A pioneering photographer of the early cinema, James Abbe captured the spirit of entertainment in New York, Hollywood and Europe in the 1920s with his magically-lit portraits of the stars of screen and stage. A unique album of show business personalities, this book brings together Abbe’s iconic images of silent movie stars, his exuberant studies of revues at the Folies Bergere, and his fascinating record of early British cinema. Concluding with his reportage of the turbulent politics of the 1930s, Limelight encapsulates an era through one man’s brilliant career.
Born in Alfred, Maine, James Abbe’s boyhood took place in Portsmouth, Virginia. His family owned the most important bookstore in that maritime city. At its counter James sold his photographs of ship launchings and arrivals taken with an inexpensive camera. Saturated with the print culture of the period, Abbe realized that photography was underutilized as illustration in American periodicals. He began placing photo illustrations with magazines in 1916. In 1917 he moved to New York City.
A sociable, witty man, Abbe had little trouble placing photographs in periodicals, but his break into the world of theatrical photography took place when he made a number of memorable portraits of the Barrymore brothers on stage in costume during dress rehearsals for “The Jest” in 1919. Abbe became fascinated with the nascent movie industry. He did portrait photography for several New York based cinema groups, especially for D.W. Griffith, and became the third New York based camera artist (after Karl Struss & Frank Bangs) to venture to the West Coast and work as a lensman in Hollywood. He worked for Mack Sennett for several months, even directing a now-lost comic two reeler, and as a photographer for Photoplay for another several month stint. He was the first bicoastal entertainment photographer.
Abbe had a remarkable talent for inspiring trust in stars and Lillian Gish convinced him to come to Italy in 1923 to work as a lighting consultant and still photographer for “The White Sister.” He closed his Broadway studio, abandoned his wife and children, and moved to Italy. He spent the next period of his life in Europe, photographing movie and stage productions in Paris and London and working as a photojournalist. Several landmark photographs of Joseph Stalin in a trip into the Soviet Union during the late 1930s would make him a celebrity of news photography during the late 1930s. His book, I Photograph Russia, was one of the important volumes of early photojournalism. He signed his vintage prints with his last name in red crayon on the lower-left corner of his images. He used a credit stamp for publicity images. Despite the relatively short duration of his career on Broadway, he was one of the greatest portraitists of the great age of theatrical portrait photography.
Abbe’s theatrical work was one of three photographic specialties he cultivated during his career. He also became an expert movie still photographer in 1920 and an important photojournalist in the 1930s. Brought to New York by magazine publishers interested in his experiments for using photographs as illustrations for narratives, Abbe won overnight renown in 1919 for his stage portraits of performers in costume. Enhancing the available stage lighting with a battery of portable lamps, he made intensely vivid images suggestive of interrupted stories.
One of the funniest, if not the funniest comedic actor of all time being interviewed on network TV by Gene Shalitin 1980. So much fun watching him change accents and talk about his career.
He is best remembered for his role of inept French police Inspector ‘Jacques Clouseau’ in the “Pink Panther” series of films (1964 to 1982). The last of that series, “Trail of the Pink Panther” (1982) was made after his death, using film clips and unseen footage from his earlier “Pink Panther” movies. Born Richard Henry Sellers in Southsea, Hampshire, England, his parents worked in an acting company run by his grandmother. During World War II, he enlisted in the British Army, where he met future actors Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Michael Bentine. Following the war, he set up a review in London, which was a combination of music and impressions (he played the drums), which led to his doing impressions on BBC television’s “The Goon Show.” Moving rapidly into a series of British comedy films during the mid-1950s, he quickly caught widespread audience appeal, and each successful role led to more and better films. Following British comic tradition of doing multiple roles in the same play, he was adept at performing multiple roles in his movies, including his hilarious “The Mouse that Roared” (1959) (playing three different parts), the black comedy, “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), (playing an pragmatic RAF officer, a wimpy United States President and a weird German scientist), and “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1979) (playing the roles of Rudolf IV, Rudolf V, and Syd Frewin). In 1959, he won the British equivalent of an Oscar for his role of ‘Fred Kite’, a labor leader in “I’m All Right, Now,” (1959), and in 1979 he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role of ‘Chance Gardiner’ in his film, “Being There” (1979). He was married four times, to Ann Howe (1951 to 1961), to actress Britt Ekland (1964 to 1968), to Miranda Quarry (1970 to 1974), and to actress Lynn Frederick (1977 to his death in 1980).
How: To join in, please leave me a comment on this post and let me know which Buster film or Buster-related topic you want to cover! (Or feel free to send me a message). Please add one of my banners to your blog (see the original post at Silent-ology.com) to help spread the word about this event. During the blogathon itself, when you publish your post leave me a comment with the post’s link, or send me a message, whichever you prefer. Please mention my blog and the name of the event in your blogathon post (such as “This post is part of Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.”) Post whenever you have time during March 9 and 10th, no pressure! If you post before March 9 that’s fine too, just give me a head’s up.
What to write about: Anything and everything related to the brilliant Buster Keaton’s life and career. (Check out his filmography for some ideas.) Articles about his crew and the many wonderful actors who appeared in his films are welcome, too.
For ideas and inspiration, here’s the links to the First, Second,Third,Fourth and Fifth Buster Blogathons. Whew–we’ve got quite a library of Keaton essays going!
I’m also thrilled to share that this year the venerable International Buster Keaton Society is our blogathon’s official sponsor! Founded by Patricia Tobias in 1994, the Keaton Society (nicknamed the “Damfinos”) has worked tirelessly to help preserve Buster’s legacy and introduce him to new generations. From their website:
to foster and perpetuate appreciation and understanding of the life, career, and films of comedian/filmmaker Buster Keaton;
to advocate for historical accuracy about Keaton’s life and work;
to encourage dissemination of information about Keaton;
to endorse preservation and restoration of Keaton’s films and performances;
to do all of the above with a sense of humor that includes an ongoing awareness of the surreal and absurd joy with which Keaton made his films.
James Abbe deserves his place in the hall of fame of great photographers for the two important strands of his career: as portraitist to the glittering stars of the 1920’s world of theater and film, and as a pioneer American Photojournalist observing firsthand the dramatically changing European cultural and political situation in his various travels throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.
Abbe was lured to the limelight of the east and west coast film studios of America and the theater stages of New York, London and Paris. In each place, he managed to encapsulate the illusions of performance into still visions of enchantment.
The first film star Abbe photographed was Marguerite Clark. Although now more or less forgotten, Clark was one of the highest-paid and most popular stars of her day. The New York Times ranked his as one of “the big four”, her fame rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., all of whom Abbe also captured.
Perhaps his most enduring relationship in the film world was with the Gish sisters. Lillian Gish is thought to be the greatest dramatic actress of the silent era, and her sister Dorothy, capable of a wide range of acting styles, was one of the greatest comediennes of the time.
Abbe visited Hollywood in 1920 and 1922 where he took portraits of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, and also directed a film for Mack Sennett. After working for seven months on location in Italy with Ronald Colman – Lillian Gish film ‘The White Sister“(1923), Abbe made his base in Paris. His main reputation as a theater photographer preceded him and soon he was gravitating towards the best in French theatre and revue, including the Dolly Sisters, and Mistinguette, introducing them to a worldwide audience through his picture syndication.
Abbe soon became one of the leading celebrity photographers of the 1920s and is best known for these iconic portraits of both cinema and stage. He quickly established an international reputation, appearing in Vanity Fair, Ladies Home Journal,Vogue,British Tatler, French Vu, and many other publications.
Throughout the 1920s, Abbe made regular trips back and forth between London, Paris, and London to photograph theatre and film-making activities. He also traveled to Spain, Germany, Russian, the USA, and Mexico as a correspondent.
When you think of jobs that have gone the way of the dodo, certain ones spring to mind right away: chimney sweeps. Switchboard operators. Bowling alley pinsetters. Organ grinders’ monkeys. Almost every flea circus ringmaster. Well, just imagine what it was like to have a career as a title card artist or title card writer in the late 1920s when talkies were coming in–it must’ve been pretty intense.
It must’ve been a little sad, too. For even though titles (or “captions,” or “subtitles,” or “leaders,” as they were variously called–today we often call them “intertitles”) were sometimes considered a tad intrusive even back then, they did evolve into their own skilled artform.
Tracking the early stages of that evolution is tough, since many of the oldest silents are missing their titles–typically the main titles. Usually this is due to being damaged by countless threadings on countless projectors, or because the film stock was cheap and didn’t hold up over time. Plus, foreign theaters often swapped English titles for ones in their own language.
From what we can tell, 1900s and early 1910s films often used plain black backgrounds with white lettering. This was the standard since they were thought to be easier on the eyes than white backgrounds (eye strain was a big concern in the early cinema dadys). Since piracy became an issue almost the second Louis Le Prince and Thomas Edison got twinkles in their eyes, studios soon began adding their logos to the titles.
Notice the plain, sans-serif font above. As studios began churning out alarming amounts of one-reel and split-reel films, they found one of the quickest ways to make titles was to arrange simple white metal or cardboard letters on a black velvet background. There were also special printing machines available just for creating title cards, helping to further streamline the process.
At times, early titles could be a bit experimental. In this still from Alice in Wonderland(1903), the title is overlaid over a live action shot of Alice:
And in the famous The Great Train Robbery (1903), we see what are hand-drawn (or perhaps artfully arranged) letters complete with flourishes:
In time, studios started adopting specific templates for their titles, putting the words inside artistic frames. Each studio had their own style, whether it was the same frame for every film (like Keystone’s main titles) or several frames with similar motifs (like the work of Segundo de Chomón):
By the 1910s, film was rapidly growing more sophisticated, and so were title cards. While typed letters were still in use, hand-drawn lettering was very common since filmmakers felt it had more character. Stencils with openings for rows of words ensured everything was properly spaced and centered. Designers began utilizing more of the empty spaces, adding painterly backgrounds or “pictorial embellishments” and trying different fonts, as in this example in From the Manger to the Cross (1912):
In time, someone (wish I knew who) came up with one of the most popular trends of the silent era–adding little cartoons or paintings that served as humorous illustrations or visual commentary. Slapstick comedy and light comedies especially gravitated toward these charming touches:
These kinds of “art titles” became so common that directors of “serious” dramas would sometimes deliberately opt for plain titles–a 1922 book called Photoplay Writingexplained: “There is a mighty good theory on the part of some producers that the plainly lettered title devoid of ‘art’ or the trick photography is better calculated to carry along the story, for, after all, the play is the thing!” Well, that was oneopinion, anyways.
Other trends were temporary. Starting in 1912, many of the major studios would add a film’s name to the top of all its title cards. This was mainly for people who would stroll into the theater in the middle of the show (a common occurrence when films were replayed all day). It also helped solve the problem of those easily-wrecked main titles.
Other things like textured backgrounds became very common, a nice break from the usual black velvet. Wallpaper, watercolor paintings, wood panels, burlap, carpeting, and different types of cloth could all be used, with the actual titles superimposed using double exposures.
And as the plain backgrounds became more decorative, the plainer fonts of the 1900s gradually gave way to the quainter letters that we associate with silent films today. These often included modest flourishes:
Probably the most widely-used type of lettering was what I’ve dubbed the “lazy ‘E’ font,” neat and rounded with a slightly tilted “E”. Note the extra tall “illuminated capital” in the example below, also a very common embellishment:
There were animated titles too, such as this famous “watery” example from Sunrise(1927):
And of course, in the meantime the avant-garde world tended to do precisely what it wanted to:
Towards the end of the silent era, titles grew more slick–along with the rest of the film industry. Main titles started condensing as much information as possible, including the names of producers and directors and proclaiming the main stars with bold lettering:
Title cards did linger into the talkie era a bit, popping up sparingly in comedy shorts and dramas. And of course, the main titles were essential. But the heyday of printed captions was over, and the artists and writers responsible for them (hopefully) transitioned into set design and screenplay writing.
And that takes us to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), sometimes considered the very last silent film. And if we consider it the last silent film, then perhaps this is the very last official title card–a plucky message of hope as the Tramp and his love walk off hand-in-hand. For me, there is perhaps a faint tinge of nostalgia for the title card itself:
A “thank you” to historian Paul Gierucki for assisting me with some of the information on Keystone title cards!
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Lea Stans writes this wonderful blog and it can be read at HERE!
A reviewer from Variety wrote, “The resultant chaos and several new stunts will be bound to bring the laughter, and the star’s display of agility and acrobatics approaches some of the Douglas Fairbanks pranks. Chaplin has always been throwing things in his films, but when he ‘eases’ a cook stove out of the window onto the head of his adversary on the street below, that pleasant little bouquet adds a new act to his repertory. Easy Street certainly has some rough work in it–maybe a bit rougher than the others–but it is the kind of stuff that Chaplin fans love. In fact, few who see Easy Street will fail to be furnished with hearty laughter.”
New documentary film on BusterKeaton by Peter Bogdanovich opening Oct 5th.
A loving tribute from one legend to another, the latest film from Bogdanovich (subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Quad Sept 28 – Oct 4) offers an insightful and highly entertaining look at famed comedian and filmmaker Buster Keaton. Featuring footage from Keaton’s visionary silent comedies (freshly restored by the Cohen Media Group and showing at the Quad October 5 – 11) and interviews with Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Knoxville, and many more, Bogdanovich—one of our greatest film historians and directors—traces the life and art of “The Great Stone Face” with a wry sense of humor and generous critical eye. A Cohen Media Group release
“Perhaps few actors have enjoyed such a cult following as the great Lon Chaney, whose remarkable makeup and acting skills have inspired generations of film lovers. I am pleased to present this article from my blog, Silent-ology, on the life and career of a man who became a legend in his own time. –Lea Stans”
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Lon Chaney, Hollywood’s Finest Character Actor
Per a reader’s request, here is a piece on one of the greatest and most respected silent film legends–Lon Chaney. As you read this, I am currently at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–and yes, I’ll be recapping every moment of it!
There was a popular, widespread joke back in the 1920s–“Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!” A joke which, of course, referred to his remarkable use of makeup and acting skills to create bizarre characters who stick in the popular imagination. Indeed, Chaney was one of the rare actors who was so skilled that he became a legend in his own time, graced with the title “The Man of a Thousand Faces”–a title which is linked with his name to this very day.
His birth name was Leonidas Frank Chaney, and he was born in Colorado Springs on April 1, 1883. His parents, Frank and Emma, were both deaf and mute. They had met at the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes, which had been founded by Chaney’s grandfather. Being the child of parents who couldn’t hear or speak, Chaney became adept at pantomime, which proved a useful training ground for his career–not only because of the pantomime used in early films, but because it made him more in tune with facial expressions and subtle gestures. When Chaney’s mother fell ill and developed rheumatism in her hands, she and Chaney reportedly would communicate only with their eyes.
As a young man Chaney quickly became set on having a stage career, and in 1902 he began working in vaudeville. He enjoyed a variety of stage roles and would also assist with Universalcostumes, makeup and choreography. In 1905 he married stage singer Cleva Creighton, and on February 10, 1906, their son Creighton Tull Chaney was born (he would one day go by Lon Chaney Jr.). It’s said that little Creighton was born premature and not breathing and that Lon, not knowing what else to do, rushed outside into the cold, knocked a hole in the ice of a lake and dunked the infant in the water, shocking him back to life.
Unfortunately, the marriage proved to be an unhappy one, involving jealousy and Cleva’s growing drinking problem. In April 1913 the Chaneys were in Los Angeles where Lon was working at the Majestic Theater. One day Cleva went to the theater, stood in the wings and attempted suicide by drinking mercuric chloride. While this dark, dramatic gesture didn’t claim her life, it did destroy her singing voice and caused a scandal that essentially put an end to Chaney’s theatrical career. He would divorce Cleva and take custody of his son, and with his stage options now closed, he had no choice but to fall back on a less lofty line of work–acting in motion pictures. (At least, it was less lofty back in 1913.)
He became an extra at Universal, partly because of his skill with makeup, and soon proved himself to be a reliable supporting actor. His earliest role that we can confirm was in Poor Jake’s Demise (1913), starring comedians Max Asher and Louise Fazenda. In 1914 he would remarry a woman named Hazel Hastings, and it would be a happy and lasting union.
Over the next few years, Chaney appeared in dozens and dozens of films, playing a wide variety of characters and often specializing in villains–an easy fit for a man with the square-jawed, rough-hewn face of a boxer or a steelworker. He grew deeply interested in creating detailed makeup effects and would photograph his various experiments to pinpoint what would be convincing onscreen. He kept his various greasepaints and other tools of transformation in a simple lunchbox–one day he would use a toolbox.
Chaney attracted attention as the villain Hame Bozzam in William S. Hart’s western Riddle Gawne (1918), but he got his breakthrough role in the drama The Miracle Man (1919). Chaney played a contortionist nicknamed “The Frog” who’s part of a gang that moves to a small town to escape the police. They discover that a faith healer has much of the town in thrall. They decide to scam the townspeople by having The Frog pose as a cripple and pretend to be miraculously healed and then use the resulting excitement to collect funds–supposedly for a chapel. But their plans go awry when a little boy really does experience a miraculous healing, and the gang’s, shall we say, “faith in fakery” is shaken.
Sadly, much of this intriguing The Miracle Man is lost, but luckily surviving clips show The Frog experiencing his “miraculous” healing. Chaney’s exceptional use of jerky body language to convey crippled limbs becoming straight is so convincing that to this day many people believe he was double-jointed, or at least knew how to dislocate his shoulders–not so. The performance put Chaney on the map as an exceptional and in-demand character actor.
Picture-Play Magazine interviewed Chaney in 1920, and the writer noted with some surprise:
The longer I talked with Lon Chaney the more paradoxical he proved to be. I had expected to find he was a circus contortionist or, at least, a veteran character actor. He is merely a talented young man with a hobby for cooking, painting, wood carving, modeling in clay, and in grease paint. He contradicts all notions of what an actor and villain should be…Acting to him means the creation of a man, whereas most of our favorite actors portray their personalities as pigment, Chaney, like the artist of sculpting or painting, creates from an imaginative model which has nothing to do with himself.
This would prove to be a rare peek into Chaney’s home life. Soon he would shy away from interviews and steer clear of Hollywood social events, preferring to keep the focus on his characters. He would once say: “My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me. It has taken me years to build up a mystery surrounding myself, which is my stock in trade.”
The Moving Picture Weekly, December 1920.
The Penalty (1920) is a fascinating example of his commitment to that stock in trade. Chaney plays a criminal whose legs were unnecessarily amputated above the knee after a childhood accident, and who finally decides to take revenge on the doctor. Chaney tied his legs back with special harnesses and walked on his kneecaps to portray the amputee, which was so painful that he could only act for ten minutes at a time. Originally, the film included a shot at the end of Chaney walking down a staircase–to prove the actor did have normal legs.
His fame only increased with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), a huge hit that featured his most extreme makeup. As the grotesquely deformed Quasimodo, Chaney used layers of cotton and colodium on his face and sported fake teeth and a 20-lb hump on his back, all of which took three hours to put together. He also used a brace to keep himself in a hunched-over position special contact lenses and (in the 1920s these would’ve been made of glass). He was paid the generous salary of $2500 a week–a big achievement for someone who, in his early Universal days, was once told he would never be worth more than $100 a week.
Other iconic roles included the circus clown HE in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), the first film to begin production with the newly-formed MGM studio; Sergeant O’Hara in Tell It to the Marines (1926), which earned Chaney an honorary membership in the U.S. Marine Corps; and, of course, the titular Phantom of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Chaney’s elaborate makeup was kept a complete secret, for maximum screen effect. Not only did the famous unmasking scene scare the daylights out of countless audiences (publicity stories claimed some people fainted), but it seems to have stuck in their minds long after other movie memories had faded. Even decades later, old-timers would recall their childhood terror of first seeing that ghastly face.
Chaney’s other iconic role is one we haven’t even seen–the ghoulish character from the thoroughly lost London After Midnight (1927). With his pointed teeth, long hair, and top hat, Chaney was the embodiment of many a Halloween haunted house decoration. Although it’s one of the most sought-after silent films (despite getting lackluster reviews in its own day), London After Midnight, unfortunately, shows no signs of turning up.
Tod Browning’s The Unknown is not only one of Chaney’s bizarre best but it also contains one of the rawest moments of horror in cinematic history. (SPOILERS at the end of this paragraph.) Chaney is Alonzo the Armless, a performer who secretly binds his arms to pose as a circus freak with a knife-throwing act (he keeps his hands out of sight so his double thumb can’t identify him as a former criminal). He falls hard for beautiful Nanon, a fellow performer who has a phobia of men’s arms and can’t stand being touched by them. But she’s comfortable around Alonzo, and he’s so head-over-heels in love that he decides to go through an unbelievably extreme act of devotion–have his arms amputated so they can be together. Unfortunately, his rival, the strongman, is able to overcome Nanon’s phobia and Alonzo finds out too late that he’s had his arms amputated for nothing–a truly horrifying moment of realization that Chaney plays to the hilt.
Chaney wasn’t enthused about the advent of talkies, feeling that if audiences heard his voice it would destroy his mystique. Eventually, he was talked into appearing in the crime drama The Unholy Three (1930), playing the ventriloquist Echo–and giving a solid performance. But sadly, it would be his final film. Lung cancer, which he had been secretly enduring for some time, finally claimed his life on August 26, 1930, after he began hemorrhaging uncontrollably. The news he had been taken to the hospital had moved countless fans to call the studio offering to donate blood, and the news of his death shocked both the public and the industry alike.
Fortunately, Chaney’s elaborate makeups were not doomed to obscurity. Today he continues to awe and inspire, one of the rare actors whose work is considered untouchable. And it’s moved some of his fans to declare, “Lon Chaney Shall Not Die!”
Howe, Herbert. “A Miracle Man of Makeup.” Picture-Play Magazine, March, 1920.
Gebhart, Myrtle. “The Last of Mr. Chaney.” Picture-Play Magazine, September, 1930.
Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Koszarski, Richard. The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.
“Chaney Dies As Fan Thousands Swamp Phone; Scores Offer Blood.” Variety, August 27, 1930.