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)  
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You’re Invited to a Roaring Twenties Party

 

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To all my readers within striking distance of Richmond, Virginia, please come to a Roaring Twenties party to celebrate the publication of my second mystery, SILENT MURDERS. There will be beverages for both “wets” and “dries,” hors d’oeuvres, period music, Charleston lessons, a lecture on silent movies (short, I promise!), a screening of the 1925 film  “Son of Zorro,” and a book signing. Last year’s part for THE IMPERSONATOR was a blast, and this one promises to be even better. Sponsored by the Library of Virginia and the Art Deco Society, whose members usually “dress to kill” in Twenties attire. (I don’t have a real flapper dress, but I have one that’s kinda flapperish that I’m planning to wear.)

Location: the Library of Virginia, 9th and Broad Street, Richmond

6:00-8:00

Wednesday, Oct. 15

free party

free parking below the library

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And here’s the WTVR interview from Oct. 10 where I talk about the books. I don’t think an Oscar nomination is forthcoming, but I did my best.

http://wtvr.com/2014/10/10/travel-back-to-the-roaring-20s-with-this-novel/

Published in: on October 11, 2014 at 5:42 pm  Comments (1)  
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Hooray! Cover art for SILENT MURDERS is here!

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do. So I’m pleased that I’m pleased with the cover for my next book, SILENT MURDERS, which will be released on September 23.

The art director for St.Martin’s/Minotaur has been working on the cover for some time, and I thought you’d like to see how the process works. Here’s the first attempt. I’m fortunate that my publisher listens to its authors when designing their book covers–many (most?) do not. I wondered about the use of denim as a background for the title–blue jeans in the 1920s didn’t seem to fit. It was meant to look like the hardcover below the torn book jacket, but to me it said “blue jeans.” And the face was a little cheesy, too innocent, too modern, too much like a romance novel, which SILENT MURDERS certainly is not.

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The second attempt was more authentic and more interesting. In fact, they chose to use an actual  photograph from the mid-1920s. This woman looks less “ingenue,” more mysterious. I liked it very much, but thought it was drab. I wondered if they had designed it that way on purpose to mimic the black and white silent movies of the era, which form the backdrop for the story. But still, I asked if they couldn’t inject a little color. 

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Third time’s the charm, right? Here are the final results–I think it’s terrific. Now all I have to do is wait until September to see the finished product.  

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Published in: on June 6, 2014 at 8:49 am  Comments (8)  
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The Sheik by E. M. Hull

220px-EdithMaudeHull1To entertain myself on a long train trip this week, I brought a copy of E. M. Hull’s THE SHEIK to read. This is the shockingly steamy and famous romance novel by the British author, Mrs. Edith M. Hull (who probably needed to use initials to disguise the fact that she was a woman), published in 1919 in Britain and in 1921 in the U.S. It was a huge seller, but became even more so when it was made into a movie starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921, catapulting him to international fame. Because the second in my Roaring Twenties series SILENT MURDERS is set in the mid-Twenties in silent-movie Hollywood, I mention Rudy several times. He has a few cameo appearances. In the fourth book, which I am writing now, I mention the book itself. So I thought I’d better read the thing for myself. I wanted to see what constituted “shocking” in the 1920s.

It was hard coming across a copy. The library doesn’t carry such old books, nor do bookstores. I got a very old, used copy of a paperback from paperbackswap.com, so fragile that the pages kept crumbling as I turned them! 

220px-The_Sheik_with_Agnes_Ayres_and_Rudolph_Valentino,_movie_poster,_1921If you like romance novels, this is one you should read, if for no other reason than it started the craze for desert romances. It uses language we consider offensive today, for example, all dark-skinned people including Arabs are referred to as niggers, while avoiding anything considered offensive then, such as damn or hell. To note that the story seems trite is like saying that Shakespeare used lots of cliches. Hull was the first. Legions of romance writers followed her example and wrote similar stories in a similar vein. Her story involves a rich English noblewoman who is kidnapped and raped by a powerful sheik. She hates him. Then she loves him. He hates her; then he loves her. Happy ending in the desert wilderness. Most amusing is the kicker: he’s not a real Arab!!! (Of course not, no English girl can be in love with a dark-skinned barbarian!) The sheik is really an English lord, raised in the desert by Arabs and tanned by the sun. Made me think of  Tarzan, who similarly turns out to be the son of an English nobleman, raised by apes in the jungle. 

What is fascinating, to me at least, is the language and the way the story unfolds. For young women of this era, independence is not a virtue. Diana can only be happy when the sheik “tames” her, wrings all the spirit out of her, humiliates her, and makes her his slave. Then, she find true happiness. Here’s a paragraph so you can see for yourself:

Son of the SheikShe looked after him, as he went through the curtains, with a long, sobbing sigh. She was paying a heavy price for her happiness, but she would have paid a heavier one willingly. Nothing mattered now that he was not angry any more. She knew what her total submission meant: it was an end to all individualism, a complete self-abnegation, an absolute surrender to his wishes, his moods, and his temper. And she was content that it should be so, her love was prepared to endure whatever he might put upon her. Nothing that he could do could alter that, and nothing should make her own her love. She had hidden it from him, and she would hide it from him–cost what it might. Though he did not love her, he wanted her still; she had read that in his eyes five minutes ago, and she was happy even for that. 

The silent movie, and its sequel, Son of the Sheik, were wildly popular, yet many fathers and husbands forbade their daughters and wives from seeing it. Too sensuous for impressionable women–although the rape is never shown or mentioned.  Stories abound of females fainting in the theater during the movie. You can see why I’ve enjoyed learning about this book and movie, and why I’ve mentioned it in the book I’m writing now. 

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’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!