Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Saying Farewell to 2014 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

In remembrance of Hattie McDaniel

It’s not that I’m ghoulish; I just appreciate old cemeteries for preserving a slice of local history. And Hollywood Forever, on Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of workaday Hollywood, is a special place to find insights about the movie capital of the world. After attending several services on the premises, and being enthralled both by the wandering peacocks and the wacky assortment of gaudy headstones, I realized I really needed to take a tour. Fortunately, a young lady with the fascinating name of Karie Bible was on hand as an expert guide. It seemed the perfect way to ring out 2014.   

Bible, who holds a degree in film history and frequently appears on cable movie channels, begins each tour with a run-down of the cemetery’s history. It was founded as Hollywood Memorial Park in 1899, before the film industry ever arrived in California. But soon Paramount and RKO were buying off unused cemetery land to incorporate into their back lots, and the cemetery became the resting place of choice for much of early Hollywood. Unfortunately, under the ownership (1939-98) of an embezzler and all-around crook named Jules Roth, Hollywood Memorial Park fell into disrepair. The property was bought and renamed in 1998 by a midwestern family determined to return it to its past glories. Today there are some exotic new touches: a glittering section of Thai funeral monuments; a hodgepodge of flashy graves (complete with embedded photographs and small gardens) of Russian and Armenian emigrés; those peacocks.  In summer, outdoor movie screenings are held weekly on the lush Fairbanks lawn. There are also concerts, plays, and much filming: Six Feet Under was shot here.

On our tour I saw a grandiose monument housing Cecil B. DeMille, who was buried facing his home studio, Paramount Pictures. There’s a Greek temple for Marian Davies, a humble plaque for Peter Lorre, and a touching tribute to Tyrone Power, whose sudden death  at age 44 is memorialized via a simple bench bearing a quotation from Hamlet: “There is providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Hattie McDaniel was originally barred from the premises because of her race, but now there’s a marble pillar dedicated in her honor. Doubtless the most celebrated spot in the so-called Hollywood Cathedral Mausoleum is occupied by Rudolph Valentino, whose wall-crypt is marked by lipstick stains and faded flowers from some recent Lady in Black.
Among the slightly more recent dignitaries at rest here are Jayne Mansfield, Peter Finch, Estelle Getty (her grave marked by colorful stones), and Maila Nurmi (whose fans leave toy skulls and whiskey bottles in tribute to her Vampira alter-ego). The grave of Don Adams, best known for TV’s Get Smart, combines a solemn-looking angel and a plaque depicting him as bumbling Maxwell Smart, holding his shoe-phone to his ear. Toto of Wizard of Oz fame gets a cenotaph, and perhaps the most recent celebrity interment is that of ageless Mickey Rooney (September 3, 1920 to April 6, 2014), whose monument reads “One of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known. Hollywood will always be his home.”

A far shorter life was enjoyed by Johnny  Ramone, who died of prostate cancer in 2004, at age 55. Each year, the flamboyant statue of Johnny in action becomes the focal point of a star-studded concert that raises money for cancer research.

One of the simpler graves  is that of the celebrated “man of a thousand voices,” Mel Blanc. In recognition of his voicing of famous Warner Bros. cartoon characters, I’ll end with the  phrase that marks his headstone: “That’s all, folks.”    
Dedicated to Randy Dotinga, president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, with whom I shared this adventure. And a Happy New Year to all my readers.

Rudolph Valentino, buried in a borrowed crypt

Johnny Ramone
Don Adams ("Maxwell Smart")

Friday, December 26, 2014

O Little Town of Beverly Hills . . . .

Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, CA

Before 2014 ends, I need to salute the city of Beverly Hills, California, which has been busily celebrating the centennial of its founding.  Personally, I’ve always had a special relationship to Beverly Hills. Meaning: I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, less than half a mile south of the Beverly Hills border. My neighborhood was certainly nice enough, but the kids I met who attended Beverly Hills schools always lorded over me, insisting that their own schooling was far better (and far more rigorous) than mine. Such junior-grade snobbery certainly didn’t endear the city to me. Nor did the fact that the well-equipped Beverly Hills library refused to issue library cards to mere L.A. residents.

Still, I enjoyed living walking-distance from the tacky little monument (on a traffic island where Olympic Blvd. meets Beverly Drive) honoring the Hollywood hotshots who’d helped make a Beverly Hills address a status symbol. The monument displays bas-reliefs of Mary Pickford  and Douglas Fairbank and Will Rogers, and Conrad Nagel (who?), and I’d study them with reverence. Not far from the monument was the supermarket where it was once possible to see an aging Donald O’Connor pushing a shopping card.  Beverly Hills was also the place where I would spot celebrities in my dentist’s waiting room. Then there was the day I emerged from one of the city’s fancier department stores and discovered Sammy Davis Jr. out for a drive in his Excalibur. A one-man parade, he was dressed to the nines, and was happily waving to onlookers who gaped from the sidewalk.

One of Beverly Hills’ greatest treasures, the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been displaying in its lobby some grand old photos of the city’s glory days. There is, if memory serves, a photo of Jean Harlow posing poolside, as well as shots of other stars frolicking on tennis courts and otherwise looking both glamorous and carefree. I know that B-movie maven Roger Corman was overawed by Hollywood glamour when his family moved to the flats of Beverly Hills in 1940. In his graduating class at Beverly Hills High School were the scions of famous Hollywood families, like Lita Warner, Carlotta Laemmle, and the young Adolf Zukor. (The school’s movers and shakers actually tended to be those with more tangential movie connections, like the son of the maître d’ at the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel.) Beverly High was elegantly designed and situated: its gymnasium, with a floor that opened to reveal an indoor swimming pool, actually had a featured moment in the 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Fifty years later, the atmosphere of the high school – with its class divisions and its fashion-conscious student body -- was hilariously captured by Alicia Silverstone and company in Clueless.

The reputation of Beverly Hills as a place of wealth and snob appeal has made it a natural for the movies. Just think of how many films have the words Beverly Hills in their titles. Like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Slums of Beverly Hills, Troop Beverly Hills, and even Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Not to mention at least four iterations of Beverly Hills Cop (none of which is about the city traffic officer who famously got slapped by Zsa Zsa Gabor.) Television programs trading on the city’s name have ranged from The Beverly Hillbillies to Beverly Hills, 90210 to (inevitably) The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Then, of course, there’s Pretty Woman, in which nothing seems more delightful than being a  hooker let loose on Rodeo Drive with a rich man’s credit cards. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mad as Hell: Paddy Chayefsky Confronts Today’s Headlines

It’s fun imagining how Paddy Chayefsky would have reacted to the dire North Korean threats against The Interview, a silly Hollywood comedy. And I wonder how he would have felt about Muslim radicals beheading their hostages on camera, then posting the gory footage to YouTube. Yes, Chayefsky gained fame writing such gentle romances as Marty and Middle of the Night. But In the view of Dave Itzkoff, author of this year’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, Chayefsky was best motivated by sheer fury: “His outraged simmered in his spleen and surged through his veins, collecting in his fingertips until it pushed his pen across paper and punched the keys of his typewriter.”

Network, from 1976, zeroes in on a fictitious TV network whose veteran newscaster, Howard Beale, undergoes an on-air crackup. His rant that the viewers of America should open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” unexpectedly elevates him into “the mad prophet of the airwaves,” an idol of millions. But as he continues to veer out of control, a shrewd head of programming decrees he must be taken down, as dramatically as possible.

Itzkoff makes a good case for Chayefsky’s prescience. His Howard Beale character -- the role won the first-ever posthumous Oscar for Peter Finch -- is in some ways a direct forerunner of TV pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, both of whom proudly acknowledge that they too are “mad as hell” at the state of the world. Head programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who will stop at nothing to ensure high ratings, has set the pattern for generations of real-life network folk. (In this year’s Nightcrawler, Rene Russo’s rabid news-director character seems to have learned her trade directly from Diana.)   

Central to the movie’s plot is the breaching of the sacred wall that once separated a network’s news division from its entertainment offerings. The commodification of the news broadcast -- the expectation that the evening news will prove its worth as a money-maker -- is today of course all too real. Chayefsky even foresaw the rise of reality television. Early on, when an inebriated Beale threatens to kill himself during his nightly news spot, his equally soused journalist buddy Max Schumacher (William Holden) enthusiastically endorses the plan: “Hell, why limit ourselves? . . .  I love it. Suicides. Assassinations. Mad bombers. Mafia hit men. Automobile smash-ups. The Death Hour. Great Sunday night show for the whole family. We’ll wipe that fucking Disney right off the air.” 

Schumacher is speaking ironically, but Diana is all too happy to turn a motley band of radicals who call themselves the Ecumenical Liberation Army into TV stars. Since they’re fond of filming themselves committing bank robberies and the like, she proposes to feature them in a real-life Mao Tse Tung Hour, in which they will commit actual crimes on a weekly basis for the titillation of the viewing public. (Network’s funniest scene in is the one in which they and an Angela Davis-type who serves as their liaison hotly debate with Diane the details of their subsidiary rights and distribution deals.)

Just think what Diana Christensen could do with the enterprising thugs of ISIS. Or, for that matter, Kim Jong-un. North Korea’s head honcho was understandably miffed that The Interview climaxes with his assassination, but he might love being the star of an American reality show. How about calling it Keeping Up with the Kims, or The Real Supreme Leader of Pyongyang?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Singin’ (and Filmmakin’) in the Rain

It’s been a busy week in Movieland. Stephen Colbert, His Royal Truthiness, has just ended his long run on Comedy Central. Sony Pictures’ controversial new comedy, The Interview, is being held hostage by North Korea. But me – I’m thinking about rain.

We had rain last week, and the week before. It’s raining as I write this. For people in most parts of the country, dampness in December wouldn’t be such a big deal. But this is Southern California, where we’ve lived through three years of drought. While people in colder climes are now California-dreamin’ about our mild temperatures and cloudless days, we L.A. folk find wet weather something to cheer about.

All of which has made me ponder the symbolic use of rain in movies. Many a romantic comedy ends with reconciled lovers kissing in the rain, oblivious to the downpour because their passion for one another is keeping them warm and dry. Take Andie MacDowell’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Looking like a drowned rat while listening to Hugh Grant’s sudden declaration of love, she asks, “Is it still raining? I hadn't noticed.” Then of course there’s Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) at the conclusion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. On a stormy day, jumping out of  a taxi in search of her missing cat, she ends up in the arms of Paul (George Peppard), the good man who’s been waiting for her all along. As “Moon River” soars on the soundtrack, we see them locked in an ecstatic though soggy embrace, firmly committed to happily ever after.

And let’s not forget Singin’ in the Rain, perhaps my favorite movie about the making of movies. Many of the scenes of that great film highlight the manipulation of reality on a movie soundstage. Like, for instance, Gene Kelly’s character turning on klieg lights so he can serenade Debbie Reynolds in an artificial moonlight. But the famous moment in which he dances down a sodden city street with umbrella in hand is meant – in the world of the film – to be taken as real, not movie magic. It’s not real, of course, but rather the product of studio sfx artists, adept at producing cloudbursts on cue.

In movies, rain doesn’t always signal happy endings. Its disruption of normal life makes it an effectively visual way to pump up a dramatic situation. In Network, we all remember how Howard Beale, “the mad prophet of the airwaves,” urges his fans to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” What I’d forgotten until recently is that Beale (Peter Finch), whose newscaster job is on the line, wakes up on a stormy night, throws a raincoat over his pajamas, and heads for the studio. By the time he’s on air, he’s soaking wet, and his thundering sturm-und-drang oration matches the portentous weather outside.

Most of The Graduate focuses on Southern California as a land of swimming pools and endless sunshine. But the crucial scene in which Elaine Robinson discovers what’s been going on between Benjamin and her mother is played against a rare SoCal summer rainstorm. So when Elaine stares at Mrs. Robinson and guesses the truth, she’s seeing a woman (normally elegantly dressed and coiffed) who’s now bedraggled and soaked to the skin. Symbolically, at least, lightning strikes. 
Which leads me to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It’s hard to summarize all the complex goings-on in this fascinating 1999 film about odd-ball coincidences, set in L.A.’s workaday San Fernando Valley. But its conclusion is apocalyptic. Would you believe it’s raining frogs?  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Woody Strode: The Sequel

Photo by Kenneth James Bryson 

I last wrote about Woody Strode, athlete and actor, on March 1, 2013. In a blog post referring to Strode as “Django Overlooked,” I mused about his forty-year career in Hollywood, which included featured roles in such classic films as John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, and of course as Kirk Douglas’s worthy opponent in the climax of Spartacus. My mother, a proud UCLA alumna, thrilled to Strode’s heroics on the football field circa 1940. A few years later, while former UCLA classmate Jackie Robinson was integrating professional baseball, Strode helped break color barriers in the National Football League. Ultimately, though, he was better known as an brawny African-American actor, one whose ethnicity limited him to exotic and sidekick roles.

Much of what I know about Woody Strode I learned from his son and namesake,  who was always proud of his father’s legacy. I met Woody Kalaeloa Strode (nicknamed Kalai) when both of us were chosen to represent our country.at  Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. To serve as guides at the U.S. Pavilion, under the auspices of the State Department, we had to demonstrate our ability to speak Japanese. Kalai, who had become a UCLA Asian Studies major despite his father’s hope that he’d focus on science, was well qualified for the post. Once on the job, though, he ran afoul of the pavilion’s top honcho, who was terrified – in that turbulent era – of the rebellious youth culture that was then roiling America. Whenever Kalai’s conservative Afro started growing a little full, he was ordered to travel to Tokyo for a haircut. Because the haircut obligation had started becoming onerous, Kalai had the bright idea of shaving his head. For his father, after all, a bald skull had been a dramatic trademark. Sans hair, Kalai looked remarkably like a Buddhist monk. His fellow guides loved it . . . but poor Kalai was quickly sent home.

Though this display of individuality cost him his job, it did encourage him to keep to his own path. Back in the U.S., Kalai followed his father into the film industry, though he mostly remained on the other side of the camera. Entering a Directors Guild training program, he emerged as a credentialed assistant director. An A.D.’s position on a movie or TV set is less glamorous than essential: he (or she) must keep track of actors and crew members, fill out essential paperwork, and see to everyone’s needs. Kalai served on films like The Lost Boys and on the long-running TV series Diagnosis Murder.  Eventually he moved to Honolulu, birthplace of his full-blooded Hawaiian mother, a descendant of Hawaii’s royal family. During his years in Hawaii, Kalai worked as a teamster on many island-based productions, including Tropic Thunder and Lost. In 2011, he appeared on-camera in an episode of Hawaii Five-O (see below). revealing the easy-going charm that I remember from Expo days.

A philosopher and a gentle soul, Kalai had many friends in and out of showbiz. Sadly, he never quite fulfilled his dream of chronicling his father’s life. He died of cancer over Thanksgiving, just before his 68th birthday. Because his passing was sudden, he and his widow Pam were stranded in Texas, where they had gone to visit her ailing mother. Pam Larson Strode, an actress who first met Kalai on a TV shoot , has been devastated by his loss, financially as well as emotionally. That’s why pals have graciously created a burial fund to help return Kalai to the Hawaiian shores he loved so well.

A fond aloha to Woodrow Wilson Kalaeloa Strode, 1946-2014