The Dim Glow of the Limelight

January 3, 2011 at 3:19 am (General blather)

Herbert Brenon, directing the 17-year-old Betty Bronson during the production of Peter Pan in 1924.

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From “When the Director Shouts: Cry! Cry! Cry!,” in Motion Picture, July 1925:

“Physical exertion will often work a player up to the pitch of hysteria. Most directors know this and arrange to have emotional scenes taken when the players are worn out after a hard day’s work.

“Betty Bronson’s ‘Do you believe in fairies’ scene in Peter Pan was taken when the little actress was trembling with nervousness and fatigue after repeated and gruelling rehearsals.”

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He may be the least-familiar of M-G-M’s silent stars, but Tim McCoy starred in a series of westerns and historical adventure films for the studio right up to the transition to talkies.

The former Army cavalryman’s first picture for the studio was War Paint (1926). It was shot on location in Wyoming, with dozens of actual Arapaho and Shoshoni Indians enlisted for the production by McCoy himself.

Like too many of his M-G-Ms, the film is lost today. But in his autobiography Tim McCoy Remembers the West, he recalled the scene that nearly killed him.

“Chase scenes were a great favorite of the Indians’, and it was while filming such an episode that [director W. S.] Van Dyke’s callousness was manifested to me. I was supposed to be galloping my
horse toward the cameras, pursued by a band of hostiles who were
shooting at me. In the excitement of the moment, an old Shoshoni
pulled up alongside me, pointed his rifle at my head and pulled the
trigger. His blank round of .45-.70 Springfield ammunition was an old
one, the powder caked and, as the trigger was pulled and the shell
exploded, hard balls of powder slammed into my head, neck and
shoulders, burned my face, rent my shirt and sent me flying off my
horse and onto the ground.

“I lay there for what seemed an aeon, partially conscious of the commotion surrounding me. The Indians were silent and had gathered their ponies in a ring around my body, but Van Dyke was making noise enough for five men.

“‘Goddamnit!’ he roared. ‘You’re not supposed to fall off the horse. You stupid bastard, you’ve just ruined a beautiful shot.’

“Then it was quiet again and I could feel a warm trickle of blood flowing from my left ear, down across my cheek and onto the ground. Somebody held me by my left shoulder, causing excruciating pain to ripple down my arm and along my back. I moaned.

“‘Well, at least you’re alive. Thalberg will be pleased to hear that,’ Van Dyke snarled sarcastically.”

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One of the most accomplished cameramen of the 1910s was John van den Broek. Among his credits are classics like The Poor Little Rich Girl, Prunella, A Girl’s Folly and The Blue Bird.

Tragically, on June 29, 1918, he drowned while filming a scene for Maurice Tourneur’s Woman near Bar Harbor, Maine. He was only 23 years old.

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From the Nebraska State Journal, March 6, 1923:

New York: With a Broadway crowd standing agape and movie machines clicking out their yards of celluloid ribbon, Harry F. Young, self-styled ‘spider,’ plunged ten stories to his death today while attempting to scale the side of the Hotel Martinique. Women fainted and disorder ensued. The police estimated the crowd at 20,000. Among those who crowded Greeley Square, watching the performance was his wife, who swooned. She was revived and removed to a hospital.

“On Young’s back hung a sign reading: Safety Last. … In his pocket was found a contract with a motion picture concern, and from another source it was reported that a new picture soon to be put on the screen would feature a human fly stunt.”

The story was reported widely. Screenland, in its June 1923 issue, added:

“On his back was a banner with the device, Safety Last;  his feat was an exploitation stunt for Harold Lloyd’s picture of the same name.”

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The end of the trail: Red Thompson.

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Stuntman Bob Rose told the Los Angeles Times (September 30, 1934) about a stunt that went wrong during one of his assignments:

“I saw Ray (Red) Thompson, Jerome Bauten and Howard Daughters die in the Abercrombie Rapids of the Copper River in Alaska during the filming of The Trail of ’98. I was shooting the same rapids in another boat. Gordon Carvath was in Thompson’s boat, but it just wasn’t Carvath’s time. He swam to shore, missing the boulders that smashed the other men to pulp in the thirty-five-mile-an-hour current.”

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Barbara La Marr was in bad shape when she arrived in Southern California to film Spanish Sunlight in 1925.

She was carried from the train station on an ambulance cot, and stayed home for weeks, suffering what Photoplay (November 1925) called at the time a “complete nervous breakdown.”

When she was able to make it to the studio to begin shooting, she was carrying a cane and leaning on the arm of a nurse.

“Either due to illness or dieting, Barbara is now so thin that her old friends fail, at first, to recognize her,” Photoplay reported, adding brightly, “She’s prettier than ever.”

Re-titled The Girl from Montmartre, the film was finally finished. It was released on January 31, 1926.

Barbara had died the day before.

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Barbara La Marr on exhibit.

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Her death prompted an impressive number of mourners to pay their respects, according to the New York Times.

It reported on February 6, 1926 that “upwards of 40,000 persons filed past the bier during the three days the body lay in state.”

The Times added that on just one of those days, five women fainted and had to be rescued by police from being trampled by the crowd.

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A beautiful apparition: Florence Deshon in 1916.

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Actress Florence Deshon toiled in the silents for at least six years, learning the ropes, gaining experience and graduating from small parts to leading roles.

Finally, in 1922, she made it, landing a five-year contract with producer Sam Goldwyn.

Why haven’t you heard of her?

Because, only a few days after signing that contract, she was found dead in her tiny apartment, the victim of gas poisoning.

According to Photoplay (March 1926), the medical examiner ruled her death accidental. Left unanswered was the question of why she’d used the one and only gas jet in the room— and then neglected to turn it off— when the apartment was wired for electricity.

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– – – Christopher Snowden




  1. FlickChick said,

    Thank you for the post about Florence Deshon – so hard to find anything about her film career. I actually read about her in a Chaplin bio that detailed her affairs with Chaplin and Max Eastman and discussed her suicide and Eastman’s attempt to save her life.

    • Philip Danks said,

      I have just discovered today, to my amazement, that this lady is my great aunt. I didn’t know she existed. She was born Florence Danks, the second child of my great grandfather Samuel, who emigrated from England in 1889, leaving his pregnant first wife Jessie behind. Florence is the daughter of Samuel’s new American wife (although I don’t know if he married her), Flora, and was born in 1893. What a sad end to Florence’s life.

      • Jeffrey Junta said,

        I think that was my grandmother’s first husband’s sister. Florence was mentioned many times by Olive Neelen (second husband), but my mother’s and uncle’s name was Danks. I have a colorized photo? of Flo in our living room. Grandma divorced Mr. Danks, who was a chef at West Point and remarried a couple years later. I am located in new Jersey. Someone is writing a book about silent films and somehow found out my sister was related. That person needs pictures, photos etc. and I still may have some. I have digitized many old photos after my mom died and will look through them. Jeffrey Junta

  2. Philip Danks said,

    Hi there Jeffrey. Was your grandmother’s first husband Walter Danks? I have found out quite a bit more information about Florence Deshon (or Florence Danks, to use her real name), to whom we both seem to be related. It would be great to get in contact. My email address is

    Incidentally, I have my doubts that the lovely young woman in the photo above is Florence Deshon. See this photo of Florence which I know to be of her:

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