Cinevent 50 — Day 3 (Part 1)

Saturday morning is always cartoon time at Cinevent. This year, in deference to the presence of Leonard Maltin, animation curator Stewart McKissick selected the program based on comments in Maltin’s seminal book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. As Maltin himself said in the program notes, there were “no maverick opinions here”, and indeed, it was a morning of tried-and-true excellence (most of this year’s roster is not available on YouTube, so you’ll have to take my word for it). The morning included (among others) Max Fleischer’s Dizzy Dishes (1930), a cartoon cabaret that included the first appearance of Betty Boop when she was a leggy, voluptuous sexpot from the neck down and a sort-of puppy dog from the neck up; Porky Pig’s Feat, a 1943 black-and-white Looney Tune directed by Frank Tashlin, with Porky and Daffy locked in their hotel room until they can pay the bill; Tortoise Wins by a Hare (also 1943), with Bugs Bunny as Aesop’s perennial loser; and Hockey Homicide (1945), one of Walt Disney’s funniest “sports Goofy” shorts. The whole array culminated with two MGM shorts from Tex Avery in his prime: King Size Canary (1947), with a bird, a cat and a mouse constantly one-upping each other by guzzling “Jumbo-Gro” plant food and morphing into monstrous versions of themselves; and Little Rural Riding Hood (’49), another of Avery’s panting, libidinous variations on the famous fairy tale — not quite as woo-hoo!! sexy as Red Hot Riding Hood (’43), maybe, but just as funny.

After the cartoons — and Chapters 7 to 9 of The Masked Marvel — the first feature of the day was The Eyes of Julia Deep (1918), one of the few surviving films of Mary Miles Minter. Over 80 percent of the 54 pictures she made between 1912 and 1923 are considered lost — which, in a way, is emblematic of the cloud this woman lived under for pretty much her whole life. I dealt with poor Mary in some detail in this post; click over to it if you want the sad particulars. For now, suffice it to say that she never really wanted to be an actress, and she appears to have had precious few happy days during her long life (she died at 82 in 1984).

Like the photo reproduced here, The Eyes of Julia Deep gives us an inkling of why, for a while, Mary Miles Minter was considered a credible heiress apparent to Mary Pickford. She plays Julia Deep, a customer service clerk in a department store whose cheerful ways make friends for her wherever she goes. Living in the same boarding house with her is young Terry Hartridge (Allan Forrest), whose reckless lifestyle is fast burning through the fortune he inherited from his wealthy father. The two are not acquainted except by sight as they pass in the hall, but while he’s out frittering away his money on gambling and gold-digging women, Julia, with the landlady’s approval, finds escape from her humdrum shopgirl’s world among the books in his huge library. One night she falls asleep over a book and is still there when Terry comes home. He’s broke, depressed and suicidal; Julia, who’s been cowering in the shadows hoping to be able to sneak out unobserved, sees the pistol in his hand and impulsively pleads with him not to go through with it. From that, a friendship develops, with Julia taking charge of Terry’s finances and helping him straighten out his life. And friendship ripens into romance — until Terry’s irresponsible past comes back to bite them both in the heart. The Eyes of Julia Deep seesaws almost recklessly between comedy and drama, but director Lloyd Ingraham finesses the changing tone rather nicely. And there’s no getting around the fact that Mary Miles Minter really had something. She was never a serious rival to Mary Pickford — and wouldn’t have been, even without the bad luck, scandal and psychological stresses that plagued her. But she definitely had something.


After the lunch break came a conversation in the screening room between Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin. This picture shows (from left) moderator Caroline Breder-Watts, Scott, and Leonard. At the prompting of Ms. Breder-Watts, they spoke about what drew them to movies in the first place, and how they got into writing about them. I took scattered video of the session, and I’ll be posting separately on what they had to say. For now I’ll just say that it was a lively and diverting hour; Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin, individually, are each excellent and stimulating company; together, they’re pretty tough to beat.


From there it was back to the movies, and the next one we saw would have been a highlight of the weekend for me, even if the presentation had been less spectacular than it was. The picture was George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953), and before I get into why it was such a particular highlight for me, let me say that the print we saw that afternoon was absolutely flawless — unblemished from first frame to last, with brilliant color that did full justice to George Barnes’s rich Technicolor photography (Barnes, an Oscar winner for 1940’s Rebecca, unfortunately did not live to see this last and best example of his art; he died in May 1953, three months before it was released).

And now my personal War of the Worlds story. It’s a story I recounted in the Cinevent 50th Anniversary commemorative book because it relates to my first visit to Cinevent in 1998.

The War of the Worlds, as it happens, is the subject of one of my earliest and most vivid memories of moviegoing. In December 1953, when I was five, my 23-year-old Uncle Conrad took me and two cousins to see the picture at the Enean Theatre in Pittsburg, Calif. I believe I sat through the first 15 minutes in relative aplomb, but when the lid popped off the top of the mysterious meteor and that weird metallic cobra head emerged, emitting a strange pulsing rattling noise, I felt the first stirrings of unease. And when Paul Birch, Jack Kruschen and Bill Phipps approached waving their sugar-sack white flag, only to be blasted to kingdom come, I became truly alarmed. Still, I held it together manfully (if I can use that word for my five-year-old self) through the first attack by the Martians, even when their sweeping heat ray hit the audience right between the eyes and thousands of soldiers, tanks and artillery were vaporized right before my eyes. To be sure, just as unease had given way to alarm, alarm now gave way to terror, but I was hanging on. Just barely.

And then I absolutely fell apart. It happened as Gene Barry and Ann Robinson were trying to dig their way out of that abandoned farmhouse with a Martian machine hovering outside. First, the sight of that alien periscope slithering down through the broken roof had me pretty close to panic. And when that Martian hand with its three suction-cupped fingers reached out and grabbed Ann Robinson by the shoulder, I lost it completely. I screamed, cried, few into hysterics, wailed at the top of my tiny lungs that I didn’t want to see it anymore. Uncle Conrad was torn, unsure how to handle this sudden outburst. Finally — and I honestly can’t say I blame him — his desire not to miss any of the movie won out, and he threw his windbreaker over my head, where I cowered for the rest of the movie. I sat there helplessly listening to Gene Garvin and Harry Lindgren’s groundbreaking sound effects, whimpering that I didn’t want to hear it either; whether Conrad and my cousins didn’t hear me, or whether they just ignored me, I never knew. Only at the end, as the Martian machines began crashing, did they coax me out from under Conrad’s jacket (“It’s okay, Jimmy, they’re dead now!”), so I did see that same Martian arm creep out on the open hatch and turn green in death.

In the short term, Conrad caught holy hell from the rest of the family for subjecting me to this shattering trauma. But I eventually recovered (to be honest, it took a couple of years), and once I got a firm grasp of the it’s-only-a-movie concept, I couldn’t wait to see it again. It became a staple of Saturday kiddie matinees in my childhood, and I probably saw it three or four more times by the time I was twelve.

Fade out, fade in. It’s 1998, 45 years have passed, and I’m attending Cinevent in Columbus for the first time. In the downstairs lobby, just outside the dealers’ room, I saw none other than Ann Robinson herself, standing at a card table piled high with two stacks of photos — one of a black-and-white glamour shot of her from her days as a Paramount contract player, the other a production still of the Martian periscope looking over her shoulder, just before she turns around and sees it. I found Conrad in the dealers’ room, brought him out, and we introduced ourselves. Conrad took a picture of Ms. Robinson and me (it’s around here somewhere, but damned if I can find it). I told her the story of seeing The War of the Worlds in 1953 — and here’s the thing: She didn’t bat an eye. That’s when it finally dawned on me that I probably wasn’t the only five-year-old boy in 1953 who sat through that movie with his uncle’s coat over his head.


I may have lost track of the photo Conrad took of us, but I still have the shot of Ms. Robinson with the Martian periscope; it has an honored place in my collection. The inscription, in case you can’t quite make it out, reads: “Jim, ♥♥ Is that you? Ann Robinson”.

And on that note of personal reminiscence, I’ll close this review of the first part of Day 3. There was more to come.



To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Day 2

Day 2 of Cinevent began bright and early with what was probably the most…the most…well, just about the oddest movie of the whole weekend: Night in Paradise (1946). Produced by Walter Wanger for Universal, it was based on George S. Hellman’s novel Peacock’s Feather, and Wanger had been trying to get it produced ever since snapping up the film rights shortly after the book was published in 1931. For a while, according to Richard Barrios’s program notes, he planned to star Ann Harding and Charles Boyer, and to make it the first feature in three-strip Technicolor. For one reason or another, he lost the services of Ann Harding, which — for the time being — sank the whole project (and instead, Becky Sharp became the first full-Technicolor feature in 1935; Wanger ventured into Tech the following year when he produced The Trail of the Lonesome Pine at Paramount).

Wanger got the project rolling again during a stint at Universal (Wanger was incredibly peripatetic, working at studios all over Hollywood, plus his own Walter Wanger Productions). He got the green light after scoring a box-office bullseye with Arabian Nights (1942), an installment in the studio’s Maria Montez/Jon Hall “King and Queen of Technicolor” series of campy adventures. And so it was that Wanger’s long-cherished film of Peacock’s Feather, now titled Night in Paradise, finally saw the light of a projector lamp in 1946.

In place of Montez and Hall, Wanger cast Merle Oberon (left above) and Montez’s frequent co-star Turhan Bey (below). Casting Oberon was definitely a step up from Maria Montez. Turhan Bey was more like a step across. Born Turhan Sahultavy in Vienna to a Turkish Muslim father and a Czechoslovakian Jewish mother, he and his divorced mom fled Austria when Hitler annexed the country, and they wound up in Los Angeles in 1940, when Turhan was 18. When so many of Hollywood’s leading men marched off to World War II, Bey was one of the stay-at-homes who benefited from the manpower shortage. He was a handsome young devil and really not a bad actor, but he somehow managed to be both exotic and bland at the same time. He had the kind of foreign accent that came of speaking English too precisely, and the blandness made him unthreatening; it was a combination that stood him in good stead for the duration of the war.

The Night in Paradise lobby card above may make it look like one of those Arabian Nights fantasias that flourished on the coattails of 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, but the setting was Ancient Greece, not Arabia. It takes place at the court of the money-hungry King Croesus of Lydia (Thomas Gomez), who has jilted the sorceress Atossa (Gale Sondergaard) in order to marry wealthy Princess Delerai of Persia (Oberon). Turhan Bey plays Croesus’s counselor Aesop — yes, that Aesop, the guy with all the fables. Aesop is old, ugly, lame and hunchbacked, but one look at the newly arrived Delerai and he’s instantly smitten. So he decides to visit the princess by night. But here’s the catch: Aesop is in disguise. The ugliness and the hump on his back are a put-on, adopted by him on the theory that no king would look for wise counsel from a handsome young man. It’s the handsome young Aesop who comes to Delerai for the night in paradise that gives the movie its title. (Rumor has it that Turhan and Merle’s love scenes continued off the set, despite her being married and his being involved with Lana Turner. Well, just look at these two; can you blame either one of them?) Meanwhile, the jealous Atossa refuses to take being dumped lying down, and she uses her magic to drive the faithless Croesus even madder than he already is.

Needless to say, if you need to cram for a final exam in Ancient Greek history, you probably want to steer clear of Night in Paradise. You may want to steer clear of it anyway; as opulent and colorful as it is — with lavish sets, dazzling costumes and a supporting cast that includes Ray Collins, Ernest Truex, John Litel, Jerome Cowan and Douglass Dumbrille — the story never quite kicks into gear. At Friday’s screening I was still waiting for something to happen when “The End” appeared on the screen. The movie wasn’t exactly a waste of time — at the very least, it’s surely the best movie ever made about the love life of Aesop — but it seemed all wind-up and no pitch. I have a used copy of George Hellman’s novel on order, and the Web site I ordered it from hints at (ahem!) mature pleasures that may have been nixed by the Breen Office in 1946. (A reproduction of the book’s frontispiece shows the sorceress Atossa appearing to Aesop in full-frontal nudity.) As with Day 1’s Repeat Performance, I may have more to say about the novel and its transition to the screen at some later time. For now, moving right along…

Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) was an installment in the prolific (51 pictures in eight years) Three Mesquiteers series at Republic Pictures. The trio of genial cowpokes (Robert Livingston, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Max Terhune) take time off from their duties at the ranch to accompany an archaeological expedition to a lost Indian city and help the young woman leading it (Betty Marsh) learn the fate of her father, who disappeared leading a similar expedition to the same destination. In the process, they investigate a series of murders picking off members of the party one by one. The movie was enjoyable, but it was shot in eight days and it looks it; Republic (only two years old at the time) hadn’t yet found its footing as the most polished of the Poverty Row studios; there’s quite a difference between this specimen of the studio’s output and the Masked Marvel serial only five years later.

A more satisfying western was the 1920 William S. Hart silent The Toll Gate. Hart plays Black Deering, a semi-reformed outlaw on the run who takes refuge with an abandoned frontier wife (Anna Q. Nilsson) and her toddler son (“Master” Richard Headrick). He bonds with them so quickly that when a posse shows up on his trail (fortuitously not knowing what he looks like), she doesn’t hesitate to claim he’s her husband. Actually, it turns out that the husband who ran out on her is none other than the former member of Deering’s gang who ratted him out to the law. Director Lambert Hillyer’s scenario thus establishes the perfect set-up for a double dose of revenge before Deering settles down and makes his reformation complete, Nilsson’s Mary Brown having made an honest man of him. The picture had Hart’s trademark dusty realism, and his interplay with Nilsson and young Headrick had the unpretentious ring of truth. This Headrick kid especially, only three at the time, was a real charmer. He had a busy few years in Hollywood, but his screen career was over by the time he was nine. Still, he lived into the 21st century, dying at 84 in November 2001. “Nobody ever talked to him?” Scott Eyman wondered. Evidently not, and that’s a pity.

Richard Barrios did introductory honors again for The Phantom President (1932), one of the most historic musicals Hollywood ever turned out. It’s historic not because it’s one of the great film musicals (it’s pretty good but not great), but because it gives us a permanent record of George M. Cohan, the legendary force of showbiz nature who virtually single-handedly invented the American musical comedy. Personally, he was an arrogant megalomaniac who made Al Jolson look timorous; he made life hell for everybody on the set, especially those whose jobs he thought he could do better — director Norman Taurog, composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Lorenz Hart — and he bad-mouthed the picture far and wide after it went into release. It was churlish of him; he never realized the inestimable service The Phantom President did to his legend, giving future generations something to go on besides yellowing press clippings and the dwindling memories of those who saw his performances in person.

Cohan plays Theodore K. Blair, prominent banker and front-runner of an unnamed political party for the presidential nomination. Problem is, he’s also a boring old poot who will lose votes every time he opens his mouth. Fortunately for the party, his handlers stumble across the lookalike Peter Varney (Cohan again), a medicine-show song-and-dance man with all the charm and pizzazz Blair lacks, and Varney is recruited to take the banker’s place on the campaign trail. Complications arise when he also takes Blair’s place at the side of one Felicia Hammond (Claudette Colbert), whom Blair harbors vain hopes of making his wife. She has already rejected him in no uncertain terms, but she takes a shine to Varney — thinking, of course, that he’s the same man.

Cohan’s glory days were well behind him by 1932, but he was still the genuine article. He was 54 but could pass for ten years younger, and his dual performance is nicely modulated (aided by some surprisingly sophisticated visual effects). Also, seeing him in action makes a striking counterpoint to James Cagney’s depiction of him ten years later in Yankee Doodle Dandy (which Cohan lived just long enough to see); we can see how one great performer was able to embody another without completely subsuming his own unique personality. Without The Phantom President, we’d still know that Cagney is brilliant in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but we might not know just how brilliant.

Phantom President does have its drawbacks, mostly thanks to Jimmy Durante as Varney’s sidekick. In those days the Great Schnozzola hadn’t yet mellowed into the loveable ham he would become; a little of him went a long way, and there’s a lot of him in The Phantom President (Cohan griped about that too). But the picture’s biting critique of politics as showbiz still has teeth in it (if anything, now more than ever). And Claudette Colbert looks like a million bucks.

The rest of Day 2 we can cover in a few paragraphs. C.B. DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) presented Gloria Swanson at her sleek-and-smartest as a neglected wife tempted away from her lumpen husband (Elliott Dexter) by a smooth-talking roué (Lew Cody), only to learn that the grass isn’t always greener.

Next, a real oddity: Double Whoopee (1929), one of Laurel and Hardy’s last silent shorts — but not silent. Let me explain. In the late 1960s Hal Roach experimented with a way to market his library of silent comedies. He commissioned this pilot from producer Al Kilgore, who removed the short’s intertitles and added a soundtrack with music, sound effects and voices — and hey presto!, a late silent became an early talkie. (Chuck McCann, who passed away just two months ago, voiced both Stan and Ollie, sounding absolutely authentic. Whoever did Jean Harlow as “Swanky Blonde”, however, didn’t even come close.) The result was actually quite good, but in the long run nothing came of the idea, and the reconstituted Double Whoopee became a one-off.

Finally there was Value for Money, a rather sour British comedy from 1955, about a tight-fisted Yorkshireman (John Gregson) who gets involved with a gold-digging London showgirl (Diana Dors), to the wounded dismay of local newspaper reporter Susan Stephen, who (unaccountably) loves him. The picture had excellent Technicolor photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (and Cinevent’s print did it full justice), and Diana Dors showed herself to be not just a luscious eyeful but a comic actress of wit  and charm. Still, the movie was a sour misfire, mainly because of John Gregson’s character — a clueless, mean-spirited boor who in the end gets much better than is coming to him. Somebody like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers might have managed to make this unpleasant pill eccentrically endearing, but the worthy Gregson wasn’t that kind of actor. Value for Money has its moments of visual and verbal wit, but it’s weighed down by a flinty, unsympathetic center.

Thus ended Friday of Cinevent 50. The weekend had gotten off to a nice start, but Saturday would take things to a whole new level, an almost uninterrupted parade of highlights. I may have to cover the day in more than one post. We’ll see.

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Day 1

The opening day of Cinevent 50 got underway with the first three chapters of Republic Pictures’ 1943 serial The Masked Marvel, all about efforts to break up a ring of saboteurs led by the Japanese master spy Sakima, played by Johnny Arthur. Arthur is more familiar to audiences, then and now, as Darla Hood’s longsuffering father in Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies. Seeing the man who could barely cope with Spanky and Alfalfa turning up as the scourge of America’s war effort was a major credulity stretch, to say the least.

But The Masked Marvel hardly gave us time to pause over that. This was the kind of opus for which the phrase “action-packed” was coined. Every 20-minute episode abounded in fistfights, gunfights, explosions and car crashes, the latter two courtesy of special-effects wizard Howard Lydecker and his older brother Theodore (what those two boys could accomplish on a budget of approximately nothing was amazing; I really must do a post on them someday).

To heighten the mystery, viewers were invited to figure out just who was the Masked Marvel himself. We were told in the first chapter that he was one of four candidates, but frankly, the suspense was undercut by the fact that they were almost impossible to tell apart, with or without masks. They were played by Rod Bacon, Richard Clarke, David Bacon (no relation to Rod) and Bill Healy — and four blander, less charismatic actors would be hard to imagine. 

There’s a grim footnote to all this. By the time the first chapter hit theaters in November 1943, one of the potential Marvels was already dead in real life. On September 12 of that year, David Bacon crashed his car into a beanfield on the then-outskirts of Los Angeles. As a bystander approached, Bacon staggered out of the car and collapsed, hemorrhaging from a knife wound in his back that had pierced his left lung and a lower chamber of his heart. He pleaded weakly for help, then died before he could say who had stabbed him or why. He was 29. The killing was never solved, but while the investigation was ongoing the L.A. papers dubbed it “the Masked Marvel murder”. Whether the moniker was the inspiration of some colorful reporter or a Republic Pictures publicist is probably an unworthy question, so let’s not entertain it, okay?

In his notes for Repeat Performance (1947) in  the Cinevent program, and again in introducting the screening, Richard Barrios described the picture as having the kind of premise that tends to lodge in the memory when the picture itself — even the title — is completely forgotten. I can vouch for that, except for the part about forgetting the title. I saw Repeat Performance during its second life on television, maybe 40 years ago, and it certainly stayed with me. Joan Leslie plays a Broadway star who begins 1947 by shooting her husband dead at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. In an understandable state of shock, she confesses to a poet friend (Richard Basehart in his screen debut), then ruefully wishes she could live the past year over again. Meanwhile, her poet friend — one of those wafty, ethereal types — wishes he’d been the one to have shot her philandering husband (“I would have, you know…”). A moment later she turns around to find the poet is suddenly gone, her clothes are different, and against all reason, it’s New Year’s Eve 1945. The husband she shot (Louis Hayward) is alive and well — though in short order he’ll show himself as a mean, abusive, adulterous drunk who richly deserves killing. Anyhow, the wronged wife’s wish to relive the year has been granted; but will it make any difference?  

Repeat Performance was based on a novel by William O’Farrell, with some major changes in Walter Bullock’s script. I’ve sent for a used copy of the book, just to see for myself. In any case, what made it to the screen under Alfred Werker’s efficient direction is a nifty little melodrama; in a way it’s another example of that odd sub-genre I once dubbed “supernatural noir“, and if it’s not quite as memorable as Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) or Alias Nick Beal (’49), it’s still pretty good in its own right. Richard Barrios described it, tongue in cheek, as “a film noir version of It’s a Wonderful Life“; a film noir version of Groundhog Day might be a better way to put it. I may have more to say about it after I’ve read O’Farrell’s novel; for now, let’s move on.

Just before the dinner break we saw Sweater Girl (1942), an enjoyable little Paramount “B” musical that just happened to feature one of the greatest song hits of the 1940s: “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser. The story goes that Loesser and Styne were working on a musical at Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures when Styne played the melody for his lyricist partner. “Forget about that,” Loesser said. “We won’t waste it here. We’ll take that one to Paramount.” It’s a terrific story and I hate to rain on it, but there’s no record of either Styne or Loesser ever working at Monogram. They did contribute some stock music to the Judy Canova hillbilly comedy Joan of Ozark at Republic. Maybe it was that. (In fact, they both worked at Republic quite a bit from 1940 to ’42, though apparently not together.) Anyhow, whenever Styne may have come up with the melody, they did wait till they were at Paramount to turn it into a song, and by the time Sweater Girl was released in July ’42 the number was a smash hit, recorded by Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Vaughn Monroe, and Phil Harris’s Orchestra (vocal by Helen Forrest), among others. It was on every singer’s lips and every drugstore jukebox; Irving Berlin said it was the one song he most wished he’d written. (Remarkably, “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” was not nominated for an Academy Award, even though there were ten nominees that year, including such utterly forgotten things as “Pig Foot Pete”, “Pennies for Peppino” and “There’s a Breeze on Lake Louise”. Well, it hardly matters. Nineteen-forty-two was the year of “White Christmas”; they could have nominated another hundred songs and none of them would have stood a chance.)

Aside from showcasing “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” — which it does very adroitly, the boys at Paramount knowing gold when they hear it — Sweater Girl was an amusing hybrid of murder mystery and hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show college musical, a remake of 1935’s College Scandal. It elevated Eddie Bracken from comic support to leading man (albeit in a B picture), preparing him for his apotheosis under Preston Sturges. Between Styne and Loesser’s sprightly songs, Bracken shared detective duties with perky June Preisser, who was winding down from her own apotheosis as the girl who almost wins Mickey Rooney away from Judy Garland in Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up the Band (1940). Vocal assignments on the movie’s biggest hit went to nightclub singer Johnny Johnston as the song’s ostensible composer (who gets strangled mid-chorus while demo-ing the song over shortwave radio) and Betty Jane Rhodes as the campus queen. (Rhodes and Johnston would later be teamed in a number of Paramount’s wartime morale-builders, where they were quite popular for a time on the home front.)

These were the highlights of the first day for me — in the screening room, that is. Outside the screening room, there was the Golden Celebration Reception on Thursday evening around the Renaissance Hotel’s pool. The inset on the left shows one of the three cakes for the occasion. In the right inset, my friend Phil Capasso is shown introducing special guest Leonard Maltin. Phil earned this privilege by virtue of being the only person to have attended all fifty Cinevents since the first one way back in 1969. (Phil got the first slice of cake, too.)

After that it was back to the screening room, where Scott Eyman spoke in conjunction with his latest book Hank and Jim: The Fifity-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, then introduced Fonda and Stewart’s episode from On Our Merry Way (1948), an omnibus film produced by and starring Burgess Meredith, their erstwhile roommate from their starving-actor days in New York. The two were teamed as down-at-heels musicians trying to put on a music competition in a podunk town to get their band’s bus out of hock. Directed without credit by George Stevens, the episode is generally recognized as the best part of that rather lackluster feature. Then came Four Around a Woman (1921), an early silent melodrama from German director Fritz Lang; the print shown had German intertitles which were (fortunately!) translated aloud by Glory-June Greiff. Finally, it was the British police procedural The Third Key (UK title The Long Arm; 1956), with Jack Hawkins as a Scotland Yard inspector on the trail of a serial safecracker. And with that tidy little suspenser, we all called it a day.

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Prelude

For some years now the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State campus has offered a film program in conjunction with Cinevent on the Wednesday evening before the convention begins. Usually, my flight has landed me in Columbus too late to attend, but this year was different. I caught a redeye (yes, there is a redeye from Sacramento to Columbus) that got me to town bright and early, so I was able to catch the Wexner Center’s program of two pictures from the First Wave of 3D in the 1950s. Just for fun, I’ve reproduced here a lobby card for the black-and-white The Maze (1953) in color, and an ad for Gog (1954), which was in color, in black and white.

Well, these two movies were certainly something to have seen. The Wexner Center presented both pictures in their recent 4K Blu-ray incarnations, and credit is due to the 3D Film Archive (on The Maze) and archivist Bob Furmanek (Gog) for restoring these near-lost pictures to what audiences saw in the 1950s. That said, the fact remains that it wasn’t just technical and quality-control issues that killed 3D the first time around; much of the problem was that there were too few pictures like House of Wax and Kiss Me, Kate and too many like The Maze and Gog.

First, The Maze. It was directed by that greatest of all cinema production designers, William Cameron Menzies (his swan song as a director), and starred Richard Carlson as the heir to a Scottish castle suddenly and mysteriously called home as he is about to be married. Not to be put off, his fiancée (Veronica Hurst) follows him, only to find him suddenly aged and coldly unwelcoming. She senses that it has something to do with the sinister topiary maze outside the castle, and the fact that her bedroom is locked from the outside every night, and she’s right.

Dan Ullman’s script was based on a 1949 novel by the Swiss fantasist Maurice Sandoz (1892-1958). Sandoz’s German-language Wikipedia page says, “Characteristic of his narrative technique is that the ‘natural’ explanation, which makes the seemingly supernatural rationally comprehensible at the end of a story, is ultimately even more unbelievable than the idea of ghostly powers,” and so it is with The Maze. The picture’s 1953 ads implored, “Please do not reveal the amazing climax to your friends!”, and I’ll honor that request. Suffice it to say that at this amazing climax the Wexner Center rocked with gales of delighted laughter, and all I could think was, “Hello, ma baby/Hello, ma honey/Hello, ma ragtime gal…” (If you’ve seen The Maze, you’ll understand.) It fell to Richard Carlson to make this gobsmacking development “rationally comprehensible” in a post-climactic monologue, which he did with straight-faced aplomb, and to his eternal credit. There ought to be some special Oscar category for that kind of acting.

Gog (which was released in 1954, after the 3D craze had crashed and burned, and played in 3D in only five theaters before going more or less straight to TV) also concerned itself with mysterious goings-on, this time at a remote New Mexico underground installation building the components for an orbital space station. And this time in color. The picture was well-made in its shoestring way, directed by Herbert L. Strock and gamely acted by Richard Egan, Constance Dowling and Herbert Marshall. The problem was producer Ivan Tors’s utter lack of story skills. The same shortcoming plagued his syndicated half-hour series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-57). Some of the greatest s-f short stories of all time were being published during the 1950s in magazines like Analog, Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, just aching to be adapted into 30-minute TV episodes. But Tors, no doubt to save money, insisted on concocting stories of his own, and he was just no damn good at it. He’d then hand a story off to writers (here it was Tom Taggert and Richard G. Taylor) to dress it up with some pseudo-scientific doubletalk. The result was invariably half-baked science and undercooked fiction. Science Fiction Theatre was an idea whose time had come, but it would take The Twilight Zone four years later to deliver the goods. Ivan Tors muffed it, and Gog was a big-screen, 3D dress rehearsal for that blown opportunity.

All in all, despite the less-than-brilliant features on display, the evening at the Wexner Center was in the spirit of Cinevent, presenting Classic Era films as they were meant to be seen. Both The Maze and Gog are available on YouTube, but they are hardly the same experience — not in 3D, of course, and that’s just for starters. As we filed back to the bus to return to the hotel, not one of us doubted that we’d gotten our time-and-money’s worth.

And the fun hadn’t even started yet.

To be continued…


Cinevent Turns 50

UPDATE 5/6/18: There are still tickets available for Cinevent50’s Golden Celebration Reception on Thursday, May 24, and for the double bill of 3-D classics Gog and The Maze at the Wexner Center at Ohio State — plus, of course, you can register for Cinevent itself any time. Click here to sign up for your Cinevent package (including any souvenirs you might desire: tees, totes, etc.). Oh, and another thing — although the May 1 deadline has passed for the room block at the Renaissance Downtown, the special Cinevent rate of $129/night (plus taxes and fees) can still be had at the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel. This rate will be available only until Friday, May 11. You can book your room by calling (877) 283-1700; be sure to request the Cinevent Block (or, if you register online, use Block Code CIN). Hurry, you don’t want to miss the fun!

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Cinedrome readers will remember, I’m sure, that I’m an enthusiastic booster of Cinevent, the Classic Film Convention held every Memorial Day Weekend in Columbus, Ohio. Every year for some time now I’ve reviewed the weekend after the fact, and I will again, but I’m writing about it beforehand because this year Cinevent is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, and I think it’s going to be an occasion not to be missed. Every year I urge readers to check out this friendly, intimate gathering of classic movie lovers. If you’ve been thinking, “Well, maybe one of these years…”, this would be a good time to start.

The convention’s special 2018 guest will be Leonard Maltin, who surely needs no introduction. Mr. Maltin will be there to launch his new book Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom. He’ll also be at the “Golden Celebration Reception” on Thursday evening, May 24 (available for an extra fee to attendees), and will introduce the Saturday afternoon screening of the Jack Benny comedy The Meanest Man in the World (1943).

Leonard Maltin won’t be the only distinguished author in attendance this year. Scott Eyman has long been a Cinevent regular, and he returns this year; his The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930 is the indispensable book on the transition to sound, and his biographies of John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer and John Ford (to name just a few) are the next best thing to having known them personally. Scott’s latest book is Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, and I plan to ask him to sign a copy for me. (There’s also a tantalizing event on Saturday afternoon’s agenda: “Maltin & Eyman conversation moderated by Caroline Breder-Watts.” I can’t wait to eavesdrop on that little chat.)

Richard Barrios attended his first Cinevent in 2017 and he’ll be back this year, hopefully to become, like Scott Eyman, a regular himself. His books include A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film and Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter, and he’ll introduce the Friday evening screening of George M. Cohan in The Phantom President (1932).  ‘Nuff said.

The film program this year looks awfully tempting too. For starters, I’m pleased to see that my wish last year to see George Pal’s 1953 production of The War of the Worlds has been granted. Not because I wished it, mind you, but because this picture was a particular favorite of the late John A. Stingley (1947-2007), one of Cinevent’s founders. All three founders — the other two being John H. Baker (1909-98) and Steven E. Haynes (1947-2015) — will be saluted this Golden Anniversary year with screenings that would have been to their own especial liking. Steve Haynes’s tribute will be a showing of the 1920 William S. Hart western The Toll Gate. For John Baker, whose greatest enthusiasm was for jazz films, the tribute will be a program of jazz shorts hosted by Columbus radio/TV personality Frederick C. Peerenboom, aka Fritz the Nite Owl.



Sunday morning will bring Kitty (1945) with Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Cinedrome readers will recognize this as one of my own particular favorites — Paulette Goddard’s finest hour, and an elegant piece of cinematic sleight of hand, turning the unfilmable-in-1945 story of a 14-year-old nymphomaniac Cockney hooker into an uncredited adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. (See my 2013 post on Kitty for the juicy details.)



Late Saturday night it’s Three Little Girls in Blue, 20th Century Fox’s third retread of Three Blind Mice, the tale of a trio of impoverished sisters who pose as a wealthy heiress and her servants, in hopes of landing rich husbands. This one stars June Haver, Vivian Blaine and Vera-Ellen as the golddigging sibs, and it’s probably the best Fox musical that didn’t involve Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Shirley Temple or Rodgers & Hammerstein. (Sorry, you fans of Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not even in the same league.) Three Little Girls was also the source of two deathless standards that almost everybody knows but almost nobody knows where they came from: “On the Boardwalk (in Atlantic City)” and “You Make Me Feel So Young”.

These are just three highlights for me. There will be, as always, something for every Golden Age movie buff. Besides the titles already mentioned:

♦  Dreamboat (1952), with Clifton Webb as a stuffy college professor trying to live down his days as a silent-screen heartthrob, and Ginger Rogers as the former co-star who won’t let him;

♦  a midnight showing of the 1935 cult curiosity Murder By Television with Bela Lugosi;

♦  C.B. DeMille’s 1919 boudoir comedy Don’t Change Your Husband with Gloria Swanson, Elliott Dexter and Lew Cody;

♦  the supernatural B-western murder mystery Riders of the Whistling Skull;

♦  the Republic serial The Masked Marvel, about the pursuit of Japanese saboteurs in the darkest days of World War II, all 12 chapters strewn here and there throughout the weekend.

And more — including a Wednesday evening-before-the-convention screening at the Wexner Center on the Ohio State campus of the 1953 3-D thrillers The Maze and Gog (like the Thursday evening Golden Celebration Reception, available at an extra charge).

If you’re not already registered for this year’s Cinevent, you’ve missed out on the Early Bird discount — but it’s not too late. Click here to register — and don’t let any grass grow under your feet. The Golden Celebration Reception, 3-D double feature, and special Cinevent room rate at the Renaissance Downtown Columbus Hotel will only be available through Monday, April 30.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: If you’ve read any of my annual posts on Cinevent and thought it might be something you’d like to try sometime, now is the time to take the plunge.

I hope to see you there. Don’t forget to say hi.

Ave Atque Vale, Fairy Princess!

It has come to my attention that Nini Theilade has taken her last bow and made her final exit. Born in 1915 to Danish parents on the Island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), she passed away on February 13, four months shy of her 103rd birthday.

Mlle. Nini’s film career wasn’t nearly as long as her life. A bit role as a dancer in The Big Bluff, a German picture of 1933, followed by another such bit in the Swedish The Song to Her in 1934. Her fourth and final credit was 40 years later, a small role on a Danish TV program in 1974.

But in 1934, some time after her appearance in The Song to Her, she danced and acted the role of “Fairie, Attending Titania” in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. And the following year, when Reinhardt insisted that she be signed to repeat her performance in Warner Bros.’ screen version of Midsummer, he made her immortal.

It took nearly sixty years for the full measure of that immortality to be widely seen. Her role was almost entirely danced, and when the roadshow version was trimmed by 16 minutes for general release (where it didn’t earn a dime), she was left with little more than a brief scene with Mickey Rooney’s Puck (“Over hill, over dale,/Through bush, through brier…”). Even then, Rooney did most of the talking, and her voice was dubbed for all but eleven words. To add to that, the movie’s credits got her name wrong, calling her “Nina” instead of Nini.

When A Midsummer Night’s Dream was restored to its full length for DVD in 1994, the world could once again see the sublime beauty of Mlle. Theilade’s performance — her ethereal beauty and her lithe and lissom grace, poetry in motion that matches the enchanted poetry of Shakespeare’s verse — and we may thank a merciful Providence that she lived long enough to see it again herself. (The DVD, however, does offer an indignity to match her misspelled name in the credits. Scott MacQueen did a commentary track for the picture, which he clearly loathes, and he insisted throughout on pronouncing her name “Thigh-laid”. “Thay-ih-lah-deh” would be more like it.)

Nini Theilade’s film career may have been brief, but she was seldom idle. From the age of 14 she had been a ballet star in Europe, appearing with the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen and touring the Continent and the U.S. Later in the 1930s she was a prima ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under Léonide Massine. She spent World War II in Brazil, where she married and had two children. After the war, back in Copenhagen, she enjoyed a thriving career as a choreographer and instructor, eventually establishing the Académie de Ballet Nini Theilade in Lyon, France. She “retired” to Denmark in 1990, but continued to work as a dance instructor until she was 95. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream she is with us forever, always 19 and in the prime of her youth and talent.

I saluted Nini Theilade, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland at the end of my 2010 post on Midsummer, when they were all still with us. I added an update on the passing of Mickey Rooney, and I’ve added another one now. But as with the Mick, I wanted to acknowledge Nini Theilade’s passing here as well, rather than let readers come across the news by happenstance, perhaps years from now. Ave atque vale, Mlle. Nini: Hail and farewell.

The Return of the King

The Return of the King is at hand.

As you can see from the picture, I’m talking about King of Jazz (1930), the spectacular, groundbreaking revue from Universal Pictures that showcased bandleader Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, the Oscar-winning sets of Herman Rosse, the eye-popping imagination of director John Murray Anderson, and the screen debut of Bing Crosby.

The music-rights issues that kept King of Jazz from a home-video release after NBCUniversal’s unstinting digital restoration in 2016 have been resolved, and this greatest of all early-sound revues will be released on Tuesday, March 27 in a 4K Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection — along with what seems a generous complement of supplements. It’s available for pre-order here at Amazon. (It’s also being issued in a conventional DVD, but I say spring for the 4K; you won’t regret it.)

I shall not mince words. This is a case of buy-this-disc-or-never-dare-to-call-yourself-a-movie-lover-again. I don’t care how many thousands of Blu-rays, DVDs, laserdiscs, videotapes or film prints you may have; if you don’t get this, the first and only authentic King of Jazz, your collection will be forever incomplete.

I wrote about King of Jazz here and here; click over for details of the making, unmaking, disappearance, and rescue of the landmark in Hollywood history. I think I’m safe in saying that never before has a movie so unique and so good lost this much money ($1.2 million in 1930 dollars; multiply by about a hundred to get an idea of that amount today), dropped out of sight for so long, or surfaced (in a 1980s VHS) in more mangled form before finally emerging in a flawless and virtually-complete restoration.

My disc of King of Jazz is on its way. When I’ve had a chance to see it (that is, to see it again, after its screening in Sacramento in February 2017) and to peruse its supplements, I’ll file a report. Until then, movie buffs, get thee to Amazon before the sun sets on another day.

Merry Christmas from Cinedrome!

With the Christmas Season 2017 upon us, I’m departing once again from my focus on Golden Age Hollywood to share my story “The Sensible Christmas Wish”, first published here last year about this time. Last year’s introduction can be found by clicking here if you’re interested in knowing what I said then — or, if you’d rather, just click on the title and you’ll be taken directly to the story, which came to me from a wise and wonderful older person I once knew. I hope it brings you some of the magic and joy of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Happy Holidays!

Five-Minute Movie Star: Carman Barnes in Hollywood — Epilogue

This is the young woman who replaced Carman Barnes on The Road to Reno, as she looked in the November 1931 issue of Motion Picture Magazine. In case the caption on this Otto Dyer glamour shot is too small for you to read, here’s what it says:

“There’s danger in those eyes and lips  — and even in those shoulders. This new little redhead from New York came West to be an extra, replaced Clara Bow in ‘The Secret Call,’ then replaced Mary Brian in ‘Silence,’ and now has replaced Carman Barnes in ‘The Road to Reno.’ No other girl’s safe with Peggy around!”

Peggy did indeed get a career boost from three high-profile replacement gigs in a row, and she seemed off to a good start. Before we go on to consider why she replaced Carman, let’s pause a moment to see how Peggy’s career worked out for her.

In a word, badly. She turned out to be another sad case — like Sidney Fox, whom she resembled in more ways than one. Born in Arkansas in 1907, she caught Florenz Ziegfeld’s eye while visiting her aunt in New York and became a Ziegfeld Girl at 16 in the Follies of 1923. After a few dry years she started getting steady Broadway work in 1927, until Paramount’s B.P. Schulberg spotted her in Life Is Like That in 1930 and brought her west. Peggy and Carman arrived in Hollywood about the same time (Schulberg may even have signed both deals on the same trip). Two days after Peggy’s arrival, Clara Bow suffered a nervous breakdown and Peggy was pulled off the bench to pinch-hit, apparently on her way to real stardom. But not so fast — after a good couple of years at Paramount, she started bouncing from studio to studio: Warners to Columbia to MGM, with stopovers in between at various indie and Poverty Row outfits. Every step of the way she was followed by rumors of difficult behavior and alcohol abuse, which may explain why she never worked anywhere very long. Then it was back to Broadway in 1934 for Page Miss Glory. Perhaps significantly, when Peggy’s old studio Warner Bros. bought the screen rights to Page Miss Glory, they gave her part to Mary Astor.

Peggy did one more play, got fired from yet another for drunkenness, then was back in Hollywood in 1936 for a parade of B-movies, bit parts and short subjects that kept her sporadically employed until 1940. In the meantime, she drank herself into a diseased liver and a fatal heart attack in May 1941 when she was 34. Less than three weeks later, her husband, Warners cameraman Al Roberts, shot himself in the same kitchen chair where he had found her dead body. He couldn’t bear to be separated from her, but in death he was: they were buried in cemeteries at opposite ends of Los Angeles.

But back to Carman. What happened on The Road to Reno? That’s why I’d like a peek into the Paramount files. Cal York claimed that Carman’s first picture (which he still thought was Strangers and Lovers) was scheduled for an eight-week shoot (“The girl’s lines need much camera attention.”). But if we can believe Motion Picture Herald’s timeline, The Road to Reno was shooting from June 27 to August 1. Five weeks, more or less. And no sooner was it announced as “Completed” (with Carman still attached) than a list of names “On the Dotted Line” was published, with Peggy Shannon where Carman used to be. Can it be that Carman went through the whole shooting schedule, then Paramount, looking at a rough cut, decided to replace her and sent Peggy Shannon in immediately to reshoot her scenes? The Road to Reno was able to make its September 26 release date eight weeks later, so the studio couldn’t have let much grass grow under their feet. I suspect Peggy was Plan B all the time, with Paramount stringing along with Carman to see if she was going to work out, then finally deciding she hadn’t.

What could have been the problem? The most obvious answer would be that she couldn’t act. But really, how bad would she have had to be? Have you seen Jean Harlow at the beginning of her career — in Hell’s Angels, for example? Or for that matter, Kim Novak in anything? No, I don’t think it was that.

Later, looking back from its June 1932 issue, Motion Picture Magazine said Paramount had “discovered that the camera tests weren’t as satisfactory as Carman in person.” And even before the cameras rolled, in his profile in the May ’31 Silver Screen, writer Edward Churchill offered another hint. It was literally an afterthought, tacked on at the tail-end of his largely adoring profile:

“Anything else?

“Oh, yes.

“When Carman talks her eyebrows move — sort of wiggle…”

Wiggling eyebrows, eh? Well now. Churchill described it as part of Carman’s “mysterious quality”, what he called “X” — “exotic, transparent and fascinating…like a vagrant tune from far away or a delicate perfume.” He was talking about Carman in person. But what about on the screen? I can imagine the following scenario:

The Paramount bigwigs get a look at some footage of Carman, either in screen tests or actual rushes from The Road to Reno. Somebody — B.P. Schulberg, maybe, or Jesse Lasky — pipes up: “What’s with those eyebrows? She looks like she’s got a couple of spastic caterpillars on her face.” (What looks like a charming little mannerism sitting across from you in an interview, or even on the set, could look very different projected on a screen twenty feet wide.) Somebody takes Carman aside. “Honey, you’ve got this thing you do with your eyebrows. It looks weird in the rushes.” Carman is surprised and a little affronted; nobody’s ever complained about the way she talks, for God’s sake. But she politely thanks whoever it is, says she’ll fix it.

And she tries, but it keeps getting away from her. Maybe it spoils some takes. “Cut! Carman, eyebrows!” “Cut! Eyebrows, Carman! Jeee-zus…Okay, I’m sorry. Let’s take it again…” Carman gets self-conscious, stiffens up (remember what she said in that letter to Clara Jackson, sending Clara kisses and facetiously “wonder[ing] if her chin’s at the right angle”). More takes, more self-conscious stiffness, ever stiffer, ever more self-conscious. Finally the bigwigs shrug, “She doesn’t come across like she does in person. Tough.”  

But who knows? Maybe it wasn’t just the eyebrows — or maybe the eyebrows had nothing to do with it. Anyhow, it’s odd. By the beginning of August, by my count, Paramount had paid Carman $29,100 — hardly chickenfeed in 1931. Why would they write off that much money? To say nothing of shelling out who-knows-how-much more to reshoot with Peggy Shannon? About that same time, there was a bit player starting out at Pathé and MGM named Clark Gable; some people thought his ears were a deal breaker — but they still released the pictures he was in. Carman didn’t get even that much.

And what about Carman the writer? Cal York said she couldn’t come up with a decent story. But maybe she did — or at least one that made it to the screen. Midway through Carman’s tenure at Paramount, in June, the studio released Confessions of a Co-Ed with Sylvia Sidney, Phillips Holmes, Norman Foster and Claudia Dell. Not only is the title curiously similar to the Confessions of a Débutante (or A Débutante Confesses) that was supposed to be Carman’s first picture, but the story sounds like something she just might have made up. It’s a complicated tale of campus shenanigans. Pat (Sidney) loves campus Romeo Dan (Holmes) and gets pregnant by him. Through a series of misunderstandings, Dan leaves town and Pat traps his friend Hal (Foster) into marriage. Three years later Dan returns and everything comes to a head.

The movie is memorable today mainly as an early bump in Sylvia Sidney’s career and for an appearance by Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker) as themselves, playing a gig at a campus dance. But here’s the strange thing: the picture has no screenplay credit, not for dialogue or story; the closest thing to it is the blurb in this Motion Picture Herald ad (based on a college girl’s love diary“). Could Strangers and Lovers (“…a tale of a girl who is afraid she is wicked…”; “…this absorbing drama of an innocent-wise 19-year[-old] charmer…”; “…a strong story of young love that will be long remembered…”) have somehow morphed into Confessions of a Co-Ed? Carman’s contract with Paramount Publix allowed the studio to do whatever they pleased with anything she wrote while she was on the payroll. Did Carman, for the sake of $1,000 a week as the Depression took hold, swallow her resentment when Paramount handed her story off to Sylvia Sidney? Then did she swallow it again, when they cast her in a picture she did not write for herself? And when they replaced her in her first picture after she had already shot it — was that the last straw? Like the bit with the eyebrows, we may never know, but it’s a scenario I can easily imagine.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe someday I’ll get a look at the Paramount archives and find out what really happened, and it’ll be simpler, or more complicated, than any of this. All I know now is whatever happened, Carman may have talked about it with family and friends but she never wrote anything down — at least, nothing that survives in her papers at the University of Rochester.

Well…actually, that’s not exactly true. There was that book that Motion Picture and The New Movie Magazine mentioned that she was writing — “in which, rumor has it, she’ll tell tales,” according to New Movie. The book was Mother, Be Careful!, published by Liveright in the fall of 1932. Variety reviewed it in their October 18 issue:

Just Dull  Carman Barnes, who authored ‘School Girl,’ has produced ‘Mother Be Careful’ [sic] which Liveright has put between covers. In a general way the reader gets the impression that the book is supposed to be a satire on Hollywood. At least most of the action is laid there, but it is not very lively action.

“Told mostly in would-be smart dialogue, but seldom hitting the mark. Plotless, pointless and tiresome.”

Variety’s anonymous reviewer was a little harsh. Mother, Be Careful! does indeed read as if it were written in an almighty hurry. There’s little of the careful construction of School Girl and none of the stylistic experimentation of Beau Lover (told in the second person, as if the reader is the protagonist). But there’s an appealing wackiness to Mother, a spirit rather akin to the sort of movies the Marx Brothers were making at Paramount while Carman was working there, and it nicely encapsulates the widespread sense that the lunatics are running the Hollywood asylum. And with all due respect to Variety, Mother, Be Careful! is frequently very funny. The opening paragraph, for example:

“With a deep breath Daisy tightened her brassiere. Just then the taxi hit a bump, and the snap popped. Daisy looked like a startled deer.”

“Daisy” is 18-year-old New Yorker and transplanted southern belle Daisy Andrews, and as the novel opens she’s being squired around Manhattan by one Goldie Bromberg, a high mucky-muck at Wunderbar Pictures. Goldie is trying to persuade Daisy to shack up with him out west in Hollywood, offering her a star contract more or less as an afterthought. Daisy swallows her wide-eyed misgivings on the condition that her mother come with her, though she wonders about the morals out there; do mothers really stand for such shenanigans? Goldie pooh-poohs her: “You’re crazy, baby. Mothers are the only ones in Hollywood who really have a good time. Daughter works all day, Mother plays with Daughter’s men all night.”

So Daisy and Mother set out for Hollywood, where they attend studio meetings by day and parties by night, trying to figure out what they’re really doing here. In time, when the cameras finally roll, Mother — having, shall we say, ingratiated herself with Goldie Bromberg — is playing the lead in a story she wrote herself, with Daisy relegated to the off-screen voice of Mother’s unborn child. Not only that, but the romantic lead is Daisy’s erstwhile would-be lover Carlson Cartwright, an unkempt Bolshevik agitator disdainful of the rampant materialism of Hollywood — until he gets a taste of stardom and the salary that goes with it. Mother’s picture flops (it seems that her story was apparently plagiarized from another studio’s picture), but she is able to blackmail “Bromby” out of his Wunderbar stock, which she then sells back to the studio’s board of directors. In the end mother and daughter desert Hollywood with alacrity and a tidy fortune. “I never want to see Hollywood again,” says Mother. “It is not the place for two Southern gentlewomen, Daisy.” Daisy sighs, “When a girl can look safely back on her Hollywood experiences, she realizes more exactly just what life is for.”

And that, friends, seems to have been Carman Barnes’s last word on the matter.

Does Mother, Be Careful! “tell tales”? Well, maybe. Goldie Bromberg, if you squint at the character sideways, could almost be a near-libelous caricature of B.P. Schulberg, and there’s a pompous martinet director named Josef von Gluck who could even more easily pass for a spoof of Josef von Sternberg, Paramount’s reigning director of the day (C.B. DeMille having temporarily decamped) and no stranger to pomposity himself.

There’s one scene, an impromptu meeting where Daisy and Mother corral Bromberg in the studio barber shop, that fairly bristles with echoes of Carman’s personal experience — Confessions of a Débutante, “by and with Carman Barnes” and so forth:

“What is the secret of a sub-deb?” Goldie demanded with intense interest.

The supervisors held their breath.

Daisy knew her fate hung on her answer. She opened her wide surprised eyes.

“Why—the secret of a sub-deb is that she doesn’t wear a brassiere,” she said.

A sudden quiet descended. Ominous. Profound.

Then a light dawned in Goldie’s eyes. He stared at Daisy with astonished pleasure.


The supervisors leapt to their feet.

“What a title, boys! what a title! Secrets of a Sub-Deb. And what a sub-title! Intimate revelations of what goes on inside a modern girl’s brassiere.”

“Marve-lous. Marve-lous, Let me congratulate you!” said von Gluck.

“What is your name again?” asked Goldie.

“Just Daisy,” said Daisy brightly.

“Daisy! Daisy? Daisy. No, no. Something more exotic. Taffy Tuhluh.”

“What has chewing gum to do with writing?” asked Daisy.

“Chewing gum? Nothing. Taffy Tuhluh is your new name. Now, Miss Tuhluh, I’m going to put your name in lights, on the lips of thousands of people. I’ve a millon-dollar idea. Secrets of a Sub-Deb, by and with Taffy Tuhluh.”

Daisy choked.

“Wham! Such box office! We’ll sign you up as a by-and-wither immediately. Will you be my little by-and-wither—Daisy?”

By the end of Mother, Be Careful!, little by-and-wither Daisy is gone from Hollywood with a sigh of bemused relief — no doubt much the same way by-and-wither Carman was gone by the end of 1931.

Gone, but not forgotten — not quite and not just yet. Throughout the first half of 1932, Carman’s name kept cropping up in this or that magazine as some sort of cautionary tale. In the July Motion Picture an article by Sonia Lee on the burgeoning stardom of Clark Gable quotes Paramount casting director Fred Datig as saying that a studio can’t make stars — that the public does that. “If there is ability in a player and it shows quickly — then the studio is in luck,” says Datig. “If we find that either we can’t bring it out, or that we might have been mistaken, then the player is let out.” This can only have been a sidelong reference to Paramount’s washing its hands of Carman. But what’s that business about only the public making a star? Doesn’t that imply that only the public can decide when someone’s not going to be a star? The public never got to make that call.

Or did they? Here’s another imaginary scenario: Was The Road to Reno completed and previewed with Carman? Did the preview go so badly that the studio immediately replaced her, commenced reshooting, and hustled her out the Marathon Street gate as fast as they could buy out her contract? It seems unlikely; no hint of a bad preview appears in any of the magazines at the time, and ever since then nobody has known enough to ask. But it might explain Fred Datig’s cryptic comment about the public’s veto power on stardom.  

A month before that Sonia Lee article, in the June Motion Picture’s “News and Gossip of the Studios” column, the following teaser item appeared:

“It’s no more than a whisper to date, but there is a whisper that one of the much-ballyhooed screen discoveries may turn out to be another Carman Barnes. Carman, you remember, was the young authoress who was spotted in the story department of Paramount and hailed as ‘the next star’ by the studio, which later discovered that the camera tests weren’t as satisfactory as Carman in person. Carman quietly vanished, going on the stage. The exotic newcomer resembles Carman slightly — which may have given rise to the whispers.” 

Who was this “exotic newcomer” the item compared to vanished, banished Carman? The timing might be right for her to be Sari Maritza (pronounced “Sha-ree Ma-reet-zah”). That’s her on the left; can you see a “slight resemblance” to Carman? Anyhow, she is mentioned by name elsewhere in that same issue as “the ‘second Dietrich’ whom Paramount has under contract” — and who, like Carman a year earlier, “has been here months without starting [a single picture].” By 1932, Paramount  was feeling that Marlene Dietrich had gotten too big for those sleek men’s britches she so often wore, and apparently had plans to groom Sari as a replacement. Miss Maritza did eventually appear in a handful of Paramount features, but she turned out not to be star material — and worse, she wasn’t even German. She had made pictures in Germany and was fluent in a number of European languages, but her real name was Dora Patricia Detering-Nathan, born in China to a British Army officer and his Austrian wife, and about as exotic as Picadilly Circus.

Sari Maritza eventually admitted that she couldn’t act and retired from the screen in 1934. But before that, as the so-called “Sari Maritza hoax” was being exposed in October 1932, her masquerade as a sultry Teutonic vamp occasioned the final mention in Hollywood of the departed Carman Barnes. It came, interestingly enough, from Carman’s former Paramount colleague Jack Oakie.  “Ha! You can’t fool me!” Oakie is quoted as saying. “That Maritza gal is just Carman Barnes revamped, redecorated, and put back into circulation!”

After that, except for Variety’s pan of Mother, Be Careful!, the Hollywood record falls silent about Carman Barnes. In just under 22 months she had gone from bestselling literary prodigy…to Broadway playwright…to the Next Clara Bow…to an answer in a trivia quiz by Marion Martone…to the punchline of a Jack Oakie wisecrack. And as far as I’ve been able to tell, that suited her just fine.

She was not yet 20 years old.

*                         *                         *

Carman Barnes’s movie career may have gone precisely nowhere, but she deserves a place in the history books for her unprecedented Hollywood contract. Never before had a major studio signed a woman to write and star in her own pictures. Given the outcome, it wouldn’t be surprising if it never happened again — but it did, the very next year (1932) and at the very same studio (Paramount). This time the woman in question was Mae West — and this time she made it into the history books.

More than one fan magazine reported (like that June Motion Picture item quoted above) that after leaving Hollywood Carman wound up playing ingenues on the stage. If so, it must have been in regional theaters rather than New York, because I’ve been unable to find any details. Maybe she did a play or two as a lark, or just to be able to say she did it.

In any case, Carman and her mother Diantha wound up back in New York, where Carman promptly exorcised her Hollywood sojourn by writing Mother, Be Careful!. For her next novel, in 1934, Carman brought back Naomi Bradshaw, the heroine of Schoolgirl. Young Woman picks up Naomi as she moves to New York; the Depression has wiped out her family’s prosperity, driving her father to suicide and her mother to despair. Naomi has moved to New York to make her own way and, if possible, rebuild her family’s fortune — if not by marrying well, then by being well-kept.

Having produced four novels in five years, Carman ceased publication for over a decade. But she never stopped writing. Throughout the 1930s, she dabbled in a number of esoteric pursuits, sometimes as a dilettante, sometimes as a serious student. For a while in the late ’30s she was engaged to the aviation and automotive industrialist Vincent Bendix, 31 years her senior.

In 1936, Carman and her mother collaborated on a musical play curiously titled Gentlemen, the Queel!, which was never produced. Mother Diantha died in 1939, age 50. She and Carman had always been a matched pair; neither Carman’s biological father, James Hunter Neal, nor either of her stepfathers — Wellington Barnes, who died when Carman was 15, and George Pullen Jackson, who lived until 1953 — seem ever to have been a major presence in her life.

Neither, evidently, was her husband, Hamilton Fish Armstrong. A scion of the politically influential Fish family, Armstrong was a founding editor of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. He and Carman married in 1945, when he was 52 and Carman was 32 — like Bendix, old enough to be the father Carman never had. They collaborated on a play, The Passionate Victorian, about the British actress Fanny Kemble, which (like Gentlemen, the Queel!) was never produced. The couple separated in 1949 and divorced in 1951.

All through the 1940s Carman was a voluminous and tireless correspondent on all the eclectic and esoteric topics that interested her. Her papers at the University of Rochester are stuffed with letters to and from such personages as conductor Leopold Stokowski, literary editor Maxwell Perkins, stage designer Norman Bel Geddes, actress Estelle Winwood, Natacha Rambova (Rudolph Valentino’s ex-wife), and her old school chums Clara Jackson Martin and Mary Jackson St. John.

After ten years of publishers’ rejections of various works — and those unproduced plays written with her mother and husband — Carman’s fifth and final novel, Time Lay Asleep, was published by Harper & Bros. in 1946. It was a densely stylish but rambling and all-but-plotless tale of a family of Tennessee women raised by their soft-spoken but autocratic mother to need men even as they despise them; in their individual ways, all of them achieve unhappiness. Carman continued to write — especially letters — but she never published another word.

Photo courtesy Carman Barnes Papers

Back in those early heady days in Hollywood, Carman had told interviewers of her urge to travel (“I’d love to see Europe.”), and her intention one day to marry and have children (“I wouldn’t miss that experience for anything.”). Alas, that experience — motherhood, that is — was denied to her. And four years with Hamilton Armstrong seems to have provided enough marriage to last the rest of her life.

But the traveling — that urge, she was able to indulge. She left America in 1949, returning in 1951 only long enough to finalize her divorce from Armstrong, then sailing back to lead an expatriate’s life in Salzburg, Austria. Here she is in an undated photo, probably from about 1955, relaxing on the sundeck of the Tennerhof Hotel in Kitzbühel, Austria with her friends Mary Nelson (left) and Therese Bogdanowicz (center).

I’m sorry to have to report that Carman’s last decades appear to have been, on balance, less happy than she appears in this picture. Her biographical sketch on the Web site of the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries tells us that in the summer of 1952 she suffered “the first of several breakdowns”, and was treated with “insulin shock therapy and psychotherapy, among other methods.” She never returned to the U.S. and died at 67 on August 19, 1980 in Salzburg, where she is buried.

That biographical sketch also reports that in later years, speaking of her months in Hollywood, “she would tell interviewers that she was never given any writing work to do and that while she was photographed ‘700 times in the first week’, she was never given the opportunity to act in a film.” The fan magazines and trade publications of 1931 and ’32 tend to confirm what she said about those 700 photographs, but it seems to me they belie her assertion about never getting a chance to act. She certainly glossed over the episode of The Road to Reno. Maybe getting canned from that picture bothered her more that she wanted to let on, then or later.

And I’m not entirely convinced, either, that her stint as a Paramount writer came to nothing. Confessions of a Co-ed strikes me as having too many intersecting points with Carman’s various announced-but-never-made projects — to say nothing of Schoolgirl, novel and play — to be purely coincidental. And there’s the curious fact of Confessions going out without any writer’s credit at all. If Carman didn’t write it, who did? Ah well, not that it matters — nobody, even in 1931, seemed inclined to brag about that one. No doubt Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes wished their names weren’t on it.

If that was the way Carman remembered it…well, she was there and I wasn’t, and everybody is past asking about it now. Anyhow, I choose to close this series with the picture that opened it. This is the way I like to think of Carman — pensive, placid, expectant, and very pretty. It’s this photo that makes me wish we had something, even one movie, to give us some idea of why so many people, for a while, took it for granted that she was headed straight to the top.


*               *               *

POSTSCRIPT: I mentioned this in the acknowledgments at the beginning of these posts, but now, at the end, I want to express once again my gratitude to Andrea Reithmayr, curator of the Carman Barnes Papers in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries. Andrea was always prompt and patient with my inquiries, and generous in providing documents and photographs from Carman’s life and career (the Libraries purchased Carman’s papers from Clara Martin, Carman’s lifelong friend and heir). “I am always glad when Carman gets some attention,” Andrea wrote me. I hope this attention has pleased her.

Five-Minute Movie Star: Carman Barnes in Hollywood, Part 3

All through May and June 1931 the fan magazines kept up their steady stream of items about Carman Barnes and how she was taking Hollywood by storm. Paramount’s ads continued to list her among “These Great Personalities” and “Stars That Draw!” alongside such names as Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Fredric March, Harold Lloyd and Claudette Colbert. Strangers and Lovers was still one of “These Mighty Productions” coming soon, touted in the same breath with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight, The Smiling Lieutenant and A Farewell to Arms. Readers of Screenland, Modern Screen and Photoplay were exhorted to write to her (at the studio, of course, 5451 Marathon Street, not her DeMille Drive digs) — even though none of those readers had set eyes on her unless they’d seen the pictures the magazines kept publishing.

Carman’s versatility as writer and actress continued to be a major talking point. Screenland’s “Screen News” column fairly gushed:

“A girl who looks lovely, acts well, sings, plays an instrument, can do either comedy or tragedy, is a good dancer — and is also capable of writing her own scenario a la this new little Carman Barnes, is bound to crow over less accomplished souls.”

The first tiny bubbles of doubt, however, were beginning to burble up here and there. The June Motion Picture published “An Open Letter to Mr. Paramount” by staff writer Frank Lee Dunne, wondering what was up at the studio. Beginning with the perennial question “What’s happening with Clara Bow?”, Dunne wrote:

Once I caught myself absent-mindedly penning [Clara’s] name on the fly-leaf of a book I was reading. The book was ‘School Girl,’ a most erudite exposé of school children, written by Carman Barnes, who, I understand, is also going to do big things for ‘dear old Paramount,’ as Jack Oakie says…Of course, it’s sorta funny, the announcement that Carman Barnes is being groomed for stardom. Writing an off-color book in schoolgirl style is no preparation for stardom.”

A reader combing the trades and fan mags for news of Paramount’s newest could be forgiven for getting confused over the titles being bandied about. Some were still talking about Debutante (with or without Confessions of) even as Paramount’s ads were ballyhooing Strangers and Lovers. Meanwhile, an item in Motion Picture Herald’s “Productions in Work” column on June 27 carried a bit more of the ring of authority. It announced yet a new title, The Road to Reno, as “Starting”. Only the names of Carman, Charles Rogers, Lilyan Tashman and director Richard Wallace suggested that this was the latest (and presumably final) incarnation of (Confessions of a) Debutante/Strangers and Lovers. Ominously, the author of The Road to Reno‘s original screenplay was listed as Virginia Kellogg, not Carman. (Kellogg was a 23-year-old newbie just starting out; her career would be spotty, her credits few and far between, but she would in time snag a couple of Oscar nominations, for White Heat with James Cagney in 1949 and Caged with Eleanor Parker the following year.)

Over in the pages of the July Photoplay, Cal York (“The Monthly Broadcast of Hollywood Goings-On!”) hadn’t yet got the memo about the new title, but he had some juicy details:

“Carman Barnes wrote ‘School Girl.’ She is under age. She was considered a genius.

“Someone in the East saw her and decided she was Movie material. They signed her at $1,000 a week now; $1,250 a week in a few months; and $5,000 a week at the end of three years — provided the options are taken up.

“First, she was to star in her own writings. ‘With and By Carman Barnes.’ A good thought, but when they came to adapt her story, this was discarded.

“Then she was to play the part of a Southern debutante.

“Well, she’s finally playing the rôle of a tattered gal of the South — sort of a white trash interpretation in ‘Strangers and Lovers.’

“And here’s the funny side. Eight weeks are allowed on the production schedule on a not-too-big picture. When three weeks is a long shooting schedule for pictures in this day of hurry-up talkies.

“And the eight weeks are to provide ample time for proper photography. The girl’s lines need much camera attention.

“She has one lucky break.

“Tom Douglas of stage fame has been cast opposite her.

“He can teach her much — and we understand he is willing and so is she!”

So Paramount was scheduling extra time to coax the new kid along, eh? Interesting.

And by the way, what do you suppose York meant by the coy insinuation in that last line about Carman and Tom Douglas, the co-star she found “charming, very humorous…southern and from a good family”? In her April letter, Carman also told Clara Jackson that he was “not a ‘pretty’ movie actor.” Could that have been code for saying that Douglas was definitely heterosexual? Well, let’s let it pass — Carman, Tom Douglas and Cal York are all past asking about it now.

In the next issue of Motion Picture Herald (July 4), The Road to Reno was listed as “Shooting” — and sure enough, here’s a publicity still from the July Screenland (“Oh, how they love their art!”) showing Clive Brook, Ruth Chatterton, Carman and Carole Lombard loitering on the Paramount lot waiting for the cameras to roll on their respective pictures. The photo is posed, no doubt, but at least it offers photographic evidence that Carman was reporting to the set.

In that same issue, Screenland’s editor Delight Evans, boasting of the magazine’s prescience in choosing future stars, wrote, “But meanwhile watch the youngsters like Carman Barnes and Sidney Fox and Sylvia Sidney and Evalyn Knapp — we picked them too.” (We’ve already seen what became of Sidney Fox and Sylvia Sidney. For the record, Evalyn Knapp fell somewhere in between: serials, B westerns — she played Lou Gehrig’s sister in one for fly-by-nighter Sol Lesser in 1938 — and uncredited bits. Her career petered out in 1943 and she retired to marriage and family life, dying in 1981 at 72. So much for Delight Evans’s powers of prognostication.)

Motion Picture Herald continued to report The Road to Reno as “Shooting” on July 11 and 18; then in the July 25 issue the picture’s release date was announced as September 26. One week later, on August 1, The Road to Reno — still starring Charles Rogers, Carman Barnes and Lilyan Tashman — was marked “Completed”.

At this point things get a little murky, complicated by different publications’ diverse press deadlines. For example, in the August issue of Modern Screen (published in mid-July), its “Modern Screen Directory (Players)” had the following listing:

Barnes, Carman: unmarried; born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Write her at Paramount studio. Contract star. To make her talkie debut in ‘Confessions of a Débutante.'”

Way behind the curve.

Meanwhile, in the same issue of Motion Picture Herald (August 1) that announced The Road to Reno as completed, the following appeared in the Herald’s “On the Dotted Line” column:

 “…Lilyan Tashman, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Peggy Shannon, William Boyd, Irving Pichel, Emil Chautard, Anderson Lawler, Caryl Lincoln in ‘The Road to Reno’…”

It was an ominous sign for any Carman Barnes fans who might have been paying attention; in fact, Peggy Shannon — who had already replaced Clara Bow in The Secret Call earlier in the year — had now replaced Carman. The Road to Reno was still scheduled for release on September 26, so reshoots were no doubt in progress, making the Herald’s “Completed” stamp a bit behind the curve, albeit not as far behind as Modern Screen.

Not as far behind as Motion Picture magazine either. In their September issue (published mid-August), under “What the Stars Are Doing and Where They May Be Found”, Carman is described as “playing in The Road to Reno — Paramount Studios, 5451 Marathon St., Hollywood, Cal.” But by that time, the following item had appeared in Motion Picture Daily’s August 28 “Off the Record” column (the reporter, fittingly enough, is anonymous):

“As mystifying as any of Hollywood’s mysteries, the story of Carman Barnes. Picked and touted by Jesse Lasky as a find, Miss Barnes was subjected to a nation-wide publicity campaign a la Paramount’s best. The excitement even extended into trade paper advertising.

“Then the Hollywood understroke came into play. Miss Barnes cooled her heels on the Marathon Avenue lot for months until the other day she walked off the lot, through with Paramount and nary a picture to her credit.”

There’s no telling what “the other day” from August 28 was, but this is the first mention in print that Carman and Paramount had come to a parting of the ways, barely seven months into her long-term contract. Motion Picture Daily presented it as Carman’s idea, but other publications told a different story, albeit weeks and even months later. In the meantime, gossip column items continued to drop her name (Motion Picture, September: Carman Barnes reports that to date no one has tried to call her ‘Car’ Barnes.”), and readers were still being told they could write Carman in care of Paramount’s Marathon Street studios. But by October the news was finally sinking in.

As usual, Cal York was Johnny-on-the-spot in the September Photoplay (which may have actually hit the stands before that Motion Picture Daily item):

“The story of Carman Barnes is one of those things that could only happen in Hollywood. Maybe you remember that Carman is the youthful authoress who wrote the sensational novel ‘School Girl’ and if school girls had acted like that in Old Cal’s day, they would have been spanked and sent to bed without their supper. Instead the authoress was signed under contract to Paramount to write her own stories and play the starring rôles in them.

“The executives raved about her — never, so the press was told, did a girl have so much of what it takes.

“The publicity department was told to give Carman a big sendoff.

“She was photographed from every angle — well, almost. She was interviewed and kowtowed to and flattered.

“Various announcements of her screen rôles were announcements, merely. She was assigned to ‘Road to Reno,’ but Peggy Shannon was substituted, and even her own play, ‘Debutante,’ was put aside for lack of a story. Now, it seems, Paramount will not renew her contract. And she’s never appeared in a single picture nor written a line that has reached the screen!

“Well, she drew her weekly paycheck and the publicity department was kept busy for a spell.”

It’s amusing now, 86 years down the line, to see how schizophrenic some of Carman’s fan magazine coverage was becoming by this time. The October issue of Motion Picture is a case in point. Carman gets four plugs in all. One of them, in the magazine’s regular “The Hollywood Circus” feature, mentions how dinner party hostesses around town, including Carman, were having trouble catering to the finicky palate of Paul Lukas. It’s standard puff-stuff, a good way for studio publicity departments to keep their contract players’ names in print (whether Carman ever actually threw a dinner party and invited Paul Lukas is an open question).

But the others are more pointed, and surely didn’t come from the boys at Paramount. In News and Gossip of the Studios” there was this:

CARMAN BARNES is going to write a novel of Hollywood. Let’s hope it is not based on her own experiences in the movies. There will be too many blank pages — where nothing happens.”

Ouch! Later in the same column, just in case readers weren’t in on the joke, the magazine explained it:

CARMAN BARNES — whom Variety refers to as ‘Paramount’s by-and-with girl’ — will soon be Paramount’s ‘by-with-and-out girl.’ The studio has admitted she will probably never make a foot of film, though she has been technically billed as a star for months. The pictures printed of Carman seem to reveal a rather odd screen personality, but a photographer tells me they are the few chosen from literally hundreds of portraits of the young authoress taken.”

Now this was a low blow. The reporter knew perfectly well that the studios always took “literally hundreds” of pictures of their contract players — stars like Garbo who could sit for half a dozen shots, every one pure gold, were rare.

Even worse than these, perhaps, was the issue’s very first (p. 14) mention of Carman, in “Your Gossip Test (Hollywood Knows The Answers To These Questions — Do You?)” by Marion Martone. Question no. 10:

“Who is the girl who has been publicized as a forthcoming screen star and has been cast in several pictures and yet has not been seen on the screen so far?”

And the answer, on p. 96:

“Evidently the screen camera has been unkind to Carman Barnes, who is the author of ‘School Girl,’ because she has been assigned to several pictures and then taken out of the cast.”

“Several pictures”? Well, there were certainly several titles bouncing around. Maybe that was what Marion Martone meant.

The snark had started even before that, though. One anecdote got a couple of treatments that illustrate how “Hollywood’s Newest Genius” (Silver Screen, May ’31) was fast morphing into a figure of scorn. From Modern Screen’s “Film Gossip of the Month” for September, just as the news of Carman’s retreat was getting around:

“Blasé Hollywood had a good laugh the other day. Although Carman Barnes hasn’t done any work as yet she’s been receiving her weekly paycheck from Paramount — and the checks are four-figured, too. So it was only natural that when Carman waltzed into her manager’s office and asked when her vacation started the poor man was too flabbergasted to answer.”

Early profiles of Carman had made a point of mentioning her lively sense of humor. This (if it really happened) sounds to me like a joke on Carman’s part that Modern Screen’s gossipmonger deliberately chose to take the wrong way. But the same story got an even nastier twist two months later in The New Movie Magazine. In an article entitled “Hollywood Needs a Good Scandal”, writer Herb Howe went out of his way to get his digs in, even though the subject at hand was Hollywood’s drive to cut costs in the face of the deepening Depression:

“With the Wall Street bankers moving into Hollywood there has been a move to economize. Supervisors are now allowed only four relatives on the pay-roll. But this miser policy didn’t affect Carman Barnes. She was on the Paramount pay-roll for six months without doing a part. When finally a bit was found for her she screamed: ‘But when do I get a vacation?'”

And elsewhere in that same November issue:

“Paramount has finally settled with Carman Barnes for a cash consideration for the balance of her contract, which had six more months to go. Miss Barnes was discovered by Jesse L. Lasky in New York, after he was attracted to her ability as the author of a sensational book on boarding-school life. She was later sent to Hollywood where the studio applied every trick known in photography to bring out that certain screen magnetism so necessary to establish popularity, but the young girl would not respond to that mysterious element of camera lens with the result that Paramount decided it was cheaper to relieve themselves of the charge by making a cash settlement.

“Meanwhile, Miss Barnes is said to be writing a novel about Hollywood in which, rumor has it, she’ll tell tales.”

It’s too much to hope for that any of Carman’s scenes from The Road to Reno — much less any screen tests she may have made — have survived in the Paramount vaults. But wouldn’t it be enlightening to troll through the files for memos documenting some of the “trick[s] known in photography” that Paramount deployed to get her to “respond to that mysterious element of camera lens”? Ah well, maybe someday…

In any case, by Autumn 1931 Carman Barnes was well and truly gone. No more horseback riding in Griffith Park, no more lolling on the beach, no more “primieres” or bad food at the Brown Derby.

And that novel Miss Barnes was said to be writing? We’ll get to that, and other things, when we return.

Next time: Hollywood after Carman — and vice versa