Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Circus of Death

Crowds lined up to view Valentino's body



The recent and very sudden death of the pop icon Michael Jackson gave me pause to reflect on interesting parallels between two events 80 years apart: the uncanny similarity to the "Circus of Death" that accompanied the untimely passing of silent screen idol Rudolph Valentino.

Valentino was touring across country in the summer of 1926 to promote his new film, The Son of the Sheik. He fell ill on August 15th and on August 23, 1926, 12:10 pm; Rudolph Valentino died suddenly after a brief illness. A fuller account of Valentino's final journey can be read here.

Jackson was on the verge of a comeback tour, much as The Son of the Sheik was a comeback film for Valentino.

Technology in 1926 was nothing like the instantaneous news outlets such as the internet of the 21st century. The progression of Valentino's illness and death were reported on the street outside the hospital in numerous editions daily with up to the minute updates. Screaming headlines and shouting newsboys!
Today, the news is posted second by second on Twitter or Facebook and fed to CNN and other cable news sources. The headlines still scream in a variety of neon colored text and accompanied by cell phone photos and video from the i-reporters. The coverage and saturation is unceasing.

Both Valentino and Michael Jackson were icons in their respective fields. Valentino’s image was that of a “love god” an object of fantasy to women. His personal life was something mysterious as the on-screen image shrouded the real man. Valentino was misunderstood in his time at the height of his fame. The fans could not separate the image on screen from the person. Like Jackson, his personal image also suffered from scurrilous personal attacks in the news.
Jackson as "The King of Pop" also lived a life that was shrouded in mystery and speculation. He was also much misunderstood. Now that Jackson has passed, like Valentino, his friends have come forward to defend him, to reveal some personal anecdotes that shed light on the man behind the mask.

Valentino loved children and had a great desire to have a brood of children to raise and romp and play with. Valentino did not live to have this desire granted. Valentino doted on his nephew, the children of his business manager and the children of friends and co-workers. Jackson similarly loved children and worked tirelessly for charities on the behalf of the underprivileged. He was raising three children at the time of his passing.

Valentino died with his estate in a shambles. He overspent on antiques, pets and a lifestyle sometimes beyond his means. He was generous to friends and was a spendthrift not investing in tomorrow. Money flowed through his hands like water or grains of sand. Valentino’s estate sold many of his earthly possessions at a very public auction, many items he paid great sums for sold for a pittance. The crowds hoping for a souvenir of the great lover crowded the preview and the auction.

Jackson certainly had much more business acumen than Valentino. That said, his estate is also apparently in a shambles, deeply in debt to the (reported) tune of half a billion dollars. Jackson reportedly has some very valuable assets. The contents of his Neverland Ranch were to be sold at auction earlier in 2009. That auction was stopped, but one would suspect that now with Jackson’s demise, the items will again be offered to the highest bidder to pay down the estate debt.

Valentino’s family and his business manager, S. George Ullman, fought a lengthy battle over Valentino’s estate from late 1926 until it was finally settled in 1948, twenty-two years later. One hardly thinks that there would have been anything left for either side to squabble over. It was a no win situation.

Jackson’s family is already making legal plays to take care of business of the estate prior to the entry of a will and before the body has been buried. Given the shape of the estate and the future of Jackson’s children, this may prove to be a twenty year battle, as well. Only time will tell.

At the time of Valentino’s passing in New York, his body was transferred to Campbell’s Funeral Parlor for embalming and it was decided with the massive crowds there would be a public viewing. Reportedly 100,000 people lines the streets of Manhattan to get a chance to pay their final respects or to satisfy curiosity. The crowds turned ugly and there was some disturbance and rioting. Valentino would have been horrified. A harrowing chronicle of Valentino’s passing and the circus of death aftermath can be found in Irving Shulman’s 1967 book, Valentino.

Valentino’s body was shipped across country for burial in Hollywood. This was a journey Valentino’s brother Alberto found to be very moving as he witnessed so many personal and sincere examples of grief for the loss of his brother. Valentino was interred in Hollywood, in a borrowed crypt awaiting a proper shrine to be built. The elaborate memorial tomb was never constructed and Valentino lies next to his great benefactor, June Mathis in a humble crypt.

Jackson, likewise is about to have a very public viewing. His body is to be transported to his famed Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara where friends and fans will be allowed to pay their respects. In New York the Apollo Theater is having a memorial in his honor. There is no word on what kind of memorial will be constructed to honor Jackson and his legacy. Will Neverland Ranch become a Graceland West and shrine? It is too soon to tell.

Valentino was not the first shockingly unexpected celebrity death nor will Jackson be the last. The only thing that has not changed is that when a celebrity dies unexpectedly, it is a circus of death and the public eats it up.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Great Train Robbery 1903 - Fifty Years/Fifty Films


The iconic close up from the 1903 film

Whomever said overt violence on film is a sad reflection on the effects of modern technology and overexposure to violence in video games has never seen Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery released in 1903. Plenty of violence and plenty of bodies for a film that runs less than 12 minutes.


Filmed in the wilds of Fort Lee, New Jersey for Hollywood had not been invented yet, The Great Train Robbery is noted for being the first linear/storyline film. The film begins at plot point A and moves through plot point Z to the wow finish in a very compact fourteen scenes. In 1903 this was pretty revolutionary. With a running time of just under 11-12 minutes (depending on projection speed) it was a blockbuster.

The paybox is blown and the paymaster, dead

Having previously viewed this film in several film courses and in clips in any number of documentaries on film over the years, I confess, I tended to write it off as a primitive curiosity. It was with a more serious intent I sat down to view it again and have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a modern viewer with more than a few silent films under her belt, I'd say in spite of all the western cliches that spawned from this little film in the last 106 years, it's still a pretty good picture. A corker, in fact.

Surprisingly, this little film has given me a new appreciation for the Western genre. It's a genre I've often ignored for no good reason. I'm going to look forward to viewing some more early efforts by mostly forgotten cowboys like Art Acord, Fred Thomson, Tom Mix and WS Hart. Admittedly, the last two are not really forgotten, but it's new territory for me.

The final gun battle, the posse wins

Tim Dirks has a thorough review and break down of the film here.

The entire film can be seen here, including some original hand colored tints.



This film also is noteworthy for starting the career of another legendary cinematic cowboy and pioneering producer of the early silent era, G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson. David Kiehn has authored a fabulous book on Essanay, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, I highly recommend it. You can also see David and some great early films if you are in the SF Bay Area by visiting the Niles Essanay Silent FIlm Museum


G.M. Anderson as an innocent passenger, gunned down by the train robbers

I'm a little behind on chronicling where I am in the 50 years, 50 films, believe me, I've watched more than this. Hopefully a much fuller update over the Fourth of July Weekend.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It began with a tango - June Mathis and her unique friendship with Rudolph Valentino

 
The world was dancing.
Paris had succumbed to
the mad rhythm of the
Argentine tango.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)



The Argentine Tango came to American shores as early as 1911 and was considered quite shocking for the day. Vernon and Irene Castle did lend some respectability to the tango in their ballroom dance exhibitions. True tango madness among the youth of America did not reach a zenith until 1920-1921 with the release of the film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The tango in the film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had something that Vernon and Irene Castle did not, the pure, raw sensuality that was Rudolph Valentino. For this we must thank a woman who is relatively unknown today, June Mathis.




Valentino as Julio, portrait by Arthur Rice


Hollywood history and legend has widely credited June Mathis with discovering Rudolph Valentino. Valentino landed the plum role of Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because Mathis recommended him after she saw him in Clara Kimball Young’s film The Eyes of Youth. Rudolph Valentino’s star began its irrevocable ascent because of her foresight, her vision. It was the guiding hand of June Mathis and the sensitive direction of Rex Ingram that helped Valentino give a performance that stands firm to this day. Not only was it through her vision that Rudolph Valentino gained stardom, they developed a fond friendship lasting until his untimely death in 1926. Their friendship was no romance, she was to Valentino a wise and matronly figure that Valentino looked to for guidance on more than one occasion.


June Mathis portrait by Evans


June Beulah Hughes was born in June 30, 1892 in Leadville, Colorado (this date is disputed and is listed in other sources as January 1887). Almost nothing of her childhood years has been recorded for posterity. A biography of June Mathis is in process and one hopes it will shed more light on her life and work. It is known that she went on stage very early and won some fame doing imitations, of whom is lost to time as I could not find any specific references. June worked in vaudeville and was cast in several plays; she was cast in Whose Baby are You? in 1902 and toured across the country. . She began her professional career as a writer with the popular female impersonator Julian Eltinge (coincidently, Valentino’s future co-star).

June Mathis later wrote about her experiences with Eltinge in an article entitled “The Wave Length.” It has been speculated that Mathis actually became aware of Valentino through the 1918 Eltinge film An Adventuress. Would Mathis have seen this film? It is intriguing point of speculation to think that they may have met during the filming, but that is simply not the case. Valentino emphatically stated in interviews at the time that he and Mathis did not meet until he was signed to play Julio.

After leaving the stage to pursue her passion for writing, June and her mother moved to New York City, where she studied writing by day and studied at the movies by night. Soon she felt confident enough to enter a script-writing competition. She lost the competition, but fortune smiled on her and in 1916 she found herself working with director Edwin Carewe at Astoria Studios. In a remarkably short span of time, she advanced to heading the scenario department. This was a portent of things to come. June traveled to Hollywood and Metro Studios after securing a contract with her scenario for The Toys of Fate. Fame, fortune and power were just around the corner.

Mathis believed her success came from the emphasis she placed on developing smooth plots with a focus on theme. In “The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers,” June’s talents are described, "Her strength lay in careful pre-preparation of the shooting script along with the director, cutting out waste in production while at the same time sharpening narrative continuity."

At Metro Studios Mathis met the great Russian actress, Alla Nazimova. According to Gavin Lambert’s excellent biography of Nazimova, Nazimova sought Mathis to write the scenario for Eye for an Eye (a lost film). Lambert also states that Mathis “..was not one of those women or men whose philosophy is: Only power matters, and if you have it, forget charm. Mathis also inhabited worlds above and beyond. She believed in the ‘magical’ properties of an opal ring that she always wore when writing, and in reincarnation, spiritualism, and the Book of Revelations, one of the reasons she insisted on Metro buying the rights to Vincente Blasco Ibañez’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

At that time, Vicente Blasco Ibañez's popular war novel, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1918), was considered by studios to be unsuitable for the screen. Mathis took it upon herself to prove otherwise. It was through her perseverance that in 1919, Richard Rowland, then head of Metro, purchased the rights to the novel for the then- huge sum of twenty thousand dollars. June took on the difficult task of writing the adaptation of the novel, a sweeping story of a family, separated and engulfed by the tragedy of World War I. Mathis also exercised her considerable sway in obtaining director Rex Ingram and pushing for--and getting--the relatively unknown Rudolph Valentino for the lead role of Julio.

Valentino, Mathis, Ingram and Pomeroy Cameron pose for a gag shot
Mathis also took Valentino under her wing and advised him about playing the role, he went to her freely for this guidance. Valentino himself stated he “became” Julio for this film, essentially, eating, drinking, breathing Julio. Mathis was on the set so much, she became not only the scenarist, but the de facto head of production.

Contrary to what the naysayers in the industry and within Metro had predicted, the film was a tremendous hit. Stock in Ingram, Valentino and Mathis went up 150%. The enormous success of the film meant that June Mathis became a voice to be reckoned with in Hollywood.  In modern parlance, she became "a real player."



Valentino, Mathis and Ingram pose with extras during filming of the tango sequence
She worked with Valentino and Ingram again on The Conquering Power. This was a less happy experience for Valentino and Ingram’s final cut of the film reduced his role to bare storyline. Mathis also added her unique touch to Nazimova’s modernized version of Camille.

Having been attracted by a larger salary offered by Famous-Players Lasky Mathis left Metro at much the same time as Valentino did through his own salary dispute. At Paramount she worked on two of Valentino’s subsequent films, one enormously successful, the other an abysmal failure.

Blood and Sand is filled with the touches and trademarks Mathis was noted for, the philosopher who watches and comments on the unfolding drama, the exotic and decadent Dona Sol (played with delicious wit by Nita Naldi) the spiritual quality of Gallardo’s wife (played by Lila Lee) and the torment of the bullfighter Juan Gallardo, torn between his love for Carmen and his violent passion for Dona Sol.

The spiritual aspects of The Young Rajah, his character’s ability to foresee the future, can undoubtedly be credited to Mathis as well. The exoticness of the film is lost in the footage that is extant. The various stills from the film showing Valentino dressed as a Rajah in a lamé turban or reclining in a pearl encrusted swan boat and dressed in little more than pearls himself are but tantalizing glimpses since this footage did not survive decomposition.

After the fiasco of The Young Rajah, Mathis’s personal friendship with Valentino was tested when Famous Players/Lasky failed him. She was one of those loyal friends who posted bail after he was arrested for bigamy. Fellow Paramount star Thomas Meighan also posted bail money for Valentino. Meighan and Valentino were not close friends. Meighan made the gesture because Valentino was a “decent fellow”.

Thomas Meighan, Valentino and Mathis on the steps of the LA County Courthouse
In 1923, June Mathis moved to Goldwyn Studios. It was a large step up the corporate ladder, She had been tempted by the huge salary and the offers of autonomous control. Mathis wasted little time , quickly green-lighting Erich von Stroheim’s legendary film Greed based on the Frank Norris novel McTeague.


June Mathis in her office
She wanted to create another epic picture, and this time the film would be Ben-Hur based on the story by General Lew Wallace. Mathis had total control over the production; however, because of her decision to shoot in Italy the film was plagued by scheduling and budget problems. After much scrabbling and searching, George Walsh (brother of director Raoul Walsh) was cast as Ben-Hur, Francis X. Bushman was cast as Messala and Charles Brabin was slated to direct. Brabin was married to Theda Bara and later directed the rather delightfully kinky pre-code Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy.

The film was in trouble almost from the very beginning. June Mathis arrived in Italy to discover Brabin was uninterested in her supposed autonomy over the production. She was also shocked to discover that almost none of the sets required for filming had yet been constructed. The Italian labor “was not costly, nor was it fast.” Strikes were common and caused even more delays.

The production was allowed to move forward in filming the sea battle with a limited number of ships (original projection was for seventy to be built, the film ended up with thirty, still a considerable number). It was at this juncture that one of the great legends of Ben-Hur grew, many extras were hired for this sequence and many, apparently, could not swim. It is reported that up to seven people died and that their clothes were later tossed into the sea when no bodies were found. Later reports have disputed this legend, but it does not alter the fact that filming in Italy was a fiasco and Mathis was to blame.

In the interim, Samuel Goldwyn was ousted from his own studio after a sellout resulting in the merger that became M-G-M Studios. Irving Thalberg the production head of M-G-M was stunned by the sea of red-ink and the lackluster rushes from the Italian shoot. He decided to replace June Mathis with Bess Meredyth and Carey Wilson, and Brabin with Fred Niblo. Ramon Novarro was recast in the title role, unceremoniously replacing George Walsh. The final product retained little of Mathis's original script. The film lost nearly one million dollars for M-G-M, but it was and is critically acclaimed and was a prestige release for the studio. It was reissued with a movietone soundtrack and effects in 1930. June Mathis returned from Italy bloodied, but not beaten and now married to Italian cameraman, Sylvano Balboni. She had been stripped of her power in the film industry a position whe would never regain.

June Mathis continued to work with M-G-M, earning a notorious place in film history with some scholars due to her rewriting and editing of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. The original concept by von Stroheim followed nearly every detail of Norris's novel. While von Stroheim cut the film and it was cut down further by Rex Ingram, MGM ordered Mathis to cut the film to a more manageable ten reels. Mathis removed the grotesque sub plot and made changes to the titles while cutting the film much tighter to the story of McTeague. von Stroheim was far from pleased "I consider that I have made only one real picture in my life and nobody ever saw that. The poor, mangled, mutilated remains were shown as Greed." Mathis is cast as the betrayer of genius for cutting film down to a commercially viable length. With nothing else to compare it except stills of the lost footage, Mathis cannot be blamed for the butchering of Greed, she was, after all, on the company payroll. Despite this and von Stroheim's later comments, Greed remains a powerful film.

June Mathis was contracted by John McCromack and First National to create what ultimately were extremely successful films for Colleen Moore. These films seem very out of character for Mathis, based on her personal history and interests. Moore was the light-hearted flapper, Mathis anything but. Mathis also wrote the scenarios for two films directed by her husband, The Greater Glory and The Far Cry.


June Mathis and an extra on the set of Four Horsemen
In 1924 Rudolph Valentino reappeared in her life. He and his wife, Natacha Rambova approached her to take Natacha’s story of The Hooded Falcon and smooth its rough edges and finish the scenario for filming. The Valentinos were to produce this film for Ritz-Carlton Productions; it would star Valentino and friend Nita Naldi. The Valentinos embarked for Europe and Mathis proceeded to work on the scenario. Upon their return from Europe, the Valentinos were not pleased with June’s scenario and it was at this point that their friendship cooled. It is unknown what the Valentinos objected to about the rewritten scenario and what exactly caused the rift in their friendship. History has painted Natacha Rambova as the “bad guy” but according to Rambova’s memoir, it was George Ullman who broke the news to Mathis that her work was unacceptable and that Mathis refused to have anything further to do with the Valentinos. Valentino and June Mathis were not destined to work together again. After his divorce from Natacha Rambova, Valentino and Mathis reconciled their friendship. Mathis paid visits to him on the set while he was filming The Son of the Sheik. They were both in attendence at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles and it was the last time June Mathis saw Valentino.

In August 23, 1926, June Mathis lost her friend Rudolph Valentino. Upon hearing of his death, Mathis said “My long association with Rudolph Valentino endeared him to me, as he has become endeared to everyone who knew him. My heart is too full of sorrow at this moment to enable me to speak coherently. I only know that his passing has left a void that nothing can ever fill and that the loss to our industry is too great to estimate at this time.” June Mathis was among the shocked and sorrowful mourners at Rudolph Valentino’s funerals in both New York and in Hollywood. In a final act of friendship, she solved the immediate need for a burial place Valentino. She loaned the use of her crypt at Hollywood Memorial Park until the Valentino estate could be settled and a proper memorial built for Valentino’s final resting place.

Remarkably, even after the fiasco of Ben-Hur, June Mathis again returned to M-G-M as a freelancer. Her talent as a writer and a fixer was undeniable, but her days of autonomous power were over. Mathis penned what would be her final film for Samuel Goldwyn, The Magic Flame which starred Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky.

In 1927, on the eve of a surgery June Mathis wrote her will on her personal stationary in the hospital. She survived the surgery, but died suddenly on July 27, 1927 in New York. She was attending a performance of The Squall starring Blanche Yurka when she suffered a seizure. She was carried out of the theater into the alley where she died, of what is presumed to be a heart attack. She was only 38 years old. Sylvano Balboni traveled to New York to collect her body. Rudolph Valentino’s body was quietly re-interred in Balboni’s crypt and June Mathis was laid to rest. After the June Mathis estate was settled, Sylvano Balboni sold the crypt to Valentino’s brother, Alberto in 1934. Valentino had a final resting place, at last, ironically next to June Mathis.

June Mathis’ early death robbed Hollywood of one of its most talented creative forces. She was a crack scenarist and screenwriter, she was a judicious and canny film editor, she fixed troubled scripts, and she was a casting director. She had an unparalleled eye for talent. Along with Lois Weber, Alice Guy Blanche, Mary Pickford, Frances Marion, and Bess Meredyth, Mathis was a female pioneer in a business ruled by men. Had Mathis lived there is little doubt she would have made a contribution to films of the depression era. She was truly one of Hollywood’s great women pioneers. Not everything she touched turned to gold, but she had vision and passion and her influence was felt in Hollywood for many years. A great deal of her work does not survive; much is difficult for the average film fan to see. But her place in Hollywood and film history is secure. If for little else, she will always be remembered for the grand epic film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and for her friendship with and discovery of Rudolph Valentino. No small feat that, but she does deserve a much closer look and to be remembered for the great pioneer that she was.

I could not have prepared this without the great information on June Mathis contained in Thomas J. Slater’s detailed piece from a past issue of Griffithiana. Nor could I post this without a nod to Tom, many thanks!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reading the Movies

Movieman0283 has posted an excellent piece Reading the Movies in which you are charged with the task of compiling "A list of the movie books which had the greatest impact on me."



So, without further ado, here are the 10 most influential films books for me:


1. The Parade's Gone By by Kevin Brownlow - without exposure to this book, my love and lust for the art of silent film would never have matured. I cannot but add that Brownlow's additional two books in what I call "the Brownlow Trilogy" are must reads. I cheat a bit and name them here, as well: The War, The West and The Wilderness and Behind the Mask of Innocence.

2. Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger - I do not know a soul who has not read this piece of fiction. It was one of the first film books I found on the local library shelves, it was salacious and gloriously illustrated (well, in some parts, some were horrifying). This book taught me to read autobiographies and just about any other book with a wary eye. It helped me develop my own personal bullshit meter. Of course, initially, I fell for it hook, line and sinker, I was only 15.

3. Louise Brooks by Barry Paris - I still consider this to be one of the finest film biographies ever written. Brooks was flawed and Paris pulls no punches, it is a compelling read. A fascinating woman on screen and off.

4. The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr - I lack the slapstick gene, really. Kerr's book was one of the first to cover the art of silent comedy and it helped me, one of the slapstick impaired understand the joys of Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton.

5. The Art of the Hollywood Photographer by John Kobal - Kobal's unerring eye for beauty in this volume opened my eyes to the art of glamor photography. This book has inspired me for my own project.

6. The Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers Book by Arlene Croce - A step by step exploration of the dance and what it all meant in the Astaire/Rogers films. A fabulous book I return to quite often.

7. Spellbound in Darkness by George Pratt - A terrific overview that is still incredibly readable.

8. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto - Quite simply still one of the best examinations of Hitchcock's films. Well worn, it is a favorite.

9. A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen by Daniel Blum - the photos made me want to see everything. Growing up made me lament the loss of so many, now extant in stills.

10. A Million and One Nights by Terry Ramsaye - the 1926 history of the business of cinema, written from within the industry, but a fascinating work. An original edition is still on my wish list.