1920s, Fashion, Silent Era

Barbara Stanwyck

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My only problem is finding a way to play my fortieth fallen female in a different way from my thirty-ninth.

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990)

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1920s, Hepburn

Hepburn Family.

Katherine Hepburn in a 1921 family photograph with her parents Dr Thomas Hepburn and Katherine Houghton, and her siblings Richard, Robert, Marion and Margaret an older brother Tom had died just before this photograph was taken in 1921, On April 3, 1921, while visiting friends in Greenwich Village,  Katherine Hepburn discovered the body of her adored older brother, Tom, dead from an apparent suicide. He had tied a sheet around a beam and hanged himself. The Hepburn family denied it was suicide and maintained that Tom’s death must have been an experiment that had gone wrong, he was just sixteen years old, it may be worth noting here that their maternal Grandfather Alfred Augustus Houghton committed suicide in 1892.

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1920s, Adaptation, Drama, German, Historical, Silent Era

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet.

The role of Hamlet has been played by many a well known actor since it was first written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1602, for me probably the most intriguing portrayal was by a Danish actress named Asta Nielsen in the 1921 German silent film of the same name directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall.

In this interpretation, inspired by Dr Edward P Vining’s book The Mystery of Hamlet, Hamlet is born a woman and disguised as a male to preserve the lineage.

Though a radical interpretation, the New York Times said this film, “holds a secure place in class with the best.”

Edward P. Vining, was a railway engineer before he turned to literary criticism. In his opinion, the well-known contradictions and perceived deficiencies in Hamlet’s character could be perfectly explained by the fact that he is, in fact, a woman. “When God created man in his own image, male and female he made them,” he explains. The discerning reader will recognize that Hamlet demonstrates an essentially female nature:

Gentleness, and more or less dependence upon others, are inherent qualities of the female nature, and Hamlet possessed both. […] Where strength fails, finesse succeeds; and therefore Hamlet plans and plots. His feigned madness, his trial of the mimic play, are stratagems that a woman might attempt, and that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature.

 

It is also worth noting that there is a long history of female actresses playing Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt is the most famous example, even if it seems that she got rather mixed reviews. (A film version of her Hamlet survives; the duel scene with Laertes was filmed for the audio-visual Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre spectacle shown at the 1900 Paris exposition). This and other cases were of women playing a male role, though, rather than the gender bending of Asta’s version.

Asta’s Hamlet depicts events that occur before the start of the Shakespeare play, which starts in medias res. In the film, we get a prologue showing the Norwegian and Danish armies at war. During the conflict Hamlet Senior despatches King Fortinbras, but himself is grievously injured.

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Back in the royal castle, Queen Gertrude has just given birth to a girl when she hears of King Hamlet’s mortal wounds; to preserve succession, she takes up the suggestion of passing her daughter off as a prince. However, Hamlet Senior survives, buoyed by the news. Upon returning he learns the truth about his child’s gender, but by that point the deception is entrenched.

The film really starts when Hamlet is a young adult. Her parents worry about her solitary habits, and consequently send her to the University of Wittenberg. It’s here that she meets Horatio, who is from Provence in this adaptation. In the Shakespeare, Horatio was Hamlet’s most trusted friend, but here there is a bit more going on. They get an honest-to-goodness meet-cute, bumping heads in the lecture hall when Hamlet drops her pencil. Hamlet is instantly taken with Horatio, and we see her give him the eye …

She also meets Fortinbras, crown prince of Norway. It is awkward when you realize that your father murdered the father of your classmate. But Fortinbras is willing to make like Black Flag and rise above, and the two of them shake on it. Pals!

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Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. King Hamlet has died after being bitten by a snake. Hamlet arrives back in Denmark to a combination funeral/wedding celebration, her uncle Claudius having hurriedly wed Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is disgusted at the crassness and haste of the event, and withdraws.

 

To uncover the truth, Hamlet decides to feign madness. This means that we get some great scenes where Asta schemes, cackles, and generally causes mischief. Her objective, however, is to catch her uncle off guard and confirm her suspicions, while neutralizing herself as a threat in his eyes.

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Another plot strand of the central part of the film is Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia. Initially she brushes Ophelia off, but as it becomes apparent that Horatio has fallen in love with Ophelia, Hamlet steps up her game and flirts with her quite boldly (well, interspersed with pushing her away with her crazy behaviour). Motivated by the desire not to lose Horatio to Ophelia, Hamlet succeeds in winning Ophelia’s love.

Hamlet’s turmoil increases. There is a revealing scene in Act Four between Gertrude and Hamlet; Gertrude is unnerved by Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, though she is more concerned about Hamlet blowing her cover than she is about Hamlet as a person. The following inter title reveals the inner conflict Hamlet feels:

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t’s also the first time she realizes that Queen Gertrude was behind the deception that Hamlet is living.

 

 

Meanwhile, Ophelia has gone crazy in the wake of Polonius’ death. Laertes returns to the castle to find her agitated and unable to recognize him. After she drowns herself, he blames Hamlet for the situation.

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Everyone is familiar with the end of Hamlet, but again gender adds another wrinkle to the story in this version. In the duel with Laertes, Hamlet has been stabbed in the stomach area, and Horatio keeps trying to look at the wound, while Hamlet twists away and tries to keep her shirt semi-closed. After she dies, however, the secret is out, as Horatio’s hand finds her chest.

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“In death your secret is revealed! Your golden heart was that of a woman! Too late, beloved, too late!”

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1920s, Silent Era

The Funeral of Rudolph Valentino.

A mourner pictured with the body of Rudolph Valentino at his funeral.

On August 15, 1926, Valentino collapsed at the Hotel Ambassador, Park Avenue, New York. He was hospitalized at the New York Polyclinic Hospital and an examination diagnosed him as suffering from appendicitis and gastric ulcers, requiring an immediate operation. (His condition is now referred to as “Valentino’s syndrome”: perforated ulcers mimicking appendicitis.) Despite surgery, Valentino developed peritonitis. On August 18, his doctors gave an optimistic prognosis and told the media that unless his condition changed for the worse, there was no need for updates. However, on August 21, his condition did change for the worse, as he was stricken with a severe pleuritis relapse that developed rapidly in his left lung due to his weakened condition.The doctors realized that he was going to die, but as was common at the time with terminal patients, decided to withhold the prognosis from the actor, who believed that his condition would pass. During the early hours of Monday, August 23, Valentino was briefly conscious and chatted with his doctors about his future. He fell back into a coma and died a few hours later, at the age of 31.

An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of New York City to pay their respects at his funeral, handled by the Frank Campbell Funeral Home.

Suicides of despondent fans were reported. Windows were smashed as fans tried to get in and an all-day riot erupted on August 24. Over 100 mounted officers and NYPD’s Police Reserve were deployed to restore order. A phalanx of officers would line the streets for the remainder of the viewing.

Polish actress, Pola Negri, claiming to be Valentino’s fiancée, collapsed in hysterics while standing over the coffin, and Campbell hired four actors to impersonate a Fascist Blackshirt honor guard, purportedly sent by Benito Mussolini, Media reports that the body on display in the main salon was not Valentino but a decoy were continually denied by Campbell.

Valentino’s funeral Mass in New York was held at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, often called “The Actor’s Chapel” as it is located on West 49th Street in the Broadway theater district, and has a long association with show business figures.

Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge attending the funeral of Valentino.

After the body was taken by train across the country, a second funeral was held on the West Coast, at the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.

Pola Negri supported during the funeral of Valentino, it was rumoured that the two were engaged at the time of his death.

Valentino had no final burial arrangements and his friend June Mathis offered a crypt she had purchased (for the husband she had since divorced) in what she thought would be a temporary solution.

However, she died the following year and Valentino remained in the adjoining crypt. The two are still interred side by side in adjoining crypts at the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (now the Hollywood Forever Cemetery) in Hollywood, California.

Valentino left his estate to his brother, sister, and Rambova’s aunt Teresa Werner, who was left the share originally bequeathed to Rambova.

His Beverly Hills mansion, Falcon Lair, was later owned by heiress Doris Duke. Duke died there in 1993. The home was later sold and underwent major renovations. The main building of the estate was bulldozed in 2006 and the property then put back on the market.

 

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1920s, Drama, England, Greta Garbo, Silent Era

A Woman of Affairs.

A Woman of Affairs is a 1928 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer drama film directed by Clarence Brown and starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lewis Stone. The film, released with a synchronized score and sound effects, was based on a 1924 best-selling novel by Michael Arlen, The Green Hat, which he adapted as a four-act stage play in 1925. The Green Hat was considered so daring in the United States that the movie did not allow any associations with it and was renamed A Woman of Affairs, with the characters also renamed to mollify the censors. In particular the film script eliminated all references to heroin use, homosexuality and syphilis that were at the core of the tragedies involved.

Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo), Neville (John Gilbert) and David (Johnny Mack Brown) were playmates as children, members of the rich British aristocracy. Diana and Neville are in love, but his father (Hobart Bosworth) opposes the match, disapproving the Merrick family’s lifestyle. Neville is sent to Egypt for business purposes and to become wealthy.

Diana, after waiting in vain for two years for Neville’s return, finally marries David, who is also in love with her and good friends with her brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). During their honeymoon to Paris and after the arrival of police inspectors, David commits suicide without an explanation. Diana does not explain the reasons behind her husband’s action. Jeffry, who was deeply connected to David, blames his sister for his friend’s death; he falls deeper into alcohol as his sister starts a reckless life, seducing man after man.

Years later, Neville returns to England to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Jeffry is now gravely ill, and Diana brings Dr. Trevelyan, a family friend, to his bedside and then leaves since Jeffry still refuses to see her. As she starts to drive away, she sees Neville who has followed her and Dr. Trevelyan in a cab. Diana and Neville go to his apartment, realize they are still in love, and spend that one night together. During the night Jeffry dies. Dr. Trevelyan goes to Neville’s apartment in the morning to give him the news and discovers that Diana has spent the night there. Three days later, Neville marries Constance.

About nine months go by: Diana falls ill (in the script she is supposed to have suffered a miscarriage, but because of censorship, this couldn’t be mentioned) and is visited by Neville. Diana professes her love for him before realizing Constance is in the room.

The reason for David’s suicide is revealed: he was a thief, pursued by the police. Diana, realizing that her and Neville’s love will ruin Neville, tells him that his wife is pregnant and sends him away. Diana drives her car into a tree, in front of which she and Neville had fallen in love and sworn eternal fidelity.

From Variety, January 23, 1929

A sensational array of screen names, and the intriguing nature of the story (The Green Hat) from which it was made, together with some magnificence in the acting by Greta Garbo, by long odds the best thing she has ever done, will carry through this vague and sterilized version of Michael Arlen’s exotic play…. But the kick is out of the material, and, worse yet, John Gilbert, idol of the flappers, has an utterly blah role. Most of the footage he just stands around, rather sheepishly, in fact, while others shape the events. At this performance (the second of the Saturday opening), whole groups of women customers audibly expressed their discontent with the proceedings…. Miss Garbo saves an unfortunate situation throughout by a subtle something in her playing that suggests just the exotic note that is essential to the whole theme and story. Without her eloquent acting the picture would go to pieces.

From The New York Times, January 21, 1929

Not only is the narrative translated with changes only where it was obviously necessary to circumvent censorial frowns, but Miss Garbo gives a most intelligent and fascinating impersonation of that ‘sad lady’ . . . Mr. Gilbert does nicely as the man with whom Diana is madly in love . . . Except for his penchant for flashes of symbolism, Clarence Brown has handled this production imaginatively and resourcefully. The story is never confused, and while the reason for all the trouble may at times be somewhat incredible, the scenes are invariably beautifully photographed and admirably constructed.

From Judge Magazine

The most interesting feature of A Woman of Affairs is the treatment accorded it by the censors. As is obvious, the story was adapted from Michael Arlen’s best seller, The Green Hat, and, as every reader of that Hispano-Suiza advertisement will recollect, the heroine’s white feather was borne for the proud fact that her suicide husband suffered from an ailment enjoyed by some of our most popular kings, prelates and prize-fighters. Well, sir, Bishop Hays changes that to “embezzlement.” And, for some strange reason, instead of using the word “purity” (the boy died for purity, according to Iris March) they substituted the oft-repeated word “decency.” To anyone who can show me why “purity” is a more immoral word than “decency,” I’ll gladly send an eighty-five cent Paramount ticket, to be used at your own risk. Outside of its purification, the movie is a good dramatization of the novel and for the first time I respected the performance of Greta Garbo. She shuffled through the long, melancholy and sometimes beautiful scenes with more grace and sincerity than I have ever before observed, and the fact that she rode down and practically eliminated John Gilbert’s goggling is in itself grounds for recommendation. Another indifferent performer, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., suddenly snapped to life under the guidance of Director Brown, and gave a splendid performance. Lewis Stone made his usual calm and reserved appearance and, even with its melancholy apathy, you will find A Woman of Affairs worth seeing.

The film was a hit, garnering receipts of USD 1.370.000 (USD 850.000 in the US and USD 520.000 abroad), vs. a budget of USD 383.000. It was one of the top 20 box office films of 1929.

 

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