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CMBA FORGOTTEN STARS BLOGATHON: Eleanor Boardman

Hello readers, and happy Halloween! I’ve been so busy these days that I didn’t have time to put together my Hitchcock Halloween blogathon, but stay tuned in the coming days for the announcement of Backlots’ 4th annual Dueling Divas blogathon, which will go on this year as usual!

Today is the final day of this year’s CMBA Blogathon, in which members of the esteemed Classic Movie Blog Association are writing about stars that have been lost in the annals of history. So many stars of yesteryear have faded due to unfortunate circumstance, and as classic film writers, we are doing our small part to bring back some of the glory that these stars enjoyed in their heyday.

The star that I have chosen for the blogathon is the talented and beautiful Eleanor Boardman, a hugely popular star in the silent era with enormous acting talent and uniquely soft yet defined features. Retiring in 1935 and spending a long and healthy retirement out of the spotlight, hers was the definition of a full life, lived her own way. In addition to having been a movie star, Boardman also spent time as a correspondent for the Hearst newspapers and worked in France for the International News Service, writing a column about American life in Paris.

Eleanor Boardman was born in Philadelphia on August 19, 1898, into a strict Presbyterian family. The method by which young Eleanor became an actress is disputed–by her own account, she left home to study art and interior design at the Academy of Fine Art, while former husband King Vidor claims that she rebelled against the stifling atmosphere of her home life to choose a career path of which her parents did not approve. But what we do know is that as a teenager, Eleanor was named the “Eastman Kodak Girl” and by 1922, she had come to the attention of Goldwyn Pictures, who gave her a contract for $750 a week. She moved to California to begin work and soon met and fell in love with up-and-coming director, King Vidor, who had seen pictures of her as a teenager and was immediately smitten.

In 1923, Boardman made Three Wise Fools with Vidor and subsequently made five more films with him as director in the next four years. The most masterful of the six films that Boardman made with Vidor is The Crowd (1928), a beautiful and sorrowful look at a man in social and economic turmoil. Eleanor Boardman plays his long-suffering wife, and gives a magnificent and nuanced portrayal of a woman conflicted between her love for her husband and her obligation to herself. The movie is one of my personal favorite silent films, and it is clear that Vidor understood instinctively how to direct Boardman toward her best work.

Eleanor Boardman and James Murray in THE CROWD (1928).

Vidor and Boardman finally married in 1926, in a ceremony that was supposed to be a double wedding with John Gilbert and Greta Garbo at the Beverly Hills home of Marion Davies. But when Garbo failed to show, Gilbert was left alone at the altar with Boardman and Vidor, who proceeded with the marriage. The photos from this event are immensely uncomfortable.

Boardman’s marriage to King Vidor produced two daughters, Antonia (born in 1927) and Belinda (born in 1930). But in 1931, shortly after the birth of their daughter Belinda, the marriage began to fail and they divorced the same year.

Following her divorce from Vidor, Boardman met writer Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, with whom she would spend the rest of her life. Boardman decided to retire from films in 1935, and in 1940 she married Arrast. Shortly after the marriage, she was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International News Service to go to Paris to write a column entitled “Americans in Paris,” to appear in the newspapers once a week. She spent a year in Paris writing the column, meeting socialites and writing to her heart’s content, until she contracted tuberculosis and was forced to abandon the job to go to Switzerland to recover.

With Arrast.

She returned to the United States with Arrast, and following his death in 1968 Boardman moved to Montecito, CA. She spent her remaining years in Montecito until her death at age 93 in 1991.

I was lucky enough to talk to Eleanor Boardman’s daughter, Belinda, a few months ago. The spitting image of her mother, Belinda talks articulately and beautifully about the full life she led with her illustrious mother and father, the parties and social scene of Hollywood, and the careers of her parents. Her words about her mother are always kind. Eleanor Boardman’s star burned brightly for a short period of time, but that was exactly how she wanted it. She lived her life her way.

Thanks to the CMBA for hosting this blogathon. Some of the material for this article comes from an interview conducted by Alan Greenberg with Eleanor Boardman in the 1980s. I have the privilege of access to portions of this interview, and have used it to fill in information about the life of this fascinating star. Many thanks also to Alan Greenberg for letting me listen to it.

See you next time!

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SHOW PEOPLE (1928) and the Rise of Self-Reflection in Hollywood

Marion Davies and real-life director King Vidor in a scene from “Show People.”

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

For many decades, Hollywood has been fascinated with movies about movies. Ranging from the highest celebrations of Hollywood stardom (Singin’ In the Rain) to analyses of the most terrible tragedies of the industry (A Star is Born), the films that come out of this penchant for self-examination consistently do extremely well at the box office to this day, often winning major industry awards and proving that audiences and critics alike share this passion for “Hollywood on Hollywood.”

Singin’ In the Rain (1952), about the coming of sound to Hollywood, has earned a place as the only musical in the top 10 of “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies” list.

Argo (2012), about a plot to rescue Iranian hostages by creating a blockbuster Hollywood movie, won the Oscar for Best Picture last year.

Self-awareness in movies dates back to the earliest days of cinema.  Mack Sennett often appeared as himself in the Keystone Kops movies, acknowledging the disconnect between reality and the movies and making an attempt to sew them together to create a fluid illusion for the audience member. In “The Playhouse” (1921), Buster Keaton attends a show in which he plays all the parts. He (as his character) quips “This Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show!” This was a nudge to the audience, a peek over the 4th wall to let the audience know that Keaton is aware of himself as an actor.

Building on these early indications of self-awareness, the first full-scale “Hollywood on Hollywood” movie appeared in 1928 with the King Vidor comedy Show People, about the transformation of a young country girl  into a major movie star. Starring Marion Davies and based on the early career of Gloria Swanson, Show People is a thorough and intelligent look at the complexities of stardom, and its quality rivals that of the later movies who drew from its precedent. It is truly a movie that, despite the passage of 85 years, solidly stands the test of time.

Peggy Pepper is the young Georgia girl who wants to be in movies, so her father drives her out to Hollywood where she lands a contract as a comedic bit player, often getting squirts in the face with seltzer water. She befriends a fellow comedic actor named Billy Boone, and they act together in low-budget films while remaining best of friends offscreen. At the screening of her first movie, Peggy gets an autograph request from none other than Charlie Chaplin (playing himself in a cameo) and promptly faints. Several other stars make cameos in the film, including Marion Davies herself. When Peggy sees Marion Davies, she reacts with disdain, an extremely clever demonstration of the film’s self-awareness.

Marion Davies as “Marion Davies.”

Soon, Peggy is signed to “High Art Studios,” where she becomes a big star and slowly loses touch with society as her ego grows. She shuns Billy Boone as a lower-class actor, even though he tries desperately to maintain their friendship and bring her back to reality. She runs into him on a film set and reacts coldly to him, until he squirts her with seltzer water like he used to in their low-budget films together. She becomes enraged and storms off.

Shortly thereafter, she is informed by her studio head that theaters around the country are pulling her movies because her image is becoming too snooty. She is about to get married to a fake count Andre Telefair, when Billy bursts in and squirts her in the face with seltzer water, then throws a pie in the face of the fake count. This brings Peggy to her senses, and she and Billy make up. Peggy’s next movie is set in a World War I village, and she convinces director King Vidor (the real life director of Show People), to hire Billy as her new leading man, as a surprise. Billy is thrilled to see that Peggy is his leading lady, and the film ends as Peggy and Billy kiss on the set of their new movie together.

Show People is one of the finest silent movies to come out of the 1920s. It is strikingly modern, and could easily have been made today, needing very few changes. Though it is a comedy, one can see the influence it had on such later Hollywood on Hollywood movies such as A Star is Born, chronicling a male actor’s assistance to an actress, and that star witnessing her rise over his. It is said that this movie is loosely based on the career of Gloria Swanson, who later starred in her own Academy Award-winning film about Hollywood–the incomparable Sunset Boulevard.

See you next time!