Thursday, February 28, 2013

Noble Johnson and Lincoln Motion Pictures

I didn't want to let Black History Month come to a close without introducing you to a true pioneer:

Noble Johnson.

 (image courtesy Classic Horror Film Board)

A prolific character actor, his career spanned from the earliest days of cinema through the 1950s.  He is best known today for his roles in King Kong and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.  His most important picture, however, is arguably The Realization of a Negro's Ambition -- the inaugural film for the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which he founded in 1916 along with Clarence A. Brooks (also an actor),  Dr. James T. Smith, and Dudley A. Brooks.

(image courtesy Wikipedia)

Jon C Hopwood writes:

In 1916 [Johnson] founded his own studio to produce what would be called "race films", movies made for the African-American audience, which was ignored by the "mainstream" film industry.  The Lincoln Motion Picture Co...was an all-black company, the first to produce movies portraying African-Americans as real people instead of as racist caricatures.  (Noble Johnson IMDb page)

Their first movie was a mature, intelligent drama:

The plot concerned a young engineering graduate of the Tuskegee Institute who leaves the family farm to try his hand in the oil fields of Los Angeles. Turned away because he is Black, the young man rescues a white woman in a runaway carriage. She turns out to be the daughter of the oil company owner, who offers the young man a job with the company's oil exploration team. Later, the young engineer realizes that his parents' farmland shows oil possibilities, and the company owner bankrolls the exploratory drilling tests that eventually prove successful. (Bob Birchard, "Lincoln Motion Picture Company", Hollywood Heritage Summer 2001)

For the average (read: white) audience, used to seeing Black performers relegated to comic relief (or worse), the idea that they could present a sophisticated picture was astonishing.  Seems crazy today, but in 1916 this was a big deal:

The Los Angeles Examiner noted with somewhat condescending amazement that..."colored players can develop histrionic talent above that required for straight comedy.” (Bob Birchard, "Lincoln Motion Picture Company", Hollywood Heritage Summer 2001)

Lincoln started off with moderate success, but financial difficulties, the pressures of leading a double career, and a limited audience caused it to shut down in 1921.  

This did not mean the end for Noble Johnson.  He worked with some of the biggest names of the 1920s:

These included Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Hoot Gibson, Laura La Plante, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, George O'Brien, Richard Arlen, Richard Dix, Dolores Costello and William Haines. Of his silent films, several still exist. Some of them are: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1921; The Ten Commandments, 1923; and The Thief of Baghdad, 1924 and more. ("Noble Johnson, A Hollywood Original!", African American Registry)

(image, from Moby Dick [1930], courtesy Classic Horror Film Board)

Noble Johnson made his last screen appearance in 1966, and died in 1978 at the ripe old age of 96.

Fun fact:  Johnson moved to Colorado as a young boy, and became great friends with one of his classmates.  Many years later, working in Hollywood, they ran into each other and renewed that friendship.
The classmate?  Lon Chaney.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Black Lips and White Faces: Early Silent Film Makeup

Have you ever wondered why the makeup in movies of the 1910s looks so garish and pallid compared to those in the 20s?  

Note (after you stop laughing) how dark Buster's hands are compared to his face.

The secret lies in the type of film stock.  Not all black and white film was created equal!  Before 1922, almost all motion pictures were shot on orthochromatic, or blue-sensitive, film:

The film stock was sensitive to the blue-violet end of the visible spectrum but insensitive to the yellow-red end which meant that it registered reds and yellows as black and light blues as white. Some orthochromatic film may also have been used; it was very sensitive to violet light, considerably sensitive to blue and ultra-violet, much less sensitive to green and yellow light and insensitive to red.

This is one of the reasons actors with blue eyes were not commonly utilized; their eyes simply wouldn't register.  I don't have the book in front of me, but I do remember Colleen Moore mentioning in Silent Star that she feared her movie career might be ruined for this very reason.

Because even the slightest tinge of red would register as uneven and dark, "photoplayers" laid their pink and white greasepaint on with an extra-heavy hand.  It worked, but also gave them a masked, ghostly look.  This also forced them to heavily blacken (or sometimes redden) around their eyes in order for them to be visible.  Actresses' lip rogue would also register as black, completing the odd transformation.

(Granted, Musidora is supposed to look ghoulish here, but you get the idea.)

By 1926, the price of panchromatic film stock was finally affordable to everyone, and the look of actors became softer and more natural.  Advancements in cosmetics by Max Factor and the Westmores meant stars no longer had to rely on stage greasepaint.  These new products however were still harsh:

The lovely Dolores Costello was blessed with a very fair, perfect, and delicate complexion, and she developed severe reactions to the harsh makeup then used in her movies. The skin on her cheeks began to deteriorate, and artists found her condition impossible to hide. Her beauty ravaged, poor Dolores was forced into retirement after her final film...

The Goddess of the Silent Screen herself (image courtesy )

I love learning about the history of cosmetics and their application, particularly how it developed in leaps and bounds thanks to the film industry.   They truly were sister industries.  

Tell me, readers: would you like to hear more?  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Universal Jewel

At nineteen months, the precious Peggy-Jean
Began the climb to immortality;
one of the biggest draws upon the screen,
a Captain steering through a star-filled sea.

Success was short: financial ruin loomed,
and dropped this pearl into the bitter cup
of being spent yet hardly having bloomed.
“How does it feel, sixteen and all washed up?”

Then from the silvered ashes she did rise,
rechristened with a name from hallowed myth;
adversity had honed her, made her wise,
and forged a bright and talented wordsmith…

Diana Serra Cary, pioneer:
the proof that good comes when you persevere.

(still with us!)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Penalty (1920)

(image courtesy LA Times)

A young man, an accident victim, lies in a hospital bed. In a semi-conscious haze he overhears the frantic words of his doctors; they’ve needlessly amputated both his legs and are desperate to cover their error. The boy’s parents enter and weep as they receive the news: "Only immediate amputation could save your child's life." “He lies!” cries the boy, only to have his words written off as an “effect of the ether”.

Fast forward now, and we meet the boy as a grown man – as Blizzard (Lon Chaney), the crime lord ruling the San Francisco underworld from his crutches. He has big plans for himself and the city, the gruesome details of which are as dark and cold as his name. A legion of slave women labor towards his end…but there are two who hold his entire fate in their hands: Barbara (Claire Adams), the artist for whom he sits, and Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), an undercover spy for the police. How their destinies mix to change all of their lives together is the plot of this riveting blend of crime drama and horror.

God, I loved this movie.

(image courtesy Films Muets - Silent Movies)

Can we just talk for a minute about how unbelievably badass Lon Chaney was?  The man was willing to do anything to commit to his role – Method actors have nothing on him!  From Motion Picture Magazine, Sept 1920:

He played his part with his leg[s] strapped behind him, and it hurt so terribly that he could only work for a few moments at a time and then had to be released and rest for a while before he could continue working.

I can’t help but be a little breathless over LC’s grace and dexterity.  There’s a scene where Blizzard pulls himself up a hand ladder – you can’t help but be amazed at not only the upper body strength, but how natural and effortless he makes it look.  According to Wikipedia, the original print had a short epilogue of Chaney out of character to prove he really wasn't a double-amputee; I can’t think of any other contemporary of his that was so believable as to need a disclaimer. 

(image courtesy

It’s not just his physical acting that blew me away, however.  Chaney gives a taste of the sinister yet complex character roles he would excel in, especially for Tod Browning; in a role which would easily be one-dimensional, LC adds humanity.  He makes Blizzard dangerous, but also flawed, relatable.  We see how he has been broken by life, crippled in spirit as well as body.  It is only when playing his beloved piano that Chaney allows the beauty of Blizzard’s pain to show through.  “I can murder anything but music.”

Claire Adams’ Barbara is suitably terrified by Chaney, so much so that when she (inevitably) becomes sympathetic to him, it’s a bit of a stretch.  Ethel Grey Terry does better by Rose, giving her a more credible mix of fear, awe, and – dare I say it – love.  

Even a far-fetched ending cannot damage this film, one of the best silents I have ever seen.  I give this one: 

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Riddle

A little something different today!  This star started in silents and became a household name:

The curtain is dusky, a desert sun red;
will Charles be performing, or will he instead?
The stage was big business back in his time
(you can ask him yourself, just drop in a dime
and call straight from the book, in the Ls, not the Js.)
He'd be happy to speak of his music hall days.

Can you guess who?

EDIT: Ruby answered correctly on the FF + SS Facebook page:  It's Stan Laurel

(photo courtesy Letters From Stan)

 His birth name was Arthur Stanley Jefferson; early in his stage career, as a member of the Karno Troupe, he was an understudy for Charles Chaplin.  His phone number was listed in the 1960s, and he was warm and friendly to any fans who called him for advice or inspiration.  (One such fan was comedian Dick Van Dyke.)  Laurel made his first film, Nuts in May, in 1917, and even did an early short with Oliver Hardy in 1920 -21.  However, it wasn't until 1927 that they were formally paired together -- and the magic began.