As I mentioned on a previous Book Club Friday, I'm reading Vampyres of Hollywood, a not-too-serious novel by movie actress Adrienne Barbeau and co-author Michael Scott (the Irish novelist, not the character from the U.S. The Office.)
Without giving away too much of the plot, I thought it would be fun to look at the real-life actors who appear as vampire characters in this book. The Old Hollywood vampyres, according to Barbeau and Scott, include:
Charles Brabin (1882-1957): English-born American film director who married Theda Bara in 1921. He was the original director of the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, but was replaced fairly early in the production.
|Newspaper ad for While New York Sleeps, directed by Charles Brabin. Public domain image within the U.S.|
|Public domain within the U.S.|
James Whale (1889-1957): English film director whose credits include Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Sir Ian McKellen played him in the 1998 movie Gods and Monsters. He was one of the first gay men in Hollywood to be "out."
Mary Pickford (1892-1979): Toronto-born Canadian-American actress and behind-the-scenes business woman considered "America's Sweetheart." She was one of the founders of the United Artists company, along with her husband Fairbanks. Starred opposite her husband in The Taming of the Shrew. America's Sweetheart was a serious party girl who developed a severe alcohol problem.
|Mary Pickford. Public domain image in the U.S.|
Olive Thomas (1894-1920): American (Pittsburgh area) illustrators' model, Ziegfield Follies chorus girl, and silent film actress. Her 1920 film The Flapper helped popularize the "flapper" lifestyle, and she was as notorious for partying in life as she was in the movies. She married Mary Pickford's brother Jack in 1916. She died from drinking mercury bichloride liquid, which was used at the time as a topical treatment for syphilis, which her husband had. (Remember, antibiotics didn't come into common use until around the time of World War II.) Her death was ruled accidental and not suicide, but it was quite a scandal at the time - one of the earliest Hollywood scandals.
|Olive Thomas. Public domain image within the U.S.|
Orson Welles (1915-1985): Wisconsin-born actor, screenwriter, director, and producer famed for his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast that many people believed was a real news report of an alien invasion, and for numerous films including Citizen Kane. He was married to Rita Hayworth for a period in the 1940s and the two had a daughter together, and he also had an affair with the gorgeous Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. He played Edward Fairfax Rochester in the 1943 version of Jane Eyre.
|Welles in The Lady From Shanghai trailer. Public domain within the U.S.|
Peter Lorre (1904-1964): Jewish American (naturalized 1941) actor born in what is now Slovakia, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After fighting in World War I, the young actor began working with the legendary playwright Bertolt Brecht. He was then cast as a serial killer in the film M by the German director Fritz Lang. He began making English-language films by learning his lines phonetically and is known for such movies as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Toward the end of this life he also made two low-budget horror films with Roger Corman.
|Lorre is caricatured in the Looney Tunes cartoon "Hollywood Steps Out." Public domain within the U.S.|
Pola Negri (1897-1987): Polish-born American silent film actress and ballerina. She made a number of silent films in Polish, then in German, and then she came to Hollywood and made English-language films. As the first European star in Hollywood, she's said to have paved the way for Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and their like.
|Pola Negri. The U.S. Library of Congress is not aware of any restrictions on the use of this image.|
Theda Bara (1885-1955): Silent film actress, born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati. Her Hollywood name is an anagram of "Death Arab," because the studio thought it sounded exotic. They claimed she was the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French mother, born in the Sahara. (Close enough - her father was a Polish Jew, and her mother was of French-speaking Swiss descent, although Bara was, as I mentioned, born in Ohio.) She's remembered mainly for her risque costumes in the 1917 film Cleopatra. Most of her films are now lost (including a turn as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet), and only about 20 seconds of Cleopatra are currently extant.
|Bara in Cleopatra. Public domain within the U.S.|
Tod Browning (1880-1962): American film actor, writer, and director from Louisville, Kentucky, best known for the 1931 Dracula. He literally ran away and joined the circus when he was 16 years old. After that, he became a vaudeville performer. He was directing at a vaudeville theater when he met fellow Kentuckian D.W. Griffith, the notorious director, who set Browning to performing in nickelodeon reels. When Griffith moved his base of operations to Hollywood in 1913, Browning went with him.
|Lobby card for Browning's 1932 circus-themed movie Freaks. Public domain within the U.S.|
Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926): Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla was an Italian actor working in the United States, famous for his "Latin lover" image. He kind of stumbled into acting because he was poor and he took on a lot of odd jobs. The 1921 film The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse made him a star, but another film released that same year, The Sheik, cemented his image. (Surprisingly, Valentino used the publicity surrounding the role to speak out against stereotyping of Arab people, acknowledging the long tradition of arts, science, and culture in Arab history.) Adored by women, his sexuality was something of a puzzle, but he was possibly bisexual. He was supposedly dating Pola Negri when he developed appendicitis, which turned into the case of peritonitis that killed him. Another book that features Valentino as a fictional character is Loving the Undead: An Anthology of Romance (Sort Of), edited by Katherine Sanger. Valentino's ghost appears in "The Sheik and I" by Leslie Brown.
All of these people, Scott and Barbeau write, make pretty good vampyres, except the self-absorbed Valentino. Lorre is actually quite old, having had a hand in the French Revolution. Vampyres of Hollywood also mentions a vampyre named Charlie. I assume they mean Charlie Chaplin, but I'm not sure.
If you enjoy nonfiction about Old Hollywood, then you might enjoy The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. You'll learn quite a bit about Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo in it, and a little about Valentino, too. You can also read about Mary Pickford and Theda Bara in The American Women's Almanac by Louise Berkinow.