Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Goldwyn's 'Last Sten'

                 Theda Bara (Theodosia Goodman)

                Theda Bara (Theodosia Goodman)

Over many decades, Hollywood moguls have, from time to time, attempted to create stars from scratch. That is to say, taking a nobody, changing their name, creating a back-story and building them up so that they are already "legendary" even before the first foot of film has been exposed. Sometimes it works; sometimes it fails.  The first such manufactured star was Theda Bara, a dark-eyed rather zaftig young Jewish lady from the Avondale section of Cincinnati whose real name was Theodosia Goodman.  Early film mogul William Fox (Vilmos Fried - 1879-1952), a furrier from Tolscva, Hungary turned owner of the unheralded Fox Film Corporation in New York, found himself in desperate financial straits in 1914.  What to do? 

Fox and his publicity staff started looking around for an actress who could take direction, then go to work creating an identity and unique look, an unforgettable name and a biography (the crazier the better) to sell to a gullible public that would be thirsting to see her on the silver screen.  And so, assembling members of the press in a smoky, dimly lit hotel room in Chicago, the then 30-year old Miss Goodman (who though a natural blond now sported jet black curls) was introduced to the world as Theda Bara (an anagram for "Arab Death"), who, the assembled journalists were told, was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French actress. (During the 6-month long publicity campaign, Miss Bara, the ultimate vamp, was also billed as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor.)  She finally hit the screen in a film based on a ridiculous stage 1909 Porter Emerson Browne play called A Fool There Was, and by the next year, was almost as popular as Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin.  Her weekly salary quickly skyrocketed from $50.00 to $4,000.00. Her vogue, which lasted barely 4 years, had her playing a succession of vamps, seductresses and wicked women in such films as Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Camille, Salomé and Madame Du Berry.  Miss Bara, who would be a doyen of Beverly Hills society for more than 30 years (dying there in 1955), not only saved Mr. Fox; she insured that his name and an offshoot of the company he created would still be in the headlines more than a hundred years later (think "Fox News").  Needless to say, this first "creating a star out of whole cloth" was a rousing success.

                             Jane Russell - Cleavage and All

                            Jane Russell - Cleavage and All

In early 1940, RKO boss Howard Hughes - the Donald Trump of his era - decided that he too wanted to create a star.  And so, after looking around for a while, his search netted him a 19-year old graduate of Van Nuys High School (the same high school that Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford and Dodger pitching great Don Drysdale attended) named Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell (1921-2001) He quickly signed her to a standard 7 year contract. Jane Russell had a couple of things going for her: she had actually studied drama and acting at Max Reinhardt's Acting Workshop, had been coached by Maria Ouspenskaya,  had a decent singing voice, and measured a colossal  38D-24-36.  After a year of publicizing his upcoming star (during which time she did not appear on screen), Miss Russell  got top billing in a film called The Outlaw, costarring the equally unknown Jack Buetel and featuring Oscar-winning actors Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell.  Due to problems with the censorship board, the film (which was made in 1941) did not go into general release until 1946.  But Hughes continued publicizing Miss Russell. Thousands upon thousands of photos of the voluptuous star-in-the-making ran in magazines throughout the country.  By the time the film went into general circulation, she had the best known cleavage on the planet.  Hollywood writer and Algonquin Roundtable wit Dorothy Parker referred to Hughes' campaign as "The sale of two titties."  Critics hated the film; the public couldn't get enough of Jane Russell and her amazing cleavage.

Miss Russell would go on to star in more than 30 films, including The Paleface (1946), His Kind of Woman (1951), Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953), and The Tall Men (1955).  Despite her seductively loose, lusty-busty image, Miss Russell was, in her own words, ". . . a mean-spirited, narrow-minded, right-wing, conservative Christian. I start out with that, and if you don't like it, you can lump it." By any stretch of the imagination, Howard Hughes' - like William Fox's experiment in star creation - was a great success. 

Sorry to report, such was not the case for one of the greatest of all movie moguls: Samuel Goldwyn. When he tried to create a star, he fell on his face, landing with a thud which resonates to this very day.  Her name?  Anna Sten . . .

                        Anna Sten in a Typical Garbo Pose

                       Anna Sten in a Typical Garbo Pose

Born in Kiev (then Russia, now the Ukraine) in 1908, Annel Stenskaya Sudakevich  got her start in acting with the Moscow Art Theater. After playing small roles in a couple of Soviet films, she moved on to Germany, where scored rave reviews playing Grushenka in the 1931 masterpiece Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff ("The Murderer Dimitri Karamasoff") based on Dostoevsky's classic novel "The Brothers Karamazov."  One night, Goldwyn saw this film, and even before its conclusion gave orders to one of his assistants to contact Sten's people and sign her to a 7 year Hollywood contract.  He had dreams of making her his Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich - so much so that he arranged to have her photographed with some of the same poses Garbo used.  (See pictures to above of Anna Sten, and below of Greta Garbo, using the same pose)

When Sten arrived in the United States, so the story goes, she had put on considerable weight and, to Goldwyn's amazement, found her English to be impenetrable . . . which, considering the state of his English must have been truly depressing.  And so, Goldwyn put his staff to work slimming her down, working on her English and looking for the ideal picture in which she could make her American debut.  Of course, all the while, her picture and stories about her were running in fan magazines across the country.  Finally, Goldwyn decided on starring her in Nana, based on the classic novel by French author Emile Zola.  Unfortunately, a faithful treatment of this notorious literary whore and the men she ruins was impossible in an industry newly saddled with the restrictions of Will Hays and his Production Code.  Despite all her English lessons, Sten wound up learning her dialogue by rote; there was none of the vital thespic spontaneity that had so captivated Goldwyn or his staff.  Predictably, the film bombed . . .

                                            Greta Garbo: The Original Pose

                                           Greta Garbo: The Original Pose

Undeterred and possessing an ego approximately the size of California, Goldwyn persisted. Sten's next two films - We Live Again  (1934) costarring Frederic March and The Wedding Night (1935) which costarred Gary Cooper and won King Vidor a best director Oscar - were better, but the public wasn't buying. As Goldwyn biographer Scott Berg noted, "When the public failed to embrace her a third time, Goldwyn decided he could not afford to give her another chance." When it became known around Hollywood that Goldwyn, at Sten's request, cancelled the final year-and-a-half of her contract (which paid her $2,500.00 per week), The Wedding Night started being referred to as "Goldwyn's last Sten." The debacle wound up costing Goldwyn in excess of $2 million. 

Anna Sten would go on to make a handful of increasingly cheaper movies for increasingly minor studios.  She even guest starred in a handful of television shows.  She and her husband, the Russian-born producer Eugene Frenke (who were married for 52 years) moved to Manhatten, where he died in 1984 and Miss Sten about 10 years later, shortly before her 85th birthday.  Today, three things remain of the Sten legacy: Her nickname, "Goldwyn's Folly," the expression "Goldwyn's Last Sten," and a line written by Cole Porter for his 1934 show Anything Goes:

When Samuel Goldwyn can with great conviction
Can instruct Anna Sten in diction
Then Anna knows,
Anything goes.

 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

  

The Most Iconic Sign on the Planet

                                    The Most Iconic Sign on the Planet

                                   The Most Iconic Sign on the Planet

There likely isn't a soul on the planet cannot identify the gigantic HOLLYWOOD sign sitting atop a minuscule mountain few people know the name of.  For a couple of generations, that sign has best symbolized the flash and allure, the glitter and glamour of both a small town and a ginormous industry. Its history is fairly well known to those of us who are "Hollywood Brats." To those outside the brat brigade, that story might seem as improbable as any film the MGM or the Warner Brothers ever produced.  And, in matter of fact, that sign - whose history goes back 95 years, originally had next to nothing to do with the then nascent movie industry.  

Way back in 1923, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and a couple of developers named Woodruff and Schults  came up with he idea of erecting a larger-than-life advertisement for a new upscale housing development they were planning to build in the hills above Hollywood. Their development would be called "Hollywoodland." Their original intent was to erect a 43-foot high sign built of telephone poles, thin metal, wood, wire, and pipes and lit with 4,000 20-watt bulbs spaced 8 inches apart.  Chandler and his investors thought the sign would stand for no longer than 18 months. - at which time, they assumed,  construction would be complete and a score of well-heeled movie stars and executives would have begun moving into their new residential palaces. The sign wound up costing $21,000.00 (about $290,000.00 in today's dollars). Of course, in order to put up the sign they first had to build a pathway to the top of what would officially be named "Mt. Lee."  Chandler et al never got further than building a primitive road.  In 1926, the land with the enormous sign - which was already showing a bit of wear and tear - came into the hands of Mack Sennett, the enormously successful movie producer and owner of the Keystone studios. 

                         Beaachwood Canyon in the mid-1920's. 

                        Beaachwood Canyon in the mid-1920's. 

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          Peg's Suicide Makes Page 1 of the  New York Times

         Peg's Suicide Makes Page 1 of the New York Times

The actual "Hollywoodland" sign made its way back into the news in a big way on September 16, 1932, when a distraught 23-year old Welsh-born stage actress named Peg Entwistle committed suicide by climbing up to the top of the "H" and then leaping to her death.  Entwistle, who had appeared on Broadway in the late 1920's was known both for her talent and her good flapper-esque looks.  Film immortal Bette Davis often proclaimed that Peg was the reason she decided to be an actress after witnessing one of her stage performances. “I had to be an actress, exactly like Peg Entwistle,” explained Davis. Peg was often cast in comedies as an attractive, good hearted  ingénue, but her desire was to play more challenging roles.  Arriving in Hollywood in early 1931, Entwistle made the rounds of studios with little success.  It is a tale that thousands of wannnabe film stars can tell.  Indeed, there is an old Hollywood saying that "The first requirement for becoming a star isn't talent, good looks or great luck; it's the ability to withstand repeated rejection." Apparently, Peg lacked that ability.  Just about the time Peg had hit rock bottom, she scored a feature part in an RKO picture called Thirteen Women, starring Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez (Jacob Stein) Myrna Loy, Florence Eldridge (the wife of actor Frederic March) and Jill Esmond (who had recently married Laurence Olivier). Peg was dismayed to learn that her 12 of her 16 minutes of screen time had been left on the cutting-room floor.  And so, she committed suicide by jumping from atop the sign.  Hikers found her body at the base of the sign along with a note which read "I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Thirteen Women opened the day after her body was discovered.  Today, 86 years later, all Peg is remembered for is her death, not her talent.

One direct result of Peg's suicide was that the ladder which long stood on the sign's backside (permitting workers to ascend in order to effect repairs) was taken away.  But for years thereafter, picnickers would go to the base of the sign, spread out their blankets and dine . . . while waiting to see if perhaps the ghost of Peg Entwistle would be joining them for a nosh.

Maintenance of the iconic sign fell by the wayside during the Great Depression, and by the mid-1940s, the sign was looking pretty sad. The “H” fell down—legend has it the sign's caretaker drunkenly plowed into it with his car—and the other letters were deteriorating. Though the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission wanted it completely torn down, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had different ideas. They offered to remove the “LAND,” then restore the remaining nine letters to promote the town.  This they did in 1949 . . . the year of my birth.  In the mid 1970s I lived within hiking distance of the sign on Argyle, several blocks above Hollywood Blvd.  By that time the Hollywood sign was looking every inch of its 50-plus years. An “O” had toppled down the hill, an “L” had been set on fire, and the other letters were falling apart. Hugh Hefner came to the rescue, holding a benefit gala where celebrities were able to “purchase” the new letters. Hefner himself bought the “Y,” Alice Cooper bought an “O” in honor of Groucho Marx, and Andy Williams sponsored the “W.” Other donors included Gene Autry, Warner Bros. Records, and Les Kelley of Kelley Blue Book. 

In the 1940s, Howard Hughes bought 138 acres of land surrounding the sign, intending to build a compound for himself and then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers. Plans fell through after Rogers broke up with him, and the Hughes estate did nothing with the property for decades. When they finally sold it for $1.7 million in 2002, developers announced a plan to divide the estate into five luxury home sites. The Trust for Public Land raised money to purchase it from the developers for $12.5 million in 2010. The sign’s previous rescuer, Hugh Hefner, chipped in $900,000.  The sign's letters have been altered a couple of times over the years:

  • In 1976, it was changed to “Hollyweed” to celebrate changes to marijuana laws. 
  • It read "Holywood" when the Pope visited in 1987.
  • It was briefly Ollywood during the Oliver North Iran-Contra hearings. 
  • It’s been used to root for football teams, including “Go Navy” in 1983 and “GO UCLA” for the 1993 UCLA-USC game. 
  • It even helped market a movie when animated character Holli Would was perched on top of the "D" to promote the film Cool World (1992). 

5 years ago, Sherwin-Williams freshened up each letter by removing all of the previous paint, then applying 105 gallons of primer and 255 gallons of exterior acrylic latex paint in the color “High Reflective White.”  

Throughout its 90-year history, the Hollywood(land) sign has been a symbol not only of a town which makes magic come true; it has served as an iconic totem for dreams and nightmares, music and mystery, dreams and delights.

May Harry Chandler's 18-month wonder stand watch over the movie capital for another 90 years . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

Buster Keaton and the Sound of Silents

     Keaton & Arbuckle in "The Butcher Boy" 

    Keaton & Arbuckle in "The Butcher Boy" 

Legend has it that when Joseph Francis Keaton IV was about 18 months old, he tumbled down a flight of stairs at home his parents were renting. Upon landing at the bottom of the stairs, magician Harry Houdini - a friend of the tykes parents - scooped up the tyke in his arms and said "That was a real buster!"  Thus was born a nickname which within less than two decades would be known all over the world.  Fast forward to 1917.  Walking down a street in Manhattan, the now 22-year old Buster Keaton - already a veteran star of vaudeville - ran into an old acquaintance, the 30-year old former vaudevillian and current slapstick comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  At the time of their chance meeting, Arbuckle was as popular a star as Charlie Chaplin - with whom he had costarred in several films for Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies.  Arbuckle, so the story goes, urged Keaton to come and check out his newly-created film company, "The Comique Film Corporation," and perhaps become a movie actor.  ("Comique" was owned by Joseph Schenck - pronounced Skenk - who would, within a half-dozen years,  become both Keaton's producer and  brother-in-law.)

The next day, so the story goes, Keaton went over to the Comique studio, which was located in a warehouse at 318-320 East 48th Street in a tough section of Manhattan. After walking around Arbuckle's 3rd floor space (the 1st floor being occupied by Schenk's wife, actress Norma Talmadge) Fatty asked Buster what else he'd like to see.  Quick as a flash, Keaton answered "THE CAMERA!"  Over the next 24 hours, Keaton, a born mechanic,  literally took a camera apart and put it back together not once but twice . . . in order to figure out how it worked and what it could do and could not do.  By the beginning of the third day, Keaton was ready to costar with Arbuckle in The Butcher Boy (photo above).  And thus, a star was born.

Keaton would go on to become a complete filmmaker. Like Chaplin, he was both a director and a first-rate editor.  He was also an ingenious cinematic engineer, whose films contained construction pieces which were actual costars.  The scene below, from Keaton's 1928 feature film Steamboat Bill, Jr., is arguably the most dangerous stunt ever put on film; that building facade falling on Buster actually weighed more than 2 tons. The entire company - save the cinematographer,  who had to stick around to hand crank the camera - hit in a trailer just off the set's sight-line.  They were afraid to watch, fearful that their boss was about to be crushed.

                                                    Buster Keaton's Italian Villa c. 1927

                                                   Buster Keaton's Italian Villa c. 1927

By 1925, Keaton was one of the world's best-paid and most popular film stars.  In 1926 Keaton purchased a 3 1/2 acre lot just behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and built a lavish - and I do mean lavish - 10,000 square foot home known forever more as "The Italian Villa."  (It's original address was 1004 Hartford Way; today it's called Pamela Drive.) Among his closest neighbors were Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino and Harold Lloyd.  The Keatons - Buster and his wife Natalie (Talmadge) were known for their Sunday bashes, in which food was plentiful and liquor flowed like Niagara.  Alas, Buster's Edenic existence wouldn't last for long.  Following what was arguably his greatest picture, The General, Keaton made what he later called "the greatest mistake of my life": he permitted his brother-in-law (and producer) Joseph Schenck to sell his contract to MGM. Suddenly, Keaton was an employee without his own studio and shorn of the right to use his own crew.  Then, Natalie filed for divorce, took their two boys and changed their names from Keaton to Talmadge.  Then, MGM started pairing him up with Jimmy Durante; an obvious attempt to elevate the old Schnozzola at Buster's expense.  As a result of all this Buster started drinking heavily; by 1932 was virtually unemployable and had to file for bankruptcy.  Natalie sold the Villa to cover her debts.  At one point it was the home of Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant and his wife, heiress Barbara Hutton. Actor James Mason and his wife Pamela (for whom the street was renamed) purchased the Villa for $84,000.00 in 1952.  (BTW, it's back on the market now and will only set the purchaser back $16.2 million . . . )

The 30's were pretty much a inebriated blur to Buster.  By the end of the decade he was back making one- and two-reelers for lesser studios and working as a 'comedy doctor' for the bigger ones.  Then he married his third wife, Eleanor Norris, an MGM dancer who was nearly a quarter century younger than "The Old Stone Face."  Things began looking up, for in addition to being his loving wife, Eleanor turned out to be Buster's biggest fan, his nurse and closest adviser.

And then there was actor James Mason . . . who we will get to in another couple of paragraphs.

The percentage of silent and early talking motion pictures which were destroyed, burnt or simply disappeared is appalling.  Virtually none of vamp Theda Bara's 44 feature films are known to exist as are the overwhelming majority of films produced/directed by D.W. Griffith. Researchers at the Library of Congress suggest that more than 75% of all films made between 1910 and 1930 no longer exist. In part this is because most - if not all - of the early movie moguls considered films to be commerce, not art.  Once they got past their first - and only - run studio heads burnt films, figuring that a) no one would want to view them a second time and b) film contained silver which could be extracted and then sold.  Then too, those films which were saved in metal cans were improperly stored and disintegrated.  A handful of stars - notably Charlie Chaplin and his best friend Douglas Fairbanks - considered their work to be art, and paid scientists a small fortune to come up with what would become known as 'Safety Film' celluloid which would not disintegrate if stored under optimal conditions.  As a result, virtually their entire oeuvre is, to this day, available.  

Where Chaplin and Fairbanks were both deliberate and driven to preserve their films, Buster just lucked into the immortality of his cinematic canon.  Like his stone-faced persona, Buster had a ministering angel looking out for him, ready to provide a miracle.  That miracle was performed by the British actor James Mason (1909-1984) and an American-born film collector named Raymond Rohauer (1924-1987).  As mentioned above,  Mason and wife Pamela purchased Keaton's Italian Villa in 1952. By then the Villa had been renovated, re-landscaped and subdivided to make way for three more mansions.  When the Masons first purchased the estate in 1952, they weren't aware that Buster had built a small workshop on the property where he spent a lot of his downtime tinkering around with various mechanical projects.  One day, Mason was out in the workshop and realized that the structure contained a false wall.  When a worker he had hired broke through that wall, they discovered a rather large safe.  Inside that safe they discovered . . . can after can after can containing canister after canister after canister of nitrate films . . . all made by Buster Keaton! 

What happened next is the stuff of legend.  

The way I heard it, not knowing precisely what to do with this cinematic cache, Mason drove over to the Silent Movie Theatre located at 611 Fairfax Avenue and offered the lot to the theater's founder John Hampton.  (Hampton and his wife Dorothy opened his silent theatre in 1942 - a time when silent movies had ceased to exist.  With the exception of a brief closure in 2017, the Silent Movie Theatre is still running nothing but silent pictures.  Hampton soon got hold of Ray Rohauer, who had befriended Buster at that very theater when he was a 20-year old film enthusiast.  Rohauer proceeded to raise sufficient funds to repair and restore Buster's films, and then begin showing them around the country.  He also decided to restore Keaton's legal rights to these films and provide him with the lion's share of all ticket sales.  Soon, Buster was on the way back up.  The next year, Buster was paid $50,000 for rights to his life story, which were turned into a (not very good) film starring Donald O'Conner, Ann Blyth and Rhonda Flemming.  This fee permitted Buster and Eleanor to purchase a ranch out in Woodland Hills (in the San Fernando Valley) at 22612 Sylvan Street  where Buster and Eleanor spent the rest of his life living among his St. Bernards,  his chickens and the miniature railroad which encircled his property.  By the time of his death on February 1, 1966, he had been back on top for more than a decade thanks mostly to Eleanor, but also to his gritty determination, his innate talent and an outright miracle coauthored by James Mason and Raymond Rohauer.

So what is the sound of silents? 

Applause, of course . . . 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

Make Me a Star!

Most die-hard classic movie fans know that John Garfield was born Julius Garfinkle, Edward G. Robinson Emmanuel Goldenberg, Cary Grant Archibald Alexander Leach and Joan Crawford Lucille Fay LeSueur.  It takes a world-class flicker freak to identify the following (the answers will be found at the end of this piece):

                   February 1910: The P.R. Stunt Supreme

                  February 1910: The P.R. Stunt Supreme

  1. Spangler Arlington Brugh
  2. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke
  3. Jane Alice Peters
  4. Clara Viola Cronk
  5. Ruby Stevens
  6. William Henry Pratt
  7. Alphonso d’Abruzzo
  8. Maurice Micklewhite
  9. Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko
  10. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. & Virginia McMath
  11. Dino Paul Crocetti & Jerome Joseph Levitch
  12. Melvin Kaminsky & Jerome Silberman

What few fans know is that  during the silver screen's first fifteen years,  the movie-going public had no idea what their favorite stars names were - let alone directors, producers or screenwriters; they were either completely anonymous, known by their character names (such as "Broncho Billy," whom we met in our last posting), or identified by some physical characteristic. As an example, years before the public knew the name Mary Pickford (Gladys Marie Smith), they were head-over-heels in love with a virginal young actress known simply as "The Girl With the Curls." Similarly, the silver screen's first matinee idol, Maurice Costello, (who would one day become John Barrymore's drinking buddy . . . not to mention father-in-law) was known as  either "The Dimpled Darling," or simply, "Dimples." 

There were two reasons why early movie stars had no names:

  1. Early studio owners and producers kept their actors (largely amateurs) anonymous, figuring that if the public knew their names, these nameless amateurs would demand higher salaries. (For the most part they earned $2.50 and $5.00 a day.)
  2. Those actors who did come from the legitimate stage didn't want theatre-goers or the fellow thespians to know that they were "slumming."  Most stage actors coming from the thee-ah-ter considered motion pictures decidedly déclassé. They managed to justify their "walk on the wild side" by convincing themselves (and their Broadway colleagues) they were only in it for the money . . . hence the anonymity.

That all changed in February, 1910. 

                       Carl Laemmle ((1867-1939) in 1910

                      Carl Laemmle ((1867-1939) in 1910

The two people most directly responsible for this revolution were an elfin mogul named Carl Laemmle and a Canadian-born actress known to the public as "The Biograph Girl."  Laemlle, originally from Laupheim, Germany emigrated to the United States as a young man with $50.00 in his pockets and an itch to make something of himself. By the age of 17 he was bookkeeper for the Continental Clothing Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Armed with an innate genius for self-promotion and a love of spectacle, he wandered into the nascent movie industry and in 1909, on a shoestring, created a production/distribution company with the pixiesque name "I.M.P.," which stood for "Independent Moving Pictures."  Its logo featured a suitably impish logo of a grinning devil wielding a pitchfork. It took guts to create IMP; in so doing, Laemmle would be forced to take on Thomas Alva Edison's "Motion Pictures Patents Trust," which ordained that any company wishing to use an Edison-made camera had to pay his trust a royalty for every foot of film exposed.  Against tremendous odds, Laemlle successfully took on Edison and proved  in court that the Trust was in violation of the Sherman Anti Trust Act.

Step one.

Next, Laemmle decided to enhance both his image and that of his company by stealing away and signing the most popular movie star of the day: the Canadian-born Florence Lawrence, who had been a stage actress since age 6.  Moving over to moving pictures in about 1906, Florence worked first for the Vitagraph Company and then for Biograph, whose director was the great D.W. Griffith.  So taken was the public with this incredibly photogenic young woman with the most expressive face on celuloid, that they flooded the studio, (located at 11 East 14th St. near Union Square) demanding to know her name.  When the studio refused to reveal her name, her hundreds of thousands of fans took to calling her, simply "The Biograph Girl."  Making upwards of three one-reel films a week, Florence made a fortune for Biograph, which paid her a mere $25.00 (about $655.00 in today's money) a week.  Needless to say, Florence was dissatisfied, and surreptitiously, began contacting other studios to find out if anyone might be willing to pay her more.  When Biograph found out about what she was doing, they fired her.  But Florence wasn't out of work for long.

Enter Carl Laemmle.

Laemmle, who as mentioned above, had a flair for self-promotion and publicity stunts, came up with a doozy which he shared with the Biograph Girl.  She agreed to go ahead with it . . . especially since Laemmle agreed to pay her an astounding $125.00 a week (about $3.200.00 in today's dollars. What Laemmle did was to stage a ruse to publicize his new leading lady.  

Laemmle planted a newspaper story in February 1910 that the “Biograph Girl” had been struck and killed by a streetcar, and then took out an advertisement in an industry newspaper to debunk the story. “We Nail a Lie” (see facimile above) declared the IMP advertisement, which blamed rival studios for the deception of its own creation and announced that not only was Lawrence alive, but that she would star in its next film.

 

               The Story That Gave Birth to Stardom

              The Story That Gave Birth to Stardom

A star was born.  Shortly thereafter, Laemmle revealed to the public the name of one of the heretofore leading male heartthrobs: King Baggot, the first "King of the Movies."  Before too long, an ever-increasing number of photo-players were known by name and, as the early producers feared, were paid more and more money.  Within four years, a Jewish girl from the North Avondale section of Cincinnati named Theodosia Goodman, would be renamed "Theda Bara" (supposedly an anagram for "Arab Death," turned into a vamp and paid $4,000.00 a week by William Fox (Fuchs), the eponymous founder of everything Fox. (BTW, Theda's $4,000.00 is the equivalent of nearly $95,000.00 per week . . . and at a time when there was no such thing as an income tax.)

Lawrence and Laemmle's fortunes would go in opposite directions.  Florence Lawrence would make some 55 pictures for Carl Laemlle's IMP Company over the next year, then move on to the Lubin Company for which she would make another 75 pictures.  By 1916, her career was on a downward spiral; over the next 20 years she would appear on screen (frequently as an uncredited extra) in but 20 pictures for such "Poverty Row" studios as Nestor, Supreme, M.H. Hoffman and Ben Wilson Productions.  By the end of 1938, Florence Lawrence, the "Biograph Girl" and world's first motion picture star with a name was dead . . . the victim of suicide.  It was depressing when an adoring public did not know her name back before 1910; it became lethally so when the public had totally forgotten her . . . 

For Carl Laemmle, things went in the precise opposite direction . . . up, up, up.  In 1915, "IMP" became "Universal Studios," with a 237-acre facility located in an area just outside Hollywood proper forever known as "Universal City."  At the studio's two-day grand opening (March 15 and 16, 1915) which was attended by the crème de la crème, including Henry Ford and literally thousands of locals, the young John Ford, then an assistant director, occasional actor and all-round roustabout, managed to burn down an entire Western set which quickly spread to the rest of the studio, nearly burning it to the ground. The quick-on-his-feet, nearly fired Ford claimed that he had done it on purpose in order to get spectacular footage for an upcoming Western film!  He was subsequently hired to direct cowboy pictures . . . and the rest is history.  Within 3 years, Laemlle's Universal Studios had more than 6,000 employees, a vast number of whom were relatives including future director William Wyler and his 18-year old secretary Irving Thalberg, who would eventually become the legendary production manager at MGM.  Indeed, Laemmle had so many cousins, nieces, nephews and children working for him that all Hollywood grew to know the line "Carl Laemmle (pronounced lem-lee) has a big femiy . . ."  And of course today, Universal is as big as ever.

But for all his accomplishments, Laemmle's most important  - and certainly most enduring - may well have been giving stars the right to have names . . .  either the ones they were born with or the ones they were assigned by their studios, agents or publicists.

And speaking of names, here are the Hollywood names of the people listed at the beginning of this piece:

  1. Spangler Arlington Brugh: Robert Taylor
  2. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke: Mary Astor
  3. Jane Alice Peters: Carole Lombard
  4. Clara Viola Cronk: Clair Windsor
  5. Ruby Stevens: Barbara Stanwyck
  6. William Henry Pratt: Boris Karloff
  7. Alphonso d’Abruzzo: Alan Alda
  8. Maurice Micklewhite: Michael Caine
  9. Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko: Natalie Wood
  10. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. & Virginia McMath: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  11. Dino Paul Crocetti & Jerome Joseph Levitch: Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis
  12. Melvin Kaminsky & Jerome Silberman: Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder

That's pretty much how a Hollywood brat born with the last name "Schimberg," got lawfully "Stoned" when he was 7 . . . 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

"Broncho Billy" - Filmdom's 1st Cowboy Star

          "Broncho Billy" Anderson (Max Aronson)

         "Broncho Billy" Anderson (Max Aronson)

For more than a century, one of Hollywood’s perennial character-types has been the cowboy.  Indeed, much of the world “knows and understands” the American West through our cowboy stars. From  the flash, white-hatted Tom Mix, the "good bad man" William S. Hart, daffy Hoot Gibson and the gentlemanly Fred Thomson in the silent era; to square-jawed Richard Dix, the prototypical John Wayne (born Marion Michael Morrison)  the singing  Oron Grover "Gene" Autry, drunken Ken Maynard and all-American Roy Rogers (Leonard Slye) in the era of talkies; and James Arness ("Matt Dillon"), Clayton Moore ("The Lone Ranger)", Clint Eastwood ("Rowdy Yates"and James Garner ("Bret Maverick") in the television era, cowboys rode and roped, saved towns and strummed guitars (at one point during his interminable apprenticeship even John Wayne played a singing cowboy called “Singing Sandy”), saved maidens and embodied all that which was best, bravest and most heroic about the American West. And we got to know their horses as well:

 

·      

  • “Tony” (Tom Mix),
  • “Pinto Ben” (William S Hart)
  • “Midnight” (Hoot Gibson)
  • “Silver King” (Fred Thomson)
  •  “Dice” (Richard Dix)
  •  “Duke” (John Wayne - who gave him his nickname.  It's an inside Hollywood joke: "even, Duke, his horse, was a better actor . . .")
  •  “Champion: (Gene Autry)
  •  “Tarzan” (Ken Maynard)
  • “Trigger” (Roy Rogers)
  • “Buck”  “Marshall Dillon")
  •  “Silver” (“The Lone Ranger”)
  • “Jouster” ("Rowdy Yates")
  • “El Loaner” (“Bret Maverick”)

 

They were all – with the possible exception of William S. Hart, filmdom’s first and greatest “good bad man”- the epitome of courage, morality and erect, ramrod righteousness.  Collectively, they portrayed a type of American icon known from Tirana to Turkmenistan and from Christchurch to Cairo.

 

Of course, few were real westerners; they were actors portraying cowboys:

  • Tom Mix was from Pennsylvania and fought in the Spanish-American war;
  • William. S. Hart came from Upstate New York, and before entering movies was a renowned stage actor who starred in the original 1899 production of Ben Hur;
  • Fred Thomson (the husband of Mary Pickford’s favorite screenwriter) was a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary;
  • John Wayne played football at USC (along with future Western perennial Ward Bond)'
  • Gary Cooper, the son of a Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court, was educated in England and worked as a cartoonist;
  • James Stewart was a graduate of Princeton;
  • Richard Dix (Ernest Brimmer) studied to be a surgeon at the University of Minnesota.

Then there were the classic movie stars (both male and female) who - unbelievably - did make at least one western:

  • James Cagney ("The Oklahoma Kid," 1939)
  • Edward G. Robinson ("The Violent Men," 1954)
  • Humphry Boart ("Virginia City," (1940)
  • Barbara Stanwyck ("Annie Oakley," 1935)
  • Jack Benny ("Buck Benny Rides Again," 1940)
  • Rita Hayworth ("Trouble in Texas," 1937)
  • Carole Lombard ("The Arizona Kid." 1930)
  • Spencer Tracy ("Broken Lance," 1954)
  • Fred MacMurray ("Day of the Bad Man," 1954)

 

Broncho Billy.jpg

Unquestionably, the least prepossessing of all cowboy stars was the very first: “Broncho Billy” Anderson (that’s him in the photo at the beginning of this essay). Known to the public as “Gilbert M. Anderson,” this pot-bellied six-footer knew next to nothing about guns and when it came to horses, knew less than nothing. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, the movie world’s first cowboy star (and first Jewish star of any kind) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1880. His real name was Maxwell Henry Aronson. At the turn of the century, the 20-year old , Max moved to New York, where he became a photographer’s model and did a bit of acting in little theaters. Adopting the distinctly non-Jewish name “Gilbert Anderson,” Max started hanging around companies which made “flickers” – two, three and four-minute moving photos which “real” (viz. stage) actors considered totally déclassé. Finally, in 1903, Max played at least three separate roles in the seminal Western, The Great Train Robbery (believed by virtually every film historian to be the first narrative movie). If you ever get the chance to see The Great Train Robbery (follow this link to the YouTube video), you will note that Broncho Billy was such an inept horseman that he actually tried to get on his mount from the right side . . . a major no-no.  (That’s Billy playing the dancing tenderfoot in the hand-tinted photo on the right.) (That’s Billy playing the dancing tenderfoot in the hand-tinted photo on the right.) Max would go on to write, produce, direct and star in nearly 1,000 films between 1903 and 1965. 

                                             The Essanay Studio

                                            The Essanay Studio

In 1905, Aronson (Anderson) along with a partner by the name of George K. Spoor,  created his own studio.  Putting the first letter of their last names together, Spoor and Anderson became “Essanay.” Originally making films in Chicago with the likes of the teenage Gloria Swanson and cross-eyed Ben Turpin (who received filmdom’s first pie in the face in a 1909, half-reel film called Mr. Flip, directed by Max Aronson), they were able to turn out 3 or 4 short films a week.  After a couple of years in the Windy City, they went out west, building a major studio in Niles, California (that’s it on the left), which today is a touristy district within the city of Fremont. In 1915, Anderson stole Charlie Chaplin away from Mac Sennett’s Keystone Studio, where in 1914 Sennett produced 34 one- and two-reel Chaplin shorts. Sennett paid Chaplin the then-majestic sum of $150.00 a week.  In 1915, Essanay lured Chaplin away from Keystone by offering him a nearly 850% increase in salary for directing and starring in a dozen two-reel films. His first film for Aronson/Anderson was the aptly titled His New Job. One of these shorts – the twenty-nine minute “The Tramp” – gave Chaplin’s immortal character its nickname. For starring in these 10 two-reel shorts, Anderson (Aaronson) paid Chaplin the unprecedented sum of $1,250.00 a week plus a $10,000.00 signing bonus. (In 1915, a decent income was $500.00 a year.) Chaplin’s time with Essanay would be brief; in 1916, the then 27-year old cinematic genius left Essanay and signed with the Mutual Film Corporation, which agreed to pay him the toothsome salary of $10,000.00 per week plus a $150,000.00 signing bonus for making precisely 12 films..  In 1917, Chaplin would build his own studio at the corner of La Brea and Sunset; today, this property, which still looks like an English village, is the home of  the Jim Henson Studios. In  and agreed to pay him the toothsome salary of $10,000.00 per week plus a $150,000.00 signing bonus for making precisely 12 films.

 

                        Maxwell Henry Aronson in Real (as Opposed to "Reel") Life

                       Maxwell Henry Aronson in Real (as Opposed to "Reel") Life

What Anderson and Spoor may have lacked in cinematic panache, they more than made up in p.r. brilliance.  Case in point: in 1908, they announced a contest to find a one-word equivalent to “moving picture show,” “five-cent theatre” or "nickelodeon," all of which were deemed inadequate. The contest was Essanay’s attempt to uplift the movie industry.  Over 2,500 suggestions were received by the closing day, September 1st, and a $100 prize was awarded to Edgar Strakosch, owner of three theaters in Sacramento. Strakosch's winning entry had the term “photoplay.” The name was appropriated for Photoplay, the best of the silent-era fan magazines, and used frequently in those days. It was a combination of p.r. stunts like this and an enormous output of one- and half-reel “photoplays” (costing, on average no more than $800.00 apiece), which made Essanay the most successful of the early film companies.  By 1910, Broncho Billy was making $50,000.00 a year. By 1912, he was pulling in three times that amount.  And, he continued riding the range, keeping the peace and rescuing the damsels as Broncho Billy in dozens upon dozens of short films with titles like “Broncho Billy’s Marriage,” “Broncho Billy and the Card Sharp,” and” Broncho Billy’s Word of Honor.” Indeed, Anderson was a one-man show. Throughout his career, he directed 469 films (a hefty percentage of which he starred in), acted in 349, non Broncho Billys,  and produced another 246.  (If you’d like to see an example of a Broncho Billy flick, click here) He could complete a typical one-reel film (about 11 minutes worth of screen time) in two days, and then get it out to theatres across the country within 48 hours.  Essanay even had its own train, complete with a car set up as an editing laboratory, which would permit them to travel and do location shooting.

 

In early 1914, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed Gilbert M. Anderson “The King of the Movies.”  In an article saluting him as the shining star of the Bay Area film community, he was compared to the British Empire (upon which the sun never set) saying: “At any time, some place on this earth, Bill is spurring his mustang across the screen.  He never quits.”  The newspaper estimated 11,000,000 people watched Broncho Billy perform on-screen every day of the year.  But alas, Anderson’s success was not to last; unlike up-and-coming independent producers, he and his partner Spoor refused to make full-length motion pictures.  By the beginning of “The Great War,” Essanay was beginning to creak along.  By the early 1920s, they were out of business. But before Essanay fully collapsed, Broncho Billy managed to get Spoor to buy him out.  At the time, estimates of Broncho Billy Anderson’s payday ranged from $500,000.00 to a million dollars. 

 

Anderson took some of this money and bought an ownership stake in the then world champion Boston Red Sox.  When Anderson’s Red Sox partner Harry Frazee wanted to raise capital to finance a Broadway play (some say it was No, No, Nanette  . . . but that’s an urban legend) he sold, against Broncho Billy’s advice, Babe Ruth, his best pitcher, to the New York Yankees.  Shortly thereafter, Broncho Billy left the Red Sox, and the team, suffering from what would become known as “The Curse of the Bambino,” wouldn’t win another World Series for nearly a century. Bill went on to produce Broadway shows himself – none of which earned a penny.

 

Max Aronson, who, despite being the world’s first great movie star was a fairly solitary man, would spend the remaining 50+ years of his life living in relative obscurity. In the early 1920s he produced a couple of one- and two-reel comedies starring Charlie Chaplin’s former understudy, Stan Laurel.  In one of these films, A Lucky Dog, Anderson teamed Laurel with a "heavy" named Oliver Hardy.  Though they would not become the revered team of “Laurel and Hardy” for nearly another 10 years, Broncho Billy can claim credit for having first brought them together.

 

                    "Broncho Billy" at Age 78

                   "Broncho Billy" at Age 78

In 1958 the Movie Picture Academy gave him an honorary Academy Award as a “motion picture pioneer” for his “contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.  In 1965, Broncho Billy came out of retirement to go before the cameras one last time: a cameo role as an old man in the Dan Duryea western “The Bounty Hunter.

 

Anderson was married to Mollie Schabbleman from 1910 until his death in 1971. They had one daughter, a Stanford graduate named Maxine, who would eventually become a highly successful Hollywood talent agent. The motion picture industry honored “Broncho Billy Anderson” with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine St. About three months ago – March 21, 2018 to be precise – a historical roadside marker was dedicated to Max Aronson, aka Gilbert M. Anderson, aka Broncho Billy, in Little Rock, Arkansas, across the street from his birthplace, 713 Center Street.  The marker was donated by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. 

 

At the time of the dedication ceremony, few people had any idea of who Broncho Billy was, let alone the fact that the first western star was a Jewish kid named Maxwell Henry Aronson . . .

 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

 

A Note of Welcome to "Tales From Hollywood & Vine"

 

Malvin Wald (1917-2008), was a truly gifted screenwriter. He was also the father of one of my oldest friends, Alan, whom I've mentioned in The K.F. Stone Weekly over the years. Mal was also part of a screen dynasty: his older brother Jerry (1911-1962) was both a screen writer ("Brother Rat," "They Drive By Night," "Peyton Place") and producer ("The Man Who Came to Dinner," "Key Largo," "Johnny Belinda," "Mildred Pierce.") Jerry has long been cited as the real-life inspiration for the character "Sammy Glick" in the 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? written by Bud Schulberg. (Schulberg's novel, by the way, is generally considered to be the  greatest Hollywood novel of all time, bar none. 

         Alan and Kurt  in Clint Eastwood's "Coogan's Bluff"

        Alan and Kurt  in Clint Eastwood's "Coogan's Bluff"

Alan and I spent a lifetime sitting next to one another in school (we sat in alphabetic order), were lab partners in chem class, and had the pleasure of playing hippy extras in Clint Eastwood's 1967 film Coogan's Bluff. (In the photo to the left, Alan's the bearded fellow just under the upraised arm; I'm the black-headed kid in the serape with his back to the camera. In another scene, I was dressed as Sgt. Pepper.) A half-century later, Alan is still making a living as an extra. Although few people outside of Hollywood can identify his father, Malvin, just about everyone knows the most famous line of his most famous screenplay (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award): "There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them."  This new blog, Tales From Hollywood & Vine, is, in a way, an homage to Malvin . . . for indeed, there are "Eight million stories  coming from Hollywood & Vine, the crossroads of the film world."  For those of us who are collectively known as "Hollywood Brats," a lot of these stories are well known; we heard them at breakfast, lunch and dinner; many of them dealt with our neighbors, our friends' parents, our own parents . . . with people whom we went to school, shul, swimming lessons, or the barber shop . . .

For as long as I can remember, Hollywood - both the real town and the generic term - have been a focal part of my life.  Dad,  a Baltimore native who studied business at the University of Richmond, first hit Hollywood not too long after movies began to talk, intent on becoming the next Cary Grant or William Powell. (Ironically, in their latter years, Dad and Mr. Grant could easily have passed for white-haired identical twins!) Back in the '30s,  Dad had several things going for him: he was head-turningly handsome, well-spoken and was a tailor's delight. The one thing he lacked was acting talent. As the old Hollywood saw goes "He couldn't act, but he sure knew how to behave."  Despite never becoming an actor, the movie industry did eventually provide him with a good living; he wound up working for more than a half-century as a stock broker/investment advisor to a lot of Hollywood folks who otherwise would have spent every dime (and then some) they ever made.  Without him and the men and women of his brokerage firm, they probably would have spent their latter years living on scraps.

                                 Mom and Lilian Gish in 1941

                                Mom and Lilian Gish in 1941

Mom, on the other hand, came out to Hollywood having already spent a few years on stage in her native Chicago.  She had  - and still has - a sort of Roselyn Russell "Auntie Mame" personality. (That's mom in the mirror, with the legendary actress Lillian Gish looking over her shoulder at the left.)  At the time the picture was taken - early 1941 - mom was appearing in the then-popular musical "Knickerbocker Holiday" at the Goodman Theatre, while Miss Gish, who learned the art of film from the legendary D.W. Griffith, was in the midst of a record-breaking 66-week run of "Life With Father" at the Blackstone.  Shortly after her play closed, Mom left for Hollywood, where she met Dad at a party thrown by her cousin Mitzie in Beverly Hills. They married in 1943 and would remain married until dad's passing in 2002.  Throughout their nearly 60-year marriage, Mom would occasionally return to the stage (notably in a revival of Arthur Laurents' "The Birdcage"), appear on radio, and keep her hand in the biz.  Today, she is as active and beautiful as ever.  (n.b.: Sorry for the bad quality of the photo of her and Miss Gish, but it is more than 75 years old.  The picture of her below, taken some 70 years later, shows her still looking like a star. 

                         Mom, more than 70 Years After Photo With Lillian Gish 

                        Mom, more than 70 Years After Photo With Lillian Gish 

Having been born in Hollywood and raised both in and around the movie industry, we (me and my "slightly-older-sister" Erica [Riki]) kind of took it for granted that being an actor, writer, director or musician was what everybody did.  Our neighborhood was filled with people in the industry. Lots of our friends' parents were in film or television, and we went to school with a lot of future actors and musicians.  As an added bonus, a lot of these folks were on my paper route.  I well remember delivering the Greet Sheet (yes, the front page was actually light green!) to the likes of Milburn Stone ("Doc" on Gunsmoke), Bill Williams and his wife Barbara Hale ("Kit Carson" and "Della Street"), Jack Elam (one of filmdom's great bad guys), and Hershel Bernardi, to name but a few.  The kids included the young Bobby Redford (who would wash his car  shirtless in the front yard), Tom Selleck (a great basketball player in high school), William Katt (the son of "Kit Carson" and "Della Street" who would go on to star as "The Greatest American Hero" and "Paul Drake"), brothers Barry and Stanley Livingston ("My Three Sons") Jo Ann Harris and legendary composer Tom Scott.  We even had a dog star in our neighborhood: "Paloma," a white standard French Poodle who was famous in the 1950s and '60s for being dyed different colors for various films. I best remember her playing Jane Mansfield's hand-dyed pooch (with whom she took a bath) in the 1957 comedy "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" In between films, when Palooma's owners, the Yortis's, let her fur grow out, Paloma would revert to being just another neighborhood dog; while in the midst of a shoot, however, she became a bit of a canine snob.  Ah, such memories!

In a life filled to overflowing with serious subjects and serious activities - medical research protocols, university lectures, political speechwriting, weekly political essays and sermons - writing about Hollywood is as pleasurable and utterly intoxicating as indulging in a carafe of vintage wine and tray of canapés at the end of a long day.  I have long been looking forward to creating this blog; my film students have long been prodding me to put the stories I tell on paper . . . or in this case into HTML.

Without question, film is the most collaborative of all art forms.  And without a doubt, it is art - although art largely in the service of profit.  (Originally, the term "movies" referred to all those nameless people who appeared on the screen, because they "moved.")  Every "flicker," "galloping ghost-type, "film" or "motion picture" relies on the skills, the expertise and quirks of hundreds of people in order to create something the public will want to see.  By and large, these creative people - actors, writers, directors, editors, composers, musicians, set-designers, make-up artists, carpenters, electricians, caterers, etc. are rarely your average drink of water; they are, generally speaking, a bit unconventional than average, to put it mildly.  Hollywood - both the place and the Platonic absolute - is akin to a steamer-trunk of tales to be told.  It is my intention to post perhaps two articles a month dealing with Hollywood trivia, a "behind-the-scenes" look at the making of well-known films, a bit of Hollywood history, a personal insight into a star who was just a neighbor, or gossip known mostly - if not exclusively - to Hollywood Brats like Alan Wald and yours truly.  I hope you will enjoy reading these bi-weekly pieces nearly as much as I will no doubt enjoy writing them.

Lights!  Camera! Action!  

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone