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)
Stella Dallas (1925)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
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!
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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.
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.
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.
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’).
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
‘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.
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.
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’.
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’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.
Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan
Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A Historical Overview – Brent E Walker
Not surprisingly I appear to have hit an impasse in my silent movie experience – at this point so many of William Powell’s pictures are either lost, or stored in archives and private collections and therefore not publicly available. This is mostly because he made the majority of his silent pictures with Paramount, the dominant studio of the 1920s. Of the 1,222 silent pictures that Paramount made, only 361 remain, a few of which are incomplete or fragmentary.
The list below outlines those films that are lost or unavailable:
The Bright Shawl (1923) – stored at UCLA
Under the Red Robe (1923) – stored at George Eastman House
Dangerous Money (1924)
Too Many Kisses (1925) – stored at the Library of Congress
My Lady’s Lips (1925) – stored at UCLA
The Beautiful City (1925) – not known
White Mice (1926)
Sea Horses (1926)
Desert Gold (1926)
The Runaway (1926)
Aloma of the South Seas (1926)
The Great Gatsby (1926)
Tin Gods (1926)
New York (1927)
Love’s Greatest Mistake (1927)
Senorita (1927) – private collection
Time to Love (1927) – private collection
Nevada (1927) – stored at the Library of Congress and George Eastman House
She’s A Sheik (1927)
Beau Sabreur (1928)
Partners in Crime (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress
The Drag Net (1928)
The Vanishing Pioneers (1928)
Forgotten Faces (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art
I’ll still take a look at each film consecutively though – mercifully there are fan magazines, film stills and newspaper reviews to give us some context. And I’ve still a fair bit to go at, so over the coming months I’ll be giving you my views on Bill’s existing silent films – most of which you can find in varying degrees of quality on YouTube:
Beau Geste (1926)
Special Delivery (1927)
Paid to Love (1927)
The Last Command (1928)
Feel My Pulse (1928)
The Four Feathers (1929)
But oh! What a scant amount of work remains compared to those lost! I can only exhibit a mixture of sorrow and frustration because in amongst those lost pictures were some monster hits, and some true classics of the genre. There’s a few duds as well, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have the opportunity of forming our own view of them?
The list also highlights just how much William Powell’s career kicked on from 1926 onwards – he was firing out a prodigious amount of work which would have enabled a pretty decent Hollywood lifestyle. Powell’s early years on the stage were marked by a decade or so of struggle, particularly financial, which had led in part to his separation from his first wife, Eileen Wilson. Once in Hollywood, Bill maintained a reputation for being very careful with his money, assisted by his father, an accountant who also managed his affairs. Indeed, Bill eventually moved his parents to Hollywood and the three shared a flat together until Bill’s marriage to Carole Lombard.
Bill’s career was transformed by the talkies and this gave him the power to be more choosy over which pictures he worked on and he reduced his output accordingly. He’d made the hard yards in the silent era and it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labour.