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Top 10 Posts
Note: Because Decaying Hollywood Mansions has posted thousands upon thousands of photographs & links since I launched the page in the summer of 2010, I thought it would be easier to list the types of things that stir my fascination instead of trying to find ten single posts in that glittery, admittedly unkempt, haystack.
|Movie Weekly featuring Mae Murray, 1922|
|Ziegfeld Girls by Alfred Cheney Johnston|
|Gilda Gray for The Devil Dancer, 1927. Photograph by Irving Chidnoff.|
1. Apotheosis/Glamour as Religious Icon
Cinema became glamorous on the heels of the Symbolist Art movement in Europe as advanced by Poe, Baudelaire, Felicien Rops, Gustave Moreau, etc., and once film escalated beyond getting characters from Point A to Point B and simply capturing the daily activities of human beings, the next stop was Symbolism, Decadence and Surrealism, three art movements so inextricably linked that it's often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Stills from films made during the teens and 20s of the last century -- and so many are lost now -- seem as concerned with apotheosis, with rendering their players as divine, as with publicity. Often the photographs of the great portrait artists of early cinema -- Max Munn Autrey, George Hurrell, Alfred Chaney Johnston, Irving Chidnoff, and others -- resemble religious icons more than marketing tools for mass entertainment, and present glamour as a spiritual state. While the forces of Social Realism/Naturalism and Artifice still battle it out in movies, there was a glorious time when artifice, myth & symbolism held sway in Hollywood, and the photographs that seem otherworldly and designed for worship rather than identification & empathy are DHM favorites.
2. James Dean in a Coffin, Dennis Stock 1955
I am, at heart, a morbid person. I'm drawn to bloody crime scenes, autopsies, kink, the purple prose of suicide notes, bridge-jumpers, the tangled steel of automobile accidents, impossibly beautiful people who have aged into monsters, open-casket funerals, mourning dress, funereal purple curtains, black crepe & the rumors of snuff films made by crazy, perverted Hollywood dandies. DHM has often run into problems when I'm in a less dark frame of mind & go several days without posting some grisly totem of Hollywood's underbelly. While I'm posting Disney cartoons or pictures of Hayley Mills eating pie, DHM gets another thousand followers who are absolutely sickened when I revert to my natural state and start posting pictures of cop killers beaten bloody by the LAPD, starlets decomposing on a coroner's metal table or the photographs above, taken jauntily enough by famed LIFE photographer Dennis Stock and a jocular James Dean while visiting a funeral parlor in Dean's adopted hometown of Fairmount, Indiana in 1955, seven months before the star was killed in a collision while driving his Porsche Spyder to Salinas, California for a race. The day I posted ten photographs from this shoot, I lost one hundred followers & gained three hundred, so eventually DHM will be made up entirely of people you wouldn't want consoling you after a bad break-up or a death in the family.
My favorite thing about Hollywood is the way it has mingled, sometimes quite uncomfortably, with the more "serious" worlds of art, literature and music -- Salvador Dali designing the dream sequence in Spellbound, William Faulkner assisting on the screenplay for Gunga Din (among many, but this seems strangest somehow), Arnold Schoenberg partying with Werner Klemperer & composing his Chamber Symphony No. 2 while watching Hopalong Cassidy at his Brentwood Park home, giant of philosophy Theodor Adorno puzzling over the popularity of newspaper astrology in Los Angeles and finally penning the great essay Stars Down to Earth to get to the root of it, and too many other "only in Hollywood" mash-ups to list here. It's right out of Evelyn Waugh's splendid Hollywood Gothic, The Loved One, and its equally biting and hilarious 1965 film version by Tony Richardson, Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. Above we see the Marx Brothers' biggest fan, Salvador Dali, sketching Harpo Marx in 1937. That same year, Dali wrote a screenplay/treatment for a Marx Brothers film. Titled Giraffes on Horseback Salads, it was never produced, probably to keep my poor young head from exploding in the late-20th Century. The bottom photograph is a real treasure, Surrealists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp sitting beneath a Parisian street sign on a Hollywood backlot in 1949. While the horrors of World War II left the human psyche and most of Europe in ruins, the resulting influx of Old World geniuses gave Hollywood a rarefied patina. Strange how tragedy seems to add to the lustre of this magical kingdom, while the rest of the world reels from it.
4. Glamour Apes & Monkey Funerals
My personal obsession with anthropomorphism, especially rabbits and foxes in Edwardian waistcoats and the elegant zoological garden chimp "consuls" nibbling cucumber sandwiches and sipping Earl Grey tea in postcards from the turn of the last century, often overflows into DHM. The page never met an animal/movie star combination it didn't love. Movie royalty boxing stuffed bears, luxuriating on tiger rugs, walking leopards in Echo Park, cuddling ocelots on a plush divan, cavorting with live bunnies for Easter, kissing canaries, and swimming with pet lions in terracotta Beverly Hills pools -- these will always have priority on the page. In related news, DHM never fails to swoon over a guy in a gorilla suit.
|Inside the 20th Century Fox Snow Globe -- Director Norman Taurog on the set of You Can't Have Everything (1937)|
|Rock Hudson towers over the miniature sets for Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955)|
Whether it be the impossibly fluffy painted-cornflake snow of post-Weimar Bavaria in Frank Borzage's This Mortal Storm or the sleepy sirocco breezes swaying the palm trees and ruffling Yvonne De Carlo's crow-black hair on a backlot desert oasis in 1951's Hotel Sahara, DHM worships at the altar of artifice. Rear-projections, painted mattes of faraway landscapes, detailed miniatures of fairy-tale Budapest and Venice, and elaborate dance routines that begin on some little Broadway stage and flower into kaleidoscopic patterns larger than the theater, the block, the city itself, are no laughing matter at Decaying Hollywood Mansions. Save your ridicule for trying to find a pixel out of place in the newest James Cameron 3-D video game.
Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. & the works of novelist/screenwriter Henry Farrell are First Principles at DHM. Farrell, who wrote the novels, stories, and/or screenplays for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, How Awful About Allan, and What's the Matter with Helen? kick-started a cottage industry of lurid Grand Guignol books and movies in the 60s. Abetted by restless filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, Curtis Harrington, and William Castle, films directly based on Farrell's work or cleverly aping them -- Castle's Strait-Jacket, Seth Holt's The Nanny, Harrington's films of Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, How Awful About Allan, Games, and The Killing Kind, as well as lesser entries Dear Dead Delilah, You'll Like My Mother, and Picture Mommy Dead -- served as a contrapuntal Gothic dirge to the psychedelic carnival of counter-culture Hollywood product like Roger Corman's Wild Angels and The Trip. These nasty, overheated, and wickedly funny Gothic passion plays revived the careers of Golden Age movie beauties such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Agnes Moorehead, Olivia de Havilland, Ruth Roman, Simone Signoret, Ruth Gordon, Ann Sothern, and Shelley Winters. Though it normally transformed them into shrieking harpies and brooding gargoyles in the process, the actresses all turned in lively, committed performances that rank in the upper echelons of screen villainy.
Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond's monkey funeral in Sunset Blvd., an aged Bette Davis/Jane Hudson in kabuki make-up and pigtails cawing "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" to a blithely sardonic Victor Buono, and Agnes Moorehead doing her best Aimee Semple McPherson and unwittingly transforming pathetic convert Shelley Winters into a murderous zealot in What's the Matter with Helen? -- These provide something of a blueprint for Decaying Hollywood Mansions.
7. Orientalism, Exotica & Decadence
While the rest of the nation scurried after a number of trends in architecture, fashion, furniture design and home decor after the 1920s, I think we still imagine at least a few stars living like either Ottoman pashas or variations on Huysman's delirious aesthete Des Esseintes up until, well, today at noon. DHM is certain of it and won't let the sight of a few celebrities relaxing in mid-century Richard Neutra homes shake its beliefs. Somewhere in the Hollywood Hills there is a great, perhaps forgotten, star donning a jade-green turban and shuffling through his or her cavernous upscale opium den at midnight, its rooms stuffed with brocade throw-pillows, dressing screens decorated with lithesome nudes mid-orgy, and brass censers emitting lazy serpents of jasmine smoke into the mouldering elegance of a Left Coast House of Usher.
Up top, we have light-skinned, mixed-race Missourian John Roland Redd, who found a place in LA's bizarre twilight world first as Juan Rolando, then as child of a French opera singer and an Indian Brahmin priest, Korla Pandit. He played creepy, exotica-tinged organ melodies for radio programs and finally on his own television program in the late-40s and early-50s. He also released dozens of remarkable records, all mandatory wee-hour listening for freaks and eccentrics worldwide.
In the middle are three magnificent stills from films of the 1930s, when Hollywood just couldn't get enough of Sax Rohmer's sinister, mostly racist, take on oriental inscrutability. In the first, Myrna Loy slinks like sentient silk through luxurious rooms filled with pagan idols, fun-house mirrors, and instruments of torture in Charles Brabin's masterpiece, The Mask of Fu Manchu. The next photo features square-jawed hero Neil Hamilton, the great comic actor Jean Arthur just beginning her career, and one of Fu Manchu's vicious henchmen in The Mysterious Fu Manchu (1929). Then we see DHM favorite Anna May Wong and George Raft (in unlikely Chinese drag) plot among the tony oriental bric-a-bric in the gorgeously mounted Limehouse Nights from 1934. Lastly, we veer into European decadence for this blind-folded orgy orchestra in Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow from 1925.
|Aimee Semple McPherson captivates at Angelus Temple, 1930s|
|Warren William impresses the chorus girls for The Mind Reader, 1933|
|Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott in Supernatural, 1933|
|Edna Tichenor and John Gilbert in Tod Browning's The Show, 1927|
|Alfred Eisenstaedt -- People outside of fortune-teller Madame Wanda's Office, Hollywood 1936 (Courtesy of LIFE Magazine)|
8. Bunkum, Hokum & Hoodoo
Certain literature would have you believe Hollywood was founded by hucksters, confidence men, and carnies with ambition. Other literature would have you believe ALL OF THE UNITED STATES was founded by the same folks and that Hollywood just makes a convenient microcosm. However you choose to see it, there's no better place for a carny or a confidence man to make good than in a place entirely devoted to illusion. Tod Browning -- very close to being my favorite filmmaker -- specialized in the depiction of corrupt fortune-tellers, larcenous magicians, and ne'er-do-well carnival workers, all using their gift with illusions to bilk the public, usually putting into motion plots so byzantine you can't believe they wouldn't be better off buying a pawnshop gun and rob a filling station. Of course his fascinations reached their eye-boggling apex with 1932s classic, Freaks, but his lesser-known films The Mystic, The Show, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown are cat-nip to Decaying Hollywood Mansions.
Our favorite genre of film involves fake mystics, crooked cult-leaders, mad zealots and the hard-nosed, cynical bunco cops who go after them. We always have time and room for posts about Carole Lombard in Supernatural (1933), Turhan Bey in The Amazing Mr. X, Dante the Magician as himself in Bunco Squad (1950), Paul Wegener as Aleister Crowley in The Magician (1926), Conrad Veidt as a cult-leader scaring the pants off Red Skelton in Whistling in the Dark (1941), Barbara Stanwyck with one foot in carnival sawdust and the other in heaven for Frank Capra's The Miracle Woman (1931), Warren William as a bogus psychic trying to go straight for love in The Mind Reader (1933), and the seedy web of corruption, greed, lust and creaky carnival hokum that is Edmund Goulding's classic, Nightmare Alley (1947). Once on that path it's difficult not to take detours into the lives of Hollywood's real-life occultists, quacks, seers and shady evangelists, from Sister Aimee Semple McPherson to Synanon, the "I AM" Activity to the Manson Family, fortune-teller and earthquake prophet Gin Chow to Father Yod's The Source.
|Theodore Kosloff as Electricity in Madam Satan, 1930|
|Kay Johnson in her Madam Satan get-up, 1930|
9. Madam Satan (Cecil B. DeMille, 1930)
Once you begin delving into film oddities from the late-1920s and early-1930s (our favorite period), you'll find the well nearly bottomless. Unless you simply demand verisimilitude from the movies you watch, I guarantee that after three or four, you'll be hooked by their sophistication, their often intense eroticism, their daft whiplash changes in tone and cock-eyed narrative reversals, and utterly breathtaking visuals. Not that there aren't hundreds of creaky, dull, stage-bound productions from this period, but spend a little time with DHM and you'll discover the wild and fantastical gems as I do. A perfect gateway drug to your new full-blown addiction is DeMille's Madam Satan. From the moment drunken pals Reginald Denny and Roland Young stumble back to Denny's mansion in dusty top hats and rumpled tails and begin undressing one another in the shower, we're in a world addled by Free Money, constant leisure, and a surfeit of reflective surfaces. Denny's long-suffering wife (Kay Johnson) tucks the two men into bed together and the farce is afoot. This is a comedy of misunderstandings and mistaken identity in which all parties know exactly what's up but seem to play along out of sheer boredom, or a childish need for non-stop giddiness. By the time we're immersed in the film's dazzling centerpiece, a crazed costume ball aboard a moored dirigible with guests decked out in blinding silver costumes straight out of the German Bauhaus school (by way of the Ballets Russes), we're witness to a thoroughly besotted Modernist bacchanal. It's all somewhat desperate and mirthless at the core, but somehow all this chromium blood pumping from a dead heart makes the movie even more fascinating. After only three years of mass-distributed talkies, audiences were already tired of musicals and Madam Satan was a flop, but with the songs merely a series of unmemorable trifles and the dance routines well-populated but crudely synchronized, it's difficult to imagine this being a hit even in a kinder era. It's a curio from a time when the curios were far more fascinating than the cool, calculated hits. If this puts you in the mood, check out 1930's Bright Lights, 1931's Safe in Hell, and 1933's Footlight Parade. If you still find your daily requirement of giddiness unsated, join us on the Decaying Hollywood Mansions Facebook page!
|Lost Vitaphone 2-reeler Murder in Your Eyes, 1934|
10. The Lost
Of course, the only thing more filled with possibility than the future, is a past that is lost to us, and mooning over lost films is our favorite pastime at DHM. For instance, the publicity still above is for a Vitaphone short called Murder in Your Eyes from 1934, purported to be about the goings on in an all-female detective agency. After staring at this evocative picture for an hour, you start to fill in the incredible story yourself, but what could possibly lead these gals to perform a dance routine atop a Colt .38 revolver? Did they need to save their detective school from bankruptcy? Did the other girls put on a show to raise money so fellow-student Inez Courtney (above, with her man) could pretend to be a debutante and catch the attentions of the handsome millionaire she met in a taxi? It is presumed that 90% of films made before 1929 are lost to us, but DHM attempts to keep them alive by posting all the ephemera (posters, stills, pressbooks, newspaper ads) I'm able to excavate.
What inspired you to create this Facebook blog?
I lost two major influences in my life in the course of a year, an amazing film professor at the University of Nebraska named June Levine and a drop-dead hilarious pal named Dave Meile who gave me a whirlwind crash-course in "psychotronic" films while I was attending college in the mid-1980s. Although they would probably get excited over only about 10% of what I post, I began the page as a way to show how much their knowledge and enthusiasm had meant to me. It wasn't long before the page became a catch-all for all my film-related fetishes -- Hollywood Gothic, experimental film, Kenneth Anger, Horace McCoy, Surrealism, John Gilmore, John Rechy, European expatriates in Tinseltown, and so on. Though hundreds of people come to the page weekly hoping for pictures of actual decaying Hollywood mansions, that name was always a metaphor to me, a place to play old jazz records, post bizarre show-biz photographs, revel in Art Deco, share Hollywood horror stories both real and imagined, and yes, post the occasional architectural ruins. I'd say about ten out of every one hundred followers leave the page when they find out it won't be all about mansions, others complain about it initially and then stay on because one photo or another caught their eye, and the rest assume it's a metaphor from the get-go and settle in for the long-haul. The page can definitely look like one thing on any given day and turn completely into something else the next. The virtual friends who look forward to these changes in tone and subject matter are my favorites and they also tend to be the most knowledgeable, the ones who correct my mistakes politely, generously supply me with maps for further digressions, and keep me abreast of news related to classic Hollywood. When I started the page there were maybe two other pages devoted to "vintage" Hollywood and, as far as I can make out, mine was the only one with this Hollywood Gothic vibe. Now there are hundreds of pages like mine, many of them more focused and reasonable in their scope, and less stubbornly personal. They actually post things people want to see, whereas I mainly post what I want to see. I think I've only posted in response to a reader's request two or three times in three years. The page was never meant to be for 78,000 strangers. It was meant to be for 20 or so close friends. I've always posted to please myself and my actual buddies, but it's wonderful that so many others have found something to love in all these tangents.
What is your favorite film?
I watch about 30 films a week. You'll think I'm lying, but it's true. And it's never really occurred to me that such a habit could make me sound insane. When you watch that many movies, questions like this become impossible to answer. As many of the page's readers know, I love to drink too much bourbon and go on a posting spree. Drunk, my favorite movies are Who Killed Teddy Bear? starring Sal Mineo, William Dieterle's The Last Flight (1931), the batshit crazy Al Jolson musical Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933), Joseph Losey's The Prowler (1951), Harry Essex's Spillane adaptation I, the Jury (1953), or Olsen and Johnson's delirious Helzapoppin' (1941). In a more sober frame of mind, I'd go with almost anything by Powell and Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, Tales of Hoffman), Julien Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan (1942), an early Godard film, or Macao, l'enfer du jeu (1939), starring Erich von Stroheim. Above all others though, drunk or sober, would be The Loved One (Tony Richardson, 1965), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962), Robert Rossen's Lilith (1964) and The Hustler (1961) and pretty much anything by Ernst Lubitsch, Mitchell Leisen, Douglas Sirk, Guy Maddin, Sam Fuller, or Frank Perry. In other words, I'm a creature completely at the mercy of his moodswings.
Who are your king and queen of Hollywood?
I don't want to be quite as equivocal here as I was with the last question, so I'll just crown Myrna Loy and Anna May Wong co-queens and Randolph Scott and Walter Huston will have to share a throne as kings.
If you could live in Hollywood at any given time when would it be and what would you be doing?
It's 1932. I'd live in the Villa Elaine on 1245 Vine Street in Apartment 10, and I would be assistant to Warner Brothers Art Director Anton Grot and moonlight for Mitchell Leisen at Paramount. I'd forever be working on screenplay adaptations of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood and Jean Rhys' Good Morning, Midnight and begging Myrna Loy to sign on to the projects. Gradually I become so single-minded that no one will speak to me, so I sink into drunken despond and haunt the bar at Boardner's until the early 1970s, when I disappear completely, leaving my collection of Warner Brothers pay stubs to my newspaper boy.