It’s almost a cliche now but it’s worth repeating. Silent films were never silent. Music remains an essential component of the silent film experience and that is our topic of discussion today. We are going to salute the talented men and women who create the music of the silent movies.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes that I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) This time, we will be testing a recipe from a very controversial actress.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from a starlet who supported many famous flappers in her day.
We’ve all heard of “that guy” actors: performers who don’t have name recognition but seem to show up everywhere. In the twenties, Gwen Lee was something of a “that gal” actress. She appeared in support of most of the big names at MGM, from Norma Shearer to Lon Chaney and also stepped out of the MGM ranks to appear alongside famed flappers Clara Bow and Colleen Moore.
Gwen Lee was born Gwendolyn Lepinski in Nebraska but she was Gwen Lee of Hollywood by the time she was twenty. She specialized in playing world-weary girls, often from the wrong side of the tracks. You can spot her in Lady of the Night, The Plastic Age and Laugh Clown Laugh, just to name a few of her silent supporting roles. Everything seemed ducky and she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1928 but her career never quite ignited.
Lee’s parts got steadily smaller as the thirties wore on but you can still see her in uncredited parts in films like A Night at the Opera and Libeled Lady. Her last credited role was in 1938’s Paroled from the Big House.
So, we know that Miss Lee was a charming actress who never quite cracked the upper ranks but how are her omelet-making skills?
Well, there’s not much that can go wrong with potatoes, eggs and onions. Whether or not this can be considered a proper omelet is another matter. Like the great chili debate (beans? no beans?), I think it is wise that I steer clear of the controversy.
Anyway, here is the result:
Excuse the paper plates. I have a cold.
The taste test video:
My rating: 3 out of 5. The recipe is easy and the ingredient combination is edible. (If you think that isn’t an accomplishment, you clearly have not seen Joan Crawford’s Banana Salad.) The flavor combination is basic, even simplistic but you can do a lot to juice it up with salsa, hot sauce or ketchup.
The whole thing fell apart even before I attempted to flip it. I think perhaps the potatoes are too heavy for the egg to hold together. This might have been more successful in a tiny pan.
Improve it: I took a peek at potato omelet and modified frittata recipes and discovered a pattern. Many of these recipes fell into two basic categories. The first type was cooked on the stove-top and used a much, much higher proportion of egg to potato, usually at least two to one. The second type used a similar egg-to-potato proportion to Miss Lee’s recipe but baked the concoction in an oven-safe skillet. So, if you decide to make this recipe, use a lot more eggs or opt for baking.
On the other hand, I may just have terrible potato-omelet-flipping skills. Such is life.
Most of the posts on this site have been aimed at fans of silent film or curious dabblers. This post is different. It’s aimed squarely at a very strange subset of non-fans.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from one of the most vibrant personalities of the silent and sound eras.
Lupe Velez’s career has been overshadowed by her tragic death. No one can say for certain why she chose to take her own life and the record has been further muddied by cruel rumors regarding the exact circumstances. I will not dignify them by repeating them here.
Instead, we are going to talk about Velez’s career as one of the hottest starlets of the late silent era and her subsequent rebirth as a comedienne.
Born in Mexico, Velez got her big break when she was cast as Douglas Fairbanks’ leading lady in The Gaucho. Fairbanks was energetic in the extreme but Velez was more than a match for him. She followed up this success with a loan-out to Cecil B. DeMille’s studio and was cast as Rod La Rocque’s lady love in Stand and Deliver. She also won a part opposite Lon Chaney in Where East is East.
Velez was the lead in D.W. Griffith’s final silent film, Lady of the Pavements (originally entitled The Love Song), in which she wrested William Boyd from the clutches of Jetta Goudal. The behind-the-scenes story was much more interesting. Griffith liked to dominate and bully his actresses (the better to get them to hop, twirl about and kiss birds) but Velez refused to be dominated. Griffith tried to tire her out but ended up exhausted himself. Hurrah for Lupe! The film was not the blockbuster everyone had hoped it would be but Velez and her singing voice were widely praised.
Velez made a successful transition to sound and after a career slump she was back on top with her zany Mexican Spitfire series. She made her final appearance as Carmelita Lindsay in 1943, one year before her death.
Miss Velez was a vibrant talent on the screen but how about her recipe?
Hmm. It seems that according to Photoplay, Mexico does not exist. All Mexican and Tejano dishes are re-labeled as Spanish and “Spanish” recipes are invented out of whole cloth. I think the latter is true in this case. I am going to take a wild risk and wager that this recipe is 100% American.
Ben-Hur is just a brand name for black pepper. I am not sure why Miss Velez is so specific. The recipes says that the hamburger can be either raw or cooked. I opted for cooked as browning meat before adding it is almost always the right choice. I didn’t have a green pepper so I used a yellow one. They have a nicer flavor anyway.
As promised, the whole thing was ready in just a few minutes. Here’s what it looks like:
And here is the taste test video:
My rating: 3 out of 5. This recipe is lighting fast but it is also not particularly interesting. It’s not bad, it’s actually pretty tasty. It’s just that you can taste the shortcuts. The vegetables and meat would have tasted much nicer if they had been allowed to simmer together or if more interesting spices were added. Still, if you have sudden company, this recipes uses staples and is not that bad. You could do worse.
Can it be improved? I think some time in the slow cooker could probably do wonders. It would allow the meat to stew in the tomatoes and really pick up some flavor. Adding the peppers near the end would preserve their flavor.
Hello and welcome to a new series! As you may already know, a good number of silent films have been lost, some of them quite famous. However, many of these films were remade as talkies. Some of the remakes even used the original silent as reference material before it was lost. Missing the Silents is going to focus on these remakes and examine how they can help us imagine what the original might have been like.
One of the great pleasures of being a silent film fan is discovering hidden corners, collections of films that have been forgotten by all but a few fans. Gently holding these movies up to the light of day, enjoying them and discussing that enjoyment… Well, it’s incomparable.
Well, readers, another one of those hidden corners is going to be illuminated (with our help).
While the Hollywood studio system was solidifying into a monopoly, intrepid independent producers were still hard at work creating films. Among them were numerous concerns that specialized in producing films that were funded by, directed by, written by and starring African-Americans.
Within Our Gates and The Scar of Shame are two of the titles that have seen home media release but there are dozens more waiting to be rediscovered. We’ve all seen tantalizing stills and posters but actual screenings have been hard to come by.
For decades, many of these films have only been viewed scholars, collectors or archivists. Recently, Kino Lorber, a major player in the world of silent, international and independent cinema, launched a crowdfunding campaign to change that. (You can read all about it and donate here.)
If they reach their funding goal, they will release Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a box set filled to the brim with these independent productions. The finished set will include eight features and assorted shorts and fragments. Much of this material has been locked in vaults since its initial release and has never been put out on home media. The films that have been released before are getting sparkling new transfers so that they will look their very best. This will also be their debut in Blu-ray format.
Producer Bret Wood kindly agreed to answer some questions about the set’s contents and give a a peek behind the scenes of its creation.
The films announced for the project so far include the famous (Within Our Gates) to the obscure (Eleven P.M.). Is the project intended to offer a typical cross-section of typical motion pictures created by independent African-American filmmakers or is it intended to showcase the wide variety of movies that they produced?
The series reflects what I try to do with all Kino Lorber’s archival releases: provide newly mastered versions of established classics, but also unearth the lesser-known films. I get a special kind of satisfaction from putting out a film that has not been previously available on video. The unfortunately reality is that not very many silent films aimed at African-American audiences exist today, so I was able to gather a wide variety of titles — from the well-known to the obscure — in a single collection.
Though I should point out that I am the sleuth that has been tracking down the films and negotiating access with the various film archives. Historians Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart are the curators, and they will decide the final lineup of the collection. To some degree the lineup of films is determined by the amount of funds raised. Some films require more digital restoration, some cost more for archival access. Once the Kickstarter campaign has ended, we’ll tally up the contributions, spread out the list of films (and estimated expenses) and then Charles and Jacqueline will make their selections. You can be fairly certain that anything I discuss in this interview will be included, but there are LOTS of other titles that I am not mentioning because they’re still tentative.
Silent and classic movie fans often wonder why some films are released and some remain in the vault. Could you give us insight into the selection process for films included in Pioneers of African-American Cinema?
The main reason why some classic films are not available on Blu-ray is that the copyrights are owned by the studios, or else the studios control access to the original film elements. The films in Pioneers of African-American Cinema are essentially “orphan films.” So no corporate entity has been governing the films. This means an independent company such as Kino Lorber has fewer legal hurdles to clear when pursuing the films. The downside to these being “orphan films” is that no one has protected the original film elements. Many films don’t survive and some of the films that do survive exist in fragmentary or battered condition. I have heard of some having screenings in their own home theatres that they recently had installed by Home Theatre Installers but this is risky business because they don’t own the films.
So far, we’ve been able to obtain almost every film we’ve pursued for this collection. However, there are a couple of high-profile restorations that are not available to us because the archive that preserved the film has other plans for distribution (a good example being the Museum of Modern Art’s recent preservation of Lime Kiln Field Day, which I would like to have included). But that’s fine, MoMA has been cooperating with us in other ways, so it’ll all be good in the end.
The project page describes these films as having a unique narrative and visual style quite different from major studio releases. Could you briefly describe a few of these differences?
The visual style of these films is defined mainly by the lack of resources available to the filmmakers. Instead of being shot on custom-designed sets, many films are shot on actual locations in homes, nightclubs, churches, in middle America. It provides a glimpse of African-American life that does not appear in any Hollywood film of the time. And visually speaking, the films do not have the benefit of elaborate lighting, so the interior scenes especially often have a shadowy, almost gritty feel. In a way, it’s like the films of Italian Neorealism. Those films cultivated their own distinctive visual style — not necessarily intentionally, but because they were shot with limited means in the wake of World War II. The same thing is happening here, a common visual style emerges from the context in which the films were made.
The lack of resources also required filmmakers to find ingenious means of overcoming their budgetary challenges. Richard Norman’s The Flying Ace is an aviation film in which the plane never leaves the ground (I suppose they didn’t have a camera rig for filming in flight). So the flight scenes are all achieved through clever effects. Likewise, Eleven P.M. has some ambitious effects scenes — such as one in which a dying man’s spirit takes possession of a dog. The director, Richard Maurice, didn’t have access to a special effects team or sophisticated optical printer, so the superimposition of a man’s head on a dog’s body is very raw. But that rawness is very much in keeping with the overall aesthetic of these films.
No one watching these films should expect technical perfection… or even proficiency. But the rough-hewn feel of the films… their authenticity… is what gives the films their impact.
The project page states that The Scar of Shame will include a scene missing from all other home media releases. How was this scene rediscovered?
We still have to get permission to use the footage (fingers crossed) but it is a wedding sequence that was discovered by film historian Pearl Bowser. When The Scar of Shame was initially released on VHS by the Library of Congress, it did not include this scene, since they mastered the film from their own 35mm elements. My understanding is that, since that time, Bowser has donated her more complete (16mm) print to the LOC, so we can combine the two for this new edition. Bowser has, for decades, been a champion of African-American cinema — from films made in the 1920 to the 1970s and beyond. It is an absolute fact that fewer films would have survived without her efforts. And not only has she saved films, she has done much to keep the films in circulation, and to share the story of how these films were made (including the 1994 documentary she co-directed for PBS: Midnight Ramble). She writes about the rediscovery of the footage in an essay in Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, a book co-edited by our curator Charles Musser.
A recent project update stated that a reassembled Hellbound Train was slated for inclusion in the set along with Verdict Not Guilty, both of which were co-directed by Eloyce Gist, the first African-American woman filmmaker. How would you describe Gist’s style and artistic vision?
I can’t say much about it, because I’ve only seen a few fragments. Steve Torriano Berry is now assembling the film from 35 separate rolls of 16mm film, in an attempt to reconstruct the Gists’ original vision. I can say that, visually, it has the look of a home movie, being shot in 16mm. But this “home movie” has some striking imagery, due mainly to the presence of a man dressed in a devil suit leading wayward souls to damnation
The religious component of these films is going to be fascinating to view. Some films, such as Hellbound Train and Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus, offer a traditional religious message of good triumphing over evil, complete with a literal depiction of a horned devil (and winged angels). While Oscar Micheaux takes a much more cynical view of organized religion and depicts pastors as deeply flawed individuals who have the power to betray the flock they have been charged to protect. This just underscores the fact that these films are not all alike, and have radically different perspectives about race and religion.
Besides Hellbound Train, The Scar of Shame and Within Our Gates, are there any other films in the set that were thought lost in part or in whole before being rediscovered?
We haven’t uncovered any holy grails of film preservation — but that’s mainly because these films have not been exposed to viewers enough to accrue the kind of reputation that viewers seek out the more obscure titles. We will present films that 99% of movie-lovers didn’t know existed… not because the films were presumed lost… but because there is such limited awareness of the films of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the Ebony Film Company or filmmakers such as Richard Norman or Richard D. Maurice.
Hopefully the release of Pioneers of African-America Cinema will whet people’s appetite for these films and help flush out more surviving examples.
Of all the pioneering artists whose work will be featured in the final set, which ones do you feel are most deserving of modern rediscovery?
I am particularly fond of Eleven P.M. because it is dramatically ambitious, and has moments of shoestring surrealism. The sound films of Oscar Micheaux have generally (and unfairly) been dismissed as lacking in substance, so I am looking forward to those films being given their due.
The entire lineup has silent film fans champing at the bit but is there a film that you are particularly excited about releasing to the viewing public?
I’m most looking forward to James and Eloyce Gist’s Verdict Not Guilty. Not for the benefit of the viewing public but to satisfy my own curiosity. I know almost nothing about it. I know nothing about the condition in which it exists. But I love fringe filmmakers from all decades of film history, and based on the few glimpses I’ve seen of Hellbound Train, I am sure I won’t be disappointed by this.
In addition to donating at the Kickstarter page, what else can film fans do to support your effort to get this set released?
If they’re on social media, they can repost our Kickstarter video, or tweet a link to the fund-raising page. At this point, we’re more than halfway there, so I’m confident we’ll reach our $35,000 goal. But it’s important to know this — the further beyond the goal we reach, the more ambitious the collection will be. The finished collection is slated to be comprised of four discs (Bluray and DVD editions) and will contain at least eight feature films. Hopefully even more.
Thank you so much for sharing your time.
It was my pleasure. Thanks for letting me spread the word about the project… and thank you for continuing to generate interest in early cinema.
So, please consider stopping by that Kickstarter page and donating to this important collection. Let’s give ourselves the pleasure of rediscovering a hidden industry.
Welcome back, dear readers! We had a lot of fun with the Beginner edition of this quiz so let’s dial things up a notch and go intermediate.
How it works:
Answer twenty questions and hit the “submit” button on the bottom of the quiz. Be careful when scrolling as the answer buttons are “radio” and will flip to a different answer if you have them selected when you scroll. (Many apologies for this, it was the only option on PollDaddy.) Also, double check to make sure the selection stuck. Darn those radio buttons! All questions are mandatory but the quiz will tell you if you missed one and mark the one you missed with a big blue box. As this is intermediate, there will be no “I don’t know” options.
Your score will appear at the top of the answer score card, right above the answer for Question 1. Below it will be the rest of the correct answers
Click the button below to display the quiz. If it doesn’t display, make sure to turn off your popup blocker.
Take Our Quiz!
0-30% – Uh oh!
31-40% – It’s a start.
41-50% – Respectable.
51-60% – Not bad at all!
61-70% – Very good.
71-80% – More than good! Great, even!
81-90% – Nerd alert!
91-100% – You really are a specific dream rabbit.
Welcome to a fun little quiz I whipped together. I hope to release an intermediate, advanced and maybe even a murderous level at some point. In the meantime, enjoy!
How it works:
Answer twenty questions and hit the “submit” button on the bottom of the quiz. Be careful when scrolling as the answer buttons are “radio” and will flip to a different answer if you have them selected when you scroll. (Many apologies for this, it was the only option on PollDaddy.) Also, double check to make sure the selection stuck. Darn those radio buttons! All questions are mandatory (there are “I don’t know” options for all of them) but the quiz will tell you if you missed one and mark the one you missed with a big blue box.
(If the quiz is not displaying properly on the page for you, try clicking this black button, which will open the quiz in a lightbox.)
Take Our Quiz!
Your score will appear at the top of the answer score card, right above the answer for Question 1. Below it will be the rest of the correct answers.
Enjoy and please forgive the primitive methods.
Phew! All done. How did you do?
0-20% – You know about as much about the silents as the producers of The Buster Keaton Story. That’s okay, though! Here are some tips for getting started.
21-30% – You have a few of the facts down but could use a bit more familiarity with the era.
31-40% – It’s a start but you still have a lot to learn.
41-50% – You have the makings of a silent movie nerd hidden within.
51-60% – Not bad at all! A silent movie diamond nerd in the rough. Wait, that makes no sense…
61-70% – Very good. A few more silent films and you will be ready for the big time. (Whatever the “big time” entails in silent movie nerdom.)
71-80% – More than good! Great, even! You have silent knowledge that impresses.
81-90% – Beginner? You’re no beginner! Nerd alert!
91-100% – You really are a specific dream rabbit.
Vanity Fair is one of the most enduring classics of English literature. It’s been a century and a half since it was published and readers have still not tired of the adventures of Becky Sharp.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from one of the biggest players in early features of the wild west.
I did a year end recap in 2013 and I will be doing another one this year but I wanted to add a little something fun. One of my favorite aspects of the year in retrospect is considering the “new to me” films that I discovered. This is where you come in.
I thought it would be enjoyable to include a list of classic films that my readers saw for the first time in 2014. Winter is upon us and I am hoping to compile the best possible to-watch list for those snowy nights ahead. (Yes, it does snow in California.) So, I’m crowd-sourcing the list! Leave me a comment and let me know your favorite pre-1970 discovery this year.
Your discovery doesn’t have to technically be the best, it just has to be the film that you enjoyed the most. So-bad-it’s-good is perfectly acceptable as long as you had a good time. Your choice can be famous or obscure. Again, your enjoyment is the only criteria.
Thanks in advance! I look forward to your wonderful recommendations.
My favorite silent discoveries in 2014
(Click on any title to read my review of the film)
The movie may as well have been made to order, it’s a veritable laundry list of Stuff Fritzi Likes. Russian cast? One that includes Ivan Mosjoukine? Filmed with an entire army (like, literally an army, as in military men) of extras? Elaborate plot? Intrigue? Stencil color? Bliss!
What was in the water back in 1926? So many great movies! This understated drama features some of the best acting of the silent era. It’s about a marriage of convenience in the grain fields of Canada. If you think silent films were all about melodrama, prepare for a shock.
I went in with zero expectations and was utterly charmed by this sweet little film. It’s an old English romance (as directed by a Frenchman in America) with plenty of humor. It is also the single most beautiful movie from the ‘teens that I have ever had the pleasure to experience.
This action-comedy is light as a feather but I have rarely had this much fun at the movies. Harry Carey is a put-upon western sheriff who quickly discovers that no good deed goes unpunished. The intertitles are a riot!
Weird, wild, wonderful. Ivan Mosjoukine makes the list again (as well he should!) with a crazy detective story that he wrote, directed and starred in. At turns surreal, hilarious and bizarre, I can guarantee you have never seen anything like it. I certainly hadn’t.
I’ve never made any secret of the fact that musicals are… well, let’s just say that we don’t get on as well as one might expect. Point of fact, given the choice between having to watch a musical and having to sit through an Adam Sandler movie… I would take the musical but it would be close!
Welcome to the fourth and final article on my series on silent movie research. Part one dealt with fibbing film stars, part two discussed the responsibilities of film historians, part three covered the problems caused by bloggers and the wiki culture. This time, we are going to be discussing something of a sticky topic: Using research or testimony that you know is questionable.
Why would anyone do that? Well, silent movies are not exactly a happening thing. With more obscure stars and films, imperfect sources may be all we have. It’s a question of using a fishy source gingerly or having no source at all. There is a time and a place for either option.
Step one: Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge
If you have any reason to doubt the veracity of your source, state this in your writing. Has your source made unfounded claims? Have they been caught in lies? You owe it to your readers to acknowledge this and state why you believe the source this time.
So far so good. But what about specific instances?
Wonderful, horrible fan magazines
Fan magazines were a mixture of gossip, fantasy, studio stunts and a few grains of truth. Sometimes you can learn a lot from what they don’t say. For example, if a star was on every page one month and then gone the next, there is a good chance that they were embroiled in scandal or dropped from their studio contract. The time of the drop gives you a clue for tracking down further information.
Fan magazine writers could be petty, sexist, racist and generally unpleasant and cruel. If you run into a really mean quote, you may do well to track down information on the writer. (Adela Rogers St. John has made my blacklist with her petty swipes.)
And fan magazines were not above holding grudges. For example, Photoplay reportedly took an intense dislike to Lillian Gish in the twenties because she politely refused to have her likeness engraved on Photoplay commemorative spoons. Yes, really. I imagine she reacted to the suggestion somewhat like this:
From that point on, Gish was labeled snobby, frumpy, sexless and her performances were ignored or played down. While there is no smoking gun (for example, a “get Gish” telegram) in the case, it definitely has the ring of truth to me.
Charles Affron recounts the episode in his biography Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. The book has lots of interesting details and mythbusting but the author seems to have taken a dislike to his subject. In this case, though, Affron is sympathetic to Miss Gish. Who wouldn’t be? “Take part in our tacky spoon peddling– or else.”
Unfortunately, for more obscure stars, the fan magazines are pretty much all we have. Just assume that they are least 75% baloney. When quoting a fan magazine for a more controversial claim that is not backed by any other source, it is probably best to briefly acknowledge the credibility issues.
Slips of the tongue
When dealing with a recorded interview, slips of the tongue are inevitable. With written reviews, memories can be hazy and there may be a few mix-ups. For example, you may wish to quote an actor who verbally mixes up Constance and Norma Talmadge. Everything else he says seems to check out, there was just that one slip of the tongue.
So, the original quote looks like this:
“It was such a pleasure working with Constance Talmadge. You really should see her in Kiki.”
There is a right way and a wrong way to handle it.
The wrong way:
“I was such a pleasure working with Norma Talmadge. You should really see her in Kiki.”
What’s wrong? Well, in this case, we corrected the original speaker’s quote but we did not tell the reader that we were doing so. This is highly misleading (even if well-intended) and is irresponsible writing. Whoopsy!
The right way:
“It was such a pleasure working with Constance Talmadge. You really should see her in Kiki.”
Note: It seems clear from context that Thomas Actor was referring to Norma Talmadge, Constance’s sister.
If you need to use the quote, do not correct it or change it in any way. You may add clarifying notes but anything more would not be the ticket. The same goes for paraphrasing.
If you only have one quote on the topic and there is an obvious slip of the tongue, you need to acknowledge it. It’s only fair. After all, not everyone may agree that it is a slip of the tongue. And, obviously, deciding whether or not something is a slip of the tongue is a judgement call on the part of the writer.
Judgment calls and lifting your fingers
In fact, writing about history of any kind is a series of judgement calls. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of looking at the big picture. Many movie myths can be debunked by something as simple as looking a movie release dates to see if they match the testimony given. It also helps to read history books about the era that are not related to film. Many times, myths and errors get repeated and accepted as fact because no one has ever bothered to lift a finger and do even a minimum amount of research.
For example, there is a common myth that Russian leading man Ivan Mosjoukine was invited to Hollywood as a Valentino replacement after the famous leading man’s sudden death. The story goes that studio heads saw an opportunity to inherit Valentino’s box office appeal and scoured far and wide for a new sheik. Supposedly, the search led Carl Laemmle to Mosjoukine’s work in France, which led to an invitation to Universal.
All it took to debunk the myth was a few hours of digging through back issues of trade journals to discover this was not the case at all.
This is dated August 14, 1926. Valentino died unexpectedly on August 23. Case rested.
(You can read the full, crazy account of my Mosjoukine mission in my review for Surrender, his lone Hollywood appearance.)
So, look for context. Many times, the answer that you need is just beneath the surface. Be the one who lifts a finger and corrects the historical record.
Well, that book is riddled with errors. Let’s use it as a source.
Here is a pop quiz for all you junior film historians. Let’s say you run into a book with juicy claims about a famous person. But, oh dear, it seems that it has some basic factual errors. Dates are wrong. Names are wrong. People are said to be places where they couldn’t possibly be (and photographs prove it). But the claims are so… juicy!
What do you do?
a) Use the claims as-is. No one will notice!
b) Quietly correct the factual errors but use the claims in your juicy article.
c) Do further research before using the juicy claims. If you do use the source, mention its credibility issues.
Obviously, C is the best choice but you would be amazed at how many folks take the A and B path. Obviously, I have a few issues with this.
For example, in researching my epic (she said modestly) debunking of the perfectly silly “Woodrow Wilson murdered Florence La Badie” myth, I read as much as I could find. For those of you who missed the drama, the claims are found in exactly one book: Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood by Charles Foster. The book gets birthdates wrong, misnames La Badie’s mother, quotes people who could not possibly have witnessed the events in question, gives only vague dates for newspaper articles (none of which seem to exist) and generally raises red flags all over the place.
The problem was that many of writers who repeated the affair/murder narrative chose option B. That is, they took the errors in the original source and corrected them (birthdates, names, etc.), did not mention that they had made corrections and unquestioningly recited everything else. Oh dear.
You see the problem? I hope so. It gives false credibility to the original source but does not question its allegations, which are pretty fishy. In short, it makes the “scandal” look a lot more believable than it really is. I dare say that many of these people meant well but the result is playing havoc with the historical record and causing confusion where there should be none.
That’s not a nice thing to do.
Again, I am not a huge fan of bashing fellow film bloggers but these murder claims are smearing a lot of very good people and they must surely cause distress to the descendants of the wrongly accused. Please think before you type! These people have families. How would you like to have your grandparents written about in this way?
(Mercifully, the rumor has not spread too far yet and Wikipedia is, as of the writing, actively deleting mentions of this nonsense from their Florence La Badie page.)
Look at yourself
Here come the questions that only you can answer. Why are you doing this? Why do you want to write about this star, this director, this film? You don’t need a complicated reason. Maybe you just like them. But please be aware that liking a person’s work can color what information you choose to include or exclude.
(I think every single one of us has been guilty of this.)
Taking a balanced approach is difficult but worth your time and effort. Does this mean you can’t have opinions? Of course not! It just means that responsible writers acknowledge their likes and dislikes and realize how it can color their writing.
For example, the more I learn about D.W. Griffith and watch his films, the more I grow to detest the man and his feature work. Some silent film fans feel he is unfairly maligned and want to restore his reputation. I respectfully disagree. I want to tie cinder blocks to his reputation and toss it into the Mariana Trench. What does this mean? Well, it means that his fans are more likely to believe positive accounts of Griffith and I am more likely to believe negative accounts. Again, nothing wrong with having an opinion. Just know that it will make a difference with your baloney detectors.
Silent movie fans are a small but dedicated group. Because there are so few of us, it means that those who choose to write about the topic have an enormous responsibility. Yours may be the only voice discussing a particular star or film. Please, for the sake of the historical record, do your very best to get it right.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from a versatile leading man.
Think silent leading men were all sheiks, comedians and male flappers? Richard Dix probably is not what you had in mind. With his craggy features and intense stare, he specialized in rugged adventures and dramas. Dix also made the jump to sound, starring in The Whistler movie series.
Dix’s silent work was diverse. He played one of the men vying for Eleanor Boardman’s love in Souls for Sale, the good son in the original version of The Ten Commandments and a Navajo man battling racism in the provocatively titled Redskin. As mentioned before, sound and Richard Dix got along just fine. He earned his only Oscar nod for the 1930 western, Cimmaron.
(You can read a lot more about Dix’s diverse career over at Immortal Ephemera, which has one of the largest selections of Dix movie reviews on the web.)
So, we know that Mr. Dix could act but could he cook?
Like most of the male stars featured in the cookbook, Mr. Dix chose to stay in the meat category. His recipe is for Toad in the Hole, the English version. (Some parts of America use this name for the dish Eggs in the Basket but the recipes have nothing in common.)
Here is the original recipe:
This is where I noticed something odd. Toad in the Hole is generally reckoned to be a sausage dish but here were are with one of the leanest cuts of beef. Further, sausages would add their herbs and spices to the flavor of the dish but this recipe calls for nothing stronger than salt and pepper.
Oh well. Here goes nothing.
As you can see, this is a very plain dish. Classic Toad in the Hole is served with gravy but this is just plopped onto a plate, per recipe instructions.
So, how was it?
Here is my taste test video:
My rating: 3 out of 5. It’s basically just the sum of its parts, no more and no less. The biggest sin of the recipe is attempting to cut down on the fat. However, in a dish with limited ingredients, every single one counts and the biggest contributor of flavor in a meat dish is the fat. If Dix had opted for a fattier cut of meat or the traditional sausages, the recipe would have been far more successful. Photoplay’s twee proclamation of “yum, yum” seems a bit overstated.
That being said, if you cook meat, butter and batter in the oven, you are never going to end up with something inedible. That’s just how food works. So even though this recipe is as bland as they come, it is still not terrible and, anyway, isn’t this what the salt shaker was invented for?
Can it be improved: Yes. Either using a fattier beef cut or the traditional sausages would improve matters greatly. More spice and an onion gravy would take this into the realm of true comfort food. A vegetarian option could easily be obtained by substituting mushrooms for the beef and bumping up the fat content (either with butter or olive oil) to compensate. Alternately, soy sausage could be used but be sure to really oil the pan. Those little suckers are sticky!
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from one of the major stars of the silent era and one half of the “other” acting sisters duo.
Constance Talmadge’s career is usually summed up as follows: While her sister, Norma, focused on dramas, Constance Talmadge was known for her light comedies. Of course, this doesn’t take into account that Norma did dabble in comedy and Constance’s most famous role, the Mountain Girl in Intolerance, was tragic in the extreme.
Constance specialized in romantic comedies, some of them co-starring a guy named Ronald Colman. Of all the major silent stars, the Talmadge’s are among the most forgotten. It is ironic that Natalie, the least famous sister in the silent era, is now the most viewed and discussed of the three due to her marriage to Buster Keaton and her starring role in one of his films.
Constance could do comedy but could she do dessert? That’s what we are going to find out.
The curiously-named Grape Nut Pudding is just that. You make a pudding out of Grape Nuts cereal. If you are unfamiliar with it, it is basically hard little beads of whole wheat. It contains neither grapes nor nuts. It’s one of the oldest cold cereals on the market. I like whole grain cereals but this one looks and tastes like a building material.
The recipe calls for you to soak the cereal in boiling water for quite a stretch. Either I mis-measured or too much water is called for because the resulting mush seemed entirely to wet. In any case, it took almost four times the allotted baking time. The edges crisped but the center remained raw and un-pudding-like. I kept stirring the cooked portion back in. Finally, it started to resemble a moist bread pudding.
Here it is plain. Didn’t look too promising but smelled good.
And here it is with the whipped cream. A big improvement. Whipped cream makes most desserts better.
And here is the taste test video:
(Excuse any quality issues. It was late and I was tired.)
My rating: 3 out of 5. The pudding tasted like bread pudding made from very wheaty bread. In fact, it tasted so much like bread pudding that I failed to see the point in making it. Why take the extra step of soaking the cereal when I can just slice up a loaf and make a pudding that is just as good? Photoplay describes that as a “pantry” recipe, that is, a recipe you can make with ingredients found in any kitchen. Well, as I do not much care for Grape Nuts, I think I am not the intended audience for this.
If you love both bread pudding and Grape Nuts, I can see giving this a try. It’s tasty enough and the classic pudding spices are excellent. It just seemed like it was a lot more work than it should have been.
Make this instead: Your favorite bread pudding recipe.
Welcome. We are about to descend into the realm of scandal-mongering, myths, gossip, innuendo, with a side helping of just plain mean. It doesn’t get worse than this. We are dealing with a rumor that sullies three reputations: Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous and influential American presidents of the twentieth century; motion picture pioneer Edwin Thanhouser; and Florence La Badie, a popular film star who died at the height of her fame.
Welcome to part three of my series on silent movie research. Previously, we discussed movies stars and film historians. This time, we will be discussing bloggers and user-edited sites like IMDB and Wikipedia.
Yep, we’re part of the problem.
See, the great advantage of the internet is that anyone can start up a blog. The great disadvantage is that anyone can start up a blog. Add to that the well-known content and reliability issues with Wikipedia and the not-so-well-known reliability issues with IMDB and we have a mess of misinformation about silent and classic Hollywood. (IMDB is mostly comprised of user-generated content, just like Wikipedia. Really, truly.)
IMDB: Not so good if you’re dead
You see, if we read interviews or history books with an uncritical eye and then use dubious knowledge to add to sites like IMDB and Wikipedia, we can do enormous damage. Even worse is when someone jumps to a crazy conclusion and then spreads it all over the internet.
IMDB has been responsible for quite a few of these messes. Basically, they really only seem to vet birth and death dates (I had to produce a sworn affidavit from Elliott Dexter’s aunt before they corrected his date of birth. They had been off by nine years.)
See, living actors usually keep an eye on their IMDB profile (or should) and so there is a much lower chance of weird or nasty stuff gaining traction. Dead performers, especially obscure ones, are much more vulnerable to bad information being added. Please note that this information is not always malicious. Sometimes, people I assume to be overzealous descendants take it upon themselves to gild their grandma or grandpa’s IMDB profile. However, well intended or not, this still is spreading false information.
Would you like a cautionary tale? Let’s use the example of Jetta Goudal. A fiery and difficult performer, the pronunciation of her name has stymied some and so a helpful pronunciation key was introduced: ZHETT-ə. It means that the ZH is pronounced like the s in treasure and the last vowel is pronounced as an E as in red. Just say the car name with a softer J sound and you’re good. (This is per the Library of Congress, which is a pretty darn good source. They even provide a pronunciation key in plain English.)
I know, I know, you knew that already. Well, someone clearly did not. They apparently saw the ZH and, realizing that the letter combination is unusual, decided that it had two syllables. Someone then changed Miss Goudal’s IMDB profile to say that her name is pronounced ZAH-HETTA. Before you could say “d’oh!” the pronunciation spread across the interwebs. ZAH-HETTA? For zah-heaven’s sake!
(I changed the IMDB profile back, don’t worry.)
So, be extremely cautious of claims that are not backed up, especially if they seem shady. (Name a single language that pronounces the letter “J” as ZAH-HE with two syllables and I will eat my hat. The one with the giant bow on it.)
Check the sources and then check the sources of the sources
Sometimes, people cite sources that are unreliable or that do not actually back them up. If meant maliciously, they are fairly safe in doing this because not many people bother tracking them down. If meant innocently, it causes the same amount of damage. For more outrageous claims, fact checking is essential.
For example, I have run across some truly strange conspiracy theories claiming that Woodrow Wilson murdered Florence La Badie by having the brakes of her car tampered with. Wikipedia has edited La Badie’s page to remove all mention of the Wilson affair but it still cites Stardust and Shadows by Charles Foster, which is the primary source of this theory. This book does not have a bibliography, list of citations or other basic elements one would expect in a work of film history.
Basically, the accusations of murder are based on the facts (or “facts”). Fact! La Badie was said to be recovering but then died from her injuries. This is hardly surprising. Politicians and celebrities often refuse to disclose their health status and downplay serious injuries or illnesses. Plus, this was the pre-antibiotic era. Secondary infections were more to be feared than the initial injury. Fact! Mary Pickford did not wish to speak of the death of her friend. Again, no shock there. Fact! La Badie’s car was missing from the garage. But how do we know it was missing? Her family never reported the loss. Or perhaps the garage workers sold it for scrap. In any case, no sources are provided.
Much is made of the “mystery man” who was riding with La Badie and who was thrown (or jumped) from the car when the accident occurred. But I always understood that the man’s identity was no mystery. He was her fiancé, Daniel Carson Goodman. Keep in mind, the car almost certainly had no seatbelts. It would have been surprising if Goodman hadn’t been thrown. La Badie certainly was.
The smoking gun of the tale, though, is the testimony of James Baird, a reporter who was seventeen at the time of the accident but who only shared his recollections at the age of ninety-three. He claimed to see the cut brake lines but that his story was spiked.
That’s the evidence? A teenager (who was not an auto mechanic) thought he saw tampering on a vehicle? Who was annoyed that his big story was killed and then went on a research campaign to prove La Badie had Wilson’s secret love child? A campaign, by his reckoning, that lasted over a decade. Because he heard it from La Badie’s maid that she had a baby? After pestering her for weeks and weeks?
Just to remind everyone, we now have three levels of hearsay. Foster quoting Baird quoting an unnamed maid. The baby’s birth supposedly occurred in September of 1915 but, what’s this, here is a very unpregnant La Badie in a film released in late June of that year. Again, I must emphasize that no footnotes or endnotes are provided. That’s pretty gutsy if someone is implying that a nation’s president put out a hit on an actress. Constance Talmadge, for one, is horrified:
(I must also note that this theory is not so much as mentioned in the Wilson biographies that I have looked at. Wilson is, along with both Roosevelts, one of the most recognized, controversial and influential presidents of the first half of the twentieth century. Evidence of murder would be kind of a big deal.)
Until someone can come up with better sourcing than Stardust and Shadows, I am calling baloney on the whole thing. Especially since Foster also manages to get La Badie’s birth date wrong. Nope, nope. Not having it.
Update: I found this absolutely smashing takedown of Foster’s theory. Give it a read. Lots of details. It clarified a lot of details and I have amended the article to reflect these changes. Also, in light of the fact that this theory has gained some currency online (though, thankfully, not on IMDB or Wikipedia) I am working on an epic post aimed at ruthlessly debunking this nonsense.
For pity’s sake, open a book once in a while. Open two!
There are entirely too many blogs that write actor bios in the following manner: Read the Wikipedia entry! Read the IMDB entry! Google search for images! Write the bio! Done! Or, worse, the blogger relies on just one written source. It is a rare book that tells the whole story on anything.
Obviously, we all make mistakes and there are times when we all have failed to trace a source or relied on dubious material. I have certainly been guilty before and I shall doubtless be guilty again. However, there is a big difference between an occasional mistake (which we all commit) and irredeemably sloppy research practices. If a blog makes a clear habit of intellectual shoddiness, you would be better off getting your information elsewhere.
And don’t believe picture captions either.
We have had Hobart Bosworth mistaken for Paul Leni (for a while on Google’s bio capsule!)
Update: It seems that the confusion started because this photo is from The Chinese Parrot, which was directed by Paul Leni and featured Bosworth. Please people, read the whole caption! Bosworth is no more Paul Leni than Anna May Wong is.
We have had Bebe Daniels labeled as Mary Pickford. (Mary has sure grown! Those vitamins are doing wonders)
And here is another picture, purported to be Mary on her wedding day, which was listed as such by Getty Images. (They have since corrected the caption.) The photo was used in a Buzzfeed article on vintage weddings. Hoo boy. If you know who this actress is, please let me know.
Not even going to bother.
Then there are the bloggers who just do not care. For example, I ran across a gem in which the author admits that they did not actually watch the film that closely. (For the sake of argument, let’s pretend it was Pandora’s Box. It was not Pandora’s Box. Circumstances have been changed to protect the woefully ignorant.) In fact, they put on the film and did other things as it played. Not having actually seen the film, however, did not stop them from having an opinion and that opinion is not positive and it was so boring and Louise Brooks has no personality and who, like, watches silent movies anyway. Ah. Okay. Got it.
Then, they complained about silent movies being silent. Yes, they were watching a mute bootleg copy of Pandora’s Box.
Hint for people who want to write about silent films for the first time: you might want to see an actual video release and not a pirated copy posted to the internet. Seeing a silent movie of shady pedigree and complaining about the lack of music just reveals that you have no idea what you are talking about. It would be like me watching a, shaky, faded bootleg copy of, say, The Dark Knight that was dubbed in a foreign language and declaring it is a terrible movie because I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.
But let us move on to more pressing matters.
Lost or not?
We have unintentional misinformation and intellectual slovenliness. But what about the other kind? Intentional spread of misinformation. That happens? I’m afraid so.
There have been infamous cases of IMDB reviewers apparently pretending to have seen lost films and writing “reviews” of them. It has caused no end of headache, believe you me.
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, as he called himself, is probably the most famous of these lost film reviewers. A science fiction author and movie lover, MacIntyre killed himself by setting fire to his New York apartment in 2010.
At the time of his death, MacIntyre had already earned a reputation within the silent film community for reviewing lost films on IMDB and then coyly refusing to state specifics as to who held the prints. In the aftermath of his suicide, there was something of an edit war on Wikipedia, with the pro-MacIntyre forces claiming there was “no evidence” that his IMDB reviews were spurious. The fight was on.
I usually prefer to deal with abstract arguments rather than calling out authors and bloggers by name, especially when they are not alive to defend themselves. In this case, though, it is unavoidable. I have been dealing with the fallout of his reviews for quite some time and I know I am not alone. Readers keep asking for details on lost films that he claimed were not lost at all. While I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, I do feel that the record must be fixed.
I treat MacIntyre’s reviews with skepticism. I base this on my own experience viewing films that were released on DVD well after he reviewed them, in most cases after his death. MacIntyre has over 1,000 reviews posted on IMDB and not all are for lost films. Some are for newer movies, while others concern silent films that were known to survive but had not received home media release. This latter type is what I will be discussing. For the purpose of brevity, I will limit myself to two of them.
MacIntyre reviewed Reginald Denny’s 1925 vehicle Oh Doctor! but mangled the plot badly. He claimed that Denny’s character had made a deal with corrupt money lenders who then try to arrange for his death, in spite of being promised a generous payout if he lives out the year. MacIntyre is quick to jump on this plot hole. Actually, the central story relies on one joke: Denny becomes a daredevil and the money lenders are terrified he will die as he means to sign his future inheritance over to them. At no point do they try to kill him or get him to kill himself. Quite the opposite. This is the key to the film’s plot and I highly doubt that anyone who had really seen the picture would fail to remember this important fact. (It was released on DVD in 2011.)
Second, MacIntyre reviewed Edward S. Sloman’s melodrama, Surrender. This one is even more glaring as our reviewer claims that the heroine is strangled by her father in the end. While that was the climax of the stage play upon which the film was based, the movie was given a Hollywood happy ending and an egregious one at that. MacIntyre remembers details like how Mary Philbin’s irises looked in close-up and exactly what brand of romance novel the intertitles resembled. He also is rather specific on how frail the father looked to be strangling his daughter. So many details but he forgot that no strangulation actually took place? Hmm. Also odd is his focus on Mary Philbin but no mention of leading man Ivan Mosjoukine, who is featured prominently in every other legitimate review of the film. (It was released on DVD in 2012.)
Case rested. No more Miss Nice Blogger.
After examining the evidence for this pair of films, as well as several others, I feel it is highly probable that MacIntyre’s reviews were written by someone who had never seen the films in question but had cobbled together the reviews from contemporary accounts and advertisements. There are just too many unexplainable mistakes even for films viewed years before. Of course, it is impossible to prove a negative. My opinion is based on my personal viewing experiences.
Again, I would not get worked up about MacIntyre’s hobby if it did not cause so much damage. Newcomers to silent film are invariably confused when they see detailed reviews of films purported to be lost. Authors and researchers may repeat his errors. It has caused something of a headache for the rest of us.
So, basically, trust no one?
In conclusion, it is important to apply the same fact-finding questions to blogs that you do to history books and interview subjects. The most important questions to ask:
Does the blog’s author have an agenda? What is it? (Not all agendas are bad. If a blog’s agenda is to increase awareness of, say, Chinese cinema of the 1930s, I would call that a worthy cause.)
How does the blog’s author describe stars and directors? Does their choice of words give away a bias that may render their research unusable? (It’s okay to have an opinion, that’s the point of a blog, that’s what makes for good reading. However, if an author seems to be obsessed with proving that Mary Astor was a KGB spy and starts every review with “Mary Astor, noted KGB spy…” that is a red flag.)
How do they discuss authors whose work they disagree with? Do they explain their objections? Do they seem to enjoy creating drama or starting fights? Does the author claim to have information that “they” don’t want you to know about? (“They” being the all-powerful cabal of movie critics and film historians. Gotta watch out for them.)
Do they rely heavily on debunked claims or user-edited online content? Contrariwise, do they aim to debunk popular wisdom about the silent era but do not offer their sources? Is their evidence weak or based on wishful thinking? Do they present their theories as fact?
Using unsourced blogs, Wikipedia or IMDB as your research library is a recipe for disaster. Please, please, please, research before you hit the publish button.
In conclusion, you as a blogger have a decision to make. You can be a historian or you can be a Yenta. If you choose to be a Yenta, don’t whine if you are treated like one.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from a relatively minor silent star who nevertheless enjoyed excellent company in her filmography.
Pauline Starke’s movie career started when she was just a teen. Supposedly, she was one of the many, many dance extras in Intolerance. (I always take those claims with a grain of salt. For a while, everyone in Hollywood claimed to have been discovered by D.W. Griffith.) Starke is probably best remembered for two films that bookended her silent career. She had a supporting role in Eyes of Youth, a 1919 Clara Kimball Young vehicle that also featured Milton Sills. It was one of the few times he would play an unrepentant jerk. Of course, Starke, Sills and Young were all overshadowed by a certain young Italian actor, who stole the show as a smooth gigolo.
The other famous Starke title is the 1928 MGM color film, The Viking. It was about vikings.
Starke carried on in sound films in progressively smaller roles (a familiar story for mid-level silent performers) and made her last screen appearance in 1943.
For her recipe, Miss Starke chose to go for a breakfast/brunch/luncheon dish. The name is not promising, you must agree.
I followed the recipe exactly with one exception: I substituted a yellow bell pepper for a green one. I prefer yellow, orange or red to the green, especially in cooking. For toast, I used some whole grain honey wheat bread. This had less to do with taste and more to do with the fact that I forgot to buy sourdough or potato bread, either of which would have probably worked better. (White breads generally work better as the toast for this sort of recipe, at least in my experience.)
The recipe was extremely easy and fast. The pepper, catsup and cheese did not look very pretty but they smelled promising as they cooked. Once added, the eggs scrambled up nicely and had a fluffy texture. Onto the toast they went. Here is the result:
And here is the taste test video:
My rating: 3 out of 5. While it’s not exactly gourmet dining (despite what the recipe description may say) Miss Starke’s recipe is fast, tasty and filling. It’s a nice little lacto-ovo vegetarian breakfast dish (a meal that tends to be quite meat-centric if you don’t count pancakes) and is a great way to use leftover bits of vegetable. I could definitely see myself making this again.
Variations: The addition of some finely chopped onions would add a bit of zing, as would some jalapenos, if you like that sort of thing. If you have hardcore carnivores about, some shredded ham or diced bacon would probably be a welcome addition. I would suggest draining any fatty meats before adding them in.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from someone who is considered to be one of the symbols of silent film.
Gloria Swanson started in comedy, jumped to drama and was one of the top stars in the world throughout the silent era. Her career took a dip when she accepted career advice from her lover, Joseph Kennedy, compounded by the fact that the extravagant dramas that she was associated with were no longer stylish. She had an excellent voice, both for singing and speaking, but did not enjoy the same level of success in talking pictures. That is, until she was cast by a certain Mr. Wilder…
Swanson was a star and she knew it. She embodied the glamor of the silent era and always knew how to rock an ensemble. She also wrote a memoir that is pretty much the gold standard of silent actor tell-all autobiographies. (Swanson on Swanson should be part of a welcome package for new silent movie fans.) While her Sunset Boulevard role made her an icon to a new generation, never forget that she was amazing in her prime.
Later in life, Swanson became an advocate for all things health-foody, macrobiotic, raw and sugar-free. So, it is not without a bit of irony that I present her recipe for the cookbook, a faux fudge that is pretty much all sugar.
A pretty simple recipe, as candy recipes go. Perhaps a little too simple? See, candy is wonderful but I like my sweets to have a bit more complexity, especially if they are home-made. Just sugar and cream? In theory it should work but would it be good enough to warrant an entire pan-full of the stuff?
I’m not going to lie, candy making is not my favorite kitchen activity. There is so much stirring and testing and beating. I keep thinking that I could have whipped up a batch of cookies or a cake in half the time. However, Gloria Swanson beckoned so I gave it a try.
I think it’s a mistake to call this a fudge. It hardens up quite crispy (notice that the recipe says to “break” the candy, not slice it) and is really heading into butterscotch territory. I think my version ended up a little grainy but I blame myself and not the recipe. However, the texture was not unpleasant. It may have been better if I had added the optional pecans.
The stuff took forever to firm up. I just ended up storing it in the cold oven and going to bed. The recipe was not kidding about the buttered dish thing, by the way. I greased a 9×13 baking dish with a few tablespoons and the fudge still stuck.
Here is the result:
And here is the taste test video:
My rating: 2 out of 5. This stuff is the very essence of sickeningly sweet. Basically, the first bite is okay and then when you take the second one, you start to feel more than a little lightheaded. By the time you take a third bite, you are fairly certain that diabetes is imminent. If you manage to take a fourth bite, you will probably be sick.
I can see it being better in tiny portions but the recipe produces an incredible amount of candy. It more than filled my 9×13 dish and likely could have slopped over into a smaller dish as well.
All I can say is that if Gloria Swanson was really eating like this, she needed to go on a sugar-free diet. One session with this fudge and you will get your sugar intake for the month.
Can it be improved? Not really. Not without turning it into a whole other candy.
Eat this instead: 4 Ingredient Peanut Butter Fudge. No cooking required, this is a truly fast faux fudge.
Welcome to part two of my series on silent movie research and the various pitfalls. Last time, we took a look at the movie stars. This time we are going to be talking about professionals who really should know better: film historians and professional biographers. People who get paid to get things right.
It’s one thing for the stars and directors to play fast and loose with the facts. When film historians blindly believe them, though, we are really in a pickle. You see, building theories around questionable narratives is a recipe for disaster. And some historians get me so riled up that… well, I am tempted to make use of my ukulele.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
First of all, here are just a few of the more common types of silent film books:
Conversations: Usually a collection of interviews with the subject. While some may have introductory remarks about their subjects, many do not. These are just raw reminisces. May or may not be edited for content, grammar or other concerns.
Biographies: Just that.
Biographical Collections: Sometimes, very little information is available about a silent film personality. Or, perhaps, they are not big enough stars to carry an entire book. Biographical collections contain mini-bios on numerous stars. Quite valuable.
Filmographies: My personal favorite! These books focus on the films of their subject and everything is filtered through that lens.
Histories: Less about people, more about events.
Pictorials: Light on words, heavy on pictures.
Get a life: Books that promise scandal and sizzling details. I hate these things with a passion because, given the choice between the truth and a juicy lie, these sort of books take the lie every single time. Silent fans are still doing damage control for Hollywood Babylon.
Obviously, the last type is unworthy of our notice. We will be focusing on respectable books, which can actually be more dangerous to the historical narrative.
So, you have a silent movie book and you want to know if it is a keeper.
Here are some important questions to ask as you read:
Does the author appear to hate their subject? Does the author appear to be blinded by love for their subject? (Either case makes for a slanted book.)
Does the author present new details but neglects to share their sources for these details? Were they granted or denied access to their subject’s papers? Were they granted or denied interviews with the subject’s close friends or family?
Does the author feel the need to constantly bring up a female subject’s weight? Are there other signs of sexism? Is there too much focus on alleged love affairs? Do the accounts of love affairs smack of wish fulfillment or fan fiction? Is the promise of salacious details prominently featured on the cover?
Does the author take quotes out of context? Do their sources actually back up what they say? It is shockingly common to look up a cited source and then discover that it either does not support the author at all or it seems to have been deliberately twisted to fit the narrative.
Who are the author’s sources? Are they reliable? For example, I am always deeply suspicious of books that unquestioningly quote choreographer Agnes de Mille on the subject of her Uncle Cecil. She is witty, clever, charming but we must also remember that her uncle fired her from one of his pictures when she was a young woman (they were simply too much alike) and it was a mortifying experience. That colors the narrative a bit.
Does the author impute motives without supporting evidence? What words does the author use to describe their subject? Do they shade their terminology to make their subject look better or worse? Do their choices of words affect the narrative?
For example, William S. Hart: Projecting the American West by Ronald L. Davis discusses Hart’s war with United Artists. The author describes Hart as “whining” about the mishandling of his final film, Tumbleweeds. That word is significant as it shows considerable antipathy on the part of the author toward his subject. A sympathetic figure will complain, be embittered, protest or even grumble. But whine? The word choice says more about the author’s attitude toward Mr. Hart than Mr. Hart himself. Pay attention to the wording.
And remember, blindly believing a first-hand account can lead to all sorts of trouble. Last time we talked about Eleanor Boardman’s almost-certainly fictional account of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer and Mayer vowing revenge. (While donning the One Ring or building a Death Star, no doubt. So many historians like to cast Mayer as a melodramatic villain.) We have already shown that this account is suspect. But what if a historian based a theory on it? Too late. Some already have.
But now that the supposed catalyst for Mayer’s hostility toward Gilbert has evaporated, where does that leave the elaborate narrative of MGM exec’s grudge? It’s true that Mayer did not like Gilbert at all but the reasons were considerably more complex than this cartoonish narrative would suggest. Back to the drawing board. (Once again, I encourage everyone to read Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.)
Another objectionable attitude is the sense of entitlement that some historians have toward their subjects. They ask for an interview, are granted one and then expect their subject to spill their guts. The stars and directors have a right to share as much or as little as they choose. Would it be easier for future historians if their subjects told all? Of course. But the interviewers have no right to sneer or look down on people who refuse to kiss and tell. No one owes anyone else complete access to their life.
The author has enormous power over their narrative, never forget that. Anthony Slide’s book, Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses, is one example of this power, don’t let the bland title fool you. While Slide deserved props for tracking down and interviewing numerous forgotten stars, his asides are colored by his personal interactions. He spends considerable time praising minor starlet Mary Brian while aiming barbs Lillian Gish, Viola Dana, Mary Philbin and other popular players.
Slide’s basic philosophy for the book seems to have been “if you can’t say anything nice, come right here and sit by me.” Gish and Philbin declined to do so and are deemed “irritating” and “dull” respectively. Dana told all but is still damned by faint praise. Her tears for her long-dead lover, stunt pilot Ormer Locklear, are labeled a “great performance”.
While there were some rare interviews and interesting details, I came out of the book feeling like I had just witnessed a cruel joke being played on a room full of senior citizens. Calling out performers on fibs is fine but it should be handled with tact. Unnecessary spite is never tasteful.
The problem with all of this is that once a book is in print, it is used as a source for other books, as well as online resources. This problem has cropped up with Marion Meade’s biography, Buster Keaton: Cut To The Chase. Without going into too much detail (there isn’t time) just let me say that Meade’s bizarre theories and suspect “facts” are still causing damage to Keaton’s reputation as her work is sourced by numerous other authors. I spent untold hours and thousands of words cleaning up the nonsense she spread about The Frozen North—and that represented just a few paragraphs from her book!
In conclusion, if a book sets off your warning bells, there’s probably a reason. If something seems fishy, try to track down the original sources and see if they are reliable and if they support the narrative. Sadly, a good number of books on the silent era and its stars simply cannot be trusted.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from another star whose silent work was completely overshadowed by sound stardom.
Victor McLaglen was a popular and winning character actor who charmed us in classics like Gunga Din but he got his start in the early 1920s. During his stint in the silents, McLaglen played opposite major stars like Lon Chaney (The Unholy Three) and Ronald Colman (Beau Geste).
McLaglen was one of the biggest winners of the sound transition. His voice perfectly suited his look and his affable manner won audiences over easily. His work with director John Ford kept his lovable lunk persona in the public eye but he also worked with directors like George Stevens, Frank Lloyd, Lewis Milestone and Raoul Walsh.
Famous for his masculine performances, McLaglen made the bold decision to wade into the great chili debate. You see, what goes into the pot is a highly controversial topic in these parts. The two biggest debatable ingredients are beans and tomatoes. Some cooks say they have never had any business in chili, others consider them essential. However, there are dozens of other ingredients that will start arguments. What kind of peppers? Do you thicken it? Do you add chocolate or coffee or soy sauce or anchovies?
Here is McLaglen’s original recipe:
As you can see, there are… issues with this recipe. A cup of flour. A cup. Now some chili recipes do call for thickeners but these are generally measured by the spoonful, not the cup. Oh dear.
(I also find it interesting that this is listed as a Spanish recipe as my understanding is that it was invented in Texas by Mexican-Americans. The entire Photoplay cookbook has similar cultural substitutions. I put it down to classicism of the period.)
I’m not going to lie. This recipe scared the living daylights out of me. I knew it was going to be awful and there was little hope for redemption. Because, you know, a cup of flour. Anyway, I tried to be a good sport. I studiously followed the recipe to the letter, no substitutions. I even dug chili powder out of the cupboard.
The results were… well, let’s just say that I will not be winning any awards for food presentation.
I know what you’re thinking, you sick little monkeys. You want to see someone actually eating this revolting substance. Okay, here you go.
Here is my taste test video:
My rating: 1 out of 5. This is so nasty! Simply put, it looks exactly how it tastes. The chili powder did not provide enough flavor and so the predominate taste was… watery flour. The chunks of onion and meat just made things worse as they gave the chili a rather vomit-like texture. (I am trying to put this nicely but everything about this recipe reminds me of one bodily excretion or another.)
Normally, I am able to finish most anything that is put before me but I could not get even a whole spoonful of this down. It kept trying to come back up. Of course, considering the texture and flavor, that may have been an improvement.
Mr. McLaglen, I loved you in Gunga Din but leave the chili to the Texans. In fact, I dare say that the three most terrifying words he could ever say are, “I made chili.”
Can it be improved? No! This is too disgusting for words. It cannot be redeemed.
Eat this instead: Just type “chili recipe” into your browser and cook the first one that comes up. I promise that it will taste better than this slop.
(Oh, and on the chili debate, I am hardly a purist. I like both tomatoes and beans but I prefer not to use thickeners.)
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. History is jam-packed with examples of this truism. From George Washington to Phineas Gage, a whole lot of what we know about the past does not stand up to close scrutiny.
The silent era is particularly prone to these wild rumors, it seems. It stands to reason. Lack of mass communication, lost films, fan magazine exaggerations, fading memories, artistic temperaments… It would be amazing if there weren’t a few rumors and outright lies in the mix.
(Pictured above: My opinion of how some silent film historians look.)
Well, in this four-part series, I am going to be discussing how misinformation can spread from four sources: Silent era veterans, film historians, user-edited websites and blogs, and contemporary fan magazines. Today’s focus will be on the moguls, stars and directors whose memories may not be all that they seem.
I should state before beginning this that I am not a big follower of silent star’s personal lives. I know enough to write my reviews but as to who romanced who… Well, all I can say is that I do not really care so long as they didn’t scare the horses.
So this is me when the conversation gets… personal.
What they are saying: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret love child with Marilyn Monroe because she lied about her age and besides she had a time machine and…
What I hear: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret lovezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
And off I go to my happy place.
All of these rumors lead to the big question: Who can you trust? Well, surely the people who were there can be believed, right? Right? Oh, you poor innocent kid.
Before you jump to conclusions based on what a silent veteran tells a journalist or historian, stop and consider the evidence. Some questions to ask when an interviewed star, director or member of the crew makes an eyebrow-raising claim:
1. Is there any corroborating evidence? (Scripts, photos, train tickets…) Do other silent era figures have similar accounts?
2. Do they have anything to gain from their story? Are they saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear? Are they claiming credit for something important? Are they polishing their reputations or engaging in myth building? (Refer back to question 1)
3. Are they speaking about another silent era figure? Do they have a past with them? Do they have a reason to paint this person as a louse or a saint? Was there a divorce, a custody battle or a paternity suit? Were there nasty contract negotiations? Are they friends with their target’s ex?
4. Does the story mutate or get better with each passing interview? Does it match what they said earlier in life. (Remember that later interviews may be more accurate since the interviewee may have less to lose and fewer people to worry about offending.)
5. Have they been incorrect about other matters before? Are they known to fib or hold grudges?
It can be somewhat upsetting to realize that a very persuasive and heartfelt interview was all part of an act. It can be especially upsetting if it is a star you admire. However, I think viewing the star in question as a real human being actually makes them more interesting and admirable, not less. Looking at a star with an honest, open attitude is not an attack.
This is an attack:
One of the most infamous examples of this unreliability can be found with Lina Basquette, Sam Warner’s widow. Most silent movie fans know the story: Her acting career was in the dumps in the 1937 when she got a call from the Third Reich. It seemed that the fuehrer was a fan. So off she went to Germany where she found Hitler to be a bit grabby for her taste. She kicked him in his naughty bits, said her grandfather was Jewish anyway and fled.
Miss Basquette was by all accounts a perfectly charming interview subject. Feisty and fun to talk to and a natural storyteller. And the Hitler story was too good to pass up. So, it was printed and repeated and presented as the gospel truth. It had everything: A plucky American girl busting Hitler in a very tender spot, what’s not to love?
The problem is that there is zero corroborating evidence that this actually occurred. No ticket stubs from the journey, no letters to or from Germany, no UFA letterhead, no postcards from Munich, no diaries from the date in question, no friends or family who recall her trip, no passenger lists with her name. The first commercial transatlantic flight was made in 1938 so the alleged trip would been by ship following a long train journey from California to New York. That kind of trip would generate a nice stack of paperwork. None has surfaced. (Ship passenger lists are incredibly valuable. For example, they show us when Rudolph Valentino came to America.)
Further, Basquette’s half-sister, dancer and model Marge Champion, said that the first she heard of the story was in the 1970s, some forty years after the event in question. She further intimated that her sister had a way of playing fast and loose with the facts. Miss Basquette also claimed to have been a secret agent in South America, though she was never quite clear as to which side she was working for.
Kind of takes the wind out of the story, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that it is impossible that it occurred, though I find it highly unlikely. What I am saying is that film writers need a small caveat before they repeat the tale. You know something like, “Miss Basquette stated that (insert Hitler narrative here). However, no supporting evidence has surfaced.”
(While some major news outlets recited the Hitler narrative in their obituaries, others chose to politely ignore it. A wise decision.)
The same goes for Eleanor Boardman’s recollection of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer and the latter vowing revenge. Mayer is a very common bogeyman in these sort of tales. (His great-niece, Alicia Mayer, has an excellent blog called Hollywood Essays, which debunks many of the common myths.) While hardly a saint, he was not the devil that many of the stars make him out to be. The problem with Boardman’s account? Mayer had dealt in scrap metal before becoming a movie mogul. The guy was tough. And we are to believe that he was slugged by an employee and took it? (Scott Eyman thoroughly takes apart this rumor in his wonderful biography, Lion of Hollywood.) Boardman similarly stuck her foot in her mouth regarding Cecil B. DeMille and Julia Faye. I pretty much take all her interviews with a dose of healthy skepticism.
Please also be on the lookout for “dog whistle” antisemitism in tales of woe. Very common if you know what to look for. No, I will not be listing stereotypes here. Also, you would do well to memorize the common targets of odd rumors. Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Mabel Normand, the list goes on…
On a final note, be particularly wary of accounts that rely on conspiracies. Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Very true. Most conspiracy theories fall apart because said conspiracy relies too much on numerous people keeping their mouths shut. It may be easier to believe that a star’s career tanked because of a wicked scheme but the truth is usually far more complex.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes that I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) This time, we are trying a recipe from a silent leading lady who may no longer be a household name but who had a solid career under her belt, Virginia Valli.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we are going to be trying out a recipe from pioneering screenwriter and director Frances Marion.
Marion may be well-remembered today for her witty scripts (Dinner at Eight, for example) but she also tried her hand at directing. Getting conked on the head with a light on the set of Song of Love turned her off to the idea of holding the megaphone (not sure I blame her) but she continued her wildly successful writing career for many years after.
I have to give Marion credit. You have to respect her for absolutely not taking her cookbook assignment seriously. She’s a busy woman! She’s churning out scripts in both quantity and quality and now they want a recipe too? Okay, buddy, here’s your recipe. Tomato Nut Salad. You take tomatoes. You take nuts. You have a salad.
I can respect this. But let’s see how good the recipe is.
The original recipe:
“Sour cream dressing can also be used for other kinds of salads.” Really? This exotic “sour” cream has other uses? I am so happy they told me this, I never would have figured it out on my own.
I did not make my own sour cream. Out of respect for Frances Marion’s legacy of laziness (in the best way possible) I just went to the dairy case and bought the stuff ready-made. Ha! Take that, Photoplay! I also did not garnish it with parsley because I forgot. I used good cherry tomatoes as the larger varieties looked vaguely anemic. I sliced them in half as I did not relish the idea of chasing rolling little spheres around a plate with my fork.
It came out looking pretty nice, I must say.
Here is my taste test video:
My Rating: 3 out of 5. With such a simple recipe, it all comes down to your ingredients. Good tomatoes and fresh walnuts? It should be okay. I have to say, though, I did not really care for the tomato-walnut combination. I didn’t hate it, it just wasn’t a pairing I ever would have made on my own. I think the astringent quality of the walnuts fights with the acid of the tomatoes.
This recipe garners a solid so-so from me. It’s not amazing in a bad or good way. Just okay.
Can it be improved? Yes! I substituted a Pink Lady apple for the tomato and thought it was absolutely killer. Kind of a deconstructed Waldorf Salad. I have actually been eating this for breakfast lately. Any crunchy, tangy apple will do. I can see it working with Fuji, Jazz, Honeycrisp or any other tasty little apple the stores might carry. This would have been a 5 star recipe if Marion had called for an apple.
I love tomatoes (they are my favorite produce-of-questionable-botanical-category-due-to-old-tariff-laws) but this recipe was made for apples.
Variations: If you or someone you want to prepare vintage salads for are unable to eat dairy, you can try this recipe with vegan sour cream. (This recipe contains soy. Just saying.)
Welcome to another installment of Silents in Talkies. In this series, I review sound movies that are either about the silent era or that incorporate silent films into their story. I will review the film itself and then briefly discuss whether the film helped or harmed public perception of the silent era.
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) This time, we are going to be trying a recipe from Betty Bronson, best remembered today as the first onscreen Peter Pan.
I have to admit that I am somewhat immune to Miss Bronson’s appeal. I don’t dislike her, I just don’t see what all the fuss was about.
Miss Bronson’s recipe is for waffles. I am a huge fan of quick breads and general breakfast food. In fact, pancakes were the very first “real” cooking that I ever did. (As opposed to making salads and other safe activities.) I think I was maybe five or six. Waffles quickly followed, as did biscuits. Not a fan of Bisquick. I just don’t think it saves all that much time.
Here is Miss Bronson’s recipe:
I usually make a buttermilk vanilla recipe that is killer. The main differences between Bronson’s waffles and the waffles I am used to are the low amount of butter (only one tablespoon) and separating the eggs before adding them to the batter.
I have to say that this recipe was a huge disappointment. The texture and the flavor left much to be desired. Here are pictures. (Please excuse the paper plates, when one is getting over a flu, one does not enjoy dish washing.)
Here is the taste test video:
My rating: 1 out of 5. How can you ruin waffles? Betty Bronson found a way!
My first clue that something was wrong was the texture. Waffle batter is usually pretty loose but this batch had the texture of Silly Putty. It also did not spread on the iron, making the waffles a little misshapen.
The cooked waffles looked okay but were curiously… rigid and shiny. Rubbery texture and the flavor was just so-so.
I knew something had gone very wrong when one of my tasters got a steak knife to cut his waffles. Another helpfully said that they weren’t “that bad.” I have to admit, these waffles can come in handy for repairing flat tires but they are not much fun at the breakfast table.
While this recipe is not disgusting like the infamous banana salad, I am giving it only one star because it represents the first time in my life that my waffles were not gobbled down at the breakfast table. That’s pretty incredible since, as mentioned before, I have been making these things since my Raggedy Ann days.
Can it be improved? In retrospect, the lack of butter is really what kills this recipe. Fluffy, tender waffles are the result of lots and lots of fat. My preferred recipes all call for a half-cup or more. A little bit of sugar would have also helped browning and flavor. But why bother with this recipe when there are dozens of other, better recipes?
Eat this instead: Classic Buttermilk Waffles. Lots of butter, plus vanilla. Yum!
Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes that I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) This time, we are trying a recipe from a popular screenwriter, Jeanie Macpherson. She is most famous for her work with Cecil B. DeMille but she was also a pioneering director and actress.
Welcome to the first entry in my new series! I am going to be cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I will be listing all the recipes I test on this dedicated page. Check back often.)
Her Man o’ War (1926)
Status: 35mm print held by the Cohen Media Group. 16mm print held by private collector. An incomplete version of the film (missing most of the third act) has been circulating on home video for a while and sometimes surfaces on sites like eBay. It is quite battered and blurry.
Back to the trenches with another vaultie that I would love to see released. First, a little background on how Her Man o’ War came to be.
Cecil B. DeMille went into independent production in 1925 after being forced out of Paramount, a studio he had helped found. As was typical for any motion picture studio, the films that DeMille’s new concern produced were divided into program pictures and specials. The specials had large budgets and the programmers were cheaper films that would pay the bills. At least that was the theory. DeMille’s talent was working behind the camera, not poring over ledgers.
Her Man o’ War was one of these programmers. While it was not directed by DeMille personally, it still was very much a family affair.
DeMille’s assistant director, Frank Urson, was charged with solo direction. William Boyd, a DeMille discovery who was fresh off a smash hit, The Volga Boatman, was tapped to star. The leading lady was the talented (but notoriously temperamental) Jetta Goudal, who had her own battles with Paramount behind her and was a personal friend of DeMille’s daughter.
Before discussing the film further, I must explain my viewing experience a little. I saw this film as a battered, faded and incomplete print. Therefore, I do not feel it is right to categorize my coverage of the picture as a review.
While other war pictures of the period took pains to portray the Germans as misunderstood or at least human, Her Man o’ War could have been made at the height of the anti-Hun fervor. The plot concerns two Army guys (Boyd and Jimmie Adams) who are given a dangerous assignment. They must locate a powerful German cannon hidden in a castle in Alsace. Then they must get the information back to the Americans so they can destroy the dread machine.
How can this be accomplished? Boyd and Adams pose as deserters and intend hang around behind German lines to see what they can see. The problem? The Germans immediately see through their ruse but decide to let the Americans have a certain amount of freedom, hoping to find out what they are really after.
Boyd and Adams are given work assignments on the farms of two Alsatian women, played by Jetta Goudal and Kay Deslys. The women are not told that their new workers are suspected spies and they treat them like the POWs they believe them to be. At one point, Jetta takes a bullwhip to Boyd.
How to tell you have seen too many silent movies: If you have only seen a few, that last line will probably make you say, “A bullwhip?!!?” A more jaded silent film veteran will yawn and say, “That old chestnut again?” The silent era was rather into that kind of thing. No, I do not care to discuss why.
Anyway, the local German countess and owner of the cannon castle is also a voracious maneater and she has her eye on Boyd.
Boyd finds himself bundled off to the castle, dressed in a tux and prepared as the, er, companion for the evening.
Jetta is not about to let another woman take advantage of her prisoner. He was on her work detail, darn it, and she has the receipt! She follows Boyd to the castle and positions herself under the dinner table. Boyd has used his feminine wiles to convince the Countess to show him the cellar. Eureka! The cannon! The Countess has played nice up till now but she expects a bit of romance in exchange for her efforts.
So we have Boyd needing to get out with his information, the Countess not about to give up her prisoner and Jetta under the table and about to stick the Countess with a fork if she tries to play footsie one more time and…
I am not leaving you at a suspenseful point on purpose. This is really where the missing footage occurs. Grr! We get the last ten minutes of the picture but I have a feeling that a lot of fun stuff is contained in the lost section.
Her Man o’ War is not a great picture. The script is as silly as anything. However, I very much enjoyed the reversed gender tropes and the wackiness that was starting to get really amusing when the missing footage ruined everything.
The film was pretty much ignored upon its initial release. It didn’t even merit a review in many of the major fan magazines. I think it deserves a second look. Especially since I want to know if Jetta really does stab the countess with a fork!
And now I wanted to discuss something that always gets brought up whenever Her Man o’ War is mentioned: That gigantic bow hat that Jetta Goudal dons to impress William Boyd. It has been called ridiculous, zany, goofy… That crazy Jetta and her hats.
The film is set in Alsace. Here is a painting of a woman in traditional Alsatian garb.
“But paintings always exaggerate!”
Okay. A photo then:
So, the hat is 100% authentic Alsatian headgear. I mention this incident because it gives me an excuse to write about one of my favorite topics: Film costuming.
I have always been obsessed with costuming. As a child, I consumed book after book on the subject. I stripped my local library’s shelves bare and was always looking for more. No sheet or pillowcase was safe as I was liable to snip it to pieces and make a costume out of it. (My mother was incredibly tolerant.)
I took sewing lessons and began to create true historical reproductions. I haven’t sewn in ages but seeing gorgeous costumes always gives me itchy fingers. I still like to thumb through costuming books, seeing how historical garments were constructed.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility and I blush to confess that, for a time, I was one of THOSE people. You know the ones. “During this time period they would have used a 1/4 inch stitch but the stitching of her left sleeve is clearly 1/3 inch and it’s the wrong color too. It should be chartreuse, not lime.”
Look, I still cringe when I see set-in sleeves in ancient Greece but what changed my attitude toward costuming in general? Reading books about the actual theory of costume design for the stage and screen, as opposed to straightforward reproduction. Before that, I had always subscribed to the theory that a costumer should endeavor to be 100% accurate, no exceptions and no excuses.
What I realized, thanks to these books, is that costuming is not about recreating the perfect farthingale. It’s about creating a mood, an illusion. The simple fact is that there are times when a truly authentic costume would actually detract from that carefully constructed atmosphere.
We have the example of Lillian Gish and Erte to illustrate that. Erte was hired to make the costumes for La Boheme and he wanted accuracy. So, he ordered the ladies of the film to wear period corsets and he personally chose cheap cotton fabric to show the poverty of Lillian Gish’s character. The problem was that Renee Adoree could not breath in her corset and abandoned it, spoiling the line of the dress. Lillian Gish pointed out (quite correctly) that new cotton would not look cheap on the screen but crisp and fresh. Silk makes better movie rags. Erte was insulted and bashed the actresses wherever he could, claiming that he was bullied and oppressed. But you know what? He was wrong and they were right.
(Many articles on the topic take Erte at his word and make Lillian out to be a spoiled star. I have read Gish’s incredibly reasonable explanation in her autobiography and she made excellent points. Erte is iconic but that does not translate into every medium. Team Lillian!)
This is where we come back to Jetta Goudal’s bow hat. Was it accurate? Yes. Was is correct? Yes. Was it an appropriate costume? No.
You see, your average American moviegoer (then and now) likely has very little knowledge of the traditional garb of Alsace. When Jetta shows up in her giant hat, they are not thinking, “At last, Alsatian traditional hats done right!” They are thinking, “My word, what is that on her head? That bow is wearing her.”
There are times when a particular article of fashion will have to be eliminated for the sake of censors, a performer’s physical mobility or because audiences will find it silly, distracting from the tale and spoiling the mood.
I think these decisions are best explained by Milena Canonero, who won the Academy Award for best costume design for her work in Marie Antoinette (2006). Ladies of the period wore lace on lace on lace on lace, it was a status symbol then. Nowadays, too much lace looks matronly. Canonero knows her stuff and she was aware that perfectly accurate costumes would not fit the tone of the film, which portrayed a youthful Marie Antoinette. So, she decided to cut back on the lace. Was it 100% accurate? No. Was it appropriate for the costuming? Yes.
That’s why I also don’t sweat it when I see a movie set in the teens or twenties that has decidedly unfuzzy hair and un-Cupid’s bow lips. I may know that teens and twenties gals had fuzzy hair and darkly rouged lips but John Q. Public would just wonder if the actress neglected to comb her hair that day. And in the end, John Q. Public is who the movie is for.
This post was for the Snoopathon. Be sure to check out the other reviews and articles.