On This Day – January 29th

Happy Birthday to comedian W.C. Fields (1880–1946)

WC Fields



On This Day – January 28th

Eastern directorsToday we celebrate the birthdays of four men who were instrumental in shaping the history of Eastern European cinema.

Pyotr Chardynin (1872–1934)

One of Russia’s film pioneers, Chardynin was born in Simbirsk, Russian Empire on January 28th (Julian calendar), February 10th (Gregorian calendar). He started out as an actor on the stage, then moved on to films and finally to directing. He directed over 100 silent films. By the time the talkies arrived, Chardynin had been banned from directing by the Soviet regime. He died in the Ukraine on 14 August, 1934 of liver cancer.

Aleqsandre Tsutsunava (1881–1955)

Born in Likhauri, Georgia, Russian Empire (now Georgia) in 1881, Tsutsunava  was a well-known theater director. He directed the first Georgian, full-length feature film in 1909 called, ‘Berikaoba Keenoba’. The 1916 film, ‘Qristine’, also directed by Tsutsunava, is often credited as being the first feature film from Georgia . He continued directing until 1928. I’m not sure what happened after that. Perhaps with the advent of sound, he returned to the theater. Although sound took longer to come to Russia, so I really don’t know why the last film he is credited with came out in 1928. He died on 25 October, 1955 in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Zaqaria Berishvili (1887–1965)

Born in 1887, Berishvili was a film director and actor. He acted in the theater from 1905 until 1921, when he took part in the organization of the film section of the People’s Commissariat for Education in Georgia.  He played small roles in silent films throughout the mid-1920s. He directed his first film in 1926. He made the transition to sound and directed a few talkies in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1946 he focused his efforts on dubbing foreign films into Georgian. He was the Honored Artist of Georgia, SSR  in 1945 and then again in 1961. He died on May 9, 1965.

Eugen Illés (1877–1951) – no photo available

Also credited as Jenõ Illés, he was born in Debrecen, Hungary. He got a degree in Liberal Arts in Budapest, then in Mechanical Engineering in Berlin. By 1911 he was the lead director of the Berlin branch of Pathé. His 1918 film, ‘Mania: The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker’ starring Pola Negri was thought to be destroyed, when it turned up in a Czech movie collection in 2011. The Polish completely restored it and took the film on a world tour. Because of his ties to his native Hungary, he was also able to facilitate the distribution of Hungarian films in Germany. He returned to Hungary to produce nine films between 1915 and 1917. He came back to Germany during WWI and shot hours of documentary film. He returned to Hungary in 1919. He died in Budapest on 17 October, 1951.

On This Day – January 15

Thomas Ricketts

Born in England on this day in 1853, Thomas Ricketts was the first official “Hollywood” director. His life in England is not very well documented (at least that I can find). He immigrated to the United States in 1870 or 1873 depending on which documents you choose.

There is little information about his first wife,  Olivia, born in November 1856 in New York. What information I could find, indicated that they married abt. 1878, had a son Frank who died as a child, and a daughter Ethel born in New Jersey abt. 1881. I’ve been unable to tell if they divorced or if she passed away.

His stage career began in 1882 with the Catherine Lewis Comic Opera Company at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York.  He married stage actress Josephine Ditt in 1905 or 1906. Josephine was born in Illinois on 7 September 1868 to Nicholas and Mary Ditt. Her father was a native of Alsace-Lorraine and immigrated to the United States in 1857.

Thomas’ friend, Henry Dixie, had been working with Essanay Studios in Chicago. In 1906 he convinced Thomas to take a extra part in a movie, because as Henry put it, movies were the future. Thomas accepted and ended up staying on to play Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and then to star in The Old Curiosity Shop. Thomas had a comedy he’d written and used on the stage called A Cure for the Goat. Essanay asked him to make it into a 600 foot film and he gladly obliged. He remained with the company for four years as one of their main directors. He’s credited as discovering Ethel Clayton, J. Warren Kerrigan, Bryant Washburn and Jack Conway.

With Aubrey Kennedy he helped to organize the American Film Company or “The Old Flying A”. He made the company’s first six films in Chicago and then moved on to the old Nestor Company on Staten Island.  In the fall of 1911 he moved his family to California. It was a split second decision and after arriving in Los Angeles, they realized that they had no idea where they were going to set up a movie studio. A real estate developer happened to overhear them talking at a hotel and suggested Hollywood.

So, they set out for Sunset & Gower where they found  a block long property. The owner wanted $50 rent per month for the whole block. They thought that was too much and opted for a lease with an option to buy the whole property for $9000 at the end of one year. They made the deal on a Sunday and by Tuesday the Nestor Film Studio was up and running.

The first movie they produced also happened to be the first true Hollywood-made movie. It was The Best Man Wins (1911) starring Harold Lockwood and Dorothy Davenport. Thomas’ wife Josephine also had a role as a vamp. Selig-Polyscope and Bison Film Company were already making films in Edendale, but theirs was the first real Hollywood film. In the next eighteen months, the studio turned out 50-60 films, half of which were directed by Thomas.

S.S. Hutchinson had decided to relocate their Niles, California movie studio to Santa Barbara. They invited Thomas to make a couple of movies – he stayed for four years. While there he made the film, Damaged Goods, with Richard Bennett and his own wife Josephine. It was a huge success grossing $1.5 million in its first run.

Despite all the success with Damaged Goods, Thomas didn’t find himself in high demand. He ended up taking a year off. He and Josephine bought a house in West Hollywood on Sweetzer Avenue, a house they would live in for the rest of their lives. After tinkering for awhile, Thomas decided if no one wanted him as a director, then he better start acting again.

He became quite a prolific actor in the 1920s and 1930s.  Many of the roles were uncredited, but he was never at a loss for work.  Any time someone needed an old man, especially an elderly butler, Thomas was there.

He worked up until his death from pneumonia on 20 January 1939. Josephine passed away nine months later on 18 October 1939.

He is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Black Oxen (1923) Corinne Griffith, Kate Lester and Thomas Ricketts, in the type of role for which he became famous

Black Oxen (1923) Clara Bow, Kate Lester and Thomas Ricketts, in the type of role for which he became famous

On This Day – January 13

Herbert BrenonSilent film director/writer Herbert Brenon was born on this day in 1880. While his name is probably not as well known to you as say, D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille, his movies probably are. Brenon directed some of the great silents of the twenties, such as The Street of Forgotten Men (Louise Brooks’ film debut), Peter Pan (with Betty Bronson), The Spanish Dancer (a Pola Negri epic), Dancing Mothers (with Clara Bow), The Great Gatsby (with Warner Baxter), Beau Geste (with Ronald Colman), Sorrell and Son (for which he was nominated for Best Director in the first Academy Awards) and Laugh Clown Laugh (with Lon Chaney, Sr.)

He was born Herbert Alexander Charles Reginald St. John Brenon in Dublin, Ireland. He left Ireland for England in 1883 and attended school in London. He immigrated to the United States on the 4th of July, 1896. He married actress Helen Violette Oberg (1885-1955) on 18 February 1904.  They had one son, Herbert Cyril Edward Brenon, whom they called Cyril (1906-1981), born while they were abroad in London. Brenon became a naturalized citizen in New York in 1918.

He got a job as a call boy for Augustin Daly’s Theater Company in New York in 1896. He traveled and played in stock companies for seven years before teaming up with his wife (who sometimes appeared under the stage name Helen Downing) and performing in vaudeville on the Orpheum and other circuits.

His foray into the moving picture business began when he got a job as a scenario writer for The Old Imperial Company, affectionately called “The Old Imp”. Carl Laemmle gave him his first directing opportunity in 1909 with a film called, All For Her. Brenon went on to direct films for Selig, Lubin, Vitagraph, Kalem, Fox, Famous Players-Lasky, United Artists and British Studios . He is credited with “discovering” Richard Barthelmess, Bert Lytell, Mary Brian and Esther Ralston.

He continued to write many of the scenarios for the films that he directed. Although initially outspoken about his opposition to sound films, he made the transition to talkies and directed films up until 1940.

He passed away at the age of 78 in Los Angeles on 21 June, 1958 of a heart ailment. He is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

On This Day – January 12

Jane Novak

Jane Novak (Johana Barbara Novak) was born on this day in 1896 to Joseph and Barbara Novak. Her parents both immigrated to the United States from Bohemia, modern day Czech Republic. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri with her three sisters and two brothers. Her aunt was actress Anne Schaefer, who in 1915, invited Jane to come to California.

When she arrived in California, she met actor Frank Newburg. He took her to see her aunt who was performing in a Vitagraph production at the time. The director saw her and asked to her to be in a scene, she agreed and a star was born.  Her younger sister Eva soon joined her in California and she too began acting in films.

Jane and Frank  were married 1915. They had one daughter and divorced in 1920. The following year, she got engaged to the great western star William S. Hart, but that union never came to fruition. She never remarried.

In 1924 she and fellow actress Gertrude Ryan sailed for Europe, so that Jane could star in a British-German collaboration in Berlin called, The Blackguard (Die Prinzessin und der Geiger).  The film was written by Alfred Hitchcock and they became good friends.

Jane appeared in a few sound films, including a bit part in Alfred Hitchcock’s, Foreign Correspondent, in 1940.  In 1974, she published a cookbook comprised of her own recipes called, ‘Treasury of Chicken Cookery’.

She passed away in Woodland Hills, California on February 1, 1990 at the age of 94. Her sister Eva preceded her in death in 1988.