The Mighty B’s – Charlie Chan – Changing of the Guard Pt 2 #1939TheMiracleYear

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 2

The Oakland Tribune [12/11/38] put it succinctly in their headline for their story about the replacement for Warner Oland:

Missouri Man Follows Swede in Chan Role

The article ran two months after the decision that Sidney Toler would be the new Charlie Chan. Having pointed out the disparity of their origins, their story went on to compare the two actors and introduce to their readers (or recall to their memory) just who the new Chan was.

The successful candidate – Sidney Toler – had many similarities to Oland. Both men were tall [6 foot] and heavyset. Both came from the stage, Oland’s first stage appearance in the early 1900s was in a Sarah Bernhardt production. He put a total of fourteen years in on the boards, and along with his wife translated the works of August Strindberg. Toler, being older by five years, started in the theater right out of college in 1892 (the same year a thirteen year old Oland emigrated from Sweden with his family), and wrote many plays as well.

Oland, however, was first off the mark when it came to film roles – he appeared with Theda Bara in Jewels of Madonna in 1909 for William Fox. Toler did not appear before the camera until 20 years later – in Madame X, (under the direction of fellow actor Lionel Barrymore).

And both Toler and Oland had played villains, and both had played Orientals.

When Oland died, he left behind some pretty big shoes. No one else in film history to that date had appeared in such a long lived series of feature films portraying the same character. His fans were legion. And the exhibitors were keen for a Chan to light up their screens and box office coffers.

And it had seemed it would come to pass.

Fox had announced a starting date (first week in August 1938) for the next production – Charlie Chan in Honolulu, but they weren’t getting any responses from Oland to their summons for his sooner return. They did not know that he was on his death bed. The exhibitors mourned at the news of his passing, and the week after rejoiced to hear that a search was underway for a new Chan, and already rumors were circulating that a contract player on the Fox lot, J Edward Bromberg, held the inside track.

However, screen tests for the part were still ongoing in October with Charles Coburn and Sidney Toler the most recent candidates. The field topped out at 35 before the final decision was made (Oland had been the chosen one from a field of 19). Fox must have been getting nervous about going forward, for they hedged their bets by canvassing the exhibitors as to their continued support for the series, arguing that they did have the Mr Moto series to fall back on. Their poll must have been reassuring.

So far 1938 was a busy year for Toler. He split himself between two studios and five projects in supporting roles.  Though his main studio had been principally Paramount, he appeared in two of Fox’s B unit films – ‘The Wild Night’ and ‘Up the River,’ both comedies about criminals. After Toler was tapped for the Chan part on October 18, the film columnists posited afterwards that Toler had angled to become Chan.  Toler confirmed it in a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 1939 (before his third Chan film was released). He confessed that he won the part on the strength of his “performance as a con man in Up the River.” And then columnist Robbin Coons got more specific – in essence Toler played the part of the con man as if he were Chan (just without the accent) by making the case to the director beforehand that his character should be “quiet, subtle and restrained.”And it was reported that the rushes from Up the River and Toler’s character in particular wowed Sol Wurtzel. Such was his contribution and because of how well the film came together that Darryl Zanuck (Wurtzel’s boss) bumped Up the River to an ‘A’ picture status. Toler was rewarded with a screen test for the Chan part and walked away with the role.

The advance reviews for ‘Charlie Chan in Honolulu’ confirmed their choice.

The Variety review 12/21/38

“Adventures of Charlie Chan get off to a fresh start with Sidney Toler handling the title role in most capable fashion. His Chan has poise and lightness, and is less theatric than previously. Followers of the series should quickly accept him as Chan, and if comparisons with the late Warner Oland’s conception are made they will generally be in his favor.”

The Film Bulletin review (an Exhibitor publication) 12/31/38

“a lighter, more affable and less formal Charlie Chan. .. reviewer found himself more concerned with the story than comparisons between Oland and Toler.”

And gave the following promo tip: “Call him the greatest character in mystery fiction – a character that will never die!”

And soon like Oland, Toler was receiving adulatory fan mail – by the bucket loads – addressed merely to his character’s name – Charlie Chan. It led Toler to muse about his getting the role in the first place. In that article from the Philadelphia Inquirer he remarked that before Chan he was a ‘triple threat actor’ – comedian, villain or any other role. (He must have been feeling what George Reeves felt later after playing the Superman role on TV, and was no longer offered other parts). For Toler ends his comments, in a comic fashion, but with the sting of truth, relating a dream “in which he was playing Shylock in Merchant of Venice, when someone in the audience jumped to his feet and yelled – ‘You can’t fool me – That’s Charlie Chan.’”

Stayed tuned for a rundown on the four Chan films released in 1939 starring Sidney Toler.

The Mighty B’s Charlie Chan The Changing of the Guard Pt 1

The Mighty Bs -Charlie Chan - the Changing of the Guard Pt 1

The year 1939 would be marked by a sea (or C C for Charlie Chan) change for the B unit at Twentieth Century Fox. It all began in early 1938 when the head of the unit, Sol M Wurtzel was presented with a huge headache – the star of his Charlie Chan series walked off the set in the midst of filming his seventeenth feature – ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside.’ Ostensively it was to get a drink of water, but the actor, Warner Oland, kept going and walked off the lot, too.

Oland was very troubled at the time. His wife was suing him for separate maintenance, and complaining about his alcoholism. These two factors easily explain his odd behavior the week prior to his exit.

The Ringside film was to have begun shooting on Monday, January 10th, but Oland was a no show, sending word that the scheduled sound stage was too drafty and thus a danger to his health. By that Wednesday the producers had lined up a ‘warmer’ sound stage, and filming commenced with Oland playing the Chan character, but come Saturday he walked out without a word of explanation.

Oland was back in the fold on Monday January 17th, up until the time of the ‘drink of water’ incident. Then he just disappeared. To where? Nobody knew. As to why, nothing was mentioned about it at the time, but I noticed in my research that that month marked their 30th wedding anniversary. Perhaps, he was overwhelmed on that score.

Finally he was located at home on January twentieth, but that was too late as far as the producers were concerned. In the meantime, they had suspended him for three months and had pulled the plug on the film. There was much speculation in the press as to what would happen next. Many columnists were working their contacts within the studio, and brought back the report of the confusion reigning there. Louella Parsons wrote on the 25th that Fox was narrowing their options down to two; either get a new Chan, or promote Keye Luke, Chan’s number one son to take over the series altogether. By early February, Wurtzel came up with another option. He made a decision to salvage ‘Charlie Chan at Ringside’ by converting it into a Mr Moto film, another series produced under his aegis. New scenes would be shot with Peter Lorre’s character grafted into the story, which had him interacting with Chan’s number one son Keye Luke.

About the time the newly named ‘Mr Moto’s Gamble’ was shooting, Oland took off with his chauffeur and his nurse and created more problems in Arizona. Evidently, he had not told his companions his plans until they reached Tucson. A heated argument broke out with Milton Tharp, his chauffeur, when Oland wanted him to cross into Mexico and head for Guaymas (Oland owned a substantial ranch a little further down, on an island off Mazatlan). Tharp refused. For he knew that Oland was broke and had no access to any funds as all he had, had been placed in receivership by his wife’s lawyers. Instead Tharp drove them to the police station where the argument escalated and their resultant spat drew a crowd. Bristling about the curious onlookers, Oland tried to disperse them by hurling stuff at them – his thermos, lighted cigars, then his shoes and his socks – anything that came to hand. When photographers arrived, Oland got out and chased after them, bare foot and wrapped in an Indian blanket. Tharp was able to explain the situation to Police Chief Wollard, who detailed a former deputy sheriff to accompany the troop back to LA, where Oland was admitted to a private sanitarium in Hollywood.

Two weeks later, the United Press was reporting that Oland was on the way to recovery. The studio changed his three month suspension into three month vacation, and they were hoping he could return to the role in the fall.

  Just before the release of the Mr Moto ex-Chan film in April, Oland’s divorce became final, and soon after he left for Europe. He would travel to Italy, France and England before settling in to his native Sweden to complete his rest and recovery.

Sadly though – on August 6th, Oland contracted pneumonia (per press accounts) and died in a hospital in Stockholm. (Official cause of death was listed as cirrhosis hepatitis cardiosclerosis).

Recovering from their shock, 20th Century Fox was left scrambling again. The Chan films were too lucrative to drop, for they churned out a million plus per year. Time to get serious about a replacement to play Charlie Chan.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story next time, here on Watch This Space.

The Fatal RIng - Pearl White - Oland upper rt

Aside – Oland’s death was connected to that curiosity of celebrity deaths – those that occur in threesomes. Oland (in the upper right corner of the above photo) in an even stranger coincidence was related to the two celebs whose deaths proximated his. On August 4, just two days prior to his demise, Pearl White, the heroine of highly popular serials in the silent era, passed away in Paris. Oland played the heavy who was trying to kill her at every turn. (He remembers that one episode called for him to dispatch her with a pile driver). The other – director John G Blystone died the same day as Oland. He had been his director on ‘Charlie Chan’s Chance’ back in 1932.

The Midshipman was an Inventor Roswell Evander Morey

Attachment-1

This time out I am writing about another appointee from the state of Maine, Roswell Evander Morey. The last time I wrote about a midshipman who hailed from the Pine Tree state (L. B. Foster), he was one who turned his back on his state and the Union, went south and became a rebel. Roswell left the state also, though he took a different direction. He went west and became an inventor.

Though the 1860 US census lists Roswell was born in Maine, other records (the earlier 1850 one and then all the later censuses) indicate he was born across the US border in St Stephen Canada. Had this fact been known, his appointment to the Naval Academy would have been null and void. I have run across another midshipmen, who was born in Canada and kept that fact secret also.

If it’s any consolation, both of Roswell’s parents, his father Gibeon and his mother Abigail Sarah Farnesworth, were born in Maine and hence American citizens. According to that same 1860 census, Gibeon was a machinist in Machias, Maine. The area was known for machinery that processed one of Maine’s major crops – converting pine trees into lumber. These circumstances may explain Roswell’s later interest in machinery and invention.

Roswell’s career at the Academy got off to a rough start, with his academic standings hugging the bottom of the class. However, he did follow the regulations closely, indicated by his extremely low accumulation of demerits in his plebe year (1857-58). They totaled only 38 on the year  – nearly half of them involving a two day contretemps with a fellow midshipman – upon whom he had thrown water from an upper window. He was sent on the summer cruise on the USS Preble and would continue as a plebe.

There is a noticeable improvement the next year (1858-59), academically speaking – perhaps because he repeated all the plebe classes. His standings jumped to the top third in his class, but so did his demerits, almost tripling to 92, officially. He shipped aboard the USS Plymouth for the 1859 summer cruise, and reported for the 1859-60 school year as a third classman.

Come the end of his third year at the academy, a mystery crops up.  In the official record for the year most of his classmates – 42 out of the 45 total were continuing on to the next year, 1860-61. Roswell would not. He was listed 44th, two below those passing – this despite placing well in 5 of the 7 classes. And it seems particularly odd given that his standing in Seamanship was number three. Such a high mark would carry a lot of weight when it comes to one’s standing in the naval service. The number of his demerits also declined (down to 74).

So what kept him from continuing at the Academy? Why was he forced to resign?

Looking back on other correspondence there is one severe sounding reprimand from the Superintendent in January of 1860. Was this the camel back breaking straw that resurfaced to haunt him?

“Naval Academy
 Annapolis Md
Jan 3 1860

Sir
You are reported to me for
breaking the lock of a trap door in the
quarters & opening the same.-  You will
please reply in writing through the
Commandant of Midn to this most serious
charge.-

I am respectfully
Your obt servt
G S Blake
Sup’t’d’t

Acting Midn
R E Morey USN
       Naval Academy
       Annapolis Md”

I could find no reply from Roswell to the charge. His conduct roll states only that “No excuse” was given for this infraction, for which he received ten demerits.

Yet, he was still at the Academy five months later with no sign of a problem. In fact, his name was put on a list of midshipmen granted leave for the summer to commence on 6/16.  But a few weeks later (7/6), he was notified by Superintendent Blake that because he had failed to tender his resignation, as so directed on 6/19, his appointment was revoked. What happened between those two dates in June?

The only clue I have points to a matter of timing. The June examinations closed on 6/16, so perhaps his standings were not known at the time his name was included with those allowed a furlough.

In any event one way or another Roswell was going home. He was back in Machias with his family just in time for the (already cited) 1860 census on 7/17, in which he was listed as a sailor. The draft registration records for 1863 indicate that he still followed the sea in the merchant marine, but curiously lay no claim to prior military service.

After the war, he moved out to Lake Valley near Tahoe in California, bringing his parents with him, and remained in the state for the rest of his life, moving to San Francisco, then Alameda, and finally, Oakland, along the way working as an engineer, a bookkeeper and finally the manager at the Union Box Factory in Oakland.

Something about the Box Factory inspired his creativity. He applied for four separate patents over a period of 15 years.

1879 – for a return-crate

1880 – an improved fruit and berry basket

1892 – for a machine to form berry baskets

1894 – for a fruit basket and a crate.

As far as I can ascertain Roswell’s family was not aware that he had been at the naval academy. In the obituary for his son Charles, it only mentions that Roswell was a pioneer in Oakland, and had a box making plant.

Perhaps the stigma of dismissal, like that trap door in his academy room, was something better left unopened.

Cinderella Sliver

Cinderella Sliver

Tell me a tale
Of a lion and a mouse
And the outcome
Of one big splinter
Of the gratitude
To the lesser from the greater
And how each in his turn
Saved the other,

In our own story
We have a like tale
Of something
That brought us together
For without a sliver
I would have remained an “I”
You … a “you”
But because of it
We are a “we” together.

RWOz2

A Closer Look at J S Stembridge #1939TheMiracleYear

A Closer Look at J S Stembridge

In my last post for – 1939 The Miracle Year, I mentioned J. S. Stembridge who rented out  weapons for use in movies. It didn’t seem on point to write more about him at that time for it would have been a huge rabbit trail. So I thought – why not give him his own post.

James Sidney Stembridge was born in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1869. The town had been the capital of Georgia until displaced by Atlanta just the year before. Though it was a great place in which to grow up, its struggle to keep financially solvent, may have been the reason James wound up in Baltimore as a clerk by the 1890s. It was from that metropolis in 1893 that he landed in his calling as a soldier, the experiences from which formed the basis for his future success in his rather unique business.

By the time of the Spanish American War he was a sergeant in the US 18th Infantry and was dispatched to the Philippines where the US Army’s mission was the pacification of that new territory. He reupped in Manila in August 1898 – a “Most excellent sgt.,” finishing out his term a year later at the Presidio in San Francisco.

From this first encounter with the Golden State, he felt the need to return to family on the east coast after his discharge. Both parents were gone by this time, but his eldest sister and her family in Sanford FL gladly took in the ailing veteran. He had contracted malaria in the Orient and such were his doubts about his longevity that he decided to forswear ever marrying. This notion may have been reinforced when his sister’s husband Herbert Munson died in 1905 from tuberculosis and as a result she descended into madness and was incarcerated in an insane hospital. (Their two daughters, his nieces, later worked for Stembridge).

By 1906, James wound up on his own in Jacksonville FL working as a salesman for a shoe retailer. The pull of family had him back in Georgia by 1910, near Waynesboro, working as a salesman in a drugstore – most likely for his younger brother Henry, who was a pharmacist there. (Henry’s son James Edward, born in 1913, would later join his uncle in his gun rental business in 1933, taking over from him upon his death in 1942).

In investigating Stembridge’s move back to CA from GA, the timing has proven problematic. Most credit his connection early on to Cecil B DeMille when the director was creating ‘The Squaw Man’ in 1914. The story goes that DeMille was exasperated over some extras playing soldiers who acted anything but soldierly. Stembridge, being a former drill sergeant, volunteered his services – to the grateful satisfaction of the director. But the LA city directory for 1914 does not list Stembridge. Neither does the one for 1915.  He does show up finally as a shoe salesman in 1916 which seems appropriate, given his work history. And he did not appear in any of the LA directories with a film industry occupation until 1920. (Stembridge did have a few acting parts in the early 1920s and for such he was listed).

    Loose threads sprouted as I passed down this particular rabbit trail. Just when I thought I was set to close this post, I could not, not so long as questions dangled without answers.

What I uncovered in pursuit of those answers has given me a negative proof of sorts that Stembridge was not in California in 1914 and probably not involved with film in 1915.

In looking through DeMille films that would have utilized extras as soldiers, besides The Squaw Man of 1914, I discovered two that were made back to back in 1915 – The Unafraid and The Captive. Both are stories with the Balkan War of 1912-13 as a backdrop, and called for extras to portray Montenegrin and Turkish troops.

     During the filming of the second a serious tragedy occurred. An extra was accidentally shot and killed. According to DeMille’s own account, he had called for live ammunition to be fired outside a house at its door before they were to rush it. In preparation for the follow up scene DeMille had ordered blanks to be loaded instead. One rifle, sadly, did not have its live round replaced.

     No mention was made of a firearms expert on set. If there had been, the fault would have rested squarely with him. DeMille carried the guilt and arranged for a pension for the victim’s widow.

If Stembridge had been present it is easy to imagine that the tragedy would not have occurred. (And the converse, if it had happened despite his presence, he would no longer have been employed as such).

     So, to my mind, it seems all the more likely that Stembridge was not involved in the industry until late in 1916 or in 1917. DeMille remade The Squaw Man in 1918, just four years after the first version. This may align the timing better to another statement that claimed Stembridge was called on to drill studio employees facing a call up with the US entry into the World War (April 1917).

It would seem that the circumstances in the studio at this later time were more conducive to bringing the ex-soldier on board. War movies, at least patriotic ones, were being pushed into production.

What at first was a maintenance position at the studio, blossomed into a unique relationship. By 1919 it seems Stembridge convinced DeMille and Jesse Lasky (the principals of Paramount Studios)  to advance the capital to set him up as a supplier for gun rentals, both for the studio itself and to rent out to other productions at other lots. They set aside space at the studio to warehouse the weapons and in which he could repair and service them and to manufacture the crucial blank ammunition.

His stock of guns was limited at first, so part of his job was to hunt down the requisite arms as needed. In 1924, he had a particularly hard time putting together enough period correct weapons for The Devil’s Cargo, an adventure set in gold rush California. It seems gun collectors, then on the rise, had snapped up the readily available supply.

A big break for his firm came in 1925 when director King Vidor came to him to solve some tricky problems with the automatic weapons needed for his film – The Big Parade – set against the background of the recent World War. Vidor’s home studio (MGM) had given up on firing blanks from machine guns, declaring it impossible.  The recoil was not strong enough with the lesser force from the smaller charges in the blanks to eject the shell casing and chamber the next round.  Stembridge, with the help of his assistant Fritz Dickie solved the problem. Their success brought more work when Howard Hughes tapped them to supply weapons (a record 1200) for his war film – Hell’s Angels (in production between April 1927 and July 1928; released in 1930).

By 1930, Stembridge had 6,000 weapons in his collection and he reported that the only gun he did not possess was a Chinese matchlock, an antique flintlock dating from the 1600s.

This decade saw the rise of the gangster film, which meant even more business for the Thompson sub machine guns in his collection. Warners came calling with its Public Enemy for 1931, and Hughes brought him back for Scarface, released in 1932. And RKO had him train his guns on King Kong.

Besides all the 1939 film titles listed in the prior post, the Miracle year also saw the re-release in September of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ an anti-war film, based on the Erich Maria Remarque bestseller, which gave the flip side of the World War from the perspective of German soldiers in the trenches. Back in 1929, Universal had hired Stembridge and 800 of his guns to bring it to life.

Aside: I recently watched All Quiet on DVD. It is a stunning achievement of cinematic art. The art direction behind the staging of the scenes is particularly striking, giving the whole a reality that is palpable. The German machine guns [supplied by Stembridge] sweep the field from their positions in the trenches and add greatly to that authenticity. They are only details, passing minutia, but underpin the actions and emotions of the cast, as they “live” out before us their hopes and fears.

Stembridge Gun Rentals continued on through the 1940s under his nephew, James Edward “Ed” Stembridge. Their services rose in demand throughout the 1950s what with all those Westerns populating the TV networks. This slowed down as the 1960’s advanced. Yet the Westerns were replaced by the rise of spy themed and sci-fi based TV shows and movies, calling for more exotic and at times fantastic weaponry, and Stembridge was at the forefront (e.g. Han Solo’s blaster fashioned from a Mauser machine pistol).

“Ed”’s son Sydney R Stembridge took over in 1978, and the following year their stay at Paramount ended, (two years after my wife and I saw them on the lot, completely unaware of all this history- see old post).

They were “back” with more exotic weaponry for Schwarzenegger in the 80s and 90s. But by 1999, things wound down and the firm was dissolved, as the family members sought to cash in on the most valuable pieces in the collection. A private investor took over the firm with Syd managing and in this downsized form they have hung on.

Surprisingly in researching this post I glimpsed Stembridge Gun Rentals in the credits for early video games- listed under the sound credits:

EA’s Agent Under Fire (James Bond) which I have enjoyed playing, and

Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon.