DAILY: January 16, 2020

Today at the DAILY I am passing along a tutorial through which I put myself this morning after I checked to see who was celebrating a birthday today.  I had never heard of this brother and sister and their stories but I was enthralled by them.  It was a fun morning curating all this for you.  Enjoy.

Margaret Booth. The first person to be called a “film editor.”

Film pioneer Margaret Booth was born on this date in 1898.  She was one of cinema’s most respected editors and even tried her hand at screenwriting early in her career.  She began her career working as a “patcher” or “film joiner” for D.W. Griffith when she was only 17 around 1915 and was the first “cutter” to be called a “film editor.”    Later she went to work for Louis B. Mayer and edited several films starring Greta Garbo, including Camille.  At MGM she was the final authority on a film’s editing for over 30 years in her position as a kind of supervisor for all the film editors who worked there.  She was nominated for an Oscar for her work on 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty.  She was presented with an Honorary Oscar in 1978.  Ray Stark hired her to be supervising film editor for his production company when she was 70 in 1968 and she had a long third act there.  Her career spans those two films, Mutiny on the Bounty and Camille to The Way We Were and The Goodbye Girl.  She lived to be 104 years old and died in 2002, a life that spanned three centuries.  She never married.


Elmer Booth

Her brother was silent film star Elmer Booth whose own story in Hollywood is more tragic.   He was born in 1882 and died in 1915 just as she was beginning her career.  After appearing onstage in stock in San Francisco, he starred in over 40 movies between 1910 and 1915.  One of those was D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), cited by many film experts as the first gangster movie.  After watching this film, I realized that James Cagney might have stolen more than a bit from Booth who played his role as cocky and engaging; he had a dandyish dance-like grace to his gait which was so different and much more subtle than the clownishly evil bad guys in so many silent films of the era.  There was a likability to him.  He was pugnacious.  Elmer was not a pretty boy exactly.  But he was self-possessed.  Not thuggish.  You kind of wanted to hang with him and be his friend.

This is how Wikipedia writes about his tragic death at the age of 33:

“In the early hours of June 16, 1915, Booth died in an accident in California while riding in a car driven by actor and director Tod Browning, who directed 1931’s Dracula and 1932’s Freaks.  Another fellow actor,  George Siegmann was also a passenger in Browning’s car. The day after the accident, the Los Angeles Times reported that the three men were returning to downtown Los Angeles from a roadhouse when Browning’s car crashed into a train of the Salt Lake Railroad: ‘Elmer Booth was killed instantly. The motor car in which he was speeding towards Los Angeles with his two companions rammed the rear part of a flat car loaded with steel rails at Santa Fe avenue and Salt Lake tracks early yesterday morning. The conductor of the train, Harry Jones, approaching, had waved his lantern as a danger signal, and then had come to the crash that sent Elmer Booth, who was just realizing his dramatic ambitions, headforemost into the rails.’

Browning and Siegmann survived, although they both suffered serious injuries. Later reports blamed the accident on heavy fog, but Margaret Booth never forgave Browning for the loss of her brother.

D. W. Griffith, who had planned to cast Booth in an important role in Intolerance, delivered the actor’s graveside eulogy.”

Margaret Booth being presented her Honorary Oscar by Olivia de Havilland in her plummiest mid-Atlantic accent.  The audience gives Booth a sustained ovation.


In 2016, the D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley was added to the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  It was directed by Griffith who wrote it along with Anita Loos.  It stars Elmer Booth, Lillian Gish, and Walter Miller. Also in the cast is Harry Carey.  And in cameo roles are Mary Pickford’s brother Jack as a boy gangster in the dance hall scene.  Dorothy Gish appears momentarily in a street scene.  And Lionel Barrymore appears billed as a friend of the musician.

MoMA highlights the film in its own archives and writes this about it:

“The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company emerged in 1896, co-founded by Thomas Edison’s former assistant and protégé, William K. L. Dickson. Biograph spent its early years battling Edison’s litigation over alleged patent infringement, until, in 1902, it became a license of the company. In 1908, Biograph’s fortunes rose when actor-turned-director David Wark (D. W.) Griffith joined and made his directorial debut.

Griffith’s films among them The Musketeers of Pig Alley, were marked by such avant-garde formal experimentations as extreme wide and close-up shots and sequences of fragmentary, distinctly shot scenes. Since there was little precedent after which to model his approach, he invented it as he worked, collaborating closely with his cinematographer G. W. (Billy) Bitzer. Musketeers is part of a cycle of films through which Griffith criticized the violence and deceitful public officials plaguing America’s inner cities. It tells the story of gang warfare, police corruption, and the people at the mercy of these forces on New York’s Lower East Side. It centers on The Snapper Kid, leader of The Musketeers gang, whose criminality is tempered by a flicker of chivalry. This suggests a complex character, one that harbors a shred of social conscience that The Snapper Kid may have been able to develop fully had he not been the product of such a rough-and-tumble environment. Though he victimizes, he is also a victim of his circumstances, and this makes him a sympathetic figure.

The story unfolds in the cramped confines of ramshackle rooms, crowded sidewalks, and alleyways, the claustrophobia heightened by the camera’s tight framing.  Intertitles work in concert with the filmed images to convey the dialogue between the characters, inflected by their mood and manner of speech. Gang members slink along walls and emerge through doorways in partial views that emphasize their stealth and omnipresence. Such scenes were aimed at broad audiences still unused to the language of film, and many moviegoers were living in the circumstances Musketeers dramatizes. So a shot toward the end—among its most radical—in which The Snapper Kid brings his face up to the camera and peers out as if he is casing the movie theater itself, would have felt harrowing for those contending with gang presence in their own lives.

During the five years Griffith remained with Biograph, he produced a body of popular films that made the company both financially solvent and America’s premier film studio. It would remain so until his departure in 1913, ultimately shuttering in 1916.”





  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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