Olive Borden Review from “The Silent Movie Blog”

How High the Moon

May 10, 2010 at 12:33 am (General blather)

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This story would make a riveting novel: a girl from humble beginnings moves to Hollywood with dreams of stardom, makes the dreams come true and then sees them collapse into loss, poverty, suffering and death. That novel could explore themes like the diverging paths of success and happiness, the phenomenon of celebrity, the doppelganger of public and private personas.

Never mind the fiction. You could do just as well by telling the true stories of silent stars like Marie Prevost or Charles Ray.

Or– for maximum impact– you could tell the story of Olive Borden.

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In the past, Olive Borden was just a biographical stick-figure, a fractured account told by fan magazine articles from the peak of her fame, and by frighteningly sad newspaper articles from twenty years later. Now we have Michelle Vogel’s new book, Olive Borden: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Joy Girl.”

Borden first appeared in films (and usually only barely) as teenage eye candy in early-1920s silent comedies for Al Christie, Jack White and Hal Roach. From that lowest rung of the acting ladder, she rose to ingenue roles at Fox, as Tom Mix’s leading lady in a pair of his popular westerns.

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On the right: Olive with Tom Mix in The Yankee Senor (1926).

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Then, things got really interesting: playing the female leads in films by most of Fox’s best directors, John Ford (3 Bad Men, 1926), Howard Hawks (Fig Leaves, 1926) and Raoul Walsh (The Monkey Talks, 1927)… love with the studio’s leading man, George O’Brien… and starring roles in pictures tailored just for her. All of this happened within a couple of years.

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Detail from a lobby card for The Country Beyond (1926).

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And then it all went to hell, just as swiftly and very painfully. The talkie revolution arrived early at Fox, and Movietone’s thunder shook nearly all of the studio’s silent talent. (Unfortunately for Olive, the only one of them to emerge unscathed would be her chief rival, Janet Gaynor.)

For Hollywood’s highly-paid stars, this was the worst possible time for a contract to expire. Reliable fixtures of the silent screen were suddenly uncertain propositions in the new world of the talkies. Confident that cheaper talent could be found on Broadway, the studios let a number of stars walk indignantly out the door. One of them was Olive Borden.

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An art deco Olive, in The Social Lion (1930). Photo by Eugene Robert Richee.

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At first, things didn’t seem so bad for her, but they deteriorated quickly. Leading roles at Columbia led to secondary roles at FBO, then to jobs at the independents, then to… nothing much.

Her personal life was no better. The big paychecks were gone, but she couldn’t stop spending money, until her finances hit a wall. It was over with George O’Brien, and she dove into a marriage with a man who turned out to be married already. Things got worse from there, a lot worse. The book has the details, or most of them anyway, probably everything that can be known about them. It’s a grim finish.

Setting aside the Hollywood backdrop, this is a study of one human being who lost her way: a life that had been lived in radiant Rolf Armstrong pastels of success and happiness fell into decline and decay, finishing up in a dark skid row landscape straight out of a Charles Bukowski story.

Underlining the sadness is that we’ll never get to see very much of what brought Olive to the gates of stardom in the first place. 3 Bad Men is the only film from her peak that’s very accessible today (it’s part of the Ford at Foxboxed set). Fig Leaves is out there (and it’s wonderful, a frisky romantic comedy co-starring O’Brien), but you’re not likely to get to see it. (I borrowed a 16mm print of it once, but there’s been no official video release.)

For many years I wanted to see The Monkey Talks without ever expecting that to happen, but then Cinecon screened it about a decade ago. It topped my expectations: a bizarre fable of passionate obsession among circus people, in which a beautiful tight-rope walker is the fixation of a human monkey. Jacques Lerner is amazing in the title role, and an incredibly stunning Olive is nearly as compelling as “Olivette,” the object of his desire.

The film beats Tod Browning at his own game, but it’s seldom screened anywhere, and its chances of a DVD release are just about zero. Two or three reels of the only surviving print suffer from a manifestation of chemical decomposition, one oddly appropriate for such a strange film: throughout those reels, it looks like you’re watching undeveloped negative. The blacks have turned to white and the whites have turned to black. Fortunately, the last two-thirds of the film are fine, and they pack a punch.

The Monkey Talks (1927).

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But most of Olive’s other key silents are lost. Even her talkies are hard to find, and a number of them are lost as well.

I recommend this book. The author has plumbed depths of research that no one else has ever attempted, and I doubt that anyone will ever do better. There’s a photo on nearly every page, and a thorough filmography. The author’s tone strikes a good balance: a clinically dispassionate regard for her subject would be too much to ask, especially when the subject arouses as much sympathy as this one does. But the book is no puff piece, either. Much of Olive’s downfall can be blamed on no one but herself, and this author never ducks behind the altar of film star idolatry, as so many others do. The book isn’t perfectly flawless (Olive’s early comedy short Riders of the Kitchen Range isn’t lost, as reported, and I would argue that Janet Gaynor, with The Blue Eagle and 7th Heaven behind her, was hardly a “rank newcomer” when she beat out Olive for the lead in Sunrise).

But I could find something to quibble about with any book on silent film history (and believe me, I do). This one’s a winner. It serves its subject (and the reader) well, expertly excavating an unforgettable true story from the ruins of old Hollywood.

– – – Christopher Snowden

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Glamour, thy name is Olive.

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