Thursday, July 16, 2015

Tragic Griffith Stars: Clarine Seymour and Robert Harron

Clarine Seymour and Robert Harron in "True Heart Susie"
In 1919, both Bobby Harron and Clarine Seymour were the pets of director D.W. Griffith. Other than super-pet Lillian Gish, no one in the Griffith stock company seemed to have held a more secure place than Bobby. While not in the Lillian category, nor in the same favored position as personal pet Carol Dempster, Clarine Seymour was an up-and-comer who stole the show. Griffith knew a good thing when he saw it. Yet, by 1920, Griffith was attending their funerals.

Clarine Seymour

Not your typical Griffith heroine, Clarine Seymour was feisty where Miss Lillian was fragile, full of personality where Miss Dempster seemed to have none. Youthful and spunky, she was a modern sort of gal who would have made a fabulous flapper.

Clarine started her career in films as a teenager, moving from Thanhouser to Pathe to Hal Roach. While working for Roach she claimed that she was fired for refusing to do her own stunts. Like the feisty pre-flapper she was, Clarine filed a suit against Roach and was awarded the tidy sum of $1,325 in damages.

Here is Clarine with Stan Laurel in "Just Rambling Along," a film made while she was working for Hal Roach.

In 1918 she crossed paths with Griffith and he paired her with his leading man, Robert Harron, in 1919’s “The Girl Who Stayed Home.” Playing good-time girl Cutie Beautiful, Clarine made everyone sit up and take notice. Clarine seemed the embodiment of fun.
The adorable Clarine Seymour
It wasn’t easy for a gal to find her place in the Griffith stock company, what with Lil and Carol getting the good parts. However, Griffith cast her in a showy supporting role 1919’s “True Heat Susie,” and in “Scarlet Days” and as the lead in 1920’s “The Idol Dancer.” Although the last film was not a favorite of the critics, Clarine again received great notices. She was clearly on her way to stardom.
Getting ready for stardom
In 1920, Clarine was getting ready to play a leading role in Griffith’s classic “Way Down East” when she fell ill and was admitted to the hospital in April. 4 days later she was dead at age 21 of what was termed “intestinal strangulation.” Other than this mysterious description, there seems to be no reliable information regarding her illness and death. However, her former employer, Hal Roach, seemed to think drugs and/or alcohol may have played a part. In an interview with author Betty Harper Fussell for her book “Mabel” (1982), Roach blamed Clarine’s death on Mabel Normand. He said that “Mabel ‘was the wildest girl in Hollywood’ and ‘the dirtiest talking girl you ever heard.’ Roach was not amused, however, because he felt that Mabel and her (friends) had helped destroy younger girls like starlet Clarine Seymour.”

“‘Clarine ran around with these gals for about a year,’ Roach explained, ‘and then kicked the bucket in 1920.’ Some said she died of drugs. Roach blamed Mabel.”

Whatever her cause of death, Clarine Seymour was a bright star whose light never got the chance to fully shine.


Young and innocent Bobby Harron

 Bobby Harron owed everything to D.W. Griffith. At age 14 he began working as an errand boy for the Biograph Studios. He was noticed by Griffith, who began using Bobby in front of the cameras. As a teen-ager he embodied the youthful innocence Griffith loved. Graduating from shorts to feature films, Bobby was cast in some of Griffith’s greatest films: “Judith of Bethulia” (1914), “Birth of a Nation” (1915), and “Intolerance” (1916). It was his performance of The Boy in the modern story of “Intolerance” that elevated him to real and respected stardom. Today, almost 100 years after the film’s release, his performance, along with those of of Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper, remains compelling and heartbreaking.
Harron's greatest performance in "Intolerance"

After “Intolerance,” Harron was Griffith’s leading man of choice in such Griffith productions such as “True Heart Susie” (with Clarine Seymour), “Hearts of the World” (Griffith’s propaganda film for WWI) and “The Romance of Happy Valley.” Although he often partnered Lillian Gish, he enjoyed an off-screen romance with the lovely Dorothy Gish. Things were going well for Bobby Harron, the former errand boy.

Bobby and Lillian  were so charming in "True Heart Susie"

However, youth fades, even when you are only 27, and Griffith found a new preferred leading man in Richard Barthelmess. In 1920, mentor Griffith was done with Bobby and loaned him to Metro Pictures. By all accounts, Harron was deeply hurt.

On September 1, 1920 Harron arrived in New York to support Lillian Gish at the premier of “Way Down East” and to also preview his first Metro picture. While alone in his hotel room he shot himself.   According to all accounts, the gun discharged accidently. Initially he requested a doctor come to the hotel room, but after he had lost too much blood he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. While he was being treated for his wound he was arrested for the possession of a gun without a permit. While rumors began to swirl that Bobby had intentionally shot himself, he and his many friends denied this. He seemed to be on the road to recovery, but on September 5th, four days after the accident, he died at age 27. The name of the New York hotel he had checked into was the Hotel Seymour. The name of his first Metro film (and last film) was “Coincidence”.

so much talent lost

In 1920, Hollywood lost not only Clarine Seymour and Robert Harron, but also actress Olive Thomas and daredevil movie stunt pilot and actor Ormer Locklear. A memorial service was held for all four of these fallen stars on September 26, 1920. The eulogy was delivered by director William Desmond Taylor who would be murdered in 1922.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Vamps - Part 1

A Fool There Was....
Virginia Pearson: a 2nd string vamp with big props

When the flapper exploded into popular culture in the 1920s, women in film suddenly became more complicated. Before the woman of the 20th century appeared, there were usually only 2 types of women depicted in film: the virgin or the vamp. The virgin was good, but the vamp was more fun.

The vamp of the silent screen was a vixen, a temptress and a heartless wench. The term “vamp” referred to Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem “The Vampire”

A FOOL there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair—

(Even as you and I!)
Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)

And did not understand!
A fool there was and his goods he spent
(Even as you and I!)
Honour and faith and a sure intent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant)

But a fool must follow his natural bent
(Even as you and I!)
Oh, the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why

(And now we know that she never knew why)
And did not understand!
The fool was stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—

(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
(Even as you and I!)
“And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand 

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing, at last, she could never know why)
And never could understand!”

The poem was inspired by this Sir Philip Burns-Jones’ painting of The Vampire.

Allegedly, the inspiration for the woman was famed actress Mrs.
Patrick Campbell, who evidently broke the painter's heart

You can see she was a voracious creature – so unlike Lillian Gish.

As movies became the popular entertainment of choice, the vamp was shown in full flower – heartless, beautiful, a woman of the world who took what she wanted and moved on, leaving her victims broken and bowed.

There were many bad movie ladies in those early days, but 2 ladies notably pushed the vamp-meter to its highest level.

Theda Bara

Watch out!
Even today, the name of Theda Bara is associated with the vamp. Almost none of her films survive, yet the fame still persists.

Struggling actress Theodosia Goodman (of a proper Cincinnati family) landed the part of The Vampire in 1915’s “A Fool There Was” and her fame was sealed. Thankfully, this film does survive and even in the crude technology of the day, her absolute audacity shines through.  Compared to Mary Pickford, this gal was a handful!

Theodosia had changed her name to Theda Bara for the lowly movies (Bara being part of a family name Barranger), but by 1917 the sexpot’s allure was so great that the masterminds at Fox declared it was really an anagram for “Arab Death” and that his mysterious minx was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, possibly the daughter of an Italian sculptor or a Sheik and a French temptress. She was always to appear mysterious in public and never a just the American girl she was. And so the movie publicity machine was born.

Theda was a hot ticket at the box office from 1915 – 1919, when such blockbusters as Cleopatra and Salome wowed ‘em across the country. Once she left her home studio, Fox, in 1919, she couldn’t keep the momentum going. Being so heavily identified with the vamp, she founds non-vamp parts hard to come by. She tried the stage and a few minor productions, but the world of cinema had passed her by. The truth was, she probably wasn’t much of an actress, but she sure was a terrific movie star.

Sadly, all that remain from Theda's blockbusters are still photos that make the loss of such films especially painful. What would you give to see Theda in action as Cleopatra in these duds?

Theda married director Charles Brabin in 1921 and they remained married until her death in 1955. She always listed herself as available for employment until the day she died.
Nita Naldi

On the heels of Theodosia Goodman came Mary Dooley, better known as Nita Naldi. Nita was a lovely Ziegfeld Girl who, after a few minor films, made a splash in 1921’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore. She and Barrymore became great and lasting pals.

Nita really hit the big time when she was chosen to play Dona Sol in 1922’s Blood and Sand, starring opposite Rudolph Valentino. 

Although she was a New York gal, Nita exuded a continental and exotic appeal that a vamp required. She and Rudy had great screen chemistry and they went on to star in 3 films together. Nita became friends with Rudy and his wife, Natacha Rambova, but when they split, the friendship failed.

Nita as "The Cobra"

As quickly as her star rose, it fell at the end of the silent period. Nita never made a talking film. Unlike Theda, Nita was inable to secure a comfortable retirement. The Depression hit her hard, but she managed to find occasional work and some successes on the stage. She even coached Carol Channing on the ABCs of vamping for the 1955 Broadway musical "The Vamp."

The emergence of a more three dimensional feme fatale put an end to the reign of the vamp. Stars like Garbo, Negri and Dietrich offered the public a more complex woman of mystery. No more skulls and mysticism, but it was sure fun while it lasted.

Next up: The Silent Italian Divas: Vamping with a Vengeance

Friday, June 26, 2015

Classic History Movie Project Blogathon: Early Musicals: Throw it on the wall and see what sticks

This is my entry in the Classic History Movie Project Blogathon hosted by the 3 divinities, Fritzi at Movies Silently, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Please be sure to check out the great entries representing the entire history of the medium we love best.


By 1927 the silent film had evolved into a high art form. The language of film was set and the world of glamour and the stars had captured the imagination of the globe. Life was good. And then Jolson spoke...and sang.... and the universe of film changed forever.

People line up to see and hear Jolson
As so grandly depicted in "Singin' in the Rain," Hollywood was thrown into a tizzy by sound. Silent stars were not only forced to speak, but in many cases were forced to sing, dance and do other musical things (think Buster Keaton and Clara Bow). But silent films were never really silent. From big orchestral accompaniments in big cities to the lone piano player in the small towns, movies always had music. Theme songs were common (for example: "Diane" was the theme song played to "Seventh Heaven"). One could argue that silent film had more in common with dance than it did with talking films. 

From 1927 to 1933, Hollywood's musical trial and error was was on display for all the world to see. Sometimes the results were glorious, sometimes they were interesting and sometimes they were just plain embarrassing. But never before or since has the movie-going world been treated to so many creative achievements and so many diverse talents from all forms of entertainment. It truly was a time of throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

The Prologues: dipping a toe in the water
Technology is here to stay
Warner Brothers and Vitaphone lead the way with sound. Even before "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, Warners offered a full recorded score for 1926's "Don Juan." Included with the program was a prologue of short sound performances featuring musical stars from the NY Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Spoken words were heard only from Will Hays, who introduced the program.

And so, from radio, vaudeville and Broadway came the storied stars. Sound provided the world a glimpse of performers that most would never have the opportunity to see. From the heights of the Metropolitan Opera to the common clay of burlesque, prologues and musical shorts created a hunger for musical entertainment at the movies. 

The Stars: oh, silent stars, why are you still here?
1928 solidified Jolson's stardom in "The Singing Fool," while a certain mouse made his whistling debut in "Steamboat Willie."
Mickey was a musical mouse
Audiences were treated to performances by the great Broadway stars Marilyn Miller in "Sally" and "Sunny," and Fanny Brice in "My Man." Other stage and radio luminaries such as Sophie Tucker, Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence and Helen Morgan took a crack at musical features, shorts and studio extravaganzas such as "Paramount on Parade" and MGM's "Hollywood Review of 1929." None of them made a dent and headed back to the stage without a backward glance.

Many Hollywood stars did not make the sound cut musically or otherwise. However, there were some surprising survivors and even thrivers.

Ramon Novarro proved he could sing when he crooned "Pagan Love Song," Bebe Daniels and John Boles thrilled audiences in "Rio Rita" and the glorious Gloria Swanson stepped up to the plate in 1929's "The Trespasser" with a throbbing rendition of "Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere."

Janet Gaynor became a musical sweetie for a while, as did the adorable Nancy Carroll, who was frequently partnered with Charles "Buddy" Rogers.
Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers: cute cute cute!
The Hits and Misses: can't get enough
Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King have music on their minds
By far the luckiest silent sweetie to make in dent in sound musicals was Bessie Love in 1929's sensational "Broadway Melody." Though it looks pretty creaky today, "Broadway Melody" proved that feature length films could talk, sing, and dance in a cinematic fashion that did not simply photograph a stage play. Broadway star Charles King provided the male lead, starlet Anita Page provided the beauty and Bessie Love provided the depth and heart of the film. Songs written specifically for the film by Nacio Herb Brown and  (including the title song, "You Were Meant For Me," and "The Wedding of the Painted Doll") and the all talking! all singing! all dancing! musical numbers (filmed in color - now lost) left the audiences wanting more.
So successful was this film that it won the 1928-1929 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Suddenly, the movie market was flooded with musicals. The public could not get enough of backstage musicals, operettas, Broadway-to-Hollywood musicals and all star extravaganzas.

This is NOT a Musical: too much of a good thing
And just as fast as it started, it stopped. Too much cake, even if it is good cake, can cause you to get sick of it. And by 1930 the public had had too many musicals. Films that were started as musicals were suddenly changed to non-musicals in mid-production. Broadway musical star Marilyn Miller has started "Her Majesty Love" as a musical only to finish it as a non-musical. She packed her bags and dancing shoes and went back to New York. Hollywood released over 100 musical films in 1930. 14 musicals were released in 1931.

A lone musical success in 1930 was "Whoopee!" starring Eddie Cantor. Straight from the successful Ziegfeld production, Cantor was an immediate musical success. Goldwyn's production not only had the star and the Ziegfeld name, but Technicolor (that still survives) and choreography by a guy named Busby Berkeley, who would soon head over to Warner Brothers and change the way dance is seen on film.

There were some successes (1932's "Love Me Tonight," for example), but, for the most part, audiences had tired of musical films.

42nd Street, Crosby & Astaire: all set now
And then the cycle started up all over again. By 1933 Warners had discovered the winning formula of "42nd Street": stars, chorus girls, a fast pace, memorable songs, snappy dialogue and true cinematic style. 

Over at RKO, Fred Astaire set the standard for intimate dance and elegant style, while at Paramount, Crosby set the style for a singer whose stardom rested on a voice and a personality.
This is how you do it
Silent star Marion Davies gets a lift from up and
coming crooner Crosby in "Going Hollywood"
All that followed would one way or another imitate these patterns. Never again would there be room for slightly out of step dancers, turquoise Technicolor skies, new voices and the trial and error of new technology right before our eyes.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tragic Star: Ramon Novarro

2015 is the year of the tragic star on A Person in the Dark. May's tragic star is Ramon Novarro.

In 1925, Latin lover Ramon Navarro seemed to have it all. Coming off a starring role in the epic Ben Hur, he was poised to take a place at the top of Hollywood's Mount Olympus of stars. 

But storm clouds gathering inside of him and around him would prevent Novarro from finding true happiness and lasting success. Sadly, the thing now most remembered about Novarro's life is his death.

By the time Ramon Novarro had hit Hollywood, he had already known adversity. Entering the world as Jose Ramon Sanmaniego, Ramon was born to a large and well-to-do family in 1899. His father was a prominent dentist in Durango, Mexico, but the family lost their standing and were forced to flee their home at the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Young Ramon had 12 siblings and felt responsible for his family for all of his life.

By 1917  Ramon was working as a singing waiter in Hollywood and looking for work in the movies. After some frustrating bit parts that lead nowhere, Ramon was fortunate to catch the eye of director Rex Ingram. As Ramon Novarro, Ingram cast him in an important role, along with Ingram's wife Alice Terry, in Metro's 1923 version of Scaramouche. His leading man good looks and his sensitive and romantic style put him on the road to stardom. Ingram was one of Novarro's greatest supporters in this early phase of his career.

Novarro makes an impression in Scaramouche with Alice Terry (1923)

His stardom was solidified in 1925 with the release of the epic Ben Hur. After a tortuous effort to bring this tale to the screen (begun in 1923, it went through major changes in directors, actors and script) and expending so much time and money on the production, Metro had a hit with Ben Hur and one of the primary reasons was Novarro. Touting him first as a rival to Valentino, Novarro became the Hollywood Latin Lover after Valentino's death in 1926. 
The birth of a star: Novarro in Ben Hur

Novarro stares down Francis X. Bushman in Ben Hur
From 1926 to the dawn to talking pictures, Novarro made a sting of successful films at Metro (later MGM), including the delightful The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), co-staring with Norma Shearer and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

Ramon and Norma Shearer at their most charming in The Student Prince
He was the dream lover supreme and the romantic ideal of millions of women. He was also a devout Catholic and gay.

Looking sexy for MGM
Ramon Novarro never would play the studio game. His homosexuality was known to everyone but his fans. Bucking the studio's demands, he refused to be bullied into a sham marriage for the sake of publicity. He was also devoted to his religion, so much so that he had once considered becoming a monk. The conflicts and the secrets and the lies caused the sensitive Ramon great pain, a pain he numbed with alcohol.

As if life hadn't thrown Ramon enough curve balls, the advent of talking films marked the end his brand of romantic hero. His voice was good (he had a fine singing voice), but his luster dimmed when MGM failed to find the right vehicles for him. By the mid-30s he had faded from view. His last important film was opposite Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931).

Novarro and Garbo in Mata Hari.
His Russian accent was by way of Duango, Mexico
Ramon had managed to provide financial security for himself and his family and  worked sporadically during the next decades in supporting film and television roles in between bouts of alcoholism and multiple DUIs.

On October 30, 1968, the lonely 69 year old former heart throb called an escort service for some male company. Instead of pleasure, he encountered a brutal death at the hand of 2 brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson. The brothers mistakenly thought the actor had money hidden in his home, but after hours of torturing Novarro and finally killing him, they left his home with $20. Both were arrested and served prison terms.

The romantic idol
It was a sad and sensational end for a sensitive man whose search for happiness was always tempered by inner conflicts. An excellent book about Ramon Novarro is "Beyond Paradise" by Andre Soares.