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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Two Not Of A Kind


Random Picks Of Late

THE PEOPLE AGAINST O' HARA (1951) --- O'Hara is young Jim Arness, accused of murder and defended by Spencer Tracy, a dipso lawyer all the more dippy for taking a capital case cuffo (as in no fee), something no lawyer in real life would do. Neither would one with sense brag to clients that he's tried eighteen murders in a row and "didn't lose one." And would any sane person, let alone trained in law and evidence, bribe a witness with a personal check? This is a same kind of hogwash that made Anatomy Of A Murder such a joke in the end. The list of absurdity goes on, and it needs all of Tracy to swat flies this yarn attracts. Legal eagles flew lower altitudes by up-tight 50's juncture, all the fun of shystering having gone with Powell, Warren William, and others of fly-by-seat-of-pant practice. There also went fun of lawyer movies. Excess of rectitude and moral chalk-walking won't let Tracy put in the easy fix as he readily would at Fox Film Corp in starter days, and for stepping out of line just once in The People Against O'Hara, we know he'll make the requisite supreme sacrifice.

There are old Tracy friends aboard (Pat O'Brien) and youth serving contract terms for Metro (Richard Anderson, William Campbell). Tracy was sent east for NY locations and strolls against majesty of waterfront and skyscrapers, a plus. O'Brien had played broken mouthpiece in a same year's Criminal Lawyer for Columbia, penny candy beside this Metro special where he'd be strictly sidekick. Parallels with elsewhere work don't stop there, another Tracy pal, James Cagney, battling the bottle as journalist in Warners' Come Fill The Cup (seen this one lately? You won’t, as it is tied up rights-wise, and Warners seems not of a mind to clear title). Unless it was comedy, Tracy/Cagney got a fillip being flawed characters by 50's recognition that gloriest days were behind them. Still, I'll take each on these terms and even in diminished vehicles, so long as magic like Tracy's gets applied as here. He was actually at a career peak as of '51, having triumphed in Father of the Bride plus a sequel, so yes, The People Against O'Hara showed profit against a mere million spent on the negative. Dore Schary had wisely sliced costs since assuming VP in charge of production duties, teaching grizzled Leo and fat cubs that you could only get gains by spending less.

VARSITY SHOW (1937) --- Alumni Dick Powell is campus-bound to speed up drag imposed by party-pooping prof Walter Catlett and staid administrators. Jivin' student bodies include two of the Lane sisters (Priscilla and Rosemary), plus music-making Fred Waring as cool faculty, and funning Johnnie (Scat) Davis, Mabel Todd, and Sterling Holloway to suggest this school has no entry standards whatever. Warner enrollments gave better fun than Paramount's, Varsity Show more fleet than elsewhere that ran too long (VS a mere 79 minutes, but whoa, sources say the thing originally went over two hours, so what happened?). This "Cheer Leader Of All Screen Musicals" was also host to Busby Berkeley for a wrap-up extravaganza, him having segued to specialty numbers and direction of non-musicals. Guest performing is in for a penny or pound: Buck and Bubbles dance twice and are janitor background otherwise, comic supreme Ted Healy practically (and thankfully) co-leads with Dick Powell. Who says Healy slipped after his Stooges skipped? The man was doing rich parts right to the end, Varsity Show followed by even better Hollywood Hotel. 1937 was looking like a banner Healy year until fate intervened. Incidentally, were WB musicals running out of steam by '37?, because both Varsity Show and Hollywood Hotel lost money that year.

Monday, March 01, 2021

The News Game As It Was, Or Never Was?


His Girl Friday, But Not Necessarily Mine

Above is a title that opens His Girl Friday. For me, it washes up the picture before it starts. What do they mean, “The Dark Ages”? Ten years before? More recently than that? Looks like the lead for a newspaper story, in this case a chicken-hearted one. Bet someone put pressure on Columbia to add this. Means of “Getting That Story” had evidently changed, reporting now a responsible pursuit, unlike days best put behind us. Oh yeah? “Incidentally You Will See In This Picture No Resemblance To The Men and Women Of The Press Of Today,” such conduct unthinkable to kid-glove practitioners of journalism in 1940. I am as result distanced from His Girl Friday going in, more appreciative of 1931’s The Front Page, which had no such caveat, all the better as lately restored to what US audiences saw first-run. When did the press become hall monitors as to how they were depicted? Certainly not two years earlier when Too Hot To Handle came out. Or 1937 and Nothing Sacred. “Well, Once Upon A Time” completes the surrender, a too-cute distancing of His Girl Friday from any sort of contemporary reality. Why not set it in the late twenties or early thirties, when “Getting That Story” Justified Anything Short of Murder”? 1940 had a Code alright, often enforced by interests powerful enough to make movies dance to their tune. Lots like today, if not operated on the Grand scale we cope with now.

The Front Page
is dark and a little gamey. People in it are not attractive. His Girl Friday announces itself, past that toadying text, as a gay lark with movie-starry sorts you want to be just like. Tobacco auctioners talk slower, this basis for one gag, a device to flatter those with as-quick minds, while others less invested feel for slower-witted Ralph Bellamy. I suspect many who adore His Girl Friday picture themselves on Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell terms. No harm there … I grew up wanting to be Basil Rathbone. HGF is treasured especially by past press people (nowadays they’re all PPP’s) looking back to when they were brash, seen-it-all, cynical in a fuzzy, do-the-right-thing-at-the-end sort of way. I bet real reporters identified much closer with Pat O’ Brien and Menjou in the 1931 version, more so the scruffy lot supporting them. Evidence suggests frontline newsmen liked a mirror that was Kirk Douglas in Ace In The Hole, a character closest to precode since precode. Cary Grant can treat people shabbily and we still want to be him, or be with him, that less because his editor is a model than simple fact he is Cary Grant. Grant is as high-octane in His Girl Friday as I ever saw him, a performance to confirm once and for all his extraordinary skill. A long middle section loses him, and he’s missed, His Girl Friday in that respect a Hound of the Baskervilles of comedy.

Clearly the 20’s roared too loudly for sensibilities in 1940. For instance, hangings as mode of execution. The Front Page dotes upon the scaffold, texture of rope a concern lest it fail to properly snap a man’s neck. His Girl Friday does not linger there. A last public hanging had taken place in Kentucky, 1937, no more done legally in the US until 1976. The Front Page has black humor in abundance, and there is a shooting onscreen when jailed Earl Williams makes his escape. The play had been strong meat on Broadway and no less was expected of the film. Critics through the 30’s referred to The Front Page as an acme of bare-knuckle storytelling. I have not seen evidence of its being reissued. Doubt The Front Page would have gotten a PCA Seal had there been a submission. Loss of access kept it warm in the bosom of critics. Otis Ferguson used a mixed review of His Girl Friday to recall happier experience of the original, “When they made The Front Page the first time, it stayed made.” William K. Everson located a worn 16mm print from Germany, run for his class at the New School in 1974, him assuring the group it was “almost certainly the only print that will be available from this point on.” Everson placed The Front Page among best of early talkies, due in large part to Lewis Milestone’s energetic direction. "There is no question the original is by far the better film," said Everson, "its characters real flesh and blood people as opposed to the cardboard figures of the remake." His Girl Friday was "undeniably funnier," however.

I never laugh at His Girl Friday, maybe for being suspicious of comedies that so loudly announce themselves as comedy. Humor works best for me where it is incidental to “serious” matters, even if those are not to be taken seriously. There needs to be some sort of threat, which His Girl Friday does not have. Overhanging suspense is a reason why Some Like It Hot works so splendidly, even if proposed as fall-down funny. Hawks’ own The Thing has more laughs in spite of, actually because of, scares nibbling round its edge. His Girl Friday barely wonders if “Earl Williams” will hang, then if he will be caught once he escapes. I am not concerned either way, having no investment whatever in Earl. This was true also in The Front Page, but in that case, Earl was just a prop and no one was expected to care a hoot about him. His Girl Friday wants to humanize Earl and appeal to my conscience with him. There is a killjoy moment where “Hildy” (R. Russell) dresses down what she sneeringly calls “Gentlemen” of the press for their impoliteness toward Earl’s girlfriend (or girl friend as Helen Mack’s “Mollie Malloy” characterizes herself). They bow meekly and are silent where I wish they’d throw cigar butts and paper cups at Hildy. Where does she come off judging these guys, reading a riot act to colleagues trying to do their job same as her? Smartly tailored though she is, Russell has no s.a.. Trouble I realize is my wanting them all to be Linda Darnell, so do pardon superficial personal taste. Still though, I must like His Girl Friday OK for taking minor issues so serious.

The Front Page
and His Girl Friday had entered the Public Domain by the 70’s, were duped (badly) onto 16mm and later home video. His Girl Friday was “taught” by film instructors along auteur lines. I wonder if it occurred to students that the film was supposed to be enjoyed as comedy. His Girl Friday benefited at the time for director and stars still around to recall it, plus Hawks in loop mode on how he dreamed up the gender switch, another idea sprung off many fathers. What distances us from old films since 70’s summit is participants going, going, then gone altogether, like realizing one day there is no one left from World War Two, a point at which we’ve more-less arrived. Ironic to have had vet stars in many cases hale/hearty, at least ambulatory, while past work looked for a most part miserable (especially Girl Friday dupes). Now folks of the era are departed, while the films fairly gleam. Something oddly backwards about that. Much discussion has revolved around ad-libbing by Friday cast, lines contributed by crew, “side” scribes hired to speed pace further. Credited writer Charles Lederer had died in 1976, poor health for several years prior to that, interviewed once by Peter Bogdanovich, but I have not come across a published transcript. Ben Hecht had passed by 1964, Charles MacArthur in 1956, authors of the source play. Morrie Ryskind left an autobiography, published 1994. Point is these contributors to His Girl Friday had little if any opportunity to answer modern wisdom as to how the film came to be what it is.

I wonder how His Girl Friday would stand with a fresh audience, one not instructed on how to respond by an academic/historian fanbase, ideally a group in their twenties, and not pre-conditioned. Unlikely to happen, for who’d gather to watch His Girl Friday, or any black-and-white feature, outside venerable age groups? (for that matter, who's going to "gather" period) Young folks have their own definition of classic movies, and I bet few of selections date before 1990, a year that seems all too recent for me, but hold on, that’s over thirty years ago. Ones of us in the 70’s, fewer but still some in the 80’s, knew B/W from kid days before households had a color set (many, of course, never did). Attitudes since are calcified in opposition to a format utterly alien. It is one thing to tolerate novelty of a commercial or music video done monochrome, but a full-length movie is asking too much. Film history has amounted to a series of dividing lines. Silent to sound, theatres to television, black-and-white to color. Gilbert Seldes reviewed a 1950 reprint of The Film Till Now, by Paul Rotha and Richard Griffith, for Films In Review (July-August 1950). Seldes had written books addressing the industry, gave vent to feelings of his own with regard gulfs between those born since the late 20’s who knew only talking pictures, and elders who were there before parade’s went by. Seldes' epiphany of seventy-years ago is worth revisiting:

… I took some young people to see Chaplin in “City Lights”
(the 1950 reissue). Then I had a moment of illumination. I understood that we who lived through the era of the silent film had something the present generation lacks. I remember my resentment against people who told me in 1917 that if you hadn’t seen Paris before the war, you didn’t know what life is, or words to that effect. I hope no one will resent my saying that if you didn’t know the silent movie, the excitement of watching it create itself before your eyes, you missed something, and, in a sense, you don’t know what the movies are. We who went through it know something special; we are, cinematically speaking, a race apart. Was Gilbert Seldes right, not only in 1950, but today? Do none of us really know what the movies are for not having been around before sound? (I worry less about Paris, never having gone there anyway). To ignore or disdain black-and-white movies would be to renounce movies altogether so far as I’m concerned, but generations since would dispute that, and it isn’t going to be long until there is no one of our lot to hold the fort. Will black-and-white become as obscure and barely seen as silents are today? Consider what would happen if someone turned off the lights at TCM tomorrow. What we love would not be long becoming so much Sanskrit.

Greenbriar visits Billy Wilder's 1974 The Front Page at Greenbriar Archive HERE.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Trek Through Ad-Man Jungle


Director Jack Conway Poses With The Star Cast

The Hucksters (1947) Gives Radio a Close Shave

Whatever its merit for drama or romance, The Hucksters opens a door to workaday 1947 among advertising agents, radio folk, and Hollywood reps. Diluted from harder-hitting Frederic Wakeman novel, anyone then or now knew an industry under Code edict had to hide Easter eggs where it could. To attack ad agencies would be seen by some as an assault upon America itself, a drilling into capitalist foundations, sale of goods widely viewed as a way back from war and highest hope for reclaim of normalcy. New forming families had lots to consume, advertisers a needed guide toward that. Plus people were fascinated by in-outs of salesmanship, an occupation almost as glamorous as being in movies. The Hucksters too had been a “hot” novel. Would they dare adapt it as written? Everyone knew not, but there was fun in imagining.

Conway Reviews the Script with Gable and Deborah Kerr

Clark Gable could not (some say would not) play a heel and adulterer as Wakeman-penned. Again --- unreasonable to expect he would. This was Gable back from service and staying true to his uniform, image never so critical as now. There is first-reel reminder of maleness --- hugs with old ladies who want but can't have him (Connie Gilchrist), and kootchy phone chat with last night's date. All this was required but not in sync with a war-wearied Gable who should be up to more serious pursuit. We’re to understand his descent into ad-manning goes against Gable grain, a best of The Hucksters being his fight for integrity amidst a corrupt trade. Gable had been there and done this, Wife vs. Secretary of 1936 differing because in that instance, it was his ad agency, one that would reflect standards we expect of go-getting, but always fair play “Clark Gable.” Here he is tied to salaries and bonuses, other men as boss, an untenable state for the lone achiever we want Gable to be. Expectation for stars, particularly ones returned from real-life struggle as was his (bombing missions) meant formula had to be righter applied than ever, missteps a risk as many of these personalities, having lost three-four years off career momentum, had fragile paths to walk.

The Hucksters
wasn't appreciated in 1947 for things that make it fascinating now. As document, if sanitized, of what went on in post-war agency corridors, it is peerless. Deals close on the Super Chief in club cars a public then took for granted. Such settings are for us like Disneyland, a romantic mode of travel long gone. Night clubs and penthouse apartments are dwelt in as if we'd always have them. People wear more attractive clothes than what hangs off us now, a given in 40's-set film. Gable is another of eternal optimists who will use his last dollar to buy a tie, and yes, this was believable in 1947 thanks to plentiful jobs for men who merchandised, Madison Avenue’s a solid grip over decades to come. The Hucksters takes off on radio, surprising in view of MGM history of bedding with wireless. Programs and especially ads we hear are inane to a point of nausea, Gable’s reaction when hearing them a mirror for anyone with passable sense. He does everything but a Babe Hardy camera-look to show disgust with what listeners presumably coped with every night at home. Was this Metro bid for us to shut off radio and get back into theatre seats where quality was a given? Could be, but critics were carping that movies had slipped since before the war. Coming dips in boxoffice revenue would seem to bear them out. Intriguing too is no Hucksters mention of television, popularly around the corner by mere months. The industry knew, had known, the looming threat this posed, a threat perhaps better ignored.

Publicity Stills Were Often Done in Gable's Private Dressing Room, As Here and In Several Below

Inside-advertising is ripest fruit of The Hucksters. When Gable adjourns to romance Deborah Kerr or Ava Gardner, pace falters but bad. Who'd have thought his love stuff would become so tiring, yet here it was. Kerr was a Brit import, having done better things over there, The Hucksters a splash intro worth the trip and submission to Metro handling that made her a seeming younger sister to Greer Garson, latter soon to fade (Kerr, Rhymes With Star!, said publicists). Like Garson, Kerr was uneasy fit for Gable, to whom Ava Gardner acquitted better. Kerr was called "prissy" beside the King, and yes, she seems so. There is quarreling, and much eaten footage, over his apparent booking of connected rooms at an inn they visit. She is morally outraged on behalf of Code precepts any Gable character would have laughed at (or ignored) in freewheel days past, the issue a non-issue as audiences were increasingly aware. Alert eyes saw industry decline a Hucksters forecast via such a dated and unwelcome device. It is boardrooms where the film lights up, known un-trustworthies Adolphe Menjou and Edward Arnold lending spice to watered soup. These two had been double-dealing long enough for us to at least hope they will do so here, and if that doesn't altogether jell, their presence is comfort at least. Gable and Menjou were friends, Menjou’s later memoir, It Took Nine Tailors, boasting an intro by Gable. They are relaxed and congenial in scenes played opposite one another.

Back Caption Says Gable is Gifting Gardner With a Tin of Candy. Wonder What Flavor.

Greenstreet and Conway Prep For a Next Scene

Nasties retained from Wakeman's book are embodied in Sydney Greenstreet's despotic sponsor boss. From an intro where he spits on a table top, there is no question of cast seniority. The Hucksters needs Greenstreet for the rest of participants draining its swamp with PCA-forced decency. He's in for three or so segments, all of them key. When Greenstreet enters, it is like Gorgo loose on London, him destructive to the cast, but a gift to viewers. Business of developing a comedy skein for radio looks authentic, Gable's ad man and last minute hired writers punching out a pilot script in a smoke-filled cabana. Was radio so lousy as presented here? MGM said it was "all in fun," but what's depicted is done with stilettos, a seeming chuck of whatever relationship they had with broadcasters for the sake of putting it to them now, but this came of the source novel, they'd argue, so if radio-knocks were blunted, why make The Hucksters at all? A novel that sold this well was going to be adapted for pictures, sure as snow. If Metro did not do it with The Hucksters, someone else would, best-sellers understood to be a closest thing to a sure thing studios had left. If lines were drawn, it was generally over cost or otherwise onerous terms. Gable wanted very much for MGM to acquire The Fountainhead for him. They didn’t, and he stewed (the more so when career-long rival Gary Cooper got the lead at Warners).

The Hucksters Settled Into a Long Chicago Run

For a picture that skewered advertising, The Hucksters held many a cross-promotional hand. There was "no limit," said merchandisers, to tie-in with every product imaginable. The mid-forties was a peak of pic mention in ads for candies, whiskey, fountain pens, any product to profit from push. Stars weren't shy to endorse these, as every back was scratched and product endorsement was nice adjunct to what studios paid (if employers took the fees, at least players could have a fresh set of tires or lifetime cartons of Chesterfield). Concrete proof of strides Madison Avenue made would reflect in marketing for The Hucksters. Wakeman's novel got a reprint --- it had topped Best Seller lists for half a year and was still "whispered about" in book club circles. The movie was a hit, even against inflated cost of postwar producing. So too did Adventure thrive, Gable's first out of uniform. His tumble as claimed by writers was a matter of degree of gain for employers, not absence of it. Of those Gable-done at Metro after WWII, only Command Decision (very expensive to make) and Never Let Me Go lost money.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Show Biz Storytelling


"Over The Top" Is What These Pioneers Were

Thinking about show biz memoirs led to my looking up “fabulist,” defined as follows: “A person who composes or relates fables,” or more damning, “A liar, especially a person who invents elaborate, dishonest stories.” That seems a harsh definition for a word that to me has cheerier implication, being derived, I assume, from “fabulous,” which we all know describes every aspect of the entertainment world and all those who contributed to it. Is it churlish to be critical of them? A part of me says yes, especially where they tell life stories the object of which is to amuse and gratify us, seldom more. If they exaggerate or fabricate, where’s the hurt? All we need do is put down their silly book and go do something else. Movies were never truthful, so why must people who worked in them be so? Their object was to please not just us, but each other. Old-timers especially were expected to be “colorful.” A lie is less a lie the more years after it happened, or likely didn’t. Those of the biz understood that truth was not merely flexible, but negligible.

Papa Says No To a Plea For Daughter's Hand in Marriage (A Vitagraph Romance, 1912)

Interviews are notoriously unreliable, but it's only us who would say “notorious.” To biz peers, it’s “Great Stories!” Expecting accuracy from an interviewee is a fool’s errand. These folks were in character especially when speaking as “themselves” (forgive all the words in quotation, but we are talking about show people after all). They permitted their names upon published profiles that were tissued in lies, their universe a fan magazine or movies where they pretended to be things they were not. Just because a career ended (almost never by choice) was no reason to start being honest all-of-a-sudden. What friends you kept in the business never wanted that. Maintaining illusion was a must. Vets who had gone away from a public eye were always welcomed by others of their discarded lot. You read of how they gathered at Friar, Lamb, Guild, events. Or at breakfast together, as they all still woke up early, even if make-up and cameras no longer waited. To perform now was to do so for pals also forgotten by hirers. Shared morning meal took the sting out of forced retirement. I use forced as a blanket term, for who ever wanted to quit entertaining? 

Vitagraph Is Hiring Eloped Young Couples, Experience Not Required

Father Spots Daughter on Posters At The Nickelodeon Entrance. She's In The Flickers Now!

But what of the fans? They did not forgot, never went away … did they? A way to find out was to write your life story, or have it written for you, at least get it researched after so many years tall-telling that you don’t even know what truth is anymore, object being to entertain, make ‘em laugh or be sad for tears behind your smile, really just an extension of emote you did all along. It wasn’t just actors doing the dance, but directors too, once they went full-fabulist. Most noted was Frank Capra, who gave made-up accounts a sweet aroma. We wanted so much for his stories to be true that we finally decided they were, and anyone who said otherwise could jump in a lake. There is joy, perhaps nobility, in such faith. I have it for all of entertainers who looked back. Here was their perception of lives and career lived. One of Capra chapters told of his start with Sennett, opener words as follow: “The Mack Sennett Studio in Edendale was as unplanned and chaotic as a Keystone chase …” We want to know how planned, how chaotic, and it better be plenty so, just like funniest slapstick we ever saw. Capra like others chained himself to oars and had to row like the very devil to keep us engaged, that merely what he and those others had signed on for from shared beginnings. He, and they, wanted it no other way.

Arrival at Vitagraph's Brooklyn Studio To Reclaim An Erring Child. The Site Is Now a Condo Complex

Reunion and Reconciliation --- All At Peace With a Career in Vitagraph Films

Shelves before Frank had filled with reminiscence, reliable or not, mostly not. Even Mack Sennett had done his, back in 1954, before there were fuss-budgets to challenge his idea of truth. Others wove their tapestry: Jesse Lasky (1957), Zukor before that, Raoul Walsh, Wellman to come, some vivid enough to make us feel on-the-spot of history as it really happened, Karl Brown on Griffith days outstanding among these. Other of pioneers stepped up, Fred J. Balshofer and Arthur C. Miller with One Reel a Week, Lillian Gish of course, and before her, Mary Pickford. Recent, and splendid, reading time for me was Two Reels and a Crank, by Albert E. Smith of Vitagraph creation, published in 1952. Errata police then less in evidence gave Smith free reign to recall events as he pleased, sanction of a special Academy Award in 1948 having made him an unimpeachable source on starter days of movies.

It's True Love When These Femme Fans See Maurice Costello Flash Upon The Screen (The Picture Idol, 1912)

Maurice Costello with Daughters Dolores and Helene, and Mrs. Costello

Maurice Mortified As Pals Read Another Of Ardent Fan Missives

Two Reels and a Crank
has not been reprinted to my knowledge. Ought to be, for I don’t know a livelier introduction to films as they formed. Vitagraph grew from partnership between Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, names once at a head of lists, forgotten since except for deepest dig into cinema past, way past as the two were cobbling reels before a turn from a nineteenth to twentieth century. Smith glories in shell game filmmaking, honesty seldom a best policy where ends always justified means. Long enough had passed not to worry of reprisals or arrest for fraud. Smith/Blackton staged the Battle at Santiago Bay in a washtub, cigar smoke for carnage, this passed off as Spanish-American warring. They photographed waterfalls in Passaic, New Jersey, and called it Niagara. Barnum was right, suckers born every minute, all of them herding at nickelodeons.

Beth's (Clara Kimball Young) Father Asks Maurice To Family Dinner So He Can Rid Her of Star Fixation

Maurice Seeks To Disillusion Beth By Displaying Atrocious Table Manners

Smith and Blackton got starts with a ramshackle act called “The International Novelty Company,” wherein among other deceptions, they claimed to head a troupe of nine when there were actually only three, or sometimes just Al and Stuart. Latter did lightning sketches on a big easel you could see from back rows, Blackton a to-be pioneer of animation on film. He would act also for nascent reels, Vitagraph a two-man effort to start. The boys snuck footage of a champ boxing match that rivals had paid lots to photograph, Smith/Blackton figuring anything that was worth filming was also worth stealing. The two got places on youth, nerve, and brass. Smith writes how they horned in on Roosevelt’s climb up San Juan Hill, “bugs” about their heads turning out to be whizzing bullets, but alongside Teddy they stayed (Blackton’s daughter told historian Anthony Slide years later that the whole thing was hooey … they never went near Cuba … though Slide later found evidence to suggest they did). Mark Twain said that as he grew older he tended to remember only the things that had never happened. Sounds a touch like Albert by the fifties, and incidentally, he writes how Vita partners knocked on the author’s door, the housekeeper telling them to get lost, Twain hailing them in, result a first-ever authorized screen adapt of one of his stories. Smith and Blackton were masters of the cold call, no entrance or transom they could not breach.

Beth Gets a Shock When Maurice Introduces His "Wife" and Children

All Done With Picture Idols, Beth Tears Up Her Fan Photos To Parental Relief

There is useful history in Two Reels and a Crank, at least as Albert Smith witnessed and understood it. We hear of oncoming locomotive imagery that freaked crowds out at dawn of film. Seems Smith and Blackton were in the booth, or beating pans, pie plates, metal sheeting to lend aural, in addition to, visual thrill. Believe Smith or not where he writes “babies yowled, youngsters trembled like aspen leaves, women screamed, and men sat aghast.” Host Tony Pastor (his vaude house) got riled by two women fainting, an ambulance parked out front for subsequent shows. By the by, that aspen leaves flourish reminded me that Smith had prose-assist from Phil A. Koury (credited on the cover), a trade veteran. Smith/Blackton liked going where big events happened, saw things to turn lesser stomachs, like human toll from the Galveston flood, immortalized by Tootie's reference at the end of Meet Me in St. Louis (“muddy and horrible and filled with dead bodies”). Sure enough was, says Smith. He saw militia “seize a man as he was hacking off a finger from a cadaver. His pockets were full of fingers, each bearing a ring. I saw the soldiers slip a sugar sack over his head, stand him against one of the funeral pyres, shoot him, then throw the body into the fire.” Now I ask you. Could there be a better reason to go out and find this book?

One more highlight (maybe two), then I’ll quit. Smith saw a chance to snatch up Mary Pickford for Vitagraph. Price was agreed upon, $10K a week for two years, with an option for two more. Here is where the biggest blunder of Smith’s career comes in, a catastrophic choice of words that could happen to any of us: Mary had a sister, Lottie, who was friends with Smith’s wife, common bond their ten-month-old babies. Mary and reps had been invited to the Smith home to sign the new contract. Lottie had told her sister about the cute Smith child, and Mary looked forward to seeing him. A deal so near closure was wrecked by the following exchange, Mary: Mr. Smith, when am I going to see that wonderful boy of yours? to which he replied Well, let’s get this matter settled first. Smith related the awful outcome thus: “Miss Pickford flushed, and a silence as of an awful crisis filled the room. Then I shall never see him, she announced, and flounced decisively out of the room.” Gone was the deal Vitagraph had borrowed a million dollars to finesse, all because Albert Smith said a disastrously wrong thing. He seemed by 1952 to have gotten over it. I’m not sure I could have. Ever make a careless remark that cost you so dear? Just shows how careful we must be with what we blurt out.

Vitagraph made hundreds (upon hundreds) of films. Once an industry leader, they were bought whole by Warner Bros. in 1925. Most of what Vitagraph made is lost. Are ones that are left any good? I looked over You Tube, some silent DVD sets, and found much to enjoy. Early shorts to me are like Aesop tales, humans doing human things, much as we still do, learning lessons to guard against future mishap (Albert Smith could have filmed his blowing of the Pickford deal to powerful effect). Two pearls within copious oyster that is You Tube, both uploaded there by the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, represent Vitagraph at a peak. Made in 1912, The Picture Idol and A Vitagraph Romance last apx. fourteen minutes each, boast print quality we wish all silents had, are entertaining with surprises plenty. A Vitagraph Romance is about a couple eloping (her father disapproves). They starve briefly but are rescued by Vitagraph scouts, who put them before cameras with stardom the result. Dad sees daughter’s poster outside a nickelodeon and is won over. Happy reunion is had on the Vitagraph lot in Brooklyn, where we see filmmaking in progress. The Picture Idol has Clara Kimball Young as a silly miss falling under spell of Vitagraph heartthrob Maurice Costello. She’s a pest, him annoyed, so her Dad’s idea to disillusion daughter seems a solution to which Maurice accedes. Hilarity ensues, Maurice invited to family dinner where he makes an unseemly pig of himself, then invites Clara to his home to meet the “wife” (a male friend in drag) and four children, result she is cured of the fan bug. Surely ahead of its time was Vitagraph kidding star-driven movie culture at virtual beginnings of same. Recommended strongly then: Both these shorts at YT, plus Two Reels and a Crank where a copy can be got.
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