Posted by Susan Doll on July 27, 2009
For the past month or so, I have been fact-checking a book called Armchair Reader: Hollywood for a local Chicago publisher, Publications International. Armchair Reader: Hollywood is filled with dozens of articles, tidbits, lists, fun facts, and quizzes on film history and Hollywood lore. I was thrilled to be asked to consult on the book and then serve as the primary fact-checker, though it is a lot of hard work. I have gone to the library more in the past few weeks than I did all of last year. The reward, however, is the fun I am having in learning more about Hollywood and the movies — everything from Hollywood folklore to behind-the-scenes production details on specific movies. I thought I would share a few fun facts, strange stories, and lurid legends. I am sure many of you may already know some of this information but perhaps there will be some odd fact or detail that you have never heard before, and it will make your day.
It seems appropriate to start with a story about the founding of Hollywood. A morally upright man named Horace H. Wilcox first purchased land in the Cahuenga Valley in what is now Hollywood in the late 1880s because he was taken with the serenity of the orange groves and apple orchards. A thoughtful, generous husband, Wilcox allowed his wife, Daeida, to actually name the new hamlet where they established a huge ranch. Mrs. Wilcox probably chose “Hollywood” based on the name of a friend’s ranch in the Wild West, though there are conflicting accounts of where the name actually came from. What really interested me was that Wilcox purchased the land in order to develop a community where the evils of the modern world would not be tolerated. A supporter of the temperance movement, he offered free lots to anyone who would build a Protestant church within Hollywood. He was determined that his hamlet be a wholesome, Christian community free of saloons, cheap entertainments, and red-light districts. Wilcox did not sell many lots before he died in 1892, so he did not live to see that Hollywood turned out to be the exact opposite of his intentions.
The book’s writers seem especially fascinated with the story of Peg Entwhistle. She has been profiled or mentioned in at least three articles so far. Poor Peg became so discouraged over her lack of success in becoming a movie star that she committed suicide by jumping off the “H” in the Hollywood sign in 1932. Apparently, she had been a working stage actress since childhood, but her dream was to be a movie star. Lots of rumors and myths still swirl around Peg, including a legend that her ghost haunts the area around the Hollywood sign. Thus, she did achieve a lasting fame, but not because of her acting. She is now the industry’s symbol for lost hopes and dreams and the patron saint of all those actresses who never made it
Hollywood’s seminal era has got to be the Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s when the Production Code not only determined the morality in all films but also dictated character development, changed plot details, and suggested which stars should play what type of roles. The Code is often treated with condescension in retrospect, because of its simplistic interpretation of male-female relationships and its mandate of traditional roles for women, but its function in the industry was more complex than many realize, and its legacy far-reaching. In 1940, an addition was made to the Code that had nothing to do with sex, marriage, or male-female relationships. It had to do with protecting the safety and welfare of animals on the set, particularly after the cruelty to horses that occurred on both Jesse James and The Return of Frank James. In the former, a horse was supposedly blindfolded and sent down a greased tilt shoot above a river so that director Henry King could film the horse jumping into the water. The horse was severely injured and had to be put down. In the latter, director Fritz Lang killed three horses by forcing them to run too hard in a high altitude, at least according to star Henry Fonda, who played Frank James in both films. In 1940, the Code was amended to prohibit cruelty to animals during the production of a film. Part of the interpretation of the new amendment was the prohibition of trip wires and tilt chutes for horses.
In the 1950s, when the Production Code’s constitutionality was challenged in court, many directors and producers began to push at its limits, weakening the Code’s hold over Hollywood producers and studios. By the early 1960s, few were paying attention to the Code, and in 1968, it was replaced by the letter rating system. Unfortunately, no official guidelines or rules regarding the treatment of animals were drawn up to replace those that had been part of the Code. Animals were abused in a variety of films during the 1960s and 1970s, but in 1980, Heaven’s Gate became notorious not only for being the biggest flop to date but also for its animal abuses. Ego-driven director Michael Cimino reportedly staged real cockfights and beheaded a number of chickens — for authenticity. Also, the large-scale fight at the end between ranchers and homesteaders resulted in severe injuries to several horses due to the dreaded tripwire. That year, an agreement was made with the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild that authorized American Humane to watch over the treatment of animals on the set, curbing much of the exploitation. While I knew that the Code had prohibited animal cruelty both on screen and off, I did not know that animals were exploited so ruthlessly after the Code lost its bite. Frankly, there is absolutely nothing about Heaven’s Gate that is worth the life of even one chicken.
Speaking of flops, the worst flop is not Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld, or the much-maligned Ishtar. It’s probably a film released in 2006 called Zyzzyx Road starring Katherine Heigl, who is currently the darling of romantic comedies. For complicated reasons I did not fully understand, producer Leo Grillo had to release Zyzzyx Road domestically in the theaters before he could distribute it in theaters in foreign markets. Grillo released this strange drama, which had cost him $2 million to produce, for six days in one theater in Dallas, where it netted $20. Here’s hoping it did better in Europe!
On a completely different note, the subject of props gave me a lot of problems separating fact from fiction. Sometimes writers are too eager to believe the sensational factoids and stories they find on the Internet without double-checking them in more legitimate sources. Still, I was delighted by several strange and evidently true facts about props. For example, actual historic items retrieved from real personages or events, which can never be replaced, apparently take a back seat to the illusion of authenticity in the movies. In other words, historic artifacts are not as meaningful to most Americans as movie props are. A 1930 western titled Billy the Kid supposedly used one of the Kid’s actual firearms as the main gun in the film, while Wild Bill Hickok’s Derringer was a prop in John Ford’s The Iron Horse. The stakes were raised in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific when the actual Golden Spike used to connect the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads in 1869 was obtained for the re-creation in the film. The most ridiculous example of prostituting one-of-a-kind-historic items to Hollywood occurred in the 1916 war drama The Crisis in which Abraham Lincoln’s personal dispatch box used to transport important state papers was loaned by the U.S. government to the Selig Polyscope Company for their Civil War love story. Gee, too bad the real Declaration of Independence wasn’t loaned out to Jerry Bruckheimer and company for that Nicolas Cage adventure flick, National Treasure.
My favorite prop story involved On Golden Pond. Though the film is too sentimental for my personal tastes, this bit of lore about the costuming made me appreciate the Hollywood history represented by the cast. On the first day of shooting, Katharine Hepburn gave Henry Fonda an old fishing hat that had belonged to Spencer Tracy. John Ford had given the hat to Tracy when the two were old drinking and fishing buddies back in the day. Despite the fact that Fonda’s relationship with Ford ended badly, he was deeply touched by the gift and wore the hat throughout the film. Seeing Fonda in the hat now resonates with meaning for me. On Golden Pond was the great actor’s last film, and he died a few months after its release, making the hat seem like a baton that was passed to the last of a breed we will never see again. The story made me realize that Old Hollywood, particularly the stars and the directors, valued the contributions of the past and understood the concept of legacy.
From the sentimental to the ridiculous: Did you know that famous stars haunt Hollywood on a regular basis? I guess they just can’t give up the spotlight even in death. The permanent residents of Hollywood Memorial Park cemetery, now called Hollywood Forever, are particularly restless. Clifton Webb strolls the halls of the Abbey of Palms mausoleum located on the grounds, while Rudolph Valentino wanders outside the cemetery to Paramount Pictures, which is close by. Valentino has been spotted around the old costume department at Paramount in his white desert robes from The Sheik. Perhaps he’s heard about contemporary Hollywood’s determination to remake or rework every film from its past, and he’s hoping for at least a cameo role The Sheik II.
Finally, this info was just too good not to share. Supposedly, several Hollywood stars have witnessed unidentified flying objects. For example, William Shatner and David Duchovny both confessed to seeing UFOs, but considering that each starred in a famous sci-fi television series, Star Trek and The X-Files, they probably realized the publicity value behind their stories. Better than Shatner and Duchovy’s claims are those by Ronald Reagan who experienced two close encounters while still governor of California. The first occurred when he and Nancy were driving to a party hosted by William Holden. The two spotted a UFO along the Pacific Coast Highway and stopped to watch the strange object in the sky, making them late to Holden’s party. They eagerly related their experience to fellow party-goers Steve Allen and Lucille Ball. The star power in this tale makes it stand out, especially with tv icon Lucy taking Reagan’s eye-witness testimony. Then, in 1974, during his last year in office as governor, Reagan saw another UFO as his gubernatorial jet was closing in on the airport at Bakersfield. When he and his pilot saw a bright light ahead of them, the pilot chose to follow it for a short distance before it suddenly shot straight up in the night sky in a vertical move, then disappeared. When Reagan became president, Ball questioned whether he would have won the election so easily if he had confessed his UFO experiences to a reporter. I wondered if the aliens had rejected him as a possible candidate for abduction, sticking the American public with him for eight long years.
Beating out Reagan’s confessions of close encounters was the tale told by Jackie Gleason’s second wife, Beverly McKittrick. According to McKittrick, President Richard Nixon took Gleason to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida in 1974, where the comedian saw a crashed spaceship and the remains of dead aliens. Gleason was so traumatized by the incident that he stopped drinking for a time. Later he built a house in upstate New York that he called “the mother ship.” While I am greatly entertained by these strange stories of presidents, stars, and aliens, I’m left with the disturbing realization: How am I supposed to fact-check this?
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