera for people such as Margaret, and its price scale of 6/, 4/, and 2/ was advertised as the lowest prices at which opera had ever been shown in Australia. Along with 50 performers and two musical directors, the company brought its full wardrobe and its backdrops. The company performed a rotating selection of no less than twenty famous operas, which also included Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Cavalleria Rusticana and Il Pagliacci.
Marlow’s venture was considered a risky one, but his experiment seems to have worked.By the time it reached Sydney, the Gonsalez company boasted of having broken 55 records during its Melbourne season. “The Sydney public continue to give splendid support to the Opera,” reported The Newsletter in early October. “The Grand Opera House is crowded every night, and the productions of all the great operas have proved a magnificent lyric triumph. There is no mistaking the quality of the Gonzalez Company. The whole repertoire can be produced again and again on present appearances.” The company made the first of many return tours in 1917, and a version was still appearing on Australian stages in the late 1920s.
It was a particularly fortuitous visit for the company’s baritone, Count Ercole Fillippini. After falling in love with an Irish-Australian singer, he settled in the country, later helping to found the South Australian Grand Opera Company. Amongst his descendants is Paul Kelly, the singer-songwriter responsible for a very different but no less important legacy in Australian music.
Margaret’s attendance at the opera might have come at the suggestion of her brother-in-law to be, Syd, who had attended the previous week. She called the experience ‘v[ery] nice.’
A 1916 Film Diary: The Foundling
Mary Pickford’s The Foundling was Margaret’s selection for the evening of Saturday 16th September, after she and her fiancee had spent a day at the Glebe Carnival at Wentworth Park. This event featured everything from a military procession and welcome home to returned servicemen, to a fancy dress parade. Margaret described it as ‘a great success’. At the following year’s Carnival, her little sister Grace would win First Prize for Best Original Costume for her nurse’s costume.
The story of The Foundling, described by the Sunday Times as one “of a beautiful sentiments and tender appeal to the finer senses,” was a return to a more archetypal role for the star after the atypical Madame Butterfly.
The latter film had been one of Pickford’s many attempts to broaden her appeal past the ‘Little Mary’ persona, and like the others, it would prove short-lived. "The public ‘typed’ Mary against her wishes," explained Adolph Zukor, the mogul who had staked the success of his Famous Players company on Pickford’s fame. "She was wanted complete with curls, puppies, and a jam-smeared face and brave smile while going through some of the worst adversity ever heaped upon a young girl."
In The Foundling, Pickford’s favourite collaborator, screenwriter Francis Marion, pelted Little Mary with every possible peril in order to show off the pluck and humour with which the actress’ persona was now inextricably linked.
Poor Molly O is abandoned by her father after her mother dies in childbirth, undergoing deprivation after deprivation at a foundling’s home. When her father returns to adopt her, another child is substituted, and she instead goes to live with the cruel mistress of a boarding house, who keeps her in virtual slavery. Naturally, she is eventually rescued and all ends well. ‘[It’s] the sort of picture that at one moment gives rise to a delighted chuckle, and the next raises a lump, in your throat,’ said Sydney’s Arrow newspaper, a description that could easily be used for many of Pickford’s productions in coming years.
The Foundling is famous within filmic circles for a number of reasons that have little to do with his content. Firstly, it was Pickford’s first self-produced film - remarkable, given that she was only 23 at the time, but no less remarkable than the fact that she was already earning $104,000 per year. With various bonuses for box office performance factored in, the figure inflated further to a staggering $500,000. Pickford would soon find even this sum inadequate, departing Famous Players-Lasky to help found United Artists in 1919.
Secondly, the picture had already been completed when a fire devastated the Famous Players lot in New York. While a number of negatives for recently completed films survived, having been stored in a specially constructed fireproof safe, The Foundling was destroyed. Partly re-cast and entirely remade under a new director, it made its debut in January 1916.
Pickford attributed the film’s soft performance to this change in personnel and its troubled production history, but reviews of the time suggest that both critics and audiences considered the story a little too similar to her other hits to be entirely satisfying.
Already one of Margaret’s favourites, Mary Pickford's fame was reaching its zenith in Australia when The Foundling was released. In America, she was known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’, but in other international markets, including Australia, her sobriquet was ‘The World’s Sweetheart’. After opening at the Strand Theatre, The Foundling proved so popular that the Waddington’s chain, which had exclusive rights to Pickford’s pictures in Sydney, decided to show it simultaneously at all of its major city theatres.
The film is extant in a number of American archives.
A 1916 Film Diary: Fool’s Revenge
By now, the idea of the double-feature was well established in Sydney, particularly in the case of second-run pictures. This would have been attractive to Margaret, who had over a month’s picture-going to catch up on. On 14 September, she went to the Majestic Theatre at enjoyed The Fool’s Revenge, starring Maude Gilbert and W. H. Tooker, with The Secret Sin, starring Sessue Hayakawa and Blanche Sweet, as the supporting feature.
The Fool’s Revenge was based on a play by Tom Taylor, which itself was a loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi’s Amuse and the opera it had inspired, Verdi’s Rigoletto. The story had already provided fodder for another film version, directed by D.W. Griffith, in 1909. The Fool of the title, a court jester in the original, was translated to a circus clown in this modernised adaptation.
Reviews paint a detailed picture of a lurid melodrama, reminiscent of the gothic horror stories that Lon Chaney later made famous, which included Victor Hugo’s own The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The clown (W. H. Tooker) murders the vampish wife he suspects of infidelity (Marie Gilbert) by throwing her off a cliff.
The clown changes his identity to avoid capture. After making a fortune in the oil industry, he encounters the lecher who cuckolded him, and disguises his identity a third time, in order to pose as the man’s butler and set his sights on his beautiful wife. A convoluted and tragic denouement instead sees him inadvertently assisting in the scoundrel’s seduction of the Fool’s own daughter (Ruth Findlay).
Motion Picture News' Peter Milne praised the story's “unrelenting force and unsparing frankness,” while admitting that these very traits would turn off some viewers, and noting that some early audiences had found its dramatic convolutions difficult to take seriously. Moving Picture World's Judson Hanaford also held reservations, praising the directing and most of the acting, but wondering exactly what the film's series of increasingly tragic events was supposed to mean, if anything. “In trying to crowd five reels with climaxes he [director Will S. Davis] has lost his way,” he concluded. “The story is clearly continuous, but in his accenting of this and that he has obscured its inner significance.”
The Secret Sin tells the story of two young women, Edith and Grace both of whom were played by Blanche Sweet. Stricken by poverty and their father absent, the sisters are forced to do piecework to keep their family fed. A combination of pure chance and the strain of her work leads Grace into a sinister underworld:
Grace is bribed by a drug friend to go around the comer into Chinatown and get him some opium. Grace goes, and in a joke, gets her first taste of the drug. Afterwards, when she and her sister secure employment in a blouse factory, and she is suffering from overwork, Grace takes money from the house funds and gets opium to relieve the pain. She is not suspected, and later, when an ignorant doctor gives her morphine as a medicine, she becomes a secret drug fiend.
Grace goes to great lengths to conceal her growing problems from her sister and family, and the plot thickens when the two sisters fall in love with the same man, and Grace conspires to make it appear that it is her sister Edith suffering from addiction. There is an exciting climax in Chinatown as Grace is rescued from the clutches of a Chinese drug gang.
Though the leading man was the handsome Thomas Meighan, it was the villainous Chinese drug pusher Lin Foo, played once more by Sessue Hayakawa, who was given more prominence in advertisements, following the success of The Cheat. Moving Picture World gave the film a cautious thumbs up, praising the verisimilitude of its scenes of poverty and director Frank Reicher for adding excitement and thrills to what might otherwise have been a purely grim story.
While Fool’s Revenge is considered lost, The Secret Sin is extant in the collection of the US Library of Congress.
The Majestic Theatre, at the corner of Liverpool Street and Nithsdale Street, Hyde Park, had opened on 30 April 1915, making it the newest cinema in the Waddington’s chain, which also operated the nearby Strand and Globe Theatres.
Its proprietors seemed to have young women exactly like Margaret in mind. “The Globe and Majestic Theatres are so conveniently situated for ladies who like a quiet and enjoyable rest after a strenuous day’s shopping that they have become a by-word amongst Sydney’s shoppers,” said advertisements, and indeed, the large Mark Foys department store was only a few doors away. “All dress circle patrons are served with a refreshing cup of tea and biscuits or a Summer drink between 11am and 6pm.”
The Hyde Park Margaret would have seen was very different from the one we know today - no St James or Museum Station, small saplings in place of the corridors of enormous trees, and of course, no soaring memorial to the victims of World War I.
Little trace of this area remains intact aside from the Mark Foys building itself, which has been repurposed as law courts.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Golden Chance
The Golden Chance, showing at the Globe Theatre on George Street, was Margaret’s choice of entertainment for the evening of 6 September. After two months of illness and uncertainty, she would resume her busy cinema-going schedule during September.
The ‘golden chance’ of the title referred to the prospects of a beautiful but downtrodden housewife (Cleo Ridgeley) who suddenly finds herself part of society life when she is brought in to substitute for an upper class woman at a dinner party. A rich bachelor (Wallace Reid) instantly falls in love with her, giving her a new opportunity not only for true love but for bettering herself. The chemistry between the two romantic leads was such that they were starred together in several more films.
Paramount Pictures, distributors for the Famous Players-Lasky production company, had by now firmly established itself in the Australian exhibition scene, and advertisements made liberal use of the excellent reviews it had received in America. According to Motion Picture News' Peter Milne:
Superlatives are dangerous, particularly the overworked word 'best,' and when employed to describe a Lasky picture the danger is even greater, for if we are inclined to say that such-and-such a picture is the best that Lasky has produced, next week there comes another even better — and better than best is— well, it's The Golden Chance. It is difficult to draw a definite line between the merits of the story and the direction… The story carries with it a load of suspense that keeps the interest at high pitch every minute of the time.”
Moving Picture World's Stephen Bush was similarly admiring:
"The gloss on all the superlatives has been worn off by the ruthless hand of the press agenda and superlatives after all are the only terms in which justice can be done to this picture … it is rich in dramatic material and replete with genuine pathos … it is bound to add to the prestige of the motion picture everywhere."
Many reviews commented on how ideally the story was suited to the motion picture form, and the construction of its screenplay by Jeanie Macpherson was used as a case study in at least one screenwriting guide in later years. Director Cecil B. DeMille was himself so taken with the theme that he remade the story as Forbidden Fruit in 1921.
During 1915, the year of The Golden Chance's production, DeMille kept up an extraordinary pace. Not only did he produce thirteen features during the year, but made The Golden Chance back-to-back with The Cheat, filming the latter during the day and the former in the evening.
The critics may have hit the nail on the head when they judged that over-lavish praise was beginning to dull the public’s ability to tell genuine quality from ballyhoo. Margaret must have felt the same way, as she decided The Golden Chain was ‘not up to expectations’.
Wallace Reid was one of the premier heart-throbs of the era, his persona clean-cut, cheerful and athletic. He had worked with a number of the pioneer companies before being one of the many popular actors to be signed by the burgeoning Paramount/Famous Players-Lasky. Eager to consolidate their growing stature in the industry, the company kept Reid, one of their major assets, very busy over the next few years.
While filming The Valley of the Giants (1919) in rural Oregon, Reid was injured in a train accident, and doctors prescribed morphine for chronic pain. As discussed earlier, morphine addiction was an emerging but still poorly understood phenomenon, and the methods to treat it could sometimes be little better than the addiction itself. Famous Players-Lasky kept Reid working as long as possible, but the world was shocked when the former matinee idol died in a rehabilitation facility in early 1923, at the age of 31.
Though Reid had been no hedonist, the stigma of addiction was such that his name was inevitably caught up with those of the victims of a number of other recent Hollywood scandals, including the mysterious death of rising star Virginia Rappé and the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, which exposed a seedy underbelly of drugs, drink and infidelity in the movie capital.
Sadly, the talented Reid became irrevocably associated not with the outdoor life or a love of motor cars, as he had during his lifetime, but with the scourge of celebrity drug addiction.