Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Born Today May 24: Muriel Ostriche


Silent film actress Muriel Ostriche (full name Muriel Henrietta Ostriche) was born on this day in in New York City.  From childhood she had planned on becoming a schoolteacher, but all of that changed when she was stopped on the street by director Christy Cabanne, who asked her to screen test for the American Biograph Co. (the studio that D. W. Griffith worked for).  Passing the test, she was hired by Biograph as an extra. The first film that she was in was indeed directed by Griffith.  A Tale Of The Wilderness, which came out in 1912, was one of his signature short westerns.  The first film that she received a named credit for was her very next film with Biograph; A Blot On The 'Scutcheon'  (1912) was a short melodrama also directed by Griffith.  To make ends meet, she started modelling for advertisements for the Moxie soft drink company.  After leaving Biograph, director Étienne Arnaud became her mentor, helping her hone her acting skills.  He elevated her from extra to supporting and a few starring roles in some of his films. A good example would be The Holy City (1912), a 20 minute bible epic in which she played Rebecca.  She kind of bounced around from one studio to another before finally settling at Thanhouser--where she starred in some her most notable roles.  Her first film for them was Miss Mischief (1913).  As her star rose, she developed a love for fancy restaurants.  One in particular was a dance club, where she found a young handsome immigrant actor from Italy struggling to find roles, so he supplemented his income by dancing.  A young Rudolph Valentino would often be her dance partner, with no one having the slightest clue that he would become the superstar of the 1920's that he did.  By the late 1910's her star was beginning to fade a bit.  She starred in a series "Betty" films in 1920; they were co-produced by her own company Muriel Ostriche Productions that she had founded.  The last film that she appeared in was in 1921 with The Shadow.  She then retired completely from acting.  Not only did her entire career occur within the silent era, she also never went to Hollywood, with all of her films being made in the original studio systems in Fort Lee, NJ and NYC.  She was one of the last movie stars of that old system.  She would go on to raise 4 children.  She died at the ripe old age of 92 on the 3rd of May 1989 in St. Petersburg Fla after some sort of short illness--just weeks shy of 93rd birthday.  She was buried in her native New York in the Flushing Cemetery in Queens under her married name of Copp.  

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Born Today May 23: Douglas Fairbanks Sr.


Douglas Fairbanks Sr., born Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman, in Denver, Colorado.  He father was a military man and prominent lawyer.  His mother had been previously married twice (with two sons), her first marriage was to a very wealthy New Orleans business man whose last name was Fairbanks.  Douglas' father met his mother by way of representing her in as suit to win back the estate her first husband's business partners swindled her out of.  Young Douglas began acting at a very early age and became a player in the annual summer amateur theater in Denver.  He attended Denver East High School, but was expelled at age 15.  He subsequently found himself joining the traveling acting troupe the great stage and silent actor Frederick Warde.  He toured with them for two years, serving both as an actor and as an assistant stage manager.  He then relocated to New York, where he made his Broadway debut.  Between acting gigs, he worked both as a clerk in a Wall St. office and in a hardware store.  In 1915, he and his young family--that included his young son who would later be known as Douglas Fairbanks Jr.--moved to Los Angeles.  There he signed a contract with Triangle Pictures and began working with D.W. Griffith.  The first film he appeared in was later that same year in The Lamb (1915), Griffith had written the story for the film and it was directed by Christy Cabanne.  The next year, he added credits for both writer and producer to his name.  He both wrote and produced The Good Bad Man (1916).  He made his directorial debut in 1918 with Arizona, in which he acted, contributed to the writing and produced.  This was under the auspices of his own production company, Douglas Fairbanks Pictures, which is started in 1917.  The film is unfortunately lost. By this time, he had already met and started an affair with Mary Pickford and had become the most popular actor in Hollywood; in fact the title of "King Of Hollywood" would be bestowed on him after his eventual marriage in 1920 to Mary Pickford (that title would be inherited by Clark Gable after Fairbanks' death).  What he is most remembered for today are his silent swashbuckling roles of the 1920's. Notable films include: The Three Musketeers (1921)Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief Of Bagdad (1924).

Fairbanks in The Mark Of Zorro (1920)

His first film with sound came in 1928 with a bit part in the partial silent Show People; by this time his career was entering a slow decline.  His first full sound film was an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew in 1929; he co-starred in the film with his wife.  He did not make a very successful transition to sound films, however, and his career continued to decline in the 1930's.  The last film that he appeared in was Ali Baba Goes To Town (1937), an Eddie Cantor musical comedy.  Fairbanks died on the 12th of December in 1939, after suffering what was thought to be a mild heart attack earlier in the day.  He was just 56 years old.  During his marriage to Mary Pickford, the two were influential helping found The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he personally handed out the first Oscars.  He and Pickford together were also the first celebrities to place their hands in cement outside the then newly opened Grauman's Chinese Theater.  Fairbanks was originally interred in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  But his third wife/widow had the tomb opened two years later and had it moved to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where she had ordered the construction of an elaborate above ground marble tomb with a reflecting pool.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Born Today May 22: Romaine Fielding


American silent actor and director Romaine Fielding was born William Grant Blandon on this date in Riceville, Iowa. His first profession was in the medical industry; he ran a medical clinic, despite having no medical training, for a time in Kansas City, Missouri.  He then went to Alaska to prospect for gold.  While there, he met writers Rex Beach and Jack London; both of them would later have influence in his later film directing.  He then found work in the theater and would later graduate to live stage performances.  This was most likely the time when he decided that he needed a stage name.  The first studio that he worked for was the hugely influential Solax; he then went to work for Lubin, and it was at this studio that acted in his first film.  The Senorita's Conquest came out in 1911, it was a two person short drama, in which he played the male part opposite Frances Gibson.  He made his directorial debut the same year in the very next film he acted for Lubin.  Love's Victory, the short romance also starred Gibson (who was at the time, under contract with Lubin) and added Jack Standing to the cast.  By 1912, he had added writer to his list of credits, he penned his first film scenario for The Cringer, which also acted in and directed, though the film is lost, stills are still in existence.  Siegmund Lubin, in an act of pure faith, put Fielding in charge of the Lubin Southwest Company, so this resulted in many on location shoots in the region and in northern Mexico--quite rare for the day. While working in this capacity, he got into the hotel business--renting a hotel and renaming it the Hotel Romaine.  He turned the area into a kind of personal outdoor studio.  All of Fielding's career would be in the silent era; and it is so unfortunate that very little of his work survives today.  By 1922 he had quit directing, but he kept acting in films, albeit in a more limited way, right up until his death.  He died unexpectedly from a blood clot on the 15th of December 1927 at the age of 60 in Hollywood.  The last film that he acted in,  was released posthumously, The Noose (which was nominated for an Oscar) was released in 1928.  Fielding is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Born Today May 21: Lola Lane (Not So Silent Edition)


American singer, actress and member of the Lane Sisters, Lola Lane was born on this day in Macy, Indiana.  Her birth name was Dorothy Mullican.  She was the second eldest of the Lane Sisters.  In all there were five sisters, but one--Martha--did not enter show business.  Their father was a doctor, and the family grew up in Indianola, Indiana.  Her first job that had anything to do show business, was a job playing piano in the local silent film house.  She was then sent to Des Moines to study music at Simpson College, but was expelled for cutting classes--this was fine with her, as she had not wanted to go in the first place.  There are two versions of what happened next, so there is no need to speculate; suffice to say that somehow she and her older sister wound up in New York.  Still using her birth name, she was given a $450 a week vaudeville contract there.  It was at this time that she and her sisters decided to change their surname to "Lane," and the Lane Sisters were born. Not liking her first name, she chose to change that as well. She then went a the tour circuit with Gus Edwards "Ritz Carlton Nights" and made her Broadway debut in 1928.  She caught the attention of film director Benjamin Stoloff and he gave her a part in his up coming talkie Speakeasy (1929) [yet another lost film :-(].  She would appear in two more films in 1929, both of them talkies.  The first of these was a exhibition reel from Fox to taut the MovieTone sound system that they had decided would be there choice for bringing full sound to their films:  Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929 is unfortunately also lost.  She next appeared in another Stoloff film The Girl From Havana, which is, you guessed, another lost film. All of these were victims of the tragic 1937 Fox film vault fire.  The first film that she had a role in that is not lost is The Big Fight (1930).  Though not as famous as an actress as a couple of her other sisters, Lola did, none the less, have steady work in films until she decided to retire in 1946.  The last film she appeared in was They Made Me A Killer (1946).  Lola Lane died of arterial disease at the age of 75 in Santa Barbara, Ca. on the 22 of June 1981.  She is buried there in Calvary Cemetery, along with her 5th husband of many years under her married name Lola Hanlon.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Born Today May 20: Fred Truesdell


Actor Fred Truesdell was born on this day in Coldwater, Michigan.  He would live his entire life within what we now call "The Silent Era," never living past the 1920's.  In fact, his entire film career was en capsuled in the 1910's.  Truesdell graduated from Yale; and in addition to being an silent screen actor (one of the earliest character actors), he was also a writer--specializing in poetry and the writing of plays.  The first film he is known to appear in is The Honor Of The Firm (1912), a 10 minute drama produced by the Eclair American Company.  Probably the first full length film that he appear in came in the 1915 The Deep Purple, but the film is profoundly lost and I can find zero information as to it's original running time.  His next film, Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915), was definitely a full length film, with a running time of 50 minutes (the film was remade in 1928).  His last full length film appearance came in 1919 in Shadows (Goldwyn had a hand in the production).  The last film he appeared in was also in 1919 in the comedic short She's Everywhere and was produced for the Stage Woman's War Relief Fund for World War I.  After this, he seems to have retired back to Michigan.  Truesdell died in Quincy, Michigan on May 9 1929, just a couple of weeks shy of his 59th birthday.  There is no information as to where he is buried.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Born Today May 19: Estelle Taylor


Born Ida Estelle Taylor on this date in 1894 in Wilmington, Delaware, into a Jewish family.  Her mother, for whom she was named, had worked as a freelance make up artist.  In 1903, her parents divorced, and her mother remarried Harry J. Boylan, a vaudevillian.  Little Estelle, as she was known because of her mother, was raised by her maternal grandparents.  Her childhood dream was to become and actress, and at the age of ten, she sang on stage for the first time in an amateur performance of H.M.S. Penifore in the part of "Buttercup" in Wilmington.  While in high school she got a job as a typist; at 17 she married a bank cashier (some sources cite her age as 14, was is wrong and ridiculous).  The marriage didn't last long; and she soon set out for New York with acting aspirations.  She made her official stage debut in the musical Come On, Charlie.  She then relocated to Hollywood, and was able to start film work playing extras.  The first film that she is credited in comes in 1919 with the comedy The Broadway Saint; at 50 minutes, this was considered a very early feature length film.  She found some early success in an early crime melodrama anthologies While New York Sleeps; playing the female leads in each of it's segments (one including a Vamp role).  What is remarkable about this film is that I am happy to write that it is a formerly lost film.  A nitrate copy was discovered and was restored enough to screen at an L.A. film festival (the original nitrate copy is in the vaults of the film school at UCLA).  Her fame only strengthened when she appeared in the critically acclaimed Monte Cristo, across John Gilbert in 1922.  Around this time, she started having trouble with an arthritic condition.  Despite this, she kept working and appeared in the role of Miriam in Cecile D. DeMille's first version of The Ten Commandments in 1923.  In ever increasing pain, she fought for and got the supporting role of Mary, Queen of Scots in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall in 1924 starring Mary Pickford. She was the consummate silent actor and her fame and popularity with players only increased as time went by.  In 1926 she was cast in one of the earliest sound films that was a major production; Don Juan, as Lucrezia Borgia. This was a major breakthrough in sound effects in movies, and was touted as so by Warner Brothers, that unbeknownst to theater organists who played music live in film theaters to projected silents, their days were numbered.  This was so early in this phase, in fact, that the sound was provided by Vitaphone, a company that had been pioneering sound tracking--they were quickly rewarded for their efforts be being copied and improved on, because, in large part they had not been able to patent much of their earliest sound technology because of the Edison corporate giant.  It would be over two years later that she would appear in a film of the same sort; in Show People (1928).  In between this time, she had been cast to star opposite Rudolph Valentino, but he died before production ever started and the film was never made.  The first full sound film that she made was in 1929, Pusher-in-the-Face, a short drama penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Ironically enough, she ended the 1920's going back to starring in a partial silent, with the soundtrack and sound effects being the only tracked recordings in the film and the dialog completely silent, quite unusual for the day for someone who had achieved such success in the height of the 1920's feature length cinematic spectacle.  The film was Where East Is East, a title not without merit; it was directed by Tod Browning and starred Lon Chaney Sr. During the twenties, she had appeared in several films featuring New York, a kind of type casting--one of the earliest that can be easily recognized--despite that she from Delaware (her nickname was "The Delaware Delilah").  Taylor did make a transition to sound film, but it was not to last.  In 1925 she had married famous boxer Jack Dempsey, this in part added to her celebrity; the marriage was over by 1931 and her star began to wane.  Though she is touted as having been a serious star of the silent era who made the transition the talking era, that was not completely the case.  After 1932, she only made more 4 more films in her life; and unfortunately she was 40 years of age in 1934 and the studios still give women of that age a hard time even today; back then one can only imagine the pressure!  Combine that with her health issues from the mid 1920's, one can hardly blame her for retiring from film.  Between Call Her Savage in 1932 and her last film The Southerner in 1945 she only appeared in roles that could barely be considered "bit parts" by actors starting out in the film business.  One notable, and sad, event happened to her in 1944, when she was reportedly the last person to see Lupe Valez before she committed suicide.  In her retirement, she became the founder and president of the California Pet Owner's Protective League and in 1953 served on the Los Angeles City Animal Regulation Commission.  Taylor died in her home on the 15th of April in 1958 at the age of 63 after battling cancer.  She is interred in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Born Today May 18: Alfred E. Gandolfi


Silent film cinematographer Alfred E. Gandolfi was born on this date in Italy.  Almost nothing is known about his early life, or how he came to the United States.  During his career, he worked at Fox, World, and eventually Goldwyn (the "G" in MGM).  The first film that he is thought to have worked on came in 1914 with The Squaw Man a film co-directed by  Oscar Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille.  The first film that he is known to have worked on came the next year with After Five, again co-directed by Apfel and DeMille.  For some reason, he had a long hiatus in work from 1924 until the early 1930's.  The last film that he worked on the silent era was The Trail Of The Law (1924), an Oscar Apfel directed vehicle.  He did not return to film work until 1931 with the full sound The Viking-- a Canadian film.  The last film he is known to have worked on came the next year with Amore e morte (1932), an Italian language American film.  Gandolfi obviously spent the rest of his life in New York City, where he died at the age 78 on the 9th of June 1963.  There zero information about his life from the 1930's until the 1960's--never mind information about his burial.  

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Born Today May 17: Bertha Kalich


Silent film and Yiddish stage actress Bertha Kalich (sometimes spelled "Kalish") was born Baylke Kalakh in Lemberg, Galicia--then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Lviv, Ukraine) the daughter of a brush maker and amateur violinist father and a seamstress mother.  Her mother had a love of the theater and this rubbed off on young Bertha.  As her interest in the stage grew as a young child, her impoverished parents were able cobble together enough funds to send her to a private school and the take private music lessons.  By the age of 13 she was a member of the chorus in the local Polish theater and had enrolled in the Lemberg Conservatory.  By her very early teens, she had already been a member of the chorus in at least one opera performance.  Throughout her teens, she performed in Polish, Russian and German.  She had also entered the Yiddish theater owned by Max Gimpel.  She wound up the leading lady for the company and they performed, primarily, by that time in Budapest.  She then left for Romania, quickly learning the language, she was able to appear in large or starring roles in the national theater there.  She was wildly popular--even winning over the admiration of staunchly anti-Semitic theater-goers.  It was not long, however the she would become a victim of her own success.  Her fellow actors became insanely jealous of her; there was even rumoured a murder plot against her.  As a result of this, she was offered a sponsorship in New York by Joseph Edelstein who had just opened the soon to be famous Thalia Theater, a Yiddish language house.  They set themselves apart from other Yiddish play houses, by offering Yiddish language versions of high works of literature, especially Shakespeare.  She was so popular, that she was dubbed "the Jewish Bernhardt"--a reference to actress Sarah Bernhardt--a nickname that stuck.  A couple of plays that she starred in made the move from the Yiddish stage to Broadway--rare for the time!  However by 1910, he star on the live New York stage had begun to fade.  In 1914, she left New York for Hollywood.  Her success there was ever so fleeting, as she appeared in only 4 films.  The first of these was a reprisal of one her most successful roles on the Broadway stage in New York; Marta Of The Lowlands was made in 1914, and was directed by none other than J. Searle Dawley after he went to work for the Famous Players Film Company.  She didn't exactly set the town on fire.  The other three films that she appeared all came in 1916 (SlanderAmbition and Love And Hate).  She then returned to the Yiddish theater scene in New York.  By the late 1920's her eyesight began to fail, suffering from a degenerative disease that would eventually result in full blindness.  Much later in life, she engaged in some radio work, reprising many of her most beloved stage roles.  Kalich died from undisclosed causes on the 18th of April in 1939 at the age of 64 in her adopted home town of New York City.  She is buried in the Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens in the Yiddish Theater Alliance section.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Born Today May 16: Kenji Mizoguchi


Kenji Mizoguchi was born into a barely mid-class parents class family in the Hongo region of Tokyo, Japan.  When his father put all of the family's money into an investment selling raincoats to Japanese soldier during Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905); the war ended quickly and the investment went belly up.  At this point the family was forced to give his older sister up for adoption and move to the seedy Asakusa area of Tokyo--in close proximity to brothels and theaters.  He found out that sister had been effectively sold into "geishadom;" this had a profound effect on his psyche and influenced him for the rest of his life.  Ironically, the event would also be the gateway to his entrance into the world of acting and film making.  During his very early adolescence, he was pulled from school--his parents too poor by this time to continue to pay for it-- sent north to Morioka to live with relative for a year; and spent another year back with his parents back in Tokyo in bed with a crippling case of juvenile arthritis.  After he began to recover, it was his sister who got him a job as an apprentice designing kimonos and yakatas.  This was the beginning of his path to the theater.  He moved in with her, and she effectively took the best care of him that he had ever received in his young life.  She paid for him to study western painting in school and to pursue a new found passion in opera.  He managed, through this interest, to get a job at the Royal Theater helping design and put up sets for performances. When he found himself out of work, his sister again came to the rescue, securing work for him at a newspaper in Kobe.  All of these experiences would inform both his style of writing screenplays and their subject matter.  In his writing he was also greatly influenced by Eugene O'Neill and Tolstoy.  In his film making, German expressionism was a profound influence and inspiration.  He was a quick film maker; often he was able to complete a full length feature in mere weeks.  It is a sad fact that so many of his early work starting in the 1920's and through the 1930's is lost.  The body of work accounts for anywhere between over 50 to 130 films (some sources cite that he made 90 silent films in the 1920's alone!); only a handful survive.  Still, his films managed to greatly influence a litany of younger directors from Orson Welles to Jean-Luc Goddard.  It is thought that his first film was Yor yami no sasyakî, which dates from 1923.  The first film that he wrote the story for also came in 1923 with Kokyô.  So many of his early films have been lost, that there has only been 1 release of any of his works dating from the 1920's, and even that is a partially lost film.  Tôkyô kôsghinkyoku dates from 1929, and has only ever been released domestically in Japan.  His first sound film dates from 1930, which fortunately still survives; Fujiware Yoshie no furusato is a sparsely worded film, using the Mina Talkie System (we would probably categorize the film as partial silent, though it's clear from his direction, that the talking parts are meant to be "sprinkled in").  It would not be until after World War II however, that he would come into his own as a director.  By the time of a his untimely death in 1956, he had become world famous and greatly admired by industry insiders--being named one of three great golden age Japanese directors.  He was, for example, the director of the original The 47 Ronin (1941).  He probably best remembered for the 1953 Ugetsu (it is certainly a personal favorite of mine).  The last film that he completed was Street Of Shame; at the time of his death, he was working on a film entitled Osaka Story--the film was never completed by another director.  Mizoguchi died at the age of 58 on August 24th after battle leukemia.  He is buried at the Ikegami Honmonji Temple with a full stone memorial marker.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Born Today May 15: Michael William Balfe (Not So Silent Edition)


Irish composer Michael William Balfe was born on this day in Dublin.  He showed extreme musical talent at a very early age; in fact, by the time he was just 7, he had already composed a polish style dance.  Also by this time, he was playing violin for his father's dancing class business.  He made his public musical debut at the age of 9 on the violin and had also composed a ballad entitled "Young Fanny." His father died in 1823, so the teenager moved by himself to London, England.  He was then hired as a violinist by the orchestra of the Theater Royal in Drury Lane.  While continuing in that capacity, he also attempted to make a career for himself as an opera singer--a venture that failed.  In 1825, a member of the aristocracy arranged for him to travel to Italy for music and voice lessons.  While there, he was introduced to Italian composer Luigi Cherubini; through him, he wound up as an protege of Rossini.  It was at this time that he started to take up composing seriously.  By 1835, he was back in London--where his light opera's began to bring him success after several well thought of performances in Drury Lane.  In 1841, he founded the National Opera at the Lyceum Theater, but it was doomed to fail.  After this failure, he and his young family moved to Paris, France; and though several performances of his works were successfully staged there, by the end of the year the family was back in London.  Upon his return, he successfully staged a production of the work that he is most well known for today The Bohemian Girl.  It ran, to packed houses, for over 100 nights and inspired productions to be staged in a number of other countries as well.  In 1846, he was appointed musical director and conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty's Theater.  He also composed special pieces for the 1851 Great International Exhibition that was set to take place in London.  He retired in 1864.  In all he had composed around 30 operas, several cantatas and one symphony.  The first time a film was made using his music came with the extremely early sound The Heart Bowed Down, dating from 1906; this little film used Chronophone system--the film was produced by the Gaumont British Picture Corp. and was named for one of Balfe's songs.  His material was next used in a Charlie Chaplin film dating from 1919 a film that Chaplin also penned: Sunnyside has both a full mono and a silent version--the 1974 mono reissue of the film featured Balfe's song "When Other Lips."  Finally, in 1929, his song "Excelsior" was featured in the short musical comedy Satires.  The first full length film to feature his music came in 1930 in Song o' My Heart.  The latest use of his music in a film came in the 2011 horror film The Shadows.  Balfe died in his home,  in Romney Abbey, Hampshire, England on 20 October 1870 at the age of 62.  He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.  

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