Gladys Brockwell: Too little time to talk

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Gladys Brockwell (with Robert Elliott) stood out as a world-weary girlfriend of a gangster in the landmark 1928 Warner Bros. talkie “Lights of New York.”

“Is Gladys Brockwell going to be one of the new stars?” The Los Angeles Times posed this question to its readers on August 5, 1928. And with good reason: Brockwell’s performance was the highlight of Warner Bros.’ new crime drama, Lights of New York.

Well, that and the sound. Lights of New York was Hollywood’s first all-talking feature-length picture, and audiences forgave the flimsy plotting and the technologically imposed, claustrophobic recording and camera work to hear dialogue that they heretofore could only read from an intertitle.

Initially intended as a short subject, Lights of New York was elongated to a feature-length 57 minutes, With a final negative cost of $23,000, it grossed an astounding $1.2 million and, groused WB scenarist (and future Fox studio boss) Darryl Zanuck, “turned the whole g–damn tide” toward the permanence of talkies.

Gladys Brockwell – born 124 years ago today — had become one of the first actors to benefit from the sound revolution. But less than a year after the release of Lights of New York – and less than 11 months after the Times speculated on her promising future — she was dead. The Twenties hadn’t even finished Roaring.

Brockwell was 33 – no youngster – when she played the moll, loyal “for more years than she cared to admit,” of a bootlegging nightclub owner (Wheeler Oakman) in Lights of New York. This was a film that was derided – in 1928! — for its primitive technique, including several unintentionally humorous moments having to do with character groupings (to suit the stationary, hidden microphone) and slow-paced, hackneyed dialogue (co-written by future WB “woo-woo” comic Hugh Herbert). “Take him for … a ride!” the chief villain unconvincingly orders his minions to dispatch a fall guy.

Anyone who thinks Singin’ in the Rain exaggerates the hazards of the transition to sound needs to see how much stranger truth was than fiction.

The hapless fall guy and his girlfriend are played by Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, whose respective film careers came to screeching halts once patrons had voices to match to their faces. Fellow Lights players Oakman, Eugene Pallette, Tom Dugan, Robert Elliott and Mary Carr adjusted to sound and kept on working, and so, at first, did Brockwell. Audiences heard her final-reel speech (after the moll has done away with her lover) – “I’m not afraid. I’ve lived … and I’ve loved … and I’ve lost!” – and they were ready for more.

She was ready, too. Brockwell was not a new star, just one newly returned to the firmament. Introduced to pictures while not yet in her 20s, the Brooklyn native rose in stature by playing the “siren heroine” type.

“In the early days of pictures, Miss Brockwell ranked among the favorites,” stated one newspaper feature. “ … Largely on account of her sincerity, she was one of the most popular actresses of the film colony. If she liked a person, it didn’t matter about his or her worldly standing or possessions. Once, Gladys lost a very big contract with a powerful picture company because she criticised [sic] to the face a movie magnate who had been overworking his extra people.”

The failure of an early marriage was a setback in her personal life, but Brockwell expanded her professional repertoire by playing costume parts in Oliver Twist (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). One of her most prestigious roles was as Nana, the abusive older sister of the prostitute heroine played by Janet Gaynor, in Fox’s popular drama 7th Heaven (1927). All three of the above films, as well as Lights of New York, are available in full on DVD. (One of Brockwell’s fellow cast members in 7th Heaven, Albert Gran, died under unlikely circumstances, as did the subject here.)

Once 7th Heaven and Lights of New York were done, Brockwell signed to perform in no fewer than eight upcoming films, at least five with all or partial dialogue, the L.A. Times reported. The newspaper thus thought it a good idea to ask this conqueror of the Devil Microphone about her triumph.

“Do you know you can have stage fright before the microphone? It’s true,” Brockwell replied. “I have felt my knees shaking more when I faced the microphone than ever in days of the stage. … There isn’t any music [played] on the sets to set the tempo as in the silent films, but there is the music within us and the music of the players’ voices and emotions.”

Brockwell found time to parody her own recovered image as a star in a Vitaphone short subject, Hollywood Bound (1928). She appears as the glamorous seducer of a rube (James Bradbury Jr.) who is shown winning a contest granting him an acting contract at a Hollywood studio. (It can be seen as part of this DVD collection.)

After Lights of New York, Brockwell was seen in quick succession in two late-1928 releases, and there would be five more in theaters during 1929. The last of them, Universal’s courtroom drama The Drake Case, debuted in September … but Brockwell had been gone two months by then.

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Newspaper accounts such as this one in the Los Angeles Times covered the impending death of Gladys Brockwell in 1929.

The end was a shock to all. On June 27, 1929, Brockwell was a passenger in a new roadster driven by Thomas Stanley Brennan, a Los Angeles advertising representative, when it went over a 75-foot embankment off the Ventura Highway near Calabasas, California. Brockwell’s body was crushed, and one particularly vivid newspaper wire-service account said she had suffered fractures of the skull, pelvis and jaws, with “a jagged ten-inch gash in her right side, caused by broken glass.”

The car “turned over three times after striking the bottom” below the embankment, the L.A. Times noted helpfully in the first of a series of articles during what turned out to be a death watch. As the auto had neared a sharp curve while at a high rate of speed, the story said, Brennan “failed to take the newness of the car into account … and the machine leaped over the edge.”

Both victims were unconscious at the site, but Brennan soon awoke to tell investigators that a cinder had blown into his eye just as his car was approaching the curve. Brockwell reportedly emerged from her stupor long enough to claim she had been at the wheel, but officials noted her “semiconscious state at the time of the questioning.”

At one point, physicians told the press that Brockwell might recover, but after four blood transfusions, she died on July 2, 1929. The immediately stated cause was peritonitis, caused by an intestinal puncture.

Brockwell’s passing seemed to be just as well, accounts implied, for her face had been paralyzed by the severing of a nerve, and her career before the camera would have been halted. A coroner’s jury ruled that Brennan had indeed been at the wheel of the car and that the accident was indeed caused by the temporary blindness caused by the cinder.

There was a postscript to Brockwell’s fatal accident. On February 11, 1949, a car skidded across a bridge in Los Angeles, smashed through a concrete barrier, and dropped 35 feet to an alleyway below. The driver was severely injured, but his passenger died at the scene. The passenger’s name was Thomas Stanley Brennan, and he’d been an ad man in L.A. back in the summer of 1929.

 

SOURCES

“New Film Royalty May Arise,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1928.

Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

“Gladys Brockwell, Star of Films, Dying After Machine Plunges Over 75-Foot Bank,” United Press report, cited from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Evening News, June 28, 1929.

“Actress Crushed by Auto,” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1929.

“Film Actress Near Death,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1929.

“Actress Has Fair Chance to Recover,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1929.

“Plunge Injuries Fatal to Gladys Brockwell,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1929.

“Gladys Brockwell Dies of Injuries,” Associated Press report, cited from Owensboro (Kentucky) Messenger, July 3, 1929.

“Last Rites of Actress Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1929.

“Gladys Brockwell Is Mourned,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1929.

“Rider Killed as Car Drops From Bridge,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1949.

Ancestry.com

A few notes from … Walter Pidgeon?

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Walter Pidgeon wore fancy costumes in “Sweet Kitty Bellairs” (1930) and other early operettas.

To most film fans, Walter Pidgeon will be best remembered for his stolid acting in classics such as How Green Was My Valley, Forbidden Planet and, to cite just one of his many pairings with Greer Garson at MGM, Mrs. Miniver. But as we mark his 121st birthday on September 23, I’ll admit that I think of him first as a baritone in early musicals, both comedies and operettas.

A native of New Brunswick, Pidgeon (1897-1984) came to the United States after World War I service with his native Canada. He went into banking initially but gained a footing on stage and in silent pictures. When talkies came in, Pidgeon – who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music – found himself in demand for singing parts.

Pidgeon sang in such Warner Bros.-First National songfests as Bride of the Regiment (1930, opposite Vivienne Segal); Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930, with Claudia Dell); Viennese Nights (1930, Segal again), and Kiss Me Again (1931, Bernice Claire). He also appeared in, but did not sing in, Warners’ The Hot Heiress (1931) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). By 1931, Warner Bros. had no use for Pidgeon’s baritone, as musicals were out of vogue.

Pidgeon also sang in Universal’s first talkie, Melody of Love (1928), which may or may not be a musical. (Someone will have to find it, and see it, before we know for sure.)

Pidgeon endured a downturn in his film career and returned to New York for a spell in the 1930s, but as we know, he rebounded very nicely.

I’m planning to write more about Bernice Claire and Kiss Me Again soon, so consider this a teaser of sorts …

On top of the world: Al Jolson’s ‘The Singing Fool’ turns 90

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In 1928, the star — and the sound — made “The Singing Fool” a runaway hit.

“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” was what Al Jolson exalted when he opened his mouth to sing in his landmark 1927 (part-)talkie, The Jazz Singer. He might have said the same for the following year’s The Singing Fool, in which audibly crazed audiences heard even more talk and song by the singular entertainer billed as far above the title as Warner Bros. could accommodate.

The Singing Fool premiered 90 years ago tonight at the Winter Garden theater in New York City, where a scribe from the movie trade publication Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World reported thusly:

“It is doubtful if, in all the history of … films, there has ever been so exciting and spectacular an opening as came to the Winter Garden. … Of course, the Warner Brothers were the center of attention, for Jolson has been their great discovery, in many ways the cornerstone of the great edifice they are now building. …

“The picture was a smashing success. Though the script is not quite worthy of the star, he showed himself to be so extraordinary that no one can doubt but that it will take the country by storm, as did The Jazz Singer.”

Folks unfamiliar with The Singing Fool might think the musical drama is an all-talkie, but actually only about two-thirds of its 102 minutes includes dialogue or musical numbers to augment a fully synchronized underscore. And it premiered two months after Warners debuted the first all-talking feature, the otherwise-routine crime drama Lights of New York. The novelty of the Lloyd Bacon-directed Singing Fool tends to overshadow its story of the “fool” of a singer-songwriter played by Jolie, who rockets from waiting tables to nightclub and recording fame while gaining and losing an unloving wife (Josephine Dunn) and a greater love, his “Sonny Boy” (played by 3 1/2-year-old Davey Lee).

The almost unbearably sad “Sonny Boy” was written in that hyper-mood as a joke by the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, but the public made it the first song from a movie to sell more than 1 million copies of sheet music and phonograph records. It and the more upbeat “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder” were what patrons were humming as they left theaters after watching The Singing Fool. The cringey father-son scenes don’t play so well today, and Jolson’s overbearing quality would catch up to him as an actor (his ensuing WB releases were flops, and his contract with the studio was allowed to run out in 1930), but that wasn’t the case nine decades ago this evening.

The Singing Fool sometimes gets lost in the recitations of early-sound-history shorthand: Edison … the French … the De Forest shorts … WB and Vitaphone … Fox-Case … Don JuanThe Jazz Singer Lights of New YorkThe Broadway Melody … and now we’re into 1929. But The Singing Fool was a signal accomplishment as the first talking-film megahit. It cost less than $400,000 to make, but it grossed $3.8 million in this country and nearly $6 million worldwide, setting box office records unrivaled until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came along nearly a decade later.

Not that many theaters around the country were wired for sound when Singing Fool made its run, but It could command top dollar. Ticket buyers for opening night at the Winter Garden got in for $11, and the film went for $3 for its regular run there … this in a day when the average price of a movie ticket was 25 cents.

Pare Lorentz, then a young, intellectual film critic whose landmark documentaries about the New Deal were a few years ahead, had to offer at least grudging praise of Jolson in The Singing Fool: “Obvious and tedious as the climax is, when the blackface comedian stands before the camera and sings ‘Sonny Boy,’ you know that the man is greater, somehow, than the situation, the story, or the movie.”

Turner Classic Movies isn’t airing The Singing Fool for its birthday (that channel hasn’t shown it since 2014), but the TCM website has what is alleged to be a trailer of the British reissue here. And there is a DVD available for purchase from Warner Archive (info here).

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Little Davey Lee became a short-time star after appearing with Al Jolson in “The Singing Fool.”

SOURCES

“1st $3 Top Film Is Jolson’s at Garden,” Variety, September 26, 1928.

“Jolson’s Singing Fool Makes Spectacular Garden Opening,” Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, September 29, 1928.

Judge, October 20, 1928.

EMB, The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927-32 (McFarland & Co., 1996).

Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-30 (Simon and Schuster, 1997).

 

 

‘Menace,’ Paramount’s Halloween treat of 1934

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Someone seeks to silence Gertrude Michael in the Paramount chiller “Menace” (1934).

This is the latest in an occasional series of blogs about Paramount horror and semi-horror films of the 1930s. Previously: This Pre-Code Thriller Was Inspired by a Very Un-Trump-Like New York Landlord Family, “Murder by the Clock” … and the Karloff Who Wasn’t, “The Witching Hour” Strikes One Last Time.

In the wake of the mid-1934 enforcement of the Production Code smoothing the raw edges off Hollywood product, some feared it would lead to slim pickings in the horror-film field that fall. And so we had the Miller Theater in Jefferson City, Missouri, showcasing the Paramount programmer Menace as its Halloween night attraction.

The Miller’s was a midnight show advertised as a “A Grand and Glorious Hallowe’en Party” with “spooky short subjects” and a “most unique costume” contest (with top prizes of $5, $3 and $2!). But the featured “super-thriller” was a mere old-dark-house murder mystery – with nary a ghost or goblin within its 57 minutes. “It is said that those with weak hearts should not be present,” crowed the J-City newspaper in advance. No one needn’t have worried in that town, nor in the others (and there were others) who made Menace a holiday treat.

Even if it is a borderline horror at best, Menace is not without its delights. The influential historian-film collector William K. Everson made this film worth seeking out to many Golden Age fantasy-pic completists when he discussed it in his 1994 book More Classics of the Horror Film. The “monster” of the story is indeed all too human, but the revenge angle is vividly laid out, the atmosphere appropriately gloomy, and there are some twists that make the tale worth following to the final suspenseful moments.

The biggest name in Menace is wasted in one of its smaller parts, albeit one key to the plot. You could tell it wasn’t Ray Milland’s time in the spotlight yet: He is billed fifth, still as Raymond Milland, and disappears before the end of the first reel. But 1934 was the last of Milland’s lean years. Bolstered by his brief but impactful work in Menace – and, more particularly, in a sizable part in the Bing Crosby-Carole Lombard musical We’re Not Dressing, Milland was about to graduate to romantic leads … and, within a decade or so, to Oscar glory.

From the same father-son producer-screenwriter team (Bayard and Anthony Veiller) that brought us the underrated supernatural tale The Witching Hour (1934), Menace was based on a novel by Philip MacDonald, writer of The Lost Patrol and The List of Adrian Messenger. It is clearly an ensemble piece. But the two actors billed at the top – Gertrude Michael and Paul Cavanaugh – earned that distinction with their pairing as competing jewel thieves in the successful Paramount crime drama The Notorious Sophie Lang (1934). Few remember either of them anymore, and the Sophie Lang pictures (there were three in all) are practically out of circulation.

Here’s the story: In British East Africa, a resident military man, Colonel Leonard Crecy (Cavanaugh), and two friends, Helen Chalmers (Michael) and Norman Bellamy (Berton Churchill), telephone a young mining engineer, Freddie Bastion (Milland), and ask him to visit for a game of bridge. Against his better judgment, Freddie agrees, but as he is en route by plane back to his post after the game. he watches helplessly as a vicious storm breaks the dam he is supposed to be overseeing, destroying the home of his two sisters. Freddie’s plane then goes down, but Crecy, Helen and Bellamy are cleared of wrongdoing in the tragedy. This decision is not well received by Freddie’s estranged brother, whose face we do not see as, newly escaped from a mental institution, he practices his accomplished knife-throwing skills in hopes of enacting his own verdict.

Soon, Helen is joined at her California mansion by Crecy, Bellamy, her sister Gloria (Arletta Duncan) and Gloria’s boyfriend (Robert Allen). An aged neighbor (Henrietta Crosman) and her actor acquaintance (John Lodge) join the group, as does Cracy’s driver (Forrester Harvey). A newly hired butler (Halliwell Hobbes) is also on hand for the strange reunion. It soon becomes apparent that Timothy Bastion is also on hand … or is he one of the above folks (male or female) traveling incognito?

Director Ralph “Fido” Murphy spent a career making quickies such as this, and he keeps the pace brisk, if not breakneck. Although we don’t see him at first, Timothy is quickly and effectively established as a fearsomely deranged sort, and not just for the thuds of the knives he tosses at the walls of his flat. We see the texts of Timothy’s threatening letters to those he holds responsible for the demise of his family, as he predicts the order of their intended demise. Cuts to a newspaper headline and an eyewitness account of his evils add to the guessing game, and as Timothy travels to Helen’s home, train wheels move in time to a hypnotic madman’s chant of “I’m on my way! I’m on my way!”

At this point, we are only a quarter of the way through the film, which is thereafter devoted to a guessing game as to the villain. I am tempted to guarantee that if you see Menace, you will not accurately predict the identity of the culprit until it is revealed. Same for that of an authority figure for good who is surreptitiously involved. It helps that the cast is properly varied in age and nationality. (Crosman and Harvey provide the kind of comic relief that thrillers were thought to require in 1934.)

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Is 72-year-old, gun-toting Henrietta Crosman the villain in “Menace”? I’m not telling.

Released on October 26, 1934, Menace drew praise from the Los Angeles Times as “smooth, incisive, with suspense developed to an acute degree” and “intelligence in every detail. It is … excellent program entertainment.” The premiere showbiz newspaper Variety could be tough on smaller features such as this, but its reviewer, while saying the film “has … added nothing new to the who-killed-cock-robin formula,” admitted it “shows a sure hand and throughout when it comes to pacing and weaving in the tricks that make for suspense and surprise.”

One almost wishes that Menace had been left for production by a Poverty Row company than as a routine entry from a major studio. Public-domain ’34 indies such as The Ghost Walks and House of Mystery have been available for decades through bargain-bin VHS and DVD releases and currently by streaming. But similar – but better – chillers such as Menace and its studio kin Double Door, Murder by the Clock and The Witching Hour have been rarely revived (although not unnoticed by collectors) while under corporate legal control.

The Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi starrer The Black Cat deservedly reigns as the best of a sparse 1934 Hollywood horror crop. But it didn’t produce the only genuine scares of its movie year.

 

SOURCES

“Headquarters for Spooks at Miller Tuesday,” Sunday News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), October 28, 1934.

“Film Reviews: Menace,” Variety, November 27, 1934.

Menace Pleases,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1934.

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“Who Is Next?” asked newspaper ads for “Menace.”

Edwina Booth: Lost in the jungle

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The gears of Hollywood publicity moved quickly for Edwina Booth as the 1931 release of “Trader Horn” approached — but the life of the promising young actress soon soured.

Among all of the Hollywood stories of broken dreams, one of the saddest is that of a beautiful young blonde — born 114 years ago today — against whose ambition for stardom the fates cruelly conspired.

She was born, and died, as Constance Woodruff, but if you know of her, it is as Edwina Booth, who won what she thought was the role of a lifetime in the MGM super-production Trader Horn (1931). The physical and emotional suffering that followed made that accomplishment hollow – and Booth’s demise the province of urban legend.

Constance, a demure girl from a Mormon family in Utah, came to Los Angeles in 1925 and landed a couple of minor picture parts. Then she got noticed – as an “extra girl” beating out hundreds of aspirants to co-star as the African jungle’s “White Goddess” in Trader Horn – the much-ballyhooed film version of the best-selling book.

Multitudes clamored to see the “Goddess” who, in the story, is sought by the titular white trader (played by action star Harry Carey) and his young companion (portrayed by Duncan Renaldo). Unfortunately, journeying to Africa for many months of location shooting was part of the “dream” assignment.

Booth endured poor treatment by the studio, which, she would allege, ordered her to sunbathe nude on the deck of the ship on its way to the jungle and failed to provide her with protective clothing during the long stay in the wild, with its thorny brush and insect hordes.

Shooting was delayed even longer – leading to nearly a year total, including most of 1929 – as sound equipment, deemed necessary because of the industry transition to talking films, had to be shipped to the crew. Director W.S. Van Dyke and his charges didn’t return to the U.S. until early 1930, and Van Dyke had shot so much footage that the film would not be readied for its premiere until May 1931.

Booth received the requisite publicity push – the film was a huge popular success — but she could enjoy nothing during her abbreviated period as a star. Within weeks after her return to America, and even before Trader Horn opened, there were rumors – perhaps even encouraged by MGM for publicity’s sake – about her weakened condition via a jungle germ that threatened to claim her life within months. In the fall of 1930, a fan-magazine sob sister printed a dramatic interview with Booth about her harrowing experience:

“The worst was not sleeping … not more than ten minutes at a time all those months,” Booth said.  “And since I’ve been home, it’s the same. I wake up, thinking I’m back, thinking I hear the drums, and the hyenas sleeping and the natives chanting. Did you know that when any of the village people are sick, they take them out and abandon them in the forest to die? We saw that happen. …

“But I’m much better. I can sleep an hour at a time now. I’m ready to go back to work whenever they need me. It was terrible – and wonderful, too.”

Then things turned really terrible. Booth endured an alienation-of-affection accusation from the wife of her Trader Horn co-star Duncan Renaldo. And she did get sick … very sick. Booth had come down with malaria and dysentery while in Africa.

Contrary to legend, Booth did not return to obscurity immediately. She actually ground out four Poverty Row films after Trader Horn. The Vanishing Legion (1931) and The Last of the Mohicans (1932) were low-budget serials that reteamed Booth with Harry Carey. The Midnight Patrol (1932) was a routine murder mystery with Mary Nolan (another too-soon Hollywood casualty) down the cast list. Trapped in Tia Juana (1932) matched Booth with Renaldo again, but by then Booth was ready to retire to her sickbed.

And there she stayed … for more than five years, her career done before it had really started. Booth collected a mere $35,000 in a $1 million lawsuit against MGM that was settled out of court in 1936.

Her family took care of Booth, who popped in and out of the news throughout the 1930s as newspapers recorded her ups and downs. In 1936, she was judged well enough to walk on her own for the first time in many months. By 1938, she was forced to leave her beloved Utah to return to Los Angeles for more treatment. Her father told a wire-service reporter that “she suffers slight relapses at intervals in the long fight against the illness.”

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In 1936, the recovering Edwina Booth (with her doctor) posed optimistically for the newspaper camera.

Booth recovered enough to marry twice more (she had divorced her first husband in the early 1930s). Constance took back her birth name, and she lived quietly with her third husband. Their lives centered on their work in an LDS temple, and most of Connie’s friends during her twilight years knew nothing of her life as Edwina.

Meanwhile, many folks thought that Edwina Booth had died back in the ’30s. The misinformation continued as late as 1987, when Katharine Hepburn repeated the claim of Booth’s early death in her book “The Making of ‘The African Queen.’”

On May 18, 1991, the truth came permanently to light after Edwina Booth/Constance Woodruff passed on, at age 86 in a convalescent hospital in Long Beach, California. Her husband had perished seven years before, so it was left to the actress’s brother to report her death to the news media.

“Her death has been wrongly reported so many times …,” Booth Woodruff told the Los Angeles Times. “But this time she really did die.”

 

SOURCES

“Hollywood Sub-Stories: Hidden Away, Edwina Booth Still Is Haunted by the Horrors She Saw,” Motion Picture Classic, September 1930.

“Edwina Booth Continues Health Battle,” United Press report, cited from Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, October 4, 1938.

“Edwina Booth: White Goddess of Classic Film Trader Horn,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1991.

(The most complete account of Edwina Booth’s life can be found in a series of stories from 2006 by D. Robert Carter for the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Look here and at related links.)

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Edwina Booth as she looked during her brief peak of stardom.

‘The Witching Hour’ strikes one last time

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John Halliday (right) offers advice to a young couple (Tom Brown and Judith Allen) in the 1934 film version of the melodrama “The Witching Hour.”

This is the latest in an occasional series of blogs about Paramount horror and semi-horror films of the 1930s. Previously: This Pre-Code Thriller Was Inspired by a Very Un-Trump-Like New York Landlord Family, “Murder by the Clock” … and the Karloff Who Wasn’t.

In 1934, in a time dominated by Great Depression worries at home and world-impacting unrest in Europe, The Witching Hour must have seemed like a relic from a simpler era.

This new, pre-Code movie melodrama was old at its core, set circa 1870 and derived from a 1907 play by Augustus Thomas that had brought occult thrills to many a tank-town stage for a generation. This tale of hypnotism, telepathy, murder and lost love also was done twice for the silent flickers, in 1916 and 1924.

The great silent-film comedian Raymond Griffith was said to have permanently impaired his voice by screaming at the top of his lungs through stage performances in The Witching Hour as a youth. It was jolting stuff in those days, not long past the turn of the century — but maybe not in ’34, when Paramount trotted out the property again after negotiations for talking-picture rights with the American Play Company.

The film’s producer was Bayard Veiller, the esteemed playwright best known for writing The Trial of Mary Dugan and the eerie The Thirteenth Chair. The director was Henry Hathaway, who was just beginning his long and prolific career. That their Witching Hour stands up so well 80-plus years later, despite its old-fashioned subject matter and non-big name cast, is a tribute to the efficiency and resources of Hollywood studio-system filmmaking.

The Witching Hour concerns the inadvertent supernatural powers possessed by Jack Brookfield (John Halliday), who runs a gambling parlor out of his Kentucky mansion. One of his regular customers is a young Northerner architect, Clay Thorne (Tom Brown), who is engaged to Brookfield’s daughter, Nancy (Judith Allen).

Brookfield is aware of his strange, secret gift through his ability to know what cards his customers hold, and the premonitions he gets when he thinks the local authorities are planning to raid his place, but he shows ethical restraint by not engaging in gambling himself.

Brookfield is visited by town political boss Frank Hardmuth (Ralf Harolde), and the two argue. Brookfield responds by punching Hardmuth and predicting he has not long to live. Clay, who has been unintentionally hypnotized by Brookfield through a cat’s-eye ring the older man wears, overhears the incident, then goes to Hardmuth’s office and shoots him dead.

Brookfield now must prove Clay’s innocence without implicating himself. Can a man be “killed by a thought”?

The compact screenplay by Anthony Veiller, the son of the film’s producer, wraps up matters within 69 minutes, making The Witching Hour ideal for the bottom of double-feature bills. Its titular familiarity had to carry it for potential patrons, for the “name” value of its cast was low.

Billed first in the on-screen credits was Sir Guy Standing, the English actor who appears in a fairly small role as an aged barrister friend of Brookfield’s who warns the latter to “guard his thoughts” against using them for ill. The retired judge is prompted to return to the courtroom for Clay’s trial when beset by the spirit of a sweetheart (Gertrude Michael) lost years before. Despite the presence of the young couple, the “otherworldly” Standing and Michael characters best exemplify the romantic qualities of The Witching Hour.

Halliday is the film’s acting standout in one of his typically suave roles, here as always with a vaguely English accent that hid his origins in Brooklyn. He is supported by such seasoned players as Olive Tell, William Frawley, Purnell Pratt, Ferdinand Gottschalk and, as a gambling-house devotee who wishes Brookfield would bend his ethics a little, Richard Carle.

Tom Brown, borrowed from RKO for this picture, had attracted attention as the title character in Universal’s Tom Brown of Culver (1932). He was soon to build his reputation as Anne Shirley’s would-be sweetie in RKO’s Anne of Green Gables (1934).

The ingenue, Judith Allen, had only a short period in significant films, but she did perform alongside Bing Crosby (Too Much Harmony and She Loves Me Not) and W.C. Fields (The Old Fashioned Way).

The Witching Hour, seeing no need to stray outside the play’s original time setting, remains unabashedly retro with underscored instrumentals of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” By 1934, even with the pseudo-spook and gambling angles, this was deemed all-ages entertainment, with the Legion of Decency classifying it “suitable for family patronage.” A sentimental wrap-up helped.

The Witching Hour was not a big money maker, but it was pleasing to much of the audience. Even in 1934, apparently, The Witching Hour play hadn’t been seen everywhere, as evidenced by this trade-publication report from an Ohio picture-house owner: “The most unique murder play that I have ever seen. The people will go for this play.”

In New York, where The Witching Hour had played for nearly a year on Broadway, and where audiences fancied themselves more sophisticated, the reaction was not so promising. Twenty years before, opined the New York Daily News, this material “was startlingly new and created something of a sensation. Today all the talk of hypnotism in the picture … seems puerile. It earned snickers here and there from the audience at the Paramount Theatre.”

On the plus side, Variety opined that the film “still packs a punch for those who do not insist of extreme plausibility, and the master touch of one of our few great native dramatists,” meaning Thomas, “still stands out.”

The Witching Hour is skillfully directed and acted, and if it seems quaintly nostalgic, that’s a good thing for a Golden Age fantasy devotee.

 

SOURCES

Remake Witching Hour,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 9, 1934.

Witching Hour a Thriller; Half a Sinner Pleasing,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 11, 1934.

Journal of a Crime Study in Psychology,” New York Daily News, April 28, 1934.

“Film Reviews,” Variety, May 1, 1934.

“What the Picture Did for Me,” Motion Picture Herald, July 21, 1934.

Frank Richardson, the Joy Boy of Song

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Frank Richardson (standing second from left) appeared in the hit 1929 movie musical “Sunnyside Up” with (clockwise from top right) El Brendel, Marjorie White, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell and Sharon Lynn.

Happy 120th birthday to Frank Richardson, who was billed as the “Joy Boy of Song.” He brought his high energy and even higher tenor to a few early Fox musicals before the fickle demand for Hollywood songsters necessitated his return to vaudeville … and obscurity.

What we remember from Richardson – most notably in the box office hit Sunnyside Up — was accomplished on the West Coast, but this vocalist and comedian left his heart in Philadelphia. He was born in that city in 1898, died there in 1962, and wrapped up his documented showbiz career as master of ceremonies of a live Christmas show starring the Three Stooges in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, in December 1961.

Richardson was well known to Philadelphians long before his film debut, in William Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. He made his theatrical debut at the precocious age of 8, in response to a “Tryout Night” offer from a local theater, but his high “boy soprano” never fully broke. He performed in minstrel troupes in the Philadelphia area and with the Emmett Welch Minstrels on the “Million Dollar Pier” in Atlantic City, then went solo on stage and ditched the blackface. He recorded for the Victor label in 1923-24.

His act was lauded by Variety in 1927 thusly: “Frank Richardson … blasted into pop songs and semi-ballads that kept him bending and encoring until he had gargled every ditty in his rep. The youngster has come out from under cork and has a delivery like twin ambidextrous pitchers. He can yoddle [sic] a tenor ballad with the best, works like a beaver, has a hop on his fast one and enough personality for a railroad passenger agent.”

With such force in his act, why not the movies? His “audition” of sorts came in 1928 with two Vitaphone shorts filmed in Los Angeles. In the single-reelers, he sang such familiar tunes as “Bye Bye Pretty Baby,” “My Blue Heaven” and “Red Lips (Kiss My Blues Away).”

Richardson was signed by the Fox studio in March 1929 and placed in Movietone Follies, appearing as himself in color revue scenes and introducing the song “Walking With Susie.”

He gained even more followers in a full-fledged part, as a “ham” songwriter who was part of a secondary comedy couple with blonde cutie Marjorie White, in Sunnyside Up (1929). Richardson, White and funnyman El Brendel played in support of Fox’s popular romantic duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, but they attracted much attention on their own. Richardson and White get to sing the B.G. De Sylva-Lew Brown-Ray Henderson title song and “You’ve Got Me Pickin’ Petals Off of Daisies,” and Richardson adds a suggestive verse of “Turn on the Heat” to the film’s blistering-hot dance chorus number.

White, Richardson and Brendel are also part of the massive cast of the Fox studio revue Happy Days (1930), in which Richardson sings “Mona” and then dresses as a clown(!) to accompany Dixie Lee and tap dancer Tom Patricola in the elaborate “Crazy Feet” number.

White and Brendel were signed to co-star in the next De Sylva-Brown-Henderson musical comedy, Just Imagine (1930), but Richardson was placed in a less-prominent song show, Let’s Go Places (1930), in which he played the flippant manager of a movie-crashing singer (newcomer Joseph Wagstaff). Richardson also was heard briefly in unbilled, singing, non-dialogue parts at Fox in Masquerade (1929), High Society Blues (1930) and John Ford’s action drama Men Without Women (1930, in which he sings “Frankie and Johnnie”).

When Richardson wasn’t working before the camera, he was indulging his passion for golf and dutifully making personal appearances on behalf of his films and those of others. He was especially popular in Philadelphia, the trades noted.

Fox knew better than to keep Richardson and White apart, and they were reunited for the “New” Movietone Follies of 1930. They lead the blackface number “Here Comes Emily Brown,” which boasts a Southern horse racing motif – and a chorus that, according to studio publicity, numbered in the triple figures.

Brendel is also on hand, and, as a valet who poses as a lumber magnate, he steals the film from Richardson, White and romantic leads Buster Collier and Miriam Seegar. Unfortunately for all involved, the 1930 Follies hit theaters at midyear, just as musicals were going out of vogue with the public. Fox chose to falsely advertise it as a non-musical — to the satisfaction of no one.

And with that, Frank Richardson’s film career was over. By the fall of 1930, he was back in vaude, on the RKO circuit. He would spend most of the rest of his life as a nightclub performer, mainly in the Philadelphia area, and as an official of the American Guild of Variety Artists, for which he served as president of the Philly chapter.

An odd incident in Richardson’s life came to light in 1933, when it was reported that a showgirl named Joan Williams had filed a $100,000 breach-of-promise suit against the performer. She asserted that Richardson had asked her to marry him and that she had accepted the proposal – only to learn that Richardson was already married. (He had married the former Adele Boyer in 1919.)

A few months later, Williams dropped the suit, and she and Richardson married after he had divorced his first wife. Upon Richardson’s death from a heart attack at his Philadelphia home on January 30, 1962 – six weeks after he hosted the Stooges – Richardson was cited as her widower. Two sons survived him.

Like most skilled singers, Richardson won over his audiences through the force of his personality – genial, in his case – and not just the power of his tones. Sunnyside Up, Happy Days, Movietone Follies of 1930 and Men Without Women all survive today, so we’re fortunate to have of him what we do.

 

SOURCES

“Vaudeville Reviews,” Variety, November 9, 1927.

Frank Richardson Has Been on Stage Since 8,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1930.

“Vaude Notes,” Inside Facts of Stage and Screen,” December 6, 1930.

“Sang After School, Won Film Contract,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1932.

“Vanities Girl Sues Frank Richardson for $100,000 Balm,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1933.

“News From the Dailies,” Variety, November 7, 1933.

“Philly AGVA Vote May 26,” Motion Picture Daily, May 5, 1942.

“Frankie Richardson, Singing Star, Is Dead,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 1962.

Ancestry.com

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A Fox ad for “Sunnyside Up” features (from left) Frank Richardson, Marjorie White, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell and a combative El Brendel.