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Thursday, May 26, 2011

HOT SPOTS in CA: The James Dean Memorial

James Dean billboard at the gas station, now a Texaco,
where he filled up his tank for the last time.

The situations that bring me around to certain celebrities are peculiar. True, it could be purely circumstantial-- the way I bounce from studying one person to another. Yet, I cannot deny that there is a strange sort of synchronicity in my life, which brings different subjects to the forefront at the perfect time. I say this only to set up the unity that I forged with James Dean over the past couple of months. Not to get too personal, but I haven't been myself lately. For various reasons, I have found myself stuck, confused... Let's face it, I've been a deer in headlights. Getting to the source of my existential dilemma has not been an easy one, but the feelings of immobility and sometimes abject fear have been difficult to cope with. Particularly for me: a Grau, for whom Stagnation is synonymous with Death. As such, in retaliation against my mental and physical paralysis, there has been but one thought echoing in my mind: escape. All I have wanted to do is open the door, take off running, and not stop; hop a plane to anywhere and not look back. But mostly, I've felt the urge to jump in the car, turn the ignition, and just friggin' drive. The feeling of motion, and most particularly motion without purpose or pressure, has been tantamount. I needed to get away. Thus, my road trip brain child was born.

It is probably no surprise, considering my pedal-to-the-metal frame of mind, that James Dean (left) entered my thoughts. Thus, visiting the scene of his tragic crash site became item #1 on the itinerary. So, as I planned my getaway over the coming months-- which would include another visit to Hearst Castle, a trip to the Winchester Mystery Mansion, and a pilgrimage to poor Bettie Short's grave in Oakland-- I started re-boning up on my Jimmy info. Whereas, in the past, I had looked upon JD as a strange, otherworldly creature, one very different from  my all-too-grounded and responsible self, this time around I was able to find our commonalities. Strange as it sounds, driving brought us together. I could see his attraction to racing. In the same way that I love flying-- being in the air and completely out of control, and thus free-- I feel that at this juncture/crisis of my life, I can empathize with a racer's mindset. When all the world is crazy, when nothing is certain, when you can't shut off the pressure-filled voices in your head, there is a certain, profound beauty in being able to get behind the wheel and just drive, even if it's only in circles. These past weeks, I have even skipped my lunch break to simply drive-- not the best idea, gas prices being what they are-- but it relaxes me. And so, as the date for my trip grew closer, I was chomping at the bit to get in the driver's seat and get the Hell out of dodge. With my lovely mother serving as my co-pilot, I finally hit the open road on April 17, 2011. While all of my voyage would be enjoyable, it was the moments surrounding James that I will always remember. There comes a moment when researching all of these various people where I go, "Aha, I found you!" In keeping with the spirit of Hollywood's favorite speed demon, I found James Dean, thus, while gripping the steering wheel. Here are the locations were JD and I collided:

To begin my journey, I took the I-5 North. Starting out around 10am on a Sunday, Ma and I were blessed with no traffic. Had I wanted to remain more faithful to Jimmy's drive, I would have veered onto the 99 North, which was the highway he took before the 5 even existed, but I stayed on the more modern course. After about 2 hours, I hit CA Route 46 and followed it West. Knowing that I was getting closer to the famous crash site, I started getting antsy. The area grew less populated as we passed through the small town of Lost Hills. A school, a few small shops, and a dusty field full of oil rigs (made me think of Jett Rink) met our view. Then, there was nothing but land and a two-lane highway (under construction nonetheless). I gradually became hyper-aware of my surroundings as well as the astonishingly low speed limit. The sun was shining, the day was beautiful, and it would have been so easy to push the pedal down a little, but for the knowledge of James's fate-- and for fear of getting a ticket-- I maintained the designated pace. Going 55 mph was bad enough, but when it got down to 45 mph, it was almost intolerable. Despite this, I was in high spirits. I noticed that all of the cars around me were driving respectfully, though some did dare to up the ante and pass me. Passers-by were cautious, turning on their headlights in the mandatory headlight zone, and I found myself wondering if this strange stipulation was enforced specifically because of what had happened to Dean, or if many others had suffered injuries or lost their lives on this same road due to hazardous driving? I too wondered if the other cars were aware of the sacred ground they rolled upon or were simply passing through. There did seem to be a strange, communal understanding in the atmosphere. (Jimmy pulls away in "Little Bastard," right).

Then, on my left, I saw the Texaco-- the last gas station for several miles, and James Dean's last stop before his wreck. Passing quickly, I was able to catch a glimpse of the two artistic billboards dedicated to him, now marking the infamous site, and continued on, making a mental note to return later. Onward we drove. Again, I felt nothing but freedom-- the joy of life purely in the moment and without consequence. Underneath the bright sun, listening to my iPod on shuffle, life was good. This too is something that JD allegedly said to driving partner Rolf Wutherich as they headed down this same road: "Life is good." In this moment, I felt Dean's happiness; the simple purity of his life, otherwise so riddled with conflict. This was what made him happy, and his absolute fearlessness enveloped me as I continued on. Finally, I hit the 46/41 intersection, now known as the "James Dean Memorial Junction" (left). Over 55 years ago, on September 30, 1955, this was where Jimmy met his doom when Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed failed to see him while merging from the CA-41 onto the CA-46. Yet, in the present, while taking note of the locale's importance, I felt no despair. Today was about life, not death. I passed on, leaving the bleak end of James behind and embracing only his life.

Not long after, we arrived at the Jack Ranch Cafe, home to the memorial sculpture designed by Seita Ohnishi in James Dean's honor. Ma and I pulled over, parked the car, and investigated the simple yet sublime monument. Erected in 1977, the silver, clean-lined marker stands in the center of the diner parking lot, surrounded only by green hills stretching as far as the eye can see. The sculpture remains wrapped around the "Tree of Life," as stipulated by Ohnishi, whose Japanese brethren consider this flora to be sacred. It also possesses a quote from one of Jimmy's favorite pieces of literature, The Little Prince: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." A set of plaques commemorate the brief but impactful life of Dean, and there too is a plaque honoring Ohnishi's tribute and the method behind his design. While this location is not Dean's exact crash site, nor his grave site, it still possesses a powerful presence-- an energy of a brilliant life left behind. It was heart-warming to enjoy it, however briefly, and after kissing the shrine goodbye, my partner and I giddy-upped to Paso Robles, where we toasted James at the Dark Star Cellars winery.

Jimmy's memorial at The Jack Ranch Cafe. It reads:
James Dean 1931 Feb 8 - 1955 Sep 30 pm 5:59 (and the symbol for eternity).

To visit the memorial, visit The Jack Ranch Cafe on Route 46 at 19215 East Hwy 46, Shandon, CA 93461. If you punch this into your GPS and arrive at your destination only to be met with nothing but empty fields, never fear. Just keep driving. You can't miss it, for this lone building is the only structure for several miles.

My story didn't end there. After leaving Paso Robles behind and travelling up North, Ma and I returned back South down the I-5 three days later. Remembering that we had neglected to stop at the Texaco when visiting the James Dean Memorial, we elected to make one last, quick stop before returning home. Hopping back on the 46 West yet again, we approached the infamous gas station. Yet, as the sun began to set, the atmosphere became quite different from our initial voyage down the same road. Perhaps it was merely the quickly darkening sky-- which made me worry that we wouldn't make it in time to take pictures-- or perhaps it was just the melancholy knowledge that my brief vacation was almost over, but this time I felt a bit sad. If trip #1 down Route 46 represented James's life, trip #2 suddenly felt like his death. A sense of foreboding fell on my shoulders. I became oddly anxious and nervous, especially as cars whizzed past me heedless of the low speed limit-- very different from the drivers I'd encountered previously. As the sun continued to dip down behind the hills, I kept thinking, "Time is running out. Time is running out..." Telling indeed. The liberated feeling of endless possibilities was gone. In its place was the curse of an irreparable ending.

Luckily, just as I was about to give up hope, the Texaco came into view. I made a left and managed to take a few pictures of the Dean billboards, which bookend the lot. One pictures him standing in his red windbreaker, as he appeared in Rebel Without a Cause. The second is a bust of his youthful face surrounded by flowers as he appeared in East of Eden. Walking into the store, which was once the Blackwell's Corner Market (right), there was little to greet the eye. A large space, it was mostly empty, filled with scattered patrons and a few aisles of snacks and knick-knacks. On one wall, some life-sized cardboard cut-outs of JD and Marilyn Monroe were on display. Further in the shop came a surprise: a large dining space made to look like a retro, Hollywood Diner a la Googies or Mel's. Sitting at the soda fountain was a dummy, dressed to look like James but failing miserably. Strange to think that 55 years ago, Jimmy had come into this store, then a very different environment, paid for his full tank, and taken off to meet his doom a mere 40 miles away. Downtrodden, but making my peace with it, I filled up my own tank, and then Mama Mia and I hopped back in my broken down car and returned to Los Angeles. My James voyage was sadly over.

James Dean's Rebel billboard at the infamous Texaco.

To visit the Texaco, again make the stop down the CA-46 at 17193 Highway 46, Lost Hills, CA 93249. It is about a third of the way between the I-5 and the JD memorial.  

While these areas don't really give you much to do but meander and reminisce, they are still worth visiting. They are landmarks on the road maps of true fans and those out to pay their respects through physical pilgrimage. For those looking for a way to burn off steam while burning rubber, the drive itself is quite relaxing, and at least gives you an ending point, so you're not wandering in circles. I chose the simpler route, but if you are a huge Dean fan, I suggest taking the following itinerary, which stays as true as possible to the last drive of that wonderful, adorable, deeply missed James Dean. While sitting back and watching a movie can provide a pleasant enough form of escape, it can at times prove too passive. Living and feeling without consequence is temporarily liberating, but finally limiting. When you can't take life sitting down, sometimes you must go out and meet it... and occasionally old ghosts. Happy trails.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Has Anybody Seen... James Dean???

It is commonly accepted that James Dean appeared in only three films. Accepted, but untrue. One of James's first big breaks came when he was featured in the film Has Anybody Seen My Gal (left)? A bit part, his big screen moment amounted to him ordering a sundae from Charles Coburn. Hardly groundbreaking... In fact, after Dean's death, the film's star, Piper Laurie, had no idea that she had even been in a film with the late, great James Dean until it was pointed out to her. However, the film's other star, Rock Hudson, would remember Dean when they were cast together once more in Giant. Rock was not amused at the reunion, and (despite gossip to the contrary), he and James did not get along. Mutually threatened by the other's presence, Rock and James rarely conversed and constantly competed for the attention of Elizabeth Taylor, a friend to both. Perhaps it was a simple clash of egos; perhaps the more congenial Rock simply couldn't get around James's idiosyncratic behavior. But, perhaps Rock was a little jealous of the fact that the runt, bit player he once towered over had grown exponentially in popularity since Has Anybody Seen My Gal, and was now stealing scenes from him to boot!

James also did a lot of television work, which isn't popularly recalled. His television debut came via an Easter special-- "The Family Theater: Hill Number One" (right). In it, he played John the Apostle. His first professional part on film and he was cast opposite both struggling actors and seasoned thespians alike, including Raymond Burr, Ruth Hussey, Roddy McDowall, Gene Lockhart, and Leif Erickson. A struggling nobody at the time, his fame would surpass them all within 4 years when he made Elia Kazan's classic East of Eden. But, he did get some notice at the time. His first foray into film acting also spawned his first small fan club, whose meetings he gladly attended! After all, the boy loved attention...

After her days in the Hollywood limelight had faded, which was just fine with her, Jean Arthur (left) had some intermittent bouts teaching dramatics. One gig found her at Vassar in the spring of 1968 as co-instructor with Clint Atkinson. The odd-ball lady's teaching skills were often reported as sub-par, but her students normally fell under her spell nonetheless-- that is, after they realized who she was. In the days before Cable, DVDs, and Netflix, becoming familiar with celebrities of the glory days was not as easy as it is in present society. In fact, it seemed at times that Jean herself had forgotten her stature. The once famous screwball queen of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town no longer saw herself as anyone of import, and she  always remained humbled by other performers. Never recognizing her own talents, it wasn't uncommon for her to become tongue tied around someone she found truly gifted. For example, she once went to one of the plays Atkinson directed, "Miss Julie," and was so blown away by the lead female's performance that she forgot her own status and gushed: "It was just like watching a movie star!" It was a prophetic moment, for the young drama major Meryl Streep went onto a very healthy and groundbreaking cinematic career.

Meryl, as she appeared in her Vassar days.

Jean wasn't the only one responsible for accidentally spotting one of Hollywood's predestined diamonds in the rough. In 1944, actor Ronald Reagan (right in Knute Rockne All American) was already dabbling in politics and matters of state when he was made a Lieutenant of the army's First Motion Picture Unit. Coincidentally, he had the idea to boost the war effort by sending photographers out to take pictures of women doing their part for battle. As such, photographer Corporal David Conover was sent to Radioplane at the Glendale Metropolitan Airport to photograph pretty girls hard at work a la Rosie the Riveter. Conover was particularly taken with one beauty, whom his camera truly seemed to favor. After the pictures were printed, it was clear that the rest of America favored her too. Before she knew it, she was working steadily as a model for Emmeline Snively. Soon after changing her name from Norma Jeane Dougherty to Marilyn Monroe, and getting a divorce, she would work her tail off in the film biz and become a famous movie star. I wonder if she ever thanked ol' Ron for the boost?

This Norma Jeane had a long way to go before
she became Marilyn Monroe.

Harpo Marx adored children. The product of a large family himself, it was only natural that the Marx boy with the biggest heart would want a huge brood of his own. He and wife Susan Fleming would eventually adopt four children, all of whom worshipped their Pops, who was more of a child than they were most of the time. George Burns, a good friend, was so moved by Harpo's paternal penchants that he asked why he felt the need to have so many kids? Harpo responded-- with actual speech-- that his dream was to leave the house in the morning and have a smiling face waving to him from every window. I guess he was one kid short, because when shooting Horse Feathers in 1932, he became completely enchanted with a young actress who was ambling about the set with her mother. Though a very pretty little girl, Harpo mostly admired her spunk and unique talent, particularly because it was presented in such a small package. He offered to adopt the sweet pipsqueak for $50,000-- probably in jest, but with Harpo you never know. Shirley Temple decline the offer and stayed with her biological parents. Whoda thunkit? She could have been Shirley Marx-- part of the act!  But then, she was probably too mature for the rest of that gang.

Shirley feeds her belly, while Harpo feeds her ego.

There's no business like show business and no business so tough. It certainly helps to have a few people on your side, especially when it's family. However, the delightful singing trio of The Andrews Sisters-- Maxine, Patty, and Laverne (right)-- still had to overcome the same hurdles, despite having each other to lean on. Their one-two-three punch wasn't as original a gimmick as they'd hoped either. When staying in Chicago, it just so happened that another triplet of singing sisters were staying at the same hotel. At first, despite the age difference between the two sets, there was a little rivalry. Maxine used to rush to the building's rehearsal space in the morning to secure it for her sisters and lock the other intruders out. However, the ice was broken when the youngest member of the other group, nicknamed "Babe," asked to listen to the Andrews rehearse. Unable to say "No" to the adorable little girl, the sisters agreed. After singing awhile, they in turn asked Babe to offer up a song. When Frances Gumm opened her mouth and belted out "Bill" like nobody's business, the Andrews girls were left with their mouths hanging open. Maxine was so moved, she cried! Immediately, the  rivalry between the Andrews Sisters and The Gumm Drops disappeared and they became fast friends and allies. The Gumms would soon disband, but Judy Garland's voice had no problem going solo.

The Gumm Drops: Mary Jane, "Jimmie," and Judy.

And finally, in recognition of a recent royal wedding: Powerhouse actresses Olivia De Havilland and Grace Kelly were not formally acquainted in 1955. Divided by a generation gap, Grace was but one of the younger actresses in Hollywood who was taking on roles that would have once gone to diva extraordinaire Olivia. There were no hard feelings. Olivia was happily married to husband number two, Pierre Galante, and excited about her new life in France (happy coupled pictured left). However, she hadn't completely waved goodbye to Hollywood and was still active in the biz. Pierre used this to his advantage when, as movie editor of Paris-Match Magazine, he was looking for a good scoop in the featured Cannes Film Festival article. Knowing that Grace had been wooed to the event, he decided to use the aid of his wife, luckily a fellow actress, to arrange a fantastic story: "Hollywood Princess Grace Kelly meets Prince Rainier III of Monaco!" With Olivia as his co-conspirator, the duo offered to show Grace around Monaco, and "oh, by the way," introduce her to the Prince. Grace, who was actually quite bashful, begrudgingly agreed, and Pierre set up the meeting. However, there were scheduling conflicts, and after both parties finally settled on a decent time, Rainier still kept them waiting while running late from another engagement. Luckily, Olivia was there to keep Grace occupied with conversation. Had she not held her, Grace probably would have shrugged her shoulders and returned to the festival. Luckily, just as Grace was rising to leave, Rainier appeared, and offered her a tour of the palace, which she had already seen but out of kindness perused again. Afterward, Grace mildly reported to Olivia: "Well, he's very charming." Mission accomplished. The captured pictures were a sensation and the article was a hit. Little did Olivia and Pierre know that they had not only scored a scoop but had too shot the arrow of love.

Kate and William who??? Grace and Prince Rainier are wed just shy
of a year after their first meeting, thanks to O de H.

Friday, May 13, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

There are many key identifiers that can clue you into someone's personality: the clothes he wears, the type of dog he has, or the way he decorates his home par exemple. Even more key is perhaps, not so much the car he drives, but the way he behaves behind the wheel after he's turned the ignition. As such, it sometimes seems that lives of danger or tragedy are prefaced in a star's vehicular life. Here are a few tales of Cars vs. Karma. "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

(I apologize. I published this on Thurs 5/12, but somehow it disappeared overnight. Here it is again. Sorry for the repeat)!!!

James enjoyed whipping around town on a motorcycle
when such vehicles were still seen as a novelty.

Because of the way James Dean lived and because of the way he died, it is difficult to imagine him anywhere but behind the wheel of a car. In addition to his famous "chicken" race in Rebel Without a Cause, Jimmy also did a lot of racing in his private life. In accordance, he picked up more than a few tickets from the po-po, including one on the day of his tragic death: James was pulled over for going 10 miles over the 55 mph speed limit. After receiving the citation, he glumly accepted his error and conceded that he had better slow down, if not for his own safety, then to make sure that Little Bastard didn't get worn out before its first big race in Salinas. (Jimmy named his Porsche 550 Spyder "Little Bastard" because that's what his pal, stunt driver, Bill Hickman, called him. He in turn called Bill "Big Bastard"). Sadly, even though Jimmy eased up on his lead foot, he neglected to put on his seat-belt. Not too long after receiving his ticket, Jimmy was struck at the 41/46 junction when an opposing car came into his lane. This spot now bears his name in memoriam: The James Dean Junction.

James checks out his car in preparation for his race.

Up until this point, Jimmy had been invincible behind the wheel. His father, Winton, once remarked, when reminiscing about his son's early motorbike stunts, that "If he'd only fallen once, things might have been different." Yet, even as a child, while JD suffered the usual cuts and bruises, he always seemed to walk away from his daredevil feats unscathed. (The worst he was to suffer was losing his four front teeth while playing acrobats with friends in the barn. Even this, he shook off). His impenetrability was not pure luck, but the product of intense focus. A powerful driver, Jimmy seemed to be almost hypnotized when behind the wheel, always remaining perfectly in control and unruffled. Yet, James did suffer a minor catastrophe when driving in a Memorial Day race in Santa Barbara. Jimmy bent the rules by entering the race in the first place, for George Stevens had requested that he lay off racing during the filming of Giant. During the competition, James started out in eighteenth place. Before he could gain much ground, another Porsche swerved in front of him, cutting him off and nearly hitting his bumper. To avoid the collision, James stealthily veered his car to the side, where it luckily hit only hay bales. Dave Watson, who was watching, said that had it not been for Jimmy's ability, the accident could have been fatal. Luckily, "he didn't miss a trick." James pulled himself together and worked his way back into fourth place before he was forced to pull out-- his engine blew under the strain. Perturbed at his loss, James remained cool as a cucumber. Better luck next time, he thought. For now, he and his automobile exited unhurt.

Wallace Reid (left) too had a knack for car racing. From an early age, and far before he'd acquired a license, Wally enjoyed racing around in his parents' car. This need for speed would continue into adulthood, where neighbors grew accustomed to Wally blazing through town in his various automobiles, usually accustomed with a horn that tooted out the latest song. In keeping with his racing films like The Roaring Road, which he remains most famous for, Wally also entered into competitions in real life. In those days, there was an open track-- The Santa Monica Race Route-- composed of Ocean Ave, Wilshire Blvd, and San Vicente Blvd. The area where the then dirt roads of Ocean and Wilshire met in a sharp 90-degree turn was known as "Dead Man's Curve." Wally was proud when he set the new record high for this turn at 110 mph. But Wally's carefree, innocent immaturity behind the wheel came at a price. He had many collisions, scrapes, and mishaps. On Jan. 22, 1913, he was driving so recklessly up Mountain Road to Parma Park that he and his friends careened off the road and were literally hanging over the edge. The car couldn't be removed, so they had to leave it dangling until assistance could be found. But, more horrendously, Wally would be in a tragic car accident when he and pal Thomas Ince were rushing down the PCH in 1915. The facts remain fuzzy, as there was the usual subsequent studio cover-up, but Wally, who had probably been drinking, lost control of his vehicle and slammed into another car, which carried a family of five. The father was killed, and the mother and three children where seriously injured. Thomas too suffered a broken collar bone. Wally walked away from his totaled car with only cuts and bruises. The damage he did to himself psychologically was another story. When he later came to bury his personal pains in morphine, this is but one of the episodes he was running from.

Steve McQueen was another actor who seemed perfectly positioned in a sleek sports car (see right). Like James Dean, Steve loved the thrill of a race. Friend and co-star James Garner would recall this fire foot causing a ruckus in Germany when they were filming The Great Escape. Along with doing many of his own driving stunts, Steve was always returning to the set with another speeding ticket-- he was constantly getting into trouble with the local authorities for his reckless driving. An interesting story involves not his driving acuity but his mental stealth. When filming the series "Wanted: Dead or Alive," he was irked when the show wouldn't give him time off the shoot the film The Magnificent Seven. In response, he purposely crashed his car so that he could claim injury. When the studio gave him time to recuperate, Steve neglected his bed rest and shot The Magnificent Seven instead. After Steve was all healed aka the movie had wrapped, he returned to work on the TV series as fresh as a daisy. Clearly, this was a guy operating on all cylinders.

Clark Gable (left) remains one of the biggest stars that MGM ever had. Nay, that moviedom ever had. Needless to say, he could afford to buy the best of the best, and he had definite taste when it came to his choice of vehicle. While he wasn't born with driving in his blood, there are rumors that some of the demons that drove him were the direct cause or result of various auto related events. Most memorably, Clark become incredibly morose after the death of his beloved Carole Lombard, and he took to motoring rapidly through the Hollywood Hills as if to tempt fate with his own life. Lucille Ball, a close buddy of Carole's, was a good friend to Clark at this time and was one of the many urging him to pull in the reigns. Rumor has it that he took more than a few spills, but he finally got a lot of his anger and regret out when he served valiantly in WWII in Carole's memory. Previous to this, there was another Clark controversy. There is still debate over whether or not the following is true, but many in Hollywood would recall Clark making a frenzied call to Howard Strickling in 1933. He had allegedly hit and killed a pedestrian when drunkenly turning onto Sunset Boulevard! If true, MGM did its best to cover up the hit-and-run and salvage their growing star's name. Legend has it that MGM paid a studio employee to take the blame, offering him a lifetime's employment at the studio. Interestingly, as author E.J. Fleming adeptly pointed out, the heretofore unknown MGM man John Huston was reported in the papers to have hit actress Tosca Roulien on Sept 22, 1933. Huston went to court, the accident was ruled as such, and the case was closed. John, of course, went on to enjoy quite a healthy directing career. But, did he have Clark to thank for this?

While Frances Farmer didn't suffer any major collisions that I can recall, she did survive one wreck of a life, and a lot of it is due to a 1942 altercation over her driving. Frances was a fiery and impassioned actress, smart and perhaps a little too reactionary. When leaving a party one night, during war time, she was pulled over for having her headlights on in a dim out zone. Frances, predictably, resisted her citation, which quickly escalated into an arrest. The defiant girl was hauled into jail and charged for a DUI-- which obviously wasn't the source of the argument. In any case, Frances paid an initial fee and was let go, but she failed to completely pay the full charge. This resulted in a bench warrant for her arrest. When a hairdresser later accused her of dislocating her jaw on the set, it was all the police needed to go after Frances and haul her in, guns blazing. She was located at The Knickerbocker Hotel, dragged through the lobby wearing allegedly nothing but a shower curtain, and subsequently locked up in a mental institution, with her loving [haha] mother acting as legal guardian and holding the key. Damn those headlights... Ironically, Frances would later be given a car when she appeared on the show "This Is Your Life" in 1958 after her "rehabilitation." Her career, however, never recovered from the scandal nor the false accusations of insanity. Like too many other strong, independent women, Frances was punished for her brazenness. In the old days, she would have been burned as a witch. In Hollywood, it was her fame that was left to fizzle. (Frances films Flowing Gold with John Garfield, right).

Veronica Lake could also be described as a hot-tempered little dollop. When filming I Wanted Wings, which was to be her first major hit, she was often picked on and chewed out by director Mitchell Leisen. While Veronica would stand silently and take the tirades, which were incredibly humiliating, she did find her way to fight back. After one particular yelling match, Veronica jumped in her car and raced off to new hubby John Detlie, neglecting to tell anyone where she was going. That Mitch could kiss her canola, for all she cared! However, one should never drive angry, especially when on the verge of tears. While hurrying to reach her beloved, her car began to slide on the surprisingly icy roads of Needles, CA. Suddenly, she spun out of control and went spilling over the side of the mountain, nose first, flipping over and over. The tough cookie was luckily numbed by the snow and cold, and it took time for her to realize the pain in her knee or the fact that her toes were broken. Looking a bloody mess, she somehow managed to climb the hill back to the road where she flagged down a passing pickup. Inside, a surprised farmer and his family looked at the bloody beauty like she was nuts, but they still gave her a ride to town. She eventually made it to John, and when the studio located her, she had even more motivation to tell them to stick it where the sun doesn't shine. She got her way, and returned to work, where Mitch was forced by the studio to hold his tongue. (Ronni wisely lets Joel McCrea handle the driving, left in Sullivan's Travels).

Howard Hughes is more renowned for his abilities in the cockpit (as seen right), but he too had some adventures on wheels. When squiring his latest infatuation, Ava Gardner, the two went out dancing at The Cocoanut Grove. Howard was irked that Ava remained immune to his charms or money. The following situation didn't help matters. Upon leaving the club, Howard stopped at a red light to see another car also in wait in the opposing lane. Beads of sweat started to trickle down when he realized that the other driver was his seventeen-year-old protege/fiance Faith Domergue, driving the very car he had given her for her birthday. Gulp. Faith recognized Howard too, and when the light turned green, she busted a u-ey and started following the flustered couple. Weaving in and out of the lane, she nearly caused a wreck, forcing Howard to pull into an empty parking lot on Fairfax to avoid disaster, or so he thought. Faith immediately pulled around, lined herself up directly against the passenger side, gave Ava the look of death, and started ramming the car repeatedly. Luckily, another passerby entered the altercation, which brought things to a halt, and Howard asked the stranger to take the fuming Ava home. Howard was left to repair the damage and console his irate, immature mistress, but the damage had been done.

Superman George Reeves (left) had many auto altercations, as well. In fact, toward the end of his life, he had so many uncanny accidents and near death vehicular incidents that it seemed that it was more than just fate that had it in for the hero. The source of this bad karma was probably directly related to his recent break-up with Toni Mannix, wife of Eddie Mannix-- the MGM man with mob connections. Toni was more than miffed when her darling boy left her for the younger-- albeit not classier-- Lenore Lemmon. Consequently, in 1958, while driving his Alvis, (ironically a gift from Toni), he experienced a little rough driving from two passing, black cars. Luckily, this time around, the intimidation resulted in nothing more than George being a bit spooked, and he shook it off. Not much later, he was nearly plowed down in front of his home by a similar dark car. He had to dive onto his front lawn to avoid being hit! Then, in April of 1959, George was out in his new Jaguar. The new car didn't bring him better luck, for as he was rolling down the hills of Benedict Canyon, he realized that his breaks weren't working. Struggling to maintain control, he ran into a light pole at Easton Drive. When the cops arrived, they found that the actor had nearly gone through his windshield and had suffered a severe gash to his forehead, which required thirty stitches. They also found that all of George's brake fluid had been drained. Clearly, whoever was out to get George realized that vehicular manslaughter wasn't gonna do it. He was found dead with a bullet in his brain on June 16, 1959. Of course, it was ruled a suicide.

That being said, drive safely...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

PERSONAL NOTE: Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

James Dean represents the salt of the earth and the bitter pill 
of the American struggle in Giant.

I didn't always understand the Western. It seemed too select, too geared toward a certain demographic, too cliched... In the modern day of Political Correctness, watching the token battles of Cowboys vs. Indians seemed a bit silly to say the least. I was never exposed to these films, thus my curiosity and appreciation for the genre remained dormant for several years, while I studied Noir, Musicals, Horror, etc. With a little prodding from Armando Jose Prats, (a man under whom I had the privilege of studying at the good ol' University of KY and author of Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western), my eyes were finally opened to the beauties of the Western and its many versions of the American epic. Perhaps more than any other type of cinema, the Western epitomizes, glorifies, and translates the core of Americana, while other branches of the artistic medium are left to merely dissect its mutations. At long last, I "get" the Western, and having been awarded this second sight, I have too suffered a painful repercussion, for I witness in current society a compete dearth of like films. The recent remake of True Grit by the Coen Brothers, which was widely hailed and popularly ignored, and my recent reevaluation of James Dean's last film, Giant, made me start asking questions about this filmic fiasco. As such, pardon the following tangent:

The Western is no longer comprehensible to modern audiences. Why? Because the Western by default investigates and poeticizes the American Frontier. Today, it seems like such a thing doesn't even exist, nor is it fathomable that it ever did. For those of us who came of age in the silver spoon era of the Internet, technology has become our frontier. We adventure and explore realms of megabytes, gigabytes, iPhones, iPads, faster connections, more RAM, etc, etc, etc. Our experience of human evolution is inseparable from the Computer's metamorphosis. I remember my family's first Apple computer. The thing was slow as Hell and black & white. Today, I can watch a living color movie on the Blackberry I hold in my hand. In this era, which is not about land, roads, or even outer space, our final realm of conquest is unseen to the naked eye. We travel on highways of signals and waves. We cannot make a physical pilgrimage across the microchips we depend upon; we travel only mentally. It is because of this that our appreciation of the Western has suffered. (Gary Cooper and Mary Brian in The Virginian, left)

In the filmic terrain of the wild west, land is everything (as in The Massacre, right). Americana, the masculine identity, the establishment of country, and family roots are always dissected. This represents the very establishment of our country: people making a great and daring move to the unknown, staking their claim, and creating a foundation upon which to build a life. Land, the earth, and the eternal struggle of claiming it and building upon it: that was what the West was all about. Sadly, the treatment of the American Indian was rarely portrayed with accuracy-- somehow, when history was brought to life in technicolor, the Native who had been kicked off his land was the bully, and the white man with the steel toe boots was the innocent victim. (This philosophy was later brilliantly mocked in Little Big Man). However, the ideals, if not the facts, remain in tact. Today's civilization does not face the same challenges as the frontiersman. In the beginning, we built up and out, and now that we've hit the roof on physical structure, we're downsizing. 

Strange as it sounds, Tron Legacy (left) is one of the only films that has accurately portrayed this alteration. Tron is a Cyber-Western. Because man can no longer build out literally, so he must build inwardly in the landscapes of cyberspace. An alternate universe and dimension is created in Tron-- a new America produced by Jeff Bridges's very God-like figurehead. A pure people-- natives-- is being wiped out by an invading new breed of computer-generated beings-- foreign invaders-- when a renegade outsider/cowboy saunters into town. He journeys in the name of his father to inherit the burden of the land that he made. He arrives, in the quest of his roots, to better know himself. While there is no dual at dawn with pistols, there is an electronic Circus Maximus battle with Frisbee... thingies. There are no horses, but there are magic wands that turn into motorbikes. This film was, thus, our first adventure into our new mythical, technological frontier. In a surprising sort of way, it represents our generation's Star Wars in that it has opened up a new universe for us to play in. After all, with nowhere else to go on planet earth, the only realm left for expansion seems to be that of imagination.

But does this new mutation possess the same heart and depth of its predecessor, the true American Western? The films that made heroes of John Wayne (right in Stagecoach)Gary Cooper, and Alan Ladd, were not sleek, streamlined, and pumping with adrenaline. They were dirty, gritty, violent, and brimming with an integrity that both survived and was born of these factors. Man and God, God and Country... These were things worth fighting for, which too seems like an insane proposition considering the pagan society we live in presently, where our golden idols of pop stars and green tea smoothies have eclipsed any prospect of a "higher power." If God does exist at all, he cannot exist in this America. The heavy fabric of smog, cell phone signals, and radio waves make it impossible for him to penetrate our world. And besides, we're not looking to the heavens above for guidance when we have Google. In the previously expansive continent of the unknown, America demanded His participation far more. Modern faith interprets the old faith of the Western, thus, with cynicism.

This snobbery is a shame, for Westerns are a reflection of our very nature. The society in which we currently live is unarguably the ancestor of the pioneer society. Before racism was explored in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, John Wayne portrayed early American prejudice in The Searchers. Before gang warfare became synonymous with inner-city life, it was graphically detailed in the violent, survivalistic camaraderie of The Wild Bunch (left). While people continue to bicker back and forth about politics-- left wing, right wing, who's right, who's wrong-- they sometimes forget that at one point there were no "wings" at all; that our entire political system, government, and right to a free life was not born in a day. This subject too is showcased in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where structure, order, and bravery overcome lawlessness and subjugation; where man's ability to govern himself and escape oppression reveals itself in the establishment of government.

Giant is a film that reflects all of these qualities. While it is not remembered as the pinnacle Dean film, an honor that belongs to Rebel Without a Cause, it is just as important to our cinematic history and just as indicative of our cultural history. The small town of Marfa, and indeed the whole state of Texas, was not initially keen on the idea of this famous novel being turned into a movie. They felt that Edna Ferber's account of their lifestyle was negative and accusatory. However, director George Stevens used his charm to convey to the locals that he was dedicated to telling their own story, a faithful and true depiction of country life and morality, and not a glamorized Hollywood concoction. His diligent striving for this authenticity is one of the many contributing factors that has allowed Giant to maintain its classic stature. Stevens asked locals to teach his actors how to speak with the proper Texan twang, he used them as advisers on farm life, and many of these small town people served as Extras in the big Hollywood film. Most particularly, the Marfa community embraced James Dean, who probably spent more time with the cowboys, who taught him to ride and lasso, than he did with the rest of his cast. He studied their accents until his original Indiana drawl was drawn out into the bashful and broken Southern dialect of the tragic hero Jett Rink.

The film's themes were universal: racism, interracial romance, honor, wealth, roots, gender roles, family, and above all land. Cowboy and rodeo man Bob Hinkle was proud to refer to his new friend Jimmy (left) as a "good ol' boy," and it was because of his instruction that James so adeptly stole one famous scene from powerhouse actor Rock Hudson: while Jordan Benedict (Rock) tries to outwit Jett (Jimmy) from a piece of land, offering him money instead, Jett barely listens, playing all the while with a piece of rope. He then stands, performs a little trick in which he ties a knot in mid-air, politely refuses the dough, keeps his land, and exits with his now notorious Jett Rink wave. This, to the locals, was Texas: a simple man, building himself up from nothing, who knew that there was more value and dignity in the soil beneath his feet than in all of the money in the world. Of course, the opposing forces of Jett and Jordan are later inverted. After Jett strikes oil, his greed and need for power, his desire to one-up Jordan (the man who had it all: the land, the money, and the woman of his dreams), destroys him, while the older Jordan unlearns his old prejudices, adapts to the changing times, and finds true honor inside himself after he witnesses the fruits of his labor maturing into a different generation of life-- one that he still loves, because it is of his blood.

Another important moment comes from Elizabeth Taylor, who takes one of the first feminist stances in Western cinema history when she defies her own stereotype (right with Rock). From the beginning, her culture and forward-thinking politics combat her new husband Jordan's old-fashioned ways. It is she who enters the ghettos of the Mexican laborers; it is she who talks to her servants as equals. It is she who too stands up against a crowd of smoking men, whose conversation she would like to share. After she is insulted by them, told not to worry her "pretty, little head" about politics, she snaps back. "You mean my pretty, empty head, don't you!?" (Only Bette Davis can match Liz in her bitchy retorts). Liz as Leslie Benedict too represents the eternal mother, one who not only nurtures her children's wishes, even when they digress from old traditions, but embraces Jett and his need to better himself, and indeed envelopes the whole community as it struggles to thrive. Giant, in cinematic history, thus remains a giant, for not only does it explore old American themes, but it expands upon them, breaks them, and translates them to future generations. We recognize the battles of our forefathers while honoring them with change. We evolve, yet maintain our roots.

This is what is lacking today. There are no roots. There is no history. Every day is brand new. Thus, there is no room for the Cowboy. His struggles are forgotten, and his battles of saddle and spur are, in turn, received as visual gibberish. He is as mythic as Zeus on Mt. Olympus. In the old West, the cowboy was God, even when sitting and smoking in his little shack, watching the sun rise and fall, or riding off into the sunset. He had what we do not, which is an America of the earth, not an America at the push of a button. Though the cowboy is the figure that will forever represent the heart of America, he exists today as the mysterious foreigner who does not fit into modern movies. Today, we are concerned with action; yesterday, man was defined by his actions.

Shane (Alan Ladd) has trouble leaving behind little Joey.

 Shane perhaps best epitomizes the last hurrah of the cowboy, with Alan Ladd's Shane riding into town, bringing with him a history of violence, yet an honor and a dignity that shakes up and alters local life. His brief presence forever changes the land he has set foot upon. But, at the end, he must leave. He must bow his head and ride away, for he has nothing more to teach. What is done with the knowledge he has left behind is up to those who remain. He rides off into the distance to new territory, but perhaps more symbolically to Heaven. His disappearance leaves behind a vacancy, a curiosity. Was he a man, or was he a ghost? Whatever the case, he stands as the spirit of America, a land that, like the Lost City of Atlantis, can only be visited in the movies.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Hollywood's Favorite Rebel: James Dean

Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy... Why'd ya' do it? Over fifty years later, your absence still aches. The whole trouble with legends is that their reputation often eclipses their talent. Just as Marilyn and Elvis tend to disappear behind all of the hullabaloo said about them, so too has Dean become more of a symbol than a human being. I've often been asked, "What's the big deal? Was he really that good?" I reply with a resounding slap and a "You bet your sweet life!" Yes, he was good. My God, was he good. The legacy he left behind is the result of an astounding and almost electric talent, one that set him completely apart from his contemporaries, and history has maintained his power. When he died, many would draw comparisons between his death and that of Rudolph Valentino. The effect was equally profound. As my grandmother Mary Lou put it, "I cried my eyes out." So, to prove my point, ask yourself: What celebrity today would I mourn with a like passion were his life to be suddenly snuffed out? Go ahead, I'm waiting...

Dean woos Julie Harris and the rest of America in his first 
breakthrough role in East of Eden.

You see? James was special. While the eruption of the method actor was spearheaded by the dual force of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, Dean's effect was perhaps even more poignant simply due to his age. It was his youth more than anything else that set him apart. He wasn't that foreign adversary called the "adult"-- someone that kids merely dressed up and pretended to be-- he was the angst ridden young man that they were. He represented their transition: the awkward stage when adolescence strives to become maturity. He was the being we all once were, and whom we had to survive, to reach adulthood. His embodiment of the confusion, rage, and rebellion that was suddenly being awakened in the dormant nuclear family society was one that every teen in American could relate to. He gave adolescence a face and a voice. His performances were both loud and silent, carefully cultivated, yet intensified by sudden bursts of improvisation. While Brando is attributed with creating a physical energy that enveloped the atmosphere, and Clift is the man who more fully brought to the surface the complications of inner emotion, Jimmy was the most adept at using his environment-- becoming a part of it, tangling with it, and moving through it as his own organism. There is not one piece of film where he does not look completely at home, completely attached to his surroundings, even if he is pounding his fists against it. He rests his chin on a wall, rolls on the ground, casually plucks leaves from a tree, or soaks in a burst of oil from the very earth he is rooted to all with equal ease.

Dean and Corey Allen prepare to play a game of chicken, 
because "You gotta do somethin'."

Oddly, in his personal life, Dean seemed to be rooted to nothing and no one except his own mania. His eccentricities were merely a part of what made him so alluring. Just how calculated his manner was remains a topic of controversy. His psyche suffered an early fracture with the premature passing of his mother, whom he adored, when he was but 9-years-old. Just as Gable would endure the ongoing saga of the little boy lost after his own mother's death, so too would James seem to be on a perpetual quest for the severed maternal love for which there is no replacement. Despite the fact that he would mature under the care of his loving aunt and uncle on their Indiana farm, he too would feel the eternal burn of abandonment on the part of his father, who sent him away initially because he was unable to care for him alone and more finitely when he was drafted into the war. Born of this dual loss was the classic Dean penchant for chronic searching. He became a frenetic and curious boy who was fascinated by everything, constantly on the move, competing and excelling at various sports, and raising Hell by speeding around town on his first motorbike. An early and innate gift for mimicry, which kept his peers rolling with laughter, would naturally translate to acting. He never really found within all of these things what he was looking for, but still he continued the hunt.

The classic image of Dean's cool: a car and a cigarette.

His ambidextrous nature would continue into his young adulthood, and while acting became the one thing that he remained solidly faithful to, his insatiable need for information made him thoroughly knowledgeable on a great many subjects: athletics, art, music, foreign languages, etc. He became an unpredictable creature. He would appear at a friend's doorstep with his drums, perform an interlude for a few hours, then abruptly disappear-- usually through the window. He would be full of smiles one moment, joking and laughing, and then become sullen and distant the next. There were two Deans: you either loved him and his idiosyncrasies, or you loathed him and his outlandish tomfoolery. Actually, there were more than two of him... Dean wore so many faces and represented so many different things to his friends that each knew him in a different way. This contributed to the continuing confusion as to just who he really was, including sexually. Friend Martin Landau knew one Dean and swore up and down that "This guy was not gay." College roommate and lifelong friend William Bast knew another Dean and claims that the two had an intermittent sexual relationship over the years. The nature of Dean's relationship with the Rev. James DeWeerd as a child also raises questions, as does the recently released revelation he made to the late Elizabeth Taylor, who claimed he confided to her his molestation by a minister as a youth. On the one hand, you have his deeply romantic love affair with Pier Angeli-- who is popularly recalled as the "one who got away" and whose wedding Dean sat outside, fuming on his motorcycle. On the other, there are the claims of Rogers Brackett-- who acted as a sort of patron for Dean when he was starting out and too claims that the two had a damaging and complicated affair. It is hard to find the clear and definitive line of truth. The theories are as various as the theorizers: he was a homosexual in denial or he was a bisexual that preferred women. People tend to imagine the Dean that they would have preferred. 

One of JD's goals as an actor was to make a Western, a 
hope fulfilled in George Stevens's Giant.

But perhaps this was all part of his plan. In any event, it had no impact on the public's worship. Whatever his sexual nature, he was masculine enough to maintain male respect and adulation, and sensitive and beautiful enough to continue making young girls swoon. His image, the James Dean he created in life and left behind in death, was part truth and part illusion. He tested his audiences in his private life as much as he did on the screen. His crazy shenanigans-- pulling his shirt over his head while he was eating to detract/attract attention, or his casually strolling into a stranger's home to help himself to a sandwich-- were things that he did consciously and unconsciously. He added to his own mystique, later becoming ensnared by the very enigma he had created. He once turned to a friend after being rude to a studio-head and asked, "If you ever figure out why I just did that, tell me will ya'?" Being his friend was, in fact, a challenge. He pulled stunts to push those closest away, trying to see who would remain faithful no matter what he pulled. To this day, no one can say with any certainty who the Hell James Dean was. He remains as the proverbial tree in the woods-- making even those who knew him best sometimes wonder if he even existed at all.

Dean and mechanic Rolf Weutherich prepare for Dean's last drive 
in "Little Bastard."

In the end, it became too complicated for James Dean to be James Dean. His insatiable love for acting, which took him from Los Angeles to New York and back again, had but one foe for the number one place in his heart: racing. Dean loved to drive. Not only did the speed fulfill his craving for pulsating adrenaline and invigorating stimuli, but it gave him escape. Behind the wheel, he was focused, in control, and away from both the madness of the world and his own uncertainties, insecurities, and emotions. It gave him strength, to defy and conquer danger at once. As in all things he tried, he excelled at driving. Many seasoned racers remarked on his "steel hands" and imperturbable focus, but most importantly his total lack of fear. Ironically, he was safer on the fiery and foreboding dirt paths of the racetrack than he was on the open road. A freak accident in 1955 on route 46 claimed the life of a man that fate alone had the power to kill. Herein do we find the popular slogans: "Live fast, die young" and "Too fast to live, too young to die." Dean would have been irked by this legacy. The youths who look up to him, who seek to emulate him by being "complicated," "dark," and "tortured," those who worship his offspring-- Morrison, Cobain, Phoenix-- by mirroring his tragedy, do not understand his passions. Dean hungered for life not death. While he openly admitted an uncanny premonition that he would not make it to thirty, he also was quoted as saying, (when questioned about his daredevil ways), that he would never purposely endanger his life, because he had too much to live for, too much he had yet to do, too much he wanted to learn. Dean was far from "done," and we were not yet finished with him when he was abruptly taken. Sadly, legends can only be born in death. 

Dean became good friends with photographer Dennis Stock, who took this "silly" photo, 
which would become morbidly popular after Jimmy's death.

The legend lives on in the many faces he left behind: the lost puppy you want to nurture, the fidgety rebel who makes you want to defy, and the beam of irrepressible sex appeal that makes you want to do many, many things.

~ ~ ~

In college, one of my professors told me that the scene in which Sal Mineo looks into his locker mirror in Rebel Without A Cause, and sees James Dean's face reflected back at him, is the most written about moment in cinematic history. I believe it. I believe it, because it is perhaps one of the most honest moments ever captured on film. All of us look onto the movie screen waiting to see little pieces of ourselves reflected back, and we look for them in the most beautiful of Hollywood's faces. Since Dean remains one of our most cherished idols, we to this day still look at him and see ourselves. He exteriorized our true demons and yet delivered his performances with a grace, a swagger, and a charm that we too hoped to possess. He was the man of our dreams and the self of our dreams. In trying to become all human beings, he succeeded only in making us want to be like him. He was just cool. Really, damn cool. Had he survived, there's no telling how much further his talent could have taken himself and us. His career, his human interpretation, his voyage had just begun. Oh Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy... Why'd ya do it?

James reveals himself as yet another Christ figure, here with 
Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.

Happy May.