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…

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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.

Dystopia

01 10 robot metropolisOn this day in 1927, Fritz Lang’s film ‘Metropolis’ premièred at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin. Metropolis is a hugely important film in the history of science fiction. Unfortunately, as it’s still under copyright, there aren’t a lot of images I can show you. However, I feel almost certain that, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have seen stills from it elsewhere. I can show you this robot though and you will probably recognise its influence on C-3PO in Star Wars.

Metropolis is set in the year 2026, not so far away now. It shows us an urban dystopia where the rich live in a futuristic city that is powered by workers who toil all day at huge machines and are forced to live underground. I don’t want to spend too long on the plot. It would take a long time and it isn’t really the film’s strong point. Basically, Freder, the son of the man who runs the city falls in love with a working class prophetess, Maria, who wants to bring both sides of the society peacefully together. There’s a bad man, who has the wonderful name of Rotwang, with a robot and he uses it to create a double of Maria, who causes all sorts of trouble. She incites the workers to destroy their machines, which causes their underground city to flood, threatening the lives of their children. Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff about mistaken identity but the right Maria (bad robot Maria) gets burned at the end. The good Maria, Freder and a splendid fellow called Josaphat save all the children and everyone is very sorry, except Rotwang who falls off a roof.

Although it is now considered one of the greatest films of the silent era, and pioneering in the genre of science fiction, not everyone shared this opinion at the time. The New York Times called it: “A technical marvel with feet of clay.” HG Wells was similarly unimpressed. He thought Lang had failed to appreciate that the point of machines was to free people from drudgery, not to make their lives harder. He thought it was a silly film. Even Fritz Lang wasn’t that keen on it once it was finished, but there may be other reasons for that. The book on which it was based was written by his then partner, Thea von Harbou, who became, in later years, a very enthusiastic Nazi. Also the Nazis loved the film, which could have been another reason he grew to dislike it.

However, all that said, Metropolis is indeed a technical marvel. It was one of the first feature-length films and in its original version ran for 152 minutes. Its cast was largely unknown and Brigitte Helm, who played both Maria and the robot, had no previous film experience and was only nineteen years old. There are some glorious sets designed by Erich Kettelhut, Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht. The huge machinery is amazing and the very utilitarain underground workers city is contrasted by the soaring Art Deco city above ground. There is a dark, gothic cathedral and Rotwang’s house and laboratory are different again. Special effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created pioneering special effects for the film, including one which was named after him. Parts of the city were built in miniature and the Schüfftan process uses mirrors so make it seem as though the actors are occupying the tiny sets. It was a technique that was widely used in the first half of the twentieth century. Although it has now largely been replaced by green screen, it was used as recently as 2003 in ‘Lord of the Rings: The return of the King.’

Another triumph was the robot’s costume. It was made over a life cast of the actresses body and, when it was realised that the original plan of using beaten copper would be far too heavy, sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff happened upon plastic wood filler. He found he could roll it flat and drape it over the cast, then cut it to make a sort of armour. He then sprayed it with a mixture of resin and bronze powder. Although it allowed for a little movement, it was still very difficult to wear. Brigitte Helm was terribly scratched and pinched by it, despite many attempts by the stage hands to file down all the sharp edges. People felt so sorry for her that they kept posting coins through the slots in her costume which she used to buy chocolate in the canteen. During the transformation scene, she fainted because it took so long and she couldn’t breathe properly. Brigitte couldn’t really see why it had to be her inside the costume at all, it could be anyone. No one would even know. Lang’s answer was that he would know.

Brigitte wasn’t the only one to suffer during the production. It took over a year to film and Lang made them repeat many of the scenes over and over. By the time Gustav Fröhlich, who played Freder, had spent two days throwing himself at the feet of Brigitte, he could barely stand. Spare a thought also for the five hundred child extras, who were from the poorest parts of Berlin. During the scenes when the underground city floods, they spent two weeks struggling in a pool of water that was intentionally kept rather too cold by the director.

As for the famous robot transformation scene that was so difficult for Brigitte, it isn’t clear, even now exactly how it was done. The circular lights that move up and down over the robot were not added afterwards, as they would be today, but filmed directly into the camera. It definitely seems to have involved circular neon lights, probably moved up and down with invisible wires, and putting the film through the camera many times.

Metropolis is a visually beautiful film, if a little slow by today’s standards. It has been much cut about both to make it shorter and to get rid of some of the elements in the original that were not liked. For example, it was all a bit communist for an American audience. The original cut was thought to be lost, but an uncut version was found in Argentina. It has suffered rather over the years but has been restored and an almost complete version was released in 2010. It’s been interesting to watch this film again knowing about all the inventive techniques and the difficulties everyone had to put up with just to get it made. The actors must have felt, at times, as though they were really living in a city that was ruled over by an uncaring despot.

Magic of Cinema

12 08 george meliesToday is the birthday of Georges Méliès who was born in 1861 in Paris. He was an illusionist and film maker and, as I mentioned yesterday, he bought the theatre that once belonged to the illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. He was always interested in art and was often in trouble at school for drawing in his notebooks and textbooks. He made a puppet theatre when he was ten and, by the time he was in his teens, he was making some quite complicated marionettes. He first discovered his passion for stage magic whilst working in London. There he visited the Egyptian Hall which was run by the illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne.

When he returned to Paris in 1885, he continued his interest and began to take lessons from a magician whilst working in his father’s factory. When his father retired, three years later, Méliès sold his share in the family business and bought the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. It was a beautiful theatre and came equipped with lighting, levers, trapdoors and several automata. But most of the tricks and illusions they provided were out of date. Méliès set about inventing new ones. In the next nine years he came up with more that thirty. He introduced comedy into his performances. One of his best was the ‘Recalcitrant Decapitated Man’ in which a professor’s head would be cut off whilst he was making a speech. The head would continue talking until it was returned to his body. As well as inventing the tricks, Méliès was also writer, director and costume designer. He also staged pantomimes, automaton performances and magic lantern shows.

Then, in 1895, he attended a demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph. He immediately fell in love with the new medium. He really wanted to buy a camera, but the Lumière brothers weren’t selling. So he bought himself a projector from London and managed to adapt it so it could also be used as a film camera. The film also had to come from London and, as there were no film processing laboratories, he learned how to develop and print the films himself. He began making his first short films in 1896. There is one about a man who is attacked by a giant bedbug called ‘A Terrible Night.’ It’s only about a minute long, but already you can see his flair for props. Around this time, the Lumière brothers had decided to concentrate their work on serious documentary films. This left Méliès free to corner the market in something a bit more fanciful, which was what he was really interested in.

12 08 melies' studioMéliès began to experiment with, and sometimes invent, special effects that could only be created on film. He said in his memoirs, that it began when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. He found his film showed a bus that suddenly turned into a hearse and a woman who turned into a man. He had discovered the ‘stop trick’. It wasn’t long before he built himself a film studio, just outside Paris in Montreuil. His stage was in a building made entirely of glass to maximise the light and it was made in the same dimensions as his theatre. He also had a shed for dressing rooms and a separate hanger for making scenery. His scenery is beautifully theatrical, we love it.

12 08 le diable au couventHis new interest in film didn’t mean he gave up his work at the theatre. Méliès was a busy man. He would be at his film studio at 7.00 am, spent ten hours building sets and props, finish at 5.00 pm, get changed, go to his theatre in Paris for 6.00 pm for meetings, have a bit of dinner and be back at the theatre in time for the show at 8.00. He would spend Fridays and Saturdays filming and on Sundays and holidays there would be film screenings at his theatre that went on until 11.30 pm.

He made seventy-eight films in 1896, the following year he made fifty-two. By then he had pretty much all the genres covered. He had made documentaries, historical films, dramas, magic tricks, fairy tales and even a few advertisements. He also made a couple of more risqué films. The only one that survives is ‘After the Ball’ in which a woman gets undressed, steps into a tub and is bathed by her maid.

In 1898, he made fewer films, but they were more elaborate. He had discovered the tricks of running the film through the camera backwards, and running unexposed film through several times to create multiple exposures, such as in ‘The Four Troublesome Heads’. In 1899, he made a version of Cinderella, which was his first film with multiple scenes. It was hugely popular all over Europe and also in the United States. Thomas Edison, who is pretty much the villain of this blog, did not enjoy the foreign competition and tried to ban them. But then he figured out how to just make pirate copies instead.

12 08 one man bandIn 1900, he made ‘The One-Man Band’ in which he plays seven different versions of himself at the same time and in 1901 he made a film about the wife-murdering Bluebeard, which is well worth a watch, not only for the brilliant scenery and props, but also the way the evil Bluebeard is impaled on a sword and forced to watch his dead wives resurrected. In 1902, he made ‘A Trip to the Moon’, which we have discussed elsewhere. Georges Méliès directed over 500 films between 1896 and 1913 so it would be impossible to discuss them all, but his 1905 film, ‘Le Diable Noir‘ is one of my favourites.

But his way with cinema gradually fell out of fashion and he also lost a lot of money and creative control of his work, this was partly due to Edison and other larger film companies. Then the First World War happened and his film studio was taken over for an army hospital and the French military confiscated 400 of his films and melted them down for the silver they contained and also the celluloid, which was used to make boot heels. In 1923 his theatre was torn down and his film company taken over by Pathé. He burned all his remaining films. By the mid 1920s, he was scratching a living selling sweets on the station at Montparnasse. But several journalists had begun to research his work and in 1929 there was a gala retrospective of his work. Méliès said in was one of the most brilliant moments of his life. In 1932, the Cinema Society found him a place at the film industry retirement home in Orly. Although he never made another film, he continued to draw, write and advise younger film directors until the end of his life.

Gone In 2.11 Seconds

10 14 louis le princeThe more I look at the very early history of film, the more difficult it is to pin down to a single event. The story of it’s birth is full of people, now little known, who came up with different devices and methods for shooting and projecting a moving image. A few of them disappeared into obscurity because they ended up selling their patents to others. Some just wound up in a dead end, could develop their ideas no further and were forgotten. There seems to have been a lot of squabbling and a lot of legal cases. Probably the strangest story I’ve come across is that of Louis le Prince, who simply disappeared.

Le Prince filmed what is considered to be the oldest surviving piece of motion footage on this day in 1888. It was shot at the home of his in-laws in Roundhay, Leeds. The restored footage lasts slightly over two seconds and features his mother-in-law, Sarah Whitley, Joseph Whitely, his son, Adolphe le Prince and a lady called Harriet Hartley. They are walking around in a sunny garden. It was shot on a camera of le Prince’s own design on film that was backed with paper rather than celluloid which was made by Eastmann of Eastmann Kodak. His mother-in-law died ten days after this film was shot so viewing it must have been a really weird experience for everybody.

Louis had learned about photography as a boy from a friend of his father’s, Louis Daguerre. He moved to Leeds in 1861 to work in the Whitley’s factory, a brass foundry. It was work that also took him to the United States in 1881. This was where he first began to experiment with moving photographs.

The film ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’, along with another short film, ‘Traffic on Leeds Bridge’ and fragments of two others are all that remains of le Prince’s work. This is because Louis and his personal effects disappeared during a train journey in France in 1890. No one knows what happened. Louis was just about to patent his combined camera and projector in the UK and after that, he planned a trip to America to promote it. His brother saw him off at the station in Dijon but when the train arrived in Paris, he just wasn’t there. Neither was his luggage. No one but his brother saw him at the station. No one remembered seeing him on the train. No one noticed anything odd during the journey at all. Le Prince had just vanished. He was declared dead in 1897. In 2003 someone turned up a photograph of a drowning victim from the Paris police archives dated 1890 which looks a bit like le Prince.

There are several theories about what happened. Some suggest suicide, others fratricide. His family suspected that it had something to do with Edison who later tried to claim sole rights for the invention of the moving picture camera. Louis’s son Adolphe actually appeared as a witness in a court case brought by Mutoscope against Edison in 1898, to prove he was not the sole inventor. Adolphe wanted to show his father’s cameras as evidence, but in the end he was not allowed to do so.

As I frequently look at achievements in early cinema I often find things that Edison has tried to swoop in and take the credit for. It is beginning to feel as though, if this blog has a villain, it’s Edison. He was a pretty driven guy with a lot of money behind him, but I certainly hope he wasn’t capable of murder.

Fall Guy

10 04 buster keatonToday is the birthday of Buster Keaton. He was born in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas. He didn’t live there, his parents were just passing through. They were both vaudeville performers and his father, Joe Keaton, was part owner, along with Harry Houdini, of a travelling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. Buster was christened Joseph, but was given the nickname Buster by Houdini at the age of eighteen months after he fell downstairs without hurting himself.

10 04 the three keatonsBy the age of two, Buster was appearing alongside his parents on stage. By four, he was on a salary and they had become ‘The Three Keatons’. Their act was an extraordinarily violent one. Buster played the part of a child who goaded his father by disobeying him mimicking him and generally getting in his way. In response, his father would kick him all around the stage and throw him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, even into the audience. Buster had a suitcase handle sewn into the back of his costume to make him easier to throw. By the time he was seven or eight their act was known as ‘The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.’ There was a great deal of concern about the treatment Buster received on stage and his parents were frequently arrested and accused of child abuse. But Buster had learned how to take a fall and was rarely injured. He was able to show the authorities that he had no bruises or broken bones. In fact he enjoyed being thrown around. He said at first he laughed as his father tossed him through the air, but he soon noticed that this drew fewer laughs from the audience. He got a much better response if he remained stone-faced and stoic about the whole thing. This is probably where he first acquired the deadpan expression for which he was later famous.

Although the act was fun for Buster in his childhood, it became less so as he grew older. His father began to drink a great deal which made him volatile and unpredictable both on stage and off. When he was twenty-one he and his mother, Myra, left Joe and moved to New York. Buster worked for a little while on stage in New York, but one day he went along with a friend to Roscoe Arbuckle’s new movie studio on East 48th Street. He immediately landed a part in Roscoe’s film ‘The Butcher Boy’ as ‘man buying molasses’. Straight away Buster was fascinated by everything about film. That night he took one of the cameras home, took it all apart to see how it worked and put in back together again before morning.

Buster became part of the regular cast. He made lots of two reelers with Roscoe and soon became co-director with him. In 1920 their producer, Joe Schenck, moved Arbuckle into feature length films and gave Buster his own production unit. He quickly began to make his own feature length films and, although he had a team of writers, the best gags were usually his. His best ideas often involved dangerous stunts which Buster would perform himself. In one of his most famous scenes the entire side of a two story house falls on him. He survives because he is directly below a single open window in the façade. The stunt required him to be standing in exactly the right spot. With only a few inches of clearance on either side, it required precision and nerves of steel. You can see the clip here. He doesn’t even flinch. That façade weighed two tons.

10 04 the generalHis most famous and now most critically acclaimed film ‘The General’ was not especially well received at the time. It was an epic and extremely expensive film which was based on an actual incident during the Civil War. Some thought it was a bit too serious, it was not the lightweight comedy that they had come to expect from Buster Keaton. Others thought that it was a bit off to make a comedy about the Civil War. The mixed reception received by ‘The General’ led to Buster’s loss of artistic control over his films. It was this and the invention of sound that caused him to become deluded. What he had enjoyed about being an independent film maker was the ability to come up with a script that, although it had a definite beginning and end, would be largely ad-libbed. He felt that scenes often lost something when they were rehearsed over and over and often used the rehearsal takes rather than a practised scene in the final cut. Trying to make films under the direction of rigid bosses who were dealing with enormous sums of money and expensive sets was difficult for him. He said: “The minute you’re not flexible that way, the desire to originate and ad-lib, as they call it, is gone. You’ve lost that.” When he signed with MGM in 1928, he was forced to use a stunt double. This was absolutely not what Keaton was about. Much of the joy of his films comes from seeing him attempt something completely reckless and being amazed by that.

Keaton slid into alcoholism,was sacked by MGM and, in 1935, briefly institutionalised. Here, he reputedly managed to escape from a straitjacket. He was eventually rehired by MGM in 1937 and worked as a gag man but he fell rather into obscurity. In 1952 the actor James Mason moved into Buster’s former Hollywood home and found a secret stash of his films, which were presumed lost. The fragile nitrate films were preserved and interest in his early work was revived. I’m happy to say that he lived long enough to see his genius recognised. ‘The General’ in an excellent film and appears on many lists of All-Time Greats. Any film you’ve ever seen where someone runs over the roof of a moving train owes something to this film. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. Failing that, take a look at this short that he made in 1921 called ‘The Goat‘. Go on, it’s only twenty-three minutes.