Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Merry and Happy Days to the Solitary Souls of Cinema

Holiday films are supposed to make us feel better. They usually end with the main characters eventually basking in the warmth of friends and family and reminding us that this is what it is all about. But what kind of Christmas would the solitary souls of cinema enjoy?

Ethan Edwards ("The Searchers")

What kind of holiday would Ethan enjoy? I seriously doubt he'd really enjoy an old fashioned rum punch with his family, even after Debbie returned home. After a morning of scorching a Comanche village or two, he might top the day off with a few swigs of Chain Lighting (a furniture varnish flavored whiskey favored in western saloons) and a meditative stare into Monument Valley.

Jay Gatsby ("The Great Gatsby")

Since Gatsby is destined not to spend his holidays with Daisy, he might throw a raucous party at his elegant/vulgar estate. All of his "friends" would be there, but in his soul he alone because she - Daisy - his true love -  is not there. His loneliness is a prison among a crowd. He stares at the green light atop his tree.

Catherine Sloper ("The Heiress")

Oh, pity the poor lonely spinster! But don't pity Catherine. She found out that Morris was a gold digger before it was too late, her hateful father is dead as a door nail and she has Daddy's fortune. No, once she finishes her tapestry she is off to Paris to kick up her heels. But Catherine will always keep her own council and walk her own solitary path, even if she takes a mate. I predict she will invent the pre-nup.

The Tramp ("The Circus")

The Tramp has always been a solitary soul. Yes, he ended  "The Kid" with a warm welcome from mother and son, and he did whoop it up (in his imagination) on New Year's Eve with those dance hall girls from "The Gold Rush," but "The Circus" finds him alone again. Christmas is a melancholy time for the little fellow, a time of sentimentality. But, the Tramp is an observer, never really a participant. His heart is great, but he is, in the end, meant to be alone, free to move on, free to find more beauty in this mixed up world.

Whether you are alone or in a crowd, make sure you taste the eggnog and look for the beauty in life. And for goodness sake, put some rum in it!

Monday, November 23, 2015


The death of fun-loving and beautiful Thelma Todd was one of Hollywood's most tragic deaths. 
Beautiful Thelma Todd
She was a smart, beautiful movie star. She was loved by her public and by many men. Yet, somehow, Thelma Todd never seemed to be able to grab and hold that brass ring. Something always seemed to be missing for Thelma. Sadly, she never had the time to find happiness and satisfying success. 

Fans of comedy know Thelma from her performances with the Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton (and a swell hair-pulling contest with Clara Bow in "Call Her Savage"), but if her name is generally known today, it is due to her death at age 29 and the mystery surrounding it.

Thelma was a fun-loving gal
Thelma's story has been sensationalized in print and film (anyone remember Loni Anderson's TV movie? No? Just as well), but nobody really knows what happened on the night of December 16, 1935 when Thelma died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her own car in her own garage. Author Michelle Morgan, in her new book "The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd" presents a sympathetic portrait of Thelma and a thoughtful and plausible account of events leading up to her death.

There never seemed to be a bad word said about Thelma. From her earliest years in Lawrence, Massachusetts right up to her final days in Hollywood she was universally adored by her friends and coworkers. She did, however, like so many women, have notoriously bad taste in men. Her husband, Pat DiCicco, was abusive and her married lover, director Roland West, was weak and unsupportive of her. She was so smart and so charming. If only Thelma had found a man worthy of her!

Though she was popular on screen and off, Thelma never managed to hit the real big time, instead appearing in successful Hal Roach shorts (first with Zasu Pitts and then Patsy Kelly). She was a bit Carole Lombard and a bit Jean Harlow, but she never got the A-list roles offered to those ladies. Her roles in the bigger films were generally in support of bigger stars. She was intelligent enough to know that time was not a friend to an actress in Hollywood and she needed to find another means of support and security for the future. Lover Roland West seemed to offer her just the ticket.

Thelma's cafe was a posh and popular destination
Somewhere around 1934, Thelma and Roland became partners in a very successful restaurant called Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe. Thelma was the draw and, by Morgan's account, was very involved in the running of the restaurant and took great pride in its success. Author Morgan gives some fascinating background on the property, built in the Pacific Palisades community of Castellammare. Early residents of the beautiful (but susceptible to mud slides) area included the Thomas Ince studio. Residents in 1934 included West and Jewel Carmen. Roland West was married to former film star Jewel Carmen, but it appeared to be a marriage that was eternally on the rocks. Both Thelma and Roland lived a great deal of time above the restaurant. While there was an illusion of separate quarters, they were certainly co-habitating some of the time. Still, Thelma dated other men and Jewel Carmen didn't seem to mind West's relationship with her.

Roland West and Jewel Carmen
The last year of Thelma's life was filled with torment. First, she began getting threatening letters from some wacko called "The Ace," who turned out to be an extortionist who did a good job of scaring Thelma. More troubling was the pressure from gangsters who wanted to turn the restaurant into a profitable (for them) and illegal gambling establishment. Thelma was dead set against it.
One tormentor was caught, but another was not
This is where Morgan's book really starts to shed some new light on Thelma's story as her last days loomed. During her last night alive Thelma attended a party at the famed Cafe Trocadero Nightclub where she seemed to be in good spirits (although there was a nasty encounter with her ex-husband, who attended the night spot with actress Margaret Lindsay). Her driver left her off in the early hours of December 16th and that was the last that anyone admitted to seeing Thelma alive (except for loony Jewel Carmen, who claimed to have seen Thelma driving around town after she had actually died). Found by her maid the next morning in the driver's seat of her car still dressed in her evening clothes from the night before, her death was concluded to be either an accident or a suicide. No foul play was indicated. Buy why was Thelma there? Why didn't she just go into her apartment?

Thelma and frequent co-star Patsy Kelly.
I'm sure this never went on at Thelma's cafe! 
Over the years, the mob connection with Lucky Luciano has been popular but never proven. Morgan has another take on the gambling angle and it is a good one. But I don't want to spoil it! "The Ice Cream Blonde" is a good read for film fans and unsolved mystery fans alike. While we will never know for sure how Thelma ended up dead at age 29, clues abound and Michelle Morgan has compiled facts to present a very plausible and reasonable theory.

Thelma as she should be remembered: lovely and joyful and full of fun
A footnote on Thelma's cafe: Word has it that the beautiful building was set for demolition in January 2016, but that it may be saved. Let's hope so!

Many thanks for the book's publisher for a complimentary copy of "The Ice Cream Blonde:The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd." The book is available at all retailers, including Amazon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

GIVEAWAY! Take a chance to win The Chaplin Archives!

'Tis the season to give your favorite film fan (who might just be yourself) a great holiday treasure.
From the publisher:

"Within a year of arriving in Hollywood in 1914, British-born Charlie Chaplin had become the slapstick king of America. By the end of his second year on the silver screen, Chaplin's fame had spread worldwide. He was the first international film star and rapidly one of the richest men in the world, with a million dollar contract, his own studio and his stock company of close collaborators. From Alaska to Zimbabwe, the bowler hat, cane, baggy trousers and outsized shoes of the Tramp became, and remains, an instantly recognizable silhouette.

With unrestricted access to the Chaplin archives, TASCHEN presents the ultimate book on the making of every one of his films. With 900 images, including stills, memos, storyboards and on-set photos, as well as interviews with Chaplin and his closest collaborators, it reveals the process behind the Chaplin genius, from the impromptu invention of early shots to the meticulous retakes and reworking of scenes and gags in his classic movies: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus(1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and the provocative Hitler parody The Great Dictator(1940). 

The book includes:

  • The Chaplin life history in words and pictures
  • 900 images including many previously unseen stills, on-set photos, memos, documents, storyboards, posters, and designs, plus scripts and images for unmade films
  • An oral history, told from the point of view of Chaplin himself, drawing upon his extensive writings, many of which have never been reprinted before.
  • Supplementary interviews with some of his closest collaborators.
  • Material from over 150 books of press clippings in Chaplin's archives, which range from his early days in music halls to his death
  • Chaplin's short films, from Making a Living (1914) to The Pilgrim (1923), as well as all of his feature-length movies, from The Kid (1921) to A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)
  • The first print run of 10,000 copies includes a precious 12 frame strip from City Lights (1931), cut from a 35 mm print in Chaplin’s archives."

Documents from the Chaplin Archives Property and Copyright of Roy Export Company Establishment, scanned by Cineteca di Bologna

Interested? Here's how to enter:

Simply send me an email at and write "Chaplin" in the message line. You will be entered in the drawing, which will take place on December 11th. Good Luck!!

Here's a cool little video on the making of this awesome book, just in case you need your whistle whetted even more.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Shadow of a Doubt: Girl Power!

This is my entry in The Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes. Click HERE for more Universal entertainment!

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy
 - William Blake

I've never viewed Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 "Shadow of a Doubt" as a case for feminism, but lately I'm beginning to wonder....

Like Blake's sick rose, "Shadow of a Doubt" presents us with a sick, creeping evil that lurks beneath something lovely. A lovely town (Santa Rosa, California), a lovely average family (the Newtons), a perfectly charming visiting relative (that would be Uncle Charlie). Nothing is as it seems or should be.

When we first meet her, Young Charlie (a perfectly cast Theresa Wright) is restless. Lying on her bed, she is critical of her small town life and her ordinary family. She longs for some excitement, something to "shake things up." On the other side of the country her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten in an unforgettable performance) is also lying in bed. He, too, views his world with disdain, but he does not long for excitement. He longs to elude the police and live another day.

Young Charlie has a sixth sense when it comes to her Uncle. She rushes to send him a telegram, only to find out that he has already sent one to her telling her he is on his way. The Merry Widow Waltz is inside her head while her Uncle, The Merry Widow Murderer, smiles at her across the table. But she can't see the worm in the rose. Not yet.

The longer Uncle Charlie stays, the more he begins to wear his welcome out with almost everyone except his sweet and simple sister (who he accuses of being just a gullible woman when the police try to infiltrate the Newton home with a phony magazine article ruse). He behaves boorishly at Mr. Newton's bank and place of employment and spews his corrosive view of widows enjoying their lives with their dead husbands' money. When Young Charlie challenges him with the statement that they are still human beings, Uncle Charlie sneers "are they?" Big Charlie's only positive world views are expressed when he is looking backwards, to a time when everything was (or seemed) sweet and pretty. There is no place in that world for an independent woman, a woman with money or thoughts or a will of her own. 

Young Charlie, no matter what her fate, will not become her mother. She will not be a loving slave, even if she marries her policeman suitor. The young ladies of the Newton household will become the things that Uncle Charlie despises. Little  Ann clearly has a curious mind that will not be satisfied with dolls and dress-up. And Young Charlie, once the apple of her Uncle's eye, the recipient of his trophy and token of love (that telltale emerald ring), she is put in the precarious position of defending the veneer of the life she questions by combating the person she felt was her soulmate. She has seen the worm and life will never be simple again. Her innocence is gone, her intelligence is rewarded. Take your place in the world, Young Charlie. The price is high, but you will go far.

Monday, October 19, 2015

CMBA Blogathon: Buster Keaton's "Our Hospitality"

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Planes, Trains and Automobile Blogathon. Click HERE to view more fabulous entries about our favorite modes of transportation in film.

Buster Keaton loved trains.  “The General,” one of his most famous films, is about a man’s love for his train; a love that transcends his love for (an admittedly dopey) woman. Keaton found ways to incorporate trains in short films, long films, early films and late films. One of my favorite sight gags of all time – from Keaton’s 1920 short “One Week” – involves a locomotive. Check it out if you’ve never seen it. It never gets old.

But by far my most favorite train in all of Keaton’s films is the recreation of Stephenson’s Rocket for his first feature length film, 1921’s “Our Hospitality.”

The real Rocket

Buster plays Willie McKay, a dandified youth living in pre-Civil War New York. Unbeknownst to Willie, his family, the McKays, were engaged in an epic family feud with the Canfields for decades down South. Willie’s mother, now deceased, wanted to raise her boy away from the feudin’ and fightin’ and moved up North without ever telling her boy that the Canfields were the McKay’s mortal enemies. Twenty years later we find Willie, a true innocent, living with his aunt in the big city.

Willie gets around New York City on his Gentleman's Hobby Horse

One day Willie gets a letter informing him that he is heir to his father’s estate. Willie dreams of a great Southern mansion and immediately prepares to head down South. His aunt tells him of the feud, but Willie is determined to collect his inheritance. His method of transportation will be the train. This train.

Keaton and his team built a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket and train becomes one of the film’s most endearing characters. Based on the time period, he said that had a choice between the Rocket and The DeWitt Clinton and chose the Rocket because it was funnier looking. It also had personality. It was genteel, it was homey, it constantly jumped the tracks and magnified every bump and dip in its path. It was a modern mode of transportation that retained the elegance of an earlier time. The New York to Appalachia trip is beautifully photographed. There is a loving, nostalgic quality to the journey, as seen in Willie’s little dog follows the train to be with his master.

On this charming, unique and faintly ridiculous train, Willie meets, Virginia, the lady of his dreams. Unfortunately, he doesn’t learn until much later that Virginia’s last name is Canfield. After a harrowing, bumpy, dirty, and wholly delightful train trip, Willie and Virginia are in love. Virginia, also innocent of Willie’s pedigree, invites him to dinner to meet her family… a family that consists of a father and 2 brothers who remain rabid for McKay blood.

Willie and Virginia: Strangers on a Train

Willie, of course, is oblivious at first as the brothers try to rub him out. But, they are inept and Willie is just plain lucky. After many hilarious attempts on his life that are thwarted by Willie’s clever escapes, the 2 families finally bury the hatchet (sort of) when Willie bravely rescues Virginia from a raging river. In one of Keaton’s greatest stunts, he clings to a tree branch as it sweeps across the river, managing to pluck the drowning Virginia out just as she was almost carried over a waterfall. Willie and Virginia marry and the brothers lay down their arms (but Buster has a few pistols concealed in his coat – just in case). Oh, and, of course, Willie's inheritance was a shack.

Willie must always keep one eye open when the Canfield Boys are around

“Our Hospitality” was a real Keaton family affair. In the prologue, Buster’s infant son, Buster, Jr., played Willie as a baby. Virginia was played by his wife, Natalie Talmadge. While Natalie as not a star like her sisters Norma and Constance, she is quite lovely here and very convincing. The Engineer, who had to put up with much harassment on his journey, was played by Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, and it is a treasure to see them perform together.

3 generations of Keatons: Buster, Jr., Buster and Joseph Keaton

As Stephenson’s rocket roams the American landscape, navigating tracks laid over logs, rocks and gullies, Keaton’s eye for beauty is on full display. The journey and the mode of transportation are one: modern with an appreciation of the past. Keaton loved the steam that takes us places, but also loves the beauty and serenity of all of the places on the way.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon: John Sayles' LONE STAR

This is my entry in the Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by the lovey Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for mucho more!

I love this film. Everything about it feels authentic, everything from the town, the characters, the emotions and the secrets. It is my favorite John Sayles film, and that is saying a lot. Dealing with the deceptively ordinary, it is anything but. The overwhelming humanity makes you catch your breath, not so much as it unfolds before you, but maybe later, as you sit back and go “aha…of course.”

The story begins with the discovery of a skeleton in the Texas/Mexican border town of Frontera. Frontera is a melting pot whose diversity keeps it simmering. Turns out the bones belong to the hated sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who disappeared in 1957. By all accounts, Charlie was a real SOB – a corrupt tyrant, a bigot and thug. The Mexicans hated him, the blacks hated him and the whites weren’t too fond of him, either.  Legend has it that Charlie had absconded with $10,000 of county money. There are lots of legends and lots of back stories in Frontera. There are spoilers galore ahead, so if you’d prefer not to know how it all turns out, stop reading now.

He used to be a big shot....
The current Sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is a man who got his job on the coattails of his wildly popular father, the late sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Buddy was Charlie Wade’s deputy at the time of his disappearance and as glad as everyone was to see Charlie go, they were glad to see Buddy stay. It’s up to Sam to find out what happened to Charlie Wade.

Sam really, really wants another job......
Reluctantly, Sam must revisit the stories of the fathers and sons and mothers and daughters of Frontera in order to learn the truth. Otis “Big O” Payne is owner of nightclub and a leader in the town’s African-American community. His son, Delmore, is the base commander of the nearby Army base. Delmore has no respect for Otis, due to his cheating ways. Otis runs a somewhat shady establishment, but Otis learned long ago what had to be done to get along when men like Charlie Wade ran the show. Otis knows something, but what?

Good Cop/Bad Cop
Miriam Colon, the owner of a local restaurant, knows something, too, Sam has a particular dislike for Miriam because Sam was sweet on Miriam’s daughter, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), but both Miriam and Buddy put the kibosh on romance. Sam thought it was because both parents disapproved of a white/Hispanic relationship.

Star-crossed lovers
By chance, Sam and Pilar reconnect and resume their love story. Meanwhile, Sam learns the final truth about everyone: Charlie tried to kill Otis because he thought he was being cut out of Otis’s illegal gambling profits, Buddy and his partner, Hollis, shot Wade to protect Otis and buried him in the desert, and Buddy and Miriam were lovers. As the last piece of the puzzle slips into place, Sayles’s story of diversity and community comes into focus. Buddy was Pilar’s father; Sam and Pilar are half brother and sister. And they don’t care. They agree to continue their thwarted romance and say to hell with the past. In a place where everyone is different yet the same, this feels right.

So many secrets in such a small town

Remember - there is mucho more at Once Upon a Screen!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tragic Stars: Alma Rubens

There is no shortage of tragic star stories from Hollywood, but few stars ever get to write of their own dramatic demise. 

Alma Rubens is remembered not for her successful (but short) time as a movie star, but for the drug addiction that cut her career and her life short.
In a serialized autobiography, published in several newspapers and magazines in 1930 - 1931 and called “Bright World Again,” silent star Alma Rubens told her harrowing tale to the public. Beautiful, talented and married to sexy heart-throb Ricardo Cortez, Alma seemed to have it all. How could this stunning and successful girl go from glamorous star to pathetic addict in just a few short years?

Alma Rubens: Her face was her fortune

Alma's story starts with a poor but loving childhood in San Francisco. From the beginning, her mother was the one constant and stabilizing force in her life. But Alma was a wayward girl. She had a strong sense of adventure and was easily tempted to stray off the path she knew was safest.  In order to help her family, Alma needed to work, but clerical or retail jobs were not for her. Her pretty face and form got her noticed and, by 1916, she was in the movies. An early marriage to the much older star, Franklyn Farnum, lasted only a month or so, with Alma claiming he dislocated her jaw. Poor little Alma, she seemed so gentle, but was always getting into scrapes.

Alma worked her way down from San Francisco to Hollywood, managed a contract with W.R. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures and married her second husband, Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, doctor and prominent film producer.  In Hollywood, Alma began to live a lavish life style, with beautiful clothes, furs and jewels.  However, Alma was restless. And sneaky.  Like other stars (notably Wallace Reid), Alma’s drug troubles started when she was treated for an injury. Her addiction was swift and Alma spares no one, not even herself, in her harrowing tale of her swift and painful decline.

The sweet and sophisticated look of Alma Rubens

At the beginning of her addiction, Alma managed to maintain her career, divorce the doctor and marry Ricardo Cortez (in 1926). Meanwhile, she was very adept at finding doctors to provide her with more and more morphine, her initial drug of choice. As she became increasingly dependent on the drugs, she became unreliable, unprofessional and unable to work. Her contract with Hearst was dissolved. She worked for a while at Fox and Columbia, but mainly kept very busy selling her personal possessions to feed her habit (notably some silken undergarments to a drug-dealing maid). Mother and husband tried to help her.  She was admitted several times to private sanitariums, but Alma proved to be an unwilling patient. Several times she escaped, even wounding a doctor with a knife. Finally, her family had enough and committed her to Patton Institute, surely the model for any psychiatric horror story every filmed.  Truly, the Snake Pit would have been an improvement. At Patton she suffered, and suffered greatly. Her awful story has to be read to be believed. Her dignity and sanity were compromised. But, after 7 months, she was released and she swore she was done with dope.

Alma and hubby, Ricardo Cortez
But, Alma never could stay away from it very long. Truly, this woman’s appetite for drugs was astounding.  In an effort to jump start her career, Alma and her husband went to New York and appeared together in a Vaudeville act in 1930. It seemed that the public liked Alma and she always got good reviews for her work. So much more the shame that she just could not kick her habit. In New York she and Cortez split (although they did not divorce) and Alma sunk into the depths of depravity, going to drug parties,  giving into random sexual encounters and running from the cops. She sold everything she owned, including furs and the last of the expensive lingerie, and ended up rooming with other ladies who shared her struggle.

Alma loved being a movie star
Time and time again Alma tried to kick the habit, but her addiction was too strong. In 193- she penned her story as a cautionary tale (and a bid to make some much needed money) and set off across the country to go home to California and her mother. She and a friend were travelling by car and she knew in her heart that if she didn’t leave New York and return home to her mother she would die. Her story ends with the hope that she will be able to achieve her dream.
Alma's lovely profile
Sadly, by the time Alma’s story was printed, she was dead. Arrested in San Diego on the suspicion of smuggling dope from Mexico she was jailed. Her mother came to her rescue, but by then, Alma had developed a cold that worsened into pneumonia. Her system, so weakened by abuse, could not combat the infection and on January 21, 1931, she was dead. It was confirmed that, at the time o her arrest, she was drug free.

Sadly, Alma’s screen achievements are largely forgotten. Her one foray into sound films, 1929’s “Showboat” (as Julie), is in tatters, with the sound missing.  Her fame rests on her tragic tale.

With John Gilbert in 1928's "Masks of the Devil"
Alma’s story in her own words and a brief biography can be found in Gary D. Rhodes' and Alexander Web's “Silent Snowbird.”

In 2015, Patton opened a museum, a record of the horrors of the treatment of addicted and mentally ill patients in the early 20th century.  By 1930, over 2,000 patients who died at Patton were buried on an on-site cemetery. The cemetery was full in 1930. The unclaimed bodies of those who died after that date were donated to science.