Is the Flapper Capable of Love? YES! Says Ramon Novarro

December 17, 2010 at 7:43 am (Movie Weekly)

Our latest Movie Weekly offers an ardent embrace from a faraway land of exotic romance. Miriam Cooper and Kenneth Harlan are the passionate pair, and while the all-American Harlan seems a bit out of his element, Miriam looks blissfully at home in the dream… and exceptionally well-dressed for it.

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Author Alma Talley assures us that, while Ramon Novarro may be Mexican, he’s no “greaser.”  He’s certainly a fan of the flappers (and the feeling is mutual)… but I wouldn’t count on his marrying one.

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Most of the silent-era movie magazines had an “Answer Man,” and Movie Weekly filled that role with “The Colonel.” In this column from the September 29, 1923 issue, he helpfully answers your questions and gives out the home addresses of the stars (for those of you who are really determined to meet your favorites). He’s a bit off the mark where Ricardo Cortez is concerned, but otherwise the man knows his onions.

If the girl in the photo looks vaguely familiar, you’ve probably seen Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances. She’s the hat check girl in that one. Looks like she was also in Colleen Moore’s Flaming Youth, which would be news to the Internet Movie Database.

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Counting Down the Days

December 16, 2010 at 5:50 am (One Lil' Picture)

Our Gang’s future Miss Crabtree with a timely update.

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Ending It All

December 15, 2010 at 5:39 am (Special Report)

I’d like to thank everyone for reading the blog, and for the wonderful comments and compliments I’ve been getting these past three years.

But I think it’s time to wind it up and close it down. Not immediately, but soon.

Until then, new stuff will continue to appear, and let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see again, before the final fade-out.

Thanks again!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.'”

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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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“Flappers Will Never Go Out of Style,” Says Pauline Garon

December 10, 2010 at 5:47 am (Movie Weekly)

She was only barely in the movies at this point, but dancer/actress Gilda Gray still made the cover of this 1923 issue of Movie Weekly. Here’s a peek at what was inside…

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Pert little Pauline Garon is an obscure figure to us today, but back then she was in the vanguard of screen flappers. Sadly, little of her work is in circulation now, apart from 1924’s The Average Woman, which I produced on DVD myself (with Bessie Love’s The Sea Lion as a double feature, $18.95 cheap, makes the perfect Christmas gift, plug plug plug). Anyway, she was quite the firecracker… a quality that never does go out of style.

Click on the image to enlarge.

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The publicity mill turns for the almost unrecognizably young Douglas Fairbanks Jr., on the occasion of his first starring role, in the adventure comedy Stephen Steps Out (1923).

Click on the image to enlarge.

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True Heart Susie Asks…

December 8, 2010 at 5:17 am (One Lil' Picture)

Yes.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

 

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“My Life is in Danger,” Says Sessue Hayakawa

December 3, 2010 at 7:22 am (Movie Weekly)

Last week, I posted a couple of articles from this issue… here are a couple more.

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Charles Ray discusses his new productions for United Artists, including his upcoming “super-feature,” The Courtship of Miles Standish. No expense will be spared. And as a United Artists producer, all of those expenses are being paid out of Ray’s pocket. Because of exhibition contracts, UA releases tend to earn best in big-city picture palaces. But Ray’s fans are mostly in small towns and rural areas. Can you guess how this story ends?

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Bucking all the odds, Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa had become a star of the American silent screen. But his career was on the downswing in the early 1920s, and he left Hollywood behind. Ironically, when he returned to his native country, he found himself a controversial figure, considered too Americanized at a time of rising Japanese nationalism. What do you do when you’re too Japanese to suit the Americans, and too American to suit the Japanese? You move to Europe.

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Heaven’s Nickelodeon

December 1, 2010 at 5:54 am (One Lil' Picture)

Advertisement postcard, 1912.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

 

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