Tag Archives: Newhallywood

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.

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From Niles to Newhallywood

The ending of "The Tramp" in 1915.

At the conclusion of the Charlie Chaplin film, The Tramp (1915), Chaplin’s “little tramp” character, heartbroken after losing the girl, shuffles off alone down a winding dirt road.

The situation was much different twenty-one years later in the final scene from Modern Times when Chaplin retired the iconic character.

Charlie Chaplin was an English music hall performer in his early twenties when discovered by Mack Sennett and brought to Hollywood to star in the “flickers.” During his first year in the business in 1914, Chaplin made 35 films at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale, and rose from complete obscurity to become the most recognized man in the world.

Chaplin was only earning $175 per week at Keystone and got lured away to Essanay Studios the following year with the offer of a 700% raise (to $1250 per week) plus a $10,000 signing bonus.

Essanay Studios was named after the initials “S & A” of its two main partners, George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It was based in Chicago but Broncho Billy, who was one of early cinema’s first cowboy stars, later came west to set up a second facility in the town of Niles, California to shoot Westerns.

After signing with Essanay, Chaplin first filmed in Chicago before coming to Niles. He wasn’t impressed with the town when he got there. The East Bay village was far too rural for the young man who had only ever lived in the big cities of London and Los Angeles.

Chaplin would only stay in Niles long enough to make a handful of films, but one of them, The Tramp, is today considered to be his first masterpiece.

In the film, Charlie stars in the role of his “little tramp” character, which he had created for Keystone. Sennett’s frenetic filming schedule had prevented him from developing the character fully, relying mostly on slapstick to get a laugh. At Essanay, Chaplin was able to add pathos to the character, making him more sympathetic.

At the end of The Tramp, Chaplin has been rejected by his lady (played by Edna Purviance) and walks off through the Niles Canyon alone. Dejected at first, he then shrugs his shoulders, picks up his pace, and hustles off in search of his next adventure.

When Chaplin decided to retire the character at the end of Modern Times in 1936, he came to the Santa Clarita Valley, which was known to early filmmakers as Newhallywood. In Modern Times, Chaplin paid homage to the final scene of The Tramp with a twist. He again walks off, but this time the road is straight and paved, and most importantly … he’s got his girl at his side. The Little Tramp’s days of facing the world alone have ended.

Chaplin and his works will be honored at the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest on February 4 and 5 in Newhall, California, with films, lectures, book signings, and the dedication of a monument honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times.

Some citizens of Niles will be on-hand to represent their town that day, including musician Michael McNevin.

The Little Tramp and his girl at the conclusion of "Modern Times" (1936).

To learn more about ChaplinFest, click here.

To learn more about Niles, click here.


Catching It All

“I went from playing ball, to catching it all … I was the man behind the lens.”  I Shot Broncho Billy, Michael McNevin

Charlie Chaplin with Rollie Totheroh (center) on location in Truckee, California, during filming of "The Gold Rush" (1925).

The entire world is familiar with the films of Charlie Chaplin, but only hardcore Chaplin fans know of the man behind the lens, Rollie Totheroh, one of the men most responsible for the Little Tramp’s success. Totheroh, who was born 120 years ago today on November 29, 1890, was a true pioneer in the field of cinematography, and was Chaplin’s principal cameraman for the better part of four decades!

Charlie Chaplin first rose to stardom in 1914 at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles. During the year he was at Keystone, Chaplin appeared in 35 films, and went from obscurity to worldwide fame in the process. At the start of 1915, Chaplin went to work for Essanay Studios, which was owned by two men, George K. Spoor and “Broncho” Billy Anderson, one of the first Western stars of silent film. (Their initials, “S and A,” gave their studio its name.) Essanay was based in Chicago, but had a studio in the East Bay area of Northern California, in the town of Niles. Essanay was able to hire Chaplin away from Sennett by giving him a boost in salary to $1250 per week from the $150 per week he was making at Keystone. It was in Niles that Chaplin made such films as The Champion and The Tramp.

Totheroh was a former semi-pro baseball player who had first joined Essanay in 1911 as a “ringer” for the company baseball team. He was quickly put to work acting in some of the four hundred Westerns produced at the studio before moving behind the camera. In those days the work of the cameraman was a grueling one, requiring the steady cranking of the camera with one hand, while focusing the lens with the other. When Chaplin joined Essanay, Totheroh was assigned to be his personal cameraman, and the relationship stuck. They ended up working together until 1952, when Chaplin was exiled from America.

Chaplin was unimpressed with the facilities in Niles and left for greener pastures the following year, taking Totheroh with him. Before leaving Niles, Totheroh got married and had a son named Jack, who in 1915 appeared as a nine-month old female infant in the Broncho Billy film, The Bachelor’s Baby. 92 years later, Jack appeared in the feature, Weekend King. His nine-decade-plus film career is the longest in history, earning Mr. Totheroh a spot in the Guinness Book of Records. Jack is still with us at age 95, living in the Santa Paula area. He and his son David appeared in cameo roles in the 1992 film Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr.

In Newhall, California, on the weekend of February 5, 2011, Kimi and I will be helping to host the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest to honor the 75th anniversary of the release of his epic silent feature, Modern Times. Chaplin came to the Santa Clarita Valley to capture the last scene of the film nearby. It was the final scene of the entire silent era.

Rollie Totheroh, of course, was behind the lens that day.

Rollie Totheroh's grave in North Hollywood's Vallhalla Cemetery.

For more information about ChaplinFest, check out www.scvchaplinfest.org. You can also friend us on Facebook at “Modern Times” Plaque – Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest.”

BTW, if you would like to hear the phenomenal Michael McNevin perform live, we hope to have him at ChaplinFest. Click here to see a clip of Michael playing Two Feet Ahead of the Train for us in Niles.


Color and Catacombs: “Phantom of the Opera” Turns 85

Many of the iconic scenes from the silent era which still hold power in the minds of the general public are from the silent comics. Some that come to mind are Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in Safety Last; Buster Keaton riding the cowcatcher in The General; and Charlie Chaplin maneuvering through the gears, and later walking off into the sunset at the closing of Modern Times.

There are fewer enduring images from silent dramas, but they do exist. One such scene comes in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, which celebrates the 85th anniversary of its general release today. The scene I refer to is the one where the disfigured face of the Phantom, played by Lon Chaney, is revealed for the first time.

The Phantom of the Opera takes place in the Paris Opera House where a mysterious masked “Phantom” calls on the owners to replace the prima donna with Christine, the understudy. When they refuse, the Phantom crashes a chandelier, killing several members of the audience. Later, the Phantom whisks Christine away to his lair deep within the catacombs beneath the opera house, where he holds her captive in the vain hope of winning her love. It is here that Christine, overcome by curiosity, tears off the mask of the Phantom, revealing his scarred and disfigured face. Later the Phantom appears to the citizens of Paris in the costume of the Red Death at a masked ball. This primative Technicolor sequence was one of the first significant displays of color in a major motion picture.

The story of The Phantom of the Opera is so pervasive in the world’s collective unconscious that it’s tempting to believe that it’s an ancient story. If fact, it’s less than a hundred-years-old. It’s based on a novel written in 1911 by Frenchman Gaston Leroux.

When Universal came to make their version of Phantom they chose forty-two-year old Lon Chaney for the lead. Chaney was fresh off the hit The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where he played Quasimodo, another deformed character that is motivated by unrequited love.

Chaney learned his pantomime skills from interacting with his parents, who were both deaf. He began a career in vaudeville as a dancer, singer, and comedian in 1902. He married a few years later, and the couple had a son, Lon Chaney Jr., who would also carve out a successful Hollywood career in several classic horror films. Chaney Sr. entered films in 1913 after his wife attempted suicide, which ended his marriage as well as his standing on the vaudeville circuit. He acted in dozens of silent films, including one Western with Newhall’s own William S. Hart, before finding his niche in the horror genre.

Chaney’s career was cut short only five years after the release of Phantom due to lung disease. His condition was worsened on the set of the film Thunder by artificial snow made from cornflakes that lodged in his lung causing a fatal infection.

The Phantom of the Opera has reappeared in several forms over the decades, most famously as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s record-setting Broadway musical.

Amazingly, one cast member from the 1925 film is still alive. Carla Laemmle, who played one of the ballerinas in the film, is still going strong at age 101. She was the niece of Universal head Carl Laemmle.

Part of the set of The Phantom of the Opera is also believed to exist in a corner of Stage 28 on the Universal lot. A rumor exists that this “haunted” set injures every workman who tries to dismantle it.


What’s Outside of Awesometown?

Outside of Valencia, California, which is known to city promoters as “Awesometown,” there is a big world filled with people, cars, countries, and reality shows. Outside of Pleasantville, a fictional town from a comedy that was partially filmed in Valencia, you won’t find much past Elm Street.

1998’s Pleasantville is a story about a 1950s sitcom which is centered around a utopian American town populated by a God-fearing, allegiance-pledging citizenry. The town is thought to live only in reruns, but in reality, it still exists in a televised time-bubble. The townsfolk, like characters in a Jasper Fforde novel, conduct their lives only in the one-dimensional way they were written, doomed to forever repeat the actions their writers gave them.

Pleasantville’s perfectly sanitized world, where the biggest crisis is a cat stuck in a tree, quickly changes when David and Jennifer, a pair of high school twins from the late 1990s played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, get sucked into the series through their television set. The teleportation comes about thanks to a magical remote given to them by a mysterious TV repairman, played by Don Knotts, who was himself a long-time citizen of another television Eden called Mayberry. After the twins enter the picture, changes quickly occur beginning when Jennifer brings her Pleasantville Geography class to a standstill by asking, “What’s outside of Pleasantville?”

Color plays a central role in Pleasantville where the citizens see the world literally and figuratively in black-and-white. The changes brought about by the twins result in a gradual transformation of the Pleasantville world to color. Depending on one’s point of view, the use of color in the film signifies either an increase in knowledge and sophistication or of corruption.

Pleasantville was one of my favorite films of the 1990s and I was happy to recently learn that some of it was filmed in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Valencia High School, where my stepson is a sophomore, is the school shown at the beginning of the film where David trips all over himself asking a girl out on a date, and where he prepares for a Pleasantville trivia contest. While this takes place, his slutty twin sister Jennifer and her friends look on in disgust at her nerdy brother, and conduct an entire conversation with a group of guys centered around the word “Hey.” Valencia High’s quad, outdoor cafeteria, and the area outside the theater are seen on screen.

Later in the film, a car drives through a street that appears to be in Stevenson Ranch, which borders Valencia. Another SCV connection can be found in the soundtrack when rocker Gene Vincent sings Be-Bop-A-Lula. Vincent is a “permanent resident” of Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery.

The SCV is a frequent filming site for films and television shows, with The Unit, Big Love, Criminal Minds, NCIS, The Mentalist, and Bones currently lensing locally.

If you’d like to learn more about the film and television history of the Santa Clarita Valley, feel free to sign up for the next session of my “Newhallywood on Location” film class in January in Newhall’s Heritage Junction.

I promise that it’ll be swell.


The Mime and the Mouse

Chaplin & Disney.

I saw my first Charlie Chaplin film on a vintage hand-cranked Mutoscope at the Penny Arcade on Main Street USA during my first trip to Disneyland. It was an appropriate place to dip my toe into the Chaplin waters, which soon became an immersion, because Charlie Chaplin and his character, “The Little Tramp,” were major influences on Walt Disney, and on his animated character Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney was a young man in Missouri when Chaplin first hit the silver screen in 1914. Young Walt idolized the Englishman entering several Chaplin impersonation contests in Kansas City. Years later, after choosing animation for a career and relocating to Southern California, Disney turned to his idol for inspiration in the creation of a new character.

“We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little. I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin – a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”

(“How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life”)

In the 1930s Disney and Chaplin became business partners for five years when all of the Disney shorts were released through Chaplin’s company, United Artists.

Their paths crossed often in Hollywood and in remote sites like the Lake Tahoe region where Chaplin filmed the opening of The Gold Rush in 1925. Disney came to the same spot a few years later to invest in what is today known as the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. One of the highest peaks at the resort is named Mt. Disney, which is next to the setting where a line of prospectors climbed to the gold fields in Chaplin’s 1925 epic.

The Santa Clarita Valley contains sites related to both men.

Disney bought a ranch in Placerita Canyon in the late 50s that is today known as Golden Oak Ranch. It has been used in dozens of productions for the company, including Spin and Marty from the Mickey Mouse Club. The company plans to expand the facility into its second major California studio complex over the next few years.

Chaplin also spent time in the SCV going back to 1923 when he filmed The Pilgrim in the Saugus Train Station. A dozen years later he returned to film the final scenes for Modern Times on Sierra Highway.

Modern Times premiered on February 5, 1936 in New York and made its West Coast debut a week later at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Before the show, the crowd was entertained by a Walt Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon. Disney inserted a note into the program to honor his childhood hero that said, “In appreciation of the pantomimist supreme whose inimitable artistry and craftsmanship are timeless.”

It was signed, “Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney.”

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BTW, we will be honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times in the SCV on February 5, 2011 by placing a historic plaque at the site of the final scene. We will be hosting a Chaplin Festival in Newhall that weekend, which includes a screening of The Pilgrim in the Saugus Train Station where part of it was filmed. Keep in touch for details.


“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.