by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the decade or so after the motion picture industry came to Los Angeles in 1909, tremendous transformations took place with film, in content, in promotion and marketing, in popularity and in many other ways. It was even a big leap from the era when Josephine M. Workman, acting with the stage name “Princess Mona Darkfeather,” made rather simplistic one-reel “Indian pictures” in the first half of the 1910s to the onset of the Twenties when multi-reel feature films with larger budgets, bigger and more complicated sets, and other elements showed a developing maturity in the world of motion pictures.
A major figure in that transition, though all but forgotten today, was director Allan Dwan, who began when the industry was still significantly based on the East Coast and worked on some 250 films in the early days of the industry, including as a protege of D.W. Griffith, for whom he invented the use of the dolly shot, using a car and a crane to film while in motion. Dwan worked extensively with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., directing him in a dozen pictures, including 1922s Robin Hood, and later made seven movies with Gloria Swanson.
Tonight’s historic artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a two-sided program from the Kinema Theater, located at Grand Avenue and 7th Street. Managed by the Gore Brothers and Sol Lesser, who were major theater operators in the Angel City, the Kinema featured Dwan’s In the Heart of a Fool for the week of 2-8 October 1920. There were a half-dozen other offerings starting with a musical overture of Franz von Suppé’s “Pique Dame” by the theater’s orchestra, conducted by Rene Williams, followed by a solo of “Old Pal” by house organist Frank A. Leon.
After what looks to have been a travelogue “Along the Mediterranean” came “a song visualization” of “In My Arms” by “A Vision of Loveliness,” Maryland Morne, an actor in the featured film. Then there was the Kinema Pictorial Review, a newsreel compiled from other sources, including Pathé, Universal and the “Kinogram.” Before the feature was an “Atmospheric Prologue” comprising “a pantomimic dancing novelty” based on the movie’s theme and including an “Introduction of Futuristic Setting.” Although there was plenty of media promotion of the offerings that week, nothing was located that gave any major detail on what this program element included, other than one paper’s description that several well-known local dancers performed amid “lighting and tall scenic effects” to bring out characterizations.
As to In the Heart of a Fool, the screenplay was by William Allen White, a well-known Progressive newspaper editor, politician and writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for an editorial. It concerned a half-dozen main characters, equal numbers of men and women, confronting the evil of divorce with indulgence in selfishness by some and corruption of good and innocence of others. The “Fool” was played by Philo McCullough, whose career began in 1912 and who was known for his roles as a cad or a villain, and this character wreaked havoc in his thoughtless and superficial pursuit of women. Similarly, Anna Q. Nilsson, the best-known of the cast, played Margaret Muller, driven by her desire for the admiration of men and their entrapment in her snares. One of those seduced by her was Grant Adams, played by James Kirkwood, Sr., another veteran actor whose namesake son was a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner for A Chorus Line. Morne played Kirkwood’s sweetheart and another victim of the wiles of McCullough and Nilsson.
Local reviews were quite positive with the Los Angeles Record noting that “there are a number of tense and exciting situations in the drama” and “the plot is strikingly unusual,” while Dwan was lauded for “the artistry of its screening” which earned him “another leaf in the wreath” on his “directorial brow.” The Los Angeles Express praised the film for “revealing thread by thread the warp and woof of the fabric of modern life” with the director having “frankly portrayed the rottenness of much of it and the golden quality of the remainder” utilizing a “brutal fidelity” in developing the six main characters. Dwan “has handled the delicate situations artistically” and deftly “included little touches of human kindness in happy contrast with the tense and often terrific climaxes.”
The actors, too, were given much credit, with Nilsson demonstrating “the degradation, the fascination and cunning” and yet “the latent tenderness” ro provide some depth and complexity. Kirkwood was applauded for being “an actor of sterling worth” and “in makeup allowed for the passage of five heart-rending years of turmoil.” McCullough played one of the “gayer young dogs” on screen, though Thurman was dismissed as having the same style as she did five years prior when she made something of a name for herself in comedies.
In advertisements, the drama was played up heavily, with one proclaiming “Fate made a fool of an honorable man” while “a city looked on and jeered and laughed.” This was because Kirkwood’s character “insisted upon righting his wrong” and believed “honor was greater than love” in the protection of Thurman’s character. Another referred to “God’s Puppets!” and asked “Is Your Love Sacred or Profane?” following this with the query of “Is it Man’s or Woman’s Privilege to Mock Matrimony and Gratify Their Own Selfish Desires?” With the teaser of “See This Picture All Los Angeles Is Whispering About,” who wouldn’t have been tempted to see the picture?
There was an interesting article in the Express from the 2nd discussing how Dwan “introduced his method of measuring candidates for starring honors in motion pictures as a tailor would measure one for a new suit of clothes.” In discussing his casting of Thurman, the piece observed that the director employed “a scientific study of the most successful types and the most famous stars” when it came to their “physical qualifications” such as height, weight, and bearing. As for Thurman, the unstated author, counter to the reviewer above, believed that her performance constituted “some of the best interpretive work of her career” and “will make of her one of the big stars of the future.”
It turned out that Thurman, born to a Mormon family in Utah and who became one of Mack Sennett’s popular “Bathing Beauties,” received good notices for her first major dramatic role and she worked with Dwan in a few more films, during which period they became romantically involved and engaged for a short time. In 1925, however, she contracted pneumonia while filming in Florida and died from it at the end of the year at just age 30. Similarly, Morne, who only appeared in a few films, but was chosen from some 100,000 women to be the model for a commemorative medal about the end of the First World War, developed tuberculosis and died in 1935 at just age 35. Also dying young was Ward Crane, another of the featured actors. A secretary to a New York governor who was impeached and removed from office, Crane came west with a Navy commission and was in San Diego when Dwan found him and signed him to work on his films. Crane, however, developed pneumonia and died at a New York resort seeking a “rest cure” in 1928 at just 38 years of age.
McCullough continued his career for decades, though most of his sound era work consisted of bit parts, most uncredited, including in Captains Courageous, Young Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mildred Pierce, Harvey, A Star is Born, East of Eden, and Giant, with his last role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They in 1969. He died in 1981 at ag 88. Kirkwood, too, kept acting in supporting roles in the silent era and then many small parts in the sound period, mostly in B-movies and lesser-known pictures, through the 1950s and he died in 1963, also at 88.
Nilsson, a forerunner of Swedish stars like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, came to the United States as a teenager in 1907 and became a model of renown. She began film work within a few years and was successful as a free-lance actor, peaking as one of movieland’s best known actors by the mid-Twenties.
Because of her accent, however, her star faded as talkies took root, though she did have some small roles for about two decades, from the mid-1930s to the mid-Fifties, in such films as Adam’s Rib, Showboat, An American in Paris, and her last role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. She also appeared as herself with one spoken line in Sunset Boulevard and died a quarter-century later in 1974 at age 85.
Finally, Dwan, who, like Swanson, left Paramount Pictures, the biggest studio in filmdom, in 1926, had a less successful career afterwards, though he continued to work steadily, including reuniting with Fairbanks in 1929s The Iron Mask. He worked for years at Fox, renamed Twentieth Century Fox, and made three films with Shirley Temple and the epic Suez in the last half of the 30s. In the World War II years, he freelanced and then worked for Warner Brothers, making Brewster’s Millions in 1945.
After signing with Republic Pictures, he made his best-known sound film, The Sands of Iwo Jima, with John Wayne, who was nominated for his first Oscar for Best Actor. He finished his career in the 1950s with RKO Radio Pictures, working with Barbara Stanwyck, John Payne, and Ray Milland. He died in 1981 at 96, having built a respected career of nearly a half-century, though not as well regarded artistically as other directors of his time.
This program is an interesting artifact from a century ago concerning the film industry and movie theaters as both were rapidly maturing as the 1920s dawned and more elaborate films were presented to the public in increasingly majestic and palatial movie houses in downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere in the region.