Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Renaissance of the Masher and Swashbuckler

As life tamped down in 1921 under Prohibition, people sought to live vicariously through the uninhibited characters of stage and screen, characters this New York Times Magazine article called “the masher and swashbuckler.”

“The leaden lid of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ has been hammered down on us so tightly that the explosion of our suppressed healthy animality may become a classic example of Dr. Freud’s dictum: the way to revitalize an instinct is to suppress it.

Don Juan, d’Artagnan, and Bluebeard have invaded New York from beyond the artistic three-mile limit. [Those first two are references to the 1921 Broadway productions of Don Juan and The Three Musketeers, though I couldn’t ascertain the Bluebeard reference with certainty.] In film circles… there is talk of screening the life of that philanthropic highwayman, Robin Hood. [1922’s Robin Hood would star Douglas Fairbanks.]

The columnist Benjamin de Casseres then added this kicker:

If there is anybody missing, I haven’t heard of him. Satan?

One wonders if something of the opposite has happened these days. Part of the reason The Jerry Springer Show was cancelled in 2018 after 27 years was because audiences no longer felt the same need to turn towards the entertainment world to see deubachery like cheating on your spouse with an adult film star or vile language, when the president was doing the same. As Springer himself said, Donald Trump “took my show and brought it to the White House.”

And one of the most popular television shows to emerge in 2020 was the wholesome Ted Lasso.

 

Renaissance of the Masher and Swashbuckler (PDF)

Published: Sunday, October 9, 1921

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Written by Jesse

October 10th, 2021 at 8:01 am

Wall Street’s Heel on the Prodigal Movies

A 1921 article predicted that the era of large movie budgets was over. Let’s just say that didn’t turn out to be the case.

The final hour of profligate spending draws near — of million-dollar salaries and two-hundred-thousand-dollar sets. For the motion-picture-producing companies are putting their houses in order for the inspection of the bankers. These companies have incorporated and have issued stock, and now they are trying to interest the bankers in underwriting that stock. The banker is a conservative. Profligate spending does not look good to him on the payroll.

Thus enters the giant baby industry on the second lap of its journey — a journey suddenly grown staidly practical. The romance of the industry passed with 1920.

About that. Even adjusting for inflation, the list of most expensive movies of all time are all — not just “mostly,” but all — from the 21st century. (#1, if you’re wondering, is 2011’s Disney sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.)

And rather than production costs being curbed by stock, as was apparently occuring in 1921, if anything it’s the opposite today: production costs are soaring precisely because of stock. Entertainment companies’ fortunes are increasingly tied to their nascent streaming platforms of the past few years. Production costs have soared for original programming on those services, to entice new customers and subscribers, which in turn helps the parent company’s share price.

Forbes box office analyst Scott Mendelson put it best in a recent column: “A Wall Street mindset…values $1 in profits earned from streaming more than $5 in profits earned from [theatrical] exhibition.”

 

 

Wall Street’s Heel on the Prodigal Movies (PDF)

Published: Sunday, July 24, 1921

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Written by Jesse

July 25th, 2021 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Business,Movies

Mortal Actors and Immortal Film Faces

In theater, if a cast member dies, every actor or actress has an understudy who can substitute in the next night. In the early years of the movie business, though, a new concern emerged: what if a cast member dies in the middle of filming?
That exact situation happened for the 1922 movie Foolish Wives, when star Rudolph Christians died mid-production. Filming had already cost roughly $750,000 (about $11.9 million in 2021 dollars).

And so the country-wide search began for an actor who looked like Christians and who also could act like him — like that shadow of a man which had imprinted a personality indelibly upon a cool $750,000 worth of film. The agencies of New York and Los Angeles went to work. Pictures of the deceased actor were sent far and near. Established actors came scurrying to find a resemblance, since the prevailing inactivity of the regular producing companies made the opportunity of treble importance.

Many of them did look like Christians. But those that looked like him did not act like him, and those that acted like him did not look like him. And the camera is the one eye that strips off disguises. Yet they found a duplicate at last — in Robert Edeson. Not only do his features resemble Christians’s, more or less, feature for feature, but he was able to copy the dead actor’s mannerisms. With trick lighting to mask the camera’s eye, even close-ups have proven successful. The three-quarters of a million dollars is saved that for months hung in the balance.

Apparently, Edeson didn’t look similar enough, since in the final cut he ended up playing all of his scenes with his back to the camera.

With modern-day CGI, they wouldn’t have needed to cast a lookalike. In the past few years, photo-realistic facial reconstruction visual effects have been essentially perfected, even recreating deceased actor Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

 

Mortal Actors and Immortal Film Faces (PDF)

Published: Sunday, May 22, 1921

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Written by Jesse

May 21st, 2021 at 9:13 am

Posted in Movies

Sunless Temples of New York’s Movies

In 1920, electric lighting was starting to become more popular than natural sunlight for shooting movies.

See, sunlight had a few problems.

The trouble with the sun, as viewed by the efficiency experts of New York’s many picture studios, is not only that its illumination is of an inferior quality, but also that it is undependable. Some days it functions not at all, at other times raggedly, it stands not still upon Gibeon [the ancient Israelite city where the Bible says God made the sun stand still], as it should do during the “shooting” of a big scene, but moves relentlessly across the heavens. It indulges itself in pale reds and yellows (requiring orthocromatic emulations) in the early morning and in the late afternoon; and its elevation even at midday in latitude 40 degrees north has never given satisfaction to discriminating producers. And never in history has the sun been known to function properly when needed for a retake of a bad piece of film.

By contrast, electric light had several advantages.

Thus, in this business, in every respect except the matter of expense, electric light is coming to be regarded as superior to sunshine. Electricity works day or night, at the touch of a switch. An artificial sun can be lowered or elevated at will, and the equality of its rays is absolutely dependable. Your modern picture director, when he is working indoors, can assume a patronizing attitude toward Joshua. In fact, some of the cinema men so much prefer artificial sunlight to the natural product that they bar the sun from doing any more work around their studios.

Yet despite Hollywood’s creation in the first place primarily to utilize yearround filming conditions, the switch to artificial light never moved the global center of film production from the Los Angeles area for a century afterwards. Inertia probably helped. After all, most of the largest modern L.A.-area studio lots weren’t created until after 1920, such as the Paramount lot in 1926, the Warner Bros. lot also in 1926, and the Walt Disney Studios lot in 1940.

 

Sunless Temples of New York’s Movies (PDF)

Published: Sunday, November 7, 1920

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Written by Jesse

November 7th, 2020 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Movies

Brand of the Movies on Babies’ Names

As motion pictures gained popularity in the 1910s and 1920s, baby names changed based on the most popular characters and stars.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) tracks the popularity of baby names over time, starting in 1900. After this quote, I track the the trajectories of some of the names which proved popular around 1920.

And so I knew that it was upon us — the motion-picture name period… Mixed in with the Rosanas and the Giovannis of the imported element came the babies of our good, sturdy American stock surnamed Smith and Jones. Norma and Pearl they were, Madge and Billie, Mae (spelled just as the electric lights spell it) and Blanche (with an “e”). Also a renaissance of Marys. On through the foreign Oscars and Giuseppes, Marys appear in quantities unprecedented.

How did those names fare in the long run?

  • Norma: the #69 name of 1920, peaked at #22 in both 1931 and 1932. Last ranked in the top 1,000 in 2002.
  • Pearl: the #62 name of 1920, actually peaked in the first year of available data (1900) at #24. Seemed to last rank in the top 1,000 in 1986, then disappeared for more than two decades, until reappearing in 2007 and staying there almost every year since, ranking #647 in 2018.
  • Madge: the #303 name of 1920, peaked in the first year of available data (1900) at #232. Last appeared in the top 1,000 in 1948. It’s short for Margaret: the #4 name of 1920, peaked at #3 every year between 1905 and 1911. Ranked #127 in 2018.
  • Billie: the #212 name of 1920, peaked at #79 in both 1929 and 1930. Last appeared in the top 1,000 in 1997, though one wonders if the 2019 breakthrough of pop star Billie Eilish will provide the name a renaissance.
  • Mae: the #99 name of 1920, peaked at #53 in 1902. Seemed to last rank in the top 1,000 in 1969, then disappeared for more than four decades, until reappearing in 2010 and staying there every year since, ranking #554 in 2018.
  • Blanche: the #102 name of 1920, peaked at #58 in 1902. Last ranked in the top 1,000 in 1964.
  • Mary: the #1 name of 1920, and indeed every year between 1900 and 1946. It never even dropped out of the top 10 until 1972. These days it doesn’t even rank in the top 100, at #126 in 2018.

My own name, Jesse, peaked in popularity at #37 among boys born in 1981. What happened that year? Here’s a hint:

 

Brand of the Movies on Babies’ Names (PDF)

Published: Sunday, August 22, 1920

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Written by Jesse

August 19th, 2020 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Development,Life,Movies

Lo, the Movies Have Achieved “Revivals”!

Tired of sequels, remakes, and reboots at the movies? By 1919, the movie business was already old enough that they were bringing back “classic” movies.

Hugo Riesenfeld, managing director of the Rivoli and Rialto Theatres, has started to show a series of the first Chaplin comedies, and Mr. Griffith [D.W. Griffith who most famously directed 1915’s The Birth of a Nation] will soon open a theatre in New York with a repertory of the films which made him famous.

The Chaplin pictures and the Griffith productions, in this sense, are revivals, and practically the first since the photoplay established itself. When [1915’s] “A Night in the Show,” the first of the old newcomers, was put on at the Rialto two weeks ago, the box office began to have one of the busiest periods of its existence.

So it’s not quite Chaplin and Griffith Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Yet it was nonetheless something of a century-old precursor to the franchise system that has come to dominate Hollywood in the 2010s. Both developments relied on the essential idea that audiences want more of what they already know they love.

Lo, the Movies Have Achieved “Revivals”! (PDF)

Published: Sunday, March 9, 1919

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Written by Jesse

March 9th, 2019 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Entertainment,Movies

Millions of Feet of Movie Films for Soldiers

Nearly a century before the release of — and subsequent suspected bomb scare related to — 2007’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, this 1918 article also contained the phrase “movie films.” But in this case, it referred to physical film, 7 to 8 million feet of which were shown to soldiers during World War I every week as recreation or downtime.

How were the films chosen?

After a number of experiments it has been decided that the week’s three movies at a camp shall include, as a general rule, the following: One all-man program — pictures of fighting, racing, adventure in the great outdoors; one comedy; and one drama.

The needs of the various camps differ widely. Obviously the Allentown camp, largely made up of college boys, requires a different type of picture from the on popular in a centre [sic] where thousands of negroes are assembled as muleteers and stevedores. [A stevedore is a person who loads and unloads cargo from ships.]

The decision of which films were shown to military members was entirely in the hands of one woman: Edith Dunham Foster, editor of the Community Motion Picture Bureau. “I try to get away from my own opinion entirely,” she explained, “and to look at the film with the eyes of a soldier.”

If only they had access to Avengers: Infinity War back then.

 

Millions of Feet of Movie Films for Soldiers: How a Woman Directs the Complex Task of Selecting Subjects, Censoring, and Shipping Motion-Picture Equipment to All American Camps (PDF)

Published: Sunday, May 5, 1918

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Written by Jesse

May 4th, 2018 at 4:37 pm

Three Film Stars Get $1,000,000 a Year Each

Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks were earning a then- staggering $1 million per year in 1917. $1 million in May 1917 would be worth $17.5 million today. How does that compare to the highest-grossing movie stars now? That would only make Chaplin the 24th-highest paid movie star in the world last year.

Forbes ranked Dwayne Johnson as the highest-paid actor of 2016 at $67.5 million. Chaplin would be sandwiched between Matthew McConaughey at #23 with $18 million and Chinese film star Chan Bingbing with $17 million.

What’s fascinating look at the last is how many of the top 25 highest-paid actors may not be worth the salary. Many just in the past year alone have starred in box office domestic underperformers, relative to studios’ pre-release hopes: #3 Matt Damon with The Great Wall, #5 Johnny Depp with Alice Through the Looking Glass, #7 Ben Affleck with Live By Night, #8 Vin Diesel with xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, #13 Brad Pitt with Allied, #19 Scarlett Johansson with Ghost in the Shell, #20 Will Smith with Collateral Beauty, #23 Matthew McConaughey with Gold,

 

 

Three Film Stars Get $1,000,000 a Year Each: Motion Picture Business, at Pinnacle of Success, Sees No Sign of Waning Popularity — Tax Talk Stops Boasting of Profits (PDF)

From Sunday, May 27, 1917

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Written by Jesse

May 26th, 2017 at 4:06 pm