Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Silent Film Star Connections

Scene from "Modern Eden," a movie made in Trenton in 1918.

In 1917 a Toronto film company built a movie studio in what might seem an unlikely location — Trenton, Ontario.

Those who remember the years of Trenton's early film industry recall the thrill of seeing movie stars on the streets of town, shopping at local stores, or enjoying hockey games at the old Quinte Street Arena, wrapped in their coonskin coats.

They remember heads turning as the famous British film director, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, went by in his chauffeur-driven car, its hood ornament twice the size of a man's hand.

That is how I began my first book, The Movie Years (Mika, 1989), the story of those few, colourful years when my home town was Hollywood North.

The first five-reel film for Canadian National Features was "The Marriage Trap," starring Marguerite Snow and Herbert Prior. That same year, filming got underway on "Power," starring Holbrook Blinn, Mable Trunnelle, and other American film stars. Although Canadian National Features went into receivership before either picture could be released, they did appear in 1918, marketed by another company. Both movies premiered at the Strand in Toronto, and newspaper ads declared them "the most pretentious produced in the Dominion so far."
The Trenton Movie Studio

The names of those early actors meant little to me twenty-five years ago when I was writing The Movie Years. But when I was more recently researching the career of Mary Pickford for my book Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart (Dundurn, 2011) and I encountered them again, they seemed to spring off the page at me.

Although I never discovered anything to indicate Mary Pickford had ever been at the Trenton Studio, I found it interesting that some of the silent movie stars who had worked here in Trenton went on to appear in movies with the fabulous Pickford.

Holbrook Blinn, who starred in "Power" in 1917, played the king opposite Pickford in the acclaimed silent film "Rosita", directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Herbert Prior ("The Marriage Trap") had an interesting career. Early on he was a member of the Edison Stock Co. and the D.W. Griffith Stock Co., later joining Biograph where Mary got her start in moving pictures, under the direction of the brilliant D.W. Griffith. Prior was married to Mabel Trunnelle, who also played in "Power,"  here in Trenton.

Prior, an English-born actor, and Trunnelle made scores of films together. They were known as Hollywood's favourite couple until they were eclipsed by none other than Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Mary and Doug, Hollywood's favourite couple.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Man of Letters

My father loved words.

 He was not what you'd call an educated man. He never went to college, never earned a university degree. In fact, he left his home in England in 1923 at the age of seventeen, having passed his high school "O Levels." He came to Canada, reconnected with some of his cousins here, found work, got married, and spent a number of years in the RCAF during and after World War II. He and my mother, an elementary school teacher, raised a family of five children.

A lifelong reader, Dad used to send for secondhand books, mostly classic literature, from a book dealer in England. I remember his look of eager anticipation as he opened his jackknife to cut the string that bound the neatly wrapped, brown paper package containing two or three of the books he'd been waiting for.

My father was the one we went to if one of us wanted to know the meaning of a word we'd come across in our own reading, even though we knew his answer would always be the same: "Look it up in the dictionary."

In Quebec City. Dad, my sister Mary, and myself. Wearing fur was the fashion in the Forties.
Dad had a large vocabulary and an elegant way of expressing himself in the many letters he wrote home to the "old country" or to us kids after we'd left the nest. When he and my mother — another avid reader— had both retired, they played a game of "Scrabble" together every evening for the rest of their lives. 

After his death, twenty years ago now, I chose several volumes of my father's treasured books for my own library. Dad owned a number of dictionaries and I claimed one, also his Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Roget's Thesaurus of the English Language, Modern English Useage, and several volumes of his favourite classics that ranged from Charles Dickens to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The five of us were fortunate to be raised by such loving and literate parents.