Wednesday, January 22, 2014


2014 is the year A Person in the Dark celebrates films about my favorite place - Hollywood!

Singin' in the Rain

When "Singin' in the Rain" was released in 1952, silent films had been a thing of the past for only 24 years or so. Probably more than half of those in the audience remembered them and certainly many of those who made the film were there at that time when silents transitioned to sound. Cinematographer Harold Rosson started with Mary Pickford and producer Arthur Freed, along with composer Nacio Herb Brown, wrote the lyrics to music used in the film; music that was first written for those early days of movie musicals.

Here are Freed and Brown performing one of their songs in "The Hollywood Revue of 1929." Freed was a songwriter before becoming a producer.

Our hero, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), has the image of a devil-may-care cross between swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and lover John Gilbert. It is an image larger than life and perfectly suited to the silent screen where viewers can flesh out a character with their imagination. George Valentin, the leading character of the recent "The Artist," bore a resemblance to Kelly as Fairbanks/Gilbert.

Don's co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), complimented him perfectly as the elegant screen goddess. Together, they heated up the screen. The fact that they were lovers off screen only added to their appeal.

What their fans didn't know was that Don hated Lina and that Lina was a delusional dodo bird with a voice like nails on a chalkboard. As we know, Don and his loyal friend Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) make the transition to sound (along with ingenue Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds) and Lina is, presumably, laughed off of the screen.

What a cast! Feast on some best moments:

Aside from the music, the dancing and the great performances by the perfect cast, what makes this movie so endearing is the feeling that the people who put this together had experience in that time and place. The depiction of panic that overtook Hollywood feels real, the bad sound, the bad voices, the outmoded characters, the diction coaches, and Lina's cry that she can't make love to a bush all have the ring of truth and, even while they are being kidded, there is a feeling of affection.

While too much credit cannot be given to Kelly and director Stanley Donen, as well as to Donald O'Connor for his wonderful chance to shine and Cyd Charisse for her elegant channeling of Louise Brooks, my heart really belongs to Jean Hagen's wickedly funny and touching Lina Lamont (I am a charter member of the Lina Lamont fan club - for more, read HERE). Poor Lina - a silent screen goddess who made her studio tons of money deserved a better fate than ridicule - and that is my only complaint about this glorious film. Monumental Studio boss R.F. Simpson, along with Lockwood and Cosmo, are awful adolescent bullies. True, Lina was mean to Kathy, but public ridicule was pretty mean! However, I guess that's the message - Hollywood ain't for sissies! Hopefully, Lina licked her wounds with the help of a fat bank account.

So, can I resist posting the 2 powerhouse numbers? No way!

This post is dedicated to the awesome Lina Lamont - may she never be forgotten!!

A shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Classic Movie History Project: 1917 in Film: Vamps, Tramps and Box Office Champs

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, jointly hosted by Movies Silently (1915 - 1926), Silver Screenings (1927-1930) and Once Upon a Screen (1939-1950). Please visit each site for a roster of fascinating posts about your favorite movie year.


97 years ago America entered the war raging in Europe, Mata Hari was arrested, the Russian Revolution took place, US suffragettes battled on for the right to vote  and Woodrow Wilson began serving his second term as US President. The entire world was in turmoil and the silent cinema offered an oasis of mirth, sentiment, comfort, and hot, steamy sex to American audiences.
Mary as Gwendolyn, the Poor Little Rich Girl
Box office queen and America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, starred in 2 of the year’s highest grossing films. Little Mary’s popularity in 1917 was unsurpassed. She was the perfect “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” (#2 at the box office for the year) and gave one of her very best performances as the “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which came in at #3 for the year.

Gwendolyn, the neglected little rich girl, gave Mary Pickford one of her most perfect roles. Anyone who thinks that she was a one-trick pony who imitated little girls needs to see Mary here at her best. It is impossible to deny her charm, her naturalness and her awesome star power. She was the greatest star and was loved, not only by American audiences, but by moviegoers all over the world. Such was the power of silent film.
Little Mary takes on the nasty Germans - and wins!
An interesting Pickford film from 1917 was "The Little American," directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Shown to American audiences just as the USA was entering World War I, the film was a tale of our American miss who is loved by both a German and French soldier, survives a torpedoed boat, is nearly raped by the loutish Germans and eventually saves the day. How could it miss? Outright propaganda, for sure, but America was entering the fray amid much protest and films like this greased the wheels.   
With Mary on our side, how could we lose?
While Mary Pickford was outwardly of the Victorian Age, she also embodied the spunk and independence that reflected the inevitable evolution and change in the American woman. Her little girl would definitely be wearing bloomers and picketing with the suffragettes.
The Vamp of the Nile - Hubba Hubba

The highest grossing film of 1917 was one that showcased a woman who emancipated herself. “Cleopatra” was the #1 box office champ of 1917 and starred the original vamp herself, Theda Bara, as that wanton woman of the pyramid set.
This Nile River humidity just kills my hair!
“Cleopatra” was a mega production. No expense was spared on the lavish sets and costumes (revealing and outrageous and, sadly, uncredited). The casting of Theda as Cleo was brilliant, as Theda’s carefully crafted image as home wrecker and insatiable love machine was a perfect fit for the temptress of the Nile.

Tragically, this and another tiny piece of footage is all that is known to survive of “Cleopatra.” The loss of such an important film highlights how much of the silent cinema has been lost. It is estimated that 75 % of all silent films have been lost to us forever (unless one happily turns up in some attic in the Balkans or somewhere as they have known to do from time to time). 
What I wouldn't give to see Theda in her many costumes!
One artist whose work thankfully survives is Charlie Chaplin.
Charlie ♥s Edna in "The Immigrant"
By 1917 Charlie Chaplin was already loved by the entire world. Both he and Mary Pickford enjoyed a global popularity during that time that remains unmatched. After serving his film apprenticeship with Mack Sennett, Chaplin moved on to Essanay in 1915 and then to Mutual in 1916, where he produced 12 of the most perfect comedies ever made for film. After treating the audience to "The Floorwalker", "The Fireman", "The Vagabond", "One A.M.", "The Count", "The Pawnshop", "Behind the Screen" and "The Rink" in 1916, he gave them "Easy Street", "The Cure", "The Immigrant" and "The Adventurer" in 1917. All co-starred his loveliest leading lady, Edna Purviance, as well as his perfect heavy, Eric Campbell, and Chaplin's loyal go-to character, Henry Bergman. Each and every one offered approximately 20 minutes of comic genius. Chaplin was on a creative and personal high (he and Edna were a romantic item at the time) and he called those years his happiest professionally.

Easy Street
Cop Charlie and Bully Supreme Eric Campbell
Chaplin's tramp takes the offer of a job as a police officer in the very dicey neighborhood of Easy Street after a quick conversion from thief to goodness by a lovely missionary (Edna, of course). Cops drop like flies there because the local toughs, lead by that burly bully, Eric Campbell, terrorize the population, but Charlie saves the day (and saves Edna from molestation with the help of a shot of cocaine in the butt). Love triumphs and, instead of his usual chaos, Charlie restores order for the good people of Easy Street.

The Cure
Chaplin's drunk takes the cure

In "The Cure," Chaplin abandons his Tramp persona in favor of the drunken swell, a part he had honed to perfection during his days on the stage. He arrives at a health spa (run by a physical wreck), in an effort to take "the cure." Instead, hilarity ensues as he drunkenly creates havoc in the gym, on the massage table and with a grouchy victim of gout (all while courting the the charming Edna). At last, he vows to sober up for her, but his stash of booze has found its way to the water fountain and the ladies love the new source of hydration!

The Immigrant
Charlie and Albert Austin share some beans
My favorite and justly famous. Charlie and Edna are steerage passengers on the way to a better life in America. Their passage is rough and they lose one another once they disembark and go their separate ways. A chance meeting in a cafe reunites them and an artist, who offers to paint Edna, changes their financial outlook. 20 minutes of film greatness includes the ironic corralling of the immigrants in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, a gem of a scene in the cafe involving beans and a surly waiter (played by the great Eric Campbell) and the lovely last scene of a rain-soaked Charlie and Edna on their way to obtain a marriage certificate.

The Adventurer
The PJs provided by Charlie's host have an uncomfortably
 familiar look to the escaped convict!
Chaplin's last Mutual is a delight. He is an escaped convict who happens into a rich man's party. Naturally, he woos the pretty hostess and annoys the host and generally causes total chaos. Chaplin has perfected the 2-reel comedy and the gags, the tone and the timing appear effortless.

While Hollywood was in its infancy and may more glory years were to come, the stars established during those early years had an unbelievable staying power. 97 years later the names of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Theda Bara (incredibly, since so few of her films survive) are still known and their fame and art still has the power to awe anyone interested, not just in the history of film, but in the simple pleasure of entering the world of make-believe.

Stars for the ages
What stars of today will be rememberd 97 years from now?