Jan 222016
 

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Today is the birthday (1875) of David Llewelyn Wark “D. W.” Griffith, so-called “Inventor of Hollywood” who not only pioneered modern film-making techniques, but was the first director to film in southern California. He is mostly remembered for the groundbreaking but extremely controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.

Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky to Mary Perkins and Jacob “Roaring Jake” Griffith, who were of Anglo-Welsh ancestry. Jacob Griffith was a Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War and was elected as a Kentucky state legislator. Griffith attended a one-room schoolhouse where he was taught by his older sister, Mattie Griffith. After his father died when he was ten, the family struggled with poverty. When Griffith was 14, his mother abandoned their farm and moved the family to Louisville, where she opened a boarding house. It failed shortly after. Griffith then left high school to help support the family, taking a job in a dry goods store and later in a bookstore.

He began his creative career as a playwright but met with little success with only one of his plays being accepted for a performance. Griffith then decided to become an actor, and appeared in many plays as an extra. In 1907, still struggling as a playwright, he traveled to New York in an attempt to sell a script to Edison Studios producer Edwin Porter. Porter rejected Griffith’s script, but gave him an acting part in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest instead. Finding this attractive, Griffith began to explore a career as an actor in the fledgling motion picture business. In 1908, he accepted a role as a stage extra in Professional Jealousy for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known as Biograph, where he met his future, favorite cameraman, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer. In 1908, Biograph’s main director Wallace McCutcheon grew ill, and his son, Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., took his place. McCutcheon, Jr., however, was not able to bring the studio any success. As a result, Biograph co-founder, Henry “Harry” Marvin, decided to give Griffith the position. He made his first short movie for the company, The Adventures of Dollie, subsequently directing 48 shorts for the company that year.

In 1910 Griffith whilst scouting for suitable outdoor locations with good weather and natural light came across the little village of Hollywood where he shot In Old California, a short melodrama set in Mexican times. The success of the movie prompted the Biograph company to leave New York for Hollywood, and other companies followed. Thus Hollywood was born. But it is the period between Griffith first becoming a director and moving to California that interests me because during that time he made dozens of shorts in Cuddebackville, NY, where I owned a house for nearly 30 years. Some of the history of this period is documented in this post on Mary Pickford — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-pickford/

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Cuddebackville is on the Neversink river, tributary of the Delaware, clustered on the banks of the river near an aqueduct that was built to carry the Delaware and Hudson canal over the river. Griffith knew one of the owners of the, now-defunct, canal and had journeyed there with him before becoming a film director. At the time there were, and still are, large river and mountain views without signs of human habitation. So they were ideal as site locations for Griffith’s movies about Native Americans, of which he made many. It is extremely telling that while he was roundly condemned for his racist portrayal of African-Americans in Birth of a Nation, his depictions of Native Americans are always sympathetic, and condemn only white settlers for their brutal ways.

Many of his pioneering film techniques such as soft focus and slow fade, were developed in Cuddebackville. In fact, the iris he used on his camera lens for slow fade was made by the Cuddebackville blacksmith whose house and forge still stand directly across the river from my old house.

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Griffith took the whole crew to Cuddebackville in 1908-1909 filming dozens of shorts there on Native American and contemporary issues. Both interiors and exteriors of local houses were used as locations, and most of them still exist and are easily recognizable. My colleague Tom Gunning who wrote a monograph on Griffith’s 1908-09 movies (http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/87gbw5tr9780252063664.html), came out to stay with me in Cuddebackville in the early 1980s and showed a number of Griffith’s shorts that were shot in Cuddebackville, to a local audience. Older viewers remembered Griffith’s visits and could name some of the extras in the films. One man in the audience even named the horse in The Modern Prodigal, saying it belonged to his uncle !!

Here’s a typical Cuddebackville short called The Little Darling, shot mostly inside the Caudebec Inn where the crew stayed, and at Otisville rail station, the nearest stop on the Hudson line from New York. It’s only about 3 minutes long and cost virtually nothing to make. It’s essentially a one-joke movie made more or less on the spur of the moment when the crew was idle. The owner of a boarding house receives a letter saying that her niece is coming for a visit. She assumes that her niece is a little girl, and the boarders, delighted at the prospect, rush out and buy toys for her. When she arrives they are shocked to discover that the niece is a young lady (Mary Pickford).

This movie gives an excellent idea of the crew’s living conditions in Cuddebackville, and the inn and store are still there.

The Modern Prodigal is more typical of Griffith’s Cuddebackville shorts. For both contemporary and Native American films he used the Neversink river a great deal. The river shots here were taken right below my house.

In my post on Mary Pickford I gave a recipe for brook trout which was once plentiful in the Neversink. The Modern Prodigal features a local pig farm. Pig farming was a major business in the region in the early 20th century, and was still surviving when I lived there. Every October I had a pig roast for all my neighbors and friends – my biggest party of the year, probably rivaling gatherings in the Caudebec Inn when Griffith stayed. I usually had more than 100 guests from all over – artists, musicians, family, friends. Here’s my fire pit and smoker.

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I can’t really give you a recipe as such for whole roast pig. Everyone I know who has a pig roast learns from someone else, or else just figures it out. The principles are simple; experience comes over time. I used to get a 150 lb young pig delivered on a Friday afternoon in late October when nights were chilly. A neighbor had constructed a turnable spit which I wired the pig to that night and kept it in my potting shed overnight. Around 3 am I built a fire of seasoned hard wood which I got started using hot coals from my wood stove. After about an hour there were enough coals ready to start the pig roasting. I set the spit over the coals with a hood over it to keep the heat contained a little, and a marquee over the whole affair in case of rain. In fact it never did rain, October being a very dry month in that area. Then it was simply a matter of time and patience. I turned the spit a quarter turn every 15 minutes, so that the pig turned one revolution per hour. I kept a fire going beside the pit, and fed hot coals under the pig as needed. Pricking the skin with a large fork periodically, basted it and eventually crisped it.

I would stay beside the pig faithfully for about 14 hours, serving dinner around 6 pm. By that time I was black with soot, thoroughly smelling of smoke, and utterly exhausted. But it was always a whale of a party. We served the pork, which was unbelievably succulent – best ever – with potatoes baked in the coals, cole slaw, and whatever else anyone cared to bring. A 150 lb pig served 100+ people well, with plenty of leftovers.

 

 

Apr 082015
 

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Today is the birthday (1892) of Mary Pickford, darling of the screen in the silent era, and who made significant contributions to the development of film acting. I might not have paid her much attention in the past were it not for the fact that she traveled with the Biograph company under D.W. Giffith to my tiny little Catskills village, Cuddebackville, in 1909 and 1910 where she made a number of shorts. Once I give a little background I want to focus on that era, mainly because I feel a personal attachment.

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in 1892 at 211 University Avenue, Toronto. Her father, John Charles Smith, was the son of English Methodist immigrants, and worked a variety of odd jobs. Her mother, Charlotte Hennessey, was of Irish Catholic descent and worked for a time as a seamstress. Gladys had two younger siblings, Charlotte, called “Lottie” (born 1983), and John Charles, called “Jack” (born 1896), who also became actors. To please her husband’s relatives, Pickford’s mother baptized her children as Methodists, the faith of their father. John Charles Smith was an alcoholic; he abandoned the family and died on February 11, 1898 from a fatal blood clot caused by a workplace accident when he was a purser with Niagara Steamship.

Charlotte Hennessey Smith began taking in boarders after being widowed. One of these was a theatrical stage manager. At his suggestion, Gladys (age 7) was given two small roles, one as a boy and the other as a girl, in a stock company production of The Silver King at Toronto’s Princess Theatre. She subsequently acted in many melodramas with Toronto’s Valentine Company, finally playing the major child role in their version of The Silver King. She capped her short career in Toronto with the starring role of Little Eva in their production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, adapted from the 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

By the early 1900s, theater had become a family enterprise. Gladys, her mother and two younger siblings toured the United States by rail, performing in third-rate companies and plays. After six impoverished years, Gladys allowed one more summer to land a leading role on Broadway, planning to quit acting if she failed. In 1906 Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith supported singer Chauncey Olcott on Broadway in Edmund Burke.Gladys finally landed a supporting role in a 1907 Broadway play, The Warrens of Virginia. The play was written by William C. deMille, whose brother, Cecil, appeared in the cast. David Belasco, the producer of the play, insisted that Gladys Smith assume the stage name Mary Pickford. After completing the Broadway run and touring the play, however, Pickford was again out of work.

On April 19, 1909, the Biograph Company director D. W. Griffith screen-tested her at the company’s New York studio for a role in the nickelodeon film, Pippa Passes. The role went to someone else but Griffith was immediately taken with Pickford. She quickly grasped that movie acting was simpler than the stylized stage acting of the day. Most Biograph actors earned $5 a day but, after Pickford’s single day in the studio, Griffith agreed to pay her $10 a day against a guarantee of $40 a week.

Pickford, like all actors at Biograph, played both bit parts and leading roles, including mothers, ingenues, charwomen, spitfires, slaves, native Americans, spurned women, and a prostitute. As Pickford said of her success at Biograph:

“I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities … I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.”

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She appeared in 51 films in 1909 – almost one a week.

Most of her Biograph movies were shot in studios in New York city. But the company traveled twice to Cuddebackville for location shots. Many of Griffith’s movies had Wild West or Indian themes, and prior to 1909 he had done exterior shots across the Hudson in New Jersey. But after a while critics began commenting on the unrealistic nature of “Fort Lee scenery,” and Griffith cast around for wilder locations. One of his friends was a part owner of the Delaware and Hudson canal which crossed the Neversink river (via Roebling aqueduct) in a heavily wooded region and site of Cuddebackville where there was a boarding house big enough for cast and crew. The canal was closed down but the river provided scenic locations. This is how the location looks now – used in at least two movies for Indian canoe scenes (stone aqueduct abutments and all !!). My house is just to the left of the abutment (out of image)

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Pickford’s Cuddebackville movies include (links to IMDb):

The Indian Runner’s Romance

The Little Darling

The Mountaineer’s Honor

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Muggsy Becomes a Hero

A Gold Necklace

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In January 1910, Pickford traveled with a Biograph crew to Los Angeles. Many other film companies wintered on the West Coast, escaping the weak light and short days that hampered winter shooting in the East. Pickford added to her 1909 Biographs (Sweet and Twenty, They Would Elope, and To Save Her Soul, to name a few) with films made in California. Actors were not listed in the credits in Griffith’s company. Audiences noticed and identified Pickford within weeks of her first film appearance. Exhibitors in turn capitalized on her popularity by advertising on sandwich boards that a film featuring “The Girl with the Golden Curls”, “Blondilocks”, or “The Biograph Girl” was inside.

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Pickford left Biograph in December 1910. The following year, she starred in films at Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP). IMP was absorbed into Universal Pictures in 1912, along with Majestic. Unhappy with their creative standards, Pickford returned to work with Griffith in 1912. Some of her best performances were in his films, such as Friends, The Mender of Nets, Just Like a Woman, and The Female of the Species. That year Pickford also introduced Dorothy and Lillian Gish (both friends from her days in touring melodrama) to Griffith. Both became major silent stars, in comedy and tragedy, respectively. Pickford made her last Biograph picture, The New York Hat, in late 1912.

She returned to Broadway in the David Belasco production of A Good Little Devil (1912). This was a major turning point in her career. Pickford, who had always hoped to conquer the Broadway stage, discovered how deeply she missed film acting. In 1913, she decided to work exclusively in film. The previous year, Adolph Zukor had formed Famous Players in Famous Plays. It was later known as Famous Players-Lasky and then Paramount Pictures, one of the first American feature film companies.

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Pickford left the stage to join Zukor’s roster of stars. Zukor believed film’s potential lay in recording theatrical players in replicas of their most famous stage roles and productions. Zukor first filmed Pickford in a silent version of A Good Little Devil. The film, produced in 1913, showed the play’s Broadway actors reciting every line of dialogue, resulting in a stiff film that Pickford later called “one of the worst [features] I ever made … it was deadly.” Zukor agreed; he held the film back from distribution for a year.

Pickford’s work in material written for the camera by that time had attracted a strong following. Comedy-dramas, such as In the Bishop’s Carriage (1913), Caprice (1913), and especially Hearts Adrift (1914), made her irresistible to moviegoers. Hearts Adrift was so popular that Pickford asked for the first of her many publicized pay raises based on the profits and reviews. The film marked the first time Pickford’s name was featured above the title on movie marquees. Tess of the Storm Country was released five weeks later. Biographer Kevin Brownlow observed that the film “sent her career into orbit and made her the most popular actress in America, if not the world.”

Her appeal was summed up two years later by the February 1916 issue of Photoplay as “luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity.” Only Charlie Chaplin, who reportedly slightly surpassed Pickford’s popularity in 1916, had a similarly spellbinding pull with critics and the audience. Each enjoyed a level of fame far exceeding that of other actors. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Pickford was believed to be the most famous woman in the world, or, as a silent-film journalist described her, “the best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history.”

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Pickford starred in 52 features throughout her career. In 1916, Pickford signed a new contract with Zukor that granted her full authority over production of the films in which she starred, and a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week. Occasionally, she played a child, in films such as The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) and Pollyanna (1920). Pickford’s fans were devoted to these “Little Girl” roles, but they were not typical of her career.

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In August 1918, Pickford’s contract expired and, when refusing Zukor’s terms for a renewal, she was offered $250,000 to leave the motion picture business. She declined, and went to First National Pictures, which agreed to her terms. In 1919, Pickford, along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, formed the independent film production company United Artists. Through United Artists, Pickford continued to produce and perform in her own movies; she could also distribute them as she chose. In 1920, Pickford’s film Pollyanna grossed around $1,100,000. The following year, Pickford’s film Little Lord Fauntleroy was also a success, and in 1923, Rosita grossed over $1,000,000 as well. During this period, she also made Sparrows (1926), which blended the Dickensian with newly minted German expressionist style, and the romantic comedy My Best Girl (1927).

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The arrival of sound was her undoing. Pickford underestimated the value of adding sound to movies, claiming that “adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” She played a reckless socialite in Coquette (1929), a role for which her famous ringlets were cut into a 1920s bob. Pickford had already cut her hair in the wake of her mother’s death in 1928. Fans were shocked at the transformation. Pickford’s hair had become a symbol of female virtue, and when she cut it, the act made front-page news in The New York Times and other papers. Coquette was a success and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress,[but the public failed to respond to her in the more sophisticated roles. Like most movie stars of the silent era, Pickford found her career fading as talkies became more popular among audiences.

Her next film, The Taming of The Shrew, made with husband Douglas Fairbanks, was not well received at the box office. Established Hollywood actors were panicked by the impending arrival of the talkies. On March 29, 1928, The Dodge Brothers Hour was broadcast from Pickford’s bungalow, featuring Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Dolores del Rio, among others. They spoke on the radio show to prove that they could meet the challenge of talking movies.

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But the transition came as Pickford was in her late 30s, no longer able to play the children, teenage spitfires, and feisty young women so adored by her fans. She was not suited for the sleekly elegant heroines of early sound. In 1933, Pickford underwent a Technicolor screen test for an animated/live action film version of Alice in Wonderland, but Walt Disney discarded the project when Paramount released its own version of the book. Only one Technicolor still of her screen test still exists. She retired from acting in 1933; her last acting film was released in 1934. She continued to produce for others, however, including Sleep, My Love (1948; with Claudette Colbert) and Love Happy (1949;, with the Marx Brothers).

There are two recipes I associate with my 25 years in Cuddebackville — whole roast local pig in the autumn, which I cooked in my garden on a spit for around 16 hours.  Many of my friends did the same at big blowout parties that Mary Pickford would have approved of. More modest is pan fried or grilled brook trout from the Neversink river.  River trout has been popular with fly fishermen for well over a century in that part of the Catskills. Sadly the Neversink suffered greatly when a reservoir for New York City was built upstream, making the water too shallow and warm to support natural stocks of trout.  But they are artificially introduced yearly in the spring, so all is not lost. Friends and I have been known to sling a hook in the water for a delectable trout dinner.

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River trout needs little in the way of preparation.  Too many additions can mask the flavor of the fish. It’s hard to beat simple wood/charcoal grilling, or (dry) pan frying.  However, if you are interested in more complex dishes go here:

http://www.yummly.com/recipes/brown-trout

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Typically I take one freshly caught trout per person, split it open all the way from head to tail, remove the guts, and carefully take out the backbone. Rinse the inside well. Prepare a well-flavored butter of your choice by mixing together 1 stick of room temperature butter and the zest and juice of a lemon.  Mix in herbs such as thyme, sage, or fresh tarragon. They  should be fresh and finely chopped.

Season both sides of the fish with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then slather lemon butter on both sides.  Have your grill well heated and grill both sides of the fish for 2 to 3 minutes per side about 4″ from the coals.  I prefer to use the basket style of griddle that holds the fish firmly in place.  That way you can flip the fish easily without fear of it breaking.  I usually serve the trout with boiled new potatoes with butter and parsley, and fresh (lightly minted) garden peas.