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Friday, July 18, 2014

Hollywood Ghosts On The Loose!

The Old-Time Gang's All Here: Richard Conte and Checked-Coat Bill Castle Confer With
(Left To Right) Helen Gibson, Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum, and Betty Blythe

Hollywood Story (1951) Picks Silent Era Bones

Bill Castle was a better showman than director, his megging a mere perfunctory step toward promoting he preferred. His foothold, however, was made with really boring Columbia programmers under Sam Katzman's tent (a few good ones prior to that in the 40's). Hollywood Story isn't among the dog lot, being Universal-International, and worthwhile for early-50's explore of unsolved murder dating to silent movieland era. The gimmick was to spin off the William Desmond Taylor snuff-out, a potato still warm despite chasm of thirty years since it happened. Names weren't used, and by time writers got done, the whole of yarn was fiction, but death scenes for Taylor and Hollywood Story's "Franklin Ferrara" look remarkably alike, a parallel for at least insiders to munch on. Otherwise, this was strict who-long ago-dunit set on a back lot, that device as old as talkies themselves. What interest Hollywood Story generates is behind-camera glimpse of the town and folk working in it, H'wood home movie aspect a most compelling reason to watch.

It was habit then to drag out old-timers for occasion like this. Otherwise, they'd be ignored as usual, resulting in time-to-time burn from most outspoken of them. Elmo Lincoln was called, he of ancient Tarzan guise, only to be pushed far into background as glorified extra. Those of the gone era who spoke did so briefly: Betty Blythe, William Farnum, Helen Gibson. Value of these relics was to publicize Hollywood Story, not perform in it. Francis X. Bushman perhaps understood this best. He was an old ham who'd been curing since the teens, hopeful swain to many a Grandma who might be induced now to come and see him flash a still manly profile. Difference was, Bushman had old-world charm and was an elegant speaker besides. Him on tour for Hollywood Story was guarantee of local press interest, wherever he appeared. You couldn't necessarily say that of flash-in-pan talent being incubated at U-I.

Chicago Grannies Converge On "Frankie Boy" Bushman --- Placards Courtesy U's Art Dept.

So it really came down to who among vets could be most useful, Elmo Lincoln as remind of how mighty had fallen, or Bushman with oodles of joie de vivre and capacity to fill a lodge or ladies' tea. Elmo would dig a losing hole deeper with remarks to '51 press thus: "Every time they want to exploit something like Hollywood Story, they call on us ... The motion picture industry is the most unappreciative, selfish business in America today." And yes, he was justified, Universal having paid the former Tarzan a miserable $15 for the single day's work, but talk about burning a bridge ... Elmo Lincoln would, in any case, be gone the year after Hollywood Story was released. For Bushman however, 1951-52 would be season to roll up frayed cuffs and drum-beat for not only Hollywood Story, but blockbuster that was David and Bathsheba, in which he had a small, but speaking, part. Both were country-wide tours, Betty Blythe joining him on Hollywood Story's behalf as they flew into Chicago, Cleveland, elsewhere. The X man would remain a good luck charm around town. They'd use him not only to evoke old tinsel-ville, but to lend solid character support as well. Look close next time at The Bad and The Beautiful or Sabrina and you'll find Francis.

My Town Boasted No Silent Stars I Was Aware Of --- Did Yours?

Yes, you could say pioneers of the screen were ignored, but a number of them kept up with each other, and search of L.A. press finds much in the way of reunion, luncheons, and such to which survivors were invited. Trouble was tar brush applied by Sunset Boulevard, having come a year before Hollywood Story, and paving way for hereafter noirish approach to pre-talk themes. You'd think from these two that old-time emoters dabbled as much, then and now, in mayhem, if not outright kill-off of peers. What kept Hollywood Story from explicit treat of Wm. Desmond Taylor's case was continued, if ghostly, presence of Mary Miles Minter and her said-to-be gun totin' mother, Mary with litigious bent, Mom inclined to self-help in disposing of troublemakers (it was widely believed about town that she had offed Taylor).

Hollywood Story Highlight When We Visit a U-I Soundstage

So what we got was tentative evoke of old Hollywood, minus any actual names, other than guests along Bushman, Farnum, Gibson lines who were paid for few words, plus recognition by elder-enough fans. Otherwise, it's Richard Conte and Julia Adams bemused by what was left of a waxen museum, Conte a modern-day producer availing himself of old films as quest for authenticity ... but even that was problematic for Universal having burned up all its silent prints and negatives a few years before, a fact few were aware of in 1951. So what does he screen? Just the most famous strip of film Universal still had --- 1925's unmask scene from Phantom Of The Opera. Hollywood Story gave best glimpse of its title subject by going outdoors, specifically poolside at the fabled Roosevelt Hotel, footage of the annual Christmas parade down H'wood Blvd., and locationing at the Chaplin studio, where much welcome stuff was shot. There's also a visit to Universal's own sound stage, Joel McCrea good-sporting a cameo. Best echo of vanished times is Julia Adams playing a 20's romance scene with Paul Cavanagh --- she nails the Swanson style to point of it looking like real silent stuff. This may have been the show of talent that got Adams her U-I contract. Hollywood Story has just been released on DVD by TCM Archive --- quality is OK.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I'm eager to watch THE CHARGE OF THE GAUCHOS (1928) starring Bushman, a film located by friend Andrea Cuarterolo (she got a video but can't leagally share it) that was reviewed by Fernando Martín Peña when he managed to see it exhibited in the silent film festival in Pordenone last year. We thought that it was an A production cut by FBO/RKO to a B picture... it turned out to be a just a straight B production with at least 20 minutes less than what people in Argentina originally saw. While I still wait to see it, I'm trying to find more ands and clippings from it.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I was in Hollywood for a tribute to Grim Natwick held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences there were old women everywhere dressed in black (and I mean EVERYWHERE). That picture of those old girls holding placards for Bushman brought back the memory.

That night on the L.A. news I saw one of them speaking of having made love to Rudolph Valentino. That day was the anniversary of his death. Neat post. You are right about Castle.The ad campaigns were way better than the movies.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

You have to wonder if King Vidor ever saw HOLLYWOOD STORY and if it somehow had a part in inspiring his own dig into the Taylor murder for a possible movie -- detailed posthumously in CAST OF KILLERS.

7:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson talks about some latter-day encores by silent stars:

Francis X. even turned up in the 60s "Batman" series as a wealthy film collector. He played it with the matter-of-fact calm of all the minor players on that show ("Pleased to meet you, Batman."), leaving Neil Hamilton to provide the old-school ham as Commissioner Gordon. Still recall the shock of seeing Hamilton as Tarzan's romantic rival in the first two movies.

Gloria Swanson turned up on "The Beverly Hillbillies", playing herself as a gracious celebrity who consents to make a silent melodrama. "Petticoat Junction" had Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen attending a long-delayed premiere of "Wings" in the backwater town of Hooterville. And I recall Joan Crawford on one of the post-Desi Lucy shows. Joan and Lucy suited up as flappers, definitely referencing the former's silent beginnings.

Always enjoy Ben Turpin's fleeting cameos in talkies. Evidently he retired after buying some apartment properties -- saving extra coin by working as his own super -- and set a flat rate of $1,000/day for film work. Don't know if he got that much for something like "Starlit Days at the Lido" (an MGM short), but his moment in "The Love Parade" was worth that much.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Mr. Bushman also appeared in several episodes of TV's PERRY MASON.

1:47 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Gloria Swanson shows up as an old flame of Uncle Charlie's on "My Three Sons"!
And I've seen Francis X Bushman recently on a "Burns and Allen" episode.

8:24 AM  

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