Remembering Natalia (11.29.1981)

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Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in 1938 in San Francisco, the Russian emigre family name later changed to Gurdin, but we knew her as Natalie Wood, first appearing on film at age 4, lighting up the screen in the original Miracle On 34th Street at only 8, later to create memorable screen roles in Rebel Without A Cause, Splendor In The Grass, West Side Story, This Property Condemned, and my personal favorite, Love With The Proper Stranger from 1963/1964…earning three Oscar nominations along the way.

Sadly, it was on this date, November 29th in 1981, that Natalie Wood drowned off the Catalina coast in a boating accident that’s still shrouded in mystery.

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To say I’m a fan isn’t quite enough. Of course, Wood never played a true ‘femme fatale’, much less a gun moll, film noir heroine or even a real crook, unless you want to count the silly mid-sixties farce Penelope. But for some reason, it was always Natalie Wood that I pictured when envisioning my own creation, ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ – Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz, changed for obvious reasons), a 22-year old trying to make her way in the gritty brown-bricked bungalow rows of Chicago’s ethnic southwest side in 1959. Specifically, it’s the look of Natalie Wood from the early 1960’s, and her Angie Rossini character from Love With The Proper Stranger, like the NYC publicity shots shown above from that film. As Sharon Gardner herself relates, surveying the crowd from her all-too-familiar perch on a barstool in Silky’s cocktail lounge:

“…A decent looking type out for a few snorts after work on a Thursday evening was more likely to go for the loudmouthed lushes squeezed into their sparkly cocktail dresses. But enough liquor can turn me into Natalie Wood, when a fellow wants to believe it. Minus a few curves. And if it’s dark. Which Silky’s usually is.”

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Maybe she got screwed by producers when it came to showcasing obvious singing and dancing talents. Maybe it took a while for her to acquire well-deserved cred for her acting ability and to overcome the child-star label. No question that her prime years included some silly roles, the kind every star was arm-twisted into during the waning days of the studio system. But I just refer anyone unfamiliar with Wood’s work to some of those key films listed above. ‘Nuff said.

Natalie Wood: July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981. Gone at only 43. We can only imagine the work she left undone at such a young age, but will always have the work she left us with. Yeah, I’m a fan, and always will be.

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No Pumpkin Pie? We’ll Make Do With Cheesecake.

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There’s little to be found in the way of “Thanksgiving Noir” so you’ll forgive me if I serve up some cheesecake instead of pumpkin pie.

1950’s – 60’s sad siren Marilyn Monroe packing a gun would make for an iconic film noir photo. But when the rod’s a blunderbuss, and the cheesecake photoshoot’s scanty attire is a barely-there pilgrim costume instead of a fetching femme fatale’s frock, the results will be what they’ll be. I believe these were shot by Bert Stern in 1950, back when Ms. Monroe still had to put up with this nonsense.

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But it’s intriguing to note that Marilyn Monroe had some legit pilgrim credentials, supposedly a distant descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, certainly some of the most famous among the Mayflower’s passengers. If I’ve read things correctly, Monroe was a seven-times-great-granddaughter of the Aldens through their eldest child, Elizabeth. Of course, neither Priscilla nor Elizabeth were known for showing off their shapely gams in back-seamed fishnets.

And with that, a Happy Turkey Day to you too.

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Blues In The Dark

Blues in The Dark

L.A. indie film producer Karissa Glover is in the final stages of a messy divorce from a B-grade action film star and needs a new place to live. Like now. Coincidence (or is it?) leads her to an old mansion in West Adams Heights, available at a ridiculously low rent. The house has remained vacant since its prior owner, Ultimate Studio’s overnight star and film noir femme fatale Blair Kendrick, was murdered in the late 1940’s.  The now forgotten star’s furniture and mementoes all remain, and Karissa soon uncovers one mystery after another, all related to Kendrick’s then-taboo relationship with an African-American jazz musician. Obsessed, Karissa begins developing a film based on the actress’ life story, attempting to solve the mysteries surrounding her death. And some mighty dangerous people definitely do not want anyone digging into Blair Kendrick’s death or the mysterious disappearance of her lover.

You’d have to turn in your ‘I-Read-Mysteries’ I.D. card if you don’t see where this one’s going. But that’s not intended as a criticism. Like a fun road trip, sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the destination. And I don’t mean that I anticipated all the twists, turns and details in Raymond Benson’s tale, only that I guessed at its ultimate resolution early on. But that just made me all the more eager to learn how we’d get there. No surprise; Benson’s a good storyteller, done here in chapters that alternate between modern day Karissa Glover’s efforts to learn more about the mysterious 1940’s star, and Blair Kendrick’s postwar Hollywood milieu, in which she tries to avoid the casting couch, falls hard for a handsome jazz pianist, and their desperate attempts to elude period prejudices, lethal studio enforcers and even the mob. Benson knows how to handle this alternating chapter structure well. His multi-book Black Stiletto series (each of which I literally gobbled up) about a 1950’s costumed vigilante employed the technique skillfully.

It bears mentioning that Blues In The Dark’s Karissa Glover is an adoptee, her birth parents unknown, only that she is of mixed racial heritage. Like maybe a beautiful blue-eyed blonde film noir actress and an African American jazz musician. Hmmm…

If you like retro Hollywood settings, a good mystery and a well-told tale, it’d be hard not to like Raymond Benson’s Blues In The Dark.

Debutante To Derelict: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Reading Steve Kronenberg’s excellent “Handle With Care – The Ordeals Of Gene Tierney” in the new Noir City issue number 27 was bound to send me flipping through DVD’s for a Tierney film. You’d just assume I’d go for Laura. And while not a noir, as it happens, I’m quite partial to The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. (Call me a softie.) But Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture offered a Tierney performance which, while not necessarily echoing the specifics of the actress’ troubled life, certainly portrays a woman destined for (or determined to find) her share of troubles.

This 1941 proto-noir is one truly weird movie. Based on John Colton’s risqué 1920’s Broadway play of the same name, the story’s controversial themes had to be severely diluted to make it onscreen. In fact, Hollywood studios and producers already tried to make a film version of the play many times, and the Breen Office censors demanded more than 30 revisions before the script was acceptable.

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Phyllis Brooks & Victor Mature Lobby Card

Despite hefty bribes to the authorities, “Dragon Lady” Gin Sling’s (Ona Munson) casino is being forced to shut down and relocate to Shanghai’s seedy Chinese sector by a wealthy English developer (Walter Huston) with grand designs on her location. While Victor Mature’s (looking ridiculous in a fez) ‘Doctor’ Omar and down-on-her-luck American showgirl Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks) try to cook up something to thwart the developer’s plans before the impending Chinese New Year deadline, Gin Sling’s joint is visited by stunning and refined Victoria Charteris (Gene Tierney), fresh from a European boarding school but currently going by ‘Poppy Smith’, eager for thrills and swiftly seduced by liquor and gambling. It doesn’t take long for her to turn into a lush, wind up in debt to Gin Sling, and then fall in love with charlatan ‘Doctor’ Omar (despite the fez). Things get a little soap-opera-ish then, revealing that Gin Sling once had a fling with the wealthy Brit who’s destroying her casino. Abandoned and destitute, she was forced to leave their baby behind…who grew up to be none other than Victoria Charteris/Poppy Smith/Gene Tierney. If all of these revelations aren’t bad enough, particularly since the lovely Victoria has turned into the deep-in-debt drunk Poppy now, things can always get worse, climaxing when Gin Sling ends up shooting Tierney, her own daughter.

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All of this might make a bit more sense (or not) if censors allowed the play’s real premise to be depicted: Gin Sling didn’t run a casino but a brothel/opium den. ‘Poppy’ didn’t get a taste for the booze and the dice, but became a drug addict, helped along by the fellow she fell for. ‘Poppy’. Get it?

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The Shanghai Gesture is far from a classic, not quite a ‘noir’ or even a crime melodrama, and wasn’t particularly successful with audiences or critics. Further, it’s packed full of utterly squirm-worthy ethnic stereotyping, like so many films of its era were.  Still, it’s worth it just to watch Gene Tierney go from refined to bar-room bad girl to drunken lush, her transition taking place in some decidedly uncensored and surreally decadent surroundings. The shift in delivery, body language and appearance is striking. Flanked by Phyllis Brooks and Ona Munson, the three women deliver the goods in a sometimes bizarre and sometimes pedestrian film. Sure, I’ll probably watch Tierney as Laura Hunt and Lucy Muir. I mean, how can you not if you’ve got Gene Tierney on your mind? But I’m glad I started here.

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The Kind They Talk About.

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They’re “the kind they talk about” according to Warner Brothers’ advance promotional pieces for Girls On Probation, a 1938 crime melodrama directed by William C. McGann, scripted by Crane Wilbur, and featuring an early feature part for a young Susan Hayward and pre-president, pre-governor, pre-Bedtime For Bonzo Ronald Reagan.

Girls On Probation stars Jane Bryan (1918 – 2009) who’d been groomed by the studio to become a leading lady and already had some important parts alongside Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G Robinson. Little did the studio bigwigs know that she’d soon wed a wealthy drug store magnate and happily leave Hollywood behind (hubby and wife among the key players in convincing Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980). Bryan co-stars with Sheila Bromley (1911 – 2003), a Hollywood workhorse who’d appeared in over 70 films (mostly westerns) as well as numerous 1950’s – 60’s TV shows.

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The girls they talk about: Good girls, fats girls and mean girls…‘Good Girl’ Jane Bryan gets mixed up with ‘Fast Girl’ Sheila Bromley, resulting in a trumped up larceny charge over an expensive dress taken from a dry cleaner, the accusation made by ‘Mean Girl’ Susan Hayward. Bryan’s friendship with Bromley gets even more dangerous when they get involved with some bank robbers, though prosecutor Ronald Regan, who is in love with Bryan, saves the day. Probation, no prison.

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I’ve only seen some grainy snips of this film online, and don’t see it anywhere on disk or as a full download, but would really like to view the whole thing intact. Silly vintage Hollywood stuff? Sure, it might be. But some of these long-forgotten big city crime melodramas can surprise you and turn out to be real gems.

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Mrs. Olson’s Got Herself A Gun

Virginia Christine

Virginia Christine from 1947’s The Invisible Wall, a noir-ish crime film by Eugene Ford (with an early appearance by a young Jeff Chandler) about a gambler back in civvies after WWII who returns to work for his syndicate, but manages to lose $20,000 of the boss’ dough…and to kill a mug in the process. I haven’t seen it, but it must be good. After all, just check out the double-bill promo art below: “Booze-Blondes-Bullets, The Direct Trail To Skid Row”. All that a 1940’s crime film needed, right?

Virginia Christine (1920 – 1996) may be better known to retro TV fans as ‘Mrs. Olson’ from over 100 Folger’s Coffee commercials. But Christine was a respected actress who appeared in The Killers (she tested for the lead but lost out to Ava Gardner), High Noon, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Judgement At Nuremberg. Not a bad resume. Hey, she even did a turn in one of Universal’s horror films, 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse sporting a brunette Bettie Page do, no less.

‘Mrs. Olson’ clearly can wield an automatic as deftly as she can a percolator. Love that photo above, a cropped version first seen via Seattle Mystery Books’ new blog (seattlemystery.newtumbl.com), originally from Mudwerks’ Tumblr, till I spotted the full framed image at Pulp International (pulp international.com).

The Invisible Wall Poster - Double Bill

The Glamorous Dead

The Glamorous Dead

Suzanne Gates’ The Glamorous Dead could easily have been done as a lighthearted retro-romp of a vintage-Hollywood mystery, and would’ve been perfectly entertaining and surely sold well enough. But Gates crafted a much more serious, mature and darker novel, even if it is brimming with celebrities, classic movie references and retro Tinsel Town glamour.

Set in 1940 and narrated by Penny Harp, the book deals with the murder of an extra from Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy The Lady Eve, with the cops pretty sure Penny herself is the murderer, leaving her on her own to prove her innocence. But the investigation soon involves leading lady Barbara Stanwyck in the amateur sleuthing, particularly once suspicion might fall on her husband Robert Taylor, who may or may not have been carrying on with the murder victim.

Don’t picture two unlikely gal-pals chumming around and stumbling over clues. Both women have their secrets and their own good reasons to keep them that way, and the entire affair is cloaked in a dark, moody and noir-ish tone. If Gates has another retro Hollywood mystery novel in her, she can count me in. I’ve got my share of mid-twentieth century mystery/crime fiction books ahead of me in the to-be-read heap, and Suzanne Gates’ 2017 The Glamorous Dead made for a nice kick-off to a Spring/Summer 1930’s-50’s sojourn, which I confess, is mostly where I like to be. Well, when reading, that is.

No, Not That Falcon…

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Only a ‘Tumblr Refugee’ these days, I still keep tabs on several Tumblrs to see what I’ve missed. Gentleman Loser – Gentleman Junkie posted a lobby card from 1931’s The Maltese Falcon, which got me thinking about the one time I’d seen this oldie. Film Noir? Not quite. But it’s a rousing piece of retro crime melodrama nonetheless.

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It was either during college or right after that I saw The Maltese Falcon the one and only time. No, not the the classic John Huston Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor ‘proto-noir’ film, but a 1931 pre-code version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, which had been published just a year earlier. Here, Latin-lover matinee idol Ricardo Cortez (real name: Jacob Krantz) plays Hammett’s iconic private eye Sam Spade as more of a well-groomed philanderer than the tough, hard-boiled P.I. Bogart made all his own ten years later. Bebe Daniels plays Ruth Wonderly, the Mary Astor Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy role. Take away Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond and Elisha Cook Jr., and obviously everything’s going to be quite different from The Maltese Falcon we know and love. But then, we do get Dwight Frye, Dracula’s Renfield, as small-framed but big-talking Wilmer Cook.

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Like the 1941 version, this 1931 film follows Hammett’s novel pretty closely, but with random alterations for typical book-to-film condensation, screenwriter conceit and some who-knows-why modifications/additions. Huston-Bogart fans will be unpreprared for the convenenient Asian merchant who tips off Spade about partner Miles Archer’s murder, or the private eye’s new career revealed at the film’s end.

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Some folks get all revved up about pre-code cinema, looking for lurid decadence and peekaboo thrills. There are websites, books and journal articles aplenty brimming with naughty film stills to support that expectation. Myself, I’ve learned not to expect too much. Along with the stage bound blocking, overacting and general ‘creakiness’ of some of the films, there’s rarely quite as much naughtiness as promised. It may be that pre-code cinema wasn’t really all that provocative, but merely seems so when compared to the subsequent two decades of over-sanitized Hollywood filmmaking.

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Here, for instance, the opening shots include a nifty bit of leering business with a woman adjusting her stockings. Sam Spade’s illicit affair with partner Miles Archer’s wife/widow, played by Thelma Todd, is more plainly evident. The fortune hunters’ homosexuality relied on vague, teasing references in the 1941 version, but gets more acknowledgment in this earlier film, in keeping with the novel. (I was surprised to learn that “gunsel” was actually retro code for an older fellow’s younger gay boy-toy. And here I thought I knew my vintage slang!) Bebe Daniels’ Ruth Wonderly spends the night in Spade’s bed (alone), is strip searched (sort-of), takes a bubbly bath, and she does lounge about in a negligee. But that’s about it for pre-code sizzle. Nonetheless, when the studio tried to re-release the film just a few years later, the Hays Office rejected it for ‘lewd content’.

The Maltese Falcon was shot under the early working title of A Woman Of The World. When the film finally was re-released for television in the mid-sixties, it was retitled Dangerous Female, so as not to be confused with the (by-then) 1941 classic. In between, the studio remade the movie in an even lighter-toned version starring Bette Davis and called Satan Met A Lady, with names changed and the iconic black bird now a jewel-filled horn.

Maltese Falcon 1931 Lobby Cards

In this 1931 version, a denouement includes Sam Spade visiting Ruth Wonderly in jail, where we learn he’s now the Chief Investigator for the San Francisco D.A.’s office. On his way out, he prompts a prison matron to look after Wonderly and at his expense. I’ll take Huston’s glorious closing shots with the powerful Warner Brother’s studio orchestra pumping out composer Adolph Deutsch’s score, a resigned Brigid O’Shaughnessy descending in a gated elevator, off to her fate in prison, the electric chair…or hell. Now that’s what dreams are made of.

Death On The Cheap

Death On The Cheap - Cover Scan to Use

Death On The Cheap – The Lost B Movies of Film Noir: There’s a quote from Robert Mitchum, surely one of the postwar era film noir icons, that appears in this book’s introduction, and understandably makes it into most online reviews I’ve seen. Mitchum told the author, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts”.

Fans of the genre tend to forget that while a handful of classics were big budget A films, most of what we now lump together as ‘Film Noir” weren’t scripted by James Cain or William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, William Wyler or Fritz Lang, and didn’t star Lauren Bacall, Dana Andrews, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart or Gene Tierney. For every Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia or Laura, there were a dozen B-movie mysteries and crime melodramas with miniscule budgets, tight shooting schedules and second tier casts comprised of stars who no longer shined so bright and newcomers still learning their craft. Often as not, the dark, gritty locations and sets were service corridors behind the studio sound stages, while left-over interior sets were hastily redressed and left in shadow partly to look ominous, partly to hide the fact that they were so sparsely propped.

Arthur Lyons (1946-2008) was the author of over 20 books, including the L.A. private eye Jacob Asch series, as well as a co-founder of the Palm Springs Festival Of Film Noir, a former Palm Springs city councilman, and considered a film noir expert…in particular, those low-budget and B-movies made between 1939 and 1959. This 250+ page book takes a closer look at some films you’d be familiar with, but also many you never heard of and might have a hard time locating, even now when darn near everything seems to be available on DVD/Blue Ray, cable, YouTube or streaming somewhere. Lyons may be an ardent fan, but he wasn’t looking at these films through rose colored glasses, and is quick to point out that some are real stinkers. But some definitely are not, and their no-name casts, first-take-is-the-only-take filming, murky nighttime back lot exteriors, questionable scripts rewritten on the fly while the cameras rolled all somehow came together serendipitously to create real works of noir art. (Then again, some didn’t.)

The book includes a detailed filmography with titles, alternate titles (and there are many), credits, plot summaries and commentary. Nearly 20 years old, Lyons’ Death On The Cheap is still available new, though I’ve seen really inexpensive copies available online. If you’ve already read everything you care to read about The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Reckoning and Out Of The Past, maybe it’s time to brush up on some lesser-known and altogether forgotten films. But good luck tracking a few of them down if you want to watch them for yourself.

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