Moran of the Lady Letty: Part 3–Production Details Used for Publicity…And Just Who DID Rudolph Valentino Push Off the Ship’s Rigging?

Rudolph Valentino and Walter Long in the rigging...

Click for Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. (Video version of Part 1 on Youtube); (Video version of Part 2 on Youtube)

Link to the video version of this post on Youtube.

Adventure films were popular during the silent film era and seafaring yarns produced in the 1920’s were some of the more popular offerings to the the film-going public. If one looks at this list at Wikipedia, for example, you can see that for a couple of years seafaring stories seemed to have more production than usual. But, as noted in the entry, this list is not complete and probably never will be because so many films from the era have been lost.

Before we discuss the production of Moran of the Lady Letty, there are a few interesting side notes I’d like to point out. First, this was not the first sea tale for director George Melford–he had already directed The Sea Wolf in 1920, with Walter Long playing a “mate.” Second, two of Rudolph Valentino’s leading ladies either made it onto a ship before he did or were back on board after the release of Moran of the Lady Letty! And finally, the male leads in these films were actors who had been briefly considered to play the lead in The Sheik! (See NOTES below for more details about these films.)

Starred Noah Beery, Sr. and Walter Long played a “mate.” Released 5/16/1920. LOST.
Starred Thomas Meighan and Agnes Ayres. Released August 21, 1921. FRAGMENT exists.
Starred Dorothy Dalton and Jack Holt. Released September 17, 1922. Status unknown, most likely LOST.

During the filming of Moran of the Lady Letty and then as the film was released, there were a number of short “reports” in the newspapers about how the film was made. As the distribution of the film rolled out nationwide, write-ups appeared in papers across the country, some as locally produced commentary which most likely included studio press information and others that were clearly directly picked up verbatim from studio publicity.

The Sheik premiered with a “pre-release” on October 30, 1921, and even before the “official” premiere a week later in New York City on November 6, 1921, publicity for Moran of the Lady Letty was being placed. For example, this little squib appeared on November 1:

Arkansas Democrat, Little Rock, Arkansas
Sunday, November 1, 1921, Page 6.

Although the above publicity drop reports that all sea scenes were made in San Francisco, apparently some scenes were filmed on a boat built to rock on the studio set along with sets for the cabin scenes. The studio boat seems to have been used during the coal fire sequence. Although hard to discern, from approximately minute 24:24 to minute 25:34 the film (Youtube version here), one can see lighting fixtures, a piece of clothing hanging of a bunk to the left swaying slightly, and a following scene where a white door is moving back and forth in the background. This door could have been moved by an off-screen stagehand, however. There is quite a bit of cutting between scenes filmed on what seems to be the studio boat to scenes filmed on the actual ships at sea. (The inter-cut scenes showing the crew scrambling to get off the ship don’t seem to show any wave action at all–perhaps a calm interlude on the rough seas described in press stories which appeared during filming.)

See the NOTES below for intriguing information about what techniques were used in the above mentioned Dalton film On the High Scenes which was in production in June 1922. In the six months since the filming of Moran of the Lady Letty, were the techniques that much improved? Or, were some already in use during the filming of Moran of the Lady Letty? At this point, I haven’t found any specific information on this possibility…but the possibility might still exist.

Another example of early publicity for Moran of the Lady Letty comes from Buffalo, New York. It appeared a week into the run of The Sheik in New York and even before the start of “Sheik Week” which began the week of November 27, 1921.

Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, Buffalo, New York. Sunday, November 13, 1921, Section 7. Page 2.

“Rudolph Valentino will get a sample of his own medicine–doled out to Agnes Ayres in The Sheik–when he does his new picture.”

In early December 1921 seasickness during filming was already part of the publicity campaign:

Salt Lake Telegraph, Salt Lake City, Utah

Sunday, December 4, 1921. Page 22.

Dorothy Dalton–“I was so sick scores of times when we were out at sea that I didn’t care whether we ever finished the picture or not.”

The full campaign was in full swing by January 1922. This picture of Dorothy Dalton, George Melford and Rudolph Valentino appeared in Exhibitors Herald on page 88 of the January 28, 1922 edition.

Director George Melford was praised for his ability to save money during production. Money concerns for many studios at this juncture were top of mind and had played a role in Valentino winning the lead in The Sheik. Now, with Valentino’s next film, Melford was singled out for his “economy in the use of film.” He rehearsed scenes so that he would need very few retakes.

Wichita Beacon, Wichita, Kansas. Sunday, January 29, 1922. Page 19.

“Mindful of the necessity for economy in these times…

…In making ‘The Sheik’ he used up 28,000 feet of film, which was boiled down to 7,800 feet in the final picture.

He bettered this record in Moran of the Lady Letty, using only 22,000 feet of film which was boiled down to 6,800 feet finished.”

Once the film premiered on February 5, 1922 in New York City with the Los Angeles “world premiere” following on February 12, the nationwide distribution rolled out in full force. Here are a few examples of obvious studio publicity, pure studio hype at its best.

“Once again has George Melford produced for Paramount a picture with every claim to superiority….The situations are highly dramatic and appealing….

Dorothy Dalton, popular Paramount star, …Her portrayal in a revelation of art.

Rudolph Valentino…This is a role in which all the robust qualities possessed by Mr. Valentino are brought to the front in splendid effect.”

The Ogden Standard Examiner, Ogden, Utah.

Tuesday, February 14, 1922. Page 7.

As we will discover in Part 4 of this series, publicity material was not always accurately used by the outlets who chose to use it. For example, One piece provided theater management with suggestions if they desired to “exploit the big Paramount picture” by using any of the material provided “in any way you may deem wise.” The material provided an easy way to create a publicity blurb; apparently, the people running the Orpheus in Nova Scotia, Canada just added their theater’s name to what was included in a press packet…instructions not meant for public view. The ad for the showtimes and this publicity information actually ran side by side in the local paper.

The Evening Standard, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

May 19, 1922. Page 16.

Around the same time, an ad for the film was accompanied on the same page by a list picked up by theater management which gave five reasons to see the film.

The (Morning) Leader,

Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Thursday, May 11, 1922. Page 11.

The idea that Moran of the Lady Letty was a “special or big production” was one that was repeated in other advertising as well. Below is one example:

Reading Times, Reading, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, May 14, 1921. Page 7.

These publicity pieces pale, however, when compared to a spread that appeared in The Coffeyville Daily Journal, published in Coffeyville, Kansas, on April 7, 1922, Page 12. (See Notes below.)The “Brilliant Players in ‘Moran of the Lady Letty'” section was an expanded version of the “Queries and Replies” ad that appeared in May in Nova Scotia (pictured above) that added fuller details and two more players to the list of stars (Charles Brindley and Emil Jorgenson). Note, again, that the film was described as a “Big Paramount Super Play,” A Stupendous Production” and provided an unusually detailed synopsis of the story. However, the copywriter made an error when picking up the names of key cast members: in the column to the far left, the writer names “the popular Rodolf Valentino as the star of an unusual supporting cast including Dorothy Dalton, Walter Miller….” Of course, the correct name was Walter LONG! And, the writer seems to imply that everyone is in a “supporting cast” (?)…did the write mean to say an “ensemble” cast? Obviously, publicity material from the studio sometimes didn’t make it into a publication intact or accurately.

The Coffeyville Daily Journal, Coffeyville, Kansas. April 7, 1922. Page 12.

There were different approaches to what was emphasized in the publicity that was delivered to the public. I’ve organized some of the more frequently used publicity themes I’ve found to make it easier to get the gist of how interest was built for the film.

SHANGHAIED!

One of the publicity angles that was used frequently in local papers involved the shanghaiing of Valentino/Ramon Laredo at the start of the film.

The tea and ball scenes were often noted for their glamour and style. A couple of columns over from this piece, there was a squib which gave more details:

“Fifty of the prettiest girls in film circles and an equal number of the best looking men, appear in the grand ball scene….”

The Selma Times-Journal, Selma, Alabama. Sunday, April 9, 1922. Page 6.

Great pains were taken to “educate” the public about what it meant to be shanghaied since this event set the stage for the rest of the story. The “teasers” below are from March and April 1922.

Here’s the definition that was presented repeatedly and essentially verbatim in the newspapers: “Shanghaied” is the forcible abduction of an unaware citizen who wakens from a stupor to find himself on the high seas at the mercy of a brutal buck mate or master.” (Once in a while, an editor would tack on a small grammatical change such as “Shanghaied is a term that means the forcible abduction….”) And note the incorrect name of “Mark Melford” in the article on the left.

The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Canada. Saturday, March 11, 1922. Page 20.

The Miami Herald, Miami, Florida. Sunday, March 19, 1922. Page 10.

Along with the concept of being shanghaied, the publicity revealed Valentino’s feelings about his part…and his career, in general, to this point. Although Valentino proclaimed that he “liked it” some writers “commented” that “Rudolph Gets His,” a reference to the rough handling of his leading lady in The Sheik which was still playing around the country.

“Such a trifle as being ‘shanghaied,'” observed Valentino during the screening of the picture, “means nothing in my life. I’ve been abused continually since I’ve been in pictures–shot and beaten up and generally mishandled. But I like it!”

The Evening News, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Thursday, April 27, 1922. Page 18.
The Bristol Herald Courier, Bristol, Tennessee. Sunday, April 23, 1922. Page 16.
The Salina Evening Journal, Salina, Kansas. Saturday, April 19, 1922. Page 12.

Bobbed Hair…

Dorothy Dalton received her fair share of attention, notably about her appearance and specifically about her hair. Her role as Moran was dubbed as one of “the most wholesome roles that she has ever played (Dayton Daily Ness, Dayton, Ohio, Thursday, March 2, 1922, Page 32) and focused on her particular issues with seasickness. The standard “report” about her hair stated that “Miss Dalton had to cut a couple of inches off her hair, which had already been bobbed to some extent, so that she could make up for the role–the mate on her father’s ship–in many scenes, and the role is a primitive one, full of rough and tumble fighting and thrills.” (Part 4 reveals the brutal references to Dalton’s hair in the reviews after the film’s release.)

The Caldwell Tribune, Caldwell, Idaho. Tuesday, April 18, 1922. Page 5.
The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Canada. Saturday, March 1, 1922. Page 20.

“MANY OBSTACLES” AT SEA…

The “mean ocean” which caused the constant seasickness endured by Dorothy Dalton was a recurring publicity story. The piece above describes how with the “continuous run of heavy ground swells, the consequent conduct of the boat was too severe a test for the stomach of a good sailor, the actress contended, and preparedness was her motto….” To that end, “Lemons, chewing gum and lemon drops, in large quantities, were on the shopping menu…when she was making preparations for days work on exterior scenes taken at sea on a sailing vessel near San Francisco.”

More details about the conditions encountered are presented in the two examples below…some of the copy is the same, but additional information included varied depending on who was putting together the publicity materials and some was also a revamping of some of the material found in the above “Mean Ocean” piece.

Los Angeles Evening Express, Los Angeles, California. Saturday, February 25, 1922. Page 22.
The Washington Herald, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, April 2, 1922. Page 18.

In one “Hollywood hometown” paper in Los Angeles (above), there was quite a bit of commiseration for the difficulties involved in the filming as it delivered the lament that “The motion picture art sometimes makes strenuous demands on its players and in ways not so that the public…would ever be aware of the difficulties surmounted” and went on to say that each actor “was called upon to reveal the utmost sang froid in the midst of a storm and a resolute and unembarrassed digestive apparatus no matter how high the billows swelled about their craft in midocean” (Los Angeles Evening Express, Los Angeles, California. Saturday, February 25, 1922. Page 22.).

A couple of months later, a paper in Washington, D.C. (above) detailed what was going on with the ships and how a shoot that was supposed to take three weeks in San Francisco filming exteriors wound up taking five weeks. Three- and four-masted ships had to be towed in and out of port every day, a process which took four to five hours a day.

"In the morning, when the vessel was being towed out, the tide was coming in and in the evening, when the company turned the nose of the ship homeward, the tide was ebbing out to sea.  Thus, it was necessary to 'buck' the tide both going and coming, which accounts for the time to and from the outer-sea location."
Then when the location was reached, if Dorothy Dalton or William Marshall, the cameraman weren't seasick, a few of the highly dramatic scenes of the picture were made." --The Washington Herald, Washington, D.C. Sunday, April 2, 1922. Page 18.

In the end, after the four to five hours of towing, only about four to five hours of actual shooting time was available every day!

Hungry Horses…

While there were difficulties filming the ship scenes, things didn’t always go smoothly on land, either. An entire Mexican village was built at Paradise Cove on the San Francisco shore for the scenes depicting the Magdalena Bay of the novel. Under the direction of Rudolph Blyek, technical director of George Melford Productions, twenty buildings with thatched roofs were constructed by thirty carpenters over the span of two weeks. But–a bit of sleuthing revealed that the expensive project was destroyed by hungry horses!

The Huntsville Times, Huntsville, Alabama.
Sunday, March 12, 1922. Page 11.
Los Angeles Evening Express, Los Angeles, California. Saturday, February 25, 1922. Page 22.

“In the future George Melford will permit no horses or mules in the vicinity of thatched roofs if he uses them in any of his productions….”

The Selma Times-Journal, Selma, Alabama. Sumday, April 9, 1922. Page 6.

Extras…

The San Francisco shoot had more interesting details revealed through the press. For example, this small article described some of the extras who played crew members:

“…in two of the city’s largest hotel groups of bearded, rough-looking characters, … lounged the lobbies every morning and evening.”

Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Tuesday, September 12, 1922. Page 5.

The Chinese extras also gained attention, but in a way that mirrored the racist attitudes of the times. References to “yellow men” would also appear in some of the bigger ads. (See my previous post which details the source novel’s overt racism.)

“The Orientals were employed as extras, forming the motley followers of Captain Kitchell, an Eurasian villain and captain of a smuggling ship…

…the Chinese types took part most realistically.

After the scenes were ‘shot,’ Miss Dalton was conducted through the mysterious and dark by-ways of the sleep city by one of the admiring yellow men who had played in the picture.”

The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Canada.

Saturday, March 11, 1922. Page 20.

A School Holiday…

The shoot even impacted some of the local school children. I found a couple of reports in papers like The Caldwell Tribune in Caldwell, Idaho and in a paper in Oklahoma (below). When a few students saw the film company at the waterfront, the news spread and a few students were missing from school. The next day, about one hundred fifty children were waiting to see the crew. According to the story, “Hookey on a large scale was the order of the day. When the teachers learned the facts, they joined the pupils, called a holiday, and there was general rejoicing. A good time was had by all.”

The Tonkawa News, Tonkawa, Oklahoma.
Thursday, October 26, 1922. Page 3.

THE FIGHT IN THE SHIP’S RIGGING–WHO FELL INTO THE SEA?

Of course, the climax of the film featured the fight in the rigging between Ramon Laredo and the villainous Captain Kitchell. In a build-up for an extended run in Washington, D.C., this sequence was described as being “one of the most gripping and powerful climaxes ever brought to the silver sheet” (Washington Herald, Washington, D.C. April 2, 1922 — full article found above in the section entitled “Many Obstacles” At Sea).

Many publicity pieces included a joint comment from Valentino and Walter Long and detailed how the rigging scenes were filmed:

"Fighting on the fore top of schooner with the vessel rolling and pitching and the mast swaying, is no pleasant job, according to Rudolph Valentino, playing the male lead role and Walter Long...
"The fight scenes were filmed aboard the ship in San Francisco Bay.  The two men were at least 60 feet above deck.  The fight started on deck and continued on up the rigging until they reached the fore top.  From there they fought on out to the end of a spar.  After a final struggle, the villain drops into the ocean. For this latter shot, a camera was lashed to another spar, and thus a close-up view of the knock-out punch and the fall obtained." -- "Adventure Story Draws to Columbia"-- The Victoria Daily Times, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Tuesday, June 6, 1922. Page 10.  

Doubles started the fight but the publicity revealed that Valentino and Long “wanted a real as well as a reel fight…”

“Doubles were produced and began the fight with Rudolph and Walter standing in the wings watching. The audience (consisting of the two men) nudged each other, smiled, then look disgusted, and after the fight between the doubles, advanced and asked permission to do it themselves…”

The Houston Post, Houston, Texas.

Sunday, February 12, 1922. Page 30.

So, was that actually Walter Long as the evil Kitchell losing the battle and finally dropping off the rigging into the sea and to his death? The answer is NO!

The double who fell into the sea was an athlete and actor named George O’Brien. According to the Hollywood Star Walk project provided by The Los Angeles Times, O’Brien was:

"Born in San Francisco, where his father was chief of police, O'Brien became the Navy's Pacific Fleet light-heavyweight boxing champion during World War I. After his discharge he was introduced to cowboy star Tom Mix who helped him find work as an assistant cameraman, extra and stuntman.

One of his early film tricks involved Rudolph Valentino knocking O'Brien from the rigging of a ship into the sea."
George O’Brien, 1899-1985
George O’Brien falls into the sea

O’Brien would go on to appear in one of the greatest of all silent films Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) with Janet Gaynor and appeared in approximately seventy-five films over the course of his long career. He was known as “The Torso” because of his physique and worked with top stars such as Mary Astor, Wallace Beery, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and William Powell and Myrna Loy. After the 1930’s he worked mostly in Westerns and had a long connection to director John Ford. O’Brien’s last film was in 1964, and after his retirement from the screen, he directed and produced stage plays in Europe and the United States and then became a script writer for TV and movies. For a wonderful piece about George O’Brien, visit Strictly Vintage Hollywood which includes a photo of George O’Brien and Dorothy Dalton chatting on set.


The Image Issue…

So, while George O’Brien settled into a career in rough and tumble pictures, Rudolph Valentino would struggle with his image. After his triumphant performance in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and his elegance in Camille, The Sheik finally triggered the full-scale swooning of female fans–but questions about his screen persona were starting as he had been teased in reviews for his “Theda Bara wide eyes” and over which turban was more attractive. (See previous post November 27, 1921: The Start of “Sheik Week” Follows The Precedent-Setting New York Premiere and Nationwide Release of “The Sheik”.) As Emily Leider wrote in her book Dark Lover:

"A theater manager in Alabama reported, 'The lady trade makes up for the men that stay at home.' The more girls and women lost their heads and hearts to Valentino, the more their dates, husbands, and fathers seethed with resentment at the hypnotic actor showing them up." -- Leider, Page 189. 

Aware of the problem, the studio cast Valentino in Moran of the Lady Letty to boost his appeal to the male audience by presenting him as an “action star” rather than simply a female heart throb. But, compared to the All-American Douglas Fairbanks, who had already delivered The Mark of Zorro in 1920, The Three Muskateers in 1921 and who was producing Robin Hood in 1922, Valentino’s efforts in Moran of the Lady Letty, such as throwing some punches and climbing around rigging, certainly didn’t turn him into a full-fledged action type. Reviews of the film, as you will see in the next post in these series will show, certainly didn’t herald Valentino as the next action hero.

Ironically, behind the scenes, while filming this role, Valentino was being photographed in his off time in poses that would further confuse his image–the “faun pictures” taken under the guidance of girlfriend Natacha Rambova, who turned up in San Francisco after she had gotten wind of his after-work escapades.

One of these pictures (not shown here), showed Valentino curled up at Rambova’s feet, and would be introduced during the Jean Acker-Valentino divorce proceedings in December 1921 which ultimately resulted in an interlocutory judgment entered in January 1922, just before the premiere of Moran of the Lady Letty.

The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California. Thursday, December 1, 1921. Part II, Page 1.
The Los Angeles Evening Express, Los Angeles, California. Saturday, February 11, 1922. Page 11.

To add to the irony, a publicity spread in a Los Angeles paper presented a picture of Valentino next to one of Grace Darmond. Jean Acker, who had been involved in a tense love triangle with Darmond and Alla Nazimova, fled to Grace Darmond, her real love, after realizing she had made a mistake marrying Valentino in November 1919. Grace Darmond testified during the divorce proceedings about “the bathroom incident” during which Valentino reportedly hit his wife. Darmond and Acker would stay together until 1925. (Ankerich, Pages 89-91.)


As Moran of the Lady Letty opened around the country, publicity started to surface about Valentino’s next film. On the same day Moran of the Lady Letty premiered in Los Angeles on February 12, 1922 an example of the early publicity for Beyond the Rocks, which started production in late 1921 and continued during January 1922, appeared in a Houston paper as the publicity cycle revved up toward its May 7 release date.

“The period of Louis XV and the Garden of Versailles as a background form a combination for one of the special scenes in “Beyond the Rocks”…This scene was made on the newly covered big stage at Lasky studio…”

The Houston Post, Houston, Texas. Sunday, February 12, 1922. Page 35.

In the same column Valentino’s next film, Blood and Sand, which was already in production in February 1922, was announced. Note the incorrect name of the leading lady…May McAvoy.

The Houston Post, Houston, Texas. Sunday, February 12, 1922. Page 35.

After all the publicity hype and film’s release, the reviews came in. In the next post of this series (Part 4), we’ll explore what the critics, theaters managers and Valentino himself thought of Moran of the Lady Letty….

NOTES

1. The Sea Wolf. Considered lost. Artcraft Pictures Corporation was created in 1916 to distribute Mary Pickford Film Corporation productions. It was purchased in 1917 by Famous Players-Lasky Productions and by January 1918 was designated as a distribution brand name for Paramount Pictures Corporation. Source: Silent Era, Progressive Silent Film List. Jack London’s 1904 novel story had already been filmed as a short in 1913, again in 1926 (also lost) and many times after the 1920’s. Aside from the director George Melford, another “carry over” from this film to Moran of the Lady Letty was Walter Long, who played “Black” Harris, a Mate. Sources: Wikipedia, The Sea-Wolf (novel) entry and Wikipedia, The Sea Wolf (1920 film) entry.

2. Cappy Ricks. An 18-minute fragment of this film is held in the UCLA Library Film and Television Archive/Silent Fragments. Author Peter B. Kyne wrote four novels featuring the title character Cappy Ricks and would adapt three to the screen. The first in the series, Cappy Ricks: The Subjugation of Matt Peasley was produced first as a Broadway play in 1919. Kyne then adapted the novel into the 1921 film Cappy Ricks. The star, Thomas Meighan, was at one point considered for the lead in The Sheik. In addition to Agnes Ayres, who played the leading lady in The Sheik, another actor with a connection to Rudolph Valentino appeared in the film–John St. Polis, who played the blinded Etienne Laurier, husband of Marguerite Laurier, in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (released in 1921). Lois Wilson, who played Queen Marie of France in Valentino’s Monsieur Beaucaire, appeared in the 1935 Cappy Ricks Returns. In 1937 the series entry entitled The Affairs of Cappy Ricks starred Walter Brennan. (Sources: Silent Era, Progressive Silent Film List, IMDb and Wikipedia, Cappy Ricks entry.

3. On the High Seas. Survival status unknown, probably lost. Dorothy Dalton starred with Jack Holt, another actor who had been considered to play the lead in The Sheik. William Boyd, who became famous later in life as Hopalong Cassidy, also played in the film. Shorts made in 1914 and 1915 with same title, each had different plot lines from each other and the 1922 film. (Sources: Silent Era, Progressive Silent Film List, IMDb and Wikipedia, On the High Seas entry.

On the High Seas with Dorothy Dalton and Jack Holt

4. In what was labeled an “-Avd.” (Advertisement), a theater showing On the High Seas offered a detailed description of how the stormy sea scenes in the film were created. From The Meriden Morning Record (Meriden, Connecticut), Wednesday, November 8, 1922:

The Meriden Morning Record, Meriden, Connecticut.
Wednesday, November 8, 1922. Page 5.

5. The big spread in the Coffeyville Daily shown above was not unique to the films of Rudolph Valentino. During the same period, similar items appeared for top actors such as Wallace Reid.

SOURCES

Ankerich, Michael G. Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2015.

IMDb, Internet Movie Database.

Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

Newspapers and other sources as cited in the text.

November 27, 1921–A Night of Terror in New Haven, Connecticut as “Sheik Week” Begins—-A Deadly Fire, Multiple Deaths as a Prologue Goes Horribly Wrong

At some theaters across the U.S. and Canada, the presentation of The Sheik was accompanied by a “prologue” before the film was shown. Music, singing, desert scenes–all were presented to put the audience in the mood for the film. But one prologue went drastically wrong…


At the New York premiere on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square, Manhattan, several opening features entertained the audience. In the review by Harriet Underhill carried in the New York Tribune the next day, a description of the program was included.

New York Tribune, Monday, November 7 1921. Page 8

Out in Calgary, Canada, a scene “showing a tent in the desert” was offered at the Capitol Theater.

A tent in the desert; a very pleasing baritone …”

The Calgary Daily Herald, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 8

On the same day, in Winnipeg, Canada, at another Capitol Theater, the prologue furnished “a realistic scene from the very heart of the hot, sand-covered desert, with colorful lighting effects playing its whole gamut of glitter upon it. The curtains part with the sun partially clouded….”

“The colorful background changes into many pleasing hues, the glitter of all vanishing with the opening scenes of the feature.”

The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 10

In both theaters, a song titled “Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold” was presented, This was a popular song composed in 1911. There are several renditions on Youtube, but this video by Tim Grayck which features a 1912 recording by Donald Chambers also has lyrics to follow along with to about Minute 1:30 and really gives a sense of what audiences going to see The Sheik may have experienced. Here is a link to the full lyrics for the song, which was composed in 1911.

These spectacular introductions to The Sheik certainly got the audience in the mood for the film…but, on the first day of “Sheik Week” a terrible tragedy occurred in New Haven, Connecticut that evening of November 27, 1921.

As the late newspaper editions hit the streets, the headlines revealed the the evolving story of horror.

1
The New York Evening World, Final Extra,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 8
2
The New York Tribune,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2
3

According to The New York Tribune, the frame building was already 100 years old. It had been a church before it was sold to Yale University and was used as an auditorium and music school for 20 years. One story said that the building was altered for use as a movie theater six years before The Sheik was booked for that night.

There was different reporting on how and where the fire started– from an ember from an incense lamp in front of the screen (The New York Tribune) or from a flash from the left wing of the stage which set the curtain a blaze (Daily News). The difference is understandable as the scene would soon turn into chaos. The incense lamp seems to be the most likely scenario given The New York Tribune background report:

1–Filled to Capacity…
3–Oblivious Audience in the Other Theater to the Rear…

The New York Tribune,

Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2

2–…The Film Had Just Started
4–…A Death Trap

One hundred Yale students, some of whom became victims of the fire, were in the audience and they tried to urge order, but exits were blocked. People were trampled and many in the balcony were trapped as flames moved from the proscenium arch of the stage and climbed rails and onto the seats. People in the balcony jumped down onto those below who were trying to escape. The New York Evening News reported that many children were in the audience and parents were injured as they tried to lift them above the mass of flailing bodies surrounding them. People already standing in the lobby waiting for the second show were pushed back into the street as a rush of people tried to escape through the house doors of the theater. The walls caught fire and flames swept to the side where there was one window which opened on to the fire escape, which was the site of a horrific scene:

…charred beyond identification…”

Daily News, New York, New York

Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 1

Although every piece of firefighting equipment in New Haven reportedly rushed to the scene, the Rialto was completely destroyed, along with the Hyperion theater building at the rear.

“…The fire burned for more than two hours and a half…”

Daily News, New York, New York

Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2

Lawrence R. Carroll, the manager of the theater and his assistant, James Carter, were initially detained by authorities but were released on their own recognizance (The New York Evening World, November 28, 1921, Page 8). The Final Edition of the Daily News reported that the coroner was prepared to issue manslaughter charges against Carroll (Monday, November 28, 1921, Page 2).

With unfortunate irony, while Sheik Week was starting to celebrate the smashing success of The Sheik, the lives of many who were eager to see the film lost their lives while survivors of the New Haven tragedy were left with frightening memories of what should have been a night spent enjoying the most popular film in the country.

NOTES

1. The Prizma Color system, according to Wikipedia, “was a color motion picture process, invented in 1913 by William Van Doren Kelley and Charles Raleigh.

2. The New York Evening World from November 28, 1921 carried another film-related story right next to the New Haven theater fire headlines along with a full banner across the top of the paper. That story was titled “Arbuckle In His Own Defense Goes On Stand And Gives His Version of Actress’s Death.” It’s a story still remembered to this day, unlike the fatal New Haven fire.

Link to the video of this blog on Youtube.

SOURCES

Newspapers as cited in the text