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Friday, December 27, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Man Enough? Part 2 - The Studio Era

Continued from Part 1 - Silents

William Powell represents the depression-era man in My Man Godfrey,
a film that showcased the struggle of masculinity through the dark age 

and, finally, his triumph: mind over matter, always with comedy.

... And then, the storm came. As the silent era dissipated like yesterday’s old dreams, the talkie revolution stepped in. Simultaneously, the Great Depression would hit. America would feel the full effects of both phenomena, but not immediately. Life continued on clumsily in the ignorance that tragedy could be averted while the movies tried to learn to speak. It would take man awhile to notice the desperation of the concurrent financial disaster, just as the cinematic medium used the period for experimentation, slowly trying to re-establish what exactly it was doing. As men, breadwinners, and former tough guys, started getting laid off, the male ego took a real blow. The movies valiantly saved the day, becoming one of the only successful businesses during this period. Why? They gave guys their guts back. The male archetype on film hollered, screamed, and took no prisoners. The early ‘30s were ruled by cavemen. With a finger on the slowing pulse of manhood, the leading men started to holler at the world and beat their chests, and the movies really started to scream...

The thirties introduced men with equal parts spit and polish, glamour and grit. They were dapper-- to counteract the cloud of poverty-- and dangerous-- to compensate for the national feeling of powerlessness. The Gangster took shape, introducing the era's only comprehensible form of the prosperous male: the criminal. If you couldn’t make an honest buck, you could make millions of them dishonestly. Crime was the only thing that paid. The world that slapped the populace in the face was, therefore, was about to get bitch-slapped right back. James Cagney (left in The Public Enemy) made his fierce entry into the medium alongside George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, birthing the contemporary embodiment of the American Dream turned Nightmare, while somehow inspiring hope. Mirroring the growing public desperation, these ultimate underdogs got scrappy. They would lie, cheat, or steal to get ahead, and somehow beat their own bad rap by getting “badder.” 

Iconic films like Angels with Dirty Faces and Little Caesar produced a new, unlikely hero. Suddenly, audiences were sympathizing with the bad guy, who indeed was (at least initially) morally irredeemable. These "gents" were not your token, attractive guys either. Robertson’s bull-dog face only made him fill the shoes more ably of his internally ugly characters. Paul Muni as the original Scarface used cosmetics and body padding to make himself look absolutely Cro-Magnon in the role (right). These were the internal beasts coming out to play who, in a time of deprivation, took any and everything they wanted on behalf of their viewers, who had little more than their theater tickets to give them solace. By screwing the system that screwed them and defying the law with every breath, these guys filled their pockets with cash, dressed to the nines, and bathed in champagne. 

George Brent manhandles Barbara Stanwyck's "tramp"
in The Purchase Price.
They also had any woman they wanted-- those who wouldn’t have given them the time of day under normal circumstances. Money bought happiness. These “dames,” who were only looking for the highest bidder, were purchased like posh gold watches and discarded instead of rewound when they became outdated. It was about building from the ground up, after all. You have to drop the dead weight on the way to better things. As each gangster ascended, he dropped the “sluts” he had picked up along the way as soon as a better one came along. Mobsters weren’t into emotional investment. They wanted the best-- now. They also made certain to show a woman who was boss. Who can forget Cagney pushing that grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face? The message was clear, “Keep your mouth shut and your legs spread.” This pumped up the ego while humiliated men fell in stature down the familial food chain, their wives taking on jobs to help out the family finances. It reestablished their position as the patriarch.

Edward G. Robinson as "Little Caesar."
Why did the public respond so heartily to these guys? Aside from the obvious cathartic release for men who could watch and live vicariously, the acting and writing of the time was so superb that the villains were given astounding humanity, however corrupted. These men were complicated. As lascivious as they may have been, audiences also saw the little boys within them-- their "holy" spirits may have been broken after living in the gutter, but the stars were still in their eyes. They also lived in constant fear, however well hidden behind their tough guy facades. Constantly hunted by the feds or competing thugs, there was a big, red target on each of their backs. An enemy could take them out at any minute, even when they were simply doing all they could to survive. Nothing in life is free, and while they may have left a trail of blood behind them, they bore their own scars and took their own hits. It’s a dog eat dog life... The interesting and scandalous layers of their personas, peppered in the subtext of the writing, also enriched their stories. Robinson’s homoerotic friendship with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Little Caesar or Paul Muni’s uncomfortable and possessive relationship with his sister (Ann Dvorak ) in Scarface illuminated the multiple cracks in the impenetrable male facade. They were fascinating, dark, disturbed, and disturbingly real.

Clark Gable's "Babe Stewart" checks
something out at the library- Carole
Lombard- representing a healthy,
male, sexual appetite and the
norm of objectification.
Clark Gable was also a hoodlum and racketeer, strong arming Norma Shearer in A Free Soul and scheming his way to the top in San Francisco or China Seas. He too was portrayed as a rough and tumble guy whose good fortune was his good looks. His cocky manner generally presented itself with more suavity than his super-mafia brothers. He was a disrespectful, respectable self-made man. He played a little dirty, but he often found absolution in the end, generally in the arms of a woman, whom he had cleaned himself up to properly protect. His masculinity was therefore defined both by his abilities to be a provider but also to "fly right." He acted a bit as the bridge between the depression’s beginning and its end, his characters always being a bit edgy and unattainable but still able to outgrow their selfishness to settle down in a modern way with an equally broken but secretly angelic woman. By the end of the roaring gangster era, he maintained his macho yet became more innately decent. Even "Rhett Butler" became a family man. Still, whether playing house with Myrna Loy in Wife vs. Secretary or bad guy made good in Hold Your Man opposite Jean Harlow or No Man of Her Own opposite Carole Lombard, he showcased a man whose hands were dirty but at heart was a well-hidden, good guy. His great victory was triumphing over his circumstances and shedding his bad boy skin to become a real man. His “manliness” and his eventual passion and responsibility for his chosen woman made him catnip to the ladies as well.

Man's man Bogie roughs up the effeminate Peter Lorre,
and puts the "bitch" in his place in The Maltese
Of course, there were different varieties of men in this period. Muni and Spencer Tracy were the symbolic martyrs of fallen men, churning out socially conscious pictures like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or Fury. Tracy's dominance in this particular field would continue throughout his career, portraying compelling figures battling changing sociopolitical tides. He remains a master in the craft, and his version of the American male would transcend and mature with the ever-changing world. Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power were the caution-be-damned, overgrown boy heroes (in tights) who maintained our optimism in the face of danger. Their spirits sharpened our belief systems and our personal quest for poetic justice, "with a little sex thrown in." Bogie led the noir revolution, establishing a man with his own definitions of morality and right and wrong. He was a bad guy who was a good guy, solving crimes with unnecessary roughness and street smarts. He also maintained his manhood by defeating the femme fatale, drawing a hard line between the sexual and the romantic. He saw to it that the man wore the pants and equally took it upon himself to take down the villain. His "Gal Friday," in contrast to the sexy succubus trying to drain him of his power, was protected purely because of her submission, even as she also took on harder edges like Lauren Bacall. The harsh world that had changed him had to accept him, warts and all, and this was exemplified by this attentive and never deterred Gal Friday. His damaged goods but wizened hero helped pave the way to fiscal and social “normalcy” as the depression eased up. However, the noir shadows he brought along with him would always indicate the ghosts of our past. He was the face of an aged America.

Captain America, Gary Cooper, in The Pride
of the Yankees
, the morale boosting war-
time film that promoted wholesome
values through the great national
pastime of baseball.
There too were more romantic moral compasses, like James Stewart, Henry Fonda, or Gary Cooper, whose messages of righteousness started to increasingly transcend the domestic sphere and get political, particularly as the thirties became the forties. Their all-American heroes, by promoting “all-American ideals,” portrayed the prototypical male as one bound by duty, country, and integrity. Films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Ox-Bow Incident, etc, presented fighters for truth, justice, and the American way, even when the hero was a humble guy who bore less muscle than the formerly prosperous, gun-toting gangster. The interesting William Powell provided the ideal modern husband, as the often half-drunk but always charming "Nick Charles" of The Thin Man series. He solved crime and made love to his wife, triumphing over the horror of life by accepting it as the greatest gag ever played-- not to be taken seriously. In essence, he laughed in the face of danger. As WWII gained steam and our country’s participation in it became inevitable (after the Pearl Harbor horror), redefining America as something worth saving became the dominant concern. We needed unsung heroes to finally be heard. Their message-- that we were all going to be all right-- was vital to morale as our villains switched masks from the government, the Man, or the tax-man to the foreigner.

War heroes fighting for freedom, women, and country, filled theaters as men (including some of our stars) took to the skies and propaganda took wing. Mr. America himself led the way. John Wayne (right) had long been wearing the badge and toting the pistol of the unofficial Sheriff of the United States. His characters became increasingly rugged and uncompromising in their unbreakable defense of liberty. His cowboys and soldiers, whether at their most pure-hearted in his early career (Stagecoach, Flying Tigers) or bitter toward his later career (The Searchers, The Green Berets) were symptomatic of man’s need to hold onto his own patch of earth, fighting for it to the teeth. As the cowboy, he was more of a drifter, and a somewhat Godless one at that. His religion, always, was freedom. As the soldier, this religion became wider in scope-- from the open plain to the entirety of the country-- as he guided men abroad, defending his personal definition of human rights and taking down whatever foreigner was threatening his sense of safety. Increasingly politically incorrect and thick-skinned as the years progressed, he was the Uncle Sam holding onto ideals that remain cemented in our culture. He made the United States feel safe to contemporary audiences. His unmannerly, unforgiving and, by modern standards, skewed perception of reality, was consistently saved by the palpable sadness he carried within him, again creating for men a man with a hidden depth. Buried emotions-- the refusal to be interpreted as a “sissy”-- were the glue that held America together. This submergence may harden the man, but it saved his brothers. So, the gangster became the soldier, still pointing a gun, the ultimate symbol of masculine power, to create and maintain the intimidating fortress of the United States. 

Jimmy Stewart made a career representing and fighting for the little guy. An
average looking and awkward sounding fellow, he was an underdog who
somehow made a home for himself as a bona fide leading man. The
messages in his films-- fighting passionately for truth and mankind
in general-- left people with the pleasing sensation that integrity
would win out in the end, no matter the circumstances.

Thanks in part to these films, America would entertain this necessarily self-centered focus for some time. Men were never as large as they were in the Studio Era. While the United States quaked under the pressures of the economy and then the second World War, we created larger than life heroes to bear the brunt of our desperation and rescue us from Hell on earth. Our men got dirtier, a little nastier, but they too became a little more authentic. There was truth-telling going on beneath the studio finessed perfection. While Hollywood was already veering toward its reliance on handsome faces, the cracks and flaws of man were becoming more visible, all of their howling, shooting, and manhandling covering up the paranoia they experienced at the loss of their livelihood and therefore their manhood. The variations of these different male prototypes has solidified them in history as the ultimate personality stars. None will ever be as famous as these guys, nor so important to upholding the mirage of Americana. However, as times changed, and as new threats appeared in the apple blossom gardens of American Eden-- the brief quiet following the war-- new movies with new heroes would lead us into another chapter. The biggest threat to man's sacrosanct structuring and exhibiting of the domestic bliss of the nuclear family would be one Hell of an atomic bomb: the "method" actor.

To Be Continued in the Final Chapter-- Method to the Modern

Monday, December 16, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Man Enough? Part 1 - The Silents

In order to save his love interest (Virginia Cherrill) in City Lights, Chaplin has
to put up his dukes and "be a man."

While a lot of focus is given to interpreting the repression and liberation of women in film, that of the male archetype seems to be less thoroughly examined, at least in terms the facets of masculinity as reflections of/on society. The reason for this could very well be the lazy perception that "a man, is a man, is a man," which is a theory many may humorously, and perhaps correctly (to a certain extent), agree with. It is not the "male mystique" that continues to plague and baffle the opposite sex, yet this does not mean that the more "predictable" sex is any less complicated and nuanced than his fairer opposite. As such, his presentation on the silver screen and its metamorphosis over the years creates quite a broad portrait of just what it means to be a man. What makes a good man? A bad man? An attractive man? And what on earth is masculinity? Are the depictions of the different shades of the complex male conundrum-- the lover, the fighter, the cave man, the villain, the hero-- influenced by or influential of contemporary society? Probably a little bit of both.

Eugene Sandow gives good bicep in an early silent clip. A famous
Austrian body builder, he was
Schwarzenegger before anyone
knew what a Schwarzenegger was.

During the initial stages of silent cinema, men were, quite simply, just men. They weren't polished, they weren't pristine, they weren't products. They weren't, in fact, even acting. The more studied performers of the stage rebuffed the hackneyed gimmick of the "motion picture" as it groped its fledgling way into a fully grown, full-fledged business. Thus, the gratuitous appeal of the original flicker shows, which portrayed human beings naturally, as they really were, whether the image of the man projected was sneezing, boxing, flexing his muscles, or kissing May Irwin, was the documentary style of the medium. It was simple: point and shoot. Then, point and shoot with costumes on. The storytellers on the screen were regular guys looking for work. As movies became shorts, which became features, as 1 reel lengthened to 8, as plot lines became more complicated, so too did the requirements of the leading men become more intricate. Trained actors, who had performed on the stage and in vaudeville, soon began migrating toward the cinema, less to achieve fame-- as it didn't exist yet-- then to make ends meet and take the jobs that their contemporaries still poo-pooed. Many were innovators that saw the potential others overlooked, and some were merely wooed by the opportunity its opportunists. As a result, some of the great personalities of the 20th century would present themselves on the silver screen-- Chaplin, Keaton, Chaney, Fairbanks, Reid-- and the words "movie star" would be born. 

The interesting thing about these personalities is that, while they were better trained than the initial rookie actors of cinematic minor leagues, they were still fairly regular guys, the prettiest of them belonging to the Wallace Reid (left) variety, who with his boyish good looks and overgrown child charms was both the son and lover to his leading ladies. He and Douglas Fairbanks both presented a masculine archetype that was bristling with the energy of immaturity-- Wally with his speed racing, and Doug with his nonchalant embrace of danger. In these cases, the women and romantic interests were always secondary to the major action within the story, with both men more invested in being "wild and wooly" than responsible. Meanwhile, the leading ladies performing opposite them tried their best to domesticate them, all while accepting that they never really could. "Boys will be boys..." Wally was, admittedly, much more sexual, which is why he could easily vacillate between the daredevil driver of  The Roaring Road and the smitten love interest of The Golden Chance with ease.

Doug defends all of mankind's honor with the mightiest of phalluses,
his saber! (The Black Pirate)
Doug was never "in it" for love. Ever. His heroes, like D'Artagnan of The Three Musketeers and his Robin Hood were more enthralled with the opportunity for adventure than the sentimental pull of romance. Therefore, as an unspoken "hit 'em and quit 'em type"-- however optimistically he portrayed himself-- he wasn't about putting down roots but exploring man's liberty. The message both figures presented was that men weren't meant to be chained. They must be able to exercise their need for freedom. Women just had to be ready to catch them when they wore themselves out. Most of their stories possessed a wink at the female audience of, "Yeah, we don't need you, but we really do." The little lady in an apron was always the true brains behind the operation, running the man's life, all while he thought he was indeed running wild. This perpetuated the paternal society's definitions of gender roles within a marriage: women, keep the home fires burning, men... burn rubber!

Gilbert succumbs to the succubus, Garbo, in
Flesh and the Devil.
This isn't to say that there were no men with emotive eloquence. Two Romeos with such all consuming passion were John Gilbert and Rudolph Valentino, both of whom were inhumanly handsome and intensely virile. While inheriting in some ways the fairly adolescent charisma of the aforementioned brand of man-boy, the inciting incident in their lover storylines was not that which would attract them to adventure or the fight of good over evil. The inciting incident was the appearance of Eve in their Edens. Whatever extraneous business was happening otherwise was pure background noise. Each man followed only the beating of his heart, or perhaps better yet, the compulsion of his loins. These guys were victims to their passion. However selfishly they may have behaved in the past, meeting the girl was enough to instantly change them from selfish boys to helpless fools for love, and consequently drive them insane with desire. Gilbert was most memorably paired with Garbo in his romantic career. His intoxicated devotion to her, which nearly destroyed him every time (and sometimes did), portrayed for women the man of their dreams. He gave his undivided attention to his muse, for whom he would do anything, and he would not rest until he possessed her. This was enough to leave ladies fanning themselves in their seats, if not passing out in the aisles. 

Interestingly, it was Garbo who usually suffered in the end (at least in the silent era), being punished for her erotic witchcraft in Flesh and Love, for example. After escaping the soul-sucking power of the vamp, who sought only to bleed a man dry of his potent juices, the man was supposed to reclaim his soul, embrace his manhood, curse the bitch, and settle into a relationship that would place him back in a position of power. Gilbert's characters, therefore, would find solace in more dependable women who would be faithful, loyal, and submissive, and also allow him to peaceably engage in the boyish hijink's he'd temporarily forgotten while under the spell of forbidden sex. Though, it should be noted, that when Gilbert fell for a "good girl," such as Eleanor Boardman's heroine in Bardelys the Magnificent, the romance was indeed consummated. His more worldly character having already certainly experienced the ego and heart bruising of a Garbo-like woman in the past, this guy was out for an innocent wife to protect with his well-situated manliness. He had come of age before the storyline started.

Valentino's gents were very similar in their romantic addictions. Rudy had no problem becoming the putty in the hands of Alla Nazimova's Camille or Nita Naldi's vamp in Blood and Sand. The same action ensued, with the woman generally paying the price for her forbidden, unbridled sexual nature, and the man reasserting his final dominance, either shaming her in Camille's case or foolishly allowing himself to be destroyed in the vamp case, the latter being a lesson to all men. However, Valentino's heroes possessed more danger than Gilbert's. The is partially due to the scintillating allure of the foreigner-- xenophoberotica?-- and his animalistic assertion over his prey. In both Sheik films, Rudy shamelessly kidnaps Agnes Ayres and Vilma Banky until they accept their stations as his sex slaves, with him resorting to what can only be described as rape in the second film, Son of the Sheik (see right). Naturally, he feels bad for his carnal crimes afterward and learns his lesson, thereby clinging the soiled woman to his muscled chest-- again, the "good girl"-- and reforming himself into a more civilized man (undoing his foreignness) in the process. With his dark(er), Italian appeal, he also offered more fantasy, as Rudy wasn't a real American but a strange figure from a strange land. His heroes could be tamed but not domesticated, and after his capture of chosen female, it is assumed that he would take her to a fantasy world of happily monogamous "ever afters" and over-sexed oblivion. In whichever case, the macho man had to conquer to become the King of his own identity. He must be a slave to no one and the ultimate one in charge. This begets the plague of the necessarily more submissive female. 

Keaton battles the elements in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
In truth, the only true lovers of the silent era came from the fools and clowns-- sometimes literally. When looking at the selfless devotion of Chaplin or the innocent but maladministered and attracted pursuit of Keaton, one witnesses some of the greatest examples of romance in all of cinema, period. The Tramp would send himself into further despair, isolation, or poverty to rescue the woman he loved from even minor devastation (The Circus, City Lights), while Keaton's many lovable but bumbling wooers would do anything to impress a potential bride only to fail-- as in his refused enlistment in the army in The General. Neither was reaching for the moon. They just wanted nice girls to settle down with and have an ordinary life. They also always had competition: bigger men, stronger men, better looking men, and richer men. The Tramp was undeserving, because he was poor; Keaton, because he wasn't macho. The latter would only accidentally become a worthy hero when presented with the challenges of extreme circumstances, be they wartime, weather affected, or even hallucinatory. The notion was that these men were, indeed, good guys. But good guys rarely get the girl, which is why the majority of the time, these two did nothing but suffer. The image of the man as the strong provider and savior still continues to be the divisive factor in what makes a man a man. 

Chaplin continues his voyage as the loner, lovelorn loser in
The Circus-- a telling title.
Unlike Fatty Arbuckle, who was able to win the day almost totally due to his imposing size and the clever swiftness of his actions and schemes, he was a bit of the selfish prankster that Fairbank and Reid represented but in the comic genre. Contrastingly, Chaplin and Keaton were diminutive, sensitive, emotionally aware, but mostly uncomfortable with themselves. Confidence is key, and they guys didn't have it. Thus, Chaplin's victory was primarily only ever the reward of selfless love-- sending the girl of his dreams off to live with the man of hers-- while Keaton was more often allowed to end in wedded bliss because, despite his size and social ignorance, he was able to prove his masculinity through his unbelievable, life-saving acts of prowess. He had thus earned his place in man-dom. Chaplin's silent hero never received applause for the secret aid he gave to his lovers in need. These comic gems were the underdogs of society, who thus gave such equally aching, hidden Lotharios a voice. However, they were still the butt of their own jokes; not real men, but men in training. They weren't what any woman was looking for, and furthermore, they were holding the steam engine of the growing American powerhouse back by begging on street corners instead of getting "real jobs." In a capitalist society, one who isn't chasing coin or engaging in the game of business is looked upon as a chump, just another sad cog in the wheel of the money machine. Invisible heroes aren't heroes.

Lon Chaney also belongs in this category, which is further complicated by identifying these ardent, bleeding heart lovers as a fools simply for loving at all. Chaney's twisted, heartbroken soldiers were literal mutations of the male sex. The fact that he wore love on his sleeve made him a monster. "This is not what a man is supposed to be," his movies unconsciously seemed to say. This too is why he is constantly left loveless by the final reels. The Phantom of the Opera is, forgive me, "cock-blocked" by Norman Kerry's more virile Raoul when vying for Christine (Mary Philbin). The Hunchback of Notre Dame is, again, intercepted by Kerry's Phoebus when vying for the heart of Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller). Even when not physically misshapen, Chaney's desire and pure-hearted emotion for the women he desired sealed his fate as one who would forever do without such love's return. His obsession with Joan Crawford in The Unknown leads him to mutilate himself. His devious fixation in The Unholy Three, his love for Mae Busch/Lila Leed, is why he fails in his caper and is punished for his crimes. He is crippled by and in love in The Shock, West of Zanzibar (left), and The Penalty. He is a dunce in love in The Trap and Mockery. And, just as Chaplin, his selflessness goes unrewarded with loneliness in Tell It to the Marines and While the City Sleeps.

Chaney's depiction of the ultimate man's man in Tell It to the Marines is
pretty much the definitive portrait of masculinity. Hard-broiled, weather-
worn, and built of discipline and duty, he is the man all new enlistees
are meant to emulate. His one error is the depth and honesty of his feelings,
which is why he loses the girl to the less emotionally and more erotically
focused William Haines (boy-man). His heart is read as a flaw, yet his 
surrendering of it in the end makes him a hero. Real men don't fall for 
that love stuff. They get the job done.
The absolute torment of bearing such a full, martyred heart, one so desperate to love, made Lon's heroes immediate victims. When playing a purely sexual avenger in Victory or The Wicked Darling, he still didn't get the girl, but he represented more fully the man's man that could at least get a tramp and could make it in society, even if by the skin of his corrupt teeth. His predators with their ulterior motives and potent sex drives spoke to the beast in male viewers. He was their dark side, something immediately relatable, just as in his opposing roles he represented their good side-- strangely an even darker, dirtier secret. In either case, as the extreme in both contrasting levels of the internal, male, emotional world, he rarely walked away the winner-- literally and figuratively. His sinister villains had to be destroyed for the sake of order in society as well as in the protection of virginal women, and his hideous poets had to be eliminated in some fashion so that the virgins could be defiled by more righteous men-- less emotive, good looking, and not from the dregs of society. 

Thomas Meighan as the bored husband in Why Change Your Wife?
Perhaps the best representative of the silent movie, "regular" man would be Thomas Meighan. Handsome but not pretty, masculine but not action oriented, his characters were generally average guys, which is to say that they held down jobs, were crossed and sometimes victorious in love, and were composites of flaws and virtues. He was sexual and desirous of love but not overly emotive about it. He had feelings, but he played them close to his chest. He may have started out a con man in The Miracle Man, but he cleaned up his act and went straight by the end. When watching his performance in Male and Female, we see that he is indeed a man of character with both primal and romantic desires-- directed at Gloria Swanson-- but these qualities are only exhibited after the characters are stranded on a desert isle, and he is allowed to indulge his instincts without fear of social scrutiny. When he returns to life, so too do these instincts become buttoned up and forgotten. A real man knows how to walk a straight line, keep his romance a secret, keep sex in the bedroom, and pay his taxes. The sturdy and reliable Meighan, in all the varieties of his characterizations, provided such a portrait, still while allowing light to be cast on different aspects of man's character that the actual average man would never have allowed to be seen.

Love's a gag, something that Fatty Arbuckle showcased best-- here
alongside constant co-star Marbel Normand in Fatty's Married Life.
Fatty cared for his women, but womanhood was something he
generally had to put up with while out getting into more interesting 
trouble or making it. Marriage is a drag, but the ball and chain was
never going to stop Fatty from being Fatty!

These actors were favorites during the silent era for all that they represented, whether their stories made them winners or losers. The interesting thing to note is how intrinsically different they were from one another. No two were the same. Each had his own fashion, his own style, his own art, and each depicted his own version of masculinity, even while all portrayals may have eventually led society down the same path of acceptable male behavior-- the best version of his gender. Perhaps because screen identities were not yet firmly established, ergo there were no cliches or gender staples to adhere to, men were allowed to step before the camera in all shapes and sizes, modes and behaviors. The early days were an incredibly diverse and liberating era for the actor/performer, and viewers were consequently introduced to a wide array of talents and depictions of what it then meant to be a man in contemporary America. While the thread of necessary male dominance always held sway, never again would the characters in the male tapestry be as mixed nor as interesting as in the silent period. At the time, it would have been more fitting to say, a man is a man in any way he can...

To Be Continued in The Studio era and Method to Modern Times...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Bela Lugosi

Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó would change his last name to Lugosi after his move to the United States in the early 1900s to commemorate his Hungarian (now Romanian) birthplace of Lugos. This was a smart career move. His new, lyrical, and much shorter name would be easier for English speakers to remember, and they would indeed remember it... Although, they would often refer to him by his more popular nickname: Dracula. This film would be the greatest achievement and greatest burden of Bela's life. After bringing the Dark Prince to life on the stage, his totally unique, sexual, and fear-inducing performance of the caped crusader of death, reborn on the silver screen, would make him a bona fide sensation. Many assert that The Phantom of the Opera was the first legitimate horror film, but it would be more accurate to give that title to Dracula. Lon Chaney's films belong in a category all their own, while Dracula, when it first hit theaters, was a conundrum. No one knew what it was, how to feel about it, how to package it, nor how to label it. All they knew was that Bela shook them to the core, and they kind of liked it.

Bela's creation of the Count as his own was a groundbreaking moment in the history of film. The vampire had always been terrifying, but never before had this creature been so... seductive. Bela's regal presentation matched with his exotic accent, intensity, and total absence of morality, made him a somehow more foreign and yet more relatable villain. He was a more appropriately felshed out representation of man's dark side and the provocateur of his sexual nature. He did not hide in shadows. His Dracula bewitched with the eyes and commanded women to "come" to him, which they did, willingly. As such, his phenomenal performance and his creation of the supernatural monster changed the game of film, paved the way for a new genre, and introduced audiences to a side of themselves they may not have wanted to see...

His private life did not fare as well as the dark hero of his screen self. Forever trapped by the Dracula stigma, Bela would be continually typecast in horror films, which decreased in quality as the years progressed. A truly gifted actor who had portrayed a number of varied characters on the stage, he ached to fulfill his obligation to his craft, but was forever pushed creatively into a corner. His cape was his cross, one that he had to bear to pay the bills. The results of his acting projects were mixed.  The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Black Cat, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remain positive highlights, but for every classic, there were plenty of clunkers. Most infamously, toward the end of his life when he was battling a morphine addiction-- that born as he battled a painful battle with his sciatica-- he teamed up with notorious director Ed Wood. While the director's films-- Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space-- are not exactly quality material, they were generous opportunities for work that gave the impoverished Bela a small ray of hope in his deteriorating life. However, it was too little, too badly, too late. Bela would pass away from a heart attack at 73. He was buried in his Dracula cape. But did he stay buried??? His lost soul continues to wander, hunting the new, willing  victims that continue tofeed his immortality.


Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was a Hollywood deviant in every sense of the word. She defied the preconceived movie star prototype and surprised studios and the public alike with her automatic allure. However, she forever was forced to balance herself upon a tenuous beam of acceptance, both socially and personally. Shunned by prejudice in her home country of America, she was also slandered by the Chinese for being a "whore," otherwise known as an actress. Upon a visit to the nation of her forefathers, she was once pummeled with stones by an angry crowd. While she fortunately had more fans worldwide than villains, her choice to define her own life in her own terms would forever make her an outcast. The price of her independence would strangely be her liberty.

Anna's entry in film would be in the role of the featured servant girl or concubine. Naturally, her heritage would keep her from receiving leading roles or top billing in her projects. However, slowly but surely, her performances in larger supporting roles opposite big time stars like Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks, and her alliance with director/lovers like Tod Browning and Marshall Neilan, would give her the opportunity to showcase her talents. The Toll of the Sea, The Thief of Bagdad, Peter Pan, Mr. Wu, and Piccadilly gave her increasing exposure to the audiences who fell in love with her almost spiritual essence. Her beauty was marked with an intelligence and profound depth that made her utterly fascinating to watch. As an outsider, she was able to move about as a free agent, deemed independent and often dangerous. She had a wisdom that was effective and even spellbinding, often distracting from her more popular Caucasian co-stars. 

She went to Europe to seek more opportunities and had some luck, returning to the states for talkies like the classic Shanghai Express, but despite her magnetic personality, she would always hit a brick wall of bigotry. She was never allowed to fulfill her total potential because of her race. Roles, like that of "O'Lan" in The Good Earth, went to white actresses like Luise Rainer, and censorship kept her from being given leading roles of her own. A failed attempt at TV and an attraction to alcohol-- a popular tool for many in burying sorry-- would prematurely end her career and her life. She passed away from a heart-attack at 56. Now looking back on her performances, she looked even then like a ghost-- a beautiful, haunting image from another place, another plain of consciousness, whispering tales and truths that many of us are still not open-minded enough to absorb.


Ann Harding

Ann Harding was once listed as one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. With her soulful eyes and waist-length blond hair, she already stood out from the crowd, but her great intelligence, composure, and lack of pretense made her an even greater eccentricity in the super-sheeny world of cinema. Ann was raised to be a realist, traveling the country as what is popularly referred to as an "army brat." This childhood of exposure but constant uprooting formed her into a determined young woman, and a smart one at that-- she would graduate from Bryn Mawr. As a responsible, independent girl, she took odd jobs, one of which was a script reader for Famous Players-Lasky. She had dabbled in acting in college, but her fluke audition for and subsequent performance in the play "Inheritors" made her a smash Broadway sensation and solidified her new career path as an actress.

It wasn't long before Ann began working in film, her first picture being Paris Bound. Ann selected her projects for their intrigue, favoring good stories over box office. Nonetheless, she established herself as a bold and controversial actress, some of whose films were banned! In the pre-code era of cinema, which ended in 1934, Ann acquired an admirable and lauded reputation for  portraying complicated and more realistic, modern women-- women who had affairs, women who had children out of wedlock, and professional women. She wasn't just a love interest or a girl out for love. She played doctors,  artists, and women of both integrity and moral complexity. Her Private Affair, Animal Kingdom, and When Ladied Meet, are tokens of this fascinating period of film. 

When the production code came, Ann persevered, her eloquent diction and grace making her a shoe-in for the suffering, pure female lead in morality pictures. However, this was not as interesting as her prior work, and her career began its decline. She made impromptu returns to the screen and performed on television as well, but her inability to adhere to industry standards or play the part of the Movie Star leaves her almost totally forgotten today. But then, she probably wouldn't mind. She was more interested in doing the work and not recouping the benefits, fame included. As a lady who preferred to do things her own way, in the story of her life, she was therefore a phenomenal success.


Anita Page
Anita Page was one of the great beauties of the silent film era and one of few who was able to transition smoothly through the talkie transition. With her soft, ethereal features and natural acting chops, she was able to hold her own opposite some of the top leading men of both eras, boasting co-starring roles in While the City Sleeps with Lon Chaney and Navy Blues with Williams Haines-- a lifelong friend. This high roller was often cast as the luscious girl-next-door, but her devious turn in the gem Our Dancing Daughters also stole the screen from the ever ambitious Joan Crawford. The saucy lady of integrity left acting and MGM behind purportedly because she refused to submit to the misogynistic, sexual advances of ol' LB Mayer. She remains notorious for her participation in The Broadway Melody, the first talkie to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and she was additionally the last living attendee of the first Academy Awards (1929) before her death in 2008.

THE REEL REALS: Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury. One could nearly stop right there. Her name encapsulates so much about film and television culture. She has graced the stage, screen, the tube, and has been actively working in the industry from her tender teenage years to the present. She is a permanent fixture-- a living signature of the legacy of Hollywood. With her ethereal, pre-Raphaelite beauty and true actor's courage, she took her thespian training in England and easily translated it to the states. Her birth in cinema, her survival instinct-- that cultivated when her father prematurely passed away and forced her to step forward and be independent-- and her unavoidable but hopefully distant exit from this world, seem to bookend the very story of Hollywood itself.

With her talent, Angela could certainly have become a huge movie star had she so wished. However, her intelligent and curious nature was more intrigued by the interpretation of character than the fringe benefits (and pratfalls) of stardom. As such, her impressive collection of roles are both distinctive and diverse. Not only did she debut in one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all time, Gaslight, but director George Cukor was so taken with her cockney, bad girl that he declared she reacted better to the camera than anyone he had ever witnessed. Her innocent girl fallen in The Picture of Dorian Gray showed audiences that she could portray both sides of the coin, and not only that, but every side to every coin ever minted: ambition (State of the Union), romanticism (Samson and Delilah), and outright, diabolical, divine evil (The Manchurian Candidate). Whatever it took, this slugger didn't hold back, and when Television took over, she took "to the mattresses" and came out an even bigger champion than before in the iconic series "Murder She Wrote." 

Her graceful ability to hold a scene, her physicalized insight into her characters, and the depth of intelligence and emotion behind her large, dreamy eyes have kept this lady working for seventy years. If that's not impressive... I don't know what is.

THE REEL REALS: Allison Hayes

Allison Hayes in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Allison Hayes obtained notoriety by becoming the oversized embodiment of the old saying, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." In fact, her presence in the film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was a pretty bold, feminist statement. For once, a woman was big enough and threatening enough to crush the man and the world that usually mistreated her, objectified her, and condescended to her-- something impossible at her new height. Ironically, the movie gave excited male viewers plenty to look at and admire-- many of them probably hoping to climb over her luscious body like adventurers exploring everest. In any case, while inspiring women to assert themselves and take control (because men, after all, were secretly afraid of them), or entertaining appreciative science fiction fans, Allison's snarling, fed-up, disenfranchised heroine immediately became the eternal B-movie Queen.

Allison's voluptuous curves, sultry voice, and tough veneer (the look on her face always seemed to be a personal broadcast of cynicism), made her an easy fit in the exploitative films of the '50s. She was never given the major opportunities for serious or more glamorous work, perhaps because the aforementioned qualities held her back, but her brief career in film was a solid one. With films like  Zombies of Mora Tau, Disembodied, and Wolf Dog on her resume, it is doubtful that any of her work was artistically fulfilling, but at the same time,  the actress was holding her own and supporting herself in an era when women were still expected to be obedient wives and mothers. Her categorization of a less reputable B-movie actress perhaps afforded her more freedom in certain ways than the rigorous life of the polished studio actress. One doubts that Allison ever took anything she did on the silver screen seriously. She was just a girl playing the game and making a buck. She was eventually able to test the waters of her talents a little more on television in the '60s, where she kept up her hefty work pace in more dramatic and sometimes comedic roles. Yet, she was never taken seriously, which certainly took a toll on her emotionally. 

Toward the end of her career, she had to slow her participation as she started experiencing excruciatingly painful health problems. The source was the calcium supplements she had ironically been taking for her health. He complaints and her symptoms were ignored as the mere fictions of a hyperemotional woman, and Allison's sorrow further intensified. After years of being treated as a puppet, sex-object, and professional joke, her added personal struggles sent her spiraling into a depression that made her consider suicide. Fate beat her to the punch, and she passed away at a mere 46-years of age. Just as the vibrant, powerful woman that must be taken down, contained, or destroyed in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Allison  was existentially bullied into a corner and made to feel a fool for wanting more out of life. Still, her appearance in the iconic film has become her triumph. For manhandled, suppressed, and frustrating women everywhere, Allison continues to wreak havoc, kick ass, and take names. The freedom she found in those brief moments on the screen have made her immortal and unstoppable. Despite her defeat, she always comes back again, bigger and better than ever.


Allan Dwan
Allan Dwan was a director extraordinaire during the silent era. While the Canadian (born Joseph Aloysius Dwan) had mild plans to enter the world of film, it is more justified to say that the movies came looking for him. His expertise as a lighting technician got him unceremoniously poached by Essanay, and after he made the transition to story-editor/writer, another twist of fate would put him in the director's chair-- or so the story goes. (Allegedly, he had to take the reins on a shoot when the original director disappeared on a bender). Well, thank Heavens for booze, because without any of these serendipitous events, one of cinema's greatest innovators never would have been!

During his career, one of Allan's many accomplishments was leading the Flying A Film Corp, one of the earliest and most important California film studios. Throughout his career, he worked with everyone from soon-to-be wife/ex-wife Pauline Bush, Wallace Reid, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, and Gloria Swanson. He also made an impression on the powerhouse couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the latter with whom he made the iconic Robin Hood and The Iron Mask. Through a career that spanned 50 years, Allan allegedly lost count of how many shorts and features he was responsible for, but we know his stamp is on at least 400. His ability to use the camera as an extension of himself, the storyteller-- capturing the greatest source of action, inspiration, and intrigue possible-- kept him at the top of his game for this unprecedented breadth of time. Indeed, he is even responsible for devising something that all directors and cinematographers take for granted today: the Dolly Shot. 

Allan passed away a few years shy of his own centennial, leaving a profound level of accomplishment behind him. While less remembered than names like Griffith, Chaplin, or DeMille, he is an essential part of filmdom's backbone, his contributions laying the ground work for upon which all future directors would more easily tread.

THE REEL REALS: Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead
Agnes Moorehead may not be one of the most famous actresses who ever lived, but according to Orson Welles, she was probably the greatest. Agnes lacked the perfect beauty that could have made her a golden idol of her era, but this perhaps served her well. She was able to maintain a career as a character actress long after many of her contemporaries' fresh-faced youths had faded. 

An educated woman, Agnes brought her great intellect and passion for literature with her when she began her performance career, which was only bolstered by additional training at the competitive American Academy for Dramatic Arts. Her great passion and emotional instinct for her art was indulged in early singing and radio work. Indeed, she had a voice, one that she could manipulate at will to cultivate a showcase of all the shades, cracks, and fissures of humanity. Crafting a fully formed character with vocals alone, the microphone gave Agnes a power over her audiences that was uninhibited by what she deemed to be her unattractive appearance. (Not true, Aggie). It didn't take long for Orson Welles, the Boy Wonder of Radio, to find her, and she joined his Mercury Theatre program, delivering spectacularly, emotionally articulated performances in his many adaptations, including "Dracula."

When Orson went Hollywood, he brought his Mercury players with him, which led to Agnes's performances in Citizen Kane, Journey into Fear, and the Magnificent Ambersons. Those who criticize the films (pft!) for their coldness, almost universally draw attention to Aggie's characterizations, which some deem to be the only depth in Orson's otherwise very cerebral narratives. Though a insecure, conflicted woman, who remained intensely religious throughout her life, her personal neuroses did not effect her cinematic career, which later translated to television. She was to appear on countless shows, and her surprise hit gig on "Bewitched" made her a pop cultural icon. Tragically, she was one of the many actors who performed in the oddball John Wayne film The Conqueror to pass away from cancer (uterine)-- this eerie coincidence is accredited to the fact that the movie was shot at a nuclear test site. 

With her wisdom, edge, and gift for simply being in the moment, Agnes is often overlooked for her talent. She was too good at what she did. The intellectual underdog, she remains a hidden victor in the continuing story of Hollywood, still camouflaging herself in the story as one of its mere moving pieces, convincing us that she isn't there at all.