Archive for June, 2014

Alberta Vaughn: Telephone Girl

Posted in Comediennes, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2014 by travsd

June 27: the birthday of silent comedy hotsy totsy Alberta Vaughn (1904-1992).

A native of Kentucky, she broke into film in 1921 in a Hal Roach short called Stop Kidding, then worked for several months at Century Film which released through Universal. By 1923 she was working for Mack Sennett as a Bathing Beauty, supporting the likes of Billy Bevan and Harry Langdon (including Picking Peaches and Smile Please. While there she was picked as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, which led to her starring series as the Telephone Girl for FBO (which eventually became part of RKO). (You can see one of these Telephone Girl comedies in Ben Model’s Accidentally Preserved DVD). From here she went on to do the “Go-Getter” , “Pacemaker”, “Mazie”  and “Fighting Hearts” series for FBO. Amongst all these series she managed to squeeze in the Joe Rock comedy The Sleuth (1925) with Stan Laurel. 

From 1926 to 1928 she starred in features with names like Collegiate, Skyscraper and Backstage. From 1928 through 1930 (a period that embraces both silents and talkies) she co-starred in shorts with the now-forgotten Al Cooke. Through 1935 she appeared in a number of B movies westerns starring the likes of Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy and John Wayne. Her last picture was The Live Wire (1935).

For more on silent and slapstick comedy and comedians like Alberta Vaughn don’t my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by travsd


The Charlie Chaplin masterpiece The Gold Rush (1925) was released on this day.

I first saw this film in a school assembly at around the time of its 50th anniversary. It was, I think, one of the formative experiences of my life. Though it would be over a decade before I saw the film again, its images stuck with me. In the intervening years I had no trouble conjuring practically every scene in the film: the shoe eating episode, the dance with the rolls, Big Jim’s hallucination of the Tramp as a giant chicken. But even without those dream-like touches, the film would have spoken to me. I came from an old-fashioned family, with deep American roots. I had been raised to romanticize that older world, the world of cabins and kerosene lanterns and pot-bellied stoves. I had often heard it spoken of and read about it in stories. Now here it was, palpably represented in scratchy sepia-toned images. My love of silent comedy began with The Gold Rush. 

The inspiration for this film came to Chaplin from a stereopticon slide he saw while visiting Pickfair, the fabled home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The shot (which Chaplin would recreate cinematically) was of a long line of hundreds of men trudging through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass during the Alaskan gold rush (1897-1899).

gold rushsnow

This was an epic backdrop in which to place the Tramp.  Large scale films about punishing life in the wilderness were in vogue at the time.  Recent years had seen the success of Robert Flaherty’s Arctic documentary Nanook of the North (1922), major westerns like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), as well as Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), which has its climax in California’s Death Valley, perhaps the least hospitable spot for life on the globe.  As a parlor socialist, Chaplin surely also knew the works of Jack London, who’d actually taken part in the Alaskan gold rush and written about it in works like The Call of the Wild, White Fang and the short story “To Build a Fire”. 1923 had also seen the first of many remakes of The Spoilers, an Alaskan gold rush yarn based on the 1906 novel by Rex Beach. And even some comedians had dabbled in the genre, namely, Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North and Ben Turpin’s Yukon Jake (1924).

The Gold Rush (1925) gave Chaplin an opportunity to dramatize privations even greater than those he had depicted in The KidThe theme of the film is hunger: for food, for riches, for love.  At the center of it is the Tramp, one of the 100,000 prospectors who’ve descended on this remote, forbidding region in pursuit of big wealth. For his apparent ambitions he suffers mightily. Fleeing a blizzard, he must share a cabin with a wanted murderer named Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and later spends several weeks starving with the man who will become his partner, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain). During this ordeal, the men resort to eating their own shoes for Thanksgiving dinner, and at a certain point McKay, crazed with hunger, mistakes the Tramp for a chicken and pursues him with an ax.



Worse than the company of either of these two associates, however, is the specter of loneliness.


The Tramp pines away for the love of the vivacious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) whom Charlie mistakenly believes is interested in him due to a series of cruel jokes and misunderstandings. In the end McKay and the Tramp strike it rich, and the Tramp gets his girl.


 And the gorgeous art direction. There’s a reason many regard The Gold Rush as one of the greatest films of all time. It sticks in the craw. As I said, I first saw it at an elementary school assembly in the 1970s (my first silent film, in fact) and I swear, if I had never seen it again, I would still be able to recall every scene to this day. It is like The Wizard of Oz in that respect. A succession of highly memorable, dream-like scenes. There are the Chilkoot Pass, shoe eating and giant chicken scenes which we mentioned earlier. But there’s also the Tramp’s famous dinner table dance with forks and rolls (borrowed from Arbuckle’s similar routine in The Rough House.) Johnny Depp memorably paid tribute to this scene in Bennie and Joon (1993).

Other stuff! Charlie walking along a snow covered ledge, followed by a bear.

tramp (2)

Black Larsen falling to his death (like Snow White’s Wicked Queen) in a mountain ice collapse. And the high point of the movie, when McKay and the Tramp are trapped in a cabin that’s hanging half off a cliff, having been blown there by high winds during the night.


The Gold Rush house

The scene is an ingenious fusion of Lloyd’s Thrill Comedy and Keaton’s surreal visual sense. There is perhaps more than a little Keaton influence in the film overall, the extremely large canvas, the interest in scale. It is the only time in Chaplin’s career we find ourselves talking about “hundreds of extras”, “location shooting” and “battling the weather”. These are common enough facets of plenty of Hollywood shoots, but not Chaplin’s ordinarily.

Accordingly, it was Chaplin’s biggest budget film to date, but also his biggest grossing (over four million dollars, a lot for its day). The Gold Rush is hailed by many (including the director himself) as Chaplin’s masterpiece. I consider it the greatest of all silent comedies, and not just because it is the first one I ever saw.

Let the buyer beware! In 1942, Chaplin, flush with the success of his first talkie The Great Dictator, re-released a version of The Gold Rush containing his own musical score, a different ending, and narration by the man himself in the style of Peter and the Wolf. Trust me: that is NOT the version you want to see, although it tends to be the one that pops up most often. Though naturally Chaplin’s music is far better than that you will hear in the version below, the narration spoils the effect of the movie — takes you completely out of it.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Jeanne Eagels: The Original Sadie Thompson

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Jeanne Eagels (Eugenia, Eagles, 1890-1929). Eagels legend today rests on her performance in the stage version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1922-26), in the shadow of which all subsequent Sadie Thompsons (Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth) were to suffer.

A native of Kansas City, Missouri Eagels joined the Dubinsky Brothers travelling stock company at age 12, initially as a dancer, but later working her way into speaking roles in the company’s repertoire of melodramas and comedies. A brief marriage to one of the Dubinksy Brothers failed, and Eagels made her way to New York, dyed her hair blonde, and reinvented herself as a chorus girl, eventually getting bit parts in Broadway shows, once again working her way up to speaking parts. By 1913 she also began appearing in films. While a success on both stage and screen by the late twenties she developed a reputation for being temperamental, unreliable and drunk. Her last stage Broadway play was Her Cardboard Lover (1927) with Leslie Howard, which ran for over four months. Then Equity suspended her for bad behavior and she returned to movies, making the talkies The Letter and Jealousy (both 1929). Her performance in the former earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but unfortunately by that time she was dead. Doctors were in disagreement as to whether the agent of her expiration had been alcohol, tranquilizers, or heroin — it may well have been all three.

The life of Jeanne Eagels was memorialized in the 1957 film Jeanne Eagels starring Kim Novack, although, as in all such films, it is wildly inaccurate in nearly every detail. Here is a scene from The Letter:

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


R.I.P. Eli Wallach

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), OBITS with tags , , on June 25, 2014 by travsd


By now you’ve gotten the word that Eli Wallach (1915-2014) has passed away. He was 98. This would make him about 17 when the Palace presented its last two-a-day. I am often given to saying there’s nobody around who still remembers vaudeville. But that’s wrong — if you are in your late nineties, you are old enough to remember vaudeville.

One observation I have about Wallach is that he was apparently never young. In his most famous role, the one that sort of put him on the map,  Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, he was 51 years old. And if you go backwards, say to The Misfits (1960), or Baby Doll (1956), you still find him playing dumpy middle-aged men. That’s what his character niche was. As far as the public is concerned he has been old for over  a half century. So it’s amazing to have him go at this late date. Yet it’s not the surprise we sometimes get when long-retired actors pass away. It’s not a “He was still alive?” moment, because Wallach never retired. He was in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel just four years ago!

The nettlesome aspect of his career was that he was forever “typecast” as Italians and Mexicans (and sometimes Greeks). I put “typecast” in quotes because that wasn’t actually his type! He was a Polish Jew from Red Hook! And to my mind, he was never convincing as an Italian and especially unconvincing as a Mexican. Yet, starting with the 1951 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, he began a long association with such roles. He was a serious Method actor but the film industry usually gave him what was essentially Minstrel work.

I got to meet him once! He and his wife Anne Jackson attended Theater for the New City’s annual benefit many times, and when I was working there once I had the honor of escorting the elderly star to the W.C. In gratitude, he gave me a squooshy-booby face (that affectionate grandmotherly thing where an old person grabs your cheeks with one hand). By then he was looking more like this:


At any rate, the co-star of 1968’s A Lovely Way To Die, finally has. Somewhere on the other side the ghost of Lee Van Cleef is cocking his pistol.

Peter Lind Hayes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2014 by travsd



Today is the birthday of actor/singer/performer Peter Lind Hayes (1915-1998). Hayes started out performing in the vaudeville act of his mother Grace Hayes (including the Palace in an act he wrote when he was but 16 years old) In the 30s he performed in the floor show of his mother’s night club the Grace Hayes Lodge, also appearing in radio, and in films, starting with Myrt and Marge (1933), and including Million Dollar Legs (1939), et al. In 1940 he married fellow performer Mary Healy, with whom he almost invariably appeared for the remainder of his career. Among other films, the couple co-starred alongside Grace Hayes in Zis Boom Bah (1941), and the modern cult favorite, Dr. Seuss’s The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953).

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T_4a

Hayes and Healy performed in night clubs, made records, and were in several Broadway shows, notably Norma Krasna’s Who Was That Lady I Saw You With? (1958-1959). They were also a frequent presence on television including The Peter Lind Hayes Show (1950-1951) and Peter Loves Mary (1960-1961). For a time in the 1960s they did a daily local radio Broadcast out of the basement of their home on Columbia Island, on Long Island Sound.

Oddly, in his lifetime, this is one of the things he was best known for in his lifetime, the 1948 record Life Gets Tedious, Don’t It?

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc



Douglas Fairbanks in “Wild and Woolly”

Posted in Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on June 24, 2014 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the perfect Douglas Fairbanks comedy Wild and Woolly (1917).

This is one of Fairbanks’ Anita LoosJohn Emerson vehicles. Doug plays the son of a New York railroad tycoon. The young man is obsessed  with the wild west. When his dad wants to build a spur line to an Arizona mine, he sends the boy out west to investigate. The townfolk, seeking to impress the kid, put on a charade so their relatively modern town will seem like the old west. Meanwhile some actual bads guys, a crooked Indian agent and his hotel clerk lackey, conspire to do actual crimes while Fairbanks is distracted with fake ones. The hotel clerk kidnaps the beautiful girl Fairbanks is in love with; the Indian agent does a train robbery, giving his Indians real bullets with which to subdue the town. Fairbanks saves all and marries the girl. This is a formula Fairbanks would employ many times over (and would be emulated by many, including Harold Lloyd), but it was never realized with such formal clarity as it is in this film.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Haxan: The Best Witch Movie Ever

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2014 by travsd

Haxan 1922 - Witches' Flight

Of all the great monsters of the imagination (demons, werewolves, vampires, zombies, mummies, etc) in the cinema witches have traditionally gotten the short end of the broomstick. They ought to be uncanny and every bit as terrifying as any other nightmare creature in the movies, but they almost never are. Interestingly the witches in The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves are quite effective, at least when we’re young (those of us who aren’t total insensitive dolts manage to hang on to that childlike feeling of terror when we watch the films in later years).

But apart from those two most screen witches are campy, silly, and impotent if even that. I had high hopes for American Horror Story: Coven, for example. It had its moments I guess, but, nah, most of it was about on this level:


I recently encountered what may be the most hauntingly effective witchcraft movie ever made. A silent Danish/Swedish co-production from 1922,  Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (by Benjamin Christensen) purports to be a sort of anthropological documentary along the lines of Nanook of the North, but the bulk of it is taken up by fictional dramatization. In the tradition of the best romances, its fiction of “truth and realism” lends it added power. The movie tells of witches and devils, secret rites and ceremonies, orgies, communion with Satan, depictions of hell, late night flights on broomsticks, human sacrifice, literal ass-kissing (an unholy practice, which caused the film to be banned) etc. Plus the film shows (ironically) all the horrors and tortures of the Inquisition. The imagery in the film is gorgeous, powerful and scary. It is a compendium of visual source material to inspire artists of all sorts: film-makers, painters, theatre designers — all those who want to depict what goes on at Midnight. It puts us back in touch with the superstitious part of our brain and the fear inspired by old legends, something most modern stabs at the genre fail to do.


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