DVD Review: “The Alice Howell Collection”

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Do you love exploring silent comedy? How about getting to know obscure silent performers? If your answer to both questions is “Heck yes!” (and why wouldn’t it be?) then you’ll probably be excited about the latest DVD set by Ben Model’s Undercrank ProductionsThe Alice Howell Collection. 

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Ramon Novarro, “Latin Lover” Of The Silent Screen

During the heyday of Rudolph Valentino, studios scrambled to find their own versions of a “sheik”–that passionate, menacing “exotic” lover women’s hearts were fluttering over (who also guaranteed plenty of box office gold). Actors from the steady Milton Sills to dashing Antonio Moreno were considered worthy rivals, but perhaps the worthiest one of all was the talented, gentlemanly Ramon Novarro.

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Rudolph Valentino–The Man Behind The Image

“The woman from fourteen to ninety loved him, because he made romance come riding home to her dreams. He was not the individual she craved, he was the symbol of what she craved.” —From a letter to Photoplay, January 1927

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What does it mean to be an icon? In the case of film actors, we assume this means their image has instant recognition. Across the world, people belonging to every culture and race will recognize Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin. Their very names have symbolism–“Chaplin” calls to mind laughter and old-time slapstick, while “Marilyn Monroe” stands for glamour and sensuality with a touch of vulnerability. (Interestingly, many people I’ve encountered who mention admiring Marilyn have never seen one of her films.)

So let us consider “Rudolph Valentino.” Of all the screen icons, his legacy is perhaps the most obscured by mythology, fantasy and cult status. The mere mention of his name–and how fortunate he was to adopt the elegant “Valentino”–recalls the kind of old Hollywood romance involving soft lighting, perfectly tailored suits, glimmering jewels and long, thrilling kisses. It calls to mind the stories of sobbing, fainting fans at his funeral bier–for he died young, as everyone remembers.

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But how many people today know what Rudolph Valentino looked like? How many have watched one of his films, or even a single clip? Who was the living, breathing human being behind the romantic name–the romantic dream? Continue reading

Buster’s Wife’s Relations: Getting To Know The Talmadge Family

This is my own post for the Fifth Annual Busterthon–I hope you enjoy!

Let us consider Norma and Constance Talmadge. They were two of the brightest stars of the silent era, the role models of countless gals and the crushes of countless young men. And today, they are–you’ve guessed it–practically forgotten. While they’re starting to be recognized as important figures in cinema history, their films are rarely screened and seldom discussed. But there’s one big reason they’re still remembered: their connection to a certain beloved comedian–Buster Keaton.

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Happy 100th Birthday To Diana Serra Cary! (Aka Baby Peggy)

This is a special day, my friends. Join me in raising a glass to Diana Serra Cary, the world’s last living silent film star, who turns 100 today!

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Known to 1920s audiences as Baby Peggy, Diana began appearing in films when she was only a toddler. After starring in shorts she soon began acting in features, all cranked out at an amazing rate. Audiences loved the expressive, round-cheeked youngster, and she swiftly became one of the most famous child actors in Hollywood–her main rival being Jackie Coogan. She later credited her success to her extremely obedient nature–directors were impressed by her ability to follow orders unhesitatingly.  Continue reading

Ormer Locklear, Hollywoodland’s Daredevil Of The Air

Let’s all take a minute and look at this marvelous photo:

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If I asked you to picture a daring pilot from the 1910s or 1920s, this is exactly who you would picture, am I right? The leather aviator helmet, the goggles, the cool jacket, the air of cheerful self-assurance…he’s the very personification of the flying ace Snoopy always aspired to be. And yes, he’s the real deal. This is the forgotten barnstormer Ormer Locklear, achiever of mind-boggling aerial stunts, and yes, of course he has a fantastic name, I would expect nothing less.

Really, all he needs is a tiny 1920s mustache and…stop the presses. 

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He is complete.

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The Great Chaplin-Pickford-Fairbanks Liberty Loan Tour Of ’18

On this day back in 1918, Bapaume, France was retaken by the British forces and the Second Battle of Noyon ended.

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You’ve watched clips of girls screaming at the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, and you’ve seen footage of the vast crowds at the original Woodstock. Maybe you’ve sighed, “Those were the days of true rockstars–man, that must’ve been exciting!” (Or maybe you sighed because you remember that time and wouldn’t mind reliving it). But that spirit of rockstardom was around earlier than the 1960s, or even the ’50s–many decades earlier, in fact. For if you ask me, few events would ever rock harder than the Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin United States tour for the benefit of the third Liberty Loan drive of 1918. Bear with me.

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Planning the Liberty Loan “route.”

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Lon Chaney, Hollywood’s Finest Character Actor

Per a reader’s request, here is a piece on one of the greatest and most respected silent film legends–Lon Chaney. As you read this, I am currently at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–and yes, I’ll be recapping every moment of it!

There was a popular, widespread joke back in the 1920s–“Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!” A joke which, of course, referred to his remarkable use of makeup and acting skills to create bizarre characters who stick in the popular imagination. Indeed, Chaney was one of the rare actors who was so skilled that he became a legend in his own time, graced with the title “The Man of a Thousand Faces”–a title which is linked with his name to this very day.

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Clara Bow–The Eternal “It” Girl

This is the last post for Flapper Month. It’s been a great series, and I’m sad to see it end (maybe it’s no coincidence that today’s Good Friday!). Perhaps a Flapper Month 2 is in order one of these days. Until then, enjoy this look at one of history’s most famous and beloved flapper actresses!

“Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term ‘flapper’ signifies…Pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as world wise, briefly clad and ‘hard-berled’ as possible. There were hundreds of them–her prototypes. Now, completing the circle, there are thousands more–patterning themselves after her.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1927.

In the 1920s, the influential Elinor Glyn–highly successful writer of “racy” novels such as Three Weeks, and matronly authority on simply all things fashionable–coined a new definition of the word “It” (which she always capitalized). “It,” she declared, was a rare magnetic quality, an innate self-confidence and ability to fascinate others. Sex appeal was part of it, sure, but it wasn’t the only part. Very few people had “It,” according to Glyn…and in 1927, she loftily declared that one actress, and one actress alone, not only had “It,” but was worthy of the title “The ‘It’ Girl.” And that actress was Clara Bow.

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It was a long way to come for a young woman who had grown up in the shabby tenements of New York City, unwanted and unloved, often neglected by her father and living in fear of a mentally unstable mother. Continue reading

Gladys Walton, A Forgotten Screen Flapper

While doing research for this month’s theme, I came across an unfamiliar name: Gladys Walton. Fairly popular in the early 1920s, she was intriguingly described as playing “flapper roles”–a few years before those roles would be associated with Colleen Moore and Clara Bow.

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Motion Picture Magazine, July 1922.

Who was this young woman? Research revealed a pragmatic, outspoken star who quickly realized her true priorities in life…and it also revealed an intriguing mystery. (At least, I’m going to call it a mystery.) Continue reading