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Thursday, March 25, 2010


The acting business is very competitive. Many assume that once an actor has reached some sort of acclaim or stardom, his scrambling for work is over. Not so. All kinds of tangled bits of politics go into casting films. Sometimes, an actor may pass on a role, leaving it open to someone who previously would never have had the chance. (The former actor normally winds up kicking himself)! Sometimes, an impassioned actress rallies for a part only to be told by the studios that she isn't big enough box-office, right for it, etc, and it is handed to someone else. But, there are merits to the decisions some of the big-wigs make, and though it is a rough biz, the people on top often do make the right decisions, casting the perfect person for the perfect role. Happy accidents and calculated risks... It's all movie history. But, just for fun, let's play a game of imagination called: What if?

Jean the Scene-Stealer:

It seems that some people are chosen for fame, even if they don't want it. Jean Harlow is one of those human phenomenons who was born to be a movie star-- beautiful, talented, charismatic-- despite her own wishes.  She didn't have her eyes on acting when it came after her. Unlike the other young ladies dying to be discovered, this lovely little sexpot from Kansas City became a sensation without even lifting a finger. Her fame was predicted by leading lady of the silents, Clara Bow, herself. When Clara saw the svelte and sexy extra on the set of her film The Saturday Night Kid, she panicked! The bombshell was a definite threat. At first, Clara wanted Jean taken off the film, but she was too kindhearted to ever really punish someone for her own insecurities. She took Jean under her wing and even arranged for her to wear one of the gowns originally designed for herself (together below with Jean Arthur on left).

Jean was eternally grateful. The domino effect continued. Roles that were written for or slated for other actresses landed right in her lap, much to her surprise and much to the other ladies' chagrin. Here are two such scenarios:

When Howard Hughes was filming his epic Hell's Angel's, he ran into a problem. Already over budget and over schedule, sound films took the lead at theaters before his silent film had been completed. As a result, Howard decided to go back and re-shoot all of the previous sequences in sound. The only problem was his leading lady- Greta Nissen-- who spoke in a thick Norwegian accent. Audiences wouldn't accept her, therefore, as a British aristocrat. So, he set about re-casting her. (Poor Greta). For awhile, the top choice was none other than Starlet of the Month, Thelma Todd (above, right), who was being primed for a dramatic career by her lover/friend Roland West. Unfortunately for Thelma, Hal Roach would not let her out of her contract to make the film, afraid that a dramatic role would ruin her comedy image. As a result, the role went to newcomer, Jean Harlow. Many would comment that the new girl couldn't act a lick, but when the camera was on, her... boy oh boy! 

Jean made another "screen-grab" when The Public Enemy was being cast. William Wellman offered the role to Louise Brooks (left), whom he'd worked with on Beggars for Life. Louise was trying to make an American comeback after her forays into the world of German cinema, which at the time labeled her as a washed-up failure. It would take years for her to reclaim her status as an incomparable film star. She may not have had to wait as long if she had snatched up Wellman's offer, but perhaps because she didn't much care for Wellman, who had put her through dangerous, physical trauma while shooting Beggars, she turned the role down. Whoops. Again, it went to Jean, whose sex appeal in the role of Gwen Allen in The Public Enemy solidified her even further into the very appreciative "public" eye.

The Graduate:

Would the classic, The Graduate, have "flunked" at the box-office if it had been made as originally cast??? At first, Robert Redford (right) was slated to play the now iconic role of Benjamin Braddock, because he more closely resembled the golden, American boy from the novel. Young unknown thespian, Dustin Hoffman, was more than a long shot. Short, dark, and awkward, he hardly seemed to fit the mold. In fact, when he finished his audition, which he botched,  he dropped his train fare on the ground, to which a cameraman muttered something to the effect of, "You should pick that up, because you're going to need it." However, despite appearances, director Mike Nichols saw something in the young up-and-comer and cast him in the role that would change his life.

Anne Bancroft, as it turns out, was not a shoe-in for Mrs. Robinson either, the role she will forever be identified with. Down-to-earth beauty, Ava Gardner, (left)was originally approached, but she didn't have enough faith in her talents. Though she did not turn down the role, she seemed to try to talk Nichols out of casting her, casually telling him, "You know, I can't act," a statement that she unfortunately believed. Ava's interpretation certainly would have been interesting to see, but Bancroft won the coveted part and made it her own, injecting it with ferocity and humanity all at once.

Breakfast at Tiffany's:

Would the most important meal of the day have been as easy to swallow if it hadn't been Audrey Hepburn (left) staring into that jeweler's window? Originally, Truman Capote was adamantly against Audrey being the star for the film adaptation of his novel. She was far too graceful and poised to play the character of a frivolous, fun-loving call girl. He imagined none other than Marilyn Monroe (below) as the perfect fit for his delicate and deluded socialite. After all, Marilyn had played a previous character infatuated with diamonds: Lorelei of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It is interesting to note that both women would have brought the same bright-eyed innocence to this role, along with an endearing and fragile vulnerability. However, these qualities would have been conveyed in very different packages and thus would have resulted in very different films.Though Marilyn had already proved that she was capable of deep and profound film work, as seen in her very human portrayal in 1956's Bus Stop, the hand of fate placed Audrey in the lead. Audrey ran away with the picture, and produced one of the most iconic movie heroines of all time.

The Philadelphia Story:

When Katharine Hepburn was labeled "box-office poison," she didn't hang around Hollywood to pout about it. This fighter went back to treading the boards of the stage, winning respect for her role as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, which was specifically crafted for her. She proved that she could indeed act, and with her refined and hilarious portrayal she showed everyone that she was one of the finest actresses of her generation, who could not only run the gamut of emotions from A-Z (ahem, Dorothy Parker!), but back again! A cunning business-woman, Kate obtained the rights to the play and sold them to MGM, casting herself in the lead, of course. 

She had her own ideas about the casting of her male counterparts as well, and she requested that Clark Gable step in as C.K. Dexter Haven and that her soon-to-be lover, Spencer Tracy, be given the role of wisecracking writer Macaulay Connor (above, the pals duke it out in San Francisco). It was not to be . Cary Grant was given the role of Dex, after demanding and receiving top billing of course, which Kate graciously acceded, and Jimmy Stewart won Oscar gold for his role as Connor. Kate, for her part, was nominated for her "comeback" role, but she lost to Ginger Rogers for her performance in Kitty Foyle. Queen once more, Kate didn't mind, stating that her work was her true reward. No one would ever doubt her ability again, and until Meryl Streep outdid her, she held the long-running record of the actress to receive the most Academy Award nominations. She still holds the record for most wins: four!

 The fated trio on the set

--Don't worry, more to come!!! These bits of trivia are endless ;)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

PERSONAL NOTE: If loving movies is wrong...

I struggled with a topic for this week's post. Though I have a whole list of ideas jotted down, none of them seemed to fit my current mood... Which has been quite pensive of late. I have often wondered just how valid my interest in cinema is, if valid is the right word. How useful is it to know how many Oscars Kate Hepburn won? Or how painful Rita Hayworth's hairline electrolysis was? Does owning somewhere in the ballpark of 1000 movies, (no, that is not a typo) and having seen even more, really have any value? This questioning has left me in a sort of existential dilemma.

 "You are the Star" mural @ Hollywood & Wilcox

The trouble with studying film is, there is still a heavy bias against it. If I told people I studied art-- Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt-- the reaction would be "Ooh, ahh... that's interesting." Granted, I may be considered somewhat impractical for choosing an unstable passion with little lucrative benefit, but my knowledge and education would bear more weight because "art" is valued. Films are not. They are so accessible that they are taken for granted. While many of us may see a movie and say, "That was good," we don't consider it a gift from the muses. This dates all the way back to the advent of cinema, when film was considered a flash-in-the-pan publicity gag, certain to lose its luster once the next thing came along. Film actors weren't even "actors," they were regular Joe's, usually fresh off the street and looking for a job-- any job. In early Hollywood, and around the studios in New York, landlords wouldn't even rent to these pioneers, posting signs outside their buildings that flatly stated: "No Actors," (along with the equally biased "No Jews" or "No Chinese," etc).

Yup, movies have had it rough. No one wanted to love them. No one wanted to believe in them. They were just pictures in motion-- one step up from the lantern slideshows. Yet, people became riveted, mostly the lower classes, who could afford to see the ramshackle Nickelodeons available to everyone. Since it was such a subordinate amusement, this gave the higher classes further reason to avoid the cinema parlors, but the fascination still grew. It turns out that people just love watching people. Just as gazing into the eyes of an oil portrait gave prior generations the ability to relate to another individual, to live vicariously through them, and to indulge in their own imaginations, movies took it a step further. Here was an actual carbon-copied, photographic representation of a living and breathing individual... and you could legitimately see them living and breathing! Society quickly became absorbed by it: by its technology and by its humanity. *(Still from Annabelle Butterfly Dance 1894)

And so, something happened. People started to believe and to consequently create. Stories were built, directors started innovating new techniques to take plays from the stage to the screen, and then original stories were given life through a medium whose presence opened a door to a whole new level of fantasy and communication. The great unifier was born. In black and white, the angels of silent cinema glowed brightly, bringing laughter and tears, taking us on emotional rides-- whether for 3 minutes or an hour-- and then delivered us safely back home. With directors like D.W. Griffith, Allan Dwan, and Clarence Brown, cinema became "art." With performances by Florence Lawrence, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo (right in The Saga of Gosta Berling 1924), movies became real.

And here we are, over a century after landing on the moon (via Georges Melies that is), and we have such a significant bulk of history at our very fingertips!!!. At times I am deeply affected by the fact that I am watching a movie that was made far before I was born; one that stars an actor who has long been gone. I am intimately acquainted with Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge... I have never met them; yet, I know them. They continue to reach out to me and affect me after so many years. How is that possible? How lucky are we to have this privilege? To have the option of lavishing in the glorious ghosts of the past so freely?

Tom Mix and his horse, Tony

This is why, despite the occasional, minor setback, I am proud of my personal absorption in cinema. The study of film is the study of human beings: the study and appreciation of life and the education of empathy. What better lesson can one receive? By watching a movie, one learns about herself, about society, and about history. When you watch a period piece, you are given a glimpse of life at another time... But you also learn something, not just about the time period about which the film was made, but in which the film was made. The depiction of a different era reveals the contemporary society's opinions, morals, ideals, and standards about that era, and thus about itself. Wartime movies about war are significantly different than peacetime war films, for example. What will future societies say about our time? What will our ad nauseum, apocalyptic zombie films say about us? Fear, paranoia, vulnerability? What will our raunchy, buddy films communicate? Escapism, rebellion, boldness?

Obviously, not every film is a masterpiece. For every Citizen Kane there are thousands of White Chicks, New in Towns, and Anacondas. But every film is a contribution to the most moving and penetrating of artistic mediums. And, whether a film is considered good or bad, or so bad its good, we thrive on and enjoy the spectacle of it. Visual connoisseurs, we love gazing at a thing of beauty, whether that thing be Gene Tierney (below) or the fantastical universe of James Cameron's Avatar. As internally complex human beings, we love the intricate weavings of an engrossing story, because it explains us to ourselves in a way that no paid therapist can. Suffering from the pressures and stresses of every day life, we indulge for a moment in witnessing the lives of others, foreign and safe, yet strangely familiar.

So, do I hold a grudge against myself for at times thinking that I have watched and studied and collected so many movies that I may in fact have become one? No. We are all movies, and movies are all us. Besides, I would rather burn on a pyre of love for Grant and Bergman than for no one at all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Movie stars seem to have it made-- living lives of luxury, lying carefree on their bed of roses... However, every rose has its thorn, so imagine the sting! When we watch one of our shooting stars fall to earth, we ask ourselves how someone so "blessed" could come to such tragedy. At times, it seems that some people are just guided by a blacker fate. Odd premonitory events or strange post mortem occurrences often seal in our minds the image of a fallen idol as doomed from the start. In the wake of yet another demise-- that of Corey Haim-- here are a few examples of uncanny coincidences in celluloid history that seemed to echo the tragedies that have or would soon befall our Kings and Queens of the screen. These oddities beg the question, Is it all happenstance, or are we all entwined in some kind of twisted destiny?


In the film Monkey Business, Groucho Marx, as usual, filled his dialogues with puns, zingers, and one-liners that left audiences howling with laughter. With new leading lady, (and star of the month), Hot Toddy, he had a whole new bag of witticisms he could use to play off her beauty, sex appeal, and naughtiness. It is strange that one of the funniest bits in the film would later lose all of its hilarity.  

Monkey Business was already hitting close to home with Thelma. Her character is trapped in marriage to a gangster, just as she would be married to underworld pawn Pat DiCicco. Of course, she would later become involved with another mobster-- Lucky Luciano. However, this example of art-imitating-life is chicken feed. It is Groucho's line in the film that sends the real chill up the back of your neck:

  • "You're a woman who's been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night."
Four years after this film was released, Thelma would be found dead in her garage. The joke is no longer funny. Hearing it now, one feels saddened and a bit uncomfortable. Odd coincidence or foreshadowing?


Roman Polanski, who was always something of a notorious figure, would become even more troubled and haunted after the brutal murder of his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate. Sharon was one of the many victims butchered by the demented "Manson Family" in 1969. Clearly disturbed by the loss, Polanski used his work to communicate his resulting inner demons. The violence he would inject into his later films seemed symbolic of his tortured memories. Some would speculate that Polanski was cursed for making the devil-themed film, Rosemary's Baby, which explored the impregnation of a woman by Satan himself. Perhaps in conversing with occult leader Anton LaVey, (for research during the production of the film), he inadvertently opened a door to a certain evil that would later claim his wife's life, and ironically, the life of his own unborn child.

However, this is all spiritual conjecture. It was later, while shooting his adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth, that a truly chilling and concrete episode occurred. In keeping with the most savage of Shakespeare's plays, the film was packed with violence, obsession, and blood. Indeed, during one sequence, much of the cast and many of the extras had to be covered in fake blood. One small girl, drenched head to toe in red, caught Roman's eye. A pretty little thing, the contrast of her innocent eyes and blood-caked face spoke to him. She seemed nervous and a bit frightened by the ensuing chaos, so he approached her, perhaps hoping to calm her. He then politely asked her name, to which she replied: "Sharon." One can only imagine his reaction, for his thoughts certainly went right to another blood-soaked beauty.


Hollywood and every teenage girl alive mourned the loss of River Phoenix when he shockingly died of a drug overdose on Halloween morning of 1993. A promising young actor, River overcame many personal tragedies to arrive at super-stardom by giving performances filled with nuance and intelligence. However, all of the old ghosts who remained locked in the back of his mind, ones he never really faced or dealt with-- mostly because they involved misuse by his own family-- drove him to bury himself unnecessarily in drugs and alcohol. Had he received counseling or been supported by a stronger system, his life may have been a very different story.

Or would it? It seemed that River was hexed from the start, not through any kind of magic or voodoo, but by his very name. It would take time for people to make the connection after River collapsed outside The Viper Room in Hollywood-- supposedly after receiving a bad "hit" from personal friend, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers-- but an anagram of River's name spelled out his very doom: River Phoenix = Viper Heroin X.


When Judy Garland began making films, audiences were immediately charmed by the awkward little girl with the big voice. However, it wasn't until she had her world turned upside down by a tornado in The Wizard of Oz that she really took Hollywood by storm. This film changed her life, and despite all of the ups and downs that would follow, she would always remember the making of this film as one of the highlights of her career, as well as one of the fondest memories of her life.

Judy would go on to make many movies and sing many songs, but it was "Over the Rainbow" that sealed her forever in the American heart. Despite her addictions to drugs and alcohol, people could never really turn their backs on her. They always recalled the nervous and vulnerable child underneath, who-- at heart-- just wanted to go home. We lost Judy far too soon, but she will live on forever because of her participation in one of the greatest films of all time. I think she knew this too. Fittingly, on the day of her death a tornado swept through Kansas. Perhaps this was Judy taking her final bow... She certainly liked to go out big.


John had a select pack of pals that he regularly spent his time with. This tight-knit group included the likes of artists (John Decker), actors (John Carradine), and writers (Ben Hecht). One such comrade was Gene Fowler-- intellectual and journalist extraordinaire. As with all of John's friends, Gene respected and adored John, and was devastated when he saw "the great profile's" physical and mental condition crumbling. John was a tough man to love, but those who knew him best stuck by him and remained loyal to the man beneath the monster.

One of John's most cherished possessions was a cuckoo clock that sat in his Beverly Hills home. It had ceased to work long ago, but it remained sitting against the wall for guests to admire. When John passed away on May 29, 1942, Gene (right) thought it befitting to set the time on John's beloved clock to his time of death at 10:20pm, forever immortalizing that fateful hour. However, when Gene approached the dial, he froze. The clock already read 10:20! Strangely, John and his clock had died at the same time, only years apart. Was the cuckoo eerily predicting the hour of John's passing?

Hollywood offers glamour, prestige, adulation, wealth, and a variety of other assorted splendors, but it seems that its underbelly is just as gruesome as its face is fair. Sometimes, the horrid events that take the world by storm seem almost preordained, for in looking back, you can find the signs screaming "Beware!" to the unwitting victims who walk the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Too many take the chance of treading on this brittle path and suffer the consequences. Though their deaths serve as a shocking wake up call to us, we can only hope that they themselves are now finally able to rest in peace.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


The lexicon of movie stars gets longer and longer every day (though some may argue that, these days, the title is applied too liberally). As our collective history gets more and more jam-packed, we dispense with the ever-increasing data to make room in our brains for future information. So, while we may maintain Lillian Gish, we lose Mae Marsh; we hold tightly to Garbo, but kick Pola Negri to the curb. But these ladies of cinema trivia are not trivial, and should be remembered. Which is why, just as we revere glamour girl Jean Harlow, so too should we pay homage to her platinum predecessor: Ice Cream Blonde Thelma Todd.

Today, Thelma Todd is remembered for two reasons: she was a supporting lady in the Marx Brothers' comedies, and she died a mysterious death. But Thelma was much more than some "bit player" and was a comedic phenomenon in her own right. Discovered after winning the Miss Massachusetts Beauty Contest-- which she did NOT want to enter-- she found herself in Hollywood starring opposite legends like Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase. Her natural talent and immediate likability made her an instant star. Too beautiful and funny to be stuck in the background, she effortlessly drew the audience's attention. Before long, she was partnered up with Zasu Pitts and later Patsy Kelly in female buddy films. This was really saying something in a genre where men were always given the lead and women were an afterthought, generally only there to move the plot along.

Sadly, her luminosity is clouded by her macabre death. On Dec. 16, 1935, Thelma was found dead in the garage above her Pacific Palisades restaurant: Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe. Hastily ruled a suicide, the police at first didn't even pretend to investigate-- she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, case closed. However, the bruises on her face raised questions, and her disbelieving mother and friends got the media in a tizzy, so DA Buron Fitts was forced to order an investigation. It was commonly known that Thelma was linked to the downright evil Lucky Luciano, and there was a lot of evidence implicating his involvement, yet the finger of blame was never placed upon him. Witnesses were bullied into keeping their mouths shut, and while Roland West, Thelma's ex-paramour and business partner, was temporarily used as a scapegoat, no real evidence could be found against him. Her death was finally ruled "accidental." In one fell swoop, Thelma and her place in the public consciousness was killed.

The thing that makes Thelma's overshadowed career the most tragic is that she was just plain fun! Watching her movies, you wish you had known her personally and could kick back and laugh it up with her. To her friends, she was the kindest and warmest pal they could ask for. Humble, utterly lacking in vanity, witty as they come, and girlishly vulnerable, hers is an endearing soul that continues to draw viewers in long after her untimely demise. Goofy and not afraid to make an ass of herself, Thelma still maintained her beauty and sex appeal. She was the whole package and a true gift to all of us. Since laughter is the best medicine, I think we could all do with a dose of Hot Toddy! Cheers!!!

 With Grouch Marx in Monkey Business

RIP, Lady Love...