Natalie Wood: New York City 1963, Looking for Love Feb. 20, 2011. (Classic Film, Film History, Movie Stars.) A fleeting daydream of the time Hollywood’s most fascinating star looked out from the terrace of her New York City hotel onto the city and into a future filled with promise.
Goin’ to California, 1910 and a Mountain of Dreams March 2, 2011. (Acting, California, Film History, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford.) A contemplation of the first odyssey of the Biograph Company to sunny California in the winter of 1910, where Griffith and Bitzer create masterpieces of film composition and Mary Pickford continues to advance the art of motion picture acting and her own legend.
My Search for Jean Harlow March 3, 2011. (Jean Harlow, Film History) It is a story almost impossible to comprehend in the age of Twitter and 24/7 celebrity news coverage. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars dies unexpectedly at 26 under circumstances that, as reported at the time, were almost completely false. The lies were accepted as truth for nearly six decades unquestioned, without contradiction, until one man did the research and rewroted the death and life of Jean Harlow. Those like me, who merely shook their heads in wonder for years, finally had cause to rejoice in the re-discovery of “Baby Jean,” Harlean Carpenter.
Between Platinum Blonde and Production Code Lies a Red Headed Woman March 7, 2011. (Jean Harlow, Film History, Howard Hughes, MGM, production code.) Musings on Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes and a code of movie conduct that made nuns and castrati out of its “stars” for over 30 years. Get thee to a Nunnery. Indeed.
The Monumental Claire McDowell March, 17, 2011. (Film Acting, Griffith, Film History, Mary Pickford.) An illustrated tribute to the least known and appreciated Griffith lead actress, who made more films for Griffith than all but a couple of his female stars, who stayed with Biograph longer than almost anyone, and later made a good career out of maternal roles in Hollywood blockbusters of the Twenties, and in gritty tales of the Depression in the Thirties.
At Winter’s End, A Politician’s Love Story March 21, 2011. (D. W. Griffith, Billy Bitzer, Film History.) An overnight snowstorm blankets New York City and begets seat-of-the-pants, innovative filmmaking in the heart of the Big Apple on a January afternoon in 1909.
Elizabeth Taylor = Movie Stardom March 24, 2011. (Movie Stardom, censorship, Classic Hollywood, production code.) A tribute to the late star who defined modern celebrity and movie stardom into the 21st century, who also delivered the final death-blow to the Hollywood film production code.
The Song of the Shirt March 27, 2011. (Film Acting, Film History, Urban History, New York History, Labor History, Biograph, Florence Lawrence, D. W. Griffith.) An essay on the one hundredth anniversary of the worst workplace disaster in New York prior to 9/11, involving criminally negligent working conditions in the garment industry. Two years before the tragedy, Griffith made another story of the tragic life of a garment worker played by Florence Lawrence, filmed at the Biograph studio on 11 E 14th St., just six blocks from where the disaster would occur in 1911.
Florence Lawrence, Resurrection April 2, 2011. (Film Acting, Film History, D. W. Griffith, Biograph, Movie Stardom.) The most impressive performance by the first movie star, in a one-reel reduction of a Tolstoy novel. The title is equally applicable to her reputation and a legacy that has only recently been resuscitated.
Polly of the Follies April, 9, 2011. (Film Preservation, Film History, Movie Stars, Silent Film.) An essay on the fleeting nature of fame and nitrate film. Constance Talmadge, one of the biggest stars of the silent era in a film of which only a trailer exists. A trailer that was shown as one of the remarkable Fragments, a 2 hour TCM documentary on our disappearing film heritage, with amazing remnants from early film to the dawn of sound.
Griffith, Racism, TCM and the Myth of “Classic Movies” April 12, 2011. (Classic Film, D. W. Griffith, Film History, Racism in Film.) Read at your own risk. If your tolerance for controversy is low — and be honest — you may find this disturbing, or depending on your outlook, thought provoking. Many people seem to miss the point. See if you can find it.
The Fascinating Miss Francis April 24, 2011 (Classic Film, Film History, Movie Stardom.) The highest paid actress in Hollywood from 1932-38, and one of the most popular for most of that period, Kay Francis was forgotten (as she wished) after her retirement in 1946. The star who deserves equal billing in the history of American film with her peers of Hollywood’s golden age, has been rediscovered with a renewed interest in her films brought about by TCM, and two biographies in recent years. Despite her wish, she is unforgettable.
Natalie Wood, On the Cusp, Part One (1960-1963). May 12, 2011. (Film History, Movie Stardom.) No longer a starlet, not yet a star, Natalie Wood searches for meaning in a career post-Rebel Without a Cause and, after five years’ searching finds it in West Side Story.
Robert Johnson, The Would-be King of Delta Blues. May 18, 2011. (Music, Music History, Art). A cautionary tale of revisionist history, and the good intentions of those trying to right the wrongs of the past and restore credit where credit is believed due. It is a story that would inspire many, but one that would cause the musical contributions of others to be obscured or forgotten once again.
Marion Leonard: The Beauty and The Biograph. May 22, 2011. (Acting, Film History.) Preceding Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford at Biograph, Griffith’s first leading lady was already a success on stage before she ventured into 11 E 14th St and became a pioneer in the development of the art of motion picture acting in nearly a hundred short films.
Natalie Wood (Part 2): On the Cusp, 1960-61. May 25, 2011. (Film History, Movie Stardom). West Side Story receives unprecedented acclaim; Natalie Wood follows it with the best performance of her early career as “Deanie” in Splendor in the Grass.
Marion Leonard: The Beauty and The Biograph (Part 2). June 3, 2011. (Film Acting, Film History, D.W. Griffith.) Marion Leonard becomes Griffith’s first choice for society bitches, courageous young mothers and glamour queens. Biograph’s “Gibson Goddess” shares lead roles with Mary Pickford as both develop the new art of film acting.
PRE-CODE PRIME. June 8, 2011. (Censorship, Classic Film, Film History, Production Code.) An overview of three pre-code classic WB melodramas directed by William A. Wellman, with Dorothy Mackaill, Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck: Safe in Hell (1931), Other Men’s Women (’30) and Night Nurse (’31). Gratuitous near-nudity and so much more!
Mary Pickford: ‘Belligerently, I Marched . . .” June 17, 2011. (Acting, Film History, Griffith, Movie Stardom.) A seven-year-old from Toronto appoints herself chief breadwinner of her fatherless family, and in her mid-teens becomes a budding star on Broadway. But forced to supplement the family income, she seeks work at “one of those despised, cheap, loathsome motion-picture studios,” posing for pictures . . . for D.W. Griffith. American film acting is soon remade, and a legend begins.
Florence Lawrence: “Moving Picture Artist-in-the-Making.” July 5, 2011. The Biograph Girl becomes America’s first motion picture star and helps film acting develop from a cheap imitation of the Delsarte school of acting to a new performance art form of its own.
The Pictorial D. W. Griffith. July 19, 2011. (Art, Bitzer, Cinematography, Griffith, Film History.) Griffith has been credited with many things he didn’t do, but one of the strongest qualities of his films tends to be ignored: the art that he and cinematographer Billy Bitzer brought to the screen with their extraordinary frame compositions.
Kay Francis: One Way Passage, A Tragedy in Miniature. July 24, 2011. (Art, Classic Film, Melodrama, Film History.) A minimalist masterpiece of melodrama; a staple of popular culture approaches high art in 67 minutes. Unmentioned in the article is the film’s Pittsburgh connection. Three of the principals were born there: William Powell, Aline MacMahon and Frank McHugh, though the natives would quibble that McHugh and MacMahon were born in Homestead and McKeesport, respectively, and Powell in old Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh’s North Side).
Natalie Wood, “Love with the Proper Stranger.” Aug. 1, 2011. (Film History) How do you follow West Side Story and an Oscar nomination for Splendor in the Grass? Here’s how Natalie Wood completed the hat trick with Love with the Proper Stranger and another Oscar nomination. Not that it was easy . . . but having Steve McQueen as her co-star, a close-knit cast and crew, and New York City in 1963 as a backdrop, made it her favorite filmmaking experience.
Classical Cinematography: Still Frames from Early Film. Aug. 4, 2011. (Art, Cinematography, Film History.) The early masters of film approached moving pictures as photography, creating moving images with individual still frames that often equal those of the great still photographers in power and depth. Just a few examples.
“A Drunkard’s Reformation:” A Morality Play within A Photoplay. Aug. 11, 2011. (Griffith, Film History, Film Melodrama, Acting.) Griffith tackles a major contemporary social issue, temperance, wins over the progressive reformers and simultaneously neutralizes the forces of film censorship. And if that was not enough, A Drunkard’s Reformation is a play within a “photoplay” that features innovative editing and set-piece performances that make a clear distinction between stage melodrama and the rapidly evolving art of film acting.
Wish Me A Rainbow: Hollywood’s Great Depression. Aug. 17, 2011. (Classic Film, Censorship, Film History, Production Code.) A riff on the film-within-a film. Bonnie and Clyde uses a period film musical, Gold Diggers of 1933, for its own purposes. After committing their first murder, the gang hides out inside a dark movie theater. A cheerful chorus line sings “We’re in the Money,” while a traumatized Clyde and C.W. simply annoy the hell out of Bonnie who just wants them to shut up and watch the movie. The next morning she still can’t get that crazy song out of her head, “We’re in the money, we’ve gotta lotta what it takes . . . to get along . . . boop!”
BLONDE CRAZY. Aug. 22, 2011. (Classic Film, Censorship, Film History, Joan Blondell.) If James Cagney had an onscreen equal — male or female — it was Joan Blondell. Discovered in the same Broadway show, signed to WB in 1930, neither had a better partner — they made six films together, including “Blonde Crazy,” from 1931. But alone, in addition to the brass, Blondell never fails to bring a timeless warmth, humor and the promise of a real good time.
A Blonde Less Tragic: Dorothy Mackaill. Aug. 29, 2011. (Film History, Classic Film, Silent Film, Early Sound, Production Code.) She doesn’t fit any of the “tragic” molds people have tried out on her. Truth is, Dorothy Mackaill was a chorus girl who made it big in silent films, made a bunch of talkies, some quite good, none made much money, her studio contract expired, she got dropped, she lost interest, life got in the way. But when she’s onscreen, few actors can grab your attention like this blonde. Riveting is the word. She’d be huge today.
Two (or 3) Hot Blondes. Sept. 3, 2011. (Film History, Censorship, Pre-Code Film.) Dorothy Mackaill AND Joan Blondell in the same film, as sisters, in The Office Wife. Joan, in one of her classic bathing scenes, nearly drowns in her own tub when Dorothy tells her she didn’t use her feminine charms to get a big promotion at the office. But her charms have had more of an effect than she realizes.
Ida Lupino, From ‘Ingenue’ to Actress. Sept. 12, 2011. (Film History, Classic Film.) British born Ida Lupino, from a family of actors, began playing mature roles by the age of 16, but Paramount didn’t know how to market her youthful maturity. They dropped her and she found her niche at the tough-guys’ studio, Warner Bros., where she would shed her image as a pretty, delicate ingenue for good — in the role of scheming, murderess Lana Carlsen in They Drive By Night.
Ida Lupino: Stardom in the High Sierras. Sept. 22, 2011. (Film History, Classic Film, Humphrey Bogart.) Her performance in They Drive By Night awed audiences and critics alike and secured her reputation as a serious actress. But it was only a prelude to a bigger payoff for Lupino and one of her co-stars in “Drive,” when she was paired with Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra.
Lupino and Bogart “Crash Out.” Sept. 29, 2011. (Film History, Classic Film, Humphrey Bogart, Raoul Walsh.) Lupino teams with B movie player and character actor Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, directed by Raoul Walsh and co-written by John Huston, one of the best films any of them would make, and the movie that made stars of both Bogart and Lupino.
Buster’s Beginning: ‘The Butcher Boy.’ Oct. 4, 2011. Buster Keaton’s first film was with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, already an admirer of Keaton’s family stage act. Keaton’s “human rubber ball” on stage translates effortlessly to the film slapstick of The Butcher Boy, especially when the enormous Arbuckle (in drag, no less) bounces Keaton out of the room with an unbelievable flying leg kick, from which Buster recovers with his patented upside-down head spin — a move that break dancing would revive 60 years later.
Francesca Bertini: Diva Eterna. Oct. 12, 2011. (Art, Film History, cinema muto, Movie Stardom) On the heels of the Italian historical epics Quo Vadis?, Cabiria and The Last Days of Pompeii, came Diva-film, and the beginning of the movie star system in Italy in which the women ruled absolutely. The diva with the longest and most varied career was Francesca Bertini, an actress with a rare combination of beauty and imposing physical presence, whose most important film may have been Assunta Spina in which she not only starred, but co-directed, in 1915.
Day of the New Masters: The Dawn of Epic Cinema. Oct. 21, 2011. (Film History, cinema muto.) Italian filmmakers begin to emphasize longer films, epics of the early history of the Italian peninsula, such as The Last Days of Pompeii, with a major influence on American producers when the epics are imported to America, where single reel film was the primary format. Now the “feature” film, a format of 3 or more reels, would rule and it became, as described in the film trade press, “the day of the new masters.”
The Epic Days and Nights of CABIRIA. Oct. 27, 2011 (Film History, cinema muto.) The twelve reels of Cabiria cement the feature film as the basic product of the film industry world-wide. Film distribution and exhibition will shortly complete the transition from the storefront theater program controlled by the exhibitor, to a program dominated by the single, feature-length film. Cabiria itself makes its mark, as much with its special effects and sweeping narrative as with its vaunted camera-on-dolly pan shots, dubbed “Cabiria movements” by American filmmakers.
“AD SHARK.” Nov. 16, 2011. (Film History, Advertising , Motion Picture Trade Publications, Art, Pop Art.) Movie advertising of the pre-Hollywood 1910s is noted more for its bombast and lurid design than for ads touting that newest film product of the day, the “movie star.”
DAWN of the DIVA. Nov. 29, 2011. (Film History, Italian Film History, cinema muto, Diva film.) The star system explodes in Italy, dominated by women, the actresses of cinema muto, the Divas. Stage stars Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini, and another who made her reputation in film, Pina Menichelli, are the dominant Divas in the new Italian film melodramas that are popular world-wide, beginning in 1913, just before the start of the first global conflict. Will Divas be forced to flee? Stay tuned!
Kay FRANCIS and William POWELL: “JEWEL ROBBERY.” Dec. 1, 2011. In their fifth starring vehicle together, Kay Francis and William Powell, Warner Brothers’ newest stars recently purloined from Paramount, find themselves in the WB’s version of a Paramount romantic comedy, Jewel Robbery. This 1932 effort directed by William Dieterle is unfairly compared to Paramount’s gem of a few months later, starring Kay Francis (ironically) on loan from the Warners, the classic Trouble in Paradise directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
The SHADES of SILENTS Dec. 19, 2011. You think the first Italian directors to exploit the dramatic and narrative possibilities of color were Antonioni and Fellini? Think again. Think “cinema muto.” And especially “diva film.” Eye-popping tints and tones and the divas were a marriage made in cinema heaven.
“WE DON’T DEAL IN WORDS HERE” The Biograph Actors on Acting. Dec. 30, 2011. From the mouths of the “Biographers,” to your ears . . . er eyes. The movers and shapers of early film acting give us a taste of the dusty boards of the studio at 11 E14 St, and what it must have been like to be directed by D. W. Griffith at Biograph between 1908 and 1913.
SHE IS THE EYE AND THE HURRICANE. Jan. 4, 2012. The Italian silent film diva and diva-film were born of the clash between centuries of patriarchy and the changing roles of women in Italian society at the turn of the 20th century. As the working methods of the Italian stage carried over into early motion picture production, Italian actresses retained their prominent role as producers. Following Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini, came Pina Menichelli. When she combined her talents with Cabiria‘s director, Giovanni Pastrone in Il fuoco (“The Fire”), diva-film became for a time the dominant genre in Italian silent film.
PICKFORD and GRIFFITH: The Clash of Film’s First Great Egos. Jan. 19, 2012. She’s ‘Too Short and Too Fat,” He’s “Pompous and Insufferable.” It must be LOVE! The unlikely pairing of cinema’s first great egos was, ultimately, a collaboration that lasted long enough to create a body of work wherein we can watch step-by-baby-step the development of American narrative filmmaking and a new performance art form: motion picture acting.
“GIVE US THIS DAY . . .” Jan. 23, 2012. On the birthday of Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet filmmaker and film theorist, we select the lesser known of his great set-pieces of editing in his masterwork, Battleship Potemkin, from 1925. Unlike the lauded “Odessa Steps” sequence, this tiny bit of brilliance lasts only 3 seconds. The breaking of a plate by a sailor is shown with ten “cuts” or edits (more than 3 per second) which serves to magnify the event both visually and emotionally. It sums up visually the frustration and anger of the protagonists during the entire first act of the film, and foreshadows the mutiny of the sailors which soon follows.
” . . . But Mostly I Died.” Linda Arvidson, “Mrs. Griffith” Feb. 2, 2012. She stood by her man when times were bleak and persuaded him to stay in “pictures” when his ambition told him otherwise. Linda Arvidson was one of D. W. Griffith’s two lead actresses during his first six months as a director at Biograph, and then settled into roles somewhere between leading lady and character parts, and sometimes as the mother or forlorn wife on her deathbed, little more than a prop. But she made about a hundred films for her husband at Biograph from 1908 to 1912, before they separated. Scorned by Lillian Gish and overlooked by historians, her story is more important than we’ve been told, if we’ve been told it at all.
PINA MENICHELLI, Our Lady of Spasms (Nostra Signora degli Spasimi). Feb. 18, 2012. Don’t be misled, “spasimi” doesn’t mean “spastic” in terms of acting style (although spasmodic displays of emotion, particularly the expression of loss or betrayal, are at the core of the diva-film narrative). “Our Lady of Heart-Ache” might better approach an equivalent meaning in English, although Pina Menichelli in Tigre Reale (and the prior Il fuoco) delivers at least as much heart-ache as she gets. This Lady, if only in those two films, is a deviant diva — the true Italian silent film diva should never be confused with the American or international “femme-fatale” or “vamp.” Tigre Reale never received an American release. Not surprising: the morphine-fueled suicide attempt near the film’s climax would have fried the hair of American audiences (and censors) in 1916 . . . or 1960.
NATALIE WOOD: In Thy Orisons, Daisy Clover. Feb. 21, 2012. My favorite scene from Inside Daisy Clover, is a touching one in Natalie Wood’s most ambitious film project to date. Daisy Clover, a 15-year-old waif who gets her first and last shot at the big time, is an oddly complex ragamuffin. It may also have been the best performance of Natalie Wood’s career. If the film ultimately fails, it is not due to the performances of Wood and co-star Robert Redford — the two have a powerful chemistry that would only be repeated once more. That chemistry is abundantly on display in this brief scene, where superstar lout Wade Lewis borrows Hamlet’s words to Ophelia in his apology to Daisy . . . “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.”
The ASTAIRES: Finally, ADELE and Fred. March 7, 2012. Fred Astaire doesn’t exactly fit into a niche with the underrated, unsung, neglected, or just plain forgotten figures on whom I expend most of my time and effort. But ADELE Astaire does. Before Fred and Ginger, it was Adele and Fred, the sister-brother dance team in which Adele starred with her genius brother and redefined sophisticated ballroom/show-dancing, post-Vernon and Irene Castle, in the peak era of Broadway musicals, the 1920s. A new career biography of Adele and Fred Astaire puts things right.
RUTH CHATTERTON: On the Great Divide. Part One, The Rainbow. March 22, 2012. Ruth Chatterton and Mary Pickford each had careers that were almost mirror images of the other. Pickford became the first international film star, the greatest contributor to the new art of film acting, and in the process cast aside what would have been stardom on the stage. Ruth Chatterton, same age, and at almost the exact same time, became a star on Broadway then, after two decades on stage, entered movies and became the first female star created by the “talkies.” Part One is the story of Ruth Chatterton’s career from her first professional acting gig at 16 to stardom at 19. In this installment, I attempt to clear up some oft-repeated errors in her early life story and focus on the beginnings of her stage career.
SEE the MOVIE, Then READ the BOOK: PHOTOPLAY EDITIONS April 19, 2012. “Photoplay” editions of books turned into movies (or movies turned into books) have been accessories to cinema since the early days of feature films, and line the bookshelves of bibliophiles and cinemaphiles alike. From the creature features — King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula and their hermanos in horror — to weepers, jungle adventures and nineteenth century bestsellers, the collectible movie editions can be a less pricey alternative to posters for those who dig movie memorabilia, or they can command in excess of five figures for something smaller than a lobby card: the book jacket. Oh, and the book is included in the price, too. Such a deal!
AIN’T NO MORE ‘CANE: Levon Helm, The Basement Tapes and American Roots Music. April 22, 2012. The death of Levon Helm is cause for reflection on his work with The Band, as well as The Band’s and Bob Dylan’s legendary 1967 home recordings that became The Basement Tapes. Along with musicologist Alan Lomax, they have captured the wit, wisdom, humor, pain and joy of music that defined a time when men and women were bound inextricably to the land, and have preserved, interpreted and given meaning to that music for our time and for generations to come.
RUTH CHATTERTON: “Electric Lights . . . Stellar Heights.” April 29, 2012. Part Two of my look at the stage and film career of Ruth Chatterton. Before she became the first female superstar of the sound era, she was one of the most popular and celebrated stars of the American stage. Her role as Cynthia Sumner in Henry Miller’s The Rainbow in 1912 established her as a rising star while still a teenager, and packed theaters in the US and Canada for two years. Chatterton’s next production with Miller, Daddy Long-Legs, breaks box-office records in Chicago, then conquers Broadway. Hard-boiled critics in both cities are left gasping for superlatives.
RUTH CHATTERTON, SAFE AT HOME. May 17, 2012. Part Three of a career study of a “crossover” superstar, Ruth Chatterton, the first female star of the stage to equal that success in movies with sound. “Safe At Home” could just as easily have been called “On The Road Again.” She now had the means to move to a new home in a sedate, residential neighborhood in mid-town Manhattan. (Yes, I said “sedate, residential,” and “mid-town” in the same sentence — it was 1915!). But her real “home” was on the stage, and after only five years, at age 22, she had reached a level of success that brought adoring audiences and the best accommodations, that is, when she wasn’t being chased by flames. And it was still only the beginning of a great career.
MARY PICKFORD’s “Daddy Long-Legs.” May 31, 2012. For her first project after leaving Daddy Zukor, Mary Pickford selected a property that met all the necessary criteria — orphan children, nasty adults, pathos and her own extra touch, slapstick comedy. Daddy Long-Legs had made a star of Ruth Chatterton five years earlier. Pickford’s film adaptation was a huge hit, and included scenes of institutional child abuse and underage drunkeness that could never be shown outside the realm of hard-hitting documentary today.
THE PICKFORD BIOGRAPHS: “Friends” (1912). June 1, 2012. Mary Pickford did some of her best early work in her final months at Biograph in 1912. For Friends, D. W. Griffith wrote the scenario and paired his two most talented actors, Pickford and Henry B. Walthall, to engage in some “slow acting” in this minimalist masterpiece of single-reel drama. The famous close-up of Pickford at the end of the film comes as a surprise — a less-than-heartwarming ending.
VERITABLE VON STROHEIM. June 26, 2012. Few filmmakers can match Stroheim for his relentlessly dismal view of humans as little more than animals, or his ability to create a fantastic persona for himself — one as removed from reality as his films were grounded in it. He was the ultimate outsider: a Jew in Catholic Vienna, a self-styled aristocrat in the melting pot of America, and a penniless immigrant in New York in 1909. Within five years he was working in movies with the most famous names in the business: a haberdasher’s son now designing sets, a technical advisor on military matters, acting and soon directing at Universal.
VON STROHEIM, Part Two: Toward the Pinnacle. July 5, 2012. His early years in film were spent building relationships with key Hollywood figures: John Emerson, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge, Anita Loos, showing an uncanny eye for detail as a set designer, and fearlessly utilizing anti-German sentiment to his advantage as an actor: “the Hun”, the Man You Love to Hate. He convinced everyone that he could make their films better by hiring him, including film industry pioneer Carl Laemmle who, for the price of a screenplay, allowed Stroheim to direct a major film project, one that became a huge hit for Universal with audiences, critics and at the box-office. The Stroheim legend was off and running — and shooting . . .
KAY FRANCIS and LILYAN TASHMAN : “Girls’ About Town”. July, 24, 2012. Kay Francis not only survived despite stories of her sexual adventures with men and women and questions about her racial heritage, she became the most popular female star in the early to mid 1930s. Sharing the same theatrical background was her friend Lilyan Tashman — both were outsiders in conventional Hollywood, and made an ideal pair in George Cukor’s 1931 Paramount comedy, Girls About Town. Two high-class, high-priced hookers ply their trade as a dynamic duo — until one falls in love. The fact that the film production code put an end to this kind of onscreen fun for the next 30 years makes it that much more enjoyable and valuable today: a not-so-guilty pleasure.
VON STROHEIM, Part Three: The Devil’s in the Details. August 2, 2012. With the improbable success of his Blind Husbands and a satisfactory sophomore effort in his adaptation of The Devil’s Pass Key, Universal gave Stroheim carte blanche for Foolish Wives. After 12 months of shooting, Universal blanched and took away the cameras. Six months’ editing produced as bleak a film as one could possibly imagine set on the sun-soaked Riviera. If Blind Husbands was Stroheim at his most autobiographical, then Foolish Wives’ Count Karamzin was his diabolical doppelganger. As a filmmaker, the die was cast. Right or wrong, Erich von Stroheim would never again be viewed as anything but a wildly extravagant artist in Hollywood.
KAY FRANCIS, M. D. August 14, 2012. By the middle of 1933, with six hit movies in a row since signing with Warner Brothers less than eighteen months earlier, Kay Francis was the hottest star in Hollywood and had earned some leverage in selection of roles. Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933) would break barriers that prevented women from being portrayed as professionals or unmarried mothers. In that film, Francis would portray both a female physician and an unwed mother. She would follow with a more glamorized version of the female M.D. in Doctor Monica (1934), but strict enforcement of the production code that year would bring calls for Warners to pull that film from release, and would prevent both films from ever seeing rerelease due to what was now considered immoral and indecent material under the newly enforced standards.
THE ROLLING STONES: SING THIS ALL TOGETHER (See What Happens). August 27, 2012. In June 1967, The Beatles were far and away the critical and popular darlings of modern popular music and culture. Their latest release, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, set the bar seemingly higher than anything that came before. And now it was their friendly rivals’ turn. To say that The Rolling Stones were unready for the challenge would be a monumental understatement. Their response was the most maligned work of 1960s popular music by any major artist, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Did the critics and even the creators of the music themselves have it wrong? Here’s my spin . . . er . . rather, my informed opinion on it!
BLANCHE SWEET, ICONOCLAST. Sept. 12, 2012. Of all the actresses to work with D. W. Griffith – of all the major female movie stars of her generation – Blanche Sweet more than any other resists definition. She falls into no obvious stereotype or category — certainly not the waif-like, child-woman ”Griffith actress.” Because most of her post-Griffith work does not survive, this major star of the 1910s and 20s is not remembered as readily as Gish or Pickford, but her contributions to the development of motion picture acting are arguably as important. She played adult roles while barely a teenager, making her debut in a film which some consider Griffith’s first great work, A Corner in Wheat. As she told an interviewer years later, “I was placed deep in the corner . . .”
BLANCHE SWEET (Part Two): “A Higher Plane of Art.” Sept. 23, 2012. Though she turned down the opportunity to travel west with the Biograph company of actors in 1910, Blanche Sweet would return the following year and convince Griffith that she was an actress of substance and talent. She was given key roles in his California films of 1911, and had her breakthrough role as the sheltered, disturbed older daughter in The Painted Lady, a brilliant early portrayal of mental illness in a single-reel drama from 1912.
BLANCHE SWEET, SIXTEEN. October 11, 2012. Blanche Sweet turned sixteen shortly after the Biograph company returned from their third California season in May, 1912. Griffith must have seen “languorous capabilities” in her, and finally chose to use them. They are on abundant display, or as much as they could be displayed in 1912, in One is Business; The Other Crime. In Death’s Marathon and Griffith’s first feature and last film directed for Biograph, the milestone epic, Judith of Bethulia, Sweet demonstrated that she was among the most effective dramatic actresses of her era.
KAY FRANCIS, BEGINNINGS. October 28, 2012. Daughter of an actress and a disappearing father, of course she became an actress and a movie star, but with more than a few twists and turns along the way. Born in Oklahoma City, she took a backdoor to the New York social scene in the jazz era 1920s; married wealthy at seventeen divorced in Paris at eighteen, made the right connections and became an actress on Broadway at twenty, signed to a movie contract at twenty-three, and starred with both Walter Huston and The Marx Brothers in hit films . . . then Hollywood beckoned. And this was only the beginning of the career of an unusual superstar of the glamorous golden age of American movies.
PRE-CODE PORTRAITS. November 11, 2012. When we think of “Pre-Code” Hollywood movies, we think of risque situations and dialogue loaded with double entendre. But early sound films were shot by some of the great visual artists of period, and are visually arresting as well. This isn’t about those artists, but their subjects. Three of my favorite females of Pre-Code Hollywood, Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow and Kay Francis, in a small selection of still frames out of thousands I’ve prepared, but not used here before. Can’t let ’em languish in the dark!
THE TUBE THAT ENDED SILENTS. November 29, 2012. “Talkies” or sound film, is generally perceived as a technology of its own, independent of other media as well. Hardly. The vacuum tube created wireless communication and radio. It did so through amplification of sound, which was sold to the public as one of the “wonders of technology” of the new century, “Talking Pictures.” In reality, shared patent rights among General Electric and A. T. & T. and their subsidiaries such as RCA and Western Electric, caused these companies to look for as many outlets as they could find to “monetize” those patents, hence amplified sound in movie theaters, through broadcasts, and on discs and film. The conservative executives of the motion picture industry did not adopt sound overnight, but over a transition period of half a decade, a period that brought an end to the popular art of silent film.
MISSING MARY PICKFORD. Part One, The IMP and the Majestic. December 8, 2012. The work of Mary Pickford has not been afforded the close study and analysis of her contemporaries, even though she has no equals. I help to remedy this in my own small way by looking at the non-existent films, the missing movies lost to decomposition and fire, the only way possible through the existing contemporary media accounts. Part One examines the one-reel films Pickford made between her two periods at Biograph, her films for Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Picture Company, IMP, and Harry Aitken’s Majestic Motion Picture Manufacturing Company.
MISSING MARY PICKFORD, Part Two: The Famous Player. December 21, 2012. After a couple of bad-movie- -but-good-learning experiences at IMP and Majestic, Pickford polished her resume during a second stint with Griffith and Biograph and then on stage with David Belasco’s “A Good Little Devil.” She shrewdly played Griffith, Belasco and pioneer feature producer Adolph Zukor against each other, choosing the Famous Players Company of Zukor at $500 a week. Making 15 films in less than two years, she was on her way to becoming the first star of American feature film and the first international media-created superstar. Except for a few fragments, the first four of her feature films no longer exist. We look at the extant media accounts to reveal the impact Pickford made with these groundbreaking early features.
MAE MURRAY, DISCOVERED. January 5, 2013. From 1917 to 1927 she was a mega-star, and when she joined the newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925 she was queen of the MGM lot — Joan Crawford studied her every move. But Mae Murray was the most secretive of the major stars of the silent era. Many would-be biographers hit a stone wall trying to trace her origins. Not until 2012 when author and film historian Michael Ankerich published his definitive biography, Mae Murray, the Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, did we learn the truth. His book is the first step in an long overdue reevaluation of Murray as one of the important figures in the popular arts — dance and film — of the early 20th century.
MAE MURRAY: Star-Crossed Chaos. January 27, 2013. Mae Murray was first and foremost a dancer. A star of the cabarets of New York in the first two decades of the 20th century, she had no desire to enter motion pictures. Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky gambled that they could make this Ziegfeld Follies performer a movie star. Her first year in film was rocky — fans loved her, critics were mixed at best. But when the man who would become her future husband, Robert Z. Leonard, became her primary director, her movie career flourished and she became a major star.
MARY FULLER. February 25, 2013. The “other Mary” was Pickford’s biggest rival — for a brief period, 1912 to 1916, Mary Fuller was as popular as any film star. Her groundbreaking twelve episode drama, What Happened to Mary? for Edison in 1912, launched the craze for movie serials; and her 1914 Edison twelve part serial, Dolly of the Dailies was just as successful. By 1917, she dropped out of sight, plagued apparently by mental illness from which she may never have recovered. Her remaining years are nearly a blank, but her importance in motion picture history should never be forgotten.
MARY OF THE MOVIES (Mary Fuller, Part Two). March 1, 2013. One of the biggest stars of the 1910s, very little of her work survives, one twelve part serial, What Happened to Mary? and fragments of two others, plus a handful of shorts. But her popularity meant she was a regular on the covers of, and inside the early movie fan magazines and trade papers. Scores of interviews, articles, essays, even poetry dedicated to the star, plus self-penned film scenarios and articles can be found, more readily than ever online. This is the next best thing to seeing her on film — Mary Fuller, in her own words.
MISSING MARY PICKFORD, Part Three. March 9, 2013. Mary Pickford becomes the dominant force in American feature film in 1914 with four mega-hits in six months, two of which no longer exist. Her former employers at Biograph and Universal do what was until then unthinkable — they re-release her “old” films to capitalize on the public hysteria for “Little Mary.” Pickford becomes the first film star to exploit to the fullest the possibilities of the extended format of feature film, combining pathos and comedy as no one had done before. Chaplin, who usually receives the credit for this synthesis, had just begun making shorts for Keystone.
UNA MERKEL, A brief pictorial appreciation (1930-1933). April 2, 2013. In a film career that began with Griffith and ended with Elvis, Una Merkel gained her greatest fame by playing the best friend of the biggest female stars in the golden age of Hollywood. Though quite spectacular in her own right, Merkel didn’t dim the luster of the stars she supported. Instead, she offered sly wit, sarcasm and a dose of common sense — she was cheery, smart, sometimes loaded, but never dumb, boring or annoying. She played leads until she signed with star-laden MGM, earning a regular paycheck as the hardest working actress in the movie business, but never getting the chance to lead an “A” picture. She added a great deal to the mix of any picture in which she appeared. Think of her as the spice to the sweetness of Loretta Young, or the honey to Harlow’s salty sexuality.
NATALIE WOOD: INSIDE DAISY CLOVER. April 23, 2013. As a three-time Oscar nominee and maker of four consecutive hit films, Natalie Wood was forced by her contract with Warner Brothers to make two crap comedies, before being allowed an “outside” movie. She chose a daring project, Inside Daisy Clover, an adaptation of Gavin Lambert’s quirky novel about the pitfalls of Hollywood stardom, directed by Robert Mulligan (1962’s Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird). The second-highest paid actress in film was looking to claim artistic heights as well, and gave what some (including me) feel was the best performance of her career.
THE PICKFORD BIOGRAPHS: THE BROKEN LOCKET. May 5, 2013. By the mid-summer of 1909, Griffith had directed more than 150 short films. For Mary Pickford, who joined Biograph in April of that year, The Broken Locket was her 28th appearance before the Biograph camera, about sixteen of which could be called “lead” roles, including Ruth King, the ever-patient heroine of this single reel drama. Pickford, having learned the methods of melodrama in her ten years on its stage, gives us an excellent, early example of a performance balancing (or perhaps teetering) between the classic gestural approach and a new and more natural, method. Adapted from developments in theater, within a handful of years it became the artistic ideal for motion picture acting.
THE PICKFORD BIOGRAPHS: THE LIGHT THAT CAME. May 19, 2013. A “Pickford Biograph,” in this case, may be a deceptive description: The Light That Came is an excellent example of the Biograph/Griffith “repertory company” in action: Marion Leonard and Mary Pickford, the Biograph company’s top female players, appear in support of a virtual unknown, Ruth Hart. Less than a week earlier, Hart made her cinematic début — a bit part in Nursing a Viper, with Leonard in the lead. Days later, the newcomer was playing the central role in only her second appearance before the Biograph camera.
BEBE DANIELS, “The Most Popular Girl in Hollywood.” May 23, 2013. A photo-essay reduction of Adela Rogers St. Johns’ 1922 Photoplay tribute to the fabulous Bebe Daniels, who evolved from Harold Lloyd’s tomboyish but sexy playmate to C. B. DeMille’s sweet vamp, and then became Tinseltown’s own favorite star, a jazzy glamour girl of the first glitzy golden age of movies, the Roaring Twenties.
THE PICKFORD BIOGRAPHS: “AS IT IS IN LIFE” (with a nod to Gladys Egan). June 18, 2013. One of the “all-outdoor” films from Griffith and Biograph’s first California trip in the winter of 1910. “As It Is In Life” is notable for its mix of acting styles among the players and for Griffith’s use of cross-cutting not in a chase-and-rescue sequence, but to build to a climax of emotion between father and daughter and her suitor. Mary Pickford shows that gesture and limited pantomime can be clear and convincing, yet be subtle, intimate and moving. The film is also notable for the appearance of Biograph “stock child” actor, Gladys Egan, one of early cinema’s los olvidados, to borrow a phrase from a reader and Luis Bunuel.
IMAGES from the Vault: Mae Murray, Kay Francis and William Powell. July 5, 2013. Images allow for casual contemplation, and I’ve selected just a few of my favorites to share. The production stills I’ve included here are among the many originals I’ve acquired over the past few years, and although they are subjects that I’ve already touched upon within these pages, I’ve chosen those photos that lean toward the unexpected — unusual images of those who may be familiar – supplemented with related ephemera.
FLORENCE LA BADIE, BECOMING. August 2, 2013. Florence La Badie was part of a second wave of early moving picture players. La Badie was not an experienced stage actor. She had in all likelihood spent more time posing as an artist’s model than she had on stage. She wasn’t promoted as an actress as much as she was a great beauty, a feminine ideal. As such, a back story had to be created out of whole cloth rather than stage curtain. The great irony of Florence La Badie is that these fictions and her subsequent fame concealed her true origins and clouded her death in unnecessary mystery. This is intended as a “Part One,” concentrating on her beginnings and “The Biograph.”
ALICE GUY-BLACHE, In Her Own Time, In Her Own Words. August 23, 2013. Alice Guy-Blache was a pioneer filmmaker who as much as anyone created the narrative or “story” film. Working first in France with Gaumont, she founded her own film studio in America, and was a major player among the independent filmmakers, as well as an early proponent of feature-length films. Yet Alice Guy-Blache has been largely overlooked by nearly all except those who take a special interest in early film and filmmaking. She is unknown to the general public and was forgotten more than seven decades ago by the film industry she helped create. A new documentary project will soon serve to correct this.
RITA JOLIVET, UNSINKABLE. September 30, 2013. Imagine a celebrity caught up in a real life terrorist attack, hundreds or even thousands die, but the celebrity survives, not quite a modern-day Ishmael, but with a story so compelling that along with the greater human tragedy it becomes instant legend and, completely without irony, a hugely successful feature film. It happened. In 1915. Rita Jolivet was the actress, and her life before Lusitania was similar to those highly embellished bios of most of her colleagues on stage and film, except that hers was not the product of publicity.
DOROTHY MACKAILL, STAR EVOLUTION: Part One (1920-1924). October 23, 2013. One of the most notable beneficiaries of the renewed interest in classic “Hollywood” film, Dorothy Mackaill is now regarded by modern audiences as one of the leading stars of the “pre-Code” era, where relaxed enforcement of production code standards led to films that regularly explored honest, adult themes that resonate with 21st century viewers. Although Mackaill made roughly eighteen “all-talking” pictures from 1929 to 1934 — the pre-Code era — and another half dozen “part-talkies” and “sound” effects films in 1928, the bulk of her career was in silent film.
LOU REED: Sunday Morning. October 28, 2013. No one aside from Buddy Holly could wring more feeling, experience and truth out of a simple song structure of three chords, and often less, than Lou Reed: think of “Not Fade Away” and “Heroin.” Now there are two songs one doesn’t expect to find linked in any way, but both are two-chord masterpieces by the two great masters of the form. Equally important, no one before Reed even attempted to put into popular song-form, lyrics as stark and blunt and real as the awful, and frequently terrifying and generally ugly aspects of life they describe.
THE TWO MARYS. November 30, 2013. Universal’s President Carl Laemmle boasted that his firm now offered exhibitors the services of arguably the two biggest female movie stars of 1914, Mary Fuller and Mary Pickford. While Laemmle had scored a major coup in signing Fuller away from his historic, bitter rival Edison, Pickford hadn’t worked for Laemmle in three years, since her unhappy stint with his IMP company in 1911. But Laemmle had been the first to make Pickford’s name known to an adoring public and was merely exploiting her explosive 1914 success by re-releasing her back catalog of over thirty one reel films, a tactic heretofore virtually unheard of in the film industry. Fuller would reach a peak of popularity with Universal over the next two years before experiencing one of the most abrupt fades in movie history.