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Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Linda Darnell felt like a star-struck fawn when she began working
with her acting heroes. Little did she know that she would
 in due time become one of the inspirational elite.

Just as the integration of sound in film created an uncomfortable tension between the silent generation and the studio era, so too would the invention of Television topple Golden Era Hollywood's ivory tower. Changing fads, younger audiences, and this new feat of technological competition would-- along with age-- humble many of cinema's greats. The more business savvy Gods and Goddesses immediately hopped on the gravy train, such as Loretta Young who starred in her own TV show. Other, older curmudgeons found it difficult to acclimate, like Clark Gable, who let his MGM contract run out and then sought semi-retirement. Linda Darnell became one of the many who was left to walk a crooked line between sudden, grateful independence from studio control and complete and utter bafflement at what to do next. Like many of her generation, too young to retire and too old to appeal to the new method-acting trend, Linda did a little of everything: the occasional, poorly made film, some television, and most importantly the stage. It was on the stage that Linda believed she truly learned to act and to carve out characterizations that went beyond simply hitting marks and giving good face to the camera. The various plays she did-- A Roomful of Roses, The Children's Hour, Critic's Choice, etc-- were sometimes successful and sometimes flops, but the experience was still an enriching one for her. With mostly positive reviews, her confidence was bolstered, and with younger cast members looking up to her, she gained a self-respect that had been absent from her film work. Many upcoming thespians and later film actors would get a chance to perform opposite the fading but still radiant icon, whom they came to respect and admire for her kindness, generosity, and under-appreciated talent. And so, it was on the stage performing Tea and Sympathy in 1956 that one of the gentle guiding hands of Old Hollywood would help usher in New Hollywood when Linda performed opposite a future leading man... Burt Reynolds.

After years doing stage and television work, Burt Reynolds takes his place
 in film history in Deliverance.

Another, earlier transition in the entertainment world came with cinema's first appearance. Suddenly, the world of the stage was broadened and audiences were introduced to another form of passion plays in flickering lights. Of course, as with all new "fads," many stuck their noses up at film and film actors, thinking it a cheap imitation of true performance. While half the population held tightly to the boards of the stage, another half embraced the possibilities of stories in pictures, resulting in an exciting and contentious era in our nation's past. While film actors endured the shame of ostracization and prejudice from a society that deemed them not only artistically by morally inferior, the actors of the stage dealt with an impending paranoia that the burgeoning new medium of movies was going to shake them out of the business. In time, movies did come to override the theatre as the mass favorite, but the prestige of the stage remained. Yet, with film's new success, attributed in part to the actors and actresses who helped elevate it above the mundane and superficial, respect between the two groups followed. One such example of this can be seen in the tribute one of the stage's greatest actors paid to one of cinema's. Turns out John Barrymore (left) had a bit of a crush on Lillian Gish. Not only did the notorious lecher certainly find her beautiful, but he was apparently in awe of her emotive talents, which he deemed "superlatively exquisite." He was moved to such a degree that he was uncharacteristically too embarrassed to approach her with his compliments. Instead, he used notorious director D.W. Griffith as a go-between. He wrote Griffith a letter full of plaudits, and asked him to pass on his ardent respect to Lillian after seeing her performance in Way Down East: "I wonder if you will thank Miss Gish from all of us who are trying to do our best in the theater." Of course, Jack would later arrive in Hollywood himself and start making his own impression on the cinematic world, but had it not been for his respect for actors like Lillian and their work in the medium, he may well have simply continued treading the boards on Broadway.

D.W. Griffith's "soul," Lillian Gish, apparently reached
John Barrymore's as well.

Another olive branch was extended by none other than Olive Thomas (right). She was at the height of her career when she started filming The Flapper. Life was good, work was steady, and she was quickly solidifying her place as a qualified leading lady. This certainly only served to heighten Olive's perpetually high spirits. Always a generous, free-spirited person, her charm was infectious and endeared many of her colleagues and collaborators to her. One such person was Norma Shearer, an up and coming ingenue who was breaking her way into the tough world of Hollywood through bit parts and extra roles. A fiercely determined girl herself,  Norma-- who landed her first, uncredited role in The Flapper alongside sister Athole-- most assuredly watched every move Olive made with great acuity. Here was a woman she wanted to emulate: charismatic, sensual, talented, and powerful. Never the haughty type, Olive and Norma must have struck up some sort of casual, working relationship while filming, for when Olive learned that the struggling actress had fallen ill, she was deeply concerned. As was her nature, she offered assistance without giving it a thought and wound up forking the dough for Norma's medical bills. It was a debt for which Norma remained eternally grateful and sadly never got to repay, due to Olive's untimely death. But, having indeed learned from a pro, she put this bit of kindness in her pocket and "paid it forward" in her later career, where-- after she became one of MGM's top attractions-- she often lent a hand to other up-in-comers in need, (such as Janet Leigh and Tyrone Power).

Norma Shearer grew to wield her hard-won fame
 energetically and gratefully.

Another type of world that consistently seemed to collide with Hollywood was that of the gangster. The stories of underworld debauchery made their way into cinematic stories as soon as prohibition put a bitter thorn in America's side. While we did not enjoy the truth behind the myth of the booze-pushing mobster-- the man-handling, threatening, and murdering-- we could not help but idolize him in some respect, because at least he was giving us something good to drink! Gangsters too were drawn to the glamorous allure of Hollywood for business and pleasure, and thus our nastiest ne're-do-wells started rubbing elbows with our creme-de la-creme, (see more in a past article here). Linda Darnell's mother, Pearl, would in time come into close, friendly contact with none other than Mickey Cohen (left). After Linda had moved her entire family to Los Angeles and bought them a home, Cohen happened to move in right around the corner. Due to his menacing reputation, many of the neighbors were understandably unhappy. Pearl, a tough cookie, hardly paid his presence any mind. After all, she had been causing a ruckus of her own. More than one neighbor raised an eyebrow at the unconventional Darnell home, where chickens ran amok, snakes were treated like fuzzy bunny rabbits, and Pearl fed her horse through the kitchen window. For classy Los Angelenos, this was the epitome of redneck malfeasance. For a time, Mickey distracted the neighborhood's attention from Pearl-- particularly after a bomb was thrown into his home! Now reasonably frightened, the block started a petition to have the hood ousted, but Pearl refused to sign. She believed him to be the "perfect" resident: he was quiet, had no parties, and kept up his home. When Mickey learned that Pearl had stood up for him, he called personally to thank her. I guess the only person more terrifying than Mickey Cohen was Pearl Darnell. 

Desi Arnaz (right) had his own relationship with the mob, and not just through his television production "The Untouchables." Desi's family escaped the violence and upheaval of Cuba during the revolution of 1933 and settled in Florida. His father, an ex-politician who had been incarcerated for his loyalties, wanted to start fresh in American and went about establishing himself as a businessman. Living in Miami as a teen, the charming and mentally ambidextrous Desi was also interested in business and thus had no penchant for education. Yet, at his parents' insistence, he attended St. Patrick's Catholic High School part time. The one spot of good luck was meeting the boy who was to become his closest friend at the time: Sonny Capone. Desi was aware of who Sonny's father was, but out of courtesy never brought up the fact that ol' Al was doing time in Alcatraz. He would never meet the notorious thug in the flesh, but he did have a bit of a shock one day. As per usual, Desi called the Capone household to chat with Sonny and make plans to meet up and get into the usual boyish hijinks. However, a strange, male voice answered the phone. Desi was thrown at first... and then became even more thrown as he put two and two together: Al was out on parole at the time, and must have traveled to meet with his family. Holy Moly! He was talking to Al Capone! Desi would play it cool at the time, but years later he would have a good chuckle over it. However, after he had found success in Hollywood with wife Lucille Ball, he was surprised to hear from his old friend Sonny, who was deeply insulted by "The Untouchables" due to its subject matter-- an insult to his father. "How could you do it?" Sonny asked. "Why not?" Desi retorted. "Somebody else would have anyway." Sonny's ego was not soothed-- he served Desi with a million dollar law suit. Sometimes, old friendships die hard.

Al Capone: one character not even Hollywood could make up.

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