Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 6: 1913 An American in the Making

The Thanhouser Sunday-Tuesday-Friday release schedule continued. On Sunday, April 20, 1913 The Children's Conspiracy was first screened. Featured were Mignon Anderson, David H. Thompson, Marie Eline, and Leland Benham. The Moving Picture World commented:

In this the Thanhouser Kid and a small boyfriend fix up the new teacher's bank book, making the village miser think that she is well off. He marries her, and the old teacher is re-employed. The plot is an amusing one, but the scheme was one that children would not have devised.

An American in the Making, released on April 22nd, saw Harry Benham in the role of an immigrant from Poland. The origin of the film was told by Charles J. Hite: Note

About a year ago the United States Steel Corporation came to us and requested us to prepare a story in moving picture form, with the idea of circulating the same through our theatres, which would show the human side of this great company. They wanted to convey to the public in general that they had a heart; that they were interested in the education, health and safety of their employees. It resulted in the following story:

A brother in America writes to Bela in Poland that he has a job for him. He arrives at Ellis Island, is tagged to Gary, Indiana, the home of the steel trust, and there meets his brother, who shows him this wonderful plant and has him lined up for a job, where he starts in on the commonest kind of job, is promoted from one position to another until it brings him in contact with all the dangerous mechanical devices in places where his life is jeopardized, but at each turn in this road of progress through the plant where his life is endangered a safety signal is displayed, calling his attention to the danger of injury. He attends night school, and we complete the story of our hero with respect to the U.S. Steel Corporation by marrying him happily to his little American night school teacher, with a scene in their cottage at the table with their family.

Whether Thanhouser's immigrant was from Poland or from somewhere else was hard to determine by reading press clippings about the film. An article in The Chicago Examiner suggested an entirely different national origin: "In the movie the young Frenchman of noble family comes to America and starts a new career in the Gary mills." The Motion Picture World told its readers: "The story deals with a young Hungarian emigrant...."

The theme of success in America was not unique to Thanhouser films, and in an era in which Ellis Island served as the turnstile for countless Europeans seeking a better life in the United States, other film makers were quick to capitalize on the subject. For example, Solax's Making an American Citizen, released on October 30, 1912, dramatized the arrival of a newly-arrived immigrant in New York City and the difficulty he had at first in adapting to life on this side of the Atlantic.

For Another's Sin, released on April 25th, was a split-reel subject with Priscilla's Pets at the end. Next came Rosie's Revenge, issued on April 27th, of which The Morning Telegraph commented:

This film may be classed among the best of the recent comedy releases. Riley Chamberlin has extracted all that there is of real good fun from the role of Rosie. Rosie's method of getting even with a young man with whom he has clashed previously is very amusing. Dressing in female attire and taking the position of cook in the house of the young man's fiancée, he doctors up the food which he sets before him on an occasion when he comes to dine. Cayenne pepper, salt, soap powder and various other unpalatable ingredients prevent the young man from enjoying the meal and eventually send him rushing from the house in extreme embarrassment.

The Girl Detective's Ruse, distributed on April 29th, had been postponed from its original date of January 21. It is believed that prints of the film were lost in the studio fire. The Moving Picture World printed one synopsis of the film story on January 25th, in connection with the expected January 21st release date, and another synopsis on May 3rd. Similarly, The Morning Telegraph printed two different reviews, four months apart.

The Widow's Stratagem, released on May 2, 1913, featured Francelia Billington and Jean Darnell. In real life Miss Darnell was an extremely intelligent woman with a wide variety of interests, while Miss Billington, who was with the Thanhouser studio only briefly, had difficulty spelling even the simplest words.

Express C.O.D., released on May 4th, was reviewed by The New York Dramatic Mirror:

A new version apparently of Pigs is Pigs. An expressman is proposing to a young and pretty widow when the widow's child playfully upsets the kneeling wooer. The expressman departs in a huff, and when a box of rabbits arrives C.O.D. for the child, he holds the animals for the charges. The rabbits keep multiplying until they are all around the express office and occupy a special yard. Then the expressman and the widow make up their differences and marry, becoming "rabbit millionaires." This drama was reviewed without subcaptions. It isn't funny because it does not work up to a good comic situation. But it is clearly told and well presented. The child is especially good.

Her Sister's Secret, distributed on May 5th, featured James Cruze as the handsome neighbor and Florence LaBadie as the impetuous younger sister in a story set in Southern California. Next on the Thanhouser schedule was The Other Girl, distributed on May 9th, centered on the Tournament of Roses parade held in Pasadena a few months earlier. Reviewers found the film plotless.

Barred From the Mails, released on May 11th, was supposed to be funny, but certain reviewers found a questionable element. The Moving Picture World commented:

In this picture a young mother actually tries to send her baby to her sister by parcel post. It is tagged and taken by the postman to the post office, where it is finally rejected on the grounds that live animals are inadmissible. There is novelty in this picture, but the baby seemed in such genuine distress at times from rough handling that it may make some difference in the reception of the picture with an audience.

Marble Heart, released in two reels on May 13, 1913, featured Marguerite Snow as Marco, the cold woman with a marble heart, and James Cruze as Raphael, the sculptor who loves her. In modern times, Cruze falls in love with his model, Marco, but she prefers the solicitations of a wealthy man. The scene flashes back to ancient Greece, where Cruze now takes the part of Phidias, a sculptor, and Snow becomes a model in his studio. In action parallel with the modern theme, Phidias falls in love with his statue, but the statue comes to life and chooses instead a man who offers her jewels. Florence LaBadie plays a supporting role as a wholesome girl who loves Raphael but is ignored by him.

The scenic backdrop in the ancient flashback showed the Acropolis in Athens, but several reviewers placed the action in Rome. The New York Dramatic Mirror commented:

A two-part drama based on Charles Selby's play, and retelling the story of how Raphael fell in love with his fickle model, Marco, and, when the girl's heartlessness is revealed in a dream of a pre-existence in Roman days, he destroys his masterpiece before he dies broken-hearted. Unless one is familiar with the play, the sudden flashing of the dream comes as something of a shock. A good subcaption explanation should pave the way for the fantasy. The direction varies. James Cruze as Raphael and Marguerite Snow as Marco have the leading roles. The Marble Heart as a stage drama would appear old-fashioned these days. The heroic love drama has departed. In the films it seems almost equally creaky.

Why Babe Left Home, a comedy released on May 18th, starred John "Babe" Wallace in the title role. The New York Dramatic Mirror Note commented: "A couple of weeks ago the Thanhouser producers saw a likely looking fat man in electrician's overalls, brought him over to the New Rochelle studio, and gave him the star part in a picture. Artists often discover types this way in the street, but the present Thanhouser instance was likely the first in which such a 'find' was given a feature acting part. The 'find' was John Wallace, who weighs 350 pounds and causes no end of laughter in Why Babe Left Home, as the finished film has been called. The part is of a fat boy who is disinherited by his lean father and who tries to pick up a living by carrying a restaurant sign reading 'You Can Tell By Looking At Me That I Eat At Donnelly's.' Wallace's film effort is to be released Sunday, May 18." A subsequent review in The Morning Telegraph named the restaurant as "Dooley's."

A Business Woman, released on May 20th, was followed by In Their Hour of Need, distributed on the 23rd. Then came A Pullman Nightmare, issued on the 25th. Reviews were mixed but generally favorable.

Carmen, released in three reels on May 27th, featured Marguerite Snow in the title role of this classic story by Prosper Mérimée made famous by Bizet's opera. Thanhouser advertised Carmen in February and March but did not give a release date at the time. Immediately afterward, Monopol, Note a competitor, countered by placing full-page advertisements in The Moving Picture World and elsewhere to proclaim the virtue of its film of the same title and subject. In response, Thanhouser printed this notice in the April 5, 1913 issue of The Moving Picture World: "COMING! The only genuine Thanhouser Carmen, with a notable Thanhouser cast. Worth waiting for!" As it turned out, the three-reel Monopol version, starring the much-advertised actress, Marion Leonard, opened to poor reviews, including one by W. Stephen Bush in the April 5, 1913 issue of The Moving Picture World, which noted that except for the presence of Marion Leonard in the cast, "this filmed version of Carmen would have little to commend it to either the exhibitor or the public." Note

Finally, the release date for Thanhouser's version of Carmen was set as April 25, 1913. As the film still was not ready, the schedule was again revised, this time to the final May 27, 1913 date, at which time the picture was advertised as "almost a year in the process of production." This reference may refer to a Thanhouser two-reel version of Carmen begun in early 1912 but never completed.

Carmen furnished the opportunity for a commentary by Louis Reeves Harrison of The Moving Picture World:

The Thanhouser version of this much-produced story may be better than any of those preceding it, but I am not prepared to make comparisons, not having seen the others. Two features of it were delightful to me, and they will probably meet with general approval - the exquisite photography and the fine acting of Marguerite Snow in the title role. All other members of the cast were good, with one exception, the exteriors are chosen with excellent taste, the costumes are elaborate and costly, one of the interiors - that was associated with the toreador's first appearance - is a gem.

I am informed that this version is taken from the famous book of the same name by Prosper Mérimée, and here is where I may be seriously at fault. The author was a brilliant literary critic, a great historian, a famous archaeologist, and wrote a veritable masterpiece in Columba, but the particular story we are dealing with first attracted public attention to any large extent in the libretto of Meilhac and Halévy, made renowned by Bizet's music. The libretto was admirably suited to purposes of grand opera because it afforded opportunity for Bizet's style of composition and for gorgeous costume display.

Without the music there is little left but the chance for costume display - the theme is worn threadbare - and Thanhouser directors have gone to great pains in the matter of beauty. They have even gone to extremes. We can stand for perfectly clean Gypsies and the silks and satins of a masquerade ball, but when Mercedes steps out of a hovel - this is an exterior in broad daylight - with two Marguerite braids in hemp and her pretty feet encased in silk hosiery and satin slippers with rhinestone buckles, the incongruity becomes overwhelming. The actress who attempted this role - attempt is the best that can be said for her impersonation - possibly had a tango on hand for the evening and did not consider it necessary to dress her tootsies to suit her part.

I should have given her part to a girl who flashed on the scene for a brief instant and filled the screen while she was there, although she was only one of a group. I took the trouble to inquire about this member of the company who only came into view for a second and learned that her name was and still is Billings. She will probably remedy that fault before she cuts all of her teeth, for she has what I am compelled to designate, for the lack of a better expression, 'Picture Personality,' a valuable asset for a photoplayer.

I am accused of a bias for original plays, but please consider how much attention is given to discovering what is obvious and how millions of amusement seekers are being enfranchised from what is old and stale by what is new and inspiring and present improvement and radiant hopes for the future, eager to enjoy themselves at the little theatres according to the development of the period. You cannot quench that demand by repetition of what has done service a quarter of a century ago. Our lives are becoming more and more full of meaning and purpose, and whatever mirrors life as we know it rings true. If I have a bias for original productions, so have you, and so has nearly every intelligent exhibitor in the land. This new art is destined to appear to the millions now in a state of progression who are not afflicted with minds that are primitive, and no one who respects and loves the art and sincerely desires to see it established in national esteem and on sane and safe grounds is without that bias which I am accused of having, a bias intended to increase the popularity and influence of moving pictures all over the world.

Harrison's review was seen by Charles J. Hite, who noticed the favorable mention of Miss "Billings," really Francelia Billington, and who immediately elevated the actress to star billing in films produced by the New Majestic players in Los Angeles. Joining Miss Billington at the former Thanhouser studio was comedian Fred Mace and William Garwood, the latter being one of Thanhouser's most important male leads. True to publicity form, Miss Billington was featured as a new motion picture star. A distorted view of history was presented by The Moving Picture World: Note

Miss Billington began her career as a movie actress as the result of a joke. She appeared in minor roles with a small concern Note in California, where she chanced to be seen by a representative of the Thanhouser company, who caused her to be engaged. After a stay with the Thanhouser she was transferred to the Majestic.... Nature was kind to Miss Billington and she was apparently intended to play romantic roles. She is tall and lithe and her personal charms have caused her to be known as "The Beauty of the Screen."

In 1914, in a commentary Note about Charles J. Hite, Bert Adler mentioned Louis Reeves Harrison's review of Carmen and also Hite's reaction to the negative reviews the company had garnered around this time:

Unfavorable criticism of his product in the press hurt him more than most people thought. He was wounded by criticism of our pictures right after the Thanhouser fire, at a time when he thought reviewers should have been lenient. And I never saw a big man who was so sincerely thankful for the smallest paragraph of praise. When the trade papers spoke nicely of us, which I am glad to say was most of the time, he would show the notice to all his intimates with a good deal of pride. It will be remembered that he engaged one young woman, Miss Billington, for the Los Angeles studio because Mr. Harrison of the World, in a review, said that she stood out in a small part in Carmen. That must show what he thought of a good notice!


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.