Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 188: The Last Seats In The Theatre

Have you ever watched the goings on in a dog park?

All the Poodles, Labs and Golden Doodles bouncing around with one another, being nice to the purse dogs, sharing sticks and tennis balls.

Then – the gate opens and in walks a Rottweiler tricked out in a shiny spiked collar or soiled bandana. The mood suddenly changes.

Not among the dogs. Among their owners.

The people present are already stiffening, assessing the animal’s body language and temperament, eyeing whoever’s on the other end of its leash for any obvious signs of anti-social behavior.

More often than not, the dogs give the new kid a sniff and get back to doing what they were doing. Most often the perceived “bad boy” simply joins in the fun.

People, of course, are far more sophisticated. We have a thousand different ways of separating others from our particular herd. We seldom trust those who aren’t like us.

We pre-judge based on how those “others” are dressed, what newspaper they read, what kind of TV they watch, what’s written on the bumper sticker on their car.

And in the process, we wall ourselves off from broadening our horizons, having our beliefs challenged and sharing experiences that might open us to entirely new ways of thinking or living.

Or – maybe just require us to question or justify (just a little) exactly why we think and act the way we do.

Recently, the brewers of Carlsberg beer conducted an experiment involving our preconceptions of others. I think you might find the results both interesting and entertaining…

Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sometimes A Great Notion

Often, we get caught up in causes which appear just, seem to support fairness and carry the hope of solving complicated problems.

And then someone speaks with complete clarity on how simple the solution might really be. What follows are words which deserve your consideration…

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Food roadsign

I’m amid another of my epic “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Edmonton” road trips. And over the years, I’ve learned that it’s not just armies, but film crews and screenwriters that travel on their stomachs.

But while we live in a nation of plenty with an immense diversity in local produce and culinary selection, our highways seldom lead to anywhere other than tasteless, high-fat, high sodium burgers and dried out chicken fingers.

Oh, you can always find a farmer’s market, a grocery store with a deli section or a diner serving delicious home-cooked meals. But they’re all either far down some side street, plunked on a service road you can’t get to or hidden away in a town you don’t know.

Why is it that every major gas station or highway egress in Canada only hosts a major fast food chain?

Travellers in a hurry to reach their destinations seldom stop more often than they must. And when they do, it’s usually by pulling into a place where they can get gas, relieve bladders and find some sustenance at the same locale.

When I was a kid, that was usually your friendly Esso dealer, which contributed to its “Happy Motoring” motto by offering full service pumps, clean washrooms and a Voyageur restaurant with steeple point roof and Courieres du Bois canoe.

Back then, I stuck to a strict diet of grilled cheese sandwiches and strawberry milkshakes. But I’m told these places featured meals that reflected local delicacies from Alberta Rainbow trout to Quebec Poutine – all lovingly prepared by local chefs.

You can still find a few in towns where the main road used to run. On the current route, however, they’ve been replaced by concourses where you can find magazines, DVDs and sunglasses, but little food-wise beyond a burger and fries.


Now I like digging into a juicy burger as much as the next guy -- maybe more. But when you’re on the road for days at a time, you begin to wonder why this is our only option – especially at the same time our governments have become obsessed with the problems of high salt, high fat diets and Obesity.

Which momentarily brings me back to Edmonton.

A couple of weeks ago, Alberta’s Health Minister announced a $16 Million plan to reduce obesity. It made me wonder why governments just don’t do one thing to address the problem that wouldn’t cost them a dime.

You see, they own all of our roads and (for quite handsome fees) lease the locations where Shell and Esso and Petro-Canada build their franchises, subletting the adjoining space to MacDonald's, Burger King, A&W or Subway.

How hard would it be – instead of spending taxpayer money on new obesity programs – to simply require anybody who wanted to pump gas at the roadside to offer a healthy dietary alternative that might make an even bigger dent in the problem?

Does anybody really think truckers wouldn’t pull in for a nice Pho or mom wouldn’t rather the kids shared a spring roll than a meal that comes with a toy?

I’m not saying you have to kick all those high-school kids flipping burgers at minimum wage to the curb for some guy making bean sprout sandwiches. Just…

Give people the option.

For my sins, I’m a huge fan of The Food Network’s Guy Fieri, especially his current show “Drive-ins, Diners & Dives”.

guy knife

Now, most of the hash slung on that program wouldn’t fall into any optimum healthy eating category. But a chunk of it does. And it certainly beats chicken fingers in anybody’s taste test. Which brings up something else governments could do for the weary, waistline challenged traveller.

While most of the locations Fieri visits are run by certified Chefs, more than a few are operated by guys with little more going for them than a love of cooking and some of mom’s recipes.

So, If every gas bar along Highway #1 in this country had to offer a burger alternative, can you imagine how many new local businesses might be created?

Businesses which might one day evolve into nation-wide franchises themselves.

And they wouldn’t need much more than the space to park a used shipping container, just like one of the best seafood restaurants on the planet, Victoria BC’s “Red Fish, Blue fish”. 

So, we have proverbial “two birds with one stone” potential here. Increased employment and obesity reduction – without having to build a single additional tier of government spending or a whole new Public bureaucracy in the process.

As a side note -- Fieri owns a few legitimate restaurants. Check out the menu of this place and tell me it wouldn’t have you swerving off the road for a taste.

Which brings to mind another of my Food Network heroes, Jamie Oliver. Oliver has spent the last few years igniting food “Revolutions” on both sides of the Atlantic, changing school menus, steering entire cities toward healthier eating, etc.

Can you imagine how much positive PR some multi-national fossil fuel dispenser could acquire if it simply propped his apple-cheeked visage next to their roadside logo promising a nutritious menu to offset the carbon footprint?

I mean, is there anybody who better embodies that “Think of the Children” mindset?


I realize that most governments have to prove they’re keeping busy by creating programs that throw money at a problem. But this is something we could do with little more than the stroke of a pen.

Decent, tasty food that’s also good for you from coast to coast to coast. More than my own burger clogged arteries would thank those with the foresight to make it happen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 187: Sam & Ralph

I was doing a couple of location shoots last week and took my sheepdog along for the ride.

Somewhere in the middle of the prairies, she needed a walk and I punched “Rest Area” into the GPS, finding one a couple of clicks up the road.

Like most Prairie roadside stops, it was little more than a grove of trees in the middle of nowhere and as we approached I noticed what looked like a lump of roadkill on the shoulder.

But the pile of fur lifted its head to check us out. It was a coyote.

It’s not unusual for a coyote to bed down near a busy highway. They’re naturally curious animals easily entertained by our coming and goings – and there’s always the chance a passing semi will deliver a free bunny or skunk dinner as it rolls through.

I didn’t give the critter a second thought. What coyote’d be so bored he’d wander a few hundred yards up the road just to see what I was up to.

But I was wrong.

We’d only been out of the car a few minutes when the coyote loped into the rest area, eyeing my dog and, perhaps sensing it was a female, happily wagging his tail.

Now “Dusty” (my pooch) has had a close encounter with coyotes before.

When she was about a year old, we were on a late night walk when the coyotes in the conservation area the house overlooked made a kill, whooping it up like crazy as they celebrated the hot meal to come.

Dusty froze, listened a second and then made a beeline for home, terrified. No sooner were we in the door, then she went to the landing window facing the park and stared out through the glass.

Four hours later, she hadn’t moved a muscle, keeping watch on where the coyotes had been howling. She was still there the next morning.

Back in the rest area, I felt confident that a single coyote wasn’t going to mess with a guy and his dog. But I leashed up my pal to get both of us out of harm’s way all the same.

The dog was trembling, her eyes locked on the coyote as it took a couple of steps forward, still wagging its tail and, for all I know, sending “come hither” vibes.

Dusty wasn’t buying and she suddenly squared herself, digging in her heels. Not running but not attacking either.

Standing her ground, she turned from docile travelling companion to ferocious beast, snarling and barking ominously, daring the coyote to take one more step, her body language threatening deadly consequences if he did.

I looked down at her and could have sworn all of her hair was standing on end, making her look twice her normal size. Somehow I was now leashed to “Cujo” in full menace mode.

600 years of instinct and breeding was kicking in. This was the enemy, the animal she had been bred to keep from sheep and cattle.

And despite the fact that she’s never shown the slightest interest (let alone any affinity) for sheep or cattle, this intruder was getting the message that she was the last creature with whom he wanted to mess.

The coyote stopped wagging his tail, turned and trotted away.

We got back in the car and for the next half hour, Dusty sat in the back, making sure we weren’t being followed.

Back in 1954, Chuck Jones immortalized the conflict between Sheepdog and coyote in a classic cartoon entitled “Sheep Ahoy”. It was a tremendous hit, introducing the Wile E. Coyote character.

In his original incarnation, however, Wile E. was just a slavering, red-eyed villain without a name. But the popularity of the cartoon spawned several sequels featuring a sheepdog named Sam, a coyote named Ralph and the concept that both were just doing the job they’d been hired to do.

Like the generations of instinct and inter-species understanding I witnessed this week, those old Warner Brothers cartoons still pack a comic punch 50 years later.

Sam and Ralph. Enjoy your Sunday.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 186: Finding The Words

Winston Churchill once said of Americans – “They will always do the right thing -- after exhausting every other possibility”.

Observing the current level of animosity and rancour that exists in American political debate, it’s hard to imagine that Americans will ever again find common ground and be able to treat one another with decency and respect.

And then you have moments like the ones that occurred yesterday in Shanksville, Pennsylvania as past Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden dedicated the Memorial to the passengers of United 93.

Three men representing both ends of the ideological divide, and who have all had occasion to say very unkind things about one another, set that aside to speak from the heart about how what had happened in the skies over Pennsylvania meant to them and to their country.

Each was a magnificently constructed oration. And each gave you the impression that when it really matters, when the moment is right, both sides are capable of doing the right thing.

I’m certain others in New York and Washington will similarly find the right words as the events of September 11, 2001 are remembered.

But these are all well worth recalling.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Meanest Man in Hollywood Was A Canadian



Lazar Meir never knew precisely where he'd been born. It might've been in Russia or the Ukraine, it might've been on a boat to North America. It might've been in Canada or even the United States. Heck, he didn't even know which year marked his birth, let alone the month or the day. What's more he could never prove his parents' name was actually Meir. There simply was no documentation and neither of his parents seemed able to recall the details either.

However he came into this world, Meir spent the first 19 years of his life in Saint John, New Brunswick and so Canada claims him. And he was content to have us do that -- when it suited his purpose.

He never shone in school. Mostly he skipped, to pull a little wagon through the streets, picking up discarded metal for his father's scrapyard. At fourteen, he left school permanently to become the junior partner in a scrap company that now bore his family's adopted name Mayer and Company. His first name was changed as well -- to Louis.

The business did so well, that in 1904, Louis convinced his father to expand to Boston. Here he met a new girlfriend named Margaret, who introduced him to a wondrous new invention called "the moving pictures". Mayer was immediately smitten, both with Margaret, whom he soon married, but also with the possibilities of the movie business.

Together, they pooled their resources and purchased a theatre in nearby Haverhill, Massachusetts that was so rundown the locals had changed its name from "The Gem" to "The Germ". Working day and night for months, assisted only by a man from the nearby lumberyard, and with everyone else, including the local newspaper editor, claiming they were out of their minds, Margaret and Louis renovated the place into a 1000 seat jewel box theatre they called "The Orpheum".

From its opening night, "The Orpheum" revealed what would become Mayer's trademark flair for showmanship and uncanny ability to sense what the audience wanted.

Unable to afford musicians, let alone an orchestra, he installed an organ, starting a trend that would continue well into the 1970's. He only booked "wholesome, family entertainment" and promoted it tirelessly. He also brought in the stars of the films he showed to sign autographs and answer questions from the audience. It was the first time anyone, anywhere had conceived of the "personal appearance".

Audiences flocked to the Orpheum and within 4 years Mayer not only owned every other theatre in Haverhill, he owned the newspaper, firing the editor who had said he couldn't succeed. A year later, he owned an entire chain of theatres throughout Massachusetts and realized he had enough clout to form his own Distribution company. So he did that too.

Finally, in 1915, he formed "The Metro Company" to produce his own "wholesome, family entertainment" and in 1917 moved it to Hollywood so he could film all year round.


Once in California, Mayer began developing what became known as "The Star System". Years of watching audiences react to actors making personal appearances had taught him what they wanted in the people they paid to see onscreen. And while the other studios hired actors, Mayer found "interesting people" with "interesting qualities" and groomed them for stardom.

By 1924, Metro was making 4 or 5 features a week, all earning a profit. Impressed at his achievements, the Loew theatre chain came to Mayer with their production entity, Goldwyn Pictures, which they needed someone to run. Mayer agreed to merge it with Metro and appended his own name at the end. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was born.

It would go on to become the most successful film studio of all time and Mayer would soon be the richest man in Hollywood.

If Mayer had a secret about producing successful films, he didn't try to hide it. In fact, he placed it on the company logo for everyone to see "Ars Gratia Artis" -- Art is beholden to the Artist.

To Mayer's mind, his job was to create a place where artists could do their best work. They were not only his livelihood, they were his family and his place was to protect them at all costs. Hence the Lion in the logo, whose real life counterpart, Leo, lived on the lot with a large staff and accompanied Mayer to important studio functions.

The philosophy seemed to have merit, for in 1926, the top ten films produced in America were all MGM productions. And all of those films had stars either discovered or polished into stardom by MGM, including Ramon Navarro, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney.

Knowing that his stars and their movies needed as much publicity as possible, Mayer founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 and created separate studio divisions to train and promote his actors.

And over his career, Mayer probably created more movie stars than all the other studios combined. He also had a reputation for giving newcomers a chance. If they proved they had an inner spark and were willing to work hard, he put them under contract and turned them over to coaches and teachers who diligently built them into what he felt the audience wanted to see.

He began attracting the cream of film talent from Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart. He supported them with the best writers money could buy and the top directors, not to mention lavish productions that packed theatres all through the Depression.

But he also showed loyalty to his past as well. The man from the lumberyard in Haverhill was put in charge of set construction at MGM and a Broadway actor named Walter Pidgeon was offered a long-term contract the minute Mayer learned he was also from Saint John, New Brunswick.

Mayer also did anything he could for the Silent stars who had helped him build his theatre chain and Metro. He kept dozens working into their sunset years with bit parts and supporting roles, still treating them like stars, often sending his own car to pick them up for work or take them home. On those days, Mayer walked to work so no one else need be inconvenienced.

What's more, Mayer had an entire division of the company staffed with ex-cons who had served time for Forgery.  He'd realized that there was no way his stars could sign all the autographs that fans requested, so he brought in forgers who could perfectly mimic their handwriting to personalize each and every fan response. To make sure none of them lent their skills to any other MGM documents, Mayer made sure they only had access to green ink.

If you find a personalized MGM photo on eBay, check the ink. If it's green, the signature is the work of a forger.

But all of Mayer's attention to detail paid off. Audiences felt that they too were part of the MGM family. By the 1940's, the studio boasted without challenge that they were the home to "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven". 

mgm stars

And despite earning more than a Million dollars a year ($20 Million in today's dollars) it was well known that he gave most of that away, to build University theatres and synagogues, to support technical research that benefitted the entire industry, and to fund medical research that helped the entire world.

In 1943, with black soldiers in Europe still relegated to their own units or squadrons, Mayer issued an edict that no one who discriminated against another race would any longer find employment at MGM. Segregation of any kind on the lot was equally forbidden.

So how did a man such as this gain the reputation of being "The Meanest Man In Hollywood"?

It might've been because protecting his family sometimes came at a great cost. Some said all he wanted was an appreciation for the special life he had given his stars. Some said he wanted something more.

Mayer was ruthless with those who sullied the name of MGM or put one of its people in jeopardy. He once not only fired an actor who'd been arrested for urinating off a location balcony and closed down the shoot, but he let other studios know they could never borrow another of his stars if they employed him.

He banished directors who refused to do reshoots or chose their own artistic vision over what Mayer felt was best for the script or the stars involved.

In a once famous contract dispute with Clark Gable, he threatened to introduce the actor's wife to his mistress if he didn't reduce his financial demands. And he led the way in assisting Senator Joe McCarthy's "Witchhunt" to expose Hollywood Communists he felt were undermining the values of the American audience.

He also constantly fought with MGM ownership in New York and his own Producers. Many attributed Irving Thalberg's sudden death at age 37 to stress caused by Mayer's relentless work ethic.

He was ruthless in protecting his "family". Perhaps to the point of covering up a murder.

On September 4, 1932, MGM actress Jean Harlow's new husband, Paul Bern, was found dead in their home of a gunshot wound. According to Mayer, the maid had called him at 10:00 a.m. and he had rushed over, getting her to call the police who arrived at 11:00.

But neighbors insisted they'd seen Mayer and Howard Strickling, MGM's Head of Publicity, ushered into the house by Harlow at 7:30. A short time later, an unidentified man showed up just as a white limo with tinted windows carried someone else away.

When the police arrived, they found Mayer and Strickland and the body. They were told Harlow had spent the night looking after her sick mother at her parent's home. There was also a suicide note at the dead man's side, apologizing to Harlow and stating that "this is the only way".

The studio kept Harlow sequestered "at doctor's orders" for several weeks. And by the time she did meet with detectives, Bern's death had been pretty much accepted as a suicide. The police ignored the statements of the neighbors, going with the more precise times that matched the statements made by Mayer and Strickling.

By then, the maid had left town and nobody involved seemed to have any idea about the limo or the unidentified man.

Had Harlow's husband met his end in any other manner but by his own hand?

No one will ever know for sure. Although a reporter, who did some digging 20 years later, discovered two interesting tidbits.

The Maid and her husband were living on a handsome income from some unknown source in a little town back East called Haverhill, Massachusetts.

And the suicide note in Paul Bern's hand -- had been written in Green ink. 


Louis Mayer ran MGM until 1951, and might have done so for longer had he not given his Board of Directors a "Him or Me" ultimatum regarding his company President in New York. Among the last of the projects he put into production was the studio's massive 1952 hit, "Singin' In The Rain", a film which depicted the inner workings of a studio not unlike his own.

Mayer was devastated by his eviction from the family he had so lovingly built and died of Leukemia in 1957, leaving the bulk of his fortune to research on the disease.

Without him to lead it, already eviscerated by anti-Trust suits, the rise of agents who could end-run star contracts and Television, MGM drifted into financial problems and was finally carved up between Ted Turner and the Sony Corporation in 1986.

One of the first things to be removed was the massive steel sign Mayer had erected on its roof in 1926. Perhaps fittingly, it was trucked to a nearby scrapyard. 

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 185: The Wheel Of Death

We all take pride at doing something really well. Even if it isn't a really big thing, it gives you a deep sense of satisfaction. I'm personally in awe of people like surgeons and sharp as a tack lawyers, or cops who solve murders.

But I also get a thrill seeing somebody parallel park in like three seconds using one hand and not even glancing in the rear view.

That shit just impresses the hell outta me.

But I can't imagine having the kind of confidence and poise that allows you to literally risk your life every night of the week and twice on Matinee days -- just to entertain people.

That takes a level of commitment few in this business even come close to making.

But here are two guys who do just that.

May they leave you in awe.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Canadian Who Made The Movies Talk



Virtually any respected encyclopedia, reference book or history of the motion picture will tell you that the first movie with sound was Warner Brothers' "The Jazz Singer", released on October 6, 1927 and that Al Jolson's "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet." were the first words spoken onscreen.

Like a lot of stuff that comes out of Hollywood, this is pure bullshit.

Because another "Talkie" had appeared months earlier using a process invented and perfected by a Canadian.

Douglas Shearer was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1899. And while his sisters Norma and (the unfortunately named) Athole aspired to be singers, actresses and models, he became obsessed with electricity.

Long before he was even in high school, little "Dougie" had built an electrical lab in his basement, alongside the darkroom he'd constructed, to conduct experiments in -- "the miracles of sound and light".

At the time, residents of the upscale Westmount neighborhood were constantly complaining to the city of frequent power blackouts. City workers were at a loss to explain them. And Shearer's parents never revealed that most were caused by their son's basement experiments.

Before he was 14, Shearer ditched school to work at Northern Electric, where he was soon a leading light in their experimental division. Eventually, with the help of a teacher who faked a high school diploma for him, Douglas entered McGill University to study electrical engineering.

But his family fell on hard times and after only a year of University, Shearer was back at Northern Electric.

Around the same time, Norma and Athole moved to New York, where both found theatre work and soon began appearing in films at Biograph. Norma was quickly singled out by Universal executive, Irving Thalberg, who brought her to Hollywood. By 1924, she was making quite a name for herself and Douglas decided to visit.

Thalberg was now second in command at MGM and he and Norma were engaged. At one of their parties, Douglas fell into conversation with Jack Warner, who offered him a job, "starting at the bottom" at Warner Brothers. The next day, Shearer went to work moving props.

But he spent his long hours hanging around the set learning all he could about the way the industry used cameras and lighting and began dabbling with ways of improving it. He discussed many of these over Sunday dinners at the Thalberg house and soon found himself invited to perfect his ideas for MGM.

But while he tinkered with light grids and camera accessories, Shearer knew that the Holy Grail for all of Hollywood was Sound. And a few weeks after he'd arrived, he took a silent film, "White Shadows in the South Seas" into a recording studio and added music and effects that could be synchronized to the film by linking it to a phonograph.


Other studios had been supplying recorded music to play alongside their films for a couple of years. But no one had ever increased the reality of the experience by including the film's sound effects. Shearer achieved his single track record of both by creating sound effects while a live orchestra played the score.

Despite the film's success, Shearer knew what audiences really wanted was to hear actors speak.

In 1927, during the filming of Norma's next picture, "Slave of Fashion", he approached Thalberg with the idea of creating a talking trailer for the film. It would be a test run of his new Sound technique in all 15 Los Angeles area theatres where the film would play.

To create the trailer, he had the director film several scenes with the actors clearly mouthing their lines. Then after the film was edited, he had the cast lip-synch their dialogue as it was projected in a recording studio.

The dialogue was put on one disk and music and effects on another because no one had yet perfected a method of mixing all the sound elements together without one element drowning out the others.

But this meant that each theatre projection booth would need two additional people capable of dropping the needle on their separate records at the exact time the first frame of the trailer hit the projector.

Not confident that would happen, Shearer's plan called for a local radio station (where technicians regularly combined or "mixed" multiple recordings during live radio dramas) broadcast sound to the theatres. Radio speakers were set up behind each movie house screen with the projectionists taking their cue from the broadcast. It worked perfectly.

The "Talkie" had arrived.

In fact, the first screening was such a sensation, with audiences leaping out of their seats and cheering, that MGM had to arrange for an immediate repeat broadcast.

The trailer experiment went on for a week, with theatre managers claiming people were paying just to see the trailer and coming back every night.

But success turned to failure when "Slave of Fashion" was released. The finished film was still silent and audiences, led to expect much more, booed it off the screen.

Shearer was certain, however, that combining theatre showings with radio broadcasts could be accomplished for entire films. But MGM head Louis B. Mayer disagreed. If audiences could hear a movie in the comfort of their own homes, he reasoned that they wouldn't venture out to spend money to see it in a theatre.

A few months later, Warner Brothers released "The Jazz Singer", which, despite its "Hear Jolson Speak" hoopla, was a silent film with a musical track and only brief vocal interludes.

Shearer knew Hollywood had to think of something better. And he quickly did just that.

All over the city, studios were trying to perfect disc recording processes. But since film was fragile and constantly breaking, using such a system meant sound and picture were often completely out of sync.

Shearer felt the answer lay in magnetic tape and concocted a method whereby a second camera recorded sound while a primary camera recorded images. The process was tried for the first time with MGM's "All Talking, All Dancing, All Singing" feature "The Broadway Melody" in 1929. The film was a huge success and won that year's Academy Award for Best Picture.


Still feeling there was much to be done to make Sound truly feel real to an audience, Shearer expanded his division to perfect sound effects and eliminate camera noise and other studio imperfections. MGM's studios were quickly rebuilt to be sound proof.

Shearer also devised boom microphones, so actors didn't have to stand in one place to be heard. He also revised the way lights were hung and sets built to eliminate any chance still bulky and primitive sound equipment could cast shadows or would otherwise restrict directors when choosing their shots.

Every single one of his alterations to the way films were shot was replicated by the other studios.

By 1930, there were enough sound films being made for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award its first Oscar for "Excellence in Sound". Douglas Shearer won for "The Big House", and shared the stage with Norma, who won Best Actress for "The Divorcee", the only time a brother and sister have won the coveted trophy.

the big house

But Shearer wasn't content to rest on his laurels. He knew that the main stumbling block to Sound was the theatres themselves, where the era's speakers could not hope to fill their auditoriums. Indeed, sound was so bad in many that Charlie Chaplin continued to release only silent films that regularly topped the industry in box office returns.

Shearer and his team went to work inventing a device that came to be known as "The Shearer Horn". It separated music and dialogue, making both louder and clearer and became the industry standard. His invention remained in use up until the 1970's when theatres converted to stereophonic sound.

For MGM's 1936 film "San Francisco", he invented the first sound "mixer", combining 8 separate tracks of effects, music and dialogue to wow audiences during the movie's climactic earthquake sequence.


And he devised other improvements for film production as well, in 1941 inventing a fine grained film that gave screens in large theatres a never before seen level of clarity.

Then -- Shearer suddenly disappeared from Hollywood.

Never one to attend industry parties or even studio lunches or dinners, he now couldn't even be found in his office or laboratory. MGM ignored all requests regarding his whereabouts.

Then in 1945, he abruptly returned, declining to say where he'd been or what he'd been up to.

Finally, in 1947, he gave an interview to Variety acknowledging that he had spent the war years, at the specific request of President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, perfecting radar. Later, although offered a civilian award for his military service, he declined, insisting he hadn't done it for any glory.

He hadn't done it for money either. During his four years of secret military service, the only paycheck Shearer cashed was the one he got weekly from MGM.

Through the late 1940's and 1950's, Shearer returned to sound recording, winning Oscars for "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "Green Dolphin Street" and "The Great Caruso".

By 1952, he had won 12 Oscars for his achievements in Sound, Special Effects and Technical Achievement, more than anyone else in film history.

But he would add two more to his total before he was through.

Poster - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo_05

In 1958, he went to work developing a wide screen system that would eliminate the imperfect Cinemascope three camera system widely in use. Shearer came up with a 65mm film that could deliver wide screen using only one camera. It was dubbed "Panavision" and was first used on MGM's massive hit and multiple award winning, "Ben-Hur".

For his work, Shearer was awarded another Oscar and garnered his 14th in 1964 for perfecting the process of background projection.


In 1968, Douglas Shearer finally retired and the man no one ever saw lose his temper was asked if he felt slighted for not being acknowledged as the creator of the "Talking Picture". Shearer simply replied, "I knew what the studio and I had achieved and that was all that really mattered".

Douglas Shearer died in 1971, receiving a final honor never before (or since) bestowed on a Hollywood technician. His obituary filled the front page of the New York Times.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The First Actress Hollywood Destroyed Was A Canadian



There is an oft repeated tale that those who run afoul of the Rich and Powerful in Hollywood are "Blacklisted" or become "Gossip Fodder" or are otherwise driven from the community. The sad truth is that these stories are not always fiction and the practice began with a stunningly talented actress named Marie Prevost.

She was born Mary Bickford Dunn in Sarnia, Ontario on November 8, 1898. At the age of six, her father, a train conductor, was killed in a railroad accident and her mother took she and her sister to live with relatives in Alameda, CA. Not long after, mom married an LA banker and Mary changed her name to Marie to match his French surname of Prevost.

A bubbly girl with a wise-cracking sense of humor, Marie graduated from high school at the age of 14 and went to work as a legal secretary. She had no show biz ambitions whatsoever. But that would all change after a chance encounter in 1917.

The firm for which she worked represented Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios and one day Marie was asked to deliver Sennett a contract that needed signing. As she waited outside Sennett's office building, a man ran up to in a panic. "Quick, paste on a smile and run over to that table and sit down!"

Unaware the man was a director who'd mistaken her for an extra, Marie did what she was told. The chair collapsed and Marie did a perfect pratfall, then burst out laughing. Without a word of thanks, the director grabbed his cameraman and cast and hurried off to the next set up.

Marie took the incident in stride, collected Sennett's contract and went back to her office.

Next morning, her boss was waiting when she arrived. He was solemn and concerned, telling her Sennett had demanded she be sent back to Keystone immediately. Marie was sure she'd done something that would get her fired. But instead, Sennett was waiting with a contract to make one of his "Bathing Beauties". He'd seen her scene and wasn't taking "No" for an answer. Since he was offering almost double what she was earning as a legal secretary, Marie didn't hesitate.

never safe

As a Sennett "Bathing Beauty" Marie was expected to do little more than stand around in a swimsuit and look pretty. But now and then Sennett had the girls play small parts in his comedies.

One day, while shooting on the Venice Pier, Sennett learned Marie could actually swim and worked up a gag where he'd knock her into the water. That didn't seem all that funny to Marie, so when the camera rolled, she knocked Sennett into the water instead. Surfacing to find his cast and crew helpless with laughter, Sennett doubled her salary on the spot and made her one of his Studio's comic foils.

Over the next two years, the size of Marie's roles increased as did her audience popularity. Other studios began offering her contracts. But she felt she could learn more about comedy working at Keystone and turned them all down. In his autobiography, Sennett referred to her as, "The most talented actress I ever discovered".

But in 1920, Universal made an offer Marie couldn't refuse and she left Keystone. Her first film for the new studio, "Kissed" was a massive success and established her as a star. She had so many admirers, Universal had to hire a full time secretary just to answer her fan mail.

She made two more films for the company in 1921 that made so much money they literally saved the struggling studio from bankruptcy.


Keeping a close eye on Marie's career was Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner, who made a pre-emptive bid when her Universal contract came up for renewal. In addition to a huge increase in salary, Warner promised her script approval, co-star approval and the right to turn down any studio that might ask that she be loaned to them for a picture. No actress had ever been offered so much control over their own career.

And that's when things started to go wrong…

Ever on the prowl for ways to promote his studio and his stars, Warner noticed a budding romance between Prevost and actor Kenneth Harlan. Without consulting them, Warner went to the newspapers to announce that they would be wed on the set of their next picture, "The Beautiful and the Damned".

The only problem was -- Marie was already married.

A few years earlier, she'd become involved with a wealthy LA socialite named Sonny Gerke and they had eloped because Gerke was afraid to tell his mother she was no longer the most important woman in his life. Sonny and Marie didn't even live together and every night he went home to Mommy.

One afternoon, Mom was out shopping and saw Marie being dragged out of a bank by a bunch of policemen. She was so shocked she failed to see the camera crew filming the incident. All the same, she went home and told Sonny in no uncertain terms that Marie was no longer welcome in their home.

Instead of telling his mother that Marie was an actress, Sonny phoned his wife and informed her the marriage was over and she was not to contact him again. By the time she went to work for Warner Brothers, Marie didn't even know where Sonny was.

Warner was still outraged and threatened to fire both Marie and Harlan. But his lawyers talked him out of that since the wedding announcement had been his own stupid mistake.

But Jack Warner didn't like looking stupid and even though "The Beautiful and the Damned" broke box-office records and Marie soon got her divorce and married Harlan, the studio boss began the long, deliberate process of making Marie Prevost pay for his mistake.

She quickly discovered that she no longer had script and co-star approval, nor any choice in where she was loaned out. And if she complained Warner was happy to make her sit at home until her contract expired.

But Marie loved doing comedy, so Warner first loaned her to William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studio to make a film called "Red Lights" he thought had bomb written all over it. The picture became such a hit, however, that Warner's had to hire two secretaries to make a dent in Marie's fan mail.

By that time, Jack Warner had already sent her to Louis Mayer's First National to film another sure-fire disaster entitled "The Wanters". It too was a smash.

3 wise girls

Pressured by his brothers to get their own contracted actress making money for them, Warner demanded that his top director, Ernst Lubitsch "put her in something that won't cause such a fuss".

But Lubitsch was acutely aware of Marie's comic talents, so to placate Warner and still direct a successful film, he gave her a supporting role to Adolphe Menjou, Florence Vidor and Monte Blue in "The Marriage Circle".

Under Lubitsch's direction Marie shone in every frame in which she appeared. And the director made a point of telling the world at the film's Premiere, infuriating Warner when he said, "It is unforgivable she is not billed as the number one star. She stole every scene!". The first night audience howled its agreement.

Menjou and Vidor were scandalized but Monte Blue agreed, stating he couldn't wait to work with Marie again.

Instead of swallowing his pride and realizing he was wrong and Marie was a potential goldmine for his studio, Warner redoubled his efforts to ruin her. He put Monte Blue on his shit list as well, burying him in such crummy movies that the man ended his career as a circus clown.

By now, others in the film community were realizing that Warner's vendetta was getting the better of him. Sam Goldwyn sent over a terrible script called "Tarnish" and requesting the loan of Marie's services. Warner jumped at the opportunity. But once signed, Goldwyn revealed the real script, penned by his top writer Frances Marion. Warner was livid. And Marie had another huge hit.

Meanwhile, Lubitsch set up his next two features, "Three Women" and "Kiss Me Again" both written specifically for Marie. When Warner refused to cast her, Lubitsch pointed to a clause in his own contract granting him the use of any Warner contract player he wanted and Marie headlined two more successful films.

Still, in 1926, Warner refused to renew her contract, then quietly put the word out that any actor or director who worked with her could forget about ever working for Warner Brothers.

By now, the stress of the constant conflict was taking its toll on Marie. During the last two Lubitsch pictures, Jack Warner had been on set for all her scenes demanding additional takes. And while Lubitsch always used her best performances, the long hours caused her to start drinking heavily.

Her marriage began to crumble with Harlan additionally blaming her for the downturn in his own career. To top everything off, her mother was killed in a car accident.

It looked like Warner would finally push Marie out of the business.

Other Hollywood friends tried to help as best they could. Cecil B. DeMille shepherded Marie into the Sound Era with his first talkie, "The Godless Girl", and Frank Capra gave her a juicy supporting role in one of his first comedies "Ladies of Leisure".

ladies of leisure

But more often than not, Marie's opportunities evaporated as others turned her aside in order to avoid Warner's wrath.

By 1936 she was existing on handouts, living alone in a small apartment with her pet terrier. And on January 23, 1937, she became a grotesque symbol of what happens when you cross a studio boss, when her emaciated body was found many days dead and partially eaten by her dog.

As a further indignity, it was revealed that Marie Prevost had died of starvation.

Shamed by what had been allowed to happen to one of their own, many in the Hollywood community banded together to create the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital to provide medical care for those in the industry who had fallen on hard times.

But after that she was largely forgotten until her death was immortalized in Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon". That lurid chapter inspired Nick Lowe to write a song about her in 1978. But to date, none of her Warner Brothers films have been made available on either video or DVD.  Even after death, Jack Warner's vendetta continues.

Here's Marie Prevost in Frank Kapra's "Ladies of Leisure", her comic skills sparkling at 10:25 as Barbara Stanwyck's roommate and almost making you forget the much bigger star who might have been.