Silence is Golden: The War for the Silver Screen

posted Jun 5, 2020, 11:28 AM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Jun 5, 2020, 11:34 AM ]

The achievements of the 4th Marine Brigade on the battlefields of Europe comprised the major effort of the Marine Corps in Europe during World War I. The 5th Regiment of Marines had landed in France with the first expedition of American troops in June 1917, and by February 1918, with the arrival of the 6th Marine Regiment and 6th Marine Machine Gun Battalion, the 4th Marine Brigade was brought up to full strength. On 14 March 1918, the 4th Brigade received sudden orders to move to the Chateau-Thierry sector.

In late May 1918, the Germans launched a powerful offensive, crossed the Chemin-des-Dames, captured Soissons, and on the last day of May, were advancing down the Marne Valley in the direction of Paris. The startling success of this German attack caused the Allies to order the 4th Marine Brigade to block the German advance at all costs.

The fighting in this sector was divided into two parts, one a stubborn defensive action lasting a week, and the other a vicious offensive. On the first day of the attack, the Marine Brigade captured Hill 142 in bitter fighting. One of the valiant Marines during this historic battle was California born Sergeant Drake Donovan. Leading his machine gun platoon, equipped with four M1917 Browning heavy machine guns, they held off a German battalion until reinforcement could arrive. On June 6, 1918 Sergeant Donovan and his men were part of an assault that charged into the fire from spitting muzzles of German Maxim machine guns as the Battle of Belleau Wood began. More Marines lost their lives on that day than died in combat during the preceding 120 years of the Marine Corps’ existence. The Marines rallied under the battle cries of, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” and “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”

On June 7, 1918, while their position was under violent bombardment, Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly asked for a volunteer to go with him. Sergeant Donovan responded without hesitation, “I’ll go.”

When they reached an enemy machine-gun emplacement that had the Marines pinned down, Gunnery Sergeant Daly ordered, “Cover me.”

“You can’t go alone,” Sergeant Donovan warned.

“This ain’t no discussion,” Daly growled. “If we both get killed, who’s goin’ lead our men out of this damn meat grinder!”

While Sergeant Donovan provided suppressive fire, Daly charged forward using hand grenades and his automatic pistol, eliminating the enemy machine gun. The Marines moved forward and when the Germans attacked Bouresches, Donovan and Daly helped bring their wounded comrades back while under heavy small arms fire. Gunnery Sergeant Daly received his second Medal of Honor for his actions on that day and Sergeant Drake Donovan was awarded the Navy Cross. The battle raged for weeks and many more Marines died until Belleau Wood was finally declared secure. This was the first in a series of five major battles that Sergeant Donovan fought on the Western Front during the following six months. The Marines’ fierceness and toughness earned them the respect of the Germans who nicknamed them “Teufelhunden” or Devil Dogs.

When the war ended, Sergeant Drake Donovan returned to his family’s horse ranch, called the Double D in San Fernando Valley, California. His older brother Dan had been operating the spread in his absence. He was supplementing the ranch income by renting horses and property locations to the movies studios in Hollywood. Fifty acres were set aside to build three simulated western towns.

Business was good and Drake learned that there was money to be made in stunt work. He learned from journeymen Joe Yrogoyan, Yakima Canutt, Loren Janes, Monte Montana, and Wayne Burson. Drake was tall and good looking and eventually caught the eye of directors and began getting larger and larger parts in movies. On “The Thundering Herd,” “Wild Horse Mesa,” and “Riders of the Purple Sage,” he worked with another lanky individual named Gary Cooper. Working for emerging studios Paramount, Fox, and Warner Brothers, he became friends with western stars Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, and legendary lawman Wyatt Earp.

While living in Los Angeles, Earp had become a film consultant for several silent cowboy movies. Drake first met the lawman on the set of director Allan Dwan’s movie, “The Half Breed,” starring Douglas Fairbanks. Drake had a small part and was also doing some stunt work. After filming concluded one day, Drake, John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Wyatt Earp, William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin all went to Al Levy’s Café on Third and Main Street. During dinner, Walsh asked Drake, “I’m negotiating for the rights to a story about two Marines in France during the War. It’s called ‘What Price Glory.’ Do you think you’d be interested in being a technical consultant?”

“Sure thing. Just let me know when you need me,” Drake answered.

In 1924, Charlie Chaplin was the highest paid entertainer in the world and a cultural icon, making $25,000 a week, the equivalent of about $500,000 now.

“I heard that talkies are on the way,” said Chaplin.

“How’s that going to affect your career?” Wyatt asked.

“I wish I knew, but I know one thing for sure.”

“What’s that?” Drake asked.

Chaplin sighed. “It won’t be an easy transition.”

Drake was confused until Douglas Fairbanks interjected, “There’s some very powerful people who don’t want talkies and then there are some who want it. Leave it at that.”

*  *  *

Vito DiGimone emigrated from Palermo, Sicily in 1910. After living in New Orleans for eight years, he moved to Los Angeles in 1918 and quickly brought order to the Los Angeles underworld. DiGimone was an intimidating and forceful man who was often in conflict with Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. While he was in power, he used a large percentage from the profits from his bootlegging racket to buy into the movie industry. DiGimone also purchased dozens of theaters in the area. Ironically, he was assassinated inside one of them while watching his favorite star, Rudolph Valentino, in the movie “The Sheik.”

Albert Parco then seized control of Los Angeles by working with the powerful political machine of Kent Crawford and Charles Parrot. With their help, Parco became the Vice Lord of L.A. and eventually no movie could be made without paying protection to him. Many powerful studio executives and stars were beholden to organized crime because of their outstanding gambling debts. Another reason gangsters liked the movie industry was that they could use theaters as fronts for their bootlegging, illegal gambling, and loan sharking operations.

Drake was at the ranch working with the horses when a black Duesenberg touring car drove up and five men got out. He had seen men like this hanging around the studio and knew that they were hoodlums. One of the men walked over to Drake and commented, “You’ve got a swell place here.”

“Not bad,” Drake answered.

“Want to sell it?”

“No.”

“Accidents can happen, horses can get killed and buildings can burn down. You’re riding high one day and before you know it, you’re lying face down in the gutter,” the man said.

“That’s one explanation of life,” Drake answered.

The man handed Drake a business card. “I’ll be waiting for your call when you’re ready to sell.”

After the five men left, Dan walked over and asked, “What did they want?”

“To buy the place. I told them no.”

“Those guys don’t like to take no for an answer.”

“I know. They’ll be back and I’ll be waiting.”

Three nights later, the men did return, carrying gasoline cans. Their intent was to burn down the barn with a dozen horses in it. These were ruthless men, mean and merciless, but they had never come across a battle-hardened Marine who had defended his position against much greater odds.

As the five men came across the open space between the corral and the barn, Drake turned on the headlights to a truck. Instead of dropping their weapons, the men decided to shoot it out with Drake. This was a mistake that they wouldn’t come back from. He fired three rounds from his twelve-gauge pump shotgun, dropped it on the ground, then finished the job with a pair of 45-caliber pistols.

When Albert Parco came out of his nightclub/office on Lankershim Street, he saw his five dead henchmen propped against the building. It sent a clear message to the underworld leader and the Double D Ranch was never troubled again.

*  *  *

Discussion about staying with silent films or transitioning to talkies continued to divide Hollywood. At the time Drake was dating Clara Bowman, an actress who could convey any emotion with her eyes and facial expressions. She was adamantly opposed to the transition and the fact that Drake was ambivalent about the situation destroyed their relationship. There was something else Drake was very passionate about, and that was the treatment of animals, especially horses during filming.

Being an animal lover since childhood, Drake was devastated by the inhumanity of the war, especially the disregard for animals. Eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died during World War I. They were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front and died not just from the horrors of shellfire, but also from terrible weather and appalling conditions.

During early filmmaking, horses were treated just as poorly: as disposable products. If a horse was injured or killed during a particular sequence, another replaced it. If the script called for a horse to go crashing to the ground, trip wires sent it tumbling and legs were often broken. Sometimes a wire strung from the horse’s ankles to the rider enabled them to yank the horse’s front legs from under it. Shock collars, electric prods, and holes in the ground were also used to get horses to perform as desired.

On one particular stunt in a movie, Drake’s friend Gary Cooper was supposed to ride a horse off a cliff then swim to shore. For the scene, the horse was placed on a platform called a tilt chute. At a key moment, the chute tilted and the horse and rider went over the cliff and into the water. Cooper was badly injured and the horse was killed. For another movie, the director wanted a saddle to be blown off a horse’s back. Drake suggested they use a fake horse instead. “I can get props to make a horse and if you film from the correct angles, nobody will be able to tell the difference.”

The director was adamant about doing things his way, “Absolutely not. I am an artist and I demand realism!”

When the director used the explosives, the horse was severely injured and had to be euthanatized. Drake was so angry that he broke the director’s jaw with a crashing right hand and removed his animals from the set. Only when the head of the studio promised to remove the director did Drake return to work.

On his ranch, Drake trained horses to do a variety of stunts. Since no one horse was capable of doing everything, he developed specialty horses; some were trained to fall on command. Drake created ‘catch pits’ that were two feet deep and filled with hay, sand and soft earth to cushion the impact and protect horse and rider.

Drake also developed quick release stirrups and saddles as well as a special harness to simulate a rider being shot off his mount. He would often have a camera crew come out to the ranch and shoot elaborate stunts that could later be inserted into a film during the editing process. Despite ever-expanding technology for equine protection, some studios remained adamantly opposed to implementing Drake’s policies, making up feeble excuses that it was too expensive and time consuming. This was patently false since horses that were properly trained and protected made shooting go faster, not slower.

In 1927, Warner Bros decided to produce The Jazz Singer, a musical drama directed by Allan Crosland. This would be the first motion picture with a synchronized recorded music score, synchronous singing, and speech in several isolated sequences. Its release would herald the commercial ascendance of sound films and end the silent film era. The studio would be using its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.

Many people were bound and determined to see that this film would never be made.

Albert Parco ordered his men, “I don’t care what you have to do. This movie is dead…do you hear me? Dead…dead…dead!”

Alan Crosland received death threats and some members of the crew were also warned about working on the production. Alan had worked with Drake in the past and was also an animal lover, so he contacted him. “We’re already having trouble with the movie and we haven’t even gone into production.”

“I heard,” Drake responded.

“This might be your opportunity to get some leverage with the studio.”

“How so?”

“The studio is betting everything on this project. If it doesn’t get made, Warner Bros will probably go bankrupt.”

“I’m beginning to see where you’re going with this.”

Drake met with the four Warner brothers—Harry, Albert, Samuel and Jack—at their studio to make them an offer. “I’ll provide security for The Jazz Singer, and if you don’t have any problems, when you need horses and wranglers, you’ll hire me.”

“And your new techniques that you’ve been pushing all over town,” Harry said.

“You’re going to be the first studio to make a talkie, which means you’re not afraid to take a chance. Well, take a chance on me and I’ll show you that you can get your westerns made faster and cheaper and still protect the animals.”

“You know who’s against making The Jazz Singer?”

“I know. Do we have a deal or not?”

Jack Warner looked at his brothers then answered, “Let’s see if you’re as tough as they say you are.”

Drake contacted double Medal of Honor recipient, Dan Daly, who was stationed in San Diego, “Do you know of any former Marines looking for work?”

“What kind of work?”

“Fighting kind of work.”

“How many?”

“Fifteen if you can.”

“Give me a week.”

Drake met the World War I veterans at Los Angeles Union Station and from there they drove to the Double D Ranch to be briefed on the situation. The men stayed there until filming on the first talking movie began on the studio lot. Harry Warner gave ten of the men jobs on the set so they could be close-by in case of trouble. The other five did roving patrols around the area.

During a song recording, a man sneaked behind the soundstage and attempted to start a fire. Drake caught him before he could do any damage. Later that night, a warehouse and a speakeasy belonging to Albert Parco caught fire. Both burned to the ground.

When Drake Donovan boldly walked into the office of Albert Parco, the crime kingpin laughed as he chomped down on his Cuban cigar, “You must be the craziest guy in the world to walk in here and think you’re leaving alive.”

Drake kicked open the outer door to show a group of former Marines holding Thompson submachine guns. All of Albert Parco’s men were lined up against the wall

“I’d say my odds of walking out of here are pretty good,” Drake said.

Parco almost swallowed his cigar. “What do you want?”

Drake smiled. “The same thing I wanted in the beginning; no interference with the filming of The Jazz Singer or retribution against the Warner Brothers.”

“You don’t leave me much choice.”

“A man always has a choice. Yours is more simple than others…live or die.” Drake made it clear that there was no room for compromise in his offer. Parco might have been a lot of things, but a suicidal fool he wasn’t, so he agreed.

Drake didn’t have to worry about Albert Parco going back on his word because he was assassinated three weeks later. Although it was never proved, many thought Jack Dragna was responsible, since he took control of the Los Angeles Syndicate with backing from Lucky Luciano, Johnny Roselli, and Nick Licata soon afterward.

As ruthless, cutthroat and dangerous as these gangsters were, they were no match for the “Double Ds.” That was the name Drake and his former Marines were called around Tinseltown. Some say the name came from Drake Donovan’s initials, others said it stood for Devil Dogs.

Most of these fighting leathernecks eventually took jobs in the entertainment industry and were always on call. Looking back, it could be said that war hero, stunt rider, and ranch owner Drake Donovan had something to do with the introduction of talkies in American cinema. There is no doubt whatsoever about his influence in changing a Hollywood culture where animals were nothing more than disposable property.

Donovan was quoted years later: “Silence is golden, but we had to make a little noise to win the war for the silver screen.”

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