The Last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars

Once upon a time, a sure-fire way for an aspiring screen actress to get noticed was to be named a WAMPAS Baby Star. Each year from 1922 until 1934, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers chose thirteen young women whom they believed would be the screen’s next stars. The girls got lots of attention, party invitations, publicity, and small parts, and some did break into big time stardom. I found this photo at an antiques mall hanging on a pegboard wall in a shoddy frame and bought it for $10. It was taken in 1934, the last year of the promotion.

WAMPAS Baby Stars you might know include Clara Bow (the “It Girl”), Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, Mary Astor, Ginger Rogers (Fred Astaire’s dance partner), Sally Rand, and Fay Wray (of King Kong fame).  For a complete list, see

So when I read in this week’s NY Times that Mary Carlisle, the last WAMPAS Baby Star, had passed away, I thought it was worth noting on my blog. She was reputedly 104 years old, but since she had always fudged her age, no one–not even her son–is quite sure how old she was. She may have been 106. Mary Carlisle was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1932, along with Ginger Rogers. While not as big a star as some would become, Carlisle had a good film career, playing in movies until 1943 opposite male stars like Will Rogers, Bob Cummings, Jimmy Durante, Buster Crabbe, Ray Milland, and Bing Crosby. As she said in a 1937 interview, she was usually cast as the “sweet young heroine.” Read the NY Times obituary here. Or here, for the Washington Post.

Published in: on August 6, 2018 at 9:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Girls in the Picture: Book Review

I just finished the new book by Melanie Benjamin titled The Girls in the Picture, a fictionalized version of the lives of two women who were massively influential in the development of both silent movies and talkies: Mary Pickford and Frances Marian. Mary Pickford was the stage actress who moved into silent movies in her teens, when they were little more than one-reel “shorts” filmed in New York. “Little Mary” became the first international movie star and is credited with inventing modern screen acting techniques. Although she never went to school, she had a brilliant mind (“a man’s brain,” as it was called then) and became a sharp businesswoman and the founder of United Artists. She was also probably the richest woman in the world at one point. Frances Marian wasn’t quite the star that Mary was, but she wasn’t an actress either–she was a writer who penned “scenarios” for silent films and later wrote scripts for talkies. She and Mary were close friends from their early days, although they drifted apart during middle age.

The book is written from the first-person POV of Frances Marian, in alternating chapters, one about Mary, the next about Fran. Mary’s chapters are written in third person. I wondered why. The effect was to make Fran the effective narrator, and a stronger character than Mary.

As a historian focusing on the 1920s for my own novels, I’ve done tons of research into the era, so I had to smile when I read the author’s note at the end describing her research. She and I have studied the exact same histories, biographies, and autobiographies, which perchance explains why I found every detail in her story so familiar. I commend the thorough research job she did. She also did a good job trying to explain some of the unexplained aspects of these women’s lives, such as why Mary Pickford became such a recluse and what happened to destroy her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. There are only so many pages in a novel, so the story focuses on the early years when the two women worked together and were close friends. Once they reach middle age, the story pretty much ends. I wish the author had not had to leave out the two children Pickford adopted, and I would like to have read more about Douglas’s death, Lottie’s and Jack’s deaths, and many other important events in their later lives, but maybe she’s planning a sequel!

If you like silent films and enjoy learning more about the famous names of that era–Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish, Fred Thomson, W.D.Griffith, Marie Dressler, and Adolph Zukor, to name a few–you’ll enjoy this book. Although I already knew tons about Mary Pickford, I knew much less about Fran Marian. I think that’s why I enjoyed those chapters the most, because I was learning something about a woman who made a significant contribution to the art of film-making, one that isn’t widely acknowledged or even known today. These two were the two most important women in the history of movies. It’s about time someone wrote a book about them!

Published in: on June 10, 2018 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  


“Talkies” began to appear in movie theaters before the famous Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer in 1927. That was the first feature-length talkie, but Warner Brothers had produced some “shorts” in 1926 using the same Vitaphone sound system as used in The Jazz Singer. Audiences could now see and hear their favorite vaudeville headliners doing their acts on their local movie screen. This alarmed vaudeville bigwigs, who feared a loss of business. Why would people pay to see a live vaudeville show if they could see their favorite performers in a cheaper movie instead? After all, it cost theater owners less to rent a film than it did to pay vaudeville performers’ salaries. So vaudeville owners forbade their performers from appearing in any Vitaphone shorts. Of course, that didn’t–couldn’t–last long. Vaudeville’s decline was already in motion. Radio had a hand in its demise as well. Talkies were the coup de grace. My mystery series takes place in 1924 and 1925, when vaudeville was seeing its heyday, so I don’t have to deal with the battles that talkies brought about. Still, it’s interesting to know what lay around the corner for my fictional characters. 

Published in: on April 21, 2018 at 5:40 pm  Comments (3)  

New NPR Article about Mary Pickford

Saw this article about Mary Pickford on NPR today and thought you might find it interesting too. 

Published in: on February 27, 2018 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

American Experience film about Mary Pickford

Yesterday I watched one of the episodes from that great PBS series, American Experience, about Mary Pickford. Using phrases like “the first modern celebrity,” “the first superstar,” and “the woman who invented film acting,” the narrators told about the life of America’s Sweetheart and her contributions to acting, to filmmaking, and to the film production business. She “had a man’s brain,” said Charlie Chaplin once–it was meant as a compliment, since everyone knew women had no head for business.This information was all familiar to me. What the episode emphasized that I had never considered was that Pickford was also the “first to pay the price” for stardom. 

Douglas Fairbanks had to rescue his wife on more than one occasion, carrying her above the frenzied mobs that greeted their ships and trains when they traveled.

When Mary Pickford reluctantly began acting in short silent films, film acting was not respectable. It has often been said that actresses were considered a short step above prostitutes. She made acting respectable, and then glamorous. Before Mary Pickford, there had been no such thing as a superstar, and she was unprepared for the loss of privacy, the mobs tearing at her clothing and hair when she traveled, and the pressures that turned her to alcohol and made her a hermit in her own home for the last decades of her life. 

I acquired this episode through Netflix, with their DVD plan; it is not available if you subscribe to their streaming option. Someone told me it was also on Youtube. 

Published in: on November 12, 2017 at 8:44 am  Comments (3)  

Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923)

Samuel Goldwyn (born Samuel Goldfish in Poland) began as a film producer in 1913. Nine years later, he wrote his first book, Behind the Screen. In it, he devotes chapters to many of the famous silent film actors and directors that he had come to know and work with. I found it a fascinating look at the silent movie world in its peak years. So many careers were taking off. Reading about the actors was kind of eerie, because I knew what happened to these people. And because my own mysteries are set in 1924 and 1925, Goldwyn’s account almost exactly gives the perspective of “my” characters. For example, the chapter on Rudolph Valentino (whose name Goldwyn spells Rodolph) predicts a great future for the young Italian actor, who died two years later at the age of 31. And the many pages about Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks contain no hint of their impending divorce. He shares his experiences with Charlie Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Wallace Reid (who would soon be dead of a drug habit), Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, and many who were everyday names at that time. 

Because my Roaring Twenties mystery series features the real-life actors Pickford and Fairbanks and Chaplin, those were the parts I found most useful. He writes: “She never calls him ‘Doug’–indeed, I have an idea she doesn’t much like to hear his name thus shorn by other people–and somehow into her utterance of the ‘Douglas’ you find, no matter how casual the speech, the way she really feels about him.” Also, some of the details about money are priceless: “Eight years ago [1915] the twenty thousand dollars which the Lasky Company expended upon ‘Carmen’ was considered a vast sum. To-day the Goldwyn Company is investing nearly a million in its production of ‘BenHur.'” I can use facts like that in my novels.

However, I must say I don’t believe for a moment that Samuel Goldwyn wrote this book. The man was born in Poland. He didn’t come to American until he was 14 and he always spoke with an accent. He was also famous for malapropisms–that’s no criticism, it’s quite natural for a foreigner. But the man never spoke English like a native and certainly not like an educated native. He grew up poor, with virtually no schooling. I believe he dictated these stories to someone who wrote them up in a flowery way to flatter his vanity. (He was known to be very vain.)  The writing style is heavy, pompous, and unnatural, even for the 1920s. Words like therein, whereby, and ergo would not have made their way into the everyday speech of a rough man like Goldwyn. Phrases like “I quote this last as a testimony to the almost unerring acumen which Mary Pickford displays,” and “the figure with which I started falls short of conveying the full effect” don’t sound like they could come from his mouth. The ostentatious name-dropping is, I think, meant to show a familiarity to literature, opera, and other high culture that a poor orphan would never have experienced. “Many screen favorites heave in sight as slowly as Lohengrin’s swan.” “One can as easily imagine De Musset or Verlaine mowing the front lawn of his suburban home . . . ” as if he read the French poets in his spare time. 

So who wrote Behind the Screen? I believe it was Miss Corinne Lowe, the woman Goldwyn cites in his “Notes” as having helped him “prepare these articles.”So thank you, Miss Lowe. Your book gives me many contemporary details that I would not have discovered anywhere else.

Prohibition and the Movies

Norma Shearer and co-star in THE DIVORCEE, 1930.

Norma Shearer and co-star in THE DIVORCEE, 1930.

Prohibition was the law of the land, even if it was ignored in many cities (notably New York, Detroit, Chicago, Washington DC, Baltimore, etc.) Hollywood production codes prohibited scenes showing people actually drinking, so if the story called for drinking, the best they could do was picture a bottle, or show someone pouring a drink, or people holding glasses.

But according to Daniel Okrent in LAST CALL, a scholarly survey of films in 1929 showed that drinking was evident in 2/3 of them, often favorably. “In AFTER MIDNIGHT, a shy and virginal Norma Shearer takes her very first drink and burst into bloom. Joan Crawford became a star by hoofing on a speakeasy tabletop in OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS.” For the millions of people going to the movie theater each week, scenes of beautiful women and debonair men drinking alcohol looked pretty glamorous. The message served only to further undermine the Prohibition laws.

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford

Drinking was too commonplace to ignore in the movies. I make sure to get that point across in my series.

Published in: on October 30, 2016 at 2:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

New Cover Art for Next Book

My publisher, Severn House, just sent the cover art for my next book. I really love it! Renting Silence is the third in the Roaring Twenties series and I think this cover is the best yet. The girl looks just as I imagine Jessie to look: unruly bobbed hair, confident stare, pretty but not glamorous. I’ve completed the editing process and now have nothing more to do but wait until it debuts, supposedly on August 31 in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand; later in the USA.  

Renting Silence cover

Published in: on June 5, 2016 at 11:53 am  Comments (2)  

The Parade’s Gone By: Book Review

5117G3D106L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is an old book (published in 1968) by a British film historian, but that makes it even better for someone like me. This history of the silent film era relied on many interviews with the people who made that history: actors, producers, directors, and others who were still living when Kevin Brownlow knew them. Living legends, I should say. And the illustrations are terrific too.

I particularly benefitted from reading about the industry’s early move from the east to Hollywood. The California locals looked down on these intruders and called them “movies.” Brownlow states that it was as hard for a “movie” to join a country club as it was for a Jew or a Negro. This is the sort of information I can integrate into my stories–and I do. Here’s another insight I’ve used: “Thousands of girls poured into the town, pathetically anxious to work in pictures. There were chances for less than one in a hundred. The unlucky girls faced poverty, starvation, and sometimes suicide. They arrived without money or contacts. Their first shock was the discovery that the studios they continually had to visit to seek work were scattered over a fifty-mile radius.”

There is so much information about the early actors that I feature or mention in my series (Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Myrna Loy, Rudolph Valentino, to name a few) but also information about how they made movies in those days: the lighting, cameramen, lab work, directing, and how to get 2000 extras costumed each morning. I learned about the number of cameras used to shoot a scene and why there were at least two, and how informal the job descriptions were. Everyone did whatever they were asked to do in those pre-union days. This helped me describe my main character, Jessie, who, as assistant script girl, often runs errands, works in the office, or fetches props.

For anyone interested in the silent movie era, this is the principle book to read. And a bonus–it’s well written and hard to put down! Used copies are available online and any library can order you one for free.

Published in: on May 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

The sad life of famous Twenties model Audrey Munson


Audrey Munson was fifteen when she was began her modeling career as a nude model for sculptors and painters. From 1906 until 1921, she was the preferred model for so many artists she became famous. She starred in several silent films and has the dubious distinction of being the first woman to appeal fully nude in an American film. 220px-Audrey_Munson1(Inspiration, 1915–a lost silent film; Purity 1916 is her only film that still exists) Both films were semi-autobiographical, about a model who poses for artists. 

Star,_for_the_%22Colonnade_of_Stars,%22_Court_of_the_Universe_building,_1915_Panama_Pacific_International_Exposition,_San_FranciscoA scandal involving a lover and murder brought her negative publicity and ruined her film and modeling career, and she tried to kill herself with mercury bichloride, a poison used by other famous people in the film world. Her attempt failed, but she declined into mental illness. In 1931, a judge sentenced her to a psychiatric facility where she remained until 1996–she died at the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane at the age of 104.

$(KGrHqZ,!owF!F0PPH!IBQI+UncFng~~60_3Mourning_VictoryI became interested in this sad story because it was yet another example of a famous silent movie actor using mercury bichloride to kill themselves. I use that poison in several of my books. Sunset-FC-October-1915




Published in: on April 24, 2016 at 6:41 pm  Comments (7)  
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