Goodbye to another glorious gal: Barbara Kent

Some years ago, we had the pleasure of viewing Lonesome, a silent-talkie hybrid that was released in 1928. It’s not an easy movie to catch; as far as we know, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, has one of the few extant prints. (Someone seems to have loaded Lonesome up on YouTube, and we suppose that’s better than not seeing it at all, but just barely.)

Lonesome could not be more charming. Its appeal is based in large part on the fact that much of it was filmed on Coney Island, and any glimpse of that magical setting as it was in the 1920s is to be treasured.

But the plot of the picture is engaging, too. It tells the tale of two lonely Manhattanites who experience a chance meeting at Coney Island and go on to spend a magical day together before getting separated that evening, with neither having learned the other’s last name. In a city of millions, will they ever manage to find each other? (If you think we’re going to tell you how it turns out, you can think again. No blabbermouths, we.)

Lonesome was originally released as a silent picture, but with all the fuss over the new sound technology, it was decided to bring back all involved parties to film three scenes with synchronized music and dialogue. So it’s not quite a silent and not quite a talkie.

But it’s certainly delightful, in our opinion, and we encourage you, if you ever have the opportunity, to see it (in a theatre and not streaming online, if at all possible).

But you might well be wondering why we’re mentioning what is today a rather obscure picture now? Well, we’re sad to report that it’s because the movie’s leading lady, Barbara Kent, one of Universal Studios’ original contract stars and the final surviving WAMPAS Baby Star of 1927, died a week ago yesterday at the age of 103.

The Canadian-born Kent (her birthname was Barbara Cloutman) was not, admittedly, the biggest of names, even at the height of her career, but she made her mark, making eight or nine silents before successfully navigating the switch to talking pictures. She made 25 sound movies following her appearance in Lonesome, but retired from acting in 1935.

Among Kent’s most notable films were her screen debut in Flesh and the Devil (1926), with John Gilbert and Greta Garbo; a pair of starring roles opposite Harold Lloyd, in 1929’s Welcome Danger and Feet First a year later; a supporting role in Indiscreet (1931), which starred Gloria Swanson; and Emma, which featured Myrna Loy and Marie Dressler.

In the course of her nine-year career, Kent also worked alongside Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Richard Barthelmess, Edward G. Robinson, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Andy Devine, James Gleason, Ben Lyon, Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery, Victor Jory, Dickie Moore, Monte Blue, Wallace Ford, Ward Bond, Arthur Lake, and Rex the Wonder Horse. That may not qualify as a Hall of Fame roster of co-stars, but many an actress has done worse.

After retiring, Kent refused virtually all interviews about her years in Hollywood—one notable exception was the time she afforded author Michael G. Ankerich, who profiled Kent in The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies—as she settled into a successive pair of happy marriages—first to Harry Edington, a Hollywood agent, whom she wed in 1932, and then, some years after Edington’s death in 1949, she married Jack Monroe, a Lockheed engineer. Aside from evading would-be interviewers, Kent reportedly spent her free time in her golden years as a golfer and a pilot.

For more on Kent’s life and career, give this New York Times obit a look.

Clap hands, here comes Charlie

Usually, when we have occasion to recommend a film festival or other vintage event, the proceedings are taking place in New York City, the home of Cladrite Headquarters, but our recommendation for this Friday and Saturday is directed at those in Southern California.

We’re not the biggest of Charlie Chaplin fans—among the great silent-movie comedians, Buster Keaton stands above all others in our estimation, with Harold Lloyd coming in second. But we’ve enjoyed our share of laughs over the years, courtesy of the Little Tramp, and we certainly acknowledge and respect the key role he plays in cinematic history.

So it’s with pleasure that we inform you that, this weekend, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, the William S. Hart Park and Museum, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the Los Angeles County Department of Parks & Recreation are commemmorating the 75th anniversary of Modern Times, the picture that some say marked the end of the silent era, with a two-day celebration dubbed ChaplinFest.

The Santa Clarita Valley is a fitting site for this event, becuase it was there, on the Sierra Highway near Vasquez Rocks, that Chaplin filmed Modern Times‘ final scene. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall it—the Little Tramp walks off into the distance with Paulette Goddard on his arm.

Chaplin also filmed a scene for The Pilgrim (1923) at the nearby Saugus Train Station, which has been preserved and moved to Heritage Junction park.

ChaplinFest boasts a number of intriguing events over its two days: A screening of Robert Downey Jr.’s biopic Chaplin; a ceremony dedicating a Chaplin monument at William S. Hart Park, with special guests Tippi Hedren and Leonard Maltin; screenings of Modern Times accompanied by artifacts from the movie, including Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” overalls; a book signing withJohn Bengtson, author of Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin; a screening of The Pilgrim at the Heritage Junction Train Station; A rare screening of the recently discovered Keystone comedy A Thief Catcher, with Chaplin as a Keystone Cop, and much more.

If we were within striking distance of Santa Clarita, you can bet we’d be in attendance at ChaplinFest this weekend. Since we’re not, we hope some of our SoCal readers will make it—and perhaps they’ll even send us photos of the event.

Watching the stars come out

We have a grand time when we visit Los Angeles (pronounce it “Angle-eez,” with the hard G, if you please). As movie buffs, we get a kick out of just driving around the various neighborhoods and imagining who once lived in the bungalows we’re passing. Lucille Ball, f’rinstance.

Then there are the more substantial residences that the familiar stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood moved into, once they’d hit it big.

In our several trips to Tinsel Town, we’ve never taken one of the commercial tours of the stars’ homes, but we suspect they tend to focus on the abodes of contemporary stars—Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Justin Bieber—at the expense of the former residences of your Humphrey Bogarts, your Bette Davises, your Una Merkels. And who can blame them? It’s always good policy to give the people what they want, and we who are more interested in seeing where and how the stars of yesteryear lived are undeniably in the minority.

There are guidebooks that provide pointers that allow us to catch a glimpse of where Bogart, Davis, and Merkel lived, worked, and played, of course (we’re partial to Richard Alleman’s Hollywood: The Movie Lover’s Guide: The Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie L.A.), but what if one doesn’t have the wherewithal (or accrued vacation days) to to arrange a Southern California sojorn?

In that case, one turns, as one tends to do these days, to the internet—specifically to and their collection of vintage linen postcards that depict the residences of those performers who made our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents laugh, cry and tap their toes (though not simultaneously).

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’
home, Pickfair
Jean Harlow’s Beverily Hills residence Claudette Colbert’s hilltop residence
in Hollywood

At this delightful site, one can gaze upon a palatial Hancock Park home while imagining Buster Keaton stepping out to pick up the morning paper, compare contrast two of Groucho Marx‘s Beverly Hills homes, and kill two birds with one stone as you assess the love nest once blissfully shared by a pair of stars who were married once upon a time, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell.

And the list goes on—Myrna Loy, Harold Lloyd, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck; one could grow breathless reciting them. All the cards, from A to Z (well, A to Y—Loretta Young is the last star on the list) are in terrific shape and lovingly presented. We encourage all our readers to experience a little California sunshine by spending some time there.

Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 5

In Chapter Five of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy discusses showmanship and his limited use of it.

He also goes out of his way to poo-poo phonograph records, which he insists few people cared to listen to because there was no visual element to the experience, and predicts that television (kind of cool, no, that he was making predictions about the impact of television in 1930?) will quickly outpace radio for the same reason: visual stimulation.

Chapter V


THE TERM showmanship is generally used with reference to someone in the theatrical or musical world but it is evident in practically every walk of life. The drugstore clerk who juggles the drinks, pouring the liquid from one glass high up to another glass lower down, is really showman. While he is trying to impress you with his cleverness he also makes the drink seem more attractive, or something that you are lucky to get if he juggles it right. Whenever someone tries, by exhibiting much physical activity, to attract attention and to captivate the admiration of others, this is showmanship; this is based on one positive fact: that the eye is about four times more efficient than the ear as a gateway to attention, memory and interest.

You have only to realize that the silent movie has been successful for many years, in fact has paid for the cathedrals that now show talking pictures, to understand the importance of satisfying the eye.
That is the reason so few people enjoy phonograph records; in fact it is really only orchestra and band musicians who are studying the parts and have only ear interest to be satisfied, that can sit and listen with complete attention to phonograph records.
This is one of the reasons that the makers of radio programs have the devil’s own time to keep the interest of their listeners: because there is no band or speaker to see, attention lags if the program becomes at all dull. Unquestionably television will add greatly to the attraction of the radio, because people must see that which is giving them something for the ear. That is why an attractive vocalist, either man or woman, with beauty of face or figure or eccentricity of pose and delivery will be twice as successful as a homely one with twice the vocal or speech-making ability.
Ted Lewis, to my mind, is the greatest showman in the theatrical game. He will tell you himself that from the standards of artistry he is not a great saxophonist or clarinetist, nor does he claim to have a beautiful voice. But he holds me and thousands of others actually spellbound by his inimitable wizardry of presentation. No one could sell his band, his number or himself in quite the same way as this magical fun-maker can. It is hard to say just what feature or features are most responsible for his success; perhaps it is just his joviality, or the pathos of his voice, or the fact that he is always on the move, juggling his hat and cane, and injecting into his act little comedy bits and byplays with the members of his orchestra. He has made a fortune and he can thank one thing, the fact that he was born with more sense of showmanship than a score of average men would have. I can think of dozens of others but none of them so well-known and quite so clearly a good example as the high-hatted tragedian of song.
Sometimes showmanship is used as a cloak to prevent the exposé of a great weakness. Many a trombonist, whose lips cannot produce the tone, makes up for the lack of what should be coming out of the end of the horn in actual music, by grandiose motions of his arm as he moves the slide, thereby earning the title among musicians of “Joe Motion,” meaning that he is only good for motion to conceal the fact that he is really unable to play his instrument. Likewise many another instrumentalist has secured an engagement and become a big hit in the eyes of his public by elaborate, graceful or even awkward motions and contortions that so catch and impress the eye that his weak musical delivery is forgotten. You yourself can probably recall the obvious and concrete example of the beautiful girl with no voice who becomes a tremendous sensation, or at least very popular, in musical comedy, admittedly due to the silent showmanship of the beauty.
I suppose the same trick of delighting the eye is responsible for the great popularity that eccentric dancing, of the type that one sees between the episodes of a musical comedy, is so popular. There is nothing that will bring great applause so completely as a dancer who knows some odd and hard steps. The eye seems to be so impressed with the unusual physical exertion that the hands feel they must applaud loudly.

Read More »