Friday, September 6, 2013

Mary MacLane: A Correct Reflection of a Peculiar Woman

mary maclane

Mary MacLane had been causing a stir for nearly 20 years by the time she joined the ranks at Essanay, and the sensation she caused helped bring the studio new attention. Unfortunately, the product of their partnership has been lost to time.

MacLane startled readers and publishers alike when she published her diary in 1902 at the age of 19. Her honesty about her love life and experiences intrigued and astounded readers and critics alike. As one newspaper wrote of “The Story of Mary MacLane,” “she ran the gamut of egoism and penitence. She was, according to her, the most beautiful as well as the ugliest girl in the world and on that range of arpeggios she strummed her symphony of life and its overtones.”

But after a while, MacLane’s popularity waned. She occasionally made headlines due to her eccentric and often erratic behavior. On at least one occasion, she disappeared without a trace, only to resurface days later. For the most part, though, she failed to do anything considered newsworthy. Then, in 1917, she published “I, Mary MacLane” and found herself back in the spotlight, and back in demand. Seeing an opportunity, Essanay co-founder George K. Spoor approached MacLane with the idea of turning some of her memoirs and life story into a film.

Mary MacLane with director Arthur Berthelet
Mary MacLane with director Arthur Berthelet

It seemed a natural fit. MacLane’s memoirs already read like a vamp’s tale, and she had a great deal of publicity and controversy already surrounding her. As she detailed in an essay for Photoplay, her new role sounded like one she had simply fallen into: “Without effort, without volition, without, in short, wanting to, I -- I have become a ‘film star.’” MacLane agreed to the project and the seeds of “Men Who Have Made Love to Me” were planted. In December of 1917, Essanay announced it had secured MacLane as its next star, and emphasized the fact that no expense would be spared during the filming. Under Arthur Berthelet’s direction, the luxurious apartments described in her affairs would be recreated in painstaking detail, and MacLane herself would be dressed in the most beautiful gowns (no doubt, a decision intended to bring more women to the theaters, much like the tactic the studio employed with “The Strange Case of Mary Page”). Not only that, Spoor would expand his usual marketing plan to reflect this “ultra feature.” He rented billboards in more than 20 cities across the country, sent special sheets to national newspapers and magazines, and even outfitted Chicago buses with placards advertising the film.

But upon its release in February of 1918, the film got mixed reviews. Some critics noted that it was a “correct reflection of the peculiar woman” and that it would satisfy viewers’ curiosity about MacLane, but they were sure to emphasize that it “adds nothing to to the artistic achievement of pictures.” Motion Picture Magazine referred to it as a “visualized diary” and a “Hooverized love-feast” but “not dramatic entertainment.”

Mary MacLane
Scene from "Men Who Have Made Love to Me"

In fact, the film, which followed six of MacLane’s affairs, wasn’t as scandalous as MacLane’s works had been, or current vamp films starring the likes of Theda Bara were. Some critics even said it was prudish compared to popular vamps of the screen. Although the film itself may not have been much to write home about, MacLane’s erratic behavior certainly was. While the film was still in theaters, MacLane once again disappeared, leaving behind only a few belongings in her hotel room. She reappeared days later and revealed that she had checked into another hotel room under an assumed name. She had wanted to get away from the media attention and cover the “financial embarrassment” she felt (she was prone to overspending and her addiction to luxury caused her to lose money as quickly as she earned it).

MacLane was almost entirely out of the spotlight when she was arrested at her Chicago home in July of 1919. Alla Ripley, a designer, brought charges against MacLane after the gowns she designed for "Men Who Have Made Love to Me" disappeared without being paid for. At the time she was arrested, the papers said she only had 85 cents to her name.

Mary MacLane

MacLane never returned to the screen, and a decade later was found dead in her Chicago hotel room at the age of 48. She was penniless, and had succumbed to tuberculosis, a disease that had also claimed Marie Bashkirtseff -- a French writer to whom MacLane was often compared. Although MacLane’s published works have lived on and have been reprinted for new generations, the film, like so many other Essanay works, is considered lost.

Mary MacLane

Explore other Essanay stars through past blog posts, or take a quick look at the history of film in Chicago here.