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Happy New Year

Christopher DiGrazia
03 January 2017

And here it is 2017. No, no new book yet. For any of you reading this (and are you? Why not write me so I don’t feel quite so alone), I wish you all the best in hopes and dreams for the year. May it be wonderful for all of us.

Now, with that out of the way, here’s a little New Year’s gift I dug up a couple of weeks ago.

These days, we’re all familiar with books that have “Now A Major Motion Picture!” stickers slapped on to them. And sometimes, a popular movie that didn’t start life out as a book has a novelization churned out by some generally unknown writer for hire. In fact, as I write this, I’m looking at novelized versions of the Bond movie Moonraker and Star Trek VI sitting on my bookshelf.

The silent days were no different. Popular books were turned into movies – Erich von Stroheim’s legendary Greed started life as the novel McTeague and Theda Bara’s own A Fool There Was started life as a play of the same name before being turned into a potboiler novel and then, at last, to our lady’s film.

But not every movie could get the bound-between-covers treatment, not with dozens of them being churned out by the studios every week. And sometimes, if you happened to be poor Emily Whoozat from East Stinkbug, Wisconsin, you might not even get to see your favorite star’s latest movie.

That’s where the fan magazines stepped in. Publications such as Motion Picture Story Magazine (later to be called simply Motion Picture Magazine) would present, in each issue, one or more of the most popular movies of the month in short story form, based on screenplays provided by the studios. So even if you couldn’t get out to the nearest Rialto or Gem or Bijou, you could still keep up to date on the latest flicks.

And that’s where my gift comes in. January of 1916 saw Theda starting the year with The Serpent. Based on an unpublished story called “The Wolf’s Claw,” director Raoul Walsh adapted it into six reels of lust and betrayal set in Tsarist Russia. Motion Picture Magazine staff writer Norman Bruce adapted the Walsh screenplay into a 10-page tale for stay-at-home readers, and here it is for you to enjoy:

The Serpent was a success, even if reviews were mixed. But, as with nearly every Theda Bara movie, there was a little controversy. You’ll note that, at the end of the movie, Vania has driven poor Prince Valanoff to suicide and caused the Grand Duke to collapse and die through her vengeful machinations. “Good for her,” you might think, considering the wicked Grand Duke had seduced and abandoned her, but the censors didn’t think so. Yes, Vania did have cause to be angry, but even still, she was a wicked woman and the movie couldn’t end with her triumph. It just wouldn’t do. The New York board of censors, in fact, refused to allow The Serpent to play in the Empire State at all until Walsh and our Theda trudged back to Fort Lee, stood in front of the cameras again and filmed an alternate ending. Now, rather than emoting, “It is the venom of the serpent’s sting!” and sweeping out, little Vania sneers her exit line and closes the door. . .

. . .only to fall out of bed and realize it was all a dream! Yes, even in 1916, that was a cliché. It satisfied the censors, though, and that was all that counted. Not that Theda had much time to worry; by the time Walsh called “cut!” on the new ending, she was already hip-deep in preproduction for Gold and the Woman, which was scheduled for a March release.

I hope you enjoyed that.