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Thursday, January 27, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: A Star by Any Other Name...

Theda Bara, the original "Vamp."

Our relationships with our celebrities has changed over the past century and a quarter. Perhaps due to the fact that celebrities are so accessible today, we don't have the awe and wonder of them that we used to. There is no need to humanize them, because the jig is up: we know that they're human. The rag mags tell us alllllll about it. At best, we respect, but we don't admire. But it wasn't always so. Before, movie stars were mythic creatures that lived in the mystical world called La La Land, where they literally cavorted on Mt. Olympus. They were impenetrable beauties, trickster figures, and heroes-- real life cowboys, passionate vixens, and knights in shining armor. We looked upon them just like children, engaging in make believe, pasting their pictures to our walls, and dreaming the dreams that the movies taught us were safe. So deep was our love for them that we crafted nicknames (with studio help) after they'd worked their way into our hearts. This represented, if nothing else, how they had endeared themselves to the American public. As we celebrate our final week with Mr. Haines, I thought it would be a little fun to play the nick-name flick-game. Enjoy!


Billy won his moniker for two reasons, the first of which should be obvious: he was a smart-ass. For every lame statement, he had a quick-as-a-whip retort, often running mental circles around those who dared to engage in conversation with him. His onscreen persona reflected this perfectly, for when his characters were faced with challenges, he merely laughed them off-- his wit used as a protective armor against responsibility. The youth of the roaring twenties responded to this rebellion with relish, especially when it seemed that Billy's personality off screen was not very different. In interviews with fan magazine reporters, Billy always deflected personal questions by making a joke of it, often turning the tables on the interviewer who suddenly found himself the interviewee. But too, his "wisecracker" status symbolized something else, for this was a code word often used to label men as homosexual. Thus, when people would say, "Billy Haines? Oh yeah... He's a real wisecracker," they were telling a double truth. As it stands in history, however, it seems that up until the emergence of the smart aleck Groucho Marx, Billy remained the king of zingers, taking the self-important divas he often found himself surrounded by down a peg or two. Or three.


One of Billy's best friends (with supposed occasional benefits) in his early Hollywood days was Barbara La Marr. With dark hair and large hypnotic eyes that often appeared almost violet (a la Liz Taylor), she remains remembered most for her stunning physical presence and the looks that seemed to almost coin the phrase "knock-out." But, as many Hollywood ladies could certainly attest, beauty can be a burden, and since in the silent era Barbara held her position at the top post of "lookers," it comes as no surprise that the attention she received often worked against her. Perhaps there is such a thing as being too beautiful-- both too beautiful for words, and too beautiful for life. She earned her nickname in juvenile court, of all places, when she was spotted by writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, who gasped at the sight of her-- who is that gorgeous girl?! Barbara, then Reatha Watson, was allegedly brought in when found in the company of an older man. As a single young woman living in the city,  Reatha often fell prey to "friendly" gentlemen who wanted to help her out. Of course, the unspoken rule of quid pro quo often came into play. Standing before the judge, the youthful and tender La Marr was too lovely to punish. Indeed, Judge Monroe offered only the statement: "You are too beautiful to be allowed alone in a big city." Poor, poor pretty little thing. She made the papers the next morning, already named the "too-beautiful girl."


This one needs no explanation. Not only was Roscoe's birth name quickly replaced with an insulting adjective, making him "Fatty"-- a nickname he hated-- but his size was furthermore emphasized when, as the reigning silent film comedian, he was dubbed the Prince of blubbery mammals with a wicked pun. He took it in stride, despite the fact that he had been sensitive about his size his whole life. Ironically, he ate relatively little. Even in his youth, when his family fed on a meager to invisible food supply, he was always a "big boy." Much larger than his waistline, however, was his personality. Possessing a huge heart and an energy that could light up a room, Fatty was surprisingly light on his feet and inescapable in his optimism. Audiences adored him for his at times smiling/at time befuddled mug that got into and escaped trouble to the soundtrack of uncontrollable laughter. Remembered today only for the crime of which he was innocently accused and rightly exonerated, Fatty deserves his throne back.


Another man known for his enthusiasm was the seemingly irrepressible "Doug." Not only did he burst off the screen with his intoxicating positivity, exciting viewers with his heroic acrobatics and daring-do, but behind the scenes he worked with the same impassioned vim and vigor. Committed to creating and performing his own stunts, Doug was diligent about pushing the envelope and giving audiences the enthralling and inspirational stories they deserved. This demanded that he push himself to the physical limit, and today when one watches him in films like The Thief of Baghdad, his body remains something to behold. Yowzah! He was simply unstoppable, a manic maniac, who would rather run a hundred-yard dash than sit down to discuss politics or the recent findings of Freud. He was a force to be reckoned with. He even penned inspirational pieces of literature that his fans gobbled up: "Keep your chin up!" "Keep fighting the good fight!" "Reach for the stars," etc. He made anything seem possible, and when he spoke, people listened. Starring in war propaganda shorts during WWI and traveling around the country selling bonds, he united a country both in and out of the theater. We have yet to see another like him.


Oh, the illustrious Barrymore clan... So much talent, so much tragedy. The leader of the pack was always John, who ironically was the baby of the infamous acting trio, which too included Lionel and Ethel. John earned a commendable reputation as an actor with guts and gusto for his chilling and powerful performances on the stage, where he brought new depths to some of the most classic characters in literary history. His Hamlet was said to be profound, gut-wrenching, and provocative. When he entered the movies, his cinematic career followed suit. But despite his reputation for his acting gifts, it was his face that earned him his title. The startling beauty of his features, particularly as seen from the side, sent more than one woman's heart aflutter. Though his machismo was probably offended at his objectification-- which for once put a man on a woman's side of the fence-- he also embraced it. Being the sexual creature that he was, he certainly put his good looks and charismatic personality to use and wooed many an unsuspecting but willing lady into his bed. If ya' got it, flaunt it.


Lana was pegged with her nickname from almost the moment she set foot in front of the camera. She was noticed not for her gorgeous face or dripping sensuality, but for the way her sweater fit over her... parts. One of the many successful makeovers concocted by MGM, Lana went from being a brunette to a blond, from an average girl to a sex-kitten. Studios often had a way of shopping their latest ingenues around in bit parts, seeing if the public would latch onto them. When Lana strutted down the street in They Won't Forget, they didn't, and she caught more than one drooling male fan in her trap. People began writing into the studio asking for more of "the sweater girl." This was a specific ploy of the studio, who completely altered Lana's more modest costume to reveal her best assets. Thus, her original bonnet and polka-dot dress were exchanged for a sweater and that infamous walk to fame. While it was Lana's bosom that garnered her initial attention, the feisty minx's natural gifts before the camera were more than physical. Thus, she was able to stake her claim in Hollywood as a bona fide movie star and a lasting leading lady. But that damn sweater always haunted her, no matter how legitimately she strove to prove herself.


Try as you may have to stop her, Mabel Normand was pretty much going to do whatever the Hell she wanted. Her rebellious and fearless nature was reflected in some of her earliest films, wherein she was known as "The Diving Girl", the bathing beauty who nonchalantly dove into the water-- backwards, forwards, you name it-- from daunting heights. Rising to fame with the aid of boyfriend Mack Sennett, Mabel attacked her comedic film roles with the same naive courage, hurtling in head first, never caring if she came off looking like a damned fool. She ignored her god-given beauty and mugged it up, enjoying a free-spirited nature completely devoid of vanity. She willingly took a pie in the face, fell on her bottom, rolled in the mud, whatever the situation called for. Unfortunately, this same lack of caution got her into trouble in her private life. She indulged in a love affair with drugs and alcohol in a foolish attempt to live in the moment. She just never considered the consequences, which would eventually destroy her. All the while, despite the rumor and folly that was to come, during her day in the sun, she reigned supreme as the first screwball queen, whose fun-loving, no-holds-barred persona won the respect of heavyweights like Charlie Chaplin, whom she could more than hold her own with. It was perhaps her joke of a husband, Lew Cody, who described her best: "She was just a little girl who neglected to look before crossing the street." But that's why they loved her.


"Baby" is a name used far too often. Lovers use it to refer to each other, certain men (who seemingly hid in a cave during the feminist movement) may still use it to refer to any and all members of the opposite sex... But there is one lady whom everyone referred to as "Baby," and she didn't mind at all: Jean Harlow. For several years, Harlean Carpenter didn't even know her true name, because everyone in her family called her "baby." Warm and loving as she was, and adorable to boot, the name suited her and she carried it with her wherever she went. When she hit Hollywood, friends still referred to her as Baby, which she preferred to her stage name, Jean Harlow. Indeed, when she passed away suddenly at the age of 26, it was "Our Baby" that graced the face of her tomb. However, during her life, her fans more commonly knew her as "The Blonde Bombshell," the first of her kind, whose atomic arrival on the silver screen sent shock waves throughout the nation and changed the image of the sex symbol for all time. 


Surprisingly, there are times that certain names have proven themselves to be recycled. Here are some examples of this equally fascinating phenomenon:

Most people are certainly familiar with the reference to Lon Chaney (right) as "The Man of a Thousand Faces." Never was there a more accurate description, for not only was this renegade actor able to flesh out countless and varied interpretations of characters in his stellar cinematic resume, but he also devised intriguing, shocking, and sometimes frightening makeups to further distinguish one creation from the other. His martyred stance for his craft communicated that his performances were not about him, but about the people he was playing, and thus people in general. But before Lon, the first movie star-- Florence Lawrence-- had already been pegged as "The Girl of a Thousand Faces." While Flo probably applied her own makeup, as many did in those early days, she never went quite as extreme as Mr. Chaney. However, her gift at relaying every shade of every emotion still won her the same title. She was given this lengthy handle due to the fact that her audiences did not know her true name, as at the time studios kept this under wraps. Afraid of resulting bloated egos and power struggles within the system, moguls tried to keep their guinea pig actors anonymous and spinning on the reels that kept the money coming in. In addition, Flo was referred to as "The Biograph Girl" and later "The IMP Girl" as she transitioned to different studios. Ironically, one of these names would also be usurped. After she left Biograph for IMP, a new ingenue stepped in and became the latest mystery face people were falling in love with. Thus, Mary Pickford became the new "Biograph Girl," though after she too became a phenomenon, she was also referred to as "The Girl with the Golden Curls."

Florence, with her happy face on.

Mary and her token curls.

There was also a steady competition going for various translations of "The Great Lover," "The Screen's Most Perfect Lover," etc. At various times in their careers, Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, and John Gilbert all had titles of this sort bestowed upon them, which is interesting since they were all such different men. Wally (right) was the baby-faced, lovable cad of Carmen and The Roaring Road fame. In addition to finding him handsome, older women were often infatuated with him, taking a maternal stance. He was the all-American son they adored, who-- when he was naughty-- they couldn't help but forgive. He just had one of those faces. Valentino was distinctly different. He represented the opposite of Americana: a tantalizing and seductive foreigner, who was just as enticing as he was dangerous. Women veered from the more wholesome appeal of Wally to the powerful allure of the man who wouldn't take "no" for an answer. The desire to be dominated thus overruled the desire to be loved, though when Valentino got romantic he also sang to the emotional nature of the female heart. To see such a masculine powerhouse in a vulnerable moment again awoke feminine sympathy, and the duality of Valentino's complex nature made him irresistible. Unlike Wally, however, Rudy caught a lot of flack from members of his own sex, who despite his he-man roles in films like The Sheik and more particularly Son of the Sheik labeled him as a "sissy." Jealousy, anyone?

Rudy, alert and on the prowl.

Falling in between these two heartthrobs was John Gilbert, whose star had started soaring right when Rudy sadly passed away. John was left carrying the torch, providing a mixture of the heroic lover and the sensitive romantic. More concerned with being a true actor, John took on vastly different roles in vastly different films, sometimes playing the war hero (The Big Parade), sometimes the vengeful lover (Monte Cristo), and sometimes a downright villain (Downstairs), but always he carried off his performances with class and sophistication. And his movies with Greta (left in A Woman of Affairs)... oh my! The way he looked at her was the way every woman dreamed of being looked upon. John had a way of portraying both uncontrollable desire and undying love-- both animal and emotional-- presenting the perfect package. He could be boyish and lovable, but his dark features also relayed a warning to ladies, who were powerless to his charms. With John, the art of love was an art-- not the bashful, "ah shucks" of Wally or the domineering and savage embraces of Valentino. John offered poetry. In the end, a woman's favorite said a lot more about her than it did about the man. Choices, choices... How awful our plight.

Kim Novak: The Lavender Girl

The list could go on and on, but since you all have lives, I'll stop here, and let you ruminate about the others I've unfortunately left out-- The Great Stone Face, Old Blue Eyes, The It Girl... Though there are occasional nicknames given to our celebs today, usually referring to action heroes (The Muscles from Brussels or The Italian Stallion), for the most part, our camaraderie with our celebs is at a stalemate. And I'm sorry, but giving yourself a nickname doesn't count-- I'm looking at you "JLo"/"Jenny from the block," whatever. I think it is indicative of a disease in our culture when we remain more enamored of the stars of the past than the present. Perhaps it's just nostalgia, but I think it's a little bit more. Maybe even that lil' sum sum we all refer to as Magic.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Little Known Tragedies and Scandals

It is time once again, I fear, to get a little dark. By featuring William Haines this month, it is hard to be negative, because the guy is such a fun-loving prince. Yet, even he had to suffer his share of burdens and heartbreaks. Every light casts a shadow, and Tinsel Town didn't get its reputation for being a haven for lost and lonely souls for nothing. Thus, here are a few of the sad tales endured by some of Hollywood's brightest and too-soon-forgotten talents:

Billy Haines (left) is remembered as a hero in many ways, if for nothing else than his enduring and optimistic spirit. Through all of life's changes and challenges, he seemed to come out swinging with determination and integrity in tact. Indeed, despite the fact that he was openly homosexual, there are minimal recorded accounts of him crumbling under the weight of bigotry or even being on the receiving end of malicious or ignorant onslaughts. Most occurrences of that sort had to do with the King of Hypocrisy himself, LB Mayer, but even in those few interludes, which left Billy more than perturbed, he seemed to brush the dust right off his finely tailored jacket as if nothing had happened. For the most part, perhaps just due to his congenial spirit, Billy attracted more friends to him than enemies. Unfortunately, no one is safe from cruelty, not even the charismatic Mr. Haines. In time, despite his obstinant grace in the face of small-mindedness, he too would suffer what he would recall as the most humiliating and horrific event of his life-- one that would change him forever.

By 1936, Billy's cinematic career was hanging on by a thread. Having already made his exit from MGM after a final confrontation with LB over his sexuality, Billy was freelancing in "Poverty Row," while building an impressive reputation as an interior designer. Still, he was not completely ready to give up the ghost of his acting ambitions; he loved his place in the spotlight, and didn't want to surrender it to the new breed of man rising in the Hollywood ranks, such as Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and James Cagney. Taking some time off, he and a group of his friends, including partner Jimmie Shields and director George Cukor, headed for a respite in El Porto, a bit south of the glittering and oppressive nature of Hollywood. Little did they know that even a mere 20-odd miles from the more socially accepting Los Angeles, ideals and standard of public and private behavior were much more regimented. In the nearby Hermosa Beach, for example, the KKK was still very much alive and active.

A view of beach life in 1930s California-- Huntington Beach.

The inhabitants of El Porto were not inviting of Billy and his crew from the moment they arrived. This was not because the boys were noisy, intrusive, or disrespectful, but because they were a) Those hoity-toity Hollywood People and b) Gay. Certainly, the troupe of gentlemen could feel that they were swimming in unwelcome waters when they got such a chilly reception, but the nonchalant Billy probably convinced them to ignore it and not let the up-tight locals inhibit their fun getaway. Easier said than done. On the night of May 31, Billy et al were leaving a local restaurant and returning to their rented beach house when they were accosted by a gang of residents, both male and female. They were told, in no uncertain terms, to leave the city in the next hour "or else." Billy naturally laughed the threat off at first, but when one of the angry crowd threw a punch at Jimmie, Billy lunged at him, only to find himself beaten to the ground. Shaken, Billy-- now bearing two black eyes-- and his retinue quickly raced back to grab their belongings, jump in the car, and drive out of town, all while the locals shouted insults and slurs, pelting them and their vehicle with tomatoes. To his dying day, George Cukor would refuse to even speak about the incident. (The situation was later sensationalized when it was claimed that crosses were burned outside of the rented beach house, but this was not true-- yet another reason why you should take the biographical information of such sources as Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon I and II with a grain of salt... and probably a shot of Tequila).

It was later alleged that the mob rebelled against its Hollywood guests because Jimmie had been accused of molesting a local boy, Jimmy Walker. However, this had all been a complete concoction built up as an excuse to unleash unfounded hostility against the unwelcome visitors. Witnesses claimed everything from seeing Jimmie buy the boy a hotdog or hamburger, allow him to pet his purple poodle, then invite him into his house where the sexual assault supposedly took place. Billy and Jimmie did not, nor did they ever, have a "purple poodle," which was an obvious and cliched attack against them and their sexuality. Nor was there ever any evidence in Billy or Jimmie's past of anything resembling pedophiliac tendencies. Friends who knew Jimmie defended him adamantly, saying that he would never, ever do anything to hurt a child. Indeed, the young boy failed to even identify Jimmie as his assailant in court. What grew from Jimmie probably innocently saying "hello" to Jimmy Walker on the beach was a malicious and disgusting lie designed to oust Billy and his friends from town. No charges were ever brought against Jimmie nor Billy-- who was innocent by all counts anyway-- but the event left him shaken and much more press shy for the remainder of his life. He had seen the dark side of his once adoring public, and he no longer trusted the safety of his star stature. His charming bravado had been unmasked, and for the first time in his life he was truly scared. Though this event did not kill Billy's spirit, it did change him and make him take stock of what was important in life. It wasn't long before he bowed out of cinema completely and embraced a life behind the scenes in the world of fashion and decor, where he enjoyed more privacy and safety from a disloyal public.

Interestingly enough, there was another celebrity scrape not far from Billy's feud in Manhattan Beach. This time, the star caught in the middle of it all was Lila Lee (left), starlet of such silent classics as Cecil B. Demille's Male and Female and the sound version of The Unholy Three. Lila Lee was staying at the home of author Gouverneur Morris, whose dark and twisted works were often immortalized onscreen, (such as in The Penalty). In 1936, Lila's world would be turned upside down when the body of her boyfriend, Reid Russell, was found limp and bleeding in the garden swing. Reid was an out of work salesman and a good friend of the Morrises, with whom he often played bridge. It was initially suggested that the death was a suicide, for Reid was discovered clasping a gun in his hand.

Lila unsuccessfully tries to woo butler Thomas Meighan
(center) from the glamorous Gloria Swanson (left) in Male and Female.

However, there were still a great many unanswered questions. While many reported that Reid had been despondent, his mother refused to believe that he had taken his own life. Later, hostess Mrs. Victoria Morris claimed that a suicide note had been found, but that Lila had urged her to burn it. In addition, it was discovered that the body must have been sitting in its swing for twelve hours before it was reported. The fired shell was never found, which made investigating officers question whether the body had been moved from another location, and it was never corroborated that the "rusty gun" Reid held was the same one that killed him. The position of the body was also awkward, as Reid's arms were crossed. It was impossible for experts to recreate the phenomenon that could have resulted in such a post-shot posture. Still, no motive could be found, and the case was left unsolved. After the ensuing media frenzy, Lila-- like Billy-- became much more press shy and effectively retired from the biz. She would later return, doing modest work in the '40s and '50s, but her career never recaptured the steam of its untainted youth. It was never determined whether Reid was murdered or had committed suicide, but the story had a profound effect upon Lila's son, James Kirkwood Jr, (father was actor James Kirkwood Sr.), who would remember the event well and recreate it in his novel There Must Be a Pony. In fact, James was the one to find the body at the tender age of twelve. (Kirkwood would also famously co-author the award-winning A Chorus Line).

One of the saddest tales repeated down the line of Hollywood Lore involves Karl Dane, the Danish silent film comedian who contributed to a multitude of classics, including The Big Parade with John Gilbert and Slide Kelly Slide opposite Bill Haines. Karl (right) was known in the film industry as a sweet-natured and friendly man, albeit a private one. He often preferred doing wood-work in his carpentry shop to going out on the town. In fact, he was very good with his hands and had originally worked as a machinist in Copenhagen before moving to America for better prospects in 1916. Dane had dreamed of working as an actor ever since accompanying his father to a theater as a child, where the senior party had a job as a curtain puller. Trying his hand at the thriving new industry, he slowly ingratiated himself to some of the greatest directors of his time, landing plum parts opposite the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Renee Adoree. He used his good sense of humor to team up with George K. Arthur to form comedy duo Dane and Arthur, which was a big success. He was on top of the world, earning $1500/wk. Then as the talkie revolution inched nearer, things changed. It is remembered today that Karl's career came to an end because his thick accent didn't transfer well to sound films, though there have also been reports that his work on the screen was still solid in these early sound years. It seems that many factors contributed to the end of his acting career, for he too suffered a nervous breakdown that resulted in his leaving MGM. He struggled through various ventures, searching for work on the screen or in vaudeville, but he was never able to regain his stride.

Karl performs opposite Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter.

It is popularly recalled that Karl bought a stake in a hotdog stand that used to operate outside MGM, his old studio, and when a friend from his past recognized him, the humiliation drove him to suicide. However, history proves that it wasn't that simple. After the hot-dog venture failed, Karl pursued more work as a carpenter or even an extra-- a far cry from his co-starring days-- but he couldn't seem to catch a break. Sinking deeper into depression, and alone after three failed marriages, on April 13, 1933 he was robbed of his last $18. The next day, April 14, he was discovered by his friend Frances Leake in his apartment with a self-inflicted bullet in his head. He left behind a simple note saying: "To Frances and all my friends-- goodbye." Many in the industry, who still considered Karl a friend, were shocked and saddened by the turn of events that had left him feeling so alone that death was the only option. Jean Hersholt stepped forward on his fallen friend's behalf and insisted that MGM pay for Karl's funeral. Suprisingly, they agreed. His talent and contribution to film remains forgotten under the stigma of being "the hot-dog guy," but at least in this Karl has been able to find a way to etch himself into our memory and serve as a warning for those who enter the biz with naivete.

Another forgotten lady is Marie Prevost, also notoriously remembered for her shocking demise. Marie (left) was a beautiful actress who got her start as one of the illustrious silent "Bathing Beauties." While under contract at Universal Studios, Irving Thalberg noticed her and saw great potential, but as a man of taste he wanted to get her away from those awful cheesecake roles. So, he had her publicly burn her bathing suit at Coney Island as a symbol of her birth as a genuine actress. The ploy worked and brought Marie a great deal of attention. After making some more of her token comedies, which she had an uncanny knack for, she was signed at Warner Bros, where she suffered her first major scandal: bigamy. She very nonchalantly married Kenneth Harlan, her The Beautiful and Damned co-star (a telling title) while she was still technically married to her first husband, Sonny Gerke. The marriage was quickly annulled so that she could obtain an official divorce, and she and Kenneth were legally and appropriately wed with much less pomp and circumstance later. She went on to star in the Howard Hughes picture The Racket, during the filming of which she was incredibly depressed due to her mother's death and her botched affair with Hughes. As her film work came to a crawl, resulting in emotional weight gain, her prospects looked worse and worse. Crash dieting impaired her health, and her poor finances left her in a desperate state. Alcohol was a chosen comfort, as is usually the case.

Marie with Monte Blue in The Marriage Circle.

As the life seemed to slowly drain out of the girl who was once such a vivacious riot, friends became concerned, but no one had any idea as to the depths of her true despair. Once hailed by Ernst Lubitsch as "one of the few actresses in Hollywood who knew how to underplay comedy to achieve the maximum effect," Marie's hopes at performing deterioated with her health. On January 21, 1937, at only 38-years-old, Marie died of heart failure as induced by alcoholism and malnutrition. She was not found until 2 days later, when her dog's barking become so obnoxious that the bellboy of her Hollywood apartment was finally forced to enter her room. He found her in bed, lying face down. Certain "historians" have recorded that Marie was found half eaten by her dachshund, but this is false-- (cough, Kenneth Anger, cough). "Maxie" had simply bitten Marie in attempts to wake her up. The sad tale of the washed-up former beauty touched every one in the community, most of whom called her "friend." The likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford attended her funeral, which the latter allegedly paid for herself. Marie's sad end resulted in one major triumph: the establishment of The Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, which cares for the ill and elderly veterans of the industry. No other lost soul would thus be condemned to the same fate as she. Marie's final place of residence remains standing today at 6230 Afton Place with an identical building mirroring it on the opposite side of the street. A beautiful old structure covered with lush ivy, it is hard to imagine that such an old Hollywood jewel ever housed one of Hollywood's saddest discarded gems.

The Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood is famous for its list of illustrious clientele (see Elvis entering, right) and infamous for the scandals they often carried in with their luggage. Frances Farmer was hauled through its lobby wearing nothing but a shower curtain for her 1942 arrest, Bess Houdini held a seance on the roof on Halloween evening in 1936 in attempts to contact her late and supernaturally obsessed husband-- who had apparently passed this trait onto his widow, D.W. Griffith collapsed in the lobby of a stroke in 1948, and I Love Lucy's William Frawley did the same (heart attack) not far from its front door, where he was quickly dragged in 1966. But for all of the ill luck seemingly associated with the once proud Hotel (it is now a residence for elderly living), one story stands out as being more tragic than the rest. Irene Lentz (Gibbons) was a well-respected costume designer who started out as an ingenue in Mack Sennett comedies. Her real talent, however, was in fashion, and in time she was popular enough to be referred to by her first name only, "Irene"-- thus, the Cher of the fashion world. She stitched her way into Ginger Rogers's heart when designing her gowns for Shall We Dance, and later in the 1960s she was a close friend of Doris Day, for whom she designed many stunning creations.

After a flourishing and fairly steady career, including 2 Academy Award nominations, the 61-year-old Irene (left) checked into the Knickerbocker under a pseudonym. Friends had noticed that she was melancholy and had been depressed for some time. Some chalked it up to her unhappy marriage to Eliot Gibbons; some stated that she was still pining for the recently deceased Gary Cooper, who was allegedly the only man she ever really loved. Whatever the source of her misery, she could apparently no longer endure it. On Nov. 15, 1962 at about 3pm, she slit her wrists in her hotel room, but while waiting to bleed out she found that death was not coming quickly enough. Desperate for an end to her pain, she flung herself from the bedroom window, landing on the roof over the lobby. She was discovered later that evening. Her death remains mysterious and saddening, with her parting words being almost too polite: "I'm sorry. This is the best way. Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all. Irene." Initially one might accuse her of being a drama queen, tossing herself from one of the most famous hotels in Hollywood, but her original attempt to kill herself by blood-letting eradicates this theory. She was clearly a woman who was deeply distraught and out of hope. The beauty of her designs, however, live on in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice, where Lana Turner's "hot pants" became the new hot item.

No, no. The true drama queen was the woman accredited with the most famous Swan Dive in Hollywood history, and I'm not talking about Esther Williams. Many have heard the story of Peg Entwistle (right), or are familiar with the nature of her death.  Peg (aka Millicent Lillian) was a Welsh actress who paved her way to fame and artistic respect on the Broadway stage. When still dreaming of her own career, Bette Davis allegedly liked to watch Peg perform, soaking in every nuance of her skillful portrayals. Like many before her, and many who would follow, "Peg" would move out to Hollywood in the hope of transferring her stage successes to the screen. Certainly, an actress who had conquered the complicated words of Henrik Ibsen could equally repeat the awkward drivel that passed as a screenplay! Starting out doing a play with Billie Burke, The Mad Hopes, Peg won her first creditable film role in the B-movie Thirteen Women, also starring rising leading ladies Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, the latter of whom played the film's vengeful villainess. Peg's role was small and over in the film's first few minutes, but she hoped that it had at least gotten her foot in the proverbial door. However, the movie was a dud, and rightfully so-- watching it today, the only things interesting about it are the early performances of its future stars and, of course, the ill-fated Peg.

The famous sign as it once appeared.

When no other acting jobs followed, Peg's despair set in. Of course, this is all summary, and certainly there were more than career pressures weighing upon her, but whatever the source of her malcontent, Peg had reached the end of her tether. If she were unable to live a star, then she would die as one. It is assumed that sometime on September 16, 1932, Peg made her way up Beachwood Drive from her Uncle's home, where she had been staying, and made a slow and steady climb up Mount Lee to the "Hollywoodland" sign. Neatly folding her jacket, removing her shoes, and laying her purse at the base of the "H," she then used a workman's ladder to climb this letter. Reaching the top, she probably took a long, last look at the city that had once promised her such hope and left her only with heartache. She jumped, leaving behind her the sad note: "I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E." Today, the remaining "Hollywood" sign bears a dual significance because of her leap: the promise and the pain of a life in the movies. The bitterest part of this tale is the legend that Peg was to receive a film offer the day after her leap. If only she had waited... As such, she has become an idol and is often referenced as the "Patron Saint of struggling actors," who perhaps use her sad story to convince themselves to hold out a little bit longer and not let the insufferable blues make victims of them as well.

2428 Beachwood Dr, the house from whence
Peg would begin her infamous climb.

The scandals of Hollywood are its juiciest enticements. Many love to hear the trash-talk or the sensational rumors, which are usually more exciting than the fictional stories released in the theaters. However, these tales are always more appealing when one is the observer and not the subject, and resultingly the object of scorn, ridicule, or pity. While some stars occassionally find themselves humbled by the circumstances that bring them crashing to earth after flying too close to the sun, forgetting their own mortality-- their penetrability-- there are also those that are never able to rise back up from the ashes. Are there certain people who are naturally predisposed to depression? Would Peg or Irene or Karl have met a happier fate had they lived in these modern times when therapy and medication are the rule and not the exception, or does Hollywood truly breed a kind of sorrow that often cannot be cured? While the likes of William Haines and Lila Lee were able to crawl out from under the rubble of their own scandals, turn their backs on negativity, and start afresh, not all are so lucky. It can only be hoped that the fallen stars in this City of Angels have not forfeited their lives in vain-- the lessons they pass on are eagerly heard, but hopefully just as eagerly learned. It is, after all, pain-- the common denominator-- that unites as all in our fight for life. Sometimes it takes death for us to realize that our stars are human too.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The Beautiful Hearst Castle: 
Home Sweet Mansion to visionary William Randolph Hearst.

Ironically, one of the gathering places most representative of the Golden Age of Hollywood is not in Los Angeles but almost 250 miles north. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built his illustrious castle, "San Simeon," as a labor of love, not only for lover Marion Davies, but to art and culture in general. Though it is now best remembered as being the influence for "Xanadu" in the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane, this house holds none of the movie's dark nature. Basing the construction on the breathtaking architecture he fell in love with on his constant trips abroad, Hearst built quite the collection of structures: the main house, guest houses, swimming pools, tennis courts, not to mention the far reaching exteriors of the outdoor property that included lush gardens and a playground for assorted wildlife. He invited his beloved Marion to finally come and see his new creation in 1924, having refused her admission until it was ready. Of course, it would never really be "ready," as Hearst was always adding to it, improving upon it, and tinkering with it. Bebe Daniels, Ben Lyon, and Constance "Dutch" Talmadge were also invited to this initial visit. As these movie stars' jaws hit the floor at the grandeur before them, it was certain that this place-- this glamorous and expansive "ranch"-- would become a welcoming abode for the Hollywood elite.

San Simeon was a representation of Hearst himself (right), with design and decor of impeccable taste and worldy knowledge but also an assortment of eccentricities. The interior and exterior of the buildings were filled with historical relics and priceless antiques. Genuine pieces of ancient European structures were dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic, and implemented into every corner and crevice of San Simeon. Authentic tapestries, famous paintings and sculptures, and only the grandest of furniture filled the lush rooms. Though the architecture would at first appear intimidating, with the main building resembling a chapel more than a home, the warmth and color applied to the rooms provided a very welcoming vibe. Because of this, Star of the Month William Haines was tongue tied and fascinated when he was invited up for the first time. In fact, Billy would become a frequent visitor to San Simeon, as he was close friends with Marion. Since he had a keen eye for interior design and a great love of antiques, he took to Hearst's artistic knowledge like a moth to a flame. Hearst loved sharing what he knew with Billy, indulging him like a son, answering his questions, and in turn taking his suggestions too. Certainly, the possibilities of design became apparent to Billy during his frequent trips, wherein he soaked in every nuance, every shade, every corner of Hearst's famous home.

The Neptune Pool

The Assembly Hall is exemplary of the rest of the main building. It includes Flemish tapestries, a genuine 16th-century French fireplace, and an extravagant ceiling comprised of transported pieces of the Palazzo Martinengo in Brescia, Italy. One of the most delightful aspects of "Hearst Castle" is its heated Neptune Pool, which contains 345,000 gallons of water. Surrounded by the impeccably tailored gardens of the grounds and decorated with marble replicas of some of Hearst's favorite sculptures, the pool itself was mesmerizing to visitors. Should they prefer to swim out of the sun, the indoor pool was available was well, complete with a diving platform and floor tiles bearing genuine gold flakes. Cary Grant was known to "get his swim on" quite often at either pool, and certainly enjoyed sunning himself by Neptune and keeping up his token tan.

Indoor pool, complete with gold tile.

However, for every luxury, there was also an absurdity. Hearst was a powerful, knowledgable, but eccentric man in many ways. Thus, despite the fact that San Simeon was Party Palace as far as Hollywood was concerned, he allowed no liquor on the premises. While many honored this rule, let's be honest, the majority found ways to break it, including Marion (left), who had many crafty hiding places for her booze. Her niece, Pepi Lederer, was also a frequent guest, and got into many scrapes with Hearst when her behavior indicated that she and her friends, including Louise Brooks, had been imbibing. Marion always got them off the hook, though.

However, Marion couldn't always have everyone's back, and people would quickly learn how close they were to being kicked out by how far they were seated from Hearst at his huge dinner table. If you were seated next to or across from Hearst, you knew you were in good. If you found yourself nearing the end, it was either because you had done something to tick Hearst off, or else he was getting sick of you and trying to tell you to move along. One person that even Hearst couldn't stay mad at was the lovely Jean Harlow, though she did make him blush on one occassion. She came to dinner in one of her typical, slinky dresses-- also typically lacking her undergarments. Hearst asked Marion to suggest that Jean put on something more "appropriate." Jean complied, went upstairs, and returned to dinner with a coat on over her dress, which she jokingly refused to remove. Dinner was an interesting experience for all invited, because it also indicated Hearst's attitude toward germs. He found linen napkins unsanitary, so there was no tablecloth at the lengthy table and paper napkins were used with the rest of the dinnerware. A ketchup bottle was also always handy.

The Table of Judgment

Another interesting story involving Hearst's penchant for oddities involves one of the many trees on the property. Billy Haines (right) would remember walking with Marion Davies down a pathway when the petite woman was forced to duck under an intruding tree branch. The next day, Hearst had uprooted the tree and moved it several feet out of the way. However, there is another story, which claims that Hearst moved the tree when the obstructive branch knocked his own hat off. Whether this indicated Hearst's eccentricities (moving a tree rather than walking around it), his love of the screwball queen Marion (whom he would never allow to suffer any kind of discomfort), or his simple use of power, (using resources to move a tree simply because he could), remains a topic of much speculation and bemusement.

Though Hearst could at times come off as imposing, most close to him looked on him as a little boy. Though his eyes could become piercing when his anger was (rarely) evoked, in general he was shy and fun-loving. He too had a great love of animals. One day, Marion came upon him in a distraught state: he had discovered that a mouse he was nursing back to health had died. The grounds of San Simeon also supplied a home for various wildlife, and Hearst had essentially created his own zoo. However, the majority of the animals were running free, so he wouldn't let his guests wander off onto the property alone. On his land, one could find lions, tigers, elephants, deer, zebras, etc. He eventually had to put up a sign telling visitors "Don't Tease the Monkeys," for after Marie Dressler (left) did so, a monkey threw a little... something in her face.

Most notorious, however, are those expensive, extravagant San Simeon parties. Quite often, WRH and Marion would decide to randomly throw a costume-themed party, and they would thus invite all of their favorites up to the ranch to partake. Cowboys and Indians, Favorite Historical Figures, Circus Clowns... there was no telling what characters a random night would introduce. Actors, directors, politicos, royalty, anyone who was anyone would hop on a train to San Simeon for the chance to rub elbows and cut a rug. At these fetes it was common to see Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and William Powell, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Gary and Rocky Cooper, Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Leslie Howard, etc, etc, etc. While on one corner of the room Hedda Hopper and Norma Shearer would be getting into a fight over Norma's obtrusive Marie Antoinette costume-- which was so wide that she had to be accomodated with extra seats-- Hearst would be tap dancing up a storm on the other. While Billy Haines and Clara Bow made out under the piano, Gloria Swanson would be playing her infamous pranks on the assorted male guests, which usually ended with them being hit in the face with a bag of ice. Anything and everything went, for as long as people could stand... But they had better know that if they weren't up and ready for breakfast the next morning at Hearst's specified time, they weren't eating! Most just stayed up all night so as not to miss the grub, then passed out by the pool until the next round of parties started again. Others, like Harpo Marx, hitchhiked home.

Walter Winchell gives Clark Gable lessons on "How to Woo" 
his own wife, Carole Lombard, during a country/western party.

Hearst's expenditures didn't end here. He also built Marion a beach house-- beach mansion, more like-- in Santa Monica where more of the same continued. It contained 10 guest rooms complete with 10 living rooms, 15 bathrooms, 12 staff rooms, and a pool with a bridge. Erected in 1926, it lasted until 1960, when it sadly became a parking lot. Her dressing room at MGM was equally impressive, being more of a bungalow: it possessed 14 rooms and cost $70,000 all told to build. When her contract at MGM was up, her bungalow was simply moved to her new studio, Warner Bros. San Simeon, however, remains right were it was.

The usual suspects, including Greta Garbo, center, John Gilbert, lying center, 
Buster Keaton, squatting, and Norma Shearer and Irving 
Thalberg holding up the right side.

Now property of California State Parks, this sophisticated pleasure dome is open for viewing to the general public. I had the great pleasure of visiting in the summer of 2009, and it must be said that none of this structure's grandeur has diminished. I took tons of pictures (as seen above) as I ambled about in a near daze. I must say, that even the great Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, NC was not as impressive to me as San Simeon, (but perhaps that is because of its Hollywood ties, which I clearly prefer). Different tours are available, so one trip won't do it. Upon your first visit, I recommend that you do the standard tour, which takes you through the first floor of the house and gardens, but definitely go back for a more thorough glimpse of the upstairs rooms. They don't make 'em like this anymore, which I guess is good considering that it would be considered a viscious waste of money. Yet the beauty is definitely worth your appreciation, and the nostalgia you feel for a time left behind remains as poignant as the still startling architecture. As you wander the hallways, it is easy to see why so many of the celebrity elite were drawn here-- to this distant house upon a hill, far away from the glaring Hollywood lights, where they could roll up their sleeves, relax, and laugh easily with their friends. San Simeon provided devilish fun that was still somehow innocent and offered a getaway for those in the spotlight who normally could never seem to find escape. I recommend you try to escape here too.

One of the fancy guest bedrooms.

When Hearst fell on hard times, he was forced to give up San Simeon. It was one of the hardest things he ever did. The home held such memories, but even moreso it held so much of Hearst himself-- his greatest dreams and his greatest loves. He put his heart and soul into it, and never quite finished what he set out to do. Indeed, certain areas are still not completed, and windows lacking glass have been filled in with cement. Upon his final day at San Simeon, he packed up his last belongings and made the trek down the long hill and back to reality. Pausing halfway down, he stopped to gaze up at his silent creation, once so alive and brimming with excitement. San Simeon now stands up in the distance, looking down on the Pacific, and winking at passers by. A mystery swirls around it, beckoning drivers to make the voyage up and recapture some of the high times and misdemeanors the golden age of Hollywood has left behind.

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Visit San Simeon today HERE.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


William Haines in Are You Listening?

William Haines was no phony. While he may have enjoyed the privileges that a life of luxury could afford, he also never took any of it seriously. It was all a joke really, and while he liked nice clothes and a fancy home, he could just as easily have walked away from it all at any given moment... which he essentially proved when he left the movies. Perhaps this stems from his good, old-fashioned southern roots. Integrity was everything to Billy, and those who lacked it or shirked it for superficial reasons annoyed him. He found the dramatic mannerisms of Pola Negri hilarious. Some found Greta Garbo "mysterious;" he found her stuck up. Others fell for Louis B. Mayer's tearful rages, Billy just laughed. He wanted people to be real: if you had class, you didn't have to invent it, nor cram it down anyone's throat. Thus, it comes as no surprise that one of his greatest foes was the ever exaggerated Elinor Glyn, who sent his BS detector flying off the charts.

Billy wasn't the only one who found the authoress to be an over-the-top, full-of-baloney diva. Clara Bow would jokingly refer to her as "that sh*t head." Chaplin too openly laughed at her feigned, worldly knowledge. But, for the most part, people tolerated her condescending invasion into the Hollywood lifestyle as her erotic books were adapted into screenplays. Billy didn't give a hoot who a person was as long as he or she was honest about it, but he saw Elinor as a walking nightmare of garish concoctions, both physical and mental (see right). The two never got along. Indeed, he called her "Baby Peggy." When Elinor passed out her great stamp of "It" on various actors like Clara, Gary Cooper, and Wallace Beery, Billy did not make the list. In fact, she blatantly told the world that he did NOT have "it," which theater-goers obviously disagreed with in ticket sales. (Others not making the "it" list were: Ronald Colman and Ramon Novarro). This was a jab that Elinor took at Billy specifically because he was immune to her charms, refusing to fall for her ruse of grandeur and grace. Too, he refused to flirt with her, as many men did in the hopes that her public approval would enhance their careers. When Elinor came sniffing around Billy, he just raised an eyebrow, threw off a quip, and ignored her. The insecure Elinor was enraged.

Their battle was quite public, and Billy showed his open irritation, if not contempt, refusing to support the image of Elinor's supreme intellectual and sexual perfection. He made fun of it-- and her snubbing of him-- by saying: "Elinor... said I was a big ham. I replied that the best hams in the world came from Virginia." However, the most memorable confrontation Billy and Elinor had was at the illustrious San Simeon, home of William Randolph Hearst and Billy's good friend, Marion Davies. A frequent guest, Billy was not too jazzed to see Elinor in attendance at one particular party. He happened to overhear her rattling on and on about "It." Who had "it," who didn't, and finally he got fed up. After hearing her list off all the reasons that he himself did not have "it," Billy marched right up to her and said, "Madame Glyn, you, of course, certainly do have 'it,' but you left the 'sh' of it." Elinor's face turned bright red. Billy, undoubtedly, turned on his heels and sauntered off with a smirk and a whistle. Final score: Billy- 1, Elinor- 0.

Another minor rivalry existed between Louella Parsons and Veronica Lake. Ronni (right) could really care less what Louella Parsons thought about her, and she didn't ever get involved in any of the petty gossip that seemed to keep Hollywood spinning, but for some reason Louella took a particular interest in her. Perhaps out of jealousy, Louella often made Ronni the subject of her articles, spreading the slanderous rumors that Ronni was both hard to work with and a temperamental diva. These allegations are strange, as in looking back I find it difficult to find any accounts of unprofessional behavior or rage-fueled tantrums displayed by Ronni on the set. Most of the rumors harken back to her first big movie, I Wanted Wings, when Constance Moore started spreading it around set that Ronni kept late hours and was always up partying. Ronni was actually always home in bed while Connie was engaging in this behavior. However, director Mitchell Leisen believed the tales and gave Ronni quite a roasting. Stories were spread, and soon every one believed that Veronica was causing trouble on this and every set she ever stepped on. Louella caught wind and chose to believe that Ronni truly was the troublemaking brat Hollywood had labeled her as. In her columns, she often reference Ronni was "overrated," either in acting ability or in the looks department. Ronni tried to ignore the negative press, but it did at times get her down. One day, she got a little bit of revenge. She happened to bump into Louella at a beauty parlor. Louella didn't recognize her, which was common since in her off time Ronni dressed down and without makeup. Looking simple and soft, like the girl next door, she overheard Louella comment to her attendant, "What a pretty girl." Not letting the opportunity pass her by, Ronni piped in: "Why don't you write that in your column!" Whoops, Lolly.

 Louella takes aim...

Of course, some of the slanderous portrayals of celebrity naughtiness are true, or at least based on some kernal of the truth. For example, William Haines was rightly referenced as a bit of a party-boy, enjoying nights on the town, get-togethers with friends, and good-natured shenanigans. One of his partners in crime was BFF Joan Crawford, his number one fan and lifelong ally. Joan had a rep of her own, mixing together her own ferocious ambition and unstoppable diligence with her raw and uninhibited sexuality. Joan always got what she wanted, whether it be a role or a man, but her career always came first. For this reason, she rarely got into trouble. She did get others into trouble, however. Case in point: West Point, in which she starred with Billy (left). The story takes place at the legendary military academy, and indeed this is where the cast and crew shot many of their scenes. Joan was already causing a stir on the set by NOT wearing stockings and baring her legs to the world, but she would take her rebelliousness further when flirting with the entire student body. In fact, the erotically charged Joan had no qualms about enjoying her time on campus, so she accepted (or perhaps even made) a date with one of its students. When it was discovered that the cadet skipped his classes to go out with Joan Crawford, he was immediately expelled. However, I doubt he regreted it, and Joan certainly had a good laugh.

Another naughty boy was Montgomery Clift, whose chosen salve for his personal demons was the age old trick of inebriation. Marring his classic good looks in his notorious car wreck of 1956 only propelled him deeper into his personal misery and an addiction to pain pills. Meanwhile, Monty had an ongoing rivalry with Marlon Brando, though they both truly respected each other. They would never be close friends, as competing egos rarely are, but they spent their lives privately inspired by each other, openly criticizing each other, and always trying to out-do each other. In truth, they were very different talents, with Marlon bursting forth on the screen like a lightning bolt and Monty insinuating himself more like an ominous storm cloud. In life, they came off the same way, with Monty being more elegant and Marlon more brash. Not surprisingly, Marlon found Monty stuck up and serious; Monty found Marlon just plain sloppy. Both were fairly quirky characters, though Monty often appeared much more "normal" than the exaggerated Marlon. This made it all the more shocking to learn that Monty was the one in greater personal danger, as Marlon himself would witness. 

Marlon showed his respect for Monty shortly after the latter completed Raintree County, the film which notoriously shows the "before" and "after" of Monty's car crash face. Monty went into a deep depression after the film bombed and he was snickered by audiences aghast at his lost beauty. Marlon surprised him when he drove to his house and begged him to get off the drugs and alcohol. Monty was touched (and surprised) by the concern, but insisted that he was fine... as he downed another vodka. The two buried the hatchet, admitting how impressed they were by their respective performances in A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. It was quite a moment. Marlon explained that he didn't want Monty to kill himself-- it was a waste of talent. Sacrilege! He also couldn't lose his top competitor, his "challenger," who kept pushing him to better his own performances. "You have to stop this nonsense, if not for your sake, then for mine!" he pleaded. Still, Monty was unmoved. But he was inspired enough to get to work on his next picture, ironically with Marlon. The two made The Young Lions, their only mutual movie, though they didn't even have any scenes together. Occasionally Monty would see Marlon lurking around the set, watching him work. Even in this, his darkest moment, he saw that he hadn't lost his touch. If he could impress Brando... Well, 'nuff said.

 A true actor, Monty insisted on creating truthful 
characters from the inside out, such as for 
his role as Noah in The Young Lions,
for which he distended his ears
and put putty on his nose.