August 10, 2012

Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire”

It gives me great pleasure to introduce guest contributor Michelle Vogel who recently published the latest in her long line of Hollywood biographies: Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire.”   Labeling Michelle as prolific could be the understatement of the century.  Her earlier works include complete biographies of Olive Thomas, Olive Borden, Gene Tierney, and Marjorie Main in addition to Children of Hollywood: Accounts of Growing Up as the Sons and Daughters of Stars.  Today Michelle provides a tantalizing preview of what you'll find between the covers of her latest achievement.

Coming attraction slide for Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event (1943)

Lupe Velez did not die with her head in the toilet bowl!

Unfortunately, the untimely end of “The Mexican Spitfire”, as she was known, is part of one of Hollywood’s biggest myths, yet, the story of her dying on the floor of her bathroom as she vomited her excessive pill intake into her toilet, has crossed from myth to truth.

Coming attraction slide for The Broken Wing (1932)
The release of my latest book, Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” sets the record straight. During my one-year of research and two years of writing, I uncovered the truth, not only about her death, but about her life, too. There was a massive pile of lies to sort through first, and it wasn’t easy, but with the help of Lupe’s second cousin, the right jigsaw pieces came together and the parts that didn’t fit within the puzzle were tossed to the side, where I hope they’ll stay – forever!

Coming attraction slide for Wolf Song (1929)
Lupe Velez wasn’t just an actress, she was a personality! She was no angel, and she often called herself “a devil,” but there were no evil intentions about her. Quite the contrary, she was kind, generous and loyal. Her off-screen persona was just as exciting as any character she played. The newspapers loved her, and her romances were the talk of tinseltown, and beyond.

A long term, tumultuous relationship with Gary Cooper ended after several years (they met on the film Wolf Song), and her only marriage to Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller was fraught with problems from the very beginning, and the fact that they made it to their fifth wedding anniversary before divorcing, or killing each other, is a miracle!

Coming attraction slide for The Gaucho (1927)

Despite her success in Hollywood, Lupe’s life would come to an abrupt end at age thirty-six. During her relationship with actor, Harald Ramond, she got pregnant. As she saw it, there were two ways out of her predicament – marriage…or death! Due to Ramond’s reluctance to make an honest woman of her, she chose the latter. 

Her suicide note blamed him and when that information came to light, any future career that he may have had in Hollywood was over. Despite the fact that Ramond emphatically claimed that it was all a misunderstanding and that he loved her and he did intend to marry her, it was too little, too late. Lupe Velez was dead, and Harald Ramond was the reason! He returned to Europe and was barely heard from again. 

Coming attraction slide for The Squaw Man (1931)
Lupe Velez died in her bed, as she intended. Eighty Seconal pills washed down with a glass of brandy took the life of her unborn child…and herself. Suddenly, the world knew that the woman who didn’t care what anyone thought of her or her antics had a breaking point. The shame of an unplanned pregnancy, and out of wedlock, was too much for her to bear. 

Her suicide note read: 
"To Harald: May God forgive you and forgive me, too; but I prefer to take my life away and our baby's, before I bring him with shame, or killin' [sic] him.
Unlike many of her peers whose work is lost to time, much of Lupe Velez’s work is available on DVD. Not necessarily commercially available, but easily accessible via collectors and websites that deal in classic films. The eight-film “Mexican Spitfire” series is a great start for anyone unfamiliar with her work. Perfect for the entire family, the entire set is available from TCM and WBShop for less than $40. An absolute bargain!


Michelle Vogel is a Hollywood historian and the author of a number of non-fiction books relating to the stars of silent and classic films. Her in-depth research allows her readers to see her subjects as the real people who existed in the "reel" world, the world of Hollywood make-believe. Her blog can be viewed on Wordpress and ordering information for her earlier works on Olive Thomas, Gene Tierny, and others are available from McFarland.

Slide image for Wolf Song courtesy of Jessica Rosner.
All other slide images courtesy of Matt and Michelle Vogel.

July 29, 2012

Heading Down to the Sea for Clara Bow's Birthday

Coming attraction slide for Down to the Sea in Ships (1922)
Clara Bow in Down to the Sea in Ships
Starts Thursday! celebrates Clara Bow's 107th natal anniversary with the coming attraction slide from her first screen appearance, Elmer's Clifton's whaling adventure Down to the Sea in Ships (1922).

Strictly speaking, Down to the Sea marks the first time the future It Girl appeared on the screen, but it was not her first part in a film.  That distinction goes to Beyond the Rainbow (1922), a cast-heavy drama which featured sixteen major characters, including Bow.  While editing the film, director Christy Cabanne streamlined the film's complicated plot and slovenly pace by completely excising several actors from the film, including Clara.


Subsequently, and unsurprisingly, when Bow rose to startdom, Beyond the Rainbow was re-cut and reissued in hopes of taking advantage of her box office appeal.

Coming attraction slide for reissued Beyond the Rainbow (1922)
Bow is absolutely charming in Down to the Sea in Ships, effectively stealing the scene in every frame in which she appears.

David Stenn describes how Clara got the part in his excellent biography Clara Bow, Runnin' Wild:
"She was ideal for director Elmer Clifton, who was casting a low-budget whaling saga [...] In need of cheap talent, Clifton noticed the Fame and Fortune Contest winner in Motion Picture Classic, liked her youthful look, and summoned her for an interview.  When Clara arrived, Clifton could not believe his eyes: where was the merry girl from the magazine photo?  In a misguided attempt to anticipate his needs, Clara had borrowed a dress and worn heavy makeup.  Clifton took one look at her and said she was too old for the part.
Clara was frantic.  "I'm only sixteen!" she cried.  The director smiled and shook his head. He did not believe her.
Clara rushed home and returned to Clifton's office in her shabby clothing and a scrubbed face.  Her gumption and unadorned appeal led the director to hire her for a two-week tial period at a salary of thirty-five dollars a week.
On location in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the two weeks [the duration of Bow's initial try-out contract] stretched into thirteen as Clifton, impressed by Clara's instinctive talent, padded her role as Dot Morgan, the bland heroine's tomboyish kid sister.  Dot was a character Clara could related to: the spunky, chunky girl who beats up boys her ange, then masquerades as one when stowing away on a whaler to escape her repressive Quaker family.  Her also provided the stodgy film with welcome comic relief."
And the rest is history...

Down to the Sea in Ships is available in a nice DVD edition from Kino Lorber.  

April 28, 2012

Gelukkig Koninginnedag from Annie Bos!

Coming attraction slide for Annie Bos in A Carmen of the North (1919)

We commemorate today's celebration with a slide of Annie Bos in the 1919 Dutch feature Een Carmen van het Noorden, also released in the U.S. the following year under the literally translated title A Carmen of the North.

Annie Bos
Though little-known today, Annie Bos was Netherlands first major film star.  Making her first screen appearance in 1913, Bos quickly rose in fame and popularity and was sometimes referred to in Europe as "the Dutch Asta Nielsen."  Interestingly, U.S. promoters apparently didn't think the nickname would resonate with American audiences and instead the slide describes her as "The Nazimova of Europe."  Alas, perhaps Annie's star was not quite bright enough to shine alone and promoters felt compelled to perpetually describe her as the Dutch version of somebody else.

The decade of the 1910s proved to be the heyday of Annie Bos's popularity, particularly the years 1914-19 during which she starred in dozens of features.  Her star began to fade soon after the war, appearing in only a handful of Dutch productions after 1920.  In 1922 she came to the United States where she appeared under the name Anna Bosilova in her only non-Dutch film, Without Fear (1922).  Afterwards she returned to the Netherlands where she made one final film appearance (Mooi Juultje van Volendam, 1925) before retiring from the screen.  

The website for EYE Film Institute Netherlands provides this synopsis for Een Carmen van het Noorden
Jozef lives in a village in Holland with his mother and his betrothed, Mareike. He is called to military service and, bidding good-bye to his sweetheart, promises to return as soon as he is mustered out. He is assigned to military police duty in a city where Carmen, a bewitching young cigarette maker, lives. 
Annie Bos (right) as Carmen, fights in cigarette factory.
Carmen gets into a dispute with one of the factory girls and, in a burst of fury, injures her with a pair of scissors. Jozef is summoned to arrest her. He resists her coquetish glances and manages to handcuff her and put her in prison. She persists in exerting her wiles until he, madly infatuated, consents to set her free. For this he is disgraced, imprisoned and finally dishonourably discharged. 
Carmen hastens to a smugglers' headquarters and here he traces her. Mareike, growing anxious because she has heard nothing from Jozef for weeks, starts out in search of him. 
Annie Bos in A Carmen of the North
 Carmen's charm has proved too strong for Jozef to resist. One night as he is jealously watching Carmen's flirtations with the military police (with whom she is detaining so that the smugglers can get over the border) Mareike comes to him, but he refuses to go home with her. 
Carmen's affection for Jozef is very fleeting and she soon gives him up for Dalboni, a popular opera singer she has met in a café. Carmen and Dalboni marry. Jozef, broken down and disheartened, comes to the theatre where Dalboni is singing. He finds Carmen and pleads with her. When she laughs at him, he stabs her to death.
In his book Of Joys and Sorrows, A Filmography of Dutch Silent Fiction, Geoffery Donaldson notes the censor's reaction to the film:
In the magazine of the Dutch local censorship, Maandblaad voor de Bioscoop-Commissie (15/10/1919) [10/15/1919 to North Americans] the local censorship of Groningen declared this film unsuitable  of screening to a young audience because of the easy virtues of the leading lady.  The film was also banned for young audiences by local censorship of Leeuwarden (Maandblaad voor de Bioscoop-Commissie 15/1/1920) because it showed too much passion.
I had the pleasure of viewing a retrospective of Annie Bos's films at the 2007 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy and very much remember this title in particular.  Bos had been completely unknown to me but I quickly came to appreciate the unlikely concept of Dutch diva.  Clearly the Italians had not entirely cornered the market on soul-sucking love-devouring femme fatales.

Annie Bos in A Carmen of the North
Unfortunately, the wonderfully tragic ending described in EYE's synopsis is not the version that I have seen.  The surviving film print held by EYE Film Institute is the American export version which catered to American audiences by substituting a happy ending in the place of Carmen's murder.  As David Robinson explains in his 2007 Giornate program notes, "In the original version of the film, Jozef goes to the theatre where Dalboni is performing Carmen, and stabs Carmen to death.  The print which has survived, was a version made for American distribution, in which, after Jozef has served a two-year prison sentence, everyone enjoys a happy ending, as unmerited as unlikely." 

I was especially pleased to come across this slide for A Carmen of the Northwhile scanning a friend's collection.  For several years I have searched without success for Dutch coming attraction slides.  Now, after cataloging over 5,000 individual slides, I have my first example of a slide featuring a Dutch film - even though it is American-produced slide.  My search continues for slides actually used within Dutch cinemas, but at least this seems like a step in the right direction.

Slide for A Carmen of the North courtesy of Jessica Rosner.

April 6, 2012

Restored THE SPANISH DANCER Premieres at EYE Grand Opening

Coming attraction slide for The Spanish Dancer (1923)

DATELINE: Amsterdam, April 6, 2012

This evening the EYE Institute Netherlands (formerly Netherlands Filmmuseum) unveiled their spectacular new home on the northern shore of the Ij.  Also unveiled today was the Institute's new restoration of  the Paramount feature THE SPANISH DANCER (1923) directed by Herbert Brenon and starring Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno.  By all accounts the day was a spectacular success.  With great fanfare, the opening festivities featured Queen Beatrix officially opening the facility.  Most special to me has been seeing photos and videos from so many of my friends and former colleagues at EYE celebrating their new home.  

Today's events are special to me for several reasons.  Knowing how hard the people at EYE have worked, and being aware of the exceptionally difficult challenges they have faced over the past year, it is a joy seeing how happy everybody looks on this occasion.  I am also thrilled to see THE SPANISH DANCER presented to an appreciative audience, even though unfortunately I was not able to be present.  With my participation supported through a Haghefilm Foundation Fellowship, I lived in Amsterdam part time last year completing working with my good friends Annike and Elif (an unbeatable combination!) to complete the restoration,  In total we combined four different fragmentary print sources, only one of which had English titles, into a wonderful complete feature that now finally returns to the screen.  

Now that the film has premiered, when will American audiences have a chance to appreciate this newly restored gem?

Watch this space for further details...

March 16, 2012

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors...

Claire Windsor featured in generic advertising slide, localized to endorse Sperry's retail store.

George Clooney pushing Nespresso?  Jerry Seinfeld pitching for American Express?  Britney Spears munching a Big Mac?

Whatever you think of celebrity endorsements, there is nothing new about the concept.  Today I bring you a delightful selection of silent era pitchmen (mostly women), taking advantage of that brief interlude between reels to do what Americans do best - sell stuff.

Advertising slide featuring Ogla Petrova endorsing O-B Rings.
Of these slides that I have so far found, the celebrity doing the pitching is typically (but not always) female and the products on display are targeted to female consumers.  Of course there are zillions of advertising slides that do not rely on celebrity endorsement.  It is no challenge to find slides hawking everything from Cracker Jacks to veterinary supplies to motor oil to "silent" toilets.  But if it is a movie star doing the selling, chances are that women are the target for the pitch.*

* [As much as I would like, this probably isn't the place to depart too tangentially into the development of consumerism, mass marketing, and leisure as a commodity.  For a far better and more scholarly discussion of this topic, please check out American Cinema's Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices edited by Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp.]

Pricilla [sic] Dean in generic advertising slide, personalized for Withrow's Confectionery.

Considering their graphic layout, product advertising slides are typically designed to facilitate local customization.  Without exception, each of these examples features a blank space at the bottom the slide in which to display the name of a local merchant - a design the exactly mirrors motion picture coming attraction slides which include a blank space into which the projectionist would write the play dates,

Laura La Plante featured in advertising slide for Helbros Watches, customized for D.S. Sampler, Co.
The advertising slides featured here come in one of two basic design variations.  The first type displays a product that a celebrity is endorsing, such as Olga Petrova's rings or Laura La Plante's watches.  In these cases the slide advertises a specific branded product, and additionally informs the consumer where they can go to purchase one of their own.

The second variation endorses no specific product.  Instead, through localization, the celebrity is implied to endorse the establishment itself.  The ad feature prominently features the celebrity's image accompanied by some non-specific generic text, under which the name of the local establishment is locally printed.  Such is the case with Claire Windsor and her baby leopard above, as well as the two Constance Talmadge endorsements that follow.

Constance Talmadge featured in generic advertising slide, localized to endorse Withrow's Confectionary.
Constance Talmadge featured in generic advertising slide, localized to endorse Sperry's retail.
As I mentioned, it's not always women doing the selling.  Here's Wally Reid getting into the act with a generic endorsement slide that has been customized to endorse the same candy store as that Constance Talmadge apparently also enjoys - when she isn't hanging out at Sperry's listening to the radio. 

Wallace Reid featured in generic advertising slide, localized to endorse Withrow's Confectionary.

Slide images featuring Claire Windsor, Constance Talmadge (Sperry's), and Laura La Plante, courtesy of Mark Johnson.

February 20, 2012

Take a Gamble - Identify the Mystery Woman

Program closing slide.  Who is this woman?
Who is this woman?

I posed this question in an early article when hardly anybody was paying attention to this site.  Though I'm still not quite getting a Wikipedia hit rate (yet) the odds seem much better that someone out there may be able to identify the actress in pictured in this slide.

The slide comes from the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, once located at 1600 Broadway, New York City.  Of the thousands of slides I have catalogued that include manufacturer's information, I have encountered only five (5) slides manufactured by this company, all of which either promote titles or personalities associated with the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.  As logical as this arrangement may seem, it is one of the rare occasions where I have encountered advertising slides produced by a film company.  Far more typical is the case where advertising slides are produced by a third-party specializing in slide production, a topic I intend to address in a future article.

But meanwhile, back to the identity of the mystery woman.  The fact that this is a Universal slide narrows the field considerably.  Another clue is that the dates of the other Universal slides I have catalogued range from 1914-17.  Finally, perhaps the hearts and dice motif also provides a clue.  Is she currently appearing in a film about love and luck?  Gambling and romance?

Do you know the answer?

Throw the dice and see what comes up.

January 22, 2012

Happy Birthday David Llewelyn Wark Griffith!

Coming attraction slide for True Heart Susie (1919)
David Llewelyn Wark Griffith was born in LeGrange, Kentucky on January 22, 1875.

In the years that transpired between 1875 and his death in 1948 D.W. Griffith created many of the greatest, a couple of the worst, and one of the most hailed (and reviled) films of the silent era, and pioneered much in defining and refining the craft of motion picture story telling.  His filmography includes Intolerance (1916), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Broken Blossoms (1919), Hearts of the World (1918), The Birth of a Nation (1915), and over 500 other titles.

As far as legacies are concerned, he certainly could have done worse.

Happy Birthday D.W.!

December 28, 2011

Twenty-Five New Inductees for National Film Registry

Coming attraction slides for 2011 National Film Registry inductees:
The Kid (1921) and The Iron Horse (1924)

Yesterday the Library of Congress announced twenty-five new inductees to the National Film Registry.  Every year the Librarian of Congress selects twenty-five American films for addition to the Registry based on suggestions from the library’s National Film Preservation Board as well as the general public.  This years selection included silent era masterpieces such as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and John Ford's The Iron Horse (1924), as well as Thanhouser Studio's child labor exposé The Cry of the Children (1912).

Attention of the popular press has focused on the elevation of Forrest Gump (1994) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the only two films of recent decades to make the cut.  I am personally struck in Gumplike wonder to see these listed as two of our country's most “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant motion pictures.  They are fine films to be sure, but it is bewildering to see them so honored when so many films of higher merit remain in the shadows.  

Citizen input is an important component of selection process.  Visit the National Film Registry web site to submit your nominees for 2012.  

The 25 films selected this year for preservation as part of the National Film Registry include:
  • Allures (1961)
  • Bambi (1942)
  • The Big Heat (1953)
  • A Computer Animated Hand (1972)
  • Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963)
  • The Cry of the Children (1912)
  • A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
  • El Mariachi (1992)
  • Faces (1968)
  • Fake Fruit Factory (1986)
  • Forrest Gump (1994)
  • Growing Up Female (1971)
  • Hester Street (1975)
  • I, an Actress (1977)
  • The Iron Horse (1924)
  • The Kid (1921)
  • The Lost Weekend (1945)
  • The Negro Soldier (1944)
  • Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s)
  • Norma Rae (1979)
  • Porgy and Bess (1959)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Stand and Deliver (1988)
  • Twentieth Century (1934)
  • War of the Worlds (1953)