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Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Ummm, Lon? Watcha doin?

Whodah-thunkit? Didja know that...

... Bill Hart was the first ambidextrous cowboy?

There's a reason they called him "Two-gun Bill." Prior to William S. Hart's use of dual six-shooters (left), cinematic cowboys had preferred the simple, one-handed draw. To exhibit more danger, Bill opted to fill both his mitts with ammunition, making him doubly dangerous on the silver screen, thus making his usually menacing characters all the harder to tame into the good-hearted heroes he typically became by the films' ends. So inspirational were Bill's morally salvaged heroes that a later lawman even took his name, becoming "Two Gun Hart" during the big prohibition battles. Of course, this other "Hart" had more than fanaticism to thank for his name change; it was also a strategic move. His birth name was James Vincenzo Capone. He had a brother named Al. Just like in the movies, they were on opposite sides of the law. Interestingly, during the roaring twenties of flappers, mobsters, and booze, James had identified with an antiquated cowboy to get his message across. With dual arms, he meant business, and his use of Hart's name was meant to strike the fear of God into his less law-abiding contemporaries. No news on Al's reaction, but Bill must have been proud.

... Bill Hart was almost a United Artist?

When Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith (right) set out to build their own movie distribution company, their aim was to give themselves more control (and profit) over their artistic projects and to open the door for more independent producers. It was a daring move to step away from the already well-established companies of Metro and Famous Players, and many of the studio heads viewed this moment with trepidation: "The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum," cried Richard A. Rowland! What did movie stars know about business anyway? In any case, the foursome started the venture with high hopes and, knowing that they would need a lot of clout to survive the uphill battle, they invited a fifth power player, Bill, along for the ride. As a huge star of equal caliber-- one who had joined them on those morale boosting war bond tours, a fact too often forgotten-- Bill seemed like the perfect fifth wheel on this movie trolley. He was all for the new business, having long become disenchanted with the business tactics of old friend Thomas Ince and later Jesse Lasky. While he always looked upon Adolph Zukor with respect, Bill was an independent man who wanted to make his own films his own way. All those money guys kept mucking up his vision. However, the plan for a partnership fell through over monetary disagreements. The original four wanted to use their own money to finance pictures and thus maintain complete control, but this notion made Bill nervous. Thus, he backed out. In the end, it looks like Bill may have been right. While the formation of United Artists was a big moment that started the wheel rolling on star-owned, independent production companies, the fab four couldn't withstand the competition of the larger studios, particularly as films got longer and sound came into play. The expense became too much, Joseph Schenck was brought in to hold the reins, and the original players slowly drifted away.

... Doug was literally a big kid?

It's not a surprise that Doug Fairbanks was involved in the landmark UA formation. While he was more the energetic, charismatic front man, leaving the business quarreling to wife Mary and BFF Charlie, Doug's fingers were always in a lot of cinematic pies. After leaving the stage for the screen, he leapt to success in a series of outrageous boy-to-man comedies before becoming the ultimate, silent, action hero. He also later helped to establish the first film curriculum at the University of Southern California, finally alerting the world that film was indeed an art. He loved movies, and he loved to "wow" audiences. His stunts are legendary, and-- as a daredevil-- he insisted on performing them himself. A lot of stress was put on the directors and technicians of his films, who spent a lot of time in fear that he would kill himself. Even when they tried to bring a stuntman in for him, they would often catch Doug sneakily doubling his own double. While leaping from horses and jumping from trampolines over abysses in Robin Hood were a bit nerve-wracking for the crew to witness, some stunts were more enjoyable to watch, such as the infamous curtain slide sequence. Director Allan Dwan was excited to be working with such an enthusiastic collaborator as Doug on Robin Hood (left). When he shared his visions of action sequences on the set, Doug's eyes lit up just like Christmas! During the big castle battle scene, he explained how Doug was to ascend the stairs, being chased by fighting knights. To escape, he would eventually hop the balustrade and slide down a drape. Literally slide. Dwan revealed the mechanics of the trick, pulling back the lengthy fabric and showing the large children's slide hidden beneath it. He demonstrated the stunt himself, and turned to see Doug chomping at the bit to follow. Doug jumped on the slide and proceeded to slide down dozens of times just like a child! He would have gone on all day, but eventually, the crew got down to business and captured the notorious sequence. The film was a huge success, cementing Doug's place as the #1 Hollywood Hero. 

Doug plays with Mary aka Hams it up.

And another "didja know": the area of Los Angeles (Thousand Oaks) where Doug filmed a lot of the Sherwood Forest sequences for Robin Hood was named for the production. After the film wrapped, the legend continued: Potrero Lake became Sherwood Lake and the nearby park became Maid Marian Park. Golfers still enjoy swinging their clubs at Sherwood Country Club to this day, which would make an athlete like Doug pretty happy. 

... The Monster had bridge-work?

The process of turning Boris Karloff into the undead muse of Dr. Frankenstein was not easy. Many make-up tests had to be performed, undone, recreated, reapplied, etc. Finally, the magic of cinema's best-remembered villain came to life,  thanks to make-up artist Jack Pierce. A flattened head, heavily-lidded and deadened eyes, metal clamps, elongated limbs, and the staggering, baby-like movements of Boris's physicality birthed a killer to be both feared and pitied (right). There was one last touch that Boris added to give his horrific anti-hero a bit more ghoulishness. See, Boris had a dental bridge on the right side of his mouth. He offered to remove it during filming to give his creature a sunken cheek. This enhanced his already emaciated and cadaverous appearance. It was a small decision that completed the sickly pallor and fearsomeness now so famous in movie history. Another note on Boris's experience as the monster: during the length of filming the epic, Boris worked incredibly long hours, often between 15-16 a day. Having to arrive early for the make-up application, then to sit, work, and sweat in the cosmetics all day, was a tough feat for even the strongest guy, particularly with the sadistic James Whale as director. Whale at one point had Boris carry co-star Colin Clive up a hill to the soon-burning windmill, which resulted in the chronic back-pain Boris was to suffer the rest of his life. All of the torture turned out to be worth it... but it also instigated Boris's interest in forming the Screen Actors Guild! 

Boris arrives at 4am to get "pretty" ugly. Jack Pierce enhances
his sunken cheek to the left.

And another "didja know": Boris was made up in room #5 of Universal Studios for his work on Frankenstein and many future films. It was known as "The Bugaboudoir" because of its eerie cinematic connotations-- Lon Chaney had applied his make-up for The Phantom of the Opera here, and Conrad Veidt had used the room during The Man Who Laughs, as did Bela Lugosi during Dracula.

... Movie Stars were sticky?

People have often wondered how it was that photographers like Cecil Beaton, Clarence SInclair Bull, and George Hurrell were able to create such glowing, erotic, and ethereal portraits of the studio era's favorite celebrities. Skin that glowed, eyes that shined... Never an error, not a flaw. No wonder celebs were so envied! These stars were unreal! However, these images were just as re-touched as today's air-brushed, photo-shopped creations. While George Hurrell, for example, used his own specific type of panchromatic film and a particular style of lighting technique (including the new "bounce" light scheme) to create the heavenly and alluring atmospheres he's so known for, he also had to go back over his prints with a fine-tooth-comb to root out any lines or imperfections. James Sharp, for example, spent six hours retouching George's portrait of Joan Crawford for Laughing Sinners (left). Another theory has been postulated that George actually used another trick to give his stars a little extra sheen: vaseline. Allegedly, he had them rub it on their skin to give them that extra special effect of being lit-from within. So, either these folks were radio-active, or indeed there was a store-bought, gooey substance reflecting the camera's lights off them. Ironically, George favored very little make-up on his stars and shot them as bare as he could get them. Some say that George did indeed use vaseline, to enhance Jean Harlow's eyes for example; others say that this is just a silly rumor and that all of George's genius lied in his lighting and visual-editing. Hell, I believe the former. No one's skin does that on its own!

... Tod Browning liked ducks?

Well, he did. At least that's how it looks. Remember that classic final scene in Freaks when villainess Olga Baclanova, is given her due? After taunting and manipulating "midget" Harry Earles and the other members of the circus troupe-- including siamese twins and pin-heads-- Olga is rewarded for her treason by being attacked and mutilated into... a duck. Lying in a pit of dirt, squawking and flapping her arms, one is left uncertain whether to laugh, cry, or scream (right). As with most Browning epics, the question "What the Hell am I watching?" flits through the brain. Where Browning got his ideas and how he chose to implement them has always been a point of curiosity and fascination for his fans. This instance could be hailed as creative and macabre genius or taken as awkward absurdity. Of course, the uneasy feeling that the audience leaves with is always the point. There was only one actor who could pull off such a feathered performance and still hold the audience's sympathy... and in fact, Lon Chaney did wear the same duck suit featured in Freaks in a scene that was cut from his earlier collaboration with Tod, West of Zanzibar. That's right: Phantom, Cripple, Hunchback, Duck. Lon was Tod's dream actor, and though they were known to butt heads every now and then,  Tod enjoyed crafting particularly outrageous characters around Lon, simply because he knew that the 1000-faced man could pull it off. Hence, Tod would build the character first and the script later. After Lon passed away in 1930, Tod was left without his muse... but he still had the duck suit. Well, he found a use for it. It is interesting that one of Tod's only major, classic masterpieces without his favorite actor still had a touch of Lon in it. Birds of a feather...


  1. What a timely post for me. I just read James Whale's biography. The scene in Frankenstein where Boris hurls the little girl in the lake was also filmed at Sherwood Forest CC. I also just finished Lon's biography! Brilliant minds huh? Thanks

  2. Ooh! What a great tie-in, hahaha. Naturally our genius would unite us, ;).