Questions and Answers with Lon Davis, author of Stumbling into Film History

lon davis q&a

Questions and Answers with Lon Davis, author of Stumbling into Film History

Q: What prompted you to write Stumbling into Film History?

A: (Laughing) Well, it certainly wasn’t the money. I think it was more a case of nostalgia. I love looking back to the time when some of my best friends were survivors of the early film industry. I was obsessed by old movies when I was a kid, and obviously I still am. In those years prior to social media, meeting someone famous (or formerly famous) was a far more tactile experience. I generally made first contact with them by phone (most everybody was listed in the phone book in those days), and this was followed up with one or more in-person meetings. When I had a rapport with someone, I maintained the friendship for as long as possible, through additional visits, calls, and letters. In some cases, I kept the relationship going when I sensed that the person was lonely. The sad fact was that several of these remarkable people were forgotten by the public. Even their families showed no interest in their past accomplishments. And there were very few individuals who were seeking them out for interviews.

Q: Who was the first silent star that you met?

A: Beverly Bayne. She was Francis X. Bushman’s leading lady as well as the second of his four wives. To those who did not know her well, she was a dynamic, strong-willed woman in her seventies. I had both the privilege and the sorrow of seeing beyond that façade. Beverly was a rather tragic figure. She lost her son to suicide in 1967 and never really came to terms with it. But then, does any parent ever recover from such a tragedy? I doubt they do. For the first time ever, I have written about Beverly’s life behind the scenes. I truly loved her, and I hope my essay conveys that.

Q: What other silent film actors did you know?
A: Mary MacLaren, who was discovered by the pioneering female film director Lois Weber in 1916, was another tragic figure, although she wouldn’t have described herself that way. Her story could be a powerful exposé on the dark side of early Hollywood. Reading that essay is like reading fiction, although every word of it is true. The same could be said about Diana Serra Cary, the former child star Baby Peggy, who was among my closest friends. What an extraordinary person she was! Very few child actors could have coped with the specific challenges life brought her, particularly concerning her mother and father. A far more stable lifestyle was provided for another child star, Zoe Rae. Her parents told her from the outset that she was just an ordinary kid, no more special than anyone else. They wouldn’t even allow Zoe to see her own movies or read about herself in the fan magazines. As a result, Zoe was completely unaffected by her early fame. Oh—and I had some delightful phone conversations with Eddie LeVeque, who was known as “The Last of the Keystone Kops.”

Q: Do you discuss your many visits to the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills?

A: Do I ever! I have devoted the lengthiest essay to the Home, both to its formation and to the people there. My great-uncle Ted Edlin, a fifty-year member of the Screen Extras Guild, lived in the property’s hospital, and this allowed me access to the other residents. Comedienne Babe London occupied a little cottage on the campus; she was a pleasure to meet and reminisce with. My dearest friend at the Home was Larry Fine of The Three Stooges. Those who own a copy of our earlier book Stooges Among Us will find all-new stories in Stumbling into Film History. Of the many actors I met or knew, it is Larry whose friendship I cherish most—and not because he remains the most famous! He was just a kind, wonderful man, as were all the Stooges.

Q: What else can we look forward to reading in the book?

A: I’ve included a newly written profile on Kevin Brownlow, who is essentially the pope of the silent film community. I’ve known Kevin a long, long time, and my essay on him not only covers his Oscar-winning career as a film historian and preservationist, but I detail a funny, eventful breakfast my wife Deb and I once had with Kevin and his cousin Timothy. Kevin, as you’ll see, has a wonderful sense of humor.

Q: You talk about writing the truth about these individuals. Do you provide anything personal about your own life?

A: The most personal piece I have ever written is the essay “Finding Our Niche,” which is essentially Deb’s and my love story. It may be one of only a few such tales that take place in a cemetery—in this case, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. And because there are more silent film stars there than any place in the world, the story features an all-star cast, headed by no less a personage than W.C. Fields.

Q: I don’t get it.

A: Don’t worry, you will. Just buy the book.

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