American Beauty

05 25 marie doro 3Today is the birthday of this lady, a long forgotten star of silent film called Marie Doro. She was born Marie Katherine Stewart in 1882, in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. Like most early film stars, she began her acting career on the stage. Also like most stage actresses, she began working in the chorus. By 1901, she was appearing in a play by David Belasco called ‘Naughty Anthony’. It doesn’t seem to have been one of his better plays and she appears to have been the best thing in it. She played a hosiery model who, in one scene, has put on a pair of silk stockings and is demonstrating their fit to three shocked Salvation Army women, when… a man walks in. It doesn’t sound like much to you and me, but in 1901, it was pretty scandalous.

In 1903 she was spotted by impresario Charles Frohman who took her to Broadway. In 1905 she travelled to London where she worked alongside William Gillette in a play called ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Gillette was the first man to play the role of the detective. I mentioned this play when I wrote about Charlie Chaplin back in April. The sixteen year old, then unknown, Chaplin also had a small part in the play. He still remembered seeing her for the first time when, years later, he wrote his autobiography. He said:

“She was so devastatingly beautiful that I resented her. I resented her delicate, pouting lips, her regular, white teeth, her adorable chin, her raven hair and dark brown eyes… But oh God, she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.”

And who can blame him? The photograph below was taken around 1902 by a Broadway photographer called Burr McIntosh. It’s a wonderful picture, she is indeed, radiant.05 25 marie doro 2 I was glad I managed to track down the name of the photographer. I only wish I could tell you who was responsible for her costume.

Ten years later, Marie and Charlie were both in Hollywood. Marie told a friend that she was a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin and would like to meet him. She had no idea that they had once acted together. When they were introduced he said: ‘But we’ve met before. You broke my heart. I was silently in love with you.’ She answered ‘How thrilling.’ He told her how he had timed exactly when she would leave her dressing room, just so he could meet her on the stairs and gulp ‘Good evening’.

Marie appeared in several plays alongside Gillette, including one he wrote himself called Clarice in which she had the title role. It is about a doctor and his young ward who are in love but neither knows the other’s feelings. There are some suggestions that Gillette wrote the play with her in mind. Frohman and Gillette exerted a strong influence on her development as an actress and she later admitted that she had been ‘hypnotised by them.’ She was rather typecast as the weak and pretty woman but people who knew her described her as very intelligent and funny. She was an something of an expert on the work of Shakespeare and on Elizabethan poetry.

After Frohman was killed in the sinking of the Lusitania she made a sideways move into cinema. She appeared in eighteen films all together, almost none of which survive. Old films were shot on cellulose nitrate film which tends to rot away. Either that or it spontaneously bursts into flames. It will carry on burning, even if you submerge it in water. Maybe 75 % of all American silent films are lost. The titles of her films are intriguing, I’d love to be able to show you a clip from ‘The Mysterious Princess’ orMidnight Gambols’, but I can’t. She does have the honour of having appeared in the first 3D film to be shown to a paying audience, in 1915. It was just a few test shots, but still, that’s quite a claim.

I can’t tell you a great deal about Marie Doro’s life. She married in 1915, was divorced quite soon after. She never married again. She never had any children. In the 1920s, she became disillusioned with Hollywood and left. Marie later made a few films in Italy and at least one in the UK. After returning to New York, she became increasingly reclusive and died in 1956, leaving $90,000 to the Actors Fund, which provides financial support for workers in the performing arts and enntertainment industry. Her life and career may be lost to us but, thanks to Burr McIntosh, we still have these lovely images…

05 25 marie doro 1

Silence is Golden

04 16 charlie chaplinToday is Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. He was born in Walworth, South London in 1889. His early years were very difficult. His parents were both music hall entertainers, neither provided a stable family home and they had separated by the time he was two. He, his elder half-brother, Sidney, and his mother, Hannah, lived in extreme poverty. He was admitted to the workhouse once at the age of seven and again at nine. After that, Hannah was admitted to a mental asylum and remained there for two months. Charlie and Sydney were sent to live with his father who had become an alcoholic. Their life with him was so bad that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children intervened.

Hannah was hospitalized again in 1903 and for a final time in 1905. She remained in care for the rest of her life. During the times she was well, she encouraged Charlie when he showed an interest in acting. She used to sit by the window and mimic passers-by and from her, he learned to express emotions with gestures and also how to study people. He first appeared on stage at the age of five. His mother was performing and he was watching from the wings. She was booed off and he was pushed on as a replacement. He remembered it going quite well. People laughed. By the time he was ten, he was performing with a clog-dancing troupe called ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’, despite being from nowhere near Lancashire.

At fourteen, he signed with a theatrical agency. He landed a successful role as Billy the page boy in a play about Sherlock Holmes which was touring the provinces. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the first person ever to play Sherlock Holmes on the stage. Gillette had also co-written the play with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Chaplin was Billy the page boy for two and a half years. After that he toured with a couple of companies developing his skills as a comic performer. In 1908 he joined Fred Karno‘s company, where his brother Sidney had been working for two years. By 1910, he was playing leading roles and was chosen as one of a group of performers who went on a tour of North America’s vaudeville circuit. He got on very well there. Reviewers described him as the best pantomime artist they had ever seen. When the troupe returned to England in June 1912, Chaplin felt a bit flat. When they returned to America in October for a second tour, he was offered a contract with Keystone Studios.

He wasn’t terribly happy with his first film, but for his second, he picked out the costume that would define him. A jacket that was too tight, trousers that were too baggy, a hat that was too small, shoes that were too big and a cane. He added the moustache as the studio were worried he looked too young. He thought it would make him look older without hiding his expressions. For Keystone, he produced short films at the rate of about one a 04 16 chaplin with dollweek and, by May 1914, he was also directing. After a year with Keystone, he moved to Essanay. Here, he developed his tramp character into a more gentle, romantic figure. A character people could sympathise with as well as laugh at. By 1915, everyone had gone crazy for Charlie Chaplin. There was Chaplin merchandise, comic strips and cartoons. Songs were written about him and he became the first international film star. Next, he moved to Mutual and then First National and in 1919, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D W Griffiths he formed United Artists. It was a company that allowed film makers to personally fund their own pictures, thus retaining complete creative control.

04 16 the kidChaplin made so many films, I can’t possibly mention them all. I’m very fond of ‘The Kid’ which he made between 1919 and 1920. In it, his famous tramp character becomes responsible for an abandoned baby. He probably drew on his own experiences of childhood poverty. There is a part where the child is taken off to an orphanage that it genuinely heartbreaking, especially when you realise he probably knew what that felt like. His co-star, five-year-old Jackie Coogan, was also a vaudeville performer. When he grew up, he went on to play ‘Uncle Fester’ in the 1960’s TV series ‘The Addams Family’.

04 16 the gold rushChaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’, which was released in 1925, made a strong impression on me in the days when the BBC used to run old black and white films in the afternoons. It is set in the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. His character being reduced by starvation to eating his own boot is probably one of my earliest film memories. He manages to make the scene sad and funny at the same time and his character always remains kind and upbeat, no matter how life treats him.

Chaplin had made his name in silent film and he resisted the coming of sound to the industry for a long time. His character worked through facial expressions and through physical performance. He didn’t think it would work with sound and I think he was right. His film ‘City Lights’, released in 1931, had sound but nobody spoke. Or if they did, they spoke through a kazoo. ‘Modern Times’ released in 1936, almost had dialogue, but it didn’t really work and he abandoned the idea. Because it deals with the plight of workers in an industrialised society, it was less well received that his previous films. Not everyone liked the political message.

In 1939/40 he made his first proper ‘talkie’, ‘The Great Dictator’ in which he parodied Adolph Hitler. He played both the dictator, ‘Adenoid Hynkel’ and a persecuted Jewish barber. The similarity between Hitler and Chaplin’s tramp had been remarked upon. Both had a toothbrush moustache. Both Chaplin and Hitler had risen to prominence from poverty, and they had been born only four days apart. He was haunted by their similarities. One a madman, the other a comic. What if it had been the other way around? I’ve read mixed accounts of how the film was received, one that it went down well in allied countries, another that people didn’t like the speech at the end. Some mark it as the beginning of his decline in popularity. It is a wonderful speech which is always worth revisiting, but it seems particularly poignant in the current world climate. You can find it here.

Chaplin’s 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, had quite an anti-capitalist message and he wound up leaving the United States after being accused of communist sympathies. The last film he made in the US, ‘Limelight’, was very autobiographical, alluding to his life with his parents and to his failing popularity. It is also the only film in which he appears alongside my other favourite silent film star, Buster Keaton. The film was boycotted in America and was not widely shown until 1972, when it received an Oscar for its music score, which was also written by him.

Chaos and Custard

03 26 fred karnoToday is the birthday of Fred Karno, an acrobat turned theatre impresario who helped launch the careers of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. He is credited with popularising the custard pie in the face gag. He was born Frederick John Westcott in Exeter, Devon in 1866. Shortly after that his family moved to Nottingham. Fred took up an apprenticeship as a plumber, but when he went to do some work at a gymnasium, he was so taken with it that he signed up for instruction. Fred, it turned out, was a natural athlete. Then he met a travelling juggler and wire-walker named Alvene and begged to be taken on as his assistant. It was around that time that the plumber to whom he was apprenticed died and Fred took to the life of a travelling performer.

He worked in circuses, pantomime, music hall and at what he felt was every fair in the country. It was a hard life and he soon found himself in London hanging out at ‘poverty corner’ opposite Waterloo Station where theatrical agents knew they could always find out of work performers in need of employment. To supplement his income, Fred kept a glazier’s kit at home. He and a partner would walk the streets shouting ‘winders a mend’. 03 26 the kidIf there were no windows to be mended, he was not above sending his partner ahead to break a few. Charlie Chaplin would one day use this stunt in his film ‘The Kid’.

His music hall career really took off when he and two other acrobats were asked to fill in for a troupe called ‘The Three Carnoes’. They were asked to stay on and, as no one realised they weren’t the real Carnoes, they named themselves ‘The Three Karnoes’. Fred began performing as Fred Karno and in 1895 he began to introduce music hall audiences to short mime sketches that were re-workings of his circus acts. Fred had introduced slapstick to the stage. He drew on his knowledge of clowning from his circus days and, by 1901, he had four action-packed sketches. They included ‘Jail Birds’, where prisoners played tricks on the warders and ‘Early Birds’, about a small man who beats a huge East End ruffian. Four sketches might not seem like very much but in those days, it was possible to perform the same material for years. He became so well known that people would come to see a show just because it had his name on it. This meant that he was able to give breaks to unknown young actors. Two of these were Arthur Jefferson (who would later become Stan Laurel) and Charlie Chaplin.

Fred was a master of publicity, it was a trick that he learned from theatre manager Arthur Jefferson senior, the father of Stan Laurel. Arthur had a portable zoo cage with a lion inside that was mauling a dummy which he exhibited around Glasgow. For a different show, he sent round a hansom cab with a man inside who had a dummy knife sticking out of him. For his sketch Jail Birds, Fred bought a Black Maria (the name of a police vehicle used 03 26 keystone copsto transport prisoners) and decorated it with streamers proclaiming ‘Fred Karno’s Jail Birds’. He drove it about filled with actors dressed as policemen, warders and convicts. Sometimes the convicts would ‘escape’, particularly during rush hour, and be chased about. Echoes of this stunt can be seen in the antics of The Keystone Cops in early silent movies. It was the Keystone Studio that first signed Charlie Chaplin.

His name became synonymous with anything that was chaotic and badly organised. There was even a popular First World War song called ‘Fred Karno’s Army’. But Fred trained his actors carefully, not only in the art of slapstick, but also showed them how they could gain the audiences sympathy. He believed that the best laughs came when a character didn’t know what was going to happen to him but the audience did. Which is where the custard pie in the face thing comes in.

03 26 fred karno's fun factoryWhen I first wrote about Fred Karno a year ago, who I had then never heard of, I discovered an amazing coincidence. He bought two houses in Camberwell and knocked them into one. It was his home, his office, a rehearsal space and a warehouse for theatrical props and costumes. He called it his ‘Fun Factory’. This is a photograph taken there in 1907. In the 1980s, the building was turned into artists’ studios and I found out that my friend Andrew used to have a studio there. In 2008, they all recreated this photograph, you can see it here.

Elementary

07 24 william gilletteToday I want to tell you about William Gillette, who was born in Hartford, Connecticut on this day in 1853. He was an actor who quickly realised that he could earn a lot more money if he was also a playwright and director as well. Luckily he was really good at all three.

He is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Although he was not the very first to play the part on stage, he was the first to do so with the approval of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1893, Doyle had killed off his famous character at the Reichenbach Falls but found that he missed the income that his stories provided. So he started looking at the possibility of putting Holmes on the stage. Doyle wrote a play and approached a couple of people about the leading rôle including Henry Irving but he failed to engage their interest. Reading between the lines, it might not have been very good. Eventually it was sent to Broadway theatre producer Charles Frohman who suggested that Gillette would be the man to help with a re-write.

Doyle agreed on condition that the Holmes character should have no love interest. “Trust me” replied Gillette. At that point he had not read a single word of the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Gillette began to work on the script whilst in San Francisco touring another of his plays. Telegrams flew back and forth between the two which show that Doyle had either got over his misgivings or just given up trying to get his way. Gillette writes “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle replies “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.”

It was Gillette’s play that firmly established many of the props we associate with Holmes character. The magnifying glass, the violin and the syringe are all drawn from the Canon. The famous deerstalker hat had appeared in the illustrations of Sydney Padget in the original Strand Magazine publications. The curved pipe was Gillette’s own addition along with the really fancy dressing-gown that you see in this picture. He also introduced the phrase: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow” which would become “Elementary, my dear Watson.” So when we think about what an archetypal Sherlock Holmes would look like it is really Gillette’s vision we are seeing, not Conan Doyle’s.

During the whole writing process Gillette and Doyle had not met in person. When they finally met, much to Doyle’s surprise, Gillette alighted form his train dressed as Holmes and entirely in character. He whipped out a magnifying glass and examined Doyle’s face closely before declaring “Unquestionably an author!” The two became lifelong friends.

Gillette’s play, in which of course he took the leading rôle, was a huge success and was performed many times in both America and Britain. He played the detective around 1,300 times. He even starred in a 1916 silent movie which was believed to be lost until quite recently. It is likely that it was this success and the friendship between the two men that lead to Conan Doyle reviving his famous character in later years. In a story called The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, Doyle includes the character of Billy the Buttons (a page boy) who was first named by Gillette in his play.

In a 1903 London production of the play, the character of Billy was played by a very young Charlie Chaplin which I mentioned in a couple of earlier tumblr posts back in April and May.

Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes was so popular that he had great difficulty in retiring. He began a farewell tour in 1929 aged 76. It didn’t finish until 1932. His success did allow him to build himself a pretty splendid castle for himself in Connecticut with 24 rooms and it’s own miniature railway. You can read about it here, or even visit if you’re in the area.