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.

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. 


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


Son of Zorro Night

This week, I’m presenting a 2-night program at Patriots Colony, the retirement community where my parents live in Williamsburg, based on my Silent Murders book. The program starts on Wednesday with a screening of Douglas Fairbanks’s movie, “Don Q: Son of Zorro.” Since you can’t be there (I’m sure you’re not old enough!), I’ll share my short, pre-film presentation. I hope the folks there enjoy the 1 1/2-hour film. The following night, I’m giving a short talk on silent movies and joining the entire community for a cocktail reception. (Cocktails always bring out a crowd . . . ) 

220px-FairbanksMarkofZorroDon Q: Son of Zorro, is the 1925 sequel to Douglas Fairbanks’s hugely successful Mark of Zorro of 1920. You’ve probably heard the joke about the high school student who is reading his first Shakespeare play and complains that Shakespeare uses so many cliché’s . . . well, that’s the case with watching a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. He invented the action hero. His own athletic prowess and acrobatic feats seem ho-hum today—but they wowed audiences in his day because he did them first. Swinging from a chandelier, sword fighting on the stairs, leaping from parapet to parapet, dropping down onto the back of a horse—Douglas was a font of ideas that others were quick to copy. He had a superb physique. He mastered the sword, the whip, the bow and arrow, and the knife. His gymnastic skills let him leap, tumble, and swing with apparent ease. He did his own stunts. After Zorro, he went on to play the lead in the Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Thief of Bagdad, Ben Hur, the Black Pirate, and Man in the Iron Mask.

In Son of Zorro, Douglas plays two roles: that of the aging Zorro as well as his dashing, young son, Don Cesar. Douglas was 42 when the movie was filmed, 20 years too young to play the father and 20 years too old to play the son. When he showed up on the set all made up to look old, the director jokingly called him Gramps. Douglas was not amused. Hollywood actors did not appreciate being reminded of their age. His co-star, Mary Astor who played the fair Dolores, was 18.

The story takes place not in California but in Spain. Zorro has sent his son to Spain to acquire culture. There he is falsely accused of killing the heir to the Austrian throne and has to hide out in the ruins of the family castle. He writes his father who dashes to Spain to help. In the movie, this seems to happen in a few weeks . . . in reality, it would have taken a ship at least 12-14 months to sail from Spain to California with a letter, then another 12-14 months to return. But never mind details . . .

Zorro was the creation of Johnston McCulley, the man who wrote the original short story titled “The Curse of Capistrano” which appeared in a minor magazine in 1919. It would have died an obscure death had not the great Douglas Fairbanks happened to read the magazine onboard his ship on his way to Europe for his honeymoon with Mary Pickford. He decided it would make a great movie–with himself as the star, of course. It was a smashing success, soon followed by a sequel that you can watch tonight. Douglas also invented the “son of” sequel, something that had never been done before.

If the titles seem to stay on the screen forever, it is because the movie producers were aiming at the lowest common denominator. Many people had minimal education and read very slowly; many in the audience were immigrants with poor English. The rule of thumb was to allow one second per word, which to us today seems overly long.  I tested this and found 30 words lasted precisely 25 seconds.

Douglas Fairbanks plays an important role in my book, Silent Murders, as Jessie’s employer, as she moves from vaudeville to Hollywood for a low-level job at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios where they are currently filming Son of Zorro. Jessie quickly learns that all of Hollywood scorns the speakeasies everywhere with bootleg hooch and Mexican dope. After a powerful director is murdered at his own party and Jessie’s waitress friend is killed for what she saw, Jessie takes the lead in an investigation tainted by corrupt cops. Soon she’s tangled in a web of drugs, bribery, and murder, nearly becoming a victim herself.

Published in: on November 9, 2014 at 9:08 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Mary Pickford 1892-1979

220px-Mary_Pickford_cph.3c17995uThe greatest silent film star of all, Mary Pickford, died on this day, May 29, thirty-four years ago. It would be nice to say she lived a long and happy life, but it wouldn’t be true. She did live a long life–at a time when infant mortality rates for white women born in North America predicted a life span of 51, she passed away at 87. But happy? Almost certainly not.  

From her earliest years, Gladys Smith, as she was christened, supported her family. Her father, an alcoholic, deserted and died a few years later. Her mother struggled to put food on the table and little Gladys went to work on stage at age seven. From then on, she was the breadwinner, and she developed a fierce work ethic that never quit. Moving from the stage to silent pictures, she became the first true “film star” with fans all over the world. She revolutionized the moving picture world, from acting style to production and her business sense was legendary. She made buckets of money, built a gorgeous home with an inground swimming pool, something unheard of in that day. She married three times, divorced twice. When sound came to the movies, she made the transition fairly well–she had been trained, after all, for the stage and knew how to use her voice, something most silent film actors did not understand. With all this success, why wouldn’t she be happy?

Roles for mature women, then as now, were few and she never maintained the wild popularity of her early decades. The family curse of alcoholism claimed her, as it did her brother and sister. She couldn’t seem to find anything to do that would occupy her–no charity work, no social life, no business management, no films. Her beloved mother had died of breast cancer; her sister Lottie and brother Jack soon followed, dying of an excess of alcohol and drugs that claims so many Hollywood personalities. Her second husband Douglas Fairbanks (some say, the love of her life) died of a heart attack at 56. She very nearly destroyed all her films. She retreated into her lovely home, Pickfair, and almost never came out. By the time she died, few remembered her name or her films. 

I’ve given her a supporting role in my second and third mysteries. She is mentioned in the first, The Impersonator, as inspiration for my main character who, like Mary Pickford, grew up on stage and played child roles even as an adult. I think “Little Mary” would have liked the way I’ve portrayed her. 

“The Artist” : a Silent Film Revival

What a marvelous movie! I saw “The Artist” at a theater yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. I suspect this will lead to a lot more interest in the large number of genuine silent movies that still exist. I’ve watched several myself through Netflix and see one occasionally on television. 

Do see “The Artist” if you haven’t yet. The acting is great fun–the laughs and gasps of surprise are there too.

The story is simple, a romance where one character’s career is rising and the other’s is falling. The main character, George Valentin, is Hollywood’s most popular leading man who, when talkies come, plummets from riches to rags. As his career tanks, that of young Peppy Miller skyrockets, turning her from aspiring extra to leading lady.

It will be instantly obvious to those who know about Hollywood in the Twenties that Valentin’s character is based on Douglas Fairbanks. First of all, he looks exactly like Fairbanks. He performs exactly the same sort of roles, and at one point, when the date says 1931, Valentin is shown reminiscing with his own old movies and the scenes they show come from Fairbanks’ 1920 movie, “Mark of Zorro.” (I recognized those scenes right away–the jump over the wall followed by a swarm of soldiers, the leaping somersault over the fence, and the jumps from rooftop to rooftop.) Fairbanks, too, failed to make the change from silents to talkies, although in his case it was more because of his age than ability. Valentin’s story also mirrors Fairbanks’ struggle with alcohol as his popularity wanes.

 The character of Peppy Miller, enthusiastically played by Berenice Bejo, could be any one of several actresses who rose from obscurity to fame due to their looks, talent, and silver screen charisma.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise the superb acting skills of the little dog! I guess he won’t be nominated for an Oscar. 

The Smithsonian website carried an interesting article about this film.  See

America’s First Action Hero: Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks was America’s first action hero. He invented the role with his 1921 silent film, The Mark of Zorro, an experimental movie that was so successful he embarked on a string of similar productions: in 1921, The Three Musketeers; in 1922, Robin Hood; in 1924, The Thief of Bagdad; in 1925, Don Q: Son of Zorro; and in 1926, The Black Pirate. He swashbuckled his way through these films, swinging from chandeliers, leaping from castle walls, fighting furiously with whips, swords, knives . . . and all while romancing the fair maiden. Watch this three-minute clip for an example of his acrobatic, action-packed adventures. His stunts seem somewhat cliche-ish today, but that’s only because everyone copied him and turned his innovative stunts into cliches. Note the delightful way he mixes humor with his stunts.

And speaking of special effects, watch this one-minute clip at the end of the Thief of Bagdad and see what wowed audiences in the Roaring Twenties. 

Interestingly, his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., carried on Dad’s legacy with similarly dashing roles. He was very popular, although he never gained the unprecedented level of international fame and adoration that his father had. 

Pickfair Pictures

Originally a hunting lodge built in 1911 in remote Beverly Hills, the building and 15 acres were purchased in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks for his new wife, Mary Pickford. He paid $35,000 for the property. The press, not the owners, christened the place Pickfair, a combination of the names of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but the name stuck. Pickford and Fairbanks renovated and greatly enlarged the house to about 40 rooms, added a swimming pool—supposedly the first swimming pool at any private residence in Hollywood—and entertained almost every night.  

To be invited to Pickfair was the dream of everyone in Hollywood and the world. It was like being invited to the White House. Maybe better. In fact, some referred to it as the second White House. Guests included the usual suspects of the film world like Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, and all the famous stars, directors, and moguls, but also an eclectic bunch of internationally famous people, heavy on royalty. Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Dempsey, the kings of Spain and Thailand, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Duke of York (later King George VI), a Swedish prince, Lord Mountbatten, and hundreds more. 

And look at the swimming pool! It was so large you could canoe in it! 

Sadly, after Pickford’s death in 1979, the estate was sold (she had no children). A subsequent owner tore it down in the 1980s and built another house in its place. This new house is called Pickfair too, but don’t be misled. It’s nothing but a modern house with no connection—other than to the site—to the real Pickfair. 

I set a couple scenes of my mystery at Pickfair. It was hard to be accurate, since it doesn’t exist any longer and there are very few pictures of the interior. I did find a few black and white photos in biographies about Pickford and Fairbanks. Those plus some descriptions as to the color of the curtains and so forth let me be fairly confident of the accuracy of my details.  

Published in: on June 1, 2011 at 8:19 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

Men’s Hair: Parted and Oiled

When it comes to Twenties hairstyles, all the attention goes to the women with their bobs and waves. But men had a distinctive hairstyle too, one with a slicked-back look that few would appreciate today. 

Many men wore their hair short, often parted (right or left, either side would do), longer on top than on the sides, and brushed back from the face. They kept it in place with lots of brilliantine or other perfumed oil.  

Film stars popularized the look. Here’s Rudolph Valentino, the heart-throb of millions. Another example (left) shows young Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who got his start in pictures at 14 because of his father’s fame. 

Published in: on May 15, 2011 at 12:47 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , ,

Mary Pickford and the Star Sapphire

While at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum recently, I visited the gems and minerals hall to see the Hope diamond. I was surprised to see the nearby exhibit of the Star of Bombay, an enormous blue star sapphire that was given to Mary Pickford by her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Mary donated it to the Smithsonian in 1981. (She died in 1979 at the age of 87.) The gem was discovered in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), so why isn’t it called the Star of Ceylon?