Sunday, April 8, 2012

Falling Stars 10 Who Tried To Be A Movie Star by David M. Menefee

This was a fun book to read, one I was really looking forward to. Despite the title, this book does not take a negative tone, rather than being about failure, it celebrates endeavor. All ten of the early 20th century personalities profiled here undeniably had talent, but sometimes talent alone is not enough, sometimes the time or place is just wrong. A prime example of this is the great tenor Enrico Caruso, in silent films, where moviegoers could not hear his famous voice, the dice were loaded against him from the start, but he tried, and for that he deserves applause.

Helen Keller, for example, being blind and deaf seems a most unlikely candidate for movie stardom. Just directing her would be a serious obstacle, one that was eventually overcome by having the director stamp his foot hard upon the floor to create vibrations that would signal “ACTION!” to Helen and having her companion always on the set to spell instructions into her hand to convey what the scene was about and the emotions it was necessary for her convey. But movies were the number one source of entertainment in America and Helen and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, wanted to utilize them to convey the inspirational story of her life and to give hope and encouragement to handicapped people everywhere. But the scriptwriter they hired had some rather grandiose ideas about how to tell the story and DELIVERANCE ended up being a heavy-handed, highbrow mess of allegorical imagery and symbolism too dense for the average public to understand. For instance, Knowledge and Ignorance are shown battling for Helen Keller’s mind and Helen as the Mother of Sorrows bestows the Touch of Hope on hundreds of blind and crippled extras, and astride a white horse in medieval costume a la Joan of Arc she delivers she leads mankind to liberty and freedom. Producers even tried to spice up the production by writing in a fantasy boyfriend for Helen and showing the couple embracing while clad in scanty tunics on the Isle of Circe. When Helen and Annie Sullivan saw the finished production, each minute of which was supposedly like an hour, they asked for massive revisions, but the whole thing turned out to be unsalvageable. When the movie was premiered in 1919 the reviews were charitable and kind, praising Helen Keller, her life, and her “message to the world,” but had the topic not been such a sensitive one, one senses the reviews would have been scathing.

Another chapter covers the brief foray into films made by the greatest opera star of his day, Enrico Caruso. His records sold millions and movie producers, with their eyes solely on the profits, though the public would flock to see the man behind that glorious voice, even if they could not actually hear it. But they were wrong. After two films Caruso called it a day and went back to the stage where he often grossed as much as $10,000 for each performance until his death in 1921. Thirty years later, his life was later given the film treatment in a typical Hollywood bio-pic that omitted anything unflattering or unsavory, and didn’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story, starring my favorite singer Mario Lanza as THE GREAT CARUSO.

Another opera star who tried to replicate her success on the silver screen was Mary Garden, a beautiful blonde soprano most famous for her portrayal of THAIS, which was chosen as her debut film. But no one dared tell the prima donna to tone down the sweeping theatrical gestures and in the sections where the diva burst into glorious song on stage, in the film version awkward silence reigned while Mary stood still as a statue. THAIS was one of the biggest box office failures of 1917. Mary Garden gamely tried again with a World War I love story entitled THE SPLENDID SINNER, hoping to lure the public into theatres with the promise of seeing the diva in modern dress and sporting a $175,000 string of pearls given to her by an admirer. The scene at the end where she is shot at sunrise was deemed by many critics to be the best part. After that, Mary turned her back on the movies and returned to the operatic stage. The grand diva continued to enjoy success on the stage, often in revivals of her immortal THAIS, she later penned her memoirs, and died at the ripe old age of 92.

The famous baseball player Babe Ruth also hoped to score a homerun in films, most revolving around the “smalltown boy makes good” theme, where he is discovered and goes on to achieve fame and fortune as the golden boy of baseball, but they only proved that he was a better ball player than he was an actor.

Anna Pavlova, the great Russian prima ballerina, also succumbed to the lure of the silver screen and its seductive promise of immortality, her dancing captured on film, in moving images not just stills, forevermore. But the film technology of 1915 was against her, and the flickering, jerky nature of the film made dancing appear oddly out of step. Pavlova demanded perfection, and the movies could not give it to her. She appeared in only one film, THE DUMB GIRL OF PORTICI, and when it met with a lukewarm response from the viewing public, returned to the stage with no desire to give a repeat performance for the movie cameras.

Escape artist and magician Harry Houdini made several attempts to replicate his on stage stardom on the screen, but his act was better live, in person, than in the form of a few thrilling stunts and escapes inserted in an otherwise mediocre and plodding plot. A dvd box set of all his surviving film appearances called HOUDINI THE MOVIE STAR was recently released by Kino so, unlike with most of those featured in this book whose attempts at stardom are either lost or not readily available, those interested can easily judge for themselves if the Great Houdini had what it takes to achieve movie stardom had he not died suddenly on Halloween in 1926.

And Maude Adams, one of the first child stars to successfully make the transition to adult roles. She grew too old trying to bring her beloved PETER PAN, the role she was handpicked to play by its creator, James M. Barrie, to the screen. Instead, she lived to see it go to another, younger actress, Betty Bronson, and become a smash hit and beloved classic movie, the 1920s equivalent of THE WIZARD OF OZ. If Maude was bitter about it, we’ll never know; she was always a private person. She never did appear before the movie cameras, though she made a screen test in 1938 for the role of Miss Fortune in THE YOUNG IN HEART, but decided against pursuing a film career, and instead retired to a quiet, private life. She never married and died at the age of 80 in 1953. Long believed lost, a beautiful print of the 1924 version of PETER PAN, the movie Maude Adams longed to make, was discovered a few years ago and is now available on dvd through Kino Home Video; many, myself included, consider it superior to all the sound versions of this beloved story of the boy who never grew up.

The book also includes chapters on actor Otis Skinner who made a career out of KISMIT; Sarah Bernhardt’s great rival, Eleonora Duse; and Mary Pickford’s little sister Lottie, who lacked the drive and ambition and could never quite come out from under Mary’s iconic shadow.

This was a fascinating book to read, and I recommend it for both silent film and theatrical and movie history fans who want something fresh that is not the same old story.

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