Archive for Silent Films

Tom Lewis: Worked with the Greats

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by travsd

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Tom Lewis (Thomas Lewis McGuire, 1867-1927) was born on May 17. Originally from New Brunswick, NJ, he was a comedian who played both in vaudeville and on Broadway, and later in silent films. He was in the original production of George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones, and over a dozen other Broadway shows including The Passing Show of 1917, the original production of George S. Kaufman’s Helen of Troy, New York (1923), and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1924.

At the same time, he was a vaudeville staple. He was one of the fabled original ten to form the vaudeville union the White Rats.  Starting in 1912 he was teamed for a time with baseball player Turkey Mike Donlin in vaud. And he also played the Palace, the greatest vaudeville venue in the country.

Staring in 1920 he began appearing regularly in films, notably as Mr. Murphy in The Callahans and the Murphys with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran (1927), and as the first mate in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.  

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. For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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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Posted in Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by travsd

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Doraldina (Dora Saunders, 1888-1936) began her working life as manicurist in a San Francisco Hotel, then went to New York and Spain to study dance. She became known for popularizing the hula, and Hawaiian culture in general, and has been described as “the first performer to be billed as an exotic dancer”.

Sometimes billed as “Madame Doraldina” or “Mlle. Doraldina”, she was working big time vaudeville and prominent nightclubs, cabarets and cafes by the nineteen-teens. In 1916 she played the Palace, billed as “Doraldina, the World’s Most Versatile Dancer”; she returned in late 1917. In 1917, she had her own venue, “The Montmartre Club”, which was backed by the Shuberts. She appeared in four Broadway shows: The Road to Mandalay (1916), Step This Way (1916) The Red Dawn (1919), and Frivolities of 1920. In 1920 a pamphlet was published called “Doraldina, As She Is to Those Who Know Her,” and in the early flapper days her likeness was to be found in  many fashion magazines. 

She is known to have appeared in three silent films: The Nauhlaka (1918) co-starring Warner Oland; The Woman Untamed (1920), in which she played a beautiful castaway worshipped as a Goddess by native cannibals; and Passion Fruit (1921), in which she portrayed the sultry daughter of a South Sea plantation owner. The second of these films apparently still survives, I saw a reference to it having been screened at a film festival about 20 years ago.

After this she seems to have concentrated on her cosmetics company (Doraldina Inc), which she’d founded in 1915. They produced a line called Allura, among others, and one of their specialties was leg make-up, especially useful for dancers and other stage-folk.

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.

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The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2015 by travsd

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As readers of this blog know, an area of especial interest to us is the connection between the ancient art of theatre (with all its myriad manifestations…(clowning, high melodrama, vaudeville) into the younger arts of cinema, radio, television and web-video. If you haven’t noticed that, let me take this opportunity to tell you!

So this won’t be so much a review of the recent documentary The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of the American Cinema, as a simple plug. The film conveys a wealth of information that any silent movie fan will be delighted to hear, and it is all told succinctly and entertainly. It contains revelations. I had seen perhaps three Thanhouser films in my movie-watching career…I had no idea that they were one of the top independent producing companies in the country between 1909 and 1918, or that they had produced over a thousand movies. I had heard of one of their stars (Florence La Badie) chiefly because she only recently got a grave marker at Green-wood Cemetery. But I hadn’t realized that the famous director James Cruze (The Covered Wagon) got his start working as an actor at Thanhouser, or that one of their biggest stars was “The Thanhouser Girl”.

Also: the studio operated during an interesting time….the transitional period between the early operators (Edison, Biograph) and the industries to Hollywood, the shift to features, and the genesis of many brand new studios (such as Famous Players-Lasky, later to become Paramount). And above all, most endearing the portrait of the company’s founders, barnstorming actors Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, who were lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of a brand new industry, but weren’t quite equipped to hang on to that bucking bronco once it truly started to take off in the late nineteen tens. Magically, it’s narrated (and directed and produced) by their grandson Ned Thanhouser, who holds the reins of the company today. Amazingly, somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 Thanhouser films are still known to exist are more are being discovered all the time.

For more information on all things Thanhouser and to get your copy of this doc as well as many of many of the original films from Thanhouser Studios (on DVD), go to Thanhouser.org

Important Lost Silent Comedies

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2014 by travsd

Today’s earlier post about A Country Hero makes me think today might be a sensible day to post this little survey I’ve been sitting on about important silent comedies that remain lost. Amazing strides have happened in the last couple of decades thanks to the proliferation of the internet…many (scores? hundreds!) of silent films and early talkies long thought lost have turned up in the last few years, a truly joyous development. But some really important films are still missing as of this writing, and may well never be recovered. Here’s a short, subjective list of stuff some comedy fans and scholars would give anything to see:

FEATURES

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Heart Trouble (1928), Harry Langdon

This film tops my list. We are in the midst of a major reassessment of Langdon, and I’m a huge advocate for this idiosyncratic and famously temperamental comedian. Heart Trouble was the third and last of his self-directed features, after ditching his dream team of Harry Edwards, Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra. His previous two features were critical and popular failures (though I happen to love them). Langdon was new to directing and learning the ropes in the most public way possible. And by all contemporary critical accounts, Heart Trouble was better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough of a rebound. First National dropped him, but more importantly, talkies had now become universal. So Langdon had to start everything from scratch again, making a series of talking shorts for Hal Roach, then Educational, then Columbia. I’m in the midst of wading through those now. Langdon eventually found his way in talkies but had to thrash around a bit first. But, having seen all of his silent films, I am dying to see the missing link, Heart Trouble, which by all counts could do still more to enhance his reputation as “the Fourth genius”

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Half of W.C. Fields’s Silent Features

While several of the silent features W.C. Fields made for Paramount in the 1920s survive,  five do not. The reason why is not hard to fathom — they did not do well. Tellingly, four of these films were among Fields’ last five of the silent era. At that point, he was in decline and these films were not much watched, and clearly no one cared to save them. The missing silent features are That Royle Girl (1925), The Potters (1927), Two Flaming Youths (1927), Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1928),  and Fools for Luck (1928). He played a smaller role in That Royle Girl, so that’s less of a loss, but one bemoans the loss of the other four, for The Potters was co-written by J.P. McEvoy, author of the Fields stage revue The Comic Supplement and it forms the basis of Fields’ many later domestic comedies. And the last three vehicles all co-star Chester Conklin, a historic teaming of which we have NO record to look at. Two Flaming Youths has a carnival setting that anticipates You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and is chock full of cameos of top vaudevillians, including Weber and Fields, Clark and McCullough, The Duncan Sisters, Savoy and Brennan, Moran and Mack, Kolb and Dill, Jack Pearl, et al, AND it features some bona fide sideshow freaks, including Fat Lady Anna Magruder. Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a critically panned, much altered version  of the Mack Sennett film of 14 years earlier, transplanted to a circus, and including in addition to Fields and Conklin, Louise Fazenda, Mack Swain (who’d also been in the original), and Tom Kennedy. 

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Two by Larry Semon:

Semon famously melted down in features: he overspent and went bankrupt, no doubt contributing to the health problems which killed him in 1928. But like Langdon, he is presently undergoing a reappraisal, and I personally rank him high. Some of his shorts are incredibly well made and hilarious, and though his version of The Wizard of Oz (1925) is terrible I rather liked his feature The Perfect Clown (1925) and others have praised Spuds (1927). The record is just mixed enough! To properly gauge his talent it would be so very useful to be able to see his two missing features The Girl in the Limousine (1924), and Stop, Look and Listen (1926). Of added interest, the latter film was based on an Irving Berlin Broadway show.

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Fatty Arbuckle’s Post-Scandal Features

Arbuckle grows on me all the time. Others have been quicker to rank him near the top of the pantheon. I have been slower to see it, but now that I have seen almost all of his work (and some of his directing work), my respect has increased, and I too would have to put him near the top.  Complicating matters is the fact that his features are less personal — they are studio product in which he was just an actor. I have seen a couple that have survived, The Round-Up and Leap Year, both what they used to call “straight comedies” as opposed to slapstick. They are okay, but dull compared to the features of the Big Four. Seeing more of that work would help that assessment, and he certainly pumped out a downright sick number of features in that year before scandal ruined his career as a star. Among the lost features are The Fat Freight, Brewster’s Millions, The Dollar a Year Man and Traveling Salesman, all 1921. These were made prior to the scandal but many were never distributed once the scandal hit and no one bothered with them in the aftermath for obvious reasons. No one dreamt that decades later people would actually care about the films of this washed-up comedian.

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Mabel Normand’s Goldwyn films

As with her frequent co-star Arbuckle, Normand moved away from slapstick in her features and consequently they are a little duller to watch. Still her work was excellent and in recent years we have seen the rediscovery of the features she made with Mack Sennett (Mickey, Molly O, Suzanna, The Extra Girl). Today it’s possible to see many of her features, but we’re largely missing the numerous features she made for Sam Goldwyn during the years 1918-1922. Sis Hopkins (pictured above) is of special interest being as it was a famous stage vehicle associated with Rose Melville.

From "Wedding Bill$", lost Griffith feature from 1927

From “Wedding Bill$”, lost Griffith feature from 1927

Raymond Griffith features

Often called the Sixth Genius, Griffith too is enjoying a Renaissance thanks to surviving comedy features such as Hands Up and Paths to Paradise. But Griffith (much like Arbuckle and Normand) made a ton of features for Paramount. In those days the big studios seemed to pump them out the way Sennett, Roach et al did shorts. Griffith and Paramount parted ways acrimoniously, no doubt contributing to the fact that we have so little to look at today.

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Charlie Chaplin, Her Friend the Bandit (1914)

This is the only missing Chaplin film. It’s easy to glean why there is such a high survival rate for Chaplin films; essentially they never went out of circulation. There has always been demand for practically ALL of them. There seems to be some debate and confusion about whether Her Friend the Bandit even actually existed. But there is some evidence that it did. More here. 

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Arbuckle and Keaton, A Country Hero (1917)

This, in turn is the only known missing Keaton film, though he is second billed behind Arbuckle. Learn more about it here.

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Laurel and Hardy,  Hats Off  (1926)

Oh this one is a major loss. By all accounts it’s the prototype for their popular Oscar winning classic The Music Box, with the boys moving a washing machine instead of a piano, and a large hat fight at the end.  So easy to see in the mind’s eye — but how I wish we could see the real thing.

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Harold Lloyd shorts:

We of course have dozens of comedy shorts by the prolific Harold Lloyd to see and enjoy today. Lloyd was also a pioneer in the field of film preservation, a fact which resulted in an ironic tragedy. In the 1930s he’d bought up negatives to all his films and stored them in the same vault. See where I’m going? In 1943 he had a major fire in which the only known copies of many of his earliest films were lost. The specific reason why this was especially unfortunate was that 53 of these lost shorts were ones in which he played his previous comedy character Lonesome Luke. Luckily a few Lonesome Luke movies survive (I’ve seen a couple), but how much better to have been able to evaluate those other 53. Also lost were 18 of his earliest “glasses character” comedies.  Learn more here: http://haroldlloyd.us/the-films/the-state-of-the-lloyd-films/

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W.C. Fields, His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915)

Fields’ second silent comedy short, after which he quit making films for an entire decade. It would be nice to see for ourselves what might have convinced him to stop for awhile. Learn more here. 

ENTIRE STUDIOS! 

In the mid-teens, many of Mack Sennett’s comedy stars bolted to other studios, notably L-KO, a kind of Sennett defection led by Henry “Pathe” Lerman, and Fox. Only 10% of L-KO’s output remains. Nearly all of Fox’s silent comedy library was destroyed in a 1937 fire that also destroyed nearly all of the silent comedy films of Educational Pictures, another important slapstick factory.  And Universal, which had its own major comedy shop, destroyed most of their films from the silent era in 1948 on purpose! The odds of recovering prints of any of that stuff are very small and it. is just. maddening.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please 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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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Esther Ralston: America’s Youngest Juliet

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Esther Ralston (1902-1994). She began her performing career in the family vaudeville act “The Ralston Family with Baby Esther, America’s Youngest Juliet.”.

She broke into films playing bit parts at age 13. By 1920, she got her first decent role as Mary Jane Wilks in Huckleberry Finn, in which her younger brother Howard was also cast. In 1924 she got one of her best roles as Mrs. Darling in the first film adaptation of Peter Pan. In the late 20s, she was one of Paramount’s biggest stars, starring in films like A Kiss for Cinderella (1925) and American Venus (1926), which thereafter became her tagline. She often played fun-loving society girls, and remained in demand as a star into the early talkie era with films like Von Sternberg’s now-lost Betrayal (1929), The Prodigal (1931) and After the Ball (1932). It was during this period that she briefly returned to vaudeville, headlining at the Palace in 1930.

By 1940, she was a supporting player although still getting respectable roles. Nevertheless she opted to leave films. Throughout the next decade she worked regularly on radio and in live theatre. In the 1950s and early 60s she worked in television.

Here she in the trailer for American Venus. Nowadays the film and its title are usually associated with Louise Brooks, who made her debut in that film. The actual star was Esther Ralston.

 

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss 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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Alice Lake: The Bobbed-Hair Bandit

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Alice Lake (1895-1967). Originally from Brooklyn, Lake started out as a dancer and toured the Keith circuit with a one act play called “The Bobbed-hair Bandit” before acting in her first Vitagraph short “How to Do It and Why, or Cutie in College” in 1914. Two years later she had worked her way to Keystone and was frequently cast in support of Fatty Arbuckle in classics like The Moonshiners and The Waiters Ball. When Arbuckle left in 1917 to helm his own studio Comique he brought Lake with him, and she appears in most of his shorts through 1918, when she returned to Mack Sennett for a time. From 1919 through the end of the silent era starred in scores of long-forgotten features for Metro and other studios with titles like Misfit Wife (1920) and Obey Your Husband (1928). Her star sank immediately with the advent of talkies, and she was reduced to walk-ons and extra roles for the remainder of her career.

Here she is playing Cutie Cuticle the manicurist in Arbuckle’s The Bell Boy (1918):

To learn more about 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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To learn more about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Clara Kimball Young

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Clara Kimball Young (Clarisa Young, 1890-1960). She was a second generation actor, born to a pair of traveling stock company players based out of Chicago. In 1909 she and her husband James Young were hired by Vitagraph studios, taking their places among the country’s first movie stars. The peak of her career was from 1914 through 1917 when she was one of the stars of Lewis Selznick’s World Film Corporation, and briefly her own Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation. After 1917 she continued to be popular in films although no longer in the topmost ranks. (There is much more personal and professional drama to this story; to get the deets go here).

In 1925 she left films entirely, opting to tour big time vaudeville with one act plays. By 1931, vaudeville was as dead as silent film, so she returned to the movies which in any case had by now learned to speak. She managed to keep working through 1940, in such varied vehicles as the spooky serial The Return of Chandu (1934) with Bela Lugosi, and the comedy short Ants in the Pantry (1936) with The Three Stooges.  

And now…The Return of Chandu!

To learn more about the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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And 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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