For decades, silent star Marion Davies was known mainly for two things: for being the mistress of uber-powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and for supposedly being the inspiration for the untalented Susan Alexander in CitizenKane. Well, the latter isn’t true–Susan was based on the wife of a different uber-powerful magnate (as Orson Welles himself finally revealed). And as for the former, while Marion was certainly part of a faithful “arrangement” with Hearst right up until his death, it didn’t define her. A look at her films proves that she was a warm, hardworking, immensely talented woman who likely had the charisma to make a name for herself in Hollywood without Hearst’s help. (I’d say she was mighty lucky to have him on her team, but she was already working on her acting career before he swooped in with 5-gallon buckets of money.)
Fans of film history–rejoice! For in the Year of our Lord two thousand and seventeen, the library of essential early film books like The Parade’s Gone By and Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory has been expanded by Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy by film historian Steve Massa. It’s been my most anticipated book of the year, and as you can already tell, I was not disappointed.
As part of the ongoing, year-long celebration of his 1917 entry into films, I will periodically review the prominent books on Buster Keaton. Here’s my take on two of the more widely read biographies out there:
One of the great classic film biographies, Keaton–along with Buster’s own autobiography–is an absolute must for anyone looking to learn more about our favorite straight-faced comedian in a porkpie hat. Continue reading →
Classic film fans who are curious enough about early Hollywood history to look beyond familiar stars like Clara Bow or Louise Brooks and seek more obscure personalities might be amazed by how many there were. Dozens of actors and actresses are forgotten today, but were once familiar sights in theaters across the nation. They were beloved by fans and left their own unique marks on pop culture–sometimes in careers that spanned decades. Take Bebe Daniels, for instance. Continue reading →
Decades before the likes of Lucille Ball, there was another comedienne who was every bit as well known and influential–the “madcap” Mabel Normand. She was one of the earliest screen comediennes, and for a time was the biggest. She coached Roscoe Arbuckle and directed Charlie Chaplin when they first arrived at Keystone. She was loved by moviegoers the world over. And yet, strangely, almost no books have been written about her. One “major” biography came out over 20 years ago, and…left a lot to be desired. (References and bibliographies are useful things.)
But cue the trumpets, for at long last a new biography is coming out, the result of seven years’ worth of research by author and enthusiastic fan Timothy Dean Lefler. It’s detailed, it’s sourced, it even has appendices. It gives Mabel the kind of thorough appreciation that’s been needed for decades. Is it, perhaps, definitive? Well, let’s take a look. Continue reading →
Now this isn’t a book you get to review every day! Technically, the full title is: 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 122: Deluxe Reprint Edition, sincethis is the catalog’s first reprinting in over 100 years. Yes, the last time film exhibitors set eyes on this book’s contents was seven years before WWI–back in the era of vaudeville and nickelodeons! Continue reading →
I sometimes wonder: If comedian Larry Semon had been completely forgotten over the years–that is, if he hadn’t been discussed by Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns, and hadn’t been mentioned by people like Buster Keaton, and hadn’t had public domain copies of his films passed around over the decades–in short, if he’d been relegated to the kind of obscurity once shared by Charley Bowers, Marcel Perez, and Musty Suffer, would we look at his films today and think, “Wow, this guy’s a great performer–why haven’t I heard of him before?” Continue reading →
When you think of the figures in film history that are household names, several examples spring to mind: directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Orson Welles, and actors like James Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, and Marlon Brando. How about really early Hollywood names? Well, there’s Charlie Chaplin, you say. And also…well…err, yes, Chaplin.
But if there’s any name that (also) deserves a status in film history as large as the heads on Mount Rushmore, it’s DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS. Continue reading →
What a warm and wonderful gal Thelma Todd was. Smart, classy, and enviably beautiful, she livened up numerous comedies featuring Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Louise Fazenda, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Joe E. Brown, and many other famous laughmakers. Watching her performances reminds us how much was lost with her untimely death in 1936. Who could forget her “college widow” being serenaded by each of the four Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers (1932), or her Mrs. Plumtree genuinely cracking up at Stan Laurel in Another Fine Mess (1930)? Continue reading →