Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary

A fixture on my bookshelf is a sweet little curiosity entitled Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary: private letters from inside the studios of the 1920s. Edited and annotated most attentively by film historian Cari Beauchamp, it is a collection of letters penned by a young woman named Valeria Belleti who moved to Los Angeles from her New Jersey home in 1924. Valeria was 25 years old and had landed smack in the midst of a modern boomtown—the burgeoning movie biz making Hollywood its unsanctioned core.

She landed a job as Samuel Goldwyn’s personal assistant which means that her letters are the sort of primary source material that Hollywood history lovers (like yours truly) absolutely salivate over. By Valeria’s own admonition she was a bit “prim” and, although this collection of letters span the very apex of the jazz age, the pages are not inked with the sort of hot-jazz prohibition party-hardy hedonism we tend to associate with the period. Cari  Beauchamp, the womens interests champion and versed Hollywood historian, writes that Valeria “was always on the lookout for a good time—within the bounds of propriety of course—and for a man to enjoy it with. She was very much a young woman of her times, proper but curious, taking her work seriously and ambitious to a point, but always wondering if the next man she met was husband material.”  So, instead of a steamy Fitzgerald-esque diary, we have instead the gift of a revealing, detailed journaling of the daily cogwheel workings of a Hollywood studio in the 1920s. 

They are also painful proof of just how much our society has lost in our collective neglect of the hand-written letter. There is a candor and intelligence in Valeria’s heartfelt pages that our emails and tweets and texts can never hope to convey.

Towards the end, Valeriea’s letters do become bogged down with accounts of her personal love interests– the stories of which are largely under whelming—but how could one possibly find fault with this? These were, after all, Valeria’s private letters and had she known they would have been published for posterity’s sake eighty years after their composition I’m sure they would read dramatically differently.

Wouldn’t yours?

With a roster of supporting players to put MGM to shame, including Frances Marion, Rudolph Valentino, Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper, Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary is essential reading for any Hollywood history enthusiast.

The following entry is precisely the sort of account that turns me pea-green with envy. Why oh why couldn’t I have been Valeria Belleti?

“Dear Irma …

All your good wishes have come true—I have had the most happy Christmas I’ve ever had, that is, so far as material things are concerned. Naturally at heart, I still my miss my mother and all my friends and I can never be really happy until there is someone who can in a measure fill this gap.

Everybody at the studio was wonderful to me—Ronald Colman gave me a lovely underarm bag, Frances Marion gave me a gorgeous French beaded pocketbook, Mrs. Goldwyn gave me a orgeous satin mules trimmed in green ostrich feathers, Mr Fitzmaurice gave me a huge box of candy, Mr. Lehr gave me a gold cigarette holder (I smoke occasionally now-but it’s not a habit as yet) and I got things from about 5 or 6 other men at the studio. The office gave me a week’s salary.

The day before Christmas we had a little party at the studio in the afternoon—of course everybody had been drinking but me—I had to remain sober because I had to send about 75 telegrams out for Mr. Goldwyn and flowers to wives of his business friends. Mr. Goldwyn left about 3 in the afternoon and then the fun began. I had about 5 assistant directors in my office, our production manager, Jack Pickford, a few minor actors and then Ronald dropped in. As I said before, I was the only sober one in the lot, however they were not disgustingly drunk—just funny. Ronald is making a picture with Norma Talmage—“Kiki.” … Ronald came off the Kiki set and he was still in his make up and feeling pretty good. It was the first time I have ever seen him like that—he’s so quiet and reserved and almost unapproachable. He put a cap on me and wound a muffler around my neck and then I put on my black satin mules with the ostrich feathers and Ronald and I were playing “Kiki”. … Then Ronald was trying to do the Charleston and couldn’t—he looked awfully funny….”

Silent Films at the London Film Festival

A thoughtful and expressive piece appeared in today’s Guardian, praising the value, worth and beauty of silent cinema.

Three silent’s are slated to be screened at the London Film Festival later this month: Underground (1928, directed by Anthony Asquith), J’accuse! (1919, directed by Abel Gance), and Laila (1929, directed by George Schneevoigt), which, Guardian writer Ronald Bergan says, remind modern audiences just how eloquent dialogue-free movies are capable of being. He also makes the provocative argument that “if cinema history had started with sound, it would have been necessary to invent silent movies.”

Read his reverent op-ed below:

The London film festival is screening three silent classics this year, reminding us just how eloquent dialogue-free movies are capable of being.

Is there anyone out there who still needs to be convinced of the superiority of silent movies? They hold their own easily against sound, colour and widescreen films in any canonical list. Silent movies are the ne plus ultra of cinema. The rest is… theatre or literature. How exciting, therefore, that this year’s London film festival is screening three silent movie treasures: one British (Underground, 23 October), one French (J’Accuse, 24 October) and one Norwegian (Laila, 29 October).

Pre-sound movies are closer to Erwin Panovsky’s definition of cinema as “the dynamisation of space and the spacialisation of time”, and to Alfred Hitchcock’s belief in “pure cinema”. When film theorists attempt to define cinematic specificity, it is to non-talkies that they turn. I have a theory that if cinema history had started with sound, it would have been necessary to invent silent movies.

Actually, there is no such thing as a silent movie, because a musical accompaniment was an essential component of every performance. And how can anything so eloquent be termed “silent”? That is why I prefer to call them pre-sound movies, or non-talkies. Ironically, one of the few things that non-talkies couldn’t do was create silence. Silence as an acoustic effect exists only where sounds can be heard, as in Abel Gance’s The Life and Loves of Beethoven (1937), in a sequence where the composer loses his hearing. Incidentally, it is interesting to compare Gance’s non-talkie 1919 version of J’Accuse – which depicts death, delusion and insanity in the trenches – with his far less effective talkie remake of 1938.

Pre-sound films were more universal, with no need for subtitles or dubbing – FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) is so expressive that intertitles were unnecessary. Charlie Chaplin, feeling that talkies would limit his international appeal, and being popular enough, resisted dialogue for 13 years, making two of the screen’s greatest comedies, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), in the midst of an avalanche of talk.

Much is written about the cinematographic beauty and the use of montage in pre-sound films (for Sergei Eisenstein, sound destroyed montage, which he considered the essence of cinema) but of equal importance were the closeup and the performances. The absence of the spoken word concentrates the spectator’s attention more closely on the visual aspect of behaviour. Acting in non-talkies, now a lost art, had to be done in a manner different from the style on stage or the reality of ordinary life. This was precisely what the great actors of the silent period accomplished, far from the pantomimic exaggeration seen in films like Singin’ in the Rain. Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Conrad Veidt, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino and Asta Nielsen were among those that gave the most extraordinary performances in screen history. As Norma Desmond (Swanson) says in Sunset Boulevard (1950): “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”

Underground (UK, 1928)

Underground (UK, 1928)

Laila (Norway, 1928)

Laila (Norway, 1929)

J'accuse! (France, 1919)

J'accuse! (France, 1919)

Colorized Vintage Photos by Claroscureaux

Right, so like most things in life, I am probably the last person in the blogosphere to know about this fella. Many thanks to Forget the Talkies for bringing it to my attention!

Claroscureaux colorizes vintage Hollywood photographs.

Normally the word “colorize” makes my skin crawl and I get a sudden urge  for sudden death. But Claroscureaux’s work is beautiful– if I might rhapsodize, I daresay his work is exquisite. Some are spine-tingling in their realism, some have an Earl Christy-ish painterly quality, but all are obvious works of tireless, tedious attention to detail.

He has a store online to fulfill all of your every day classic cinema needs– coffee mugs, et all– and the prints are priced very reasonably.

Here are some of my favorites:

Myrna Loy - © Claroscureaux

Myrna Loy - © Claroscureaux

Hedy Lamarr - © Claroscureaux

Hedy Lamarr - © Claroscureaux

Veronica Lake - © Claroscureaux (this is quite possibly my favorite photo of the year)

Veronica Lake - © Claroscureaux (this is quite possibly my favorite photo of the year)

Bette Davis - © Claroscureaux

Bette Davis - © Claroscureaux

Valentino - © Claroscureaux (smolder alert, ladies!)

Valentino - © Claroscureaux (smolder alert, ladies!)

Buster Keaton - © Claroscureaux

Buster Keaton - © Claroscureaux

Gloria Swanson - © Claroscureaux

Gloria Swanson - © Claroscureaux

Alice White - © Claroscureaux

Alice White - © Claroscureaux