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. !