It was such a Lovely time...
I jumped at the chance to introduce two Louise Lovely films when they were screened on September 29 as part of the Spring Silents 2012 season at Arc Cinema.
The Sydney-born silent film actress appeared in 50-plus films during her career in Australia and the United States. Surviving film prints of these productions — very few in number — are mainly in US and British archives, so this was indeed a rare opportunity.
The two films programmed for that Saturday session were both made at Universal Studios, under the Bluebird brand name. The program was also part of an on-going Arc cinema retrospective of Universal Studios, marking its centennial and position as the oldest surviving major Hollywood studio. Fellow Australian Rupert Julian directed The Gift Girl (1917) and also played the role of Malec, a merchant. Another Australian, Winter Hall, played Usan Hassan. Joseph DeGrasse directed The Grasp of Greed (1916).
As an additional pleasure, a small group of Louise Lovely scholars also attended a private screening on Sunday September 30, during which we saw of The Field of Honour (1917). This was released under Universal’s Butterfly brand, and was directed by Alan Holubar – who, like Rupert Julian, also played a lead role in his own film.
I don’t think that anyone would claim that these films — made quickly, cheaply, and amidst a welter of other films within 11 months of each other — are cinematic masterpieces (although the renowned US film scholar David Bordwell makes an interesting case for the “extremely polished” style of The Field of Honour). However, seeing them as we did, almost one after the other, established that they vary greatly in quality. This surprised me, because streamlined production at the studios was aimed at turning out standardised commodities; their predictability was a selling point both to exhibitors and to audiences.
The different brands were important studio strategies. Like other companies, Universal released different ‘labels’ — such as Red Feather, Rex and Bison — aimed at different audiences, who chose their viewing on the basis of the brand. This differentiation was particularly important for Universal, which did not own any theatres. Rather than having long runs in big-city theatres, its films were likely to be shown on country circuits, in theatres which changed their programs two or three times a week.
When Lovely joined Universal, Bluebird Photoplays was a new division. Trade journal Motography noted the date of Bluebird’s first release: January 24 1916. Over the next two years, Lovely would make 11 Bluebird films, and 15 others under different brands.
The Bluebird films were made with a core group of personnel. Joseph de Grasse, who directed The Grasp of Greed, often worked with his wife, screenwriter Ida May Park. Lon Chaney and Jay Belasco, Lovely’s co-stars in the films screened at Arc, were also regulars.
Universal promoted Bluebird as a prestige division – Butterfly was supposedly a little less prestigious. The films were often based on popular literary sources, contributing both a recognition factor and a certain amount of social capital. The Grasp of Greed, for instance, was based on Rider Haggard’s Mr Meeson’s Will. Furthermore, at a time when the feature-length film was becoming firmly embedded as the industry standard, the Bluebirds were Universal’s begrudging entry into longer productions, each having five reels as opposed to the two reels of the Bison-brand westerns.
Stars were also becoming increasingly important to audiences. Throughout this period, audience recognition of actors and the development of fan culture increasingly pushed the studios into changing their promotional strategies. Thus, Universal feverishly promoted its stable of stars, and this focus influenced what appeared on the screen. A Moving Picture World review of Louise Lovely’s Bobbie of the Ballet (1916) said: “In the opening of the production there might be an objection to the number of apparently unnecessary close-ups of Miss Lovely, which were evidently suggested to the director by the unusual beauty of the star.”
But Bluebird advertising also criticised the star system and emphasised that it was an economical brand. A Moving Picture World advertisement lectured exhibitors: “The big point for you to consider is that Bluebird Photoplays, Inc., was the first producer to buck the star system — the ruinous practice that has been responsible for high-priced but low-grade features that have weakened many exhibitors.”
Yet—to mix its messages even further, Bluebird released films that not only featured stars, but were also branded with the stars’ names. Thus at the end of 1917, Motography announced “Louise Lovely Productions”.
This all sounds like a wonderful success story for Louise Lovely, but Universal’s management was keen to keep its stars in line and, during 1916 and 1917, Lovely was forced to appear in nine much less prestigious short films, including westerns. It seems that one of Universal’s strategies for controlling and disciplining stars was to shunt them into the less-prestigious brands.
Given the importance of product standardisation, the films we saw over the weekend ranged widely in genre, style and tone. All included many scenes obviously shot on sets open to the sky, the usual approach prior to electric studio lighting and a fairly common practice around 1915. The Field of Honour is by far the most skilfully made. Full of striking compositions, often beautifully lit with chiaroscuro effects and never dragging in pace, the story presents a genuinely complex moral dilemma. By comparison, The Gift Girl is never quite sure whether it is a comedy or not. The Grasp of Greed, a fascinating but unsettling film, includes cruelty in a desert island (a will “tattooed” into the bare back of the heroine), threatening sexuality (as the shipwrecked sailors argue over who should have the woman), and the prurient courtroom revelation of the tattooed will.
Given the few examples of Louise Lovely’s acting still in existence, it is interesting to see how her performance differs in each production. Her stage experience in melodrama is evident in exaggerated expressions and gestures. However, she also demonstrates subtle nuanced expressions, and her comic skills are sometimes charming. In The Gift Girl, she crosses her eyes and tries to blow a ribbon out of the way as it droops down over a back-to-front hat brim. The Grasp of Greed does not show her to advantage, with harsh makeup and lighting. By contrast, the skilful lighting of The Field of Honour presents her more attractively, and suggests that a thoughtful director such as Alan Holubar could draw from her a superior performance.
Seeing such rare films, and seeing them more or less back to back, provided insights that wouldn’t have been obvious if I had seen them one by one over a period of years. I am grateful to the NFSA for this opportunity to learn so much more about one of Australia’s early screen stars, and especially thankful to Quentin Turnour, Manager, Arc Canberra Cinema Programs, who sourced and programmed the films as well as organising the extra Sunday viewing.
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