Friday, May 31, 2013

There's No Place Like Home Part 2: The Oz Film Manufacturing Co.

“Forget a while the cares and turmoil of our busy lives, and hie with us back to the days of our childhood.”

Oz Film Manufacturing Co logo

When the Oz Film Manufacturing Company was formed it seemed like a match made in moviemaking heaven. L. Frank Baum's hugely popular stories would be adapted to the silver screen and these films would be supervised by Baum himself. But the MPPC’s reach and the rise of adult-oriented feature films and the studio system made success difficult to attain.

L Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum

Baum’s work had been adapted to stage and screen a handful of times before the film company was formed. The Selig Polyscope company had created the single reel “The Wonderful World of Oz” a few years earlier, and prior to that, Baum had toured the country with a stage/magic lantern/live reading presentation of his stories called “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays.” The film, however, had little input from Baum himself and was still rather primitively made. It simply didn’t do justice to his work.

Scene from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
Scene from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"

Taking that to heart, and seeing an opportunity to create Oz films under his direct supervision, Baum announced the formation of the Oz Film Company in mid-1914. Baum told the trade magazines that his goal was to produce fairy tales and family-oriented entertainment that would delight parents and children alike without the threat of inappropriate content. Baum told Moving Picture World that he formed the company after “realizing the tremendous field open to a company producing quaint fairy stories full of clean comedy, love and adventure, teeming with transformations, illusions, appearances and disappearances.”

Oz Film Co main building
Oz Film Co main building

Shortly after the formation was announced, a state-of-the-art studio was erected in Santa Monica. Moving Picture World boasted that the studio was beautiful and had all of the modern conveniences one could imagine. The sets and scenery, too, were well-crafted, with papier mache props giving a charming touch to the fairy stories. The company intended to “produce all of the fairy tales including some of the famous stories like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘The Patchwork Girl,’ ‘The Tik Tok Man,’ and many others equally as fascinating,” and decided to start with “The Patchwork Girl.”

Scene from "The Patchwork Girl" featuring Pierre Couderc
Scene from "The Patchwork Girl" featuring Pierre Couderc

“Patchwork Girl” was a recent release in the Oz novel series, and had only been around for a year when Baum originally decided to turn it into a stage play. But the idea was abandoned with the formation of Oz Film and it was adapted once again, this time for the screen. In July, it was announced that producing director J. Farrell MacDonald had begun work on “Patchwork.” He was a respected name, and had a number of credits already under his belt as both a director and an actor. He would later go on to star in many westerns, most notably under the direction of John Ford. There were many unknowns working under Baum who would soon become stars in their own right, including Violet MacMillan, Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach. The company was so confident in its longevity and success that two other productions were also planned and well into production by the time “Patchwork” was released in September -- “The Magic Cloak of Oz” and “His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz.”

Still from "The Magic Cloak"
Still from "The Magic Cloak" featuring Violet MacMillan

A great deal of time and money were invested in the production of the films, with Baum reportedly spending most of his time at the studio. The trade papers declared that no expense had been spared to make the picture “a sensation,” and as the release date approached, a great deal of advertising went into promoting it and the talent associated with it (courtesy of Oz Film publicist Frank J. Baum). Paramount even agreed to distribute it. But when the film failed to perform as well as anticipated, Paramount dropped its option to distribute the two films waiting in the wings.

The response to “Patchwork” was a mixed bag. Some declared it wonderful, magical, wholesome entertainment with impressive special effects, while others said that the photography was subpar and the acting was just “fair.” In addition to the poor response, the Motion Picture Patents Company came after Oz (as it did many other independent film companies) with a lawsuit, forcing the company to settle out of court.

Trade paper ad for Oz Film Manufacturing Co.'s current lineup

The company tried to adapt by releasing non-fairy tale films alongside other features. They joined forces with the Alliance Films Corporation as their distributor and created films under the name Dramatic Features Co., and branched out with films like “The Last Egyptian” and “The Gray Nun of Belgium” (“A tense heart-gripping, soul-stirring drama of the present war in Europe”), but it wasn’t enough. By mid-1915, the Oz Film Manufacturing Co. was no more, and by the end of 1915, neither was the Alliance Films Corporation. The rise of the studio system was already beginning to claim smaller independent companies

Although Baum wisely didn’t invest his own money into the venture (it was well backed by businessmen), it’s believed that the loss took a toll on his health. He passed away in 1919.

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan in the 1924 film "Peter Pan"
Betty Bronson as Peter Pan in the 1924 film

Unfortunately, it seems that Baum’s biggest mistake was being an independent ahead of his time. Although a lot of comedies could be accessible to kids, no one was focusing on making films specifically targeting young viewers. In fact, fantasy films themselves took a while to catch on. In 1914 and 1915, the biggest box office draws were epic, realistic and sexually or morally controversial films. “The Birth of a Nation,” “Judith of Bethulia,” “A Fool There Was,” “The Golem,” two versions of “Carmen,” “The Cheat,” and “Cabiria” were all released in those two years, and all are vastly different from what Baum was offering. Of course, a few years later, fantasy and fairy tale stories were accepted and enjoyed by audiences in the form of Douglas Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” and “Peter Pan” (with J.M. Barrie himself having final say over who would play the title role).

By the time the definitive film version of “The Wizard of Oz” was released, Baum had been gone for 20 years and the previous versions (except for Larry Semon’s strange adaptation) were largely forgotten. Thanks to the wonders of DVD, many of these versions have found a new life. Curious for more? You can watch “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” below.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Actor Who Wore a Mustache: Joseph Graybill

Joseph Graybill

Joseph Graybill was born on April 17, 1887 in Kansas City, Missouri. The family was primarily based in Kansas and Wisconsin, with Graybill seeking education at the St. John’s Military Academy in Salina and the Milwaukee Academy. At the age of 18, Graybill made his theatrical debut, joining the Thanhouser Stock Company in Milwaukee. From there, he traveled with a variety of theatrical companies, working with Henry Woodruff in a production of “Brown of Harvard” and doing juvenile leads and comedic parts in productions by Henrietta Crosman and Henry E. Dixey. It was his performance in “The Witching Hour” in 1908 that really began to attract the attention of writers and critics.

In an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune from the same year, Graybill spoke at length about his process from bringing the the murderous character of Clay Whipple to life. The reporter wrote, “he works himself up to a pitch of excitement so that he breathes hard in the wings before he goes on...the young actor has to practically hypnotize himself to keep neutral until the instant of the tragedy.” Even at the age of 21, Graybill clearly had a gift for losing himself in his roles. Following this successful run, Graybill did a tour in a supporting role in “Awake at the Switch” on vaudeville before joining the industry which would bring him the most recognition.

In 1910, Graybill joined Biograph. His timing was such that he got to work on-screen with some of the earliest actors, actresses and directors to grace the big screen. He worked with the likes of Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Mack Sennett and Henry B. Walthall, and worked under a relatively new director by the name of D.W. Griffith. Because he was still new to the film world, there was a bit of competition between Graybill and the veteran actors. Linda Arvidson (Griffith’s wife at the time) wrote in her memoir that Griffith was very pleased with Graybill very early on. In an effort to mess him up, fellow actors Charlie West and Arthur Johnson tried to get him drunk on set in the hopes that he would flub his performance, but to their dismay, he held his own and only impressed Griffith more. It was in these Biograph performances that Graybill began to establish a following.

Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Joe Graybill and Marion Sunshine in "The Italian Barber"

One of his most interesting early roles is that of “The Stranger’ in Griffith’s “The Painted Lady” from October 1912. Starring a young Blanche Sweet, Graybill plays a burglar who users Sweet’s attraction to him as a means to rob her father. His plan backfires, however, when Sweet decides to take matters into her own hands.

Graybill worked for Biograph in New York and California before making the rounds to other big-name companies of the day. He worked for Lubin, IMP, Keystone and the Victor Company before joining the World’s Best Film Company. Upon joining World’s Best, it was announced in January 1913 that Graybill had been tapped to play the lead in a new “animal picture.” it was to be filmed in Jacksonville, Florida, under the title “The Wizard of the Jungle,” and it would later become Graybill’s best known film. His turn as the jealous Captain Hanscomb earned him a glowing review from Moving Picture World. They said he was at his best playing jealous lovers and that his role in “Wizard” was no exception. He joined Pathe around the release of “Wizard” and seemed to be moving on to even better and bigger opportunities. Unfortunately, tragedy struck.

Joseph Graybill in The Painted Lady
Joseph Graybill in "The Painted Lady"

While filming with Pathe in Jersey City, Graybill suddenly collapsed. The Morning Telegraph reported that Graybill had been in a highly nervous state for several weeks “due to his tendency to worry.” (Considering the heightened state of excitement that Graybill would get himself into for his stage performances, this doesn’t seem that unlikely.) After dealing with this condition for several weeks, Graybill suffered a nervous breakdown on set. He collapsed and instantly lost the ability to see. Sources report that Graybill was so determined to finish filming, that he insisted that he be directed through the scenes using the director’s voice and commands. When filming ceased, he collapsed again and was hospitalized, later to be diagnosed with spinal meningitis. After spending a few days fighting for his life, Graybill died on August 3, 1913 at the age of 26. His mother and sister oversaw the service, with Pathe players in attendance and actors from a variety of companies acting as his pallbearers.

The issue of Moving Picture World that was released the day before his death was particularly poignant, as it spoke highly of Graybill’s strong body of work, and how they expected “the actor who wore a mustache” to continue with great performances into the future.

Unfortunately, Graybill was the first of the many bright young stars who would see their lives and careers end far too soon -- a list of stars which would include the likes of Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino and even Graybill’s former co-star Mabel Normand.

Blanche Sweet and Joseph Graybill
Blanche Sweet with Joseph Graybill in "The Painted Lady"

What would Graybill have gone on to achieve? His range was respectable, and though he had parted ways with Biograph, I can easily see him rejoining with Griffith’s independent company, playing roles that fellow Griffith player Bobby Harron (who also died tragically at a young age) excelled in. His filmography isn’t as extensive as other Griffith players, but we’re lucky to have surviving prints of many of his Biograph films. Click here for a playlist featuring some of the films of Joseph Graybill. Or check out "The Painted Lady" courtesy of Fandor below.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Valda Valkyrien: The Last of the Vikings

Valda Valkyrien

Although she wasn’t born with it, during the height of her fame, the woman once dubbed the most beautiful woman in Denmark was known by just one name: Valkyrien. Her beauty and nobility made her desirable to film companies across the world, but her star fell faster and sooner than many of her contemporaries. What happened to the last of the vikings?

Born September 30, 1895 in Iceland as Adele Eleonore Freed, Valkyrien was always known by the filmgoing public as simply Valkyrien (later, Valda Valkyrien). She, like Theda Bara, had a history that was greatly fabricated and exaggerated. She claimed royal viking lineage and said she entered The Royal Danish Ballet at the age of 13 as a sole source of income for her mother. It was said that within 3 years she had advanced to being a solo danseuse and took a 6-month leave of absence to tour on her own. Film historian John T. Soister has refuted her personal history, saying, “Reports of her participation -- let alone stardom -- in the Royal Danish Ballet were, to quote Mark Twain, ‘greatly exaggerated.’”

A credit she could truly claim, though, was the title Valkyrien. In a nationwide beauty contest, young women competed for the chance to be proclaimed the ideal Dane by the king himself. Valkyrien entered the contest and was dubbed the most beautiful girl of her race -- the Valkyrien Star of 1914. Though the name “Valkyrien” came from the title, she would later claim it as her baptismal maiden name. She had done a number of short films with the European pioneer film company Nordisk in 1912 under the name Adele Frederiksen, but this sudden fame and title brought filmmakers running to her door. It was also around this time that she would become a true member of the nobility, marrying Baron Hrolf von Dewitz, a lieutenant in the Royal Danish Navy.

Valda Valkyrien

Valkyrien made the journey to the U.S. where she was picked up by Centaur films and Vitagraph before settling down with Thanhouser. Her title was certainly a draw, but studios were also quick to snap her up because she offered a different kind of appeal than other actresses. She wasn’t really an ingenue like Mae Marsh or Lillian Gish, and she wasn't really exotic like Theda Bara or Pola Negri. She looked like a Nordic goddess transplanted from the days of Eric the Red into modern times, and savvy filmmakers used her to that end. Thanhouser cast her in two such roles, first in “The Valkyrie” in 1915 and then later in 1916’s “Hidden Valley” where she played the role of the White Goddess and had the chance to dance on film.

Valda Valkyrien

When Valkyrien left Thanhouser and signed a contract with Fox Film in 1916, it seemed to be a match made in heaven. William Fox and his film/publicity machine were responsible for the discovery of Theodosia Goodman and her meteoric rise under the new moniker Theda Bara. Under him, Bara was transformed into an exotic vamp, born under the shadow of the Sphinx and destined to play Salome and Cleopatra. With Fox’s tutelage, the sky seemed to be the limit for Valkyrien.

What looked fantastic on paper, however, didn’t translate to real life. By September, the relationship had soured. The only film she would make under Fox was called “The Unwelcome Mother,” and Valkyrien was very vocal about her distaste for stunts which she was required to do (stunt work was something that most stars were expected to do at least some of the time). Motography quoted her as saying, “If you succeed at it, you do not get any credit for it. If producers want acrobatic effects, they should have acrobats for the scenes requiring them. A veritable actress, who has earned her reputation on histrionic merit, should not be required to do acrobatics, for even if she is successful at it the audiences will gradually drift into the habit of expecting ‘stunts’ from her in place of real acting.”

Valda Valkyrien

The film was released at about the same time, and by late October/early November, she announced that she was taking Fox to court for breach of contract. She accused him of failing to live up to their contract, saying she was supposed to be billed above her co-star Walter Law, and hinted that she may organize her own production company. Though some sources claim that the result of the case has been lost, others assert that Valkyrien simply lost. Even if she did win (as Charlotte Burton did with her suit against Essanay), it didn’t benefit her in the long run.

Valda Valkyrien

Valkyrien had, in fact, announced plans to begin her own production company (Valkyrien Films Inc.) as few months earlier. Like Helen Gardner before her, she held herself to a very high standard and had a very strict view of what kind of films she was going to make. The company was to focus on classic feature plays originating from Greek, Roman and Scandinavian mythology. They were to be of epic quality, measuring as much as 7 reels in length, and were to be filmed without the use of a studio. She claimed that a lack of a studio would mean they could be produced with the least amount of expense and with the greatest amount of artistry. The Baron himself got very involved in the endeavor, taking on production roles left and right. He was praised as being “an expert of the first calibre in the finer points of photoplay construction” and had even taken on the role of consulting technical director for an earlier effort. Although the project was ambitious, it wasn’t achievable. Valkyrien soon found herself back with Thanhouser and other smaller independent production companies with her fame in steady decline.

Scene from The Image Maker
Scene from "The Image Maker"

One of the films she did during this time was hailed by some contemporary critics as her best. “The Image Maker,” released in early 1917, features Valkyrien in dual roles. First as an Egyptian girl of low degree who wins the love of a great noble, then as an incarnation of the girl in modern America. Some critics hailed it as the best of her career, while others shrugged it off saying it was fair but not a draw for audiences.

Her career ended with her being cast in supporting roles. One of her final films was “Huns Within Our Gates.” Produced by the Arrow Film Corporation, the film was almost doomed from the start. It was completed while WWI was still in full swing, but when distributors began selling rights to it, the armistice was signed and theater owners began to shy away. It had to be re-edited and retitled “The Hearts of Men” in an effort to improve American/German relations. Her last film hurrah came in the form of “Bolshevism on Trial,” based on the novel “Comrades” written by the infamous Thomas Dixon (author of “The Clansman” which D.W. Griffith would adapt as “The Birth of a Nation”). As her career came to an end, so did her marriage.

Valda Valkyrien

She retired from the screen and joined up with the Ziegfeld Follies, but only lasted with them for one season. She attempted a comeback in the late ‘20s, but her time in the sun had long since passed. She married for a second time, and retired from public life for good. The last of the vikings, as the fan magazines had proclaimed her 40 years prior, died on October 22, 1956 in L.A.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A 'Reg'lar Villyun' - Charlotte Burton

Charlotte Burton

In the 1910s, Charlotte Burton was a popular, successful and in-demand film actress. She was a part of a hugely popular serial, married to her equally popular (if not moreso) co-star, and earning great reviews for her acting. But by 1920 she was out of the film business, and by 1921 even Photoplay had mostly forgotten about her. What happened to Charlotte Burton? Let’s start at the beginning.

There’s a surprising amount of debate over several facets of Burton’s life, beginning with her date of birth. While magazines of the time cite May 30, 1890 and May 30, 1891 as the most common dates, other sources claim 1881 instead. She grew up in San Francisco, doing amateur stage productions and made her film debut in 1912 when she was signed with Flying A Studios. She showed versatility, playing working girls and ingenues just as ably as she played vamps, but it wasn’t until she found roles as villains that she found her niche. As she told Motography at the time, she doted on playing a "reg'lar villyun."

Charlotte Burton

In 1915, she debuted the character that she would be best known for -- that of the villainess Vivian Marston in the 32-part serial “The Diamond from the Sky.” Among her co-stars were Lottie Pickford (Mary’s little sister) and William Russell. In December 1916, it was announced that Burton would be joining Essanay. Although it sounded like a major step up for her, Burton would soon come to regret the much so that she and Essanay's George K. Spoor would end up in court.

Charlotte Burton and William Russell
William Russell and Charlotte Burton

As a year, 1917 was a mixed bag for Burton. Midway through the year, she and co-star William Russell married. Around that same time, though, Burton filed suit against Essanay to the tune of $28,000 (some reports claim $28,200). In the suit, Burton claimed that Essanay had forced her to move from California to Chicago (the company had studios in both cities at that time) and then failed to live up to their contract. Burton was a dramatic actress and was under the assumption that she would continue playing such roles with Essanay. Essanay apparently had very different plans for her, and cast her in comedic roles instead. She refused and they discharged her. By the time the case landed in court, neither party was happy and neither wanted Burton to actually fulfill her contract.

Although the court found Burton’s complaint to be of “reasonable objection,” it’s debatable how much of a victory it truly was for Burton. Andrew Nosrati’s research suggests that Burton was only awarded $3,200. Her marriage also ended abruptly in 1918 when she filed for divorce, accusing Russell of having an inappropriate relationship with another actress. This is another case where sources vary greatly. Some say that Burton and Russell were married until 1921, but Photoplay themselves were reporting (in 1921, no less) that the couple had divorced “several years ago.”

Charlotte Burton

Burton continued to work sporadically with more independent production companies, but by 1920 Photoplay was somewhat callously reporting to concerned fans that she had “dropped out” of pictures and that they should find another actress to admire. In fact, she was so forgotten by 1921, that when a fan inquired as to whether or not William Russell was married, Photoplay casually referred to his ex-wife as just “an actress.” She stayed in Santa Barbara and later married a contractor named Darrell T. Stuart. She died in 1942.

Charlotte Burton

What is the story behind Burton’s exit from the film industry? Was she blacklisted by the major studies following her suit with Essanay? Were the other studios unwilling to take a chance on her following the case? When Mack Sennett took Gloria Swanson under his wing in an effort to make her into a second Mabel Normand, she famously refused, saying she didn’t want to be a second anyone. Instead of going to court, however, the contract was voided and she simply joined forces with Cecil B. DeMille where she was allowed to be a “serious” actress. If Burton had made a similar move, would her career have continued into the ‘20s and, perhaps, beyond? Or had she simply had enough of what Hollywood had to offer? What if?