Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mamba at the Astor in Melbourne - Part 2

This post is continued from last weeks post about the Mamba world premiere at The Astor in Melbourne on Nov 21 at 8pm.

In the first post I wrote about Mamba's and Tiffany Pictures historical background. In this post I will write about the actors in the leading roles of the film. Unfortunately they are almost forgotten today, at least if you compare them to superstars like Garbo or Gable.

Mamba was very well received by the audience as well as by the press.  Tiffany had made sure the film would become a smash hit by hiring some of the most prominent actors at the time for the lead parts.

Jean Hersholt 1927
August Bolte - Jean Hersholt
Jean Hersholt was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1886, the son of Clair and Henry Hersholt, both actors at the Danish Folk Theatre. From an early age young Jean went on tour performing with his family all over Europe. Back at home in Copenhagen he went to art school and soon got recognition for his fine pencil drawings.

Hersholt drawing von Stroheim (1923)
But it was the acting that really got him. After some years at the art school he went on to acting school at the Dagmar Thaatre in Copenhagen. In 1906 he had roles in three of the earliest films produced for the Danish market. Those were all short comedies, very typical of the times. At 22, in 1908 he left Denmark for Canada and settled down first in Montreal then on to New York. In 1914 he left New York for Hollywood. In 1915 he was hired as responsible for the Danish pavilion at the Pan Pacific exhibition in San Francisco. It was at this time he met Thomas Ince, a Hollywood producer and director. Ince soon realized Hersholt was made of the right stuff and hired him as one of his regulars. Hersholt played in most of Inces films 1918-22. He even got to direct some of the films he played in. Ince is mostly known today because of the scandal surrounding his death in 1924 when he suposedly was killed aboard W.R. Hearst’s yacht.

Thomas Ince
Hersholt’s career took a big leap in 1922 when he got one of the leading roles in John S. Robertson’s Tess of The Storm Country with Mary Pickford. Then on to von Stroheim’s giant epic Greed, in which he played Marcus Schouler, the villain. Showing he was capable to shine in almost any role given to him he quickly became a regular first at Goldwyn and Paramount and later at MGM.

Greed (1924)
Hersholt made the transition to talkies without any difficulties, his Danish accent was no problem. With the arrival of the talkies his roles shifted from villains to caring father figures, teachers and European noblemen. At MGM he had big supporting roles in prestige productions like Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner At Eight (1933). He was Shirley Temple’s grandfather in Heidi (1937).

Grand Hotel (1932)
But it was the role as a doctor that would provide a continuing vehicle for Hersholt and something of a fateful direction for the actor. The mid-30s were abuzz with the births of the Dionne Quintuplets in Canada. Hollywood jumped on, highlighting the story and the officiating obstetrician, Dr. Dafoe, who was translated into Dr. John Luke, in The Country Doctor (1936). Hersholt brought the right ingredients to the part of Luke and two years later a sequel followed, Five of a Kind (1938). Hersholt was enthusiastic about a series of movies, but Dafoe himself blocked this idea. Nevertheless, in 1937 Hersholt had already germinated a new radio series to continue portraying a dedicated and kindly small town doctor. For a character name Hersholt turned to his most beloved author, his countryman, literary light Hans Christian Andersen, for a name-Dr. Christian. It was a hit and, and he convinced RKO Radio Pictures to bankroll a series of six Dr. Christian films (1939-41). The radio series stayed on the air every week for 17 years, about 800 episodes.

In the early 1940's Hersholt more or less left the movies but stayed in the business working with many different charity projects. In 1939 he funded The Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization that helped to support industry employees with medical care when they were down on their luck and was used to create the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA. This led to the creation in 1956 of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian an honorary Academy Award given to an "individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry". Hersholt was President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 1945-49. Another lesser known function he had was as Chairman of the Hollywood chamber of commerce in the early 1950’s and as such he helped negotiate the rights for the Scandinavian Airlines transatlantic flights in 1954. He was very proud of being Danish, throughout his life he helped spread Danish and Scandinavian culture to the world. One of his major achievements was translating all of Hans Christian Andersens stories to the English language. His translations are still regarded as the best.

Jean Hersholt's home in Hollywood
Jean Hersholt made 443 films, got two honorary Oscars and is one of few who has two stars at the Hollywood walk of fame. One for his contributions to Motion Pictures, the other for his extensive radio work. Jean Hersholt died of pancreatic cancer in 1956, only months after having introduced Dr Christian to TV.

Eleanor Boardman - Photoplay January 1928
Helen von Linden - Eleanor Boardman
Born in Philadelphia 1898 to strict, Presbyterian parents. After graduation from The Academy of Fine Arts in her home town she left for New York hoping for a career on Broadway. When that didn’t work out as expected, she became a model for Kodak. This worked out splendidly and she eventually became the official Kodak Girl. With her face on posters all over the country she was of course hoping for some movie mogul to spot her and take her to Hollywood.

Eleanor Boardman early in her career
After some time as Kodak girl she heard that the Selwyn Organization, a major producer of Broadway plays, was looking for girls with no stage experience. Since she was more than qualified in that respect, she tried out for the job and before she knew it she was in the chorus line of a production called "Rock-a-Bye-Baby" until the show closed three months later. Unfortunately she caught laryngitis and temporarily lost her voice, making it difficult to continue on the stage. It was at this time that a casting director for Goldwyn Pictures hit the Broadway scene looking for new faces. She tested for him and impressed him enough that he finally picked her out of a pool of more than 1000 young girls who tested for the opportunity to go to Hollywood.

Well in Hollywood followed months of fruitless effort until one day Rupert Hughes saw her riding a horse and gave her a part in a film and she quickly began to attract audiences. She was chosen by Goldwyn Pictures as their "New Face of 1922", through which she signed a contract with the company. After several successful supporting roles, she played the lead in 1923's Souls for Sale. Her growing popularity was reflected by inclusion on the list of WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1923. Her contract was renewed in 1924 when Goldwyn merged with Metro and became MGM.

Souls For Sale (1923)
She appeared in fewer than forty films during her career, achieving her greatest success in Vidor's The Crowd in 1928. Her moving performance in that film is widely recognized as one of the outstanding performances in American silent films. She ultimately stayed with MGM until 1932. Boardman retired in 1935, and retreated completely from Hollywood and public life. Her only subsequent appearance was in an interview filmed for the Kevin Brownlow and David Gill documentary series Hollywood in 1980.

With James Murray in The Crowd (1928)
1926-31 Boardman was married to the film director King Vidor, with whom she had two daughters, Antonia born 1927, and Belinda born 1930, just before shooting of Mamba started . In September of 1926 fellow actors John Gilbert and Greta Garbo had planned a double wedding with them, but Garbo broke off the plans at the last minute. Boardman's second husband was Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast to whom she was married from 1940 until his death in 1968. She died in Santa Barbara, California at the age of 93.

Eleanor Boardman and King Vidor
Eleanor Boardman has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to Motion Pictures.
Mamba was her first talkie and the only film she made in color.

Ralph Forbes by Clarence Sinclair Bull (1928)
Lieutenant Karl von Reiden - Ralph Forbes 
There is a lot of confusion about Forbes birth date. The date varies from 1896, 1901 to 1904. According to the Civil registration records in the UK, September 30, 1904 is the correct date. Born in an acting family in London, England. Both his parents and little sister were stage actors so the choice of profession might have been easy for young Ralph. He started his career on stage as a teenager in London. This led to some roles in British films, among them the early color movie His Glorious Adventure, shot in Prizmacolor 1922, and also a Swedish version of Charley's Aunt shot in England and Sweden between 1922-26 before leaving for Hollywood in 1926 to play fellow Englishman Ronald Coleman's brother in the Paramount big budgeter Beau Geste.

Beau Geste (1926)
In 1924 Forbes married the celebrated Broadway actress Ruth Chatterton who was eleven years his senior. The couple settled down in Hollywood and Chatterton soon also made her debut on the silver screen.

Ralph Forbes and Ruth Chatterton
Forbes striking looks made things easy and he got quite important roles almost immediately. He was cast against many of the biggest names right from the start. Norma Shearer, Lon Chaney, Dolores Del Rio, Clara Bow, Corinne Griffith and so on.
Forbes and Clara Bow in Her Wedding Night (1930)
Ralph Forbes was perhaps not one of the bigger names in Hollywood, some might even describe him as an MGM bit player, but considering he made about five films a year throughout the 30's and who he made those films with I think it's fair to call him a true movie star.
Forbes about to hit John Barrymore in the face in 20th Century (1934)
Forbes and Chatterton divorced in 1932. Forbes Movie career basically ended in the early 40's but got some new life with the arrival of TV and the Playhose series. In 1951 Forbes fell ill and passed away far to early, he was 46.

Eleanor Boardman and Jean Hersholt in Mamba
Mamba is a phenomenal early all color talkie that deserves its place in Movie history. Come see for your self and have a chat with me on Monday night at the Astor in Melbourne. Tickets are still on sale!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mamba World Premiere in Melbourne Nov 21

It's not without pride I can announce that Tiffany Pictures 1930 all color triumph Mamba will be shown in public for the first time in about 80 years. This very special event will take place at The Astor Theatre in Melbourne, Australia November 21.

My collaborator Paul Brennan and I will be there in person to present the film together. It was Paul who found the long thought lost nitrate reels in 2009, I then edited the whole thing together into a presentable format. Since 2009, when Mamba was found, the complete soundtrack has been added to the film elements thanks to a kind contribution from the UCLA Film & Television Archives.

With all the different elements in place Mamba is now ready to be properly restored. However, when the opportunity to present the film before a live audience came about, and at such a wonderful place as The Astor we immediately decided to share this remarkable discovery even though it's still a work in progress.

"The Astor was built in the 1930s and still retains the art-deco charm of that period. The theatre is a classic, single-screen cinema with stalls and a dress circle, the overall seating capacity of 1,150 is reduced from the original 1,700 - and the auditorium has the same, soft ambience that you will have enjoyed in the foyers. Beautiful curtains cover the screen - there are no jarring, advertising slides to greet you!

But there is nothing "old-fashioned" about The Astor's facilities. The fully air-conditioned cinema boasts a state-of-the-art sound system and now has Australia's first installation of the superb, Barco 4K Digital Projector which is capable of providing resolution that is up to four times higher than the industry standard." Thus a splendid venue for such an important event.

This is the first of two articles about Mamba, it's importance in film history and more information about the people who made it. The story about how the film was found can be found here.

Mamba is one of the earliest all talking all color features ever made that also survives complete. The use of color throughout an entire talking feature was something completely new in 1929 and for such a small studio as Tiffany it was unheard of. It’s clear Tiffany decided to take a risk with hopes to become a bigger player in the Hollywood studio system. In the fall of 1929 Hollywood was not only a turmoil of sound but also color. Every studio of note was wiring for sound and the bigger players also wanted color in their productions, if only just short sequences.

One should note that at this time only about a dozen Technicolor cameras were available in Hollywood altogether. The studios had to battle to use them and the schedules were tight. The big studios monopolized the color cameras quite thoroughly but Tiffany got lucky, probably by some sort of divine intervention and could shoot an entire feature in color. All color talkies was clearly the next big thing and Tiffany decided to go all in right from the start. They were even planning to take technology a step further and shoot it in 3D according to this article in the Film Daily published Nov 12, 1929

Mamba was shot during approximately 10 weeks, from the end of September to early December 1929. At the time production begun, only two all talking, all color features had been released. Those were two backstage musicals from Warner Bros, On With The Show! released in July and Gold Diggers of Broadway in late August. None of the two have survived intact.

 When production wrapped in December, two more WB musicals were ready for release. The two hour extravaganza The Show Of Shows opening late November and the Jerome Kern operetta Sally starring Marilyn Miller just before Christmas 1929. These two have survived in black and white only, save from short fragments in color.

The fifth all color talkie The Vagabond King from Paramount had its NYC gala premiere late February 1930 (it wasn’t released to the general public until April). It has survived and has been restored by UCLA. Then comes Mamba, released March 10, which makes it the sixth all color talkie ever produced, and the earliest known all color talkie that wasn’t a musical or came from a major studio. It is intact and in quite good shape but it needs to be restored.

Tiffany Pictures was formed in 1921 as an independent production company by silent superstar Mae Murray and her then husband and director Robert Z. Leonard. Probably inspired by United Artists, formed two years earlier by Pickford/Fairbanks/Chaplin/Griffith, Tiffany's main goal was to produce Mae Murray vehicles, distributing them through Metro. After having made eight features together, Mae Murray divorced Leonard and left Tiffany for MGM in 1925. She eventually came back to Tiffany in 1929 to remake her 1922 success Peacock Alley as a talkie. It didn't work out well and Murray's talkie career was more or less over within a year. She sued Tiffany accusing the company having ruined her career. She lost the case and eventually left the movie business. The rest of her life is a mentally unstable, rather sad story. Mae Murray left us in 1965, a year after her last attempt for a come-back at 75. She was the real Norma Desmond.

Mae Murray in The Merry Widow 1925
What happened to Tiffany Pictures right after Murray's departure is somewhat unclear. My guess is that it was in limbo for a while until someone decided to pick up the pieces. There are indications of Tiffany being reformed from the scraps of the MGM merger in 1924. Considering its close relationship with Metro, many redundant people left over from Metro (and Goldwyn) who wasn't transferred to MGM was probably hired by Tiffany. With a new management and a staff of skilled craftsmen the company was ready for big business.

Tiffany is often referred to as a poverty row studio. I'm not sure if the term poverty row is a correct label for a company like Tiffany. I think independent studio would be more suitable. After all, they had their own studio from 1927, The Reliance Majestic Studios which had been the home of DW Griffith. The Birth of a NationIntolerance and Broken Blossoms were all partially or fully shot at the studio.

The Tiffany-Stahl Studio 1929 
Poverty row units normally had to lease facilities, often cameras and other equipment, sets and sometimes even actors from other studios when they wanted to make a picture. The classic poverty row production was generally a poorly funded venture with very unclear distribution. In an era when the bigger studios also owned the major theatre chains, getting an independent picture into movie houses was a challenge. I guess the Tiffany studio may have served as a base for other smaller companies, thus linking it to the poverty row epithet.

With the acquisition of the Reliance Majestic in 1927 came the new boss the MGM director and producer John M. Stahl who stayed in power until 1930 when he sold his interest in Tiffany and became a director at Columbia. I guess Stahl was largely responsible for the "New expanding Tiffany" as it coincides exactly with his time as CEO. Stahl was generally considered a really competent and nice man, liked by both staff and actors.

From August 1929 Tiffany had a very lucrative agreement with RCA. The deal was very straight forward - If a cinema owner agreed to book a block of 26 Tiffany films, RCA would wire the theatre for sound for $2,995, which was a bargain for most managers. By February 1930 no less than 2,460 theaters had signed up for the deal. Tiffany had thus a distribution network, at least for a while.

John M. Stahl
After Stahl left Tiffany in 1930 the company sunk back among the B-players concentrating on westerns, shorts and cheap monkey movies. They finally went out of business in 1932, much because of the ongoing depression, a general lack of funds and a hard time getting their films out to the theaters. According to my sources the main reason for their demise was because "they had no profitable distribution network." So I guess the departure of Stahl also ended the profitable RCA distribution agreement. The studio was sold and the main part of the Tiffany legacy, including most of the original negatives went up in smoke during the filming of Gone With The Wind in 1939.

John M. Stahl later directed several great pictures for Columbia in the 1930's and later for 20th Century Fox, his best known film is the brilliant Technicolor noir Leave Her To Heaven. 1950's melodrama master Douglas Sirk remade no less than three of Stahls pictures from the 30's. Magnificent Obsession is one of them.

My next post will give you more Mamba magic. Stay tuned!

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