Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Buck Barrow, the Polish Cowboy

There are few people alive today who can remember when silence was the international cinematic language. A movie could be filmed anywhere in the world, an actor could work in any nation, and without recorded dialogue, and with the swapping out of an inter-title in one language for that of another, movies were the true international art form. The coming of sound changed all that. A German film could no longer be understood by a Chinese audience, and a Polish actor, with his thick accent, could no longer be a star of American made westerns.
Buck Barrow was born Pawel Borkowski, in 1878, in a small village outside Warsaw, Poland, then a province of Tsarist, Russia. The son of a Polish nationalist and minor anarchist, young Pawel was raised with a strong belief that Poland would one day be free from Russian oppression. As he approached the age were he would be required to serve in the Russian army, Pawel fled his home for the United States. After arriving at Ellis Island, Pawel looked for work. After a string of short lived jobs in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, Pawel drifted south to Philadelphia were he found work at Lubin Studios, then one of the largest film production companies in the world.
Siegmund Lubin, like Pawel, was a Polish immigrant. In 1904, Lubin was about to remake The Great Train Robbery, which less than six months earlier had been a big hit for the Edison Studios. Pawel Borkowski, raised in a small village in Poland, was a master horseman, and Lubin hired him to be one of the train robbers. Over the next nine years, Siegmund Lubin featured Pawel Borkowski in over 100 westerns. Never credited, sometimes little more than a background wrangler, and sometimes a star, Pawel made his way in the movies. With more actors receiving credit for their work and larger salaries, Pawel approached Lubin about screen credit and more money for his work. Turned down by Lubin, Pawel left Philadelphia for Hollywood and California. Less than a day off the train, he was hired to appear in Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man, as one of the cowboys. While Pawel was happy to be out from under Siegmund Lubin's thumb, he was also aware that his status in Hollywood was little better than it had been in Philadelphia. So, with money borrowed from a number of small investors, Pawel Borkowski moved to Victorville, in the high desert of California, changed his name to Buck Barrow, and went into business for himself.
With thousands of small movie theaters all over the world, Pawel's Buck Barrow Studios quickly established itself as a reliable supplier of westerns. Buck Barrow not only produced movies, he wrote them, directed them and starred in them. With his tall, lean body, blond hair and handsome profile, Buck Barrow became an international star of "B" westerns. His most successful film, "Custer's Scout, made in 1919, was even well reviewed. From the New York Times, "Buck Barrow in Custer's Scout gives a thrilling performance as the only survivor of the battle of the Little Big Horn. Fighting his way out of the valley, leaving the doomed command on a desperate mission to bring help, Barrow returns to find his friend and commander, George Armstrong Custer, dead. Vowing revenge, Barrow spends the next ten years of his life searching for Sioux war chief, Sitting Bull. The final confrontation in a Deadwood saloon, as the two men fight to the death with Knives will leave even the most jaded movie goer happy he parted with his nickel."
Despite his success, Barrow's life in California would come to an end with the coming of sound. While Pawel had learned to speak English quite fluently, he was never able to get rid of his Polish accent, and that ended his American career. But, as things had changed in the movies, things had also changed in Poland. With the end of World war 1, Poland had regained it's independence. Pawel Borkowski decided to leave the United States for his home country. He reopened Buck Barrow Studios on an old farm outside Warsaw. From 1932 to 1939, Pawel Borkowsi, as Buck Barrow produced, wrote, directed and starred in hundreds of westerns made for the eastern European film market. While his income was not as large as it had been when he worked in California, Pawel became one of the wealthiest men in Poland.
In 1939, Poland was invaded by the Soviets from the east, and the Germans from the west. Ever the patriot, Pawel Borkowski, AKA Buck Barrow walked away from the movie business to organize a resistance group. Dressed in the fringed jacket that he wore in Custer's Scout and armed with his trusty Colt six shooter, Pawel led his men on a series of raids on German positions. In January of 1940, Pawel Borkowski was shot while leading a charge on a German machine gun emplacement. His men buried his body in an unmarked grave. It has never been found. Today, only his masterpiece, Custer's Scout, survives.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fidel Castro, Movie Star

Fidel Castro and his American nemesis, Ronald Reagan, have one thing in common. Both men had a film career. Reagan's time as a movie star is well known to even the most casual of old movie fans, but Fidel's one film, one line career certainly qualifies as forgotten Hollywood history.

Havana in the 1940s and fifties was a hot spot for the Hollywood crowd. With it's proximity to the United States, favorable exchange rate, rum, cigars and pretty women, it attracted both the film elite, as well as it's hustlers. Jerry Beeker, a talent scout with Paramount, was vacationing in Havana when he spotted a tall, athletic, and still clean shaven Fidel Castro at a night club. Introducing himself, he gave the young Castro his card and invited him to the United States for a screen test.

A few weeks latter, with the blessings of his parents, Fidel Castro boarded the ferry that would take him to Key West, just ninety miles away, in Florida. After catching a train for the west coast, Fidel was soon in Jerry Beeker's Paramount office. Needing a Latin lover type to deliver a single line in the soon to be completed production, Havana After Midnight, Fidel was cast as a Cuban gigolo. And his line, "Si Yanqui. Havana has the most beautiful and hot blooded women in the world. You'll like it here."

With only a few days until wrap, Fidel took a room in one of downtown Los Angeles's transient hotels. When the studio told him that his line had been cut, he went to the office of film editor Barney Pockler and demanded to know why he had been left on the cutting room floor.

For years, before his death, Pockler would tell this story. "This guy shows up in my editing bay, yelling about how Beeker had promised him he was going to be a movie star. I said, listen Ace. I called everyone Ace back then. It wasn't my decision to cut your scene. The director looked at the dailies and decided you was a stiff. So snip, snip and you're gone. End of story. When he got to the door, the little grease ball turned around and told me that he had always loved America, but not anymore, and that we was all going to regret it. I always figured that if we hadn't cut the guys line, maybe there wouldn't have been a Bay of Pigs. I know when we all thought the Cubans was going to hit us with them Russian missiles, I kept thinking I might have killed myself."

Castro returned to Cuba. In 1953 he was arrested after his failed assault on the Moncado military barracks. Six years latter he would over throw the American backed government of Fulgencio Batista. In 1963, the CIA confiscated Castro's out takes. They haven't been seen since.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Myrna Loy and the Cross Dressing Dwarf

It's hard to imagine that beautiful, gracious, movie star Myrna Loy could have had her career damaged by Buddy Gilchrist, an all but forgotten Hollywood character actor.

Loy, the star of the Thin Man series and The Best Years of Our Lives was a committed Democrat, supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, feminist, and a very early anti-fascist. During World war 2, she was one of the Hollywood organizers of Bundles For Bluejackets, a social support group for American sailors, that among other things, ran a Hollywood canteen for navel personnel. One of Loy's responsibilities was the recruitment of actors and singers to provide entertainment for sailors, on leave, in southern California.

Buddy Gilchrist's Hollywood legacy was small in comparison to Myrna Loy's. Gilchrist was born in the shadow of the Hollywoodland sign. From an early age he dreamed of an acting career. In his mind he saw himself, on stage, preforming the great theatrical works of western civilization. Sadly, Buddy Gilchrist was a dwarf, and would never have a chance to play Hamlet or Henry Higgins. Limited in the parts he was offered, made worse by his refusal to play the stereotypical circus types that often came his way, Gilchrist was desperate for work when he accepted a part in The New Shirley, a low budget two reeler produced by Harry Tizzler at poverty row studio, Terrific Pictures.

Tizzler, one of the strangest people ever to run a film studio, was noted for his many attempts to exploit the success of far better, and far more popular films, made by the major studios. In the late 1930s, Tizzler tried to exploit the Shirley Temple craze by making a movie about a dwarf who tries to win a talent show for children. The plot had a male dwarf, entering the contest on a dare, disguising himself as Shirley Temple, and winning a contract with a Hollywood studio. Gilchrist took the part, expecting it to be a one time deal, only to discover, that once the movie became the most popular film in the history of Terrific Pictures, he was under contract to make an almost unlimited number of sequels.

Depressed and angry, Buddy Gilchrist carried on with his staring role in the new Shirley series of two reel comedies. As quoted in "If It's Terrific, It's a Picture," Sid Charters' biography of Harry Tizzler, Gilchrist said, "It was really unfair. I'm a realistic man. I never expected to be a movie star. I just wanted to make a living as an actor. There's no reason why I couldn't have done some of the character parts that went to other guys, but all I got offered was circus movies, and Santa's elves parts. Oh how I hated those things. If I only knew that it could be worse. I should never have got involved with that shit, Tizzler."

When Myrna Loy called up Buddy Gilchrist and asked him to entertain at Bundles For Bluejackets' Hollywood canteen, Gilchrist accepted. For once in his career, Buddy Gilchrist thought, he could preform as what he was, an actor, rather than as a negative stereotype. Gilchrist worked up an act. A few songs, some jokes, and a comedic reading from a play. When he arrived at the club, he was greeted by Myrna Loy, who was that night's entertainment coordinator. When she asked Gilchrist to put on the nurses uniform that had been provide by the club, all of the anger and resentment that filled Buddy Gilchrist came to the surface. During a lengthy tirade, Gilchrist threw an empty coffee cup at Myrna Loy. The hair line fracture to her right knee cap was a minor injury, but it was enough to force her out of the Warner Brothers production of watch on the Rhine. The part would go to Bette Davis.

The story of what happened that night quickly made the rounds of Hollywood's power brokers. Harry Warner was especially angry. After all, it was his movie that had to be quickly recast, and that was always an expensive proposition. Warner called up Tizzler and demanded that Buddy Gilchrist never work again. After an agreement was made, where Warners loaned some of their lesser talent to Tizzler for a war movie he wanted to make, Buddy Gilchrist was fired from the new Shirley series of two reel comedies. At first Buddy was happy to be out from under his contract with Terrific Pictures, but soon reality settled in. It wasn't' just Terrific. He had been black balled through out the industry.

Buddy Gilchrist eventually went to work in an airplane factory, making bombers for the army air force. After the war was over, he opened a clothing store that catered to little people. He died of a heart attack in 1994. It should be noted that Myrna Loy made several attempts to get Buddy Gilchrist work in the movies. Eventually, they became friends.

The new Shirley movies were all made between 1938 and 1943. Most have been lost, so it's almost impossible to know how many were made, and their exact release dates. The following titles have been verified. 1. The New Shirley, 2. New Shirley Meets Herbert Hoover 3. New Shirley and the Ghost 4. New Shirley Comes a Cropper 5. New Shirley Smokes a Cigar 5. New Shirley Goes to the Dance.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Great Baby Scandal of 1932, and the Feral Child of Poverty Row

One of the sadder chapters from the great depression happened in Hollywood, in 1932, at the poverty row studio, Savoy-Univex Pictures. With the 1929 collapse of Wall Street, and the loss of up to one third of American jobs, many parents found themselves unable to care for their young children. With little choice, many of these young victims of the great financial collapse were left at what were then known as foundling homes. Overwhelmed with so many new mouths to feed, the Los Angeles city orphanage decided to defray costs by providing infants to the Hollywood movie industry.

In 1932, the producers at Savoy-Univex launched a new production, Babies Over Broadway. The plot was the standard boy meets girl, they put on a show, and make a great success. Babies Over Broadway would be a bit different, however. An all infant cast, with adult voices over dubbed, would be used. Cute babies, snappy dialogue, and hits sung by whatever out of work crooner could be found, spelled success. Perhaps, it was hoped by the producers, even enough success to lift Savoy-Univex from poverty row fixture to elite studio status.

At first filming went well. The children were placed on a sound stage, they were filmed moving around, as voice over artists were cast to provide the actual dialogue and songs that would seem to come out of the baby's mouths. But as anyone who has ever been a parent can attest, it can be awfully difficult keeping track of one crawling baby, let alone fifty.

It was two weeks into the production schedule. The buses carrying the babies, and their handlers returned to the Los Angeles Foundling Home, a count was taken, and it was found that one baby had been lost. Baby Ezra, last name unknown, had crawled away, and had become lost in the massive sound stage. An immediate search was launched. The sound stage was gone over from floor to ceiling. Despite the massive search that involved almost every studio employee from production chief Max Korwin to the back lot janitors, no trace of Baby Ezra could be found. Korwin was sure that his studio would be destroyed if word ever got out that a baby had been lost at savoy-Univex. But then, a faint crying could be heard. Baby Ezra's tiny voice was coming from behind the insulation placed on the inner walls of the sound stage. The irony was that the insulation was meant to keep outside noise from interfering with the recording of sound.

Yes, Baby Ezra had been found, sort of. It was clear that the child must have crawled through one of the bare spots in the sound proof insulation. The problem was how to get him out. Ripping apart the walls was rejected by studio brass. Maybe they cared about the baby's life, maybe they didn't. But they certainly cared about the $100,000 bill to replace the sound proofing. Instead it was decided to lure baby Ezra out of his hiding place with food. For weeks, the child's favorite treats were left out on the sound stage floor, and for weeks the child was able to get his sustenance and still crawl back into his hiding place before being captured. Eventually, it was decided that food and blankets should be left out, and if anyone could grab him so be it, and if not, the child, at least, wouldn't starve to death, or die from the cold.

And so things continued for five long years. The Los Angeles Foundling Home, quietly suspended it's practice of leasing out infants to the movie industry, while doing it's best to suppress what would have been a major scandal. Things went along as if nothing had happened, and then the situation changed. Baby Ezra became too big to fit into his hiding places in the walls of the sound stage. When it became known that a feral child was found in Los Angeles, dirty, and clothed in only an old blanket, an investigation was mounted. Savoy-Univex and it's chief Max Korwin might have got away with it, if Ezra had not spoken. The child couldn't answer questions, but he could recite pages and pages of movie dialogue, all of it from Savoy-Univex releases. It didn't take long for the Los Angeles police department to put two and two together, and realize that the studio was somehow involved with the feral child of poverty row. An investigation, and the panicked confessions of some of the studio employees, who feared prosecution, resulted in the indictment of Korwin and the former head of the orphanage.

Ezra never learned to verbalize anything that he hadn't heard in a movie. He was institutionalized for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Little Bobby Larsen and the Larsen Laws

A forgotten figure in Hollywood history, Little Bobby Larsen played an important part in the establishment of work place safety rules for both human performers and their animal costars. At first, a marginal figure in the Hollywood community, Larsen began his short lived career in the silent film era, primarily as a background actor, with the occasional featured bit in two reel comedies. His life took a dramatic turn in 1924 when he auditioned for the part of The Kid in a two reeler titled Scraps and the Kid. Larsen was in fact several years too old for the part as written, but he was small for his age and, as one critic wrote, "He had an angelic face that reminded every American mother of her ideal son." Cast in the lead, it was only a matter of choosing the equally important performer, Scraps, a dog of the streets.

Like most two reel shorts of the time, the plot of Scraps and the Kid was simple and straight forward. The Kid, rescues Scraps from a dog fighting ring and they become best friends, living on the streets of an unnamed American city. Finding a dog that had the look of a fighter proved to be a difficult one. After a search of city pounds for an ideal candidate, director Fred Spardo chose a mutt that had taken to following around crew members at busy Red Eagle Studios. To make the new Scraps look the part, the poor animals ears were shredded with razor blades and his skin was scarred with lit matches. Scraps and the Kid was a hit. In a long established Hollywood tradition, plans were quickly launched for a series of two reel sequels, but with one important difference; Bobby Larsen was to be established as the star of the series, and each subsequent film would begin with the words, "Little Bobby."

Over the next two years, Little Bobby Larsen and Scraps the Dog would make eight more Little Bobby movies. The series might have gone on for several more years, since Larsen didn't seem to be growing any taller, but an ugly incident would end both the series and Larsen's career as a child movie star of the silent era. Larsen was in his early teens when the first movie in the series was made, and like most teen boys of that age, he was a somewhat surly young fellow. Scraps was, understandably, a mean and vicious dog. On the set of Little Bobby and the Sewer Rat Gang, a bored Bobby Larsen amused himself by teasing Scraps. And then the tragedy happened; Scraps turned on Little Bobby and in less than five seconds ripped most of the young actor's face off. Rushed to the hospital Bobby Larsen's life was saved, but he was also permanently disfigured. In reaction to the attack on Bobby Larsen, California state assemblyman Homer Kutler introduced a bill making it illegal to mutilate animals for the movies as well as requiring that all animals used in films be under the supervision of a certified animal trainer. It was too late for Scraps and Bobby, but in the future there would be, almost, no other such incident, thanks to what became known as the Larsen laws.

Bobby Larsen made a brief comeback in the mid 1950's in four science fiction horror movies. He was billed as the "Monster Without Makeup." All four films were made at famed B-movie studio, Terrific Pictures. None of the films made much more than their investment, ending Larsen's return to the silver screen. Bobby Larsen was an early experimenter with the drug, LSD. In 1962, at the age of 51, Little Bobby Larsen died of a massive heart attack. He was on an LSD "acid" trip at the time. Witnesses report that he looked in the mirror while under the influence, saw his own mutilated face, and died of fright.

The Little Bobby Larsen films were, 1. Scraps and the Kid, 2. Little Bobby and the Burglars, 3. Little Bobby Warns the Town, 4. Little Bobby and the Italian Anarchist, 5. Little Bobby and the Stolen Diamonds, 6. Little Bobby and the Runaway Circus Elephant, 7. Little Bobby and the Bolshevik Plot, 8. Little Bobby and the Sinking Ship, and the last in the series, finished with a photo double, 9. Little Bobby and the Sewer Rat Gang.

His last four films were, 1. Invasion of the Fluoride Monster, 2. The Atomic Brain Eater, 3. The A-Bomb Mutant, and 4. The Lung Snatcher