Posts Tagged ‘early Hollywood’

Friday at the Movies: Charles S. Chaplin

July 24, 2015

hollywood2 (2)For the last hundred years at least, he’s the one face everybody recognizes and associates immediately with “silent movies,” even though some of his greatest films were talkies.  He was known for comedy, but considered himself a serious artist.  He made gobs of money for corporations, but was one of the first movie actors to insist on artistic control—to the extent of forming his own film company that still exists today.  Universally loved but not personally loveable, a shrewd businessman, a prickly personality, a brilliant storyteller, a loner who touched millions of hearts—that was Charlie.

Plenty has been written about Charles Chaplin and I don’t need to write another biography (if you’re Chaplin1looking for biography, Sid Fleishman’s Sir Charlie is delightful).  Some film historians try to slight Charlie because there was a lot going on in Hollywood at the time that had nothing to do with him, but he so dominated the industry—especially the box office—he can’t be ignored.  He and Hollywood grew up together: after a desperately-poor London childhood and fleeting success in vaudeville, he arrived in sunny California at the age of 28 and proceeded to make 35 movies for Keystone in one year.  Though he later turned up his nose at Mack Sennett (head of Keystone) and frantic slapstick humor, his two years with Keystone launched him into the stratosphere of wealth and fame: by 1916 he was, literally, the most famous man in the world.  His face was showing up in nickelodeons and cantinas and makeshift movie theaters on six continents—anywhere a room could be darkened and a projector set up.

Everybody loved his signature character, the Little Tramp.  The Little Tramp is more recognizable than Chaplin himself: bushy hair and mustache, oversize shoes and undersize bowler hat, baggy pants, toothy smile.  He’s a loser who lives hand to mouth and stays barely within the law but always seems to come out okay in the end.  He refined the character in later full-length movies like The Kid and The Gold Rush, but there was always an underlying strain of despair in the Little Tramp, as there is in all the best comedy.

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, Chaplin has reached the peak of success.  He has established himself as a free agent and in the following year he will form his own production company with three of the greatest names in the biz: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.  United Artists, they’ll call it.  Chaplin has a big film project in mind, which will become his first recognized masterpiece: The Kid.. The story is simple: the Little Tramp accidentally acquires a baby who’s been left on his doorstep, names him Johnny, and goes on to raise the boy as his own until Johnny’s mother comes looking for him.  In IDK, I imagine Chaplin latching on to Isobel’s mother as a likely candidate to play the mother role, a development that stirs up confusion and resentment in Isobel.  Nothing remotely like that happened, of course: the mother’s role is played by Edna Purviance, and even in those early days it’s not likely such an important part would be entrusted to an amateur.  But that’s artistic license on my part.

Chaplin2Though it isn’t mentioned by name in my novel, The Kid is probably my favorite Chaplin movie: full of laughs and charm and heart tugs, due as much to Jackie Coogan in the title role as it is to Charlie.  You keep expecting both the comedy and the sentiment to go overboard, but it never does.  (Watch it!)

Three Chaplin movies are mentioned in IDK.  Tillie’s Punctured Romance was his first Keystone flick; the movie reportedly introduced the concept of “meeting cute.”  The Bond was a public-service short film that Ranger and Isobel see at Grauman’s Egyptian theater before the main feature.  Ranger describes Shoulder Arms, a comedy that that mines some funny business out of a very unfunny war.  In Chapter 10 Chaplin attends a party at the home of Titus Bell (Ranger’s father), and in the course of the evening he performs the “Oceana Roll Dance” that would later appear in The Gold Rush.  The roll dance cracks me up—I think it’s the deadpan he maintains throughout.  Isobel thought it was hilarious as well, in spite of her mixed feelings about Mr. Chaplin.

Though he kept making movies into the thirties (City Lights, from 1931, is considered one of his best), Charlie’s heyday was the twenties, and he never hit his stride with the talkies.  He also fell out of love with America (long story), and moved to Switzerland, not exactly a film-making mecca.  But he made a mark on culture and history that can’t be erased.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

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Friday at the Movies: D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

July 10, 2015

Some people think film is just Keystone Cops crashing cars or somebody’s pants falling down.  But it’s a lot more.  It’s the new art: telling stories with light and motion.  This is going to be bigger than the Sistine Chapel!

Ranger Bell, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends 

hollywood2 (2)A lot of kids are bitten by the movie bug in their early teens, but Ranger, the pivotal character in IDK*, had the good fortune to be bit by the best.  D.W. Griffith is his hero, and Ranger’s burning ambition is to work for the master on the way to becoming a master himself.

Griffith broke into show business as an actor in cheap vaudeville houses, and everybody agrees he wasn’t a very good one.  But he did gain a sense of what audiences appreciated: emotion.  They liked thrills and chills and action, but also wanted to laugh and cry.  When he gravitated to film acting for the Biograph studios in New Jersey, he learned to tone down his hammy stage-acting style—for one thing, the camera couldn’t capture all those broad, wild arm gestures.  But the camera could move in on a face and catch the smallest twitch of a muscle or glimmer of a tear.  A face on film could connect with the audience more intimately than a live actor ever could, and once he discovered the emotional power of the movies, D.W. was never going back to live theater.  The story is that one day a director was sick and D.W. was drafted to take his place.  The director’s chair quickly became his perch for the rest of his artistigriffith1c career.

When Griffith left Biograph he took the studio’s best cameraman with him.  This was Billy Bitzer, who worked closely with him for the next sixteen years and collaborated on some of the most ground-breaking work ever produced up to that time–like The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915.

This is the film that made D.W. Griffith a household word, but it’s hard to even talk about, much less watch.  It’s the story of a southern family during and after the Civil War, and all they lost and suffered.  The first half includes some truly thrilling battle scenes and appealing family relationships.  But the second half is all about noble southerners fighting “bad Negroes” by raising up a little army later called the Ku Klux Klan.  The way African-Americans are shown (even the “good” ones) is racist and insulting, even though Griffith claimed to love and admire them.  Still, The Birth of a Nation can’t be ignored because it broke so much new ground in film-making.  Griffith used quick intercutting to make the battle scenes more dramatic, high angles to capture wider views, fades between scenes, lots of extras, and eyeline matches, where the camera is adjusted to frame the same view a character is seeing.   He even had an original score written, which was played by live orchestras in all the big theaters where the movie opened.  For emotional punch, audiences had never seen anything like it, and Birth of a Nation  was a huge hit.  (Although it’s worth noting that many Americans were not comfortable with its blatant racism even, and it was banned in some cities–even entire states, like Kansas.)

The praise and criticism showered on him was so overwhelming Griffith decided that he had to top himself for his next feature film.  He had already made a touching little drama called The Mother and the Law, but in the meantime he saw an Italian film called Cabiria, which was set in ancient Sicily and Carthage.  The movie used fabulous sets and shocking set pieces, like small children in Carthage being sacrificed to Moloch. (It’s disturbing to watch, even today: here’s a clip, and try to ignore the soundtrack).  Griffith was impressed by the spectacle and determined not to be outdone by any Italian, so he postponed the release of The Mother and the Law and decided to incorporate that story into a larger tale spanning centuries.  That became Intolerance, subtitled “Love’s Struggle through the Ages.”

“The ages” take in Babylon’s fall to Persia in 539 B.C., the earthly ministry of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew Massacre in France in 1572, and the modern story of The Mother and the Law—all intercut and stitched together with the theme of someone not tolerating someone else.griffith2

Most of the money and effort went to the Babylon segments (which Ranger describes with great enthusiasm in Chapter 3 of IDK).  Elaborate battle scenes and court scenes involved a literal cast of thousands, which meant some clever camera work.  Though not filming from a balloon.  They actually tried it, and Billy Bitzer got sick.  Most of the panning and zooming shots were done with a camera on tracks, but film historians to this day don’t know exactly how.

The monster Babylon set towered over Sunset Boulevard, and once filming was complete Griffith was so broke he couldn’t pay have it demolished.  The remains of Belshazzar’s court stood for four years, peeling and crumbling, until the city finally ordered it torn down as a public nuisance and fire hazard.  (That’s where Ranger takes the girls in chapter 3.)

intolerance-set2Intolerance won high praise but didn’t earn back enough profit to justify its expense.  In my opinion, though Intolerance has some fine moments and The Mother and the Law story is genuinely touching and sweet (this is the film Isobel sees in Chapter 4), it’s too long and incoherent to make a strong impression.  But it did enhance Griffith’s reputation, and he went on to make some great movies, like Hearts of the World (described in Chapter 11), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.  Were they “art,” as Ranger believed?  Most movie historians agree—

When he finished, he was the leader of an industry acclaimed not only as entertainment, but as art . . . Griffith did not achieve this miracle alone, but he deserves unstinting credit for achieving it at all.   Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood: the Pioneers

You can get Intolerance on Netflix, but I warn you, as Isobel is warned by the family cook Rosetta, “those dancing girls in Babylon didn’t wear enough clothes to dry a saucer with.”

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

Charles S. Chaplin

Countdown to IDK: First Words

June 19, 2015

What grabs you about a book, from the first page?  Some readers like getting right into the action, as in

  • Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.  (Tom Clancy, Patriot Games)
  • Renowned curator Jacques Suaniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.  (Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code)
  • None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Middle of Somewhere)

Some want to identify immediately with a character:

  • Call me Ishmael.  (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • I am an invisible man.  (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)
  • I didn’t mean to do it.  I just got carried away.  (J. B. Cheaney, My Friend the Enemy)

Other readers like a strong sense of place or time; they want to setting to descend on them like a mist.  For example

  • The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.  An English boy of any learning whatever knows that.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Playmaker)

Other readers are looking for a jolt of mystery or suspense:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  (Louis Sacher, Holes)
  • One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War, and the next minute he was gone.  (Michael Grant, Gone)
  • Last night’s weather forecast predicted rain.  This isn’t rain.   (J. B. Cheaney, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous)

And others like a shot of emotional adrenaline:

  • What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? (Eric Segal, Love Story)
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  (Nora Zeal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)
  • “Stop! Halt! You’ll kill each other!  (J. B. Cheaney, The True Prince)

(Look at me swanning around on the same page with all these great authors!)

Every author knows that first lines can make the difference between a reader reading or a reader refusing (though most readers will stick around at least for a paragraph).  But more than that: a first line can set the tone for the whole story.  Of course you want to engage the reader with some sense of the action to follow.  Of course you want to surprise and mystify.  The question is how.

For my soon-to-be-published novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, I decided to go for voice.  That’s the indefinable quality that makes one person’s style different from another’s.  When you read Call me Ishmael next to You don’t know me without you have read a book called Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter, you know you are in for a sojourn within two very distinct personalities.

I decided to try for that.  Meet Isobel Ransom, the narrator and cover girl of I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Sourcebooks, Oct. 2015):

* * * * * * * * * * * *

      The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.

It wasn’t all my fault.  She pushed me before I pushed her—figuratively, I mean.

She’d picked a bad time to tangle with me, for I was in a drippy, dismal mood, like our Seattle weather that day.  While walking from my room to the stairs with an open book—Jane Eyre, my new most-favorite—I heard a moaning noise behind me, starting low and growing louder: “AhhhhWOOOO!”

I turned around.  “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

A cobwebby ghost was creeping up behind me: Sylvie, draped in gauzy curtains she’d somehow pulled down from our parents’ bedroom window.  “AWOOO!  I’m the ghost of the battlefield.  No—I’m Daddy’s lonesome spirit come back to haunt you, and . . . Quit it, Isobel!”

I had smacked her on the shoulder with my book.  She smacked me back, so I pushed her against the banister and she stumbled on the wads of curtain under her feet.  The next moment she was bouncing down the stairs, howling at every bump.

The noise brought Mother from the study and Rosetta from the kitchen.  Both could only stare at first, flummoxed by the noisy cocoon I was frantically trying to unwrap.  Sylvie had made it all the way to the bottom without breaking anything, I was pretty sure.  Father used to say he was going to take her on the road as a scientific curiosity because her bones were made of rubber.  But the fact remained that she had been pushed, and someone had done the pushing.

“Isobel,” my mother said accusingly.

“I’m sorry!  But she was acting silly, as usual, and saying she was Father’s ghost, and we know that Father’s alive and well, but I can’t stand it when she . . .” Et cetera.  And all this time Sylvie was yelling that it wasn’t her fault.  She was just playing, and I hit her before pushing her, and so on.

Rosetta stepped in to lend a hand, and finally Sylvie was standing on her own two feet, both of us waiting for Mother to send us outside for a switch from the forsythia bush.  But she just looked at us, lips pressed together, the silence lengthening like the long shadow that had fallen over us ever since Father left for France.

“That does it,” Mother said at last.  “I’ve had enough of dreary days and melancholy daughters.  We’re going to California for the summer.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So the adventure begins .  .

postcard

Countdown to IDK: Cover Coverage

June 12, 2015

Some of my covers I’ve loved; some I cringed at, just a little.  I got kind of a shock with my first-ever published novel, The Playmaker, which looks like this:

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

First of all, the character, Richard Mallory, looks nothing like I described him in the book.  I’ve heard that artists were supposed to actually read the book to get design ideas, and this artist wouldn’t have needed to read far—the description is in the first chapter.  Second of all, nowhere in the story does Richard attack anyone with a sword.  Third of all, what’s with the font style?  It looks like “Goosebumps.”  (On the positive end, I really like the bear in the background, even though lots of kids guess it’s a dog.)  I did bring up the Goosebumps font with my editor, who explained that the design team was going for boy-appeal.  And in the end I can’t complain, because The Playmaker is still in print—after fifteen years!

myfriendtheenemy

Alternative Title: Please Love Me. Please.

Usually the hardcover image carries over to the paperback, but that didn’t happen with my third published novel, My Friend the Enemy.  To your left is the hardback, which quickly made itself scarce.  No wonder; to me this cover says Read me because I’m thoughtful and sensitive and good for you.

MFTE.pb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, here’s the paperback edition, which says Read me because I’m a great story about a girl and a boy and their fraught friendship during World War II.

I might hesitate about reading the first.  I’d pick up the second in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

 

My first publisher, Random House, always gave me a completed design and basically said, “Here.  We hope you like it.  (And too bad if you don’t.)”  My current publisher, Sourcebooks, asks for my ideas ahead of time and doesn’t use them.  But they also ask for feedback and are willing to make small changes.  So here’s what the cover of my goes-on-sale-in-October MG novel looked like in its first version:

hollywood

“What do you think?” asked the editor.  Well . . .

Isobel Ransom, the main character in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (that’s what IDK means, if you’re wondering) lives in Seattle.  The story takes place during the summer of 1918, while America is involved in World War I.  While her father is serving as an army surgeon in France, Isobel and her mother and sister travel to southern California to spend a couple of months with her aunt, who lives in a sleepy little town called Hollywood.  But times are changing fast for Hollywood, soon to become the motion-picture capital of the world, and Isobel is caught up in the frenetic, wild-west age of movie-making.

First of all: nothing in the above design says 1918.  The look is more 1930’s.

Second of all: nothing says California.  The look is more depression-era Kansas.  In fact, a couple of people I showed it to said the first thing that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz.  Since that was also the first thing that came to my mind, surely it’s no fluke.

Third of all: nothing says motion pictures.

I mentioned all this to my editor: the girl’s dress needs to change; her hair should be different; what’s that thing in the background that looks like a broken-down fence; why is the landscape so desolate; and can’t we stick in a few palm trees or something?  And finally, where’s the movie camera?

No movie camera.  The philosophy behind this cover is that the story reflects universal themes and they didn’t want to make the time and setting too specific, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible.  I don’t know about this, since movies are about as universal as we get these days, and the specific subject matter seems to generate plenty of interest whenever I mention it.  But they did take the landscape and costume into account, and here’s what we ended up with:

hollywood2

Still no palm trees.  But it passes for California, and if you look closely you can make out the hazy outlines of the blue Pacific. And the girl’s dramatic pose is a nice touch–even if it makes older readers like myself immediately hear the opening bars of “Tara’s Theme.”

So, what do you think?

Keep watching for reviews, blurbs, first paragraphs and chapters, and more!  You might even find out How the Story Ends!  (And oh yes, you can pre-order here.)