Hooray for Hollywood

“To place in the limelight a great number of people who ordinarily would be chambermaids and chauffeurs, and give them unlimited power and instant wealth is bound to produce a lively and diverting result.”

–Anita Loos, A Girl Like I

Several months ago, my publisher, Entangled, put out a call for submissions for an anthology of historical novellas. I’m a sucker for special calls, but I normally stick to contemporary. It made me wonder, however – if I were to write a historical romance, what era would hold my interest long enough to do the required research?

Only one came to mind – Hollywood in the days of silent films.

At first, my thought was to get enough context to frame a story, but I became so fascinated by the milieu that, at one point, I had a dozen library books stacked next to my laptop, and ended up purchasing at least that many to keep.

So many incredible stories, made all the more compelling because so few of these films remain.

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I was able to watch several online, including King Vidor’s Show People, which, like the later Singin’ in the Rain, is a movie about the movies. Marion Davies and William Haines star in the classic “a star is born” story. It includes cameos by a number of well-known actors of the day, including one scene where Marion Davies’ character, Peggy, makes a disgusted face over seeing an actress arrive on the lot. The actress who provokes her scorn? Marion Davies.

The two leads in this film are interesting footnotes in themselves. Marion Davies had a successful career that spanned two decades and over fifty films. However, her most famous part was her real-life role as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, and she’s remembered more because of the caricature of her Orson Wells contrived in Citizen Kane than for her own work, much of which is lost.

William Haines was notorious in another way. In the late twenties, he was the top male box office draw at MGM. However, Haines clashed overtly with Louis B. Mayer because Haines was gay and lived openly with his boyfriend, Jimmy Shields. His refusal to break with Jimmy (with whom he remained until his death in the 1970s) resulted in the decline of his film career and his eventual departure from MGM.

Here are a few other tidbits:

  • While Hollywood was a haven for motion picture production because of its clement weather and varied geographical locations, one of its chief attractions to independent filmmakers was its distance from New Jersey and the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison. Edison’s trust held the patent on the motion picture camera and strictly controlled the licenses in the east. Filmmakers who tried to bypass the license were the target of officials who occasionally arrived with guns blazing – although they shot the cameras, not the operators.

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  • Many of the successful early scenario writers were women, among them Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. When she sold her first scenario (to D.W. Griffith at Biograph), she was twelve years old.
  • By 1920, ads for photoplay training outstripped those for acting, with such hooks as “Millions of People Can Write Stories and Photoplays and Don’t Know It!” and promising “No physical exertion required” and “Learn in five days’ time.” Unfortunately, too many of those people gave it a try and inundated the studios with amateur scripts.
  • For the film Sparrows, Mary Pickford, holding a squirming child, was directed to walk across a narrow plank over a pool infested with alarmingly active alligators. We’re talking real alligators and a real child. Pickford, worried about the child, demanded a rehearsal using a weighted doll. She’d made six trips across before her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, arrived in righteous pissed-offedness, and ordered the director to use a double-exposure camera effect instead.
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Posted on May 26, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. “Millions of People Can Write Stories!” Ooh, I wanna be one of those! I would probably get check marked off as “illegible” though. Sigh.

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  2. Yes! Although I think it was probably a little less gritty than the actual life of the silent actor. We take workplace safety so much for granted now, but that was definitely not the case then. Actors, crew, stunt performers — all were in the same kind of casual danger that Mary Pickford experienced, in the drive to feed the public’s voracious appetite for thrills and adventure. The average length of a stuntman’s career, for instance, was five years. By that time, he’d either found less risky employment, become disabled, or in many cases, did not survive.

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  3. This is so fascinating! Did you see The Artist? If so, what did you think about it and did it capture the world of silent movies according to what you learned from your research?

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  1. Pingback: Hooray for Hollywood | E.J. Russell

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