Emory Johnson entered the film business strictly by chance exactly 100 years ago. While a sophomore studying architecture at the University of California in Berkeley, he took a drive through Niles Canyon and came upon a curious sight: a gang of cowboys on horseback firing their guns at a stagecoach. It was the Essanay Film Company making one of their famous Broncho Billy westerns. The captivated Johnson pleaded for a job and was thrilled when Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson offered to hire him for eight dollars a week assisting the cameraman. Within a short time, Johnson stepped in front of the camera to act in dozens of films.
Johnson’s enthusiasm spread to his mother, Emilie Johnson, and her friend, Sadie Lindblom, who decided to produce movies in San Mateo, California, in 1914. The two women pooled their $8,000 savings and rented a warehouse at 312 Fifth Avenue. Emilie wrote scenarios, and as the Liberty Film Company they completed several movies. However, their releasing agent, the Kriterion Film Service, went bankrupt and left the company $40,000 in debt. The company struggled on with a new distributor for a year, but Emory had already left for Hollywood and was hired by Universal Film Company where met Hobart Bosworth, a noted actor and director, who mentored him for the next few years.
From 1917 to 1921, Johnson acted opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, among them Mary Pickford, Bebe Daniels, Betty Compson, Constance Talmadge, Bessie Love, and Wallace Reid. He married Ella Hall, an actress who started in films with Biograph at the age of 15 and then became a popular actress at Universal.
Johnson’s career took a new direction in 1921. He had just finished Prisoners of Love (1921) with Ralph Lewis, another distinguished veteran actor, and returned to the San Francisco Bay Area for The Sea Lion (1921), starring Hobart Bosworth, from a story written by Johnson’s mother. While driving down Market Street on his way to visit her, Johnson failed to stop at an intersection and was pulled over. He noticed the policeman’s cheerful attitude and became curious about the man’s life and how it affected his work. Johnson talked about the incident with his mother and she wrote a story that became 1922’s In the Name of the Law, the first feature of Emory Johnson Productions, about a police officer and his troubled family.
The film proved to be a hit and led to The Third Alarm (1922), with Ralph Lewis as an old fireman struggling to master the transition from horse-drawn vehicles to new motorized technology. The movie was even more profitable than the last and four more successes followed, including Life’s Greatest Game (1924), which featured the sinking of the Titanic and a World Series baseball scandal.
With The Last Edition (1925), Johnson returned to his working-man theme. A behind-the-scenes look at a newspaper, it was filmed on location at the San Francisco Chronicle. Ralph Lewis took the pivotal role as a pressman running one of the big machines that churn out a seemingly endless line of finished newsprint. Most newspaper-themed films before and since The Last Edition have concentrated on crusading or investigative reporters pursuing the big story, but few have shown the physical process of getting out a newspaper in such detail. The film was especially popular with news reporters who knew fact from fiction. A reviewer for the New York Morning Telegraph summed up the general opinion best, saying that it “has the merit, uncommon in most newspaper pictures, of being accurate in every detail. It is the best picture he [Johnson] has made and may be called a box-office success.”
Johnson remained in San Francisco for his next production, The Non-Stop Flight (1926), based on a failed attempt by U.S. Naval aviators to fly from San Francisco to Honolulu. Like other Emory Johnson Productions, it was distributed by the Film Booking Office of America, known as F.B.O., a company that specialized in low-budget westerns and minor action melodramas until merging with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit of theaters in 1928 to become RKO Pictures.
Harboring higher ambitions, Johnson and his mother signed an eight-picture deal with Universal in 1926. The first of these films was The Fourth Commandment (1926), a domestic melodrama of a mother’s sacrifice, which capitalized on a recent hit, Stella Dallas. Belle Bennett, who had played Stella, also plays the central role in The Fourth Commandment. Johnson quickly followed up with Flight, a World War I aviation film that faced box-office competition from the Paramount release Wings (1927). Universal made several changes to the title before settling on The Lone Eagle (1927), a name closely associated with Charles Lindbergh and his historic Atlantic Ocean flight, although the film had nothing to do with it. The confusion may have reduced revenues rather than boosting them.
The Shield of Honor (1927), a return to the successful formula of Johnson’s first effort, In the Name of the Law, was his last film for Universal, despite having good reviews and supposedly six films to go on his contract. Even as the police picture was breaking into theaters, he and his mother were negotiating with Tiffany-Stahl Productions for a new producing deal. Why they suddenly moved to a Poverty Row studio with fewer resources than Universal is unclear, but there were indicators in the Johnsons’ private lives that hinted at trouble.
Johnson and his wife separated in 1924 following conflict between her and his live-in mother, who reportedly was domineering. The couple reconciled two years later, but then their oldest son died after getting hit by a gravel truck while crossing a street. Another separation in 1929 led to divorce in 1930.
Johnson remade his biggest money-earner, The Third Alarm, as a talkie with Tiffany in 1930. It featured impressive firefighting sequences, as well as a respectable cast that included Anita Louise, James Hall, Jean Hersholt, and Hobart Bosworth. Despite the film’s merits, Johnson continued his downward spiral, directing one last film, The Phantom Express (1932), for Majestic Pictures (not to be confused with 1932’s The Hurricane Express, a John Wayne serial with a similar storyline of mysterious train wrecks).
At the age of 38, Johnson was essentially finished in motion pictures and was soon forgotten by the public. In 1944, three years after his mother’s death, Johnson returned to San Mateo to open a photography studio, which closed in 1950. Two of Johnson’s four children became film and television actors with modest careers, but they distanced themselves from a connection to their once-famous father, billing themselves as Richard Emory and Ellen Hall.
In 1959, a reporter for the San Mateo Times found Johnson living in a rooming house and interviewed him about his tumultuous career. “Making movies was a thrilling business,” Johnson said in the article, “I have no regrets.” The next year there was a fire in his room, started by his cigarette. Another tenant pulled him from the flames, but he died 19 days later from his injuries at the age of 66, the kind of tragedy that could have come from a film by Emory Johnson.
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by Stephen Horne