Happy Birthday, Janet Gaynor!

Janet Gaynor, born Laura Gainor 109 years today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is not as well remembered today as she should be. (Yes, we old movie buffs know her and love her, but the general public has largely forgotten her.)

There were few bigger stars in 1920s and early ’30s, and her screen partnership with Charles Farrell had fans dreaming that he’d leave his wife for her.

Janet Gaynor made any number of terrific films, but our two favorites are F. W. Murnau‘s silent masterpiece, Sunrise (1927), and the first A Star Is Born (1937), directed by the great William Wellman (A Star Is Born can be viewed for free by Amazon Prime members).

A few TV appearances aside, Janet Gaynor retired in 1938, but she left an indelible mark on the motion picture industry (she won the very first Best Actress Oscar on May 16, 1929, about which she said, “Naturally, I was thrilled, but being the first year, the Academy Awards had no background or tradition, and it naturally didn’t mean what it does now. Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I’m sure I’d have been overwhelmed. At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks.”

Here’s wishing you a happy birthday, Ms. Gaynor, wherever you may be.

Janet Gaynor quote

Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Five

The fifth chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood (but actually ghost-written for Sylvia by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker), tells what happens when Sylvia signs an exclusive contract with actress Mary Duncan and gets on the wrong side of director F. W. Murnau.


Mary DuncanWhen Mary Duncan came along in 1928 and wanted to sign up for Sylvia’s exclusive services for a half-year, we were all against it—except Sylvia herself. A contract to massage anyone morning, noon, and night is worse than getting married. After all, a woman’s husband can get away from her some of the time. But a woman’s personal masseuse dresses her, undresses her, soothes her to sleep, spanks her awake, and (if the contract includes dietary work, as with Mary Duncan it did) watches every bite of food that goes down her throat three times a day.
I always figured that the real trouble between Mae Murray and the boss was that everlasting intimacy. They were bound to get sick of the sight of each other. It’s bad enough, in this massage business, to have to see the world without shirt and without manners. The only thing that makes it bearable is the variety when the practice is general and consists of a dozen different patients a day.
All of which I said to Sylvia, and much more—but you can’t do anything with a Norwegian.
The opposition, which was giving Sylvia the arguments why she should take up Mary Duncan’s offer, was represented by Sophie Wachner, the dress designer at Fox Studios, where Miss Duncan was starring. Miss Wachner had her own reasons for wanting Sylvia to go to work on Duncan.
“I can’t fit dresses to Mary any more on account of her hips,” was the way Miss Wachner put it up to Sylvia. “So, do a fellow a favor, Sylvia, and fit Mary to the gowns.”
It was a rush job. They were starting to shoot the silent picture called “Our Daily Bread.” The great German director Murnau was in charge, and Mary Duncan was doing the rôle of a city girl who marries a farmer and gets all messed up in some labor troubles about farm hands having nothing to look at but miles and miles of Oregon wheatfields—and you can’t blame them, not after you’ve been on location in those same wheatfields for over a month. You never saw the picture? Sure you didn’t. It was one of the last silents and it was finished just in time to get tossed into the wastebasket on account of the sound screen coming in.
Sylvia had a small part of the blame for the trouble Fox had with that picture. But that’s part of the story.
Well, Sylvia went over to the Fox Studios and though she promised not to commit herself before she left, we all knew that she was crazy to go on location with Mary Duncan and we weren’t surprised when she came home looking sheepish and with an ink stain on her finger, where she had held the pen that signed the contract.
It seems that Sophie Wachner did a job on Sylvia as soon as she get on the Fox lot. Took her into the wardrobe department and showed her the dresses Mary Duncan was wearing in the opening shots, which they had been doing in the studio. Well, Mary Duncan had been putting on an inch a day around the middle, and those dresses had been let out until the waistlines were as full of V’s as a backgammon board. Sophie Wachner was at her wits’ ends, and was tearing her hair.
In her dressing room, Mary Duncan was another picture of woe—and a reasonably attractive one. From any average point of view, there was nothing at all the matter with the girl. But the camera’s is not the average point of view. Somehow, a lens always adds ten or twenty pounds to the truth. The result is that the movie girls have to be actually underweight—considerably so. On the other hand, they mustn’t show bones. So the type that is most readily selected for film work is the small-boned girl, short of stature, on whose underlying skeleton even a small amount of meat looks like a nice job of padding. And the small-boned short girl is the very type most prone to develop along the lines called buxom. Mary Miles Minter, whose misfortunes caused her to let go and become what nature willed, has turned out now a plump and roundish little person—typically the figure that the majority of Hollywood girls would be but for strenuous battling against the tendencies of nature.
So Mary Duncan was in nothing worse than blooming health—and yet the Fox people were frantic.

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In Your Hat, pt. 12

In Chapter 12 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she reveals what various celebrities wrote in her collection of autograph books, and she follows that with tales of what the stars of the day liked to eat when they patronized Sardi’s.

If you took a rabbit out of those suckers’ hats
They would squawk just the same:
They all have two strikes on them
When they are born.


THAT’S an autograph left in my book by Tex. I’m not quite clear as to its meaning, and I don’t think she is either. But vaguely, it’s Broadway’s philosophy. If somebody pats you on the back, he’s only locating a spot for the knife thrust. If you give a sucker a break, he’s liable to shove his hand in and rip it apart.
Of course, all this is only sentimental hooey, and the boys and girls on Broadway are just as maudlin about one another as boys in an English boarding school. They all want to appear like awful, terrible “bad mans” with no hearts at all. The visage is stern, but the head and heart are made of mush, and it oozes through your fingers when you squeeze it.
I’ve got three books full of autographs. Perhaps a glance at some of them might throw an interesting light on the writers. I particularly like that of Frances Williams, whose cheeriness and glibness is not limited to her appeareances on the stage.

“May every hat check bring you a fat check—and may no meanie neglect my Renee—who never wrecks hats each time she checks hats—Frances Williams.”

Most of the celebrities pore over the book, seeking inspiration in the lines already written. Very few show any originality at all. Al Jolson, in one of his brighter moments, scribbled:

“Oh, look, I am in your book—thanks for letting me.”

And Louis Sobol, the Journal‘s columnist, wrote:

“To Renee, who expects something clever from me but won’t get it.”

Russell Patterson, the artist, who very rarely wears a hat, said as much, regretfully, with:

“To Renee, from her worst customer.”

Tony Canzoneri, the prize fighter, dragged his trade in by the teeth when he inscribed:

“To a real and sweet girl, with loads of knockouts.
                                           Tony Canzoneri,
                   Lightweight Champion of the World.”

The professional gate crasher, Tammany Young, waxed philosophical and wrote:

“To Renee—
   “Who takes what you give graciously. All life is a game of give and take. For what she takes she gives in a return a smile, a cheerful greeting and your belongings. May you go a long ways and prosper. Keep smiling Renee, it’s what we all go for.”

I think George Jessel‘s autograph amusing:

“To Renee—
            Duchess of Sardi,
               Baron George Jessel,
               Colonel of the Bronx Grenadiers
               And Vis-count of Brownsville.”

Sidney Skolsky, the paragrapher, gave me away with:

“You’ll always be Miss Shapiro to me—one of my best yarns. Sidney Skolsky
               P.S. She sleeps in the raw!”

If you can remember Herbert Rawlinson, you’ll remember his signature, too:

“My hat’s off to you. (Get it?) Je parle français aussi. (I hope that’s right).”

And Jesse Crawford noted:

“My autograph I here inscribe,
A member of the organ tribe
               Jesse Crawford,
               Poet (?) of the Organ.”

The little movie star, Marian Marsh, gave me a a straight tip with:

“Keep your face towards the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.”

And Reri who starred in F.W. Murnau‘s Tabu and was brought to American by Ziegfeld, wrote in the only language she knew:

“A mon amie Renee en souvenir des Ziegfeld Follies 1931.”

I offer the inscription of Sam Shipman, the playwright, because it is more or less typical of Broadway sentiment and ways of thinking:

“A hat girl who has more in her head than all the brains those hats cover. A little princess on a door mat—An oriental pearl in a suffocating shell—a ruby in a musty purse, but watch her.”

And Everett Marshall, the lusty-voiced baritone, dropped this:

“To Renee. In memory of my first daughter of four kilos.”

While Faith Baldwin, the author of Self Made Woman, wrote simply:

“Because I like red-heads.”

I’ve got lots of drawings, too, by famous artists, all of them too risqué for reproduction, and in some cases too combustible for safekeeping. Some of our best known illustrators have garnished the pages of my little books with drawings that would make those paintings on the bathroom walls of old Pompeii quiver with shame.
But not all the good things happen in autograph books or at penthouse parties. I have a lot of laughs right in the restaurant.

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Better late than never

Though they’ve understandably slipped out of the spotlight, silent movies still inspire fascination and devotion among cineastes and good old-fashioned movie buffs. Turner Classic Movies devotes the midnight timeslot to silents every Sunday night, and museums and revival houses across the country still screen silent classics, often with live accompaniment by pianists and small musical combos.

We’re convinced that one of the reasons Ms. Cladrite fell for us was the eight consecutive Mondays we spent laughing our heads off during a Buster Keaton festival at New York’s Film Forum. There’s nothing like seeing a great silent movie in packed house with adept accompaniment provided by a deft pianist (Steve Sterner, in this case).

There was little in the way of film criticism in the silent era, so to a large degree it fell to later critics and film scholars to keep alive the discussion and scholarship surrounding these movies. One of the key figures in silents criticism was H.A.V. Bulleid, an English writer who was still with us until about ten months ago.

Bulleid’s key work of film criticism, Famous Library Films, never saw the light of day (or, rather, the ink of print). Comprising reviews of silent movies written in the early 1940s for Amateur Cine World, Famous Library Films was to be published in book form in 1947, but the publisher fell prey to the still-struggling postwar economy in England, and Bulleid was forced to shelve the project.

But finally, more than sixty years later, Bulleid’s not-quite-forgotten collection is finally being made available to the public, free of charge, at SilentsAreGolden.com. Included is a previously unpublished preface written for the book’s planned 1947 edition by director Fritz Lang and a contemporary introduction provided by esteemed silent film scholar Kevin Brownlow.

Among the twenty-three pictures Bulleid critiques in the book are Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin, the German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Piccadilly starring Anna May Wong, Lang’s own Metropolis (too bad Bulleid didn’t live long enough to see the recent restoration of this classic), and F. W. Murnau‘s Faust.