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King Vidor tells of working on ‘The Big Parade’

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Jul 7th, 2013
2013
Jul 7

FILM HISTORY

King Vidor tells of work in filming ‘The Big Parade’

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King Vidor, who produced The Big Parade, wrote scenes for the film and would map them out to the click-click of a metronome, varying the tempo according to the action. Vidor was methodical. He was under the spell of motion pictures since he was a boy of 12. He believed that there was a chance for a new art through the medium of the camera so he took up directing because he wanted to be engaged in something new. He was a man of vision, not only so far as the possibilities of the screen were concerned, but one who is quick to see beyond that which he is actually engaged upon, whether it was a film or a scene.

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About The Big Parade, he was rather proud that virtually all the scenes of this production, with the exception of a few that were made in Texas, were photographed on a tract of land that was about a block square. What seemed to be miles of woods and vast stretches of shell-shorn ground were filmed in this limited area.

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One day in 1926, Vidor sat comfortably in a chair in a room in the Ambassador Hotel and shared some thoughts about the making of The Big Parade:

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“I have just finished La Bohème,” Vidor said with a smile, “the period of which is 1880, and I am next going to make Bardelys the Magnificent, by Raphael Sabatini, which is even an earlier period. I have not much fear of criticism of what is put forth in these productions. But there are 2,000,000 critics of The Big Parade. I did all that was humanly possible to insure accuracy in this picture. United States officers helped me constantly, and I studied miles and miles of Government film, taken by the Signal Corps of the United States army during the fighting. These pictures were made on all sectors of the lines, so it was quite possible for any individual who concentrated his attention on the results as thrown upon a screen being able to leave the projection room after days and days of study with sufficient knowledge of what the fighting front looked like, so as to be able to put it on canvas or on the screen, possibly more accurately than a man who had been on the fighting front. Nevertheless, as I said, to safeguard against errors and to insert special ideas we fortunately had with us United States army officers, but even these men could not know everything that happened at the front, and an interesting point is one on which I lost a wager. I said that I thought that I had seen in the Signal Corps films American troops marching in columns of twos. The officers insisted I was wrong, so I paid my bet. But some time afterward I discovered no less than five reels of Signal Corps film in which our men marched in columns of two. To get my little revenge I made everybody look through these five reels when they were ready for dinner.

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“You will notice that in The Big Parade there are very few interiors. Some of our most successful scenes were inspired at the moment before the camera. You have told of the chewing gun incident and the last cigarette given to a dying German, but did you know that Slim’s chewing and spitting only flashed across our minds after we had started on the production? Karl Dane, who portrays Slim, used to report for work sucking a bit of licorice, and it suddenly occurred to us to devote two or three scenes to having him an inveterate tobacco chewer. You will remember that he expectorates when he is on a skyscraper girder just before joining up. Then he spits out the candle when the troops are leaving the farmhouse, and finally there is the contest in the shell hole to see who shall go over the top to silence the ‘toy’ gun.”

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Vidor said that he began the film by taking the scenes of the shell hole, and, to have the principals look as if they were muddy and dirty, there was a special hole half filled with mud in which the actors soaked themselves before they went before the camera. Vidor believed in a human hero, one who ducks when shells are whining by, one whose physiognomy shows the contact with mud and grime.

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An enlightening feature of The Big Parade concerns the farmhouse. It had to be depicted in the latter scenes torn and rent with shells, great holes in the roof and the walls. It naturally might be supposed that Vidor would have taken the farmhouse set and shot it full of holes, so that the original setting would be realistically damaged. This was too risky, for the all-perceiving eye of the camera is a nuisance at times, and a nice new studio wall might have been seen through one of the shell holes. To obviate such a thing, Vidor employed a special backdrop artist, a man who painted the damaged farmhouse in a day. His work looks far more like a shell-torn farmhouse than if the setting had been ripped with explosives.

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In the scene in which Renée Adorée is searching for John Gilbert, Vidor pointed out that he had three distinct tempos, besides different tempos in parts of the scene. The incident starts off with sad crying, then there is the bugle call, after which everything is hushed. Then comes the 1-2-3-4—1-2-3-4, and gradually the pace quickens. Adorée is made to seem to be running as in a dream through the difference of tempo in the heroine’s pace and that of the soldiers. Hence Vidor believed that the basis of a successful scene is tempo, and that it is the underlying secret of the screen.

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Universal Studios, the Laemmle years, 1912-1936…

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Sep 15th, 2012
2012
Sep 15

FILM HISTORY

Universal Studios, the Laemmle years, 1912—1936…      

 

 

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

The 100th anniversary of Universal Studios was celebrated this year (April 30) thus making it the first of the major Hollywood studios to achieve that impressive longevity. The story of Universal, especially the years of Carl Laemmle’s control, is typical of the industry and carries a recognizable theme that reverberates through all American business successes.

 

 

 

 

When Carl Laemmle arrived in New York at 17 years-old, he had $50 and a telescope valise packed with only a few personal items from his home in Laupheim, Germany. From there he headed west like many other immigrants and found odd jobs in stores, factories, working as a farm hand in South Dakota, as a bookkeeper in Chicago and as the general manager of a department store in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Twenty-two years later, Laemmle had saved a capital of $2,500 and started on his next venture.

 

Laemmle had returned to Chicago where he waited in line for the new sensation, the motion picture shows, which was shown in a store converted to resemble the interior of a railroad coach; the motion picture representing scenery was viewed from the rear of a train. Laemmle was astonished at the long line of people willing to pay a dime for this privilege and envisioned the possibility for a new money-making opportunity.

 

With the assistance of R. H. Cochrane, a young Chicago advertising man, they acquired a store on Milwaukee Avenue where he opened the White Front Theater on February 24, 1906 (it had been the White Front store and the sign served as a name for the theater). It was on a Saturday night and he gave patrons fifteen minutes of movies and a song with beautifully colored slides. On Sunday he ran twenty shows. At five cents a head his gross for the two days was $192.05. That was the beginning of a long association with Cochrane who later became a vice-president of Universal.

 

A second theater was soon opened and from that point Laemmle entered all branches of the rapidly expanding motion picture industry. This new success brought him into conflict with the larger interests in the industry. After breaking with the Patents Company, which owned most of the patents on cameras, projectors, etc. he announced he would produce his own films. The Independent Moving Picture (IMP) Company was formed. Its first film, Hiawatha, was released in October 1909. IMP has been given the credit for introducing the star system to Hollywood, when it signed the Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence, and billed her name above the title of her pictures in 1910. Over the next three years Laemmle battled Edison’s motion picture trust which was followed by a federal investigation, leading to the termination of the General Film Company.

 

The Universal Film Manufacturing Company was founded on April 30, 1912, and was composed of six of the leading independent producers. The name Universal was given, according to Hollywood legend, when Laemmle was presiding over a pretentious gathering of independent film producers in his office overlooking Union Square to decide upon a name. After glancing out the window at the Broadway traffic, with the usual flourishes, gave the designation—Universal. He had seen the name, it is said, on a delivery wagon marked “Universal Pipe Fittings.”

 

Following other film producers, by the end of 1912, Universal was making most of its films in Hollywood on the northwest corner of Sunset and Gower. During the first year of the studio’s operation, 250 films were produced, mostly two-reelers.

 

As Laemmle and Universal prospered, he purchased a former chicken farm, the 230-acre Taylor ranch on the banks of the Los Angeles River five miles north of Hollywood. The land was part of the ancient Rancho Cahuenga de Ramirez and on the property where General John C. Fremont and Pio Pico signed the Treaty of Cahuenga.  

 

 

 

 

Formal dedication of the studio on March 14, 1915, was an affair heralded by posters in railway stations throughout the country. Exhibitors were brought here by special trains to witness the ceremony. Laura Oakley, Universal City’s female police chief, presented Laemmle with a golden key and he officially unlocked the huge front gate of the studio as bands played. Flags were unfurled and a cheering crowd of 20,000 jammed Lankershim Blvd.  

 

 

 

Carl Laemmle and friends at the opening of Universal City in March 1915

 

Universal City came into existence and the studio was created as a small city with a population of nearly 300, with its own post office, fire department and police department. Children have been born on the lot and men and women have died there. Virginia Richdale Kerrigan, the daughter of William W. Kerrigan, one-time manager of Universal and the twin brother of actor J. Warren Kerrigan, had the distinction of being the first baby born on the Universal lot in 1915. Tragically only nine years later, Virginia’s dress caught fire at a Christmas gathering and she died from her burns.

 

Many of the 300 Universal employees lived in houses on the lot when the studio was opened in 1915. Some merely converted sets into practical living quarters and others just camped. Most of the actors had horses, for Universal was the home of the Western, which provided the studios bread-and-butter in the first two decades. The players with horses carried saddle bags in which were stuffed two uniforms. Sometimes they would appear in the mornings as Indians and after lunch, once the Indians were defeated by the cowboys, they would switch costumes and chase the images of themselves.

 

 

 

The above and following two photos were taken on a visit to Universal Studios in 1916 (Courtesy of Allan Landman / © Hollywoodland 2012)

 

 (Courtesy of Allan Landman / © Hollywoodland 2012)

 

 (Courtesy of Allan Landman / © Hollywoodland 2012)

 

One day in 1916, Harry Carey, one of Universal’s early western star attractions, was leading a bunch of cowhands down Broadway when the whole group tired of the script. Just for fun, and the undying mortification of the city’s budding social set, Carey and his dusty mounted troupe, rode up the steps and into the lobby of the stylish Alexandria Hotel.

 

Many stories of early Universal were based on nepotism, for there it thrived. Several Laemmles changed their names so that strangers wouldn’t get the impression they were there only because they were related. Some made good, others did not. But Uncle Carl, as he was known in the industry, never fired one of them. Ogden Nash, the poet, said the following about Laemmle’s habit of giving top executive jobs to family members: “Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large faemmle.”

 

Laemmle’s greatest pride was for his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., who was originally named Julius after his grandfather in Germany. But when the senior Laemmle made him general manager of Universal on his twenty-first birthday, Julius became Junior.

 

Something else that Laemmle loved was gambling. High-stakes poker games with such cronies as Joseph Schenck and Sid Grauman would last all night and when the local action slowed a bit, Laemmle thought nothing of taking quick trips to Agua Caliente, the Mexican forerunner of Las Vegas. One night he lost $10,000 there. In one weekend, he lost three times that.

 

Universal Studios was the site of a number of industry firsts—Laemmle established the first European exchange for independent American films; he built the first electrically lighted stages so he would not have to depend on sunlight, and produced the first $1,000,000 feature, Foolish Wives (1922), directed by Erich von Stroheim, who the studio billed as “the man you love to hate.”

 

Many famous names in Hollywood history served at one time or another on the Universal lot. On it Charlie Chaplin courted Mildred Harris and Wallace Reid won Dorothy Davenport. John Ford and William Wyler (a Laemmle family member) received their early training at the studio—on Harry Carey westerns and farces with Laura La Plante. Such films as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), both with Lon Chaney; Showboat (1929 and 1936) and the Academy Award winner, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) were made there. The studio launched the comedies of the 1930s with My Man Godfrey (1936) and introduced Deanna Durbin as a 14-year-old singer in her first great success, Three Smart Girls (1936). The studio also produced such classic soap operas as Magnificent Obsession (1936), Back Street (1932) and Imitation of Life (1934), the same titles that turned out to be box-office hits in the 1950s in remakes refurbished with color. And of course, there are the famed monster films which include Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933).

 

 

 

 

All studios were famous for their publicity stunts, but one at Universal had repercussions for many years to come. For the film, The Black Cat (1934), an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, the studio advertised a county-wide contest for a cat to play the title role. Every child in town showed up. By the time the pre-selected winner was announced, cats were loose everywhere. Few chose to return home, and for decades (and possibly to this day) the studio lot teemed with their descendants.

 

 

 

Cast of Show Boat–Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger and Helen Westley

 

The Laemmle era came to an end in 1936 when the studio produced a lavish remake of Show Boat, featuring several stars from the Broadway stage version. Carl Jr.’s disturbing spending habits, the studios attempts at high-quality productions and the costs of modernizing and upgrading during the depression brought about their decline and being placed into receivership. Stockholders demanded that the Laemmle’s take out a loan from Standard Capital Corporation to make Show Boat, using the family’s controlling interest as collateral. When production problems created a huge overrun, the loan was called in and Universal could not pay. Standard foreclosed and seized control of Universal. Ironically when Show Boat was released it was a financial success but it was not enough to save the Laemmles who were forced to leave the studio on April 2, 1936. Carl Laemmle died three years later at the age of 72.

 

Despite low periods in its history, Universal Studios has survived. Over the past seventy-plus years Universal has had several owners and name variations. It is the debris from the Laemmle years, 1912 to 1936, that saw hundreds of films made on the 230 (and eventually 410) acres and that form most of Universal today. It doesn’t look much like a chicken farm any more.

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The Hollywood Hat

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Jun 3rd, 2012
2012
Jun 3

FILM HISTORY

The Hollywood Hat: An Autographed Hat Holds the History of Early Hollywood

 

  

By Joe Biltman
Autograph Magazine 

 

“Can I have your autograph?”

 

The streets of Hollywood have teemed with autograph hunters for a century now. Brandishing an autograph book or scrap of paper, these collectors good-naturedly accost stars wherever they find them — on the street, in restaurants, at the supermarket, at gas stations, in elevators, in their cars when stopped at red lights, and even in restrooms.

 

Click here to continue reading…

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Keystone Centennial

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on May 17th, 2012
2012
May 17

FILM HISTORY

Fort Lee celebrates centennial of Keystone studio, where film comedy was born

 

 

 

By Jim Beckerman
Staff Writer
THE RECORD

 

It was 100 years ago that movie comedy made its grand entrance – slipping on a banana peel and dodging a pie as it came through the door.

 

This was due mainly to one studio: Keystone, Mack Sennett’s pioneering slapstick factory, where such talents as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin himself took their first pratfalls.

 

What most people don’t know is Keystone’s keystone. The first building block in Sennett’s media empire was an office or small studio – no one’s really sure which – in Fort Lee, which Sennett opened in the spring of 1912.

 

“It was around Kaufer Lane, at the intersection of Lower Main Street, but we really don’t know much about it,” says Tom Meyers, executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission, which honors cinema’s little-known pre-Hollywood roots in Bergen County.

 

This is a banner year for them: In addition to Keystone, Universal Studios and the long-defunct Solax USA (important because it was the home base of film’s first major female director, Alice Guy-Blache) got their start in Fort Lee in 1912.

 

But Keystone is the key – because it’s the fount from which flowed all modern movie comedy, from Jim Carrey to Zach Galifianakis. To celebrate the big year, the film commission is spearheading several events. A production of “Mack & Mabel,” Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical about the romance of Sennett and his leading lady, Normand, is being staged Friday and Saturday by students of Fort Lee High School, with $10,000 in funds raised by the commission. And the “Reel Jersey Girls” exhibit at Fort Lee Museum on Palisade Avenue, continuing through July 1, contains a whole section devoted to Normand and the Keystone comedy universe she helped to create.

 

“This was all new,” Meyers says. “Before this, there was no pie-throwing in movies. They were all very staid affairs, almost like a stage play. Mack Sennett’s only message was laughs. He reached out to the audience, grabbed them by the lapels and shook them. Not subtle. He was about as subtle as an atomic bomb.”

 

Although most people these days haven’t seen a Keystone film, many probably have a rough impression of what these frantic early comedies were like. There were chases, falls into mud puddles, kicks in the rear end. There were fat men, thin men, cross-eyed men, pop-eyed men, men with walrus mustaches and baggy pants. There were pies in the face, of course, usually blackberry pies, not custard ones (blackberry photographed better). There were pretty girls in bathing suits. All this, plus the famous, bumbling Keystone Kops.

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Thelma Todd’s Last Ride

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Mar 17th, 2012
2012
Mar 17

FILM HISTORY

The Last Ride of Thelma Todd

 

 

 

On Monday, December 16, 1935, the body of actress Thelma Todd was found in her car inside a garage she used near her house. After an autopsy was performed, it was determined that she died due to carbon monoxide poisoning. She spent the previous Saturday night at the Trocadero, a popular night spot on the Sunset Strip. At the inquest two days later, details of her last automobile ride was given by Ernest O. Peters, her chauffeur that evening.

 

“I arrived at the Trocadero at 8:55 p.m., but Miss Todd did not come out until 3:15 a.m.,” Peters told Coroner Nance.

 

“What was her physical condition,” Nance asked.

 

“She was quite sober,” Peters said. “But she was not a bit talkative. Usually she had quite a lot to say; in fact, every other time I had driven her she had conversed with me in a very friendly fashion. But on Sunday morning, after saying, ‘Let’s go home Ernie,’ she did not say another word until we reached the café.”

 

“Did you drive rapidly?” he was asked.

 

“Very fast. She always wanted to go fast. We drove between sixty-five and seventy miles an hour.”

 

For the first time since he had been driving Todd, she refused to have him escort her to her apartment, Peters told the Coroner’s jury.

 

“When Miss Todd got out of the car—I had opened the door her her—I asked her if I could escort her to her door, as had been my custom to do. But she said definitely that she did not want me to do that. I turned the car around, waited a minute until she had disappeared, walking up the driveway toward the side entrance through which she reached her apartment, and then drove on. There was no one around. Had there been I would have insisted on escorting her to her door.”

 

En route to the party from her beach home, Peters said she had given him a dollar to purchase a camellia. He said she took the money from her purse but did not notice whether or not there was other money in the purse. When found on her body the purse contained no money.

 

He said he had driven her to her beach apartment at least five times in the early morning hours in the last year and had always, until the last occasion, walked with her to the door of her apartment. He was at a loss to explain her death, he told Coroner Nance. Peters fixed the time of his arrival at her beach café with Todd at 3:45 a.m. Sunday. 

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Hobart Bosworth remembers early filmmaking

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Oct 25th, 2011
2011
Oct 25

FILM HISTORY

The early days of filmmaking as remembered by Hobart Bosworth

 

  

On October 27, 1911 producer David Horsley came from New York and converted a deserted tavern on the northwest corner of Sunset and Gower into Hollywood’s first movie studio. On Thursday we will celebrate one-hundred years of filmmaking in Hollywood. Films were already being made in Los Angeles in the Edendale section where actor Hobart Bosworth was making films since 1909. The following is taken from a 1936 letter that Bosworth wrote a Los Angeles Times columnist reminiscing about those early days in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

 

“The Fanchon-Royer studio was the original permanent studio established by Francis Boggs, director for the Selig Polyscope Company. The buildings which have just been torn down were built by him from plans approved by Col. Selig. That was the triumph of Bogg’s life, which was ended by a bullet fired by a crazed Japanese gardener when Boggs was on the threshold of great things. Another bullet dangerously wounded Col. Selig.

 

“The Selig Polyscope party, on a location tour from the plant in Chicago, stopped in Los Angeles in May, 1909, and made two pictures, The Heart of a Race Track Tout, mostly at the old Santa Anita track, and Power of the Sultan, in which Stella Adams and I were the leads. The ‘studio’ for these two was a Chinese laundry on Olive near Eighth. Then the Selig part went north as far as the Columbia River, but was driven back by fogs and hired a little wooden hall on Alessandro Avenue (now Glendale Blvd.), built a little stage and, I think, made one picture there. In the meantime, Boggs had written me at Ramona, where I was battling a gangrenous lung. In September 1909, I started playing the Roman in the old Virginius story with a happy ending.

 

“Boggs asked if I would write a plot he could produce, which would enable us to use the same scenery and costumes for another picture. I did it by stealing from The Rape of Lucrece, Cymbeline, Quo Vadis and Arius the Epicurean, setting a fashion for acquiring stories which has been considerably followed ever since. So I wrote and acted my second picture, and wrote, directed and acted my third, Courtship of Miles Standish. I have the records to prove all this.

 

“In November, 1909, a little independent company called Imp started on the other side of the street and a little further down. A year later Mack Sennett occupied that studio. It expanded across the street and had a big growth. But before that, I think in 1910, Jimmie Young Deer began making Westerns for Pathé. He hired a lot nearer us and on the same side of the street which became the Norbig studios. It is there yet, just as it was when I moved to it in 1914 to make the interiors for Jack London snow pictures.

 

Tom Mix, after he became a Fox star, moved a long way farther out on the Glendale road to what was called Mixville. He had his stables there. Curly Eagles ran them. He was a member, with the Stanley boys, Art Accord, Hoot Gibson and Bosco, of a little stranded rodeo troupe. They came to Boggs in 1910 to work in westerns, but began with Mazeppa, in which I was the gent who was bound to the fiery, untamed steed. It was Kathlyn Williams’ first picture.

 

“The next studio was established by Al Christie and Dave Horsley at Sunset and Gower. Vicky Ford with her mother and father were there. It later became Universal. Griffith brought the Biograph to Georgia Street in January 1910 and it rained for a month. He was about to go back when he learned that Vitagraph, Lubin, etc., were starting out here because our pictures had such fine scenery and light. Selig had scored a scoop. Griffith brought Mary Pickford, Jack Bennett, Henry Walthall and a lot more.”

 

—Hobart Bosworth

May 1936

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The making of “Little Women”

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Mar 27th, 2011
2011
Mar 27

FILM HISTORY

The making of the 1949 film classic, “Little Women”

 

 

  

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

“Good pictures are always difficult to make,” Mervyn LeRoy once said. He should know because he produced or directed several including Tugboat Annie (1933), Madame Curie (1943) and the perennial favorite, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

 

However, the one film he always wanted to make was an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” It had been fourteen years since David O. Selznick produced the RKO version with Katherine Hepburn, so LeRoy persuaded Louis B. Mayer to buy the rights from him.

 

Selznick had attempted to produce a Technicolor remake himself a few years earlier and planned to star his wife, Jennifer Jones. However, several postwar problems and a threatened craft workers’ strike forced him to abandon his plans. So when MGM bought the rights to the film, they also bought all the sets that Selznick had built. One night during production, LeRoy’s wife Kitty was reading some of the dialogue from the script when she began to cry. “I can’t finish this,” she told her husband.

 

“My God,” he exclaimed. “Is it that good?”

 

LeRoy chose some of the finest actresses at MGM to play the March sisters. Each one had experience with big screen success: Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, June Allyson in The Stratton Story, Janet Leigh in The Forsythe Saga and Margaret O’Brien in The Secret Garden.

 

LeRoy had directed Elizabeth Taylor’s screen test for National Velvet. “And like everybody else who saw her,” he said. “I was struck by her potential beauty.” When she began filming on Little Women, Elizabeth was seventeen and her beauty was at its peak. “There was no bad side, no good side,” LeRoy said. “All sides were fantastically beautiful.”

 

Her role as the selfish Amy would require a bit more acting than she was previously accustomed. In the novel, Amy is the youngest March sister, but in order to use Margaret O’Brien (who was five years younger than Elizabeth) as Beth, Beth was made the youngest. “Film treatment,” Elizabeth explained, “will take care of that.”

 

 

 

 

Also, as Amy, she would have to become a blonde. “I don’t like myself as blonde yet,” Elizabeth said. “I think it gives me a white, faded, peculiar look. But we wouldn’t dare change Amy to a brunette. Too many people have read the book and know exactly the color of her hair. They would resent a change.”

 

“I’ve made tests for the role and everything will be all right when they finish changing my hair,” Elizabeth explained. “But I think I will always be happier as a brunette.”

 

During the filming, Elizabeth turned eighteen and no longer had to go to school, something which made Margaret very envious. “We had a party on the set for Elizabeth’s eighteenth birthday,” Margaret recalled, “and I remember her throwing away all her school books. She really disliked the school teacher and was happy that she would no longer be following her around every minute.”

 

Walter Plunkett, of Gone with the Wind fame, designed the costumes for Little Women, which thrilled all the actresses. “Oh my goodness,” Elizabeth exclaimed. “I get to wear Walter Plunkett clothes.”

 

The four actresses became good friends on the set of Little Women. At lunch, they would go to the studio commissary together and gossip – mostly about Louis B. Mayer. Elizabeth detested him, but June admired the fact that he had risen from the ranks as a junk dealer to one of the most powerful moguls in the business.

 

Three of the actresses had crushes on costar Peter Lawford. “I was out of the competition,” Margaret said, “because they were all older and I was only eleven. I sort of felt like an outcast because all three had a crush on him. Peter had a wonderful time on that movie.”

 

One person who did not have a wonderful time was Mary Astor, who played their mother, Marmee. Astor later recalled this period of her career as “Mothers for Metro” and did not always speak of it very fondly. “My approach to the part of Marmee was not an enthusiastic one,” Astor later wrote. “Everybody else had fun.”

 

She would complain because the girls were always laughing and fooling around during every scene. She criticized Elizabeth for talking on the phone to Nicky Hilton (her future husband) all the time and became irritated when June snapped her gum. Her experience on Meet Me in St. Louis had not endeared her to Margaret and things had not changed. “Maggie O’Brien looked at me as though she were planning something very unpleasant,” Astor wrote.

 

 

 

 

During the scene when Jo cuts off her hair, Peter Lawford’s character sees her and is supposed to say, “What have you done? You look like a porcupine!” Instead, Peter would pronounce it “porky-pine.” “We must have shot that scene a hundred times,” Margaret recalled. “And then Peter and June would laugh every time she took off the hat and he saw her hair.”

 

On every take, he would say “porky-pine” and everyone would burst out laughing, including Mervyn LeRoy. Unfortunately, Mary Astor did not see the funniness in it. “My sense of humor, my sense of fun, had deserted me long ago,” she said. “And it just wasn’t all that funny.”

 

Eventually, everyone would pull themselves together and start the scene again. “Okay. I’ve got it now! I’ve got it now!” Peter would assure everyone. LeRoy would start at the very beginning and Peter would come through the door and say, “What have you done? You look like a “porky-pine!” Of course, everyone doubled over with laughter again, except Mary. She had been standing there for some time and was beginning to feel ill from the hot lights and the heavy clothes.

 

“I couldn’t say that I was ill,” she said. “I didn’t want the kind of attention that would have brought on.” As LeRoy began the scene once more, Mary had the first line and realized she could not remember what it was and stood there speechless.

 

“Cut,” LeRoy yelled. “Where’s your line, Mary?”

 

“I don’t know Merv,” was all she could say, which caused everyone to go to pieces again.

 

Janet Leigh, who played Meg, remembered that at first Margaret was hesitant to join in on the revelry. “Young Margaret O’Brien took a while before she participated wholeheartedly,” Leigh recalled. “She continually looked in her mother’s direction for approval. But gradually she loosened up and we won her over to our foolish ways.”

 

The scene where Beth reveals that she knows she is dying, took a lot out of both Margaret and June Allyson. Even Mary Astor was impressed with Margaret’s ability and proclaimed, “And was that ever a death scene.”

 

“It was hard for me because June got to cry in that scene and I had to be the strong one,” Margaret said. “It was difficult not to cry.”

 

June had the same problem – except she couldn’t stop crying. In the scene, Beth, who is dying from scarlet fever, comforts Jo and tells her not to be sad because she doesn’t mind dying. After the scene was finished, June continued crying and had to be sent home. “I got in my car still blubbering and continued to cry for hours,” June said.

 

 

Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien

 

 

MGM premiered Little Women on March 10, 1949 at Radio City Music Hall for its opening film for their 25th Anniversary program. The film became a big money-maker that year earning 3.6 million for the studio. In their publicity, th studio mentioned that the film reunited four stars from Meet Me in St. Louis: Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Leon Ames and Harry Davenport.

 

Sadly, Little Women was the last film for veteran character actor C. Aubrey Smith, who died shortly after filming was completed. This would also be Elizabeth Taylor’s last adolescent part. Her next film, Conspirator (1950) with Robert Taylor, saw her in a more mature role.

 

Little Women was nominated for two Academy Awards and won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color for Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, Edwin B. Willis and Jack D. Moore.

 

Lee Mortimer of the Daily Mirror wrote, “On this photoplay MGM bestowed painstaking and loving care, adhering as much to the warm spirit and restrained actions of the book as it is physically possible in translating words into pictures.”

 

 

 

 

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The Close-up is born

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Mar 23rd, 2011
2011
Mar 23

FILM HISTORY

The Centenary of the close-up

 

 

Above, Gloria Swanson is looking for her close-up in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger
March 23, 2011

 

One-hundred years ago today, the proverbial close-up that silent film diva, Gloria Swanson was “ready for” in Sunset Boulevard (1950), was born. Well, at least arguably.

 

Pioneer director, D.W. Griffith has long been credited for developing filmmaking as an art form with techniques such as the scenic long shot, and crosscutting, and for collaborating with cinematographer Billy Bitzer to create the fade-out, fade-in, and soft-focus shots. One of the most popular film innovations Griffith is recognized for is the close-up.

 

Of course film historians disagree as to which filmmaker first used a close-up; however Griffith used the shot at length at an early date. For example, one of the director’s short films, The Lonedale Operator (1911), is significant for it’s use of a close-up of a wrench that a character pretends is a gun. At the time of the film’s release, on March 23, 1911, close-ups were still uncommon and illustrate Griffith’s growing mastery of the medium.

 

 

 

Is this shot from D.W. Griffith’s “The Londedale Operator” (1911), the first example of the close-up?

 

 

The Lonedale Operator, which was written by Mack Sennett is a tale about the bravery of a pretty railroad station telegrapher, played by Blanche Sweet, who foils a robbery. The film is also an outstanding example of Griffith’s use of editing to build suspense.  

  

Whether or not The Lonedale Operator is the first example of the close-up, we can agree it is at least one of the earliest. Celebrate by telling friends, “”All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

 

A print of The Lonedale Operator, which premiered one-hundred years ago today, survives in the film archive of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Watch it below: 

 
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Universal City at 96

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Mar 15th, 2011
2011
Mar 15

FILM HISTORY

Today marks 96 years at Universal Studios

 

 

© Dickens Archives © Universal Archives Collection

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

As of today, Universal Studios has spent 96 years at its present location in the San Fernando Valley. In mid-1912, Carl Laemmle, a pioneer independent producer, made his early Universal pictures at a small studio on Sunset and Gower in Hollywood. In 1915, upon the advice of Isadore Bernstein, then his studio manager, a former chicken farm in the valley was purchased.

 

Immediately, a farming community began its transformation into a choice residential section and the motion-picture studio, previously more of a factory, became a veritable world unto itself. Universal City was incorporated as a city with its own post office and governmental recognition.

 

On March 15, 1915, special trains from New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Seattle brought thousands of visitors and hundreds of industrial leaders, actors, directors and exhibitors to Los Angeles and then out the sandy road across the Cahuenga Pass to Universal City for the “official opening.”

 

Laemmle began the festivities and opened the big white gate with a golden key at 10 a.m., and he and Bernstein, headed the procession of 100 guests. Once inside the gate, gaily-clad Universal girls pelted the party with flowers, and a big caravan of mounted cowboys and Indians saluted with pistol shots and bands played, and Pat Powers, treasurer of Universal, hoisted a huge American flag, followed by a display of daylight fireworks.

 

Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford drove down from the San Francisco’s World Fair to dedicate the immense 500-foot open stage at the new studio, arriving late because their car broke down. Notable among scenes presided over by different directors were a beautiful interior designed by Charles Giblyn, where Cleo Madison entertained the crowds, and a set showing the interior of a hunting lodge in Africa, where Henry McRae calmly stroked two live leopards. Other sets included a bit of Moorish architecture and a snow scene.

 

 

 

 

MacRae then filmed a spectacular scene for The Torrent (1915), a two-reeler with Marie Walcamp, and thousands stood spellbound as a large reservoir in the hills behind the studio unloosed a flood of water which washed away a street of cottages built down the middle of the valley for the big climax scene of the production. Another thriller which had a tragic ending was the repetition of an airplane bombing which was staged by Frank A. Stites, who, after completing the stunt, found his plane on fire and, to avoid falling into the crowd, heroically crashed his plane against the back lot hills and was instantly killed.

 

Out at the end of the ranch there were motion picture scenes being filmed, and there were amusing sideshows, and the big zoo, with its wild animals. Bands played, candy and soda booths did business and wild Arabs rode elephants down the road.

 

The ball that evening was attended by 2,000 people and was held in the large inside studio, which was handsomely decorated with flags and flowers. “Daddy” Manley, the oldest motion picture actor at that time, 88 years old, and “Mother” Benson, led the grand march, which was reviewed by Laemmle and Bernstein.

 

Among the celebrities who participated in filming scenes marking the opening of Universal City were J. Warren Kerrigan, Louise Lovely, Marie Walcamp, Grace Cunard, Francis Ford, King Baggot, Arthur Johnson, Harry Carey, Wallace Reid, Dorothy Davenport, Henrietta Crossman, Helen Ware, Priscilla Dean, Dorothy Phillips, Frank Keenan, Hobart Bosworth, Alice Howell, Julia Dean, Digby Bell, Lon Chaney, Jean Hersholt, William Stowell, Betty Compson and many bit players who later became stars.

 

Visitors recalled that after the completion of the opening ceremonies at midnight on March 15, Laemmle and MacRae were stopped on their return to Hollywood when eight coyotes came out of the hills and blocked the narrow road before their car.

 

 

 

 

Within fifteen years, more than 1,000 feature films and many short subjects, not to mention sixty serial thrillers were produced at Universal City. At one time, in 1917, there were forty-two directors working with an equal number of productions simultaneously, an all-time record for film production.

 

In addition to almost fifty contract players, Universal City, in its first three years at this location, had sixty full-blooded Native Americans and the largest zoo in the West. The average film shipments from Universal City in 1915 and 1916 were 45,000 feet a week, a tremendous output, considering that features were one and two-reelers.

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Courthouse Wall of Fame

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Jan 10th, 2011
2011
Jan 10

FILM HISTORY

Wall of Fame recalled Star’s visits to courthouse press room

 

 

Above is the County Courthouse that was located at Temple and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles where the Wall of Fame resided in the press room. Notice the low granite wall at the bottom of the photo. Remarkably, portions of this wall still remain. (lapl)

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

The Civic Center in downtown Los Angeles is where several courthouses mete out their justice, sometimes to Hollywood celebrities. Before many of the building that now stands there were erected, there stood an old brownstone Courthouse located at Temple Street and Broadway. It stood for forty-five years until it was razed after being damaged in the Long Beach earthquake of March 1933.

 

When it was finally demolished in 1934, it took with it the old press room and its unique Wall of Fame and the signatures of stars, who for this or that reason had been in court, or the marriage license bureau. Scrawled in either pencil or crayon, one could find the names of Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, George Bancroft, Harry Langdon, Eugene O’Brien, Doris Kenyon, Ethel Clayton, Constance and Natalie Talmadge, Pauline Starke, Jean Harlow and Bebe Daniels. There were a lot more and each one had its own story.

 

Of course, not all the screen stars who appeared in court, inscribed their names on the Wall of Fame. Some, the reporters failed to corral; others could not be lured to the press room. There were some who flatly refused. Among the latter was William Powell, who had come with Carole Lombard, for a marriage license. Powell, when confronted by the wall, glared reproachfully at the reporters and demanded: “Gentlemen, isn’t anything sacred?” The reporters thought he was kidding until he turned and stalked out of the press room fairly oozing indignation.

 

 

 

 

Jack Hoxie was first to sign the wall and his signature was the largest. Oddly enough, Tom Mix’s name was one of the smallest and Charlie Chaplin’s was the hardest to read.  

 

And what did they appear for? Harry Langdon, asserting he had but $40 with which to pay $60,000 his divorced wife sought as property settlement. The case was dismissed and Harry was smiling when he signed the wall. Divorce also steered the Talmadge sisters into the press room. Natalie Talmadge was fighting Buster Keaton over custody of their children. Constance was a witness. The prolonged contests between Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey Chaplin, also concerning the care of their children is well known. When the reporters tried to lure Lita to the press room she balked, saying she always wanted to know what she was expected to do before she went places with strangers.

 

Besides the signature of James Quirk of Photoplay magazine, was pasted the headline announcing his death. His wife, May Allison, also signed. Reporters tried to get Paul Bern to sign the wall when he and Jean Harlow applied for their marriage license, but both refused to visit the press room because they were “radiantly happy and in a terrible hurry.” A few months later, dressed in widow’s attire, Jean returned to probate Paul Bern’s will. This time she signed the wall.

 

Doris Kenyon, widow of Milton Sills, was considered by a majority of the court reporters, as the grandest girl to affix her signature to the Wall of Fame. They designated Polly Moran as “the hard egg with the soft heart.” Polly crashed the press room the day she appeared to legally adopt a 16-year-old boy she had taken from an orphanage when he was only a few months old.

 

One of the funniest incidents connected with signing the wall centered on Richard Barthelmess who was suing to recover securities alleged to have been misappropriated. His wife was with him and they consented to have a picture taken together. She sat in a chair and Barthelmess stood beside her. The photographer snapped his picture and after the couple had gone, remarked to the reporters: “I think I got a good picture of that dame but I had an awful job keeping that rube out of it, he was standing so close.” The reporters, on informing him that the “rube” was Richard Barthelmess, used language which allegedly made even the signatures on the wall blush.

 

 

Richard Barthelmess, his wife and family

 

 

The names of Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels graced the wall as the result of the trial of Bebe’s lunatic lover.” Edna Murphy signed when she got her divorce from director Mervyn LeRoy. Gertrude Olmstead was a witness at the trial and also signed. The reporters recalled, however, that Gertrude was rather embarrassed by the ordeal of clambering on the table in order to write her name.

 

George Bancroft divided honors with Jack Hoxie as the most massive man to have perpetuated his signature. He appeared in court to contest an agent’s claim for $30,000 of commissions. Hoxie had been up on alimony charges.

 

Several of the signatures recalled the tragic death of Alma Rubens. They were obtained during the libel suit brought against Photoplay and James Quirk by Ruben’s mother, and included Eileen Percy’s and Claire Windsor’s. ZaSu Pitts was another witness, but would not sign. The reporters declared her to be the most “publicity shy” screen star they encountered. She also eluded the news-hounds when she divorced her husband, Tom Gallery. The Courthouse scribes were not certain which cases brought Tom Mix, Edwin Carewe and Mae Murray to the Wall of Fame, as their court appearances was so numerous. Legal battles over the Mix children and property disputes made Mix a familiar figure and both Mae Murray and Carewe were central figures in countless suits over property, contracts and other things. Pauline Starke’s court appearance was mainly due to the protracted battle with her former husband, Jack White.

 

The reporters captured director Robert Vignola and Eugene O’Brien when they appeared in court as character witnesses for a young man who had gotten into trouble and Stanley Fields immortalized himself by apprehending a burglar in his apartment.

 

 

Above a rare image of the Wall of Fame located in the County Courthouse press room 

 

 

Most of the females who signed the wall were space conservers. That is except Constance Cummings and Vivian Duncan, whose names stand out like sore thumbs. Cummings had just won a contract suit, while the half of the famous Duncan sisters won a divorce from Nils Asther on the ground of too much mother-in-law. Another signer brought to the wall by the divorce route was Lola Lane when she parted company with Lew Ayres.

 

Duncan Renaldo was the only signer of the Wall of Fame who had gone to jail, though this happened later than when he actually signed the wall. His name was obtained when he was the central figure in the alienation case against Edwina Booth, which came as the aftermath to a “location” trip to Africa.

 

Snub Pollard also appeared on the wall as did that of Lowell Sherman, whose matrimonial adventures with Pauline Garon and later with Helene Costello brought him into the press room.

 

When the fate of the old courthouse was sealed, the reporters lost interest in their famous wall, knowing it soon would be destroyed. The visitors of the last few months were not asked to sign. During the last two or three months there were many noteworthy eligible’s including Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Estelle Taylor, Colleen Moore and Marian Nixon. Crawford was one of the last asked to sign, the occasion being her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She refused. The reporters asserted she was so nervous and shaky it was doubtful if she could have written her name of the floor, much less on the wall.

 

Signing the Wall of Fame grew to be quite a ceremonial and somewhat of an athletic function. It was necessary to step onto a chair and then mount onto a table in order to reach the designated spot and in addition to the gentlemen of the press, court attachés and sometimes the judges themselves would assemble to witness the event. In fact, gazing up at a movie star was really something to talk about afterward.

 

It’s too bad that the Wall of Fame could not have been saved or moved to another location. When the new courthouse was built, there was another press room, but it was never the same.

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