Anyone heard of Karl Brown?

I stumbled across him accidentally in my research. Initially, I was referred to him from Kevin Brownlow’s first book on Hollywood, one of my early acquisitions, which mentioned his Adventures with D.W. Griffith as a source. And in my first few months in Canada, completely broke and with way too much time to kill, I was tickled to run across a copy of this wonderful book in the books section of a local Edmonton Goodwill.

                Can you imagine, starting off as a young local boy in California, and getting a job with D.W. Griffith during the heady early days of film? He studied cameras and lighting, and special effects under the tutelage of Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s main camera man. The book is an inside look at Griffith’s personality, how staging worked, and numerous other invaluable details.

                Brown, completely forgotten by the 1960s, was rediscovered by Brownlow, and (among others) appeared in his 1979 Thames documentary on old Hollywood. His insights are amazing. When he described the work D.W. Griffith put into Intolerance as an anti-war picture, only to have public opinion turn against it in the 18 months it took to make, it really helped me to see the interaction between politics and film. Sharp old fellow—how I wish I’d been born a few years earlier so I could have interviewed him before he died!  

ImageKarl Brown in a scene from Brownlow’s documentary, circa 1979

Lost Films

In my quest to learn everything I possibly can about the silent and early sound film eras, I’ve bought every old Hollywood biography I can find. Plus many other research books. I can’t even fit them all in a bookshelf any more. They’re clustered around the foot of it. One of the facts I keep running across that fills me with sorrow is the loss of hundreds (possibly thousands) of silent films.

I hadn’t realized until now that over 90% of silent films have been lost. 90%! That’s a lotta film. Not celluloid, mind you, but nitrate, which was the material they used back then. Unfortunately, the film stock itself was flammable. So with the constant threat of fire in the bad old days, one studio fire could eradicate an entire inventory of a company’s films, like the one in 1937 which wiped out all of Fox’s films from before 1935.

But as history progresses, copies of films are unearthed from the most unlikely sources. In the late 1970s, workers excavating for a new recreation center found that over 500 reels of film that had previously been considered lost. They were made from 1903 to 1929, and had been used as fill to cover up an old outdoor swimming pool! They now call it “The Dawson City find.”

Once in a while, an archive from someplace as remote as Australia or as close as Rochester, New York can unearth a film they weren’t aware they had. Someone cleaning out a grandfather’s attic might find a copy, or a widow finds out her spouse had old film canisters down in the basement she didn’t know about.

Just last month, a guy tearing down an old barn in New Hampshire (that evidently had been part of a boy’s camp that must have shown the films to its campers) found a copy of Mary Pickford’s lost Their First Misunderstanding. In it, she starred with her first husband Owen Moore. How cool is that?

Theda Bara is one of the main casualties of the period. Because she was on the Fox roster, hers were among those in the 1937 fire. I would so love to have seen what made her the Lady Gaga of her day– her outrageously revealing costumes for the period, her vamp persona– all of it.

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Theda in Cleopatra

Because I’ve written a book about Olive Thomas, I was sad how few of her films I was able to view to get a feel for her. I would love to have seen Upstairs and Down, where she played bitchy Alice Chesterton. It was that role that I consider the first flapper. From it, she became more popular, and was shaped into the Baby Vamp that became her main screen persona.

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Olive Thomas

In researching Marie Prevost, I’ve discovered how few of her films exist. The stills from her time at the Sennett studios are so fun and breezy, and being an animal lover, I’d have enjoyed seeing Teddy the Dog co-starring with the Bathing Beauties.

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Marie and Teddy the Wonder Dog

But one of the wonders of the film world that I’m bereft we’re still missing is London After Midnight. Lon Chaney was a genius. No one watching Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame can deny it. I’m hoping that there is an archive somewhere with a dusty corner closet they’ve been meaning to clean out, but haven’t had the time yet.

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Lon in costume for London After Midnight

Clean out your attics, people. We’ve got more movies to watch!

An ode to Olive…

It all began when I was about 12.

I innocently checked a book out of the library that looked juicy and full of history. Even at a young age, I was fascinated by history. It was called Hollywood Babylon. Nowadays, this book has fallen out of favor, since much of the information in it, at the time assumed to be relatively accurate, has now been accepted as completely made up.

One of the stories contained in it was that of Olive Thomas, one of Hollywood’s early celebrities.

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Olive

Her story was not a happy one, although she began from the humblest of origins, and worked her way up from nothing to become a Ziegfeld Girl, and the toast of Broadway.

She then went on to marry Mary Pickford’s brother Jack, a wastrel, alcoholic, drug-addicted womanizer. Helluva guy. Their relationship was full of drinking, fighting, and expensive makeup gifts. And her ignominious end came in Paris, when she consumed a mercury solution prescribed for Jack’s syphilis. No one is quite sure if it was an accident or suicide.

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Olive and Jack

Real life got in the way for me for quite a while, until I was led back to writing. When my husband and I moved to Canada in 2009, I had 18 months to twiddle my thumbs before I was able to work legally.

In the depths of utter helpless boredom, I turned to the writing I’d always enjoyed but never concentrated my full energies on. Having recently finished Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, one of the most amazing books I’d ever read, I knew where my future lay. I wanted to be able to combine meticulous research with my passion for bringing history to life through writing. Now I merely needed to find the right subject for my interest. I found it in Olive.

My book began taking shape in the winter of 2010, and it came to fruition over the course of two years, being written and rewritten religiously. I found Kevin Brownlow’s old PBS documentary on youtube.com and watched the episodes daily to learn everything I could about old Hollywood. I found a huge stash of old Hollywood books at the Mennonite Thrift Store here in Edmonton. I listened to scratchy old 1920s jazz, I studied my Cassell’s Slang Dictionary with a microscope, and eventually, Olive found her voice. The first time I set it aside and came back to it, I realized that instead of third person, it needed to be in first, with Olive telling her own story. I recently finished my twenty-first rewrite.

I fell in love with Olive– with writing from her perspective, with thinking like her, with speaking like her, and with being her. Now, it is my goal to find an agent who will fall in love with Olive like I did.