Tossing Darts at History to Discover Then as Now

Marion Davies 1923 Ringers Tobacco CardWhen I wrote about Marion Davies the other day I mentioned how I'm often drawn to the beginning of the story. That's why the focus was on her first movie.

When I open a thick biography I typically enjoy the beginning more than the end. It's not because they all have to end the same depressing way, at least I don't think it is, it's just that when I read about a life, whether that be an old movie star, ballplayer, inventor or entrepreneur, the hardscrabble beginnings before that first great break always register better than the ultimate ending. Endings often, though not always, preceded by years of comfort at home and worship from the outside.

That's why I looked at Ginger and the Red Heads rather than Rogers and Astaire. Rita Cansino and not so much Hayworth. Gary Cooper, the Montana cartoonist. Sidney Poitier before he became impossible to ignore.

When I wrote my Carole Lombard biography I ended with her marriage to William Powell in 1931 and claimed it was to be continued in time for her next birthday. Despite my reminding you of that I hope you forget. To my mind I already covered if not the most interesting part of Lombard's life at least a part that isn't discussed as much as what came later.

I prefer the early biography. If and when I decide to write about Lombard in her peak years I'm more likely to tackle the topic with a look at one of her movies, be it My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937) or, to cap things off right, To Be Or Not to Be (1942). Any of those is a more likely email subject line from me than Carole Lombard: Part 2.

Carole Lombard and Fredric March 1940 Cinema Cavalcade Tobacco Card

Carole Lombard and Fredric March shown in NOTHING SACRED on this colorful 1940 Cinema Cavalcade tobacco card issued by A & M Wix.

But besides hopes of offering up something a little different I think I'm naturally drawn to the early years because that is when these titans seem most human to me.

For our favorite Golden Age stars you can see it in their press clippings: I'll trust a Carol Lombard quote from 1928, but I'm taking anything attributed to Carole in 1938 with a grain of salt as I try to translate from press agent or studio speak. Not to pick on Miss Lombard, that goes for any big star, pre- and post- stardom.

If the quotes are more true, so too seem the people behind them. They haven't gone Hollywood, they're just looking to eat. While I'm sure there have been a fair share of poor and starving blowhards, any such ego translates more as an interesting personality trait before they've actually made it.

Alice White in Show Girl in Hollywood

Alice White's Dixie Dugan "goes Hollywood" in SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD

But before this threatens to become an essay about pre-fame I want to make mention of what piques my interest even more than beginnings.

Middles would be the tidy answer, but it's not necessarily that. Randomness would be more accurate. Or to stick with the theme of the site, the ephemeral.

I like to basically throw a dart into the annals of time and see what was cooking on any certain date.

Mickey Rooney 1951 Artisti del Cinema Trading CardThink about, say Mickey Rooney, and how he has been perceived in, oh 1935 versus 1940 versus 1950 and on into 2013. There will be one story at the end--well, likely many, but the basic outline will remain the same--but there have been many different stories throughout his life. Ups, downs and even periods of irrelevancy.

One of the more fascinating experiments I've conducted in recent times came when I wrote about Dracula (1931).

Again, like lives fully bloomed, I have a hard time getting worked up when researching and writing about a title that's been covered from every possible angle. There aren't any new gems of information to find. It's pretty much all been said unless you take an unusual stand just to be different. The only thing to really differentiate oneself is the actual writing. What I tried to do with Dracula was get myself in a 1931 frame of mind.

I went to NewspaperArchive.com and found a newspaper with a daily edition available for the first quarter of 1931; when Dracula was released. I forget which paper I chose, but it was an upstate New York title as I wanted to select one closest to where I'm located myself (Long Island) in order to get a semi-local spin on the national and world news. I went through 60 issues of this particular paper, day-by-day, scanning only the front cover of each.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Now, none of my findings actually made my Dracula piece, but they weren't intended to. They were just a little mental trick to help me spin out my words with what I hoped was a slightly different flavor. But at the same time it was a mind-opening and potentially mind-bending exercise!

Does your morning paper depress you? Does the news infuriate you? Well, nothing's changed:

Louis Wolheim 1925 Newspaper CartoonSomehow catastrophic weather seemed worse as there were an unusual number of earthquakes being reported from around the world in early '31. I also recall there being a flood which claimed lives on America's East Coast though it didn't seem a big enough deal to actually make my notes! Tons of accidents reported and with lower safety standards often causing a surprisingly large number of fatalities. A good number of murders, most tied to Prohibition with the name of Capone making more than one headline. An opium ring busted in Jersey. And a riot at Joliet prison saw one convict slain and two others shot. The untimely death of Louis Wolheim makes the front cover as well. Violence at the movie theater itself with an explosion at the Orpheum in L.A. injuring 31, including Mack Sennett and very nearly Constance Bennett, at the premiere of CIMARRON. Stocks rise in a sudden bull market while daily reports are given on the surging Red Cross coffers. Political unrest as the Bonus Army makes itself heard to everyone but President Hoover. Overseas, an assassination attempt on Mussolini.

On and on with modern parallels not very hard to imagine in most every case.

Herbert Hoover 1925

Herbert Hoover

The past comes to life all the more when studied from its own present. Some adventurous sorts may have planned their vacations by closing their eyes and spinning a globe. I prefer the virtual equivalent of opening an old volume of newspapers to a random page. What was happening, not from the modern historians perspective but as seen through contemporary eyes.

It's not just the event, but the greater world surrounding that event.

This little entry, originally intended to introduce a topic I've yet to reach, has grown a bit bigger than planned. I think I'm going to leave it here and save my original subject for another day.

I will give a taste though. This post was originally titled "Where They Were Then, Being a Where Are They Now Column from 1949" and I'll link to that title once I post it, whether it remains the actual title or not.

You see, I had my dart board out but got distracted before actually releasing my dart.

That coming post will center around a 1949 Bob Thomas column in which Thomas uses his space to reply to a friend who had asked what several forgotten film stars were up to at that time. His answers could have been different as soon as his next tomorrow.

I did something similar with my aborted "Where Are They Now, 1932" series and it was a lot of fun.

Just a teaser from the Thomas piece: "Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim ... are back in Hollywood to do a picture together." Hmmm, what could that be!

Gloria Swanson 1935 Carreras Film Stars tobacco card

Most of the other names Thomas mentions aren't up to anything nearly as exciting as Sunset Blvd. (1950), but it should still be fun to discover where these famous names were at this particular point in time.

And so we'll travel back to 1949 with many other familiar movie stars sometime soon.

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