Sunday, July 31, 2011

Very Good Reasons For Not Watching The Chaplin Mutuals

Well, the results are in on the latest Mythical Monkey Poll—"Which of Chaplin's four films from 1917 do you like best?"

The number one answer, with 16 votes? "I haven't seen any of these films."

Second was The Immigrant, with 10. Rounding out the field was Easy Street with five, The Cure with two and The Adventurer with one.

The 34 total votes cast were the fewest in a Monkey Poll in nearly a year, and considering that 109 of you voted in the last poll, I'm guessing the real number of my readers who haven't seen the Chaplin Mutuals is much higher. But I can't say I blame you. Two years ago, before I started this blog, I don't think I'd seen any of them either. What can I tell you—I was busy.

I asked a few friends to tell me why they hadn't seen Chaplin's Mutuals.

Phil Connors: "I was in the Virgin Islands. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank Piña Coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day."

Joliet Jake Blues: "Honest. I ran out of gas! I—I had a flat tire! I didn't have enough money for cab fare! My tux didn't come back from the cleaners! An old friend came in from out of town! Someone stole my car! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts! It wasn't my fault, I swear to God!!!"

Jeff Bailey: "Near the plaza was a little cafe, called La Mar Azul next to a movie house. I sat there in the afternoons and drank beer. I used to sit there half-asleep with the beer and the darkness. Only that music from the movie next door kept jarring me awake."

You can't argue with any of those excuses.

And what about you? Share your personal memories— Where were you and what were you doing the night you weren't watching Chaplin's Mutual Comedies?

The Coming Debt Crisis

People have been walking up to me a lot in recent days, saying, "Monkey, you're a banking lawyer—what should I do if the United States defaults on its debt?"

While I myself am loathe to dispense free legal advice, my good friend John Blutarsky is rather free with it. What say you, Bluto?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Clara Bow

From my review of Clara Bow's performance in Wings, the first movie to win the Oscar for best picture.

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, July 28, 2011

Cleopatra (1917)

So what's the most difficult part of reviewing silent movies, you might ask. That's easy: the fact that something like 80% of them no longer exist.

For a case in point, take Cleopatra, the 1917 blockbuster starring Theda Bara. It was far and away the most popular movie of that year. Not only did it finish atop the list of top grossing movies of 1917, but you see references to it all over the place—for example, Roscoe Arbuckle spoofing Bara's famous dance in his comedy short The Cook (which you can see here).

Unfortunately,the last print of Cleopatra was destroyed in a fire in the 1930s, not an uncommon fate for films of that era which were printed on silver nitrate—nitrate being a key component of gunpowder.

All that remains of Cleopatra are some stills and a legend. Unfortunately, it's impossible to judge a silent film by its legendary status. Too many times, a lost film has acquired a reputation for greatness, then been rediscovered and turned out to be a tremendous letdown. Based on stills alone, Alla Nazimova's Salome, for example, was considered a classic; then the film itself was rediscovered and turned out to be a train wreck, nearly unwatchable.

Add in that Bara's fame was very brief—only about four years—and that her most famous surviving film, A Fool There Was (1915), reveals a rather stiff performance, and I'm inclined to think Bara's success was more a matter of notoriety than actual talent. I could be wrong—lots of people will disagree—and if a complete copy of Cleopatra turns up in somebody's attic one day, I'll cheerfully revisit the question.

Anyway, here's all that remains of the most popular movie of 1917, Cleopatra:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cary Grant Has A Cold

"Do I look heavyish to you?" asked Cary Grant as the Hudson River valley rushed past the train's window. "I feel heavyish." A Gibson with three pearl onions sat untouched at his manicured fingertips. "I should leave myself a note in the morning: 'Think thin.'"

As a favor to Monty at All Good Things, I had agreed to interview Cary Grant on the Twentieth Century Limited which makes trips between the left and right hemispheres of my brain on a daily basis. History's greatest movie star and I had been sitting in the dining car unmolested by a waiter for twenty minutes and we were both hungry, the difference being that when Cary Grant's stomach growls, it sounds like a murmuring brook on a summer day, while mine sounds like the score of Forbidden Planet.

"Everyone tells me I've had such an interesting life," he said, "but sometimes I think it's been nothing but stomach disturbances and self-concern."

The man born as Archie Leach had seemed oddly unsure of himself ever since we'd met up in New York's Grand Central Terminal shortly before our train's departure. Cary Grant had a cold and for the sixth time in as many minutes, he blew his nose into a monogrammed handkerchief—mine, unfortunately. Grant had left his in a suitcase in his stateroom and hadn't wanted to make the long trek back to get it.

"Pardon me," he said, blowing his nose again, and he snapped at a waiter, "Either hurry up, or get me a snorkel!"

I recognized several faces at the surrounding tables—John Barrymore and Carole Lombard; Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave; and all four of the Three Stooges. Janet Leigh was lighting cigarettes for a heavily-sweating Frank Sinatra, and at a corner table Nick and Nora Charles were working on the six martinis they had lined up between them. On Nora's lap was an over-sized purse with a suspiciously wagging tail (no baggage car for Asta, no sir).

Everyone was polite about pretending not to pay any attention to us, but I could see their eyes shift away whenever I looked up.

"I'm not shy," Grant said, letting their glances roll off his shoulders. "I've been looked at before. Everybody would like to be Cary Grant," he asserted, but then his voice softened and he added with a wry smile, "even I would like to be Cary Grant."

At last a white-coated porter came to the table for our order.

"I recommend the brook trout," Grant said, frowning at the menu card. "It's a bit trouty, but quite good." Then he looked up and shrugged. "Actually, I have no idea whether it's good or not. It's just something Eva Marie Saint said to me once. It didn't make a lick of sense to me, then or now. But she was so beautiful, she could have told me monks taste like monkeys and I would have nodded and said, 'Yes, dear.'" He eyed the Gibson, but still didn't drink. "You know she never makes love on an empty stomach? Which tends to explain why her husband is so fat. No wonder they've been married sixty years. Judas Priest!"

That got us on the subject of leading ladies and at last Grant reached for the untouched drink. "Irene Dunne was the sweetest smelling actress I ever worked with," he said, "with lips that tasted of spiced cider and gingerbread—like kissing Christmas morning right on the teeth. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, smelled like old money—sort of dank and musty, but in a way a man could get used to, especially if he grew up as poor as I did." He swallowed the Gibson in one gulp and contemplated the onions at the bottom of the empty glass. "Deborah Kerr never let me get close enough to sniff her, but I imagine she smelled pretty good."

After the waiter brought out our dinners—the trout was indeed "trouty"—Grant continued cataloging the scents of various actresses. Jean Arthur smelled of "elderberries," he said, Myrna Loy of "patchouli," Ann Sheridan of "brown soap and beer."

"Ingrid Bergman had no particular scent," he said, "but she had very sensitive hands and an exceedingly light touch," then added, "She strangled a German general once—just for kicks!"

Grace Kelly's name came up ("a curious combination of Creed Fleurissimo and Philly cheesesteak"), and I mentioned that my late father-in-law had met her while working as a stringer for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin—he took photographs for the paper because he ran in the same circles with the society editor, owned his own tuxedo and could handle a camera.

Grant nodded and smiled wistfully. "Gracie and I would picnic in the hills around Monaco while we were filming To Catch A Thief," he told me. "Every day at lunch, she would say, 'Leg or a breast, leg or a breast?' and I would let her choose, but still, it bothered me. Finally I said, 'Why all the protein, Graciebird? Why not a vegetable or a nice spring salad once in a while?' That's when she explained she wasn't talking about food." He looked out the window and shook his head. "The years I wasted eating chicken."

Grant stated flatly he was a man who loved women, no matter what the tabloids had reported. "In the spring," he said, "a young man's fancy lightly turns to what he's been thinking about all winter." He wagged a finger at me. "I tell you, women are not the sensitive sex. That's one of the grand delusions of literature. Men are the true romanticists."

He professed to have loved all his wives dearly, even though he divorced four of them. "I still claim I was tight the night I proposed," he said, blowing his nose again. "If they had been gentlemen, they would have forgotten all about it."

Perhaps worried about to whom he might propose next, Grant stayed resolutely sober, nursing a second Gibson through the long summer evening. As the shadows lengthened in the dining car, the other passengers drifted out, singly or in pairs, and but for Nick Charles who was demonstrating the proper rhythm for shaking a cocktail to a yawning porter, we were alone. Grant lighted upon a number of subjects—travel ("You can always drive over to Tulsa for the weekend"), time management ("When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he's in no position to run"), and even his male co-star in His Girl Friday ("He looked like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy")—but eventually the conversation wound down and I knew the interview was over. He blew his nose one last time and stood up.

"I'm going to bed soon," he said, as he returned my now irretrievably soiled handkerchief, "and I plan to lock my door. There are mad killers and dangerous assassins on the loose, and I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me. I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed." Then he cocked his head and added, "Say, you wouldn't happen to have an extra pair of pajamas, would you? How about olive oil? I want to be packed in olive oil if I'm to be a sardine."

I said, no, I had neither pajamas nor olive oil, and wondered to myself what the bartender had put in those drinks.

Grant made his way forward to his stateroom and I made my way to the observation car at the rear of the train where I put myself to sleep with a bottle of cheap blended whiskey, which is all a struggling movie blogger can afford, even in his own head. I spotted no famous passengers back there, just a few who hadn't bothered to shower before getting on the train in New York.

I opened a book and daydreamed about Irene Dunne and kisses that tasted like Christmas morning.

We didn't pull into Chicago's LaSalle Street Station until after nine. As I stepped off the train, I bumped into Grant on the platform. I had expected him to be long gone, whisked away in a limo perhaps, and was surprised to see him carrying luggage while dressed in a redcap's uniform.

"You look terrible," he said sympathetically. "Me, I slept like a baby." There was none of yesterday's hesitation in his voice, and his eyes sparkled with the familiar, easy mischief of the dozen best movies of Hollywood's Golden Age. "I see you've noticed the uniform," he said, grinning. "What can I tell you—whenever I come to Chicago on the Twentieth Century Limited, I bribe a redcap to strip down to his boxer shorts while I fondle strangers' luggage. Later I'll change clothes in Marshall Field's window then take a Greyhound bus to Highway 41 where I'll blow up a tanker truck with a cropduster."

My face must have revealed more than I intended because he said, "My formula for living is quite simple. I get up in the morning and I go to bed at night. In between, I occupy myself as best I can." Then his eyes lit up and he paused to sniff the air. "Rosewater and sandalwood," he said. "Smells like Joan Fontaine!" And with a cheery wave, he was suddenly off, chasing a large woman with a carry-on bag. "Come here, you!"

As he disappeared into the crowd, I reflected that Cary Grant was a very sick man, indeed. But at least he was over his cold.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday #13: Carole Lombard's Hands

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

From a series of e-mails exchanged between my older brother and myself.

older brother: Saw the write up on your blog about carole lombard. Mom's aunt Mary was her "hands model" during the 40's. At least according to mom, aunt Mary was. But in keeping with the fisher's luck, carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash and thus ended mary's career. I have no idea if this true but it's a family legend and makes a good story.

Mythical Monkey: that is a great story -- in fact, I need a post in the morning for my "That's Typing Tuesday" series. what was Aunt Mary's last name. do you remember?

older brother: i don't. our grandmother's maiden name was "shelton", right? this would have been her sister i think. i would ask someone, but [you] are the only person i know that may remember such things. it's sad that i know so little--never really cared until i got older.

Mythical Monkey: sometimes i think i'd like to know more family history, and other times i think everytime i learn something new about the past, i wish i hadn't learned it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Carole-tennial+3—Are You In?

I'm in. Carole Lombard turns 103 this year and the good, good folks at Carole & Co. are hosting a blogathon—or should I say the "Carole-tennial+3"—October 6-9, 2011. I've got dibs on Carole's silent work. Unless, of course, somebody bigger wrestles it away from me. But I've got five of her silent films under my belt now and another on its way.

I promise to write the usual two thousand words until you say "Uncle!"

Read more about the Carole-tennial+3 here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More Anita Page

Long-time follower Beveridge D. Spencer of the blog Cool Beveridge sez "Apologies to Ms. Bow, but that Anita Page! Are there any more at home like her?"

I don't if there are any more like her, but here are some photos of her I haven't previously posted. Will that do, Bev?

You can read all about her here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Plain Chicken Says Thanks

My niece officially won the Food Challenge. As she said in the comments section elsewhere, "I won! Thanks to everyone that voted!!"

Here's a link to the article at, "Home Chef winner credits mom for food inspiration." Her mom, by the way, is an inspiration, food-wise and otherwise-wise.

(If you can't indulge in a little blatant nepotism on occasions such as this, then what is a blog for?) (No, really, what is a blog for?) (And no, the cat's not on the menu.) (Although ... cat ... grill ... hmm. I'll check into this.)

That's Typing Tuesday #12: I'm Dickens ... He's Fenster

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

I've been busy working on my essay about Chaplin's Mutual Comedies. That, and taking care of the dog who has a hip flexor as a complication of her knee surgery. So I've got nothing.

And when you've got nothing, my good friend, Mister Muleboy, advises, post pictures of pretty starlets.

I'm paraphrasing.

I did hear from Lisa Rothstein in the comment section related to That's Typing Tuesday #8, a John Astin quote from The Addams Family ("I haven't seen so much activity since the night I hid the hornet's nest in Aunt Phobia's sleeping bag."). This is what she had to say:

John Astin also appeared, pre-Addams Family, in a 1962 sitcom entitled “I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster” that my husband, Jim Benson of www. and I’ll be bringing out on DVD this fall. Astin does a lot of physical comedy in the show, which also stars Marty Ingels, and is about two best friends and co-workers in a construction company where things rarely go right. and to see clips and for more info about the DVD project.

How about that!

And now, on to pictures of some of my favorite silent actresses:

Anita Page

Clara Bow

Colleen Moore

Francesca Bertini

Greta Garbo

Louise Brooks

Norma and Constance Talmadge

Pola Negri

And Clara Bow again, so nice, we showed her twice.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Various Poll Results And A New Poll

As expected, Cary Grant was the runaway winner of Monty's best actor tournament over at All Good Things. Grant soundly defeated William Holden, 32-11.

Asked afterwards to reveal the secret of his universal appeal, Grant shrugged and said, "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."

Meanwhile, my niece Stephanie (aka Plain Chicken) appears to have a comfortable lead in the food challenge, with a 14 percentage point lead in a three-person contest. Thanks to all of you who voted—just goes to show there's no stopping the power of the Monkey once you throw it behind a cause.

Next up: world peace!

Until then, one of my favorite blogs, 100 Years of Movies, is conducting a poll with a deceptively simple question: Chaplin or Keaton? I encourage you to head over there, vote, and while you're at it, check out the rest of the site.

And how about a poll of my own? I've chosen Chaplin's collective works at Mutual Film as the best "picture" of 1917, and am currently working on a long essay explaining why. Which of Chaplin's four films from 1917 do you like best?

And in case you haven't seen them, here they are, courtesy of the Internet Movie Database. The print here is pretty beat up—whatdya want for nothing? Better prints are available for instant streaming from Netflix under the title "Charlie Chaplin Collection."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Aging Of William Holden

The final round of Monty's best actor tournament is underway over at All Good Things. Cary Grant versus William Holden. Grant's presence in the final is no surprise—he's pretty much steamrollered his competition since the beginning of the tourney—but William Holden had to eek out a last minute, one-vote victory over William Powell to gain the right to face him.

Since I've already written at length about Cary Grant (here), how about some photos of William Holden, from his credited role in 1939's Golden Boy to his last film, Blake Edwards' S.O.B., completed just prior to Holden's death in 1981.

Click here to vote.

age 21—Golden Boy (1939) (with Barbara Stanwyck)

age 32—Sunset Boulevard (1950)

age 36—Picnic (1955) (with Kim Novak)

age 39—The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

age 51—The Wild Bunch (1969)

age 58—Network (1976)

age 63—S.O.B. (with Larry Hagman)