Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hollywood's First "Bad Boy" Was A Canadian



The movies have always had a love affair with "Bad Boys". Fans love rugged, hard-living, hard-partying characters who break all the rules, get all the girls and somehow end up on top.

Sometimes it works in the studios' interests to imply that the actors playing those parts aren't far removed from the characters they make famous.

The stories about Errol Flynn, Sinatra's "Rat Pack" and other stars up to and including Charlie Sheen have become the stuff of Legend. But one man can be credited for not only creating the myth other stars have emulated but embodying it completely, a Canadian named Jack Pickford.

Pickford was born in Toronto on August 18, 1896, the youngest brother of Mary Pickford, who would become the biggest star of the Silent Era. But while she became beloved as "America's Sweetheart", with more fans than the rest of Hollywood put together, her brother solidified a reputation as "Hollywood's Nightmare".

Jack made his stage debut at the age of 8, universally acknowledged as a beautiful boy with immense talent and predicted to follow in the footsteps of his already famous (in theatrical circles) sister. Some even felt Jack had the makings to become the best actor of his generation.

But somewhere during the run of his very first play, Jack revealed another side of his personality, one which would soon scandalize not only the movie business but much of the world -- and ultimately destroy him.

Later in life, Jack acknowledged that his legendary capacity for alcohol got its first test during that first play. And it ignited a desire to push the boundaries of morality as much as he could.

Even as a child, Jack had an unbridled love of fun. He was known for possessing a potent combination of talent and charm. He was nice to everybody, a completely "happy-go-lucky" guy. By the age of 12, he was wowing Broadway audiences and producers. As one director put it, "He came over the footlights like an angel from heaven."

But backstage, another Jack Pickford was emerging. His sense of fun warped into rough practical jokes that humiliated members of his casts and crews. At the age of 13, he was caught having sex with the daughter of a wardrobe mistress. He once even glued on a merkin to hide his youth and visited a whorehouse. The merkin didn't fool anybody. But it did make him a hit with the resident ladies.

Those incidents aside, his drinking increased exponentially and he began using cocaine. Audiences still loved him, but he was becoming a handful backstage.

His mother enrolled him in a military academy in the hope he would straighten out. But instead, Jack recruited other boys into what might have been show business's first "entourage". When one theatre owner attempted to discipline him for some prank, Jack had his academy friends descend on the theatre and cover it with obscene graffiti.

Before his 14th birthday, he was officially blacklisted by the New York Theatre Managers and Producers Association -- forbidden from even attending auditions.

Jack's banning didn't have much impact, however, for in 1911, the entire Pickford clan moved to California to embrace the movie business fulltime, and producer Carl Laemmle, perhaps unaware of Jack's excesses, perhaps hoping to curry favor with Mary, signed him to a movie contract.

A year later, at 16, he starred in his first feature, "A Dash Through The Clouds", while also causing a lifelong rift between Mary and fellow silent stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish by -- as Lillian would admit decades later "doing things to Dorothy that neither of us understood at the time".

Indeed Jack had a reputation for turning up in the dressing rooms of his leading ladies, dropping his pants and ordering them to have sex with him. Some threw him out. But many more did not.

Jack also formed a new entourage that included actors Wallace Reid, Lew Cody and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. They were known for their wild parties and out of control hi-jinks. First dubbed "Pickford's Gang" and then "The Rat Pack" they were rumored to be regularly provided with cocaine by director Desmond Taylor -- until he was mysteriously murdered; and once literally destroyed an exclusive Beverly Hills country club.

Banned from ever darkening the doors of the club, Pickford and his pals crashed a car into the main dining room, tossed patrons into the pool and then pelted them with beer bottles. Mary somehow managed to convince the police to drop charges and paid for all the damage.

But Pickford's gang had some harmless fun at the expense of other stars as well. On Charlie Chaplin's wedding night, they hired the famous Paul Whiteman orchestra to set up on his lawn and play Sousa marches into the wee hours. Despite Pickford's assurances that Chaplin was in on the gag, he wasn't around when the police arrived and hauled the entire orchestra off to jail.


As Pickford's career success grew with movies that were lauded by critics and hugely profitable to the studios, so did his capacity for causing trouble. He appeared to be settling down in 1917, after Paramount's Adolph Zuckor provided financial backing for the independent "Jack Pickford Film Company" and he married Zeigfeld Girl and rising star Olive Thomas.

But with America entering WWI and realizing he might soon be drafted, Jack suddenly enlisted in the Navy. While studio publicists applauded his patriotism, privately, he told friends his fame had allowed him to land a cushy desk job far from any combat.

And to all outward appearances, Jack seemed content to serve his country although stationed in New York. But shortly after the Armistice was signed, the New York Times ran a headline screaming, "Scandal in the Navy" over a story revealing that Jack Pickford had been supplying women, booze and a penthouse party location to Senior officers in order to secure safe postings for friends and wealthy associates.

A little studio and family finagling saved him from a court martial and although discharged as "medically unfit to serve", Jack was soon back in LA making movies. But Olive was heart-broken at the realization that the man she'd married had not mended his ways.

The couple seemed headed for divorce. But a year later, they set sail for a "second honeymoon" in Paris. Unfortunately, it would end in tragedy.

After a night of clubbing in Montmarte, Jack frantically called the front desk of his hotel to send up a doctor. A half hour later, Olive was pronounced dead -- from poison.

At the inquest, it was revealed that Jack had been diagnosed with Syphilis in 1917 and was taking the only known medication at the time, Bi-chloride of Mercury -- poisonous in large doses. Shortly after his return from the Navy, Olive learned that he had passed the incurable disease to her. To this day no one knows if her death was from an overdose of Mercury, suicide -- or she was murdered to keep Jack's secret.

Back in Hollywood, Jack had become a pariah overnight. He only made one film in the next year, albeit with a clause in his contract that he would have no physical contact whatsoever with his leading lady.

He soon left town for New York, returning a year later with a new bride, another Ziegfeld girl, Marilyn Miller. Ziegfeld was outraged, threatening in print to "murder the man". But once again, Jack charmed Hollywood's elite and appeared to be mending his ways.

The newly remarried Jack was affable and agreeable with everyone. Over the next couple of years he made eight more successful films. On the surface, his domestic life seemed perfect. Yet as one close friend confided, "That's the thing about Jack. He's always pleasant. But he's always loaded."

Then one day, Marilyn announced that the marriage was over and returned to New York to take the lead in a new Ziegfeld show. After five years of marriage, she had finally learned her husband had Syphilis.

A deflated Jack made one last film, "Exit Laughing" and then joined Marilyn in Paris to finalize the divorce. Why Paris? The couple knew a divorce in New York or California would require them to provide details of their marriage neither wanted to make public. In Paris, they were out of court in 20 minutes.


Jack dropped out of sight for a while, surfacing in the social pages in 1930 when he married a third Ziegfeld girl. A year later, she too learned of his disease and moved out of their home.

Pickford then drifted back to California, now suffering the dementia that accompanies the final stages of Syphilis. After visiting a friend in Palm Springs in 1931, he missed a curve while speeding down a desert highway, totaled his car and was badly injured.

Mary rescued him from the small hospital to which he was taken and placed him in a private clinic in Los Angeles, where he was soon declared "clinically insane".

Jack's days in the clinic were mostly spent singing dirty songs as he recovered from his physical injuries. Once those were healed, however, he often became violent and Mary finally had him transferred to a clinic in Paris that claimed it had found a cure for Syphilis.

But recovery was not in the cards for Jack. He died on January 3, 1933, an autopsy revealing that much of his brain had been eaten away.

Hollywood's first "Bad Boy", a Canadian, was finally at rest.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 184: So Fast

It never fails, does it? You get wrapped up in a couple of projects, spend the remaining waking hours trying to keep the regular portions of your life operating normally and one day, you wake up, glance at the calendar and say, "Whoa! It's the last week of Summer!".

That was fast!

And so is this!

Enjoy Your Sunday!

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Canadian Who Created Comedy Legends



Just like every other kid, Del Lord dreamt of running away with the Circus. Life was boring in his hometown of Grimsby, Ontario and it wasn't much better in nearby Niagara Falls where his widowed mother moved them to find work.

But in his 14th Summer, a circus camped at the Falls for several months and its clowns took pity on the skinny kid who came by every day to watch them rehearse. They soon worked him into their routine, playing a hapless rube, dragged from the audience at every performance to be tossed around the ring, hit with buckets of water and otherwise made the butt of jokes.

Seeing how much her son enjoyed Circus life, Mrs. Lord gave her permission for him to follow them to their winter quarters in Jacksonville, Florida.

A few months later, in early 1909, she died and the Circus became Del Lord's family.

For three years he travelled with the Big Top, learning the skills of clowning and acrobatics. In 1912, while touring California, Lord's Circus was asked to set up near a Hollywood studio to serve as background for a film they were making. Del watched one day of shooting and knew he had found his true calling.

But his first job in the industry was building sets in fellow Canadian Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios. The construction was for a film Sennett felt might spawn a new star, a young vaudeville comedian he'd hired by the name of Charlie Chaplin.


Chaplin arrived but seemed overwhelmed by the world of the movies. He was new to California too and didn't know a soul beyond Sennett. Lord engaged him in conversation and Chaplin asked if he knew anywhere he might find a room. Lord took him back to the rooming house where he was staying. It was one of the few which allowed "theatricals".

Lord convinced the landlady that Chaplin was trustworthy and would pay his rent on time. Then the two sat up all night trading stories about their lives on the road.

"I was a very scared person. And when I saw the chaos of the studio I felt sure I would soon be on my way back to vaudeville. The second day was different. The second day, I had a friend" -- Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin went to work on his first film and Lord continued to build sets. But every night he and Chaplin would work on gags and routines back at the rooming house. Chaplin soon recognized that Lord had an innate sense of what was funny and begged Sennett to hire him as an actor so he would be available as an on-set coach.

Watching Lord work with Chaplin, Sennett also realized the kid had something special and Lord was soon put to work as a member of Sennett's comedy mainstay "The Keystone Cops". Lord reluctantly joined that raucous, slapstick stunt-fest. But not before leaving Chaplin with one more comic suggestion -- the moustache that became his trademark.


Lord's acrobatic training was perfectly suited for the dangerous mayhem that characterized "The Keystone Cops". Eventually he performed almost all of their dangerous driving stunts as well, many of which were filmed in LA traffic with no one else on the road aware they were part of the scene.

Despite almost being killed by locomotives, streetcars and driving over cliffs, Lord flourished. Sennett soon had him directing. And he was always on call to do one thing he did better than anyone else -- throw a pie.

"Putting a pie in Del Lord's hands was like handing Rubens a pallet and a brush. He was an artist to his fingertips." -- Mack Sennett

From 1914 to 1917, Lord directed hundreds of films for Sennett, polishing and perfecting the work of such stars as Harold Lloyd and Wallace Beery. He even convinced Sennett to re-hire a comic he had fired because audiences felt he wasn't funny.

Del Lord saw something in a guy named Ben Turpin. and in a few short weeks, Lord had transformed him into one of the biggest comic stars of the Silent Era.

ben turpin

The Crash of 1929 wiped Sennett out and hit most of Hollywood hard. But Lord's reputation as a "comic genius" kept him working for a number of studios. He made the transition to sound with ease. But as the Depression deepened, he found himself directing a series of unsatisfying musical shorts and decided to leave show business and make the kind of money that would support his family selling cars.

A couple of years later, that's where fellow Sennett director Jules White crossed his path. White had always admired Lord's work and had just been hired to supervise a new comedy division at Harry Cohn's Columbia Studios. Lord resisted at first, but White convinced Cohn to offer him a contract too rich to ignore.

Lord came back to the movies and was soon working with the likes of Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton. It was said that no one had to ask directions to whichever soundstage Lord was shooting. You simply stepped outside and listened for the uncontrolled laughter of the cast and crew.

A typical Lord set was so out of control that Crewmembers were known to stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to avoid blowing a take. And even Buster Keaton, famous for his deadpan personality wasn't immune.

"Some of his ideas were so original and so hilarious that I often fell out of character and joined in the fun." -- Buster Keaton


But Lord would begin to make the mark for which he will forever be remembered in March of 1935. That's when he was put in charge of a struggling comic trio known as "The Three Stooges". Lord's style and inventiveness meshed perfectly with Larry, Curly and Moe. Over the next 13 years, they would make 41 films together.

Later in life, all of the Stooges would confirm that Lord had invented every single one of their trademark gags.

"We were the stars, but Del Lord deserved equal billing. He knew what we were capable of doing and he dragged every ounce of it out of us." -- Moe Howard

And while most directors would have been happy with the level of craft Lord achieved on set, he went further when the films were done.

Unknown to the studio, he would sneak rough cuts into local theatres and tape the audience reactions. Then he'd go back to the edit suite and run the films with this makeshift "laugh track", tightening jokes and eliminating bits that didn't work until he had audiences laughing from beginning to end of every Stooge release.

ScreenHunter_09 May_ 03 17_12

Around 1950, Lord began to scale back his work load and travel the world with his wife, Edith. In the process, he became troubled by all the child poverty he saw and vowed to do something about it.

He and Edith purchased a larger home and over the next decade raised and educated 21 refugee children from a variety of countries.

In 1968, he also went back to help the Stooges, launching a lawsuit to win them a share of the tens of millions their films were making on television. But the Distributors fought hard and eventually got Lord's case thrown out of court. But his battle inspired the children of the retired comedians to launch their own court action, finally shaming the rights holders into doing the right thing for their fathers.

Lord died in 1970, a man who'd never gotten very wealthy and never even been nominated for an industry reward despite the millions whose lives he had enriched with laughter. It was reported that no one from the Hollywood community attended his funeral, in most cases to avoid the wrath of those he'd sued on behalf of the stars he had helped to create.

But in attendance were the families of the Stooges and 21 other young men and women to whom he had given a better life.

Lord's last film with "The Three Stooges" can be found here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hollywood's Most Prolific Director Was A Canadian



Allan Dwan was born in Toronto in 1885, the son of a snake oil salesman who fled the city in 1893, taking his family to Chicago where he went into politics. According to Dwan, "It was just the natural progression".

The elder Dwan prospered in his new line of work for as Allan would also later say, "All politicians prospered in Chicago".

As a result, Allan soon found himself able to attend Notre Dame University where he became a star football player, member of the Drama club and top of his class electrical engineer.

After graduating, he landed a job with a company developing mercury vapor lamps. These became his entree into show business when he was tasked with installing the new lights in several Chicago theatres.

One night, George Spoor, one of the owners of the Essanay-Spoor-Anderson Film Company saw the lights in action and asked Dwan if they might be of use to the film industry.

Dwan didn't have a clue, but he rigged up Spoor's studio for a test which turned out to be a magnificent success.

As Dwan hung around the studio tweaking the lighting set-up, he noticed that writers were constantly dropping by to deliver story ideas for the company's films. Mostly, he noticed that Spoor paid $25 cash for each one he used.

Having had several stories printed in the Notre Dame student newspaper, and sensing he had much better stories than the ones he saw being shot, Dwan went home and gathered up 20 of his best. Spoor not only bought all 20, he hired Dwan on the spot to be his "script editor" -- for $300/week.

A couple of months later, another local outfit, The American Film Company, noticed an uptick in the quality of Essanay-Spoor-Anderson titles and offered Dwan double his current salary to work for them.

Dwan's first assignment for American was to join a crew of actors and technicians being dispatched to Arizona to shoot Westerns.

dwan cowboy

The distant location was less about achieving cinematic authenticity than finding somewhere nobody might look for a movie company.

Y'see, the year was 1910 and several film companies including the major players, Biograph and Vitagraph, had teamed as "The Patent Company" so named because they owned all the camera patents necessary to prevent smaller companies from making movies.

And they didn't put those companies out of business by hiring lawyers. They hired thugs to attack the sets, beat up the cast and crew and smash the cameras. And there were a lot of thugs for hire in Chicago.

On their first shoot day in Arizona, Dwan discovered the director had disappeared on what was a semi-regular bender. Nobody knew when, or if, he'd ever return. So Allan wired Chicago, asking them to send a new director. The return telegram was short and to the point. "You are now Director. Salary doubled. Deliver a minimum 3 films a week."

The Westerns the company was shooting were known as one-reelers, literally one reel of film or ten minutes in length. Still -- a tall order for somebody fluent in the cinematic arts and Dwan had never directed a frame of film.

But he gave it a shot, evolving what became his trademark, simple, straightforward story telling with no aspirations to "Art" or "Significance". Allan Dwan just made sure each film, each scene, each shot had a beginning, a middle and an end.

He also became adept at shooting on the fly, taking advantage of anything in front of his camera. One morning, he found an impressive cliff and improvised a fight with one of his cowboys getting tossed over it. Later in the day, he came across a desert aqueduct and concocted a story of one rancher poisoning the water that flowed to his neighbor, thereby leading to the fight on the cliff edge.

The company churned out several films over several months and then word came that Patent Company thugs had discovered their location.

Dwan was shooting a cowboys vs Indians film when he was alerted that a posse of Patent thugs were headed to the set. Thinking quickly, he had his actors change over to real ammunition and real arrows and attack the posse when it arrived. The intruders were quickly driven off -- with Dwan rolling film on the action.

Dwan wrote a story to go with the "cowboys and Indians on the same side" climax and the resulting film was a sensation when it was released.

By that time, the company had escaped to California, but avoided Hollywood, setting up shop in La Mesa, CA.

Over the next 15 months, Dwan produced and directed 200 one-reel films while writing over half of them. His output not only included Westerns, but melodramas and comedies as well. On days when he couldn't come up with an idea, he took his crew out and shot a documentary.

By this time, he was considered one of the top directors in America and Hollywood finally came looking for him. Dwan signed with Universal for another salary increase on the understanding that from then on, he would only write and direct features.

He was already attracting top talent like Wallace Reid, Norma Talmage and Donald Crisp (who would win an Oscar in 1941 for "How Green Was My Valley"). But he was discovering stars as well, including Gloria Swanson, Lon Chaney, who started as his props man, and Erich Von Stroheim, his AD.

Swanson and Von Stroheim would eventually be teamed in Billy Wilder's 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard" and if you look closely, Allan Dwan is one of the photographers in the movie's chilling final sequence.

Dwan's simple approach to shooting made him a darling of both studios and stars. Audiences also flocked to his films. In addition to writing and directing such silent classics as "Robin Hood", he helmed one of the first color films, "Stage Struck" starring Gloria Swanson in 1925.


In 1928, Fox put him in charge of all their sound films. They let him out of his contract to direct Douglas Fairbanks' first sound film "The Iron Mask" in 1929. It was also to be the last of the great swashbucklers of the era.

Dwan stayed with Fox until 1941, churning out several films a year, including classics like Shirley Temple's "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Heidi". In 1933, he made a star out of Ida Lupino in "Her First Affair" and discovered Rita Hayworth (Human Cargo, 1936).

passion dwan

In 1936, he also made a potboiler called "High Tension" that featured black actress Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel would become the first African American actress to win an Oscar in 1939 for "Gone With The Wind". But she credited much of her success to Dwan, saying he was the first director to treat her like a lady. She also treasured their first day on the set, when Dwan took her to lunch in the Fox Commissary. "For the first time, I was an equal member of the company."

Dwan's simple story telling style made him the go-to guy for almost any kind of film. Westerns, thrillers, horror, comedy, drama -- even historical spectaculars. No matter the genre, the budget or the stars, Dwan's work always found an audience. Yet he remained nowhere near as well known as John Ford, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens or William Wyler -- despite the fact that his credit would end up on more films than all of them put together.


One afternoon, UCLA called asking if he could lecture their film students on his craft. In his usual, no-BS way, Dwan stated that he didn't really know anything about craft. He just placed the actors, pointed the camera and trusted everybody else knew what they were doing. Then he rolled film and had a sandwich. He later swore that one of the students popped up to ask, "What kind of sandwich?"

In 1949, Dwan directed the film he knew would be the one he'd be remembered for, "The Sands of Iwo Jima" with John Wayne. The film was Republic studio's biggest success.

sands of

Having been in the film business for more than 40 years and beyond wealthy, he could have easily rested on his laurels but that wasn't Dwan's style. He began making independent features and in 1955 tried live television.

In 1958, at the age of 73, he directed his final feature, "Enchanted Island". By then his resume included 444 feature films, many of which he also wrote. Add to that more than 600 one and two reelers.

The most prolific director Hollywood would ever know kept writing scripts until he was 82 and in 1976, at the age of 91, accepted the LA Film Critics "Career Achievement Award". It was the first time he'd received any recognition for his work beyond the offer of another job.

Allan Dwan died in 1981, aged 96, leaving the UCLA Medical School his vast fortune and his body for research. Simple, straightforward -- and Canadian -- to the end.

Peter Bogdanovitch penned a biography of Dwan in 1970 entitled "The Last Pioneer" and many of his experiences shooting one reel Westerns formed the basis of Bogdanovitch's 1976 film "Nickelodeon". A full roster of Allan Dwan's films (some streaming in their entirety) can be found here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 183: Dieppe


On July 27th, journalist Tim Knight caused quite a stir by stating that he had finally lost all respect for CBC's National newscast.

The cause of Mr. Knight's displeasure was that the date marked Canada's official departure from combat in Afghanistan. It was a historical moment, one that had been discussed endlessly on CBC for a decade.

Yet, when it arrived, despite the price in blood and treasure that the war had extracted, despite the moment having a profound personal impact on thousands of Canadian families, the National spent most of its time gushing over a couple of upper class twits visiting the country.

After babbling about the Royal Tour, the newscast spent time examining the Casey Anthony trial in Florida, flooding in China, a stadium collapse and a dust storm in Phoenix. It finally presented the Afghan withdrawal with a brief voice over and stock footage -- despite still having correspondents in the combat zone.

Banality had triumphed over substance. And for this we pay over a Billion dollars a year.

On the other hand, maybe CBC is no worse than any other Canadian broadcaster when it comes to recounting our history. August 19th passed with barely a mention of why that date was once coldly carved into the hearts of several generations of Canadians.

On August 19, 1942 more than 5000 Canadian troops, supported by the Royal Navy, RAF and British, American and Free French Commandoes attacked the French port of Dieppe. It was a raid designed to test German defenses and test Allied landing strategies and equipment. It was also intended to show Russia's Joseph Stalin that the Western powers were ready to open a second front against Hitler.

From start to finish the action was a complete disaster. The Germans knew well in advance that the attack was coming. In fact, they'd spent weeks perfecting their defenses, even marking the exact positions where mortar shells would land.

The day before, the BBC began broadcasting warnings to French civilians to leave the coast and the RAF and Royal Navy didn't bomb or shell the town in order to avoid killing non-combatants.

What's more, the tanks and artillery sent ashore weren't designed to traverse the pebble beaches. Every single one was destroyed while still in the water.

Finally, hours before the raid, Field Marshal Montgomery had insisted the mission be scrubbed, since it had no chance of succeeding. But he was over-ruled by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a member of the same Royal family with which today's CBC seems so smitten.

Mountbatten's folly echoed the same "toy soldier" approach that had slaughtered Australian troops at Gallipoli in WWI. On August 19, 1942, it was Canada's turn to provide the cannon fodder.

Six hours after it began, the battle was lost. 3,367 Canadians were either dead, wounded or taken prisoner. Most of them had never gotten off the beach.

Many of those lost were from my home province of Saskatchewan and when I was a kid it wasn't unusual to be told that this guy had lost his son or brother at Dieppe or that one limped because of the wounds he'd received that day.

Later, when I was acting, I did two plays that dealt with the debacle at Dieppe; Tom Hendry's inspired "Gravediggers of 1942" and Peter Colley's "The War Show". The latter's first act climax depicted the slaughter on the beach. Often the curtain dropped not to applause but to silence and the sound of someone weeping.

One night, during the intermission, there was a knock on the Green Room door. Being the only actor who wasn't in the middle of a cigarette, I answered it. A huge, muscular man in his late 50's filled the doorway with tears streaming down his face. He reached out and dropped several crumpled 10's and 20's into my hand. "I lost a lot of good friends at Dieppe," he said, "Have a drink to 'em on me."

He started away, then turned back. "And Bless you all for remembering. It means a lot."

Just apparently not to anyone in Canadian broadcasting…

Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Canadian Keeper Of The Stars


joe de grasse

Joseph Louis De Grasse was born in Bathurst, New Brunswick in 1873. By the time he died in 1940 in Eagle Rock, California, he would be remembered as one of the Silent Era's most respected directors. What wasn't known until much later, was that without Joe De Grasse many Hollywood stars would have died destitute and forgotten.

One of 11 siblings, Joe was still a child when his father moved the clan to Boston to take a job in a local shipyard. The first time there was any official record of Joe came when he was 13 and dubbed a hero by a Boston newspaper for diving into the harbor to rescue a little girl who was drowning. It was to be the first of many mentions to follow.

Joe had no real interest in show business, studying to become an accountant. But he spent some of his leisure time building and painting sets for amateur theatre companies. An extremely handsome man, he was eventually coaxed into acting.

In 1905, the lead in a show prepping their Boston opening had a heart attack and a desperate producer brought Joe in as a replacement. Despite only two days rehearsal, he wowed the audience and critics. The play was a hit and after a successful season went on a cross country tour that ended in Los Angeles a year later.

Local producers were equally impressed with this new, good-looking leading man and Joe soon found himself not only the star but artistic director of a local stock company.

Suddenly in charge of picking plays and supervising other actors, Joe discovered that what he really wanted to do was direct.

The proximity of the emerging film industry led to him appearing in a few films, where he gained fame in Pathé Westerns as a dashing highwayman -- who came to be known as "The Pathé Bandit". But while there were plenty of good-looking actors in early Hollywood, there weren't many skilled directors and the studios soon realized Joe possessed talents of which they were in greater need.

price of silence

Pathé offered him a contract to direct anything he wanted and Joe soon became a favorite of performers like Mary Pickford and Lon ("The Man of a Thousand Faces") Chaney.

Meanwhile, Joe's brother Sam, a dentist, arrived in town to visit and was soon put to work as an actor as well. He too excelled at the craft, becoming a star in his own right and later the villain in almost all of Douglas Fairbanks' swashbuckling adventures.

But while Joe's skills both before and behind the camera were notable, what he seemed to do best was manage money.

Having learned early in his career that show biz people were not the best at handling their financial affairs, Joe had often helped fellow thespians invest their earnings. In the process, he also became a trusted friend and confidant, especially among the fairer sex.

Joe soon had a staff handling the accounts of many in Hollywood and was credited for saving most of their fortunes from the Stock Market Crash of 1929. When asked how a studio as successful as his own could have gone bankrupt, Mack Sennett stated simply, "I ignored the advice of Joe De Grasse."

Often linked by studio publicists and Hollywood gossip to virtually every female star and starlet known to the public, Joe married fellow director Ida Mae Park in 1917. She soon discovered that Joe had a private phone line on which he swore he merely "consoled" many of the industry's leading ladies. According to Park, they "seemed to need a lot of consoling".


Somehow the marriage survived, and Ida Mae even became the manager of such stars as Miriam Cooper, Louise Lovely and Dorothy Phillips.

But it was only after Joe's death that Ida Mae discovered just how much Joe had meant to not only those actresses but many others.

As Hollywood obituaries noted the titles of the 85 films he had directed, his founding of the Motion Picture Directors Association (precursor of the DGA) and Joe's achievements as an actor, Ida Mae uncovered much more in her husband's will and private papers.

For while Joe had left her an immense fortune and hundreds of acres of property and bequeathed members of his family ownerships in Gold mines and other businesses that would ensure their future security, he had, for a decade, also been making monthly payments to 40 luminaries of the Silent era who had fallen on hard times when their careers were over.

Joe had not only "consoled" his friends and co-workers, he had made sure that so many who had helped create the industry, whose faces and names were widely known by the Public, never wanted for anything.

He had also set aside funds to make sure they were cared for as long as they lived.


Joe's generosity not only assured a peaceful retirement for many early stars, directors and writers, it sent their children to University, paid their medical care and helped them when they were in need.

In a time before guilds and unions capable of securing royalties and residuals let alone offering insurance and pension plans, Joe De Grasse had personally stepped up for those in his industry.

His brother Sam followed his example, leaving half of the wealth Joe had built for him to theatrical charities, some of which had been established by others in the Hollywood community inspired by his brother's thoughtfulness.

Joe De Grasse, another Canadian who helped build Hollywood -- and became the Keeper of its Stars.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 182: City Of Night

I've always believed that you fall in love with a city at night.

During the day, it's full of people doing all the things that each particular city does best -- being the "Big Apple", the "Hog Butcher to the World", the "City that Never Sleeps"…

But when those people go home to their own lives, the city gets to be itself, gets to be all that all the generations who've lived there have made it. Night's when you see a city for what it is, free of all its present busy-ness and what it's turning into next.

There's nothing like wandering around Paris or London or New York at night. The make-up is off. The pretenses are down. You see them for what they really are. And then you realize why you love them.

I fell in love with Los Angeles in a moment so small it's almost not worth remembering. But like falling in love with a person, it was one of those little moments you'll never forget.

It was about Midnight on a Friday night. I drove out of the studio gates in Burbank burned out, thirsty and tired. I was living all the way across town near the ocean. But I'd promised to drop a co-worker in Glendale.

By the time I did that, the freeway onramp looked more inviting than any of the local watering holes. So I swung aboard and turned on the radio.

Perfectly cued, I hit the empty lanes of non-traffic as The Doors began "LA Woman".

I'd been listening to the song for 30 years. Liked it. Knew its history as the last Doors song Jim Morrison recorded. Apparently he finished his track, dropped the mic and walked outside to catch a jet to Paris and eternity.

The music swept past and into the warm night as I dropped down out of the hills with the lights of the city spread out before me. And it suddenly seemed like I was driving to the rhythm of the music and what I was passing was what The Doors were really singing about.

It made the Beach as the song ended. Of course, that's impossible. Even I don't drive that fast.

Or maybe, like the moment you fall in love, Time just stopped while the city and I connected.

Like I said, a tiny moment you just never forget.

Every now and then, something reminds me of that night. Like this short video by Colin Rich. The beauty of a city at night.

Enjoy your Sunday…

Or -- if you'd rather just listen to The Doors…

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Mysterious Death of a Canadian Movie Icon



The official story reads as follows:

Florence LaBadie was born in Montreal, Quebec on April 14, 1896, the daughter of a prominent banker. She was schooled at the illustrious Convent of Notre Dame. At the age of 8, she auditioned, without her parents' knowledge, for a part in a play. The director realized the little girl was not only quite talented but could memorize lines after a single read of the text.

The play was a stunning success. But despite other stage offers, Florence went back to just being a kid, albeit a very wealthy and privileged one. In 1909, following the death of her father, she and her mother moved to New York. A month later, she landed a part in a Broadway play that was seen on opening night by theatrical impresario, David Belasco.

Belasco introduced her to fellow Canadian actress and "America's Sweetheart", Mary Pickford. Pickford invited her to visit the set of a movie she was making for Biograph Pictures in New York for D. W. Griffith. A week later, Florence not only had a part in the film, she'd been signed to a Biograph contract.

She quickly rose to stardom with both Pickford and Griffith claiming she was the best actress they had ever worked with. Other companies offered her huge contracts to come work for them and she soon became the leading lady at the much respected Thanhouser Film Corporation.

Eight years later, after making an astonishing 185 films and challenging Pickford as the most popular screen actress of the day, LaBadie was driving her car one evening when the brakes failed and the vehicle careened out of control and rolled. She appeared to recover from the accident, was released from hospital, and then suddenly died of her injuries.

The entire New York film industry was stunned at her tragic passing -- and yet -- many of her closest friends and co-workers didn't attend her funeral and refused to speak about her with the press.

But after a decade of silence, intriguing details of Florence LaBadie's final months began to surface and a mystery which has never been solved was revealed.

In 1927, an editor for the Boston Globe was provided information gathered in the wake of LaBadie's death by New York Telegraph reporter James Baird.

Baird had gone to look at LaBadie's car after the accident and discovered from the police and the mechanic who looked it over that the brake lines had been cut. Indeed, the accident was identical to one which had killed Thanhouser's President, Charles J. Hite, a couple of years earlier.

When Baird brought his story back to the Telegraph, his editors were certain they had a front page scoop. But next morning, he discovered they had spiked it instead and he was specifically told not to do any more digging about either LaBadie or the accident.

Baird sensed somebody very influential didn't want the story getting out and went back to the garage where LaBadie's car was being stored. The vehicle was gone, as was the mechanic who had talked to him. The owner insisted he didn't know the whereabouts of either.

24 Hours later, Baird was fired by the Telegraph and found himself blacklisted at every other New York newspaper.

He finally landed a job in upstate New York, only to be visited late one night by two large and imposing men who wanted to make sure he had no more interest in LaBadie's car and reminded him that his health might depend on remaining disinterested.

Baird waited a couple of years, and then started digging again.


He eventually found LaBadie's maid, who confided that the star had secretly had a child in September of 1915. But no one would name the baby's father.

Baird quickly discovered that many of LaBadie's friends knew much more than they would reveal about his identity but were terrified of discussing anything related to the actress.

On more than one occasion, Mary Pickford was seen to become very agitated when someone asked about her friendship with Florence LaBadie. Once, she told a reporter, "There are some things better left unresolved!" and fled the room.

Baird hoped the Boston Globe article would get someone in authority to reopen the case. But once again silence enveloped the passing of Florence LaBadie.

Then in 1943, one of Florence's closest friends, actress Valentine Grant, was interviewed by Hollywood publicist Charles Foster for a book he was writing on the Silent Era -- and the floodgates opened.

According to Grant and several others Foster subsequently queried, Florence had caught the eye of the Governor of New Jersey shortly after going to work for the Thanhouser Studios. She couldn't stand the man but was encouraged to be nice to him because he was very helpful to both Charles Hite and the company.

Obsessed with the actress, the Governor made almost daily visits to whichever set LaBadie was working. She pleaded with Hite to keep him away, and Hite did the best he could, concocting a serial for LaBadie which was distributed to theatres in weekly episodes and had to be shot on a closed set so the cliffhanger endings and their resolution couldn't leak out in advance.

His own advances blocked, the Governor decided to run for higher office. And in November of 1912, Thomas Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States.

Two years later, Wilson's wife died and LaBadie confided to Valentine Grant, Pickford and others that she was certain he would ask her to marry him and her career would be over.

Not long after, she received an invitation to spend Christmas of 1914 at the White House. Seeing how stressed she was becoming, Hite promised to intervene. But his own fatal single car accident put an end to that option. Florence soon realized she could not turn down the nation's most powerful man.

She spent Christmas week in Washington and returned, in the words of co-workers, "a different person". She seemed almost in shock and would descend into fits of weeping. She refused to talk about the White House or the President. And suddenly, an actress known for never needing a second take stumbled through scenes, unable to remember which line or piece of business came next.

In March of 1915, she requested a six month leave of absence to which the studio immediately agreed, telling the Press she had been working too hard and had suffered a nervous breakdown.

In early 1916, Florence finally returned to work, seeming to be her old self again. But within a few weeks she requested another leave of absence. A month later, the Studio let it be known that she had retired from the business.

Nothing more was heard from her until her accident the following year. By which point, Grant and many of her other friends had almost lost contact with her. For LaBadie refused all invitations to see anyone and no longer even answered her phone. Her mother, with whom she still lived, did the same.

Those who tried to visit her in the hospital after her accident were politely turned away and told she was not in any danger. A few days later, she was sent home. But her friends learned nothing more about her or her condition until her obituary appeared in the New York newspapers.


And even then, the mystery deepened.

Florence's mother did not attend her funeral and those who asked after her were rudely told it was none of their concern by the Funeral Director.

Those who tried to find her at home found it abandoned. And a few weeks later, a van arrived in the middle of the night to remove all of its personal contents, purchased along with the house by a "Mr. George Smith of Washington, DC". Those who dug further discovered that Mr. Smith's Washington address -- did not exist.

A few of Florence LaBadie's final films were released in 1917, but they came and went with little fanfare. No one ever saw or heard from her mother again.

And although she had purchased a double plot in New York's Greenwood Cemetery as a final resting place for her and her daughter, to this day it only holds Florence.

Many of LaBadie's movie friends were certain she had been silenced. But as to why they could only speculate.

Some said Wilson could not have remained in office if the nation discovered he had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Others said LaBadie was staunchly opposed to America's entry into WWI. She had received letters and photographs of the horrors of the trenches from childhood friends fighting with the Canadian army. Many felt certain Florence had lobbied Wilson not to declare War and may have even threatened to reveal the truth about their child if he did.

Others wondered if both Charles Hite and Florence had been victims of those who felt the movie business was getting too competitive and wanted to take one of the studios out of the game. Less than a year after LaBadie's death, the respected and successful Thanhouser Film Corporation was gone.

Who knows…

Much as today, speculation, conspiracy theories and the threats of powerful and influential men fueled the Silent Era's showbiz gossip machine.

And Florence LaBadie's death remains a Canadian Hollywood mystery likely never to be solved.

white lady final

Quality videos of Florence LaBadie's films are impossible to find online. But there's a fine site devoted to the Thanhouser Studio here where many of her movies can be viewed in their entirety. One of her last and best was "The Woman in White" in many ways as dark and unsettling as she must have felt during its production.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Canadian Who Invented Subtitles



Most comedy writers know this one…

Q: Ask me the secret of writing great comedy!

A: Okay. What's the secret of writing great…

Q: …Timing!

Not a joke that works as well in print.

But nonetheless true -- a key component of comedy is knowing when to surprise the audience and when it's better to let them sense the joke that's coming and enjoy the payoff. Watch any Roadrunner & Wile E. Coyote cartoon for about fifty examples of each.

And like those cartoons, the silent era of Hollywood comedy relied almost wholly on physical humor and slapstick. Because -- well, the movies were silent (hence the name for the era), so it was hard to get the audience laughing through witty banter or quick one liners.

But even physical humor depends on timing the comedic flow. And that's hard to do when the action is constantly interrupted by a B&W title card placed to make sure the audience knows what's going on -- and stays on screen long enough for those less literately skilled to read it.

penelope card

Needless to say, this reality forced early movie studios to rely on comedies that were broad, exaggerated and predictable.

But all of that would change thanks to two brothers from London, Ontario.

Charles and Al Christie were born into show business. By that, I mean that their parents ran the London Opera House, which, despite its lofty title was the local home to Vaudeville and Burlesque. Dad managed the place and mom ran the box office and did the books.

From an early age, each of the boys revealed a particular genius for one of the twin wheels that run all showbiz enterprises, imagination and money. Elder brother Charles was a math whiz and in helping mom discovered a revolutionary accounting method that saved enormous amounts of time and money.

Meanwhile, younger brother Al was hanging around the stage, giving struggling acts pointers on how to be funnier. At first, the comedians brushed off this precocious kid, but then they tried out some of his suggestions and discovered he was right.

Eventually, those travelling players spread word of these two showbiz "Geniuses" around the Vaudeville circuit. Charles began getting calls from other struggling theatres and Al, though barely 18, became a sought after show doctor.

Around 1910, the boys were both hired by a New York producer and first came in contact with the film industry flourishing in nearby New Jersey. Charles began doing the books for a small comedy outfit called Nestor Studios, who made short one and two reelers. One day, Al visited him on set and realized he could make films a lot funnier than those created by the amateur actors and directors on the studio payroll.

When they saw his first one reel film, Nestor's producers realized they not only had a product with style -- it was also funny as hell.

A year later, the brothers moved to Hollywood in order to be able to shoot year round. Not long after that, they branched out and hung their own shingle, "Christie Comedies".

christie comedy

Both Al and Charles remained innovators within the burgeoning industry. Under Charles' expertise at efficiency and cost control, the Christies were almost minting money. They soon built the first permanent studio in Hollywood, the first picture car business and the first stable of stunt performers whom they rented out to other companies.

Back home in London, Al had perfected the recipe for the perfect pie for pie throwing. His pies became so in demand that between Christie Comedies and the Mack Sennett studio, which housed the Keystone Cops and a rising star named Charlie Chaplin, it became the only product manufactured by a nearby bakery.

Although they had become wildly successful, Al still wasn't fully satisfied with the films his studio was churning out. So many of the gags he wanted to use just didn't work on screen and one night he realized that the problem was those damn, sometimes 30 second long, title cards. Like modern TV commercials, they just destroyed the fun and the flow of the action.

Working with the company's film lab, Al finally devised a method of burning the lines the actors were saying right onto the actual frames in which they were saying them. He kept them down low on the screen so they wouldn't be obtrusive. But it would be years before anybody actually coined the name "subtitle".

The invention took the film world by storm. One newspaper critic was so excited he promised his readers, "You can almost hear the voices of the actors in your head".

But while other studios rushed to copy Al's invention, he realized he had created another problem.

Because his process required that the text be shot at the same time as the picture, you needed to have finished scripts before you started shooting. Others may have balked at no longer being able to shoot on the fly or have actors ad lib. But Al realized he now had an opportunity to add legitimate comedy writers to the studio's growing cadre of comic performers and make even better films.

Christie film company

For a few years, the Christie name became synonymous with "classy comedy". With a stable of writers, they effortlessly made the transition to sound, producing 50 full length features in their first year of sound production. And then, like so many others, the brothers were wiped out by the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

They struggled on for a few years, introducing audiences to new stars like Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. But in 1933, they were forced out of business.

Charles, however, realized, on selling his house to pay off creditors, that he was kinda good at the real estate business. A few years later, he was once again a millionaire.

Al went back to being a show doctor and directing comedy shorts for other studios. During WW2, he organized star studded morale boosting shows for workers in the warplane industry.

Al Christie died in 1951, as a post war wave of foreign films began changing the Hollywood industry as they invaded college campuses and what became known as "Art Houses" using the same sub-title technique he had pioneered 40 years earlier. These movies influenced a new generation of filmmakers, most of whom had never even heard of Al Christie.

Most of the silent Christie Comedies have been lost over time. Although loved by audiences, they were never preserved or protected. Last month, however, a few titles were discovered in New Zealand among a treasure trove of 75 "lost" films including one by Alfred Hitchcock and another by John Ford that will be seen this fall by audiences for the first time in 80 years.

But bits and pieces of Al Christie's later work remain. The jokes are old. The routines long since copied (and improved) many times over. But the genius of another forgotten Canadian in Hollywood still shines through.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Very First Movie Star Was A Canadian


may irwin

The Canadian film scene is rife with stories of actors, writers and directors who, for one reason or another, go to Hollywood and become iconic Cinematic and television names.

We'd be here all day if I had to list them, and some say as much as 1/3 of what we see on our movie and TV screens is there because of someone who got their start in Canada.

The central premise to almost all those expatriate stories is that there's an industry in America willing to embrace and exploit their talents.

But what a lot of people don't know is that several Canadians were responsible for building that industry in the first place. And one of the first of these was May Irwin.

May was born in Whitby, Ontario in 1862 and at the age of 13 forced onto the stage by her recently widowed mother, to perform with her sister Flora. The girls could sing and the family desperately needed money.

They debuted in Buffalo, New York and were an immediate hit singing, "Sweet Genevieve". The girls quickly rose up the bill as they toured the Vaudeville circuit. By the time she was 16, May was appearing on Broadway and soon went solo becoming a much sought after musical comedy star on the Great White Way.

Boisterous and funny, May popularized several novelty songs such as "The Bully" and "Crappy Dan" and is credited with inventing "Thousand Island Dressing", a recipe she concocted in the pink granite vacation home she built on one of the "Thousand Islands" back in Ontario.

But her finest achievement was in giving credibility to a brand new invention called the motion picture.

may irwin 2

In 1896, May was starring in a Broadway show called "The Widow Jones" -- a farce in which she played a young woman attempting to evade unwanted suitors by posing as the widow of a man who turns out to be very much alive. It featured an onstage kiss between May and her co-star John Rice that always brought the house down.

In the audience one night, and just as excited by the moment as those around him, was a guy by the name of Thomas Edison, inventor of the motion picture camera.

Edison had been making short films in nearby New Jersey for some time, always employing amateurs because no self respecting theatre actor would be caught dead anywhere near his makeshift "Vitascope" studio.

The inventor pleaded with May and Rice to recreate the famous moment in front of his camera to help out the struggling industry. Aware of the damage they could be doing to their own careers, both actors turned him down flat.

But Edison persisted and on June 26, 1896, May and Rice played the kissing scene on the rooftop of a warehouse on 28th Street. The moment was captured on 50 feet of film because they only did one take.

Two weeks later, Edison plastered Manhattan with posters for "The Kiss" and the theatre community exploded in outrage. The Producer of "The Widow Jones", Charles Frohman, told the newspapers he would be replacing May Irwin despite the fact that he had commissioned the play specifically for her.

Both May and Rice found themselves ostracized within the Broadway community and discovered that they were suddenly unwelcome at restaurants and watering holes that had once reserved their prime tables for the two actors.

New York critics, meanwhile, went out of their way to condemn this demeaning of the New York Theatre, hoping to nip this upstart motion picture "fad" in the bud.

In the words of one, "It is an outrage to decency and good taste. Neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged posturing on each other's lips was hard to bear. When only life-size on the theatre stage it is beastly. Magnified to gargantuan proportions on a white sheet, it is absolutely disgusting."

And then -- something happened…

Days after "The Kiss" began screening, May received a standing ovation on her first entrance. That had never happened before. But now it began to occur at every performance.

A week later, the New York Times reported hundreds of fans gathering nightly at the Stage Door to greet the actress as she exited the theatre.

The next day, May's producer turned up at Edison's office to ask if the posters for "The Kiss" could be altered to read, "Starring the distinguished actress, May Irwin, now appearing in the Charles Frohman Broadway comedy 'The Widow Jones'!".

50 feet of celluloid had transformed a Broadway actress into a popular sensation. And the movies had created their first star.

Despite her expanded fame, May felt she was too old to make films and instead parlayed her success into recording six of the songs she had made famous on stage with the help of another of Mr. Edison's inventions, the Gramaphone.

The 1898 Columbia Gramaphone Cylinder Catalogue notes that "Crappy Dan" was one of its best sellers.

In 1914, May was convinced by Paramount to do a film version of that year's Broadway hit "Mrs. Black is Back". The movie was apparently quite popular, but no copies are known to exist.

The 50 feet of celluloid that made a Canadian the world's first movie star, however, is now carefully preserved in The Smithsonian.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 181: Move, Learn, Eat

I've always believed that most of the world's problems could be solved and all of our personal prejudices eliminated if people just travelled more.

There's nothing like being in unknown places among people with whom you share little in common to realize -- despite different beliefs, aspirations and ways of doing things -- how similar our lives, and we,  really are.

I've had the good fortune to visit much of the planet and to have had the additional benefit of getting to live and work for extended periods of time in places where I arrived not knowing the language or culture, let alone how to go about finding an apartment, figuring out the currency and buying groceries or ordering a meal.

More often than not, like Blanche DuBois, I initially survived through the kindness of strangers, strangers who quickly became neighbors and eventually lifelong friends.

Travel broadens your horizons, but it also cleanses the heart, blowing out the carbonized presumptions, media implanted misconceptions and everything else that prevents you from realizing people who may think and act differently from you are just people who think and act differently from you.

And that's not something you need to fly to another part of the world to experience. You can get it by walking into a part of town you normally wouldn't be caught dead in and starting to talk to the locals.

But from a filmmaker's POV, there's a lot more visual candy in taking the "around the world" approach.

Recently, STA Travel Australia commissioned Rick Mereki to do just that. Accompanied by DOP Tim White and actor Andrew Lees, Mereki spent 44 days travelling 38,000 miles through 11 different countries to capture all the things that make us completely different and at the same time incredibly similar.

The result is three utterly delightful one minute films covering the experiences all travel embeds in our memories, the beauty of the world, the things we can teach one another and the meals that brought us even closer together.

I guarantee that the smile you will have after the first film, will only get broader as you watch its companion pieces. 

Move. Learn. Eat. And Enjoy your Sunday.  

MOVE from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.

LEARN from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.

EAT from Rick Mereki on Vimeo.