Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Moguls and Movie Stars: Nov. 18, 2010
As many of you certainly know, Turner Classic Movies has been playing a very informative docu-miniseries detailing the world of Hollywood cinema from its birth thru the end of the studio system. (The show airs Mondays at 8pm EST). In addition to these seven episodes, TCM also featured a traveling exhibit, which displayed the many different details and artifacts more thoroughly described on the show. This exhibit recently made a pit-stop in Los Angeles as part of its pilgrimage at "The Grove" shopping center in Beverly Hills. I was able to attend the presentation last Thursday and saw the different pieces, which I share with you now.
Timeline of Innovation
Fairly small, the exhibit still was able to boast some impressive pieces of movie history, most specifically in their large standing timelines, complete with important historical dates, film clips, and varied physical elements from Hollywood's heyday. One very interesting portion revealed the initial visual illusion of the "running horse," which was a primary form of entertainment before actual moving film took hold of the nation.
One such piece, that I found the most impressive, was an actual check signed by Irving G. Thalberg himself and made out to John Gilbert, one of the most tragically forgotten male stars of silent cinema. To have a piece of paper that passed through the hands of two of the greatest representative pillars of moviedom was quite a sight to see.
Additionally, there were several movie magazines on display, showing some of the biggest box office draws throughout the years. Watching how the magazine covers changed over time from illustrations to photographs was a very interesting metamorphosis, and altering social attitudes were clearly delineated from cover to cover.
Ga-Ga for Greta
However, the most jaw-dropping portion of the exhibit was the display of different costumes worn by some of the biggest stars in some of the most famous movies of all time: Christopher Plummer's suit from The Sound of Music, Vivien Leigh's dress from Gone with the Wind, Rudolph Valentino's costume from The Sheik, and Marilyn Monroe's sweater suit from Niagara. Seeing these pieces of fashion-- once worn by various legends-- up close and personal evoked two things: 1) The surprise that stars on the silver screen are much smaller than they appear and 2) Pure awe and wonder-- "My God... Marilyn Monroe wore this?" (sigh)
Marilyn's Suit from Niagara
The tour has sadly come to an end, having made stops in New York, Atlanta, Denver, San Francisco, and finally L.A. La Land. It was a real treat to witness it, and I hope that TCM will continue to do such interesting exhibitions in the future. It is always nice to witness first hand the curiously beautiful ghosts of the past in the fast-paced and grueling nature of the present.
(To view the rest of my pics from the show, go to my Myspace Album, here).
Happy Thanksgiving!!! [From Groucho and all the Stars of LALaLand ;)]
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
The eternal Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, defends Olivia De Havilland's
Our movie stars are our heroes. Whether fighting for true love, knocking the bad guys around, or even saving the world, they always come out on top, making us believe in our heart of hearts that somehow everything is going to be all right. Of course, after the director yells cut, these actors and actresses are brought back to earth with the rest of us, and their colossal onscreen efforts, more often than not, stand in sharp contrast to the normal, every day lives they lead. Thus, it is comforting to hear that someone we all admire is actually deserving of our admiration beyond the bounds of performance. The following stories introduce a slew of good deeds by our celebrity immortals, who in some way or other went above and beyond for their common man.
Robert Mitchum. The tough guy with a poet's heart (right) was always looking out for the little guy. When RKO cracked down on budgets and cut out donuts and coffee on the set for the cast and crew of 1951's His Kind of Woman, Bob was irked. He thought it was only fair that those who worked hard for the studio should-- at the very least-- get a good breakfast. Bob was known for being a hard worker and a punctual one, but he used his clout to needle the studio by coming to set late every morning after this. His reason? He was using studio time to shop for coffee and donuts for everyone on the set. It meant a lot to every one he worked with, and with the schedule lagging behind because of this minor heroism, the studio finally caved and returned donuts and coffee to the menu. Bob showed up for work on time from then on out.
Ingrid Bergman also lent a hand to a female co-star. Rhonda Fleming (left) worked with Ingrid during Spellbound, her first motion picture, with Hitchcock no less. Needless to say, she was a bit nervous, but she had no need to be. When she met the beautiful and illustrious Ingrid for the first time, Ingrid came up to her, shook her hand and said, "At last! Eyeball to eyeball!" Both of the women were tall, with Ingrid being 5'10" and Rhonda being 5'8", and the former was glad to not be hovering over the ingenue. They had few scenes together, but Rhonda got a chance to talk to Ingrid between takes. She confided that her young husband was overseas fighting in the second World War. Not long after, Ingrid would travel abroad to entertain the troops. When she landed in Germany, she made sure to look up Rhonda's husband and introduce herself, which was a real treat to him. She called Rhonda to tell her that her man was healthy and happy. It meant a lot to the young actress, and she worshipped Ingrid even more after that.
Groucho Marx was instrumental in giving Marilyn Monroe her first big break. When casting began for Love Happy, the final of the Marx Brothers' films, three ingenues were brought in to audition for the role of the sexy client who comes knocking on Detective Sam Grunion's door (see right). The scene was brief, but it needed an eye-catching girl. So, the three women paraded in front of Groucho one at a time, and producer Lester Cowan asked which he preferred. Groucho replied, "You've gotta be kidding! How can you choose anyone else but that girl?!" He was of course, referring to Marilyn. He saw a potential in her, along with her extreme beauty, and gave her a major boost in her career. It was not the role of a lifetime, nor the one that would bring her notoriety, but with it she was able to increase her experience and her fan following. With Marilyn, it seems she was destined for fame, but without Groucho, who knows what would've happened?
Leslie Howard also had an opinion or two when it came time to cast The Petrified Forest (left) with Bette Davis. He had performed in the stage version with Humphrey Bogart on Broadway, and the two became good friends. Leslie was a bigger star at this point, but he was impressed with Bogie's talent and believed that his career would really take off if only given the chance. Initially, Warner Bros. didn't want Bogart to resume his role in the screen adaptation of the play, but Leslie used his star power to insist. In fact, he refused to appear in the film himself should Bogie be denied his rightful place opposite him. Humphrey indeed got the part, and though it was the later The Maltese Falcon that would push him over the edge into cinematic legend, he was forever grateful to his friend for this small favor. In fact, he would name his daughter Leslie Howard Bogart as a thank you.
Margaret Sullavan was equally instrumental in helping a young Jimmy Stewart in his early career. The two had met and dated briefly when Jimmy was stage-managing one of Margaret's plays. While she soon after rose to stardom via Only Yesterday and So Red the Rose, Jimmy was still feebly trying to make a name for himself. She never forgot the good-humored boy, though. So, when an opening came up for a male lead in Next Time We Love, she hand-picked him as her costar. The studio almost immediately reneged on the deal after seeing his inexperience in the dailies. Margaret fought for him though and rehearsed with him privately each night, (much as Barbara Stanwyck would do with the young William Holden during Golden Boy). Jimmy improved quickly and audiences responded to the pair. Margaret once again insisted on Jimmy when they re-teamed for The Shop Worn Angel. The film was such a hit, that MGM finally had to admit that they had quite the asset on their hands. Jimmy's star would continue rising thanks to performances in You Can't Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but Jimmy might never have 'Gone to Hollywood' had it not been for one of his biggest fans and best friends-- many gossiped that the two were engaged in a lifelong, unconsummated love affair. Their four films together remain classics, including the most memorable, The Shop Around the Corner (right).
Grace Kelly was dining at The Stork Club in New York in the early '50s, she couldn't help but overhear a ruckus that was taking place in the restaurant. Apparently, the notorious and talented Josephine Baker was being denied entre due to her skin color. Grace was outraged! She rose from her chair, walked over to the commotion, grabbed Josephine by the hand, and stormed out, vowing never to return! Josephine, who was normally much more extroverted, (see left), was quite shocked to see the iconically placid ice queen playing the raging heroine! Grace proved to be an ally, and from that night on the strangers would indeed became good friends. Grace never did return to The Stork Club, and when Josephine died of a stroke in 1975, Grace continued her generosity by paying for her funeral expenses and arranging for her to be buried close by in Monaco.
John Garfield is often cited as the pre-method "method" actor, paving the way for Marlon Brando, Maureen Stapleton, and Eli Wallach with his raw intensity and honesty. These qualities followed him off the soundstage. Often playing edgy, hard-knock characters who yet maintained an uncanny likability, he was a bad boy that audiences embraced, much as they had James Cagney's anger fueled characterizations. The world that Garfield was raging against was the same one viewers existed in all the time in the real world. They trusted him, believing he would never let them down. They weren't wrong. When John (right) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a witness, his career was put in jeapardy if he refused to "name names." However, just as in his films, John was no rat. He kept his lips sealed, refusing to throw any friends he had under the bus. Though he himself was not a communist, he believed that in America everyone should be entitled to the freedom of thought at the very least. He said, in effect, "No one likes a snitch." His career started to decline after this action, and he would pass away not much later in New York due to a heart attack, though many would claim it was HUAC and his treatment by the industry afterward that killed him. The legend of his acting and his courage has enabled him to have the last laugh.
John Gilbert was a swashbuckling lover onscreen, often saving actresses like Eleanor Boardman (left in Bardelys the Magnificent) or Norma Shearer from danger. However, in reality, it would be his own daughter, Leatrice Gilbert (Fountain) whose life he would legitimately save. John had divorced from Leatrice Joy in 1925 shortly after baby Leatrice was born. It left him brokenhearted. Because John was still in love with his ex-wife, it was often difficult for him to be around her, which put a great deal of distance between him and his daughter. However, he was always watching. One day, when living with her mother near the beach, Leatrice ventured out too far in the waves and began to drown. Before she knew what was happening, she was pulled back onto the beach. As she regained consciousness and got her bearings, she soon realized that the handsome rescuer looking down at her was her own father! John scolded her for swimming out too far, sent her back home to her mother, and disappeared almost like a dream. The man who had seemed so distant was in fact her guardian angel.
Lon Chaney was the soldier of pain for nearly the entire world. The underdogs, the hardened criminals with aching hearts, and the forgotten men were all represented by him (see his dark side, right, in The Blackbird). No one understood sorrow like Lon, and no one fought so hard to give his performances the vitality and brutality of the hard truth. Though very secretive in his private life, those who befriended and worked with him got to catch a glimpse of the kind and decent man behind the myth. Whether preparing Christmas cards for the entire lot or seeing to it that work always ended at five-- even if production was put behind schedule-- just to give the extras another paid day of work, he won the respect of many he met. It would have fooled many fans, whom were often left quaking in their boots, to know what a gentleman and gentle man he truly was. But Lon knew the power of his dark image and used it. For example, one day someone happened to pass him on the lot and saw that he was picking up a nest of fallen birds. Lon cupped the chirping creatures delicately in his hands and placed them gently back into their tree. When he saw that he was being watched he said, "Whatever you do, don't tell anyone. Everyone thinks I'm so hard-broiled, I'll never live it down!"
Carl Laemmle. At this time, the many actors were sharing dressing rooms, which were small and cramped-- far from the lavish star apartments they would later become. In fact, at one point he and Jean Hersholt shared a dressing room! Universal City was like a happy home for these thespians. A unique and independent movie town, everybody knew everybody else. They were like family. It was not all fun and games however. Lon once passed the dressing room of a young actress, whom he must have heard weeping in pain. Upon investigation, he discovered that the girl was suffering the consequences of a botched abortion. The details of the occurrence are quite fuzzy, primarily because whatever happened, Lon kept a secret-- he was not one to gossip, particularly about the sad case of a troubled young girl-- but it is known that he saved her life. The girl had allegedly had an affair with a prominent, unnamed director, become pregnant, and tried to self-induce the abortion. Lon arrived in the nick of time, picked her up, and carried her to the studio hospital. Had he not been passing at that moment and offered his services to the distressed stranger, whose life was literally slipping away, she may have become yet another one of Hollywood tragedies. (Lon shows his softer side, left, with a gorgeous Joan Crawford in The Unknown).
Whether extending a hand to a friend in need or giving a boost to a complete stranger, these few stars proved themselves to be worthy of the iconic heroism often bestowed upon them by fans. Few knew about the behind-the-scenes gestures that made them flesh and blood champions, choosing instead to worship these golden idols for their cinematic performances. Both sides of the coin are admirable, but the aforementioned little bits of information make the magic they produced on the screen shine much more brightly. Perhaps the elusive "it" factor people can see echoing out from the eyes of their favorite personalities often has a great deal to do with the genuine goodness within.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Chico, Allan Jones, and Groucho in
A Night at the Opera.
I think I subconsciously created this article category specifically for Groucho Marx. The man was brimming with humor in his film and stage work, and it comes as no surprise that it overflowed into his private life as well. Here are a few of his personal goofs:
Groucho could definitely be a smart-aleck. He was the first to point out and mock the absurdity in the every day occurrence or individual. He especially got a hoot out of taking the elite, higher-ups, or the haughty down a peg or two-- hence his onscreen shenanigans, wherein he humiliates and damn near destroys the entire universe of the Upper Class. No one was safe from his witty barbs, not even the paranormal... Grouch' once attended a Madam Zaza fortune reading in Chicago. The audience was, of course, flabbergasted and stupefied by the entrancing realms of the supernatural and the uncanny abilities of Zaza, who could see above the accepted nature of reality. Groucho was not so impressed. Deciding to have a little fun, he merely pretended to play along. Zaza finally came out of a meditative stupor, during which she supposedly communed with the dead, and declared that she could answer any question asked of her. Groucho volunteered first. His question: What's the capital of North Dakota? Zaza's silence definitely diminished her omniscient reputation, and her bodyguards kicked Groucho out!
Groucho was unpredictable to say the least. Friends were used to his jokes and sporadic burstings into song or dance. Whatever he said or did, he was Groucho, so the unexpected was accepted. Hence the following occurrence: Groucho and his pal Sidney Sheldon had plans for dinner one night. Grouch' called Sid to ask how he should dress. Sid replied, "Dress nicely." When he arrived at Groucho's, Grouch' answered the door wearing his wife Eden's clothes! Sid got a big laugh out of it. Unfortunately, Groucho forgot he had another appointment coming over. Suddenly, Bill Dozier and a couple of executives appeared at his door, ringing the bell. Not to be flustered, Groucho answered the door, skirt and all, and invited his other pals in. They sat around and talked shop with no one even batting an eyelash at his outrageous fashion. After their meeting was over, they shook hands and parted ways. No one ever mentioned the strange phenomenon of his cross-dressing. It was odd and absurd... And therefore perfectly normal. Groucho changed into more masculine attire, and he and Sid went to dinner, as if nothing had happened. (Groucho in drag left with Clark Gable in the Merrie-Melodies cartoon "Hollywood Steps Out" of 1942).
However, Groucho wasn't always the man with the last laugh. There seemed to be one thing that unsettled him... Terrified him, even: Boris Karloff! For the man who seemed impenetrable to almost any dagger or mode of attack, physical or mental, Groucho's fear of the king of horror is perhaps the most absurd thing about him. In his younger days when Groucho was still in vaudeville, he used to block his window with the bureau because of his fear of Karloff and his ghastly cinematic creations. He was afraid that he would wake, spooked from a dream, and jump out his own window. He also started taking sleeping pills, because he was too scared to sleep! Ironically, Groucho would meet the representation of his fears years later, and was surprised to find, as many were, that Boris was a shy and kindly gentleman (seen Boris more in character, right). Though this certainly curbed his fear of Karloff, it did not deter his continued aversion to Frankenstein's monster.
Though this photo of the Monster was used for a great deal of
publicity posters, it was not the final representation created
by the make-up wizards. You can tell by the knobs in the forehead,
which are absent in the film.
Another ghoul worth mentioning is Boris's contemporary and constant partner in on-screen crime, Bela Lugosi. Bela (left) was known for hypnotizing his prey, drinking the blood of beautiful women, and sending chills down the spines of theater-goers around the world. However, in his later life, his career was horrific for different reasons. While Boris was able to ride the wave of his B-movie horror career with grace and style, Bela was not so fortunate. His roles in films became sillier and sillier, and his disdain for them only increased his personal problems. Nonetheless, his movies with the notorious Ed Wood remain some of the best of the worst in film history, lasting primarily because of his performances in them. A lesser known film he took part in was The East Side Kids' Ghosts on the Loose. The East Side Kids series revolved around a hard-knock group of young boys who were always causing trouble but were at heart good guys. Think of a pubescent "Our Gang" crew from Brooklyn and you'll get the idea. Bela played the villain in the aforementioned film, in which the boys stumble upon what appears to be a haunted house, which they're trying to prep for their newlywed friends, (one of whom is a young Ava Gardner). The movie was far from a critical success, which is why it is rarely remembered, but during its time it caused quite a stir. Kids were lining up to see it. Why? Because when Bela Lugosi sneezes at one point in the film, his "Ah-choo!" sounds more like "Ah-shit!" It was quite le scandale!
Ernie "Sunshine" Morrison's dusting will soon
produce Bela's sneeze heard 'round the world!
Since I seem to have hopped on some sort of spook-themed rant, I'll continue with a ditty about Jean Arthur, (looking lovely and upbeat, right). Jean was always eccentric to say the least; her shyness severely impaired her social skills. But never would her oddness reveal itself so much as in her later life, when she simply stopped caring. Whether being arrested for trespassing (in attempts to help a neglected dog) or cussing out cops, the girl who avoided headlines all her life was still making them in her middle to late age. Jean loved appreciation for her work, but loathed attention in any way, shape, or form. She often wished she could just walk around with a bag on her head, which is perhaps why while she was performing in the 1967 play "The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake," she started a trend of wearing a motley assortment of Halloween masks as she was leaving rehearsal. Passersby didn't know what the think, which the smart-ass in her probably got a kick out of. The general consensus was that the dame was a bit kooky... And that is probably an accurate assessment. That's why we love her though.
And a last bit of trivia: Ever wonder where the Academy Award got it's nickname, "Oscar???" The source is heavily contested, and with many different theories, it is hard to tell who in fact should be credited with the honor. However, the most hilarious root comes from none other than Academy Award Winning actress, Bette Davis. It is rumored that when Bette won for her performance in Dangerous (left with Franchot Tone)-- which many considered a belated apology on behalf of the Academy for snubbing her Of Human Bondage performance in '34-- Bette inadvertently coined the trophy's moniker. While eying the shiny contours of the well-built, golden man, Bette flipped it over and said, "That looks like my husband's ass," or something to that effect. As she was married to her high school sweetheart, musician Harmon Oscar Nelson at the time, his middle name stuck. True or false? I dunno, but it makes a good story. Leave it to Bette to be a part of a yarn like that. (Recent research suggests that this was one of Bette's tall tales. Reference to the Academy Award as the "Oscar" was made in a newspaper article a couple of years prior to Bette's win for Dangerous).
Bette and Jack Warner enjoy their victory.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Since the year will soon start winding down at a rapid speed with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years here and gone before you know it, it is time to start prepping for 2011. Since I can fairly assume that all of my subscribers are movie fans, I think it is appropriate to recommend the Mont-Alto Orchestra Silent Movie Calendar to you. I purchased the calendar last year and enjoyed seeing the great collection of silent stills as well as the daily bits of trivia about who married who, what movie was released, and what stars were born on each and every day. The bonus is that each purchase you make will benefit the preservation of silent film, which is an undervalued charity that we all need to fight for. If we don't work to maintain our past, it will literally be erased. We've lost too many great films already over the years, either as the result of time's wear and tear or the immediate destruction of celluloid for silver. I suppose previous generations didn't realize that the phenomenon of moving-pictures was going to last. Your donation can help to hold onto the little we have left!!!
Rudy- almost nudey- in The Young Rajah-
one of many lost films :(
So, if you need a little wall decor or a good gift idea for a movie buff, go to the following site and order the calendar. This year is the first time that Mont-Alto is presenting a swimsuit issue!!! Bathing beauties and Buster Keaton. What could be better???
Have a great weekend!
*TCM edited together a restoration of The Young Rajah in 2006, which included still photos and inserted intertitles, much like they did with the equally sought after London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney and Erich von Stroheim's Greed with Zasu Pitts. The original films, in toto, remain lost.
Monday, November 1, 2010
Mama's serving up Turkey early this year with November's Star of the Month: Groucho Marx!!!
Groucho Marx: Overgrown Child and
Man of a Thousand Disgraces!
There are several distinct personalities that stand out in cinematic history. Bogey, Cagney, Chaplin, Ball... They were so much more than the characters they played, because they were characters themselves. One of the most outrageous members of this exclusive club was Groucho Marx, (though of course he wouldn't have wanted to be a member, right?). With his crew of brothers Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and the behind-the-scenes Gummo, Groucho would be catapulted to stardom. His face remains instantly recognizable because he wisely marketed himself to be remembered. The brothers created distinctive stage names, adapted from a comic strip about "Sherlock-o," which made them stand out from their contemporaries. In addition, Groucho's notorious grease mustache, glasses, cigar, and dancing eyebrows forced the audiences of his time to recognize him whether they wanted to or not! As such, he remains firmly entrenched in our collective consciousness today, continuing to inspire modern comedians and incite modern audiences to laughter.
The original onscreen foursome:
Harpo, Groucho, Zeppo, and Chico
But Grouch' was much, much more than a shtick. He was the center and anchor of his brothers' chaotic antics, driving the plot along while confusing it at the same time. His quick-as-a-whip mind was always ready with a string of one-liners to follow any comment, and the hilarious daggers he threw continue to be repeated to this day: "I never forget a face, but in your case I'll make an exception." While Harpo frolicked like a merry elf, strumming his harp, and Chico sputtered out Italian nonsense while causing more, Groucho stood back with a look of disgust and annoyance on his face, batted his eyes at the pretty girls, and finally jumped into the comic fire with his bros, because what the Hell else was he gonna do? Their onscreen antics are uproarious, nonsensical, manic, and masterful. It is a wonder how their almost catastrophic imperfections came together so perfectly on the screen.
Making music and mayhem in Animal Crackers,
while Margaret Dumont (center) looks on.
The group started out as four: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. Their first five films at Paramount were big successes. Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were actually adaptations of the stage shows that they had created and performed in NY after years of struggling and hard work. The magic key to their success was "the insult," which they found after they discovered that people laughed harder when they simply pointed out man's most obvious absurdities. Embarrassment, or witnessing someone else's embarrassment, mysteriously created a slew of guffaws. So, Groucho, in his time, became the king of witty puns, stingers, and zingers, delivering razor sharp observations and thumbing his nose at society with style. A slap in the face from one of Groucho's one-liners was thus a greatly sought after souvenir. After Zeppo stepped out of the act to pursue his own multitudinous goals, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo remained to make more films and more chaos over at MGM, thanks to Irving Thalberg. With A Night at the Opera, their careers skyrocketed once more, and with more discernible plot lines they were able to win back a waning audience.
The remaining trio in A Day at the Races
Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.
Over the years, times changed and comedy did too, but no matter what else happened in the world, people could always depend on Groucho. He continued working in film without his brothers, appeared nightly in viewers' homes on NBC's "You Bet Your Life," (which helped to revolutionize the new phenomenon called Television), and performed in stage concerts and one man shows, being Grammy-nominated for a taped recording of his act "An Evening with Groucho." He too won an Oscar for his lifetime achievement in the film industry, and in his speech he made sure to thank his frequent co-star, the baffled and matronly Margaret Dumont, and his mother, Minnie, who had done so much to help all of her sons achieve their incredible success. Groucho passed away at the ripe old age of 86, still on top, still making people laugh, and still making goo-goo eyes at the dames. He truly was one of a kind, and the kind and decent man he was in his personal life-- though always cloaked behind his naughty persona-- only made him more deserving of the successes he was able to enjoy.
Laughter is the best medicine, they say, and with a Marx Brothers movie you always get more than one dose. It is impossible not to laugh, forget your worries, and get lost in the mayhem of such talented and good-hearted-- though miscreant-- men. Groucho stands alone as the ring-leader, lecher, bad dog, and mad child. One roll of the eyes and he's got you in the palm of his hand, then he says what most only wish they could say and somehow gets away with it. After all, someone has to do the dirty work!