Sunday, January 20, 2019

Born Today January 20: Carlyle Blackwell


Icon of early popular cinema Carlyle Blackwell was born in Syracuse, New York on this day (Note: some sources cite Troy, Pennsylvania, but given his desire to be buried in Syracuse--New York seems the likely place of his birth).  He is primarily remembered for his acting roles, for which he was rewarded by becoming an early matinee idol; but he also dabbled in directing and production.  Blackwell started in pictures in 1910 in the Vitagraph short Uncle Tom's Cabin, a Florence Turner vehicle.  Although the first few films in which he appears were produced by Vitagraph, Blackwell is much more well known for being the heartthrob at Kalem during the 1910's. The first film that he made for them was When Lovers Part, a short romantic melodrama featuring Alice Joyce which was released in December of 1910.  In fact, Joyce would be his co-star in romantic Kalem films for the next year and a half. After her departure, Blackwell veered into westerns for the bulk of 1912 and a portion of 1913.  By 1914, Kalem was ready to let him take the directing reigns, which he did for the first time in the comedy Out In The Rain, which starred himself and Louise Glaum.  They then allowed him to direct a series of lesser shorts during that same year--matinee material.  Being as I am an Edwin S. Porter fan, I would like to point out that Blackwell was also directed by Porter during 1914; the most prominent of these is Such A Little Queen, which was co-directed by Porter and starred Mary Pickford (unfortunately it's yet another lost film--at least for now). By 1915, he was out from under contract to Kalem. The first film that he acted in outside that studio was produced by Jesse Lasky's company: The Puppet Crown.  He stayed with Lasky's Feature Picture Play Co. for the remainder of the year, but by 1916 he was "on the float" again. He next landed at Equitable and production company under the distribution of World Film. He spent the next couple of years in the orbit of World Film and it's huge distribution universe. For example, his next turn in the director's chair came in 1917 for Peerless, one of World Film's many production partnerships. The film was a drama featuring himself opposite Evelyn Greeley entitled Good For Nothing.  He would direct two more films in the silent era--Leap To Fame and His Royal Highness--both of which were made directly for World Film and both produced in 1918. By this time, he was wholly a commodity of the influential company; he would remain with them until the dawning of the new decade.  By 1920 he had also developed a taste for stage acting (there is a two year gap in his film appearances between 1920 and 1922, when apparently he turned to the boards for work).  In 1922 he landed the part of Captain Hugh Drummond in the film that most casual followers of silent film know him from, the joint UK/Netherlands Hollandia project that is Bulldog Drummond, if only for the fact that it is the very first such film--the film itself is presumed lost and is on the list of several British entities of "most wanteds."  Blackwell worked in films in the UK for the remainder of the silent era and into the early sound era; in other words, for the rest of his film acting life.  It was in the UK that he produced his first film--The Beloved Vagabond in 1923 under his own company (named for himself) and a partnership with Astra-National.  He is known to have produced at least six films in his career, and is thought to have been an uncredited producer on Alfred Hitchcock's most famous silent film The Lodger.  The first film that he worked on that was released with any sort of sound came in 1929 with Gainsborough's The Wrecker--which was a joint venture with a German production team--the sound featured an synchronized musical score (the film The Crooked Billet (1929) that he appeared in was re-released with partial sound in 1930, but was silent upon it's initial release).  The last film of the 1920's in which he appeared was a fully silent German adaptation of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes: Der Hund von Baskerville in 1929, the film also featured a performance by German actor Fritz Rasp.  Blackwell only appeared in two additional films after this--both of them he directed and produced and both were made in the UK (one of them, he also wrote, his only such credit).  After this, he retired from film acting to devote his energies solely to stage work.  At some point, he retired to the Miami area in Florida, where he died of a heart attack at the age of 71. He was transported for burial at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse.  His son Carlyle Blackwell Jr., also an actor, is also buried there with him. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Born Today January 16: Johnston Forbes-Robertson


Considered one of the greatest Shakespearean (and stage) actors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson was born into a family with the theater in it's blood.  Born on this day in London to a well known theater critic and his wife, his original desire in life was to become a visual artist. He possessed considerable talent as a painter, and in fact, some of his works not only survive, but are prominently displayed and well thought of.  As a lad, he was educated at the very exclusive Charterhouse; to further his plans to become an artist, he then studied at the Royal Academy.  Somewhere along the way his life took a turn that would lead to his becoming an actor (at this point I would wonder, given the number of his siblings that went into the profession, if he didn't face pressure from home in this regard).  He wound up apprenticing with Samuel Phelps (whom he would paint). Acting was not a profession that he liked; in fact, he never held it in any high regard, despite that he possessed a serious talent for it. At this point, I should point out that is beyond the scope of this write-up to encapsulate such a long and brilliant stage career; I am solely concerned here with his appearances in early film.  Suffice to say that his years active on the stage spanned from 1874 thru 1915 and included performances in the United States in addition to his native Britain. His first appearance in film supposedly dates from 1898, when he is credited in appearing in what has been called the first film adaptation of Shakespeare: Macbeth. It is curious that this film (if it existed at all) has so little history attached to it; a search for even production company information yields nothing.  In any case, he absolutely appears the Hepworth film from 1913 Hamlet directed by Hay Plumb in the part that he was not only known for, but, by some accounts, was born to play (note: it is astonishing that he did not actually take on the part of Hamlet until he was 44 years of age!). Forbes-Robertson appeared in three more films, two of them after he had retired from the stage. He played Hamlet twice on film, the second time coming in a 1915 short (Hamlet)--this was his first credit as Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson. In 1917 he appeared in the Fred Paul directed comedy Masks and Faces; and finally, in 1918 he appeared as "The Stranger" in the melodrama The Passing Of The Third Floor Back--written and directed by Herbert Brenon.  Upon his retirement from live acting, he became a producer of plays.  He died at the age of 84 on the 6th of November in St. Margaret's Bay, which is located in Kent, Dover.  He was cremated at Golders Green. A memorial service was held at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a famous church located in Trafalgar Square, Westminster. Please follow the Wikipedia link below to read more about his life.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Born Today January 14: Thurlow Bergen


Born Thurlow Weed Bergen (most probably named for the prominent newspaper man turned politician of the 19th century Thurlow Weed, though I do not know at this time if he was a relation); Bergen's career on the silver screen is encapsulated wholly in the silent era.  He was born in Saginaw, Michigan to a lawyer father, and his father intended his son to go into that profession--sending him east to Washington DC to study the law. It was there that Bergen decided instead to become an actor.  Throughout his life, he was primarily an actor of the stage--with his years active spanning all the way through to 1940 at least. He started his own touring company that was by all accounts quite successful before eventually making his debut on Broadway. As with many actors of the age, he was eventually drawn into the motion picture industry.  The bulk of his film appearances date from 1914; he debuted in moving pictures in the Páthe Frères film The Stain (the film also features the debut of Creighton Hale, who would become a staple of film and television and the first appearance of a young woman as a "Gang Moll" named Theda Bara--under her birth name of Theodosia Goodman).  He next went to work for Wharton for the remainder of that year (first film with them was The Boundary Hunter)--the company was the production of company of British born Leopold Wharton and his younger brother Theodore and would figure in some fashion throughout Bergen's film career.  The last film that he appeared in was the drama Blind Love in 1920.  He then returned exclusively to the stage.  During his time in films, he worked for a number of production houses, the most well known being Fox; he also appeared in films directed by the likes of Oscar Apfel and Herbert Blanché.  Additionally, appeared in a number of films with his second wife Elsie Esmond, who was herself a star primarily of the stage (she is considered minor royalty of the Broadway stage in fact).  Bergen passed away at the age of 79 on the 1 of May in 1954, having lived well into the age of television.  There is no information as to his place of death or his interment. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Born Today January 6: Tom Mix


Tom Mix is such a western fixture that he is one of the stars of silent film (primarily) that is known to people who have no clue that he was an actor in such early films.  In other words, he's basically a legend.  Born Thomas Hezikiah Mix (which he later changed to Thomas Edwin Mix) on this day in Mix Run, Pennsylvania [I've never looked this up, but I have always wondered whether his family surname was adopted from the area that he was born in--and if so, what was it before?]. His years active in the film industry ran from 1909 thru 1935--very, very early stuff for fans of westerns to bandy about his name decades later right next to the likes of Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan and The Duke himself: John Wayne. No doubt, part of the reason for this was a series of comics that he appeared in as a character that were published for around 10 to 12 years or so after his untimely death in 1940.  And, these comics were published internationally, so it wasn't just kids born in the United States and Canada who were introduced to Mix without viewing a single one of his films--it was kids in places like Scandinavia and Germany who also came to know the western icon through the power of print.  But to move onto his actual film appearances, part of his success undeniably had to come from his ease in early action scenes in westerns which came naturally to him, as he was the son of a stable master who taught him everything horses at a very young age.  Mix was first involved in the military before making it into performance during what we now term the Spanish-American War, but was never deployed (and, in fact, was almost court-martialed for being AWOL due to an elopement). After this, he was involved all manner to professions out west--including any that had anything to do with horses. He in fact was a rider in Teddy Roosevelt's inauguration parade in 1905, albeit not in any kind of official capacity. By 1911, he was working at a very large ranch in Oklahoma and married to an Oklahoma native (literally--his wife Olive's ancestors appeared on the Dawes Rolls for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma).  The ranch had it's own version of a wild west show--by then more of a side show of western types of vaudevillian performance--and Mix was, well, mixed up in this production (sorry, couldn't help myself!).  But his first film appearance actually dates from two years prior, when he part of the cast of Selig's The Cowboy Millionaire--filmed in the Chicago area and released in October of 1909.  In fact, Mix had appeared in multiple films in 1909 & 1910 (most of them in the later year)--the vast majority of the them were directed by Otis Turner and all of them produced by Selig.  It was actually Selig that made him into a star of the western screen and he signed a very lucrative contract with the company.  By the time Selig ran into financial trouble in 1917, Mix and his "ten gallon" stetson were stars and Mix was a household name from the matinees. Also a star was the contracted actress Victoria Forde, whom Mix had met on various western shooting locales.  She would not only become his fourth wife, but also his contractual partner at Fox Films after they both left the troubled Selig behind in 1917.  For them not much in the way of shooting environs changed though, as Fox leased the studio that Selig had built up in Edendale for the express purposes of turning out westerns.  Fox went from turning them out to something more like "churning" them out for the matinee audiences that consisted of kids and poorer adults.  Hearts and Saddles appears to be the first film that he and Forde made for Fox in 1917, just a few months prior to their marriage.  Mix had a hand in directing at least a small portion of the film, which was shot in Arizona (the film was a two-reeler, and it almost lost, with only a little more than 5 minutes remaining).  Mix next moved onto A Roman Cowboy (1917), which he not only directed, but also penned; naturally it featured Forde as "The Girl."  Mix started 1918 out with the feature Cupid's Roundup which sported a poster with him and his now famous hat, just above his easy to remember name in big bold letters. Suffice to say that he was a big, big money maker for the studio.  His salary at Fox  topped out at $7500--a comfort that he soon grew used to and led to later contractual disputes at other studios. He did contribute at Fox more than your usual type-cast actor to the making of the films in which he appeared though. The most well known of these was the part of of the Edendale lot that he designed for western shoots that included everything from fake, but realistic looking mountains to a full sized ranching house with no roof for easy interior filming.  The whole thing was dubbed "Mixville."  Though he did appear in the few roles that were not "cowboy" in nature, nearly all of his roles required some sort of horse riding (at this point it should be mentioned that his horse Tony was very nearly as popular with the public as his was).  The highwayman "adventure" Dick Turpin (1925) is a prime example of such a rare non-western role.  One of his best known films to the wider public in the more modern era came in the starring role in Fox's 1925 remake of Riders Of The Purple Sage (which was remade 3 more times in the sound era). By 1928 he was signed for what would be a short period of time with FBO Pictures, where he had financial disputes. The last film that he made at Fox was Painted Post (1928).  He was with FBO through 1929; his last film with them was the late fully silent ranching adventure The Big Diamond Robbery, which was released in May of 1929.  He never appeared in a feature film that sported any sort of sound in the 1920's. It's no coincidence that he doesn't appear again in a film until 1932; it wasn't just the coming of talkies that took a toll on his career, but also the depression and yet another broken marriage.  Mix seemed to have always had a fascination with the circus--something that apparently came up frequently in the late 1920's money negotiations he tangled with. From 1929 through 1931 he appeared Sells-Floto circus, reportedly for a jaw dropping 20 grand a week!  And, this would not be his last brush with "running away to the circus;" in 1935 he appeared in another more local circus, which he would go on to actually "run away with" when he bought it.  The first sound film in which he appears comes in the very non-western The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood for Universal, and it was hardly a starring role for sure.  Universal did, however, want him for talking westerns; and in 1932 Carl Laemmle annoucned triumphantly Mix's return to the silver screen in Destry Rides Again.  The film did well and Universal gave him a contract deal that included perks like script approval. In all, Mix appeared 9 westerns for the studio, but suffered several injuries along the way making him reluctant to renew any contract (I am also not sure how well he really like working in talking motion pictures to begin with). He appeared in just two more productions after leaving Universal in 1933; one of the them is the highly acclaimed 15 part serial The Miracle Rider (1935).  His last film appearance came in 1940 a sort of "who's who" rodeo event that used to be an annual occurrence in Palm Springs; Rodeo Dough is only 10 minutes in length, but packs in several famous cowboys of the silver screen and couple of famous horses, including Tony, to boot (yeah...pun intended). In writing about Mix the cowboy legend of the silver screen--it leaves little room to take on his roles as both a writer and director. In both he was surprisingly prolific. He was a director of more than 100 films, most of them early shorts at Selig and Fox; and a writer of some 85 produced scripts. Almost all of these were, of course, westerns. One of the other reasons for Mix's popularity well beyond his films came by way of radio. It's not he was a radio actor himself; rather a show bearing his name that ran from the 1930's through the early 1950's. Mix died suddenly and tragically in a horrible road  accident driving from Tucson, Arizona that broke his neck on the 12th of October; he was 60 years old.  He was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale four days later. 

Photo: Find A Grave

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Born Today January 5: J. Stuart Blackton


Founder of Vitagraph studios J. (James) Stuart Blacktin was born on this day in Sheffield, England. His entire family emigrated to the United States ten years later,  changing their last name to Blackton. As a young man, he worked as both a reporter and illustrator at a New York area newspaper (New York Evening World); he supplemented his income by appearing on stage with stage illusionist, later turned filmmaker, Albert E. Smith.  As part of his newspaper duties, he was sent to interview Thomas Edison when the inventor unveiled  his Vitascope projector 1896 (in this regard, Edison was late to the game of film innovation).  Struck with the machine, and owed to Edison wanting a long write-up, he was keen to demonstrate the contraption to Blackton, he took Blackton to the famous Black Maria and filmed him sketching an illustration of his likeness.  Edison actually made two films of Blackton that day, the second of which comes down to us as Blackton Sketches, No. 2 (1896).  Blackton being so impressed with the experience, and owed to Edison's real talent--the art of salesmanship--the illustrator agreed to an investment of sorts in Edison's technology. Blackton and the above mentioned Albert Smith partnered in purchasing a Vitascope from Edison (and a print of the film in which the illustrator appeared) for purposes of making money on their own from paid public exhibition in New York.  Taking a name from the contraption to produce films of their own, Vitagraph Studios was born in 1897, with official name of the company being the American Vitagraph Company. It is hardly surprising that given Blackton's background in newsprint illustration, that Vitagraph would become one of the first major producers of animated films (Blackton starred in films based on the popular comic strip character Happy Hooligan; but these were not what we would regard as animated films). They were also major producers of dramatic narrative film works as well, becoming one of only a handful of major motion picture studios in early film (and, basically, the only one to avoid the lawsuits that Edison flung around like confetti, by purchasing "special licenses" from Edison's company).  They were also one of ten companies to make up the infamous Motion Pictures Patent Company.  Almost all of their films were released to public viewing after the turn of the new century (as far as films listed in their catalog as dating from the late 1890's--most appear to be manufacturing, rather than release dates).  By 1905 the company was well on it's way to being one of the biggest studios in the business.  The company was eventually sold to Warner Brothers in 1925 [Smith's book Two Reels and a Crank gives a very detailed account of the studio and it's complete history as an independent company.] While the company that Blackton helped found was one of the biggest in the early film industry, his personal contribution to the world of film is somewhat over looked.  His genius undeniably lie in animation, and his earliest films made use of tricks first pioneered by the likes of Mélèis, but he would go to invent (or at least partially invent) other forms of animation that would become the mainstay of films for generations.  For example, he basically invented stop-motion animation--even it was by accident (having noticed the effects of industrial steam in a film he shot--he would go on to attempt to reproduce it artificially--which lead to all types of animated images ideas).  I personally do not think that it can be wrong-headed to laud his animation contributions--even if the surviving films of his work don't seem to yield much to praise.  It is no small thing to be a founder of one of the very first major film studios (one whose name continued in use in some form into the 1960's) and to make contributions of any sort to the mechanisms of animation that led to the popularization of that as an independent art form apart from live action. On paper, his credits don't look that distinguished, but note his first directorial efforts are credited in 1897 as Political Cartoon; and all of his earliest work comes in the form of pure animated "cartoon" ideas.  Almost no other director of note started out this way. His directorial contributions continued into the sound era--just barely, but still...what a spansive career (his last direction came on a history of film piece made in England entitled March Of The Movies in 1933). His interest in cartoon artists also lead him to bring some of them to film--the most notable was Winsor McCay who showed up in a Vitagraph short Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics in 1911 (McCay's work had been previously featured as a subject of a now famous surviving Edison short Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend in 1906).  Blackton would also direct some feature silent films that featured famous stars--especially in the 1920's (see for example The Redeeming Sin (1925) starring Alla Nazimova--the film was penned almost entirely by his daughter Marian-- and, she was the writer for most of the melodramas that he directed in the mid 1920's).  He continued to direct for Warner Bros. even after it's acquisition of his company. The first of four films--all contained in the year 1926--that he directed for Warner's was Bride Of The Storm starring Dolores Costello. The last silent film that he directed was a western made for the independent Natural Vision Pictures starring Bessie Love entitled The American in 1927. His life, like many in the business, took a sharp turn for worse in 1929 with the stock market crash. By 1931 he had to declare personal bankruptcy. He died ten years later on the 13th of August, two days after being hit by a car while crossing a street. He was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale. He was 66 years old. At the time of his death, he was working on color processes with famed producer Hal Roach.  All four of his children had some footprint in the film world, but none of them would make as big a mark as his daughter Marian did--as she was a writer in the industry at a time when female writers were at the very least frowned upon.  In addition to his work in the film industry, he was the president of the well known Vitaphone Co.--manufacturer of records players (and vinyl).   He was also a avid boater.



Find A Grave Entry

For More On Vitagraph: Wikipedia

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Born Today October 13: Helena Pickard


Famed British actress of the stage and screen Helena [Marie] Pickard was born on this day in Sheffield, England. Though she started her career on the stage, she quickly also found herself in motion pictures in her early 20's.  Her work in silent film is confined to one film dating from 1924; she had a starring role in the comedic short The Clicking of Cuthbert produced by the UK company Stoll.  She did not appear in another film until 1930 when she appeared in an uncredited role in the now lost early British talkie Lord Richard in the Pantry.  Her first talking picture credit came in 1931 in the short comedy Cupboard Love.  She would make her televised debut in the also lost BBC two and one-half hour When We Are Married  in 1938 (the film was based on a J. B. Priestly play--his novel is responsible for the the James Whale horror comedy The Old Dark House).  She made her television series debut in the 1950's ABC/ITV joint production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1956 (unfortunately also lost).  She also worked in radio for the BBC as well. And since this is October, and Halloween is on the way, it is also worth noting that she made an appearance in John Brahm's 1944 remake of The Lodger, which starred her husband, famed British actor Cedric Hardwicke.  Her marriage to Hardwicke ended in divorce in 1950 and she remarried a banking financier in 1956. She ended her own life, probably on purpose, by ingesting an over-dose of sleeping pills on the 27th of September just shy of her 59th birthday--at the time she had been living in the Oxfordshire area.  She was buried in a non-cemetery burial somewhere in the region (possibly on the estate of her husband Herbert Rothbart or his family?).  She was the mother of beloved British character actor Edward Hardwicke, who is best remembered for his portrayal of Dr. Watson, to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, on the Britain's Granada TV.  

In The Lodger

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Born Today October 11: Luis Firpo


Argentinian boxer Luis Ángel Firpo was born in Junin barrio of Argentina's capital city of Buenos Aires. He is an historical figure known for his boxing skills and his colorful nickname of "The Wild Bull of the Pampas."  During the height of his career in the early 1920's, he appeared in two films: one a documentary and one as an actor.  The first of these was a short entitled Will He Conquer Dempsey, made in 1923 and featuring him and his principle rival Jack Dempsey--though the documentary was principally about Firpo.  The bout, which took place in New York on the 14th of September is the stuff boxing history is made of; Firpo almost won, but was eventually defeated by Dempsey after Firpo had literally knocked him out of the ring, sending him head first into a reporters typewriter! The second silent that he appeared in was an Argentinian short fictional film entitled La vuelta del toro salvaje released in 1924 and titled after his nickname--the film partially fictionalized his life to date.  In his lifetime, he appeared as an actor in just one other film in the 1950's; also an Argentinian drama.  Firpo retired from boxing in 1940, but went on to be a boxing manager; he was also a large scale rancher.  He died on the 8th of August 1960 at the age of 65.  He was interred at La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, in a large customized mausoleum.  

More Mèliés Tricks

Back from dealing with Hurricane Michael yesterday, and wanted to share a little Mèliés flummery to express my sense of relief! This dates from 1903 and shows his prowess at careful film editing at it's best. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Silent Horror Of The Day Embed--Mèliés The Vanishing Lady (1896)

This was not Mèliés' first horror film, but it was close.  He is credited with making the very first horror film earlier in 1896 (there is one Edison short from the year before that counts as the first horror just wasn't intended to be when it was produced). This, like many of Mèliés' films, has several titles in both French and English.  It is one of is his rather delightful and macabre trick films--he was the master of them!

Silent Era Halloween Images

This year I am posting up creepy Halloween photographs from the silent film era (not necessarily from silent films). I am starting off from this one.  I have looked and can't find the exact year --though it was taken some time during the 1920's. Bonus image below...the 1950's weren't much less creepy when it came to Halloween costumes! Happy October 1!!