Friday, May 29, 2009

Long Lost Cowboy Star Fred Thomson (And The Horse He Rode In On)

An Army chaplain by training, Fred Thomson had the face of a movie star and when he married the best friend of the most popular actress in America, his days as a minister were numbered.

A top amateur athlete who three times won national titles in track and field, Thomson was serving as a chaplain for the U.S. Army's 143rd Field Artillery Regiment during the First World War when he met "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, and her best friend, screenwriter and war correspondent, Frances Marion. Marion was too good a writer to fob off the love-at-first-sight trope on her audience, but she tumbled for it in real life and she and Thomson were engaged ten days later.

The two waited until war's end to marry and then were joined on their honeymoon by Pickford and her new husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Thomson and Marion had envisioned a quiet trip around Europe but instead found themselves swarmed under by crowds of fans eager to see Pickford and Fairbanks. Marion later commented that she felt like the lady-in-waiting to a queen.

To make amends, Pickford allowed Marion to direct her next movie, The Love Light, and despite his lack of acting experience, cast Thomson as the leading man. Although the production was fraught with problems and marked the end of Marion's and Pickford's professional relationship (they remained personal friends), Thomson proved to have a natural screen presence and was quickly cast in additional movies.

Because of Thomson's athletic ability and his expertise with horses, he was cast primarily in Westerns. His co-star in many of his films was his horse, Silver King, which Thomson trained personally. By 1926, Thomson was the second biggest box office draw in Hollywood, behind only fellow Western star, Tom Mix.

Silver King, a white Palomino seventeen hands high, was probably more popular than either one of them. "He did all of the work," said Al Rogell, director of seven of Thomson's Westerns, "everything in the early pictures—the mouth work, the jumps, the chases, the falls, quick stops—and could untie knots, lift bars, etc. He could wink one eye, nod his head yes or no, push a person with his head. Fred trained him to do certain things and expected him to perform them."

In December 1928, Thomson stepped on a nail while working in his stables and contracted tetanus. He died on Christmas day, survived by his wife and two sons.

Only two of Thomson's thirty movies survive to the present day, the first one with Mary Pickford and a 1924 Western, Thundering Hoofs. After Thomson's death, his horse Silver King continued to work in movies, and according to the Internet Movie Database, made its final appearance in 1938's The Lone Ranger, the first movie serial featuring the masked lawman and his famous horse, "Silver."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Best Screenplay Of 1928-29: Frances Marion (The Wind)

From 1915 to 1933, two-time Oscar winner Frances Marion was the highest paid and most respected writer in Hollywood, earning $3000 a week at the height of the Great Depression, and shaping the screen images of some of Hollywood's greatest stars including Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler.

Born Marion Benson Owens, Frances Marion was the daughter of one of San Francisco's wealthiest families, hobnobbing with the likes of Jack London, but at the age of 27, she abandoned that life for Hollywood's fledgling film industry and its promise of opportunities denied women in other walks of life. Her beauty landed jobs as an actress and as a model but she disdained work in front of the camera, and sought jobs behind the scenes, first painting advertising posters for movie studios then writing for the movies themselves.

Eventually she became close friends with Mary Pickford (so close that she, Mary and their respective husbands, actors Fred Thomson and Douglas Fairbanks, honeymooned together) and Marion shaped Pickford's image as America's Sweetheart with screenplays for Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm, Stella Maris, Pollyanna and Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley.

Pickford's insistence that Marion write the screenplay for Poor Little Rich Girl over Cecil B. DeMille's objection may have led to the first instance of a star firing her director, but the result was so successful that Pickford forced the studio to renegotiate her contract, thereafter earning Pickford $10,000 a week, half of all her films' profits and complete creative control.

Screenwriters who could tell their stories through images were highly prized during the Silent Era and no writer was more prized than Frances Marion. In 1926, legendary producer Irving Thalberg approached Marion to adapt The Scarlet Letter to the screen for star Lillian Gish. Where other writers couldn't solve the problem of how to bring Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel to the screen, Marion hit upon a way to remain faithful to the story while giving Hester Pryne a modern woman's desire to make her own choices—inventing, for example, a scene of Hester admiring herself in a mirror hidden under a needlework sampler embroidered with an admonition against vanity.

The movie was such a success that Gish gathered the same cast and crew—actor Hans Larson, director Victor Sjöström, producer Thalberg and writer Marion—to adapt Dorothy Scarborough's novel The Wind for the screen. The result, a tale of repressed desire that explodes into violence, was the last great silent movie without Charlie Chaplin's name on it to emerge from Hollywood.

The difference between writing novels and writing movies is that movies are primarily visual: the screenwriter has to think of storytelling as a series of pictures that convey information. Snappy dialogue is a bonus but not a necessity, and, in fact, in a silent movie, dialogue (which required cutting away from the action to title cards) was not only not a bonus, it was a distraction.

That Frances Marion found a way to tell what is essentially a psychological story through images and action while only rarely falling back on dialogue and title cards is a testament to the skill that made her so sought-after during the Silent Era.

In this story, about a sheltered virgin, Letty (Gish), whose repressed desire slowly drives her insane in the forbidding environment of the frontier West, Marion establishes a visual pattern that links the ever-present danger of the Texas prairie's wind and sandstorms, where men are killed and wild horses driven mad, with the threat Letty's sexuality represents to herself and to the tight-knit social order she has invaded. The images are simple—she smiles at a man, she gets a face full of blowing sand; she lets her hair down and starts to undress on her wedding night, and the wind kicks up—but their repetition and juxtaposition with moments when Letty is about to indulge her desire establishes both in her mind and in the mind of the audience that sex represents danger and death.

The wind also traps the inhabitants of this land into close quarters and again through simple, easy to interpret images, Marion establishes that passion and seething paranoia is the natural result. In one comical bit, a couple comes into a town dance followed by a half dozen identically-dressed little girls, each a half head shorter than the one before, like a set of Russian nested dolls, a visual way of saying that in this godforsaken country where the wind blows 24 hours a day, sex is the only way of passing the time. In other scenes, the wife of Letty's step-brother becomes convinced Letty is there to supplant her and she gives Letty the choice of marrying a man she doesn't love or wander homeless.

The screenplay initially envisioned a dark ending where an insane Letty wanders into a sand storm to be consumed by the desert, but when studio heads saw the initial cut, they insisted on a happy ending. The cast and crew reluctantly shot a new ending but as it turned out, it didn't much matter. Audiences rapidly acquiring a taste for talkies weren't interested in silent movies anymore or, for that matter, Lillian Gish whom they regarded as a relic of a previous age. The movie bombed at the box office. Nevertheless, The Wind has gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest movies of the Silent Era and almost certainly the best movie of Lillian Gish's long career.

Despite the film's commercial failure, Marion's career soared. She adapted the screenplay for Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie, won an Oscar for her searing exposé of prison life, The Big House, won another Oscar for the Wallace Beery classic, The Champ, wrote Marie Dressler's Oscar-winning turn in Min and Bill, and scripted Dinner At Eight, which helped make Jean Harlow a star.

Her Oscar for The Big House was the first ever won by a woman in a non-acting category.

Her professional success, however, was balanced by personal tragedy. On Christmas Day, 1928, Marion's husband, Fred Thomson (who riding his horse, Silver King, became the biggest cowboy star of the Silent Era), died suddenly of tetanus, leaving Marion a widow raising two young sons.

In 1933, at the top of her creative and earning power, Marion formed the Screen Writers' Guild. In retaliation for her union-organizing activities, MGM dropped Marion's contract and when Thalberg died three years later, Marion's career in Hollywood was abruptly over.

It was a common end for many women in Hollywood during the Depression as the studios changed from wide-open try-anything enterprises, when half the screenwriters were women and there were more women directors than there are now, to factory-style boys-only clubs where women need not apply.

Marion abandoned Hollywood, turned to sculpting and painting and died in 1973 at the age of 84. All told, she wrote more than 160 movies and is still regarded as one of the greatest writers to ever work in Hollywood.

Note: When I mentioned to Katie-Bar-the-Door that I planned to give the award for best screenplay to Frances Marion, she reasonably asked whether Marion was related to General Francis Marion, a.k.a. "The Swamp Fox," who led American guerrilla forces against the British during the Revolutionary War. Disappointingly, as far as I can tell from my research, she was not, but if I turn up anything to the contrary, you'll be the first to know.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Douglas Fairbanks Demands Equal Time

Striving always for balance in our coverage of the ongoing feud between silent film greats Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks, we here at the Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards present a movie poster of the latter's nominated feature, The Iron Mask.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Programming Note: Clara Bow On The Fox Movie Channel

Tomorrow morning (Tuesday, May 26, 2009) at 7:30 a.m., the Fox Movie Channel is showing one of Clara Bow's last talkies, Call Her Savage. It's not as good as her silent work, particularly It, Wings and Mantrap, but it's pretty good.

Sorry for the late heads-up, but I only just stumbled across this one.

Here's what Fox has to say about it:


Clara Bow delivers a passionate and sensual performance as Nasa Springer, a young girl with Indian blood who lives a stormy rebellious life.

Cast: Clara Bow, Gilbert Roland, Thelma Todd, John Francis Dillon

Director: John Francis Dillon

The Katie Award Nominees For 1928-29

If the Academy was in the ballpark the first year it handed out Oscars, it completely blew it the next. This year the winners were chosen by a five-member panel—The Central Board of Judges—and while the previous year's smoke-filled room used the awards to settle scores and promote their own interests, at least they felt the need to pretend they were motivated by artistic concerns. This year the panel seemed interested only in handing out awards to the Academy's founders and the man who hand-picked them for the job, Louis B. Mayer.

It was not until the following year that the full membership of the Academy voted on the awards.

The Broadway Melody is one of the weakest best picture winners ever, and that's saying something. It's the story of two sisters who go to New York and fall for the same guy. As musicals go, it did feature the classic title tune, but the story is trite and the acting, especially among the supporting cast, is too awful to be believed.

At least the Board of Judges made Mayer happy—it was his studio, MGM, that produced The Broadway Melody.

Another two of the top awards went to co-founders of the Academy. Mary Pickford, who won the Katie as best actress in 1927-28, took home the best actress trophy for her first talkie, Coquette. Audiences flocked to see "America's Sweetheart" talk for the first time but critics reviled her performance and only the first Oscar campaign in history secured the award.

Likewise, best director Frank Lloyd, who won for the dull and overly-long The Divine Lady, was one of the founding members of the Academy and his win raised eyebrows among the press.

As for the best actor winner, I encourage you to go to Turner Classic Movies and watch some clips of Warner Baxter's performance as the Cisco Kid from In Old Arizona. If your head doesn't explode, you're made of sterner stuff than I am. Check out the clip entitled "Ham and Eggs." Ostensibly, the ham refers to the Kid's breakfast, but don't you believe it.

Two of the Academy's choices, best screenplay winner, The Patriot, an Ernst Lubitsch movie which also provided a best actor nominee, and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, which earned MGM set designer Cedric Gibbons the first of eleven Oscars (he was nominated thirty-nine times), have both been lost. That is, unfortunately, an all too common story when it comes to the early history of motion pictures—Hollywood took no care when it came to preserving these early films and let thousands of movies deteriorate or vanish altogether. Aside from losing irreplaceable works of art, Hollywood's negligence makes my task of handing out coveted Katie awards all the more difficult. They have a lot to answer for.

Hopefully, this round of Katie awards will improve on the Academy's choices. At least I don't owe Louis B. Mayer anything.

The nominees for the 1928-29 Katie Awards are:

The Cameraman (prod. Buster Keaton)
The Docks Of New York (prod. J.G. Bachmann)

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (prod. Société générale des films)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (prod. Joseph M. Schenck)

The Wind (prod. Victor Sjöström)

George Bancroft (The Docks Of New York)
Douglas Fairbanks (The Iron Mask)

Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)

Erich von Stroheim (The Wedding March)


Marion Davies (Show People)

Maria Falconetti (The Passion Of Joan Of Arc)

Lillian Gish (The Wind)
Bessie Love (The Broadway Melody)


Luis Buñuel (Un Chien Andalou)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion Of Joan Of Arc)

Victor Sjöström (The Wind)

Wallace Beery (Beggars Of Life)

Lewis Stone (A Woman Of Affairs)

Ernest Torrence (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)

Olga Baclanova (The Docks Of New York)

Mary Nolan (West Of Zanzibar)

Anita Page (Our Dancing Daughters)


Jules Furthman; story by John Monk Saunders (The Docks Of New York)

Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion Of Joan Of Arc)

Frances Marion (The Wind)

I'll start handing out Katies a couple of days from now, beginning with Best Screenplay ...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Must-See Movies Of 1927-28

Director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich has called 1928 the greatest year in the history of movies, which is definitely saying something. If we expand the time frame a bit to include both 1927 and 1928, I will agree that he's on to something.

Between January 1, 1927 and the end of 1928, more than a dozen films were released which might reasonably make a list of the best movies ever made, including The General, Metropolis, Napoleon (released too early in 1927 to qualify for this year's Katies), Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, The Crowd, The Man Who Laughs, The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, The Circus, Wings; Laugh, Clown, Laugh and a handful of late 1928 releases, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, The Wind, The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Docks Of New York and The Wedding March (eligible for next year's Katies). Greta Garbo was never more popular, Gloria Swanson was still doing great work, Emil Jannings hadn't joined the Nazi party. Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish gave the best performances of their careers. Directors Murnau, Chaplin, Keaton, Lang and Dreyer were at or near their peaks, and Lubitsch was emerging as the next great director. Movie audiences wouldn't see such an outpouring of quality again until 1939, the year most film historians fix as the best ever, and it's clear, at least in retrospect, that silent movies had reached their highest ever level of artistic achievement and were poised for even greater breakthroughs.

And yet, once The Jazz Singer hit theaters, studios couldn't pay audiences to see anything but talkies. Silent movies were better than ever but for the audiences of the time, they might as well have never been made. It's as if the "Mona Lisa" were hanging in Louvre unseen while art lovers rushed past it to crowd around a McDonald's placemat.

There wouldn't again be such a disconnect between quality and box office receipts until the present age.

Commercially speaking—in the long run, the only language Hollywood speaks—silent movies were dead and there was no going back.

Unfortunately, the new sound technology was primitive, relying on large, immobile cameras and unreliable microphones that glued actors in place and returned movies to that place from whence they had just escaped, the stage-bound theater. It took about five years for sound technology to become workable enough for directors to move the camera again and more than a decade for Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland to remember that they could.

In the meantime, in case you need reminding, this is my list of movies that I consider the must-see movies of 1927-28. Unlike my list of Twenty Silent Movies To Cut Your Teeth On, not all of these movies are equally accessible to a viewer unfamiliar with silent movies, but I do believe every one of them is worth the time and effort is you are so inclined.

The Circus—Charlie Chaplin's comedy of a tramp who finds love and work in the circus

The Crowd—King Vidor's gritty tale of the American Dream turned nightmare

Laugh, Clown, Laugh—Lon Chaney as a man destroyed by love

The Man Who Laughs—a macabre love story about a man with a face that inspired Heath Ledger's Joker

The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg—a bittersweet romantic comedy about a prince who falls for a commoner

Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans—my pick for the best movie of the year, about a marriage in crisis

Wings—a rip-snorting war picture about World War I flying aces and the girl they left behind

All but two of these movies, The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg and Wings, are available on DVD.

You might also check out Sadie Thompson, the 1928 Gloria Swanson-Lionel Barrymore movie based on Somerset Maugham's short story "Rain." Time hasn't been kind to the print and the last reel has been lost, but film historians reconstructed the ending with the use of still photographs and what remains is very good. Sadie Thompson earned Swanson an Oscar nomination, the first of three, and might have earned her and Barrymore (the latter in a supporting role) Katies for their work if I could have been more certain of what I was seeing. Sadie Thompson is available on DVD.

What can I tell you? This whole business of handing out awards, even with eighty years of hindsight, is a frustratingly subjective business. It only gets worse the closer to the present we get.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Turner Classic Movie Programming Note: The Big Parade (1925)

Before you go to bed Monday night, be sure to set your recorder to tape King Vidor's classic anti-war movie, The Big Parade. It's on Turner Classic Movies on Tuesday morning, May 26, 2009, at 2:15 a.m. It's part of TCM's three-day Memorial Day marathon.

I'm sure you'll remember that The Big Parade turned up on my list of Twenty Silent Movies To Cut Your Teeth On. The scene where our boys march into the teeth of German sniper and machine gun fire at the battle of Belleau Wood is worth the price of admission alone.

There's also a nifty John Gilbert romance thrown in for good measure. That's for lupner.

The Big Parade is credited with being the first realistic war movie ever made. It was a huge hit in its day and was the biggest grossing movie of the 1920s, hauling in $22 million world-wide which considering that movie admissions cost, what, a nickel? is an astounding amount of money ...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Best Screenplay Of 1927-28: King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver; titles by Joseph Farnham (The Crowd)

If you've been suffering the effects of our current economy, I wouldn't race right out to rent this story of a small town boy with big time dreams who moves to New York City and makes, well, not much of himself; but I will say that to have made this grim critique of the American Dream while the Twenties were still roaring along was fairly prescient of King Vidor and you might try tracking this one down whenever you get to feeling better.

If The Crowd is not quite the lasting work of art that Sunrise is, that may be in part because it has been copied so many times (and its copies copied) that its insights have gone a bit stale with repetition. Orson Welles took up a similar theme in The Magnificent Ambersons, added complexity, and deepened it, and Billy Wilder took it up again in The Apartment and put yet a different spin on it and created another lasting work of art. But you have to start somewhere and it's a touching if unsentimental story and very well acted, particularly by Eleanor Boardman as the long-suffering wife (is there any other kind?) of a husband whose practical skills as a breadwinner aren't nearly equal to his grandiose dreams.

The other great strength of the movie is its near doc- umentary feel as it describes a paycheck-to-paycheck existence in the New York City of the late 1920s. Vidor used a hidden camera and shot much of the film on location and this added authenticity and realism to the story.

Indeed, the fact that Vidor took his camera into the tiny bathroom of a cold-water flat and dared show his audience a working toilet is the one of the reasons Louis B. Mayer cited in making sure there were no awards for the writer-director come Oscar time. Vidor did however receive an Oscar nomination for direction and was nominated four more times in his career before receiving an honorary Oscar in 1979 "[f]or his incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator."

All of which begs the question: am I giving The Crowd a Katie for its screen- play or am really giving it an award for its cinematography and the audacity of its director's vision?

I'll be honest with you, even though I am a writer myself (yes, two novels, an agent and everything), it's a little difficult for me to access the quality of a screenplay, especially the screenplay for a silent movie. Yes, there are certain clues you can look for—the quality of the dialogue (or title cards in the case of a silent movie), whether the story hangs together, the insights into the human condition that might show up on the printed page—but the fact is, no matter what auteur theorists say (that the director is the sole author of a film), movies are such a collaborative effort, it's hard to say where one person's work leaves off and another's begins. When you assess a screenplay, you have to remember that actors improvise and breathe life into the characters, the director pushes them to emphasize different approaches, the film editor influences the story's pace and cohesion, the cinematographer and the score's composer affect mood. So by the end of the day, you wonder whose work are you handing an award to.

Here, the story's architecture is so sound, it's become the blueprint for any number of similar stories that followed it. The insight into the human condition is certainly chilling. And while the title cards read like hokey homilies that belong in a Hallmark greeting card, they underscore the protagonist's unrealistic view of the hard world. You can't ask much more than that out of a screenplay.

In any event, whatever it means, I am giving The Crowd a Katie and I am content to do so.

Which reminds me. King Vidor wasn't the only person who wrote this movie and he's not the only person getting a Katie for it.

Co-writer Joseph Farnham, one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, received the only Oscar ever awarded for "title writing," although that award was for a body of work rather than a specific film. In addition to The Crowd, he wrote the titles for thirty-one movies in 1927 and 1928, including another Katie nominee, Laugh, Clown, Laugh. His best work was the play The Big Parade which Vidor adapted into one of the best movies of the Silent Era. Farnham died two years after winning the Oscar, making him the first Oscar-winner to do so—and the first Katie winner to die as well. Hmm, the Curse of the Katie? That's another thing we'll have to keep track of.

And as for John V.A. Weaver, the final member of this trio of Katie award winners, all I can tell you is that he was a Southern-born Broadway playwright who went west to write for the movies and died in 1938 at the age of 45. His best screenplay aside from The Crowd was probably his adaptation of The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, the last movie he ever worked on.

In 1998, The Library of Congress selected The Crowd as one of the first twenty-five movies to be preserved in the National Film Registry.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Speaking Of Clara Bow, A Word About Betty Boop

Speaking of Clara Bow, the character she played so famously in It, Betty Lou, inspired the cartoon character Betty Boop.

You remember Betty Boop, don't you? She was one of Max Fleischer's creations, an overtly sexual flapper who along with her dog, Bimbo, got herself into a number of surreal scrapes, often with men who had only one thing on their sex-obsessed minds. Betty Boop first appeared in 1930 and her early adventures were definitely aimed at an adult audience.

The character started out as an anthropomorphic poodle, with a dog's ears and a dog's nose, but with a woman's legs, dress and cleavage, and at first Betty Boop was more of a sidekick to Bimbo than the other way around. Fleischer settled on Boop as fully human around the same time Mae Questel began providing the voice, an impossibly high-pitched girlish squeak with a decidedly Brooklyn accent.

In addition to drinking and fending off the advances of men, Betty Boop sang Jazz Age scat numbers in the style of Helen Kane and made appearances with some of the most famous Jazz stars of the era. Here's the 1932 cartoon short "Minnie The Moocher" pairing Betty Boop and Cab Calloway:

Helen Kane later sued Fleischer and his distributor, Paramount, claiming they had used her image and singing style for Betty Boop without her permission. The suit failed when evidence established that Kane herself had ripped off African-American performer and Cotton Club regular, Baby Esther.

With the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Ms. Boop's skirts descended below her knee and she gave up the flapper lifestyle. Nevertheless, as the Depression wore on, she seemed more and more an unwelcome reminder of the excesses of a previous era. In addition, her singing style also became increasingly dated and attempts to change her from a Jazz singer to a Swing artist failed. The last Boop cartoon was produced in 1939. In all, she made over one hundred appearances through the course of a decade.

Mae Questel reprised her role as Betty Boop in the 1988 hit film Who Framed Roger Rabbit where she laments, "Work's been kinda slow since cartoons went to color. But I still got it!"

You might want to stop in at the Official Betty Boop Site to scoop up your Betty Boop collectibles. I myself have no Boop memorabilia, so I can't vouch for the merchandise, but there it is.

Ms. Boop also has a myspace page loaded with cartoon shorts and images. She even blogs occasionally. You know, if you're the kind of person who reads blogs.

Maybe I should arrange an introduction between her and Lon Chaney ...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Best Supporting Actress Of 1927-28: Clara Bow (Wings)

When I first decided to hand out Katie awards for supporting actress (despite the fact that the Academy didn't create the category until 1936), I kicked around a number of choices for the first one—Mary Philbin and Olga Baclanova in the horror classic The Man Who Laughs, Gladys Brockwell as a hooker with a heart of stone in Oscar-winner Seventh Heaven, Louise Brooks in A Girl In Every Port, Margaret Livingston in Sunrise and even Norma Shearer who was uncharacteristically fun in The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg—but it was Clara Bow's turn in Wings that I kept coming back to.

Wings is the story of two pilots who have volunteered for the American Expeditionary Force headed for France and the First World War. They're both in love with the rich girl on the hill. She only has eyes for Richard Arlen but the third member of the triangle, a young and naive Buddy Rogers, is sure he's the one.

Ironically, Bow who was known as the "It Girl," the greatest sex symbol of the day, was not part of the triangle. Instead, she's on the outside looking in, playing an atypical role for her, the fresh-faced girl next door. She's been in love with Rogers ever since she was a kid, but he's never seen her anything other than a pal.

Clara Bow's part was not in the original story, penned by future Oscar-winner John Monk Saunders (The Dawn Patrol), but was instead inserted into the picture to take advantage of Bow's popularity. Director William Wellman, for one, was delighted—Bow's presence guaranteed a bigger gross at the box office.

As it turns out, it also guaranteed someone on the screen knew something about acting.

In order to achieve authenticity in the truly spectacular flying stunts, Wellman (himself a flyer during World War I) and special effects man Roy Pomeroy bolted cameras onto biplanes and hired actors based on their ability to fly. While the result is still some of the most spectacular aerial combat and trick flying ever filmed (Pomeroy won a well-deserved Oscar for his efforts), the acting, outside of Clara Bow's supporting role and Gary Cooper's three-minute star-making appearance, is spotty at best.

Bow, hopelessly in love with Rogers, follows him to France as a volunteer ambulance driver. While on furlough, she sees him with a Parisian hooker while he on the other hand is too drunk to recognize his old pal. In the best scene of the movie, Bow hustles him out of the bar just ahead of the MPs and takes him to a hotel room where he's too drunk to perform. As he sleeps it off, she sees a locket with the other woman's picture and finally realizes the truth about his feelings.

Victor Fleming, who directed Bow in two movies and who would go on to direct Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, compared her talent to "a great violin; touch her, and she answered with genius."

Watching her in Wings (then in It and everything else I could get my hands on), I saw the same thing in Clara Bow that others saw in her at the time, that when she's on the screen, you simply can't take your eyes off her.

It's not that she was the most beautiful woman of the era; to be honest, she often wasn't even the most beautiful woman in whichever movie I was watching. But she had what all the great stars had, a quality that attracts attention no matter what else is happening on screen and an ability to make us root for her no matter what part she's playing.

Maybe in Bow's case that quality had something to do with the odds she had to overcome to succeed, both on-screen and off. Although she usually played a bubbly modern woman who knew just what she wanted, there was often (as there is in Wings) a vulnerability and pathos just below the surface. That contradiction—fighting for what she wanted when she's secretly afraid to—is called courage and that courage gives her characters a humanity her audience could relate to.

In what I suppose you could describe as proto-Method acting, Bow added depth to her characters by drawing on emotional memories of her horrific Brooklyn childhood—her mother was a mentally-ill prostitute who routinely assaulted Bow before finally trying to kill her; her father abandoned Bow at birth only to return when she was a teenager and rape her.

Those who worked with Bow said that whenever a scene called for tears, she would have someone play "Rock-A-Bye Baby" and real tears flowed. Given her childhood, I can only imagine what the song meant to her.

"All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing," she once said, "there's a feeling of tragedy underneath. She's unhappy and disillusioned, and that's what people sense. That's what makes her different."

I think Bow was describing herself.

Wings was a huge hit and won two Oscars, for best picture and for "engineering effects." In 1997, it was included in the National Film Registry.

Although she was one of the most popular actresses of her day, Bow was out of the movies within six years. Producer B.P. Schulberg of Paramount Studios shoved Bow into an interchangeable series of underwritten flapper and shopgirl parts then handled her transition to sound carelessly—MGM gave Greta Garbo two years to prepare for her first sound picture; Paramount gave Bow two weeks. Even though her Brooklyn accent was fine for the parts she played, Bow developed an odd phobia that left her terrified of the microphones that recorded her voice which led to numerous production delays.

In addition, Bow was a favorite target of the gossip columnists, particularly after she sued her personal secretary for embezzlement. Although she won the suit, the details of Bow's private life that emerged from the trial were scandalous and turned the public against her.

Schulberg took to calling her "Crisis-a-day-Clara" and dropped her from her contract when, exhausted from overwork and savage publicity, she suffered a nervous breakdown.

Bow made a brief comeback in 1932 for Fox and though both movies, Call Her Savage and Hoop-La, were critical and commercial successes, Bow was worn out from years in the public eye. She retired from acting at the age of 28, never to return to the screen.

"A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry," she later wrote, "when you're tired, hurt and bewildered."

At the time and for years after, Bow's notoriety obscured her talent. But she was, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "the real thing," and the more I see of her work, the more I am convinced she was one of the greatest actresses of the Silent Era.

In addition, I would say that more than with any other performer or picture so far, watching movies for this blog has completely altered my perception of Clara Bow. When I began writing, I saw her as the empty-headed glamour girl the gossip columnists of the time so gleefully tore into. Watching her movies, I realized she was actually something quite special.

It's a measure of the lasting damage celebrity gossip can do when we so casually tar someone with the brush of scandal. The tabloids of Bow's day recycled their rumors, sold their papers, wrapped fish in them the next day and moved on. But the perception they created has lingered now for eighty years.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Best Supporting Actor Of 1927-28: Jean Hersholt (The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg)

Before his name became synonymous with humanitarian causes, Jean Hersholt was also a fine character actor and never better than he was here in The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, one of the last silent films directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch.

Old Heidelberg, as the movie was originally known, is the story of a young prince (Ramon Novarro, who played the title character in the silent classic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) who is torn from his family to prepare to take the reins of government
from his uncle, the king.

It proves to be a lonely life and Hersholt, who plays the prince's tutor, Dr, Jüttner, is the only real friend and father the prince has ever known. While everyone in the palace is always telling the boy what he should do, the tutor is the only one who ever encourages him to do what he wants to do, and what little fun there is to be had for a prince growing up in a gated palace, the tutor provides.

Admittedly, Jüttner is not much at teaching the young man what it means to be a prince—in a funny scene during the prince's university exams, we learn that not only does the prince not know his country's history, neither does Jüttner—but he's done a first rate job at teaching him what it means to be a human being, and let's face it, future kings get their diplomas whether they know anything or not.

After graduation, instead of getting the expected medal and a forced retirement, Jüttner accompanies the prince who is sent to Heidelberg for graduate studies—studies which focus
primarily on beer and a romance with Norma Shearer. The few months in Heidelberg are the best the prince has ever known.

Incidentally, this is one of Shearer's most appealing performances in a career that often leaves me cold. Here, she plays the niece of an innkeeper, the prettiest and most lively girl in Heidelberg, and the main attraction for the hoards of beer-swilling fraternity boys who crowd the inn's garden. Jüttner is delighted by her spunk, the prince by her beauty, as she shows them to their rooms in the tiny, third-rate inn and enthusiastically recommends the couch. "You can sit on it, you can lie down on it! You can't expect any more of a couch!"

She then proceeds, to the prince's embarrassment and the tutor's amusement, to demonstrate the virtues of the bed.

Love is in the air, but of course the tutor knows (and we suspect) that royal protocol will never allow the marriage of such a socially mismatched couple. And this ultimately is what The Student Prince is all about. The old tutor knows what the young prince doesn't, that you have to live as much as you can while you can because all things eventually end, and in one of the film's most poignant moments, Jüttner gently, but firmly steers the prince toward his inevitable duties as head of the government.

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg represented something of a turning point for Hersholt. Before this role, he had primarily played villains, and quite successfully, in classic silent films such as Tess of the Storm Country and Erich von Stroheim's Greed. His performance here was so effective, he afterwards became known for playing kind if weary wise men. His most remembered role may be that of the cantankerous yet caring grandfather searching for Shirley Temple in the 1937 version of Heidi.

Hersholt was twice awarded honorary Oscars, once in 1940 for his work in establishing the Motion Picture Relief Fund which was designed to help out-of-work and ailing actors, and again in 1950 after his years of service as president of the Academy. Shortly before his death in 1956, the Academy created the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award which is bestowed periodically on those from the Hollywood community who have significantly furthered humanitarian causes.

Note: I very seriously considered giving the first supporting actor award to Gary Cooper for his performance in Wings. He's only on screen for three minutes, he doesn't talk (of course), exits stage left and gets killed immediately. Given the way I usually feel about Gary Cooper's acting, I would normally say the only way his performance in Wings could be any better is if he wasn't in the movie at all. But the fact is, he's terrific—cocky but human, naturalistic and above all riveting—and those three minutes made him a star.

It wouldn't have been the briefest performance ever nominated—that would be Hermione Baddeley who was on screen for all of two minutes thirty-two seconds in 1959's Room At The Top. And Beatrice Straight won for Network in a role that lasted only five minutes forty seconds, so short in fact that the first time I saw the movie I didn't realize she'd been on screen until she was already gone.

There have been two dozen actors who have received Oscar nominations for performances that clock in at fewer than ten minutes (three of them won). So I think I could have gotten away with selecting Gary Cooper. But in the end, it was Jean Hersholt's performance that moved me most.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Little More Housekeeping: Katie Award Nominees For 1927-28

Again, more housekeeping, retroactively listing the Katie Award nominees for 1927-28. The winners, in case you've forgotten, are here. I'll be back on track with my next blog entry, an essay about Jean Hersholt (and Gary Cooper).

The Circus (prod. Charles Chaplin)

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (prod. Herbert Brenon)

The Man Who Laughs (prod. Paul Kohner)

Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (prod. William Fox)

Wings (prod. Lucien Hubbard)

Lon Chaney (Laugh, Clown, Laugh)
Charles Chaplin (The Circus)
Al Jolson (The Jazz Singer)
Harold Lloyd (Skippy)
Conrad Veidt (The Man Who Laughs)

Eleanor Boardman (The Crowd)
Marion Davies (The Patsy)
Janet Gaynor (7th Heaven and Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans)
Mary Pickford (My Best Girl)
Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson)


Charles Chaplin (The Circus)
F.W. Murnau (Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans)
William A. Wellman (Wings)

Lionel Barrymore (Sadie Thompson)

Gary Cooper (Wings)

Jean Hersholt (The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg)

Clara Bow (Wings)
Gladys Brockwell (Seventh Heaven)
Mary Philbin (The Man Who Laughs)


King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver; titles by Joseph Farnham (The Crowd)

Elizabeth Meehan; titles by Joseph Farnham (Laugh, Clown, Laugh)

Raoul Walsh; titles by C. Gardner Sullivan (Sadie Thompson)

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Little Housekeeping: Katie Award Nominees For The Silent Era (Movies Released Prior To August 1, 1927)

I've decided for future Katie Awards, rather than announce the winners first and then write essays about them after, I'll announce the nominees first and then write essays as I announce each winner. Which makes sense, but I am slow to figure these things out.

For those of you keeping score at home, these were the Katie Award nominees for Career Achievement during the Silent Era. I'll list the nominees for 1927-28 (even though you've already seen the winners and we're half way through the essays) in my next post.

Battleship Potemkin
The Big Parade
The General

The Gold Rush


The Thief Of Bagdad

John Barrymore

Lon Chaney

Charles Chaplin

Douglas Fairbanks

John Gilbert

Emil Jannings

Buster Keaton

Harold Lloyd

Rudolph Valentino

Theda Bara

Clara Bow

Greta Garbo

Lillian Gish

Mary Pickford

Gloria Swanson

Norma Talmadge

Buster Keaton

Charles Chaplin

Sergei Eisenstein

D.W. Griffith

Fritz Lang

F.W. Murnau

King Vidor

Erich von Stroheim

In case you've forgotten who won or never knew, you can click this link.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Best Director Of 1927-28: F.W. Murnau (Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans)

At the time studio head William Fox coaxed him to Holly- wood with the promise of an unlimited budget and complete control over the final product, F.W. Murnau was Europe's best director. Working out of Berlin, which hosted the continent's largest and most important film industry, Murnau had made seventeen films, including two classics of the era, Nosferatu, still the best telling of the Dracula story, and The Last Laugh, possibly the only silent movie ever made without title cards.

Fox's offer was a rare gift in the history of anything, much less motion pictures, and Murnau grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The movie he made, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, was not only the best picture of 1927, winning three Oscars in the awards' inaugural year, but is one of the greatest movies ever made.

Sunrise is the story of a marriage in crisis told in a lyrical style that taps into the audience's most basic emotional memories to make it feel the events on screen rather than to simply observe them. The exaggerated story—with attempted murder, near drownings and illicit trysts in muddy fields—is a prime example of Expressionism, an artistic style that appealed to emotions rather than intellect and influenced not only movies but also painting, literature and even architecture.

Because I have already written about Sunrise as the best picture of 1927-28, I want to focus here on Murnau's technique, first, his use of the camera and second, his use of sound.

Watching Sunrise, I was struck by how fluid and modern the camera work is, not just compared to other silent movies but to every movie that followed it until 1941's Citizen Kane. Murnau took advantage of a new electric-powered camera belonging to cinematographer Karl Struss to create swooping, seemingly hand-held tracking shots that helped establish the unsettled and unsettling mood of the story. Because Struss (who with Charles Rosher won the first Oscar for cinematography) did not have to hand-crank the lightweight camera from a stationary position, the camera could be hung from wires and float along with the actors as they moved through fields or through crowded city streets. This floating camera created a sense of "displacement" in the audience, that is, making the seemingly familiar just strange enough to force the viewer to see again as if for the first time.

Murnau also drew on other Express- ionist tech- niques to force his audience to see the familiar again for the first time—sets that looms over the farmer and his wife at impossible angles, strong lighting reminiscent of much-later film noir, and double exposures that reveal a character's thoughts such as the ghostly image of the man's lover embracing him and urging him on to murder.

Murnau also made effective use of sound at a time when other directors saw the new technology as a simple novelty and an excuse to shoe-horn a musical number into every movie. Released two weeks before The Jazz Singer, this was Fox Studios' first tentative foray into sound, and while Sunrise is silent in its lack of dialogue, it included a film score, sound effects, and although not yet synchronized to the images on the screen, even human voices.

After watching dozens of silent films while working on this blog, I was reminded again from the first moments of Sunrise just how powerful a music score is and what a difference it can make in setting a mood. Even before the opening credits are finished, the violin score establishes a sense of foreboding and the viewer is prepared for the conflict and violence that soon follows.

It seems obvious to say that a score written specifically for a movie creates a deeper emotional involvement that does a little random Wulitzer music, but if you see enough of these back-to-back-to-back, it jumps out at you nevertheless.

The score does something else, too. By creating a mood with a simple tune, it eliminates the need for many of the movie's title cards (those bits of written dialogue or explanation inserted between frames) which is a welcome relief. Pure exposition doesn't work any better in a movie than it does in a novel and it certainly doesn't work well when it's typed up and inserted into the middle of a love scene or an action sequence.

The use of sound isn't limited to the score and its effect is not merely a way to keep your ears busy while your eyes are working. Any number of sound effects—train whistles, barking dogs, squealing pigs—convey information beyond mere ambiance. Chiming clocks, for example, signal shifts in mood in Sunrise that might otherwise come as a surprise to the viewer.

And shifts in mood is as much what this movie is about as any mechanics of the plot. That Murnau was one of the first to understand how to use sound to create a specific effect is just one more reason why he is still considered one of history's greatest directors and wins the Katie for best director of 1927-28.

Unfortunately, Murnau's achievements went largely ignored. Sunrise was a masterpiece but failed in the only way that mattered to the studio—at the box office—and although the Academy acknowledged the film with three awards, including the only Oscar ever given for "Unique and Artistic Production," Murnau himself was not nominated for best director (neither, for that matter, was William A. Wellman who had directed the "other" best picture winner, Wings). The studio clipped Murnau's wings, limiting his budgets and reasserting control over the content and final cut of his movies.

Worse for the development of movies themselves, however, was the fact that cumbersome new sound-recording cameras made it impossible for other directors to follow Murnau's lead even had studio owners encouraged them to do so. Cameras of the era, even the hand-held ones used in Sunrise, were so loud they made sound recording impossible and they had to be enclosed in soundproof booths with the camera operator locked inside. The result was the theater stage look—medium and long shots with no movement whatsoever—that makes early sound movies so off-putting to a modern audience. It was not until 1958 that France's New Wave directors rediscovered the hand-held camera.

His creative freedom drastically limited, Murnau made two more movies for Fox, both critical and commercial failures, then left America for the South Pacific to work on the last great film of his career, Tabu, a love story between a young fisherman and a woman whom religious authorities have deemed sacred and therefore taboo. A week before the film's premiere, Murnau was killed in an automobile accident. He was 42.

I find it interesting that the greatest directors of the silent era, Murnau, Keaton, Chaplin, von Stroheim, Griffith, largely failed to make the transition to sound movies. There were individual reasons in each case—Griffith never progressed beyond the same simple story of virginity imperiled, Keaton's new contract with MGM proved to be a straightjacket, von Stroheim was an egomaniac, Chaplin was a slow-working perfectionist. And of course Murnau had the best excuse of all: he died.

But the overall impression is that an entire generation of great directors vanished, leaving the field to inferior hacks, and that this is how the studios wanted it. Film historians have suggested that the studios used the transition to sound as an opportunity to break well-paid directors (and actors) who had become too big for their britches.

I also suspect that to a degree, the directors themselves failed to adjust to the necessity of telling stories so badly after a decade of telling them so well. I'll note that given the opportunity to make Tabu as a sound picture, Murnau chose to make it a silent. Like many great directors of that era, if given the choice, he preferred silent pictures. The marketplace simply didn't allow that choice.

In any event, with the greatest directors gone or their output severely limited, and with the technology restricting their artistry, the directors who were left seemed to have forgotten how to make movies.
It was more than a decade before John Ford, Orson Welles and others rediscovered the lessons Murnau taught and used them to bring motion pictures into the modern era.

A final postscript. Almost seventy years after Murnau's death, John Malkovich played him in the movie Shadow Of The Vampire, a fictionalized account of the making of Murnau's most famous work, Nosferatu. The movie is a sometimes funny, sometimes violent meditation on the damage an artist does in creating a masterpiece. In the case of Sunrise, a true masterpiece, the damage Murnau did was to his own career.

Meaningless Trivia: Out of curiosity, I looked up the total number of votes on the Internet Movie Database for movies made during the Silent Era (1900-1928). Not the average vote, mind you, just the raw totals, to get a sense of how many 21st century eyes have watched silent movies and which ones they're watching.

The top ten movies released before 1929 in terms of total votes (with the director's name in parentheses):

Metropolis (Fritz Lang) 32,291

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) 24,422

The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin) 17,038

The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman) 16,397

Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein) 14,815

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine) 14,115

The Kid (Charles Chaplin) 10,275

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer) 9,048

Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau) 8,851

The Birth Of A Nation (D.W. Griffith) 7,524

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton) 5,284

Well, there it is, for what it's worth, which is, admittedly, not a lot. I would recommend any of the movies on the list except The Birth Of A Nation which would come as quite a shock to a modern audience and likely turn you off silent movies for good unless you've really prepared yourself for its stunningly racist views on American history not to mention its three hour running time which in a silent movie can feel like three weeks.

By the way, in case you're wondering, the most voted upon movie (as far as I can tell) is The Shawshank Redemption with 421,872 votes ...