Friday, December 12, 2014

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen by Ruth Barton

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen
by Ruth Barton
Hardcover, 262 pages
ISBN: 9780813147093
October 2014
University Press of Kentucky

Barnes and Noble
Powell's
IndieBound

Rex Ingram was once a famous director from the silent film era and today is virtually unknown. His name was eclipsed in fame by another Rex Ingram, the actor and some of his films eclipsed in fame by remakes. According to legend, Rex Ingram, whose real name was Rex Hitchcock, once suggested to a young Alfred Hitchcock that a name change was crucial for future success.

"Changing his name was another statement of intent, not just an homage to his mother [Ingram was her maiden name] but a firm break with his father's ambitions for him." - Ruth Barton

Ingram's legacy, or lack thereof, is a complicated matter author Ruth Barton tackles in this new biography. Barton makes the case that Ingram was a talented director with a unique vision but whose career was often sidetracked by his independence, rebelliousness, perfectionism and temper.

"Fired by the idea that the movies might just be the "seventh art," they determined to test the boundaries of this new medium to create films that would be artistic masterpieces of their generation." - Ruth Barton

Rex Ingram was famous Hollywood figure in his day. He was a visionary whose imagination and artistic skill helped sculpt an industry in its early years. He was known for his trademark of open and unexpected endings. Ingram's filmography includes The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923), The Arab (1924), Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927).   Most of his films were re-made in his lifetime.
 "Rex was torn between the lure of mass entertainment... his own suspicion of mainstream culture, coupled with an embedded reluctance to conform." - Ruth Barton 
Ingram helped launch the careers of legendary actors Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro (note: it's stressed in the book that he didn't discover Valentino). The actress Alice Terry, who went on to become his second wife, was his muse, his leading lady and his travel companion. She was the most important person in his career and even co-directed Ingram's final film Love in Morocco (1933).

Alice Terry and Rex Ingram (Source)


Over the length of his career in film, Ingram bounced from studio to studio. Some of these include Biograph Studios, Vitagraph, Fox, Universal, Paralta Studios, MGM and more. He butted heads with movie moguls including Louis B. Mayer. He worked with D.W. Griffith, Carl Laemmle, Erich von Stroheim, Thomas Edison and was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was particularly touched by an anecdote about how Ingram showed kindness to a yet unknown Merle Oberon. She was being neglected by the industry because of her ethnicity. Ingram thought her exotic look beautiful and hired her as an extra in one of his films.

"His refusal to kowtow to Louis B. Mayer or recognized the authority of MGM had made him powerful enemies and placed him outside the most influential film making system in the world." - Ruth Barton

Ingram was born in Ireland but once he left he never came back. Even though he made his home in the US, he fell in love with North Africa and the Middle East and converted to Islam. Ingram also loved the French Rivieria and made films at Victorine Studios. His distaste for Western culture grew over time. After retiring from film, Ingram concentrated on his passions for sculpting, writing and traveling.

Barton tries to rescue Rex Ingram from complete obscurity by piecing together his life story and sharing it with readers. Her book is not the first on Rex Ingram but is the only one in print and readily available. Barton also had access to Ingram's memoirs which gave her a lot of insight into his life and career.

I had difficulties both reading this book and writing the review. I didn't know much about Rex Ingram and I had only seen a couple of his films. Not knowing about a figure of film history has never been a barrier to prevent me from reading and enjoying a biography. However, in this case I felt that if I had more familiarity with Ingram's work I would have benefited from when reading the text. It's a double-edge sword because more familiarity with Rex Ingram will allow for his films to become more readily available to the public.

All fingers point to Ingram's story being interesting, especially since he was such a rebel, but it's really not. Ingram wanted to make art and film was just a medium for him. Had he real passion for film and continued to work in the field his story would have been a lot more interesting.

I recommend Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen to serious film students and silent film buffs only. If you really want to dig deep and learn about early film history, this is a good pick. Otherwise, you may want to skip it.

Overview: A difficult read but worth the effort if your interest in the silent film era is strong.

Thank you to the University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lonesome (1928) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with Alloy Orchestra



Coolidge Corner Theatre sign lit up at night is a beauty to behold.
Lonesome (1928) on the Coolidge Corner Theatre marquee.

Last night was simply magical. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Pál FejösLonesome (1928) on the big screen. This event took place at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA and was the grand finale of their Sounds of Silents repertory series. It included live musical accompaniment by the acclaimed Alloy Orchestra. I had seen the Alloy Orchestra before at the Somerville Armory back in 2009 for a Halloween screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But that was so long ago and I was over due for another of their fine performances!  The combination of a great silent film and a wonderful musical performance all in a glorious Art Deco theater made for an unforgettable evening.

Before things got started, a contributor to the Sounds of Silents series, Dr. Martin Norman*, spoke briefly about the film. There were about 200 people in attendance but it was fairly certain that most of them were not aware of this hidden gem. In fact Dr. Norman asked the audience to raise their hands if they had either seen Lonesome (1928) before that night or had at least heard of it. My hand shot up proudly. I was one of maybe 7 others in the audience who did so. My good friend Jonas, who has been so instrumental in my education of the early history of film, introduced me to Lonesome. I enjoyed it when I saw it the first time but I fell in love with it deeply on this night.




Coolidge Corner Theatre and Alloy Orchestra's set-up

Lonesome (1928) was a perfect choice for musical accompaniment. The chaos of those first scenes with the hustle and bustle of a busy New York City and the manic hurly burly of the carnival just begged for music and sound effects. Lonesome is a part talkie. It was originally intended to be a silent movie but given the growing popularity of talkies and the major shift in the industry, it was decided to shoot and add three talking scenes to the picture.

Pre-screening talk.

The presenter noted that several critics feel like the talking scenes distract from the picture and he agreed with them. I don't agree. The shift felt strange to some and caused audience members to laugh, but the part talkie element of the film suits it so well in my opinion. 1928 was a time of transition in Hollywood. The industry was moving away from silents and to talkies but was still trying to figure out how to get there and what audiences wanted. It was also a time when the Roaring Twenties were fading away and the Great Depression was just on the horizon. It's my favorite time in movie history because it's so unique. There will never be a time of such change in film history ever again and this film is a beautiful example of that historic shift.



What I find fascinating about the three talking scenes is the fact that they are some of the quietest scenes in the picture. The silent scenes are manic and loud and the talking scenes are of quieter and more reflective moments. Quite the opposite of what you’d expect! Lonesome (1928) is probably the loudest silent film I’ve ever seen.

Alloy Orchestra at the Coolidge Corner Theatre

The Alloy Orchestra entertained the crowd with their magnificent accompaniment. The three man orchestra plays with a variety of instruments. I always enjoy the sound effects in particular the whistle used to accompany the high striker in one of the carnival scenes. Irving Berlin’s Always is integral to the plot of the story and is featured twice in the movie. In the final scene, one of the members of the Orchestra sings the song through a cone which gave his voice the effect of sounding like an old record. It was my favorite moment of the performance!







Lonesome (1928) is a timeless masterpiece that is unfairly overlooked. It’s message is still relevant today: if we don't take the time to connect with our fellow man we can be lonesome even when surrounded by many. It's message is still relevant to audiences more than 80 years later. The hectic hustle and bustle of 1928 as depicted in the film is very similar to the chaos of 2014. Our technologies are more advanced and our culture is very different but at the root of it all we still suffer from the same disconnect that is a result of a life frantically lived.

It’s a short film but it makes quite an impact on anyone who watches it. The film's stars Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon are not big names but are perfectly suited for their roles. I particularly love the scenes of every day life. Jim and Mary getting ready in the morning, having breakfast, commuting to their jobs, working and clocking out at the end of the day. This movie is a time capsule of the late 1920s.

I went to see Lonesome (1928) all by my lonesome. I always used to always have a friend, or two or something 10 along with me to see a classic film on the big screen. Nowadays I'm lucky if I can drag my husband to a screening. Otherwise I just don't go. This made me think about reaching out to old friends, making new friends and also not being afraid to be lonesome. Being alone and putting yourself out there opens you up to the opportunity of meeting new people. And as we all know the new person dynamic is life changing.

Alloy Orchestra takes a bow.
Thank you to the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Alloy Orchestra for a magical night!

*I'm not 100% of the presenter's name as I didn't write it down. If it's wrong, please let me know.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Why Be Good? (1929) by Jonas Nordin

Why Be Good? from Warner Bros.


The late silent film Why Be Good? (1929) was considered lost for many years. Not only has it been found but also restored and released on DVD much to the delight of classic film fans across the globe. The film stars Colleen Moore as Pert Kelly. She’s a shopgirl by day and a wild flapper by night. Pert’s reputation as as partier is all smoke and mirrors. She’s a good girl at heart and only wants the appeal the flapper lifestyle provides. Pert has caught the eye of Winthrop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton). He’s mesmerized by her vivacity and beauty but equally perplexed by her reputation. Winthrop is now the head of staff at his father’s department store. Little do the pair know that Pert is a shop girl at the same store and it’s against the rules for him to date the staff. With added pressure from his father to seek out a virtuous girl, Winthrop sets a trap to find out of Pert is virtuous or if she’s just like all the other flappers.

The film is a morality tale but also a showcase of all the fun excesses of the flapper era. Fans of the 1920s will delight at all the party scenes, the dancing, the booze and the flapper dresses. Why Be Good? (1929) is in a very awkward spot in history. The film industry is transitioning to talkies and silent films are falling out of favor with the public. However, the silent films of the late 1920s have become more sophisticated in their story telling and their use of sound effects and music. It’s an often overlooked era in film but one that should be given plenty of attention. Also, the movie was released in early 1929 and serves as one big party before the stock market crash later that same year which sets off the Great Depression.

Below is a wonderful article by Jonas Nordin of All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!. He'll be posting it on his site but is giving me the pleasure of sharing it here first! His article gives a lot of background about actress Colleen Moore's career just before she made Why Be Good?, the making and critical reception of the film, details of the once lost film's discovery and restoration.

Why Be Good? (1929) by Jonas Nordin

On February 28, 1928 Colleen Moore signed what was going to be her last contract with First National. Moore had been the company’s prime money maker since her big break in Flaming Youth back in 1923. Her previous contract had included four films made 1927-28, Her Wild Oat, Happiness Ahead, Oh Kay!, and the blockbuster Lilac Time.

The Swedish poster for Lilac Time


Early 1928 Colleen Moore was in a very good position to renegotiate her contract. One could say that the contract she was to sign was quite favorable. It stipulated that Colleen was to have final say over scripts, continuity, directors, photographers, male leads and cutting. She was obliged to make four photoplays and receive $150,000 per film. This made her just about the best paid actress in Hollywood at the time. Her husband and producer John McCormick who also was included in her contract didn’t believe in the coming of talking pictures so there was no mention of any singing or talking in the contract. One must also keep in mind that in February of 1928 talking pictures were just The Jazz Singer and some vaudeville shorts, nothing else.

The first film to be produced within her new contract was Synthetic Sin, a script which she approved of in March 1928. The script itself had been under development for over six months and Colleen was eager to shoot it. She still had to finish work on the last two films in the old contract first, Happiness Ahead and the silent version of the Gershwin musical Oh Kay!. Both were made during spring 1928 and opened in May and August respectively. Lilac Time was already finished and waited for the fall season with an August premiere and a general release in October. With its enormous sets and multitude of extras, Lilac Time had cost more than the other three films together, so it was crucial it became a hit. By the end of its lengthy run it turned out to become the second most grossing film during the 1920’s. The biggest money maker until 1939 was The Singing Fool which coincidentally went up side by side with Lilac Time in the fall season of 1928.
Work on Synthetic Sin started in September 1928 but the other three films in the new contract were not yet decided. Normally the studio had a fair amount of forward planning, and when a four picture deal was settled it was often known which films were to be produced. Scripts were usually approved and directors appointed well in advance. Sometimes things didn't run as smoothly. McCormick had a script called The Richest Girl in the World which he thought suitable as Colleen’s next offering. William A. Seiter was to direct it. Even a starting date for it was set to November 5th.


Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin (1929) - Film Poster

Hollywood movie making was quickly changing and with the thundering success of Warner’s second talkie, The Singing Fool in late September 1928, the other studios quickly had to reconsider their shooting schedules. First National decided that it would be favorable if Colleen agreed to do a talking picture since that was the new thing everyone was talking about. Colleen was the biggest star of the studio but her contract also granted her complete control and the possibility to refuse to talk on film if she felt like it, she had at least no contractual obligation to comply with this request. The studio cancelled The Richest Girl In The World because the script wasn't sufficiently developed (it was later revised into a 1934 Miriam Hopkins talkie, still with William A. Seiter directing it). First National suggested several titles to replace it, including When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Funny Face and Dangerous Nan McGrew, and it had to be a talkie. That was if Colleen would agree to renegotiate her contract.

In October 1928 Warner Brothers bought two thirds of First National and since Warner’s was the leading studio of the talkie craze the demand to release talking pictures grew day by day. Before renegotiating Colleen’s contract the studio wanted to make sure she had a voice. She recited the nursery rhyme Little Bo Peep as her voice test. Colleen’s voice recorded just fine and was indeed considered suitable for talkies. However, she still had to go to a voice coach and even take singing lessons like everyone else who wanted to be a star of talking pictures. The coming of talkies was clearly a way of the studios to clean out all sorts of disadvantages and put pressure on their stars.

By this time Synthetic Sin was almost finished and a script for a second silent comedy was quickly decided, probably to buy some time to prepare for Colleen’s first talkie. The script was initially called That’s A Bad Girl but the studio finally settled on Why Be Good? as the title. Mid November, just as shooting of Synthetic Sin wrapped, Colleen and McCormick took a week off and went through the heaps of suggested scripts to find the next film, Colleen’s first talkie. The choice fell on When Irish Eyes Are Smiling later renamed Smiling Irish Eyes, but it needed a lot of work to be turned into a working talking picture. Well home again, work on Why Be Good? started immediately. With the success of MGM’s Our Dancing Daughters that had been running since September, First National wanted a similar vehicle to cash in on the youthful shop girl movie fad.

In January 1929 Colleen agreed to renegotiate her contract with First National. The revision consisted in that the final two films left on her February 1928 contract were to be all-talking. She would get an additional $25,000 for each talking picture which meant she would get $175,000 per movie. McCormick who still was included in his wife’s contract was to get $35,000 per movie, a raise with $2,500. The contract more or less settled that the last silent picture Colleen was to appear in was Why Be Good?.


Magazine ad for Synthetic Sin

Magazine ad for Why Be Good?

Magazine ad for Why Be Good?


Synthetic Sin opened January 6th 1929 but wasn't a big success according to period reviews. However it wasn't exactly a bomb either as the public quite liked it, even more so with Why Be Good? that opened two months later. It was clearly considered the better of the two. Why Be Good? was basically an updated remake of Flaming Youth and was marketed as such. The press called it “peppy and entertaining”. None of the two films were seen as remarkable or outstanding by any sense, just typical Colleen Moore comedies.

Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were shot almost back to back late autumn 1928, both had a synchronized score and sound effects but no dialogue. They were no high budget melodramas but quickly produced rapid paced comedies. Like so many other of Colleen’s comedies they were directed by William A. Seiter. As silent pictures quickly were falling out of fashion, the fan magazines and the press in general mostly neglected this type of movies in favor of bigger productions and all talking extravaganzas. We should be grateful that these two films have survived at all. Both actually did very well at the box office, each earning more than $750,000 against an initial cost of about $325,000, which was outstanding for silents in 1929, especially considering not very favorable reviews.

At the time when Why Be Good? was released there were rumors running that Colleen would make one talkie and then end her career. This may very well have been her initial thought but to fulfill her contract she had to make two talkies before she could bow out. Smiling Irish Eyes and Footlights and Fools, shot during the spring and very hot summer of 1929. Both were lavish all-talking productions that included big production numbers and several Technicolor sequences. Sadly, neither of the two survives today. Colleen was not at all pleased with how she turned out in them. She later said that especially Smiling Irish Eyes was a frightfully dull film and she wasn't surprised it flopped. Looking back this may explain why both her 1929 talkies were unsuccessful. She was clearly uncomfortable with the new way of making movies even though she had a voice. After fulfilling the contract Colleen took a break from movie making concentrating on dollhouses, successful investments and personal matters. Her days as a movie star were over.



Colleen divorced John McCormick in 1930. She returned to the screen briefly in 1933 and made four films for four different studios of which the first film, The Power And The Glory (Fox) is the one she liked best according to her memoirs Silent Star (1968).

The Restoration
Until the late 1990s both Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were thought to be lost. There is an extremely high mortality rate for films released during the 1927-29 transition period. A large fire at Warner Bros. in the 1950s destroyed the then-known prints.

Fast forward to 2002 and New York's Film Forum. Prior to a screening, Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project updated the audience on the project’s latest activities. He casually mentioned that he recently acquired all the soundtrack disks for Colleen Moore's Why Be Good?, and said something to the effect that "unfortunately, this is a lost film."

Film historian Joe Yranski, who ran the film library at the Donnell Media Center, had been a longtime friend of Colleen Moore's and knew more about this film than probably anybody on the planet, yelled out "No it's not! I know where it is!" The full house at Film Forum cheered.

Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project

Ron immediately connected with Joe, and learned the sole known 35mm nitrate prints for both Why Be Good? and Synthetic Sin were in an Italian archive, donated to them decades before by actor Antonio Moreno. Thus began a decade long effort to negotiate the loan of both films for full restoration and synchronization with the existing Vitaphone disks. While the entire soundtrack to Why Be Good? survived in Ron’s collection, only the disk for the last reel and exit music was known for Synthetic Sin. Fortunately, a full list of Vitaphone music cues existed and was used to recreate the soundtrack.

Ned Price, Warner Bros. Chief Preservation Officer and the driving force behind the studio’s support of nearly 150 Vitaphone short restorations, personally interceded with the Cineteca di Bologna and negotiated a mutually agreeable arrangement to have both films restored and copies of both finished efforts given to the archive.

Work began late in 2012, with the professional transfer of Ron’s Why Be Good? disks and the lone disk for Synthetic Sin by sound engineer Seth Winner. The restoration effort represents a true partnership between Warner Bros., UCLA Film and Television Archive, Joe Yranski, and The Vitaphone Project, and was completed in June 2014.

Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were recently screened, for the first time in over 80 years, in 35mm and sound. The 2014 screenings in Bologna, Pordenone, London, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York were all literally packed to the last seat. One could assume that Colleen Moore's fan base is growing with these discoveries.

Seen today both films are definitely well budgeted, have strong First National art direction with a heavy art deco slant. In the case of Why Be Good?, there is the added attraction of Jean Harlow as a prominent dress extra (seen making out with a guy on a couch), and a super musical score with top jazz musicians of the period.

Jean Harlow in the background as an extra in Why Be Good? (1929)


Why Be Good? is available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive Be sure to get a copy of it.

The preservation state of the movies discussed above:
Her Wild Oat (1927) - Survives complete
Happiness Ahead (1928) - Lost
Oh Kay! (1928) - Lost
Lilac Time (1928) – Survives complete

Synthetic Sin (1929) – Survives with sound fragment
Why Be Good (1929) – Survives complete
Smiling Irish Eyes (1929) – Lost, sound survives
Footlights And Fools (1929) - Lost, sound survives

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Why Be Good? (1929) from Warner Archive for review. I promptly mailed that copy off to Sweden to Jonas and bought a separate copy for myself. Thank you to Warner Archive for the review copy!



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Wings of the Navy (1939)

Wings Of The Navy from Warner Bros.


Wings of the Navy (1939) shines a spotlight on U.S. naval aviation. This Warner Bros. film was directed by Lloyd Bacon and produced by Cosmopolitan Productions (a Hearst company). It stars George Brent as Cass Harrington. Cass and his younger brother Jerry (John Payne) have followed in their father's footsteps by pursuing careers in the Navy. Their rear admiral father, who recently passed away, has left them with the responsibility of carrying on the Harrington name in the Navy so that his legacy would continue. Pride, self-sacrifice and honor are all major themes in the story and the driving forces behind the actions of the various characters.

John Payne and George Brent in Wings of the Navy (1939)

Cass is an esteemed naval aviator with a reputation that has earned him respect and admiration among many of his colleagues. The younger Jerry is jealous of his older brother and seeks to surpass him. He abandoning his work with submarines and signs up to be a new naval aviation recruit, much to Cass' dismay.  Olivia de Havilland plays Irene Dale. With a father and a boyfriend (Cass) in the Navy, she's no stranger to the lifestyle. Jerry and Irene fall in love heightening Jerry's competitiveness towards his brother. What follows is a love triangle complicated by the dangers of aviation and the intricacies of a brotherly bond.

Olivia de Havilland and John Payne in Wings of the Navy (1939)

Providing some comic relief to this naval drama is Frank McHugh who plays Scat Allen. He's a farmer-turned-new-recruit who is blundering his way through the recruitment process. However, his character has the most personality and displays the most personal growth of all the characters. All of the other characterizations ultimately fall flat.

Frank McHugh in Wings of the Navy (1939)
The plot of Wings of the Navy (1939) is really secondary to the film's real purpose; to showcase the advancements in naval aviation and to entertain audiences with flying sequences both real and fake. Think of this film as a sandwich. You don't eat the sandwich for the bread, you eat it for the fillings. But without the bread it's not a sandwich. Without a plot Wings of the Navy wouldn't be a film. You need the plot to hold things together but really what you're after is the depiction of naval aviation.



As a story this film isn't very good. It's difficult not to compare Olivia de Havilland's very weak role as Irene Dale to her strong role as Melanie in Gone With the Wind which released the same year. Wings of the Navy was shot before Gone With the Wind but it's still a good example of how Warner Bros. didn't see de Havilland's true potential as an actress.

This film is worth watching especially if you are interested in military history. The planes and the aviation footage are the real stars of the movie. A New York Times review of the film reads:
"As a documentary study of the Pensacola Naval Air Training station, and its methods of turning raw recruits into seasoned pilots of combat and bombing planes, "Wings of the Navy" gets off the ground very nimbly, and has a good deal of value, interest and even excitement, of the purely mechanical sort, to offer to the curious."
Wings of the Navy was shot on location at the Pensacola and San Diego Naval Air Stations. The quality footage adds an authenticity to the film and gives it a lot of value as a historical piece.


The incredibly good looking cast of Wings of the Navy (1939). Olivia de Havilland, George Brent and John Payne.

Two of the characters head to Honolulu, Hawaii at the end of the film. I won't tell you which ones otherwise I'd spoil the ending. While Wings of the Navy is a WWII-era film, as of 1939 the United States was not yet involved with the war. However, in two years it would be when Japanese troops launched an attack on Pearl Harbor, Honolulu in 1941. After the film was over, I couldn't help wondering whether the two characters would have been victims or heroes of the Pearl Harbor attack or if they would have moved on to another base by then.

Wings of the Navy (1939) is available on DVD-MOD through Warner Archive . I usually feature Warner Archive movie reviews as part of my Warner Archive Wednesday feature. However, in honor of Veterans Day I'm posting this review early. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Wings of the Navy (1939) to review.




Wings of the Navy marquee on the Hemet Theater in Hemet, CA circa 1939. Source

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