Tol’able David (1921)

While I’m on the subject of Richard Barthelmess I thought now would be as good a time as any to have a look at his classic drama Tol’able David, the story of a real sweetheart of a lad who shows real courage when facing up to a crew of bullying crooks. 

Tol’able David is often written about in terms of its whimsical and quaint Americana but don’t be fooled into thinking that the film gushes over into cloying sentimentality – what makes Tol’able David special is the film’s authenticity, particularly the attention to detail in the photography, it’s setting and even in its depiction of emotional, sexual and physical violence. The film is based on a magazine short story by Joseph Hergesheimer and as the film’s director, Henry King, was a Virginian who related strongly to some of the descriptions in the tale he was insistent that filming should take place on location in Virginia. 

Henry King, is also worth a mention as he formed the production company Inspiration Pictures with Richard Barthelmess and Charles Duell. Tol’able David was the company’s first movie and probably their greatest success, however he also directed a string of movies in the 1920s starring Richard Barthelmess as well as Ronald Colman’s first US movie, The White Sister, in 1923, Romola, with Ronald Colman and William Powell, and Stella Dallas and The Winning of Barbara Worth also starring Ronald Colman. 

Of course in reality there wasn’t much authenticity when it came to casting Richard Barthelmess in the role of the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon – the Photoplay Magazine review describes Richard Barthelmess as a ‘real city slicker’ in comparison to the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon. Additionally Barthelmess was 27 at the time of filming, playing an 18 year old. But when you have acting of this quality, obviously that’s immaterial as Barthelmess perfectly conveys a nice young boy, the pride of his family – in fact in my fevered imagination I’ve thought of Henry King holding up prompt boards for Barthelmess with ‘CREDIT TO HIS MOTHER’ written on it in big letters. Barthelmess brings to the screen the frustration of being the baby of the family, but then terror mixed in with reckless courage when faced with the reality that being an adult means getting into situations that we might find disconcerting, even frightening. I think most of us whichever era we grew up in can empathise with that, it’s a pretty standard experience for teenagers and young adults. Although obviously not involving being beat up by the 6’4 Ernest Torrence. Well not necessarily. 

Henry King filmed Greenstream as a beautiful idyll, to an urban Twenties audience this must have looked incredibly peaceful. However peace is shattered by the arrival of the three black sheep of the Hatburn family, escaping justice by stepping over the state line. Ernest Torrence makes a thoroughly convincing villain, his huge frame dominating the screen. 

Ernest Torrence was born in Edinburgh in 1878, and was actually a trained operatic baritone, however he moved into acting after issues with his vocal chords rendered his singing career redundant. He and his brother David moved to New York in 1911 to work on Broadway, but once he had made his first film, which was Tol’able David, he remained in Hollywood. The character of Luke Hatburn, a dopey psychopath who indulges in violence out of curiosity and warped enjoyment, was a complete contrast to the cultured and well-bred Torrence, and indeed Ernest Torrence also became very good friends with William Powell, Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman.

There is no doubt that Tol’able David is a motion picture of sublime quality – the care and thought that went into the storyline, casting and photography allows the film to retain its timelessness. It is shown regularly at silent film festivals, and possibly has particular resonance for a modern audience, as it explores recurrent movie themes as coming of age and the psychopathic hillbilly trope. Of additional resonance are more but contemporary themes like the realistic portrayal of the rural working class without idealising them and the brutalities of working class life and poverty. It also taps into concerns about a homogeneous society being threatened by lawless outsiders.

References/Recommended Reading:

Tol’able David and the American Heritage – Walter R Coppedge

The Parade Goes By – Kevin Brownlow

Photoplay Magazine, January 1922

The Bright Shawl (1923)

“Hello Bill?’ I asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘This is Dick. Bill, you blankity blank! You stole my picture, do you know it?’

“The reply came instantly back: ‘Certainly. I expected to. Goodbye.’ And he hung up.”

So recounted Richard Barthelmess in 1929 about his telephone call to William Powell on the night of the premiere of The Bright Shawl. Richard Barthelmess by this time was a major movie star, having been in motion pictures since 1916 and he’d scored a massive hit in 1921 with Tol’able David, that whimsical and romantic picture of Americana. Filming for The Bright Shawl involved a trip down to Cuba but Dick and Bill couldn’t stand each other on sight! As Bill remembered in 1930:

“I thought he was surly and he thought I was upstage. We went to the boat hating each other.”

The Bright Shawl was the tale of a young American, Charles Abbott, who sails across to assist the war for Cuban independence, while also finding time to fall in love with Narcissa, played by Mary Astor, and be the object of La Clavel’s affections, played by Dorothy Gish. Bill played dashing Spanish officer Gaspar de Vaca, needless to say a villain, but a stylish one.

“I remember the first picture we made together.” said Richard Barthelmess, “It was The Bright Shawl. We went to Cuba to make it and Bill and I formed a friendship that we enjoy to this day. I was the hero, a rather dub part, and Bill was the bold, bad villain who showed me up for fair. It was a great part and he played it splendidly. It was then, I believe, that critics first called him a picture stealer.” Indeed, the review in Photoplay magazine specifically mentions William Powell’s performance as ‘a real hit’ and you can see from the photos above that clearly the Powell charisma was starting to emanate.

Now mercifully The Bright Shawl is still with us, stored at the UCLA Film & Television archive, but hasn’t been released to the public. It is occasionally shown at silent film festivals though. I hope it will be soon because it sounds like an interesting picture and introduces another intriguing element as, on top of this being the picture that introduced William Powell to Richard Barthelmess, this was also Edward G Robinson’s second movie outing.

“Out of that trip came a close friendship and today Dick and Ronald Colman and I are buddies.”

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant

Photoplay Magazine, July 1923

Picturegoer Magazine, July 1923

‘Is Bill Powell a Picture Stealer?’ – Photoplay Magazine, March 1929

Happy Birthday Jean Harlow!

Today is Jean Harlow’s 105th birthday! It feels a little odd saying that because to me Jean Harlow is someone who will remain eternally young. And it’s well within the bounds of possibility that someone born in 1911 can celebrate their 105th birthday today because we live in an era of advanced healthcare. Writing about Jean Harlow obviously tends to be somewhat melancholy, due to the emotional struggles in her life and because of her shockingly early death. However I hope that I can celebrate the positive aspects of this thoughtful young woman and about what made her happy. 

As we all know, the person we call Jean Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter on this day in 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri, a few blocks away from the Powell household. 

Jean Harlow was the maiden name of Harlean’s mother – Harlean borrowed the name when an executive spotted the sporty young teenager on the Fox lot in 1928 and signed her up. Harlean in actual fact was only on the Fox lot because she was dropping her friend off who was an extra, but these coincidences are what our Hollywood dreams are made of.

Jean had actually moved to Hollywood initially in her early teens, attending Hollywood High School – her mother was still in her early thirties and longed for a career in motion pictures, and so left her husband behind in Kansas City, taking Jean with her. Not for the lack of trying, the movie career didn’t materialise and they were forced back to Kansas City. 

However, when she was 16 Jean met and married Charles McGrew II and they moved back to Hollywood, settling in Beverly Hills. And once signed up with Central Casting Jean began a series of appearances as an extra, eventually coming to the attention of Hal Roach.

Jean’s most famous silent era role was in 1929’s Double Whoopee with Laurel & Hardy, playing the part of ‘Swanky Blonde’. In this picture Jean’s talent for comedy started to become apparent. 

Jean was extremely popular with crew members at the ‘Lot of Fun’, a reputation that continued throughout her career. Reminiscent of Carole Lombard’s early career, Jean was also grateful for her experiences with Hal Roach and Laurel & Hardy,

“I wouldn’t trade my experience in those comedies for anything… There was a friendliness and camaraderie about that small studio that was vastly different from the impersonality of the larger studios.”

References/Recommended Reading:

Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow – Eve Golden

Memorabilia of the Month

Yes it’s that time again, what have I been scratting around on eBay for this month?

Yep it’s an additional item to my cigarette card collection, from a tobacco manufacturer in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Not a faithful likeness I think you’ll agree but a decent rendition of Ronald Colman’s wistful good looks.

This card forms part of a collection produced in the 1920s, coinciding nicely of course with Ronald Colman’s career in silent movies. As noted in my birthday tribute to Colman the other week, he got his start in the British film industry in 1917 with little success. Of the eight pictures he made in the U.K., only two reels of The Toilers from 1917 remain. 

Allied to this, of the 21 movies Colman made in America between 1921 and 1929 only 10 survive, with a further three incomplete. The films that are publicly available are:

The White Sister (1921)

Her Night of Romance (1924)

Romola (1924)

Stella Dallas (1925)

Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)

Kiki (1926)

Beau Geste (1926)

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

I’ll be covering at least two of these films, Romola and Beau Geste, in the weeks to come as they also feature William Powell. However, time permitting, I will discuss Ronald Colman’s other silent pictures. It’s a hard life! The sacrifices I have to make for the goodness of the blog!

First Mystery Blogger Award!

Many thanks to Wolffian Classic Movies Digest for nominating me for this award, created by Okoto Enigma! This is how it works…

1. Put the award logo/image on your blog

2. List the rules.

3. Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.

4. Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well

5. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself

6. You have to nominate 10 – 20 people

7. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog

8. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question (specify)

9. Share a link to your best post(s)

Three things about myself: 

1. I’m a massive transport geek – trains (steam, diesel, electric), buses, trams, push bikes, cars, monster trucks, tractors, any wheeled transport, love em all!

2. The BBC drama Happy Valley was filmed round by me and is set in the same area – Halifax and Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire. Was a trippy experience watching Sarah Lancashire getting her head stoved in literally streets from my house! I wanted to run out and save her! 

3. I tend to find older, traditional, seaside-style comedians funnier than modern ones.

My best article:

Bill and Carole: Post-Divorce BFFs

What is your favourite movie of all time?

Singin’ in the Rain

Where in the world haven’t you visited that you would love to visit?

There aren’t many places so I guess Naples, Capri and the Amalfi Coast.

What is your favourite song of all time?

On Days Like These by Matt Monro 

What is your favourite book of all time?

Rommel? Gunner Who? by Spike Milligan

What is your favourite musical of all time?

Singin’ in the Rain

Here are the five questions I would like my nominees to answer:

1. Are there any movies you haven’t seen that you would like to see?

2. Is it better to be liked or respected?

3. Do you prefer the city or the country?

4. What’s your favourite animal?

5. Are Jaffa Cakes a cake or a biscuit? 

And here’s who I’m nominating!

Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews

Wolffian Classic Movies Digest

Seven Doors of Cinema

Movies from the Silent Era

Make Mine Criterion!

Once Upon A Screen

The Flapper Dame

The Old Hollywood Garden 

Musings of a Classic Film Addict

Silver Screenings 

I’m getting a lot out of my blogging experience, what I’m learning from my own blog and reading everyone else’s, so hope you find the above interesting and happy reading everybody!

Outcast (1923)

Here begins my first look at one of William Powell’s lost pictures, Outcast, released in December 1922. This was Bill’s third movie, billed seventh. As you can see below all that’s left of this movie are lobby cards and reviews from newspaper, trade and fan magazines. It’s such a shame as it sounds an intriguing drama with an intriguing love triangle at its centre. The plot revolves around Geoffrey and Valentine, who were in a relationship until Valentine jilted poor Geoffrey for a rich husband. In the meantime, Miriam, played by Elsie Ferguson, is living in extreme poverty. Miriam happens to be passing Geoffrey’s apartment when one of his friends accidentally squirts her with a soda siphon! Needless to say, Miriam falls in love with Geoffrey, who becomes torn between Miriam and Valentine. Now given the circumstances I feel happy to insert a shameless plot spoiler, and in the finish up Geoffrey follows a heartbroken Miriam to Rio where they are married. 

Motion Picture Magazine, February 1923

By this time Elsie Ferguson was reaching the end of her motion picture career and the four picture contract she had with Paramount. Elsie was an enormous star on the Broadway stage, celebrated for her ethereal beauty, and although she made 25 films in total, theatre was her abiding passion. Her level of superstardom ensured a remuneration of $9,000 a week, generous even today! As such, Elsie could therefore be choosy about the projects she worked on. Her last silent feature was An Unknown Lover in 1925 and she made one talking picture, Scarlet Pages, in 1930, retiring completely from stage and screen that same year. Her success had enabled a Riviera lifestyle and she was able to split her time equally between the South of France and the United States.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Motion Picture Magazine, February 1923

Picture Play Magazine, December 1922

Exhibitors Trade Review, December 1922

Happy Birthday Ronald Colman!

Today is Ronald Colman’s 125th birthday! And to celebrate this milestone achievement I wanted to take a look at the gentleman who was one of William Powell’s closest friends. 

Ronald was born in Richmond, Surrey on this day in 1891, the son of a silk merchant. He was one of seven siblings, one of whom, Eric Colman, became chief announcer at the radio station 2GB in Sydney. Eric recounted to the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1940,

“Ronald is slightly younger than I am…but we both went to the same school together. In those days he was always reading, and the family intended that his career should be the Church. But he had even then a passion for acting, and fortunately our school at Littlehampton encouraged amateur theatricals, particularly performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. We both took part, and I can remember Ronald giving a fine baritone performance of the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

So an affluent family in an affluent town who could afford a good education for their children. Ronald was planning to study engineering at Cambridge, but then his father, Charles Colman, died. This meant that Ronald’s education was curtailed and he went to work as a shipping clerk in London while continuing amateur dramatics in his spare time.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Ronald Colman signed on for the London Scottish regiment – 

I’m not going to outline his war service in detail here, instead I recommend you read this exceptionally moving post by Sister Celluloid. Suffice to say from that post I am borrowing this quote: 

“The war suddenly swooped down on us like a martial bird and bore us off. There was no time for goodbyes, either to family or sweethearts, movies and fiction to the contrary. We embarked from Folkestone. I remember sitting in that train with my battalion on a siding, waiting to go. I could see from my car window the familiar streets I had walked so many times, houses of people I knew. I felt as a dead man might feel, revisiting, himself unseen, old haunts he had known well but which knew him no longer. I knew that I would come back but not as I was then. Because I didn’t come back. I won’t go into the war and all that it did to all of us. We went out. Strangers came back. It was the war that made an actor out of me. When I came back that was all I was good for: acting. I wasn’t my own man anymore.”

After the Armistice both Colman brothers started appearing in stage productions in London. And in the meantime they visited a producer of motion pictures in Wardour Street, at the time London’s cinema alley. The producer sent the brothers away saying somewhat apologetically that the Colmans ‘weren’t the screen type’. Eventually in 1919 and 1920 Ronald did make three pictures for Cecil Hepworth’s company, but with little success. The Hepworth company was ailing considerably at this point, along with most of the British film industry, under the onslaught from Hollywood (this would lead to the Cinematograph Films Act 1927, placing a duty on British cinemas to show a quota of British made films, the cult ‘quota quickies’). 

Cecil Hepworth’s Anna the Adventuress (1920) with Gwynne Herbert and Alma Taylor
By 1920 Eric and Ronald, not getting anywhere fast, decided to see what the world had to offer, Eric going to Australia and Ronald accepting opportunities to tour in stage productions in New York. Ronald arrived in America on his arse, but after much perseverance was appearing and touring in successful theatre productions. In 1923 this led to his casting in the movie ‘The White Sister’ opposite Lillian Gish, and the success of this picture was to change his life, leading to a contract with Samuel Goldwyn in 1924, which lasted a decade and produced 18 films, although their relationship was fractious. 

The White Sister (1923)
Romola, the 1924 film that Ronald also made with Lillian Gish, was the production that truly gave William Powell major recognition in Hollywood. It also led to an enduring friendship. On a personal level, both men had similar personalities, very quiet, shy and with a tendency towards melancholia. Allied to this they both had complex personal circumstances – the post ‘Bill and Carole: Post Divorce BFFs‘, describes Bill and Ronnie’s reputation as notorious bachelors in Hollywood but their situations were complicated. Bill and his first wife, Eileen Wilson, had separated amicably, but as William Powell Jr noted, Bill and Eileen met coincidentally in Venice during the filming of Romola, the result of this meeting being William Powell Jr! However, Bill and Eileen separated again not long after their son’s birth. 

For Ronald Colman, his situation was far more distressing, as in 1920, a month before he left the UK for America, he had married the actress Thelma Raye in haste, a union Colman quickly and bitterly regretted. Thelma became furiously jealous of her husband’s success and initiated a campaign of stalking and emotional intimidation that lasted throughout the 1920s. The already quiet and diffident man became withdrawn to the point of reclusiveness and would guard his privacy strictly for the rest of his life. Liaisons with girls were left for Bill Powell to arrange with the utmost discretion, and there certainly weren’t going to be any further emotional entanglements as far as Ronnie was concerned.

During the silent era Colman was able to avoid typecasting, playing roles in pictures as diverse as westerns, romantic comedies, melodramas and adventures, as obviously the cinema going public hadn’t heard that famous velvet voice yet. Ronald had more than enough good looks and charisma to ensure his popularity as a Hollywood film star remained constant throughout the 1920s.

With Constance Talmadge in Her Sister From Paris (1925)
Ronald further consolidated his position as a major movie actor through his teaming with the new Hungarian sensation Vilma Banky. They were paired for five pictures in total, starting with The Winning of Barbara Worth in 1926 and these films exploited their natural and assured chemistry.  Ronald Colman was now set up for his greatest triumph – the dawn of the talking picture.

Vilma Banky’s very lucky hand
“Ronald on the screen always annoys me,” laughed Eric Colman in 1933, “because I always realise that he is just going on before the public as he always went on at home. He is perfectly natural. It makes me sick to think that he has ten times more in his bank account than I have for the simple reason that he is himself at all times.”

References/Recommended Reading:

Four Extraordinary Heroes, One Regiment: Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, Claude Rains and Herbert Marshall in World War I

On the Set with Ronald Colman

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Carole Lombard’s Mack Sennett Days

‘Shows you how things go, huh? Another inch, half an inch maybe, a turn of the head and my whole fuckin’ career could’ve been over. There was this nice kid. A rich kid. Harry Cooper. His father owned a bank or something. And he had this sonofabitchin’ Bugatti roadster. And I was out with him one night, and he was showing off his god-damned car. You know how it is with some guys. They think a car is like a part of their body and they want to show you how hot it is. So all of a sudden, wham. And I remember how I thought it was just beautiful, like a fireworks explosion, glass in a terrific pattern, and I passed out…’

So said Carole Lombard to director Garson Kanin in 1941 recounting the horrific car crash that derailed her career in 1925, ending her contract with Fox. You know, it’s quite something to think of all the Canadians who played a part in the shaping of early Hollywood. And we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Toronto born director Allan Dwan who spotted 12 year old tomboy Jane Peters playing baseball with her friends and decided to cast her in a picture. 

As I am currently looking at William Powell’s silent pictures, I also want to delve into the nascent careers of his friends. Although Bill and Carole didn’t meet until 1930, I was curious about this pragmatic step that she took after the car crash to join Mack Sennett’s company. The crash had left some scarring to her face, with obvious implications for her future, but Carole was determined to return to the motion picture business as soon as she could and in whichever way was possible.

Mack Sennett was born Michael Sinnott in Richmond, Quebec, in 1880, although the Sinnott family eventually moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. In his late teens Sennett worked in factories but what he truly yearned for was a theatrical career. Now later on Mack spun this yarn about Sinnott family lawyer Calvin Coolidge (yes that one), writing a letter of recommendation about his young client to Marie Dressler – native of Cobourg, Ontario. Regardless, starting at the Bowery Theatre, New York, Sennett became a chorus boy, eventually moving onto Broadway shows.

In 1908 Mack Sennett got a minor role with the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company thus beginning his long career in motion pictures. Under the tutelage of D W Griffith his expertise in motion picture making progressed to such an extent that during 1908 Sennett moved on from being merely a player to also writing and directing two reel shorts. There was an opportunity for Sennett here as Griffith wasn’t keen on comedy but made comedy shorts anyway due to their immense popularity. And more opportunity for Sennett arose in 1912 when the New York Motion Picture Company needed a comedy studio and thus the Keystone Film Company was born, located in Edendale, California.

Keystone Studios, Edendale

Sennett discovered and gave a start to some truly legendary comedians in particular Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. And let’s not forget Gloria Swanson, although Gloria was adamant that she was never a ‘Bathing Beauty’. Mack Sennett started the Bathing Beauties initially to drum up publicity, but found that the antics of this troop of girls increased the popularity of his pictures. This then provided an avenue for Carole’s return to motion pictures in 1927. Certainly after many long months of convalescence to heal the scars caused by the accident Carole Lombard was back on the scene in a big way burning up the Cocoanut Grove’s dance competitions. 

In 1927 Mack Sennett moved to the Pathé Company to distribute his films.

However Mack Sennett’s glory days were long behind him, hence the move to Pathé, who were also struggling and in need of some quick wins. The Sennett brand of slapstick tomfoolery was becoming a bit old hat, and the dawn of the talkies would usher in a more verbose style of quick witted humour through the Thirties. Sennett had introduced himself to Carole at the Cocoanut Grove before the car crash and couldn’t have cared less about her scarring. He just needed a nice looking girl who was game for anything. And he was more than happy to proffer useful advice for Carole: “We gotta get some meat on you. Carole, honey, you go right home and eat some bananas, a lot of bananas,” he said. “Just keep on eatin’ ‘em. That’ll fatten you up, especially in the tits.”

Carole was elated to have this opportunity to resume her career and was determined to make full use of it, starting off in small parts and graduating to larger roles in shorts such as ‘Run Girl Run’, ‘The Campus Carmen’ and ‘The Campus Vamp’.

Run Girl Run (1927)

In these comedies Carole tends to play a boy crazy sporty girl, in contrast to Daphne Pollard’s bossy girl, Madalynne Fields as the funny fat girl and Sally Eilers as the good girl. 

It was during her time with Sennett that Carole met her best gal pal, Madalynne Fields, on the left

It’s difficult to know whether the Sennett movies created or merely developed the cheeky side of Carole Lombard’s personality, but in the films Lombard is more recognisable as the Carole Lombard comedy persona we know than in her early Paramount pictures where she sometimes seems nervous and affected. There’s no doubt that she’s literally throwing herself into the parts wholeheartedly – at one point during a pillow fight in ‘The Campus Carmen’ she takes a pillow full on in the kisser leading to an exquisitely executed pratfall off the bed and onto her back leaving just a visible pair of shapely gams! 

‘My best tutor was Mack Sennett. He is the old maestro of comedies. Sally Eilers and I were the last of his bathing beauties to get somewhere. Mack Sennett is a wonderful teacher. His knowledge of comedy, of timing, use of pantomime, of sudden changes from comedy to tragedy, from laughter to tears – well he has grasped the psychology of the human mind.’

By 1928 Pathé was in the market for new faces for their talking pictures and after her voice was tested, Carole was ready. The Sennett gamble had paid off.

‘Mack Sennett’s was the school of hard knocks. There I started working up from the bottom. It was the most delightful madhouse imaginable and life was one fall after another. There was a lusty, rowdy spirit of freedom there that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. I recommend it. It exposed the sham of pretension, it exploded the petty hypocrisies of people in high places, it flung pies at false dignity. What’s more, Sennett’s develops the sense of humour, toughens the constitution, nurtures the ambition and teaches you the game as it should be played. Two years there gave me a thorough grounding. I left fully prepared to face the world.’

This piece forms part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Ruth at Silver Screenings and Kristina at Speakeasy – pull up a bucket of poutine, a four pack of Oh Henry bars, and a can of Molson Canadian as you relax and read some of the great posts on there. 

References/Recommended Reading:

Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan

Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A Historical Overview – Brent E Walker