Just like everybody goes to Rick’s, everybody knows Leonid Kinskey, whether they know his name or not. Kinskey portrays Sascha, the voluble Russian bartender, in that classic of all classics, Casablanca (1943). We meet him quite early on, when Yvonne, Rick’s latest ex-girlfriend, has had a little too much to drink and needs to be escorted home. But as I learned, there’s more to Kinskey than Sascha. Not that I won’t bask in the glory that is Casablanca first…
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.
The third edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide drops tomorrow (September 29, 2015). Updated for the first time since 2010, and presented by Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the Guide covers films “From the Silent Era through 1965.” There’s more than 200 new entries — some of which are running on TCM tonight, including our TCM Party at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Why Be Good? (Maltin gives it 3 stars out of 4, in case you were wondering.)
The bulk of the book is capsule reviews, each of which includes the film’s year of release, running time, rating, director, major cast, and symbols indicating what formats are available. It’s fairly comprehensive, with more than 10,000 entries. Although it’s light on films before 1920, there’s plenty in here that I’ve never heard of. The “Index of Stars” at the end of the book is a partial listing of selected actors’ filmographies and is handy for recalling the name of a movie when you can only remember who starred in it.
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.
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.
Our 31 Days of Oscar blogathon wraps up with Week 5 posts — The Movies. I’ve been thinking about the Best Picture category a lot lately, since I read Movies Silently’s Week 2 post, The Silent Oscars, in which she highlighted Academy Award categories that were lost with the advent of sound films. Near the beginning of her very informative post, she writes:
The first Academy Awards had several categories that were never repeated. The best picture award was divided in two, best production (Wings) and most artistic (Sunrise). Frankly, I think dividing best picture into art film and crowd-pleaser would be an excellent idea today but what do I know? The best director category was likewise divided into best dramatic director (Frank Borzage) and best comedic director (Lewis Milestone).
Such interesting ideas. What would two Best Picture and two Best Director categories look like?
Having 20 different nominated films might get complicated, so it’s quite possible the Academy would return to limiting the Best Picture categories to five each. Also there would probably be some films that get nominated for both Best Production and Most Artistic. For instance, I think last year’s Best Picture, Argo, qualified for both. Would it have gotten lost between plausible Best Production nominees Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook and Most Artistic shoo-in Beasts of the Southern Wild?
On the other hand, separating directors into Best Dramatic and Best Comedic categories would probably have helped Argo director Ben Affleck to get nominated the same year (that he wasn’t is still a staggering snub in my book), though I think Ang Lee still would have won. My money would have been on Playbook director David O. Russell in the Comedic category, would he have gotten into the dramatic category as well? Who else would have gotten nominated? Phil Lord and Chris Miller for 21 Jump Street possibly? It’s hilarious. Seth McFarlane for Ted? Jay Roach for The Campaign? Jason Moore for Pitch Perfect? Would these films then get nominated in a Best Production category? Or would those nominations go to effects-heavier movies?
I’m not sure, but I do know that comedy has long gotten short shrift from Oscar. And I also know the Academy has tried all sorts of tactics to increase viewership. Designating an actual category just for comedy direction places these films — and possibly their fans — at the core of the Academy Awards. Would it also alienate the base (if there is such a thing)? And, with the differentiation between drama and comedy in other categories, would it then be necessary to split up the acting and craft categories as well? The mind boggles…but it’s fun to think about.
I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut for once, I think I’ll do it again.
There’s been a lot of criticism over the years over this award, and some of that criticism has been warranted. But whether it’s warranted or not, I think it’s one hell of an honor, and I thank you.
I’ll tell you this about the Oscars – they’re real.
—William H. Macy
This promises to be another February filled with fabulous tales and screen wonders – many of the stories, players and films featured on TCM all month long. In fact, the network is kicking things off this year in spectacular style on February 1st by featuring all of the Best Picture nominees from Hollywood’s “Golden Year” 1939, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary! In addition, that night, TCM premieres a new original documentary, And the Oscar Goes To….
So, in short, if you can’t take the entire month of February off work, or send your kids to your relatives, then be sure to clear your DVRs, and join the blogathon.
We are not limiting this event to classic film fare though — posts on more recent Oscar-winning or Oscar-worthy filmmaking are very welcome. We want to see and hear it all from the golden man’s more than eighty-five year history, including the 2014 nominees. Share stories about the films and players, tell us which and who deserved the nod and were ignored, or rhapsodize about which films inspire you with their music or lighting.
We are doing things a little different this year by focusing on a different Oscars topic each week.
For your consideration:
WEEK 1 – the weekend of February 1-2 – Oscar Snubs! Let the venting kick things off!
WEEK 2 – the weekend of February 8-9 – Music, Costumes, Cinematography, Writing, etc. You name it. If it’s not Best Acting, Direction, or Picture, it’s in!
WEEK 3 – the weekend of February 15-16 – Actors! Lead or supporting, take center stage.
Week 4 – the weekend of February 22-23 – The Directors!
Week 5 – the weekend of February 28-March 1 – THE MOVIES!
We are taking turns hosting, but you can submit topics by leaving comments on any of our blogs, via twitter, or by email. We ask that you please include the following:
Title and link to your blog
Your email address (use [at] instead of @ if leaving a blog comment)
It would also be great if you can include any of the event banners included above or below in this post on your blog to help us promote the event.
SO – write to your heart’s desire! Write one post or several on each topic. But write! And join us, won’t you? Hollywood’s big night is only once a year.
If anyone out there has attended a TCM Party hosted by me, you know I always natter on about great Old Hollywood cinematographers, the crisp blacks and whites and beautiful contrast they produced, etc. etc. There are a few names that come up repeatedly, more often than most. Gregg Toland — Citizen Kane, Ball of Fire, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives — is an obvious possibility, as is Jack Cardiff — A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes. But with this post I’m beginning a series about five less well-known DPs who are equally deserving of some attention.
I find these two parallel scenes particularly striking examples of how Wilder and Seitz worked together so well…in both Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) walks into the room and sits down in front of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), but the angle is slightly different, and the lighting serves as a barometer for their relationship.
Indemnity and Sunset are just two of Seitz’ 163 films, made over more than 4 decades. Born in 1892, Seitz began as a lab tech in Chicago in 1909 and was working in movies as a director of photography by 1913, continuing through his last film, Guns of the Timberland (1960). He held 18 patents for photographic devices and processes — including dissolve techniques and the matte shot, which he fine-tuned while working on Rex Ingram’s Trifling Women (1922). The collaboration with Ingram was key to Seitz’ career:
Ingram was a great pictorialist; everything in his pictures was subordinate to the image. Collaborating with a cameraman of genius, John Seitz, he created some of the most beautiful films of the entire silent era.
— Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, Hollywood: The Pioneers
Seitz’ other works include some of my favorite movies: Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun For Hire, both with Veronica Lake; Five Graves To Cairo and The Lost Weekend, also directed by Wilder; and The Big Clock, which like Weekend, starred Ray Milland. These are just a fraction of his output. How does one person create all those stunning images? Perhaps it was his willingness to experiment:
Where [others] might be inclined to play it safe by using tried and true techniques, Seitz doesn’t hesitate to stick his neck out to try for the unusual and original effect — and he invariably comes up with an exciting result. Far from being a trickster out to create an effect for its own sake, [he] remains an alert experimentalist, constantly searching for new approaches and original camera techniques to make the motion picture a more dramatic medium. There are no clichés in his style – as modern as tomorrow, rugged, forceful and, above all, alive. He insists that cinematography must exist to tell the screen story, rather than stand out as a separate artistic entity.
— Herb Lightman, “Old Master, New Tricks,” American Cinematographer, September 1950
I can’t pretend that this post is in any way a definitive or comprehensive analysis of Seitz’ work, but I hope that it will compel a few to see some of it for themselves. TCM is offering two opportunities on Monday, April 15. One of the silent films he worked on, Mare Nostrum, directed by Ingram, is on at midnight Eastern time. According to TCM’s site, “British director Michael Powell, who worked on Mare Nostrum as a grip, would cite Ingram as one of the influences on his own visionary epics, including Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).” Also, one of the pre-codes Seitz shot, Ladies They Talk About (1933), also starring Stanwyck, is scheduled for 6:00 a.m. Eastern.
And now, a very belated THANK YOU: Sincere and heartfelt gratitude to whoever was so kind as to nominate me for not one but two 2013 LAMMY Awards, Best Classic Film Blog, and Best Blogathon/Meme for 31 Days of Oscar, credit for which I share with Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. There isn’t much chance of my getting through to the next round, but this is one case where I can honestly say the nomination is the award. Tune in to the LAMBcast on Monday at 9:00 a.m., featuring Aurora, to hear the final nominees.