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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 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? 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 falsehood, their universe a fan fantasy where one pretended to be things one was 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 forget, 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 been 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 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 importance of judicious wording.



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.

11 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have Lillian Gish's books and that by Karl Brown. Also Miriam Cooper's book. Prefer accounts from those who were there to accounts by those who weren't.They give me an idea of what it felt like at the time.

You have given me more to search out. Thanks.

By the way if your readers do not know of it, ABEBOOKS is the site to go to: https://www.abebooks.com/?msclkid=5988e207449d1b8dda378234815964bd .

9:55 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recall a long-ago piece by Harry Golden, commenting on the bestselling memoir of a fallen star,. He contrasted her to the similarly aged Helen Hayes, still laboring on summer stock stages instead of publicly weeping over spilled stardust.

In reference to the memoirist, he made a comment to the effect that if you fall from a first-floor window and get up again, might as well say you fell from the tenth. How many tales are predicated on the teller coming so, so close to glory, but turning down the part that made Bogart a star, or defying a studio tyrant, or being shafted on a million-dollar deal. Not that those things didn't happen with some frequency, but even when true they frequently make the assumption that "Maltese Falcon" would have made the career of whoever played Sam Spade, or anyone hobbled by fate or studio politics was otherwise fast-tracked for greatness.

On the Mary Pickford story, I somehow suspect the deal floundered on more mundane grounds -- Pickford certainly knew something about business. Saying it fell apart because she took umbrage at a man placing a contract before looking at a baby sounds like press agentry for America's Sweetheart, and perhaps more face-saving than saying "The little lady played hardball better than we did".

6:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Like so many others, the Mary Pickford story as told by Albert E. Smith is so good that I WANT it to be true.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Dream palaces are built by dreamers for dreamers, and so there really ought to be no surprise that those builders should "print the legend" when it comes time to write their own stories for public release. It's a different matter though when the person telling the story is reflecting upon their years pursuing an activity which purports to hold truth in higher regard, like science or politics.

And is it too early yet to start speaking of "the cinema of the 20th Century" as a discrete thing? It's distinguishable from 19th Century cinema, tiny as that was, and the reference can only become more useful as time passes and we get deeper into the 21st century (these words written in 2021).

6:05 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I saw Lillian Fish give a lecture on silent movies. Among the clips she ran was her famous ice floe scene from "Way Down East" -- and she still claimed that she was seconds away from going over the waterfall. And all of us believed her.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Nearly 30 years ago, thanks to Stuart Oderman's biography of Roscoe Arbuckle, I once spent a fruitless afternoon at Forest Lawn (both cemetaries) searching for Roscoe's final resting place. Oderman closed his book with a very detailed account of visiting Arbuckle's headstone in that cemetary, kneeling in the dirt, head bowed in silent prayer.

Little did I know back then that Arbuckle's body had been cremated and his ashes scattered in the ocean. Roscoe had died on the opposite coast - in Manhattan - and his body had been taken to the Fresh Pond Crematory located in Queens. At the time I lived in Queens. The kicker to this story is that I could see the Fresh Pond Crematory every day from my back yard.

I can forgive the tall tales told by film pioneers but I can't abide by latter-day film authors who prefer telling whoppers instead of conducting honest research.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I meant GISH! Darn autocorrect.

5:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts on Vitagraph and Albert E. Smith:


John,

So, is your copy of TWO REELS AND A CRANK autographed by Mr. Smith? That book is another in those cases like Sophie Tucker's autobiography in which the rarer ones are the unsigned copies. My copy is actually autographed twice, first the standard "Vitagraphically Yours, Albert E. Smith" on the title page, then a personalized one to the people he gave it to whom he must have known personally. It is indeed an interesting and entertaining read, if if a little light in talking about the actual films Vitagraph made, especially later on in the company's history. I think Larry Semon only gets one mention in a list of actors who worked for the company, it would have been fascinating to hear Smith's side on all the financial battles he and Vitagraph had with Semon.

I've always had high regard for Vitagraph's product, I think their films overall were some of the best being made in the early teens, the acting more naturalistic, better constructed plots, and camerawork way ahead of most of the other studios, less flat, head-on long shots, more interesting compositions, angled mid and two shots that utilized contrasting action in foreground and background more effectively. The comedies of John Bunny, Mr. and Mrs Sidney Drew, Hughey Mack, etc. all developed their own trademark and original situation comedy style, and still amuse audience today. This quality may have contributed to Vitagraph's survival after the collapse of the Patents Trust, they were the only one of the Trust companies to make it into the 1920's even if they were absorbed into Warner Brothers in 1925.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

4:42 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Lillian Gish did ask for the scenes to be reshot in WAY DOWN EAST so she could drag her hand in that ice cold water for dramatic effect. That physically damaged her hand. The lady knew how to put over her work for maximum effect. In the film we are shown shots of Niagara Falls. Naturally she would state she was always in danger of going over them. Why ruin the moment for those watching the film by saying she was in no danger? That film was shot on location in the bitter cold with a fire under the camera to keep it from freezing. Danger? Every second of every day. She was a remarkable woman. I learned much reading and re-reading her books as well as watching and re-watching her motion pictures.

9:10 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

The Vitagraph Smokestack is all that remains of the Midwood, Brooklyn studio seen in the picture. While visiting the site 20 years ago, when it was still a girls' religious school, we were told the smokestack was used to burn films so that competitors would not get their hands on them. Next to it were the rusty ruins of outdoor stages used for filming. The best way I can describe them is they were like the bottom two thirds of the Hollywood Squares set, but maybe four across. Being silent with a stationary camera, they could film multiple movies at the same time. I was sad to hear the studio was torn down to make room for a condominium complex a few years ago. Afterwards we roamed the streets of Midwood searching out Fatty Arbuckle filming sites. We didn't really fit in the neighborhood and got a few funny looks. No fisheyes though.

9:13 AM  
Blogger TimC said...

I can refer you to “A Million and One Nights” by Terry Ramsaye first published in 1926, as one person’s perspective of pre-sound motion picture history.

11:03 PM  

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