by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the motion picture industry grew by leaps and bounds from roughly 1910-1930, there were many areas in which its increasing sophistication was manifest, from more complex plots and scenarios, the greater use of location shooting, more expansive studio sets, and rapidly developing publicity and marketing efforts. Also much more impressive were the venues in which films were shown and the term “movie palace” is more than indicative of the trends in how movie theaters (well, “theatre” was the preferred spelling) were designed and furnished.
Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection demonstrates how theaters continued to refine its services and promotion to the film-going public. This edition of the Criterion Newsette, a four-page program and publication issued by the theater of that name on Grand Avenue between 6th and 7th streets, was the forty-fifth weekly number of the first volume and dates to 1 September 1927.
The venue opened as the Kinema Theatre at the end of 1917, just as films were moving from short one and two reel pictures to multi-reel feature length productions. The location was away from the primary theater district, which started on Main Street and moved to Broadway, though there were some venues in other locations, including on Hill Street.
The theater appears to have had a capacity of just under 2,000 and soon passed into the control of Thomas Tally, whose namesake theater was a prominent one in the early days of the industry, but by 1920 it was managed by the Gore Brothers and Sol Lesser, veterans of the theater industry. and their holdings became the basis of the West Coast Theatres, Inc. chain.
In August 1923, the Kinema closed and the venue went through a major remodeling and reopened as the Criterion, with a policy of long engagements of major films shown twice a day. The narrow stage was greatly enlarged so that live music could be performed and there was “the installation of 500 luxurious divans on the lower floor.”
There were two high-end projectors installed so that, if one broke down, the other could continue with its shutters removed for an uninterrupted presentation. The first film shown was Charles Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris,” which was a transition of the comedy giant’s style of film-making into longer, more complex productions.
Four years later came the production of the Criterion Newsette and this issue contains the program for The Big Parade, a King Vidor-directed drama about the First World War that had a tremendous influence on other war-themed pictures like Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front. The MGM production was a massive hit, one of the most successful of the entire silent era, and it’s 2 1/2 hour running time put it into the category of “epic” along others like Ben-Hur.
With a budget of just under $400,000, the smash, which made stars of leads John Gilbert and Renée Adorée and established Vidor as a preeminent director, had initial grosses of $4 million in the United States and about half that overseas, but later rentals increased the figures significantly. Before the Academy Awards existed, the film won a prize from Photoplay, a leading popular film magazine and it is included in the National Film Registry as a testament to its reputation.
Before the feature, there was the standard newsreel, titled “West Coast News Events,” followed by a performance of “The American Fantasy,” arranged by the “Internationally Famous Violin Virtuoso” Jan Rubini and his Little Symphony Orchestra. Rubini, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, was highly regarded locally for both his performances on the violin and his conducting, and lived well into his 90s, dying in Newport Beach in the late 1970s.
The remainder of the publication, however, was given over to promotion for the premiere of Camille, based on the famous novel, The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils and starring Gilbert Roland and Norma Talmadge. Talmadge, married to producer Joseph M. Schenck, was at the peak of her career and she and Schenck developed the film under her namesake production company and released by First National Pictures.
In its promotion, the publication claimed that Camille “is a refreshing reminder that a film drama can equal and even excel the original work from which it was adapted” as it vividly showed “the wild abandon of the French cafes; the sumptuousness of a luxury loving woman; the tears, laughs and tragedies of the world” and more. The sets, costumes, and other elements meant that “nothing was spared in making Camille the supreme accomplishment of the producer, the star, and the director.”
Going into some detail about the sets, it was claimed that “in the matter of style alone, Camille far exceeds any previous effort of the screen” while it was also “a study in diverse natures” and its evocation of “a sacrificial love so noble and unselfish that it expiates” the past of the titular heroine and her devoted lover Armand, played by Talmadge and Roland, and described as “among the great lovers of history.
Notably, while Talmadge, whose sisters Natalie and Constance were also well-known actors, was a veteran and a major star, Roland, a native of the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez and whose first leading role was a 1925 film with Clara Bow, to whom he became engaged, was just coming into prominence. Purportedly, the two stars took their roles as “among the great lovers of history” seriously during the making of Camille. The publication, as was common for the time, referred to Roland as “a Spanish youth,” as the aura of Europe was far more desirable to white audiences than that of Mexico.
There are several photos from the film, which was released just before Christmas 1926, include a front cover one of Talmadge in the richly ornamented clothing and jewelry highlighted in the publication’s descriptions of the film. Another shows the stars in a passionate embrace, while a third depicts the “young and handsome Spaniard” Roland seated on a large sofa clutching a book to his chest while he gazes pensively in a profile view.
Another short piece noted that the assignment of directing Camille was one of the most difficult tasks every assigned to Fred Niblo, whose name is basically forgotten now but whose major films included The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921 and like the first starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.;) Blood and Sand, the 1922 Rudolph Valentino smash, and the aforementioned Ben-Hur (1925). A former actor whose relations with his performers made him popular among them, Niblo retired in the early Thirties and died in the late Forties. His namesake son was a well-known screenwriter.
There is also a short article about Rubini, accompanied by a photo, and it noted that he “is now very busily engaged in arranging a music score” for Camille and viewed the film several times. He “is so enthusiastic over the picture that he promises an arrangement of musical numbers that will be of exceptional interest to music lovers.”
Along with listings of West Coast Theatres staff (the chain was sold the following year to William Fox for his growing network of theaters) and theater and musical personnel, as well as information on where the ladies’ parlors, gentlemen’s smoking rooms, and check rooms were located, there is the chain’s trade mark and a statement that it represented “your guarantee of the best in clean entertainment and courteous service in comfortable surroundings.” To conclude, it was noted that patrons should “cultivate the theatre going habit” because “the motion picture instructs, inspires, educates, and amuses.” Moreover, “everything that encourages good cheer is contributing to the wealth of the community.”
At the end of 1927, the first picture using the Vitaphone sound system played at the Criterion, this being Old San Francisco, a Warner Brothers film starring Dolores Costello. Just after Christmas, the film generally accounted as the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, opened at the venue and star Al Jolson, whose blackface performance and publicity photos are particularly jarring today, made a personal appearance, as did Renée Adorée and Karl Dane when The Big Parade came to a close before Camille opened.
As Fox took over West Coast, the theater was advertised as the Fox Criterion, though Tally returned and ran the venue for five years during the Great Depression years. With Wilshire Boulevard extended to the site, the theater was called the Grand Wilshire until it closed in 1941 and was torn down to make way for an unrealized commercial building project. The site was a parking lot for decades and has the mechanical plant for the One Wilshire building next door.
For a fascinating history with an abundance of photos, check out the Los Angeles Theatres site’s page on the Criterion.