(Photo courtesy of Rita Chotiner) (c) Susann Gilbert 2011

Keeping fans of Alice Calhoun updated on the progress of the upcoming biography

Alice In Hollywoodland: The Life and Times of Silent Screen Actress Alice Calhoun by Susann Gilbert

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Alice Calhoun: Silent Screen Star

Friday, May 6, 2011

Coming Around the Bend

Greetings, friends!  I thought I'd share this adorable poem and notecard from Alice. I think it exemplifies her genuine sweetness so perfectly.
     I apologize for not regularly posting, but I am truly putting my nose to the grindstone and winding up the text to Alice In Hollywoodland. It seems serendipitous that it has taken this long because just recently I have been contacted by two fans of Alice who have generously shared some precious, unknown photos, including one of Alice as a child, and another with her entire family! All I can say is...WOW! And, of course, thank you. It never ceases to amaze me how kind and generous perfect strangers so often can be.
     Well, back to work. Soon it shall be competed, and I promise you'll hear it here first. Thanks to everyone for the continued encouragement and belief in this project.
                                                                                    ~ Sue

Friday, January 7, 2011

The End of an Era

It wasn’t the first “talkie” film, but 1927’s The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson was the first commercially successful movie that showcased spoken dialogue. Made with the new Vitaphone technology that featured sound-on-disc system, it paved the way for other full-length sound films and led to the demise of the silent film within the next three years.

The reasons for the success of The Jazz Singer were not simply due to the novelty of sound-and-picture cinema, but also due to the savvy marketing on the part of Warner Brothers. Their contract with theaters to guaranteed long runs, instead of  splitting films into partial week segments, as was the custom. Also, Warner Brothers received a percentage of the ticket sales, as opposed to a traditional flat rental fee. This inflated the profit margin when compared to other productions company’s films.

And while, in historian Richard Koszarski's words, "Silent films did not disappear overnight, nor did talking films immediately flood the theaters”, but by mid-1929, Hollywood was focused on producing all-talking or musical pictures. It took almost five years from the premiere of The Jazz Singer for theaters to convert to sound, so many of the original audience who attended initial showings of the film had to “view” it silently due to a lack of equipment.

The focus on “talkies” also led to the demise of the careers of most silent-era stars. While 1952’s Singing In the Rain spoofed the grating voice and lack of diction of one such silent star, other factors to be considered in hiring actors included general vocal quality, depth of timbre and heavy accents. The studios unceremoniously dropped contracts and cut salaries of former stars and chose to begin anew with performers who had vaudeville and theater experience. One of the prerequisites for new talent was “the voice.”

The primitive quality of early audio technology required easily recognizable, distinctive voices. Good examples of these are: Groucho Marx, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Mae West, W.C. Fields and even little Shirley Temple, had an exceptionally individual intonation. Even the singers were inimitable: Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Ella Fitzgerald, Kate Smith, and Billie Holiday.

One of the few surviving films of Alice Calhoun was an early talkie called Now I’ll Tell. The stars of the movie were Spencer Tracy, Shirley Temple, and Alice Faye. The part played by Alice Calhoun was very small, and the 60 seconds she is on the screen make it obvious why she did not receive a featured role. Her voice is soft and gentle, and nowhere near the unique distinctiveness of the afore-mentioned starring players.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Alice Calhoun possessed a neutral, mid-western tone, which is often referred to as a “General American Accent” and is the standard for modern newscasters. But in the early 1930’s, this was not the character accent desired by the “new” Hollywood. Thus, the oft-repeated statement that “her voice did not lend itself well to early Hollywood talkies” in many of the biographical chronicles of Alice Calhoun is better explained.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Starts Thursday!: Introducing Alice Calhoun

Starts Thursday!: Introducing Alice Calhoun: "It is my great pleasure to introduce Susann Gilbert, biographer and cousin (!) of silent star Alice Calhoun. Though her filmography lists m..."

The above link will take you to "Starts Thursday!" a beautiful site dedicated to the Art and History of Motion Picture Coming Attraction Slides. Yours truly is this week's guest commentator.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"The Last Silent Picture Show" by William M. Drew

”This book details the fate of an entire art form the silent cine in the United States during the 1930s and how it managed to survive the onslaught of sound.”

The story of silent films didn’t end with the “Jazz Singer” back in 1927, silent movies continued to be produced long after. “And though talkies would overtake the industry and the public's demand soon enough, the silent motion picture did not disappear immediately.”

Film historian William M. Drew has written a brilliant book on the changeover. Anyone with an interest in the silent films needs this book as the research source from this point forward it is going to be necessary as a tool for study of the switch.

This outstanding history has been thoroughly research using existing records; this is a neglected period in movie history which will be of interested to everyone who has ever wondered about the revolution.

William M. Drew, whose interest in films and literature began when he was eight years old, has been co-director and lecturer for numerous college film series, and editor and film reviewer for an entertainment quarterly. His articles on film history have appeared in various journals. He is the author of: D W Griffith, Intolerance: its Genius and its Vision (McFarland,1986); Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen (Vestal Press,1990) and At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties (Vestal Press,1999).

The Last Silent Picture Show” can be purchased via Amazon or directly from Scarecrow Press. Click on the links below:

Amazon: The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens
by William M. Drew

Scarecrow Press: The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens
by William M. Drew

The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens
by William M. Drew
Pub Date: Aug 2010
268 pages
# ISBN-10: 0810876809
# ISBN-13: 978-0810876804

References: http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/lastsilentpictureshow.htm

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Film Preservation and Public Access: Part Two

Just as a falling tree makes no sound if no one is around to hear it, preserving a film makes no sense if no one is allowed to see it.

On November 13, 2010,Kevin Brownlow received an Academy Honorary Award at the 2nd Annual Governors Awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Brownlow, born on 2 June 1938, Crowborough, Sussex is a filmmaker, film historian, television documentary-maker, author, and now, an Academy Award recipient. Brownlow is best known for his work documenting the history of the silent era. Brownlow became interested in silent film at the age of eleven. This interest grew into a career spent documenting and restoring film. He has rescued many silent films and their history. His initiative in interviewing many largely forgotten, elderly film pioneers in the 1960s and 1970s preserved a legacy of cinema.

In 1968 Brownlow's first book on silent film, The Parade's Gone By..., was published. The book had many interviews with the leading actors and directors of the silent era and began his career as a film historian. Brownlow subsequently has published nine more books, written countless articles and made 18 documentaries on the topic of the history of film.

Brownlow's documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film was an entertaining, informative masterpiece in 13 parts. Unfortunately,it was met with legal entanglements of copyright issues and clip clearances, and pulled from distribution.

Brownlow also spent many years getting support for the restoration of Abel Gance's 1927 French classic, Napoléon, a 'lost' epic film that used an early example of split screen or widescreen triptych form that Gance called Polyvision which was similar to the later Cinerama. Brownlow's championing of the film succeeded and the restored, re-scored version was shown in London and New York in 1980 and 1981. Gance lived to see the acclaim for his restored film.

However, a previous version of the Napoléon film was produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios (which was shorter in length than Brownlow’s 1980 version due to Coppola-supervised editing), and featured an original music score by Carmine Coppola. Coppola’s exclusive contract protecting his 1981 version prevents Brownlow from showing his 1980 version in American theaters or from releasing that edition on home video in the US.

Brownlow's frustration at the red tape of copyright issues that has hampered public access of his preservation efforts is understandable. The irony is that Brownlow was honored along with Coppola at the Governor's Awards at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on November 13, 2010. The following is a portion of his speech when he accepted his Oscar:

"Have you ever wondered what the reflected glory looks like, this is it? On behalf of all those film historians and preservationists and film collectors I heard an intake of breath...My God, your predecessor did a terrible job of preserving the silent era; historian David Pierce is about to reveal 73% has been destroyed; that is like a publisher taking Trotsky, Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald de-pulping every copy and you can’t even see the manuscript because they have burned that as well.

So it is up to us to do our damndest to find the films that your predecessor destroyed and bring them back into the canon, an awful lot is being done as you know the recent find in New Zealand and the recent generosity from Russia but when I think of some of the titles that are gone it is really heartbreaking.

Now, I was told when I started this business that silent films were a complete waste of time. They were jerky, flickery, ludicrously badly acted and appalling photographed, and I couldn’t understand it as I was already a film collector, and what I saw were in beautiful prints, although sometimes abridged, were a stroke by freshness, vitality, the inventiveness and the exquisite photography. Oh, I really do regret the loss of black and white it was a beautiful medium…It called upon, you to do some work, like silent film itself; you had to supply the voices and sound effects, and with black and white you supply everything the film suggested and therefore you become part of the creative process and it means that much more.

…Now, it is amazing what is turning up and if you would only relax your copyright laws where silent films are concerned, you would see an awful lot more suddenly appear that has been one of the worst chains on this whole affair of ours to try and rescue the past of the cinema…"**


I, myself, believe that Mr. Brownlow showed great restraint in his frustration. In my own research into Alice Calhoun, I have met with roadblocks by collectors who buy and sell memorabilia and film and then hide it away in their private vaults. While it is within their rights, it is also hoarding, and absolutely maddening to a researcher.


In conclusion of the topic of Film Preservation and Public Access, I concede to the experts; that is, the perfect words in the statement of The Committee For Film Preservation and Public Access:

Our position is simple. We strongly support the creation of a national policy to preserve our motion picture heritage. At the same time, that program will be incomplete -- utterly pointless -- unless there is a guarantee of access to the films that are being preserved at public expense.

– from the Summary of Statement by The Committee For Film Preservation and Public Access, 1993. Members include motion picture screenwriters, directors, producers, distributors, historians and journalists: Joe Dante, William K. Everson, Robert A. Harris, Ed Hulse, Richard T. Jameson, G. William Jones, Ph.D., Robert King, Timothy Lucas, Gregory Luce, Leonard Maltin, Steven Newark, L. Ray Patterson, Samuel A. Peeples, David Pierce, Fred Olen Ray, Michael V. Rotello, Bonnie Rowan, Anthony Slide, George Turner, Bill Warren, Matthew Weisman.

(c) Susann Disbro Gilbert

* Also from the Summary of Statement by The Committee For Film Preservation and Public Access. http://www.cinemaweb.com/access/pre_stmt.htm
** Thank you to Marilyn Slater for the photo of Mr. and Mrs. Brownlow and her transcription of Kevin Brownlow's acceptance speech. It can be read, in its entirety at http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/brownlow2010award.htm

Film Preservation and Public Access: Part One

The Other Woman's Story (1925)

Audiences love happy endings, or at least a plot with enough jokes to lighten the mood of heavy-handed topics. Viewers often have an aversion to tragic tales, considering them as taboo when not treated with satire and/or absurdity to make them palatable.

Also invariably, fans dislike actors playing against type, although any actor wanting to express their versatility and talent welcomes the opportunity to “stretch their wings” and take on a role that is the complete antithesis of that which they have become strongly identified. This is especially true for frustrated “B-list” actors who have made a career playing a particular “type” and attempt to escape the typecasting by seeking out a role that plays against their norm.

Such is the case of actress Alice Calhoun in 1925’s The Other Woman’s Story. Having recently completed one of the longest studio contracts on record with the now-defunct Vitagraph Studios, Alice was one of the first motion picture actresses to attempt to free-lance and seek out diverse roles, instead of accepting the saccharine parts that had been assigned to her for years and were continuing to come her way. As an actress who was known for playing “good girl” roles, in The Other Woman’s Story, the script called for her to portray a faithless wife and scheming murderess who pins the blame on her husband but in the end, pays the ultimate price for her crime: death. Told in a series of flashbacks while he sits on death row, actor Robert Frazier’s character of Alice's husband recalled the events that led up to his precarious situation.

But the producers of The Other Woman’s Story, B.P. Schulberg Productions, felt that the public’s aversion to the idea of a woman, even a guilty one, being executed would not be acceptable. They then changed the ending to an implausible one, with a prostitute who knew the truth all along coming clean at the eleventh hour, and Alice’s character being released into the custody of her husband.

Even with the amended conclusion, the reaction by audiences to Alice’s character was shocking, especially to her loyal fans. Infidelity, divorce, murder, and a trial were not the usual theme of films starring Miss Calhoun, and seeing her in the role of an evil, manipulative woman was certainly not de rigueur. And even as trite as the re-written ending was, however, Alice’s portrayal of a wicked woman was spot-on convincing.

The status of this highly unusual film in the anthology of Alice Calhoun’s body of work is that The Other Woman’s Story is in a two-part copy, stored in the nitrate vaults at the UCLA Motion Picture Collection. Part one of the film is approx. 1 reel of 35 mm. nitrate print, owned by the Producers Library (Footage.net), and an additional 5 reels stored in the same location (owner unknown). The exact condition of these prints of The Other Women’s Story are unknown at the time of this writing, but there is a good possibility that an attempt to salvage and preserve a copy of it will be made in the near future. Other considerations would be the expenses involved in saving the film, and copyright considerations in regard to future public access.

"Preservation" of film, such as The Other Woman’s Story, refers to physical storage of nitrate film in a climate-controlled vault, and hopefully, eventual repair and copying the actual film elements. The first and foremost pressing consideration of preservation of a film such as The Other Woman’s Story is the critical issue of film decay because it is a nitrate film. Movies made in the first half of the 20th century were filmed on an unstable, highly flammable cellulose nitrate film base, which requires careful storage to slow its inevitable process of decomposition over time. This also includes "orphan" films, such as documentaries and home movies.

But Alice Calhoun’s controversial character in The Other Woman’s Story was such a departure from the trite and true parts normally portrayed by her, that it makes a good argument for preservation of the film as an important piece of the fractional remaining body of work of this pioneering film actress. The UCLA Motion Picture copy being the only “known” reproduction of this film makes the case for pursuing preservation of it instrumental in facilitating the cause of keeping the history of film alive, as well.

Let's hope that happy ending occurs soon, because nitrate won't wait!

(c) Susann Disbro Gilbert