by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Sid Grauman (1879-1950) had a remarkable run as one of the major theater owners in Los Angeles from the time he and his father David came to the Angel City and, in 1917 and in partnership with Paramount Pictures chief Adolph Zukor, built the Million Dollar Theater (the moniker coming from the project’s cost) at Broadway and 3rd Street.
Two years later, Grauman purchased the Rialto Theatre, also on Broadway and near 8th Street In 1922, he opened his Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, followed the next year by the Metropolitan at Hill and 6th streets. Finally, in 1927, the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre opened in Hollywood and marked the zenith of his career a decade after it began locally.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the Museum’s collection is a program for his first two theaters, the Million Dollar and the Rialto, both managed for Grauman by Albert A. Kaufman, for the week of 6 April 1924. At the first, the feature presentation was “Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall,” a vehicle for Mary Pickford, who was known as “America’s Sweetheart” during her peak period in the Teens, but who was looking to break free of the typecasting of her as a young maiden in abundant curls.
The period piece, set in mid-16th century Scotland, starred Pickford as being torn between an arranged marriage established her father, who changed his mind when the groom proved to be a problematic figure. The plot, adapted from a 1902 novel, took on a tangent involving the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots, played by Estelle Taylor, who recently appeared in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic “The Ten Commandments” and soon became the wife of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, and Queen Elizabeth, who, in real life, had her half-sister executed on suspicion of trying to assassinate the queen.
One of the main characters, Sir John Manners, was played by Allan Forrest, who was married to Pickford’s sister, Lottie, an actor who, after several years away from films, appeared as Dorothy Vernon’s maid. The family affairs was basically due to the fact that the picture was produced by Pickford’s company, with distribution by United Artists, formed in 1919 by her, her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.
The director was Marshall Neilan, a native of San Bernardino who became an actor in film’s early days at the Kalem Studios (where Josephine M. Workman, a.k.a. Princess Mona Darkfeather was a star) before becoming a writer and director. He worked extensively with Pickford, including in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” (1917) and “Daddy Long Legs” (1919), but their reunion in “Dorothy Vernon” did not, apparently, go well as they battled on-set, while Neilan struggled with alcoholism.
As for the film, while it did enjoy a decent run in Los Angeles before it went into general release in May, the $750,000 production only earned some $900,000, and, reportedly, many of Pickford’s fans rejected her attempt to break free of her earlier roles. The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News of 6 April wrote that “Miss Pickford stands as the central figure” in the “background rich in the colorful atmosphere of the Elizabethan period in England” as her “ever-changing moods and piquant personality” were on display. Pickford portrayed “an impetuous girl” who morphed into “a woman of poise and refinement.”
Interestingly, cinematographer Charles Rosher, who worked extensively with Pickford though they had a falling out later and a two-time Oscar winner, talked with the press about how a Mount Wilson Observatory astronomer had to be consulted on timing the rising tide of the ocean with the position of the sun for a specific effect and that such a condition would not exist again until the mid-1950s!
First on the program was Grauman’s Symphony Orchestra and its performance of Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” with Giuseppe Creatore, who proved to be a popular figure in his short stay in Los Angeles including five weeks at the Metropolitan before he was hired to be the managing director and featured conductor at both venues. The Los Angeles Times of 2 April reported that “the conductor rivals some of our greatest movie stars in popularity among Angelenos” and was the subject of over 1,000 letters inquiring if he was to “be a permanent musical acquisition in Los Angeles theaterdom.”
Next was Edward House performing on the venue’s Wurlitzer organ and this standard component of theater offerings was followed by an “atmospheric prologue” featuring the gardens of Haddon Hall, the British manor the was the scene, of course, of the film, though location shooting was at Busch Gardens in Pasadena with interiors done at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio in Hollywood.
Over at the Rialto, the theatre’s orchestra, led by Jan Sofer, was first on the bill followed by an 18-minute short Christie Studios comedy called “Busy Buddies” starring Neal Burns as one of a trio of hungry pals who go out seeking food and suffer, among other gags, the pains of seeing a chef burn his cooking and toss it in the trash, leading one of the famished fellows to faint.
The next act was Olive Ann Alcorn, whose “interpretative dance” was called “Flesh and Gold.” Alcorn, a native of Minnesota, attended the Denishawn School of Aesthetic Dancing in Los Angeles and was a star pupil who went on national tours with the Denishawn Players. She appeared as one of the nymphs who were in the dreams of Charles Chaplin in his 1919 film “Sunnyside” and had small roles in a few other films over the next several years.
Alcorn also danced on the stage and was also a model for an art studio and art instruction books that depicted her in nude and semi-nude dance poses. Her performance at the Rialto proved to be quite popular and the Los Angeles Record of 8 April 1924 reported that she was “voted the most perfectly formed woman in America.” Three days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that she “is a perfect type of Grecian beauty” and that “she continues to attract enthusiastic applause for her “picturesque dance.” Within a few years, however, Alcorn vanished from the scene, apparently after marrying for a second time.
The feature film was a Budd P. Schulberg production through his Preferred Pictures called “Poisoned Paradise: The Forbidden Story of Monte Carlo and Paris.” While the Pickford picture ran 2 hours and 15 minutes, a long time for the era, this Louis Gasnier-directed film clocked in at a svelte 70 minutes. The plot, derived from a novel by the well-known poet Robert W. Service, was based on a character losing all of her money gambling at Monte Carlo and she is caught trying to pick the pockets of an artist, who, feeling sorry for her plight, hires her as a housekeeper. When the artist is told about a mathematical way to win at the casino, criminals threaten to torture the young woman unless they are told the formula, but the police, of course, arrive in time to break up the scheme and the young woman and the artist, naturally, fall in love.
The male lead was Kenneth Harlan, who had a long, but forgotten, quarter-century career in Hollywood (though he was distinctive, even in Tinsel Town, for having married nine times!), while one of the main female stars was Carmel Myers, a Los Angeles High graduate best known for playing Iras in 1925’s “Ben-Hur.”
Myers was featured in the Times of 6 April, which noted that, while she was one of many California natives to make it in films, her father, a rabbi, was consulted by D.W. Griffith for his 1916 epic “Intolerance,” shortly after which Myers began her acting career. She was known for her “siren charms” as a screen vamp and “her beauty, her grace and ability to wear stunning clothes, combined with exceptional talent” made her a standout in the film as the woman who lured the artist into the trap of the conniving criminals.
Myers told the paper, “I reveal in every experience, both in real life and in my screen dramas” adding “through these I have evolved a little screen philosophy that our lives are largely mapped out for us and if we try and try and don’t succeed, it must be for the good reason that it is not for us.” She concluded these musings with the offering that “everything is for the best, whether we see it or not at the time” and that “I’ve proven this too many times to doubt it.”
Still relatively unknown was Clara Bow and “Poisoned Paradise,” in which she played Margot, the gambler/pickpocket/housekeeper, was her first starring role. Bow, who had another film released the same day, which happened to be a Leap Year day of 29 February, soon rocketed to superstardom, capped by her performance in 1927’s “It” and “Wings,” two of the biggest pictures of the era.
Both films were promoted heavily in the local press during the period the program covers with photos of Pickford, Myers and Bow prominently featured, while ads highlighted the “forbidden story” of “Poisoned Paradise” and implored readers to “hurry, hurry, hurry” as “everybody wants to see Mary Pickford’s greatest” film.
The program’s last page has a trio of ads, including for S&S Cigars, the Matiness Shopping District, spanning from 1st to 3rd streets along Broadway and specifically including a jeweler, a pair of opticians, and “The Leader,” a clothing store with “Leading Styles at Lowest Prices.” Rounding out the advertisers was “The Reiss System of Health Culture” at Broadway and 5th and which promised that “we will make you normal” whether you had weight to lose or gain and that there was “no violent exercise,” “no starvation,” and “no drugs” involved.
This program is one of many in the Museum’s holdings from Los Angeles-area theaters that is a window in the film industry during the Roaring Twenties and we’ll continue to share these in the “That’s a Wrap” series.