Monday, July 08, 2013

Wallace Beery and the Persistence of Rumor


The Siren can't tell you exactly when and where she first heard the rumor that Wallace Beery, the great star of such movies as Beggars of Life, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, Viva Villa! and Treasure Island (to name just a few of her own favorites) was a murderer. She's encountered it more than once. If the Siren dug hard enough she might find that it's popped up in comments here once or twice.


Beery, whose career included many lovable oafs as well as villains, does not appear to have been especially lovable in real life. Gloria Swanson gives horrendous details of her marriage to him in Swanson on Swanson, for starters. Louise Brooks had fond recollections of Beery; Margaret O'Brien did not.


Plus, Beery looks like a brute. Looks matter everywhere, and so does image, but in Hollywood, they are close to everything. So it's not hard to see why a certain allegation, that Beery was one of three men who beat Three Stooges creator Ted Healy outside the Trocadero nightclub in 1937, gained so much traction so rapidly. Supposedly, after Healy died of his injuries, Beery was hastily sent abroad by MGM VP Eddie Mannix, and the whole matter was hushed up because the studios were so powerful.


Still, surely we can agree that no one should be memorialized as a murderer without some damn good evidence. That also goes for Albert R. Broccoli, the latter-day James Bond producer who's also alleged to have been one of Healy's attackers; and it even goes for Pat DiCicco, the third man in this fable, a Hollywood figure who was married to Thelma Todd and whose second wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, says DiCicco abused her.


That is why Larry Harnisch, of the Los Angeles Times and the wonderful blog L.A. Mirror, deserves every last eyeball his series, "The Death of Ted Healy," can get.


Here's what Larry has done:


1. He found the relevant passage about the "Beery beat Healy to death" rumor in several different Wikipedia entries. (Larry does not like Wikipedia. He has excellent reasons. The Siren finds Wikipedia useful as a starting point and not much more; Larry builds such a case for the prosecution that going forward, the Siren may not even use it for that.)


2. Larry went back to the sources cited by Wikipedia.


3. He went back to the sources that were cited in the sources that were cited by Wikipedia.


4. And then, with precision and unflagging zeal, he went to newspapers and other records from the relevant period.


Does it count as a spoiler to say that Larry demolishes this story?


The Siren urges her patient readers, in the strongest possible terms, to read these posts. Follow this link to Larry's wrapup. Then, go and click on the links to all the parts. The Siren read the material in a couple of hours. Larry starts the posts with a disclaimer that his meticulous fact-combing is "tedious." It is not; it's enthralling.


The posts do, however, show that checking up on a good sleazy Hollywood rumor is a damn sight harder than popping by a website to say "I never liked Beery in The Champ and anyway I heard he murdered one of the Three Stooges."  


Facts matter; evidence matters; history matters. But with Hollywood, more than any other topic the Siren can name, rumor and innuendo hold sway. You want to say that General XYZ once shot a lance corporal because he didn't like how the guy was standing? (I made that up, folks.) In short order a military historian will show up to say "Hold the phone, Sunshine. What's your source?" You want to say a famed director was the Black Dahlia killer? Go right ahead. You might even get a book deal. (One of Larry's projects concerns the Black Dahlia case--the facts of the case.)


Everybody loves a bit of gossip; lord knows the Siren does. Used as an aside, and clearly identified as what it is, gossip gives spice to life. But it should never be dressed up to resemble a fact. Nor does wild, unsourced gossip deserve to be the echo you hear every time a star's name is spoken, like the horse-neigh for "Blucher."


Wallace Beery: a louse and a rapist, probably. (The Siren believes Swanson.) A murderer? Not only could you not get that to hold up in a court of law, you couldn't get the attention of a halfway decent shoe-leather reporter. Who's dead drunk. On a slow Tuesday night. At the Trocadero. Sitting under a photo of Ted Healy.


Thank you, Larry.

25 comments:

Dan Leo said...

Amen.

Vanwall said...

They always start as a wisp, thicken to a fog, curdle into a cottage cheese of 'history' and eventually harden into a thin veneer of concrete 'facts', supported by spaghetti noodles. Few people are willing to look for the noodles, let alone believe it when they collapse of their own weight from an intelligent glance, even if it's hammered onto their forehead with a blunt instrument.

Bill Coleman said...

Thanks for this post, I am going through the series of articles now, they are fascinating. I notice that at this time, the paragraph on Healy has been removed from the Beery Wikipedia page, apparently, judging from the talk section on that page, at least partly because of this article series.

barrylane said...

Love your comment(s) about Wikipedica. This source, as any other, requires editorial supervision. A friend of mine, long passed on, has been from time to time the subject of several absurd rumors. Occasionally I get irritable about these things and rebut them -- In fact, that is how I got on the net. Incredibly annoying, and soon enough, there will be no one alive who actually knows the truth.

The Siren said...

I do use Wikipedia; as Larry notes, it's often the first thing that comes up on Google. I have learned from sad experience though that if you don't go down to the sources and check them out, you can get burned. And then if you go to a controversial entry, and look at the edit page -- my word!! For my own work, I prefer to use my book collection.

Bill, if you look at some of the comments on Larry's posts, you'll see people tracking that paragraph as it gets removed, and reappears, and is removed, and reappears...

Bill Coleman said...

Yeah, I saw as I got further into the posts (followed all the posts, this turned out to take up most of my evening) that there was also coverage of the Wikipedia updates.

Gloria said...

Rumours, rumours... indeed I've seen my share and it's wearysome to battle them on blogs and forums and WPedia as they appear again and again: no matter how you position facts, you will always get people willing to read "Barbecue" where "Harbor" is written

Jeff Gee said...

It's a really nice piece of work, but a little bit of magic has gone out of the world if Wallace Berry didn't kill SOMEBODY.
(I hope Larry eventually sticks everything on one or two pages-- "The Death of Ted Healy" is 15 parts, "Wikipedia: Murder & Myth" is 18,and while most of the posts are pretty short, that's a lot of clicking).

The Siren said...

Jeff, I agree -- Larry wrote it gradually but it really deserves to be all in one place. He also had a series on Thelma Todd, organized differently, with less direct commentary from him. Instead, mostly clippings that, if read in order, gave the strong impression that Todd died from inhaling carbon monoxide after passing out drunk in her car, not as uncommon a way to die as you might think. That one is also in parts and hard to link to, although if anyone wants the links drop me an email at selfstyledsiren at gmail.

Lemora said...

Thanks for this, Siren. I'm enjoying reading all the links. And thanks for introducing me to Larry H.'s blog. Do you know if he has researched the stories --with wildly varying dates in different decades-- about Clark Gable crashing his car into a tree in somebody's front yard, driving drunk on Sunset Blvd.? (Sometimes he kills someone, sometimes he doesn't. Howard Strickling fixes everything.) I grew up in L.A. and my dad was an entertainer in the thirties, forties, and fifties. I first started hearing Black Dahlia lore in 1958, and I haven't read any of the books because they all sound fictional, to be polite.

VP81955 said...

Orson Welles doesn't discuss the death of Ted Healy, but he tosses the bull around on other topics in a lunchtime conversation with Henry Jaglom: http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/610122.html

DavidEhrenstein said...

That Thelma Todd passed out drunk in her still-running car and died of carbon monoxide fumes has always made more sense to me than the notion that she was murdered by Roland West or Lucky Luciano.

But when it comes to Hollywood "legend" gets printed and truth ignored.

Wallace Beery may have wanted to kill any number of people but he was much too drunk to do so.

Those Welles tapes are truly depressing -- full of rancor and maudlin self-pity.

mas82730 said...

Speaking of Welles, didn't he play the Wallace Beery character in a Mercury(?) production of "Dinner at Eight?"

Jeff Gee said...

There are so many excellent things in the series, but one of my favorites is in Part 3, where Larry H. deconstructs a paragraph of “The Fixers” so crammed with bullshit that he doesn’t know where to start. I particularly like:
‘Out of all these claims, the one that is most amusing is: ’Beery and Healy openly disliked each other for no reason other than that they vied for many of the same roles.’ Let’s get this straight: Wallace Beery and Ted Healy competed for “many of the same roles?” OK. Try to imagine Ted Healy in “Grand Hotel” In “Tugboat Annie.” In “Viva Villa!” In “Treasure Island.” In “China Seas.” In “Ah, Wilderness!” For that matter, do you really think Wallace Beery went after the role of Police Sgt. Magee in “The Longest Night?” And was hoping to get fourth billing in “Sing, Baby, Sing?”’
The line just looked like a throwaway to me, and my eye slid off it, but Larry realized it was a tell, a detail too far, explaining something that needs no explanation. (The world is full of assholes who dislike each other for stupid reasons or no reason whatsoever, and everybody knows it).

mndean said...

As for Beery being rotten even to his friends, there are "amusing" stories of him in the film trade press of the time I researched (1927-33). Once it was reported he was merrily dive-bombing people he knew while in his airplane as they were playing golf.

Stories like that, planted or not, give rumors about even more awful things traction.

The Siren said...

Mndean, oh yes, that's what the best rumors (and their cousins, conspiracy theories) always do; take what's factually true (Beery was a lout who was disliked by a lot of people in Hollywood) and then dial it up. Vince's link to Carole & Co. is instructive too; shot down by Nazi agents, oh dear. And it's Orson Welles spreading that one.

David E., I yield to no one in my worship of Welles and much of what he says is very smart & amusing. But yes, there is such meanness there, and self-pity and untruths too. I should warn people that even though it's un-put-downable it may leave you thinking less of the man. In my case, I chalk up the parts I don't like to the bitterness of age, and the effects of years of beating on closed doors in Hollywood.

Jeff, that was my favorite part too! Ted Healy in Treasure Island. It would be different, as they say.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not sure if I've linked this before but here's Weles' unfinished film about The Trial I pop up in it towards the end.

mas82730 said...

Welles did in fact play Dan Packard in the Campbell's Playhouse radio play of 'Dinner at Eight.' He also played dipso has-been Larry Renault. And the episodes from 1938-40! Huckleberry Finn (Welles as both the Dauphin and Twain's cornpone Candide, Huck), Vanity Fair, Les Miserables, Dodsworth and on and on and on. The more I learn about Welles, the deeper my genuflection, and artists of Welles's stature shouldn't be judged too harshly by what they say in interviews.

johncarvill said...

Thanks for the links, but I'd have appreciated a warning that Robert Avrech is an extreme right wing religious fanatic.



The Siren said...

John: It's been a long while since I checked Robert's home page, because I have never agreed with the political posts. What's there right now is not what I recall reading there before.

The Siren said...

After thinking about it, I've removed the link. I can't send my readers to what's on Robert's home page at the moment. It's too diametrically opposed to my beliefs.

C_Oliver said...

Who could possibly have guessed that the screenwriter of the dementedly obnoxious Body Double would be like this? Next thing you'll be telling me Frank Miller is a warmongering misogynist.

Stacia said...

I can't recommend Larry's research on Healy enough (I linked to it myself, recently, though for only a tangential reason.)

Larry is a fine researcher and a good guy, though Dahlia enthusiasts often dislike him because they see him as a downer who doesn't let them have their fun. If anyone happens to be interested, Larry's takedown of Donald Wolfe's book on the Black Dahlia is pretty stunning, too. It's in small chunks and blogs are read from the bottom up, of course, so it's kind of hard to follow, but I believe this is the best link to start from:

http://lmharnisch.blogspot.com/2006_03_05_archive.html

Jeff Gee said...

Off-topic, but TOO MUCH JOHNSON is alive!
(sort of)!

James said...

Great to see you spreading the good word, Siren! This is a major find that I hope the good folks at the NFPF and the George Eastman House get their work done soon so we can all feast our eyes on what this might reveal. I don't expect it to equal the discovery of the missing reels from Ambersons or anything, but any early Welles is surely worth seeing!