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  

Vino Sano Grape Bricks

At a talk I gave a week or so ago, I mentioned Vino Sano Grape Bricks. That led some in the audience to follow the thread, and I’ve turned up a few more fun photos on this subject.

For those who don’t know, a grape brick is a dehydrated block of grape juice and pulp that was sold–quite legally–during Prohibition for people to make their own wine at home. Instructions couldn’t tell you how to make wine–that would be illegal–so they told you how NOT to make wine. Don’t add sugar and yeast and don’t let it sit in a warm place for 21 days or it might ferment! There were other brands too, but Vino Sano was the leader.

Here are a few other interesting illustrations I found. A want ad for salesmen to sell the product. This also revealed the price of a grape brick ($1.25), something I hadn’t known. 

And here’s another advertisement:


Published in: on May 16, 2018 at 2:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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Bootlegging in the Basement

When I gave a lecture on the Roaring Twenties to the Campbell County Historical Society last week, I mentioned several examples of reputable institutions that dabbled in making illegal liquor, such as one hospital in Los Angeles that began ordering denatured alcohol by the boxcar instead of by the gallon, as it did before Prohibition, and churches buying ten times the amount of “sacramental wine” that they previously used. 

Well, Campbell County, Virginia, had an example of its own: the Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg. A newspaper article from 1918* told about a police raid on the Academy of Music Theater that resulted in the confiscation of 71 pints of liquor, along with the arrest of the theater manager and a stage hand. It seems that bootlegging in the basement brought in some extra income.

(*If you’re thinking that 1918 date is a mistake because Prohibition didn’t start until 1920, you’re thinking about national Prohibition. Virginia and several other states began their own version of prohibition several years before the rest of the country.)

Published in: on May 3, 2018 at 3:23 pm  Comments (2)  


“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)  

“The Last of Vaudeville”

Every week The Economist runs an obituary on its last page, about the most significant person who died in the past week. The choices are mind-boggling as they aren’t focused on America; it’s what the editors consider the most significant person in the world to have died that week. As always, the writing is superb and the choices intrigue me. Many times, I have not heard of the person profiled.

As is the case this week, with Sir Ken Dodd, “the last great music hall entertainer” who died at age 90. Dodd was an English comedian who, in the 1960s through 1990s, averaged 100,000 miles a year traveling throughout Great Britain. Television didn’t suit him; it was live performance–vaudeville–that he loved. We think of vaudeville as an American invention, but it existed in other countries as well. Dodd was knighted only last year for his service in entertainment and charity. He continued performing almost until his death. For the entire (short) obituary, click here. 

Or here  for Wikipedia’s entry. 

Published in: on March 26, 2018 at 5:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vaudeville during the Winter

The past week’s cold weather made me think about vaudeville performers (and their audiences) in theaters that were poorly heated, or not heated at all. The truth is, many theaters in the North closed down during the winter because they couldn’t heat the building and because locals couldn’t easily travel to the theaters. Same thing happened in the South during the summers before air-conditioning was feasible. Historians speculate that performing in cold weather could have contributed to the many cases of tuberculosis among performers. One performer recalled playing at an Orpheum theater in Edmonton, Canada:

“This was one of our ungodly icy stands on the way to Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, and Frisco. The Edmonton audience was in overcoats and furs. The temperature outside was thirty below. While the theater was supposed to be warmly heated I could feel the cold penetrating the floor of the stage as I stood there driving my monologue out at them despite a bad cold and chilling feet.” (from Vaudeville Wars by A. F. Wertheim)




Published in: on March 14, 2018 at 11:10 am  Comments (1)  

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  

When did vaudeville end?

The Palace in 1920

Of course, there’s so simple answer here, since vaudeville faded away in the 1930s, but I’ve found some guideposts that helped me get a handle on the timeframe. (Some argue that Ed Sullivan’s television show was nothing more than televised vaudeville, but no old-time vaudevillians would have agreed.) 

New York’s famous Palace theater on Broadway had its last two-a-day show during the week of May 7, 1932. “Playing at the Palace” was slang for playing BigTime. If you played the Palace, you had reached the pinnacle of success. It was the flagship of the Keith-Albee circuit theaters. The Palace continued to operated after that, with movies and a series of second-rate acts, but the vaudeville heyday was over. W.C. Fields spoke for the industry when he said, “For many, vaudeville passed into the limbo when the old New York Palace closed as a two-a-day in 1932.” 

Remember Jack Haley, the Tin Man in the 1939 Wizard of Oz and a vaudeville star? He wrote: “Only a vaudevillian who has trod its stage can really tell you about it… only a performer can describe the anxieties, the joys, the anticipation, and the exultation of a week’s engagement at the Palace. The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theaters in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of Variety success.”


Published in: on February 10, 2018 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  

He foresaw the decline of vaudeville and the rise of movies

Who? Marcus Loew, founder of Loew’s theaters.

Early on, the Keith-Albee organization of vaudeville theaters started using films as one of the (usually) nine acts in their vaudeville lineups. That was when films lasted ten or twenty minutes, about as long as the typical vaudeville act.

But their competition, Marcus Loew, foresaw film eclipsing vaudeville as America’s favorite pastime. He bet right, although he didn’t live long enough to see how right he was. He died in 1927, just a few years before vaudeville began its rapid descent. 

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How many Vaudevillians were there in the Twenties?

Vaudeville performers constantly worried about being laid off. None but the most famous acts worked regularly. Why? Because there were so many more performers than spaces for them. One historian, A. F. Wertheim, estimates that in the early 1920s, there were about 20,000 performers jostling for about 5,000 or 6,000 weekly engagements, which required about 9,000 performers. (That’s performers, not acts. Many acts had more than one or two performers.) 

What happens in such cases? The laws of supply and demand brought salaries down. Of course, women were paid less than men, and children even less than women. It was a hard life and a hard way to make a living.

Published in: on January 13, 2018 at 12:58 pm  Leave a Comment