Tag Archives: Silent Film

Marion Davies’ 121st birthday


Marion Davies was born on this date in 1897. She and her nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer, always celebrated their birthdays together on New Year’s Day (Lederer was born on December 31), but January 3 was the actual date of her birth.

January of 1897 is one of the warmest Januarys on record for Brooklyn, where Marion was born. The fact that she was born during a warm spell is symbolic of her life–Marion became known as one of the warmest and most tenderhearted people in the entire film colony, generous to a fault, with always a nice and encouraging word to say to the underdog. She was a vivacious, bubbling personality, with a true gift for comedy and mimicry that shone through in many of her film roles.

Marion Davies has been the focus of my life for the past 4 years. In November of 2013, I began the process of writing a biography about Marion–and have traveled the world in search of people and information relating to the life of this remarkable woman. Every moment has been a joy. A biographer lives with the biographical subject all day, every day, and I can’t think of anyone in whose presence I would rather spend my days than Marion Davies. I really like her immensely, which is a true gift for a writer.

As the book enters its final stages of completion, I will keep Backlots readers posted about its progress. In the meantime, in honor of Marion’s birthday, I would highly recommend checking out a few of her movies. Here are a few of my recommendations, with clips for each:

Show People (1928)

Probably Marion’s finest film from a technical standpoint, Show People is tightly woven, funny, and self-aware. In the clip below, you can see how Marion enjoyed herself on set, and how adept she was at using her face for comedy.

The Patsy (1928)

This is where Marion really gets to show us her stuff. The Patsy is the film that demonstrates the best of what Marion was capable of doing, and it’s a knockout. Her talent for mimicry is shown in impressions of silent stars Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. If you’ve never seen a movie with any of these stars, rest assured that these impressions are spot on.

Quality Street (1927)

Though primarily known among silent film fans for her comedic work, Marion also had a significant talent for drama. In drama as well as in comedy, she uses her face in subtle and meaningful ways, unique even for a silent actress. Quality Street is not very easily found, but if you can manage to get your hands on a copy, it’s a very worthwhile movie. Here is one of the few clips available online from it–apologies for the shots of the crowd.

The Red Mill (1927)

Marion was covered in freckles from head to toe. Normally they’re covered with makeup, but in The Red Mill, one of Marion’s most whimsical movies, we see them out in full force. This is perhaps the closest we get to the way Marion was in real life–from her au naturel makeup, to her impish, prankster character.

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

I’m sorry to say that there seems to be no clip online of Blondie of the Follies, which is really too bad, as it’s one of her greatest roles. Earlier in her career, Marion had been resigned too often to two-dimensional characterizations–due to fears on the part of Cosmopolitan and her real-life romantic partner William Randolph Hearst that the public would see her as imperfect. But here, she is finally given a meaty role, and she’s marvelous in it.


Marion was never terribly comfortable in talkies, and as a result her screen presence in talkies sometimes reflected her discomfort. She had a significant stutter from early childhood, and speaking made her self-conscious onscreen. But a common characteristic among people who stutter is the ability to speak fluently when reciting memorized dialogue…and this was the case with Marion. She never stuttered onscreen, and had a beautiful deep alto speaking voice. So that you may hear Marion speak, I am including an amalgam of clips from her final film, Ever Since Eve (1937).

If you’d like to learn more about my project and about Marion Davies before my book comes out, visit my book’s website/my author page at http://www.laragfowler.com. Thank you for reading!


San Francisco Silent Film Festival: DAY OF SILENTS, 2016


Readers, many apologies for my extended absence. I don’t like to go too long without a post, but having been busy with my Marion Davies work and other outside issues, I find myself having gone for over a month without writing here.

Naturally, it is the glorious San Francisco Silent Film Festival that brings me back. After the main festival event in June, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has a day of silent movies at the Castro theatre in the winter, to whet our appetites for what’s to come in the summer. The annual Day of Silents this year was held last Saturday, and I am happy to be able to tell you about the day…at least part of it. My day at the Castro was cut short due to the tragic fire in my hometown of Oakland, CA the previous evening. Elaboration on that point will come in a later installment, because it deserves its own post. For now, however, I would like to focus on the movies. It’s been a dark year, and I think we could all use a bit of movie talk.

I managed to see two movies on Saturday afternoon and both were stellar examples of different types of silent filmmaking. The first was a wonderful 1926 Ernst Lubitsch comedy called So This is Paris, a lighthearted tale of rekindled romance between a woman practicing a revealing dance with her performance partner…and the man who comes over to tell her to cover up.

Even this early in his career, Lubitsch was already developing a signature style. The beginning scene with the revealing dance is a beautiful moment of early Hollywood self-awareness, something in which Lubitsch later excelled. The dance the two partners do is very “sheik”-esque, calling to mind the serious acting of Rudolph Valentino–but it is done in a very halfhearted and parodied way, inciting laughter in the Castro audience and undoubtedly in the audiences of 1926. Self-awareness at that level is great fun to see, as only a few far-between silent movies show that the movie industry had a sense of humor about itself. The beginning of So This is Paris and the entirety of Show People are prime examples of Hollywood’s self-awareness, a trope that wouldn’t become frequently employed until much later.


Parodying Valentino.

The second movie that I was able to see was Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 debut film about a pre-Revolution worker strike. Though it was his first movie, it was already typical Eisenstein. Filled with symbolic and often shocking imagery, it clearly influenced his later Battleship Potemkin, and was quite difficult to watch. Watching Strike and already being familiar with Battleship Potemkin, I came to the realization that one of Eisenstein’s go-to methods of shocking his audience was in showing graphic scenes having to do with children. The famous scene in Battleship Potemkin in which a baby carriage rolls down the Odessa steps is reflected here in similar frightening scenes involving young children, and these serve to set the audience against the villains of the story.

On a related note, I always appreciate the frequent Russian programming at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I have a strong connection to Russia, having lived and studied there, but opportunities to speak and read it here in the United States are few and far between, so the movies at the silent film festival offer my brain a much-needed Russian treat.

Sadly, I had to leave after Strike. But I very much look forward to the larger silent film festival in June. Stay tuned, and thank you Day of Silents!

Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016


Earlier this week, I received confirmation that Backlots will once again be covering the TCM Classic Film Festival in late April. This will be my 4th year at the festival, and I couldn’t be happier and more honored to be taking part in this special event.

The TCM Classic Film Festival is now in its 7th year, and has grown to become perhaps the biggest film festival in the world that focuses solely on classics. Classic film fans the world over flock to Hollywood during the week of the festival (generally in mid- to late April), to see their favorite films on the big screen, preview state-of-the-art restorations, and attend discussions and interviews with leading figures of the film world.


Sophia Loren at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, interviewed by her son, Edoardo Ponti.

Holders of the highest pass level are given the red carpet treatment, quite literally, as they walk the red carpet alongside the stars, filmmakers, and other Hollywood celebrities into the highly coveted opening night movie. In previous years, the opening night movie has been a Technicolor musical, usually celebrating a significant anniversary in the festival year, shown with members of the cast in attendance. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of The King and I, a movie that fits all the criteria for TCM’s opening night traditions, and early talk among film fans online was that this would likely open the festival, possibly with Rita Moreno in attendance.

However, TCM issued a surprise announcement a few weeks ago, shaking up our expectations for the opening night movie, and announced that All the President’s Men (1976) would open the festival. This being an election year, it is a meaningful choice and we now have new criteria by which to predict future opening night movies.

As for The King and I, that movie will be shown during the festival proper, along with such draws as The Song of Bernadette (1943), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and a special presentation of the silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), among many others.


One of the highlights of the TCM Festival for fans is the appearances made by classic Hollywood legends. Every year, a major classic film star makes an appearance and has an interview, often with Robert Osborne. Last year, the guest was Sophia Loren, and this year the festival continues with the Italian theme with the appearance of Gina Lollobrigida, who will present two of her films, her Golden Globe-nominated Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968) and Trapeze (1956).

Another event that draws a crowd is the yearly footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre  (now officially TCL Chinese Theatre–but always Grauman’s to classic film fans). In 2016, the honors will go to Francis Ford Coppola, who will place his hand and footprints in the famed forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in front of a mass of fans and press. This is often the highlight of the festival, and festivalgoers often start lining up early in the morning just to secure a spot.

It promises to be a fun year. If you would like to attend the festival, there are still limited passes available. Go to http://www.tcm.com/festival and I hope to see you there!

Treasure Trove of Silent Films Found in the UK

Mike Grant and his daughter Rachael were working at a recycling center in Sidmouth, Devon in the UK, when something unusual caught their eye. Next to an old tin of paint on an old shelving unit lay two 16mm film reels, discarded as junk along with the shelves and the paint. Upon further inspection, they discovered that these just weren’t any old junk film reels–these were films that dated back to 1909, and one of them was a reel of The Cardboard Lover (1928), a scarce Marion Davies film.

The Cardboard Lover, 1928.

The Cardboard Lover, 1928.

Halfway around the world, I became ecstatic when the story broke. The Cardboard Lover, a rarely seen gem, is one of Marion Davies’ all-time funniest films. It is available at UCLA and the Library of Congress, but the prints in both places are in desperate need of restoration. I have always bemoaned the fact that so few people have had a chance to see this delightful movie. Could this be an opportunity, I thought, for The Cardboard Lover to be restored and returned to its rightful place in the Marion Davies pantheon? As Marion’s current biographer, I could not have been more excited.

Upon further investigation into the discovery, it became clear that only one reel of The Cardboard Lover was found, thereby shattering my dreams of any significant restoration project from the newly found print. This is not to diminish, however, the significance of this find in Devon. In addition to the single reel of The Cardboard Lover, a print of the 1909 French film Jane is Unwilling to Work was found intact, as well as a 1910 Italian movie called Il Guanto.

These types of finds seem to have been increasing in recent years. In 2002, Colleen Moore’s final silent, Why Be Good?, was uncovered in the Cineteca Italiana. The story of how it was uncovered is a blog post unto itself, but suffice it to say that we now have a complete and restored version of Why Be Good?, thanks to the unparalleled knowledge of film aficionado Joe Yranski. The original Vitaphone sound disks, created to go with the film upon its original release, have been looped back into Why Be Good? and we now have the film as it was originally envisioned in 1929.

A clip from Why Be Good?, synced with the Vitaphone sound disks.

In 2008, Argentinian film historian Fernando Peña discovered a near-complete print of Fritz Lang’s epic sic-fi Metropolis (1927) in Argentina’s Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. To add to his legacy among film fans, Peña made another startling find at the Museo del Cine in 2013, when he unearthed a 9.5mm print of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1922).

Buster Keaton in The Blacksmith, a print of which was recently discovered at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires.

Buster Keaton in The Blacksmith, a print of which was recently discovered at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires.

The Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films have been lost. It is a saddening idea that as films continue to age and deteriorate, that number is steadily increasing. But as long as people continue to search and discover in unlikely places, we can remain hopeful that some of these movies presumed lost aren’t quite so lost after all.

BOOK REVIEW: My First Time in Hollywood

The first time Lillian Gish saw Hollywood was after a five day train journey from a blustery New York. She describes Los Angeles as warm and inviting, a city that “smelled like a vast orange grove, and the abundance of roses offered a cheery welcome.”

This was the Hollywood of the early days, before tourist-clogged Hollywood Boulevard, seedy shops and tourist traps kept locals at bay. In these early days, those wishing to make a name for themselves in the budding film industry ventured to an oasis called Hollywood, where orange trees blossomed and the rural landscape was dotted with farmhouses. It is difficult for us to imagine a Hollywood like this, but in My First Time in Hollywood, writer and historian Cari Beauchamp has immortalized the Hollywood of the past by compiling and annotating the words of those who lived it.

Beauchamp, the author of the beautiful Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, has created a portrait of early Hollywood that is at once nostalgic and poignant. These are the people who built the movie business as we know it, their work and commitment setting the stage for the writers, actors, and directors who would come after them. In reading their words about their Hollywood, we see just how much these men and women were responsible for building the town, and also how the Hollywood of this book has largely disappeared due to the exponential growth and explosion of the entertainment industry, causing a web of traffic, corporate buildings, and overpriced houses.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland, 1907.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland today.

The book includes stories from familiar names like Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, as well as lesser-known Hollywood figures such as secretary Valeria Belletti and Evelyn Scott, daughter of Beulah Marie Dix. Many of the stories are from the perspectives of women, a refreshing realization in an industry comprised of a mostly male-dominated Hollywood narrative.

My First Time in Hollywood is an ode to a Hollywood gone by, but also a testament to the lineage of the town, how it came to be, and the characters who made it. It is a wonderful and enlightening read, and a must for anyone interested in Hollywood history. One of my favorite lines from the book comes from Colleen Moore:

“For years I had believed, if not in the Never Land of Peter Pan, in the Never Land of Hollywood. Had believed, had thought lovely, wonderful thoughts, and for all that my Never Land was a continent away, it might as well have been second to the right and then straight on till morning.

Until now. Now at last I had found it. I was right here in it, this place of enchanting make-believe. And I was going to stay here and become a star.

How could I possibly go home?

I was home.”

A young Colleen Moore, shortly after she arrived in Hollywood.

If you would like to purchase the book, here is the link to the Amazon site. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

See you next time, and happy reading!


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!



Every year between their regular annual festivals, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents a smaller, single day event at which patrons are treated to all the vibrancy and excitement of the regular festival, on a smaller scale. In the past, the event has taken place in the winter, but as this year’s large festival took place 2 months earlier than years past, what was previously Silent Winter became Silent Autumn in 2014. As usual, Backlots was there for the action.

The day began with Laurel and Hardy shorts, and though Saturday public transportation schedules impeded my ability to see all of them, I arrived in time to catch the final short. What I saw was choice. I have seen a good deal of Laurel and Hardy, and as a friend of mine put it, “It says a lot about Laurel and Hardy that when you just think about them, you smile.” Though I much prefer their silent comedies to their sound work, I must agree that seeing them in any situation puts a smile on the film fan’s face. I regret not seeing all the shorts, but I’m very lucky that I got there in time for the next showing…a rare treat.

Next up was Son of the Sheik, Rudolph Valentino’s final film and featuring a new score by the Alloy Orchestra. Introducing the movie was noted Valentino author (and friend of Backlots’) Donna Hill, who discussed in detail the intricacies of filming and Valentino’s life at the time. It was a glorious movie with a magnificent score, and Donna’s introduction was a perfect segue into the experience. Valentino has been well-represented at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. The opening night movie of the main 2014 festival was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a real crowd-pleaser and a Valentino staple, and Son of the Sheik seems to be the ideal way to round out a very Valentino-centric year.

On the lineup after Son of the Sheik was a program from the BFI called A Night at the Cinema in 1914, showcasing several clips and shorts from that year recreating what a night at the cinema might have looked like. An eclectic program, featuring footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family shortly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a clip of a representative from the Shackleton Antarctica expedition inspecting the dogs that were to go on the trip, and an early Charlie Chaplin short set in, of all things, a movie theater. My favorite of the program was an uproariously low-budget short film called “Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine.” Decades before Plan 9 From Outer Space, this short made the best of its low budget, complete with painted sea creatures and deliciously bad special effects. I have no doubt that if it were released today, it would become an instant cult classic.

“Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine” (1914)

Following a lengthy dinner break came what was arguably the cornerstone of the festival, a showing of Buster Keaton’s comedy masterpiece The General. Though this film is shown often at silent film events and festivals, it never fails to draw a crowd and at 7:00, the Castro Theater was filled with devoted Buster Keaton fans waiting to see his most famed work. My mother, who became a budding silent film fan after I brought her to see Wings at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival several years ago, accompanied me to this screening and, I am proud to say, has now seen her first Buster Keaton film.

The General, Buster Keaton’s most famous feature-length film, tells the story of a train engineer in Georgia who is rejected from the army but ends up making quite an impact on the war anyway, in a way that only Buster Keaton can. Accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, we saw Keaton and his co-star Marion Mack perform clever gags and alarmingly advanced stunts, as well as what is considered to be the most expensive stunt performed in the history of silent film (a train toppling over a burning bridge). One of the things that strikes me most about The General is the characterization of Keaton’s female lead. She is a truly feminist character, often the brains behind solving the film’s complications, unafraid to get herself dirty or scale the side of the train. It is a refreshing look at the “damsel in distress,” as this damsel could clearly take care of herself.

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in THE GENERAL (1926)

The next film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but my mom needed to get home and like a good daughter, I went with her. But yet again, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival met and exceeded my expectations, living up to my oft-repeated assertion that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the best festival of its kind on the West Coast.

The main festival is in late May of 2015, and Backlots will be there as always. Stay tuned!