Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood

by Charles Foster

Published by Dundurn Press

408 pages, 2000


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Stars of the Silver Screen, Eh?

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

Though it may be hard to believe that there were film critics back in 1896, a Roger Ebert of the era had this to say about a new motion picture sensation called The Kiss:

It is an outrage to decency and good taste. Neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged posturing on each other's lips was hard to bear. When only life size on the theatre stage it is beastly. Magnified to gargantuan proportions on a white sheet it is absolutely disgusting.

One of the "participants" in this picture (which, by the way, lasted all of 50 seconds) was a Broadway star named May Irwin, born in 1862 in Whitby, Ontario. Her screen debut was treated with contempt by the theatrical elite. In the words of another critic, Charles Frohman: "Why this distinguished actress and pillar of New York society should choose to exhibit herself in this passing fad of moving pictures is beyond my reasoning." Charles Foster devotes a whole chapter of his delightful book Stardust and Shadows to May Irwin who, more than a century later, is still remembered for her 50 seconds of fame.

Foster has an eye for the eccentric and the exotic which keeps his book consistently intriguing from cover to cover. He gets the inside story on the contributions of 18 Canadians who worked in silent film, from obscure figures like Del Lord, Joe and Sam de Grasse and Florence La Badie to outright legends such as Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer and Louis B. Mayer.

Louis B. Mayer a Canadian? Strictly speaking, he wasn't. Mayer was born in Minsk, Russia, but lived from infancy onward in Saint John, New Brunswick, retaining a loyalty to his home and native land that lasted to the end of his days. He was even known to hire compatriots on the spot, as Saint John native Walter Pidgeon later recalled:

"Without another word he called his secretary, Ida Koverman. 'Ida...' he said, 'prepare a contract for this man from Saint John, he will tell you his name, and Ida, add another fifty dollars a week on the contract for a good Canadian. We shook hands and just like that I was under contract to MGM. 'You do act, don't you?' he asked. I nodded and left the room."

Tales like these are so tall that they wobble, but that's all part of the fun. The book relies heavily on reminiscences from stars, directors, producers and behind-the-scenes folk from an era when the art of film was still new enough to be charged with excitement. Foster's years as a show business publicist no doubt lent him many valuable connections.

But he also makes much of the fact that, when he was a young serviceman on leave in the Hollywood of 1943, he was taken on a tour of one of the most glamorous mansions in show business history, the legendary Pickfair. Whether or not Mary Pickford actually threw her arms around him at the door is beside the point (and if she didn't, perhaps she should have). The episode makes clear the fact that Foster has had a love affair with all things Hollywood for his entire life and this zeal for the subject matter makes his book sparkle and fizz like the bubbles in champagne.

Who could have predicted that Leila von Koerber, a plain, stout woman from Cobourg, Ontario, would go on to win acclaim, first as a Broadway comedienne, then as the star of such 1914 film hits as Tilly's Punctured Romance? Under the name Marie Dressler, the actress who titled her autobiography The Life Story of An Ugly Duckling came to be known by studio head Louis B. Mayer as "the most adored person ever to set foot in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio."

And who could have guessed that a New Brunswick dentist named Sam de Grasse would establish a solid career as a film actor in such epic productions as D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation? De Grasse never let his professional skills lapse and they came in handy when a certain prominent leading man named Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. needed dental rescue:

"Within a few months I had every tooth fixed and capped," recalled Sam. "The famed Fairbanks smile had never been more prominent. I never did find out who his previous dentist was, but I doubt very much if he ever had any training. Fairbanks' mouth was a mess." When Pickfair was torn down in 1990 to make way for a new home for would-be actress Pia Zadora, wreckers found a hidden room full of dental equipment -- the place where Sam had secretly set up shop.

Any book on Hollywood would be incomplete without a whiff of scandal and here we find out that in spite of the nice-guy image, Canadians can be just as dastardly as anyone else. Not too many people remember that Mary Pickford had a younger brother who was also an actor. Jack Pickford was the Robert Downey Jr. of the silent era -- handsome and talented, but doomed to squander every opportunity handed to him. His booze-and-drug-soaked life was cut short in his mid-30s by a raging case of syphilis. "He was a useless nobody," actor Allan Dwan recalled, "a leech on his family since the day he was five, and a man who lived far too long in reaching thirty-six."

Then there was the brilliant and delicately beautiful Florence La Badie, a favorite of then-President Woodrow Wilson. The mystery of La Badie's suspicious death at 24 due to injuries from a car crash has still not been solved. But it is known that her brakes had been tampered with -- and there were rumors that La Badie had recently borne a love child, a son with the middle name of Woodrow.

Stardust and Shadows fairly breathes the atmosphere of old Hollywood, complete with the spontaneity and madcap humor of silent film. Montreal-born Mack Sennett became the comic genius behind the Keystone Kops, but before that he worked in the rough-and-tumble world of burlesque. One day the house was raided, and Sennett was brought up before a judge:

"And what do you do for a living?" he said.

"I'm an actor," I replied. "A character actor, sir."

"And what character are you supposed to be in that get-up?" he asked.

"I'm part of an animal, sir," I said.

"What part of an animal?" he asked.

"The ass-end of a horse, sir," I said.

"Now make up your mind, Mr. Sennett. Are you an ass or a horse?" he enquired.

"A horse's ass-end," I replied.

The advent of sound film in 1927 killed the career of many a promising screen actor. "Talkies" demanded not only a pleasing voice but a far more sophisticated style of acting. It's evident, and quite touching, how much Charles Foster cares about such forgotten stars as Monte Blue, Minta Durfee and King Baggott. His book serves as a fitting memorial, and a beautiful reminder of a vanished era. | February 2001

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.