Chapter 9: “The Shabbies” Hits the Silver Screen

Summary: After “The Shabbies” is released, Aggie is seen as a talented young writer by another studio, which lures her away from Vitagraph by doubling her salary. The Industry is changing fast, and competition is heating up.


No one commented on my “Shabbies.” But Miss Caldwell confided it had been put into the files that the directors search through to find material. Well, at least I wasn’t going to be fired for writing it.

One day, when I was desperately trying to concoct a nice “pink” melodramatic plot, Wilfred North, a director for the Broadway stage who had been coaxed into the movies, came to my office. He had a blue manuscript in his hand—“The Shabbies.”

“This is the freshest story I’ve seen since I’ve come to the studio,” he said. “I’m going to make a picture of it. “ And he made a charming picture, with a little blond star called “Dimples.”

We went to “The Shabbies” as soon as it was released. People stood in a long line at the theater waiting to buy tickets. It gave me the trembles. What if the picture bored them and they felt they’d wasted their ten cents admission that theaters charged now?

“My little girl wrote this picture!” Mama boasted to a bulky woman who was next to us in line. The woman looked me over doubtfully as if the picture couldn’t be very good if it had been written by one so young, and when she reached the window she seemed of two minds about buying a ticket. Mama fixed her with an eagle eye and she paid her dime.

When my name was flashed on the screen I felt as ashamed as though I had suddenly found myself naked in public. But then the laughter started. It was low and uncertain at first, with Mama’s guffaw embarrassingly loud, but gradually the laughter rose to a great and beautiful roar. How agonizing that wait for the first audience laugh was then—and is still!

I went on writing comedy/dramas for Vitagraph with fancy, poetic subtitles. One morning I found a plain envelope on my desk with a typewritten letter. The letterhead said it was from The Thanhouser Motion Picture Company. Mrs. Gertrude Thanhouser wrote that she and her husband had seen “The Shabbies” and liked it. There was an opening for a writer on her staff. Would I please make an appointment to talk with them? I wrote back that I was flattered, but I was happy with Vitagraph and they were paying me well. I couldn’t make an appointment because Vitagraph wouldn’t like it if I took an afternoon off.

Mrs. Thanhouser phoned and suggested I come to their apartment on Sunday, so on Saturday afternoon I had my hair Marcelled into beautiful kinkiness. I put on Mama’s black coat and a large black velvet hat ornamented with ball fringe around the rim. I borrowed this chic headgear from a woman who lived in the apartment next to us. I didn’t understand her source of income back then, but I’m pretty sure I do now.

Mr. Thanhouser turned out to be a tall, thin aristocratic looking Jew. His wife was Irish, rosy and plump with curly black hair. She had big doll-blue eyes, which grew larger as she surveyed my hat with its fringe of little balls. There was a long look between her and Mr. Thanhouser. She seemed undecided, but finally he smiled. He offered to pay me $35 a week if I would leave Vitagraph and write for them. I gasped, thanked them, and accepted.

On Monday morning, I sent a letter of resignation to Vitagraph. Two hours later Miss Bertsch came to my office. “Commodore Blackton is very angry with you,” she said. “He wants to see you immediately.”

Trembling, I went to the executive building. The Commodore didn’t have a woman secretary; instead it was a pale young man who always dressed in gray striped trousers and a morning coat. “Looks like an undertaker,” I once giggled to the girls in the typing department. Now, with the tight frown on his fine cut features, he seemed like a harbinger of doom as he led me to a private office. At the far end behind a huge mahogany desk sat the Commodore, a smallish man with glasses and a balding head. I’d seen him before from a distance and thought him rather unimpressive, but not now.

“Please sit down. Miss Johnston.” He nodded to a mammoth leather chair close to his desk. I wobbled across the room and perched on the edge of the seat. The Commodore gave me an icy smile.

“I understand you want to leave us. Let’s see. How long have you been with us? Almost a year, I believe Miss Bertsch said.” Too scared to speak, I nodded. “And at first you didn’t know anything about scenario writing. We had to start you in as a typist. So . . . ” He fixed me with a cold stare. “It seems we really taught you writing and paid you while you were doing it. Do you think it’s very grateful to want to leave us now and for a rival company? Miss Bertsch thinks you’re a wonderful girl. She can’t understand how you could do a thing like this.”

“Oh, I know it’s wrong, very wrong,” I wailed. “But it’s just that I have to support my mother and sister, and that $10 extra a week—it would seem so much.” By this time, I was crying. Water was running out of my nose. To my horror, I found I had no handkerchief with me. The Commodore shoved his own fine, soft linen one at me.

“I didn’t understand that was the case, my dear,” he said gently. “If money is so important to you, we’ll do something about it. I’ll raise you from $25 to $30 a week.” I poured out my thanks, stumbled out of the office, and raced to a pay phone to call Mrs. Thanhouser. I told her my gratitude to Vitagraph was such that I intended to stay with them forever.

Mrs. Thanhouser wasn’t discouraged. Every Sunday, she’d call me at home. She offered first $40 then $45 then $50 a week. Finally, to put a stop to the whole business, I said I couldn’t possibly be ungrateful to Vitagraph for less than $60. There was a silence on the phone.

“Sixty dollars is a high salary for a girl as young as you are, but we’ll pay it,” she said.

Now what to do? I consulted with Mama. “All that money,” she cried. “You can’t turn it down.

“But I simply can’t face The Commodore and tell him I’m leaving. Not after he gave me that $5 raise,” I said.

“You won’t have to face him,” Mama said. “I read in the paper that he’s gone to Florida on his yacht.” Somehow, this seemed like a sign. I wrote a long letter of resignation to Miss Bertsch, expressing gratitude I still feel to this day.

The Thanhouser studio was in New Rochelle. Mama and Izzy and I took two rooms at the Pepperday Inn, an old-fashioned family hotel. It was nice to have no housework—no food to cook and no dishes to wash. But after a few weeks, I can see that Mama, with nothing to do, was getting restless. She brooded about Papa and had crying spells. I knew I needed to get her situated, so I found a rundown house for rent with three bedrooms. I name the place “the dirty faced house” because of its shabby paint job, which, of course, made the rent affordable. We shipped over our stored furniture from Brooklyn and settled into our new home.

The Thanhouser Company was launched in a converted warehouse and was running very much as a family affair. Mrs. Thanhouser was in charge of the scenario writing. She gave me a big office next to her own and kept in close touch with my work. She always praised it, but she would edit a lot of the sugary sentiment out of my scripts

Frantic changes were taking place in pictures. Independent studios—Fox, Famous Players-Lasky, Metro Pictures—were mushrooming. Cecil B. DeMille had come from California with his dramatically made “The Squaw Man.” Three of his coworkers, whom I met at a writers’ club, told me of being shot at by skulkers from behind trees and of precious film diabolically ruined. Young DeMille had encountered plenty of opposition from rival filmmakers, but it was with the “The Squaw Man” that he and his two partners, Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldfish (later Goldman) took their first step up the rainbow.

As new companies were cropping up, old ones were dying. The great pioneer names—Lubin, Selig, Kalem, Edison, and Essanay Studios, where Charlie Chaplin had made his first comedies—were soon to fold.

There was an even greater turnover among the stars. With a few exceptions like Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Maurice Costello, the actors who had played saccharine heroines and brawny heroes were gone. In their places came actors from the stage. The first of these had been Sarah Bernhardt, but even after her “Queen Elizabeth”, Adolph Zukor had a time convincing the Broadway great that pictures were respectable. When the stage stars started to come over, they did so with a rush. Marie Doro, Fannie Ward, Pauline Frederick, Otis Skinner, and a host of others had their fling, brief or prolonged, in the new industry. Truly, as a historian of the times said, “Motion pictures were in ferment.”

A new and sensational star had been discovered: Theda Bara. It was said that she’d been found in the sands of the Sahara, although it leaked out later that she been born and raised in Brooklyn. After her performance in the Fox Company’s “A Fool There Was,” the word “vamp” was invented. I wanted to see the picture, but Mama didn’t think it suitable for a young girl. After it was re-released later that year, however, Mama surprised us by taking us to a small theater where it was showing.

“I want you girls to study Theda Bara,” Mama said. “I think “Camille” would be a great part for her. I’m going to write a scenario of it. I’m sure I can sell it.” Mama writing again! That was the best news I could hear.

I’m afraid most of the sex and sin of Theda’s amazing picture was over my head. But the memory of her bare shouldered, black-swathed, sinuous body lying stretched out on a furry rug, chin resting on clasped hands, great tigerish eyes smoldering, is with me to this day. When I got home that night, I took down the mirror from my dressing table, lay prone on the hard straw matting on the floor, and tried to make my eyes blaze like Theda Bara’s, but one look in the mirror told me her technique of vamping could never be mine.

Mama wrote the scenario of “Camille.” Theda Bara was under contract to the Fox Company and Mama took the first scenes of her script to the editor. He encouraged her until she finished it. Then he told her they were going to make “Camille” into a picture but her work wasn’t good enough. One of their staff writers would do the scenario. As the copyright had run out, Mama had no claim on them, but they magnanimously gave her $100.

I tried to tell her she should be very proud of this. ”Just think,” I said. “When I was a Vitagraph typist, I had to work ten whole weeks for that much money. “ But Mama, sad-eyed, shook her head. “Aggie, I’m afraid the Fox editor was right when he said my scenario was no good. I’m never going to try to write again. You’re the author of the family now.”

. . .



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