Tag Archives: mary pickford

The Sweet Prince of Pickfair

(Because I am completely immersed in another writing project, Kimi has graciously volunteered to author another day’s post. Thank you, my sweet princess!)

"… An eternal boy … His was a happy life. His rewards were great, his joys many. Now he pillows his head upon his arms, sighs deeply, and sleeps."

(Eulogy delivered by Charlie Chaplin for his best friend, Douglas Fairbanks.)

The impressive crypt of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, is a worthy testament to the glamorous life led by the original “King of Hollywood."

For those who can remember back that far, mention of the name Douglas Fairbanks conjures up images of romantic silent swashbucklers and Hollywood glamour on a grand scale.

Fairbanks’ accomplishments in Hollywood as an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter were legendary, as were his performances in Robin Hood, The Thief of Baghdad, and The Mark of Zorro.

For a time in film’s early era, Douglas Fairbanks was Hollywood.

Born Douglas Elton Ulman in Denver on this date in 1883, Fairbanks’ happy childhood ended at age five, when his alcoholic father abandoned the family. (Watching his father’s descent into alcoholism would inspire Fairbanks to abstain from drinking for most of his life.)

Like many actors of his time, Fairbanks began his career in summer stock as a teenager, and was an instant sensation. He was discovered in Denver by British actor Frederick Warde and offered a spot in his popular acting troupe.

Fairbanks made his Broadway debut in 1902. While in New York, he met and married his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, who gave birth to their son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., later a major star in his own right.

Fairbanks, Sr.’s career took flight when the family moved to Hollywood in 1915, where he signed a contract at Triangle Pictures with legendary director D.W. Griffith. Within 18 months, he landed a job at Paramount Pictures and was catapulted to stardom, becoming the most popular actor in Hollywood.

His long-time romantic association and marriage to actress Mary Pickford – “America’s Sweetheart” – is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

They met at a party in 1916 and immediately began their love affair. Just one year later, the couple joined Doug’s close friend and associate Charlie Chaplin selling WWI war bonds.

The trio would later team up with D.W. Griffith to form United Artists in 1919, the same year Fairbanks’ divorce from Sully became  final. Fairbanks and Pickford were married the following year, and moved into their well-known Beverly Hills mansion, “Pickfair." They came to be regarded as Hollywood royalty, and Pickfair was the place to see and be seen.

The decade of the 20s was a very good one for Fairbanks, and he was able to solidify his "royalty" status by hosting the very first Academy Awards ceremony.

The 30s witnessed the end of Fairbanks’ career and marriage to Pickford.

Fairbanks died quietly at the home he shared with his third wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley, in Santa Monica in 1939. His last words were, “I’ve never felt better.”

His grave used to say, "Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to rest." But with the internment of his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., inside the same tomb in 2000, the wording was changed to read, "Goodnight sweet princes."

(If you would like to see Fairbanks’ grave, we’ll be taking our “Newhallywood on Location” class to Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a tour this Saturday. Check the “My Class” tab for details.)

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Charlie Chaplin’s Days

Last night in Santa Clarita’s city council chambers, a motion was approved proclaiming Saturday, February 5, 2011 “Charlie Chaplin Day” in the city.

This was done to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the release of Charlie’s final silent film Modern Times, which was partially shot near Santa Clarita.

The early part of February often proved significant during Chaplin’s long and storied career.

Charlie was a young English music hall performer on tour with the Fred Karno Troupe when he was discovered by producer Mack Sennett and given a contract to work in the flickers. He had not yet turned twenty-five when he first stepped through the gates at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale in January, 1914.

He was immediately thrust in front of the cameras, and on February 2, 1914 made his film debut in a 15-minute comedy called Making A Living where he plays a swindler who gets apprehended by the Keystone Cops.

Less than a week later, on February 7, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character debuted in a one-reeler called Kid Auto Races at Venice. Sennett loved to use whatever was happening in Southern California as a backdrop for his hastily constructed plots, and Kid Auto Races was no exception. A soapbox derby race was taking place down by the beach and Sennett hustled his cast and crew to Venice to capture the action. A plot was derived on the site requiring Chaplin to play a camera-crazy spectator at the races who sees the filming and does whatever he can to insert himself in the action.  

Chaplin hurriedly assembled a contrasting mélange of oversized and undersized clothing, dabbed on some greasepaint to create a moustache, doffed a derby, grabbed a cane, and just like that, one of the most enduring characters in cinematic history was born fully-grown.

Chaplin appeared in two more films over the next few days, including one that until recently was thought to have never existed.

On February 19, Charlie played a Keystone Cop in a film called A Thief Catcher. It was soon forgotten and all copies were thought to be lost. Chaplin, possibly because he was unsatisfied with the finished product, later claimed that the film had never been made.

A couple of years ago, a film historian was browsing in an antique shop in Michigan when he discovered the long-lost film. (We will be presenting A Thief Catcher, along with Modern Times on February 5 in Newhall as part of ChaplinFest. Leonard Maltin will be hosting a Q&A session with Tippi Hedren before the film. Ms. Hedren, who is most famous for starring in The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, also starred in Chaplin’s final film, A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967.)

February 5 also proved significant to Chaplin in 1919. That was the day that he, along with film pals Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, created United Artists.

It’s interesting that the February 5th “Charlie Chaplin Day” proclamation will be presented in a special ceremony down the hill from the William S. Hart mansion in Santa Clarita since Bill Hart would have been the 5th member of the United Artists team had he not pulled out of the deal at the last moment.


“Ramona Days,” Part Two

It takes a special kind of crazy to make a man wake up early on a Sunday morning to climb hills in a remote canyon in search of hundred-year-old filming locations, but that’s what I did over the weekend. I happen to share this particular form of insanity with Hugh Munro Neely, the curator of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education in Los Angeles. That’s how the two of us found ourselves climbing a mountain near Piru, California, where just over 100 years ago, legendary director D.W. Griffith came to film budding superstar Mary Pickford in a silent one-reeler called Ramona.

Ramona was based on the enormously popular 1884 novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. It’s a story about a privileged young senorita who is rejected by her own culture when she marries a Native American man named Alessandro. Though largely forgotten today, Ramona was one of the nineteenth century’s best loved novels.

Director D.W. Griffith, one of early cinema’s true titans, was a big fan of Ramona and had even acted out the part of Alessandro on stage. By 1910, he had been directing movies for two years and was five years away from making his controversial silent epic The Birth of a Nation. Seventeen-year-old Mary Pickford, who was born in Canada, was well on her way to becoming “America’s Sweetheart,” with nearly 70 films under her belt. Griffith secured the Ramona filming rights for only $100, and boiled the 350-page novel down to a 17-minute one-reeler.   

Although not specifically mentioned in the book, Rancho Camulos, which lies two miles east of Piru on Highway 126, was believed to be the setting for Ramona’s home, and for many years the rancho even marketed fruits grown there under the “Home of Ramona” label.

Hugh Munro Neely.

Camulos became so associated with the Ramona story that Griffith decided to make what was then a rare decision by filming on location at the rancho. In May, 1910 he did exterior shooting over a few days in the hills surrounding Piru and at Camulos. In fact, Camulos is noted for being the first location to ever be given a screen credit when the following banner appeared at the beginning of the film: “The production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story.”    

 

Henry B. Walthall and Mary Pickford in "Ramona."

I met Hugh on Saturday at Camulos, where he was presenting the film in the schoolhouse to guests of the annual “Ramona Days” festival which was taking place at the rancho. Hugh was in charge of the film’s recent remastering, which he completed in time for its 100th anniversary this past May. That same month I wrote an article for The Signal in Valencia where I matched up scenes from the film with current sites to show how much had changed in a century. The thing I was surprised to discover was that many of the sites looked remarkably similar today.

The same location today.

Hugh had some doubts about some of the canyon sites I identified in my article as filming locations (rightly so, as it turns out). He wanted to get a look at the sites for himself, and that’s how we ended up rising early on Sunday to straddle fences and climb mountains like a pair of bipedal mountain goats. I had to head out early, but Hugh was able to find five sites and possibly a couple more.

It may sound insane, but when you are able to match up a site like this …

 

… it makes it all worthwhile for a a couple of movie crazy guys like me and Hugh. 


“Ramona Days,” Part One

As author Dydia DeLyser states in the introduction to her book Ramona Memories, “The most important woman in the history of southern California never lived. Nor has she yet died.”

Ramona was the name of the woman, and she was the subject of an enormously popular 1884 fictional novel of the same name written by Helen Hunt Jackson. Ramona is a story about a privileged young senorita who is rejected by her own culture when she marries a Native American man named Alessandro. Though largely forgotten today, Ramona was one of the nineteenth century’s best loved novels.

Hunt intended the novel to be something of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Native Americans, dramatizing the harsh oppression of California’s mission Indians at the hands of white Californians. It gave birth to the “Ramona myth,” in which Ramona, who was a fictional character, took on a life of her own.

Hunt used real locations for the basis of her story, and soon thousands of readers began arriving in California from back East hoping to see where Ramona “lived.” Various California cities cashed in on the travel boom claiming to be Ramona’s birthplace, home, marriage location, and even grave site.

Although not specifically mentioned in the book, Rancho Camulos, which lies two miles east of Piru on Highway 126, was believed to be the setting for Ramona’s home. Camulos is a 40-acre National Historic Landmark situated within an 1800-acre working ranch. According to its website, it is “the only Mexican land grant rancho in California that is open to the public and still preserved in its original rural environment.” It was originally part of the huge 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco Mexican land grant awarded to Antonio Del Valle in 1839. The house was built in 1853 by Antonio’s son Ygnacio and got its name from a Tataviam Indian settlement on the site called Kamulus.

“When the book came out, it was so popular that many ranchos vied for the title of “home of Ramona,” says Camulos docent Maria Christopher. “In reality, Helen Hunt Jackson had visited several ranchos but never identified the inspiration for the home of Ramona. A few years after the book came out, Charles Lummis published a book of photos based on his knowledge of California ranchos, illustrating how Camulos fit the description in the book. Also, in an appendix to one of the early editions, a journalist documented his visit to Rancho Camulos, identifying it as the true home of Ramona.”

The rancho quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and for years the Southern Pacific railroad made stops at Camulos’s own train station to accommodate all the tourists wishing to visit Ramona’s house. This did not sit well with the Del Valle’s who complained about tourists who took souvenirs, trampled the gardens, and entered the home uninvited – often asking to see a torn altar cloth that Ramona mended – forgetting that the young senorita had never actually lived.

The phenomenon continued long after Hunt’s death in 1885. The novel spawned “The Ramona Pageant” in Hemet in 1923, which is still held annually outdoors in April and May. A few years later, showman Robert E. Callahan penned a sequel to Ramona and founded one of California’s first theme parks in Culver City, known as Ramona Village. After going bankrupt, the park stood for many years on Sierra Highway near Canyon Country under the name “Callahan’s Wild West.” Many of the items from the park are now found at Heritage Junction in Newhall, including “Ramona’s Chapel,” a replica of the one found at Rancho Camulos.

The Ramona Myth was still powerful enough in 1910 for legendary director D.W. Griffith to make a movie based on the book starring “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford. The film, which was shot at Camulos and in surrounding canyons, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.


Silent Film Funnymen in the SCV

Newhall's Beale's Cut, seen in Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances."

Last month I wrote about our efforts to place a historic plaque at the filming site of the final scene of Modern Times (1936) next February on the 75th anniversary of the film’s release. I’ll keep you in the loop on our progress. In the meantime, I wanted to write a bit about some of the other Santa Clarita Valley sites used by Chaplin, as well as his friend and rival Buster Keaton.

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In 1921, stone-faced silent comedian Buster Keaton made a film called The Paleface. In one scene where Buster is being chased by Indians, he crosses a bridge that was constructed over Beale’s Cut in Newhall.

Beale’s Cut, located near the intersection of the Golden State (5) and Antelope Valley (14) Freeways, was at one time a 90-foot deep man-made slit carved though a mountain. It greatly aided travel to and from the San Fernando Valley from the mid-1800’s until being bypassed in 1910 by the newly constructed Newhall Tunnel, which was subsequently replaced by Sierra Highway in 1938.

Keaton returned to Beale’s Cut in 1925 while filming Seven Chances. In this film, Buster plays a man who has to be married by seven o’clock or lose his fortune. He fails to find a bride by taking “seven chances” at proposing directly, and in desperation, places an ad in the paper to find a wife. A mob of women in wedding dresses pursue Buster throughout the remainder of the film, briefly chasing him through the cut.

(Beale’s Cut has been used as a movie location many times in the past, most notably in Stagecoach (1939), starring John Wayne, and in a lost Tom Mix film called Three Jumps Ahead (1923), where he appears to jump the expanse on a horse!)

Charlie Chaplin in "The Pilgrim" outside of the Saugus Train Station.

In 1923, Charlie Chaplin – playing an escaped prisoner disguised as a preacher – filmed part of The Pilgrim a few miles up the road from Beale’s Cut at the Saugus Train Station. At that time, the station was located on Railroad Street across from the present site of the Saugus Café. Since then it has been relocated three miles south to the Heritage Junction Historical Park in Newhall. This park sits next to the William S. Hart Regional Park, which contains the home and ranch of the former silent cowboy star.

Ironically, Hart was the subject of a western parody that Keaton filmed in 1922 called The Frozen North. Buster was angry at Hart for publicly condemning his friend Fatty Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s well-publicized scandal, which was brought on by the death of an actress at a party. In The Frozen North, Keaton pokes fun at the tough, melodramatic character that Hart most-often portrayed in his films. Hart apparently didn’t find the portrayal funny, and refused to speak to Keaton for two years.

(The station was also seen in Suddenly (1954), starring Frank Sinatra, and The Grifters (1989), starring John Cusack, Annette Benning, and Angelica Huston.)

The Saugus Train Station today.

While not involving Chaplin directly, part of the film Chaplin (1991), starring Robert Downey, Jr., was filmed in nearby Fillmore; and Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, two of Chaplin’s United Artists partners, made the silent film Ramona at nearby Rancho Camulos in 1910.

The magicians are no longer with us – Keaton died in 1966, and Chaplin in 1977 – but at Beale’s Cut and the Saugus Train Station, we can still stand where some of their magic was made.


“Modern Times,” Part 1

The entrance to The Jim Henson Company lot at La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood. The lot was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1918, which explains the statue of Kermit the Frog dressed as the "Little Tramp" over the entrance.

In 1935, Charlie Chaplin – the most famous of the silent clowns – came to the Santa Clarita Valley to shoot the final two scenes of the silent era.

Chaplin was over twenty years into his enormously successful film career at the time, having first arrived in Hollywood from his native England in 1914 to make films for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. By the end of that year he had completed 35 films and his character, the Little Tramp, was the world’s most recognizable star.

Chaplin, as the Little Tramp, peeking out the door next to the entrance.

He left Keystone the following year and continued to make dozens of Little Tramp shorts for other producers for the next few years. These films were so successful that by the end of the decade he was able to build his own studio on La Brea in Hollywood, and to partner in the creation of United Artists with his friends Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith.

Chaplin was in essence a pantomime artist and feared that if people heard the voice of the Little Tramp that the character’s magic would be lost forever. As the star, director, producer, writer, editor, and composer of his films, as well as the studio owner, he was the only man in Hollywood with the power and resources to buck the talkie trend. But he knew that the time had come to evolve. By 1935, he finally admitted to himself that talking pictures, which debuted in 1927, were here to stay, and were not the novelty that he had hoped would eventually wear off with the world’s audiences.

Chaplin's footprints and autograph in the steps outside of the "Chaplin door."

He decided to end his silent career with a film called Modern Times. It would be his biggest gamble to date, coming eight years into the talkie era. It would prove to be one of his greatest triumphs, but no one knew that on August 20, 1935, when he came to the SCV to film.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the filming date for the penultimate scene, which was shot on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce. Ten days later Chaplin returned to the same lonely road to film what would be the final scene of not only Modern Times, but of the entire silent era. I will write about that on August 30.

To be continued …