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. 

 

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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)  

The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929

51Q+nUeLhIL._AA160_I read The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929, by David Pierce, published 2013 by the Library of Congress. I learned a lot about silent movies, and it had some good tidbits that I can use in future Roaring Twenties mysteries:

Coquettemp–in the early years of talkies (1929-1931), some producers shot films as both forms–silent and talkie–so they could be shown in theaters that had not yet outfitted for sound. Mary Pickford’s Coquette of 1929 was one of those. That’s something I’ll mention if and when the series progresses to 1929. (Right now, we’re in 1926.)

–the first feature-length silent films were produced in 1912 and there were only a very few. In 1913 there were about 50. From there the number shot up to over 900 in 1917, then steadily in the 600-800 range, until talkies came on the scene. In 1929, the number dropped to 300, then a dozen in 1930 as talkies took over. 

–Mary Pickford owned many of her films and paid for their preservation. Few other actors, directors, or studios did.

Unknown-2Unknown-1Unknown-3 Unknown

 

 

 

–“It is Fairbanks’ representations of these characters (Robin Hood, Zorro, the Three Musketeers, the Black Pirate, etc.) that live today, filtered and morphed over the years by Errol Flynn, Antonio Banderas, Michael York, and Johnny Depp.” I completely agree with the author in this and have tried to portray Douglas as the creative innovator that he was. 

 

Identifying the Unidentified

images How does one identify unidentified silent films? That was the question in my mind as I sat down in my seat in the Culpeper theater at my first Library of Congress “Almost Lost” workshop. (They don’t call it a conference because, they said, they expect us to work!)

I quickly learned as I heard the experienced members of the audience shout out their thoughts. No silence for the silent movies! Some people could identify a studio from the font used in the titles; others called out the names of actors and actresses (occasionally receiving a rebuttal: “no, it’s not”). A camera flashing past a street sign helped on several occasions to identify the place where the movie was filmed. Those who knew their cars were a big help: they could call out the make, model, and date of almost any vehicle that appeared in the picture. And twice, the camera panned an office wall with a calendar on it, which allowed someone to say, “What year did May first fall on a Saturday?” A few taps on the computer answered that question and, Bingo! we had the year. Last but not at all least, that indescribable feel that pervaded a film’s overall appearance caused some experts to call out, “Look like a pre-Griffith Biograph.”

UnknownFinding copies of missing films is a race against time, because of chemical decomposition every day, and fires. Why weren’t more saved? Here’s what the famous director Frank Capra had to say when he was asked that question.

“Nobody thought they were important enough to save. You know, the films we were making in those days were just nickel and dime affairs. They were like today’s newspaper–you don’t save today’s newspaper. And when they were finished, nobody expected to ever see them again.” 

Published in: on July 12, 2015 at 8:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Library of Congress presents: Almost Lost

FullSizeRenderAnd they truly are “almost lost”–only about 20% of the silent movies made in America survive. The Library of Congress is the largest repository for them. Every year for four years, they have put on a workshop at their building in Culpeper, Virginia [near Washington DC], where film historians, experts, collectors, and the general public (me!) are invited to spend three days watching snippets of unidentified silent movies. The goal is to identify them, by recognizing the actors or settings or style or date made.

I attended my first workshop last month and it was, to say the least, a hoot! Although I don’t have enough expertise to have made any profound contributions, I had a blast and learned a good many things that I can use in forthcoming Roaring Twenties mysteries.

One thing I learned is that the era of silent film features lasted a very short time, from 1912 to 1929. During those few years, about 11,000 silent features were made in America. Film historian David Pierce, who gave us a very entertaining lecture, has counted 2,749 titles that survive in complete form and another 562 that are incomplete. The rest are lost, due to carelessness (the movies seemed to have no value at the time), chemical deterioration, fire (the film was highly flammable), or thrift (the films contained traces of silver which had some value when melted down).

IMG_0142The workshop’s format is simple: in the mornings there are a couple of scholarly presentations followed by lunch, and then an afternoon of viewing bits of film, some just a few seconds long, others might be 14 minutes. The evenings are taken up with screening important silent features–that much is open to the general public. The workshop audience of about 125 people sits ready to shout out their observations: “Looks like early Pathe,” or “That’s Harry Depp,” or “No it’s not,” or “That looks more like Australia than southern California.” Twice we caught a glimpse of a calendar on an office wall, and someone shouted, “What year did December 1 fall on a Sunday?” A dozen computers clicked away until one 11-year-old boy called out, “1912,” and we had identified the film’s date.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, the opportunity to attend comes around again next June. The cost of the workshop, $60, covers three very nice lunches. Watch this space for news about the 2016 event. I’m hoping to attend again. Maybe next time, I’ll even make an observation!

 

Published in: on July 5, 2015 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Men’s Hairstyles: Why I Avoid the Subject in my Mysteries

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

I don’t go into men’s hairstyles much in my mysteries, because the subject is such a turn-off to today’s reader. Why? Because men usually parted their hair or combed it back in a pompadour, or both, and to hold this look, they used liberal amounts of hair oil, Brilliantine, or Vaseline. Yuck! 

 

Here are some examples: 

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Jack Pickford

Jack Pickford

 

Makeup in Silent Movies

220px-ChaneyPhantomoftheOperaYou’ve seen silent movies where the actors had pasty white faces, dark black lipstick, and looked positively ghoulish. And it wasn’t even a horror flick! Why was makeup so bad back then? Why didn’t they use a more natural look?

A combination of lighting factors, film types, and makeup availability made movie makeup tricky. First, the type of black-and-white film in general use before the mid-1920s made blues register white and reds and yellows register black. So a cloudy blue sky would look solid white; blue eyes would look eerily white; red lipstick would look black. Second, faces without makeup appeared dark or dirty on film, so actors used a whitening material called whiteface (like blackface, which was burnt cork, was used to make them look like caricatures of African Americans). Think of clowns and mimes, but lighter. Mary Pickford is credited with being one of the first stars to use makeup in a more natural manner, but even she, with beautiful skin, resorted to whiteface for the camera. Pickford curls

Throughout most of the silent picture decades, actors and actresses–even stars–applied their own makeup, so you see a good deal of variation. Much of the makeup had to be developed and mixed by the actor. There was little in the way of commercially available makeup. Makeup experts were gradually introduced into the film industry, at first for extras who didn’t know what to do, and later for the stars as their skills grew.

 

Published in: on April 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm  Comments (3)