Fine Artist / Con Artist


TCM airs one of Orson Welles most challenging films, F for Fake, this Friday, May 22, at 1:30am. The film is so unique that it is difficult to determine its mode or genre, or even to summarize what it is about. When Welles was editing the film in Paris, critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum asked him if it was a documentary, and the great director responded, “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film.” That is probably the most accurate description of F for Fake.


In the Aftermath of Errol Flynn

flynnklineRecently, 57-year-old actor Stephen Bauer was photographed with his new girlfriend, 18-year-old aspiring journalist Lyda Loudon. The paparazzi pounced on the couple as they emerged from a restaurant. Afterward, the media mentioned their age difference in every paragraph of the stories about their May-December romance as a way to hint that their relationship must be aberrant or deviant. I briefly thought of Bauer and Loudon as I watched The Last of Robin Hood, an indie film about Errol Flynn’s end-of-life romance with teenager Beverly Aadland. Apparently, the press treated Aadland with the same combination of sensationalism and disdain.

Kevin Kline, who looks and sounds like Flynn, offers a believable interpretation of the debauched movie star. Flynn was only 50 when he died, but after a lifetime of “living every day like it was my last” (as he says in the movie), he looked decades older. The film begins when Flynn meets 15-year-old Beverly on the Warner Bros. lot, where she is in the chorus of the Gene Kelly film Marjorie Morningstar. Flynn sends costume designer Orry-Kelly to bring her to his office/dressing room, where he proceeds to offer her an audition for a non-existent part. He seduces the teenager, robbing her of her virginity. Flynn continues to pursue young Beverly, who looks and acts older than an adolescent, and the two become seriously involved. After he learns Beverly’s actual age, he beguiles her mother into accompanying them when they are out on the town in order to create the illusion that he is actually fostering Aadland’s career.





Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

Happy Birthday Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas: Revisiting the Blacklist

blacklistopenerAs coincidence would have it, today marks the birthday of both Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas, whose names are linked because of their participation in breaking the back of the infamous Hollywood blacklist during the production of Spartacus. The ultimate survivor, Douglas has lived through the decline of the studio system, the upheaval of the Film School Generation, the politics that come with a career in Hollywood, and the effects of a stroke. Today, he turns 97. Trumbo survived ten months in prison as one of the Hollywood Ten as well as the indignity of the blacklist. He died in 1976 at the age of 71.

Trouble began for Trumbo, a highly respected screenwriter for such films as A Bill of Divorcement, Kitty Foyle, and A Guy Named Joe, when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Despite his impressive filmography, it was his script for Tender Comrades, and its alleged “communist” message, that landed him in front of the committee, along with nine other writers, directors and producers. Collectively known as the Hollywood Ten, the group refused to answer some of HUAC’s questions, resulting in a storm of publicity and an angry, vengeful Congress. Trumbo served about ten months in a federal pen for contempt of Congress. Afterward, he moved to Mexico City for a couple of years, then quietly returned to Hollywood in 1954, where he began writing screenplays under assumed names and behind “fronts,” that is, people who used their names to submit scripts and rewrites for blacklisted writers. [...MORE]

Julia Ann Graham: A Hollywood Story

juliaportraitRecently, I was reminded of the tragic story of an aspiring starlet named Julia Ann Graham. I was visiting family near Sistersville, West Virginia, which was Graham’s hometown. And, while I was there, I caught an episode of the sensationalist but always entertaining Paranormal Witness on the Syfy Channel in which four people claimed to have been terrorized by the ghost of actress Peg Entwistle near the Hollywood sign. Entwistle is infamous for committing suicide by jumping off the letter “H” of the Hollywood sign, because of her supposed failed career.  Since then, Peg has come to symbolize the dark side of Hollywood, which can smash the hopes and dreams of aspiring actors and actresses—like those of Julia Ann Graham. While Entwistle has become more famous in death than in life, poor Julia remains completely unknown.

Sistersville was a tiny but thriving hamlet along the Ohio River when Graham was born in 1915. The teenaged Graham, who was christened Juliann after her prominent grandmother, reminded me of those ultra-popular small-town girls who are on every page of the high-school yearbook: She was editor of the school newspaper, art editor of the yearbook, and salutatorian of her graduating class. She also worked in the Sistersville Library, performed in productions in the Little Theater, and sang in the choir at the Presbyterian Church. (The latter became a key detail of her life story used repeatedly to paint a certain image of her.) In her spare time, she watched movies regularly and read the movie fanzines religiously. Graham was a big fish in a little pond when she graduated from high school in 1933, and she must have thought her amateur experiences were enough for her to make it in Hollywood. Or, perhaps she was encouraged by the ads and contests in the fanzines of the time, which enticed hundreds of young girls to come to Hollywood with the promise of a career in the movies. After Christmas, Juliann withdrew her life savings of $200 from the bank and took a bus to California, where she adjusted her name to Julia Ann. It is not hard to guess what was in store for her.


The Other Chaplin

Last week we discussed the way in which the predominant critical attention focused on the “Big Three” of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd has distorted the history of silent comedy and unfairly marginalized the majority of screen comedians of the era—at least we did that in a theoretical sense.  Not once in that blog did I ever actually mention one of those marginalized comedians by name, or explain what might make them interesting.

So this week we have a comedian who got his start on Karno’s stage, came to Hollywood to work for Mack Sennett, made the transition from short films to features, was one of Hollywood’s highest paid comedians, and left his mark in some of the most important and beloved classics of silent cinema.  And did I mention his name was Chaplin?

Syd Chaplin, that is.

Syd Chaplin


Helen Walker: A Well Kept Secret Part I

Normally, blogs that commemorate a “deathiversary” of a person are anathema to me.  Still, when I stumbled across the fact earlier this month that March 10th marked the day that actress Helen Walker died in 1968 at age 47, my attention was drawn to her story. I’ve always been beguiled by the indelible impressions she left on screen in only a handful of performances I’ve seen. Best remembered today for her work in film noirs such as Nightmare Alley (1946-Edmund Goulding), Call Northside 777 (1948-Henry Hathaway), Impact (1949-Arthur Lubin), and The Big Combo (1955-Joseph Lewis), the actress remains a relatively obscure figure, in part because several of her forties’ movies have languished in archives for years, unseen by current classic film fans for some time. Maybe she was just one of hundreds of young women who became a limited-run product off the studio assembly line, but behind those dancing eyes of hers, a person seemed to be at home, projecting a blend of self-mocking bemusement, a kittenish warmth, and later, a chill of knowing recognition in her unsettling, unblinking gaze.


The Hollywood Sign Girl: Peg Entwistle

I am always curious and frequently surprised at which movie stars, films, and Hollywood events survive the decades to become meaningful to modern-day audiences. Despite the efforts of film historians and scholars to discover and research important figures and then explain their contributions to the art and evolution of American cinema, movie buffs tend to uncover their own “significant” stars and stories, latching onto them for reasons that have little to do with the advancement of acting, aesthetics, or technology. Though actress Peg Enwistle is not mentioned in any of my film history books, she has a mighty presence on the Internet and in pop culture, less for her talents as an actress and more for what she represents. After costarring in only one Hollywood film, Entwistle committed suicide by jumping off the “H” in the Hollywood sign.  Since then, Peg has come to symbolize the dark side of Hollywood, which can smash the hopes and dreams of aspiring actors and actresses who still flock to the Dream Factory to break into the movies.


Roland West: Of Mystery and Scandal

west1Prior to watching the silent thriller The Bat (1926) a couple of weeks ago at Chicago’s Portage Theater, my only knowledge of the film’s director, Roland West, was his connection to the mysterious death of actress Thelma Todd. West’s involvement with Todd and the link to her death resulted in his withdrawal from Hollywood, meaning his best work was done during the silent era. This factor guarantees his obscurity, at least to contemporary audiences who are loathe to watch black and white films, let alone silent ones. West’s involvement with Todd and her strange, tragic death offer another example of the sad truth that scandal endures longer than accomplishment.


Confession Time

I can’t watch Judy Garland.

Glamour Shot for Presenting Lily Mars

Well, let me amend that a bit. I can’t watch much of the work of the legendary singer as she evolved over time. Sure, I’ve seen ‘em all at least once: from that surreal Vitaphone short with the toddler with the unlikely name of Frances Gumm dancing for her supper in Bubbles (1930), to her last appearance on film, making Dirk Bogarde a more miserable guy than usual in that creepy slice-of-showbiz-life, I Could Go On Singing (1963). Yet, aside from the glimpses of the sublime in that strange yet touching waltz down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the visit to that fragile, cozy world of a family teetering on the brink of the 20th century in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the sight of this talented little heartbreaker on screen pains me a bit. It’s silly, I know, but seeing her makes me hope that somehow–some sort of retrospective child labor law might save her from all that exploitation of her vulnerable talent. Maybe I ought to turn in my membership card as a classic film fan.

I probably shouldn’t be counted among that army of Garland fans. Hearing her bouncing through a peppy song or achingly wring the unspoken meaning from a ballad is an aural pleasure now and then. However, watching many of her movies leaves me with a queasy feeling, similar to that guilty sensation you get when you drive by a car crash in slow motion, battling the instinct to look as well as to turn away out of respect for those caught up in the overwhelming events and fear of what your eyes might see. As my fellow Morlock RHSmith eloquently outlined here a few weeks ago in his blog on Hollywood’s scandals and audience fixation on them, I would prefer to appreciate this singer’s talent without prying too deeply into her pain, voyeuristically, once again.

I think that this is one reason why I was so surprised to find myself completely enthralled by Presenting Lily Mars (1943) the other day on TCM.
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