Quick question. Can you remember March 2020? Me neither. Far too long ago.
So, a few things have happened since then, but at the beginning of March I reported for the Guardian on film historian John Bengtson’s campaign to have one alley in Hollywood renamed in honour of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, who all shot famous scenes there. When I wrote the piece, I hoped to be visiting the alley to see it for myself quite soon. Now there’s a bad joke.
The point is, that the campaign continues, and gathers support. Also, I wanted to share this video John has made that sums up the importance of the alley rather smartly. Why share, give it a thumbs-up, or just enjoy the gags?
Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
Sad news today. Baby Peggy, the last of the surviging silent film stars, has died aged 101. She was born Peggy Jean Montgomery in San Diego on 29 October 1918 and she died on 24 February 2020, 400 miles away in Gustine, California.
She was a star before she was even two years old, starting out as a cute dimpled co-star for Brownie the Wonder Dog, before going on to play the lead in around 150 comedy shorts and features. She was an unforgettable presence on screen: dimpled, diminutive and delightful – one of the youngest and most brilliant of child stars. And she really was a star, the “Million Dollar Baby”.
Long after her own days as a silent film star were over, she was a writer and an advocate not just for the silent era but for the rights of child performers. It had never been an easy life being a toddler-actress, far from it, and on 14 February this year, she gave an interview to Silence is Platinum in which she said this:
“People asked me in my teens how I could remember anything about making films and I said I remembered everything about making them. I never had any problem with that, but many child stars had that denial thing. They didn’t want people to think they started out like that. Many times, and I did it too, I ended up denying that I had ever been in movies … There are so many sad stories, it was overwhelming. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I think about them, and the most depressing ones are the ones that shouldn’t have gotten mixed up in it. They paid a terrible price for it. To me, they were all cautionary tales. Perhaps I assumed it because I lived it. Not all of my stories are negative, but the one you get caught in is a negative story.”
We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude, not just for her wonderful films and her fantastic comedy, but for her memories, which she put to good use, even though many of them were traumatic.
Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page
Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel Stella Dallas was destined to become a great movie. In fact, it has been adapted for the screen three times: in 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role and in 1990 with Bette Midler, but before both of those in 1925 starring Belle Bennett as the unforgettable Stella.
Prouty’s novel is very cine-literate. It describes exactly the pleasure of a trip to the movies, but also the way that we can look at our real life as if it were a film. Sometimes we feel like an actor who is part of the spectacle, but at other times an onlooker, observing the action but not truly involved. Teenage Laurel, who is used to “standing on the outside” understands true love in real life because she has seen it in the movies: “Laurel had seen too many close-ups of faces not to recognize that look!”
The genius of this filmed Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925) is that it captures the poignancy of watching life from the dark of the auditorium, but its emotional reach draws us in, even from the back of the balcony. The final scene of the film, in which Stella watches her daughter’s wedding through a lit window on the dark and rain-drenched street, is the perfect visual incarnation of Laurel’s horrified realisation, voiced early in the novel, that she had “become a part of the picture on the screen, while her mother was still in the audience, out there in the dark, looking on”.
On its release, the Manchester Guardian’s film critic CA Lejeune described the “painful beauty” of Stella Dallas, saying: “We are stirred into sympathy with all these people because we cannot help identifying ourselves with them … the whole picture is full of the half-tones of which ordinary life is composed.” In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall praised one of the romantic scenes in the strongest terms: “It is all so natural, so sweet and genuine, so true to life, so fervent and sincere, so tender.”
Stella Dallas was made by Samuel Goldwyn in 1925, and the mogul was determined that it would be his masterpiece. He would end up spending $700,000 on the film – which was twice his line of credit.
Key to the success of Stella Dallas is Frances Marion, the woman who wrote its sophisticated screenplay. Marion takes the events of the novel, which are jumbled by flashbacks to create the drama of suspense and revelation, and straightens them out into a flowing narrative that begins in a garden in spring and ends on a city street in the cold. She also takes a few discreet liberties, rearranging scenes and editing them slightly to emphasise the agonies that plague Stella and Laurel. Her screenplay for this silent adaptation became the basis for the subsequent sound film starring Stanwyck – making that film a true remake rather than a second adaptation. And the film is beautifully directed by Henry King, who tells the story visually, exploring the novel’s concern for appearances both contrived and mistaken, but who also coaxes excellent performances from his cast.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ben Smith.
When Kevin Brownlow was in LA in the 1960s, interviewing cinema veterans for his unrivalled history of the Hollywood silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, there was one important figure who declined to be interviewed, Frances Marion. Brownlow admits he would have pursued her much more vigorously if he had only known then what he does now. At that time Marion was writing her memoir, Off With Their Heads!
Marion wrote some of the silent era’s biggest hits, among them screenplays for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Early on she established an extremely successful working relationship with Irving Thalberg, and became MGM’s premier screenwriter. She found love with a former Presbyterian Minister, Fred Thomson, and helped build his career as an actor who starred in 24 westerns. Thomson’s fame in 1927 was second only that of Tom Mix, but his stardom was cut short by a contract wrangle with the banker and film financier Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father and a man who both simultaneously swindled and reformed the studios).
Fred Thomson’s death in 1928 – variously recorded as the result of tetanus, gallstone surgery and tuberculous – left Frances Marion a bereft widow and the single parent of two children. Marion, was more than stoic in her refusal to be held back by tragedy and continued to stay at the front of her craft, being the first woman to get a solo screenwriting academy award for The Big House (1930) and another for The Champ (1931).
In 1925, the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, Marion published her debut novel Minnie Flynn, the story of an uneducated working class girl who gets a break in the New York movie world before finding fame and fortune in Hollywood. Like Gatsby it was a story about new money, unfettered morals and collapsing class boundaries. Unlike Gatsby it wore its debt to melodrama on its sleeve. This unusual book, unique among the quietly burgeoning genre of the Hollywood novel for depicting the New York/New Jersey film industry, has been forgotten by history.
Us silent-film bloggers have guilty pleasures too, you know. My weaknesses are a spot of Hollywood scandal – and a good musical. A new West End show, opening at the Arts Theatre in February, promises a touch of both. The Tailor-Made Man tells the tale of William Haines, the openly gay silent film actor who defied studio pressure to marry and put an end to rumours about his love life. He stayed with his long-term boyfriend Jimmy Shields instead, and when the studios turned their back on him, he switched careers and became a popular Hollywood interior designer – working for the stars who had been his colleagues along.
THE TAILOR-MADE MAN is the true story of William Haines, the silent screen star who was fired by Louis B Mayer of MGM Studios because he was gay and refused to marry and give up his lifelong partner Jimmy Shields. The new musical will receive its world premiere at the Arts Theatre in London opening on Thursday 21 February 2013, following previews from 13 February, for a limited eight-week season ending on 6 April. It will star Faye Tozer as Marion Davies and Dylan Turner as William Haines.
In 1930, William “Billy” Haines was one of MGM’s most idolised male stars, second only to John Gilbert. On screen he was tailor-made to get the girl in the last reel. On the back lot he cruised every bit player and stagehand in sight. Billy lived openly with his lover and former stand-in Jimmy Shields. This was tolerated by the studio until rumours started to seep out into the wider world. Louis B Mayer ordered him to marry the sultry silent screen vamp Pola Negri. Billy refused and so Louis B Mayer fired him. Billy’s defiance of the studio led to his second and even more successful career as an interior designer to the stars. THE TAILOR-MADE MAN is a powerful story about Hollywood and its system and hypocrisy, but above all it is the story of Billy and Jimmy’s turbulent, passionate love affair that survived and lasted over 50 years.
So there will be silent film scandal and glamour aplenty on the West End stage next year, but the question that concerns me is, will The Tailor-Made Man be any good? Mack and Mabel or Sunset Boulevard? Dylan Turner, who will play Haines, has a string of solid West End musical credits behind him, and Faye Tozer, who will play his loyal pal and co-star Marion Davies, does too. You might also remember her from Steps. Ahem. No word yet on who will play Shields, Mayer or Negri.
The musical has been adapted by the well-regarded playwright Amy Rosenthal from Claudio Macor’s play of the same name. He’ll also be directing the show. The songs are by Adam Meggido and Duncan Walsh Atkins who worked together on the improvised musical Showstoppers. I had a dig through the archives to find some reviews of Macor’s work – and I found some positive notices about his other work, but just this, from the Independent in 1993 about the play version of The Tailor-Made Man. I’m afraid it’s not pretty.
The story of Hollywood’s first openly gay movie star, William Haines, Macor’s script is badly hampered by the writer / director’s ambivalence towards both his hero and that dirty rotten town.
Macor shows Haines cavorting arrogantly from sailor to sailor in public parks while his companion, Jimmy, waits long-sufferingly at home. He reveals how Haines was built up by the studio system only to be knocked down once his lifestyle became an embarrassment. But Macor also shows himself half in love with the glamour of the era and Haines’ unpalatable egotism.
This uncertainty of tone is compounded by a cramping set and a series of performances which almost look like parodies. Simon Tweed’s Haines can’t put a charming spin on Haines’ callous treatment of Jimmy. Marion Davies and Carole Lombard become goggling bimbettes, Louis B Mayer a muttering administrator. At least these escape the risible hatchet-job that Macor and actress Rebecca Forrow wreak on Pola Negri.
At the end, Macor uses Haines’ and Jimmy’s later, happy professional and personal relationship as interior decorators to the stars, to make a plea for Haines as a gay hero for today. But most of his scrappy production is at odds with the claim: it’s only in Hollywood that a happy ending makes everything right.
Paul Merton is probably the most high-profile silent film fan in the country, with a book, a stage show and a series of documentaries on comedy under his belt. And now he’s back, on BBC 2 no less, with a three-part series of programmes about the early days of the American films industry – Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood.
The first programme will focus on DW Griffith, the beginnings of the star system and the relationship between music and silent film. There’s a very jolly introduction to the series on Paul Merton’s official website here, and some musings about making the documentaries on the BBC site here. You’ll be pleased to know that Neil Brand is involved too – he’s written the title music
Merton clearly has a great passion for the subject, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see documentaries on early cinema airing on one of the major channels. What would be great, of course, would be a screening of a silent film or two after the programme, but it looks like that is not to be. Better luck next time, chums.
Merton appeared on Danny Baker’s radio show on Saturday to promote the show and their 10-minute chat is well worth a listen on iPlayer, if only for the infectious enthusiasm the pair have for the subject. Follow the link here, and fast-forward to an hour and five minutes into the programme.
Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood begins on BBC 2 at 9.30pm on Friday 27 May 2011.