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. :)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Bela Lugosi

Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó would change his last name to Lugosi after his move to the United States in the early 1900s to commemorate his Hungarian (now Romanian) birthplace of Lugos. This was a smart career move. His new, lyrical, and much shorter name would be easier for English speakers to remember, and they would indeed remember it... Although, they would often refer to him by his more popular nickname: Dracula. This film would be the greatest achievement and greatest burden of Bela's life. After bringing the Dark Prince to life on the stage, his totally unique, sexual, and fear-inducing performance of the caped crusader of death, reborn on the silver screen, would make him a bona fide sensation. Many assert that The Phantom of the Opera was the first legitimate horror film, but it would be more accurate to give that title to Dracula. Lon Chaney's films belong in a category all their own, while Dracula, when it first hit theaters, was a conundrum. No one knew what it was, how to feel about it, how to package it, nor how to label it. All they knew was that Bela shook them to the core, and they kind of liked it.

Bela's creation of the Count as his own was a groundbreaking moment in the history of film. The vampire had always been terrifying, but never before had this creature been so... seductive. Bela's regal presentation matched with his exotic accent, intensity, and total absence of morality, made him a somehow more foreign and yet more relatable villain. He was a more appropriately felshed out representation of man's dark side and the provocateur of his sexual nature. He did not hide in shadows. His Dracula bewitched with the eyes and commanded women to "come" to him, which they did, willingly. As such, his phenomenal performance and his creation of the supernatural monster changed the game of film, paved the way for a new genre, and introduced audiences to a side of themselves they may not have wanted to see...

His private life did not fare as well as the dark hero of his screen self. Forever trapped by the Dracula stigma, Bela would be continually typecast in horror films, which decreased in quality as the years progressed. A truly gifted actor who had portrayed a number of varied characters on the stage, he ached to fulfill his obligation to his craft, but was forever pushed creatively into a corner. His cape was his cross, one that he had to bear to pay the bills. The results of his acting projects were mixed.  The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Black Cat, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remain positive highlights, but for every classic, there were plenty of clunkers. Most infamously, toward the end of his life when he was battling a morphine addiction-- that born as he battled a painful battle with his sciatica-- he teamed up with notorious director Ed Wood. While the director's films-- Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space-- are not exactly quality material, they were generous opportunities for work that gave the impoverished Bela a small ray of hope in his deteriorating life. However, it was too little, too badly, too late. Bela would pass away from a heart attack at 73. He was buried in his Dracula cape. But did he stay buried??? His lost soul continues to wander, hunting the new, willing  victims that continue tofeed his immortality.


Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was a Hollywood deviant in every sense of the word. She defied the preconceived movie star prototype and surprised studios and the public alike with her automatic allure. However, she forever was forced to balance herself upon a tenuous beam of acceptance, both socially and personally. Shunned by prejudice in her home country of America, she was also slandered by the Chinese for being a "whore," otherwise known as an actress. Upon a visit to the nation of her forefathers, she was once pummeled with stones by an angry crowd. While she fortunately had more fans worldwide than villains, her choice to define her own life in her own terms would forever make her an outcast. The price of her independence would strangely be her liberty.

Anna's entry in film would be in the role of the featured servant girl or concubine. Naturally, her heritage would keep her from receiving leading roles or top billing in her projects. However, slowly but surely, her performances in larger supporting roles opposite big time stars like Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks, and her alliance with director/lovers like Tod Browning and Marshall Neilan, would give her the opportunity to showcase her talents. The Toll of the Sea, The Thief of Bagdad, Peter Pan, Mr. Wu, and Piccadilly gave her increasing exposure to the audiences who fell in love with her almost spiritual essence. Her beauty was marked with an intelligence and profound depth that made her utterly fascinating to watch. As an outsider, she was able to move about as a free agent, deemed independent and often dangerous. She had a wisdom that was effective and even spellbinding, often distracting from her more popular Caucasian co-stars. 

She went to Europe to seek more opportunities and had some luck, returning to the states for talkies like the classic Shanghai Express, but despite her magnetic personality, she would always hit a brick wall of bigotry. She was never allowed to fulfill her total potential because of her race. Roles, like that of "O'Lan" in The Good Earth, went to white actresses like Luise Rainer, and censorship kept her from being given leading roles of her own. A failed attempt at TV and an attraction to alcohol-- a popular tool for many in burying sorry-- would prematurely end her career and her life. She passed away from a heart-attack at 56. Now looking back on her performances, she looked even then like a ghost-- a beautiful, haunting image from another place, another plain of consciousness, whispering tales and truths that many of us are still not open-minded enough to absorb.


Ann Harding

Ann Harding was once listed as one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. With her soulful eyes and waist-length blond hair, she already stood out from the crowd, but her great intelligence, composure, and lack of pretense made her an even greater eccentricity in the super-sheeny world of cinema. Ann was raised to be a realist, traveling the country as what is popularly referred to as an "army brat." This childhood of exposure but constant uprooting formed her into a determined young woman, and a smart one at that-- she would graduate from Bryn Mawr. As a responsible, independent girl, she took odd jobs, one of which was a script reader for Famous Players-Lasky. She had dabbled in acting in college, but her fluke audition for and subsequent performance in the play "Inheritors" made her a smash Broadway sensation and solidified her new career path as an actress.

It wasn't long before Ann began working in film, her first picture being Paris Bound. Ann selected her projects for their intrigue, favoring good stories over box office. Nonetheless, she established herself as a bold and controversial actress, some of whose films were banned! In the pre-code era of cinema, which ended in 1934, Ann acquired an admirable and lauded reputation for  portraying complicated and more realistic, modern women-- women who had affairs, women who had children out of wedlock, and professional women. She wasn't just a love interest or a girl out for love. She played doctors,  artists, and women of both integrity and moral complexity. Her Private Affair, Animal Kingdom, and When Ladied Meet, are tokens of this fascinating period of film. 

When the production code came, Ann persevered, her eloquent diction and grace making her a shoe-in for the suffering, pure female lead in morality pictures. However, this was not as interesting as her prior work, and her career began its decline. She made impromptu returns to the screen and performed on television as well, but her inability to adhere to industry standards or play the part of the Movie Star leaves her almost totally forgotten today. But then, she probably wouldn't mind. She was more interested in doing the work and not recouping the benefits, fame included. As a lady who preferred to do things her own way, in the story of her life, she was therefore a phenomenal success.


Anita Page
Anita Page was one of the great beauties of the silent film era and one of few who was able to transition smoothly through the talkie transition. With her soft, ethereal features and natural acting chops, she was able to hold her own opposite some of the top leading men of both eras, boasting co-starring roles in While the City Sleeps with Lon Chaney and Navy Blues with Williams Haines-- a lifelong friend. This high roller was often cast as the luscious girl-next-door, but her devious turn in the gem Our Dancing Daughters also stole the screen from the ever ambitious Joan Crawford. The saucy lady of integrity left acting and MGM behind purportedly because she refused to submit to the misogynistic, sexual advances of ol' LB Mayer. She remains notorious for her participation in The Broadway Melody, the first talkie to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and she was additionally the last living attendee of the first Academy Awards (1929) before her death in 2008.

THE REEL REALS: Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury. One could nearly stop right there. Her name encapsulates so much about film and television culture. She has graced the stage, screen, the tube, and has been actively working in the industry from her tender teenage years to the present. She is a permanent fixture-- a living signature of the legacy of Hollywood. With her ethereal, pre-Raphaelite beauty and true actor's courage, she took her thespian training in England and easily translated it to the states. Her birth in cinema, her survival instinct-- that cultivated when her father prematurely passed away and forced her to step forward and be independent-- and her unavoidable but hopefully distant exit from this world, seem to bookend the very story of Hollywood itself.

With her talent, Angela could certainly have become a huge movie star had she so wished. However, her intelligent and curious nature was more intrigued by the interpretation of character than the fringe benefits (and pratfalls) of stardom. As such, her impressive collection of roles are both distinctive and diverse. Not only did she debut in one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all time, Gaslight, but director George Cukor was so taken with her cockney, bad girl that he declared she reacted better to the camera than anyone he had ever witnessed. Her innocent girl fallen in The Picture of Dorian Gray showed audiences that she could portray both sides of the coin, and not only that, but every side to every coin ever minted: ambition (State of the Union), romanticism (Samson and Delilah), and outright, diabolical, divine evil (The Manchurian Candidate). Whatever it took, this slugger didn't hold back, and when Television took over, she took "to the mattresses" and came out an even bigger champion than before in the iconic series "Murder She Wrote." 

Her graceful ability to hold a scene, her physicalized insight into her characters, and the depth of intelligence and emotion behind her large, dreamy eyes have kept this lady working for seventy years. If that's not impressive... I don't know what is.

THE REEL REALS: Allison Hayes

Allison Hayes in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Allison Hayes obtained notoriety by becoming the oversized embodiment of the old saying, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." In fact, her presence in the film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was a pretty bold, feminist statement. For once, a woman was big enough and threatening enough to crush the man and the world that usually mistreated her, objectified her, and condescended to her-- something impossible at her new height. Ironically, the movie gave excited male viewers plenty to look at and admire-- many of them probably hoping to climb over her luscious body like adventurers exploring everest. In any case, while inspiring women to assert themselves and take control (because men, after all, were secretly afraid of them), or entertaining appreciative science fiction fans, Allison's snarling, fed-up, disenfranchised heroine immediately became the eternal B-movie Queen.

Allison's voluptuous curves, sultry voice, and tough veneer (the look on her face always seemed to be a personal broadcast of cynicism), made her an easy fit in the exploitative films of the '50s. She was never given the major opportunities for serious or more glamorous work, perhaps because the aforementioned qualities held her back, but her brief career in film was a solid one. With films like  Zombies of Mora Tau, Disembodied, and Wolf Dog on her resume, it is doubtful that any of her work was artistically fulfilling, but at the same time,  the actress was holding her own and supporting herself in an era when women were still expected to be obedient wives and mothers. Her categorization of a less reputable B-movie actress perhaps afforded her more freedom in certain ways than the rigorous life of the polished studio actress. One doubts that Allison ever took anything she did on the silver screen seriously. She was just a girl playing the game and making a buck. She was eventually able to test the waters of her talents a little more on television in the '60s, where she kept up her hefty work pace in more dramatic and sometimes comedic roles. Yet, she was never taken seriously, which certainly took a toll on her emotionally. 

Toward the end of her career, she had to slow her participation as she started experiencing excruciatingly painful health problems. The source was the calcium supplements she had ironically been taking for her health. He complaints and her symptoms were ignored as the mere fictions of a hyperemotional woman, and Allison's sorrow further intensified. After years of being treated as a puppet, sex-object, and professional joke, her added personal struggles sent her spiraling into a depression that made her consider suicide. Fate beat her to the punch, and she passed away at a mere 46-years of age. Just as the vibrant, powerful woman that must be taken down, contained, or destroyed in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Allison  was existentially bullied into a corner and made to feel a fool for wanting more out of life. Still, her appearance in the iconic film has become her triumph. For manhandled, suppressed, and frustrating women everywhere, Allison continues to wreak havoc, kick ass, and take names. The freedom she found in those brief moments on the screen have made her immortal and unstoppable. Despite her defeat, she always comes back again, bigger and better than ever.


Allan Dwan
Allan Dwan was a director extraordinaire during the silent era. While the Canadian (born Joseph Aloysius Dwan) had mild plans to enter the world of film, it is more justified to say that the movies came looking for him. His expertise as a lighting technician got him unceremoniously poached by Essanay, and after he made the transition to story-editor/writer, another twist of fate would put him in the director's chair-- or so the story goes. (Allegedly, he had to take the reins on a shoot when the original director disappeared on a bender). Well, thank Heavens for booze, because without any of these serendipitous events, one of cinema's greatest innovators never would have been!

During his career, one of Allan's many accomplishments was leading the Flying A Film Corp, one of the earliest and most important California film studios. Throughout his career, he worked with everyone from soon-to-be wife/ex-wife Pauline Bush, Wallace Reid, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, and Gloria Swanson. He also made an impression on the powerhouse couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the latter with whom he made the iconic Robin Hood and The Iron Mask. Through a career that spanned 50 years, Allan allegedly lost count of how many shorts and features he was responsible for, but we know his stamp is on at least 400. His ability to use the camera as an extension of himself, the storyteller-- capturing the greatest source of action, inspiration, and intrigue possible-- kept him at the top of his game for this unprecedented breadth of time. Indeed, he is even responsible for devising something that all directors and cinematographers take for granted today: the Dolly Shot. 

Allan passed away a few years shy of his own centennial, leaving a profound level of accomplishment behind him. While less remembered than names like Griffith, Chaplin, or DeMille, he is an essential part of filmdom's backbone, his contributions laying the ground work for upon which all future directors would more easily tread.

THE REEL REALS: Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead
Agnes Moorehead may not be one of the most famous actresses who ever lived, but according to Orson Welles, she was probably the greatest. Agnes lacked the perfect beauty that could have made her a golden idol of her era, but this perhaps served her well. She was able to maintain a career as a character actress long after many of her contemporaries' fresh-faced youths had faded. 

An educated woman, Agnes brought her great intellect and passion for literature with her when she began her performance career, which was only bolstered by additional training at the competitive American Academy for Dramatic Arts. Her great passion and emotional instinct for her art was indulged in early singing and radio work. Indeed, she had a voice, one that she could manipulate at will to cultivate a showcase of all the shades, cracks, and fissures of humanity. Crafting a fully formed character with vocals alone, the microphone gave Agnes a power over her audiences that was uninhibited by what she deemed to be her unattractive appearance. (Not true, Aggie). It didn't take long for Orson Welles, the Boy Wonder of Radio, to find her, and she joined his Mercury Theatre program, delivering spectacularly, emotionally articulated performances in his many adaptations, including "Dracula."

When Orson went Hollywood, he brought his Mercury players with him, which led to Agnes's performances in Citizen Kane, Journey into Fear, and the Magnificent Ambersons. Those who criticize the films (pft!) for their coldness, almost universally draw attention to Aggie's characterizations, which some deem to be the only depth in Orson's otherwise very cerebral narratives. Though a insecure, conflicted woman, who remained intensely religious throughout her life, her personal neuroses did not effect her cinematic career, which later translated to television. She was to appear on countless shows, and her surprise hit gig on "Bewitched" made her a pop cultural icon. Tragically, she was one of the many actors who performed in the oddball John Wayne film The Conqueror to pass away from cancer (uterine)-- this eerie coincidence is accredited to the fact that the movie was shot at a nuclear test site. 

With her wisdom, edge, and gift for simply being in the moment, Agnes is often overlooked for her talent. She was too good at what she did. The intellectual underdog, she remains a hidden victor in the continuing story of Hollywood, still camouflaging herself in the story as one of its mere moving pieces, convincing us that she isn't there at all.

Friday, November 8, 2013

HOT SPOTS in CA: The American Cinematheque (and the "Dark Blood" of River Phoenix)

Exterior wall of The Egyptian Theatre, home #1 to the American Cinematheque.

The benefit of living in Los Angeles is the access to all things cinema. Hollywood, as the home of the Movies, honors the industry like nowhere else. It's the perfect landing place for movie hounds, as it has countless venues for junkies to choose from when selecting where and when they want to see what. Grauman's Chinese (now TLC-- the learning channel???), the Egyptian, the Silent Movie Theater, Old Town Music Hall, the Laemmle chain, LACMA, AMPAS, Fairfax Regency, Cinespia at the cemetery, etc, are some of the community's darlings. They screen the classics, the forgotten jewels, the restored, the cult favorites, whatever your flavor is. Each locale has its own personality and generally cheaper seats than the average movie chain, which only plays the latest block-bruiser. Depending on the monthly menu or retrospective that's happening, one can pretty much spread herself around like a celluloid slut (Oh, I get mine, trust me) and take advantage of experiencing films on the big screen-- the way they were meant to be seen and increasingly aren't.

The American Cinematheque has been in operation since 1981 and is a non-profit organization that presents films, historical or cinematically related lectures, and guest appearances at both the Egyptian and Aero Theatres. The Egyptian is much more notorious (and right in the center of Hollywood), as it was one of Sid Grauman's many over-embellished movie palaces. Renovated and technologically modernized, the interior has changed quite a bit. For example, the seats used to stretch from the screen all the way to the entry door, as there was no popcorn and thus no concession stands in the early days. However, remnants of the former glory remain, and much of the original artwork has been restored. The hieroglyphics outside and ornate pattern detail on the entry ceiling, as well as the still impressive ceiling décor in the theater itself, provide a bit of forgotten ambiance, though the result is nowhere near the original splendor. The Egyptian typically gives tours of the theater and screens a brief documentary called "Forever Hollywood" at least once a month on Saturday, if not every other Saturday, in addition to its many other screenings and programs.

The Egyptian Theatre ~ 6712 Hollywood Blvd. ~ Los Angeles, CA 90028

As its sister theater, the Aero directs its focus into honoring all the different filmmakers, performers, and genres by featuring varying retrospectives, whether these reference the cinema of various countries, time periods, movements, what-have-you. The look of the theater is less exciting and historically relevant than the Egyptian. Aside from the brightly lit marquee, the building is thoroughly contemporary. It's charm lies in the unlikely films it presents, as well as the plethora of celebrity guests it hosts for Q&A sessions regarding particular films. Anyone from Eva Marie Saint to Jane Campion and the Cast of Bright Star may show up, and the movie house plays everything from The Unknown (1927) to The Harder They Come (1972). Located between Brentwood and Santa Monica, it's a bit of a hidden treasure on the West side, and the intimate attendance at most screenings makes one (#me) feel like a member of a very select club-- the Cinemat 'Pack, huzzah!

The Aero Theatre ~ 1328 Montana Avenue ~ Santa Monica, CA 90403

Most recently, just prior to the 20th anniversary of River Phoenix's death, I was fortunate enough to attend a screening at the Aero of his last, uncompleted film with director George Sluizer: Dark Blood. The "lost film" is always a dagger in the heart to flicker aficionados, and-- similarly to James Dean-- River's premature death certainly makes every product of his work more precious. (He would pass away due to a drug overdose in the early morning hours of Halloween, collapsing on the street outside The Viper Room). As the film was left 10 filming days short, there are missing scenes from the finished project, as well as some that Sluizer had to remove due to their lack of coherence within the limited final product. Working with what he had, the director was able to save the film from destruction when the members of the Phoenix family tried to seize it and Ted Turner, the studio, et al refused to refinance further shooting/editing. It took the director some time to face this past demon, but he used the money from his own pocket to put the piece together, restoring the film himself, adding voiceover dialogue where needed to explain missing sequences, and editing the remaining images into a fluid and somehow fittingly detached but provocative story.

Poster handed out at the October 29th screening.

The plot follows a vacationing couple as they travel through the deserts of Arizona (actually Utah, I believe-- the cinematography alone is enough to make the film worth seeing). The brash and irreverent Buffy (Judy Davis) and her stoic but silently boiling actor-husband Harry (Jonathan Pryce) wind up stranded in the middle of nowhere after their vintage car breaks down. The playful tension between the couple quickly takes on a more sinister edge in this isolation, revealing the truth behind their disintegrating marriage. When Buffy spots and hikes toward a distant light in the hills, she finds the small cabin/tee-pee of a character known only as Boy (Phoenix), who takes the couple in and promises to fix their car and see them safely to their next destination. Unfortunately, their three lives become violently entangled as Boy's attraction to Buffy becomes not only threateningly potent but fearfully dominating, his obsession over her creating an oppressive atmosphere, which is only fueled by the sinister history of their surroundings...

The story takes place in the space formerly used as a nuclear testing site by the U.S. government. Many people, including Boy's young wife, died of cancer as a result of the contamination. Certain areas remain condemned-- sad, dusty ghost towns with the lingering stench of death upon them. This stain of history is echoed by the stain in Boy's blood. He is a quarter Native American-- his grandfather married a white woman. Additionally, said grandfather was allegedly an incredibly unbalanced and depressive personality. As such, Boy carries on this "dark blood." Proud of his heritage and unapologetically bitter against the yuppies who destroyed and forgot this wasted land, he frequently bursts out venomous torrents of his own invented wisdom. Crafting Kachina dolls to adorn his handmade bomb shelter-- complete with an extensive candelabra that doubles as a library (you have to see it to believe it)-- he knows that the great wave of man's error will come again. When it does, he wishes to go underground, taking Buffy with him to create a new age of man-- one totally pure and within his control.

Judy Davis and River in Boy's romanticized fall-out shelter of delusion. As she stares
at his altar of hand-made Kachina dolls, she is mesmerized by the deep focus and 

care he has put into this creation and turned on by his deepening fixation on her.
Allegedly, Davis was a nightmare to work with, and she and River were mutually

intimidated by each other, but there is a depth to their love
scenes that is quite compelling.

River is amazing in the role. Wavering between a raging, crazy old man in a 22-year-old's body and an innocent and vulnerable child, he uses his spiritual conspiracy theories to protect him from the loneliness of his isolation and status as an existential cast-away. He believes that he has willed Buffy to him, and when he delivers this information to her, you believe it. Judy Davis, as his increasingly willing and then terrified prey, is equally remarkable, providing layers of sexual tension and surprising softness that escalate into moments of sheer panic. Pryce, for his part, is the frustrated "white man," lost in the maze of his country's past poisons, cleverly exemplified as he literally wanders in the canyons of the desert, desperate to be freed of this collective residual guilt, but unable to escape it until it has had its vengeance on him. The film truly is something 'dark.' Mysterious, poetic, jarring, unexpected... It takes the viewer to places he or she perhaps doesn't want to go, but the voyage of this macabre Odyssey somehow rings so true that one can't help but be on the side of its surprising anti-hero, even when he rattles your bones.

In addition to watching the film, the Q&A with the now 90-year-old Sluizer proved very informative and equally soul-fulfilling, as his recollections, struggles, and triumphs revealed a lot about the process of bringing the film to the screen and additionally honored his departed friend. Also in attendance was author Gavin Edwards, who was signing copies of his recently released biography Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind. This, as with most awesome Hollywood book related events-- including another past Kirk Douglas one I attended at the Egyptian-- was provided by the Larry Edmunds Bookshop. (Keep your eye on these guys. They host cool things all the time). 

Oh this? This is Kirk Douglas' autograph. On my book. That I own.
This is why AC and LEB are awesome.

So, for those living in the area or those hoping to visit, you can add this to your list of things to do in Hollywood. This city can be as annoying as the traffic jams are long, but as my depictions of the aforementioned theaters hopefully prove, there is this one great condolence: there is absolutely no reason one should ever, ever be bored in L.A. La Land.