Leftover Popcorn

January 24, 2011 at 1:15 am (General blather)

No one but Nazimova could look so silly and so fabulous at the same time.

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Well, this blog is just about at the point in the movie where The Boy and The Girl finally embrace and kiss, as the scene fades to black. But there are still plenty of nuggets of useless information that I never got around to posting, so here’s an assortment that I hope you’ll enjoy.

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After a terrible blizzard in early 1927, the mining town of Silverton, Colorado was snowed in for a solid month. Nobody could get in or out of there, except by dogsled.

As Exhibitors Herald reported, “The mushers tried to supply the town with fresh food, but the miners favored sacrificing other things rather than motion pictures. New films were brought in almost daily.”

(Exhibitors Herald, March 26, 1927, pg. 17.)

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“I am not pretty,” Louise Fazenda declared in a 1919 interview. “Only a girl can realize what a terrible realization that is.”

She recalled her very first day’s work on a movie set, and the director telling his assistant, “Give the kid a chance… but put her in the back and keep her in the shade.”

(Motion Picture Classic, May 1919, page 34.)

Louise Fazenda comes out from under the shade, but not from behind this fan.

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About 1920, Charles Ray employed a houseboy who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize: Ralph Bunche.

(Detroit News)

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In 1927, Ralph Ince directed Not for Publication and played the leading role.

His character’s name? “Big Dick” Wellman.

(Screenland, July 1927, page 58.)

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October 1926: Cowboy star Hoot Gibson on the Universal lot, with two of his cars. I know which one I want to drive.

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Every fan of silent movies regrets that so many early films are lost forever. In most cases, the films are gone simply because they were both highly flammable and prone to decomposition, getting stickier and stickier until they turned to goo.

A lot of films from the late 1920s onward might have survived, if a certain invention had worked out. In December 1924, Metro-Goldwyn bought an option for a large interest in it.

It was a newly patented kind of film stock. Rather than a celluloid base, this stock somehow was made with an aluminum base.

The Film Year Book 1925 said that this new base had “certain unusual qualities, such as being impervious to wear.”

However, it added that “the patent needs development before it is in readiness for practical use.” Evidently, it still does.

(Film Year Book 1925, page 57.)

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In 1922, during the long, bitter divorce proceedings between William S. Hart and his wife Winifred Westover, an allegation was made that the actor had once ordered his wife from their home.

Her attorney Milton Cohen made much of the story, prompting an angry retort from Hart.

As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, he barked, “If Cohen claims I was physically cruel to my wife, I’ll lick him so you won’t be able to recognize him. If I can’t do that, I’ll drill a hole in his stomach so big you can drive a twenty-mule-team borax wagon through it!”

(“Cohen Hurls Defi at Hart,” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1922.)

The softer side of William S. Hart: donating a wagon to the local chapter of the ASPCA, in December 1924. The organization said this was not his first donation.

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“Here’s a secret,” Lon Chaney told an interviewer in 1922.

“Sometime I would like to try an old-fashioned slapstick comedy, just to see if I could do it.”

(“The Darkest Hour,” in Classic, September, 1922, page 97.)

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It took more than two years to make Ben-Hur, and it was finally finished in late 1925. But during its New York premiere that December, it became clear that one more task remained.

A subtitle announcing the birth of Jesus drew unexpected laughter from the audience.

It read, “And the Babe was born.”

A lot of New York Yankees fans had Babe Ruth on their minds that year. M-G-M changed the subtitle.

(Photoplay, March 1926, page 46.)

And the Babe met Harold Lloyd, who was in New York for the filming of Speedy in late 1927.

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Lillian and Dorothy Gish’s Romola was shot on location in Italy during the winter of 1923-24.

Outdoor scenes were set in summertime, but at the time of shooting, it was so cold that the actors had to hold their breath to keep it from being seen by the camera.

(Movie Weekly, March 1, 1924, page 25.)

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Erich von Stroheim created a sensation with his 1922 film Foolish Wives. His enormous outdoor set representing Monte Carlo was a full-scale replica of the real thing, and the film remains one of his most acclaimed works.

But history has forgotten that William Desmond Taylor had done much the same thing two years earlier.

For his production of The Furnace on the Paramount lot, the Hotel at Monte Carlo was reproduced in exacting detail, including its stairs, balcony, reception salon and terrace.

The plot of The Furnace involves a married woman who becomes the target of a European count, who tries to get her to run off with him. Dramatic complication ensue, but in the end, she sticks with her husband.

Did Stroheim watch it and take notes? His script for Foolish Wives tells the same basic story.

(Motion Picture, September 1920, page 106.)

Erich von Stroheim as Count Karamzin, an unscrupulous rogue who steals more than just wives.

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Charlie Chaplin appeared in a lot of films in 1914. At least two of them are lost.

One of them is the Keystone comedy Her Friend the Bandit. The other is one you’ve never heard of.

It was a reel of film taken at a meeting of San Francisco’s Screen Club that November. Chaplin, along with his fellow Keystone comics Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, joined Mayor James Rolph in a grand march inside the Coliseum Theatre. These festivities were filmed, and the footage was screened at a club meeting the following month.

Never released to the public, the film’s whereabouts are unknown.

(Moving Picture World, January 9, 1915, page 233.)

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An advertising blooper caused some consternation for a Los Angeles lithographer in 1925.

He was printing copies of a poster that an artist had created for M-G-M’s Pretty Ladies. The film’s director was Monta Bell, but the absentminded artist had written “Monte Blue” instead.

The mistake wasn’t caught until after an entire run of gigantic 24-sheets had been printed.

(Exhibitors Herald, August 8, 1925, pg. 48)

Speaking of mistakes, somebody at First National had his mind elsewhere when he issued this still for The Strong Man (1926).

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One day in 1927, about 1500 residents of Hamilton, Ontario opened their mailboxes to discover a key inside, attached to a tag inscribed “To the man of the house— this is the key to my room— Mabel.”

If this got the attention of some agitated housewives and their flustered husbands, well, it was all according to plan.

The keys were a publicity gimmick, dreamed up by the manager of the Rialto Theatre. The film he was running that week was Marie Prevost’s comedy Up in Mabel’s Room.

(Exhibitors Herald, March 26, 1927, pg. 39.)

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Vitagraph was one of the leading American film producers for roughly two decades. In its nineteen-acre Hollywood studio (at 1708 Talmadge Street), many comedies, serials and dramas were produced on its seven stages.

But by 1924, the company had hit hard times, and the studio was barely active. One magazine called it “the easiest studio in Hollywood for a sight-seer to enter. Seldom is there a watchman at the gateway.”

In fact, according to the article, “as a rule it is quite possible for a carload of uninvited visitors to wander thru the archway and roam about to their hearts’ content.”

(Motion Picture, July 1924, page 37.)

Come on in! The Vitagraph studio, as it looked in the early 1920s. The main entrance is down in the lower right corner of the photo.

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M-G-M held its own company-wide golf tournament in June 1927. The entrants came from the ranks of the studio’s actors, directors, executives, writers and other staffers: seventy-two of them in all.

Top honors went to Hunt Stromberg of the executive division, whose average score after three rounds of golf was 58.

The unlikely winner of the actors’ division scored an average of 70. He was Jackie Coogan… then only twelve years old.

As part of the tournament, a putting contest was also held. The winner… Jackie Coogan.

(Exhibitors Herald, June 18, 1927, page 10.)

Looks like Tiger Woods wasn’t the first notable golfer to get in trouble.

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– – – Christopher Snowden









About 1920, Charles Ray employed a houseboy whose name was also Charles. That houseboy went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize— Charles Bunche. 

(Detroit News)


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The Reviews Are In

January 18, 2011 at 12:47 am (General blather)

You’ve seen examples of fan magazines from the silent era. But there were also trade magazines, for theater owners and managers, with a focus on the business end of things. The leading trade papers in the 1920s were Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, and while they’re short on glamour, they’re fascinating to read.

My favorite section is the exhibitor reviews. Theater men would send in reports describing how well their audiences liked the films that were presented, and the trade papers would print dozens of these reports in each issue. We might guess, with a bit of cynicism, that the trades would be inclined to keep bad reviews to a minimum, lest powerful advertisers be offended. But this wasn’t the case, as you’ll see below.

Now, one of the most acclaimed and beloved of all silent films is Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). We’ve heard that the film was a hit, another in a long line of triumphs for one of the era’s greatest filmmakers. Interestingly, a whole lot of exhibitors had a different perspective.

Below are a year’s worth of collected reports for the film, as compiled in Exhibitor Weekly‘s annual roundup of film reviews, the issue dated April 10, 1926. (Sorry about the weird shading in this image… the reviews were printed in three columns across two pages. I haven’t edited anything out.)

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Charlie and Mack Swain are confronted by an angry exhibitor.

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The exhibitor reviews for other films can be eye-openers as well. Apparently, small-town audiences in the American heartland didn’t much care for stars like Raymond Griffith, Pola Negri and Adolphe Menjou. Opinions were very divided on W. C. Fields and Rudolph Valentino.

Lest you get the impression that the theater men were just chronically hard to please, here are the compiled reviews for a relatively forgotten comedy. It just happened to star Charlie Chaplin’s brother.

Syd Chaplin had recently released Charley’s Aunt, which (in spite of the indifferent shrug it’s received from film historians) was a big hit at the time, so expectations were probably pretty high for The Man on the Box (1925):

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So, then… apart from a little grumbling about the high cost of renting the print (a complaint they also hit The Gold Rush for), the exhibitors reported great success with Syd Chaplin, more so than with Charlie.

I’m not sure what conclusions should be drawn from all of this. I’m just throwing it out there. As with every other area of history, film history has its surprises.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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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



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Weakness is a Crime

December 20, 2010 at 3:55 am (General blather)

A century ago, when D. W. Griffith was on location, he often wore a hat with a big hole in the top. This wasn’t just one man’s idiosyncrasy. It was also the recommendation of a prominent heath advocate, whose theories about the scalp’s need for healthy sunlight made an impression upon the rapidly-balding director.

In 1924, another director found himself seriously ill. Photoplay didn’t explain what the illness was, but it did describe how Rex Ingram cured himself of it: by rubbing olive oil all over his body and lying in the sun every day. This too was in keeping with the philosophy of that certain health advocate.

The publisher of Movie Weekly didn’t take a car for the seven-mile journey to his office. He walked. And he walked barefoot. With a 40-pound sack of sand slung over one shoulder. This too was the prescription of that same health guru.

Actually, Movie Weekly‘s publisher was that health guru.

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Bernard McFadden was born in the Missouri Ozarks in 1868. Within a few years, tuberculosis killed his mother, booze killed his father, and the sickly orphan was farmed out to a succession of unsympathetic relatives who traded room and board for the boy’s labor.

A couple years of heavy work on a farm transformed him into a sturdy figure. But then he was handed off to somebody else, and two years of office work followed, during which time he lost the muscle and the stamina he’d gained on the farm. He began looking for ways to develop his body’s potential. Improvisation and intuition shaped the regimen of diet and exercise he created for himself.

1893, age 25.

Driven by an almost obsessive determination to perfect his body, he also had a passion for promotion. He opened a studio, called himself a “kinestherapist” and accepted students.

In 1894 he moved to New York City, re-named himself Bernarr Macfadden (it sounded more masculine), and promoted his philosophy tirelessly. His motto was “Weakness is a Crime! Don’t Be a Criminal!” He developed an exercise device using pulleys for use in the home. He promoted it with heavy advertising, a lecture tour and a series of pamphlets. These pamphlets gave him the chance to disseminate his views on health and diet all across America. Before long, people began asking if they could subscribe to them.

In 1899, Macfadden moved on from pamphlets to his own self-published magazine: Physical Culture. He also wrote books—  a lot of books—  with titles like Brain Energy (1916), Strengthening the Eyes (1918), Physical Culture for Babies (1904) and Natural Cure for Rupture (1902).

Physical Culture was a hit, and Macfadden wrote much of each issue himself, under his own name and psuedonyms.  Many of the ideas he advanced are commonly accepted today. He condemned tobacco and alcohol as ruinous to health, and urged women to stop wearing suffocating corsets. He admired yoga, denounced sugar and white flour, and urged his readers to avoid the processed foods that were beginning to proliferate, suggesting instead his own creation, an early form of granola he called “strengthfude.”

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1933: Macfadden’s Physical Culture is still going strong after a third of a century. A little spicy subject matter is good for the circulation.

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But Macfadden’s views went further. He felt that the body could cure itself of disease if only given the chance, so he was deeply suspicious of the medical profession, and denounced vaccination. Noting that animals tend not to eat when they’re sick, he advocated fasting as an alternative to medicine. He himself fasted every Monday to maintain good health. He promoted the “milk diet,” in which a person consumes nothing but milk for several days or even weeks. You can guess how he felt about homogenization and pastuerization.

Macfadden developed an eccentric lifestyle. Though personally wealthy and living in a mansion, he slept on the floor, wrapped only in a blanket, because he felt mattresses were bad for the spine. He’d wear the same suit every day until it began falling apart. He walked barefoot, or wore shoes with holes cut in the soles, the better to absorb the healing effects of the Earth’s magnetic forces. He perceived therapeutic value in bellowing like a moose, and in standing on his head for long periods. Nevertheless, his dynamism and his muscled physique suggested he knew what he was talking about. He believed that tugging on his own hair could prevent it from falling out, which sounds ridiculous and probably is. But he kept a full head of hair his entire life.

Physical Culture began printing readers’ own stories about personal transformations and dramatic turning points in their lives, and Macfadden sensed potential. In 1919 he launched a new magazine, True Story, devoted entirely to exactly that. It became an instant blockbuster, possibly the most widely-read magazine of the 1920s.

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True Story had very little to do with Hollywood, but film stars sell magazines. Here’s Marian Nixon on a 1925 cover.

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The intimate, confessional approach was extended to another new Macfadden publication, Movie Weekly, in 1921. I’ve been burying you in Movie Weekly already, so that one needs no introduction. Oddly, though, Macfadden published it through a subsidiary rather than under his own prominently-featured name, which was unusual for him. It only lasted four years, but he wasn’t finished with Hollywood; he also produced at least seven feature-length films in 1926.

These were distributed sketchily, and that was probably enough to spell doom for Macfadden True Story Productions, in spite of eye-catching titles like Broken Homes and The Virgin Wife. Second-tier Hollywood talents like director Elmer Clifton and stars like Gaston Glass were involved, but little is known about the films today.

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When Rudolph Valentino dropped by the Movie Weekly offices to “edit” his own issue in 1923, he dutifully posed for a photo with the Macfadden clan.

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Macfadden married four times in his life. The longest-lasting of those was to Mary Williamson, an English swimming champion. The publicity-hungry publisher went on tour with her, promoting (as always) the benefits of diet and exercise. He devised a show-stopper for these appearances, in which he lay on his back, in front of a raised platform. Mary would climb to the top of the platform, and from a height of over six feet, she jumped off, landing on Macfadden’s stomach. He would then spring to his feet and accept the applause of the astonished audience.

But there would be less applause as the years advanced. Longing for political office, Macfadden spent much of his fortune wooing power brokers and running failed campaigns. Outside of publishing, he bought sanitariums and hotels, always with an eye toward advancing the cause of physical culture. But most of these ventures lost money.

Macfadden’s publishing company had gone public near the peak of his success, but he continued to spend its money as he pleased, sometimes on personal projects like his political campaigns. Eventually the shareholders revolted, and filed suit. In the resulting settlement, he stepped down and relinquished his publishing empire. It was 1941, and the turning point in his life had arrived.

Macfadden’s public image could no longer be shaped by staffers on his own payroll.  He remained a newsworthy figure, but his basic message of healthy living slowly took a back seat to his personal eccentricities. At the same time, medicine was making tremendous strides, defeating everything from polio to syphilis. Macfadden’s alternative views began to seem questionable.

Macfadden himself gradually began to be seen as a crank. He suddenly announced the creation of a new religion, “cosmotarianism,” focused upon the spiritual benefits of good health. He promoted it with yet another lecture tour, but this time the public stayed home.


1938, age 70.

Still vigorous in his eighties, and still fond of promoting himself as the role model of good health, he began celebrating each birthday by parachuting out of an airplane. The downside of his continued vigor was a continuation of  his lifelong habit of extramarital affairs. That killed his fourth and final marriage, to a 44-year-old woman he’d married just before he turned 80.

With his most reliable source of income long gone, his personal fortune steadily declined, hastened by the demands of alimony payments and occasional lawsuits.

In 1952 came a highly unflattering memoir by his former wife Mary, describing their years together. Titled Dumbbells and Carrot Strips, it described an errant, often absent husband, one who was severe and autocratic at home, obsessed with himself and his health theories (many of which she now scorned).

Worse yet, she recalled that when their baby son went into convulsions back in 1922, Macfadden refused her pleas for a doctor and commanded that the boy be bathed in warm water instead. The child died.

Whether there’s truth to the tale or not, there would be an echo of it in Macfadden’s final days. Still lean and strong at 87— but craggy and beginning to show his age— he developed a urinary tract infection. Predictably, he treated the problem himself through fasting. The condition worsened but he refused medical attention. Finally discovered unconscious, he was hospitalized but died soon afterward.

He’d been living in a small hotel room at the end, his fortune nearly depleted.

Macfadden’s publishing empire had been sold off in chunks during his exile from it. Physical Culture had fallen into a swift decline without his hand at the helm; he’d bought back the rights to it in his last years and tried to resuscitate it, without success. However, True Story continued. In fact, it continues to this day, though I’ll bet you haven’t seen it on a newsstand in a long while.

The crown jewel of vintage movie magazines, Photoplay, was purchased by Macfadden in the early 1930s. It too withered into irrelevancy, and was a caricature of its former glory when it finally died in 1980.

All that’s left of Macfadden’s publishing empire now is a handful of trade publications, unseen by the general public. I imagine one of its leading titles has old Bernarr rolling over in his grave: Pizza Today.

But while the publishing is mostly gone now, and Macfadden himself is nearly forgotten, his greatest passion— physical development— is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and those who’ve followed in his footsteps inspire millions around the world.

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– – – Christopher Snowden







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The Death of Thelma Todd

December 13, 2010 at 3:52 am (General blather, Photo Gallery)

Thelma Todd and Richard Dix, co-stars in The Gay Defender (1927).

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This week marks the 75th anniversary of Thelma Todd’s mysterious death, so there’s no better time to share some images I’ve collected recently.

We tend to think of her as a star of the talkies, but she was active in films from late 1925, and she worked her way up the ladder fairly quickly, playing leads within a couple of years. Her fans will scowl at me for saying this, but I think the talkie revolution knocked her career off track; from that point on she tended not to play leads, and she was more often cast in comedies than in dramas. I know, I know— you love those comedies. Well, so do I, but I’m not sure that doing two-reelers for Hal Roach was the career she most wanted for herself.

Let me say right upfront: I’m no authority on the facts about Thelma’s death. But then I’m not sure that anybody is. The only book-length examination is Andy Edmonds’ Hot Toddy (1989), which I’ve skimmed but haven’t read. I don’t want to read it. There are so many mistakes in Edmonds’ books on Virginia Hill and the Arbuckle manslaughter trials that I don’t want to absorb any more misinformation about the Todd case.

Others who have read her book have skewered it for accuracy issues. Front and center is the assertion that Thelma was murdered on the order of Lucky Luciano, a scenario for which there’s no evidence whatsoever.

Information on the internet doesn’t even rise to the middling heights of Andy Edmonds. Rumors and legend are blended with facts, sources are seldom cited, and apparently everyone’s telling whatever story they want to believe in.

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A 1932 publicity photo, from the files of the San Francisco Examiner.

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The back of the photo shows that it was used in November 1935, to illustrate a story about threats the actress had been receiving.

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Reported harassment of Todd had been in the news earlier, in March 1935.

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Here’s how that photo appeared in the newspaper.

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So it’s no wonder that when Todd turned up dead later that year, people began whispering about murder, and they’ve been whispering ever since.

We often hear about the studios’ power to squelch official investigations into such things, but the Los Angeles Police Department went right to work on the Todd case. There was an autopsy and a grand jury hearing. Some of this material is available. Her death certificate can be seen here, and there’s even a company selling a copy of the 125-page coroner’s inquest report. The police files seem to be off-limits; I’ve heard they’ve been sealed, like those on the Black Dahlia case.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Thelma Todd’s Cafe, photographed the day her body was discovered, December 16, 1935. Among the few things that all sources agree upon is that Todd co-owned the Cafe with the more-or-less retired director Roland West. Another idea, widely and confidently disclosed, is that the second floor was dedicated to illegal gambling, an operation coveted by organized crime figures. Whether that’s even true or not, I don’t know, and considering all the half-truths and wild guesses that permeate the reporting about Todd’s death, I hesitate to accept it. Did mobsters kill her? Andy Edmonds says so, and points to Lucky Luciano; Black Dahlia researcher Donald Wolfe also thinks so, but he points to Bugsy Siegel. Neither author offers much in the way of hard evidence.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Newspaper sketch of the crime scene. After a dinner party at the Trocadero, Todd was dropped off at the Cafe at about 3:15 on the morning of Sunday, December 15, 1935.  Her body was discovered in her car, inside the unlocked garage near the top right-had corner of this sketch, on the morning of Monday, December 16.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The garage. December 16, 1935.

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As she was found. I’ve cropped the photo so you can see the details, but it’s otherwise unretouched.

The coroner found a significant level of carbon monoxide in her blood, and determined that death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. At the time Thelma was discovered, the ignition was on, but the car’s engine had died with a couple of gallons of gas still in the tank. The theory is that Thelma, cold and unable to get into her apartment at the locked Cafe, trudged up to her car in the garage, started it up and turned on the heater. In time, she was overcome by odorless carbon monoxide fumes in the closed garage.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Captain Bert Wallis of the Los Angeles Police Department examines the body.

Skeptics of the official account say that Thelma’s body showed signs of a beating, variously involving broken ribs, a broken nose, a chipped tooth or some combination thereof. I don’t see anything like that in these photos, but then I haven’t read the coroner’s report. Of course, if the coroner did shoot down that theory, some would say he was only covering up the true facts. Ultimately, nothing changes the mind of a devoted conspiracy theorist.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Capt. Wallis again, as seen from the other side of the car.

One complication for the official story is that the man living in the apartment above the garage testified that he never heard the car start. Personally, I probably wouldn’t hear a car start at 3:30 in the morning either: I’d be fast asleep. But some sources say that the engine on Thelma’s 1932 Lincoln Phaeton was particularly loud, so who knows?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Removing the body from the car.

Another point of contention is the report that the coroner found peas and carrots among the contents of Thelma’s stomach, and we’re told that these were not on the Trocadero’s menu.

When Thelma’s body was discovered that Monday morning, she was still wearing the same clothes she’d worn to the Trocadero party.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The shoes Thelma was wearing.

Interestingly, nearly every version of the story tells us that her shoes were found to be in pristine condition, suggesting that she couldn’t possibly have walked up the hill all the way from the Cafe, and that therefore her body must have been placed in the car by… someone. But clearly, the soles of the shoes (at least that one on the left) most certainly are scuffed. So much for that theory.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Also from the Examiner photo file was this copy of an anonymous letter the police received shortly after Thelma’s death. It seems to be sincere. What do you think?

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Thelma Todd lies in state at Pierce Brothers’ Mortuary. After the funeral, her body was cremated, and her mother retained the ashes until she herself died. The ashes were later buried with the mother’s remains.

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December 28, 1935: Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco attends the grand jury hearing. Thelma had been married to him from 1932 to 1934, and he remains a mysterious figure. Depending on who’s telling the story, DiCicco was a former pimp, former bootlegger, a wealthy playboy, a Hollywood agent, a press agent, or Lucky Luciano’s “right-hand man.” Many sources claim he was involved with organized crime, but I haven’t been able to turn up anything reliable to corroborate that. Carl Sifakis’ Mafia Encyclopedia discusses plenty of Los Angeles mob figures, but DiCicco’s name doesn’t appear in it anywhere.

DiCicco was certainly a part of Hollywood nightlife. In 1941, he married the 17-year-old heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, who says in her autobiographical writings that he was a violent boozer (“He would take my head and bang it against the wall”). Whether he was this violent with Thelma too, we don’t know, but it’s a reasonable assumption.

He was present at the Trocadero the night before Thelma’s death. We’re told that the two had a sharp argument, which may or may not be significant. Later, he left town, and he was in New York when the grand jury summoned him to return and testify. In the words of the original caption to this press photo, “He declared that murder or suicide were at least tenable theories, adding, however, ‘I have no idea how Thelma died.'”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

There are other wrinkles to the story. Thelma’s relationship with Roland West is hard to pin down; apparently it was more than a business affair. But he was still married, to the silent-era semi-star Jewel Carmen.

Carmen’s own closet was full of skeletons: in 1913, the then-underage actress had been involved in a prostitution/extortion racket. She was arrested for it, but the authorities were frustrated when various parties involved fled the state, and the case fell apart. Anyway, she changed her name and managed to keep a toehold in the movie business, fading away in the mid-1920s. I’m sure the Thelma Todd investigation was the last thing Jewel Carmen wanted to see happen. One of the press photos is a composite of everybody known to be related in any way to Thelma’s death, and the only one of them wearing black sunglasses is Jewel Carmen.

It’s been reported that Roland West made a sort of deathbed confession concerning the Todd case. According to this report, he admitted that he’d locked her out on that fateful night (whether he locked her out of the Cafe, or locked her into the garage, depends on who’s telling the story). For the record, the woman who discovered Thelma’s body was able to do so because the garage was unlocked.

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As I said earlier, I’m not an expert on this case. But I’m inclined to accept the official story. Your mileage may vary.

The bottom line is that a beautiful and talented actress passed away all too soon. That simple, sad fact has become overgrown with innuendo and suspicion, and some of it may be worth investigating, but any way you look at it… we lost a great one, 75 years ago this week.

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– – – Christopher Snowden




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A Change in Plans

November 8, 2010 at 1:40 am (General blather)

Paramount made the film, but changed the title to Special Delivery (1927).

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In late 1923, filmmakers found themselves in a bidding war for the screen rights to the popular play Merton of the Movies.

Reportedly, Buster Keaton was among them, but he lost out to Famous Players-Lasky. Nevertheless, it was announced that Keaton would embark on a similar story, initially titled The Misfit.

The main character of The Misfit would be a small-town projectionist, who goes to Hollywood and ultimately becomes a wealthy film producer. Kathryn McGuire was to be the leading lady, replacing two previous candidates: Natalie Talmadge Keaton, who had retired from the screen, and Marion Harlan, a Sennett beauty who had to drop out because of illness.

The storyline of The Misfit underwent considerable changes before the finished film was released as Sherlock Jr.

(Motion Picture, March 1924, pages 70-72.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes a film never got out of the starting gate.

Erich von Stroheim was slated to direct and co-star in a Constance Talmadge project called East of the Setting Sun in the fall of 1925. He set about writing a screenplay for it, but the film was never made.

(Exhibitors Herald, 8/8/25, page 38.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In fact, Stroheim’s intentions would be foiled throughout his career, but sometimes that may have been just as well.

He was determined to get Norman Kerry to play the lead in The Merry Widow, but had to take John Gilbert instead. He wanted Mary Philbin for The Wedding March, but had to settle for Fay Wray.

(Screen Secrets, March 1930, page 61.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Paramount announced New Morals for the 1926-1927 screen season, but abandoned the project. In its place, director Mal St. Clair was assigned a Richard Dix boxing drama, Knockout Reilly.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Movie studios weren’t immune to frustrated intentions, either. M-G-M had high hopes for a science fiction/adventure project, The Mysterious Island, based on a Jules Verne novel.

Originally announced for the 1925-1926 season, the ambitious production went forward in fits and starts. After three directors and a small fortune had been thrown into it, the film finally hit the screen in the fall of 1929, complete with talking and Technicolor sequences. It was not a success.

(Exhibitors Herald, 8/8/25, page 22.)

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M-G-M’s upcoming production of The Torrent (1926) was heavily hyped to exhibitors, with full-page ads in the trade magazines and in this preview book. Intended as a breakout vehicle for Aileen Pringle, the starring role was instead given to a promising newcomer by the name of Garbo.

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Sensing potential stardom in Garbo after The Torrent, the studio cast her in Flesh and the Devil, pulling Carmel Myers out of the project. Incidentally, neither Lew Cody nor Pauline Starke would make it into Paris. Those roles ended up going to Charles Ray and Joan Crawford!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

A major studio like M-G-M had so many stars under contract, and so many projects on the production slate, that substitutions were inevitable.

At times, it could turn into a game of musical chairs. For example, the studio announced in August 1925 that Aileen Pringle would star in its upcoming comedy Dance Madness. Claire Windsor got the part instead.

It was announced that Claire Windsor would play the female lead in Bardelys the Magnificent. But the role went to Eleanor Boardman.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Boardman and Renee Adoree were announced for leads in Sally, Irene and Mary. Those roles ended up going to Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford.

(Exhibitors Herald, 8/8/25, page 22.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Let’s wrap up with a couple examples of films that had multiple substitutions for the same role.

It wasn’t hard for the producers of John Barrymore’s film Tempest (1928) to find a leading lady. It was harder for them to hang onto one.

Their first pick, Greta Nissen, was dropped and replaced with Vera Veronina, who was then replaced by Dorothy Sebastian.

Sebastian worked on the film for four weeks before being replaced by Camilla Horn.

(Motion Picture, March 1930, page 94.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Camilla Horn, wearing the expression of an actress who expects to be replaced at any moment, is seen here with John Barrymore in Tempest (1928).

* * * * * * * * * * * *

United Artists’ Exhibitor Book for the 1928-1929 season announced a new Charlie Chaplin film to be entitled City Lights, with his co-star from The Circus, Merna Kennedy, as the female lead.

But Chaplin wasn’t satisfied , and replaced her with Virginia Cherrill. After many frustrations with the inexperienced Cherrill, he canned her and brought in Georgia Hale, the female lead from his 1925 hit The Gold Rush. Fearing Cherrill would sue him if she didn’t get the role, Chaplin brought her back and dismissed Hale.

Along the way, he cast his friends Harry Crocker and Henry Clive for roles in the film, but let both of them go as well. Even the film’s storyline, which originally involved the Little Tramp and a small black newsboy, underwent a complete transformation.

Not surprisingly, production dragged on far longer than expected, but when it was finally released in 1931, City Lights emerged as one of the finest films of the silent era… and practically the last.

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– – – Christopher Snowden




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The Magic and Madness of Movie Weekly

October 25, 2010 at 6:33 am (General blather, Photo Gallery)

Late in its life, Movie Weekly went to color covers, but diminishing circulation (and a 50% hike in its cover price) finally killed the magazine.

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If you love silent movies, you’ve just gotta love Movie Weekly, but this happily unpretentious little magazine has been overlooked for 85 years now.

I can understand why. With articles like “Why the Screen Stars Change Their Names,” it’s about as lightweight as it can be. It’s not necessarily an infallible source of verifiable journalistic integrity, either (though I haven’t seen very many flat-out lies in its pages).

But there just isn’t anything else like it. Imagine a magazine all about silent movies, written by a twisted genius whose mind was 60% that of William K. Everson and 40% that of Howard Stern. That’s Movie Weekly.

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Look at that teaser! Movie School Students Forced to Endure “Petting!” How could anyone not want to read that article?

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Film fans of the 1920s could find some fairly serious reporting about the movies in the dignified, and very worthy, Photoplay and Motion Picture. There were lots of photos and clowning in Film Fun, erudite profiles and short stories in Classic, and high-art pretension in Shadowland.

But Movie Weekly operated on a whole different level. Where else would you find movie star interviews like “Lewis Stone Tells How Women Can Be Fooled” (February 24, 1923) or “I Shall Marry a Man of My Own Race” (November 17, 1923)?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Every now and then, a prominent film star would visit the editorial offices and “edit” the next issue, selecting photos to be run and writing their own captions for the lead articles. Everyone from Baby Peggy to William S. Hart “edited” an issue of Movie Weekly… including Bebe Daniels.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Even Valentino put his stamp on an issue, which turned out particularly well for anyone wanting loads of articles about Rudolph Valentino. It tends to be a bit pricy on eBay.

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Another hallmark of Movie Weekly was the way so many of the most eye-catching articles were titled like quotes. Not direct quotes, of course. One can imagine the horror in Hollywood when an innocent interview emerged in the pages of Movie Weekly with titles like these:

” ‘Are All Women Gold Diggers? YES!’ Says Hope Hampton”

” ‘You Use Too Much Rouge!’ Says Lillian Gish”

” ‘Hollywood is a Hick Town,’ Says Conrad Nagel”

” ‘Rudolph is Not Bald!’ Says Mrs. Valentino”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Other interviews were re-written by staffers and dressed up as essays, as if a Hollywood celebrity had held up the production of her latest film to compose a special manifesto for Movie Weekly readers:

“Why a Prudish Girl Can’t Be Popular,” by Claire Windsor

“Why I Love Money,” by Mae Murray

“Why the Public Does Not Mind Bad Pictures,” by director John S. Robertson

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The covers often featured up-and-coming starlets, many of whom never got very far in Hollywood. Clara Bow was an unknown when she was a Movie Weekly cover girl in 1923. Jean Arthur made the cover that September, years before finding screen stardom.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ve been collecting issues of Movie Weekly for years, and I have digital images of other issues as well. Hopefully I’ve whetted your appetite for more of this mischievous, rambunctious and occasionally devious little magazine. To be honest, its articles generally aren’t as lurid or scandalous as their titles imply. But they’re still fun, and often enlightening.

I plan to run selected articles as a regular feature of this blog, for as long as you guys seem to enjoy them.

Here’s a taste.

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Margaret Leahy was an English beauty contest winner who was awarded a guaranteed role in a Hollywood movie. Producer Joseph Schenck gave her the female second lead in Norma Talmadge’s Within the Law (1923), but she proved so unsatisfactory that she was replaced after a week and hastily assigned to Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923) instead, a consolation prize that relieved Schenck of his contractual obligations. There were no subsequent roles, and she spent the rest of her life despising Hollywood. Click on the image to enlarge it.

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From the same issue. Click on the image to enlarge.

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A bit of premature optimism, from the same issue. Click on the image to enlarge.

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– – – Christopher Snowden





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The Picture Palace

October 11, 2010 at 2:02 am (General blather, Photo Gallery)

The groundbreaking. Here, on San Francisco’s Market Street, would be built the largest, grandest and most opulent Fox Theater west of the Mississippi.

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In the late silent era, two dominant trends were underway in the movie business. One was the transition to soundtracks. The story of Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone, and its triumph in The Jazz Singer (1927), is well known. But the rival process, Fox’s Movietone, sounded just as good and never went out of sync. Fox didn’t have Al Jolson, but it did have sound footage of Charles Lindbergh taking off for France, and that was just as compelling to audiences of the time, if not more so. In the end, Movietone won.

Anyway, the other big trend was the race to build showcase theaters in every large American city. Here again Fox was a leading player, and the success of Movietone encouraged the company to spend whatever it took to show up the competition.

It made sense to scale up. The theaters cost a fortune to build, but they could seat thousands of upper- and middle-class patrons paying top dollar for the experience of a first-class show. With a little luck, an outfit like Fox could make a profit on its latest film just by showcasing it in the company’s flagship theaters; afterward, the film could make the rounds of the neighborhood and small-town theaters, and gross even more.

The San Francisco Fox was built to be the last word in film presentation. It seated over 4600 customers. The lobby alone was eighty feet long, forty feet wide and seventy-five feet high, and had its own pipe organ, so customers could enjoy music on the journey to the auditorium.

The auditorium boasted a pipe organ so enormous that only four others in the country compared, and none was larger. The domed ceiling was 110 feet up, and the throw from the projection booth to the screen was 212 feet. High up in the back of the auditorium was a private theater with enough seating for several dozen executives or visiting celebrities.

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The lobby, under construction. Early 1929.

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High above the lobby floor, serial star Ruth Roland balances on a two-by-four, a can of gold paint in one hand and a brush in the other. May 13, 1929.

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Opening night: June 28, 1929. The feature presentation is Fox’s premiere of Behind That Curtain, a talkie featuring a then-obscure detective character named Charlie Chan. But that’s only the icing on the cake. There are also dedication ceremonies, a full-scale musical presentation on stage and Hollywood stars in attendance.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Fox opened very late in the silent era. Fox had gone virtually full-tilt for talkies by this time, but the theater also screened a lot of M-G-M releases, among them silents like Garbo’s The Single Standard and The Kiss, and Lon Chaney’s Where East is East and Thunder. There were always stage presentations, too, typically musical programs and a full orchestra.

There were personal appearances as well. Laurel and Hardy appeared at the Fox for the week of November 22, 1929. In their act, the boys walked onstage and got into an argument that escalated until they were tearing each other’s clothes to bits. Their director, James Parrott, stepped in and ended up having his own tuxedo shredded. A plant from the audience and the theatre’s emcee also got caught in the melee. The crowds loved it.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

San Francisco awaits another evening at the fabulous Fox. This week’s feature is Lucky Star with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Summer 1929.

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The Fox lobby.

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The view overhead.

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Ceiling detail.

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A behind-the-scenes view of the auditorium and stage area, with the mighty Wurlitzer at lower left.

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The view from the stage.

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William Fox’s movie empire was shaken by the stock market crash of October-November 1929. His films were still successful, but he’d been on a buying binge, of which theater construction was just a portion. Suddenly the mogul owed millions to his bankers, and with the economy slipping from recession to depression, the bankers took over. The Fox Theaters were re-organized, and while they remained first-class picture palaces, there were cutbacks.

The San Francisco Fox closed its doors in October 1932. When it re-opened on April 1, 1933, the lavish stage shows were largely over with, and double features became the norm.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The theater adapted to the times with its chin up. Live performances returned for a time, though now it was vaudeville rather than full orchestras. The Fox remained the city’s dominant theater through the war years and beyond. There were some special engagements, and more than a few films were held over week after week (as late as 1956, The King and I ran for nearly nine weeks).

But the world was changing. As with other major American cities, San Francisco saw its comfortable class of citizens move to the suburbs in large numbers. Downtown lost its shine, and turned a little gritty. Television hit the movie industry hard; theaters large and small found it tougher to turn a profit.

By 1961, the Fox was running things like Alakazam the Great and Snow White and the Three Stooges. The handwriting was on the wall. But the Fox didn’t die quietly.  The Bolshoi Ballet performed there that year, and the theater became an occasional convention destination. Midnight organ concerts brought new audiences.

Still, senior management of Fox West Coast Theaters elected to close the theater before its fiscal decline could turn into disaster. It was hoped that the city would buy the theater, but it didn’t. There were fears that the city would be saddled with a white elephant, one requiring regular maintenance. This decision brought some dismay, because while the urban preservation movement had not been born yet, the Fox had its fans.

Just not enough of them.

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After a third of a century, the Fox sells its final tickets. Looks like someone knows there’s a photographer watching. February 16, 1963.

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Taking a last look.

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When the end finally came, it seemed as if the entire city wanted to say goodbye. There were four farewell events, culminating in a grand finale on February 16, 1963. A capacity crowd was there. The film program, ironically, was the television production Hollywood: The Fabulous Era (1962), but that was just one dish at the nostalgia banquet. Celebrities on hand included Jane Russell and Jane Wyman, as well as the nearly-forgotten Lois Moran, who’d been the leading lady of the Fox’s debut movie, Behind That Curtain, back in 1929.

The grand old Wurlitzer thundered a medley of songs, concluding with the local favorite, “San Francisco,” the title tune from the 1936 film of the same name.

At the end of the evening’s program, the dignitaries joined hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne” on the empty stage, with all curtains raised clear back to the far wall. The lights went out, one bank at a time, until only a lone bare worklight remained, hanging from the ceiling. A stagehand walked over and turned out that light.

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The next day. Blowing it out to the bare walls.

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The day after the final farewell, the Fox’s furnishings were sold off, to whoever wanted them, for whatever they’d bring. Many, if not most of the theater’s treasures had been there since 1929, and had been gathered from all over the world. Now, cash was king. Some articles brought a healthy price (the ornate box office sold for $9,000), while others sold for a pittance (ninety custom ashtrays, $25 for the lot). Whatever didn’t sell would wait for the wrecking ball.

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Keith Rockwell, the new owner of the Fox box office.

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I’d like to think this found a buyer, but…

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Stanley Mical dismantles theater seats he’s just bought.

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You know how the story ends.

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Scenes from the fall.

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Much of the destruction took place late at night.

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And the walls came down.

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The grand entrance was the last to go.

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New construction soon went up where the Fox had stood. It’s still there, a massive but faceless hulk of office and living space, built in the cold, sleek modernist style of the 1960s. I don’t have a picture of it. I don’t want one.

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– – – Christopher Snowden






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Hard Times

September 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm (General blather)

A vamp reels in another victim. Virginia Pearson in Sister Against Sister (1917).

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This post is so relentlessly depressing that I’ve put off writing it for weeks now. Here goes.

Hollywood wasn’t completely a land of make-believe, and success in the movie business was no guarantee of financial security. Here are a few examples of silent stars who eventually found themselves “up against it.”

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In spite of having fairly busy acting careers, Sheldon Lewis and his wife Virginia Pearson were forced to declare bankruptcy in 1924.

Poor investments weren’t to blame, or too much high living. Virginia had been badly hurt in an automobile accident, and the bills that followed overwhelmed their finances to the tune of $9,920, forcing them into bankruptcy court.

(Motion Picture, July 1924, page 65.)

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Today it’s lost and nearly forgotten, but Over the Hill to the Poor House was one of the most acclaimed films (and biggest hits) of 1920. Mary Carr was its heart.

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A melancholy poem of 1872 entitled “Over the Hill to the Poor House” inspired a popular folk song and a William Fox production of 1920. This tale of a hard-working mother of six, who sacrifices for her children only to be abandoned by them and consigned to a poorhouse, was a smash hit with audiences. The mother was played by Mary Carr (coincidentally a mother of six herself), who would enact similar roles for many years thereafter.

Hard times struck in 1931.  A friend needed to borrow money, and Mary co-signed a note. The friend defaulted on the debt, and the lender went after them both.

Mary hadn’t found much work since talkies arrived. With little money saved and more creditors hounding her, she had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

Against liabilities of $13,000, her meager assets included a wedding ring valued at five dollars, clothes valued at forty dollars, and similar items.

(Motion Picture Classic, July 1931, page 32.)

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Mary Nolan, about the time she was appearing in such films as John Gilbert’s Desert Nights (1929) and Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928).

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Mary Nolan, former Follies girl and 1920s film actress, ran into a lot of trouble in 1932, much of it financial. She and her husband had established the Mary Nolan Gown Shop in the Los Angeles area, but the venture failed completely. As she later testified, the store took in sales of only $75 in several weeks of operation. The shop closed, and lawsuits followed from suppliers and employees who hadn’t been paid.

Nolan confessed in court on April 14, 1932, that her assets amounted to exactly fifteen cents, noting that she and her husband were living entirely on the charity of friends and upon the patience of her landlord, to whom she owed seven weeks’ rent on their $17.50-per-week apartment.

Legal trouble also followed, as she was found guilty of violating the wage claims law and sentenced to thirty days in jail. She jumped bail, and later that year she was arrested in New York over another complaint involving a bounced check for a Minneapolis hotel bill of $304.48.

(Los Angeles Times)

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Betty Blythe in her greatest role (1921).

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Betty Blythe, a statuesque star of the early 1920s, was playing bit roles a decade later. Asked by a reporter how she felt about the comedown, she replied:

“I don’t want to think about it. What is the use, anyway? I’ve had my share of good luck in pictures, and I’ve had my run of bad fortune– perhaps more than I deserved. But I don’t complain about it, because I know the laws that govern actors and actresses too well. You can’t be up too many years without a sudden, jarring fall. I’m experiencing that fall now and am quite resigned to it.”

(“Ex-Favorites Pocket Pride to Get Work,” Los Angeles Times, 8/20/33.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Maurice Costello had been one of the biggest stars of the nickelodeon era, placing thirteenth in a 1913 poll of favorite film stars (in which he gathered more votes than Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge combined).

However, his stardom was over by the end of World War I. In the 1930s, the sixtyish actor was dependent upon his family for his income.

He supplemented that with whatever work he could find as a Hollywood extra, and the former matinee idol was literally just another face in the crowd, milling about in the background of new stars’ films. In 1940, for example, he earned just $12.50 a day as an extra for 20th Century-Fox’s Tin Pan Alley.

When he died in 1950, his entire estate consisted of an old car valued at $50, and $41.55 in a bank account.

(Bob Birchard, “Maurice Costello,” in Hollywood Heritage Inc. Newsletter, Winter-Spring 2001, pages 9-10.)

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Actually, neither of the figures depicted on this poster are Maurice Costello, but the image is too cool not to use! Forgive me, Maurice, wherever you are. Incidentally, his great-granddaughter is Drew Barrymore.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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The Mob Moves In

August 29, 2010 at 7:49 am (General blather)

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American organized crime entered its golden age during the silent film era. Hollywood should have been the ideal stage for Mafia activity at the time, thanks to a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department and a small but growing crime family under the  leadership of Joseph “Iron Man” Ardizzone. But for now, the mob was focused on bootlegging. The artists and businessmen of the film colony were customers for illegal booze, not targets for shakedowns. That would change.

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“Please give me the address of Freeman’s bootlegger.” Undated letter from Mabel Normand to her secretary.

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The film capital may have been safe from the Mob, but elsewhere the movie business was already drawing the attention of organized crime. Scattered amongst issues of trade papers like Exhibitor’s Herald and Motion Picture News are startling reports of bomb threats against large movie theaters in major cities.

In Minneapolis, the Vista Theater had been open for only a week when children discovered a bomb smoldering beneath one of the seats in November 1928. This was only the latest of nearly a dozen bomb incidents in that city’s theaters since 1920. Seattle had seven of them in just the first eight months of 1928.

I wish an ambitious film history student somewhere would research these incidents. (It won’t be me!) I’m not aware that anyone’s ever studied these theater bombings, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to link them with organized crime.

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In Chicago, the organization known to its members as “the Outfit” was consolidating its power, eliminating competing gangs such as those belonging to Angelo Genna and Dean O’Banion. After the famous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” of 1929 effectively eliminated its last significant rival, the Outfit controlled organized crime operations all over the upper Midwest.

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Gladys Walton in Crossed Wires (1923).

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At the top of that heap was Al Capone, and to my knowledge he never visited California until he arrived at Alcatraz in 1934 for an extended stay. But at least one person believes Capone had a silent film connection.

In his book Gladys and Capone: The Untold Story, author John Walton (son of Universal contract player Gladys Walton) asserts that he is the son of Al Capone.

According to Walton, he was 16 when his mother confided the truth about his parentage and asked him to tell her story after her death. The story goes that his mother and Capone met around 1922, and that when Universal released her upon the expiration of her contract, it was because “they’d heard about her relationship,” that in fact she was “Capone’s girlfriend and lieutenant.”

John Walton was born in July 1929. He claimed that Capone visited his mother in the hospital very shortly afterward, even though contemporary accounts make it clear that Capone was actually imprisoned in Pennsylvania at that time.

Walton had no real evidence to support any of his story, and he conceded that “I favor my mother’s looks.” However, he added, “We’re not going to do any tests or anything like that, but no one can deny that my grandson looks like Capone.”

It should be added that Robert Schoenberg’s acclaimed 480-page biography of Al Capone contains no mention of Gladys Walton.

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The Chicago Theater, flagship of the Balaban & Katz chain, seen here a year or so after its opening. The marquee announces the Mae Murray release Broadway Rose (1922).

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As everyone knows, Capone was finally nailed on tax evasion charges and sent to prison. Eventually he was released, racked with permanent health problems caused by a nasty case of advanced syphilis (let’s hope there’s no Gladys Walton connection there). Post-Capone, the Outfit was ruled by Paul Ricca and Frank Nitto, who adjusted to a post-Prohibition world by seizing new opportunities. Labor unions were infiltrated, with results that echo the bomb scares of the 1920s.

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Al and Barney Balaban (with Samuel Katz) founded what had become the dominant chain of movie theaters in Chicago and the upper Midwest. Aligned with First National, the chain was purchased in 1926 by Paramount. (The loss of those screens tipped First National into a death spiral that ended when Warner Bros. bought a controlling stake a couple of years later.)

By the early 1930s, Tommy Maloy, the president of Local 110 of the Motion Picture Operators Union, was extorting $150 per week from Balaban & Katz in exchange for labor peace with the theaters’ projectionists.

This was followed by a good news-bad news development in 1934. Maloy’s extortion racket abruptly ended with his murder. Then, Barney Balaban was confronted by George E. Browne, de facto head of Chicago’s Local 2 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Browne demanded $20,000 a year (plus the usual $150 per week) to keep stink bombs from being thrown into Balaban & Katz’s theaters. Lurking in Browne’s shadow was the Outfit.

Balaban gave in. Before long, the Outfit demanded a new payoff of $60,000 to keep union projectionists from striking. This money was paid too. His capitulation didn’t do his career any harm; in time Balaban became the president of Paramount Pictures. And anyway, it could’ve been worse: the Loew’s chain of theaters was shaken down for a whopping $150,000 in 1935.

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Meanwhile, the Outfit’s tentacles had reached out to crime families in other cities. A low-level bootlegger named Johnny Roselli had been dispatched to Los Angeles in the winter of 1923, and by the end of Prohibition he’d become the human bond between that city’s burgeoning Mafia family (now headed by Jack Dragna, his predecessor “Iron Man” Ardizzone having been murdered), and the home office in Chicago.

Roselli’s biographers, Charles Rappleye and Ed Becker, say the ambitious young hood did some work as a Hollywood extra in those early years. He certainly learned a few things about the film business. Multiple accounts say he became close to Bryan Foy, a prominent producer at Warners, and he was a key figure in helping the mobbed-up IATSE take over organized labor at the studios.

Those studios made extortion payments in the low seven figures in exchange for labor peace, and Roselli went to prison when the racket was finally exposed. That exposure came about in an unexpected way: the chief of Twentieth Century-Fox was under investigation for income tax evasion, in the course of which a $100,000 payoff check came to light. After he was convicted and sent to prison, he protested that what he’d described ambiguously and uncomfortably during his trial as a “loan” had actually been an extortion payment. He was Joseph M. Schenck; back in the 1920s he’d produced the films of Natalie and Constance Talmadge and Buster Keaton, among others.

Back to Roselli for a minute. He and his associates didn’t stay in prison for long, and soon he was right back in Hollywood. Mafia historian Carl Sifakis reports that among Roselli’s later adventures was an episode in which he staged a crooked poker game that clipped $400,000 from Zeppo Marx and Phil Silvers.

Anyway, Roselli made his final appearance in 1976, when his corpse was discovered in an oil drum, bobbing in the waters off Miami. Whether he was whacked by the Mob or by vengeful fans of Sgt. Bilko remains a mystery.

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Meet Vincenzo Capone, the elder brother of Al Capone. Running away from home at an early age, he turned up in the Midwest and worked in a circus, developing a love of Native American culture and the old West. Assuming a new identity, he worked in law enforcement for the rest of his career under the name “Richard Hart,” a name he chose in tribute to his idol, silent star William S. Hart. True story.  Here he is with his wife in September 1951, having been served a subpoena to testify at the trial of his other brother, Ralph, a lifelong but relatively minor figure in the Outfit.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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