by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With Christmas come and gone, but leading up to the start of the New Year, Fred A. Miller’s California Theatre offered a typically varied program for patrons saying goodbye to 1920 and ringing in 1921. Today’s featured object from the museum’s holdings, the weekly magazine and program for the venue for the week starting 26 December, provides not just the listing for live and filmed entertainment, but material relating to the next week’s feature motion picture and some interesting advertisements for local businesses.
As a previous post here noted, Miller, a native of Iowa of whom little is known until he opened his Miller Theatre at Main and 8th streets in 1913, built the much-larger and grander California a few doors to the north and it opened on Christmas Eve 1918. So, the venue was a couple of years old when the program was published and the Christmas Day 1920 edition of the Los Angeles Express noted:
Managing Director Fred Miller of the California theater has arranged a splendid “holiday week” bill to open Sunday at the big house. Heading it is Will Rogers’ [Samuel] Goldwyn comedy drama,” The Guile of Women,” in which the comedian is seen in the role of a Swedish sailor.
The paper added that, “then there is the latest of the Booth Tarkington “kid” comedies based on little Edgar Pomeroy also produced by Goldwyn and called ‘Edgar’s Little Saw.'” Tarkington was an immensely popular writer, whose The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams, among other writings, such as his short story Monsieur Beaucaire were made into films, but whose importance dimmed considerably after the 1920s.
For the vaudeville portion of the program, the Express stated that there was “‘A Revue Petite,’ a novelty signing [sic] and dancing act introducing [Louis] Paisley Noon and a company of ten clever artists, which is said to be one of the most pretentious numbers ever staged at the theater.” Finally, the piece concluded, “last but not least will be the California Theater Concert Orchestra under the direction of Carli D. Elinor in a program of splendid numbers,” including “If I Were King,” by Adolphe Adam.
Elinor, who was said to have written scores for some 1,000 motion pictures over a long career was separately highlighted in the paper for being “in keeping with the holiday spirit” through his arranging of “an overture of distinct novelty” for a new Goldwyn short feature starring Mabel Normand, long the leading lady for comedic legend Charles Chaplin, called What Happened to Rosa. The piece, Sanctus Cantus (Sacred Selections,) included “interpolations” of elements of pieces from Adam, Anton Rubinstein, and Richard Wagner.
The Los Angeles Record in its Christmas issue proclaimed that “Will Rogers has another great picture” in “The Guile of Women,” adding that “he plays the part of Yal, a Swedish sailor whose trust in women gets him into serious personal and financial difficulties. The paper continued that Yal was “t’rough” with females after he sent $1,000 to Sweden for a bride named Hulda, played by Mary Warren, but she failed to appear.
He, however, fell into the clutches of “a saucy American miss” named Annie, with Doris Pawn (recently divorced from the prominent director Rex Ingram) in that role, “who seemingly had a soft spot in her heart for Swede sailors,” but for whom “Yal was harpooned—right through the bank accounts” when he fronted her $3,000 to open a deli.
“Whether he was cured permanently or not is the plot of this richly humorous and delighfully human story” adpated from a story from Peter Clark MacFarlane, a former minister turned actor, lecturer and writer who had at least two other films made from his writings. The Record added that Tarkington’s short was “a special feature for the kiddies, while the vaudeville portion of the program also included “A Cuban Tango,” which was said to be “the latest New York craze.”
In its review on the 27th, the Los Angeles Times reported,
That eminently “natural” actor, Will Rogers, is with us again this week at the California, and in a picture story eminently suited to his easy, humorous, pathetic manner of characterization . . . We all know, by this time, that all the Rogers characters are pretty much alike—as like as peas in a pod, in truth—and that they are always Will Rogers himself. But as Rogers has a personality, the most engaging in the world, one whose delightful and expected sameness custom cannot stale, we protest against any effort on his part to become an actor.
The unidentified reviewer felt that his “Yal” was no different than his role in Cupid the Cowpuncher, another 1920 offering from Goldwyn and directed by Clarence Badger, who was at the helm for The Guile of Women, but rhetorically asked, “What of that?” because “he’s still Will Rogers, and that’s enough for us.” Bert Sprotte was praised for a performance such that he “may almost be said to divide honors with Will Rogers himself” while the beauty (though not the acting) of Warren and Pond was highlighted.
As for the rest of the bill, Tarkington’s Edgar was mired in “A Christmas episode of appaling misadventures;” the Revue Petite featured Paisley Noon and vaudeville and film actor Julaine [Julanne] Johnston (later the leading lady of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in 1924’s The Thief of Baghdad) “who dance a Spanish [the Cuban piece was called “In Havana”] tango in a very tempestuous and colorful way;” and pianist Grant McKay offered an admired rendering of Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum” with three dancers and a soprano accompanying. The piece ended approvingly by observing that it was “a thoroughly good program from start to finish.”
The Record’s anonymous reviewer also enjoyed the program, writing on the 27th, however, that Roger “essays an entirely different character” in the film, noting that, while it might be hard to imagine the Oklahoma cowboy as a Swedish sailor (naturally, with a silent film it was much easier), the comedian “takes the part to perfection.” It was added that the golden-hearted Yal was “shanghaied” or “impressed” by a ship heading out of San Francisco, but he managed to jump overboard and swim ashore just in time, albeit without shoes or a hat and soaking, for his wedding to Hulda.
In addition to the other features, the paper lauded Elinor’s orchestra as “exceptionally good” and gave kudos to organist Milton Charles, who was second to the lead at Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre named (no kidding) “C. Sharpe Minor,” before moving to the California and later having a long career in Los Angeles musical circles, for his rendition of “Do You Ever Think Of Me?” which was stated in the program/magazine as being “another of our popular songs written by a local boy, Earl Burnett.” This was actually Earl Burtnett, who became a very successful bandleader before his untimely death in 1936.
As part of the promotion of the week-long run, Rogers was featured in a short article in the Christmas Day issue of the Record for being “the most expert cigarette roller in filmdom” even though he did not smoke. It was said he was eating lunch with Helene Chadwick, wife of actor and later noted director William Wellman, and, in the face of movie people doubting his word when he flipped a cigarette up in one hand in about two seconds, more or less,” demonstrated how “he rolled the slickest, neatest smoke imaginable with his left hand, holding the paper over his dinner plate, and not spilling a grain.” He added that he “learned how to do this while I twirled a rope with my right hand” during his vaunted vaudeville routine.
There was also an article on The Guile of Women‘s director Clarence Badger, who worked largely in journalism but was also an photo engraver and actor before he joined Mack Sennett’s comedy factory in the mid-Teens. After a couple of years, Samuel Goldwyn hired him specifically to work with Rogers and the pair made quite a few pictures together before Badger moved to Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where his best-known film was Clara Bow’s 1927 star vehicle, It. Though Badger did work in talkies, including the 1930 adaptation of the mega-hit stage musical No No Nanette, he later moved to Australia where he died in 1964.
In the Express on Christmas, under the heading of “Learns Life In Every Motion Picture,” Badger told the paper that “he gets a lesson and significant interpretatin of life from every picture he makes.” Known for his interest in character development, the director “likes to take each character and made it conform to some law of contradiction or parallelism in life.” In The Guile of Women, Rogers’ Yal was too trusting of the opposite sex while Sprotte’s Skole was skeptical and cynical about women, but the former won out in the end, while the latter was prey to his deep-rooted suspicions.
The director was quoted by the paper as concluding,
The more pictues I make the more I realize that there is much to be said for the theory that we get what we are looking for in this life. I think “Guile of Women,” as well as being a good picture, conveys this warning, if the public will see it.
The following week’s feature film, premiering on 2 January, was Prisoners of Love starring Betty Compson, a Utah native who toured on the circuit of Alexander Pantages as “The Vagabond Violinist.” She was seen by film studio head Al Christie, who signed her to appear in his signature slapstick comedy romps. She switched gears and won rave reviews and achieved stardom when she appeared with Lon Chaney in 1919’s The Miracle Man.
Compson parlayed that success into developing her own production company and Prisoners of Love was her first endeavor in that field, with the picture distributed by Goldwyn. In the program, an article titled “Picked Director By Her Intuition” discussed how the star selected Arthur Rosson to helm the film, one of “four of the best pictures that effort, brains, money and devotion could assure” each year for her firm.
The actress stated that it was a gut feeling based on having “heard so much of his wonderful family of picture folks, including brothers who were a camera operator, director and assistant director and a sister who was an actor.” Moreover, Compson continued, “I heard of how they all lived practically for one another and what an affectionate family group they made,” so she not only hired them for this film, but for her next, For Those We Love, another Goldwyn release before she signed to Paramount. Compson went on to secure an Academy Awards Best Actress nomination in 1930 for her performance in the part-talkie, The Barker, though her career soon tailed off.
A second piece in the program/magazine was headed “Real Stars Aid Betty Compson” and highlighted leading men Roy Stewart and Emory Johnson, as well as veteran stage and film actor Ralph Lewis, who played Compson’s character’s father, Claire McDowell, another experienced actor on the boards and who portrayed the mother of the star’s character, and the teenaged Clara Horton, who was the sister.
The plot was simple: Compson’s Blanche Davis fell in love with her law firm boss Johnson’s James Randolph, who, however, met the younger sister on an out-of-area busines trip. Not only this, but Mr. Davis, the girls’ father, handed Randolph $10,000 to give to the unidentified former beau, which was refused. Still, Blanche stepped aside to allow her sibling and Randolph to marry, but her consolation is that she finds love with Randolph’s senior partner, Martin Blair, played by Stewart. Naturally, all’s well that ends well!
One of the advertisements in the program is for the upcoming film, The Love Light, released on 9 January, and produced and starred Mary Pickford, who sought to break away from the teenage heroine roles that made her “America’s Sweetheart.” The film was written and directed by anoher powerful woman in the film industry, Frances Marion, and released by United Artists, the upstart studio established two years before by Pickford, her soon-to-be second husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Charles Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith.
Other ads include one for the “four days of courtesy” preceding the “41st Great Annual Clearance” of Barker Brothers, the widely known “complete furnishers of successful homes” and used, for example, by the Temple family when they furinshed their large Craftsman-style house in Alhambra just a couple of years prior to the issuing of the program/magazine.
The supplier of fans used during week’s performances were provided by Cawston Ostrich Farm, located on the Los Angeles and the South Pasadena border and which, it was noted here, just opened a store on the corner of Hollywood Bouevard and Hudson Avenue, roughly halfway between Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which opened in 1927, and Alexander Pantages’ Hollywood theater, which was completed just over three years later.
At the older Miller’s Theatre was the world premiere of an adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, produced by William Fox, while another upcoming feature at the California was Goldwyn’s release of the production by director Reginald Barker of an adaptation of the theatrical success, Bunty Pulls the Strings, starring Leatrice Joy. There were other ads, including for Carl F. Horn’s School of Dancing, an automobile used car dealer and garage, a motor oil company, a women’s clothing shop, an oil royalties firm, and for Sierra Club Ginger Ale—an acceptable substitute for other ales banned since Prohibition went into effect in January 1920 but nothing to do with the environmental advocacy organization!
This program and magazine is an interesting and informative look back at one of the first large-scale movie palaces in Los Angeles and of the film industry as it entered the Roaring Twenties when virtually everything about it scaled up dramatically from the previous decade. For a wealth of information on the theater, which was almost directly across Main from the National City Bank and Great Republic Life buildings, which were built in 1923-1924 by syndicates that included Walter P. Temple as an investor, please see the remarkable listing on the California from the Los Angeles Theatres blog.