Friday, August 28, 2015

Lost Film Photo: Louise Brooks in Now We’re in the Air

Louise Brooks as one half of a pair of twins in Now We're in the Air.

Almost half of Louise Brooks’ silent films are lost—a fact that is often overlooked due to the existence of two of her strongest films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Among the lost films is Now We're in the Air, a 1927 comedy with Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton. Brooks made four films in 1927—including Rolled Stockings—none of which survive. What makes the loss of this one particularly hard to swallow is the fact that Brooks played two roles: twin sisters Grisette and Griselle. Raised apart in France and Germany, the sisters have different allegiances in the World War I flick. While reviews were tepid, most anyone would agree that the only thing better than Louse Brooks would be two of her.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Phyllis Gordon: The First Movie Werewolf

Lost films are fascinating by their very nature, and the fragments of stories that they’ve left behind are haunting. One of the reasons I’m drawn to lost horror films in particular is the loss of so many firsts: the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, for example, and film’s first Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first film appearance of Dracula, the first Phantom of the Opera, and the first mummy film are also lost.

One of the early horror films whose loss I most lament is 1913’s The Werewolf, and not just because it was the first werewolf film ever made, but because the werewolf is a woman. Let that sink in for a moment: the first movie werewolf was a woman. It’s a fact that few people are aware of, thanks to the fact that the film has been lost for almost a hundred years (like the vast majority of silent films).

Gordon played ingenue roles in almost fifty silent-era films, most of which are lost, but you can still see her today in a small role as a housekeeper in Another Thin Man (1939). She’s fifty years old by then, and she may have seemed like housekeeper material to studio execs, but she was still quite the glamourpuss in real life, and the photograph of her walking her pet cheetah on a downtown London street often makes the rounds on the internet. Few who post it seem to know that the photograph is of Phyllis Gordon, and that she was once a silent movie actress. Even fewer know that she originated the character of the movie werewolf.

Phyllis Gordon walking her pet cheetah in 1939.

In 1913, she was 24 years old and at the height of her acting career when Bison Films cast her in The Werewolf. Gordon plays Watuma, a Native American woman who shapeshifts into a wolf to fight off invading white settlers in the two-reel movie. What we know about the film comes mainly from brief reviews and synopses in silent film magazines, such as this one from Universal Weekly:

“The play opens in pioneer days. Kee-On-Ee, an Indian maiden is married to Ezra Vance, a trail blazer. When her child is five years old, Kee-On-Ee is driven back to her tribe by Ezra’s brother, who scorns all squaws. Ezra is killed by an old enemy and Kee-On-Ee, thinking his failure to return to her to be indifference, brings up her child, Watuma, to hate all white men.

When the child is grown, Clifford and a party of prospectors appear. Kee-On-Ee, now a hag, sees her way to be revenged. She sends her daughter to Clifford’s camp and he is driven nigh mad by her beauty. Clifford finds her in the arms of a young Indian. She taunts him. Enraged beyond control, Clifford shoots the buck. He flees to the mission. Watuma leads the enraged Indians against the Friars. When one of them raises a cross, Watuma slowly dissolves into a slinking wolf.

A hundred years later, Clifford, now reincarnated in the form of Jack Ford, a miner, receives a visit from his sweetheart, Margaret. Hunting with her he comes upon a wolf which he is unable to shoot. The wolf dissolves into the woman of old, and there appears before his puzzled eyes the scene where he slew the Brave. The “Wolf-woman” would caress him, but he throws her off. She returns again as the wolf and kills his sweetheart. Clifford’s punishment for the deed of past life is made complete at the death of the one he loved.”

Phyllis Gordon as Watuma, the "wolf-woman" who seeks vengeance by shapeshifting into a wolf.

It would be almost twenty more years before a film featured a female monster that anyone still really remembers—The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s worth noting that Bison Films was a brand of Universal Studios, which means that Phyllis Gordon was not only the first film werewolf, but may technically have played the first Universal Monster.

What makes the loss of this film even more poignant to me is how much its existence, if it had stuck around, could have changed the very idea of film werewolves. The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London established the rules of werewolf movies for decades to come, but how would those rules have been different if The Werewolf had stuck around? Would werewolves be thought of as female monsters? Would the long-established trope of male-as-monster and female-as-victim be inverted?

We might know the answers to these questions if Universal hadn’t destroyed its silent film collection in 1948. While many silent films were lost to fire, just as many were lost due to intentional destruction, as studios thought they were too worthless to store. Perhaps Watuma should have set her werewolf sights on thoughtless studio executives as well.

I’ll be expanding on the story of film’s first werewolf in my upcoming book on lost horror films, along with many other stories of long-lost films. Subscribe to Film Dirt (several options on the right), and/or follow on Facebook for more forgotten film stories.

This post was written as part of the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. You can read the rest of the entries by clicking the image below.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

That Time a Guy Mailed Himself in a Box to Try to Break Into Movies

One of the perks of film research is noticing stories in old newspapers and magazines that turn out to be more interesting than what I was looking up in the first place. That’s the case with Charles Loeb, who put one of my deadlines in jeopardy when I first saw him mentioned in a 1929 news article.

Loeb, it seems, shipped himself from Chicago all the way to Culver City, CA in a coffin-like wooden box. His goal: to pop out of the box at Pathé studios and win his way into a movie career. What could possibly go wrong?

From The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 6, 1929.

Newspaper accounts refer to Loeb as “a German comedian,” though I can’t find any mention of him prior to his stunt. Comedian or not, he certainly blew his punch line—ending up jailed and almost dead. His story was picked up by the Associated Press, so versions of it appeared in newspapers all over the country in June of 1929. The AP reported:

An unusual way to get past the guards of a motion picture studio for a chance to “break into the game” may cost Charles Loeb, German comedian, his life. The actor had himself expressed from Chicago in a coffin upon which appeared the label, “Statue—handle with care—value $500.”

Loeb went three days without water or food and today was in a critical condition.

A baggage attendant called police when he heard strange noises coming from the box. The coffin was opened and Loeb taken to the jail hospital. Inside the box a note addressed to the studio casting director was found. It said: “I’ve tried to see you again and again but your trusted guardians always barred my way. This little trip will demonstrate what I think of a chance to show my wares—give me a chance.”

Physicians said he would recover.

The United Press dug deeper into the story and filled in some details, including the information that Loeb was dressed to perform, wearing checkered trousers, a stiff collar, a derby hat, and soft-soled shoes. He had rouged his cheeks, and apparently rigged a makeup mirror and a flashlight so that he could make a last-minute check before what he thought would be his grand debut in front of the casting director.

Alas, he worried about his makeup more than food and water, and he drank what little water he’d brought by the end of the first day. He was severely dehydrated by the time he was found. Loeb may have considered it worth it, as director Charles Richards visited him in jail, and one newspaper account says he was promised a small part. It’s unlikely the promise, if it even happened, came to be fulfilled, and the visit was likely a publicity stunt on Richards’ own part. 

Loeb's coffin design gained him a mention in the "Inventions" section of Modern Mechanics magazine.

The last mention of Loeb appears in a Wisconsin newspaper a few years later, as a guest on a radio show. He’s referred to as “Charles Loeb, who shipped himself to Hollywood from Ohio in a trunk” rather than as a comedian or actor, so it’s pretty clear that the stunt was his only claim to fame, even after the passing of time.

It’s unknown what ultimately became of him, but I like to think he found a job in shipping.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Newsreel: Recent News in Silent Film and Lost Film

It’s strange to consider that there can be recent news about films that are sometimes one hundred years old, but there often is. With so many films lost, and so much of film history nearly forgotten, there’s a lot of information lying under the surface, just waiting to be illuminated. Now and then, something shines.

Here are a few recent news items of interest to silent film fans:

Marion Davies in The Cardboard Lover, recently found at a UK dump.

A UK couple found a pile of 16mm and 35mm films at the dump, including The Cardboard Lover-—only one heavily-damaged copy of which was known to exist prior to the find. The found films date back to as early as 1909, and will be loaned to the British Film Institute for proper preservation. The Daily Mail

As if it’s not bad enough that so many of F. W. Murnau’s films are lost, someone has stolen the director’s head. Grave robbers in Stahnsdorf, Germany pried open the metal coffin where Murnau has been resting in a family plot since 1931. Variety

In further Murnau news—and whether it’s good or bad news might be arguable—silent classic Nosferatu is getting another remake. Robert Eggers, who recently won the Sundance directing prize for Witch is writing and directing. Deadline

The plaster Sphinx from DeMille’s Ten Commandments was literally excavated from the dunes of Guadalupe, California last year, and its restoration is finally complete. The Sphinx is now on display at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center  as part of an exhibit. LiveScience

While not breaking news, here are some recent articles and reviews related to early film, all of them worth some attention:

  • A lovely article about the hand-coloring of early film, going back to the 1890s. Nautilus
  • Video and article about the largely-forgotten Louis Le Prince, who beat both Edison and the Lumières to filmmaking, then mysteriously disappeared. CBS
  • A particularly nice list of the 100 best silent films, favoring films that are not merely influential or of historical interest. The result is a list of films that are highly watchable. Paste
  • A brief, but worthwhile, review of 1929’s Man With a Movie Camera, re-released and screening in UK theaters during August. The Guardian

Have you seen an item of interest in the news related to early film? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it to the next newsreel.