Silent Film

Film on Friday

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We love movies here at the American Treasure Tour, and we’re not just talking about then blockbuster action thrillers and superhero films that are taking over the movie theaters these days.  We’re talking about movies since the beginning of the technology, which dates back to experiments made by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson in the West Orange, New Jersey laboratories of Thomas Edison, back in 1888. Using a celluloid strip photographic film developed by George Eastman of Kodak, the illusion of movement became a hugely successful form of entertainment (yes, we’re getting to Ruth Rolland here, somehow).  Films were silent, and the actors and actresses on the screen quickly became internationally famous movie stars.  Many of the early film celebrities are now long forgotten, but deserve a call out every now and again.

Ruth Rolland (1892 to 1937) was the first student at the now-famous Hollywood High School to become a movie star. That happened shortly after she appeared in the Kalem Film Studios’ A Chance Shot, which was released in 1911. In the next sixteen years, she performed in right around two hundred films (many short subject films) and became hugely successful.  Although she had a good voice for talkies, by 1930 her youth was gone and her career began to wane. Sadly, she died of cancer in 1937 at the age of forty-five. So, Ruth may not be well remembered by today’s film-going audience, but maybe we can help her star rise again!

Film on Friday

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM, is one of the biggest film studios to have ever been.  Established in 1924, they have been behind some of the most famous movies ever produced, including all-time favorites such as Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz.  Back in the days when film studios ruled the lives of their actors, MGM controlled some of the biggest names in Hollywood, from Clark Gable to Spencer Tracy to Judy Garland and many in between. They made dramas, war films, biblical epics, and of course comedies. Their comedies were among some of the funniest out there, thanks to the great skills of their actors.  And, in 1964, they created The Big Parade of Comedy using snippets and sketches from some of their most popular comedies that reached as far back as the days of the silent film and up to 1948. 

The Big Parade of Comedy included performances by Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, the Marx Brothers, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton – should we go on?  Okay!  Joan Crawford, Abbott and Costello, Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, Marion Davies, Carole Lombard, Zasu Pitts – and many, many more.  Granted, all the film did was splice together high moments of dozens of films and archival footage but, if you aren’t looking for an actual story and just want good laughs from the golden age of cinema, you’ve found the right movie for you!

Film on Friday

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Silent films had to innovate.  During the first three decades of movies, the inability to incorporate sound compelled filmmakers to be more innovative – to use sets and scenery, to convey emotion through facial expression and performances. One of the most popular actors of the age was the petite and demur Lillian Gish, whose name on the poster for The White Sister is actually bigger than the movie’s title on most of its advertisements!  

The White Sister is the story of a beautiful young woman, Angela Chiaromonte whose love for Captain Giovanni Severini (played by Ronald Coleman) is reciprocated, but never fulfilled. Chiarmomonte’s father arranged a marriage to another man, a prince, who just so happens to have the heart of Angela’s half-sister, the Marchesa di Mola.  After the prince’s death, and then Angela’s and the Marchesa’s father’s death, Angela is refused her inheritance and, well, we don’t want to tell you the whole story here. We will say that Angela may or may not become a nun and, well, maybe that’s too much. It is still out there – a fortunate survivor from the silent era and available to watch. Here's a snippet:

Film on Friday

Movies. Cinema. Photoplays. Motion Pictures. Film. They all mean the same thing, but why? Funny thing. When Thomas Edison created the illusion of movement by putting together thousands of slightly different still images, inspired by Eadweard Muybridge (yes, that's his real name) and using technology perfected by George Eastman of Kodak fame, no one knew what to call it. So, you may have a favorite word or phrase that you use, but they're all correct.  Admittedly, photoplay didn't really stick, but it explains why photo players have their somewhat odd name. Back a hundred years ago, no one would have given that a second thought.

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So.  What, you may ask, is the first "talking picture," the first movie in which the sound is actually embedded in the film strip?  Okay, most people don't ask it, because they think they know it.  They claim it is the Al Jolson musical The Jazz Singer. But guess what: that's not it. The Jazz Singer was an innovative film, to be sure. Dialogue and sound was recorded for the film; however, it was originally a Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, which means the film would be playing simultaneous to a disc. If they were not played synchronously, then the sound wouldn't match the mouths. The movie was hugely popular after its release in 1927, so that, when the sound was eventually added to the film strip, people just assumed it was the first.  Actually, that honor goes to another film in 1927 called Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which earned the honor of receiving the Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Picture - the only year that award was ever handed out. Sunrise incorporated no dialogue, though, so the sound was only used for music and sound effects. But it paved the way for films as we enjoy them today.

Evelyn Brent

QUESTION:  After which of the following was the dance "the foxtrot" named?
A). A "foxy" lady strutting her stuff
B). Vaudeville actor Harry Fox
C). The mammal, the fox, and its agility and speed
D). A racehorse named Fox

Last week, the American Treasure Tour blog spent some time discussing a classic silent-era gangster film called Underworld. We also talked about its two male leads: George Bancroft and Clive Brook. We saved our female lead for today: Evelyn Brent. So many of the heartthrobs of yesterday have been forgotten today, but during the height of their popularity they evoked passions just like modern actors do for their fans today. Evelyn Brent had a natural beauty to her. In fact, that beauty is what led to her career in front of the camera. Born Mary Elizabeth Briggs in 1901, the Tampa, Florida native's mother passed away when she was just a girl. Raised by her father, she moved to New York City as a teenager and attended Normal School. That's where men and women, but mostly women, were educated in the art of education. She intended a life as a school teacher. Brent never taught, though. One day, she visited Fort Lee, New Jersey, and the World Film Studio. She was noticed by studio workers and two days later she got work as a paid extra. She was only fourteen years old when she made her film debut in 1915's The Shooting of Dan McGrew. She never looked back. After World War I, she visited London, and stayed a few years, acting on stage and screen. When she returned to the States in 1922, she hooked up with Paramount Pictures and achieved nationwide success. 

She starred in three films for Josef von Sternberg, including 1927's Underworld and the next year's The Last Command. Her career peaked by the end of the decade, but she still maintained popularity through the '30's and '40's, transitioning easily into talkies. By 1950, older than most female actors by that time, she became an actor's agent and remained in the business behind the scenes. With a resume of around 120 films, she did fairly well in the industry. It may very well be time to resurrect her career, and celebrate the artistry of Evelyn Brent!

ANSWER:  B). Vaudeville actor Harry Fox

Clive Brook

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QUESTION:  Which of the following Clive's is also an actor?
A). Palmer
B). Davis
C). Barker
D). Owen

As we continue our exploration of the cast and creators of the 1927 film Underworld following our in depth and thought provoking expose of George Bancroft yesterday, we are led into the sordid land of the second male lead in this highly-regarded gangster film: Clive Brook.  That sordid land (which really isn't sordid at all, we just like writing sordid. Sordid.  Funny word when you think about it.) is Great Britain, and Clive Brook was born there in 1887. The son of an opera singer and violinist, Brook served his country in World War I in the Artists' Rifles. After the war, he entered the theater and silent film in his native land, and did well enough to justify a move to Hollywood to become a contract player for Paramount Pictures. 

Between 1924 and 1935, Brook made a name for himself in American film, smoothly transitioning from silent to talking pictures. In the former category was, of course, Underworld. In the latter, his (arguably) best performances were in Shanghai Express, co-starring with Marlene Dietrich and as the famous British sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Brook's time in Hollywood was not especially pleasant for him. In the wake of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, fear swept through the country that the children of high-profile celebrities might be kidnapped. Brook hired armed guards to take his daughters Faith and Lyndon (future actors themselves) to school, and he slept with a revolver under his pillow. He saw Hollywood as a luxurious prison, a gilded cage, and left as soon as he could justify it to himself. Upon his return to England, he continued his film career before ultimately devoting himself to the theater. He lived until 1974 and lies in rest in Covent Garden.

ANSWER:  D). Clive Owen.  Clive Palmer is a politician. Clive Davis is a music producer. Clive Barker is a novelist.

Ramon Navarro

QUESTION:  Ramon Navarro and Alice Terry starred together in 1924's The Arab.  Which other movie were they also seen in together?
A)  The Prisoner of Zenda
B)  Mr. Barner of New York
C)  Where the Pavement Ends
D)  The Little American

Yesterday, we discussed the 1924 film The Arab, which happened to be a vehicle for romantic heartthrob Ramon Navarro.  Navarro was a Mexican-American actor born Jose Ramon Gil Samaniego in Durango, Mexico in 1899.  Fleeing the Mexican Revolution in 1913, Navarro and his family settled in Los Angeles, California.  Within four years, he started appearing in the films of Rex Ingram and his wife, Alice Terry, while also working as a singing waiter.  His good looks and adequate skill as an actor made him an ideal competitor for Rudolph Valentino's dominance as a Latin lover.  The Italian-American Valentino played the title character of The Sheik in 1921. Three years later, the Mexican-American Novarro played a similar role. But in 1925, Novarro gave his breakthrough performance as the title character in Ben-Hur.  The film was a blockbuster hit, as would be its 1959 remake (but maybe not the 2016 re-interpretation). Valentino's 1926 death left Novarro the title of Latin Lover Number One in Hollywood, and he enjoyed the status into the talking film era.  It was only after his studio contract with MGM Studios was not renewed in 1935 that his celebrity faded.  After that, he made sporadic appearances in film, then television, until his death in 1968.  But that's another story.

Navarro, Latin lover and sex symbol, was homosexual in a time when society had little understanding and no tolerance for anyone considered different. MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer asked him to take a woman as a bride, to participate in a "lavender marriage."  Novarro refused, and maintained romantic relationships with men.  Some accredit the stress of this unconventional lifestyle as triggering the alcoholism that would haunt him until October 30, 1968, the night when he was murdered by two brothers he invited into his home, who hoped to rob him blind, instead accidentally killing him. Tragic end to a fascinating character. But let's focus more on his life.  Get a copy of The Arab, or just enjoy the images celebrating the film throughout the American Treasure Tour's Music Room! 

ANSWER:  A)  The Prisoner of Zenda.  The two stars also appeared together in Scaramouche, Where the Pavement Ends, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Lovers?

Alla Nazimova

QUESTION:  During the silent film era, Alla Nazimova helped establish the careers of Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova.  Both women were married (at separate times) to what famous actor?
A)  Charles Boyer
B)  Rudolph Valentino
C)  Douglass Fairbanks
D)  Orson Welles

The American Treasure Tour has more stories throughout its amazing collection than can possibly be told in one blog.  But we try.  Today, we would like to discuss a woman who was at one time enormously popular on the stage and in theater, but who is all but forgotten today. Born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon in Yalta, part of the Russian Empire (prior to becoming a part of the Soviet Union) in 1879, she abbreviated her first name to Alla, and took on as her last name that of a fictional character from a Russian novel. Nazimova emigrated to the United States when she was 26, having become a famous actor across much of Europe by 1905.  She continued her success on Broadway for many years, then made her film debut in 1916.  This led to bigger and better things until the bigger and better became smaller and not quite so good. By 1925 her film career was over, aside from a few cameo appearances in films of the 1940's.

What makes Nazimova fascinating to students of Hollywood today is actually her private life. She was a married woman when she left Russia. And she was still married when she became involved in what is called a "lavender marriage," which is to say one or both participants are homosexual and hiding that from public scrutiny. Nazimova was outed, which caused a scandal and played a large part in her retirement from film in 1925. She is also accredited with coining the phrase "sewing circle" to discreetly describe lesbian or bisexual actresses. Her reputation for hosting wild parties at her Sunset Boulevard home was quite possibly accurate, and she was definitely entrenched in Hollywood culture. One of her friends, Edith Luckett, asked her to be godmother to her daughter.  Her name was Nancy Davis, who would marry Ronald Reagan and become First Lady of the United States.

ANSWER:  B)  Rudolph Valentino