Ava Gardner — Grabtown, North Carolina’s Christmas gift to the world — was probably most familiar to me as one of the quintessential femmes fatales, Kitty in The Killers, and as the determined, loyal woman who saved her husband Frank Sinatra’s career by getting him the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity. She was certainly the former, and she may have been the latter (she certainly tried), but she was much more than these things. My concept of Gardner has been considerably expanded, by a new biography of the star, Ava: A Life in Movies.
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.
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.
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.