Tag Archives: silent films

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)

 


Missing Mr. Mitchell

We’re rushing up on the 4th of July again, which means more to me than just a day off. On a high note, the fourth is my birthday, but at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, it also marks the second anniversary of the passing of our buddy, the legendary organist and choir director Bob Mitchell, who died at the age of 96 in 2009.

The term "legendary" is kicked around carelessly in Hollywood, but that’s the only way to describe Bob. He first tickled the ivories at the age of four way back in 1916, and by the time he was 12(!) he was proficient enough at the organ to accompany silent films in theaters. This gig lasted until the talkies hit the scene four years later. He then became a choir director – a position he held in one fashion or another for the next 80 years!

Along the way he founded the "Robert Mitchell Choir Boys" troupe, which appeared in 100 films, and was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated short.

After a stint in World War II, he returned to Los Angeles and worked for many years as a staff organist for classic radio shows.  In his later years, he returned to his roots to accompany silent films all around the Los Angeles area. This is how Bob came into our lives.

I had been a fan of Bob’s for years, but I had never met him until he agreed to accompany Buster Keaton’s The General for us at our film series in Newhall in 2007. Bob’s star power brought the folks out in droves, and for the rest of his life he played for us in front of packed houses. He would be driven to Newhall by his good friends Dr. Gene Toon and Dee Perkins. Sometimes it would take several minutes for him to go from the car to the organ, but once there, he would transform into a young man.

He would play for the next hour or more, with no sheet music, composing as he watched the screen. Occasionally, he would even sing along to the music, or comment about one of the stars on screen that he had worked with personally over the years. Everyone ate it up.

We got to spend some time together away from the shows. I had a special experience at the end of one year when I drove Bob back to his assisted living home in Hollywood. He was a very caring and religious man, and asked me to stay while he lead Hanukkah prayers for the two of us. Now, neither of us were Jewish, but there we were wearing yarmulkes and lighting candles because Bob wanted to honor all of his friends of the Jewish faith.

Bob had a special love for Kimi and would light up whenever she entered the room (just like me). Kimi gave him a birthday cake at one of our shows while he set at the organ, and Bob hugged her like she was a favorite granddaughter.

It’s ironic to say that the death of a 96-year-old was unexpected, but for me it was. Bob, despite a few health problems, was never in a hurry to leave this life. I asked him if he was interested in playing a show for us on his 100th birthday in 2012, and he said, "Let’s book it!"

But it was not to be. We were on our way to visit him at the hospital last year when we got word that he had passed away.

A year ago at this time, the Los Angeles Conservancy presented the 1924 silent film Peter Pan as part of their "Last Remaining Seats" series at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. The show was hosted by Leonard Maltin and the near-capacity crowd was treated to a wonderful evening of entertainment. The night was dedicated to Bob who had played for the conservancy for over 20 years.

Before the show, a documentary that we made was played in a continuous loop in a side room. It was of the night in 2008 when we took Bob to Dodger Stadium to play the organ for the 7th inning stretch. See, another item on Bob’s resume was being the very first organist at Dodger Stadium when it opened in 1962.

Do you see why the term legendary fits?


Yesterday in Niles

We turned off Mission Boulevard, passed under a train bridge, rounded a corner – and went a century back in time.

That’s what it feels like going to Niles.

Niles is a 4,000-person small town, completely enveloped by the quarter-million residents of Fremont in Northern California’s East Bay.

The town appears to be hermetically-sealed in a 1910s-era time bubble, with its main street fronted by a row of antique stores that bring out droves of bargain-hunters every weekend.

We only intended to stay long enough to say a quick hello to our good friend Michael McNevin, who is a Niles resident and its chief cheerleader. He is also the greatest musician you’ve never heard of.

We met up for breakfast at “The Nile,” which is decorated in an interesting mixture of ancient Egypt and old railroad town, where we sat in chairs named “Stinky,” “Fuzz,” and “Sweet Lips.”

Down the street from the restaurant a newly-restored train station rests alongside the final stretch of the transcontinental railroad. The day before, the station was seen by millions of online browsers, who saw a short film that was made there by Google to celebrate Charlie Chaplin’s birthday.

It was an appropriate place to honor the great silent film comedian, because Chaplin made a handful of films in Niles in 1915. Although he didn’t particularly like Niles – this is still Charlie’s town.

We discovered Niles a few years ago, thanks to our love of silent films.

Almost a century ago, two men, George Spoor, (the moneyman), and “Broncho Billy” Anderson (the first silent cowboy star), got together and created Essanay Studios in Niles (named after S & A, their initials). They signed the papers that created the studio near where Stinky, Fuzz, and Sweet Lips sit today.

Niles was the place where Chaplin went to make movies (as well as a lot more money), after spending his first year in films at Hollywood’s Keystone Studios.

We had intended to depart after breakfast, but Niles has a way of diverting you in the nicest possible way, by the nicest people. Before we could leave town, Michael hooked us up with some complementary tickets on the Niles Canyon Railway which runs along the creek in the scenic canyon between Niles and the tiny village of Sunol. Just because.

During our 15-minute stop at Sunol, we walked across the street to a saloon called Bosco’s Bones and Brew, which was named after a dog who was legally elected mayor a few years ago.

We didn’t have time to sit for a beer, but the female bartender – showing Northern-California coolness – filled us a sample for free by setting a glass under a life-sized model of the late pooch and lifting his hind leg.

We rode the train back to Niles, spent a couple of hours browsing through the antique shops, and dropped in on the Essanay Museum to say hello to some friends who we hadn’t seen since they attended our ChaplinFest in February.

We again tried to leave town, but at 7 PM we found ourselves listening to Michael and his friend Patrick McClellan play a concert. Instead of headlining Madison Square Garden, where musicians of their talent should be featured, they performed at Michael’s Mudpuddle Music Shop on Main Street, where the walls are covered with Etch-a-sketch art which Michael creates as visual representations of his story songs.

The 225 square-feet of floor space was packed with wine-swigging friends. We sat by the door, which was a spot where Chaplin once stood for a picture in 1915. All the while, Clancy, the beautiful black lab who is Michael’s constant companion, moved from person-to-person, staying until the love played out, then proceeding on to the next round of pets and scratches.

The main act for the evening was a pair of enormously talented folk singers from Texas named Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. We explained to them ahead of time that we would probably have to leave early, as we had a long drive ahead of us.

After their first song, we were hooked, and at our pre-determined time of departure we were powerless to pull ourselves away and ended up staying for the entire two-hour show.

Nearly nine hours after we planned to motor on down the road, we finally left Niles behind. As we headed for the freeway, we passed the spot in Niles Canyon where Chaplin walked off into the sunset at the conclusion of The Tramp, ending his stay in Niles.

Unlike Chaplin, we love Niles, and will be back.

And once again, we’ll undoubtedly stay longer than we plan to.


Death By Sound: The Tragic Tale of Karl Dane

Hollywood, like crocodiles, sometimes eats its own. Take, for example, the tragic story of actor and comic Karl Dane.

Dane, who was born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb in Copenhagen in 1886, boarded a steamer headed for Ellis Island 30 years later with $25 in his pocket.

Despite limited English, Dane soon landed a part playing a German chancellor in a film made in New York called My Four Years in Germany. The anti-German propaganda film was the first major hit for fledgling producers Warner Bros. and led to more parts for Dane on the East Coast.

He later moved west, settling in Van Nuys in 1921, where he married and started a new career as a farmer. Two years later his wife and newborn baby daughter died in childbirth, and Dane returned to films.

In 1924, Dane appeared in the silent blockbuster The Big Parade, which starred John Gilbert and Renee Adoree. The success of the film led to more work for the Danish immigrant alongside Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik.

While most of his previous silent film roles were as “heavies,” Dane was teamed up with Scotsman George K. Arthur in 1927 as part of the comic duo Dane & Arthur. The series of comedy shorts they created proved popular, and MGM rewarded Dane with a long-term contract.

And then came sound.

With the arrival of “talkies,” Dane’s heavily-accented voice didn’t translate well to audiences, and he was soon cut by MGM.

The Dane & Arthur team disbanded after a lengthy vaudeville tour, with Dane later trying his hand at a variety of jobs before returning to the stage in an unsuccessful bid to make it as a solo performer.

By the end of 1933, Dane found himself in the humiliating position of running a hot dog stand outside of the MGM gates; the studio where he had been a star a short time earlier. Former friends at the studio, perhaps to save him embarrassment, avoided his establishment, which failed a short time later.

During this week in April 1934, Dane was robbed of his last $18. Afterwards, he went back to his Hollywood apartment and killed himself with a revolver where he was later found by a friend.

For a time his body lay unclaimed until Danish actor Jean Hersholt convinced MGM to pay for Dane’s burial at what is today Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the same burial ground where his old co-star Rudolph Valentino was interred a few years earlier.


Safety Last! The Life and near-Death of Harold Lloyd

Imagine being one of the biggest film comedians in the business, enjoying immense popularity, while seeing your career head for the stars.

Then visualize yourself waking up the next day to blindness, severe facial burns, a missing thumb and index finger, and the very real possibility that the career you enjoyed hours earlier had disappeared in a fateful instant.

Such was the tragic situation that Harold Lloyd found himself in during late-August, 1919.

Lloyd, silent film’s hilarious “Third Genius,” who stands alongside Chaplin and Keaton in the upper echelon of the medium’s pantomiming funnymen, was in the first week of shooting Haunted Spooks when he posed for a publicity photo with a bomb that he believed to be a fake prop. Seconds after lighting the fuse with a cigarette, the bomb exploded in his hand.

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Fate had visited Lloyd before.

Harold Lloyd was born in Nebraska in 1893 and was raised by his father Foxy Lloyd after his parents divorced. Foxy received a large insurance settlement after being run over by an Omaha beer truck in 1912. The two men decided to use the cash to resettle on the beach, letting fate decide which coast they would aim for with a coin toss. The Lloyds moved to L.A., where Harold’s good looks quickly got him work in the flickers.

Harold soon met a struggling young actor and director named Hal Roach, who was in the process of creating his own studio. Lloyd developed comic characters for Roach based on Chaplin’s Little Tramp character and soon became one of the new mogul’s biggest stars.

Lloyd knew that simply mimicking Chaplin could only take his career so far, so he developed a new bespectacled, straw hat-wearing, boy-next-door character who often landed himself in untenable and comically dangerous situations as the result of trying to win the heart of a lady.

His new “everyman” persona was a sensation, and Lloyd’s career was rocketing skywards when his accident appeared to send it crashing back to earth.

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For several days, Lloyd’s career and quality of life held by a thread until his sight eventually returned and his burns healed. He entered the decade of the 1920’s by returning to the set of Haunted Spooks with a prosthetic glove concealing his hand injury.

Far from being over, Lloyd’s career was just getting started. He became known as the “daredevil comedian,” famous for his thrill sequences, like the famous human-fly scene in 1923’s Safety Last! where he scales the side of a skyscraper and dangles precariously from the hands of a clock – carrying out his stunts with only eight fingers.

Lloyd went on to marry his leading lady, become the highest paid performer of the 1920’s, and to retire in luxury at his palatial estate in Beverly Hills called “Greenacres,” where he became a world-renowned expert in photography (often employing young starlets like Marilyn Monroe and my friend Dixie Evans as models – Dixie, how are you?).

His accident in 1919 also led him to become the leader of the Shriners, an organization that donates millions to the treatment of children suffering from severe burns.

Harold Lloyd died forty years ago today on March 8, 1971, but his story could have ended decades earlier had he not refused to surrender to Fate, defiantly demanding, “Is this the best you’ve got?”

Fate asked the same question of Harold Lloyd in 1919, and he responded with a resounding “No!” by rising phoenix-like from the tragedy to even greater heights than he had ever scaled before. 

(Look for our friend John Bengtson’s new book Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloydcoming soon from Santa Monica Press. Also, I want to thank Leonard Maltin for his wonderful article on ChaplinFest, which Kimi and I helped host last month in Newhall, California. You can see the post here.)


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.