Catherine Curtis, an early woman motion picture producer, offered advice to women entrepreneurs.
“If there are any rules for success, the same ones apply for women as for men,” she said in an interview in 1921. “The essentials of success are the same in every career – determination, energy and an ideal higher than that of unselfish desire for personal gain and glory.”
Curtis, who grew up on Albany and lived for a time in Glens Falls, was a woman motion picture pioneer in a career that lasted about a decade before Curtis moved on to be a radio commentator, financial expert and conservative political activist.
In 1940, Curtis testified to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in support of eliminating questions from the upcoming U.S. Census thought to be demeaning to women. In the 1940s, Curtis became known for her anti-Semitic writings. You likely won’t find Curtis in a hall of fame, but she is profiled briefly on the website ObscureHollywood.net.
It’s hard to separate the fact from fiction in news reports about her film career, which seemed to rely heavily on entertainment industry press releases. Curtis was a frequent visitor to Glens Falls, where her father, George N. Taylor, operated the Rockwell House hotel for 17 years. Glens Falls news reporters and her marketing agents promoted her as a hometown sensation. “Local girl is star,” The Post-Star of Glens Falls proclaimed in a 1919 headline.
“Understand Catherine Curtis is a Glens Falls girl. If so, your people have much to be proud of,” Dave Schumann, manager of Florence Theatre in Pasadena, CA wrote June 21, 1919 in a telegram to Dewitt Mott, manager of Empire Theatre in Glens Falls.
In Glens Falls Curtis was better known as Catherine Taylor, her given name. Professionally, she used her middle name, also her mother’s maiden name, as her last name, even though it might seem there would be marketing cache in the distinction that she was reportedly a direct descendant of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States. She also was known as Catherine O’Neil and Katherine Taylor Meyers.
Curtis got her start in the motion picture field when she operated a ranch in Phoenix, Arizona and novelist and screen writer Harold Bell Wright asked her to play the lead role of Sammy Lane in the 1919 silent film version of “Shepherd of the Hills.”
Depending on which published version, if any, is correct, Curtis was either Wright’s neighbor in Phoenix, or she walked into a Phoenix hotel lobby when he was picking up his mail at the front desk, or they happened to cross paths at a Phoenix country club. Wright thought her beauty and persona fit his image of the character he created, and asked Curtis to take the role.
“It was only a fancy that created Sammy Lane, but in Miss Curtis, Mr. Wright found her red-blooded and decidedly human – a woman with the physical requirements of his dream girl of the Ozark Mountains,” The Post-Star reported on June 20, 1919.
The Post-Star played up her local connections when the film ran July 22-24, 1919 at Empire Theatre on South Street. “The seat sale opens today, and with Miss Catherine Taylor Curtis, (who, as noted earlier, was actually Catherine Curtis Taylor), Glens Falls’ own screen star featured, this should pack the house of every performance.”
The motion picture bug bit Curtis, or Taylor, but she decided instead of being leading lady she wanted to be head honcho. “I am less concerned over my future on the screen than I am over my future business career, for it appears to me that there is a greater field in production than in starring,” Curtis was quoted in the Omaha Daily Bee of Omaha, Nebraska.
Curtis formed Catherine Curtis Corp. with her father, who had recently lost his lease at The Rockwell House, as vice president. They had offices in New York City and Los Angeles, and were frequently mentioned in Post-Star society columns as being in Glens Falls “on business,” mostly likely drumming up investors in the venture.
“Catherine Curtis … arrived in Glens Falls yesterday morning on a strictly business mission which gives promise of adding new laurels to those already won by Miss Curtis since entering the motion picture business,” The Post-Star reported on June 23, 1920. Her initial idea was to produce pictures that she would star in.
“The first one, which she is now working on, is a society drama laid in New York City and changing from there to the plains of Arizona, in which she portrays the character of a society woman and changes to a genuine cow girl on the western plains, doing some wonderful horseback riding,” The Post-Star reported on June 19, 1919. It is not clear if the concept ever made it to the big screen.
In September 1919, Curtis announced she hired to direct future productions George Foster Platt, a stage director who had just made his motion picture debut directing the silent film “Deliverance” about Helen Keller. In June 1920, Curtis announced she acquired the motion picture rights to books by popular novelist Ralph Connor and reached a distribution agreement with First National Exhibitors Circuit Inc., which distributed to 7,000 theaters.
Curtis held a private screening of “The Sky Pilot,” based on Connor’s novel about a preacher that takes up residence in a rugged cattle town, at the Rialto Theater in Glens Falls, at which she pitched an investment plan under which a percentage of the film’s proceeds would be distributed for the relief of veterans.
“Miss Curtis, in a brief talk yesterday, told how she was anxious for Warren County to have its allotment of this relief money and the honor of originating the idea of the relief fund feature,” The Post-Star reported on May 26, 1921. “On each film there will be an inscription giving Glens Falls proper publicity for organizing the fund.” It’s not clear if Glens Falls investors bought in to the scheme, but the film achieved modest success and can still be viewed on YouTube.
“The story contains little new or exceptional, but the direction, photography and detail are more than satisfactory,” Variety magazine stated in a review. “A cattle stampede is so realistic that even the most blasé of Broadway’s motion picture fans were moved to applause,” the Alexandria Gazette of Washington, D.C. said in praising the film.
Other film ventures, some of which did not even get off the ground, were financial disasters. Curtis paid $35,000 for film rights of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, but was sued over rights to miniature dinosaur models she planned to use in the production.
A film documenting the life of Buffalo Bill ended up $992,057 in the red and Curtis filed for bankruptcy protection, The Post-Star reported on March 3, 1926.
Illustrations: Above, a movie poster for “The Sky Pilot”; middle, the Empire Theatre in Glens Falls (courtesy the Chapman House Museum); and below, the Rialto Theatre in Glens Falls during a fire in 1925.