Sunday January 17, 2021
Fatty Arbuckle and the Original Cancel Culture
Recently I finished a rare read for me: a true-life crime thriller. It's also a not-so-rare read since it's set in the early days of Hollywood—my metier.
William J. Mann's Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood is about the unsolved 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, a director at Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount Pictures. Some of the key figures Mann writes about include:
- Adolph Zukor, Famous Players' head honcho and the most powerful man in the motion picture industry at the time
- Will Hays, the Kennesaw Mountain Landis of the movies, brought in to save the industry and assuage the blue noses amid sex- and drug-related scandals
- comic movie queen Mabel Normand
- up-and-coming ingenue Mary Miles Minter
- shady lost soul Margaret “Gibby” Gibson aka Patricia Palmer
The last three are friends and acquaintances of Taylor—and suspects in his murder.
(Typing out the above, I suddenly wondered if the writers of “Sunset Blvd.”—Charles Bracket, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr.—got the name “Norma Desmond” from some combo of Desmond Taylor and Mabel Normand. According to IMDb, that's half correct. Yes to Desmond but Norma was after Norma Talmadge, whom IMDb claims was romantically invovled with Taylor. That would be news to William Mann, who says Taylor was a closeted homosexual.)
The Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal is peripheral to the main storyline but it's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary. A girl, Virginia Rappé, died at one of Arbuckle's parties, and he was eventually charged with manslaughter. The gossip against him was frequent and lurid while the evidence against him was so nonexistent his lawyer asked the judge to dismiss the case altogether. But the judge didn't—and in the worst way. “We are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone,” Judge Lazarus declared. “In a large sense, we are trying ourselves. We are trying present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance.”
Good god, what a pompous, unjudicious declaration. As a result of such grandstanding, Arbuckle was forced to sit through three trials—two ended in hung juries—while his career dissolved. Mann writes:
Overnight, Arbuckle vanished from the screen. At the Manhattan Opera House, a rerelease of one of his shorts with Mabel, Fatty and Mabel Adrift, was scrapped at the last minute. When a title card announced that “in view of public feeling due to the San Francisco affair, it was deemed advisable to substitute another subject,” the audience erupted in applause. That broke Mabel's heart. It also terrified her. Because if they were gunning for Fatty today, she might be in their crosshairs tomorrow.
And that's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary to me. The terror Mabel Normand felt. I flashed on the #MeToo movement and cancel culture. These later movements are more legit, of course, and have led to a much-needed recalibration in Hollywood and elsewhere; but as #MeToo gained in power it widened its reach and ensnared and ruined the lives of those it shouldn't have: Al Franken, Aziz Ansari, maybe Garrison Keillor. One accuation was often enough—or several vague ones. Many people still assume—vehemently so, brooking no opposition, caring about no evidence—that Woody Allen is guilty even though he's the one who's been proven not so, and even though his son, Moses, has written eloquently in his defense.
Even after Arbuckle was acquitted, the media noise against him stayed strong. The New York Times editorialized: “Arbuckle was acquitted by a jury, but an odor still clings to him.” Will Hays compared the outrage to the Dreyfus affair but he hoped it would dissipate. He didn't want to be a censor; he believed in both the free market and that whole “innocent until proven guilty” proviso. And most people, according to Mann, were ready to welcome him back:
Every time working people, young people, blacks, and immigrants were offered a say in the matter, Fatty triumphed. The Kansas City Journal polled its readers, and the results came back ten to one in favor of the comedian. The same thing happened when the Blackstone Theatre in Detroit asked its audiences to vote. Yet Arbuckle's fate didn't rest with the entire public. It was decided in white, middle-class drawing rooms where the Federation of Women's Clubs took their votes, and in church halls where ministers whipped their flocks into outrages over Hollywood.
Hays did remove the ban against Fatty but outrage erupted again. In an attempt to repair the damage, he held a meeting with, among others, James West of the Boy Scouts, and Mrs. Oliver Harriman of the Camp Fire Girls (who were on his side), and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, a national representative of the Girl Scouts, and Charles A. McMahon, of the National Catholic Welfare Council (who weren't). A “compromise” was reached. Arbuckle could work as a writer or director but was banned as an actor. Bad enough. But Mann says that Hays knew the compromise was empty:
The Federation of Women's Clubs was still vowing to boycott any film he made, whether he was in front of the camera or behind it. The National Board of Review announced that it would exclude any film directed by Arbuckle from its list of recommended films, which many communities used to decide what to show in local theaters.
Arbuckle worked sparingly over the next 10 years and died in 1933, age 46.
What is Aziz Ansari up to these days? Anyone know?
Saturday August 15, 2020
“I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind...”
I recently finished Woody Allen's memoir, “Appropos of Nothing,” and, to quote a phrase, I liked the earlier, funnier stuff: about growing up in Brooklyn, how crazy his parents and relatives were, and, despite his later rep as an intellectual filmmaker, what a lousy student he was. He hated school, liked playing baseball, loved jazz, loved going to the movies, yearned to be a sophisticate in a Manhattan movie scene. He did make that happen—without the cocktail, however. He was never a drinker.
I like the details of his rise—so much of it because he was just monumentally funny:
- At 17, making jokes during a lame movie at the local theater, getting laughs, some guy says: “Hey, you should write some of your gags down.”
- He did. Mother: “Why don't you show your wise cracks to Phil Wasserman and get his opinion? He runs always with those Broadway wags.”
- He did. Phil: “You should mail them in to some of the newspaper columnists—Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Hy Gardner of the Herald Tribune.”
- He did. Friend: “Hey, you‘re in Nick Kenny’s column!”
Nick Kenny led to Broadway columnist Earl Wilson and then all the columnists were printing his stuff. Then a PR firm contacted him and asked, as Woody puts it: “Would I be interested in coming in each day after school, sitting at one of their unstolen typewriters [his father had stolen one], and knocking out gags for them so the likes of Guy Lombardo, Arthur Murray, Jane Morgan, Sammy Kaye, and others not famous for their wit could fasten their names to my inspirations and claim them as their own? For this, they would pay me forty dollars a week. At that time I delivered meat for a butcher shop, and dry-cleaning for a tailor, for thirty-five cents an hour plus tips.”
While there, Bob Hope's manager contacted him to write jokes for his idol, but that didn't pan out. Relatives then suggested he talk to a distant relative, Abe Burrows, who had coauthored the book for Guys and Dolls, and Woody says the man was kind, complimentary, informative. He helped him get hired for Peter Lind Hayes' radio show. Then he was hired for Arthur Godfrey's radio show. He got ripped off by an agent but kept rising. He wrote for Sid Caesar, Pat Boone, Gary Moore. He just wanted to be a writer, didn't want to be a stand-up comedian, but a subsequent manager pushed him out on stage and he became such a hit that Warren Beatty contacted him about writing a movie. That movie turned out to be “What's New, Pussycat?,” without Beatty, and it was such an awful experience, and his words were so mangled by the director and producers, that it forced Woody into moviemaking. He wanted to control how it sounded. He didn't want the unfunny to fuck it up. As the unfunny always do.
Once he becomes a filmmaker, the book gets a little dull. Maybe because that's all he does, make films, and there's no story to contantly making stories? Of course, he goes over the Mia/Soon-Yi/Dylan stuff, too—repetitively, I think, reminding me a bit of Kafa's Joseph K. Traduced, Woody keeps talking about his case. He keeps saying it doesn't matter, then he dives back into it. He can't leave it alone. This is from near the end of the book:
In writing about this whole affair I‘ve tried to document whatever I could so the facts would not be simply my version but the on-the-record words of the investigators, the experiences Moses had witnessed and Soon-Yi had lived through that corroborated him. I’ve quoted the Yale and New York investigations word for word plus the court-appointed monitors exactly as the appellate judge recorded their testimony. There were appalling incidents attested to by two separate women who worked in Mia's house and witnessed a number of encounters firsthand. They also corroborate Moses.
But even without all of that, I appealed to people's simple common sense. And yet I have no illusions that any of it will change minds. I believe if Dylan and Mia recanted today and said the whole thing was one big practical joke, there would still be many who would cling to the notion that I abused Dylan. ...
And why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what's one little false allegation in the scheme of things? Second, being a misanthropist has its saving grace—people can never disappoint you.
Good line. “Appropos of Nothing” could've used a better editor—it needed a couple more run-throughs by Woody—but it's interesting and poignant and overwhelmingly sad. (I tend to believe him, and Moses, and Soon-Yi rather than Mia, and Dylan, and Ronan.) When I saw “The Dark Knight” back in 2008, I thought this line by Harvey Dent overstated things: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Feels truer every day. Probably for all of us.
Saturday July 11, 2020
‘What Is That Your Business? He Stopped Doing His Homework!’
“I envy those people who derive solace from the belief that the work they created will live on and be much discussed and somehow, like the Catholic with his afterlife, so the artist's ‘legacy’ will make him immortal. The catch here is that all the people discussing the legacy are alive and ordering pastrami, and the artist is somewhere in an urn or underground in Queens. All the people standing over Shakespeare's grave and singing his praises means a big goose egg to the Bard, and a day will come—a far-off day, but be sure it definitely is coming—when all Shakespeare's plays, for all their brilliant plots and hoity-toity iambic pentameter, and every dot of Seurat's will be gone along with each atom in the universe. In fact, the universe will be gone and there will be no place to have your hat blocked. After all, we are an accident of physics. And an awkward accident at that. Not the product of intelligent design but, if anything, the work of a crass bungler.”
Woody Allen in his memoir “Appropos of Nothing.” Recommended. If you‘re a fan you’ll hear echoes from all of his movies.
Thursday July 09, 2020
Quote of the Day
“How [my father] loved that life. Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie is a mystery on a par with dark matter. Two characters as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit, they disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards.”
Woody Allen in his memoir, “Appropos of Nothing,” which I'm currently reading. It's zippy and funny. Right now his complaints are childhood complaints about family; will be interesting to see how far he goes into his life and what those complaints become.
Saturday June 27, 2020
“Hachette read the book and loved it and despite me being a toxic pariah and menace to society, they vowed to stand firm should things hit the fan. When actual flak did arrive they thoughtfully reassessed their position, concluding that perhaps courage was not the virtue it was cracked up to be and there was a lot to be said for cowering.”
Woody Allen in a postscript to his autobiography “Apropos of Nothing,” which I need to get around to reading one of these days
Thursday June 04, 2020
Be Like Brando
“[Near the end of her life, Joan Blondell] had a small role in the ABC-TV movie Death at Love House, directed by Here Come the Brides' director and friend E. W. Swackhamer. Wearing one of her own Day-Glo caftans, Joan played the president of a movie-star fan club, but the actress was in pain. Her rheumatoid arthritis was not mollified by fistfuls of Percodan. When it became unendurable, she admitted herself to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. ... Marlon Brando was there on a crash diet just before leaving for Manila to shoot Apocalypse Now. When he found out Joan was in the hospital, he sent her a floral tower with a note: ‘To a woman I’ve always loved.'”
from “Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes,” by Matthew Kennedy
Saturday May 16, 2020
On Being a Movie Star, See?
“What is it like to be a movie star?
”Or, now, in my case, what was it like to be a movie star?
“If you like adulation, deference, the best tables, autograph hunters, and lots of money, it is absolutely wonderful. If you like it so much that tomorrow you feel it will be taken away from you, it is terrifying.
”Impermanent it is, and shaky; and if you become obsessed with retaining it, you acquire some of the basest qualities in man.“
Edward G. Robinson, from ”All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography," 1973
Sunday May 10, 2020
Bette Davis by Walter Bernstein
Merrill (left) and Davis, about to have a bumpier night than the night they arrived in the cabin in Maine for their honeymoon.
“The cabin [in Maine where I was staying during the blacklist] was owned by an old Communist who owned another primitive cabin just across the creek. This came in handy when I received a telegram from an actor friend, Gary Merrill. We had been together, he as actor, I as publicist, in This Is the Army, when he introduced me to boilermakers. Gary liked to drink more than he liked to act, but he was a good actor who had scored a success on Broadway in Born Yesterday and had then gone to Hollywood with a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox. He had recently been in a movie called All About Eve, playing opposite Bette Davis. They had fallen in love and now they were married and on their honeymoon, driving East from California. The telegram asked if I could find them a place to stay for a week or two. They were both New Englanders and used to discomfort and any place would do so long as it was on water. I wired back that I had found the perfect place for them. The landlord was amenable and I rowed over to check out the other cabin. It was just like mine, with the same lack of amenities, but it also had a bookcase full of the collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. I decided this was not exactly movie star reading, at least not in that day and age, and stuck the books in a closet and stacked firewood in front so they wouldn't be seen.
”Gary and Bette arrived in a large Cadillac convertible packed high with suitcases. They loved the cabin. Bette immediately sat down to make a shopping list. She seemed utterly familiar to me. It was as if I were finally meeting in person an old pen pal. After all, she had been part of my life since Cabin in the Cotton. I found myself searching her face for the scar from Marked Woman. She was smaller than I had imagined but formidable. Her manner was at the same time friendly and imperious. She was not stuck up, merely regal. She was a star. When she finished her list, she handed it to Gary and he and I went down to my boat and rowed across to the tiny village at the head of the creek. At the general store we bought most of what Bette had ordered. At the bottom of her list, after milk, bread and eggs, she had simply written ‘boat,’ but none was available for rental and Gary didn't think she wanted him actually to buy a boat, so we took our staples and rowed back to the cabin. We had been gone about two hours. We came back to find Bette in an apron, feeding wood to the stove. On a table were the makings for martinis and a plate of canapés she had made. A fire burned in the fireplace. I had tidied up the cabin for their arrival, but she had swept it again and polished the few pieces of furniture. She had found doilies to put on the couch. Everything gleamed. And back in the bookcase were the collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. ‘Guess what I found!’ she shouted at us. ‘The most wonderful books!’“
— from Walter Bernstein's “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist.” I finished the book about two weeks ago and missed Bernstein's voice immediately. It was such a joy to read. It was like having a smart, fun, dry friend stop by every evening.
Sunday May 03, 2020
Ben Maddow by Walter Bernstein
“[My agent] paired me with a more experienced screenwriter named Ben Maddow. We were to adapt an English thriller called Kiss the Blood off My Hands. Once again it was a learning experience, only this time I did some actual writing. Maddow was a poet and, under the name of David Wolff, had written a documentary film about civil liberties called Native Land. I had liked the film and came to admire Maddow. He had a film sense that was then entirely new to me. He wrote for the eye as well as the mind, while I was still chained to the ear. He was also, like many of the New York writers I met in Hollywood, a product of the Depression. They all seemed touched with some ineffable sadness, as though the world had broken something in them that could never be entirely mended. Maddow had graduated from Columbia with a science degree in the pit of the Depression and had been unable to get any kind of job. For a year, he told me, he left his apartment only at night, roaming the city by himself until dawn. He had a taste for what was bent and melancholy. When he wrote a novel some years later, the final pages were a minute description of the garbage floating in the East River. After our collaboration he went on to write fine scripts for Intruder in the Dust and The Asphalt Jungle, and then he was blacklisted.” ...
[Bernstein then returned to New York and spent most of the 1950s on the blacklist, scrounging out work on television through fronts. Near the end of the decade, he was asked back to Hollywood—I believe to work on a project for Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who was married to Sophia Loren and didn't give a rat's ass about the blacklist.]
“While we were there, I heard that Ben Maddow was working openly again. He was at Twentieth Century-Fox, writing a movie for Elia Kazan. I found this hard to believe. It meant that he had given names. It was something I did not want to believe. I also did not understand it. Maddow had been working steadily since being blacklisted, mostly writing scripts for a writer-producer named Philip Yordan, who then placed his own name on them. He had written some very good ones, including the loopy western Johnny Guitar. Whatever he had done, he had not done because he was starving. ...
”We met at a coffee shop and embraced. I found myself very glad to see him again and very apprehensive. We sat down and ordered two of the breakfast specials and then he said what I knew and feared he would say. He said it right away. He had testified in secret and named seven or eight or maybe ten people, he was not exactly sure how many, and now he was working again. ‘Why did you do it?’ I asked. “Why? You were working.' 'I couldn't stand going into the screening room after the lights were out,' he said. It had nothing to do with money or politics or being afraid or not able to work. He simply could no longer stand living in the shadows. ...
”I felt there was something I should feel that I was not feeling. I should feel anger or contempt or disgust. Maddow had not been forced to do what he did. He had been working, being paid well, surviving the blacklist better than most. He had gone through the worst of it. But there are no gradations of betrayal. He had sold his friends so he could come out of the dark. Now he stood in the light and he could put his name on his work, but he had sold his name as well as his friends. All I could feel was sadness."
from Walter Bernstein's “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist”
Friday May 01, 2020
John Garfield by Walter Bernstein
“A bar mitzvah boy gone just wrong enough to enhance his appeal”
“I had met Garfield shortly after the war, when he acted in a radio play I had written for the United Jewish Appeal. He was a friendly, unintellectual man who liked being a movie star. He was also a product of the New York streets who believed the worst thing you could be was a snitch. While he was never a Communist himself, most of his friends were of the left and that was where his sympathies lay.
”Hungering for a star who could get them on the front page, the Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed him. Trying to keep both his career and his honor, Garfield waffled. He denounced communism while professing not to know any Communists. He lent his name to a ghostwritten magazine article called “I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook.' He was caught between John Garfield, the star, and Julius Garfinkel (his real name), the kid from the streets. He would debase himself, but he would not inform.
”He moved to New York, ostensibly to find more rewarding parts in the theater but really to feel rooted again, to plant himself in earth less treacherous than Hollywood. He needed to find some kind of purchase; he was still a boy who needed his neighborhood. He played the title roles in Peer Gynt and a revival of Golden Boy, getting bad reviews for the first (‘literal and casual,’ said the Times) and good ones for the second (‘brilliant and satisfying,’ said the Post). He had been turned down for the lead part in Golden Boy when it was first performed by the Group Theater in 1937. The director, Harold Clurman, thought he lacked ‘the inner torment’ for the part and gave him a lesser, comic role. He had the torment now, whether he wanted it or not.
“I saw Garfield briefly during this torturous time. His face was lined and drawn, and he was drinking. He always had the face of a bar mitzvah boy gone just wrong enough to enhance his appeal. Now he seemed old without having grown into it. He still saw his friends, no matter their politics. He was loyal to what he still believed. As an actor he had been best at playing the rebel, the angry young man at odds with the system. Now the system had him by the throat. Dissatisfied with his testimony, the committee turned the matter over to the FBI, seeking grounds for a charge of perjury. Some of his lawyers advised cooperation, others resistance. Cooperation, of course, meant giving names. Resistance could possibly mean jail and certainly an end to his career. But Garfield found a way to preserve his honor, although at terminal cost. He thwarted them all by dying. His heart gave out on a visit to a woman friend to whom he had gone for solace.”
— from Walter Bernstein's “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist”
Wednesday April 29, 2020
Silent Movies by Walter Bernstein
“By then I had been going to the movies for some time. The first one I was permitted to see was [the 1928 silent feature] The Noose, starring Richard Barthelmess. I was five or perhaps six. I have little memory of the film except of being frightened by the villain, an actor named Montagu Love. He was the first in a long line of movie villains who I always knew were indestructible. If the hero won, it was a fluke. The game had been fixed. There was no way in how I saw the world that any hero, crippled by sensitivity and honor, could prevail against such confident villainy...
”My grandmother liked going to the movies in the afternoon, when she had finished cleaning her house and preparing dinner, and she didn't care what was playing; all she wanted was an hour or two of undisturbed rest. She would settle down in the dark theater and go to sleep, lulled by the music and the silent figures on the screen. But she returned home one day upset and angry. She was finished with movies. The figures on the screen were keeping her awake. They were talking out loud. She felt betrayed and never went again.“
— Walter Bernstein, in his book ”Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist.” Other movies Bernstein mentions: The Patent Leather Kid, with Richard Barthelmess; Corsair, starring Chester Morris; and Jack Holt and Ralph Graves in Dirigible. I‘ve seen none of these, nor any movie with Graves or Holt—at least, not that I’m aware of. Bernstein has an unabashed love of movies throughout his memoir. There's just no place he'd rather be than a movie house.
Monday April 27, 2020
Like a Blacklist for Everyone
I read both of these passages the other night and they felt sadly familiar. First, there was this general overview of our culture:
While the cultural climate turned blandly inoffensive, the political climate kept turning mean and intolerant. There seemed no bottom to its meanness. ... X was big-time show business. Television, the new arbiter of discourse, loved him. He combined two elements that had always brought shows high ratings: he was a gangster in a soap opera. He lay over the country like one of those disease-ridden blankets that white settlers had given the Indians. He sickened the body politic. The few voices against him were weak and ineffectual. X went his brutal, demagogic way, swinging his sockful of shit ... Unreason ruled the land.
Then the writer describes how all of this affected him:
My life revolved around those friendships. They were almost entirely with other X people; we had circled the wagons and it was dangerous to go outside the perimeter. In the morning I tried to write—speculative scripts or articles or the occasional short story, but they were desultory, lacking conviction. I seemed to need a validation I could not produce from myself alone. The days were aimless, as they had been when I was waiting to be drafted. I felt suspended; my real life was somewhere else, on hold, waiting to be resurrected when the country came to its senses.
The writer is Walter Bernstein in his 1995 book “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist.” In the first passage above, the X is represented by Sen. Joseph McCarthy but it might as well be Pres. Donald Trump, who, of course, was taught by McCarthy's right-hand man: Roy Cohn, perpetual cretin.
In the second passage above, the X is represented by the blacklist. The line is: “other blacklisted people.” But it also seems like being a Democrat, or a sane Republican, during the Trump era—not to mentioin all of us during the Covid era: circling the wagons, real life on hold, waiting to be resurrected. Sadly, the Covid era is taking place during the Trump era, so instead of real leadership—how to get through these tough times and then get business and real life moving again in a safe and rational way, and hey, how about a hand for the front-line workers, the doctors and nurses and EMTs, as well as mayor and governors making tough decisions—Trump lies and misinforms, politicizes and avoids responsibility and casts blame. Did he really just suggest people inject disinfectant to try to kill the virus? (He did.) Then that becomes the topic, Trump's absurd proclamation, rather than our collective path out. He makes it all about him.
The Covid pandemic is like the blacklist except this time we‘re all on it. Which makes me think of Billy Bragg’s great song, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”:
Here comes the future and you can't run from it
If you‘ve got a blacklist I want to be on it
Bernstein’s book is recommended. As is Bragg's song.