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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The latest addition to the L.A. La Land blog is the article category "Didja Know?" This quick-takes column of cinema trivia will hopefully introduce little known facts and miscellaneous brain food for the ever-hungry, movie-savvy devotee. Dig in!

Didja know, on this famous "I Love Lucy" episode, the co-worker Lucy is left 
alone to work with was an actual candy maker, cast by Desi. In the scene, the
 focused, yet inexperienced, bit player was not acting when she slapped Lucy. 
She really let her have it, and left Lucy seeing stars 
(with chocolate running down her face).

TV Loves Desi:
Though the success of "I Love Lucy" is accurately credited to the zany performance of Lucille Ball, her paramour and partner Desi Arnaz had a great deal to do with the show's popularity, as well as some new innovations that he introduced, not only to "I Love Lucy," but to television in general. Firstly, CBS insisted that the show be filmed before a live audience-- which in itself was a first for a sitcom. Consequently, the now familiar cue cards were invented for the audience: "APPLAUSE," CHEERS", and "LAUGHTER." However, it was quickly noted that the 'LAUGHTER' card was unnecessary. The audience guffawed ably enough on their own thanks to the comedic sensibilities of the entire cast: Lucy, Desi, William Frawley, and Vivian Vance. Desi added his two cents to this novel idea by stipulating that each episode be filmed with three cameras filming simultaneously, thus cutting down on shooting time. It was not an easy sell, but with Karl Freund's photography, it worked so efficiently that the three camera setup became a staple of the televised situation comedy. Another added piece that Desi contributed related to the commercials. After watching the first season's episodes, he concluded that the transition between the show and the advertisements was too awkward. Thus, he contrived to have an animated segue added before each commercial break to inform the viewer of the brief intermissions. So, one now sees in re-runs the cartoon versions of Lucy and Desi smooching at the drive-in or playing with the camera before the interruption of the latest miracle toothpaste, cleaning fluid, or (at the time) cigarette brand.

Rasputin and the Jury:
Ever wonder where those annoying disclaimers in the opening credits come from? You know, the ones that say, "Any resemblence to persons alive or dead is complete coincidence..." yadda yadda yadda? Well, we have director Richard Boleslawski's Rasputin and the Empress to thank for that. When the film-- which dramatizes the notorious Grigori Rasputin's relationship with the last Czar (et familia)-- was released in 1934, MGM was sued by Princess Irina Alexandrovna Youssoupoff for libel when she claimed to recognize herself  in the character Princess Natasha. In the film, John Barrymore's character too represents Prince Chegodiefl, who had a direct part in Rasputin's (played by Lionel Barrymore, with John right) murder. It was not this macabre revelation that bothered Chegodiefl and his wife-- he in fact took pride in his part of the assassination; it was the idea that the Princess, or rather her character, was presented in the film as having been seduced by Rasputin, like the many other Russian women of the time. Because of this, the disclaimer was added, and to protect their backsides from future financial attacks, MGM and other studios started adding these shields of dissociation to all films based upon biographical material. Another interesting tidbit about the film is that it is the only time all three Barrymores appeared together onscreen. Though Lionel and John would work together in films like Dinner at Eight and Grand Hotel, Ethel (portraying the Empress in this film) was too attached to the stage to be wooed into too many Hollywood pictures, with her brothers or not.

The "Dirty" Lie:
Since I have been on a bit of a gangster kick lately, I thought I would introduce the following tidbit. Many of us have heard the phrase, "You dirty rat..." which we associate with mobster flicks. Commonly, this derogatory exclamation is attributed to the eternal Movieland hood, James Cagney. However, this credit is undeservedly bestowed, as Cagney himself would attest. The true source of the now iconic utterance is none other than Lon Chaney, whose Black Mike Silva said it, albeit silently, in the 1920 Tod Browning picture Outside the Law (left with Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman). Before Lon became associated with his outlandish makeup concoctions and the macabre and sometimes monstrous performances that would become his token, he popularly played the character heavy and bad guy in a slew of early silent films that explored the dark underbelly of city life. His contribution to the slowly evolving genre of the gangster pic set the groundwork for later cinematic derelicts like Cagney, Robinson, and Raft to tread upon. Other films depicting Lon in a similar vein are The Blackbird, The Wicked Darling, and The Penalty.

Miss Quoted:
Another incorrect quote credit involves Ginger Rogers (right), that saucy lady of steps. Beautiful, graceful, and possessing both acting chops and a biting humor, Ginge' made everything she did look seamless and easy. Obviously, this was not the case. Behind all of her street smart characters and effortless dance moves, opposite Fred Astaire, went a hefty bit of diligence, rehearsal, and training. For this reason, because of the woman she was and the success she was able to accomplish, she was in her time, and still today, a popular feminist icon. It is often recalled that she said: "I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels!" However, she never made this statement herself. The true source was the popular comic strip created by Bob Thaves, "Frank and Ernest," and in particular the cartoon printed in 1982. Yet, because it bore the ring of truth, the famous quote became one of the continuing slogans for girl power. Whether Ginger said the actual words or not, she did indeed live the example, for which women everywhere remain eternally grateful.

The famous Ginger comic strip.  

City Noise:
In the early days of the talkies, directors were trying to find new and innovative ways to not only record and synchronize sound appropriately, but also use it to a film's best advantage artistically speaking. All of a sudden, in addition to awkward staging to allow recorded dialogue, filmmakers began toying with sound effects, atmospheric sound, audio transitions, etc. It was all a little rocky, which explains why so many silent film players were certain that the latest invention was just another fad. Yet, the transition carried over, and slowly the kinks were ironed out and new ideas perfected. One such example comes via Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets (1931) starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney (left). Mamoulian is credited through the film of introducing the wonder of the "inner monologue." For the first time, a character's thoughts are heard by the viewer while the character herself remains silent. In this case, Sylvia Sidney ponders worriedly about her lover, Gary Cooper, and she hears his voice in her mind, as does the viewer. This technique was poo-pooed by many at the studio, who thought it came off as ridiculous and would never work, but it became a landmark moment. In the same year, Fritz Lang employed the same practice in his first sound film M, starring Peter Lorre as a twisted, child murderer. At one point in the film, Lorre covers his ears and rocks himself back and forth. The audience hears the whistling of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which is occuring only inside the psycopath's head, both calming him and firing him up for the kill at the same time. This method was soon copied by others until it became a commonplace staple of cinema narrative. No longer does an audience have to guess what a character is thinking. We can hear it too! (Another interesting bit of info from City Streets is that originally, Gary's former lover Clara Bow was to appear in the picture, but she was replaced by Sylvia after she suffered one of the tragic nervous breaksdowns that would send her career on a downward spiral).

Thursday, June 23, 2011


The ultimate film about the entertainment "cat" race, Stage Door:
Kate Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers.

Clawing your way to the top of the entertainment ladder is no easy feat. After completing the seemingly insurmountable task, which not all are able to do, one can either be left with a deluded feeling of euphoria, which erases all memory of the aforementioned climb, or one can continue to bear the cuts, bruises, and war wounds of his battle, which serve as daily reminders of his lengthy diligence and hard work. The former group can at times get lost in the twisted web of fame and fortune, drifting into the annoying abyss of entitlement and egotism. This outcome is rarely good. The latter group, however, usually maintains a devout gratitude for their good fortune and thus a dignified sort of humility. This creates a better path, one possessing clear-headedness, good business sense, and a compassion for the underdog. In the history of Hollywood, there are several tales of various stars sticking their necks out for other struggling artists-- using their "clout" as it were-- to help someone in a position from which they themselves have fortunately evolved. These instances of professional aid are at times minute, but the effect is always profound to the object in need, who will forever remember a small moment of kindness that-- if he or she was really lucky-- changed everything.

When Lucille Ball was still making the rounds at various studios, she landed a contract at RKO, where she primarily wound up in featured roles and bit parts. Despite the fact that, as far as the studio was concerned, she was just another one of the dime a dozen hopefuls, she was able to ingratiate herself to different people on the lot by being forever professional, completely willing, and incredibly funny. Hard work was not something that she ever had a problem with. Perhaps fellow nose-to-the-grindstone actress Katharine Hepburn took note of this. The two didn't have much a friendship, for Kate was higher on the acting echelon and being primed for stardom (in constant competition with another RKO leading lady, Ginger Rogers), but the duo would come into direct contact one fateful day-- which, coincidentally, could have been catastrophic for Lucy. Lucy was in the makeup chair, being prepped for yet another publicity photo to help test/boost her appeal, when all of a sudden, she was unceremoniously ushered away to make room for Hepburn, who was being readied for her daily shoot on Mary of Scotland (in wardrobe, left). Hepburn, through no fault of her own, took precedence over Lucy's cosmetic needs: Mary was a huge project for the studio. Lucy, pursing her lips, made her way into the next room, only to realize that she had left her tooth caps behind. Trying not to make a fuss or disturb "the Queen," Lucy tried to flag down the beautician who was working on Kate. She waved her arms at him through a dividing window, but to no avail. Though he saw her, he directly snubbed her flailing and continued with his work. Insulted, her temper grew red-hot, until she threw a steaming coffee pot at him! Unfortunately, the pot hit the table only to splatter all over Kate and her regalia. Lucy's eyes surely bulged as she began to panic! With Kate's dress dirtied with brown coffee spots, the shooting for the day couldn't be done and the studio was out thousands of dollars. Yet, when the top dogs came for blood, Kate stood by Lucy and refused to blame her for the incident. She used what little power she had to diffuse the situation instead of engaging in the expected diva-temper-tantrum. Lucy was also aided by Lela Rogers, Ginger's mother, who had been giving her acting lessons at the studio's behest. Lela believed that Lucy was one of the more promising young hopefuls and made this known to the enraged higher ups. Because of these two ladies, Lucy's job was saved-- temporarily. Interestingly, though her time at RKO would not last, she was there long enough to appear in Stage Door with both Hepburn and Rogers.

After RKO, Lucy would have help from another lady of the screen. Struggling to find work, and being told over and over again that her time was past-- that there was nowhere for a woman in her thirties to go in her career but down-- Lucy was having trouble holding onto her dream. Her self-confidence was at a bottom low, which was effecting her mentally and physically. She had even developed a stutter. Out of nowhere, she couldn't get through the most normal of sentences without breaking into stunted syllables. Just as suddenly, Olivia de Havilland (right) entered the picture. The two were not pals, barely having exchanged more than the usual "Hello, how are yous" at various parties and social affairs, but for some reason Olivia had taken a liking to Lucy. Perhaps she saw in the woman a another version of herself-- a fellow female fighter. As such, when word reached her that the funny, bubbly red head was on a downward spiral, she stepped in. She told her agent, Kurt Frings, to take Lucy on as a client and help to turn her career around. She just knew that the girl had "it" and only needed the right project to reach the stardom she deserved. Since no one said "No" to O de H-- a lesson Jack Warner learned all too well-- Frings agreed and added the stunned Lucy to his roster of clients. In a whirl, Lucy was still a nervous wreck when she began shooting on her first Frings induced project, Lover Come Back, opposite George Brent. Yet, she pulled it together, and once the cameras started rolling, she lost the stutter and regained her swagger. She remained eternally grateful to Olivia for her helping hand. It didn't turn out to be Lucy's big break, but it did help her get one step closer to success and kept her afloat during a confusing and back-breaking time.

Husband Desi Arnaz had also received a little help in his early career from none other than fellow crooner Bing Crosby. With Bing (left), judging from various accounts, you either loved him or hated him. Desi was one of the lucky ones who caught him on a good night. A very good night. Desi was a struggling musician touring with Xavier Cugat and his band, for which he played the guitar. Their itinerary eventually took the troupe to Saratoga, where Bing happened to be in attendance. Bing must have been impressed with Desi's playing, because he gleefully introduced himself-- in Spanish no less-- to the starstruck young man. Very friendly, and perhaps aided by a little too much liquor, "Bing-o" got congenial quickly and started asking the tongue-tied Cuban what he was earning for his talents. Desi responded with the sad truth: a measly $30/week. Bing, who knew Xavier, suddenly became Desi's champion. "That cheap bastard!" he roared. "Come on! Let's get you a raise!" He took Desi by the arm and the two marched right up to Cugat. Bing demanded that Cugat up the ante on Desi's paycheck. After being placed on the spot by such a huge superstar, Cugat was forced to agree... With one stipulation: that Bing perform a song with the band that night. Bing agreed, and Desi got his raise. Soon enough, ol' Dizzy had the money and confidence to tour with his own band, which inched him closer to Hollywood and his soul mate, Lucy.

In 1943, Van Johnson was just another struggling actor. Minor roles and extra work were the daily grind, until through a stroke of luck, he found himself cast in a supporting role in a major motion picture: A Guy Named Joe. Van was ecstatic! This could be his big break-- the opportunity of a lifetime. Enjoying his good fortune, he was out driving with friends Keenan and Eve Wynn (Van's future wife, but that's another story) when he was broadsided by another car. It was a serious accident, which left him badly injured. Very badly: a metal plate had to be put in his head! (In his future film work, you can see the noticeable scar). This tragedy couldn't have come at a worse time. His role as Ted Randall in the upcoming film was in jeopardy, for he needed extensive time to recuperate. Victor Fleming was put in the unfortunate position of looking for a replacement, until two angels came out of the wings. Both Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy were impressed with Van and believed he was perfect for the role, and they went to bat for him (all three in the finished film, right). Through much persuasion, they convinced Victor and the studio to postpone until Van was completely healed, promising that his performance would help to make the picture a hit. The big wigs surprisingly listened. It turns out that Van, despite the conflicting evidence, was a lucky man, and the film helped to skyrocket him to Stardom. His accident turned out to be a pain and a pleasure, for due to his injury, he was unable to serve in the military during WWII. As one of the few fellas left at home while other stars went off to battle, his capable leading man potential made him a top box-office star. Thanks to Irene and Spence, he had had his breakthrough and would never look back.

Sometimes, the scuffle for a fellow comrade becomes more than a professional courtesy. It's personal. This is something that Betsy Blair knew all too well. Married to the triple threat actor/dancer/singer Gene Kelly, her own career took a back-seat to his, especially after he found success in Hollywood with his breakout role in For Me and My Gal. Betsy didn't mind. She was fine with playing the role of the supportive spouse and loving mother and putting her own career on hold (see happy family, left). A talented actress and dancer herself, she did make the intermittent film but never achieved the same success or notoriety as her husband. At least, not the same kind of notoriety. During the "red scare," Betsy found herself the focus of the HUAC witch hunts. Though not a communist, her leftist politics, outspoken position on African American rights, and her part in the SAG anti-discrimination committee landed her on the blacklist. Her husband, Gene, who was equally liberally minded if not as outspoken, was safe from the same attack because of his growing box-office appeal. Seeing his wife so mistreated and outcast was difficult, to say the least. Her sadness enraged him, particularly when the role of Clara in Marty-- which he thought she would be perfect for-- was kept out of reach due to the current political tide. Tired of seeing his wife held down, Gene marched into studio head Dore Schary's office and gave him an ultimatum: let Betsy off the hook and give her the role, or Gene would simply stop coming to work! This was a bold move and could have quite easily gotten him into legal trouble for breach of contract, or worse, fired and blacklisted himself. However, Gene Kelly's name on the marquee meant guaranteed money, so Dore took the bait. Betsy landed the role of a lifetime in Marty, which would be the most memorable of her career, and received an Oscar nomination for her heart-wrenching performance. Sadly, this would prove to be one of the last happy moments in the Gene-Betsy marriage, which finally collapsed under the tension two years later. Yet, however the relationship may have ended, Betsy would always speak admiringly of her first husband, his courage, and the bold move that deepened her love and respect for him.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Lucy does her usual scene-stealing for laughs 
on "I Love Lucy."

To get ahead in Hollywood, one really has to stand out. This was a lesson Lucille Ball learned early on. An observant girl with an uncanny knack for funny, Lucy would take note when she found something hilarious and would later use it in her own work. When a teenager, she would once have the awestruck honor of witnessing a funny tidbit via silent screen gem Dorothy Gish. While modeling at a Carnegie fashion show, Lucy happened to see both Dorothy (left) and sister Lillian with their two dates. When Lillian and the two gents walked away for a pace, Lucy watched while Dorothy calmly ripped her red program apart and stuck the little pieces to her face. When the trio returned, and Dorothy's pimpled face greeted them, they all burst out laughing. Lucy did too, and she would remember the moment. Later, when trying to land a spot as a chorine in the Eddie Cantor flick Roman Scandals, Lucy would steal Dorothy's gimmick. Applying the pieces of red crepe paper to her own face, she waited as Eddie went down the line of lovely girls, scanning their ripe figures and eying their legs. When he came to Lucy, he stopped in his tracks and started cracking up. He asked her name, and as he walked away, she could hear him say, "That Ball dame-- she's a riot!" Needless to say, she made an impression and got the gig.

"I Love Lucy" co-star William Frawley was also a natural comedian. If anyone on the show knew how to deliver a line, it was Frawley. In fact, he added a lot of gags and one-liners to punch up the already hilarious scripts. Because of this, he was constantly winning the "funny race" backstage. All of the names of the cast and crew were listed on a poster, and when they contributed something side-splitting to the show, they received a gold star next to their name. Frawley's name always outshined the others. However, he sometimes didn't "get" the jokes assigned to him. This is obviously not because he lacked a good sense of humor, but because he only ever memorized his own lines. So, during rehearsal, he would come up to Desi Arnaz and say, "You know, this line isn't very funny." Desi (with Bill on the show, right) continually had to explain, "Well sure, not by itself, but after the build-up it makes a great punchline." He would then describe the scenario, and suddenly the comic button that William's Fred Mertz added made sense. "Oh," he'd say. "Yeah. I guess that is funny." 

Back in the days before personal stylists and make-up artists, an actor was pretty much left up to his or her own devices to contrive the perfect look for a character. In addition to providing your own wardrobe, so too must you possess the ability to "put your face on," because no one else was gonna do it for you. This was information that aspiring young ingenue Leatrice Joy (left) knew all too well. The silent film actress was a novice when she started performing before the camera, but then, in 1918, so was everyone else. However, her jitters got the better of her before the camera started cranking on One Dollar Bid. Panicked about looking her best, in addition to adding cosmetics to her face, she decided to add a white paste to her arms to give them a smooth, porcelain look. When it came time for her to give her co-star and latest crush, John Gilbert, a tender embrace, her hug left white blotches all over his brand new jacket. Since John was also a struggling actor-- as evidenced by his thin-from-starvation frame-- the fact that one of his few personal suits of clothes was ruined was enough to send him into a tizzy. Poor Leatrice was humiliated, but after John sent her into tears, he apologized. When daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain later asked her mother what had made her make such a strange cosmetic choice, the elder Leatrice simply said that she thought it would look "pretty." The result was pretty awful.

Leatrice would later make another make-up foul-up when, after making peace, John started courting her. Both actors, while not famous by any means, had by now established some level of stability in the acting world, and Leatrice was flattered that the handsome, growing star was paying her such steadfast attention. Once again nervous, she went to a trusted source of feminine wiles for help: neighbor Theda Bara. The Queen of Sexual Potency (see right) had plenty of advice for the delicate young Leatrice and allegedly gave her a makeover that completely altered her appearance. One might have likened her to... a "harlot." Since John was a couth gentleman, Leatrice doubted that he would take to her new appearance and wiped most of its evidence away before he arrived to pick her up. However, she had neglected to remove the rouge from her earlobes, which Theda had assured her was all the rage-- certain to indicate to her suitor her secret, sensual passion. While dancing, John couldn't help but notice Leatrice's ears, which appeared to be inflamed and infected. When he asked her about them, she fessed up. All John could do was laugh. He helped her to remove the last of Theda's influence, and the two enjoyed the rest of the evening. Leatrice made a pretty good impression on her own. John would marry her in 1922. Despite their divorce two years later, and John's tumultuous romance with Greta Garbo, he would always attest that the sweet, naive Leatrice was the one who got away.  

Ernest Borgnine is not the typical leading man. Yet, after serving some time in the military, the perplexed young fella' was nudged into acting by his mother, who saw a talent that he had never realized. Slowly but surely, the character actor honed his craft and became a dependable and capable commodity to the stage. The next logical step was Hollywood, which was very far from Ernie's roots, but he was willing to give it a go. A fun-loving but old-fashioned guy, he would always recall one of his early screen tests with humor. Richard Siodmak saw some real potential in him, and asked him to come in to audition for The Whistle at Eaton Falls. "Audition" was a very strong word, for Ernie's performance was relegated to basically sitting in a chair and smiling. Awkward and still in a whirl about it all, he was confused when the director gave him his one simple direction: "Say 'Sh*t,' then smile." "What?!" Ernie replied. "Just do it. Trust me." So, Ernest lit up a big grin, looked directly into the camera and said with great joy, "Sh*t!" Cut. (See similar effect, left). Afterward, Richard took the screen test to producer Louis de Rochemont. When he saw Ernest's footage he asked, "What is he saying?" Richard lied: "I don't know, but he's got a great smile!" Louis must have agreed, for Ernest Borgnine was cast in the movie, which was his film debut.

Charlton Heston (right) also made a great impression on director Cecil B. DeMille. But not a great first impression. Cecil wasn't interested when he first saw the actor, considering him too "sinister," but then Cecil was an eccentric guy. After writing Chuck off as just another run-of-the-mill actor, one day, Heston happened to drive past him on the back lot and flash a wave. Suddenly, Cecil had a change of heart. Turning to his assistant, Gladys Rosson, he said, "I like the way he waved just now." Maybe there was something to this kid after all... He seemed to have the confidence and charisma that Cecil needed in a leading man. Chuck was soon put to the test when he was cast in The Greatest Show on Earth as Brad Braden. But, his first role with DeMille might have initially had Cecil rethinking his choice. For his first scene, Chuck had to drive up and jump out of a jeep. Instead, he drove up, hopped out, and fell flat on his face. One can almost imagine Cecil closing his eyes and shaking his head in annoyance. Luckily, Chuck was able to shake off the initial embarrassment and churn out a strong performance. Cecil too was impressed, and he would recast Heston in the pinnacle success of his career The Ten Commandments. It was because of this movie that Chuck's unique place in cinema was solidified. Thanks to that simple wave, Charlton Heston became a star. A little friendliness goes a long way.

Norma Talmadge was one of the divas of the silent film era (as seen left). Sadly, she is too often forgotten amongst her contemporaries, along with her sisters Constance and Natalie. In her hey-day, while married to none other than production chief Joseph Schenck, Norma ruled all. In a powerful position, she had her choice of roles and was able to rake in the dough. She could be seen around town looking very regal in her fine furs and elegant gowns. During the brief time that these untouchable celebs were seen as royalty, she more than played the part-- on and off screen. Yet, it was all a game, and while her more smart-ass sister Connie aka "Dutch" seemed to latch onto this, Norma sometimes seemed to be completely lost in the oblivion of her own narcissistic delusions. It was an "I think, therefore I am" kind of attitude. However, there were times when the aloof veneer would come down and the Brooklyn girl would come out with full force. If there was one man who loved to identify and skewer hypocrisy, it was Groucho Marx, which is why he loved having his pal George Jessel reminisce about the Grande Dame... who apparently had a bit of a drinking problem. To Groucho's amusement, George would recount how he and Norma had been chummy in the old days and had run in the same circles. While George would say that Norma was, indeed, a fine lady, he would stipulate that this was only until she had had her third drink. As he put it: "She was wonderful. Until the third drink, she had the manners of a princess. Courted, she was like a Queen. Third drink, she'd pee on the floor." Groucho loved that part. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: Movie Stars and the Mob

Hollywood's favorite Gangster: James Cagney

There is something intoxicating about the element of danger, isn't there? All of our favorite actors possess it. Who is Brando without it? For that matter, who is Davis without it? Just as different celebrities hypnotize us through their various characters, so too were they mesmerized by a certain breed of the male animal that was even more intoxicating than themselves-- the gangster. Brutal, violent, merciless, not to mention unlawful, the birth of the thug came with the death of alcohol. In protecting human beings by taking away their booze, prohibition ironically unearthed an even more foul, yet even more tempting, villain. Iconically remembered with Tommy guns, cigars, and sometimes baseball bats (thanks to Robert De Niro's turn in The Untouchables), these tough guys emerged from a world of hard knocks and ruthlessness with no other agenda than to make a buck off other men's weaknesses. Businessmen and bruisers, they became rich and powerful through drugs, gambling, white slavery... You name it. Their legacy is a strange and dark mutation of the American dream. Living as the Royalty of the Underworld, it wasn't long before live villains started rubbing elbows with screen heroes. Elbows... and then some.

Why do good girls always want the bad boys? You'd think a lady would know to run far and fast when a man with a more-than-disreputable reputation came into view, yet the opposite effect more popularly occurs. Even some of our most beloved starlets have been hoodwinked by the charms of a devious gangster. Be it the allure of being that close to danger, the attraction of power, the money and spoils the "hood" is able to provide (however his means of obtaining them), certain women have temporarily muted their common sense for a forbidden adrenaline rush. One such lady was Lucille Ball (looking very much the gangster's moll in her role for Dance Girl Dance, left). As a fourteen year-old youngster, her first major boyfriend was a local hood named Johnny DeVita, whose resume included "chauffeuring" for his sketchy father-- aka transporting whiskey. Johnny was tough, which Lucille found a turn-on, and the fact that he carried a gun around made her even more enamored. However, not long after his dad was shot and killed, Johnny would find himself in Jail for his own transgressions. Lucy's taste didn't change much when she became a struggling model in NY. Working for Hattie Carnegie, she often came across gang members looking for good-looking dames to show a swell time. Lucy struck up friendships with many of these fellows, which helped her get a free meal or two, not to mention a false sense of protection. After a neighborhood shootout, she earned the nickname "two-gun." Just why remains a mystery.

Another tough guy Lucy would date and befriend was George Raft. Raft (right) had a lot of mobster ties dating all the way back to his boyhood. He had no ambitions to rise in the ranks of that type of "business," but he ingratiated himself to a number of wise guys who would later call on him for favors when he became a movie star. Mae West would recall meeting Raft for the first time when he was a mere chauffeur for Owney Madden. They had a brief fling, which left Mae reminiscing in later years that George was "all man." Mae, like Lucy, had a taste for the bad boys, but was too smart a business woman to get involved too deeply with them. Emotions remained out of the equation. Strangely, she tried to coerce Raft into appearing in her latest stage production, "Sex," but George had no ambitions toward being an actor either. He had no ambitions at all it seemed, other than to just live as comfortably as possible. It was thus a shock to Mae when, later, George made it to Hollywood before she did and secured a role for her in what would be her film debut: Night After Night. It was a welcome reunion. Despite this, Raft was known by some as hot-tempered and threatening. He still carried around a gun, cozied up to thugs, and had no qualms about slapping someone around. He would even testify on behalf of Bugsy Siegel when the latter was brought up on bookmaking charges. Yet, George seemed to have a soft spot for certain ladies. In addition to Mae, he was helpful to Lucy when he loaned her the money to rent her first bungalow in Hollywood. It was a touching move, for it allowed her to move her entire family from Jamestown to L.A. It would take her more than six years to pay him back, but her pal said that there was no rush.

Pat DiCicco also had mob connections. Publicly an acting agent, privately he was good friends with the likes of Lucky Luciano. Luckily, whatever fling Lucy Ball had with Pat was brief, but Carole Landis was too suckered by his deceptive charms. Initially turned on by his confidence and swagger, she soon found that her Prince Charming had some major rage issues. Their affair would quickly come to an end after a mysterious hospital visit: she was reported to be undergoing cosmetic surgery on her nose, though it is commonly believed that she was repairing the physical damage of a brutal beating. The girl was perfect, after all; she didn't need plastic surgery. Whatever the source of her visit, it marked the end of their relationship. Most notoriously, it was comedienne Thelma Todd who was all too seriously involved with Pat. The two were married in the 1930s (see newlyweds left). Like the others, Thelma fell for what she mistook as Pat's strength, only to find herself constantly on the receiving end of his anger and jealousy. A common error, most women sought these men in hopes of finding protection but put themselves in the line of fire instead... literally. As their marriage was ending, Pat introduced Thelma to Lucky Luciano aka Charles Lucifer, and the two began their own affair. But, as Lucky put the pressure on Thelma to give him space in her Sidewalk Cafe to use as a gambling center, Thelma adamantly refused. Consequently, she was found dead in her garage on December 16, 1935. Though Lucky was certainly the mastermind behind her "accidental" demise, many believed Pat too played an intricate part in ending his ex-wife's life. Since all of Tinsel Town knew this, it makes it strange that any other woman would give Pat a second glance, but in addition to winning over Lucy and Carole, Pat too would tac Joan Blondell, Gloria Vanderbilt, Virginia Bruce, and Elizabeth Taylor onto his roster.

Another infamous Hollywood death that has been tied to in some respect to gang warfare is that of The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short. Though many would attest that the macabre nature of her death and the precision with which she was brutally sawed in half suggested the work of a calculating psychopath or serial killer, there were also clues attached to her body that pointed to none other than Bugsy Siegel (right). One theory postulates that newspaper magnate Norman Chandler paid Siegel, along with the aid of a couple of other thugs and a doctor, to kill Bettie after she became pregnant with Norman's child. He feared the threat of a scandal and the tarnishing of his illustrious family's name. If so, this would explain the brutality with which Bettie was beaten across the head and face-- the sadistic Bugsy had a penchant for "pistol whipping." Because her uterus was removed, this too lends to the speculation that her murder was used to cover up an abortion/pregnancy. Also, her body was dumped not far from Bugsy foe Jack Dragna's house, and-- something the police did not let the press in on-- a "D" was carved into her skin, which many attribute to an antagonistic Sicilian "Eff you" from Bugsy to Dragna. With Bugsy's schedule, flying back and forth non-stop while finalizing his precious Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, it is possible that he was present to have just enough time to take part in the murder and, knowing him, enjoy it.

Whether or not he did play a role in Bettie's end, Bugsy had a very prominent role in Hollywood-- with both the women and the men. Whatever his sickening and reprehensible behavior in fact, he was able to at least concoct enough fiction to make him fascinating to all of the glitterati. He could be seen on the town at various shindigs, rubbing elbows with Clark Gable and Gary Cooper-- and George Raft, of course. Naturally, the man known as the handsomest thug too partnered up with several actresses, including Marie McDonald and Wendy Barrie. He was also in tight with Jean Harlow's abysmal step-father, Marino Bello, which put him in contact with Jean as well. (Harlow, of course, is also rumored to have had a relationship with Abner "Longie" Zwillman, who helped her secure her first acting contract. He too was said to carry around a locket containing hair from her... uh... nether-regions). Whether these actors truly liked Bugsy or merely tolerated him out of fear is uncertain. One would at least hope that they had their guards up. Most notoriously, Bugsy had a violent and torrential relationship with wannabe actress Virginia "Sugar" Hill (left), who was supposedly just as venomous and abusive as her lover. It would be at Virginia's home in Beverly Hills, 810 N. Linden Drive, where Bugsy would finally meet his maker and face the music for all of his worldly crimes. He was shot clean through the eye. His murder was believed to be payback for all of the money he owed his Flamingo investors.

But all of these names were floating around Hollywood for a reason. The Mob was moving West-- away from the Metropolises of New York and Chicago-- to do big business in show business. Names like Siegel, Luciano, Mickey Cohen, Meyer Lansky, and Frank Nitti are attached to Movieland for very specific reasons. One is now known as "The Great Hollywood Shakedown." Two lesser known names involved are those most responsible for what was to become an enormous extortion racket- Willie Bioff (right) and George Brown. Their scheme started in Chicago, where after dabbling in prostitution, they set their sights on the Stagehands Union. Step one, membership. The slogan was simple: join us you little, underpaid children... or be beaten within an inch of your life. Step Two, after Increasing dues, B&B threatened theater owners with "strikes" if they didn't pay up monthly fees for the use of the union members. Theater owners Sam Katz and Barney Balaban were some of the first hit with the new, raw deal. To keep their theaters running, they played the game, and business continued smoothly. Frank Nitti, Al Capone's heir, soon partnered up (or rather took over), and the venture moved West. Capone had already laid the ground work, and Nitti wanted to finish the job. With the corrupt Buron Fitts running things as the District Attorney in Los Angeles, a complete goon-takeover wouldn't be difficult.

Next, New York's Lucky Luciano (left) was brought into the loop in a temporary or at least feigned truce, and the two branches would work together to take over Tinsel Town. Adding the projectionists' unions and IATSE to the scheme, they could return to men like Balaban, now in Hollywood running Paramount, and demand huge payments to keep their theaters running and their studios filming. The film-businessmen would be forced to pay or suffer the consequences: the loss of their livelihoods or worse, the loss of their lives. All of the major studios were hit: Paramount, Warners, Twentieth-Century, MGM... Game, Set, Match. In a way, it worked for everyone. Under mob control, the studios ran more efficiently than ever, as long as they payed up, and moguls actually saved money paying the bad guys instead of paying the Unions directly. Needless to say, the union members were the ones getting truly and financially screwed. As hot-shot gang members became commonplace at Hollywood parties, corruption whipped into full swing. Producer Joe Schenck even got in on the action via a Dupont Film monopoly, for which he paid ol' Bioff off with a Ranch. The feds caught up with him, however, ironically from a tip from Montgomery Clift, then the SAG President, whose informants alerted the IRS to the fishy financial goings-on. Schenck served five years in prison as a result. By the end of the '40s, with the cat out of the bag, the whole troupe of accomplices was led into court both for participation in the extortion plot and tax evasion. Most would get off due to their connections, but some did not fare as well, including Nitti, who blew his own brains out when the prospect of facing jail time became too daunting. The only one who escaped completely was Lucky, who (after killing Thelma Todd), had left the whole racket, or rather was kicked out by his own partners, to return to New York. He was later deported back to his native Sicily where he would die in 1962 at the ripe old age of 69. One hopes his soul did not fare as well.

Frank Sinatra (right) was the man most notoriously associated with the Mafia in the latter days of Hollywood's golden age. It is common knowledge by now that it was through Old Blue Eyes's influence and mob connections that the Kennedys were able to buy their way into the White House. Of course, after they got what they wanted, the Prez quickly disappeared from Frank's life so that his pristine public image wouldn't be maligned. Frank was... ticked. (There are continuing theories that many members of the mafia, who had connections with the Kennedy family, were outraged by the political family's inability to "do business" properly. While many in America were shocked when JFK was shot dead, those in the underworld were not). Frank often overcompensated for his diminutive stature by surrounding himself by powerful people. His big voice and even bigger ego were all the guy needed, but his need to appear tough and throw his weight around was enhanced by his relationships with gangsters. Sam Giancana and Mickey Cohen were co-owners of Frank's Cal Neva Lodge. Skinny D'Amato was the manager. Frank was also throughout his life associated with Joe and Rocco Fischetti and John Formosa. While this made him somewhat of a moral and political threat, it equally boosted his fan appeal and public image. His male fans particularly were more intrigued when they learned that little Frankie was more than just a singing heartthrob for the ladies. He was a bad-ass mother-f*cker! Say what you will, no one messed with Frank. Well, almost. Frank got a little miffed at Lucille's beloved Desi Arnaz after he started producing "The Untouchables." He felt it was insulting to both Italians and "his friends." Yet, even after he tried to persuade his Cuban comrade to pull the plug, Desi sweet-talked him out of his anger. As Frank himself would say, "I just can't stay mad at the guy."

Edward G. Robinson takes a bullet and makes a hit in Little Caesar.

"The Untouchables" turned out to be a huge hit for Desilu Studios, and one of many Hollywood products that contributed to our understanding of gang warfare. The show would make Robert Stack a star, though his role was that of Det. Eliot Ness (a character reprised by Kevin Kostner in the film version). The show was, however, more about the triumph of good over evil, whereas earlier Hollywood films made in the gangster infiltration hey-day-- specifically those produced during the pre-code era-- had a tendency to glorify the thugs, the goons, and the hoods. It's funny that, aside from Sinatra and Raft, some of the actors most famous for playing these guys were very far from their screen selves. Edward G. Robinson, the infamous pug-faced actor who rose to fame in Little Caesar, was in life an educated aesthete who collected fine art, had a wide knowledge of music and culture, and could speak seven languages fluently. And Cagney, the mad hero of Public Enemy and White Heat? His portrayals of gangsters were convincing, because he observed them while growing up in the Lower East Side of NY. But, while he studied them, he did not assimilate, despite the fact that many of his friends did. He put his passions and angst into his art, becoming a song and dance man instead. His true self would come to the forefront in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Though admitted facades that could never possess the brutality of the real truth, the classic reel tales of booze, violence, and "bidness," are still offers we can't refuse. I guess the flesh and blood (and I do mean blood) realities were just as enticing for some celebs, though dancing with the Devil too often left then burned.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Lucille Desiree Ball

John Lennon once said that in the world of music, "Before Elvis, there was nothing."  I suppose that it is safe to say, in the world of Television, Before Lucy... there was nothing. Though I normally choose to dedicate my articles to those who helped shape the film world, there can be no denying the impact that Lucy had on that new-fangled contraption called the TV set. Though she wasn't the first performer to appear on the small screen, she would become the biggest. Along with husband Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball would redefine-- in fact invent-- the situation comedy. Due to her weekly accessibility to salivating viewers, she too would finally achieve the stardom and celebrity she had always craved. In order to be big, Lucy had to get small. In result, she remains one of the most famous and recognizable actresses that ever lived.

In her early career, Lucille was compared to blonde screwball Carole Lombard-- 
a good friend-- whom she closely resembles here (before she went red).

All was not rosy, however. Comedians are perhaps the best actors, adeptly using laughter to detract and distract from their own personal torments. The facade of the hilarious, romantic, and peachy-keen domestic bliss of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo is a testament to the talent of both Lucy and Desi-- whose marriage was crumbling even as their hit TV show was skyrocketing them to fame and fortune. For Lucy, pain and personal tragedy were more familiar that laughs and hijinks. She would spend her life outrunning, out-thinking, and flat-out mugging her way out of obscurity, poverty, and invisibility. A born leader with a one-track-mind kind of ambition since her youth, Lucille Ball always pushed past the downward spirals in life in the belief that achieving her dreams would erase all sorrow. The eldest of three children by Henry Durrell Ball and Desiree Evelyn Hunt, Lucy was the most effected by her father's early, shocking death to typhoid fever. She was then neglected the paternal love she so craved by her new step-father, the gruff Ed Peterson. Shuffled between her mother, her grandparents, and any relative that would have her, Lucy's tenderest years were spent on shaky ground. When she dreamed of the future-- of performing, of being an actress, of being a star-- it wasn't the fame or money that called to her so much as the need for security. Safety. To live without financial worry was incredibly important. To have the adulation of fans was a promise of love. Yet every time she reached a peak, she clutched madly at it, certain that she would lose her grip on the life for which she had fought so hard. This insecurity, the same that fueled her tireless work ethic, was also the one that sabotaged her happiness. Even after becoming the Lucy that we all know and love, she would cry to herself: "Why can't I be happy?"

In an early RKO bit part in Follow the Fleet with Fred and Ginge. 

As with many actors, Lucy's one blanket of safety from her own conflicting and destructive thoughts was performing. From an early age, she had a knack for it. Whether BS-ing her way through a job as a short order cook in her native Jamestown, NY, earning rave reviews for her thirteen-year-old debut in a local musical (for which she was compared to the Jeanne Eagles), or taking on any and every silly role flung her way once she reached Hollywood, when on stage, she was always able to (temporarily) put the blues behind her. But it wasn't easy. Lucy was hard to peg. A hard worker, she was attractive but not "gorgeous," though she did find early work as a model. Her odd ball energy made her difficult to categorize. The studios doubted her leading lady ability, normally casting her as the smart-mouthed best friend in films like Stage Door or tough cookies and bad girls in films like Dance Girl Dance. Her blink-and-you'll-miss-them roles opposite rising stars like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire at RKO were what kept food on the table, as well as her badly written, poorly produced clunkers that made her, as she called herself, "Queen of the Bs." Still, her performances were solid when given the chance. She holds her own against George Sanders and Boris Karloff in Lured, and in The Big Street, her complex and deeply felt portrayal of a crippled show-girl breaks your heart. Yet, after appearing opposite The Marx Brothers, The Stooges, and Hepburn and Tracy, the poor girl still couldn't get anywhere above the title. Time, diligence, and love would later change this.

A match made in Hollywood Heaven and 
Personal Hell: the tortured love of Lucy and Desi.

Lucille Ball was attracted to the handsome Cuban musician Desi Arnaz since the moment she saw him performing on stage in "Too Many Girls." When the two were cast in the film version of this hit, lightning struck them both. Five years her junior, there was something about the passionate, charismatic, and exotic man that fascinated her. Their relationship was tumultuous and full of jealousy from the get-go, but in the early stages this only fueled their infatuation. Quickly ditching the people they were with, their subsequent marriage was more of a dare or challenge than a well thought out plan. Lucille must have had a premonition of what was to come: she wore black to her wedding. Madly in love and angry as Hell most of the time, the two rarely saw each other, merely passing cars on the hill as Lucy drove off to work in the morning and Desi was arriving home from working the clubs the previous night. Affairs were numerous, mostly on Desi's side, but it is also speculated that Lucy dabbled herself. As she clawed for her career, she too fought for the solid family life that had always been denied her. It was like forcing square pegs into round holes-- with their mutual ambitions, a quiet domesticity was never in the cards. Lucy yearned for a child, but with Desi always travelling with his band, getting pregnant was next to impossible. The most she could hope for was her career. In this at least it can be said that the Arnaz's were in union. Despite their bickering, philandering, and contention, they equally recognized each other's talents. In 1951, they would get a chance to showcase them together.

In the Season One Episode "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," Lucy performed in what 
she recalled as the greatest comedic moment of her career-- 
pushing Vitameatavegamin with disastrous results.

Lucy was doing the radio show "My Favorite Husband" when, after much praise, the idea was born to turn it into a television program. Lucy was adamant that Desi replace Richard Denning as her husband and that the show be refashioned to suit his persona. With the help of producer Jess Oppenheimer, writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh, and CBS, many hours of blood, sweat, toil, and tears, brought about "I Love Lucy." All concerned worked tirelessly to take a shaky premise, constantly rewritten scripts, and an insecure, nitpicking leading lady-- whose perfectionism made her demanding one minute and left her in tears the next-- to create a pilot about a married couple whose relationship is constantly tested by the entertainer husband's patriarchal stances and the wife's madcap attempts to be a part of his show. The finished idea sold, and after some minor changes-- including casting an older landlord couple played by Vivian Vance and William Frawley-- the game was set. For 9 Seasons, "I Love Lucy" triumphed. Desi proved himself to be a gifted businessman, who spearheaded his own show's success, as well as that of other shows that would be produced at Desilu studios, (including "The Untouchables"). The show broke barriers by introducing an "interracial" couple, by showing a wedded couple in bed together (though their twins were pushed together and not legitimately a double), and by daring to have Lucy announce to Ricky that she was "pregnant"-- which at that time was as gasp-inducing as "Murphy Brown's" later out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

From Season 2's "The Operetta." Lucy had no humility or vanity 
when it came to comedy. She would do whatever it took.

On the screen, Ricky and Lucy were in love. Off screen, Lucy and Desi fought constantly, as did Vivian Vance and William Frawley, whose mutual antipathy was mirrored in a much more cushiony version through their characters. Yet, for the sake of the show, everyone grinned and bore it. Frawley gave up booze while filming, though his shakes are often painfully visible to the viewer. Vance, who was constantly undergoing emotional breakdowns, remained a strong force of reason whose keen perception of story helped forge stronger scripts. While originally Lucy was intimidated by Vance, once pulling her false lashes from her face because "Only Lucy has fake lashes on this show!" the two grew on each other. Lucy came to rely on Vance, and Vance grew to understand Lucy's outbursts as indicative of her raging vulnerabilities. Desi enjoyed his position at the studio, becoming very knowledgeable about everyone on staff, helping to expand the empire, and gaining a reputation as a great judge of talent. Yet, in the end, as the Lucy/Desi marriage fell apart, so too did the Ricardos. After the dueling duo could go no longer, they would divorce each other, and "I Love Lucy" would divorce itself from living rooms around the world.

With a constant collaborator (especially in later years), Bob Hope
in The Facts of Life.

By the end of "I Love Lucy," Lucille Ball was enough of an icon to retire, had she so wanted. Yet, the perpetual laborer in her continued on. She returned sans Desi in "The Lucy Show," (again with Vance), and later flew solo in "Here's Lucy!", but both shows failed to attract the same adoration. She too took on stage roles and returned to cinema opposite other aging contemporaries like Bob Hope. Her most lasting effort would be with Henry Fonda in Yours Mine and Ours, though she continued working ceaselessly until her death. Lucy, always superstitious, believed that the letters "AR" gave her luck. She herself would say that "Lucille Ball" was a nobody until she became an "Arnaz" and even moreso "Lucy Ricardo." After her divorce from Desi, she would marry comedian Gary Morton, perhaps in the hope that he would bring the same good vibrations. Yet, though Gary offered constancy, the vim and vigor of Desi was irreplaceable. Though horrible as husband and wife and lackluster as parents due to their obsessive careers (they would eventually have two children, Lucie and Desi, Jr), some theorize that Lucy and Desi never truly fell out of love with each other. Their lives were too deeply interconnected to completely split asunder. The best of them remains in the continuing syndication of their best-beloved hit. Even today, new generations fall under the Ricardos' spell.

A brilliant photo depicting the fascinating, mysterious
 duality of Lucille Ball. One perspective reveals her 
determination, the other her vulnerability.

The true honor, however, belongs to the adorable, rubber-faced, accident-prone, but ever-loving Lucy. In one being, she was both Beauty and Bananas. Goofing for her audiences, she hoped that some of the joy she gave would be returned to her; that her audiences' laughter would warm her. For this, she fought until her dying day. It would be easy to say that she was merely a ham, but in her performances there is great depth and awareness, which would allow the show to maintain its power even after the collapse of the nostalgic nuclear family and the heights of the feminist movement. Lucy has become one of the biggest female icons of all time, building her empire out of the tiny box that most actors feared. Her lasting impression is that of joy, of letting go, of finding the humor and innocence in every day life. Groucho Marx would once say that Lucy wasn't a comedienne, she was an actress. Some interpreted this as an insult, but I find it to be a precise observation. There was art in what Lucy did. Orson Welles would agree. When observing Lucy rehearse on her show, he openly stated that he was "watching the world's greatest actress." Her hard work continues to pay off. In black and white, the fiery red head with the big blue eyes continues her reign as the eternal Queen of Comedy. We still Love you Lucy.