Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, August 27, 2010

"MOVIE" Souvenir Playing Cards

Try to imagine a time when a deck of cards with movie star pictures was a novelty. It's not easy, is it? We can hardly even imagine a time when a movie star was such a novelty that the word "movie" itself was in quotes. But here it is, courtesy of a certain Mr. M.J. Moriarty and the Movie Souvenir Card Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio.

When I got this deck of cards as an opening-night gift from the director of a show I was in, about 40 years ago, I thought it was something really rare -- all 54 cards (including the Joker and the descriptor card shown at right) complete and unblemished, with even the gilded edges of the cards reasonably intact after who knew how many years. Yes, a singular rarity, I thought. I know better now. These Moriarty movie cards are collectible, but they don't seem to be particularly rare. Collector-dealer Cliff Aliperti says these decks can sell
for anywhere from $75 to $150, depending on condition, but I've seen more than one in dealers' rooms with an asking price of $40 or less -- which, adjusting for inflation, may not be much more than they cost when they were new (whatever that was).

The relative common-ness of these decks at collector shows suggests to me that they were probably treated as collectibles from day one; people bought them to keep and look at the pictures, not to face the wear and tear of their Tuesday night whist clubs. (When was the last time you saw a 90-year-old deck of cards in perfect condition?)

That may be about to change. It's becoming common practice among dealers now to break up the decks and sell the cards individually. As I write this, one seller on eBay is offering some 74 of these cards, one at a time, at prices ranging from five to ten dollars. At that rate, a deck that Cliff Aliperti says is worth no more than $150 (and which I've seen much lower) can bring a dealer as much as $375 or more. (Some cards are worth more than others, like this Charlie Chaplin Joker; it brings a premium because it's the one instance where the card and the personality are perfectly matched -- and probably also because Chaplin is the one person in the deck whom pretty much everybody recognizes.) This deck-splitting makes good business sense, but it probably means that decks that survived the last 90 years in near-mint condition are going to have a tough time making it through the next ten.

These decks first appeared in 1916 -- at least that's the copyright date on the card backing. Stars came, went, and changed positions in the deck, and some people (at this site, for example) have made a study of comparing and contrasting the decks that can still be found. Certain evidence of the cards themselves suggests that that they stopped production in 1922 at the latest: Wallace Reid appears on the 4 of Spades, and Reid died in January 1923; that's not conclusive, though, because two other actors (Nicholas Dunaew and Richard C. Travers) occupied that card at one time or another. More persuasive is the case of Mary Miles Minter, the only occupant (so far known) of the 9 of Diamonds. Minter's career was wrecked in the backwash of the William Desmond Taylor murder in February 1922, when her indiscreet love letters to the late director (30 years her senior) shattered her virgin-pure screen image. But even if the cards were still in production in 1922 (probably unlikely), they stopped pretty early. Many of the stars most associated with the silent era -- Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, Harry Langdon, Ramon Novarro, Bebe Daniels, Bessie Love -- hadn't made their big splash yet and don't appear in any version of the deck.

Others might be expected to show up but don't.
Conspicuous by their absence are the King and
Queen of Hollywood (even before their marriage
made it official), Douglas Fairbanks and Mary
Pickford -- although their colleague in United
Artists Chaplin is Clown Prince of the Deck.
Dorothy Gish (5 of Clubs) appears, but not
her sister Lillian, much the bigger star. And
we have Mabel Normand (10 of Clubs)
but not her teammate Roscoe Arbuckle,
with whom she made dozens of popular
Sennett comedies between 1912 and '16.
When these cards hit the market, Arbuckle's
legal troubles were still five years in the
future, but he appears in no extant version
of the deck, although "Fatty and Mabel"
were as much a team as Laurel and Hardy
would later be.

Now a word about the card backing -- "the famous painting, 'The Chariot Race,'" as the descriptor card says. The cards show only a detail; here's a more complete look at the painting. Contrary to what some have said, it does not reproduce a scene from Ben-Hur, and may even have been painted before Ben-Hur was published (reports vary). In any case, it depicts a race presided over by the Emperor Domitian in Rome, several decades after Judah Ben-Hur and Messala had their fateful showdown in Antioch's Circus Maximus. The painting was indeed pretty famous around the turn of the last century, and was the work of the Hungarian Alexander von Wagner (1838-1919); it hangs today in the Manchester Art Gallery in England.

But back to those 53 faces -- "every one a favorite of yours," according to the deck's promo. So many of those favorites are forgotten today -- victims of fickle audiences even in their own lifetimes, then victimized again by the passage of time and Hollywood's too-little-much-too-late attitude toward film preservation. I thought it would be a fun project to take these cards one at a time and review what we can know now of the lives and careers behind those "beautiful halftone portraits." Chaplin hardly needs it, of course, but what about House Peters, Mildred Harris, Wanda Hawley, George Larkin? I'll be shuffling the deck from time to time, cutting the cards and seeing what comes up. Maybe we can uncover some sense of why these cards were bought, and enjoyed, and even cherished and preserved so carefully for the better part of a century.

King of Hearts - H.B. Warner

Here's an easy one for starters. Every true film buff
knows Henry Byron Charles Stewart Warner-Lickford,
although they might have to look twice to recognize
the H.B. Warner they remember in this dapper,
Arrow-collared, surprisingly youthful gent-about-town.
This portrait may date from Warner's entry into
movies, when he was 38; that would have made the
picture a couple of years old when the deck was
published, but that sort of thing is not unheard of
among actors' head shots.

So film buffs know the name, even if the face comes
as a bit of a surprise -- but what about those less
devout moviegoers, who don't make a practice of
memorizing the name of every Thurston Hall or
J. Edward Bromberg who marches across the
screen? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here:
I think it just may be that H.B. Warner's work has
been seen by more people alive today than anyone
else in the M.J. Moriarty deck. Yes, maybe even
more than Charlie Chaplin.

Note I said "seen by," not "familiar to." So take
another look. Try to add, oh, maybe 30 years
to that face. Look especially at the eyes. Ring any bells? Well...

How about this? That's right, H.B. Warner was old Mr. Gower, the druggist who slaps young George Bailey around the back room of his store in It's a Wonderful Life, and who, in the world where George was never born, is the "rummy" who "spent twenty years in prison for poisonin' a kid." I'll just bet that anyone who ever saw Warner's performance in It's a Wonderful Life has never forgotten it, even if they never took the trouble to find out the actor's name.

By 1946, the year of Wonderful Life, Warner had become a steady member of Frank Capra's informal stock company. This was the fifth of his six pictures for Capra, and those six are a major reason why I suggest H.B. Warner's work has been seen by so many. He played the judge hearing Gary Cooper's case in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) -- "Not only are you not insane -- you're the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom!" It's a hallelujah moment, provided by writer Robert Riskin 
and delivered by H.B. Warner.

In 1937, Capra gave Warner the opportunity to
deliver probably his best screen performance.
The picture was Lost Horizon, from James
Hilton's utopian romance about a group of
refugees from war-torn "civilization" who find
themselves in the remote Himalayan paradise
of  Shangri-La. Warner was Chang, their
mysterious escort from the snowbound
wreck of their plane to the Edenic Valley
of the Blue Moon, and their host after
they arrive. Endlessly cordial, welcoming
and polite, he nevertheless is inscrutably
vague about when and how they will ever
be able to return to their homes. Warner
got an Oscar nomination as best
supporting actor, but he didn't win;
he lost out to Joseph Schildkraut as
Alfred Dreyfus in Warner Bros.' The Life of 
Emile Zola. That's a worthy performance, but I'm not at all sure the Academy made the right call. H.B. Warner's other pictures for Capra were You Can't Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington  (1939, as the Senate majority leader) and Here Comes the Groom (1951).

But you don't get your picture on a deck of cards for supporting and character roles in your twilight years, however memorable. What about his career earlier, when he appeared on the King of Hearts sometime between 1916 and 1920? Well, unfortunately, that's something we're going to bump up against over and over as we discuss this antique deck of cards -- and for that matter, anything else about the silent era. The survival rate of movies made between 1890 and and 1920 is only a cut or two above snowball-in-hell level; for much of Warner's career we have to piece together what information we can from secondary sources.

We know that he made his Broadway debut on November 24, 1902 at the age of 27 (billed as "Harry Warner"), in Audrey by Harriet Ford and E.F. Boddington. In 1910 he appeared in Alias Jimmy Valentine, one of the smash hits of the early 20th century stage, adapted from the O. Henry story "A Retrieved Reformation." He must have made quite an impression in that, because in 1914, when he filmed another one of his stage successes, The Ghost Breaker, the laudatory review in Variety mentioned him as "he of 'Jimmy Valentine' fame." The Ghost Breaker was his third picture in 1914, and was co-directed by Cecil B. DeMille. They would work together again, and would in fact make their last picture together -- but more of that anon.

Warner was a veteran stage star by the time his movie career really got underway in the mid 'teens, and he established himself (if we can believe his Variety reviews) as an appealing romantic lead in titles like The Raiders, Shell 43 and The Vagabond Prince (all 1916), Danger Trail ('17) and The Pagan God ('19). He continued to appear on Broadway until Silence in the winter of 1924-25 (which he also filmed in 1926); after that he was a Hollywood actor for good.

At least one of H.B. Warner's silent movies has 
survived intact, and it's a biggie: Cecil B. DeMille's 
spectacularly reverent The King of Kings (1927), 
in which Warner played the title role. The movie 
was a triumph of prestige and box office for 
DeMille; in reviewing it, Variety's legendary 
editor Sime Silverman was quite tongue-tied 
with awe; in 24 column inches, Silverman 
(normally so terse and pithy) fairly stumbles 
over himself groping for superlatives. 
The movie is a bit too earnestly pious for 
modern tastes, but its appeal for 1927 
audiences is still understandable, and 
DeMille's showmanship is at its smoothest. 
Most memorably, Warner's performance, in an 
age when accusations of sacrilege were a very real 
concern, is excellent. Here's a strikingly dramatic 
shot of him at the Crucifixion, seen from 
the viewpoint of Jesus's mother Mary 
mourning at the foot of the Cross.

And here, just to give a flavor of the lavishness 
of DeMille's picture, is a frame from one of King 
of Kings's two Technicolor sequences, showing 
the resurrrected Christ comforting Mary 
Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) at the opening 
to the tomb on Easter morning. (On a curious
side note: in King of Kings Judas Iscariot was
played by none other than the self-same Joseph
Schildkraut who ten years later would
ace Warner out of that Oscar.)

With the coming of sound, H.B. Warner was well into his fifties, so character parts became his lot as they do for nearly all actors as they age. And it proved to be a fertile field for him; after King of Kings there were well over a hundred film appearances in the 29 years that remained to him. Here's one that cineastes particularly cherish: Warner playing himself in 1950's Sunset Blvd. (though unidentified until the closing credits), as one of the has-been "waxworks" playing bridge with Gloria Swanson's mad Norma Desmond. Staring him down is, of course, Buster Keaton. (And on a cautionary note, here's an example of what a decade of sodden alcoholism can do to you: Warner and Keaton look about the same age; actually, Keaton was twenty years younger, almost to the day.)

H.B. Warner's final screen appearance was a poignant one. He was approaching 80 and living at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills in 1955 when the call came from his old friend Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille was planning a massive spectacle expanding the Biblical section of his 1923 hit The Ten Commandments, and he had a part for H.B. if he felt up to it. The role was identified in the script as "Amminadab," an aging Israelite setting out on the Exodus from Egypt, even though he knows he'll never see the Promised Land -- indeed, probably won't live out the day. The actor carrying him in this shot, Donald Curtis, remembered that Warner weighed no more 
than a child, and carrying him wasn't merely in the script, it was a necessity: "It was clear H.B. couldn't walk -- could barely breathe." He had come to the set in an ambulance and lay on a stretcher, breathing through an oxygen mask, until the cameras were ready to roll. In the script, he had a rather complex speech adapted from Psalm 22, but he couldn't manage it, so DeMille told him to say whatever he wanted, and Curtis and Nina Foch would work with it. H.B. Warner's last words in his 135th movie, after 53 years as an actor, were: "I am poured out like water, my strength dried up into the dust of death." 

Donald Curtis believed the old boy could only have weeks to live, but he was wrong. In fact, H.B. Warner died on December 21, 1958, 56 days after his 83rd birthday.


Jean said...

I saw "Chang" immediately, more for the mouth than the eyes, and even knew the name at once, thanks to you - and all the times I've watched IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and nearly needed to avert my eyes at the raw emotion of Gower's realization of what George has done for him. But here's a question for you, Jim. (And I know I'm going to hate myself for not knowing the answer). "H.B. Warner in a fright wig." Who said it and where?

Jim Lane said...

You know, Jean, that "H.B. Warner in a fright wig" rings a big loud bell, but I can't place it. I have a vague impression of some 1970s playwright, someone noted for biting dialogue -- someone like Paul Zindel in Man in the Moon Marigolds or And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little. But nothing comes clear. Any other suggestions out there?

r.j. said...

One of (I thought) Warner's best talkie roles was as the "Red Herring"/ murderer (oops!) in Hal Roachs' "Topper Returns".

For years, my mother and I had an "in joke" we'd share at dinner: "Go ahead, I eat very little" (from "Lost Horizon").

You're certainly right Jim, about what a decade of "soddeness" will do: I'm trying my best to catch-up as rapidly as possible!

Best to you always, R.J.

Jim Lane said...

"Oops" indeed, R.J.; I hope the Spoiler Police don't concern themselves with 70-year-old black-and-white movies!

Unknown said...

I have a complete set of Movie Souvenir Playing Card53 most Prominent stars in filmdom
1916 byM.J. Moriantt
Movie Souvenir Card Co.
Cincinnati, U.S.A.
in a grey cardboard sliding box.

Cliff Aliperti said...

Oh my goodness, Jim, I hadn't spotted this post until now! This is an absolute favorite issue of mine--a funny thing is, yes I made the video, but the site you linked to is mine and I suspect I'm also the dealer you mentioned selling individual cards. This baby is a pet of mine :)

There's a mid-range condition deck on eBay right now for $49, which is probably about right. No, they're not one of a kind, but they are somewhat rare--you never see, for instance, 10 decks being offered at once, in fact usually there's only 1 or 2 at any one time to be spotted on eBay and that's where you'll find the best buy on a complete deck.

Thanks for the post, the mentions and the linking, loved the whole thing!


Jim Lane said...

Thanks, Cliff! I was wondering if you'd ever had a chance to see this post. I hope you'll also check out my posts on Mary Miles Minter and George Walsh. I hope to get back to the deck soon; I've left this series too long on the back burner.

camaysar said...

I happened to be watching the 1944 Monogram film "Enemy of Women", a fictionalized account of Joseph Goebbels. I noticed the strong performance - in a somewhat old-fashioned style - of the actor playing the role of Colonel Brandt, the loving father of the leading lady. Turns out it was H.B. Warner, who I knew nothing about until I found your great article. Now I will seek out his other roles; apparently there's no shortage! Thanks so much for your interest in Warner and those like him.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to post. I happen to have a complete deck in excellant condition.

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