Silent Star King Baggot from St. Louis Starred in ABSINTHE 100 Years Ago
While cleaning out an old barn in New Hampshire recently, a man named Peter Massie discovered an old silent film projector and seven reels of nitrate films hidden in the shadows of a corner of the structure. Among these old reels was a 30-minute 1913 film titled WHEN LINCOLN PAID starring Francis Ford (older brother of director John Ford). It was one of six silent films, all presumed lost, in which Ford played Abraham Lincoln. It is stories like this that give hope to silent film fans. 75 per cent of movies from the silent era have been lost to decay or neglect, but when it comes to the over 200 movies that St. Louis native King Baggot acted in between 1909 and 1921, that number is closer to 100%. Here’s a look at ABSINTHE, a lost film from 100 years ago that I wish someone would find.
Absinthe is a distilled, highly alcoholic (90-148 proof) beverage – a licorice flavored spirit derived from flowers and leaves together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs. It’s known for its ever-changing neon green color, its air of danger and seduction, and above all, its allegedly psychoactive properties. Absinthe was romanticized and captured in artwork and writings of many 19th and 20th century notables – mostly ones famous for their bohemian lifestyles. Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allen Poe, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and many others were advocates of ‘The Green Fairy’ and featured it prominently in their work. Some even went mad, or at least behaved as if they were – facts that would later be used by prohibitionists as proof of absinthe’s evils. The drink was banned in the U.S. in the United States from 1915 to 2007.
ABSINTHE is also the title of a 1914 movie from Universal studios, the story of one alcoholic’s downward spiral that predates films like LOST WEEKEND and LEAVING LAS VEGAS. King Baggot, the studio’s most popular star at that time, played Jean Dumas, a Parisian artist, who is introduced to absinthe by his materialistic mistress, who also convinces him to rob his well-to-do parents’ house. Jean is discovered and disowned by his parents, then marries one of their maids (played by Leah Baird), who becomes repelled by his poverty and leaves him for a wealthier man. Jean, suffering from drug-induced hallucinations, eventually turns to robbery as a means of supporting his habit and joins an Apache gang. One night, disguised as a cabby, he attempts to rob a passenger who turns out to be his wife. He drives her through Paris to the forest where he strangles her and leaves her for dead. The next morning, he returns to his parents’ home where his father gives him a gun and turns him away. In the streets, Jean is last seen as a ruined man, cast out, and ridiculed by city street urchins. He’s last seen following a company of soldiers, dragging his gun along behind him.
In 1913, producer Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Pictures, aka IMP Studios (soon to merge with Universal), sent stars King Baggot and Leah Baird along with their director Herbert Brenon by train to New York, then by ship 3000 miles to Wales. They filmed their epic production IVANHOE at Chepstow Castle there (see my article about the production of IVANHOE HERE). Laemmle wanted to take advantage of the trio’s presence in Europe and had them produce more films while there. These were to marketed as “European IMP Features“. MR. AND MRS. INNOCENCE ABROAD was their first follow-up, a comedy filmed in Paris with Baggot and Baird as a couple who travel to Europe for the first time. Their next undertaking was THE ANARCHIST which featured an otherwise all-French cast in the story of a bomb maker who befriends a small girl. ABSINTHE was their fourth film during this European trip. To prepare for his role, Baggot spent a week living in Paris observing the habits of absinthe drinkers. He paid particular attention to the way the drink was prepared. In the film, Baggot doesn’t just pour the drink into a glass, but dribbles it slowly into water the way French did.
According to King Baggot’s biographer Sally Dumaux, there was a major rift between star and director on the set of ABSINTHE. Baggot suddenly announced he was returning to the U.S. Actor William E. Shay joined the IMP troop in Germany to replace Baggot and finish the European films. In the early 1950s’, Brenon was interviewed by film historian William K. Everson for a proposed biography of the director that was never finished. He said of working with King Baggot on ABSINTHE:
“The impasse between Baggot and me came as a result of rank insubordination. We had a mighty row over the taking of a scene going through the streets of Paris in ABSINTHE. The photographer and I were in one car. Baggot and Baird followed closely in another car. It was an important scene – ending with him manhandling her. We had rehearsed it carefully. There were hardly any retakes in those days. I left the hotel, and when I gave the signal for action from the car ahead, he did just what I told him not to do. It was a difficult scene in Paris traffic, and I hit the ceiling, He was insulting as to my directorial abilities. We had an abusive row, and, then well – it was he or I……We were going to Berlin to make another series there, and I cabled (studio head Carl) Laemmle, that rather than go there with Baggot, I preferred to resign….I asked for my favorite leading man William Shay to take his place. Bear in mind that Baggot was then the biggest drawing card for Universal. He was a six-footer – handsome fellow – but unmanageable”
While waiting for William Shay to arrive by ship, Baggot and Brenon patched things up long enough to make one more film before Baggot’s departure – THE CHILD STEALERS OF PARIS, a fact-based story of a child slavery ring.
ABSINTHE was released in the U.S. in January of 1914. By then, IMP Studio had been totally absorbed by Universal and the film was billed as a ‘Universal Special’ – meaning exhibitors had to pay more for it than the usual Universal film (and up the admission price from the usual nickel to a dime!). The studio even placed a special advertisement for the film in The Moving Picture World requesting theaters to “Book ABSINTHE at any price! It’s a Universal Special! – Don’t quibble over the cost!”
The ad claimed:
“ABSINTHE is an all-star affair. It is the best thing King Baggot ever enacted. It is the best thing Leah Baird ever did. These two stars, supported by a great big French company were directed by star stage director Herbert Brenon. ABSINTHE was made by our own company in Paris, in the very heart of the district infested by absinthe-drinkers. It has the atmosphere, the story, the plot, and the straight-from-the-shoulder punch!”
Of special interest in this ad is how the posters for ABSINTHE are touted as being available in “sensational” and “not sensational” versions , though it’s unclear which poster is which – the one with the woman in peril is likely more sensational.
ABSINTHE opened to huge crowds and was one of Universal’s biggest hits of 1914. Apparently ABSINTHE was so shocking to audiences of the time that on January 24, 1914, the Chicago censor board revoked the license for the film. That didn’t stop Salt Lake City’s Rex Theater from showing the film continuously (on a loop) 100 years ago today. They even placed a special advertisement for the film in the local newspaper:
The caption reads “King Baggot has the greatest role of his career in the four-part Universal film playing at the Rex theater today and tomorrow. It is a powerful story, working [indecipherable] the results of an intimate, personal study of the curse the drink has brought France.”
Two years later, as King Baggot was transitioning into his role at Universal as producer and director, he purchased the negative and rights to ABSINTHE. With most of the Europe at war, there was a renewed interest in all things French and Baggot thought a reissue of the film would be a good way to showcase Paris in its pre-war state. King personally re-edited the film, changing some of the inter titles and adding actual scenes from the war with French army in action for an up-to-date ending. Baggot took this new version of BASINTHE on the road, making personal appearances at screenings across the country.
ABSINTHE was made before prohibition, in a day and age when society was less objective about recreational drugs. One wonders if ABSINTHE (and other films of the era that demonstrated the evils of alcohol) may have swayed public opinion in favor of the ban – and perhaps the prohibition of all alcohol a few years later. Evidence supporting this theory can be found in the January 1914 issue of The Moving Picture World, which reported that one exhibitor–D. M. Hughes of The Majestic in Lockport Illinois– screened ABSINTHE as part of a special “Temperance night” along with a lecture by a local minister.
Like almost all of the silent King Baggot starred in, ABSINTHE is lost. Only a couple of them are extant and there are fragments of a few more (DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE frmo 1913 – starring Baggot in the titles roles, Universal’s first horror film, can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube HERE). It’s a cliché to point out how sad it is that so many early silents will never again be seen but reading about a film such as ABSINTHE, is a reminder of how tragic that loss. Here’s hoping someone cleaning out a barn or an attic someday stumbles across a can of old film labeled ABSINTHE.
Much of the information in this article came from the book ‘King Baggot – A Biography and Filmography of the First King of the Movies’ by Sally A. Dumaux. It is available from McFarland Books