Archive for March, 2014

Jewel Robbery (1932) by matthew c . hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 28, 2014 by mchoffman

“Jewel Robbery carries the charm of a naughty wink from start to finish.” ~ Scott O’Brien, author of Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait To Be Forgotten (2006)
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The first film series I ever programmed—the first one I could call my own—was a retrospective on Warner contract director William Dieterle. That was back in 2000 at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. One of the key films I didn’t show was Jewel Robbery, which wasn’t available on 16mm—the format I was using at the time. That was unfortunate because movies like Jewel Robbery best explain why I would do a series on the little-known William Dieterle in the first place. Then, ten years later with the Library, I organized a series of pre-Code films called “Forbidden Cinema,” and again, Jewel Robbery was not yet available (on dvd). So finally, after all these years, I’m playing the film for an audience.

If you want to get friends interested in old movies, Jewel Robbery is the one to do it. It’s a delightful romance with a sophisticated edge. It was made before Hollywood’s Production Code went into effect, so the film is very racy with innuendo and references to marital infidelity. And though it’s never mentioned by name, we can guess that those cigarettes that are being passed out throughout the movie is marijuana, which at that time was seen as a novelty.

This was something of a departure for Warner Bros. Many of their films had distinctly American settings featuring working-class characters. Jewel Robbery, which is set in Vienna, demonstrates they could rival Paramount in European elegance. The story would not have worked had it been set in this country. Even in pre-Code cinema, censors would’ve shown little tolerance towards depictions of American policemen in drug-induced hysterics.

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Jewel Robbery is a lot of fun to watch, primarily due to its two stars: William Powell and Kay Francis. In the film, Powell plays a debonair robber with a drawing room technique. He brings an artist’s appreciation to his work while robbing jewelry stores across Europe. He embodies the kind of mystery and excitement missing in the life of the Baroness, played by Kay Francis. She’s a rather shallow coquette who is only interested in furs and jewelry. She’s bored with her rich, older husband and has lovers on the side, but there’s no real romance in her life– that is, until William Powell enters it. As the film’s advertising proclaims, he steals more than her jewels.

William Powell was one of the most underrated actors from the golden age. Though he is best known for the six Thin Man movies he made with Myrna Loy, his career was far more expansive than Nick Charles. From 1922-1955, he appeared in 95 movies including The Great Ziegfeld, My Man Godfrey, Life With Father, and his final film, Mister Roberts. During the course of his long career Powell was nominated for Best Actor three times.

In his book The Films of William Powell, Lawrence Quirk writes, “The fundamental affirmation in his character seemed always to win the sympathy and trust of his audience, regardless of what side of the law his screen self found himself on; among his secrets for getting those people out there in the dark to love him were his urbane charm and lack of pretension, his civilized projection of inner humanity and humor. But he didn’t lack a sense of humor about himself. Asked by one interviewer how he kept so slim and trim, he replied: ‘I highly recommend worrying. It is much more effective than dieting.’”

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He was born in Pittsburgh in 1892. His father had wanted him to enter law, but Powell only wanted to be an actor. He eventually graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After some lean years in stock theatre and vaudeville, he finally got a break in 1922 with Spanish Love, a Broadway play that caught people’s attention. This was a turning point for Powell and he soon transitioned into Hollywood after being offered a contract by Paramount.

At Paramount, Powell would appear in many silent films, usually playing the villain who steals the scene from the hero. This changed when he appeared in The Canary Murder Case, the first of four films in which he played detective Philo Vance. He eventually left and signed a contract with Warner Brothers before going on to become a major star at MGM with the Thin Man films. Our film series has focused its attention on that middle point in Powell’s career when he made several films while under contract to Warner Brothers. This was a very interesting period that hasn’t been explored much. During the course of two years he appeared in some wonderful films including High Pressure, Lawyer Man, Private Detective 62, and The Key, which we’ll play in a few weeks.

Jewel Robbery was a film Powell initially didn’t want to do, but in the end he felt the role would be amusing enough. The film features Powell at his best. He is both precise and polished. He plays the sort of gentleman thief that was then popular in American movies. Other actors like his good friend Ronald Colman portrayed similar types in films like Raffles, which coincidentally starred Kay Francis. Jewel Robbery would be Powell’s fifth film opposite Francis. Everyone remembers how well Myrna Loy complemented Powell at MGM, but fewer people are aware of what great onscreen chemistry he had with Kay Francis. This is simply because their films together haven’t been seen except at film revivals.

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Between 1930 and 1935 Kay Francis was the biggest star on the Warner Bros. lot. By 1937 she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. She was also one of the tallest leading ladies at around five-nine. Kay Francis would remain Warners’ top female star until Bette Davis overtook her. In movie after movie she came across as smart and sophisticated. Fans of pre-Code cinema remember Kay Francis for her chic fashions in her movies—Jewel Robbery features designs by Orry-Kelly—and for her famous speech impediment. Her “r”s were pronounced as “w”s… This vocal idiosyncrasy just made the “wavishing Kay Fwancis” all the more charming to audiences. She was a unique personality and the very definition of a movie star, giving audiences, especially female theatre-goers, the kind of elegance they wanted to see during the Great Depression.

Like Ann Harding, Kay Francis was another Broadway star who migrated to Hollywood in those early days when sound was becoming the rage in movies. With encouragement from actor Walter Huston, she got a test with Paramount and soon starred with him in 1929’s Gentleman of the Press. Her next film had her opposite the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts. In these early years she usually played a vamp, but she made an impression even if she wasn’t the nominal star. She first appeared with William Powell at Paramount in 1930’s Behind the Make-Up, although Fay Wray was the star of that one. Francis would make several films with William Powell, but their most memorable films together came after she left Paramount for Warners. Her last film with him, 1932’s One Way Passage, would be one of her best.

Most of these star vehicles featured fine support from many familiar character actors. Warner Brothers was one of the best with a stock company of actors that turned up in all their productions. Jewel Robbery features a supporting cast of great character actors including Henry Kolker as the Baron and Alan Mowbray as Detective Fritz. Even the minor players are given some sort of business to characterize them.

Shooting a scene during the production of Jewel Robbery…
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Director William Dieterle (on one knee with gloves)…
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It’s easy to compare this film to another sophisticated comedy about jewel thieves, Trouble in Paradise, which was released a few months after Jewel Robbery and again featured Kay Francis. The Ernst Lubitsch film is without question a masterpiece of continental charm, but William Dieterle’s film is hardly costume jewelry by comparison. The entire production is very much tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there’s also an airy quality that makes it feel like something out of a fairy tale. Jewel Robbery stands on its own terms as a great film with Dieterle providing his own touch to the material.

Though based on a 1931 Hungarian play by Ladislaus Fodor and its English adaptation by Bertram Bloch, there is nothing remotely stagy about it with its brisk pacing and fluid camerawork. Shots feel inspired rather than routine. It also has sparkling dialogue by Erwin S. Gelsey, which adds a sense of movement to the proceedings; the words complement the action. Finally, the atmospheric sets wonderfully evoke Vienna—even though the production never left the Warner lot.

Jewel Robbery is a product of a bygone era where the emphasis was on escapism and entertainment. Unlike today’s broad comedies with their modern sensibilities, Jewel Robbery’s story is conveyed with impeccable taste and subtlety by two great stars. It’s one of the finest films to come out of the studio system and certainly one of the best films in The Rediscovered.

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D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 21, 2014 by mchoffman

“Critical judgments of the very early sound period were often very curious. Films that were shunted aside then seem quite marvelous today, and films which rated raves then, often don’t live up to them now. Abraham Lincoln really needs patience and an appreciation of Griffith to be fully enjoyed; it has many of the weaknesses of early talkies, and is slow, stiff, sometimes clumsy. But it is a tremendously sincere and deeply felt work; one is occasionally restless, but one never lacks respect for it.” ~ William K. Everson, 1964

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D.W. Griffith was a giant in the film industry, though he is barely remembered today. When we speak of his legacy, we’re recalling films that go back to the dawn of narrative filmmaking—ancient history for modern viewers. His films are removed from us by time, but also by his subject matter and his themes which often reflect Victorian attitudes. Despite this, Griffith is a name that should not be forgotten, and yet he was forgotten even in his own lifetime.

He was a pioneer who developed the grammar of motion picture storytelling. In time, though, Hollywood grew up and adapted to the changing times, and it passed Griffith on by. By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, Griffith was already out of fashion with movie audiences. His sensibilities were deeply rooted in an earlier time. In an age that craved Jazz Age liberation, Griffith was still rooted in 1890s melodrama.

But his best films are more than antiques or historical footnotes. Films like Orphans of the Storm, Way Down East, Broken Blossoms, and yes, The Birth of a Nation, are some of the best representations of the silent era. His films, for better or worse, were the product of his own vision. Griffith’s best films could be described as pastoral romances. He knew how to compose a frame, and his films displayed a pictorial beauty and a visual romanticism that transformed cinema into an art form. Griffith may be perceived as old-fashioned today and certainly the modern movie-goer would find his films hard to embrace, but he was a master storyteller whose films influenced many great filmmakers like John Ford.

Abraham Lincoln was made at a time when the old master’s career was winding down. It was his first sound film. He would make only one more movie after this. In 1930, Griffith was operating in a strange new world of sound filmmaking. Like many early talkies, it will appear as rather static with action limited by the placement of the hidden microphone. Abraham Lincoln does not represent his most dynamic work, but it has moments of greatness despite its minor flaws.

Walter Huston and Una Merkel
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The film is often unfairly maligned by criticisms that attack everything from Una Merkel’s Ann Rutledge to Walter Huston’s heavy makeup in the early scenes. If anyone has the patience for it, try reading the user reviews on IMDB. But here at the Library, we see film in a different light. We understand the context of the times in which a film was made. Ironically, if you look on the “rottentomatoes” website, Abraham Lincoln has a 100% favorable rating with the critics, which is even higher than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Granted, only eight reviews are listed for the 1930 film. But at the time of its original release, Abraham Lincoln did receive good notices.

Walter Huston’s screen Lincoln is not as well-known as those that would follow. Nine years later John Ford transformed Henry Fonda into a Young Mr. Lincoln, and the following year saw Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln in Illinois. But Abraham Lincoln deserves to be in their company because it is one of the definitive Lincoln films. Like Fonda and Massey, and Daniel Day-Lewis from a year ago, Walter Huston becomes the character, physically resembling Lincoln more and more as the film marches on. The Canadian-born Walter Huston was one of the great actors in the early talkie period—or any period for that matter. He appeared on Broadway before becoming a Hollywood star in films like The Beast of the City, American Madness, Gabriel Over the White House, Dodsworth, and so many others throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. His career culminated with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His selection as Lincoln was ideal casting.

Una Merkel plays Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge. Like her director, Griffith, she was a native Kentuckian. In fact, her hometown of Covington is less than a hundred miles from where Griffith was born in LaGrange. In the 1930s Merkel was known mostly as a comedienne, usually playing the second lead, which typically had her as the sidekick to the heroine. She appeared in 42nd Street and many other pre-Codes of the 1930s like Red-Headed Woman and Midnight Mary, which we played a few years ago.

Abraham Lincoln also features many actors Griffith had used in his silent days, such as Hobart Bosworth, who is the reincarnation of General Lee, and Henry B. Walthall as Lee’s second-in-command, Colonel Marshall. Walthall’s role, though small, is a nice inclusion since he had starred as the Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation 15 years earlier.

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The story, credited to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet, is episodic and told in vignettes that may seem all too brief, like half-recalled memories of our nation’s past. Originally, Griffith wanted Carl Sandburg to write the story. Sandburg, who four years earlier had published Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, would have given the material historical legitimacy. Unfortunately, the studio was not willing to meet that expense. Sandburg did, however, suggest to Griffith that he tell Lincoln’s life story in “a series of personality sketches.”

The second half of the film is much stronger as it settles on the Civil War. This was a period in our nation’s history that was close to Griffith’s heart. His Southern heritage influenced his work. His own father had been a Confederate colonel. Though there is admiration for the South, especially in how General Lee is portrayed in contrast to the hard-drinking General Grant, there is also a reverence for Lincoln who was obviously a historical figure Griffith admired. He had contemplated doing a story on the Great Emancipator since his early days at Biograph Studios. With his career in need of a box office hit, Griffith again retreated into the past and found comfort in a story he knew well. Modern retellings focus more on Lincoln’s human qualities—his intelligence and political acumen. Griffith, on the other hand, created a real sense of myth; he expressed it through the visual power of his camera. His approach was to depict Lincoln as a great man who shaped history.

One of the best reviews of tonight’s film was written by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who writes, “Both of D.W. Griffith’s sound films—Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931) were scorned as archaic when they came out, which helps explain why he wasn’t allowed to direct again for the 17 remaining years of his life. But both films look better and better with the passage of time, which suggests that Griffith continued to grow as an artist as long as he made films. Working with the sort of mythic material later associated with John Ford, Griffith gives us a primordial Lincoln, perfectly incarnated by Walter Huston, and a dreamlike sense of destiny that his camera fully articulates.”

That sense of destiny is clearly reflected in the atmospheric opening with the slave ship and the later birth of Lincoln in the log cabin in 1809. The inference is that Lincoln is the new Moses who will set a race of people free. It’s a very haunting sequence abetted by the fluid camera work of Karl Struss and the set design of William Cameron Menzies. The artificialness of the scene in the woods adds to the dream quality. Fate or a divine hand has brought Lincoln into the world.

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Many viewers who judge old films by the standards of today will find fault with the film’s presentation. One modern viewer criticized the film’s obvious use of models, as seen with the log cabin and the Lincoln Memorial. But if you study these shots you can see that models were needed to accomplish the desired camera effects. The last shot of the film, which includes a tracking shot up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, simply would not have been possible or practical had they used actual footage of the Lincoln Memorial.

Writer Robert Henderson in his biography on Griffith said that “animated history is not drama no matter how worthy the subject.” However, this film is more than waxworks in a museum. The recreations come to life. Huston brings humanity to the role with the anguish of war clearly etched upon his face. His pardoning of a cowardly soldier– as well as Sheridan’s stirring ride– are some of the more dramatic moments. And then there is the assassination at Ford’s Theatre, which Griffith had staged years before in The Birth of a Nation. You know what’s coming, but it’s still suspenseful. The murder has the pure drama of something out of Shakespeare, so it’s hard to mess that up as a storyteller. (Although, Spielberg’s film simply settled for a reaction shot of Lincoln’s son, who hears the tragic news while at another theatre.)

It’s amazing that the film turned out as well as it did. Griffith suffered a great deal of interference from the film’s intrusive producer, who even refused Griffith’s request to make the final edit. Nor was it a happy experience for the film’s writer, Stephen Vincent Benet, who supposedly wrote five scenarios but very little of his work was used. This may not have been Griffith’s fault, but he was in a precarious situation with a studio ready to drop him. He was not in a position to defend Benet even if he wanted to.

There are many important historical details that are missing. For instance, there is no scene depicting the Gettysburg Address. If you recall the recent Lincoln film, its very first scene involved black soldiers reciting the speech back to their Commander-In-Chief. But unlike the earlier versions– including the overrated Spielberg film, which was more about the fight to end slavery– Griffith’s film tries to tell the whole story—not just one period in a great man’s life. Abraham Lincoln might not have the historical accuracy of Ken Burns’ Civil War, but it awakens feelings in us for that time with its imagery. To elicit emotion from an audience is more important than plot points. Few recreations of that era feel as authentic as those seen in Abraham Lincoln. Unlike today’s films which distance us from the period with their modern techniques of storytelling, Abraham Lincoln make us feel closer to the 1860s because the film simply looks vintage. Griffith recalls Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs and transforms them into images on moving celluloid– history distilled onto film.

One thing that is not missing is the issue of slavery. Some viewers seem to think Griffith glosses over this. His Lincoln’s primary goal of his presidency is to preserve the union, a sentiment we hear several times. Yet Griffith includes the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And for a director often condemned nowadays for his depiction of blacks, we see the horror of slavery in the prologue which is remarkable for its time. There is also a later image of slavery in which men are towing a line to a barge while singing a spiritual. Griffith seems to be able to show the oppression of real blacks collectively, but in a scene in which John Wilkes Booth is introduced, the one individual black with spoken dialogue is played by a white actor in blackface. Since the scene conveys the Southern perspective, it’s as though Griffith is consciously returning to the old film prejudices, whereas the prologue conveys the objective eye of an overall storyteller.

When I played this film at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in 2001 as part of a month devoted to D.W. Griffith, I played the 81 minute version. Our version is 93 minutes. It’s been restored by the Museum of Modern Art and released by Kino, but portions of the soundtrack remain lost. So when viewers see the subtitles on the screen in the first reel, they’ll know that portion of the film is simply missing. There is no dialogue or sound. But in the best silent film tradition, the visuals tell us everything.

Abraham Lincoln appears to be a recurring theme with the film program this spring. One recalls the importance of Lincoln in the life of Jefferson Smith in last week’s film at the Pickwick Theatre. Though we know how Abraham Lincoln ends, the story will continue in the wake of John Wilkes Booth when we screen John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island. Ford was greatly influenced by Griffith, and we’ll see Ford following in the master’s footsteps this May.

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Postscript: Thank you to all those who came out on March 20 for our screening of Abraham Lincoln. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive with some in the audience considering Huston to be the best movie Lincoln. A day before the screening one of our library patrons asked me, “Is it as good as the Daniel-Day Lewis film?” I said it was better. Whereas the Steven Spielberg film is essentially 150 minutes of talking heads, Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln is a greater work of pure cinema.

Introducing Mr. Smith & Mr. Rains

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2014 by mchoffman

Here is some rare footage of program host Matthew Hoffman and movie hostess Allison onstage at the Pickwick Theatre just prior to their tribute to Claude Rains. (This video comes courtesy of David “The Rock” Nelson.)

The Rediscovered Headlines Spring Programming!

Posted in Uncategorized on March 9, 2014 by mchoffman

Don’t miss the new film series at the Park Ridge Public Library. For an article about the spring program, Click Here!

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Introducing West of Zanzibar by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2014 by mchoffman

You can see the popular films at the Pickwick. You’ll see something else at the Library…
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The following is a transcript of my prepared remarks for 3/6/14:

For those wondering what this series is all about, let’s just say I got tired of some patrons saying, “Oh, I’ve seen that movie before!” So this time, I’ve done a whole program made up of lesser-known rarities. Together, we’ll uncover, reexamine, and rediscover.

We have some great movies lined up for you as well as some wonderful special guests—one of whom has joined us here tonight, Mr. David Drazin…… And later in the series, in May, we’ll have a visit from Irene Dunne’s granddaughter. She’ll be here to talk about the life and career of Irene Dunne. And if you don’t know who Irene Dunne is, you’ve come to the right place…

Over the weekend, I’m sure many of you watched the Oscars on Sunday night. At one point in the show there was a representative from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and she spoke about the objectives of the Academy: to preserve the past, to honor the present, and to shape the future. And yet, when it comes to the past it seems like Hollywood these days has a very short-term memory. In those montages of film clips they put together, maybe a handful of scenes are from films made before 1950—and those are usually the most famous images that everyone knows.

The Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series is only concerned with one goal: preserving the past by simply keeping the memory of our heritage alive. This spring, I’ve decided to do a whole series on films that are not well-known to the general public. With the exception of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is in fact part of the other series, all the films screened here at the library have come out on dvd in recent years. Many of which come straight from the Warner Archives. Tonight’s film may actually be the best-known film of those screened here. But every one is worth coming out for. Some might not have the staying power of a Mr. Smith, but all have a relevancy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be showing them.

Lon Chaney, Sr. has that rare ability to amplify the relevance of older films. He was an actor of great power. His films alone reveal that our past has so much more to offer than people realize. Lon Chaney is the primary reason why there is a series called The Rediscovered. Yes, there are other stars I want to profile, such as Irene Dunne and Claude Rains and William Powell, but eventually, all of those names would’ve turned up in other programs with themes. Certainly Jewel Robbery with William Powell and Kay Francis is a film that would’ve worked well in another pre-Code Hollywood series. But with Chaney, it would’ve been much harder to work him into a theme unless I did a retrospective on him or a whole series on silent cinema. So in truth, The Rediscovered gave me a long overdue excuse to play a film starring an actor who, in my opinion, was the greatest silent film actor of them all.

How many actors today make you feel something—I mean, really make you feel something deep inside– something that stays with you long after you leave the theatre? Audiences in the 1920s had an emotional connection to Chaney. They felt sympathy for him. He often played outsiders of society, characters who were crippled in some way either physically or psychologically. A theme of unrequited love recurs in many of his best films such as He Who Gets Slapped. Moviegoers were drawn to his characters because they could relate to the struggles he endured. Though we never heard him speak a line of dialogue throughout the 1920s, Chaney was a voice for those who could not speak—those who were often viewed as outcasts.

Lon Chaney, Sr. is the influence behind The Rediscovered.
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Tonight’s film is another role in which Chaney plays a character who is handicapped: “Dead Legs,” a stage magician who is seeking revenge against the man who crippled him and took his wife. Dead Legs is not a very pleasant character as you’ll see, but Chaney is still able to give him humanity. There are some wonderful moments that show that he is still human and not a complete monster. His ability to transform his character—to regenerate in some manner—is a theme in so many of Chaney’s films that go back to 1919’s The Miracle Man, which is the film that really made him a star.

This was Chaney’s second to last film with director Tod Browning. They made a total of ten films together. One of their best is The Unknown, in which Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless opposite Joan Crawford. But their most famous work is the one that has never surfaced: London After Midnight—the Holy Grail of lost films. Browning was a master of the macabre who came from a background rooted in carnivals and sideshow hucksters. It was a world that Browning recreated on film, not only with Chaney, but later in films like 1932’s Freaks. For anyone who wants to read up on Tod Browning, you can do no better than a book called Dark Carnival by David Skal.

West of Zanzibar is my favorite collaboration between Browning and Chaney. It’s a very bizarre film, but it is very atmospheric in its mood and African setting which, in fact, never left the MGM studio lot. It also offers Chaney with one of his finest roles. In it, you’ll see the whole spectrum of human emotions. And you’ll see those emotions without any masks or make-up– without the thousand faces he was known for.

Chaney’s appearance often changed from one film to the next, but he was more than a great makeup artist. He was a great actor. One of his finest performances was in a 1926 MGM film called Tell It To the Marines. The U.S. Marine Corps was so impressed with Chaney as the archetypal drill instructor that they made him an honorary Marine. When Chaney died in 1930 from lung cancer, he was accorded military honors at his funeral. Chaney was more than a horror actor. He was a legend very much loved by America at that time.

I played Tell It to the Marines many years ago when I ran the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. I played a 16mm print of it for Veteran’s Day. What made that screening so special was that I had a live piano accompaniment for it. The gentleman who performed for me all those years ago is here tonight. I know he will make tonight’s film just as memorable.

If we could give a huge round of applause to David Drazin…

A night of film and music appreciation! Program host Matthew Hoffman with pianist David Drazin.
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