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Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Errol Flynn as immortalized by friend John Decker.

The latest batch of trivia tid bits and humdingers. Didja know...

... that Babs wore blackface?

It was only once, and I assure you not for any sort of racist intent. While filming Ball of Fire, cinematographer Gregg Toland was hoping to punch up the style on a romantic scene between Barbara Stanwyck (left) and Gary Cooper. In the script, Coop's  "Professor Potts" comes to Barbara's "Sugarpuss O'Shea" the night before their wedding to profess his love for her. She, in the meantime, is trying to finagle a way out of the matrimonial plans and escape with her gangster boyfriend, "Joe Lilac" (Dana Andrews). However, when the poetic yet understated Potts comes to her dark room, her emotional internal battle is supposed to come to the surface, and as his words reach her, the audience is meant to realize the depths of her feelings for him. In order to pull this off, Gregg got creative. He wanted Sugarpuss's eyes to shine out of the darkness as she silently watches Potts and listens to his heartfelt plea. Babs would thus be left to show the metamorphosis of predator to pussy cat through only her oculars. A novel concept, but one not easy to film. In order to create the illusion wherein Sugarpuss's eyes would truly pop from the blackness, Gregg had her put on blackface, so her skin would blend with the shadows, leaving only the whites of her eyes to be lighted. The plot worked, but the result was a bit odd. It became one moment in a screwball comedy that was somewhat terrifying, like something out of a horror movie. Instead of seeing a woman caught up in emotional turmoil, the audience is left with the impression of a dangerous feline stalking her prey: will she pounce on her victim, or embrace him? In any case, it made the final cut, as incompatible as it was with the rest of the light-hearted film. As ever, Babs would do anything for her work.

... that in silent films, there were no blue eyes allowed?

In the early process of filmmaking, there was a strange bigotry that manifested itself in the casting process. More often than not, brown-eyed actors were preferred as performers and thus had the upper hand when it came time to choose a cast. This wasn't personal; it was purely business. Lighter colored eyes simply didn't register as well in early films, due to the novice lighting procedures and orthochromatic film stock of the still infantile artistic medium. For example, you can see in Stan Laurel's early films that his eyes appear almost translucent, which gives him an unintentionally creepy effect. Since eyes are the windows to the soul, directors wanted players whose peepers would photograph well. Blue eyes came off a bit vacant and blank, whereas darker eyes were captured in all their detail. Dark eyed Mary Pickford was thus an ideal actress, as was Lon Chaney. As times improved and technology picked up the pace, this eye issue was an issue no more, but for a time it was a hassle-- particularly for a perfectionistic director like Cecil B. DeMille. He was dying to have the great opera star Geraldine Farrar (right) in his romantic and erotic (of course) production of Carmen, but this saucy songstress had gray eyes. What was he to do? Improvise, of course. When filming Carmen's precursor with Geraldine, Maria Rosa, Cecil discovered that if her eyes were focused on a dark piece of cloth, her eyes appeared darker, (due to the expansion of the retinas). This meant that they photographed better. Thus, Cecil kept a piece of black velvet out of camera range and in her eye line, where Geri could gaze... and dilate. Voila! Her eyes were captured perfectly. Geraldine used this trick for the rest of her career.

... that Lulu wrote for Times?

Louise Brooks (left) may be remembered as one of the most beautiful silent film actresses of all time, but this woman had brains too. After she left Hollywood behind with 13 years worth of cinematic experience, she had plenty to say about Tinsel Town. What followed was a surprising career with the pen, writing film criticism and historical analyses of celebrity, which were printed in several publications, particularly in the foreign market. Of course, there is her notable biographical effort Lulu in Hollywood to take into account as well. However, those who were shocked at her brazen literary skills would perhaps be further surprised to learn that she had a 50-odd year head start in the profession of scripture. When Louise was working as a dancer in NYC, she was dating Herman Mankiewicz, then a drama critic for the "New York Times" (and today better known as being Joseph L's brother). On one of their outings, Herman took Louise to the opening performance of "No, No, Nanette." Louise played hooky from her gig at the Ziegfeld Follies to attend on her new beau's arm. Unfortunately, Herman liked liquor even more than he liked Louise, and by the time they arrived at the infamous Globe Theatre on Broadway, he was already schnockered. He promptly fell asleep, which-- apart from being rude-- was a poor career move, for he was expected to write a review of the performance. Louise, deciding to make the most of a bad situation, used this courting mishap to exercise her brain cells. She soaked in the play, took notes, and dutifully wrote Herman's review for him-- and did a bang up job of it too! She referred to it in overall positive terms, calling it "a highly meritous paradigm of its kind." Herman turned in the piece, and no one on staff at the illustrious paper ever knew that they had printed a review by an 18-year-old chorus girl!

... the skinny on Laird Cregar?

The media's influence on body perception and expectation is not a new topic. The more superficial and self-conscious society becomes, the more cases there seem to be of anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, etc. Starvation diets and intense workout regimens, cleanses and acai pills... Man, where'd the self-love go? As we continue to feed this body-conscious monster, the number of its victims continue to grow. Women are most popularly effected, but men too are being usurped by the apparent cult of "There is but One Form of Beauty" fanatics. Despite the fact that more curvaceous figures were favored in the studio era, women-- such as Rita Hayworth, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe-- were still induced to go on strict diets to maintain their trim physiques. But there would too be a very public male sufferer of this stress. Laird Cregar was growing in popularity at Twentieth-Century Fox as a character man who had delivered stellar supporting roles in films like Blood and Sand and This Gun for Hire. Yet, Laird was not satisfied with his films nor himself-- he longed to be a matinee idol like his co-star Tyrone Power. As such, he began an intense starvation diet, which quickly took him from 300lbs to 200 lbs. When filming began on Hangover Square, with him in a lead role (right) opposite Linda Darnell, he was noticeably thinner-- shockingly so. From the outside, it seemed that he was in good health and that he was doing a superb job getting himself in shape. However, he took his ambitions too far: he would die on Dec. 9, 1944 of cardiac arrest following a stomach operation-- a result of the stress he had put on his dwindling body. He was but 31-years-old. It doesn't always pay to be thin.

... that John Decker was the go-to guy for celebrity art?

John Decker was notorious in Hollywood for a number of reasons, one of which was his raucous friendships with Hollywood hellraisers like John Barrymore and W.C. Fields. He too was known for his artistic abilities and his unique gift of duplicating well known works of art. He once gave pal Thomas Mitchell a "genuine" Rembrandt of "Bust of Christ"-- Tom never knew that it was a forgery, and it was a private joke that John enjoyed until his early, alcohol fueled death in 1947. (It is now owned by Harvard). John was even more notorious around town for his portraits of stars, which in more cases than not were caricatures of sorts. While his talent for perfectly replicating faces on canvas with impeccable detail was certainly not humorous, his decision to use celebrity faces to bring to life other historical figures was creative, amusing, and at times absurd. This little twist was thoroughly enjoyed by his paying customers, who liked to see themselves both glorified and lampooned on such a grand scale. Some of his victims were Clark Gable painted as a cavalier, Katharine Hepburn as Mary of Scotland,  and W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Clark and Kate were not amused by their renditions, but the majority were. John did, of course, do the occasional straight portrait of his friends: Barrymore, Anthony Quinn, and Errol Flynn,etc. In the latter case, instead of making the obvious choice to depict Errol as a mythical knight or some other epic heroic figure, his adept skill picked up on his good friend's darker side and haunted nature. He gifted his painting to Errol, and it became one of his most prized possessions, even after his friendship with John hit the skids. It remains in the possession of Errol's last wife, Patrice Wymore. After Errol's death, his property in Jamaica-- where the painting was hanging-- was hit by a hurricane. The painting was thrown clear of the home, and while it suffered some damage, it remains in tact. Decker's art is, therefore, both priceless and indestructible. Too bad the same could not be said for John himself! (John's regal interpretation of William Powell, left).

... that studio tours are almost as old as studios themselves?

Carl Laemmle, the man responsible for Universal Studios and the first independent movie colony, Universal City (est. March 15, 1915), was clearly a business-savvy man. Just as he jumped on the movie-gravy train and made his fortune on a gimmick that so many had waved off as a passing fad, so too would he predict the audience fascination with the behind-the-scenes filmmaking process. We have him to thank for our introduction to the first, official movie star, Florence Lawrence, whom he "outed" in an astounding publicity coup in 1910, and we too have him to thank for the still running and now heavily copied studio tours, where ravenous movie fans go to watch the magic happen. At the opening ceremony of Studio City, Carl invited members of the public to attend and had actors from his stables give them tours of the grounds. There was such an enthusiastic, awe-struck response, that Carl saw dollar signs. Lots of them. He opened the studio for regular tours for a mere 25 cents a head, so every-day folk could see how movies were made (see ticket, right). It was a huge success! Too huge... The tours started interrupting filming, which became costly. Thus, the tours came to an end, not to be resumed until the 1960s, when management had a better handle on how to combine tour scheduling with film scheduling. Yet, Carl's early move had inspired many. Doug Fairbanks, another innovator who had a soft spot for his fans, too created a tour of sorts while he was filming Robin Hood, which he allowed tourists to come watch over the fifteen weeks of its production. Not only were the impromptu viewers astounded, but Doug performed even better with a live audience to impress. Nearly one-hundred years later, almost every major studio in Hollywood continues these tours, including Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Sony (formerly MGM). Who would have thought that Carl's sudden inspiration would become a foregone (and profitable) conclusion?

An eager audience watches Harry Carey on the Universal Studio Tour in 1916.


  1. Excellent Meredith. I recently watched ( for the 20th time) This Gun For Hire. Such a great romantic LA Noir film. I also made sure to study Laird. I am sure you will agree that he was a terrific (sorry ) heavy. I don't think the poor guy knew how good an actor he was. Uncle Carl sure was a man ahead of his time! I''m sure he would be impressed with what has become of his place in the valley. Thanks for that bue -eyed tidbit. Never knew that. I have a couple old Roach flicks with Stan and Ollie. I'll be sure to look. Although Mabel had big brown eyes, I'm sure she would have made it anyway. Thanks for the great info.

    1. Thanks, Bill! I should have thought of using Mabel as an example, hahaha. She would have been perfect! Glad you enjoyed the info. :)