William Desmond Taylor is remembered today more for his unsolved murder in 1922, and the sordid revelations about his private life that followed, than for his once admired film career. So it might come as a surprise to many that this Irish-born director made three well-received films about Mark Twain’s all-American boys, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But this trilogy was not all he accomplished.
Taylor directed 40 feature films in seven years. His prolific output did not include epics themes, but that wasn’t his intent; he was interested in the intimate moments of the human condition. He believed, above all, in giving his writers the time to work on those details until the script was ready to shoot. In one of his few public statements about his work, published in the Exhibitors Trade Review in 1920, he said: “I have always held that a poor story is a waste of time.” One writer who fulfilled his trust time and again was Julia Crawford Ivers, who wrote scenarios for 23 of his films, including Taylor’s set of films based on the Mark Twain books.
Ivers was a pioneering director and a writer. Few details about her life have been recorded because she shied away from any kind of publicity, even more so than Taylor did. Ivers was already wealthy when she entered the film business, the widow of oil and land baron Oliver Ivers who had died in 1902. Her late husband and Frank Garbutt had been business partners, but it was Garbutt who saw new opportunities in the movie business, investing in Bosworth Incorporated in 1913 and the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company in 1914. When Garbutt formed Pallas Pictures in 1915, Julia Ivers joined the business, too, writing scenarios for all three companies. When Paramount became the distributor for Morosco and Pallas in 1916, Garbutt took on a powerful position behind the scenes at Paramount.
William D. Taylor eventually became an important director at Paramount, but his first job in the movies was as an actor for producer and director Thomas Ince in 1913. Taylor began directing in 1914 with the Balboa Amusement Company, and his breakthrough work came at the American Film Company in Santa Barbara, where he took over and finished the popular 30-episode serial The Diamond from the Sky (1915). Taylor left for Pallas Pictures in October 1915 and directed He Fell in Love with His Wife (1916), his first collaboration with writer Ivers.
From 1916 to 1918, Taylor worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, among them Mary and Jack Pickford, William and Dustin Farnum, Wallace Reid, and Constance Talmadge. While averaging seven films a year, Taylor had his share of flops, but the critics also recognized his talent. Photoplay praised The Parson of Panamint (1916), with Dustin Farnum, noting that Peter B. Kyne’s “novel and its characterizations, were very well preserved.” A critic for Exhibitors Trade Review wrote that The Varmint (1917), with Jack Pickford, was “[b]rimming over with human interest. Clean, wholesome and entertaining.” Variety pegged Tom Sawyer (1917) as “class, wholesome amusement [that] will never grow old.” Photoplay singled out director Taylor in Up the Road with Sallie (1918), which starred Constance Talmadge: “Mr. Taylor has the real comedy sense.” Taylor may have stumbled with his first film starring Mary Pickford, How Could You, Jean? (1918)—which prompted a lament by one critic, “How Could You, Mary?”—but he bounced back with his second, Johanna Enlists (1918), proclaimed by Variety “as attractive, refreshing, and original a picture as one would care to see.”
World War One halted Taylor’s film career, when he enlisted in the British Army, serving from July 1918 to May 1919. Presumably, by the time he left the service, Julia Crawford Ivers had already finished the scenario for Huckleberry Finn, because it was immediately ready to go into production as Taylor’s first postwar film. No major stars were slated for this film. Although Jack Pickford had played the title role in Taylor’s Tom Sawyer (1917) and Huck and Tom (1918), he had outgrown the part. Taylor was given a free hand in casting roles to match the personalities conjured in Twain’s prose. To play Huck Finn, Taylor chose Lewis Sargent, a 15-year-old Los Angeles native with several films to his credit. Edythe Chapman reprised her role as Aunt Polly; she was the only actor to repeat her role from the first two films. Seasoned character actors filled most of the other roles. Notable among these talents was George Reed, who played Jim the slave.
Reed was born in Macon, Georgia, just a year after the Civil War ended. He grew up in the Deep South and became a stage actor in the 1890s. He spent 35 years working in films, playing the parts generally available to him—waiters, porters, butlers, and convicts. From 1939 to 1942, he had a continuing role in MGM’s Dr. Kildare series, as the attendant pushing Dr. Gillespie’s wheelchair. Reed retired from films in 1947, just as a young actor named Sidney Poitier entered movies, eventually opening doors for other black actors.
Huckleberry Finn’s Jim was probably the most important role of Reed’s career, and that says something about director Taylor’s decision to cast him, especially in an age when many black roles in film were performed by white men in blackface. Walter Long in the role of Gus, the black soldier who pursues Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915), is perhaps the most notorious example. There are countless others.
After Huckleberry Finn was released on February 29, 1920, speculation abounded that Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, was used as a location. Paramount did not deny it, as it enhanced publicity. In reality, however, Taylor stayed closer to home, letting the Sacramento River stand in for the Mississippi, just as he had done in Tom Sawyer and Huck and Tom.
The Huckleberry Finn cast and crew of 37 people arrived in Rio Vista, northeast of San Francisco, on June 2, 1919, for the river scenes. The local newspaper, Rio Vista Banner, didn’t make a fuss over the film company’s presence in town beyond a first-page article ten days into the shoot. This low-key coverage was a reflection of Taylor’s work ethic. He was intent on making his film as quickly and efficiently as possible, not generating publicity for himself.
After 12 days in Rio Vista, the company moved 35 miles south to Pleasanton for more location work. Most of the filming in Pleasanton occurred at the same location used in the Tom Sawyer films. They were in Pleasanton for about a week before returning to Los Angeles to complete the movie.
Taylor finished work on Huckleberry Finn and left Los Angeles on July 12 for New York to begin preparations for his first film with Mary Miles Minter, Anne of Green Gables (1919). Despite delays in production, the Minter film was released before Huckleberry Finn. It marked a new phase in Taylor’s career, one that linked Minter and Taylor together forever in the scandal that ruined them both.
In a Los Angeles Examiner interview days after Taylor’s murder, Mary Pickford called him, “the most patient man I ever knew.” Douglas Fairbanks added: “We all knew him as a gentleman of whom the film industry might well be proud.” Perhaps as Taylor’s films once again become available, his true gifts will come to light.
Preceded by outtakes from the orphan films: Mrs. Harding, “Cameraman”? (1922) and Coolidge Trapshooting (1928)
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Donald Sosin on grand piano