The recent hit and Oscar winner The Artist calls attention to one of Hollywood's great upheavals— the switch from silence to sound, and the impact that the change in cinematic technology visited upon the careers of stars whose voices didn't match their images. But there was another technological upheaval less than a decade earlier which wreaked similar havoc on the ranks of stardom— yet is all but forgotten today.
The switch from orthochromatic to panchromatic film, more sensitive to a full range of colors, changed the look of movies— white skies gained shades of gray, the overall look of films went from high contrast to subtle tonal variation. But it also shattered audience expectations, in an instant changing how they viewed their favorite stars. Some would benefit from the change— blondes like Mary Pickford or Alice Terry would no longer appear to have white hair. But other performers would, tragically, find their careers cut short when fans were shocked to discover that on the new film stock, they no longer looked like the stars they had idolized.
Perhaps no star better illustrates the perils of panchromatic film better than Edmund Chatoye. A ruggedly handsome man with blue eyes who might have walked out of an Arrow shirt ad, Chatoye was being trained for a career in the family bank in Pittsburgh when he decided to go on the stage. He enjoyed a few years of modest success in juvenile roles before a talent agent suggested he try out for pictures and brought him to the attention of Lewis Selznick. The effect of his first screen test was as unexpected as it was electrifying: on film, his blue eyes seemed almost white, suggesting a powerful empathy to female viewers— as Adela Rogers St. John later said, capable "of looking right into your goddamned soul." The elder Selznick nevertheless was uncertain about Chatoye's vaguely unsettling look, but he was urged to sign Chatoye by his son Myron, and the 26-year-old was given a supporting role as a mystic in "Vera, the Medium" opposite Kitty Gordon and Lowell Sherman.
Audience response was sensational, and Chatoye was quickly signed to a series of films exploiting his look— "The Distant Horizon," "Telescope Trumbull," "The Light of Reason," "The Whites of Their Eyes," and others. Following Selznick from the east coast to Hollywood, he was soon earning $10,000 a week. Edmund Chatoye Clubs were founded all over the country, and a novelty song, "Careful What You're Wearing Under That Gingham, Mary, Edmund Chatoye Can See Right Through You" was a hit. The handsome young star was a much-admired member of Hollywood's polo and seal-training set along with the likes of Wallace Beery, William Farnum and Anna Q. Nilsson.
But trouble would soon darken his bright skies with unanticipated shades of gray. Panchromatic film, more receptive to the full color spectrum, had been invented early in the century but remained unfeasible for motion picture production until the early 1920s. The impact of the first all-spectrum film, 1922's "The Rainbow Painter," was as powerful as that of "The Jazz Singer" seven years later, and one by one the studios made the conversion to panchromatic film, repainting backdrops and dyeing hair. But Chatoye would be one of the few holdouts, with Selznick Pictures running trade ads to remind exhibitors and audiences of the attraction that Chatoye's clear eyes held for (especially female) moviegoers.
It would be of little avail. Chatoye soon made the leap to panchromatic film in "The Darkened Cellar," a shadowy suspense yarn intended to hide the effect of his newly darkened eyes, but audience response was lukewarm. "He just doesn't look at me the same way," a female moviegoer said to Screen Stories, summing up the feelings of many fans. Chatoye invested his own money into an epic called "Smouldering Volcanoes," but it was a disaster, entire reels consisting of clouds of smoke in which Chatoye and co-star Betty Bardon could only be seen in silhouette.
Since none of his panchromatic work survives, it's difficult to judge the difference. But reviewers found that the actor who once seemed so empathetic now seemed cold and arrogant with dark eyes set in his handsome face. Mordaunt Hall's September 6, 1924 New York Times review of "Smouldering Volcanoes" said "The impression is that Mr. Chatoye has signally failed to learn the acting lessons of the new panchromatic age, which call for a more expressive use of the entire physiognomy, not merely the eyes. They have faces now, he ought to have been reminded."
This has given rise to rumors that Selznick deliberately sabotaged his expensive star's career with dark lighting and shadowy subject matter to get out of his contract and sign new, less expensive panchromatic performers. Whatever the actual truth, Selznick dropped Chatoye's contract in 1924. He searched for work unsuccessfully in the years to follow, but a new panchromatic Hollywood had little use for the orthochromatic stars of a few years earlier.
Had he hung on into the early 1930s, the successful three-strip Technicolor process could have given his blue eyes a new shot at fame, perhaps as Daddy Warbucks in a Little Orphan Annie film. But on November 19, 1926, a weary Chatoye aimed those once-world-famous baby blues one last time at the town of his rise and fall, and returned to his family's bank in Pittsburgh. He would live only 37 more years as vice-president and later chairman of the board before dying at the Newport yacht races in the company of his 22-year-old mistress... a poignant end to the career of the original "ol' blue eyes."
We should respect the other fellow's religion, but only to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is attractive and his children intelligent. —H.L. Mencken