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.

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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)  
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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

Nude_Audrey_Munson_-_Heedless_Moths

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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Lecture at the Downton Abbey Exhibit

 Downtown-image2_medium[1] - size 75

 On Nov. 14, I gave this talk at the Virginia Historical Society as part of their Downton Abbey exhibit, “Dressing Downton.” My presentation was titled Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. The VHS always records its speakers, so if you’d like to hear/see it, just click on the title. It’s a light, but serious, lecture that lasts 40 minutes (plus a Q&A). In it, I share some of the surprising things I learned during my research for my Roaring Twenties mystery series, things I have incorporated into my novels. 

 

Little Annie Rooney Released

Little_Annie_Rooney_(1925)_Poster Mary Pickford’s Little Annie Rooney was release 90 years ago this month, in October of 1925. I am very familiar with this film because it was being filmed during the time my second and third mysteries, SILENT MURDERS and RENTING SILENCE, take place. One of the underlying themes–a young woman sacrificing herself for love–plays into the plot of my story, so the film was significant in several ways. 

It’s a classic Mary Pickford film that you can easily watch if you subscribe to Netflix. They have the best collection of silent films that I’ve found, so I go there often. As she often does, Miss Pickford plays a child, in this case, little Annie Rooney whose policeman father is killed in the line of duty. Here’s how I open the story in RENTING SILENCE (due for publication in 2016):

tumblr_le7yd87ONE1qzdvhio1_r6_1280Filming silent movies is noisy work—directors shouting instructions through megaphones, cameras grinding away like machine guns, studio musicians playing the mood from the corner—which is why I was perplexed when I walked onto the set of Little Annie Rooney that morning and found it frozen in silence. Actors, electricians, makeup artists, grips, carpenters, script girls, and cameramen stood motionless, as if drawing a deep breath would shatter a spell. Only one person gave life to the scene, and all eyes were on her. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart” and the star of the film, was slowly pacing the edge of the set, her head down in fearsome concentration.

I looked to Director William Beaudine who motioned for me to stay where I was. He waited until Miss Pickford faced away from him before gliding to my side, so his movement wouldn’t distract her.

“A note said Miss Pickford wanted to see me on the set,” I whispered. “Maybe I’d better come back later?”

Tall and stick thin, Beaudine had to bend to get close to my ear. “Hang on a minute, Jessie. This is the last take before we break.”

One glance at the chalkboard in a young assistant’s hand raised my eyebrows. Sixteen takes? That was a lot, even for a perfectionist like “Re-take Mary Pickford.”

littleAnnieRooney-terra“I could strangle Rudolph Valentino,” the director whispered, almost to himself. “He barged in here, broke her concentration. She hasn’t—”

Miss Pickford stopped and lifted her chin. “I’m ready.”

The scene lurched to life. “Hit ‘em once!” shouted Beaudine and the set was instantly flooded with silvery light from an array of Kleigs, baby spots, and barrel lights. “Camera!” Cameramen cranked up their Mitchells, and the four studio musicians in the corner began playing a gloomy number to set the mood. They were shooting the tearjerker part, where Little Annie learns her policeman father has been killed in the line of duty.

MAGIC_LATERN_SLIDE_-_LITTLE_ANNIE_ROONEY-492x478As I watched, thirty-three-year-old Mary Pickford, playing a twelve-year-old girl, scampered out from her hiding place under the table, ready to surprise her beloved father with his birthday cake, only to find herself face to face with a policeman sent to deliver the tragic news. Her expression started at mischievous and slid rapidly past puzzlement, confusion, disbelief, denial, futile hope, and horror, only to end with heart-rending tears. It was an astonishing display of acting skill. In all my years in vaudeville, I had never seen the equal. No wonder she was the most famous actress in the world! I hoped everyone in the audience would have hankies in hand—I was misty-eyed myself. The scene reminded me all too forcefully of having been orphaned myself at the same age.  

“Cut! Good work, good work, everyone,” called Beaudine. “No more shooting for now, boys and girls. We’ll break for lunch, and well deserved it is.”

A Long-Lost Silent Film is Found

220px-Sherlock_Holmes_1916_2I attended Bouchercon in Raleigh this past week (the largest mystery author conference in the country) and learned many things . . . one I wanted to share is that a long-lost silent film, Sherlock Holmes (1916) had been discovered in France in 2014, recently restored, and is being screened for all to see on October 18 on the Turner Classic channel. This is a movie that stars William Gillette and was adapted from his stage production that toured the country in the late years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–supposedly he performed this play 1300 times! The story is a combination of 3 of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, and it is rather long. Gillette is considered responsible for much of the appearance we associate with Holmes, notably the deerstalker hat. 

So if you are a silent movie fan, you’ll want to pop some corn and sit back in a comfy chair and enjoy this visit to the past with me on Sunday, Oct. 18! 

Published in: on October 11, 2015 at 10:35 am  Comments (1)  
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Almost made a big mistake

MV5BMzU0NDkyMjEzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTcyMzEyMjE@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_Thanks to the Library of Congress silent movie workshop last spring, “Almost Lost,” I learned that in my fourth Roaring Twenties mystery, I had made a big mistake in describing Douglas Fairbanks’s filming of The Black Pirate. Luckily, that book hasn’t gone to press yet (and won’t–I’m still waiting for #3 to come out), so I could make the change. 

There is an underwater scene in the film with Douglas and lots of men swimming secretly out to the pirate ship to rescue the fair maiden. I was under the impression that it had been filmed on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles (and some scenes were filmed there), and I did a good bit of research to learn how cameramen in those days filmed under water–a tricky process before the days of waterproof cameras. That turned out NOT to be correct. So then I learned about the Williamson underwater filming process that was used in 20,000 Leagues MV5BMTQ0OTk3MTIzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDA5MjAwMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Under the Sea (1916). Underwater cameras were not used for that film. The Williamson brothers had developed a system of watertight tubes and mirrors, like an upside-down periscope, and were dependent on the clarity of water and sunshine to provide the necessary light. Then, at the workshop, I ran into a film historian who told me that wasn’t right either! Evidently, Douglas Fairbanks faked that scene. The swimmers were held in the air with harnesses and went through the motions of swimming under water. He told me his own collection included one of the harnesses. 

So I rewrote that part of the book, deleting most references to the underwater scene. You can see why I value this silent movie workshop so much. I plan to attend the 2016 event as well. 

11-Year-Old Film Scholar

ShaneFlemingPhoto-1024x577At the Library of Congress’s Almost Lost workshop last month, there were about a hundred and fifty participants were trying to help identify the unidentified silent movies in the Library’s collection–scholars, film collectors, film buffs, and regular folks like me–and one eleven-year-old boy who is all of the above.

Shane Fleming from NY City attended and contributed as much or more than most. He’s an avid silent movie fan. And he’s not shy about calling out his thoughts as the audience tries to figure out something–anything–about the piece of a silent movie being shown. I enjoyed talking with him and his mother during the conference. 

Shane was interviewed last year, when he was ten, on the Turner Classic Movie set. See it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUWVK3c4OXc

Published in: on July 24, 2015 at 5:42 pm  Comments (1)