Friday, December 9, 2016

Beggars of Life recording sessions, details around the music

In the previous Louise Brooks Society blog, I referenced the Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR), an online database which contains details of recordings from the first decades of the 20th century. I have looked at this database in the past, but was reminded of its existence while reading Michael Hammond's essay, "Cowboys, Beggars and the ‘Deep Ellum Blues’: Playing Authentic to Silent Films," in Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema, edited by K.J. Donnelly and Ann-Kristin Wallengren.

What can be found there related to Louise Brooks and Beggars of Life?

Let's start with the familiar theme song by Karl Hajos (composer) and J. Keirn Brennan (lyricist). It was released as a 78 rpm on the Victor label. Click on the video to listen to a recording played on a 1927 Orthophonic Victrola, model 8-30.

The DAHR page tells us a lot about this recording, and even when it was recorded. This version, an instrumental with vocal refrain, is by The Troubadours, and was recorded in New York City on September 13, 1928, about a week before the film's official release and almost two weeks after the silent version of the film began showing in the United States. [A prior recording session, held on August 30th, didn't seem to work out, with two of its three takes being destroyed.] We can safely assume this commercial recording was not featured on the film's soundtrack, though its label indicates it was the "Theme Song of the Motion Picture Production Beggars of Life."

The Troubadours were a studio group directed by the well known Nathaniel Shilkret; the instrumentation on this recording was listed as 4 violins, cello, bass, 4 saxophones, 2 cornets, 2 trombones, tuba, banjo, 2 pianos, and 2 traps. The vocal quartet was composed of Wilfred Glenn (bass), Jack Parker (tenor), Phil Dewey (tenor), and Frank Luther (tenor).

"Beggars of Life" proved popular. At least two different pieces of sheet music were issued (pictured below), along with at least three other 78 rpm recordings by other artists like the Bar Harbor Society Orchestra (with Irving Kaufman), Seger Ellis, Scrappy Lambert, and others. I recently purchased a rare platter of the Bar Harbor Society Orchestra 78 rpm.

The song was also issued for player piano. Here is an image of just such a recording, which I also purchased some years ago..


This is fascinating stuff, to be sure. But here is where the DAHR database really gets interesting.

Because it is considered lost, there has been a lot of speculation about what the original soundtrack for Beggars of Life might have sounded like. (The film was released in two versions, one was silent for those theaters not yet equipped to handle sound films--then a new thing, and one was with an accompanying soundtrack recording featuring music, sound effects, and a song reportedly sung by Wallace Beery. Those theaters that received a silent version likely would have also received or would have purchased from their local exchange a cue sheet for use by their local musician so they could provide their own music.)

Clues to what the sound version of the film sounded like can be found in the DAHR database, as it includes details for each of the recording sessions for the soundtrack for Beggars of Life! Each of the Beggars of Life sessions were recorded by the Motion Picture Orchestra (a group of otherwise anonymous studio musicians) under the direction of Emmanuel Baer and others. At each session, various takes were recorded for each reel of this 9 reel film. Here are pertinent details.

Reel 1 was recorded on 8/20/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Irvin Talbot (assistant director).

Reel 2 was recorded on 8/20/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 34 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Irvin Talbot (assistant director).

Reel 3 was recorded on 8/21/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 34 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director), as well as a male vocal quartet used on take 4. Max Terr was choral director for the male vocal quartet, which was composed of Donald Wells, William Cleary, R. Moody, and A. Ray. Train sound effects were also recorded on the first two takes, but not on the last two.

Reel 4 was recorded on 8/21/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director), as well as a solo male vocalist, Donald Wells.

Reel 5 was recorded on 8/22/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director). Studio ledgers note Max Terr was present.

Reel 6 was recorded on 8/22/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director). Studio ledgers note Max Terr was present.

Reel 7 was recorded on 8/23/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director).

Reel 8 was recorded on 8/23/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director).  

Reel 9 was recorded on 8/24/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), as well as a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody.

But wait, there's more! There were also recording sessions for a prologue and an epilogue to the film, something I was not previously aware of.

Prologue session #1 was recorded on 8/23/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), along with a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody, and a recitation by Harrison Brockbank! [In my 20-plus years of researching this film, I have never come across a reference to a recitation in any of the hundreds of reviews I have collected. It's possible it wasn't used after all. And before you ask, I have no idea what the recitation entailed. Perhaps it was the lyrics to "Beggars of Life," or perhaps it was some passage from Jim Tully's book? Or perhaps it was something wholly unrelated and in all likelihood sentimental.]

Prologue session #2 was recorded on 8/24/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), along with a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody,

Epilogue session was recorded on 8/24/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), along with a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody.

After all these sessions, and after the film had opened in a small number of markets (Indianapolis, Indiana and Salt Lake City, Utah on September 1, and in Battle Creek, Michigan on September 2),  most everyone went back to the studio to rerecord new tracks. The Victor records note:

Reel 3 was rerecorded on 9/4/1928 and 9/10/29 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra  (takes 1A-3A) and an orchestra of 29 men (takes 4-6A), with Emmanuel Baer (director) and and Max Terr (assistant director). Notably, the sound effects were dropped, as was Nathaniel Finston (the original assistant director).

Reel 4 was rerecorded on 9/4/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director). Notably, the male vocalist was dropped, as was Nathaniel Finston (the original assistant director).

Reel 9 was rerecorded on 9/4/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director). Notably, the male vocal quartet was dropped.

This image from 1925 shows a recording session from the time.

Over the years, many well known jazz and classical musicians recorded at Victor's Camden, New Jersey studio. Caruso’s later recordings, including his last recording in 1920, were done there, as were the first recordings by Arturo Toscanini and the visiting La Scala Orchestra, also in 1920. A few years later, in 1927, Vladimir Horowitz’s first recordings were recorded at the Camden Church Studios. Among the many popular artists who recorded there were Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and the Carter Family.

In addition to electrical phonograph record recording, the Camden Church Studio also did some early motion picture sound recording.  Beginning in 1927, equipment for recording motion picture sound tracks on disks synchronized with film was added to the studio. Reportedly, one of the first sessions was for the William Wellman-directed Wings, starring Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers. Additionally, Rodgers recorded his popular song "(I'd like to be) A bee in your boudor" at the Camden Church Studio in 1930. (That song, as well as Beggars of Life, can be heard on RadioLulu.)

In 1935, the city of Camden decided to extend its subway system below the church location. At first the construction and later the subway noise ended the church building as a recording location. Most recording was moved to New York or other locations. 

Back to Beggars of Life. Newspaper articles and advertisements of the time tell us a little about the nature of the sound version of Beggars of Life. Commenting on its New York City premiere at the Paramount Theater, Women's Wear Daily noted "All of these stars outdo themselves in this picture. Wallace Beery talks in this picture, sings a hobo song and ends with an observation about jungle rats in general." The New Yorker also commented on "the synchronized accompaniment of sentimental music."

Elsewhere, the New Orleans Item observed, "Vitaphone helps the story along with music that is fitting and well arranged. The 'Hallelujah I'm a Bum' rhythm helps the story's speed." Peggy Patton of the Wisconsin News wrote "Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen (also playing in Wings) and Louise Brooks play the featured roles. All do praiseworthy work. By the way it is a sound picture and Wallace Beery speaks a few lines and sings a song. His speaking voice is splendid." Frank Aston of the Cincinnati Post penned, "The direction is admirable. Vitaphonic sounds lend some extra force. Beery is heard singing." The San Diego Union added, "Accompanied by a synchronized musical score of more than average excellence, the picture provides an hour and a half of film entertainment radically out of line with the general run of cinema drama. It is pungent, powerful, appealing, masterfully directed and superbly acted."

Where the sound version of the film played, newspaper advertisements often proclaimed something along the lines of “Come hear Wallace Beery sing!” But what that song was is uncertain. The stout, gravel-voiced actor was not known as a crooner. Reliable sources, including the director's son, site one of two similar titles, “Hark the Bells” or “Don’t You Hear Them Bells?” While at least two newspaper advertisements for the film, including the NYC advertisement pictured above, mention the songs "I Wonder Where She Sits at Night" and "Beggars of Life."
"Completely synchronized with sound"

Some years ago, I obtained censorship records for Beggars of Life from the State of New York. Among the documents was a cover letter dated October 22, 1928 which stated that attached was a copy of the dialogue for the sound print of the film. That dialogue was contained on a single page, and was titled "Song Sung by Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life." Provided these records are complete (I have the records for each of Brooks' films, and some are obviously incomplete, with documents having been removed over the years), here is the "spoken dialogue" to Beggars of Life.

I mentioned earlier that the soundtrack to Beggars of Life is considered lost. It's likely that there were 9 large sound soundtrack platters which accompanied the film, one for each reel. However, I know with certainty that at least one of those platters still exists in the hands of a private collector. I have been told that it is the first platter, which may or may not contain the mysterious recitation. I can't say anymore, as I don't know anymore than this.

Maybe, someday.

The lyrics to "Beggars of Life" read:

"Beggars of life, beggars of life;
Gypsy hearts that are sighing
For skies of blue, sunlight and dew,
Out where swallows are flying.
Each one longing to be led
To a happy homestead,
Where love will cry,
'Don't pass me by!'
Beggars of life, come home!"

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema

There is a fascinating new book out from publisher Palgrave Macmillan. It is Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema, edited by K.J. Donnelly and Ann-Kristin Wallengren.

From the publisher, "In recent years, there has been something of an explosion in the performance of live music to silent films. There is a wide range of films with live and new scores that run from the historically accurate orchestral scores to contemporary sounds by groups such as Pet Shop Boys or by experimental composers and gothic heavy metal bands. It is no exaggeration to claim that music constitutes a bridge between the old silent film and the modern audience; music is also a channel for non-scholarly audiences to gain an appreciation of silent films. Music has become a means both for musicians and audiences to understand this bygone film art anew. This book is the first of its kind in that it aims to bring together writings and interviews to delineate the culture of providing music for silent films. It not only has the character of a scholarly work but is also something of a manual in that it discusses how to make music for silent films."

The book is a collection of essays on the documenting, composing, and performing of music for silent films. Two introductory chapters set the tone (pun intended), "Music and the Resurfacing of Silent Film: A General Introduction" and "How Far Can Too Far Go? Radical Approaches to Silent Film Music" They are followed by chapters like "Silent Film, Live Music and Contemporary Composition" and "Soviet Fidelity and the Pet Shop Boys," to "Scoring Ruttmann’s Berlin: Musical Meaning in Historical and Critical Contexts," "Bringing a Little Munich Disco to Babelsberg: Giorgio Moroder’s Score for Metropolis," and "To be in Dialogue with the Film: With Neil Brand and Lillian Henley at the Master Classes at Pordenone Silent Film Festival." You get the score (pun intended). Among the contributor's are Matti Bye and Gillian B. Anderson, two names well familiar to me.

What caught my ear was the chapter by Michael Hammond, "Cowboys, Beggars and the ‘Deep Ellum Blues’: Playing Authentic to Silent Films." Hammond is a member of the Dodge Brothers, a UK-based musical group who have accompanied / performed to the 1928 Louise Brooks film, Beggars of Life on a number of occasions, including once at the pop music festival at Glastonbury, as well as at the Royal Albert Hall, and elsewhere. I have written about the band on a few occasions in the past, and interviewed Hammond back in 2010. When I visited with Kevin Brownlow in London earlier this year, he spoke highly of the group.

In "Cowboys, Beggars and the ‘Deep Ellum Blues’: Playing Authentic to Silent Films," Hammond recounts the times they played not only to Beggars of Life, but also the 1921 William S. Hart film, White Oak.

Hammond states that their approach to musical accompaniment was to "consult" history, rather than to try and reconstruct it; additionally, Hammond states that the Dodge Brothers strive to be "authentic," rather than accurate. Certainly, this approach is a valid one, and in many instances, the only path possible where the original score is missing; an authentic score, based on any surviuving clues, is an option for the musician who wishes to (re)create what it a movie goer might have experienced in the silent era.

The Dodge Brothers intention is to approximate what a moviegoer might experience in a small town theater in Texas or elsewhere, where the locale's local aural flavor would inform the musical accompaniment. This is in opposition to the musical accompaniment one might experience in the big city, like New York City, where the accompaniment was orchestral and more-so highbrow.

The Dodge Brothers lowbrow musical approach is informed by a cornucopia of old-timey music, or what today might be termed "roots music." That is, an exuberant hybrid of country blues, field recordings, country and western, jug band, bluegrass, songsters, and more. There are songs about being lonesome, and songs about trains. The rhythms are rural, and those of the rail in the instance of Beggars of Life. Hammond references Greil Marcus's notion of "the old weird America" as a musical keystone.

For me, the revelation in Hammond's essay is found in his reference to Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR). There, Hammond notes, details of the recording sessions for the original Beggars of Life soundtrack can be found. I will write more about those records and what they reveal in the next blog.

In my opinion, Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema is one of the most interesting books of the year. I encourage everyone to check it out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Best Film Books of 2016 part 2

Here is part two of my annual look at the best film books of the year. Whether you are into biographies, film history, pictorials, “making of” books, or critical studies, there was something for just about everyone in 2016. This year’s list may well top last year’s, which was also bountiful. As a matter of fact, there were so many worthwhile books in 2016 that I split this selection into two pieces. Visit “Best Film Books of 2016” on Huffington Post to check out part one of this year’s recommended titles.'

Revolution and Tradition

In the 1960s and 1970s, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Roger Ebert were three of America’s most widely read film critics, better known, perhaps, than many of the movies they wrote about. What’s little known is that their film criticism was influenced by four earlier critics—Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, James Agee, and Parker Tyler. The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (University Of Chicago Press) by David Bordwell tells that story. Why were they called “Rhapsodes”—it was because of the “passionate and deliberately offbeat nature of their vernacular prose.”

Image is Everything

The movies are a visual medium, and image counts for just about everything. Hollywood Icons: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation (Antique Collectors Club) by Robert Dance collects some of the most stunning portraits of Hollywood stars you are ever likely to see. This new book, the latest to mine the great Kobal collection, features approximately 200 photographs focusing on the great faces that drew moviegoers into movie theaters by the tens of millions. There’s Gloria Swanson and Louise Brooks, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr, as well as Marlon Brando, Gene Kelly and a gorgeous Shirley MacLaine. While some of these images may be familiar, many are not. There are also mini-biographies of the photographers, like Eugene Robert Richee, Ruth Harriet Louise, and George Hurrell.

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop (Regan Arts) by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness, is a fascinating, literally behind-the-scenes history of the painted backdrops and the scenic artists who brought them to the big screen. Also out this year are two small press books on the intersection of film and fashion, The Fashion of Film: Fashion Design Inspired by Cinema (Mitchell Beazley) by Amber Jane Butchart, and Fashion in Film (Laurence King Publishing) by Christopher Laverty. For those keen on the subject, each is worth checking out.

She Could be Chaplin!

Few film historians have done as much to preserve our cinematic history then Anthony Slide. An accomplished and prolific author, Slide’s latest is She Could Be Chaplin!: The Comedic Brilliance of Alice Howell (University Press of Mississippi). Howell (1886–1961) is slowly gaining recognition as one of the important slapstick comediennes of the silent era. This new study, the first book-length appreciation, identifies her place in the comedy hierarchy alongside the best-known of silent comediennes, Mabel Normand. Beginning in 1914, Howell quickly developed a distinctive style and eccentric attire and mannerisms, successfully hiding her good looks, and was soon identified as the “Female Charlie Chaplin.” She was a star by 1915, and continued her career through 1928 and the advent of sound. Howell was also the matriarch of a prominent American family that includes son-in-law and director George Stevens and grandson George Stevens Jr., founder of the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center Honors, who provides a foreword.

Speaking of Charlie Chaplin, Dover has just released The Charlie Chaplin Book: Ten Stories Adapted from Classic Shorts by Robert Keene Thompson, a noted screenwriter of the time. It’s fun. Also just out is Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in America, 1947–77 (Palgrave Macmillan) by Lisa Stein Haven.

Silent Women

As with Alice Howell, there’s renewed interest in documenting the too often little recognized careers of the cinema’s pioneering women—both behind and in front of the camera. Two books that advance the cause are Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema (Aurora Metro Press) edited by Cheryl Robson and Melody Bridges, and REELS & RIVALS: Sisters in Silent Films (BearManor Media) by Jennifer Ann Redmond.

The former looks at early female producers, early female directors, and early African–American female filmmakers, among others; as well, Shelley Stamp contributes an essay on critics, reformers and educators, and Kevin Brownlow contributes his earlier interview with director Dorothy Arzner. REELS & RIVALS is a lot of fun, and something of a revelation. Who knew there were so many sets of sisters in early Hollywood? Beside such superstars as Constance, Natalie, and Norma Talmadge, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and Dolores and Helene Costello, there were also the Flugraths (which included Viola Dana, Shirley Mason and the little known Edna Flugrath) and the Youngs (which included Loretta Young, Sally Blane and the little known Polly Ann Young). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also Laura and Violet La Plante….

Some Biographies of Early Actresses

McFarland is one of the leading publishers of books related to early film. New this year are three biographies of three early actresses, each of which serves as a worthwhile introduction to their subject. The books include, Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap (McFarland) by Timothy Dean Lefler, a look at the great early comedian, Pola Negri: Temptress of Silent Hollywood (McFarland) by Sergio Delgado, a look at the Polish-born superstar who conquered two continents, and Bebe Daniels: Hollywood’s Good Little Bad Girl (McFarland) by Charles L. Epting, a first ever look at the popular silent film star.

Also, don’t miss The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel (Regan Arts) by James Bone. Not only was Munson (1891 – 1996) a great beauty and a remarkable personality sometimes referred to as the “American Venus,” she was also the first American actress to appear naked in a film.

German Film 

Prepare to be impressed by The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907–1933 (University of California Press), edited by Anton Kæs, Nicholas Baer, and Michæl Cowan. This 720 page doorstop is filled with critical essays by the likes of Béla Balázs, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Siegfried Kracauer alongside writings from directors and producers like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Billie Wilder, G.W. Pabst and Erich Pommer, alongside literary writers such as Bertolt, Brecht, Joseph Roth, Alfred Doblin, and Heinrich Mann, alongside actors like Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, and Henny Porten, alongside film world figures like Lotte Eisner, Leni Riefenstahl, and Walter Ruttmann. There are also pieces by the likes of Lou Andreas-Salome, Karl Kraus, Kurt Weill, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. All of it is vintage material, and together, side by side, a vital frisson arises. This is the most comprehensive collection of German writings on film published to date. It is a stunning anthology, and a stunning achievement, and as such qualifies it as the film book of the year.

Also impressive is an adjunct website located at

Film Noir

You know film noir when you see it: the shadowy setting, the cynical detective, the femme fatale, the twist of fate. And then something ends badly. Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950 (Running Press) by Mark A. Vieira highlights this resurgent genre with dozens of compelling photographs and a guide to 82 of its best films. Vieira, one of our fine film historians, quotes the artists who made these movies and the critics who wrote about them, taking readers on a year-by-year tour as movies like Detour, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Sunset Boulevard were released upon an already anxious public. Purchase this book before attending one of the film noir festivals springing up around the country.

More Biographies of Actresses

Three stars who achieved of their greatest fame in the late 1920s and early 1930’s are profiled in three new books.

Winnie Lightner: Tomboy of the Talkies (University Press of Mississippi) by David L. Lightner tells the story of one of the best female comedians of the sound era, and how her career was ruined. Una Merkel: The Actress with Sassy Wit and Southern Charm (BearManor Media) by Larry Sean Kinder tells the story of a quirky actress who more often than not played supporting roles to the more celebrated actors of her day—Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Carole Lombard, and Marlene Dietrich, to name a few. A whole new generation of fans came to know this beautiful brunette actress in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988), though few may have known of her work alongside Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart decades earlier; her story is told in Sylvia Sidney: Paid by the Tear (BearManor Media) by Scott O’Brien.

Also Worth Checking out

Admittedly, this last group of books is a catch-all. Nevertheless, each of these titles is well worth checking out. Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life (Running Press) by Manoah Bowman, and with a foreword Robert Wagner and an afterword by Robert Redford, profiles the child actor (Miracle on 34th Street) who successfully transitioned to adult stardom (Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story). Her contemporary, and co-star in Rebel Without a Cause, is profiled in The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best (Chicago Review Press) edited by Peter L. Winkler, with a foreword by George Stevens Jr. It is a personal look at the iconic star.

I enjoyed Down from the Attic: Rare Thrillers of the Silent Era through the 1950s (McFarland) by John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella. The authors bring back into the light rough gems like Der Tunnel (1915), about the building of a transatlantic tunnel, and The Emperor’s Baker—The Baker’s Emperor (1951), a bizarre Marxist take on the Golem legend.

Last but not least are these two scholarly books, Today’s Sounds for Yesterday’s Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan) edited by K.J. Donnelly and Ann-Kristin Wallengren, and Celluloid Pueblo: Western Ways Films and the Invention of the Postwar Southwest (University of Arizona Press) by Jennifer L. Jenkins.

a variant of this article first appeared on the Huffington Post

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Best Film Books of 2016 part 1

It’s been a surprisingly good year for film books. Whether you are into biographies, film history, pictorials, “making of” books, or critical studies, there was something for just about everyone. This year’s list may top last year’s, which was also bountiful. As a matter of fact, there were so many worthwhile books in 2016 that I was forced to split this article into two pieces. In the coming days, I will post another article with just as many recommendations, if not more.

A House Divided

With Newt Gingrich’s call for a new House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), there may be no relevant book than Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist (University Press of Kentucky) by Kevin Brianton.

This new title centers on a now legendary meeting held by the Screen Directors Guild in 1950 (at the height of the anti-communist “Red Scare”) to consider the adoption of an industry loyalty oath. Among those present at the meeting were some of the biggest names in Hollywood―Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, George Stevens, Fritz Lang, and Rouben Mamoulian, among others. The background to that meeting, its effect on the film industry, who was conservative, who was liberal, and the way the meeting had been depicted in the press is at the heart of this fascinating and provocative new book.

Film is Dead, Long Live the Movies

A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies (University Press of Mississippi) by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph is a candid exploration of a now vanishing subculture. Drawn largely from interviews with their subjects, this intriguing work tells the stories of little known and famous collectors alike. There’s a young Leonard Maltin attending private screenings of rare films in NYC—alongside Susan Sontag, TCM host Robert Osborne discussing Rock Hudson’s secret film vault, and Academy Award–honoree Kevin Brownlow recounting his decades-long quest to restore the 1927 Napoleon. At the center of many of the stories found in A Thousand Cuts was the FBI’s and Justice Department’s campaign to harass, intimidate, and arrest film dealers and collectors in the early 1970s. Among the victims was Planet of the Apes star Roddy McDowall, who was arrested in 1974 and was forced to name names of other collectors. Highly recommended.

Also released this year are two not unrelated books, A Light Affliction: a History of Film Preservation and Restoration ( by Michael Binder, and In Search of Lost Films (BearManor Media) by Phil Hall. The latter work looks at the surprising number of important films believed to be lost, dating from the silent era to the 1970s, by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Kubrick, and others. Read ‘em and weep. Read ‘em and weep.


Just recently, and at last, Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Digitally restored by the BFI National Archive and Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow, this multi-disc set features a complete 2K restoration of a five-and-a-half-hour version of the film, Carl Davis’ electrifying, monumental score, a feature-length commentary, documentaries, an illustrated 60-page book, and more. It’s dizzying, and brilliant.

The story behind this legendary epic film—and oh what a story it is—is told in A Revolution for the Screen: Abel Gance's Napoleon (Amsterdam University Press) by Paul Cuff, one of the contributors to the above mentioned BFI release.

The Purple Diaries

Mary Astor was one of the biggest film stars of the 1930s and 1940s. Her career peaked in 1941, the year she co-starred alongside Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, and won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Great Lie. That was five years after a scandal nearly ruined her.

In 1936, Astor’s second husband began a custody battle over their four-year-old daughter. He threatened to introduce the actress’ diary in the proceedings, which detailed her affairs with celebrities, including the celebrated playwright, theater director and producer George S. Kaufman. The diary was never formally offered as evidence, but Astor’s ex-husband and his lawyers constantly referred to it, and its notoriety grew. Everyone wondered who and what was in it? With the support of the Astor family, including access to the photographs and memorabilia of Astor’s estate, The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s (Diversion Publishing) by Joseph Egan gives a detailed account of the custody battle that, for a time, pushed the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s Olympic Games off the front pages of America.

A different, after the fact, but no less entertaining take on these events can be found in Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 (Liveright) by Edward Sorel. Here, the famed illustrator and cartoonist recounts his own lifelong obsession with the sensational trial, which for Sorel began in 1965 when he began pulling up the linoleum of his kitchen floor apartment and discovered a hidden treasure—issues of the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror from 1936 reporting on scandalous events taking place in Hollywood. Sorel’s book features more than sixty original illustrations.

Everything Orson Welles

Few directors or actors are truly worthy of more than one well done biography, let alone a multi-volume work. Orson Welles is one of those exceptions. In Orson Welles, Volume 3: One-Man Band (Viking), the third volume in his epic four-volume survey of Welles’s life and work, the celebrated British actor and writer Simon Callow details one of the most complex artists of the twentieth century, whose glorious triumphs and occasional spectacular failures in film, radio, theater, and television were each marked an individual and wholly original voice. This third volume begins with Welles’ self-exile from America, and his realization that he could function only to his own satisfaction as an independent film maker, a so-called “one-man band.”

Also out this year is Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey (Thomas Dunne Books) by Harlan Lebo, a study of a singular film masterpiece―of how it was created and how it was almost destroyed.

Everything Alfred Hitchcock

Decades after his last motion picture, Alfred Hitchcock is still regarded by both critics and fans as one of the great filmmakers. His long career ran from the silent era through 1976, the year of his final feature. The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia (Rowman & Littlefield) by Stephen Whitty covers it all―the influences, the early British silent films, the later thrillers, the American television shows, the actors, screenwriters, collaborators, themes, and even the cameos. At 548 pages, it is an impressive work, something one can dip into time and again.

Also out, from the acclaimed literary biographer Peter Ackroyd, comes the curiously titled Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life (Nan A. Talese). At nearly 300 pages, this biography is anything but a gloss on one of the more convoluted directors in film history; but then, Hitch deserves at least three times that number of pages,  so perhaps this is a brief biography after all. Just as the director did in his own films, a handful of iconic film stars make cameo appearances in this book: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and James Stewart despair of Hitchcock’s detached directing style and, most famously of all, Tippi Hedren endures the cuts and bruises of a real-life flock of birds.

Speaking of Tippi Hedren, the actress has penned Tippi: A Memoir (William Morrow), which looks back at her film career and work as an animal rights activist. There are cameo appearances here as well, including Hedren’s daughter, actress Melanie Griffith, and granddaughter, actress Dakota Johnson.

Everything Laurel & Hardy

Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies (Bonaventure Press) by Randy Skretvedt is a detailed account of how the beloved comedy team made their many classic films. At 632 pages (and with 1,000 photographs, many of them rare), this 8.5” by 11” hardcover work stands as one of the most comprehensive books ever issued on any actor or team of actors.

Also out this year is Laurel and Hardy: The Lobby Cards: A Color Collection (CreateSpace) by I. Joseph Hyatt.

King of Jazz

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue (Media History Press) by James Layton and David Pierce, with a foreword by Michael Feinstein, tells the story of the making, release, and restoration of Universal's 1930 Technicolor musical extravaganza. Arguably, King of Jazz was one of the most ambitious films ever to emerge from Hollywood: just as movie musicals were being invented in 1929, Universal Pictures unleashed its purse strings to bring together Paul Whiteman, leader of the country's top dance orchestra, John Murray Anderson, director of spectacular Broadway revues, and an elite ensemble of dancers and singers including Bing Crosby in his first screen appearance. And what’s more, it was done  in glorious new Technicolor. King of Jazz is an impressive film—especially seen on the big screen, and so is this sumptuous book, a kind of coda to the author’s remarkable 2015 title, The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915–1935.

For those who want to delve deeper into the genre, also out this year is Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era: 50 Overlooked Films and Their Stars, 1929-1939 (McFarland) by Edwin M Bradley.

The Marx Brothers

One of the finest books of the year is Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage (Northwestern University Press) by Robert S. Bader, a recognized authority on the famed band of brothers. Thoroughly researched and highly readable, this 500+ page book tells the story of the foursome’s hardscrabble early years honing their act in front of live audiences. Beginning with Groucho’s debut in 1905, Bader traces the origins of the characters and situations that would later come to be beloved by film goers around the world. In doing so, Bader vividly sketches the world of 1920’s vaudeville as the comedy act was on the brink of fame.

There have been many books on the Marx Brothers. Bader’s book is one of the best. As Dick Cavett said, “Who would have dreamed that there could be much, much more to learn in still another book about the Marx Brothers? Not I. And yet, Robert Bader—focusing on the under-researched vaudeville days of the hilarious siblings—has gone where no man went before, discovering a treasure trove of Marxiana to delight the hearts and minds of those of us who can never get enough.”

Also recently released are two related titles, Gimme a Thrill: The Story of I'll Say She Is, The Lost Marx Brothers Musical, and How It Was Found (BearManor Media) by Noah Diamond, and That's Me, Groucho! The Solo Career of Groucho Marx (McFarland) by Matthew Coniam. Each are worth checking out.

Two from Academia

These two titles, both published by university presses, are each groundbreaking works which impress not only with the amount of research that has gone into them, but also for their rich detail and readability.

Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934 (Rutgers University Press) by Laura Horak examines the history of gender-bending female characters in films from the early 20th century. What’s surprising is that there were hundreds of such films, and that some of them included stars we know today, like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn.

Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture, 1913–1916 (University of California Press) by Richard Abel explores the way one traditional medium aided another then new medium. Abel offers a richly textured view of early film stardom, early film criticism, advertising campaigns, and even fan activities on both the local and national level. Published late last year, this fascinating book is a fascinating read.

In Memoriam
Though it came out late last year and went largely unnoticed, Monty Banks 1920-1924 Filmography (CreateSpace) by Robert S. Birchard with Rob Farr, Robert James Kiss, Steve Massa, Karl Thiede and the great Sam Gill well is worth noting. This slim, self-published volume surveys the career of an underappreciated early comedian and film director. It is also the last book by Birchard, a much admired film historian, film editor, and Cinecon president who passed away earlier this year. Robert Birchard is dead. Long live his many works.

There are many more titles that could have been included in this piece. So many in fact that another piece will follow in a few days. So, don’t touch that dial. And stay tuned for “More Best Films Books of 2016.”

a variant of this piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Today / tomorrow save 25% off Louise Brooks edition of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL

Attention Louise Brooks fans everywhere! The Louise Brooks Society and are having a sale. Through December 2 save 25% off the cover price of the Louise Brooks edition of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL using the promo code 1STDAY25 

Visit to take advantage of this special offer.

The 1929 Louise Brooks film, DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, is based on a controversial book first published in Germany in 1905. Though little known today, it was a sensation at the beginning of the 20th Century. Was it – as many believed – the real-life diary of a young woman forced by circumstance into a life of prostitution? Or a sensational and clever fake, one of the first novels of its kind? This bestselling work inspired a sequel, a parody, a play, a score of imitators, and two silent films. It was also translated into 14 languages, and sold more than 1,200,000 copies – a remarkable number then and now.

This new edition of the original English language translation brings this important work back into print in the United States after more than 100 years. It includes an introduction by Thomas Gladysz, Director of the Louise Brooks Society, detailing the book's remarkable history and relationship to the 1929 silent film. This special "Louise Brooks Edition" also includes three dozen vintage illustrations. More at


"Most certainly a book for all you Louise Brooks fans out there! And silent cinema fans as well." – Bristol Silents (UK)

"In today’s parlance this would be called a 'movie tie-in edition,' but that seems a rather glib way to describe yet another privately published work that reveals an enormous amount of research — and passion." – Leonard Maltin, Movie Crazy

"You've done a beautiful thing." – Barry Paris, author of Louise Brooks

"Read today, it's a fascinating time-trip back to another age, and yet remains compelling." – Jack Garner, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

"It was such a pleasure to come upon your well documented and beautifully presented edition." – Elizabeth Boa, University of Nottingham (UK)

"Long relegated to the shadows, Margarete Böhme's 1905 novel, The Diary of a Lost Girl has at last made a triumphant return. In reissuing the rare 1907 English translation of Böhme's German text, Thomas Gladysz makes an important contribution to film history, literature, and, in as much as Böhme told her tale with much detail and background contemporary to the day, sociology and history. This reissue is long overdue, and in all ways it is a volume of uncommon merit." – Richard Buller, author of A Beautiful Fairy Tale: The Life of Actress Lois Moran

"An amazing forward that chronicles the history of Margarete Bohme's book ... a must for any silent film fan." --

"Historian Thomas Gladysz has done the silent film community an interesting service: He has made available the original English translation of Margaret Bohme's novel, The Diary of a Lost Girl. To fans of the beautiful actress Louise Brooks, this is a significant contribution indeed. What makes this new book so appealing is the way in which Mr. Gladysz has presented the vintage material. Featuring a scholarly introduction and numerous, wonderfully reproduced stills and rare advertisements, it is a pleasure to behold. It is also obviously a labor of love." – Lon Davis, author of Silent Lives


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Beggars of Life & Locomotive 102

Philip Vorwald's guest blog concerns the 1928 Louise Brooks film Beggars of Life and it's unlikely star Locomotive 102.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A new song tribute to Louise Brooks

Here is a new song tribute to Louise Brooks, by Champ Clark, as performed by Warren Davis. To my untrained ears, this has a bit of Leonard Cohen and a bit of Tom Waits about it, though more tenderly tender. I like it.

This track is one of a number from the Picture Show: The Dustbowl Carnival Songs of Champ Clark as Reimagined by His Friends album (link to iTunes). Among the other tracks is "Buster Keaton's Blues," "The Crooner," and "The Boyish Bob and the Drugstore Cowboy."