Archive for Johnny Stompanato

Hollywood Forever

Posted in FILM, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2011 by dcairns

My LA jaunt wasn’t a sight-seeing tour, nor a social visit (managed to meet Glenn Erickson because he popped by, but only achieved a phone call with David E — both encounters I wished could have lasted much longer) but I did manage to see a couple of things…

This used to be Lana Turner’s house. And what’s this we can see lurking at the threshold – ?

THE GHOST OF JOHNNY STOMPANATO!

Knifed to death in the kitchen by Lana’s daughter Cheryl. By all accounts she was defending her mother from her abusive partner, a known gangster. Lana got Cheryl off by giving an award-worthy performance at the inquest — visible at 4.55 in this clip.

“Oh mother, stop acting!” Actually, I’m sure the emotion is sincere, but it uncannily resembles any of a dozen Lana Turner movie performances. Poor Lana had pretty bad taste in men: apart from Fernando Lamas (for God’s sake), she had relationships with Tarzan Lex Barker who sexually abused Cheryl, and Stompanato, who physically abused Lana.

This bijou bungalow belonged to Clara Bow, and is the site where she supposedly ravished the entire USC football team, including at the time a young John Wayne. I don’t believe this story though — the house looks too small to cram all those guys in, at least not without them removing their padding, which I think rather spoils the mental image. I totally believe the one about Tallulah Bankhead and the boy scouts though.

The DeMilles! I prevailed upon my generous hosts to give me a whistle-stop tour of Hollywood Forever, graveyard of the stars. I missed out on John Huston’s grave, which I imagine as the statue from the end of BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (hey, who wouldn’t want a weeping orangutan grave marker?) but caught DeMille’s, Hitchcock’s and Toto’s.

This was my day for recovering from jet-lag, and it was a suitably restful outing. Stayed so long it was too late to go on the Universal Studios tour, but I can’t imagine that being any better than this.

This is the last resting place of Doug Fairbanks Snr and Jnr. The inscription reads “Goodnight, sweet princes, and flights of angels sing the to thy rest. Adapted from Shakespeare.” Yeah. “It’s what you call a paraphrase.”

Still, you feel rather sorry for the Fairbankses when you see what they’ve got to face for all eternity… no, not a weeping orangutan (because that would be grand), but Joey Ramone.

Kind of tacky, no? I find it hard to conceive of a statue with an electric guitar in hand achieving the level of dignity suitable for a memorial, but perhaps this is mere snobbery. Anyway, this is what we came to see –

Valentino’s shrine. Fresh flowers, too — good to know the woman in black is still out and about. Given the historical duration involved, one has to suspect a dynasty of women is in operation, passing the flowers from mother to daughter like a relay-runner’s baton.

Interesting to find Rudy hemmed in by June Mathis and Peter Finch. Death makes for strange bedfellows.

And then my host dropped a six-pound award on his foot –

The disc of Melies’ moon made earthfall first, chipping the cement, then the award snapped in two and the heavy base landed on his toe. Suspected fracture. This necessitated a trip to another place of great interest –

“There’s Mr Skirball’s name again.” This is part of the motion picture retirement home, and thus of enduring fascination, especially to a fan of LA FIN DU JOUR, which is set in a retirement home for actors. I didn’t feel right buttonholing the resident crusties and demanding their life stories, however, so I contented myself with photographing the exhibits until politely ordered to stop.

Cooler even than Ann Miller’s Golden Boot Award (an item unlikely to inspire my host with warm feelings considering his recent experiences with golden awards and feet), cooler than Elsa Lanchester’s Dracula Society certificates, these caricatures by esteemed Hollywood-by-way-of-Romania director Jean Negulescu are lovely indeed. I can recognize everybody except the upper and lower central figures. What do you reckon?

And so, as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we say a fond goodbye to Los Angeles — I love this pic, taken from my host’s back yard. The flash illuminates the foreground while the distance sinks into silhouette, creating an unreal effect not unsuited to La La Land. Dumb luck.

Esther and the swing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2008 by dcairns

A fever-dream double feature.

St Joan

Channel 4, home of the cut-price movie matinee, has been showing afternoon films all week starring that AXIOM OF CINEMA, Joan Collins. Two of them had solid auteur credentials, if we can allow the use of the a-word, so I checked them out. That’s Shadowplay — faithfully watching Joan Collins movies, so you don’t have to.

ESTHER AND THE KING has the double-whammy of being directed (and produced, and co-written) by mighty eye-patch wearing wild man Raoul Walsh, and photographed by Mario Bava. I’d caught glimpses of this movie and I’m a sucker for Bava’s trademark Disneyland Blue, which is on display in nearly all this movie’s interiors. Word has it that Walsh liked Bava’swork so much he delegated most of of E&TK to him. It’s certainly a film that has more in common with Bava’s KNIVES OF THE AVENGER or HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD than it does with WHITE HEAT or GENTLEMAN JIM. Since Bava’s primary focus is the visual, when given his head as a cinematographer he can really subsume a film into his style, becoming its auteur by default (I still don’t like that word, but you know what I mean — the person with the unifying vision). And since energy was always a big part of the Walsh approach, and there’s far less of that in his later work, there is a void to be filled.

(Late-period Walsh is unlikely to win the consideration lately awarded to late Hawks, Ford or Lang. Persons hoping to admire Walsh in his Mature Phase are recommended to sit through THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW, a Western of Damaged Brain uniting Kenneth More [British cinema's perennial "decent bloke"] with Jayne Mansfield [I.Q. of a genius but she kept it off the screen] and then give the whole thing up as a bad job.)

Dance Hall

Bava fills the void with mind-frazzling candy colours, seen to best advantage in the film’s numerous palace entertainments, starring dancing girls in revealing tunics, or unconvincingly miming Nubian singers — the voice is THAT WOMAN who does all the Ennio Morricone wailing. While it doesn’t quite slide into the autistic trance-state of Howard Hughes’ SON OF SINBAD, which stops the “plot” for a belly-dance every 3 frames (David Bordwell would break his clicker trying to keep score), giving new meaning to the phrase “navel-gazing”, this is still a film more interested in bringing on the next dance number than in sorting out Judeo-Persian politics — and who can blame it? Even in Channel 4’s lamentably cropped 16:9 version, these scenes have a wondrous lustre and pop, as fleshy Italian chorines writhe and stagger. 

Salome's Last Dance

A classic Bava shot: symmetrical framing, asymmetrical and unmotivated coloured lighting on the lions.

Of course, Bava wasn’t hugely interested in performance, and I know you’ll shudder in terror as you read this, but Joan Collins is the best actor in ESTHER AND THE KING. There, I’ve said it. Such a thing exists — a film where Joan stands supreme, talent-wise, if only because she’s surrounded by an unbeatable selection of human planks, lugs, stiffs and dolts. The camp harem commandant is the closest thing to a characterisation on offer (eunuch = homosexual in E&TK’s schema).

Joan’s scenes in the harem are among the most amusing. She starts the film in fine form, attempting random bursts of American accent and doing truly extraordinary things with her face while everybody around her is trying to act. In closeup she’s more subdued, having presumably been fed the Hedy Lamarr dictum on how to look beautiful: “Just stand still and look stupid.” This, Joan can do.

Pope Joan

The Persian shagging-palace is depicted herein as a less austere version of the famous Rank Charm School, where the real-life Joan, along with Barbara Steele and Julie Christie, was educated in deportment, enunciation and, well, charm. This fine institution is satirised in Lauder and Gilliat’s LADY GODIVA RIDES AGAIN, a film in which Joan has an uncredited cameo, along with half the British film industry (“Laughable term!” says Alistair Sim). The school’s graduates were trained in disguising any traces of a working class accent (the late Stratford Johns took great satisfaction in telling me how “common” the Collins sisters were back in the early ’50s), walking with a book balanced atop their heads, and getting out of cars without revealing their underwear to the photographers (not yet known as paparazzi) — would that today’s celebs boasted such a skill-set!

Swing High Swing Low

Gorgeous lifelike colour by Deluxe!

Joan gets sent to finishing school all over again in THE GIRL ON THE RED VELVET SWING, a true-crime story directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer did a stupendous job with (working backwards) 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (the Christie murders, very accurate), THE BOSTON STRANGLER (heavily fictionalised) and a very decent job on COMPULSION (Leopold & Loeb, quasi-accurate as far as it goes). This movie climaxes act 2 with a scandalous homicide, but it isn’t primarily a crime film, more of a woman’s picture (red drapes behind the credit sequence) and Joan is the woman whose picture it is.

Ray Milland is Stanford White, America’s greatest architect of the gilded age. Farley Granger is the spoiled and possibly psychotic Harry Thaw. Joan is Floradora Girl Evelyn Nesbitt, who throws herself at the married Milland (“She’s a stupid slut,” pronounced Fiona, and I believe there was a hint of disapproval in her tone) before allowing herself to be wooed by Granger.

Things the movie omits to tell us: White was carrying on with lots of other chorus girls too; he may have drugged their champagne in order to date-rape them; Thaw was a coke fiend; he had a fondness for beating women with a dog whip; Nesbitt became impregnated by John Barrymore; her abortion was procured at a finishing school run by the mother of Cecil B DeMille.

Fever Dream aborion nervous breakdown

On The Bitch

In the movie, Joan’s abortion is instead a nervous breakdown (I guess the logic is, “We need something shameful but not sexual”), presented in a series of lap dissolves as she tosses in her delirium: montage=mental illness. Producer and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett (working with Walter Reisch, previously his collaborator on NINOTCHKA) struggles to get any dramatic fire going. Joan is remarkably good-ish in this — she must have devolved a bit between GIRL and ESTHER. 20th Century Fox had planned to cast Marilyn Monroe, but she was on suspension. Ray Milland is always reliable, but can’t really be outstanding in the part as written. Granger has the flashiest role but he can’t quite make a show-stopper out of it, he’s not really that kind of actor. Brad Dourif had the role in RAGTIME, and he’s a much better idea.

At the film’s “climax”, Joan must sway a jury single-handedly, with a testimony so powerful that they are forced to acquit a man arrested for publicly shooting an old guy in the face, in the crowded theatre of Madison Square Garden, while shouting “He ruined my wife!” (In the real-life case, nobody could say for sure whether it was “wife” or “life”. A minor point — the guy was still dead.)

DIGRESSION: Now, I’ve seen Joan in the witness box FOR REAL, and I have to say, she wasn’t thatcompelling. This was when she attempted to follow her sister Jacqui into the world of best-selling bonkbuster novels, and was sued by her publisher for the return of her six-figure advance after she failed to provide them with sufficiently publishable dross (a sample:“‘Don’t call me your little cabbage,’ she said savagely. ‘I’m nobody’s cabbage.'”). Joan, her head inserted into wig styled like freshly whipped soufflé, made a poor witness, mainly because she seemed too profoundly THICK to understand when she was being asked a question, of that she was expected to answer. But in fairness to her, this may have been a deliberate strategy — her best chance of winning the case (she won) was in proving that the publishers got exactly what they deserved when they asked her to knock up a couple of novels. Skeptics may wonder whether Joan is a good enough actress to fool an entire courtroom, but I remind you: she was playing the part of a dumb actress. “Stand still and look stupid” may be equally good advice for the witness box.

DIGRESSION ON DIGRESSION: The best movie star courtroom scene played for real was that of Lana Turner, defending her daughter for knifing well-endowed gangster Johnny Stompanato to death. She gave a real Lana Turner performance, completely artificial from beginning to end and completely convincing to everybody concerned.

The Window

...and KICK!

Schwing!

END OF DIGRESSIONS: Fleischer’s direction only takes off during the scene when Millandfinally gets Collins on his swing. With dizzying, nauseating POV shots, Fleischer shows her ascending to the ceiling and attempting to kick holes in the skylight. We get a glimpse of the campy wallow in bad taste this film could have been if Fleischer had been allowed to report the true story and play to Joan’s strengths. The Fleischer of MANDINGO could have had a ball with that.

Halloween

The movie needs more SUBTLE FORESHADOWING, like the skulls, screen right.

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