January 20, 2015

Moon00004Struggling stage actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married on December 25, 1931. They divorced two months later. In 1936, Fonda and Sullavan were both burgeoning movie stars, and appeared together in the romantic comedy The Moon’s Our Home, whose story of whirlwind romance and hurricane breakup recalled their brief fling. Recently released on DVD from the Universal Vault, the studio’s burn-on-demand service, the film is an aggressive farce that gained added oomph from Fonda and Sullavan’s fraught, passionate relationship (the transfer looks soft and interlaced, but it’s watchable). Director William A. Seiter was a sensitive shaper of star personas, having helped mold the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey and the blossoming sass of Ginger Rogers. The Moon’s Our Home, with the aid of some acidic dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, is a bumptious battle of the sexes, with Sullavan a bite-sized Napoleon and Fonda her arrogant outdoorsman opponent. Their fights are shockingly violent, and the film ends with one of them in a straightjacket.


The Moon’s Our Home was adapted from a serialized novel by Faith Baldwin first published in Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan magazine. Walter Wanger Productions optioned the film rights, and included it in their distribution deal with Paramount. Wanger had also produced The Trail of the Lonesome Pine earlier in 1936, a Technicolor Western directed by Henry Hathaway that began the process of etching Henry Fonda into American history. Wanger brought Fonda back for The Moon’s Our Home, here playing an urbane travel writer with the pen name Anthony Amberton (real name John Smith), something of a hippie free spirit who’d rather commune with nature than with his growing legion of fans. But he is forced into city life to promote his new book (the macho “Astride the Himalayas”), and ends up on the same train as “Cherry Chester”, real name Sarah Brown (Sullavan), the young Hollywood ingenue of the moment. She is on her way to visit her supposedly sick grandmother back East in New York City, and is about to be roped into a relationship with her mewling cousin Horace (Charles Butterworth). The two celebrities never meet, but imagine the other to be a pompous airhead. Seiter splits the screen open diorama style and shows them in their adjacent rooms, their nighttime rituals choreographed as a dance. From brushing teeth to that last cigarette, every motion of theirs is in sync. It is a lyrical, economical way to convey that these two are made for each other, though they are a long way from realizing it. In his room, Amberton disgustedly states that “marshmallow-faced movie stars make me sick.”


During a book signing in NYC, Amberton gets woozy from perfume that makes him nauseous, evades his marauding admirers, escapes the department store and jumps into a horse-and-carriage, one which Cherry happens to be riding in. She is running away from her grandmother’s matchmaking mania. Neither recognizes the other, and so they flirt. Amberton says, “You’re rather attractive in an elementary sort of way”,  in between complaints about city life and dreams of wooded isolation. Amberton/Smith drops off the business card of the secluded New Hampshire guest home he is staying at, and Chester/Brown cannot resist the impulse to disappear. She runs away from her grandmother and Horace, her vanishing causing headline news. The couple falls in love through their disasters: ski crashes, wild horses and the tensed up paranoia of the guest house manager, the Wicked Witch herself Margaret Hamilton. They get married (by a deaf Walter Brennan), without knowing the other’s true identity. After another waft of perfume, the truth begins to leak out, they break up, and the hard work of re-building their marriage has to begin.


Prone to vase-smashing tantrums back home, Sarah seeks the easing of pressure that comes with anonymity. Sullavan, who Fonda described as “cream and sugar on a plate of hot ashes”, flashes all of her cuteness, innocence and wrath. Early on, a telegram from her grandmother has her tossing dishes at her servants, while the conclusion of the sequence finds her wrapped in white furs, her voice softened to a purr, as she delicately speaks to a reporter about love. She has the ability to fold up her body like an accordion when she wants to disarm you, shrinking herself into a dot that contains only her heart-shaped face. Once you are in her thrall she can expand into her knife-sharp, almost stabbing, form. It was this aggressiveness that initially attracted Fonda to her.


Devin McKinney describes their first encounter in his beautifully written biography of Fonda, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: “Henry meets Margaret Sullavan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1929, when they both appear in a musical comedy revue and she, as part of a synchronized production number, slaps him silly. ‘She intrigued me,’ he [Fonda] says.” The tabloids pegged their breakup to Sullavan’s rapid ascent and Fonda’s concurrent struggles. In 1936 Screenland phrased it as, “The old story of the rich, successful wife and the poor, unappreciated husband, and of course two such screwy people didn’t wait long to get a divorce.”

The Moon’s Our Home is a knowing re-enactment of their relationship, this time tagged with a “happy” ending. They get back together, but in a particularly cruel way, perhaps befitting their tumultuously brief time together. McKinney quotes a witness to one of their married bouts, who said, “They fought so terribly that you’d have to get out of the room.” From the courting to the break-up to their reunion, everything is borne out of violence and humiliation. Brown agrees to marry Amberton only after losing a bet – that she wouldn’t be able to stand up after crashing on her skis. During a grueling and very funny few minutes of screen time, Sullavan splays and slips and folds in half, but can never get upright. The marriage ceremony itself is an argument — Walter Brennan mishears their tiff “-Do you want to call the whole thing off? -I certainly do” as a confirmation of their vows. It ends in a brutal fashion. Sullavan is attempting to fly back to Hollywood to continue her career. Instead Fonda tracks her down, throws her into a straitjacket, and drives back into the city. It is a sequence of brutal patriarchal privilege, as Molly Haskell pointed out in From Reverence to Rape, but it is impossible to imagine Sullavan being kept tied up for long. As McKinney wrote, “Soon the jacket will come off, and this twister will fly again.”


When production began Sullavan was married to William Wyler, who directed her in The Good Fairy (1935). They were divorced in March of 1936, a few months after The Moon’s Our Home opened to middling box office. There was talk that Fonda and Sullavan were getting back together, but it never happened, it was probably just publicist fodder to drum up interest in the film. But the movie is enough to make you believe. That same Screenland article paints an irresistible portrait of the old couple settling into their old wedded roles, two beautiful, prickly pranksters who know who to get on every last nerve:

The director and people on the set tell me that for the first few days of production Margaret and Henry never spoke to each other but at the end of each “take” would go to opposite corners of the stage like a couple of wrestlers when the gong rings. …The first day on location in the snow Henry persuaded the sound technician to let him handle the “mike” boom for one scene in which Margaret was supposed to rant all over the place. And he purposely did such a bad job of handling it that the scene had to be taken over three times. By the third “take” Margaret was really ranting and Henry made a dirty crack to the effect that it sounded just like Old Home week. Late that afternoon Margaret got even with him. She was on top of a small slippery incline and extended a helping hand to Henry as he scrambled up. Just as he reached the top she pushed his face down in the snow and then sat on him. Well, you can’t be aloof to a man after you’ve sat on him, now can you?


November 18, 2014


Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good(1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.

William A. Seiter was born in New York City in 1890, the oldest son of a prominent family who were co-owners of Higgins & Seiter, purveyors of fine china and rich cut glass.  He ran away from a steady paycheck to Hollywood in 1912. He made ends meet as one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops and as a Western stuntman. He got his first featured part in the 1931 biblical short The Three Wise Men (1913). According to his daughter Jessica Seiter Niblo’s memoir Movietown Baby Grows Up, her father thought he was “so bad I just quit acting.” So instead he would crash movie sets with his friend (and future director) Sidney Franklin, pretending to be assistant directors. They faked it until they made it, and Seiter started directing comedy shorts in 1915. His first great success came with a series of comedies he directed for star Reginald Denny between 1924 and 1928. Dave Kehr described Seiter’s style in the Denny films as “a kind of domestic naturalism, with lightly comic sketches of middle-class young marrieds that anticipate the situation comedies of the Fifties.” Having learned every side of the business, he was an actor’s director. One of his actors Neil Hamilton would give Seiter the most practical of praise in Photoplay: “I cannot forget the treatment accorded me by Mr. Seiter. He is that rare personality in the business who does not believe in working after four thirty. Having been an actor himself once, he realizes that a day spent in front of the cameras, with one’s vitality being slowly consumed by the terrific heat of the lights, is no easy task.”

The Family Secret (1924) is an odd amalgam of Victorian melodrama and sitcom slapstick. It was a vehicle for Baby Peggy (real name Diana Serra Cary), who had become a superstar at age five after making over 150 shorts for Century Studios between 1921 and 1923. Universal signed her to make features, and they chose to adapt the Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Little PrincessThe Secret Garden) novel Editha’s Burglar, a Story for Children. Margaret Selfridge (Gladys Hulette) secretly marries Garry Holmes (Edward Earle) against the wishes of her father Sim (Frank Currier). Sim bans Garry from his home, and then has him arrested for burglary when Garry tries to see his wife and newborn baby (Cary). All of the creaky melodramatics halt when the story shifts from the parents to the child, and you can almost sense the entire cast relaxing. The movie then settles into a string of comic set pieces as Baby Peggy undermines any attempt at a functional household. She skips a reading lesson from her nanny and hides in the flour bin; brings home a stray dog whose fleas infest the spinsters at a tea party; wanders onto the streets and bonds with the lower classes, learning how to steal fruit from street urchins and rib the cops. It is that last section that is especially affecting. Peggy has no conception of money’s use value since she lives with it as a given. So on the outside she trades her dress for a banana. Seiter builds scenarios around Peggy’s natural mischievous innocence, and shapes a rickety melodrama into something improbably affecting.

Colleen Moore also exudes a mischievous innocence, but one that perpetually bumps up against the double standards that confront women. Moore’s freedom from restraint is alluring, but it is always in danger of becoming too alluring, in which case the movies pull back and reveal her to be a good girl after all.  Moore had long dreamed of becoming a movie star, and kept a scrapbook of her favorite performers – aspirationally leaving the last page blank for herself. She lived a few blocks away from Essanay studios in Chicago, and she appeared for them as a background extra. Her uncle Walter Howey, the managing editor for the Chicago Examiner, got her a screen test with D.W. Griffith, since Howey had helped Griffith get Birth of a Nation and Intolerance past the censorship board. The Colleen Moore persona is synonymous with that of the “flapper”, post-WWI women who flouted conventional gender roles by smoking, drinking and sleeping with whomever they wanted. This image was popularized in the 1923 Colleen Moore film Flaming Youth, in which Moore dallies with her mother’s ex-lover. Of that movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked, “I was the spark that lit up flaming youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” With her razor-sharp bob, bamboo-thin body and bowtie lips, she became the physical embodiment of the flapper ethos. Seemingly all elbows and knees, she was the ideal angular construction to dance the Charleston, and had the impish personality to give all that movement an air of subversiveness. Moore married producer John McCormick during the production of Flaming Youth, and together they would define what flappers looked and acted like to the majority of Americans.

By 1929 the flapper character was business as usual, but Moore was still packing them into theaters. Synthetic Sin is based on a 1927 play by Frederick and Fanny Hatton, produced by McCormick, and concerns a small town girl from “Magnolia Gap” who has dreams of becoming a legendary stage tragedienne. Though the feature looks fantastic (it was projected on DCP), it is missing most of the Vitaphone “soundtrack”, which added sound effects and popular songs of the period over the silent feature. Only the last reel of this audio remains.

When hometown hero playwright Donald Anthony (Antonio Moreno) returns home to premiere a new work, every high school drama queen clamors to play the lead. Betty (Colleen Moore) and her sister Margery (Kathryn McGuire) are the most insistent. Betty is spazzy and unsophisticated, her audition more akin to a Saturday Night Live cast hopeful. It involves  a “mad Ophelia” scene of flailing limbs and swinging wig pigtails that nearly choke her out. The showstopper, for me anyway, is Moore’s impression of classical pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. She dons an Einstein fright wig, applies a bushy moustache, and slams the keys like a proto-headbanger. Seiter is always interested in the clash between high and low – as in Peggy’s trip around the working class in The Family Secret.  One of his 1930s comedies, If You Could Only Cook, has an out-of work Jean Arthur convince car company president Hubert Marshall to pretend to be her husband so she can get a job as a maid.

Betty continues to travesty the high arts in Synthetic Sin by interrupting her sister’s flouncy “Grecian dance” with a gruesome blackface shuck and jive routine that might keep this movie from ever getting released on home video. Donald is convinced just enough to give Betty the part in the play – but she flops, getting laughs instead of tears. Thinking she has not suffered enough in life to become a true tragic actor, Betty travels to NYC to get a taste of the fast life. Betty is something like the first method actor. So she checks into a fleabag motel and invites every hard-looking, gun-toting gangster into her apartment for carousing. In one impressive dolly shot, Moore walks down a busy street towards a retreating camera while trying on different expressions and poses, from haughty to flirtatious, hand implanted on hip. Her attempts at vamping are hilarious – she runs her hand through her mark’s hair, staring exaggeratedly into his eyes, before getting hair gel all over her fingers and disgustedly wiping them on his lapel. Betty doesn’t belong as a criminal or a super serious artiste. She was built to be funny, though instead of getting a farce all of her own, the movie ends depressingly with Betty declaring that the only career she wants is to be Donald’s wife.

Why Be Good? proposes a different kind of conundrum. In this one Colleen Moore is well versed in the games of seduction, though deep down, the film promises us, what she really wants is marriage. Though the studio and screenwriters are still a little too wary of having a truly independent woman who can sleep with whom she wants, one look at Colleen Moore’s Charleston tells a completely different story. Moore plays the aptly named Pert Kelly, “an effervescent American girl” who is introduced winning a dance competition and then shutting everyone down with, “I’m naturally too hot for this old folks’ home.” Luckily all of the Vitaphone audio is present here to accompany her hot steppin’, and the track also has some pretty clever inventions, including a drunken rendition of “Sweet Adeline” interpreted by two muted, whining trumpets.

Though Pert is a queen by night at elaborate nightclubs like “The Boiler”, which blows steam over its already hot dancers,  by day she’s a department store clerk who pines for the personnel manager Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton). In an inspired bit of pantomime, she rests her head on his shadow behind an office window, and then draws his face on in lipstick. He is literally a marked man, and she will get him one way or another. The conventional ending of Why Be Good? is earned — she follows her desires and ends up with what she wants, and escapes the drudgery of department store work in the process. Of course her family just can’t understand her partying ways and interest in Peabody Jr. , but in an inspiring moment of flapper cinema, she explains to her father the whole point of this proto-feminist movement:

Pop, listen to me! This is 1929 — not 1899 — I contribute as much money to this house as you do — and as long as I think it is harmless, I’m going to wear what I like, and do what I like! …I want to go out, and dance, and have fun, as long as I can, as much as I can!

The fun ended for Moore with the coming of talkies. She divorced McCormick, her first sound films flopped, and she made her last film in 1934.


On July 13th, 1934 the madcap RKO comedy We’re Rich Again was released, the sixth collaboration between director William A. Seiter and star Marian Nixon.  They married soon after, and five years later they collaborated in the birth of Jessica Seiter (now Jessica Seiter Niblo), whose Movietown Baby Grows Up is a breezily entertaining memoir of her upbringing in Hollywood. Published at an Espresso Book Machine at her local bookstore, it was intended as a gift for her family, but she is also selling it through Facebook for those interested in the careers and personalities of her talented parents.  Seiter Niblo has a warm conversational tone, relating her parents’ romantic foibles and career bumps as if she were flipping the pages of a family album with you over a mug of Irish coffee.

William A. Seiter was the heir to a silver, crystal and china shop in NYC before he found his first wife in bed with another man, whereupon he “flew out the door, onto a train, and headed for Los Angeles to start life anew.”  He paid the bills as a Western stuntman and a Keystone cop in Mack Sennett comedies before working his way up the ladder, directing his first silent feature, The Kentucky Colonel, in 1920. Seiter Niblo relates that “Bill’s private life moved along at a reckless pace, trying marriage again with Jill (I was never informed of her last name) who chased him around their cottage with a meat cleaver.” Maybe that harrowing slapstick experience informed the movies  he would later make with comedy teams Wheeler and Woolsey and Laurel and Hardy.

Following the more amicable split with third wife Laura LaPlante, Seiter tied the knot for an even number with Nixon, who at the time was dubbed “The Nicest Girl in Hollywood”. She was born in Wisconsin “in a year she would never reveal – but most likely 1904″, to a family of poor Finnish immigrants, and showed a talent for dance, taking lessons in ballet and tap. She joined a touring group at a young age, and was abandoned in L.A. when tour director Paisley Noone absconded with “some handsome young man in Hollywood.” Nixon refused to return home, and tried her hand at acting, getting her first break with a casting director noticed her “threading a needle with ‘notable vigor’”. She earned her first leading role in the Buck Jones Western Big Dan (1923) directed by a young William Wellman.nixon

Nixon had her own lovesick blues, with a short-lived marriage to boxer Joe Benjamin, who made the gossip rags by popping two bullets into Nixon’s home after a spat. She climbed the social ladder for her second marriage, to Chicago department store heir Edward Hillman, Jr., who never held down a job, but simply “drinks and plays polo”.  His alcoholism cracks up the marriage, and Seiter and Nixon get hitched mere days after both their divorces are finalized.

This one sticks, and a family sprouts up. Seiter Niblo relays the whirl of being a Hollywood brat, moving from house to house ten times according to the curve of her Dad’s career. As a 2-year-old she sings “Dearly Beloved” to Jerome Kern, and Delmer Daves gives her a book of his calligraphy. Nixon curtails her acting in order to raise a family, but remains fascinated with the business, sending her daughter Mike Connolly’s column from the Hollywood Reporter every week through Jessica’s four years at Stanford. Nixon is essential to maintaining the loose community Seiter created on set, delivering “personal Christmas gifts from my father to his ‘staff’, especially Glen Tryon and Sam Mintz, his right hand men.”

Dave Kehr discusses this communal spirit in his Film Comment essay (Jan/Feb 2012) on William A. Seiter, which is re-printed in the back of the book. He emphasizes that “the thrust of his work is not to dominate his performers but to enframe and enhance them”. He uses Ginger Rogers as an example, as her non-nonsense persona is perfected from Professional Sweetheart (1933) through In Person (1935).  Seiter Niblo has learned to do the same for her family, letting their lives and personality emerge through her tough and loving portrait of two charismatic Hollywood talents.

As she proudly notes, her children have continued the family’s string of success in Hollywood. Ted Griffin is a screenwriter whose worked on everything from the cannibal thriller Ravenous (1999, a personal favorite) to the broad Brett Ratner comedy Tower Heist (2011). He collaborated with his brother Nick on Matchstick Men (2003) and the short-lived but much loved TV drama Terriers. So while the Seiter name has long been absent from silver screens, his family still knows how to entertain.