The Hollywood Diaries Day 3: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and The Hollywood Walk of Fame

On our third day in Hollywood, we trekked out to a dirty cesspool of chaos–Hollywood Boulevard–to revisit a gem, the crown jewel of this otherwise sketchy area–Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

This is definitely not my first time visiting Grauman’s (now known as TCL Chinese Theatre–I have no idea what TCL is, nor do I care. This theatre will always be Grauman’s to me). However, I still get the shivers when I see it. Probably one of the best-preserved landmarks of Old Hollywood, Grauman’s is an oasis for those who crave history. The significance of the theater, the sheer number of Hollywood heavyweights who have graced its walls, halls, and concrete courtyard…it’s an indescribable sensation that overwhelms me every time I visit. I get choked up whenever I tilt my neck back and look upon that massive red pagoda, and I choke up again when I look down and see that patchwork quilt of Hollywood at my feet.

The Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was founded by master showman Sid Grauman, who was also behind the wildly successful Million Dollar Theatre and the Egyptian Theatre located a short walk down the Boulevard. The Chinese was to be Sid’s “dream” theatre, an ornate mammoth masterpiece amongst movie palaces. Grauman himself owned a one-third interest in the theatre (he was, however, the managing director of the theatre until his death). His other partners were Howard Schenck and the illustrious Hollywood couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The theatre officially opened its doors on May 18, 1927, with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. The rest is history!

The Forecourt

The hand and footprints in the Chinese Theatre forecourt are the stuff of legend. According to the theatre’s tour guides, the unique tradition began purely by accident, when actress Norma Talmadge walked into a slab of concrete without realizing. Grauman instantly saw the publicity potential in Talmadge’s mistake, and went on to profit massively through the hand and footprint ceremonies, leaving us with a concrete record of Hollywood’s former greatness. Because so many ceremonies took place during Hollywood’s heyday and the forecourt is only so large, the modern-day stars that are asked to leave hand and footprints (only one star is given that honor per year) are almost always relegated to the small blocks in the dark corners of the forecourt. Grauman’s is truly a place where Old Hollywood truly reigns supreme!

Here are a few photos I took of my favorite blocks, alongside a photo of the star(s) during their hand and footprint ceremony. Please excuse any shadows or cutoffs. It was very hot and extremely crowded since we were there in July, when there are tons and tons of tourists everywhere, casting their shadows.

Olivia de Havilland

Myrna Loy and William Powell

I had to awkwardly bend my body over a crappy souvenir stand that stood right in front of Myrna’s block and RIGHT ON TOP OF Bette Davis’ block in order to take this photo.

Rosalind Russell

Gloria Swanson

I love the bleeding heart Gloria drew on her block. And yes, her hands and feet were the size of a modern-day child’s, along with most of the other actresses at that time.

Jean Harlow

In addition to leaving her tiny, tiny hand and footprints, Jean also stuck three pennies into the cement for good luck. It didn’t take long for them to get plucked out by some rabid fan or souvenir hunter, so three empty holes now remain.

Elizabeth Taylor

Cary Grant


Joan Crawford

Joan’s hands are a perfect size match with mine!
Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell had a joint ceremony in honor of their film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The reason why I am focusing on Marilyn especially is because, much to my shame, I had only just realized that she stuck her diamond earring in the i in her name! The diamond is smoothed by many years of people touching it, but it is HUGE!

Sid Grauman

The man himself left some prints, too! He was assisted by the lovely Gene Tierney during his ceremony.

John Barrymore

One of my favorite blocks, only because of how angry, frustrated, and ridiculous Barrymore looked as Grauman smashed his face into the wet cement.

Eddie Cantor

“Here’s looking at you, Sid.”

The Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers’ block is a mess. Four of the brothers left their prints in probably the hugest slab of concrete in the forecourt, so it actually ends up looking like a group of children ran across wet cement. Also, there are people standing on it or casting their shadow over it at all times, so this was a very difficult block to photograph.

Norma Shearer

Cecil B. DeMille

Judy Garland


Mary Pickford

Mary’s prints were the first ever official hand and footprints to christen the forecourt. As you can see in the photo on the right, the theater was still under construction.

Dick Powell and Joan Blondell

Apologies for the shadows on these. They weren’t in the most ideal spot!

Humphrey Bogart

I love this photo of Humphrey with Lauren Bacall at his ceremony.

Joe E. Brown

Joe E. Brown had to wear a bib so he wouldn’t muss up his suit while making his mouth print!

Gary Cooper

Judging by the size of his prints, Gary Cooper was a giant human.  His hands and feet were probably triple the size of my own!

Jimmy Durante

One of the funniest blocks in the courtyard, akin to John Barrymore’s and Joe E. Brown’s.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Gene Kelly

Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth has, without a doubt, the smallest set of adult hand and footprints (the smallest prints in the entire forecourt are Shirley Temple’s). Also peep Edward G. Robinson’s behind hers. Looks like he didn’t have any palms???

Clark Gable

The most important set of prints for me. If it wasn’t for Gable, I wouldn’t have gotten into classic movies. I would spend hours sitting by his prints, baking in the hot California sun, and feeling a strong connection to the King himself.

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor

Joan Fontaine

Her handprints look like they were drawn in!!!

The Interior
Unlike the forecourt, the inside of the theater is not self-guided, and you do need a ticket to get in. My sister and I were lucky enough to get on a tour by ourselves, so it was completely personalized! Our tour guide was adorable and allowed us to explore on our own and take as many photos as we wanted, so we had a great time.

The inside of the theatre is richly and lavishly decorated, drawing heavy inspiration from ancient China. Grauman himself traveled to China and brought back many authentic pieces of ancient Chinese artwork and sculpture (the two lions outside the theatre doors are actual artifacts from the Ming Dynasty). Expect to see lots of reds and golds and beautiful tapestries, set off wonderfully by the dim, moody lighting that was favored during the 1920s and 1930s. I also love the thin, sharp lines present in lots of the architecture and decor throughout the theatre.

IMG_3645
Grauman’s has recently undergone a few renovations, including the construction of the largest IMAX theater in the world, pictured above. Before it was an IMAX theater, this room was where all Hollywood premieres took place. It was also where the closing scene of Singin’ in the Rain was filmed.

After beholding the splendor of the stage, turn around and look up top, to a series of four boxes. When premieres were held, this was where the A list would sit and watch in comfort and privacy. Nowadays, the boxes aren’t utilized as much anymore, but it’s great to see that they are still well-preserved.

IMG_2399
And now for the best part:the costumes on display in the lobby! Here is a dress worn by Betty Grable in the 1948 film That Lady In Ermine. According to our tour guide, Grable was desperate to prove herself as a serious actress who was more than just her legs. Grable did not expose her legs once in the film. The result? The film was a total flop at the box office.

Up next was the feather dress worn by Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 film Shanghai Express. The amazing costumes in this film were designed by Travis Banton. By the way, apologies for the bad quality of these costume photos. As I said earlier, the lighting throughout the theatre is very dim!

Imagine our surprise as we laid eyes upon the iconic black strapless gown worn by Rita Hayworth in Gilda! The gown was designed by Jean Louis and showed audiences that a woman in a simple black satin sheath can be a powerfully sexy, dangerous figure. The character of Gilda is now considered the ideal femme fatale.

Next was this stunning pink beaded number that was custom-made for Grace Kelly. According to our tour guide, she wore this to a movie premiere. I am gutted that I cannot find any information on the year or the designer of this gorgeous dress. Check out the beading and the fringe!

Do I even have to explain this costume? We also saw the gingham dress worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. We were in awe!

And now for the piece de resistance…the legendary green curtain dress worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. This is as amazing as they come! As you probably already know, the costumes in GWTW were designed by Walter Plunkett. Yes, we almost peed ourselves when we saw this. And yes, Vivien Leigh was actually the size of a modern-day 10 year old.

After a great time exploring Grauman’s, we then decided to stroll along the Walk of Fame. Los Angeles is probably the only city that has truly maximized its use of the ground, and as always, we spent a lot of time staring at the ground, taking pictures of the ground, taking pictures with the ground, sitting on the ground, and touching the ground that literally millions of other people have touched. This time around, we were hell-bent on finding Clark Gable’s star, which was somewhere along Vine Street. On my first trip several years ago, my father insisted that Clark’s star was “frisbeed to the middle of nowhere” and we gave up trying to find it. This time, we were not going to quit.

Of course, we came across many Hollywood heavyweights along the way:
IMG_3649IMG_3650IMG_3651IMG_3652IMG_3653IMG_3654IMG_3655IMG_3656IMG_3659IMG_3661IMG_3662IMG_3663IMG_3664
We also passed by some Hollywood landmarks:

IMG_3657
Here’s the forecourt of the Egyptian Theater. It is now used as the screening room for the American Cinematheque, which is devoted to showing classics and indie films. The theater is open only during screenings, and tours are only once a month. Unfortunately, the tour did not fall during the week we were visiting.

IMG_3658

On our way to Vine Street, we stumbled upon the famous “You Are The Star” mural, located on the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue. In my opinion, this isn’t the most well-executed mural out there in terms of the likenesses. But it’s fun because it depicts a role-reversal. You are in the screen, and the stars are watching you!

IMG_3669
And of course, we can’t forget this legendary place! The Roosevelt is located right across the street from the Chinese Theatre, and it’s always worth it to walk inside and spend some time in its Spanish Renaissance-style lobby. The stories about this hotel are endless….and it also happens to be very, very haunted.

Call me a downer, but I found the Hollywood Walk of Fame a bit disappointing. The attraction lacks the personal touch and the quirks you find in the hand and footprints at the Chinese Theatre. If you see one star, you’ve seen them all. There’s also no denying that Hollywood Boulevard is a seedy, run-down area plagued by homelessness and crawling with street performers and people in cheap costumes desperate to make a quick buck. It’s a far cry from its former glamour, and it is now a place that celebrities avoid, except during Oscars night. There is something extremely disheartening to see Spencer Tracy’s star in front of a darkened sex shop, or Ingrid Bergman’s star smeared with some mysterious brown sludge. There are whole chunks broken out of Errol Flynn’s star. There is no respect and no upkeep, which is shocking for an attraction that draws in 10 million visitors per year.

However, we did succeed in one respect:

IMG_3660
We finally found Clark’s star! It was a long walk and it was under a tree and he kinda was frisbeed in the middle of nowhere, but nothing beats the feeling of seeing your favorite star…literally!

Until next time!

The Hollywood Diaries Day 2: Warner Bros. Studio Tour and Lake Hollywood Park

Ah, Hollywood studio tours. No two are quite the same.

At this point of my Old Hollywood obsession, I’ve been through every single important heavy-hitter studio tour. Some were good, some were dreadful. For my most recent trip to Hollywood, I decided to repeat just one tour–Warner Brothers, because they are currently exhibiting costumes from the most recent DC Comics films (Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad). Other than that, not much on this particular tour has changed. I also decided to trek out a studio I hadn’t previously visited–Universal (but more on that later).

My biggest gripe with studio tours is the way they brush off their historical backgrounds. When I visited Warner Bros. for the first time five years ago, the focus was mainly on Friends, Pretty Little Liars, and The Big Bang Theory. Friends is something I can understand (even though I don’t care two bits about it) but who will remember Pretty Little Liars or The Big Bang Theory in five years time?

That being said, the Warner Bros. tour is one of the better tours for classic movie fans. That should tell you more than enough about what other studio tours are like…

IMG_2981
The familiar water tower.

When entering, the first thing you see is the famous water tower. You are then ushered into a waiting area complete with a Starbucks and a place to buy overpriced souvenir tour guides. Next, you are shown a short video narrated by Ellen DeGeneres about how great this tour is, etc. Lastly, you are divided into tour groups (about 8-10 people per group).

The tour guide drives the group in a big golf cart-type thing that you only see in movie studios. Groups then get off at pivotal stops to walk around, see what a practical and a soundstage look like, and visit the Warner Bros. “museum,” amongst other things. Most likely, tours will be made up of annoying parents wearing fanny packs, Bermuda shorts, and Wal-Mart sunglasses saying “WOW!” or “OOOH” at every turn, while their 12 year old daughters freak out over the Pretty Little Liars sets.

You have been warned. Now lets roll on to the tour highlights for classic film fans!

IMG_2257

Soundstages
Each soundstage on the Warner Bros. lot features a plaque on its outside wall that highlights all the important movies that were filmed in it. Our tour guide took us to Stage 25, where The Big Bang Theory currently films. More importantly, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dark Victory (1939), High Sierra (1941), Now Voyager (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942),  Casablanca (1943),  Giant (1956),  and Auntie Mame (1958) were some of the movies that were filmed at this soundstage. Keep your eyes peeled for Soundstage 16, the tallest on the lot. It’s ceiling was raised for the musical numbers in the 1936 musical Cain and Mabel. A Marion Davies vehicle, William Randolph Hearst spared no expense to showcase his mistress in monstrous-sized sets–even if it meant ripping the ceiling off soundstage 16 and raising it. Unlike the Golden Age, when films were almost entirely made utilizing the backlot, movies now go on location and television shows (mostly sitcoms) are what dominate the studio lots today.

Exterior Sets
Most studios have faux streets lined with facades (buildings that are literally only an outside front. When you turn to the back, you see they are basically wood sheets propped up by wood stilts). Warner Bros. is no different. It’s most famous street is probably Hennesy Street (AKA Tenement Row), modeled after Old New York. It was on these streets where the exteriors for gangster films such as Angels with Dirty Faces, the original Scarface and The Public Enemy were filmed. NOT PICTURED: the exterior set that was Rick’s Cafe Americain in Casablanca.  I saw this iconic set the first time I toured the studio five years ago, but this time, our illustrious tour guide neglected to show it to us.

Stage 48: Script to Screen
Stage 48 is a new addition to the studio tour, one that I did not experience when I first visited Warner Bros. Described as an “immersive look” at the movie-making process, it’s a self-guided portion of the tour that highlights the various elements that go into filmmaking (writing, creating a storyboard, costume design, set design, special effects, and even awards season). This was the portion of the tour that I enjoyed the most, mainly because I got the opportunity to hold a real Oscar and I got to see some Old Hollywood props and personal affects of Jack Warner.

What was holding a real Oscar like? Well, it was a lot heavier and larger than I expected. The way today’s celebrities wave the thing around, you would think it was made of Styrofoam. My arms were getting a little shaky while posing for a picture with it! Oscars are also huge, probably about the length of the top of my head to a little past my shoulder. It felt like I was holding the weight of all my great accomplishments, and you can’t help but smile like cheesehead with something like that in your hands!

Now, onto some cool props and items from the office of the formidable Jack Warner:

IMG_2993
Two swords used by Errol Flynn, one from They Died with Their Boots On and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
IMG_2994
A microphone used in The Jazz Singer (1927).
IMG_2991
Jack Warner’s phone. Note the monogram on the front!
IMG_2992
Jack Warner’s leatherbound scripts.
IMG_2990
My absolute favorite item on display here: Jack Warner’s personal phone book!

The two items that interested me the most were the scripts and the phone book. Here is a list of what’s going on in both of these photos in case the pictures are too blurry.

Jack Warner’s scripts:
Dawn Patrol (1930)
The Public Enemy (1931)
Little Caesar (1931)
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Four Brothers (1938)
Sergeant York (1942)
Now, Voyager (1942)
Between Two Worlds (1944)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1953)
Battle Cry (1954)
Giant (1956)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
The Music Man (1962)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Bonnie and Clyde  (1962)
Bullitt (1968)

You’ll wish you had these people on speed dial:

DeMille, Cecil B.
2000 DeMille Road, Hollywood

Davis, Miss Bette
Chapman 52872
HE7640

Dunne, Irene
CR

56225

De Havilland, Olivia
CR65581

Disney, Walt
(illegible) 71131
Studio: 71181

Damita, Miss Lili
CR18007
803 N. Rodeo Drive

Dali, Salvador
AR33398

IMG_2316
Lake Hollywood Park offers a beautiful, up close view of the Hollywood sign.

After our visit to the studio, we trekked out to Lake Hollywood Park, where one can find scenic views of the world-famous Hollywood sign without undergoing the ordeal of hiking in the boiling hot heat. As a Brooklyn native, hiking has never been a thing in my life and now, at 23, it’s probably too late to start. I cheat where I can. Lake Hollywood Park is also a hugely popular place for people to walk their cute dogs. So if you like dogs and Hollwyood, it’s the perfect place for you. Standing under the shadow of the sign gave me the shivers in a good way. There’s so much that this sign stood for, and it hits you full force when you’re standing right under it, high up in the hills as the brutal sun beats down upon you. Now if it was only the Hollywoodland sign again!

hollywood-sign-04
The original Hollywoodland Sign, circa 1925.

The Hollywood Diaries Day 1: Exploring the Millennium Biltmore Hotel

IMG_2965

When I first frolicked about in the City of Angels five years ago, I stayed at a hotel called the Palomar. It was clean, modern, and pet-friendly. However, it was situated close to UCLA, far away from the Hollywood action. It took lots of cabs and lots of money to get around. When planning this summer’s trip, I had a few goals in mind:

  • Make the trip as Old Hollywood-focused as humanly possible in 2016 LA.
  • Stay in a hotel closer to the Hollywood area.

Which is how I came to stay at the Millennium Biltmore, a historic behemoth of a hotel located in DTLA. Two factors played in my decision:

  • The hotel looked fantastic on Google.
  • There was a good deal for it across several travel websites.

When I booked my room at the hotel, I had no knowledge of its historic past. I came to learn more and more about it as my stay went on.

Originally known as just The Biltmore, the hotel officially opened for business in 1923. At this time, it was considered the largest hotel west of Chicago, and served as a luxury getaway for many of the stars. In 1927, the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom was where the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded. What really surprised me was that I had inadvertently decided to stay at the very hotel that hosted the Academy Awards from 1931 to 1942! It was the place where Clark Gable won his Oscar for It Happened One Night. It was the place where Gone with the Wind swept the Academy Awards in 1939, and it was the place where Casablanca won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in 1942. All the Academy Awards hosted at the Biltmore took place in the Biltmore Bowl, which looks like this:

Biltmore_02

I attempted to get into this room on a few occasions, so I can bask in the Old Hollywood glory. When the room isn’t being used for a meeting or convention, it is shut off and gated. When the room is being used for a meeting or convention, it is difficult to get in due to the check-in tables and a wristband system. I tried to pretend I had a wristband. Needless to say, I failed, since my wrists were bare. I was brokenhearted I could not see this room for myself. The hotel dedicates a hallway, known as “The Historic Corridor,” to its interesting history. If you couldn’t tell already, I was geeking out!

Here are some of the photos that line the Historic Corridor:

IMG_2966
Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman at the 1941 Academy Awards.
IMG_2967
The 1937 Academy Awards.
IMG_2968
A 1955 Friar’s Club meeting in honor of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
IMG_2969
Robert Taylor and Virginia Bruce at the 1935 Academy Awards.
IMG_2970
Carmen Miranda and her sister Aurora attend the 1941 Academy Awards.
IMG_2971
Jimmy Stewart accepts an Academy Award for his role in the Philadelphia Story (1941).
IMG_2972
Shirley Temple presenting Walt Disney with a full size Oscar–and seven small ones–for his work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938).
IMG_2973
Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis holding their Academy Awards for their roles in Boys Town and Jezebel respectively (both 1938).
IMG_2974
Cesar Romero and Ann Sothern at the 1936 Academy Awards (ignore the weird reflection of my hand).

The hotel played host to many other historical events as well. During World War II, it was a recreation and recuperation facility for American soldiers. In 1960, it was the site of the Democratic National Convention (when JFK was chosen as the Presidential nominee). In 1964, the Beatles stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite while on tour in the States. A history nerd like me could not have chosen a better place to stay.

In addition to being a history nerd, I am an architecture nerd too (I have many friends), and the Biltmore satisfied that facet of my personality as well. The Biltmore’s Rendezvous Court is similar to the lobby  of the Hollywood Roosevelt. Both are heavy and dimly lit, built in a Spanish/Renaissance/Beaux Arts revival style. A fountain adorns the center of both rooms, and plush velvet chairs and sofas surround the area. The Biltmore also boasts detailed woodwork and ornate ceilings heavy with paintings and plasterwork. Most of the artwork in the hotel was done by Italian artist Giovanni Smeraldi, who had previously done artwork for the Vatican and the White House.

IMG_2200
The Rendezvous Court.
IMG_2980
The Biltmore’s lobby.
IMG_2976
An example of the Biltmore’s painted and vaulted ceilings.
IMG_2979
The Biltmore’s got some loooong hallways.

Despite the beauty, the Old Hollywood star power, and the crazy gorgeous architecture of the Biltmore, the hotel does have a bit of a  seamy underbelly. According to legend, the hotel is haunted by various ghosts, including that of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia. My crime nerds will know that the Biltmore was the last place Short was seen alive before her gruesome murder in January 1947. The reports as to where exactly Short was last seen in the hotel differ slightly, but most agree that she was seen in the lobby and in the bar. Short’s ghost is said to haunt the lobby, the bar, the Rendezvous Court, and floors 10 and 11. There have also been rumors of a little girl that haunts the 9th floor, a faceless boy that haunts the roof, and a nurse that haunts the second floor. In 2010, a woman was pushed to her death down the Biltmore’s endless spiral staircase by her fiance, and now her spirit is said to haunt the hotel, too. Guests hearing disembodied voices and seeing their things move around have ran to the lobby in the dead of night demanding a room change on the spot.

murder-elizabeth-short-black-dahlia
Elizabeth Short, AKA the Black Dahlia. Short came to Los Angeles hoping to make it big in the movies. However, six months into her stay, she was brutally mutilated and murdered. The Biltmore was the last place she was seen alive.

So…is the Biltmore really haunted, or is it all a big hoax?

I say the answer is: Yes. The ghost stories are real!

Obviously, I had no idea about the Biltmore’s haunted history when I booked a room there. I didn’t even know about the Biltmore’s stellar Academy Awards history! However, as soon as I walked into the hotel, I FROZE. I still cannot really describe what it was that I felt, but it was most like the feeling you get when you know something is very, very wrong and you are helpless as to what to do. I was nauseous, shivering, and basically in a state of numb shock. My sister tried to reassure me, but it was as though she was talking to a brick wall. It wasn’t until several hours later that I was able to calm down, and several days later when I found out that the hotel has a ghostly past…one that is connected to one of the worst crimes in American history. It all clicked.

The hallways where the guest rooms are did nothing to help. They were long, blank, and low-ceilinged with a patterned carpet reminiscent of The Shining. Mirrors stand at either end of the halls and it was always strangely, strangely quiet.

That is, until night-time came around.

That is when we heard strange noises that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere and knocking coming from within the walls. We felt a cold spot near the health club/pool area. One night, a random wineglass appeared right outside our room door, despite the fact that neither of us drank anything and there was no one else staying on our floor. There were also three finger smudge lines on the bathroom mirror that never came off no matter how hard I wiped and cleaned the mirror. One night, we even heard a woman’s scream. It got to the point where my sister and I kept the lights and the television on as we slept.

Most of the rooms in the Biltmore, just like the rest of the hotel, aren’t modernized at all. Perhaps the only modern thing about it was the TV. No mini fridge, no free internet, not a computer in sight. Staying at the Biltmore was like taking a time machine back to the hotel’s golden years;  a perfect place for an Old Hollywood experience. By the end of my stay, I must admit I ended up developing a soft spot for the place, but there’s no denying there’s ghost or two that has a soft spot for it, too!

Book Review: “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” By Errol Flynn

51ITlwSdsYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
A thorough study of classic film history is never complete without a look at the “star machine,” a system used by the biggest movie studios of the day that was designed to give the actors and actresses in their rosters more star quality. This included bestowing them with memorable stage names and whipping up sometimes outlandish but always fascinating and exotic biographies for each performer. A classic example is that of silent film vamp Theda Bara, who was widely believed to have been the Egyptian-born daughter of a French stage actress and an Italian sculptor. According to Fox Studios (with whom Bara had a contract), she spent her childhood traveling through the Sahara desert and caught the acting bug after visiting Paris. In actuality, Bara was born in Cincinnati, Ohio as Theodosia Burr Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor from Poland. Almost all movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood were subjected to the star machine in some degree.

All of them except Errol Flynn, that is.

Flynn was perhaps the only classic film star whose life story had to be toned down in the eyes of the movie studios and the press. Too volatile and interesting for his own good, Flynn was one of the most controversial figures of the mid 20th century, and still continues to be one today.

Errol Flynn - by George Hurrell 1938
Devastatingly handsome: Errol Flynn in a 1938 studio portrait by photographer George Hurrell.

Although Warner Bros. presented Flynn as a bourgeois Irishman from a well-to-do family, the truth of the matter was a lot more interesting. And this is where My Wicked, Wicked Ways comes in–perhaps one of the best-written autobiographies you could hope to find. It was Flynn’s golden opportunity to tell his very exaggerated version of the truth.

My Wicked, Wicked Ways was written towards the very end of Flynn’s short, destructive life with the aid of ghostwriter Earl Conrad and was published posthumously. However, while reading the book, I was hard-pressed to find any interference from the ghostwriter. The book is 100% Errol’s voice. Reading it gives you the feeling of being a child again, listening to the exciting tall tales of your adventurous grandfather. The tone is casual, conversational, and even intimate as the Hollywood legend lets you in on the salacious details of his life.

Throughout the book, we see that Flynn was unapologetically self-aware of who he was: a hellraiser, a rake, and a black sheep in an otherwise illustrious family. His philosophy since a very early age was to live his life to the absolute fullest, and he often blamed his many mess-ups on his insatiable curiosity and thirst for adventure. He was bold and heady, an ardent admirer of all earthly pleasures. There were times in which he even seemed to revel in his bad reputation. However, Flynn’s self-awareness of his character had its limits, and there were a few instances in which he seemed to question how and why his life blew up into the trainwreck that it became, a field day for the voracious press but an uncontrollable monster that eventually destroyed Flynn’s life.

588a9e3a1724938223d9bcbbdd5c0b98
Flynn and his first wife, actress Lili Damita. Their marriage was abusive (on both sides) and destructive. Flynn’s recount of his Hollywood years are fascinating.

The son of a world-renowned biologist, Flynn was born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. The early  chapters in which he recounts his life by the seas of Hobart are amongst the best chapters in the book. Flynn was never one to meet his father’s academic prowess, and was expelled from countless schools throughout Australia and England for his bad behavior. He eventually left Australia in his teens to try his luck in the gold fields of New Guinea. Instead of striking it rich, he became a plantation owner and a slave trader. He eventually cheated his way out of the jungles of New Guinea, became a Hollywood star, fell prey to his demons (alcohol, drugs, and women, to name a few), and died at age 50 in Vancouver, Canada.

For most of the book, Flynn’s voice is glib, sarcastic, and self-deprecating. Yes, many of the episodes in his lif were controversial to say the least and yes, his views on certain topics were offensive, but Flynn is so charming in his retelling that the reader is inclined to forgive him of even his worst crimes. There is a boyishness to Flynn that is adorable on the surface, but as time wears on, it is easy to see Flynn’s immaturity unraveling his life. Towards the end of the book, we see Flynn become more pensive and sober, trying to make sense of where it all went wrong. Knowing what happens to Flynn, the end of the book is tinged with a haunting melancholy.

In short, My Wicked, Wicked Ways is more exciting than any swashbuckling adventure Warner Bros.’ scriptwriters dreamt up. Without a doubt, Flynn was a larger than life character but he was also a complex figure, more than the media clown he was made out to be. Entertaining, reflective, and humorous, My Wicked, Wicked Ways is a perfect celebrity autobiography. If I were alive during Flynn’s time, he definitely would’ve been someone I would love to rub shoulders with.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

220px-PrinzenAchmedTitle

In the world of classic film, light is often shed on the men behind the lens: Fleming, Cukor, Wilder, and Capra, amongst many others. Was showbiz really just a man’s world?

The answer is: absolutely not! Enter Weimar Germany, an era when artistic experimentation was ripe and fruitful. It was a time and place that provided freedom for many who would’ve been ostracized in the United States at that time, such as the LGBT community, people of color, and strong, enterprising women.

Lottereininger
Reiniger during the production of The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

Which then leads me to one Lotte Reiniger. Reiniger, a young German woman, was a trailblazer in the world of animation, eclipsing Walt Disney’s rise by a decade or two. As a child, she was increasingly fascinated by the Javanese tradition of Wayang shadow puppetry and the Chinese theater. It wasn’t until she watched the short, fantastical films of French filmmaker George Melies that she realized the untapped potential of animation.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Reiniger went on to invent the technique of silhouette animation, creating approximately 40 films in this style (most of which are unfortunately lost). The beauty of Reiniger’s technique is its ability to look cutting-edge in a timeless way, even when compared to today’s advanced CGI and green screen techniques. Without a doubt, her work  pioneered all the animation films and television shows of today.

med_1440078456_image

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is perhaps Reiniger’s best-known film (in addition to being considered by many as the first-ever feature length animated film). She found fairy tales to be the richest source of material for her beautiful, intricate shadow animations, and here she drew from the Arabian Nights.

The film combines the storylines of several Arabian Nights tales, revolving around a Prince named Achmed who is tricked by an evil sorcerer  into flying a magical horse to his death. However, the Prince foils the sorcerer and embarks on a whirlwind of adventures, fighting evil creatures, rescuing his sister, and falling in love with the ethereal Princess Pari Banu. Keep your eyes peeled for the scene where our noble prince joins forces with an adventurous young man named Aladdin! (and as a nod back to this film, Disney’s animated version of Aladdin features a cameo appearance by a character named Prince Achmed).

198794565_640

Even though the plot of The Adventures of Prince Achmed is predictable and old hat thanks to the constant re-hashing of fairy tale stories, the film stands out because of it’s brilliant, beautiful artwork that remains jaw-dropping, even today. Reiniger’s silhouette technique was painstaking, involving cardboard cutouts of each frame placed over nitrate sheets. The film took Reiniger three years to complete, with approximately 24 frames needed to complete each second of film. Reiniger herself would move the cardboard puppets across the nitrate and glass sheets. Her cutouts were bound by wire hinges, which made them easy to move. Other materials were used to create special affects and backgrounds. For example, sand and soap were used to create a starry sky and an ocean. The detailed shadows were accompanied by rich color tints as a background. All in all, approximately 96,000 frames of film were shot before the editing process began.

Prince-Achmed-still-3

Thankfully, this magical avant-garde treasure is readily available here. Reiniger’s other fairytale-inspired silhouette films are easily available on YouTube as well. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a must-see film that was truly ahead of its time!

Book Review: “Long Live the King” By Lyn Tornabene

Gable-clark-gable-7084526-347-450

There are two essential facts that anyone with eyes and ears knows about me.

My name is Sarah and I love Clark Gable.

Clark Gable was the star that first got me into classic film. If it wasn’t for the balmy, rainy night when I stumbled upon It Happened One Night by chance,  I would not be the woman I am today. Classic film went on to shape me, define my personality, my style, and my ideology. Naturally, Gable was my teenage crush, and he’s probably my forever crush, the standard by which I measure all the men in my life.

The Gable obsession was all-consuming. I completed watching his entire filmography, one movie after another, like a machine. I read articles, firsthand accounts, and pored over countless grainy photographs. At that point, I probably knew Gable better than he knew himself.

However, one tiny hitch nagged endlessly and uncomfortably at the back of my brain.

There was not one good biography of Gable out there. The King of Hollywood was sadly slighted in the book department. Warren G. Harris’ biography of Gable was okay, but for a seasoned fan such as myself, it was kindergarten-level information that plodded through each of Gable’s films one by one, not really shedding much light on the man himself. And David Bret’s biography…well…let’s not even go to that circle of Hell.

I searched and read and asked high and low until I learned of Long Live the King by Lyn Tornabene. Touted by many as the definitive source of all things Gable, it also happened to be a rarity that had been out of print for ages. After a two year search, I finally snatched up a copy from the Strand, waiting for me in the wrong aisle all this time.

Tornabene’s biography of the King isn’t one hundred percent perfect (then again, I am nitpicky), but it does come darn near to it. The quality of Tornabene’s research is unparalleled, including countless interviews with Gable’s peers, colleagues, and even with those who knew him from his childhood days as a small-town Ohio boy. Unlike the other Gable biographies out there, Tornabene strove to paint a truly complete picture of her subject, mapping out every facet of his life. She goes beyond his trifecta of crowning-glory roles: Rhett Butler, Peter Warne, and Fletcher Christian.

At the stage that I was in when reading this book, the only things more that I could’ve hoped to learn about Gable were small factoids, intriguing nuggets of information. Tornabene’s biography provided these in profusion, telling you everything from Gable’s suit measurements to his middle school grades.

gable_baby
Baby Clark!

Another thing that set Tornabene’s biography apart from the rest was its focus on pshychological analysis. Tornabene placed great importance on the death of Gable’s mother, Adeline Herschelman, when he was 10 months old. According to her, Gable spent the rest of his life trying to find a lover who could also serve as a “mother” substitute. He eventually finds this in Carole Lombard, only to quickly lose her six years later. Here, Gable is shown as a much more complex man than the carefree, virile image the studios created for him. He was a sensitive, intelligent man, fraught with nerves and insecurity, wholly dependent on the women in his life, as much as a child as he was a powerful man. Some of the greatest passages of the book were the effect he had whenever he walked into a room: how he seemed to fill the space and arrest the attention of all present.

img
One of my favorite images of Gable and Lombard, from their only film together, No Man of Her Own (1932).

So now you’re probably wondering: what was actually wrong with this book? The thing that I didn’t particularly enjoy was Tornabene’s seemingly constant tendency to get up on a proverbial soapbox and expound endlessly on her opinion of the facts. I’m a huge stickler for biographies that stick only to what really happened. So while Tornabene’s research is top-notch and her attention to detail excellent, her veering off into the land of the subjective somewhat frustrated me. As a reader of biographies, I should be free to form my own opinions on the facts.

Overall, this is perhaps the best biography of Gable so far, even though it has some faults. I’ve yet to read Chrystopher J. Spicer’s biography of the King, so we have yet to see if that will trump Tornabene’s!

The Lost Weekend (1945)

lostweekend

Ah, The Lost Weekend. A film that I wrongfully underrated and threw on the back burner for so long. A film that, when I finally got around to watching it a few months ago, made me almost kick myself for neglecting it. A film that holds a firm place in the classic movie canon, and rightfully so.

Based on a 1944 novel by Charles R. Jackson, The Lost Weekend was one of the first films to depict alcohol addiction in a frank, serious, and disturbing light. Up until then, alcoholism was used mostly as a humorous device in Hollywood films, often found in secondary roles played by character actors. Silent film actors such as Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields built their whole careers on the “hilarity” of the alcoholic. It wasn’t until the release of The Lost Weekend that audiences finally watched a film that dealt wholly and seriously with the subject.

ray milland - the lost weekend 1945

The Lost Weekend centers around Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a young, handsome, struggling New York writer who is very, very much on the wagon. His older brother, Wick (Phillip Terry) plans to take him away on a four day weekend to help him forget the allure of the bottle. However, Don outwits Wick and his long-suffering girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) by deliberately missing his train. He then proceeds to go on a bender of epic proportions, lasting the entire weekend. Don quickly degenerates, doing everything from stealing bottles of whiskey, snatching a woman’s purse at a club, getting lost in the streets, falling down a flight of stairs, and getting locked up in an alcoholics’ ward in a sanitarium. The bender culminates in an exceedingly eerie and disturbing hallucination and a suicide attempt.

To the 1945 audience, The Lost Weekend was nothing short of revolutionary. A critical and commercial success, the film went on to sweep four important Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Director and screenwriter Billy Wilder claimed that he chose to dramatize Jackson’s novel because it paralleled his experience working with hard-boiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler on the script for Double Indemnity (Chandler was an alcoholic writer).

Dark, moody, and melodramatic, the film made great use of film noir imagery and lighting techniques. At the time it was released (the close of World War II), audiences were beginning to tire of the lavish, fluffy, escapist pictures of the 1930s, and instead sought out heavier, gritty films that dealt with difficult subject matter and social issues, hence the rise of film noir. Many scenes in The Lost Weekend were done in the noir tradition, with high contrast lighting and clever shadow-play. The film was also one of the first to use electronic music in the form of the theremin, an instrument resembling a radio that was used to create the wailing, ghostly sounds heard in the background as Don’s sanity crumbles.

lost-weekend-movie-review-bat-attacks-rat-vision-alcohol-nightmare
Don’s frightening vision: a bat eating a rat that came out of the walls.

For a film that made zero references to the war (highly unusual for that time!) The Lost Weekend deeply resonated with many GIs, most of whom were coming home and, suffering from severe PTSD and an inability to readjust to civilian life, turned to alcohol. It is also interesting to note the differences between the novel and the film. In the novel, Don is tormented by confusion over his sexuality, and ultimately it does not end happily. In the film, the homosexual overtones were replaced by severe writer’s block, and, probably because of the Hays Code, the film ends happily, with Helen converting Don to sobriety through her love and patience.

The Lost Weekend is a stirring drama, a must-see for every classic film fan, and wholly deserving of its place in movie history.