“Movie Studio Profile: First National Pictures” by S.M. O’Connor

James Dixon Williams (1877-1934) founded First National Pictures, also known as First National Studios, in 1917.  A preliminary step in this direction came when Thomas Tally (1861-1945), who owned the Electric Theatre in Los Angeles, where he had shown films made by Edwin S. Porter (1870-1941) even before Porter made The Great Train Robbery (1903), convened a national meeting of two dozen theater owners in April of 2017 at which they founded the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit.[1]  This came in response to Adolph Zukor (1873-1976), who owned the production-and-distribution company Famous Players-Lasky and controlled Paramount Pictures Corporation, mandating that any exhibitor who wanted any motion picture made by Famous Players-Lasky had to take all of them.[2]  Then he went further and had his salesmen tell the owners of large theaters that they had to exclusively screen Famous Players-Lasky films, but if the most powerful of these theater owners tried to negotiate a deal whereby they would screen only some Famous Players-Lasky films, the salesmen would demand certain dates and higher rental fees.[3]  The First National Exhibitors Circuit controlled a large number of first-run theaters and hundreds of smaller theaters.[4]  First National had the resources to pay for contracts with big-name stars.[5] Zukor later told Harvard Business School students he had warned the leaders of First National if they persisted in moving into film production and distributors, which made them a competitor of his, he would purchase theaters to compete with him.[6]

J.D. Williams signed sisters Norma Talmadge (1894-1957) and Constance Talmadge (1898-1973), Olga Petrova (1884-1977), and Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977).[7]  Chaplin was the first big star to sign a contract with First National,[8] under which he received $1,000,000 to become an independent producer and built his own studio.[9]  He directed and starred in eight films for First National between 1918 and 1922, one of which was his first feature film, The Kid (1921)[10] which made a star of child actor Jackie Coogan (1914-1984). The Kid was not the first feature film Chaplin starred in but it was the first he directed.  First National was able to sell the negatives from the eight Chaplin films to Pathé Exchange at almost the price of what they cost.[11]  In addition to Chaplin, Williams signed Mary Pickford (1892-1979), who made, at First National, Daddy Longlegs (1919), a film that had been remade three times.[12] [Charlie Chaplin; Mary Pickford; her future husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (1883-1939); and D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) later founded United Artists.]    Williams introduced American audiences to the German film Madame DuBarry (1919), released in the U.S.A. as Passion, and its Polish star Pola Negri (1897-1987).  Internal conflict over Pasion and other issues led Williams to retire after six years at the helm.[13]

In 1923, Kathleen Morrison (1902-1988), who used the screen name “Colleen Moore,” signed a contract with First National.  Her first film with the studio may have been Slippery McGee (1923), which director Wesley Ruggles (1889-1972) adapted from Marie Conway Oemler’s book Slippery McGee: Sometimes Known as the Butterfly Man, published in 1917.  She was definitely a success, but she had trouble moving up at First National Pictures from being a featured player to being a full-fledged star.[14]  All of that changed when she wed John McCormick (1893-1961), who was a press agent for First National Pictures.[15]   They were married from 1923 to 1930.  He was astute at promoting himself as well as her pictures, and soon after they became engaged he was promoted to the position of assistant to the head of production.[16]

In her previous virginal roles, her long hair had often been curled in a process that took several hours each day.[17]   Following the conventions of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras when filmmaking was invented, both as a technology and as an industry, actresses had long hair, worn down if they were maidens, and worn up if they were matrons.[18]   To get the lead role in Flaming Youth (1923), she cut her long hair short.[19]

This film was an adaptation of the risqué novel of the same, written by Warner Fabian, which was the nom de plume used by the muckraking journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958). Her uninhibited character in that film, Patricia Frentiss, did things like wear her galoshes unbuckled so they flapped, because it was fun.[20]  The scandalous film was banned in Boston.[21]    So many college co-eds emulated her, getting their hair bobbed and wearing their galoshes unbuckled so they flapped, that they became known as flappers.[22]  “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), whose novel This Side of Paradise also helped capture the zeitgeist of young Americans in the 1920s.  “Colleen Moore was the torch.” [23]  When John McCormick and Colleen Moore went on their honeymoon in Europe, throngs of fans greeted them at every turn.  When they returned to Hollywood, she was offered a contract for $4,000 per week (a phenomenal sum when a person could eat for less than a $1 per day) and he was promoted to production head.[24]  The Library of Congress has a single reel of Flaming Youth, so it is a lost film.[25]

Colleen Moore’s brother, Cleeve Palmer Morrison (1904-1954), who acted under the name Cleeve Moore, appeared with her in We Moderns (1925).[26]  Alfred E. Green (1889-1960) directed Ella Cinders (1926), which was a twist on Cinderella where instead of going to a ball at the royal palace and marrying a prince, the heroine goes to Hollywood, wins a contract with a studio, and reunites with her football player boyfriend.  The movie paired her with Lloyd Hughes (1897-1958), who was also her leading man in Irene (1926).  Shortly before Irene was released, the studio released to the press a short autobiography Colleen Moore had written, The Story of My Life.[27]

She recounted in Silent Star that people in the movie industry did not mix socially with others whom she called “private” people in Los Angeles.[28]  To the public, John and Colleen’s lives seemed idyllic, but in reality they were deeply troubled because he went on drinking binges every month-and-a-half-to-two-months, starting with their wedding night.[29]  As a devout Catholic, she could not get a divorce, and she forgave him after each episode for years.[30]

Colleen Moore made at least two films that were set in Ireland: Come on Over (1922) and Smiling Irish Eyes (1929).  Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974) produced, Rupert Hughes (1872-1956) wrote, and the aforementioned Alfred E. Green directed Come on Over, the basic plot of which was recycled in Smiling Irish Eyes.  In both films, she played an Irish lass whose sweetheart emigrated to the U.S.A. with a promise to send for her only for her to join him there and see him with another girl, leading to a misunderstanding.  Smiling Irish Eyes was the last film produced by the Colleen Moore unit at First National.[31]  After their contracts at First National expired, he promised he would negotiate new contracts with a different studio.[32]

Colleen Moore’s parents moved to Hollywood so they could more readily offer her comfort.[33]  While on vacation with her parents in Hawaii in 1928, her father, Charles Morrison, suggested they build her largest dollhouse yet to contain her expansive collection of miniature furniture.[34]  Charles Morrison was chief engineer and superintendent of the project, and was assisted by master-technician Gerald (“Jerry”) Rouleau, Senior.[35]  Architect Horace Jackson (1898-1952), who was a set designer for First National Studios, drew the blueprints.[36]   Harold Grieve, who had designed the interior of her mansion, designed the interior of her dollhouse-castle.[37]  Colleen Moore spent almost twice on the construction of her dollhouse-castle what she spent on construction of her Bel Air mansion.[38]  She embarked on this mission about the same time that Hollywood was making the transition from silent films to talkies.

Warner Brothers, one of two studios that pioneered the production of talkies, purchased First National Pictures.  After Warner Brothers produced the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), which debuted at the only theater Warner Brothers owned, at the intersection of 52nd Street and Broadway, in October of 1927, the studio was flush with cash and by 1930 acquired control of 700 theaters.[39]  This effort involved the acquisition of the Stanley Company of America, which was one of the largest national movie theater chains, and included Stanley Company of America’s principal ownership stake in First National.[40]  Warner Bros. beat out the other successful sound pioneer, Fox Film Corporation (which became 20th Century Fox after it merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935), for control of First National.[41]  While Warner Bros. gained controlling interested in 1928, Fox retained a minority interest it sold its shares to Warner Bros. for $10,000,000 in 1929.  At that point, First National became a wholly-owned subsidiary.  In 1933, Warner Bros. announced it would release sixty feature-length films over the course of the 1933-34 season, of which thirty would be produced by the First National subsidiary, and another subsidiary, Vitagraph, would release 130 short films.[42]  University South California (U.S.C.) School of Cinematic Arts has the paper records of Warner Brothers Studios, Inc., including the subsidiaries First National Pictures, Vitagraph, the Stanley-Warner Theatre Chain, and Warner Bros. Television from 1918 to 1968, the year Seven Artists purchased Warner Brothers.

 

 

END NOTES

[1] Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Random House, 1975. Revised and Updated. Vintage Book, a division of Random House (1994), 145

See also “James D. Williams,” Variety, 4 September, 1934, p. 61

[2] Skalr, p. 145

[3] Skalr, p. 145

[4] Skalr, p. 145

[5] Skalr, p. 145

[6] Skalr, p. 146

[7] “James D. Williams,” Variety, 4 September, 1934, p. 61

[8] Skalr, p. 146

[9] The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Edward Schickel, editor. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee (2006), p. 8

[10] Skalr, p. 110

[11] “James D. Williams,” Variety, 4 September, 1934, p. 61

[12] “James D. Williams,” Variety, 4 September, 1934, p. 61

[13] “James D. Williams,” Variety, 4 September, 1934, p. 61

[14] Terry Ann R. Neff, Within the Fairy Castle: Colleen Moore’s Doll House at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1997), p. 109

[15] Neff, p. 109

[16] Neff, p. 109

[17] Neff, p. 109

[18] Neff, p. 110

[19] Neff, p. 109

[20] Neff, p. 109

[21] Neff, p. 112

[22] Neff, p. 112

[23] Neff, pages 112 and 115

[24] Neff, p. 112

[25] Jeff Codori, Colleen Moore: A Portrait of the Silent Film Star.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers (2012), p. 251

[26] Neff, p. 111

[27] Codori, p. 3

[28] Sklar, p. 75

[29] Neff, p. 112

[30] Neff, pages 112 and 113

[31] Codori, p, 243

[32] Codori, p. 244

[33] Neff, p. 113

[34] Codori, p. 213

[35] Robert Eichberg, “When Stars Splurge,” Picture Play, Volume XLII, Number 4, June, 1935, p. 43

See also Museum of Science and Industry, The Doll House of Colleen Moore: A Fairyland Castle. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1949), p. 43

See also Museum of Science and Industry, The Doll House of Colleen Moore: A Fairyland Castle. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1949), p. 6

[36] Colleen Moore’s Doll House: The Story of the Most Exquisite Toy in the World, p. 3

Museum of Science and Industry, The Doll House of Colleen Moore: A Fairyland Castle. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1949), p. 6

Moore, Colleen Moore’s Doll House, p. 6

Neff, pages 13 and 113

[37] Colleen Moore’s Doll House: The Story of the Most Exquisite Toy in the World, p. 5

Museum of Science and Industry, The Doll House of Colleen Moore: A Fairyland Castle. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry (1949), p. 6

Moore, Colleen Moore’s Doll House, p. 6

Neff, pages 13 and 113

[38] Neff, p. 116

[39] Skalr, p. 152

[40] Skalr, p. 152

[41] Sklar, p. 165

[42] “Warners to Issue 60 feature Films,” The New York Times, 2 August, 1933, p. 18

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