by Paul R. Spitzzeri
She was known as “The Aristocrat of the Screen,” but Elsie Ferguson (1883-1961), achieved great renown on the stage before she launched a motion picture career in the mid-1910s. Born in a prominent New York City family, where her father was an elite attorney, Ferguson began as a chorus girl as the new century dawned, though her first significant dramatic role was in late 1903. Over the next dozen or so years, her reputation grew by leaps and bounds and, after turning down offers for several years to appear in film, she signed a plush contract in 1916 with impresario Adolph Zukor, who built the Paramount empire.
While Ferguson did not enjoy film work as she decried “my feeble efforts to register an emotion” before “the little black box [that] became a monster,” she had some box office successes, along with some flops. Her title of “The Aristocrat of the Screen” was purpotedly bestowed because she played upper-class women in her movies. When her three-year pact with Paramount ended, however, she refused even more money and returned to the stage for a couple of years, but she resigned with the studio for a two-year term and acted in a couple of major hits in 1921 and 1922 as the contract came to a close.
Once again, Ferguson returned to stage work and her first play was 1923’s “The Wheel of Life,” which came to Los Angeles and the Mason Opera House in March, with tonight’s featured historical object from the Homestead’s collection being a program for that run. Ferguson’s fame meant that there was some significant Angel City media coverage for her appearance in the play, written by James Bernard Fagan (1873-1933,) an Irish actor who became a writer and producer in the 1910s. In the early Twenties, Fagan produced several revivals of plays by Shakespeare, but he got into financial trouble, from which extricated himself by writing “The Wheel of Life.”
The play concerns a love triangle of a British colonel, John Dangan (played by C.T. Davis), a captain, Leslie Yeullat (Frederic Worlock), serving under him in Imperial India, and the colonel’s wife, Ruth (Ferguson), whom the captain, while on leave, prevents from committing suicide in London not realizing who she was. When Yeullat returns to his unit he reconnects with Ruth and the two fall in love, though he transfers out to prevent a disaster. Later, when he hears of British tourists trapped by Indians at a Buddhist monastery, Yeullat goes to the rescue, finds Ruth there, and they pledge their love even as they expect to die. Then, Colonel Dangan comes with his regiment and rescues everyone, though he is killed by a sniper in the process. This, of course, allowed for the new widow and her lover to eventually marry.
In its announcement on 3 March of Ferguson’s coming to Los Angeles to perform in “The Wheel of Life,” the Los Angeles Express stated that “after nearly six years of motion picture activity Elsie Ferguson again returns to the spoken drama,” although she did some stage work during that span. The paper summarized the play as about “the struggle for a woman’s soul, a conflict of the flesh and spirit.”
The next day, the Los Angeles Times observed that “perhaps no announcement of the current theatrical season will arouse more interest and enthusiasm than the one heralding the coming of Elsie Ferguson, in person, to the Mason Operahouse . . .” It reiterated what its contemporary said about it being the actress’ first appearance in the city “since she went into the picturs [sic] some six years ago and became an idol of the silver screen.” It added that the opinion of Chicago theatergoers was that her turn in “The Wheel of Life” was her most interesting in years.
While Ferguson was in town, she was asked for her opinion on non-dramatic matters, specifically about the use of makeup, which drew the attention of “carping critics of the younger generation,” specifically the flapper. The actress, however, did not side with those critical of modern young women, opining:
It is gross stupidity to gauge morals by make-up. Make-up has nothing to do with modesty or immodesty, morality or immorality. Make-up is a matter of taste—good or bad.
On the whole, I think the American girl is the most beautiful girl in the world; she far outclasses her foreign sisters . . . she is a combination of beauty, grace and charm of body, mind and soul . . .
The flapper? Ah, she is adorable. She has so much energy, so much vitality, so much will to do things . . . she is working, trying to express that God-given something that is within each of us: otherwise our little flapper is exactly like her mother and grandmother, good, bad and indifferent.
When it came to Ferguson’s successful transition from the legitimate theater to the growing film industry, the Times offered that “possibly the light of success shed by her stellar screen career has eclipsed in the memory of many theater-goers the facts in a case where talent has been enriched through significant experience.”
Her stardom was such that the Barnes Music Company, located on Broadway south of 2nd Street, featured her in advertisements during her run in the city, proudly noting “this versatile artist is using the Hallet & Davis piano on the stage as well as in her Ambassador Apartments,” this perhaps meaning a suite at the Ambassador Hotel.
As for the play and her work, the Los Angeles Record‘s Allen Claire’s review of the 13th, stated that Ferguson “is perfect” as “a woman consumed by a white, pure flame of love—a flame that cleanses her of desire and forces her to abide by the mandate of destiny.” As for the rest of the production, the paper added “the cast is ideal. The staging is complete,” but “the play is good—not great—but good,” enough to “fully satisfy an audience eager for romance—a love theme of high and noble flare [flair?].
Monroe Lathrop of the Express wrote much more fully of the play and rated higher, offering that “‘The Wheel of Life’ is a compact, well rounded and forceful play of higher artistic level that satisfies any exaction on the technical side.” It had substance, he noted, and “an evenness of merit,” that provided for “a cumulative suspense and an orderly marshaling of incidents that still conceal the successive steps.” The affair between Yeullat and Ruth Dangan in the context of the setting and battle scenes were praised, but Lathrop felt that Ferguson possessed “a fault of staccato elocution that sometimes runs almost in measures.” He allowed she “makes a very attractive figure of the young wife [the actress turned 40 that year]” and noted that the actress utilized “unerring skill” in her bringing out the strain and emotion of the character.
There was also some high praise for Frederic Worlock, “who makes a stalwart and manly lover, with a demeanor that expresses both the ardor of his affection and the sense of honor that held him in restraint—a portrayal of nice balance that might easily escape the spectator.” The “unerring skill” of Ferguson and the “ardor of his affection” from her leading man translated from the stage to the altar, as the twice-divorced actress and Worlock wedded the following year, though the marriage lasted just six years.
After one more stage outing following “The Wheel of Life,” Ferguson returned to the silent screen for two more pictures, one as support for Norma Shearer and Adolphe Menjou called “Broadway After Dark” and then “The Unknown Lover,” which purportedly was a terrible experience and after which she once again took to the stage. “The Wheel of Life” was translated to the screen in 1929 by Paramount and featured the very popular Richard Dix and Esther Ralston as Yeullat and Ruth Dangan. Incidentally, the adapted screenplay was from John Farrow, whose daughter with actress Maureen O’Sullivan is Mia Farrow, now in the news for the documentary “Allen v. Farrow.”
Ferguson made one talkie, 1930’s “Scarlet Pages” and, having retired from the stage about that time, receded from the spotlight, later marrying for the fourth time, though that marriage lasted for over twenty years. She returned to the theater in 1943’s “Outrageous Fortune,” though the critically well-received play did not do well with the public and closed quickly. The actress retired for good and died at age 78 in 1961, after five years of widowhood.
In addition to the three-act play, there was a musical program consisting of five pieces, including he overture from the opera “Raymond,” by Ambroise Thomas, a work by the very popular Broadway composer Rudof Friml and a few other tunes. As to theater, the Mason Opera House opened in 1903 and, twenty years later, was owned by Abraham L. Erlanger who, in 1924, opened the Biltmore Theater, highlighted here previously.
He and Mark Klaw, the producer of “The Wheel of Life” were the lessees of the Mason, as well, and Erlanger undertook a major renovation of the venue, also in 1924, so it could compete the increasingly lavish and up-to-date movie palaces on Broadway. After World War II, the theater showed Spanish-language films and then closed for demolition, which took place in 1956.
Also included here a couple of pages showing some of the many advertisements found in the program, many of these clearly seeking to reach a well-off and cultured clientele.