Early movies had no real story, no stars, and no sound.
A popular movie in the 1890's was about two girls
getting undressed by the lake. Right before their last
garment came off, a train came by to block your view. In
the next scene the girls were already swimmimg in the lake.
That film was a hit throuhgout the country.
One old farmer went and saw this same movie for weeks and
weeks. One day the theater manager came down and said:
"Say old timer, every day we show the same film with the
girls, the trains, and the lake and every day you keep coming back."
"Well Sonny" answered the farmer, "one of these days I'm
hoping the train will be late."
Many of the early film actors were quite content to stay
anonymous, reasoning that the new flickers were a novelty
and would damage their reputation on the 'legitimate' stage.
They were often expected to work all day long. Their duties
included hammering nails, painting the set, picking up trash,
and lifting heavy equipment. There were no trailers or perks,
no glamour nor big houses. A casting director might meet a
newspaper boy on the street and hire him as an actor for five
dollars a day. Ladies of the evening were often hired simply
because they provided their own wardrobes.
Not knowing their real names, the moviemakers going public
would give their favorite actors' nicknames, such as 'The Waif'
or 'The Cowboy'. The growing curiousity surrounding their
identities led to the birth of movie fan magazines such as
'Photoplay 1909'. But fearing that the players would demand
huge salaries, the moviemakers refused to release their names.
One of the most prominent movie theater owners was a former
clothing store manager from Oshkosh Winsconsin named Carl
Laemmle, the eventual founder of Universal Studios. By 1909
decided he was sick of buying movies from Thomas Edison and
had to make his own. Laemmle would listen each night, as his
patrons would leave; They would excitedly discuss the actors
on the screen. Laemmle decided that if he was going to produce
his own pictures, he would sell them by creating a star.
He wasted no time in hiring a twenty-year-old actress
named Florence Lawrence known as the 'Biograph Girl' after the
studio she had worked for. One tale had the four-foot Laemmle
conducting a midnight raid of Biograph, where he carried his
new star away over his shoulder. He then announced her real
name and the 250 dollar per week salary to the new fan
magazines. He then arranged for her to mysteriously disappear.
"My competitors will stop at nothing to ruin me. They've
kidnapped poor Florence, perhaps even killed her!" he told
For the next few weeks, americans followed the saga in the
newspapers, there were several false reports of foul play. One
account had Florence killed by a streetcar. Then, as pre-
arranged by Carl Laemmle, Florence "miracously" resurfaced
in St.Louis where she was mobbed, her clothes ripped off by
hired fans. And so Florence Lawrence gained a huge following.
Movies with her name on the marquee started selling like hotcakes.
A few years later she was working on a film when a fire broke
out on the set. Young Florence courageously risked her life to
save her fellow actors and the incident left her temporarily
paralyzed. By the time she recovered no one would hire her.
But although she ended up in obscurity, Florence was the first Movie Star.
In the early days of Hollywood, for studios like Universal,
Westerns were the easiest films to make. They required very
few props and made use of the wide-open spaces available in
Hollywood. Even the smallest studio, sometimes an empty space
between two buildings, known as a lot, could easily be the
stage for filming. It was a cheap and effective way to involve
the audience in wild chase scenes involving pure heros like
the white clad Tom Mix going after dastardly villains. One
time a theater was showing a western, when the film suddenly
broke right at the climactic scene, an emotional audience
member yelled out, "Hurry up and fix it before they get away!"
The master of the Westerns was John Ford, who felt
that the genre was the purest form of movie making. In 1959
he and John Wayne went to their regular spot at the
monument valley in Utah to make the powerful chase
movie 'The Searchers'. Location shooting allowed the
two old friends to relax by camping out, playing cards
and generally staying away from the studio executives
that Ford despised. The only problem was the unpredictable
weather which could delay the filming. Ford turned to a
local medicine man: "Sir, I will pay one hundred dollars
if you can accurately predict the weather." The Shaman shut
his eyes, went into a trance, and said, "rain!" Sure enough
it did rain. The grateful director asked him to repeat his
efforts the next day. "Mmm, cloudy!" Again success. But on
the third day when asked, the medicine man shook his head
sadly and said, "Can not tell weather today." Ford's pipe
fell out of his mouth. "Really, why is that?" "..Transistor
Ford's relationship with the Navajo in Utah was usually
cooperative. He would offer them parts in films and generally
provided a welcome boon to a depressed economy. In 1948 he
hired some of the locals to create smoke signals for another
Wayne western called Fort Apache.
Hollywood was an attractive place for the filmmakers to settle,
full of good weather, orange trees, and pepper trees. Producers
who owed money on borrowed camera equipment could hide
behind a tree when a creditor came for payment. It was a harsh
and rough business and required a pirate's mentality to survive.
Most of the studio heads came from poor communities or
backgrounds with limited English skills. Among the more famous
were the four Warner Brothers from Youngstown, Ohio. Jack,
Harry, Albert and Sam. They begun with showing movies off the
side of a tent in Youngstown, borrowing all the chairs from the
local undertaker. Every time there was a funeral in Youngstown,
they had to give all the chairs back and everyone had
to watch the movie standing up.
Jack Warner wished to become a singer and a comedian. His
brothers, recognizing his lack of talent would have him sing
in the tent whenever they wanted the patrons to leave. He was
later advised that the money was not in performing, but in
paying the performers. Among the stars that would later work
for him were Bette Davis, James Cagney, Humphery Bogart,
and Errol Flynn.
The silent days were a struggle for Warner Bros. Rin Tin Tin,
a German Shepherd, that supposedly was born in a foxhole
during World War II, was their biggest star. Heroic as he might
have been on the screen, he proved, like many stars, very
uneasy in person. Jack Warner took the dog on a publicity tour.
As he introduced him to the crowd, the 'ungrateful employee' had
bit his boss on the behind. This had proved to be a prelude to
Warner's numerous future battles with the stars.
Trying to make a name for themselves, without their dog star,
the four brothers achieved great publicity by announcing that
the great opera tenor Caruso would be arriving from Italy to
make a film for them. They paid him 25,000 dollars and then
gave him a silent movie role.
THE INTRODUCTION OF SOUND . . .
The movie studios had the technology to make 'talking films'
years before they actually made them. One of the reasons why
they did not make use of it right away was that they didn't risk
losing their overseas market. Stars like Charlie Chaplin,
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford rarely had flopped as
their films were shown around the world and knew no language
But in 1926 the silent films faced their biggest competition with
a new device called the radio. As the movie attendance dwindled,
the studio heads shut their eyes and pretended the radio was
not there. But the Warners, lead by the eldest, Sam, decided
to push the envelope and try to save their sinking studio by
experimenting with movie-sound.
Sam purchased an experimental sound system 'Vita-phone'.
They then acquired the rights to a Broadway play, 'The Jazz
Singer', about a young man who had a beautiful voice and was
offered a Broadway career against the wishes of his Old World
Jewish father. In the play, the son would follow his father's
wishes; But the Warners, wishing to reach a wider audience,
Americanized the story by having the young man reject his
father's wishes and follow his own dreams.
Star Al Jolson (Aysa Yolson), in order to give his character
authenticity, covered his face with shoe-polish to appear as
the black performers & musicians of that era. Al Jolson
improvised and used the phrase 'You ain't heard nothing
yet!' The Warners intended to allow only singing; But
at the last minute they decided to keep the line in the
film. (To become the first spoken sentence) The Jazz Singer
received a standing ovation when it premiered in New York;
It went on to make three and a half million dollars and
revolutionized the film business. (to be continued...)