Tag: hollywood

Day 997: Hollywood’s Original A-List, Part II

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Last year I penned a heartfelt tribute to Lilian Gish and that first generation of cinematic ladies who made male hearts swoon, back when it was still gentlemanly to swoon in mixed company. Alas, the big bold number at the top of this article threatens an accusation of sexism if I don’t supply that article’s flip-side in short order. So here you go: five sploosh-worthy gents who first glued eyes to screens.

It’s important to note that the qualifications for being a sex symbol in the 1910’s were somewhat different than today. Washboard abs were barely an asset; Fatty Arbuckle was a lady’s man and he had the body shape of a Barbapapa. Acting back then was all in the eyes, and it was to the eyes that our attention was drawn. I suspect that in 1914, Channing Tatum’s beady greens wouldn’t have made the cut.

The style of acting required for silent film is truly unique; no one knew (or cared) whether these men could sing, or if their voices sounded like a sack of wet noodles being dragged through a frog’s trachea. We say that Hollywood is superficially mired in its obsession with physical looks today (seriously, why has every on-screen cop since Andy Sipowicz been traditionally attractive?), but back then looks was all they had. Looks, and the ability to brood on cue. Gotta have that brooding glare.

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Those eyes will look into your soul, rearrange the contents therein and leave you a changed person. This is Sessue Hayakawa, and he was causing hearts to throb before literally any other Hollywood star. In his time – which began about a hundred years ago – he was as popular and beloved to audiences as Charlie Chaplin. Born in Tokyo, Sessue broke down racial barriers before the paint had even dried on their walls. He refused any role that perpetuated schlocky Asian stereotypes, and was thusly thrust into the spotlight when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the romantic lead in 1915’s The Cheat. Read more…

Day 978: Doc Brinkley’s Magical Goat Balls

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It makes perfect sense. If a man is having a hard time encouraging his noble groin-soldier onto the battlefield, perhaps his problem is a lack of testicular fortitude. If only he could harness the power of nature’s potential through his impetuous manhood. If only he could possess the unflinching might of goat balls.

That’s right: goat balls. These testicular orbs of revered bleat-meat might cure all your ills, male or female in nature. Such was the reasoning behind Dr. John R. Brinkley’s infamous medical gifts, and such was the foundation of his fortune. If you skim past the wrongful death suits, the federal investigations and the sheer audacity of his backhanded disregard for ethics and common sense, Dr. Brinkley could be seen as the medical luminary of his day.

But we aren’t going to skip those parts. For his lifelong devotion to greed, fraud, and the scrotal strength of the capra aegagrus hircus, we’re going to tell the whole of Dr. Brinkley’s story.

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Shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1907, John Brinkley enrolled at Bennett Medical College in Chicago, a school of questionable repute due to its focus on ‘Eclectic medicine’, which is somewhat like modern herbal / homeopathic medicine, except with less Far Eastern wisdom and a lot more guesswork. He never finished, and he failed to pay his back tuition, which prevented him from transferring to another school. Eventually he did what any enterprising young would-be healer would do: he bought a diploma from a diploma mill in Kansas City. Read more…

Day 969: Pound-For-Pound Performances

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If anyone asks, I’m currently beefing up for the lead role in the upcoming biopic about Orson Welles’ final days. I haven’t been cast yet, and to my knowledge no such movie exists, but when Hollywood finally comes around to making it, I’ll be ready. So yes, I will have that second bag of deep-fried Oreos.

Screen actors – and perhaps stage actors as well, but that information is trickier to find – must occasionally alter their physical weight to slip into a part. Sure, they can cheat like Chris Evans in Captain America, whose 220-pound bulk was deflated to a scrawny pre-Atlas sand-faced wimp through the magic of CGI, but outside of the superhero genre, you’re not likely to see that. These self-abusatory body-wallops are a good reminder that some of the faces speckled across movie screens are actual artists who are willing to endure physical torture for their craft.

In tracking down some of the wonkier stories for this piece, I tried to uncover an actress who has made a similar transformation, but there aren’t many. Renée Zellweger snarfed back some pastries to gain twenty pounds for Bridget Jones’ Diary, but her final appearance was hardly extreme. I’m more impressed with Anne Hathaway’s 25-pound drop for Les Miserables, much of which occurred throughout the filming process. If anyone knows of any other actresses who pulled off feats like these, please tell me in the comments section. It’s quite the sausage-fest on this page.

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Considered to be one of the greatest actors of the last 50 years, Robert De Niro has yet to win an Academy Award since 1981. While I’ll withhold judgment on some of the scripts he has chosen in the last 20 years (I still can’t scrub The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle from the part of my brain upon which it splattered back in 2000), watching him perform usually justifies the cost of admission. If you have somehow deprived yourself of seeing 1980’s Raging Bull (for which he won his most recent Oscar), then you must immediately stop calling yourself a film fan until you do so – particularly if you have seen even one Tyler Perry movie. Read more…

Day 941: Welcoming Our Alien Friends. Or Perhaps Overlords.

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Presently, our only tangible research into the cultural and societal impacts of extra-terrestrial life arriving on Earth seems limited to the fanciful concoctions from the Hollywood daydream machine. Will aliens greet us with a peaceful hand-gesture like they did to that pig-owner guy in the Star Trek movie? Will they fire up the blasters and devastate our cities like that movie where the Fresh Prince teams up with that jazz singer?

Actually, people – and I’m talking about educated people who probably wear business attire to work – have put time and effort into calculating precisely how our society would react to a party of interstellar visitors. Given the unlikelihood of this ever occurring, one could make the argument that the dude who stacks salad plates at your local Sizzler is contributing more to the smooth functioning of society than these educated folks, but I’m not here to make that argument. I’m just the messenger.

When it comes to the purported existence of our little green friends, I find it unfathomably selfish to believe we’re the only slabs of meat who have put together a society in this vast universe. I also believe it likely that someone else has fashioned some sort of tin can (or whatever they have in place of tin) and blasted into space. But to believe they’ll stumble upon us, or even care to say hi if they do? That’s where my credulity glides off the track. Still, it’s fun to daydream.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

And always smart to keep some just-in-case signage lying around.

For thirty years, the SETI Institute (that’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for you acronym-lovers) has been using science, research and speculation to look into the likelihood and nature of possible ETs who might drop by unannounced. The first part of the discussion centers around how they contact us. Do they send us a coded message like the ones we’ve launched into deep space? Do they take over our computer systems and implant a digital hello on Google’s front page? Or will they do a pop-in, no prior call, completely oblivious to the fact that we already made plans to watch the game with some old friends from college? Read more…

Day 938: Bedtime Tales From Tiki-Topia

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Hey kids. Your mom normally takes care of story-time, but there’s an engrossing marathon of The Real Housewives of some damn city on TV, and she’s asked me to fill in. I’m more of a freestyler than a page-reader, so I’m going to unfold this tale fresh from my mind’s back pocket.

Because I love you, and because my brain is bobbing lazily upon a lilting brume of a particularly precocious rum tonight, I think I’ll unwrap the story of one of daddy’s heroes, a man whose singular vision of an urban oasis has not only helped daddy get through your mother’s tearful re-telling of the salient plot-points of every goddamn Nicholas Sparks novel, but also through your ballet recitals, your soccer games and your school concerts. That man’s name was Don the Beachcomber.

No Trixie, daddy isn’t going to tell you a story about a pony. Why not? Because Don the Beachcomber was a man, man of prescience. Hey, stop your whining! What would you rather hear about? Trixie, I don’t know any stories about goddamn unicorns. Lucy, so help me, if you ask me to read that Berenstain Bears book again, I will spend your college fund on cocaine. What did you say, Tommy? You want a story about zombies? That’s my boy. The story of Don the Beachcomber is full of zombies.

Delicious, Delightful zombies.

Delicious, Delightful zombies.

When Don was nineteen years old, he left his home in Limestone County, Texas – that’s near Dallas, where the Cowboys play football… you remember last Thanksgiving  when daddy was throwing candied yams at the TV set and cursing a man named Tony Romo for almost blowing a game against the Oakland Raiders? Well, he plays for the Cowboys. Anyway, Don went on an adventure, sailing around the Caribbean and the islands of the South Pacific. Read more…

Day 937: Hollywood’s Hollywood Ending – USA vs. Paramount Pictures, 1948

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For those who wax nostalgic about the Golden Age of Hollywood, who swoon over the catchlights dazzling in Rita Hayworth’s dark chocolate eyes, who are pushed to the brink of their seat cushions by a stabbing violin score, or who treasure a film’s complete batch of credits before the story gets rolling, you may need to taste that era’s whole truth. Sheltered in the oligopolic thatch of corporate hubris, the Big Five studios were paying themselves twice, fortifying their sweet-spot on the dais of celluloid art with soggy sandbags of nefarious business practices.

When the chips finally fell on the Golden Age, they landed with such a clatter the movie business crumpled into a slump the likes of which we’d never see again; even the modern age of easily-snatchable torrents and duplicitous street vendors pitching bootleg blockbusters hasn’t throttled the industry like this.

For the struggling filmmaker or the tiny fledgling production company, adrift without financial paddle in a sweaty sea of studio bullies, the Golden Age of Hollywood was an ordeal. It took until 1948 for the United States Supreme Court to peel the wings off the sleazy sideshow of backdoor studio arrangements, and they managed to pack the full heft of their punch into one near-unanimous decision.

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Piecing together the components of a relatively new art form required some experimentation, allowing a few different business models to walk the industry’s catwalk while the studios toyed with the best way to maximize profits while maintaining the high aesthetic of the art form itself. I’m kidding of course; they wanted to make money, and it was clear from the moment Tommy Edison’s industry stranglehold was quashed by the feds in 1915 that the best way to do that was to keep everything in-house. Read more…

Day 935: Ah Yes, But Is There Any Evidence Of Semen?

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You can have your John McClanes, your Alex Murphys, your Jimmy McNultys. When it comes to picking out the Hollywood super-cops, we shouldn’t look any further than network television’s procedural potentate: the CSI family of formulaic programming. On the CSI shows, the stars are scientific swamis, investigative prodigies, precocious and apt interrogators, and almost inevitably the gun-bearing heroes who take down the guilty party, usually within 44 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, in the 14 years since Gil Grissom first suited up and embedded CBS’s flag atop the summit of Mount Nielsen Demographic Age 34-55, enrollment in college forensic courses has exploded, while the public’s perceived understanding of crime scene minutiae has ballooned. That’s perceived understanding – if one bases one’s knowledge on what Horatio Caine says or does right before he takes off his sunglasses and elicits Roger Daltrey’s unrestrained shriek, then one is most assuredly not a forensic specialist.

Experts in the fields of law, law enforcement and science call this the CSI Effect, and the reverberations of its repercussions can tingle the spines of professionals all across the justice spectrum. We know more, we expect more, and we understand more, but all stemming from the basis of fiction. If that doesn’t scare you just a little, then you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

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CSI was not the first dramatization of the justice system to throttle public perception into a bewildered shimmy. Jurors who regularly feasted upon the antics of Perry Mason between 1957 and 1966 often awaited the dramatic confession on the stand; one juror actually admitted to a defense attorney that his jury had voted ‘guilty’ because the prosecution’s key witness hadn’t erupted in a tearful admission of wrong-doing. Read more…

Day 925: The Titanic’s First Cinematic Splash

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Mention the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic to someone and you’re bound to get one of these responses:

“What an overpriced piece of CGI crap!”

“I loved that movie!”

“Not just a great film, but that Celine Dion song is the best!” (these are the people with whom I won’t spend a lot of my free time.)

There’s no question that Cameron’s movie – despite its mostly unnecessary formulaic love story – best captures the realism of the mighty liner’s demise. Other movies have focused on various passengers and dynamics aboard the RMS Titanic: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) is a musical about the American socialite, Titanic (1953) is a movie filled with historical inaccuracies – also with a fictitious love story crammed into its frames, and A Night To Remember (1958) was a British film praised for its attention to detail.

But the first movie about the Titanic to hit the silver screen? We’ll have to venture deep into the realm of silent cinema, years before the advent of talkies and even years before the first World War. The first movie to capture the horrors of that fateful April night in the cold claws of the North Atlantic was called Saved From The Titanic. It was released on May 14, 1912. Twenty-nine days after the ship sank.

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The story of this lost classic begins and ends with the beautiful and talented Dorothy Gibson, a singer, dancer, Broadway performer and one of the first ladies of silent cinema to earn top billing as a genuine star. She was a natural comedic actress, working briefly at Lubin Studios but getting her big break with the American branch of Éclair Studios, which was based out of Paris. In the early spring of 1912, Dorothy took a six-week holiday with her mother in Italy. She was booked to sail home aboard – what else? – the Titanic.

Dorothy and her mother – both of whom had been up late playing bridge – were awake when the Titanic became intimate with that iceberg (or whatever actually happened – I’ve been over the conspiracy theories already). Along with the other bridge players they raced to lifeboat #7, which was the first to be lowered into the water at 12:40am, one hour after the collision. For almost six hours Dorothy Gibson bobbed through the waves, watching the unsinkable vessel’s final descent into the shadowy brine and listening to the desperate and doomed souls, fighting fruitlessly against hypothermia and/or drowning. Dorothy’s mind slipped off its axis; she was heard muttering “I’ll never ride in my little grey car again” over and over.

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Jules Brulatour, a successful movie producer with Éclair and (coincidentally?) Dorothy’s lover, heard of the disaster and immediately dispatched a fleet of tugboats dotted with cameramen to New York to capture the return to port of the RMS Carpathia, the ship which had rescued a heap of Titanic survivors. He stitched together his footage along with a few shots of the Titanic’s official launch, some old clips of Captain Edward Smith aboard the RMS Olympic, and some stock footage of icebergs. The newsreel was rocketed around the country in less than a week. People were buying tickets to movie houses just to see the footage.

This gave Jules an idea – why not throw together an actual film of the disaster? After all, he had the Carpathia footage, he had a top-notch studio at his disposal in Fort Lee, New Jersey (the pre-Hollywood Hollywood), and he also had a girlfriend who had actually been there, and who could provide details that no other screenwriter could possess. Whether Dorothy was persuaded to participate in the picture out of tribute to the lost souls who perished that night or because it would be a huge career boost, we’ll never really know.

The term 'Oscar Bait' had not yet been invented.

The term ‘Oscar Bait’ had not yet been invented.

The production was filmed at Éclair Studios and also aboard an abandoned transport vessel in New York Harbor. It took only a week to shoot, and the studio insisted on racing through the editing and processing stages so the film could land in theaters as quickly as possible. This was before the era of the feature film, so the entirety of Saved From The Titanic fit onto a single reel – it was only ten minutes long.

Dorothy Gibson starred as “Miss Dorothy”, a fictionalized version of herself. Miss Dorothy is shown arriving aboard the Carpathia and meeting her mother, father and fiancé. She tells the story of the sinking in flashback, after which the mother pleads with her fiancé to quit the US Navy, as the sea is simply too dangerous. The fiancé asserts his patriotism and the film fades to black. The lesson here is yes, people died and it was a tragedy… but AMERICA!

Kind of brings a tear, don’t it?

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Dorothy, who was said to have burst into tears several times throughout the film’s production, added to the realism by donning the same dress and overcoat she’d been wearing on the night of her rescue. I’m no psychologist, but it seems that reliving an unfathomable tragedy immediately after having experienced it – even wearing the same clothes – is not an advisable route to mental recovery. Critics picked up on the look of shock and devastation on Dorothy’s face throughout the movie. She probably didn’t have to do much actual acting.

The movie was released worldwide on May 14, 1912, less than a month after the events that inspired it. Motion Picture World praised the film and in particular the braveness of Dorothy’s performance. Éclair made a point of emphasizing the actress’s actual participation in the disaster, and promoted the authenticity her involvement had provided. The New York Dramatic Mirror was less kind with their review, finding it “revolting” that Éclair – and Dorothy herself – would capitalize on the worst maritime disaster in history.

This sounds about right. Had there been a 9/11 movie released within a month of the atrocities of 2001, most of us would have been disgusted, but ticket sales would have nevertheless been through the roof.

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Unfortunately, a 1914 fire at Éclair Studios destroyed the only known prints of Saved From The Titanic. All that remains are a handful of production stills and the movie’s dubious legacy of questionable taste. For Dorothy, making the film plummeted her fragile sanity into a frothing crisis. She retired from movies immediately after the film’s release, and despite being neck and neck with Mary Pickford as one of the two highest-paid actresses on the planet, she never made another movie again. She returned to stage work, and eventually moved to Paris, then to Italy, where she became an alleged intelligence operative and Nazi sympathizer.

Éclair eventually shifted their focus from movie-making to camera-making (the makers of the Woodstock film used Éclair cameras), but they found their curious niche in cinematic legend with this film. Was it a good movie? No one who has seen it is alive to say. Was it in poor taste? Perhaps. But at least it didn’t feature that deplorable Celine Dion tune. So that’s something.

Day 902: The Guy Who Made Movies Sound So Damn Good

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If I were to venture west (okay, mostly south and just a little west) to stake my claim on a Hollywood career, I might end up as Channing Tatum’s body-double (or, more likely, Danny DeVito’s), or if I’m lucky, as Steven Spielberg’s on-set beard-groomer. Either way, I’d be looking at professions that have existed for decades – hardly anything original.

But when Jack Foley moved west to Los Angeles, he couldn’t have possibly foreseen the mark he’d have on the industry, especially since the industry as we know it didn’t technically exist yet. There were movies being made, but none containing the element for which Jack would come to be known: sound.

I think most people are aware by now of the existence of Foley artists – those inventive folks who stomp in gravel pits and slap cuts of steak in real-time in order to sprinkle our movies with legit-sounding effects. This sounds like a job that should be streaked with sepia, a faded relic from a time when Mothra destroyed model cities and spaceships still sported a thin line of fishing wire as they cruised through the stars. But despite the omnipresence of meddling computers, these guys still exist. And they still function behind the scenes as some of the most inventive and unheralded geniuses in the movie game.

And it’s all because of this guy:

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Jack grew up in Yorkville, New York, attending public school with James Cagney and Arthur Murray. He moved to California with his wife for the same reason most people did – the weather. He hooked up with the movie business for the same reason so many Californians did – it was the most exciting thing going at the time. Well, that and necessity. When the farmers of Bishop, California sold their farms to the City of Los Angeles for water rights, Jack helped to save his local economy by promoting the area as a sweet location for shooting westerns. Jack had his first film career: a location scout. Read more…

Day 889: Palming, Swinging And Sungazing Your Way To Perfect Vision!

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The day I acquired my first pair of eyeglasses – those big, clunky 80’s frames that cock-blocked so many teens in the throes of inescapable hormones. I was thirteen and wholly displeased. Sure, now I could read my Star Wars poster from across the room and I no longer had to squint at the TV to see which blur was Maddie and which was David, but at what cost? A life sentence of either sticking lenses into my eye socket or plunking a clunky plastic-glass-and-metal accessory onto my face?

If only I had known about William Horatio Bates and his patented (well, not really, but he wrote it down) method of eyeball therapy. According to Bates, no one needs eyeglasses. We merely have to train our eyes not to strain, and they will eventually obey us and restore our perfect eyesight. Bates was – pardon the pun – a visionary. Plus, he was a legitimate ophthalmologist.

Unfortunately he was also a notable peddler of theories that were so lacking in scientific merit and validation, you could probably get a decent shvitz from the steam rising off the bullshit in his teachings. But Bates had a golden shovel, and his theories received a wide swath of attention. If only he’d been right.

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Bates believed that our most common eye problems – nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia (the deterioration of close-up vision due to aging) – were caused by the tension of the muscles around the eyeball. These muscles were acting wonky because of our mental strain. If we could relieve our strain, our eyes could be cured. It’s all in the mind, you see. Even blood circulation problems, which Bates linked to glaucoma, cataracts, double-vision, as well as crossed and lazy eyes, was all mental. Read more…