Archive for Vitagraph

Dorothy Dwan: Larry Semon’s Leading Lady

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Dorothy Dwan (Dorothy Ilgenfritz, 1906-1981).  Today she is best known (when she is known at all) as the leading lady and wife of Larry Semon, although the majority of her films were without him — most of them westerns.

Originally from Missouri, she moved to the Hollywood area with her single mom who became a movie publicist. Through her influence, the gorgeous teenager began to get parts at Vitagraph starting in 1922. (Her screen name was taken from director Allan Dwan). Semon began to cast her in 1924, when she was still only 18. Her films with him include Her Boy Friend (1924), Kid Speed (1924), The Wizard of Oz (1925, as Dorothy!), The Dome Doctor (1925), The Cloudhopper (1925), The Perfect Clown (1925), My Best Girl (1925), Stop Look and Listen (1926), and Spuds (1927). She was married to Semon from 1925 through his death in 1928.

Fortunately, she had a movie career of her own to cushion the blow. She’d been appearing in westerns, mysteries and other kinds of films right along, in fact many more of them than comedies she made with Semon. She appeared opposite the top western stars of the day, guys like Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Tim McCoy. Her career lasted until the early days of the talking era. Her last film was The Fighting Legion (1930). She retired in 1931 to raise a family.

Now here she is one of her first roles, Her Boyfriend, with Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy:

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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To find out 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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Maurice Costello: Founder of a Dynasty

Posted in Hollywood (History), Irish, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Singers, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Maurice Costello (1877-1950.). Costello is a major figure in early film history, sadly now forgotten, although his DNA remains very prominent in the contemporary movie industry!

The son of Irish immigrants, Costello grew up in Pittsburgh where he worked at various odd jobs before gaining a toehold in vaudeville in 1894 with a repertoire of Irish songs. Soon, he was touring in stock companies and melodramas. By 1905 he was in New York and taking film work by day at the Edison studios to supplement his income. In 1907 he moved to Vitagraph which is where he enjoyed his principal time in the sun.

In 1911 he became one of the first movie actors whose name was revealed to the public, and thus became one of the cinema’s first matinee idols. Among his many hits was this 1911 version of A Tale of Two Cities:

Adverse publicity from several domestic violence incidents negatively affected his career in the mid teens. By the end of end of the decade, he was more of a supporting player, although he continued to work through the 1920s. By that time, his daughters Helene and Dolores had become stage and screen stars — bigger stars than he was at that point. In the sound era, Costello was reduced to being an extra, literally a spear carrier in some films. His last credit is in 1945.

But in the meantime his daughter Dolores had become John Barrymore’s third wife (1928-1935). Through this bloodline, Maurice Costello is the great-grandfather of none other than Drew Barrymore. 

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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn more about show biz history including 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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Spencer Bell a.k.a. “G. Howe Black”

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of pathbreaking black comedian Spencer Bell (1887-1935). Originally from Lexington, Kentucky, Bell started out in minstrel shows and vaudeville before breaking into pictures in 1919, mostly supporting Larry Semon and Lige Conley, but also to be found in movies starring Billy Bevan, Poodles Hanneford, Bobby Vernon, Al St. John, Jimmie Adams, Neal Burns and others. His best known picture nowadays is Semon’s notorious 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz. 

Bell’s (real) name deserves to be better known, being as he was one of the first African Americans to make his way in the film industry — a decade before the likes of Stepin Fetchit came to the fore, for example. His parts were almost invariably egregious stereotypes and one-off sight gags. His billing in many films was “G. Howe Black”, his parts were usually servants or menials or some sort (named Snowball or the like), and the gags often revolved around his superstitious fear, or the fact that he’d fallen into a white substance (flour, talcum powder) making him resemble a Caucasian (at least in the film’s twisted world). But this didn’t stop him from being pretty darned funny, which is undoubtedly why he was hired and frequently employed in the first place. (His running-in-place-while-terrified routine is a showstopper). In the last years of silents and in the early years of talkies he worked most frequently in bit parts for Mack Sennett. He died during a stomach operation at age 47

Here is one of the Semon comedies in which Bell appears as G. Howe Black. In Horseshoes (1923), Bell is punched in the face by boxer Oliver Hardy — and gets a WHITE eye!

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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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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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John Bunny: America’s First Comedy Star

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2013 by travsd

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John Bunny was America’s first comedy star, and the first in that long line of beloved comedy fat men, a lineage that would include Rosco “Fatty” ArbuckleOliver HardyJackie GleasonJohn Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley, among many others. Often paired with the thin-as-a-rail Flora Finch, the couple formed a sort of Sprat family in reverse and ruled the comic cinema from 1909 through Bunny’s death in 1915. Born this day in 1863, Bunny started out in a minstrel show** in the early 1880s. This was a springboard into legit acting with stock companies. By the aughts, he was Broadway comedy star. In 1909 he began his successful association with Vitagraph. His last major project was a touring vaudeville show called Bunny in Funnyland that was not a hit, despite its advertised troupe of midgets. Bunny was taken in 1915, brought down by a liver complaint, which has been known to strike more than few bibulous showfolk over the years.

Here he is in his most famous surviving film A Cure for Pokeritis (1912):

To learn more about 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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 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.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Flora Finch: Played Mrs. John Bunny

Posted in British Music Hall, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Flora Finch (Flora Brooks, 1867-1940). Born  in London, she began her career on the legit stage and in music hall before moving to the U.S. and performing in vaudeville.

In 1908 she became an actress at Biograph, the same year D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett started at the studio. In 1910, she moved over to Vitagraph, where she was paired with comedian John Bunny. The physical contrast between the skinny, gawky, bird-like Flora Finch, with the grossly corpulent Bunny made for comedy gold. Usually the two played a married couple, with Bunny as sort of a party guy, and Finch as a scold. Their co-starring shorts were nicknamed “Bunnyfinches”, “Bunnygraphs” or “Bunnyfinchgraphs”. Incredibly, 160 of these were made, very few of which survive.

In 1915, Bunny passed away. Finch got her own starring series of comedies for a couple of years, but these weren’t as popular. For the rest of the silent era she was a character actress in features. In the sound era, her parts got smaller and smaller, until she was just a bit player. Her last film was The Women (1939).

For more on silent and slapstick comedy and stars like Flora Finch 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. To find out 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.

Chuck Reisner: Acorn Off Chaplin’s Tree

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2013 by travsd

 Chuck-reisner

Today is the birthday of Chuck Reisner (1887-1962). Originally a boxer, he performed in vaudeville for ten years and was a Broadway lyricist before going out to Hollywood in 1915 to act in Keystone pictures. After appearing in a couple (His First False Step with Chester Conklin, and His Lying Heart with Ford Sterling, both in 1916), he became part of Charlie Chaplin’s stock company as an actor and assistant director from A Dog’s Life in 1918 through The Gold Rush in 1925. As was appropriate for the former prizefighter, he usually played the heavy, as when he was the Bully in 1921’s The KidIn 1920 he also began directing at Universal and Vitagraph, and continued to act in other comedians’ pictures (he was in Lloyd Hamilton’s 1924 A Self-Made Failure, for example). His most notable directing credit during the silent years was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). During the sound years he mostly directed mysteries and the like, although he did direct a few (not very distinguished) comedies, including the Marx Brothers’ worst movie The Big Store (1941), a film so egregious it persuaded the team it was time to retire, and Abbot and Costello’s Lost in a Harem (1944). He retired in 1950.

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

 

Anita Stewart: Modes of the Moment

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Anita Stewart (1895-1961). A native of Brooklyn, she started out in 1911 playing bit roles at Vitagraph Studios, which was based locally. (She was in the all-star A Tale of Two Cities that first year, which starred Mabel Normand, John Bunny and others). By 1917 she was a big star for the studio. In 1918, she used that position to leverage a sweet deal with Louis B. Mayer, who was then launching his own studio (which would eventually merge to become MGM). She would not only star in but also produce her own pictures for the studio between 1918 and 1922. Several of these became smash hits, ensuring Mayer’s success.

In 1923, she undertook a big time vaudeville tour with a sketch called “Modes of the Moment” but it closed after 10 days. The fact that she made virtually no pictures after 1928, the era of talkies, may give some indication why she washed out on the stage. Very few of her movies have survived, making it difficult to assess her acting in the silent medium either.

Someone has put together this nice photo tribute of her, however:

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. 

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For more on silent 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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