Once upon a time it was 1923. The movie community was nervous as dark forces had fallen upon it the previous year. Director Erich von Stroheim was fired by twenty-two-year-old Head of Production at Universal, Irving Thalberg. The director was no longer all-powerful within the studio system shifting power to producers. Film studios, worried about scandals spotlighting Hollywood as a den of iniquity, created the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) to censor themselves. Director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his Los Angeles home by gun shot and actors were among those suspected. Following his trial, Roscoe Arbuckle was blacklisted by the film industry, the announcement made by Will H. Hays of the newly formed MPPDA despite Arbuckle having been acquitted of murder. Uncertainty was ripe within the ranks of moviedom. And barely had the new year began when one of its more popular members died.
Wallace Reid, the popular, talented, and prolific leading man, died at the age of thirty-one on January 18, 1923. Reid’s death, a result of an addiction to morphine, follows the Arbuckle trial and the death of Desmond Taylor as one of the top scandals of 1920s Hollywood, scandals which shaped filmmaking for decades. Nineteen twenty-three was not starting off on a positive note as Hollywood’s connection to DOPE was all over the newspapers for some time. For more about Wallace Reid’s life and death visit this article at Silentology.
Still, the filmmaking community looked forward. They made films and grew the industry in ways that would cement it as part of American culture for good. They still celebrated the popular appeal of the movies and its stars. And a lot of good was to happen that year.
There are many centennials worthy of celebrating this year, but perhaps the one that will make the most noise is the one hundredth anniversary of Warner Bros. The brothers Warner, Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack formally incorporated their film studio as Warner Brothers Pictures, Incorporated in April 1923. Theirs would become the “working class studio” that gave us the gritty presence of Cagney, the force of Davis, and the inimitable style of Bogart.
I have already dedicated a post to the history of this studio in The Culture at Warner Bros., which I posted in 2012 if you want to know more. For now, know that nepotism has existed throughout the Hollywood studio system since its inception. Warner Bros., Inc., however, was the only true family-run operation. Harry Warner, the eldest and leader, as “natural” order would dictate, was President. Albert (Abe) Warner (the second eldest) oversaw all distribution. Next in line was Sam Warner who oversaw all technological issues and advancements (sadly, he died in 1929 on the eve of the opening of a major film milestone and his biggest accomplishment – the talking picture, The Jazz Singer), and Jack L., the youngest, in charge of production. There will no doubt be many 2023 celebrations in honor of the unique Warner Bros. Keep your eyes peeled.
The Warners were not the only brothers making movie history in 1923. Roy and Walt Disney founded their Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in October of that year. If that weren’t enough, the Fleischer Brothers (Dave and Max) produced the first feature-length animation (a documentary), titled The Einstein Theory of Relativity in 1923.
Nineteen twenty-three also gave us many notable films. Among the most popular at the time were James Cruze’s Western, The Covered Wagon, Cecil B. DeMille’s first version of the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1923), the most expensive film ever made to that point, and the first filmed version of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was released. Directed by Wallace Worsley with Lon Chaney transformed into Quasimodo the bellringer lives on.
Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! was also one of the most popular films of 1923. It’s no wonder though. Still Lloyd’s most popular, Safety Last! is a funny, thrilling ride with spectacular stunt sequences. And talking about spectacular stunts, Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, his second independent feature, was also released that year. For my money it is one of the best from any year. You cannot beat the sight gags and the feats of one of the greatest talents to appear on screen. To see what critics thought of the films of 1923, visit this article at Movies Silently.
At the Rivoli Theatre in New York, Lee de Forest demonstrated a sound-on-film method for recording sound on the edge of the film strip, called Phonofilm. He projected a series of short musical films featuring vaudeville performers. It would become the industry standard. You can see some of these at Capitolfest, by the way.
Born in 1923
Images of some of the future luminaries born in 1923:
Film Debuts of note in 1923
Discovered modeling in New York, Jean Arthur made her film debut in John Ford’s Cameo Kirby.
Marlene Dietrich appears in her first credited role, as a maid in So sind die Männer directed by Georg Jacoby.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. stars in his first movie this year in Joseph Henabery’s Stephen Steps Out.
Thomas Mitchell’s first credited screen role was in the 1923 film Six Cylinder Love directed by Elmer Clifton. Luckily for us Donald Meek also made his debut in that picture.
Charles Farrell got his movie break with uncredited roles in 1923. This is significant because he appeared in two of the year’s biggest hits, DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Jack Oakie made his film debut with two uncredited roles in pictures in 1923, the same year he made his Broadway debut in a George M. Cohan show.
Fay Wray was 16 when she appeared in her first film, Gasoline Love. I could find no director details only that this Century Pictures comedy was released on January 1, 1923.
Harry Chandler, a former Los Angeles Times publisher, built the “Hollywoodland” sign in 1923 to advertise an upscale real estate development company with the same name. The 45-foot illuminated billboard was intended to last only 18 months.
Through the years the sign in the Hollywood hills came to represent dreams broken and fulfilled. As if it represented the people who looked upon it and never made it, the sign fell into disrepair eventually becoming the city’s property when the real estate development went under. In 1949 the “Land” was removed leaving just “Hollywood” in its wake and with it those dreams broken and fulfilled.
The Hollywood sign has undergone reparations through the years and still stands strong above the movies.
Back to 2023 when I hope all your dreams come true. Sappy New Year to you and yours from Burns and Allen and me.