Archive for silent movies

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


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 etc etc etc

Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2017 by travsd


Florence Lawrence (Florence Annie Bridgwood, 1890-1938) was born on this day. Today she is best remembered as “The First Movie Star”, both because of her success as “The Biograph Girl” (back when studios did not yet divulge the names of the actors in their films) and because her popularity resulted in her being the first star whose name was given out to the public.

She was the daughter of Ontario-based female actor/manager Lotta Lawrence, an Irish immigrant whose Lawrence Dramatic Company toured the provinces. Florence’s father George Bridgwood, a carriage maker, separated from his wife when Florence was young and died when she was eight. By then the family had moved the Buffalo and “Baby Flo, the Child Wonder” had been performing in melodramas with her mother’s company for several years.

Circa 1906 she moved to New York, and having scant luck getting parts in Broadway plays, she began to work for Stuart Blackton’s Vitagraph Company. Notable films from her first year or so in the business include an adaptation of Bouicaults The Shaughraun and Daniel Boone, or Pioneer Days in America (for Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon). In 1908, she went over to Biograph, just as D.W. Griffith was getting started, becoming the first star associated with the director, through dozens of films. During this year she also became the romantic and artistic partner of actor, screenwriter and director Harry Solter, marrying him that same year. The following year  (1909) the two moved to IMP (Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, precursor to Universal), and it was that studio’s head Carl Laemmle who first publicized her name in 1910. The pair worked for Universal for about a year, and then worked for most of 1911 for Sig Lubin. In 1912, they formed their own production studio, the Victor Film Company. In 1913, they sold the company to the newly-formed Universal for a large sum.


At this stage, Lawrence was beset by a number of setbacks. She was estranged from Solter in late 1912. She was badly burned while performing a stunt during the filming of Pawns of Destiny in 1915. Her ouput for the rest of the decade was sporadic, troubled by psychological insecurities sustained as a result of the accident. Solter died in 1920. Lawrence remarried and attempted a comeback in 1921, while simultaneously opening and operating a cosmetics store. Most of her roles throughout the 20s were supporting parts. She lost most of her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. In 1931, she divorced her second husband and closed the store. In 1933, she married her third husband, who reportedly beat her. They were divorced within months. Her career in the sound era consisted mostly of bit parts and walk-ons. W.C. Fields, who had a soft-spot for old veterans and often gave them work in his films, gave her spots in The Old Fashioned Way (1934) and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935). Then in 1937, she became sick with a disease that caused “anemia and depression”. She took her own life the following year.


For more on early film history don’t miss 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. To find out more about the variety arts 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. 

Yesterday’s W.C. Fields Talk in Astoria, Queens

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), ME, Movies, My Shows, Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on December 11, 2016 by travsd
I love this one -- looks like I want to murder an audience member. yet this was one of those rare occasions when I didn't (want to do that)

I love this one — it looks like I want to murder an audience member. Yet this was one of those rare occasions when I didn’t (want to do that). Photo by DeeAnne Gorman.

We had a delightful afternoon yesterday addressing our friends at the Greater Astoria Historical Society on the subject of W.C. Fields silent film features. This was our third or fourth talk at the GAHS I think, and I’ve grown to love the warm, small-town feeling of the place. They have terrific collections and lectures — if you live anywhere nearby it’s well worth a visit. Board Member Bob Singleton showed me their latest major acquisition — a 19th century Steinway piano. (The Steinway factory is nearby, it’s a major part of the history of the area). Here, I am looking just a hair friendlier during the Q & A:

Photo by Bruce Shaffer

Photo by Bruce Shaffer

The talk was part of Fields Fest, our two-month tribute to the great comedian W.C. Fields. We’ll be posting the text of my talk here in a few days. Don’t miss our next entertaining lecture W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age, which is tomorrow at the Morbid Anatomy Museum! All the details here. 

Tomorrow: W.C. Fields in Astoria!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Movies, My Shows, PLUGS, Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , on December 9, 2016 by travsd
"Sally of the Sawdust" (1925)

“Sally of the Sawdust” (1925)

Saturday, December 10, 1:30pm: “W.C. Fields in Astoria: The Paramount Silents”

Many people know that W.C. Fields had one of the most distinctive speaking voices of the classic comedy era. What they may not realize is that prior to the advent of talking pictures, Fields was a SILENT comedy star. From 1924 through 1928 he appeared in ten Paramount features filmed at that studio’s Astoria Queens facility. In this illustrated talk author and lecturer Trav S.D. takes you up close to this lesser known stretch of the Great Man’s career, and shows how much of Fields’ silent work presaged his better known talkies.

At Greater Astoria Historical Society, the Quinn Building, 35-20 Broadway, 4th Floor, Queens:

Accidentally Preserved, Volume 4: Available Today!

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , on November 15, 2016 by travsd


Great news! Today Undercrank Productions releases its 4th volume of rare surviving silent films entitled Accidentally Preserved. The first three volumes consisted of home-market 16mm prints; the new one is 9.5mm, a European format (though most of the films are American). Here are my reviews of Volume One, Volume Two, and Volume Three. Thus far the Law of Diminishing Returns has NOT come into play; the new installment is just as entertaining and fascinating as the previous ones. In fact, if anything, this one contains a bit more star power than the past three; I think you’ll find more names you recognize. In the set:

Nonsense (1924)

Sid Smith and Jimmie Adams play a couple of farm hands vying for a girl’s affections (and fortune) in this Jack White helmed short for Educational. It may be the funniest and most inventively gag packed Educational short I have seen — it feels almost like the writers threw everything they had into it. For physical comedians, it’s a rich mine of stuff to steal (my primary reason for watching silent comedies).

Meet Father (1924)

Bobby Ray struggles to win a girl by studying boxing out a book, and taking on a much tougher rival. But quicksand saves the day.

The Wages of Tin (1925)

Glenn Tryon rents a Ford (the titular tin as in “Lizzie”) from Roach heavy Noah Young to impress his girl and mangles it.

A Man Sized Pet (1925)

This one was interesting for all sorts of reasons. One is that it is a Universal comedy — most of those didn’t survive. And it’s part of a series of western comedies starring former real life cowboys Peewee Holmes and Ben Corbett. The titular pet is a bear who scares the bejesus out of everyone he encounters, and the hilarity is compounded by the inevitable costume party — and the man-in-a-bear-costume who attends.

Walter’s Paying Policy (1926)

I found this one more interesting than funny. While I have seen MANY British silent comedians, they are almost always the stars of American films. This may actually be the first British produced silent comedy I have ever seen. Which leads to another interesting feature — it may be the first time I have seen London locations in a silent comedy. (Which is ironic because I have Paris locations in DOZENS of silent comedies in the films of Max Linder and others). At any rate, the star of this one is Walter Forde, a former music hall performer who enjoyed a long career in films both before and behind the camera. In this one he plays a clerk vying with a rival to sell an insurance policy. The comedy seems mostly character based — kind of light on the gags.

Morning Judge (1926)

One of the “Carrie of the Chorus” series, starring Peggy Shaw (obviously a different Peggy Shaw from the contemporary performance artist) and produced/directed by the Fleischer Brothers (better known of course for their cartoons Betty Boop, Popeye, etc). In this one a prudish “Uplift Convention” led by Flora Finch tries to shut down a “sinful” show, climaxing with the local fire department destroying a house.

In addition to these half-dozen comedies, the DVD includes two melodramas, each of which comes with big stars.

The Ninety and Nine (1922)

Colleen Moore and Warner Baxter! This is a feature (based on a 1902 play) that was cut down to two-reel length; the makers of the DVD have thankfully filled in the missing bits of the story, which we’d never understand otherwise. The exciting climax of the film has the titular locomotive racing through a forest fire to save the day. The film’s other positive attribute? One of the characters is described as “the Village Simpleton”. I will ALWAYS watch a movie with a village simpleton.

Tides of Passion (1925)

Mae Marsh, well known to John Ford fans, here starring in her last film for Vitagraph, directed by J. Stuart Blackton. This is another feature cut down to the length of a short (and I must say I’m grateful…it is very hard to sit through a silent dramatic feature). In this one Mae’s soldier beau is called up on active duty and he gets shipwrecked on an island where he is cared for by another gal, causing romantic complications. And Mae pines…and stares at the sea.

As with all the previous editions of Accidentally Preserved, no silent film collection would be complete without it! Order your copy here. 

On Chaplin’s Other Half Brother

Posted in Broadway, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Wheeler Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, Jr, 1892-1957). It was tempting to include him in both my Stars of Vaudeville and Stars of Slapstick series, but Dryden was admittedly minor in both fields, and I decided to go with the best headline!

Dryden was Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother, born to their mother Hannah Hill (a.k.a Lily Harley) when the comedian was three years old. The chronology of events appears to go something like this:

  1. In 1885, music hall performers Charles Chaplin, Sr.and Hannah Hill marry. Hill came into the marriage with the infant Sydney, whose father may have been a man named Sydney Hawkes
  2. 1889, Charlie Chaplin is born
  3. 1890, Charles Chaplin, Sr. has a successful vaudeville tour of America, leaving Hannah alone with the children
  4. 1891, Hannah becomes involved with music hall performer Leo Dryden and Hannah separates from Chaplin (or vice versa)
  5. 1892, Wheeler Dryden born

Charles Chaplin, Sr. never divorced Hill, and Leo took custody of the infant Wheeler, removing her from the care of the unstable woman. From here she began to spiral into the mental illness that would overshadow Charlie Chaplin’s life.  A single mother, abandoned by several men, and one of her children taken away.

Like everyone else in the family, Wheeler Dryden became a vaudeville performer. In 1915, after his two half brothers became famous, his father told him the news of his real mother. He started reaching out to Charlie and Sydney at that time, although it took him two years to finally get a reply from them. He joined them in America in 1918.

Dryden enjoyed some small initial success in Hollywood, appearing in the dramas Tom’s Little Star (1919) and False Women (1921), the kid’s movie Penrod (1921) and the Stan Laurel comedy Mud and Sand (1922).

After this, he focused on Broadway, where he appeared in ten plays between 1925 and 1939.  In 1928, he adapted and co-directed the feature A Little Bit of Fluff starring Sydney Chaplin. In 1938 he married Alice Chapple, a dancer at radio City Music Hall. Their son Spencer Dryden was one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane, and was later a member of New Riders of the Purple Sage and other bands (he was a drummer).

Over the next decade-plus he was to be a key member of Chaplin’s creative team. He was assistant director and did some voiceover work on The Great Dictator (1940). He was associate director and played a bit role in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). And he had a slightly larger speaking role as a doctor, and acted as Chaplin’s personal assistant on Limelight (1952).

At this stage, when Chaplin began his exile in Europe, Dryden remained in Hollywood to oversee his interests in America. At this stage, he alone of the three brothers seems to have inherited his mother’s stress-triggered mental illness, living in seclusion and growing paranoid and detached from reality. Although it might be more accurate to say he was all TOO connected to reality. He was being harassed by the FBI at the time, after all.  He passed away in 1957.

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss 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. For still 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.

Franklyn Farnum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Westerns with tags , , , , , , on June 5, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Franklyn Farnum (William Smith, 1878-1961).

Originally from Boston Smith (later Farnum) is said to have started out as an actor in vaudeville from age 12. (He is not related to the star Dustin Farnum. It seems logical to assume he changed his name to create that impression. The original Farnum was already becoming well known on Broadway in 1900). Franklyn Farnum’s theatre career appeared to have been more of the barnstorming variety. His first Broadway play was the Avery Hopwood musical Somewhere Else (1913).

In 1916, he broke into film, starring in scores of silent movies, mostly melodramas and westerns, through 1927. His star status allowed him to appear in two Ziegfeld revues in 1921. At the height of his fame he was briefly married to Alma Rubens.

In the sound era he returned to pictures, and managed to get roles in B movies wetsrns through the mid 30s, but after this he was mainly a hard-working but uncredited extra. He worked right up to the time of his death in 1961.

To learn more about 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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