Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Born Today February 28: Ferdinand Gottschalk


English stage and film actor Ferdinand Gottschalk was born on this day in London, England.  Although he was born and died in London, he spent a great deal of his days on the live stage in North America; principally in Canada and New York.  He made his stage debut in Toronto in 1887.  He quickly developed a penchant to fill roles of standard characters, and became one of the first character actors in film.  He made his film debut in 1917 in the comedy/drama Please Help Emily.  A man ever of the stage, as he was also a playwright and a producer, he only made 3 films in the silent era.  Along with the above mentioned film, the other two were:  My Wife (1918) and Zaza (1923).  All three of them were based on plays and all were U.S. productions.  He would not appear in another film until 1930, when he appeared in a talking short.  From there, he had a proliferation of work in film as the steady character actor all through out the decades of the 1930's.  He retired from acting in 1938 at the age of 80.  After this, he returned to his native country, where is died on 10 November 1944, at the age of 86.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Born Today February 27: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Legendary poet and writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on this day in Portland, Maine (then part of Massachusetts).  His father was a prominent lawyer and his maternal grandfather was a revolutionary war veteran and had served as a member of Congress.  He was the second of eight children.  At the age of six he was enrolled in the private Portland Academy, where he was reported to be an excellent student and a fast learner of Latin.  His mother encouraged his passion for reading, steering him toward works of literature.  His first poem was published in 1820, when he was only 13 years of age.  By the age of 15 he enrolled in Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  It was here that he met life-long friend and fellow literary writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.  After a time, he got involved with politics on campus, enrolling in the Peucinian Society, a group of students with Federalist ideals.  Between this time and the time of his graduation, he wrote and submitted poems to magazines and newspapers for publication.  By the time of his graduation in 1825, he had managed to get some 40 of them published.  He graduated 4th in his class, had been elected to the fraternity Phi Beta Kappa; as well, he gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony.  After his graduation, he embarked on a learning tour of Europe.  While there, he learned Spanish, Portuguese, French and German with very little formal study.  He returned to his Alma mater to teach in 1829; while teaching there, he translated works from Spanish, French and Italian; with his first book publication coming in 1833, which was a manuscript of Jorge Manrique's work, a medieval Spanish poet, whom he translated into English.  He also published a travel book during this time.  Longfellow married for the first time in 1833, and in 1834 he was offered a job at Harvard.  By this time, he had published several works of fiction and non-fiction.  The job a Harvard was a professorship of modern languages, and a stipulation for the job was that he should spend a year abroad studying before assuming the professorship.  He returned to Europe and made a broad study of various Germanic languages, that included German proper, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Icelandic, with the addition of Finnish (which is a non-Indo-European language).  While he was there, his wife died of complications from a miscarriage.  He returned to the United State in 1836, to take up his teaching duties at Harvard, taking up residence in Cambridge.  He married for a second time in 1843, the marriage would produce 6 children.  Though, his second wife would die tragically in 1861, after an accident that caused her dress to catch fire.  He is said to have never fully recovered from her death.  He did, however, continue to write and translate throughout the remainder of his life.  Such was the reach of his popularity in readers of literature, that his work first appeared in a motion picture scenario before the turn of the 20th century.  The first film to feature his work came in 1897 with The Village Blacksmith.  The next film to use his work for a film scenario came in 1903 with Hiawatha, which is unfortunately a lost film, though stills still exist.  Dozens of films (most of them shorts and based on his poem "Hiawatha") were produced from his work during the silent era; the last of which was a partial silent:  Evangeline (1929) based on his poem of the same name.  The first film produced after the introduction of talkies based on work came in 1936 with The White Angel.  The most recent film to utilized his work for a film concept came in 2011 with the short Snowflakes--a 2 minute audio-visual film based on his poem of the same name. Longfellow died, surrounded by his family, after a brief, but severe, bout of peritonitis in Cambridge, Massachusetts on March 24.  He was 75 years old. He is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, along with his two wives.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Born Today February 26: Victor Hugo


French Romantic writer Victor Marie Hugo was born on this day in Besançon, Doubs, France.  His parents held opposite belief patterns; his father was a "freethinking republican" whose hero was Napoleon and served in his army; his mother, on the other hand, was a devout Catholic who was a staunch royalist.  His godfather, who was a Napoleonic general with secret royalist allegiance (and possible lover of his mother), was executed by Napoleon in 1812 when Hugo was 10.  His early life saw him and his siblings living through some of the most politically turbulent times in Europe (actually the world), with Napoleon being declared emperor when Hugo was just two years of age; and with the Bourbon Monarchy being restored to power by the time he was 13.  Hugo displayed a fascination with poetry at a very early age. By 1822, he had published his first volume of poetry; this gained him a royal pension from King Louis XVIII.  This was followed by several more volumes in the years to come.  His first work of fiction came 1823 with a novel; by 1829 he had come out with The Last Day of a Condemned Man; a large work of fiction that would go on to be hugely influential on a whole host of writers.  By 1827 he had published successful plays; in the case of that year it was  Cromwell.  In 1830, he became abnormally famous for his time with his play Hernani staged to huge success across the European continent.  In 1831 one of the works that he is best known was published; the novel (translated) The Hunchback Of Notre Dame was an instant success and was immediately translated into several language; it also had the effect of shaming the city of Paris into restoring that great cathedral, as the book began to attract thousands of tourists every year.  1832 saw him venture into the world writing librettos for opera, in the this case, for no less a composer than Verdi!  In 1834, he published a short story based on true events--that of a condemned murderer who had been executed by the state; Hugo later made the observation, that the story had been the smallest seed from which his great Les Misérables would grow.  That great novel did not appear until 1862.  In 1843, Hugo suffered the worst lose of his life when his favored eldest daughter drowned after a boating accident at the age of 19 (she was also newly married, her husband perished trying to save her); those who knew him said that he never quite recovered from lose.  Laments of this lose were immortalized in poetry by him.  Also in the 1840's, he got involved with French politics.  He was a staunch Republican who wished to stand for a complete democratic form of government.  He fled the country for Belgium after Louis Napoleon sized power in France in 1851.  His exile would last until 1870. When back in France, he resumed his political activities; he would basically remain politically engaged for the remainder of his life. Given the enormity of his literary influence, it is hardly surprising that his works were used early on in the formation of narrative film. The first of these came in 1905 with the now famous Esmeralda, which was co-directed by Alice Guy, who is believed to be the very first female director. It would be 4 more years (as far as anyone knows) that the next film (one of many for the year !), based on his work would be released.  That film was Rigoletto, and was an Italian production.  The year 1909 would also see the first filming of Les Misérables, it would be broken into 3 separate releases and was probably the first trilogy in film (links for the films can be found herehere and here).  It is also no surprise that there was a proliferation of films made from his work during the silent era, given the well known nature of his work.  The two most well known, considered horror classics to this day, came in the 1920's.  The first of these was The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, which was directed by Wallace Worsely and starred Lon Chaney Sr., released in 1923.  The second was The Man Who Laughs, which came out in 1928, and was directed by the great Paul Leni and starred Conrad Veidt of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) fame.  The first sound film to be made using his work was a short from 1929, The Bishop's Candlesticks, a Paramount production.  The last silent films to be made using his work, were produced in Japan in 1929 and 1931.  The first full length sound film to be produced was a whopping 4 hours and 41 minute version of Les Misérables in 1934.  The most recent released film of his work dates from last year, with the comedy French Movie.  Two additional films have been announced:  a television adaptation of Les Misérables, with no release date information; and The Hunchback, slated for release later this year.  Hugo died in Paris on the 22nd of May of pneumonia.  He was given a lavish state funeral and it is estimated that close to 1 million people (some estimates put it at 2 million!) turned out on the streets the day of his funeral.  In addition to being one literature's greatest and most prolific writers, he was also an avid artist, producing more than 4,000 drawings during his lifetime.  He is interred in a tomb in The Pantheon in Paris.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Born Today February 25: Carlo Goldoni


Italian dramatist and librettist Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni was born on this day in the independent republic of Venice.  Through in his own biographical writing, he claimed that he was introduced to the theater by his grandfather; the grandfather in question actually died four years before his birth.  Goldoni's father was an apothecary.  Where ever his interest in the theater came from, it manifested itself at a very early age. Despite his parents attempts to dissuade the interest, Goldoni would only have puppets as toys and would only read plays.  His earliest education came when his father placed him under the tutelage of philosopher Caldini, but Goldoni soon ran away with a group of traveling players.  In 1723, he father had him placed in the Collegio Ghislieri in Pavia, a strict monastic school, this nonetheless gave him access to Greek and Latin plays.  While there, he began to write.  He was eventually expelled from the school for penning a poem ridiculing daughters of prominent Pavian families--the poem was considered libelous.  He then went on to study law, and eventually took a degree from the University of Modena.  After this, he did indeed, spend several years in the sole practice of law; but a summons from Venice saw him abruptly change careers to that of a playwright.  He supplemented his income by managing theaters.  He would go on to write some of Italy's most famous and beloved plays; most of them tinged with wit and stark honesty.  He wrote in both Italian and French, but also sprinkled a good deal of the Venetian language throughout his works.  After 1734, he also began to pen librettos for Italian opera.  In film terms, the first use of his writing for a scenario came in 1911, with the short Miranda, a French/Danish production.  The following year, the first film of his work in his native Italy came with another short, La locandiera.  The last film of his work made in the silent era came in 1929, with a full length treatment of that same play--again an Italian production. The first sound film produced from his work was also based on that play and came in 1944 (yet another Italian production).  The most recent film using his work for a screenplay came in 2011, with the Swedish Två herrars tjänare.  His works have been translated in many languages and have graced at great number of stages in great theaters.  Successful Broadway runs of his work have been staged. By the late 1750's he had gotten into a serious dispute with fellow Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi; disgusted with the whole situation, and with Gozzi's work supplanting his as "Italian theater," he moved to France, where he would spend the rest of his life.  Goldoni died on the 6th February in 1793 in Paris, just before his 86th birthday.  Details of his burial are unknown.  

Honorary statue to Goldoni in his native Venice

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Born Today February 24: Wilhelm Grimm


Wilhelm Carl (sometimes Karl) Grimm was born on the day in Hanau, Hesse-Kassel, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He is famous for being the younger of "The Brothers Grimm" of fairytale fame.  He and his older brother Jacob had been constantly in each other's company since school days, where they shared a bed and desk in a boarding situation.  Wilhelm entered the University of Marburg in 1803, one year after his brother; where again they shared a room.  There, he studied the law.  From then on, the two always lived under one roof and their library was common property.  Though the two were constantly together, they reportedly had opposite personalities.  Wilhelm had been a vivacious child, but suffered some type of long and severe illness while growing up--an ordeal that he never quite recovered from.  He had a deep love of music, an interest that his brother did not really share.  And while he had no interest in pursuing any wide range of investigations in life, he was a keen literary scholar and a consummate story teller.  He was also familiar with the various German dialects of the time.  He married at the age of 39 and he and his wife went on to have 4 children together. The collection that is so famous today as Grimm's Fairy Tales first appeared in 1812.  It was a book a collected tales from various parts of what is now Germany. The tales appeared very early in film, soon after to notion that actual narratives could be told through moving pictures.  Two films appeared in 1897.  Both were extremely early German films:  Rapunzel and Hänsel und Gretel.  In all 14 films utilizing the Tales as source material were produced in the silent era.  The Grimm's tales entered into the world of animation in 1922 with Puss In Boots, an early Disney cartoon.  The first full sound live-action film to feature their work came in 1936 with the German produced Hans im Glück.  The most recent released production to feature their tales was from last year, which came in the form of a made-for-television film in Germany with Das singende, klingende Bäumchen, which aired on Christmas Day.  Two other films have been announced, with no release dates attached.  The first is a musical version of Snow White; and the second is Rose Red, also another take on the Snow White story.  Later in life, both he and his brother Jacob become professors at the University of Göttingen; they were part of the Göttingen Seven.  The group protested Ernst August, King Of Hanover, whom they claimed had violated the constitution.  As a consequence, all seven were fired.  Wilhelm passed away at the age of 73 on December 16 from a infection Berlin.  He preceded his older brother in death. The two are buried together (with other family members) in Alter Sankt-Matthäus-Kirchhof in Berlin.

Brothers Grimm Wikipedia

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Born Today February 23: George Frideric Handel


Prolific composer George Frideric Handel (birth name: Georg Friedrich Händel) was born on this day in Halle an der Saale, Brandenburg-Prussia, then part of the Holy Roman Empire.  His father was a court barber and surgeon.  He attended the gymnasium in his home town.  It's headmaster was reported to have been a great musician.  If true, this would be his first introduction to musical form.  It is unclear how long his stayed at the school.  Handel apparently showed a very early talent for music, a trait that his father completely would not tolerate.  However, the elder Georg's attempts to stamp out the propensity only had the opposite effect on the young man.  His talent on the clavichord earned him patronage for a formal musical education.  After the death of his father in 1697 (for whom he composed a funeral ode), Handel entered University to obtain a liberal arts education--a promise that he had made to his father.  It was his father's wish that he become a lawyer, but the pull of music was far too great.  After a stint composing in his hometown, Handel left for Italy and then for London, a city that would become his adopted home.  In regards to early film, there is only one film in the silent era that features the music of Handel; but what an important film it is. The Last Days Of Pompeii (original title: Gli ultimi giorno di Pompei), which dates from 1913, is condered to be the first great epic film produced.  Upon it's debut, the film had an orchestra, with prescribed pieces of music assigned from various composers--it is not known if Handel's music was used or not (likely not), as the the list of music used does not seem to have survived.  When the film was restored and updated in the year 2000, with Handel's Water Music used in the DVD release score.  Kino Video currently has that release on DVD.  The first time Handel's music was actually used in a film upon it's original release was in 1934 with The House Of Rothschild.  The most recent use came last year in the documentary Tree Man.  In 1750, on his way home from a visit to his native Germany, Handel was seriously injured in a carriage accident in The Netherlands; injuries that he never completely recovered from.  He died on 14 April, 9 year later in 1759 in London.  He was given full state honours and his funeral attracted more than 3,000 mourners.  He is buried at Westminster Abbey.  He was 74 years of age at the time of his death.  To read more about his life and copious works of composition, follow the links below.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Born Today February 22: P. J. C. Janssen


French astronomer and motion picture pioneer P. J. C. Janssen was born in Paris on this day in 1824.  His birth name was Pierre Jules César; he was variously known as Pierre Janssen or Jules Janssen during his lifetime.  Due to a childhood accident, he walked with a severe limp.  As a young man he went to work as a bank clerk. But science was his passion, so enrolled in university to study physics and math, eventually graduating and becoming a professor of physics at an architectural university in Paris.  During his lifetime he discovered and invented a great number of important milestones in physics, astronomy and chemistry--and, inadvertently, moving pictures.  Though the British scientist Lockyer was independently on to many of the same observations at the same time, Janssen is credited with figuring out how to observe "Solar prominences" with a spectroscope without the aide of an eclipse.  Through being an enthusiastic observer of eclipses, he also was the first to observe a gaseous vapor that later proved to be a new element:  helium.  And he invented a device called a "photographic revolver;" the device allowed for 180 photographs to run for one frame per second.  This is technically the first moving picture devise (precursor of the projector).  He used this device to run photography of the transition of Venus in 1874 taken in Japan--this is basically the very first movie.  This makes Janssen the very first film director and cinematographer.  The documentary short is listed in film catalog as Passage de Venus (1874).  Janssen would also appear in two documentary shorts from the 1890's by The Lumiere Brothers.  The Photographical Congress Arrives At Lyon (1895), is one of the early shorts that remains quite well known to this day.  Additionally, Janssen appeared in Discussion de Monsieur Janssen et Monsieur Lagrange (1895).  In 1903 Janssen published the famous work Atlas de photographies solaries, which contained more than 6,000 photographs of the sun.  Janssen died on 23 December 1907 at the age of 83 in Meudon, Hauts-de-Seine, France.  He is buried in the historical Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.  His grave is simply marked "J. Janssen."

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Film showing the Photographic Revolver

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Born Today February 21: Henri Meilhac


French dramatist and librettist Henri Meilhac was born on this day in Paris.  He got his start in writing at a young age, when he went to work writing free-lance works of fancy that he sold to various Parisian newspapers; he also began to write comedy skits for the vaudeville stage.  Somewhere around 1860, he made the acquaintance of fellow writer Ludovic Halévy--their writing collaboration would last for over 20 years.  While he is most famous for co-writing the libretto for Bizet's Carmen, he did work on other librettos and also wrote stage plays--all of which have provided source material for motion pictures.  The very first film to be produced from Carmen was a very early experimental sound film that was produced in 1907.  Carmen (1907) was a British film produced by Gaumont British Picture Corp. and used a sound mix called Chronophone.  The process involved synchronizing sound on vinyl with the action of the film.  It is a short film; lasting only 12 minutes. The first all silent film to use his writing for a scenario came in 1912 with the Italian produced Mam'selle Nitouche; that film was based on the libretto to the operetta of the same name.  In all 11 films using his solo and collaborative work were produced in the silent era. The last of these was the Ernst Lubitsch directed So This Is Paris (1926).  The first sound era film to use his work came in 1931 with the German production of Mam'selle Nitouche.  The latest filmed performance of his work, was in 2015 with The English National Opera's performance of Carmen.  Meilhac died in Paris on July 6 in 1897 at the age of 66.  He is buried in Paris' Montmartre cemetery.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Born Today February 20: Heinz Erhardt


Though known for being a German comedian, entertainer, actor and writer, Erhardt was actually born in the town of Riga, in what was at the time the Russian Empire to Baltic German parents (Riga is now the capital of Latvia).  In fact, he spent most of his childhood there; living with his grandparents.  He maternal grandfather owned a theater and taught young Heinz how to play the piano.  After WWI, his father, now divorced from his mother and remarried, emigrated to Germany.  Heinz followed him to Hanover, eventually studying at the Leipzig Conservatory, with the intention of becoming a concert pianist.  With his grandparents disapproving of this career path, he returned to Riga to work as a merchant and got married.  While doing this, he got involved in live cabaret acts at various coffeehouses in Riga.  By the late 1930's he was working in German radio broadcasting, and returned to Germany permanently.  In Berlin, he again returned to the cabaret stage.  Though Erhardt wore heavy spectacles and could not swim, that didn't stop his being drafted into the German Navy during World War II.  He spent most of his time playing piano in the Marine orchestra and never saw active combat.  After the war, he moved to Hamburg; there he became a very popular radio personality and was known for his pun poetry.  In regards to the silent era, he made an appearance in one silent film in 1928: Idle Eyes; an American film which was a vehicle for Ben Turpin, for which Erhardt provided the German narration after the film was apparently reworked for sound upon export to the Europe.  It would not be until after World War II that he would go on to have great success in films written especially for him in what had become West Germany.  He became a much beloved comedian in the post-war era there, providing a biting kind of comedy that soothed the pains of recovery from the war.  He tired of the only finding work as a comedy actor, though, and in 1961 he founded his own television production studio to escape the type-casting.  The company, however, only lasted two years, and Erhardt accepted that he would not be able to shake the genre of comedy.  He kept working in films for both the big and small screen regularly through the 1960's.  In 1971, however, he suffered a massive normal type stroke that paralyzed him and he lost the ability to speak properly.  Though he would live another eight years, he career was basically ended by the stroke.  Prior to his death, he was awarded The Federal Cross of Merit, the highest award one could receive in West Germany at the time.  Erhardt succumbed to his ill health on the 5th of June in 1979 in Hamburg; he was 70 years of age.  He is buried there in the cemetery Ohlsdorfer Friedhof, along with his wife of many years. 

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Born Today February 19 (Not So Silent Edition): Merle Oberon


Merle Oberon was a woman with secrets. She went to great lengths to obscure her origins, the history of which was so convoluted that she herself may not have known all of the details until later in her life.  She is listed in most sources as an "Anglo-Indian actress," but her background was more complicated than that description belays.  Her birth name was Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson. She was born Mumbai, India (then Bombay).  She spent most of her life and career trying to flee even these basic facts, claiming that she was, in fact, born in Tasmania and spent her formative years there.  When reporters, sensing a story, dug they found the basic facts of her true origins; but when it came to who her parents were, things got considerably more complicated.  The woman that for years was thought to be her mother, Charlotte Shelby (who was mixed race: Sri Lankan/Maori/Anglo), was, in fact, her grandmother.  Her eldest "sister" Constance, was actually her birth mother, who gave birth to her at the shockingly young age of 12.  For this reason, her grandmother decided to raise her as her daughter.  Who her birth father was does not seem to be known. Oberon went to great lengths throughout her life to keep all of this secret; so much so that she tried and failed to keep away from being honored in Tasmania--she, in fact, seems to have only visited Australia twice in her life.  She also frequently told people that her "mother" who lived with her was actually her housekeeper, to keep people from realizing that she was not 100% Anglo.  She claimed that at the age of 17 she left India for Great Britain; the year was 1928.  She got work as a hostess at a club under the name Queenie O'Brien ("Queenie" being her childhood nickname); it here that she got into acting by accepting bit-parts in dinner theater there.  This was later proven to be part of a concocted story--at least in part.  She was reportedly given a bit part in an early talkie directed by Rex Ingram:  The Three Passions (1928).  Her career took off in the 1930's when she was noticed by director Alexander Korda, who gave her the name "Merle Oberon."  By the mid-1930's she was in Hollywood under partial contract to Samuel Goldwyn.  This made  her a huge star; by 1935 she was nominated for an Academy Award.  In 1937, she was in a very bad car accident, that could have ended her career as she was left with some facial scarring; but fortunately it only resulted in one film project being shelved. Oberon acted steadily right through the 1950's, even getting into television work.  But by the 1960's she was, for all intense and purposes, in retirement.  She accepted only two roles in the 1960's and only 1 in 1970's.  Oberon died on the 23rd of November 1979, following a massive stroke.  She is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  

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