Michael G. Ankerich: The SVM Interview

I was delighted to be interviewed for the February/March issue of Southern Views Magazine (SVM). For those of you who may not have access to the publication, I am providing some of what we discussed in this blog.

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You have been writing books about American silent film and early twentieth century actors and actresses for the last couple of decades now. What made you decide to write about this period and genre?

I was fascinated by the silent film era as a teenager and it was pure curiosity that prompted me to focus on that era. I simply wanted to know more. This was in the mid-1910s, a long time before the Internet. The curiosity I had led me to a dead end where I realized that the information I was looking for was still unwritten. I delved into my own research and, eventually, I wanted to share what I had learned and discovered.

During your investigations for the books you wrote, did you have the opportunity to meet personally with any of the actors or actresses, and if so who were they, what kind of unique treasures and memorabilia did they share with you?

When I began my research, there were a number of the actors and actresses still alive from that period, the 1910s and 1920s. My first objective was to make contact with those who had been there and worked at the period. I spent the next 15 years or so traveling back and forth to the West Coast and interviewing those fascinating individuals and recording their memories before the passage of time took away their stories.

Those interviews became the basis for my first two books: Broken Silence: Conversations With 23 Silent Film Stars (1993) and Broken Silence: Conversations With 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Made the Transition from Silents to Talkies (1998).

They were quite generous in sharing their portraits and movie stills with me for the books.

Hard to believe that Muriel Ostriche started her career in films in 1911, a hundred years ago!

Hard to believe that Muriel Ostriche started her career in films in 1912.

I interviewed Muriel Ostriche, whose career in films began around 1912. I interviewed Maxine Elliott Hicks, who made her first film in 1914 and was still making films when I talked with her in 1990. I talked with some (Ethlyne Clair, Mary Brian, Anita Page, and Hugh Allen come to mind) who had not spoken that extensively about their careers since their retirement.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. talked about working in the shadow of his famous father (Doug Sr) and his relationships with Mary Pickford, his stepmother, and Joan Crawford, his first wife.

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Billie Dove

Billie Dove, once referred to as the Elizabeth Taylor of the 1920s, vowed over the phone that she would not answer questions about her romance with and engagement to millionaire Howard Hughes, but by the end of our conversation, she had invited me out to her home in Palm Springs to tell me the fascinating details of their relationship.  

While they were silent film stars, they were anything but silent when I talked with them. Their stories would make you laugh, cry and gasp!

One of your masterpieces is Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen. What made you write this book?

Dangerous Curves was a departure from my first two books, in that the stories were not based on interviews with the subjects but on research, archives, and family interviews. I selected the subjects not because I was expert on them, but because I wanted to know more.

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Eve Southern

I choose 14 actresses from that era who had relatively difficult experiences in their careers. I traced their precarious routes through fame and uncovered how some of the top actresses of the day were used, abused, and discarded.

Many who read my books like Dangerous Curves best. It has certainly opened up new avenues for me. It led to several speaking engagements and my television debut on a Lifetime Movie Network series, The Ghost Inside My Child, in 2014.Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 5.37.34 PM
One of your latest works is based on the biography of silent film actress Mae Murray. Why her and what does she mean to you?

First of all, Mae Murray was everything a movie queen in the days of silent films was expected to be: extravagant, vain, eccentric, egotistical, and temperamental.

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She was a biographer’s dream. There was much of her life I knew, some I thought I knew, and areas I didn’t know at all.

Mae’s life was truly a rags-to-riches and back-to-rags story. She escaped a childhood marred by poverty and alcoholism, divorced her family, and was reborn as a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl in the mid-1910s. In Hollywood, she became a huge movie star, but at the height of her fame, walked out on her $7,500-a-week film contract.

Mae and her prince, David Mdivani.

Mae and her prince, David Mdivani.

 

She married one of the “marrying Mdivani” princes who turned out to be a phony. She fled to Paris, became a mother, and returned to Hollywood only to be blackballed by her enemies. By the time Mae divorced her prince, her $3 million fortune was little more than pennies. Exhausted after countless legal battles and one-night stands on the road in vaudeville, she slept on park benches in New York’s Central Park. For the rest of her life, this poor woman fought poverty but continued to live in a fantasy world where time had not passed her by.

So, as you can see, her life read like a movie script, but it was real life for Mae Murray. I could not have asked for a better subject!

 Is there one particular silent film star that you are more fond of and why?

I am infatuated with Greta Garbo as an actress and screen personality. Her beauty is breathtaking. After spending more than two years researching her life and career, I also developed a genuine fondness for Mae Murray, if for no other reason than her will to survive. Lon Chaney, a master of disguises, is also up there on my list.

Thanks, Eric Rebetti!

Mae waving goodbye to her fans

Are there any classic films that you like to watch over and over?

Although she wasn’t from the silent film era, Bette Davis is my favorite film actress of all time. I can watch Now, Voyager and All About Eve over and over. Any Bette Davis film, for that matter!

How does the artistic value of a silent, classic film culture compare to the artistic value of today’s film culture?

Lillian Gish, the first lady of the silent screen and an advocate for silent film preservation until her death, said it best. Silent films were the marriage of film to classical music. It was during this era that films spoke a universal language, meaning they were done with action and music, not words. Part of the message is lost when a film’s plot depends on words and has to be translated into the language of every country where it is shown.

Silent films are generally misunderstood today because the clips people see are poor quality prints projected at the wrong speed. It is extremely unfortunate because the jerky motion and speed of projection give the impression that all silent films were bad slapstick.

Are you currently planning and working on any future projects or books?

I’m in the middle of writing my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood. It’s a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. I have several other book ideas floating around, including a spiritual autobiography. There’s also a speaking engagement and book signing in the works for Los Angeles later in the year. So things are percolating right along!

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The Afterlife of Eve Southern

It was the question mark ( ? ) that got my attention.

Over the years, when I researched the lives of silent film players, I would come across the name Eve Southern. Her entry, whether in film encyclopedias or on Internet blogs, would give a date of birth. There was always a question mark for the date of death. No one seemed to know whatever became of Eve Southern.

I keep this photo of Eve Southern on my desk for inspiration.

I like question marks. I am challenged by mysteries.

In 2009, I needed a challenge.

It had been a little over 10 years since I wrote my last book, The Sound of Silence. I seemed to have lost interest in writing. My good friend and inspiration, silent film historian Roi Uselton, who grew up in the 1920s a devoted film fan, developed Parkinson’s Disease and slowly slipped away. He had been my mentor. I thought, “what’s the use?”

Roi Uselton and actor William Janney

My main thrust had always been documenting the memories of the remaining silent film actors. Barbara Kent was my last interview. By the late 1990s, the players of the silent screen were fast going the way of the dinosaur.

It was about that time that I embarked on a spiritual journey in an effort to figure out God and determine how I fit into life on this big rock called Earth. It was a circuitous route that took me around the world for some 10 years. Read about those years in my spiritual memoir, Drag Queens at the County Line and Other Spiritual Adventures.

On a spiritual adventure in Honduras.

I’m just not sure when I will get around to writing it, because I still haven’t figured it all out.  Isn’t that the whole point of a journey? Maybe there’s no end to it!

It’s the question marks that nag at me.

Eve Southern was one big question mark.

The enormous eyes of Eve Southern.

What became of this odd-looking creature of the silent screen? With her enormous eyes and long lashes, Eve looked almost supernatural.

A supernatural Eve.

With her belief in reincarnation and spiritualism–she once claimed Mary Queen of Scots as a past life, how could this woman have vanished into history?

Eve

As an actress, she is little more than a footnote in history, but I love reading footnotes. It is there that you sometimes find the most interesting ingredients of a story.

Eve appeared in almost 30 films from 1916 through the mid-1930s. It seemed she was on the cusp of something big happening in her career, then it would be taken from her.

D.W. Griffith discovered her for the movies, but after he retired temporarily, she was set adrift. Another time, it was a director who had big plans for her. But, he left the studio. Charlie Chaplin gave her a plum role in A Woman of the Sea, but the film was never finished or released.

She got her chance to shine as the Miracle Girl in The Gaucho (1928) with Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Velez.

Lupe Velez, Douglas Fairbanks, and Eve Southern in The Gaucho (1928).

She received the best reviews of her career. For several years, she played leads opposite such actors as Malcolm McGregor and Walter Pidgeon.

Eve Southern and Malcolm McGregor in Stormy Waters (1928).

Then, a series of accidents from 1929 to the early 1930s finished her career and almost took her life.

From there, the trail of Eve Southern grew cold.  She disappeared.

Tracing Eve.

Beginning in 2008, that haunting question mark in her biography sent me searching through newspapers and archives. I would reach a dead end, become discouraged, and close her file. The question of her whereabouts would nudge me and I’d start afresh.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I was able to learn Eve’s real name from her short-lived marriage in 1925. From there, I researched her family and sent queries through the mail. “Are you perhaps a relative of Elva McDowell, who became Eve Southern in the movies?”

A phone call confirmed the identify. “Elva McDowell, or Eve Southern, was indeed my aunt. I knew her well.”

Identifying Eve.

Wally McDowell filled in the gaps about his Aunt Elva. After her career ended in the early 1930s, she disappeared behind the camera and worked as a retoucher in the photography department of a movie studio. She continued to live with her parents in Hollywood for the rest of their lives.

Wally often asked his aunt, still a beautiful woman, why she didn’t return to the movies. Her automobile and toboggan accidents had left her with nagging pain that prohibited her from standing long periods of time. Wally’s father (Eve’s brother) kept a close eye on Elva over the years and made sure she had everything she needed.

She lost her battle to Parkinson’s Disease in 1972. She was buried in Valhalla Cemetery in Burbank.

At Eve Southern’s final resting spot at Valhalla Cemetery. She is buried beside her mother, Lucille.

Through my long search for the whereabouts of Eve Southern, I felt a strange, rather spiritual, connection to her.

Feeling the need to tell her story, I began researching the lives of other silent film actresses who had perilous journeys through Hollywood. The idea for a new book was born.  The book, Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 16 Hard-luck Girls of the Silent Screen, was released in 2010 and was named one of the top 10 silent film books that year.

I dedicated Dangerous Curves to Roi Uselton and Eve Southern.  My dedication read, “For Roi Uselton, who first introduced me to many of these hard-luck girls of the silent screen; for Eve Southern, who finally introduced herself and inspired me again.”

Thanks, you two!