So, writing plays is pretty cool. My one-act play, The Ten Minute Play (With a Nice Picture of Jimmy Carter) has been selected for a reading at the Midwest Dramatist Conference in late September, in Kansas City. I’ll be attending and participating in panels and see my play being performed.
Another one-act play, Mundy Tuesday Friday, was selected over the summer as a Finalist by the Shakespeare in the Burg theater company in Middleburg, Virginia. Of course, it would have been nice to have the play actually produced, but the director of the company is very nice. I’ve received several nice rejections for this play from other companies. One day, somebody’s going to pick this up and stage it.
The biggest news (and I know I’m burying the lede) is that I just finished a full-length play called The Cabots of Broadway. It’s a comedy about three generations of actors. Each act is about one generation and how they became the First Family of the Theater. I’ve been submitting it to theater festivals around the country in the hopes that someone loves it and wants to do it. I love it. It’s my best work so far.
All of my plays ( I have several) are available on New Play Exchange (https://newplayexchange.org/users/14397/greg-hatfield) under my name.
So there you have it. Updates. While you’re here, go ahead and read some of the older posts. The Crosby post is good, as is the Grace Metalious post. I’m also fond of the Harpo and Dorothy Parker posts. And if you want to cry a little, The Day the Sheriff Shot My Dog is up your alley.
Thanks for reading.
I feel like I’m close to finishing some of the essays I’ve been working on. Just to give you a preview of what is in store for my readers, I have the following in various stages of completion:
A Short History of the Dublin Gate Theater, featuring the founders, Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir. This has been all-consuming lately, with the reasons detailed in my essay. Founded in 1928, in Dublin, Ireland, the Gate is one of the longest-consecutive running theaters in the world. It’s difficult writing about productions and actors you’ve never personally seen (except maybe in filmed clips), but I hope to get across the passion and brilliance of both Edwards and MacLiammoir, and all the paths that lead to them.
What Moss Hart Means to Me. Playwright and director Moss Hart was a very talented man, known for being George S. Kaufman’s most successful collaborator. He certainly influenced my life and Hart has seen a bit of a renaissance lately with the production of his autobiography, Act One, on Broadway, so I’ll take a look at his career and life.
I’m trying to figure out a couple of stories about, well, me. I’d like to write about a play I directed in college, Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, because it was memorable and interesting, I think. I might also write about my time in comedy, starting with The Act, my duo with Scott Levy. I may also publish some unpublished work, including parts of my novel The Dick Beaks Show, or sketches that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another.
This is all part of the bigger picture leading to my memoirs called Scrap Heap.
In the meantime, it’s the start of the holiday season, so my timeless Bing Crosby article gets shoved to the front.
See you soon.
Der Bingle: A Short Appreciation of Bing Crosby
He was once the most popular singer ever.
He recorded over 1600 songs over a 58 year recording career. His records have sold over one billion copies. He had 38 number one hits, including the most popular song ever.
He appeared on about 4000 radio programs.
His television show regularly was watched by over 50 million people weekly.
He appeared in 83 movies and sold over one billion tickets, which puts him third overall on the most popular actor category, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne. He was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and won one, and introduced fourteen Oscar nominated songs in these films, which won four.
He is largely forgotten, with the exception of this time of year, where his music is rotated liberally and his name is synonymous with the holiday season.
He is Bing Crosby whose life and legacy still live on among those of us who cherish popular singing.
And that’s what he was, a popular singer, singing songs of every type and genre, with an easy-going style that belied his immense talent. Bing made it look easy and everyone, from all walks of life, would enjoy his music. And man, that voice, that incomparable voice; that deep baritone that takes every musical phrase seriously and glides it to its musical height. Jazz, ballads, blues, cowboy songs, hymns, show tunes – he sang practically everything, captivating his audience with those full, rich notes. They clung to every word, every syllable, as Bing invented what became the crooner. Many tried to imitate. Sinatra started out as a Bing clone.
What made me start thinking of Crosby was the programming of local radio. Several stations here in Cincinnati – as I am sure other cities have done the same thing — have begun playing Christmas music 24/7. I had the occasion to listen to a large block of that programming one night and noticed that, roughly, one out of six songs were songs by Crosby, including at least two versions of White Christmas, the aforementioned most popular song ever, with sales of over 100 million.
I thought about that. I thought about how much I like Crosby’s music and mused sadly that this is probably the only time of the year in which Crosby is played on mainstream radio. SiriusXM radio even has a channel devoted this time of year called “Bing Crosby Christmas Radio”. To be fair, you can listen to Crosby songs on Sirius’ 40’s channel and Pandora and Spotify also program Crosby music into your specific playlists.
TMC does show the occasional Crosby film, Going My Way being the most popular. Sometimes a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” picture pops up, but these are mostly dated comedies and, as much as I love Bob Hope, his humor is very topical and era-specific.
Yes, Bing Crosby has some skeletons in his closet. He could be aloof and dismissive. He probably wasn’t the greatest father to his four sons by his first marriage, but apparently redeemed himself by his second marriage, with three children.
(There’s a biography of Bing called The Hollow Man, which presents a less than flattering portrait of him. For years, during my friends and my annual White Elephant Christmas party, we gave away the same copy of this book each year to some unsuspecting recipient, who was obliged to give it away the following year.
My friend, Rick Simms, né Clem Coffee, said that if “One fifth of what was written in that book is true, Bing Crosby was the most despicable man who ever lived.” And Clem liked Bing Crosby.
A better biography is Gary Giddins’ Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940. This came out in 2001, with a promised second volume that is taking some time to see print.
So, this holiday season, when you hear Bing Crosby sing those delightful Christmas carols that can make the other ones seem lame, pause and reflect just one minute that the man you’re listening to is a superstar in the world of popular music. And if you have Pandora or Spotify, give a listen to some of his other non-holiday music. I’ll bet you’ll end up liking it and wanting more. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my vinyl copy of Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings.
The silent film era is riddled with contradiction, confusion and the loss of thousands of the films made before 1927. As studios began making films, having discovered there was an audience for it, and more importantly, profits to be made, they began cranking them out at an enormous rate. Making it up as they went along, the early filmmakers had no blueprint or guide to show them how to make films. They were learning on the job. Contradiction came in the form of filming technique, story structure and acting styles. The confusion was determining what the audiences wanted to see, although in the very early days it was such a novelty that practically anything filmed was worthy of the price of admission.
But audiences soon let the early studios know what they liked, as they sought out the studios and filmmakers, like D.W. Griffith at Biograph, because they knew they were getting good entertainment. These audiences soon became enamored of certain actors and actresses, seeking out films with their favorites. As actors weren’t given screen credit, they became known by their roles associated with the studios for which they worked. In 1908, actress Florence Lawrence became known as “The Biograph Girl” and is regarded as the first movie star. Audience flocked to the films she was in and she soon became in demand for other studios at a higher salary. (At Biograph, Lawrence was replaced by Mary Pickford.)
With the star system now entrenched, personalities were driving the medium. Audiences couldn’t get enough of “Little Mary” Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand and Douglas Fairbanks. Comedies were the overall favorite and Charles Chaplin was the most popular star in the world with his Little Tramp character.
Chaplin began in British vaudeville before being discovered by Mack Sennett, who offered him a job at his Keystone Studios. Chaplin accepted and began working with Mabel Normand, who was the reigning queen of comedy at the time. Also working at Keystone was a young, rotund comedian named Roscoe Arbuckle.
After Chaplin left Keystone Studios, Sennett, who had great success with the Keystone Kops, began pairing Normand with Arbuckle. Billed as “Fatty” (a name he hated), Arbuckle played mischievous and naïve hayseed, or appeared in drag. As he started headlining his own films, he quickly became the second most popular film comedian. Paramount Studios offered him a three-year, $3,000,000 contract in 1918 (about $46,000,000 today).
Arbuckle lived lavishly openly. He bought a mansion, he bought cars, he threw parties. Of course he wasn’t alone. This first generation of movie stars, who had grown up in abject poverty, didn’t really know what to do with the buckets of money that came their way. Prohibition was in effect, but that didn’t stop them from becoming alcoholics. Drugs, including cocaine, morphine and heroin, were in plentiful supply, often supplied by people who worked for the studios. It was the era of the casting couch, as hundreds of young women were lured to Hollywood only to find that once they were used, they were discarded quickly.
The studios had people that tried to control all elements of the press and presented only the best face to the public. But, you can’t keep good gossip away, and there was plenty to talk about. While it seemed Hollywood was playing, many in America became concerned and there was some grass-roots movements beginning to form with the sole purpose of cleaning up the movies.
Greg Merritt’s new book, Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood (September, 2013, Chicago Review Press) is the account of sensational accusations and subsequent trials of Roscoe Arbuckle, following a party held Labor Day weekend in San Francisco.
It would seem there is a small renaissance today in the lives of silent film stars. New biographies are being published of the bigger stars (John Gilbert and Mae Murray) and more obscure film actors (Peg Entwistle and Mary Wickes). There remains huge interest in silent stars such as Harlow and Garbo (who made the transition into sound), Chaplin, Pickford, director William Desmond Taylor, Mabel Normand, Laurel and Hardy and several others.
The life of Roscoe Arbuckle falls into an odd category. On one hand, his films have now become relegated to the pile of silent films that seem to end up in bargain bins of DVDs for $1.00, even while becoming easier to view (YouTube).
His story isn’t of his success as a comedian and silent film star; it’s the story of his being accused, initially of murder, and subsequently, manslaughter, and the salaciousness that followed. The story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is legend. It’s the nagging details that are muddled.
Thankfully, Merritt’s book takes a close look at all the evidence, all the while putting Arbuckle’s place in history in perspective. Merritt reviews autopsy reports, trial transcripts, police and coroner testimony, newspaper articles and never before published interviews to give a very balanced analysis of what could have happened that Labor Day of 1921.
Here’s the story in brief: By 1921, Arbuckle was big box office. His films were popular all over America and the world. He was loved by everyone; on screen he was one of us. Arbuckle had just completed the film, Freight Prepaid, for Paramount and was working on his next feature film. He needed a break and took a small entourage to San Francisco, where they would have a party in the suites of the Hotel St. Francis.
Throughout the weekend, people would come and go. There was alcohol and plenty of it. On Monday, an actress whom Arbuckle knew slightly, Virginia Rappe, came up to the party and after a few drinks, began talking to Arbuckle.
One of the strengths of Room 1219 is its most thorough biography of Virginia Rappe. Previous books on the Arbuckle case portray her as a desperate actress or prostitute. Merritt shows she actually had some success in Hollywood and had other opportunities. When she was talking to Arbuckle, it would make sense that she would ask him for work.
She was also pretty, Arbuckle was flirty, drinks were being served, it was a party. The two of them slipped away into Room 1219.
What followed changed the lives of both of them. Rappe was injured, her bladder ruptured. No one at the time knew how serious it was. Arbuckle left her in the care of others and the party broke up.
Rappe died four days later. Based on the testimony of others at the party, including Rappe companion Maude Delmont who never testified in open court, Arbuckle was arrested for the murder in an attempt to perpetrate rape of Virginia Rappe.
The charge was eventually reduced to manslaughter and the trial of the century was on and on and on. There would be three trials in all. Merritt breaks down each one, showing the lame attempts by the show-boating prosecution to introduce hearsay evidence, twisted testimony and wild speculation. Of course, the defense did Arbuckle no favors, at least during the first two trials. They seemed unprepared at times, believing that no jury could find it in them to convict one of America’s greatest clowns. Merritt provides the pertinent transcripts of the trials, showing where the evidence is favorable to Arbuckle, but also shows the holes in his alibi.
This was the era of newspapers and Arbuckle was front page news for months, at least until the third trial. By then, other Hollywood stories had grabbed the headlines: the suicide of Olive Thomas (married to Jack Pickford, brother of Mary) in Paris, the murder of William Desmond Taylor (still unsolved to this day) and the death of matinee idol and drug addict Wallace Reid.
At the third trial, Arbuckle was acquitted in less than 10 minutes. But the damage had already been done. His career was over. His films were still banned practically all over the country. Will Hays had been appointed head of the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which, basically, was a self-serving reform group. Hays was the puppet of the studio heads and one of his first edicts was to ban Arbuckle permanently from working in any studio in Hollywood.
Room 1219 also details Arbuckle’s exile from Hollywood; Hays’ reversal; and Arbuckle’s subsequent comeback as a director, stage performer and, ultimately, his return to acting in film. Using all the evidence put into place in the book, Merritt provides a good, logical theory on what really happened that day in San Francisco. It was an event that should have ended differently. The lives of two people were ruined that day. Rappe lost her life and Arbuckle lost everything.
Room 1219 will be welcomed by all film buffs as the most complete account of the Arbuckle trials. It’s hard to believe 92 years later, there is still new evidence being discovered and new theories advanced. Fascinating and full of new information about the case, its participants and victims, Room 1219 engages the reader from start to finish with no happy endings in sight.
Over the years, I’ve become a fan of the work of D.W. Griffith, one of the pioneers of early film making. Griffith worked with Thomas Edison as an actor and writer, before moving to the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, or just Biograph, as an actor. He complained so much about the directing, that they gave him a chance. This was in 1908. Griffith would go on to make thousands of one-reelers (about 10-12 minutes long) until 1913 when he quit Biograph because he wanted to make longer films.
Griffith’s use of cross-cutting, close-ups, flashbacks and editing allowed him to rise to the top of the directors working in silent film. He had a remarkable cast, too, that began to receive recognition for their work in the films. Such actors as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Wallace Reid, and many others began, or worked with Griffith at Biograph. Pickford was so popular, she became known as “The Biograph Girl” and parlayed that exposure into a huge movie contract.
Griffith would go on to make many of the cinema’s greatest films: Way Down East, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm, Broken Blossoms, and others. The Birth of a Nation became the most successful film in its day, launching the careers of dozens of men who would later become studio moguls, producers and theater owners. (Today, The Birth of a Nation is a pariah in the Griffith canon due to its overt tones of racism.)
(The image on the right is the big centerpiece of Intolerance, with its cast of thousands and huge scenery pieces.)
In 1919, Griffith, Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin founded United Artists, an independent film studio where the producers made the decisions, not the studio heads.
(There are two terrific books on the history of United Artists by Tino Balio:
You would think that after making all of these important films, D.W. Griffith would be recognized in Hollywood for the genius he was and he would have lived out his life with the love and admiration of all his peers.
Not so fast. He lived his final years alone, not able to get work, alcoholic, and broke. His films had made millions for others, but he was unable to keep his money. He had often put his own money into his work and lost it when the films didn’t make it back quickly enough.
In 1940, Iris Barry, the first curator of The Museum of Modern Art Film Library, put together a large exhibition on Griffith, with the purpose of restoring the fame and reputation of the director. Griffith was still alive then, and cooperated with Barry on a monograph, short essays, that accompanied the exhibition. It was the first retrospective of Griffith’s career, and one that made the argument that Griffith was not just a pioneer of cinema, but a ground-breaking director, whose films incorporated practically every technique still used today.
I found the second edition of this book yesterday at a used book shop.
The second edition has been expanded because in 1965, the Museum ran another Griffith exhibition and reprinted the original manuscript by Barry and expanded it with a long addendum by the director of the Griffith exhibition, Eileen Bowser. It also has an interview with Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s longtime cameraman.
Griffith died in 1948, alone, penniless. He is buried outside of Louisville at the at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. His grave was unmarked for a couple of years, until the Director’s Guild provided a marker. A re-dedication of his grave was attended by Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Richard Barthlemess, all who had appeared in Griffith films.
Gish also wrote a book about Griffith, now out of print, but available used.
One last thing, when I was a student at Northern Kentucky University, in 1979, there was a dedication on campus that unveiled a new statue by celebrated artist, Red Grooms. It depicted Griffith directing a scene from Way Down East, with Lillian Gish on the ice floe, and cameraman Billy Bitzer cranking away.
The statue received prominent placement on campus, between the Fine Arts building and the new Student Activities building. I must have passed it a million times, going from one place to the next. I knew who Griffith was, of course, and knew that he had been born in Kentucky, but really didn’t give it much thought.
The artwork was loaned out frequently and when it was returned, it was relocated to another part of campus: the banks of Lake Inferior, behind the Fine Arts building,
As the Grooms artwork remained on campus, there grew an uneasiness about Griffith’s past history with race relations. In 2004, the sculpture was dismantled, where it remains in storage to this day.
Being from the South, Griffith always believed that he impartially showed what happened after the Civil War in The Birth of a Nation. What he didn’t realize was there was a new attitude in the United States toward race. For many people, gone was the hatred, replaced by acceptance. Griffith’s display of race relations in The Birth of a Nation, even though it represented events happening 50 years ago, was not keeping with the mood of the country in present day 1915.
His next film, Intolerance, in 1916, was an answer to those critics, who believed he was intolerant of race. This is Griffith’s finest film, cross cut throughout with four different stories, showing mans intolerance to others always led to ruin. Running over three hours, it was the most expensive film of that time.
Lillian Gish called him “the father of film” and Charles Chaplin called him “the teacher of us all”. Griffith still remains a vital part of cinema history and there will always be film critics and historians trying to determine just how important.
Hollywood loves a story where someone at the height of their career takes a fall. Takes a huge, long, career-busting fall. Maybe that’s why I admire D.W. Griffith. Maybe that’s why I admire Orson Welles. Orson used to say, “Oh, how they’ll miss me when I’ m gone.” And that’s certainly the case. Welles also said, in spite of his own treatment by the Hollywood establishment, “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”
A while back, I presented a book proposal on the deaths of famous writers. An editor suggested it for me and I sketched out some rough outlines of Poe, Hemingway and my favorite, Dorothy Parker. Since I’m terribly late in posting my latest story, I’m filling in with this chestnut, complete now with visuals. I hope you enjoy it. — Hat
Dorothy Parker: “I do not care what is written about me so long as it is not true.”
When Dorothy Parker died on June 7, 1967, her death surprised many people. After reading her obituary in the New York Times, they shook their heads in disbelief. They thought she had died years ago. Indeed, death came much too late in life for Mrs. Parker. The famed literary wit of the 1920’s had, after all, attempted suicide on at least three different occasions. After her second attempt, her friend, the humorist Robert Benchley warned her that if she wasn’t careful she was “likely to make herself sick.” On her 70th birthday, she said if she had any manners, she “should be dead by now. All of my friends are.”
Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley
Alone and forgotten at her death, Dottie had lived the last years of her life in her beloved New York, where she had made her biggest contribution. She was the darling of the Algonquin Round Table, whose ranks included the most famous drama critic of the day Alexander Woollcott; widely read newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams (from whose poetry style of light verse Dottie borrowed heavily); award-winning playwright George S. Kaufman; and the New Yorker founder Harold Ross. Ironically, she outlived all but two of its members.
The Algonquin Round Table by Al Hirschfeld
Dottie was one of the original staffers at Ross’ new magazine, the New Yorker, where she is credited with creating the prototypical “New Yorker Short Story,” that is a story under 7000 words, urbane, witty and well-written. But her biggest success came from her poetry; short, humorous poems, usually about suicide or failed relationships, that she called “trifles,” never taking it seriously, but nonetheless knowing its popularity among her readers. In the early days of the struggling magazine, Ross scolded her for turning in an article late. “Sorry,” she said, “someone else was using the pencil.”
The New Yorker’s first issue, 1925
Mrs. Parker, Benchley and Woollcott were all on the “advisory” staff
“I hate writing. I love having written.”
She published seven books during her lifetime, collections of her short stories and poetry, including Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1927), Death and Taxes (1931) and After Such Pleasures (1933). She won the O. Henry Prize for “Outstanding Short Story” in 1939 for her story, Big Blonde. A collection from her entire body of work, The Portable Dorothy Parker, was first published in 1944 and remains in print today, bringing thousands of new readers every year. As she grew older, she and her then-husband Alan Campbell moved to Hollywood, where they worked on screenplays. Dottie, Alan and Robert Carson were nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay for the 1937 film, A Star is Born.
Always a champion for social causes, upon her death Mrs. Parker left her entire estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Upon his assassination, the rights reverted to the NAACP. Author Lillian Hellman was the executor of Dottie’s estate, but never claimed her ashes for burial, after finding out, and getting angry, that Dottie hadn’t left her the rights to her literary works. Mrs. Parker’s ashes languished in a box in an attorney’s office for over fifteen years before the NAACP took Dottie’s remains and interred them in a memorial garden at their national headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. Dorothy had her own suggestion for her epitaph:
“Excuse my dust.”
The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp with her likeness, as part of the Literary Arts series on August 22, 1992, on what would have been Mrs. Parker’s 99th birthday.
Mrs. Parker isn’t the only Round Table member to be commemorated on a postage stamp. Others include:
Artist Neysa McMein
Author Edna Ferber
Playwright Moss Hart
A film of her life, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, was released in 1994 and released on DVD in 2006.
See the trailer here: