Welcome to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon! Be sure to read the other wonderful posts covering every year from 1915 to 1950. This is my contribution, the first in a three-part series.
1915 changed the face of motion pictures in a way that would not be seen again until the coming of sound. The definition of “a night at the movies” had, up to this point, consisted of a collection of short one and two-reel (about ten to twenty-five minute) films. Feature-length movies had existed before 1915 but this was their first year of domination.
Cecil B. DeMille is best remembered today for his biblical sound epics but in 1915, he was in his second year as a motion picture director. He had scored a hit with The Squaw Man, generally agreed to be the first feature film made in Hollywood, and he followed it up with dozens of popular films. 1915 was DeMille’s most prolific year by far: he directed an astonishing fourteen feature-length motion pictures.
We are going to take a tour through his fourteen films, every last one, and we will see what we can learn about our movie-watching counterparts of 1915.
(Movie credit definitions were not quite settled in 1915, which meant that the producer may really be the director and various cast and crew would go uncredited. I decided to use IMDB’s listings as my guide for this series.)
From the very beginning, DeMille showed a deep understanding of what movie audiences wanted. His lurid melodramas, marital comedies and grand epics continued to please movie-goers for another forty years. This natural ability to finesse the sensational and salacious into censor-proof packages ensured that he would catapult to the top ranks of the Hollywood elite.
This ability is the precise reason I chose to focus on Cecil B. DeMille. You want a peek at the hopes dreams and fantasies of the population of 1915? DeMille is your man! Many of his movies are cinematic junk food. We consume them, we love them but we know they are not particularly good for us. The inevitable tummy ache is worth it. However, there are still many worthy artistic endeavors in the mix.
DeMille was born to be an entertainer. His father was a playwright, his mother a theatrical manager. His older brother, William, was a successful writer and director himself. Cecil jumped into the movies at just the right moment, at the very dawn of the feature film era.
He also has the rare distinction of being one of the few talents of the silent era with a relatively small percentage of lost films. He knew that any preserving that was going to be done would have to be done by him. (DeMille was familiar enough about the business end of movies to realize what happened to most films once their usefulness had expired.)
And preserve he did. He maintained a personal archive that protected most of his silent work for posterity.
DeMille had the presence of mind to ask for personal copies of his early movies from Paramount when he parted ways in 1925 to form his own production company. At that time, seven out of the forty-eight films were already lost. Think about it. Lost a decade after they were made. Frightening.
But enough of that! I now present you with 1915 through the eyes of Hollywood’s greatest showman.
The Girl of the Golden West
U.S. Premier Date: January 4
DeMille’s breakneck pace had been set in 1914. An early plug for The Girl of the Golden West can be found in this ad for The Ghost Breaker, his release for December of 1914.
In keeping with the Lasky motto “famous players in famous plays,” many of DeMille’s features were based on popular stage properties. In this case, The Girl of the Golden West was an adaptation of a 1905 David Belasco play. (The tale was a popular one. Puccini turned it into the opera La Fanciulla del West in 1910, novelized by Belasco in 1911, DeMille himself cannibalized it for his 1917 Mary Pickford collaboration entitled A Romance of the Redwoods, made into a J. Warren Kerrigan vehicle in 1923, and adapted into a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette McDonald musical in 1938.)
The story is a Robin Hood tale of the old west with a bandit (charmingly called a road-agent) who is saved by the love and wit of a good women. Mabel Van Buren is the heroine and House Peters in the bandit Ramerrez. Jeanie McPherson, who would be one of DeMille’s favored script writers, has a supporting role.
The film was praised as a skillful adaptation of the stage material and was yet another feather in Lasky’s cap.
What did we learn about 1915? Plays were still seen as first-class film sources, though DeMille’s cinematic flourishes were starting to be respected. The western was still a hot genre (its popularity would ebb and flow throughout the years) and DeMille’s sin-to-redemption themes were firmly in place. The Girl of the Golden West cost $15,000 ($353,000 in modern money) to make and earned $102,000 (or $2.4 million) at the box office, proof positive that DeMille knew what he was doing.
Survival Status: Prints exist in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Film Preservation Associates. It has not yet been released on home video.
U.S. Premier Date: January 28
This is another film based on a play, this time written by DeMille and his older brother, William. The plot of After Five is one that remains popular to this day: A man in personal and financial trouble decides that the best way out of his problems is to arrange his own death. His dependents will then receive his life insurance and be taken care of. He contracts the killing but then experiences an unexpected financial windfall. But can he call off his own murder in time?
The plot was considered too fantastic in 1915 (and the play upon which the film was based closed after just 13 performances) but I dare say it could be made tomorrow with very few alterations. The dark concept is timeless. In fact, Douglas Fairbanks pulled off a picture with a very similar plot just one year later.
One amusing anecdote: The hero of the picture, Edward Abeles, apparently got stuck in the mud at one point during filming. No word as to whether this left in the picture. I really hope it was. Note also the last sentence. Who is Oscar Apfel and where is Mr. DeMille?
The real treat of the film (at least for modern audiences) is the presence of Sessue Hayakawa in a supporting role. Hayakawa would have an even bigger part later in the year but he was already receiving positive reviews for his work. (Though they do misspell his given name as “Succo”) Of course, Abeles plays the hapless hero. He was pass away just four years later.
This film also marks the last time that DeMille would be credited as a with co-director Oscar Apfel. When he began in motion pictures, DeMille was enthusiastic but inexperienced and Apfel was brought in as a three-year directing veteran to show the kid the ropes. DeMille continued to speak warmly of Apfel but his first year in the movies had been enough to prove that he no longer needed a mentor. (Apfel is considered to be the true director of this film but rules are rules and IMDB lists this as a directing credit for DeMille.)
What did we learn about 1915? Dark comedies could succeed but they had to be presented just right. DeMille’s cinematography and handling of actors continued to be praised but he was not infallible in his reading of public taste.
Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. More’s the pity. Check those attics!
The Warrens of Virginia
U.S. Premier Date: February 15
DeMille tackled a costume picture for his third feature of the year. The Civil War had ended just fifty years before and it was an extremely popular setting for films, especially in the anniversary year of 1915. The Warrens of Virginia was yet another Belasco play. DeMille had played a supporting role in the stage version, along with a very young Mary Pickford.
Blanche Sweet, a former Griffith leading lady, plays the heroine of the film, an aristocratic southern maiden in love with a Union soldier. She must choose between love of her country and love of House Peters. She bets on the House. (Sorry, could not resist.)
The ad campaign for Warrens emphasized the film as a Belasco-Lasky collaboration. A legitimate theater pedigree was still a way to woo paying audiences.
The Warrens of Virginia is also significant because of date upon which it was released. It opened just one week after the premier of another Civil War drama, D.W. Griffith’s KKK-glamorizing epic, The Birth of a Nation. Birth caused national controversy and protest due to its hateful content but it cemented the feature-length picture as the mode of dramatic cinema.
On a tragic note, the 1924 remake of Warrens cost actress Martha Mansfield her life. Her antebellum dress was ignited by a carelessly discarded match and she died from her injuries.
What did we learn about 1915? The anniversary of the end of the Civil War was still very much on the minds of American audiences. (“Old soldiers” were specially invited to attend screenings of the picture.) Plays were still considered to be classier entertainment than the flickers.
Survival Status: A print survives in the George Eastman House. The film has not yet been released on home video.
U.S. Premier Date: April 1
A Montenegrin romance was the next project for DeMille. Famous Players-Lasky had obtained the services of Rita Jolivet, a noted stage actress and socialite, and was eager to showcase her talents. The European love story is rife with conspiracy, gambling, patriotism… all set in Montenegro as visualized by a California studio.
The plot involves two Montenegerin aristocrats, a good brother and a treacherous one. The bad brother plans to trick an American heiress named Delight (really!) into marriage in order to use her money for treasonous purposes. Well, we can’t have that! The good brother (House Peters) kidnaps Delight as she travels to her would-be groom. Since he will be alone with her in his, er, house, House proposes that they enter into a contract marriage, to be annulled when his brother is brought to justice. Of course, we all know how contract marriages turn out in movies… In any case, there are counter-kidnappings and a bit of torture thrown into the bargain. It all sounds very, very… 1915. (“You fiend!” she panted, her bosom galloping.)
The film’s atmosphere was applauded but the plot dismissed as silly. Fair enough. Miss Jolivet is also criticized for being too dern French to play an American heiress. Picky, picky, picky! House Peters and Page Peters were both praised for their work as the two brothers (they were not related in real life), though it was acknowledge that poor House had his work cut out for him. Oh, and a young Marjorie Daw has a supporting role in the picture.
The original 1915 novel by Eleanor M. Ingram is in the public domain and may be downloaded freely
Just a month after the release of The Unafraid, Jolivet booked passage to England aboard the Lusitania. She survived the ship’s sinking but her brother-in-law did not. Her sister, Inez (a renowned violinist), was bereft at the loss of her husband and committed suicide in July of the same year. DeMille would stage his own version of the Lusitania tragedy in his nasty 1917 propaganda flick The Little American.
What did we learn about 1915? DeMille was starting to reveal his predilection for sin and romance novels were considered legitimate sources for major motion pictures. The tragedy of the Jolivet sisters shows that no one, no matter how rich and famous, was immune to the terrible effects of the Great War.
Survival Status: Print survives at the George Eastman House. This title has not been released on home video.
U.S. Premier Date: April 22
Blanche Sweet and House Peters reunited as the leads in this Balkan romance. He plays an aristocratic Turkish POW who is turned over to a Montenegrin peasant woman to help her work her farm. The two enemies gradually warm up to one another and the inevitable romance occurs. (This plot would be used successfully in the Pola Negri vehicle Barbed Wire.)
When Turkish forces attack the little village, House defends Blanche and is branded a traitor. With the war over, it looks like all hope is lost for the lovers– they are of totally different stations. But hark! House’s worldly goods have been seized by the Turkish government as punishment for his disloyalty. Now Blanche and House are equally broke and free to walk off into the sunset. (No word on how they resolve the religious differences inherent to their respective nations. Best not to ask too many questions.)
This film marks the first time that Cecil B. DeMille collaborated with Jeanie Macpherson on a scenario. (Macpherson also had a supporting role in the film.) This creative partnership would be long and fruitful and would include some of DeMille’s finest films: The Affairs of Anatol, Joan the Woman, The Whispering Chorus, Male and Female and The Ten Commandments. It also included some so-bad-they’re-good features like The Road to Yesterday and Madam Satan.
The Captive received much more positive reviews than The Unafraid. It’s easy to see why. The stuffy romance of The Unafraid was replaced by a working collaboration between two talented performers. However, the plot was deemed too thin to carry all five reels of the picture. DeMille would later solve such problems with flashbacks to Babylonian and Roman orgies.
The battle scenes proved to be all too realistic. By accident or design, live ammunition was loaded instead of blanks and an extra was shot and killed. His widow remained on the payroll for years after but the matter was otherwise dropped.
What did we learn about 1915? It’s a dangerous time to be a movie extra. Hazardous activities were not limited to stuntmen. Original stories are slowly but surely becoming viable for feature films, though plays, books, poems and other sources are still tapped.
Survival Status: A print exists in the Library of Congress film archive. This title has not been released on home video.
Oh, and a tip of the hat to that most-famous fictional Montenegrin, Mr. Nero Wolfe!
But now it is time to leave the Balkans behind and return to New York. Three of the next four films will take place in the Big Apple, with the notable exception set in the hot Arabian sands. Look for part 2 tomorrow!