About Silent Movies #12: Sloppiness, Laziness and Score-Settling, Blogger and Wiki Edition

hogwash-header-3

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.)

Young or just young-looking?
Young or just young-looking?

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.)

What was her name again? I was looking at the hat.
What was her name again? I was looking at the hat.

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.

Wasn’t he a lady killer? (via Wikipedia)

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.

Not buying the whole "murder" thing. Sorry.
Not buying the whole “murder” thing. Sorry.

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:

her-night-of-romance-constance-talmadge-ronald-colman-animated-gif-silent-movie-fainting

(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.

Hobart Bosworth is not Paul Leni.
Hobart Bosworth is not Paul Leni.

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.

Okay, so it was over a decade later and Bebe looks nothing like Mary.
Okay, so it was over a decade later and Bebe looks nothing like Mary.

We have had Bebe Daniels labeled as Mary Pickford. (Mary has sure grown! Those vitamins are doing wonders)

Nope, nope, nope.
Screengrab from Buzzfeed article. Nope, nope, nope.

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.

tempest-john-barrymore-louis-wolheim-camilla-horn-silent-movie-animated-gif-get-a-room

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.

Scaramouche, French Revolution Animated GIF

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.

oh-doctor

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.)

surrender

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.

wicked-darling-lon-chaney-tod-browning-grimace

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.

Oh dear.
Oh dear.

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.

20 Comments

  1. geelw

    All I’ll say is madam, you deserve a well worn metal badge and shiny plastic pistol for this post. Excellent stuff here and hey, your standing up for this segment of film history is a great move. I dislike this internet thing sometimes because all it takes are a few people copying terrible info to set things back years in terms of getting stuff accurate.

  2. Le

    This article should be mandatory read for anyone considering starting a blog.
    Very well done. The first case I thought when I started reading was McIntyre’s, and I’m glad you covered it. He is not the first nor the last person I saw commenting on a film he hasn’t seen.
    When I do film reviews, I also like to collect trivia in te TCM Database, specially in the in-depth articles they have there.
    Kisses!

  3. Leah

    This is probably one of my favorite articles of yours, especially since this issue needed to be addressed. The whole misinformation is especially notorious when talking about a person’s love life. Need I bring up Rudolph Valentino or Buster Keaton? One little rumor apparently is now enough to claim as fact in the internet sphere!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks so much! Yes, Rudy and Buster seem to be the prime targets these days. I was really surprised that the Florence La Badie thing sprouted legs. But I probably shouldn’t have been.

      1. Lea S.

        Ohhh yesss, speaking of which, here’s another thing that can complicate the portrait of a star’s life: well-meaning fans attaching deep emotional meanings to things that might not have any deep emotional meaning at all. Bear with me as I broach a Keaton-Related Subject That Is Brought Up With Nauseating Regularity: Buster and his first wife. Virtually any picture of Buster and Natalie together will invariably be interpreted as “Oh, look at poor Buster, he looks so lost and alone besides that selfish harpy.” Even pictures of them from their wedding day, where you’d assume Buster was feeling pretty good: “Oh, but you can see that he feels deep down what a sad mistake this all is–he’s not even smiling in his wedding photos.” My dear fellow fans: BUSTER’S LIFE REVOLVED AROUND NOT SMILING FOR CAMERAS. *goes somewhere to calm down*

      2. Fritzi Kramer

        Silly! Of course movie stars behaved exactly the same way off camera and on. Everyone knows that. 😉

        Seriously, though, I do wish these people would get their myths right. Was Buster terrified of Natalie from the very start or did he rely on her for movie colony gossip so he could unmask wife-beaters in his short films? Which is it? (Contradictory myths are more annoying to me somehow. I mean, at least stick with ONE weird bit of innuendo.)

        Valentino fans can get even worse. Which lover will they side with? And woe to anyone who mentions the wrong lover in enemy territory. The only thing these people all seem to agree is that they hate Pola Negri. This makes me love her all the more.

  4. Nitrate Diva

    Fight the good fight! This inspires me as a blogger to check my facts a little bit harder, something everyone could stand to do. So nice to see you take on the masses of spurious information that float around this infuriating but wonderful thing known as the Internet. Although, I shouldn’t just blame the Internet; I have some delightful books of old movie stills that incorrectly identify the movie! And I really do think that “Mary Pickford” in her wedding dress is in fact Mary Miles Minter, but I don’t know the film.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thank you so much!

      Oh I absolutely agree. Books can cause no end of trouble and they have an automatic intellectual heft. Look at all the trouble our friend Foster caused with his Woodrow Wilson, Murderer claims,

      That still continues to baffle. MMM is a very good possibility, though I still think Claire Windsor. If only the still number had not been cut off…

  5. Lea S.

    Bravo!! These kinds of articles are so important. After all, it’s the 21st century, more information is available at our fingertips than ever before, and while that does mean false info can spread much faster it also means there are fewer excuses for doing sloppy research. I try very hard to be as accurate as I can with my own blog–sometimes I will agonize over the wording of half a sentence: “What if someone thinks this means what I didn’t mean for it to mean?! I SHALL NOT SLEEP TONIGHT.” I also agree with Nitrate Diva about how many books out there also contain errors–maybe bloggers could stand to open 4 or 5 books. Or a dozen. 😀

  6. Clayton @ Phantom Empires

    Bravo, madame, bravo! A well-placed bit of courage does the job, wot?

    I think that this goes beyond bloggery; it applies across the page. “Read a factoid, repeat a factoid” is the modern battle cry on the social media, with no patience for fact checking, or regard for correctness (I consider the terms ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ to be different animals).

    Nuts to them, indeed!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks so much!

      Yes, the new axiom seems to be “If it’s too good to be true, spread it all over Facebook.” I get a particular bit of irritation out of the people who use these unsourced facts in their blogs or on social media and then pat themselves on the back for unearthing “the truth”

      As the saying goes, “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.”

  7. Christine Harrison

    Great article! I can only echo what everyone else here has said, and it does raise the whole issue of how much the media affect us: if we see something written on a website or in a newspaper, we tend to think it’s the gospel truth. Only it’s not necessarily so …..

    Turning to the Florence La Badie story, I had heard someone on YouTube mentioning her tragic death was a conspiracy involving Woodrow Wilson. At this point, I should mention I’m English so my knowledge of US presidents isn’t the best. However, it struck me as rather hard to believe that there were any goings-on between the two. How did she manage to hide her pregnancy and ultimately, the baby? It reminds me of the story about Jack the Ripper being the son of Queen Victoria, where the whole theory doesn’t have a shred of evidence to support it – but the annoying thing is, people still believe it’s true because the thought of a notorious serial killer being a member of the Royal Family is so attractive to them (there is loads of evidence to show it’s not true, but I think it’s a case here of believing what you want to believe).

    Incidentally, while I’m on the subject, I’d like to mention a reverse version of the Florence La Badie story. Back in the 70s, I bought a copy of Norman Zierold’s book on silent screen actresses, featuring mini-biographies of Clara Bow, Theda Bara, etc. The most fascinating was Barbara La Marr, who was married five times and died tragically young. It was mentioned that she adopted a baby boy called Ivan. However, a more recent book, Dangerous Curves atop High Heels by Michael G Ankerich, says that in fact she was the baby’s natural mother. It’s interesting to see that, although the Roaring Twenties were thought of as pretty wild, single motherhood was still taboo, and no actress would have dared to admit to having given birth out of wedlock. It’s worth pointing out that the media is often affected by the morals of the times – some things, even though they were true, were just not mentioned by the press. Finding the truth can be really tricky in the circumstances, as I’m sure you’ve found.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks for writing in!

      Yes, the Wilson/La Badie affair just stunk to high heaven when I first heard it. I actually went digging and tracked down many of the sources cited as “proof” of the affair, baby and murder. I can confidently say that, without exception, these sources do no not pan out and many do not exist at all.

      I agree, it’s very much like trying to force a royal Jack the Ripper theory. Sometimes, people fall for their narrative and ignore all evidence that points in the opposite direction. They seem to forget that the men and women accused (be they princes or presidents) are human beings and should not be libeled without strong evidence.

      Yes, the “adoption” ploy was used quite a few times (Cecil B DeMille to save the reputation of his brother, William. Loretta Young to hide her own daughter.) In the case of La Badie, I find it significant that the only person who suggested there was a baby was a reporter who never met the actress. Add to that the fact that we have surviving films that would have been made when she would have been very pregnant and I think we can safely discount the idea.

      So glad you liked the article! I will be posting a massive La Badie debunking soon.

  8. Bruce Calvert

    Wow, I’ve never read your blog before, but you are spot on! I corresponded with MacEntyre for several months via email, as I was initially interested in finding out more about all those lost films that he had seen. After about ten emails, I realized that he was enjoying the attention that his IMDB reviews of lost films. There was no way some mysterious, secretive collector had access to so many lost films. When I saw THE BEDROOM WINDOW (1924) at Cinecon a few years ago, it was proof that he was faking his reviews. He got several plot points wrong, and although he said the film was terrible, it was actually quite good.

    I bought “Stardust and Shadows” about ten years ago. The chapter where he had Mack Sennett confess to murdering William Desmond Taylor was way over the top. I’ve got a big collection of silent film books, but Foster’s book got sold in our garage sale for 50 cents.

    That Hobart Bosworth picture is from my collection. It is a publicity photo from THE CHINESE PARROTT, which was directed by Leni. Apparently Allan Ellenberger used it on his site, and Google seems to think it is of Paul Leni. http://www.silentfilmstillarchive.com/chinese.htm

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Hi there! Thanks for stopping by.

      Yes, I knew MacIntyre’s tales were suspect when no one got strangled in Surrender. 😉

      Stardust and Shadows was such a wonderful concept. I have not yet read the Mack Sennett chapter but I knew something was off when he started claiming Sidney Olcott invented the closeup and Florence La Badie invented the police sketch. I am keeping the book because some people seem to consider it gospel and I want to be able to refute it. I have an enormous Wilson – La Badie post in the works. I hope it will kill most of that rumor.

      Thanks for letting me know the origin of the Bosworth picture. For a while, it was actually on his Google mini bio. I mounted a social media campaign asking people to click the “wrong picture” button and it finally was changed to a more proper photo. I know Mr. Leni’s photos are elusive but that’s no excuse.

      (Oh and the punchline? Your photo was also used for Hobard Bosworth! A man of many identities.)

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