Hollywood’s Own Muse

Eve Babitz, Author of Black Swans

Perhaps the saddest thing about Southern California is that so much that has been written about the area comes from clueless East Coast authors who whose work is characterized by a kind of extreme cultural tone-deafness. If you want a true picture of Los Angeles, you have to read Eve Babitz who, alone, seems to understand what the city in which I live is all about. In her story “Self-Enchanted City” in her story collection Black Swan, she writes:

When people would first arrive from New York, they’d say stuff like “This place is full of fruits and nuts and you have no seasons.” So I knew they saw through the cheap thrills of shallow sunshine and were principled easterners determined to be unimpressed. But after a few weeks, even they would show up at Barney’s Beanery driving a brown Porsche, and they’d move into one of those Snow White wishing-well houses where all they could hear were birdies in the trees and all they could see were hollyhocks, roses, and lemon blossoms. And then they’d undergo a kind of molecular transformation, losing all their winter fat, their bad teeth, and their attitude that life was about artists being screwed by “the establishment.” And if they were fast enough on their feet, they’d soon become the establishment themselves. Or, at the very least, they’d wind up writing screenplays about Marxist good guys disguised as cat burglars.

The Chateau Marmont, Archetypal Hollywood Hotel on the Sunset Strip

Eve neglects to mention that they still kept one foot in the East by wearing a New York Times baseball cap. Earlier, she describes what has happened to Hollywood:

But for anything to age gracefully, eternal vigilance is necessary, and Hollywood has not been carefully tended. It has been knocked down flights of stairs, abandoned, left for dead, and sold into slavery. Still, if you ask me, some parts are just as beautiful as my dream version—even more beautiful if you subscribe to the Tennessee Williams decadence-as-poetry theory that ravaged radiance is even better than earnest maintenance.

I am only about a third of the way into Black Swan, but am continuing to make further discoveries every page.

 

California Dreaming

Condos Reflected on Venice’s Grand Canal

Today, as I was driving to a history discussion group, I saw huge crowds of tourists lurking around Beverly Hills and perched on countless tourist buses. It is interesting to see that so many young people from elsewhere are interested in Los Angeles. Even if what they are interested in is mostly garbage: The shops on Rodeo Drive and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But there is something about this place. Believe it or not, it’s the light. But you have to be receptive to visual nuances, something not quite as crass as a Gucci Bag or a star honoring the career of Rod La Rocque. And you have to be up early in the morning, or be around at dusk. Noon is just plain achingly bright.

The funny thing is that you don’t see much of what L.A. is about by visiting Universal City or Disneyland or even the La Brea Tar Pits. You can get something of a feel for it when you see the Getty Center or the Arboretum or Descanso Gardens or the Huntington Gardens and Art Museum. But you have to be still and let the light play over you. The more frenzied your touring is, the less you’ll get out of it.

Hell, it took me years before I could even see this place as it should be seen.

 

Post-Production Blues: Major Dundee

Scene from Major Dundee (1965)

Hollywood is full of stories of battles between the director and the producers. One of the most tragic occurred between Sam Peckinpah and the money men behind Major Dundee. It was only Peckinpah’s third outing as a director of feature films, and he was given a budget of $4.5 million to shoot the film in Mexico. The original director’s cut came in at 4 hours and 38 minutes, and several million dollars over budget. Producer Jerry Bresler promptly denied the director any decision in the post-production process.

He had the film edited down to 123 minutes, which was the version I originally saw at a downtown L.A. theater around 1970. Today, I watched a 136 minute version, which calls itself “The Extended Version,” though is still a bit rough around the edges.

Director Sam Peckinpah

It is a pity that men of no artistic ability like Bresler have such an ability to mar a major work of art. Even with all its jagged edges, Major Dundee is a captivating film. Set in the final years of the Civil War, it tells of a Union officer (Charlton Heston) stationed to New Mexico Territory putting together a unit to revenge a massacre of men, women, and children by Apaches led by one Sierra Chariba. With few regulars on hand at Fort Benlin, he recruits a squad of black Buffalo Soldiers, a few cowboys and outlaws and the usual reprobates, and a group of Confederate prisoners led by Captain Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris). When the Apaches cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, Dundee and his men follow them and come into conflict with French troops which then controlled Mexico under the Emperor Maximilian.

Peckinpah always had a special feeling for Mexico. During the shooting of Major Dundee, he fell in love with one of his actresses, Begoña Palacios, and married her. Shown below is a Mexican fan magazine of the period with her picture on the cover.

Begoña Palacios

I will never forget when I saw the rough cut of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) at Warner Brothers Studios. There was a scene of Bill Holden and his men leaving a Mexican village that seemed to go forever. There is a similar scene in Major Dundee, where Charlton Heston captures a small French garrison and finds that the villages does not have enough food to survive. He immediately orders that two of his mules be butchered. There is a long fiesta scene. When Heston and his men leave, the whole village comes out to see him off.

I rather like the special feeling that the director had for Mexico. It gives his films set there a certain glow. It is a pity that Peckinpah died at the age of 59 in 1984. He had indulged in booze and drugs, and they greatly weakened him at a time when he still had a lot to give as one of the greatest artists in the genre of the American Western.

 

Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign

Scene of Many Hollywood Legends

Scene of Many Hollywood Legends

It stands near the top of Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills. Originally, the sign read “Hollywoodland”—erected using telephone poles and tin to advertise the housing development below. Eventually, the sign was shortened to “Hollywood” and came to signify something altogether different.

I first heard about the story from Dory Previn, who wrote a song called “Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign” way back in the 1970s. You can hear her singing it in this YouTube video.  It is about a movie starlet who grew disenchanted with the dream factory ending her life by jumping off the letter “H” of the Hollywood sign and dying on the slope below of multiple fractures of the pelvis. She died on September 18, 1932.

It really happened, but not to Mary C. Brown. I guess Millicent Lilian “Peg” Entwistle doesn’t scan as well in a song lyric. Peg was a cute blonde Welsh actress with blue eyes. While acting on the stage in New York, she married Robert Keith in 1927. For a short time, she was the stepmother of the man who grew up to be actor Brian Keith.

By coincidence, Brian Keith also committed suicide.

Starlet Peg Entwistle

Starlet Peg Entwistle

During her time in Hollywood, Peg acted in only one film that was ever released: Thirteen Women (1932). I would like to be able to say that it was a success, but it wasn’t, even though it starred Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne.

 

 

Walk Like an Egyptian

Part of the Painted Facade of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood

Part of the Painted Facade of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood

If it’s Labor Day weekend, it’s also time for the 52nd Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival. So Martine and I invaded Hollywood, parked our chariot at Loew’s Hollywood Hotel, and proceeded to view several newly restored films at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater. These included:

  • An episode of a hokey old serial called Jungle Mystery.
  • Three Laurel & Hardy rareties, including Berth Marks and Come Clean.
  • A silent comedy called More Pay—Less Work from 1926.
  • A Columbia film released during World War Two which uniquely accuses the Nazis of atrocities against the Jews: None Shall Escape (1944) starring a radiant Marsha Hunt and directed by Andre de Toth.

Cinecon has thinned out a bit since last year. President Robert S. Birchard, having served in that capacity since 1998, died of a heart attack in May. Many such as my late friends Norman Witty and Lee Sanders had also passed on. Every year, there are more canes and more geriatric ailments in evidence. The pity of it is that Cinecon has difficulties recruiting younger members, who would consider the restored 1920s and 1930s films as ancient history. The organization would have to move more into the 1950s-1970s to get the attention of Generation Xers, not to mention Millennials.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame

The Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hollywood itself was filled with young tourists of the tattooed and pierced variety who sashayed up and down the street shooting pictures of the commemorative stars on the sidewalk with their cell phones. On holiday weekends, the Boulevard is a big-time crowd scene, with scores of tour buses taking them to see homes of the rich and famous—or whatever it is they show them. Whenever they accost me for a tour, I offer to give it myself, saying “Hey, I live in this dump!”

 

The Man Who Gave Us the Tingler

He Made Being Scared Fun

He Made Being Scared Fun

Last Saturday, Martine and I visited one of the three places worth seeing in Hollywood, namely the Hollywood Heritage Museum, which is almost in the shadow of he Hollywood Bowl off Highland Avenue. (The other two places worth seeing are the Egyptian Theater, especially during Cinecon, and the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society’s museum on Cahuenga.)

It is not the museum I want to talk about right now—though I’ll get to it later—but an exhibit I saw there honoring that great showman of horror, William Castle, director of such classics as Macabre (1958), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), and Homicidal (1961). Although he was active since the early 1940s, it is during this relatively short period in the 1950s and 1960s that he almost pre-empted the horror genre.

Could This Be the Original Prop for The Tingler?

Could This Be the Original Prop for The Tingler?

What make Castle famous at the time was that he were his publicity gimmicks. When he released Macabre, he had to mortgage his house, so he came up with some hilarious ideas to promote the picture, such as giving every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies and had hearses parked outside the theaters.

My favorite of his films was The Tingler, filmed in “Percepto.” According to Wikipedia:

The title character is a creature that attaches itself to the human spinal cord. It is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. Castle purchased military surplus air-plane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) and had a crew travel from theatre to theatre attaching them to the underside of some of the seats (in that era, a movie did not necessarily open on the same night nationwide). In the finale, one of the creatures supposedly gets loose in the movie theatre itself. The buzzers were activated as the film’s star, Vincent Price, warned the audience to “scream—scream for your lives!” Some sources incorrectly state the seats were wired to give electrical jolts. Filmmaker and Castle fan John Waters recounted in Spine Tingler! how, as a youngster, he would search for a seat that had been wired in order to enjoy the full effect.

Well, he wasn’t the only one. Several years ago, the Alex Film Society in Glendale not only showed The Tingler, but claimed that some of the seats were “wired.” I was disappointed to see that the wiring was nothing more than some aluminum foil attached to the underside of some of the seats.

It didn’t matter. Martine and I loved the film anyhow, and we loved Castle’s gimmicks. Okay, maybe we were too sophisticated to be taken in by them, but we loved the idea that he made the horror picture not only scary, but funny.

I don’t know if Castle was a “great” director, but I still enjoy seeing his films.

In the Land of the Tattooed Monkeys

Labor Day Weekend in Hollyweird

Labor Day Weekend in Hollyweird

All the tourists who (1) watch too much television; (2) don’t know much about Southern California; and (3) are decorated all over with piercings and tattoos usually end up on Hollywood Boulevard. Labor Day Weekend is particularly crowded, as crowds stop and take pictures of “tweakers” dressed up as Darth Vader, Spider Man, Wonder Woman and other superheroes and superheroines. Or they take pictures of the thousands of star-shaped plaques embedded into the sidewalks honoring key entertainment figures. Or they just take pictures of each other. (The star commemorating Marilyn Monroe in front of Ripley’s “Believe-It-Or-Not” museum is always a mob scene.)

Yesterday evening, Martine and I found a short cut to get us around the crowd pressing around what was once Grauman’s Chinese Theater (and now called the TCL Chinese Theater). Out of the Loew’s Hollywood Hotel (formerly called the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel), we walked past the entrance to the Dolby Theater (formerly the Eastman Kodak Theater) to a tour bus station on Orange Avenue. That saved us at least 15 minutes on the way to Roubo’s Russian and Armenian Restaurant. Of course, all the re-branding made my head spin.

Especially on holiday weekends such as this, it is impossible to go more than a hundred feet without being solicited by tour bus operators. I always tell them that, as a long-time resident, I am better qualified to offer them a tour.

In fact, at any given time around Labor Day, about 30-40% of all vehicles on the boulevard are tour buses.

The movies at Cinecon made it all worthwhile, though it is something of a gauntlet going between the Egyptian Theater, where the films are screened, to the Loew’s Hollywood Hotel, where the dealers’s booths are set up, or to any restaurant serving halfway decent food.