I have been taking every available moment to work on my Helen Gardner biography. Right now, I’m writing the chapter on Gardner’s early years with Vitagraph Company of America, the leading movie production company of the time. She was hired in 1910 as a member of their stock company of thirty players. Her first film was HOW SHE WON HIM, released late that year. Unfortunately, the film is “lost,” but several subsequent ones have survived and I am studying them closely so I can describe her acting style for my readers. Gardner was a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent actress who took her work very seriously. My next chapter will be on her great hit, VANITY FAIR (1911), and this will be so much fun to work on as she was fantastic in it! This was the film that made her a star.
Louis Reeves Harrison, a leading movie critic, wrote this of Gardner’s portrayal of the Egyptian queen: “It does not require any special delicacy of perception or exceptional cultivation of taste to discern the intensity of her impersonation. It is full of varied moods as the character of Cleopatra must have been, at one time the incarnation of tigerish ferocity, at another imbued with the seductive languor and delightful enervation of tropic temperament. With all the witchcraft of a worldly woman and all the wondrous charm of a naturally beautiful one, she holds the eye every moment she is on the scene . . . “ (November 30, 1912, Moving Picture World.) Stay tuned for more!
I’ve been busily editing my chapters for my Helen Gardner biography and am making good progress. But the biggest news is what I did yesterday — I had a videotape done of an interview with me. In it, I discuss three topics: my search for my grandmother, the culture of silent movies in the 1910s, and Helen Gardner’s company. We’re going to add some film clips and photos of her and then will post it on this site. I don’t know yet if we will post the whole thing or put each of the three parts on separately and at different times. I am thinking it will be a kind of mini-documentary. Be sure to keep posted!
You might think it would be easier to write about the life of your own relative than a total stranger. Actually, it is much harder. Among the challenges are maintaining an objective perspective and not falling into the too-personal or too-emotional, while still keeping the writing personal enough for readers to be able to identify with both narrator and subject.
Writing Helen Gardner’s biography contains some special difficulties for me. It’s as though I had an emotional relationship with an imaginary person. I didn’t know Gardner in person, so she was a total stranger in that way. But I knew her from her devastating effects on my mother, which made Gardner an intimate who was present in my daily life when I was growing up.
The two perspectives are in conflict–the objective and the subjective– so it has been a long struggle to find my voice and just the right tone. Unfortunately, this is not something that once found stays with you. You have to constantly work to maintain the balanced perspective as you write.
This is why I have two books in me. One is the biography of Gardner’s silent film career and life, and the other is a memoir about my personal relationship with her image. It appears that the biography will come first. Stay tuned . . .
My son and his family visited me over the Fourth of July weekend and I showed them the stills I have from some of the silent films Helen Gardner produced. And I told them stories about her and her female relatives, including her mother and my mother, who was Gardner’s only child. Since I own original manuscripts of scenarios of some of her films, we came up with the idea of matching stills to dialogue and making a kind of PowerPoint reconstruction of films that have been lost. An exciting idea that I will keep in the back of my mind and work on when I can!
I couldn’t help posting some of the wonderful, encouraging comments I received on my recent unveiling of this expanded site. Thank you all, thank you, thank you! (More to come.)
*Magnificent site and most interesting.
*Dorin, just had a look at the new site. Great! Also nice photo of you!
*I’ve toured website — every tab, played the YouTube clip, even caught the “Theda Bara – Original Vamp” collection of stills on YouTube. Theda was more camp than vamp. HG provides a very interesting view of the silent film industry and the emerging role of women. Stunning. Thanks for getting this going. I hope it gains the following it deserves.
*Dorin, your grandmother sounds like she was a fascinating, complex woman. It’s wonderful that you’re writing about her. Please notify me when your book is complete. Good luck to you. I’ll definitely bookmark your site and check back in again.
*We enjoyed your Helen Gardner web site. Congratulations on all of your great work in bringing recognition to your Grandmother.
*Thank you for Helen Gardener tonight !!!!!!!!!
|*First, let me thank you for your efforts . . . you have no idea how much your work and humanity inspire others. I am impressed by your grandmother, Helen Gardner’s works and your extraordinary effort to preserve her legacy. Keep it up.|
*This is awesome!!! Looks like you put a lot of work into this website and it shows. Great job! Your grandmother was the FIRST Cleopatra? Liz Taylor eat your heart out. In today’s dollars I wonder what these films cost? Anyway, this is really cool. Thanks!
*Hi Dorin, Thanks for sending the Helen Gardner website link… I find her story fascinating… and I am so proud of you for busting her for dumping on your mother and you! It is rare when we can appreciate the good in others while accepting their flaws.
*I found the website well-organized and interesting, and am impressed by all the effort Dorin has invested in this endeavor—she obviously inherited those entrepreneurial genes from her grandmother!! I am sure it will be a success.
*WOW! That is incredible! So have you sold the screen play yet?
*Dear Dorin, I am so excited about your new website! Your search for your grandmother is a remarkable one. I have been interested in genealogy for a long time, searching for information of generations past and am fascinated when I read old letters and other documents, but I have never found that much information! I look forward to your book.
*Thanks, Dorin. The website is beautiful. I haven’t checked everything in every tab yet but will in coming days. Looking forward to MORE Helen!
I’m asking myself why, in my first post, I said that I know Helen Gardner as well as anyone can know a person. The sad truth is that I would know Helen even better had I ever met her in person — but I didn’t. Helen blew off my mother, her only child, when I was an infant. So she rejected both her daughter and her newborn granddaughter at the same time. But I did grow up hearing my mother’s vivid stories about her absent mother – some of which were ”Mommie Dearest”-type stories and some of which were about the making of CLEOPATRA, which my mother not only witnessed first hand but actually participated in.
Why should I now be so interested in resurrecting the woman who was an abusive, rejecting mother and grandmother? And, not just resurrecting her for myself, but for the world at large? I’m still trying to figure it out!
Speaking as Helen Gardner’s granddaughter, who now knows her as intimately as anyone can know another person, I am confident that Helen would be a blogger if she were alive today. She was a prolific writer and correspondent. My personal Helen Gardner collection contains hundreds of pages – in fact, volumes of her essays, poems, musings, meditations, rantings and letters to fans, friends and many of the movers and shakers of her time.
Like bloggers today, Helen was a pioneer in a new medium. When movies were in their infancy, she started a movie production company and proceeded to produce ten films, all of them starring herself. She entered what essentially were the cyberspace and the blogosphere of her time, before such media miracles could even be imagined.
A video clip from Helen’s maiden production, CLEOPATRA, appears elsewhere on this site. When her great film was released in 1912, it was praised by critics in the US and around the world for the innovativeness of all of its aspects. Today, it is recognized as a classic of silent film. And Helen is justly known as a silent film pioneer.
In this blog, I will continue in the tradition of Helen’s lifelong adventure of writing down her thoughts and feelings. I will be sharing my own thoughts and feelings about this fascinating woman and her work, and my relationship to both.