Friday, 11 July 2014

Even in Precode - Nobody’s Perfect

Hollywood, since the 1920’s, has been jokingly known as the community of fakers, liars and ‘Yes-man’. However once in a while a character stands out and breaks the mould as well as few a egos.

Gloria Swanson by Stanlaws
Penrhyn Stanlaws was a portrait painting genius in the early 20th Century and, like rival Charles Dana Gibson, even had his own set of ‘Stanlaws Girls’. Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1877, his artworks graced the covers of countless popular magazines from Collier’s, Life, Saturday Evening Post, The American Magazine and Heart’s International. He became a faviourite of many of the silent Hollywood stars including Anna Q. Nilsson and Olive Thomas, who was the subject of Stanlaws’ famous nude portrait “Between Poses’. In 1920, Stanlaws moved from New York to Hollywood and used his artistic eye to direct films. He is credited as directing seven features including four Betty Compson pictures - At the End of the World (1921), The Little Minister (1921), The Law and the Woman (1922) and Over the Border (1922) - and two Bebe Daniels films - Singed Wings (1922) and Pink Gods (1922).

A year later and, strangely, around the same time Stanlaws first criticized the appearance of some of films most popular beauties, he retired from directing to live in an artist’s community in Woodstock. He returned to California two decades later but never again resumed his career in the film industry. He died in sad circumstances on May 20, 1957 from a fire that engulfed his Los Angeles home. Investigators reported found the fire had started from a cigarette that Stanlaws was smoking before absentmindedly falling asleep. However, Stanlaws legend encompasses more than his successes as an artist or director. During his short time in Hollywood, Stanlaws, famously spoke out twice about the real state of popular film star’s beauty. In 1923 and 1933, he made scandalous claims about the physical imperfections of many leading ladies. I highlight the word ladies as Stanlaws did not feel the need to comment on the appearance of the male stars. The Montreal Gazette called him a “bold” and a “brave” man for publicising his views.
Olive Thomas by Stanlaws
Read his controversial comments from 1923, published in the Syracuse Herald, January 7, 1923:
·         “Betty Blythe is muscle bound in her hips. She has horse nostrils. Betty Compson’s hips are too prominent and are muscle-bound.” 
·         “Viola Dana has a big nose that is heavy at the end; jawbones are too wide and chin too prominent.
·         “Bebe Daniels figure is good, but she keeps her mouth open too much. Pauline Fredrick’s eyelids are too heavy.”
·         “Dorothy Gish sisters have imperfect noses, Lips too large, also. Lillian Gish as imperfect as Dorothy.”
·         “Phyllis Haver has a face like a diamond with too many facets.  It is over-modeled.
·         “Lila Lee’s figure is stocky and face is too flat. Shirley Mason’s faults are deep-set eyes and horse nostrils.
·         “Mary Miles Minter is too matronly because she carries herself stiffly. Nazimova’s eyes are too large for her face and her head is too big.
·         “Pola Negri – her face is too square. Mary Pickford shares the common blemish of too large a head.
·         “Marie Prevost’s neck is too short. Ruth Roland has a moon face and her lips are too large.”
·         “Gloria Swanson’s head is too heavy for her body.  Her nose is retrousse.
·         “Constance Talmadge has an inadequate mouth and chin, Norma Talmadge has a bulbous nose.”
·         “Clair Windsor’s eyes are set too high in her head.

And 1933, published in the Montreal Gazette, November 17 1933:
·         Mae West – “Her head, eyes and mouth were constructed for a simple nose, but nature presented her with a complicated one – interestingly modelled, but bringing the eyes too close together.”
Magazine cover by Stanlaws
·         Katherine Hepburn – “Her chin and the lower part of her face project too far. Anthropologists have a name for such a facial type; they call it prognathism. Artists call it ‘horsey’”.
·         Constance Bennett – “A real symphony in jazz – her nose too small for her face.”
·         Greta Garbo – “She has a sleepy, sophisticated look, attained by deep eye sockets and a peculiar slant of the upper lip. These are not aids to beauty, but schoolgirls find the effect more alluring than beauty.”
·         Jean Harlow – “She has a graceful and expressive figure – between that of the ‘90s and the boyish form. Her face is the same type as Katherine Hepburn’s, but more so, caused by her nose projecting at too sharp an angle.”
·         Lupe Velez – her, “figure is the ‘true maidenly’ one, he said, and her face is mobile so she ‘can look sophisticated or innocent at will.’”
·         Ann Harding – “Fine symmetrical features – but so nearly approaching the classic type that repose of is essential to beauty.”
·         Kay Francis - “Nicely-balanced features – head in fine proportion to body – oversized triceps of the arms.”
·         Marlene Dietrich – “Take Mary Pickford’s head, replace it with one slightly out of drawing, give her heavy eyelids and sunken eyes and you have Dietrich – a sophisticated Mary.”
·         Joan Crawford and Joan Blondell – “have Mae West’s unusually prominent features, but their ‘skull construction isn’t large enough to carry them.”
His comments are obviously judgemental, negative, sometimes unclear and just plain rude. He was evidently searching for a kind of superficial perfection that wasn’t possible. I initially also found the comments slightly bigoted and outrageous as he focused only on belittling the appearance of the female actors not their male counterparts. However, now I believe his opinion to be useful for film fans both now and then as he was highlighting (perhaps not in the best possible way) the inherent imperfection of human beings whether they be actors or accountants. Although, I prefer the words of Hollywood photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull, who said, “really pretty faces don’t seem to last [in the movie mecca]…It’s the interesting faces that folks remember.”

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Tyrannical Wallace Beery: Gloria Swanson – Part 2

For all those new to the odd and perhaps scandalous relationship between Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson, check out part 1. If not let’s catch up with the story: 

As I said before, despite the age difference, Hollywood, family and arguments, Swanson and Beery were finally marriage. It was on the couple’s wedding night that the marriage (according to Swanson) turned violent.  Swanson claims during their first night together and with her mother in an adjoining room, Beery raped her. Beery had apparently spent a couple hours drinking at a local bar and was drunk when he went up to bed that night. This is a segment of Swanson’s account of the night:     

 I was brushing my hair when he came into the room. He gave me a look that made me turn away, but he didn’t say anything. Then he turned out the light and in the darkness pulled me to him. I gave a coquettish little command to stop that I thought would make him laugh. Still he said nothing. He turned me and pushed me backward until I fell on the bed. He fell beside me, and there was nothing romantic about the way he began to repeat that I was driving him crazy.
He was raking his hands over me and pulling at my nightie until I heard it rip. I pleaded with him to stop, to wait, to turn on the light. His beard was scraping my skin and his breath smelled. He kept repeating obscene things and making advances with his hand and tongue while he turned his body this way and that and awkwardly undid his buttons and squirmed out of his clothes.
Then he forced my body into position and began hurting me, hurting me terribly. I couldn’t stand it. I begged him to stop, to listen to me, and finally when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I screamed. He told me to be quiet, not to wake the whole hotel, and he said it in a voice of quiet, filthy conspiracy. The pain became so great that I thought I must be dying. I couldn’t move for the pain. When he finally rolled away, I could feel blood everywhere.
 
The shocking events of that night made Swanson immediately regret her hastily marriage but could not foreseeably get out of it. After the honeymoon the Berry’s moved into Beery’s parent’s house. They were apparently “icy and distant” and Swanson after only a fortnight after the wedding was seriously contemplating divorce. But nothing seemed to improve for the newlyweds, with Beery’s infidelities, drinking, debts and uncertain acting career compounding to make Swanson’s life unbearable. A month later Swanson found she was pregnant. Beery, still wanting to keep the marriage together for the sake of his career, told his wife everything would get better and appeared overjoyed at her news. A couple days later after suffering stomach pain, Beery gave Swanson a handful of tablets he claimed to have gotten from a pharmacy. The caused Swanson to be rushed to hospital and, near death and in excruciating pain, she was told she had lost her baby. When she recovered, she later found the pills were a method to induce a miscarriage and that Beery had knowingly aborted her child. 
A scene from Teddy at the Throttle (1917)
After this incident the pair separated. Swanson, trying to ignore her failed marriage through herself into film work appearing in several more Sennett shorts before signing with Paramount in 1919. She and Beery only appeared in one more film together Teddy at the Throttle (1917). The movie sadly seem to imitate life as Beery, in his typical villain role, had to tie Swanson up and place her on train tracks. According to Swanson, Beery deliberately used excessive force when making those scenes and even left deep marks on her arms.  The pair eventually divorced in 1919 to allow Swanson to marry her next husband, Herbert K. Somborn.

Most sources for the marriage between Swanson and Beery, have admittedly been either unreliable or probably biased. Swanson’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson plays a large part in constructing the past events. This information could be prejudiced but I can’t believe Swanson would fabricate rape and a forced abortion. Likewise, Parson’s account of their early relationship is also problematic. She was known to have special relationships, deals and partialities towards or against certain personalities and, in addition, the article was written over fifteen years after the events occurred. Perhaps – like most publicity driven tales in Hollywood – when attempting to understand the events one has to accept the fact of weighing up biased evidence against biased evidence.  As both Swanson and Beery have passed away nothing more can be known except the small bits of history, articles and an autobiography they left behind.   
Beery also from Teddy at the Throttle (1917)

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Tyrannical Wallace Beery: Gloria Swanson – Part 1

No one reached the heights of audience adoration, frenzy and fame more than the charismatic silent star, Gloria Swanson. Her short period in the top of the Hollywood spotlight as the classy, expensive and fashion-forward starlet altered trends, generated millions in sales and made her seem much taller than her five foot tall frame. Conversely, Wallace Beery appeared to film-lovers everywhere to be the epitome of the exact opposite. With his rugged, line-filled face, ape-like body and husky voice, Beery was quickly wedged into type-casted roles as villains, rough working men and hardened gangsters. The pair were not the perfect romantic match either off or on camera but for a short period early in the 20th Century they were – to the public – basking in unspoiled marriage bliss. However, decades later in her tell-all autobiography, Swanson spilled a ghastly secrets of their three year union that made Hollywood fans everywhere question the real connection between Beery’s actual temperament and his onscreen persona. Claims, such as, physical abuse, rape, drugging and forced abortions, showed the apparently terrifying reality of the short marriage.
Like with all historic scandals, time plays a crucial part in determining truth from lies and, with the lapse of almost 100 years, the facts may never surface. I have tried to dig up as much information about the relationship as possible. On the surface it appears Beery’s character to be extremely flawed if not criminal, but with an odd article from Hollywood power journalist, Louella Parsons, portraying Swanson as a manipulative starlet, one has to decide for themselves.

Gloria Swanson – born March 27, 1899 – was discover aged only fifteen. Parsons recalled the first impressions of a director working for film studio Essanay on his new find:
“Say, two good-looking extras came to work today. A girl named Gloria Swanson, who wore the most awful clothes I have ever seen, and a young slim beauty called Agnes Hinkle (Ares).” 
Swanson, 1915
 
Swanson despite her shabby appearance was signed by the Chicago company to feature in several pictures. Her screen debut was as an extra in The Song of Soul (1914) and for the next few years appeared in a handful of minor roles including as a stenographer in His New Job (1915) starring a young Charlie Chaplin. While Swanson was learning the ropes, Beery was already an Essanay regular having joined the company in 1913. He was a popular leading man for the studio appearing in a series of comedy shorts surprisingly in drag as a Swedish maid named Sweedie. The features in name and plot were fairly unimaginative but proved a useful stepping stone in Beery’s career.
With both Swanson and Beery on the Essanay payroll it was inevitable that the pair would at some time meet. The situation surrounding their early relationship is hazy with one source claiming it was Beery who first felt an attractive towards Swanson and was rebuffed. Beery at the time, it will be noted, was thirty and perhaps too old for the teenage Swanson. According to Parsons the relationship was completely different. She attests it was Swanson, who acting like some kind of desperate seducer, was the first to make contact between the pair:
 “Wallace Beery at that time was the owner of the fastest racing car in Chicago. Gloria took one look at that low-bodies yellow roadster and asked: “Who owns it?” “Wallace Beery,” she was told. “He is the director and star of Sweedie comedies.”
 “…first he was impervious to the little Swanson girl’s smiles. But no matter how attractive the girls with whom he was having lunch Gloria would besiege Mr. Beery with notes. Eventually, Wally, good-natured, lovable and without the Don Juan qualities of some of her later lovers, felt sorry for the little girl who so frankly let him see she was interest in him.” He then started taking her driving in his car. “At first indifferent, Wally later fell in love with the Swanson girl.”
Beery (left) in drag as Sweedie
No matter who was the instigator, the pair appeared to be in love even starring together in an Essanay production, The Broken Pledge (1915). A year later everything changed; Beery had been fired from the studio and Swanson was now an actress growing in fame and talent. After this failure, Beery left Chicago hoping to make it big in Hollywood.  Like all events surrounding Beery’s life the truth is unclear. One source claims his move to Los Angeles was due to a concealed scandal with a young woman on the set; however, Parsons, as illustrated below, has different account of events:
“Wally, to all intents and purposes, was pretty well set at Essanay until he took to speeding. Arrested four times, the judge finally told him if he again speeded in his yellow demon it would be a jail sentence. Just to make the judge’s words more emphatic, George K. Spoor, head of Essanay, sent for him and said: “Mr. Beery, if you are arrested again this company can do nothing for you.” What, then, was Mr. Beery to do when a traffic cop again gave him a ticket for speeding? He took the first train for California. He had heard Hollywood was the place for all movie actors.”  
After Beery had established himself in Hollywood, he apparently sent Swanson a postcard urging her and her mother to join him. In 1916 she agreed, leaving her contract with Essanay and moved to a house on Cahuenga Blvd that had been arranged for them by Beery.  With his help and connections at Keystone, she was hired by its owner, legendary comedy director, Mack Sennett. Swanson’s first film for the company was even featuring alongside Beery in A Dash of Courage (1916). The same year Beery proposed to Swanson. According to reports, Swanson initially gave no answer to Beery but after a week’s contemplation, she accepted him. As a romantic gesture, Swanson decided wanted to elope with Beery to Santa Barbara and marry on her 17th birthday. However, without a birth certificate, proof of age or parental permission, they were unable to marry and the pair had to return to Los Angeles to pick up Swanson’s mother. Despite the troubles and arguments, Swanson and Beery were finally marriage in March, 1916 in Pasadena.
Swanson and Beery
Get ready for part two including the scandalous wedding night and disastrous months of marriage!!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

This Week in Precode History: 15th - 21st June

Another interesting week in Precode history:
  • Fay Wray apparently almost drowned in a rip in Playa del Rey this week. She was saved, not by a lifeguard, but director George Hill who had a home in the area and brought her ashore.
  • A startling new magazine campaign was launched in 1934 to promote Mae West’s new film, It Ain’t No Sin (later changed to Belle of the Nineties). Have a look:
(found at the Media History Project)
  • West even made a speech regarding her film to delegates who arrives in Hollywood for the Paramount convention,
“When they told me 300 new men were coming to Hollywood, especially Paramount men, I took the day off. You’re due for several surprises here. Pleasant ones. I’m getting one ready for you now – It Ain’t No Sin. I’d like to have every one of you come up an’ see me, but you have to get a permit here to hold a meeting. Seriously, though, I appreciate the splendid salesmanship and showmanship which everyone in Paramount has demonstrated in handling my pictures. You’ve done right by me, and you have my word that you’re the men in my life I’ll never do wrong.”
  • Even the heat off screen influenced film advertisements this week:
(found at the Media History Project)
  • Jackie Cooper was announced to appear in the upcoming film, The Bowery, alongside George Raft, Steve Brodie and Wallace Beery and Raoul Walsh directing. Filming was due to start July 1.    
  • Two American films were box office smashes in London this week in 1933. Gabriel Over the White House and Murders in the Zoo brought in large crowds.
  • Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame, filed for a divorce this week from his wife he married in 1921. He, “alleged mental cruelty and intoxication.
Laurel and Hardy and their wives (found here)
  • The notorious nudist film Elysia was approved for exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair 1933 this week. This was allowed as the board overseeing the Fair was considered outside the jurisdiction of the Chicago censor board.
  • The film Born to be Bad scheduled for release in 1934 was put back to work for retakes of apparently “half of the picture” because of the advice of the Hays office. Writers, Anita Loos and John Emerson were engaged to re-write a number of scenes.
  • Some quotes from Hollywood management that came out this week:
“Criticism, good, bad and indifferent, is evidence of the important position of the screen as an art. The final product of our studios is established by the audience, as well as by authors, writers, directors, artists and the technicians.” Will H. Hays
“The public is tired of glamour.” Samuel Goldwyn
“I believe audiences still like fast, dramatic entertaining action on the screen.” Harry Beaumont.  




(all found at the Media History Project)
 
On another note, I have to acknowledge the sad passing of Carla Laemmle aged 104. Her acting achievements and connection to the history of the film industry itself, will make her legacy long-lived. Rest in Peace Carla.    

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Drugs for Laughs: Jewel Robbery (1932)

Jewel Robbery 1932 is another one of those amazing Precode films that is unabashedly full of sin - from, sex, drugs, crime and adultery – but never seems to cross the line into unwatchable salaciousness or exploitation. I suppose it is probably due to the incredibly personas and acting of Kay Francis and William Powell along with a light, witty script, beautiful costumes and art deco sets. But Jewel Robbery stands up above all other Precodes for its hilarious treatment of drugs, used to drive a comedic sub-plot. William Powell plays an impeccably mannered robber in Vienna who, during a jewel heist, meets bored, married aristocrat Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Francis). He tries to subdue her both with threats and subtle persuasion but he can’t seem to detach himself from her. She instantly becomes infatuated with the robber whose manners, “bad boy” appeal and wit is irresistible. They play through the scenes of the robber’s near misses with the law and tempting trysts in the Baronesses rooms and darkened alleys with surprising serenity, charm and steady emotions.

Powell’s character, to the probable shock of modern audiences, uses an unorthodox method to keep the authorities at bay – marijuana. To every witness, policeman and official he offers a harmless “herbal” cigarette and all (except the Baroness) eagerly accept without anticipating the consequences. The result is a hilarious group of scenes with distinguished men howling with laughter and making almost imperceptible jokes, letting the robber slip easily through their clutches. Although it is not mentioned by name, there is no doubt the type of substance that is causing all this amusement, but if you don’t believe take a look at this video I created with all the best bits:
video
  

Saturday, 7 June 2014

This Week in Precode History: 8th - 14th June

Check out this week’s goings-on in the history of Precode:
  • Clark Gable’s mysterious illness is reported to perhaps keep him off the screen for as much as three to four months. The condition was said to be, “a toxic condition that has settle on his legs, and physicians now advise that he go to Hot Springs, in Arkansas, or Virginia, for the baths and a long course of treatment.” The newspaper also reporter that Gable was, therefore, unable to appear in this next contracted film Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford. I am not sure what he must have been suffering but he was indeed well enough to perform (even in shorts) in the film.
  • There must have been an epidemic in Hollywood during this week because it was reported that the legendary Cary Grant was also suffering a mysterious illness. He apparently withdrew from role in Big Executive which was released in October 1933 with Ricardo Cortez as the lead. His illness also held up retakes on Gambling Ship and delayed the start of shooting on Ladies Should Listen, released mid-1934. Paramount later said Grant had been suffering a “heavy cold”.
  • After the release of Gold Diggers of 1933 in 1933 last week, the reviews and box office figures are released with the film being a huge success. The film apparently drew full houses at the Strand on it second day and was popular with both the public and critics. A couple of newspaper reviews highlighted its popularity:
“Another shiny, expensive musical show which portrays considerable ingenuity in its musical sequences.” Sun.
“The film as a whole is gay, spontaneous and altogether amusing.” Herald-Tribune.
“Four stars. It is lively, it is funny, it is stirring and in its unreeling the picture continues to gain in interest, speed and beauty until the very end.” News.
“Packed with lavish sets, decorative chorus girls, tuneful song numbers and trick dance formations all of which spell good summer entertainment.” Journal.
  • Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was announced as the second male lead in an upcoming film Design for Living alongside Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. The contract was apparently drawn up by M. C. Levee with Doug to sign in two weeks upon his return from Europe. I don’t know what eventually occurred, but Gary Cooper was rushed into the part instead of Doug.
  • Sam Jaffe long term production executive and assistant has resigned his position at Columbia. He announced no further employment plans and decided to take a long vacation in Europe 


Sunday, 1 June 2014

This Week in Precode History: 2nd - 7th June


Hopefully a regular addition to my website, ‘This Week in Precode History’ will include all the exciting goings-on and new that occurred this week in the years 1929 to 1934. All the information is gathered from contemporary film and Hollywood weeklies, mostly from publication The Hollywood Reporter. These newspapers were all accessed from the wonderful Media History Project website.   

A scene from the shooting of A Free Soul
·         Two famous Precode films premiered this week with A Free Soul in 1931 and Gold Diggers of 1933 later proving both financial and critical successes. A Free Soul continued the rise of Norma Shearer whose career had captured public interest since her appearance in the controversial film The Divorcee the year before as well as her subsequent Oscar win. The Hollywood Reporter said of the film,

o   “It’s got a title designed to drag ‘em in and probably will. Shearer, dressed and undressed, acting and posturing. A yarn, that often stretches logic thin, but a combination of ingredients that, in toto, undeniably is swell box-office.”  

·         While Shearer’s picture debuted at the Astor in New York, Gold Diggers of 1933 premiered at the renowned Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with tickets costing $5. Starring a bevy of stars including Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon and Dick Powell it was also another crowd favourite.
An advertisement for the world premiere of Gold Diggers of 1933
·         This week in 1934, announced the death of prominent silent actor, Lew Cody. He death aged only 47 was attributed to a heart attack but it was reported that Cody had had a breakdown four years earlier. Reports comment that the actor was found at 3pm, “had been dead several hours, but his house staff thought he was still sleeping”. Cody until his death had appeared in at least 99 films and, other than his film credits, was also notable the last husband of acclaimed comedian Mabel Normand.

·         The filming of Greta Garbo’s triumph Queen Christina was reportedly held up from starting shooting. Although, the project and leading lady had been set for some time, the casting of Garbo’s male lead was left open. Apparently, all male stars were tested but known at that time had filled the expectations. The role would later be performed by Garbo’s ex-lover John Gilbert.

·         Paramount announced plans for the beginning of a new campaign – to find a young actress with the skill, charm and looks to bring the role of Alice in Alice in Wonderland to the big screen. The search – it was reported – was even extended to overseas countries.
A scene from Alice in Wonderland
·         Similarly, Warner Bros. also announced exciting plans, with Joan Blondell pronounced as the female star in a new musical production called Footlight Parade. Both James Cagney, Allen Jenkins and Arthur Hohl had already been named to feature in the new film.
 
·         Both Dr Monica and Dames were also new releases in 1934: