Movie stars & directors


FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part One: Georges Méliès
by Walter Albert


   One of the “givens” of film history is that French director Georges Méliès, a magician who turned his talents from stage to film enchantments, is one of the great film innovators. In my surveys of French films, I have always dutifully shown Méliès’ Trip to the Moon (1902) and talked glibly of the importance of his work.

   I was only repeating standard film history, and I had no real basis for believing it until this past weekend when I attended an extraordinary event sponsored by the film section of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute.

   Méliès’ granddaughter, Madeleine Malthète-Méliès, came to Pittsburgh to present three different programs of his films with piano accompaniment by Eric Leguen. I was able to see thirty-one of the forty-seven films she screened, including four that were hand-tinted, and what I saw on those two rainy, chilly October evenings was a revelation.

   In the dozen years from about 1898 to 1910 that Méliès was producing and directing, he made over five hundred short films. His family has been able to assemble and restore only about 150, so the series we were shown represents about one third of the surviving films.

   Working before the era of the feature-length films that were to dominate world production after 1912, Méliès drew on his experience as a stage illusionist and his incomparable visual imagination.

   Disguises and transformations abound in his films, and he devised the dissolve, fade, and superimposed image to make his fantastic tricks possible. The prints are not always properly defined, and some of them are not complete, but the witty inventions from his apparently inexhaustible box of illusions are still a delight.

   What is particularly striking about Méliès’ films is their pacing, a perfectly choreographed comic rhythm that is most impressive when Méliès himself is performing.

   For director-producer-writer Méliès was also a comic actor of rare skill, with a good-natured pleasure in fooling an audience that is still infectious after eighty years. He was very fond of playing the role of the Devil, and the final film of the series, Satan in Prison (1907), was a perfect capstone to the screenings.

   In this dazzling film, the Devil-Méliès furnishes a bare cell out of his cape, complete to a lovely lady toasted at a candlelight midnight supper. When they are surprised by her jealous husband, she collapses into a heap of crumpled fabric in one of the most magical of Méliès’ effects.

   Then, in a furious reverse movement, the Devil strips the room and, disappearing behind the cape, leaps toward the rear wall where the cape suddenly hangs suspended from two nails and, when it is pulled down, exposes a bare wall.

   I mentioned to Madame Malthète-Méliès my pleasure in her grandfather’s good humour, and she replied — her entire face lighting up — that even after he had lost everything else, he never lost his humour and was always playing the prankster, pulling innumerable cigarettes out of her ear.

   In his last years (he died in 1938) Méliès operated a toy shop in one of the Parisian train stations, but what find most painful is the anecdote of the evening that Méliès burned all of his negatives in the garden of his Montreuil home. Fortunately, prints have survived, but those wasted years when he was eclipsed by a generation of gifted comedians — all of whom drew upon his routines and inventions — is, I think, one of the great tragedies of film history.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

THE POWELL TOUCH
by Walter Albert


   In 1935 and 1936, William Powell followed his 1934 starring role in MGM’s The Thin Man with two RKO comedy-mysteries, Star of Midnight and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, both of them directed by Stephen Roberts.

   In Bradford Jean Arthur is the ex-Mrs. Bradford who turns up at the beginning of the film to have physician Bradford (Powell) served a subpoena for non-payment of alimony; in Star, Ginger Rogers is Donna Manton, a social butterfly in love with lawyer Powell who claims to have more fun solving cases than trying them and whose friends consider him to be a combination of Charlie Chan, Philo Vance and the Sphinx.

   Bradford is a racetrack mystery and Star a Broadway mystery, both versions of the classic form of amateur detective considered by less-than-bright homicide detectives to be a prime suspect in a murder case.

   Bradford has the more original conclusion with the suspects invited to a meeting at which a film reveals the murderer’s identity, but Star is better paced and has some more polished acting in secondary roles, particularly by Vivian Oakland as a former girlfriend of Powell’s and Gene Lockhart as a somewhat unconventional butler who didn’t do it but is drafted for some ironic sleuthing.

   Arthur and Rogers, both fine actress/comediennes, are delightful foils for Powell’s stylish drollery and each has at least one scene that is a standout: Arthur in a brilliant closing sequence and Rogers in a comic tum as she foils Oakland’s play for Powell.

   Powell’s earliest appearance as an urbane amateur detective was in The Canary Murder Case, in which Jean Arthur also appeared, and by 1935 there was no more adept player of drawing-room comedy-mysteries.

   The actor is probably no less accomplished in Bradford and Star than he is in The Thin Man, but it is certainly debatable whether, as William Everson maintains in The Detective in Film (Citadel, 1972), The Thin Man is “almost” equaled by the two lesser known movies.

   The level of craftsmanship in all three of the films is very high, but I think that the decisive elements in the superiority of The Thin Man — and in its continuing popularity — are the inspired pairing of Myrna Loy, who matches Powell’s arch style with her own elegant delivery and movement, and first-rate scripting by Albert Goodrich and Frances Hackett, and directing by W.S. Van Dyck.

   Script, direction, and performance come together in an extraordinary tour-de-force that climaxes the film. The wrapup party sequence in The Thin Man still dazzles as Powell delivers what is in effect an extended monologue and it is this perfectly timed scene, a classic example of the “cosy” mystery denouement, that, for me, makes The Thin Man the success that Bradford and Star achieve only in part.

   Both actresses were on the verge of major stardom when they appeared with Powell. Loy would, of course, continue the role of Nora Charles in five sequels, and also appear in films like The Great Ziegfield, The Rains Came, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

   The Thin Man is usually seen as the one in which Loy escaped type casting as an Oriental temptress — most notably as the daughter of Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) — but non-Oriental roles in films like Love Me Tonight (1932), Topaze (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) suggest that her film roles were far more varied than they are usually thought to have been.

   An oddity in the casting of Arthur is that she had played in three Fu Manchu films (in 1929 and 1930) and in the early thirties was better known as an actress in melodramas than as the star of comedy/dramas as she was subsequently to be.

   By an equally ironic reversal, Rogers, after her dizzying success with Fred Astaire, would establish herself as a dramatic actress in the late thirties and forties, but with Astaire and with Powell she demonstrates an apparently natural comedic talent and a freshness that makes her performances with them among her most engaging.

   [Almost eighty years] after their original release dates, The Thin Man and the two “forgotten” films, Star and Bradford, are entertainments that largely defy the passage of time. In addition, all three films — and one must add to the list James Whale’s brilliant 1935 baroque send-up of the drawing-room mystery, Remember Last Night? — are a tribute to the popularity of the amateur sleuth mystery in the 1930s and to the professional and artistic integrity of this genre.

   The Thin Man gains some lustre in the context of related films but also should remind us that it operated out of a tradition that still gives pleasure for its wit and invention and, in particular, celebrates the career of one of the screen’s most distinguished player of amateur detectives, William Powell.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.


DANE CLARK CONFIDENTIAL, PART 1
by Curt Evans


BLACKOUT. Hammer Films, UK, 1954. Lippert Pictures, US, 1954. Originally released in the UK as Murder by Proxy. Dane Clark, Belinda Lee, Betty Ann Davies, Eleanor Summerfield, Andrew Osborn. Based on the novel Gold Coast Nocturne by Helen Nielsen. Director: Terence Fisher.

   Dane Clark (1912-1998) is one of those actors that you, if you are, as I am, in middle age, have almost assuredly seen on television earlier in your life, even if you don’t match the name with the face. I recall him playing an FBI agent in Season One of Angela Lansbury’s beloved mystery series, Murder She Wrote, the “Watson” in that episode to Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. I don’t know why I remember this character, but I suppose I have to chalk it up to Clark’s acting skills, having seen some of his other genre film work of late. He’s good!

   Dane Clark was known in the 1940s as the “B-list John Garfield,” but I don’t believe this appellation does him justice. (It’s a bit like when the great Ida Lupino is dismissed as the “poor man’s Bette Davis.”) Dane Clark was his own man. Both John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913) and Dane Clark (born Bernard Zanville in 1912) were Jews from New York City, but Clark came of much more comfortable circumstances than Garfield, graduating from Cornell and getting a law degree before ending up in acting (after stints in boxing, baseball, construction, sales and sculptor’s modeling — he had found lawyers weren’t doing too well in the Depression either).

   In 1941 Clark married the artist and sculptor Margot Yoder (a distant relative of my family) and the next year appeared in several films (uncredited): The Pride of the Yankees (“Fraternity Boy”); Wake Island (“Sparks”); and, most notably, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (“Henry Sloss”).

   By the end of World War II Clark was getting bigger roles, including that of the Bohemian artist in the Bette Davis identical twins melodrama A Stolen Life (1946); the escaped convict who has a desperate romance with Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947); and, in the Oscar-nominated film Moonrise (1948), the tormented Danny Hawkins, who is in love with gorgeous Gail Russell and has, most inconveniently, killed her fiancee (played, very briefly, by Lloyd Brides). Today Moonrise pops up on lists of greatest noir films though regrettably it’s not available on DVD (you can see on it Amazon instant video, however).

   If you look around, you should be able to find on DVD some of Clark’s work as a lead actor in late 1940s and 1950s crime films (when he really came into his own as an actor), including Without Honor (1949), Backfire (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950; screenplay by Eric Ambler), Gunman in the Streets (1950, with Simone Signoret), Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), Blackout (1954; Murder by Proxy in UK), Paid to Kill (1954; Five Days in UK), Port of Hell (1954), The Toughest Man Alive (1955) and The Man Is Armed (1956).

   I’ve recently seen several of the above films, the first being, for the purpose of this review, Blackout.

   Blackout, as I have discussed on my own blog, is an English adaptation of Helen Nielsen’s Chicago-set hard-boiled crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951). Although transferring the setting from Chicago to London is slightly awkward, to be sure, overall I was really rather impressed with this film. It is quite faithful to the novel, even using some of the dialogue.

   As the beleaguered hero, Casey Morrow, an American out to solve a murder he wakes up to discover he’s suspected of having committed, Dane Clark is excellent, as are the two lead women, Belinda Lee (sexy blonde heiress Phyllis Brunner) and Eleanor Summerfield (wisecracking artist Maggie Doone). A couple crucial supporting performances could have been stronger, but overall I would quite recommend this film.

       TO BE CONTINUED


Editorial Comment:   This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE FORTY-NINERS

THE FORTY-NINERS. Allied Artists / formerly Monogram, 1954. “Wild Bill” Elliott, Virginia Grey, Harry Morgan, John Doucette, Lane Bradford. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Directed by Thomas Carr.

   But first a word about Wild Bill Elliott, born Gordon Nance, who started out his career at Columbia under the name Gordon Elliott as an all-purpose and mostly uncredited supporting player until he landed the lead in the 1938 serial The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which led to a series of low-budget westerns at Columbia, billed as Wild Bill Elliott and sometimes playing Hickok in adventures that, as you might expect, had little to do with the actual James Butler Hickok.

   Many of these were a cut above average, and a few, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, even artistic at times, but in ’43 he left Columbia for Republic. There the budgets were bigger and the films generally more fun, but it was still a loss in prestige to go from the smallest of the Major studios to the biggest of the Minors, which was Republic’s place in Hollywood’s caste system.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   Republic even tried to lift Elliott out of the “B” ranks for a time, upping his budgets, offering more “adult” story lines and dropping the “Wild” from his billing, but eventually he returned to “B” status. His last film at Republic, The Showdown, was shot entirely on studio sets with back projection, reflecting Republic’s growing disinterest in the budget prairie film in general.

   At which point Elliott moved to Monogram, which was definitely a step down, but surprisingly his films here got even more interesting — not better made, but with distinctly off-beat characterizations and story lines.

Elliott himself, billed once again as “Wild Bill Elliott” smoked and drank, cussed now and then, and wasn’t above dealing out nastiness when called for. He even played an occasional outlaw, though reformed by film’s end, and in one movie he beats information out of a bad guy while holding him at gunpoint—hardly sporting, that, and unheard of in the better class of B westerns.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   In 1955 even Monogram tired of the low-budget western and moved Elliott into a series of detective stories, but Elliott had ended his sagebrush career with a flourish of sorts, as borne out in The Forty-Niners.

   This starts out with Dragnet-style voice-over narration, and when I say “Dragnet-style” I mean you can practically hear Jack Webb’s flat monotone in Wild Bill Elliott’s voice. Her gives dates and times, tosses in cop-comments like “It was a routine assignment” and even synopsises the outcomes in Court.

   The wonder is that writer Daniel Ullman (who made kind of a specialty out of detective/westerns) still wrought a perfectly fine western out of all this.

   Wild Bill plays a U.S. Marshall cold on the trail of the owlhoots who ambushed a fellow-lawman. His only lead is a gambler (played by Harry Morgan, who also featured in Elliott’s last Republic picture) who can lead him to the baddies as long as he doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing. Morgan plays the kind of good/bad guy later personified by the likes of Arthur Kennedy, and he does it pretty well, grinning and joking as he cheats at cards and blackmails killers who are now comfortably ensconced as respectable citizens.

   His only weakness is a soft heart for the gal he left behind and an aversion to cold-blooded murder when that becomes necessary to eliminate Elliott, whom he’s come to respect and admire. It’s an interesting part in a movie that moves along at a brisk clip, with plenty of action and enough curves in the plot to keep you guessing, even as you realize the pre-ordained outcome dictated by the genre, and reflecting that as Wild Bill took his last ride into the sunset, he did it with a certain amount of style and the quiet dignity that becomes a western hero — even a cut-rate hero ending his days in the B-movies.

THE FORTY-NINERS

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND. MGM, UK, 1951. Walter Pidgeon (Major Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond), Margaret Leighton, Robert Beatty, David Tomlinson, Peggy Evans, Charles Victor. Based on a story by Gerard Fairlie. Director: Victor Saville.

WALTER PIDGEON

   Back in the late 60s, when I decided I wanted to live a life of adventure, I was quite taken with a gaudy Universal James-Bond-Rip-Off called Deadlier Than the Male, with Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond and Nigel Greene as bis arch-foe Peterson. Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina were in it too, as scenery.

   I liked the gaudy color, kinky violence, and general comic-book look of the thing. Don’t try to catch it on television, though, because it was castrated for Network Release and to my knowledge has never been restored. (Yeah, like someone would take the time to put all the sex and violence back in to this.)

   Anyway, I tried the Drummond books and didn’t care much for the character in them at all, as he seemed something of a blow-hard bigot. Always liked the Drummond movies, though, including a B series from Paramount with John Howard, John Barrymore and lots of colorful baddies. And of course there was the great Colman film of ’29 which I viewed a wile back.

   So I was sort of looking forward to Calling B. D. and was disappointed. The plot features a gang of crooks who operate in Military Style, prompting Scotland Yard to call Colonel Drummond out of retirement because of his military experience.

WALTER PIDGEON

   I don’t know about you, but I have a little trouble swallowing the notion that England in the 50s suffered from a shortage of men with Military experience, and the Surprise Bad Guy is unfortunately portrayed by an actor who later became mildly famous, so his off-screen voice tips us off immediately.

   Add to this that Pidgeon seems to have taken his Dull Pills just prior to filming, and you have a very quiet movie indeed.

NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE. MGM, 1939. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Rita Johnson, Henry Hull, Stanley Ridges, Doctor Frankton, Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Milburn Stone. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

PHANTOM RAIDERS. MGM, 1940. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Joseph Schildkraut, Florence Rice, Nat Pendleton, John Carroll. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

WALTER PIDGEON

SKY MURDER. MGM, 1940. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Kaaren Verne, Edward Ashley, Joyce Compton, Tom Conway. Director: George B. Seitz.

   Pidgeon came off much better in a series of “B’s” from MGM in the late ’30s centered around a character called Nick Carter, though for all the care they took to recreate the old Dime Novels, they might as well have called him The Saint or Bulldog Drumond or V.I. Warshawski. Nick Carter Master Detective, Phantom Raiders and Sky Murder are all quite fun and you should see them if you ever get a chance.

   With that sonorous voice of his, Pidgeon always sounded like Gregory Peck’s older brother, but these films play against his tendency to stodginess and come out very light and fluffy. The first two were stylishly directed by Jacques Tourneur, but the best thing in them is the Comedy Relief played by Donald Meek.

WALTER PIDGEON

   The comical sidekick was as much a fixture of the B-Mystery series as he was in the B western, but Meek and the writers here lift the concept to dizzying heights. His Bartholomew is not the standard dim-witted clod of most B-Mysteries: he’s a dangerous madman, given to melodramatic fantasies and theatrical outbursts of classic,dimensions.

   He looks like the kind of guy who might bite you on the leg for no good reason at all, and given the chance to play something besides a timid fuddy-duddy, Meek indulges himself with a flair for wild-eyed comedy I’d never suspected in him. He is that rarity, a Comic Relief you actually look forward to seeing, and be adds immeasurably to the films. Catch these if you can.

Editorial Comment:   Mike Grost has some interesting things to say about the two Nick Carter films directed by Jacques Tourneur. Check out his website here.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DEAD RECKONING. Columbia, 1947. Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, Marvin Miller, Wallace Ford. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Steve Fisher, based on a story by Gerald Adams and Sidney Biddell, who also produced. Director: John Cromwell.

   Humphrey Bogart spent most of his career at Warner Brothers, where all his best films were produced. From The Petrified Forest to The African Queen, and all the way through The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and countless others, when you think of a Bogart Movie, you are probably thinking of the Warners’ ambiance: the stock company of supporting players, cameramen, composers and all the other technicians, who contributed so much to the Bogart mystique.

DEAD RECKONING Humphrey Bogart

   For some reason, though, Warner’s decided in the late 40s to loan their top male star to Columbia, the smallest of the Major studios. It was run in those days by Harry Cohn, a man of epochal unpleasantness, whose massive funeral prompted the comment, “Give the people what they want and they’ll come out for it.”

   Under his reign, Columbia was Home to Frank Capra and the Three Stooges, with most of its product canted toward the latter end of the scale. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that when Cohn got hold of a good thing he milked it dry, and turned out not a few classics in the process.

   So when they got their hands on Humphrey Bogart for a single picture in 1946, Columbia beat their live horse for all it was worth, by hiring a corps of writers to steal all the best bits from Bogie’s biggest hits, and surrounding him with (mostly unknown) character actors, who somehow managed to look and act like a close approximation of the Warners Stock Company. The result was the Ultimate Bogart Picture.

DEAD RECKONING Humphrey Bogart

   Dead Reckoning is not particularly witty, not noticeably intelligent, and not at all original, yet it has a certain memorable quality all its own: It contains so many elements from so many (better) Bogart movies, that it somehow becomes the apotheosis of them all.

   The plot, as nearly as I can determine, involves the efforts of cynical, world-weary Rip Murdock (Bogie, of course) to clear the name of a dead army pal, a quest that takes him to one of those echt Film Noir cities populated by Dumb Cops, Cultured Gangsters, Sadistic Goons, Regular Joes, and a blonde, husky-voiced femme fatale played by Lizabeth Scott, a cross between Lauren Bacall and Eugene Pallette.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL1X3s1R0cE

   All of the above, replete with beatings, gambling joints, frame-ups and shoot-outs, gets served up with more precision than originality, accompanied by a Chandleresque voice-over narration that strains its metaphors so hard you can hear their knuckles turning white. (Like that one.)

   Yet if you like Bogart Pictures, it’s hard not to enjoy Dead Reckoning, thanks mainly to John Cromwell, a director who deserves a digression all his own:

   Cromwell has even less of a reputation than Michael Curtiz, as Hollywood Directors go, and holds an even smaller claim to Personal Style, yet he directed films that somehow outshone the classics of better-known auteurs, perhaps because he never made a fetish of Originality.

DEAD RECKONING Humphrey Bogart

   Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Since You Went Away, Algiers, Made for Each Other, Son of Fury and The Enchanted Cottage all bear comparison with better-known films like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Casablanca, and his The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Caged are arguably the best Swashbuckler and Prison films Hollywood ever produced, even if they came too late in their cycles to be considered “Influential.”

   When Columbia turned to John Cromwell to make a film in the Classic Bogart Mold, they knew what they were doing. Cromwell approaches Dead Reckoning totally undaunted by the cliched script and predictable story line.

   He gives each tried-and-true scene the freshness that Hawks, Curtiz and John Houston brought to them a few movies back, and backs off at all the right moments to allow his star enough room for the well-known mannerisms, wise-cracks and reaction shots that Bogart buffs dote on.

   The result is a film that seems familiar the first time you see it, but none the less likable for that. I didn’t respect Dead Reckoning the morning after I saw it, but I suspect I’ll sleep with it again.

Ed Hulse on WHISPERING SMITH
and GEORGE O’BRIEN


== Following my recent review of the Alan Ladd version of Whispering Smith, the movie, which included some commentary about the real Whispering Smith and some of the earlier films the character was in, Ed Hulse left two long comments that I think deserve a wider audience:


   The 1916 Whispering Smith was shot in ten reels. According to which report one chooses to believe, it was originally intended to be either a serial or an extra-long feature film. In any event, it was released as two five-reel feature films, the first in June and the second in July.

   Although McGowan played the title role, his then-wife Helen Holmes got top billing in both Whispering Smith and Medicine Bend. She was a much bigger box-office draw, having attained fame as the eponymous star of the Hazards of Helen series (which is often mistaken for a cliffhanging chapter play, owing to the fact that Holmes also starred in episodic thrillers and at the time was second only to Pearl White in the serial-queen sweepstakes).

   McGowan’s involvement with the character didn’t stop with the two 1916 features, however. He also played Smith in Universal’s 1927 serial Whispering Smith Rides, but again lost top billing — this time to Wallace MacDonald, whose character was the story’s juvenile lead and carried most of the action.

   The piece on the Thrilling Detective website fails to mention that Rides was remade by Universal just three years later, again as a ten-chapter serial, this time titled The Lightning Express. Al Ferguson, usually cast as a heavy, played Smith; the role played by MacDonald in Rides was taken in Express by Lane Chandler.

   Although the George O’Brien Whispering Smith Speaks is ostensibly based on several Spearman yarns, it’s essentially an original story using nothing from the author’s works other than some locations and character names.

   An unbilled J. P. McGowan has a bit part as a rail-riding old-timer who shares his boxcar with fellow stowaway O’Brien (whose character’s real name is Gordon Harrington Jr.; he only uses Don Smith — not John, as the Thrilling Detective entry erroneously reports — as an alias). Since McGowan had been directing railroad films since 1912, I believe Whispering Smith Speaks producer Sol Lesser hired him as a second-unit director to handle the various train scenes.

   The O’Brien film is a particular favorite of mine because George and I were friends for a couple years leading up to his debilitating 1981 stroke, and for my money Speaks is the film that best captures his off-screen personality. But as a Spearman adaptation it isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.

== Then in Comment #5, # Barry Lane said:


Darcy O’Brien wrote a pair of novels, A Way Of Life Like Any Other and Marguerite In Hollywood, that with devastating honesty, and brilliant writing, illustrate the world of George and Marguerite. Ed, you must have known these people and your insights are welcome.

== Here’s Ed’s long reply:


   Well, I could go on forever about George O’Brien, but the short form is this: In 1979 I chaired Cinecon, an annual convention of vintage-film fans, collectors, and archivists. Since our guest stars were primarily actors from the silent and early-talkie years, I decided to invite my two top favorites of that era (that is, of those still alive and ambulatory at the time): George and Alice Faye.

   Alice had other plans but George — who had been invited to, but never before attended, similar events — accepted my invitation because coming to NYC for the convention would allow him to spend some time with his daughter Orin, a musician with the New York Philharmonic.

   Part of our tribute to George included a screening of Sunrise at the Museum of Modern Art, which earlier that year had won a special Academy Award for its film-preservation efforts. Since George was justifiably proud of that film, the opportunity of seeing it at the Museum held considerable appeal.

   When the film ended, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and I encouraged him to take a bow. The still-fit 80-year-old bounded atop the auditorium stage and, waving and beaming, accepted a standing ovation that, I was told later, lasted nearly five minutes.

   As a long-time hobbyist who turned his passion into a career by writing professionally about movies and moviemakers, I’ve met dozens — hundreds, even — of film folk over the years. It doesn’t take long to realize that “picture people” are just as diverse as society at large. You have some nice people and you have some real pricks. Early on, one learns not to judge them by their screen personas.

   To my delight, however, George O’Brien turned out to be not only the perfect convention guest — making himself available to fans practically every hour of Cinecon’s three and a half days — but a wonderful, down-to-earth human being as well. I picked him up at New York’s La Guardia Airport, and by the time we had completed the 45-minute drive back to Manhattan, I already felt like we were old friends.

   That was George’s way. To this day I have never known a man who could make friends as easily as George O’Brien. And he didn’t put on airs, either: when I offered that first evening to take him to a high-class restaurant in midtown Manhattan, he replied: “Well, that’s very generous of you, Ed, but how about we just go to a comfy place where we have a good hamburger and get to know each other better?”

   Throughout the weekend I never had to look far for him: wherever a group of convention attendees had clustered, I knew he was in the middle, telling some of his many amazing stories. He jokingly referred to himself as “a man of few thousand words,” and he wasn’t kidding.

   After the convention, we stayed in touch via letters and phone calls. George still traveled frequently and often wrote me from an airplane while flying to Hawaii or the Philippines or some other Pacific destination. He invited me to visit him when and if I ever came to Los Angeles, but to my everlasting regret he was in Hawaii when I went to Tinseltown for a convention the following year.

   That same year (1980), based on the wonderful time he’d had at Cinecon, George finally accepted the invitation extended yearly by organizers of the Memphis Western Film Fair, another annual confab. Since I normally attended that show anyway, I looked forward to seeing George again, especially since one of his fellow guests was Cecilia Parker, his leading lady of several films and a close personal friend as well. But I deliberately decided not to tell him I’d be there.

   As the Memphis film festival — being oriented toward “B” Westerns and serials — catered to a somewhat different fan base than Cinecon, I realized that virtually all of the attendees would be meeting George for the first time. Upon arriving at the show, I could instantly tell where he was by looking for the biggest crowd huddled in a circle. But I didn’t want to interfere with these other fans and deliberately remained in the back of the room while he autographed photos and regaled the fans — most of them middle-aged men who gazed at their childhood hero with the worshipful stare of a ten-year-old — with stories of Hollywood’s halcyon days.

   At length the crowd thinned and we made eye contact. Then, as though he had last seen me a day earlier, he smiled and said: “Oh, hello, Ed.” After signing a few more stills and wrapping up a story, he told the surrounding fans, “Gents, please excuse me for a minute while I go say hello to an old friend…” — at which point he gestured to me, and all eyes swung in my direction. To this day, 31 years later, I still remember the pride I felt at being identified as one of George O’Brien’s old friends.

   Later that day, during a lull in the action, George said to me: “Oh, let me introduce you to Skippy.” I had not the slightest idea whom he meant; no such name appeared on the convention guest list. But it turned out to be Cecilia Parker.

   “Skippy,” he said, “I’d like you to meet a good friend of mine, Ed Hulse.” I stammered a bit as I shook her hand, and Parker instantly knew why I was temporarily tongue-tied. “He’s been calling me Skippy for close to 50 years,” she explained. “He gave me that nickname when we did our first picture together [1931’s The Rainbow Trail].” At the time she was 17 and just out of convent school.

   I must be a man of few thousand words myself, because I realize I still haven’t answered the questions posed above.

   I met Darcy in 1991 at a 60th anniversary screening of Riders of the Purple Sage, the film that paired George and Marguerite and eventually led to their marriage.

   He told me he regretted that some people had assumed the George-like character in A Way of Life Like Any Other was identical to his dad in every particular. Like most novelists, he created characters who were composites. (Although I later learned, however, that his mother was closer to the Marguerite in Hollywood protagonist than George was to his Way of Life counterpart.)

   And in any case, George didn’t take offense. In fact, he mentioned the book in a couple different letters to me, in one case proudly reporting that it had just won some literary award.

   I’m not given to idolatry of my favorite movie stars; in fact, my experiences with some have made me quite cynical about the breed in general. But George O’Brien impressed me profoundly, and I still cherish the memory of our relatively brief but genuinely warm friendship.

   George even took something of a paternal interest in me, giving encouragement when I began my career as a professional writer and telling a mutual friend that he was concerned about my recent weight gain.

   I often cite Whispering Smith Speaks — which is really a romantic comedy, not a blood-and-thunder action piece — as the film whose protagonist best represents the real George O’Brien: warm, funny, gregarious, supremely self-assured without being arrogant.

   It’s well worth seeking out for that reason alone, although it’s never been commercially available on any home video format. You can only get it in bootleg VHS or DVD versions.

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