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10 Scandalous Stars of the Silent Screen

Recently, I found one of my co-workers glued to the Britney-cam live feed on CNN.com. During the ensuing conversation on the ridiculous nature of stars "nowadays," I began to recall the ridiculous (and tragic) behavior of stars "back in the day" as well. Here are 10 celebrities and their scandals you may or may not be familiar with.

1. Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand (1895 - 1930) was one of the most popular comediennes of the silent era. After embarking on a relationship with legendary director Mack Sennett, Normand worked side-by-side with other notable (and scandalous) stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. In 1918, after her relationship with Sennett dissolved, Normand descended into alcoholism and narcotics abuse. Eventually pulling her life back together, Normand became the last person to see director William Desmond Taylor alive (see below), after Taylor was shot and killed only moments after Normand left his Hollywood home. The two had been friends and exchanged literature (yes, literally), and although she was never considered a serious suspect, newspaper rumors ran wild about her drug use and connections with Arbuckle. In 1924 she was involved in another scandal when her chauffeur shot her lover with Normand's own pistol. Never far from the headlines, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 35.

2. Jean Harlow

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Jean Harlow (1911-1937), namesake for Nicole Ritchie's baby, seems in many ways to be early cinema's Anna Nicole Smith. Rising to fame at the end of the silent era as a sex symbol of the 1930s, the "Blonde Bombshell" was plagued with scandal all of her short life. Her father was a connected mobster, nude photos were taken of her at the age of 17, and she had a reported abortion of a child fathered by her one-time fiancee William Powell. However, Harlow's most recognized scandal involved her second husband Paul Bern, an intellectual luminary of Hollywood over 22 years her senior. On September 5, 1932 just months after their wedding, Bern was found shot in the head, sprawled in front of a bedroom mirror and drenched in Jean's perfume. A note accompanied his body, which was ruled a suicide, that confirmed rumors Bern suffered from an impotence which he found too embarrassing to live with. Harlow's own death a few years later was again tabloid fodder. Though the official cause of death was from kidney disease that became more aggressive after a string of illnesses, at the time many (untrue) myths suggested Harlow's kidneys were damaged because of beatings from her husband Paul, or that the bleach from her hair had seeped into her brain and killed her.

3. William Desmond Taylor

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Director William Desmond Taylor's (1872-1922) death became one of the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Hollywood. Shot in the back in 1922, rumors circulated that the suspects might include Mack Sennett, Rudolph Valentino, and Mabel Normand among other Hollywood notables. Taylor was himself an eccentric figure, abandoning his first wife and children in one of his "mental lapses" thought to be aphasia. During the media frenzy over his murder, many of his friends claimed Taylor had made "delusional" statements, and some feared he might be insane. The Irish-born director of over 50 films became another unfortunate casualty of the Silent Era, which had so many scandals that many movie studios began requiring their actors and directors sign "morality clauses" to their contracts.

4. Errol Flynn

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Errol Flynn (1909-1959) set the gold standard for celebrity debauchery. A fan of drinking, fighting and fooling around, he was thrice tried on statutory rape charges and was accused of being a Nazi spy (according to biographer Charles Higham, although subsequent biographies have denounced this particular claim). One of Flynn's most infamous scandals involved his (recently deceased) friend John Barrymore. Flynn's posse stole Barrymore's body from the morgue and propped it up, Weekend at Bernie's style, inside Flynn's home so Flynn could be "greeted" by his old friend. The police didn't find the charade so funny, and neither did the newspapers or public. Flynn's mischief did not end with his death - he is said to be buried with six bottles of whiskey as a parting gift from friends.

5. Barbara La Marr

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Barbara La Marr's (1896 - 1926) quote, "life is too short to waste on sleep" (she reportedly only slept two hours a night), seems like it could have been uttered by any number of current Hollywood starlets. Like her later counterparts, La Marr's film career flourished along with her love for the nightlife. However, an addiction to heroin soon took its toll on her as she juggled work schedules and a hyperactive social life. "The Girl Too Beautiful To Live," as the newspapers called her, died suddenly of tuberculosis at the age of 29.

6. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

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One of the most notorious scandals of the silent era involved Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887-1933), who was accused of the assault and murder of Virginia Rappe at a party in 1921. Although later acquitted, the incident ruined Arbuckle's career and cast a dark shadow on his Hollywood coevals. Rappe, for her part, was known for her wild behavior and promiscuity, and it is believed that complications from an abortion likely caused her demise. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Arbuckle was accused of misdeed by Maude Delmont (who did not witness any of the alleged crime, despite her reports), known to be involved in extortion, fraud and racketeering. Despite a written apology from the courts for their mismanagement of the case, Arbuckle's career was over. Falling into alcoholism, the formerly beloved actor died at age 46.

7. Charlie Chaplin

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A close friend of Fatty Arbuckle's (he borrowed Arbuckle's pants to create his most famous character, "The Tramp"), Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) always lived on the edge of scandal. Eventually forced to leave the country because of alleged Communist sympathies and troubles with the IRS, most of Chaplin's infamy revolved around his relationships with younger girls, many of whom he mentored and went on to marry or embark on relationships with. One biographer even claims Nabokov's "Lolita" was inspired by Chaplin. Additionally, Chaplin was involved with one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries, the death of producer Thomas Ince (the "Father of the Western") aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst in 1924, possibly caused by an argument Chaplin was having with Ince over the actress Marion Davies ...

8. Thelma Todd

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Thelma Todd (1905-1935) rose to fame as a comedic actress alongside the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardey, and Buster Keaton. Unfortunately, the "Ice Cream Blonde" died from carbon monoxide poisoning in her car at the age of 30, although the supposed "suicide" was not so clear-cut. With blood at the scene, a high blood-alcohol content, and clean shoes (while the area outside the car was muddy), many believed it to be murder. While the theory was largely ignored by the LAPD, suspects ranged from Todd's highly possessive boyfriend, director Roland West (who was thought to have locked Todd in the garage to keep her from going to a party) to the gangster "Lucky" Luciano, who wanted to involve Todd's club in illegal gambling against her wishes. Roland West was said to have later confessed the murder to a friend, but his only punishment was a closing of ranks by Hollywood's elite so he never worked in motion pictures again.

9-10. Jack Pickford & Olive Thomas

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Jack Pickford (1896 - 1933) came from a famous family of silent stars that included his sisters, Mary and Lottie. He worked in bit roles throughout the era, but was most well known for his tabloid romances (and three marriages, to be exact). The first one resulted in the death of his spouse Olive Thomas (1894-1920), a former Ziegfeld girl who had become a movie star. Though their romance was rocky, the two had hoped to repair their relationship with a second honeymoon to Paris. While there, it is rumored that Thomas took cocaine, and later, intoxicated and fatigued, accidentally ingested a large dose of mercury bichloride, which belonged to her husband to treat his syphilis. Accounts vary as to the confusion, but unfortunately the dose was lethal. Rumors circulated about her suicide or murder, but whatever the truth, Olive Thomas was yet another Hollywood starlet who succumbed to deep misfortune.

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12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
iStock
iStock

GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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