Sunday, September 30, 2012

Salomy Jane star Beatriz Michelena

Tonight, the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael screens Salomy Jane (1914), the only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), which was based in San Rafael north of Golden Gate in Marin. The film stars Beatriz Michelena, a pioneering Latina actress.

Courtesy of Susie Bright
Her Wikipedia entry begins thus: "Beatriz Michelena (February 22, 1890 – October 10, 1942) was an American actress during the silent film era, known at the time for her operatic soprano voice and appearances in musical theatre. She was one of the few Latina stars visible on the silver screen in the United States in the 1910s. She was the leading lady in each film project she was involved in, and co-founded a production company with her husband, producing four of her own movies.
She wrote popular articles for newspapers, including an advice column for girls, describing what it was like to be an actress, and answering questions from readers. For adult readers, Michelena wrote other pieces such as a history of the moving picture industry. In 1920 when she stopped making films, she returned to her career as a singer."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame

How—and why—do we obsess over movie stars? How does fame both reflect and mask the person behind it? How have the image of stardom and our stars’ images altered over a century of cultural and technological change? Do we create celebrities, or do they create us?

Ty Burr, film critic for The Boston Globe, answers these questions in a new book, Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, a lively and fascinating anecdotal history of stardom, with all its blessings and curses for star and stargazer alike. From Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin to Archie Leach (a.k.a. Cary Grant) and Marion Morrison (a.k.a. John Wayne) and Julia Roberts to today's instant celebs famous for being famous, Burr takes us on an insightful and entertaining journey through the modern fame game at its flashiest, most indulgent, occasionally most tragic, and ultimately, its most revealing.

Ty Burr will be discussing his new book on Saturday, September 29 at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Burr will be in conversation with local film writer Thomas Gladysz.

“... lively and provocative chronicle of the genesis of movie stars and the metamorphosis of movie stardom.”—New York Times

“Burr has both a fan’s and scholar’s grasp of the history of film, and he travels along a celluloid highway that extends from the early days of Thomas Edison to Zac Efron. Of greatest interest to the author is our evolving notion of celebrity—of what celebrities mean. . . . A focused history of films.”—Kirkus Reviews

Gods Like Us is an entertaining, wide-ranging account of the way movies created a new kind of fame, and changed the world in the process. Ty Burr's encyclopedic history of movie stardom is gossipy (in the best of sense of the word) and insightful, and his cultural analysis is as provocative as it persuasive.”—Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and The Leftovers

“[A] solid analysis of celebrity. . . . In this fascinating cultural study, film critic Burr explores the rise of stars in the early film industry. . . . Burr chronicles the star system—silents, talkies, movie factories, postwar studios—while citing factors such as television (‘evoked not glamour, but ordinariness’), music (Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Madonna), MTV, HBO, and YouTube (‘teenagers have at their disposal the fundamental moviemaking facilities of a Hollywood studio in the 1930s’).”—Publishers Weekly

Monday, September 24, 2012

More on our Salomy Jane, a locally made silent film

On Sunday, September 30 the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael will screen Salomy Jane (1914), the first, most acclaimed, and only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation, which was based in San Rafael in Marin County.

1914 Oakland newspaper advertisement
Here are a couple of vintage articles about the first ever screening of the film, which was a private affair. For more background on Salomy Jane, see the September 21st post.

1914 newspaper reviews

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The first ever screening of Salomy Jane

On Saturday, September 22 the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont will screen Salomy Jane (1914), the first, most acclaimed, and only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation, which was based in San Rafael.
Salomy Jane will also be shown on Sunday, September 30 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The two screenings mark only the second time the film has been shown in the Bay Area in the nearly 100 years since it was made.
Here are a couple of vintage articles about the first ever screening of the film, which was a private affair. For more backgroundon Salomy Jane (or Salome Jane as it was also spelled), see the previous post.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Salomy Jane: Once Lost Silent Film Returns to Bay Area

Few realize there was a time nearly a century ago when the San Francisco Bay Area almost become a second Hollywood. Then, the Bay Area's best hope in rivaling the film colony only just developing in Southern California lay a small number of local, independent studios opening around the Bay Area. They included, notably, the Gerson Studio, the Pacific Studios in San Mateo, and California Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), based in San Rafael.

The California Motion Picture Corporation in San Rafael
Image courtesy James Zeruk, Jr. - Entwistle Family Archive
In the coming week, Bay Area movie goers will have the rare opportunity to see a film widely considered one of the most emblematic of the Bay Area's long-forgotten movie-making past.

On Saturday, September 22 the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont will screen Salomy Jane (1914), the first, most acclaimed, and only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation. Salomy Jane will also be shown on Sunday, September 30 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The two screenings mark only the second time the film has been shown in the Bay Area in the nearly 100 years since it was made.

Image courtesy James Zeruk, Jr. - Entwistle Family Archive

Set during the California Gold Rush and based on the famous 1889 story ("Salomy Jane's Kiss") by San Francisco writer Bret Harte, Salomy Jane tells a melodramatic story of love, murder, and mistaken identity -- all of which whirls about its feisty female heroine. In the film, Salomy Jane is saved from a ruffian named Red Pete by a heroic stranger known as Jack Dart. In turn, Salomy Jane saves Jack Dart from being wrongly lynched for a crime he didn't commit. The film's screenplay was penned by Paul Armstrong, who also authored a popular stage adaptation of Harte's story in 1907. (That play was being performed in San Francisco not long before the film went into production.)

Along with its Western-themed story, Salomy Jane offers viewers images of Marin and northern California as it looked in 1914. Scenes in the film were took place along the coast as far north as the Russian River near Monte Rio - for the leaps into the water and the final chase, and as far south as the San Lorenzo River near Santa Cruz - for the stage robbery. Closer to the CMPC studio in San Rafael was the Lagunitas Creek location for the final kiss under an arching tree, which frames Mount Tamalpais. California's giant Redwoods and other local landmarks are also pictured.

Also of note is the film's cast and crew. The title role is played by Beatriz Michelena, a San Francisco singer and star of the musical theater who began her film career with this local production. Michelena, a local celebrity and local columnist described as "California's most beautiful actress," was married to George E. Middleton, a prominent San Francisco auto dealer who founded the CMPC in 1912 for the purpose of shooting promotional footage of the cars he was selling.

Determined that his wife would succeed in the movies, Middleton starred Michelena in 11 features for the San Rafael studio between 1914 and 1917. The actress achieved a certain degree of national renown, even appearing on the covers of national magazines, but never became a major star like her contemporaries Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford. In 2002, Michelena's role as a pioneering Latina actress was nevertheless recognized in a proclamation made by President George W. Bush during National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Besides Michelena, Salomy Jane co-starred matinee-idol House Peters as Jack Dart, "The Man." This English-born stage actor was popular in his day, and he was referred to as "the actor with a thousand emotions." His career before the camera lasted until 1961. Salomy Jane featured other veterans of the stage, including Harold Entwistle in the role of Larabee. He was the uncle of doomed actress Peg Entwistle. Also appearing in the film, in an uncredited part as a cowboy playing solitaire in a saloon, is future Western star Jack Holt.

Actor Harold Entwistle in a scene from Salomy Jane
Image courtesy James Zeruk, Jr. - Entwistle Family Archive

San Francisco-born cinematographer Hal Mohr, only 20 years old at the time, shot the film. Mohr went on to a distinguished career and two Academy Awards. His films include the The Jazz Singer (1927), widely regarded as the first "talkie," the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando.

Salomy Jane, which reportedly took six months to make and cost more than $200,000, was big news in the Bay Area. The film was first shown at an invitation-only, gala event on October 8, 1914 at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Attended by leading members of society, the San Francisco Chronicle likened the event to opening night at the opera.

Salomy Jane debuted to the public on October 25, when it opened for a week's run at San Francisco's Portola theater. The Portola secured the honor by having invested in the production. Newspapers reports from the time stated crowds were so great that hundreds were unable to secure admission. At the beginning of November, motion picture houses in 26 other cities presented the film simultaneously across the United States and Canada.

The second city to show the film was Oakland, where it played at the Broadway theater for a full week. The Oakland Tribune reported, "In order that every seat may be available, as advance orders indicate another record-breaking attendance next week, the Broadway management has moved the picture screen back 35 feet on the stage and placed it in a huge shadow box, so that even the first rows of orchestra seats affords a splendid view."

Oakland Tribune newspaper advertisement
Moving Picture World, one of the leading film journals of the time, praised the film's "exceptionally fine photography" as well as "the love story that becomes more and more interesting toward the close." Variety stated, "The scenario is a model of clarity, despite its emphasis upon swift and frequent incident." The New York Dramatic Mirror summarized the film this way: "Unless nature betters her handiwork in the forests of California, it is difficult to see how producers are going to improve upon the scenic beauty of Salomy Jane."

More recently, UC Davis film historian Scott Simmon noted, "The visual beauty and directorial sophistication of Salomy Jane upend assumptions of what a first feature by an untried regional company ought to look like."

Salomy Jane, its star Beatriz Michelena, and the California Motion Picture Corporation (which ceased operations around 1920) all deserve to be better known. The reason they're not is because in 1931 all of the prints and negatives of the CMPC went-up in flames at the studio's then abandoned Marin County home. The studio, its stars and films faded into oblivion.

In 1996, a sole surviving print of Salomy Jane was found in Australia. That print was repatriated to the United States, where it was preserved by the Library of Congress. In 2011, the restored print, with recreated tints, was released on DVD by the National Film Preservation Foundation as part of an exceptional anthology titled Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938. A tinted 35mm print will be screened in Niles and Marin.

Each of the Bay Area screenings of this historic work are co-sponsored by the Marin County Free Library, and each will be accompanied by Berkeley musician Bruce Loeb on the piano. Additionally, preceding the Rafael screening, there will be an introductory talk by film historian David Kiehn and librarian Laurie Thompson.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room

A recently completed documentary, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, about the silent era child film star and past San Francisco Silent Film Festival guest, has just completed a five day run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Future screenings elsewhere, a possible showing on television, and a DVD release at year's end are all in the works.

The MoMA screenings, with Dutch director Vera Iwerebor and Baby Peggy (now known as Diana Serra Cary) in attendance opening night, received some major press. If you haven't seen the film, or want to learn more, check out these articles and interviews.

 "Learning to Love Baby Peggy Again" -- Wall Street Journal

"A Hollywood Fairy Tale Gone Wrong: MoMA Screens Documentary on Last Silent Film Star" -- Huffington Post

radio interview -- WNYC Leonard Lopate Show

"At 93, a Party Girl Is Silent No More" -- Wall Street Journal

"Silent film star recalls 1924 Democratic Convention" -- Salon

"Movie Listings for Aug. 31-Sept. 6" -- New York Times