Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Mayflower in Hollywood

I'd heard about the landlocked ship: a huge sailing vessel in the improbable dry dock of what is now East Hollywood, California.  I'd seen closeup photographs of it in movie magazines from the 1920s.  

But I'd never seen a picture of the ship in situ.  Until recently.

A few weeks ago, I found a reference book at an estate sale that contained this picture:  A house, hills, trees, and a mammoth ship, sails unfurled, with a large number of extra ropes or cables stretched around it.  You may well ask, What in the world was going on?  

Hint:  Remember, the picture below was taken in Hollywood.

The Mayflower replica dwarfs its Southern California neighborhood, late 1920s

The book I found at the estate sale is A Pictorial History of the Movies  by Deems Taylor, Marcelene Peterson and Bryant Hale.  The photograph is of the life-size replica of the Mayflower, one of the silent film era's most memorable sets from one of its most memorable flops: Charles Ray's "The Courtship of Myles Standish."

Saturday Evening Post ad for "The Courtship of Myles Standish"

Charles Ray as John Alden

You've never heard of Charles Ray?  You're not alone.  And it's too bad, because for about ten years he was one of the silent film era's highest-earning, most durable, most bankable stars.   Most people don't remember him today, in part because a string of bad luck, bad financial decisions and (apparently) bad attitude cost him his legacy and his place in the public eye.

Charles Ray made many silent films, and one reviewer commented "the public ate him up with a ladle." Ray achieved superstardom that lasted from 1915 to 1925.  At one point in his career, Ray was earning $11,000 a week, which equates to about $150,000 a week in 2014. 

Charles Ray (1891-1943)
His house in Beverly Hills drew admiring fans on tours, and postcards were issued of it:

Charles Ray's home.
The Internet Movie Database notes that a young man named Ralph Bunche,
who became a diplomat and the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize laureate,
once worked as a "houseboy" for Charles Ray.

Early in his career, Charles Ray was usually typecast as a country bumpkin who overcomes the odds to achieve his goal and win the hand of a lovely young woman.  

Tired of playing the same sort of innocent hayseed character in film after film, Ray decided to venture out on his own and formed Charles Ray Productions.  In July 1920 his new indoor studio was completed at what is now 4401 Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

4401 Sunset Blvd., in more modern times

The correspondent from Moving Picture News reported: "The last word in studio construction…completed just three months from the day on which Mr. Ray…turned the first shovelful of earth. Perhaps the most striking feature of the studios is the glass enclosed stage, topped by a glass roof. The sides may be removed to permit openings when the shooting of street scenes is required…. The installation of electrical equipment will insure a wealth of sunshine for daylight pictures as well as for night scenes…."   

By October 1922 Ray had added a new "administration building of ornate Spanish type," which still stands today and is Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #198.

It's not hard to imagine Charles Ray standing in his second-story office, looking out the windows.  In the distance he could see the the larger motion picture studios run by the titans of the film industry such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and more.  Charles Ray starred in a number of well-received, popular films under his own name, but he wanted to make a Great American Film. 

In November 1922, Movie Weekly magazine proclaimed, "Charles Ray is through with making common, everyday movies!  From now on, nothing less than a superfeature is good enough for Charlie."

So Charles Ray tackled the story of "The Courtship of Myles Standish."  The film required eight months to complete at a reported cost of over $3 million -- a massive budget at the time. Ray invested $63,000 alone in the construction of the 180-ton life-size replica of the "Mayflower," parked in a giant vat of water and complete with a gear mechanism to make it rock back and forth as scenes were shot on its decks.  Ray also had three full-size log cabins built in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, California, for exterior shots.  Movie Weekly continued, "Everyone concerned is working hard to make this film a masterpiece."

The cast of "The Courtship of Myles Standish."

What went wrong?  Why don't we hear about The Courtship of Myles Standish in film history, except as a footnote? It was a flop at the 1923 box office and it ruined Charles Ray financially.  He never really recovered. 

Charles Ray had originally hoped to get financing from another source -- Movie Weekly suggested it was United Artists (Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith) -- but the funder pulled out.  So Charles Ray had invested his own fortune into "The Courtship of Myles Standish."  It received some favorable reviews, but the public simply didn't want to see it. 

One article I read speculated that American moviegoers really didn't want to spend time and money watching a film based on the very (very) long Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem they had been forced to study in school.  1923 was, after all, the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the Pilgrims were not the most exciting group of people to follow around with a movie camera.

After it failed at the box office, Ray was forced into bankruptcy and the studio into receivership.  The property changed hands many times after that, but was probably best-known as Monogram Pictures during the 1940s.  Later, for many years, the lot that had been Charles Ray Studios was the home of public TV station KCET.

Charles Ray was never really able to resume his stellar career. He tried to reshape his character from the handsome young country lad into a suave, still-handsome older man, but audiences didn't accept him like they had when he was younger.   It's said that Charles Ray was considered difficult to work with, and this also contributed to his downfall. Ray worked in smaller and smaller film roles; his last few screen roles were uncredited.  He died of a mouth and throat infection in 1943.

But Charles Ray does have his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  It's on the north side of the 6300 block of Hollywood Boulevard, about two and a half miles from his old studios.  


Postscript:  A few years ago, family members found the picture below among Grandma's belongings.  As a young man, her husband had visited Southern California and had his picture made, standing on the back of what appears to be a large wooden sailing ship.   Milt autographed the picture -- a striking image -- to his "little five-foot-two," the young lady who would one day become his wife.

(Note the plus-fours and the argyle socks on handsome young Milt.)

The other family members didn't know where the photograph was taken, but I thought I knew, based on my research on Charles Ray.  After "The Courtship of Myles Standish" was completed, there was a large unseaworthy craft parked in Hollywood, miles from the nearest port.  There was nothing else to do with it except allow tourists (like Grandpa Milt) to have their picture taken on it.  

I emailed a copy of the picture to Marc Wanamaker at Bison Archives, who wrote back saying that it's possible that Milt was a tourist who visited the Mayflower replica while on a trip to Southern California.

Eventually the mock "Mayflower" was burned to the ground. It is said that some critics later commented that the public reception of "The Courtship of Myles Standish" was so bad, Ray would have been better off keeping the boat and burning the movie.

The critics effectively got their wish: today, no copies of the film are known to exist.  (If you know of one, please post a comment at the bottom of this blog post!)

The website Lost Film Files gives more information on The Courtship of Myles Standish:


The website Golden Silents has a biography of Charles Ray:


Here's a link to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem on which the film was based.  Yes, it's long:


Here's a link to a Charles Ray film that has survived, The Old Swimmin' Hole https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWsiBgBhdUk

And another Charles Ray film -- perhaps one of his best-known pictures, this time about baseball -- The Busher:  http://www.fandor.com/films/the_busher

Bison Archives' website is here:


Regarding the book where I found the photograph of the mock Mayflower:  If you don't think you know who Deems Taylor (the author of the book on Hollywood I mentioned) was, think back to the original Disney movie Fantasia.  He's the Master of Ceremonies at the beginning of the film.  But Taylor was much more than that.  He is primarily remembered as a broadcaster, composer, and promoter of classical music. He also wrote books about the entertainment industry. 


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