Thursday, April 30, 2015
The original Rin Tin Tin was a war hero. Rescued from a World War I battlefield, he was brought back to the United States by an American soldier named Lee Daniels. The world fell in love with "Rinty" who appeared in numerous silent films. Rin Tin Tin was one of Hollywood's first big stars.
In 1929, the movie studios came up with an interesting way to promote their films; an award show! Movieland's best and brightest would compete for Academy Award statuettes to crown the best and brightest. (And also hopefully fill theater seats.) The ballots went out and plans for a lavish banquet were made to hand out the awards. As the ballots trickled in, one rather large problem appeared; Rin Tin Tin was so popular that he was handily beating his human competition. It seemed that nobody bothered to restrict the competition to humans.
The Academy was frantic. They were trying to start a new, honored tradition and awarding the first best actor award to a dog was seen as ridiculous. These "Academy Awards" would become a laughingstock. Their solution was actually pretty easy; they merely disqualified animal nominees retroactively. Votes for Rinty were discarded, making the new winner the German actor Emil Jannings.
Mr. Jannings has been the only German actor to win an Oscar (and just a few years after the United States had fought against Germany.) Many believe that Emil Jannings would not have won had the Academy disqualified Rinty before the voting started. For the losing actors, however, it could have been worse. Imagine the shame of losing a best actor award to a dog?
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Mae West is a true icon and legend. However, her Hollywood resume is actually not as lengthy as one might think. Ms. West loved making pictures in which she played women of questionable virtue who spouted smutty one liners and double entendres. The introduction of the Hayes Code, which barred such lascivious content, meant that she could no longer make the sort of films that made her famous. So she decided to take an early retirement from movies, heading to Broadway where she could still do the sort of risqué work that she loved.
During one eventful production, she met a young dancer named Maila Nurmi who was cast as a backup chorus girl. Ms. West complimented Maila on her beauty and talent. When Ms. Nurmi retreated to her hotel room after a rehearsal she was shocked to find a letter dismissing her from the production. Mae West felt that Maila would upstage her and nobody upstaged Mae West. Ms. Nurmi wasn't too upset, since Mae had included a check for Maila's full salary for the entire run of the show. She was getting paid to do nothing.
Years later, Ms. Nurmi resurfaced in Los Angeles as the haunting "Vampira", a sexy vampiress who introduced b-list movies. She had become a close friend of Mae West and would often have lengthy phone sessions where they would trade gossip. One evening, Ms. West called up and asked if she could have a dollar from Maila. Maila thought it strange, but agreed to give Ms. West the dollar she asked for. Mae told Ms. Nurmi to hang tight because she was sending a driver to pick her up. Maila, of course, wondered why Mae needed cash if she still employed a driver. It hardly seemed worth the effort, but she agreed and soon found herself whisked to Mae's luxury apartment.
Upon accepting the cash, Mae pulled out a pink slip. She was selling Maila one of her year old Cadillacs for just one dollar. Mae never liked riding around in an "old" car, and wouldn't dream of dealing with a trade-in. So she "sold" her cars to friends for just $1. Needless to say, Maila was ecstatic.
Despite her early retirement from movies and obvious big spending ways, Mae never worried about money. A shrewd investor, she owned the lavish apartment building she lived in and passed away leaving an estate estimated at $75 million in 1980. Maila, on the other hand, found herself on the Hollywood blacklist due to her alleged communist sympathies. Reduced to starring in Ed Wood films, she sold signed photographs and rubbings of celebrity gravestones to stay afloat. She passed away in 2008.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
It's never a good idea to make anything due to spite- much less a multi-million dollar film. But that is exactly what happened at Paramount in 1979. Paramount Pictures leader Robert Evans had lost a bidding war with Columbia Pictures over the rights to Annie and he was eager to put something (anything) together to beat them to theaters. He asked his staff to locate any property that Paramount owned that could be turned into a big budget musical. The ancient cartoon property Popeye was identified and instantly greenlit as a musical project. The studio hurriedly put the film into production.
Of course, unlike Annie, Popeye was not a musical property. Paramount had to make it one. Who better to make a family musical than Robert Altman, director of M*A*S*H and Nashville? Just about anyone else, but he got the job nonetheless. The job of turning a spinach eating brute into a singing, dancing sensation fell to another odd choice- Harry Nilsson, who was more known for his hippy, dippy music than for lavish musicals. (Though he had already had a box office disaster on his resume- the soundtrack for the 1968 Otto Preminger film Skidoo.) Throw in an adult comedian and a dramatic actress, neither of which had any prior singing experience, and Paramount had what it hoped would be its big musical family hit, starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall.
For an auteur like Altman, no fake soundstages would do. With pockets full of Paramount's cash, he flew out to Malta to build a real seaside town on the shore- Popeye's Sweethaven from the cartoons.
No expense was spared on the production. The bean counters back in Hollywood, however, began to get jittery. They had shoveled millions of dollars into this production with nothing to show for it but a very expensive set. Alarm bells ringing, they alerted Mr. Evans who was asked to either rein in his director or find additional funding. He chose to do both, asking Altman to tighten his budget and also enlisting Walt Disney Productions to put up some money in exchange for foreign rights. Disney ponied up the cash and the disastrous Popeye production continued on.
Way over budget, the troubled production finally wrapped. To borrow a trite Hollywood phrase, the money spent is all visible on screen; the vibrant colors and realistic set pieces pop against the sunny vistas. The realness of Sweethaven adds to the production immensely. Shelly Duvall truly looks like Olive Oyl come to life. Other than that, the film is a mess. Most of the songs seem like they're great, but the terrible performances raise serious questions about the sanity of anyone who thought it was a good idea to put any of these actors in a recording studio to sing their own songs. (Mr. Nilsson's soundtrack for Skidoo was similarly marred by the tuneless croaking of Carol Channing.)
(United States DVD Cover Art)
In the end, nobody ended up entertained by this mess of a film; not the aged Popeye devotees, not the family audience and certainly not Altman's fans. The movie was a disaster for Paramount in the United States and Canada, though Disney had better luck with it overseas. Perhaps the foreign voices dubbed over the soundtrack were better sounding to overseas audiences. The film nearly ruined the careers of everyone involved; nobody trusted Robert Altman with such a large budget ever again and Harry Nilsson produced little of note afterwards.
(Foreign DVD Cover art.)
Though released by Disney overseas, the film is not considered an official Disney production, as the company merely provided extra funding for the film. Paramount recovered quickly, though a big question remained; Mr. Altman's lavish sets weren't mere plywood and paste. They were sturdy, usable structures. Useless to Paramount, the people of Malta thought that they could be a tourist attraction. So the studio gave the buildings to Malta who quickly turned them into a theme park of sorts that bizarrely remains open to this very day.
Monday, April 27, 2015
10. Who would have guessed that people would be sick of our formulaic trash already?