Archive for Florence Lawrence

The Sunday Intertitle: 1914 and all that

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2014 by dcairns

Daisy Doodad's Dial

The TV news has been full of the war — The Great War, 1914-1918 — because obviously there are no current wars they could be reporting on. I’m ashamed to say we participated in the bloody nostalgia porn, but in defensible ways, I would argue. We watched the BBC’s Parade’s End because it was written by Tom Stoppard and starred Benelux Campervan Bindideck Cankercache Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, and we went to see the BFI’s reconstruction of a night at the cinema in 1914 — a program of short subjects assembled to create a good approximation of the kind of entertainment available in a British cinema at the outbreak of war. It reminded me very much of the excellent shorts programmes at Bologna, and indeed was programmed by Bryony Dixon who assembled those. Stephen Horne provided an improvised score.

There was actuality footage of Lord Kitchener, taken just before the outbreak, inspecting troops in Egypt, there were animated lightning sketches by the excitingly-named Lancelot Speed, there was Chaplin’s A FILM JOHNNIE (Chaplin had just started appearing in movies but was already becoming a phenomenon), and a couple of really fascinating comedy oddities.

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The first of these, starring Fred “Pimple” Evans, showed how comparatively sophisticated a Keystone one-reeler must have seemed. Pimple was a popular British comic, performing in a creepy clown-rodent makeup and evincing no particular skill. He couldn’t do elaborate stunts, his facial reactions, what you can see of them through the panstick, aren’t funny, and he has no facilities for enlivening an expository scene with bits of business, which meant the first half of LIEUTENANT PIMPLE AND THE STOLEN SUBMARINE was pretty dull. As a dim naval recruit he is entrusted with purchasing a new submarine, but foreign spies steal it. The actors cast have hooked noses and don vaguely Hassidic beards as disguises (later, Pimple puts on his own beard and nose disguise, on top of a deep-sea diving helmet (made of cardboard) he is wearing, the film’s biggest laugh) — but via an intertitle one says “Zut alors!” suggesting the film’s pre-war provenance and that the filmmakers weren’t up on international affairs. What the hell, we’re always fighting the French, aren’t we?

The BFI’s introductory title said the film made a virtue of its low budget, which turned out to be true — the submarine was a wooden crate pretending to be a conning tower, and a later battleship was a barge with added wooden gun turrets which shot fireworks. Pedestrians strolled by unconcerned during the climax. The diving helmet was cardboard and had a hole in the top for Pimple’s scalp to poke through. Cheap and cheerful, in a tradition which would extend, sort of, to the CARRY ON series, and one of at least fifty films Fred Evans made in 1914 alone.

This classic isn’t YouTube, but the BFI have thoughtfully uploaded the even less ambitious W-H-O-R-K A LA PIMPLE, aka FAT MAN ON A BICYCLE, which unhesitatingly delivers on its enticing titular premise.

Pimple and his chubby buddy wreck a fruit cart, harking forward to THE LADYKILLERS.

Much more sophisticated was DAISY DOODAD’S DIAL, exploiting the comic skills of Florence Turner, the Vitagraph Girl, known more for her dramatic work. She’s one of the Primal Florences — Florence Lawrence, the Edison Girl, is generally thought the first movie star, but Turner is right behind her. This American star had for some reason set up shop in the UK at film pioneer Cecil Hepworth’s studio. The movie is about face-pulling, which is always good, but it’s about so much more. The domestic comedy is sweet but with an edge — this was a big year for the suffragette movement, as the programme reminds us, and is there some hint of anxiety, a warning for women, or just a dreamlike jumble of topical concerns filtered through the comic imagination?

“I only did this!”

Particularly worth it for the phantasmal parade of gurning Florences at the end.

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The Sunday Intertitle: The Curse of “What Drink Did”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2011 by dcairns

IF YOU WATCH THIS FILM, YOU WILL DIE!

“A thoughtful moral lesson.”

A lot of nonsense is talked about “The Curse of THE EXORCIST” or “The Curse of SUPERMAN”, proving generally that you can make any series of unfortunate coincidences look sinister. But here’s a movie tale surely no skeptic can gainsay. Of all those who worked on D.W. Griffith’s 1909 morality play, WHAT DRINK DID, not a single one survives…

Griffith himself died in 1948, a mere 39 years after helming this film, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just seventy-three years old. Star Florence Lawrence committed suicide in 1938, no longer buoyed up by her amusing stage name. The film’s lead drunkard, David Miles was dead just six years after completing his role, under mysterious circumstances which even the internet Movie Database has been unable to uncover. Some might find this suspicious. I do.

Child star Gladys Egan, AKA “Little Gladys,” perished in 1997, her career long over — nobody thought to offer adorable moppet roles to a ninety-one-year-old. Way down the cast, we find Mary Pickford, who went on to become “America’s Sweetheart,” one of the greatest box-office sensations of the age and a founding member of United Artists, but even that could not save her — she died in 1979, aged 87, eerily enough, from a cerebral hemorrhage. Her body was buried and her house was demolished.

Another bit player, Mack Sennett, became a famed producer of slapstick comedies at the Keystone company and received an honorary Oscar, only to die at the comparatively youthful age of eighty.

More sinisterly still, bartender John R Cumpson was slain by diabetes and pneumonia in 1914, just five years after his role in this blighted picture, and another of the movie’s bartenders, Arthur V. Johnson, succumbed to tuberculosis just two years later. extra Flora Finch fell prey to a streptococcus infection in 1940, and “workman” Owen Moore had a fatal heart attack the previous year.

Coincidence? I think not.

You may smile (“I think they’re smiling, Gary”), but do you have the courage to watch the film? I tell you, this curse is attached not just to the poor doomed cast and crew, but also to the audience. Everyone who watches this film will die.

Eventually.

“Mr Goldwyn, I hate to tell you, but of all the people who ever lived on this earth, not one of them ever had a happy ending.” Dorothy Parker.