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Saturday, 17th May 2008
A star is born

F rom one extreme to another.

Perhaps there is some truth in astrology afterall. March was a very poor month for the film stars appearing on cigarette cards but April brings a bumper crop of the chaps. Lets get stuck straight in.

Marlon Brando
It might just be possible to date acting as pre-Brando and post-Brando. A man of great ability even if he does not actually like the art of acting a fat lot. Great in theatre he never really returned to those roots. To the present generation he is just a fat old man with a troublesome family who seems to get paid far too much for doing far to little (Superman comes to mind where he had to have been miscast anyway).

The early days were different, performances were electrifying when he was at his morose mumbling best as a failed something or other usually getting brutally beaten in the last scene.

His first film, 'The Men' sees him stuck in a wheelchair but still able to portray brooding power which cuts through some pretty mediocre material and makes it well worth watching.

Possibly no big surprise the trade set he appears in is dated 1955 a year after the film On the Waterfront was made. Watch the film again and here all that special pleading for the informers. Schulberg (writer) and Kazan (Director) having named names in the McCarthy witchhunt.

The late 60's were not good for Brando. He ended up in a lot of rubbish (you can read about a rubbish projects later on this page). All was about to be forgiven with his performance in The Godfather, a part he appeared built to play on screen which if half the tales of pre-production are true was definitely in doubt up to the point the film rolled.

In 1994 he published his autobiography which was interesting in its mean spirit and vanity.

In many ways Brando was a contender.

Cereal Foods Popular Film Stars [1955]

Doris Day
Doris von Kappelhoff

Makes you realize just how many surnames have disappeared over the years in the name of art.

The card was issued in the same year as Marlon Brando's. I never thought there would be a connection between these two people. I am not a fan of Day. There are a great many stars I would press the remote control to avoid and there are a good many I would actually still avoid if it meant getting up and changing channels half asleep. Doris Day would be in the top dozen. I don't like musicals so we are off to a bad start as Day was best when singing in her films, which is not surprising as that was what she did before being roped into the film industry.

There is no harm in the wholesome, chaste, airhead, blonde character but to make a career of it and then inflict it on the viewing public time and again is a bit much.

Kane Film Stars [1955]

Walter Huston
Walter Houghston (1884-1950)

Father of an film dynasty he came late to the party which is films. Mind you if you are born in 1884 it is a fair bet you are going to have to wait a bit to get into films.

He trained as an engineer, went into vaudeville and eventually into the theatre which he never really gave up.

It was the coming of sound which meant Hollywood suddenly needed people that could speak English, and well, given the limitations of sound reproduction at the time.

All this meant he was 46 before appearing on film. He was never the star and although his acting style was very self-contained he never quiet had that spark which was going to get his name write large on the posters.

Character parts are where you will find him on your screens today. He is the fellow that staggers into Sam Spades office with a bundle and dies (the Maltese Falcon being the first film his son directed).

He is the father in Yankee Doodle Dandy and the preacher in Duel in the Sun [1946].

He also appeared in his sons film, 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre [1949] in one of his last film appearances.

And before you start shaking your head muttering (Marlon mumble maybe?) about jobs for the boys etc, Walter won an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

You can mutter about how these awards are handed out now.

As something which might be of interest in one of John Huston last films Prizzi's Honor (1985) John's daughter won an Academy award for best supporting actress. There seems to be some sort completion in that.

Godfrey Phillips Characters come to life (1938)
Sarony Cinema Stars (50) (1933)
United Kingdom Tobacco Company Ltd: Cinema Stars [1934]

Mary Pickford

If acting could be divided as pre and post Brando you could almost suggest the film industry can be divided into pre and post Pickford.

The only problem being there was hardly a film industry pre Pickford.

Known as America's sweetheart the publicity department finally got around to claiming she was the world's sweetheart.

That is as maybe. In 1923 she was 30 and a poll came back suggesting the paying public only really wanted to see her playing the role of girl rather than woman.

Certainly there is always a difficulty of a younger actress / actor crossing that gap and being allowed to grow up by an audience.

She was Hollywood royalty and the first of its example. By 1916 she had elevated her pay check from the $500 per week she was getting in 1913, to $10,000 per week, a figure which continued to increase.

When she married Fairbanks, after the breakdown of her first marriage, they were the undisputed King and Queen of Hollywood. This represented the turning point of 1919.

The world might well have enjoyed her acting ability but it really was because of a first class business brain she did so well.

She was the brains behind the early United Artists which she had set up along with her husband and Chaplin to enable them to distribute their own films, and that of independents.

She did make movies in sound but it was really not to be. The roles the public wanted to see her in were becoming increasingly unlikely as she grew older. There is the fact she was basically running a business empire, her marriage was not going as smoothly as she might have wished and sound was not really her medium.

A good many pre-sound actors had developed a style which was like an overacting mime artist which did not suit the new technologies.

In 1953 she and Chaplin sold their United Artists shares. Chaplin contending they had been offered a better price earlier but she had not wished to wait 2 years for $7 million.

Godfrey Phillips Cinema Stars (circular) (1929)
Ardath Scenes from big films
Edwards Ringer and Bigg Cinema Stars
Major Drapkin Cinematograph Actors (1913)

Sonja Henie
(1912-1969) b Oslo, Norway

Sonja Henie had a lot of good things to say, usually about herself and she said them in her autobiography, 'Wings on my feet.'

Her brother wrote a rather different book which painted her as an egomaniac, a sexual predator, greedy and on good terms with Hitler.

Siblings, who'd have 'em?

Her first career was as a Olympic gold medalist in figure skating. She managed this at the age of 15 in 1928 and then again in 1932 and 1936 (when she was not 15 obviously).

From this stems ice show and the movies.

You know what the movies were like, plots designed just to get to the bit when the star suddenly leapt into a swimming pool, started dancing or singing or perhaps all three. In this instance the star suddenly donned a pair of skates and leapt on an ice rink.

This was a neat trick and made her herself box-office. Indeed in 1937 she was fourth on the list of female artists a situation she improved on in 1938 by going into second place before falling back to fourth in 1939.

She did continue her career but never really regained that early success. You can visit a museum in Norway to the woman and see her medals and skates. But before you book your tickets please read the rest of the page.


Carreras Film & Stage Beauties (1939) F54

Charlie Chaplin

Goodness me, what would have happened to the world of film if the Hays Laws had also suggested those born in April could not be involved in the film industry (it did create some pretty unlikely rules afterall).

To give him his full title Sir Charlie Chaplin.

Just to prove how isolated in my views I am, I don't like Charlie Chaplin movies, they don't make me laugh. Shirley Temple was born this month too, so I'm in real trouble.

Chaplin had to control everything, he wrote, he directed, he produced and became a founding member of United Artists.

His early output as The Tramp his most famous of character meant the action centred about him and him alone. Although the tramp was put upon and constantly mooning over beautiful women there was always the moment when he would be kicking a fat man in the backside.

For United Artists he made his first full length film, one of only 11 he made in 50 years. His later were films were plain bad in this viewers opinion.

That film was A Woman of Paris with an opening preamble that went, 'the first serious drama written and directed by myself'. It was so disliked by audiences at the time was withdrawn and did not see the light of day until the late 1970's.

He was awfully slow of the mark to embrace sound but did so for The Great Dictator [1940] where he makes a rather good look-a-like for Hitler (Chaplin was born within 4 days of Hitler). An interesting film with an ending which makes your eyes start from your head whilst your toes curl. Flawed.

Later he was to say that if he had known the reality of the concentration camp the film would not have been made in the way it was.

His autobiography (My Autobiography, what else) is pretty much what you would expect from someone of his talents.

It is difficult to put into context the failures of Chaplin when all you here now is what a great cinematic genius he was. After the war things went really quite sour, his film, Monsieur Verdoux was a black comedy about a fellow who had the good fortune to marry rich women that lived short lives. Film audiences of 1947 were not entirely impressed with the way Chaplin's character had a hand in shortening the lives of his wives. His portrayal of a man that dislikes women and the world is impressively authentic.

However if there is one Chaplin film which has matured with the passage of time it is this one.

In 1952 he left America for Switzerland partially because his politics (vaguely leftist) was not in keeping with the US of that period. He did of course make a triumphant return.

The last film he produced / directed was in 1967 where he had the good grace to only appear as an 'Old Stewart' (he also was the score composer) had Marlon Brando in it (wonderfully miscast). A Countess from Hong Kong is notable only because it was the last from a legend.

He made a strange old man in his old age and was a celebrated father in his 70's, proving something but I would not like to dwell on what.


Godfrey Phillips Cinema Stars (circular) (1929)
Ardath British Born Film Stars (1934)
Edwards Ringer and Bigg Cinema Stars (1923) L25

William Holden

Some people age rather more rapidly than others. William Holden died at the age of 63. I am now closer to the age when this seems like too young to die rather than at the age when I considered a ten year old to be as old as the hills.

His looks probably had a deal to do with the premature ageing fluid he consumed in considerable quantities. Certainly the car accident he was involved in which left an innocent bystander dead might possibly be linked with the falling down water.

In the 1950's he was a man in great demand (Stalag 17, 1953 for which he won best actor) and in the late 1960's he did appear in The Wild Bunch.

In his later years he became something of a disaster movie star in every sense of that phrase. We chuckle now at horrors like the Towering Inferno but come on, at the time you were gripped to your seat watching a bunch of stars staggering about the place in ever decreasing quantities of clothing as extras die grizzly deaths all about them. Holden must have been right at home then.

Carreras Turf Cigarettes Film Stars (1947)

Harold Lloyd

Those of a certain age, will now be saying, 'Hurray for Harold Lloyd' and those of another age will be saying 'who?'

Well his name should be up there with Keaton, Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and for a great many people he is.

He appeared in a seemingly endless stream of one and two reelers (many with that rather annoying voice-over, 'My goodness what is our hapless hero doing now, surely not Harold')

Lloyd was the ordinary man trying to remain in control of a world which was always getting out of control.

He made spectacles a statement long before spectacles were a statement.

His character had evolved somewhat. When first he met Hal Roach he was paying a character 'Willie Work' but then created 'Lonesome Luke' who was remarkably similar to Chaplin's character which had come first. At least we did not end up with Hapless Harold.

In 1920 he was seriously injured whilst making Haunted Spooks (I believe his injuries included the loss of a considerable part of a hand). He was back by 1921.

In 1938 he retired from acting but was persuaded back in 1946 to appear in Sin of Harold Diddlebock (also known as Mad Wednesday but if you called it Gone with the Wind it would not watch any better).

In his latter years he rationed the re-release of his early comic masterpieces and unlike a lot of his contemporaries, remained rich and normal.

STARS [1928]
Wills Cinema Stars (1928) 1st
Gallaher Cinema Stars (1926)

Shirley Temple

Born in 1928 she had retired in 1949 and at 21 years of age it was about time. in fact her entire career was about time. Perhaps it might be wise I was careful in what I say as when Graham Greene suggested she was actually an adult playing a child in Wee Willie Winkie [1937] the magazine that ran the words was bankrupted.

Nobody can complain about film stars getting younger with time. Shirley Temple was 3 when it all started and 1937 was her year. Still she was a veteran of 9 by then.

Her last films demonstrated just how far she had travelled and how much she had learnt in those travels. Kiss and Tell in 1945 has been described as 'one of the few vehicles for teenage Temple that's watchable.' You have to understand this does not necessarily reflect my view.

I like to think it has more to do with a film audience growing up rather than Temple which caused the decline in her appeal.

Just thank goodness we are not all the same, otherwise I would be about 3 foot high have blonde ringlets, a high-pitched lisp, wearing a bizarre looking dress with a big lollipop and a need to break out into song whilst tap dancing.

Given all this and the fact I've nothing good to say about the films she was in or her acting, I'll say no more.

Gallaher Film Episodes (1936)
Sinclair Film Stars (1937) 2nd Series F54

Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Blythe 1878 - 1954)

The eldest brother of the clan. John and Lionel were about as different as brothers could be.

He was professional, ambitious, worked-hard and played hardly at all.

He was working in the theatre but began making two reelers before the First World War.

It took a time for him to be elevated to lead man roles which occurred in the 1920's .

Sound though extended his range and he won an Oscar for A Free Soul [1930].

At MGM he also sat in the Directors chair although his work is rarely seen.

Madame X [1929] (aka Absinthe, the title being the best thing about this effort I'd say) is claimed to be the first film to use a moveable microphone (so many details so little time)

There are also claims the film, His Glorious Night [1929] was designed to discredit John Gilbert.

In 1936 he appeared as the escaped convict in Devil Dolls. The idea being he sold dolls which were in fact shrunken people that could then go about their masters murderous bidding. A great film which you suspect could have been even more sinister if the director Tod Browning (director of the original Dracula) had not just been hauled over the coals by MGM by making Freaks [1932]

Struck down with arthritis he continued to work from a wheelchair from which he appeared as Dr Leonard Gillespie in the Dr Kildare run.

Ardath Scenes from big films