Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Star is Born – Gloria Swanson at Essanay

Gloria Swanson
Young Gloria Swanson

Thanks to my recent work with Essanay, I was given the exciting opportunity to pen a series of blog posts for the wonderful Classic Movie Hub site. The third post is live, and all about Chicago's own Gloria Swanson and her time with Essanay. Here's an excerpt to get you started:

Born in Chicago on March 27, 1899, Gloria May Josephine Swanson was born just six years after Thomas Edison held his first public exhibition of Kinetograph films, and the Pathe-Freres was founded. She matured as the movies matured, but she did not intend on becoming a movie star. Her father was a civilian supply officer with the army, which caused the family to move from Chicago to Florida and even Puerto Rico. In 1914 they returned to Chicago, and by this time, the city’s own Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was a major contender in the film industry. One day, Swanson toured the studio with her aunt. It was this tour that, fellow Essanay star Rod La Rocque later said, inspired her to become a photoplayer.

You can read the entire post over at the Classic Movie Hub by clicking here.

Gilbert M. Anderson and the Rise of the Western Star

GM Broncho Billy Anderson
G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson

Thanks to my recent work with Essanay, I was given the exciting opportunity to pen a series of blog posts for the wonderful Classic Movie Hub site. The second post is live, and all about Broncho Billy himself. Here's an excerpt to get you started:

G.M. Anderson, best known by his onscreen persona of Broncho Billy, holds a special place in film history. Not only did he have multiple roles in one of the most iconic silent films of all time, “The Great Train Robbery,” he also co-founded Essanay Studios, discovered a number of iconic silent film stars and created a character archetype that spawned an entire genre of film. Anderson’s persona and image became so entwined with that of cowboy Broncho Billy, that audiences truly believed he’d been a rough rider all of his life. In actuality, he was a stage actor who’d grown up in St. Louis.

You can read the entire post over at the Classic Movie Hub by clicking here.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Charlie Chaplin at Essanay

Charlie Chaplin Essanay
Charlie Chaplin Essanay advertisement

Thanks to my recent work with Essanay, I was given the exciting opportunity to pen a series of blog posts for the wonderful Classic Movie Hub site. I'm honored and flattered that the wonderful folks there would give me the chance to contribute to their blog, and I'm happy to announce that the first of these posts is now live for your reading pleasure -- "Charlie Chaplin at Essanay." Here's an excerpt to get you started:

"A celebratory dance and a hefty paycheck signaled the start of Charlie Chaplin’s stay with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, but his year-and-a-half stay with the studio produced more than that. It was the start of Chaplin as writer, director, actor and producer in total control of his work. It was the start of Chaplin as clown as well as an emotional actor. And it was the start of the actor as a major draw, not a nameless face."

You can read the entire post over at Classic Movie Hub by clicking here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Open House Chicago Gives Chicagoans an Inside Look at Essanay

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of volunteering at Essanay Studios’ Open House event as part of Open House Chicago. The 2-day event gives Chicago residents the opportunity to get exclusive behind-the-scenes glimpses at some of the city’s iconic buildings and sites, and all for free! Not only did it mean giving visitors a look at Essanay’s historic Studio A (now Charlie Chaplin Auditorium, it also meant giving them the chance to watch a screening of “His New Job” on the big screen, and informing them one-on-one about our restoration campaign.

Although the day started slow, as the day got under way, I was thrilled to see the amount of eager visitors coming through the doors, taking pictures of the entrance way, and taking in Chaplin, for perhaps the first time, on the big screen. The atmosphere was friendly and fun, and it gave lots of eager film fans the chance to connect with one another (including me).

In addition to the film screening, we introduced visitors to our restoration campaign via the video we made for Indiegogo, and Essanay Centers President Gary Keller discussed the history of film in Chicago, the history of Essanay, and the future of the complex. We also presented a screening of “Being Charlie Chaplin,” a three-channel video installation piece created by Hale Ekinci wherein she competes with Chaplin for his job in “His New Job.”

For me, the most rewarding part of the event was the opportunity to connect with fellow film lovers and answer their questions. I spoke with one gentleman for at least 30 minutes, going from discussing Essanay, to discussing Hitchcock and French horror films.

The whole experience left me with the hope that the city is rediscovering this hidden gem and that our restoration project, and coverage about it, will once again bring the studio back into the spotlight. I hope we can hold another open house event very soon.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Save Essanay!

Virginia Valli Essanay Studios
Virginia Valli in front of the historic Essanay Studios entrance

For a few months now, I've had the opportunity to work closely with a wonderful group of people still firmly entrenched in the world of silent film -- the interns, volunteers and staff at Chicago's Essanay Studios. Although the complex has gone through many owners since the days of Broncho Billy Anderson and George Spoor, many of its iconic features remain, including its iconic terra cotta entrance that beautifully displays the studio name and Mary Spoor's iconic Essanay logo.

Essanay Studiios

The studio was named a historic landmark in the '90s, but our team is dedicated to making it even more than that. We're working to restore the iconic entrance way and restore and renovate the legendary Studio A to help it become the Essanay Centers. The Centers will be the the place for people in and around Chicago and Illinois to come and learn about early film, while also providing a performance space that can be used by students and experts in the world of the visual arts. 

The team has been working hard to make this dream a reality by seeking out grants and donations, but we need help. We've launched an indiegogo campaign to help us raise the funds needed to save and restore the cracking and crumbling entrance way, and to start the process of adapting historic Studio A to become an immersive early film experience. You can learn more about this project by visiting the campaign home page here:  Every little bit helps, and we've got some great perks for all of our generous backers!

You can also learn more by visiting the official Essanay site, or checking out the Essanay accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

Please help us spread the word and make this historic film landmark a beacon of old and new media for Chicago and silent film fans everywhere.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Mary MacLane: A Correct Reflection of a Peculiar Woman

mary maclane

Mary MacLane had been causing a stir for nearly 20 years by the time she joined the ranks at Essanay, and the sensation she caused helped bring the studio new attention. Unfortunately, the product of their partnership has been lost to time.

MacLane startled readers and publishers alike when she published her diary in 1902 at the age of 19. Her honesty about her love life and experiences intrigued and astounded readers and critics alike. As one newspaper wrote of “The Story of Mary MacLane,” “she ran the gamut of egoism and penitence. She was, according to her, the most beautiful as well as the ugliest girl in the world and on that range of arpeggios she strummed her symphony of life and its overtones.”

But after a while, MacLane’s popularity waned. She occasionally made headlines due to her eccentric and often erratic behavior. On at least one occasion, she disappeared without a trace, only to resurface days later. For the most part, though, she failed to do anything considered newsworthy. Then, in 1917, she published “I, Mary MacLane” and found herself back in the spotlight, and back in demand. Seeing an opportunity, Essanay co-founder George K. Spoor approached MacLane with the idea of turning some of her memoirs and life story into a film.

Mary MacLane with director Arthur Berthelet
Mary MacLane with director Arthur Berthelet

It seemed a natural fit. MacLane’s memoirs already read like a vamp’s tale, and she had a great deal of publicity and controversy already surrounding her. As she detailed in an essay for Photoplay, her new role sounded like one she had simply fallen into: “Without effort, without volition, without, in short, wanting to, I -- I have become a ‘film star.’” MacLane agreed to the project and the seeds of “Men Who Have Made Love to Me” were planted. In December of 1917, Essanay announced it had secured MacLane as its next star, and emphasized the fact that no expense would be spared during the filming. Under Arthur Berthelet’s direction, the luxurious apartments described in her affairs would be recreated in painstaking detail, and MacLane herself would be dressed in the most beautiful gowns (no doubt, a decision intended to bring more women to the theaters, much like the tactic the studio employed with “The Strange Case of Mary Page”). Not only that, Spoor would expand his usual marketing plan to reflect this “ultra feature.” He rented billboards in more than 20 cities across the country, sent special sheets to national newspapers and magazines, and even outfitted Chicago buses with placards advertising the film.

But upon its release in February of 1918, the film got mixed reviews. Some critics noted that it was a “correct reflection of the peculiar woman” and that it would satisfy viewers’ curiosity about MacLane, but they were sure to emphasize that it “adds nothing to to the artistic achievement of pictures.” Motion Picture Magazine referred to it as a “visualized diary” and a “Hooverized love-feast” but “not dramatic entertainment.”

Mary MacLane
Scene from "Men Who Have Made Love to Me"

In fact, the film, which followed six of MacLane’s affairs, wasn’t as scandalous as MacLane’s works had been, or current vamp films starring the likes of Theda Bara were. Some critics even said it was prudish compared to popular vamps of the screen. Although the film itself may not have been much to write home about, MacLane’s erratic behavior certainly was. While the film was still in theaters, MacLane once again disappeared, leaving behind only a few belongings in her hotel room. She reappeared days later and revealed that she had checked into another hotel room under an assumed name. She had wanted to get away from the media attention and cover the “financial embarrassment” she felt (she was prone to overspending and her addiction to luxury caused her to lose money as quickly as she earned it).

MacLane was almost entirely out of the spotlight when she was arrested at her Chicago home in July of 1919. Alla Ripley, a designer, brought charges against MacLane after the gowns she designed for "Men Who Have Made Love to Me" disappeared without being paid for. At the time she was arrested, the papers said she only had 85 cents to her name.

Mary MacLane

MacLane never returned to the screen, and a decade later was found dead in her Chicago hotel room at the age of 48. She was penniless, and had succumbed to tuberculosis, a disease that had also claimed Marie Bashkirtseff -- a French writer to whom MacLane was often compared. Although MacLane’s published works have lived on and have been reprinted for new generations, the film, like so many other Essanay works, is considered lost.

Mary MacLane

Explore other Essanay stars through past blog posts, or take a quick look at the history of film in Chicago here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vedah Bertram: A Career Cut Short

Vedah Bertram

The death of Essanay star Vedah Bertram marks one of the earliest tragedies the film industry had to deal with. When she died at just 20 years old, she had already traveled across the country to follow her dream and had managed to hold her own on the screen with the likes of Broncho Billy himself, G.M. Anderson. But because she had been disowned by her father, she was forced to keep her real identity a secret until just before her untimely death.

Born to Jennie and Jerome Buck in New York in December 1891, Bertram’s real name was Adele Buck. In a few short years, Jerome would become a respected journalist in the Boston and New York areas, and a well respected member of high society, but by 1900 the couple had split. By that time, Adele was living with her mother, brother, grandmother and step-grandfather, and by 1910, her mother and father were both completely out of the picture. Her father remarried, but her mother appears to have died between 1900 and 1910, leaving Adele and her younger brother Jerome Jr. to be raised by their grandparents. She was educated at Wellesley College, where she graduated in 1911, and it was at Wellesley where she discovered her love of theater.

She took to the stage against her family’s wishes, and instead lived with her fiance’s family, the Merrills, while she pursued work on the stage. It was during this time that she was discovered by G.M. Anderson, co-founder of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. Despite being new to the world of film, she greatly impressed him and he hired her to join the Western studio and star alongside him in his Broncho Billy films. She accepted and she and her fiance, L.H. Merrill, moved west to Niles, California to begin anew. She changed her name to Vedah Bertram and kept her true identity secret to avoid being linked back to her family.

Essanay ad

Anderson was soon gushing to the fan magazines about his “find,” and the reporters took to Bertram, too. They admired her personality, her athleticism and her clever acting ability. She made her debut in “The Ranch Girl’s Mistake,” released in March of 1912, and became an instant favorite among film-goers. She only had a few films under her belt, when she was admitted to the hospital in April due to a severe illness, but her absence from the screen was noticed by fans and reporters alike. The Moving Picture World noted she had “a warm place in the hearts of film lovers for her talent and beauty,” and all were relieved when she recovered the following month and returned to pictures in “The Desert Sweetheart.”

Although she continued to make films, she was in poor health, and by August she once again fell severely ill. The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that she had suffered a breakdown shortly before being stricken with appendicitis. As her condition worsened, she was rushed into surgery at Samuel Merritt Hospital in Oakland. Before going under the knife, she revealed her real name and her family, telling hospital staff that they were only to contact her family if she didn’t survive. As her condition became critical, fan magazines raved about her most recent performance in “Broncho Billy’s Last Hold-Up” where she, ironically, comforted a dying Broncho Billy in his final moments. “Vedah is forceful, crafty and altogether charming,” the Moving Picture World noted, and held out hope that she would one day return to the screen.

Broncho Billy's Last Hold Up, featuring Vedah Bertram
Scene from "Broncho Billy's Last Hold-Up," featuring Vedah Bertram

Unfortunately, “Broncho Billy’s Last Hold-Up” would be one of her final performances. She died August 26, 1912 at the age of 20, and was mourned by the film industry and film-going public alike. Her father and brother were notified of her death via telegram, and Merrill took her body back to the East coast to be buried in Sheepshead, New York. Her final film “Broncho Billy Outwitted” was released posthumously, and fan magazines all over the country declared her one of the cleverest actresses the motion picture world had known.

Vedah Bertram

For weeks following her death, fans sent letters and verses in her honor to fan magazines which were reportedly forwarded on to her family. One fan, cited only as W.F.B., told Motion Picture Story Magazine that they were still watching Bertram’s films. The editor simply replied, “Glad that you still see pictures with Vedah Bertram in them. Life is short, and art is long.”

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Peerless Annabelle: A Symphony in Yellow Hair

Annabelle Whitford

On her 80th birthday, Annabelle Whitford was on top of the world. She'd received jams, jellies, flowers, phone calls and telegrams from well-wishers across the country, and had entertained several photographers and reporters who had come to call, all within her small Chicago apartment. It was quite the change from the birthday Whitford thought she would have just a day prior, when the recently widowed former Follies girl felt as though she had been forgotten by the rest of the world. She felt lonely and hopeless, despite being, at one time, one of the best-known dancers in the country.

Annabelle Moore Whitford was born July 6, 1878 to Amanda Moore in Chicago, Illinois. Annabelle's biological father was out of the picture, but it didn't really matter. She and her mother were inseparable, and by the time she was in her teens, her mother had remarried. According to Annabelle, she was on stage by the time she was 11, and began to make a name for herself as a dancer. Her signature dances soon became the Serpentine, the Butterfly and the Sun Dances, and she soon became so well known (particularly in New York), that she was invited by Thomas Edison to be one of his first subjects to be recorded with the Kinetoscope. Edison's films of her dances became so popular, that she was invited back to the Black Maria to record new performances to make up for the prints that had worn out. Thanks to her growing popularity, she was also chosen to perform at the World's Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World's Fair) just months shy of her 15th birthday.

Annabelle Whitford

Although her performance at the fair would help boost her popularity even further, she soon found herself in the midst of one of the highest profile scandals to hit 19th century New York. In December 1896, Annabelle said she was approached by agent James H. Phipps to perform at a bachelor party being held by Herbert Seeley, grandson of P.T. Barnum, for his brother. Although Annabelle initially accepted the offer, Phipps told her to dance for the men without her tights. She was insulted, and although he later said she could wear her tights, she refused and told her stepfather, theatrical agent William S. Moore, about the incident. He reported the incident to the police who then raided the banquet where "muscle" dancer Ashea Wabe was performing. Although she wasn't nude at the time of her arrest, Wabe later admitted that she'd been asked to perform nude and that she fully intended to. The trial that resulted from the raid stemmed from public indecency, but because of the stature of the men involved, there was backlash against the police and Annabelle's stepfather. Annabelle herself testified during the trial, and had her testimony refuted by others, but her stepfather ultimately paid the price. On January 17, 1897, Moore died of pneumonia at just the age of 52. His doctor claimed that the notoriety the trial had brought him hastened his death.

In the end, the scandal did little to hurt Annabelle's career. She returned to the stage, pursued drama for a couple of years, and then made the transition into musical comedy where she again began to make a name for herself. She appeared in productions like The Sprightly Romance of Marsac and The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, before joining Eddie Foy in a production of Mr. Bluebeard in 1903. Although the show was well-received, its run ended in tragedy. On December 30, the company was preparing to end its run at the beautiful Iroquois Theatre in Chicago. The theater was packed well beyond capacity -- 2,000 audience members were estimated in attendance and many of them were children. At the beginning of the second act, an arc light shorted out, causing a curtain to catch fire. A stagehand attempted to douse the fire, but it was no use. The scenery and stage were soon in flames. Foy remained on stage trying to calm patrons as they attempted to escape. Some patrons were trampled by fellow audience members, doors failed to open, and other patrons were trapped in dead ends. Annabelle escaped, but was injured and admitted to a local hospital. Others were not so lucky. An estimated 575 people died the day of the blaze with dozens more dying in the following days. It was an event that Annabelle would never forget, and she would often participate in memorial services marking the anniversary of the tragedy in later years.

Scene from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1908
Scene from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1908

Annabelle's career was about to take yet another turn. Her roles in musical comedies, and her figure, soon got the attention of Flo Ziegfeld himself, and she joined the Follies of 1907. During her run with the Follies, she became a living version of many of the idealized "girl" types of the early 20th century. She often played the Gibson girl, the Christy girl and the Brinkley girl, and sang on stage. She was dubbed one of the most beautiful follies girls ever known, but only remained with the company for three seasons before embarking on her own vaudeville tour. Her career came to an abrupt end, though, when she married Edward J. Buchan, a stage electrician who would later become a surgeon. She retired from the stage and the screen, but continued to be very involved in the Chicago community. She was on the board of the Salvation Army and a member of the Women's War Relief Association.

She also continued to pursue her love for the stage, albeit vicariously. In 1939 she created a Follies-esque review featuring 40 grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Annabelle directed the cast, and the show included musical acts, skits and even a revamped version of the Brinkley girl routine from 30 years prior. Although the beauty Annabelle had embodied was now out of fashion, she didn't hesitate to speak her mind about the new generations' glamour girls. “The Gibson girl didn’t have to have a ‘mask’ of cosmetics, or a scanty costume to be admired; yesteryear’s belle had real beauty.” Even though she was in her 60s, she still only used cosmetics sparingly.

Members of the Women's War Relief Association
Members of the Women's War Relief Association: Mrs. Edward J. Buchan (Annabelle Whitford Buchan), Mrs. Norval H. Pierce (nee Drucilla Wahl), Mrs. Edward R. Fifield and Mrs. William M. Hight

Annabelle and her husband had a lived a comfortable life together in a spacious home, but it soon slipped through their fingers. She lamented in an 1945 interview that when she agreed to be filmed by Edison she made a terrible mistake. “It was at this time that I made the greatest mistake of my life. For my performance, Mr. Edison offered me my choice of $15 or an interest in his new invention. I took the cash.” She lamented that a colleague had taken the offer of interest and was now a millionaire. Had she made a similar choice, her final years may have been happier. By the '50s, the couple was living off of a government pension of just $114 a month (she had earned $750 a week when she was with the Follies). When she was given the opportunity to pen a remembrance of the tragic Iroquois blaze, Annabelle donated the $900 check she received to a charity for underprivileged Chicago youth. When her donation was discovered, the couple was dropped from the pension program, and the charity was forced to return what was left of the donation, about $480, to the Buchans to live off of until they could reapply for the pension program. At one point, their small apartment didn't even have heat.

Shortly thereafter, Edward died, leaving Annabelle a penniless widow. As her 80th birthday approached, newspapers remembered the star who had fallen on hard times, and interviewed her. “No one comes to see me. it would be wonderful to hear from someone -- anyone, particularly on my birthday,” she told them, and people everywhere responded. Her apartment at 2401 W. Diversey was soon buzzing with activity, and reporters who showed up the day of the celebration were greeted with a joyful Annabelle. “Oh, the telegrams! The letters and telegrams! The reporters! My room is a bower of roses. And look! All kinds of jams and jellies. A Chicago woman brought them. Oh, what a day!”

Annabelle Whitford

Although her 80th birthday was a shining moment, it didn't change her impoverished state. She died November 29, 1961 at Augustana Hospital at the age of 83.

Annabelle Whitford

A reporter covering the Seeley Scandal once described her as a symphony in yellow hair, and thanks to surviving Edison negatives, we can still watch this symphony in all of her beauty. Watch excerpts from her Butterfly and Serpentine dances below.

Serpentine Dances, the American Short film by William Heise

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Annabelle Butterfly Dance, the American Silent Documentary by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Edna Mayo: The Best Dressed Woman on the Screen

Edna Mayo

Although she was a popular leading lady with the Chicago branch of Essanay, Edna Mayo’s fame and stardom were brief, as was her film career. She was in the public eye for less than five years, but she made quite an impression, and when she left the industry, fans were confused and wondered where she had gone. Her disappearance and life after film remain a mystery.

Edna Mayo was born in Philadelphia, but the specifics surrounding it are unclear. Although available sources claim she was born March 23, 1895, contemporary magazines claimed a March 27, 1893 birth date, (which gels with the ages and dates cited for major events in her career). She was an only child, and it was said that she was of a famous theatrical family, though none of her famous family members were ever cited in articles. Later, the press would refer to her mother as simply Mrs. J. Mayo.

Carlyle Blackwell and Edna Mayo
Carlyle Blackwell and Edna Mayo

After graduating from Girls College in 1909 at the age of 16, she pursued stage drama full time. Although she claimed she had been on the stage since the age of 5, her first notable work was in “The Social Whirl” which ran from April to September of 1906. She followed that up with parts in “The Merry Widow Burlesque” (Jan-May 1908), “Girlies” (Jun-Aug 1910), and “Help Wanted” (Feb-May 1914). When she wasn’t on stage, she was pursuing artistic hobbies, as well. She studied sculpture in New York at the Art Students League and, when she later moved to Chicago, she continued to study at the Art Institute.

Mayo made her move from the stage to film in mid-1914, after her run with “Help Wanted” ended. She was signed by Favorite Players to make “The Key to Yesterday” opposite Carlyle Blackwell. That arrangement soon fell through, though, and once the picture was over, she bounced to Famous Players, and even made a film under Pathe. By the beginning of 1915, though, she had set down roots in Chicago, joining the players at Essanay. In February, she made her Essanay debut with “Stars, Their Courses Change” playing opposite Essanay’s leading man Francis X. Bushman, and was touted as their new leading lady. She was quickly paired with the best the Chicago branch had to offer, acting opposite players like Richard Travers and Bryant Washburn.

Henry B. Walthall and Edna Mayo
Henry B. Walthall and Edna Mayo in "The Woman Hater"

Although she was still a relative newcomer to the world of film, she was quite a temperamental star. She had trouble acting with crowds watching her, was self centered, and was determined to have things her way. She talked of pleading with directors, begging, “Let me have my own way. Let me say what my feelings tell me to, and my action will amount to something -- otherwise never.” Although her fits undoubtedly led to some friction on set, it certainly allowed her to put out good work. She worked very consistently throughout the rest of 1915, even appearing in some gender-bending roles (a big deal for a woman who was once declared the most beautiful photoplay actress).

"The Strange Case of Mary Page"
"The Strange Case of Mary Page"

With 1916 came her biggest project to date. The 15-episode serial “The Strange Case of Mary Page” starred Mayo in the title role opposite the great Henry B. Walthall. The plot was intriguing -- Mary Page is on trial for murder, but she and her lawyer/lover are convinced she didn’t commit it -- and audiences responded favorably. The studio got scores of letters every day from fans who were convinced they had figured out the answer for the murder mystery element of the story. The series was quite an undertaking, and represented a first for Essanay, so the PR machine worked hard behind the scenes to make it a profitable endeavor. Ads were taken out in publications like McClure’s, McCall’s, Ladies World, and Pictorial Review to ensure that female audiences knew of it. They also used the elaborate, gorgeous dresses Mayo wore throughout the film as a selling point. The gowns were designed by Lucile, aka Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, and one piece in particular reportedly carried a price tag of $1,000. If they couldn’t attract female audience members purely on plot, they thought, they might get them because of the fashions.

Edna Mayo
Edna Mayo wearing dresses created for "The Strange Case of Mary Page"

Mayo bragged that she spent nearly everything she made on clothes, and her wardrobe choices led to magazines declaring her The Best Dressed Woman on the Screen. Though she splurged on gowns, she didn’t lead a luxurious lifestyle otherwise. She divided her time between work and her apartment on Sheridan. She wasn’t married and made it clear that she had no intention of marrying. Not only were all husbands bossy, she asserted, but it would disrupt her routine. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever marry. I’m so happy working, and leading my quiet little life between apartment and studio, studio and apartment. I don’t want to be upset and made unhappy -- even by happiness!”

Aside from “The Strange Case of Mary Page,” Mayo’s most interesting project of 1916 was “The Return of Eve,” released in September of that year. It featured Eugene O’Brien and was filmed around the Wisconsin Dells. It told the story of a modern day Garden of Eden, where scientists mounted an experiment that involved raising infants in the wilderness to grow up “naturally.” When the now-grown Mayo and O’Brien are brought back to civilization, they’re horrified and return to their former way of life.

The Return of Eve
"The Return of Eve" featuring Eugene O'Brien and Edna Mayo

Mayo and O’Brien received praise for their roles, but her acting opportunities began to dwindle. Rumors started to spread in mid-1917 that she had left Essanay, but she brushed them off, speaking instead of doing humanitarian work in the slums of Chicago. By December of that year, however, she was unemployed, and by January she had disappeared from the screen. A year later, she attempted to stage a comeback with the General Film Co. and “Hearts of Love,” but it didn’t work. “Hearts of Love” was her final film.

Edna Mayo

A couple years prior, Mayo had told fan magazine reporters that she had no desire to go back to the speaking stage, but it’s unclear what exactly she did do following her screen retirement. It seems her fan base and the world of film lost track of her. She appears to have moved back to California, though, and died in San Francisco in 1970.

Although Mayo was by all accounts a formidable actress, we don’t really have proof of it today. Her films are mostly considered lost, and we’re left only with plot synopses to judge her by. Still, we can’t help but hope that a copy of “The Strange Case of Mary Page” will miraculously reappear for film fans and historians alike to enjoy.

Edna Mayo

Jump over to my Pinterest page to see more of the ads for "The Strange Case of Mary Page" and other Edna Mayo pictures.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Marguerite Clayton: The Broncho Girl of the Essanay Company

Marguerite Clayton

Marguerite Clayton never quite eclipsed her famous leading man G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, but she managed keep a respectable film career alive for 15 years before retiring right around the introduction of sound. From humble beginnings, to becoming one of the most popular photoplayers in the early days of the industry, Clayton had quite a career and, fortunately for us, some of her work is still available for us to enjoy.

Marguerite Clayton

Margaret Fitzgerald was born in Ogden, Utah on April 12, 1891 (some sources say 1892) to Irish and Welsh parents. She was the third of four children born to Michael and Belle Fitzgerald, but little is known about her early years. She proudly told fan magazines that she had entered right into the motion picture industry without having done any real stage work (though later interviews dispute that). She was educated at convent called St. Mary’s in Salt Lake City and sang in the tabernacle from a young age. Her father was a mining engineer, and by 1910, the family seems to have made the move from Utah to San Francisco, where her father ran a bar.

Marguerite Clayton

Despite having no familial connection to the stage, Clayton found herself drawn to film, and began to dream of appearing on screen. When a LA-based paper ran an ad that said the western branch of Essanay was searching for actresses to join the company, she was quick to respond. In mid 1913, she joined the Essanay company doing small parts. The bit roles didn’t last long though, for after about 3 months she was starring alongside Mr. Anderson himself in his “Broncho Billy” pictures.

Marguerite Clayton and G.M. Anderson in a Broncho Billy film
Marguerite Clayton and G.M. Anderson in a Broncho Billy installment

She was inexperienced, but that seemed to play to her benefit. “I decided when I went into motion pictures that I didn’t know a thing about them, and that I would do just as the director told me. I have always followed that rule. No matter what the director says, I do it.” She was also focused on becoming a true film artiste. “I intend to keep on working until I am at the top. If I could always be sure of as good a teacher as Mr. Anderson is, I am sure I’d have no doubts of getting there.”

Marguerite Clayton and Richard Travers in "The Egg"
Marguerite Clayton and Richard Travers in "The Egg"

Clayton briefly left the company to pursue a part in a stage production called “The Candy Shop,” and later briefly left the company to pursue parts with the Liberty company. But by April of 1915, she was back at Essanay and back with Broncho Billy. Although she had grown into a western star courtesy of the Niles branch of Essanay, by late 1915, she found herself established at her new home at the Chicago branch. Rather than playing opposite the rugged G.M. Anderson, she found herself playing leads with handsome Richard Travers, and rather than playing in westerns, she found herself in dramas and light comedies. Her first role at the Chicago branch was “A Daughter of the City,” a morality play in which she played the titular role and got to show her range.

Marguerite Clayton

She was one of 12 players added to the Essanay stock company and, in 1917, one of the players who got to play in Essanay’s line of Black Cat Features -- snappy, sharp, two-reel comedy dramas that were based on Black Cat Magazine. She even starred in a unique picture where she, through some trick photography, was turned into a living doll. Despite being one of the company’s favorite and most consistent players, in late 1917, Clayton left the company to freelance with Paralta and later Artcraft, Paramount, and Paragon. In mid-1918, she made her last major picture splash with “Hit-the-Trail Holliday,” a prohibition play written by and starring George M. Cohan. She was happy with the change of scenery her parts had taken, telling fan reporters, “I wouldn’t go back into Western stuff for the world,” but her career was starting to slip.

In 1922, she sued Pathe for $50,000 in damages when she was struck by a pipe while filming. She alleged that the injury had left her with a permanent facial scar, but it’s unclear whether the case ended in a ruling or a settlement. She continued to work in film in both the US and Europe, but by the time the talkies started to take hold in the late ‘20s, she had disappeared from the screen.

Marguerite Clayton

With the ‘30s came her marriage to Victor Bertrandias, a major in the US Air Force, and her retirement from the screen. She took Victor’s last name, and, save for a few instances, managed to stay out of the spotlight. The couple were married until his death in 1961. Marguerite died seven years later.

Marguerite Clayton

The name of Marguerite Clayton never rose to the ranks of a Norma Talmadge or a Mary Pickford, but thanks to her work in the "Broncho Billy" series, she’s achieved an immortality among silent film lovers. To watch the Broncho Girl of the Essanay Company in action, check out two installments of the “Broncho Billy” series below.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: Wild Bill Hollywood Maverick

Wild Bill Hollywood Maverick

By the time William A. Wellman was 36 years old, he had just as many films under his belt. He had also survived a war, four failed marriages, and some of the tougher aspects of the Hollywood studio system. Now, Kino Lorber has made his story widely available once again with the DVD release of “Wild Bill Hollywood Maverick.”

“Wild Bill” tells the story behind the man who created some incredible and truly iconic silent and sound films, through the anecdotes, experiences, and voices of some of the people who knew him best, his son William Jr. and his wife Dorothy. Also featured are interviews with names who’ve become icons in their own right, people like Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and James Garner. His life, from his terrifying injury during World War I, to his final days in the business, is detailed lovingly and respectfully.

William Wellman
William Wellman

The documentary, directed by Todd Robinson, was originally released in 1996. Because it was released 20 years after Wellman died, it, understandably, lacks stories and interviews from the man himself. If Robinson had been able to balance this out with more archival interview footage, somehow, the film would feel more complete, but as it is, the documentary is an incredible glimpse at one of Hollywood’s greatest, toughest directors.

To get a look at the man behind the camera, here’s an excerpt from Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s incredible “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film” featuring an interview from Wellman himself all about the making of “Wings” -- the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

You can purchase “Wild Bill Hollywood Maverick” on DVD here. If you're looking for more of William Wellman's work, you can watch the original version of "A Star is Born" and "Nothing Sacred" courtesy of Fandor.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Myrtle Stedman: The Girl with the Sweet Contralto Eyebrows

Myrtle Stedman

She had many nicknames during the height of her fame. The Voiceless Prima Donna. The Venus of the Movie World. The Girl with the Search-light Eyes. The Selig Girl. Yet the one Myrtle Stedman liked the most paid tribute not to her looks so much as her incredibly expressive face and her talent as a subtle, intelligent silent actress -- The Girl with the Sweet Contralto Eyebrows.

Myrtle Stedman

Although several dates would later crop up during her career, Myrtle C. Lincoln was actually born March 3, 1883 in Chicago. She claimed to be a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln, but before she was a teenager, Myrtle was well on her way to claiming her own place in the spotlight. Her mother was a singer, and at 12 years old she joined the Whitney Opera Company doing solo dances. Not long after, the family left Chicago for Black Hawk, Colorado where Myrtle’s father pursued a career as a miner (some fan magazines claimed she may have tried the same). Eventually, Myrtle found her way back to Chicago and back to the Whitney Company. While there, she sang in opera, comic opera, and musical comedy productions.

Myrtle Stedman

It was around this time that she met and married an aspiring actor and director named Marshall Stedman. The couple were married in Chicago on January 23, 1900, Myrtle was 16 and Marshall was 25. The couple had a son, Lincoln, two years later and he would (secretly) follow in his parents footsteps, as we’ll later see.

In 1910, Otis Turner of Selig Polyscope approached Myrtle and offered her a position with the company. Myrtle, who was tired of traveling for her musical engagements, accepted, and was soon one of the studio’s most popular stars, along with Kathlyn Williams, Winifred Greenwood, and Adrienne Kroell. During the three years she was with the company, Myrtle worked at the main studio in Chicago as well as the Western studios in Arizona and Colorado (not exactly giving her the travel-free life she was hoping for). Although Myrtle typically took the leads in westerns, leaving Kathlyn Williams with the dramas, she could easily play dramatic leading roles. Her son Lincoln would later note, in the early days of film you were expected to be versatile. “In the summers you rode the plains as an outdoor girl and when the snow fell and winter came, ‘society dramas’ were made.” Myrtle could certainly handle both.

Myrtle Stedman

As her fame grew, Myrtle began embarking on personal appearance tours. In 1912, she and Marshall performed for the prisoners at the Colorado State Penitentiary, and in 1913, she performed at the funeral of a miner who was crushed when a tunnel caved in. She also showed off her voice in tours around the country, singing for audiences and speaking about her career.

Myrtle Stedman

In late 1913, Myrtle left Selig. She joined Bosworth and then Morosco, and continued to do excellent work. In 1915 she became the first female elected member of the newly organized Motion Picture Board of Trade of America. She told the magazines she was thrilled and that she was ready to work towards the betterment of conditions affecting women in film, as well as legislation and censorship threatening the industry.

Myrtle Stedman

In 1916, she gave one of her most memorable performances -- that of the mother and her abandoned daughter in “The American Beauty,” and won great praise. Shortly thereafter, though, things started to slow down for her. Her contract with Morosco expired and she decided not to renew it. Instead, she toured the country with singing engagements, and for the next few years only took films roles here and there. Her personal life also took a turn when she filed for divorce from Marshall in 1919 citing desertion. She attempted a bit of a comeback in the early ‘20s, but was met with mostly irregular supporting roles. But she found herself back in the limelight in 1923 thanks to the success of someone else -- her son.

Just like Myrtle, there’s a lot of confusion around Lincoln’s date of birth. According to the 1920 census, though, Lincoln was born in 1902, and according to interviews he entered film at just the age of 9. Photoplay believed he made his debut in "The Old Swimming Hole," and since it was released in 1912, Lincoln would've been the right age. Although he was performing in films as early as 1912, he wasn’t being recognized as Myrtle’s son. In fact, as late as 1917, the fan magazines were claiming Myrtle and Marshall had no children (despite the fact that as early as that year, Lincoln’s name was also gracing the pages of Photoplay and the like as a player in films).

Myrtle Stedman and Lincoln Stedman
Myrtle Stedman and Lincoln Stedman

As Myrtle’s career declined, Lincoln’s began to really take shape and suddenly the two were gracing the pages of every major fan magazine. Myrtle, now 40 (though claiming younger), was aging very well, and suddenly the idea arose to cast her as a youthful matron in 1923’s “The Famous Mrs. Fair.” This started a new career for her. Now, she was the youthful mother and character actress, not the western lead, and it seemed to help her career overall. She was priase for playing age-appropriate parts, while her contemporaries were denounced for chasing roles that were no longer in their wheelhouse. Although she was fudging her age (and, presumably, Lincoln’s too), she spoke of embracing age. “Growing old isn’t something to be dreaded. It is something to be enjoyed. Age isn’t a thief and a robber. He is a friend. It’s only an exchange.”

Myrtle Stedman

Although she signed a 3-year contract with First National in 1925, and performed very consistently in supporting roles to younger players like Blanche Sweet, by 1929, Photoplay was lamenting the fact that she had, once again, fallen into the shadows. “Why [is Myrtle], though still playing, submerged in a dim background? Capable, attractive, but inconspicuous...” That same year she made her talkie debut in “The Wheel of Life” and, unlike other silent stars, continued to act well into the ‘30s. She retired temporarily, but soon returned to the screen, albeit in mostly uncredited supporting roles. She suffered a heart attack and died January 8, 1938 at the age of 54 (though the New York Times obituary said she was 50). Lincoln died 10 years later from a heart ailment.

What is now available of Myrtle Stedman’s work is a pretty limited representation of her career. What is available, though, is the film she made with Lois Weber, the highly acclaimed “Hypocrities.” You can watch a clip below or purchase a copy of the DVD from the folks at Kino Lorber here.