Thursday, June 30, 2011

Constance Talmadge - LIVE in "Her Night of Romance" and Shouting Out About Silents

Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge
flirt and skirt boundaries of propriety
I went to see a silent film last night.. in a theater! The accompanist and composer fired up the "organ" (actually Mr. Ben Model on his Miditzer Virtual Theatre Organ), the lights were dimmed and the audience was served a glass of sparkling cinematic champagne of a very rare vintage. It was all very heady stuff.

"Her Night of Romance" stars Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman. We are all familiar with Mr. Colman as the sound star ("'tis a far, far better thing...") with the beautiful British accent. As a silent star he was equally appealing, maybe even more so, as he was so young, so handsome and, at least in this film, so seemingly good-natured. Funny that he payed an English Lord (impoverished) and it seemed so right, knowing how his voice sounded. When audience first saw this in 1924, they could only guess.

Constance Talmadge was, at the time and throughout the silent era, a huge star who is now largely forgotten. She and her sister, Norma, were the queens of comedy and tragedy, respectively. While Norma's name still rings a faraway bell to some, Constance is rarely mentioned, her films rarely screened. So, imagine my delight when this bubbly, effervescent, intoxicating (did I say she was like a glass of champagne?) woman appeared on the screen and took over the film. She is fresh, funny, natural and feminine. Lovely and frisky, but slightly screwball, she is a precursor to Carole Lombard. The racy bedroom scenes between the two stars do raise an eyebrow, but they are put across in such a charming manner that the censors must have looked the other way. Ronnie and Connie were adorable (and pretty sexy).

All in all, the film is a delicious trifle given weight by two powerful star personalities and talents. Aiding the light-as-a-feather story is a first class production where no expense appeared to have been spared (after all, Connie's brother-in-law was  Joseph Schenck, powerful mogul and husband of Norma).

After seeing "A Night of Romance" I want more Connie Talmadge! Some of her films that are available on DVD include "Her Sister From Paris" and "The Duchess of Buffalo."

Chatting With Ben and Dylan 
at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre

Not only does the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre provide great movies and programs (click here for a peek), but they also provide great ambiance. Before the show, I got a chance to speak with Ben Model, accompanist, composer, and silent film champion, and Dylan Skolnick, the Co-Director of the theater. Both were kind enough to take a few minutes in the theater's wonderful cafe (that has both red velvet cake and coconut cake, but I digress....) to talk about the evening's program and getting the word out about silent films to a larger audience.

Ben Model and Dylan Skolnick
Ben, who has been playing piano and organ and composing for silents at the Museum of Modern Art for over 20 years, said that he has played at several screenings of Constance Talmadge's films over the last few years that she is always a hit. However, the treat of our being able to see and enjoy Connie   is largely due to the efforts of the Library of Congress and various collectors who have recognized the value of these films and have saved them - just for us!  And thanks to these efforts, Connie's reputation is starting to come back. Ben acknowledges, however, that getting more than just the core group of fans out to see a silent film is a challenge.

Huntington Cinema Arts Centre Co-Director Dylan Skolnick agreed. The theater, which has been championing silent films for decades, faces the challenge of reaching out to a wider audience with each showing. "Silent films," he said, "are very far away from most people's experience of film. But once they have the experience, they fall in love with it. It's really about the experience. There is a  different feel to these films which have a visual, poetic quality."

Dylan summed it up, I think, perfectly:" If you love movies, this is the heart." 

It was fun just to listen to two people who really love what they do and want to share their passion with a larger audience.

Ben and Dylan also opened up about the rest of the 2011 Silent Film Series at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre. Check out this lineup:
Library of Congress Rare Comedy Shorts (hand picked by Ben) that he promises are "hilarious."
"The Freshman" with Harold Lloyd
William S. Hart in "Sand"
"He Who Gets Slapped" starring Lon Chaney
"Upstream" - directed by John Ford (a film that was considered to be lost until a copy was discovered in 2009 in New Zealand)
Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances"

All on the big screen, all with live organ accompaniment...I am so there.

After our chat and before the show, I had a cool drink (and some coconut cake, I confess) in their luscious garden patio while listening to some live music. An evening's entertainment, indeed!

Make Some Noise About Silent Film!

The joy of classic films, and silents in particular, can only be spread by those who love them. 

This means you!

Next time you go to see a classic film, silent or sound, pop in a DVD or even watch one on TCM, invite a friend or family member. Wouldn't it be nice to spread the wonder of these treasures (and have someone to share them with, too)? As Ben says, "if you come once, you'll get what it's all about." 

It's "Mission Possible" - are you in?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What a Drag! Bending Genders Cinema Style

For one's art, an actor must suffer and sometimes cross gender. Some look better than others and some - well - some are just downright ugly! But, the great ones are good sports and throw everything into their role. And sometimes, something strangely sexy happens...

The men have a harder time looking passable, let alone feminine, but some manage to pull it off better than others. The ladies, while hardly ever looking truly masculine (except for a few), always look fetching, no matter how the gender bends. Mascara and lip gloss always seem to be handy.

Here are the Boys!
The Good
These few fellows actually make a passable woman!
Charlie Chaplin in "A Woman" - quite charming, don't you think?
Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie" - who would have guessed?
Shows you what great make-up and a great actor can do!
Sir Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" -  
she's quite formidable!
Peter Seller in "The Mouse That Roared" - 
makes quite a believable Duchess,  doesn't he?

The Bad
These boys were bad, and fooled no one, but they tried.

Cary Grant in "I Was a Male War Bride" - not Cary's best look,
but  he was a good sport and would do anything for a laugh
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in "Some Like it Hot" -
yes, they  were  not really believable, but they were so cute!

William Powell in "Love Crazy" - oh Nick Charles! But, 
Bill does make a pretty good fussy old lady

The Really Ugly
These guys are just not in touch with their feminine side!

Gene Hackman in "Birdcage" - so wrong
George Sanders in "The Kremlin Letter" - 
He & Gene Hackman switched at birth?
Fatty Arbuckle - just say "NO"!

Curly - Maybe with a bigger hat....
Lou Costello (right) in "Lost in a Harem" - 
Lou looks as though he wandered in from "Birdcage"
Robert Preston in "Victor Victoria" - 
Not pretty, but funny as hell
Johnny Depp in "Before Night Falls" - 
some may like this look, but me? Not so much.

Here Come the Girls

The Cute
These girls might not have quite passed, but they sure looked adorable.
Louise Brooks in "Beggars of Life" - 
Louise always looked stylish, no matter what she wore
Edna Purviance in "Behind the Screen" - 
hmm.... Charlie is strangely attracted
Jessie Matthews in "First a Girl" - 
the early British version of "Victor/Victoria"
Julie Andrews in "Victor/Victoria" - 
she looks pretty feminine to me!
Miriam Hopkins in "She Loves Me" - 
Miriam is still cute as a button
Marion Davis in "Little Old New York" - WR Hearst liked to see her
 dressed as a boy. Let's not even go there.
Janet Gaynor in "Sunny Side Up" - pretty cute, pretty close
Merle Oberon in "A Song to Remember" - 
a lady to her fingertips (but very chic)

The Sexy
These 2 women defined continental sex appeal. No matter what the gender, they were hot.
Marlene Dietrich - the Queen

Garbo - always kept them guessing (beautifully)

The Disturbing
Sorry, but this makes me a little uncomfortable...
Katharine Hepburn in "Sylvia Scarlett"-  
Her co-star was Cary Grant. 
Not exactly "The Philadelphia Story."

Feeling a bit conflicted? Do you feel the onset on an identity crisis? It will be our little secret. 

Excuse me while I bake a cake. Men, start chopping some lumber!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino: Birds of Paradise in Love

Pola Negri & Rudolph Valentino by Federico Beltrán Masses
Should two of the silent era's most glamorous, exotic stars have had a dignified, low-profile romance? Back in the day, running almost parallel with Garbo and Gilbert (called Gilbo or Garbert by the press -and we thought we were so witty with Brangelina and Bennifer) the hot, hot, hot Hollywood romance was Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino (Polantino?)

Silent film stars were never portrayed as real people and were not expected to behave that way. They were the closest we ever came to the mythical gods and goddesses. Surely Hollywood of the 1920s was Mount Olympus. The movie star-gods were always magical, passionate and seemingly touched with real stardust. The studios worked overtime to promote these images and the fan magazines were filled with stories of  beautiful, emotional, larger-than-life personalities. How much fun it must have been for fans to play along with this fantasy!

It is only right that these two hot house flowers of passion and romance should find one another and fall in love.

Pola Negri

Pola Negri (born Barbara Apolonia Chalupiec) was a Polish diva who, after achieving great success in Europe, was brought to Hollywood. It was Pola who showed the American gals how a sophisticated, continental femme fatale should behave, dress, and love. Pola was a fine actress and gave many wonderful performances, but her off-screen image was as interesting as her on-screen work. After arriving in America, she began a succession of affairs. One of the most famous was her brief romance with Charlie Chaplin. After the initial heat wore off, both realized they were ill-suited to one another, Pola being much to strong-willed for Charlie (who liked his women pliable). Pola took her position as a woman of glamor and passion very seriously (just as Mary Pickford protected her more virginal image with the public). She approached life, as well as art, with passionate intensity. Pola was a shameless publicity hound and a very public love affair with a willing partner was the perfect setting to display her colorful and fiery passions.

Rudolph Valentino

The greatest silent film lover, bar none, Valentino smoldered and set the hearts of American women fluttering (and the teeth of American men gnashing). Rudy, the Italian immigrant who initially spoke no English, worked at menial jobs (including dishwasher and paid escort) and found fame when he tango-ed across the screen in "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse," was well known to have been rather unlucky in love. After his death, questions about his sexual preferences surfaced, but by all reliable accounts, the great Latin Lover loved women.  His first wife, Jean Acker, who he married impulsively, was a known lesbian and their marriage never made it past the wedding night. It appears that he was passionately in love with his second wife, Natacha Rambova, an artistic set and costume designer and dancer. The beautiful Rambova's controlling nature and demands that pertained to Valentino's film career eventually lead to their split. Valentino, the great lover, was heart broken and ready for a new romance.

Rudy and Pola: The Romance

Act One: They Meet and Fall in Love
Lovers meet
Rudy and Pola allegedly first met in 1926 at a costume party thrown by Marion Davies. Rudy was dressed as the "Blood and Sand" matador and Pola came dressed as an officer-of-the-guard for Catherine the Great. Pola supposedly asked Nazimova for an introduction to Rudy. Sparks flew, an evening redezvous was made, and love was born.

Act Two: Happiness
Was it all for publicity? Perhaps a bit. Pola was more than willing to make love for the papers, but Rudy seemed a bit more reticent, although he sure did let his lady-loves lead him around by the nose (ah, a man in love!). Pola and Rudy were seen everywhere doing everything and seemed so happy. Both Pola and Rudy sport grins that are rarely seen in other candid shots. Maybe they were just so in love they wanted to share their happiness with their fans (as do all young lovers).  Just take a look:
Valentino's Arabian steeds
Attending the marriage of Mae Murray and David Mdivani

Happily frolicking in Pola's pool and ready for an important event!

They sure seemed to make each other happy.

Act Three: Tragedy Strikes
Valentino's Death

Valentino died suddenly in 1926 while in New York. Pola, who was in Hollywood, collapsed, revived and then sped across the country to attend the New York funeral. Her grief-stricken performance at the funeral was over-the-top, even for a diva like Pola. Draped in flowing black veils (and accompanied by a secretary and press agent), Pola declared to reporters that she and Valentino were secretly engaged to be married. She posed in dramatic fashion for the reporters and then threw herself, weeping and fainting, on Valentino's open casket. Her performance caused a riot.
An estimated 100,000 mourners descend upon
Frank E. Campbell's  Funeral Chapel

Grieving Pola propped up by a secretary and a publicity man

Pola accompanied Rudy's body back to Hollywood for another funeral via train. Stopping in all major cities from New York to Hollywood, Pola willingly obliged reporters and repeated her fainting and grief routine on demand. At Valentino's Hollywood funeral, Pola ordered a $2,000 bed of red roses with the name "POLA" prominently displayed in white roses at the center of the arrangement. Her grief was on display again at the Hollywood funeral and was repeated yet again for Photoplay Magazine (who announced Pola's intention of erecting an enormous marble wedding cake to sit atop Valentino's tomb. Thankfully, this didn't happen). Oh, that Pola. She was indeed a drama queen.

Backlash and Aftermath
Pola's funeral antics, no matter how heartfelt, did not win her any fans. Her behavior was much criticized, as was her 1927 rebound marriage to Prince Serge Mdivani (so much for grief). Due, in part, to the negative press she received, her films began to fare poorly at the box office. The advent of talking pictures placed the final nail in Pola's Hollywood career. She did, however, continue to work in Europe and live a very colorful life (she was married two times, once to a count and once to a prince), finally returning to the USA in the early 1940s and remaining here until her death in 1987. She had a lot of hard luck along the way, but always behaved like the star she was. She was a fascinating woman.

In her autobiography "Memoirs of a Star" (published in 1970), Pola maintained that, despite the many men she knew and loved, Valentino was the love of her life:
 My love for Valentino was the greatest love of my life. I loved him, not as one artist loves another, but as a woman loves a man.
Who knows if it would have lasted? Did they really love one another? Were they really engaged to be married? Was Valentino still in love with Natacha Rambova? Who knows if Valentino would have survived talking pictures? These unanswered questions make their romance, for me, the ultimate 1920s Hollywood Romance. Garbo seemed a bit unwilling and Gilbert seemed a bit too eager, but Polantino seemed to hugely enjoy their celebrity romance. I'm sure that tiny stars glittered about them in their happiest hours, both before the press and behind closed doors. The first flush of romance never died for them and I, for one, buy the whole story lock, stock and barrel. So joyous, so brief, so tragic, it is the stuff dreams are made of.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bonjour, Paris!

As I post this, I am in the midst of my first trip to the City of  Light. Since my hopes and dreams are always flooded with expectations fueled by the movies, here are the people (especially one Audrey Hepburn) I fully expect to see here:

"Funny Face" Audrey Hepburn
"Charade" Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn

"How To Steal A Million" Audrey Hepburn
"Paris When it Sizzles" Audrey Hepburn

"Love in the Afternoon" Audrey Hepburn

"Sabrina" Audrey Hepburn

"Breathless" Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg

"Ninotchka" Garbo and Melvin Douglas

"Gigi" Leslie Caron

"Victor Victoria" Robert Preston and Julie Andrews

"A Woman of Paris" Edna Purviance and Adolphe  Menjou
"An American in Paris" Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron

"Gay Purr-ee" Jaune Tom and Mewsette

"Casablanca" Bogey and Bergman
While I haven't exactly seen them, I have felt them everywhere. And, call me crazy, but I think I heard someone whisper this:

Ah, a kiss is just a kiss, and a sigh is just a sigh after all (especially in Paris).

Whoops - must go! I think I just saw a thin woman in dark glasses turn a corner..... must follow.....

p.s If I find that "Ninotchka" hat, I'm buying it and wearing it!