Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thanhouser Builds a "Mystery"

In 1914, the Thanhouser Film Corporation undertook quite a project: a 23-chapter serial named The Million Dollar Mystery.  Each two-reel chapter focused on the attempts of a secret organization, "The Black Hundred", to recover one million dollars from the clutches of evildoers.

Now, serials weren't new -- the first one, What Happened To Mary? starring Mary Fuller, had been done by Edison two years before -- but this was to be a whole new animal: it starred three of Thanhouser's biggest names, an action-filled and suspenseful plot, and planned to let the audience decide the ending.

The beautiful Florence La Badie played the lead, "Florence Hargreaves".

"Countess Olga Petroff" was the lead antagonist, played by the lovely Marguerite Snow.

Every good mystery needs an intrepid reporter, and James Cruze provides us with "Jim Norton".

TMDM was a tremendous hit, raking in $1.5 million dollars (remember, folks, this is 1914 money).  Most of that was due to La Badie, who was at the time Thanhouser's most popular star.  (She did all of her own stunts, too!)  22 chapters were filmed, all near the studio in New Rochelle NY, with the last chapter up to the masses: a contest was run awarding $10,000 for the best solution:

(click to enlarge)

Response was HUGE!  Thousands of letters came in, and they were swamped with ideas.

Finally it was announced that a St Louis stenographer named Ida Damon won the prize (though there is speculation that she was a publicity gimmick, and that the final installment had been ready all along).

TMDM was so lucrative for Thanhouser that it began filming a SECOND serial, Zudora, before Mystery was even finished...but lightning didn't strike twice.

Sadly, all 23 chapters of The Million Dollar Mystery are presumed lost.

Next time we'll get to know Florence, Marguerite, and James -- private lives so complex that even Ida couldn't invent them.

Monday, September 24, 2012

And Then There's Maude

Laugh and Get Rich (1931) is a cute little diversion with a familiar plot: good-natured blowhard gets the family into financial trouble, then gets into bigger trouble trying to get them out of it.  Hugh Herbert is the blowhard, Edna May Oliver his long-suffering wife, and cute-as-a-button Dorothy Lee is their daughter whose love life inadvertently saves the day.   Simple, amusing, and the perfect movie for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The one person I enjoyed most however had little to do with the plot, and she was barely in the movie:

(photo courtesy Can't Stop the Movies)

Maude Fealy plays Miss Teasdale, a throwaway character who adds some comic relief in the beginning and end of the picture.  She has a couple of lines, and is instantly forgettable.  But!  How much fun it was to see her, especially when she's more familiar like this:

Born Maude Hawke in 1881, her elegant and heartfelt stage portrayal of Juliet in (what else?) Romeo and Juliet put her on the map.  Two years later, at only age sixteen, William Gillette himself selected her as his leading lady.  She was supremely talented, well-regarded, and -- as you can see -- colossally beautiful.  Having performed in films for them in 1911 and 1912, Thanhouser signed her to an exclusive contract in 1913; to get such a stage actress as her was a VERY BIG DEAL™.  She quickly became their most publicized photoplayer:

Fealy acted with Thanhouser until 1914, then went back to the stage, perfoming only sporadically in films (and then mostly around 1915-1917) until her bit parts in the 30s and 40s.  She also ran a drama school in Colorado.  Cecil B DeMille, a long-time friend of hers, always made sure she had a role in whatever picture he was working on -- her last being a laborer's wife, as well as voice dubbing, in 1956's The Ten Commandments.  Maude Fealy died in her sleep in 1971, at age 88.  Her funeral arrangements and interment were courtesy DeMille, who had provided for them in his will (he predeceased her in 1959).  

(Much thanks to the Thanhouser website for biographical info -- I have become quite the Thanhouser junkie!)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Shirley Chambers, the First "Dumb Blonde"

Was in the mood for something fun Wednesday night, so I popped in "The Half-Naked Truth", with Lee Tracy and Sofia Vegara Lupe Velez.   A fast-talking bit of fluff: Tracy plays a carnival barker/publicity hound  who, after a narrow escape from some trouble, decides to turn Velez into a "Turkish princess" (and manage her all the way to the bank).  Many twists and turns befall them (as you can imagine), none the least when the Ziegfeld-like Farrell (Frank Morgan) and his stage show get roped into the whole mess.  Silly and sparkling and very, very funny!  Good luck getting "Oh! Mr Carpenter" out of your head after it -- thanks again, Cliff Aliperti, for getting it even more firmly jammed in there!

She's got a big job for you.

Those of you who read FF + SS know my weakness for pre-Code platinum blondes, so of course I sat up and took notice when Ella Beebee (Shirley Chambers) entered the fray:

image borrowed from Immortal Ephemera

She was the perfect early-30s loveable ditz!  I just had to look her up and see what else she'd done.  No surprise then, when I discovered she was crowned "Hollywood's First Dumb Blonde".  Shirley began as a model in the late 20s, then became a Goldwyn Girl along with Toby Wing, Lucille Ball, and Betty Grable.  From there she garnered small, often uncredited parts in some pretty big-ticket films: Diplomaniacs, Dancing Lady, Viva Villa!, The Merry Widow, Nothing Sacred, The Women, and the role for which she was probably best known, "Belle's Girl" in Gone With the Wind.

She toured for a while in the early 40s with the USO, did some Broadway, and moved to television roles after returning to California in the late 40s.   Shirley Chambers died on September 11, 2011, at the age of 97.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Come visit the SpeakEasy!

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 Thanks and back to your regularly scheduled blogging ;)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

An Apology to Lillian

When it comes to 1920s actresses, I admit to being fond of the flappers and vamps.  Crawford, Bow, Bara...Anita Page and Marie Prevost...they all simmer with vitality, the badasses of the silent screen.  Because of this, I found myself avoiding other actresses, afraid they'd be too ingenue-like, too dainty and frail to be interesting.  Foremost in this category was Lillian Gish.

I knew she was one of the greats, but something about her just put me off.  Too virginal, I thought.  Too sweet, without even the saucy edge of a Mary Pickford.  But in the interest of equal time, I recorded some of her films during TCM's recent "Summer Under the Stars" day.

"Broken Blossoms" convinced me I was very, very wrong.  

Gish and "The Yellow Man"

The film started quietly enough, beautifully enough; shots of Cheng Huan ("The Yellow Man") preparing to come to America to spread his message of peace and tolerance were delicate, soft and yielding as their subject.  Richard Barthelmess, in a role we see as racist today, imbues his character with dignity and honor, playing him with a subtlety that rescues Cheng Huan from becoming a caricature.  

We then meet Battling Burrows, played broadly (and frighteningly) by Donald Crisp.

A pugilist by trade and an angry bastard by birth, his method of stress relief is to regularly beat his waiflike daughter, Lucy (Gish).  Lucy was dumped on his doorstep and he's resented it ever since.

One day, after a particularly violent episode, Lucy crawls out to the street and makes her way to Cheng Huan's shop (alas, as in real life, his dreams were not realized).  Little did she know that he has been watching her, loving her from afar, a bright and pure point in a painful world:

He rubs his eyes, thinking her an after-effect of the opium he's been using to dull the pain of his disillusionment.  After discovering she is very real, he takes her under his wing, dressing and caring for her as for a goddess.  She spends happy days there, comforted, receiving 

until an associate of her father discovers her there and brings word back to Burrows.  He drops what he's doing and runs to drag his daughter home, away from "the dirty Chink".  He is most displeased and plans to show her how much:

What follows is one of the most harrowing, terrifying, raw scenes I have ever seen in any movie, much less a silent.  This is what made me sit up and realize Lillian Gish is a marvel.  The famous "closet scene" where Lucy becomes a feral animal, desperate to get away from her father's fists.  Lord, rewatching it brought tears to my eyes:

In her book "The Movies, Mr Griffith, and Me" Gish relates that the set went quiet after that scene, and that Griffith himself whispered "Good God, you should have told me you were going to do that."

I will not spoil the rest of the movie for those who have yet to see it, but trust me -- I will never, ever judge a book by its cover again.  By all means, if you haven't seen it yet, go get it right now.  Five stars.

Waiting at home for me is "The Wind", "La Boheme", and "The Scarlet Letter".  I cannot wait to watch more of this riveting woman's work.

(Special thanks to A Silent Film Diary and Golden Silents for providing the images in this post.)