Tag: blogathon

James Abbe: Capturing the silent screen

general discussion photo essay

James Abbe: Capturing the silent screen

This post was written for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon co-hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and Silver Screenings.


Since January, I’ve been employed as the Archivist for the estate of photographer James Abbe (I mentioned this a couple posts ago). With approximately 5,000 items including negatives, original prints, letters, scrapbooks and more, it’s a big and exciting  job scanning and cataloguing this treasure trove. But we’re making headway and eventually the estate hopes to transform it into a searchable, online archive dedicated to selling prints and providing information to researchers.

James Abbe grew up in Newport News, Virginia where he became interested in photography at an early age. In the 1900s Newport News was a busy shipping town and Abbe was often found wandering the streets with his handheld fold out Kodak, capturing events of local interest. He became so prolific that he was dubbed “The boy photographer of Newport News.”

In 1917, after a successful breakthrough into professional photography for the Washington Post, Abbe moved to New York where he set up his own studio on West 67th Street. It was there that he was introduced to the film world. His first film star subject was Marguerite Clark whose screen credits included The Crucible (1914), The Seven Sisters (1915) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1918). He also photographed several actors who appeared on the New York stage before making a break in films, including Fred Astaire (and his sister/dancing partner Adele), Talulah Bankhead and Mae West.

As National Portrait Gallery curator Terence Pepper has noted, Abbe’s “most enduring relationship in the film world” was with Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy. Indeed, many original prints of the sisters taken separately in New York, London, and Paris during the 1920s have surfaced in the archive. He first photographed Lillian in his New York studio for the 1917 D.W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms in which Gish played Lucy, the poor girl in London’s gritty East Wend who falls in love with a Chinese man. Abbe’s sittings with Gish led to a working relationship with director D.W. Griffith who produced films out of his studio in Mamaroneck, New York. At Mamaroneck, Abbe worked as a portrait photographer or stills photographer (sometimes both) on several of Griffith’s films.

In 1920, Abbe moved on to Hollywood where he worked closely with Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios, and contributed photographs to several fan magazines. He even had his own feature, “The Photographer Takes the Stage,” in Motion Picture Classic, a sister publication of other popular fan magazines like Shadowland and Beauty. Several future Hollywood big shots were employed by Sennett during Abbe’s tenancy in Hollywood. Among Abbe’s future-famous subjects were Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard and Wallace Beery. He also captured legends of their own time like Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, Charlie Chaplin during The Pilgrim, and Mary Pickford for Tess of the Storm Country and Suds.

Abbe’s film photography was not limited to the United States. He was first and foremost a freelance photojournalist and as the years went on he built up a roster of big name magazines and newspapers that accepted his photographic essays and often kept his photographs on file. In London, he contributed to The London Magazine, The Tatler and The Sketch. A notable essay that we’ve come across thus far was one he did about his time spent with director Herbert Wilcox at Elstree Studios where Dorothy Gish was employed for several films during 1925-1926. In Berlin, he photographed luminaries like F.W Murnau and Emil Jannings at UFA, frequently contributing to Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. In Moscow, his subjects included Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein.

Although the breadth of Abbe’s work spans several decades and subjects ranging from theater to ballet, politics to war photography, his involvement in filmmaking during the era of silent cinema is significant enough to warrant discussion on its own. Here, then, is a selection of film-related images scanned from the archives of James Abbe.

I’d love to know your thoughts on these photographs, and if you’re big into silent film and recognize people or dates that we have yet to identify, please let me know!

Learn more about the Abbe Archive on Facebook.

Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim

Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim (1922), signed by Abbe in his signature crayon

Douglas Fairbanks Mary Pickford james Abbe

Abbe (right) with friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in France circa 1924. Photographer unknown.

Tom Mix

Tom Mix wearing his trademark cowboy attire, photographed in his suite at the Aldon Hotel in Berlin, 1925. Abbe managed to get Mix to pose with theatre impresario Max Reinhardt in another photo, despite him having never heard of Mix.

Tallulah Bankhead

Pre-Hollywood: Tallulah Bankhead photographed on her arrival in New York in 1918. She made her debut in The Squab Farm that year.

Frederich Wilhelm Murnau

Legendary German film director Friedrich Wilhelm (F.W.) Murnau photographed at UFA studios in Berlin cira 1926


Russian actor Erast Pavlovich Garin in Gogol’s Revisor, directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. Moscow, 1927. Abbe called Garin “A cross between John Barrymore and Harold Lloyd.”

D.W. Griffith

American director D.W. Griffith photographed at his Mamaroneck studios in New York while filming Orphans of the Storm, 1919.

Jeanne Eagels

American film and stage actress Jeanne Eagels in David Belasco’s “Daddies,” 1919. A variant pose from this sitting was the first photograph to be published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Ivor Novello Gladys Cooper

Ivor Novello and Gladys Cooper in a still from Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Calvert, 1923)

David Belasco and Jessie Matthews

Theatrical producer C.B. Cochran with British songstress Jessie Matthews, star of Rogers and Hart’s “Ever Green,” photographed on stage at the London Pavilion circa 1930. Matthews would later make a smash hit singing “Over My Shoulder” in Victor Saville’s film adaptation.

The White Sister

Abbe’s (3rd) wife, former Ziegfeld Folly Polly Platt (Shorrock) as an extra in the 1922 film The White Sister. The photograph was taken on location in Italy.

Behind the scenes on London

American actress Dorothy Gish (seated, center) and the crew of Herbert Wilcox’s London (1926) take a break during location shooting in England.

Irene Bordoni Jack Buchanan

Irene Bordoni and Jack Buchanan take a smoke break on the set of their first talking picture, Paris (1929). Director Clarence Badger can be seen in the sound recording box behind them.

Theda Bara

Portrait of American silent film star Theda Bara. Photo is undated.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

Still of Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920)

Louise Fazenda and Wallace Beery

Louise Fazenda, Wallace Beery and unidentified woman in a publicity portrait for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Fazenda (left) is in costume for her 1920 film Down on the Farm.

Marion Davies

Undated portrait of Marion Davies who was then starring in a revue at New York’s Amsterdam Roof.

Rudolph valentino and Natacha Rambova

The Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino and wife Natacha Rambova in a publicity portrait for their celebrated dance tour for Mineralava Clay Company, 1923.

Mary Pickford

America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford photographed in Paris circa 1924.

Bobbie Vernon and Gloria Swanson

Bobbie Vernon, Gloria Swanson and an unidentified Mack Sennett player. The photo has been marked up for publication alongside a three-column story on Swanson’s life in an unspecified magazine or paper.

Emil Jannings

Emil Jannings in costume as Faust, photographed at UFA studio in Berlin, 1925.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister

Lillian Gish in costume for her role in The White Sister. Photographed on location in Italy in 1922. Notice the grates in the pavement.

Constance Talmadge

Undated portrait of American actress Constance Talmadge.

Being the scenes in British studio

Behind the scenes on a film shoot with director Herber Wilcox and crew (likely the 1926 film London at Elstree Studios). The man in the top hat on the right appears to be Adelqui Millar (Adelqui Migliar).

Betty Compson and Clive Brook

American actress Betty Compson and British actor Clive Brook in The Royal Oak (Maurice Elvey, 1923)

Dorothy Gish as Nell Gwyn

Dorothy Gish publicity portrait for Nell Gwyn (Herbert Wilcox, 1926)


the oliviers

The Oliviers: Britain’s most celebrated dynamic duo

Oliviers Life

This post is for the Dynamic Duos blogathon currently being hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub and I’d highly encourage reading the entries from all the other fabulous bloggers. I apologize in advance if what I wrote below seems a bit disjointed. There is so much to say about the Oliviers that one could literally fill an entire book.


On May 22, 1960, Vivien Leigh released a shocking statement to the press: “Lady Olivier wishes to say that Sir Laurence has asked for a divorce in order to marry Miss Joan Plowright. She will naturally do whatever he wishes.” The reasons behind Olivier’s request remained unknown to the general public until 1977 – ten years after Vivien’s death – when biographer Anne Edwards revealed Vivien’s long-fought battle with manic depression (better known today as bipolar disorder) and Olivier’s inability to cope with the strain of her illness. In 1960, however, it was only clear that one of the most celebrated and respected relationships in show business had come to what seemed like an abrupt end. Many fans were so bowled over by the news that they decided to take matters into their own hands. Olivier’s papers in the British Library contain a multitude of hand-written letters from people around the globe imploring him not to go through with the divorce; they simply couldn’t handle the disillusionment.

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laurence olivier

Carrie: The best Laurence Olivier film you’ve never seen

Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones in William Wyler's Carrie

This post is part of the William Wyler Blogathon currently hosted by The Movie Projector. Spoiler alert: proceed with caution!

In 1950, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier returned to Hollywood after a 10-year hiatus. In the intervening years, much had changed for Scarlett and Heathcliff. They were married in late 1940 and almost immediately sailed for England, leaving the luxurious life behind for one of buzz bombs and gas masks. During the war, both rose to prominence on the London stage and Olivier also became one of Britain’s most revered film directors by successfully bringing Shakespeare to the screen. He became the youngest ever Actor-Knight in 1947, and the following year he and Vivien achieved legendary status in the eyes of the public when they led a successful Old Vic tour of Australia and New Zealand. When they again stepped foot on California soil, they were no longer Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh but The Oliviers, a combined cultural icon idolized by fans and fellow actors alike.

Vivien had been lured back to Tinsel Town to play Blanche in  A Streetcar Named Desire and Olivier had come to offer support. Playing the role on stage for nine months had drained Vivien and they didn’t want to risk a long separation. Looking for a challenge to fill the time, Olivier signed on to star in the film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s controversial turn of the century urban novel Sister Carrie. The film reunited Olivier with director William Wyler, who had been instrumental in helping the actor appreciate the film medium during the grueling making of Wuthering Heights in 1938/39.

Carrie Meeber (Selznick discovery Jennifer Jones, who was married to the producer at the time) is a young girl from Wisconsin who leaves home at 18 in search of the American Dream. On board the train to Chicago she meets the suave and slightly creepy Charles Druet, who takes an immediate interest in her solo status and fresh looks. Carrie stays with her sister and her Swedish husband in a tenement flat on the wrong side of town and finds work in a shoe factory to help pay the rent. But her cheerful outlook quickly sours and she ties of the monotonous labour and meager pay. After suffering an injury-by-sewing-machine, Carrie is fired from her seat in the assembly line and turns to Druet out of desperation. But instead of helping her find a job, Druet just makes her his kept woman.

On the first evening of their relationship, Druet tells her to meet him at Fitzgerald’s, the swankiest restaurant in Chicago. There she meets the proprieter, George Hurstwood (Olivier). Hurstwood, though middle-aged, immediately takes an interest in Carrie and we soon learn that he’s got a sad life at home with his grown kids and gold-digging harpy wife. Soon George is taking Carrie to the theatre and showing her a bit of culture with some extra benefits on the side. But George is good at keeping secrets. Carrie only finds out about his wife and family after she’s fallen in love with him, and is convinced he’s just using her as a cheap toy.

George’s love for Carrie is real enough and he asks his wife for a divorce. She refuses and threatens to ruin him, but George won’t be blackmailed. Instead, he accidentally embezzles a large amount of cash from the safe at Fitzgerald’s and under the pretext of Charles Druet’s (fabricated) illness, convinces Carrie to run away with him to New York where they can marry. It’s not long, however, before George’s secret is discovered, bringing about an onslaught of consequences for both of them that results in Carrie’s rise to success–albeit not happiness–as an actress and George’s rapid descent into poverty and his eventual suicide in a homeless shelter.

Screenwriting team Ruth and Augustus Goetz did well in keeping many of Dreiser’s themes in tact–namely the realism of human nature in the face of Victorian morals, and the hardships of working-class America in the early 20th century–but the film is otherwise firmly stamped with the red ink of the Production Code. In the Old Hollywood Rule Book there is a high price to pay for those who lie, steal, cheat, or attempt to have sex outside of marriage.  Although all of the above are done with good intentions in Carrie, our characters are still punished for their misdeeds. As if it’s not bad enough that they have to live in squalid conditions straight out of an Upton Sinclair novel and George can’t find a decent job after being blackballed from every good restaurant east of the Mississippi, Carrie has a miscarriage and learns that her marriage to George is illegal because Mrs. Hurstwood never gave him that divorce. In the end, they both search for a little absolution but neither of them find it; we reap what we sew, even if we’re honest.

In addition to a compelling story, the real gem of Carrie is the acting. Olivier didn’t care much for Jennifer Jones during the making of the film and would often write to Vivien (while she was in New Orleans doing location work for Streetcar) expressing his frustration. Jones is good in the finished product but the highlight is Olivier who gives one of the best performances of his career. I find him quite astonishing when he’s playing an average guy (see also Term of Trial, The Entertainer and/or Bunny Lake is Missing). He often liked to tell the story of how Wyler brought him down a peg or two during the making of Wuthering Heights by criticising his pompous attitude. In Carrie, there is no room for theatrics. Olivier is forced to make the best of a character who is given no platform whatever to perform and he does it with heartbreaking aplomb. He even puts on a non-regional American accent and you can’t help but give him an A for his effort.

Although Carrie was nominated for two Academy Awards and Olivier received a BAFTA nod for his performance, the film is little known today. However, it is available in DVD in the States and, if you’re lucky, you maybe able to catch it on TCM on occasion. Don’t mistake it for Brian DePalma’s Stephen King adaptation. There are no buckets of pigs blood to be found here. Carrie is one of the hidden gems of both Olivier’s and Wyler’s careers. But perhaps the fact that it’s not well known is actually a good thing. Now you can all go discover this treasure of 1950s Hollywood cinema on your own.

Grade: A

film diary

Dueling Divas Blogathon: The Possession of Isabelle Adjani

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill in Possession

“There’s nothing in common among women except menstruation.” — Helen in Possession

This post is my entry for the Dueling Divas Blogathon hosted by Lara at Backlots. The prompt was open to interpretation. Participants were able to write about actresses who clashed off-set, characters who clashed on screen, or actresses who played dual roles in the same film. I went with the third option and knew immediately which film I’d write about. It’s not normally the sort of film I go for. However, it’s a movie that warranted multiple viewings; not because I liked it per-se, but because I found it strangely fascinating and difficult to wrap my mind around. The film is Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 cult drama/horror/suspense classic Possession.

Possession is an extremely intense, unapologetic and uncomfortable study of the disintegration of a marriage and the demons we’re capable of conjuring within ourselves. Set in an eerily empty West Berlin before the Wall fell, it stars Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani as Mark and Anna, a couple whose relationship has become as cold and empty as their surroundings. When Anna leaves Mark and their son Bob without explanation, Mark finds out she has a lover (the bizarre Heinrich, played by Heinz Bennet). He confronts Heinrich only to find out that he hasn’t seen Anna in quite some time, prompting Mark to hire a private investigator to follow her. The results are quite disturbing. Anna is found living in an empty apartment downtown and is hiding a bloody, tentacled, octopus-like creature in the bedroom which she both gave birth to and is sleeping with as it matures. Wait, it keeps getting weirder. Anna is so afraid that someone will take “it” away from her that she kills any intruders and feeds them to the monster. It’s her own creation and she is desperate to keep it alive.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill in Possession

This is a film loaded with metaphor. Just what that metaphor is, I’m not entirely sure. However, Zulawski wrote and directed this film in the middle of a nasty divorce, and given the way it positions the characters, he seems to be channeling anger and blame through Anna, i.e. woman. It’s even difficut to say exactly who is “possessed” in this film. Is it Anna? Mark? Both of them? Who knows. But one thing is for certain, Isabelle Adjani gives an incredible performance, and this brings me to the dueling divas section of this post.

Adjani plays two roles in this film: Anna and Helen, who represent two sides of the same woman (separated by a fringed wig, some seafoam green contacts and a whole lot of crazy). Helen is a sort of clone–Mark’s ideal version of his own wife. Anna is hysterical; Helen is calm and demure. When Anna up and leaves, Helen offers to stay around and look after Bob. There is a scene when Mark is watching a home video of Anna teaching a ballet class, and Anna voices the frustration she feels trying to be the perfect woman everyone seems to want her to be; Helen is that person. Anna and Helen never meet on screen, but you don’t need a face-to-face encounter to realize how brilliantly Adjani projects the polarities of human nature. I recently dedicated an entire post to how awesome Isabelle Adjani is, and this film totally blew that admiration through the roof. Let me direct you to the infamous subway scene in which Anna finally loses her marbles and ends up literally expelling her frustration.  Perhaps I should put up a warning like “WATCH AT YOUR OWN RISK” or “NOT FOR THE OVERLY SQUEAMISH”. This is the single most visceral performance of a woman going over the edge that I’ve ever seen on film. Adjani doesn’t just perform, she lives it. Think Vivien Leigh as Blanche in the final scene of A Streetcar Named Desire when she’s writhing on the floor, only magnified by 100 with an added side of slime and screaming.

Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani in Possession

The “duel” is, like so many elements in Possession, a metaphorical one. The imperfect, tortured souls meet their demise and the seemingly perfect clones take their place, signaling an apocalyptic ending. Despite Adjani winning the Caesar and best actress award at Cannes for her performance, the film was heavily cut in the US and banned altogether as a “Video Nasty” in Britain, only getting an uncut DVD release quite recently. I never would have watched this film if I hadn’t been a fan of Isabelle Adjani (I probably never would have heard of it to begin with). Although it’s not my normal cup of tea–and it’s really, really bizarre–I think the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after viewing it is a sign of provocative filmmaking. Lars von Trier would probably agree. Possession was apparently a major influence on his controversial Antichrist.


Let the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathon Begin!

Vivien leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathon

This is the official Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathon post! Participating bloggers: please include a link back to this post, and don’t forget to send me your post links so I can include them here. A running list of participating posts will be updated throughout this weekend, so watch this space. Let the games begin!

Saturday, July 9

Sunday, July 10