Gladys Brockwell: Too little time to talk

gladys-brockwell-2A-ny
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 sad end for Albert Gran

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Albert Gran and Winnie Lightner made a lively pair in the hit musical “Gold Diggers of Broadway” (1929).

Albert Gran, a classically trained character player from Norway, was among the busier actors in Hollywood at the dawn of sound.  As silent movies fell away and talkies came to stay, Gran remained very active – despite the heavy Scandinavian accent that could have distanced the corpulent oldster from Depression-era moviegoing America.

Screen fans in Gran’s day likely remembered him most for his serious role as an aged cab driver in the Fox silent 7th Heaven (1927). If he is recalled nowadays, it is for lighter fare, perhaps most notably as the moneyed object of comedienne Winnie Lightner’s affections in the 1929 Warner Bros. mega-hit (and now conspicuously lost) musical comedy Gold Diggers of Broadway, but he was also in a few early talkers that you actually can see on TCM or DVD.

The voice turned out not to hurt, but Gran disappeared from cast lists three years into the full-talkie era. He’s one of those performers whose absence you might not have noticed – until you thought about him for a moment and wondered, “What became of that guy?”

The truth – as we found – is sad to consider, but perhaps it tells us something of Gran’s humanity and personal character, especially at a point of duress.

But first, some background. Albert Gran was born in 1872 in Bergen, Norway, where his father was posted as the English consul for many years. His family opposed Albert’s plans to become an actor, so the young man journeyed to England in the early ’90s to build his theatrical resume.

In London, Gran’s mentor was the famed actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. By 1897, his work had extended to the United States, and Gran was among the first actors to bring the works of his countryman Henrik Ibsen to the American stage, where he toured in scenes from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Brand.

By this time, Gran had been welcomed back home and had trod the boards for the Norwegian National Theater and at the Royal Theater of Copenhagen. In 1910, he came to the U.S. to stay and became a renowned Broadway regular, particularly adept at comedy and at playing fatherly roles even in his 30s.

His co-stars in New York included Ethel Barrymore, Eva Le Gallienne, Ann Harding, Henry Hull, Lionel Atwill and Sidney Blackmer. Gran was strongly active in Actors’ Equity, which also endeared him to many fellow performers.  In the play Tarnish, it was said, Gran shed tears so effectively every night for a year that the constant strain on his tear ducts began to affect his eye use.

In 1925, Gran made what would be a permanent move to the Los Angeles area. Two years later, he was in 7th Heaven opposite the popular screen romantic team of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, in what Picture Play magazine called “a marvelous character makeup which absolutely obliterated his own countenance and personality … completely a person other than himself.”

Gran followed up his 7th Heaven portrayal with a similar role as a postmaster in John Ford’s Great War drama Four Sons (Fox, 1928).  “It gives Gran more opportunities to show us what a really good actor he is,” commented England’s insightful journal The Film Spectator.

Gran’s first talking feature was opposite Dolores Costello in Glad Rag Doll (1929), First National’s first complete talkie. His second was Gold Diggers of Broadway, a Technicolor remake of Warners’ 1923 success The Gold Diggers. Gran plays an attorney named Blake who advises caution to businessman Stephen Lee in blessing the relationship of Lee’s nephew, Wally (William Bakewell), with a showgirl, Violet (Helen Foster). Unexpectedly for him (not for us), Blake is eyed by one of Violet’s housemates, boisterous Mabel, who might make an actress if she can remember even the briefest of lines.

Gold Diggers of Broadway was a huge box office success, and it introduced the standards “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Painting the Clouds With Sunshine.” Its complete soundtrack is extant, but at this writing, only portions of its picture element remain. A seconds-long sequence of banter between Gran’s and Lightner’s characters was recently found in, of all places, a kiddie toy projector, so there’s hope for the rest.

Gran can be seen more distinctly in other early musicals: Tanned Legs (RKO, 1929); Follow Thru (Paramount, 1930); and a pair from Warners, the studio revue The Show of Shows (1929) and the especially delightful operetta Kiss Me Again (1931, with soprano Bernice Claire and Walter Pidgeon). His ability to play dunderheaded fathers and other authority figures came in handy in the traditional musical comedy format imported to cinema from the stage.

Even when musicals temporarily went out of vogue due to a box office glut, Gran kept working, as he did beside John Barrymore in the now-lost society comedy The Man From Blankley’s (1930). And when Gran wasn’t in pictures, he was on stage: A February 1932 Los Angeles Times ad named him among the cast in a locally playing David Belasco production of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Richard Bennett (father of actresses Constance, Joan and Barbara).

In the 1930 U.S. Census, Gran was listed as single and living in Santa Monica with a butler and a chauffeur. A magazine item from the same year identified the actor as “one of the most famous hosts of filmland” in an account of a lavish, candle-lit buffet supper peopled by name performers, producers and songwriters. Maybe he was living beyond his means, for Gran found himself in bankruptcy court in 1931. According to the trade publication Motion Picture Herald, he explained to an L.A. judge that he “gave away all of his earnings to needy friends.”

Gran had finished what would be his final role, in WB’s Employees’ Entrance (1933), and was living in Encino, California, when he met his demise under an atypical circumstance – a Good Samaritan gesture gone horribly wrong.

Albert Gran death
A newspaper clipping about the unexpected death of Albert Gran in 1932.

On December 9, 1932, Gran was driving on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles when he spotted a man – described as a “Negro chauffeur” in news accounts – lying in the street after just having been hit by an automobile while he was attempting to cross the busy highway. As the driver who hit the man was summoning an ambulance, Gran stopped and – despite his advanced age (70) and excessive poundage – decided to exit his own car to render assistance to the victim. It was then that Gran was himself struck by a passing vehicle.

Both victims were taken to a nearby hospital; neither survived. Gran died on December 16, and the Los Angeles Times reported that news of his accident had “been kept quiet because, even [if] he had recovered, one of his legs would have to be amputated.”

Actor Conrad Nagel presented the eulogy in the Christian Science burial rites. Nagel also identified his friend’s body at an inquest by a coroner’s jury at which Gran’s death was declared accidental.

Albert Gran 7th Heaven
Gran earned laudatory reviews for his role as a taxi driver in Fox’s “7th Heaven.”

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

“Ibsen Undefiled,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 31, 1907.

“Albert Gran Suported [sic] Famous Feminine Stars,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 10, 1912.

“When the Director Shouts: Cry! Cry! Cry!” Motion Picture, July 1925.

“Making Faces,” Picture Play, January 1932.

“Earle Foxe Gives a Great Performance,” The Film Spectator, January 21, 1928.

“Fads and Fashions,” Hollywood Filmography, May 17, 1930.

“Asides and Interludes,” Motion Picture Herald, April 4, 1931.

“Similarity Marks Traffic Accident on Boulevard,” Van Nuys (California) News, December 12, 1932.

“Last Rites Tomorrow for Actor,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1932.

“Jury Finds Gran Death Accidental,” Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1932.