Laughing on the Outside

The late Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre, science fiction author and human enigma, died by his own hand last month. To give you an idea of his mysterious character, I should mention that nobody seems to know his real name (he took the name Gwynplaine from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, or from Paul Leni’s film) or biographical details. The story he gives below, sometimes augmented with a claim to have webbed fingers and three ex-wives, gives you some idea of the doubt his life story encourages. All that’s known for certain is that his overstuffed Brooklyn apartment was set fire to, apparently by the man himself, and his body lies unclaimed.

One account which has sprung up has FGM jogging naked around his block, swathed in nitrate stock (attempting to stop its decomposition with his body sweat), resulting in his spontaneous human combustion when he got home (meeting a homeless man in the street he is supposed to have said, “They’re weeping, just like me.”) I strongly suspect that this is a poetic addition to the MacIntyre legend, continuing his mythomaniac lifestyle choice into the beyond.

Among FGM’s fictional activities was a project to review nearly every lost film on the IMDb, using historical research and vague claims of mysterious contacts with hidden film archives to shore up credence. The author also saw many real, surviving rare films, and used reviews of these to add plausibility to his lost film reviews. Incidentally, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED is described in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies as a lost film — it turned up, fortunately, after the book was published. Reading of its missing status as a child gave me a chill, and prompted a lifelong fascinating with the rogue fragments of film history still lurking undiscovered or lost to time.

Anyway, here’s the first of FGM’s emails to me, written after I asked him about an obsure (but not lost) William Wyler movie.

Greetings to David Cairns from Fergus (F. Gwynplaine) MacIntyre, whom you contacted about William Wyler’s film ‘A House Divided’. When I saw the name ‘Cairns’ in my email box, I thought I was getting an email from someone in Queensland, Australia. I used to live in a Queensland town called Cairns, where the chief attraction is the Sexchange Hotel. This is an hotel in the Australian sense of the term — an outback pub/trading post/meeting place — that was originally cried the Exchange Hotel, only some clever-clot climbed onto the roof and added an ‘S’. This proved to be good for business, and the Sexchange Hotel has been open for business ever since.

‘A House Divided’ is a very impressive film: a fine example of Wyler’s direction as well as Walter Huston’s acting. The early scenes strongly reminded me of several Lon Chaney films — the sort of scenario in which Chaney usually appeared, not the very few freak-show stories for which he’s remembered — so when Huston’s character became crippled in exactly the same manner as Chaney’s character in ‘West of Zanzibar’, I was gobsmacked. As I mentioned in my review, Huston had played Chaney’s ‘West of Zanzibar’ role before and after Chaney did it. (In the stage play ‘Kongo’ and the sound-film remake.)

Since this conversation, I’ve obtained a copy of the film and even watched it this week. Everything FGM says is true, but he neglects to mention the film’s most striking quality: Douglass Montgomery and Helen Chandler as the world’s most perfectly matched screen couple.

I’ve seen ‘A House Divided’ only once: in 2002 (the centenary of Wyler’s birth), Film Forum in New York City scheduled a Wyler retrospective, at which ‘A House Divided’ was shown for one day only, in a double feature with ‘Tom Brown of Culver’. An acquaintance of mine, Bob Lipton, attended the same screening that I attended, and he reviewed this film for IMDb a month earlier than I did.

The programmer at Film Forum is named Bruce Goldstein. (We’ve chatted a few times, and he knows me by face, but he probably won’t remember my name so there’s no point your mentioning me.) I have no specific contact information for him. He probably obtained his print of ‘A House Divided’ from a film archive on a rental basis.

Another person whom you might contact is Arne Andersen, and in this case you are welcome to mention my name. Three people have reviewed ‘A House Divided’ for IMDb: myself and Bob Lipton after attending the same screening, and Arne Andersen. Arne and I correspond via email: he told me that he saw ‘A House Divided’ earlier this year — not at the Film Forum screening — so he would know a source that I do not. However, I can’t guarantee that his source will make prints available to individual viewers.

Good luck! William Wyler is a sorely underrated director, and ‘A House Divided’ deserves to be much better known!

Thank you, David, for reading my IMDb reviews. I am, of course, *not* an employee of IMDb, and they don’t pay me for my reviews. I’m a full-time journalist and novelist. If you log onto http://www.amazon.com and go to their Books section, then key a search for my by-line “F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre”, you’ll see the covers of two books that I wrote and illustrated. One of these is my Victorian horror/romance novel ‘The Woman Between the Worlds’, featuring Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, Arthur Machen, Sir William Crookes and several other eminent Victorians united to aid an invisible she-alien during an invasion of London by alien shape-changers. This novel got rave reviews from Harlan Ellison on his Stateside cable-tv show. I’m also the author and illustrator of a humour anthology which was praised by Ray Bradbury and other authors: ‘MacIntyre’s Improbable Bestiary’, likewise available on Amazon, which contains some original material about Lon Chaney and silent films.

To whet your appetite, here’s the cover (my artwork and typography) of my anthology:

Link.

Feel free to contact me on any subject that interests you, David.

Straight on till mourning,

Fergus (F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre)

In a somewhat whimsical mood, I emailed Mr MacIntyre last week, saying I hoped he wasn’t dead, but the email bounced back: account closed.

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25 Responses to “Laughing on the Outside”

  1. Lovely. I was very sorry to realise this was true, it read so much like something you made up.

  2. Or something “Froggy” made up! It was immediately suggested on the web that he’s exactly the kind of guy who WOULD fake his own death. But since he was unemployed and in debt, I kind of doubt he’d have the resources to locate a 6ft 3 corpse. Too bad, it would be nice to think of him relaxing on a beach somewhere, cosmetically transformed into a young Rock Hudson. Still, maybe that’s what heaven is like.

  3. There’s a contingent of silent movie mavens who probably don’t lament his passing, as it was his wont to troll through their newsgroups, causing no end of trouble. I was always rather ambivalent about him since I had thought up the idea of phony IMDb reviews of no-longer-existing films myself back in the late ’90s, mostly out of personal pique.

  4. It’s very easy to register a complaint about a defective IMDb review, but despite this, FGM’s bogus crits are all still up… Makes me wonder why there aren’t more hoax reviews — it would be amusing to post madly inaccurate reviews of mainstream hits, for instance. And the IMDb’s appalling new design makes me want to encourage this…

  5. Oh, IMDb has been appalling ever since they took the work of the many people who contributed and “monetized their asset” i.e. took what was not theirs and profited by it, they’re just worse than ever now. Nobody I know likes it at all except for a quick glance at a cast list or a list of films by director or actor (even those are not necessarily accurate). I had the idea of putting up phony reviews because of their not caring about whether a title was lost or not. I didn’t do it, though. It would’ve meant creating a new internet persona to carry it out and I just wasn’t that motivated. If I had the idea of hoax reviews there must be countless others who’ve had it, and some I’m sure have carried it out.

    I personally avoided FGM’s reviews, even on existing films. He had strong biases and would really go to town with them – his blind hatred of Joan Blondell being just one I remember.

  6. He got purple in the digital face at the mention of Una O’Connor too.

    OK, the new IMDb design being absolutely hideous and pointlessly confusing, and the place having been a pop-up-ad hellhole for years, let’s take them down. I’d like to hear suggestions for good hoax review approaches, the kind where the reader has to read the whole thing to realise there’s something up. But there should be a good laugh in it for them if they’re smart enough.

  7. I use ad-blocking software, so happily I don’t see the pop-ups they have floating around. Inside-joke reviews would be fabulous, but I wonder how long it would take for them to moderate reviews if they were inundated with them. It’s bad enough when I can find obvious omissions/errors in their listings. They’ve certainly generated enough ill will over the years to deserve it.

  8. Caterina Boratto RIP

    Barbara Steele tells me Caterina’s father was Mussolini’s chauffeur.

  9. Wow. Well, I heard that all the casting in Salo had some kind of grim “in-joke” aspect.

  10. MacIntyre emailed me once in July 2009. Selective quotes:

    “Greetings to you from Fergus (F. Gwynplaine) MacIntyre, responding to your query about ‘Les Carnets du Major Thompson’, which I reviewed for IMDb. I get queries about this movie about once a year or so…
    ‘Carnets’ is a deeply unfunny film […] I would even say a saddening one, since Jack Buchanan is clearly in the late stages of a terminal illness. It is totally devoid of the distinctive touches that made Preston Sturges (elsewhere) such a great scriptwriter and director. Even ‘The Great Moment’ is a funnier movie. The more deeply you appreciate Sturges’s previous work (or Jack Buchanan’s), the more disappointed you will be if you sit through this movie.

    “I have never owned a copy of ‘Carnets’ in any format […] I have received unconfirmed reports that there is a print of this movie […] in the holdings of the film department at New York University in Manhattan. I’ve also received unconfirmed reports that there’s a copy in the British Film Institute in London. I haven’t checked either rumour…I have friends at both archives, but I have enemies ditto […] so I would prefer that you leave my name out of your inquiries.”

    He of course never specified how he’d seen the film. Perhaps he thought I’d assume he caught it during the original stateside release. His review is still the only one on the IMDB, but I doubt if he actually watched the film. His account of the courtship scene is convincing, but he could have gotten the details from research (he’s wrong about the horses by the way–their wayward movements are specified in the English-language script I read at UCLA). He’s also wrong about Noél-Noél making a “brief cameo”. Hardly brief or a cameo! That’s enough to make me smell a rat.

  11. You’re not the only one to find holes in his reviews, IA. It seems to me he took a recurrent silly usenet joke (the yearly April 1 “discovery” of London After Midnight) and turned it into an elaborate (one hopes) prank. If you look at it one way, he was a performance artist who knew how to stir the pot. If you’re less charitable (like the denizens of alt.movies.silent generally were), he was (and this is my most generous slant) a troublemaking fabulist who was not worth engaging. Meaning there were researchers and hardcore fans who were probably singing choruses of “You Rascal You” every time he showed up.

  12. Christopher Says:

    do we all agree that IMDB’s new layout sucketh most severely?
    The idea for me mainly was to.. get in..get the info as quickly as possible..and get out!

  13. Randy Byers Says:

    There’s another thread up on Nitrateville, based on the recent NYTimes story:

    http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=7175

    Amongst other things, somebody posts a link to a Open Salon post about FGM as well:

    http://open.salon.com/blog/thomas_gladysz/2010/09/13/an_encounter_with_a_curious_character

    My favorite comment from the Nitrateville thread:

    ‘This whole story is like a ready-made screenplay for an arthouse film. I can see it now. Flashbacks to the slave labour camp in Australia and to a loveless, bleak Scottish infancy, the assault on the neighbour (surely bizarre enough for most arthouse tastes), the all-devouring fire with glimpses of unpublished treasures burning up. Interspersed with the bio would be poignant snatches of “lost” silent films projected onto a bare wall in the underground archive of the mysterious European collector. Surely there’s a palme d’or in it for someone?’

  14. Well, he could have seen CARNETS—it played 20 or 30 years ago at the LA County Museum, I believe, during a Struges festival. I cannot remember if it was a complete print. I remember virtually nothing of the film (strange, as Sturges is just about my favorite director), except that it left me curiously unmoved.

    But what a sad story this was. People are so breakable.

  15. The latest development suggests that he was an American called Frogwell MacIntyre, if you can believe that, who assumed the British accent and persona later in life…

    A House Divided isn’t lost, though it’s hard to find. I’m quite prepared to believe he saw many of the films he wrote about, although he may have taken a chance and reviewed difficult-to-see movies which he hadn’t actually seen.

    I have one more email from Froggy to publish, which I will post next week.

  16. Everyone I’ve ever talked to who received emails or letters from him, had that curious aspect of selling himself at the end of the missive – here’s my latest book, blah, blah. I seen him around many years ago at a sci-fi con, from a distance, not to speak to, and didn’t even realize who he was until some years ago when I was reading about his fake reviews and looked him up on the net. I had actually read some of his books, they were curious in the extreme, and read something like his letters or reviews. Would that all he proposed at IMDb was real – I suppose you could make a case for his viewing many of them in the misty past, but it would take more than word of mouth to make it.

  17. I’m a little surprised to read of his animosity toward Joan Blondell, I just watched her in OTHER MEN’S WOMEN a couple days ago and I thought Grant Withers was a damn fool for blowing her off. She was awful cute in her early days, and still had a lot of appeal as she got older. But I laughed out loud when you stated that dear old Una made him apoplectic. Of all people. How could anyone hate that loopy old loon? She was positively endearing. Yeah, I think our Fergus Gwynplaine definitely had some issues.

  18. It kind of unfortunate that he saved his most vicious rants for the feminine side of the acting profession. I might have forgiven him a bit had he been a more freespleen curmudgeon.

  19. His political conservatism was, I think, tied up with some sexual issues. You can see it coming through when he talks about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This would also tie in with his criminal history, of which more later.

    Meanwhile, the revelations keep coming…

  20. More on Froggy from the NY Times:http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/15/remembrances-of-the-enigmatic-froggy/. I laughed when I read about Sylvester Ballone. I probably would have done the same.

  21. Just want to mention, I also have seen A HOUSE DIVIDED and TOM BROWN OF CULVER, likely at the same Film Forum screening. They’re both really good, especially HOUSE. (TOM BROWN is more of a nice aperitif, a light military school/boxing/Americana comedy.)

  22. You didn’t happen to notice a huge liar with sideburns?

    Agree re House Divided, I’d love to see a projection of it (my copy is pretty messy). Never seen Tom Brown but it’s always fascinating to see early Wyler. (Are any of his silent westerns extant?)

  23. “(Are any of his silent westerns extant?)”

    I wish I could say – the IMDb lists 29 silent westerns, and only two have user comments. (One is by Bob Lipton, the other by an Australian user who reports serious nitrate decomposition. Different films.) Unfortunately, that’s the extent of what’s in the database and, thus, the extent of my knowledge. I don’t recall anything older than THE LOVE TRAP playing as part of the 2002 retrospective.

  24. Based on Hell’s Heroes, Wyler may have been a truly major western director, but it does seem that most of those films are missing. He used to “lie awake at night dreaming up different ways to shoot a guy getting off a horse.”

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