Feb 052018
 

Time for another omnibus post because so many anniversaries associated with movie history collide today. On this date in 1861 Samuel Goodale of Cincinnati patented his moving picture peep show machine. On this date in 1870 Henry Renno Heyl used his phasmatrope to project moving images for an audience, which some historians credit as being the first movie show. On this date in 1919 Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith launched United Artists, and on this date in 1937 Modern Times, starring Charlie Chaplin, was released. Let’s see if I can make sense of all of this in a single post.

Samuel Goodale patented a kind of peep show he called a stereoscope which was later called a mutoscope. The term “stereoscope” is misleading because it was more commonly used to describe a viewer of twin images taken by a special camera that showed the image in 3-D. Goodale’s peep show worked on the same principle as the flip book. The individual image frames were conventional black-and-white, silver-based photographic prints on tough, flexible opaque cards. Rather than being bound into a booklet, the cards were attached to a circular core, rather like a huge Rolodex.

Goodale’s and later peep shows were coin-operated. The patron viewed the cards through a single lens enclosed by a hood. The cards were lit by candles and the reel was driven by means of a geared-down hand crank. Each machine held only a single reel and was dedicated to the presentation of a single short subject, described by a poster affixed to the machine.  Because one machine contained only one subject, it made sense to have them transported by circus or carnival side shows from one location to another, rather than fixed in one place where audiences would soon tire of the same show being repeated.

Henry Renno Heyl’s Phasmatrope which was first publicly exhibited on this date in 1870 to a theater audience in Philadelphia was similar in operation to Goodale’s peep show in that it employed sequenced photographs on a reel, like a flip book. The difference was that Heyl’s machine allowed projection of the moving images, so that an entire audience could experience the show, not just one viewer at a time. Some historians have given Heyl the honor of being the first person to project photographic motion pictures, and an early promotional poster makes the same claim. In Popular Science Monthly of July 1898 Heyl wrote:

 Among the earliest public exhibitions of photographs taken from living subjects in motion projected by the lantern upon a screen was that given at an entertainment held in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, on the evening of February 5, 1870, and a repetition of the exhibition was made before the Franklin Institute at its next following monthly meeting, on March 16th, by [Heyl]. The printed programme of this event contains the following allusion to this feature of the entertainment:

“This is a recent invention, designed to give various objects and figures upon the screen the most graceful and lifelike movements. The effects are similar to those produced in the familiar toy called the Zoetrope, where men are seen walking, running, and performing various feats in most perfect imitation of real life. This instrument is destined to become a most valuable auxiliary to the appliances for illustration, and we have the pleasure of having the first opportunity of presenting its merits to an audience.”

The subjects exhibited embraced waltzing figures and acrobats, shown upon the screen in life size, while the photographic images were easily three fourths of an inch in height. At that day flexible films were not known in photography, nor had the art of rapid succession picture-making been developed; therefore, it was necessary to limit the views of subjects to those that could be taken by time exposure upon wet plates, which photos were afterward reproduced as positives on very thin glass plates, in order that they might be light in weight. The waltzing figures, taken in six positions, corresponding to the six steps to complete a turn, were duplicated as often as necessary to fill the eighteen picture spaces of the instrument which was used in connection with the lantern to project the images upon the screen.     

The piece of mechanism, then named the ‘phasmatrope,’ consisted of a skeleton wheel having nine radial divisions, into which could be inserted the picture, in such relative position that, as the wheel was intermittently revolved, each picture would register exactly with the position just left by the preceding one. The intermittent movement of the wheel was controlled by a ratchet and pawl mechanism operated by a reciprocating bar moved up and down by the hand. It will be apparent that the figures could be moved in rapid succession or quite slowly, or the wheel could be stopped at any point to complete the evolution.            

In the exhibition at the Academy of Music above alluded to, the movement of the figures was made to correspond to the time of the waltz played by an orchestra, and when the acrobat performers were shown, a more rapid motion was given, and a full stop made when a somersault was completed. A shutter was then a necessary part of the apparatus to cut off the light rays during the time the pictures were changing places. This was accomplished by a vibrating shutter placed back of the picture wheel, that was operated by the same draw-bar that moved the wheel, only the shutter movement was so timed that it moved first and covered the picture before the latter moved, and completed the movement after the next picture was in place. This movement reduced to great extent the flickering, and gave very natural and lifelike representations of the moving figures.

 

Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith incorporated United Artists as a joint venture on this date in 1919. Each held a 25 percent stake in the preferred shares and a 20 percent stake in the common shares of the joint venture, with the remaining 20 percent of common shares held by lawyer and advisor William Gibbs McAdoo. The idea for the venture originated with Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford and cowboy star William S. Hart a year earlier. As Hollywood veterans the four talked of forming their own company to better control their own work. They were spurred on by established Hollywood producers and distributors who were tightening their control over actor salaries and creative decisions, a process that evolved into the studio system. With the addition of Griffith, planning began, but Hart bowed out before anything was formalized.

When he heard about their scheme, Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures, apparently said, “The inmates are taking over the asylum”. The four partners, with advice from McAdoo (son-in-law and former Treasury Secretary of then-President Woodrow Wilson), formed their distribution company. Hiram Abrams was its first managing director, and the company established its headquarters at 729 Seventh Avenue in New York City. The original terms called for each of the stars to produce five pictures a year. By the time the company was operational in 1921, feature films were becoming more expensive and polished, and running times had settled at around 90 minutes (eight reels). The original goal was thus abandoned.

UA’s first film, His Majesty, the American, written by and starring Fairbanks, was a success. Funding for movies was limited. Without selling stock to the public, following the other studios, all United had for finance was weekly prepayment installments from theater owners for upcoming movies. As a result, production was slow, and the company distributed an average of only five films a year in its first five years. By 1924, Griffith had dropped out, and the company was facing a crisis; the alternatives were to either bring in others to help support a costly distribution system or concede defeat. Veteran producer Joseph Schenck was hired as president. He had been producing pictures for a decade, and he brought commitments for films starring his wife, Norma Talmadge, his sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge, and his brother-in-law, Buster Keaton. Contracts were signed with independent producers, most notably Samuel Goldwyn, and Howard Hughes. In 1933, Schenck organized a new company with Darryl F. Zanuck, called Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon provided four pictures a year, forming half of UA’s schedule. Schenck formed a separate partnership with Pickford and Chaplin to buy and build theaters under the United Artists name. They began international operations, first in Canada, and then in Mexico. By the end of the 1930s, United Artists was represented in over 40 countries.

Modern Times, starring Chaplin, premiered on this date in 1936. Technically it is a talkie because it has a sound track, but Chaplin’s character is silent. It was written and directed by Chaplin; his iconic Little Tramp character struggles to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and financial conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions created, in Chaplin’s view, by the efficiencies of modern industrialization. The movie stars Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford and Chester Conklin.

During a European tour promoting City Lights, Chaplin got the inspiration for Modern Times from both the lamentable conditions of the continent through the Great Depression, along with a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi in which they discussed modern technology. Chaplin did not understand why Gandhi generally opposed it, though he granted that “machinery with only consideration of profit” had put people out of work and ruined lives.

Chaplin began preparing the film in 1934 as his first “talkie”, and went as far as writing a dialogue script and experimenting with some sound scenes. However, he soon abandoned these attempts and reverted to a silent format with synchronized sound effects and sparse dialogue. The dialogue experiments confirmed his long-standing conviction that the universal appeal of his “Little Tramp” character would be lost if the character ever spoke on screen. Most of the film was shot at “silent speed”, 18 frames per second, which when projected at “sound speed”, 24 frames per second, made the slapstick action appear even more frenetic. Available prints of the film now correct this. The duration of filming was long for the time, beginning on October 11, 1934 and ending on August 30, 1935.

Chaplin’s eating habits are well documented, fortunately. His son wrote:

Besides stewed tripe and onions, he likes lamb stew. Those are two of his three favorite dishes. He dislikes seasoning, never uses sauces or violent condiments and doesn’t care for highly spiced dishes. The one exception is curry, the hotter the better. That’s his third favorite dish. He is utterly inconsistent about eating. Sometimes he will go for twenty-four hours or longer without taking a morsel. Then he’ll eat four or five meals within the next day. He goes on diets but never keeps them up. He went rabidly on a raw vegetable diet for several days. “Look at animals,” he said, “they eat raw vegetables and are healthy. The elephant is the biggest and strongest animal; he eats only vegetables.” That night, Charlie ate two beefsteaks, rare.

Very well, I am partial to tripe too, although the English tripe and onions was the bane of my existence as a boy. If you don’t like tripe, make lamb stew or a curry with rice.  Here’s Mrs Beeton on tripe followed with her onion sauce recipe. If my mother had cooked it this way I might have liked tripe – but I doubt it.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—Tripe, onion sauce, No. 484, milk and water.

Mode.—Ascertain that the tripe is quite fresh, and have it cleaned and dressed. Cut away the coarsest fat, and boil it in equal proportions of milk and water for 3/4 hour. Should the tripe be entirely undressed, more than double that time should be allowed for it. Have ready some onion sauce made by recipe No. 4S4, dish the tripe, smother it with the sauce, and the remainder send to table in a tureen.

Time.—1 hour: for undressed tripe, from 2-1/2 to 3 hours.

Average cost, 7d. per lb.

Seasonable at any time.

Note.—Tripe may be dressed in a variety of ways: it may be cut in pieces and fried in batter, stewed in gravy with mushrooms, or cut into collops, sprinkled with minced onion and savoury herbs, and fried a nice brown in clarified butter.

WHITE ONION SAUCE, for Boiled Rabbits, Roast Shoulder of Mutton, &c.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—9 large onions, or 12 middling-sized ones, 1 pint of melted butter made with milk (No. 380), 1/2 teaspoonful of salt, or rather more.

Mode.—Peel the onions and put them into water to which a little salt has been added, to preserve their whiteness, and let them remain for 1/4 hour. Then put them in a stewpan, cover them with water, and let them boil until tender, and, if the onions should be very strong, change the water after they have been boiling for 1/4 hour. Drain them thoroughly, chop them, and rub them through a tammy or sieve. Make 1 pint of melted butter, by recipe No. 380, and when that boils, put in the onions, with a seasoning of salt; stir it till it simmers, when it will be ready to serve. If these directions are carefully attended to, this onion sauce will be delicious.

Time.—From 3/4 to 1 hour, to boil the onions.

Average cost, 9d. per pint.

Sufficient to serve with a roast shoulder of mutton, or boiled rabbit.

Seasonable from August to March.

Note.—To make this sauce very mild and delicate, use Spanish onions, which can be procured from the beginning of September to Christmas. 2 or 3 tablespoonfuls of cream added just before serving, will be found to improve its appearance very much. Small onions, when very young, may be cooked whole, and served in melted butter. A sieve or tammy should be kept expressly for onions: an old one answers the purpose, as it is liable to retain the flavour and smell, which of course would be excessively disagreeable in delicate preparations.

 

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.