Glamorous Gloria

Gloria Swanson - c. 1920sI’ve been reading Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer’s 1913 aptly titled biography of the woman who defined what a real movie star should be. Though I had read parts of Gloria’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Shearer’s book exposes that the star’s recollections were colored by selective memory, forgotten details, and overlooked events. I thought I knew a great deal about Swanson, but I discovered that instead of fact, I was hanging onto assumptions and misconceptions. Below are several discoveries about Gloria Swanson that reveal the complexities of her life and career.

Gloria in Chicago: Swanson began her career at Chicago’s Essanay Studio just a few months before Charlie Chaplin arrived to make movies in the Windy City—a venture that proved short-lived. Chaplin tested the teenager for what proved to be his only Chicago film, His New Job. He tried to teach her some basic comic shtick, but she was not good at spontaneous physical humor. More to the point, she didn’t like it. What 15-year-old girl does? She was supposed to bend over to retrieve something and get kicked in the backside. The next day, Chaplin had someone tell her that she would not do as a comic foil, to which Swanson replied, “I think it’s vulgar anyway.” Though Swanson does appear in a bit part as a stenographer in His New Job, she always denied that she was ever in a Chaplin film.

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN'S 'THE NEW JOB'

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN’S ‘THE NEW JOB’

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Searching for Old Hollywood–Postcards of Movie Star Homes

DSC03642In my imagination, I can see the Hollywood of long ago when film industry insiders referred to their mansion-lined streets as the Colony. I see glamorous movie stars dancing at the Cocoanut Grove, old-school studio execs drinking cocktails in the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Tropicana Bar, and hungry starlets sharing bungalow apartments in Spanish-style, u-shaped buildings. Whenever I visit Hollywood during the TCM Classic Film Festival, I search in vain for any remnants of this fleeting bygone era.

My attachment to Old Hollywood is behind my new passion for postcards of movie star homes. I stumbled across my first cards in an antique shop in southern Ohio, and I have been hooked ever since. Produced in series, these colorful linen postcards picturing the stars and their homes were issued from the 1930s through the 1950s. Many series were issued by the Western Publishing and Novelty Co., whose premier design included a portrait of the star in the corner of the card. One series produced cards slightly smaller than typical postcard size probably because they were sold in packets. The M. Kashower Co. was one of the older companies that produced postcards, many during the 1920s. If you find cards from Kashower, they are likely older and worth more. Other companies included the Tichnor Art Co., the Reed Robinson Co., and the Longshaw Card Co., which also used the star portrait design. Longshaw also produced postcards of the movie studios. Just like the stars of the Golden Age were larger than life, so their homes are rich in lore and legend.

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Celebrate Like the Stars

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There are some universal truths in life that we can probably all agree on, the world is round, Washington, D.C. is the capitol of the United States, Cary Grant looks damn good in a suit and classic Hollywood sure liked to drink! The bottled spirits flowed freely in movies made from the silent era, through the Prohibition and well into the 1970s. So freely in fact that you’d be hard-pressed to find an adult film that didn’t show a scene of someone drinking, refer to booze or offer a glimpse of something vaguely referencing the sauce that seemed to keep Hollywood running.

It may have just been a bottle of empty scotch placed casually in the background of a scene or a six-pack of beer spotted in an open fridge. There’s just no denying that many of our favorite film performers regularly shared bottles of the bubbly (and not so bubbly) on screen but this love of liquor also continued off-screen.The recently published book, Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History by Mark Bailey, offers readers an interesting look into the drinking habits of some of Hollywood’s most beloved and recognizable stars including Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn. To celebrate the holidays I thought I’d share a few cocktail recipes from the book that you can make at home but before the adults in the room read any further please remember to always drink with caution!

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Harold Lloyd’s Marathon

This past week TCM debuted a package of rare Harold Lloyd films from 1917-1919, including one especially eye-opening treat, The Marathon. Of all the thrilling discoveries shown that night, this was the one that quickened my pulse the most.

For those who missed it, let me show you a clip to set the stage for the discussion that follows:

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Yup, it’s the mirror gag, made famous by the Marx Brothers in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup:

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Yul Brynner, Photographer Extraordinaire

Yul Brynner passed away in 1985 after battling cancer. At the time he was an accomplished performer with a Best Actor Oscar for his role in THE KING AND I (1956) and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. His standout roles in films such as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), ANASTASIA (1956), THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (1958), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and WESTWORLD (1973) had earned him a legion of fans but most of us were unaware that Brynner was also a skilled photographer who had been snapping pictures of his professional pals for decades.

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The worst people in the world

We have gathered here today to discuss a landmark of American screen comedy.

It is a film about a reporter, and he is a reprehensible example of the most caricatured excesses of his profession. He is selfish and callous, gleefully exploiting the sufferings of others because it makes good copy. He has his eyes on a girl, but she’s already involved with another man—a decent citizen, who will become the butt of our protagonist’s abuse. The reporter will do everything in his power to punish this rival, including framing him for various crimes.

And although this character’s behavior is unambiguously villainous, he is not the villain of the film—he’s not quite its hero, either, but he’s the central anchor of all that happens, and we in the audience are not expected to boo him but to relish in his monstrous actions. All this awfulness is presented for our entertainment.

But here’s the riddle: what movie am I talking about? Is it Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant? Or Mack Sennett’s Making a Living, with Charlie Chaplin? Ah, there’s the rub—and therein lies our tale.

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F.W. Murnau’s comedy masterpiece, Sunrise

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is one of those reliable standbys certain to show up in most critics’ Best Of lists.  Thanks, Greg, for noting that Sight and Sound placed it 5th in their latest silly list.  It was the very first selection chosen to inaugurate Eureka’s Masters of Cinema DVD collection.  It won (for all intents and purposes) the first ever Oscar, has been placed on the National Registry, and was the first silent film put out on Blu-Ray.  I could keep going—you get the point.  This is one of those “safe” choices, beloved by the pointy heads but not a crowd-pleaser (I mean, c’mon, with a pretentious title like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, are you kidding me?).  Right?

A few weeks ago I played around with viewing Last Year at Marienbad through the lens of science fiction, by way of making its more obtuse aspects less alienating.  But Marienbad is a deliberately off-putting exercise.  Sunrise is, by contrast, a picture whose artistry is intended to be accessible to mass audiences.  It is conventionally beautiful, conventionally narrative, conventionally stirring.  It needs no apologies or excuses, it’s just excellent in every way.

But that won’t stop me from approaching it from an oblique angle, just to be ornery.  The fact is, Sunrise can actually be enjoyed as a comedy.  Yeah, you heard me.  Now click that “more” button below the fold and let’s have some fun!

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The 1927 Effect

Conventional wisdom will tell you that the arrival of talkies killed off silent film, especially silent comedy.  (This is, for example, the premise of The Artist, and a couple of generations earlier the premise of Singin’ in the Rain).  I’ve been tilting at this windmill pretty much since I showed up on this board back in 2010, but I don’t think I’ve ever been properly systematic about organizing my counterargument.  So, I intend to devote the next several weeks to exploring this moment in film history in some detail.  It’s going to be story about F.W. Murnau and Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and Cary Grant, Howard Hawks and Mack Sennett—it’s going to build a bridge from Murnau’s Sunrise to Hawks’ His Girl Friday.  It sounds like a sprawling mess, and maybe it will be, but in my mind’s eye this all ties together.  We’ll see.

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In Their Own Words: Actors on Film Flops, Disappointments and Missteps

Marlon Brando on A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, Beverly Garland on SWAMP WOMEN and STARK FEAR, Tony Curtis on SON OF ALI BABA, Patricia Neal on THE FOUNTAINHEAD, Richard Widmark on SLATTERY’S HURRICANE, Ava Gardner on THE BIBLE, David Carradine on SONNY BOY and more.       [...MORE]

Sturges’ Travels

Last week we took a look at Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story, and in so doing I took a swipe at Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.  Well, this week I cycle back to give Sullivan’s Travels a second look.  I still think it’s weak tea compared to Sturges’ more madcap films like Hail the Conquering Hero, Christmas in July, or Palm Beach Story, but it’s got an autobiographical element that deserves some mention.

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