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Friday, May 13, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

There are many key identifiers that can clue you into someone's personality: the clothes he wears, the type of dog he has, or the way he decorates his home par exemple. Even more key is perhaps, not so much the car he drives, but the way he behaves behind the wheel after he's turned the ignition. As such, it sometimes seems that lives of danger or tragedy are prefaced in a star's vehicular life. Here are a few tales of Cars vs. Karma. "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

(I apologize. I published this on Thurs 5/12, but somehow it disappeared overnight. Here it is again. Sorry for the repeat)!!!

James enjoyed whipping around town on a motorcycle
when such vehicles were still seen as a novelty.

Because of the way James Dean lived and because of the way he died, it is difficult to imagine him anywhere but behind the wheel of a car. In addition to his famous "chicken" race in Rebel Without a Cause, Jimmy also did a lot of racing in his private life. In accordance, he picked up more than a few tickets from the po-po, including one on the day of his tragic death: James was pulled over for going 10 miles over the 55 mph speed limit. After receiving the citation, he glumly accepted his error and conceded that he had better slow down, if not for his own safety, then to make sure that Little Bastard didn't get worn out before its first big race in Salinas. (Jimmy named his Porsche 550 Spyder "Little Bastard" because that's what his pal, stunt driver, Bill Hickman, called him. He in turn called Bill "Big Bastard"). Sadly, even though Jimmy eased up on his lead foot, he neglected to put on his seat-belt. Not too long after receiving his ticket, Jimmy was struck at the 41/46 junction when an opposing car came into his lane. This spot now bears his name in memoriam: The James Dean Junction.

James checks out his car in preparation for his race.

Up until this point, Jimmy had been invincible behind the wheel. His father, Winton, once remarked, when reminiscing about his son's early motorbike stunts, that "If he'd only fallen once, things might have been different." Yet, even as a child, while JD suffered the usual cuts and bruises, he always seemed to walk away from his daredevil feats unscathed. (The worst he was to suffer was losing his four front teeth while playing acrobats with friends in the barn. Even this, he shook off). His impenetrability was not pure luck, but the product of intense focus. A powerful driver, Jimmy seemed to be almost hypnotized when behind the wheel, always remaining perfectly in control and unruffled. Yet, James did suffer a minor catastrophe when driving in a Memorial Day race in Santa Barbara. Jimmy bent the rules by entering the race in the first place, for George Stevens had requested that he lay off racing during the filming of Giant. During the competition, James started out in eighteenth place. Before he could gain much ground, another Porsche swerved in front of him, cutting him off and nearly hitting his bumper. To avoid the collision, James stealthily veered his car to the side, where it luckily hit only hay bales. Dave Watson, who was watching, said that had it not been for Jimmy's ability, the accident could have been fatal. Luckily, "he didn't miss a trick." James pulled himself together and worked his way back into fourth place before he was forced to pull out-- his engine blew under the strain. Perturbed at his loss, James remained cool as a cucumber. Better luck next time, he thought. For now, he and his automobile exited unhurt.

Wallace Reid (left) too had a knack for car racing. From an early age, and far before he'd acquired a license, Wally enjoyed racing around in his parents' car. This need for speed would continue into adulthood, where neighbors grew accustomed to Wally blazing through town in his various automobiles, usually accustomed with a horn that tooted out the latest song. In keeping with his racing films like The Roaring Road, which he remains most famous for, Wally also entered into competitions in real life. In those days, there was an open track-- The Santa Monica Race Route-- composed of Ocean Ave, Wilshire Blvd, and San Vicente Blvd. The area where the then dirt roads of Ocean and Wilshire met in a sharp 90-degree turn was known as "Dead Man's Curve." Wally was proud when he set the new record high for this turn at 110 mph. But Wally's carefree, innocent immaturity behind the wheel came at a price. He had many collisions, scrapes, and mishaps. On Jan. 22, 1913, he was driving so recklessly up Mountain Road to Parma Park that he and his friends careened off the road and were literally hanging over the edge. The car couldn't be removed, so they had to leave it dangling until assistance could be found. But, more horrendously, Wally would be in a tragic car accident when he and pal Thomas Ince were rushing down the PCH in 1915. The facts remain fuzzy, as there was the usual subsequent studio cover-up, but Wally, who had probably been drinking, lost control of his vehicle and slammed into another car, which carried a family of five. The father was killed, and the mother and three children where seriously injured. Thomas too suffered a broken collar bone. Wally walked away from his totaled car with only cuts and bruises. The damage he did to himself psychologically was another story. When he later came to bury his personal pains in morphine, this is but one of the episodes he was running from.

Steve McQueen was another actor who seemed perfectly positioned in a sleek sports car (see right). Like James Dean, Steve loved the thrill of a race. Friend and co-star James Garner would recall this fire foot causing a ruckus in Germany when they were filming The Great Escape. Along with doing many of his own driving stunts, Steve was always returning to the set with another speeding ticket-- he was constantly getting into trouble with the local authorities for his reckless driving. An interesting story involves not his driving acuity but his mental stealth. When filming the series "Wanted: Dead or Alive," he was irked when the show wouldn't give him time off the shoot the film The Magnificent Seven. In response, he purposely crashed his car so that he could claim injury. When the studio gave him time to recuperate, Steve neglected his bed rest and shot The Magnificent Seven instead. After Steve was all healed aka the movie had wrapped, he returned to work on the TV series as fresh as a daisy. Clearly, this was a guy operating on all cylinders.

Clark Gable (left) remains one of the biggest stars that MGM ever had. Nay, that moviedom ever had. Needless to say, he could afford to buy the best of the best, and he had definite taste when it came to his choice of vehicle. While he wasn't born with driving in his blood, there are rumors that some of the demons that drove him were the direct cause or result of various auto related events. Most memorably, Clark become incredibly morose after the death of his beloved Carole Lombard, and he took to motoring rapidly through the Hollywood Hills as if to tempt fate with his own life. Lucille Ball, a close buddy of Carole's, was a good friend to Clark at this time and was one of the many urging him to pull in the reigns. Rumor has it that he took more than a few spills, but he finally got a lot of his anger and regret out when he served valiantly in WWII in Carole's memory. Previous to this, there was another Clark controversy. There is still debate over whether or not the following is true, but many in Hollywood would recall Clark making a frenzied call to Howard Strickling in 1933. He had allegedly hit and killed a pedestrian when drunkenly turning onto Sunset Boulevard! If true, MGM did its best to cover up the hit-and-run and salvage their growing star's name. Legend has it that MGM paid a studio employee to take the blame, offering him a lifetime's employment at the studio. Interestingly, as author E.J. Fleming adeptly pointed out, the heretofore unknown MGM man John Huston was reported in the papers to have hit actress Tosca Roulien on Sept 22, 1933. Huston went to court, the accident was ruled as such, and the case was closed. John, of course, went on to enjoy quite a healthy directing career. But, did he have Clark to thank for this?

While Frances Farmer didn't suffer any major collisions that I can recall, she did survive one wreck of a life, and a lot of it is due to a 1942 altercation over her driving. Frances was a fiery and impassioned actress, smart and perhaps a little too reactionary. When leaving a party one night, during war time, she was pulled over for having her headlights on in a dim out zone. Frances, predictably, resisted her citation, which quickly escalated into an arrest. The defiant girl was hauled into jail and charged for a DUI-- which obviously wasn't the source of the argument. In any case, Frances paid an initial fee and was let go, but she failed to completely pay the full charge. This resulted in a bench warrant for her arrest. When a hairdresser later accused her of dislocating her jaw on the set, it was all the police needed to go after Frances and haul her in, guns blazing. She was located at The Knickerbocker Hotel, dragged through the lobby wearing allegedly nothing but a shower curtain, and subsequently locked up in a mental institution, with her loving [haha] mother acting as legal guardian and holding the key. Damn those headlights... Ironically, Frances would later be given a car when she appeared on the show "This Is Your Life" in 1958 after her "rehabilitation." Her career, however, never recovered from the scandal nor the false accusations of insanity. Like too many other strong, independent women, Frances was punished for her brazenness. In the old days, she would have been burned as a witch. In Hollywood, it was her fame that was left to fizzle. (Frances films Flowing Gold with John Garfield, right).

Veronica Lake could also be described as a hot-tempered little dollop. When filming I Wanted Wings, which was to be her first major hit, she was often picked on and chewed out by director Mitchell Leisen. While Veronica would stand silently and take the tirades, which were incredibly humiliating, she did find her way to fight back. After one particular yelling match, Veronica jumped in her car and raced off to new hubby John Detlie, neglecting to tell anyone where she was going. That Mitch could kiss her canola, for all she cared! However, one should never drive angry, especially when on the verge of tears. While hurrying to reach her beloved, her car began to slide on the surprisingly icy roads of Needles, CA. Suddenly, she spun out of control and went spilling over the side of the mountain, nose first, flipping over and over. The tough cookie was luckily numbed by the snow and cold, and it took time for her to realize the pain in her knee or the fact that her toes were broken. Looking a bloody mess, she somehow managed to climb the hill back to the road where she flagged down a passing pickup. Inside, a surprised farmer and his family looked at the bloody beauty like she was nuts, but they still gave her a ride to town. She eventually made it to John, and when the studio located her, she had even more motivation to tell them to stick it where the sun doesn't shine. She got her way, and returned to work, where Mitch was forced by the studio to hold his tongue. (Ronni wisely lets Joel McCrea handle the driving, left in Sullivan's Travels).

Howard Hughes is more renowned for his abilities in the cockpit (as seen right), but he too had some adventures on wheels. When squiring his latest infatuation, Ava Gardner, the two went out dancing at The Cocoanut Grove. Howard was irked that Ava remained immune to his charms or money. The following situation didn't help matters. Upon leaving the club, Howard stopped at a red light to see another car also in wait in the opposing lane. Beads of sweat started to trickle down when he realized that the other driver was his seventeen-year-old protege/fiance Faith Domergue, driving the very car he had given her for her birthday. Gulp. Faith recognized Howard too, and when the light turned green, she busted a u-ey and started following the flustered couple. Weaving in and out of the lane, she nearly caused a wreck, forcing Howard to pull into an empty parking lot on Fairfax to avoid disaster, or so he thought. Faith immediately pulled around, lined herself up directly against the passenger side, gave Ava the look of death, and started ramming the car repeatedly. Luckily, another passerby entered the altercation, which brought things to a halt, and Howard asked the stranger to take the fuming Ava home. Howard was left to repair the damage and console his irate, immature mistress, but the damage had been done.

Superman George Reeves (left) had many auto altercations, as well. In fact, toward the end of his life, he had so many uncanny accidents and near death vehicular incidents that it seemed that it was more than just fate that had it in for the hero. The source of this bad karma was probably directly related to his recent break-up with Toni Mannix, wife of Eddie Mannix-- the MGM man with mob connections. Toni was more than miffed when her darling boy left her for the younger-- albeit not classier-- Lenore Lemmon. Consequently, in 1958, while driving his Alvis, (ironically a gift from Toni), he experienced a little rough driving from two passing, black cars. Luckily, this time around, the intimidation resulted in nothing more than George being a bit spooked, and he shook it off. Not much later, he was nearly plowed down in front of his home by a similar dark car. He had to dive onto his front lawn to avoid being hit! Then, in April of 1959, George was out in his new Jaguar. The new car didn't bring him better luck, for as he was rolling down the hills of Benedict Canyon, he realized that his breaks weren't working. Struggling to maintain control, he ran into a light pole at Easton Drive. When the cops arrived, they found that the actor had nearly gone through his windshield and had suffered a severe gash to his forehead, which required thirty stitches. They also found that all of George's brake fluid had been drained. Clearly, whoever was out to get George realized that vehicular manslaughter wasn't gonna do it. He was found dead with a bullet in his brain on June 16, 1959. Of course, it was ruled a suicide.

That being said, drive safely...


  1. Great post, Meredith! I had no idea there were this many stars linked to incidents involving cars. I suppose all that much promoted Hollywood joy riding was bound to come with a price.

  2. I would have loved to have been at the police station when they asked Frances Farmer her occupation. Also, I wonder who was behind George's brakes going out. I never heard that story about Veronica. Next time I'm in LA I'll be sure to buckle up! thanks Meredith

  3. Hahaha, ditto! I would have given Frances a big high-five! And poor George... Still one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries. Take care!!!