Friday, October 30, 2015

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre Writes About Dan Leno


F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre did not endear himself to many of the men and women who are dedicated to the study of silent cinema.  His strange offenses may be difficult to understand, but I will do my best to sort them out and put them into perspective.

People who love silent films have to live with the sad fact that most silent films are lost because the film studios either destroyed prints or allowed prints to deteriorate.  It was with great affection and interest that I wrote a biography of silent film comedian Lloyd Hamilton.  I could never get over the fact that some of Hamilton's best films, including his immensely popular Robinson Crusoe Ltd., have not survived.  It is, to me, no less than a tragedy.  But then we had MacIntyre turning up as a frequent reviewer on the Internet Movie Database and claiming to have special access to rare prints of silent films presumed by scholars to be lost.  MacIntyre's breezy and witty reviews of these films got scholars excited that long-lost classics had been rediscovered.  But were they really?  Film historian Thomas Gladysz contacted MacIntyre about his review of the lost film Social Celebrity.  MacIntyre responded as follows:
This print is (or was) in the personal collection of a private film collector in Europe, who does not wish to be publicly identified. . . This collector is a private individual who only very rarely grants access to his film collection.  I was given very limited access to his collection, solely in order to inspect his films as physical artefacts in need of restoration.  I do not have direct contact with this gentleman; I contact him only through his attorneys, who are strongly inclined to refuse all requests for access to his collection.  He has made it clear that he will not grant public access to his collection.  As this gentleman has been helpful to me in my own business endeavours, I must respect his privacy.
Gladysz was rightfully suspicious.


I became a fan of MacIntyre after I read his 1994 science fiction novel The Woman Between The Worlds.  The story, which is set in Victorian England, involves a Scooby gang that bands together to battle a powerful otherworldly creature and its ghoulish invisible minions.  The first half of the book is an enjoyable and energetic romp, but the book suddenly takes a dark and violent turn and the characters that have earned our sympathy are shockingly slaughtered one by one.  MacIntyre later addressed the book's abrupt change in tone, explaining that his wife died while he was writing the book and his grief expressed itself in the death and destruction that dominated the book's final chapters.  He sounded apologetic, as if it bothered him a great deal to write book so unpleasant and disturbing.  But, from what I now know about MacIntyre, I do not believe this explanation at all.  I believe that he set out in an impish way to trick unsuspecting readers, soothing them with lighthearted adventure before luring them to unexpected atrocities and doom.  This is not to say that I disprove of the book.  It is the work of a truly talented author.  I am not alone in my admiration of MacIntyre’s books.  Other fans of the author’s work included Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison.

I later enjoyed MacIntyre’s clever and insightful reviews on the Internet Movie Database.  I approached MacIntyre to collaborate with me on a book.  He reacted with enthusiasm to my proposal. 

I was amused at first by MacIntyre's long and rambling emails, but I eventually wanted us to get down to business.  Much to my chagrin, it was hard to get the man to focus.  He was later described by Invisible Ink columnist Christopher Fowler as "intelligent but undisciplined."  I had recently abandoned a Betty Hutton biography because a collaborator was in the middle of a divorce and he was having a great deal of difficulty concentrating on his work.  So, I had little patience left for MacIntyre.  I made it clear to him that we had to move ahead on our project.  He agreed to get to work immediately on a chapter on British comedian Fred Evans.  He claimed that he knew a great deal about Evans.  I was happy to see him finally direct attention to a specific topic.


I got an email from MacIntyre the day after Christmas to wish me a happy Boxing Day, which he explained is a tradition among his friends and family in Great Britain.  I understood at the time that he was living in Wales.  By then, my erratic friend had abandoned his plans to write about Evans.  He said that he decided that it would be better for him to write about another British comedian, Dan Leno.  This was not a reasonable choice for the purposes of our book.  Our book was about film comedians.  Leno could hardly be called a film comedian.  He had make a few short films from 1900 to 1902.  I had in fact seen one of the films, a trivial 36-second film called An Obstinate Cork.   Here it is.


I was unaware that any of Leno's other films had survived.  MacIntyre assured me that he knew an obsessively private film collector in Europe who had rare prints of many silent films presumed to be lost.  I must say that, by this time, I had become somewhat wary of my collaborator.

The next time that I heard from MacIntyre, he said that he had abandoned his essay on Leno to focus instead on French clown Marceline.  Marceline’s only film, Mishaps of Marceline, is lost.  Here is a reconstruction.


How was it appropriate to write an essay about Marceline for a book about film comedy? 

MacIntyre later informed me that he had to take a break from his research on Marceline because he was reading articles about Marceline’s suicide and it had made him severely depressed.  He doubted that he would be able to finish his essay.  He felt bad about this because he found Marceline’s story to be interesting and he thought that someone should tell the man’s story.  I told him to forget about Marceline.  I said that, if it would make him feel better, I would write up something about Marceline for my blog.  It had become obvious to me by now that he had serious psychological problems.  I asked him if he had ever seen a psychiatrist and received a diagnosis about his condition.  I was trying to help him, but he must have resented my comments because he never spoke to me again.


Months later, I got the news that MacIntyre had committed suicide.  He set his apartment on fire and burned up in the flames.  The story was written up in the New York Times under the title "Fiery End for an Eccentric Recluse."

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Gladysz and others did considerable research on MacIntyre after his death.  It was determined that his name was fake and his British accent was fake.  He had been born and raised in New York.  No one ever found out his real name.  Oh, and I should mention that he did not live in Wales.  He lived in Brooklyn.

Journalist Annalee Newitz assembled a revealing article about the man.  She wrote,
[MacIntyre] was fanatical about privacy, and used several different names for himself, with different identities on his tax forms, his ID, and on his various writing projects.  He told stories about his history that sounded like 19th century fairy tales, claiming that he was born in Scotland but sent to an orphanage in Australia to do labor. . .  He despised his family, and neighbors claimed they could hear him screaming at his mother late at night, accusing her of ruining his life. . . Though MacIntyre tried to project a jovial, man-of-the-world personality to his friends in fandom, there was always something dark about this fictionalized self.  He often claimed to be deformed, and said that he had to wear gloves because of some sort of problem with his hands.  Sometimes he said his fingers were webbed; other times he simply alluded to a "hideous skin condition."  He also complained that he suffered from synaesthesia.  Online, he claimed to have been married more than once, with children.  But when his body was found this summer, police could locate no relatives - children or otherwise.
 

Fowler wrote, "MacIntyre enjoyed starting feuds, and one of them ended with the female neighbour who used to carry out his endless bags of rubbish being tied to a chair, shaved and sprayed black.  Delightful eccentricity had now given way to a damaged mental state.  His career followed a downward spiral and he lost his job working nights in Manhattan as a printer."


I later learned that MacIntyre had written material for our book, but he ended up posting the material to the Internet Movie Database.  He wrote about a number of Leno films, including The Rats (1900), Mr. Dan Leno, Assisted by Mr. Herbert Campbell, Editing the 'Sun' (1902), Bluebeard (1902) and The Obstinate Cork.  You saw the 36-second Obstinate Cork earlier.  Let’s see what MacIntyre had to say about the film:   
Never try to guess a film's content by its title!  When I learnt that Leno had made a film cried "An Obstinate Cork", I assumed that this would be a screen record of one of his comedy turns ... with Leno making increasingly slapstick attempts to open a bottle of wine or beer.  No, even better: champagne, because (when the bottle eventually opens) the bubbly will foam all over the place.

In the event, I guessed right about the champagne but wrong otherwise.  This film isn't even a comedy; by modern standards, it's really more of a home movie.  Leno wore elaborate costumes on stage (often including female drag in dame roles), but here we see him in his normal offstage appearance: in a frock coat and stock collar, with his hair neatly parted down the centre.  Standing beside him is his real-life wife Sarah Reynolds: she had danced in Victorian music-halls under the stage name Lydia, but she was never remotely as popular as Leno.  In this film, she's dressed in a demure shirtwaist, with her hair tucked into a severe chignon; her husband is clearly the more glamorous figure.

Mr and Mrs Leno are standing outdoors in Clapham Park, near their home.  Leno attempts to open a bottle of champers, but it gives him some bottle right back. He struggles a bit, and it eventually opens.  Skoal!

That's it.  To watch this film, you would never suspect what a major entertainer Leno was in the decade before his untimely death.  Leno had an extremely expressive face, capable of being both comic and tragic at the same time.  In this movie, when he briefly grimaces with the effort of his task, it's not clear whether Leno is mugging for comic effect or expressing honest emotion.

The American Biograph film studio were notorious for inserting their "B" logo into the backgrounds of their film sets, to establish artistic ownership and discourage other exhibitors from creating pirated prints.  I looked for a similar "B" in this British Mutoscope & Biograph movie -- viewing a print pirated by Kinora (no relation to Kia-Ora) -- but I couldn't find anything comparable.

More for its historic significance than for any actual hilarity, I'll rate "An Obstinate Cork" 7 out of 10.
MacIntyre provided a fair, interesting and sometimes amusing assessment of the film.  More important, he effortlessly weaved historical facts throughout his description of the film.  I see value in the man’s work and I believe that film historians who demanded that all of MacIntyre’s suspect IMDb reviews be indiscriminately deleted were looking to throw out the baby with the bath water.


Leno appeared in Editing the 'Sun' with his frequent partner Herbert Campbell.  MacIntyre wrote:
"[It] is a crude silent film, almost a parody newsreel.  It depicts an actual event, yet it's clearly a staged enactment.  On April Fool's Day 1902, Leno and Campbell served as guest editors of the "Sun."  This movie purports to show the two men hard at work in the newspaper's office in Temple Avenue, which looks suspiciously like a movie set. . . Leno tries to paste some news stories into a page layout, while Campbell laughs at the sloppy results.  Leno's neat hair becomes disarrayed, and he ends up with the news items pasted to his head like court-plasters.
Here is what MacIntyre had to say about Bluebeard:
"Blue Beard" (two words) was the pantomime musical comedy playing at the Drury Lane Theatre from Christmas 1901 into the spring of 1902.  Very loosely based on Charles Perrault's fairy tale about a polygamous serial killer, this panto starred Herbert Campbell as Blue Beard, the dancer Julia Franks as his seventh bride Fatima (he murdered all the other lot) and the great comedy star Dan Leno as Fatima's sister Anne, whom Blue Beard must also marry in order to wed Fatima.

Leno, Britain's leading comedy star of the day, frequently wore grotesque costumes (often female) but nearly always displayed his own hair in its distinctive style, parted neatly down the centre.  In this brief film, as Sister Anne, he wears an elaborate frock that's quite pretty in its own right, topped by a wig of long ringlets that includes a feminine version of Leno's trademark centre-part.

Leno's stage act consisted largely of comic patter songs (unsuitable for a silent film, of course) and elaborate clog-dancing routines: his dances, too, were not especially suitable for silent film, since Leno performed extremely percussive clog routines that relied heavily on sound for their effect.

Act One of "Blue Beard" concluded with sisters Anne and Fatima entering a forbidden room in Blue Beard's castle, where they discover the severed heads of his previous six wives.  This being a comedy panto, naturally the heads are still alive and they offer some bad jokes. . . Stepping forth to confront Leno is some sort of huge vaguely disc-shaped face of plywood and scrim, with rolling eyes and lolling tongue.  Dangling from the face's chin is a long beard resembling a hula-dancer's grass skirt: this beard serves the obvious purpose of concealing (not much!) the lower body of the actor wearing the enormous face.  The actor's feet are just barely visible at the bottom edge of the beard, and his hands (supporting the enormous face) are just visible behind the face's surprisingly understated ears.  When this enormous face confronts him, Leno reacts comically and performs one of his distinctive "twizzle" dance steps, which would likely be more effective if we could hear it as well as see it.

Several reliable sources categorize Editing the 'Sun' and Bluebeard as lost films.  Yet, despite his likely oeuvre of hoax reviews, he acknowledged that he was unable to track down a print of The Rats.  He wrote, "I've searched diligently for this film, and I now sadly conclude that it seems to have vanished. . . Though "The Rats" probably contains no information about these performers that is not already known, it would be a fascinating glimpse into the theatre world of that era.  Here's hoping this lost film gets found!"

He proceeds to provide a bit of supposition about the film:
'The Rats' was apparently a brief newsreel-like film (not a comedy) of these six performers as themselves: merely acknowledging the camera, not performing in character.  Due to the unwieldy nature of early cinema cameras, the Water Rats' upstairs meeting-room was an impractical site for filming them, so this movie was probably shot elsewhere.  If this film was ever intended for exhibition, surely "The Water Rats" or "The Grand Order of Water Rats" would have been a more appropriate title than the merely generic one given here.
Did the Bluebeard film really include a "disc-shaped face of plywood and scrim" or is this something that came out of MacIntyre's vivid imagination?  This can be a description that MacIntyre obtained from an old magazine or newspaper, but I can tell you that my usual periodical sources include no such description of the film.  The pantomime show on which this film was based had disembodied heads turn up in Bluebeard's forbidden chamber, but no head that I know of had rolling eyes, a lolling tongue and a skirt-like beard.

Gladysz came up with a reasonable theory on MacIntyre's actions.  He wrote:
The New York Times noted MacIntyre worked night jobs in order to spend his days at the New York Public Library researching things which interested him.  Those subjects included early film, of which he was by all accounts knowledgeable.

MacIntyre was something of a pastiche artist.  To me, his reviews of silent films he couldn’t have seen read like a kind-of pastiche of reviews found in the old film periodicals housed at the New York Public Library.  That occurs to me now when I reread his IMDb review of A Social Celebrity.  Its last line, "Louise Brooks is as seductive as usual, but she has very little to do here," echoes the kind of observation made by a number of film critics in the 1920’s.

It’s hard to know why MacIntyre claimed to have seen A Social Celebrity and other lost films – and thereby muddied the historical record.  Perhaps it was a game.  Perhaps it was one way of getting attention.  Perhaps it was his way of asserting control over a world in which he felt increasingly out-of-sorts.  We’ll never know.  MacIntyre was an enigmatic, intellectual loner.
MacIntyre’s IMDb reviews angered many film historians.  William Charles Morrow, author of The Chiseler blog, wrote, "The more I hear about this man, the more his story sickens and disgusts me.  The major problem we have in trying to discuss a person who was a known, serial liar and fraud is that one never knows what's real and what is not.  His word is worthless by itself."

I proceeded to write the silent film comedy book on my own.  It became Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  The book included a brief passage on Fred Evans, but nothing on either Dan Leno or Marceline.

I became frustrated and angry with MacIntye while I was working with him, but I now feel guilty that I did not show the man more understanding and compassion.  I still read his IMDb reviews and I still enjoy them.  I do not believe he did great damage to the study of silent cinema.  I regret that I could find no way to make our collaboration a more worthwhile and satisfying experience for him.

3 comments:

  1. I communicated with FGM on a couple of occasions and received the same communications template others did: Nice communication and then nothing. I ridiculed him publicly because early on I thought he was a prankster. Later on after talking with folks who had much more communication with FGM I became convinced he was mentally ill and I backed off.
    I think his biggest crime, after kidnapping, arson, and attempted murder, was that he instilled a false hope in silent movie fans that their lost treasures had potential of rediscovery.
    I am amazed at his game playing as this man was actually a very talented SF author.

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  2. Added thought: After reading this article it seems plausible to me that Dan Leno and Madge Jefferson had an affair in 1889.

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  3. I truly appreciate your feedback, Tommie. The man was deeply ill and I doubt that he had much control of his compulsions. But I know, too, that it is difficult to sympathize with him knowing that he was dangerous. I just wish we had a better way of identifying and treating people with mental illness.

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