Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Vamps - Part 1

A Fool There Was....
Virginia Pearson: a 2nd string vamp with big props

When the flapper exploded into popular culture in the 1920s, women in film suddenly became more complicated. Before the woman of the 20th century appeared, there were usually only 2 types of women depicted in film: the virgin or the vamp. The virgin was good, but the vamp was more fun.

The vamp of the silent screen was a vixen, a temptress and a heartless wench. The term “vamp” referred to Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem “The Vampire”

A FOOL there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair—

(Even as you and I!)
Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)

And did not understand!
A fool there was and his goods he spent
(Even as you and I!)
Honour and faith and a sure intent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant)

But a fool must follow his natural bent
(Even as you and I!)
Oh, the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why

(And now we know that she never knew why)
And did not understand!
The fool was stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—

(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
(Even as you and I!)
“And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand 

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing, at last, she could never know why)
And never could understand!”

The poem was inspired by this Sir Philip Burns-Jones’ painting of The Vampire.

Allegedly, the inspiration for the woman was famed actress Mrs.
Patrick Campbell, who evidently broke the painter's heart

You can see she was a voracious creature – so unlike Lillian Gish.

As movies became the popular entertainment of choice, the vamp was shown in full flower – heartless, beautiful, a woman of the world who took what she wanted and moved on, leaving her victims broken and bowed.

There were many bad movie ladies in those early days, but 2 ladies notably pushed the vamp-meter to its highest level.

Theda Bara

Watch out!
Even today, the name of Theda Bara is associated with the vamp. Almost none of her films survive, yet the fame still persists.

Struggling actress Theodosia Goodman (of a proper Cincinnati family) landed the part of The Vampire in 1915’s “A Fool There Was” and her fame was sealed. Thankfully, this film does survive and even in the crude technology of the day, her absolute audacity shines through.  Compared to Mary Pickford, this gal was a handful!

Theodosia had changed her name to Theda Bara for the lowly movies (Bara being part of a family name Barranger), but by 1917 the sexpot’s allure was so great that the masterminds at Fox declared it was really an anagram for “Arab Death” and that his mysterious minx was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, possibly the daughter of an Italian sculptor or a Sheik and a French temptress. She was always to appear mysterious in public and never a just the American girl she was. And so the movie publicity machine was born.

Theda was a hot ticket at the box office from 1915 – 1919, when such blockbusters as Cleopatra and Salome wowed ‘em across the country. Once she left her home studio, Fox, in 1919, she couldn’t keep the momentum going. Being so heavily identified with the vamp, she founds non-vamp parts hard to come by. She tried the stage and a few minor productions, but the world of cinema had passed her by. The truth was, she probably wasn’t much of an actress, but she sure was a terrific movie star.

Sadly, all that remain from Theda's blockbusters are still photos that make the loss of such films especially painful. What would you give to see Theda in action as Cleopatra in these duds?

Theda married director Charles Brabin in 1921 and they remained married until her death in 1955. She always listed herself as available for employment until the day she died.
Nita Naldi

On the heels of Theodosia Goodman came Mary Dooley, better known as Nita Naldi. Nita was a lovely Ziegfeld Girl who, after a few minor films, made a splash in 1921’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore. She and Barrymore became great and lasting pals.

Nita really hit the big time when she was chosen to play Dona Sol in 1922’s Blood and Sand, starring opposite Rudolph Valentino. 

Although she was a New York gal, Nita exuded a continental and exotic appeal that a vamp required. She and Rudy had great screen chemistry and they went on to star in 3 films together. Nita became friends with Rudy and his wife, Natacha Rambova, but when they split, the friendship failed.

Nita as "The Cobra"

As quickly as her star rose, it fell at the end of the silent period. Nita never made a talking film. Unlike Theda, Nita was inable to secure a comfortable retirement. The Depression hit her hard, but she managed to find occasional work and some successes on the stage. She even coached Carol Channing on the ABCs of vamping for the 1955 Broadway musical "The Vamp."

The emergence of a more three dimensional feme fatale put an end to the reign of the vamp. Stars like Garbo, Negri and Dietrich offered the public a more complex woman of mystery. No more skulls and mysticism, but it was sure fun while it lasted.

Next up: The Silent Italian Divas: Vamping with a Vengeance

Friday, June 26, 2015

Classic History Movie Project Blogathon: Early Musicals: Throw it on the wall and see what sticks

This is my entry in the Classic History Movie Project Blogathon hosted by the 3 divinities, Fritzi at Movies Silently, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Please be sure to check out the great entries representing the entire history of the medium we love best.


By 1927 the silent film had evolved into a high art form. The language of film was set and the world of glamour and the stars had captured the imagination of the globe. Life was good. And then Jolson spoke...and sang.... and the universe of film changed forever.

People line up to see and hear Jolson
As so grandly depicted in "Singin' in the Rain," Hollywood was thrown into a tizzy by sound. Silent stars were not only forced to speak, but in many cases were forced to sing, dance and do other musical things (think Buster Keaton and Clara Bow). But silent films were never really silent. From big orchestral accompaniments in big cities to the lone piano player in the small towns, movies always had music. Theme songs were common (for example: "Diane" was the theme song played to "Seventh Heaven"). One could argue that silent film had more in common with dance than it did with talking films. 

From 1927 to 1933, Hollywood's musical trial and error was was on display for all the world to see. Sometimes the results were glorious, sometimes they were interesting and sometimes they were just plain embarrassing. But never before or since has the movie-going world been treated to so many creative achievements and so many diverse talents from all forms of entertainment. It truly was a time of throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

The Prologues: dipping a toe in the water
Technology is here to stay
Warner Brothers and Vitaphone lead the way with sound. Even before "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, Warners offered a full recorded score for 1926's "Don Juan." Included with the program was a prologue of short sound performances featuring musical stars from the NY Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Spoken words were heard only from Will Hays, who introduced the program.

And so, from radio, vaudeville and Broadway came the storied stars. Sound provided the world a glimpse of performers that most would never have the opportunity to see. From the heights of the Metropolitan Opera to the common clay of burlesque, prologues and musical shorts created a hunger for musical entertainment at the movies. 

The Stars: oh, silent stars, why are you still here?
1928 solidified Jolson's stardom in "The Singing Fool," while a certain mouse made his whistling debut in "Steamboat Willie."
Mickey was a musical mouse
Audiences were treated to performances by the great Broadway stars Marilyn Miller in "Sally" and "Sunny," and Fanny Brice in "My Man." Other stage and radio luminaries such as Sophie Tucker, Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence and Helen Morgan took a crack at musical features, shorts and studio extravaganzas such as "Paramount on Parade" and MGM's "Hollywood Review of 1929." None of them made a dent and headed back to the stage without a backward glance.

Many Hollywood stars did not make the sound cut musically or otherwise. However, there were some surprising survivors and even thrivers.

Ramon Novarro proved he could sing when he crooned "Pagan Love Song," Bebe Daniels and John Boles thrilled audiences in "Rio Rita" and the glorious Gloria Swanson stepped up to the plate in 1929's "The Trespasser" with a throbbing rendition of "Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere."

Janet Gaynor became a musical sweetie for a while, as did the adorable Nancy Carroll, who was frequently partnered with Charles "Buddy" Rogers.
Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers: cute cute cute!
The Hits and Misses: can't get enough
Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King have music on their minds
By far the luckiest silent sweetie to make in dent in sound musicals was Bessie Love in 1929's sensational "Broadway Melody." Though it looks pretty creaky today, "Broadway Melody" proved that feature length films could talk, sing, and dance in a cinematic fashion that did not simply photograph a stage play. Broadway star Charles King provided the male lead, starlet Anita Page provided the beauty and Bessie Love provided the depth and heart of the film. Songs written specifically for the film by Nacio Herb Brown and  (including the title song, "You Were Meant For Me," and "The Wedding of the Painted Doll") and the all talking! all singing! all dancing! musical numbers (filmed in color - now lost) left the audiences wanting more.
So successful was this film that it won the 1928-1929 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Suddenly, the movie market was flooded with musicals. The public could not get enough of backstage musicals, operettas, Broadway-to-Hollywood musicals and all star extravaganzas.

This is NOT a Musical: too much of a good thing
And just as fast as it started, it stopped. Too much cake, even if it is good cake, can cause you to get sick of it. And by 1930 the public had had too many musicals. Films that were started as musicals were suddenly changed to non-musicals in mid-production. Broadway musical star Marilyn Miller has started "Her Majesty Love" as a musical only to finish it as a non-musical. She packed her bags and dancing shoes and went back to New York. Hollywood released over 100 musical films in 1930. 14 musicals were released in 1931.

A lone musical success in 1930 was "Whoopee!" starring Eddie Cantor. Straight from the successful Ziegfeld production, Cantor was an immediate musical success. Goldwyn's production not only had the star and the Ziegfeld name, but Technicolor (that still survives) and choreography by a guy named Busby Berkeley, who would soon head over to Warner Brothers and change the way dance is seen on film.

There were some successes (1932's "Love Me Tonight," for example), but, for the most part, audiences had tired of musical films.

42nd Street, Crosby & Astaire: all set now
And then the cycle started up all over again. By 1933 Warners had discovered the winning formula of "42nd Street": stars, chorus girls, a fast pace, memorable songs, snappy dialogue and true cinematic style. 

Over at RKO, Fred Astaire set the standard for intimate dance and elegant style, while at Paramount, Crosby set the style for a singer whose stardom rested on a voice and a personality.
This is how you do it
Silent star Marion Davies gets a lift from up and
coming crooner Crosby in "Going Hollywood"
All that followed would one way or another imitate these patterns. Never again would there be room for slightly out of step dancers, turquoise Technicolor skies, new voices and the trial and error of new technology right before our eyes.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tragic Star: Ramon Novarro

2015 is the year of the tragic star on A Person in the Dark. May's tragic star is Ramon Novarro.

In 1925, Latin lover Ramon Navarro seemed to have it all. Coming off a starring role in the epic Ben Hur, he was poised to take a place at the top of Hollywood's Mount Olympus of stars. 

But storm clouds gathering inside of him and around him would prevent Novarro from finding true happiness and lasting success. Sadly, the thing now most remembered about Novarro's life is his death.

By the time Ramon Novarro had hit Hollywood, he had already known adversity. Entering the world as Jose Ramon Sanmaniego, Ramon was born to a large and well-to-do family in 1899. His father was a prominent dentist in Durango, Mexico, but the family lost their standing and were forced to flee their home at the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Young Ramon had 12 siblings and felt responsible for his family for all of his life.

By 1917  Ramon was working as a singing waiter in Hollywood and looking for work in the movies. After some frustrating bit parts that lead nowhere, Ramon was fortunate to catch the eye of director Rex Ingram. As Ramon Novarro, Ingram cast him in an important role, along with Ingram's wife Alice Terry, in Metro's 1923 version of Scaramouche. His leading man good looks and his sensitive and romantic style put him on the road to stardom. Ingram was one of Novarro's greatest supporters in this early phase of his career.

Novarro makes an impression in Scaramouche with Alice Terry (1923)

His stardom was solidified in 1925 with the release of the epic Ben Hur. After a tortuous effort to bring this tale to the screen (begun in 1923, it went through major changes in directors, actors and script) and expending so much time and money on the production, Metro had a hit with Ben Hur and one of the primary reasons was Novarro. Touting him first as a rival to Valentino, Novarro became the Hollywood Latin Lover after Valentino's death in 1926. 
The birth of a star: Novarro in Ben Hur

Novarro stares down Francis X. Bushman in Ben Hur
From 1926 to the dawn to talking pictures, Novarro made a sting of successful films at Metro (later MGM), including the delightful The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), co-staring with Norma Shearer and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

Ramon and Norma Shearer at their most charming in The Student Prince
He was the dream lover supreme and the romantic ideal of millions of women. He was also a devout Catholic and gay.

Looking sexy for MGM
Ramon Novarro never would play the studio game. His homosexuality was known to everyone but his fans. Bucking the studio's demands, he refused to be bullied into a sham marriage for the sake of publicity. He was also devoted to his religion, so much so that he had once considered becoming a monk. The conflicts and the secrets and the lies caused the sensitive Ramon great pain, a pain he numbed with alcohol.

As if life hadn't thrown Ramon enough curve balls, the advent of talking films marked the end his brand of romantic hero. His voice was good (he had a fine singing voice), but his luster dimmed when MGM failed to find the right vehicles for him. By the mid-30s he had faded from view. His last important film was opposite Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931).

Novarro and Garbo in Mata Hari.
His Russian accent was by way of Duango, Mexico
Ramon had managed to provide financial security for himself and his family and  worked sporadically during the next decades in supporting film and television roles in between bouts of alcoholism and multiple DUIs.

On October 30, 1968, the lonely 69 year old former heart throb called an escort service for some male company. Instead of pleasure, he encountered a brutal death at the hand of 2 brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson. The brothers mistakenly thought the actor had money hidden in his home, but after hours of torturing Novarro and finally killing him, they left his home with $20. Both were arrested and served prison terms.

The romantic idol
It was a sad and sensational end for a sensitive man whose search for happiness was always tempered by inner conflicts. An excellent book about Ramon Novarro is "Beyond Paradise" by Andre Soares.

Friday, May 15, 2015

National Classic Movie Day: Can't Get Enough of "Sunset Boulevard"

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon hosted by Rick at the Classic Film and TC Cafe in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon. 

When Rick asked that we write about our favorite film I immediately selected "Sunset Boulevard" and then almost immediately regretted my choice. I have written endlessly about the film, expressing my love for it and mostly having fun with the beyond-fabulous character of the great Norma Desmond.

So, rather than go over all that again, let me just give the top 10 reasons why "Sunset Boulevard" tops them all for me.

1.Norma Desmond

One of the greatest - if not the greatest - film characters of all time. And like all great characters, she is as deep as the ocean. In my ignorant youth I saw her as a cartoon, a pathetic and washed up relic. Now (washed up relic that I am) I view her with compassion. She is 50 and she is viewed as repulsive. But she is not repulsive at all! She is alive, she is vibrant, she is the cougar supreme. She wears leopard whenever possible (even poolside) and has a cigarette holder that looks like it was robbed from Valentino's night table. She is a star and she knows how a star should look and act. She loved her movie career and treats it with reverence. What's not to love?

2. It's a movie about movies

Billy Wilder seems to be poking fun at the silent age, but he can't hide his affection and admiration for it. Those wonderful Paramount gates, the extras and behind-the-camera folks who gather to Norma's side, Jonsey, the security guard; all reaffirm the lingering stardust that was still visible long after the parade had passed.

3. It has my favorite line from a movie: "If you need any help with the coffin, call me."

In a film full of great lines, this is my favorite, I don't know why, but it makes me laugh every time.

4. It has a funeral for a dead monkey

It is not often that you see a funeral for a dead chimp. One thing we never learn: did Norma select pink or red satin for the lining of the coffin? I'm voting for hot pink. Or leopard.

5. Jack Webb asks William Holden if he got his tux from Adolphe Menjou

Not only is Adolphe Menjou referenced, but so are John Gilbert, Mable Normand, Valentino and even Marie Prevost. I'm impressed that Joe Gillis even knows their names (I guess he really did love movies back behind that copy desk in Dayton) and it makes my heart happy to hear their names spoken out loud. Which brings me to....

6. The Waxworks

It is so wonderful to see Buster Keaton looking so adorable, not to mention H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. Billy Wilder was genius to include them. I wonder how many people in the theater in 1950 felt the joy (and slight pang) one feels when a long lost friend appears. The movies may talk, but the glamour of the silents had not completed faded for Wilder or the audience.

7. The Isotta Fraschini

"We have a car. Not one of those cheap things made of chromium and spit, but an Isotta Fraschini. Have you ever heard of an Isotta Fraschini? All hand made. It cost me $28,000."

According to Wikipedia: $28,000 would be $384,566 in 2015. The car had a phone in the car and the seats were covered in leopard. This car is on display at the Museo Nazionale dell'Automobile in Italy. Norma Desmond's initials are on the rear doors of the car.

8. William Holden wears a swim suit.

Need I say more?

9. Erich Von Stroheim

The Man You Love to Hate playing a man who used to be director. Talk about blurred lines. I imagine Von Stroheim's office walls were covered in black patent leather, just like Max's. Von's Max is a masterful performance - a slave to love...twisted, mad, movie-mad love. Brilliant.

10. Gloria Swanson

Without Madame there is no film. When Max proclaims Norma as the greatest star of them all, he might as well have been talking about Gloria Swanson. Her storied career, her colorful life on and off camera, her grand manner -  all added depth and truth to her compassionate rendering of Norma. Her performance is towering and utterly fearless and impossible to forget.

I wrote this entry with the assumption that you have seen this film. If not, you owe it to yourself. It is one of the very best.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Katharine Hepburn Style: She Puts Her Pants on One Leg at a Time

This is my entry in the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon  hosted by Click here for more about the Great Kate.  

What is style? Merriam Webster says it is:
* a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed
* a particular form or design of something
* a way of behaving or of doing things

Katharine Hepburn is one of those rare individuals who incorporate all 3. She is organic, unmistakable, unique and wholly organic. The face follows the form, the voice follows the personality and the style follows the philosophy.

a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed

Naturally, this wonder did not spring forth from thin air fully formed. She had a progressive upbringing. The thought that she was somehow “less” because she was a woman was never imparted. To be yourself meant being a rebel.

“Most people are brought up to believe they are as good as the person next to them. I was told I was better.” KH

“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.” KH

“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” KH

 “We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault, But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.” KH
“Without discipline there’s no life at all” KH

“If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” KH

“If you want to change attitudes, start with a change in behavior.” KH

“Children needs boundaries so they can know how far they have to go to get beyond them” KH

a particular form or design of something

Being young and quite sure she was destined to be special, she set forth for a life upon the stage. She was armed with a carefully constructed and self-conscious bravado that turned all eyes on her.

“Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking.” KH
“When I started out, I didn’t have any desire to be an actress or learn how to act. I just wanted to be famous.” KH
“Acting is a nice childish profession – pretending you’re someone else and, at the same time, selling yourself.” KH
What was Hollywood to do with her?
In a town where beauty is defined as the best of the usual, this unusual woman was a puzzle.
She could be silly

She could be elegant

She could be regal

But she wasn’t Constance Bennett or Carole Lombard of even Jean Harlow.
“The average Hollywood film star’s ambition is to be admired by an American, courted by an Italian, married to an Englishman and have a French boyfriend” KH
Clearly, she was never average at anything.
 a way of behaving or of doing things

But, somehow the world was getting ready for this individual and she became a light of possibility for women, not a shadow of someone’s conception of what a woman should be.

And it is only fitting that this woman should wear the pants.

Unlike Dietrich or Garbo, her pants were not a sexual gender-bending tease. No, this woman wore them because they were a projection of her style – her way of doing things: straight forward, simple, no nonsense, humorous and kind of lovely.

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I've done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” KH

“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” KH

“You can’t change the music of your soul.” KH

“I have loved and been in love. There’s a big difference.” KH

“Dressing up is a bore. At a certain age you decorate yourself to attract the opposite sex, and at a certain age I did that. But I’m past that age.” KH

“I never lose sight of the fact that just being is fun.” KH

Kate, you are now as you were then: a very fresh and sassy and wholly admirable breath of Yankee American air. Ah!!!!!!