The Sea Gull, silent films, and the state of publishing
By Thomas Gladysz - San Francisco Examiner - Silent Films
"It’s sad but true. Most publishers have little interest in publishing books on silent film. Of course, I am talking about major publishers.
By way of contrast - twenty, thirty and forty years ago there was a flood of books on the topic from the likes of Random House, Simon & Schuster, St. Martins, etc…. That was a golden era in film history. There were biographies, memoirs, pictorials, histories, annotated scripts, guide books, “The Films of …” series, and a bookshelf of worthwhile titles by the likes of Kevin Brownlow and William Everson. And let’s not forget publishers like Barnes, and Castle, as well as their prolific author Kalton Lahue.
Back then, even a reprint house like Dover – which largely republished out of print books on various subjects – got in on the act and issued original titles by the likes of Richard Koszarski, Herman Weinberg, and Leonard Maltin.
Ah, those were the days my friend. We silent film buffs thought they would never end. But they did end – and just as interest in the art form is being renewed.
Admittedly, a generation of writers and film historians who grew up on the early cinema has largely died off, or stopped writing, or moved on to other concerns. And, it’s probably also true - there are fewer readers for books about films and actors and actresses popular seventy or eighty or ninety years ago. Perhaps the parade has gone by.
These days, books on silent film are largely being published by mid-size, specialty, and university presses. McFarland continues its steady issuance of largely worthwhile books, and recently they have been joined in the field by BearManor.
Over the last decade, an academic press like the University Press of Kentucky has released books that earlier would have been published by a major commercial press. The University of California, long a stalwart in the field, has recently put out a fine book on Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. Later this year, they’ll publish Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, by Mark A. Vieira.
One other notable, trending source for books on silent film are self-published titles. Such books – some of them good, some not so good – are largely the work of fans and amateur historians. However, before you dismiss their efforts, consider that these books are sometimes the first ones on the subject – or, they contain material found nowhere else. Self-published books have a role to play in the writing of film history. And sometimes, that role is an important one.
All of which brings us to Linda Wada’s The Sea Gull “A Woman of the Sea” - The Chaplin Studio’s Lost Film Starring Edna Purviance. A slightly revised, second printing has just been issued by Leading Ladies publications.
This recommended book tells the story of The Sea Gull, the only “lost” film ever produced by the Charlie Chaplin studios. In the words of the leading silent film historian, Kevin Brownlow, Wada’s new book is “An important contribution to film history . . . . The look of the film, revealed in these marvelous photographs, makes it all the more tragic that it was destroyed – and this book provides the nearest experience we will have to seeing it.”
How was it that this movie came to made? And how was it that it came to be lost to history – a victim, as the author puts it, “of fate, circumstances, and the Internal Revenue Service.”
In 1926, three luminaries came together to create a film under the banner of the Chaplin Studio. The Sea Gull, or A Woman of the Sea as it was later called, brought together two men with giant egos as well as the least egotistical woman in Hollywood.
The film’s director was Austrian-born Josef von Sternberg, a 31 year old “genius” whose experimental movie, The Salvation Hunters (1924), had greatly impressed Charlie Chaplin. (Sternberg would go on to international acclaim for his work in Underworld (1928) and The Blue Angel (1931), the later starring Marlene Dietrich.) Though minimally involved, Chaplin himself served as producer. The film’s star was Edna Purviance, the actor’s popular leading lady.
Noted cameraman Paul Ivano was partly responsible for the film’s lush cinematography. The Sea Gull also features actors Raymond Bloomer, Gayne Whitman, Eve Southern, and bit player Riza Royce – whom Sternberg would soon marry. A video slideshow of the film can be found at http://ednapurviance.com/videointrosg.html.
A good deal of research has gone into Wada’s book. Her efforts show not only in the telling of Purviance’s life story (this is the first book on the actress), but in the detailing of the story behind howThe Sea Gull came to be made and then destroyed.
After more than 6 months in production, work came to end on the film and it was privately screened for a few guests at the Beverly Hills Theatre. Despite the considerable talents behind the project, expectations seemed not to have been met.
Exactly who was in attendance at the film’s “debut” was never recorded. In later years, Chaplin associates who saw the film agreed it was visually gorgeous but not commercially viable. Anecdotal evidence and passing references from those involved suggest von Sternberg emphasized atmosphere and symbolism over Chaplin’s traditional emphasis on character. Evidently, there was a clash of artistic temperament – if not personal ego. Whatever the case, Chaplin would not approve The Sea Gull for release, and it was never publicly screened.
For years, the film sat on the shelf, an alluring footnote in film history. For tax purposes and under pressure from the Internal Revenue Service, Chaplin’s production company burned the film negatives in 1933. And reportedly, Chaplin’s widow destroyed the film’s last surviving print in 1991.
Since little descriptive material about The Sea Gull survives, its plot has always remained sketchy. In essence, the film focuses on the romantic aspirations and disappointments of four characters – a wealthy novelist from the city and the two half-sisters and friend who he encounters in a fishing village on the Pacific Coast. It’s especially noteworthy that the author has been able to “reconstruct” the story of the film through surviving materials. It was a challenging task.
Wada did so by arranging more than 50 recently discovered production stills. Wada found these rare images, originally kept by Purviance, in a collection of memorabilia passed-down to the actress’ grand nieces. Wada then combined them with information gleamed from the Chaplin Archives, in particular the film’s shooting schedule, along with captions from the film’s original inter-title narrative. The result is the closest any contemporary viewer will come to experiencing this important lost work.
Wada’s book will certainly be of interest to fans of silent film, especially those in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Sea Gull “A Woman of the Sea” is peppered with local detail.
As Wada found out, parts of The Sea Gull were shot in and around the towns and coastal areas of Monterey, Carmel, and Point Lobos. Before hand, director Sternberg had spent time in Northern California scouting locations - and during work on the film, the cast and crew spent twelve days in the area taking advantage of its rugged landscapes and rustic charm.
Wada also details how, years earlier, the lovely Purviance – then a Heald’s Business College graduate working as a secretary in San Francisco, and Chaplin – then a famous film star working for Essanay in nearby Niles, had likely met when both attended the Great Civic Center – Exposition Ball in San Francisco in 1917. It was a formative meeting - one that led to a close friendship, a possible romance, and a working relationship that lasted more than 30 films.
The Sea Gull “A Woman of the Sea” is a 132-page, full color, soft cover book which features over 100 photographs – most never before seen. Had you not known it was self-published, any reader would assume this book the product of a major concern. It’s beautifully printed. The layout is attractive, and the text is informative. And what’s more, it’s the only book on an interesting and worthwhile subject. You won’t find it on the shelves of your local bookstore. And, you won’t find it on amazon.com. Obviously a labor of love, this fine book is an appealing look into the past. ."
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