Thursday, August 17, 2017

Born Today August 17: Axel Ringvall


Swedish Silent film actor Axel Wilhelm Leopold Ringvall was born on this day in Stockholm.  Ringvall was very much a man of the live stage, being not just an actor, but also a singer of both bawdy folk songs and operatti pieces alike.  He was known to be especially fond of the songs of Swedish librettist Eilias Sehlstedt.  Throughout the late 1890's he had steady work on the stage in Stockholm.  He was a permanent fixture of the Oscar Theater from it's opening in 1906.  He finally appeared in his first motion picture in 1908 with Dans ur Surcouf, a 4 minute short released in May of that year. In all he appeared in 10 films during his career; all of them in the silent era and all of them Swedish.  The jolly actor's last film appearance came in Hin och smålänningen in 1927, the year of his death.  Ringvall died on the 21st of December in Stockholm; he is buried in the Northern Cemetery there.  

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Born Today August 16: Justus van Maurik


Dutch author (and, curiously, cigar maker/tobacconist) Justus van Maurik was born on this day in Amsterdam.  The son and grandson of a prominent family, he is actually best known for lending his name to a brand of hand rolled cigars. During his lifetime, he was better known as a writer of farces and off-color humorous plays.  Many of his works were illustrated by Dutch artist Johan Braakensiek.  In 1877, Maurik was also one a handful of people to found the trade paper De Groene Amsterdammer, which he served as editor for a periosd of time.  The paper is still published today.  He is written up here due to the fact that one film has been produced from his work, and that film came in 1913.  The film was Krates; it was made in his native Netherlands and was based on one of his books of a farcical nature.  Maurik died at the relatively early age of 58 on the 18 November 1904 in his birth city of Amsterdam.  I can find no information as his burial.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Born Today August 15: Ethel Barrymore


Famous stage and film actress, and Barrymore family member, Ethel Barrymore was born Ethel Mae Blythe on this day in Philadelphia.  She was the sister of actors John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore (the family surname was Blythe, but their famous stage acting father Maurice used "Barrymore" as a stage name).  The entire family, on both sides, were deeply involved with the theater.  When she was was five, she sailed with her family to England, where they remained for two years.  Maurice had ideas of staging in the Haymarket Theater there.  She recalled the two years in England as the happiest of her childhood.  Back in the United States, she determined that she wished to become a concert pianist.  Her (their) mother Georgia, however, was suffering from tuberculosis and eventually died in California on a health retreat--Ethel had accompanied her mother.  Georgie was only 37 years old; Ethel and Lionel were both in their teens at the time and they were forced to go to work, cutting their Catholic educations short.  Ethel made her Broadway debut in 1895 in a play that her uncle (her mother's brother) was starring in.  She would appear in at least one other play that he, John Drew Jr., was starring in as well.  In 1897 she was offered the opportunity to return to England and act in a play there.  She took the role with success; and as she was set to return to the U.S., she was offered a role in a play touring in the London area.  She chose this over touring a larger area with a troupe in the U.S.  She wound up at the end of the tour in a part that was specially written for her.  She gained the admiration of young men far and wide of greater London, including a younger Winston Churchill, who reportedly went so far as to ask her to marry him.  Upon returning to the U.S. she was cast in play that opened on the 4th of February in 1901 at the Garrick Theater.  One of her performances of this role would wind up being the only time that her father saw her act professionally--he was impressed.  By the end of the run, she was the undisputed queen of the stage.  Her popularity only grew from this point, and she was eventually dubbed "The First Lady of the American Theatre."  Throughout her career she was a strong supporter of the Actor's Equity Association.  By the time she achieved such stage success, she had already appeared in her first film; this came with what can only be called the most prominent uncredited role in How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the "New York Herald" Personal Columns a 1904 Edison comedic short. She would have one more film appearance in 1904 in yet another uncredited role, and would not return to the medium until 1914.  When she did, she was a star, and so she naturally got a leading role in a feature film.  The film was The Nightingale.  She appeared in several films during the 1910's--most of them in 1917.  Though after 1919 she would not return to film acting until 1926 and that was a "fancy."  It was a home movie of Dumas' Camille; amazing because it still survives!  It only 30 minute long and even features an appearance by Clarence Darrow.  She was the queen of theater after all, so it comes as no surprise that she did not appear in front of the camera again until the dawn of the talking era.  She starred, along side of her brother Lionel, in the 1932 Rasputin and the Empress made for MGM.  Though she was a lifelong stage actress of great skill, she continued to appear in front the camera almost right up to the year of her death.  She made her television debut in 1950 as the narrator in an episode of  NBC Television Opera TheatreDie Fledermaus.  Her last film appearance came in Johnny Trouble in 1957.  She also had a short lived radio career as well.  She died on 18th of June in 1959 from cardiovascular disease.   She is interred in the Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles that was near both of her brothers at the time (her brother John was subsequently removed, cremated and reburied next to their parents in Philadelphia by his son John [father of Drew]). The Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York is named for her.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Born Today August 14: Horace G. Plympton


Edison studio executive and filmmaker Horace G. Plympton was born on this day in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn.  He was a major studio executive at Edison's Bronx division.  He was also a pioneering cinematographer.  Though not a great deal of biographical material can be found on him, a great deal can be gleaned from his film contracts.  He actually got directly into movie making at the end of Edison's run as a movie studio (only part of it's massive business), which closed down in 1918.  He did have one lone writing credit dating from 1912 for What Happened To Mary (incidentally a film featuring the great Charles Ogle).  He didn't have another writing credit until 1917 (busy as he was the day to day studio workings) and that came with Her Scrambled Ambition.  He was directly involved in cinematography for the first time in 1918 with Why I Would Not Marry , which was actually made for Fox.  It seems that he was signed to a contract at Fox, so this would have been after the movie division of Edison had been phased out.  He directed his first film in 1919 with The Stream Of Life, under the auspices of his own production company, located in his own studio in Yonkers (note: I have no way of verifying this at this time, but it would appear that he may have bought or leased the property from Edison).  As a cinematographer he stayed at Fox through 1922, but as a director he seemed to have been more of a free agent.  The last three films that he is known to have worked on (as a cinematographer) was with companies other than Fox.  His last known or credited film came in 1925 with Play Ball, a serial that was made for Pathé Exchange and filmed at the famed Algonquin Hotel in NYC.  After this, history does not record (for now) what became of Plympton; there is not even so much as a death record for him.  Still he made a mark on the early film industry, especially behind the scenes at Edison, that deserves to some light shown on it.  

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Born Today August 13: Alfred Hitchcock


One of the world's best known directors of suspense and even horror, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, was born on this day in Leytonstone, Essex, England (now part of London).  He was the son of shop merchant (greengrocer and poultry seller).  He was raised Roman Catholic and schooled in catholic institutions in the London area.  He had trouble with his weight from the start and often described this as an alienating factor in his childhood, despite that he was the sheltered youngest child of three.  It occasioned that despite this favor, his father could be quite cruel.  Hitchcock claimed that his father once sent him to the local police station with a note he had written asking that young Alfred by locked up for five minutes; this Hitchcock claimed instilled in him a life long fear and general negative view of police officers.  He was only five years old.  After graduating from engineering school he became a draftsman and an advertising designer--a skill that would serve him well later in life in his famous story-boarding of films.  When World War I broke out, he was called up to service with the army.  His weight, however, ultimately kept him from serving actively; he did, however, serve at garrisons at home.  In this capacity, he joined the regiment of Royal Engineers as a cadet.  It was when he was working at an electrical cable company as an advertising designer that he began to tinker with creative writing.  The company, Henley's, began an in-house publication called The Henley Telegraph in 1919.  Hitchcock began submitting short articles, his first piece "Gas" was featured in the first edition.  He had already developed a fascination with the motion picture industry.  That same year he was determined to enter the business, and he found work as a title card designer for the Famous Players-Lasky, which by then was a part of Paramount--Hitchcock worked for them at Islington Studios.  When Famous Players left the UK in 1922, Hitchcock remained on the studio's pay-roll as part of the staff.  It appears that the first film that Hitchcock actually worked on was The Great Day (1920) as a title designer while still a Paramount employee.  This is a fascinating part of Hitchcock's time in the film industry that gets little attention; at first blush, "title card designer" does not sound terribly exciting, but when one looks at the films he worked on during this time, one can find influences on his later work.  By 1922, he working on more than just title cards and had begun giving active input on art direction.  The first title that he is absolutely known to have worked on in this capacity is Three Live Ghosts, though there may well have been titles before this.  Also in 1922 came his first directing job on the unfinished project Number 13 made under what would become Gainsborough Pictures (the title is thought to be Hitchcock's personal working title for the film).  The budget for the production--two reels of which were shot--ran out and was thus shut down (Hitchcock was said to have raised some funds for the film from his own family); apparently the nitrate was then melted to extract the silver for re-use.  However, some production stills, in the form of photographs, do still exist--as does a photograph of Hitchcock directing it.  The film has become a legend of it's own in the last few decades, what with wholly unsubstantiated rumors of copies in mysterious private collections, right down to it's inspiring it's own film by the same name starring Dan Folger as Hitchcock--ironically, like it's original namesake, the film was never finished for many of the same reasons (hey...what if there is a "Number 13 curse"....doubt it).

Still from Number 13

First known photograph of Hitchcock directing.

Unknown to a lot of Hitchcock fans, he also has a fair number of original writing credits to his name dating from the early twenties quite apart from pictures that he would direct.  One of the earliest is the now lost Woman To Woman (1923), directed by Graham Cutts for Balcon, Freedman & Saville (who would rename themselves Gainsborough).  Hitchcock was famous for making cameo appearances in his own films; this practice actually started in his most famous silent film The Lodger (original title The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog).  In all Hitchcock would make/direct 12 films in the silent era (techinally 13 if you add in a filmed sound check), including one of the most important early sound films in Britain Blackmail (incidentally this is the film for which the 1 minute sound test was filmed; also there is a fully silent version that has been restored). [List of his silent films from the 1920's can be found below.]

Hitchcock's first film cameo

Hitchcock would, of course, go on to be one the most formative and well know film makers of twentieth century.  It is beyond the scope of this silent blog to tackle that, however, a few milestones in his life as a film maker and director can be easily pointed out without becoming too tedious. 

Scene from Blackmail (1929)

The first film that Hitchcock made in the 1930's was Murder! (1930) starring Herbert Marshall.  He experimented with extensive special effects in Number 17 (1932) (one of my favorites).  His The Man Who Wasn't There (1934) featuring Peter Lorre, would be a film he would remake in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.  His first U.S. production was Rebecca in 1940 for Selznick International Pictures.  His first actual horror film (a genre that he is well associated with today) was actually Psycho in 1960; despite that his Alfred Hitchcock Presents, of which he was the host, premiered on broadcast television in 1955--the show certainly touched on horror elements.  The Birds was a main influence on the late George A. Romero's 1968 The Night of the Living Dead, along with The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price. His next to last film, Frenzy (1972), saw him return to his native Britain for production.  His last film, Family Plot (1976), was a comedy thriller romp starring Karen Black and Bruce Dern.  It was made for Universal and saw his return to Hollywood.  During this period of time, he was intending on making another spy thriller entitled The Short Night, but due to his declining health, and that of his wife Alma, the project was never filmed.  Hitchcock eventually succumbed to full renal failure in his Bel Air home on the 30th of April, 1980.  After his funeral mass, his remains were cremated and scattered over the Pacific ocean.

Directing his lost film The Mountain Eagle.

Number 13 1922 (unfinished, lost)

Always Tell Your Wife 1923 (short)

The Mountain Eagle 1926 (famously lost)

The Lodger (1927)

The Ring (1927)

Easy Virtue (1928)

Champagne (1928)

The Manxman (1929)

Still from his last silent film The Manxman

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Born Today August 12: Martha Hedman


Famed Broadway stage actress Martha [Abagail] Hedman was born on this day in Ostersund, Sweden.  She studied acting under an apprenticeship in her native Sweden with the wife of well respected playwright and novelist August Strindberg.  She made her stage debut in 1905 in Helsinki, Finland.  For the next six years she appeared in a variety of different types of plays from Sweden to Germany. She was noticed by American theatrical producer Charles Frohman in 1915; he brought her to the United States and she began a successful stage career that would lead to stardom on Broadway.  By 1915 she was acting in a production by Aurthur Hammerstein.  It was at this time that she appeared in the only film of her career.  Just as in the case of Elsie Ferguson, it would be famed director Maurice Tourneur who convinced her to appear in front of the camera.  The film was The Cub (1915).  The experience was clearly not one that she wanted to repeat again; so she returned to the stage.  She had a very successful career there up until her retirement in 1921.  She briefly returned to the stage in 1942 for one last performance.  After this, she penned one book.  Hedman did not return to her birth country, but chose instead to spend her retired years here states-side.  She died in DeLand, Florida on the 20th of June at the ripe old age of 90!  There is not information about her burial or her cremation.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Born Today August 11: Octave Feuillet


French writer Octave Feuillet was born on this day in St. Lô, France (located in Normandy).  His father was a very prominent lawyer and was the Secretary-General of La Manche, but was quite hypersensitive to any sort of stress.  Since Feuillet's mother died when he was an infant, his father's fits of invalid sensitivity no doubt influenced him as a youngster (in truth, we would recognize many of his father's symptoms today as probably bi-polar).  It didn't help that Feuillet inhereited some of these difficulties from his father, though reportedly, no where to the degree of the elder Feuillet.  With grand thoughts of shaping his young son's career path, Octave was sent off to study in Paris, with the notion that he would go into diplomatic service.  Though he greatly excelled in his studies and earned high marks, he wanted to become, instead, a writer.  When he informed his father of his chosen path, he was promptly disowned.  Octave returned to Paris and lived hand to mouth as a struggling young journalist.  When his father's health began to decline he was summed back to his birthplace in Saint-Lô--against his will.  Being an obedient son, he went--but he always referred to his this time in his life as exile.  While there he married a cousin in 1851, who was also a writer.  Ironically, the situation elicited from him some of his best work.  In 1852 along, he produced two of his most important works for publication: a novel Bellah and, ironically, a comedic play La Crise.  The situation, though, basically caused him to have nervous breakdown, and his wife and mother-in-law were the only to people keeping him from total collapse.  After this, though weak from his "exile," he returned to Paris to oversee to stage production of play that he adapted from one of his own novels.  After the death of his father while he was in Paris, his whole family moved to the city, and happier times ensued.  By 1968 he was made librarian of Fontainebleau palace; however by 1862, upon the death of his eldest son, his own health and mental state had been in decline.  By the time he was made librarian, he decided that he could no longer tolerate Paris and left for the Normandy countryside, where he purchased a house and started as rose garden that would become locally famous.  He spent  most of the rest of his life tending it.  His mental health though deteriorated to the point where he sold the house, and spent the last lonely years of his life wandering about in Paris, though he was able to finish one last work, a novel Honneur d'artiste, published the year of his death.  He died in Paris on the 29th  of December 1890 at the age of 69.  There is no information as to his burial.  His writing has been described as "Romantic Realism."  The first film made using his work as source material came in 1913 with the French production Le roman d'un jeune homme pauvre--produced by Pathé Frères.  The English langauge film made from his work came the next year with The Romance Of A Poor Young Man, made by Biograph (based on that same work).  In all, 11 films utilizing his work were made during the silent era, with the last of these  dating from 1927 and was a remake of the original film from 1913.  The first film produced in the sound era came in 1932 with A Parisian Romance made here in the United States.  The most recent use of his work came in the form of a French broadcast television series Les amours de la belle époque in 1980 in an episode again devoted to his novel Le roman d'un jeune homme pauvre.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Born Today August 10: Elsie Ferguson


Giant of the stage and silent screen Elsie Louise Ferguson was born on this day in Manhattan.  Ferguson was the daughter of a very prominent lawyer and grew up in a very privileged household.  This did not stop her from developing an interest in the stage early on in her life.  She finally made her stage debut as a chorus girl at the age of seventeen.  Her beauty made her an instant favorite, and she quickly stepped into larger and larger roles.  By 1909, she had become an accomplished player after much tutelage and was a full blown star.  She was popular enough to take part of in a War Bonds effort during World War I with wild success.  So, it was hardly surprising that film studios began to take an active interest.  After repeatedly declining contracts from several companies, it was finally accomplished French born director Maurice Tourneur who convinced her to take the starring role in his Barbary Sheep in 1917.  The experience was not a good one for her; she is later quoted as saying "I shall never forget my state of mind during the making of Barbary Sheep.  My experience before the camera was the most painful thing I have ever known in my life.  It seemed to me that the little black box became a monster that was leering and scoffing at my feeble efforts to register emotion before it.  I went home in tears.  But the next morning I returned."  Nonetheless, she stuck with screen acting, especially during the late 1910's.  During this time, her beauty, along with her specialty of playing aristocratic roles earned her the nickname "The Aristocrat Of The Screen."  Though in the 1920 she signed a multi-film contract deal with Paramount, it was only for four films in two year period.  As any successful stage actor of the time, silent film acting was more of grind than an art for them.  In 1925, she chose to retire from the film business and return to Broadway.  The last film that she made before the retirement was The Unknown Lover.  With the coming of the talking film, she decided to try to revive her film career in the 1930's, but at the age of 47, the studio system deemed her too old to bill in the roles that she wanted.  Her last film appearance came in Scarlet Pages in 1930, where she convincingly portrays a hard nose female lawyer who chooses work over a home life (the film does descend into hopeless melodrama).  She then returned to the stage, but even her performances there began to slow.  Her last appearance on Broadway came in 1943 at the age of 60, a performance met with very warm critical praise.  She then retired from acting altogether and lived on an estate purchased in the area of New London, Conn.  She died there on the 15 of November at the age of 78.  She is buried there in the Old Lyme cemetery of Duck River.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Born Today August 9: Benjamin Chapin

Chapin was known for his resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.


Silent film actor Benjamin Chapin, best known for his portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln, was born on this day in Bristolville, Ohio.  Chapin never played any other role in films other than that of Lincoln--all of which he made himself.  He rented out studio space especially for the projects.  The first of these was The Lincoln Cycle in 1917 (a film that he also wrote).  His first actual foray into the world of motion pictures had come earlier than this though; in 1913 he was a producer on the Tom Ince/Allan Dwan film In Love and War.  Starting in 1918, he began to direct his Lincoln film projects himself; the first of these was A Call To Arms.   Paramount would go on to release part of his Lincoln series under the title The Son Of Democracy, which is also the last film title in his project as well, but I do not believe that all of his films were ever released in the first place.  This would all be cut short when Chapin died from tuberculosis at the age of 45 on the 2nd of June 1918 in Liberty, New York.  There is no information as to his interment.  Chapin also played Lincoln on the Broadway stage as well.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Born Today August 8: E. K. Lincoln


Silent film actor and sometime director E.K. (Edward Kline) Lincoln was born on this day in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.   Lincoln started out as a stage actor.  The first film that he appeared in was The Loyalty of Sylvia in 1912.  All of his acting career occurred in the silent era. He made his directorial debut in 1922 with Man Of Courage, in which he also starred.  By this time, he was a big enough star to be featured in Screen Snapshots, Series 3, No. 13 (1922).  After 1922, his acting career began to wind down considerably; with his final retirement from acting in 1925.  The last film that he appeared in was My Neighbors Wife (1925).  During his tenure as an actor, he was also responsible for building a film studio in Grantwood, New Jersey.  I cannot find any information has to what he did after he quit film acting, but two real possibilities are 1) a studio executive (he certainly would not be the first to make the transition successfully), or 2) a return to stage acting.  What ever the case, he remained in California up until the time of his death on 9 January 1958 in Los Angeles at the age of 73.  He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

The Grantwood Studio

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