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Friday, 27 December 2013


Three German Silent Film Actresses and their fates

“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.”
Lord Byron

Fern Andra was born in Watseka, Illinois in 1893. Unless you live in Watseka, most likely you have never heard of it, being one of those small towns on the Midwest plains that get no attention from anyone except comedians. Her career as a performer began when she was four years old, walking the tightrope in a travelling circus. Go forward twenty years and she has moved to Berlin, about as existentially remote from Watseka as Antarctica is geographically. She is acting in films like Homunculus and Der Frauspekulant but more than that, a lot of the films she is appearing in she is also writing, directing and producing. The titles mean nothing to me (Drohende Wolken am Firmament: Threatening Clouds in the Sky) though they have a suitably sturm und drang ring to them. So we come to this portrait, which at first glance looks like a fashionably polite exercise in soft erotica, which any studio might turn out. But look at the bottom right: ‘Atelier Fern Andra’.  She is also running a photographic studio, and as this makes clear, taking and controlling the distribution of her own portraits.

Her obituary in the New York Times of February 12, 1974, states that during World War 1 she was a spy for the Allies, was arrested but released on the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm. The evidence may prove a little less melodramatic but the basic facts may be accurate. Mata Hari is the best known of a number of performers who doubled as spies. 
With this skeleton of background information at hand, you’d think that one place to look for some information about Ms Andra would be the numerous feminist film books out there. Here is a woman who set out on her own path during the earliest days of cinema, but: The Red Velvet Seat; women’s writings on the first fifty years of cinema? Nothing. Weimar Cinema? Zilch. Nordic Exposures? Likewise, nada. Even Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, admittedly by a man and focused on Hollywood but still one of those books anyone interested in silent film agrees is indispensible – zero. Could it be that too many of the women who have written about early cinema from a feminist perspective have been as vacuously middle class as the men they dismiss for being just that? It isn’t hard to make the charge stick. There’s loads of material and reconsiderations of some obvious names like Greta Garbo but little on others you’d expect, who took risks and challenged the orthodoxy. 

Part of the problem may be, as it so often is, bad timing. We read that in the early 1920s Fern Andra was one of the most popular actresses in Germany, but by mid-decade her star was waning. We also read that in 1925, about the time these portraits were taken, she was married to Kurt Prenzel, middleweight boxing champion of Germany, who valiantly protected her from a dog as she stepped out from an automobile. It turns out the dog was rabid and the press feared Herr Prenzler’s ‘stellar’ career was threatened as a result. It wasn’t. He went on to fight such ring legends as Roxie Allen, Joe Kubiak and Jerry Kucella (won 8, lost 23). He comes across as a man whose lifestyle was more interesting than his sporting prowess. Maybe the Germans thought the same of Ms Andra: wonderful to look at, difficult to watch. She wisely dropped the first of her four husbands and went to London before returning to America, where she had to start again. It looks like she turned up in Hollywood around the time of the transition to sound, and like hundreds of others discovered the rules had changed. To have her star fading on one side of the Atlantic and barely glimmering to life on the other was bad enough, but if both the Americans and the Germans thought of her as a foreign actor she had little in the way of an identity to promote. The red carpet, such as it was, was pulled out from under her feet. Perhaps, had she stayed in Germany, we would know her now as a fearless pioneer in cinema, Instead, she is forgotten.

From what I read of Mia May, her popularity rivalled that of Fern Andra in the early 1920s but it was of an entirely different nature. Her husband, Joe May, pumped out dozens of short, dramatic two-reelers featuring Mia as the plucky heroine.  Mostly they had colourful titles like Die Silhouette des Teufels (Shadow of the Devil) and Die Herren der Welt (Mistress of the World). The German audiences lapped them up but, like cats at a bowl of milk, once a film was finished all they cared about was when the next one was ready. The Mays’ best known is an epic silent serial known as The Mysteries of India, with a script by Fitz Lang. 

Yet, when you look through enough of the postcards in the Ross Verlag catalogue, you come away thinking that no one played up to the publicity machine with more vigour and joie de vivre. Most of the actresses who sat for the German photographic studios were (or allowed themselves to be) portrayed as living in a haze of glamour and sophistication. Mia May, on the other hand, appeared to understand she was only an actress and played that for all it was worth. Among the thousands of film star portraits produced during the 1920s, hers remain some of the most striking. At the bottom of all of them is the logo with ‘May’ in a cross, framed within an octagon, a reminder that she and her husband controlled what images Ross Verlag received.

A previous post described how their daughter, Eva May, committed suicide in 1924 and the tragedy led to Mia May retiring from acting. That decision made, she might have missed the life but she never returned to it. Joe May was Jewish and around 1934 the couple left Germany for America. They joined that group of German émigrés/refugees that included Lang, Berthold Brecht and Billy Wilder but May’s films seldom made a big impression.  In Hollywood she opened a restaurant, the Blue Danube. Its failure preceded difficult years for the Mays. By 1948 Joe was pawning Mia’s jewellery to make ends meet. He died in 1954, Mia May in 1980. She was long forgotten by then.

The stories of Andra and May are variations on a commonly accepted understanding. Fame and its side benefits are constructions that have little to do with talent. The machine of publicity has an engine operating on principles that no one really understands. Pola Negri’s story is another type. Celebrated in Germany before she arrived in Hollywood, little of her work in Europe or America stands today as cinematically brilliant. Granted, ‘classic’ is applied to any film older than ten years, there’s nothing in her resumé to suggest she played any great and memorable roles. Yet the image of Pola Negri remains vivid. Hers is a face of the silent era as identifiable as Chaplin’s tramp. Her early life reads like the most depressing Russian realism - born into poverty, father disappeared when she was young, two sisters died in childhood - but the woman who sails into New York in 1922 is depicted as possessing all the exotic and decaying glamour of Eastern European royalty.  

More interesting than her filmography then is the way the publicity machine built up around her worked. American papers were reporting her imminent arrival even before her ship left Europe. When it docked and she was settled in her hotel, reporters asked her about the rumoured clause in her contract that insured Paramount for one million dollars against her marrying. “I live only for my art.” She apparently replied, acknowledging something everyone already took for granted. “I shall not marry for three, maybe four years.” The statement not only implied she was keeping an eye out for suitors but the press would too. Her repeatedly broken engagements to Charlie Chaplin and romance with Rudolph Valentino were gifts to the newspapers.

On June 30, 1927, the New York Times reported that Pola Negri had been bitten by a spider. Fascinating. These days celebrities have publicists whose job is to keep their client’s name in the media, so toss off every detail they can. In 1927 the publicist worked for the film studio not the star. The important issue was not that Ms Negri had been bitten by a spider but that as a result filming had been held up for a day. It is possible that the story was fictitious and intended to hide some deeper problem with the contract or her behaviour.  Whatever the truth, the story tells us a lot about how the studios were learning how publicity really worked. The studio had invested too much in her to risk the audience losing interest. If nothing was happening in her world this week then a spider bite could be regarded as potentially life threatening.  
So why did Pola Negri go on to the closest thing the cinemas offers in the way of immortality while Fern Andra and Mia May sank? The paradox was that by taking control of their own images, Andra and May had no recourse when those stated to fade. Maybe because of her horrid childhood, Ms Negri understood more keenly the value in placing her image in the hands of the studios. It may have been a concoction but it was one she approved of and turned out to be more enduring than one she may have devised herself.


Saturday, 21 December 2013


Snapshots from the road
Stranger on the highway: I'm from the city... Doesn't matter what city; all cities are alike.
Billy: Well, why'd you mention it then?
Stranger on the highway: 'Cause I'm FROM the city; a long WAY from the city, and that's where I wanna be right now.
Easy Rider (1969)

 You need a few things before you begin a road movie: plot, characters etc, but the choice of car is critical. It represents the journey. These days a Model T means you are making a lame comedy whereas a late model white hatchback immediately tells the audience nothing much is going to happen. There’s a thesis waiting to be written on the effect the OPEC crisis had on American cinema. One was that the motor companies downsized their cars and the enormous tailfinned Chevy passed into oblivion. Too bad. Outside of a Harley Davidson, this is the only vehicle suitable for a road movie; not because of any covert symbolism but because it looks right on any road.


When we speak of characters we often mean back story. Some flaw integral to their character has compelled them to set out across the country. The negligent son sets off to be with Dad for the last time or now his marriage has collapsed he needs to understand why. The expression on this man’s face makes him a candidate. He looks like he has just had an epiphany. There’s something he needs to do before he gets into that car with his fiancé. It involves travelling across the country. He promises he won’t be long though we all know that when he returns a profound change will have taken place. 

We need a plot, or more accurately, a destination, which is much the same thing. There is no reason for leaving except to reconcile with whatever lies at the other end. A dying father has always been popular though hackneyed these days, especially when you can just fly across to see him. The point is however that a destination logically requires a starting point, and the first road the travellers set out on. It should be long but still lined with the elements of civilization our protagonist has taken for granted.

Outside of town Mr or Ms Protagonist stops at a roadside café. Here he/she looks out the window as a song plays on the jukebox. What song that will be is crucial to the entire film, because, even though we are not even fifteen minutes in, it is the backbone of the soundtrack. Since we haven’t agreed on the purpose for making this journey it is a little hard to be definitive, but let’s say Dad, estranged, is dying, Old Man by Neil Young would be silly but Will to Love might not be. So long as Mr or Ms P has time to smoke a cigarette and reflect. He/She walks out of the café, gets into the car and puts the key in the ignition. Everything up to this point has been a prelude. Finally, we are on our way.  

The first real encounter on the road sets the tone for what unfolds. Think of the farmer in Easy Rider who thought California was far away, even though it was just over the mountains. It is the moment Billy and Wyatt realize the enormity of their journey. Not much has to happen, a chance conversation perhaps, but it softens up our protagonist for what lies ahead. Said protagonist has always known that he or she has been selfish or mistaken but needs someone else to remind them: like an anachronistic looking couple whose car has broken down and have to rely on the kindness of strangers. There are two possibilities here. Either Mr or Ms Protagonist has never really helped a stranger or he/she is scared of ageing members of the John Birch Society and gets the lesson: even reactionaries have feelings. 

The road movie is always a travelogue. Think of Easy Rider again. Billy is too out of it and Wyatt too boring to really engage our sympathies. It is the desert landscape that really sells the movie in its first hour. Of course it could be snowy wastes or dark forests, so long as we wish we were out there with them.

Every road movie must have a person with a gun and a tenuous understanding of how it should be used and who on. A woman is preferable. According to the rules of  cinema, she is harder to predict and, ignoring them altogether, a good deal creepier than the usual dull-eyed men who roam the hinterland.  You’ll notice that in American films it is usually a brief confrontation, which the protagonist escapes from. The Europeans prefer that enigmatic figure who turns up at various road stops until suddenly producing the weapon without provocation. The psychotic with the gun is useful for breaking up those periods where nothing much else is happening.

A meeting out on the desolate plain. There’s scarcely a road movie that hasn’t tried to slip a biblical metaphor in there somewhere and here we could really milk it. An encounter with a revivalist group reminds Mr or Ms P that no matter how misguided faith may be it is vital. 

Ever since Jack Nicholson asked for plain toast in Five Easy Pieces, the diner scene has been considered essential . Usually it comes during a lull in the action and these days involves a rather unnecessary confession from the protagonist. What is it about cherry pie and horrid coffee that makes Americans open up about themselves?

Romance. We imagine the producers reading the script and wondering, 45 minutes into it, where the love angle is. The most perfunctory element of any film – how many very ordinary ones have been ‘saved’ by a glimpse of the lead actress’s breasts? – it seems nevertheless necessary. So, we’ll put it in. A roadside encounter leads to a night where Mr or Ms P exposes his/her vulnerabilities. Ms Love Interest is eccentric, possibly a little cracked but she awakens ideas in Mr/Ms P that have been suffocated until now. The next morning, as Love Interest pulls out of the motel car park, she leans out the window and smiles. Yes, Mr/Ms P says under the breath, this could have been it. It should have been, but the cinema, like nature, abhors symmetry. As Love Interest’s old car with its billowing exhaust disappears down the road, Mr/Ms P can only grimace at the irony before turning back and setting off in the opposite direction. 

Coming in just after halfway through, the visit to the relatives is one of the highlights of the road movie. Usually a brother or sister, he or she has achieved everything our protagonist should have: a happy marriage, beautiful children, the house, the secure job and so forth. There’s a problem though. The family is living in some backwater and in the depths of uncertainty Mr/Ms P still knows that life is too precious to end up there.

Ah yes; the eccentric old lady who implicitly understands our protagonist’s problem. Several encounters have already left him or her vulnerable but our dear old thing will provide a simple phrase that puts everything back in focus. What she says will prove the quality of the film. If it is something banal like ‘everything happens for a reason’, we know we have been duped. If it is more abstruse: ‘You open up the shutters, you see the dogs outside”, we have the key to the whole film. She may even pretend to be a ventriloquist and get her doll to say it. Protagonist will now get back in the car and pause before turning the key in the ignition. 

Whatever it is Mr/Ms P needs to do, the old lady’s advice has made it clear. The toughest part of the journey is over. All that remains is to take its lessons and apply them to the problem at hand. The road stretches out ahead. The soundtrack is quiet and melancholic. What awaits may no longer be so difficult though it still won’t be pleasant.   

There are only two endings to the road movie. In the first, it is the ultimate in existential solutions: hillbillies shoot protagonist for no reason, protagonists drive off cliff, protagonist faces police barricade and realizing game is up, plants foot on pedal. The second sees our P leaving the scene having come to some resolution. By leaving we can mean walking towards the camera, so in the generally underrated This Must be the Place, Sean Penn walks down the street towards the camera, no longer looking like the Cure’s Robert Smith but more like, well, Sean Penn. Alternatively, he or she walks away, becoming a small figure in the landscape, reminding us that the greatness in a man’s gesture underscores his insignificance. Cue bittersweet music that suddenly breaks out into upbeat mariachi, because, let’s face it, life is a wonderful thing and should be the opposite of an English kitchen sink drama, where things start off bleak and end up back there.


Friday, 13 December 2013


Some Burton Frasher postcards of Native Americans
 “Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him better take a closer look at the American Indian.”
Henry Ford

If the first word that comes to mind when you look at this postcard is ‘stereotype’, Burton Frasher would probably have been satisfied. It meant that he had taken a photo a lot of Americans understood so it was sure to be popular. He comes across as a man of many interests, with a sharp eye for the beauty of the landscape, but in business he was a pragmatist. If clichés sold well he would make clichés and to hell with his legacy. He took hundreds of photographs of Native Americans that he turned into postcards and more than a few are of noble savages, Indian princesses and cute scenes of babies wrapped in papooses. It is important to make that clear, because he also took a lot that show something deeper. In a way he is like John Wayne’s character Captain York in Fort Apache: a man who has lived long enough among a people to understand and respect their ways and mores but is conditioned to follow another path. Comparing this against some of Frasher’s other postcards, I think these people are from the Acoma Pueblo.

Frasher was based in Pomona, California, and the Pomona Library has thousands of his photographs in its archive. Quite a few, though apparently still a fraction of the complete works, are online here: If you are interested in real photo postcards, landscape photography or the American west and you don’t know about the Frasher’s Fotos collection, prepare to spend a few hours looking at his work. For this post we are only interested in the photos he took of Navajo, Hopi and Apache people in the American southwest.
Most of them belong to what could be called the National Geographic School of Photography: the images are anthropological and are carefully composed so as to contain everything we need to know. The caption for this scene is almost superfluous. We can see where and how people live and what they do. What is interesting about it, as with every photo here bar the first one, is its candid appearance. They are obviously aware of Frasher – he used a view camera on a tripod and was hard to ignore – but they aren’t posing for him. 

 In the Hopi butterfly dance the women wear elaborate head dresses and the men much more simple costumes to thank the spirits or, so far as I understand things, politely ask them to keep up the good weather. The colourful costumes and the absence of any militaristic overtones made the butterfly dance popular with tourists. There are a few things to note about this photograph. The first is the setting. There are hundreds of postcards of Hopi dancers floating about, most showing the tourists and reservation police, or some background detail that makes it apparent who the dance is being performed for. We can’t be so sure with this scene. The people are stationary so we could assume they are waiting for the performance to start but, like all the best National Geographic photos, we could be looking at an actual performance; one the tourists don’t get to see.
I could be reading too much into this photo but the way the man on the far left looks away at something off camera, breaks up the pattern. It suggests these people aren’t posing for Frasher.
I like the boy sitting down at the front too. The scan at the Frasher Collection (search under ‘butterfly’) is clearer. He looks decidedly bored. 

So far as is known, the Navajo have lived in Canyon de Chelly since the 14th century. There were others before them but the records are hazy. From the 1860s onwards the U.S Government did its best to drive the Navajo out. The most notorious effort was a massacre led by that hero of American popular culture, Kit Carson, in 1864. In 1931 Canyon de Chelly was declared a national park under the jurisdiction of the Navajo nation. To Washington’s credit, it would be another 50 years before Australia framed legislation that gave its indigenous inhabitants similar rights over their traditional land. Thanks to the Pomona Library’s Frasher Collection, we can date this postcard to 1935, when the Canyon was under Navajo control, and that would suggest this man in one of the official guides, without which outsiders weren’t permitted to enter the area.
It’s a good photo, not a great one, but what gives it particular interest is the comparison …

… To this one. Look at the different postures of the riders, how this boy leans forward, tense and uncertain about the photographer. It is dated 1936 in the Frasher archives. Referring back to John Wayne and Fort Apache, which came out in 1948: for those of us who grew up watching Native Americans being played by Anthony Quinn (Mexican), Michael Ansara (Syrian) and Michael Pate (Australian), it was a genuine shock to see Apaches played by actual Apaches and Navajos by Navajos. We can read an arc of redemption in Johns Ford and Wayne, from their 1930s films where Native Americans are not much more than bloodthirsty hoodlums on horseback to Fort Apache, where the disgust at their treatment by government agents and the cavalry is apparent. And this was twenty years before the civil rights movement, when it became easy to depict Wayne as a right wing gun nut. All this to wonder if the man in this photo may have played an extra in Ford’s films, and was Frasher like Ford and Wayne a man who saw enough to read the lies in the myth?

Which brings us to this image and a scene that speaks of acute poverty, dispossession and desolation; to us anyway. Was that what Frasher saw? Bear in mind that in the 1930s postcard photographers sought the positive, beautiful and exotic in their images and to a lot of Americans the original inhabitants were exotic. If you lived in New York or Chicago for example, the chances of meeting a Native American who still lived by traditional ways were unlikely unless you travelled to the southwest. This didn’t mean New Yorkers had no idea what was going on in Arizona but they might have preferred the image at the top of the post to this one.
Consider the caption: “Arizona Apaches”. There is another version of this postcard that says it was taken “North of Hwy 70 between Globe and Stafford”. That places it just west of Phoenix and something in the phrasing suggests that Frasher was driving along the highway when he saw the couple and pulled over to take a photo.  It is possible that he saw them as exotic examples of the original America and examples of social neglect and thought that customers would want postcards of ‘real’ Apaches as opposed to stereotypes. This was taken in the 1930s, when the closest contact most Americans had with Apaches was on the cinema screen. You’ll notice the couple don’t look pleased to be having their photo taken but they aren’t resisting. It is possible that Frasher knew enough of the Apache language to be able to approach them.

The final image was taken in 1936. There are two other postcards in the Pomona collection showing the same two women at this event. The scene is full of detail, and carefully composed so the telephone pole isolates the man from the women, but it doesn’t tell us much. They could be at a rodeo, a tribal meeting or a market.
Whether you think Frasher’s photos of Native Americans are his best work depends upon your preference though several of these would be among his best photos of Native Americans. They don’t challenge any photographic rules and they conform to a safe idea of how indigenous people should be depicted, but placed against the great mass of postcard portraits and tourist scenes available they have a candour other photographers avoided. The language in his captions belongs to the 1930s but most of these are studies of people, not types.