Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

For More L.A. La Land, visit my writing/art/film appreciation site on Facebook at Quoth the Maven and follow me on Twitter @ Blahlaland. :)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Who's Your Daddy?

Adoption seems to be a popular sport among today's celebrity elite. Sometimes a famous lady or gent has simply gotten impatient while waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right and decides to start a family on his or her own. Other times, a svelte actress may opt to visit the orphanage to protect her figure instead of having babes the ol' fashioned way. Then, of course, there is option three, wherein certain celebs become invested in a strange, maternal gluttony-- a la Mia Farrow or Angelina Jolie-- and keep adding to their litter like bitches in heat without the heat. (I suppose all the extra nannies help). Adoption in Hollywood is not a new phenomenon, however. Joan Crawford accrued a tally of four lucky (if you ask the younger two) or unlucky (if you ask the elder two) tots, and Cecil B. DeMille had only one legitimate daughter (Cecilia) before adding on another three, due to his wife's charitable love of children and alleged distaste of the marital bed. This brings me to the point of today's segment: those mysterious, adopted children who suspiciously resemble their new parents. Coincidence? Perhaps. But Scandal is much easier (and  more fun) to believe and, in Hollywood, almost always true.

Cecil ponders: how am I gonna pull this one over???

Returning to Cecil, he had an older brother, William (left), who was also a director. The two were very close and mutually respected each other. While Cecil went on to be a much more famous and powerful man in the business, he still looked up to and admired his big bro. Perhaps this is why, when Bill ran into a little trouble, Cecil was all too ready to offer his help. See, William had married Anna George in 1903. This, however, didn't stop him from having a few extramarital dalliances, including one with writer Lorna Moon. This affair led to the birth of a son, Richard, in 1922. In order to save his marriage and to save the child from an unknown fate, William asked Cecil to adopt the child as his own, so at least William could watch him grow up. Cecil agreed to the request, since he had already adopted two other children, John and Katherine DeMille. Cecil was known for having trysts of his own, most particularly with writer Jeanie Macpherson, actress Julia Faye, and secretary Gladys Rosson, though aside from Julia he never dabbled with his actresses, sensing the danger it would cause on the set. For this reason, Cecil held no judgement against his brother, and took on the task of raising Richard and supporting Lorna until her death of tuberculosis in 1930. It was publicly stated that the child was abandoned and left inside Cecil's car and that he took it in. This and Cecil's own checkered romantic life raised many eyebrows, and it was often incorrectly speculated that Richard was his own child. The only two people who supposedly knew the truth were the two brothers. Cecil kept the secret until after Bill's death, when, as agreed, he told Richard about his true parentage. This brought forth a rush of understanding on Richard's part, who, though always treated with the same love and tenderness as the other kids, suddenly understood both his uncanny feelings of somehow being "apart" from the rest of his family and his strange attachment to his mysterious Uncle Bill. However, it never changed his relationship with CB, who continued to treat him as his own son.

A sudden and questionable bundle of joy also arrived in (William) Wallace Reid's life in 1922. Wally (right) was the All American Boy whom no woman could resist, as many women of his time could attest. After successfully wooing and wedding actress Dorothy Davenport, the two became the delighted parents of Bill, Jr, Wally's pride and joy. However, as time wore on and the marriage cooled, Wally's hijinks and shenanigans did not. Living a fast-paced and debaucherous life as one of the most desired men in American-- and even the world-- this superstar found it hard to resist the temptations that came with fame and fortune. Of course, his outward bravado also hid a sensitive and somewhat sad overgrown boy who was constantly searching for comfort, whether it be in inebriation or the arms of an all too inviting woman. As such, it is rumored that Wally fathered a child out of wedlock with an extra girl, who appeared on his doorstep and begged his wife Dorothy to take the baby girl in as her own. Whether or not these are the exact circumstances is unknown, but Wally and Dorothy did adopt daughter Betty Anna Mummert in 1922. It is said that Wally, who loved being a father, adored her just as dearly as his "legitimate son," so much so that if anyone insinuated or mentioned the fact that she was adopted, Wally's eyes would turn red with anger. He could be seen playing with his two tots in his backyard on DeLongpre, where they enjoyed splashing around in the family's fashionable swimming pool. Many would recall the strange resemblance Betty had with her adopted father and sibling Bill, and it is also recorded that she inherited some of Wally's more tortured mental traits. After Wally died as a result of his morphine addiction in 1923, Betty would live for another fifty years, having become estranged from her remaining family. If she was in fact his true daughter, all concerned took that information to their graves.

Dorothy, Wally, Betty, and Bill, Jr.

Barbara La Marr (left) also allegedly adopted her own child in 1923. This task was much more daunting for a female, since she could not simply take on the child after its birth as the father could, but had to carry it to term without raising attention. Since producer Paul Bern had been pining away for Barbara for some time, and the newborn seemed to bear a slight resemblance to him, many opined that it was indeed his child. However, this throws a wrench in all of the rumors built up around Paul, which include the theory that he had infantile sex organs and was unable to pleasure future wife Jean Harlow, (coincidentally leading to his mysterious "suicide"). If in fact this whole story about Paul's anatomy was a fabrication concocted by Mayer to cover up Bern's mysterious death, his possible paternity of Barbara's child also begs the question why he wouldn't marry her when she became pregnant, since one hears nothing but how infatuated he was with her? It is possible that she simply turned him down, as she was not in love with him. (There were additional stories that Bern tried to drown himself in his own toilet when Barbara broke things off. Clearly, this was either an incredibly unstable man or one whose memory people loved to desecrate). In any case, the child is popularly believed to be Barbara's own, one that she placed in an orphanage temporarily to complete the ruse. Though the child's true father is unknown, there are other papa possibilities- William Haines-- who was a constant "friend with benefits" to Barbara at this time-- and her one time fiance Wallace Beery. Another bit of trivia is that, after Barbara's death, her son (Marvin) was adopted by none other than pal Zasu Pitts!

But, the most famous case of celebrity "adoption" is the story of Judy Lewis (Mary Judith Clark), who was adopted by her own mother Loretta Young in 1937 (both pictured right). This one gets even juicier because not only was this lovely girl the offspring of one of the most gorgeous and powerful women in Hollywood, but her true father was none other than the King himself, Clark Gable. When Clark and Loretta met and began work on Call of the Wild, it wasn't long before the sparks started to fly, and Loretta's high Christian morals were soon overcome by Clark's charms. The two entered into an affair, he still being wed to Ria Langham at this point. Loretta, to her own shock and shame, became pregnant. Of course, there was no way to solve this disgraceful problem except to have the child aborted, which is what the studio wanted in order to protect both of their stars' images. However, Loretta's faith would not allow her to do so, so she concocted a plan: she would "take ill" in Venice Beach until the baby was born (on November 6, 1935) and place it in an orphanage (St. Elizabeth's Infant Hospital for unwed mothers) with the understanding that she would return within a matter of  months to adopt it. With the help of Irving Thalberg, this is exactly what she did. 

Clark and Loretta adhere to the Call of the Wild... 
and pay for it 9 months later.

Of course, everyone in Hollywood knew the real story, but for the press, Loretta went on the with act-- perhaps the best of her career. Clark made a few visits to mother and daughter after the birth, and by Nov. 30, Loretta gave her first interview, sans child, about how she had completely recuperated from her illness. Judy remained well taken care of, basically sitting in wait for her mother to return to her, which she did after a year and a half. The world bought the whole story, however, the secret became more difficult to hide as Judy aged. Not only did she resemble her mother greatly, but she had also inherited her father's trademark ears, which Loretta kept firmly hidden underneath a bonnet until she was forced to have them surgically pinned back. Later, after being prodded by a friend at school with the curiosity, Judith asked her mother why, if she were adopted, the two should look so alike? Loretta fumbled for an answer, stating that it was simply that they had spent so much time together and used the same mannerisms and way of speaking, etc. When the truth came out in Judy's early twenties, and Loretta was finally forced to confess to her daughter, she became so overwrought that she rushed to the restroom and threw up. Loretta had been tortured by both her love of Judith and her knowledge that she was the result of outright "sin." For Judith's part, once she knew and accepted the truth, she said that it made her feel whole for the first time in her life. And while her sketchy history and upbringing has become the stuff of Hollywood legend, she remains secure in herself and proud of both parents, despite their naughty, naughty ways. (Judy shows her resemblance to both parents, with mother Loretta, left).

There are certainly more stories from whence these dollops came, but uncovering them all would take a large chunk of time. The sad truth is that in these studio days, when celebrities were looked up to as Gods, it was intolerable for them to commit human errors. Many adhered to studio regulations when being punished for their immoral crimes, hence the number of "appendectomies" that female stars had to undergo. (Marlene Dietrich once quipped that abortion was the only studio supported method of birth control). For some, like the aforementioned, who chose to bravely go against the grain and have their children against studio objection, they still had to sacrifice honesty for a continued life of fame and fortune. Since most people in the community knew the truth, it makes one wonder why people chose to wear the facade of morality when all concerned knew that it was a facade. Between the shame of studio condemnation and the knowledge that a pious audience may too turn their backs on them, these players were forced to keep up the ruse and maintain their pristine reputations. As always, The Greatest Show on Earth takes place behind the cameras.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

HOT SPOTS in CA: Hollywoodland

Don't mind if I do...

The thing about Hollywood is that it's very much alive, even while being haunted. In truth, despite all of the sordidness and usary, the hypocrisy and superficiality, you kind of can't help loving this city. I guess what it all comes down to is that, while I myself often can't stand what Hollywood currently stands for, I still marvel at what it was built upon. Vision, integrity, imaginiation, grit, artistry, beauty, determination-- these things all came together inexplicably when man embraced his latest invention and found himself encroaching on modern genius. This is why Hollywood will forever have my heart, and while I cynically enjoy driving down the paved streets in need of serious repair, past the electric lights pointing me toward the nearest bar, strip joint, or medical marijuanna emporium (which are sprouting up everywhere like... weeds), there is something equally yet contradictorally invigorating about the open landscapes and unknown wildernesses that indicate what once was-- the Hollywood that Cecil B. DeMille stumbled upon in 1914 after he overruled AZ as the shooting locale of The Squaw Man.

Original Stone Gate at the Hollywood Entryway.

The real estate development venture known as Hollywoodland still exists. This is a fact that I myself did not know. I assumed that whatever properties had once been established by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox had long since been demolished and buried beneath the latest architectural ventures Los Angeles has had to offer. However, on a whim, and with a little luck from Living Social, I encountered a tour meant to take me on a narrated hike around the Hollywood sign. Twenty bucks later, I found myself walking up Beachwood Canyon into a small, tucked away neighborhood known as Hollywoodland. My jaw dropped, my eyes bulged, and I very nearly kissed the pavement beneath me when my brain accepted what my eyes were seeing, but I stilled myself for fear of frightening the other hikers.

Site of today's Hollywoodland Realty.

Yes, H-land is still very much alive, and despite the array of modern cars lining the streets, it remains very much untouched by time. Upon entering the stone entryway, complete with turrets and a large clock, one will see the Village Coffee Shop (great Eggs Benedict, left) and the local market, where a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed. A few small shops and private businesses greet the eye, and then a slew of streets take one up into the hills above Hollywood. Of course, there have been modern renovations and new homes built, but many of the buildings are reminiscent of or actually are the original structures regimented by the original neighborhood rules: homeowners were once given a choice of French Normandy, English Tudor, Mediterranean Revival, or Spanish Revival styles of design.

Example of classic architecture and original
supporting stone walls.

When walking up Ledgewood, one can get pretty close to the notorious Hollywood sign, and on the hike up I was too able to spot an interesting bit of property known as The Garden of Oz. Since Frank Baum was an early resident in Hollywood, and his The Wizard of Oz went onto become one of the greatest films of all time, it makes sense that there be a little tribute to him. I'm not sure what the whole story is, and the doors were locked, so I couldn't go inside, but I got a peek. Inside the closed gates there seemed to be a child-sized world resembling Willy Wonka's chocolate factory-- minus the chocolate. It appears to be private property accessible only to the neighborhood children, who each have a key.

The Garden of Oz.

Perhaps the most surprising moment was when I laid my eyes on Hollywoodland's greatest secret-- Lake Hollywood. Man-made by engineer William Mulholland, this vessel holds 2.5 billion gallons of water and once kept nearby inhabitants very hydrated during the hot and dry summer months, (we all know Los Angeles isn't known for its rain). Begun in 1923 and finished in 1925, it used to be a very popular swimming hole for local residents and sunbathers. It is still there, visible, but untouchable and off limits after the disaster of 9/11.

Lake Hollywood

Different homes were also pointed out on the tour: one that belonged to both Madonna and Bugsy Siegel (Castillo de Lago- Wolf's Lair), one that belonged to Debbie Reynolds, but the most interesting and lasting structures are perhaps the still remaining, original staircases (right) that early residents used to climb the vast hills of their neighborhood. It really puts things in perspective when you realize that people didn't always have the privileges we take for granted today: paved roads, cars, and highways that can take us up and over anything in a few minutes. There are several steps still around, but you have to look a little bit to find them. Surmounting them makes you realize why everyone was in much better shape in the days of yesteryear. Many people use the stairs today to exercise. One staircase in particular had a counter at the top, so joggers could keep track of their laps-- aka insanity.

Original Staircase Marker.

At the end of my two hour hike, I was sad to leave. This small little gem, tucked away in the hills behind Franklin, felt much more like Hollywood to me than today's Hollywood, which is loud, littered, and overcrowded. Standing back and over the city on Mt. Lee and taking a glimpse at all of the structures we have built, the bright lights, and the social achievement is one thing, but there is something even more interesting about turning in the opposite direction and facing only green hills and rugged terrain. One direction is this city's past; one is its present. If you are ever in the area and are bored or in the need of a little mental and physical exercise, I suggest you take the hike up to Hollywoodland. It is truly wonderful that this small patch of earth remains somehow untainted and pure. As the starting point for all that Hollywood has become, it remains the still beating heart from which the unruly Los Angeles spread out to take over the world. Just dallying around and grabbing a cup o' joe, you can feel the nostagia and reminisce about the way we were and how amazing it is that such a great something came from a little nothing. But, I guess that is the story of all America. While others will surely extol the praises of their own hometown or self-proclaimed favorite city, I can not part from mine. I guess I left my heart in Hollywood.

Hollywoodland was but one of many signs that went up (in 1928) 
to mark regional real estate development sectors, yet it is the
only one that remains, thanks to the movies.

If you're in town and want to take a great tour through the hills around the Hollywood sign, go to LA Active Adventures.

Hahaha, oh Hollywood...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NOW, THAT'S FUNNY: Animal Edition

Gloria Grahame and an elephant friend in The Greatest Show on Earth.

Cecil B. DeMille was a great animal lover. With a deep appreciation for mother nature and all of its inhabitants, it is no wonder that he filled so many of his films with a hodgepodge of creatures. Whether feeding the deer at his beloved "Paradise" or marveling at the beauty and surprising elegance of the elephants in The Sign of the Cross and The Greatest Show on Earth, CB was always in touch with his "wild" side. However, not everyone had the great adoration for animals that Cecil did, which has inspired the following humorous human vs. animal tales:

Male and Female was all about nature: human nature at is most animalistic and survivalistic, (with a little sex, of course). For this reason, when it came time to shoot his lavish fantasy sequence with Thomas Meighan (right) and Gloria Swanson, DeMille was determined to make things as natural and authentic as possible. One scene required the imagined King (Thomas) to subjugate the femme fatale (Gloria). To accentuate this act, DeMille wanted to use a large cat to imply Tom's great and brutal machismo, i.e: He wanted a live leopard slung over Tom's shoulder. (Pause for Tom's gulp). Meighan was not exactly ecstatic about this idea, especially as he watched the animal handlers unsuccessfully trying to knock the cat out with chloroform in order to make such a stunt possible. After witnessing the enormous cat hiss and growl for some time, the pacing inside its cage suddenly stopped. (Did I mention that the animal had been scheduled for extermination because it had already killed a man? CB chose to let it live and sick it on his actor instead). Shaking, with beads of sweat running down his temples, Tom obligingly slung the cat over his shoulder and went through his scene. However, before he was through with his actions, he felt the leopard stirring. Certain that he was about to be maimed, it took every ounce of control for him to get through the next few seconds without dropping the leopard and high-tailing it out of there! However, he pulled through. When he communicated his fears to DeMille he received little sympathy. In his own macho way, DeMille surely responded with something akin to, "What's the big deal? Are you a man or a mouse?!"

Gloria and a dangerous prop: the jury is still out on who is 
truly the more dangerous...

Gloria Swanson was also on the receiving end of CB's outlandish animal requests. For her part in the film, she was to enter the lion's den. Literally. Cecil was intent on getting a shot of her lying on the ground with a lion's paw on her back. Gloria's eyes bulged but she was a tough cookie, plus CB indulged in a little bribery to get her to cooperate. Thus, Gloria found herself on her stomach with nothing separating her from the dangerous beast but a piece of canvas. When the lion roared, she would later recall feeling its vibrations through every inch of her body. Yet, she remained cool as a cucumber and believably dead. After the quick shot, Gloria arose with dignity and suddenly found herself in tears, the stress of the situation finally coming to the surface. CB was proud of his "young fellow," finding her more manly than her male co-star, Thomas. He kidded her with a, "Thank goodness. At last a woman!" To repay her, he offered her a choice from his famous bag of gems: Gloria proudly selected a gold evening bag with an emerald clasp. Her pain had been worth every penny.

Claudette Colbert (left) was another favorite leading lady of DeMille's, even if he found her to be overly diva-ish at times. At the end of the day, she got the job done and took direction well. CB hoped to use her good qualities to overcome the bad  when it came time to shoot her death scene in Cleopatra. The old legend had it, of course, that the Egyptian Queen died by holding an asp to her breast, letting its fangs infect her with venom. Sultry and sexy, Claudette was; reptile friendly, she was not. For this reason, CB knew he would have to concoct some sort of plan to get her to actually hold the snake in her hands. So, he brought in the largest king snake that he could find. When Claudette saw it, she had the appropriate reaction. Panicking, she refused! "No, no! I won't do it!! Please, no!" With that, Cecil shrugged and pulled out a much tinier snake-- the one he had actually intended to use for the scene. Claudette's fear dissolved as she observed her slender partner: "Why, he's just a baby!" No longer afraid, and feeling a bit maternal toward the little guy, Claudette was ready for her close-up. Her performance went off with out a hitch, and once again, DeMille got his way.

Mabel Normand also had an encounter with a rather large feline when filming her big comedy hit The Extra Girl (right). One of the most hilarious sequences of the film is when Mabel's wannabe movie starlet is stalked behind the scenes by an escaped Lion. On camera, her facial expressions and prat falls in avoiding the large beast are hilarious... Behind the scenes, things weren't quite as funny. Certainly, Mabel was a little apprehensive about leading the large lion around on a leash-- a gag used to get laughs, due to the fact that Mabel's character thought she was walking a dog. Being a what-the-hell kind of gal, Mabel went for it anyway. She was assured that her safety was being looked after by director F. Richard Jones, whose feeble attempt at protection was having a pitchfork at the ready. Unfortunately, at one point, Jones accidentally tripped and scared the lion, who sprang into the air. Mabel, stunned, fell flat to the ground, only to find the pitchfork in her own rear end! The lion, on the other hand, was unharmed.

One of the most popular animals in movie history, aside from dogs and horses, is perhaps the monkey. Many celebs have had a little face time with a chimp-- such as Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar or Cary Grant in, of course, Monkey Business. As always, it's not all fun and games, as Kathryn Grayson (left) could attest. While shooting on Show Boat, the lovely soprano was surprised when a primate got a little primeval on her. One day, a marmoset monkey got a little antsy and, out of fear, started attacking everyone in sight. After it bit both its trainer and a prop man, Kathryn too had a piece taken out of her arm! Her squeal probably surpassed any high notes she had previously sung. Co-star Ava Gardner got the worst of it when the monkey scratched her breast in the middle of a publicity photo. So much for looking sexy!

Veronica Lake too had an ill-fated meeting with a monkey. While working on Sullivan's Travels (w/ Joel McCrea, right), her set was next-door to a Dorothy Lamour picture, which was currently employing a monkey named "Jiggs." Adorned in her tramp wardrobe, Veronica sat relaxing in between scenes when she felt something grab her hand. Jiggs had appeared out of nowhere and nonchalantly proceeded to put Ronni's hand in his mouth and bite-- not hard, but hard enough! Veronica froze, uncertain what to do and afraid of angering the precocious  creature. Preston Sturges saw the happenings, and after getting a good kick out of her plight, found the monkey's trainer who relieved the pregnant Veronica from her unease. The trainer assured her that, despite her discomfort, Jiggs had simply been showing her that he liked her. This was supposedly a miracle, since Jiggs didn't take to women-- a fact that the constantly scratched and bitten Dorothy Lamour could easily attest to. 

Carl Switzer (left) would often come into contact with animals during the filming of the Our Gang series. Take accident-prone children and throw in some quadrupeds and you've got yourself a pretty good shot at comedy. However, there was a mammalian charade that did not end humorously. One production had it scripted that little Carl was to be bitten by a bear. The actual animal was brought in, but Carl refused to even get close to it. The director asked him to inch his face in to the bear's mouth, but Carl simply shook his head in nervous protest. The trainer then stepped in to offer his help. Assuring Carl that the animal was harmless and actually quite gentle, he demonstrated the director's instructions by moving his face toward the bear's mouth. Now, this ISN'T funny. The bear suddenly made an out of character move and sank his jaws onto his trainer's face, biting his cheek right off. I guess sometimes kids are smarter than adults...

Bruce Willis finally meets his match.

To end, there is a contemporary story worth chuckling over. Tony Scott was excited to be working with the famous and charismatic action hero Bruce Willis on his 1991 film The Last Boy Scout. However, after a great start, he was a little perturbed when Bruce arrived to work several hours late their second day of shooting. When Tony pressed him for a reason, Bruce comically had to relay an embarrassing story. It turned out that the cleaning crew had left his trailer door open the night before and a cat got in. Curious as cats tend to be, this one located Bruce's cherished hair piece hanging on the wall and got a little... frisky. Thus, Bruce explained, he was late because the cat had been humping his hairpiece. After all, a leading man needs his hair. Me-ow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I've Been Stamped!!!

Many thanks to Danielle of Filmes, Filmes, Filmes! for giving me the "Blogger Friend" stamp! It is always nice to know that the information I share is being enjoyed. I appreciate you all for continuing to read. Have a great weekend!!!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Rollin' in the Dough

Ginger Rogers, head to toe in gold, in Gold Diggers of 1933.

Movie Stars and Money. Moolah. Bread. Gravy. Greenback... Whatever you want to call it, it always seems like celebrities have it. And lots of it. While many of us have to count every penny before going on an edited shopping spree to the ever glorious Target (Tar-jay to the upper crust), the exorbitant expenditures of modern entertainers with their private jets, sprawling mansions, and golf-ball sized engagement rings makes one both a) fiscally insulted and b) green (as cash) with envy. But whatever new car Diddy's rolling in or whatever designer gown is draped over the elegant Ms. Kidman at the latest awards show, today's divas have nothing on silent film spenders. Even in those early days, it was all about the Benjamins. Moreso, it wasn't the size of the bank account, but how one used it to advertise his or her own fame and stature. The early flood of cha-cha-ching and the resulting birth of American royalty created the still present trend of glorious, outrageous, unapologetic, economic narcissism. Here are a few of the earliest examples:

Cecil B. directs yet another lavish scene in Cleopatra
(Claudette Colbert stands center stage).

It should come as no surprise that Cecil B. DeMille be counted as one of the Kings of Coin. His films themselves were so lavishly produced and luscious to the eyes that one can only imagine the coronary Adolph Zukor must have had each time he looked at a budget estimate. In fact, despite the money that CB's movies earned at the box-office, most of them were still considered failures because they couldn't recoup the production costs. But with an eye for detail and an unwavering loyalty to (exaggerated) authenticity, DeMille spared no expense when it came to his films. He wanted what he wanted, believing that his audiences deserved the best, and that is what he gave them. In The Affairs of Anatol, for example, Wallace Reid had the distinct pleasure of filming a scene wherein he got to destroy $30,000 worth of furniture, including original Louis XVI chairs and a grand piano. CB wouldn't accept cheap props; it had to be the real deal. He also added strange, costly mandates to his productions. Anne Baxter would recall that Cecil had all of her necklaces specially "heated" before they were placed on her skin during The Ten Commandments (left). This was not a stipulation she required, but one that Cecil saw to on her behalf-- he wanted her treated like a Queen since she was playing one. Between Gloria Swanson's submergence into an expensive tub in Male and Female and Claudette Colbert's illustrious milk bath in The Sign of the Cross, CB too started a craze for opulent bathrooms. However, his own house guests were often disappointed to find that his private bathroom was rather plain.

Anne Baxter in one of her temperature controlled necklaces 
in The Ten Commandments.

But CB was not always modest in his private life. Granted, he was not as extravagant off screen as he was on, preferring to spend his down time at his vacation home, Paradise, where he could hike and feed the animals. But he did have a few flashy quirks to show off just how wealthy a man he really was. For example, male guests to Paradise would be offered color-coded silk shirts-- red for a regular Joe, white for producers, and purple for directors, corporate big-wigs, or government officials. The gents also received Gold or silver chains to spice up their look. CB also enjoyed splurging on jewelry, offering women whom he was pleased with in some way a choice of his own private collection of gems. In addition, female guests were given Cecil B. DeMille's own concoction of "Paradise" perfume. For all this, Cecil still lived fairly simple compared to some of his contemporaries. Sure he had a yacht and several real estate investments around town, but his monetary swagger was tactical more than anything else. While it could be said that he enjoyed spreading the wealth and bringing a little beauty into life, he committed grand financial acts more to stake his claim as one of Hollywood's major hitters, so people would know who was boss. It worked, for "DeMille" and "Decadent" remain pretty much synonymous.

But Cecil wasn't the only power player with cash to burn-- literally. With money comes power and thus the ability to pay for pretty much whatever you want. It naturally followed that certain celebrities were able to produce custom made products or add their own special innovations on different every day merchandise. The tiniest thing would require some specific attention in order to differentiate one's belongings from every one else's. Thus, star vanity even lead to the creation of custom made cigarettes. For his part, ill-fated director William Desmond Taylor smoked only his personally designed black cigarettes with golden tips-- that's genuine gold, folks. Actor and Mr. Muscles himself, Francis X. Bushman (right), also insisted on creating his own stock of lavender colored ciggies.

Bushman let this innovation follow him over into the realm of automobiles. When driving around town in his fancy Rolls Royce, also lavender, it wasn't enough for people to merely notice his expensive wheels. He wanted them to know that it was he who was behind the wheel. Thus, he had a special light affixed into the interior, so that at night, a bright aura would shine over his face and people would know that the famous star of Ben-Hur had just sped by. Cowboy star Tom Mix (left) followed suit. For his car, he specified that the tires be produced with his own personal "crest," which was essentially the compilation of a "T" and an "M." When his car rolled down the then dirt roads of Hollywood, his insignia could be seen in the tracks. He basically left his initials all over town, an effective way of saying "Tom  Mix was here, yeehaw!!!" Gloria Swanson too had a dream car. In fact, her earliest ambition as an actress, or as anything, was to be able to afford a heretofore unseen orchid-colored automobile. People told her she was crazy and that such a thing didn't even exist. But once she became the grande dame of silent cinema, she got her fantasy car-- and then some!

The Tom Mix Bar Brand, also present on his tires.

Or course, in these days, many celebrities were chauffeured around town in their glamorous automobiles. After all, in the caste/cash system, a higher echelon personality was going to make his or her status known. Thus, wealthy vixens like Pola Negri provided extra jobs to various servants who would accentuate their prestige. Pola (right) had a chauffeur who drove her everywhere in her white, velvet upholstered Rolls, but there was an added stipulation: he was to wear white on sunny days and black on rainy days. She too had servants who were in charge of cascading rose petals into her path so that her precious feet-- adorned with toe nail polish, which was not yet popularly worn-- would never be sullied by making direct contact with the floor. Just to add a little more oomph, she too paraded around town with her pet tiger, who often accompanied her on jaunts down Sunset Boulevard. Why, who knows? She did it simply because she could, and Pola was a definitely a drama queen on and off camera.

But perhaps the most well known example of Hollywood grandeur is that of Pickfair. The fairy tale wedding of the swashbuckling hero Douglas Fairbanks to the Golden Goddess of the Screen Mary Pickford captured the attention and affection of the American people when they were united on March 28, 1920-- despite the fact that they had essentially ditched their other spouses to make such a dream come true. It didn't matter. To the general public, they had escaped unhappy lives to reach the unbelievable culmination of true love, fame, and fortune. Of course, in order to rule on high in their fantastical splendor, they needed a Kingdom, which they dubbed "Pickfair." Situated in the hills on Summit Drive above Benedict Canyon, Mary and Doug lived in what appeared to be an oversized cottage. Its ornamentation wasn't overly glamorous, but its amenities were: a seashell shaped swimming pool, big enough to fit a canoe and complete with a slide, a tennis court, and stables. Their life together at this mansion on a hill was the ultimate American Dream. Of course, one must always wake from even the best of dreams, but while Mary and Doug's marriage may have hit the skids, the memory of their plush palace remains forever entrenched in our memories.

Doug and Mary take a row in their oyster pool.

These early celebrities didn't live in a world of "what could have been," they created worlds that were. Worlds that were as outlandish, flamboyant, unrestrained, and yet impossibly possible. When America entered into the economic crisis of the Great Depression and the film world was engulfed but the crisis of the new talkie era, the fawning awe of celebrity expenditure would give way to the public's love/hate relationship with their stars. No more would we find it completely palatable for these cinematic souls to throw cash around so nonchalantly; we would let them get away with it only if they seemed like one of us-- coming up the hard way. But, for a brief moment in time, we adored our movie stars for being larger than life, or perhaps even larger than larger than life. While their splendor may make one wrinkle his nose or perhaps erupt only in a cynical guffaw today, at the time, it was all in day's work. At least, in Hollywood...

Friday, April 1, 2011


Cecil B. DeMille- Director and Renaissance Man.

That's right, this time around I chose to feature a director. Not just any director-- the director. The name DeMille still has a powerful resonance and serves at times as the very definition of Hollywood itself. This makes perfect sense, being that ol' CB was one of the founding fathers of this luxurious place we know as La La Land. And trust me, luxury has everything to do with it.

While DeMille was an artist and craftsman, working behind the scenes in the original days of Hollywood-- back when orange groves and pepper trees lined the major through street of Prospect-- at heart he was a showman. In fact, he studied acting first, attending the same school at which his father-- a playwright-- had once taught: The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (ring any bells?). Taking the brains of his father, the passion of his mother, and the flamboyance of family friend David Belasco, young Cecil matured from a curious and ambitious youth into a vivacious and unstoppable entrepreneur. He took odd jobs in the theatre circuit-- writing plays, directing, producing, even acting-- all of which he could perform ably, but it wasn't until a partnership with Jesse L. Lasky and Sam Goldwyn brought him into the cinematic world that his life was forever altered-- and our world as well. His first directorial effort, The Squaw Man, made with the help of Oscar Apfel, is still historically cited as the first full-length feature film made in Hollywood.

Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Sam Goldfish (Goldwyn), Cecil and Albert 
Kaufman- Founding fathers of Famous Players-Lasky.

The match was struck, and the fire in DeMille was ignited. He would work without even stopping for breath from 1914-1959. Forty-five years worth of dedication, drive, passion, and vigor would inevitably leave behind a legacy of unparalleled celluloid glory. After his contemporaries, including hero D.W. Griffith, disappeared into obscurity, DeMille always marched on, his energy for his work kept alive by the devout love of his craft. As the times changed, DeMille may not have exactly changed his own style, but he allowed it to expand, pushing the envelope further and further each time with respect to his artistic capabilities and his aesthetic extravagances. He loved movies, and he watched them as much as he made them, keeping up with the latest directors, the latest techniques, and the newest innovations. Over time, he fell into the immaculate cliche he had contrived for himself, that of the egotistical mouthpiece of God. His epic religious features, meant to strike the fear of a higher power into his viewers, too allowed them to indulge unapologetically in their sensual sides. While every film preached a lesson of love, brotherhood, and humility before one's maker, it too presented a very thorny and enjoyable segue on the crooked way to righteousness.

The King of Kings- DeMille's piety. (H.B. Warner as Christ).

Herein we have the two DeMille's: the craftsman and the poet, the moral liberal and the political conservative, the lover and the fighter, the tactician and the showman. DeMille is either accused of being a slave-driving fascist-- marching around the set in his boots and riding breeches, followed everywhere by his chair boy, and shouting out brash commands through his megaphone-- or a dastardly seducer-- injecting his sexual, sinful, and exuberant films with a moral lesson simply to get them past the sensors. The truth is, both versions are true. "Indulgent" is, in fact, the best word with which to describe CB. His brimming intelligence yearned to ask every question, his passionate side sought to fulfill every pleasure, and his spiritual side hoped to do honor to the only being he was humble before, God himself. His silent films remain dangerous and inventive contributions to a quickly growing and expanding medium, and his sound pictures have found their place in hedonistic kitsch. But in either case, the one unifying factor is detail: the composition of every enchanting frame in every rich scene. DeMille produced vivid, living texture-- films his audiences could very nearly reach out and touch. It is this reason beyond any other that they last. Beyond the story, beyond the cheesy dialogue, beyond the special effects that still leave directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese spellbound, is the painterly, fluid, lusciously dripping quality of each masterpiece. This is why DeMille is synonymous with "Classic."

The Affairs of Anatol: DeMille's hedonism. (Gloria Swanson, the woman
he made a star, and Wallace Reid).

As controversial as DeMille remains, his lasting imprint on cinema is justified. But his impression was left on more than the screen. Those who knew him in his life were struck by how this cinematic God could so seamlessly come back down to earth. Many personal accounts recall the tenderness with which he dealt with those he loved and the generosity he provided to those in need. After his father passed away in his youth, the adult CB would always provide for his mother and even his brother, Bill (who too was a director, though a less notorious one), and his wife and children-- oh, and his three mistresses, who were not lookers but were intellectually vibrant and integral to his life. When actors from the silent period witnessed their careers disappearing into the abyss of sound, Cecil always found them parts in his films. He and his wife, Constance, began many charities, particularly for children and women. He lavished friends with gifts, enjoyed his wealth while living simply, and lived each day with the ambition of sucking all the marrow he could out of life. This he did up until the end, when, in 1956, his determination to re-make and improve upon his original silent film, The Ten Commandments, nearly killed him. In fact, perhaps it did. But he succeeded, and his last directorial effort became the pinnacle success of his career, (though The King of Kings remained his proudest film).

 Samson and Delilah: the DeMille unity. 
(Directing Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature).

We cannot imagine a Hollywood without DeMille, for he was and is Hollywood. He built it as if with his own two hands, and he made it something bigger, something greater, something grander. Cecil and cinema are inseparable, which is why he was the necessary ingredient in Billy Wilder's Hollywood masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard. His mere name carried the context needed to relay all that movies are, all that they endow, and all that they represent. While a director in memory, he was at heart an actor, putting on the greatest show of his life by being the untouchable, indefinable Cecil B. DeMille. What he did, no one else could do, and the effort has taken down many men, (as Joe Mankiewicz could attest after his own Cleopatra debacle). CB gave his movies everything he had and gave us a limitless world in return. Vincent Price once said that you weren't a movie star until you had appeared in a DeMille picture. I suppose it goes without saying that you aren't a film lover until you've seen a DeMille film. With that said: All right, Mr. DeMille. We're ready for your close-up.