Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Transformation of Olga Grey

Olga Grey

A music student turned actress turned lawyer? As odd as it may sound, that's the journey of Anushka Zacsek, better known to silent film fans as Olga Grey.

Olga Grey

Although her parents were Hungarian, Grey grew up and was educated in New York. Her father pushed her to pursue a career in music, specifically encouraging her to become a violinist. She had done some stage acting, but (as she told the fan magazines at the time) she impulsively decided that she wanted to pursue a career in film when she took a trip to the West Coast in 1915.

She signed with Triangle and found herself as an extra in several of D.W. Griffith's films. She had an uncredited role in "The Birth of a Nation," and also played the part of Mary Magdalene in the Christ narrative of "Intolerance." Though she never achieved the same kind of prominence that other Griffith ingenues would achieve (e.g. Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh), she found "important roles" in Douglas Fairbanks vehicles ("Double Trouble") and Mae Marsh vehicles ("The Wild Girl of the Sierras") which won her praise from critics.

Olga Grey in "Fanatics"
Still from "Fanatics"

Grey, like Theda Bara, used her exotic looks to her advantage, often playing exotic, vamp-like characters. Occasionally she found roles that allowed her to show more range, like the role of Lola Monroe in "Fanatics." Although she worked steadily, finding work with multiple production companies, by 1920 she had retired from the screen.

According to an interview with the Associated Press in 1935, when Grey left Hollywood she returned to the stage. She toured Europe, taking on the roles she never got to pursue on screen, including Anna Karenina and Judith of Bethulia. She began to dabble in films again when she returned to the US, and launched a theater in Los Angeles. One night, she confided in a lawyer friend that she was tired of acting. He urged her to study law and she she took his advice. She was admitted to the bar in 1932.

Olga Grey

When she was interviewed by Photoplay Magazine in 1917, Grey said that she had changed her name from Anna Zacsek to Olga Grey while she was in New York simply because it made life a little easier. Although the name change probably wasn't necessary (think of the actresses who came after her whose names were just as exotic as their personas), it gave her the opportunity to assume a new (or, rather, old) persona when she retired from the screen. No longer was she Olga Grey the silent film siren -- she was now Anna Zacsek the attorney.

In fact, for a period, she had the distinction of being one of only two practicing women attorneys located in Los Angeles. Not only that, she was also the defense attorney for three of the gang members charged in the Sleepy Lagoon Murder trial of 1942 (the trial cited as one of the sparks that led to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943). Among her clients were Henry Leyvan, Victor Segobia and Edward Grandpre, and by all accounts, she was a strong and articulate presence in the courtroom.

Olga Grey

Although Grey found herself, to a certain degree, back in the spotlight, she never regretted leaving the stage or film behind her. She told the AP, "Now I'm supremely happy. Look at the excitement this gives me. The drama of it. And no make-believe. Do you think any of those roles I played ever gave me what this is giving me -- to know that nothing but myself stands between the happiness and mystery of a human being?"

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Mystery of Helen Gardner

Helen Gardner
Helen Gardner was a pioneer in a lot of ways. Not only was she the first American film actress to form her own production company, she was also the among the first filmmakers to embrace making features, and was the first vamp on screen. Yet, she has been forgotten and overlooked. Perhaps her relatively short career in the earliest days of the studio system is to blame, but the strides she made as an actress and producer should have given her a more prominent place in film history.

John Bunny with Helen Gardner in "Vanity Fair"
John Bunny with Helen Gardner in "Vanity Fair"

Gardner got her start in film in 1910 when she was signed to New York’s Vitagraph Company-- one of the preeminent studios in the early days of film. Not only did it have the likes of Maurice Costello (father to Dolores Costello) in its ranks, it also helped silent legends like the Talmadge sisters get their start. It didn’t take long for Gardner to start getting noticed by critics and fans alike. In 1911, she starred in Vitagraph’s adaptation of “Vanity Fair” along with America’s preeminent comedian at the time, John Bunny (the first in a long line of lovable, chubby male comedians), and garnered praise for her portrayal of Becky. Her forceful and expressive style helped her stand out from the rest of the cast and caused many moviegoers to ask fan magazine writers about her.

This admiration and critical praise could have been the spark to push Gardner to form her own production company. By 1912, she had formed the Helen Gardner Picture Players (later the Helgar Corporation), with Charles Gaskill directing, and Gardner having final say over most aspects of her films. Not only was she the producer, she was also the scenarist, editor and costumer designer. The Gardner Picture Players remained in New York (Fort Lee, New Jersey was Hollywood before Hollywood), moving the company to a new residence at Tappan on the Hudson. The company came out of the gate strong -- their first production was “Cleopatra” and it helped cement Gardner as a powerful actress who excelled at playing exotic, vamp characters.

Gardner followed up “Cleopatra” with films like “A Daughter of Pan,” “The Wife of Cain,” “A Sister to Carmen” and “A Princess of Bagdad.” Although the films generally got good reviews, and the Gardner Picture Players marketing team promoted them throughout the pages of trade magazines, money seems to have been an issue. The company very publicly split from Warner’s Features distribution, with the major point of contention being money owed to the production company from Warner’s, and found a new distributor, but the company folded in 1914. Gardner returned to Vitagraph shortly thereafter, but had retired from the screen by 1916, returning to film only a few times in the 1920s. She died in Orlando, Florida in 1968.

Helen Gardner in Cleopatra

The collapse of smaller independent production companies was not unusual in the early days of film. Thanks to lawsuits and patents, Thomas Edison had done a hell of a job threatening smaller production companies still located on the East Coast into submission, and spurring others to make the jump to California. It was because of this constant legal threat that companies like Essanay and, yes, Vitagraph, approached Edison and formed the Motion Picture Patents Company. Although it saved them from legal action and kept them in business, it also severely restricted the length of films they were allowed to make. Did this cramp the creativity of the companies' filmmakers? Undoubtedly. But did it help control costs and keep their work profitable? Definitely.

I suspect that Gardner's early embracing of the feature film, and her desire to create them exclusively and independently, resulted in financial troubles for the company. To put the 1912 release of "Cleopatra" in context, it took until 1914 for the MPCC to allow members to create feature releases. D.W. Griffith's first feature, "Judith of Bethulia," and Mack Sennett's first feature-length comedy, "Tillie's Punctured Romance," were both released in 1914 -- two years after "Cleopatra." Although the features were accepted and praised, Gardner's team was coming from a very different production system. Vitagraph, Gardner's former studio, was known for its prolific output, and in the early days of silent film, quantity tended to overshadow quality. Studios and production companies regularly boasted the number of films they could produce in a week in the hopes of attracting more theater owners. In 1913, Flying "A" Studios (the American Film Manufacturing Company) were promising three California-made films a week. Compare that to the dozen or so films Gardner put out between from late 1912 (the release of "Cleopatra") to 1914. She was also dealing with independent distributors, and the fact that Gardner and fellow actress Marion Leonard were so vocal about their split with Warner's suggests that there may have been some shady practices going on. Unfortunately, this isn't surprising.

Helen Gardner in A Princess of Bagdad

Even when features became common for American filmmakers, studios couldn't afford to make them alone, nor could they make each production an artistic triumph. They had to rely on potboilers -- shorter films that were often made quickly and cheaply with the sole purpose of making money. Big stars and big production companies also used the system to help their audience satisfied while they worked on super productions that required more time and more effort. Gardner's company didn't. They had committed themselves to producing epic, artistic films starring Gardner that were of at least four reels in length. They also held themselves to a higher standard, saying that they were addressing "themselves more particularly to enlightened people -- who even now make up the larger part of all respectable picture theatre audiences, and who complain loudly at the nonsense drooled out to them by the trusts" (aka the MPCC). (It's worth noting that this release stating Gardner's new company's objective was placed directly beside a tradepaper ad for five films Vitagraph had released that week alone. Coincidence?) Did shorts and potboilers count as that "nonsense" being "drooled" out? The company's ambition was admirable, but their self-imposed restrictions gave them a major disadvantage.

Helen Gardner

The demise of the Helen Gardner Picture Players may not be much of a mystery, but again we are faced with the question of her obscurity -- why has her pioneer status been so widely forgotten? She created her own production company before Mary Pickford, but Pickford’s is the one that's remembered. With her production of “Cleopatra,” Gardner beat Theda Bara and William Fox to the punch by years, yet we’re more intrigued by Bara’s lost super production than we are by Gardner’s extant film. Both Gardner and Bara were praised for their turns as the Egyptian queen, with critics proclaiming each woman was the queen reincarnated, but it’s only Bara’s kohl-rimmed eyes and exotic presence that has managed to survive through posters and pop culture. Gardner’s acting certainly seems to be on par with the greats of the era, and her efforts behind the camera are equally what gives?

For what it’s worth, Gardner’s daughter, Dorin Gardner Schumacher is trying to keep Gardner’s memory alive. Although she never knew Gardner (Schumacher’s mother was estranged from Gardner), Schumacher is trying to piece together details of Gardner’s life into a cohesive biography and memoir. Will this help bring Gardner back to the consciousness of film fanatics? Perhaps if Schumacher staged screenings of Gardner’s existing films, including “Cleopatra” and “A Daughter of Pan,” it might help stir up renewed interest in the screen’s first vamp.

Review: "Chain of Fools"

Keaton...Lloyd...Semon...Linder...Normand...they're all links in the "Chain of Fools."

Chain of Fools by Trav S.D.

Trav S.D.’s book offers yet another look at the world of silent cinema -- he explores the roots and history of this beast known as comedy itself, how it manifested itself on nitrate and how it has evolved into the bread and butter of sites like YouTube. In addition to an in-depth look at the vaudeville and stage comedians who came before, and an even-handed look at the famous and lesser-known silent film comedians of the time, he offers, perhaps, a more balanced and less cynical look at the body of work offered by silent stars after their heyday was well behind them.

Milla Davenport, Mabel Normand, Harry McCoy & Roscoe Arbuckle in a Keystone comedy
Milla Davenport, Mabel Normand, Harry McCoy & Roscoe Arbuckle in a Keystone comedy

“Chain of Fools” is obviously written by a true lover of the form who is versed in the standard literature on the subject (notably Walter Kerr’s “The Silent Clowns”), and it's worth noting that Trav himself has paid homage to the form by writing and starring in his own silent shorts. The love for the genre comes through with every word, as does his dedication to set the record straight on some misconceptions.

Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett with Keystone players
Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett with Keystone players

Trav also traces the final days of slapstick and the strains of it that continue through to current comedians. Although his opinions of certain comedians are sure to rub some readers the wrong way (his opinion of Abbott and Costello is justifiably low) the honesty he approaches the subject with is refreshing. While some are taken down a peg, others are finally given their due. Mabel Normand and her fellow pioneering comediennes get their moment in the spotlight, as do Charley Chase and others. He also gives credit to heirs of the silent comedy throne, comedians like Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason and Chris Farley who directly or indirectly, found inspiration in the form and have kept it going.

For anyone new to the world of silent comedy, “Chain of Fools” is definitely a good place to start. Not only does it give readers an overview of the big names involved (from Sennett to Chaplin to Roach), it also calls out specific films as more or less required viewing. It’s also an excellent read and resource for devoted fans of the genre and history surrounding it with space dedicated to the films of Larry Semon and Harry Langdon, as well as Billy West and Max Linder. Overall, “Chain of Fools” is an excellent, informative and enjoyable read written by one silent film lover to another.

Intrigued? You can buy “Chain of Fools” through Amazon either as a paperback or an ebook for the Kindle.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"Sparrows" Lands at the Music Box

"Lillian Gish is the kind of woman who needs to be saved from the ice floe. Mary Pickford is the kind of woman who will save you from the ice floe." - Christel Schmidt

Mary Pickford will forever be the spunky, tough young woman with the angelic face and head full of golden curls. Although she did a number of films that presented her in another light, the power and emotion behind performances found in "Daddy Long Legs" and "Tess of the Storm Country" continue to resonate with us in a way that, frankly, "Coquette" doesn't achieve. Pickford's performance in "Sparrows" is one of these emotional and memorable roles.

Pickford plays Mollie, a young woman who has had to grow up quickly since becoming the default mother to her fellow orphans on the grimes farm, In reality, the Grimes family runs an undercover baby farm where children are frequently abused, mistreated and forced to starve. It's only because of Mollie's care that the children have survived so long. Although their living situation is horrendous and she's even witnessed the death of the youngest member of their little family, she refuses to let her spirit or her faith be broken.

When Mollie is given a new little one to watch after, she immediately falls in love with her and claims her as her own. What she doesn't realize is that Baby was kidnapped from her father in the hopes of collecting a hefty ransom. as the cops begin to close in on the kidnappers, Grimes attempts to kill the child, forcing Mollie to devise a plan for all of the orphans to escape the farm for good. Not only do Mollie and the children brave the dangers of the swamp and escape to freedom, the baby is reunited with her father and Mollie convinces him to adopt all of the children as his own, ensuring they'll be able to stay a family forever -- a well-deserved happy ending for this wonderful film.

I was fortunate enough to see a screening of "Sparrows" presented by Pickford biographer Christel Schmidt at the beautiful Music Box Theatre, accompanied by Dennis Scott on the in-house organ. It was a wonderful experience made, perhaps, a little more poignant in the light of Roger Ebert's passing just days before. As Scott explained, Ebert often spoke of his love for the Music Box, saying that the live organ accompaniment set it apart from every other theater in Chicago. Schmidt also took the opportunity to share outtakes from "Sparrows," its original theatrical trailer, and countless photos and production stills detailing Pickford's incredible career.

The theme that kept appearing throughout the screening and Schmidt's presentation was the fact that Pickford was truly a powerhouse. She rose from poverty to become the most powerful woman in Hollywood, producing and overseeing her films and co-running United Artists. She also maintained ownership of a lot of her filmography which ensured that that survived the test of time intact. Pickford was a pioneer in more ways than one, and it's safe to say that had there been no Pickford, there would have been no Lucille Ball or Desilu.

When I left the screening, I was struck by the incredible legacy Pickford left and the overwhelming joy being able to see one of her classics on the big screen left in me. The girl with the golden curls lives!

You can buy Schmidt's book, "Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies," here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Cecil Hepworth & "Rescued by Rover"

Lassie and all of her legendary cinematic canine companions owe a debt of gratitude to a filmmaker named Cecil Hepworth and a collie named Blair.

Cecil Hepworth
Cecil Hepworth
In 1905, Hepworth made one of the first true narratives to come out of British cinema - “Rescued by Rover.” The film’s plot is simple enough -- Baby (played by Hepworth’s daughter) is kidnapped by a beggar while out for a stroll with her nurse. When the news is broken to the rest of the family (father played by Hepworth himself, mother played by Hepworth’s wife), loyal Rover (played by Hepworth’s dog Blair) makes it his mission to save the baby, traveling across streams and through London slums in the process. Because of Rover’s determination, the baby is saved and the family is happily reunited.

Rescued by Rover
"Rover" and the "Rescued"
Yes, the plot is simple, but this film was the first of its kind. This tale of man’s best friend predates and, indeed, makes possible the antics of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and the hundreds of doggie stars to follow them. Blair’s shining moment in this film would also pave the way for animals stars like Vitagraph’s Jean and Keystone’s Teddy. In fact, Teddy would go on to star in a film parodying the melodrama tropes of being tied to the train tracks and rushing to find help, starring none other than Gloria Swanson as the damsel in distress.

Jean, the Vitagraph dog | Mack Sennett with Teddy
But the idea to make the family pet the hero wasn’t the only innovation Hepworth introduced to film. In fact, Hepworth was one of cinema’s earliest pioneers, and had been experimenting with the medium since at least the late 1890’s. “How it Feels to be Run Over,” made five years before “Rover,” was innovative and experimental by putting the audience (through the lens of the camera) in the shoes of an unfortunate pedestrian.

Also from 1900, “Explosion of a Motor Car” features Hepworth’s attempt at trick photography (a technique that was to become synonymous with Georges Melies).

“Rover,” on the other hand, doesn’t feature any experimental camera work or trick photography, instead it is innovative in its storytelling. Although it’s a short film, only about six and a half minutes long, it features a lot of clever, coherent editing and cutting to help keep the story moving. The flow from scene to scene is logical and helps keep the narrative understandable, while the clever cuts that shorten Rover’s journey help keep the momentum going and keep the audience riveted. D.W. Griffith would go one to perfect the race to the rescue, but keep in mind, Hepworth achieved this technique in 1905. That’s two years before Griffith appeared in his first film and three years before he began directing!

To say this film was popular would be an understatement. At a time when many films were still one and two minutes long, and featuring brief scenes that had more of a documentary quality to them than narrative, Hepworth gave audiences a fully formed, engaging and fast-paced narrative. The film was so popular that it had to be remade two times to keep up with demand and replace worn out negatives.

You can watch “Rescued by Rover” in its entirety below, and  keep an eye out for another post about Hepworth. I have a feeling we'll be revisiting him in the future.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dorothy Gibson & "Saved from the Titanic"

April 14, 1912, 11:40 pm. The Titanic strikes an iceberg in the North Atlantic that would cause it to sink the next day. Although we've seen the story of the Titanic dozens of times, through various TV and film variations, the story that could potentially offer us the most insight into this legendary tragedy was lost in a vault fire 99 years ago.

Dorothy Gibson

Dorothy Gibson had only been in films for a year when she set sail on the Titanic with her mother. She had gotten her start with IMP company and in July 1911, she signed with the U.S. branch of the Paris-based Eclair Studios. She found fame and praise for her light comedies as well as her dramas, but her experience on the Titanic would push her into a new level of fame.

Dorothy Gibson

While Gibson and her mother were playing bridge with some of their fellow passengers, the ship struck the iceberg. The women escaped on the first lifeboat launched and arrived in New York via the ship Carpathia. It was when she arrived that Gibson's manager asserted she should appear in a film based on the disaster. Gibson went a step further, penning the scenario for the film from her experiences. The film, titled "Saved from the Titanic" and even featured Gibson wearing the clothes she was rescued in.

Dorothy Gibson in Saved from the Titanic

Dorothy Gibson in Saved from the Titanic

Moving Picture World praise the "Saved" as a "surprising and artistically perfect reel," while also praising Gibson for her ability to deal with the trauma of the event while still being able to perform at the top of her game. In addition to having the distinction of being a first person account of the disaster, it was also the very first film about it, released just 29 days after the sinking. Although Gibson, along with Mary Pickford, was the highest paid movie star in the world, it didn't push her to continue her film career. She retired from the film industry in May 1912. Unfortunately, the only known print of "Saved from the Titanic" was destroyed in an Eclair Studios vault fire in 1914, depriving the world of one of silent film's most intriguing performances and stories.

Dorothy Gibson in Saved from the Titanic

Eclair was not the only studio or, indeed, company, eager to profit off of the Titanic tragedy. Warner's Features released footage of Captain Smith and billed it for what it was -- footage of the captain on the sister ship of the Titanic, the Olympic, during inspection shortly before it set sail. Although the footage was not of the Titanic itself, the notice noted that the Olympic's construction was similar to that of the Titanic, and that this was the only filmed footage of the late captain ever taken.

At some point, however, other distributors also acquired the footage and altered it so that it could be marketed as footage of the Titanic itself just before setting sail. They even scratched and damaged the film so that the names of the ships were obscured.

You can watch the footage of Captain Smith on the Olympic below.