Olga Printzlau, Screen Writer

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Olga Printzlau, Screen Writer

  Did you know that Long Beach was one of the centers of movie making up until the early 1920s? The Long Beach film industry launched the career of many well-known stars such as Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, to name just a few. Motion picture production was not the only claim to fame Long Beach held in the movie world, it was also home to one of the industry’s leading screen writers—Olga Printzlau Clark.

Olga was the wife of Fred T. Clark, whom she had married in July 1908 when she was just 17-years-old and Fred a mere 21 years of age.  While Fred worked as a barber, Olga assumed the role of housewife at their home on Pine Avenue (343 Pine Avenue). She was active in several women’s clubs, loved to paint, and some of her art work was so good they were put on display at the public library. In January 1911 their daughter Virginia was born at the same time a new industry came to town—motion pictures.

Long Beach had a good opportunity to become the film capital of the world when California Motion Picture Manufacturing Company opened operations 1911.  By 1913 they had sold their holdings to the Edison Motion Film Company.  The Daily Telegram of March 22, 1913 had this to say about the change in ownership:

Thomas A. Edison, the great inventor, has honored Long Beach by the establishment here of one of his many complete motion-picture producing companies that distributes in salaries to its 40 to 60 actors and mechanics the sum of approximately $3000 to $4000 each week.  The studio, a barnlike structure at Sixth and Alamitos when accepted by the Edison Company, has been transformed into the most complete motion-picture workshop on the coast and the only one of the 27 operating west of Chicago, with one exception that is equipped with an indoor studio.

Thomas Edison had been one of the first to recognize the potential of his new invention, the motion picture camera.  To make use of his camera, and envisioning its entertainment value, he established a number of film companies throughout the United States.  In December 1912 he decided to open a studio in Long Beach.  Under the guidance of J. Searle Dawley, a troupe of fifteen people came into town around New Year’s Day to begin the Edison enterprise. On January 10, 1913, they began their first film.

The old California Motion Picture studio, a barnlike structure, was transformed into one of the most complete motion picture workshops on the coast and the only one of the 27 picture companies operating west of Chicago (with one exception), that was equipped with an indoor studio.  Between forty to sixty people were on the company’s Long Beach payroll, with total salaries of $3000 to $4000 a week. The studio was described by the Long Beach Press (3/22/1913) as “immense” so completely equipped that the studio could furnish costumes and scenery for Roman, Greek, French, Colonial and Stone Age dramas all at the same time.

By May 1913 Edison was gone.  Why?  They had made expensive investments in the old studio.  They had signed a year’s lease.  Was it the competition from all the other studios seeking a home in sunny California?  A possible clue can be found in an article entitled “California Too Familiar to Moving Picture Patrons” in the May 31, 1913 issue of Variety.

Complaints were coming in from the movie going public, both in the United States and abroad, that they were tired of seeing the same scenery over and over again.  A letter in Variety from a London firm complained that every tree, rock, and blade of grass was becoming familiar to English audiences.  One Southern California movie company posted a list of 18 locations to be avoided, including the hollow tree and giant rock at Griffith Park, and a bit of rocky coast at Santa Monica.  Some film companies were taking their crews elsewhere. Keystone was going to Mexico for a change of scenery and Edison getting out of Southern California altogether.

Edison’s stay in Long Beach only lasted five months, but during that time they turned out productions of historical interest, including The Dancer, a one-reeler, and The Dance of the Ages, starring Norma Gould and Ted Shawn.  Choreographer Shawn, a pioneer in modern dance, later formed the Denishawn Dancers with his wife Ruth St. Denis.  Their New York school produced the likes of Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey.

Harold Lloyd, attending drama school in San Diego in 1913, worked as an extra on location for The Edison Company in Jewels of the Madonna, his first film work.  Lloyd played a Yaqui Indian wearing a loincloth; he followed that the next week with a day’s work on location for another Edison film—this time in Dutch costume.

While in Long Beach, J. Searle Dawley adapted Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 romance Ramona, calling it The Old Monk’s Tale.  Dawley himself filmed it, with Laura Sawyer playing Ramona, James Gordon portrayed Allesandro.

Many who lived in Long Beach were recruited to be extras in the movies. Olga saw the perfect opportunity for her and her daughter Virginia to become actors, which they did. After appearing in a few Edison films, the young mother with a vivid imagination realized that romance was a theme that could be explored in film. Olga saw the scenarios that were being used in the films, she knew she could do better and began to write.   Early in 1913 Olga had five plays accepted by the Lubin Company of Philadelphia, and four by the Edison Company of New York.  But something had happened in her marriage.  As her writing career soared her marriage soured. She and Fred divorced and Olga and Virginia moved in with her widowed mother Petra (at 924 Locust Avenue).

By May 1913, the Edison Motion Film Company had decided to close its Long Beach operations and move to New York.  For a while, the Famous Players Company, organized by Daniel Frohman of New York, was considering leasing the studio, however the enterprise was sold to the Balboa Amusement & Producing Company headed by brothers Herbert and Elwood Horkheimer.

Balboa Film studio

On May 23, 1913, with only $7,000 in cash, Herbert and Elwood Horkheimer took possession of the one little building at the corner of Sixth and Alamitos in Long Beach.   H.M. Horkheimer had come to Southern California in 1912 determined to get into the picture business.  At the time he had never seen a motion picture camera, but he took over the little studio vacated by the Edison Studio and started on a small scale.  He was soon joined by his brother who had been an electrical engineer up to that time.  “H.M.,” as he was familiarly known, became the president and general manager, while “E.D.” was secretary and treasurer.  The two alternated between New York and the plant.  One was always in the East looking after the selling end, while the other was in Long Beach taking charge of productions.

E.D. Horkheimmer and Charlie Chaplin

The new studio was pleased to have an established screen writer nearby. In December 1913 Olga’s three-reel script The Path of Sorrow was released by Long Beach’s Balboa Film Studio.  The plot dealt with a vain young widow who returns home to live with her father, but she thinks more of dress and appearance than she does of her ten-year-old son. Unrequited love, a secret marriage, death and revenge add to the intrigue. This was the first long drama that Olga had written. So phenomenal was her success in motion picture work, that her screenplays attracted the attention of the legitimate theater.  In 1914, Klaw & Erlanger, a theatrical syndicate of Los Angeles, announced that they would stage a one-act vaudeville drama, A Fighting Chance, written by Olga Clark

Knowing what female audiences wanted, Olga’s career soared. In 1914 she was hired by the Majestic Film Company to be a script writer. It was here that she met the director that was to be her next husband. On October 6, 1914, the 22-year-old Olga Printzlau Clark married thirty-eight-year-old director Hal Clements (aka Albert H.C. Schorske). At the time of her marriage she had written fifty-three screen plays and sold forty-nine, though she told the Los Angeles Herald the other three would be sold someday soon.

Lucky in her career, but not in love, Olga’s marriage to Hal was not to last. In April 1917 Olga sued for divorce on charges of cruelty and failure to provide. Hollywood news was fodder for newspapers.  The Los Angeles Herald and Los Angeles Times somehow managed to get hold of a letter Olga had received from Hal after their separation. It read:

 First, I want to apologize for the things I said to you last night, also the proposition I made to you. If you hate me I can’t and don’t blame you.

            I spent the whole night after leaving you in looking over the past and I can see where I was at least 90 percent to blame. I never saw you in the light I saw you in last night. You are a good woman and I don’t blame you for feeling bad and hurt when I accused you of something that only lived in my own brain. And then, that not being enough, I had to beat you. I am a big brute and a dirty hound and deserve all the bad luck I had. (LA Herald 4/19/1917)

Olga told the court her husband struck her one night as they were returning home in their automobile. She got out of the car and walked home. When she arrived Hal had locked the doors and Olga  was compelled to wake the maid to let her in. In another episode he fired a revolver at her during a quarrel. She also said he lied about his age on their marriage license, stating he was 38 when in reality he was 50. The divorce was granted.

By 1920 Olga had written 352 produced screen plays since her career began back in Long Beach in 1913.  She had resumed using her maiden name, Printzlau, and was living with her 8-year-old daughter Virginia, her widowed mother Petra and Olga’s brother Charles in Los Angeles. Olga listed herself as “widow” on the 1920 U.S. Census.

She continued to be successful in her career, commanding a salary of $500 a week in 1925. Her last known screen credit was in 1933. She also inspired her daughter to be an independent woman. Virginia, who kept her mother’s surname, enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in October 1944. Olga Printzlau Clark Clements died in Hollywood on July 8, 1962, of a heart attack at age 70.