Feb 24, 2013

Quote of the Week

I don't think anybody should write his autobiography until after he's dead.

-Samuel Goldwyn

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Feb 19, 2013

Top 5 Quotes of the Week

I love looking at my blog stats. They're always amusing. I'm often surprised to see what people like, and what not so much. Some of those search terms can be down right dirty too!

Anyway, I was browsing through my old Quote of the Week posts the other day, and I noticed that some quotes were exponentially more popular than others. Anything about Marilyn Monroe gets a lot of looks, that doesn't surprise me, but Walter Winchell? I'm sharing the five most viewed quotes, because these are all worth another look:


I never think of myself as an icon. What is in other people's minds is not in my mind. I just do my thing.

-Audrey Hepburn

Originally posted 8/8/10


Hollywood is a place where they place you under contract instead of observation.

-Walter Winchell

Originally posted 6/5/11


Isn't there any other part of the matzo you can eat?
(after having matzo ball soup for three meals in a row)

-Marilyn Monroe

Originally posted 8/7/11


Mostly, we have manufactured ladies -- with the exception of Ingrid, Grace, Deborah and Audrey.

-Cary Grant

Originally posted 3/27/11


And the most viewed Quote of the Week ever on Classic Movies:

She couldn't get out of her own way....She wasn't disciplined...but she didn't do it viciously, and there was a sort of magic about her which we all recognized at once.

-Barbara Stanwyck, about Marilyn Monroe

Originally posted 5/27/12

All images are from Wikimedia Commons

Feb 17, 2013

Quote of the Week

To be good is to be forgotten. I'm going to be so bad I'll always be remembered.

-Theda Bara

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Feb 14, 2013

A Chat With the Editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Part II

Christel Schmidt: ready to bring Pickford to the masses

Welcome to part two of my fabulous conversation with Christel Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies. If you missed it here's part one.

On Pickford's reputation today:

I think Pickford is getting a lot closer to being back in her rightful place in history and cultural memory. It used to be if people were writing about the silent era, their go-to name would be Lillian Gish. That's not so anymore, it's almost always Mary Pickford. I think people are starting to hear the name and knowing she's connected to the silent era.

It's really interesting to see on Twitter and Facebook, and going to these shows [on the book tour], how people are starting to come to her and enjoy her work. I'm definitely meeting new fans.

Regarding the story that she wanted her films destroyed upon her death:

The story of her wanting to burn the films is a great story. And it catches everybody's eye. It gives you a sense of how she was feeling at the time, but I don't think she meant it.

You'll never convince me in a million years that she would have ever done anything to harm her films. Those were her babies. The proof of that is that when the Library of Congress copied her films in the mid 1950s, they said to her, we've copied all your films on 16 millimeter, our policy is to destroy all nitrate. and she said "Hell no! Give me my films back!" Not quite like that. But that's why we still have a lot of her films to copy onto 35 mm , because she took them back....She took on the responsibility for storing them and she continued to look for someone who was interested in doing something.

I think she was hurt, so she wanted to tell people, I'm going to get rid of them, and so people would say no no no, you can't do that! And that's totally an understandable thing. And maybe on some days she felt it, who knows? She said it a number of times into the 1960s after they were preserved. And she knew they were preserved.

Over the years she let people copy them, and yes, she wasn't much into screening them, but she did support screenings at George Eastman House. She did want to make sure that if people screened them, it wasn't as a joke. That wasn't paranoia. It was going on at the time. She didn't want to be laughed at, and I can't blame her.

On her third marriage, to Buddy Rogers:

One of the things I discovered during research, but which ended up as an endnote in the book, was that her marriage to Buddy Rogers wasn't a great marriage. She hired a detective to basically document his infidelities. She spent over $6,000, and you know if Mary spend $6,000 to chase him around, she was not amused. In 1960, she had divorce papers written up, but she never filed them. One of the reasons she and Fairbanks didn't work out was the affairs. And she said, I'm not doing that, and then she ends up marrying someone who does it anyway.

About Fairbanks and Pickford:

Mary Pickford's niece said that she and Fairbanks shouldn't have divorced, because neither of them survived it. I think she romanticized their relationship and Mary's career, but there's some truth to that. The thing is, I don't know how it could have ever worked.

I think they were friends, and that was very important. It was going to be very hard for her to find someone that was equal to him. I mean, she's A-list, he's A-list. That was her youth, and that was probably the best time of her life, but she was very clear in her autobiography that he was difficult. He was jealous, he was possessive. And then there were affairs, he's constantly running away.

In her book she says Taming of the Shrew was the end of her career, and I think she never forgave him for it. I think the problem was that he walks away with the film. He was a jerk on the set, he moped and hated to make it, and then he stole the entire picture. He had the star part and he was born to play it. I certainly think that whole experience shattered her confidence in terms of making movies.

Her Catherine is in that long line of tough, willful woman she'd been playing since the beginning of her career, but never have I seen her in a situation where the male character pushes her into the mud, laughing, and doesn't help her up, who sits on her and covers her mouth, who steps on her foot. She has never taken such abuse in a film. It's shocking. It is seeing that signature character from the beginning of her career totally dominated by this man.

Movies were the love of her life. When she married Fairbanks, she did choose him over the movies, but when the marriage was bad, and Fairbanks was trying to flee Hollywood, she chose movies over him.

Fairbanks ran toward play, travel, escape and she turned to the thing that soothed her, work. She was swimming just as hard and just as fast as he was. She wrote books and she had the cosmetics company. The problem is, she never loved any of it as much as she loved movies.

About writing and editing Queen of the Movies:

It's been 15 years since Eileen Whitfield's book, It's been almost a decade since Kevin Brownlow's book, there's been some writing about her, Jeannine Basinger writes beautifully about her in Silent Stars. But we needed something more. I spent fifteen years [researching] Pickford, and I can't walk away without putting something down. The thing about the book is, if you think you know everything about Mary Pickford, you probably don't and if you know nothing about Mary Pickford, you won't be lost.

Feb 13, 2013

A Chat With the Editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Part I

Christel under the marquee. (Yes, she's tiny. No one ever accused me of being a brilliant photographer!)

I had the honor of chatting with Christel Schmidt, editor of and contributor to Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, when she came to Seattle recently to present a screening of Sparrows at the SIFF Film Center. She dished with me about Mary, and her new book, over breakfast. It was a fascinating morning, and I learned so much. Here are some highlights of our conversation.

About writing a Pickford book:

I have a lot of people say to me, how can you do a book on Mary Pickford and not retread? And we did retread. You have to, because you have to understand that some of your audience has not read Eileen [Whitfield's Pickford biography] or read Kevin [Brownlow's career review] book. But I knew there were so many details that you couldn't flesh out in a biography. For example, you couldn't do an in-depth chapter about what Pickford did for the Liberty Loan or the social history of hair and how Mary's hair affected her career.

Speaking of Mary Pickford's hair:

When I was doing research, I was trying to look for any memorabilia I could find from Pickford's theatrical career as Gladys Smith. We knew she had been in Philly, so we called the Philadelphia Public Library, because they have a very large theater collection. I asked if they had any programs, because it would be nice to have at least one. And the woman says "no, but I pulled the Mary Pickford file, and you're not going to believe this, we have a bag of her hair." So she sends me this photo, and literally, it's a bag of her hair….What we determined was that someone was going to make a Mary Pickford doll, because it came with a list of things like her shoe size and her eye color, how tall she was, all this physical description, and they think they were trying to match the hair. So Mary sent them a bag of hair. I thought well, if you're going to have a bag of someone's hair, it would be her.

About Pickford's decision to cut her hair:

People are so critical of Mary's decisions. There's not a lot of sympathy or empathy about some of the things she went through. Like, oh she wouldn't update. But this was a difficult decision. The country was divided and women were divided.

The 1920s was the beginning of the culture wars and youth culture as we know it. Pickford and Swanson were about ten years past the prime age to catch that wave. She was up against a lot. The fact that she kept her fame as strong as it was in the 20s speaks a lot to what she was doing. Pickford wasn't a little girl who clapped her hands and cried on cue and whose problems were insignificant. The fact is, she had edge, she was a new woman in many ways, she was modern. She looked like a Victorian angel, but she was a modern woman.

I asked Christel if she though Pickford could have had a late career like Lillian Gish. She thought she should have:

I think she should have made Night of the Hunter. Lillian Gish is playing Mary Pickford. A story about good and evil, a story about a woman protecting children against an evil man. Charles Laughton said that Sparrows influenced that film. I think that influence very obvious when you see it. And that is not who Gish was. That was Pickford's persona. I don't even think she was asked.

There was also [the audition for] Life with Father, there was discussion of her being in Storm Center, and of course Sunset Boulevard. That would have been a very different kind of film with Mary Pickford.

But she didn't think Pickford could have carried on, given the tragedies that hit her in middle age:

I think that when you lose the people most important to you in a ten year span and the only thing you've ever known, your work, the thing that soothed you, made you, and has been a creative outlet since you were eight years old, it's tough. You lose your mother, the love of your life, your brother and sister. It's just too much. The press turned on her…. there's a lot of really misogynistic things about her business sense. And you know, comparing her unfavorably to Sylvia Ashley [the woman Fairbanks married after Pickford] and things like that were quite cruel. I think she was a very strong woman, but everyone has a breaking point, and alcoholism was a family curse.

She had so much responsibility. No one ever went so high and no one ever fell so low. I can't imagine how incredibly painful that is.

About misconceptions regarding Pickford's roles:

You've had a lot of people who have written, especially at the end of her career, that she'd always played a child. The woman made over two hundred films. She played a lot of roles. Her signature character is really a young woman, someone coming of age.

Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall--that's the film where everyone says, well she tried to grow up. Dorothy Vernon is turning 18 years old in that movie. That is the typical age of a Pickford character. She comes from a long line of feisty, strong, heroic Pickford characters. What she was trying to do was to have some adult sophistication.

The character of Stella Maris is what people think Pickford films were about. They weren't. There was a harsh side of life. Many of her characters dealt with physical abuse, alcoholic parents, poverty. More of her films see life through Unity Blake's eyes, a character who's seen a tough life.

She didn't play privileged very often. She played a working class heroine who was fighting for something. These things are not about heterosexual romance, which drives the narrative of almost every movie you see. In an era where everything is so sexualized, it's really great to see this female character who has other things to do.

I was a women's studies major at Ohio State and I had a very well-known professor tell me that Pickford was a shrewd businesswoman, she was not a talented actress and she made her career basically playing children. And I read what a lot of the feminist writers wrote and I had very negative ideas. Then I went to the George Eastman House for a certificate in film preservation, and they had a lot of her films. I sat down with them, and I was blown away, because she was not what I thought she was going to be.

Archives weren't as accessible then as they are now, so people weren't seeing her films. They relied on what they saw in magazines to form their opinions. I think in some ways people felt she betrayed her gender, when really, it's the opposite. She ended up on the wrong side of the culture war. It's that all the cool kids decided that she wasn't cool. All the people who flock to the Louise Brooks' and Clara Bows', they dismiss her. And it's their loss, because she was very much the new woman and she's as great a role model today for women as she was then.

Not that long ago, the Sunday movie on TCM was The Hoodlum. I stayed up until 3 in the morning to live tweet it. At the end, Ben Mankiewicz said, essentially, that Pickford made a career out of playing needy women who needed the help of a man. I tweeted back to him that that is absolutely 100% wrong. The thing is, if TCM can't get it right, we're in trouble.

And about those child roles:

She did child roles, and people thought they were amazing because of the way she performed them. And these were for the most part from famous, successful books that had also been stage plays performed by women. They weren't written for children, but for a larger audience, which included women. It's just that people misremember. It's almost at the point where they are being willful about it. Because it's not that difficult to see a lot of the films now.

Coming up tomorrow in Part II: Did Pickford ever really mean to have her films burned upon her death? Also, her marriages with Buddy Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks, and her reputation today.

Feb 10, 2013

Quote of the Week

Once after a dinner party, Gregory Peck and I drove Fred Astaire home. Fred lived in a colonial house that had a long porch with many pillars. When we dropped him off, he danced along the whole front porch, then opened the door, tipped his hat to us, and disappeared. Wow! Greg and I couldn't speak for a few minutes. It was a beautiful way to say thank you.

-Kirk Douglas

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Feb 7, 2013

Book Review: Mamoulian Could Be Your Favorite Director

Mamoulian: Life On Stage And Screen
David Luhrssen
University Press of Kentucky, 2013

When you think of Silk Stockings (1957), The Mark of Zorro (1940), Queen Christina (1933) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), do you think of one man? I'll bet that many film fans think of Fred Astaire, Tyrone Power, Greta Garbo and Fredric March. But part of the reason these stars were so memorable in these movies was that they were guided by the elegantly artistic Rouben Mamoulian.

I suppose Mamoulian had a bit of a category problem. He could direct anything, and he did, so he didn't specialize in a genre the way directors like John Ford, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock did. You don't hear the term "Mamoulianesque" in movie language, because he wasn't easy to pin down.

Mamoulian did have a distinctive style, and a precise method of filmmaking, but it was subtle, in part the product of a rich education in theater. Though he certainly didn't avoid struggle in his life, his progression from a comfortable childhood in Tiflis (formerly of the Russian Empire) to directing for the stage in London, on to Broadway and, finally Hollywood, was relatively smooth. He would eventually split his time between the stage and films, determined to avoid long-term contracts and thus, very much in control of his career.

This is the man you get to know in Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen. A sophisticated, intelligent artist, who, for the most part, moves confidently through his professional life. You don't get much about the man himself, though he was apparently a hit with the ladies in Hollywood. That is, until he finally settled down with socialite artist Azadia Newman, to whom he would stay married from 1945 until his death in 1987. I would have liked to have known more about how these and other personal relationships shaped his work. Perhaps there was not much material out there about a man who married once and called it a day? Was he just the Irene Dunne of directors?

It didn't matter much, because learning about Mamoulian's work was intriguing enough. Whether on the stage or screen, he knew how to exploit every sense to move an audience, and Luhrssen explores his methods in satisfying detail.

Mamoulian's use of every day sounds on the street to create rhythm, as on stage with the drama Porgy or onscreen in Love Me Tonight (1932) was unique and clever, while seeming so simple. With Applause (1929), he was the first sound director to successfully layer background sounds under dialogue.He also let the camera roam, rather than sit cranking away in the corner, capturing a static scene, and that gave his films a visual rhythm as well.

When with Becky Sharp (1935) Mamoulian was given the task of filming the first three-strip Technicolor movie, he deliberately used color to set the mood. The backgrounds were in a cool, Wedgewood blue, reflecting the stately calm of a wealthy class. When the sounds of approaching troops reached a ballroom full of lavishly-dressed dancers, Mamoulian had his fleeing revelers run out in groups of color, from ballgowns and coats in cool blues to bright reds, to visually demonstrate the rising panic of the guests.

Mamoulian also knew his actors. He knew when to step back, as he did when directing the famously perfectionist Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings. He also knew how to draw the performance he wanted from his cast. When he wanted to strike a particular tone with Garbo, he would say "This mood is like the purple sunset when the leaves turn their shadows, and now and then a yellow leaf falls down." And she would know what to do. That remarkable final shot of Garbo's enigmatic face in Queen Christina is a fine example of what he could achieve.

Luhrssen digs into all these elements of Mamoulian's work, and it is fascinating to see the roots of so many of his screen inventions in his early stage work. The director played with sound, color and emotion from the beginning of his career, so that when big opportunities were handed to him, he knew exactly what to do.

It did turn a bit sour in the end. Mamoulian was fired from his last two directing jobs, the movie musical Porgy and Bess (1959) and the notorious Cleopatra (1963). He might have made Porgy a classic--he had done versions of both the original drama and the musical on stage--but you almost feel relieved that he missed out on Taylor's Egyptian fiasco. Instead, Mamoulian essentially retired, writing the odd project, still reportedly looking at scripts now and then, but also enjoying traveling for the tributes paid to him all over the world.

Rouben Mamoulian directed seventeen feature films, and many of them have stood the test of time, though his stars often draw more attention for them than he does. While it can be difficult to draw a line between Blood and Sand (1941) and Golden Boy (1939), his touch is there, in that layered approach he had to making films. The best part about Luhrssen's book, is that you can make that connection and begin to understand that, however subtle it may be, you can detect the Mamoulianesque quality. Perhaps the reason the term never caught on was because no one could ever imitate him.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of the book.

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Feb 5, 2013

Loads of Mary Pickford News

Ever since the Mary Pickford blogathon--which was itself inspired by the increasing mentions of her in the media--it seems like Mary has been riding an ever-growing wave of popularity. In the past couple of months in particular, there's been so much buzz about her.

Christel Schmidt Tours With Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies

Writer, editor and film historian Christel Schmidt has been touring the country in support of her wonderful new book, Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies (which I reviewed a few weeks ago). She was kind enough to push aside her jet lag and spend a couple of hours chatting with me when she visited Seattle last week. Schmidt was in town to present a screening of Sparrows (1926), Pickford's penultimate silent flick. It was an awesome conversation, and I can't wait to share what I learned with you all. It may need to be a two-parter!

The movie was presented at the SIFF Film Center (a venue change from the theater in the photo), and the screening sold out on a rainy Tuesday evening. Pickford power!

I felt sorry for those who got turned away at the door, because it was an amazing show. Schmidt opened with a few remarks and the crowd was clearly impressed by Mary's accomplishments. I loved hearing the laughs and gasps of astonishment, because Schmidt did a headcount at some point, and found out that about half the audience was seeing a Pickford film for the first time. I think she, and Mary, won some new converts that night.

The evening started with a lively early IMP short featuring Mary at age seventeen. She was charismatic, loveable and clearly a star from the beginning. It was also interesting to see the original trailer for Sparrows. They used to be so beautiful--not to mention dramatic.

Then the main feature, and oh my goodness, I don't know how many times I've seen Sparrows--it's my favorite Pickford flick, so I've watched it a lot, but it always feels like the first time whenever I see this movie. All the tears, tension and laughs remain fresh, and so much of that is due to Mary.

I also can't speak highly enough of seeing silent films in the theater. It is a totally different experience. The audience is so much more respectful, and always incredibly involved. There's dead silence in between the laughs, sniffles and hisses (I love how much people get into booing the villain). That doesn't ever seem to happen in movie theaters anymore.

Of course, a lot of the atmosphere was thanks to Dan Redfield, who performed his own score for Sparrows on the keyboard. He did a fantastic job, particularly in the action scenes, where he managed to make me exponentially more nervous than I usually am when Mary drags those orphans through the swamp.

Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies on Instant Play

I was also pleased to see that Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies is now available on Netflix Instant Play. It's been great to see the recent Twitter buzz for the movie--especially from viewers new to Pickford who are now interested in checking out her films. Filmmaker Nicholas Eliopoulos is such a nice guy, and he pays great tribute to her accomplishments and spirit, often letting her tell the story in her own words via audio from various interviews. Check it out. I also reviewed the film here.

Casting Continues for The First

As regular readers may know, I tend to be skeptical of biopics, but I'm making a huge exception for The First, the Mary Pickford bio. now in production. It sounds like everyone involved cares deeply about getting Pickford's story right, including co-producer Dominick Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbank's grandson. And you can't do better for source material than Eileen Whitfield's detailed biography, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. It's also encouraging to see that so far the casting, and especially Lily Rabe as Ms. Mary herself, has been solid. It was recently announced that Julia Stiles will play screenwriter and Pickford pal Frances Marion. I don't know what to think of that, but I wouldn't be surprised if Stiles could pull it off.

You can see photos of Rabe, co-star Michael Pitt and producers Julie Pacino and Jennifer DeLia in this gallery from the The First premiere party celebrating the film's production at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival last September. Wouldn't that have been a fun party?

I've got to say it again Pickford power! Mary is breaking out in a big way. It's about time.

Feb 3, 2013

Quote of the Week

How should we be, with a civilization that's so many times older than that of the West? We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill? I got so weary of it all--of the scenarist's concept of Chinese characters. You remember Fu Manchu? Daughter of the Dragon? So wicked.

-Anna May Wong

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