Home / Photographers / Abbe - James / James Abbe Autobiography: WONDERFUL YEARS Pt 2_david [13]

JAMES ABBE Autobiography: WONDERFUL YEARS Pt 2     Feb 11, '10 11:07 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #222

I have continued the narrative of Abbe's life to the point when he becomes a photojournalist in the early 1930s. I've supplemented the narrative with several more images scanned from vintage prints in my collection. Profdash--David Shields


I met comedy king Mack Sennett while taking publicity stills of Mary Pickford. It was Mary’s birthday. Sennett had come to the movie set where Mary was making “Suds” to wish her well. I forget the year, but the date was April 8. Mary had sent the cast home early, but not until all had put in a good day’s work: she was ambitious and devoted to her art, a perfectionist in everything. Even in my still shots she insisted on perfection. Sennett watched me at work, then asked me to go over and take some shots of his bathing beauties (only three of the 14 could swim). I worked all one day with those gorgeous beauties, each hand-picked by the comedy king himself. Afterwards Sennett, who had been standing by all day, suggested that we all repair to the cafeteria for coffee and sweets ‘on the house.’ I was elated at having made the grade with this world-renowned figure, not to mention his lovely creatures! After coffee we all returned to the set and Mack said, ‘Now I want you to make up a story, whatever comes to your mind. Direct the girls and I’ll send in Ben Turpin or Ford Sterling or any man you want if you need male performers. ‘How about a script?” I asked innocently. Mack said, ‘We never have scripts here, never story-lines: nothing is written down. Our directors (he had five) are paid to have an idea for a two-reeler to start with and be able to stage and direct things scenes. If they get stuck along the line they let their company off for 10 minutes while they hurry to the gag-room. In the gag-room are three idea men, paid $1,000 each a week I learned later. They hear what the director needs, supply him immediately with a sequence and back he goes directing our slapstick in which we take great pride. But” he added quickly, “they won’t help you now, because you are on trial. I want to see what you come up with without outside help.”

I concocted a spur-of-the-moment piece about goings-on in New York’s Greenwich Village, of which I had some firsthand knowledge, and we were off for another two or three hours work. I mixed love and slapstick, suspense, surprise and a few other ingredients I’d seen worked out while watching dress rehearsals on New York Stages. The impromptu movie I made for Sennett is not likely every to be played back, even as a relic on newfangled TV. In fact, it was not suitable for showing even in the slapstick days of silent movies, but it impressed Sennett, his assembled directs and a few of the girls. “How much do you want a week to make movies for me?” asked my boss-to-be. I picked $500 a week as an asking price. “When can you start?” he asked. I started mumbling something about previous engagements. “Your dates will wait,” said the man who made millions laugh. “Come tomorrow, with your own idea of a story,” and he walked away. I racked my fluttering brain for a story idea. An English author had written “Water Babies,” a fantasy beamed at children. I suggested a slapstick version of it, incautiously adding, “Let’s inject a little subtle comedy into slapstick.” He shook his head sadly, this genius who launched Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin, Marie Prevost and Marie Dressler; who made the Keystone Kops immortal. “Abbe,” he said, “there is only one basic comedy situation in life, a kick on somebody else’s shins.

I ran into Mack Sennett years later, after the talkies came in. The talkies, of course, spelled the end of pantomime in t he movies and the end of Mack Sennett’s type of comedy. The boss was dejected. I tried to tell him he would soon adapt to the talkies, but he didn’t think so. The man who made millions laugh had lost millions of dollars speculating outside of Hollywood. He was a pushover for wild-cat projects. In 1960 Mack Sennett died broke in Hollywood. God rest his soul in heaven where surely there is a market for laughs.


My friendship with Lillian and Dorothy Gish, screen idols of those early twenties, led me to D. W. Griffith for whom I was soon shooting publicity stills in his Mamaroneck Studios. It was 1922, and I had returned to New York after my ‘fling’ in Hollywood. One of my favorite stills is of Lillian swimming the old-fashioned breaststroke with a wooden clothespin clipped to her photogenic nose. (Unfortunately this photo is lost.) One day in October when this great star of ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East’ and ‘Birth of a Nation’ was in my studio for close-ups, she asked if I would accompany her to Italy as a still photographer among the all-American company that was to make ‘The White Sister.”

She asked another favor—would I hunt up a leading man for her, preferably an Italian. I got Rudolph Valentino on the phone in Hollywood, already a star on his own, but willing to co-star with Lillian whom he considered the greatest of the screen actresses. He’d see if his contracts would permit. He found they wouldn’t, so I searched New York’s leading theaters, finally winding up in The Empire where what looked to me like an Italian was playing opposite Ruth Chatterton in ‘La Tendresse.” In his dressing room Scotsman Ronald Colman did look as Italian to me as Valentino! I phoned Lillian, who phoned her director, Henry King. Lillian’s cameraman, Roy Overbaugh, joined them with a movie camera in my studio next day for the movie test of Colman. The Scotsman got the job.

In a couple or three weeks we all sailed for Naples on one little Fabra Line Ship Providence (Fated to be sumk filled with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in World War II). It was in ‘The White Sister’ that I played the part of a dying soldier on a desert in Africa. King had selected me because he said I looked the part. Since it was a silent movie, Colman, like any other silent actor, could actually say whatever he wanted. What he actually said as I lay dying was, ‘To think that I should have to play a scene with a still photographer!” We spent seven wonderful months in Italy, shooting ‘The White Sister’ in Rome, Naples, Tivoli, Frascati, Sorrento and even across the Mediterranean in Tripoli. All the while another drama was being enacted I Italy as Mussolini was making the country over in his own image.

Next stop Paris, where I spent another wonderful eight years and, incidentally, became the father of three more children.


Paris was ripe for stage photography and I was ripe for Paris. The year was 1923. My studio was in an ancient cluster of houses that date back to Louis XV. In fact Louis’ Madame Lavaliere resided in one of them on the Rue du Val de Grace after her departure from Versailles. During the winter months the big stove in my studio warmed many a subject. One lovely visitor was Bessie Love, top-flight American movie star of the silent era who was visiting Paris. The Dolly Sisters, at the peak of their success, came too. In this Paris of the 20s they had taken over the Moulin Rouge with an expensive song-and-dance girlie ‘spectacle’ which sold out for months. It was the Dolly Sisters, along with Mistinguette and Sascha Guitry, who launched me in Paris merely by permitting me to photograph them in their respective shows. The Hungarian-born Dollys, who achieved fame in New York then settled in Paris, parlayed their song-and-dance talents to international heights, being astute businesswomen, showmen, publicity-minded and photogenic. I remember that both spoke French with an American accent, and English with Hungarian accent.

Old friends and photo subjects from the States were always turning up in Paris. Chaplin. Marc Connolly. Jack Dempsey. Gilda Gray. Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks, Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Murray Anderson, Fred and Adele Astaire and many others. Fred and the captivating Adele I had first known as teen-agers appearing at New York’s Globe Theater with Fred Stone, circa 1919. They posed in my Paris studio, and later posed again on the stage at the Prince of Wales Theater in London. Once in 1924 when I was shooting Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence after their performance of ‘London Calling’ in London, Fred, Adele and Beatrice Lillie dropped in. After pictures, Noel corralled the Astaires and me for advice. He had never been in the USA. He said he had written some plays he wanted to produce or sell, that he had saved enough money to live a month at the Ritz in New York, or perhaps three months in less expensive surroundings and maybe make a sale. Which course did we advise? With some hesitation and debate we voted for the Ritz.


Anna Pavlova told this admirer one day in Paris, “I am still Russian. I dream of dancing again in my native land, even though the Russia I knew has gone with the revolution.” At her request on my first visit to Russia in November, 1927, I conveyed her sentiments to Soviet Commissar of Art and Culture Lunarcharsky, and to the great stage producer, Stanislavsky. Both declared Pavlova would not only be welcome, but permitted to depart the land of her birth without hindrance. Returning to Golders Green near London, where Pavlova maintained residence, I passed on the message from Lunarcharsky and Stanislavsky. The reluctant expatriate was deeply moved. With tears in her eyes she listened as I described her Russia as I saw it. But she never returned there.

I photographed Pavlova in many cities—first of all in New York at the old Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street, where young Sol Hurok looked on in some amazement as Madame willingly posed for me through the early morning hours after her opening performance. Later she was to pose again at the Theatre de Champs Elysees in Paris, on the stage of London’s Covent Garden and at her home in Golders Green. It was during my eight-year stay in France that I caught up with Anna Pavlova again, in Deuville, where she performed at the Casino Theatre. Turning up as always at the stage door, Madam’s husband Monsieur Dandre shrugged his shoulders, asked me to wait while he asked Madame if she would pose after the performance. She would. That night Anna Pavlova said something that I’ve never forgotten. Greeting me as always by extending her hand to be kissed, she remarked in French what translates as “I am sure that when I am in heaven Dandre will say, ‘Anna, Abbe is below, telling St. Peter he wants to photograph you.” “Ah, Madame,” I of course replied, “now I know how I will get into heaven. St. Peter couldn’t resist if you recommended me.” Anna Pavlova surely went with her great talents to heaven.


I wonder if Al Jolson ever forgot the day I walked him to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral and photographed him alongside the gargoyles. I never have. As Al posed he brought me up to date on the Broadway folk we knew in common, and I guess that included just about everybody. The posing over, we walked to the Savoy Hotel where Jolson was staying. Stretched out in a Barber Chair at the Savoy Hotel for a shave, Al sang “Yes We Have No Bananas” after I asked him to explain the significance of the title which was catching on in Paris as “Oui, Nous N’Avons Pas, des Bananes” and billed as a “chanson Americaine.” The French in the barber shop, like true Frenchmen, enjoyed something for nothing—an impromptu concert by Al Jolson, already known for his “Jazz Singer” movie that ushered in ‘the talkies.’

Another great of those jazz days who posed for me in Paris was Gilda Gray, the Polish-born girl who shimmied her way to fame via Chicago, Resenweber’s in New York, the Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood moviedom. In the late ‘20s Gilda, accompanied by her suband-manager, Gil Boag, made yearly pilgrimages to France for recreation and purchase of the latest and finest of Paris fashions for her wardrobe. This photographer’s photos of Gilda being fitted at Worth’s, Lanvin’s, Lelong’s, or painted by artist Drian, were played up by the chic magazines of Europe and the United States. I accompanied her on a photo-shooting tour of France in 1929 maybe it was ’30 during which delightful tour we dined sumptuously where William the Conqueror had eaten and slept before moving across the Channel to conquer England.

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  • historicalzg - 1Reply
    ziegfeldgrrl wrote on Feb 12, '10
    Thanks so much for sharing Abbe with us all, David. A wonderful read and such gorgeous photos. It's hard to pick a favorite from this group.
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