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Frederica Sagor Maas 1900-2012

16 01 2012

Usually when someone is a super-centenarian (110+), that is their biggest claim to fame.  However, for Frederica Sagor Maas, she was also a trail blazing female screenwriter in early Hollywood.

Born on July 6, 1900, Frederica Sagor obtained a degree in journalism from Columbia University before taking a position as a story editor for Universal Pictures, and then as a screenwriter for Preferred Pictures in 1924.  Two of her most prominent titles were the Clara Bow and Garbo vehicles The Plastic Age and Flesh and the Devil.  Following solid work in the industry for several years, like many in the silent era, her workload declined in the 1930s.  Her last credit was for The Shocking Miss Pilgrim was in 1947.

She married fellow screenwriter, Ernest Maas, in 1927; the couple would remain married until his death in 1986 at the age of 94.  After many rejections of both her and her husband’s screenplays, coupled with the stock market crash of 1929, Maas and her husband became disillusioned and impoverished.  Eventually, however, she started a second career as a stenographer for an insurance agency, in time moving to the role of adjuster due to “adjusting” her age by 10 years on her resume.

Never one particularly fond of the movie industry or how it treated its employees, she wrote her tell all memoir “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim” in 1999 at the age of 99.  Perhaps her greatest feeling of satisfaction was being able to tell her story and knowing that all those that did her wrong or whom she despised were in the ground.  In an interview with Salon in 1999, she said, “I can get my payback now. I’m alive and thriving and, well, you S.O.B.’s are all below.”

It is with some personal sadness to hear of Frederica’s passing last week at the age of 111.  In 2008, I contacted her about the possibility of doing an extensive on camera interview about her life and times in Hollywood.  I was contacted back by her niece, Phoebe, who told me that, though Frederica’s mind was sharp many days, that would be a taxing thing for her and that some days were better than others.  Being 108 at the time, that is not a shocker at all and I completely understood.  I further found out that famed film historian Kevin Brownlow had beat me to the chase so to speak by doing a series of interviews with Maas in 1999, though I don’t know that any of the footage has been released or used as of this time.  I’m sure Mr. Brownlow is waiting for the most opportune medium to present the footage.

Though we didn’t end up doing an interview, Frederica’s niece Phoebe was extremely kind and said there were several boxes full of correspondence and other items from Maas’s time in Hollywood that she would be happy to look through if any of the information was helpful for any of my writing efforts.  Furthermore, nearly a year later, Phoebe sent me a wonderful article from the San Diego Times regarding Frederica’s solidification as one of the oldest inhabitants of California.  I sent a gracious “thank you” note and Christmas card that year.  According to Phoebe, Frederica was ready for her time to come; after a certain age, it becomes difficult to go on when all your friends, family and loved ones are gone and it’s hard to do the things you once loved.  Though it’s always tough to see someone go, I’m sure Frederica is at peace now with her husband and other friends and family with an eternally youthful mind and body.  We are so lucky, as a film historian community, to have had someone with her knowledge so willing to share her experiences and stories of that early time in cinema’s history.

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Chaplin in Review – PART III – The Gold Rush

22 06 2011

Copyright 1925 Chaplin Studios and United Artists

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Following the disappointment of his excursion into drama, Chaplin returned to comedy in 1925 with one of his most famous films, The Gold Rush.

The film’s story is fairly straight-forward.  Chaplin plays the Lone Prospector who has come to the Klondike to be part of the Gold Rush.  Due to horrendous weather, the prospector (Chaplin’s Little Tramp), finds himself stranded in a small cabin belonging to fugitive Black Larson (Tom Murray).  Just when he thinks he is going to die by the fugitive’s hands, Big Jim McKay (Mark Swain) comes and saves the lone prospector.  The Black Larson is sent to look for food as starvation nearly takes their lives.  Some of the mishaps of hunger and cold are portrayed at this point in some brilliantly funny scenes including Chaplin seeing one of his fellow occupants as a large chicken, the famous dinner roll scene, in which Chaplin performs the roll dance, and his cooking and eating of his own leather shoe.  However, finally, their hunger is spared when a bear makes way to the cabin and is killed for food.  It is also to be known that Big Jim McKay has a hidden mine that will make him rich, that he insists he will go to when they are able to leave the cabin.  When the storm ends, the men leave the cabin and McKay departs for his hidden mine, only to find that the Black Larson has hold of his property.  The Black Larson and Big Jim fight it out yet again, the Larson this time hitting McKay in the head with a shovel causing temporary amnesia.  Following the battle, the Larson falls to his death in an avalanche.  The Lonely Prospector make his way to the nearest town, down on his luck as always.  He comes to a saloon where he sees Georgia (Georgia Hale), Queen of the Dancehall girls.  He becomes immediately infatuated with her and begins vying for her love.  During his pining for Georgia, Big Jim McKay makes his way in with just enough memory returned to recognize the Lonely Prospector.  Can Chaplin’s character help Big Jim find his hidden mine and fortune?  With the Lone Prospector get the girl of his dream, the beautiful Georgia?  Without spoiling the film, you’ll have to watch for yourself to find out.

Originally, planned to be shot in northern California on location, the film was ultimately shot at Chaplin Studios.  The remaining opening sequence from the brutal shoot in Truckee, Calif. is all that remained in the final film of the time the company spent shooting in the real Yukon.  Originally, Chaplin had cast the young angel actress from The Kid in the lead role, 16-year-old Lita Grey.  During filming, Chaplin and Grey fell in love and married in November 1924; Chaplin was 35 at this time, Grey, again, only 16.  Following their marriage and her subsequent pregnancy, Chaplin was forced to replace Grey with actress Georgia Hale for the role of the dancehall girl.  Unfortunately, the marriage between Grey and Chaplin was a difficult one and one that would, in the end, cost Chaplin dearly.  At the time they finally divorced in 1927, she received the largest matrimonial settlement in history to that date, which amounted to $825,000 (on top of nearly a million in court costs).  This, topped with a federal tax dispute around the same time, supposedly is what caused Chaplin’s hair to turn white at the young age of 38.

The replacement of Grey with Hale lead to a relationship between Chaplin and Hale that continued through the duration of filming and during Grey and Chaplin’s marriage.  Upon release, The Gold Rush was a major success and made a lot of money at the box office.  Many of Chaplin’s scenes mentioned earlier, like the roll dance, are some of his most famous moments.  Furthermore, this was long said to be Chaplin’s own personal favorite film that he made during his nearly 60 year career in motion pictures.








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