Saturday, May 29, 2010

Eddie Borden and Friends

Welcome to my 20th post on this new blog.  The counter has been advancing, and I have contacted some of my acquaintances to get their input.  Everyone seems to be pleased with what they see and I hope you are as well.  Please contact me with your thoughts at any time.

One person I have e-mailed is Scott MacGillivray.  Scott is the Grand Sheik of the Boston Brats tent of the Sons of the Desert.  I met Scott back in 1986 at our convention in Valley Forge, PA.  He is a writer and has several interesting books to his credit, not the least of which is about the later films of L&H, and has recently been revised.  It is available at the picture/link to the left.

Scott has also written a book on Gloria Jean, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven, and an incredible catalog called Castle Films: A Hobbyist's Guide...remember Castle Films?!  I had quite a collection of 3 minute, drastically edited horror films on 8mm when I was a boy!

When Scott read this blog he suggested I take a look at the stars he highlights on his web site.  I came across Eddie Borden (1888 - 1955), who appeared in several Laurel and Hardy films.  Eddie did much more than that!

Borden came from a vaudeville background and according to IMDB, appeared in 141 films.  He was never a big star, so he fits in here very well.  In addition to four L&H films, he was in two Marx Brothers films, Flying Down to Rio with Fred and Ginger, State Fair in 1945, Broadway Melody of 1938 (take a look at the cast list for that film!), Buffalo Bill in 1944, and he worked with such great stars as Sidney Greenstreet, Robert Mitchum, Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Joel McCrea, Maureen O'Hara, and the list goes on and on.

To quote Scott, "He made small but telling contributions to the films he appeared in..." and I couldn't agree more.  It appears that his characters, especially in later films, didn't have names.  He was a civilian in the food line, a horse race spectator, a hotel clerk, a comic with a banjo, a poker player or the elevator operator at the penthouse.  It would be difficult to write his resume and make it sound good, but just look at some of his films.

Make sure you find a way to see these films if you can.  They are loads of fun, and a great way to spend a holiday weekend.  Have a nice one!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Chaplin and Fester

I just used my new search box and found that I have been remiss in my duties, and have not yet mentioned Charles Chaplin.  Chaplin is recognized as one of the greatest film makers of all time.

I am just finishing a re-read of Charlie Chaplin by John McCabe.  It is considered one of the best Chaplin biographies, mainly because McCabe is so thorough in his research.  As a matter of fact, it is much more accurate than Chaplin's own autobiography.  McCabe is careful to explain the differences in Chaplin's memories and what actually happened in his life.

I met Jack (as he was called) back in the 1980s while in the Sons of the Desert.  He was the founder of the group, and he was also the authorized biographer of Stan Laurel.  Stan helped him as he (and others) formed the SoD, with some ideas and suggestions. 

Jack was always friendly and very easy to talk to, and extremely knowledgeable.  His wife was Rosina Lawrence, who was an actress with Hal Roach, and appeared in several L&H films, as well as Our Gang and others.

The book got me thinking about how bit actors become stars, but in this case, how a star became a bit actor.  Of course I am referring to Jackie Coogan.  Coogan's first big hit was The Kid.  It is a silent Chaplin film released in 1921, with Coogan in the title role.  It is my opinion that Coogan was the real star of the film, with Chaplin playing a big supporting part.  You simply can't take your eyes off the Kid, he is so wonderful in this movie.

I would imagine that the trade news of the time would have predicted Jackie Coogan would go on the become a big movie star.  He made over $4,000,000 as a child actor in the 1920s, which is a huge amount of money.  Sadly, his mother and step-father refused to give him his money when he grew up.  He sued them and was awarded only $126,000 in 1939.  The public was angry about this, so California eventually passed the Coogan Act to protect the income of child actors by requiring a trust fund for them.

Coogan's career wound down after that and he became a guest star on many television shows, ending up as a bit actor.  His biggest part as an adult was as Uncle Fester on the original "Addams Family" on TV.  I remember him later playing villains and other characters on other TV shows.  You can only wonder what the turn of fate will deal. 

BTW, if you decide to purchase any silent films, try to find them with a good musical score.  Bad music from a cheap copy can really detract from what could be a truly great film.  Many of the old silent films are now in the public domain, which means anyone with a copy can dupe it and sell it.  In many cases that means they add whatever free music they can find.  Good luck.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Russian's are Coming!

At least one Russian, Mischa Auer, has made a full life out of bit acting.  I suppose I first saw him in Destry Rides Again, the 1939 version with Jimmy Stewart.  Then I started noticing him in everything!

Check out this list of major films...
Anna Karenina
My Man Godfrey
Pick a Star  (I consider it a major film...Laurel and Hardy are in it!)
You Can't Take it with You
Destry (of course)

Mischa Auer had a total of 175 roles, from a 1928 silent film called Something Always Happens, to an Italian romance film called For Love...For Magic in 1967, the year he died.  Some of these are major films with major stars, and they used Mischa in parts that he was able to bring life to. 

He even worked with a young Humphrey Bogart in a film called Women of all Nations in 1931.  Bogart's scenes were deleted from the final cut, and Mischa's part went uncredited.  I wonder if they spent any time together and talked about their careers.  Bogart was born in 1899 and Auer was born six years later, but they both started in films in 1928.

My wife and I love You Can't Take it with You.  Frank Capra directing Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart, Ann Miller and Mischa Auer.  If the story was trash, the cast would have carried the film. 

Dub Taylor, another famous bit actor, started his career in this film, and ended it in Maverick in 1994.  Ann Miller was only 15 years old, but she was already spinning!  (I think my wife likes Ann Miller the best.) 

Let's see...Spring Byington, Mary Forbes, Eddie Anderson, Charles Lane, Ward Bond...the cast of this movie is about 155 strong.  I believe that what makes some movies great is not only the leads, but casting really good bit actors who can add to the film, but sometimes remain in the background so they don't overshadow the story.

One last thing.  I added a search box to my blog.  It should work if you want to see if I have touched base on any of your favorite movies or actors!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Destry Rides Again and Again

If you are a fan of Jimmy Stewart (and who isn't?) you are familiar with 1939's Destry Rides Again.  Stewart plays Tom Destry, who is trying to uphold the law in a new, non-violent way.

This series goes back to a Max Brand novel, with Harry Destry as the hero.  Tom Mix made the first Destry Rides Again in 1932, and he changed the character's first name to Tom, which apparently was his preference for most of his characters.  That name stuck, as Stewart and later Audie Murphy also used Tom. 

Of interest is that the 1932 Tom Mix version was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., who had also produced a few rather famous horror flix called Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy.

I have always wondered why the 1954 version with Audie Murphy is called Destry and the other two versions are both ...Rides Again!  Well, Destry Rides a Third Time probably wouldn't work as a title. 

On TV in 1964 his name in the series "Destry" was Harrison Destry, and he was the son of Tom Destry.  I may need to consult a genealogist, so let's stick to Jimmy Stewart!

The cast of 1939's Destry Rides Again is quite large.  Most of the extras and bit actors are not well know, at least to me.  That is where some research comes in handy.  Just click on the link to each actor near the bottom of the full cast list on IMDb.  Here are some names and the number of roles they have played during their career, according to IMDB.
Duke York - 165
Blackie Whiteford - 298
Dan White - 255
Hank West - 1
Minerva Urecal - 269
Jack Tornek - 148
Harry Tenbrook - 359

Jimmy Stewart made 100 films and Marlene Dietrich only made 54.  Of course having a lead part is much more work, whereas an extra is probably done in a day or two, after his/her scenes are shot.  I wonder whatever became of Hank West?

Dickie Jones was 12 when he was in Destry R.A., made in the same year that he was in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, also with Jimmy Stewart.  Dickie had 111 roles to his credit, with 77 of them before he was 18 years old.  His most prominent role came at age 13 in 1940 when he was the voice of Pinocchio for Walt Disney.

Check out some of the others and try to find a favorite bit actor for every film you see.  And if anyone knows how poor Hank West is doing, please let me know.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Whatever became of Dick Lamparski?

If you really want to talk about bit actors and actors of bygone days in general, you need to do the research.  With me, it is becoming an ongoing project, just to keep up with the blog. 

Starting back in the 1960s a fellow named Richard Lamparski wrote a series of books called, Whatever Became of...?  Each book contained a short biography of several actors and actresses with a vintage picture, and then an explanation of where they are plus a more current picture.  Of course, these books are now decades old, so most of the subjects are gone, as well as the books.

When I was actively involved with the Sons of the Desert, I was very privileged to meet Margaret Hamilton (1902 - 1985), who was a guest at our banquet.  We had a lovely lunch at the home of our Grand Sheik, and Ms. Hamilton was wonderful to talk with.  She told us about making The Wizard of Oz and all the stories about the Munchkins, which apparently were true.  She said that she was sickened by the green makeup she had to wear.  And she spoke about her other famous roles and the stars with whom she worked.  She commented that she always seemed to be cast as an older woman in the movies, even when she was very young.

I took her portrait at that lunch, and Dick Lamparski asked if he could use it in his ninth edition of the series.  Whatever Became of...? Ninth Series  My guess is that the entire series is probably out of print by now.  If you happen to see any of the books for sale at a garage sale, flea market or used book store, they are well worth having.  As often happens with those of us who collect old things, many of them can be had at a bargain because they are no longer popular with most people.  This usually works to our advantage!

My goal is now to see if I can find the negatives from the pics I took back then and post some of them here.  As the years have gone by, much of my stuff has ended up in storage, so I better start digging!

Use the Internet as well as books to do your own research into the world of classic film.  Don't miss the many blogs, as well as the well respected authorities such as IMDB and Turner Classic Movies.  Delve into the little known, too.  A search for "Bit Actors" would be a great place to start!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Chill Wills, Famous Singer!

Chill Wills has a great voice.  His is right up there with Basil Rathbone, John Caradine, and Andy Devine for great acting voices.  More about great voices in later blogs.

Chill Wills (1903-1978) got his start as a singer in vaudeville.  He was the bass in a quartet he formed called the Avalon Boys and they were popular in the 1930s.  I saw him first in It's a Gift, with W. C. Fields, and his voice and face were instantly recognizable.  The Avalon Boys were singing at a campfire and Fields wandered over to add his voice to theirs.  It's a Gift from 1934 is one of my favorite Fields movies.

The Avalon Boys went on to work with Bing Crosby in Anything Goes, and then with Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West.  The group apparently disbanded in 1938, according to the Turner Classic Movie web site.  That year, Chill Wills did the voice of a midget in an elevator in another L&H film, Blockheads.  The Midget, played by Karl 'Karchy' Kosiczky, would be one of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz the next year.

Wills became a great western character actor, which is his real claim to fame.  It is probably tough to be saddled with a voice that is so unusual, but he always made the best of it.  It must be like having Rondo Hatton's face.  Nothing can be done, so take the great parts you are offered.

Wills played cowboys and soldiers for quite a few years, then in 1950 be became a mule.  Yes, he was the voice of Francis the Talking Mule in that series of movies.  I don't remember those movies well, but I have seen some of them.  Something I must add to the Netflix list!

He continued in movies and also had quite a career in television.  Westerns, dramas, comedies, voice-overs...whatever came along.  I can remember him showing up everywhere.  Burke's Law, The Rounders, Gunsmoke...he was also in one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1958, and I bet he held the chilling part up to an Emmy standard, even though he never won any awards.  He came close with a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Alamo.

I don't know if you can qualify Chill Wills as a superstar, but I sure would.  His acting made an impression on me, and probably inspired later actors to work in a niche as a character actor as well.  I guess that's what it was supposed to do!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Siegmund Lubin was Silent

The first "Movie Mogul" is generally accepted as being Siegmund Lubin.  He started out as an optical manufacturer and made early movie projectors.  His business was based in Philadelphia, and he eventually had studios around the country.  Oliver Hardy, a southern boy born in Georgia, worked for him in FL.

The annual Betzwood Silent Film Festival was held earlier this month at Montgomery County Community College in Bluebell, PA.  Since most of the early silent actors and actresses were little more than bit players, they certainly should be recognized here.  We saw a very good selection of silent films from 1904 to 1916.  The earlier films were little more than short visual jokes.

The first film was called A Dog Lost, Strayed or Stolen released in 1905 and made on the streets in Philadelphia.  A woman has placed an ad in the paper to find her lost dog.  About a hundred people show up at her listed meeting place to claim the reward...all with dogs!  The group of people with dogs chases the woman all around the streets, and that is basically the entire film.  It was about 5 minutes long, with no inter titles to explain what was happening.

At one point in the beginning of the film, a carriage drives in front of the camera.  The driver realizes what he did and amicably tips his hat to the camera!  Those were the days.  I don't remember the name of the lead actress, but I hope she went on to have a fulfilling movie career.

Another film was Thrilling Detective Story released in 1906.  The film starts as a woman is buying a book at Leary's Book Store.  Leary's is gone now, but it was next door to one of the Lubin buildings.  It was fun to see a book cart in the store go buy with the name prominently displayed to advertise his neighbor.  Of course it would be way to dark to actually film inside a book store, so the scene was shot on the roof of the Lubin building with a canvas backdrop painted to look like the store.

The woman starts reading what must have been a great book, and she also starts bumping into things.  She (although I suspect it as a cross dressing man who could handle all the prat falls) walks all around the city, bumping into things, getting hit by a car, and run over by a steamroller!  She eventually falls into the Schuylkill River near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is rescued into a row boat...still reading of course!  The movie ends with her sitting in a chair with the book.  She looks into the camera and smiles.

I hope you can search out some of these early films.  They contain the seeds of what would become the films of the golden age of movies, and would evolve into today's blockbusters.  Plus, they are great fun!  You can find more about silent films at the Silent Movie Blog or tune onto Turner Classic Movies on Sunday nights at midnight when they screen silent films.