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Charlie Chaplin the Great – Or Not, Depending

Right upfront, I have to confess to being a silent film fanatic. I adore early films. I’m not referring to what many people of my generation got all too used to seeing – action too fast, bad acting, terrible print quality.  I’m referring to the films that today we recognize as masterpieces of the time. Today we understand that they run at a different frame rate. We’ve got good clean prints. And we know that many outstanding actors were beginning to explore and exploit acting techniques to work for the camera, rather than the stage. Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton (my all-time favorite), Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks…. The list goes on.

And then of course, there’s Chaplin.

Charlie was hugely popular in his early career, making a fortune from his Little Tramp movies, such as Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights. However, in the 1940s his career went downhill after a paternity suit, a couple of movies that were considered “progressive and amoral,” and government accusations of being a Communist. Finally, the Truman administration waited until he had gone abroad for a vacation, and then filed charges (sound familiar, Roman Polanski?). Charlie was never able to reenter the U.S.

Did he deserve all this? Frankly, no. But Charlie was never exactly Mr. Tact – he had offended a lot of people and it came back to bite him. But he was also brilliant in front of the camera and is still the single most recognizable actor and director of the silent era.

Chester Conklin, in the Kevin Brownlow book, The Parade’s Gone By, described the initial creation of the Little Tramp: “I remember one rainy morning, Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, and myself were sitting in the dressing room playing pinochle. Charlie wanted in and went up to the make-up bench… he held up various pieces of crepe hair under his nose…. Finally, he found a piece that he liked, stuck it on with spirit gum, went over and got Roscoe Arbuckle’s hat and his pants, my [cutaway] coat…. He took his own cane and went out … into the lobby and started clowning around doing the drunk act he’d done on vaudeville. He’d get his foot stuck in the cuspidor and couldn’t get it out – all that kind of thing.

“Everyone had gathered around and was laughing. [Keystone Director Mack] Sennett stood back of the crowd and watched. Finally he went up to Charlie and said ‘Listen, do what you’ve been doing when we shoot this picture with Mabel and Chester.’ Of course, it wound up that he stole the picture from us.”

Chaplin I found myself thinking of all this as I looked at a lithograph I just put up for sale on my shop, CollectibleCool. It’s a single page by caricaturist Henry Major, and appeared in a limited edition book of 800 called Hollywood in 1938.

Out of all the images in this book, Major chose to show Charlie in three different aspects: As the Little Tramp twice, and as a wild-haired character who looks more like the role he played in Limelight much later. Was Major trying to convey some of Charlie’s complexity with these sketches? It’s as though he was having a hard time deciding who Charlie was.

See what you think.

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Filed under Antiques and Collectibles, Art, Historical Memorabilia, movies, silent film, Uncategorized

Famous People – Not So Famous Collections

Celebrities are no more immune to the collecting bug than anyone else, and of course many of them are wealthy enough to really indulge themselves. I’m not so sure how I feel about this – I’m one of those who enjoys the thrill of the hunt. It seems as though having enough money to literally buy anything you want might take some of the edge off. However, many of these celebrities would apparently not agree!

Take Quentin Tarantino, for example, most recently the Oscar-winning writer of Django Unchained. The man behind the classic but violent Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs amuses himself far more sedately when not on the set – he collects old board games. His favorites are apparently those merchandised from old TV shows, such as The Dukes of Hazzard.

Now actor Tom Hanks has an interesting taste – he collects old typewriters. He says he loves the permanency of the typed word. He buys the old machines from all over the world; must cost the earth in shipping, too.

And people still collect stamps. My father was an avid stamp collector – his collection was large, though not particularly valuable. But it’s now a hobby more women are indulging in, such as tennis player Maria Sharapova. Her goal is to collect stamps from every place she goes. She is joined in her habit by British pop singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor. However, Ms. Sharapova has admitted that perhaps she should not have publicly confessed to this type of collecting – she was quoted as saying “everyone started calling me a dork.” Not to worry, Maria. We get it.

Then there’s MTV host Alexa Chung, who claims to collect dead things, i.e., taxidermied animals. Despite being a vegetarian, she apparently has no qualms about killing animals for non-food-related reasons.

Demi Moore and her dolls, Ozzy Osbourne and his Beatles memorabilia, Nicolas Cage and Jonathan Ross with their comic books, Teddy bear collectors Dame Judi Dench and Elton John – the list goes on. Sir Michael Caine with his houseful of art nouveau seems effete by comparison.

I once met a woman who collected farrier’s tools for shoeing horses. It sounds a little unusual until you learn that she had longed to be a blacksmith when she was a child.

There’s always a reason.

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Filed under Antiques and Collectibles, Art, Historical Memorabilia, Porcelain, Uncategorized

The 20th Century By Way of Sheet Music

A couple of weeks ago, I came across about 100 pieces of vintage sheet music. They had belonged to an elderly lady who was an enthusiastic amateur pianist. I knew her fairly well, and I remember she was one of those older people whose friends were all decades younger than she was. She would host regular music sessions at her house, with groups of students showing up to perform.

As I sorted this clearly beloved music collection, I found myself swept up on a journey through the 20th century. It included songs published way back in the early 1900s – I came across “One Fine Day,” from the opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini, published as a popular song in 1908. There really was a time when an opera aria was considered popular music!

From the 1920s, I found a song called “Lover, Come Back to Me” written by Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame), with music by David Romberg. It has one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen, summing up all the charm and flamboyance of the flapper era just one year before the U.S. sank into the Great Depression.

My parents grew up during the Depression, and I remember my father telling stories about going to the grocery stores each night to check through the trash for discarded food. People survived the 1930s by singing show tunes like “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, “Good Night Sweetheart,” sung by Rudy Vallee, and “Dancing in the Dark,” from the Broadway hit The Band Wagon.

Looking through the pieces from the 1930s, I was also amazed to find what appears to be the autograph of actress Jane Ferrar on the cover of  “Yesterdays” from the 1935 film Roberta.  Ms. Ferrar is not on the cast list for this film, but it does feature a number of uncredited early appearances by stars to be (including Lucille Ball). It seems possible that Ferrar might have been one of the song-and-dance girls alongside the incomparable Lucy. Did the original owner actually meet Ms. Farrar during her brief period of popularity (or before it)? This is the kind of thing that makes what I do so interesting.

As the U.S. recovered from the Depression, of course, came the war. Sheet music was now printed with ads for war bonds. “As Time Goes By” from the film classic Casablanca highlighted the days before World War II hit its full stride. Covers regularly featured film stars in wartime stories – songs like “My Heart Sings” from Anchors Aweigh and “That Old Black Magic” from Star-Spangled Rhythm.

For some reason the collection includes just a few songs from the 1950s. And then – BOOM – the 1960s: Folk music! McQueen! Dunaway! Streisand! What a difference a decade makes! There are relatively few pieces from the ‘70s and ‘80s – I think my old friend’s tastes were well established by then. (But why did she have a song by Madonna? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Going through this music again gave me clarity into why we collect. This wonderful set of old standards connects – not just the original owner, but us – to our nation’s and our personal stories. Like a musical snapshot, we capture the past and gain insight into how it underlies our journey to modern times.

It also made me want to go watch old movies!

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Filed under Antiques and Collectibles, Art, Historical Memorabilia, Music, Porcelain, Uncategorized, Vintage Sheet Music

Very Cool Responses on Why We Collect

Wow! I had no idea I was opening up such a – well, I can’t say “can of worms” – rather, such a special bag of delicious goodies when I posed the question of “Why the heck do we collect?” Over on Etsy an enthusiastic discussion has been taking place this afternoon within the Forums on this topic – see here (though you may need to sign up if you’re not a member already) – with some amazing, thoughtful, and downright beautiful responses to this question. 

One of the members pointed me to the StuffDoesMatter website, which focuses on our relationships with our belongings. In the blog, A Spoon is More Than a Spoon, metalsmith Megan Auman addresses the great importance we attach to meaningful objects and how they help to shape our lives. I really loved this – in effect, she feels that our stuff impacts who we are, how we experience the world, and, in some small way, it connects us to others. 

Read her blog and see what you think. 

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