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, September 28, 2011

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Hollywood Museum

The front lobby of The Hollywood Museum

After living in Los Angeles for six and a half years, I finally made it to one of the tourist cornerstones of Hollywood and Highland: The Hollywood Museum. You'd think it would be a no-brainer for me to visit this den of cinematic archaeology sooner, but in a way I am glad that I waited. Finding and exploring a new jewel is nice, especially after scouring the whole city and thinking that I'd left no stone unturned. Then again, perhaps the "cheesy" factor delayed my interest. Beings that the museum is located next to a Ripley's Believe It Or Not, I often opted for "not," thinking it was a mere magnet for out-of-towners and that there would be little to engage a true connoisseur's interest (ahem). Well, thank God I finally got bored on a Sunday, because to the museum I did go, and I left more than pleased.

One of the pairs of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland 
during The Wizard of Oz.

Sandwiched between Ripley's and Mel's Diner, The Hollywood Museum is situated in the old Max Factor building at 1660 N. Highland Blvd. Due to its locale at the old make-up haven, the first floor is almost entirely dedicated to cosmetics and beauty. Different rooms, labeled by hair-color, feature different actresses, and artifacts like Joan Crawford's old make-up case are on display. The "Brownettes Only" room dedicates much of its space to Judy Garland: one of Frances Gumm's original, tiny stage outfits and Dorothy's Ruby slippers are proudly encased for drooling gawkers. The "Brunettes Only" room equally pays particular attention to Elizabeth Taylor, as the "Red Heads Only" does to Lucille Ball.

The dress Marilyn Monroe wore while entertaining the 
troops in Korea (Sorry for the glare).

The museum too, unbeknown to me, possesses one of the most extensive collections of Marilyn Monroe treasures, which are of course shown in the "Blondes Only" room. Her old makeup, famous dresses she wore, and a memorial case dedicated to her untimely death are visible, as is a strange gadget that seems to be an early attempt at the "face-lift." It bears a stronger resemblance to the iron maiden, but for your mug. Needless to say, (or should I say "needles?"), I was scared. Apart from the make-up rooms, the back corridors lead you to a garage where Marilyn's private limousine is parked. I wanted to get a closer look, but was afraid that the monkeys from the Planet of the Apes display would come after me.

The early face-lift: The Max Factor Beauty Calibration Machine, 
still raising eyebrows...

Also on the first floor is an extensive anthology of signatures collected by notorious autograph hound Joe Ackerman. This guy got everybody's John Hancock, and now the majority of them hang on the walls, encased in picture frames according to various movies. The cast of Gilda adorns one wall, Tarzan another, but most happily to me the cast of The Great Dictator was hanging for all to see, complete with the signatures of Paulette Goddard and the Charlie Chaplin. Down another walkway is a room featuring a miniature representation of the barn used as Cecil B. DeMille's first office, used when filming The Squaw Man. This is now known as the Hollywood Heritage Museum, another superb spot. Glamour shots of all of cinema's greatest stars-- Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Lon Chaney, etc-- also decorated the walls, along with some beautiful photos of Hollywood's growth from the early, nearly vacant silent years to the bustling times of Schwab's Diner. The temptation to slip one of these portraits under my arm was hard to fend off.

Ackerman autographs from The Great Dictator: Charlie, Paulette, 
Jack Oakie, and Billy Gilbert.

From here I went downstairs to the "Hall of Horrors," which apparently was once a speakeasy, and where now a great many props from classic horror films are on display. I spied the mask of Jason Voorhees, the dresses of Elvira and Vampira, and most impressively the facial casts of some of Horror's greatest stars: Lon Chaney, Jr, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee (left). There was more than scary-stuff downstairs, however, and I was pleased with a display showcasing wardrobe from both the 1917 and 1934 versions of Cleopatra. Theda Bara's headdress and Claudette Colbert's gown were both featured. The big finale was the long, dark walk down Hannibal Lane, where a complete re-creation of Lecter's cell stood waiting at the very end. I admit that I got chills when nearing it. As in the film, a folded chair awaited Clarice Starling, and Hopkins's inmate costume and infamous mask within the cell completed the illusion.

Can you smell the fava beans? (Sorry for the darkness).

The upper floors are dedicated to rotating displays, which is what makes the museum worthy of multiple visits. When I was there early this September, I lucked out in being able to witness the "Lucille Ball at 100, I Love Lucy at 60" display. In addition to several of the awards that the lovable Lucy won over the years, various props, costumes, and personal dresses she wore to awards shows were present. One of my favorite features was the famous "three-headed monster," which was an innovative piece of equipment used to film what is now considered the first official sitcom. Much attention was equally paid to Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. As a Gustav Klimt fan, I was also appreciative of the "Portrait of Emilie Floge" re-creation with Lucy standing in for Emilie (right).

I Love Lucy's "Three-headed Monster."

And finally, the "piece de resistance" was the top level, devoted to one of my all time favorites, Jean Harlow. Another hundred year tribute, this exhibit proved that the sweet and gorgeous Jean continues to shine so many years after her death.  Much like the Lucy display, there were several dresses to view, as well as enlarged photos of the glamour vixen (in youthful days, left), and personal letters and documents on display. Seeing first-hand the correspondence and penmanship of this silver screen goddess was quite moving, especially when perusing cute notes to friends and colleagues. As big as she became, Jean clearly always remained down to earth and loyal to her pals. Another object worth mentioning was the movie star mural that husband Paul Bern apparently commissioned for their short-lived home together on Benedict Canyon. It depicts a fictional, ancient banquet scene with Jean at center table and other actresses like Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer in attendance. It was quite decadent and unexpected. By far, the most impressive was her personal Packard on display. I don't know much about automobiles, but in this case it was love at first sight. Jean definitely had taste.

Jean's 1932 Phaeton Packard. Yum.

In the back on this same floor, more space was dedicated to other historical mementos, including a roulette table from the infamous Pickfair, gowns worn by Mae West, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow, and Pee Wee Herman's bicycle. I wish I had had more time to really peruse everything with great scrutiny, but I literally would have had to spend hours there to do so. All in all, it was a great experience with some truly jaw-dropping exhibits and unexpected charms. The downside was that in appearance the museum was a bit cluttered, but I could hardly blame them with all of the artifacts they have to jam into one place. It's still worth a visit to those truly interested in Hollywood history and the preservation of its favorite players. I will definitely be going back when a new display comes to town. 

The much beloved Roddy MacDowell's powder room, complete 
with friends' pictures and autographs.

To visit the The Hollywood Museum
1660 N. Highland Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90028
$15 for Adults
Open 10am-5pm Wed-Sun.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Screen Star Life Savers

One of cinema's favorite heroes, John Wayne, saves the day and rides off 
into the sunset with Natalie Wood and Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers.

We often come to worship our film heroes with very little impetus. Our great admiration is born of a strange combination of respect and envy. Whatever it is that draws us to our favorite movie star-- her glamour and class, his strength and swagger-- one has to admit that the resulting awe is comparatively ridiculous in the wider scheme of things. Especially coming on the heels of the recent ten year anniversary of the Twin Towers devastation, where innocent citizens lost their lives and even more brave men and women in the police force and fire department risked their lives to try to save them, the vanity of screen hero adoration seems a bit shameful. Movie stars are just people after all... But our need to both hold them up and tear them down remains perhaps the most fascinating thing about the great facade that is Hollywood. Our love for them is always there, for whatever reason, and in the end it is our gratitude for the personal sacrificing of their souls on the silver screen that demands our steadfast devotion. Their work, therefore, is to be commended. Yet, there are some stars who have proved above and beyond their contemporaries that they deserve the title of "Hero" not for their outstanding cinematic efforts, but for the actions they performed behind the scenes. In these moments, when appearing at their most human and most brave, certain men and women have done more than enrich the public heart through entertainment; they have even saved lives.

Ginger Roger's (left) adherence to the controversial religion of Christian Science may have raised a few cynical eyebrows in her lifetime, and still in ours, but whatever the outside opinion, her faith served her well throughout her many years. Perhaps beyond anything else, it was Ginger's own core strength that made her so sturdy and reliable when those around her needed someone to lean on. Heaven knows, she certainly nursed more than one husband through a peculiar ailment and made a believer out of him. One can only imagine that mantras like "Every problem has a solution," and "This too shall pass," continually played in Ginger's head. She never seemed to lose her composure under pressure or give in to feelings of defeat or depression. If something had to be done, in her hands, one could trust that it would be done. This incomprehensible resilience would come in handy to many but to one woman in particular. When traveling in Rio (of course) with husband of the time Jacques Bergerac, Ginger would come into the acquaintance of upcoming actress Elaine Stewart. The two hit it off right away, so Ginger was deeply upset when she learned from the morning paper that Elaine had been taken seriously ill with acute appendicitis and was being hospitalized. It was even more shocking to her when a strange Brazilian gentleman informed her that Elaine had been asking for her in particular. After all, Ginger had only just met the girl and was far from being a close friend or family member. Nonetheless, despite being perplexed, Ginger went to Elaine, who in her frail condition seemed to be hanging on by a thread. Undeterred, Ginger leaned in and whispered to Elaine to stay positive and maintain a grateful heart. She encouraged her to stare at the ceiling and fill it with thoughts of all that Elaine was thankful for in her life, hoping to encourage her to have the will to live. After offering more words of faith, Ginger departed from the slightly alleviated patient. The next day, Ginger returned, and the very shocked doctor explained that Elaine had almost completely recuperated. It turns out that Ginger had made her previous visit during a very critical hour. Had Elaine not made it past that very hour, she would have died. It was Ginger's words that had carried her through. Elaine thenceforward considered Ginger to be her guardian angel.

Veronica Lake (right), despite her now well known feisty demeanor, was also a bashful and easily intimidated ingenue when she was just starting out in the business. Never fully certain that she wanted to be an actress, she already felt like an outsider when making the rounds as an extra with the other more obviously ambitious girls. Yet, Ronni was no shrinking violet, and she held her own and stayed true to who she was when thrown into the melting pot of hopeful young starlets. She certainly never thought she would make it big, but she was grateful when she was given opportunities in the business, and her discerning myopic eye easily zeroed in on people that she found to be truly helpful to her or genuinely hardworking and talented on their own. One such man who impressed her and won her respect was director John Farrow who worked with Ronni on Sorority House. Though "worked with" is probably too strong a phrase, since the two had little contact. Nonetheless, when she wrapped, Veronica decided to give John a token of her esteem- a Catholic medal. John was stunned, probably not having noticed the small girl amongst the other lovelies, but he accepted the gift willingly. Years later, the two would reunite, at which point Veronica was one of Hollywood's favorite sexpots. She didn't remember her small act of kindness to John, but he certainly did. He told her that the medal she had gifted him had actually saved his life. While fighting in WWII, he had been shot, but the medal had stopped the bullet! It turned out that a small act of kindness had gone a long way, and the pipsqueak beauty had become a savior to the war-weathered filmmaker.

Lon Chaney (left) was considered a silent saint to many. While he remained a mysterious man in the press, those who knew and worked with him were often touched by his far-reaching generosity and selflessness. A man of integrity, he could easily sniff out the like quality in others, and such people could always count on him for a hand in desperate times. His equal empathy for the underdog also created in him a sort of unexpected avenger. He always stuck up for his leading ladies when he felt they were being mistreated or manhandled, as Loretta Young and Joan Crawford could attest. But, he expected no gratitude for these acts. He simply stepped in, performed a selfless act, and then seemed to slip out again like a ghost. This was a characteristic always present in him, it seems, for examples of it can be found long before he ever reached stardom and started concocting his public persona. Sometime around 1915, when Lon was still struggling to get any work he could get his hands on, he like many had to take the the Pacific Electric cars up to the studios. On one particular day, there was a serious accident when a truck ran right into two of the rail cars. As a result, the truck passenger's left leg was severed. Without any hesitation, Lon, who was riding on one of the cars, ripped the shirt from his very body to help bandage and stop the bleeding of the injured man, who certainly would have died had it not been for the timely help. During a period of history when actors were frowned upon and ostracized in the early Hollywood community, this small act of heroism helped to change more than a few minds. For now, a nameless actor was a hero to one man, but in time he would be a great hero to many.

One of Moviedom's favorite onscreen couples was too one of Hollywood's best pair of friends. Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor became thick as thieves during the filming of A Place in the Sun (right), and while Liz may have preferred an offscreen romance as well, Monty's sexual preferences relegated their relationship to a platonic one. (Though rumor has it they did have a game or two of tonsil hockey). The pairing made sense. As two of the most beautiful people to ever grace the silver screen, they simply looked good together, and the deep and abiding love and respect that they had for each other endured until the end of Monty's life. Even Richard Burton was jealous of it. While the pals' union was prematurely severed with Monty's death, things were almost brought to an even more abrupt end much sooner. After attending a late night party at Liz's, with the likes of Rock Hudson and Liz's (at the time) husband Michael Wilding, a very tired Monty jumped into his car to make the trek home. Another of Monty's lifelong friends, Kevin McCarthy, was ahead of him in his own car, leading the way down the hill to make sure that Monty got home ok. In his rear view mirror, Kevin witnessed Monty lose control of his vehicle and run straight into a telephone pole. 

Monty filming Raintree County with Liz post-crash.

As quickly as he could, Kevin raced back up to Liz's house for help, and immediately Elizabeth rushed down the hill to her friend, who lay beneath the dashboard, semi-conscious, his face half torn off, and covered in blood. Realizing that he was choking, she jammed her hand down his throat to remove his obstructing knocked out teeth, clearing his air passage and saving his life. Rock joined in, helping to pull Monty from the car as they awaited the ambulance. Liz insisted on riding to the hospital with her battered friend. Thanks to her, Monty did not die that night crumpled up in his car. He even gave her his two front teeth as souvenirs! However, he would suffer the consequences of the wreck for his remaining days. His handsome visage was irreparably marred, and the physical pain he experienced led to an even further dependence on chemical substitutes for alleviation. So, while this wreck didn't directly kill him, it helped to end his life further down the line. At this point in time, Liz was not willing to let him go. Had she always had him under her wing, perhaps she could have saved him in the long run. After Liz's own passing this past March, one hopes that the two are finally together again.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cast Aways: Part VIII

Fred and Ginger reunite for their second cinematic collaboration, 
The Gay Divorcee.

The visual splendor of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in motion continues to fascinate and hypnotize even the most novice of film fans. The synchronicity of their partnership and the unexpected chemistry of their personae makes them inseparable in the history of cinema. What they had was magical. This is evidenced in the fact that Fred first danced on film with Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady for MGM, and that partnership did not lead to future pairings. Perhaps more than any other onscreen couple, Astaire and Rogers portrayed true movie romance head to toe. This makes one wonder what the world of filmdom would have been without them. Not only could a glitch in their seemingly divine partnership have negatively affected the rest of their careers, preventing them from building the reputations that achieved them other, separate acting opportunities (his Easter Parade, her Kitty Foyle par exemple), but there too would have been a gaping hole in cinema where its heart should be. Had fate not intervened, history could have danced along at a clumsier pace. Originally, Dorothy Jordan (right) was slated to dance the infamous "Carioca" with Fred in his first RKO film, Flying Down to Rio. Fortunately for Ginger, Dorothy had opted to marry producer Merian C. Cooper instead. In turn, studio head Merian, who luckily had seen a screen test of Ginger, saw enough potential in her to give her the small role in the musical-- a genre for which the action man had little interest. The rest is history. While one can't argue the talents of Dorothy, it also can't be argued that America's embrace of the art of dance would have been greatly affected had she gone toe to toe, or rather forehead to forehead, with Freddy instead of Ginger that first fateful dance.

Though Ginger (left) was lucky in landing what turned out to be a ten picture gig with Fred, there were a few acting opportunities that she passed up. It was Barbara Stanwyck who would later joke that she was always given the roles Ginger vetoed, but it was more obviously Olivia de Havilland who seemed to have the luck of the draw with Ginger's discards. It turns out that Ginger, one of the top female stars of her day, was offered both To Each His Own and The Snake Pit before Olivia snatched them up. One wonders why Ginger would pass on two such meaty roles-- one, the tale of a woman forced to give up her child and watch him be raised by another family, and the other the raw and shocking study of one woman's life in a mental institution. Perhaps Ginger was a little more worried about protecting her glamorous image than Olivia, who had no qualms about hurling herself into any role, no matter the subject matter. Well, almost anyway. Olivia allegedly turned down Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire because she found the character too... unladylike. While Olivia may have flinched at playing a lady of the night, she did not balk at portraying emotionally and mentally conflicted women from other varied walks of life. After O de H won the Oscar for To Each His Own and snagged another nomination for The Snake Pit, Ginger admittedly kicked herself with her taps. But, all is fair in film and war, and in the end, Ginger knew which roles she was best suited for. Besides, she already had her own Oscar to keep her company.

Olivia De Havilland combats a nervous breakdown and a strait jacket
 in The Snake Pit.
Before Alfred Hitchcock invented Grace Kelly, Cecil B. DeMille had done the same for Gloria Swanson. Gloria had gone from one of the many Sennett "bathing beauties" to one of the most famous and envied women in the world due to her work with Cecil, who had helped to mold her erotic and powerful image in films like Male and Female and Why Change Your Wife?. But Gloria eventually made her exit from Paramount Pictures to go rogue, leaving behind her maker and an unfulfilled career together. Cecil didn't pine, (as Hitch would later do for Ingrid Bergman when she abdicated her throne as his muse to marry Roberto Rosselini), but he still missed working with his little fella and often tried to elicit her freelancing services. He even offered her the "role of a lifetime" as Mary Magdalene in his epic The King of Kings. Initially, Gloria turned the chance down, having just suffered through a nervous breakdown coming on the heels of her disastrous divorce from the blackmailing Herbert K. Somborn and subsequent marriage to the royal Henri de la Falaise. Exhausted, Gloria needed time off... Or so she thought. She grew tired of being tired, and later inquired about the role, raising Cecil's hopes-- only to turn it down a second time to play a very different prostitute in Sadie Thompson. As a result, Cecil cast Jacqueline Logan (right) in the role of the scandalous and saved MM. It is the role for which she is most often remembered.

Gloria Swanson slips into another prostitute role in Sadie Thompson
 and cozies up to Lionel Barrymore.

Ava Gardner, an actress of the old school Hollywood style (see left), was intrigued about working with edgy new star Paul Newman when news of the Tennessee Williams adaptation Sweet Bird of Youth came to her attention. Ava always had little respect for her own acting gifts, so to work with someone who was being lauded as a great talent both flattered and intimidated her. Of course, as a sensual woman, she no doubt was equally attracted to the idea of working with Paul, whose pale blue eyes certainly must have reminded her of ex-hubby Frank Sinatra's steely and intense gaze. However, the pairing was not to be. Ava found the role of Alexandra Del Lago-- an aging, drunken actress-- a bit too close to home. The superb Geraldine Page swooped in instead and flew away with the movie. Nonetheless, Paul and Ava were teamed up in a later picture, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, directed by Ava's old pal John Huston. Unfortunately, the off screen chemistry was not as hot as Ava had hoped, although this had much to do with Paul's marriage to soul mate Joanne Woodward. Because Ava's reception from Paul was so chilly, the woman who could have any man she wanted was a bit miffed. She would refer to Paul as one of her most "unfavorite actors." Yet, her brief three-days of work on the film, playing "the world's most beautiful woman," of course, was still enjoyable, and while she may not have warmed to her co-star, she as always enjoyed joking and laughing with the rest of the film crew-- Huston included.


Geraldine Page reaps the benefits of Ava's uncertainty with Paul Newman
 in Sweet Bird of Youth.

When Paul was coming up in Hollywood, one of his greatest competitors for roles was James Dean. Both young, good-looking men proved that they had more going on than their pretty faces, but because James burst onto the scene to acclaim before Paul in East of Eden, his popularity allowed him to have first choice of roles. (Ironically, Paul would be up for the role of Aron Trask, brother to Jimmy's Cal, in Eden, but would lose the role to Richard Davalos). However, Dean's sudden death not only left a hole in the hearts of his fans, but it also, in bittersweet fashion, allowed Paul to step in and stake his own claim as a young heartthrob in Hollywood. Originally, the role of Rocky in Somebody Up There Likes Me was to go to James, which would certainly have been super awkward since the film would co-star ex-paramour Pier Angeli (they sit together in better days, right). When Jimmy shockingly died, Paul inherited the role of his former friend and made it his own. His performance would help to further establish his stellar reputation as a promising and gifted newcomer, and his continued devotion to his work and craft would earn him a place in Hollywood lore as one of our most diversified, defiant, and damn-goodlooking stars.

Paul takes his place in the (acting) ring in Somebody Up
 There Likes Me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Ginger Rogers: the face that launched a thousand woos. 
Just ask Burgess Meredith...

During the Hollywood hey-day, Ginger Rogers was one of the silver screen gals whom the men of America considered a dream come true. One thing that set her apart from her contemporaries was her approachability. As flirty and sassy as she was, her sexiness had a cuteness to it that made her both desirable and obtainable. She was the gorgeous girl-next-door who danced her way onto the silver screen and sang her way into men's hearts. The proof of her effect on the opposite sex could be seen early in her career. In addition to garnering a great amount of fan attention, her co-stars and co-workers often found themselves mooning over her. While working on the Broadway hit musical "Girl Crazy" in 1930, her scene partner Allen Kearns revealed his smitten condition before a live audience. During a scene together, Allen was to say to Ginger's character (Molly Gray), "Molly, I love you," (as seen left). Instead, he blurted out, "Ginger, I love you!"The audience started cracking up, and after a blush, the duo had no choice but to keep the scene going as if nothing had happened. However, the slip-up was so charming that they decided to do it again on purpose for the remaining shows. As a result, when the film version was made at MGM starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Garland's character became "Ginger," both in honor of the preceding leading lady and the embarrassing romantic blunder that helped endear the show to audiences.

Burgess Meredith can be identified as another one of those pinched by Cupid's arrow in Ginger's presence. He made no secret of his affinity for the beautiful actress during the filming of their mutual project Tom, Dick and Harry (both in the film right) and flirted openly with her. He wanted to "woo" her, as would become blatantly obvious. Their attachment would never become truly romantic and was more of a friendship in which Burgess would poke fun at both Ginger's star persona and her enchanting effect on the opposite sex. As a prank, he started to send her lavish gifts every day on the set. The first was a box of chocolates, or rather a "candy woo," as he called it. The only problem was that the yummies were actually made of paper. He then sent her phony flowers as a "flower woo," fake jewelry ("pearl woo") and a ratty fur coat ("fur woo").  The rest of the cast and crew got very caught up in the hilarity, even going so far as to give Burgess suggestions and pointers on how to attack next. They came up with a "diamond woo" and a "car woo"-- the former involved an enormous fake gem and the latter a broken down Model-T Ford. Eventually, the gag got old and Burgess wore himself out. The two laughingly established an armistice and enjoyed the rest of the shoot. Ginger would always look back on this film fondly because of Burgess, whose shenanigans earned him a special place in her heart. In that respect at least, the wooing worked.

Speaking of pranks, it wasn't always the gents having fun at the ladies' expense. Sometimes, the girls got to have a little revenge as well. Hollywood's earliest Comedienne Fatale was Mabel Normand, whose carefree and boisterous humor made her a popular girl with friends and fans alike (see beauty, left). Part of her charm lied in her ability to lighten the mood when others were taking life too seriously. Sam Goldwyn would learn this when the gorgeous pip, unbeknown to him, was following him around  making faces while he lectured a film crew. Upon discovery, the perturbed Sam couldn't stay mad at her long. This was not just because he was in love with her like every other guy on the lot, but because no one could seem to stay mad at Mabel. Not even Ben Turpin, who had good reason. While filming one particular scene, Ben was to do a bit with a live bear, which terrified him. In the days before computer generated effects, actors had to duel with live animals all the time, and this kind of authenticity scared the bejeezus out of the cross-eyed clown. As such, he insisted that a stuffed bear be used instead. This was a logical request, but Mabel-- who had done her share of animal stunt work-- decided to have a little fun at Ben's expense. Ben crawled into bed beside the fake bear and, just to be sure it was phony, stuck one of Louis Fazenda's hat pins in it. It laid still, so Ben relaxed. Little did he know that Mabel too was in that bed with him, buried beneath the stuffed mammal. No sooner had the camera started rolling , then Mabel moved the bear's arms around Ben, who jumped up in fear and shot out of frame! The moment was so hilarious that it was used in the final print. Mabel thought it was a gas. After all, if a little lady like her could go mono e mono with a lion (in The Extra Girl), then a grown man like Ben could be teased a little about his lack of carnivore courage.

Ben Turpin, armed and ready for Mabel. (I wonder if she's the
 reason he went cross-eyed in the first place)?

Sid Grauman was known for two things in Hollywood: being the greatest showman in the motion-picture business and being the grandest prankster. As lush and extravagant as his movie palaces were-- like the Egyptian and the Chinese theaters in Hollywood-- so too were his gags. One of his favorite marks, and every one else's apparently, was again Sam Goldwyn. The uptight, no-nonsense businessman clearly needed to be taken down a peg or two. Since Sam was an early movie mogul, it was easy for him to find young women willing to go out and enjoy the town with him, and he certainly could have his pick of the prettiest, eagerest ingenues around. Thus, Sid decided to enlist the help of his pal and fellow funny man, Charles Chaplin (both pals right), to teach the egomaniac a bit of a lesson. Charlie offered to set Sam up on a date with a gorgeous girl: "And I mean gorgeous, Sam. You won't find another like her!" Sam, to no surprise, agreed to the blind date, and nearly went blind himself when he found himself sitting across from Sid... In drag. (Pause for spastic laughter as Chaplin grabs his side and hits the floor howling). Another kindly cruel joke was played on friend Ernst Lubitsch, whom Sid knew for a fact had a fear of flying. One day, when Sid caught wind that Ernst was about to (reluctantly) take to the air, he concocted another scheme. After the plane had taken off, he paid two actors dressed as pilots to run from the cockpit and exclaim, "I don't know about you, but I'm getting outta here!" They then jumped from the plane (with parachutes one hopes) leaving a shaking Ernst in their wake. Luckily, there were still authentic pilots flying the plane, and Ernst made it home safe, where he most certainly gave Sid a swift kick in the behind.

Gloria Swanson's hands are immortalized at Grauman's Chinese 
Theater with the help of pal Sid.

Not all of these guffaw-inducing moments were purposeful, however. Sometimes, in fact, certain people were not even aware that they were the butt of the joke. Take Gary Cooper, for example. Coop certainly had his charms and could throw out a dirty limerick or two, but he wasn't really known for his side-splitters. Nonetheless, he could be accidentally entertaining from time to time. Just ask neighbor Veronica Lake. Ronni (right in Ramrod) had taken to Coop, since he was a salt of the earth kind of guy and not one of those stuck-up, pretentious types who so annoyed her. Thus, when she would see him passing by atop his horse in the hills near her home, it would always bring a friendly smile to her face... and a bit of a chuckle. See, Coop had a habit of going for midnight rides when he couldn't fall asleep, especially on Friday evenings. So, he'd climb on his horse and ride a pace, only to  finally conk out in the saddle. The first time Ronni saw his snoring, slumped form ambling by, she probably cocked that iconic eyebrow with a "What the...?" But she got used to it. She was more worried when she didn't see Coop's horse-aided somnambulism than when she did. "No need to wave. Coop's just sleep-riding again. Saturday morning, and all's well!"

Coop on his horse and much more alert.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

STAR OF THE MONTH: Ginger Rogers

Virginia Katherine McMath- (she would take her stepfather 
John Logan Rogers's name to become Ginger Rogers).

In all of my years of research, I have discovered two actors that remain steadfastly adored and defended by their fans. The male counterpart is Errol Flynn. You don't ever say anything negative about Errol, or his fans will have your head, (can you blame them?). Just as devout is the loyalty that fans have for Ginger Rogers. The number of fansites, web pages, tributes, blogs, and continuing discussions about this woman are astounding. Of course, I had come across Ginger in my ambles through the past-- how could ya' not? But until the past month or so, I failed to completely understand her power. Thus, I decided to really dig into her life and work. And yes, I have been converted.

Ginger with mother Lela aka "Leelee."

I suppose what didn't necessarily "turn me off" but rather deterred me from Ginger fanaticism at the beginning were all the rumors I ran into about her. The tight relationship she had with her mother is often interpreted in various references as odd or unnatural. Thus, I made it up in my own head that Lela Rogers was one of those crazy stage mothers who used her daughter to gain her own financial desires and that the two together were pushy, power-hungry divas. Well, shame on me. That's typical "man's history," (no offense). In Hollywood, when a woman is typecast behind the scenes as "difficult," "demanding," or "temperamental," it is pretty much a way of calling her strong. She will not submit to the casting couch, she will not be pushed around, she will voice her opinions, she will guide the course of her own career-- horrendous. Strength, dignity, integrity: these were qualities all possessed by Ginger and instilled by her mother, who was not a domineering tyrant but a supportive and intuitive businesswoman who charted her daughter's dreams and not her own. Also adding to my misconception was the fact that Ginger historically has been placed forever in a supporting role to Fred Astaire. It's "Astaire and Rogers," not the other way around. Fred has been remembered as the genius and Ginger his muse. But, while one may have worked fine without the other, the two worked best as equal partners. Astaire gave their relationship style; Ginger gave it life, or as otherwise noted by Katharine Hepburn, Fred gave Ginger "class," and she gave him "sex."

Ginger as a young ingenue, with her hair a 
few shades darker!

But that all came later. In the beginning, there was just Lela and Virginia McMath, a single mother and her young daughter, battling life's hard knocks on their own. Lela had escaped her wandering husband William Eddins McMath after he proved to be a ne'er-do-well. He would re-emerge only to kidnap his daughter-- a traumatizing event for the infant who remembered it well. Luckily, the defiant Lela stole her right back, and the mother and daughter never left each others' sides for the remainder of Lela's life. Early on, Ginger wasn't too interested in performing, but she had a natural knack for dancing and loved music as well-- she often played the ukulele. After being encouraged by friends to enter a "Charleston" competition, the untrained young girl blew the panel away and took the trophy. The taste of victory and the thrill of performing were thereafter chronically flowing through her veins. She and Lela started traveling around on the vaudeville circuit, performing with the likes of Ed Lowry and Paul Ash. After a failed teenage marriage to a childhood crush who turned out to be a boozer, Ginger found herself on Broadway performing in top notch shows like "Top Speed" and "Girl Crazy," where she would meet a helpful choreographer, Fred Astaire, for the first time. It wasn't long before Hollywood came calling for a screen test. Ginger delivered and was scooped up by Paramount and later Pathe, Warner Bros, Twentieth-Century Fox, etc. She already had plenty of cinematic experience in big productions like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 before she was signed at RKO and re-teamed with Fred in Flying Down to Rio. Their supporting characters stole the show, particularly in their "Carioca" routine, which friend and choreographer Hermes Pan suggested they do with their foreheads touching. It caused a sensation. RKO had struck gold, and for 9 more pictures, the world would enjoy watching the most famous dancing collaboration of all time.

Fred and Ginger do "fun and fancy free" in Swing Time.

It's no secret that Mark Sandrich, the director who helmed 5 out of 10 of the Astaire/Rogers pictures, favored Fred. Ginger would often remark that she was left to feel like little more than window dressing to her tapping comrade and that the back of her head often got more screen time than her face. For this reason, she was ecstatic when she got to work with directors like George Stevens on Swing Time and was encouraged to stake her claim and indulge in her own talents. (Of course, Ginger didn't really need help with that; it was just nice to have someone fighting on her side). One of the many things that can be said about Ginger is that she was brimming with creativity. Whereas Fred was more the perfectionist, Ginger always gave their routines a little extra spice, and many of her suggestions were implemented into various dances. It was her idea that she and Fred dance on roller skates in the "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" sequence of Shall We Dance. It was her idea that Fred swing her repeatedly over the tables in the "Yam" sequence of Carefree. The "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basked" routine of Follow the Fleet, one of the funniest ever filmed, was too her concept-- her character gets stuck in a step and keeps repeating it ad nauseum. She also eased the tension, for when Fred was stressed on set, Ginger was always relaxed. When Fred was insecure about a scene or one of her ideas, Ginger would talk him into it. And she was tough. Fred would remark that Ginger was the only partner he had who never cried... even when her shoes were literally filling with blood. With her crafty, playful persona, she added a unique energy that made their rapport and chemistry so believable and enviable. Even though the duo only kissed onscreen minimally-- allegedly due to the stipulation of Fred's wife Phyllis-- their romance, their synchronicity, and their poetry on the dance floor always indicated the true depths and passions of love.

Ginger (in her notorious ostrich feathered dress) and Fred do 
"romance" in Top Hat, one of the most famous 
dance sequences ever filmed.

And they got along, which is something both had to protest through the years. True, they had their  spats, over Ginger's lush, feather dress of Top Hat, for example-- another one of her innovations that stole the show-- but they worked well together, enjoyed each other's company, and respected each other immensely. The fact was, they were two separate people, and didn't want to be forever joined. Their desires to work on other projects and further their individual careers suggested to many that they hated each other, but this was simply the product of mutual, respectful ambitions. Especially after the duo's films started to  wane in popularity, particularly after The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, they decided to go their separate ways and pursue other endeavors. The results were mutually successful. For Ginger's part, she had already showed the world her talents, her acuity, her ability to keep up with a superior dancer, and her progress can be seen from film to film, wherein she always holds her own. Flying solo, she got the chance to prove what she could do on her own two feet. Her comedic sensibilities were tested in Billy Wilder's directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, and she won the Academy Award for her honest and grave performance in Kitty Foyle. Prior to this, she had stepped out with great aplomb in Stage Door, Vivacious Lady, and Having Wonderful Time, all of which included stand out performances and revealed her many emotional levels and capabilities. This girl was the whole package: singer, dancer, acclaimed actress, athlete, and also fashionista-- I know Grace Kelly and "style" are supposed to be synonymous, but no one knew how to wear a dress like Ginger.

Resting while shooting The Major and the Minor, in which 
she splendidly and hilariously plays a woman 
pretending to be a child.

Ginger, as well as being beautiful, vibrant, and fun, was also resilient. She played the Hollywood game with her mother as her manager/consultant and herself alone as master. Being raised in the Christian Science faith, Ginger could easily enjoy the social life of Hollywood without succumbing to its temptations. She loved to go out, dance, and meet with friends, but she never drank or imbibed on any other substances. She didn't need 'em. The way she saw it, she had her head on straight, so why knock it sideways? To her, playing a game of tennis-- at which she excelled-- indulging on ice cream, or painting private works of art, were the best ways to stimulate the mind and body. She was the product of discipline, but not harshly so. She worked hard and lived lightly. When looking over old candid photos or reading her memoirs, one can't help but be envious. This woman had fun! She possessed self-confidence and pride without possessing arrogance. She possessed beauty and a perfect figure without being conceited. She enjoyed her life and the fruits of her diligent labor without throwing her weight around. All of this vitality and optimism shows in her work. Onscreen, there is always something that makes Ginger snap! This is what drew friends, like Margaret Sullavan, and scores of male admirers, like ex-fiance Howard Hughes, to her. Going down the roster of her boyfriends and wooers, one becomes downright jealous. From her marriage to Lew Ayres to a never fully realized romance with Cary Grant, this lady had her pick of the litter!

Ginger and friend Jimmy Stewart share the honors at the 1941 
Academy Awards,  she winning for Kitty Foyle,
 he for The Philadelphia Story.

Unfortunately, love in its traditional form was never in the cards for Ginger, which is ironic since she was a fairly traditional girl who hoped for home and family. Her second marriage to Lew failed as did three following unions. The reasons for these dissolutions are never fully explained, but the educated guess is the usual sad song of independent, career women in Hollywood: men fall in love with the movie star, and are intimidated by the real woman. It is hard for anyone to play second fiddle to a star as big and bright an Ginger was, and while her great light drew many to her, for some, it in turn became too overpowering. Through all of this bad luck, Ginger relied on her own perseverance and faith to pull her through, and as a result she always won out. So, she missed out on the picket fence package? She still was able to love deeply, to work hard, and live life to the hilt-- in a mansion. She worked consistently if less often through her later years, and had a rebirth in live theater when she took on starring roles in both "Hello Dolly!" and "Mame," as well as her own Las Vegas show, which left audiences wondering how the heck someone her age still had "legs like that?" Life wasn't a competition, it was an experience-- one that she soaked up until her dying day at the ripe old age of 83.

The eternal, playful glamourpuss-- why America 
fell in love with her.

While her films with Fred Astaire may have sealed her forever into the legion of legends, Ginger did all right on her own. The remaining, steadfast adulation of her fans speaks to that. A sassy woman, a street smart girl, a lady with chutzpah, and dame with integrity... she played them all. She was them all. It is her strength that continues to speak to future generations and to women in particular. One of our favorite accidental feminists, Ginger belongs in the same category as those determined, talented, and inhumanly human ladies like Davis, Stanwyck, and Hepburn. She was one of the greats, giving a positive spin on the depression through song and dance and giving the female sex someone to look up to as times started changing. We love Fred. We all love Fred. But while his dancing always leaves us in awe, it remains almost too impersonal. Too good. Ginger made it real, and she made it fun. And in the end, shouldn't that be what it's about?