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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

History Lesson: Performers in the Pen- Part II

Barbara La Marr found herself on the wrong side of the law (see here) when she
was arrested at the age of fourteen. Deemed "too beautiful," she was set free.

Though Robert Mitchum seems to hold some kind of record when it comes to criminal records, there are other stars and starlets who have hip-hopped over the line that divides "good" and "bad" behavior. Of course, as we tend to find stainless people a bit boring, these naughty deviants seem far more interesting with their tangibly hardened edge after hard time.

Next on the list is John Gilbert. True, the gentlemanly Lothario with a poetic soul seems like the last guy who would be imprisoned-- although, he was onscreen from time to time, in Monte Cristo for example. John had a wicked sense of humor, but his boyish hell-raising was a far cry from anarchy. Police had no reason to go looking for this good guy; it was actually he who walked directly into a cell. The reason for his unusual arrest? The killer combo of love and alcohol. John Gilbert's long and temperamental affair with Greta Garbo, his unattainable ice minx, nearly drove him mad (in Love, right). Left at the altar multiple times, nothing seemed to dissuade John from his infatuation with Greta. Her need for independence and his need to possess were conflicting vices that would never mix well-- nor did the cocktail John helped himself to in 1927. He and Greta were nearing the end of their roller-coaster romance when they attended a dinner with Donald Ogden Stewart at his home. John, battling the anxieties Greta was causing him, had had a few too many to drink that night, but he was focused enough to enjoy a painting of the Crucifixion in Donald's possession by artist Peter Breughel. He was not, however, sober enough to stop Greta from fleeing his intoxicated arse. John eventually followed her to the Miramar Hotel, where she holed up with Mauritz Stiller, the director who had acted as her Pygmalion of sorts. "Feeling no pain" with his liquid courage, John gallantly began scaling the walls of the hotel to his beloved. As he approached Stiller's balcony, the irritated director warned him to stop, halt his climbing, and go away. John ignored him, and the next thing he knew, Mauritz had pushed him from the balcony! John landed on his rump, to the great surprise of the passing Carey Wilson and Carmelita Geraghty. He began rambling angrily: "He tried to kill me!" Eventually, Carey calmed him down and thoughtfully followed John home in his own car.

Yet, this was not the end. Apparently, John ventured back out after his brief return home. Yet, he did not make a second attempt to woo Garbo Romeo-style. Instead, he marched into the police office and declared that they arrest the man who had tried to murder him! Now, it was hard enough for the policemen to believe a drunken man-- who was probably slurring his words and swaying from one foot to the other-- but John made his story even more difficult to believe, due to the fact that he would not release his attacker's name. Therefore, the police had no one to arrest but a supposed, amorphous, mystery killer. They decided to arrest John instead for being drunk and disorderly. To add more comedy to the mix, it appears that John used his one phone call to summon Donald. He did not ask for bail money; he simpy asked that his friend bring the aforementioned Breugel painting to the station. Donald, used to John's ways by now, did as requested, only to arrive at the jail to find John giving the officers a lecture on Flemish art. One can imagine the assortment of faces: some cops rolling their eyes, others partly interested, and the rest trying to muffle their laughter. John was a movie star, after all, so at least the coppers were being entertained. The harmless John was given the ultimatum of enduring his 10-day stay for his crime in the pen or at the hospital-- where he was scheduled to undergo surgery on his appendix. He opted for jail. He only remained 1 1/2 days, mostly because the jail became overcrowded with press-hungry actresses, friends, attorneys, and John's personal physician. The policeman, it is said, were glad to be rid of him. (John, an artist to the end, left).

Frank Sinatra (right) was another fellow that had issues with his amours. Many are familiar with his mug shot, which-- typical to most musicians (Cobain, Bowie, Morrison)-- only seems to make him cooler. Sinatra definitely had a more melodic voice than most contemporary rock stars, but the sensual energy that threaded his lyrics together made him just as provocative in his own time. Even before his time, it seems... Frank hit the music scene with full force in the '40s, but in 1938, he was just another struggling 23-year-old with dreams. His mother, Dolly, who had had her own brushes with the law-- for running an abortion ring out of their family home-- was opposed to Frank's career choice and constantly pestered him for it. He was going to be a wash out, just like his father! His father, by the way, with whom Frank sympathized, had also been arrested for receiving stolen goods in the past. Frank, in keeping with the rest of his family, was about to take his own unlawful turn. It all began when he entered into a relationship with a woman named Della Pente Francke, who had met him at the Rusty Canyon, where he worked as a waiter and occasionally sang with Harold Arden's band. The elder gal (25) fell for his bright, blue eyes, and an affair began. And it was a true affair, for Della was married-- albeit separated-- from her husband and living with her parents at the time. Dolly Sinatra was not pleased with her son's romantic choice, thinking Della a low-class girl from Lodi. Apparently, the Sinatra-inhabited area of Hoboken, NJ was much more socially palatable. Tensions mounted, Dolly tried to break the duo up and eventually, Frank started caving. Then, Della got pregnant. Frank was going to marry her, but she lost the baby in the third month and thereafter became privy to another girlfriend in Frank's life: Nancy Barbato.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," as they say. Humiliated and beyond angry at Frank's dropped promises, sudden disappearance, and newly discovered infidelity-- never mind her own-- Della swore out a warrant for his arrest! Times have certainly changed, for back in the day-- November 26th to be exact-- a man could be charged with a little something called "Seduction." What this meant, in plain English, was that a scalawag had won his way into the bloomers of a "female of good repute under the promise of marriage" and consequently had ruined her reputation. Frank's arrest number was #42799 (left). He was released on a $1500 bond and the charge was dropped when it was learned that Della was married. Far from being home-free, Frank was back in jail  by December 22nd, now for "Adultery" (#42977). This time, he was forced to post a $500 bond, but this charge was also dismissed. Apparently, Frank as much more shaken and upset by the drama than many would assume, for he truly had feelings for Della. Did he still deserve to get off scot-free??? Who's to say? Yet, the complicated and controlling nature of his mother, which would lead to his own volatile temper and understandably turbulent relationships with future women, seems to have been punishment enough.

Frances, Frances, Frances... Today, so few people have seen any of her work, yet she remains a firm staple on the board of Hollywood warnings. There are many ways you can look at the case of Frances Farmer (right)-- independence vs. subjugation, feminism vs. misogyny, passion vs. standard expectations-- but no matter the interpretation, this woman paid the forfeit of her own irreverence. There is continued debate over this talented actress's mental state, which arguably earned her a lobotomy-- a claim that seems to be false and the result of mere speculation after she was falsely identified in a medical photograph-- but her iron will and stubborn defiance have earned her her historical hero status. During her life, this same thing got her into a lot of trouble. I mentioned in a past post that she was once was arrested in 1942 for driving with her headlights on in a wartime "dim-out" zone. Her response to the officer at the time was: "You bore me." Her 180-day jail sentence was suspended, but as she was out of town for a shoot in Mexico, she failed to pay half of her $250 fine. A bench warrant was posted for her arrest. Debilitated after her divorce from Leif Erickson, a damaging affair with Clifford Odets, and the pressures of working in an industry that tried to dictate her every move, Frances was nearing her wit's end when she began filming No Escape in 1943 back in the states. Alcohol wasn't helping matters either, which may explain why she lashed out at a pushy hairdresser on the set, slapping her with a brush. The beautician would claim that her jaw had been dislocated.

That night, Frances was dragged from her hotel room at the Knickerbocker and booked for assault and violation of probation. When filling out the paperwork, a policeman asked her what her occupation was. Showing her antipathy for the business and her disdain for herself, she smirkingly responded: "C*cksucker." Her ambivalence in the courtroom did not help her case, literally, as she was very vocal and aggressive in her assertion that her civil rights had been violated. She also threw an inkwell at the judge and was carried bodily from the courtroom (left), during which she allegedly screamed, "Have you ever had a broken heart?!" She spent that evening in jail before being moved to a mental institution for what was diagnosed as "manic-depressive psychosis." She received ECT treatments, but after she was briefly released, she was arrested yet again in Antioch, CA for vagrancy-- without money, (She had been trying to find work as a "fruit-picker." and-- much like Robert Mitchum claimed in his youth-- was essentially arrested for being poor). With her mother acting as her guardian, she was incarcerated in a mental institution yet again, which at the time, she may have considered better than being in her parents' custody. She lost the best years of her life to her stays in these sanitariums. In any event, she survived everything life threw at her, though she became incredibly hardened by it all. She eventually would take care of her parents, despite their tumultuous relationship and neglect over the years, and would later appear on television in her own series. At the age of 56, it was Cancer that claimed her. Hollywood may have robbed her of her sanity, but it didn't get her soul.

The last three culprits are notorious speedsters, but then driving scrapes and fines are the easiest ones to fall prey to-- and don't get me started on parking tickets. Lupe Velez (right) was a hot tamale with a fiery temper. Add to this her lead foot, and you have a problem. On one particular occasion in April of 1929, Lupe was cruising rather rapidly around Beverly Hills in her convertible. A policeman pulled her over on Wilshire Boulevard for going 40 mph in the 25 mph zone. "Loop" must have been irked by this unfortunate imposition, for she wasn't exactly cooperative. Either her attempt at batting her big, brown eyes failed or she was already in a bad mood, for when the copper handed her the citation, she promptly threw it back in his face! She also ignored her summons to appear in court the following May,  after which a warrant was issued for her arrest. Whether Lupe was merely distracted by other business or purposely continuing her haughty attitude is unknown, but she at least came to her senses. She surrendered and was released at $30 bail, which would be about $275 or so today. It is doubtful that this curbed her appetite for automotive acceleration. (Interestingly, Lupe was almost arrested in Mexico before she made her fateful trip to Hollywood. Her family was deeply in debt, and when it was announced in the papers that she had been offered a "big Hollywood contract"-- a falsehood-- the entire community came calling with their financial demands. Obviously, the family still could not pay them all. The authorities were involved, and the Velez clan was pretty much kept under house arrest, which led to Lupe being smuggled to the train station for her Los Angeles escape twice-- the first failed attempt involved her being transported in a baby carriage)!

Zsa Zsa Gabor: the name remains fairly well known today, if only for its unique sound and attractiveness to the tongue. Like most people, I am more familiar with Zsa Zsa as a personality rather than an actress. My first introduction to her, I believe, was in watching The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear when she had a cameo in the film's opening credits. For those who haven't seen the film, I won't spoil it, but know that her brief performance is directly related to the following: The Hungarian actress had completed the bulk of her work in film and television by 1989 when Officer Paul Kramer pulled her over on La Cienega Boulevard, again in Beverly Hills. When she handed him her license, Kramer quickly noticed that it had expired. Ms. Gabor must have already been acting a bit uncooperative, for he asked her to get out of her car. The following search of the vehicle revealed a silver flask of bourbon in the glove compartment, which Zsa Zsa claimed belonged to her husband, Prince Frederick von Anhalt of West Germany, (who allegedly used this liquor to "sweeten" his Pepsi). At some point during her street-side interrogation, Zsa Zsa slapped the officer, knocking his glasses right off his face! She would claim that he was being verbally and physically abusive, citing two broken finger nails and her bruised wrists as proof. The altercation ended with her asking Kramer what was taking so long, to which he told her to "f*ck off." Zsa Zsa did just that, hopping into her car and racing away. Kramer would remember it differently, saying that she swore at him then announced proudly that she was leaving. The final charges were as follows: battery upon an officer, disobeying an officer, driving without registration, driving without a license, and having an open container of alcohol in the car. She eventually spent three days in the slammer in the El Segundo City Jail (left).

Last, but certainly not least, is the King of Speed, Steve McQueen (right). The success of his starring vehicle, Bullitt, was certainly in keeping with his personal penchants. The film boasts the iconic and groundbreaking car chase that paved the way for future action films. Steve loved to speed himself, perhaps trying to prove to himself that he was faster than the speeding Bullitt. Belonging to the same fraternity of racing superstars like Wallace Reid and James Dean, Steve considered leaving the acting profession behind to be a professional auto and motorcycle racer. When pressed by friends as to why he took such risks with his life, his reply was, more or less, that it made him feel "like a man." In essence, the closer one feels to death and danger, the more one feels alive. But then, Steve always had a need to test the waters (or in this case, the pavement) of his wild side. Growing up in a broken home, the isolated youth learned to take care of himself and toughened up early. His impenetrable exterior was enhanced in his adolescent years when he was involved in local gang life. Rebellion and non-conformism were the name of the game. Nothing changed when he hit Hollywood, his defiant leading man persona enchanting audiences and making him one of the most desirable male stars of all time. 

We can only guess what exactly it was that Steve was racing away from when behind the wheel, but his need for speed probably had a lot more to do with escape than hasty arrival. His unfortunate taste for alcohol (and drugs) would also indicate the inner demons that he consistently battled. The combination of these two flaws in his character led to his infamous reputation in Anchorage. While in Alaska in 1972, Steve was up to his usual hijinks on 4th Avenue, which was then home to block after block of bars and brothels. After some serious imbibing, Steve hopped into his rented Oldsmobile Toronado, and started racing up and down the street doing "brodies," otherwise known as "donuts." Needless to say, his reckless driving drew lawful attention, and he was soon pulled over and asked to walk the usual straight line to prove his sobriety. In keeping with his performer status, Steve did somersaults instead. Clearly, he was drunk as a skunk, but to his credit, he seemed to be in a very good mood, and the policeman seemed to thoroughly enjoy this particular arrest. Instead of being disobedient, Steve joked around with the lawmen and even gifted them several autographs. Proof of his congenial mood can be seen in his happy-go-lucky mugshot, which remains a popular point of interest at the Alaska State Trooper Museum.  He must have come to his senses in the morning, and in his certainly hung-over state, posted bail and fled the "Land of the Midnight Sun." Consequently, he was "convicted in absentia" for his reckless driving, and a warrant was out for his arrest in Alaska until the day of his death.

One mellow criminal: Steve McQueen breaks the law and offers peace.

All the celebrities mentioned in this post were fortunate that no one was seriously injured by their illegal shenanigans-- other than a few cuts and bruises here and there. As movie stars are bigger than life, it only makes sense that their devious behavior seem magnified as well. In the end, they are only human, and whether they are eternally playing to imaginary cameras when they indulge in overly dramatic and even dangerous behavior or we simply see them as deglamorized monsters in their moments of mental obscurity is a continuous debate that has no answer. Judging from reality shows, there is plenty of crazy to go around-- famous or not. In the cold light of day, most of these scoundrels had soulful or fearful awakenings that left them guilt-ridden or at the very least consciously crystallized. Though, it should also be mentioned that none of the described celebs enjoyed lives of undiluted happiness. Troubles and hardships seemed to follow them wherever they went, whether they survived these hurdles for great lengths of time or succumbed to them in early death. Robert Mitchum was one of the few who had real staying power, despite his many ups and downs and downs... and downs. Yet, even he was realistic about his, at times, disenchanting mistakes. Upon is arrest for the Marijuana charge, like Frances Farmer, he was asked to declare his occupation. His downtrodden response: "Former actor." Luckily for us, that turned out to be a perjury. Despite our sometimes moral selves, we seem to like the dark sides of our stellar heroes even more than their sparkle. Justice can be harsh, but it serves the public appetite well.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Performers in the Pen- Part I

Robert Mitchum enjoys a cigarette in prison, ironically
when he was arrested for smoking something else.

When Robert Mitchum was interviewed regarding his work on Crossfire (1947), a press agent asked him why he chose to perform in the film (in the role of "Keeley"). His response was: "I hate cops." This retort was mostly the product of his nonsensical and irreverent style-- he didn't care much for studio publicity-- but it was also partially true. Having several brushes and skirmishes with the law, Bob had certainly earned a touch of antipathy toward the police force. However, any personal anger was diluted by his equal sense of humor about his sketchy past, which at least supplied him with plenty of material for his favorite hobby of storytelling. He wasn't the only one with an entertaining or embarrassing stain on his history. Over the years, the very public brother- and sisterhood of celebrity cellmates has only increased. Today, they seem like a piece of daily news, but back in the day, when movie stars' reputations were protected at all costs, their little, legal slips and slides were better hidden-- and thus all the more scandalous when they landed on the front page.

Bob didn't have to delve too deeply for his characterization of resentful ex-con
"Max Cady" in Cape Fear, having spent some time 
"in the clink" himself.

Bob had an early start in building his criminal record. He would later joke that he had been arrested at least 37 times in his life, but this was probably more of that legendary Mitchum exaggeration.  However, there are several events of which the public is now aware. For starters, Bob was arrested for vagrancy when on a train-hopping kick in his teens. Many towns held a grudge against these legions of traveling bums, who wandered in and out of various communities, muddying up the view. Thus, when Bob hit Savannah, GA-- where he was innocently picking up some money that his mother had been kind enough to send-- he was immediately accosted and taken to the station. Bob always maintained that he was arrested for simply being poor. The county tried to tack a shoe department burglary onto his charge, but even the judge had to admit that this was ridiculous. He did spend 7 days in Chatham County Camp No. 1 for the vagrancy charge, but when he learned that the guards had a tendency to extend sentences in order to keep incarcerated laborers on the chain gang, Bob promptly took a run through the woods and escaped! He found life safer at home in Delaware.

In April of 1945, while enjoying an increasingly promising career in Hollywood, Bob arrived home exhausted (and probably tight) one  particular evening to find the police at his house. It seems that his wife-- Dorothy-- and his neighboring mother and sister had gotten into quite the quarrel. Both sides were very possessive of Bob-- his wife thinking that she deserved his full attention, and his blood relatives thinking the same. The cat fights were constant. Needless to say, Bob was both miffed and stressed with all the B.S, and in a fit of misdirected animosity, he lashed out at the officers and told them to arrest him: "Let's go downtown right now, motherf*ckers!" They apparently took his request literally, for a fight ensued, and Bob was booked. Originally handed 180 days, he later opted to accept the more patriotic, military option, joining the America troops overseas. This ploy was most probably a studio push to protect his image. A soldier looked much better than a convict.

However, no sooner had he gotten back than Bob and his pal and body double, Boyd Cabeen, raised some more Hell. Suffering exhaustion during the dual shooting schedule of Desire Me and Undercurrent, which left him hopping back and forth sometimes thrice a day between RKO and MGM, Bob and his drunken cohort decided to enact a little boyish tomfoolery. More than tipsy, the duo returned to MGM after a round of drinks, wandered into wardrobe, and started pulling any and everything they saw off the shelves: hairbrushes, hairdryers, Lucille Ball's wig, etc. Bob gifted the hair dryer to his wife, probably while swaying proudly in their front doorway upon his homecoming. MGM's own Chief H.Q. Hodgett later got down to brass tacks and located the infidels, who had been clearly witnessed in their revelry by several people. Bob was called while on the set, wherein he admitted to his participation in what he called a "gag," and the stolen objects were retrieved.  The studio didn't press charges, but did fine RKO-- Bob's home studio-- for damages. (Lucy may have been haunted by the mysterious Boris Karloff during Lured, but it was Bob and his sticky fingers that she should have feared at this time, right)!

Another small faux pas occurred much later while behind the wheel of his Jaguar. When pulled over for speeding, Bob, at first, was casually shooting the breeze with the policeman peering into his car. Then, taking a look around, he asked the cop if he had any "witnesses" to his vehicular debauchery. The answer, considering the emptiness of the dark, quiet street, was naturally, "No." With that, Bob yelled, "Bye-bye!" and sped away. A warrant was issued for his arrest for speeding over 70 mph, evading arrest, and resisting an officer, which combined could have landed him in the clink for five years. Looking a bit sheepish in the courtroom, the Judge was lenient with Bob, lessening the charges to just speeding and "delaying an officer." Bob was fined $200 total for his lead foot.

For a man who loved freedom, driving anywhere-- and fast--
 was second nature to Bob.

Yet, this is not the most notorious of Bob's legal woes. Every actor seems to have a stigma hovering over him. For Errol Flynn it was the statutory rape trial, for Rudy Valentino it was the "powder puff" label, and for Richard Gere it is that lingering gerbil rumor. For Bob, it was another thing entirely: Marijuana. Bob would be the first to admit that he loved the stuff. He found it mellowing, reassuring, comforting, and honestly just enjoyable. He began his love affair with Mary Jane at a young age and, being the eternal scholar that he was, had educated himself on every genus of the delicious weed available. He even grew his own crop and, like a wine connoisseur, could tell friends exactly where each bud was cultivated just by taste. (Show off). However, as the substance was and remains illegal-- that is, unless you suffer from insomnia, anxiety, or dancing, banana hands, and have therefore obtained a magical pot card-- it wasn't exactly a positive thing for him to be so nonchalantly indulging in the vice. Indeed, he should have feared the reefer...

Bob had formed a friendship with the struggling actress and social castaway Lila Leeds (left) in 1948. Enjoying a brief and bumpy career in the industry, Lila was trying to make a comeback, and gaining a pal like the unpretentious Mitchum-- a real find in Hollywood-- gave her a little more confidence. However, she also had a growing addiction to various inebriates, including Bob's shared passion: cannabis. Thus, she and her roommate Vicki Evans invited Bob and his friend, real estate agent Robin Ford, to their place for a little late night game of puff-puff-pass. Bob and Robin arrived, not knowing that the police had been staking out their hostesses' pad in Laurel Canyon. As soon as Bob took his first drag, the door burst open, and the toking foursome found themselves under arrest! Due to the irregularity of this strangely coincidental arrest, all signs pointed to a set-up. After all, the cops hadn't barged in on Lila and Vicki, who had been imbibing all evening, but had waited for the big name star to arrive. Conspiracy theories ran amok: Lila thought that she had been set up by Vicki, Bob suspected his former business manager, others believed that either the studio magnates or the district attorney were simply making an example of him. There was even a theory that Mickey Cohen had orchestrated the whole thing, though his reasons for doing so remain unclear.

In any case, Howard Hughes of RKO put on his hero cape and arranged for Bob to have the best lawyer, the infamous Jerry Geisler, who would be representing Bob on two counts of possession and conspiracy to possess-- totaling 6 years in jail time. Mitchum posted bail at $1000 after enjoying some laughs in jail for the cameras, and Geisler got to work. While the counselor agreed that something odd was afoot, he could not prove who it was that had "framed" Bob and felt that a public delving into his client's past and private life could damage the star's career irreparably. Thus, he threw Bob on the mercy of the court, asking that they decide his innocence or guilt for the "possession" charge in accordance with the "conspiracy to possess" count. They would therefore be judging Bob's fate "on the basis only of the transcript of the testimony before the Grand Jury." It was agreed. In the end, both Bob and Lila obtained a one-year sentence, which was lessened to 2 years of probation, including a 60 day sentence. 

Bob may be getting a little irritated with the photography
at this point...

This was how Bob found himself Prisoner #91234 at the county jail and later at Wayside Honor Farm, where he wore overalls and did hard time doing farm labor. Despite the chili from Barney's Beanery that friends brought or all the candy bars that Hughes consistently sent him-- a specification the latter found necessary for Bob's health-- Bob still worked off whatever weight he had and became nearly as thin as he was in his youth.  He also sobered up and took stock of the pain and humiliation that he had caused his wife and children. In addition, because of the fines and legal fees, he had been forced to sell his family's home, and the debt was piling up. One innocent night of social smoking had left him cooked. Thankfully, the eccentric Hughes like Bob, and courteously loaned him $50,000. In the cold light of day, Bob started to feel properly guilty, though he maintained his amused demeanor before the hoards of visitors and press hounds. He did his time and, needless to say, was overly grateful when he was again free. For a man who hated walls, jail was pretty much Hell. 

Probably a posed shot for the press to indicate his
"good behavior" to the public.

Fortunately, the public-- at least the younger crowd-- thought Bob was all the more "cool" for his latest transgressions. His "badness" was exactly what they liked about him in the first place. However, this particular arrest was a stain on his life that he would never outrun, and it also probably led to the industry thereafter never taking him seriously, despite his impressive resume and mind-blowing work on the silver screen. 

To add insult to injury, the woman who owned the property that Lila had been renting in Laurel Canyon-- the scene of the crime-- put her couch up for sale after she had evicted the naughty starlet. The listing was as follows: "Charming sofa and arm chair, new slipcovers hide cigaret [sic] burns. Robert Mitchum sat here." Apparently, the dough she got for the furniture wasn't enough, for she later sued Bob for the damages he had allegedly done at the now notorious 8443 Ridpath house, though he had been there mere minutes before the police barged in.

Sporting a mustache, Bob had clearly been incarcerated for awhile
when this picture was taken. But is he packing or unpacking?

*In other jail bait news, Robert did time at Wayside with tennis player Bill Tilden, though they never saw each other. He also filmed The Wonderful Country with baseball player Leroy "Satchel" Paige, who was specifically let out of prison to perform his role in the picture. He had been serving time in Florida when Bob requested him for the film.

More faces and disgraces to come next week!

Bob and Robin.

To be continued...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum: movie casting Heaven
in the Hellish masterpiece Out of the Past.

Time for another round of Would-a, Could-a, but Should-a???

Robert Mitchum is one of those heavyweight actors that the history of cinema would be unfathomable without. The very specific niche that he carved for himself-- half leading man/half mysterious outsider-- was an important step forward in the world of film acting. Actors with his earthy appeal and natural, unrehearsed acting style, combined with the guttural passions of John Garfield, for example, paved the way for the Method phenomenon that would soon take shape. It makes one wonder if we would have been ready for the impact of Brando without the Mitchum bridge to carry us over... For that reason alone, Out of the Past-- the film that further defined Bob's deviant, film noir persona-- carries great weight in moviedom. Had he missed this chance at what was to become a cult classic of fanatic proportions, Bob may have been pushed into an uncomfortable, more commercial corner of the business, which probably would have given him the urge to "adios" before he could make such a huge impact on the industry. This was very nearly the case, as the role of "Jeff" was first offered to the King of Noir, Humphrey Bogart (left). It made sense that writer Daniel Mainwaring would envision the lead of The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, and Dark Victory, in his tantalizing film about sexual manipulation-- with the usual, scintillating twists and turns. Fortunately for us, RKO was more interested in pushing their new rising actor and assigned Bob to the film. Bogie would have been good, no doubt, yet his aggressive toughness onscreen would not have made him easy prey to the luscious Jane Greer's diabolical machinations. Bogie's film persona always solved mysteries; he wasn't bamboozled by them. Bob, on the other hand, had the perfect blend of sinister elegance and man's man vulnerability to fit the role like a glove. Thus, Out of the Past is ad infinitum.

After 10 years in the business, Bob had staked his claim and earned some real elbow room. A dedicated but reluctant actor, Bob had always wanted to be a writer-- a family passion that was passed down to at least two of his children. One particular story that was constantly kicking around his head dealt with the moonshine business-- and its necessary use of fast cars. Soon enough, his pet project Thunder Road was going into production with him at the helm as lead star, producer, co-writer, and sometimes director. He did specific research for the film, studying all the different methods of making and transporting the homemade liquor, which he was, of course, happy to sample. The cast and crew would grow friendly with the locals of North Carolina during the shoot and even enjoyed borrowing "hot" cars for the film that were used by actual "criminal whiskey drivers." When it came to casting the role of his character's brother in the film, Bob thought immediately of Elvis Presley, whom he was been very impressed with in Love Me Tender (right). When Elvis was paid a visit by his hero-- the Robert Mitchum, (whose hairstyle he had copied from an early film to create his own signature look)-- he was absolutely ecstatic! Unfortunately, Elvis, as always, needed the permission of his overly controlling manager, Colonel Parker, before he could say "yes" to the deal. Bob, who never needed anyone's permission for anything, was understandably flustered by the younger man's codependence, and the chance passed Elvis by. Instead, Bob did the next smartest thing and cast his eldest son, Jim, in the role of "Robin Doolin." Heck, as father and son, they certainly looked like they shared the same DNA, so they made believable brothers. Though Jim, then 16, was never able to copy the success of his father's career, he did pursue acting after Thunder Road and, due to his golden name, was able to land some gigs in mostly B-features.

One of Bob's most memorable performances, and my personal favorite, was that of "Max Cady"-- the lecherous anti-hero of Cape Fear. The project began when the eternal American gent', Gregory Peck, read the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. Being impressed with the subject matter, he passed the book to director J. Lee Thompson and suggested it as their next project. After screenwriter James R. Webb adapted the text into a taut, daring masterpiece about a lawyer vs. his recently released and vengeful former client-- a brutalizer and rapist-- the casting for Greg's counterpoint became a grave concern. Officially, the film was on a tight budget, so most of the moolah was going toward paying the star, Greg. Therefore, actors of less public and economic stature were initially suggested: Rod Steiger, Telly Savalas, etc. Still, it didn't  feel right. Then, Bob's name was thrown on the table, and a light went on over Greg's head! His walking opposite and another bankable name, Bob fit the bill perfectly! Greg made his pitch, but Bob wasn't interested. He had been overworked and was looking for respite. He knew a character like Max Cady would require a lot of energy and dedication, and he just wasn't up to it. So, tactically, the production team started asking his opinions on the character, and Bob started offering his advice and his own perceptions: "The whole thing with Cady, fellas, is that snakelike charm: "Me, officer? I never laid a hand on that girl..." While talking, he started to realize that this role was meant for him. Still, he demurred. Greg cleverly sent him flowers and bourbon, and later Bob gave him a call: "OK... I'm drunk. I'll do it." Praise the Lord, for never was there a Devil so Divine! (Greg and Bob wrestle in the Cape, left).

With all the recent hullabaloo about the Sam Raimi prequel Oz the Great and Powerful, it is interesting to look back on The Wizard of Oz. There are many good films, quite a few classics, but there are few that  are bigger than time itself. The tale of "Dorothy" and her motley, goofy cronies' trip down the yellow-brick road holds its own specific place in eternity, where it steadfastly continues to inspire the young and old, make new memories, and resurrect forgotten or too rarely indulged dreams of innocent fantasy. The strange behind-the-scenes disasters somehow managed to come across brilliantly on the silver screen: the birth of little girl Judy Garland as a true movie star, the mythic and vibrant coming of age story, the nostalgic "Over the Rainbow..." Everything fell into place as it should-- even Dorothy's tornado swept house, which was actually filmed dropping from the camera and then played in reverse so it appeared to be crashing to the ground-- right on the Wicked Witch of the East! The "Wicked Witch of the West," (Hell of an alliteration, that), is the one we really remember. Margaret Hamilton's green-faced performance of horror, hysteria, and camp is the very one that she seemed specifically born for. A character actress with a notoriously unusual profile, there was little chance that she would become a screen sensation, yet she remains a legend still. However, the role was originally given to the glamorous Gale Sondergaard (right). The first interpretation of the character was to have the Witch much more sensual: evil hiding in beauty. However, as production went along, it was realized that there firstly was no place for sex in Oz and secondly, Gale was not exactly a frightening threat. MGM decided they needed more edge, so they tested some "ugly" make-up on her, but Gale was so aghast at her mutilation that she resigned from the role. Margaret picked it up, and the film caught fire, burning infinitely! (This can be taken more literally, as Margaret actually did catch on fire at one point during filming)!

Ooh-la-ahhhhhh! Maggie works her [black] magic!

In case it has somehow escaped your notice, Sunset Boulevard is my favorite film. (I am actually pretty sure that I could run a blog specifically about Sunset and Lon Chaney and never run out of material). A movies about movies? The ultimate, silent celebrity playing the ultimate silent celebrity (and spider woman)? Billy Wider?! I mean... Come on! Holden's not bad to look at either, but that goes without saying. I've mentioned in a previous post that Mae West was actually offered the role of the fading movie icon, "Norma Desmond," but she wasn't the only one considered for the epic part. Before Gloria Swanson won the role-- which she thought was a mere supporting part, only to be surprised that she was yet again the leading lady after so many years-- there was another woman in the running. When one thinks of silent cinema, of top Hollywood figures, of heroes, legends, and the talents that built this industry, there is only one woman who could ever bear the name "Mother Hollywood," and that is Mary Pickford (left). Mary's life was slowly starting to resemble that of Norma Desmond by the time she was offered the role. As she spent a great deal of her latter days in hermitage in her fading temple, Pickfair, grappling with her own sanity-- I'm literally making a sad face as I write this, :(-- her casting in the film, in retrospect, would seem not only to be a product of synchronicity at its best, but her understanding of the role and her presence in the film would have certainly made it a phenomenon. Yet, there were some hiccups. Mary may have been a bit too perfect for the role, for she immediately started indulging in her too little exercised inner diva of old. She felt the film should center entirely around Norma, making Holden's "Gillis" a mere speck of dust in the periphery of her own magnificent mania! Wilder wasn't sold on Mary's ideas, as they eliminated the bulk of the story. So, he went back to the drawing board and cooked up some other fading screen madams, including Pola Negri. Yet, it was Gloria Swanson's destiny to breathe vivid and disturbing life into Ms. Desmond, which she did to perfection. For that, Gloria, I heart you forever!

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Damn straight, Gloria!!!

Monday, April 1, 2013

STAR OF THE MONTH: Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum: Don't be deceived just because it's April 1st.
He's nobody's fool.

True story: when Charles Laughton began preparing for his first and last onscreen directorial effort-- the dark, fairy tale nightmare Night of the Hunter-- he became convinced that no one else on earth would be better for the role of the murderous "Preacher Harry Powell" than the snake eyed Robert Mitchum. He feared Robert's rejection, because Powell was an outlandish, bombastic character unlike anything the underplaying actor had ever performed. Still, he made his pitch:

Laughton: Bob, we have a story here we are hoping to turn into a little film, and I would very much like to talk to you about the leading role. The character is a bit different. He's a terrible, evil... sh*t of a man.

Mitchum: Present.

There you have it: Bob in a nutshell. Robert Mitchum kept it real. Never catering to expectations nor indulging in diva tantrums, he eschewed all forms of pretension or formality and openly indulged in his inner bad-ass. But Robert, despite being the King of Cool, was a bit of a pretender himself. His act of the cynical drifter who didn't give a damn was an exaggeration of his true self. His mask of devious detachment and impassion was a front to deter those around him from his secret vulnerabilities, his artistic drive, and his surprising intelligence. Still, girls went ga-ga for him, because he was "a little bit evil" and they dug it, and his same disenchanted, searching soul was the one that gave him incredible depth as both an actor and human being. 

Bob and wife Dorothy.

Robert Charles Durman Mitchum was born on August 6, 1917 to a Scots-Irish and American Indian mutt, the charismatic and combative Jimmy Mitchum of South Carolina, and the more easy-going and artistic Norwegian, Ann Harriet Gunderson of Connecticut. He would be equally endowed with components of both parents, inheriting the willful, fighting, liquor-loving penchants of his father and the more poetic and intellectual sensibilities of his mother. The middle child was sandwiched between elder sister Annette (who later changed her name to Julie) and younger brother John. At a mere 1 1/2 years of age, Bob's father was killed while working in Charleston's navy yard, crushed between two box-cars-- a common occurrence in those days. A deeply mournful Ann moved her family back to New England for a time, then back to South Carolina, and later to Delaware, where Bob spent the majority of his formative, youthful years. Already, the spirit of the gypsy was in him. His family would only ever know the warm, sensitive, romantic side of Bob's nature, and would be surprised when they learned that he had gotten into fights with local boys or had yet again been kicked out of school. The irony was that Bob was the smartest kid in his class. Adept with what can only be called a photographic memory and a highly intuitive, comprehending mind, he was often the one to point out the teachers' mistakes. School friends never saw him take a book home to study, because he already had his entire lesson memorized and figured. Yet, Bob was also the student to get in trouble for playing pranks on teachers, cutting class, or causing a general ruckus. As a poor kid, he had a well-ingrained distaste, not only for spoiled, oblivious people, but also any kind of authority figure. He would always carry a chip on his shoulder, yet as he matured, he at least learned how to pick his battles, probably knowing that he was smarter than any of the supposedly learned elite who were barking orders at him or making fun of his impoverished family.

Checking out the gorgeous merchandise of lifelong pal Jane Russell in
the comic thriller His Kind of Woman.

After he was expelled from his high school at the age of fourteen, Bob hopped to a train to... anywhere. There was no plan. There was no ending point. He just wanted to move around, see the country, and let it ride. He would hop trains with the rest of the hobos, often jumping off for his dear life when the cops on board discovered them and starting shooting! He would end up stranded in various places, work for a little food and money, roam a bit, then hop back on. Various poems and letters to home kept him mentally busy on quiet nights passing through the country, in addition to alcohol and a little something called Marijuana, or as he called it, "the poor man's whiskey." Eventually, he was forced to return home to his mother's care, (she was now remarried to Major Hugh Morris), after he was bitten by a poisonous snake, and his leg became infected. The doctor wanted to amputate his leg, but Ann, with her bohemian wherewithal, concocted her own natural potion of herbs and roots to save her son's life and limb. It was upon his return to Delaware, where he was limping around on crutches, that he met his brother's latest love interest, Dorothy Spence. Only thirteen-years-old, Dorothy didn't move as fast as the other girls. She was modest, unassuming, and thoughtful. Bob took one look at her and said, "She was it... And that was that." John didn't take it too hard when Bob started working his way into Dorothy's heart, but Dorothy thought Bob was a bit of a pompous nut when she first met him. Then, he started laying on the Shakespeare. And the lyrical quotations. And those thin, penetrating eyes... Soon, they were in love. 

Bob and Burgess Meredith in the groundbreaking Story of G.I. Joe.

Bob built his scrawny, slender frame into a muscular powerhouse when working with the Civilian Conservation Corp. at the age of sixteen. Then, he packed up with his family to try things out in California, where his entertainer sister was already making a go of it. He swore he would return for "Dottie," then headed for a new life as a beach bum. He had been earning a little dough here and there to support the family, including a brief stint as a boxer, when sister Annette literally pushed him on stage to audition at a local theater. Bob wasn't openly interested-- acting was for "sissies" after all-- but secretly he had a natural penchant for performance that had lain dormant for far too long. His family had also noticed his hamming, impressions, and general theatrics, and because of their influence, he accidentally earned himself a role in the play "Rebound." He would take on odd jobs and various roles after his debut, but he continued to avoid commitment to the craft. He was also making money on the side by penning songs, lyrics, and "patter" for local variety and musical acts. He was mostly focused on earning a solid living, so he could start building a life with Dottie. Yet, the signs were clear from the get go. Critics and cast members were blown away by his incredible stage presence and subtle acting style, not to mention his easy use of slang and incredibly verbose vocabulary. For now, he was getting by, so he and Dorothy got hitched, she relocated to California, and they moved into the former chicken shack in the family's back yard. (Dorothy probably had second thoughts).

It wouldn't be small potatoes for long. After his first son, James, was born, Bob nearly went blind working for Lockheed. His mother suggested he look into the picture business, and soon he had nonchalantly gotten himself an agent and a string of roles in B-Westerns, including the Hopalong Cassidy series. The laid-back, man's man world of this brand of cinema was a good place for the skeptical Bob to start. Had he been introduced to the more materialistic and inflated world of slick Hollywood filmmaking, he probably would have run for the hills. As it was, he easily grew comfortable in front of the camera. He would arrive on set, take a look at the script, memorize it in one reading, then hit his mark. Of course, more work went into it than he would ever admit, and many a director would confront him about his feigned indifference. Not only was his bold, distant, yet inviting onscreen persona getting notice and praise, but those he worked with knew that he was actually the hardest working man in show-business. He put great thought into his characterizations, making them somehow more authentic and real, whereas most studio actors gave essentially superficial, "get my good side" performances. After three years, Bob had his big break in Story of G.I. Joe, in which his human and heart-breaking portrayal of "Lt. Walker" earned him his first and only Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. He bounced from Westerns, to Noir, to Drama, and back again, proving his versatility and earning countless numbers of fans.

Bob and buddy Jane Greer in noir classic Out of the Past.

When he was signed with RKO, his "type" would be forever solidified. In complex thrillers and noirs, he would become the disenchanted outsider with questionable morals-- complete with cigarette and trench coat. His career would include a long list of impressive credits, including Out of the Past, His Kind of Woman, Angel Face, Night of the Hunter, and The Sundowners. These were his trophy pictures. Bob was always willing to "go there," to investigate a character with more cracks and fractures than the typical pretty boy role. He had no concern for his star power, his name above the title,  nor the size of his role. He was more interested in doing a job and doing it well. The surprisingly innocent blend of masculinity and slight ignorance he molded for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and the intensely sexual and sinister creature he created in Cape Fear are testaments to his profound capabilities as an actor. What enhanced his edge was his mystery. You can never quite figure Robert Mitchum out. Even his family would draw a blank when asked to sum him up or explain his behaviors. A traveling gypsy to the end, he was his own island, and this quality intensified his onscreen roles. That's not to say he didn't partake in his share of stinkers, he made quite a few of them with his career enduring its ups and downs, but in the end, he always improved whatever project he worked on just by being in it. He didn't care if a movie wasn't a hit; he didn't go to see them anyway. He was more concerned with the paycheck and putting food on the table to feed his brood of eventually 3 children: Jim, Chris, and Petrine.

Showing his true colors as the murderous "Preacher Powell" in 
Night of the Hunter.

In his personal life, Bob was also a conundrum. He could drink like a fish, and he occasionally turned violent or unexpectedly and confusedly enraged when under the influence, yet he would walk on the sound stage the next day, no worse for the wear, as if he had gotten 12 hours of beauty sleep. He was a brilliant conversationalist and orator, but he had few friends and even fewer in the entertainment business. He was able to strike up camaraderies with guys like John Wayne or Frank Sinatra, but his most enduring friendships were with women of class, substance, and smarts like Jane Russell and Deborah Kerr. He was very protective of women who were fragile, such as Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth, whom he never approached in a romantic fashion but watched over like a brother. Some of his co-stars simply bored him, because they were self-absorbed "bimbos," but he worked well with and respected hard-working, down-to-earth girls who enjoyed his naughty, uncouth sense of humor-- like Janet Leigh and Jane Greer, who both adored working with him. That's not to say Bob always kept things platonic. Inheriting his father's demons and probably suffering from the lack of a real father figure, Bob would engage in many an irresponsible affair, including one with Ava Gardner and a more infamous relationship with Shirley MacLaine, with whom he fell deeply in love during Two for the Seesaw. Dorothy overlooked the indiscretions time and again, because she knew he would always come back to her with the same old excuse. Bob didn't seek out these infidelities necessarily; mostly, he just found himself unable to resist when a temptation was so energetically placed before him. Shirley was the only woman who ever accidentally threatened Dorothy's place as the only real woman in his life. Yet, as always, Bob came back. He and Dorothy remained married until his death in 1997. (He was just shy of 80-years-old).

A haunted, rare look at the cinematic tough guy in Where Danger Lives.

Bob's essential problem was his pair of itchy feet. He was a born adventurer with a fear of monotony, traps, or snares, (and he'd had his share of them with multiple arrests in his life, including the Marijuana scandal, which was coincidentally later expunged from his record after a set-up was uncovered). He would never stay anywhere for long. He was a loving father but an unemotional one. He was there when someone needed him, but he was mostly distant and lost in his own thoughts. One of the reasons he liked acting was the ability it gave him to travel-- to get going before things went stale. Back and forth, here and back, home and far and away, the native blood in him couldn't stand still. The philosopher in him couldn't sit idly nor ignorantly. His cross to bear was his need for more and his own secret fear of rejection-- his unfortunate theology that opening up fully or being truly emotional was wrong. What he felt, what he carried within him, he carried alone, wandering, seeking, and solving all of life's mysteries before his own life was over. The little snippets of his personal discoveries can be gleaned from the identities he created in Dan Milner, Max Cody, Preacher Harry Powell, Jeff McCloud, Lucas Doolin, and Charles Shaugnessey. Moviedom's master poker player, Robert Mitchum never showed his hand. But then, when you're holding aces, you don't need to.