Archive for City Lights

Tomorrow on TCM: 3 Chaplin Classics

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on July 7, 2016 by travsd

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Tomorrow afternoon (Eastern times) Turner Movie Classics will be presenting three classic Charlie Chaplin movies. As a lead-in, almost to whet your appetite before the big feast, they’ll have two Preston Sturgis movies (The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels) and D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. I like it, because it fits as an equation: Sturgis + Griffith = Chaplin. Works for me!

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12pm: Modern Times (1936) 

Modern Times is widely regarded as the last of the silent films, made nearly a decade since The Jazz Singer had made talkies popular with audiences, and five years since the release of the previous “last silent film,” Chaplin’s own City Lights. 

In fact, Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times is largely about that conflict, about a man who is striving to maintain natural human rhythms and proportions in a world that has become regimented and automated. How is his old-fashioned character going to fit into this modern world? How does the anachronistic silent man fit in a sound universe? The film seems like a statement about the question whether Chaplin himself is relevant any more.

Modern Times reflects Chaplin’s two decades-long flirtation with leftist politics in its criticism of a society that values profits before people. Set in an Orwellian near-future dystopia, the film introduces him as an assembly line worker in a factory full of Keatonesque gadgets. Constantly exhorted to speed up, he has a nervous breakdown, a sort of repetitive motion psychosis. He spends the bulk of the rest of the film unemployed, in jail, or struggling to keep up in dehumanizing jobs. To keep it balanced, there are a couple of episodes in which he suffers on account of labor unrest and strikes as well, implying that his real target is any larger system that diminishes the individual. There really is no more plot to it than that.

His co-star in the film was his then-girlfriend, the lovely Paulette Goddard, as the “Gamine,” a sort of cross between The Kid and Chaplin’s heroines of the Purviance era. Feisty and full of the grit of self-preservation, the role might well have been perfect for Mabel Normand during her Mickey period. Goddard is terrific as the resourceful urchin; one of the very few times Chaplin allows himself a leading lady who can match his charisma on the screen.

As Chaplin had said many times and in many ways “we think too much and feel too little.” To the extent that he is an artist who proceeds by instinct and feeling, his satires are thankfully prevented from being straight-up agit-prop for this cause or that. There appears to be much confusion in his head but his work is better because of it. For example, throughout most of the film we are presented with a Dickensian vision of industrialization’s victims, with our heroes suffering from hunger and privation due to their constant unemployment, a problem associated with laissez-faire capitalism. Yet the factory scenes he presents give us a vision much more like the Soviet Union, the visual fetishization of sprockets, gears, and assembly lines, and the constant supervision of Big Brother on a video screen (which was at the time pure science-fiction). In the end he seems to say, along with Emerson, “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times.”

As Modern Times remains one of Chaplin’s most popular films, I feel I scarcely need to recount the humor he mines from the film’s bleak setup: The image of the Little Fellow trapped within the machinery gears ranks with Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock as one of the most widely known images from silent comedy. The nervous breakdown, which starts as a twitchy inability to stop tightening bolts (or things that look like bolts), and culminates in the last of his great Pan dances. The scene where he becomes the test subject for a malfunctioning self-feeding machine (which will allow people to work without stopping for lunch). And the scene where he pays the system back by trapping Chester Conklin in the middle of a large manufacturing device and has to feed his defenseless face during their five-minute break. The repeated comic premise of the Little Fellow trying to get INTO jail strictly for the food and shelter. His arrest for accidentally seeming to lead a communist demonstration (the red traffic flag he is holding doesn’t help). And his single-handed quelling of a prison riot, enabled solely by the Little Fellow’s inadvertent ingestion of a large amount of contraband cocaine (yes, that’s in there!).

To sweeten the pot, he composed one of his most memorable scores for the film, including the hit song “Smile,” and introduced his first scraps of spoken dialogue. Cleverly, he has most of the talk come out of devices. The stern admonitions of the omnipresent boss-head on video screens. A radio in the prison. And then his very own, much-anticipated first words, which he coyly gives to us as gibberish in the form of a song to which he has forgotten the lyrics.

Modern Times was and remains one of Chaplin’s great blockbusters.  Chaplin’s Tramp had suddenly gained new symbolic relevance during the Depression. In 1923, the U.S. unemployment rate had been 3.3%. At that time, the Tramp had been merely an amusing “other.” By 1933, unemployment had hit 23.2%. A quarter of the audience (if they could afford a dime for the movies) was out of work and suddenly—terrifyingly—the Tramp was someone they could relate to.

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1:30pm: City Lights (1931) 

Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927.  Before he had finished it (granted he was taking an exceptionally long time) the entire industry had switched over to talkies. So now his project was burdened with being more than just a silent movie. It sort of had to be THE silent movie, to put a period to the entire silent era, and perhaps the entire history of pantomime as a popular art form. Thus the movie aspires to be not just a silent comedy, but also something more like a clown piece for the stage, a pantomime in the modern French sense. (By the way, Paris is known as the “City of Light,” a nickname that goes back to its place as the first European city to be illuminated at night with gaslight. The name evokes a bygone, glamorous era.) Thus redoing the film as a talking picture was unthinkable; Chaplin had devised it pretty deliberately as a mimoplay. It depends on a delicate balance of gesture-based scenes. Introducing speech to the equation would make Chaplin’s stereotyped situation seem like weaker broth than it really is.

The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema.

The new element (and this is why City Lights is the next chronological high-water mark for Chaplin after The Gold Rush) is that he also composed an original musical score for the film (filled though it may be with borrowings and quotations) and a funny soundtrack of effects and comical gibberish substituting for speech. In some ways it’s a more complex undertaking than just writing a screenplay and recording actors talking.

But complex or simple it’s still a pantomime. Chaplin intended for it to be such, and it is. You cannot, as George Jean Nathan tried to do in a 1934 essay, castigate the story for its lack of originality. Chaplin never intended for it to have any. There are only a limited number of plots in this world as it is. When you begin to boil the cast of characters down to “Tramp” and “Blind Flower Girl” things get awfully simplified indeed. That is the convention.

Also there’s a feeling of closure as the film’s theme applies to Chaplin the man as well. City Lights contains a sense of summation of his career, a recap of all that the public loves about him: there are the comical drunk scenes, the run-ins with policemen and other authorities, a comedy boxing match, and the pathos of a hopeless love-from-afar.

Chaplin had kicked off the era of classic comedy features with The Kid; it was only fitting that he should end it with City Lights.

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3:00 Limelight (1952)

Limelight was a victim of history twice over; if not for two accidents of history one imagines it would have been hailed by press and public upon its release. But that’s not what happened. Chaplin’s last huge success had been The Great Dictator, over a decade earlier. Unfortunately, he had followed it up with Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a movie so deeply unpopular with the American public it single-handedly tanked what had theretofore been a spotless, almost infallible career. Chaplin was all but pilloried in the wake of this film’s release, which is particularly a shame since the public was likely to have embraced his next film as Chaplin’s Triumphant Return if circumstances hadn’t prejudiced them against even checking it out.

Limelight (1952) is not so much a comedy as a drama about a comedian – a down on his luck, aging clown with an alcohol problem, someone who used to be great but now can’t even get work. He pulls himself together to become the mentor and salvation of a suicidal ballet dancer played by Claire Bloom. Along the way there are bits of pantomime as Chaplin’s music hall performer (named Calvero, and quite distinct from the Tramp) takes the stage. We finally get to see Chaplin’s flea circus routine (previously filmed in fragments in By the Sea and The Professor) in its entirety. And there is the tour de force comedy scene between him and Buster Keaton, the only time the pair appeared together on film.

By all rights, this should have been Chaplin’s last film, as was originally planned. His artistic reputation would have been intact, the story caps his myth, and it is the only picture in which his character dies. Talk about Oscar bait! But as great as Limelight is (and the script and performances are terrific, too) the film never had a chance. As Chaplin sailed to England for the promotional tour, he received a wire saying that his re-entry permit to return to the U.S. had been revoked. Rather than suffer the indignity of reapplying, he spent the remainder of his life in American exile in Switzerland. (This is the second accident of history I mentioned. This mishigas meant Limelight was never properly promoted or distributed in the U.S. after its initial release, leaving critics and audiences to discover it gradually over the ensuing decades).

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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 amazon.com etc etc etc

On Chaplin’s “City Lights”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , on March 7, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of Charlie Chaplin’s great masterpiece City Lights (1931).

Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927.  Before he had finished it (granted he was taking an exceptionally long time) the entire industry had switched over to talkies. So now his project was burdened with being more than just a silent movie. It sort of had to be THE silent movie, to put a period to the entire silent era, and perhaps the entire history of pantomime as a popular art form. Thus the movie aspires to be not just a silent comedy, but also something more like a clown piece for the stage, a pantomime in the modern French sense. (By the way, Paris is known as the “City of Light,” a nickname that goes back to its place as the first European city to be illuminated at night with gaslight. The name evokes a bygone, glamorous era.) Thus redoing the film as a talking picture was unthinkable; Chaplin had devised it pretty deliberately as a mimoplay. It depends on a delicate balance of gesture-based scenes. Introducing speech to the equation would make Chaplin’s stereotyped situation seem like weaker broth than it really is.

The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema.

The new element (and this is why City Lights is the next chronological high-water mark for Chaplin after The Gold Rush) is that he also composed an original musical score for the film (filled though it may be with borrowings and quotations) and a funny soundtrack of effects and comical gibberish substituting for speech. In some ways it’s a more complex undertaking than just writing a screenplay and recording actors talking.

But complex or simple it’s still a pantomime. Chaplin intended for it to be such, and it is. You cannot, as George Jean Nathan tried to do in a 1934 essay, castigate the story for its lack of originality. Chaplin never intended for it to have any. There are only a limited number of plots in this world as it is. When you begin to boil the cast of characters down to “Tramp” and “Blind Flower Girl” things get awfully simplified indeed. That is the convention.

Also there’s a feeling of closure as the film’s theme applies to Chaplin the man as well. City Lights contains a sense of summation of his career, a recap of all that the public loves about him: there are the comical drunk scenes, the run-ins with policemen and other authorities, a comedy boxing match, and the pathos of a hopeless love-from-afar.

Chaplin had kicked off the era of classic comedy features with The Kid; it was only fitting that he should end it with City Lights.

Here’s some very cool (and rare) footage of him directing the film:

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

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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.

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Tonight on TCM: The Big 3 of Silent Comedy

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2013 by travsd

Tonight through tomorrow morning on Turner Classic Movies: Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, the “Big Three” of silent comedy. Starting at 8pm Eastern, the menu will be:

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8pm: Keaton’s One Week

Keaton’s first short to be released to the public, One Week (1920) was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride, his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. Despite all the craziness, Keaton somehow never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

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8:30pm: Keaton’s The Three Ages

Keaton’s first full-length film, The Three Ages (1923), was essentially three shorts intercut to make a feature. Keaton cleverly designed it as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which had told four stories from as many historical time periods, highlighting the similarities between human struggles across the centuries. In The Three Ages Keaton plays a “young man in love” in prehistoric times, during the Roman Empire, and the present day (1923). The heavy in all three sections was Wallace Beery, and the love interest a young lady named Margaret Leahy, who’d become a film actress by winning a contest. (This was her only film.)

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11:15pm: Keaton’s The General

Inspired by the photos of Mathew Brady and by Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, this Civil War comedy is set in Georgia in 1861. The title refers not to an army officer but the nickname of a locomotive tended by a crackerjack engineer played by Keaton. The army decides that the young man is more valuable to the Confederacy in his usual job as a train engineer than as a soldier. But his girl thinks he is shirking and shuns him. He proves himself by a daring single-handed rescue of his stolen train deep behind enemy lines.

That sounds plenty serious—and it is. The General flopped at the box office and some speculate that this is the reason why. Not only are there fewer gags, but audiences at the time were unamused by the subject matter. It seemed in bad taste to make a comedy against a backdrop of the country’s greatest tragedy. Today, at a further remove, audiences find the film breathtakingly beautiful, and can laugh at its silliness without being too stressed out at the nail-biting climax.

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12:45am: Chaplin’s The Kid

Chaplin’s first feature The Kid, released in early 1921 is in some ways his most artistically successful film, the one time he achieves a perfect fusion of comedy and sentiment in a single story.  As a title announces at the beginning of the picture he hopes to bring us both “a smile, and perhaps a tear.”  The Little Tramp finds an abandoned baby on the sidewalk and raises it as his own child. When the authorities learn about the situation they try to take the boy (Jackie Coogan) away to an orphanage “for his own good” in a flat-bed truck that looks more appropriate for a dog catcher than Child Services. Driven to Douglas Fairbanks-like heroism (the only such scene in Chaplin’s body of work), the Tramp runs across the housetops and jumps over a fence onto the departing truck and takes the Kid back. The reunion with the boy is one of the most moving scenes in all cinema. In the end, the child’s mother (Edna Purviance), now a successful actress, resumes custody of her son, and we are prepared to exit crying—until (as in The Vagabond) the last minute switcheroo and reunion.  We get the impression that the Tramp will get to visit the boy at the very least, which is roughly what is appropriate. He has taught him to rob, steal, and break windows, after all; he probably shouldn’t be a father.

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1:45am: Chaplin’s City Lights

Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights (1931) may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927.  The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema. In addition to writing, directing, producing and starring in this remarkable film, Chaplin also composed his first complete musical score for it (the first of many)

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3:30am: Lloyd’s Never Weaken

Never Weaken (1921) is one of Lloyd’s most important shorts — one of his last and one of his longest as he began to grope his way toward features. It’s also one of his so-called “thrill comedies”, paving the way for his most famous one Safety Last a few years later. After a few minutes of some romantic back-and-forth with his sweetheart (Mildred Davis), Harold is innocently sitting in his office when a construction girder is swung in through his window by a crane, picks him up, and carries him out several hundred feet over the city below….and we are off to the races, as Harold must find a way to get down from the top of a skyscraper that doesn’t even have any floors, stairs or elevators installed yet!

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4:15am: Lloyd’s Safety Last

Safety Last (1923) is the best known of Lloyd’s features, by virtue of the iconic image of him hanging from the clock at the top of an office building. A “thrill picture”, it casts him as a department store clerk who wants to make good with his boss by cooking up a publicity stunt. He hires a Human Fly (professional stunt climber) to climb all the way to the top of their seventeen-story building from the outside. Unfortunately, the guy he hired runs into some trouble with the police, and Harold, who’s never done this before, and certainly isn’t properly dressed or equipped, has to do the climbing himself. The hair-raising climax comprises at least a third of the picture. Indeed it is its whole point.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Georgia Hale

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , on June 24, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the lovely Georgia Hale (1905-1985), today almost exclusively known for her role as “Georgia” (very imaginative!) in Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925).

Hale, who had already appeared in Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters  had been the friend of Lita Grey. Grey was originally cast as the female lead in the picture until Charlie got her in a family way and had to marry her. Hale was terrific in the The Gold Rush and starred in nearly a dozen other films during the silent era, most notably as Myrtle in the original screen verison of The Great Gatsby (1926).  She only made one sound picture, a Rin Tin Tin vehicle called The Lightning Warrior (1931). She was also briefly hired as a replacement for Virgina Cherrill when the latter was giving Chaplin trouble in City Lights, although Chaplin soon reneged and invited Cherrill back. Here’s a cool rarity: Hale’s screen test for that role from 1929. (She appears a few minutes in):

To learn more about silent and slapstick film please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Slapstick #102: Hank Mann

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Hank Mann (David Lieberman, 1888-1971), known best from his role as Charlie Chaplin’s boxing opponent in City Lights in 1931. Chaplin had known and worked with him 17 years earlier at Keystone. He’d started out as part of an acrobatic act on the Sullivan-Considine circuit, then went to work for Mack Sennett at Keystone in 1913.

Characterized by a potato like face, a push-broom of a mustache, a beak-like nose, eyes like two buttons, and Dutch-boy bangs; he looked sort of like the Thompson Twins from Hergé’s Tin-Tin books. Under the goofy façade was a muscular, athletic frame capable of punishing stunts, still in fine shape nearly 20 years later when he played the prizefighter in City Lights. Mann was also revered for his ability to slip in subtle scene stealing gags as buttons to the general mayhem.

In addition to his three separate stints working for Sennett, he also worked for Fox, L-KO, Universal and Joe Rock. From 1919 to 1920, Mann even had his own starring series of shorts.  In the talkie years he would support Chaplin (not just City Lights but also Modern Times and The Great Dictator), but also The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Our Gang and Jerry Lewis. These were all bit parts and walk-ons, but he was hired for a reason. Not only was he a professional, able to bring something special to his little one minute turns, but the producers knew that old time, die-hard comedy fans would recognize him, giving the movie a little zip when he appeared.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Virginia Cherrill, “City Lights”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , on April 12, 2013 by travsd

City Lights (1931)

Today is the birthday of Virginia Cherrill (1908-1996), one in a long line of young women Charlie Chaplin plucked from obscurity in order to co-star with him in films. From rural Illinois, she won a Chicago beauty pageant in 1925 and made her way west to California, where she was an extra in The Air Circus (1928) and made her way into the inner circle of Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. Chaplin met her and cast her as the blind flower girl in City Lights (which began shooting in 1928 and was released in 1931).

The relationship was a contentious one. Chaplin felt she was awful (not to mention “high maintenance”, which she was) and sought to replace her several times, although her final performance gained critical raves. She acted in several more films over the next few years, then retired briefly to marry Cary Grant. That marriage lasted only a few months. Then she moved to London, where she acted in two more films and then retired again to marry the 9th Earl of Jersey in 1937. When he passed away in 1946, she married Florian Martini, a Polish flying ace whom she’d met during the war. The two settled in Santa Barbara, California in 1950.

And now here’s City Lights:

To learn more about silent comedy please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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