Posted in Movies, Silent film

Vera Kholodnaya

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Thursdays in Blog Me MAYbe are themed “May I tell you something about someone else?” Today’s spotlight is on Vera Vasiliyevna Kholodnaya, née Levchenko.

Véra Vasíliyevna Kholodnaya (née Levchenko), who lived from 5 August 1893 till 17 February 1919, was the preeminent Russian moviestar in early Russian cinema. She was born in the Ukraine, a schoolteacher’s daughter, and moved with her family to Moskvá at the age of two. She began attending private school at the age of ten, and her acting skills became very noticeable.

In 1910, at her graduation party, she met her future husband Vladímir Kholodny, a racecar driver and editor of a sports newspaper. (The surname is Russian for “cold.”) In the fall of 1914, trying to support her two young daughters, Véra took a bit part in a film, but the director felt nothing would ever come of it. Was he ever wrong.

The very next year she got picked up to do a film based on a Turgénev story, under the direction of the Khonzhonkov Studios Company, and it was a huge hit, propelling Véra to superstardom. The next year alone she was in thirteen movies (don’t believe IMDB; they’re WAY off on the number of movies she acted in!). A short retirement occurred during WWI when she was nursing her wounded husband back to health.

Everyone was in love with her, and loved both her movies and her stage roles. Even if she were just acting in a bit role or a walk-on extra part in a play, it was guaranteed to draw a full house.

In addition, Aleksándr Vertinskiy, a famous balladeer and a private in the Army, delivered Véra one of her husband’s letters shortly after she returned home from nursing him. Vertinskiy was so madly in love with her he dedicated some of his songs to her.

At the peak of her popularity, she moved to the Kharitonov Studios and began making more serious art films, as opposed to the earlier type of films she’d been making, just popular entertainment or sentimental melodramas. She also began giving concerts around this time.

Sadly, most of her films are lost not only because of the general poor care taken to preserving early films, but also because of the general destruction of the Civil War. In 1924, Soviet authorities ordered many of her films to be destroyed. Only five of her films are known to survive.

At the age of twenty-five, in February of 1919, she died of influenza, the same malady that claimed between fifty to a hundred million lives around the globe (including prominent casualities such as actor Harold Lockwood and swimmer Harry Elionsky). She died despite being treated by the best doctors Odessa had to offer at the time.

Because she’d died so tragically young and suddenly, and because she’d been so damn popular, tons of rumours began surfacing as to the true cause of her demise, such as being poisoned or strangled by a lover, suicide (the cause the notoriously inaccurate IMDB lists), and being shot by the White Guards because she’d been a Bolshevik spy. Huge crowds came to her funeral to pay one last final tribute to a truly great star and legend.

Like with Olive Thomas or Harold Lockwood, one can only speculate about what might’ve been had she lived longer, long enough to be around for the next era of silent cinema (particularly considering she would’ve been in nationalised propaganda cinema) and the early sound era.

(Information not included in my original bio: In 1931, her grave was destroyed when the First Christian Cemetery in Odessa was razed, in spite of her family’s protests. She was persona non grata under the Soviet régime till 1991. There is now a bronze statue of her near her final home at Odessa’s Cathedral Square.)

Posted in Movies, Silent film

Florence LaBadie, the Thanhouser Girl

My 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest post is here.

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Thursdays in Blog Me MAYbe are themed “May I tell you something about someone else?” This week’s spotlight is on Florence LaBadie, a star of the silent era’s popular Thanhouser studio. I featured her on my old “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site.

Florence LaBadie (née Russ), who lived from 27 April 1888 till 13 October 1917, was an incredibly popular actor from 1910 onwards. It appears as though she were the very first major female moviestar to die.

In her second year of stardom, 1911, she began acting with the Thanhouser company, becoming its most popular and prominent performer, male or female. In addition to playing the lead in scores of films, she also was the lead in her very own serial, The Million Dollar Mystery, which ran from 1914 to 1915. Back then film serials were very popular; other very popular ones included The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine, and the series of films Herbert Yost starred in as the detective Octavius.

Florence, an only child, was born in New York, and was later adopted by Amanda and Joseph LaBadie. After completing her education, Florence became a model for the famous illustrator Penrhyn Stanlaws, who later became a film director. In 1908 Florence made her stage début, and a year later played some bit parts in films, though it wasn’t till 1910 that she became an established member of the Biograph Studio’s stock acting company.

Florence wasn’t quite sure of what her future might be there, so in 1911 she moved to Thanhouser. This was a very good move, as very soon after joining up with this new studio, she went from strength to strength and eventually became the studio’s most famous and prestigious player. Everybody loved and admired her, and saw Florence as the embodiment of beauty and charm.

Besides acting, Florence was also an accomplished singer and pianist, and also very much enjoyed dancing, painting, art, and sculpture. She also found time to be involved with social issues. Florence showed great compassion, care, concern, and sympathy for the men fighting in WWI, and when one of her many fans wrote her a letter from the front lines in 1915, along with 120 pictures showing the war in all of its graphic, grisly horror, she announced that, at her own expense no less, she would make these photos into stereopticon slides and use them to deliver lectures, starting off with one for the Peace Society.

The next year saw her as one of the most prominent fundraisers for the World’s Statue of Liberty Illumination Fund. In gratitude and reward for all of her services, the Thanhouser company gave her a special Pullman car, an automobile she used while she was raising money for the war effort. Florence was also engaged twice, though she never married.

When she was driving along with her second fiancé, Daniel Carson Goodman, her brakes failed, sending the couple plummeting down a hill at a terrifying speed and flipping them over at the bottom of the hill. Daniel only broke his leg and sustained some other minor injuries, but Florence was thrown and broke her pelvis in a compound fracture.

She survived, but her condition grew worse, coupled with the still relatively primitive medical care of the era. At the age of 29, two months after the accident, she passed away of a combination of her injuries and a septicemia infection.

Posted in Movies, Silent film

Funny John Bunny

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Thursdays in Blog Me MAYbe are themed “May I tell you something about someone else?” This week my spotlight is on the largely forgotten silent film clown John Bunny (21 September 1863-26 April 1915), whom I profiled on my old “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site. (When I was writing for my Angelfire site, I was in the habit of using British spellings, a habit I’ve since fallen out of.)

Now just look at John Bunny. Doesn’t he look like a nice, friendly fellow? A fellow shorty, he stood at five-four, and beyond just being an actor, was my favourite type of actor, a comedian. All true clowns, be they comedic actors, pantomimists, circus clowns, or whatever, are angels for how they live to make people happy, forget their troubles, turn tears into laughter and turn frowns into smiles. And come on, how could you not smile when you see that happy, funny face of his?

He was the ninth generation of a family of English sea captains, but the first generation who didn’t follow that career path. He started working as a clerk in a grocery before going off to pursue a career path in entertainment. John was in a small touring minstrel show and then started acting at the theatre, in musical comedies, as well as being a stage manager for a number of stock companies.

At the time he quit the stage to pursue the screen, in 1910, movie acting was still considered very disreputable and not as respectable and refined as stage acting. He also took a big pay cut when he did this, going from $150 to $40 a week. Over the next five years John was in more than 250 comedy shorts and quickly became the best-known face the world over, usually co-starring with Flora Finch, a great physical foil for him. Flora was tall and thin, and John was short and fat.

The shorts they made together were known as “Bunnyfinches,” “Bunnygraphs,” and “Bunnyfinchgraphs.” They were usually credited as Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, although offscreen John was happily married to Clara Scallan, with whom he had four children.

The start of John’s troubles came when he went back on the road with a show called John Bunny in Funnyland, but that effort bombed royally, coupled with how he’d become very tired and sick. John, who was the most popular comedian in the world before even Chaplin came out, was mourned around the world when he died and eulogised by The New York Times with the words, “The name John Bunny will always be linked to the movies.” He was only 51 when he died of Bright’s Disease.

Sadly, today only a handful of his films are known to survive, owing to how many films of the early Teens were neglected and forgotten, and many books on silent comedy or silent film in general completely leave out poor John’s name. Even the theatre that was named after him, New York City’s Bunny Theatre, was later renamed the Nova Theatre, and ended up closing its doors in 2003.

The most easily-available of his few known surviving films are 1912’s A Cure for Pokeritis and 1911’s Her Crowning Glory. (Since I first wrote this piece, A Cure for Pokeritis has been chosen as one of the films in the National Film Library of the Library of Congress.)

Posted in Movies, Silent film

Lois Weber

If you’re here for the Dust It Off Bloghop, please scroll down!

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Thursdays in the Blog Me MAYbe blogfest have the theme “May I tell you something about someone else?” I decided to go with one of the people I spotlighted on my old “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire page. Baruch Hashem, I seem to have saved all the pages while my pages were still cached in the immediate aftermath of that whole fiasco with that pathological nutcase and her sycophantic friends.

Lois Weber lived from 13 June 1881 till 13 November 1939, dying at 58 years old. From the mid-Teens to the early Twenties, she was the most popular, successful, well-regarded film director in America.

During the early decades of cinema, there were many women in positions of power, success, prestige, and immense popularity—actors, directors, screenwriters, scenarists, title card writers, producers, etc. Lois made films her way, even though many people in her era regarded many of these subjects as strictly taboo or offensive to polite, decent, normal, civilised society. She covered the whole gamut—prostitution, promiscuity, poverty, domestic abuse, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, the gap between the haves and have-nots, racism, sexism, child abuse, capital punishment, feminism, you name it.

She owned her own company, as well as discovering a number of great actors. Lois was also the very first woman to direct a full-length feature, The Merchant of Venice, in 1914.

Sadly, after her heyday, for decades she went ignored, her praises unsung. First, because the types of hard-hitting issues films she was making fell out of favour after the early Twenties. People began to prefer lightweight fare about jazz babies and their necking parties, not heavy-duty stuff about issues like domestic abuse and the evils of capitalism.

The second, more major reason was precisely because she was a woman. Women ruled Hollywood until about the Forties, but suddenly all of that began changing, and people’s lists of their favourite actors began to be composed of mostly men. Previously, the huge majority of actors on such lists were women. Institutionalised sexism pushed women to the back burner, and suddenly there were no longer as many female directors, producers, and screenwriters.

And in addition, all of the great groundbreaking techniques she’d discovered and put to use first, such as putting a camera on wheels, were suddenly attributed to people such as D.W. Griffith. That man never even thought about doing some of these things till after she’d done them, yet today people swear by him as though he were this great innovative director who did all of this stuff first. He copied it off of a woman and took credit where credit was most severely not due!

Thankfully, when more women began entering Film Studies courses at colleges and universities after women’s lib came along, they began looking for female role models, and found a wealth of them in the early filming industry, Lois among them. Lois never made a film unless she agreed with the issue or thoughts being presented. She was true to herself and her principles, even though that may have turned some people off, either because they thought the topic wasn’t one for polite society or women or because they found the tone preachy.

Some people have suggested she went into decline because she divorced her husband Phillips Smalley in 1922, the man with whom she’d run her studio. The old sexist belief that a woman can’t really be that great all on her own and has to have a big strong man standing behind her doing the stuff she’s taking credit for. However, Lois continued to direct and write on her own terms after the divorce, even with diminished success, whereas Phillips never found success again, at any level. Now who’s riding whose coattails to success?