The Autobiography of Joseph E. Henabery: Before, In and After Hollywood

The 1990s are a grand decade for film historians and those readers who appreciate the efforts of writers, editors and publishers to bring Hollywood’s past into full focus. This is a time when the greatest ever watershed of information is flowing in an unstoppable torrent of new books on the silent era, reprints of classic reference books, revivals of filmmakers’ work through rereleased and new documentaries and liberation of films held hostage. Most interestingly, there are the autobiographical manuscripts surfacing and being published – generally posthumously. These memoirs (and there are several) were fiercely protected and conscientiously edited until the time was ripe for publication. The most intriguing personal commentaries come from some of the least known, but most deeply involved, craftsmen that put a moving image on the screen. Like Rashomon, Kurosawa’s 1950 fable that demonstrates the subjective nature of truth, these artisans could have been standing on the very same set watching the very same scene, yet each eyewitness filters their experience through their own perception. Their recollections are not wrong, they are just their recollections.

So many of these memoirs reveal brilliant minds, but brilliant minds are often critical, adoring, unforgiving, opinionated and intensely dedicated to their own truth. Director Joseph E. Henabery was no exception. He worked diligently, too diligently according the legendary Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who was Henabery’s friend and coworker on several films. Henabery’s ability to understand all aspects of production hinged upon his total devotion to learning and practicing each specialty – he acted, created makeup, wrote, designed sets, operated the camera and directed. Eventually, he combined all of these skills and his years of experience to become a film innovator in the early sound era.

He started as an extra in 1914, but his acting career soon took an auspicious turn. Indeed, one can’t be more auspicious than to play Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp, for Epoch Producing Corp., 1915). (Not only did he bear a striking resemblance to Lincoln due to his own expert use of makeup, he also portrayed 13 other distinct characters in that epic film!) Climbing out of the roiling stew of extras was not easy. Henabery was convinced he could portray Griffith’s Lincoln, but he was forced to run a frustrating gauntlet to win the role. His perseverance finally paid off. Griffith came to admire the intelligence and dedication to detail that marked Henabery’s character and characterizations. Subsequently, Griffith put “H-E-N-A-bery” (as Griffith irreverently dubbed him) to work as his first assistant on Intolerance (Wark Producing Corporation, 1916). Like The Birth of a Nation, the behind-the-camera artisans involved in the making of Intolerance read like a who’s who of names that would later become integral to the movie industry. Griffith spawned more than movies; he spawned visionaries of many different stripes, such as Mack Sennett, Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning, Karl Brown, W.S. Van Dyke, Alan Dwan, William Christy Cabanne, Jack Conway, Elmer Clifton, Victor Fleming and George W. Hill.

Henabery speaks vividly and at length about his apprenticeship with Griffith – his loyalty and admiration of the director and his powers of creativity are evident. On the other hand, he does not mince words in his criticism of those whom he felt were less dedicated to their work or had somehow offended his personal code of ethics. For example, in 1920, he severed a solid business relationship and friendship with Douglas Fairbanks because of Doug’s divorce from his first wife Beth Sully, of whom Henabery was very fond. Doug’s subsequent marriage to Mary Pickford was like a betrayal to him. He declares how much he respects and admires Mary, but to cut off a friendship as deep as Joe’s and Doug’s makes one wonder if Henabery really felt that Mary was America’s Homewrecker, not America’s Sweetheart. Later, it must have galled Doug Sr.’s pride when in 1923 Henabery directed 14-year-old Doug Jr.’s first foray into motion pictures [Stephen Steps Out (Famous Players-Lasky)]. Doug Sr. was bitterly opposed to the idea of his son following in his own movie-making path of glory. Doug Jr.’s mother felt differently. Henabery surely must have been aware of the conflict. He discusses the difficult experience of directing young Doug Jr., but declines to comment on the strained relationship between father and son. Conversely, Henabery was not as puritanical as one might think. He directed comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in The Life of the Party (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920) and Brewster’s Millions (Famous Players-Lasky, 1921), before the scandal. Even though the strait-laced Henabery objected to Arbuckle’s off-screen party-boy antics, he maintained a professional and friendly relationship with the comedian. It was Arbuckle who severed their professional ties due to Henabery’s disapproval of Arbuckle’s personal life. Unlike with Fairbanks, Henabery was willing and eager to continue his association with Arbuckle. (In later years Henabery defended Arbuckle as a “victim of the times.”) When it came to judging people, Henabery operated according to his own code.

The filmography of Joseph Henabery lists a variety of popular films from the silent era. His surviving work is proof of his artistic merit. His pictures with Douglas Fairbanks helped the newly minted movie star to define his niche in films. Writers Anita Loos and Henabery who were assigned the energetic task of distilling the Fairbanks exuberance for the screen. He cowrote and/or directed nine films starring Fairbanks, beginning with Wild and Woolly (Artcraft, 1917) (coscripted). He also directed Fairbanks’ first United Artists release, His Majesty, the American (1919). Henabery’s last effort with him was scripting The Mollycoddle (United Artists, 1920).

The studio where Henabery was happiest was Paramount. He worked under producer Jesse L. Lasky, whom he considered a soft-spoken gentleman with a great deal of integrity. During his tenure with Lasky, he directed Mary Miles Minter in three films that are now lost: Don’t Call Me Little Girl (Realart, for Paramount, 1921), Moonlight and Honeysuckle (Realart, for Paramount, 1921) and Her Winning Way (Realart, for Paramount, 1921). He had strong opinions about Minter as an actress and a box-office draw. Their collaborative effort on one film became a trial. Her inappropriate behavior on the set one day compelled him to deliver an old-fashioned, over-the-knee spanking to this million-dollar-a-year actress. Henabery also worked with Rudolph Valentino at Paramount, of whom he was very fond. He directed the star in two films, A Sainted Devil (Famous Players-Lasky, 1924) and Cobra (Ritz-Carlton Pictures, for Paramount, 1925). However, he was more impressed with Mrs. Valentino (the former Winifred Hudnut, now rechristened Natacha Rambova) and considered her to be a prodigy in both business acumen and artistic taste. He was a rare admirer of Mrs. Valentino, who was much-maligned by the Hollywood community due to her interference in her husband’s films.

Henabery embraced the sound era when it arrived. His recollections of filming and troubleshooting those early talkies are fascinating. He directed over 100 Vitaphone shorts between 1931 and 1939. Many of these shorts have become valuable archival images of popular band leaders performing with their orchestras. Names like Abe Lyman, Eddie Duchin, Vincent Lopez, Don Redman, Freddy Martin, Johnny Green and Red Nichols benefited from Henabery’s expertise in the medium. By the time WWII started, Henabery was certainly too old to be an infantryman. Like many in the movie industry, though, he served his country by utilizing his filmmaking talents and directing training films for the Army Signal Corps. He considered that contribution his proudest effort. He continued to work for the Department of Defense until his retirement in 1957.

The tone of his first-person testament is on the cranky side at times. Even though Henabery worked with the greats and made his share of noteworthy pictures for over a quarter of a century, he carried some disappointments deep in his craw. He reveals a deep, long-harbored resentment toward his favorite studio, Paramount, for denying him the coveted plum of directing Lois Wilson in Miss Lulu Bett (Famous Players-Lasky, 1921). When the job was given to director William C. DeMille, Henabery was piqued and declared that DeMille only got the picture because he was Cecil B. DeMille’s brother. This appears to be a case of sour grapes on Henabery’s part, for William was quite a competent director and had a career that had begun in the theater long before Henabery began in show business in 1914. Henabery felt he had put in his time, but dismissing DeMille because of nepotism is misguided and diminishes Henabery more than it does DeMille.

If Joe Henabery had not been part of the “old guard” in Hollywood, whose code of honor ensured that they would remain tight-lipped about the private lives of their colleagues, he might very well have been a critic or biographer of his era. We get a glimpse of his ability to dissect and analyze. Printed in the book’s appendix is a very telling commentary, published for the first time anywhere, on what Henabery had to say about selected Griffith commentators and their books on the silent era. Among these are Homer Croy’s Star Maker: The Story of D.W. Griffith (1959), Anita Loos’ A Girl Like I (1966), Lillian Gish’s The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (1969) and Karl Brown’s Adventures with D.W. Griffith (1973).

With each book critique, he makes a concerted effort to isolate errors. Karl Brown receives a severe drubbing for what Henabery feels are historical inaccuracies and Brown’s subjective points of view. Yet at the end of his harsh diatribe, Henabery concedes that Brown’s book “gives me the best feel and the most color of the Griffith era.” However, he is quite forgiving of Lillian Gish and he relates in gentlemanly fashion that she indeed “mixes fact and fiction very smoothly, I doubt if many of her readers will find it objectionable. Neither do I.” Again, the dilemma of Rashomon affects the perception, but here it is – Henabery the way he remembers it. No one from the era is left to critique Joe’s point of view. But nevertheless, his testimony bears witness to early Hollywood. Until all the fragments have been pieced together, we cannot consider the job finished. The vital pool of first-person accounts of the infant film industry must survive and be shared. Who would have guessed that an aart form barely a 100 years ago would require meticulous piecing together like a tablet from antiquity broken in a million fragments?

Henabery was a private man, but he had a lot to say when he felt it was time – this is evident by his captivating memoir. He began dictating his autobiography at the age of 83 to his daughter-in-law, Jeanne, whom he trusted deeply. She has done well by her father-in-law, and her dedication and patience is admirable. The memoir was actually completed in 1975, one year before his death. After 21 years, we can now appreciate the fruit of her labors. This book illustrates a cutthroat motion picture industry. Fortunes and careers were made and lost. Artisans with professional and personal integrity who did their work and socialized without fanfare, like cinematographer Ira H. Morgan, director Jack Conway, screenwriter/director Tay Garnett, as well as Joseph Henabery, are all but forgotten. For many decades the only ones who knew anything of these artisans beyond their films were the ones who were closest to them – their coworkers, friends and families. Henabery honestly summed up his niche in the industry:

I would be proud to say I won an Oscar or so, but I never did. In fact, in my time, there were no Academy Awards. Of course, during the days of silent pictures, some directors made truly great pictures. I did make good money making pictures, but on the whole I was a commercial director. Good commercial directors – directors who kept within their budgets and schedules and at the same time made pictures worthy of a place on a quality program – had fine-paying jobs, and I was very happy with the way things were beginning to go for me. Many men were eager to get such a chance, and you had to make good or you would soon be out of a job.
This entry in the Scarecrow Filmmaker Series is one of many excellent Hollywood memoirs that have been made available through this publisher. These are the rare writings of stars and behind-the-camera craftsmen that never would have seen the light of day except for a commitment to preserving an era of filmmaking that is now getting its due. The Autobiography of Joseph E. Henabery: Before, In and After Hollywood is part of this legacy. There are tantalizing rumors of more unpublished accounts from other artisans who have been waiting to share their stories with an eager audience the world over. Here’s to the continued efforts to provide memoirs like this to the movie-loving public.

Madison Morrison