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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

A Nose for Strangeness- Jean Dumont

Jean Dumont is Stranger Than Fiction or

Down The Rabbit Hole with George

George Seminara

In which I find a picture and trace its identity to the ends of the earth to bring you another

tale from early cinema.

See this guy? His name is Jean Dumont. Look at the size of that schnozz. 

He could open envelopes with it, cook shish-kabobs, and pick locks! I usually don't begrudge someone's appearance, but something about this guy's mug drew me to the precipice. As I looked down into the rabbit hole, I decided to do a little search on the google machine. Oh boy! Ten minutes in, I jumped off the edge, down, down, down. 

Jean only made one movie. Stranger than Fiction, which got released in 1921. He was in the cast because he was the second of five husbands of Katherine MacDonald, a blonde, blue-eyed silent screen star of romantic melodramas in the 1920s. Named by the New York Daily News as "the most beautiful woman in the world." She was a former model. Unlike GiGi Hadid, she did most of her work in department store showrooms, but she appeared in a few magazines. Getting her start at the barely remembered Betzwood Studios, founded by movie pioneer Siegmund Lubin. At the time, it was the world's biggest movie studio. 

Katherine MacDonald

Who is Siegmund Lubin? He was a Polish-German immigrant optician who, in between filling eyeglass prescriptions, invented motion picture cameras and processing equipment. He started filming things around Philadelphia in 1898. Like Edison, just stuff. But he felt that something was missing. Audiences wanted stories, and Lubin did his best to fill that void. He told love stories and action films. But being close to the Mason-Dixon line, his big breakthrough came with Civil War movies. Lubin expanded the market for his films by opening movie theaters in twenty cities! His films were sent to exhibitors around the world. This was a big deal. As his logo, he chose the Liberty Bell with his slogan "clear as a bell," touted his films' sharp focus. After putting Oliver Hardy in his first couple of movies, as the fat guy. (A silent movie trope, yeah, I know I could lose a few pounds!) In 1914, the studio burnt to the ground, and Lubin went bankrupt. 

Lubin, being an optician, focused on lenses. (See what I did there!) and he may have been one of the first producers to be forward-thinking regarding the actual quality of the image. Between 1898 and 1914, the Betzwood studios produced over a thousand films, most of which were destroyed in the fire. I believe it attests to his importance at the very birth of the American movie business that he has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. (6166 Hollywood Blvd.)

After her near meteoric rise to fame- okay her plodding rise to some celebrity- Katherine MacDonald and her young sister and rival, Mary Maclaren, made the trip west to Hollywood. She was a trailblazer and set up her own production company, 'Katherine MacDonald Pictures' (1919-1921). She somehow became a top box-office earner, earning a whopping $50,000 smackers per film! That's $1,466,193.07 in today's money! Her self-produced films were released by First National. You might be familiar with them as they made films with Charlie Chaplin (The Kid) and Mary Pickford (Daddy-Long-Legs), which were the first million dollar deals anywhere. They also made Tarzan of the Apes with Elmo Lincoln.   

Though lacking in acting talent, which is saying a lot for the time, Katherine MacDonald got to star with Douglas Fairbanks, Thomas Meighan, and William S. Hart three times! Today she is remembered far more for her beauty and curves than the emotional depth she imbued into her performances. A lack of talent didn't hinder her success. She was marketed as "The American Beauty." Of All the Hollywood stars in the sky, she was President Woodrow Wilson's favorite. In the White House on dark rainy nights, you can hear the ghost of Wilson say, "Hubba, Hubba!" to this day. Now you know who he is talking about.  

After she retired from acting, she ran a semi-successful cosmetics business. She then proceeded to marry when she should have dated. Her third husband, Christian Holmes, an heir to the Fleischmann Yeast fortune, ended in sensational newspaper headlines. In court, Katherine MacDonald claimed that Holmes kept her locked in a cage. This was to keep her away from all men. He also accused her of marital infidelity. After a couple of decades of nonsense over two more husbands, she developed diabetes and had a leg amputated in 1954. She passed away in 1956. She currently resides in Santa Barbara Cemetery, plot ID 8748946. The location of her leg has never been released. 

Let's get back to Jean Dumont, his nose, and his one on-screen role. 

Stranger than Fiction is a frivolous little satire about a movie-mad debutant Diane Drexel (MacDonald), who invites her pals over for a screening of her amateur self-filmed version of Carmen. After the fade to black, she announces that now she is going to premiere her original film, Stranger Than Fiction. The lights are dimmed again, and when they come back up, the guests discover that they have been robbed by the notorious thief Black Heart (Wade Boteler). Dum, dum, dummmm! The police can't find him, so Diane tells her lazy fiancé (another trope), Dick Mason (David Winter), that she will only consent to marry him when he has tracked down and caught the thief. Dick has no luck. What with being lazy and all. Diane takes matters into her own hands and ventures to the slums. She encounters the Shadow (our hero, Jean Dumont) and young Freckles (Wesley Barry). I assume he is called the Shadow because of sun blocking power of that terrific beezer. 

Diane takes a shine to young Freckles, and it is that kindness that allows the Shadow to take Diane into his confidence, and together, they hatch a scheme to trap Black Heart. Dum, Dum, Dummmm! In just one of the inconceivable plot twists, Black Heart enlists Diane to rob her own house, but secretly she dispatches Freckles to fetch the police. In an EXCITING airplane chase, Black Heart crashes to his death in a cloud of smoke! While Diane and Dick land safely. (What! Lazy Dick can fly a plane?) The Shadow is nowhere to be seen. The lights then go on -- it turns out to be Diane's own film. She promises her husband, Dick (when did that happen?), that she will stop fooling around with the movies right after the next one featuring a neighborhood kid who walks just like Chaplin. 

The ending is neat but presented in the same way that Ed Wood films are thematically sound, just idiotically made. Here they just throw the twist out with the promise of one last film. But no mention of how we went from watching a bunch of people watching a movie to them actually being in the film.  

This past summer is the summer of Top Gun Two. Yes, Tom Cruise gave us a film we didn't know we wanted. I guess he will provide us with Risky Business, Me Too - the less said, the better. But the best thing about Top Gun Two was the flying. What aeronautics! What derring-do! So what if your body would explode if you ejected at Mach five. (Any Speed Racer fans here?) The flying was spectacular. I barely minded Tom Cruise. But it was a sequel, and he's still that guy, so I really have nothing to complain about. Also, I saw it under protest. 

Now let's talk about the thrilling stunts in Stranger than Fiction. There's a fistfight on a biplane's wings! There is a jump from one biplane to a ladder hanging off another! Incredible! What, ho-hum, you say? These planes were guaranteed to be actually 5,000 feet in the air! Let's see Tom Cruise hang out on the outside of a plane? Oh yeah, Mission Impossible 34. There is an airplane that takes off of the rough of a skyscraper. It's 1921, and the world's tallest Sky Scraper was New York City's Woolworth Building. Standing 792' tall and having 55 Stories. Unfortunately, this wasn't the building it took off from. It was, like, ten stories. The real fear was that it would just crash before it gained altitude. It does, and it was a big deal then and the key to marketing, but it's kind of silly now. 

The director, J.A.Barry, continued making okay films until retiring later in 1921. The big talent working on the picture was the title writer, Ralph Spence. Yes, you read that right. He wrote the inter-titles. Or title cards. Someone had to do it, and Ralph Spence was so good and in such demand that according to Motion Picture World Magazine (July 31, 1926), Ralph was the highest-paid title writer in the world! He made a whopping five bucks a word, or $146.62 in today's money. HELLO = five bucks, CAN = five bucks, YOU = five bucks, BELIEVE = five Bucks, THAT? = five more dollars for a grand total of 25 smackers or $733.10 today! And it was his side hustle. He wrote comedy with and for Ol' Banjo Eyes, Eddie Cantor. He also wrote a bunch of plays, of which The Gorilla is best known, mainly because it was turned into a movie with the Ritz Brothers featuring Bela Lugosi! 

But what about Jean Dumont? Who knows? He and Katherine MacDonald quietly divorced (rare for her) shortly after the bit-part as The Shadow and Jean Dumont faded into obscurity. If anyone knows anything about the current location of that sniffer, please leave your thoughts and leads below.

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