A magic lantern slide for A Twilight Baby, Virginia Rappe’s only star billing

As we have been writing and editing our work-in-progress on Virginia Rappe and Roscoe Arbuckle, our blog entries have been fewer in number but hardly pushed aside. We were recently alerted to the object depicted below, an artifact from a critical turning point in the life of Virginia Rappe.

Glass slide advertisement for A Twilight Baby (Authors’ collection)

Of course, many things we do and decisions we make can be regarded as turning points. It’s called the “butterfly effect.” What immediately comes to mind is Rappe’s decision, during a late breakfast in the Garden Room of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, to accept Roscoe Arbuckle’s invitation to join his Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel. A decision that began a chain of events that led to her death several days later. The artifact described here represents an earlier turning point but also one that put her on the path to the ill-fated Labor Day party.

The ”artifact” in question is a specially prepared glass slide by the Excelsior Illustrating Co. obtained from a film memorabilia dealer in Australia. Typically, before the current feature and the comedy short or newsreel, the projectionist used a patented slide projector or “magic lantern” to advertise the upcoming features. In this case, it was A Twilight Baby, which premiered during the Christmas 1919 holiday, and had its run during the winter and spring of 1920. The art is by the comic book artist R. M. Brinkerhoff.

A Twilight Baby is one of the only films Henry Lehrman made at his Culver City studio, which he shared with Roscoe Arbuckle during the spring, summer, and autumn of 1919. Arbuckle made The Hayseed (1919) and The Garage (1920) there. He also enjoyed the platonic company of Virginia Rappe, who was Lehrman’s mistress at the time.

Contrary to other Arbuckle case narratives, Rappe didn’t consider herself a full-time motion picture actress. She was regarded by others as a Hollywood “society woman” though a member of the film colony “in crowd”. She preferred to model clothes. But even this vocation had become a sideline. She was literally “kept” by Lehrman, and perhaps as a small quid pro quo she was willing to lend herself to his over-the-top physical comedies.

In 1919, Lehrman planned to make an ambitious, four-reel comedy (later cut to three to appease exhibitors), his first produced on his new Culver City lot which began operating that summer. He enlisted comic actor Lloyd “Ham” Hamilton for A Twilight Baby. Lehrman envisioned a masterpiece, that would raise his profile to that of protégés, such as Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin.

Hamilton was a popular but second-tier actor in a bowler hat who also aspired to the fame and wealth of Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. He had appeared in a previous Lehrman comedy, His Musical Sneeze, made for Fox Film Corporation in late 1918. Virginia Rappe also appeared in that film though there wasn’t much onscreen interaction between the two. That changed with A Twilight Baby.

Rappe had acted in a handful of motion pictures before, including her first, Paradise Garden (1917), in which she played a vamp. She also appeared alongside Rudolph Valentino in a 1918 war propaganda film-turned-comedy retitled The Isle of Love. But she likely did these out of curiosity or even for a bit of fun rather than ambition. And during the making of both films, she was in a relationship with Lehrman.

Rappe had met Lehrman no later than the spring of 1916, upon her arrival in Los Angeles and when he was at his most productive churning out slapstick two-reelers. Had she wanted to be a comedienne, he could have done that for her early on. It wasn’t until he broke with Fox a few years later that Lehrman made an obvious effort to boost Rappe’s film career.

Color-tinted lobby card (IMDb)

We say that because Lehrman had so overextended himself in 1919 and 1920 that he may used Rappe to save money. That is, he was making good on his investment in her. And Lehrman was clearly cutting costs at that time. Before he went bankrupt in late 1920, he reincorporated his company and had his accountant and “office girl” doing double-duty as directors.

Now, back to the butterfly effect. A Twilight Baby was a strange film with a strange title. The term itself seems to be original and not a reference to slang or jargon of that era. We suspect Lehrman was alluding to newborns whose mothers had taken sedatives to ease their labor. “Ham” Hamilton is the titular baby whose birth, however, was from a saxophone played by a woebegone jazz musician at sunset. As to the plot, let’s just say Hamilton is an ex-con bootlegger who finds himself at odds with a variety of characters, from outlaws to federal agents to what look like nightriders. Hamilton’s love interest is Rappe, made to look like a healthy farmer’s daughter, a part for which she may have gained weight or exploited the pounds she had gained as a society girl-turned-actress, as she was billed in publicity literature.

Trade magazine advertisement with art by R. M. Brinkerhoff (Moving Picture World)

Given the number of animals used, the elaborate stunts undertaken, the use of expensive special effects, the publicity, the costs of running the Culver City plant, and the poor return on the few productions he eked out, Lehrman’s attempt to be an independent comedy filmmaker failed in late 1920. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of this, he and Rappe began to part ways for she was a luxury he could no longer afford.

By July 1921, Henry Lehrman left Los Angeles to work under contract for Lewis J. Selznick at Ft. Lee, New Jersey, and Rappe found her own manager. She now faced either the harsh reality of surviving as an actress or finding a suitable replacement for Lehrman. (More information and images can be found at IMDb.)