Monday, June 6, 2011

1911 in 2011

Right now, it seems like I'm living more in the 1910s than 2010s. I don't mean this in any socio-political or economic sense, but rather a very specific cultural one.

I've spent the last week reading fan magazines from 1914-17--namely Motion Picture Magazine, Motion Picture Classic and Photoplay. Google digitized them, and the volumes are mainly from Stanford University's library, and are somewhat complete--fortunately I've read the complete 1917 Photoplay two years ago on paper via the amazing folks at Bobst's interlibrary loan as some key articles are missing. I should stress that this is research for the paper I'm currently writing--and against a really crazy deadline--so I'm trying to immerse myself in work. But some parts of it are a lot of fun.

Overall, I think the Classic is my favorite but I would subscribe to all three if they were still around--and still printing stories about Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Valeska Suratt, Olga Petrova, Marguerite Snow, Anita Stewart, Violet Mersereau, the Gishes, the Talmadges, Anna Little, Ella Hall, Edith Storey, Beverley Bayne, Blanche Sweet, Carlyle Blackwell, Francis X. Bushman, J. Warren Kerrigan, Earle Williams, Harold Lockwood, Creighton Hale, Wallace Reid and many, many more. Indeed, I get the jokes, the puns, the references in ways I probably don't with some contemporary media.

In grad school, one of my (very) illustrious professors once admitted that he dated a check 1909. He didn't say when he made this error but my guess is in the 1980s, given his publications and research history. I've not gone that far, but I don't write that many checks these days. This is one of the strange little side effects of researching and writing history.

On Saturday, I went a little further back from my sweet spot of the mid-late 1910s. The Museum of the Moving Image is running the first of a series dedicated to New York filmmaking 100 years ago and I caught the first day's program. It will be three or four years or so before they hit the period I've been researching and I'm eagerly waiting to see what will be screened (hoping for interesting and more representative finds not the obvious choices of Chaplin and Birth of a Nation)

Ynes Seabury (little girl) in A Miser's Heart (Biograph, 1911)

Ironically this look back was something I shared in tandem with so many of the 1915-7 fan magazines, which recurrently look back to the (then) recent past and discuss the rapid changes in filmmaking and stardom. With Ashley and Candace, I watched two programs, interspersed with a walk around the museum (highlights included a working Vitaphone projector, complete with sound-on-disc records, a wall of fan magazines, reconstructions of the Roxy which is now, alas, a TGI Fridays in Times Square, and lots of posters, bulletins and other ephemera). My sense that I was truly living in 1916 was further reinforced by posters for a Carlyle Blackwell and Edith Clayton film, a Mutual-Reliance poster and photographs of Norma Talmadge and other circa 1915 stars. Norma also appeared in Vitagraph's star-packed A Tale of Two Cities which also featured Lillian Walker, Mabel Normand, Florence Turner, Maurice Costello, John Bunny, Ralph Ince, Julia Swayne Gordon, Anita Stewart, Edith Storey, Earle Williams--yes, practically every star on Vitagraph's roster at any time before 1917.

A Tale of Two Cities (Vitagraph, 1911)--Norma Talmadge visible in background.

As these were films made before players were credited (at least on the films themselves), and the original titles were lost in any event, it's not always possible to reconstruct the cast (and I noticed a few errors in player identification in the films we saw). But with the aid of my immersion in this period, I was able to recognize some actors, something that was easier with the ones I've seen on screen before.

Marguerite Snow

But others I'd never seen before other than on microfilm and the printed page. While her role in the Thanhouser film, Little Old New York was relatively short and undemanding, Marguerite Snow was a revelation and I'm going to look out for more of her work, if it still exists--she's pretty and elegant in fan magazines and portraits but tough, worldly wise and vital on screen, not to mention even more beautiful than in her still photos. The Griffith film, The Miser's Heart featured some unrecognizable actors--apart from Bobby Harron in a bit role, I didn't recognize any of them, but evidently a burglar was played by Lionel Barrymore--a point of contention among our group as the figure looked more like Ford Sterling or even a skinner Fred Mace. The child stars in all these films were stunning and unsentimental--Marie Eline I immediately recognized from The Cry of the Children, but Ynez Seabury was new to me. We decided she may be the most adorable child ever--even as a quick calculation demonstrated she had to be at least 104.

Florence La Badie

One of the Griffith films--Bobby the Coward--featured a strikingly beautiful and charismatic actress--a dark-skinned, dark-eyed and very self-possessed young woman. As Griffith is renowned for his fondness for delicate blondes, I was even more struck by her beauty and manner. I was even more surprised that she was an actress I'd liked from her stills and her slightly later work--Florence La Badie. One of the very first film stars to die at the height of her fame in 1917, in suspicious circumstances after a car crash--La Badie is an actress who interests me for her character--strong opposition to WW I, interest in mesmerism, active, adventurous and apparently a really nice person--and about whom I'd like to write an essay some day (if it wasn't for the fact that the resources are pretty limited). So it was pretty nice to see her charisma in this early example of her work--and to encounter her in a Griffith film when she is so different from his usual ingenues was also pretty interesting.


swinny said...

1) that was definitely not lionel barrymore in the miser's heart. i will fight someone.

2) that was definitely ynez seabury sitting at the soda fountain in dopokoke downfall (i know that's not the real title, but it is in my head). again, i will fight someone.

3) i just realized ynez seabury was in girl of the golden west, which i totally have and we should watch.

4) ynez seabury should fight baby clara bow for the most adorable child of all time award.

5) ynez seabury was born in 1907, proving once again that it was the best year in which to be born.

suil said...

You should definetly write about Florence La badie. Beautiful, inteligent and a fantastic actress. She is my favorite silent film star. she was a remarkable woman.