Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Movies, Ms Gish, and Me

I've had a copy of Lillian Gish's autobio for ages now.  Got it from one of those book-swapping sites, and unfortunately, it smelled so strongly of someone's wet basement that I couldn't even hold it, much less read it.

Well, after almost two years of airing and deodorizing: success!  I've tamed the mildew to a dull roar!  I celebrated by diving in and promptly losing myself in young Lillian and Dorothy's world.   A perfect time for it, too, since I'd taped a couple of Lillian's silents during her TCM Summer Under the Stars day.

Started watching "Orphans of the Storm" last night (no spoilers!) and so far I'm enjoying it.  Started a bit slow, but I know they had to build up the history part in order to have the rest of the movie make sense.  It's fun to see the sisters together, and pardon me for saying, but I do believe Dorothy is even lovelier than Lillian.  

Evening permitting, I'll finish this tonight, and then it's on to "The Wind", with Lars Hanson.  I'm really looking forward to that one!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


In silent film, George Valentin
was the era's greatest treasure,
with Fairbanks' joie de vivre and Gilbert's
charm in equal measure.

They'd said in Twenties Hollywood
his star power was unmatched.
I'd heard enough -- a poem was due!
A research plan was hatched.


I've searched for bios, stills and clips
until almost demented,
with no results!  I swear, it's like
this artist was invented!

George Valentin

Monday, August 13, 2012

An Audience With the Queen

On the passenger side lay my notebook and pencil:
I drove along, lost, by the studio fence, 'til
a blonde girl yelled "Photoplay?"  In her arms she bore
Some scripts.  "For Miss Stanwyck?  Right through this door."

"That's Barbara."  She pointed.  "Some folks call her Missy.
She's down-to-earth, sweet, and not a bit prissy."
I took off my hat and walked over to her.
She sat down and smiled like I already knew her.

"Well, where to start?  When I was born, I was Ruby.
(If I only knew then what life planned to do to me!)
I grew up too quickly, an adult at four;
Mama was killed, then Pop bailed.  We were poor.
My nine-year-old sister watched me and my brother.
When she started to work, we got foster mothers."

She paused, and I offered a Lucky, a light.
She thanked me and exhaled.  "I worshiped Pearl White!
Dreamt only of stardom when I was fourteen.
I felt destined for show biz, the stage and the screen."

"By sixteen, I danced at The Strand and the Follies."
She smirked. "All those phonies, out getting their jollies."
"Those phonies?" I asked as I scribbled a note.
She nodded.  "My focus was different: a meal, a coat,
and working my way up the ladder of fame.
After that came 'The Noose', where I got my new name."

With that, Barbara faltered.  Her eyes glazed with tears.
"My goodness, I haven't thought about that in years.
That's where I met Rex.  May his soul rest in peace."
She regained her composure. "Don't print that, if you please."

"I moved on to pictures from Burlesque, my last play,
I married a friend that I met there - Frank Fay.
That's ended now.  Boy was that all a mistake.
But that's life; you move on.  You don't get a retake."

"And that brings us to now and that brings us to here."
I could tell she was finished.  She called past me.  "Dear!"
The blonde girl came over. "Please get my script, Alice."
(I peeked at the title.  It said "Stella Dallas".)

I stood up and offered my hand, and she took it.
"A pleasure," I told her, and meant it.  She shook it
and smiled at me warmly as I strode away.
A day in my life, for her life in a day.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dear "Penthouse", I've got quite the sleeper

I was intrigued, while watching "Penthouse", by a pretty brunette with an interesting name: Martha Sleeper.  (The film is a snappy little 1933 gangster picture, worth watching for the chemistry between Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy alone.)  Her face seemed familiar but I guessed she was one of the hundreds of minor starlets, featured in one or two pictures and then relegated to party scenes or chorus lines for the rest of her short career.

Not so with Miss Sleeper, who achieved lasting fame -- though not in the way you might think.

Martha was born in 1910 (some older sources incorrectly say 1907), and by 1924 was under contract to Hal Roach Studios.  She was discovered after a ballet photo of hers caught the eye of director Emory Johnson's mother -- who wrote recommending her for films immediately.   She worked extensively in comedy shorts through the 20s, and her career continued (albeit sporadically) until 1945, when she did her last film, "The Bells of St Mary's".  She then went on to success on the stage before leaving suddenly in 1949.

That same year, she and her husband decided to take a vacation to the Virgin Islands...but once she saw Puerto Rico, it was love at first sight.  She made her home there, spending her remaining years designing and sewing clothes for her own fashion line.  

However, all of that pales in comparison to the reason she is most remembered for today: jewelry.

Martha had always been creative, and in the 30s started making her own baubles out of a sort of papier mache.  They got a lot of attention, says Decotini:

Her earliest pieces, grasshoppers and spiders, were made from paper towels and glue.  Her first tarantulas were arranged in a row down her own sun suit. Delores de Rio and Fay Wray saw her and demanded to know where she got them!  

By 1937, she had a buyer for her line of "gadget jewelry", featuring items you wouldn't expect on necklaces or bracelets:  globes, cigarettes, matches, pencils.  Lots of whimsical animals were featured as well.


Andy Warhol was a huge fan of her work and in the 70s collected it voraciously, almost single-handedly starting the renewed craze for vintage Bakelite.

So there you have it!  From a lovely face in a old film to a pop-art superstar, all in one post.  

If you'd like to learn more about Martha Sleeper's jewelry and fashions, make sure you click the Decotini link above, or:

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Evelyn, Norma, and Missy

Been running through my DVR backlog, and I'm just about done now.  Caught "The Mating Call", with Thomas Meighan, Evelyn Brent, and a surprisingly charming Renee Adoree.

Cute picture, a bit slow in spots, but I enjoyed it. Without spoiling it for folks who haven't seen it: does anyone else think it really scary and bizarre how Meighan gets a wife?  I was horrified thinking of how many men might've done just that!

Also watched "Kiki", with Norma Talmadge, and I can't recommend that one highly enough.  How much fun is this movie?

A shout out to the LoC, Greta de Groat and all the other wonderful people whose hard work made this just-about-complete print possible.   Norma plays Kiki, a spunky girl who desperately wants to be in show biz; then, one fateful day, she gets her chance -- and changes not only her life, but the lives of everyone she touches (or bumps into, as the case may be).
I can't believe how great a job Norma did at comedy -- why didn't she play against type more often?  She comes across as a loveably klutzy Clara Bow type, fluffing her hair and putting up her dukes and generally being hyper-adorable.  Near the end she performs an extended physical bit that is marvelous in its execution -- and hysterical to boot.   Thanks to "Kiki" I'm now on a Talmadge kick!  I must have more!

Still working on the poem for Barbara Stanwyck.  I keep on getting great ideas (usually at 3 in the morning). Thank goodness for the notebook near my bed!

Don't worry, Missy, I'm not giving up on you!