Posted by Susan Doll on June 3, 2013
Recently, I was reminded of the tragic story of an aspiring starlet named Julia Ann Graham. I was visiting family near Sistersville, West Virginia, which was Graham’s hometown. And, while I was there, I caught an episode of the sensationalist but always entertaining Paranormal Witness on the Syfy Channel in which four people claimed to have been terrorized by the ghost of actress Peg Entwistle near the Hollywood sign. Entwistle is infamous for committing suicide by jumping off the letter “H” of the Hollywood sign, because of her supposed failed career. Since then, Peg has come to symbolize the dark side of Hollywood, which can smash the hopes and dreams of aspiring actors and actresses—like those of Julia Ann Graham. While Entwistle has become more famous in death than in life, poor Julia remains completely unknown.
Sistersville was a tiny but thriving hamlet along the Ohio River when Graham was born in 1915. The teenaged Graham, who was christened Juliann after her prominent grandmother, reminded me of those ultra-popular small-town girls who are on every page of the high-school yearbook: She was editor of the school newspaper, art editor of the yearbook, and salutatorian of her graduating class. She also worked in the Sistersville Library, performed in productions in the Little Theater, and sang in the choir at the Presbyterian Church. (The latter became a key detail of her life story used repeatedly to paint a certain image of her.) In her spare time, she watched movies regularly and read the movie fanzines religiously. Graham was a big fish in a little pond when she graduated from high school in 1933, and she must have thought her amateur experiences were enough for her to make it in Hollywood. Or, perhaps she was encouraged by the ads and contests in the fanzines of the time, which enticed hundreds of young girls to come to Hollywood with the promise of a career in the movies. After Christmas, Juliann withdrew her life savings of $200 from the bank and took a bus to California, where she adjusted her name to Julia Ann. It is not hard to guess what was in store for her.
Posted by David Kalat on February 25, 2012
Last week we discussed the way in which the predominant critical attention focused on the “Big Three” of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd has distorted the history of silent comedy and unfairly marginalized the majority of screen comedians of the era—at least we did that in a theoretical sense. Not once in that blog did I ever actually mention one of those marginalized comedians by name, or explain what might make them interesting.
So this week we have a comedian who got his start on Karno’s stage, came to Hollywood to work for Mack Sennett, made the transition from short films to features, was one of Hollywood’s highest paid comedians, and left his mark in some of the most important and beloved classics of silent cinema. And did I mention his name was Chaplin?
Syd Chaplin, that is.
Posted by Moira Finnie on March 24, 2010
Normally, blogs that commemorate a “deathiversary” of a person are anathema to me. Still, when I stumbled across the fact earlier this month that March 10th marked the day that actress Helen Walker died in 1968 at age 47, my attention was drawn to her story. I’ve always been beguiled by the indelible impressions she left on screen in only a handful of performances I’ve seen. Best remembered today for her work in film noirs such as Nightmare Alley (1946-Edmund Goulding), Call Northside 777 (1948-Henry Hathaway), Impact (1949-Arthur Lubin), and The Big Combo (1955-Joseph Lewis), the actress remains a relatively obscure figure, in part because several of her forties’ movies have languished in archives for years, unseen by current classic film fans for some time. Maybe she was just one of hundreds of young women who became a limited-run product off the studio assembly line, but behind those dancing eyes of hers, a person seemed to be at home, projecting a blend of self-mocking bemusement, a kittenish warmth, and later, a chill of knowing recognition in her unsettling, unblinking gaze.
Posted by Susan Doll on January 18, 2010
I am always curious and frequently surprised at which movie stars, films, and Hollywood events survive the decades to become meaningful to modern-day audiences. Despite the efforts of film historians and scholars to discover and research important figures and then explain their contributions to the art and evolution of American cinema, movie buffs tend to uncover their own “significant” stars and stories, latching onto them for reasons that have little to do with the advancement of acting, aesthetics, or technology. Though actress Peg Enwistle is not mentioned in any of my film history books, she has a mighty presence on the Internet and in pop culture, less for her talents as an actress and more for what she represents. After costarring in only one Hollywood film, Entwistle committed suicide by jumping off the “H” in the Hollywood sign. Since then, Peg has come to symbolize the dark side of Hollywood, which can smash the hopes and dreams of aspiring actors and actresses who still flock to the Dream Factory to break into the movies.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 2, 2009
Prior to watching the silent thriller The Bat (1926) a couple of weeks ago at Chicago’s Portage Theater, my only knowledge of the film’s director, Roland West, was his connection to the mysterious death of actress Thelma Todd. West’s involvement with Todd and the link to her death resulted in his withdrawal from Hollywood, meaning his best work was done during the silent era. This factor guarantees his obscurity, at least to contemporary audiences who are loathe to watch black and white films, let alone silent ones. West’s involvement with Todd and her strange, tragic death offer another example of the sad truth that scandal endures longer than accomplishment.
Posted by Moira Finnie on July 15, 2009
I can’t watch Judy Garland.
Well, let me amend that a bit. I can’t watch much of the work of the legendary singer as she evolved over time. Sure, I’ve seen ‘em all at least once: from that surreal Vitaphone short with the toddler with the unlikely name of Frances Gumm dancing for her supper in Bubbles (1930), to her last appearance on film, making Dirk Bogarde a more miserable guy than usual in that creepy slice-of-showbiz-life, I Could Go On Singing (1963). Yet, aside from the glimpses of the sublime in that strange yet touching waltz down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the visit to that fragile, cozy world of a family teetering on the brink of the 20th century in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the sight of this talented little heartbreaker on screen pains me a bit. It’s silly, I know, but seeing her makes me hope that somehow–some sort of retrospective child labor law might save her from all that exploitation of her vulnerable talent. Maybe I ought to turn in my membership card as a classic film fan.
I probably shouldn’t be counted among that army of Garland fans. Hearing her bouncing through a peppy song or achingly wring the unspoken meaning from a ballad is an aural pleasure now and then. However, watching many of her movies leaves me with a queasy feeling, similar to that guilty sensation you get when you drive by a car crash in slow motion, battling the instinct to look as well as to turn away out of respect for those caught up in the overwhelming events and fear of what your eyes might see. As my fellow Morlock RHSmith eloquently outlined here a few weeks ago in his blog on Hollywood’s scandals and audience fixation on them, I would prefer to appreciate this singer’s talent without prying too deeply into her pain, voyeuristically, once again.
I think that this is one reason why I was so surprised to find myself completely enthralled by Presenting Lily Mars (1943) the other day on TCM.
Posted by medusamorlock on March 5, 2009
I’m digging back into my photograph collection for some fascinating shots taken during the second round of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, circa 1951. Pictured below is director Edward Dmytryk, who was jailed as one of the “Hollywood Ten” after he refused to cooperate in the earlier 1947 HUAC proceedings.
Posted by Susan Doll on December 8, 2008
Hollywood — home to the film industry where spoiled stars engage in drug and alcohol benders, host lavish, cash-draining parties, and get away with — murder. Though this may sound like a description of the contemporary Hollywood scene taken straight off the Internet, I am actually referring to the film community of the silent era. Back in the early 1920s, the Film Colony — as it was known then — got away with behavior that makes today’s Hollywood seem like a kindergarten.
The lifestyle and outrageous antics of the “Colony” have always fascinated me. As the film industry rapidly turned Los Angeles into a company town during the 1910s, the business was so new that there were no rules or conventions — either within the business or in the social structure that formed around it. Thus, women could become powerful stars, prominent screenwriters, or important directors; those from the poor or working classes with little or no education could enjoy unlimited wealth and fame if they got the right break; anyone with a shady past could reinvent themselves with a new name and new biography. By the end of WWI, the Colony boasted an oddball assortment of people who would never have been thrown together anywhere else — former vaudevillians, ambitious glamour girls, legitimate actors, ex-cowboys, lost runaways, con artists, and just plain drifters. But, they had in common their fame in the motion picture business.
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