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Thursday, January 24, 2013

CAST AWAYS: A 'Big' Favor Between Friends

Wallace Beery gets tough in The Champ.

Wallace Beery remains a controversial figure in cinematic history. Far from the typical, handsome leading man, the beefy Beery became a success regardless of, and perhaps because of, his rough mug. On the one hand, you have his acting talent, which brought him great acclaim for his performances in some of the most enjoyable, popular and nostalgic films of the early, burgeoning studio era, such as The Champ, Tugboat Annie, and Dinner at Eight. On the other, you hear stories of his notorious temper, penchant for violence, and general jack-ass tendencies. Co-stars like Jackie Cooper and Jean Harlow claimed that Beery was less-than-friendly between takes on the various projects on which they worked together. Of course, this could be chalked up to insecurity-- a common, human frailty. But then there is Gloria Swanson's horrendous account of her wedding night with Beery, who in her description, essentially raped her. Their marriage was, needless to say, brief. There are also those nagging rumors about the death of Ted Healy, whom Wallace may or may not have beaten to death in a drunken brawl at the Trocadero with the help of Pat DiCicco and Albert R. Broccoli. The public was told that a trio of college boys had been responsible for the death of Ted, the creator of "The Three Stooges." Clearly, Beery was a complicated individual, perhaps even dangerously so. Yet, despite his hardened edge, he had a multitudes of fans, one of whom was another co-star, Louise Brooks, a woman who was not prone to pretense or bull-sh*tters.

Further complicating the Beery mystery-- was he a misunderstood good guy or a temperamentally evil bad seed?-- is the friendship he shared with Lon Chaney. If anyone could sniff out a fake, it was Lon, who kept his closest friends at arms' length and his enemies in the Ozarks. If he had felt that Wallace was a menace, he would have avoided him like the plague. However, these two fellows hit it off when they met doing work in silent pictures, including their collaboration in Victory. In addition to sharing a birthday-- April Fool's Day, with Lon two years Wallace's senior-- the duo both had roots in theater and were notorious hams between takes, often clowning around together. Lon had a profound effect on Wallace, who must have looked up to him, not only as an incomparable actor, but as a genuine human being. Lon's saintlike, Monkish, and oh-so-private existence stood in sharp contrast to Wallace's hard-drinking, hard-playing bitterness and mommy issues. Lon perhaps saw in Wallace a man struggling against demons and felt compassion for him.

Lon indulges his evil side, in a publicity still for The Unknown.

In any case, after Lon's surprising, premature death in 1930, Wallace was one of many to speak out in candid reverence for his friend: "Lon Chaney was the one man I knew who could walk with kings and not lose the common touch." Therefore, it must have been an odd feeling when he usurped the role of "Butch" in The Big House, which it is said had been intended for Lon before he succumbed to the illness that would claim his life. Certainly, Wallace must have enjoyed the success that the film achieved, and certainly he would have been honored to have fulfilled an obligation for his deceased friend. Still, it must have been hard saying the lines, going through the motions, when he knew that they were intended for another man, one of few whom he apparently held dear. (Interestingly, Wallace would also appear in 1941's The Bugle Sounds, which bore the same title as a silent film slated to be a Chaney picture that never came to be. In the original, Wallace and Lon were to be cast opposite each other as rival sergeants).

Insert Lon HERE: ---------------------------------------------^
Chester Morris and Wallace in The Big House.

In a way, Beery picked up where Lon left off. Though very different types-- Lon the master emotional and physical contortionist, and Beery the big lug with usually menacing intentions-- Beery's career skyrocketed with the advent of sound, and he portrayed a slew of memorable character roles that Lon himself may have been offerend as well. The bonds of friendship are strange, but Wallace's relationship with Lon at least earns him one point in an otherwise questionable life.

Monday, January 14, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Lil' Bit About Lincoln

The latest Hollywood offering about one of America's most revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln, has been drawing much attention with its slew of award wins and nominations. Director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focuses on the life of the 16th leader of our nation as he fought for abolition in the midst of the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis, surprise-surprise, was incredible in his portrayal of one of the most iconic men in history and won the Golden Globe for his performance last night at the award ceremony.

Henry Fonda puts his oversized dogs up in his portrayal of 
the adored Commander in Chief in Young Mr. Lincoln.

Yet, Day-Lewis is but one of many in a long line of people to portray "honest Abe." Henry Fonda contributed to cinema's examination of this figure during his youthful, early days in politics in Young Mr. Lincoln, Joseph Henabary gave his interpretation in the epic and controversial Birth of a Nation, and who could forget Robert V. Barron's rendering during Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure: "Be excellent to each other!"

Benjamin Chapin brings Lincoln to life on stage.

However, few are familiar with the name Benjamin Chapin, the man who performed the role of Abraham Lincoln for years in vaudeville. Bearing a very strong resemblance to the former president, Chapin put the coincidence to use and played to packed houses in "A Day with Abraham Lincoln" at the turn of the century, merely 30 (or so) years after Lincoln's assassination. A dedicated researcher, he devoted his life to learning all he could about Lincoln's life, and in time wrote his own play, which he entitled "Lincoln" and put on the stage in Hartford, CT in 1906. In the words of noted Hollywood biographer E.J. Fleming

"Each act was a different Civil War event: the Fall of Fort Sumter, the Battle of Gettysburg, the end of the War, and the last day of Lincoln's life... told amid the tale of two soldiers in love with Mrs. Lincoln's neice, Kate Morris, one a loyal Union soldier and the other a Confederate spy."

It was a huge success, and Chapin's portrayal was highly revered. He and his company traveled from city to city, playing in increasingly respectable theatres, and were often in competition with the antithesis to the work-- the more racist play "The Clansman," soon to become the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation. Chapin too would make some films by serializing his play. After forming Charter Features Corp. in New Jersey, he eventually churned out over ten pictures. Interestingly enough, the infamous writer/producer/director Paul Bern would work with him in 1917. He would direct several of his two-reelers, including My Mother, The Spirit Man and Myself, The Lincoln Man.

When Lincoln Paid, with Francis Ford as the Prez (1917).

Unfortunately, just as Chapin was hitting his stride in pictures, having landed a contract with Famous Players, he passed away after a bout of tuberculosis. He was but 43-years-old. This marked the end of the first, major Lincoln player in cinema, but there would be many more. The story of Abe's life seems to grow only more fascinating as the years pass and as scholars and historians chip away at the complications and passions beneath his gentle soul. Thus, from D.W's 1930 film Abraham Lincoln to the recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, we continue to remain enthralled and enthused by a man who represented all that was good, just, and honorable in our always struggling, always striving, democratic nation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

DIDJA KNOW: Wee Little Tid Bit

"Leo the Lion" - the iconic MGM logo with which modern movie goers
are very familiar.
Every movie studio has its own logo - a visual stamp with which it identifies itself as a film's owner. Paramount has the mountain, Warner Brothers has the big WB, Universal has, well, the world. However, the greeting of "Leo the Lion" at the start of any Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film is somehow always the most exciting and nostalgic for audiences. But didja know that the MGM calling card was very nearly not a lion's roar but an eagle's caw? When the company formed in 1924, Louis B. Mayer wanted the MGM logo to be an eagle! It wasn't too crazy a concept. The eagle possesses all of the symbolism of liberty, beauty, and pride that a lion does, but it somehow isn't quite as cuddly. Leo the eagle??? I think not. In the end, Howard Dietz was able to convince all concerned that Samuel Goldwyn's original lion icon was best, so... the cat ate the canary, as it were. Dietz also designed the logo and added the (slightly grammatically incorrect) Ars Gratia Artis to it: "Art for the sake of art." Dietz is rarely given credit for this, nor for also coining the phrase "More Stars Than in the Heavens."

Slats becomes King of the Movies.
The first official MGM lion was named "Slats." However, with the sound boom of 1928, another lion, "Jackie," was brought in to record the new opening logo, complete with the now notorious roar. Douglas Shearer, brother to Norma, had gotten his start in films when he made an off-hand remark at a party about how he thought that the "talkies" were the wave of the future. Everyone ignored him, until time proved him to be correct. He was hired, and soon enough found himself unceremoniously adding sound to MGM's first sound film: W.S. Van Dyke's White Shadows of the South Sea. Most importantly, he gave Jackie his voice, and it was the first time audiences would hear it. Allegedly, they applauded and enjoyed that moment more then the rest of the picture, which was otherwise forgettable.

Jackie takes his place in history.
Jackie would not be the last MGM lion. Just how many different furry mammals have held the privilege seems debatable, but there appear to have been at least 6. Slats was around until 1928, followed by Jackie, who held reign over all black and white films until the mid '50s. With the appearance of technicolor, "Coffee" was brought in for a couple of years, but was replaced by "Tanner," who too reigned supreme in his color corner until the mid '50s. "George" was added into the mix for a brief time after, but from 1957-the present, Leo has held center stage. Though he wasn't the first, he has been in the spotlight the longest, and is the lion with whom most viewers are familiar. With the lion being such a memorable symbol in cinema, it is hard to imagine an eagle in his place. Thanks to Howard Dietz, things worked out purr-fectly.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

JANUARY BLITZ: "I'll Be Back."

A perfect fusion of celebrity pop culture: Marilyn Monroe as Theda Bara
in the famous Richard Avedon shoot.

Well friends, another year has begun, and I am really looking forward to investigating new stars and sharing their stories with you. I already have several ideas in mind, and I can't wait to dig in and start cookin'! However, my usual diligence is going to take a catnap this month. For various reasons, including the fact that 2012 has left me officially kaput, I will be taking a 31 day sojourn from my L.A. La Land articles to focus on personal matters and take care of business. As such, my entries for January will be more compact and less frequent than usual. (I can only imagine your devastation, which I am exaggerating in my mind in order to bolster my self-esteem).

Never fear, I will return in February with all new material, and while on my "stay-cation," I will continue adding to my ever increasing private library and over-polluted list of notes. That being said, I wish you a "Happy New Year" and hope that 2013 brings you all nothing but joy and the best of luck. Should you have any suggestions for upcoming "Stars of the Month," I would be interested in hearing just what the public is yearning for. Take care and sit tight, while I slip into a mind-frame that is a little more comfortable.

Jean Harlow: ""Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?"
Hell's Angels - 1930