Note: Due to a technical problem, this post was published without the final paragraphs. These have been added.
The movie-going public has always craved learning fascinating tidbits about their favorite movies and motion picture stars. Any fact, however obscure or perhaps slightly tawdry, attracts the interest of rabid fans. Studios happily churn plenty of hyperbolic prose promoting new film releases, rising stars, stars in need of a comeback, even film grosses, to boost movie attendance.
While the motion picture industry began disseminating trade publications around 1906 with Views and Film Index (later The Film Index), mass consumption fan magazines popped up in February 1911, when film pioneer J. Stuart Blackton introduced Motion Picture Studio Magazine, per Anthony Slide in his book, “Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine.” Others like Motion Picture Magazine, Motion Picture Classic and Photoplay, quickly followed. These early magazines eagerly documented the budding film industry and its growing legion of stars. Cheap and affordable, these slick sheets never let truth stand in the way of a good story.
Read the November 1920 issue online via Archive.org.
In 1920, a different type of fan magazine came along, one that pulled no punches. Film Truth, first published in April 1920 by Photoplay Assn. at 2255-2259 Broadway in New York, decided to focus on hard-hitting truths, exposing scams while at the same time revealing the unadulterated backgrounds of movie actors. The journal’s voice was often sarcastic and snarky, a deadly stiletto to fakery. In fact, it might be called the TMZ or “Deadline Hollywood” of its day. As the inside cover of the first issue stated, “Dedicated to all that is best in the screen art, to all that tends to its advancement. Knowing only the truth; sparing no words nor pains to condemn that which is wrong.”
This first issue, plain black and white with no cover, reported the facts on script scams, debunking script companies like Palmer Photoplays and Los Angeles Photoplay Co. Film Truth pointed out how these shysters placed ads in magazines claiming that they could help aspiring screenwriters shape and improve their photoplays to attract the attention of successful motion picture companies. These scam artists instead took the money of naïve readers, who received little or nothing in the way of advice, help, or edification. After a while, the companies would fold their tents and leave town.
The publication also mentioned scams pulled by schemers who pulled into town claiming to be famous directors or studio casting directors, scouting out possible new studio locations. Charming the locals, these men flashed money around town in the best hotels and restaurants, drawing top officials and leading residents who gave money toward the construction of said new location. In the end, the petty criminals milked the cow dry and flew town.
Other stories highlighted the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and hypocrisy of Hollywood, be it in how studios tried to foist company-made stars on the public, or the betrayals and conniving of divorced couples. As one story noted about Charlie Chaplin and Mildred Harris, “Neither side can really afford to throw stones at the other’s house. It might prove — well, rather embarrassing.”
One column mentioned that Douglas Fairbanks might film his next United Artists production in England or France, and by curious coincidence, Mary Pickford had announced her intention to travel to Europe at the same time. Another story mentioned Pickford divorcing Owen Moore, and that “The sympathies of those in the business who know, goes to Mary… .” It goes on to state, “In Los Angeles, the names of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are linked. It may be interest or perhaps a real romance, shed of tinsel and press-agent puffs, may be in the offing. We wonder. At any rate, as we said, our sympathies are with Mary.”
The May 26, 1920, New York Times noted that Film Truth had been incorporated for $25,000 by A. H. Stack, Left. A. Fales, and F. A. Butler, at 258 Lefferts Ave. in Brooklyn, N.Y. The May edition of the magazine noted that subscribers could pay $1 for four months’ issues, or $2 for six months, or $3 for a year.
By August 1920, the shocking red cover announced itself, “That Little Red Devil!” “Movie Spice!” The inside cover described the aim of the rag, Film Truth accepts no advertising, prints no press-agent bunk, has no boss other than its thousands of readers — and is prepared to travel willingly to the eternal bowwows the day it discovers that any other guidance is necessary. It is the only publication for the public that comes from “within the industry,” with all the real news, and the latest news. You get concentrated, unadulterated, unalloyed “pep” when you buy Film Truth, without a wasted word or a slushy syllable.”
The editors attacked hypocrisy and hard living straight on. In one column, they pronounced, “Viola Dana, quit being a partyier!” Another scoffed that people were saying that Mack Sennett protected the virtue of his female stars. “Wonder if Mack ever took himself aside, or a half score of others who are INSIDERS at the studio, and propounded his theory on how innocent maidens should be shielded from contact with the world? Pardon us, our sides again cave in with laughter….”
The October 1920 issue revealed behind-the-scenes whispers and gossip. “Bobby Harron is dead. The police verdict is death by shooting by accident. The motion picture verdict is somewhat different but has no foundation.” “Yea, bo. Leopard skin, creamy, bare, natural cuticle, ex-reputation and lack of histrionic talent and all, Theda Bara is going to vamp around the kerosene circuit again this Fall.” “Ladies — you better not take your husbands across to gay Paree with you. Sometimes it is fatal.” “Sammy Goldwyn, having been gently given the soft boot out of the company bearing his name, is in rather an embarrassing position. Sammy once on a time changed his aquarium name from Goldfish to Goldwyn by a court order. And now what will he do…Whatever company he joins, he probably will have to choose another name. Sammy United Artists, or Sammy Associated Producers, perhaps?”
A regular monthly feature, called “Boosts and Boots,” reviewed current films. The issue called “Way Down East,” “This eternally human and popular story has been frankly produced in melodramatic fashion to give it the very strongest audience appeal. Griffith has done his most meritorious work in some years.” Film Truth trashed “The Round-Up.” “… “Fatty” Arbuckle sadly out of it. Production is far below the stage version in entertainment quality. Perhaps it is not Arbuckle’s fault that all the humor of the character of the fat sheriff has not been extracted from the part, but we look back to scores of his less ambitious two reel comedies with greater relish… .” The magazine thought that Sessue Hayakawa’s “An Arabian Knight” would please his fans in a role somewhat different from how he was usually cast.
Film Truth dove head-first into the drug problem in its January, 1921 issue, with the editor addressing an imaginary reader and describing how cocaine had infested the industry. “Snow parties, Liz, ain’t no relative of that “Snow, Snow, Beautiful Snow” that you studied about in the Third Reader…”Snow,” dear Liz, in common ordinary every day English means hop, coke, dope, joy-powder, gold dust, willing wafers, intermission treat, anything you got in your limited vocabulary that means “I Don’t Care.” In another story, it talked about “Pajama Frolics and Chinese Dope Orgies” engaged in by many.” Sometimes it dropped broad hints about participants, sometimes detailed descriptions, and other times, nothing.
Film Truth took on powerful society figures as well. The April 1921 issue featured a story titled, “Must Henry Ford Be an Ass? Always,” which described him as ignorant and dangerous for his hate-filled, libelous, Jew-baiting statements in his book and columns. Editors detested virtually everything for which he stood.
The magazine also pounced on the atrocious actions of Jack Robins, who was arraigned before Judge Thomas C. Crain for brutally attacking an 17-year-old girl by luring her into what he called an acting school, taking measurements of her body, and then imprisoning her in the building overnight by threatening her with a gun. Two policemen rescued the girl the next day.
Two other features skewered actors for inflating their backgrounds or failing to connect with the public. One column, called “Before Their Careers,” noted that Marshall Neilan was a chauffeur becoming a director, Rupert Julian was a barber in Austria, and Hobart Henley was a trunk salesman. Another column allowed readers to nominate their most unpopular star, with people like J. Warren Kerrigan Robert Warwick, and Dorothy Gish receiving votes. One reader described Gish’s work as, “Same old and exaggerated mannerisms, same spinning on toes, sticking tongue in cheek.” They found comedian Lloyd Hamilton, “as funny as a funeral.”
In May, Film Truth revealed that Jack Robins had been sentenced to five to eight years at Sing Sing. They called the great photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston, “demon escort and real Beau Brummel,” who was hired by New York dilettantes to snap “artistic” images. The magazine noted the exploitation of Aurora Mardiganian, the author of “Auction of Souls,” by her guardians, who had paid her virtually nothing for her story while reaping most of the profits, and paying her only $15 a week, while she was earning $7,000 from Selig Studios to star in the movie of the same name.
Editors pointed out the terrible business skills of director Neilan, with his lavish spending leading to a $12,000 attachment against his studio. They called Pearl White, “An excellent judge of John Barleycorn’s output.” Writers noted that Sid Grauman, Neilan, and Chaplin partied at the Alexandria, while partiers of other types included Wallace Beery, Alice Lake, Viola Dana, and Lew Cody.
The issue highly praised Rex Ingram’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and especially its new star, Rudolph Valentino. “Some years ago, as we sat nightly in the downstairs restaurant of Taits, San Francisco, at dinner hour, or in the famous Pavo Real upstairs, after the theatre hour, we languidly watched this gentleman glide about the floor with a charming young lady in the dances of the day. He was quite the rage in San Francisco. He was the hoofer extraordinary of the town.”
It appears that July 1921 was the last publication for “Film Truth,” and the journal went out swinging. The magazine noted that Nazimova and Metro terminated her agreement because of her attitude. In a review, “Fatness” Arbuckle was making okay films. A former top serial star was “old before her time, haggard,” after falling from the spotlight amid the destruction of the romance with her male co-star. She was left playing small bits like maids, while her mother did washing for those who had been extras in her films.
The deadly attitude and forthright nature of the trade doomed it with the entertainment industry, and its focus on immorality and truth-telling failed to catch on with the public. More than 20 years later, Confidential magazine appeared on the scene as a purveyor of sleaze, before lawsuits shut it down.
Today, slime and nastiness rule the day in print, online, and television celebrity journalism. Nothing really changes with the popular press, as they become more and more purveyors of smut and trash.