Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

For More L.A. La Land, visit my writing/art/film appreciation site on Facebook at Quoth the Maven and follow me on Twitter @ Blahlaland. :)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Norma Shearer and Norma Shearer star in Lady of the Night.

The world of technology continues to evolve, and visual effects in films these days grow increasingly impressive. There is, however, a consistent debate over just how progressive special effects have become. Those who grew up with Star Wars: Episodes 4-6 find Star Wars: Episodes 1-3 disastrous examples of how tech-savviness can heighten the imagination and destroy realism. Audience members were in awe of the presentation of a totally invented universe in Avatar, yet found it difficult to emotionally connect to the giant, blue protagonists. Despite the obvious kudos that the SpFx wizards deserve, there is much to be said for the efficiency and simplicity of early film, where creativity had to make due without computer assistance. Colorization was done by painting each individual frame of a printed film. The magic of "disappearance" and "reappearance" was performed with stop-motion photography. Slow motion? Just crank the camera faster. Frenetic pace of the Keystone Cops? Crank slower.

And what about double exposure? Countless actors and actresses in early film took their turns playing dual roles in motion pictures, such as Norma Shearer, Buster Keaton, and-- of course-- Mary Pickford. Turns out, it wasn't too simple of a process after all. Mary had to endure the lengthy procedure during the filming of both Stella Maris, wherein she played  both "Stella" and "Unity" (left) and Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which she played both mother "Dearest" and little "Cedric." Everything was "done by count," so Mary would have to perform a scene as one character, say her lines, then wait the appropriate number of seconds in which her other character was to respond, and then continue on. Speak, count, react, count, speak, etc. If she lost count, or if someone on the set caused a disturbance, she would have to start all over. It was excruciating! For example, DIDJA KNOW that it took a sum total of fifteen hours to film the sequence in Fauntleroy in which Mary, as both characters, had to kiss herself! Despite the arduous and irritating process, the result of splicing her two performances together was fascinating to audiences and remains very impressive to this day.

Another early innovation of the movies was not related to the filming of a picture but to the displaying of it. Peep-shows and Nickelodeons enticed viewers with the invention of photographed people in motion. Movie Theaters kicked it up a notch by using these images to draw audiences in with filmed narratives. Yet, DIDJA KNOW there was another venue that helped establish cinema not only as an amusement but as an amusement park ride? Mary Pickford would recall taking "Hale's Tours" when she was a little girl. Invented by a fireman, George C. Hale, the tour was presented as an actual train ride (see right). The converted theater was constructed of train cars, which possessed screens at both the front and back displaying various, alternating landscapes. Thus, the audience on board would feel as if they were truly traversing the beautiful or even hazardous examples of earth's geography, which were accompanied by the train's shaking and lurching about as if it were truly moving. A "conductor" completed the illusion, in addition to the typical sound effects of a moving train-- from the chugging engine to the toot of the whistle. Mary didn't take to the fake tours, falling prey to motion sickness, but others thought that it was a brilliant little gimmick, and it pressed on for quite awhile after its debut at the 1903 St. Louis Exposition. In fact, one could argue that the innovation is still in effect. Just think of the new King Kong ride at Universal Studios!

So many cinematic quotations forever merge with the national vernacular: "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine" (Casablanca), "Why don't you come up some time and see me?" (She Done Him Wrong), or "Wax on... Wax off..!" (The Karate Kid). Often, we quote these lines without knowing or remembering where they come from. For example: "We have to stop meeting like this..." This line has been used, reused, recycled, and mocked in picture after picture and consequently in real life. But, DIDJA KNOW where the dickens it came from in the first place? The origin is said to be 1929's The Kiss, starring Greta Garbo. Ironically, this line was not spoken so much as read, since The Kiss was Greta's last silent film. The immortal words appeared in the opening title card as Conrad Nagel's "Andre" meets with his mistress, the philandering "Irene" (Garbo). He says: "Irene-- we can't go on meeting like this." Little did anyone involved know that this would soon become the token catchphrase of illicit lovers... and future romantic jokesters. In the film, Garbo took the advice, and soon began "meeting" the younger Lew Ayres to scandalous effects (left). Therefore, while The Kiss isn't the best remembered Garbo film, it certainly still found a way to make its mark on the public!

Speaking of origins, ever wonder why it was that Theda Bara and all subsequent, dangerous cinematic women in silent cinema were labeled as "Vamps?" Sure, the connection is there: vamp, vampire, blood sucker, i.e. a "woman of the night" who uses her sexual wiles to steal a man's... essence. It may seem like a common sense reaction to label these sultry femme fatales as devilish sisters of the vampire, yet one hopes that there are quite a few steps-- even long jumps-- between Nosferatu and a scandalous lady. DIDJA KNOW: The source of "vamp" is much more specific than people realize. The first lady of vampdom, Ms. Theodosia Goodman (right), made her first major appearance on film in A Fool There Was  in 1915. The film was based upon the Rudyard Kipling poem "The Vampire": 
A fool there was and he made his prayer/
(Even as you and I!)/
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair/
(We called her the woman who did not care),/
But the fool he called her his lady fair/
(Even as you and I!). 

                              The cinematic translation followed the menacing theme of feminine deception in the poem and struck a chord with the public. Thus when Theda Bara was born, so too was her film's character-- the Vampire and Vamp-- immortalized. 

George Brent (left) is remembered as a suave, handsome, leading man of the golden studio era. He was never as big as Gable or Grant, but that's what his leading ladies loved about him. His presence in a film bolstered their own celebrity, because he wasn't quite as celebrated. Audiences came to the movies to see Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, and Brent was the perfect, amiable, good-looking guy to perform as a strong, capable co-star without doing any scene stealing. Of course, a lot of this had to do with the fact that Brent, by nature, was an atypical guy. Certainly, he was a famous actor, but he was never as into the luxuries of stardom as some of his contemporaries. One of the reasons he gelled so well with Greta Garbo was because he was a fairly private person who liked his peace and quiet away from the noise of hectic, Hollywood life. Another thing that set him apart was his history. DIDJA KNOW: Orphaned at eleven years of age, the native Irishman took up with the rebellion as a mere teenager and wound up serving in the incredibly dangerous position of dispatch barrier for none other than Michael Collins!? In fact, after Collins was killed, George had to be smuggled to Canada aboard a freighter to escape the government officials who wanted him captured. He eventually landed in New York and traded in his risky, wayfaring ways to battle a more fatal foe: acting.

As Halloween is approaching, it seems appropriate to mention one of the most celebrated horror films of all time. The Phantom of the Opera could perhaps be labeled by many as the father of all horror cinema. My grandmother would love to tell me how terrified she was when Lon Chaney's mask was wrenched from his face and his "accursed ugliness" was revealed for all to see (right with Mary Philbin). Audiences today cannot even fathom the shock that moment held for 1920s audiences. My generation grew up with another family of masked and un-masked villains: Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface... The extent of the violence in their films and the cosmetic concoctions that now haunt our dreams (I personally was terrorized by visions of Freddy Krueger that kept me awake some nights) make Lon's Phantom "Erik" seem meek and unthreatening in retrospect. But then again, he was, as always, playing a mutilated man with a broken heart more than a monster turned murderer. His influence is still felt. He remains a hero even today to those entering the field of make-up, and he changed forever the barometer of fear in theater audiences: people could be scared to death and survive? Who knew?! For this reason, and because of Lon's lasting legacy and hold on the public, DIDJA KNOW that Phantom became the first film ever played on the "Sony Jumbo Tron Screen" in Times Square? It played on October 31-- of course-- in 1993, nearly seventy years after its original premiere to shocked audiences everywhere. Boo-yah!!!

No comments:

Post a Comment