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.

Charlie Chaplin’s Birthday

220px-Charlie_Chaplin_portraitOn April 16, fans of Charles Chaplin celebrates his 125th birthday.

I’m not a big fan. I acknowledge his genius–he was a brilliant comedian, actor, and businessman–but as a parent, I can’t help but be turned off by his penchant for very young girls. He was 35 when he got 15-year-old Lita Grey, as aspiring actress, pregnant and, because sex with a minor could have put him in prison, married her quickly in Mexico. She had 2 boys; they divorced. Lita was his second wife. His first wife was 16 when they married and 18 when they divorced. He had many affairs, usually with very young women, and two more wives. His fourth wife was 17 and he 53 when they married. Some may not care about this but I have a problem with older men taking advantage of very young girls, so Chaplin isn’t my favorite. Nonetheless, he was Douglas Fairbanks’s best friend, so I can’t avoid mentioning him in my Roaring Twenties series.

Here’s one passage:

“Welcome, Jessie.” Miss Pickford rose from her rattan chaise to greet me. I said hello to Stella DeLanti, who was playing the queen in our Zorro picture, and to Douglas’s brother Robert, the film’s general manager, both of whom I knew from the set, then I was introduced to Ernst Lubitsch. I had heard the name. Miss Pickford had brought him and his wife Helene to Hollywood from Germany a couple years ago to be one of her directors, and he was well known in film circles. Last, Miss Pickford turned to a plump girl with a round, pretty face whose baggy frock did little to disguise her fat stomach. She appeared to be about fifteen and was clearly bored by the adults around her. I assumed she was someone’s daughter.

220px-Lita_Grey“Jessie, this is Lillita Chaplin. Lita, dear, Jessie Beckett works on the Zorro picture with Douglas. Charlie and Douglas will be along as soon as they finish their tennis game. Do have a seat and some lemonade, Jessie. I know it’s been a long day for you.”

Geez Louise, the kid was Chaplin’s wife! His second, married just a few months ago in Mexico under somewhat mysterious circumstances. And she wasn’t fat. She was pregnant. Now I believed those rumors about Lita being under age. Even malicious gossip is true sometimes: Charlie Chaplin had an itch for young girls. His first wife, too, had been little more than a child. I felt sorry for Lita and tried without success to engage her in conversation.

Hollywood Airports in the Twenties

Hollywood had several airports in the Roaring Twenties, all private. This one belonged to Charlie Chaplin–



Here’s one that belonged to Cecil B. DeMille–



As you can see, they were tiny–little more than runways that the film moguls used for personal transportation and to film movie scenes and aerial shots. There was no idea of terminals, not until 1927 when the first (supposedly) airplane ticket office and waiting room was built in Dearborn, Michigan.  

Chaplin’s and DeMille’s airfields long ago disappeared, eaten up by urban expansion. 

Chaplin’s Hollywood House

When Pickfair (Mary Pickford’s and Douglas Fairbanks’s house) was built, it was out in the middle of nowhere at the end of a narrow road. Not long after Fairbanks and Pickford moved in, Fairbanks’s best friend, Charlie Chaplin, built a house across the road. While it was never famous like Pickfair, it was an impressive, large home befitting one of Hollywood’s most successful, wealthiest actors. It had 14 rooms and was built in 1921. To the best of my knowledge, it didn’t have a name, just an address. And unlike Pickfair, it is still there!

Chaplin used to walk across the road to Pickfair to play tennis with Fairbanks or attend their parties. He didn’t entertain much himself. I’ve used Chaplin as a minor character in my mystery novel in this way—as a dinner guest at Pickfair with his second wife. 

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 6:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Was It Murder? The Thomas Ince Mystery

 Who was Thomas Ince? We don’t hear the name today, but in the Twenties, he was very well known in California. Ince was one of the earliest and most successful producer/directors in Hollywood, a real pioneer of silent movies. His mysterious death prompted rumors that have never been proven or disproven—even Snopes rates the case “undetermined.” And undeterminable. Which explains my own interest in the incident. I’m always looking for a good historical mystery that I can twist into fiction.

In a nutshell, Thomas Ince got onto William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, Oneida, in November, and got off dead. The yachting party consisted of about 15 people with some names you may know, including Hearst’s mistress, film star Marion Davies; Charlie Chaplin; and a relatively unknown columnist named Louella Parsons who would become a very famous gossip columnist. Not to mention a large crew and musicians. There was also lots of illegal liquor on board (remember, this is Prohibition) and at least one gun.

Hearst, the wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate, was known to be highly jealous of his mistress and not inclined to share, so if he heard the rumor that Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin were having an affair, he might have been gunning for Chaplin that weekend. A critical detail may be that Ince and Chaplin were of similar build and appearance.

The facts are muddled because there are so many conflicting stories. Any investigations were perfunctory at best—this was a time when the authorities were easily corrupted. And professional Hollywood was keen to keep scandal out of the public eye for fear of damaging the popularity of this new entertainment form, the movies.

One early report said that Ince got sick at Hearst’s ranch and was taken home by a doctor where he died the next day of a heart attack. Too many people saw him get on the yacht for that to stick. Some said Ince got sick on the yacht, was taken off and taken home, where he died of heart failure. But Chaplin’s secretary (a Japanese man who was waiting on the dock) said he saw Ince’s body with a bullet hole in his head. By great coincidence, no-name reporter Louella Parsons got a prominent job for life with Hearst’s newspapers—a payoff for keeping her mouth shut?

Supposedly, the L. A. Times (rival to Hearst’s newspaper) published headlines that read “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht” on the morning edition of the Nov. 16, 1924 paper, but the afternoon edition didn’t mention the incident. Hearst is said to have forced the newspaper to bury the story. However, I’ve tried to find that newspaper in on-line archives and haven’t been able to, so that may be another myth. (If anyone can produce a copy of that paper, I’d love to see it.)

The DA made a hasty, sloppy investigation. Ince’s body was cremated before a coroner could examine it. Ince’s wife received a huge trust fund from Hearst and he paid off their mortgage. Chaplin insisted he was never on the yacht. Davies, too, claimed he wasn’t there. Others insisted he was. D. W. Griffiths, the movie mogul, was quoted as saying, “All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention Ince’s name. There’s plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big.”

A 2003 movie, “The Cat’s Meow,” theorizes how Ince’s death may have played out. According to that scenario, Hearst saw Chaplin and Davies together, ran to get his gun, and when he came back, Chaplin had gone, and Ince happened to be standing near her. Hearst killed Ince by mistake, then covered it up by paying everyone off with money or jobs or acting roles. It’s a good movie, if you’re interested.

So what really happened to Thomas Ince? Plenty of people knew the truth, but the secret died with them.  

Want more information?

The Superstars of 1921



The year 1921 was a landmark year in silent films. That year saw the making of two silent screen superstars: Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.

Charlie Chaplin made his first feature film, “The Kid,” in 1921. He was already well known from his many “shorts,” but this longer feature rocketed him to the top.

1921 also saw the release of the first major film for Rudolph Valentino, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” He had been playing bit parts, usually a dancing part because he was an excellent dancer or a villain’s role because of his dark “foreign” looks. Well, geez Louise, he was Italian, after all!

Both men became instant international stars. Poor Valentino would enjoy his fame for only four more years, before he died at 31. Chaplin lived to the ripe old age of 88.

Scandal Gets in the Way of a Knighthood

The continuing saga about director Roman Polanski and his fetish for young girls puts me in mind of Charlie Chaplin who, while he was never accused of rape (as Polanski has been, twice now), certainly had a “thing” for young girls.

Chaplin, the most famous actor/director of his day, had a penchant for young actresses. Two of Chaplin’s wives were only 16 when he married them, and one of those was pregnant before she reached that age. (In those days, you had to marry the girl when you got her pregnant, and to his credit, he did.) This and his communist sympathies supposedly prevented Chaplin, an Englishman, from being knighted by the Queen.

He was nominated for the honor of a knighthood as early as 1931 and again in 1956 but the British Foreign Office scratched him off the list. Finally, in 1975, the 85-year-old Chaplin was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and could style himself Sir Charles Chaplin for the rest of his life . . . three more years.

United Artists: Doomed to Fail?

In 1919, the three best known actors in the world, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin, plus one of the best known directors, D. W. Griffith, established United Artists Studios.  It was a remarkable film studio, the first and only one owned and run by actors. The major studios said it was doomed to fail—after all, everyone knew actors weren’t smart enough to manage their own careers, let alone a studio. Yet United Artists did pretty well, year after year.

The actors’ motive was independence—remember this was the era of the studio system, where studios “owned” the actors and had total control over what they did (even in their private lives), which films they acted in, which parts they played, and how much they were paid.

What happened to their films? Chaplin’s are controlled by his estate through a French distribution company. Most of Griffith’s and Fairbanks films belong to the Film Preservation Associates, a restoration company. The Mary Pickford Foundation owns the rights to her existing films.  In 1931, only a few years after the advent of sound, Mary almost destroyed all her old silent films, fearing that they would make her look ridiculous to future generations. Fortunately her lifelong friend and actress Lillian Gish talked her out of it.

United Artists pretty much ceased to exist in the 1940s. A version of the studio continues today under the same name, but it has nothing in common with the original. Tom Cruise is one of the principal partners.

“Out of the Night, When the Full Moon is Bright . . .”

      The story of Zorro existed before Douglas Fairbanks’ two movies (1921 and 1925), but it was the movies that made the character a household name. Just two years before the first film, a serial called “The Curse of Capistrano” appeared in a “pulp magazine”—that’s the term for the cheap fiction magazines that were distributed in the first half of the 20th century and were usually sold for 10 cents. It’s author was Johnston McCulley.

         Douglas Fairbanks, through his two films, helped create the image of Zorro that persists to this day. For instance, Fairbanks was an amateur magician and he gave Zorro that ability. It was Fairbanks who created the black outfit, black mask, and round black hat that figure in all subsequent versions. And Fairbanks’ acrobatic abilities—think swinging from the chandelier and leaping from rooftop to rooftop—were transferred to Zorro.  Watch this fabulous clip (it’s only 3 ½ minutes) to the end and you’ll see the leap across wide space between buildings that Mary Pickford couldn’t bear to watch.

         Or watch the clip where Don Diego (Zorro) performs several foppish tricks: (start at minute 4:40 and you’ll see him play the bored, uninterested suitor who does a magic trick for his intended).

         “The Mark of Zorro” was released by United Artists (a corporation founded in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith) in 1921. The film was hugely popular, so he reprised the role in 1925 in “Don Q: Son of Zorro,” which was, incidentally, one of the first sequels in Hollywood history.  If you want to see the whole feature-length film (and it’s very entertaining!) click here:

       The Zorro character was very important to Douglas Fairbanks—he and Mary even named their little dog Zorro.


The Scandal of the Decade

     The Fatty Arbuckle trial was Hollywood’s most sensational scandal of the Roaring Twenties. Really, trials would be more accurate—the poor man endured three during 1921 and 1922, as the first two juries were deadlocked.

     Large since birth, Roscoe had been nicknamed Fatty as a child. He reportedly hated the name but it stuck, and he made the best of it. His weight (reportedly 250-300 pounds) certainly didn’t diminish his career on the stage and later in silent films. If you are familiar with the Keystone Cops, you know Fatty Arbuckle—he’s the biggest cop in the bunch, the one on the far right in this picture.

     Fatty was a good actor (see an early Keystone Cops film here, a great singer, a wonderful dancer, and a kind person: he was supposedly responsible for discovering or mentoring young comic actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Bob Hope. But that wasn’t enough to save him when he was accused of rape and murder after a wild party in a San Francisco hotel.

     The yellow press of that era went wild with the story, fabricating lurid details and printing anything that would sell papers. Fatty was accused of raping a woman and crushing her to death with his huge bulk. Or he raped her with a coke bottle. Or a champagne bottle (and this during Prohibition!). Or ice cubes. Whatever. Evidence was next to nothing, and the prosecution’s star witnesses had stories that changed every day, but the gullible public swallowed it whole. And gutless Hollywood moguls, who controlled the actors at that time, forbade anyone to comment on the story in a way that would support Fatty. They were terrified that the scandal would spread to Hollywood and ruin business, which to some extent it did.

     What actually caused the death of the young woman (an alcoholic who had undergone repeated abortions) only four days after the party was a ruptured bladder, possibly brought on by a recent abortion. She never accused Fatty of rape, and doctors found no evidence of rape or violence. The reason she wasn’t taken to the hospital sooner was because her friends all assumed she was drunk or hungover, and would sleep it off as usual. When she finally reached the hospital, peritonitis had set in, and she died.

      The first trial was a travesty of justice. The second was an exercise in stupidity—the defense decided to show their contempt for the prosecution’s case by not putting Fatty on the stand or even making closing remarks, something some members of the jury interpreted as an admission of guilt. So a third trial became necessary.

Next: Fatty’s vindication—and then punishment!