With the Oscar nomination of the new silent film, The Artist, plus Hugo which features old silent movie film clips, I'm reminded of hearing tales of the days when the silents were the only game in town. And we all know which town I'm talking about. Hollywood. The same, as it happens, where I was born. We were in Hollywood because some years before, my father had set out one day in his 1919 Model T flivver to drive to California from his native East Coast. The year was 1923. A cousin went with him. The pavement gave out in St. Charles, Missouri. The route after that was marked but they had to contend with broken springs, flat tires, lost chains, a bent steering wheel, deep mud, and trees across the road. At one point, they followed what my father called "a course that would have broken a snake's back."
Their final day, as he wrote his family, they "reached civilization and - good roads, and what roads they are. ... We drove on thru long groves of oranges, walnuts, lemon and grapefruit trees, grape vineyards, - thru shady lines of eucalyptus and pepper trees ... and I know you will think I am exaggerating - but the poinsettias grew from fifteen to twenty feet high. Gosh!"
He very soon had a job at Famous Players-Lasky (which became Paramount Pictures) first as a grip and then as a second cameraman who helped the first cameraman and sometimes shot the film. He lived across from the studio lot when it was then on a gravel street lined with pepper trees. He'd wake at the last minute and dash over through the wardrobe department.
He shot what he called horse operas ... nonsense comedies ... silent films when a small orchestra played "sob stuff" (as he called it) to enhance the on-set mood. He shot films hanging onto the side of speeding cars. He shot scenery over Mt. Whitney and Death Valley from a tri-motored Bach Air Yacht plane that barely escaped tangling with a barbed wire fence when landing to refuel. He picked bread dough out of cameras when an ill-timed explosion sent dough and splinters flying. It could be dangerous work, he said.
On one Esther Ralston film, he shot from a platform built on the back of a car. With only a four-inch clearance, the car raced down the road at 55 mph alongside the heroine's high-powered foreign car going at the same speed. Since she was supposedly waving to her father on a train next to the highway, she'd take both hands off the wheel to wave, swerving the car badly. It was a wonder, my father said, that she didn't smash into the camera car where he was filming. Then, when shooting the 1926 classic, Old Ironsides--a ship in full sail with rigging, ropes, and ballast--my father had just come down from the golden ball at the top of the mainmast when a rough swell snapped and toppled it, taking the mizzenmast with it.
|My father filming Old Ironsides off Catalina Island in 1926|
He called it "a screwy business, all high key or low. Either abysmally sluggish or fantastically exaggerated. Likewise, emotions were at a similar pitch and tempermentality rode uninhibited; it was either evanescent or scowlingly subdued. As went the stars' morale, so followed that of the entire troupe," he once wrote.
There were humorous times as well. When directing an epic on a spectacular set with hundreds of extras, one "German director of ample paunch but scant hair" (my father forgot his name) took the entire morning to arrange everyone for the climatic battle. By one o'clock, everyone was hungry. Oblivious to the crew's appetite, the director seemed satisfied. Everything was set. Cameras started to roll. But, fumbling for the English word, "Charge," he bellowed through his megaphone, "Launch!" At which the entire cast threw down their weapons and went to lunch.
My father loved the work, the fun of it, the team work, the jokes and gaffs. He loved setting himself the task of looking through a lens, adjusting exposures, figuring angles. He played ball with Jack Holt, a Western star he was shooting. He danced with actress Billie Dove, a former Follies star. He filmed Boris Karloff as a Saracen sailor. He worked with Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, a young Gary Cooper. Other names have gone the way--Richard Arlen, ZaSu Pitts, Sally Blaine, Wally Beery. And many of the films have surely disintegrated in their cans. The Blind Goddess, The Enchanted Hill, Looie the Fourteenth. As for California, he loved it, too, and wrote home that first year that he picked a rose blossom as late as December 28th ... unheard of in his native East Coast. He returned East to visit but never again to live.
And he loved describing those days when he worked on what he called "the flickers--when movies were movies."
What Makes February February
Waiting for March
Purposefully getting a new bouquet each week to brighten things up
Realizing the days are getting lighter
Finishing up this season's Downton Abbey