Saturday, September 27, 2014

10 Great Stunt Women from the 1910s

Ten of the Greatest Stunt Women of the Early 20th Century

"You can imagine my feelings as the train came rushing toward me. I had to
Helen Gibson
has arrived
calculate the moment of my leap to the fraction of a second, for a miscalculation would send me between the cars of the train. 

"When the right moment came, I flew from the station and landed squarely atop the train. I had calculated the jump correctly but the sudden shock of landing on a speeding train was greater than I had imagined and before I had secured a grip on the slippery car-top I had rolled to the end of the car."... And then, and then?? [Helen Gibson's quote to be continued.]

Most of these women were actresses, not only stunt doubles. Their careers may have started earlier and continued for quite a while after 1920. Some held even more jobs. Cleo Madison was an early woman director. Helen Gibson and Helen Holmes would go on to direct and produce.

From the look of it, when these stunt women got to wear pants and not 'long' dresses or flat-heeled shoes that was a luxury. A book could be, and in some cases has been written on each of these ladies.

Many of them appeared in silent film serials. These were short subjects that you'd see in chapters. Each would end in some type of cliffhanger -- there might have been someone literally left hanging on the edge of a cliff. 

You could be brought up to date in your favorite magazine which might include images from each of the movies! Some of the some of the serials chapters built upon one another and some didn't. These films were made by many of the top film production companies of the day.

The movies, the storylines were made for turn-of-the-century audiences. These included women, some of whom were increasingly independent. Women were working in factories, offices, they had their own income and were spending it on leisure activities.

Here are just a few of the many women who were performing stunts in movies 1910-1920. More in future posts. Hear some of their own words, their own experiences, learn the history of film and film making. Info on Actresses who did their own stunts, Lillian Gish in Way Down East included below.

1) Helen Gibson
Quote continued from introduction:

"....The next second I felt would send me to eternity but just as half my body had fallen between the cars, I secured a firm grip on one of the small air transoms that you see at the top of the car. In what seemed like a terribly long time was really only a minute the train was brought to a stop. 
"The director was running about half crazy by the time and the camera man told me that it was sheer force of habit that kept him turning the crank for his wits had completely deserted him. We certainly were fortunate for the camera got it all. ...

"It is a rather weird coincidence that in my career as the Hazardous Helen there have been just eight occasions when I really did come within a fraction of an inch of losing my life. But I am not afraid; I am just going to keep carrying out the actions of thrilling scenarios. Only I hope the ninth narrow escape is a long way off." -- Helen Gibson, a.k.a. The Girl with Nine Lives 1916

Helen Gibson retired from the screen and lived to age 85.


2) Helen Holmes a.k.a. The Railroad Girl

Helen Holmes 1916
The adventure film serial The Hazards of Helen a Kalem Studios serial that would run for over 100 episodes first appeared in 1914. Helen Holmes played the lead character. The first films were directed by J.P. McGowan who would
Helen Holmes
Diamond Runners
become Holmes' husband. Holmes became a sensation and the pair left Kalem, producing their own films.

"Numberless times Miss Holmes has jumped from trestles to fast moving trains below. This seemingly easy stunt is one of the most dangerous that is

undertaken in the production of railroad films. It is almost impossible to keep your footing once you land on the train. 

"Helen Holmes generally manages to do it, but once she lost her balance and rolled off the car to the ground below. She continued falling until she had reached the bottom of a steep and dangerous decline and although she worked no longer that day, the next morning at the usual hour she reported to the studio."

Helen Holmes was not fooling around!
She held onto the wheels of a locomotive for three miles in 1916
while wearing a dress down to her ankles.
No special effects in those days.

Kalem Film Studio was founded in New York City in 1907 by George Kleine, Samuel Long and Frank J. Marion. The company was named for their initials K, L and M. 

It was similar to Essanay Studios also named in 1907 by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson ("S and A").


Helen Holmes left the series to make other movies. Stunt woman and trick rider Rose Wenger, the wife of western star Hoot Gibson would become the new star of the Hazards of Helen after an interim of transition. Rose would become known as Helen Gibson.

Thomas The Train:
Bath Buddies Fun Pack

A squirter, a scooper and a strainer

3) Marin Sais

Marin Sais
The Girl from Frisco
Marin Sais was an accomplished horsewoman. She was the wife of Jack Hoxie, "ace of the outdoor epics." Sais is known for a number of films including The Girl from Frisco, 15 chapters starring Marin Sais and True Boardman. The skilled equestrian found a place in early film.

"Woman's growing independence added to the rapid action of the outdoor west form the theme of Kalem's latest series of which announcement was made early this week."

I did all my own stunts hoodie
I did all my own stunts hoodie :Customize the text
Design your own Jackets, custom shirts at zazzle

4) Rhea Mitchell

Rhea Mitchell appeared in serials including The Diamond in the Sky. With some thirty chapters, this successful serial spawned the Sequel to The Diamond in the Sky. In 1919, WS Van Dyke directed the first million dollar deluxe serial thriller The Hawk's Trail with stars King Baggot and Rhea Mitchell. She worked in very early westerns with star W. S. Hart.

5) Olga Celeste a.k.a. The Leopard Lady a.k.a. Princess Olga Celeste

Olga Celeste with a tiger 1916
"There is always danger in an animal act," she reminds us.  While she was working in movies in the 1910s, Olga Celeste had a decades-long career. She's well known for working as animal trainer behind the scenes of Bringing Up Baby in 1938 with Howard Hawks, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

"Working with animals in a picture drama is harder than in any exhibition or circus for the reason that the animals must really act for the films not just go through mechanical stunts rehearsed many times before, says the little trainer. Yes many of our animals are excellent actors. ... 

"A leopard is much easier to train than a dog. Leopards are usually good actors. They are my favorites because they are never afraid. They will attack other animals even larger than they and they are not al all afraid to attack a trainer.

... "But we really are not afraid for one thought of fear would be instantly detected by the creatures almost before we were conscious of it ourselves. So we must eliminate all fear and nervousness. Close study and love for the animals helps us in this but the ability to command them is largely a gift. .... 

"I love the animals those who are good because they try to please, those who are bad because they have so much spirit. And I guess that is after all the real secret to my influence over them. "
-- Olga Celeste, 1916 interview

She is quoted as saying "I'm not afraid of any animals .... except mice."

Anna Little
 6) Anna Little

"Anna Little the black-haired beauty of western films has often taken her life in
her hands to provide excitement for the patrons of film theaters. In a recent picture The Valley Feud, she was in a cabin surrounded by enemies. 

"Her object was to reach her horse stationed without and ride away to escape the men. Suddenly during a lull in the firing she burst from a window to her horse. 

"The director to make the scene realistic had the mob of invaders fire real bullets so that the splintering of the wood would be noticed on the screen. Anna got away safely but to use her own expression, 'Never again!' 

"More than one deadly leaden bullet came within an inch of her and the edge of the building was riddled." 

In 1916, an article noted that her horse, Ranger had been badly injured on a journey and had to be shot. Anna was experiencing grief, but she was now working with a new pony and they were getting to be great friends.

7) Marie Walcamp

Marie Walcamp
The Red Glove
Marie Walcamp was in films such as Liberty, The Red Ace, The Moon Child and The Red Glove. She was called the Golden Haired Daredevil.

While filming The Red Glove, actor, "Alfred Allen was shot in the eye with a revolver and a blank cartridge. 

For a time it was feared that he would lose the sight of his eye but the actor is now progressing satisfactorily."
-- 1919 article including Marie Welcamp

8) Pearl White :: The Perils of Pauline, The Iron Claw...

"Here is another Pearl White stunt performed only to excite interest.
She was hoisted on a swaying girder
to the top of a skyscraper under construction."
-- 1918
"Pearl White refused to be doubled in a scene for the Pathé serial and as a result nearly lost her life. Sheldon Lewis the Iron Claw standing on the running board of a rapidly going automobile was to lift the girl into the car but Pearl fell beneath the wheels."
-- April 1916

"Pearl was filmed on flaming yachts, trapped in rising water in dungeons, jumping from trains, toppling into volcano cones, wing walking from one biplane to another, at the mercy of opium smokers in Chinatown. 

"The lady performed her own feats until she became famous. Then Pathé felt she was too valuable to risk. A male double (with wig) executed most of the dangerous stunts in the later films." 
-- The St. Petersburg Evening Independent 1959

She was driving a speeding bus that had been rigged with a bomb.... Oh no, that was someone else. 

9) Cleo Madison, Director, actress, stunt woman....

Cleo Madison
Trey o' Hearts

"For the purpose of injecting realism into the picture and the the specified
Cleo Madison in the raging river
business of the story might be carried out to the letter she allowed herself to be carried a half mile through the death-dealing rapids of the San Gabriel River. 

"It was a task that would cause a strong man and a good swimmer to flinch but Miss Madison does not know the name of fear and it is not a question what her director Wilfred Lucas can prevail upon her to do but what he can prevail upon her not to do. 

"The wasters of the San Gabriel river are icy cold. The channel of the river not only runs down a steep incline but the bed of the river is strews with boulders. Although she is not an expert swimmer she plunged into the cold water and piloted herself through the dangerous rapids without mishap. The result is one of the most convincing pieces of realism ever filmed."

Grace Cunard is another actress working as a stunt girl who would go on to direct.

10) Anita King

After a 72-foot drop the car is demolished but Anita King is OK

"The director had thoughtfully arranged a bounding platform to break the fall but he miscalculated. Miss King hit the bridge with tremendous speed, fire off into space. It seemed and struck the prepared platform with such force that the racing car bounced like a rubber ball and landed in the brush at the edge of the river below. 

"The director and the camera man believed the intrepid little star had been killed and rushed to the scene. When they got there Miss King was smiling blithely at the wheel without a scratch. The force of the drop had snapped the spokes of the wheels like pipe stems but the pneumatic tires had taken the brunt of the fall and the brave little driver was uninjured."  
 -- The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, WA 1916

Florence rescues Norton from the railroad tracks

A favorite scene, Florence LaBadie in Million Dollar Mystery 1914. James Cruze was Jim Norton in this Thanhouser serial.

Actresses who did their own stunts:

Mabel Normand (the image of her motorcycle riding is famous). She had worked with Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. Some of the most thrilling early cinema stunt work done by men or women was seen in comedies. Check out early films of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. It's hard to believe these people were working with real locomotives, not computer animation. 

Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson were among the many actresses who did some of their own stunt work.

Way Down East, Lillian Gish

1920 saw a landmark film, Way Down East directed by D.W. Griffith. The director had paid an unheard of $175,000 for screen rights to the melodrama. Mrs. Morgan Belmont was the first society woman to appear in a moving picture. In Way Down East she had taken stage name Diana Duncannon.

Some scenes had to be reshot with the stars sweltering in fur coats in the summertime in 90 degree heat working in fake snow. The film had its opening at the 44th Street Theater in New York City in early September 1920. In attendance were the cast members, the director, Lottie Blair Parker, author of the story. Also there were the gentlemen who first staged the play on Broadway years earlier. The film had so much applause that Griffith came out and spoke to the crowd.

Its climactic scene with Lillian Gish's character, Anna adrift on an ice flow nearing a waterfall is remembered to this day. There were some stunt doubles used in Way Down East, but from what I've found, Gish and Richard Barthelmess performed the scene themselves. It was set up by director, Griffith. 

Photo: DW Griffith's masterpiece,Way Down East
Lillian Gish,ice floes,performance,1915
"How did Griffith do it? Crashing frumpling struggling like fighting beasts as they hurtled into each other the great cakes of ice swept on toward the falls. The ice jam had broken? And on one of the cakes, as yet barely caught in the swirl lay an unconscious girl, her yellow hair trailing in the icy water. 

"Far behind, a frantic boy fought his way toward her. That was the situation that brought a big New York audience to its feet on the opening night of Way Down East, cheering madly as Dick Barthelmess caught Lillian Gish up in his arms and carried her to safety. 

"Then the audience settled back, a bit ashamed of its own emotion and said, 'Right on the edge of the falls, weren't they? Oh but they couldn't have been! It would have been too dangerous. But -- well how do you suppose Griffith managed it??"' 

Director D.W. Griffith preparing the ice flow for his film
Way Down East 1920

"I hope," she said, "that the snow scenes will be worth the sufferering they cost us. I don't think I ever experienced anything so severe as what we went through. Some days were so cold that the cameras froze."
-- Lillian Gish, Picturegoer magazine 1921

While they were safe in Griffith's movie, it wasn't always the case when filming winter movies. In Back to God's Country the original leading man, Ronald Byron died from exposure. Leading lady Ivy Close nearly lost her life while filming The Wheel when an avalanche struck.

Mary Astor was caught in a snowslide in the Canadian Rockies during the filming of Enticement a Thomas H Ince Production and narrowly escaped being buried in snow or hurled down the mountainside. Of course actors don't have to be filming snow scenes to be injured!

The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, CA has Silent Wednesdays. On October 8th, their schedule includes screenings from some rare serials:
The Son of Tarzan (1920), episode 5, Sunken Silver (1925), episode 9 and Daredevil Jack (1920), condensed.  Both The Stanford Theatre and The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum Theatres offer live music to accompany their silent films. Look to see what might be on a big screen near you.

** This is part of a series. Links to new entries will be added. Any significant changes/updates will be noted with dates. Please watch for announcements on Twitter.

Mabel Normand 1921 Motorcycle T-Shirt
Mabel Normand 1921 Motorcycle T-Shirt by Jakestuff
Check out other Mabel Normand T-Shirts at


Get your Gish on: Clothes, Gifts for your home, electronics, more

Related Books of Interest: 

Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood (Studies in Industry and Society)

The Girl from God's Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema

Serials and Series: A World Filmography, 1912-1956
You'll find many scholarly works devoted to the contribution by women (and minorities) to early cinema and to the arts in general. We are standing on their shoulders, as it's said. 

Please check out bookstores and libraries regardless of your gender and enjoy finding out about the fascinating, funny and courageous people who worked in those early days.

Related Pages/Articles:

Dressing Male Stars: Rathbone, Gable and, uh, Dietrich.... They must have copies of their suits for their stand-ins and stunt doubles

10 women film producers of the early 20th century

Early 20th Century Women Movie Theater Owners, Managers, Exhibitors

Metropolis for your home, electronics
The 1927 German science fiction film directed by Fritz Lang.

Sources of images/quotes unless otherwise specified
Film Daily 1920
Motography 1914
Motion Picture Magazine 1916
Moving Picture World 1916
Photoplay Magazine 1914, 1916
Picture Play 1920
Picturegoer 1921
The End Silent Movie T-Shirt
The End Silent Movie T-Shirt by StrangeLittleOnion
View more The end silent movie T-Shirts at

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Women film pioneers early 1900s behind the camera

Women professionals
behind the cameras in early cinema

Lillian Gish directed
sister Dorothy Gish
pictured w/DW Griffith 1922
Women were pioneers in the film industry. In the early 1900s they were bosses, technicians, producers, exhibitors, directors, writers, stunt women and editors. Many of us know that they were actors, costume designers, dressers. Don't forget ballyhoo. Women did even more.

I hesitate to say that someone was the first to do something. People may have been doing things earlier and simultaneously, some not getting credit. 

When it was unusual to see a woman in a certain job, a magazine or newspaper might do a write-up. 

If she was a manager or an owner of a theater, the publication could refer to her as a girl regardless of her age. Girl Manager in Ohio. But she got publicity and got to speak her mind. How about stunt girls and stunt men?

Director Kathryn Bigelow
2009 Seattle Film Festival
Women were directing films in the 1910s if not earlier. We recently celebrated Kathryn Bigelow's winning an Academy Award for Best Director. She was the first female to win in that category. Her film was The Hurt Locker and the year was 2009.

Even if she had talent, an idea or an invention she had to get a foot in the door. In the early days of cinema the first women were often those who had/were:

Finances: They could afford to do and try what they pleased.

Family: Your father, spouse taught you to do it, gave you entry into the field at
Gloria Swanson
Fred Clark, Ernest Anderson
Orig 8x10 photo, 3 for Bedroom C 1952

some level even if it was the ground floor to learn the trade. Sometimes it was planned, sometimes a high level producer died and the wife realized she had absorbed enough knowledge to take over. 

In the case of the wife of Thomas Ince. When the producer died in 1924, his wife, Elinor was prepared to take over the company.

Fixed: You were already in the business. Many women performed overlapping jobs and many worked their way up. It's hard to classify some in a category because they did so many things! Some women performed jobs locally, some did them just a few times.

Forced: How about that for alliteration? :) Talking about the wars, especially. Starting in the mid-1910s, with their male counterparts away fighting, women stepped into jobs not regularly available to them. They were trained to operate and fix equipment such as cameras. They pinned back their hair and donned overalls. Women rose into management. 

Thomas Ince with Mabel Normand 1919
Several actresses such as Gloria Swanson and Mabel Normand did some of their own stunt work. In the teens and twenties in particular, studios were actively looking for talent. Magazines ran contests for actors and writers. There were recurring lessons on 'scenario writing.' They offered reassuring messages: you don't have to be a fancy writer, just a storyteller to make it in the moving pictures. 

Watch for future articles. I'll be highlighting women who were prominent in different jobs in the film industry and in supporting arenas primarily from the 1910s-1930s. 

* This is the beginning of a series. It is part of a larger project. 

Celebrity family members who have Hollywood Walk of Fame stars next to or near one another

Related Books:

Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer (Screen Classics)

Many books have been written about Gloria Swanson. She wrote her autobiography,  Swanson on Swanson. 

 Kathryn Bigelow: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Serials hazards of Helen more ahead

Helen Gibson asks
Are you ready for what's ahead?

In Fit to Be Tied (1930), Gracie Allen sang, I'm a Whole Lot Wilder than I Look.

Helen Gibson lit up the movie screens from the 1910s through the 1950s and 60s. She'd go from being called Rose to Helen, getting to show off her nerves of steel. She was an actress and much more.

Married to rodeo and early cowboy film star Hoot Gibson in the 1920s, the pair shared a love of riding horses. This would help bring in fans to all of their films. 

New series taking off this week.

Friday, September 5, 2014

James Cagney Yankee Doodle Dandy Where were you in 42

James Cagney is George M. Cohan
the Yankee Doodle Dandy

James Cagney stars in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the life story of George M. Cohan, who went from child star of the vaudeville stage to "the man who owned Broadway," writing, acting, singing and dancing in multiple hit shows. 

The film of Cohan's life is just right with Cagney in the lead. James Cagney would win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role. There are many fantastic reviews and synopses of the film available. I wanted to see what went into the making of the movie and a little about how were Cagney and Cohan alike.

While other studios were interested in making the movie, Cohan sold the rights to Warner Brothers because James Cagney worked for them. Cohan had approval on actors and it had to be Cagney. The star began work on the dance numbers months before the film went into production.

Bill Cagney, James' brother was producer of the film. Cohan liked the fact that Jeanne Cagney, Jim's sister would play his own sister, Josie. Jeanne Cagney was part of a campaign to write letters to the troops. "Please write a letter to those gallant men in the service."
James Cagney plays
George M Cohan
The Cagney siblings had a relationship much like the one shared by the Cohans. Family was very important to both Cohan and Cagney. From a 1942 article:

"Fred Niblo, Josie's son, works on the Warner Lot. 'I don't mean to butt in,' he'd said. 'But please be careful whom you choose as my mother.' 

"So before mentioning the possibility to Jeanne, Bill sent pictures to Cohan and Niblo. 'Perfect,' Cohan wired, 'if she can act the way she looks.' 

"Niblo dropped in Bill's office. 'You didn't have to send me your sister's picture. I've seen her on the lot. I've heard the way people talk about her. I'd like a girl like that to play my mother.' Then Bill called Jeanne." 
-- Screenland 1942
Clip photo James Cagney, brother sister and his mother set of Yankee Doodle Dandy
Bill, Mrs. Cagney, Jeanne and James Cagney on the set
Niblo was the son of Josie Cohan Niblo and Fred Niblo directed silent film classics with the brightest stars of the day including Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand, Greta Garbo in The Temptress, Ramon Novarro in Ben Hur and Norma Talmadge in Camille.

Yankee Doodle Dandy James Cagney
1942 1-SHEET Vintage Movie Poster Linenbacked
Yankee Doodle Dandy doesn't say how or when it happened, but Josephine died young in 1916 from a heart condition. The director, Fred Niblo, would go on to marry again. Niblo was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the people who give out the Academy Awards, the Oscars each year.
Walter Huston as Jerry Cohan
"All signs point to its being a boy"

Other stars include Walter Huston as Cohan's father, Jerry Cohan. One of the many things in Cohan's contract was his ability to approve of the actors playing the Cohan family. He liked Huston because he found that the actor had a dancing background. 

Mr. Huston holds his own alongside Cagney. You'll no doubt recognize him as the father of director and screenwriter John Huston, grandfather of Anjelica Huston. Huston trained in vaudeville, he was a friend of Cohan's for years.

James Cagney and Joan Leslie
Pretty Joan Leslie was seventeen when she played Mary Cohan, George's wife. The character she plays is largely fictional. The film is at least a somewhat Hollywoodized version of Cohan's life. 

His divorce is not mentioned, neither of his wives had the first name, Mary. For some reason his four children are not mentioned. On a side note, one of his daughters, Helen Cohan Carola, acted in films such as Lightnin'.

"When Joan Leslie's 17th birthday rolled around she had advanced to a 50 year old in the script celebrated the day in a white wig and wrinkled puss! ... Joan says she got her biggest bang out of her mom's gift a sleek grown-up party gown by Orry Kelly. It's her first bid to svelteness."
-- Modern Screen 1942

Eddie Foy the most famous comedian of his time was played by son Eddie Jr. James O'Neill was the father of writer Eugene O'Neill. Cohan felt his best serious
Helen Cohan,
daughter of
George M Cohan 

acting performance was in Eugene O'Niell's Ah Wilderness!  

The Cohans and O'Neills remained friends for at least two generations. 

Of film biographies, Yankee Doodle Dandy was a forerunner when it came to biopics about celebrities who we know from being in front of or behind the movie cameras. Maybe the first real biopic about such a person would be The Great Ziegfeld from 1936 with William Powell as Florenz Flo Ziegfeld, Jr.

In 1946 we saw The Joson Story with Larry Parks as Jolson and Evelyn Keyes playing his wife. Her name in the movie is Julie Benson, though she is meant to symbolize Ruby Keeler.

New York premiere ad Yankee Doodle Dandy nearly sold out 1942 James Cagney
Ad for NYC premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy selling war bonds

With older movies I like to go back and see what was going on when the film was made, think about who was their intended audience of that time? World events could have subtly shaped the story. Filming of Yankee Doodle Dandy began late November, very early December 1941.

War is declared

"It's over two years since the idea was first broached. No one could foresee that war would be declared a week after they stared shooting." Director Michael Curtiz, born in Hungary, was a naturalized American citizen. Shooting was stopped so cast and crew could listen to the radio and hear President Roosevelt declare war on Japan. 

It's said that those assembled stood up and sang The Star Spangled Banner before returning to work. Yankee Doodle Dandy was the kind of movie that the country needed at the time, just like the songs Cohan wrote were just what they needed at the time he wrote them. Even the movie poster art was very patriotic.

"We'd just been a bunch of miscellaneous people. Now it was as if something terribly big, bigger than we could conceive just at first, had tied us all together into one." Rosemary DeCamp (who played Nellie Cohan, George's mother).

The day the film held its big premiere in New York City, May 29, 1942 is the day that John Barrymore died. He was a legendary actor of stage and screen, part of that iconic acting family.

George M. Cohan

George Michael Cohan is said by most sources to have been born on July 3, 1878. Some still believe that he was born on the 4th of July.  

A scene where Cagney stands before a poster slathered with Cohan's name is very reminiscent of Orson Welles' philosophy of having your name on the screen, the poster, etc in as many places as possible. These were not only brilliant artists but marketers, as well. Give the people what they want.

George M. Cohan in the film Broadway Jones
When movies were new and still something of a novelty, George Cohan was dabbling in motion picture acting. He was asked if he thought he'd have success in movies. Film was so new and no one knew how different it would be to act on stage (legitimate acting) vs acting for a camera. Give My Regards to Broadway was a song from his first Broadway hit show.

Cohan and Claudette Colbert

"A man likes what he succeeds in doesn't he? My life is the theatre; my successes have been of the theatre. So far, I think they expect the pretty boys in the movies -- and no one has yet accused me of being a handsome leading man. I believe in motion pictures. I believe they have come to stay and will go on improving, changing, enlisting fine minds. 

"The trouble with legitimate actors is that they think pictures is a cheap little trade with no essentials to learn. My experiences have given me a profound respect for the camera. I believe it takes years to master it. .... Broadway Jones is my favorite Cohan picture. For one reason because it is the only one of my pictures I have ever seen." -- Photoplay 1917 

Cohan is said to have originally said, "Say what you will about me, just make sure you spell my name right." 

June 29, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt awarded Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor for outstanding service to the cause of Americanism, for his patriotic spirit contributing to the morale during WWI. It was in particular for the songs he'd written such as You're a Grand Old Flag and Over There.  

"If there is a more sincere, more devoted, more energetically patriotic profession or trade in the country than the film folks it is yet to be discovered." During World War One movie magazines ran articles with titles such as "Will pictures survive the war?" And later, "Have the movies fulfilled their war obligation?" The war was featured prominently including motion picture actors and other industry professionals who went into the service. The patriotism of movies and those who made them was not to be questioned.
-- Quote from Motion Picture Magazine 1918 

A study of the history of theater for a good foundation in the art would have to include Cohan and his works. Joel Grey starred on Broadway as Cohan in the musical George M! 1968. Grey was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical at the Tony Awards. Joe Layton won the Best Choreography Tony for his work on George M!

George M. Cohan died of cancer late 1942. He had the pleasure of seeing the completed film but word is that he never got to meet James Cagney. 

Carl Van Vechten - Harlem Renaissance
George M. Cohan Original Portrait
President Roosevelt sent a telegram to Cohan's widow. In part, it read:
"A beloved figure is lost to our national life in the passing of your devoted husband. He will be mourned by millions whose lives were brightened and whose burdens were eased by his genius as a fun maker and as a dispeller of gloom. My heartfelt sympathy to you and all the family."  

These days, there are many places we look for morale boosts when they're needed. Poetry and music are always consoling or rousing. Country music in particular has given us some amazing patriotic songs, songs to honor our veterans in the last few decades. 

What are your favorites? What do you think would be George Cohan's favorites?? What do you listen to on Veterans Day? Do you think if the young George Cohan were here today he and Bruce Springsteen would sing Born in the USA together?

James Cagney:
A hoofer born on the seventeenth of July

No one was a dirty rat in Yankee Doodle Dandy. James Cagney may be well known as a tough gangster in movies, he was a song and dance man at heart. He had been a piano player and dancer long before he did this film. After he graduated from high school and was discharged from the Army he told a story that he'd confided to a friend at the department store where he was working that he wanted a job with more dough.

"The young clerk advised him that he could give him a steer if you could only sing and dance." Jimmy Cagney said, "I couldn't do either of course. But I said I could,
Cagney and his wife 1937
also, of course.

"Then for about eight weeks, I was one of six boys doing female impersonations. It was a knockabout act, partly burlesque. We had a lot of fun, and it never occurred to any one of us to be ashamed of it. It might seem strange and unbelievable, taking into account my habitual desire to go unnoticed. 

"But again, this illustrates what I mean when I say that I am not shy or self-conscious when I am on the stage or screen. For there I am not myself. I am not that fellow, Jim Cagney at all. 

"I certainly lost all that consciousness of him when I put on skirts, wig, paint, powder, feathers and spangles! ....

"Jimmy's family, however thought he was wasting his time. The young medical students, his brothers and his mother who had wanted professions for her sons could hardly be expected to look with favor upon a relative of theirs dangling about in pink tulle."

As always, he worked different jobs simultaneously. He and his girlfriend only had spats arose because Jimmy wouldn't take her to dance halls. Dancing was sissified, he said, and 'only cake-eaters dance.'"

Cagney with Evelyn Daw in Something to Sing About 1937,
re-released 1947 as The Battling Hoofer
He met his wife when he was a chorus boy and she a chorus girl. There was a time when Cagney was a dance instructor on the side; he taught tap among other things. It was all to make ends meet.

Watch Cagney in a boxing movie such as Winner Take All. His footwork is important, that of a dancer as much as a fighter. You can bet he had experience fighting on the streets of New York growing up and some of those moves came in handy.

"'I never liked punchers. I liked boxers. If a kid could box, I didn't care whether he could break an egg with his punches or not.' He was known as Cellar-door-Cagney because of his prowess in doing tap dances on the slanting cellar doors where so much of the life of the neighborhood kids was lived. He played marbles shot crap, swapped junk and boasted with the best of them."
-- Modern Screen 1937

James Cagney & Edward G. Robinson 24X36 Poster
Wise guys, the artist and the dancer

In the 1937 film Something to Sing About, Cagney does a routine dancing on a simulated giant piano keyboard reminiscent of the keyboard dance done by Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia in Big many years later. (see link below)

In 1955 as a tribute to Eddie Foy, James Cagney reprised the role of George M. Cohan in the movie The Seven Little Foys. Cagney danced with Bob Hope. He received no money for playing the part. Eddie Foy, Jr. as you'll remember from above played his father in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

When people think about dance in film, James Cagney isn't usually a name that comes to mind but he's very talented and he puts everything he's got into his work. He has a style all his own and I think you'll enjoy him in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Someone told me that Gene Kelly called himself the Marlon Brando of dance?? Not sure what you'd say about Cagney? I guess he's the James Cagney of dance, that's for sure and that's pretty cool. 

Note the Gene Kelly quote I've heard is: "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando."

What an amazing career. The Strawberry Blonde, The Public Enemy, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat, Something to Sing About and Mister Roberts, just to name a handful of the films of this versatile actor.

You can stream Yankee Doodle Dandy, rent it or buy it for your collection on disc or digitally. If you remember seeing it in color, you're right. It was colorized in 1986 but that version isn't shown as often as the original black and white. 

Amazon Prime, better than some other services, has some of Cagney's earliest movies like The Public Enemy with Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke, Smart Money with Edward G. Robinson and White Heat with Virginia Mayo and Edmond O'Brien through the 1981 Ragtime.

Related Books, Pages of Interest:
James Cagney and Tom Hanks dance on a Giant Piano

WWI Centenary Gardens Chelsea Flower Show-Never Forget 

Cagney by John McCabe available in different formats, paper or digital for your Kindle or other device

Contemporary Pop, Rock, Country Memorial Songs for friends, family, soldiers

"My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you
and I thank you"

World War One blogathon banner September 2014

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