16 August 2017

Ernest Torrence

Big, burly Scottish-born character actor Ernest Torrence (1878-1933) appeared in many Hollywood films form 1916 on. A towering figure, he frequently played cold-eyed and imposing heavies, but played most of his bad guys with tongue firmly in cheek. Torrence’s films include including Tol'able David (1921) opposite Richard Barthelmess, Mantrap (1926) with Clara Bow, and Sherlock Holmes (1932) in one of his last roles as Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Ernest Torrence
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, no. 167.

Moronic, twitch-eyed thief

Ernest Thayson Torrance-Thompson was born in 1978 to Colonel Henry Torrence Thayson and Jessie (née Bryce) in Edinburgh, Scotland. His younger brother would be the actor David Torrence.

As a child, Ernest was an exceptional pianist and operatic baritone and he graduated from the Stuttgart Conservatory and Edinburgh Academy before earning a scholarship at London's Royal Academy of Music.

He toured with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in such productions as The Emerald Isle (1901) and The Talk of the Town (1905) before disarming vocal problems set in and he was forced to abandon this career path.

Sometime prior to 1900, he changed the spelling of Torrance to Torrence and dropped the name Thomson. Both Ernest and his brother David Torrence went to America, in March 1911, directly from Scotland prior to the First World War.

Focusing instead on a purely acting career, Ernest and his brother developed into experienced players on the Broadway New York stage. Ernest received significant acclaim with Modest Suzanne in 1912, and a prominent role in The Night Boat in 1920 brought him to the attention of the early Hollywood filmmakers.

Torrence played the moronic, twitch-eyed thief Luke Hatburn in Tol'able David (Henry King, 1921) opposite Richard Barthelmess and made his mark as a cinema villain. He settled into films for the rest of his career and life.

He played Colleen Moore’s abusive husband in Broken Chains (Alan Holubar, 1922). Torrence gave a sympathetic portrayal of a grizzled old codger in the acclaimed classic Western The Covered Wagon (James Cruze, 1923) and gained attention from his role as Clopin, king of the beggars opposite Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923).

Ernest Torrence
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, no. 167a. Photo: Paramount.

Ernest Torrence
British autograph card.

One of the silent screen's finest arch villains

Ernest Torrence played an outrageous Captain Hook in Peter Pan (Herbert Brenon, 1924) opposite Betty Bronson as Peter Pan. Bob Eddwards at Find A Grave: “Walt Disney used Torrence as the model for Hook in his own 1953 animated version of Peter Pan.”

He played an Army General who escapes into the circus world and becomes a clown in The Side Show of Life (Herbert Brenon, 1924). In an offbeat bit of casting he paired up with Clara Bow in Mantrap (Victor Fleming, 1926), unusually as a gentle, bear-like backwoodsman in search of a wife.

He appeared in other silent film classics such as the epic The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille 1927) as Peter, and Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928) as Buster Keaton's steamboat captain father.

During the course of his twelve-year film career, Ernest Torrence made 49 films, both silent and sound films. Torrence made the transition into sound films very well, starring in the Western Fighting Caravans (Otto Brower, David Burton, 1931) with Gary Cooper and Lily Damita.

He was able to play a notable nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, to Clive Brook's Sherlock in Sherlock Holmes (William K. Howard, 1932) in one of his last roles. Filming for I Cover the Waterfront (James Cruze, 1933), in which he starred as a New York smuggler opposite Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert, had just been completed when he died suddenly on 15 May 1933.

He was only 54. While en route to Europe by ship, Torrence suffered an acute attack of gall stones and was rushed back to a New York hospital. He died of complications following surgery. Ernest Torrence was married to Elsie Reamer Bedbrook and he had one child, Ian Torrence.

Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: “He was the man you loved to hiss. This towering (6' 4"), highly imposing character star with cold, hollow, beady eyes and a huge, protruding snout would go on to become one of the silent screen's finest arch villains.”

Scene with Torrence and Clara Bow in Mantrap (Victor Fleming, 1926). Source: Jeff Alanson (YouTube).

Scene from Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928). Source: Movies and Videos (YouTube).

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Bobb Edwards (Find A Grave), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Silent, Wikipedia and IMDb.

15 August 2017

Christine Norden

Blonde, green-eyed bombshell Christine Norden (1924-1988) was Britain’s first post-war screen sex goddess. The ex-dancer, actress and singer won in the late 1940s and early 1950s two prestigious film awards, but she was best known for her 39 inch breasts and her racy image.

Christine Norden
British postcard, no. 262.

Seven-year Contract

Christine Norden was born Mary Lydia Thornton in Sunderland, Great Britain on Christmas day in 1924. She was the daughter of Charles Hunter; a bus driver, and Catherine (McAloon) Thornton.

Christine performed as a dancer and a singer since her teens. She made her London stage debut as Molly Thornton in Tell the World in 1942. She became the first entertainer to land on Normandy beaches in 1944 to perform for Allied troops after D-Day.

The story goes that she was ‘discovered’ in 1947 by agents of the distinguished film mogul Sir Alexander Korda while waiting outside a theatre ticket line. Korda promptly signed her to a seven-year contract, and Christine also became his mistress.

She made her film debut in the melodrama Night Beat (Harold Huth, 1947) as an alluring temptress. She was known for her 39 inch breasts which made her a prime pin-up attraction.

Korda placed her in stark, dark-edged films as fetching, sometimes singing femmes, appearing in a surprising number of quality films including Mine Own Executioner (Anthony Kimmins, 1947) opposite Burgess Meredith and An Ideal Husband (Alexander Korda, 1948) starring Paulette Goddard.

She won a Venice Festival award for most promising actress in 1947, and the British National Film Award in 1949 for her performance in Saints and Sinners (Leslie Arliss, 1949).

Christine Norden
Italian postcard by Rotalfoto, Milano (Milan), no. 2. Photo: London Films. Publicity still for Saints and Sinners (1949).

Topless on Broadway

By the early 1950s the film career of Christine Norden was over. Her last British film was the thriller The Black Widow (Vernon Sewell, 1951), and the following year she went to New York.

Her Broadway debut was in the musical Tenderloin in 1960 and later she appeared in such productions as Marat/Sade. She was the first actress to appear topless on Broadway in Scuba Duba (1967).

Although she became an American citizen, she returned to London in 1979 and acted in plays, films and television shows during the 1980s, including the musical Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1988) and in an episode of the popular TV series Inspector Morse (1987).

Christine Norden admitted to many affairs (both men and women) over the years, and she is reported to have had affairs with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, along with Prince Philip.

She was married five times (including with director Jack Clayton). One of the craters of the planet Venus has been named after her as a tribute to her being a ‘forerunner of the modern sex symbol.’ Her last husband, George Heselden, a retired mathematician, developed and named a mathematical formula in her honour.

After a bypass surgery, she died of pneumonia in 1988, in Isleworth, England. She was 63, and had one child, Michael Glenn, from her first marriage. Her memoirs were discovered after she died, but were considered too racy to be published at the time. Her friend, and royal biographer, Michael Thornton, to whom they were left, has now made parts of the story public.

Christine Norden
British postcard, no. F.S. 55.

Christine Norden
British autograph card.

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Sandra Brennan (AllMovie), The New York Times, Film Reference, Wikipedia and IMDb.

14 August 2017

Imperio Argentina

For the new issue of the international magazine The Italianist, film historian Ivo Blom wrote an article on the production of the film Tosca (1941), a curious and intriguing case in film history. It was originally begun by French director Jean Renoir, but finished by his German screenwriter-turned-director Carl Koch. Koch’s wife Lotte Reiniger and the young Luchino Visconti contributed to the film, while its producer was the grand old man of Italian silent film, Arturo Ambrosio. But the leading role of Tosca was played by only one person, the enigmatic Imperio Argentina (1906-2003). Although the famous actress and singer was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was successful all over South America and worked in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, she was a Spanish citizen.

Imperio Argentina in Tosca
Italian postcard by Ballerini & Fratini Firenze Editori, no. 4248. Photo: Scalera Film. Publicity still of Imperio Argentina in Tosca (Carl Koch, 1941).

Imperio Argentina
Dutch postcard by M. B. & Z. (M. Bonnist & Zonen, Amsterdam), no. 199. Photo: Cifesa (Cifesa was a big Spanish film distribution company between the mid-1930s and the early 1960s.)

Petite Imperio

Imperio Argentina was born Magdalena Nile del Río in 1906 in San Telmo, the tango district of Buenos Aires. Her Spanish parents, guitar player Antonio Nile and actress Rosario del Río, were on tour in Argentine.

Until the age of 12 she lived in Malaga, where she studied dance. Thanks to Pastora Imperio, she debuted at the age of 12 at the comedy theatre of Buenos Aires. Imperio called her 'Petite Imperio', her artistic name in those years, when she was successful all over South America.

When she came back to Spain in 1926, she adopted the artistic name of Imperio Argentina, singing in the main theatres of the country. Film director Florián Rey discovered her at the Romea theatre in Madrid and enabled her to play in the silent film La Hermana San Sulpicio/Sister San Sulpicio (Florián Rey, 1927).

Eventually she also married Rey, who was the first of her three husbands. In Spain and Germany, Argentina performed in the late silent Corazones sin rumbo/Herzen ohne Ziel/Hearts Without Soul (Benito Perojo, Gustav Ucicky, 1928), which costarred Betty Bird and Livio Pavanelli.

After signing a contract with Paramount Pictures, she worked in Paris with the best directors and actors of the moment. Her films included Su noche de bodas/Her Wedding Night (Louis Mercanton, Floriàn Rey, 1931) and Lo mejor es reir/Laughter (E.W. Emo, Floriàn Rey, 1931) with Tony D'Algy.

At Paramount she worked with Carlos Gardel in the short La casa es seria/Love Me Tonight (Lucien Jacquelux, 1931), which is considered as lost, and Melodía de Arrabal/Suburban Melody (Louis Gasnier, 1932), singing rare duets with him.

In 1934 Argentina returned to Spain, where, thanks to her cooperation with Rey, she became a star and obtained her greatest successes in folklorist films as the sound version of Hermana de San Sulpicio/Sister San Sulpicio (Floriàn Rey, 1934), Nobleza Baturra/Aragonese Virtue (Floriàn Rey, 1935), and Morena Clara/Dark and Bright (Floriàn Rey, 1936).

Adolf Hitler asked her to play in a film about Lola Montes, which she declined but instead she played in both the Spanish and the German version of Carmen, la de Triana/Andalusische Nächte (Florian Rey, Herbert Maisch, 1938), shot around Malaga. In the German version Friedrich Benfer (a.k.a. Enrico Benfer) costarred as Don José, while in the Spanish version Rafael Rivelles played this part.

Imperio Argentina is said to have had an affair with Rafael Rivelles before she had divorced her second husband Ramón Baillío. Her divorce caused a scanald, as she was married for the Catholic church.

Imperio Argentina, Manuel Russell and Pepe Romeu in Su noche de bodas (1931)
Spanish postcard by Dümmatzen, no. 111. Photo: Paramount. Publicity still of Imperio Argentina, Manuel Russell and Pepe Romeu in Su noche de bodas/Her Wedding Night (Louis Mercanton, Florián Rey, 1931).

Imperio Argentina in La canción de Aixa (1939).
German postcard by Ross Verlag. Photo: Knevels-Film. Imperio Argentina, wearing the attire of La canción de Aixa/Song of Aixa (Florián Rey, 1939).

Imperio Argentina
German postcard. Photo: Ufa / Hämmerer.

Paseo de la Fama

In 1940 Imperio Argentina travelled to Rome to star opposite Rossano Brazzi in Tosca/The Story of Tosca (Carlo a.k.a. Carl Koch, 1941), an adaptation of the story by Victorien Sardou. The film was originally directed by Jean Renoir, but when war between France and Italy was at hand and Renoir was knocked down by fascists one day, he fled to France and his assistant Carl Koch took over directing.

In his memoirs, Michel Simon, who played her antagonist Scarpia in the film, recalls how he rehearsed the rape scene of Tosca too vividly, unveiling one of her breasts. Fascinated, he tried the same the next day, but Imperio had taken measures, firmly tying up her robe.

The film was partly shot on location, at the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Palatine Hill and in front of the Palazzo Farnese (the French embassy). A young Luchino Visconti collaborated as a first assistant and learned the tricks of the trade here.

In the 1940s, Imperio also worked with director Benito Perojo at the films Goyescas (1942), Bambú/Bamboo (1945), La maja de los cantares/The Songstress (1946) and La copla de la Dolores/Song of Dolores (1951) with Lola Beltrán.

In the 1950s she focused on big musical shows while in the 1960s she did Ama Rosa (León Klimovsky, 1960) and Con el viento Solano/With the East Wind (Mario Camus, 1966) as the mother of Antonio Gades. After years of little activity she was rediscovered at Festival Internacional de Cine in San Sebastián. From then on a new golden age started, full of honors.

Argentina became a citizen of Spain in 1999. In the following decades, she appeared in Tata Mía/Dear Nanny (José Luis Borau, 1986) opposite Carmen Maura and in El polizón de Ulises/The stowaway of the Ulises (Javier Aguirre, 1987), her last film. She also performed in the stage play of the Expo 92, Azabache.

In 1996 she was elected 'pregonera' at the Festa del Pilar at Saragozza, to celebrate the centenary of the cinema. In 2001 she published her memoirs, Malena Clara, written by Pedro Villora.

At the age of 92, Imperio Argentina died of natural causes in 2003 in her house in Torremolinos in Andalucia. She lies buried nearby at Benalmádena near Málaga. In 2011 she was honoured with a star in the Spanish Walk of Fame, the Paseo de la Fama in Madrid. In 1994 she already was honoured as 'Ciudadano Ilustre de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires' (Illustrious Citizen of the City of Buenos Aires).

Scene with Imperio Argentina in Carmen la de Triana (Florían Rey, 1938) singing Los piconeros. Source: Canta Roable (YouTube).

Long scene from Tosca/The Story of Tosca (Carl Koch, 1941). Source: Otello Bailor (YouTube).

Sources: Miguel A. Andrade (IMDb), Wikipedia (English, German, Italian and Spanish), and IMDb.