Saturday, April 14, 2018

Charlie ♥s Edna

Charlie & Edna share a smooch in "Behind the Screen"
Of all the Chaplins I love, I confess to loving Keystone Chaplin (1913-1914) the least. Engaging, revolutionary, amusing – yes. Knowing what is to come, we see all of the ingredients of greatness there… all except one. This nasty, pushy, funny little Tramp has no soulfulness. He is not yet “Chaplinesque.” But soon, the Tramp would grow.

Keystone Charlie - the Tramp sans romance
When Chaplin moved from Keystone to Essanay in late 1914, he needed a new leading lady. As he would do throughout most of his career, he sought an actress with no experience, hoping to mold her into his vision of the perfect object of the Tramp’s attention. What he found was the perfect object for the Tramp’s affection.
While scouting out his muse, Chaplin met Edna Purviance in San Francisco.  Edna, 19 at the time, hailed from Lovelock, Nevada and was working as a stenographer. Legend has it that they were introduced by the owner of a café.  Edna was not a professional actress, but Charlie saw something there and, for the next 8 years and over 30 films, from Essanay to Mutual to First National, Edna Purviance became Charlie Chaplin’s exclusive leading lady and provided the missing ingredient that helped change the common comedian to a great artist. With Edna as the object of his affection, the Tramp became pathetic and sympathetic. We knew he had a heart, because it ached beautifully for the beautiful Edna.

More smooching in "The Champion"
Not surprisingly, for a time, Charlie and Edna were real-life lovers, as well as on-screen sweethearts. They were adorably happy for a time, witness this love note from Charlie to his Edna:
My Own Darling Edna,My heart throbbed this morning when I received your sweet letter. It could be nobody else in the world that could have given me so much joy. Your language, your sweet thoughts and the style of your love note only tends to make me crazy over you. I can picture your darling self sitting down and looking up wondering what to say, that pert little mouth and those bewitching eyes so thoughtful. If I only had the power to express my sentiments, I would be afraid you’d get vain…

But, by the time Edna attained the ripe old age of 28, Chaplin had had 1 ex-wife and was on the way to marrying 16 year old and pregnant Lita Grey, and he deemed her too matronly to continue in the role of his romantic muse. But Charlie was loyal and tried to help Edna continue a career independent of him, first as the star of 1923’s “Woman of Paris”, and later in the Josef Von Sternberg directed (but never released) “Woman of the Sea”. Von Sternberg remembered Edna as sweet and obedient, but unbelievably timid in front of the camera. Without Charlie, there would be no more Edna on the screen.

While both held a life-long affection for one another, Charlie went on to quite a few more loves while Edna, after being involved in an unfortunate New Year’s Day shooting scandal and as a peripheral witness in the William Desmond Taylor murder, finally found lasting love in her marriage to a pilot and airline executive.
But Charlie was never far from her mind. In 1956, Edna, now a widow and suffering from the throat cancer that would eventually take her life, wrote this little note to her old boss and ex-flame:

Dear Charlie,Here I am again with a heart full of thanks, and back in the hospital (Cedars of Lebanon) taking cobalt x-ray treatment on my neck. There cannot be a hell hereafter!... Am thankful my innards are O.K., this is purely and simply local, so they say. All of which reminds me of the fellow standing on the corner of Seventh and Broadway tearing up little bits of paper and throwing them to the four winds. A cop comes along and asks him what was the big idea. He answers, “Just keeping the elephants away.” The cop says, “There aren’t any elephants in this district.” The fellow answers: “Well, it works, doesn’t it?” This is my silly for the day, so forgive me.Hope you and the family are well and enjoying everything you have worked for.Love always,Edna

And Charlie, who famously kept Edna on his studio payroll until her death in 1958, wrote in his 1964 autobiography that the time they worked together at Mutual was the happiest of his life. Commenting on her death, he wrote: "And so the world grows young. And youth takes over. And we who have lived a little longer become more estranged as we journey on our way." 

Real love can be fleeting, but the heart of the reel love of Charlie and Edna still beats upon the screen.

This is my entry in the Charlie Chaplin Blogathon hosted by Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner. Check out their sites for more about the great man.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Son of the Gods: Oy! Broken Blossoms This Aint!

There are some things I can get over – movie wise, that is.  While the racism of “Birth of a Nation” makes the skin crawl (not to mention a slight heaving of the stomach), it is an important film that should be seen at least once. “Pretty Woman” I can kind of enjoy, even though you know the average prostitute does not resemble Julia Roberts. But every once in a while I see a film that makes my jaw drop so low that thankfully it hits the floor or I’d be halfway to China.

Speaking of China, that brings me to 1930’s “Son of the Gods.” I’ve been making a slow trip through the sound career of Richard Barthelmess. Having viewed “Only Angels Have Wings” and “The Last Flight,” I must say I was pretty impressed. As a young man in the silents, he radiated purity and earnestness, giving unforgettable performances in “Broken Blossoms”,Way Down East,” and “Tol’able David.”

Success in "Broken Blossoms" made Barthelmess
the go-to guy for an Asian role

His maturity coincided with sound, and he developed a rather world weary, slightly heavy look; handsome, but certainly not boyish any longer. So, when I saw “Son of the Gods” playing on TCM I thought, what do I have to lose? Apparently, my lunch.

Here the story:
Sam Lee is a college student. Okay, stop right there. Barthelmess was 35 and looked it.
College student? He looks more like the professor!
Let’s continue. Sam is obviously wealthy (he plays polo and lends his friends money). He is also Chinese, but passes for white. While his male friends are okay with this, white women, once they find out, are appalled and disgusted. I believe he is called “a dirty yellow Chinaman.”

Sam decides he can’t stand it anymore at college and goes home to his family. His father is a very traditional looking Chinese man who runs a successful business (doing what, I can’t say, but it seems he lends money to people). By the way, his father is played by an American actor, but is convincingly made up to look stereotypically Chinese. Sam says he wants to strike out on his own and see the world. His father would prefer he not, but lovingly assents to his son’s wishes.
Dad (played by American actor E. Alyn Warren)
Now, it’s obvious that Sam does not look Asian and his father does, so you might wonder what went on here. Was Sam’s mother Caucasian? Turns out she is dead, but her portrait reveals her to be very much Asian. What gives? Doesn’t anyone question why Sam looks different than everyone else?

Unsuspecting love
Sam strikes out on his own and eventually lands a job with a novelist who is in need of someone who knows Chinese. While accompanying the author on his travels, Sam meets the glamorous and high living Allana in the South of France (Constance Bennett) and they fall in love. But, once Allana learns that Sam is – gasp! – Chinese, she goes berserk, whips him with a riding crop in public, and says all kinds of awful anti-Chinese things. She feels badly afterwards, but Sam has already left town. His father is dying and Sam has had enough of the white race.
Allana is a demon with that riding crop

Back home Sam goes full on Chinese. Here, Barthelmess looks like a parody of himself in “Broken Blossoms.” I’ll spare you the inanity, but it turn out that Sam was adopted and is – hooray! – actually white. Now, he and Allana can be together and all is white – I mean right – with the world.

Sam's new garb.... something is not quite right....
So, this was not a feather in the Barthelmess acting cap. Seriously, Laurence Olivier could not have done any better with this tripe. Constance Bennett played an awful woman, but she sure looked glamorous. The sequence describing little Sam’s road to adoption was originally filmed in Technicolor – showing an elaborate and presumably colorful parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown – has been lost and now only remains in black and white.

The funny thing is that the film starts out on a hopeful note. Sam’s college friends are angry at the girls who reject Sam because of his race and they give them a good verbal lashing. However, soon things turn, with even the wealthy Chinese being able to look down on the “coolies.”  Not cool!

I guess I kept watching because I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but as far as “Son of the Gods” goes, once is more than enough.