The Concession Stand

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Fall of RKO

RKO was one of Hollywood's biggest studios. It not only made some of the biggest films, it also had a robust distribution arm that held the valuable contract to distribute Walt Disney's films. If Hollywood insiders had to choose which studio might not survive an industry shakeout, truly RKO would have been on everyone's survival list. Those insiders hadn't counted on Howard Hughes.


In 1948, Howard Hughes, the eccentric multi-millionaire wrested control of RKO. He had previously dabbled in films, producing pricy pictures that rankled the Hayes Office with their sexuality. Hughes' legendary meddling was typically the thing that caused the budget of his films to soar, which caused much worry in Hollywood where one could spend stratospherically as long as the result made it to the screen. Big spending on things that wouldn't be noticeable by the movie going audience was considered suicide. Sadly, RKO's death would, for the most part, be considered a suicide.


At this time, RKO operated like an assembly line. The studio's leaders set the tone for the types of projects they wanted to see and the supervisors would produce the types of films that would satisfy them. Cast, crew and writers were all RKO employees who received weekly pay checks regardless of whether they were working on a project or not. It all worked like a well oiled machine. That is, until Howard Hughes took control. Ever a micro-manager, Hughes stopped production throughout the studio. Only projects personally approved by him could start back up again. It would be the equivalent of barging into an egg processing plant and shutting it all down. What would be the end result? Tons of broken eggs and lost money.


Things were about to get even worse. The United States House of Representatives began convening the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which sought to remove alleged "communists" from American lives, including Hollywood. It would be a perfect storm of disaster for RKO. Now run by the most paranoid, obsessive compulsive person in Hollywood, RKO had just started getting back to normal when Hughes shut everything down again. This time, he would not permit a production to resume unless he was satisfied that it was completely free of communist influence. This would spell the end of the studio as the Hollywood biggie it had been. The lucrative contract with Walt Disney Productions was ended as Disney went out on its own for distribution. Several big name stars, unhappy with the lack of work, found ways to end their contracts. Mr. Hughes eventually sold the studio to General Tire, where it died an ignominious death. Its studio backlot sold to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball for their "Desilu Studios". The film catalog would get sold around town, ending up with Ted Turner and Warner Brothers. Howard Hughes would live out his life as a hermit in Nevada, possibly wondering where it all went wrong.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Torch Lady Roars

The Columbia Torch Lady has been decapitated, danced the hustle, replaced by Wilma Flintstone and questioned D-List movie producers. Before the 1959 Peter Sellers comedy The Mouse That Roared, we discover one of her fears.


Apparently, the Torch Lady is deathly afraid of mice. When she sees a mouse, she shrieks and runs off her pedestal. Other than the title of the film, this little vignette has nothing to do with the film itself.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Marilyn Monroe for Equal Rights

Marilyn Monroe is often depicted as a bubble headed bimbo whose untimely death cemented her legend. She was actually much smarter than that, though she cultivated her dizzy image to attract and retain her male fans. The real Norma Jean (her given name) was smarter than she seemed and had a heart of gold to boot.


One of Marilyn's favorite places to dine and dance was Hollywood's famed Mocambo Club. It was the perfect place to enjoy a night on the town- except for one huge thing- African Americans were not allowed to attend or perform there. This angered Marilyn, so she decided to do something about it.


$5.50 for Filet Mignon?!? Is it made out of gold?

While show business was always considered more progressive than the real world, performers would encounter a hard reality when they went on the road. Many top night clubs wouldn't book African-American performers and even if they did, they often had to use separate restrooms, entrances and facilities. Even Marilyn's favorite singer, the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, was not welcome at these clubs. Marilyn would change that.

Out of the blue, Marilyn called up the owner of the Mocambo Club to ask him to integrate and book Ella Fitzgerald. He refused, so Marilyn promised that she would attend every show that week, sitting in the front row. Since she was one of the biggest stars in the world, this would bring every paparazzo to Mocambo and a tidal wave of attention. He quickly agreed. The week was a smashing success and Ella soon found herself booked into the biggest clubs in the country. Ella was forever grateful to the woman who used her star power to help change the world.


Monday, May 23, 2016

The Major Hollywood Studios: Then & Now

Today's major studios are, in many ways, much the same as they were in Hollywood's golden age. Back then, the club included 20th Century Fox, which remains in the club today. The studio was on shaky ground back in the 1960's and had to sell off much of its storied backlot to raise money. Eventually, the studio's desperate straits would prove to be a blessing in disguise; it had to embrace television more fully than its peers. As a result, it not only made much needed cash, but also produced amazing, iconic television like M*A*S*H, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show.


Columbia Pictures was originally a poverty row studio, rolling out B movies. Studio founder Harry Cohn fought and scratched to get higher production values and talent, eventually raising his studio to the majors. The diversification trends of the business world wouldn't be a boon to Columbia. The studio would fall prey to the trend, ending up in the hands of Coca-Cola, who sought to diversify its businesses. The sugary drink company wanted to place its products in the studio's movies and forced it to sign deals with talent who had endorsement deals with them like Bill Cosby. The result were films like Leonard, Part 6 and Ishtar. Weakened by the ill-conceived merger, Coca-Cola sold the studio to Sony, who began a checkered run at combining technology and content. While the result has been arguably spotty, the partnership is still active.


Metro Goldwyn Mayer had always been a major studio from the very beginning. The domain of Samuel Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer was an example of how a studio should be. The collapse of the studio system hobbled it, however, resulting in its sad demise at the hands of ruthless corporate invader Kirk Kerkorian. Mr. Kerkorian took over the storied company, selling its parts off in order to raise money to build lavish MGM Branded casinos in Nevada. The studio has never recovered and combined with similarly down on its luck studio United Artists, another major studio done in by its association with a company looking for quick cash. They both still live on, stripped of their film catalogs and producing lower budgeted films.


Of the major studios, perhaps the one with the least upheaval was Paramount Pictures. It did have its occasional ups and downs, but it has never really been in a period where its future has been in doubt. It is currently the most profitable part of the Viacom media empire.


The only major studio from Hollywood's golden era to completely go under was RKO. Taken over by the eccentric Howard Hughes in 1948, the studio entered a rapid decline. In 1955, the studio was sold to General Tire and Rubber Company, who sought to revive it while diversifying itself. They failed and RKO effectively went out of business in 1960.


We've gone into the shaky history of Universal Pictures before. Needless to say, despite its past, it has always retained its place in the majors.


Warner Brothers has also had a shaky history, finding itself part of Seven-Arts, a parking lot company and eventually had an ill-advised merger with a dialup Internet company. The company is now one of the biggest of the media giants.


So who have we missed? Those were all of the major studios in Hollywood's golden age. One of today's biggest studios was not on Poverty Row, but it wasn't considered a major studio in the 1930's and 40's. Walt Disney Productions was considered to be a minor player with gimmicky, animated films. While its feature animated films and Burbank studio campus brought it more prestige, it wasn't until the opening of DISNEYLAND Park that the company became big and profitable enough to be considered one of the majors, a status it currently fully enjoys.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Legends Week: Eddie Mannix, MGM's Cleaner

Back in the days of the Studio System, the stars were employees of the studios rather than the contractors they are today. Since a star would be tied to a studio for at least seven years, it was in the studio's interest to divert attention from scandals and sweep controversy under the rug. The studios relied on "cleaners" to make problems go away. And MGM relied on Eddie Mannix.

Eddie Mannix

Mannix was seen as being so powerful that his MGM security department often told the Culver City Police Department what to do, controlling investigations and access to stars and witnesses. As a matter of fact, whenever an MGM star found himself in trouble, he'd call Eddie Mannix, not the police. When  director Paul Bern was discovered shot to death, possibly a suicide, Bern's butler called the MGM security department, not the police. Eddie Mannix, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg arrived, hours before the police and allegedly staged the scene that the police would later encounter. An apparent suicide note that seemed to blame Bern's wife, MGM star Jean Harlow for the suicide was quickly snagged by Louis B. Mayer. He didn't want the scandal to taint one of his biggest stars. The real authorities accepted the death as a suicide, mostly. At some point, it became obvious that the suicide theory might not be fully accepted and the thought of a murder investigation sounded much worse than the hit Ms. Harlow might take for causing a suicide. Mr. Mayer produced the suicide note to the police and incredibly was not arrested for impeding an investigation. The case was officially closed as a suicide. The behind the scenes whispers would inspire numerous conspiracy theories over the years, some even putting the murder weapon in Ms. Harlow's hand. It most likely was just a suicide, however.

Paul Bern

Eddie Mannix was good- real good- at covering up various scandals.We'll probably never fully know the extent of the possible landmines he dealt with; the ones we do know about were typically uncovered years later in memoirs and autobiographies. Mickey Rooney recounted a run-in with Mr. Mannix; angry at Rooney's carousing, Louis B. Mayer sent Eddie to set Mickey Rooney straight. Apparently lifting the lilliputian Rooney up by his collar and shoving him against the wall was enough to scare Mickey into at least being more careful about his wild antics. Perhaps Mannix's most legendary operation was eliminating all copies of an allegedly pornographic film that starred Joan Crawford in her pre-fame days. Entitled Velvet Lips, the film no longer exists in any form due to Mannix. At least, that's what the legend says.

Joan Crawford

The fall of the Studio System made every star a free agent. No longer forced to work as an employee of the studio, stars could pick and choose their roles. The studios no longer had any incentive to hide the scandals or controversies. If the star proved too volatile or problematic, they just wouldn't hire them again for future projects. The 24/7 news cycle may have played a part in demystifying stars, but the absence of the old style studio security departments probably played a bigger one.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Legends Week: Gene Tierney's Sad Night at the Canteen

Earlier this week, we highlighted the happy times at the famed Hollywood Canteen. Bette Davis and her Hollywood friends were creating wonderful memories nightly. However, not everyone who walked out of the the Canteen had a happy memory of their time there. Gene Tierney's experience in the Canteen was sadly tragic.

The beautiful Ms. Tierney was born into a blue blooded east coast family that looked down its nose at the acting profession. Acting was something that itinerant lower classes did. When her family visited a Hollywood Studio on vacation, a studio executive instantly offered Ms. Tierney a contract, but her parents refused to allow it. They wanted her to return to the east coast, become a debutante as befitting their wealth and get married. Her father convinced her to try out the debutante circuit and only consider returning to Hollywood if she didn't like it. She didn't like it and he grudgingly agreed to let her try out this acting thing. She returned to Hollywood and soon found herself swept off her feet by struggling fashion designer Oleg Cassini. Her parents forbade her from marrying him, but she defied them yet again. They eloped against her parents' wishes.

Ms. Tierney soon found herself pregnant, but she chose to keep it quiet at first. Studio policy was to suspend a pregnant woman's contract, leaving her without a paycheck until she gave birth and returned to her pre-pregnancy weight. Mr. Cassini's career had not taken off yet and they couldn't afford to go long without Gene's paycheck. Gene planned to work as long as she could until it was impossible to hide her pregnancy.

One fateful night, Gene decided to visit the Hollywood Canteen to meet and greet the soldiers. The night was uneventful, though Gene would take ill not long afterwards. She was diagnosed with the measles, possibly contracted at the Canteen. Her doctors advised her not to worry about her pregnancy and the effect the measles might have on it. Her daughter was born and began having issues. They soon realized that the measles Gene had contracted would cause lifelong health problems for her daughter. Gene was devasted.

Years later, at a meet and greet, a young woman approached Gene. Did Gene recognize her, she queried. Gene admitted that she did not and the young woman mentioned having met her years earlier at the Hollywood Canteen. She said that she was such a big fan of Gene's that she went out to see her that night despite having the measles. Gene chose not to confront the woman whose selfish decision had caused so much grief. She merely just retreated from the situation. It is not known whether the woman ever realized what she had done.

Famed British author Agatha Christie wrote a fictionalized version of the encounter in her book The Mirror Crack'd. It would be one of the rare times when a real life event was used as the inspiration for one of Ms. Christie's mystery books. In the 1980 film The Mirror Crack'd starring Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor played the fictional actress who is confronted by the selfish fan who would end up dead. Did the grieving mother commit a murder? Angela Lansbury's Miss Marple spends the film trying to find out. This film would inspire CBS to cast Angela in Murder, She Wrote.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Legends Week: Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Knock-Off

Bela Lugosi was already a legend in the late 1940's. Having starred as Dracula in the legendary Universal film of the same name, he had made a name for himself as a creepy, menacing monster. Unfortunately for Lugosi, his career fell victim to a checklist of Hollywood issues- he was typecast; the serials he had been making were all but dead due to the rise of television and he had become addicted to morphine. By the 1950's, he was taking any work he could get.


Meanwhile, the world (and especially France) had taken notice of a new comedy duo consisting of a straight man who would become a heartthrob and a crazy goofball who would literally do anything for a laugh- Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Their success would spark a cavalcade of similar and copy cat acts flooding out to the various nightclubs. One of the better acts featured a Jerry Lewis lookalike named Sammy Petrillo and a passable Dean Martin knock-off named Duke Mitchell. Sammy's resemblance to Jerry Lewis was uncanny and caught the attention of Martin and Lewis' representatives. They did all they could to prevent Duke and Sammy from booking work at night clubs around the country. Desperate, they found their way to the one town that probably wouldn't care about unoriginality- Hollywood.


Hollywood's studio system ensured that the stars only worked at one place for years. This caused them to often go after similar stars who openly copied the original stars' schtick. The original star's complaints would go unheeded. After all, if they were locked up at MGM, why would Universal care what they thought? Mitchell and Petrillo were chased out of night clubs because Martin and Lewis' agents vowed that they would never perform anywhere that the faux duo had performed. While the bigger studios were uninterested in signing them, they found a more receptive audience at Poverty Row. After Universal Studios had found great success placing its legendary monsters into comedy films, Poverty Row was eager to try the formula themselves. Jack Broder Productions was a small independent studio just a few steps above Ed Wood with no chance of ever signing the likes of Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis. They couldn't be easily threatened, so they signed the bargain basement Martin and Lewis, who were eager for their big break, pairing them with Bela Lugosi, who was really just looking for a paycheck.


The mere slip of a film featured Bela Lugosi playing a mysterious mad scientist who turns dreamy Duke Mitchell into the fakest gorilla you've ever seen in the fakest jungle ever shown on film. The producers obviously hoped that viewers would mistake Sammy Petrillo for Jerry Lewis. (It was the strange time period when Lewis was considered a draw.) The film took barely over a week to film and cost just $50,000 to make. It was a modest hit, but it didn't have the effect that either Lugosi nor the guys had hoped for. Bela would go on to star in films for Ed Wood, while Duke and Sammy went back to their old gigs, performing in any club that would have them. Breaking up and reuniting more times than the real thing, the act would eventually end in 1981 after Duke Mitchell's death. Sammy Petrillo would occasionally come out of hiding, typically due to renewed interest in his faux Lewis act. He would never really forgive Jerry Lewis for hassling him all of those years, rejecting requests to make appearances on talk shows with him. He passed away in 2009, oddly the one person who would prove to harbor a grudge longer than Jerry Lewis.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Legends Week: Mae West is Box Office Poison?

In 1938, it seemed like there was trouble in Tinseltown. The biggest film of the previous year was Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an unexpected slap in the face to the big studios. At the time, Walt Disney Productions was seen as a novelty studio; not quite as low as poverty row, but not really in the big leagues either. That it could produce a mere cartoon that outdrew live action stars was an insult. In response, the majors decreed that 1938 would be The Greatest Year in Motion Picture History. Unfortunately, there was nothing truly special about the lineup that year; it was mostly just a promotional gimmick. That's why Harry Brandt, on behalf of the Independent Theater Owners, decided to challenge the studios.


In The Independent Film Journal, Brandt declared that the dismal ticket sales were the fault of overpaid stars who weren't pulling their own weight. He declared a long list of Hollywood luminaries to be "Box Office Poison," including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn and even Mae West.


Ms. West was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time. In fact, at one point she was the highest paid person in the entire United States. The restrictive Hayes Code, however, was increasingly hobbling her career. Ms. West loved spouting double entendres and smutty sounding dialogue in her films. Her fans loved it too, but the Hayes Office consistently tried to reign in Ms. West, cramping her style and affecting her box office grosses. When Brandt chose to attack her, it was highly inflammatory. What right did he have to say whether she was worth her pay? He wasn't a shareholder at Paramount, which was paying Mae at the time. The Great Depression was affecting the entire economy, not just films and certainly not just Mae West.

What was Mae's response to getting publicly called out? It was, as with most everything Mae said, wickedly clever. "Why, the independent theatre owners call me the mortgage lifter," she claimed, "When business is bad, they just re-show one of my pictures. Besides, the entire industry has dropped thirty percent. The only picture to make real money was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Mr. Disney would have made twice as much if he'd had me play Snow White."

Mr. Brandt's ominous predictions proved to be premature. Hollywood didn't change a thing and yet it had a record year in 1939. In fact, movie historians have often called 1939 Hollywood's greatest year. Mae would get one of her biggest ever hits in 1940- My Little Chickadee. The Hayes Code, however, would finally stifle Mae's output. She would effectively retire from the pictures for almost thirty years.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Legends Week: Bette Davis and the Hollywood Canteen

When World War II broke out, Hollywood was eager to help in any way it could. One of the most eager actresses was Bette Davis. Despite having a reputation for being difficult, Ms. Davis had a heart of gold when it came to honoring servicemen and women. She joined forces with character actor John Garfield to open up a unique venue- the Hollywood Canteen.


The Hollywood Canteen was a night club that offered free entry, free food, free drinks and free entertainment to any and all servicemen. Any and all soldiers, passing through Los Angeles on the way to fighting the war, could enjoy a marvelous evening that many of them would never forget. The club was fully staffed by volunteers from throughout Hollywood. Disney animators decorated the walls, Hollywood starlets danced with servicemen, world famous singers entertained. Soldiers could rub elbows with the likes of Donna Reed, Doris Day, Peggy Lee and Lena Horne.


It may sound too good to be true, but it was genuine. Actors and actresses gave their time, talent and cash to send America's heroes off to fight the war in style. The best part of it all was how progressive things were at the canteen- all at Bette Davis' request. The Hollywood Canteen would be fully integrated. Bette didn't care what race a soldier was; that he was fighting for his country is all that mattered. She decreed that there would be no segregation in her club, no 'colored' entrance, no separation. She encouraged the Hollywood starlets who volunteered to dance with the troops to entertain all races equally. This was revolutionary thinking at the time, even in Hollywood. Bette Davis was a trailblazer.


The openness and inviting atmosphere attracted a who's who of Hollywood legends including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bob Hope, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, Dorothy Dandridge and so many more. Oddly enough, future President Ronald Reagan, though active in Hollywood at the time, was not recorded as having helped out at the canteen. Noted progressive Gregory Peck, on the other hand, was a huge supporter of the Hollywood Canteen.


Millions of servicemen passed through the canteen during the war, getting memories that would last them a lifetime. Sadly, some of them didn't return alive, but Bette Davis and a cavalcade of Hollywood legends made sure that their last days in the country they fought for were amazing. This unique club was immortalized in the Warner Brothers film Hollywood Canteen, though the amazing enterprise is seemingly a forgotten part of Hollywood history.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hollywood's Poverty Row

"Poverty Row" sounds like a slum, possibly filled with people whose Hollywood dreams had long since dimmed. In actuality, "Poverty Row" wasn't really a place but more a state of mind. The term Poverty Row in the golden age of Hollywood referred to the small, also-ran studios whose product would most often be considered C-List material. While many of the smaller studios were centered around Gower Street in the eastern most outskirts of Hollywood, the term was used to refer to any bottom rung studio, such as PRC, Monogram or Republic Pictures.


If one pictures the major studios as clothing manufacturers, producing top quality clothing for sale, the studios on Poverty Row were like scavengers, grabbing the cloth and materials cut away from the top quality stuff and trying to make something of it. They had a symbiotic relationship with the major studios who often needed cheap C-List product to fill out a program. If a studio wanted an actor to get more experience, they might loan them to a Poverty Row studio. Some of the studios on Poverty Row would even take advantage of sets and set dressings that were originally designed for bigger budget pictures. If MGM had a set that was no longer needed but hadn't been struck yet, they might notify PRC who could use the set for whatever they had going at the time.


A studio on Poverty Row would, therefore, try to stay in the good graces of the bigger studios. It was rough going for a Poverty Row studio that got on the bad side of one of Tinseltown's moguls. They could lose access to budget studio time, talent and the larger theater circuits. For the most part, the more successful Poverty Row studios knew their place and never tried to be more than they were. 


Most of the films produced by these studios therefore, were ambition-less duds that often took advantage of Hayes Code loopholes to depict "depravity" and "delinquency". After all, if the moral of the movie was that young people shouldn't commit crimes or engage in lewd displays of depravity, wouldn't the film have to depict those scenes of licentiousness? Not if you were making a film for Louis B. Mayer at MGM. If the movie was at PRC, however, you could do just that. Since the depraved acts were punished in the end, the Hayes Code was typically cool with it- up to a point. This enabled the creation of many a future MST3K feature.

"I accused my parents and I killed them. Who's laughing noooooooooow?"

Ironically, the fall of the studio system spelled the end of Poverty Row. Without double or triple bills, their product was no longer easy to book into theaters. Even worse, filmmaking at the majors became less of an assembly line, meaning that spare studio time and resources were no longer available for scavenging. This did spawn a more vibrant "independent" film ecosystem, though in many instances independent films just became more pretentious but not necessarily better.