Between Men, another Triangle Pictures production directed by Thomas Ince, was Margaret’s choice for Wednesday 3 May. It was showing at her favourite venue, the Audley Theatre.
A collision of city and country forms the basis of the story, with handsome House Peters representing the former and William S. Hart representing the latter. Banker Ashley Hampton (J. Barney Sherry) is scammed by a handsome but crooked stockbroker (House Peters), who is determined to ruin the man’s finances in order to coerce his beautiful daughter Lina (Enid Markey) into marriage.
The father calls in a favour from the honorable Bob White (William S. Hart), whom he met briefly during a visit to the West. White obligingly travels to the city to help his friend, and the film culminates in a vigorous fight between Peters and Hart on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Variety, while conceding that the basic plot was predictable, concluded that ‘they don’t make 'em any finer than the Between Men picture.’
Reviewers judged the documentary-style stock exchange scenes as amongst the picture’s highlights. A detailed replica of the real-life exchange was created in Ince’s studio at Culver City. Six hundred men participated in this scene, playing their part so convincingly that “a free fight was narrowly averted, and, as it was, several sustained minor injuries,” according to the Sunday Times. William S. Hart, hit on the head with a prop vase that proved sturdier than expected, was knocked out for several minutes.
Between Men inaugurated a new method of exhibition in Sydney, described in advertisements as having been borrowed from New York. Union Theatres now offered a lengthy program of films instead of a single offering - a Pathé Gazette, a Mack Sennett comedy, an Ince drama, and a Griffith comedy-drama. “See as much or as little as you like,” suggested advertisements. Within a few years, this method of program exhibition was to become the norm, with many theatres playing the same program continuously throughout the day, allowing patrons to enter or leave at whichever point they wished - or even to stay and see a film a second time.
Source: 'Screen Acting: Its Requirements and Rewards' - Inez and Helen Klumph, 1922.
Margaret seems to have been particularly fond of the star of Between Men, William S. Hart. Though Hart is best known for his Western roles, he began his career as a Shakespearean actor. “There is nothing of the beauty-actor about him,” said the World’s News. “He is long-faced and lynx-eyed; he fills roles that call for power, not beauty … but whether on the prairies or Broadway, his long, lean figure is always commanding, and his acting convincing.”
Margaret dubbed BetweenMen 'a treat,' and would go to see several more of Hart’s films during 1916. In later years, when she had a family of her own, Margaret's eldest son recalled being shown Hart's best films on the family's projector, with an accompaniment provided by his parents' pianola (player piano).
Between Men exists at the US Library of Congress.
10th May 1916
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 16 April 1916
On 10 May, Margaret returned to the Audley Theatre to see Peggy, the tale of a Scotch-American girl who abandons a life on Broadway to live with a guardian in a small Scottish village. “Peggy promises to be one of the most unusual photo-plays yet seen in Sydney, because of its combination of modern drama, Scottish comedy, and fairy fantasy,” reported the Sunday Times.
The ‘fairy fantasy’ was a brief and whimsical sequence which the Times suggested had been awkwardly interpolated to entertain younger audiences. “To men and women, that brief portion will appeal because of its beauty and daintiness,” they added. “One notable effect herein is the changing of a beetle into a man. It is accomplished quickly, and Peggy’s sort finished, the scene fades away and the plot continues.”
Much was made of the lavish sets that were constructed for the film by director Thomas Ince. The very concept of a studio backlot - that is, an outdoor area where exotic buildings and scenery could be constructed - was still so unfamiliar to the average person that the term was not yet used in Sydney’s media, which instead reported that:
A Scottish village was constructed by Thomas H. Ince as a background to many of the humorous incidents in Peggy. It was a substantial place, laid out like a model suburb, and capable of housing 200 people. the cost of construction ran into four figures, and during the six weeks required to complete the picture, the whole company took up temporary residence in the cottages.
A set that could also function as a usable building was not common, and yet Ince seemed to like the idea. When he later established his own studio in Culver City, its dramatic Colonial-style administration building would appear in several of his films, and is still in use today.
Billie Burke, photographed by Baron Adolf De Meyer. Source: Vanity Fair, February 1920
Peggy was the film debut of stage actress Billie Burke, wife of the legendary theatrical producer Florenz Ziegfeld, creator of the Ziegfeld Follies. Burke was a major stage star by the time she made her film debut in Peggy, and advertisements claimed she had received a whopping £8000 for six weeks’ work - one fifth of the £40,000 budget.
Triangle sometimes inflated such figures to give a greater impression of care and quality, but it is still likely that Ince paid a high premium for a star of Burke’s calibre. Her fame was such that thousands of people turned out to see her off as she left Los Angeles for New York at the conclusion of filming, creating scenes that were so spectacular that they were themselves filmed and included in a non-fiction prologue.
Not all stage actors made a smooth transition to the screen. The great Sarah Bernhardt had famously cringed at her own performance in Queen Elizabeth (1912), realising that the huge gestures that gave the impression of naturalness on stage did not have the same effect on film. Director Thomas Ince was well aware of this, and required all of his stage stars to spend a month in the studio prior to performing their role, in order to better understand the art of screen acting.
Burke, however, took to film acting like a duck to water. This was even despite having initially resisted all attempts to bring her to the screen. “Her enthusiasm made her disregard Ince’s advice to ’go easy at first,’” reported one newspaper. “She displayed such aptitude that in the first six working hours, thirty scenes had been completed.”
By 1919, Burke was so synonymous with the moving picture that the popular song “Take Your Girlie To The Movies” recommended:
Take your tips from Douglas Fairbanks, And have love scenes of your own! Tho’ she’s just a simple little ribbon clerk Close your eyes and think you’re kissing Billie Burke!
Burke continued in films, though rather than endure the regular cross-country trek to Los Angeles that a permanent contract with Thomas Ince would entail, she worked at the New York-based studios of George Kleine and Famous Players-Lasky. There was a lengthy break in her film activities prior to the death of Florenz Ziegfeld in 1932, when she made her comeback as a daffy older lady in a series of light comedies. It was not until the age of 55 that she played the part for which she is best remembered today: that of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
“From the moment Miss Billie Burke stepped onto the screen … she took command of the whole play and the audience as well,” reported an approving Sunday Times, agreeing with Margaret’s description of a 'lovely picture, seven reels.’
Peggy (1916) exists in its entirety in several US archives.
16th May 1916
Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 1916
Margaret spent much of early May studying the Country Resorts advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald. With her holidays approaching and her health still not strong, she planned a restorative stay on the outskirts of Sydney.
Confirmation from her preferred option arrived on 12 May: “Letter to hand from Mooroobah Farm. V. good it seems.”
Source: State Library of NSW
A 1911 newspaper profile described Wallacia as “a quiet, peaceful, pretty little spot on the banks of the Nepean River, three miles from Mulgoa.” It noted that “Wallacia is becoming a favourable resort for tourists. The weir at present being constructed will greatly improve the river, and will add to the attraction of the place; and when the proposed Warragamba irrigation scheme, is accomplished Wallacia will be the centre of a large and settled population, while retaining and increasing its popularity as a health and pleasure resort.”
By the time of Margaret’s visit, the weir had been completed and was already a tourist attraction. The farm at which she stayed was known variously as Moorooba, Mooloobah and Murroobah, suggesting that its name had derived directly from the native Australians who had once lived in the area. It seems that her holiday arrived not a minute too soon. “Unwell,” she writes on the 14th of May, her last day at work. “Finish up my office work at 4:30pm. Hope things go smoothly for poor Syd.”
The following day is taken up by preparations, before “a long ride in a trap. Catch 1.25 [train] to Wallacia. Arrive 3:30pm. V. nice place. Bed early.” What was there to do on a country holiday in 1916? Not many people owned gramophones, and musical entertainment, if there was any, was provided by the other guests at the farm. Two of these, Messrs Brown and West, even held their own concert and dance.
Another visitor was Staff-Sergeant-Major H.L. Webb, a veteran of the Boer War who had recently been placed in charge of the training of soldiers throughout the Penrith district. As Margaret discovered, he was also “a good pianist.”
Source: State Library of NSW
Perhaps the greatest attraction was the ability to do nothing at all but relax and unwind. “This is the life!” Margaret says on the 22nd. “Went for a row by myself. Some rower I now.”
The idyll is unexpectedly disrupted the following day. “Albert arrives. Some boy Pommy Sergeant." It seems Margaret is not very impressed by the brash young Brit, but he quickly makes clear that he is very interested in her. In the following days - ”To the weir with Albert. Took snapshots. Men are funny animals.“ Then, ”English boy very attentive,“ and finally, on her last day in Wallacia, ”To the basin with Albert. A moonlight return.“
Did Fred Wilkins has anything to fear from Albert? Not at all. Margaret’s first action upon her return to Sydney was to take in a movie with her fiancée, adding ”Very good to be home.“
27th May 1916
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 21 May 1916
The Chalice of Courage
Upon her return from her holiday, Margaret made a beeline for the cinema, attending The Chalice of Courage at the Crystal Palace with her fiancée, Fred.
Based on a famous novel by Cyrus Townsend Brady, it was a six-reel feature whose complex story was summed up in The Southern Mail:
"[The story] deals with two men and a woman - Newbold, a mining engineer [William Duncan], Armstrong, a prospector [George Holt], and Louise, a mountain girl [Natalie de Lontan].
The mountain girl, who is Newbold’s wife, is badly injured when she falls into a crevasse. In a controversial plot twist, the desperate wife asks her husband for a mercy killing, with which the devastated man complies. The Southern Mail picks up the story: Newbold never knew he had a rival in Armstrong until he found a locket containing another man’s photograph on his dead wife’s body. Five years later, Armstrong meets a new love, a city girl who is on a camping trip in the mountains [Myrtle Gonzalez]. Under an extraordinary set of circumstances, she also meets Newbold, now a recluse, who saves her from peril, takes her to his cabin, nurses her back to health through the long winter when her people have given her up for dead, and then finds that the face in his dead wife’s locket is also the face which the girl cherishes.
There is a fierce battle between the two men - one comes off the worse, and the other wins the girl. Described as ‘one of the strongest dramas of its kind since The Spoilers,’ it contained a number of thrilling highlights - the dreadful plummet of the horse and its rider from the precipice, a daring rescue from the white water rapids of a broken river, and the heroine, played by Myrtle Gonzalez, narrowly avoiding attack by a grizzly bear.
It was claimed that latter effect was achieved by releasing an unfortunate actual bear, which came within six feet before being dispatched by a number of sharp shooters standing beside the camera. Some columnists disputed this account, suggesting it was merely a man in a suit - but as The Chalice of Courage has not survived, we will probably never know.
Shot on Bear Mountain and Big Bear Valley in California, the beauty of the film’s settings were universally lauded by reviewers. Said the Newcastle Morning Herald:
“The picturesqueness of the scenery is very fine. It includes a terrifying canyon stream in flood, expansive snow scapes, and beautifully rugged mountain scenery, whilst the final views of mountains in the distance, with the hero and heroine on top, silhouetted against the sky, are exceptionally artistic.”
America’s Motion Picture News agreed:
Laid in the expansive mountains of our own West, the clear views are taken in the very heart of the untouched country. The snow scenes, over which play gorgeous light and shadow effects, are beautiful. Photographically the picture is a supreme achievement.
Myrtle Gonzalez. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The exotic Myrtle Gonzalez, of part Spanish and part Irish ancestry, was one of many early film actresses with a reputation for fearlessly carrying out any stunt that was asked of her. Beginning as a child actor, she had been a Vitagraph star for four years, but would transfer to Universal Pictures later in 1916.
Only two years after The Chalice of Courage was released, the 27-year-old Gonzalez became one of the highest profile victims of the international Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. The disease had a heavy impact on the film world, with a number of studios temporarily shutting down production, many personnel falling ill or losing their lives, and numerous movie theatres closed for months in order to prevent the spread of the disease. According to his military records, Margaret’s brother Arthur was amongst those afflicted.
As with many of the pioneer companies, 1916 found the Vitagraph Company in a state of transition. Originally based in Brooklyn, New York, it had begun transferring its interests to California early in the decade and had revolutionised exhibition by purchasing its own cinemas. When the V-L-S-E conglomerate of which it was a part collapsed in late 1916, it was able to purchase a number of its former competitors and enter the film distribution business.
A reorganisation and an influx of new funding in mid 1916 helped consolidate its status as the most prolific of America’s early studios, and yet its power was already on the wane. With the restrictions of World War I, a tricky transition to feature production, and a number of newer and nimbler companies emerging, the former leviathan entered the 1920s in poor shape. By 1925, its influence had so dwindled that when it was purchased by Warner Bros, it was mainly in order to acquire its international distribution network.
Given that it was this network that eventually permitted the Warner Bros to turn The Jazz Singer (1927) into a worldwide hit, it is appropriate that the studio’s name lived on in the company’s name for its sound productions: 'Vitaphone’. An action-packed Saturday movie at the Crystal Palace proved just as big a treat as a country holiday. Margaret described The Chalice of Courage as a “Good prog[ram].”
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a film of two parts. Firstly, it is a story of the American Civil War, told through the eyes of both a Northern and a Southern family, and culminating in the dramatic assassination of president Abraham Lincoln. Had the film ended there, it might have been remembered for its technical innovations, its all-star cast, its elaborate staging, its scenes of vast spectacle - in fact, anything other than the second and very different storyline that is introduced in Part 2: a tale of the South’s postwar reconstruction which portrays the Ku Klux Klan - absurdly, as we know today - as the noble saviours of a besieged South. This view of the period has long since been dismissed as historically inaccurate, and highly influenced by ingrained prejudices of the early 20th century.
Thus, Birth of a Nation became one of the most controversial films of all time, lauded for its technical achievements but despised for its egregious approach to race relations.
Questions to newspaper advice columns about the true nature of the Ku Klux Klan suggests that not all Australians unquestioningly accepted their positive portrayal in Birth of a Nation or the film’s picture of race relations, particularly given that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was already known and beloved in Australia. The average person’s prior knowledge of the organisation was likely to have derived from In The Clutches of the Ku Klux Klan (1913), a short that had shown in Australia less than two years previously, and which included a far less flattering portrayal of the organisation.
These qualifications aside, the sobering fact remains that if there was any widespread outcry against Birth of a Nation’s exhibition in Australia, it appeared nowhere in the mainstream media. It seems that Australians largely accepted the film’s portrait of the reconstruction as historically accurate. 'White supremacy’ in its purest sense - the belief that one race is inherently superior to another - was so widely held as an article of faith that there was no need for violent demonstrations in its support. We can be thankful that mainstream attitudes have undergone a complete reversal in the meantime.
No expense was spared in bringing Australians a viewing experience equal to that of audiences in America and Europe. The film was to be one of the nation's first forays into the ‘roadshow’ format of exhibition. Instead of debuting in the city and moving to the less expensive suburban cinemas, it would be an exclusive engagement, playing only at the city’s prestigious Theatre Royal. A premium experience meant a premium ticket price, justified by the extraordinary expense of the film’s production and presentation, but also designed to demonstrate that the cinema, having now attained the same quality as the best live theatre, should incur a similar fee. This strategy proved ill-fated, and while prices had been reduced by the time Margaret saw the film, even the cheapest tickets cost as much as the best seats for the average picture show. Margaret must have found that the experience was worth the extra cost, as she described Birth of a Nation as 'something wonderful’.