Sunday, June 20, 2010

Another Super-Myth Busted!

Here's a news flash: George Reeves made dozens of personal appearances during his years as TV's Superman. HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) would have you believe that he hated doing them and in fact feared for his life... unwilling to perform in costume because some over-zealous child might be packing his dad's pistol. In fact the film actually depicts this mythical event, misleading viewers into thinking it did happen.

To be sure, Reeves appeared one-on-one in hospitals and schools dressed as Clark Kent, but this was for a strategic reason. As he told a reporter in 1957, "On these visits, I don't wear the suit with the muscles because the kids want me to do all sorts of things, like jumping out of windows. But I can't fly.... We have to be careful not to destroy any illusions."

At county fairs, parades or department stores - where crowds could be controlled - Reeves willingly suited up. By 1955, when he began making these visits, Adventures of Superman was in production only for about seven weeks out of each year, and the extra money was welcome and relatively easy. Usually he spoke about safety and did a few judo falls, then handed out 5x7 pre-autographed photos, similar to the one seen at top.

In 1957, he tried something a little more ambitious: a full-fledged tour with a band of musicians, Noel (Lois Lane) Neill and national judo champion Gene LeBell, who portrayed "Mr. Kryptonite" (you can see his costume at the Super Museum in Metropolis, Illinois). As Clark Kent, Reeves sang and played stand-up bass with his combo; Neill sang as well until she was kidnapped by the super-villain, leading to a thrill-packed rescue by the Man of Steel. The show was a little too ambitious for its day... Reeves lost a lot of money when crowds failed to turn up during the tour's theater and civic auditorium dates.

A snippet of silent color footage from Reeves' appearance at the Indiana County Fair in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on Friday, August 24, 1956, can be seen on YouTube. The four-minute home movie mainly consists of excerpts from Wild Bill Cody's Western Show, but about 38 seconds in, you can see Clark Kent posing with Cody's 5-year-old daughter Mary Alice, followed by Superman handing out photos to a line of kids in front of the "Kiddie Kapers" stage upon which he'd just performed. The heavy-set man with his back to the camera, moving the kids along, is Reeves' manager, Art Weissman. Hopefully there's more filmed footage from Reeves' many Superman appearances to eventually be rediscovered and uploaded.

"Wild Bill Cody" was actually actor and circus performer Fred Penniman, who put together the Western Show with his wife, Mamie Alice. The pair can be seen in the film doing their knife-throwing and whip-cracking acts. In a tragic irony, Mrs. Penniman died when, during an appearance in Pittsburgh, a 9-year-old boy picked up one of two rifles used in the act, and asked his mother if he could play with it. The mother assumed they were stage props, but in fact the guns were real and had been loaded by Mrs. Penniman just moments before. The young boy pulled the trigger and a bullet struck and killed the 40-year-old actress, wife and mother.

This happened on June 7, 1959. Nine days later, George Reeves would also be fatally struck down by a gunshot.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Charlie Chaplin: Lost and Found

Few things are more satisfying than watching an early Charlie Chaplin comedy... except for discovering one that's been lost for about 95 years.

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Slapsticon - a four-day silent comedy festival held annually in what is practically my back yard, Rosslyn, VA - will be screening a previously unknown and undocumented comedy in which Chaplin appeared during his first few weeks at Keystone in early 1914. According to the press release, "The print of A THIEF CATCHER was discovered earlier this year by Film Historian / Preservationist Paul E. Gierucki, current head of restorations for CineMuseum LLC, and one of the 'Godfathers' of a group of Comedy Film Historians known as the 'Silent Comedy Mafia' who help to organize the yearly Slapsticon festivals." A frame grab from the film can be viewed here; it's clear that Chaplin had already adopted his "little tramp" mustache and makeup.

Via some websites that host old newspaper pages, I've come across a few vintage images for this film. The one at the top of this post is actually for a reissue release in May 1915, from the Syracuse (NY) Journal. Here are some other ads for the 1915 reissue:

If the newspapers of the day can be considered a barometer, Chaplin's name was singled out from among his fellow Keystone players starting in May 1914, after he'd been in films about four months. His work in a two-reeler called Caught in a Cabaret - released on April 27 and which, until this discovery, was thought to be Chaplin's 12th picture - made audiences take notice; from that point on, Chaplin's films were usually promoted as such by the studio. By 1915, Charlie Chaplin was a known - and much anticipated - film favorite. The issue of the Portsmouth Ohio newspaper that yielded the blurb above listed four other Chaplin Keystones in various theatres during that same week. Even though Chaplin was by then working for the Essanay Company and turning out a new release every 3-4 weeks, patrons couldn't get enough and Keystone kept the pipeline filled with reissues. In 1919, a company called W.H. Productions reissued the Keystones and created new titles for most of them. This flooding of the marketplace is why nearly every Chaplin film survives, while the legacies of other Keystone stars (such as Charlie's brother, Syd) are incomplete.

A Thief Catcher was Chaplin's second, or third, or possibly fourth film. Its release was listed in this ad from the February 14, 1914 New York Clipper, a show business periodical:
This would make A Thief Catcher Chaplin's fourth Keystone to be released; his third, Mabel's Strange Predicament, was issued on February 9 and the next one, Between Showers, came out on the 28th. Chaplin's first film, in which he hadn't yet created his famous mustache, was shot during the week of January 5; his second release, Kid's Auto Race, was filmed in Venice, California on Saturday, January 10. Mabel's Strange Predicament was also started during that first full week of January, then presumably finished from Monday, January 12 through the morning of the 14th. That Wednesday afternoon, rain moved into the Los Angeles area and didn't depart until the 27th. It was a monumental, record-shattering series of storms, and suburbs such as Edendale, where the Keystone Studios were located, were particularly hard-hit. In fact, Between Showers makes use of a massive puddle, a remnant of the rainfall.

Somewhere in there, as the press release affirms, A Thief Catcher was shot... possibly even before Kid's Auto Race.

In keeping with the earliest days of Chaplin's career, newspaper ads from 1914 simply list the film as a "Keystone Comedy" with no players mentioned - even though Keystone's then-reigning star, Ford Sterling, was heading up the cast.
And so, if you've ever wanted to acquaint yourself with the world's finest film historians, you won't get a better opportunity than at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater on the evening of July 17, for many of them will be surely be attending this monumental screening.

And finally, if any of the "Silent Comedy Mafia" happen to be reading this... could this be the next "lost Chaplin" discovery?