In Paris on Dec. 28, 1895, the projected motion picture industry was born. One week later, on Jan. 4, 1896, Utah received statehood.
With their birth dates so close together and with Utah recently having honored its pioneers, it seems logical to examine the state's connection to the pioneering period of Hollywood (1911-1928) known as the silent era.That there were artists from Utah who worked in the industry is of no surprise, but it is fascinating to note the number of Utahns who are associated with landmark Hollywood films - films that have managed to stand the test of time.
Among them were Margaret Livingston (the "bad girl" in the classic melodrama "Sunrise"), Marion Mack (Buster Keaton's romantic interest in "The General"), Frank Borzage (winner of the first best-director Oscar for "7th Heaven") and John Gilbert (Greta Garbo's frequent co-star and off-screen love, and the highest-paid contract star in Hollywood by the end of the silent era).
And then there was hulking character actor Mack Swain, Charlie Chaplin's co-star in "The Gold Rush" (1925); leading lady Betty Compson, who starred opposite Lon Chaney in "The Miracle Man" (1919); and director James Cruze, whose epic Western "The Covered Wagon" (1923) was the "Titanic" of its day.
- MACK ("MORONI") SWAIN was born in Salt Lake City in 1876 and grew to a burley 280 pounds attached to a 6-foot-2-inch frame. A local newspaper article dated Oct. 16, 1927, revealed that "Mack Swain is a strong believer in his old hometown - Salt Lake City. Perhaps few of the old-timers of his boyhood days would recognize in this heavy actor of today the long, lean, lanky boy who had a mania for dancing."
Swain's desire to appear on stage led him to join a circus - a position his mother quickly retrieved him from, informing him that she hadn't raised her boy to be a circus performer.
He entered the movies as a robust comedian at Keystone in 1913, the year Cecil B. DeMille made the first Hollywood feature film, "The Squaw Man," and one year prior to Chaplin's arrival at the same studio. During Chaplin's year at Keystone, Swain appeared with him in 13 films, including the first American feature-length comedy, "Tillie's Punctured Rom-ance."
Chaplin's popularity soared so fast that by the end of 1914 he moved on, but Swain remained a popular Keystone staple, often playing a character known as "Ambrose."
Some years later, Chaplin invited Swain to appear in "The Idle Class" (1921), "Pay Day" (1922) and "The Pilgrim" (1923), the latter a four-reeler with Charlie as an escaped convict who disguises himself as a minister. Swain is wonderful as the deacon who appears to be pious but is concealing a hidden bottle of "hooch" in his back pocket.
In 1924, Chaplin started work on "The Gold Rush," spending some 14 months on it. The story is set during the Klondike gold rush of 1898. Chaplin's Little Tramp becomes snowbound with another prospector - Swain as Big Jim McKay. The character provided Swain's most memorable screen performance as he pictures Charlie as a giant chicken and later shares Charlie's Thanksgiving dinner, a boiled shoe.
Swain went on to appear in prominent films opposite Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore and Mary Pickford, providing delightful humor in character parts.
He passed away in 1935 but will be remembered as long as "The Gold Rush" is shown.
- BETTY COMPSON, born in Beaver in 1897 (and a schoolmate of Margaret Livingston), was a petite young woman with chestnut-colored hair and a talent for the violin. As part of an all-girl group known as "The Vagabond Violinist," she toured Utah and later played the Pacific Coast.
Compson entered movies in 1915, initially doing comedy shorts. She made her dramatic debut opposite Lon Chaney in "The Miracle Man" (1919). Her performance as a member of a confidence gang was so impressive that it was still being referred to in 1928 when she gave her most memorable performance as a dejected prostitute rescued from suicide in "The Docks of New York." That film, directed by Josef von Sterberg, has been compared with "Sunrise" as one of the most pictorially beautiful films of the silent era.
By this time, sound film was replacing silent, and in that same year, Compson (in the second annual Academy Awards) received a best-actress Oscar nomination for her work in a now-forgotten "talkie," "The Barker.'
As sound films took over, Compson used her violin talents in "Street Girl" (1929), which was the first release of a new studio, RKO.
She would go on performing, usually in supporting roles, until retiring in 1948. She died in Glendale, Calif., in 1974.
- JAMES CRUZE was married to Compson (the first of her three marriages) from 1924 to 1930, and she starred in his first sound motion picture, "The Great Gabbo" (1929).
Cruze was born at Five Points, near Ogden, in 1884, the only boy in a family of 18 children. His Danish Mormon parents had crossed the Plains in a covered wagon and taken up farming.
Tired of hoeing onions at 25 cents a day, Cruze hopped a train and became an actor in everything from medicine shows to Broadway before working his way into films around 1911.
When he broke his leg while doing a movie stunt, he became interested in directing. At Paramount, he helmed a number of comedies, including features with former Keystone comedy star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
After laboring on insignificant features, Cruze received the opportunity of a lifetime because of his pioneer heritage. At a time when Westerns were looked upon as inexpensive programmers, producer Jesse Lasky decided to make Emerson Hough's novel "The Covered Wagon" into an epic tale of the pioneers. He chose Cruze to direct because of his enthusiasm for the book and for his pioneer background.
After scouting nine states, Cruze selected an isolated site in Utah, 90 miles from Milford. He set up what became known as "Camp Cruze" and housed a thousand Indians, as well as cowboys, mule skinners, herds of horses and cattle and hundreds of prairie schooners, as well as actors and technicians. Hiring sons and daughters of real pioneers, along with authentic wagons, the group lived on location for more than eight weeks, existing much as the real pioneers did.
To stage a buffalo hunt, Cruze took actors and crew to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Rounding up 150 to 200 buffalo, he almost lost his cameraman, Karl Brown, who tried filming a charging buffalo. Only a cowboy's sharp shooting saved his life as the animal was brought down just inches from the camera. The crew had buffalo steaks for dinner that evening, though Brown declined to join in the feast.
All the hard work paid off, however. Released in 1923, "The Covered Wagon" became the first Western to be taken seriously by both the public and historians. It cost a huge $782,000, but went on to earn $3.8 million - and by 1935 it was still one of the five top-grossing films of all time.
Cruze, who was paid $400 a week while working on the film, became the highest paid contract director in the business, earning $7,000 a week.
But Cruze's success also became his downfall as the highly paid director was assigned by Paramount to big-budget projects like "The Pony Express" (1925) and the very expensive ($2 million in 1926 dollars!) "Old Ironsides" (1926) instead of letting him do smaller films like those with which he began his career.
When Old Ironsides won critical raves but failed to recoup its costs, Paramount did not renew Cruze's contract.
Once worth over a million dollars, Cruze's estate was valued at only $1,000 when he died in 1942.