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.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Sweet November (1968)

So the Siren decided to plant herself in front of TCM and watch whatever was on, within reason, and what was on was the original 1968 Sweet November. Now the Siren had never bothered with this film due to her impression that it was one of those “guess you had to be there” kind of 1960s movies. She was afraid this would be the The Knack or I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. But what the Siren got was a landlocked, mod spin on One Way Passage.

Unsurprisingly, the Siren liked Sweet November a lot.

Sandy Dennis plays Sara, who meets super-cute with Charlie when she's trying to cheat on her written driver's exam. It’s Charlie (Anthony Newley, one year past being one of the only reasons to watch Doctor Doolittle) who gets tossed out. Charlie is a box manufacturer, one of several metaphors that this movie shamelessly belabors. They eat a hot dog together (sexual metaphors too). Sara asks out of nowhere if Charlie has any tattoos: “Eagles sprouting lightning, or snakes, or uh, a battleship?” Charlie responds glumly, “I’m not big enough for a battleship.”

They go to an exhibit about the wonders awaiting everyone in the 1970s (ha) and wind up at her apartment. There, Sara quizzes Charlie about his three-piece woolen personality. “Hurry-hurry, ding-ding,” she summarizes.

We know Sara is no common girl because she wears trapeze dresses and white patent go-go boots. She makes a living subletting apartments. Her own place is a Brooklyn Heights carriage house with a gazillion artsy tchotchkes scattered around and the bed swung up top near a skylight, reachable only by a sort of repurposed fire escape. Other features include an open-plan fireplace and a generous backyard. (It’s like finding a kooky bohemian who got a great rent deal on Castle Howard.)

Charlie doesn’t appreciate that fab layout, of course; he grabs the sides of the catwalk like a passenger on the sloping deck of the Titanic. Sara explains her peculiar lifestyle. She takes up men for one month only, men who seem to need her help finding their true selves. An example being the one who was “quite conservative politically. He didn't believe in foreign aid. Do you know, he wouldn't even spend money in New Jersey.”

Sara asks Charlie to be “my November”: For one month, he’ll stay with her and learn to live, live, live. Charlie will shop for mod clothes, he’ll write poetry that rhymes (Sara's hippie-ish ethos doesn't extend to free verse) and he’ll mingle with Alonzo the vegetarian sign-painter (played by Theodore Bikel, who has a special place in the Siren's heart for starring in her favorite Columbo episode).

But there’s a complication, one you can see coming. While Charlie is learning to live, he discovers that Sara is dying. He doesn’t care, he loves her — he's even learned to navigate the stairs — and he wants to stay. The scene that truly kicked the Siren in the solar plexus was when Charlie brings a huge stack of calendars, all turned to the page for November, and tells Sara it will be November for as long as they are together.

The love story is wholeheartedly sincere, which helps explain why the Siren found Sweet November so much lovelier than the frequently sour, po-faced Love Story of 1970. If you are going to make a tearjerking romance, however much comedy you put in the mix, the only way to do it is full-out. You can't play the cynic for the first reels, then hand out handkerchiefs for the remainder. One Way Passage understands this, Love Affair understands it, Dark Victory understands it, hell, even Alexandre Dumas fils understood it. This movie isn’t in that league, but it’s trying. It doesn't condescend.

Sandy Dennis, she of the one-word-forward, two-words-back vocal delivery, makes Sara's impulsiveness authentic, her implausible decisions plausible. Newley belongs to a class of actor the Siren groups under “the Pizzazz People”: performers like Mickey Rooney or Sammy Davis Jr., who have so much show-biz in them that the heart is not on the sleeve, it's planted in the middle of the forehead like a third eye. Somehow putting the pizzazz-y Newley next to the fluttery Dennis results in chemistry — the Siren truly believed this terminal girl and her box manufacturer were having a good time when the camera cut away from her bed.

Michel Legrand composed the score; in a better world, he’d do the background music for everyone's wistful love affairs. The theme song was written by Newley and his longtime song partner Leslie Bricusse, and the Siren adores every string-saturated note of it. It was shot in Technicolor by Daniel L. Fapp. No matter what you think of the movie, anyone who loves New York would have to get some pleasure out of the utterly gorgeous exteriors, so many of them long gone. This is a magical New York, like the one in Barefoot in the Park and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where the streets are clean and the characters are straight out of characterville. And the movie gets another thing right. November may be gray and dull in other places, but in New York it’s dramatic rain alternating with the purest of blue skies, cool weather turning colder, but gradually. Forget spring, no New York month is more romantic than November.

There isn’t a lot of Sweet November writing out there, although the IMDB page reveals a devoted cult; one commenter recalls seeing the movie with her man just before he shipped out to Vietnam. The Siren liked Leslie Dunlap’s tribute to the original, in the course of explaining why she found the remake so dire: “I love Sweet November... I love its quirky optimism, its metaphors for sex, its trippy intimations, its flirtation with adolescent narcissism, its ending. In 1968, Sandy Dennis captured a fragile, experimental feminist moment in which heroines picked up men without a hint of fear. In the blink of an eye, that moment was over.”

Maybe the Siren wouldn't have dug Sweet November when it was released. It's such a time capsule, destined to be retro as hell from the day the cameras started rolling. 1968! they made this a year after Bonnie and Clyde, and the same year as Faces and If... and Rosemarys Baby. Sweet November is as defiantly old-school as 1968's Oliver! and The Lion in Winter (both of which, for the record, the Siren also loves). Unlike those last two, Sweet November wants to be down with the kids. It isn't — even the Jerry Wald-esque font of the credits gives the game away — but then again, as Dunlap says, it is.

The Siren has never seen the version of Sweet November from 2001, but one look at the original will tell you a remake was more doomed than Sara herself. This movie should have been left as it was, filed next to the portable 45-record player and the lace-trimmed Peacock Revolution shirt: perfectly imperfect, hopelessly old-fashioned, and utterly of its time.