by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the film industry grew by leaps and bounds from its modest origins at the end of the first decade of the 20th century in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles and expanded to Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and in other areas, so, too, did the theaters in which movies were shown grow in size and sophistication.
One of the core figures in that development of the great “movie palaces” that lined Broadway from the late Teens onward was Sid Grauman (1879-1950), a native of Indianapolis who mounted stage productions with his father, David (1851-1921) as far as away at the Yukon Territory, during the gold rush of late 1890s when Alexander Pantages and others were also in that booming area of western Canada and southeastern Alaska.
Resident for some years in San Francisco, Grauman, with his family, produced vaudeville and owned theaters with silent film venues also established in Sacramento, San Jose and Stockton. In 1917, he ventured to the Angel City and he quickly made a name for himself and ushered in the era of the ornate and expansive (much less expensive) movie theaters with his plainly named Million Dollar Theatre, of which his father was president.
Siutated on the southwest corner of Broadway and Third Street, the venue received lavish press coverage when it opened on the first of February 1918, with the Los Angeles Times reporting,
A line of men and women, four abreast, extending along the west side of Broadway from Third street to Fifth and beyond.
A crowd of men, women and children, thousands and thousands of them, curiously watching the long straight line from the east side of Broadway, jammed together like sardines in a box, and overflowing into the street and on the other sidewalk.
This was the sight, unusual even for Los Angeles, that continued from 5 o’clock to 8:30, last night. Grauman’s new $1,000,000 theater slowly swallowed up the human line more than two blocks long . . .
The handsomest motion-picture theater in the world, and also the most costly one, was having its grand opening, its premiere performance, and was making its big best bow to a handful of the vast multitudes that will flock to it night after night through the coming months and years.
The paper added that the venue was one of the biggest in the country, seating over 2,500 persons, about 40% of that in the gallery, which was deemed “probably the most remarkable feature of the houes [sic]” because it was supported by a 110-foot long concrete arch span and this required special tests by the city’s building department to make sure it could carry the required load.
The article continued that the theater was part of Albert C. Martin-designed, twelve-story Edison Building, owned by Homer Laughlin and described as “the newest, and one of the finest structures of downtown Los Angeles” and there were two major entrances with that to the offices on Third. The celebrity-studded opening featured such stars as Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Wallace Reid, Edna Purviance, Sessue Hayakawa, Constance Talmadge, Mary Miles Minter, Henry Walthall, the Gish sisters (Lillian and Dorothy) and many others. Among the producers and directors of note were D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Cecil B. de Mille, Mack Sennett and Jesse Lasky
The society event atmosphere involved a great deal of the community’s power brokers (bankers, developers, business men, etc.) including William May Garland, Motley Flint, Robert A. Rowan, Edwin T. Earl, Arthur Letts, Harry Chandler, members of the Hellman, Meyberg, and Baruch families, and William H. Workman, Jr., namesake son of the recently deceased former mayor and city treasurer.
The Los Angeles Express also lavishly praised the venue, including its observation that “lighting effects and decorations merit the criticl attention of art lovers of the city” and noting that “a deep-throated pipe organ will thrill music lovers and elicit praise for the manner in which it is skillfully screened by Oriental carving [a harbinger perhaps of Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theaters in Hollywood?], which blends splendidly with the interior scheme.” The auditorium’s massive dome, the stage, the rose-red, blue, pink and green lights, fine furniture, statuary, antiques, tapestries, rugs and other details were also trumpeted.
In 1923, Grauman, who’d opened his Egyptian Theatre the prior fall, decided to sell his half interests in the Million Dollar, the Rialto (at Broadway and 8th and which he acquired in 1919, two years after its completion) and the recently finished Metropolitan (at Hill and 6th) to Lasky and Adoph Zukor, the moguls who turned Paramount Pictures into a dominant studio during that period. Two years later, the building was sold to Alfred C. Blumenthal and Publix Theatres was by then established to manage the quickly growing chain of theatres owned by the studio and the Million Dollar News was created as a program and newsletter for the venue.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s holdings is the 15 July 1927 edition of the publication with the program for the “fourth tremendous week” of the highly unusual Paramount release, Chang, subtitled A Drama of the Wilderness. The film was the result of a year-and-a-half shooting in the jungles of norther Thailand, then known as Siam, by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and it marked a truly unique experience in movie-making for a number of reasons.
Cooper, who did not complete the United States Naval Academy program and worked as a journalist, enlisted for the First World War and was in the American Expeditionary Force’s air corps, flying battle missions during his time in the service, but was captured by the Germans after being shot down and was released on war’s end. He then followed this with a hitch for Poland in its war against the new Soviet Union, during which he was shot down twice and captured, though he escaped from a labor camp and became a hero to the Poles.
Schoedsack, who the same age as Cooper, was a surveyor before he found work as a camera operator for Mack Sennett in the mid-Teens. He was in the signal corps for the AEF during the resulting war filming newsreel footage and apparently flew in combat missions. When the conflict ended, he remained in Europe working as a camera operator, though he also participated in helping refugees fleeing Poland during that war with the Soviets and did the same in the conflict between Greece and Turkey in the early Twenties. He then was employed to work the camera for an around-the-world film made by the New York Times.
Cooper and Schoedsack, who met in Vienna just after the year’s end in 1918, began working together with film in 1925’s Grass, a documentary made of the Bakhtiari people along a trade route from modern Ankara, Turkey to western Persia (renamed Iran in the mid-Thirties). Financed with family loans, the film was shown to an explorer’s group early in 1925 and then acquired by Paramount for theatrical release. In 1997 it was chosen for the National Film Registry for its significance, being the second of its type of film after 1922’s Nanook of the North, filmed among the Inuit of Arctic Quebec in Canada, of which Cooper and Schoedsack were unaware when they were pursuing their project.
The two realized that what was missing from Grass was a story that would draw more on the lives of characters and, with Jesse Lasky putting up the $85,000, they embarked on the lengthy shoot in Thailand for Chang (anyone who has had the excellent Thai beer of that name would know the word means elephant). In this case, however, there were manufactured scenarios, such as close-ups of wild animals to keep prospective viewers riveted in their theater seats and “sets” of a kind, including a house for a fictional Lao family. Still, the extensive images of a remote part of the world completely unfamiliar to Americans, the fictionalized story of a family’s struggles, and accidental elements like an elephant trampling the house built for the film, proved to be a winning formula.
Premiered in New York in April 1927, Chang was a signal success and raked in some $2 million in box office receipts as well as critical praise and, when the first Academy Awards ceremony was held two years later, it received a special Oscar for a “Unique and Artistic Picture.” Cooper and Schoedsack were able to parlay the popularity of their film into a career that lasted for about fifteen years, including the massively popular 1933 thriller King Kong, in which Cooper handled the special effects and Schoedsack focused on the work with human actors. The two even hailed back to their wartime work by playing the pilots who shot down the giant ape from the top of the Empire State Building in the climactic scene.
Chang, with titles written by the mysterious Achmed Abdullah, who claimed to be Afghan and Russian, with the princely name of Romanoff, and who wrote for American magazines with “oriental exotic” fiction and non-fiction that discussed American views of Asian societies, opened at the Million Dollar in late June and played to large crowds for an extended month-long run. The Million Dollar News included a short article that noted that
“Chang,” the marvelous jungle melodrama which has been creating a sesation among picture-goers, is now in the fourth and final week of its popular run at the Million Dollar Theatre.
Please tell your friends that this is the last week in which they can see this great picture so that they will not delay too long and miss the privilege of viewing the most distinctly different and astounding drama yet to be unfolded on the screen.
Above this was that another brief piece titled “Know Your Tigers! Some Won’t Eat You—Others Will!” and which discussed how the producers had to be familiar with the risks of working in the Thai jungle with wild animals of many kinds.
One local reviewer, Sadie Mossler of the Los Angeles Record declared that the film was “a darking, breath-taking masterpiece” and noted that it “is not a travelogue. It has a dramatic story that grips the heart and fires the imagination, based on the eternal drama of the jungle—the survival of the fittest.”
Notably, she added that, while there was plenty of drama and tragedy in the story, there was comic relief courtesy of white monkeys “who are infinitely funnier in their native haunts than in the circus or working in Hollywood’s studio.” Crediting Lasky and Zukor for producing the picture, Mossler concluded that, amid the run-of-the mill film fare, Chang was “like a good stiff, ocean breeze on the muggiest kind of summer day.”
Delayed by the extension of Chang, the following feature, Beau Geste, was not as unique, but was another very popular film, based on Sir Percival C. Wren’s 1924 novel about the three British Geste brothers who joined the French Foreign Legion after they all claimed, one after the other, to have stolen a valuable family jewel. After some complicated adventures in the Sahara Desert, two of the brothers die, but the last takes a note from one of them back home to reveal that the original jewel was stolen by their aunt and the first brother to confess to the theft did so to protect her by taking an imitation she’d left and which prompted the other brothers to follow his lead, not knowing why.
The film was co-written and directed by Herbert Brenon, a veteran of the silent era from the mid-Teens onward, including Peter Pan (1924) The Great Gatsby (1926), and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), and who directed 1927’s Sorrell and Son, for which he was nominated for Best Director for the first Academy Awards presentation. Brenon continued to work into the early sound era before making movies in England, where he grew up, until 1940.
The stars of Beau Geste included Ronald Colman, the British actor with a long career in film, Ralph Forbes, also English and who was a character actor for many years, and Neil Hamilton, an American leading man at the time who went on be a busy character actor, as well, but who became best known for his role as Police Commissioner James Gordon, and father of Batgirl, in the Batman television series in the Sixties.
The villains were other notable actors, including Noah Beery and William Powell (best known for his work in “The Thin Man” films in the Thirties and Forties and other films with Myrna Loy). The two women’s roles were played by well-known actors of the time: Alice Joyce and Mary Brian. The great character actor Victor McLaglen also had a featured role.
In promoting the film, the Million Dollar News quoted the Los Angeles Times critic Alma Whitaker who said of Beau Geste after seeing an advance screening: “It’s perfect. I did not see a single dramatic slip. The actors are splendid. The picture is flawless.” The publication went on to suggest:
“Beau Geste” might easily be called the most faultless presentation of dramatic story structure ever unfolded on the screen. Its situations are handled in just the right manner. Its tremendous scenes stir your emotions to the highest pitch. Its suspense, arousing your curiosity in the first few feet of film to flash on the screen, grows with each succeeding reel . . . It is pure entertainment with all the essential ingredients.
Elsewhere in the publication it was stated that the theatre’s manager, Frank L. Newman “belies that the film is of wuch magnitude that it will attract thousands of patrons who have never before seen it at road show prices, and as many more who will wish to see it again.”
The film was a success at the box office and with critics and won the Medal of Honor, a precursor of sorts to the Oscars and given out by the influential Photoplay magazine. There were remakes in 1939 (starring Gary Cooper and Ray Milland) and 1966 (with Guy Stockwell and Doug McClure, while some might remember Marty Feldman’s 1977 satire, The Last Remake of Beau Geste.
As to the Million Dollar, it went through many different managers over the succeeding decades, mainly for second-run films, and, after 1950, it screened Spanish-language films, doing so for over four decades. The venue was used as a church during two stints, between which there was a brief revival of Spanish-language movies and live shows in the late Nineties. For a few years the following decade, there were concets, film showing and other live events and there have been sporadic uses for screenings, while the upper floors of the building were converted to housing. Two years ago, with the owner’s approval, the theater was named a city Historic-Cultural Landmark. For a wealth of history about the venue, check out this Los Angeles Theatres post.