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.

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

Radio Was the Flip Side of Silent Movies*

The visual came first–silent movies. Audio came next–radio. One was pictures and no sound; the other, sound and no pictures. When they mated in 1927, sparks flew. Talkies were born. The combination spelled disaster for studios, theaters, and actors alike. Few actors survived the transition to talkies. Aside from Greta Garbo, almost none of the stars of the 1930s had been stars of silent film. No theaters did–all had to undergo expensive renovation for sound. Studios did not survive either. Entire sets were destroyed, new filming techniques replaced ones that had been around for decades, many studios went under. 

Garbo made the transition to talkies

It’s understandable that when television was invented, people thought the same thing would happen, that is, that television would destroy movies just as talkies had destroyed silent pictures. It didn’t. Television damaged movies–people went to the movies less often–but it didn’t destroy them. 

*Observation courtesy of Eileen Whitfield in “Pickford” (2007).

Published in: on October 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Makeup in the Twenties

During the decades prior to the Roaring Twenties, makeup was associated with actresses and prostitutes – professions many people considered identical. No self-respecting woman would wear makeup. The more daring might have cautiously applied a small amount that wouldn’t be noticed. Which rather defeats the purpose, don’t you think?

Ever heard of Maximilian Faktorowicz, the makeup artist who immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1904? Yes, you have. Like so many immigrants, simplified his name on arrival. He became Max Factor. Factor had worked with European ballet troupes and stage actors, but when film studios began moving to Hollywood in the 1910s, he gambled on moving to California to work with film actors. 

This was not as easy as it sounds, because traditional stage make up (grease paint) was too heavy to be used by motion picture actors. He had to invent his own products—at first, creams and powders—that would work for the film industry. His clients included most of the leading actresses and actors of the silent film era and early talkies, including Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Mary Pickford, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford. He opened his own beauty salon in Hollywood.

Not until 1927 did Max Factor begin to market his products nationally. By then, the prejudice against makeup was softening, thanks to silent screen pioneers like Mary Pickford and Clara Bow who were seen as respectable women. People credit Factor with coining the word “makeup” (which replaced the more formal “cosmetics”), but that word had been around since 1821, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I think it would be more accurate to say that he brought the word makeup into widespread usage.

I mention Max Factor briefly in my novel, so had to research his life and products, but found him to be a remarkable person.


One of the real characters I use in my Roaring Twenties mysteries is Gary Cooper, because I learned that he was in Hollywood during my time period, 1925. He was new to the business, having come south from his hometown of Helena, Montana at the age of 24. (Here’s what he looked like at that age.) Coincidentally, he grew up across the street from Myrna Loy, although she was several years younger so they didn’t play together as children. In later years, he and Myrna liked to joke that they had grown up on Fifth Avenue—then add that it was Fifth Avenue in Helena, not New York’s famous street.

“Coop,” as he was called even then, had some artistic talent and tried to make a living as an editorial cartoonist, to no avail. Reasoning that he “would rather starve where it was warm than to starve and freeze too,” he moved to Hollywood to try his luck in newspapers there. Instead, he went into “pictures.”

His good looks and ability to ride a horse landed him roles as an extra in a couple Westerns. At the time of my story, he has just changed his name from Frank Cooper to Gary Cooper, on the advice of an agent who felt that Gary had a rough, tough sound to it, like Gary, Indiana.

Here’s Coop in one of those 1925 silent roles—don’t blink, or you’ll miss it! He’s the man who meets the young lady at the train station, and again a minute later driving the car.

Published in: on September 18, 2010 at 9:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Valentino and Rambova Bigamy Scandal

Speaking of Valentino, there is, naturally, a major scandal attached to him as well. He was briefly jailed for bigamy. The press had a field day with the story.

The illegal marriage was between Natacha Rambova, a costume designer whose real name was Winifred Hudnut (I gotta admit, I’d change my name too if it were Winifred Hudnut), and Rudy Valentino, the popular silent screen heart-throb who was born in Italy Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antoguolla.

When the two met in 1921 on the set of “Uncharted Seas,” it was not love at first sight. According to Rambova, she thought Valentino was a goof-off and not very bright, as he kept trying to tell jokes and forgetting the punch line. Later she realized he was just lonely, and they began dating. A few months later, they moved in together.

Never mind the Roaring Twenties, this was still a big no-no, especially for movie stars in the public eye and especially because Valentino was already married. He got a divorce from first wife Jean Acker and took Rambova to Mexicali, Mexico, in May of 1922 to get married. But California law in those years required a one-year waiting period before remarrying, and the couple had not waited out the year. Perhaps Valentino didn’t know about the law; perhaps he thought he could safely ignore it. He could not.

He was picked up and jailed, briefly, for bigamy. Incredibly, his studio refused to bail him out, so several friends raised the bail money, and he was released. Where was Rambova during his arrest? In New York on studio business. She was on her way home, by train of course, when she heard the news of his arrest. Reporters were all over her when her train stopped in Chicago, but she refused to speak to them at all.

For the remainder of the year, the pair had live in separate apartments, with roommates, no less! They married again, legally this time, in March of 1923.

Read more about this fascinating feminist and the bigamy scandal at this excellent website.

Amazing Discovery in Faraway New Zealand

An American film preservationist on vacation to New Zealand unexpectedly learned about the existence of a cache of 75 American silent movies from the 1910s and 20s, languishing in a vault in the New Zealand Film Archives. What excites film historians is that many of these films are the only copies known to exist.

These fragile nitrate movies feature Twenties stars like Clara Bow and Mabel Normand and directors like John Ford. They are being preserved and returned to the National Film Preservation Foundation, an affiliate of the Library of Congress.

So how did they get into the vaults of the NZ Film Archives and why were they saved all these years? Seems distance and shipping costs worked in favor of the films. “We [in New Zealand] were probably, in most cases, the end of the distribution run so by the times the films got here, they had probably been forgotten about by their US distributors,” explained Steve Russell, a spokesman for the Archives. “They would have lain around for a while then have been picked up by projectionists, gone into private collections, before making their way to the Film Archive.”

Want to see a little of one of the lost-and-found movies? See the 2 ½ minute clip plus more about this story.

Music for Silent Films


        Did you see the obituary in this week’s New York Times for Rosa Rio? This remarkable musician started her career in the Roaring Twenties as a theater organist, providing the background music for silent films. Sometimes appropriate music was suggested; other times it was up to the organist to improvise. Imagine trying to watch the film, determine whether the mood was lighthearted, scary, menacing, romantic, or whatever, and then think of something to play to accompany those scenes, always with one eye on the screen so you could shorten or lengthen the music for as long as the scene continued . . . whew!

       Here’s what Rosa Rio herself had to say about her job, in an interview with NPR done about four years before her death.

       Well, in the old days, I didn’t have a chance to see it [the movie] in advance. We had the new film; we ran it always on Monday mornings, generally a one o’clock show. And I faked it through. Then I would run out and get my music, or get ideas that I’d write down as I played. And then the next show, I did a good job. The next show I did a better job. By the time you played three shows a day, seven days a week, at the end of the week I really had it down perfect. And that was the end. And then I’d start over, all over from Sunday night, Monday again.

        So, what did Rosa Rio play when the bad guy is tying the heroine to the train track and a train is coming? Listen to her  interview, done at NPR four years ago, where she plays a few samples.

        Ms. Rio thought she was out of business when the first talkies appeared. Instead she moved to radio, providing music for series like “The Shadow.” (She plays that theme during the NPR interview too.) When radio faded, she transferred her talents to television, playing the accompaniment for TV soap operas.

       Rosa Rio was a couple weeks shy of 108 when she passed away on May 13, 2010.



How the Fatty Arbuckle Scandal Affects Us Today

      Did you ever wonder why old movies were so comparatively free from violence, foul language, and sex? Why there was no blood on murdered people, why lovers kissed so chastely, why “My dear, I don’t give a damn” was a line that shocked audiences in 1939?

       An immediate outcome of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921 was the creation of a self-censorship board, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, later shortened to the Motion Picture Association of America. This was a “voluntary” system meant to clean up the pictures by keeping movies free from immorality and thus keeping the threat of government censorship at bay.

       Will Hays, its first director, remained in his position for 24 years. By 1930, his rules had crystallized into something known as the Hays Code. This lasted until the 1960s when it was replaced by the age-based rating system you know today: PG-13 and so forth.  

          You might like to read the Hays Code. It’s too long to reproduce in its entirety here, but I think you’ll enjoy skimming through some of the rules. The whole thing can found at


 General Principles

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Particular Applications

I. Crimes Against the Law
These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

1. Murder

  a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.

  b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.

  c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

2. Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.

  a. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.

  b. Arson must subject to the same safeguards.

  c. The use of firearms should be restricted to the essentials.

  d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented.

3. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented.

4. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.

II. Sex
The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.

2. Scenes of Passion

  a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.

  b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

  c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

3. Seduction or Rape

  a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.

  b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.

4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.

5. White slavery shall not be treated.

6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.

7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.

8. Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.

9. Children’s sex organs are never to be exposed.

III. Vulgarity
The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.

IV. Obscenity
Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.

V. Profanity
Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ – unless used reverently – Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

VI. Costume
1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.

3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.

4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

VII. Dances
1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

VIII. Religion
1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

IX. Locations
The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

X. National Feelings
1. The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.

2. The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.

XI. Titles
Salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used.

XII. Repellent Subjects
The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste:
1. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments for crime.
2. Third degree methods.
3. Brutality and possible gruesomeness.
4. Branding of people or animals.
5. Apparent cruelty to children or animals.
6. The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.
7. Surgical operations.