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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Didja Know: Part II

Everett Sloane, Joe Cotten, and Orson Welles cook up a plot in Citizen Kane.
Didja notice Orson's fake schoz? He wore them often, because he thought his
own nose was too small and demure.

Chapter Two of Random Factoids: enjoy!

The Real Rosebud

The great mystery of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane was the elusive "Rosebud." After all the ensuing drama, the character recollections, and the unwrapping of a complicated past, the last word of Charles Foster Kane is revealed as the name of his boyhood sled (left). When the bulk of Kane is whittled down, the audience is left to see that this small seed from a lost childhood is responsible for the maladjusted growth of the mammoth CFK. However, behind the scenes, there too was much controversy surrounding Rosebud. For years-- as the plot of the film was based at least in template on the life of William Randolph Hearst-- it has been gossiped that "Rosebud" was actually the nickname that Hearst prescribed to his mistress Marion Davies's nether regions. While this could quite possibly have been a fortunate (or rather unfortunate) coincidence, the truth is much simpler. Citizen Kane was the brainchild of Welles brought to life by the writing talents of friend Herman Mankiewicz. As such, pieces from both of these men's private lives found their way into the film, such as Orson naming one of the characters "Bernstein" after his mother's lover, Dr. Maurice Bernstein. The true Rosebud was similarly contrived: Orson received a sled from his beloved Todd School upon his graduation, marking the true end of his childhood-- not that he ever indulged in its innocence or naivete-- and Mank', as Orson called him, had a bicycle when he was a boy that he named... "Rosebud." By uniting these two youthful memories, one of cinema's most referenced plot devices was born. If Ms. Davies too shared the moniker, which cannot be confirmed or denied, it was thus by complete happenstance.

Obie, Camera, Action!

Every great actress knows that  the real man to make friends with on the set is the cinematographer. Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich were both staunch students when it came to lighting and angles, and they always knew how to hit their mark to look their best. Merle Oberon would too get a little education in this arena. She, like Lombard, was in a near fatal car crash in 1937, which left her face scarred. After painful surgery and recuperation, she returned to the screen, but covering up the new blemishes on her face was a daunting task. Luckily, while filming the 1944 remake of The Lodger, (right) she fell in with cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard worked diligently to create a camera light which, when placed directly beside the camera, shined light directly onto her face and eliminated the appearance of her scars. Appropriately, he named his invention after her: The Obie. In gratitude, Oberon promptly married Ballard and enjoyed a fruitful career. (Coincidentally her first husband was Alexander Korda, the ambitious English producer who tried and failed to make many projects with Star of the Month Orson Welles over the years, including War and Peace).

Great Faces, Greater Minds

On the subject of inventions... It comes as no surprise that many screen performers are multi-talented. Especially in the early days, one had to be particularly well-rounded to make it, so that he or she could be thrown into any role-- drama, musical, or comedy-- and come out swinging... or singing. However, we also have a crew of film stars that should be acknowledged not just for their physical gifts but for their mental proclivities. It turns out that some stars aren't only lookers, they're thinkers, innovators, and even... inventors??? Did you know that: the first film star, Florence Lawrence, invented an early form of the automobile turn signal? It was comprised of two arms, which, when signalled, would drop to indicate which way the driver was turning. She sadly did not obtain a patent and thus missed out on the cash reward of such a novel idea. Zeppo Marx too was a very interesting man. Always tinkering with gadgets, the ex-actor/sometimes agent became an engineer. He started the Marman Products Company, Inc. in 1941 and helped the war effort by producing clamping devices and straps. He also developed the first heart-rate pulse monitor! Perhaps the most shocking-- to those who don't think that beauty and brains can come in the same package-- Hedy Lamarr (left), who had been previously married to an arms merchant, used what she had gleaned from him to make an invention of her own. She created a "frequency hopping" device to be used with WWII torpedoes in order to avoid signal "jamming" by the enemy. Sadly, although she did obtain a patent, the US Military never put her invention to work. Still, she must have been proud to do her part.

Don't Let the Heels Fool Ya'

Ann Miller was one tough cookie in her youth. In addition to her great dancing talent, she too possessed a fierce determination. This created quite the ambitious young lady, and her great work ethic would serve her well in the industry. It definitely helped her grab gigs opposite both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In 1937, Ann was already chomping at the bit to get to work, and when she had the opportunity to work opposite Ginger Rogers in the film Stage Door she was willing to do whatever it took to do so... Including lie. Only 14-years-old, Ann fudged four extra years and made herself eighteen! Whether or not the big-wigs believed her is unknown, but then they were probably too distracted by her lengthy stems to notice any discrepancies. Thus, the lanky youngster got her way and was cast as "Annie." She proved her mettle again when she was given the chance to dance opposite Fred Astaire. She was ecstatic about working on the project Easter Parade with him, and was devastated when she suffered a severe back injury-- aka her husband at the time pushed her down the stairs. (Real gentleman, that one). This should have taken her out of the running, but Ann wasn't about to give up the chance to waltz with her hero (see right). So, she worked overtime to get in shape and had the doctors strap up her back for the dancing sequences. The process hurt like hell and often left her in tears, but when the camera is on you never see it. What a pro.

Call of the Wild

Sound engineers rarely get their due. Ever since the talkies came screaming in with their sounds, squeaks, and squeals, a whole new arm of the filmmaking body had to be born to carry the weight. It's not always as easy as "Roll sound, record dialogue." Creating the proper atmosphere within a film requires a mind sophisticated or creative enough to combine a variety of noises into an underlying track. It's like writing a often barely audible symphony. Some of this sonic tinkering is more obvious, such as in explosions, sirens, gun shots... or jungle howls??? Believe it or not, coming up with the now iconic yowl of Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan for 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man was no easy feat. Audience imagination previously had to interpret his animalistic battle cry for the 1918 silent film version, but the addition of the mic made things more complicated. The point was to make his cry distinctive without making it laughable; make it palatable to the ears without making it either too passive or too threatening. There have been many theories over the years as to how the mammalian screech was made, including combining Weismuller's voice with the growl of a dog, a soprano trill, a violin, and a hyena. But the simplest version may perhaps be the most true: Johnny screamed, Douglas Shearer recorded his voice, the yell was enhanced, and then played backward. So, when you hear Tarzan howling for his Jane (with Maureen O'Sullivan left), he's actually screaming in reverse! Who knew Tarzan was fluent in palindrome?

(Another interesting note on this infamous yell was Johnny Weismuller's ability to use it as a "get out of jail free" card. He claimed that during the time Castro was preparing to take over Cuba in 1959, he was traveling with friends through Havana on his way to a celebrity golf tournament. His car was ambushed by rebel soldiers, and the only way he could prove that he was neither Cuban nor a threat was to tell them he was an American movie star. To prove it, he let out his Tarzan howl. They recognized it and gave him safe passage).


  1. Rosebud, another myth busted. Mer my muse, you never disappoint. Thanks

  2. Just to clarify things -- the automobile accident Carole Lombard was in (it supposedly occurred in early 1926) was not life-threatening by any means. However, it caused a notable scar on her left cheek, devastating for a young actress. Fox dropped her contract, and the teenager (she was 17 at the time of the crash) underwent lengthy plastic surgery. Lombard began to thoroughly study lighting and cinematography, becoming expert in both subjects.