A home movie of the great and the good and the averagely brilliant
I’ve just come across a silent amateur movie made in 1926 that has an absolutely mad cast. It was mentioned in an article about writers who appear in films in The Millions – an online magazine about books and the arts – and all 33 minutes are on youtube. It’s as if the great and good got hold of a video camera 87 years ago and just as they were getting nicely drunk someone said, hey! I’ve got a great idea.
Loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, it is set in New York at a time when alcohol was banned. One side effect of Prohibition appears to be that people forgot how to drink – in several scenes the “actor’ is too busy looking at the camera to get the clearly empty glass anywhere near her lips.
Paul Robeson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The great Paul Robeson in the very early days of his career as an international film star, singer and civil rights activist was cast as Dumas in velvet smoking jacket. He is seen composing his masterpiece, frequently looking up for inspiration as if someone hanging from the chandelier just out of camera shot was telling him what to write.
A young Anita Loos – author of the bestselling comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – is the lead and wanders around New York with her arms outstretched as if she is a bag lady who has forgotten her bags.
And the rest of the cast is equally unbelievable. The novelist Somerset Maughan makes an appearance. He is probably most famous for Of Human Bondage and the many films adapted from his books, but even his first novel was a major success. About love and sex in the slums of South London, it sold out within weeks and while still in his twenties he was able to earn enough to support himself by writing alone.
Charlie Chaplin is also a member of the cast, just after he made The Gold Rush, the highest grossing film of the silent era.
The American writer Sinclair Lewis in very bad make up plays abstract concepts like Hope and Despair with a scarf wrapped around his head. Four years after this home movie was shot he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
There’s probably a lot of other famous people involved that I don’t recognise or know about. Ernest Hemmingway and Dorothy Parker AREN’T in it: they must have been out of town that weekend.
Take a look at Camile. It’s a slice of history you would never expect to see.
photo credit: Thiophene_Guy via photopin cc