Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Italian Vamps: All For Love

This is my entry in the Anti-Damsel blogathon, hosted by Movies, Silently and The Last Drive In. Click HERE for more great posts about the great, strong women of film. This post also serves as the second part of the 3-part series on Vamps. Click HERE for the first entry about Theda Babra and Nita Naldi. 

The Vamp, the term for ladies who, in the early days of the 20 th century, liked sex, was a potent antidote to the virginal heroines of the silent screen.  The cure for too much Mary Pickford might be “take a Theda Bara and call me in the morning.” Too much Lillian Gish? A shot of Nita Naldi might cure what ails you.

During these vamp-ish times, a trio of Italian divas tore up the screen and added an element of suffering and passion on a grand, operatic scale. They made Theda look positively sedate. They were never damsel s in distress in the strict sense. No, the overwhelming passion and were usually the cause of the distress of their own making.
Lyda Borelli

Beautiful and fashionable, Lyda Borelli was an Italian stage and screen actress of great influence. Lyda was born in 1887 into a family of actors. By the time she was 18, she had already made a name for herself on the Italian stage, based on her beauty, talent and fashionable appearance. Her looks, mannerisms and clothing were copied by her many admirers.  Young women who copied her looks were said to have dressed in the “borellismo” style.

In 1913 she made her first film (“Everlasting Love”). It was a smash and her success now extended beyond the Italian stage to the world of screen. She was the epitome of florid romance, desire and sensuality.  Her characters emotionally operatic and usually ended up at the wrong end of a bottle of poison or a dagger (her fate was death in more than half of her films).

She continued her highly successful film career through 1918, when she married a count and abruptly retired. At her last theatrical performance the audience wept and pelted her with flowers, so great was her enchantment.   Lyda spent the rest of her life caring for family and living the life of a countess until her death in 1959. Clearly, the drama was for the stage and screen only.

Francesca Bertini

Francesca Bertini (born in 1892) was also the child of an actress. Like Lyda Borelli, she got her start on the stage, but unlike Lyda, she moved quickly into the new art of the silent films.

She began her movie career in 1913 and quickly established herself as a strong, elegant and talented performer. Her fame quickly spread beyond the borders of Italy. By 1915 she was earning more than Mary Pickford. While her roles included the heavy-duty characters of Odette, Tosca and Camille , her acting was considered to be more natural and understated than that of the typical vamp. She suffered, she loved, but she did it “naturally.”

Bertini was able to move into sound films with limited success, but the Italian film industry took a nose dive starting in the 1930s and during World War II. She was offered a Hollywood contract by Fox, but she had retired after the war, enjoying her life with her wealthy Swiss husband. She had made but a handful of films from 1930 – 1943. She appeared for Bernardo Bertolucci in is 1976 film “Novecento (“1900”) and consented to an interview in 1982.  Francesca passed away at age 93 in 1985.

Check out this fabulous diva in all her glory. What a woman.

Pina Menichelli

Think decadent, think bodice-ripping, think hand-wringing and eye-popping and you pretty much have the acting style of silent screen  vamp Pina Menichelli, known as  "our lady of spasms."

Like her sister-vamps, Pina was born into a theatrical family and acted as a child, but unlike Lyda and Francesca, she was a passionate off-screen as on. After a failed teenage marriage to an Argentine gent, Pina began her Italian film career in 1913 at the age of 23. Critics took notice and she soon entered the rarefied queendom of fellow divas Borellia and Bertini. She attained international stardom in "The Fire" and "Royal Tiger," 2 films whose names aptly describe Pina's ardent, florid, and dangerous persona.

Pina maintained her stardom through 1923, when she retired. Although she was estranged from her first husband, he would not divorce her. Upon his death in 1924 Pina was free to marry again and, like the true diva she was, she destroyed all physical evidence of her great film career and never spoke of it again in public for the rest of her life. Pina Menichelli passed away at age 94 in 1984. 

Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini and Pina Menichelli- divine divas and vamps who were larger than life and definitely bellisima!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Keeping up with the Barrymores: If Reality TV Was Around Then!

This is my contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click HERE for more great posts about this Royal Family of stage and screen.

Kardashians? Nah - if I am going to spend reality time with a Hollywood family, Id much rather spend it with a clan like the Barrymores. Now there's a family worth following!

Episode One:  Dramatic Beginnings

Herbert Arthur Chamberlain Blythe (1849-1905), the son of a surveyor for the British East India Company, here's the call of the theater and adopts the stage name Maurice Barrymore to spare his respectable family the shame of having a child on the stage. He made his way from India to England to Broadway, where he met, fell in love with and married the actress, Georgiana Drew (1856-1893). Georgiana came from acting family, John and Louise Lane Drew. Louisa was a thrice-married woman, quite scandalous at the time. 
The Dashing Maurice Barrymore
I'm sure there was much chatter about that over the mutton chops.
The Lovely Georgiana Drew Barrymore
Georgiana and Maurice had three children (Ethel, Lionel and John) and were happy at first, but, alas, hubby possessed a wandering eye and the marriage became yet another unhappy theatrical venture.  His rumored amours were: Helena Modjeska, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Lillian Russell and - gasp! - Lily Langtry. Take that, George Clooney!! Poor Georgiana died of tuberculosis at age 36, leaving her children in the care of her mother in Philadelphia. Maurice, who had limited contact with his children until their teens, continued to act. At the time of his death (from syphilis), he was playing vaudeville. 
Georgie with children Ethel, Lionel and John.
There are no known photos of Maurice with his 3 children.
Juicy, no? Stay tuned for Episode 2 of Keeping Up With the Barrymores! 

Episode 2: Oh those kids!

While mama and papa Barrymore were colorful characters, they couldn't hold a candle to their world-famous progeny. Bursting with intelligence, talent beauty and and unsurpassed thirst for life, Lionel, Ethel and the great John Barrymore made sure that their famous name would never be forgotten.


Lovely young Ethel began working on stage while still in her teens. Before long she was the toast of London and soon men were falling at her dainty feet. One famous suitor was Winston Churchill and, while Ethel decline to marry him, she maintained an intimate "friendship" with old Winnie for the rest of her life. 

The lovely young Ethel: no wonder the boys were mad for her

Her fame abroad paved the way for a triumphant return to the states and a deserved reputation as a great Broadway star in the early part of the 20th century. While she dabbled in silent cinema, she is chiefly remembered by film fans for her later roles in such films as "The Spiral Staircase" (1946) and "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932) in which she appeared with brothers Lionel and John. 
The Great Lady of the Theater
Ethel also dipped her dainty toes in radio and TV, but lest you think this lady a bit of a prig, she was a Barrymore by blood and that meant she was a lusty lass. Besides Churchill, she raised quite a romantic rumpus across pond, breaking the hearts of a Duke and several famous actors. She finally married Russell Colt (of the Colt firearms fame) in 1909. It was a rocky marriage that ended in divorce in 1923. While she never remarried, it is hard to imagine Ethel being lonely. She passed away in 1959 at age 79, her reputation as a great lady of the theater carved in stone.


Big brother Lionel was the non-glamorous Barrymore. He began his career on the stage, as all good Barrymores do, but Lionel took to the new medium of film with gusto. From the earliest days of silents with D.W. Griffith to the golden age of the big studios, Lionel Barrymore was a distinguished and reliable (if sometimes grouchy) presence.

An intense Lionel Barrymore
Although Lionel was a talented actor, artist and composer, his private life was a little tame compared to his flamboyant family. He did enter into a squabble with brother John over the "honor" of his wife, actress Irene Fenwick. It seems Irene had dallied with wild brother John before she settled down with Lionel for a happy marriage in 1923 that lasted until her untimely death in 1936. 

The meanest man in town
Later in life Lionel suffered from health problems that caused him to suffer great pain while walking and eventually landed him in a wheelchair from the late 1930s until his death at age 76 in 1954.


The best known Barrymore, the best looking, the greatest star of the family and by far the biggest hell raiser, the legend of John Barrymore is larger than life. His reputation as a great actor is well known, but if this reality show is going to make it to episode 3, we need to follow JB on his off-stage and off-screen exploits. 
The Great Profile: a heart throb of the stage and screen
Already an alcoholic as a teenager, his reputation as a carouser and a ladies man was epic. As the baby of the family, John was a handful and the apple of his grandmother's eye. It seems women could not resist him from the start. He thought he might like to be an artist, but the lure of the stage was too great for him to resist. Before his great stage success, an early important love was the notorious and beautiful Evelyn Nesbit. 

Once Barrymore turned his attentions full-time to the theater there was no denying his beauty, presence and talent. He was the matinee idol deluxe, but decided to marry socialite Katherine Corri Harris in 1910. He soon described the union was a "bus accident." Katharine said he drank too much. The couple divorced in 1917.

During this time John began dividing his time between the stage and silent films. While the stage claimed his heart, films were a good source of much needed income. He also found time to romance the married writer, Blanche Oelrichs, who published poetry under the name "Michael Strange." Blanche became pregnant in 1920 and she managed to divorce her husband and marry John 6 months before daughter Diana was born.

Barrymore as Hamlet

Meanwhile, Barrymore had hit his stride on stage and screen. The legendary performances as "Hamlet" and "Richard III" wowed the critics and film fans were mesmerized by his "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." As his second marriage began to crumble, Barrymore began an affair with his 17-year old "Beau Brummel" co-star, Mary Astor. However, it was his co-star in 1926's "The Sea-Beast" that won his heart. Falling head over heels in love with beautiful Dolores Costello, Barrymore divorced his second wife and embarked on his third marriage. Sadly, alcoholism destroyed this union, as well.

Beautiful Dolores Costello: John's third wife
and Drew Barrymore's grandmother
Barrymore's beautiful speaking voice made the transition to talking films easy. He was aging, but still managed to play the lover, notably to Garbo in 1932's "Grand Hotel." But his days as the ideal lover were coming to close. The physical deterioration due to alcoholism was becoming increasingly noticable and the great Barrymore now began playing a parody of himself - the washed up has-been. His performance in "Dinner at Eight" is almost too sad to watch. He still managed a home run or two (1934's "Twentieth Century" is still a favorite of classic film fans), but it became well known that he was increasingly unable to remember his lines and was holding up productions. In 1934 he suffered a collapse and Costello was granted a divorce in 1936. By then, Barrymore, the jolly, witty bon vivant, had become a shadow of the man he once was.  

"The Twentieth Century" - one of Barrymore's greatest roles
He continued to work (with the aid of cue cards) as a supporting player in such A-list films as "Marie Antoinette" (1938) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1936), and even managed one last, great starring role in 1939's "The Great Man Votes," but time was running out. With his last wife, Elaine Barrie, he toured in a dog of  play called "My Dear Children." The show was a success primarily because Barrymore, unable to remember his lines, made up new ones every night and freely let the expletives flow. Sometimes he was drunk. The actor who set the theater world on fire with his Hamlet was but a memory.

His final performances were on radio, continuing with the self-parody that had become his stock in trade. In 1942 he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Legend is that fellow hell-raisers Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh stole Barrymore's embalmed body before his funeral to share one last toast with their departed friend. Biographer Gene Fowler denies the legend, but it sure would make for a great show.

Episode 3: The Curse, the Legacy and Hope

Diana Barrymore

Poor Diana Barrymore. The daughter of John and Blanche, she never had a chance. The child of divorce, she did not have a close relationship with her father until she was an adult. Her famous name and her pretty face got her on the cover of a magazine and a role in a play on Broadway. Hollywood wanted her, too, but she had inherited her father's weakness for alcohol. In 1942 she was called the year's "Most Sensational Screen Personality." By 1950 she was broke, depressed, a drug addict and an alcoholic. In 1957 she published her autobiography, "Too Much Too Soon," and by 1960, after 3 marriages, she ended it all with a handful of sleeping pills and an alcohol chaser.

John Drew Barrymore

The son of John and Dolores, John Drew Barrymore was a stranger to his father. His famous name and good look assured his opportunity in film. He was afforded some good roles, but the Barrymore curse followed him as surely as it had his father and his half-sister, Diana. He became better known for public displays of drunkenness and arrests for drug use and spousal abuse.

He managed to find work on television, but by the 1960s his addictions and mental problems were so great that he was unable to function, much less work. Married four times,he had four children. His last child, Drew, cared for him until his death in 2004 from cancer.

Drew Barrymore

Can the curse be broken? Finger crossed, because Drew Barrymore has shown herself to the family member who can beat the odds. A little bit of Ethel and a little bit of Dolores, she's the cute kid who beat the booze and is living the life that can bring some luster and respect back to the Barrymore name. You go girl - you've done it and you never let the world forget you're a Barrymore, a member of the theatrical Royal Family. We are all staying tuned for episode 4!