Tag Archives: Joan Crawford

Anita Loos: silent era ‘soubrette of satire’

This post, in honour of Women’s History Month, is adapted from a talk I gave at the BFI Southbank recently as part of an event called Broad Strokes: Trailblazing Comedy Screenwriters. You can read a report from that event here.

Anita Loos’s family pronounced their name Lohse, but as an adult she got tired of correcting people and opted for something a little more “Loose”. It suited this true original to reinvent her own name, especially as even that sounded like a good joke. Loos was one of the greatest wits of the 20th century, who wrote one of the best modern American novels, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but her career kept coming back to the cinema. It’s where she started. She wrote movies – in several different ways – and she wrote some of the best books about Hollywood too. She helped the cinema grow up and she exposed many of the industry’s foibles as well. Her jokes travelled so far that even if you don’t think you know her work, you may well have been laughing at her best gags for years.

Anita Loos photographed by Cecil Beaton
Anita Loos photographed by Cecil Beaton

A seriously petite brunette, Loos was born in Mount Shastam California in, whisper it, 1888. She didn’t like that fact to get around and so she lied ferociously about her age, with the vanity of a movie star. Unfortunately for her, films have dates on, so to make the timeline fit, Loos claimed to have been in her early teens when she started writing movies, and thus in her own twenties during the Jazz Age. No. She was more like 24 when she started out, and while she remains one of the greatest chroniclers of the Roaring Twenties, she herself was in her 30s and 40s at the time. That’s a grand age for a wit, actually: old enough to make fun of the naivety of youth, and young enough to be aghast at the staidness of the older generation.

Loos had four main topics: sex, fashion, gossip and men. She wrote about what interested her. She was a fashion plate, a storyteller and she loved men, even though they consistently disappointed her. She was briefly married in her youth, which was a juvenile mistake – he was skint and boring – and simply her ruse to leave home. In 1919, however, she married writer-director John Emerson and she stayed married to him until he died in 1956. She was besotted with him at first, but he soon let her down, reinforcing her opinion that sex was some sort of absurd cosmic joke played on unsuspecting mortals.

They worked together, which is to say, as she recalled it, she worked while he lay in bed watching her. “I had set my sights on a man of brains, to whom I could look up,” she later said, “but what a terrible let down it would be to find out that I was smarter than he was.” He was a philanderer, a malingerer and took most of the credit and at least half the money for their collaborations. Sam Goldwyn said “Emerson was one of those guys that lived by the sweat of his frau” and Loos’s friend Charles Lederer called him “Sweet Mister E of Life”. One time, it seems, he tried to strangle her. But he did not write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so we won’t mention him again unless we absolutely have to. Continue reading Anita Loos: silent era ‘soubrette of satire’

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Cocktails and canapés with the stars of the silent screen

Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Moris
Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Morris – our glamorous hostesses, with Betty Balfours in hand

If HG Wells could fix it for you to travel back to the silent era, you surely would, right? And while no doubt it would be enlightening to talk shop in the studios and editing rooms of 1920s Hollywood, it’s arguable that the real action would be in the nightclubs and hotel suites.  Take it from me, the catering would be … interesting.

Many of you will know Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Morris. Jenny Hammerton works as a film archivist, and runs the wonderful Silver Screen Suppers site on the side. She’s researching a forthcoming book of recipes from classic film stars, you see. Nathalie Morris works at the BFI as an archive curator, and also blogs about food: the Food on Film site recreates meals from movies. She is working with Jenny on a different book, along the same lines, but dedicated to the most important meal of the day – the cocktail hour.

Such a noble pursuit deserves all our support, of course, so myself and a few other selfless souls tripped up to Nathalie’s flat on the weekend to sample some cocktails and canapés. As the evening was undertaken in the name of research, not simple fun, here is what we learned.

  • We may remember Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson as health freaks, but they let their hair down occasionally, culinary speaking. Garbo layered bacon over healthsome cottage cheese and rye bread to create a rather unwieldy canapé. Swanson deviated from the ways of brown rice for, what else, tempting bites topped with caviar.
  • Edith Roberts‘ sweetcorn fritters require a LOT of lard for deep-frying. Fear not, though, as our group couldn’t quite choose between the lighter veggie versions and the lardy originals in the final analysis.
  • Solid and unexciting to look at, they may have been, but Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers’ potato and nut croquettes were seriously savoury – with a rich seam of nuts down the centre. Unexpectedly toothsome.
  • Zasu Pitts is an idiosyncratic one. We all loved her omelette with hot spanish sauce. But the Greed star cheated us of any actual spice in that sauce – hot in name only. And there was baking powder – yes, baking powder – in the omelette.
  • The parties thrown by Marion Davies may have gone down in Hollywood legend, but her cheese patties were unlikely to get anyone hot under the collar – tasty yes, but rather chunky and bland for a canapé. Perhaps they were just there to soak up the booze?

Continue reading Cocktails and canapés with the stars of the silent screen

Ten X-certificate moments in silent cinema

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.

Joan Crawford and Norman Kerry in The Unknown (1927)
Joan Crawford and Norman Kerry in The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.

Captain Salvation (1927)
Captain Salvation (1927)

Captain Salvation (1927)

An X-certificate intertitle in which Pauline Starke screams at Lars Hanson “My step-pa ‘helped’ me once – a good thing the baby died!”

Flame of the Yukon (1926)
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)

The Flame of the Yukon (1926)

A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.

Behind the Door (1919)
Behind the Door (1919)

Behind the Door (1919)

With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”

Intolerance (1916)

DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.

The Cheat (1915)

Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”

Hypocrites (1913)

Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.

An Interesting Story (1904)

A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!

For further reading, the authors recommend Kevin Brownlow’s superb Behind the Mask of Innocence and Matthew Sweet’s wonderful Shepperton Babylon.

By Neil Brand and Philip Carli.

Do you agree with Neil and Philip’s choices? Please share your suggestions below.

The 11 best silent movie dance sequences

Silents by numbersThis is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)

The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.

Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)

The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.

Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)

Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend.  The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.

(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)

That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)

Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle.  In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!

Continue reading The 11 best silent movie dance sequences