A chance encounter with big shot director Cecil B. DeMille gave photographer William Mortensen his first job in Hollywood. It was the kind of lucky break that would look hokey as a plot device in a B-movie. Mortensen was working as a gardener but was soon on the set of DeMille’s King of Kings (1927), then designing voodoo masks for Lon Chaney’s movie West of Zanzibar, and then ending-up taking publicity shots and portraits of stars like Marlene Dietrich, Rudolph Valentino, and the original “It girl” Clara Bow.
Before Hollywood, Mortensen had spent his time traveling around Europe in the early 1920s soaking up all that fancy art and culture. He got hep to all the Old Masters like Goya and Rembrandt. This together with his experience of working on films made Mortensen approach photography in a wholly original way.
It was a similar kind of thing that had once happened to writer James Joyce, who had opened the first cinema in Dublin in 1908. Joyce realized traditional story-telling could not compete with movies. Why write a page describing the looks of some lantern-jawed hero when a movie could transmit such information in an instant? Movies taught Joyce to rethink literature—and so he wrote Ulysses.
Mortensen made photographs that mixed painting, drawing, theater, and movies. He manipulated the image to create something more than just a straight photographic representation. His approach was anathema to the more traditionalist photographers like Ansell Adams, who called Mortensen the “anti-Christ” for what he did to photography.
Mortensen produced beautiful, strange, often dark and Gothic, sometimes brutal, though usually erotically charged pictures. While other photographers sought realism, Mortensen used props and gowns and his own vivid imagination to enhance each picture. He went on to have some success but fell out of step with the rise of photojournalism that came out of the Second World War and was (sadly) largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1965. In more recent years, Mortensen has been rightly praised for his photographic genius. What I am intrigued by in Mortensen’s work, is his design and use of masks (including one of “scream queen” Fay Wray) in his photographic work—from which a small selection of which can be seen below.
Twelve years ago I found myself at Cinefile Video in West Los Angeles when I happened to notice a movie poster on the wall for the 1967 film, The President’s Analyst. The duotone pink and green poster depicted James Coburn wearing a `60s mod wig and sunglasses holding two gong mallets in his hand with the tagline, “Is your football helmet crushing the flowers in your hair?” What the hell kind of movie is this? I had recently developed a fascination with James Coburn after discovering the sixties spy-spoof films Our Man Flint, and the sequel, In Like Flint. Perhaps it was due to exposure to late `90s pop culture references like the Beastie Boys album Hello Nasty or the movie Austin Powers (both of which named dropped the character Derek Flint) that Coburn had been embedded into my subconscious at that time.
I went home that night and watched The President’s Analyst. It was absolutely fantastic in the way it ridiculed virtually every important `60s institution—establishment and anti-establishment alike. But unlike most 1960s-era political satires and comedies, it was surprisingly fresh, relevant, and still laugh-out-loud funny in the present age. A man I had never heard of named Theodore J. Flicker was credited as the film’s writer and director. After repeated viewings I began to wonder: who is Theodore J. Flicker? How come nobody’s ever heard of him? How is it possible for someone to make a film this good and then vanish completely from sight? The lack of information available on the internet only fueled my interest, but I eventually learned that Mr. Flicker had been blacklisted from Hollywood. But why, how could that happen? I would end up going to great lengths to answer these questions, including a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico to find Flicker, who spent the last twenty years of his life as a sculptor.
Ted Flicker in Santa Fe, Sept 2013. Photo by Doug Jones
After failing to open a theater of his own in New York City, Theodore J. Flicker headed to Chicago in 1954 to check out the improvisational Compass Theatre by recommendation of his college friend Severn Darden. According to Flicker, the Compass was in terrible shape when he entered: the players were unprofessional, wore street clothes, had a lack of respect amongst their fellow performers, and were basically “all over the place.” However, Flicker saw potential in the company and in 1957 he launched his own wing of The Compass Players at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis. Mike Nichols and Elaine May arrived in St. Louis, and Flicker auditioned Del Close who had come highly recommended by Darden despite the fact that he had no previous improv experience. Ted hired Del on the spot after seeing him perform a fire-breathing act from the work of Flaminio Scala. They all felt that the “meandering” Chicago style of improv did not sustain the audience’s attention for an entire show. Realizing that new techniques were needed if improvisation were to transform from an acting exercise into an art form, Flicker began developing a new technique which he referred to as “louder, faster, funnier”… the audiences responded. His goal was to re-create the Chicago Compass without any of the people involved and without the experience of Viola Spolin’s teachings, Flicker wanted to invent his own way. Every morning after a show, he would sit down with Elaine May and examine what went wrong the previous night and then determine how it could be corrected. Through these sessions “The Rules” for publicly-performed improv were formulated, including the importance of the Who? Where? and What? of each scene needing to be expressed, avoiding transaction scenes, arguments, and conflict as they usually lead to dead ends, and playing at the top of one’s intelligence. “We came up with a teachable formula for performing improvisation in public in two weeks,” Flicker said. These new rules differed greatly from the rules of Viola Spolin, who wasn’t a performer and explored improv only as an acting exercise. This was a new era of improvisation.
Following the collapse of The Compass Players, Paul Sills launched the successor troupe “The Second City” in 1959. Nichols and May went on to become a smash hit on Broadway. Del Close moved back to Chicago and spent the rest of his life developing, refining, and experimenting with Ted’s rules. Del became an improvisational guru for three decades with a student roster that included Dan Aykroyd, John and James Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Andy Dick, Harold Ramis, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Andy Richter, Tina Fey, and all three founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade (Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Amy Poehler.) Unquestionably some of the biggest and most influential names in the comedy world, and it all circles back to Flicker. “I never could have done it without the sheer force of Ted’s will and discipline,” Close said.
But what was next for Theodore J. Flicker? In the sixties he wed Barbara Joyce Perkins, television actress and star of dozens if not hundreds of commercials, and the two set their sights on Hollywood. Theodore’s first feature film The Troublemaker, which he co-wrote with Buck Henry, described as an “improvised adventure” and was a moderate success, and the next thing he knew the phone started ringing. He was offered to write a feature film to launch the careers of Sonny and Cher; however, when the project fell through Flicker instead penned a screenplay for Elvis Presley, the 1966 “racecar musical comedy” Spinout.
It was Paramount Pictures that gave Flicker a chance to write and direct a major motion picture studio film in 1967, the first movie Robert Evans greenlit as a studio executive. The President’s Analyst was a fantastic, on-target satire. James Coburn plays Dr. Sidney Schaefer, who is awarded the job of the President’s top secret psychoanalyst. When Dr. Schaefer’s paranoia sinks in and he realizes he “knows too much,” he decides to run away and the film becomes a fast-paced action adventure romp involving spies, assassins, the FBI, CIA, a suburban family station wagon, flower power hippies, and even a British pop group. An unusual sci-fi plot twist reveals the movie’s most surprising villain: The Telephone Company (referred to in the film as “TPC”).
Problems began when the FBI got ahold of the screenplay. Robert Evans claims he was visited by FBI Special Agents who didn’t appreciate their unflattering and incompetent portrayal in the film. When Evans denied their request to cease production, they began conducting surveillance on the film’s set. Evans refused their demands, but increasing pressure led to extensive overdubs during the film’s post-production phase: the FBI became the FBR, and the CIA became the CEA. Even the Telephone Company got wind of their negative portrayal in the film, and Evans believed that his telephone had begun to be monitored by either the Bureau or the phone company. Evans’ paranoia would ironically mirror that of James Coburn’s character in the film’s storyline.
The President’s Analyst hit theaters on December 21st, 1967, the same day as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Both films were instant hits and received critical and box office praise. Roger Ebert called The President’s Analyst one of the “funniest movies of the year.” However, two weeks later Flicker received an unsettling phone call from his agent who told him, “You’ll never work in this town again.” Apparently FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had seen the film and was outraged by 4’7” actor Walter Burke whose character name Lux (like Hoover, a popular brand of vacuum cleaner) as the head of the “FBR” was blatantly poking fun at him. J. Edgar called the White House who called Charles Bluhdorn at Paramount, who called Flicker’s agent to inform him they were pulling the movie from theaters immediately. “What the hell are you trying to do to me?” Bluhdorn said on a phone, “But we have a hit!” “What the hell do I care about your hit, I have 27 companies that do business in Washington?” A millionaire at age 30, Charlie Bluhdorn didn’t just own Paramount; he owned Gulf and Western, Madison Square Garden, and Simon & Schuster publishing. As Flicker delicately put it, “The shit hit the fan.” Overnight he was officially no longer part of Hollywood’s A-list. He and Barbara had to foreclose their home and his agent stopped returning his phone calls.
More on the life and times of Ted Flicker after the jump…
When I was a child, summer holidays meant Jimmy Cagney movies on TV: White Heat, The Public Enemy, G-Men, Each Dawn I Die, Angels With Dirty Faces and so on. Cagney never looked like he was acting, he became whatever character he played, which explains why he was once asked, “Well, did you turn yella that time you went to da electric chair?”
Orson Welles once told chat show host Michael Parkinson that he thought Cagney was “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera.” I tend to agree with this—as no doubt did Marlon Brando and Stanley Kubrick who were both major fans of the brilliant, diminutive Irish-American.
Like many of the characters he played, Cagney was tough. He was born into a poor working class family in New York’s Lower East Side in 1899. He worked hard, held down several jobs, and was always ready with his fists should the need arise. His fighting skills were such that family, friends and neighbors came to Jimmy to knock out any troublemaker. But Cagney was also disciplined and assiduous. He was a vaudevillian, a song and dance man first and foremost, who learnt his trade working up through chorus lines and repertory companies before being spotted by Al Jolson in a play with Joan Blondell and cast in a movie Sinners’ Holiday. Cagney went to Hollywood for three weeks’ work, but ended with a legendary career that lasted over 31 years.
I’ve been reading his autobiography Cagney By Cagney (which I recommend) and in amongst his tales of career, family, early left wing politics—he was considered a communist because of his support of the unions, and was the target of a planned Mafia hit until actor and friend George Raft put a stop to it, though he switched allegiances to Reagan in the 1980s—his deep love of the country and concern for the environment and his fine talent for anecdote, Cagney revealed his liking for writing poetry. To be fair, some of it is okay—funny, amusing, enjoyable—but then there are those poems—like the one on the passing of friend Clark Gable—that maybe should have stayed in the bottom drawer:
The King, long bled, is newly dead.
Uneasily wore his crown, ‘tis said;
Quite naturally, since it was made of lead;
On those who gathered about his throne,
Y-clept Mayer, Mannix, Katz, and Cohn
He spat contempt in generous doses,
But whatever he gave, they made their own.
Unhappy man, he chose seclusion,
To the unremitting crass intrusion
Of John and Jane whose names meant dough
To Louie, Eddie, Sam, and Joe.
This is a small slap to the Hollywood producers “who controlled his destinies.” Cagney hated the exploitative nature of the Hollywood system.
Cagney began writing in his Broadway days in the 1920s—“a habit triggered by reading Stephen Vincent Benet’s magnificent John Brown’s Body.” He was also influenced by William Blake and Robert Burns, who gave “food for thought” for when he tired of Hollywood and Hugh Kingsmill’s Anthology of Invective and Abuse, which inspired his putdown of a Tinsel Town ass-kisser:
Where once were vertebrae is now a tangle,
From constant kissing at an awkward angle.
Throughout his autobiography, Cagney dipped into one of poems whenever he felt like it. Though he claimed few of his verses were ever written down, he had “quite a number stored in [his] memory.” These ranged from:
A pheasant called in a distant thicket,
And lovingly my old friend said,
“I hear you, I hear you.”
And he loved that bird, till he gunned him dead.
A lady spider met a fella
And made all haste to date him;
She loved him with a love sublime,
Up to and including—
The time, when in ecstasy,
She ate him.
Of course Cagney was just enjoying himself—relishing the pleasure of words. But his poetry often dealt with serious issues, like the poem he sent to the Irish Times under the pseudonym Harley Quinn on the damage industry was doing to the environment:
You want to see the Shannon like the Hudson
Or the Liffey just as filthy as the Seine?
Bring in the arrogant asses
And their garbage and their gasses—
The pollutants plunging poison down each drain:
Killing everything that’s living
For which nature’s unforgiving,
And the punishment will certainly fit the crime.
Where man, the creeping cancer,
Will have to make the final answer
As he smothers ‘neath his self-created slime.
More on Jimmy Cagney and his poetry, after the jump…
On January 1, 1976, Tinseltown’s iconic sign read “Hollyweed” after art student Danny Finegood and 3 of his college pals used $50 worth of dark fabric to transform the famous Hollywood landmark temporarily. They had practiced it first on a scale model Finegood had crafted.
It was more than a simple practical joke, Finegood considered it a statement on the relaxed California marijuana law that went into effect that day.
He also turned it in as a school assignment which earned him an “A.”
If you’re thinking of attempting a stunt like this, think again. On top of being illegal, it’s also quite difficult to get near the sign these days.
Two years after the intial alteration, in 1978, the Hollywood Sign Trust was established as a way of protecting the sign and the fragile hillside surrounding it. They’re serious about it too. In addition to a razor-wired fence, there’s 24-hour surveillance, infrared cameras, motion sensors, regular helicopter patrol visits by the authorities, and other high-security measures.
A folk song was written in 1976 about the sign-changing incident, by a man named David Batterson, with such lyrics as follows:
Now it’s finally safe
to take a little toke
Beauty’s only skin deep, French artist Matthieu Bourel’s handmade collages of Hollywood stars seem to suggest. With his Faces series of collage, Bourel cuts holes into studio photographs of movie stars like Natalie Wood, Frances, Farmer, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, to reveal the hidden beauty of connective tissue, muscles, arteries and veins underneath.
Or, in his Duplicity series, he layers multiple “slices” of an actor or actress’s face one inside another, emphasising the falsity of image and beauty, or the possible truth of the character beneath. The affect is surreal, beautiful and disturbing, and “evoke a fake history or inspire nostalgia for a period in time that never truly existed.”
More of Matthieu Bourel’s collages can be seen here
Steve McQueen was one of several Hollywood celebrities placed on a “Death List” allegedly compiled by Charles Manson. The other names were Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones.
On August 9th, 1969, members of Manson’s “Family” carried out the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and 4 of her friends.
McQueen had briefly dated Tate, and had planned to visit the actress the night of her death.
In December 1969, Manson and the killers had been arrested.
When McQueen heard he might be targeted by Manson’s followers, he started carrying a gun. In October 1970, a still cautious McQueen wrote to his lawyer to find out if any “Family” members were still active, and to have his gun license renewed.
A SOLAR PRODUCTION
October 17, 1970
Mr. Edward Rubin
Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp
6380 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90048
As you know, I have been selected by the Manson Group to be marked for death, along with Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones. In some ways I find it humorous, and in other ways frighteningly tragic. It may be nothing, but I must consider it may be true both for the protection of myself and my family.
At the first possible time, if you could pull some strings and find out unofficially from one of the higher-ups in Police whether, again unofficially, all of the Manson Group has been rounded up and/or do they feel that we may be in some danger.
Secondly, if you would call Palm Springs and have my gun permit renewed, it was only for a year, and I should like to have it renewed for longer as it is the only sense of self-protection for my family and myself, and I certainly think I have good reason.
Please don’t let too much water go under the bridge before this is done, and I’m waiting for an immediate reply.
Eclectic Method‘s montage of Hollywood’s vision of the future as seen through film.
I want to tell you something about the future. It will either be: A mind-bendingly awesome; utopian landscape where all of Earth’s problems have been resolved and technology and humanity have evolved to create harmony.
Or it might be a fucked-up dystopian nightmare. Where artificial intelligence has surpassed that of its creators. Or perhaps humans have ravaged the Earth to such a degree that it has gone into full revolt. Or a scarcity of resources has humans warring over water. It depends on which film you watch or what time of day you might have asked Stanley Kubrick’s opinion.
Kenneth Anger didn’t like Nigel Finch’s documentary on Hollywood Babylon. He thought Finch’s film ended up more about Finch than it did about Anger. It was like a test run for making a movie, which of course Finch went on to make. Anger told me this while we waited in my room, at the Standard Hotel, West Hollywood, Fall 2004. I was about to interview Kenneth for a documentary, and while we chatted, waiting for the crew to set-up, he tore stories out of tabloid newspapers to send to the Kinsey Institute, and I smoked on the balcony, watching the shimmer of eucalyptus trees in the late morning breeze.
When it was time for the interview, we walked along the orange-carpeted corridor only to be stopped by another film crew who were making a movie. At a half-corridor stood George Clooney and Brad Pitt, filming a scene for Ocean’s Twelve. Both looked smaller, their heads somehow bigger. They must have kept their magic for the camera, for it seemed that neither had the presence or, looked as grand a star as Kenneth Anger, who stood half in shadow, quietly waiting by the AD.
Nigel Finch’s ambitious documentary uses Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon as its keystone to build a film about Anger’s life, his movies, his interest in Hollywood and its stars’ scandalous lives. But what is evident amongst all this is that Anger is too big a genius, too complex a character to be fitted in between dramatic reconstructions of Fatty Arbuckle, and tales of Hollywood death and disaster. Though there are some excellent moments, the documentary teases the viewer, leaving an unfulfilled desire to know more about the great Magus of Cinema. Still, it’s worth the price of admission, if only to catch Kenneth Anger on film.
The sign in the 1970s, during a particularly shaggy time
I have always found the Hollywood sign to be charmingly anachronistic— a dated landmark, but delightfully so. Built in 1923 to promote a housing development (originally “Hollywoodland”), the sign has gone through various stages of disrepair and restoration over the years. It was even defaced as “Hollyweed” a few years after the decriminalization of marijuana in California.
Seeing this much work go into something that was never intended to be permanent seems to go against the impression I have of Los Angeles as a high turnover city, dismissive of its own history; it’s oddly comforting to see this kind of effort go into its preservation.
VICE: Looking back at the films of the silent era, the way they were shot and cut make it seem like everyone was snorting massive lines right up until the director yelled, “Action!”
I find film style reflects it, particularly the Mack Sennett [the director largely responsible for the popularity of slapstick] comedies. And my research proves that they were taking cocaine. You can see a sort of hyper-influence there.
VICE: There are lots of tales that make reference to “joy powder” in Hollywood Babylon, which makes it seem as innocent as taking one of those 5-hour Energy shots. Another phrase you use in the book, in the first few pages, is the “Purple Epoch.” What is that? It sounds nice.
That was when there were very talented people who also had extravagant tastes and money. It was the 1920s, a reflection of the Jazz Age. And the Hollywood version of that was pretty wild.
VICE: Another topic you cover early on in the book is the circumstances surrounding the death of Olive Thomas, which is perhaps the first instance of “Hollywood scandal” as we know it. You write, and it’s long been rumored, that she was very fond of cocaine, which was apparently a fatal flaw when combined with alcohol and ingesting her husband Jack Pickford’s topical syphilis medication.
She was one of the earliest beautiful stars to die in grim circumstances. And so her name became associated with lurid [behavior]. Things going on in Hollywood.
VICE: Her death also seemed to pull the wool from everyone’s eyes. Olive Thomas’s image was so sweet and pure. It caused Hollywood’s reputation to snowball into something far darker than how it was previously perceived. People must have thought, “If Olive’s doing it, everyone else must be too.”
There were other ones too, like Mary Miles Minter [who was accused of murdering her lover, director William Desmond Taylor, at the height of her success]. She was a kind of version of Mary Pickford [Jack Pickford’s sister], but the great stars like Pickford were never touched. These scandals swirled around, but there were certain stars that weren’t implicated in any way by this sort of thing.
Other people’s homes movies, like their holiday snaps, can sometimes be terribly dull. But Roddy McDowall’s silent home movies are different, mainly because they have a cast list to die for - from Simone Signoret to Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara to Paul Newman, even Judy Garland and Dominick Dunne. Also, Mr McDowall was a film fan, and there’s a fine sense of his enjoyment and wonder at the Hollywood stars larking about at his Malibu beach home. These are fun artifacts, a last hurrah for a golden age of Hollywood.
The films were uploaded onto You Tube by soapbox, who was personally given the home movies by Roddy McDowall.
Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, Anthony Perkins, Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, May 31, 1965.
Plenty more of Roddy McDowall’s Hollywood Home Movies, after the jump….
Two short clips from Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind (1957), a bizarre movie loosely based on the non-fiction book by Hendrik Willem van Loon.
The film tells of the trial of mankind by a council elders form outer space, who must decide whether humankind should be allowed to continue or be vaporized. For the defense, the dapper Ronald Colman as The Spirit of Man. For the prosecution, the camp Vincent Price as The Devil. The pair deliberate on the evidence, which is taken from key moments in human history, from Julius Ceaser to Christopher Columbus, Elizabeth I to Napoleon. You get the picture.
The cast was a Hollywood producer’s wet dream, which included Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra, Peter Lorre as Nero, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth I, Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton and even Groucho Marx.
In the first clip, two very different acting styles come together, as Dennis Hopper presents his Method Napoleon, against Marie Windsor’s Hollywood Josephine. The two styles don’t quite gel, but Hopper’s speech about a “United States of Europe” is highly topical, considering French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s current ambitions.
The second clip has Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton discovering gravity and sliced apples with his harp.
The Germs’ Pat Smear & Lorna Doom get touchy-feely with lead singer Darby Crash in The New Wave
“Not exactly wholesome, you might say,” notes slick & laid-back narrator Andrew Amador at the end of this weird and rather incomplete look at the burgeoning new music scene in Los Angeles.
Inexplicably opening up with the highly New York sounds of Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria,” The New Wave seems to have been a quick segment put together by erstwhile TV host Amador and shot by someone called Andre Champagne. I wonder if and where it actually aired. It’s an interesting enough artifact in that it features:
Footage of The Germs with Darby Crash in full feathered-and-waxed Bowie mode
A Sunset Strip marquee within the first 30 seconds featuring Pasadena’s Van Halen!
A bit too much footage of The Quick’s heartthrob lead singer Danny Wilde dreaming of stardom. He’d later do the music scene proud by forming the Rembrandts and recording “I’ll Be There For You,” the fittingly excruciating theme for the TV show Friends.