Archive for December, 2008

From the Los Angeles Times

Jury bars auction of Mary Pickford’s Oscar

If heirs want to sell the actress’ 1930 award, they must give the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the first chance to buy it, for $10, jurors decide.
By Bob Pool

December 16, 2008

Mary Pickford with her Oscar for the 1929 film, Coquette

Mary Pickford with her Oscar for the 1929 film, "Coquette"

And the Oscar for best Hollywood courtroom drama goes to . . . the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The golden statuette was awarded Monday by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury, which ruled that if Mary Pickford’s heirs want to sell it, they have to offer it to academy officials for $10 instead of auctioning it off for as much as $800,000.

Academy leaders took a Rancho Mirage woman, her daughter and a cousin to court after the women announced plans to sell the Oscar presented in 1930 to the silent-movie star known as “America’s sweetheart” and donate the proceeds to charity.

Marian Stahl, daughter Kim Boyer and Boyer’s cousin Virginia Casey are disposing of Pickford’s estate, which at one time filled the legendary Beverly Hills estate known as Pickfair.

Along with the best actress Oscar for 1929’s silent melodrama “Coquette,” the estate also includes an honorary Oscar bestowed upon her in 1976 and a third Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, presented to actor-bandleader Buddy Rogers in 1986.

Rogers married Pickford in 1937 after her divorce from actor Douglas Fairbanks. After Pickford’s death in 1979, Rogers married Beverly Rogers. He died in 1999 and she died in 2007, leaving the estate to Stahl, who is her sister, Boyer and Casey.

Jealously guarding the Oscar trademark, the film academy has since 1951 required recipients to sign an agreement giving the group the right of first refusal to buy back any unwanted Oscar for the token price of $10 (though that amount was later reduced to $1).

That has made pre-1951 Oscars a hot commodity. The best picture statuette for 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” was purchased for $1.54 million nine years ago by Michael Jackson. The best picture Oscar for 1941’s “How Green Was My Valley” sold for $95,000 four years ago.

Because Pickford signed the agreement when her honorary Oscar was presented to her and because she was a founder of the academy who remained a member until her death, academy officials contend that the 1930 Oscar was grandfathered into the rule on right of first refusal.

During an occasionally theatrical two-week downtown trial, an unidentified pair of 1930s-era Oscars were displayed to jurors, and a recent Pickfair estate auction catalog displaying hundreds of Pickford movie memorabilia items was brought to court.

The heirs sought to prove that the signature on the academy’s 1975 honorary Oscar agreement was not Pickford’s, who they suggested was too infirm to have signed it. The academy argued that she had her personal secretary, the late Esther Helm, sign her name for her.

Jurors only deliberated about an hour Monday before returning with their academy award on an 11-1 vote. Judge Joseph Kalin is expected to hear further arguments next Monday on equitable and legal issues not ruled on by the jury.

“We’re arguing that the receipt is an unenforceable agreement. The case is not over yet,” said Mark Passin, a lawyer for the heirs.

“The academy has tried to bury us in this litigation. The academy spent hundreds of thousands of dollars so the charities specified in Beverly Rogers’ will won’t receive any money. My clients are very upset. They pretty much spent their entire inheritance to fight the academy.”

Passin said Boyle had offered to donate the Oscar to the academy if the group would help find academy members willing to donate its worth to the Buddy Rogers Youth Symphony in the Coachella Valley. The 1930 Pickford statuette could have sold for $500,000 to $800,000 on the open market, he said.

David Quinto, a lawyer for the academy, said the organization on principle would never ask a member to donate money for the benefit of a third party attempting to flaunt current rules and sell an old Oscar.

“Every other heir out there would be saying, ‘What do you gimme for it?’ ” when disposing of a deceased Oscar winner’s property, he said.

Prior to the trial, the academy offered to make a direct charitable contribution of $50,000 if the heirs turned over Pickford’s 1930 statuette. Later, they increased the offer to $200,000 “only because Mary Pickford was a founder” of the academy, Quinto said Monday.

Word of the ruling was greeted glumly in the Coachella Valley.

“It’s a shame money intended to help children has been squandered,” said Eric Frankson, a La Quinta musician involved with violin lessons for 332 students through the Buddy Rogers Youth Symphony.

Outside the courtroom, the melodrama continued, with Quinto suggesting the heirs would have spent proceeds from any statuette sale to cover their attorney costs.

Not so, countered Passin.

All three Oscars from the Pickford-Rogers estate will permanently remain with the heirs, Passin said.

Or maybe not.

Quinto asserted that the academy is entitled to buy Pickford’s pair for a total of $20.

Passin shot back: “There was absolutely no ruling to that effect.”

As with every good courtroom drama, the plot thickens.


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NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art celebrates the classic films of Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) with a 20-film exhibition that highlights the all-American actor’s adventurous, swashbuckling career. Bringing together such Hollywood favorites as The Gaucho (1928), The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), and Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932), the 20-film exhibition will be screened from December 17, 2008, through January 31, 2009, in The Roy and Niuta Titus theaters. Laugh and Live takes its title from Fairbanks’s 1917 book of the same name, in which he promoted his optimistic outlook as the key to happiness and success. It also marks the 70th anniversary of MoMA’s acquisition of the Douglas Fairbanks Collection, which contains approximately twenty of his independently produced features, as well as numerous reels of home movies featuring himself and his wife, Mary Pickford, taken at Pickfair and on various trips abroad.

The series is organized by Steven Higgins, Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.

Jeffrey Vance, author of Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press & Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2008), will introduce the opening night screening of The Gaucho on December 17.

Born in Denver, Colorado, California, Douglas Fairbanks was a 31-year-old veteran of live theater when he made his first films in 1915 for D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts studio. There, he created the character of “Doug,” a breezy, all-American go-getter who seemed to move effortlessly though life and across the screen. He left the following year and began working independently, eventually becoming one of the founders of United Artists in 1919. The following year, with the release of The Mark of Zorro, he moved into the production of big-budget costume films, averaging one a year for the rest of the 1920s.

Even before he attained the status of a Hollywood icon, Fairbanks was an excellent athlete who performed most of his stunts in such films as The Mollycoddle (1920), Robin Hood (1923), and The Iron Mask (1929).

His career overlapped with that of his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a legendary leading man in such films as Stella Dallas (1925) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

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First he swashed, then he buckled

A new book recalls Douglas Fairbanks’s glory days before the silent-film star fell victim to cinema’s sound revolution

Douglas Fairbanks cover art, University of California Press

"Douglas Fairbanks" cover art, University of California Press

Robert Fulford,  National Post  Published: Tuesday, December 16, 2008

He never saw an open window he didn’t want to jump through. He preferred leaping over tables to sitting at them. He never walked down a staircase when he could slide down a bannister. He ignored the stirrups on a horse so that he could rush furiously at the beast and bound onto its back. He played the kind of fairy-tale swordsman who laughed at the clumsiness of his opponents. He defined the word “swashbuckling.”

Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), a fabulously successful actor in silent films, loved exhibiting his ability as an acrobat. Whatever he did looked effortless, and sometimes he compared his work to ballet or pantomime. In The Mark of Zorro he actually jumped onto a mantelpiece in one swift leap, sword in hand. It was visual poetry, in the view of David Thomson, who says in A Biographical Dictionary of Film that Fairbanks embodied the spirit of naive adventure: “Unwittingly, he made swashbuckling like verse.”

Fairbanks had a mission. He was inventing movies, or at least two crucial kinds of movies: the adventure picture and the romantic period spectacle. He was one of the founders of the entertainment business as it exists today. He and his wife Mary Pickford, the former Gladys Smith from Toronto, along with Charlie Chaplin, were the first world-renowned figures produced by the movies. They created modern celebrity.

And of course, like many another figure in the silents, Fairbanks was wretched when talking pictures blindsided him and quickly rendered him obsolete. Jeffrey Vance, the writer of Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press), has given us an earnest, enthusiastic account of his triumphant life and melancholy end, providing 237 photographs that go some way toward compensating for a humdrum text.

Douglas Fairbanks as The Black Pirate 1926

Douglas Fairbanks as "The Black Pirate" 1926

Fairbanks was to adventure stories what Buster Keaton was to comedy — swift, precise, ingenious, anxious to stretch film technique to its limit. Where they differed was in their status as artists. History, while granting Keaton the name of genius, classifies Fairbanks, rightly, as a high-level craftsman. Today, anyone who takes the trouble can see the point of Keaton, but Fairbanks has become a special taste, enjoyed by a tiny minority. His innovations no longer stamp him as a unique figure; most of his tricks were absorbed long ago into the standard repertoire of action directors. Many find some of his favourite scenes laughable.

The Mark of Zorro (1920), his first outright action picture, began a series of films that focused on physical heroism lightly flavoured with irony, a formula the James Bond producers revived in the 1960s. After Zorro came The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926) and several more.

The Mark of Zorro brought to the movies a Batman-like aristocrat, a masked rider who goes about Spanish California in the 1820s, fighting for justice, punishing the oppressors of the people, defeating them at swordplay and leaving Z-shaped scars on their faces as a warning to others.

If that film was the beginning of his mature career, The Iron Mask (1929) was the end. Fairbanks flourished in the 1920s and died, artistically, when that decade expired. The Iron Mask plays as a coda to his career, a nostalgic echo of The Three Musketeers. His character, D’Artagnan, by now middle aged, learns of a plot against King Louis XIV and rounds up his fellow adventurers from the old days to set things right. Seen in 2008, The Iron Mask recalls the nostalgic westerns that appeared 30 years ago, about civilization reaching the territories and leaving no place for real adventurers. It was a defiant gesture, a silent extravaganza produced just as sound flooded the Hollywood studios. It was not a success.

His son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who played an action hero of his own a generation later, said that “My father did not care for sound films. Sound was too literal, too realistic and too restricting.” When the father made his first talkie, also in 1929, co-starring with Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew, it was another mistake. By then their marriage was in shreds, and on some days they spoke to each other only when Fairbanks criticized her in front of the crew. He often showed up late and ill-prepared. On the set he felt boxed in, his normal vigorous movements inhibited by the danger of bumping into sound equipment. There was no orchestra to keep everyone happy with mood music on request.

Making movies had somehow ceased to be fun. This was the film where the director gave himself an extra credit, often quoted as an event in the comic history of Hollywood egomania: “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” It was later corrected to a single line, “Adapted and directed by Sam Taylor.” Kevin Brownlow, the silent-movie historian, has suggested that the “additional dialogue” line was on the print used at the world premiere in London, where rude laughter encouraged the producer to change it.

The erosion of the Pickford-Fairbanks marriage was the end of a soap-opera dream. For a few years they had been the king and queen of Hollywood, entertaining like royalty at Pickfair, their house on 18 acres in the newish community of Beverley Hills. As Alistair Cooke wrote, it was more than the marriage of film stars: “They were living proof of America’s chronic belief in happy endings.” She was Wendy to his Peter Pan, the stable force in their marriage until they lost interest in each other. His son claimed the marriage began partly because Fairbanks wanted to “display their union to the world like a double trophy.” It was a curious relationship. He forbade her to dance with anyone, at dinner demanded that she be placed beside him and demanded to know where she was going when she left the house. The divorce was made final in 1935.

He starred in three more talkies, including an ill-judged The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), directed by Alexander Korda in England. The New York Times called his performance an anachronism. Around that time, strolling down Park Lane in London with a director, Albert Parker, Fairbanks was delighted to be recognized by a stranger. “You see?” he said. “They still remember me.” When Parker told that story later, he added, “And only five years before he had been the greatest star in the world.”

– Douglas Fairbanks, by Jeffrey Vance, is published by University of California Press ($56.21).

Story from The National Post.

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Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad

A fully restored print of the 1924 silent-film version of The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks, will be screened as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Fairbanks celebration in a special “Monday Nights with Oscar” presentation on Monday, December 15, at 7 p.m. at the Academy Theater in New York City. The screening will feature live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

The Thief of Bagdad will be presented in conjunction with the publication of the Academy’s latest book, Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance, with Tony Maietta and photographic editor Robert Cushman. Vance and Maietta will take part in a book signing following the screening.

Directed by Raoul Walsh — best remembered for his hard-hitting Warner Bros. actioners of the 1930s and 1940s, such as The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), and White Heat (1949) — The Thief of Bagdad, by far the best of Fairbanks’ 1920s action-adventure vehicles, tells the story of a common but overly exuberant thief (Fairbanks) who falls in love with the beautiful daughter (Julanne Johnston, who didn’t have much of a film career) of the local caliph (Brandon Hurst). To win her hand, the thief must embark on a journey to recover the rarest of treasures while competing with the princess’ three other suitors. 

The film’s elaborate sets and special effects — not including Douglas Fairbanks‘ acrobatics and his 3,654 shining teeth — were created by William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of Gone with the Wind. Cinematography by the masterful Arthur Edeson (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) and costumes by future Paramount director Mitchell Leisen (Easy Living, Midnight).

Also in the Thief of Bagdad cast: Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher, Sojin (the blind minstrel in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), and Anna May Wong (in a small role as a Mongol slave).

Silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow oversaw the restoration of The Thief of Bagdad, which reproduces the tinting hues of the film’s original release. The screening is made possible by arrangement with Photoplay Productions and Douris UK.

Tickets for The Thief of Bagdad are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID.  Tickets may be purchased through the Academy’s online ticketing system at www.oscars.org.  There are no transaction or processing fees.  Tickets may also be purchased by mail or at the door on the night of the event (subject to availability).  The box office opens at 5 p.m.; doors open at 6 p.m.

The Academy Theater is located at 111 East 59th Street in New York City. All seating is unreserved.

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Pickfair4.jpg(BEVERLY HILLS, CA) — More often than not, houses do not have famous owners in their chains of title, but a substantial number of Beverly Hills homes are the exceptions. The property that comes quickest to mind is Pickfair, the legendary, Beverly Hills home of actors Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford.

Pickfair3.jpgThey moved in after the hunting lodge on the property was turned into a 22-room mansion by architect Wallace Neff in 1919. After divorcing Fairbanks in 1936, Pickford lived there with her next husband, actor Buddy Rogers. When she died, Jerry Buss, L.A. Lakers owner, bought the home.

Actress Pia Zadora and her husband,  Meshulam Riklis, then bought the house and started refurbishing but soon learned that the house had to be torn down, due to termites. The house was subsequently rebuilt but needs renovating again, real estate sources say.

Pickfair1.jpgThere are 17 bedrooms and 30 bathrooms in Pickfair. There are elevators, a ballroom, a glass-domed spa, a gym, a home theater, a disco and parking for 30 cars. The house sits on 2.7 acres.

Felix Pena of Hilton & Hyland, Beverly Hills, has the listing at $60 million.

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The eleven films on Flicker Alley’s five-disc set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer are more than just a terrific collection of the films from one of the preeminent stars of silent cinema. Spanning the year 1916-1921, the films show Douglas Fairbanks developing from mere mortal film star, an actor with both comic grace and athletic flair, into the first action hero of the movies. All of the early films of this collection show Fairbanks in modern dress and contemporary mode, the urban guy with a chivalrous streak and an enthusiasm that bursts out of him in feats of gymnastic joy.

Films like His Picture in the Papers (1917), Flirting With Fate (1917) and Wild and Woolly (1917) are more comedies than adventures and Fairbanks is a romantic comic lead whose athletic talents are an extension of his gags, much like Chaplin’s slapstick grace, Keaton’s daring play with massive mechanical props (like a moving steam engine) or Harold Lloyd’s thrill stunts. He’s dapper, charismatic and plays everything with a smile so wide you can’t help but be charmed by his joie de vivre, but he’s decidedly a modern urban hero, or at least a variation on it, the fop who transforms into the man of action of The Mollycoddle (1920).

In When the Clouds Roll By (1920), one of the more unusual comedies of the set, Fairbanks is a superstitious young swell who is the unwitting victim of a decidedly sadistic psychological experiment by a doctor of dubious moral character trying to drive him to suicide, with the all-too-willing help of the man’s butler and building super (they both get far too much pleasure out of the misery they inflict on this sunny young man). Based on a scenario written by Fairbanks himself, it’s a strange and surreal comedy with an entire scene that place within his stomach (his dinner, looking very much like a primeval version of the Fruit of the Loom guys, acts up as he tries to digest a late meal) and a dream sequence that turns Fairbanks’ acrobatic feats into a slow-motion ballet that looks like something out of a Jean Vigo film.

Fairbanks as D'Artagnon in "A Modern Musketeer"

Fairbanks as D’Artagnon in “A Modern Musketeer”

With A Modern Musketeer (1917, directed by Allan Dwan), you see Fairbanks try on a different kind of persona in the prologue. Fairbanks winks to the audience as he strides into frame in long, curly hair and the flouncy, flamboyant costume of D’Artagnon, but when he leaps into an acrobatic swordfight his smile is no longer one of knowing parody, but of athletic joy. It’s a brief scene that soon gives way to the modern musketeer incarnation, but it looks ahead to the action movie spectacles of the twenties that will make him a screen legend, represented on this set by The Mark of Zorro (1921), a dashing adventure tale of Old California’s Robin Hood. In his secret identity as the foppish Don Diego, Fairbanks slouches, shuffles, and gives the dim, dull air of a bored dilettante who can hardly be bothered to wake up – but clues us in on the charade with smiling asides and playful parlor tricks and games. Behind the mask of Zorro, however, he comes alive with a zesty smile and an acrobatic performance, vaulting through windows and over walls and declaiming his pantomime speeches with every muscle in his body – you can almost hear him through the silence.


As an aside, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), the film’s sole short subject, is a truly surreal detective movie spoof, starring Fairbanks as a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth named Coke Ennyday who juices himself with a syringe of cocaine to jolt himself into alertness and proceeds to gulp mouthfuls of opium and blow fistfuls of cocaine into the faces of attackers in the course of his investigation. Tod Browning was one of the writers and Anita Loos wrote the deft titles (as she did on a number of his films), and those drug gags would not pass muster even a few years later.

The box set from Flicker Alley, produced by David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and Jeffrey Masino, features a new restoration of A Modern Musketeer from the Danish Film Institute and excellent new editions of the rest of the collection mastered from early-generation film materials.

Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer retails for $80.99.

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