Dear Reader, we can tell life may not be at its most joyous right now, and that you need some Canadiana to cheer you up.
Here’s something for you: Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood, a book that discusses the contributions of 18 influential Canadians in fledgling Hollywood.
Now, you may be asking – and rightly so – how a book about a bunch of obscure Canadians would ever cheer you up.
Because this is a book about resourcefulness and determination.
Because this is a book that explores generosity and giving others a Leg Up.
Now, before we go any further, we must say this volume is largely a compilation of people’s memories, and those memories may not be entirely accurate.
Nor are they entirely humble. Indeed, one gets the impression that Hollywood as an industry would have failed by the 1930s if Canadians were not there to Invent and Improve. (Note: Our inner Canadian unquestioningly accepts these stories as Fact, but our inner amateur historian is more cautious.)
Stardust and Shadows was written by author, publicist and newspaper editor Charles Foster, whose own life would make a fascinating movie. Foster’s interest in Hollywood history began in 1943, when he was a R.A.F. serviceman on leave in Los Angeles. During this initial visit, he met and became friends with many filmmakers from the silent era, including Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett.
He also met Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM Studios. “Mayer introduced me to so many of his stars that I lost count,” writes Foster. “But it was the Canadians he sought out who stayed in my memory. They were all so proud to talk about their former homes in Canada” (p. 8).
(Mayer’s family, as you may or may not know, emigrated from Russia to settle in New Brunswick. In Stardust and Shadows, actor Walter Pidgeon tells an amusing story about Mayer giving him an extra $50/week just because he was a fellow New Brunswick-er.)
(While we’re on the subject of Mayer, you may have heard some awful things about him. If so, that’s another reason to read this book. There are some wonderful stories of Mayer’s generosity here.)
Foster talks about the comedies produced by Canuck brothers Al and Charles Christie, and he introduces us to director Allan Dwan, the man actress Gloria Swanson credited with her success in the mid 1920s.
He also shares part of a 1980 interview with Greta Garbo, who had glowing things to say about Marie Dressler: “I wanted to say thanks to her for making it so easy for me to make my first sound film,” said Garbo. “I was absolutely terrified when I started, but like everyone else on the set I was entranced with Marie, who seemed to have no fears” (p. 88).
Although Foster was born in England, he later made Canada his home, and his admiration for Canadians in the early days of Hollywood is infectious. He praises the women who saved Universal Studios on two separate occasions (Marie Prevost and Deanna Durbin), and the Canadian women who scored Best Actress Oscars three years in a row: Mary Pickford (1930); Norma Shearer (1931); and Marie Dressler (1932).
Foster’s primary genius, we think, lies in his interviewing skills. He’s coaxed a lot of interesting observations out of Hollywood insiders, a few of which raised our eyebrows.
His secondary genius is in selecting the 18 Canadians of this book. In choosing these film pioneers, he gives us a well-rounded look at Hollywood in those crazy, early days.
If you’re looking for something to restore a little faith in humanity, we recommend Stardust and Shadows.
Foster, Charles. (2000). Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood. Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press.
Disclosure: We own a copy of this book.
This is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and yours truly.