The Question of Jack Pickford (1924 article)

The following article by Grace Halton first appeared in Motion Picture Magazine in October 1924.   Along with twenty-seven other interviews with silent film stars, it is reprinted in Silent Voices:  Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and kindle formats from Amazon online stores.  The pictures do not originate from the original article.

 

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Huck and Tom (1918)

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THE QUESTION OF JACK PICKFORD

An appreciation of this young star who, if he stood alone, and were measured in the public eyes only by the merit of his work –as an artist should be measured – would accomplish very great things indeed

Author: Grace Halton

(Motion Picture Magazine: October 1924)

He sat there behind a desk in the small studio office-room, and from time to time he lit a cigarette, rather nervously.  When he smiled, it was quickly but with no reflection of an inner amusement in his eyes.  He talked rapidly, but without ease.  I felt that in his mind he was wondering what I would ask him next and wishing quite fervently that I would leave.

Outside the summer sun beat down on the Pickford-Fairbanks lot.  The walls of Mary’s old Rosita sets seemed to curl and quiver in the downpour of tropical sunshine.[1] The minarets of Bagdad rose, an eye-piercing blaze of silver against the hard blue of the sky.  Only in the shelter of the mammoth walls of Doug’s mediaeval castle, erected for Robin Hood and later serving Mary well in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, was there shadow and cool.[2]

And, quite wisely, a Pickford-Fairbanks chauffeur had parked one of the family’s Rolls-Royce cars in this grateful shade.

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The Double-Dyed Deceiver (1920)

So Jack Pickford and I sat in the little office – Jack most immaculate in white trousers and well-cut gray coat – and when the riveters, working on a giant gas-tank nearby, did not drown out our conversation with their staccato clatter, we talked of various things.

But I knew, even as I asked him questions and he answered them obediently, like a little boy who hopes he’ll grade at least eighty per cent in examinations, but rather doubts it, that it was no sort of interview.

One gets no glimpse of the real Jack Pickford this way.  I know, for I’ve met him a dozen times in the last half-dozen years, at parties, formal and informal, at the various dancing places, on transcontinental trains.  Times when he was his natural, youthful self.

He was not himself the other day.  His manner was guarded.  He was earnestly striving to uphold the dignity of the Pickford family.

He endeavoured not to arouse interest in himself and in his reactions, veering ever from the personal with talk of Marilynn (sic), or Mary and Doug.[3]

“It’s lonesome around here without them,” says Jack.  “Sure.”

He has a way of saying “Sure,” as tho to emphasize his remarks.

News had come that day of a decoration upon Doug in Paris by the Ministry Beaux Arts.  Two gold palms, crossed, and suspended by a purple ribbon.  A great honor for Doug.  No actor has ever before received this decoration, which was originated by Napoleon and has heretofore been awarded only to educators.

Doug and Mary “have a new stunt” – thus the conversation continued.  They like to go down to the Orpheum sometimes, when they’re here at home.  It’s hard on Mary never having a chance to go out anywhere without being mobbed, and at last she and Doug have solved the difficult problem and how to enjoy a peaceful evening at a vaudeville show.  They buy seats in the last row on the aisle, dress more inconspicuously and put on dark glasses.  Then they slip into the theater after the show has started and out again just before the last act is over.  The stunt works fine.

Then – Marilynn.  Marilynn Miller, before whom jaded first-night Broadway has bent the knee in homage, more than once.  Mailynn of the soft golden curls, the babyish face, the twinkling toes.  The adored “youngest star on Broadway.”  Jack’s wife.

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Brown of Harvard (1926, with William Haines)

Of these he will talk.

He and Marilynn are going abroad later in the summer, he says.  Marilynn is to meet Barrie.  She’s bringing Peter Pan to the stage in the fall and, well, it seems a good idea to meet Barrie beforehand.    It’s an awful responsibility, you know, following Maude Adams in Peter Pan.  Sure.  Jack likes London.  He has lots of friends in London.  He lit another cigarette.  No – he doesn’t like Paris.

It is later, perhaps, one remembers that Jack’s first wife, the beautiful Olive Thomas, met her tragic death in Paris, and one senses that Jack has been remembering all the time.

One brings him back from London – and Paris to the sunshine and heat of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, the rat-tat-tat of the riveters working on the gas-tank, the light laughter of Marilynn and some other girls playing badminton on the studio court.

Jack’s next picture, he says, will be made in New York.  Marilynn will be working there, he explains, as sufficient reason why he should desert Hollywood.  Young Mr. Dudley is the title of the story and, the plot being conveniently laid in New York anyway, they’re going to shoot everything from the Battery to the Bronx.

His ideas of what he would like to do in future seem rather vague.  The majority of actors, when one has talked to them for one consecutive minute, will tell one confidentially of their burning desire to bring to the screen some certain story or play, to create some certain character known to history or literature. But not Jack Pickford.  In the main, his life has been mapped out for him by The Family.  One feels that decisions as to what Jack will and will not do, rest with them usually, rather than with himself.  Initiative is not developed under such circumstances.  One feels also, that if he did cherish a secret longing to create some daring, difficult role, to depart in some manner from the comfortable, even routine mapped out for him, he wouldn’t be apt to say anything about it until he had The Family’s O.K.

In some obscure way, this irritates me, belonging as I do among those wilful persons who consider him an actor with tremendous possibilities.  His work before the camera is stamped with authenticity.  He possesses the rare ability to submerge himself in the character he is portraying.  He never struts and poses in the well-known Hollywood male star manner.  If his wild, primitive mountaineer boy in The Hill Billy isn’t as genuine a portrayal as the screen has seen this year, I’ll eat my fall chapeau.[4]

But he won’t talk about himself.  Facing the interviewer, he becomes inarticulate.  He’s not thinking of his work.  He’s wondering just what sort of impression he is making on me.  He is self-conscious, lacking the egotism on which a less sensitive soul might rely.

That soul of his has been scarred.  He has seen his name in ugly headlines blazed across the world.  That slight, nervous body has bent before the storm, and the years have passed.  Jack hasn’t forgotten.

As I say, it was no sort of interview.

I left him presently, and the white-hot glare of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, with the haughty Rolls-Royce still standing in the thickening shadows of grey stone castle walls, and the silver minarets of Bagdad writing fairy tales unnumbered across the sky.

But the feeling of irritation persisted.  I found myself wishing that Jack wasn’t a Pickford.  That he hadn’t the fortunes of Hollywood’s royal family behind him.  That the rare, delicate artistry of his work might draw strength from some hardier atmosphere.  In short, that Jack wasn’t quite so smothered in The Family ermine.

After watching the sensitive play of expression across his face for an hour, it intrigues one to muse on what Jack might accomplish if, freed from all prejudice, he stood alone, measured in the public eye by the merit of his work, as an artist should be measured.

It is good work, that the boy of Seventeen,[5] The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, and innumerable other photoplays of the native American type, has given us.  To one who watches with somewhat bored amusement the tug-of-war now going on between our middle-aged film heroes and the Latin lads, a Jack Pickford performance with its blending of humor and pathos, provides a welcome distraction.

We find it within us to hope that some day he may contribute to the screen a truly great performance.

[1] Rosita (Ernst Lubitsch, 1923)

[2] Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922); Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (Marshall Neilan, 1924)

[3] Marilyn Miller:  Jack Pickford’s second wife.

[4] The Hill Billy (George W. Hill, 1924)

[5] Seventeen (Robert G. Vignola, 1916)

Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities (book announcement)

silent voices new size

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a book I have been putting together for some time!

Around a hundred years ago, film fan magazines were emerging from their infancy to become some of the most-read periodicals of their day. These were places where cinema-goers could read with anticipation about new releases, as well catch up on Hollywood gossip, see glamourous pictures of their favourite actors and actresses, and read interviews with (and articles by) some of the great stars and directors of the day.

“Silent Voices” collects together twenty-eight of these interviews and articles (many out of print since their original publication in the 1910s and 1920s), covering a dozen different screen personalities of the period: Renée Adorée, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Carol Dempster, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Robert “Bobby” Harron, Johnny Hines, F. W. Murnau, George O’Brien, and Jack Pickford.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle editions from Amazon.

contents page

 

Carol Dempster: The Gentle Gypsy (1926 article)

 

 

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The Gentle Gypsy

Author: Gladys Hall

 (Motion Picture Classic: October, 1926)

“The Perfect Life…” we said to Carol, “what is your idea of it?  The life above all other lives you would like to live if you could wave a magic wand, say Abracadabra and presto, have it so?”

“If I had been a boy,” said Carol, “and I wish I had been a boy…I should like to have been a vagabond.  A gypsy.  A sailor sailing the Seven Seas.  I should like to have tramped the earth, to have slept under sun and stars.  I should like to have touched at strange ports…to have stayed in them just so long as I found color there.  Romance.  Adventure….then sailed on again…questing…seeking…working my way, if necessary…with just enough money to get from place to place… It seems to me that would be living at the quick of life.  Really living, you know.

“So few people really live.  So very few really live their own lives.  They live the lives of dozens of other people.  They are circumscribed by this and that, caged, hemmed in, forced to do the thing they really don’t want to do, doing it gracefully or ungracefully as they happen to be.   Poor things, most of them do it all gracefully.  After awhile they don’t care.  After awhile they become superficially content.  That is the saddest time of all.

“For me, the Perfect Life would be the life of a vagabond…roving…roaming…”

 Would Live a Man’s Life

The place was Sherry’s.  The hour was the tea-hour.  The atmosphere was one of head-waitered and hushed conventionality.  Well-groomed women sat to left and to right of us, imbibing lemon-tinted tea and nibbling at pastried flakes with well-bred indifference.  Carol herself, in dove gray, her gentle face musing, her clear eyes fired with dreams of the venturesome Might-Have-Been…if she had been a boy, with the heart of a vagabond.

We feel, now, that we did Carol some sort of injustice.  We don’t know what kind of injustice, but some kind, we are sure.  For we thought that she would say, demurely, “I should like a little rose-vined cottage in the country, with baby faces at the windows and a cow browsing in an adjacent meadow…”  Or that she would say, intelligently, as her contemporaries have impressively said before her, “I should like best of all a life of study and meditation…a life among my books.”  Or, possibly, “I live but for my Art…I wish to give to the world a Masterpiece…”

But she didn’t.  The gentle gypsy, toying with lobster salad, and fresh from The Sorrows of Satan, bespoke a life of vagabondage, a gypsy life, a man’s life…hardy and adventuresome and free….

“But as you were not born a boy,” we persisted, never knowing when to let well enough alone, “as you have to be a girl in this incarnation at rate, what then?”

“I’d still like best of all to be a vagabond,” smiled Carol.  “I suppose I’m not inherently domestic.  Not yet at any rate.  I wouldn’t want to do anything unconventional, however, being a girl.  I’m no an admirer of unconventionality.  It’s usually a pose – or worse.  But if I could, even being a girl, I’d love to be a vagabond…”

Just a Care-Free Girl

“I seem to have no possessive instinct.  I mean, I don’t care a bit about having things.  I head girls say ‘Oh, I’d give my life to have this…or that…’  I never feel like that.  I’m not crazy about clothes.  I don’t care a bit about jewels.  I haven’t the slightest desire to own cars or houses or anything concrete.  That may be a part of my vagabonding instinct.  Perhaps it is.  The thought of owning things, possessing things, tires me.  Bores me.  The fewer possessions I have to think about, the more care-free I feel.  I never want to have anything really desperately.  The instinct of possession is simply left out of me…”

 Romantic Musings

“I think The Sorrows of Satan will be a great picture.  I’ve seen some of the rushes and it looks wonderful.  I’m extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to play in it.  Ricardo Cortez does the most splendid work…I don’t think he’s ever touched this standard before…and Mr. Menjou is marvellous, of course.  He is, too, very lovely to work with.”

“What do you think about Platonic friendship?” we asked.  “We talked to John Gilbert on the subject quite a while ago, and he said that such a state is not possible between an attractive, unattached man and an equally attractive, unattached woman.”

“I’m not qualified to speak in the way Mr. Gilbert is,” Carol said.  “I never like to make a definite answer to any broad question, because I feel that I don’t know.

“Life changes so.  People change so.  What is true for you today is not true for you today.

“Besides, I’ve had so very little experience in the – well, the romantic way.  I really feel unable to speak on that subject.  But I don’t know why there shouldn’t be Platonic friendships between men and women.  I can’t imagine any good reason why not.  After all, every man doesn’t fall in love with every woman, nor every woman with every man.  That element doesn’t always enter in, I’m sure.  I know quite a few men I enjoy talking with, but wouldn’t even think of falling in love with.  I’ll have to wait, tho, to deliver my final pronunciamento (sic) on that score.”

Her Secret of Happiness

“I’ve bought a little farm up in the country…outside of Brewster, New York.  It’s an old house with old things in it…big trees…a swimming hole…I’m going up to it when I’m not working.  When I am working I’ll live in hotels…Perhaps when I retire from the screen I’ll live there permanently…unless I go a-vagabonding…I’d rather like to retire in about two years.  I know no one ever has retired when they have said they would – but I hope I do.  I think it’s such a sad mistake to linger on after your pinnacle is reached.  It’s a form of death and I am too keen about living…

“Then, perhaps, I might marry…have children…I realize that, for a woman, is the only real life, the only satisfactory life, especially after your first youth is gone.  It’s a matter of making choices, always, isn’t it?  We usually want two things very much.  To do two things.  We’ve got to take one or the other, never both.  Alternatives.  I think I’m a bit of a fatalist.  I believe in living each day as it comes along…doing the best you can…waiting for the next day to turn up.  It seems to me that that is about all a person can do, really.  If we plan – well, most of us know what becomes of plans.”

Obeys Her Hunches

“If I have one talent about another, it’s that of being instinctive.  Or, in the vernacular, I have ‘hunches’.  If I obey my hunches I come out all right.  If I dont (sic) – the reverse.  Even in the smallest matters…I’ve come to trust my hunches…”

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Over the last year or two I have been slowly working on editing together a collection of vintage articles from fan magazines and newspapers of the 1910s and 1920s that are written by – or interviews with – silent film personalities.  It’s been an on/off affair, and there was one point when I abandoned the idea completely and so published a handful on this blog.  But now it’s all but finished, and the final product (in paperback and Kindle format) will have twenty-five articles in total, covering eight stars/directors: Renee Adoree, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, F. W. Murnau, and Jack Pickford.  The hope is that further volumes will follow, but we shall see how it goes.

The above Carol Dempster article was intended for the project, but ultimately hasn’t made the grade.  As it was already typed up, I thought I would share it here.

F. W. Murnau Comes to America (vintage article)

F. W. Murnau Comes to America

The German Genius of the Films Talks of Movies and Men

Author: Matthew Josephson

(Motion Picture Classic: October, 1926)

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“Simplicity!  Greater and greater simplicity – that will be the key-note of the new films.”

Murnau was speaking with ardour, gesticulating with his long limbs, whenever his English, altho (sic) correct and without foreign accent, failed him.

“Our whole effort,” he went on, “ must be bent toward ridding motion pictures of all that does not belong to them, of all that is unnecessary and trivial and drawn from other sources – all the tricks, gags, ‘business’ not of the cinema, but of the stage, and the written book.  That is what has been accomplished when certain films reached the level of great art.  That is what I tried to do in The Last Laugh.[1]  We must try for more and more simplicity and devotion to pure motion picture technique and material.”

Exactly what I had longed to hear someone say here.  Exactly what I hoped this giant of the moving pictures would say.  But then Murnau went on to say something which gives his own spirit and personal style completely.  Listen:

“In the film you give a picture, for instance, of an object, a thing, and it has drama for the eye; because of the way it has been places, or photographed, because of its relation to the other people or things in this film, it carries on the melody of the film.”

This is Murnau, the man who created the most vivid drama we have ever seen out of the simplest and lowliest things in The Last Laugh; who made brass instruments ring with music on the screen, or lit up faces so that they were loud with speech; probably the finest director who has come to us from Germany.

 His Influence is Felt

What will his influence be here, I wondered?  It has been very great already.  It is not as if we have been backward, for in the last year or two a number of film masterpieces made by American or American-trained directors follow the same tendencies of those of Murnau.  They are simple to the utmost and build solidly on the resources of the cinema – pictures like Vidor’s The Big Parade, Cruze’s Covered Wagon, Henry King’s Stella Dallas, And yet there are people who grumble at the inroads of foreign film stars and directors.  How silly!  If they could only see the mountains of inferior American celluloid that are shipped to foreign countries and blissfully consumed by the populace.

W. Murnau arrives at exactly the psychological moment, as we are on the verge of an era of truly great pictures. In his valise he brought with him a new epoch-making film, Faust, which is to have its first showing in America. At the very moment, Variety, a seriously inspired German picture, was playing to filled houses with the temperature at ninety.[2]  He is deeply interested in America; he has few false ideas about it, least of all that it is impossible to do anything fine over here.  And he is here at the behest of the Fox Film Company, seldom noted hitherto for artistic films, but now going in for bigger things.

He is not merely a giant of the films as I have described him, but in stature towers some six feet and several inches.  He is red haired; he has keen, steady eyes and quiet hands.  He is a calm man, not easily ruffled or thrown into despair.  His manner is unconventional, not at all formal or formidable as that of many Europeans.  He is young, not much over thirty-five; his understanding and his knowledge are broad.  I think that his abilities will make him respected, and his quiet, personal charm (so happily lacking in useless “temperament”) will make him liked.

Murnau was born of good family in a small town of Westphalia.  He was well educated.  He became interested in the theatre a few years before the war, at a time when great things were being done in the theatre by men like Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt and Granville Barker.  He worked under the wing of Max Reinhardt as an actor and stage director in the world famous Grosses Schauspielhaus of Berlin.  He was doing small things, but learning much under the brilliant Reinhardt, whose production, The Miracle, has thrilled so many thousands of Americans.  Another young German was working quietly with Murnau under Reinhardt.  They became friends, and were destined to become masters of a new art.  The other young fellow’s name was Ernst Lubitsch.

When the Great War came, young Murnau found himself in the first line of infantry, in the Royal Guards.  Then for a year he was an officer in the aviation corps.  Like many of us, he was glad when it was all over, and turned from the art of the theatre to the budding motion picture industry.

Some of the most famous German actors, Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, Paul Wegener, went into motion pictures.

Few Good Ones in Germany

We talked about the German situation.  What Murnau said will surprise many people.

“Contrary to the impression prevailing here, very few good pictures are being made in Germany.  There are few good directors or actors; there are few people who know anything about the cinema.  The big companies are loaded with deadwood, sheep.  They follow the tide, just as it is followed here.  When an interesting experiment turns out to be a hit, as Caligari did over there, they all imitate it.[3]  Or Variety.  They are all doing circus pictures now.  Those who have really been doing things, the talented, far-sighted men, have simply been feeling their way along.  The artists who made Caligari had no idea when they started out what their results would be.  And yet they discovered some wonderful things, they were pioneers.”

“Too much influence of the modern stage,” I suggested.

“Exactly.  I have had to forget everything I learned about the stage.  We have had to throw overboard everything that suggests the theatre.”

Here, Murnau spoke with utmost feeling and reverence for Max Reinhardt.

“I feel unbounded admiration for him.  He knows more about the theatre than anybody living.  I can never tell in words how much association with him meant to me.  He seems to know everything, follow everything.  He was the most inspiring of men to work under.  He is an old man now and very tired; but he is deeply interested in what we are doing on the screen.[4]  What we need is a Max Reinhardt of the cinema.”

“Most of the film stars of Europe, like Jannings, come from the stage?” I asked.

“Yes, but that isn’t necessary,” said Murnau.  “We don’t need trained stage actors for the movies.  There is splendid material everywhere which directors must take over and mold for the purposes of film.”

Like most of the fine German directors, Murnau has a passion for perfecting each detail of his picture.  That is one of the distinguishing features of the better importations.  In a pinch, Murnau told me, he would rather have a raw, untrained person, who had never played before, than a seasoned star.

Working over his last picture, Faust, he searched for many months before he found a young female apparition who suited the part of Gretchen; she is the beautiful Camilla Horn, a discovery he is particularly proud of.  Her face had just the degree of innocence and child-like beauty he wanted.  What a search it must have been in those times?

“In that way,” said Murnau, “I get exactly the effect, the feeling I want into the picture.  For the character of Faust I found a truly old man, a Swede, Gösta Ekman, who had seldom played before on the screen.”[5]

High Praise for Jannings

“But Jannings is an amazing screen actor,” I said.

“Yes, one of the finest in the world, and a dear friend of mine.  Do not misunderstand me.  Few people really know how to play before the camera.  Jannings is superb before it.  The secret of his power is that he uses his whole body for suggestion.  He is like this – (Murnau was puffing out his chest and throwing up his shoulders) big as a mountain when playing a king.  And when he is a clown or a beggar, he is able to shrink and quiver like the lowest toad.  He is absolutely unique.  But generally we can train players ourselves.”

Murnau is convinced that there is great material for the screen here to work with in his own way.  To find new “types” fills him with pleasure.  What a chance for some of our film-struck children!  Perhaps new life for some of our fading stars, even under the whip of a brilliant directorial genius, as Irene Rich, for instance, was glorified again under Lubitsch in Lady Windermere.[6]

The first picture he will work on will be based on A Trip to Tilsit,[7] a novel by the daring of Herman Sudermann,[8] with many interesting situations.  This will be done for Fox.  Murnau should distinguish himself; everything he does will have his own stamp, his own touch.

Screen authorities, who seldom come near being in agreement, were almost unanimous in pronouncing The Last Laugh the “greatest film ever made.”  Credit for this and for Jannings’ superb acting belong almost wholly with Murnau.  He spoke of it with unconscious pride.

Talks of The Last Laugh

“I wanted to try a story that you could really tell in five words, an exceedingly simple idea or situation; but the range, the feeling of the film which gave this story was to be limitless in its power of understanding and dramatizing ideas.  You can tell the story of The Last Laugh in a sentence, but I wanted the emotions of its central character to become something beyond the power of words to express. I wanted the camera to picture shades of feeling that were totally new and unexpected; in all of us there is a self-conscious self which in a crisis may break out in the strangest ways, and this picture at times reached the subconscious man under his hotel livery.

“The whole action of the thing pointed, for instance to the moment where Jannings takes off his hotel uniform, so that as he removed the coat with its brass buttons the highest point of the drama was reached, a drama that was purely visual.  The type of lighting and architecture we used helped a great deal toward this effect; everything superfluous that did not help to carry on the main idea was suppressed and thrown out of the picture.”

For his work here Murnau has brought over his own architect, a young man named Rochus Gliese, who has collaborated with him in several pictures towards getting the tripled intensity and directness that he goes for.

Faust, the large feature film over which Murnau has been working for several years, is to be distributed by Metro-Goldwyn soon.  It differs widely from The Last Laugh.  It may be another milestone in the progress of cinema.  For one thing, it is drenched with atmosphere and color.  It has been justly heralded as having the most beautiful photography.  Murnau has handled his camera as if it were a great Renaissance painter, a Leonardo or an El Greco.  For another thing, it is a great story, a universal theme, handled with great originality.

Every red-blooded German has had a yearning to do Faust.  It is part of the native atmosphere; it is somewhere in the flavor of the good beer every German drinks.  It is the rollicking legend of a bright, bold, bad man carrying out all his wicked dreams, that has gripped the imagination for centuries.  Those who know their Goethe, or the opera of Faust, will find that Murnau has gone back to the original sources of the legend to create something particularly for the cinema.

“In this film,” he said, “what interested me most was the relation between each scene or sequence.  Every single shot has an inevitable part in the movement of the whole picture.”

We were driving down-town now, toward lunches, banquets, greetings of the Mayor.

Issuing from the quiet, middle-class halls of the great hostelry on Fifth Avenue where Murnau seemed such an odd if good-humored-looking giant, he had shown only a single flash of temperament.  This was his demand for a certain luxurious make of American car such as he owned in Berlin.  We suggested that it must only be made in Germany.

We still talked movies.  His views were of unfailing interest.

Of Pictures and People

What did he think of Variety – the hit of the moment, to the happy surprise of all?

“Beautifully done.  Photography, playing, direction.  The vaudeville stuff is delightful.  It was really planned with the hope of an American success, and I am very happy that it is going so well.  Not because it is a German film.  I don’t really think that it marked a step forward for the cinema.  But it will improve the taste of the public, arouse them and interest them in this type of work.”

Caligari?  “It was frankly an experiment.  It was aufregend (stimulating), aroused wider interest in motion pictures, showed what might be done.”

Lubitsch?  “A brilliant man.  A most interesting director.  But I don’t think he has entirely cast off the influence of the stage that we both got under Max Reinhardt.  Many of his films give you the feeling of watching action on stage.”

Chaplin?  “The genius of the screen.  His comedies have the most profound appeal.  He is always doing something absolutely fresh and unconscious.  There were thing in The Gold Rush that were revelations, he a fountain of cinematic ideas.[9]  A Woman of Paris was extremely interesting; but, of course, it was in the European tradition.[10]

That reminded me of something I had almost passed up.

“And what do you think of – of – America?  I really had to squeeze that in, you know?”

“Thoroly exciting (sic),” he laughed.  “My second visit, you know, but I am like a child about it.  There are wonderful types here, wonderful faces.  Tremendous energy.  The whole tradition here suggests speed, lightness, wild rhythms.  Everything is novel.  Sensational.  I was in Childs’ Restaurant last night.  It was an amazing place to me.  Tonight I am going to Coney Island.  It must be barbarous there.  I would like to do a wild picture about Alaska.  What was the book they were considering?  Something like Frozen Nights or Frozen Lights.  It has wonderful possibilities.  Wonderful.  Wonderful…” he murmured as he drove on along the winding road that led thru banquets, receptions, Coney Island, to Hollywood, ultimately.

[1] Der Letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924), a film best remembered for not using intertitles for dialogue.

[2] Varieté/Variety (E. A Dupont, 1925).

[3] Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

[4] Reinhardt was actually only fifty-three at the time this interview was first published.

[5] Not exactly true.  Ekman had already appeared in eleven films during the 1920s alone prior to Faust, and had the lead role in a number of them.

[6] Lady Windermere’s Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925)

[7] This would be filmed under the title Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

[8] A short story, not a novel.

[9] The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

[10] A Woman of Paris (Charles Chaplin, 1923).  Chaplin appears only in a cameo role in this film.

An interview with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

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From the mid-1910s until 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular of film comedians.  However, at the height of his fame, he was tried for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe.  After three trials (the first two of which resulted in a hung jury), Arbuckle was acquitted, and received a written apology from the jury.  However, it was too late.  He was made a scapegoat for the so-called lack of morals in Hollywood and the current ban on his films stayed in place until 1923.  The jury verdict seemed unimportant; he had been one of the first victims of “trial by media” and he was unable to get work in front of the camera, although he directed a number of films during the remainder of the 1920s.  An on-screen comeback took place in the early 1930s, but just as his career was taking off once more, Arbuckle died of a heart attack, aged 46.

The following article is from a happier time in Arbuckle’s career, and he comes across in the interview as a warm, gentle man who was totally dedicated to his craft.  Written in 1916, the article also indicates just how quickly film was changing and becoming ever more sophisticated during this period, with Arbuckle commenting on the way comedy was progressing from the pure slapstick of Mack Sennett.  It’s a wonderful historical document and a lovely portrait of this much-loved comedian.

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Fatty Off Guard

Author: Elizabeth Sears

(Film Fun, March 1916. Source: Media History Digital Library)

“Let’s go ‘round to the office,” said Roscoe Arbuckle.  “We are not rehearsing today, so there is nothing doing here.”

He had been standing in the huge studio, with its roof of glass, watching workmen make a set and rapidly paper two walls with a vivid pink hanging.  At the end entrance there was bunched an eager group of men and women, hoping against hope that they would have an opportunity to speak to him and get in the cast.

When you see his jolly grin facing you from a picture or the covers of a magazine, you are minded to say, “Hey, there’s Fatty!”  Somehow you have no inclination to call him “Fatty” when you come face to face with him in the flesh.   True, if he were not fat, he might not be so funny; but there are brains there as well as bulk.  And Arbuckle has not been idle all these years that he has been in motion pictures.  He has been thinking out his plans and dreaming his dreams, and not he has an opportunity to put them on the screen and see how they pan out.  He has passed the acrobatic stage and the business of flapping his hands against his sides, as the symbols of fun.

“Of course we have to keep up a little of that stuff,” he explained.  “The public has associated it with the Keystone Comedy, and it would not think it a Keystone without a little rough stuff.  Wait a minute, until I call the projectionist room.  I want you to see the first showing of the first picture we did back in New York – and you will see what I mean.  We have tried to get some fine photographic effects here.  I have always though there was room for beautiful scenic achievements in comedy as well as the kick and the custard pie.”

“The motion picture world has turned over several times in the past two or three years,” I suggested, which we waited for the man who was to show us the picture.  “What is the outlook?”

“Outlook!” repeated the comedy star.  “It’s as wide as the blue sky.  Film standards change so fast and film styles come in so often that the director whose ideas were heralded as the climax of brilliancy six months ago is old-fashioned now.  And if he fails to discard his old ideas and keep at least two laps ahead of the procession – you know what’s going to happen to him.”

The director-author-actor paused long enough to courteously assure a would-be actor that the rehearsals would not begin for a day or two and that there were no good positions open as yet.  He bows out his applicants in such a pleasant and friendly fashion that they forget they were turned down and remember only that they have met “Fatty” and found him most delightful in his manner to them.

“I hate to turn ‘em down,” he apologized, “but I haven’t a thing for them just now.”

“Just a word about your scenarios,” I begged.  “Where do you get them, who writes them, and how do you direct them?”

Mr. Arbuckle paused long enough to bid a courteous good-morning to three or four young women employes (sic) who passed through the office and who spoke to him shyly.  He held open the door for one of them who wore her black hair low and held fast to her forehead with a blue silk garter.

“Not a scrap of scenario paper in my studio,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a manuscript in my hand.  I plan out the pictures, and we rehearse them – that’s all.”

Easy enough, isn’t it?  And Arbuckle has discovered a grand bit of audience psychology that some of the other stars might well copy.  He allows a bit of the picture to film along without him once in a while.  He gives the rest of the company a chance.  He says he’d rather the audience would wish he would come on back than to wish somebody would sweep him out of the picture.

“An actor doesn’t lose anything by effacing himself once in a while,” he said, as he swung himself comfortably aboard a chair to see the picture in the little projection room.  “If he is a favourite, they are all the more certain to welcome him when he gets back in the picture.”

We viewed the opening of the picture in silent.  Arbuckle, as the doctor in He Did and He Didn’t has struck a new note, although the film cutter has cut out a trifle too much footage here and there and leaves the picture a bit minus in continuity once in a while.

“You are breaking away from the slapstick stuff,” commented some one (sic) from the gloom of the room.  “How’ll Mack Sennett like that, huh?  Sennett’s idea of humor seems to be one garnd slam of kaleidoscopic action that tires the eye and leaves no one strong point in the memory.”

Mr. Arbuckle continued to watch himself on the screen diving under the bed for a collar button.

“Well,” he said calmly, “Mr Sennett trusted me to come to New York and put on these plays.  He knows what my ideas are along the newer lines of screen comedy.”

It may be that Sennett has noted the trend and begun to moderate his inordinate frenzy of acrobatic falls and tumbles and violent and unnecessary smashes through breakfast rooms, with the unvarying accompaniment of broken china and ceilings.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to an actor?” I asked, apropos of the remarkable tumble down the stairs of the doctor in search of the burglar.  Mr. Arbuckle handed me the answer slap off the shoulder.

“To arrive,” he said promptly.

“I thought that was what they all desired more than anything else,” I said, in surprise.

“They do,” he replied, “but the trouble is, once they arrive, there isn’t much to do but leave again.  When they are climbing up, the public applauds and says ‘That chap is coming right along – doing better every day.’  But once the actor is heralded as an absolute arrival, the public begins to criticise and pick flaws and expect him to better his own standard, and it is a tremendous strain.  He simply is forced to keep ahead of the public’s opinion and to spring something newer and better every season.  The man or woman who can survive an ‘arrival’ is a star of the greatest magnitude.”

There’s a bit of thought for you.  We mulled it over and watched the picture silently, until Mr. Arbuckle began to chuckle over a scene.

“We had an awful scrap over that,” he said. “You see, sometimes some of us disagree on an essential point of the production, and we stop the picture and thrash it out right there.  Miss Normand is a very charming little lady, but she has a mind of her own, all the same, and we had some argument over that.  My idea was to mystify the audience right there – not let ‘em have an inkling of why Mabel gets her visitor into her room there, until they see the burglar hauled out from under the bed.”

I noticed that it was his part of the idea that got over, though.

“That’s a good bit,” some one (sic) commented in the group, when the screen flashed the picture of the armchair before the fireplace.  Mr. Arbuckle smiled happily.

“That’s what I meant when I said that we need not rob the picture of scenic beauty to get humor into it.  Clean comedy, with an artistic background, not merely hysterical laughter and situations.”

“Think the public wants that kind of comedy?” queries one of the visitors.  “I don’t believe the public wants to get its laughs mixed up with its thoughts, do you?”

“I’m banking on it,” said Arbuckle confidently,” although older and more experience men that I am have failed to grasp the way of the public and what it will do at a given period.  I believe in the comedy that makes you think, and I believe that the time has come to put it on – and that is what I am going to do.”

We stood a moment in the doorway, when the picture and the interview were over, and watched the little file of actors and actresses in the yard, who had been informed that there would be no use in waiting.

“I’d like to go out to the car with you,” said Mr. Arbuckle, nervously glancing out of the window at the group; “but if I go out there and they see me, they’ll ask me for a job – and I haven’t a thing to offer them.”  His blue eyes looked concerned with a boyish sentiment as he bent them on us.  “I – I sort of hate to turn them down,” he said deprecatingly.

You see, responsibility takes the laugh out of you sometimes.  And although Roscoe Arbuckle loves to see his public laugh, it takes the smile off his own face when he much in any way distress even a small proportion of it.

“Miss Normand has a longing to play drama on the stage,” he said, as he bade us good-by (sic); “but I don’t believe there is any finer mission on earth than just to make people laugh, do you?”