Archive for the Hollywood (History) Category

Why You MUST See “Paradise Alley”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

176758-paradise-alley-0-230-0-345-crop

Today is the birthday of stage and screen Renaissance man Hugo Haas (1901-1968). Haas is an intriguing cinematic figure whom I am only just now discovering for myself, and the process is giving me great joy.

Of German-Jewish parentage he was born in the city of Brno, the capital of Moravia, which was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the time of his birth, but was incorporated into the new nation of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Haas became a star of Prague’s National Theatre, and by the 1920s he became a popular film actor as well. In the mid-30s he expanded his reach, also become a successful film director. His biggest hit while still based in his native country was Skeleton on Horseback (1937) an adaptation of a play by Karel Capek, best known to many of our readers no doubt as the author of R.U.R. 

hugo-haas

Like so many others, Haas was displaced by the Nazi takeover of Czechoslavakia (1938-1939). It took several years for him to make his way to Hollywood, where he begins to show up as a character actor by 1944. He was successful as such for several years, in films like The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and King Solomon’s Mine (1950).

220px-pickup_film_poster

But unlike many refugee film directors from France and Germany whom one might rate as his peers, Haas was unable to get a foothold with the major studios as a director. Nothing daunted, at a time when such risk-taking was rare, he poured his income from acting into his own independent films which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in himself, a series of seedy, gritty, sensationalist noir melodramas with titles like Pickup (1951), One Girl’s Confession (1953), and Bait (1954). The films were not highly-rated by the critics, but netted enough profit to keep him going as long as demand for B movies remained.

images

By 1959, That B movie market had dried up, and he seemed to be at the end of the line. There seems to be some awareness of that in his last film Paradise Alley (completed 1959, released 1962). Much like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is a highly self-reflexive work, a kind of valedictory statement. And it has the kind of mix of intellectual pretension and seedy poverty row folk-art non sequitur that graces such wide-ranging films as Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955), Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959), and Utopia (1951) starring Laurel and Hardy.

Haas plays a once-famous German silent-film director named Mr. Agnus (Latin for “Lamb”, i.e. Christ), who moves into a slum neighborhood which evokes everything from Elmer Rice’s Street Scene to Dead End to the then-current West Side Story. Like the latter, it has a Romeo and Juliet thing going, with the star-crossed lovers played by former Miss Universe Carol Morris and Don Sullivan, star of such epics as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and Teenage Zombies (1959). The neighborhood is a seething cauldron of sex, hatred and violence. A gang of not-so-juvenile delinquents, all of whom seem to be about 47 years old, run around; one of them is played by Duke Mitchell, who’d co-starred in Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla seven years earlier, but is ignominiously overshadowed by bigger stars in this film.

Amazingly, Paradise Alley does have a large number of well-known names in the cast, although at the time the film was made, most of them were either former stars or would only later come to have cults of fans in retrospect. And this really fuels the down-at-the-heels Hollywood magic of this film in a manner that recalls Sunset Boulevard. Morris’s parents are played by comedian Billy Gilbert and former silent star Corinne Griffith. Sullivan’s mother (and Gilbert’s enemy) is played by none other than Margaret Hamilton. Familiar character actress Almira Sessions is the landlady. Noir sexpot Marie Windsor is the provocative burlesque dancer just across the way. Silent comedian Chester Conklin, in one of his last roles, plays a retired Hollywood camera man; character actor Pat Goldin, best known from Jiggs and Maggie comedies, plays another retired film professional.

imgres

These last two provide the engine for the film’s rather slight action. Haas (his name is a stand-in for Jesus, recall) gets it into his head to bring peace to the slums by pretending to make a film with Conklin and Goldin, casting everyone in the neighborhood, and making them say nice things to each other. (An oddly Catholic impulse I felt, in its formal ritualism leading to grace, though Haas was Jewish).  Further, there is no film in the camera, giving the entire charade an existential slant not unlike we get in the plays of Jean Genet.

In the end, a real Hollywood film producer played by William Schallert gets wind of the project, and decides to make a real film, and that’s where we get into some heady territory. Not only has peace been achieved, but the poor people of the ‘hood will now be on the payroll merely for existing. Is this communism? Utopia? Heaven? Then it gets trippier, when much like the Monkees movie Head, the last few moments of the film become a replay of the film’s first few moments, including theme song and credits: the film is a film of a film of a film of a film in an endless feedback loop.

I don’t want to oversell the film’s technical brilliance. Its aspirations are great, but so are its limitations. The dialogue is frequently bad, almost Ed Wood level in its inexplicable refusal to move the plot forward. Haas’s lines are often simply strange and clunky; after all English was Haas’s third language (at least). Directorially, the pace is often slow, stilted, and full of dead air, with no sense of urgency or narrative momentum. Though the cast is well known, most of them were character actors accustomed only to small parts. Ironically Paradise Alley may have given them the largest, most dramatically challenging roles of their careers, and many of them seem stretched beyond their abilities. And then there’s the fact that Haas seems incapable of refraining from weird, inappropriately sexual jokes and moments, including a gratuitous near-rape scene in the film’s opening minutes. Also I’m not sure, I have to watch it again, but I think one of the female characters is inexplicably played by a man in drag. All of this goes to explain why the film wasn’t released for nearly three years after it was made, and why it continues to be so rare today.

But it is now one of my favorite films. Paradise Alley somehow manages to incorporate nearly everything I love in the world into an exceedingly strange and cosmic fruit salad. Watch it here. 

Stuart Erwin: Lummox, Lover and Bumpkin

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

url

Today is the birthday of actor Stuart Erwin (1903-1967). Originally from Squaw Valley, California, Erwin had a little stage experience before being cast in a small role in his feature feature film, Fox’s first talkie Mother Knows Best (1928). His second film was a Hal Roach comedy short A Pair of Tights (1929) with Anita Garvin, Marion “Peanuts” Byron, and Edgar Kennedy. Throughout the 30s he was frequently cast a goofy juvenile or romantic lead in comedies, usually with a kind of wide-eyed naif quality. He appeared in the original Big Broadcast film (1932), co-starred with Susan Fleming in He Learned About Women (1932), was in the ensemble of International House (1933), and stars in Judy Garland’s first film Pigskin Parade (1936), for which he was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He continued to appear in pictures throughout the 1940s, in films like Our Town (1940) and Blondie for Victory (1942). Then he launched his television show The Stu Erwin Show a.k.a Trouble with Father (1950-55), on which his wife, actress June Collyer also appeared (they had married in 1931.) In later years he appeared in Disney films such as Son of Flubber (1963).

For more on comedy film history please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #1028: Helen McKellar

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , on February 13, 2017 by travsd

5432372076_17cdb043f6

Today is the birthday of actress Helen MacKeller (1895-1966).

Originally from Detroit, MacKellar began trouping in melodramas and vaudeville as a teenager. I see references to her in reviews and playbills as early as 1910 appearing in cities like Spokane, Scranton, San Francisco and Salinas, Kansas. In 1916 she made her Broadway debut in the original production of Seven Chances (later adapted into the famous Buster Keaton vehicle).  Throughout the teens, twenties and early thirties she was a big wheel on Broadway and in Big Time Vaudeville. In 1917, she toured the big time with a one-act called “The Jay Driver” by Edmund Burke. Her notable Broadway vehicles included Back Pay (1921) by Fanny Hurst and The Mud Turtle (1925). It is said that Eugene O’Neill was a particular fan and wanted her for All God’s Chillun Got Wings but she couldn’t wrap her head around the miscegenation. With the exception of a stint as a replacement in Dear Ruth (1944-46), her last Broadway show was Bloody Laughter (1931-32).

Her Hollywood career began auspiciously when she starred in The Past of Mary Holmes (1933), featuring Jean Arthur, Skeets Gallagher and Rosco Ates, and Crane Wilbur’s High School Girl (1934). But despite her illustrious stage past she was destined not to be top-billed in films, but instead a character actress and often even an uncredited bit player. She was often in westerns such as Dark Command (1940) and The Great Train Robbery (1941). MacKellar retired from films in 1944 to return to the stage for Dear Ruth, then spent her last 20 years in retirement.

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

safe_image

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

1118full-max-terhune

Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

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

Birth of a Movement

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Silent Film, Television with tags , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

birth-movement-grab-sig-1918x830

Today is the anniversary of the Los Angeles premiere of D.W. Griffith’s landmark film The Birth of a Nation (1914), which like America itself, is epic in scale, unprecedented, innovative — and troubled by a perverse, pathological racism. As it is so emblematic, I return to the subject of this film periodically, as in these previous posts:

On the Complicated Legacy of The Birth of of a Nation 

The Premiere of a 101 year Old Bert Williams Feature

Embargo on Griffith 

The Dark Side of the Jazz Age 

Today there is something new to add to the dialogue. This past Monday, the PBS show Independent Lens premiered the new documentary Birth of a Movement, the story of how William Monroe Trotter, editor of an African American newspaper in Boston, helped launch a nationwide movement to get the film banned. It’s a perfect topic to talk about at the moment. Just as in Griffith’s time, when his film inspired a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the repercussions of hateful and irresponsible speech are all around us — including, unthinkably, a President who is endorsed by the Klan. Sometimes history not only repeats itself, it gets worse. That’s why it’s a good idea to study it. The film is streaming online at the PBS web site through March 8. Watch it here. 

Hall of Hams #112: McKee Rankin: Hub of America’s Greatest Acting Dynasty

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , on February 6, 2017 by travsd

2003-24433

Today is the birthday of Arthur “McKee” Rankin (1844-1914). Rankin is they keystone of America’s greatest acting dynasty. I don’t call him the founder because he’s more at the center; it starts back in the late 18th century and goes all the way to Drew Barrymore. 

Rankin himself was a key figure in 19th century American theatre, unjustly swallowed up by time. Originally from Ontario, Canada, he was only 21 when the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, by some measures the leading theatre in the country at the time, made him their star. He was renowned in particular for his portrayals of the leads in MacBeth and Othello. In 1869, he married popular actress Kitty Blanchard and they became America’s most popular husband-wife acting team. Rankin also directed and produced his productions, taught acting, and wrote many plays, many with a western setting (a factor of his own extensive tours of western mining and logging camps). He would go on to start his own theatres in both New York and San Francisco.

Rankin’s plays included:

  • his own adaptation of Rip Van Winkle (1870), plainly an effort to compete with the successful Joseph Jefferson vehicle
  • Nannie, or the Dutch Orphan (1870)
  • The Danites, a tale of life among the Mormons co-written by P.A. Fitzgerald and based on The First Family of the Sierras by Joachin Miller (toured 1877-1881, made into a movie in 1912)
  • 49, a tale of San Francisco miners, also based on Joachin Miller material (1881)
  • The Metropolis, a tale of the underside of New York City (unproduced)
  • The Golden Giant, a tale of San Francisco co-written by Clay Greene (1885)
  • The Runaway Wife, co-written with Frederick Maeder, a melodrama in which a painter goes blind and his wife, told that he is dead by an evil sister, marries a nobleman (1888-89). This was made into a movie in 1915
  • Abraham Lincoln (1891)
  • The Baxters (1893), a comedy, written for actor Charles Cowles
  • a number of vaudeville one acts and the full-lengths Magda and The Fires of St. John, adapted from works by German writer Hermann Sudermann, in which Rankin co-starred with Nance O’Neil 1895-1908
  • Invasion (1909), an uncanny play in which the Japanese invade California. For some context, this was in the wake of Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war, at a time when Japan was in the process of colonizing Korea

Rankin’s last Broadway directorial credit was Judith of Bethulia (1904), which was adapted into a movie by D.W. Griffith ten years later.

The definite source for information about Rankin is David Beasley’s McKee Rankin and the Heyday of American Theatre (2002). 

41avk7mpajl-_sx315_bo1204203200_

Oh, but we’re not done! I wanted to take the opportunity to, as best I can, lay out the whole glorious tangle of this extended theatrical family.

THE RANKINS

The Rankins had three daughters with notable theatrical associations:

Gladys Rankin (1870-1914) was the first Mrs. Sidney Drew in the stage and screen team of Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew. Their son was the actor Sidney Rankin Drew. More on the Drew family below. Since Drew was Lionel Barrymore’s uncle, and Gladys sister’s Doris (below) was married to Lionel, Gladys was both Lionel’s aunt and sister-in-law.

Phyllis Rankin (1874-1934), a notable Broadway star in her own right. She was married to actor Harry Davenport (best known as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind). Phyllis and Harry’s son Arthur Rankin was also a minor player in films (he took his mother’s more famous surname as his professional name. That’s gotta hurt!) Arthur’s son was producer-animator Arthur Rankin, Jr. is of Rankin-Bass fame.

imgres

Doris Rankin (1888-1947), also a succesful stage and screen actress. Doris’s mother was not Blanchard, but some other unknown actress. Doris was married to Lionel Barrymore from 1904 through 1923.

THE DREWS

This estimable line begins with London actress Eliza Trentner (1796-1887), whose theatrical husband was a Mr. Lane, either Thomas Frederick Lane or William Haycraft Lane. Accounts differ, and as Eliza moved to America in 1826 with her six year old daughter and without Mr.Lane, the truth has been hard to uncover.

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not  terrifying figure

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not terrifying figure

The six year old girl was the formidable actress Louisa Lane (1820-1897) whose third husband was Irish-American actor John Drew, Sr (John Henry Drewland, 1827-1862). Drew’s brother Frank Drew (1831-1903) was also an actor.

Their oldest child Louisa Drew (1852-1888) married a theatrical manager but seems not to have gone on the stage, though the others did, including John Drew Jr. (1853-1827), Georgina (1856-1953), and the above mentioned Sidney who was adopted by Louisa Lane Drew after John, Sr. passed away

Georgina married Maurice Barrymore; their children were of course Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore. 

lionel_ethel_and_john_barrymore_cph-3b04450

THE BARRYMORES

Ethel’s children were: Samuel Colt (1809-1986, a Hollywood agent), and Ethel Barrymore Colt (1912-1977) and John Drew Colt (1913-1975), both actors.

Lionel had two daughters with Doris Rankin; both died in infancy. After his divorce from Doris, he married actress Irene Fenwick (1887-1936), a former lover of his brother John.

John had four wives: socialite Katherine Corri Harris (who appeared in three silent films); the fascinating playwright and actress Blanche Oelrichs a.k.a “Michael Strange”;  actress Dolores Costello, daughter of Maurice Costello; and Elaine Barrie.

His performing children included Diana Barrymore (1921-196o), whose husbands included actors Bramwell Fletcher and Robert Wilcox; and John Barrymore Jr. (1932-2004) , who, like his father married four times, twice to actresses (Cara Williams and Nina Wayne). Two of John Jr’s children became actors: John Blyth Barrymore III (b. 1954) and Drew Barrymore (b. 1975). Whew!

Chip off the old block

Chip off the old block

 

 

 

The Ubiquitous John Fiedler

Posted in Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd
hengist

“Star Trek” (“Wolf in the Fold” episode, 1967

Today is the birthday of the once ubiquitous character actor John Fielder (1925-2005). Few know the name but most everyone of a certain age knows the face and the voice! A diminutive man with a capacious bald head, his physiognomy always reminded me a little of the comic strip character “Henry”:

1eeec665545338fee56b73017f838737

His high-pitched, mild-mannered voice allowed the Wisconsin native to work in radio after his World War Two Service. He broke into Broadway and television in the 1950s. His small size and tiny voice were usually employed in one of two manners: 1) timid, scared little characters; or 2) the opposite: officious, bullies who tried to compensate for the small size by self-assertion and bullying. He was ordinarily employed in comedies or for comic purposes.

aac9246bd06d6ff960669ffc7a9067fa

Just a handful of notable film and tv appearances (out of hundreds): the movie version of Twelve Angry Men (1957), The Twilight Zone (1960 and 1962), Star Trek (“Wolf in the Fold” episode, 1967), The Odd Couple (the Broadway play, 1965-1967, as well as the film, 1968, and tv show, 1972 and 1974), Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh (various animated films & tv specials, as the voice of Piglet, 1968-2005), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (as Gordy the coroner, 1974-75), The Bob Newhart Show (as Mr. Peterson, 1972-1978), and guest shots on practically every show ever broadcast.  He kept working right on until his death in 2005.

Sweating bullets as Vinnie in the movie version of "The Odd Couple" (1968)

Sweating bullets as Vinnie in the movie version of “The Odd Couple” (1968)

%d bloggers like this: