Friday, October 19, 2012

A Brief Moment of Silents, Please.

Most folks who take a dive into The Underworld are aware that the 1960s and '70s tend to be my favorite time frame for movies, but I do try to encompass more than that from time to time. I wouldn't say that I'm a huge fan of silent films, but I've watched several. They go down a heck of a lot easier when someone like the yummy George O'Brien is starring in them. Witness my experience with 1927's Sunrise about this time last year. And if you like O'Brien, my favorite silent film leading man, I suggest you also take a peek at this photo essay about actors with bows and arrows, particularly the section at the end!

In my never-ending wade through the world of movies and their stars, I have come to be fond of two other actors who got their start in the silent era (and who also, like George O'Brien, continued successfully into the sound era.) So, today, I'd like to show you a little bit of them.

First up is Charles Farrell. I first heard Farrell's name when Bette Davis was asked who she thought the handsomest men were during Hollywood's golden age. He was one of the few she singled out... and I can see why! Her own marriages didn't seem to abound with hunks, but she certainly had good taste in this matter anyway.
Born on August 9th, 1900, Farrell entered silent pictures as an extra in his early-twenties. He toiled away for several years, working for directors no less stellar than Ernst Lubitsch, Charles Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille in movies with such stars as Lon Chaney, Harold Lloyd and the box office canine sensation Rin Tin Tin. In 1926, he made Old Ironsides, the picture that launched him to stardom (though an on-set accident led to two burst eardrums and a lifetime of affected hearing as a result.
In 1927, he made Seventh Heaven, paired with Janet Gaynor, and reached a new pinnacle of success. They made more than a dozen movies together and were hailed as a top romantic cinema pairing. After effectively making the transition to sound films, he continued to work steadily until his retirement in 1941 after the low-budget The Deadly Game. He was forty-one.
He made a surprise return to show business in 1952 when he took the co-starring role of Gale Storm's father on the sitcom My Little Margie. After three seasons, that show was cancelled and he had his own short-lived program The Charles Farrell Show in 1956.
Before and after his TV return, Farrell had lived and become a social fixture in Palm Springs, California. His presence there helped to make it a go-to spot. Having married actress Virginia Valli in 1931, he was made a widower by her in 1968 when she suffered a stroke. He lived on until 1990 when he died just a few months shy of his ninetieth birthday of cardiac arrest.

The other gent I'm putting forth today was about a year older, born September 1st, 1899 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Sylvanus Richard Van Lattimore would one day become better known as Richard Arlen. After serving in The Royal Flying Corp (of Canada) during WWI, he found work in a wide variety of jobs from an attendant in an athletic club to a laborer in the oil fields of Texas to a bike messenger. It was this last gig, one he'd taken in Los Angeles after failing to arouse the interest of moviemakers there, which sent him crashing into the film business. Literally!

He was delivering material to a film laboratory when he crashed his motorcycle just outside the famed gates of the Paramount Pictures lot. He was ushered inside and given medical treatment for a broken leg by the studio physicians. There, he caught the eye (and the sympathy) of a director who allowed him work there as an extra upon healing from the accident. He worked on many pictures, with slow progress towards better parts. (One of the movies he appeared in briefly was Charles Farrell's breakout film Old Ironsides, in 1926.)
Am I alone in seeing some Paul Newman-esque qualities in his face?
By 1927, he'd stepped up to second male lead in The Blood Ship and he enjoyed the same billing in that same year's Wings, an aviation-centered picture that won the equivalent of Best Picture at that season's Oscar ceremony. From there, he continued to co-star or occasionally star in minor films, including ones that came after the dawn of sound. I love that strong profile.
Eventually returning to supporting parts, he stayed active in the cinema (as well as 1950s and '60s TV), with occasional lulls, right up until his death in 1976 from the growing effects of emphysema. Like Farrell, he had experienced difficulty with his hearing, but a successful 1949 operation held deafness at bay for Arlen and was able to keep working. Arlen had married Jobyna Ralston, a Wings costar, in 1927, but they divorced in 1946. He swiftly married again and that wife, Margaret, was with him until the end.

Now both of these men, apart from being about the same age, being handsome and having captivated audiences one way or another for decades, share another similarity. Each one was something of a pioneer in the realm of cinematic milestones.

Farrell was one of the first major American film stars to appear nude in a film. There had been bits of male and female nudity prior to the restrictive Production Code, but nevertheless it was unusual for a star to appear on-screen in the buff. Farrell took an extended skinny dip in 1929's The River (also that same year newcomer Gary Cooper, whose small role in Wings had shot him to stardom, took a naked swim in The Wolf Song.) Here, we see Farrell being happened upon by the seductive Mary Duncan.

Arlen, for his part, was the recipient of the very first man on man kiss in feature films (in Wings.) Now, this display of affection was not romantic, per se, but just the expression of one friend (Buddy Rogers), regretful after a falling out, bidding farewell to an injured fellow officer who he adored. It wasn't even on the mouth, just to the right of Arlen's lips, but it was a memorable moment for certain.

Prior to it and after the fact, the two men are in each other's faces, running their hands through one another's hair and caressing the faces of each other. The implied pain that Arlen is suffering from his wounds also lends the sequence an unintended ecstatic, erotic flavor. To watch the moment now, eighty-five years after the film's release, is to still be stunned by the intimacy present in the scene.

I know that there are other silent film actors, from Rudolph Valentino to Ramon Novarro to John Gilbert and beyond, who have captured the hearts of movie mavens over the years, but O'Brien, Farrell and Arlen are the three that have emerged as my own favorites thus far.


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