Natalie Kingston: When Talent Wasn’t Enough

Talent doesn’t necessarily translate to success in Hollywood. Stage experience, singing and dancing – all prerequisites for a shot at film stardom during the silent and early talkie era – often couldn’t compete against luck and timing. For every Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy who had careers that began as dancers and found success on the screen, there were the Natalie Kingstons and Sally Rands with film careers that started, stopped and then just wilted against the competition of fresher faces.

Natalie Kingston, born Natalia Ringstrom of a noble Spanish legacy, had a solid foundation in show business that should have given her an edge against the wannabe actors who came to Hollywood without experience.

Natalie Kingston

Natalie Kingston

Kingston appeared in about 60 films as a Mack Sennett girl and WAMPAS star, but her comedy short films more or less determined her career arc. For every move into dramatic acting, she found herself in another comedy short – a “Hotel California” loop where she could check out anytime but she couldn’t ever leave.

Born in Vallejo, Calif., on May 19, 1905, Kingston was the daughter of Sigurd Adolph Ringstrom, a Swede, and Natalia “Tala” Vallejo Haraszthy, a member of the Haraszthy winemaking dynasty in the Sonoma Valley. Natalie’s maternal grandfather was the Hungarian Attila Haraszthy and her grandmother was Natalia Veneranda Vallejo.

Natalie’s maternal great-grandfather, General Mariano Vallejo, had commanded the Mexican Army in California and her great-grandfather, Agoston Haraszthy, transformed the Sonoma Valley into wine country with a global reach.

Winemaking, however, didn’t interest Natalie, but another family endeavor did. Her great-uncle, Arpad Haraszthy, was co-founder of the Bohemian Club, which put on the legendary Bohemian Grove Plays. Her cousin, Natalia Vallejo Haraszthy, who was five months older than Natalie and shared the same name as Natalie’s mother, was an actress, ballerina and dancer. She appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, the Palace Theater in New York and was a regular performer on the Keith-Orpheum circuit on the West Coast. Following her retirement from the stage, she taught dance in Van Nuys. Natalie’s younger sister, Eleanor (also spelled Elinor), also took the stage name Kingston and was a dancer working as a $40-a-week extra and chorus girl in musicals.

Natalia Vallejo Haraszthy, Natalie Kingston's cousin, was a dancer in her own right. (Photo Courtesy UC Berkeley/Bancroft Collection)

Natalia Vallejo Haraszthy, Natalie Kingston’s cousin, was a dancer in her own right. (Photo Courtesy UC Berkeley/Bancroft Collection)

For Natalie, dancing was a natural choice, although she took a circuitous route to show business. She was educated at the Dominican Catholic convent in San Rafael, and then spent her final year at a public high school. She reportedly studied law briefly in the Bay Area before she trained as a dancer in small clubs and restaurants. Among her routines was La Jota, the Spanish folk dance of Aragon. She was well suited as a dancer. She was leggy and taller than most chorus girls at 5 feet, 6 inches, and weighing a trim 125 pounds. She had hazel eyes, an olive complexion and her dark brown hair parted down the middle accented her Spanish beauty.

Taking the stage name “Kingston,” Natalie was only 15 years old when she won a spot as a dancer in the Broadway Brevities 1920 revue at the Winter Gardens Theater in New York (begging the question of whether she lied about her age to get the job) with Eddie Cantor headlining the cast.

An original two-act musical revue, the show debuted on Sept. 29, 1920, and ran through Dec. 18 for 105 performances. In the meantime, Kingston’s appearance on Broadway required her to perform publicity campaigns to promote the show and herself as a budding star. Midway through the run, organizers at the North River Apple Auction, celebrating National Apple Week, crowned Kingston the “Queen of Apples,” making her a spokeswoman for the industry to tout the health benefits of the fruit.

Once Broadway Brevities 1920 ended, Kingston found no new offers in New York. She returned to San Francisco, but quickly discovered her Broadway experience opened doors for her on the West Coast no matter how brief her tenure on the New York stage.

Less than a month after her return, Jack Holland, a popular Bay Area performer, snatched her up for his own dance revue at the Coronado Hotel in San Francisco. Holland and Kingston then alternated throughout 1921 between Tait’s Café and Harry Marquard’s Café, both highly popular nightclubs specializing in presenting dance cabarets. Holland also paired Kingston with other lead dancers, including Lavinia Winn, and backed the principals with six chorus girls.

Natalie Kingston early publicity photo for Fanchon and Marco.

Natalie Kingston in an early publicity photo for Fanchon and Marco.

Holland and Kingston kept a grueling two-year schedule, which helped Kingston hone her acrobatic skills. Under Holland’s tutelage, Kingston developed the discipline to take her talent on the road. At 16 years old, she was a veteran hoofer.

In 1923, she attracted the attention of the brother-sister Fanchon “Fannie” and Marco Wolff vaudeville team. The siblings founded Fanchon and Marco in 1919 that started with music and dance numbers. The act evolved by 1921 into the “Sunkist Beauties” dance troupe, a West Coast version of The Rockettes.

Fanchon and Marco were more responsible with the teenage dancer than her Broadway employers, ensuring Kingston was 18 years old and properly chaperoned while on the road.

When Kingston joined troupe, Fanchon and Marco had just developed elaborately themed live stage shows, called “The Ideas.” Fifty-two individually themed Idea productions were staged through 1930 that included dancing, singing and vaudeville acts. The shows were about 15 minutes long, ran three to four weeks, and served as prologues to feature films. Natalie joined the dance troupe now dubbed the Fanchonettes.

Natalie, far right front row, in a Fanchon and Marco production. (Photo Courtesy Huntington Library)

Natalie, far right front row, in a Fanchon and Marco production. (Photo Courtesy Huntington Library)

The Fanchonettes were the major draw, according to the Bismarck Tribune. The newspaper noted on May 27, 1920, that the troupe had the “world’s most beautiful women garbed in radiant smiles – and not much more.”

Fanchon and Marco divided the Fanchonettes into five separate groups to perform in Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Kingston performed the northernmost tours. In a “Carnival” themed production at the Strand Theater in Vancouver during the summer of 1923, Kingston performed the Indian Dance, while she paired with dancer David Murray in the “Cabaret Queens” production also at the Strand.

Other performers during this period included Joan Crawford, Mae West and Janet Gaynor, although whether they shared the stage with Kingston is unknown. Myrna Loy joined the troupe in 1924 after Kingston had left for a film career.

Under the Fanchon and Marco banner, Kingston was a featured dancer or always a front-line chorus performer. In the fall of 1923, Mack Sennett was in the audience of a Fanchon and Marco revue and caught Kingston’s dance act. He persuaded her to join his studio to appear in his two-reel comedies.

Kingston likely saw the offer as an entré as a serious actress and agreed to appear in a minor role for “The Dare-Devil” featuring Ben Turpin and Harry Gribbon. Sennett released the film on Nov. 25, 1923.

But Kingston didn’t immediately give up her Fanchon and Marco gig. She continued her Idea prologue performances. She appeared, for example, on Jan. 23, 1924, at Loew’s Theater in Los Angeles for the troupe’s “A Night at the Harem” revue backed by a 15-member orchestra and 14 chorus girls. She performed the Peacock Dance with her now standard acrobatic flourishes.

Natalie Kingston at the height of her fame as a dancer. (Photo Courtesy Edward Bower Hesser Collection)

Natalie Kingston at the height of her fame as a dancer. (Photo Courtesy Edward Bower Hesser Collection)

Her Loew’s performance was likely one of her last for Fanchon and Marco. She signed a contract with Sennett and was already filming a minor role in “The Half-Back of Notre Dame” (1924) with Harry Gribbon, followed by “The Hollywood Kid” (1924) with Charles Murray.

Her early films consisted of set decoration as a “bathing girl” or someone’s pretty daughter. Film schedules were always tight while working on two-reelers. Kingston’s roles likely took only a couple of days to shoot, a sharp contrast to the hectic pace of dance revues up and down the West Coast. Even dancing parts in an occasional Cecil B. DeMille film couldn’t have occupied all of her time.

Natalie strikes a pose probably for her Peacock Dance in 1923-1924.

Natalie strikes a pose probably for her Peacock Dance in 1923-1924.

She spent a year and a half with Sennett before terminating her contract in an effort to get larger roles in dramatic pictures. Yet she often returned to Sennett as a free-lancer.

She signed contracts with FBO, Paramount, Fox and Universal to increase her exposure as a serious actress. For Paramount Pictures in 1926, she made three comedies: “Miss Brewster’s Millions,” “The Cat’s Pajamas” and “Wet Paint.” She had a small role in the World War I melodrama “Framed” (1927), but did a nice turn earning third billing in Fox’s “Street Angel” (1928), which featured Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The role led to two Tarzan pictures, “Tarzan the Mighty” (1928) and “Tarzan the Tiger” (1929) where she shared the lead with Frank Merrill.

Natalie spent nearly four years on the stage as a dancer before turning her attention  to films.

Natalie spent nearly four years on the stage as a dancer before turning her attention to films.

Her films after the Tarzan series marked a decline in offers for dramatic parts. She played a gangster’s moll in “The Last of the Duanes” (1930), but that same year she found herself back on the Sennett lot in an uncredited “girlfriend” part in “The Chumps” (1930).

Unlike many of her colleagues, such as Sally Rand who spoke with a lisp, Kingston did not struggle with sound in the late 1920s. She had a strong screen presence and a voice to match. She continued free-lancing by working for Sennett on comedies and the occasional dramatic role for Universal. Yet she never gained enough traction to propel her career as a dramatic actress in the 1930s.

The Hollywood trade publications often published items touting her dancing skills and the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers named her WAMPAS Star of 1927 to give her a career boost. But many WAMPAS stars saw their careers fizzle in the aftermath of the publicity.

As a WAMPAS star, Natalie was required to pose for publicity photos in race cars she likely would have no interest in driving, including this 1927 Jackman Special.

As a WAMPAS star, Natalie was required to pose for publicity photos in race cars she likely would have no interest in driving, including this 1927 Jackman Special.

Kingston and fellow 1927 WAMPAS stars Martha Sleeper and Barbara Kent managed steady employment in the 1920s only to see roles dry up by the mid-1930s. Other 1927 WAMPAS alumni – Sally Phipps, Patricia Avery, Mary McAllister, Gladys McConnell and Sally Rand – could never manage to get their careers off the ground. With the exception of Rand, who was hugely popular as a fan dancer, the others fell into obscurity.

Natalie Kingston as a blonde in about 1927.

Natalie Kingston as a blonde in about 1927.

Perhaps recognizing as early as 1928 that acting was not in her future, Kingston took real estate law classes to better manage her property holdings. The same year she married George Andersch, a real estate broker, banker, and later a mining engineer with extensive mining leases in the Mojave Desert.

Following an uncredited part in Universal’s “Only Yesterday,” which was released on Nov. 1, 1933, Kingston retired from films. She never returned to moviemaking, preferring to live quietly with her husband in West Hills, a Los Angeles suburb. She died on Feb. 2, 1991.

Natalie during her early career as a screen actress.

Natalie during her early career as a screen actress.

Natalie Kingston Internet Movie Database Biography

SOURCES:

San Francisco Call, July 31, 1913
Bismarck Tribune, May 27, 1920
New York Tribune, Sept. 26, 1920
Washington Herald, Nov. 5, 1920
Variety, Jan. 21, 1921
Variety, May 13, 1921
Variety, July 29, 1921
Variety, Dec. 6, 1921
San Francisco Chronicle, July 14, 1923
San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 1923
San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 1923
Variety, Jan. 24, 1924
Picture-Play Magazine, March 1925
San Francisco News Letter, Aug. 8, 1925
Variety, December 1925
Variety, June 23, 1926
Motion Picture News, July 27, 1926
The Kingsport (Tenn.) Times, Jan 9, 1927
Motion Picture News, Jan. 27, 1927
Motion Picture News, June 10, 1927
Motion Picture Classic, November 1928
Hollywood Filmograph, July 26, 1930
Motion Picture News, July 27, 1930
Variety, Nov. 29, 1932
Monterey Peninsula Herald, Nov. 3, 1989

“California Journal of Mines and Geology, Quarterly Chapter of State Mineralogist Report, XXXVI”
“Strong Wine: The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy” by Brian McGinty (Stanford University Press), 1998
“History of San Fernando Valley” by Frank McCleunan Keffer (Stillman Print Co.), 1934
Natalie Ringstrom, ancestry.com (accessed Oct. 1, 2014)
RootsWeb’s World Connect Project (accessed Oct. 1, 2014)
FanhconandMarco.com (accessed Oct. 2, 2014)
StreetSwing.com (accessed, Oct. 2, 2014)

The Short and Frenetic Life of Harry Sweet

Harry Sweet, the comedic actor, director and early innovator of the “slow burn” comedy routines that made performers like Edgar Kennedy eagerly sought for film shorts, had a career that could have achieved greatness if he hadn’t died tragically in a plane crash at the age of 32.

He rarely paused for a moment’s rest, appearing in front or behind the camera in more than 150 films over a 14-year period. He was a man on a mission to learn his craft, and the studios he worked for rewarded him with more assignments and more responsibilities. It was a frenetic pace made especially arduous given that many of his co-stars in his early films were animals not known for their cooperative nature.

Today, as much as 95 percent of Sweet’s films have been lost, denying cinema scholars the ability to accurately assess his body of work. But during his time, there was little doubt among his contemporaries that given half the chance and a healthy film budget, he may have rivaled some of the greats of the silent era.

Harry Sweet early in his career.

Harry Sweet early in his career. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Harry Sweet was born Harry Swett on Oct. 2, 1901. His father, Don Alvo Swett, was a New Englander, and his mother, Jane Alexander, had emigrated from Ireland to the United States. The family lived in Teller County, Colorado, where his father was a postal worker. Sweet had one sister, Glencora, who was eight years younger.

The Swett family moved to Reno, Nevada, in 1912, and Jane Swett died there in 1915 at the age of 50. Although Harry’s father would later move to Los Angeles, the three remained in Reno at least until 1918 where Harry and his sister attended local schools

While in high school, Harry worked in local movie houses and gained experience as a motion picture projectionist. By the time he left school, he was also a skilled acrobatic performer. Whether he belonged to an acrobatic company is unknown. But following his high school graduation, he traveled to Hollywood and immediately found a job at L-KO Kompany, a small film studio lot under the umbrella of Universal Studios that had been specializing in one- and two-reeler short comedies since 1914.

Keystone Kops veteran director Henry “Pathé” Lehrman founded L-KO after a falling out with Ford Sterling after Lehrman and Sterling formed Sterling Comedies at Universal. Instead of leaving Universal, Lehrman formed L-KO. It was never a top tier comedy studio to match Mack Sennett or Hal Roach, but it did produce a steady stream of quality films, including several shorts from Charley Chase.

Sweet arrived in Hollywood in 1919 when the Spanish influenza epidemic was still raging through California. It hit the actors and film crews hard at L-KO lot and Universal shut it down as a precautionary measure. Sweet managed to appear in L-KO’s last film, “The Oriental Romeo” featuring Chai Hong and directed by Jess Robins.

Sweet moved seamlessly over to Century Films, which produced the Baby Peggy and Brownie the Wonder Dog comedy two-reelers along with other animal shorts that included the “Century Lions” and the “Century Dogs.” Sweet would polish his acting chops on the Century Lions and Brownie films under the direction of Fred Hibbard and Tom Buckingham.

While Sweet regularly appeared opposite the Century animals, the studio was also eager to promote Sweet on his own merits. In 1921, Sweet signed a two-year contract with Century to star in a series of shorts. The studio announced in June that 18 new two-reelers would feature Sweet in lead roles to complement 18 Brownie shorts. Century rounded out the schedule with 16 comedies for Charles Dorety, who also spent considerable screen time opposite the Century animals.

Harry Sweet with Brownie the Wonder Dog and actress Louise Lorraine while working for Century Films.

Harry Sweet with Brownie the Wonder Dog and actress Louise Lorraine while working for Century Films. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Sweet was immensely popular on the set. Gloria Morgan, who would become Sweet’s script supervisor when he was with RKO toward the end of his life, described him as “a very gentle, funny man with a delicious sense of humor.” Directors wanted him for his acrobatic skills and his insistence that he work without a stunt double. He was often cast as a rube living in rural America. He allowed his routines to slowly build to a huge climax that required physical agility in often dangerous and elaborate finales. Through the 1920s, he gained weight, although it didn’t hinder his ability to construct comedy routines demanding stunt gags.

In the spring of 1924, Sweet jumped from Century to Mack Sennett. Richard Jones, the supervising director for Sennett, may have had Sweet in mind to direct rather than star in films on the Sennett lot. Whether that was a promise Jones made to Sweet before he joined Sennett or came about later is unclear. However, almost immediately Jones suggested that Sweet could direct Sennett comedy stars better than directors who didn’t have the acting experience in front of the camera.

Sweet’s only previous directing experience was “What! No Spinach?” for the Standard Photoplay Company in 1920. Yet Jones was confident of the actor’s ability and gave him the Ben Turpin vehicle “Romeo and Juliet” (1924) and “The First 100 Years” with Harry Langdon and Alice Day. Both films proved to be hits.

The Sennett lot gave Sweet the latitude to perfect his comedic timing and helped him gain experience in dealing with a wide range of actors from Langdon to Natalie Kingston and Madeline Hurlock.

But since Sennett comedies adhered to a formula, Sweet wanted to experiment with the use of camera angles and editing to provide a fresh perspective to his films.

In March 1928, he produced “Rhythms of a Great City in Minor.” The film had a budget of only $164 ($2,281 in 2014 dollars) and was limited to less than one reel at about 850 feet. Sweet rounded up his actor and production crew friends that included Arthur Houseman, Charles Puffy, Lydia Yeamans Titus, Leslie Fenton, Betty Davis and Max Wagner. Davis was an occasional actor and film editor and likely helped Sweet edit the footage. Sweet also made an appearance in the film.

Harry, center wearing a white hat, on location with actor Charles Puffy, left foreground.

Harry, center wearing a white hat, on location with actor Charles Puffy, left foreground.

The short is an early example of guerrilla filmmaking, shooting footage without city permits on busy streets, atop transit buses and in alleyways. It also made extensive use of jump cuts. The film contained four stories, with a series of short jump cuts and tilted angles leading into the first story.

Sweet showed the film privately to impresario Sid Grauman, founder of the Egyptian and Chinese theaters. Grauman was sufficiently impressed to give his own private screening to Charlie Chaplin. The film never played outside Los Angeles and no copies are known to have survived. But it serves as an early example of Sweet’s determination to break outside the confines of conventional two-reel comedies.

Unlike many silent film actors and directors, Sweet successfully made the transition to talkies. A significant career move occurred in 1930 when he was tapped to run RKO’s short subject department. At the time FBO, Pathé and Radio Pictures were merging together to become RKO.

Harry Sweet, second from left, in the Century comedy Horse Sense with actress Alberta Vaughn, center. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Harry Sweet, second from left, in the Century comedy Horse Sense with actress Alberta Vaughn, center. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Sweet’s first project was to transform Edgar Kennedy from playing second fiddle to Charley Chase and other big comedy stars of the day to a headliner. Kennedy was the master of the “slow burn” routine as the indignities would pile up and an exasperated Kennedy would attempt to hold his temper until he exploded. Sweet helped Kennedy develop the routine and exploit it in Kennedy’s “Mr. Average Man” series.

RKO released the first “Mr. Average Man” film, “Lemon Meringue,” on Aug. 3, 1931, that also featured Dot Farley, who would remain in the cast as “mother” through 1948. Sweet also directed a pair of “Whoopie Comedies” with Kennedy and Florence Lake. “Rough House Rhythm” was released in April 1931 and “All Gummed Up” followed a month later.

Sweet signed a new contract with RKO in March 1933 for another year as short subject director and to star in comedies.

Edgar Kennedy, left, with Harry Sweet in about 1931. (Photo courtesy Dennis Atkinson)

Edgar Kennedy, left, with Harry Sweet in about 1931. (Photo courtesy Dennis Atkinson)

On the afternoon of June 18, 1933, Sweet took screenwriter Howard “Hal” Davitt and Vera Williams, a 20-year-old bit player acting under the name of Claudette Ford and an acquaintance of Sweet, in his private plane to scout filming locations near Big Bear Lake. Sweet was an experienced pilot, who had flown single-engine airplanes for most of his adult life. He often flew goodwill and charity runs. His last goodwill flight was a trip in 1932 from Los Angeles to his old hometown Reno, where he visited old friends.

The trio left Glendale Airfield and landed at Big Bear airport where Sweet had hoped to meet a friend. When the friend failed to show up Sweet decided to fly over the lake.

Shortly before dusk at about 7:15 p.m., Sweet was at the controls and flying about 40 feet above the water. The engine failed and the aircraft plunged into the lake in about 20 feet of water. The plane was submerged except for the tail with its identification number visible.

About 50 men volunteered to recover the bodies and aircraft while the Department of Commerce identified the plane and Sweet as its owner from the serial number.

As darkness fell, the recovery operation halted, and resumed in the morning of June 19. An inquest held the same day determined that Sweet was the pilot. The rescue team pulled the bodies from the wreckage and autopsies determined that Davitt and Williams died from fractured skulls and Sweet had drowned. All three were found wedged at the front of the cockpit.

Williams’ body was returned to her father, George Hallar, in Toledo, Ohio, and Pierce Brothers Mortuary in Los Angeles took possession of Sweet’s body. Davitt’s mother in Boone, Iowa, was also notified.

“Good Housewrecking” with Kennedy was Sweet’s last film, which was released two days before the director died. Producer Lou Brock took over the “Mr. Average Man” series and supervised it for many years.

The limited budgets, length and often-formulaic nature of comedy short subjects made such films the redheaded stepchild of the film industry, especially at the larger studios. Appreciation for the genre didn’t occur until television began broadcasting episodes beginning in the 1960s. Had more of Sweet’s work survived, and perhaps surviving to see the “Mr. Average Man” series through to its end in 1948, he may have earned the same comedic acclamation as Edgar Kennedy, Laurel and Hardy and other kings of comedy short films.

Harry Sweet Internet Movie Database Biography

SOURCES:

The Film Daily, April 13, 1921
The Film Daily, April 22, 1921
The Film Daily, May 12, 1921
Exhibitors Herald, Oct. 22, 1921
Exhibitors Trade Review, Jan. 7, 1922
Exhibitors Herald, June 25, 1921
Exhibitors Herald, Sept. 10, 1921
Exhibitors Trade Review, Oct. 8, 1921
Exhibitors Herald, Nov. 4, 1921
Variety, April 12, 1924
Motion Picture News, Jan 27, 1927
Picture-Play Magazine, June 1928
The Film Daily, May 17, 1932
Motion Picture Daily, May 17, 1932
San Bernardino Sun, June 19, 1933
Oakland Tribune, June 19 1933
Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio), June 20, 1933
The Film Daily, June 21, 1933
Nevada State Journal, June 21, 1933
Café Roxy (accessed Sept. 9 2014)
“The Great Movie Shorts” by Leonard Maltin (Crown), 1972
Harry Swett, Ancestry.com