December 31, 2010

Wishing You a Glori(a)ous New Year

Stage Struck (1925)
Celebrating the New Year is glamorous occasion and who better to commemorate this festive occasion than Gloria Swanson?  During her career, and especially during the 1920s, Gloria Swanson reveled in wardrobe opulence, probably clocking more wardrobe changes per minute of screen time than any other woman in history.

Here's hoping you find inspiration in this Glori(a)ous fashion show.  Have a wonderful holiday and we'll see you next year.

Her Gilded Cage (1922)   



The Great Moment (1921)

Prodigal Daughters (1923)

Happy New Year!

December 24, 2010

The Management Wishes You a Merry Christmas

Theater Christmas slide (c. 1910-30)
Product advertising and coming attraction promotion were not the only reasons that theater operators used lantern slides.  In this exceptionally topical example an exhibitor wishes their patrons a Merry Christmas.

...and now, almost a century later, I'll take advantage of this opportunity to do the same.

Happy Holidays from STARTS THURSDAY!


Slide image courtesy of Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

December 23, 2010

Dorothy: The (Almost) Forgotten Gish

It give me great pleasure to introduce today's guest contributor: Donna Hill.  Donna is good friend of STARTS THURSDAY! and has recently published a wonderful volume on Rudolph Valentino, Rudolph Valentino The Silent Idol.  She recently embarked on a new research project on Dorothy Gish, who just happens to be the subject of today's article.

Slide for The Ghost in The Garret (1921)
Sometimes a glass slide is all we have of a film and in some very sad cases all that’s left of a film career for a particular player.  If not the entire filmography, large chucks of some filmograpies are gone with the wind.  Take the case of Dorothy Gish as an example.

Slide for London (1926)
Dorothy Gish was the no less talented younger sister of Lillian Gish.  The Gish sisters came to film at the same time.  Both developed their talent and screen presence under the tutelage of D.W. Griffith.  Both became well known and beloved film stars in the later teens and 1920’s.  Today, Dorothy is very nearly forgotten and when one hears the name Gish, it is Lillian the person is speaking of.
 
As her career progressed, Dorothy quickly veered off D.W. Griffith’s radar, in a sense, as she was a very talented comedienne. Griffith had little feel for comedy and assigned her films to other directors once he and his company of players moved to Triangle from Biograph.  Griffith was “supervisor” but one doubts his role in this regard, except in name only.  Dorothy’s popularity at the time cannot be underestimated.  She was offered $1,000,000 to join Paramount and turned it down reportedly out of loyalty to Griffith.
Slide for I'll Get Him Yet (1919)

Later on, in between 1918 and 1920 she made a series of comedies that were very popular and money makers.  Released through Paramount/Artcraft films such as Peppy Polly (1919), Boots Remodeling Her Husband (1920) and Flying Pat (1920) made Dorothy a popular star.  We cannot judge these films since every single one of them is now lost.  What a tragedy this is.

Slide for The Beautiful City (1925)
The few films Dorothy made that survive offer only a glimpse of the talented actress and comedienne she was.  She is charming and spunky in Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916) and moving and understated as Louise in Orphans of the Storm (1921).  One hopes that more of Dorothy’s films may turn up somewhere, some place.  Remodeling Her Husband is one high on the list given that it is also the sole directorial credit for Lillian Gish.  Flying Pat is also high on the list since the extant stills are a delight.

In the meantime, we must make do with the tantalizing images that remain, like the colorful glass slides.

--- DONNA HILL


Donna Hill is a lifelong fan of silent film and classic film in general.  She has maintained a fan website for Rudolph Valentino (www.rudolph-valentino.com) since 1997.  Her book Rudolph Valentino The Silent Idol was published in 2010 and is available at  www.blurb.com/my/book/detail/1644955.

Donna lives in San Francisco and is currently researching the life and career of Dorothy Gish and is blogging about it at www.dorothy-gish.com


Slide image for The Beautiful City courtesy of Cleveland Public Library.


December 22, 2010

Lon Chaney Gets Slapped Around

Slide for He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Today we celebrate the 86th anniversary of He Who Gets Slapped, which premiered December 22, 1924.  Masterfully directed by Victor Sjöström, the film features a truly all-star cast including:  Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and John Gilbert.

The opening intertitle sets the tone for all that follows:
  "In the grim comedy of life, it has been wisely said that the last laugh is the best."  
 "Grim comedy of life" indeed.  He Who Gets Slapped is a standout for any number of reasons but Chaney's heartbreaking performance tops the list.  I won't synopsize the film here, but if you want to know more I suggest that you check out the excellent summary at Classic Film Guide.  Suffice it to say, if it's a tragic clown you're looking for, this is the place to find one.

Slide image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library.

December 19, 2010

Hollywood Does Its Part

Advertising slide.  Douglas Fairbanks promotes third Liberty Loan bond campaign (1918)

In 1917 and 1918, the United States government issued Liberty Bonds to help finance the war effort.   An aggressive promotional campaign organized by Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo pushed the bonds through patriotic appeals using print, posters, buttons, and (of course) theatre advertising.  Celebrities and Hollywood stars lent their star power to the cause, with Al Jolson, Elsie Janis, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin among the celebrities that made public appearances.
 
Douglas Fairbanks lifts Charlie Chaplin at Liberty Loan rally (1918)
Probably most successful (and certainly the most highly publicized) of these star efforts were rallies featuring filmdom's three most popular personalities:  Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. Traveling together by train, they appeared together at rallies that drew throngs at every stop.

[The website Critical Past hosts a very nice video of the the three appearing in Washington D.C. during the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive.  Click HERE to check it out.]

Charlie Chaplin in The Bond (1918)
Chaplin also created a short film The Bond (1918) at his own expense.  The film included members of Chaplin's company Albert Austin and Edna Purviance, and featured Chaplin's brother Sydney as the Kaiser who Charlie pounds to defeat in the end using a "Liberty Bonds" mallet.

The combination of patriotic appeal and Hollywood glamor appear to have been a potent component of the government's strategy.  The second, third, and fourth bond issues were all over-subscribed, and the bond campaigns overall raised a combined  $21.5 billion for the war effort.  While it isn't possible to directly attribute bond sales to specific elements of the promotional campaign, it is clear that when it came to selling the war effort, Hollywood definitely "did it's part."

Douglas Fairbanks slide courtesy of the Goessel Collection.

December 15, 2010

Are You Doing Your Bit?

Patriotic exhibitors slide (c. 1917)
Lantern slides in motion picture venues served a multitude of purposes - they touted products, advertised local merchants, instructed audience behavior (don't spit on the floor!), led them in song, and promoted upcoming programs.
Advertisement in Motion Picture News, May 19, 1917
During wartime slides also served as a means to promote (or demonstrate) patriotism and to support the the propaganda needs of the government.

Commercial Patriotic Slides

Slides of this variety fall into two broad categories.  The first type are slides that the exhibitor themselves purchased from commerical manufacturers such as the Excelsior Illustrating Company or Novelty Slides, Inc.

These slides declared simple patriotic slogans and were typically embellished with color images of eagles, flags, soldiers presidential profiles, or other patriotic symbols.  Motion picture trade magazines such as Motion Picture News and Moving Picture World featured advertisments for these types of slides which could be purchased for 15¢ to 25¢ each.
Motion Picture News, June 23, 1917

Projectionist column in Motion Picture News, May 12, 1917

Within the cinema, these patriotic appeals generally led off the program.

In her book Reel Patriotism:  The Movies and World War I, Leslie Midkiff DeBauche describes the scene:

"Once the houselights dimmed and the movie-goers' attention was directed to the screen, the theater manager had a final opportunity to promote his theater by striking the patriotic chord. [...]  The Excelsior Illustrating Company of New York sold "a few of the other beautifully handcolored patriotic slides, 25 cents.'  Or exhibitors could make their own slides.  Joseph Yeager, owner of a chain of theaters in Raton, New Mexico, showed slides of local mean who had enlisted.  'The [the slides] are making a hit now and he has a full set for later use should they be killed or perform some unusual service.'"
Government issued instructions for exhibiting Food Pledge slides (1917)
Government Issued Propaganda Slides

The second variety of wartime patriotic slide were propaganda slides provide directly from government agencies.

Slides in this category promoted enlistment into the armed services, encouraged sacrifice and volunteerism on the home front, and touted the purchase of war bonds.

These slides were often of components of coordinated multi-media campaigns which combined slides and motion pictures with printed material such as handbills and posters.

For example, the Food Administration's extensive Second Food Pledge Card Drive included a set of eight slides that were furnished to theatre owners.  The dates and sequence for exhibiting these slides were specifically detailed in an instruction sheet which accompanied the slides.  In addition to the slides, the campaign included newsreel films of President Woodrow Wilson and former president Herbert Hoover, and posters proclaiming "Food Will Win the War."

The campaign proved to be a great success.  According to DeBauche:

"The Second Pledge Card Drive, which was designed to enlist the housewives of the nation in the Food Administration's conservation efforts, was highly successful.  Ten and one-half million pledge cards were signed, and the same number of window cards were distributed.  The film industry contributed to this successful outcome by visibly aligning itself with food conservation efforts.  Long after the campaign ended, exhibitors displayed the colorful posters and framed certificates [...] to remind patrons of their patriotism."
Slide A1, U.S. Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive, exhibited week of October 14, 1917.
Slide A2, U.S. Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive, exhibited week of October 14, 1917.
Slide A4, U.S. Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive, exhibited week of October 14, 1917.
Slide A5, U.S. Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive, exhibited week of October 14, 1917.
Slide B2, U.S. Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive, exhibited week of October 21, 1917.
Slide B3, U.S. Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive, exhibited week of October 21, 1917.

Mass Production Meets the Propaganda Slide

Government issued propaganda slides were manufactured on a grand scale.  The U.S. Treasury Department created 30,000 slides supporting the first Liberty Loan drive, and manufactured 17,500 more sets of three slides per set for the second bond drive.
Cellophane slide, Red Cross Clothing Drive (c. 1917)

Though these slides were created in great quantity, they were also designed with an extremely short shelf-life in mind.  They were intended to exhibited over a very specific time during the campaign and then discarded afterwards.

These considerations clearly manifested in manufacturing processes that appear to be unique to government produced slides - processes which obviously empasize quantity over quality.

Unlike commercially produced slides of the era, these government-issued slides were not manufactured using photographic plates.   Instead, they were produced by printing the message onto cellophane or stamping it into metal.

Cellophane slide, Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive (1917)
Metal slide, Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive (1917)
Cellophane based slides consisted of simple black type printed on an thin cellophane pane.  The cellophane was then supported by an equally flimsy cardboard frame and stapled at the edges.

To a certain extent, this cardboard frame construction predicts the more refined cardboard frame manufacturing process that the industry adopted in 1924 (see Anatomy of a Slide), but there are also significant differences.

The most obvious is that the image itself is printed on a press instead of screened or developed photographically and that the transparent material is flimsy cellophane instead of glass.

The other less obvious difference is that the frame consists of two separate pieces of cardboard stapled together, which differs from the later 1924 process which required a tri-fold arrangement in order to create a space within the frame to secure the glass element.

More interesting (and certainly more durable!) than the cellophane process are slides that  that were simply stencil-cut from metal sheets.

These slides (I suppose they still fit that definition) have the letters simply punched out from the material.
Metal slide, Food Administration Second Pledge Card Drive (1917)

The resulting image is certainly military looking.  I suppose the good news is that breakage was never a concern.
 
In executing these campaigns, R.C. Maxwell, the head of the U.S. Education Department complained about the "ordinary" quality of the slides and films.

Clearly he had a point.

 
Pledge Drive slides courtesy of Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

December 14, 2010

Pola Negri Loses Her Head in "Passion"

Madam DuBarry released in the U.S. as  Passion (1920)
Today we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the American premiere of Ernst Lubitsch's Passion at the New York Capitol theater on December 12, 1920.

Today the film is more commonly known by it's original title Madam DuBarry.  The 1919 German film was renamed Passion for the American release because distributor First National believed (probably justifiably) that Madam DuBarry sounded too foreign to draw at the box office. 

Madam DuBarry featured two of Germany's biggest stars, Pola Negri and Emil Jannings, and is credited by Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman as being "the film would have the greatest influence on Lubitsch's career."   In her modestly titled Memoirs of a Star, Pola Negri echoed the sentiment calling the film "the most important film of my career."

Negri recalled the Berlin premiere at the UFA-Palast in Berlin on September 18, 1919:
Pola Negri in Madam DuBarry [aka Passion] (1920)
"...it was also the opening night of the largest motion picture theatre in Europe, the UFA Palace in Berlin.  The four thousand seats were filled with a distinguished audience from the worlds of society and the arts and standees lined the back.  A special box, decorated with flowers, had been reserved for Lubitsch, Jannings, and me.  Work had gotten out that this film might mark the beginning of a new epoch in pictures, and representatives of movie companies had come from all over the world.  The atmosphere rippled with anticipation.
At the end of the picture, there was a breathless silence.  Emil almost looked pleased.  Lubitsch and I exchanged a very nervous glance.  Was it possible that the public did not like what we considered our best work?
Then the roof fell in!  There was a burst of thunderous applause as we were accorded a standing ovation that went on endlessly.  People began to clamor into our box.  We were terrified that we might be torn to shreds by their enthusiasm.  I found myself being lifted onto strange shoulders and paraded through the theatre, as the audience changed, 'Hail Königin Pola!'"

December 6, 2010

William S. Hart: Hamlet on Horseback

On this 146th anniversary of his birth, STARTS THURSDAY pays tribute to most stoic cowboy ever to ride the range:  William S. Hart!

William S. Hart promotion slide (c. 1915-23)
William Surrey Hart was born on December 6, 1864, four months before the Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.  He began his acting career on the stage during his twenties and became a successful Shakespearean actor on Broadway, also appearing in popular melodramas as well as the original stage production of Ben-Hur in 1899.  

Three Word Brand (1921)
Hart's stage performance eventually led to his 1907 screen debut in a one-reel adaptation (if you could call it that)  of Ben-Hur in which he played the role of Messala.  This abbreviated version featured only two actors (Herman Rottger played Ben Hur) and focused exclusively on the climactic chariot race.  The film was released December 7, 1907 - one day after Hart's 43rd  birthday.  Though it marks his first screen appearance, it could not really be considered the beginning of his film career.  That would come seven years later in 1914 when he left the stage behind and headed west.

The Toll Gate (1920)
Hart played supporting roles in a couple of short films before being starring in the feature length The Bargain (1914), the film widely credited with launching him to stardom.  In 1915 he starred in a series of two-reel westerns, before moving on to feature length films, first for Thomas Ince and then for Adolph Zukor's Famous Players-Lasky.

Travelin' On (1922)
Yankee Shakespearean or not, Hart was fascinated by the "Old West" and insisted on realistically depicting western life.  Over his eleven year film career he made more than 65 films, the last being Tumbleweeds in 1925 which is now recognized as one of his best.  Tumbleweeds was reissued in 1939 with an eight-minute spoken introduction by the then 75 year old Hart.  The introduction closes with his heartfelt farewell to the screen in a speech reminiscent of Douglas MacArthur's farewell ("old soldiers never die, they just fade away) twenty years hence.

video
 William S. Hart bids farewell (1939)

Hart's farewell also serves as a reminder of his origin as a Shakespearean actor.  When the sound era arrived in 1927 the careers of many actors from the silent era were ruined due to their (supposedly) inappropriate or inadequate speaking voices.  In Hart's case, he was already over 60 years old when he made his last film in 1925.  If he had only hung on until the sound era perhaps he could have been a Hamelet on horseback.

Happy Birthday Bill!



Slide images of William S. Hart promo and Three Word Brand courtesy of John Hillman.

December 4, 2010

"Wild Orgie Parties" (!!!)

Custom exhibitor slide from Sam Lustig Film Laboratory, Cleveland, Ohio (c. 1921)

Theater owners routinely created custom slides for purposes such as advertising, special promotions, and general announcements.  The slides could be ordered from large national vendors commissioned from smaller local manufacturers, or created in-house using one of the many Do It Yourself kits offered in the trade press (as discussed in DIY Coming Attractions). 

I recently came across an interesting locally manufactured slide which appears to have been commissioned as an exhibitor's response the infamous 1921 Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle scandal.  Readers of this column are likely familiar with this shameful episode in Hollywood history in which the innocent Arbuckle's career was destroyed by a self-rightous journalistic lynch mob led by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.  [For those of you unfamiliar with the details, I suggest Wanda Felix's nicely done online synopsis, or Andy Edmonds excellent book Frame-Up!: The Untold Story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.]

Roscoe Arbuckle in happier times.  The Garage (1920)
Though Arbuckle's name is not specifically mentioned in this slide the reference is obvious.  Newspaper headlines from the period indignantly "exposed" Hollywood's scandalous immorality typified by drug use, drunkenness,  and sexual depravity.  The "wild orgie" (sic) that formed the centerpiece of the Arbuckle scandal became a national symbol of what was wrong with the movies and predictably led to calls for censorship and government oversight.

This slide was manufactured by a local concern, the Sam Lustig Film Laboratory in Cleveland Ohio, and though there is no indication of the venue in which it was presented, the slide was most likely created on behalf of a local Ohio exhibitor.  Apparently this theater owner felt that it was the scandal was present enough in his audience's mind that he needed to address it directly it with his five thousand dollar challenge.

Interestingly, the text of the slide can be interpreted in two ways.  One (admittedly unlikely) interpretation could be that the exhibitor was defiantly defending the attacks on Hollywood movies and daring anyone to produce proof against the performers featured in his programs.  Most probably though, he hoped that this patriotically colored red, white, and blue slide would reassure his customers that he was maintaining strict vigilance and taking all necessary steps to ensure that his screen will not be soiled with pictures featuring players of questionable morality.

December 2, 2010

Carla Laemmle Remembers Lon Chaney

STARTS THURSDAY! friend Galen Wilkes recently had the pleasure of joining silent screen actress Carla Laemmle for the celebration of her 101th birthday.  Carla's career spans an amazing breadth of film history.  Her first screen appearance came in 1925 as a ballet dancer in The Phantom of the Opera, and she has been most recently the documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood which is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies.

Last month Galen sat down Carla and was able to capture recollections from some her early studio experiences.  STARTS THURSDAY! is exceptionally grateful to both Galen and Carla for their collaboration in recording these precious memories and for allowing me to share them with you.  What follows now are Carla's own words as transcribed by Galen Wilkes (November 2010)...


Slide for The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Carla Laemmle
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The studio asked me to be in The Phantom of the Opera.  I was quite young, about 16.  My dancing master was the director of the dance sequence.  He was Ernest Belcher.  I had previously studied dancing in Chicago.  Then I studied with him after we moved to Los Angeles.  I was 14 or 15 and became more accomplished under him.  He was from England and was the first choreographer hired to work for the movies.  I appeared in a lot of movies that he was hired to do.  The opera house was built exactly like the one in Europe.  It was very elaborate and enormous.  It was a beautiful stage.  It had a wonderful pit orchestra.  Everything was exactly like the original.  It still exists at Universal; they will never do anything to it, it will always be there.  I was very happy and proud that I was going to be one of the principal dancers!  I’m glad that I was trained well enough to do it.  I studied with Mr. Belcher for about 8 years.  It was a very nice time of my life. 

Galen Wilkes and Carla Laemmle (November 2010)
I didn’t get to meet Lon Chaney as we were not in the same scenes.  But I did see him in makeup!  That was when he was filming and by chance I happened to see him.  He had ruled out people coming to the set.  But somehow or other I showed up!  I gasped when I saw his face!  His makeup is just hideous.  Such a great loss when he died.  He was so young.  His parents were deaf and I think you can attribute a lot of his great talent to the fact he had this situation in his life.  He would have an opportunity to express to his parents through gestures and this was part of his training.  There’s no one that achieved what he did.  He was a very great actor, he could express anything.

Slide for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
I also watched him film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It just so happened they were shooting the scene where he climbed down the cathedral.  He did his own stunts, he didn’t have a stand-in.  He never did.  Everything that was even dangerous he would do.  Because he wanted it accurate.  He didn’t want anyone to stand in for him.   He felt absolutely qualified being able to do it.  I saw HIM do it.  He had a thing against hiring somebody to do the job.  He felt so qualified that he wasn’t afraid either.  It was hazardous.  The Hunchback was really a painful makeup.  He had this thing on his back, distorting it.  And then of course he had his facial makeup.  I was really blessed to get that close to him and actually appear in one of his movies!

Poster for King of Jazz (1930)
King of Jazz (1930)
Dancing on the giant piano was the scariest thing I've done.  I was dancing en pointe [on the tip of the toes] on these big keys way up high and I was scared I was going to fall!  I was right near the edge!  In the Tarantelle sequence I was on the floor, that was not scary!  I did meet Paul Whiteman.  He was very nice and gracious.  He was the star of it of course.


--- CARLA LAEMMLE as told to GALEN WILKES





Rebecca Isabelle "Carla" Laemmle was born October 20, 1909 and is the niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle.  Her first screen appearance came in 1925 in an uncredited role as a ballet dancer in The Phantom of the Opera (1925).  Carla also appeared in another as a small role a "coach passenger" in the original 1931 Dracula.  She is the last surviving cast member from both of these early classics.

Galen Wilkes has spent most of his life researching and producing programs on films and music of the early 20th century, including silent film series, radio broadcasts, live concerts & shows, and CD anthologies.  He publishes his own music in the ragtime idiom and has garnered much attention with a number of his works which appear on dozens of CDs and in concerts worldwide.  Galen also does lectures and programs for historical & educational organizations.  Galen can be found on line at his web site:  galenwilkes.tripod.com.



The Phantom of the Opera slide courtesy of Frank Buxton.

November 22, 2010

"Big Rock's Last Stand" Pushes Back the Envelope

Big Rock's Last Stand (USA, 1912)
This week I was very excited to locate today's featured slide (I know, I need to get a life).  What makes this advertisement so noteworthy is the film's release date, December 3, 1912, which makes it the earliest motion picture coming attraction slide I have yet to discover.  Hitherto the earliest film advertising slide I have been able to locate is Caprice starring Mary Pickford which was released November 10, 1913, almost a full year after Big Rock's Last Stand.

Josephine Mercedes Workman, a.k.a. Princess Mona Darkfeather
Big Rock's Last Stand was directed by Frank Montgomery, and starred a cast including:  Mona Darkfeather, William Bertram, Virginia Chester, Artie Ortego, Roy Watson, and Jane Keckley.  Montgomery is credited with directing 82 films but also had experience on the other side of the lens, appearing as an actor in 28 films.  His leading lady for Big Rock's Last Stand also just happened to be his wife, Josephine Mercedes Workman who worked under the stage name Princess Mona Darkfeather. 

Returning to the slide, I am impressed with its detailed color and graphic sophistication.  Not only are three different colors used to highlight the text, the detailed coloring in the central photo as well as the Bison studio logos are quite precise.  Generally it is not uncommon for hand-colored slides to use only one or two colors to tint an otherwise black and white image, but in this instance there are five:  yellow, green, blue, brown, and two shades of red. 

Another notable, though unsurprising, feature of the slide is that it makes no mention of the producer, director, or stars.  This is not unusual since 1912 marked just the very beginning of the star system.  In many of these earliest advertisements it is usually the studio brand that figures most prominently.   One of my current research topics is to plot a general time-line for the evolution of title credits on silent era slides, but we'll save that conversation for another day...

To learn more about Bison Motion Pictures and Bison 101 Features, the following excerpt from Tim Dirks AMC filmsite should help fill in the blanks:
One of the earliest trail-blazing industry's innovators was producer/director Thomas Harper Ince (1882-1924), whose major claims to fame were the making of crude westerns and the development of the "factory-studio system" to mass produce films. After a short stint at Biograph as an actor and director, he joined Carl Laemmle's Independent Moving Picture (IMP) Company, and moved west to California in 1911. The New York Motion Picture Co. and the Selig Polyscope Film Company of Chicago set up studios near Los Angeles in Edendale [present-day Echo Park], initiating the establishment of West Coast studio production.

Ince supervised the New York Motion Picture Company-owned subsidiary Bison Company, or Bison Life Motion Pictures. It became a studio/ranch that specialized in westerns when, in 1912, his Bison Company production studios purchased the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and the Wild West Show to use their props and performers for his assembly-line, mass-produced films, and was renamed Bison 101 Company. The Bison Company studios, also became known as Inceville, after he bought about 20,000 acres of seacoast land in Santa Ynez Canyon and the surrounding hills.

He developed a system of advanced planning and budgeting, and shot his films from detailed "shooting scripts" (that broke down each scene into individual shots). It became a prototype for departmentalized and specialized Hollywood film studios of the future, with a studio head (or boss), directors, managers, production staff, and writers all working together under one organization (the unit system). This pattern or system was best typified by the organizations formed by David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn. Ince's best known film production was the anti-war film Civilization (1916) with frequent director-collaborator Reginald Barker. In the early 1910s, famed director John Ford's older brother Francis was directing and starring in westerns in California for producer Ince, before joining Universal and Carl Laemmle in 1913.

Thomas Ince decentralized and economized the process of movie production by enabling more than one film to be made at a time (on a standardized assembly-line) to meet the increased demand from theaters, but his approach led to the studio's decline due to his formulaic, unfresh, mechanized, and systematized approach to production.

His studio reinvigorated the Western film genre. Ince's authentic-looking pictures were due to the fact that he used actual props and hired real-life cowboys and Indians from the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch and Wild West Show as extras in his films. In 1914, he was responsible for launching the career of William S. Hart, an actor who starred in dozens of westerns until 1925. In 1915, he joined D. W. Griffith (of Griffith Fine Arts Studio) and Mack Sennett (of Keystone Pictures, see below) to form the Triangle Motion Picture Company (aka the Triangle Film Corporation) (with a studio on Sunset Boulevard) [...]

After the Great War, Ince broke off from Triangle and joined competitor Adolph Zukor to form Paramount/Artcraft, and Ince also built another studio (named Thomas H. Ince Pictures) in Culver City. When his association with Zukor ended in 1919, he joined an independent film alliance named Associated Producers, which later merged in 1922 with First National. Filming ceased at the Inceville property around 1922 and the buildings burned to the ground in 1924.

November 20, 2010

Introducing Alice Calhoun

It is my great pleasure to introduce Susann Gilbert, biographer and cousin (!) of silent star Alice Calhoun.  Though her filmography lists more than fifty titles, Alice Calhoun's name may not be immediately recognizable to modern audiences.  For those of you unfamiliar with Calhoun's work, Susann's article should serve as a welcome, and long overdue, introduction - and if you already know Alice Calhoun, you're sure to learn at least one thing that you didn't know before...

Rainbow (USA, 1921)
Alice Beatrice Calhoun (nicknamed “ABC”) was born in Cleveland, Ohio at the dawn of the twentieth century on November 21, 1900.

Most of Alice's movies were melodramas based on literary works, such as Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (filmed as Pampered Youth), or short stories, such as O. Henry’s final, unfinished story, The Dream, filmed as a two reel short.  Gifted with beauty, athleticism, and versatlity, she also played roles in various genre including slapstick and westerns. Her most famous role was in the 1922 Vitagraph production of The Little Minister, and the author of the original play, Sir James M. Barrie, called her “the perfect Lady Babbie”.
One Stolen Night (USA, 1923)

While Alice did play her share of the day’s helpless waifs and hopeless romantics in melodramas, she also starred in mysteries and adventures, playing strong, action-motivated roles. One of her legacies is her modern-themed starring roles, portraying successful, educated women. She was also a very skilled comedienne. Alice's co-stars were equally famous.  She worked with Anna Q. Nilsson (Between Friends, Flowing Gold), Sydney Chaplin (The Man On the Box), Cullen Landis (The Midnight Alarm, Pioneer Trails, Masters of Men, Pampered Youth), Ben Alexander (Pampered Youth) Alan Hale, Sr. and John Bowers (Code of the Wilderness), William Fairbanks (Flying High), Oliver Hardy (in two rare dramatic roles in Little Wildcat and One Stolen Night) and even Rin Tin Tin (A Hero of the Big Snows).

The Man on the Box (USA, 1925)

Alice was a hard-working actress and regarded as highly professional by her peers. Her mastery of melodrama technique was widely admired.  She was nicknamed "The Girl of a Thousand Faces" for her versatility and ability to fully immerse herself in a role.  Most of her films were successful not because of their plots, which were often tired, but because of her charm, and that quality made her films very popular.  There was a darling naiveté to her work that was vivid, gutsy, human, and sentimental.  She had an active fan club, and was well-known for answering correspondence from her many fans, even years after she had retired from acting.

From 1918 to 1934, she appeared in 52 films (two sound and the rest silent), and one documentary. Her final film was  Now I'll Tell, and co-starred Spencer Tracy, Alice Faye, Helen Twelvetrees and Shirley Temple (Alice Calhoun played Shirley's mother).

She was also a savvy businesswoman.  With fellow actor Lon Chaney, and the notorious businessman Mark Hansen, she built a movie theater at 6025 Hollywood Boulevard in 1925 known as the Marcal Theatre, later called the World Theatre.  Around that time, she met and married theater owner Max Clarence Chotiner in 1927.  (Alice had a very brief first marriage to renowned entertainment attorney Mendel B. Silberberg). Max owned a chain of theaters in California - Chotiner's Ravenna Theatre, the Belmont,  the Fox Parisian,  the Beverly Hills Wilshire, and the Lomita Theater.   Although Alice and Max divorced ten years later amid much publicity and humiliation, they later reconciled.  They were remarried in 1948, and remained together until her death in 1966.

A Girl's Desire (USA, 1922)
For her contribution to motion pictures, Alice was awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in the early 1960‘s, located at 6815 Hollywood Boulevard. She was also renowned for her patriotic contributions, community service and work on behalf of other aspiring actors, poets and artists.  In her later years, she was very active in civic organizations and served as an officer in the American Pen Women Society, the Beverly Hills chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Democratic party.  The women’s diagnostic center at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles has a plaque that bears her name for her contributions to the institution.  Likewise at the City of Hope Hospital, the Alice Calhoun Chotiner Wing is a serene, comfortable waiting area for cancer patient’s families. She died of mesotheleoma on June 3, 1966, and rests at the Little Garden of Faithfulness at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

The Films of Alice Calhoun
  1. How Could You, Caroline? (1918) 
  2. Dream Lady (1918)
  3. Everybody's Business (1919) Released in UK as And He Never Knew (1921) 
  4. Bolshevism (1919)
  5. The Thirteenth Chair (1919)  Released in France as La Treizieme Chaise (1918)
  6. The Dream (1920)
  7. Human Collateral (1920)
  8. Captain Swift (1920)
  9. The Sea Rider (1920)
  10. Deadline at Eleven (1920)
  11. Princess Jones (1921)
  12. The Charming Deceiver (1921)
  13. Peggy Puts It Over (1921)
  14. Rainbow (1921)
  15. Matrimonial Web (1921)
  16. Closed Doors (1921)
  17. A Bride in Bond (1921)
  18. The Little Minister (1922)
  19. Angel of Crooked Street (1922)
  20. Blue Blood (1922) Released in Argentina as El Conde Apocrifo
  21. The Girl in His Room (1922)
  22. A Girl's Desire (1922)
  23. Little Wildcat (1922) Also released in US as Gamin’ Girl and/or Naughty But Nice
  24. One Stolen Night (1923)
  25. Masters of Men (1923)
  26. The Man Next Door (1923) 
  27. The Midnight Alarm (1923)
  28. Pioneer Trails (1923) Released in UK as Out West
  29. The Man From Brodney's (1923) 
  30. Flowing Gold (1924)
  31. Between Friends (1924)
  32. Code of the Wilderness (1924)
  33. The Everlasting Whisper (1925)
  34. Pampered Youth (1925) Also released in a shorter version as Two To One in 1927
  35. The Happy Warrior (1925)
  36. The Part Time Wife (1925)
  37. The Other Woman's Story (1925)
  38. The Man on the Box (1925)
  39. The Power of the Weak (1926)
  40. A Hero of the Big Snows (1926)
  41. Kentucky Handicap (1926)
  42. (In the) Tentacles of the North (1926) 
  43. Flying High (1926
  44. Life in Hollywood #4 aka The Great Hollywood Studios of Yesteryear (documentary) (c 1927)
  45. In the First Degree (1927)
  46. The Trunk Mystery (1927)
  47. The Flag (1927) 
  48. Hidden Aces (1927)
  49. The Isle of Forgotten Women (1927)
  50. Savage Passions (1927)
  51. The Down Grade (1927)
  52. Bride of the Desert (1929) (sound)
  53. Now I'll Tell (You) (1934) (sound) Released in UK as When New York Sleeps
--- SUSANN GILBERT

Susann Gilbert an editor and writer living in Charleston, South Carolina who just happens to have been a cousin of Alice Calhoun.  Susann's current projects include a biography of Alice Calhoun entitled Alice in Hollywoodland: The Life and Times of a Silent Screen Star.  She authors the web site Alice Calhoun: Star of the Silent Screen as well as her blog The Writer's Block.

Slide images courtesy of Susann Gilbert.

November 8, 2010

Mary Pickford's "worst film ever made"

The year 1913 was the first in which lantern slides were used to advertise motion picture coming attractions.  One year following that, Mary Pickford appeared in  the 1914 film A Good Little Devil, a  production which the actress described as "one of the worst pictures, if not the worst picture, I ever made."

Recently I was fortunate enough to locate a lantern slide advertising this title which, as is often the case, echoes the imagery of the advertising poster.  Even more fortunate than finding the slide was my good luck in having Charles Morrow agree to share his impressions of the film which survives today only as a 12-minute fragment.

Coming attraction slide for A Good Little Devil (1914)
Mary Pickford began her career as a touring stage actress at the age of seven, and was still only fifteen when she made her Broadway debut in 1907 in a play called The Warrens of Virginia. A couple of years later she found work in the movies for director D.W. Griffith at Biograph and soon became a prominent member of his company. By 1913 she'd appeared in well over 150 short films for Griffith and others; at that point she chose to return to the stage in the role of a blind girl in a rather strange vehicle entitled A Good Little Devil.

Poster for A Good Little Devil (1914)
This play was a melodrama with elements of mysticism and the supernatural, probably influenced by the great success of such fantasies as Peter Pan. The play's producer was the famous showman David Belasco, whose name was more familiar to the general public at the time than either Pickford's or Griffith's. (And in a small supporting role in this show, making her own Broadway debut, was the still-unknown Lillian Gish!) Not long after the play ended its run in May of 1913 Miss Pickford repeated her role of Juliet the blind girl in a film adaptation of the play, the first feature-length movie of her career, although not the first to be released. The director was yet another notable figure, Edwin S. Porter, who made a number of landmark films in the first decade of the 20th century including The Great Train Robbery. However, by this stage of his career Porter was no longer an innovator, and his films looked old-fashioned and stodgy compared to Griffith's dynamic work. Pickford felt that Porter mishandled A Good Little Devil, and within a few years of the movie's release proclaimed it "one of the worst pictures, if not the worst picture, I ever made."

Several years ago The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, hosted a festival of restored films featuring Mary Pickford. The 12-minute fragment of A Good Little Devil shown at the festival is apparently all that remains of this intriguing milestone of theatrical and cinematic history. When the full version premiered in March of 1914 it began with a prologue featuring David Belasco himself introducing the show, but unfortunately this footage no longer survives. Interestingly, however, the fragment that remains tells a reasonably complete story in itself, as if someone edited the full-length film into a one-reel 'highlights' version. The plot and character relationships are not entirely clear, but the gist of the piece comes across.
Prologue from A Good Little Devil - David Belasco (seated) as wraiths of his characters appear via double-exposure.  Others in the picture (L to R):  Edward Connelly, William Norris (as old woman), Wilda Bennett, Mary Pickford, Ernest Truex.
The story concerns a young man of Scottish background named Charles MacLance, who is apparently the victim of pride and a swelled head: he no longer associates with his family, boyhood friends, or the down-home folk from his village, but instead dresses like a titled Englishman and hangs out with haughty aristocrats. Meanwhile, he is missed by his desperately sick mother -- played by a man in drag! -- and his true love Juliet, a blind girl who cares for the old woman. As Charles sits brooding before the fireplace his "conscience" appears in visible albeit ghostly form, when his younger self, wearing a kilt, rises from his body and confronts his corporeal self. Wracked with guilt he returns to his village, visits the old lady and has an awkward reunion with Juliet. He is also greeted joyfully by the family dog-- played by a man capering about on all fours in a dog costume. Charles' return to the village seems to unleash magical spirits: winged fairies appear and restore Juliet's sight, then restore the old lady to full health. (In the stage production Lillian Gish played one of the fairies, but she's not in the movie.) When Charles' snobby friends come to take him away he renounces them, in fiery words of amusingly purple prose, and chooses to stay with the simple, honest villagers of his youth.

The abridged version of A Good Little Devil shown at the festival was greeted by the audience with sympathetic chuckles. I could see why Mary Pickford considered it something of an embarrassment: she was making more sophisticated films than this one at Biograph years earlier. Still, although it was very primitive the movie was rather sweet and Mary's own performance was nothing to be ashamed of. The man in the dog outfit was a real crowd-pleaser, though we all wondered why the old lady was played by an obvious transvestite. In any event, even in its truncated form Edwin S. Porter's A Good Little Devil is an intriguing curio for silent film buffs and kind of a hoot, besides.

--- CHARLES MORROW

Charles Morrow works at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center in NYC. He has written plays and film-related essays, and also contributed several entries to the recently published Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture. His film reviews appear in IMDb under the Nom de Internet wmorrow59.