Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Book Review: Vitagraph: America's First Great Motion Picture Studio

 I love the stories about the great movie pioneers, you know -L.B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, the Warner Brothers. But, before the usual and more famous pioneers, there were the earliest pioneers, the dreamers who served as the scouts who cleared the path and laid the foundation for a road that lead to a great industry. D.W. Griffith remains a famous name, but many of those who came before the moguls have fallen into obscurity. While I had certainly heard of the Vitagraph Studio, the names of its founders - Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton - were unknown to me. Author Andrew A. Erish, in his book "Vitagraph: America's First Great Motion Picture Studio," gives them their due and tells the story of a great studio that, for a time, flourished in those exciting, early days.

While Vitagraph was established in Brooklyn, it also had a west coast studio

Two English fellows who had a hankering for show business, Smith and Blackton founded Vitagraph Studios in 1896 and set up shop in Brooklyn, NY. Starting with the days of the crude nickelodeon and progressing to shorts and feature films, the Vitagraph boys, like so many early pioneers, found themselves knee-deep in the endless patent wars with Edison, a financial struggle that would have defeated less determined men. They did prevail, but there always seemed to be bigger companies nipping at their heels.


A few Vitagraph stars. Jean Page became Mrs. Albert Smith


In their heyday, Vitagraph launched the careers of Maurice Costello (as well as his daughters Dolores and Helene as child actors), Corinne Griffith, Florence Lawrence, Florence Turner, Anita Stewart, Antonio Moreno and Norma Talmadge. Tribute is paid to forgotten superstars of the era, comedians John Bunny and Larry Semon. Even Moe Howard (the smart Stooge) makes an appearance as a teenaged extra. Life at Vitagraph seemed like a cozy, happy family.

Not quite the Dodgers, but a fine looking Brooklyn team


But, all good things must come to an end. The founders drifted in different directions and the company suffered. Eventually, the industry that they helped build got the best of them and, in 1925 Vitagraph was sold to Warner Brothers. 

Vitagraph founders Albert E. Smith (center) and J. Stuart Blackton (right),
as well as partner William T. ("Pop") Rock (left)

The book is a mixture of good gossip and heavy, important research. Zukor, founder of Famous Players and later, Paramount, comes across as a ruthless and power hungry philistine, the author never letting us forget he was a furrier. Norma Talmadge, one of the silent screen's greatest stars, is described as a bit dim-witted. Smith and Blackton, while flawed, are clearly held in high esteem by the writer, with Smith's Christian ethics praised to the end. The book can get technical at times, but it offers a thorough and detailed history of an important studio and a good glimpse at those more innocent times.

Still standing


Vitagraph is long gone, but, in Brooklyn, a reminder of this once great studio remains. The smokestack that displays the company name somehow has managed to survive. There are luxury apartments now on the old studio lot. The name of the apartment building is "The Vitagraph," and, after a campaign to save the old smokestack, the developer of the complex as left it intact. I'm sure those 2 English chaps with show biz in their blood would be happy to see that last remnant of their life's work still standing.





"Vitagraph" America's First Great Motion Picture Studio" by Andrew A. Erish was provided to me at no cost for review.

VITAGRAPH: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio

Andrew E. Erish
Kentucky Press | Screen Classics Series
298 pages | 6×9 | 46 b/w photos | hardcover | 


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

History is Made at Night: Walking on Stardust

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Hidden Classics Blogathon. Click here for more hidden cinematic gems.


History is Made at Night (1937)

My love of film has to do with how they make me feel. While I don't always remember the exact plot lines, the camera angels or directorial strokes of genius, if I love a film I can always remember how it makes me feel. And the feeling I get from History is Made at Night is magically, unashamedly romantic... otherworldly romantic ....twinkling white star against a velvet midnight sky romantic.

See the look of love?

The chemistry between Charles Boyer (can you hear me sigh?) and Jean Arthur is bathed in enchantment. Now, I am not Ms. Arthur's biggest fan. Her quirky voice and quizzical manner seems a bit too much like a tightly wound corkscrew for me. However, here, with Boyer, she simply walks on stardust The way she looks at him and her quiet, delighted manner is an unapologetic surrender to love. In fact, the entire film makes no apology for it's singular devotion to love. There are no sly moments, no snarky comments that pass for sophistication.

Jean Arthur: still the American girl, this time with a continental glow

So why does this Jean Arthur wholeheartedly convince me she is more than the little list of annoyances she has presented to me in the past? Perhaps her appeal lies in the influence of a more continental partner in Mr. Boyer. Here he is the waiter who gives his all to his job and his all to romance. His charm is wrapped in his utmost and serious 100% devotion to love.

To the Romantic, food and love require total devotion

There is a pretty great villain here, too, in the person of Colin Clive. Man, he's a real stinker. 

Not the look of a happy wife

Mr. Clive suffered from severe alcoholism and would die in 1937 at the age of 37. His dissipation is evident in this film and only adds to the depravity of his character as Jean's evil and possessive husband.

Is it any surprise here that "History is Made at Night" was directed by Frank Borzage, a true master of romance? 

So, here's the bottom line: all the romantic, moonlit cinematic stars aligned for this film. There is a delightful plot, which I've totally neglected, and even a pretty exciting climax involving a Titanic-like ship sinking, but what stays with me is the feeling I get from this film. My heart aches for Boyer and Arthur, I root for them to succeed, they make my heart happy, I am enchanted by their charm and chemistry and, finally, I believe in the power of romantic love in its purest form. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

National Classic Movie Day: 6 Decades/6 Double Features

This is my entry into The Classic Film and TV Cafe's annual National Classic Movie Day blogathon. This year's theme is 6 films - 6 decades. Click here to see more personal choices by some awesome movie lovers.


If you're like me, you have a list of favorites. And, because they are favorites, I've written way too many times about them. So, in the spirit of not boring myself, let alone you, to death, I've decided to pair an almost- top favorite with an absolute favorite to create a National Classic Movie Day Double Feature (remember those? If you do, you're probably a classic yourself). I'm also tying them together with a (sometimes very loose) thematic thread...sort of. Here goes...

1910s: The Immigrant and The New York Hat: Big Apple Love and Longing

The main feature is one of my favorite Chaplin shorts, 1917's "The Immigrant." The second feature is 1912's "The New York Hat." Chaplin gazes at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and Mary Pickford gazes longingly at a fancy New York hat in a shop window. There's always been something about New York.

$10 is a  fortune for Mary in "The New York Hat."

Have you seen this film? This is a charming little short with a hefty pedigree. Directed by D.W. Griffith and written by Anita Loos and Frances Marion, it stars Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore in Mary Pickford's swan song to her Biograph association. I love everything about this film, including its sly and humorous take down of small town gossips, but mainly I am always - always - astounded by Mary Pickford's incredible star power. It is impossible not to take your eyes off of her or be enchanted by her. After 109 years, she is undeniably a bright and shinning and ever lasting star.

1920s: Our Hospitality and The Thief of Bagdad: Go Big. 

The main feature for this decade would be Buster Keaton's great first feature, 1923's "Our Hospitality." I love the incredibly clever story and, of course, Buster's humor. But mainly I love this film for Buster's bravery and audacity in both his stunts and his incredible period recreation. The little guy went big in all ways.


The second feature pairing is Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 "The Thief of Bagdad." This film is epic in its splendor and size and in its romance. Photos cannot do it justice. Check out this beautiful trailer for a real flavor of this film, accompanied by a beautiful Carl Davis (and Rimsky-Korsakov score). Norma Desmond (more about her later) said "they took the idols of the world and smashed them." Here at the height of his star power, Fairbanks creates an over-sized fantasy that is a feast for the eyes and imagination. This was the golden decade of movie magic and romance. Never again would film speak to the entire world in such a singular voice, never again would the private imaginations of movie goers soar in such private and personal splendor.

1930s: City Lights and Love Me Tonight: I Humbly Apologize...

The main feature is Chaplin's great 1931 "City Lights." I've written way too much about it already, so let's just focus here on the beautiful story of a poor fellow who will stretch the truth about his humble conditions to win the heart of his lady love.

Chevalier and MacDonald sizing each other up

The second feature here is 1932's "Love Me Tonight." Ah, "the son of a gun is nothing but a tailor!" (so the song goes). Chevalier, the humble tailor who masquerades as a nobleman to win his princess, oozes his most cheeky French charm, Jeanette MacDonald is at her sexiest and least artificial, there's a score to die for by Rodgers and Hart, and it's all directed in the Lubitsch manner by Rouben Mamoulian. An added plus: A delicious Myrna Loy, Charlie Ruggles and Charles Butterworth are along for this joyous and carefree ride. "Love Me Tonight" is a perfect cinematic confection that tastes like desert but is as pleasing as a full course meal. Isn't it romantic? Yes! 

1940s: Double Indemnity and Leave Her to Heaven: Pretty Poison

"Double Indemnity" (1944) is one of my all time favorites. What more can I say? It is Billy Wilder perfect - which is perfect x 10 (at least). Barbara Stanwyck's unforgettable femme fatale is poisonously fatal to everyone, including herself. But, she had us at the ankle bracelet.

Please don't let Ellen take you swimming.....

The second feature for this decade is 1945's "Leave her to Heaven." Talk about a poison femme fatale. This noir in glorious color has everything: great locations, sympathetic secondary characters, and an irresistible potboiler of a plot. However, it all bows in service to Gene Tierney's psychopathic Ellen. Beautiful to look at, deadly to hold. I can't think of a femme fatale more beautiful and ultimately more loathsome.

1950s: Sunset Boulevard and Strangers on a Train: Kooks and Unrequited Love

Kooks and unrequited love seems to be a theme that runs through this decade. Sunset Boulevard is my favorite film of any decade and Norma Desmond one of my most favorite characters. Period. Poor Norma.... fruitcake mad for Joe Gillis... and poor Max...fruitcake mad for Norma. More Billy Wilder perfection.

Criss Cross....

Hitchcock's 1951 "Strangers on a Train," the other half of this nutty double feature, also has a kook who seems to be, if not in love, at least enthralled with his unwilling partner in crime. The way the word "Guy" drips out of Bruno's mouth is about as creepy as it gets. I kind of think even Norma Desmond would head for the door in Bruno's presence.

1960s: The Apartment and Charade: surrounded by baddies

Billy Wilder again! I guess all I need are Chaplin and Wilder films to feel happy. Aside from the complicated and adorable love story between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, one of the uncomfortable aspects of "The Apartment" is the casual immorality of of all those guys at Consolidated Insurance.

Seriously, what's not to love here?

1963's "Charade" finds Audrey and Cary (I'm on a first name basis with these 2) also surrounded by bad guys. That's about it for any connection to "The Apartment" (except maybe each has a memorable theme song). But, since this is one of my favorites from the '60s, I had to include it. It is beautiful, clever, thrilling and I love it. I never tire of it.

Oh wait! Can we have a triple feature for the 60s? I would gladly get more popcorn and sit through Mel Brooks' "The Producers" (1967) any time, any place. There are too many reasons why to count, but mainly because for the previous 4 years I kept repeating one line of the film over and over again (last line before the fade out):


Thank you, Mel Brooks, for all the laughs.

And many thanks to Rick at The Classic Film and TV Café for reminding us about National Classic Movie Day.. although for most of us, that's every day, right?



 


Monday, April 5, 2021

I'm Smitten: The Fetching Bernice Claire and the 2 Mr. Grays

It's been a while since I have been smitten with a new-to-me find (classic movie wise). Being a fan of those early days musicals, Bernice Claire has been on my radar, but I have never seen her in anything. Thanks to good old TCM, I finally got to see her in "Spring is Here," one of those impossibly awful but utterly charming early movie musicals.


In his book "A Song in the Dark," Richard Barrios describes Bernice Claire as "fetching," a word that perfectly describes her screen presence. Before there was Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy there was Bernice Claire and Alexander Gray. In that first flush of florid movie musicals their voices blended to produce musical magic. More about Mr. Alexander Gray later.

Just take a look at her... the smile, the pert little nose, the natural manner and the lovely voice. Oh, and please ignore that other Mr. Gray - Lawrence of the nasally, annoyingly ordinary voice. Here they are singing "With a Song in My Heart," from "Spring is Here" (1930) - courtesy of Rodgers and Hart.


Her more permanent partner in song was Alexander Gray. Like Nelson Eddy, he possessed a booming baritone, and like Nelson Eddy he did a great imitation of a piece of wood. I had seen Mr. Gray in "Sally," when he supported Marilyn Miller, but since her talent was dance, there were no big voice duets for him. He and Bernice Claire had performed together on stage prior to arriving in Hollywood, so First National (home to such wonderful early musicals) brought Bernice along with Alexander.  


Cute as a button
Their first film appearance together was in the extremely popular "No No Nannette" (1930). Sadly, this movie, filmed entirely in Technicolor, is lost, except for an incomplete black and white version that exists at the British Film Institute National Archive. 



Here they are with another number from "Spring is Here.
"




For a hot moment, musical were all the rage in 1929 and 1930 - until they weren't. Audiences turned on them in an almost vicious way and songs in already filmed movies were suddenly cut before they were released to the public. Take, for instance, 1930's "Top Speed," starring Bernice along with Joe E. Brown. Aside from being a really racy pre-code, there are moments when a set up to a song is begun, a little music plays and then the film abruptly and awkwardly cuts away to another scene. 

Bernice gets second billing, but since most of her songs
 were cut, she is almost the secondary love interest.


"Top Speed" is actually an interesting little film. While I do not appreciate the big mouth shtick of Joe E. Brown, I am always surprised at his innate musicality (his dance with Marilyn Miller in "Sally" was quite appealing).  Also, the film starred a fellow by the name of Jack Whiting, who was entirely new to me.


Jack Whiting woos Bernice Claire in "Top Speed."


Now, he wasn't much of a leading man for Bernice, but when I did a little research on him I found that he was the last husband of the first Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks, Beth Sully. Of course, I had read how Doug's mad love affair with Mary Pickford wrecked his marriage to Beth, and she was always portrayed as the poor gal who stood in between the future king and queen of Hollywood. I was happy to learn that she and Mr. Whiting had a long and happy marriage.

Here she is in "Kiss Me Again" (1931), singing a song she was often requested to perform, but which barely survived all musical cuts from the film.



Bernice Claire made exactly 13 films from 1930 to 1938. She then concentrated on radio and stage performances, so for her, movies were just a brief interlude in her career. One of the reasons I love those early, goofy musicals is that it gives us a chance to see popular stage performers of the era. In those early days, studios imported established musical performers for those films. Because
 of them, we get to see performers like Bernice Claire and Alexander Gray, Fannie Brice and Marilyn Miller, just to name a few. Not all of them made the grade in Hollywood and their stars dimmed long ago, but thanks to film (at least the ones that have survived) we are blessed with the opportunity to see them.  





Monday, February 8, 2021

High Noon: The Cowards Among us

 So, this is what happened the other day. 

Alone
For some strange reason, the theme song from "High Noon," the 1952 western, invaded my brain. Now, you should know that I am not a western fan by any stretch and this song is never one that is on my playlist. Still, it persisted, first in the shower and later over coffee. 

Now, normally I would push it out as best I could and go on about my day. But this time I decided to listen. Maybe the universe was telling me to watch that movie. And so I did. And so I was  - what - blown away? Impressed? Kind of shattered and overwhelmed with the love of the power of film.

She stands by her man

Like I say - I'm not a big western fan, but "High Noon" is a morality parable disguised as a western. I think I know that is the case with many westerns, but I really don't like to see horses fall down, so....

Anyway, back to "High Noon." Somewhere in the recesses of my movie brain, I knew this story was a commentary on the 1950s blacklisting of writers with supposed communist ties. 

The general consensus of the town is for Kane to cut and run

And, truth be told, I am not a big fan of the older Gary Cooper. The ick factor of "Love in the Afternoon" still lingers for me. But it is his weariness that comes with age that makes him so perfect for the role of Will Kane. I read that John Wayne was the original choice for the role and that he turned it down because he disagreed with the overt politics of the story. Thank goodness he did. I doubt Wayne would have conveyed the honest desire to retire and ride off to open a store with his new bride (although what man wouldn't be tempted to run off with Grace Kelly?). And just in case you're feeling none to kindly (western influence seeping in here) towards the Duke, he was mighty gracious in accepting Cooper's Oscar for the role.


Beautifully and simply filmed with nail biting suspense as the clock ticks towards high noon and Kane's moment of truth, the question looms - who will stick their neck out for what is right? Who will risk everything for the truth? Who will stand with those who have stood for us? 


What would you do? May we never stop asking the hard questions.