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.

Gladys Walton mot pic mag July '22

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

Colleen Moore, America’s Favorite Flapper

One of the most famous quotes about the Jazz Age comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald himself–and no doubt you’ve heard of it: “I was the spark that lit up flaming youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” But did you ever wonder where he wrote that quote?

According to one scholar, it was inscribed by Fitzgerald himself in a miniature volume of This Side of Paradise for the tiny library of Ms. Moore’s famed, beautiful, $500,000 “fairy castle” dollhouse. And that not only gives you a little taste of the success and popularity of this spirited actress, but also of her girlish, whimsical nature that so appealed to countless audiences back in the silent days.

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“Natalie Marries Buster Keaton”–An Interesting Book Excerpt

So lately I’ve been investigating two of the most overlooked stars of the silent era, Norma and Constance Talmadge, and their sister Natalie (Buster Keaton’s first wife). While Norma and Constance were once wildly popular, critically praised, and well-liked by their Hollywood co-stars, they’ve become surprisingly obscure. And unfortunately, a kind of bizarre mythology has grown up around all three sisters–a mythology that’s painted them as cold, snobby, and somewhat scheming (mainly in pretty much every Buster Keaton book ever, unfortunately).

Clearly coming up with evil schemes. (Image credit: Wisconsin Historical Society)

From what I can see, much of this is due to Anita Loos’s gossipy, jumbled book The Talmadge Girls, published in 1978, otherwise known as “several years after all the Talmadges were safely dead.” It’s been decades since the silent era, many books have been written about every silent star imaginable, and yet this–this–is still the only book available on the Talmadges.

 …Or is it? Ah, my friends, there was one other book, published in 1924, called The Talmadge Sisters: Norma, Constance, Natalie, written by their mother Margaret “Peg” Talmadge. It’s difficult to find but well worth a read (I recommend doing an interlibrary loan). Whether it was ghostwritten under the family’s watchful eye or whether Peg did sit down at her typewriter is hard to tell, but it’s quite fascinating, released as it was during the heights of the girls’ careers and giving us their detailed story decades before folks like Loos got their hands on it. The style can be sentimental and romanticized (as all the 1920s “life stories of the stars” books are), but not to the point where I felt the whole thing was complete hokum (unpleasant details, like Peg’s husband abandoning the family, are simply not mentioned).

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The Talmadge ladies travelling.

I’ll have to review it in near future (a double review with the Loos book may be in order), but thought I’d copy down the chapter that fascinated me the most. For such a “cold and snobby” family, as Keaton bios will state, Peg included an entire chapter on her son-in-law Buster and ended it with some pretty thoughtful and generous complements. It also includes much of the old “how Buster got his nickname” kind of lore, and it’s interesting to see how consistent certain stories were throughout his life.

Here it is–hope you enjoy! Any unusual spellings are original to the 1924 book.

CHAPTER XI

NATALIE MARRIES BUSTER KEATON

After our return from Europe, Natalie’s letters and telegrams from Buster became more and more frequent, so that none of us was surprised when, while we were at Palm Beach, where Norma was taking some scenes for one of her pictures, Buster wired Natalie that he would meet her in New York and that she had better be prepared to give an answer to an important question! Continue reading

“The Muse Of The Reel”–The Pioneering Work Of Director Lois Weber

When the history of the dramatic early development of motion pictures is written, Lois Weber will occupy a unique position. 

Thus spoke a journalist in a 1921 Motion Picture Magazine article. At the time, Weber was one of the most familiar and respected directors in the film industry–and the most prominent of the few female directors overall. Today, from our vantage point of nearly a century later, it may seem like that journalist’s prediction hasn’t quite come true. Weber certainly does have a unique place in cinema history, but that place has been largely overlooked for many decades.

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However, thanks to new restorations of her work being shown at film festivals and a wealth of online resources for film scholarship, Weber’s slowly but surely being restored to her place in the early filmmakers’ pantheon–a place she had certainly earned, with the goal of nothing less than the moral uplift of mankind. Continue reading

The Funny (And Forgotten) Stick Figures of Norman Z. McLeod

While combing through an online copy of a 1920s magazine just for amateur movie makers (it’s called, in case you’re curious, Amateur Movie Makers) I stumbled across a name that seemed familiar: “Norman McLeod”. Hmm, why did that ring a bell?

He was mentioned in an article on “art titles” (title cards with illustrations) which referred to “the famous skeleton cartoons” which “were made familiar by the clever pen of Norman McLeod, who has illustrated Christie Comedy titles for a number of years.” (You might be picturing Silly Symphony-style skeletons, but they were actually stick figures.) Having seen a few of the Christie Comedies, I had a little “ah-ha!” moment of now knowing who was behind those funny cartoons.

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Loose Change (1928)

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Mona Darkfeather, The “Indian Princess” of Hollywoodland

Among the ranks of the many forgotten silent actors and actresses who specialized in similar kinds of dramatic roles or comic “types,” there were a few who were a little more unique. One was the actress Josephine Workman, aka “Princess Mona Darkfeather,” who (believe it or not) wasn’t actually an Indian princess and whose possible American Indian ancestry is a big question mark. But for much of the 1910s she was very popular among the moviegoing public–and, she was certainly a part of the development of the Western genre.

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A Mesmerizing Talent: The Life And Career Of Conrad Veidt

“I only fell in love once with a movie actor. It was Conrad Veidt. His magnetism and his personality got me. His voice and gestures fascinated me. I hated him, feared him, loved him. When he died it seemed to me that a vital part of my imagination died too, and my world of dreams was bare.”

Quoted from one of the documents compiled in British Cinemas and Their Audiences by J.P. Mayer. 

He had a lean, chiseled face that could’ve belonged to a regal nobleman, a sickly poet, or a sinister villain. His blue eyes could burn with the fury of a madman, or grow wide and distant as if trying to forget terrible secrets. But they could become warm and friendly too, especially if you were chatting with this tall, distinguished man about his greatest passion: dramatic acting. “I must have the dramatic, the ecstatic,” he told an interviewer in 1928, “something with great mental force.”

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Known today for such horror classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs, Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (nicknamed “Connie”) came from a quiet and sensible background. Continue reading