Pre-Code Crazy: The Reckless Hour (1931)

•October 1, 2014 • 3 Comments

Pre-Code crazy – that’s what I am!

And that’s why “Pre-Code Crazy” is the perfect name for my new venture with fellow blogger (and Dark Pages Senior Writer) Kristina, over at Speakeasy – she’s pre-Code crazy, too! So the two of us have decided to team up, on the first of every month, to highlight what each of us think is the juiciest pre-Code airing in the next 30 days on Turner Classic Movies. The best part is that neither of us knows what the other is going to pick until we post – so I’ll be finding out her choice along with all of you!

My selection for the inaugural edition of Pre-Code Crazy is The Reckless Hour (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill. The Reckless Hour isn’t my first Mackaill outing – I’ve seen Safe in Hell several times (including on the big screen at my inaugural visit to the TCM Film Festival), as well as The Office Wife, Party Husband, Kept Husbands (what’s with Mackaill and husbands, anyway?), and Their Mad Moment – but it’s definitely one of my favorites.

Margie was the apple of her father’s eye.

What’s it all about?

The film centers on Margaret “Margie” Nichols (Mackaill), a dress model by profession, who lives at home with her parents and her little sister. In the film’s opening reel, Margie meets Allen Crane (Walter Byron), the handsome heir to a railroad fortune. Before long, Allen is taking Margie out on the town every night and gifting her with expensive jewelry – but he always manages to come up with a convenient excuse to avoid introducing her to his family. And you know what that means. Unfortunately, it appears that if we – and Margie’s sharper-than-he-seems Dad – know that Allen is a cad long before Margie does.

And that’s just the beginning. The rest of this economical, 71-minute feature is chock-full of pre-Code goodies, including pre-marital sex, pregnancy, marital infidelity, divorce … and Conrad Nagel!

Blondell is a standout in this scene. (As usual.)

Blondell is a standout in this scene. (As usual.)

What’s my favorite scene?

Early in the picture, we’re introduced to Margie’s family and, for my money, it’s one of the best scenes in the film, filled with first-rate writing and rich characterizations. You’ve got Margie, easy-going and lighthearted, and never one to shy away from a good time; Myrtle (the always awesome Joan Blondell), Margie’s feisty little sister, pea-green with envy regarding just about everything having to do with her sibling, from her job to her boyfriends; Margie’s status-hungry mother, Harriet (Helen Ware),  who would sell either of her daughters to the highest bidder in exchange for a fur jacket; and Margie’s seemingly absent-minded but highly moral father (H.B. Warner), a bookstore owner who dotes on his older daughter. During the brief scene, the personalities of each of the characters are on full display – Myrtle grouses about Margie’s failure to help out around the house, calling her “duchess” and disdainfully referencing her “lily-white” hands, while Harriet fusses at her husband for forgetting to buy milk, snipes that Margie does nothing but “tail around in beautiful clothes,” and complains that her daughters ought to “be living in a place where they can have friends.” Walter divides his time between burying his nose in a book and defending Margie, while Margie herself seems to get a kick out of the entire proceedings.

(Honorable mention for the scene where Margie does the Tiptoe of Shame after getting dropped at home by Allen’s driver, only to discover that her father is waiting up for her. Busted!)

Who sez my favorite quote?

Even though it’s from the mouth of a dyed-in-the-wool heel, my favorite quote was this one from Allen:

“I’m awfully fond of Margie. I like her a lot. I think she’s a peach of a girl. I tell you, if I was going to marry anyone, it would be Margie. But I’m too young to get married. I don’t want to settle down. Not yet, anyhow. We just played around together.”

Anything else?

The Reckless Hour was directed by John Francis Dillon, who also helmed Clara Bow’s “comeback” film, Call Her Savage (1932). He suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 49.

Speaking of Clara Bow, both she and Dorothy Mackaill were named Wampas Baby Stars of 1924.

The screenplay for The Reckless Hour was adapted by Florence Ryerson from a play called Ambush. Ryerson also worked on the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Dorothy Mackaill and Joan Blondell were seen the previous year in The Office Wife (1930). They played sisters in that film, too.

The Reckless Hour is airing on TCM on Friday, October 10th. Check it out and go pre-Code crazy! You only owe it to yourself.

Happy 92nd birthday, Lizabeth Scott!

•September 29, 2014 • 8 Comments

Lizabeth Scott, a champagne blonde with ice-blue eyes and a husky, low-pitched voice, was best known for her on-screen portrayals of the duplicitous dame who more often than not received her comeuppance in the last reel. Labeled as “The Threat,” Scott was one of the quintessential bad girls of film noir, starring in seven pictures from the era: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Dead Reckoning (1946), I Walk Alone (1947), Pitfall (1948), Too Late for Tears (1949), Dark City (1950), and The Racket (1951).

On the occasion of Lizabeth Scott’s 92nd birthday, I’m taking a look at her early years and the journey that this unique actress took to Hollywood. So grab a piece of cake and join the party!

Scott was born Emma Matzo on September 29, 1922, the eldest of six children of an English-born father and a mother of Russian descent. A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, an industrialized mining town, Emma was raised in a culture-filled home and participated for several years in a variety of lessons, including piano and elocution. By her own account, however, the future star was frequently rebellious and outspoken: “As a child, my mother used to tell me to keep my emotions subdued, to be ‘a lady.’ Instead of which I was a noisy, screaming little brat, definite about everything.”

Working in her father’s grocery store, Emma fostered many ambitions, including becoming an opera singer, a journalist, or a nun – a notion that was promptly vetoed by her mother. During the summer after her graduation after her graduation from Central High School, Emma worked with May Desmond’s stock company at Lake Ariel, New York, and the following fall, she enrolled at Marywood College, a Catholic school near Scranton. However, after only six months, she left the school, later recalling, “I never wanted to finish college because of the feeling I had . . . that life was very short and there were so many more important aspects of life to be explored.”

Instead, Emma turned her signs toward an acting career, moving to Manhattan to attend the Alvienne School of Dramatics. She landed her first professional job in the national company of Hellzapoppin’ – after a year-long tour, she did summer stock in New York. One of her many roles with the 52nd Street Stock Company was the lead in Rain, for which she was billed as “Elizabeth Scott.” The actress later explained that she chose the first name “just because I always liked [it],” and the last name in honor of one of her favorite plays, Mary of Scotland.

It appeared that the aspiring actress may have gotten her big break when she was hired for a walk-on in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, and was asked to serve as understudy to the star of the play, Tallulah Bankhead. But for the next seven months, Scott remembered, she “waited for the Long Island train to break down or for Tallulah to get a cold. But the train ran and she remained robustly healthy.” Later, after Bankhead had been replaced by Miriam Hopkins, Scott quit the play, making ends meet by landing several modeling assignments, including a full-page spread in Esquire and a number of appearances in Harper’s Bazaar.

Coincidentally, three months after leaving The Skin of Our Teeth, Scott received a call from the play’s producer, who requested that she step in for a one-night replacement of Miriam Hopkins, who was ill, a several months later, she filled in again, this time for a three-week run. She received favorable notices for her performance, but when the play closed, she was force to resume her modeling activities. Before long, her four-photograph layout in Harper’s Bazaar caught the eye of agent Charles Feldman, who asked her to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Of the request, Scott later said, “I wanted to be a great stage actress. I never once thought of movies. But, it was off season on Broadway . . . and since I wasn’t able to find a job there, I thought it might be a good experience to come to Hollywood and find out what it was all about.”

Once in Tinseltown, Scott made screen tests for Warners and Universal-International that were less than well-received, but she wasn’t idle for long – in August 1944, Feldman informed her that producer Hal Wallis wanted to sign her to an exclusive contract, and a few months later, she was cast in a starring role in what she termed “a lovely film,” You Came Along (1945), with Robert Cummings and Don DeFore. The following year, Scott entered the realm of film noir with a featured role with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) – and the rest is history. During her screen career, she would only appear in a total of 22 films, but she made an indelible mark on the film noir era, and she remains a uniquely talented product of Hollywood’s Golden Age; in a 1996 interview, Scott said, “There was something about that lens that I adored – and it adored me back. So we were a great combination.”

You said it, Liz. Happy birthday!

Rest in Peace, Audrey Long

•September 22, 2014 • 4 Comments

Her name may not have been a household word, but if you know your noir, you know Audrey Long.

The luminous blonde with the soulful eyes and the girl-next-door smile was a standout in back-to-back noirs in 1947: Born to Kill, where she held her own as Claire Trevor’s sister and Lawrence Tierney’s wife, and Desperate, where she and her spouse, Steve Brodie, were chased across the country by the psychotic Raymond Burr.

Born on April 14, 1922, in Orlando, Florida, Long got her big break during her teen years when she was signed to a Warner Bros. contract and debuted in a bit part in The Male Animal (1942), starring Olivia deHavilland and Henry Fonda. The following year, she was seen in a small role on Broadway, in Sons and Soliders, with Gregory Peck. She later signed on with RKO, for whom she made her two noir appearances. Long’s non-noir credits included Tall in the Saddle (1944), a John Wayne starrer.

In 1952, she married Leslie Charteris, author of The Saint series, and retired from acting. She and Charteris remained together until his death in 1993.

We were saddened to learn that Long died on September 19, 2014, at the age of 92, following a long illness. She won’t be forgotten around these parts.


Summer Reading Challenge: So Many Books, So Little Time

•September 1, 2014 • 14 Comments

As the irreverent, mustachioed bandit said in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), “Badges? We don’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! We don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

What does that have to do with today’s post?

Nothing. I just really, really like that quote.

But seriously, folks – today’s post is designed to celebrate my completion of the second annual Summer Classic Reading Challenge spearheaded by Raquel over at Out of the Past, where participants are challenged to read six classic film-related books. Huzzah! I joined in the fun last year, but I only managed to get four books under my belt. So when Raquel announced this year’s event, I was determined to make it through all six. And I made it – just barely, by the skin of my teeth – but, doggone it, I made it!

In addition to reading six books by September 1st, part of the challenge is to write a review of the books you read, so here goes – my six entries in the 2014 Summer Classic Reading Challenge!

Life With Father (1935) by Clarence Day

The 1947 movie Life With Father, starring William Powell and Irene Dunne, is one of my favorite films. So a few years back, when I saw the book upon which the film was based, I grabbed it. And even though it wasn’t quite what I expected, I did enjoy it. Written in 1935, Life With Father consists of a series of humorous autobiographical essays, focusing on the author’s family in the late 1890s. The central figure is the author’s father, Clarence “Clare” Day, Sr.; having viewed the screen version numerous times, I had the film’s cast in my head the entire time I was reading it – and I must say, William Powell was perfectly cast as the blustering, profane, highly principled and even more highly opinionated patriarch. The chapters centered on such incidents as Clare’s effort to coax his long-suffering wife, Vinnie, into keeping accurate household accounts; his decision to have a telephone installed in their home; and his insistence that each of his sons learn to play a musical instrument. My favorite was the chapter entitled “Father Wakes Up the Village,” which described a hot summer day when the iceman failed to show up at the Day home, and Clare’s never-say-die efforts to ensure that his glass of water was properly cooled. At the end of the day, when a fully stocked, brand-new icebox had been delivered to the Days, Clare offered up what was, for me, the book’s funniest line: “Clarence,” he told his son solemnly, “King Solomon had the right idea about these things:  ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do thy damnedest.’” Interestingly, there were only two specific scenes in the book that were recreated in the screen version, which is what I referred to when I stated earlier that the book wasn’t what I expected. (I kept waiting for chapters depicting the young Clarence’s infatuation with the family’s young visitor, played in the film by Elizabeth Taylor; or Clare’s refusal to be baptized, but these were nowhere to be found.) This didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this entertainingly written book, though, with its amusing situations, turn-of-the-century charm, and well-drawn characters.

Dark History of Hollywood: A Century of Greed, Corruption, and Scandal Behind the Movies (2014) by Kieron Connolly

I can’t get enough of books about the seedy side of Hollywood – so when I spotted this one on the bargain table of my local Books-A-Million store, I didn’t hesitate to snag it. And while there was a great deal of information that is common knowledge among classic film lovers – Fatty Arbuckle’s trials (both figurative and literal), the death of Thelma “Hot Toddy” Todd, the murder of Lana Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, and the anti-Communist witch-hunts – the book not only presented much of this in more detail than I’ve read previously, but it also contained any number of fascinating nuggets that were new to me. First off, before starting with the silent era, the author provided a foundation for the book’s information by laying out extensive details on the founding fathers of the film industry. Connolly went on to cover such interesting personages as Olive Thomas, the beautiful young silent screen star who was married to Mary Pickford’s brother, Jack, and died at the age of 25 after “accidentally” ingesting a topical treatment for her husband’s syphilis. Then there was the 1924 death of producer Thomas Ince – the initial newspaper story stated that he was shot aboard a yacht belonging to famed media baron William Randolph Hearst, but later reports claimed that Ince was suffering from stomach ulcers and was felled by a fatal heart attack – at home. (Right.) I was also shocked and saddened to read the story of Karl Dane, a silent comedy performer who starred with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree in The Big Parade (1925). His career stalled with the talkies – his thick Danish accent didn’t transfer – a mining business venture failed, he lost jobs working as a mechanic and a waiter, and by 1934 he was selling hot dogs outside of Paramount Studios. He killed himself later that year. The rest of the book – with chapters including “The Studio System,” “The Mob,” “Sex” and “Stars” – contains equally interesting information. I didn’t know, for instance, that even the sexy cartoon character Betty Boop was subject to the conventions of the Production Code – in the 1930s, she became “more demure with a less revealing dress, less jewelry, and even fewer curls.” Or that during the filming of Rebel Without A Cause (1955), director Nicholas Ray was having an affair with the film’s star Natalie Wood (Ray was 43 and Wood was 16). Overall, I found this to be an absolutely fascinating book, one of the best I’ve read of its kind. In fact, the only sour note I encountered throughout the entire text was this comment on Marilyn Monroe: “Apart from Some Like It Hot, which, 50 years after her death, is considered classic, none of her films is screened much or even rated that highly.” Perhaps it’s because the author does not live in the United States, but hello? Bus Stop? The Seven Year Itch? Niagara? Don’t Bother To Knock? Not to mention The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, where Monroe was a memorable standout despite her brief appearance. Okay, I’m getting steamed now – let me stop before I retract my favorable review!

Bette and Joan: The Devine Feud
(2000) by Shaun Considine

This is, if not THE best, then certainly one of the top two or three celebrity biographies I’ve ever read – I don’t know how accurate it is, but it sure is loads of fun. As the title suggests, it’s all about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (my two favorite actress, by the way), and the – shall we say – intense dislike that the two harbored for each other for decades. Let me concede, at the outset, that the book contains several inaccuracies about the movies in which these two stars appeared, which is one reason why I must take the entire contents – no matter how enjoyable they were – with a grain of salt. For example, of Crawford’s 1931 pre-Code film Possessed, the author describes “a restaurant scene [in which] Joan sang multilingual snatches of songs to a trio of dining guests, prompting a nearby patron to ask, ‘Say, what is this? Ellis Island?’” If you’ve ever seen Possessed, you’ll know that Crawford’s character was in the home of her lover (Clark Gable), hosting a lush dinner party when she sang versions of a song, “How Long Will it Last,” in several languages. And that it was later in the party that another character arrived, met the “trio” of foreign dignitaries, and delivered the “Ellis Island” remark.” In another instance, the author discusses Bette Davis’s 1942 film In This Our Life – he incorrectly states that she steals her sister’s husband, drives him to suicide, “then, on the way back from his funeral kills a little boy with her car.” (She wasn’t on her way home from the funeral when the car accident occurred – in fact, his funeral wasn’t depicted in the film at all.) These goofs notwithstanding, Bette and Joan is a real page-turner, full of catty comments (“I wouldn’t mind her personality if only she could act,” Bette once said about Joan), juicy gossip (three days after divorcing Davis, her third husband, William Grant Sherry, married their nanny), and tidbits of information that I’d never read before (everything related to the 1939 film The Women was female – from the authors of the books on the library shelves, to the dogs, monkeys, and horses that were in various scenes). It’s also filled with entire conversations, at least some of which are undoubtedly a figment of the author’s creative imagination – but even that doesn’t detract from the book’s overall yummy factor. Neither of the actresses emerges from the book smelling like a rose, but the look inside their longtime feud only made me love them both all the more. After all, who better than Joan Crawford to serve up life lessons like this one: “You can have your cake and eat it. If you nibble at the edges, it lasts longer.”

Center Door Fancy (1972) by Joan Blondell

Did you know that Joan Blondell wrote a novel? Based on her life? Well, she did – and it. Is. AWESOME. I loved this book – even more so because I knew who she was writing about. In the novel, Blondell is Nora Marten, and Center Door Fancy covers everything from her father’s start in vaudeville, which eventually expanded to an act featuring Nora, her mother, and her two siblings, through her third marriage. (Incidentally, according to the book, the title refers to an ornate, painted archway in the middle of a stage set, through which the vaudeville performers would enter.) From the first page, Blondell manages to create a world that you feel a part of: you can practically see the world-weary vaudeville performers, smell the hot dogs and carrots cooked in a hotel room over a can of Sterno, feel the cramped muscles from criss-crossing the country in a second Ford Model T. She takes us through the vaudeville years, her big break on Broadway, her entrance onto the Hollywood scene, and her three failed marriages, to a cinematographer, an actor, and a producer. And she doesn’t pull any punches – the book depicts Nora’s rape by a policeman, her hit-or-miss education, her mother’s numerous extramarital affairs, her first husband’s alcoholism and the series of abortions he arranged for her because he “wanted all of [her] love” for himself. While giving fictional names to the people closest to her and a select few others (her parents, siblings, three husbands, June Allyson, Marion Davies, Warner Bros. studio), Blondell cleverly weaves in mentions of such real-life stars as James Cagney, Clara  Bow, Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Frank McHugh. The overall effect is like stepping into Blondell’s life and listening, enraptured, while she tells you all her most intimate secrets.  (And let me tell you, it certainly gave me a different impression of several personages, especially Dick Powell, June Allyson, and Mike Todd.) I can safely say that this is one of my favorite books of all time – I get all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it. And then I want to pick it up and read it again.

Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (2007) by Matthew Kennedy

After reading about Joan Blondell’s fictionalized life in Center Door Fancy, what better than to read her biography? In my experience, most celebrity biographies are difficult to read – they just don’t flow like I’d like, and I usually give up before getting very far.  But this isn’t one of those. Author Matthew Kennedy did an outstanding job bringing Joan Blondell to life, and it was quite an amazing experience, especially after having just read Center Door Fancy. Kennedy’s biography fills in the blanks, career-wise, covering Blondell’s vaudeville and Broadway career, and giving extensive attention to her many films, from such well-known gems as The Public Enemy (1931) and Golddiggers of 1933, to lesser-known fare like I’ve Got Your Number (1934) and The Traveling Saleslady (1935), as well her extensive television career. Kennedy also takes us inside Blondell’s family life, giving us access to her siblings, Edward, Jr., (known as Junie) and Gloria; her three spouses, George Barnes, Dick Powell, and Mike Todd; her children, Norman (who was fathered by Barnes but later adopted by Powell) and Ellen; and a host of in-laws and grandchildren. I finished reading this book just a few days ago, while seated in a Forever 21 store, waiting for my youngest daughter as she tried on school clothes. When I came to the end which covered Blondell’s death from leukemia, I was shocked (and a little mortified) to find myself in tears – that’s how good of a job Kennedy did with bringing the reader into Blondell’s life. This is a good one.

Palm Springs Babylon (1993) by Ray Mungo

Ugh. This was the last book I read and, by far, my least favorite. I’ve had it in my collection for years – I bought it on August 14, 1993 (good grief – that was before my children were born, and my oldest just started college!). And now I know why I never read it. It purports to be a fascinating tell-all, offering “sizzling stories from the Desert Playground of the Stars” and “a secret history of [Palm Springs] at its sleaziest, most corrupt, and most deliciously indecorous.” Instead of that juicy tome, though, what I got was a lot of offensive innuendo, spurious gossip, and rehashed speculations. The book, for instance, refers to Clark Gable’s “bisexual liaisons in Palm Springs” as “the stuff of undocumented rumor.” So why even mention it? The author also makes a point – literally, it’s mentioned three times in the book, in three different chapters – of insinuating that former first lady Mamie Eisenhower had a drinking problem. In one case, he states that Eisenhower was “frequently perceived as unstable on her feet” and in another he refers to her as the president’s “always unsteady wife” and notes the “undying rumors of [her] little drinking problem.” According to what I’ve been able to find out, Mamie Eisenhower had an inner ear problem that sometimes affected her balance. That’s all. End of story. The entire book is like that – a bunch of slanderous labels tossed around like so much confetti. This person was a big drinker. That person slept around. And that one had a son who was addicted to drugs. Blah, blah, blah. Another thing about the book – it’s arranged into chapters that ostensibly are focused on specific subjects or individuals. But a couple of the so-called chapters are merely lists – one, which is supposed to provide “vital statistics about Palm Springs,” includes such scintillating information as the number of plastic surgeons in Palm Springs (17), the number of daily newspapers (1), and the number of t-shirt shops (“countless”) (seriously, it says “countless,” y’all). Another chapter, called “Just Hangin’ Around,” consists of four short paragraphs and informs us that singer Sarah Vaughn met Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs in the early 1970s, was a regular at several area hotspots that were also frequented by Sinatra, and that after her 1990 death, Sinatra called her “one of the finest vocalists in the history of pop music.” What is the point of all this, you may ask? I DON’T KNOW. Bottom line: skip this one.

And that’s it! I’m sad that the summer has come to an end, but I’m jazzed that I spent this one indulging in some first-rate classic film reading material. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Remembering Lauren Bacall: The Early Years

•August 13, 2014 • 13 Comments

Lauren Bacall was the girl with “The Look,” a sultry, sensuous beauty with a husky voice and a hard-as-nails façade that let the world know that she was a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps best known for her marriage to actor Humphrey Bogart, Bacall was once described as a combination of Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and Bette Davis, with overtones of Veronica Lake and Barbara Stanwyck and undertones of Mae West and Jean Harlow.

Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, New York, on September 16, 1924, the only child of William, of Alsatian descent, and Natalie, who was born in Romania. When young Betty’s parents separated in 1932, Natalie assumed the last half of her maiden name, Weinstein-Bacal, and her daughter became Betty Bacal. Betty moved with her mother to Manhattan and attended the Highland Manor school for girls in Tarrytown, where she experienced her first taste of life as a performer in the school’s weekly dramatic programs. Next, Betty enrolled at the Julia Richman School for Girls. As the actress wrote in her 1995 book, Now, attending girls’ schools and being raised by her mother fostered her belief that “women had the upper hand – got things done – were listened to.” This would be a conviction that would typify the star’s actions throughout her personal and professional life.

During her high school years, Betty participated in Saturday classes at the New York School of the Theatre, and her high school senior yearbook photo featured the caption, “May your dreams of being an actress overflow the brim.” After her graduation, she set about making those dreams come true. She spent a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (while there, she dated fellow student and future co-star Kirk Douglas), but could not return because her mother was unable to afford the tuition. Instead, she turned to modeling, securing her first job at the age of 16 and earning $30 a week.

While working as a model, Betty spent much of her time pursuing her big break on Broadway. Walgreen’s Drug Store on 44th Street was one of her favorite haunts, where she poured through copies of Actor’s Cue, a publication that included listings of road tours and plays being cast. She also sold Actor’s Cue outside Sardi’s Restaurant, a popular theatrical retreat, boldly making herself known to a variety of notables, including producer Max Gordon, director George Kaufman, and actor Paul Lukas, whom Betty called her “first important friend in the theater.” After six months of modeling, Betty got a night job as an usher, spending her days seeking work in the theater.

Betty’s first job on the stage was a walk-on in Johnny 2 x 4. (By the time she’d signed the contract to appear in this play, Betty had added an extra ‘l’ to her last name, to avoid mispronunciation.) Her excitement over securing her first job in the theater was short-lived, however; the play closed after eight weeks. In 1942, she landed her first speaking part in Franklin Street, but following tryouts in Washington and Wilmington, this show, too, was unsuccessful.

Undaunted in the wake of her disappointing entry into the world of the theater, Betty returned to modeling, landing a job with Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Her second appearance in the publication featured the lithe young beauty in a two-page spread and, although she was incorrectly identified as “Betty Becall,” her pictures attracted the attention of a number of Hollywood big shots, including David O. Selznick, Howard Hughes, and Howard Hawks. A photo on the magazine’s cover led to an offer by Hawks for a screen test in Hollywood, and on April 3, 1943, Betty boarded the train for California. She was 18 years old.

Betty’s test resulted in her signing a seven-year contract with Hawks, starting at $100 a week and increasing to $1,250 in the seventh year. Her mother moved to California and the two settled into a small furnished apartment in Beverly Hills. Betty spent the remainder of the year taking singing lessons, reading aloud for voice training, and hounding Hawks’s agent, Charlie Feldman, for a screen role. Shortly after Christmas 1943, Hawks gave Betty what she called “the only present I wanted from life,” a test for his new film, To Have and Have Not (1944). She got the part and a new moniker – which Hawks instructed her to tell the press had been her great-grandmother’s name – and the world was introduced to Lauren Bacall.

In addition to being her film debut, To Have and Have Not was also notable for its introduction of Bacall to her future husband, Humphrey Bogart. From the first day of shooting, Bacall said that Bogart made a special effort to put her at ease: “He was quite aware that I was a new young thing who knew from nothing and was scared to death,” she stated. The on-screen rapport between the two soon developed into something more. Although Bogart was married to actress Mayo Methot (together they were called the “Battling Bogarts” because of their frequent fights – Methot once stabbed Bogart with a knife and set fire to their house), Bacall and Bogart began seeing each other off the set. “Anyone with half an eye could see that there was more between us than the scenes we played,” Bacall said.

Despite the difference in their ages – Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 44 – the couple fell head over heels in love. “We shared so much, understood so much about each other,” Bacall once said. Bogart loved Bacall’s fun-loving, down-to-earth nature (“She’s a good joe,” Bogart said), and Bacall found Bogart to be gentle, sentimental, and loving – quite unlike his hard-boiled screen image. After several separations, Bogart and Methot were divorced on May 10, 1945, and he and Bacall were married 11 days later.

Meanwhile, Bacall’s first film catapulted her to stardom, with one critic raving, “Lauren Bacall has cinema personality to burn. . . . She has a javelin-like vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence of movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness . . . plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice.” With her standout performance in this feature, Bacall was on her way – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The world lost this “fierce female” on August 12, 2014 – but Lauren Bacall’s striking beauty, undeniable talent, and indomitable spirit live on. As she once said, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I’m not foolish enough to think I’ll never make another one. I’ve lived well, but I’m not going to sit around. What else could I do – sit around and give soirees for the rest of my life? That’s not where my head is at. I’ve got to keep moving. If I fall on my ass, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off, and go on.”

“This adventure is not over.”

The Build-Your-Own-Blogathon: Richard Conte in Cry of the City (1948)

•August 9, 2014 • 16 Comments

I could cheerfully watch Richard Conte make cinnamon toast, paint a wall, or even tie his shoes.

But when he’s front and center in a 1940s noir, I really go into orbit!

Case in point: Twentieth Century Fox’s Cry of the City, a 1948 film noir feature with a top-notch, can’t-miss cast that, in addition to Conte, includes Victor Mature, Debra Paget, Fred Clark, Shelley Winters, Barry Kroeger, Hope Emerson, and Betty Garde.

Conte stars as Martin Rome, who is not, shall we say, a nice guy. Charismatic, intelligent, and fearless, he’s also completely and utterly self-absorbed – everything is all about Martin, all the time. Except when it comes to the girl he loves.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Teena (Debra Paget) sneaks into the hospital for this touching scene.

Teena (Debra Paget) sneaks into the hospital for this touching scene.

When Cry of the City begins, it plops us down in the middle of the action: small-time hood Martin Rome is close to death, receiving the Last Rites in the hospital after a botched robbery and shootout left him riddled with bullets and a cop dead. Before he’s taken to surgery, he receives two visitors – one is a beautiful young girl, Teena (Debra Paget), who sneaks into his room and sobs piteously over his body, and W.A. Niles (Kroeger) a crooked lawyer who tries – without success – to coerce Martin into giving a deathbed confession to another murder, this one involving the theft of jewels and the torture of the elderly owner. Both of these characters figure prominently later on.

Candella (Victor Mature) was like a dog with a bone where Martin Rome was concerned.

Candella (Victor Mature) was like a dog with a bone where Martin Rome was concerned.

Another major figure in Martin’s life is Lt. Candella (Victor Mature), who grew up with Martin on the streets of New York. Along with Lt. Collins (Fred Clark), Candella is working the case of the shooting of the cop, and seems to have made Martin’s capture his life’s work – even Collins points out that his partner has developed a “vendetta” against Martin. Candella haunts the halls of the hospital, monitoring Martin’s progress from the brink of death to recovery. He also suspects that Martin may have been involved in the jewel heist – which involved a female accomplice – and he hounds him for the name of the mysterious woman who was seen in his room on the night of his shooting.

Martin never met a person he couldn't use. Here he is with the trusty who helps him escape.

Martin never met a person he couldn’t use. Here he is with the trusty who helps him escape.

Back to the crooked lawyer. As Martin recovers, Niles pays another visit to the hospital, this time to offer Martin a cool 10 grand to take the rap for the jewel theft and old lady murder. Martin declines – at first with relative civility (he spits at Niles and calls him a crook), but later with considerable more vehemence (he literally falls out of his bed trying to strangle him) when Niles threatens to find Martin’s girl: “Maybe we can even make the police believe she did it. They might not. Not the way she is now, Martin. But if we worked on her for a couple of days. Maybe she wouldn’t be so sure herself. Maybe she wouldn’t look the same. Maybe you wouldn’t even recognize her.” A short time later, Martin is transferred to a prison hospital but, with Niles’s threat plaguing him, and with the fortuitous aid of a prison trusty, he manages to break out.

Brenda Martingale (Shelley Winters) played a small but pivotal role in Martin's scheme.

Brenda Martingale (Shelley Winters) played a small but pivotal role in Martin’s scheme.

Once he’s back on the streets of New York, all roads lead to Rome, as it were. I don’t want to give away the whole plot (well, I do, but I won’t) so, instead, I’ll shine the spotlight on a few more characters who come within Martin’s orbit.

There’s Brenda Martingale (Shelley Winters) an old girlfriend of Martin’s, who he employs to locate and take him to Rose Given, the woman who was actually the female accomplice in the jewel robbery/murder. The unlicensed doctor that Brenda finds to treat the ailing Martin – or, at least, he fixes him up (with whiskey and spit, I suppose) enough to keep him going for a while.

Rose (Hope Emerson) had a very unusual massage technique.

Rose (Hope Emerson) had a very unusual massage technique.

Then there’s Rose Given (Hope Emerson), a solidly built masseuse with a  deadly technique – Martin shows up on her doorstep, tells her he has the jewels from the robbery, and offers to exchange them for “a car, five thousand dollars, a way out of the country, and a good night’s sleep.” And Martin’s kid brother, Tony (Tommy Cook), who hero worships Martin and would do anything for him – even if means breaking the law. And his parents, who love their son, but ultimately turn him out of their home. And we come full circle when the final road to Rome links up where we started – with Candella, his ever-determined, never-say-die pursuer, and Teena, the beautiful young girl that is Martin’s entire raison d’être: “I’ve kept you in my heart always,” he tells her. “Wherever I went, you were my strength. . . . You’re my life, I’ll do anything in the world for you.”

The final showdown came down to these three.

The final showdown came down to these three.

The film’s final scene shows MartIn trying to convince Teena to join her in his plan to flee the country – like the figure with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, we see Teena torn between her love for Martin, and his long list of misdeeds, bluntly and graphically delineated by Candella. What will she do? What will happen to Martin? Will Candella finally get his man???

Take a walk on the noir side and check out this film.

Take a walk on the noir side and check out this film.

If you’ve never seen Cry of the City, make like Lt. Candella and hunt it down. Filmed on the streets of New York and helmed by noir director extraordinaire Robert Siodmak, this underrated feature is a dark and shadowy jewel in the noir canon, rife with vivid characters, seedy corruption, and locations so real you can practically feel the rain-slick streets. Of all Richard Conte’s noir appearances, this is one of his best. Trust me  – it’s a must-see. And see it again.

You only owe it to yourself.

* * * * * * * * * *

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Hooray for Hollywood (Forever Cemetery)!

•July 31, 2014 • 10 Comments

Not a bad place to spend eternity, eh?

It was the best of times, it was the best of times.

As if the Turner Classic Movies film festival of 2014 weren’t already a mind-blowingly awesome experience on its own, I topped off this year’s now-annual visit to Los Angeles with a super-cool tour of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (formerly known as the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery).

Conducted by guide extraordinaire Karie Bible – who was clad in a fetching black lace vintage dress and carried a matching parasol – the tour ambled throughout the grounds of the beautifully peaceful cemetery, with Bible providing fascinating bits of information about many of the eternal residents. Equipped with my trusty digital camera, I took the tour with a group of film fans gathered for the event, excitedly scribbling in my notebook and snapping pictures at each stop.

I’m glad to share with you now, a few of the highlights from this memorable and most delightful experience.

The tall obelisk in the center is Griffith's tombstone; and in the distance you can see the Griffith Observatory.

The tall obelisk in the center is Griffith’s tombstone; and in the distance you can see the Griffith Observatory.

Griffith J. Griffth

Los Angeles’s famed Griffith Park was named after this philanthropist and industrialist, who donated more than 3,000 acres of land to the city. But if that’s all you know about this double-monikered fellow, well, pull up a chair! In addition to being a wealthy self-starter (he was born in South Wales and came to this country, without a dime, at the age of 15), Griffith was a severely paranoid alcoholic who got the notion into his head that his wife was conspiring with the Pope (yes, the Pope) to have him assassinated. To get the jump on her, so to speak, Griffith shot his wife in the head – she lost an eye and was left with a disfigured face, but she lived to tell the tale (and testify at the trial). Meanwhile, Griffith pleaded “alcoholic insanity” (say what?). He was defended by lawyer Earl Rogers – who later became the inspiration for the Perry Mason book series – and spent a mere two years in prison.

Jayne Mansfield’s cenotaph was installed by her fans.

Jayne Mansfield

Mansfield was the buxom blonde star of such films as The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). She’s also the mother of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay and, sadly, was killed at the gone-too-soon age of 34, when her car rammed into the back of a semi-trailer on a Louisiana highway. (Hargitay, three years old and asleep with her siblings in the back seat at the time, was unhurt in the accident.) Mansfield’s headstone is actually a cenotaph – a new word for me! – which means that it’s a monument erected for someone whose remains are someplace else. Mansfield is actually buried in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, where the actress lived from age three to six. Her cenotaph at Hollywood Forever was placed there by the Jayne Mansfield Fan Club – although it incorrectly identifies her year of birth as 1938, instead of 1933. Incidentally, Mariska Hargitay was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in November 2013 – it’s right next to that of her famous mom’s.

David White's niche is a tribute to his love for his son, Jonathan.

David White’s niche is a tribute to his love for his son, Jonathan.

David White

Best known for his role as Larry Tate in the long-running sitcom, Bewitched, White and his first wife, stage actress Mary Welch, had a son, Jonathan, in 1955. Three years later, Welch died during of complications from her second pregnancy. (Larry Tate’s son on Bewitched, incidentally, was named after White’s real-life son.) Sadly, Jonathan was on the flight that was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and David White died of a heart attack two years later. His final resting place is in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cathedral Mausoleum at the cemetery, a lovely structure flanked by marble statues in the main hallway of the twelve apostles. White’s remains are in a memorial niche, which is a bookcase-like compartment with a glass front. The niche also contains Jonathan’s remains, photos of White and his son, and a “Larry Tate” bust sculpture, which is a prop from a 1969 Bewitched episode.

See the lipstick prints?

See the lipstick prints?

Rudolph Valentino

The famed silent film star, who died at the age of 31, is buried in a crypt in the Cathedral Mausoleum, next to the crypt of June Mathis, the screenwriter who discovered him and wrote four of his movies, including The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922). At the time of his death, Valentino was millions of dollars in debt and there was no money to bury him.  Mathis owned a row of crypts and loaned one to Valentino’s family for what was supposed to be the actor’s temporary housing. Unfortunately, 11 months later Mathis herself died, at the age of 40. In the 1930s, Mathis’s husband sold the crypt to the Valentino family. To this day, women leave lipsticked kisses on the crypt’s marble stone.

Guests at the memorial's dedication sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Guests at the memorial’s dedication sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”


The iconic canine in the beloved 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz was played by a female Cairn Terrier by the name of Terry. She was born in Chicago in 1933, and was also seen in 15 other feature films, including the Shirley Temple vehicle Bright Eyes (1934), and The Women (1939), starring Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. Terry died in 1945, but her remains are not at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. After her death, she was buried at her owner’s ranch in Studio City, but her grave marker was destroyed in the late 1950s when the land was razed to make way for the Ventura Freeway (under which she lies to this day.) On June 18, 2011, a permanent memorial was dedicated to “Toto” at Hollywood Forever.

A lovely spot for a lovely tribute.

A lovely spot for a lovely tribute.

Hattie McDaniel

This Gone With the Wind (1939) Oscar winner is yet another personage with a cenotaph at the cemetery. The actress wanted Hollywood Forever to be her final resting place, but the owner at the time of her death, a man by the name of Julius Roth, refused to allow McDaniel (along with most other minorities) to be buried there. Her body is actually buried at L.A.’s Rosedale Cemetery. More than 40 years later, the cemetery’s new owner, Tyler Cassity, offered to have McDaniel ‘s remains disinterred and buried at Hollywood Forever, but  her family declined. Instead, Cassity erected the existing monument, placing it in what is arguably one of the most tranquil locations in the cemetery.  A dedication ceremony was held at the cemetery on October 26, 1999, the 47th anniversary of McDaniel’s death; the cenotaph includes a quote from McDaniel’s last living relative, her grand-nephew, which reads, “Aunt Hattie, you are a credit to your craft, your race, and to your family.”

Pay your respects to the Fairbanks père et fils ... and see a movie!

Pay your respects to the Fairbanks père et fils … and even see a movie!

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

The famed father and son actors are buried together beneath a striking monument that reads, “Good night, sweet princes.” The area behind the monument is called “The Fairbanks Lawn” and movies are frequently screened there. (By the way, in case you didn’t know – and I confess that I didn’t until Karie Bible told us! – the main character in the 2011 Oscar-winning film The Artist was based on the life of Fairbanks, Sr.)

The original glamour ghoul.

Brief Bits

  • Finland native Maila Nurmi played Vampira in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and as the host of the popular, Emmy-nominated 1950s late-nite TV horror show. Nurmi died penniless in 2008 at the age of 85; fundraisers were held to buy her headstone and bury her.
  • Mr. Blackwell, famed snarky judge of star styles and wardrobes, is buried next to his partner of 59 years, Robert Spencer.

    Who knew Maxwell Smart was a war hero?

    Who knew Maxwell Smart was a war hero?

  • Don Addams, famed for his starring role in Get Smart (and the voice of Inspector Gadget on the popular animated show), fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
  • Virginia Rappe is the starlet whose death led to the eventual ruin of silent star Fatty Arbuckle, who was tried three times (and finally acquitted) for her murder. Rappe is buried next to her fiancé, producer/director Henry Lehrman, who reportedly carried her photo in his wallet until his 1946 death.
  • Fay Wray, best known for her role in the original King Kong (1933), was supposed to have the final line (“It was beauty killed the beast”) in the 2005 remake starring Jack Black, but she died in her sleep in 2004 at age 96.

    You can’t see Paramount’s water tower from this angle, but trust me, it’s there!

  • From the grave of Cecil B. DeMille, you have a clear view of the water tower at Paramount, the studio he helped to establish.
  • Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa on the Little Rascals series, was shot and killed at the age  of 31 over a quarrel involving money and a hunting dog . His father, by the way, invented a breast enhancing machine.
  • Actress Janet Gaynor, perhaps best known for her starring role in the original A Star is Born (1937), is buried next to her husband, famed fashion designer Adrian.

    The Puccio-Kennedy memorial. (Right now, the urn only contains the ashes of their beloved cat.)

    The Puccio-Kennedy memorial. (Right now, the urn only contains the ashes of their beloved cat.)

  • Orin Kennedy and Bernardo Puccio, the only two living personages on the tour, purchased a memorial at the cemetery that will house their ashes when they pass on to the Great Beyond. The two had an official unveiling of their classically designed monument in 2006, inviting friends and family to join them. The “living funeral” was the focus of a 2014 documentary on Kennedy and Puccio, entitled An Ordinary Couple.
A suitably striking monument.

A suitably striking monument.

Other notables included on the tour were Jean Harlow’s third husband Harold Rosson; Charlie Chaplin’s mother, Hannah; Tyrone Power, whose monument is a striking marble bench; Darren McGavin, star of The Night Stalker television series, and one of my favorite holiday movies, A Christmas Story; Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn; director William Desmond Taylor, whose murder is still unsolved today; noir and horror film veteran Peter Lorre; and voice actor Mel Blanc, whose tombstone famously reads, “That’s all, folks.”

If you’re ever in Los Angeles, I can recommend strongly enough that you take in one of Karie Bible’s tours of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (Contact information and tour dates can be found here.) It will be an experience you’ll never forget. Trust me.

You only owe it to yourself.


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