Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Sheik of De Longpre

If you happen down De Longpre you may notice a little park just past Highland Ave. that is seemingly gated in. Just a tiny block by block patch of land with a little playground and some beautiful landscaping. But if you look closely, even just in passing, there appears to be a little shrine in the middle. And if you are like me and are curious about every hidden treasure in Hollywood, you'll find the barely-cracked front gate, squeeze through, and go closer for further inspection.

I'd seen pics online of a Valentino statue in a park somewhere in Hollywood, but every 5 blocks it seems there are tiny turn of the century gardens so pinpointing a single statue based off an internet picture is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But lo and behold, right there at the corner of DeLongpre and Cherokee, sits a monument that's been there (and not, and then back again) since the 1930's.

A campaign was started in 1926 shortly after Valentino's death by actors and members of the Hollywood community to erect a tribute to the fallen actor. Donations poured in from all over the globe, enough was raised, and Roger Burnham was commissioned to design a statue in Rudy's honor. On what would've been Valentino's 35th birthday, the statue was dedicated and fans the country over would gather here on both his birthday and death every year. It even had it's own mysterious woman who would leave flowers and wreaths every year. The neighbors weren't particularly thrilled as they felt any tribute should be made to the painter De Longpre, (it was his park, after all) but the monument stayed.

In the 50's the neighborhood hit a slump and vandals hit the monument. Some especially arduous thieves even stole the statue from it's pedestal  which the city recovered a few years later. Fearing more vandalism, the city stored the statue for the next 2 decades.

In the late 70's another artist was commissioned to create an accompanying bust of Valentino for the park, and it was then that the original was remounted in it's original resting place, and in 2010 the neighborhood got together to give the whole park a face lift, making it the little piece of serenity it is today.

While stumbling across the statue made my day, what really made the moment special was this: it was early morning and there were a handful of folks in the park, eating their breakfasts, walking dogs, feeding birds, and none of them seemed at all interested in the little art deco statue before them. Once we started making a little fuss over getting clear pictures almost everyone in the park wandered over, asking "who is this?" We told them "Rudolph Valentino, a silent film actor", not wanting to really bore them with the history lesson I could have given them, as the look on their faces told me they didn't know quite who Valentino was anyway.

But, after I'd taken a few more pictures and started to walk away, i noticed one of the people, holding their phone, reading from Rudy's wikipedia page. Everyone was standing around the guy, just listening to the life of Valentino. It made me a little warm and fuzzy inside, because, even in a small indirect way, we just inspired a group of people to learn about a great actor from a bygone era. We left with huge smiles on our faces and before getting back into the car, I turned and looked at the group, still reading up on Valentino, and thought "I had a part in that".

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Is there an accurate classic biopic? Bueller?

Lets recap right quick. 1980's made for tv (i think, i hope so, was it a theatrical release? oh, the horror) Bogie. 1965's Harlow - snooze fest. 57's Buster Keaton Story - don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Donald O'Connor. but if you're going to recap a legend, maybe make it, oh, I don't know, true. That goes for 82's Francis (Jessica Lange was amazing), 81's Mommy Dearest (Dunaway also was awesome), 92's Chaplin, 46's Jolson Story - all mostly complete BS ... the list goes on and on.

And not to say that list isn't full of decent movies and decent actors. it just seems if you're going to put the time and effort into what boils down to paying homage to a legend, you would think facts would be a little more important. How much do you really need to fabricate in a story about Hollywood in its prime to make it dramatic and interesting? The fact that "biopic" is just biography and picture squished together isn't lost on me, but it seems they always like to throw phrases like "true", "actual events" and "real life" into titles and descriptions, which annoy me when the credits roll and i rush online to fact check and find 85% of what ever I just watched was fabricated crap.

Keaton and O'Connor

I am a little disappointed that no one has really tackled a Peter Lorre bio. Drug addiction, illness, fame, defiance, affairs, the red scare, poverty, and one of the most waster talents Hollywood's ever seen? Really?  No love? I have no idea who could even play Lorre. Maybe Pete Doherty if he could act - he's got the look, accent and addiction part down. After seeing Hopkins dressed up as Hitchcock he might make a good Sidney Greenstreet,  Clooney or.. oh man this hurts to say... Ben Affleck (based on looks alone) as Bogie, and maybe Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting as Bertolt Brecht (seriously, look those two up. Dead ringer)... but I digress.



Back to movies that do exist - I was trying to think of a Hollywood biopic to write about that meets my very elitist standards of honest portrayal and entertaining to watch. In true Hollywood fashion, the truth is not out there. So then I started thinking if there was one that stood out as such a great film that maybe the truth didn't matter so much, and there are quite a few that I like, but my number one with a bullet would have to be James Cagney's portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Cohan and Cagney

This was the first time I saw Cagney as a song and dance man. No guns?  No grapefruits? Who is this man? And as anyone does when they see their favorite tough guy in a family movie, and *gasp* a musical, I thought it was going to be a flaming pile.

First of all, they nailed it with casting. Cagney and Cohan are about the same build, similar features, almost identical delivery, and they came from similar backgrounds, both being Irish-Americans originally from New England. You would also need someone with decent acting chops to portray a personality like Cohan, and Cagney had it in spades. In every scene he looks so thrilled just to be there you can't help but be drawn in.

A clip of Cohan dancing in 1932 

Second, yes they took some liberties with the story line. But a few name changes, a little chronological editing, and some inaccuracies (Roosevelt's wheelchair, some political glossing-over, Cohan's divorce and second wife, etc) are, to me, pretty minor in comparison. A lot of folks like to point out that Cohan was born on the 3rd of July, not the 4th, but he and his family told everyone he was born on the 4th to appear "all-American". That doesn't seem like a stretch to me in this movie. Cohan was an advisor on the film and one of his original producers, Jack Boyle, helped director Michael Curtiz to make the choreography, sets, and costumes as accurate as possible. Hey, at least they were trying. More than I can say for some of the others. It was no DeMille type effort for accuracy, but what they lacked in truth they made up for in entertainment quality, in my opinion.

And lastly, history aside, it's just a damn good movie. From Cohan's Vaudeville days to the peak of his career as "the man who owns Broadway" to the loss of his family and his spotlight, the production as a whole is just stellar. Every time I watch the scene with his father (played by Walter Huston) on his death bed, my heart just hurts.Watching Cagney go from optimistic when he arrives home, to sad when he sees his father, to the hope draining from his face as it sinks in... ugh it's no wonder he got the Oscar for that one. I am usually not a fan of  war era forced (and often faked) nationalism, but with Cohan's real life war efforts and the kind of songs he wrote you can't help but get an urge to wave a flag. The supporting cast is also amazing- Eddie Foy Jr plays his father, a 17 year old Joan Leslie plays Cohan's wife, everyone did wonderful jobs. You laugh, you cry, you sing along, it's a well rounded experience. After Cohan screened the film he said "my God, what an act to follow". Well said, sir. I couldn't imagine a better portrayal by anyone else.

For tons more reviews, opinions and ideas on biographical films, check out the Shoes They Wear blogathon going on at the Cinematic Katzenjammer. !

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Orson Welles

HG Wells wrote a book in 1898 detailing an alien attack on Earth. It was one of the first of it's kind, tying in current (for the turn of the century) scientific theories with an alien invasion and attack on the human race. Wells had studied as a scientist and like Neil Degrasse Tyson today, was widely known for his ability to explain scientific theories with a simplicity that everyone could understand. Although "War" was classified as science fiction and scientific romance, it's parallels to evolution, space travel, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life was based on the research of the time and inspired many scientists. Just 20 years prior Mars had been viewed for the first time through a telescope, and 30 years prior Darwin issued his theories of natural selection and evolution.
                                                             Original broadcast in full:

Orson Welles had primarily worked on the stage and in radio prior to the 1938 broadcast that brought him international fame. Basing the mood for the broadcast off the non-fictional Hindenburg disaster reports, Welles (and Howard Koch) reset the novel by placing it in New Jersey instead of England, and planning to deliver it as a breaking newscast interrupting the "live" broadcast of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra (actually the in house CBS orchestra) with bulletins and commentary from scientists, witnesses, and members of the US Government (played by Welles and other CBS actors).

Howard Koch

The Mercury Theater on the Air program was one of few programs to air without advertisements. Welles had been a regular cast member for 3 years, and having heard Ronald Knox's BBC false broadcast of London riots a few years prior, was inspired to try a similar plot in the US.  Without commercial interruptions and already in a heightened state of anxiety over attacks due to the looming threat of a second world war, listeners that joined the program mid-broadcast were unaware it was a work of fiction.

With sound effects (directed by Ora Nichols), "dropped" interviews, dead air, and a general sense of panic throughout the hour long broadcast, many listeners were thrown into a frenzy as CBS simulcasted their broadcasts throughout most major cities in the eastern US. Radio stations were flooded with calls from concerned citizens, and unrelated power outages in a handful of towns added to the confusion and fear. Although today we're told the hysteria wasn't as dramatic as originally reported, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were genuinely terrified by the performance. Welles had anticipated listeners tuning in during breaks of other stations, and timed the most terrifying parts around these since the Mercury was a smaller production with fewer listeners and no stop sets. People turning the dial after the first scheduled commercial break in other station's programs (just like today, around 13 after the hour) initially caught War in the first report on an invasion over Grover Mills, NJ. After the introduction, no mention was made that the story was fictional until over 30 minutes in.

CBS Studio 10/30/38

The newspapers, threatened by radio, had a field day with Orson's performance. They claimed radio had too much power and was dangerous, suggesting everyone go back to print, as print "never deceives".  Even Hitler cited the broadcast as proof of "the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy".  The station was sued by hundreds, citing mental anguish and personal injury. All suits but one were dropped - a man had spent money reserved for new shoes on supplies to flee town - Welles insisted the man be compensated. Newspapers ran almost 13,000 stories and the station was investigated by police and FBI (then called the BOI). Koch told the NY Times - "The police came in after the broadcast and seized whatever copies [of the script] they could find as evidence - There was a question that we might have done something that might have criminal implications" .

Regardless of the mayhem caused, Orson Welles and CBS were skyrocketed into international fame. The broadcast has been copied numerous times all over the world: in the 1940's a Spanish DJ reenacted the story with help from a local newspaper, initially causing fear in Ecuador that led to police being dispatched. Once it was revealed the story was fictional, a riot broke out against the station and newspaper that played party to the hoax.

To this day Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast is cited as one of the most famous moments in radio history, and you can often hear the broadcast re-aired around this time of year. Welles was only 22 at the time, and the fame garnered almost immediately launched his Hollywood career.

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying "Boo!". Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian, it's Halloween!"

                                               Welles apologizes for the misleading broadcast:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Old Hollywood Costume Parties

No one knew how to don a costume better than Old Hollywood.  

Cagney, Francis, Chevalier, Blondell and Barnes                   
  Claudette dressed as Scarlett O'Hara     
The Beatles and friends at an album release party 

  Chaplin as Napoleon                                                                 

  Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, 1933

Gable, Lombard, and Hearst at a party

Joan Crawford and Constance Bennett       

  Grant, Pickford, De Frasso, and Carminati

Betty Grable, Martha Raye, and Dorothy Lamour Can-can!

Swanson, Davies, Bennett and Harlow

Norma Shearer and Hearst at his birthday party

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The most F'd Up Movie Ever

I'm taking a little detour from the classics (although the one Im about to discuss is considered "cult" to some) because I saw this blogathon about messed up movies  and wanted to add my two cents.

1980's Cannibal Holocaust. Seriously.  I've lost friends after lending this one out. The conversation always begins the same:
"man, I thought this movie was gonna be messed up but it was so not scary/gory/etc"
     "oh yeah?  well, I have this movie, but it's pretty rough . . . I've only made it all the way thru it once "
 "whatever it can't be that bad, I so want to see it"
     "well, okay."

The next (and often last)time I see them is when they are slipping the DVD thru my mail slot and scurrying off.

Im not a squeamish person. I can sit thru stuff like Traces of Death, Mondo Magic, the evening news, no problem.  But I can honestly say CH is the most brutal movie I've ever seen, and I always end up leaving the room not because it's really gory, but because it makes me so. damn. uncomfortable in it's realism. In what is considered the birth of the "found footage" format (like Blair Witch, Paranormal activity, etc") we get a movie that was not only confiscated by Italy's magistrate at the release, but a movie that is STILL banned in almost half the world.

 It starts innocently enough. A group of documentary film makers want to travel into the wild to capture tribes on film that are hidden in remote and never before seen areas of The Amazon. Just a bunch of fun loving college kids out to make their mark on the world and have an adventure. Good times, right? Um, no.

Things start to go wrong as cultures collide when the team locates villagers. The group underestimates the villagers and treats them horribly, staging violent and deadly situations for "a good shot", and taking advantage of their women, which is violently retaliated for. Between wars with other tribes and the film makers being just insufferable assholes, the brutality escalates fairly quickly and... just ugh.

 Maybe it's because I'm a chick. Everyone meets a seriously horrible end, but it seems the women (and some animals) get the brunt of it. I get what it's supposed to represent, it jumps back and forth from the "found" footage and documentary makers in New York, and you can't tell who's more messed up - the people that will  rape and murder for entertainment, or the suits that approve this behavior to make appealing programming for ratings.

 The only time i would really recommend watching this is if you are curious to see how much you've been desensitized by society, or to test how much realistic torture and mutilation you can tolerate. If you can sit thru this one and not bat an eye, well, you're likely a little f'd up too (but we still love you).

Friday, October 5, 2012

Hollywood's Black Friday

After 6 months of striking for better wages by the set director sect of the newly formed Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), tempers reached a boil in front of the WB gates on Oct. 5th, 1945.

77 set directors set out to form their own union separate from the international union that had previously resided over most of the film trades in Hollywood. After 9 months of wage negotiations and most of the studios reaching a deal, Warner Brothers failed to deal with the newly formed union, setting off a strike that delayed films such as Dual in the Sun and Night and Day.

Approximately 10,500 employees picketed the gates of the studio. When workers attempted to break the line and fill the jobs, cars were attacked and overturned, forcing the hand of Burbank police to take action against the picketers. Over 40 injuries were reported.

Continued striking throughout the next week along with national attention forced Warner to negotiate with the union. Unfortunately for the CSU this would also trigger government regulation in the form of the Taft-Hartley act, essentially regulating union size and power to avoid similar conflicts in the future. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Keaton on the Big Screen

I used to be bored to tears by silent films.  Sad, I know, but it's true.  Smooth into my early 20's even, I would try, because I at least realized a lot of them had historical significance, but would always seem to hit play, and then wake up when the end credits were rolling.

I'm not sure if it was hitting the wise, ripe age of 25 or what, but somewhere I developed different tastes in films than I had growing up.  When I had TCM (oh how I miss you, please stream) they had a feature - probably still do- called Silent Sundays that would still be on Monday mornings while i was getting ready for work. And this weird  movie, with any shot of money tinted gold, was on, and 3 hours later I was hooked, and super late for work.


Fast forward 5 years to now- I recently moved to Los Angeles, and holy crap the plethora of films you can see on the big screen here. After Greed I ran the gamut on silents, Demille, Griffith, Chaplin, Stroheim, if I could find it, i would watch it.  But, as much as I enjoyed them at home alone on the couch, something was missing.

The Cameraman is now my favorite Keaton film.  It's absolutely hilarious. Whenever Im bummed out, I find that scene of him in the dressing room at the Venice Plunge on youtube, and giggle away.  This was the first film Keaton did with MGM, and the last film he made there where he had creative control.  Hollywood thought it was completely lost, but in Paris in the late 60's,  someone found the whole thing.  Another copy was found in 91, and through the combination of the two, we get the whole film in near-perfect quality.

Filming the dressing room scene

A few weeks ago I spotted a Facebook posting from The New Beverly Cinema about a Buster Keaton night. I came so close to not going, short notice, laziness, etc etc. but I even managed to drag my boyfriend along, and Im so glad I made it - I realized what was missing siting alone on the couch.

New Beverly Theater

The movie revolves around a poor tintype photographer who falls for a girl, Sally, who is a secretary in a news department. In an attempt to impress her, he trades in his junk camera for an even junkier motion film camera that he doesnt even know how to operate, and shows up at her job looking for work to be near her.  Even after making a fool of himself in front of her entire office, Sally takes Buster's phone number and promises to call. (When she does call, Keaton runs down about 5 flights of stairs, and then a mile or two, and is in her lobby before she even realizes he's dropped the phone. Awesome scene).  He is so happy to be on a date with her, but naturally everything that can go wrong does - he's broke, he gets squeezed off the trolley, his bathing suit doesnt fit, he loses his bathing suit all together, all the other guys along the way try to steal her away, aw man! - and the date ends with poor Buster being dropped off by a guy from her office who had picked them up on their way home.  The next day, trying to help Buster, Sally gives him a tip of something possibly film worthy going on in Chinatown, but he messes that opportunity up as well, almost costs Sally her job, and vows to stay away.  I won't spoil the hijinx that result in the end of the film, but it involves a monkey, a speedboat, chivalry, and sweet redemption. It's really some of Keaton's finest.

As soon as we arrived at the theater I got incredibly excited.  We had to wait . . IN A LINE... for the box office to open to get tickets.  I wonder if Keaton ever imagined that in 2012 there would be a line to get in to see his films, I hope he did. Young, old, black, white, everybody waiting anxiously to see a great film. It's really a happy occasion to see so many different backgrounds able to come together for a common interest. No matter what we think or do when we go home, for that one moment, we're all together, getting along, and really happy in each other's company.  Keaton did that for us that day. Awesome.

The theater was almost full.  The Beverly isn't a huge theater but it probably seats 150 or so.  I was thinking "eh, this will be cool for a Sunday afternoon, pass some time with a good movie" not really understanding the enjoyment about to happen. The movie starts, and about 2 minutes in, as soon as we see Keaton fighting a crowd to be able to smell Sally's hair, the whole theater erupts in laughter. The 8 year olds behind us were laughing every bit as much as the 80 year olds in front of us, making us laugh even harder. By the time Keaton gets to go on his date, my boyfriend was laughing so hard i thought we might have to step out for a second.

For some reason, when you see movies with an audience, the emotions in the movie hit you harder.  Sitting in the dark with popcorn in a room full of strangers, all laughing and booing at the same thing, really makes seeing a movie an experience. Especially at a venue not trying to squeeze every last cent out of you.  I think modern films and theaters are kind of lacking in that department.  The theaters are so big and expensive, the movies so overdone, you kind of lose that sense of community you get in a smaller theater with a film that doesn't rely on booze and fart jokes for a laugh.  I can understand how back in the day going to a movie was a real event.  Not just because it was all new to them, but because you felt a little more in touch with your fellow man at a good movie that had something to say, or could really make you laugh. That's what was missing from my couch.

I cannot wait to find more silents to see on the big screen.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Alternate #TCM Party sources this week:

Disclaimer:  no one related to TCM is involved in these posts, my anti-virus approved these sites, the link worked at posting, the sites have their own disclaimers regarding copyrights, and some of these sites are pop-up supported and may contain mature content, always before the movie starts, so load the flick BEFORE curling up with the popcorn and kiddos. Happy viewing (and tweeting).

Safe sites will NEVER ask you to download anything. 

Please see TCM.com for full schedules.
TCMParty schedule for the week of September 24:

Tues. 9/25   A Tree Grows In Brooklyn     7pm CST

Wed. 9/26           The Gift of Love                7pm CST

None available

Thur. 9/27   An Evening with Mack Sennett  

Fiddlesticks:  http://youtu.be/b59ugoN9h8U  10pm CST

Fri. 9/28  Support Your Local Sheriff!         7pm CST

http://youtu.be/9N9pB9xsjvE (the 4th video on the page is working)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

You. You Know. You Know My Name ...

There are literally thousands of people that we see in the background of film history in dozens of movies but never really hear about. So many character actors and bit-players whose faces we recognize instantly, who make or break so many movies, that we struggle with when trying to recall their name. The What a Character blogathon is dedicated to these folks who made the movies feel whole.

One of my favorite character actors is Victor Moore.  He worked with everyone from George Cohan, Bob Hope , and Mae West,  to Fred and Ginger and Marilyn Monroe.  Co-starring in over 50 films and 21 broadway productions, Moore had more background in stage acting than half his peers by the age of 30.

Born in New Jersey in 1876, Moore made his major stage debut in the presence of Barrymores (Ethel, to be exact) with 1896's Rosemary. A vaudeville actor from the late 1800's through the late 1920's with his first wife, Moore had always had a comedic slant in his performances. Even around major broadway productions he kept the stage act he'd nurtured since his teens.  Arthur Hopkins recalled, “The timid Moore, who even in those days, was mostly hips, would waddle to the footlights and beseech the spotlight man in the gallery, as though reluctant to remind him, ‘Mister, hey, mister, spotlight, you know, mister, you know like we rehearsed—spotlight.’”

He was "discovered" and cast by George Cohan in 1906's 45 Minutes From Broadway and it's sequel The Talk of New York. Even though he'd already been on the stage for almost 30 years, these productions are considered his breakout performances. Just a few years later, he began his career in film, where 2 of his first 3 silent movies were directed by a little known up-and-comer, Cecil B Demille.

Cohan, Moore, and Miller

Moore, often typecast as the bumbling but well-meaning comedic relief, had numerous standouts in his 60 year career.  On stage he is best known for Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing, and you can find his face in numerous classics like Swingtime, Ziegfeld Follies, and We're Not Married. 

 His major standout on film was 1937's Make way for Tomorrow, a really sad movie, where he was cast against type as the straight man, about an elderly couple and their self-absorbed children. Moore received overwhelmingly positive reviews, even winning over one of his greatest critics:  Orson Welles once said he hated Victor Moore, calling him "A professional Irishman", but that in that film, he was "absolutely wonderful".  Leo McCarey directed Make Way, and that year won an academy award for his other film The Awful Truth. When he accepted the best director trophy, he said "thank you, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture."  Many critics feel Moore was also robbed of the best actor academy award that year (he wasn't even nominated); It went to Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous, which many felt was a supporting role.

 His oddest film appearance was as an animated cartoon character in the 1945 Daffy Duck short Aint That Ducky. It is said that Moore was so happy with the animated version of himself he offered to do the voice overs for free, provided that the animators gave him a little more hair.

Clip from "Tomorrow"

The film that brought Moore to my attention was Swingtime. His buffoonery paired with Astaire's charm is a match made in heaven in my book. The scene where he and Helen Broderick try to mimic Fred and Ginger makes me laugh so hard, Im not sure if there's a greater comedic moment in the whole film for him. But then there's the sandwich stealing. And packing Astaire's suitcase.  Okay, I take it back,  most of his scenes in Swingtime were pretty stellar.

Victor Moore and Helen Broderick - Swingtime

Moore's final film appearance was a cameo as the plumber in Seven Year Itch, and his final stage appearances were as Gramps in a 1953 revival of On Borrowed Time and as the Starkeeper in a 1957 revival of Carousel. He passed at the age of 86.

Im really kind of dissapointed in the internet on this one.  I'm used to having to dig a little to find info on the not-so-huge folks from my favorite films, but it's as if Victor hardly existed out there.  The man has a seriously impressive filmography, literally worked with everyone of note "before they were huge", he's got a star on the Blvd, and yet, after days of looking, the info in this post is all I could really find asides from mundane stuff, there's a building named for him in New York, had 3 kids, 2 wives - first one until her death, second was 40 yrs his junior until his death, yadda yadda.  I learned a few things, which is the main reason I do this, but it feels kind of half-assed, or like an afterthought, which this guy (and so many others) shouldn't be!  I might have to make a trip to the Heritage Museum to learn more (the folks that work there live and breathe classic hollywood, and they seem to have film history on lock) because now I'm even more curious about the guy. Thank you for the laughs, Mr. Moore!


Thursday, September 6, 2012

An Unguided History of Universal's Backlot

Front Gate, Circa 1915

Can I start this off by saying I really wanted to take the damn tour before I wrote this to have more than just what peers, books, and the internet have to go on? I hop on Universal's web site and am shocked.  EIGHTY DOLLARS!?! I even tried to land a press pass through work but there's a huge waiting list, so I guess when I get in there sometime in Febuary Ill add a part 2 for a first-hand account. I was pretty saddened by the cost. I live literally less than 2 miles from the front gate.  Are there no allowances for the people that have to finagle through the tourist traffic and live under the constant hum of sight seeing helicopters every single day? But I digress . .  I know it's LA, I know it's a huge tourist stop, but not being able to take just the studio tour without paying full admission was a huge bummer.  Seriously, 90% of the population here would have to choose between driving for a month or taking this tour, alone, in 100 degree weather. Pass.

In 1915, it was an apparently totally different scene.  For a mere 5 cents (with inflation that about $1.20 today. sheesh) Carl Laemmle would invite you to walk around the studio, sit on bleachers and learn about the history, see all the stars, bask in the awe that was being on a live set, and the 5 cents included a chicken boxed dinner. Oh, to have lived here in the early 20th century . . . You could even buy fresh fruit on the lot, since the vast majority of Los Angeles was orchards, and the studio itself was still fully operational farmland. Laemmle took great pride in showing off his pride and joy to the public, dubbing it "The World's Only Movie City!", making it an unforgettable and entertaining experience everyone could come and enjoy. This incarnation of the tour lasted until silents got the boot, officially ending in the early 1930s, as the background noise from passerby would have made filming talkies impossible.  

Universal Studios, Circa 1915

One of my favorite stories about the backlots is a ghost story (it wouldn't be Hollywood without a good ghost story!) that supposedly came to be on Universal's opening weekend. It spans decades -Many claim to have seen a man near Hitchcock's Psycho house, in  full aviator gear, stumbling around, giggling like a mad man, that just vanishes. Security guards, Studio staff, event staff, tourists, actors, all walks of life claim to have witnessed the "unnamed" pilot over the years.

Nicknamed "Uncle Carl" due to the number of family and friends he had on staff at the studio, Laemmle had apparently planned quite a party for the first public opening to the studios. Beautiful girls sprinkled guests in flower petals, cowboys and indians rode around the guests on horseback firing pistols into the air, Directors, actors and crew set up demonstrations of how movie-making worked behind the scenes... I wish I could have witnessed it then, it sounds like a serious party that only early Hollywood was capable of throwing.   The first day went off without a hitch, even a reconstruction of a flood that washed 50,000 gallons of water over the backlot worked flawlessly. Three of the main events, a wild west show, the flood, and a bridge demolition are still features in the tour to this day.

Second day, not so much.  Uncle Carl had hired famed Los Angeles pilot Frank Stites to re-enact a battle in the air for the public. High winds in the area had already postponed the show, and tensions were high as a stunt pilot had been killed earlier in the day in San Fransisco. Stites, assuming the title of "greatest aviator in the world" after the death of the man in San Fran, was supposed to detonate explosives by dropping payloads to the ground to blow up while performing arial dives and other stunts.  Unfortunately, after an explosion, Stites lost control of the craft and either by jumping or being expelled from his plane, fell from the sky to land at the feet of observers, dead on impact.  There is to this day a memorial on the lot for Stites, as it's a common held belief this is their giggling aviator.

While I am not sure where I stand on their recent attempt to have their neighbors pay for a makeover or what their hitting up the notoriously not-Beverly-Hills-earners means for their financial security in the future - the studio sent out mail to all of us that live in the vicinity asking for donations for a studio expansion/revitalization plan, touting the history of the studio, why it needs our donations and support, and how it intends to utilize dead space on their property and slowly devour Universal City, all while promising to provide "rich" job opportunities (that you'll have to know someone on the inside to acquire) and better entertainment (higher admission?-hope that means they'll finally be removing the Waterworld exhibit) - I hope they eventually learn to embrace more of their history in regards to the parks and tours they offer. 

Numbers vary but it's estimated the studio averaged about 500 visitors a day every weekend for the 15 years it was open to the public in it's original vision. Everyone from Valentino to Lon Chaney worked on these lots and glimpses of them could often be seen by fans in attendance.

Winter scene on the backlot

From Universal's first major production in 1913 (Traffic in Souls) to the full on theme park it's become today, it's one of the most visited sites in town and still holds a little air of movie magic, even today.  It's one of only two studios that even bothers with a backlot, as computer imaging and filming on location has become more popular, so it really is a must see if you are on vacation and have the funds to do it.  Guess I'll start a change jar and see what gets here first, admission for me and a friend, or my press pass date after the holidays. Either way, Universal is a really neat chunk of history nestled in the north hills.

You can learn more about the films and history of Universal right here at Journeys in Classic Film's blogathon all week long!  Hooray for Hollywood!