Arts and Leisure

Hettie Gray Baker Rescues Fox Movies from Box Office Disaster

Hettie Gray Baker was a little-known writer for silent films in 1915 when movie producer William Fox hired acclaimed director Herbert Brenon and shipped him to Jamaica to create a spectacle like nothing ever seen before. Brenon and Fox were famous for their differing views of filmmaking.

Hettie Gray Baker editing film.

Hettie Gray Baker editing film.

“The scenario is the basis for all good pictures. The collective brain that first conceives the story knows more about the story than anyone else can possibly know,” Fox wrote.

Brenon, meanwhile, favored a looser adherence to the planned script of a film.

“I never feel compelled to follow the scenario exactly – in fact, I never do. A director who does is apt to become a mere machine. Sometimes, in fact, my finished picture bears little resemblance to the original scenario, so far have I wandered away with ideas of my own.”

Brenon indeed wandered far in Jamaica. He constructed wild sets, including a Moorish city as a backdrop that went up in flames in the final scene of the film; he used crocodiles and camels were brought in from Connecticut where they were part of a circus for one short scene. He built a gnome village, using local children to play gnomes, and massive amounts of mosquito netting was required to control the insects. He employed more than 10,000 extras.

Annette Kellerman in the suit that got her arrested.

Annette Kellerman in the suit that got her arrested.

Part of the buildup was Hollywood hype. But not all. After a year in the Jamaican jungle, Brenon had spent more than $1 million (the first time in history so much was spent on a movie).  Fox was furious when he saw what Brenon had returned with.

It was not so much a story as a collection of fantastic scenes of sheiks and princes and sultans, replete with harems and eunichs, with the land of gnomes and a witch thrown in and exotic waterfalls. But it also had Annette Kellerman, the beautiful swimmer and diver from Australia who was famous – and not just for her swimming.

Kellerman made headlines when she visited Boston in 1907 and was arrested at Revere Beach for swimming in a one-piece bathing suit. Great indignation and the Kellerman line of swimsuits resulted.

She topped herself in Brenon’s film, A Daughter of the Gods, giving Fox one of the earliest nude scenes ever filmed – if he could somehow get it into shape to put on a screen.

Annette Kellerman in A Daughter of the Gods.

Annette Kellerman in A Daughter of the Gods.

Fox turned to Hartford’s Hettie Gray Baker for help. Baker, like many pioneers of the film industry, didn’t start in the business. Born in 1881, she was a Simmons College educated librarian who worked at the Hartford Public Library, a school for social workers in Boston and then as a law librarian for the Hartford Bar Association.

She began writing scenarios for the silent films in her 20s. She mailed them off, had them rejected, slipped them into another envelope and tried another studio. She tried hundreds of different scenarios and finally, in 1907, she sold one to Vitagraph for $20.

Six months later, she sold another. The pace of her work picked up and she moved to California. “I sometimes think I was too dull to think of giving up. It just never did occur to me,” she explained years later.

In California Baker was getting a reputation as a sharp thinker with a light touch. She believed the words that flashed on the screen in the old silent movies shouldn’t tell the story, they should set up the viewer so she would anticipate the coming scene.

A_Daughter_of_the_Gods posterHer deft hand was what convinced Fox to summon her back to New York, and he put his $1 million investment into the hands of a relatively untested editor – and a woman at that.

Fox’s intuition paid off. Baker turned the project around and it launched in theaters to largely critical success. Though the critics were baffled by the story, the spectacle of the movie kept audiences entranced as Annette Kellerman, who would later write the book Physical Beauty and How to Keep It, danced for the Sultan and dove 100 feet off a tower into the ocean to save herself. Along the way she tastefully revealed her spectacular body for theater goers.

Baker believed that when her name, as H.G. Baker, appeared in the film’s credits it was the first time a woman film editor was ever acknowledged.

A Daughter of the Gods helped grow Kellerman’s fame, and she went on to make several more films, including Queen of the Sea, which filmed in Bar Harbor where Kellerman caused considerable stir working in her trademark mermaid costume.

A Daughter of the Gods marked a complete breakdown in Brenon and Fox’s relationship. Fox tried to strip Brenon’s name from the final release of the film, and Brenon sued to have it restored. More lawsuits followed with the two bickering over rights and contracts.

As for Baker, her career was launched. Baker was credited with editing and writing more than 20 films, though much of her work was uncredited. She helped bringing Jack London’s novels to the screen, among others.

She worked for Fox for many years, spent much of the latter part of her career representing the company before the state board of censors, getting films approved for showing.

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