Post-“Modern Times”

As you may have noticed, “Deadwrite’s Dailies” has been something of a misnomer of late.

I’ve not taken a dirt nap or anything, it’s just that the summer got crazy busy. During the last couple of months, I got deluged finishing up my second book (with co-writer Marc Wanamaker), co-hosting a new local television show, as well as leading tours and teaching classes on film history in the Santa Clarita Valley. On top of it all, Kimi and I started back on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank doing “real jobs.”

That being said, I found myself with a day off today and wanted to use the time to say “hello” and to congratulate everyone for being alive to celebrate the palindromic date of 11/02/2011.

Today, I would like to update everyone on our efforts to memorialize the spot of the final scene from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” This article was originally posted on August 30, 2010.

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Seventy-five years ago today, the Silent Era ended.

The ending came with little fanfare on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce, California. The only people on-site to witness the finale were the stars and crew of the film Modern Times, who were there to film the iconic final scene.

Silent films had been on life-support for nearly a decade by the time that Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest of the Silent Era clowns, chose to make Modern Times – a film about the dehumanizing effects of big business on workers. Sound first appeared in a Hollywood feature in 1926’s Don Juan, which had a backing orchestra and sound effects synced to the film. Talkies debuted a year later with The Jazz Singer, and the days of the silent film were officially numbered.

The change was a traumatic one for Hollywood, and hundreds of careers ended abruptly. Chaplin had built a tremendously successful career with a pantomime character called The Little Tramp and was in no hurry to have him talk. By 1935, he was the last person in Hollywood with the resources to ignore the transition to sound, but he realized the time had at last come to have the character speak.

Modern Times is a transitional film in that almost all of the dialogue is silent, yet there are occasional spoken voices and sound effects. The Little Tramp remains silent for most of the film, but when it comes time for him to talk, Chaplin actually has him sing.

On August 30, 1935, when the cast and crew shot the final scene where Chaplin and his co-star Paulette Goddard walk off into the sunset, (figuratively at least, the scene was set at dawn) they must have sensed they were at the end of an era; it was unlikely that even the great Charlie Chaplin could pull off another silent film. What remained to be seen was whether or not the Little Tramp character would continue.

The answer was no. Chaplin felt the magic of the character disappeared once his voice was heard and chose to retire him.

(A similar character did appear in Chaplin’s next film, The Great Dictator, but the Tramp was transformed into a European Jewish barber for this film. After that, the character never again appeared on screen.)

Modern Times was Chaplin’s biggest gamble and turned out to be one of his greatest successes. Recently, the American Film Institute voted it onto its top 100 American Films list at #81.

I am currently working with Los Angeles County and Santa Clarita city officials to erect a commemorative plaque at the site of the final scene next February to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the film’s release.

Stay tuned for updates on our progress!

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THIS JUST IN: In February 2011 Kimi and I helped create and host the first annual ChaplinFest in Newhall, California. During that festival, Tippi Hedren and Leonard Maltin helped us unveil a beautiful black marble monument commemorating the final scene of “Modern Times.” The monument was created by the wonderful couple of Charles and Maria Sotelo of High Desert Monuments in Hesperia, California. These kind and patient people believed so strongly in our project that they created the monument for us without asking for a dime up front. I am very happy to report that after several months of fundraising, the Sotelos are now paid in full! We thank everyone who contributed to this worthy cause. (We will still need to raise funds for the base and other associated costs.)

The next phase of the project calls for us to get the monument placed at the site of the final scene (which looks much the same today as it did in 1935). We are hoping to place it during the week of August 30, 2012, the 77th anniversary of the filming of the scene. We’ll keep you in the loop on how our plans progress.


The Day Movies Learned to Speak

A quick glance at the calendar will reveal that I’m a bit late in pulling the “Welcome to August” trigger, but better late than September.

So let me be the last to welcome you to the eighth month of the year. (And as the eighth month, shouldn’t it be called Octo-ber? The answer is yes. It would have been had a couple of megalomaniac Roman emperors named Julius and Augustus not inserted months named after themselves into the middle of the summer, thereby messing up the calendar forever.)

There are dozens of Deadwrite’s Dailies anniversaries worthy of a blog post during the first half of this month, including: August 1 – Concert for Bangladesh (1971); MTV’s debuts (1981); August 2 – Wild Bill Hickok gunned down (1876); August 3 – Wings formed (1971); August 4 – President Obama’s 50th birthday; August 9 – Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics (1936) …

Lucille Ball would have turned 100 on the 6th of August, something a good chunk of the world (and Google) seemed to remember. But also on that date back in 1926, a little remembered film debuted that changed the world. Today’s post is about that.

On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. taught movies to “speak.”

On that day, WB first brought sound to movie audiences with the premiere of Don Juan. Before that night, filmmakers had essentially ignored the sense of hearing, relying on live accompaniment for their presentations.

Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, premiered at the Warners’ Theatre in Manhattan to a packed house that paid the record-setting price of $11 per ticket for the night’s entertainment.

Don Juan’s sound came from a 16” phonograph that was synchronized to the film in a complicated process called “Vitaphone.”

Vitaphone was the brainchild of Sam Warner, the second youngest of the four Warner brothers. Sam felt that the studio he and his brothers created would never rise to the highest rung of the Hollywood ladder unless they took a bold step. That bold step was sound.

Sam loved tinkering with technology and had previously worked alongside Western Electric technicians setting up WB’s radio station KFWB on their Sunset Boulevard studio lot. It was here that he learned of a process Western Electric had developed to synch sound to movies. Sam talked his brothers into purchasing the system which was named Vitaphone to capitalize on WB’s recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios.

Don Juan was still essentially a silent film with all the dialogue written on cards. What is most notable about the movie is that it added the sound of an orchestra (along with some special effects), which removed the need for live musicians.

In spite of its huge opening night receipts, Don Juan couldn’t recoup its budget and WB was left seriously in debt. But Sam Warner pressed on in the development of sound, much to the chagrin of his brother Harry – the keeper of the company’s accounts.

Don Juan would prove to be the warning shot fired across the bow of silent films. The genre would be effectively killed fourteen months later by WB’s release of the first “talkie,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.

Sadly, Sam Warner wouldn’t live to see its release. The stress of overseeing its production ruined his health, and he died 24 hours before The Jazz Singer’s premiere from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Vitaphone itself would pass away by 1930 (the process anyway, the name would survive until 1959) when improved sound-on-film technology replaced it.

The huge profits that WB reaped from their pioneering efforts into sound gave them the funds to purchase the First National Studios in Burbank in the late 1920’s, which remains their headquarters to this day.

(And if you want to see the place, stop by the studio this summer and I may be the one giving you a tour! www.wbstudiotour.com)

 


July Stories

(Before July 2011 passes into the history books, I want to highlight some of the “Deadwrite’s Dailies” type of anniversaries that take place over the last half of the month.)

Ginger Rogers – b. 7/16/1911

Happy 100th birthday to the late, dancing great Ginger Rogers. Born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, she was said to be able to dance before she could walk. She teamed up for the first of nearly a dozen films with Fred Astaire in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. In death they’re still partnered: both are buried in Oakwood Memorial Cemetery in Chatsworth.

Ty Cobb – d. July 17, 1961

Hell got a bit more crowded 50 years ago this month when Ty Cobb died. Cobb – one of America’s greatest baseballers and most rabid haters – was also the game’s first millionaire. He tried to use some of his fortune to rehabilitate his reputation before his death, but it just didn’t take.

Bobby Fuller d. July 18,1966

23-year-old musical sensation Bobby Fuller (I Fought the Law) was found dead in his car in Los Angeles 45 years ago on this date. His death was ruled a suicide, but questions remain. some have speculated that Fuller was murdered by the LAPD and possibly even by Charles Manson.

Lizzie Borden b. July 19, 1860

We all know the gruesome rhyme about hatchet-wielding Lizzie Borden’s naughty night when she delivered 40 whacks to her father and 41 to her mother. (In truth, the number was 11 and 19, respectively.) Lizzie may not actually have been the “whacker.” Some have speculated that she took the fall for a younger sister. Another theory claims that Lizzie did the deed, but was unaware of it as she was in a PMS-induced “fugue.” BTW, the house where the killings took place in Fall River, Massachusetts is now a bed-and-breakfast.

(An additional shout out to our pals Martin Sheen and Melissa Fitzgerald, who were in Washington on the 19th to rally in support of Drug Courts, which focuses on rehabilitation rather than incarceration for drug-addicted offenders.)

Bruce Lee d. July 20, 1973

32-year-old martial arts movie master Bruce Lee died suddenly on this date in 1973, just six days before the release of Enter the Dragon, a worldwide box office hit. His son Brandon would follow him into films and a premature death when he was killed on the set of The Crow nearly twenty years later.

Basil Rathbone d. July 21, 1967

Most famous for his series of Sherlock Holmes films in the 30s and 40s, Basil Rathbone served as a British intelligence officer in WWI and later put his proficiency in fencing to work in swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood.

John Dillinger d. July 22, 1934

Depression-era bad guy John Dillinger was gunned down by G-men on this date in 1934 outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Famous for his numerous breakouts, he once got out of the Crown Point (Indiana) jail with a wooden gun that was smuggled in by his attorney. Dillinger was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, near the grave of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who also died on July 22nd, eighteen years previously.

U.S. Grant/D.W. Griffith/Vic Morrow d. July 23

Savior of the Union and two-time president Ulysses S. Grant died on this date in 1885, having finished his memoirs just a few days earlier. Film pioneer D.W. Griffith passed away on this date in 1948, and screen actor Vic Morrow was tragically killed on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie on this date in 1982.

Peter Sellers d. July 24, 1980

Eccentric funny guy Peter Sellers died on this date in 1980 at the age of 54. July 24th also marks the 65th anniversary of the creation of the popular comic team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1946. Ten years to the day later, they would split up.

Harry Warner d. July 25, 1958

One-quarter of the four brothers who founded the media empire where Kimi and I are currently employed, Harry Warner was for decades the president of Warner Bros. until losing control of the company to his brother Jack. The inter-familial shenanigans caused Harry to have a stroke, which eventually killed him on this date in 1958.

Robert Todd Lincoln d. July 26, 1926

Son of President Abraham Lincoln, Robert had the misfortune of having a father assassinated and then being nearby when two other American presidents were murdered. He lived long enough be present at the dedication of the Lincoln Monument – a tribute to his dad.

Bob Hope d. July 27, 2003

Comedian Bob Hope triumphed in every medium available to him – film, television, radio, theater – and had an amazing run at longevity as well, living past 100. July 27th also marks the 15th anniversary of the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Jackie O b. July 28, 1929

Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was born on this date in 1929. July 28th is also the anniversary of the founding of the city of Miami in 1896 when it was incorporated with a population of 300 – roughly the same average attendance figure for Florida Marlins games.

Cass Elliot d. July 29, 1974

Yes, singer “Mama” Cass Elliot died on this date in 1974. And no, it wasn’t because she choked on a ham sandwich (it was a heart attack). Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore in 1941, Cass was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 along with the rest of The Mamas and the Papas.

Claudette Colbert d. July 30, 1996

Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of the passing of French-born actress Claudette Colbert. After a 60-plus year career, which included a Best Actress Oscar for 1934’s It Happened One Night, Colbert passed away at the age of 92 at her retirement home on the island of Barbados.

Andrew Johnson d. July 31, 1875

Andrew Johnson was the first man to ascend to the presidency because of an assassin’s bullet, and the first to be impeached. He was also the first man (presumably) to be sworn in as Vice-President while falling-down drunk.

(See you in August!)

 


Howard the Odd Duck

(I’ve been on hiatus for the past couple of weeks completing a book, starting a new job, and co-hosting a new television show. But it’s time to get back in the saddle, so to kick off things, here’s a post on one horrendously screwed-up dude.)

 

Were I living homeless under a bridge urban troll-like at the time, I still wouldn’t have felt my fortunes had fallen low enough to trade lives with rich guy Howard Hughes during the second half of his life.

While initially acclaimed for his brilliance, good looks, charisma, and adventurous spirit, Hughes suffered from the twin ailments of obsessive-compulsive disorder and having a billion dollars (back when that meant something). This kept him surrounded by yes-men who feared their money-teat might dry up if they ever suggested to the boss that he get treatment.

The wheels on the Hughes express first grew wobbly during this week in 1936 – 75 years ago – when he killed a pedestrian while driving drunk in Los Angeles. A witness claimed that Hughes was swerving and driving too fast and that the male victim was standing in a safe area. By the time of the official inquest, the witness’ story had changed to say that the man stepped in front of Hughes’ car. The charge of negligent homicide was dropped and Hughes ended up spending a total of one night in jail.

July was a particularly bad month for Hughes. In July 1946, nearly 10 years to the day after the fatal traffic accident, Hughes was piloting an experimental aircraft over Beverly Hills when he experienced mechanical failure and tried to crash land the plane at the Los Angeles Country Club. He didn’t quite make it to the golf course, instead clipping three mansions in a fiery crash while sustaining numerous near-fatal injuries.

The accident left him with an addiction to pain killers which only worsened his mental condition. He became more reclusive, buying Vegas hotels so that he wouldn’t have to leave his room. He eventually quit cutting his hair and fingernails, and began saving bottles of his own urine. Over the next 30 years, his eccentricity only deepened, and he became a veritable hermit, seen only by a cadre of Mormon attendants.  

By the time of his death in April 1976, Hughes’ physical and mental state had deteriorated so much that he had to be identified by his fingerprints. The 6’4” Hughes only weighed 90 pounds at the end, and the coroner ruled that his death was caused by kidney failure brought on by malnutrition.

In one of history’s great ironies, Howard Hughes, the richest man in the world, literally starved to death.

Here are some other Deadwrite’s Dailies anniversaries to ponder for this week:

Sunday, July 10 – Mel Blanc, the man who gave voice to dozens of classic Warner Bros. animated characters, died on this date in 1989. Blanc was once in a coma from an automobile accident and could only be reached by his doctors when they asked to speak to Bugs Bunny. Blanc answered them in the rabbit’s voice and eventually made a full recovery. He later credited Bugs with saving his life.

Monday, July 11 – Two of entertainment’s greatest – British actor Sir Laurence Olivier (1989) and composer George Gershwin (1937) – passed away on this date. The Gershwin story, helmed by Steven Spielberg, is rumored to be coming to the screen as early as next year.

Wednesday, July 13 – This time of year is historically bad for First Ladies. Both Dolley Madison and Lady Bird Johnson died on this date, and Betty Ford, the widowed wife of former President Gerald Ford, will be buried this week.

Thursday, July 14 – Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former president Theodore Roosevelt, was killed on this date in 1918 during aerial combat in World War I. As hard as it is to now believe, there was a time in America when the children of politicians, even presidents, served in the military.

This was also the date in 1881 when notorious gunfighter William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, was gunned down by his pal Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory. Everybody has heard of Billy the Kid, but I challenge any but the most ardent Old West fan to name any of the names of the 21 men he reportedly killed during his 21 years on this side of the ground.


Carnival of Souls

Kimi and I were motoring from Salt Lake City towards the Nevada line a year ago when just after catching our first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake I yelled, “Quick, get the camera!”

What prompted the sudden outburst was a Moorish-styled building on the lakefront. What I was experiencing was cinematic déjà vu, because I had only seen the building previously through the magic of film.

Herk Harvey, a man who made industrial films in Lawrence, Kansas, once saw the same building while on a vacation he took to Utah and returned there in 1962 to make the no-budget, nearly-great horror film, Carnival of Souls.

Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary, a talented organist (“capable of stirring the soul”) who rides in a car that plunges into a river. The car isn’t found, but somehow Mary emerges from the water a few hours later unhurt with no memory of the accident.

She later moves to Utah to work as an organist for a church, but is pursued by a strange pasty-faced man from the moment she first glimpses the same Moorish building off on the horizon. While Carnival of Souls is no Citizen Kane, it gets great mileage out of its $30,000 budget.

The building in question was once a resort named Saltair Pavilion, which was built by wealthy Latter Day Saints as a resort and amusement park for vacationing Mormons.

Saltair was built in 1893 over the Great Salt Lake atop of two-thousand pylons and was for a time America’s most popular family destination west of New York.

The first Saltair Pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1925, which some Mormons believed to be divine retribution against the owners for committing the sin of selling coffee and tea.

The resort was rebuilt, but the lake receded, leaving the resort far from the shore. By the time Harvey arrived, he found the building abandoned and used the empty dance pavilion to shoot the climax of the film. It was here where Carnival’s star, Candace Hilligoss, is attacked by waltzing ghouls.

We were saddened to learn that the building we drove by that day was not the same one seen in the film. That’s because the Saltair Pavilion that Harvey used was destroyed by arson in the 1970s and was rebuilt in the early 80s in the same style about a mile from the original pavilion. Today, it’s used as a venue for concerts.

The pavilion has appeared in other places. There was a ho-hum remake of the film in 1998, and around the same time KISS made a largely-forgotten album called Carnival of Souls. There is also a bootleg Beach Boys album that features the pavilion on the cover.


Michael and Farrah in the Santa Clarita Valley

For many, it was the “day the 70s died.”
 
The sobering announcement on June 25, 2009 of Farrah Fawcett’s death from cancer, followed by the truly shocking news a few hours later that Michael Jackson had died from a drug overdose, saddened an entire generation who had grown up alongside the careers of these legendary performers.

It’s interesting to note that both Jackson and Fawcett had several ties to the Santa Clarita Valley.

Jackson came to Vasquez Rocks in 1991 to film part of the music video for the song Black Or White, a musical plea for racial equality. This video from his multi-platinum Dangerous album uses locations from around the world and contains one of the earliest examples of “morphing” in film.

In the Vasquez Rocks segment, Jackson dances with Native Americans atop a platform while riders on horseback encircle them. It was an appropriate location as literally hundreds of Westerns have been shot here going back to the earliest days of film.

The Black of White single was the biggest seller of 1991, and the video, which was released simultaneously around the world, was one of the most watched ever.

Incidentally, the video’s director, John Landis, was the director of the ill-fated 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie segment that claimed the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two small children during filming behind the Magic Mountain theme park in nearby Valencia.

A few miles southwest of Vasquez Rocks at 15564 Sierra Highway is the Halfway House Cafe. It was here that Fawcett’s December 1995 Playboy spread was said to have been shot. This issue was the magazine’s biggest seller of the 90s.

Halfway House is frequently seen on film and television and is the site of Cindy Crawford’s famous 1991 Pepsi commercial where she drives up in a Lamborghini wearing blue jean cutoffs and a white tank top. (BTW, Halfway House is also seen in Landis’ Twilight Zone: The Movie.)

At the time of Fawcett’s death, her 24-year-old son Redmond O’Neal was incarcerated in a Santa Clarita area jail on drug charges. He was given a three-hour release to attend her funeral.

This past Saturday, Jackson’s jacket from the Thriller video went on auction and brought in $1.8 million. According to reports, the jacket’s sale will benefit another local Santa Clarita Valley institution – our friend Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve – where two of Jackson’s tigers from Neverland Ranch are now housed.


I Predict He’ll Be a Big Star

(Here’s another offering from my favorite guest blogger, my wife and soulmate Kimi.)

During 635 episodes spanning 20 years, television viewers invited James Arness and the rest of the cast of the long-running Western Gunsmoke into their homes.

The 6’7” Arness was born James Aurness in May of 1923 (he would later drop the “u” at the recommendation of one of his first directors.) As a boy, he had no interest in performing, and dreamed instead of going to sea. He was drafted in 1943 and shipped out to Casablanca. He was later discharged because of a severe leg injury he received from German machine-gun fire.

While recuperating, his brother Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible and Airplane fame) convinced him to explore a career in radio. Arness proved fairly successful at the medium, and appeared headed for a career in broadcasting when he accompanied a friend to Hollywood in the hopes of finding film extra roles.

After a stint as a beach bum in San Onofre, he was cast in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met and married his first wife, Virginia Chapman. With her encouragement, Arness began finding roles, often cast as villainous character due to his size.

It was while playing in one of these roles that he was spotted by agent Charles Feldman, who also represented John Wayne. Feldman introduced Arness to Wayne, who immediately put him under personal contract.

It was during this time that the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke was offered to Wayne. Duke turned down the role and recommended Arness for the part. (Some say Wayne was never actually offered the role, but in a 2006 interview with James Arness by Leon Worden of SCVTV in Santa Clarita, Arness himself implies that Wayne did in fact turn down the role before recommending him.) 

At first Arness feared the role would adversely affect his film career, but Wayne proved persuasive. He even filmed a teaser at the start of the first episode to help introduce America to the man who would become a generation’s role model and friend.

Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before. I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here. All kinds. Some of them have been Westerns and that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight. A Western. A new television show called "Gunsmoke." When I first heard about the show "Gunsmoke," I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you. But I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. And now I’m proud to present "Gunsmoke."

Duke certainly knew what he was talking about.