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.

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.”

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.

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–“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. 


Mary Pickford’s Birthday

220px-Mary_Pickford_1916April 8 is Mary Pickford’s 122nd birthday. Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada, she lost her father, an alcoholic, at an early age. She and her younger sister and brother were raised by their mother, Charlotte, a fiercely determined woman who pushed all three of her children onto the stage and into silent pictures. Mary’s siblings, Lottie and Jack, became stars on her coattails–she was the international superstar of her era, the best known and best loved female face in the world. Yet she was not “just” an actress. She was a producer and the co-founder of United Artists–at a time when everyone thought actors didn’t have the brains to run a business. It was said that she had “a man’s head on her shoulders”–a rare compliment in that highly sexist era.

pickford-mary-roseIn my upcoming mystery, SILENT MURDERS, the setting moves from vaudeville to silent pictures. It is 1925, the height of the silent film era, and my protagonist, Jessie Beckett, finds a job as a lowly assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, one of the better known but studios in Hollywood but not one of the largest. I introduce Mary Pickford, who is about 33 then and still playing children in her movies; Jack and Lottie play supporting roles in my story as well. I learned a lot about Mary Pickford–and her family–from reading a couple biographies and her own autobiography. And after writing her into several mysteries, I feel as if I know her quite well. Isn’t she pretty? But she was not just a pretty face; she was a genuinely kind person, a tough boss but always kind to her employees. She used to say that no one worked for her, they all worked with  her. 

So Happy Birthday, Mary Pickford!

Only Known Copy of Mary Pickford Film Discovered in Barn

pickford-mary-roseIt sounds like an improbable movie script–the only known copy of a very old silent movie is discovered by a carpenter in a barn in New Hampshire. But it’s true. The 1911 film starred Mary Pickford and her first husband, Owen Moore, a handsome alcoholic who was soon to be eclipsed by his wife’s fame and divorced for Douglas Fairbanks.









The Library of Congress has restored “Their First Misunderstanding.” The film is 10 minutes long–typical in that era before feature-length films were made. The first minute was missing, but the rest was in good condition, considering its age and where it had been stored for the past few decades. One film historian said that 90 percent of all films made before 1930 are gone, so this addition is a treasure. It seems that the barn was once part of a summer camp for boys, and the theory is that the film was something shown to the campers for entertainment. 

See a clip:

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  
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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. 

Miniature Golf Explodes during the Twenties

Sure, miniature golf existed before the Twenties, in a few places where golf courses offered a smaller version for ladies. These were on grass, like the real thing, and involved playing with a putter and perhaps a short driver. It was called various things: garden golf, par 3, and pitch and putt.

But what we think of today as miniature golf, with the fake grass carpet and fanciful props, began in the Twenties when a golf fanatic named Thomas Fairbairn developed artificial green that made it possible to put a miniature course just about anywhere, including rooftops. (One source claims there were more than 150 rooftop courses in New York City by the end of the Twenties.)

Mary Pickford dedicated a Wilshire miniature golf course in Hollywood in the Twenties. Maybe it looked like this one in Rochester, NY, that claims to be the oldest miniature golf course in America. It was designed in 1929 and opened in 1930. I guess they were able to prove it, because it earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. 

Published in: on May 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Traveling with Vaudeville Performers

For vaudeville players, traveling was a constant struggle. These performers rarely stayed more than a week in one place, so they were forever on the move, catching a train to the next town on the circuit. But it wasn’t as easy as packing a suitcase and hopping the train. Performers had a lot of baggage to schlep around–trunks full of costumes (which they usually made themselves), makeup (which they also make themselves, since this was before the days of commercial makeup), wigs, and essential stage props. Those who were unable to bring scenic backdrops and stage props with them had to rely on whatever the theater had for backdrops and scrounge for whatever furniture or props their play required. 

They stayed at hotels near the station and boarding houses because they were cheap and because reputable hotels wouldn’t allow actors as guests. They were adept at sleeping on the train–most planned their travels to include an overnight train ride to save the dollar for the hotel. Vaudeville players would try to leave the theater late Saturday night after the last performance and arrive in the next city on Sunday morning, ready to start a new week at a new theater.  Theater actors had it worse–they might stay just one or two nights in a town before moving.

Obviously, children of these families didn’t attend school. Some were functionally illiterate; others, like Mary Pickford, taught themselves to read from the billboards alongside the train tracks.  Constantly on the move, they were out of reach of truant officers, who were ineffectual anyway.  

Vaudeville actors, like all actors, were applauded on stage and despised off stage. They faced overt discrimination everywhere, from hotels that would not rent them rooms to restaurants who turned them away at the door. Church congregations scorned them and often refused to perform marriages or funerals. They were assumed to be petty criminals, prostitutes, shoplifters, con artists, thieves, and beggars, and in fact, some were. 

Published in: on December 10, 2011 at 8:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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Touring Theater vs. Vaudeville

Touring theater is not vaudeville. I originally thought they were the same thing, but as I’ve learned more about the two, I realize they are very different forms of entertainment.










Vaudeville performances were variety shows consisting of about nine acts, almost always including music, singing, dancing, comedy, animal acts, and juggling or acrobatic acts. Vaudeville shows generally lasted one week, then the performers moved on to the next town to a different lineup.

Touring theater consisted of full-length plays, sometimes musicals, but they were often one-night stands. During the first part of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of touring theater companies working in the United States, most pretty poor quality. The height of success for an actor was to get a role in a Broadway play. That provided some stability and a stationary lifestyle, at least for a few months or as long as the play lasted.  

Silent film producers got their actors and actresses from vaudeville and the theater. Making films was originally considered a big step down from the theater stage, even for those touring in second-rate companies, like Mary Pickford. Little Mary, a teenager, was so mortified that her mother made her work for a New York film studio that she would sneak in and out of the studio so no one would see her. But the family needed money desperately and Little Mary, or Our Mary, as she would later be known, was the breadwinner. So she went slumming in the silent pictures, never imagining that they would bring her international fame and immense fortune.

Published in: on November 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Over-the-Top Acting Style

Early silent film actors seem so melodramatic to us today–really over-the-top. But they were performing to expectations of their time, following a well-known code that matched gestures with emotions. Certain exaggerated gestures conveyed particular emotions, and freezing the gesture for a couple seconds indicated heightened emotional intensity. For example, to show great despair and agony, an actress fell to her knees and stretched her arms up toward the sky as if imploring the heavens for intercession.  One hand on the heart indicated a broken heart. To show distress, the actor put the back of his hand across his forehead and lifted his chin.  

It was Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart” and the most famous actress of her day, who pioneered a different, more realistic style of acting in the 1910s. She toned down the melodramatic gestures in favor of facial expressions. That required closeup shots, something early silent films avoided. The idea in early films was to use the camera like the eyes of a person in the audience and show the actors’ entire bodies, head to toe, just as you’d see when you watched a stage show. 

Closeups also required more subtle, natural makeup, something else Mary Pickford pioneered.

Published in: on September 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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