Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kiddie Pool by Frank Howard

The entertainment industry is dependent on adorable child actors to sweeten lame wisecracks from lazy writers, sell Pampers and pudding pops, and cry on cue. The child actor casts a suspicious eye on the entire "craft" of acting, it's so easy even a baby can do it. All that time wasted with Lee Strasberg when you could've been out there getting paid for making faces without thinking about it (actors aren't well served by actual thinking). If you were cute, you were on your way. Success is fleeting of course, especially once those growth hormones kick in. Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis had the good fortune of having disorders that kept them pocket-size and extended their careers. The rest had to endure that period when the voice and testicles drop, the blossoming of acne, and that awkward transition where the facial features are still traveling and have yet to come to their final adult resting positions. Girls have it a little easier, for though there may be a brief bloom of acne, they still look like little girls except they suddenly have big boobs. A perfect combo it seems (innocent and sexual), there have been a plethora of underage bimbos in recent times. For male child actors, this is when careers evaporate, or at best disappear for a few years. Something I know firsthand, for I was a once a child actor (my first encounter with an illicit substance wasn't a sip of beer or a puff of mary jane, it was doing lines of coke all night long at age thirteen with the script girl at a wrap party…hooray for Hollywood!). Somewhere around my twentieth birthday the phone stopped ringing.

If your parents were kind enough, as mine were, not to pilfer your earnings, once you reached this stage you could walk away from it and live a happy life. Those who continued to crave the spotlight were in for a rude disillusionment. We've all heard the sad stories, so I'll try to keep the misery and indignities down to a minimum (I'll try but I'm not promising anything).

Today I'm in the mood for Carl Switzer (1927-1959), known to millions as Alfalfa from the "Our Gang" series (Alfalfa, Bologna, Buckwheat, Farina -- apparently Hal Roach did most of his writing at mealtime). Carl and his older brother Harold were amateur performers who headed West with their parents to visit relatives. They innocently decided to have lunch at Hal Roach's cafeteria (no one innocently decides to have lunch at an eatery called "Roach's") and, wouldn't you know it, they just so happened to have their musical instruments and gave an impromptu performance! They were both put under contract that day, with Roach giving Carl the name "Alfalfa" while his brother Harold was christened "Deadpan". They made their debut in the 1935 Our Gang short "Beginner's Luck" and it was quickly apparent that Roach had a star on his hands with Carl. While Harold receded into the background, Carl was becoming the main attraction. According to certain sites, Carl was a trained singer, but was required to sing off-key in film after film in order to project endearing amateurism. With a tiny phallus of hair projecting from his skull, he was constantly trying to woo that cruel little slut Darla whose sole pleasure in life was to humiliate poor Alfalfa. After five years and nearly fifty Our Gang shorts, Alfalfa was put out to pasture in 1940.

He kept at it, but couldn't live Alfalfa down, he was just too recognizable. As he matured, he played affable and harmless teenagers in smaller parts and smaller films. I watched the Our Gang shorts a lot when I was a child, a local station ran them constantly. It never occurred to me that there was life after Alfalfa until I saw It's a Wonderful Life, and there he was, age eighteen, as Mary's date to the dance. After getting rejected (once again) he has his revenge by opening up the dance floor and depositing Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart into the swimming pool below. The zeal with which he turns the key, possibly seriously injuring the girl he came to the dance with, has all the malice and glee of Alfalfa finally tossing Darla into a cement mixer (what if they had slipped through the crack before the pool was safely exposed? A broken limb or concussion seems likely).

He eventually reprised his Alfalfa character, eating shit and singing off-key in the "Gas House Boys" series, a cheap knock-off of The Bowery Boys. Small parts in some high-profile films like Track of the Cat and The Defiant Ones led to nothing. One of his final appearances was as a slave in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. To make ends meet he tended bar and bred and trained hunting dogs. One night he was shot in the arm outside the bar he worked at. Shortly thereafter he was arrested and sentenced to a year's probation for a bizarre incident where he singlehandedly felled over a dozen trees in Sequoia National Park, his reasons for doing so remain unclear.

Carl Switzer & George McFarland in Arbor Day, 1936

He married a wealthy heiress, Diantha Colingwood, and for a wedding present received a large farm in Kansas from her father. He was not suited to working the land and soon after the birth of their son the couple divorced. He was back in Hollywood training dogs when one ran off chasing after a bear. To compensate the dog's owner Moses Stiltz, Swizer paid him thirty-five bucks and treated him to fifteen dollars worth of drinks at the bar he worked at. Some days later, a drunk and belligerent Switzer, feeling that he'd been taken and that he didn't owe Stiltz shit, paid a visit to Stiltz's home one night, angrily demanding his money back. Stiltz fatally shot Switzer, claiming it was self-defense and that the actor had pulled a hunting knife on him. Nothing but a pen knife, still in Switzer's pocket and with the blade retracted, was found at the scene. He died on the same day as DeMille, so news of his murder was largely moved to the back pages. He was thirty-one.

Frank Howard is an actor & louche ranconteur of the first order. His early adolescent charm landed him roles in Sixteen Candles, Sister Act 2, One More Saturday Night, That Was Then...This is Now & Clockstoppers. Now he mainly luxuriates by the pool in much-too-short shorts & gives bourbon its due. 

Five Reasons to Live by Charles Lieurance

1. The Skull Clock - The Lawman (Michael Winner, 1971)

Occurring where it does in the Western cycle (Post-Peckinpah & Penn) & featuring a cast heavy with established character actors, The Lawman could easily be mistaken for Blazing Saddles as you're rummaging through cable, but it is, in fact, the last "real" Hollywood Western & its fucked-up death-knell.  If you can conceivably resist a cast that includes Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Sheree North, Ralph Waite, John Hillerman, J. D. Cannon, Lou Frizzell, Richard Bull, Robert Emhardt, Albert Salmi, John McGiver, etc., you're a sturdier man than I. If you look up any of these names on IMDB, you'll recognize them instantly. But The Lawman plays out like a self-destruct device for the genre, complete with a High Noon-style clock embedded into the butt-end of a human skull. The skull clock sits on the Faro table/desk of the highly literate Old World dandy/saloon-keep (brilliant theater actor Joseph Wiseman) & it ticks off the hours while Cobb, his family & their ranch-hands decide whether or not to turn themselves in to Marshal Burt Lancaster after an old man is killed during the drunken tail-end of a cattle drive. The townsfolk, a staggering gallery of fine bit-players, are cowards to a man & the town's sheriff, Robert Ryan, is a bought-and-sold drunk who knows he can't possibly cross Lancaster in a gunfight. It's crucial that the Western iconography is so stacked & centralized here, because while The Lawman adheres to -- nay, amplifies -- every gesture of the genre, it has the same merciless drop-bottom as a scaffold. Because of the trappings, it takes a while to notice that the skull clock is counting down to a complete betrayal of the genre, with so many of its most innocent guest stars swept away in the storm. Watching all the townsfolk from Blazing Saddles look on while Burt Lancaster commits the ultimate Western transgression is as good or bad as it gets. Make way for the Anti-Western. While it was a little late in coming, it's good director Michael Winner threw the funeral.  

2. Simone Chapeaux/Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939)

Just beneath Lubitsch in my infuriatingly adjustable pantheon of comedy directors is Mitchell Leisen & this sophisticated deco farce is one of his best. For those who insist that film progresses in sophistication as our society becomes more open-minded, I refer you to Lubitsch & Leisen, whose films, while beguiling in that eternally silvered manner of 1930s Hollywood, are never afraid to present love, friendship & lust as a heartbreaking melange forever confounding intentions, good or bad. They never judge the characters for supreme romantic confusion & they never resort to the cute expression on a dog's face or a fart when the complex situations finally overtake the punch lines. Of course, poverty is a fantasy state in screwball fare from the 30s (moments of Preston Sturges aside), but if you were living through the Great Depression, real poverty was probably something you didn't necessarily need to see when you'd spent your last nickel on a matinee. 

I won't go into the blend of mix-ups & star-crossed dalliances that lead to this hilarious send-up of Coco Chanel, except to say they're well worth your time if you haven't, um, been. Elaine Barrie is fantastic as Simone/Chanel & she plays the queen of style with a pretty stone-faced authority, as a person who may be secretly bent on making her uppercrust clientele more grotesque than they already are. While she never entirely gives the game away, the shop decorations have the halved & quartered appearance of Dadaist objets d'art & if I'm not mistaken, that is one of Giorgio de Chirico's nightmare streets of the subconscious pretending to be an innocent wall mural. 

3. Paris Commune Cookbook/Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942)

While chatting with the Nazis who've invaded her lovely little British hamlet in Alberto Cavalcanti's WWII film of encouragement, one sly, matronly village aristocrat offers up this amazing volume from the Paris Commune. While the Paris Commune of 1871 began as one of the world's great experiments in working class empowerment, it ended in anarchy, violence, starvation & well, the cooking of zoo animals. This book features recipes for elephant cutlets, parrot pie, roast leg of bear, antelope steak & tiger casserole. The hostess/hostage explains to the Nazi how her grandmother, who gave her the grisly cookbook, got by during the ugliest days of  the Commune: "Horseflesh was unobtainable after the first few weeks. Rats were quite a delicacy apparently. I believe hyena was too much for her though. She was ill for weeks afterwards."

4. The Fink Steals the Phone/Macao, L'Enfer Du Jeu, AKA Gambling Hell (Jean Delannoy, 1939)

Once the incense & opium-clouded credits of this war-shattered film begin roiling over an elaborately conjoined series of  orientalist wooden panels, it's difficult not to feel a Von Sternberg film coming on, but instead we get a brilliant curio by the unfairly maligned French director, Jean Delannoy. While Gambling Hell is certainly in the Von Sternberg bailiwick, Delannoy is able to mix rollicking adventure with moody exotic misapprehension with a deft touch all his own. While the film is rendered with all the dark, smoky, amoral corners of an old world made sinister by shaky late-period European colonialism, Delannoy also choreographs an incredibly witty chase scene through a dusty bazaar, several top-notch shoot-outs & the kind of loopy derring-do one associates with Monogram serials. Strangely the film's tone -- veering as it does between languorous inscrutability, inevitable tragedy & Sailor Steve Costigan shenanigans -- doesn't inflict whiplash at all. Delannoy's film seems all of a piece & an elegantly crafted piece at that. 

In Gambling Hell, Erich von Stroheim plays an arms dealer forced by warlords into an arms exchange he hasn't the cash to pull off.  Before sailing off to certain doom in Macao, he saves cabaret performer Mireille Balin (more on her later) from a firing squad & falls in love with her on the way to his personal Waterloo. Once in Macao, already dire matters become lethal as Von Stroheim grates against gangster/casino-owner Sessue Hayakawa. And that's enough of a sketch to get us where we're going in this post. The rat-fink/petty thief pictured above is the fine French actor Henri Guisol (Ophuls' Lola Montes, Renoir's Crime of Monsieur Lange) & as he's in the employ of anyone with fifty dollars, deco-ensconced Hayakawa seems to have fifty dollars more often than anyone else in Macao. Guisol enters the film declaring, "You are really lucky to meet me. As you can see, I'm a kind of lucky fetish. You touch the top of my spinal column three times & you win at every game. Twelve dollars for the artistic comments & fifty if you win." Guisol spends the film trying to hamstring Von Stroheim's arms dealer at the gangster's behest, though his job performance is less than exemplary. 

While I've loved Gambling Hell for ages, I only recently latched on to this bit of business with the phone. Guisol, reporting the movements of Von Stroheim, Balin & a parade of other characters who become enmeshed in the film's modal brocade, forgets for the moment that the public phone is not the wallet of an easy touch fresh off the boat & attempts, out of pure animal reflex, to pocket the damn thing. Beautiful. 

Of course, what's most-known about this wonderful little film is its backstory, which is so monstrously CAPITAL R REAL that it threatens to obscure Gambling Hell altogether. The movie was made in 1939, but, once the Nazis captured France, was re-shot with Vichy favorite Pierre Renoir taking over for Nazi bugbear Von Stroheim. The version featuring dickbag Pierre Renoir was released to uncomfortable Parisian silence in 1942. The leading lady, Mireille Balin, fell in love with an SS officer & was beaten, raped & incarcerated by the French resistance while trying to escape to Italy with her lover after the Liberation. Upon being released she was not allowed to work as an actress for a year as part of her "probation" & eventually succumbed to alcoholism. Once she was able to attempt a career again, she contracted a disfiguring disease & after an operation to repair her face failed, she went into hiding & died in 1968. 

So, isn't it funny how he tries to steal that phone? Hilarious. 

Mireille Balin

5. Wooing Jean Harlow/Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933)

"Today & tonight will live forever in my heart. I'll lie awake all night on the pillow of its memory. I've known you in every ripple of moonlight I've ever seen, in every symphony I've ever heard, in every perfume I've ever smelt. Your hair, your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair. Lola, my dearest, your mouth is like a gardenia opening in the sun...Poor, tired little flower! You're just an orchid that dropped & bloomed in a swamp. I'm going to take you away from all that sham & cheapness. I'm going to transplant you. We'll be married, dear heart & go together to Utopia. Around the universe. To the moon. I'll put the ring of Saturn on your finger. We'll sleep on Venus & the Milky Way shall be our coverlet."  

-- Gifford Middleton (Frachot Tone) to Lola Burns (Harlow), while Machiavellian puppet-master "Space" Hanlon (Lee Tracy) looks on. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

DHM Turns Four Years Old Today, So I Made You A Three-Hour Mixtape!

Well, I started the Decaying Hollywood Mansions Facebook page four years ago today & even though it was supposed to be just a musty old movie museum for my friends & acquaintances, it has become so much more & threatens to become my career this year. I want to thank all of you for making this so much fun & such a lively, thriving community. This is the second mixtape Tess & I have made for DHM followers & this one is a little heavy on Harlem musicians of the 20s & 30s (a current fascination of mine). Though much of the music didn't originate in Hollywood, I think you'll agree the mood is still sublime enough that you can easily see yourself in a mercilessly fatalistic black & white melodrama while you listen. Feel free to choose your own roles -- cad with the pencil-thin mustache, down-at-heel former doyenne, frail but insidious gamin, louche well-dressed gambling addict with a quip for every occasion, matronly procuress with shabby ties to Eastern European aristocracy, turbaned "hindoo" spiritualist who may be running guns to the jerrys...

If nothing else, after listening to the mix seven or eight times through, I can assure you it goes very well with a bottle of JTS Brown bourbon & dim colored lights. 

Quality-wise, many of the tracks are reasonably pristine for MP3s, but many more are ripped from crackling old vinyl, which has always been my preference, even though it's a pretty shopworn affectation among mothballers like myself. I hope you'll either forgive or worship at the temple bonfire of those crackles & pops. If you have any questions about the tracks, feel free to send me a PM via the Facebook page & I'll get back to you as soon as possible.  

As with the Facebook page, I've deliberately eschewed the hoary old motto "Less is More". I felt this occasion was auspicious enough to do it up right, so you're getting three hours of music here. If you're making that film in your head, you may want to include a short subject & possibly a cartoon. 

Thanks again for making the page & the blogs & the enterprises to come so incredibly entertaining for us. 

Charles Lieurance & Tess Emily Rodriguez

Here's your download link: DHM Fourth Anniversary Mixtape 

Here's the tracklist:

Setting Up The Seance For Table Tilting - Amazing Kreskin
Honey in the Honeycomb - Lena Horne
Rocks In My Bed - Ivie Anderson
When Lights Are Low- Elisabeth Welch

Blue Moon - Greta Keller
Here's That Rainy Day- Sammy Davis Jr. And Laurindo Almeida
The Man That Got Away - Modern Jazz Quartet
Goodnight Vienna - Jack Buchanan
In The Dark - Kim Weston
Autumn Leaves - Milt Jackson

Hootin' Owl Blues - Dolly Ross
Booze Is The Answer - Ruth Wallis
It Was a Sad Night in Harlem - Duke Ellington & His Orchestra/Ivie Anderson
All God's Chillun Got Rhythm - Ivie Anderson & Her Boys from Dixie
My Blackbirds Are Bluebirds Now 1928 - Billy Murray & Walter van Brunt
Big Gorilla Man - Gladys Bentley
Sun Dance - Modern Jazz Quartet

Speak Low - Sammy Davis Jr. And Laurindo Almeida
Come Rain Or Come Shine - Kim Weston
Shirley Bassey  - If You Go Away (ne me quitte pas)
Willow weep for Me - Greta Keller
Rose Of Pyramid Land 1912 - Walter van Brunt & Helen Clark
Arthur Tracy - East Of The Sun

Last Night's Gardenias - Mitchell Ayres & Tess Gardella
Garden of Weed - Reginald Foresythe And His New Music
St. James Infirmary - Eastman - Hall Johnson Negro Choir
If You Go Away - Kim Weston
You're Blase - Elisabeth Welch
Serenade For A Wealthy Widow 1934 - Reginald Foresythe & His Orchestra
The Ghost of the Violin - Walter J. Van Brunt - Maurice Burkhardt

The Folks Who Live On The Hill - Sammy Davis Jr. And Laurindo Almeida
Love Is Like A Cigarette - Ivie Anderson (voc) Duke Ellington (orch)
My Ship - Greta Keller
Back in your own Back Yard - Andy Razaf
Kunjine Baby - Black Hillbillies
Irving Mills & Hotsy Totsy Gang - Diga Diga Doo
Indian Love Call (vocal - Sam Costa & Judy Shirley) 13-3-1936
Deep in a Dream - Greta Keller
Play to Me, Gypsy - Arthur Tracy

Love Moon -10-1914 - Walter van Brunt & Elizabeth Spencer
Every Time We Say Goodbye - Sammy Davis Jr. And Laurindo Almeida
Killing Myself - Duke Ellington & His Orchestra/Ivie Anderson
Gigolette - Elliot Lawrence featuring Lucie Bigelow Rosen on Theremin
Freakish Man Blues - Meade Lux Lewis
Tango Notturno,1938 - Adam Aston
Take Me Back To The Garden Of Love 1912 - Walter van Brunt
St. Louis Blues - Hall Johnson Choir(11-8-39 Hollywood)

Lonely Is The Name - Sammy Davis, Jr.
penny blues - Kim Weston
Goodbye to Summer - Greta Keller
I'll Sit Right On The Moon 1912 - Walter van Brunt & Ada Jones
My Capri Serenade (vocal - Al Bowlly) 26-3-1940
Ubangi - Ruth Wallis
Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee 1912 - Walter van Brunt & Elizabeth Spencer

Night Time 14-4-1931 - Jack Buchanan
The Boy In The Boat - Meade Lux Lewis
We'll Be Together Again - Sammy Davis Jr. And Laurindo Almeida
My Summurun Girl 3-5-1912 - Walter van Brunt
This'll Make You Whistle (+ Elsie Randolph) 30-11-1936 - Jack Buchanan
No Regrets (Live) - Shirley Bassey