Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lon Chaney The Man Behind The Thousand Faces by Michael F. Blake

To celebrate Halloween, I am reprinting my review of this biography of one of my favorite actors--Lon Chaney. Although he is best remembered today for his roles in horror films, contrary to popular belief, Lon Chaney was not a horror movie actor, he was a great character actor capable of playing many roles in many genres, including westerns, melodramas, and gangster movies; had he not died just as sound films were coming in, he might even have surprised us by doing musicals as he once sang and danced on the vaudeville stage. Being brought up by deaf-mute parents, speaking sign language with his hands and facial expressions, gave him an advantage many silent screen performers did not have. There is an eloquence, an expressiveness, about Lon Chaney that no other actor, in my opinion, has ever matched. I hope you will enjoy my review and perhaps watch some of his films available on dvd or clips on You Tube. I've provided Amazon links to the ones I've seen and I recommend them all.

This cartoon was published as a tribute to Lon Chaney and his many roles and clever makeups after his death in 1930.

Although it's hard to read in this scanned image, the verse on this cartoon reads:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat in a buffet
Eating dill pickles and pies
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her,
'Twas Lon Chaney in a disguise.

This is the first full-length biography to be published about the most brilliant character actor of the silent film era, Lon Chaney, best remembered today for his amazing makeup and his starring roles in the "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Writing a biography of Chaney is an impressive feat in itself. He was a private man, promoted by the Hollywood studios as a "man of mystery" to explain his persistent refusal to play the Hollywood game and provide fodder for the fan magazines and gossip columns. Chaney gave few interviews and was determined to keep his private life private. He was dedicated to his art and fully immersed himself in his roles, but the movies were primarily a job to earn a living for him. He was a man who came from humble beginnings, the son of deaf mute parents, who worked as a wallpaper hanger and carpet layer before succumbing to the allure of the stage and his fascination with how actors used greasepaint, nose putty, and false hair to transform themselves. His first marriage, to Cleva Creighton, ended unhappily after his wife's career as a cabaret singer, her drinking, socializing, and presumed infidelity with her customers, and a botched suicide attempt in which while standing in the wings of the theatre her husband was then managing she downed a vial of mercury bichloride, thus permanently damaging her vocal cords and putting an end to her singing career. Chaney was granted full custody of their son, Creighton, the future actor Lon Chaney Jr., and eventually remarried, and remained so, quite happily, until his death in 1930 from throat cancer.

Mr. Blake, whose childhood interest in Chaney was sparked by the biographical film "Man of a Thousand Faces" starring James Cagney as Lon Chaney, became an ardent fan and collector of Chaney memorabilia, and himself grew up to be a makeup artist. He spent years researching this book and does a wonderful job of dispelling the many myths that have grown up around Lon Chaney over the decades. The book is also full of fascinating information about the history of makeup in the movies and how Chaney created his extraordinary creations to help bring his characters to life.

See the real Lon Chaney in action on dvd and the bio pic that has inspired so many to pursue careers as movie makeup artists.

A Thousand Faces Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures by Michael F. Blake

This book supplements Mr. Blake’s classic biography “Lon Chaney The Man Behind The Thousand Faces,” the great character actor often incorrectly remembered today, thanks primarily to movie monster magazines and countless showings of his two most famous movies—“The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”—as a horror film star. It contains new information that came to light only after that book’s publication, which Mr. Blake felt was too important, and too extensive, to be condensed into a magazine article that only dedicated film buffs might read. This new information, obtained from the descendants of Alfred Grasso, Chaney’s business manager, includes letters, telegrams, and memos that shed new light on Chaney’s business dealings, and show how he was determined to avoid being typecast in a particular kind of role such as crippled gangsters (Chaney’s makeups were never a crutch, they were an important tool in his creation of the characters he portrayed), and that he actively sought material that could be adapted to the screen for him. For instance, it has long been believed that Irving Thalberg, MGM’s “boy wonder,” read Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” as a sickly child, when he was often confined to bed, and that he was behind its development as a film to showcase the talents of Lon Chaney when in fact it was Chaney himself who coveted the role and first sought the rights.

Besides this new material, this book focuses primarily on Chaney’s films, providing summaries and sometimes more detailed information about what went on behind the scenes, some are more detailed than others, like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” buttressed by some biographical details, enough for the reader to understand what was going on in Chaney’s life at the time, but not in great depth unless new information has become available, and usually not enough to give a full, balanced portrait of the man himself. Detailed descriptions of his famous character makeups are also lacking, having been covered in the previous book, though there is a very interesting article by a dentist Chaney hired to create a unique set of dentures for his role as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

If you are a fan of Lon Chaney and have already read Mr. Blake’s outstanding biography of this brilliant character actor and makeup artist, I recommend reading this as well, but, if you’re entirely new to the subject, I’d be hesitant to tell you to start here. This book really works better as a supplement to the previous one than as an introduction. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Witchcraft Through The Ages The Story of Haxan The World's Strangest Film, And The Man Who Made It by Jack Stevenson

This slim little book was a real Halloween treat to read. Since I discovered it many years ago, HAXAN (THE WITCH), also known as WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, has been one of my favorite silent movies and traditional Halloween viewing, so when I found out a book had been written about it there was no question that I would click the “Buy” button at Amazon.

HAXAN is the masterpiece of Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen. Born in 1879 to an affluent Danish family, the youngest of a dozen children, he wanted to be an opera singer, but severe anxiety and profound stage fright prevented him from realizing his dream. He drifted aimlessly through a number of jobs, trying to find his niche in the world, trying his hand at proofreading, exporting potatoes, and selling champagne until 1912 when he made his debut as an actor in silent films where the lack of sound and an audience allowed him to overcome his crippling stage fright. But acting was not enough, soon his attention moved behind the camera. The idea for HAXAN was born when he happened across a copy of the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM in a used bookstore. This witchhunter’s manual, with details and instructions for the detecting and prosecution of witches, was the big bestseller of the 15th century; its sales surpassed only by the Bible, and cost thousands of women their lives. Christensen was fascinated by the book and read it from cover to cover and a new ambition was born—to make a movie about the history of witchcraft, and to combine it with psychological theories relating to female hysteria prevalent in Christensen’s day and how they might be used to explain the behavior of accused witches, visionaries, and saints in less enlightened eras.

Another lucky coincidence followed when Christensen found the star of his film after a visit to the Tivoli Gardens amusement park when an elderly woman implored him to buy a bunch of violets. Her name was Madsen Pedersen, she was 78 years old and a former nurse, fallen on hard times, who lived in a nursing home that turned out its able residents to earn what meager living they could each day to pay for their room and board. In her wrinkled face, like an apple doll’s, and gray hair, Benjamin Christensen saw Maria the Weaver, the old woman accused of witchcraft and brought before men of the Church for interrogation. Tortured into confessing, her recollections of dalliances with the Devil, form the best sequences in the film, scenes of witches flying on broomsticks to rendezvous with the Devil, for dancing and debauchery with demons and imps at moonlit witches sabbats in the forest where Benjamin Christensen himself portrayed the Devil in a makeup job truly amazing for those early days of filmmaking. Other scenes included a woman giving birth to a demon, nuns in the ecstatic throes of possession, lustful monks, satanic ceremonies, and discreetly silhouetted nudity. Though to modern viewers these scenes may seem tame and even comical, they were shocking and state-of-the-art in 1922 when the movie was released.

Today HAXAN is considered a cult classic, and what many regard as the first documentary, as unlike most movies it does not have a cohesive plot running throughout or an established hero or heroine, it is more like an essay in moving pictures, but when it was first shown it provoked a storm of outrage and controversy. Protested by religious groups, including 8,000 nuns who assembled outside a theatre in France, there was talk of withdrawing it from general release and showing it only to doctors, psychologists, and those with academic credentials. For many years it was not shown in America or other English-speaking countries as it was considered far too offensive and shocking. The popular American entertainment paper, “Variety,” called it “not fit for public exhibition.”

After HAXAN, Benjamin Christensen was unable to find work in his native Denmark, only in Germany and later America where, if he wanted to work, he had no choice but to make purely commercial pictures that came out like assembly line products on time and under budget. Christensen sacrificed his genius and creativity to earn a living an eventually ended up making B-movies after making the mistake of casting then popular villain and horror star Lon Chaney in a sympathetic role. He directed a few early “talkies” and is even believed to have invented the overhead sound boom by attaching a microphone to a bamboo pole and extending it over the actors’ heads. He returned to Denmark in 1929, then again to Hollywood, an aimless drifter again who had lost his place in the world. He spent some years living as a near-hermit in a cottage on the beach in California and published a book of short stories, some of them perhaps autobiographical, including titillating scenes of skinny dipping with starlets, and in the mid 1930s dabbled in “social problem” films that were meant to be thought-provoking and encourage discussion and debate, including “Children of Divorce” and another about unplanned pregnancy, only to find his creativity hampered by the morally rigorous Production Code which stifled sensuality in films like an iron corset and chastity belt. By the time he was finally allowed to again make a movie that he wanted to make, it was too late, the magic was gone. THE LADY WITH THE LIGHT-COLORED GLOVES turned out to be a dull and clich├ęd affair about spies that made audiences laugh in all the wrong places.

Despite a re-release in 1941 with a slightly better reception, Christensen didn’t live to see his long-buried masterpiece’s reap its much deserved acclaim. Long thought lost and dismissed as an historical curiosity, a near pristine print was discovered and became a popular feature, soon achieving camp or cult movie status. Criterion has released a wonderful dvd that includes color tinting and the original score. An edited version with author William S. Burroughs supplying narration was even released in 1968 for those who do not like silent movies, but by then Christen, who ended his career managing a movie theatre, was nearly ten years in his grave. He died in 1959, after a lengthy illness, aged 79.

This is a short book, as by this late date many details are lost, but the author does a fine job of assembling and relating in a straightforward manner what is known about the making of the movie, its history, and creator, and even includes a few reminiscences from cast members. Whether you’re just curious about HAXAN or have an interest in silent films or depictions of witchcraft, this is definitely a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Olive Thomas The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty by Michelle Vogel

At the time of her death she was one of Hollywood's first and foremost stars, she was hailed as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," adoring fans knew her as "Everybody's Sweetheart," and artists, including Alberto Vargas, vied to immortalize her likeness, she excelled at schoolgirl roles and baby vamps (devious dewy-eyed ingenues, the physical opposite of exotic, sultry, alluring sirens like Theda Bara), and was the first actress to portray that icon of the roaring 1920s--the flapper, yet today Olive Thomas is remembered for how she died, not how she lived, or for her films, most of which survive only in fragmented condition on decaying nitrate film.

Except for the tragic ending, her life story reads like a scenario for one for the rags to riches, poor little shopgirl makes good, roles that were a staple of Hollywood film fare. Born in the dingy coal-mining town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania in 1894, Olive grew up a poor girl dreaming of bright lights and big cities, particularly New York. She married at sixteen to get out; Pittsburgh was a step up the ladder, but not good enough, and when her marriage crumbled Olive quickly high-tailed it to New York. She worked as a shopgirl to pay her way and entered a beauty contest. With her abundant brown ringlets sheened with gold, melting violet-blue eyes, Olive Thomas looked like a porcelain doll, and no one was surprised when she won. She quickly became a popular artists' model, and from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to Broadway, and in 1915 she made her debut in the Ziegfeld Follies, sharing the same stage as The Dolly Sisters and Will Rogers, and the bed of that great glorifier of the American Girl, Florenz Ziegfeld himself. But she didn't stay in the Follies or his bed long as both Hollywood and romance soon beckoned.

Olive found her soulmate when Jack Pickford danced his way into her heart. Jack was the brother of that star of stars, "America's Sweetheart," the little girl with the golden curls, Mary Pickford. But Olive was determined to succeed on her own, she would never let it be said that she had traded on the Pickford name to become a star, and the couple kept their marriage a secret until Olive's star was secure in the Hollywood firmament. Olive made her way in the movies on the strength of her talent, vibrant personality, and beauty, but her in-laws never ceased to look down on her. Jack was the adored darling of his mother and big sister Mary, and in their eyes he could do no wrong, they always bailed him out of trouble (and with Jack there was always a lot of trouble), covered up for him, and made excuses for him; Jack learned early he could always depend on his sister to rescue and take care of him.

Despite her porcelain doll prettiness, Olive Thomas was no saint, she and Jack Pickford were two of a kind. Olive was a wild, kick up your heels party girl, who loved to dance, drank champagne as if it were water, a spendthrift who frittered her fortune away on luxuries like fancy clothes and fast cars that she and Jack invariably wrecked, and expensive jewelry she handled carelessly and often lost, including a $5,000 (approximately $45,000 in today's currency) diamond and sapphire bracelet. She once spent an entire week's worth of her generous movie star salary to buy her husband a dog. And Jack was equally, if not more extravagant and wild. He was a confirmed womanizer who didn't let the gold wedding band on his hand and his frequent declarations that Olive was the love of his life slow him down. He contracted syphilis a year after they were married and may even have passed the disease on to Olive. In Hollywood he was known as Mr. Syphilis and his entire adult life was spent in thrall to alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. The two fought as hard as they partied, endured lengthy separations because of their work, which led to tension, jealousy, and accusations of infidelity, then made up with lavish gifts and ardent expressions of love.

In 1920, amidst rumours of escalating fights and divorce lurking on the horizon, they embarked on a belated honeymoon to Paris. And here the mystery Olive is remembered for today begins.

On September 5, 1920 Olive and Jack set out on a tour of the nightclubs of Montmartre, including the notorious Cafe du Rat Mort (Dead Rat). There are some contradictory accounts of their movements that night and how much of it they spent together and whether they returned to their hotel, The Ritz, together or separately. Regardless of their itinerary, around 3:00 a.m. the exhausted, partied-out pair were back in their hotel room. According to Jack's version of events, he went straight to bed but Olive, claiming a headache and that she couldn't sleep, stayed up to write a letter to her mother. Around 4:00 a.m. Jack awoke briefly to complain that the desk lamp was bothering him and to urge Olive to take a sleeping pill (some accounts say aspirin) and come to bed, they had to get up early the next morning to make a flight to London. Olive went into the bathroom--whether she turned on the light or not is unknown--and a little while later there was a crash of a glass bottle hitting the tile floor and a scream. Olive had ingested a fatal dose of mercury bichloride, which was used to treat syphilis before penicillin came along (It was a common saying that one night in the arms of Venus led to a lifetime on Mercury). Jack bolted out of bed and rushed to his wife's side. He tried desperately to save her, calling for doctors, and while he waited for them to arrive he endeavored to flush the poison from Olive's system or at least counteract it by forcing eggs, milk, melted butter, and 12 to 15 glasses of water down her throat. But it was too late, there is no going back from mercury poisoning, and by diluting the poison Jack only prolonged Olive's agony. Olive vomited repeatedly, which resulted in the caustic poison burning her vocal chords so that she could never tell what truly happened, and causing such severe chemical burns to her face, neck, and throat that a closed casket funeral would be necessary. Olive lingered for almost a week in agony, going blind and deaf before acute nephritis ended her suffering. She died on September 10, 1920.

The mystery of what really happened that night endures to this day. Was Jack's version of the story true or was the accident not an accident at all? Was it in reality suicide or something more sinister? Was it, in fact, murder? The only thing we know is that we will never know for certain. Theories abound and all are fully discussed in Michelle Vogel's fascinating book, the first full-length biography of this almost forgotten star.

Despite its brevity, only 203 pages, though the book itself ends on page 144, the remaining pages consist of a filmography and index, this book offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a silent screen star, a girl who spent her all too brief life in the fast lane with her foot slammed on the gas pedal, and died much too young, only a month shy of her 26th birthday and became enshrined in the annals of unsolved mysteries. There are numerous photographs, both portraits and film stills, paintings, posters, lobby cards, and advertisements throughout, including the beautiful erotic nude "Memories of Olive" by Alberto Vargas, and extensive quotes from magazines and newspapers of the day.

Olive Thomas, despite her wild child personality, was gifted with an inquisitive mind that sought and sucked up knowledge like a sponge. She often drove people to distraction asking "Why?" and "How?" She wanted to understand every aspect of moviemaking, both in front of and behind the camera, she had ambitions to direct and write; who knows what she might have achieved had she lived. It is a tragedy that the "Why?" and "How?" of her death should be her legacy instead of the golden talent she was blessed with. Perhaps this is why Olive's spirit cannot rest, her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Theatre where she once graced the stage. She is said to appear--forever the flirt, Olive usually only shows herself to men--in a green-beaded gown with a blue glass bottle (the one that contained the fatal dose of poison?) in her hand. She is also sometimes seen in the white and silver dress she was supposedly buried in with a champagne glass in her hand.

Jack Pickford spent the rest of his short life wallowing in grief, drugs, alcohol, and self-pity. He married twice more, both times to Ziegfeld Girls. First to Marilyn Miller, the golden-toed darling of musical comedy, and a martyr to sinus infections, which eventually took her life, then to Mary Mulhern, but both marriages ended in divorce, and in 1933, at age 36, Jack lost his battle with syphilis, drug and alcohol addiction, and died in the same hospital where Olive spent her last days. From his hospital bed he could see the window of the room where she had died.

It all goes to show that Beauty + Money + Fame don't equal happiness, and in Hollywood more movies end happily than the lives of their stars.

You can read my article about Olive Thomas at www.brandypurdy.com

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Happy 5th Birthday Tabby!

My little girl was five years old on September 17th, but due to illness I was late posting the pictures. Here they are! I hope you will enjoy them.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Bride's House by Sandra Dallas

Like a big lacy white wedding cake, the Bride’s House regally presides over the rugged mining town of Georgetown, Colorado, housing three generations of women, their hopes, their dreams, secrets, and lies.

First there is Nealie Bent, a thin, freckled, red-head, who comes to Georgetown at seventeen with only two dresses and her dreams. She takes work as a servant in Mrs. Travers’ boarding house. She soon has two suitors—rough and gruff miner Charlie Dumas, and the handsome, elegant grandson of the owner of the Rose of Shannon Mine, Will Spaulding. Nealie doesn’t know that all that glitters isn’t gold, and soon falls for the fool’s gold Will Spaudling offers and finds herself seduced and pregnant by a man who turns out to be married; a fact he conventily forgot to mention.

Though he at first shuns her as damaged goods, Charlie can’t escape the truth, that he truly loves Nealie. On their wedding day when he takes her home to the Bride’s House instead of his humble miner’s cabin Nealie discovers what no one knew, the rough miner is actually a millionaire, and he has bought the Bride’s House for the woman he loves and goes on to treat her to a trip to Denver for a lavish shopping spree to furnish it. When people make fun of Nealie’s ostentatious taste—she likes red—Charlie stands up for her. All he asks is that Nealie forget about Will Spaulding, never see him again, raise her baby as though Charlie were the father, and that she try to love him. Nealie agrees. But her time in the Bride’s House is short; she dies giving birth to her daughter Pearl.

After Nealie dies Charlie refuses to change a thing and Pearl grows up in a house that is a veritable shrine to the mother she never knew. He refuses to let Pearl go, to let her live her own life, and even denies her the chance to go to college. In 1912 when she meets Frank Curry she is a thirty-year-old spinster and her father has already foiled the dubious intentions of several fortune hunters who sought the rather plain heiress’s hand. But Frank Curry just may be different. Or maybe not. When Charlie offers him $50,000 he disappears from Pearl’s life…until 1929 when the Dumas fortune has been lost and Charlie and Pearl struggle to keep up a modest existence.

The third young woman to live in and love the Bride’s House is Susan, Pearl’s miracle baby, born when she was fifty. By now it is 1950 and though the nonagenarian Charlie continues to putter around the Bride’s House it has now become mostly a summer home where Susan can run barefoot and free and forget all about Chicago high society, deportment, and dancing classes. She truly loves the big white house and longs to be the first bride to be married there in a white silk gown and the man she envisions as the groom by her side is her childhood chum Joe Bullock. But while away attending college in Denver she falls under the spell of Peter Fanshaw, an slightly older man serving in the Air Force. When Joe continues to perplex her with mixed signals, Susan tries to use Peter to make him jealous, but her plan backfires when Peter forces himself upon her and history seems poised to repeat it self.

How will it all work out? If you follow this blog you know I’m not about to tell and spoil it for you.

I really enjoyed this novel. The first part reminded me of one of my favorite movies, the big splashy MGM musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown and in the second part I glimpsed shades of a favorite novel, Henry James’ Washington Square. Ms. Dallas’ novels usually move at a good pace and this is one I would especially recommend for those who like historical novels that are not too dense and deep, the big, heavy door-stop sized type crammed full of facts and dozens of characters you have to keep track of. Her novels are more personal and peopled with captivating characters the reader can feel for or even identify with caught up in interesting situations. Of the handful I have read by her over the years, I think this is my favorite.