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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: Art Imitating LIfe

Linda Darnell's too good to be true life story was the inspiration 
for one of her biggest films.

I have referenced multiple times in the past the fascinating mirror effect of reality and fiction. One such article, The Blurring of Violence, dealt with the way life has appeared at times to imitate art-- or at least claim to. Today's turn will examine the way art has imitated life in the movies, or more particularly how it has directly imitated the lives of its stars. Of course, there are a string of biopics about our celebrity favorites, from the Good, to the Grand, to the Ugly, (aka Man of a Thousand Faces, Chaplin, and Harlow), but while these direct tributes of celebrity life are fascinating-- a movie about a movie star making movies-- there too are examples wherein filmdom more indirectly borrows stories from stars' lives to spice up their scripts. Here are some occurrences when art has imitated the lives of its artists:

Linda Darnell's rise to fame and celebrity stature was just the sort of Cinderella story that made Hollywood the dream town of youths all over the nation. While "overnight success" is not really achieved overnight, the hard work and persistence that Linda put into her dream would pay off suddenly and shockingly to the 15-year-old when she signed with Twentieth-Century Fox in 1939. Suddenly, a switch was flipped-- Monetta Darnell was off, and Linda Darnell was on. After her breakthrough roles in Hotel for Women and Daytime Wife, Darryl F. Zanuck and company decided to capitalize off Linda's sudden appeal and "road to super-stardom" story. Thus, by the age of sixteen, a script was already being penned for the new starlet by Jessie and Ivan Kahn about her up-to-now life story... sort of. While the film did tell the tale of a small town girl turned movie gem, the old Hollywood spit and polish made things much more palatable to a glamour loving public, thus Linda's eccentric mother Pearl, for example, was not included in the plot. However, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star-- as it was originally titled-- did include some facts in its fictions. When Linda first came to Fox, she rode on the train with two fellow discoveries: Dorris Bowden and Mary Healy. In the film, later titled Star Dust, these two supporting characters were rolled into one, and Mary herself took on the role of "Mary Andrews." In the film, Mary's character was made to be a flop in pictures who finds happiness in the real world. This made Linda's light shine a little brighter as character Carolyn-- one of the few lucky, "chosen" ones. (This plot point was somewhat premonitory in that Mary's career never did take off like Linda's, and she made few feature films). Director Walter Lang also replicated Linda's original Fox screen test of "Two Nuts on a Sidewalk," even using her same wardrobe, though Linda admitted that the fake test was better than her original one. John Payne was added into the mix as another movie hopeful and love interest-- with a constantly broken nose-- to give the film a little romance, though Linda had no such beau upon her Hollywood arrival. Strangely enough, she was falling for cinematographer Pev Marley behind the scenes on this project. When the film premiered, Linda's name was above the title, with Fox declaring that Linda was a star before she'd had any real time to prove her mettle. In a little twist of life imitating art, Linda would immortalize her hand prints outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre after the film's premiere on March 18, 1940, just as her character had at the end of Star Dust. For one so young, it was totally unprecedented and a living dream come true. (Ironically, the movie that declared Linda a star was the same one she watched the night she suffered the fire that claimed her life. Linda is with Mary Healy and John Payne, left).

Katharine Hepburn (right) was superbly represented by another Kate, Cate Blanchett, in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator in 2004, but Kate actually brought a little of her true life to the screen over 60 years prior in the film Stage Door. When still a struggling thespian, Kate had performed in the play "The Lake" in the early '30s. It was a critical disaster that resulted in one of her most scathing reviews a la illustrious drama critic Dorothy Parker: "Hepburn ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." The negative reviews were certainly devastating to the young actress, who took her work very seriously. Having had previous raves for "The Warrior's Husband," the sudden change in mood was hard to swallow, especially since "The Lake" was basically her Broadway debut. Director/Producer Jed Harris was little help, having pushed her in his direction against her natural instincts, thus instigating a flawed performance. He too blamed her for the play's failure. As per usual, Kate took the lumps and pressed on chin up. Fast forward 4 years to Kate accepting the role of the socially oblivious but goodhearted actress Terry Randall in Stage Door. Kate would poke a little fun at herself, and perhaps at Dorothy as well, during an important plot point. Having snagged a role in "Enchanted April" from another actress, Terry finds herself underwhelming in her performance and unable to deliver the following lines with conviction: "The calla lillies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower. I carried them on my wedding day. And now I place them there, in memory of someone who is dead." These were actually the self same lines that she delivered on stage in "The Lake!" However, in Stage Door, as in her life, she was able to prove herself. After learning that the actress she had inadvertently wronged had killed herself, her performance in "Enchanted April" became jaw-droppingly honest and poignant. Terry could act after all! So could Hepburn. In later years, Dorothy Parker would recant her earlier assessment, saying that she believed Hepburn to be one of the finest actresses in the biz and that her original, infamous quotation had been a "joke." Good recovery, Dot. (Use of the play "Enchanted April" was another inside joke, as a film of that name had been an RKO failure a couple of years prior.)

Kate's co-star in Stage Door, Ginger Rogers, also indulged in a little game of live and tell. After Ginger won the "Texas State Charleston Competition" at the tender age of fourteen, she and her mother, Lela, rode across the enormous state in a continuing performance circuit. Immediately after this, she began an engagement working with bandleader Henry Santrey, which meant that she and Lela would continue traveling all over the United States. Needless to say, there were a lot of train rides. Because the dough needed to maintain one's career-- affording hotels, wardrobe, and food-- often made the cost of living higher than the rate of pay, the dynamic duo had to find ways to cut corners and save cash. One way was train fare. Mother and daughter came up with a scheme pretty early to have Ginger pretend to be two years younger, making herself twelve and thus eligible for child rates. To complete the illusion, along with her acting skills, Ginger carried a large Egyptian doll named "Freakus" around to both cover her face and make herself appear physically smaller. The plot worked like a charm until, fortunately, Ginger got far enough in her career to afford lawfulness and avoid a life of little white cons. However, she got a pleasant surprise when Billy Wilder sent her the script for The Major and the Minor, since Ginger's character pulls the exact same stunt as in her youth: she pretends to be a child in order to afford cheaper train fare only to find herself trapped in the illusion after meeting the handsome Ray Milland. Freakus, however, was substituted with a balloon (see left). Though feigning an eighteen year age difference was more difficult than a mere two year one, Ginger still pulled off the feat flawlessly. If it ain't broke... don't grow up.

Hollywood storytelling is not always a laugh, as our continuing subscriptions to rag-mags and website tell-alls can attest. The poster boy for movie star breakdowns in 1923 was America's favorite playboy, Wallace Reid (right). Having just lost his battle with morphine addiction, Wallace was cremated and put to rest at Glendale Forest Lawn cemetery, but his memory and untimely passing remained quite palpable in the public. His sad end would inspire a film, spearheaded by his grieving widow Dorothy (Davenport), about the devastating effects of drug abuse on family. Left alone with two young children, Wally Jr. and Betty, Dorothy became totally devoted to educating the nation about drug use. She equally wanted to finance a hospital in her husband's name that would care for addicts seeking mental and physical redemption. Wally's mother, Bertha, was opposed to the idea, not wanting her son to be remembered for the way he died, but Dorothy was adamant. She joined up with Harold Lloyd in forming the "Anti-Narcotics League of Los Angeles," which she too hoped to finance with profits from the movie, which was originally titled The Living Dead

Compiling a screenplay with C. Gardner Sullivan and signing on friend Elinor Ince as a producer (wife of Thomas), the movie got underway with the acting talents of luminaries such as James Kirkwood, Bessie Love (shooting up, left), and Dorothy herself. Jesse Lasky and the boys at Paramount had no hand in the film, which is perhaps emblematic of their guilt-- they were at least partially responsible for Wallace's dependence on morphine. Despite all of the intention, the plot was a bit over-dramatic and convoluted, involving the corruption of a taxi driver who becomes a substance abuser and, thereafter, a thief to support his habit. He then inexplicably pulls his lawyer down into the bowels of addiction with him, and the families of both men suffer as a result. However, while the lawyer finds absolution, the taxi driver does not and is killed in the end. The film was imperfect, but few critics would throw stones knowing that it was a legacy of love for Dorothy and a commemoration of one of their favorite, fallen soldiers. Some did argue that Dorothy was simply trying to profit off Wally's name-- in the film's opening she had credited herself as "Mrs.Wallace Reid"-- but with two kids to feed, who could blame her? Ironically, while the film was meant to save lives, it nearly ended two. Actors Harry Northrup and George Hackathrone were nearly killed in a collision when they had to jump from a car before being hit by a speeding train, (Oh, the days before special effects). While the end product of Human Wreckage had little to do with Wallace's life, it was a testament to what he had suffered and was notorious for its honest depiction of drug use, down to the painful realizations of withdrawal. If the story was able to save even one life, Wally certainly would have been proud.

Norman Maine (Fredric March) tries to balance his love of his wife, Vicki Lester (Janet Gaynor), 
with his jealousy over her career, as Adolphe Menjou looks on in 1937's A Star is Born.

There has been a great amount of controversy surrounding the back story of A Star is Born, a film that has been made thrice ('37, '54, and '76). The plot varies little between the different versions and involves-- similarly to Star Dust-- the meteoric rise of a young ingenue in the film business, as her lover/tutor/husband's career crashes and burns. The character of "Vicki Lester" is coached into her career by fading idol "Norman Maine," whose decent into alcoholism in response to his jealousy over his new wife's career leads him to suicide. Even today, rumors abound in Hollywood, but just who the true source of this tragic tale is remains a hot debate. Many pinpoint MGM's silent leading man, John Gilbert (right), as the inspiration for Norman Maine's tragic hero. This is somewhat understandable when one compares the downward slide of Gilbert's career with that of Maine's--  in addition to his unfortunate taste for alcohol. However, many differences suggest otherwise. Gilbert was much more a victim in reality, whereas on screen the Norman Maine character is pretty much assumed the culprit of his own downward spiral-- a mixture of changing audience tastes, his addiction, and self-loathing. Some too may draw comparisons between the relationship of Norman and Vicki and Gilbert and Garbo, but Gilbert's kind guidance of Greta during her early studio days is vastly different from Maine's complete metamorphosis of and public campaign for Vicki in the film. Too, Gilbert did not commit suicide but suffered a heart attack, so the two characters there also have a divide. Yet, the method of Maine's self-annihilation-- drowning himself in the ocean-- does bring to mind a story as told by Marion Davies. Apparently, John-- who would occasionally fall into bouts of despair-- once fell under the spell of his own melancholia while at one of Marion's beach parties. Dramatically and drunkenly, he declared to all within ear shot that he was determined to kill himself. Some onlookers called his bluff and dared him to drown himself in the ocean. In defiance, Jack dove headfirst into the waves. A worried Marion called after him to stop, but the less sensitive wisecrackers assured her that Jack would not complete the task. When he was indeed washed back ashore not much later, he began weeping at his own cowardice to the jeers of onlookers. Marion's heart went out to her deeply disturbed friend, and she balled the jesters out. Since John's life is still causing inspiration, as seen in the latest The Artist, it is possible that A Star is Born also absorbed some of his tragic tale. 

But these likenesses between John and Norman are not the only bases for the film. Another popular lovers' feud often referred to with Star is that between Barbara Stanwyck and her first husband Frank Fay (together left). Babs was a struggling young actress of twenty-one when she married 36-year-old vaudeville comedian Fay in 1928. Under the more popular entertainer's protection and guidance, Babs was able to kick-start her own career and soon had movie offers. This story alone has spawned rumors, including those that allege the marriage was one of appearance only. There is argument that both Barbara and Frank were homosexuals who wed to cover their sexual preferences and protect their careers. However, if this was the case, it makes the situation that followed somewhat nonsensical. Almost immediately after the nuptials, the young bride went to Hollywood where she began working at United Artists, while funny man Fay continued on the road. Eventually, he made the move to Hollywood and was signed at Warners, but he failed to catch on with movie audiences like his wife had. This led to envious arguments that often turned physical. Friend and neighbor Joan Crawford was witness to more than one brawl. Allegedly, Frank wanted Barbara to give up her career and join him on the road when his contract was canceled in 1931, but she refused. After the duo adopted son Dion, Fay's drinking only increased.  The battling couple was a well-guarded secret in the press, but the bruises that Babs often sported were common knowledge around town. When an inebriated Fay threw son Dion into the family pool, Babs decided enough was enough and pulled to plug. They finally were divorced in 1935. Barbara would go on to become one of the most beloved and acclaimed actresses of her generation, and Fay's name would slowly disappear from the limelight. The sadistic nature of the relationship-- with the male as the dominating force-- could well have been one more bone in the spine of the Star story, especially as the inverted careers of the man and wife were the same as in the film.

Yet, there is even another story that could have served as source material: that of everyone's favorite flapper, Colleen Moore and producer husband John McCormick (together right). Colleen was an old-fashioned but ambitious young woman when she decided that acting was "the thing" for her. However, even as a youth, she was business savvy, and she understood that her atypical looks and somewhat boyish figure did not make her the symbol of female eroticism the guys usually went for. Still, there was something about her--including the fact that her eyes were two different colors--that caught the attention of John, who met her one night when the duo went dancing with Mickey Neilan and Blanche Sweet at the Sunset Inn. Not used to flattery and a wise little thing herself, the cynical Colleen merely raised an eyebrow when John asked her to marry him after three measly dances. But, before she knew it, she was head over heels as well, and the two were wed a mere day before her birthday. At first, life seemed grand. With John's support and her own ambitious spirit, Colleen's career started gaining steam, but as in the case of Babs and Frank, John's jealousy of her rising star and taste for alcohol impaired what had at first seemed a match made in heaven. Colleen kept the facts of her personal misery a secret for many years, never being one for gossip, but she did finally unleash the truth. John had been physically abusive, once nearly throwing her out a window, and finally-- when she told him she was going to leave him-- nearly choking her to death. His angry words, "You can't leave me. You're nothing without me! I made you a star!" would echo in her ears for years to come... and quite possibly in the script of Star

Mrs. Norman Maine ( Judy Garland) takes a hit from her alcoholic husband 
(James Mason) in 1954's A Star is Born.

One particular factor that ties the factual and fictitious versions together is a phone call that Colleen made while still married to John. At the time, Colleen's career was thriving, but she received word that her husband was about to be fired from their home studio. Though the marriage was troubled, Colleen was loyal. She called up top dog Richard Rowland and stated loud and clear, "This is Mrs. John McCormick. I just called to say 'hello." The message apparently was heard, and John's job was temporarily saved. The marriage was not, and Colleen finally left John and never looked back. History did, for in A Star is Born, the famous ending line uttered by the grieving widow/superstar, which she delivers to fans, is: "Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine." (Strangely, this is not dissimilar from Dorothy Reid's credit as Mrs. Wallace Reid in Human Wreckage...). Whether the tragic romance of Vicki Lester and Norman Maine was based in part on one or all of these tales is still uncertain. It is quite possible that the age old battle of the sexes and the conflicts that arise when gender roles are eclipsed (in her case) or failed (in his) are enough of a starting point for any good screenwriter. In any case, the elastic nature of the silver screen continues to give and take with its stories and its stars, giving audiences a little truth mixed with the fiction. As long as the material is good, the pond from which writers reel in ideas doesn't matter. Keep 'em comin'.

(A friend just tipped me off to the story of John Bowers as well, who may very well have been a significant source in the A Star is Born story).


  1. Your Blog is one of the best (if not the most inteligent) around here... let's promote you more... every single cinema-aficcionado should read what you - most amazingly - write!!!!!! Congratulations!!!!!!

  2. Oh my! Thank you so much! It is always good to hear from you. :) You made my day and have made me very proud of my work. I appreciate it.

  3. Meredith, I don't care what star you're discussing, you always end up with a Wally Reid , John Gilbert or Lon. That I love. As for people who say The Artist is a rip-off of Gilbert's story I disagree. It is a Valentine's to Old Hollywood. It could be about any number of people just as you said about A Star is Born. Did those writers "steal" the John Bowers story? I'll be pulling for best original screenplay for The Artist at Oscar time. Til then, mind if I take just one more look? Thanks

  4. Hahaha, I know, right? I can't help but notice the high numerical tallies in my label bar that some stars have opposed to others. Perhaps I am suffering from some sort of obsession. As for The Artist, I agree. I honestly thought that the main character reminded me more of Douglas Fairbanks, but I think he is really just a composite of the paranoia all silent actors were experiencing at the time. Fun movie, though. AND I can't believe I forgot about John Bowers! I'm a doofus! Eek!