Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

RIP Barbara Kent - One of the Last Actors from the Silent Era

It's time for me to join the online chorus and comment on the passing of former actress Barbara Kent.  She was an actress for only a few years and by all accounts lived a full and happy life after she retired from the screen.  She died last week at the age of 103 with the distinction of being one of the last surviving actors of the silent era.  (LA Times Obit; New York Times Obit).  We're counting down former silent film players much as people noted the passing of the WWI veterans in the past.  Not too many remain from the silent era and the last of the WWI veterans are gone.  Kent has been little remembered outside the silent film community.  She left a couple of wonderful performances including 1927's Flesh and the Devil, 1928's Lonesome and 1929's The Shakedown.

Garbo and Gilbert so dominate Flesh and the Devil, it's hard to remember Kent as the young girl who did not get her man.  Her charm in that film is quite evident, she was a pretty little thing.  Paul Fejos' Lonesome is a touching and wonderful film and it's really difficult to get to see it.  Really crappy gray-market bootlegs do not do the film any justice and are more than a little bit illegal.  Lonesome is really worth seeking out on the big screen, heck, I'm dying to see it on the big screen. (Anyone at the SF Silent Film Festival listening? Can we get it, can we, huh?)  Lonesome is one at the very top of my wish list for a big screen event. 

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Barbara Kent and James Murray in The Shakedown on the big screen during the 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  You can read the program notes at their online archive.  It was the sleeper hit of the weekend for me and is still a film I want to see again.  I remember Kent being charming and pretty, which is pretty much all that was required in this film.

Here's my recap of the film from and earlier blog post:

The Shakedown 1929 William Wyler: James Murray, Barbara Kent and Jack Hanlon.

This was the best film of the weekend for me. This was a small film, a programmer and William Wyler’s second film. It was, in short, a revelation. That Wyler could pretty much come out of the box and give us a film that moved at breakneck speed and tell a story with such slim and easily hackneyed material in such an entertaining fashion shows what a raw talent he was. The film also showcased what a tragic loss was the career of James Murray. I’d only seen him in King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd. He’s affecting in that film. In The Shakedown he is even more moving, more natural. This illustrated to me all the more how tragic that his career was so short and his end so swift. Murray’s scenes with young Jack Hanlon as the orphaned boy are great, very natural camaraderie between the two and blossoming into a very heartfelt father and son-like affection. Murray and Hanlon’s tears were real, so too were mine. Barbara Kent, who is one of the few silent players still with us, had little to do but to look pretty. She did that well. Harry Gribbon mugged and did his scenes with the boy to great effect. I came away so pleased with the film. It’s a sleeper and was my favorite of the weekend. A programmer that hit a home run out of the ballpark and into McCovey Cove.

As mentioned above, veterans of the silent film era number only a scant few these days.  Mickey Rooney and Diana Serra Cary aka Baby Peggy come to mind immediately.  We can't keep them here, but we can remember them, especially if their films survive for our enjoyment.  Barbara Kent was not Clara Bow, nor even Colleen Moore, but she was for a time, a real charmer on screen with a few really wonderful films to remember her by.  Thanks for everything and Godspeed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On the Bedside Table - Myrna Loy The Only Good Girl in Hollywood

Emily W. Leider, author of Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino and Becoming Mae West has penned a biography of one of my favorite actresses who began in the silent era and blossomed in the talkies.  Order at

I've been slow to read this, much to my chagrin.  I've not wanted to put the book down.  It's that good, yes, it is really THAT good.

One wishes they could write as elegantly and as engagingly as Emily Leider does about the subject of her latest biography, Myrna Loy. Leider's impeccable research coupled with her elegant prose make for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Myrna Loy is a much beloved star from Hollywood's golden age. Publicity at the time declared her to be a perfect wife on screen and it was assumed she was as much off screen as well. Leider informs us this was not the case. Leider chronicles Loy's life and film career with just the right touch. There is a nice balance between the biography and the chronicle of the film career. Unlike so many other biographies of the last few years, this is not padded out with recaps of film plots. Leider's prose, in so many ways, reflects or mimics the manner, the lightness, the quirkiness of Loy's own voice as she tosses off quips with William Powell. It's a pure delight to read.

Loy's life was very full and really devoid of scandal like so many other stars of the day. Perhaps this might make people overlook Loy as the subject of a biography. They should not, Leider's excellent detective work uncovers some secrets that Loy kept under wraps or only hinted at in Loy's own excellent autobiography Being and Becoming. Leider also fills us all in on Loy's interesting life as an activist. Myrna Loy was really much more, much deeper than Nora Charles and this book tells you why. I'm beyond grateful she portrayed Nora Charles as delightfully as she did, but I'm more grateful to read about and learn from her life off screen. Not a perfect wife, but quite a life. If you're a fan of Myrna Loy and her films, this is a must read.
I forgot to add a comment on the judicious use of photos in the book, most are shots I'd not seen.  Some incredible portraits, like the Ted Allan portrait used on the cover.