“A Live Wire”

Joseph Sullivan, S.J., was president of Loyola University for only four years (1926–30), but they were among the university’s most momentous.

Sullivan oversaw the move from Venice Blvd. to the bluffs of Westchester, and he made good on Harry Culver’s deal after Culver promised to provide 100 acres of land if the university could erect two buildings in a year.

To succeed in his campaign, Sullivan turned to the Hollywood elite. In September 1928, he hosted a dinner that included top L.A. and film leaders including: Fritz; B. Burns, developer and philanthropist; Harry Langdon, actor; Winfield Sheehan, director of production at Fox Film Co.; George W. Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodal Co.,; Harry F. Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times; and Isidore B. Dockweiler, a prominent Catholic politician.

In the late 1920s, Hollywood was simultaneously on the verge of a golden age and rife with conflict. Perhaps as in other industries, the promise of financial windfall was a reason for the conflict. Sound technology was becoming the wave of the future in the form of broadcast radio and recorded music on disk. Film companies were battling over the best sound technology and buying L.A. real estate to build indoor sound stages where a new generation of movies would be made. The winner was the Fox Film Corp.’s Movietone technology.

In March 1929, just six months after Sullivan’s fundraising dinner, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Mary Brian starred in a two-and-a-half minute trailer that was to promote the building campaign of Loyola University. Rogers was an established silent star and leading man, known for his winning personality and good looks. He also had appeared with Clara Bow in “Get Your Man” and Mary Pickford (to whom he was later married) in “My Best Girl.” Rogers was sometimes referred to as “America’s Boyfriend,” and his biggest break came as a lead in “Wings,” a 1927 silent movie that won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 141 Hollywood Blvd.

Mary Brian also was a silent film star. She appeared with Rogers in “Varsity” in 1928, and in the ‘30s, she had leading roles in many films with actors whose names remain legendary today: Pat O’Brien, Ina Claire, Frederic March, Gary Cooper and Walter Huston. Rogers and Brian, in fact, were in production together on “River of Romance” while the trailer was being made, and that film, made by the Paramount studio, would be released two months later. Imagine: stars of a forthcoming film supporting an important cause. Things aren’t very different today, and Loyola was the beneficiary.

Finally, it’s interesting that “A Live Wire” presents Rogers and Brian in a phone conversation using two different phones. Fox had developed Movietone in concert with AT&T and Western Electric. In 1929, Western Electric released a telephone that placed both the transmitter and receiver in a single handset — the kind of phone that Mary Brian is using in “A Live Wire.” The phone it supplanted was the candlestick-style phone, the kind that Rogers holds in the trailer. One wonders if Fox is tipping its hat to its partner, Western Electric. Perhaps Fox is subliminally saying to thousands of viewers in audiences around the country, “The sound frontier is here, and we’ve been the leaders and will remain so in the future.”

In September 1929, Loyola University opened its doors for the fall semester, with two completed buildings: St. Robert and Xavier. Weeks later, the world markets collapsed with the start of the great depression. Loyola, though, survived.

Neil Bethke, archivist in the William H. Hannon Library Archives and Special Collections, provided essential research for this story.