Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Save the Vitagraph Smokestack Update!

WCBS radio in New York interviewed me yesterday about the petition to save the Vitagraph smokestack!  Hoping that lots of local folks were listening and lend their support to save this important bit of history!

Click below to hear it:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Yay for the Academy Awards!

Silent film is certainly not silent these days -- the Oscar wins of THE ARTIST, HUGO, and THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR MORRIS LESSMORE attest to that!

Now that the Academy Awards are over for 2012, why not check out the very first Best Picture winner from 1929?

WINGS has been lovingly and extensively restored, and is now available on Blu-Ray:

It's a fantastic film and all the actors are terrific in it. I'm a little biased towards Clara though. ;)

There are versions of the film available on Youtube, but I would recommend seeing the new restoration if possible -- I have it on good authority that it is breathtaking.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Save the Vitagraph Smokestack

A priceless piece of early movie history is in danger of being lost forever.  Sign the petition and help save it for future generations!

Review: Speak Easily (1932)

courtesy Doctor Macro

David Macleod writes in his indispensable The Sound of Buster Keaton that Speak Easily is "easily one of Buster's better MGM features".   I was skeptical, as I always am when approaching Buster's talkies, but I actually enjoyed this!

First, a plot summary.  From IMDb:

Naive, bookish Professor Post [Keaton] inherits a huge amount of money and decides that now he can afford to go out and enjoy life. He falls for a dancer in a bad stage show [headed by Jimmy Durante], and with his new money decides to buy the show and take it to Broadway. Will the Professor prove too nice to succeed in show business? Or will he triumph over bill-collectors, critics, and sexy vamp Eleanor Espere [Thelma Todd]?  (Ken Yousten)

courtesy Doctor Macro

I'm a sucker for backstage comedies, and this one plays like vaudeville.  Sure, Buster's natural talents are wasted -- it's always a little painful watching him in his 30s work -- but the film is surprisingly funny.  Jimmy Durante does his huge personality thing, but somehow manages to not overwhelm the picture (which I've heard is not the case for What, No Beer?); in fact, the two men play well off each other.  Thelma Todd spices things up, proving as usual that she wasn't just eye candy - she was a terrific comedienne.  

courtesy Doctor Macro

It's uneven, a bit creaky in spots, and the ending could've been better...but if you're going to watch one of Buster's talkies, you could most certainly do worse.

One thing I've been wondering: that panned shot of the skyscraper...was that recycled from The Crowd?  Sure looks like it!

I give this one:  

[A little note here: I must thank David and Graceann Macleod, for not only providing me with this film and the wonderful book, but for being fantastic friends as well.  ]

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Shut Up and Dance!

Anyone else watch the Grammys Sunday night?  I was blown out of my seat by Bruno Mars. Damn, that boy can dance!

His electricity is contagious.  I love watching performers like that--they take you out of yourself and into the music.  You can't keep still, it's impossible!

Ann Pennington always does that to me, too.  This is short, but then again, so was she:

What a little firecracker!  Her style of dancing might seem clunky to our modern eyes but back then it was the bees'  knees.  To some of us, it still is!

And then you have the great Josephine Baker.  Skip ahead to 1:45 and gaze on perfection:

I dare anyone to stay in their seat during that.

Who are some of your favorite dancers, then and now?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Words With Flappers

Back in 1913, the New York World was looking for a new puzzle for their fun page.  They asked journalist Arthur Wynne to come up with something, and drawing on his knowledge of word squares, he whipped up a little game he called a "word-cross":

It was an immediate hit, and over the next ten years these puzzles, eventually called "crosswords", became insanely popular.  By the end of the 20s they were featured in almost every American newspaper.  People really went crazy over them!  There were crossword parties, published collections (came complete with pencil!), even crossword fashions.  Check out these ladies’ legs:

photo courtesy Hoodoo that Voodoo

So why am I telling you this?

Getting ready for work I heard how Zynga's profits rose considerably, thanks to a little game called "Words With Friends". 

Hmm, what's an eight letter word for "everything old is new again"?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy John Barrymore Awareness Day!

Oh sure, some people like to call it Valentine’s Day, poor misguided souls. They just need to be educated in the badassery that is “The Great Profile” – and you can be the one to do it! ! Show them this handy checklist to convince them to ditch the chubby kid with the arrows, and give flowers and candy in Jack’s name instead:

1. Best. Hamlet. Ever.

During the 1920s, Jack was regarded as the finest Shakespearean actor of his time, perhaps of all time. His performances of Hamlet and Richard III were religious experiences; the critic John Corbin marveled that “[t]he atmosphere of historic happening surrounded John Barrymore's appearance last night as the Prince of Denmark; it was unmistakable as it was indefinable. It sprang from the quality and intensity of the applause, from the hushed murmurs that swept the audience at the most unexpected moments, from the silent crowds that all evening long swarmed about the theatre entrance. It was nowhere-and everywhere. In all likelihood we have a new and lasting Hamlet.” (NYT, Nov 17 1922)

The only footage we have of Jack performing Hamlet is a two-strip Technicolor screen test made for a 1933 screen version, eventually aborted:

2. Rooftop Romance

Jack and brother Lionel (left) in 1917

October 1917 saw Jack occupying the top floor of an old four-story building in Greenwich Village. After he fixed up the apartment to his bohemian liking, he turned his attention to the roof. From Gene Fowler’s wonderful Good Night, Sweet Prince:

[He] planted cedars eight feet tall…[he] also installed white wisterias, arbor vitae, cherry trees, and grapevines…Mrs Nicholls [Jack’s landlady] returned to find a horticultural frenzy atop her house. She was somewhat amazed, but did not complain…for there was a startling yet weird beauty to Barrymore’s creation, and the man himself seemed so childishly content as he fed the birds on his “estate”.

3. Love, Love, Love

Jack & Dolores

Jack’s intelligence and charisma were legendary. Combined with darkly handsome good looks and an athlete’s build, he was the epitome of Lady Caroline Lamb’s “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. He was married four times – one of those to the actress Dolores Costello – and had liaisons with Mary Astor, Jeanne Eagels, and Evelyn Nesbit, among others.

4. Ahoy There!

Captain Jack

Jack adored sailing more than anything in this world, and was quite accomplished at it.  When he wasn’t on board The Mariner, he lovingly furnished his home with model ships, navigation charts, even pieces of wrecks.  He would take to the sea for months at a time, keeping a detailed captain's log of his adventures and exploits.

5. King of the Retorts

Hepburn's debut film

The sheer number of brilliant quips and quotes from Jack is staggering.  He rivaled Oscar Wilde in pithiness and was sharp as a razor.  So many anecdotes are attributed to him that it’s hard to determine which ones are apocryphal, but this has always been one of my favorites (courtesy Anecdotage.com):

During the production of A Bill of Divorcement, Katharine Hepburn frequently quarreled with John Barrymore. When filming wrapped, she turned to her co-star and screamed, "Thank God I don't have to act with you anymore!" "I wasn't aware," Barrymore tartly replied, "that you ever had, darling."

There you have it.  Five great reasons why February 14th should be all about Jack!

How are you celebrating today?  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney, Jeanne Eagels, and Junior High

In the soundtrack of my formative years, Whitney held a pretty big place.  Anyone who grew up in the 80s and early 90s remembers her songs constantly on the radio.  When I was in 7th grade, we had to do a project on all the things that made us who we are.  I can’t recall for the life of me the other things I brought in, aside from one: my newly-acquired “Whitney” cassette. 

Some of the kids laughed – they were the ones too cool for pop – but as far as I was concerned they were stupid.  How could they not want to listen to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and ask their mom to curl their hair and tie a big scarf in it just like hers and generally think she was the most wicked thing to come out of the 80s since Cyndi Lauper?  She was so fresh, so new, so perfectly 1987.  What was wrong with them?

(They just needed a little time, was all.  Five short years later those same kids were bombarding Z100 with votes to make “I Will Always Love You” the #1 song of the day yet again.  And attempting to sing it themselves during choir finals, but that’s a whole other ear-bleeding story.)

This whole tragic situation got me thinking about Jeanne Eagels.  She was a brilliant stage actress of the 1910s and 20s, remembered best for originating the role of Sadie Thompson in Rain.  Like Whitney, she was discovered early, and her extreme talent caused all who witnessed it to catch their breath.  Unfortunately, also like Whitney, she suffered from substance abuse problems, and although indirectly, they were the cause of her untimely death at age 39.  You can learn more about her here, if you like:  Jeanne Eagels

Ladies with so much magic still left in them to share with the world.  Completely unnecessary deaths.  It's sad, too, knowing that this is going to happen again and again, and that it will be only too soon that we'll be shaking our heads and mourning yet another heartbreaking loss.