The WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon honors the players who rarely got leading parts, exhibiting instead a versatility and depth many leading actors wished they had. Aurora, Kellee, and I never tire of seeing them show up in films or paying tribute to their talents, and as the previous three installments of this event have proven, neither do you.
And so here I am with Day 1 of the 4th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! I know you can’t wait to read all the fabulous posts. Before you jump in though, we’d like to thank all the participants for their understanding as we re-scheduled the blogathon from last weekend due to world events. We really appreciate your patience.
UPDATE – November 13:
The WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon has been postponed until next weekend, November 21-22-23. We will promote everyone’s post as usual during those three days. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
WE’RE BACK for number 4!
WHAT A CHARACTER! — a phrase borrowed from Turner Classic Movies (TCM) so that we could dedicate a blogathon to those whose names few remember, but whose faces are familiar – honors the players who rarely got leading parts, exhibiting instead a versatility and depth many leading actors wished they had. Aurora, Kellee, and I never tire of seeing them show up in films or paying tribute to their talents, and as the previous three installments of this event have proven, neither do you. So here we are with the fourth annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon.
Hollywood of the Rockies: Colorado, the West and America’s Film Pioneers by Michael J. Spencer covers the twenty years that the Centennial State functioned as a movie production center, 1895 through 1915. Spencer thoughtfully begins the book with a brief recap of the “little tragedies and comedies” of America’s nascent film industry. This overview gives welcome context for the more specific history to follow.
Spencer has an engaging, conversational style, and while there is some repetition, he tells the story in a compulsively readable way. His analogies between our time and a hundred years ago make the book an even more relevant read. For instance, he compares the pre-commercial era of film to the early days of YouTube. Just as with YouTube, there were early adopters. In Colorado’s case, its temporary status as a movie capital was essentially the work of two such individuals, “Colonel” William Selig and Harry “Buck” Buckwalter, who managed to sell folks back East on the desirability of authentic Western scenery for films.
Selig had invented his own projector and in the ’00s, acted as producer and distributor for Buckwalter’s numerous Colorado travelogues. Many of these involved product placement deals, innovative at the time, with railroad companies. Buckwalter’s facility with trains led to his hiring as a consultant on The Great Train Robbery in 1903. This was a “Western” epic, but it was filmed at Thomas Edison’s New Jersey studio. Buckwalter naturally thought that he and Selig could make some bank by providing genuine Western scenery — but they would have to get beyond travelogues.
Their first narrative, Tracked by Bloodhounds, or A Lynching at Cripple Creek, featuring Colorado’s bluffs, valleys, and mountain ridges, was gritty and violent — and, Spencer writes, “a tremendous success….Moviegoers would never accept an East Coast backdrop for a Western again.” Much as today’s audiences can spot sketchy CGI in a few seconds, audiences over a hundred years ago could detect bogus scenery. This led to terms like “Eastern Western,” used to describe a film set in the West but obviously shot in the East, by those who had never been east of Pennsylvania.
Spencer also gives the cultural context for the immense popularity of the Western in general. In the U.S., the genre was an archetypal multimedia phenomenon, exemplified by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West live shows. And overseas, by the teens of the 20th century, the West itself as a valuable export. Via motion pictures, its scenery and inhabitants became the dominant representation of America around the world.
Thus Buckwalter, the Coloradan on-location producer and director, and Selig, the Chicago-based distributor and projector salesman, were uniquely positioned to capitalize on the Western craze, but they soon had competition. Gilbert Anderson, later known as “Broncho Billy,” and George Spoor, Selig’s projector rival, formed Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in 1907, and Anderson began producing and directing in Colorado as well. This competition had a personal angle to it: Anderson had briefly worked for Selig and been refused a partnership. Selig and Essanay spurred each other to new heights of production, and by 1912, Selig was churning out five films per week, to answer the high demand of store-front nickelodeons. (Anderson eventually became a huge star in front of the camera, but was supplanted by Selig star Tom Mix.)
That year was the height of Colorado-based film production. A variety of concurrent factors — the rise of movie palaces, the advent of feature-length films, and World War I among them — conspired to concentrate the movie industry in Hollywood, so that very soon, “In the same way that there wasn’t much…automobile manufacturing outside of Detroit, movie production was becoming a scarce commodity outside Southern California.”
Though Colorado’s movie-making heyday was over, Spencer gives a fascinating account of those who persisted, and helpfully wraps up the book’s first section with an entertaining “Where Are They Now” section, recounting the fates of the major players. The second section of the book is equally valuable. “Before, During and After” details the cultural environment from which cinema emerged in the first place, and serves as one of the most clear and economical summaries of cinematic history I’ve ever read. The third section details where readers may be able to find the films mentioned in the book and gives a suggested reading list.
Hollywood of the Rockies is an informative and fun read about Colorado’s largely unknown chapter of film history. I’d never heard of most of the people involved, and by telling their story in the context of the overall field, Spencer sheds new light on movie-making in general. Highly recommended for the film fan or history buff on your Christmas list, the book is available online here.
Brusque and grouchy, Ned Sparks’ lovable curmudgeons can usually be found as the still center of a storm of dizzy dancers, temperamental producers, and gangsters in crisis. His onscreen persona was so deadpan that he was reportedly insured with Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 against any photographs taken of him actually smiling. Yet there’s more to this primo supporting player than just a grouchy face…he got his start in show biz as a singer during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and was blacklisted on Broadway for his role in starting the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).
Edward Arthur Sparkman was born this day in 1883 in clean, friendly, and polite Canada, specifically Guelph, Ontario. He left home at 16 to try gold prospecting in Alaska. When that failed, he joined a musical company in Dawson Creek, and per The New York Times, “knocked around in tent theatricals, medicine shows, and carnivals.” Wouldn’t this be a great movie? Can’t you just hear him complaining? But wait…it gets better… Back in Canada by age 19, he attended a seminary. Briefly. But still. He also worked on a railroad before finally landing in a Toronto theater. By 1907, he was appearing on Broadway, and the Ned Sparks persona we all now know and love made its first appearance as a “cynical desk clerk” in a play called Little Miss Brown. His stage success earned him a six-picture deal with Louis B. Mayer, and, in his screen debut, a re-make of the play in 1915, he played this same role.
Thus the mid-teens saw Sparks working in both New York and Hollywood. Around this time, he was involved with organizing AEA, which sought to protect stage actors. At the time, producers set working conditions and pay scale; could fire anyone, at any time, for any reason; and there was no compensation for the unlimited rehearsal time. In the late teens, Equity went on strike, which led to improved working conditions. However, many members were blacklisted, and as Sparks was one of the founding members, his Broadway career seems to have been severely curtailed. After working pretty much continuously from his arrival in New York through 1918, he didn’t work onstage again until 1920, appearing in his final production in 1921.
He was still working in silent films though, three or four a year, until his first talkie in 1928, The Big Noise. I won’t lie and tell you I’ve seen any of Sparks’ silents. I’m sure he was good. But his monotone foghorn of a voice and his irritable attitude are so instantly recognizable, and add so much to any picture he’s in, that I can’t imagine he could have affected the audience as much without them. Sound proved a godsend to Sparks’ career, and to us as classic movie fans.
I recommend anything he’s in, but my favorite Sparks year is 1933, and here are three from that year you shouldn’t miss.
Lady for a Day
Gold Diggers of 1933
In 1936, Sparks admitted that the $100K Lloyd’s of London insurance policy story was a publicity stunt. He was “only” insured against smiling for $10,000. Though his personal life included a messy divorce and he lost touch with many of his friends after his retirement, his voice and unflappable cantankerousness pretty much guaranteed his immortality, not only in his films, but as a frequently-caricatured figure in the cartoons we can still enjoy.
Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life, the new biography by Peter Ackroyd, definitely lives up to its billing. Yet for all its brevity, it’s packed with telling details about Chaplin and his life and work. And at times, it’s really two biographies in one, as Ackroyd consistently describes the polarity between the Little Tramp, “Chaplin’s shadow self or alter ego,” and the man himself, which becomes the through line of the story of their parallel lives.
Where the Little Tramp was infused with “common humanity,” Chaplin apparently demonstrated very little or none of that trait in real life. Simply put, he used many friends and colleagues like the props in one of his films, tossing them aside when he was done. He expected absolute fidelity from his lovers and wives while pursuing any other woman who struck his fancy. He seemed to flirt with Communism but equivocated about his beliefs and continued to make a fortune from the stock market.
If “hypocrite” is one way to describe Chaplin, another might be “control freak.” I had already known that he was a perfectionist who took on nearly every task in the making a film, but here Ackroyd relates this tendency to the entertainer’s constant anxiety about poverty while giving specifics about the multiple takes and bullying Chaplin employed on set, techniques that wore down his actresses and crew. “Multiple takes” could often mean tens, in some cases hundreds. The scene in City Lights where he buys a flower from a flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), in the process discovering that she is blind, “took two years and 342 takes to assemble.”
The reporting of the City Lights story is just one example of the remarkable even-handedness Ackroyd maintains throughout the book. He is sympathetic to the entertainer’s childhood trauma, tracing the roots of Chaplin’s personality in his unstable, impoverished early life in truly dismal South London, but he doesn’t shy away from “the erratic, whimsical and imperious way in which Chaplin conducted his private life” either. Of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Cherrill, Ackroyd writes, “At the age of twenty she may have been too old for him.” Chaplin’s ill treatment of Lillita MacMurray (aka Lita Grey), first cast as leading lady in The Gold Rush, may be the most egregious example of his behavior towards women, but there are many other episodes presented here.
Despite the intermittent unpleasantness of his subject, the author also manages to capture the magic of Chaplin’s work, imparting a desire at least in this reader to see more of it, particularly A Woman in Paris, with which “Chaplin established a new cinema of social manners as well as a novel style of acting,” influencing both Ernst Lubitsch and Michael Powell. By what alchemy can someone so detached and cruel produce such heartbreaking emotions in the audience, about which he was ambivalent?
To sum up, Brief Life is a fascinating read. Obviously, completely new content would be an impossibility, but Ackroyd’s perspective on Chaplin’s duality is refreshing and insightful. As regular readers know, I am a relatively new silent film fan, and I learned quite a bit. If there is any flaw in it, it is the lack of footnotes or endnotes; I prefer the line between facts and interpretation to be clearer than that. There is, however, an extensive bibliography. It also does this designer’s heart good to see a book so appropriately well-crafted and old-fashioned — beautifully typeset, complete with a colophon, and silent-era-style typefaces for the headings, on deckle-edged pages. In some cases they do make them like they used to. Brief Life is perfect for any of those with an interest in filmmaking in general or Chaplin in particular…as long as they don’t mind a little of the gilding wearing off the idol.
Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd is published by Doubleday on October 28.
As you may know, one of my favorite film genres is the spy picture. I’ve spent enough hours with James Bond, Jason Bourne, Miss Froy, Captain Hardt, Gus Bennett, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, and Evelyn Salt to know a good spy story when I see one, or in this case, read one. And quite appropriately — since Britain’s spies dominate the world’s pop culture consciousness — it’s about as British as you can get.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6’s original and still official name) in 2009, its then-chief Sir John Scarlett commissioned Keith Jeffery, a History professor at Queen’s College Belfast, to write a history of the organization from its founding in 1909 through its adolescence in the early Cold War, 1949. The result is The Secret History of MI6, a fascinating tale of dedication, determination, occasional infighting, and patriotism.
Right away, I was surprised to learn that one of the most famous and highly-regarded intelligence services in the world was so underfunded that, at various times until the early 1940s, most personnel were not paid. So only those with sufficient private incomes could afford to work there, which would explain that upper-crust style that has carried through to many of the movies.
Other aspects of the book will seem familiar as well. After all, the two authors who are arguably most responsible for our collective notions of how spies and spying work — Ian Fleming and David Cornwell (aka John LeCarré) — were both employed in British intelligence (Fleming was in naval intelligence, Cornwell in SIS). Graham Greene, another purveyor of espionage tales like Our Man In Havana, was recruited into SIS by his sister, Elisabeth, who already worked there. (His supervisor? Now-notorious double agent Kim Philby.)
For instance…the chief of the Service was always known by a single letter — not M, but C, from the last name of the first chief, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming. There is an actual Q or Quartermaster Branch, officially known as “Stores and Equipment Administration.” Q Branch’s first project, in 1915, was secret writing ink. Agents were often referred to by numbers, though not double-0s.
From the very beginning, many field agents and “local talent” did (and probably still do) enjoy the high life. As early as 1910, Cumming wrote in his diary that spies always wanted more money than their information was worth and “‘all…without exception make a strong point of [eating and drinking] in the best style and at the most expensive restaurants.'” Cumming himself was “a keen pioneer motorist and a hair-raisingly fast driver,” who helped found a yacht club and got his pilot’s license in 1913 when he was 54 years old.
And, just like Austin “Danger” Powers, most British operatives conducted their business under their own names, usually with international business cover. Just like James Bond’s Universal Export. (A catch-all governmental office was also invented early on, specifically to provide cover — Passport Control, employees of which all have diplomatic immunity.)
On the other hand, there are the stories I hadn’t heard. Jeffery was faced with a tough task when he agreed to write Secret History. SIS routinely destroyed all its intelligence. Almost as soon as information was received at headquarters and distributed to the relevant department or office, the papers were burned. However, he managed to find material enough for several great movies or mini-series.
One aspect of espionage I never thought of before is the difficulty the British had in disguising the intel they got from the signals interception and decryption at Bletchley Park during World War II. Jeffery illustrates in several instances that If they had acted on everything they knew, it would have been obvious they had broken the code, and the Nazis would have changed it. I wonder if this will be addressed in The Imitation Game, the upcoming movie about Alan Turing.
Another movie-ready WWII story is that of the “Dick Jones” network, which ran very successfully in Tunisia, after a rough start. “Jones” was captured, imprisoned and sentenced when first dropped into the country in late 1942, but was released by the French authorities when the Germans invaded. He had organized well during his stay in prison and by November 1942, his network was supplying information “‘so operationally valuable that First Army were literally hanging on our daily signals to them.'” The network grew with “high grade morale,” which led to “low grade security,” and many were arrested in January 1943. Some were executed and “Jones” himself landed in Colditz Castle as a prisoner of war.
A biography of Cumming, the first chief of SIS, would also make an interesting film. Cumming endured various personal tribulations while fighting to keep the fledgling Secret Service alive and separate from other agencies and branches of government. Now universally acknowledged to have been the perfect choice for the job, he was basically making up the espionage playbook as he went along, and his position was never secure at the time. Aside from fast vehicles, he was fascinated by gadgets and tradecraft, and some of his techniques are still in use today.
The book also includes accounts of British/French espionage successes during WWII. One in particular is that of Marie Madeleine Fourcade, and I hope it gets optioned soon. Fourcade, born the same year as SIS, led the French Resistance network Alliance, which gathered intel about German logistics inside occupied France and transmitted it by various means to Britain. This was incredibly dangerous work, and many Alliance members were captured, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo. Fourcade herself was captured four times. She was released twice, and twice she escaped — once by disrobing and squeezing herself out of a cell window, and once by being smuggled out in a mailbag. She and all her network had animal codenames, thus the title of her book, L’Arche de Noé, or Noah’s Ark.
The Secret History of MI6 is a scholarly work and does sometimes get bogged in bureaucratic minutiae, but the vast majority of it is a compelling read. I do hope there will be a second volume, at least covering the rest of the 20th century.
If you’re into movies at all, and you’ve been on social media in the last couple of weeks, you’re probably aware of a Kickstarter project for Be Natural, a feature documentary about Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female film director. Hers is a fascinating story. In 1895, at age 23, Alice was a secretary to Leon Gaumont when she saw a demo of the Lumière brothers’ brand-new Cinématographe and got inspired to start making movies. She made one of the first narrative films, La Feé aux Choux, in 1896, and synced sound with picture in 1902, to name just a couple of her innovations. After working at Gaumont for ten years, she started her own studio, Solax, in 1910. During a 20-year career in film, she wrote, produced or directed more than 1,000 films.
Even if Guy-Blaché had been male, it would be odd that such a pioneer is so little-known. But take into account that she was female, making films 20 years before U.S. women could even vote, and the fact that she and her work are so obscure becomes downright weird. What happened? Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs, of video effects house PIC, have decided to find out, and in the process, return Guy-Blaché to her rightful place in history.
Even if you don’t know their names, you know their work. Green and van Sluijs have created some of the most interesting main and end titles in film, including the ingenious opening titles for Cabin in the Woods. Their take on Guy-Blaché’s story is sure to be as innovative as she was. They’ve also gotten some pretty big names involved. Jodie Foster is narrating, Robert Redford is executive producing, and a wide variety of filmmakers appear in the trailer. Many others are donating their time and labor. But the bulk of the work – research, travel, finding photos and footage, securing rights to them, preserving and/or copying them – costs money. As they state in their Kickstarter intro…
Sadly, this is not the type of project that easily gets traditional Hollywood funding, nor is it the type of film that qualifies for most of the typical educational grants. Hollywood funding doesn’t usually go into beautifully made documentaries; educational grants don’t allow for this kind of ambition and entertainment value. This is a passion project for all of us involved, and it is through passion that we’ve been able to pull the favors from those in the industry so far.
The Kickstarter has been gaining some buzz on both social and traditional media, and it’s really taken off in the past few days. That’s the good news. The bad news is, there’s only 1 full day left. If possible, post a link to your networks and please pledge if you can. The world needs to know as much as possible about Alice Guy-Blaché.
Update: Woohoo! The Be Natural Kickstarter is funded as of August 27. The project actually exceeded the goal. But further help is needed to ensure that the film will have the funding to continue beyond the rough cut. Contributions can now be made via the web site.
Ossi’s father is the Oyster King of America and she has decided that she deserves nothing less than a European prince. Nucki is the penniless prince in question but a few cases of mistaken identity later, all plans are in shambles. Hidden amongst the the wacky hijinks is some pointed social commentary courtesy of director Ernst Lubitsch.
“I’ll buy you a prince!”
When most people think of silent German cinema, the phrase “romantic comedy” does not spring readily to mind. Classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may get all the glory but German filmgoers of the silent era liked light films just as much as their American counterparts.
And the Germans had a secret weapon: Ernst Lubitsch.
While he was brought to Hollywood on the strength of his historical spectacles, Lubitsch’s great talent lay in sophisticated romantic comedy. Any fan of classic…
There’s a Western block beginning at 8:00 p.m., including Ambush, Ride Lonesome with Randolph Scott, and Geronimo. One of my few favorites, Stagecoach, is on at 1:00 a.m. (Tues.). I don’t think anybody needs to see this quite as many times as Orson Welles, who reportedly watched it 70 times while he was making Citizen Kane, but I’m still going to DVR it.
Tuesday, April 24
8:00 p.m. The Way We Were (1973) ***TCM PARTY***
This day is singer/actress/director/Taurus Barbra Streisand’s 70th birthday and TCM is celebrating with a bunch of her movies beginning at 8 p.m. and going on into Wednesday morning. Our TCM Party, guest hosted by @CitizenScreen, is probably one of the best of Streisand’s films and certainly one of the most referenced in TV and movies. Complicated and serious Katie (Streisand) is in love with her total opposite, easygoing Hubbell (Robert Redford). Their different approaches to life drive them apart against the scary backdrop of the McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1940s. Join us by tweeting with #TCMParty…my late mother would be proud.
Wednesday, April 25
3:00 p.m. Crossplot (1969)
In the 1960s, an adman woos women at all hours and, with his loyal secretary’s help, manages to successfully deal with clients as well. Not Don Draper…Roger Moore, apparently as an art director, with his future M, Bernard Lee, in a supporting role. Yeah, I’ll be setting the DVR.
Thursday, April 26 Directed by John Cromwell
8:00 p.m. Sweepings (1933) Of Human Bondage (1934) director John Cromwell’s first film at RKO is a comedy about a department store founder (Lionel Barrymore) who works his fingers to the bone to build a legacy for his underwhelmed children.
Friday, April 27
8:00 p.m. Stage Door (1937) ***TCM PARTY*** Chosen by the TCM Party people (or those who voted anyway), tonight’s film follows the girls who stay at the Footlights Club, a boarding house for struggling New York actresses. It’s fun and snappy, with much of the dialogue improvised or taken from the stars’ actual conversations and re-written by the director, Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey). The cast includes Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller, and Lucille Ball. Tweet along with #TCMParty.
Saturday, April 28 Trevor Howard Block
Almost always described as a scene-stealer, Howard was never a big Hollywood star but he worked steadily for five decades. TCM’s got five of his films, beginning with The Third Man at 8 p.m. and continuing with the heartbreaking Brief Encounter (which basically established British film in the US), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), and The Golden Salamander. His performance in Third Man is so appropriate to the character…quiet, understated, but so persuasive.
Sunday, April 29
7:00 a.m. The Falcon Takes Over (1942)
Yes, this is a poorly disguised version of the novel Farewell, My Lovely, which the producers bought from Raymond Chandler for a measly $2000 and bizarrely grafted onto another writer’s detective character. The title was even pinched from another film, The Saint Takes Over. But George Sanders is in it, so it’s here.
12:45 a.m. (Mon.) A Modern Musketeer (1917) ***TCM PARTY***
Our resident silent film expert @tpjost is hosting this TCMP, in which Douglas Fairbanks plays both D’Artagnan of The Three Musketeers and a contemporary version thereof, a guy whose gallantry and daring can match any 17th century swashbuckler. Look for us on Twitter with #TCMParty.