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Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Plenty of Chaps' to go around...

By 1917, five years after Charlie Chaplin had come to Los Angeles, not only had he become a full-on movie star, but he was a bona fide phenomenon. His movies were consistently successful and eagerly awaited by his incalculable number of fans. His face was quickly becoming the most recognizable one in America. It wasn't long before his image was finding its way into people's homes, as children bought dolls in his likeness and adults began dressing as him for Halloween parties (or just for fun). To Charlie, his fame was always a bit bewildering. He had gone from being a nobody to being the guy with the most familiar face in the world... Or so he thought. With all of the adulation out there, there was bound to be a community of Charlie wannabes. A series of comedians began appearing on the screen in very similar if not completely copied costumes, and hack Charlie Chaplin impersonators started coming out of the woodwork. Charlie didn't seem to mind too much. After all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. However, he realized that life had truly become bizarre when he read that a man in Cincinnati had performed a hold-up using a Chaplin costume as a disguise! The final insult came when Charlie decided to enter one of the many Chaplin look-alike contests himself, just for a laugh. Competing against boys of all shapes and sizes (with far fewer years of performance experience), one would think Charlie was a shoe-in for victory. Hilariously enough, he didn't win. He loved telling that story!

Boris Karloff portrayed another cinematic character nearly as historically relevant as Chaplin's "Little Tramp": Frankenstein's Monster. It is strange to think that by artistically bringing to life a creature that was scientifically brought back to life, Boris obtained his own immortality. His depiction of the awkward mash of arms and limbs was haunting, disturbing, frightening, and a little bit sad. Perhaps that is why the Monster remains in the American heart, despite his murderous penchants. But this was but one of many characters that Boris portrayed, which were generally villains, creatures, or good men gone bad in Universal's long line of B-horror films. In his personal life, Boris was far from his movie archetype, being generous, gentlemanly, and most importantly, harmless. He also had a great sense of humor, which some of his co-workers took advantage of. In The Invisible Ray, Boris's character "Dr. Rakh" and Bela Lugosi (left) come to blows over Rakh's latest discovery: Radium X. While filming one particular scene,  Boris was wearing an incredibly hot "radiation" suit as his character is lowered into a smoking pit to hopefully gather some of this strange radium specimen. The crew decided to play a prank. They lowered the sweating Boris down, then when the clock struck noon, they broke for lunch. Boris was literally left hanging! Luckily, his temper was not as easily provoked as his character's. He just started chuckling. Luckily, his co-workers came to retrieve him so he could grab some grub as well.

John Carradine (right) also took part in a few Universal monster flicks, including The Mummy's Ghost and House of Frankenstein. With his thin frame, sunken cheeks, and natural intensity, he could easily step into villainous roles. His acclaimed acting chops had earned him quite the rep on the stage, but his talents on the screen are best remembered in supporting roles, such as the conniving "Hatfield" in Stagecoach or the loyal "Rizzio" in Mary of Scotland. He remains one of many unsung and intriguing fellows in artistic history whose genius to his craft was just as maniacal as his personal demons. He notoriously caused more than one stir with drinking buddies like John Barrymore and W.C. Fields, a group of pals infamous for imbibing their talents and eventually their lives away. The facts are sad in retrospect, yet the brotherhood and prankster shenanigans somehow still make one smile even while shaking the head in "for shame" fashion when pondering the lives of these hard-living fellows. For example, John was particularly lubricated one evening and after giving a cab-driver the wrong address, he wound up spouting orations of Shakespearean verse at Steve Hayes's doorstep. For the record, the two didn't know each other, and John literally had no idea where he was. Steve's pals weren't as accustomed as he (the owner of the popular eatery Googies) to the sudden appearance of a movie star, so they gushingly asked the sloshed actor to join them inside, which he did... after telling them that he was "King Lear." He kept asking for liquor, but after being handed tea instead, decided to show his disdain by urinating off the balcony. John, one doubts, remembered this visit the next day, but his surprised hosts never forgot it.

Marlon Brando (left) is one of those singular guys that is just awesome. He could behave like a punk, skunk, or scalawag, he could be as eccentric as the day was long, but his confidence and diabolical mystery still rendered even his most sinister on and off-screen moments just plain cool. This naturally translated to his sex life, where he pretty much had whomever he wanted. A pop cultural icon who defied pop culture, his dangerous nature worked like a tonic on the ladies. However, he didn't always get his way, despite his strong personality and masterful methods of coercion, charm, and perhaps even hypnosis. Tony Curtis would recall a time when he was roommates with Marlon on Barham Boulevard. The two buddied up while trying to build their acting careers, and naturally, as members of young Hollywood, ran in the same circles. One night, the duo were out at a bar in Palm Springs, when they both took notice of a very attractive girl. As neither fellow had hit it big yet, it is doubtful that she had any idea who they were, but she was definitely attracted to the handsome pair. However, after she boldly approached, she made her choice known. Marlon tried to put the moves on the girl, but she clearly only had eyes for Tony-- who possessed in prettiness what Marlon had in 'tude. Tony didn't know it, but this was a monumental moment in Marlon history. Some time later, Tony went to a party at which Marlon was also in attendance. When Tony walked in, Marlon held up his hand to silence the room and jokingly declared:"There's the only guy who ever took a girl away from me." Clearly, sexual refusal was something Marlon did not encounter often, but at least he took the punch standing up.

Robert Altman, in his 45 years in cinema, carved out quite a niche for himself. He only really produced one major box-office hit, but his work remains intriguing and critically acclaimed for his unique multi-layered style, overlapping storylines, and birds eye view of humanity. If the average director allows you to follow characters through a story, Altman challenges audiences to follow a story through its characters. The effect is disconcerting, yet somehow more real than the more streamlined, conveyor-belt fashion of the majority of products out there. He doesn't extol star power; he translates human beings. The verdict with the public is very divided. You can either take him or leave him. What makes his place in film even more fascinating than his controversial body of work is his graduation into the position of filmmaker. There very nearly wasn't a place for this quirky, definitive character. According to former publicity guru Michael Selsman, Robert Altman got his breakthrough gig directing MASH (cast right) by accident. Michael was in discussions with Darryl F. Zanuck when the mogul was on the hunt for a director to take the helm of this new wartime vehicle. Michael, of course, suggested some of his clients, but Zanuck seemed stuck on The Dirty Dozen's Robert Aldrich. Unfortunately for Aldrich, Zanuck's casting director, Owen McLean, was a heavy drinker and drunkenly transmogrified "Aldrich" into "Altman" when taking the note to make the offer. Thus, the pitch was made to the wrong guy, and unknown TV director Robert Altman got the chance of a lifetime! Everyone may not be a fan, but clearly the Gods of celluloid wanted this guy cemented in artistic history. Crazy, huh?
Speaking of controversy, Kirk Douglas's latest literary contribution I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist is all about it. A fascinating depiction, not only of how difficult it is to make a movie-- let alone an iconic one-- but of mankind's slow undoing of a period of political prejudice in Hollywood, Kirk tells all about his voyage in bringing to film the story of the notorious Thracian slave who tried to take down Rome. The film in many ways is spectacular and holds up incredibly well over time. Somehow, God willing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together-- from the casting, to landing Stanley Kurbick as director, to the financing-- and the masterpiece was made. However, upon its original release, not all of the footage was there that is available today. One very contentious scene between Laurence Olivier's "Cassius" and Tony Curtis's "Antoninus" was originally eliminated for its overt homo-erotic themes. You know the one: Antoninus is bathing Cassius in the giant tub and is asked by his master whether he likes "snails" or "oysters" (left). The snails insinuate a sexual taste for men, and oysters for women. Unfortunately for the bi-sexual Cassius, Antoninus only swings one way. The censors were obviously not having it at the time, and initially asked that Kirk and his team tone down the innuendo making "snails and oysters" "artichokes and truffles" instead. Say again? Kirk refused, after he stopped laughing of course, but this left the scene on the cutting room floor. Later, when the film was re-cut for re-release with the missing footage, the dialogue for the scene had been lost. Thus, Tony had to perform his voiceover once again, which he gladly did, but Larry was unfortuantely already deceased. His wife, Joan Plowright, suggested that Anthony Hopkins step in and perform the dialogue for him, which he admirably did. Watching today, you would never know!


  1. fabulous post Meredith. That's a great anecdote about Chaplin losing his own look-a-like contest! I used to be pretty good myself at doing his skidding stop to run around a corner. Wouldn't dare try it today . Ha! Thanks

    1. Hahaha, I would have liked to have seen that. ;) Thanks, Bill.