Cover by Rolf Armstrong

December 27, 2010 at 12:31 am (Photo Gallery)

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

Throughout the silent era, the typical fan magazine featured a film star on the cover, almost always a young actress. It was impractical to use color photographs in those days, so the images were paintings, created by a relative handful of artists who specialized in such work.

My favorite of these artists was Rolf Armstrong (1889-1960), who cranked out an incredible number of beautiful portraits for magazines, calendars, advertisements and sheet music.

His most familiar work in the magazine field is probably a long series of breathtaking covers for College Humor in the early 1930s. His movie magazine covers were usually one-offs appearing here and there, but the publishers of Screenland signed a deal with him in 1923, and over the next year that magazine’s cover bore a succession of new Armstrong film star portraits.

Here’s a sampling of that series.

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

February — Marion Davies

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

May — Anita Stewart

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

June — May McAvoy

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

July — Pola Negri

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

September — Nita Naldi

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

 

Advertisements

Permalink 4 Comments

Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2010 at 12:55 am (Photo Gallery)

This suspiciously slender Santa leaves a radio for Our Gang. (Or is he taking it?)

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

Joan Crawford’s got everything but Christmas stockings.

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

An elegant Louise Brooks and a tiny tree.

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

Carole Lombard with an armload of Christmas cheer.

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

Santa’s left music for Richard Arlen and Mary Brian in The Light of Western Stars (1930).

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

Good things come in small packages, and Janet Gaynor’s quite a small package herself.

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

Permalink Leave a Comment

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).

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how that photo appeared in the newspaper.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

 

 

 

Permalink 7 Comments

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

December 6, 2010 at 2:30 am (Photo Gallery)

I love the look of the era

Detail from an incredibly detailed and lush magazine ad for Djer-Kiss eau de toilette, 1921. It was a whole different world back then.

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

I love the trains

Here’s how Helen Gibson changes trains. In the years before diesels began replacing the majestic steam locomotives, the railroad thriller was a genre all its own… and it’s just about my favorite.

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

I love the music

Early jazz and blues get most of the scholarly attention. But besides the great vocalists (like Gene Austin, Whispering Jack Smith and Ruth Etting), my favorite vintage music is early country. It took me a little while to embrace the music of the Carter Family (above), but now I listen to it by the hour.

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

I love the style

I don’t know anything about fashion. I just know what I like. Here’s a 1927 advertisement for flapper elegance.

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

I love westerns

I’m not such an enlightened being that I don’t enjoy watching guys fight, shoot at each other and ride horses across the countryside. I can respect Dreyer, Lillian Gish and Soviet dramas, but to be honest with you I no longer watch that stuff. Life is short and filled with too much tedium already, so give me Hoot Gibson. (Here he is, standing at right, in The Bearcat, 1922).

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

I love the Great Crash

Money and chaos make for vivid history, and the Crash of 1929 is my favorite event of the era. Not that I don’t sympathize with the folks who lost their shirts, but sometimes great financial dramas make great human dramas too.

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

I love the laughter

I don’t cover silent comedy much in this blog, but it’s always been a great love of mine. And while I’m as fond of Chaplin and Keaton as any of their other devotees, my own favorite is probably Billy Bevan. The Australian-born comic toiled throughout the 1920s in Mack Sennett two-reelers without ever getting his own series (much less a shot at doing features). But I love him. Here he is in The Lion’s Whiskers (1925).

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

I love the pin-ups

Once upon a time, pin-up artists did more than paint generic pictures of girls. They strove to also create a context, like this 1925 orientalist fantasy by Henry Clive. In later years, the mission would change from portraying beauty to portraying sexy. But before all that, artists like Gene Pressler and Rolf Armstrong did some breathtaking work.

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

I love arresting images

Sometimes a roll of Lifesavers is just a roll of Lifesavers. Then again, symbolism is everywhere if you look for it.

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

 

Permalink 4 Comments

Seven Women

November 29, 2010 at 3:47 am (Photo Gallery)

I kind of resent it when a vintage film star is remembered mainly for whatever tragedy may have befallen her. It’s a little voyeuristic to look past a person’s legacy and just stare at the horrible sadness that concludes her story. Admittedly, I’m as guilty of that as anyone, but not where this lady’s concerned. I’ve seen her at her luminous best in films like Fig Leaves (1926) and The Monkey Talks (1927)… so when I think of Olive Borden, I think first of that radiance.

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

Gladys Brockwell re-invented herself as a character actress in the mid-1920s, and today she’s best remembered as Janet Gaynor’s cruel sister in Seventh Heaven (1927). But she’d first made her reputation as a talented actress at Fox a decade earlier, starring in a long series of romantic melodramas. We’ll never get to see much of her early work, though—  one more reason to regret the massive vault explosion that destroyed most of the Fox silents.

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

Betty Bronson is well-known to fans of the silents, largely for Peter Pan (1924), her first starring role. Her success in that film led to choice projects like A Kiss for Cinderella and Not So Long Ago over the next year or so, in which she portrayed sweet innocence to perfection. But as she began outgrowing her teens, it was no longer clear what her “type” was. Paramount took the easy way out, seemingly casting her in anything that still had a female lead to fill. The results didn’t do her career any favors, but soon enough she left the screen to raise a family and (apparently) live happily ever after.

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

The talkie transition years were a minefield for most actresses in Hollywood. But several young starlets of the very late 1920s sailed right into talkies without any problem, and Sue Carol was one of them. Unfortunately, her output was longer on quantity than quality, and her screen career went cold as the 1930s ushered in a whole different world.  Undefeated, she simply adapted to it by becoming one of the first female agents in Hollywood.

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

Lili Damita is best remembered today for her stormy and inevitably doomed marriage to Errol Flynn. But before all that, she was a celebrated starlet of the late silent era, and Sam Goldwyn selected her to fill Vilma Banky’s slippers as Ronald Colman’s love interest in The Rescue (1929). Her exotic looks and French accent might have made her the Pola Negri of the talkies, but somehow her career never really caught fire, in spite of a few high-profile roles.

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

Marguerite de la Motte, like many other actresses, was just lucky enough to land a reasonably steady career in 1920s Hollywood… but not lucky enough to get a breakthrough hit, to really get noticed and become a true star. With unforgettable eyes like those of Barbara LaMarr or Billie Dove, she certainly had the beauty. And in films like The Unknown Soldier (1926), she proved she could really act. Hollywood was a crowded field, and there would be even less room for her in the talkie era. But she’s always been a favorite of mine.

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

Seen here with Victor McLaglen in Hot for Paris (1930), Fifi D’Orsay wasn’t necessarily the best-looking or most-talented woman in Hollywood. But she had a certain something, a sexy, energetic, electric quality we might as well call “it,” the same “it” that Clara Bow had before the microphone came along. When Fifi D’Orsay’s onscreen, your eyes are on her and nowhere else. A singer/dancer who hit town just as the first wave of screen musicals was underway, she got plenty of work and plenty of attention… for a while. But the musical craze came to a swift end, and Fifi was swept out right along with it. It’s too bad, just another example of Hollywood fumbling a great opportunity.

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

 

Permalink 2 Comments

Girls Gone Goth

November 14, 2010 at 7:34 am (Photo Gallery)

Just cutting their hair was fairly startling for women in the 1920s. Adopting the short-skirted flapper look was even more daring.

But some went in a whole new direction.

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

A darkly exotic look for Myrna Loy.

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

Lya DePutti, shortly before she left Germany for Hollywood in 1926.

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

Renee Adoree, 1928. This and the photo below were taken by M-G-M’s chief portrait photographer, Ruth Harriet Louise, for the British magazine Eve.

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

Joan Crawford, as she had never been seen before (or would be again). Ruth Harriet Louise’s contract at M-G-M expired the following year and was not renewed. Her replacement, George Hurrell, would capture the gloss and glamour of the M-G-M dream factory like no one else.

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

Lillian Gish in The Mothering Heart (1913).

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

Halloween candy: Edna Tichenor as “Arachnida, the Human Spider,” in Tod Browning’s The Show (1927).

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

Permalink 2 Comments

Glamour Queen of the Universe

November 1, 2010 at 4:18 am (Photo Gallery)

Painting by Henry Clive.

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

When she’s remembered at all, Mae Murray is remembered for the title role of Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925). That’s a great film. She does a good job in it and she gets to show off her dancing, but it’s really no more representative of her career than Night of the Hunter is representative of Lillian Gish’s.

Mae established herself as a screen beauty in the late 1910s, starring in a number of melodramas of which the most familiar example today is the ridiculous potboiler A Mormon Maid (1917). At the end of the decade, she transitioned into a genre all her own, with films centered on show business, exotic costumes, tangled romance and often a dash of crime. It was a highly successful formula, particularly when the script left room for a specialty dance number or two.

But audiences began to tire of the formula by the mid-1920s. Age, scandal and a frosty relationship with studio boss Louis B. Mayer hobbled her career further, and it sputtered out shortly after the talkie revolution.

But in her heyday, she was the most glamorous star on the screen. Here’s a look back.

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

A 1920 lobby card.

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

Detail from a lobby card for Peacock Alley (1922), with Monte Blue.

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

Detail from a trade magazine advertisement, 1922.

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

Mae vamps bullfighter Robert Frazer with her “dance of the bull” in Fascination (1922).

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

Detail from a poster for Broadway Rose (1922).

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

Detail from a lobby card for The French Doll (1923), showing the patented skyward gaze that was her most familiar expression. Hey, whatever works.

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

Permalink 1 Comment

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

 

 

 

 

Permalink 9 Comments

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

October 16, 2010 at 11:59 pm (Photo Gallery)

The July 1929 issue. Lupe Velez plays pirate for illustrator Enoch Bolles.

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

Following the era of corsets, bustles and buttoned-up shoes came the Roaring ‘Twenties… and women could roar with the best of ’em.

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

The five-wheeled Briggs & Stratton Flyer doesn’t have a lot of power, but it suits this gal just fine. Besides, that open-carriage design is great for showing off your outfit. 1920.

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

Dancer/actress Gilda Gray relaxes between scenes of Aloma of the South Seas (1926), playing the game of puff with the film’s set dressers.

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

In January 1929, M-G-M sent starlets Janis Paige (left) and Raquel Torres up to the mountains for wintry publicity photos like this one.

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

Beach parties were better before Frankie Avalon.

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

That rookie in the roomy Hollywood Stars uniform is Clara Bow. Thanks to the Stars’ chronic attendance problem, no one in the center-field bleachers will be hurt when Clara clocks a homer.

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

Not exactly running on empty.

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

Words can’t express how jealous I am of this girl.

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

 

 

Permalink 4 Comments

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.

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

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.

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

The lobby, under construction. Early 1929.

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

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.

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

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.

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

The Fox lobby.

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

The view overhead.

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

Ceiling detail.

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

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

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

The view from the stage.

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

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.

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

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

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

Taking a last look.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Mical dismantles theater seats he’s just bought.

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

You know how the story ends.

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

Scenes from the fall.

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

Much of the destruction took place late at night.

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

And the walls came down.

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

The grand entrance was the last to go.

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

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.

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

– – – Christopher Snowden

 

 

 

 

 

Permalink 11 Comments

Next page »