Popular Literature, Silent Film, and the Perils of Genre: Chickie (1923-1925)
Rainey, Lawrence, Literature/Film Quarterly
In late November of 1923 readers of the Chicago Tribune, the city's leading newspaper, were confronted with a large advertisement (Fig. 1). It promised "tragedy - freedom - beauty - love-passion" and much more if only they would read Chickie, a work that would recount "The Story of a Chicago Girl and the Wheel of Life," a narrative that would explain, "What is life and love bringing to gitls of today?" and a tale that would begin appearing next Monday in the Tribune's afternoon rival, the Chicago American} By examining this story and its later filmic adaptation, we can better grasp the interaction among popular literature, silent film, and the fluid genres that connected them in the 1920s.
Chickie was written by Elenore Meherin (18861963), one of six children born to a middle-class family of San Francisco. Meherin completed her BA at Berkeley in 1917 and took up work as a journalist for the San Francisco Call.2 Her subsequent career became oddly intertwined with that of William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), the legendary press baron and prototype for Orson Welles's Citizen Kane? Hearst's career had begun in 1887 when he became editor/ proprietor of the San Francisco Examiner, in 1895 he acquired the New York Morning Journal, and one year later launched the New York Evening Journal. Four years later, in 1 900, he launched another newspaper, the Chicago American. To defray the high salaries of his most popular New York writers, he also started a features syndicate that would sell on their works to other newspapers in smaller cities, and in 1915 this became the celebrated King Feature Service, or KFS.4 Two years earlier, meanwhile, Hearst had purchased the San Francisco Call and appointed Ftemont Older (1856-1935) its editor. Meherin became Older's protégé, and it was at his suggestion that she wrote her first novel, Road to Love, serialized through the KFS in 1920 and published as an independent book in 1921. Meherin went on to publish eight more novels, all serialized with KFS and then issued as independent books with Grosset and Dunlap.5 The novels were explicitly marketed to younger women readers, as an illustration (Fig. 2) on the back of one plainly shows.
Chickie, Meherin's second, was serialized in newspapers such as the New York Evening Journal, the San Francisco Call, and the Chicago American - all Hearst newspapers - and many others as well, with the number swelling to over 70 newspapers with 50 million readers.6 Daily installments began on 26 November 1923, and were completed fourteen weeks later at the end of February 1924, when readers were offered a newsprint reprinting of the entire book for only 5 cents.7
"Chickie" is the family or pet name of Helena Bryce, who for most of the novel is a twenty-year-old secretary working in a "big brokerage office" in San Francisco Chickie 2O).8 The plot of Chickie is simple, insofar as it recounts a common tale of heterosexual romance and its consequences, but also complex, insofar as it has a second center of gravity residing less in that tale, more in how other characters react to and account for it. At the first plot level (Fig. 3), Chickie must choose one of three rival suitors: one is Jake Munson, a "wealthy" man who, at thirty-five, is "the head of a big brokerage business" (28); another is Barry Dunne, a struggling attorney in a large firm who, at age twenty-three, needs five years' experience before his salary will enable him to marry; the third is Jimmy Blake, an industrious young man from Chickie's neighborhood whose devotion to her is unswerving. At the second plot level, Chickie discusses her dilemmas with three other characters, all female: one is Janina, a twenty-five-year-old, "hard-boiled" secretary who works in the office with Chickie, has her own studio apartment, and stands for feisty independence; another is Mary Blake McPike, a girl from Chickie s neighborhood, a former classmate who is already married and has had a child, and who stands for traditional domesticity; the third is Martha Blake, who is from an older generation (she is the mother of Mary and Jimmy), a woman whose domestic virtue has helped her nurture a large family. …