Memorabilia of the Month

This month I’ve veered away from cigarette cards and moved onto postcards, starting with this gorgeous coloured number featuring Richard Barthelmess and Lila Lee. A romantic keepsake, don’t you agree?

I think this postcard must be from the 1929 early talkie ‘Drag’, also distributed in a silent version.

Richard Barthelmess was a resounding success in motion pictures, both as an actor and producer. As a result, once talking pictures came on the scene he started to lose interest somewhat in the business of movie making and was content to allow his star to fade. However his preservation story is a little different to that of his friends William Powell and Ronald Colman. Dick Barthelmess had been a major star since the late teens, so his back catalogue is far more extensive and therefore as you can see from the list below, far more of his movies have been retained:

Snow White (1916)

Sunshine Nan (1918)

The Girl Who Stayed At Home (1919)

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Scarlet Days (1919)

The Idol Dancer (1920)

The Love Flower (1920)

Way Down East (1920)

Tol’able David (1921)

The Enchanted Cottage (1924)

Soul Fire (1925)

Shore Leave (1925)

Just Suppose (1926)

Ranson’s Folly (1926)

The Amateur Gentleman (1926)

The White Black Sheep (1926)

The Patent Leather Kid (1927)

The Drop Kick (1927)

Scarlet Seas (1928)

So that’s not a bad little number to work my way through. Lillian Gish said that Richard Barthelmess’ “…face was the most beautiful of any man who had ever been before the camera…” and this postcard certainly provides the evidence of that.


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