Monday, January 29, 2018

Born Today January 29: Sydney Barton Booth


Sydney Barton Booth, nephew to infamous actor and Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, was born on this day in Boston.  The entire family was a theatrical one here in the U.S., with Sydney's grandfather Junius Brutus Booth being an immigrant from England and a stage actor himself.  Sydney was the son of Junius Brutus Booth Jr. and his wife, the popular actress, Agnes Booth.  Sydney was born well after the Civil War and after his Yankee uncle, a northern confederate sympathizer, had shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln.  Undeterred by the history of his family, he chose to follow in the family's footsteps and take to the stage.  He did not, however, appear in film until well after the turn of the century.  It is an irony that his debut role was not only an historical one, but a presidential one to boot.  He appeared in the Edison short The Star Spangled Banner in 1911 at the age of 34 as President James Monroe, opposite Guy Coombs as Francis Scott Key; the film was directed by J. Searle Dawley.  Booth did not stay in pictures for very long; he appears to have had a standard one year contract to work as an actor for the Edison studio for the year 1911.  He appeared in 12 Edison shorts in that year, the last of which was A Modern Cinderella (1911).  In 1913, he penned two film scenarios that made it into production:  The Minister's Temptation and Nora's Boarders, both of which were made for Edison, so it's unclear when he actually wrote them.  He made one additional appearance in a film, that came in the rare-for-it's-day feature length picture Your Girl and Mine: A Woman Suffrage Pay in 1914--a drama produced for Selig.  Booth died in Stanford, Connecticut on the 5th of February, just a few days after his 60th birthday.  He is buried in the Rosedale Cemetery in Manchester-By-The-Sea, Massachusetts.  Booth was married to Elizabeth Synder, a prominent miniature painter.

Leave Virtual Remembrances @ Find A Grave

General Booth information Wikipedia

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Born Today January 28: Alice Bradley

Scene from the 1915 film The Governor's Lady (Lasky Feature Play Co./Paramount)


Playwright Alice Bradley was born Alice Monks on this day in New York City.  Bradley was her pen-name; as far as anyone knows, she never married.  Details of her life are extremely sketchy.  What is known in regard to productions of her work follows.  Her play The Governor's Lady, was a big success in her home town and ran at Theatre Republic for 135 performances.  In 1915, the play was made into a film by the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company; her play was adapted into a workable scenario by William DeMille, older brother of Cecil.  The movie featured May Allison, Edith Wynne Matthison, and James Neill.  It was distributed by Paramount theatrically.  Bradley has only one other film credit as this writing, coming in the as yet to be released documentary Irish? (and given it's last production update, it is likely this will not be released at all).  Bradley died at the young age of 49 on the 13th of May in 1926.  With next to nothing known of her life, it stands to reason that her burial is also a mystery.  

Grainy newsprint photo still from the film featuring one of it's outdoor scenes.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Born Today January 21: Arthur Wontner

[Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London*]


Most people remember British actor Arthur Wontner as being the Sherlock Holmes that preceded Basil Rathbone; but, in fact, he was involved with film acting as early as 1916.  Born Arthur Wontner Smith on this day in London; he shortened his name when he started his acting career on the stage in 1897 (he legally changed his name in 1909).  His film debut came in Sidney Morgan's Temptation's Hour (1916).  He appeared in two more films in 1916, including an early adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan.  Wontner would not appear in film again for another 6 years, when he was given a part in Bonnie Prince Charles (1923).  He worked in films for a couple of years, before again returning to the stage.  Wontner next showed up in film in 1928 in The Infamous Lady as the star of the picture.  This would be his last silent film and his last film in the 1920's.  His first sound film came in 1930 with the crime short The Message; it would represent his only film work of that year.  His next film appearance came as that character that he is so associated with to this day:  Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour, which was released in February 1931.  He would go on the play the character in five films that spanned from 1931 to 1937; the last of which was Silver Blaze (now known as Murder at the Baskervilles, due to the appearance of the character of Henry Baskerville as a plot device).  The role temporarily type-cast him in crime films, but this didn't last; by the 1940's he was assaying roles such as ambassadors or senior military men.  He was, for example, cast in a very early made for television film in 1939 The Day Is Gone as Major Warminside (the film stars Torin Thatcher).  During the war years in the 1940's, he appeared in only one film--The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).  Wontner spent a good deal of his time in front of the camera after the war in one Shakespeare character or other--almost all of the films made for British television.  Wontner was even part of a television series ensemble cast in 1951; his character Bishop of Barchester was in every episode of short lived The Warden (the series is now considered lost).  He would also go on to make multiple appearances on BBC Sunday-Night Theater, which ran from 1950 through 1954.  His last appearance on film came in a segment of the 1955 horror-mystery anthology film Three Cases Of Murder, a UK film that curiously features Orson Welles in one of the stories.  Wontner retired after this.  He lived a further five years before passing away in London on the 19th of July in London.  There is no information currently available on a interment or cremation.

The two future Sherlock's together on the stage in 1926.  Wontner with Basil Rathbone in The Captive. [photo by: vandamm]


*To check out all the great stuff The National Portrait Gallery has online, please click here.

Pre-Code Horror Released On This Day

The Vampire Bat, an independent horror film of the pre-code years in the early 1930's,  put into wide release today 85 years ago today.  It features my favorite pre-code horror duo of scream queen Fay Wray and perennial horror menace Lionel Atwill, featuring relative newcomer Melvyn Douglas.  It is now currently in the public domain.  The film is on several YouTube channels, the best copy of which can be found here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Born Today January 16: Ralph Ince


Ralph Waldo Ince (that's right, as in Emerson), who was the youngest of the "Brothers Ince," was born on this day in Boston.  Ralph, like his older brothers--one of whom was Thomas H. Ince, the studio founder and mogul--got into motion pictures when the medium was quite young.  The family was a theater family to begin with, and almost all members were engaged in some way with performance arts.  Ralph appeared as an actor professionally for the first time on the stage as a child.  Ralph himself studied cartoon illustration and eventually went to work for newspapers and magazines in New York as a cartoonist.  He then graduated to work in early animation and worked for Winsor McCay; but he entered films as an actor, not as an illustrator, at the age of 20.  His first film appearance came in Vitagraph's Athletic American Girls (1907) with the two Florence's: Florence Turner and Florence Lawrence in only her 4th film appearance.  It did little to give away his future importance in both writing and directing.  He appeared in a couple of more shorts before getting into writing scenarios himself.  His first foray into film writing came with a super depressing little drama Drumsticks in 1910 (it probably takes longer to read the synopsis of the film than it was to watch it).  The film again was a Vitagraph production, which Ince starred in it.  From there, it was just a short jump to directing shorts that he appeared in.  Troublesome Secretaries was his directorial debut; the film not only featured Ince, it also features Mabel Normand is one of her earliest surviving performances. It was the beginning of a very long directing career that would see him at the helm of more than 1970 films, most of them in the silent era (his acting credits are nothing to sneeze at either--numbering well over 100).  Although his much more famous brother Thomas would go into the studio business in 1915 with the likes of Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith, younger Ralph would stay at Vitagraph through 1916 (and never really had much to do with his mogul brother's studios).  The last film that he appears to have headed up for them was the 1916 release The Ninety and Nine.  In 1917, he would join up with Harry Rapf and actor Robert Warwick's production companies to direct the mystery The Argyle Case.  He bounced around for a couple of years working with different production entities, before returning to Vitagraph in 1919 (see, Two Women).  He then go on to work for/with Lewis J. Selznick's company.  He celebrated the brand new decade with the release of His Wife's Money (1920), starring Eugene O'Brien and Zena Keefe.  A few films that he directed during the 1920's stand out for various reasons:  The Uninvited Guest (1924)--underwater sequences, His Bitter Half (1924) & Dumb and Daffy (1925)-shorts made with Al St. John, and Lady Robinhood (1925)--featured one Boris Karloff.  By the mid 1920's, Ralph finally went to work under his brother's production house; he directed a few films in 1924 and 1925 with the Thomas H. Ince Corp (see, for example, Dynamite Smith and Playing with Souls--and note that his brother had actually died by the is time).  He also had a production business entity of his own that when in and out of existence over the years.  Probably the most important film that the company produced was his 1926 version of Jack London's The Sea Wolf.  An example of an late "all Ralph Ince" production can be had with The Singapore Mutiny in 1928, directing and starring in the film, he also had a hand in writing it as well (though he is merely credited with "Titles").  Ever a man of the silent cinema, sound didn't come to a movie he directed until the very end of 1929 in Hurricane; filmed with MoiveTone sound and produced with Columbia.  Thus ended the 1920's for Ralph Waldo Ince.  Things changed for him with the coming of the 1930's.  The first film that he directed in the decade was curiously a Spanish language affair; La fuerza del querer (1930) was released into theaters with no subtitles (not unusual), strangely featured Stepin Fetchit, and was produced by the rather odd individual that was James Cruze.  Ince wouldn't direct a film again for two years.  Flaming Gold was made for RKO and stars William Boyd before his Hopalong Cassidy days.  Ince continued to direct at a steady pace after Gold's release, right up until his untimely death in 1937.  His acting career has to really be taken on it's own merits; it has a life of it's own. And, as far as acting is concerned, Ince was curiously associated with playing Abraham Lincoln very early on.  While at Vitagarph, he played the 16th President a number of times, starting with The Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1911.  Ince would play Lincoln again in 1920 and 1921 in two films produced for Lewis Selznick's Selznick Pictures Corp.--Ralph directed both of them (The Land of Opportunity and The Highest Law).    His first expedience with sound in an acting role came in Roy William Neill's Wall Street in 1929.  He also appeared in over 30 films in the 1930's--most of which he did not, himself, direct.  The last time that he appeared in front of the camera, however, did come in one of his own films:  The Perfect Crime; where he took the supporting male role.  The last film that he directed (at least by release date) was The Man Who Made Diamonds (1937); the film was released in June of 1937, several months after his death, in the UK, where he and his third wife had relocated earlier in the 1930's.   Ince died after hitting his head the dashboard of the car he was traveling in crashed into a pole; his wife, who was driving, escaped with only minor injuries.  He died from his injury on the 10th of April, leaving behind a small child who was only months old.  There is no information as to his memorial, but the custom in the family was for cremation and personal urns being retained by loved ones.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

Born Today January 15: Rex Ingram (Director)


Irish born silent film director Rex Ingram (not to be confused with the groundbreaking African-American actor of of the same name) was born Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock (Rex for short) in Dublin; his father was a Church of Ireland rector.  He immigrated to the U.S. in 1911 at the age of just 16 with the express purpose of continuing education at University.  He attended Yale University and majored in art, studying sculpture.  While there, he worked as a contributor (writer) for student magazine The Yale Record.  As a result of his attendance at the university, he became embroiled with the movie industry in the New York area.  He first entered films as an actor in 1913, by way of being hired for set design that included painting.  He appeared in a Vitagraph historical adventure short Beau Brummel, and was credited as Rex Hitchcock.  He also went to work as a writer in the film industry; his first credit for a screenplay comes on the 1913 Edison historical short about the Spanish American War (very recent at the time) The Family's Honor, also in 1913.  His writing career for film lasted the duration of his time in pictures, though most of his original written work was produced in the teens.  For his directorial debut, he self produced the short The Symphony Of Souls in 1914, and managed to get a distribution deal with Universal.  The film gave a glimpse of what was to come from him as a director (it was around this time that he decided to go by his first two names: Rex Ingram).  His next picture, The Great Problem (1916), was wholly his own project; having written the film and casting Violet Mersereau.  The picture was filmed in Fort Lee, NJ on the Universal lot there (Mersereau would appear in his next film, Broken Fretters, as well--she would reappear in California in front of his camera in 1917).  His first film actually shot in Hollywood also came in 1916 with The Chalice of Sorrow; again shot on Universal property.  His next film, Black Orchids, which displays sophisticated horror elements, would more fully display his growing work--and fascination--with the supernatural and macabre.  Around the beginning of 1920, he came into contact with the powerhouse that was June Mathis; this would be life changing.  With the dawning of a new decade, he had by that time directed 12 films in the 1910's and worked on many mare.  His last film using the Universal lots and distribution machine was Under Crimson Skies released in 1920.  Mathis worked in a powerful position at Metro, and was a bit of a "collector" of beautiful men.  She had been working on an adaptation of a Cecil Raleigh play, and hired Ingram to direct it for her.  The film was Hearts Are Trumps (1920) and was his first large production shot on location (several locations in what was then rugged areas in California were used for the film).  The film is now one of those lamentably lost treasures.  His next film for Metro and Mathis would make star of them all, including it's leading man, and the women who would become Ingram's second wife.  The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was released in March of 1921 and starred one Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry, whom Ingram married that same year.  The film was a huge success; grossing,  what was for the time, an unheard of sum $100,000+ and turned Ingram into a star director.  This was also adult, sophisticated art--the screenplay penned by Mathis was based on an Ibáñez novel and took on full blown tragedy with a backdrop of World War I (again, so recent!) and ran for over 130 minutes.  When his next film project, The Conquering Power, was promoted, "A Rex Ingram Production" was plastered across the poster.  The film repeated Valentino and Terry in the starring roles, with Mathis this time adapting material by Balzac; and though a success, it didn't gain nearly the attention, or money, that Horsemen did.  This had to have been the beginning's of Ingram dissatisfaction with Hollywood in general and Metro in particular.  He hated the pitching that went on the town that was now them capital of movie production.  His personal relationship with Mathis also frayed when he married Terry.  He made one more film at the studio based on one of Mathis' adaptations for the screen:  Turn To The Right (1922), starring his wife Alice Terry.  He and Terry left the United States for Nice, France in 1923, but not before Ingram had directed an additional two films for Metro.  The first is well known to this day, over two hours long, The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), starred Terry and Lewis Stone.  The second, Trifling Women, is a kind of melodramatic remake of his own 1917 Black Orchids, which he penned himself.  In Nice, the couple set up their own studio, complete with production facilities.  They also frequently shot on location in a number of exotic locals--their first effort in this regard, Where The Pavement Ends (1923), was shot in Cuba.  His first well known film made after leaving Hollywood,  Scaramouche (1923), was a film that made a star of the next "Latin Lover" Ramon Navarro.  In 1924, Ingram adapted an Edgar Selwyn play for the screen and made The Arab, which he shot in Tunisia, again with Novarro in the lead.  He and Terry had an agreement with Metro that was passed along when the studio became MGM that the company would distribute Ingram's foreign made films, but a disagreement between Ingram and Louis B. Mayer lead Ingram to promote the film as an "Metro-Goldwyn" film.  The film also probably marked the beginnings of his fascination with the religion of Islam.  Ingram's next film did not come out until August of 1926, in part because he had been attached to some part of the huge production that was the 1925 Ben Hur, but mostly because Mare Nostrum (again based on work by Ibáñez) was large production that was shot in 4 different countries.  Also released in 1926, his The Magician, was based on the work of British writer W. Somerset Maugham, hearkened back to his early fascination with supernatural mysteries; the film was wholly the product of his and Terry's studio in Nice, and reportedly inspired James Whale when making is Frankenstein films in the 1930's.  His 1927 The Garden Of Allah, shot in Algeria, is often cited as the filming experience that started his curiosity about Islam--if it was not the inspiration for his interest, it certainly cemented his desire to study the religion further.  His last film of the twenties is The Three Passions (1928), filmed in France, and shot under the auspices of a British production company, it was another war drama starring Terry (United Artists signed on to distribute in the U.S. in 1929).  Ingram made just two additional films in his lifetime (the two films were linked to each other--so technically it was one big film production that produced two films) in 1932.  The first, and the lesser known, was Baroud; made for the British arm of Gaumont, it was shot entirely in Morocco and utilized RCA sound.  His last film, Love in Morocco--which was an alternative language version of Baroud with a completely different cast, was also shot largely in Morocco under the same production arrangements and sound system, but parts were also made at his studio in Nice and would be the last time he used the facility.  This is the better known of the two films and was released in 1933.  Both films were co-directed by Alice Terry, with her receiving full credit (she had "shadow directed" his Where Pavement Ends).  Ingram then sold off his film property and embarked on a writing career.  Before long he was back in Los Angeles, where he also worked as a sculptor.  Many sources cite that he formally converted to Islam in 1933.  Ingram died after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the 21st of July, 1950.  He was just 58 years old.  He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale.

Official Website (Trinity College)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Born Today January 14: Bebe Daniels


Born Phyllis Virginia Daniels in Dallas, Texas; her childhood nickname was "Bebe."  She was born into a theatrical family, with her mother being a stage actress and her father a theater manager.  Sometime around the age of 3 or 4 years of age, the family moved to Los Angeles with the express mission of launching her acting career in the new motion picture industry that was emerging there at the time.  She debuted on the stage there at the age of 4 in a version of The Squaw Man.  That same year she embarked on her first stage tour in a version of Shakespeare's Richard III.  She went on to have roles two more major stage productions the following year.  She seems to have made her film debut in 1910 the short The Courtship of Miles Standish, a film based on a Wadsworth poem, at the age of 10.  She starred, that same year, as Dorothy in the earliest surviving film adaptation of the Frank Baum Wizard of Oz novel--published in 1910. It's entitled after the original novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  (it is available for public viewing on Internet Move Archive).  At the earliest part of her film career, she was directed exclusively by director Otis Turner (he directed Oz and was also responsible for the holiday short A Counterfeit Santa Claus also from 1910). She went on to be one of the earliest child stars in cinema history (it is worth noting that along the way she was directed by James Young Deer in The Savage in 1913, one of the only Native Americans to direct in the silent era).  By age 15, she starred in the Hal Roach comedy opposite Harold Loyld, Giving Them Fits (1915).  Reportedly there was a romance between her and Lloyd and they later became an early Hollywood brand, she as "The Girl" and he as "The Boy"--despite his being 8 years her senior (these days that's not something Hollywood would could get away with publicly...especially in light of the last year's important #MeToo movement).  This led to the pair starring in the series "Lonesome Luke" with "Snub" Pollard (Lloyd's character in Fits is a version of this character as "Luke de Fluke").  The Luke movie series would carry the pair all the way through 1917. By 1919 they were still playing at "The Girl," "The Boy" shtick in films, but these formulaic shorts were getting old by this time (there is only so much that anyone can do with such a simple concept, only so many situations that can be contrived to place them in). So, it's hardly surprising that she wished to move on to more substantial work.  She got her chance to work on a major production for the first time in her career, when Cecile B. DeMille gave her a small supporting role in his nearly two hour long adventure film Male and Female in 1919: Gloria Swanson was the lead. This was instrumental in getting her a contract at Paramount.  She next appears Everywoman (1919), a George Melford allegorical melodrama, with a large well known cast--it was Paramount all the way: production and distribution.  After this, her appearances in one and two-reelers were a thing of the past. By the time that she was cast again in a DeMille production-- the dramedy Why Change Your Wife?--she took the supporting role to the female lead, again played by Swanson (Swanson was, in fact, only 3 years Daniels' senior).  [She would appear in another DeMille film starring Swanson in 1921: The Affairs of Anatol; she also later starred in brother William's The Splendid Crime in 1925.]  She next appears in the female lead herself in a couple of Sam Wood romance comedies with Wallace Reid in the male lead--both in 1920.  Her days of taking leading roles in comedic features had arrived.  She appeared opposite a number of leading men in the early 1920's; they ranged from the not well known to famous, they included: Harrison Ford (the original one...), Lewis Stone, Robert Warwick, Conrad Nagel, Frank Kingsley, Jack Holt, and the above mentioned Wallace Reid.  In 1924 she starred in Monsieur Beaucaire as "Princess Henriette" opposite Rudolph Valentino in the lavish Sidney Olcott "historical" romance production shot at Paramount's New York location.  After this, she went back to the workaday light romances that had become her hallmark in the 20's.  Her first sound film was yet another large production, under the umbrella of Radio Pictures (RKO); Rio Rita, in which she plays a Mexican senorita, was well over two hours long, had portions shot in the 2-color process Technicolor and featured a number of songs actually sung by stars in the cast, including Daniels.  It is a quintessential example of what a "talkie" was meant to be at the time: that is impressively overwhelming.  Radio's tagline for the film was no less understated:  Radio's Picture of the Century.  Audiences could be hard to please when they heard the voice of a silent star for the first time, so it was a big gamble that such an investment would pay off, but then again, Radio was well aware that Daniels could indeed sing and that is what won over viewers from the start (so, investment paid off).  Daniels continued on the RKO in the 1930's (Paramount dropped her with the coming of talking films...their lose).  They put her in everything from hard boiled crime flicks to more musicals (including one penned by Irving Berlin: Reaching For The Moon [1930]).  One film that stands out from this part of her career is her appearance in the short charity film The Stolen Jools; it is essentially a Laurel and Hardy film that collides with a Buster Keaton film, with the Our Gang members, and features a number of stars from silent era--even gossip queen Hedda Hopper; for Daniels, it hints at the world of slapstick comedy shorts that she starred herself in the teens, of course her part here is fleeting, but worth the mention.  In 1931, she starred in the Roy Del Ruth version of The Maltese Falcon; and her appearance in 42nd Street ranks up there as a favorite with fan of pre-code cinema.  She emerged with a whole new stable of leading men that she was cast opposite that included: Edward G. Robinson, Randolph Scott, John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks; she also appeared in one talking film with Lewis Stone (My Past [1931], whom her husband is in as well).  Daniels retired from Hollywood acting in 1935, she had married actor Ben Lyon in 1930 (she appears with him in the little film mentioned above as "Mrs. Ben Lyon").  Her last film in Hollywood was Music is Magic in 1935.  The couple moved to London after this.  While there she appeared in an additional 4 films, 3 of them with her husband.  Three of these films were pre-war or wartime productions.  The last of them The Lyons Abroad, is a comedy from 1955 with the two actors playing themselves as their 25th weeding anniversary is about to take place.  All the while, both of them had been busy acting on BBC radio, their comedy show based on their family is what inspired the film in the mid 1950's.  The show eventually migrated to British television; Bebe wrote a goodly number of the episodes.  She had also worked ever so briefly in the late 1940's back in Hollywood as a producer for Hal Roach Studios.  Starting in the 1940's, Daniels also appeared on the stage in London.  After two serious strokes, one in 1963 and one in 1970, a massive cerebral hemorrhage which claimed her life at age 70 on the 16th of March, 1971.  She was cremated at the well known Golders Green in England and her ashes were interred at Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles.  

Golders Green
Hollywood Forever

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Born Today January 13: Herbert Brenon


Irish born silent actor turned director Herbert Brenon was born Alexander Herbert Reginald St. John Brenon on this day in Dublin; his father Edward was a writer and politician.  His family moved to London just two years later, where he grew up and was educated through college.  He also began to act in vaudeville there and created an act with his wife.  Brenon worked in New York in theaters doing various stage jobs and vaudevillian acts.  This is how he came to film first as an actor.  He appeared in a very small part in the 1912 King Baggot film Shamus O'Brien, produced by Carl Laemmle and his company IMP and directed by Otis Turner.  Before being cast as a film actor, however, he entered the film industry as a writer (taking up the profession of his father).  He is thought to have penned the scenario for The Dream in 1911; also produced by IMP and reportedly directed by Thomas H. Ince--the film starred Mary Pickford and her first husband Owen Moore.  Brenon received full credit for his adaptation of a Hawthorne's novel on The Scarlet Letter (1911), also starring Baggot and Lucille Young.  Though Brenon is most often referred to as a director, he never quit writing for films during his entire time in the business--he has more than 60 writing credits.  Just two months after Shamus O'Brien came out, Brenon's directorial debut was released.  All For Her was released on the 2nd of May in 1912, it was a film that he also wrote from scratch and starred in.  He was now a team player in the Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America.  Taylor left IMP in the summer of 1912, and it appears that Brenon was retained in his place.  His best known film from his time at the studio is most certainly his 1913 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; which he adapted from the Stevenson novella.  Brenon would become a go-to director of films made from literature; one reason was his ability to adapt the original material himself (see, for example, the well known King Baggot historical drama Ivanhoe (1913)). In 1915, himself left IMP for Fox in 1915.  The first film that he directed there with William Fox serving directly as producer was Kreutzer Sonata, featuring both Nance O'Neil and Theda Bara (Brenon would return to direct a few films at IMP in the late teens).  Brenon would go on to direct Bara in several of Fox's films from the teens, including, and especially, her infamously lost vamp film Sin (this is for sure one of the crown jewels of lost films!).  What is amazing here, is that Brenon wrote the screenplay for the film from one of his own stories.  Fox promoted the film in such a way that it was banned in several states in the U.S.  He would also direct "vamp" Valeska Surratt at Fox.  By 1916, he had started his own production company, Herbert Brenon Film Corp.; the company produced War Brides starring Alla Nazimova that year utilizing Ideal's physical studio in Hudson Heights, New Jersey.  The film saw the introduction of an up and coming Richard Barthelmess and had a production agreement with Lewis J. Selznick's brand new Selznick Distribution.  By the time that he directed the ripped from the headlines The Fall Of The Romanoffs  (featuring the odd character of Iliodor--who provided the "source material" in form of his book on "the mad monk" himself, Rasputin), Brenon had taken over the Ideal location and renamed for his production company.  Brenon then went back to the U.K. after the end of the first world war, he made number of films while there that were small and not well known.  The first of them apparently being Victory and Peace (1918); it was a war film produced by a national film trust that seemed endowed to make propaganda films.  He then spent time making films in Italy; the first of these was Beatrice in 1919 and based on a story by Dante.  He returned to making films in the U.S. in 1921 adapting and directing Passion Flower for Norma Talmadge's production company and starring the lady herself.  He stayed with Talmadge's company for most of the remainder of the year, before returning to Fox in late 1921 (the Fox produced Any Wife, starring Pearl White, came out January of 1922).  He then landed at Paramount (one of his early Paramount films survives, and is available on disc--The Spanish Dancer with Pola Negri).  His Peter Pan from 1924 launched the career of Mary Brian, who he is credited with discovering.  Probably his most famous film of all is the now lost 1926 production of The Great Gatsby. The film, based on the wildly popular Fitzgerald novel, starred Warner Baxter and the mysterious as strange Gatsby and Neil Hamilton in the Carraway role (William Powell was also in the film). The production was expensive and was based on the successful Broadway production directed by one George Cukor.  The film was also the first that he made under a new arrangement with Famous Players--Lasky, with Paramount as a the distributor.  His work in the late 1920's is a big budget as studio films of a later time would be.  In fact, Brenon would direct some of the largest film productions of the late silent era, amongst them: the Roland Colman action adventure Beau Geste (1926),  Sorrell and Son (1927)--for which he was nominated for one of the very first Oscars for Best Director, Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) with Lon Chaney Sr., and  The Rescue (1929) his last film of the decade and, which was also his first talkie--also starring Ronald Colman.  Brenon continued to direct into the talking era--heading up 15 films during the 1930's, returning to direct in the U.K. in 1935.  He directed his last film in 1940, The Flying Squad, a Scotland Yard crime drama set in London.  Brenon then retired back to California.  He passed away in Los Angeles on the 21st of June at the age of 78; he is interred in a large ornate private mausoleum at Woodlawn cemetery in The Bronx.  

I noticed that the "clock" above his name is set at 4 o' teatime! [Source: Wikipedia]

Note: the links below don't give much information for such an important director of the silent era, but do have filmographies of interest.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Born Today January 12: Milton Sills


Silent era actor and star Milton George Gustavus Sills was born on this day in Chicago into a very prosperous and prominent mid-western family (his father was a "mineral baron" and his mother was an heiress).  Before being lured onto the stage in 1905, he was a researcher and professor at the University of Chicago, his Alma mater.  By 1908 he had left the university and was performing in New York; he made his Broadway debut later that year.  In the next four years he continued to act on Broadway successfully, when in 1914 he was cast in his first film: Maurice Tournuer's The Pit.  This was, at the time, no small production.  Based on Frank Norris' novel of the same name, the film was produced by William B. Brady and distributed by World Film.  After his introduction to film acting, he did not return to the stage.  Sills had steady work straight away as a leading man--not surprising given his good looks and his natural acting ability--so, it is not surprising, that he also became a matinee idol as well.  From the beginning, he was a free floating actor (what we call today a "free agent," though the term is not a great analogy for the times), even though his first few films were distributed by World.  He made films with a variety of studios,.  For example, he made a film with Victor in 1915:  The Taming of Mary, a comedy short that also featured the great Charles Ogle.  The  following year he appeared in the shot on location Under Southern Skies (1915), also with Charles Ogle, which was made for Universal and filmed in Savannah, GA.  The Honor System (1917) was a Fox film.  And so on...  He even made a film for Clara Kimbell Young's independent company in 1918:  The Claw (he had first worked with Young in 1915 in The Deep Purple).  By the 1920's, he was a draw for audiences from coast to coast.  He started the decade off with appearances in 7 films in 1920, most of them romantic dramas or comedies in which he played the male lead.  In 1921, he took top billing in Metro Pictures The Little Fool, a film based on a Jack London novel (the two men share today as a birthday).  He was also the star of Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 melodrama Adam's RibIn 1924, he appeared the one film that he is known for in the modern era: Frank Lloyd's The Sea Hawk, the top grossing film of the year (it should be noted that, even though this film was indeed an international success, no doubt many of the other films Sills appeared in would be much better remembered today if it were not for their being presumed lost).  In 1925, he both wrote a manuscripted adaptation (originally from the work of the genius Persian mathematician/poet Omar Khayyam) and edited A Lover's Oath, a film that starred Ramon Navarro.  He also wrote the screenplay for Men of Steel (1926), a film directed by George Archainbaud, and starred himself and his new wife, star Doris Kenyon (he had appeared with her two years previous in I Want My Man, he would continue to appear with her in later productions).  In 1928, he appeared  in the partial talkie The Barker, his first sound film.  His last two films of the twenties--both in 1929--were also partial talkies (His Captive Woman and Love and the Devil).  He would appear in just two more films during his lifetime, both in 1930.  Man Trouble, a Fox film, was his first all talking picture.  The Sea Wolf (again based on a Jack London novel) was his last film and was released 6 days after his sudden death.  Sills died of a massive heart attack at the age of 48 while playing tennis with Kenyon at their home.  He was buried in Chicago's Rosehill cemetery.  Sills was one of the 36 Hollywood movers and shakers that founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Sills had long been involved with "actors activism," having been a founding member of the Actor's Equity in 1913.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Born Today January 11: Chester Conklin


Born Chester Cooper Conklin in Okaloosa, Iowa; he got his first taste of live vaudeville in St. Louis, Missouri seeing the team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields.  It's not clear what age he was, because he had run away from an extremely violent household sometime after the age of eight, when his father probably murdered his mother in a horrific manner.  He vowed never to return, which he didn't; finding work instead in various mid-western cities, before landing in St. Louis.  He developed th comedic character that he would be associated with for the rest of his life at this time and it was based on his current boss:  a man with a pronounced foreign accent and a huge unruly mustache.  With the character he was able to break into vaudeville.  He traveled with minstrel shows and even did stints as clowns in traveling circuses.  This character development made it's way into his early roles in film fromt he start.  This was by way of him viewing a Mack Sennett film (creator of the Keystone Cops)  and actually going to Keystone Studios and applying for a job.  He was hired at a reputed payment of $3 a day.  The first film that he appeared in was Hubby's Job in 1913--directed by Sennett--a bit part that he was not credited for--it starred one the recognized greats of the silent cinema Mabel Norman.  The next year, Conklin was a bit player in Making A Living, the film debut of one Charles Chaplin (he would appear in possibly the studio's most famous Chaplin short as the Singing Waiter/Mr. Whoozis in Tillie's Punctured Romance).  Also during 1914, Conklin appeared in a number of Mabel Normand films for the Keystone Studio; and he appeared in films by the company with Harold Lloyd.  By 1915, Conklin had become a money making comedic star for Sennett and Co. in his own right; teaming up with Mack Swain, the two formed the movie duo of Ambrose and Mr. Walrus, with Conklin in the role of Walrus; one of their first films featuring the act was Love, Speed and Thrills (1915).  The duo made close to thirty films together as both those characters and others before Conklin left in 1920.  Before this, he had made a few films for Famous Players-Lasky (one of which was the J. Searle Dawley directed feature Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1918), and his star was bankable enough that he had offers from other studios--one of them Fox. During the year of 1919, he was the star of a series of films produced by Mack Sennett Comedies in which he played bubbling characters in different lines of work such as a blacksmith, police chief, school teacher, etc.  Conklin rightly figured that he deserved a raise as a condition to renewing his contract with Sennett's company, when Sennett refused (and reportedly spoke of him in disparaging way), Conklin left for Fox.  The first film that he made with them was Chicken à la Cabaret in 1920.  He continued to be the star of shorts at Fox, though he did take second billing to Australian comic actor Clyde Cook in the feature length (and partially animated) Skirts in 1921. Conklin made a rare appearance in a drama in the 1923 Thomas Ince production Anna Christie, and by 1924, he was appearing in more features than shorts (the market for comedy shorts had grown thin by that time).  He appeared in 4 features in 1924 before taking on the role he is most "known" for in the history books of cinema and outside of the world of slapstick fandom: 'Popper' Sieppe in Erich von Stroheim's bloated production that was Greed (his part was cut from film and thought to have been part of the film that was burned for the silver nitrate).  He immediately returned to comedy with Battling Bunyan (1924), a poverty row affair produced on the cheap by Encore.  Conklin continued to be a major player in films, most of them comedies, throughout the rest of 1920's.  Most films were lesser known and not by major studios, though a few, like Where Was I? were made by "majors" like Universal.  One Conklin film from 1927, produced at Paramount that is now lost, is of historical import to fans of comedy the world over due to it's being the film debut of Ed Wynn; that film Rubber Heels also featured Thelma Todd.  In 1928, Conklin appeared in two films that have titles instantly recognizable today, one was a remake of a famous silent, the other the first version of a film famously remade in in the 1950's.  The first is Tillie's Punctured Romance (1928) starring the immutable W. C. Fields and bears little resemblance to the film from 1914 in which he also appeared; the second is Gentlemen Prefer Blonde (1928) which was famously remade with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in 1953. Both of the films from 1928 are now lost.  His first film with sound comedy horror House of Horror, which had two versions: a silent version and a Vitagraph all sound version.  Conklin appeared in one additional all silent film after this; Stairs of Sand (1929) was a western romance based on a Zane Grey novel--Wallace Beer took top billing.  After this, all the rest of his film appearances in 1929 were in sound films, with his appearance in the extravaganza The Show Of Shows rounding out the decade.  For someone so acutely associated with silent slapstick, Conklin's transition to talkies was as seamless as they come (of course, he had been a vaudevillian).  His first film of the new decade was Swing Time, which featured a number of older former silent actors: Ben Turpin, Stepin' Fetchit and Robert Edeson.  In 1931, he appeared with several "old timers" from the Sennett days in Stout Hearts and Willing Hands, a short comedy that amongst the "original Keystone Cop" players, also included all three of the Moore brothers as lookalike bartenders.  Given his background in comedic film shorts, it is hardly surprising that he wound up in Three Stooges shorts.  As time went on, however, his roles became smaller and smaller, often going uncredited; this did not stop him from working steadily all the way up through the 1950's.  In 1947 he had a very small role in the Pearl White biopic The Perils of Pauline; White, of course, being a silent star herself.  Conklin, it seemed, would have been a shoe-in for television, yet that was not to be (and, in fact, he wound up taking job like department store Santa to make ends meet in the 1950's, instead of being hired for broadcast--a real lose!).  He did appear on television but not often.  In fact, the first series that he appeared on was Ed Wynn's show in 1950 as himself.  Additionally, he appeared on the Make Room For Daddy and Doc Corkle and General Electric Theater.  He also made a small appearance the Roger Corman production The Beast With A Million Eyes in 1955.  This was the same year that his acting visibly slowed, after decades of appearing in films his acting career was coming to an end.  He appeared in three films after this: one in 1958, one in 1962 and one in 1966, which was the last acting job of his life (the film was A Big Hand For The Little Lady the Henry Fonda western). Conklin died on the 11th of October in 1971 at the age of 85.  He was cremated and his ashes were eventually scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Born Today January 10: Francis X. Bushman


The man who could easily be named as America's first movie heartthrob, Francis Xavier Bushman was born today in Baltimore (though the Los Angeles Times cites Norfolk, VA).  Obviously athletic from an early age, he was the first actor to be "crowned" "The King of Movies." (Clark Gable famously "inherited" the title--problem was that Bushman was still very much alive and working at the time!).   Like so many actors of the early studios, he was a stage actor before entering the movie business; only in Bushman's case, he was performing with a stock company associated Gilbert Anderson (better known as "Broncho Billy"), one of the founders of Essanay studio (which is remembered mostly today for the Chaplin films they produced--the studio was later incorporated into Warner Bros.).  Bushman had long been into body building (he was a fan of Sandow the famous body builder of the late 19th century and an Edison film subject in the 1890's) and had worked as an artist's model in New York before making his way onto the stage.  He was the perfect physique for putting into romantic films (though reportedly his height was occasionally a problem--but I can't imagine that was an issue often).  [There are several stories as to how he came to the attention of Essanay in the first place, which ones to believe is a hard guess.] He made his film debut in 1911 in the Essanay marriage drama His Friend's Wife opposite Lottie Briscoe.  He was an instant success and the studio put him dozens of domestic shorts between 1911 and 1916, many of these opposite actress Beverly Bayne.  Bushman became a bonafide movie idol coast to coast, earning him the above nickname, and also "King of the Photoplay" (it should be noted that the film industry had only just begun to name their film players, thus Bushman very much deserved the monikers!).  One aspect of their star's life that was kept as a closely guarded secret after his rise to such popularity with female moviegoers, was that he was married...and with kids to boot!  Bushman quietly began to "carry on" with his leading lady Bayne and the two even moved studios together--landing at a company that had a distribution deal with Metro (one of the M's of the later MGM).  In 1916 they showed up in Quality Pictures Man And His Soul, in which he played two characters.   While at the company, he also directed two films: In The Diplomatic Service (for which he is credited as scenarist as well) and Romeo and Juliet (which he co-directed).  Both films starred him and Bayne and both were released in 1916.  The pair worked for Metro through 1918 (with one picture filmed in 1917, released after they left in 1919: God's Outlaw).  When Bushman and Bayne wanted to marry, it came out that he was already a married man, and that he had 5 children.  This, and a contract dispute, led to trouble in Hollywood (which he would recover from); but the national print scandal caused by the divorce and remarriage led to trouble with female fans (for which he would not, nor would he regain the "Handsomest Man in the World" er...bachelor status).  Not that this stopped his film acting; quite the contrary, he would go onto some of his best known work in the 1920's.  Though he would not return to "bankable" work until 1925 when he appeared in Christy Cabanne's The Masked Bride (reportedly Joseph von Sternberg had a hand in secondary direction on the film), he and Bayne would appear in a couple of marriage dramas in the early 20's.  He had amassed a large fortune which allowed him to live in style and had a number of odd habits that stood out.  He drove around Hollywood in large odd colored and makes of cars and always had great danes with him (he also kept a VERY large number of them on his ranch).  What he is best remembered for in terms of his print on Hollywood's physical presence, is the gifting (well, leasing) of land to Sid Grauman for his Chinese theater, which survives to this day (now known as Mann's).  The role that he is most famous for in terms of silent film came in the form of a villain in the massive epic project that was Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1925 (ironically, the man that would take his title of "King of the Movie," Clark Gable had a role simply as "Roman Guard").  Bushman performed his own chariot stunts in the film, which became a big part of Hollywood lore--even by the time the film was remade with Charlton Heston, his work was still the stuff of legend (and somehow the helmet that he wore wound up in the collection of Debbie Reynolds...).  It seemed that his career had been revitalized by the film, and he did appear several more films in the 1920's--all of them silent (in one short he played George Washington), but his career was on clearly on the wane.  The last silent film he appeared in was the 1928 crime drama Midnight Life (made for Gotham productions) .  He wouldn't appear in another film until 1930 when talkies had come and would never go.  The picture was Call of the Circus and was his first speaking role in a film.  In the meantime he had lost most of his fortune in the infamous stock market crash in 1929.  For some odd reason, the film studios also regarded his voice as suspect for talkies, which is so strange in retrospect, given that he went into radio and was very successful there for years.  He did have small roles in a handful of films in the next two decades.  He would also go on to have a fairly lengthy television career in guest spots on a variety of different types of shows.  He made his small screen debut in 1954 in a episode of The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse on ABC.  Thourhgout the rest of his career, he appeared in episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, 12 To The Moon, and Dr. Kildare.  He was also in a couple of funky films in the 1960's (The Phantom Planet (1961) & The Ghost n The Invisible Bikini (1966)).  He famously played Mr. Van Jones in a Riddler two part episode of Batman in 1966 (playing with Neil Hamilton, whom he had appeared in a film with almost forty years earlier).  This is often cited as his last acting job, but the Batman appearances were broadcast in April 1966, but his appearance in The Terrible Toys episode of Irwin Allen's series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which aired in October of that year, came almost two months after Bushman's death.  He died of a heart attack on 23rd of August.  He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale with "King Of The Movies" embossed on his tomb. 

[photo: Find A Grave]

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