Sunday, March 22, 2009


By Wood Soanes
March 20, 1932

Hollywood is a magnet for so many different types and possesses so much that is counterfeit that a ramble around the by-paths is always interesting and sometimes informative.

The bus-boy who tips a dash of soup down your neck may be a crown prince in disguise, and the crown prince you meet at a swagger tea might be his hostess’ ex-scavenger. And the publicity agents do very little to help clarify the situation.

It wasn’t, for example, until I happened along the alley which housed the cutting rooms at the Fox studio and chanced upon a stocky Chinese who was regaling a group of actors with a hilarious story that I discovered the identity of James Howe.

Those of you who stop to think about the beauty of the photography in certain pictures and who admire the unusual angles that are often times introduced to enhance the action of the screen play may have noticed that credit was given to James Howe.

Well, James Wong Howe, nee Wong Tum Jim, is a little 110-pound Chinaman, a native of Pasco, Washington, thirty odd years old, and recognized as one of the artistic leaders of the cameramen in Hollywood. Carrying responsibilities second only to those of the director, he has supervised the photography of some of the outstanding motion pictures.

He received schooling in America as well as China – his father sent him to the mother country to study – and he returned to become a professional boxer on the Pacific coast. A friend in Los Angeles introduced him to photography and Howe, through persistency and an uncompromising eye for beauty, attached himself to the picture industry.

Now he draws top salary among camera men and is looked upon as The Authority at the Fox studio. Howe has been represented on local screens in recent months by “The Spider,” Transatlantic,” “The Yellow Ticket” and “Surrender” – to name a few.

The same afternoon that I crossed paths with Howe, I ran across a couple of interesting stories at Universal Studios in the careers and backgrounds of Tala Birell and Boris Karloff. These two names sound Continental, it is true, but while the first belongs to a tall blonde from Bucharest, the second belongs to a six-footer from London. Miss Birell is an imporation well enough, but Karloff, despite the aura of mystery that surrounds him, is a local product.

Tala Birell, for all her musical comedy name, is a blue blood. Her mother before marriage was the Baroness Stephanie Sahaydakowska of Poland, and her father, Carol Bierl, was born in Vienna but made his money in oil in Roumania, where Miss Birell was born on September 10, 1908. She studied voice with Nietta Schubert in Vienna before embarking on the stage in a Berlin production of “Mme. Pompadour.”

It was there that Reinhardt, the German producer, saw her and signed her for a role in “Es Liegt in der Luft.” Marlene Dietrich was the principal player in the piece and Miss Birell was her understudy during a long season in Berlin, taking the chief role when the company started on an extensive European tour. Her success was instantaneous and she was given a contract by the British International Film company.

She went to England to star in “Cape Forlorn” under Dupont, director of “Variety,” and was sent to America for a part in Universal’s “Liche auf Befehl,” the German version of “Boudoir Diplomat.” When the picture was completed she was signed to a term contract which was to take effect after her European contract ended. So we will probably see much of her.

As for Karloff, I think his air of mystery was born out of depression, for until “Frankenstein” and a contract at Universal he had been dubbing around for years. He was born William Henry Pratt, son of James Pratt of the British Indian Service.

Arrangements had been made for him to serve in the Chinese consulate at Hong Kong when he decided that the work bored him to tears. So he collected a little money, appropriated his maternal grandfather’s name, and landed in Halifax at twenty-two. His first job was as a farm hand on an Ontario farm.

Toward the end of that year, 1909, Karloff’s father died in England and the adventurer returned home to collect his share of the estate. He returned to Canada, proceeded to Banf and almost before he knew it was in Vancouver with $5. Two days later he was a pick-and-shovel laborer. That was followed by odd jobs and a stroke of luck.

The luck was represented by a chance meeting in the Vancouver Hotel with his brother, John Pratt, en route from China to London. Brother John staked him to a small sum. With this in his pocket and a new suit, Karloff read an advertisement for an “experienced character actor” in a rural stock company and forthwith became a thespian.

This first theater job took him to Kamloops, B. C. at $30 a week, same being promptly reduced to $25 when Karloff made his first appearance. But until the Brandon players stranded at Regina, two years later, he was a working actor. Two days later he was a working pick and shovel man, for a cyclone struck Regina after the troupe stranded and someone had to clear away the debris.

But when the dust settled, Karloff was in a new job. “It was one of those things that are happening more often in story books than in life,” Karloff recalled. I took a job with the Dominion Express company to tide me over. One day at the station a passenger threw a magazine out the window as the train pulled out. It happened to be a theatrical journal and I took it home and read the news. In it I found an ad offering work in Prince Albert.

“I got the job and for two years worked with the Harry St. Clair Players. At the end of the engagement I had $800 simply because St. Clair held back a certain amount each week and paid it all at the conclusion of the season. With that nest egg I went to Chicago determined to have a chance at the big time. I arrived there on October 13, 1914, and found that no one was the least bit interested in my experience.
“The British army had rejected me because of a heart murmur, my money was disappearing rapidly and I decided that I had better get back to the sticks where I was appreciated. I worked in the “rep” companies in Bermidji, Minnesota, Minot, North Dakota and Atchison, Kansas. And I worked. I remember that I played 106 different shows in fifty-three weeks at Minot.”

In 1916, Karloff made another attempt to get started in Chicago and finally chalked up another failure. But he did get a job with Billie Bennett’s touring show, “The Virginian,” in which Belle Bennett was working. This brought him by easy stages through Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, and Nevada, into Los Angeles in December 1917.

The troupe disbanded on its arrival, but in those days Los Angeles didn’t boast snow in winter, and Karloff basked in the sunshine and got a job with a stock company at San Pedro. Six weeks later he joined another ham troupe and played as far north as the bay district. Then he worked with the Maude Amber players at Vallejo, and the Robert Lawrence company at the Aerodrome. When the influenza epidemic began to close the theaters, Karloff got work at the Sperry Flour Mill at Vallejo, piling sacks of flour and loading cars.

“After two months of this,” Karloff said, “I joined the Alfred Aldrich vaudeville act in San Jose. The engagement was brief and Aldrich was unable to get booking in Los Angeles. But he sent for me to join him there and provided board and room until I landed a job as an extra at Universal in a mob scene being directed by Frank Borzage. But other extra jobs didn’t follow, so I went back to San Francisco and a stock job.

I was at the Majestic with the Lawrence troupe for three months, did some parts over at the Fulton and finally got back to Los Angeles, where I got a bit in Douglas Fairbanks’ ‘His Majesty, the American.’ A lot of small parts, several with Blanche Sweet, followed and then in 1923 another slump and no work. I got a job as a truck driver, learning how to drive an automobile on Sunday and starting to work on Monday.

“The foreman used to let me have an occasional day off to rest up and hunt movie jobs. one of these was in ‘Never the Twain Shall Meet’ with Bert Lytell, but we were sent to San Francisco on location for ten days, and I lost the job.

“It was up to me to find movie work and I got it at F.B.O. finally getting featured billing with Evelyn Brent in ‘Forbidden Cargo.’ Then a stage engagement opened up in ‘The Idiot’ and I did the coast tours of ‘Hotel Imperial’ and worked in Los Angeles in ‘Window Panes’ and Kongo.’ Things began to go a little easier then and when I got a job in the stage version of ‘The Criminal Code’ on the Coast, I was virtually out of the woods.”

I have seen Karloff on almost all of the Hollywood studios in recent years. He had roles of one sort or another in “The Criminal Code,” “Cracked Nuts” with Wheeler and Woolsey, “Public Defender” with Richard Dix; “I Like Your Nerve” with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; “Smart Money” with Edward G. Robinson, and, most notably, “Five Star Final” with Robinson, in which he played a fake clergyman.

But Universal plans now to keep him busy. He is scheduled for “Night Club,” H. G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” and J. B. Priestley’s “The Old Dark House” in rapid succession; and “Frankenstein” is playing in all of the hamlets where Karloff once roared and stomped as Jack Dalton in the thrillers of the tent shows.

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