Monday, February 28, 2011

M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot - Interview With Author Steve Bingen

M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot

Watching magicians can be quite exciting. Trying to figure out how magicians pull off their magical tricks is sometimes just as intriguing. I feel the same way about classic films. As much as I like watching classic films, I equally enjoy seeing how and where those films were made. And if studios were magicians, M-G-M would have once been the most magical of them all. Thanks to the authors Steve Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, there new book M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot (available in stores and online now), reveals all those glorious M-G-M locations.

I recently purchased this book at my local Barnes & Noble and it has already made it to the top of my list of favorite books. The hardcover book is filled with numerous stunning photographs of the M-G-M studio, many of which have never been seen before. Every nook and cranny of the studio is documented in images and in writing. One of my favorite parts of the book is a section that details all the different studio lots with lists of hundreds of films that used each location. There are even notations explaining how the location appears in each film. I don't think I will watch another M-G-M film without referencing back to this book!

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask author Steve Bingen a few questions about his latest book. His answers were all quite interesting. You can read our exchange below:

Thanks Steve for taking the time to answer some questions about your fascinating new book. Let’s get straight to the subject of this book. What is it about? What will readers find inside the pages?

I’m sure you have noticed that there been hundreds of books allegedly written about Hollywood.  Any Barns and Noble has a big shelf budging with them. But almost all of these books aren’t really about Hollywood at all.  Most “movie” books are about the product, the films, and about the stars or makers of these films…

It seemed so odd and mysterious to us.  There have been books written about MGM before, and I recommend them all.  But there was always a major part of the equation, maybe the major part of that equation missing on each and every one of them. All of these books would inevitably contain one aerial shot of the lot – usually the same one – and a single paragraph, maybe, about soundstages and backlots at the studio. And that would be it! 

This struck all three of us as mysterious.  It always seemed to us that if you were writing about a place, and MGM was indeed an actual physical place, than why would an author choose to tell us what amounted to virtually nothing about that place?  People always describe Hollywood’s studios as “dream factories.”   Well that phrase isn’t bad for what it is, and anyone who was there will tell you that life in those dream factories was if anything, even more interesting than the product the factory was producing.  Yet no one had ever talked about that factory.  Ever.

Think of all the movies you grew up with where Jerry Lewis (or Pee Wee Herman) would break into a Hollywood studio and a have all of these Oz-like adventures.  That’s what we wanted to do with our book, to zoom in on that single aerial photo in everyone else’s book, to climb the fences of one of those dream factories and look around a bit.  

Where did the idea come from to write this book? Why the MGM lot?

In a way, MGM was a microcosm for the whole Hollywood studio experience.  Thomas Ince, and later Thalberg and Mayer were the first filmmakers to base their business model on the factories in Detroit -- where an entire car could be finished on a predetermined schedule within the walls of the factory.   No one had ever tried that with movies before and it happened first on the property which would become MGM.  So the whole idea of a Hollywood studio began right there.  

I originally wanted to tell the stories of all 7 of the major studios, but my partners, Steven X. Sylvester and Michal Troyan convinced me that the story we wanted to tell was really within the 4 walls of MGM.  

There was one more reason for choosing MGM as well. The other 6 Studios in town are somewhat intact, even today.  If you can arrange a tour or hop the fence you can still see them.  But MGM, as a physical place, is gone forever.  It’s like Camelot…

It’s my understanding that MGM once had the largest backlot. Can you tell us about the different lots?

It’s surprisingly hard to determine size based on actual acreage.  The lands the studios controlled were always fluid and included annex studios, entire lots in other countries, and leased properties.  Warners, Fox, RKO, and Paramount all had enormous ranches in the San Fernando Valley or Malibu which each totaled thousands of acres.  But like Universal’s 400 acre main studio, much of the property was never developed.  Universal, of course, eventually used all of those acres for their theme park.   MGM’s  nearly 200 acre backlot was considered by the industry to have the largest and most jaw-dropping variety of standing sets, rivaled perhaps only  by Fox’s  old lot  in what would become Century City.

Today most stars use Star Waggons or some type of trailer as a dressing room. Can you tell us about the buildings used as dressing rooms during the MGM glory days?

You’ve probably noticed that the company “Star Waggons” is actually a pun based on the name of its founder, actor Lyle Waggoner.  Before he came up with the idea of trailer/dressing rooms, the studios had wooden boxes on wheels with basic amenities inside, which were towed out to the soundstages or backlots, presumably with the performer rattling around inside.  I have a photo of Myrna Loy in 1938 emerging from such a contraption.  But MGM had 3 lavish complexes of permanent dressing rooms on their main lot and seemed to prefer to limo their talent back and forth to where they were working from these suites instead.  I’ve seen the insides of some of theses surviving boxes, and suspect the talent preferred this as well.

Didn’t Marion Davies have a bungalow on the lot built by William Randolph Hearst?

That “bungalow” was actually a 14 room mansion!  Interestingly enough, when Marion left the studio for presumably greener pastures at Warners she took the entire complex along.  We have a photo in the book of the move to Burbank, which has never been published before and which I’m very proud of.  Interestingly, a section of that dressing room, actually an annex structure, still exists today at Warner Bros. as office space for producer Joel Silver.  Maybe it’s significant that one of the most successful producers in modern Hollywood is operating out of what was originally an outbuilding for a mere actress…

Were there any other divas on the lot or any executives that had extravagant offices?

Marion was an anomaly.  Because of Hearst she was untouchable and the regular rules didn’t apply.  Make no mistake, the stars and upper management were well treated, but with the exception of Garbo, there was probably more coddling of talent at other studios.  Everyone at these other studios wanted to be at MGM, so they were perhaps better treated than had they in fact actually been there.  Actor Richard Anderson, who did 24 films at the studio, told us that MGM instead put all the money on screen.  Studio talent realized that even if their dressing rooms might have been bigger at Paramount or elsewhere, this was compensated for by the prestige of appearing in an MGM picture.


Did you visit the MGM lot in person and try to match areas of the studio that still exist with historic photos?

I really taxed some friendships on the current Sony lot, and everyone there was very gracious in letting us snoop about and ask questions and take photos.  There are some “then and now” comparisons in the book, but if given a choice, if it was a tossup between a contemporary photo and a vintage one, we’d always choose the earlier photo.  Although the architecture over there changes so fast, some photos we took before publications are probably already dated.

Was it difficult based on the changes the lot has taken over the years?

We always had problems deciding if a building on the site of, say the property building -- which is offices now, by the way, should still be considered the original structure, repurposed, or a new creation in the same location.  At what point does a building loose its original identity and become something else?  Marc Wannamaker, Hollywood’s premiere historian, was helpful in this regard, but at the end of the day, we just had to follow our gut, and our story, and see where it took us.

I read in your bio that you were once a Warner Bros. tour guide. I was once a Paramount page/tour guide and I remember how exciting it was to explore the studio lot each day. Did your inner tour guide enthusiasm come out while researching this book?

I originally wanted the format of the book to literally be a tour of MGM on a predetermined day in 1960.  The entire text would have consisted of what a visitor would have seen and heard and gawked at as he or she traveled the lot form corner to corner on that single day.  Fortunately my partners talked me out of that! But there is still a lot of that “tour” in the text. That’s why I insisted on including detailed maps of the property pegged with numbers corresponding to the different “stops” as described in the text.  

When I was a guide at Warner’s I kept meeting hundreds of guests from all over the world.  Most of them had never been to Hollywood before.  But they all felt like they had a connection with the studio.  And of course they did.  They had all been to the lot before, hundreds of times, through the movies made there.  It took us the better part of a decade to sell our idea of a book, but that whole time I’d think of all those people visiting from all over the world, and I never lost hope that a “studio tour book” was a viable idea. 

I’m not sure why, but I always am interested in studio commissaries. How was the commissary designed at MGM? Were there different areas for stars, executives and crew?

Studio management, Mayer in particular I suspect, prided itself in being extremely democratic, at least outwardly.  Mayer liked seeing and photographing stars eating with set painters.  But in actuality stars had more in common with other stars, so little communities quickly developed.  The writer’s table, interestingly enough, seemed to be the most desired little club to be invited to sit at, particularly if you weren’t a writer.  Although, most of the people who later wrote about the social life in the commissary happened to be writers, so I’ve sometimes wondered if they didn’t overstate their own importance in the social structure just a bit for posterity.

The MGM lot really sounds like a city by itself. Can you tell us about some of the other facilities on the lot that made the studio self sufficient?

Roger Mayer, a very insightful later-day executive who was kind enough to talk to us used to say that “You could get everything done on the lot except be born or buried -- and there was a mortuary down the block.”  

This never made it into the book, but someone also mentioned that there was even a person on hand whose title was “assistant bosom inspector.”  Apparently his job was to know exactly how much cleavage the Breen code would allow and to make sure that particular line wasn’t trampled. I’d love to have sat in on this gentlemen’s job interview.

What were some of the most interesting things you discovered about the MGM lot? Was there anything that surprised you?

I think all three of us were somewhat surprised about how much non-MGM production used to happen on the lot during the classic era.  It’s known that MGM very actively rented their facilities in the 1960’s and 70’s to outside productions, but I don’t think even most historians realize how often studios used each others factories during earlier decades.  And it’s almost impossible to track down records because the practice was apparently somewhat informal.  It’s important to realize that there were only 7 companies and some smaller outfits that could have taken advantage of all the services MGM would have offered.  So there was no price list or advertising to the fact that MGM’s sets and technical departments were available.   Just the other day I was watching a WB picture Santiago – and out of nowhere I recognized the paddle wheel built for MGM’ Show Boat.  I’d had no idea!  I guess this will be happening to me for the rest of my life.
Let’s talk about what it took to get this book made. Where did your research start? Where or who did you go to in order to find the information you were looking for?

We were very lucky in that I’m a staff historian at Warner Bros. Acres and acres of materials from MGM ended up over there due to the Turner purchase of MGM.  Hundreds and hundreds of photographs of the backlot that would surely have been destroyed otherwise were very lucky to have found a safe haven at Warner Bros.   Very little of this material had been seen in decades and most of it had never been published before.  I felt like Indiana Jones opening the doors to a lost temple when I came across this treasure trove.  I still do.  And I’m eternally grateful to WB for allowing me to make this material available.

Tell us a little about your collaborators on this book. How did you all come together on this project?

Stephen X Sylvester is, like me, a lifelong movie buff.  Unlike me he is also a collector.  He had materials on the studio which even the Warner Bros. Archives couldn’t provide.  In fact we met when he arranged for Warners to access part of his collection.   Steve actually visited the backlot before it was destroyed, twice.  And I felt like that was immeasurably important.  Michael Troyan is the author of “A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson” – which is the best book about an MGM star ever. So it just seemed like a natural fit for us to collaborate. 

Did you start with one idea in mind for what the book would be when finished or did that idea evolve over the course of your research?

As I said, it was originally to be a book of tours of studio backlot(s).  Mike and Steve had to force me to even include the front lot.  I’m glad, in that one instance anyway, that I listened to them!

How long did it take to complete the book, starting with your initial research and ending with having the book published?

I don’t even want to think about it!  Maybe, well, 10 years…  Someone once had the nerve to ask us if we were doing it for the money!  Well, If I were to calculate all the hours and years burned away, we all would have made a lot more money picking potatoes...

Did you come across any roadblocks or face any challenges along the way?

Contrary to what you might expect, the biggest problem wasn’t the research, or the writing, or collaboration between 3 people with 3 opinions.  The biggest roadblock was convincing a publisher that this was a book at all!  Editors and agents kept saying; “there have been lots of books about MGM!”  And we kept telling them, “No, there has never been a book about MGM, or any other studio.”  They just didn’t get it.


What was the most fun part about doing this book?

Oh, the friends we made along the way.  We all loved interviewing survivors of the studio who used to tell us how they always thought MGM would outlast the pyramids – and they all seemed so grateful and appreciative that someone was trying to recreate the place in book form.  

What was the least fun part?

The sad part is that many of these wonderful studio employees have since passed away and will never get to see the book completed.  I think all three of us feel like we let these people down to a certain degree.  We were really looking forward to showing them the book and what we, and they, had accomplished.


Do you have a favorite MGM film or films? Were you able to have a different appreciation for those films after seeing where they were filmed?

I can’t speak for Mike and Steve, but my perspective has been perhaps permanently skewered.  I’ve spent a not insubstantial chunk of my life looking behind actors trying to identify the sets they were standing on!  Hardly the way to watch a movie.  Therefore I’ve learned to love films which utilized the backlots in interesting or unexpected ways.

I’ll give you an example.  For a 1935 film called I Love My Wife “Spanish Street” was redressed to play Greece.  Then they immediately flooded the same street with water so it could play Venice for Anna Karenina. 1935 audiences would have seen both these films, yet never realized they were looking at the same spot – which of course was in neither Spain, nor Greece, nor Italy, but Culver City.  You know anyone could go to Europe and take beautiful pictures of these places.  But I hope people will finally appreciate the wonder of getting the same effect, with more artistry, on a studio backlot.  And the experience of watching these movies is actually enhanced, not detracted from, as people sometimes say, by the knowledge of this.  What could be more mysterious and more wonderful than Venice reconstructed in California, and With Greta Garbo thrown in for good measure?

Any cool quick facts or trivia you want to share about the MGM lot?

Any time you read any trivia about the studio, don’t believe it.  The studio used to lie about everything!  We quickly learned to disregard anything Metro Goldwyn Mayer ever said about itself.  From how many stars they had under contract to how many stages they had on their lot - they uniformly and without the slightest degree of guilt got all the facts consistently and constantly wrong.  The most amusing thing about this practice is that they wouldn’t have had to do any of this.  The lot was so outrageous and astonishing and bizarre that in this case they really didn’t need the ballyhoo.  I guess it was just a habit.

Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that your readers will, wherever they are from, and whatever they do in life, put the book down and feel like they have actually been to the studio and seen its marvels.  And I hope they will have enjoyed having us as their guides!

To learn more about the book M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, visit the official site here. Also, the authors will be doing a book signing at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 4pm. Following the book signing will be a double-feature screening of the MGM films The Band Wagon (1953) and That's Entertainment (1974).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Howard Hughes Headquarters

Howard Hughes Headquarters
7000 Romaine Street, Hollywood, Ca

It was from this art deco building located at 7000 Romaine Street that the multi-millionaire playboy, Howard Hughes, ruled his vast empire of businesses. Other than the deco dressing, the building is quite simple, especially when you think of the impressive entrance gates that were built for the Paramount or MGM studio lots. The building, originally a bakery and then the home of Multicolor, an early color film lab, is a few blocks south of the busy Hollywood and Sunset boulevards in the more factory part of town. Nearby are several other studio lots, film labs, and other industrial buildings associated with the film business.

Hughes made his money from the Hughes Tool Company and with that money he pursued other interests including making movies and building planes. When Hughes purchased the Romaine Street building in 1927 (or 1930 depending on the source) he was already involved with the motion picture business. At that time movies were primarily in black and white, other than a few early experiments in color. Hughes, predicting color films would someday displace black & white films, the same way talking pictures did to silents, purchased Multicolor as a place to experiment with color photography. 

Hughes's most famous film, Hell's Angels, starring Jean Harlow, was filmed at the Metropolitan Studio just down the street, but the film was edited in the Romaine headquarters. In the book "Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel" by Darwin Porter, there is an interesting story about Carol Lombard being cast as a replacement to Thelma Todd in the lead role for Hell's Angels. According to the book, the following explicit exchange took place between Lombard and Hughes the day of her screen test:

"Ben Lyon tells me you like a gal with tits." Right in front of him, she manipulated her dress to expose her left breast. "You're not entitled to look at the right one until you've signed me to play Helen. Then you can have whatever you want. It's all yours, baby!"
"The part calls for a woman to be a bit of a slut," Howard said, standing up from his desk. "At least you qualify for that."

After her screen test, Hughes invited Lombard to dinner at the Brown Derby. Instead they had dinner at the Romaine headquarters where Hughes spent time showing Lombard his color film experiments. In the end, of course, Lombard didn't get the role of Helen, but that didn't stop her from becoming a popular film star.

Other well known Hughes films edited at the Romaine headquarters include Scarface, starring Paul Muni and The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell.

7000 Romaine Street, Hollywood, Ca

Although initially purchased for the color film lab, the Romaine headquarters would become the command center for all things Hughes. He oversaw his tool company, his film projects, and later his airline ventures all from the Romaine offices. Even Hughes's army of personal staff were stationed here. When Hughes needed someone picked up he dispatched a chauffeur from the Romaine building. If anyone needed to contact Hughes they needed to call the Romaine headquarters where a team was in place to transcribe messages and pass them on to Hughes. 

Today, the building looks pretty much the same as it did during Hughes's time there. I'm not sure if or what the building is being used for now, but I would love to take a tour of the inside. Could you imagine sitting in the same screening room space that Hughes once locked himself inside?!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Harlow's Hollywood - An Interview With Darrell Rooney and Mark Veira

Jean Harlow

From now until the end of the month the excellent blog The Kitty Packard Pictorial will be celebrating the blonde bombshell, a.k.a. Jean Harlow, in honor of Harlow's upcoming centenary bash. The Pictorial will be having a Harlow blogathon later this month and will also be doing two different gift giveaways. One reader will have the chance to win the copy of the soon to be released Harlow biography, Harlow in Hollywood. But that's not all folks, The Kitty Packard Pictorial will also be giving away a copy of the new TCM Jean Harlow dvd box set!

If you would like a chance to win the Jean Harlow dvd box set here is what you need to do. Below is an interview with Harlow biographers Darrell Rooney and Mark Veira conducted by The Kitty Packard Pictorial. After reading the interview all you need to do is visit The Pictorial website and email them the answer to this question: "In what year did Jean Harlow open 'The Blonde Room' at the Max Factor studio in Hollywood?"

From The Kitty Packard Pictorial:
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An MGM crew member once said of Jean Harlow, “We weren’t just workers on her set, we were real to her. If you were sick, she was the first one to notice. The first one to send flowers.” She was also the first one to tell her director ‘Let’s work late tonight so the boys can get to the football game tomorrow.’ And when a studio executive cut crew coffee breaks, she stormed to the office demanding ‘either they get a coffee break or I don’t work.’

While it was her platinum hair, sensuous body and brazen sexuality that made the Jean Harlow image an icon-- it was her sincerity, warmth and gentleness of spirit that made her truly beautiful. And it is that beauty-- the woman beneath the platinum locks-- that the new book Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928 - 1937 valiantly endeavors to present in a most unprecedented fashion.

Written by award winning Animation director and Harlow collector Darrell Rooney, and Hollywood historian Mark A. Vieira (Sin in Soft Focus, MGM and the Rise of Irving Thalberg), this is the first major work on Harlow since David Stenn’s myth-busting 1993 Jean Harlow biography, Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. This lavishly illustrated work boasts rare, previously unpublished photos of the legend, and is being released just in time to commemorate the screen legend’s 100th birthday, as well as a very special, first-time ever Exhibition of Harlow Memorabilia at ‘The Hollywood Museum at the Historic Max Factor Building’ in Hollywood. The exhibition is curated by Rooney and Vieira, and will run from March till September. I recently had the chance to meet up with the authors to talk Harlow, classic Hollywood, and why they feel the time is right for a new generation of fans to embrace her.


The concept of a ‘centenery book’ itself was birthed about six years ago beneath the warm amber lights of an al fresco restaurant tucked off the hipster hustle of Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. It was only fitting that Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira reconvene here-- for dinner at eight, no less-- to discuss the upcoming release of their tireless labor of love.


KP: How did the two of you come together on this project?


Rooney: [Mark and I] had been slowly building a working relationship based on knowledge and mutual respect. This is ten years ago easily. Mark was already producing books, which were all extraordinary. One day Mark asked if he could come and see my Harlow collection. And I said, 'How many days have you got?’ So I took him on a tour of my collection of memorabilia and Mark looked at me with these wide eyes and said ‘We should do a book together.’ And I said... ‘Really?’ Do a book together with Mark Vieira, what an extraordinary vote of confidence.


KP: So you had already felt each other out and knew you could work together.


Rooney: Yes. And in our process, well, I have this huge archive on Harlow; I have collected almost everything written about her, plus I had acquired a huge amount of personal, private correspondence about or by her from a private source. So I know this one thing very well. But Mark has a depth of knowledge about the history of Old Hollywood that I don’t have, and he put what I have into perspective--gave it dates, places and resonance. He was able to verify where Harlow was almost on a daily basis and that helped dispel a lot of fictional stories from the press. So this book really tries to be as accurate and definitive as it can be; it gives you: cutting edge information backed up with accuracy and heavy research.


KP: How long have you been collecting Jean Harlow memorabilia?


Rooney: Off and on for thirty-odd years.


KP: Did you start off thinking ‘I’m going to be a collector’ or was it more like... osmosis?


Rooney: I was making movies so I wasn’t thinking along those lines at all. I think all that is in hindsight. I knew people with extraordinary collections, and they had the most amazing personal items in their collections. I just couldn’t compete with that and never will be able to. My hat is off to them. So I focused on photographs and built a library of everything ever written on Harlow. Seven binders eventually became sixty binders and I knew I had something significant here. Then I started to collect really key things, for example the Grand Hotel ledger.


KP: I’m sorry... you own that?


Rooney: [Explaining the background.] Yes. When they had the premiere of the MGM film Grand Hotel at Grauman's Chinese Theatre (in April 1932) there was a ‘prop’ hotel ledger put in the front courtyard for arriving celebrities to sign. It was a clever publicity gimmick.


KP: Yes, and she signed in with...

Rooney: Paul Bern [her soon-to-be second husband] was with her that night, yes. And this is probably the only document, outside of their marriage certificate that has both their names on it.


Luckily for fans: this is also going to be part of the Harlow Exhibit.


Rooney: Well, that ledger was also at the Irving Thalberg Exhibit. Mark did a Thalberg exhibit in 2009 with the Academy of Motion Picture arts and Sciences-- it was extraordinary.


This, ever so appropriately, leads to pre-code discussions about Thalberg and Norma Shearer, progressing naturally to Barbara Stanwyck, someone Vieira admires openly as a supremely ‘professional actress.’


KP: And Jean Harlow too for her young years, was a consummate professional.


Rooney: She was very democratic on the set. She really related to the crew, a lot of which had to do with her upbringing. As a child she was friends with the people who worked for her family; maids, cooks, yard-hands, etc.


KP: In order to tell a story with images you have to make tough decisions. For someone with a collection like yours, it must have been murder.


Rooney: It was absolutely that. Once we got the book deal we spent six weeks going through the distillation of photographs to tell Harlow’s story visually. I’d come out with 60 photographs for one chapter and Mark, who’s done this a million times, would say ‘Okay. Now we’re going to choose only 12 from those 60.’ So you pull the superfluous ones first. Then you pull the ones you like and absolutely want to keep. Then you start to really edit. Like Mark says, you have to have a reason for every photograph you keep, and you can’t repeat. If you repeat something you bore the audience. We would cull it down to about 20 or so and I’d begin to see the narrative thread. It was quite a learning process. Painful but necessary.


Vieira: The art of telling a story is so much in the editing, distilling down process.


Rooney: For me, it was like Christmas every day– but you had to give half the presents back. That’s how it felt: exciting but crushing at the same time.

KP: How many photos in the book are previously unpublished?


Rooney: I would say 80 to 90 percent.


KP: Amazing.


Rooney: I think the glamour portraits might have printed other places before– like in fan magazines during the 30s, but that George Hurrell image on the cover has never been published in a book before.


Suddenly I remember that I am sitting next to one of George Hurrell’s pupil’s. Not only is the scholarly, contemplative Vieira a leading Hollywood historian, he is a true Hurrelian photographer. Vieria’s photography studio is located in the same building as Hurrell’s old studio and he uses Hurrell’s actual equipment.


KP: Mark, how long have you been doing portraits a la Hurrell?


Vieira: Since the early 70s. Back when I was a student at film school I owned quite a lot of magazines and was struck by Hurrell’s work. ‘Look at his lighting! Look at this!’ And I met him [and got] his phone number. You gotta remember, Hurrell wasn’t a huge name then. Even though he was in his 60s, he was still working on sets doing still photography, still on the company payroll.


KP: But your first interest was in filmmaking?


Vieira: Yes. That’s why I came down to USC. In 1973 I drove down Interstate 5, took an apartment on West Adams, and started my Graduate work at USC School of Cinema.


KP: And you’ve been here ever since?


Vieira: Well, I moved back to the Bay area eight years later. And then came back down here twelve years ago: felt like there was unfinished business.


KP: How cryptic…


Rooney: He knew he had to come back and write a book on Jean Harlow!


KP: Speaking of: one of the key things that sets this book apart from Stenn’s is the fact you call don’t call Jean’s mother “Mama Jean,” you call her by her rightful married name: Jean Bello.


Rooney: Mark is the one responsible for that. He made this proclamation: don’t get into the ‘Mother Jean’ vs ‘Mama Jean’ issue, use her rightful name.


For any unfamiliar with the Jean Harlow/Mother Jean thread of the Harlow story, Jean Harlow was the maiden name of the Mother. A beautiful, intelligent woman whose acting aspirations were thwarted by a forced marriage. Those ambitions were then channeled through her only daughter Harlean who, upon entering the movies took her mother’s name as her own screen name: Jean Harlow. What resulted was psychological symbiosis, leaving the daughter without any true identity of her own.


KP: Stenn’s biography obviously uses the ‘Mother Jean’ phrase to drive home a point, but by calling Jean’s mother by her rightful married name, Jean Bello, it gives Harlean back at least some of her identity.


Rooney: Mark is very definitely, scholarly so he brings the reasoning of a scholar to these things.


Vieira: It’s as simple as this: When you’re around a campfire, telling a story, you don’t want someone to keep interrupting with ‘Jean — Jean who?’ Which one are you talking about? The reader always has to know who you’re talking about.


Rooney: And this really was a tricky thing because, of course, the mother starts out as Jean Harlow. [Once she gets married to Mont Clair Carpenter] she’s Jean Carpenter, and then it’s fine. You don’t have to deal with the whole ‘Mother Jean’ thing at all.


KP: By many accounts she was a rather difficult woman to like.


Rooney: It has much to do with how she was raised. She was raised in a very cold home. Her mother had no power. Her willful father ran her life. She was pushed into a loveless marriage and to rebel, had boyfriends on the side. After her divorce she was on the look out for a rich man to marry. She basically became the gold digger that Harlow subconsciously modeled her screen personae after.


KP: The notes they sent back and forth to each other on Mothers Day… almost frightening in a way.


Rooney: Isn’t it true? I’ve had this conversation with David Stenn many times: the whole thing in that family was ‘I gave you life. You owe me.’ And so Jean Harlow was grateful to the ends of the earth for having been given life by that woman. She was enslaved by this overt gratitude. And she had a terrible time trying to break free of it.


KP: It’s a mother/daughter story that guts me every time.

Rooney: It’s the story of two women who conspire to create a single persona. It’s not the creation of one person, but of two people, both of which could not exist without the other. It’s a fascinating symbiotic relationship. There were a lot of healthy things in it…but a lot of incredibly unhealthy things too.


KP: And it handicapped her emotionally. You bring this out in the book: she was not emotionally mature enough to carry on a relationship.


Vieira: Right. Even though she looked it and acted it.


Rooney: Which is why she’d marry someone like Paul Bern.


KP: Or date someone like William Powell.


Rooney: Right, someone who was never going to be available to her emotionally.


KP: You mentioned Paul Bern, which reminds me of the mural he commissioned– that Renaissance banquet table seated with his closest friends in period dress. It’s a really important find that is featured prominently in the book.


Rooney: Well I wish I could say that I discovered it, but the credit goes to Lisa Burks. I am so pleased that it’s in our book, and in full color.

KP: It’s such an odd, whimsical piece.


Rooney: I would love to know what the real back-story is. Was it meant to be a surprise for Jean, a wedding gift? It’s certainly not her taste. But its significance is undeniable: it represents Harlow’s ascension into the ‘inner circle’ at MGM. In that way, I think it’s fascinating. I contacted the owner right away when I first learned about it in the late 90’s. One of my scrapbooks had a newspaper article about the woman who bought the Easton Drive house and what she did with the mural. She didn’t want it, so the house painter she’d hired to repaint the house took the mural home in 1933.


Vieira: Yes, he said to her ‘Can I have it’ and the lady says ‘Yeah, take it.’


Rooney: Jean Harlow’s family didn’t want it.


The Paul Bern subject is a weighty one. His gruesome suicide only two months into his marriage with Harlow led to decades of misinformation and sensationalized speculation.


Rooney: The thing about Paul Bern ’s story is that, to me: it’s not that complicated. The bottom line is that you don’t look at stories, you look at the data; the immutable facts. The ultimate thing I feel about him is that he was somewhat duplicitous: the’ presentation’ of how something ‘appeared’ was often very different than the truth with him. He lived his life that way. And Harlow didn’t see that.


The mural will also be part of the Harlow Exhibition: marking the first time it will ever be seen publicly. Another amazing part of the exhibit will be Jean Harlow’s 1932 Packard.


KP: How did you meet the owners of the car?


Rooney: A mutual friend of mine who is a car collector, said ‘Do you want to meet the people that own the Harlow Packard?’ They turned out to be the nicest people in the world, and the third owners of the car EVER. They got it from the second owners who got it from Jean Bello after she took the car– after she absconded it– from [film producer] Hunt Stromberg. She allegedly gave it to Hunt Stromberg to teach his son to drive, then later took it back. What a hustler, huh.


KP: So the Packard is the centerpiece of the exhibit?


Rooney: Yes, and ‘The Hollywood Museum in the Historic Max Factor Building’ is a fitting place to have this exhibit because Harlow originally ‘opened’ the Blonde Room of the Max Factor building in 1935, so there’s a real sort of circular completion here.


KP: The 'Blonde Room'?


Vieira: Yes, when the Max Factor Salon opened in November 1935 there were three separate rooms: the Blonde Room, the Brunette Room and the Red-head Room. A movie star of each persuasion officially ‘opened’ each room and was photographed cutting the ribbon alongside Mr. Factor. Claudette Colbert opened the ‘Brunette Room’ and Jean Harlow opened the ‘Blonde Room’ and for the first time showed her real honey blonde hair in public.


Vieira: And something else that doesn’t show up in the text of the new book is the riot that occurred there.


KP: A riot?


Vieira: Yeah, there was a riot at the Opening that night. And a famous western star, I can’t remember which one it was, but the papers talk about a western star who got so drunk at the Max Factor Studio party that he had to be ejected. I guess it could’ve have been Tom Mix.


Rooney: If it had been Tom Mix, Jean would have taken him home! She loved Tom Mix from her childhood.


KP: So tell us: why this book? Why now?


Rooney: It’s a case of awareness. We want to see Harlow embraced by a new generation. We were looking for ‘the angle’ years ago, and I have to hand this to Mark: he’d say, ‘What landmark is coming, you know, some kind of a milestone event?’ Eventually, we realized 2011 was going to be Harlow’s hundredth birthday. Her centenary. That was very significant and we felt this was the milestone that needed to be commemorated; there had to be a book. And with Mark’s experience he knew it couldn’t just be a book, there had to be a series of events tied into it, like a public Exhibition that the press could cover and people could go to.


One thing we wanted to do to make the book unique and different from other bios was to tell Harlow’s story in her own words as much as possible. We used never-before-seen private correspondence and interviews to achieve this. However, it got very tricky concerning the Paul Bern period of her life. There is so much written about it, and so much of it is conjecture. How do you sort it out? Mark kept saying: Whenever you’re confused, ask yourself ‘what is Harlow’s story from her own point of view? Don’t tell events from someone else’s point of view – what was her experience?’ And at times that meant a lot of rewriting. And that’s what’s makes the difference with our book, Harlow In Hollywood. That is one of the key things that sets this book apart: this is Harlow’s story told in her own words and from her own experiences.


‘Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937’ hits bookshelves March 1st. Pre-order your copy now at Angel City Press or Amazon.com. Visit The Hollywood Museum at the Historic Max Factor Building or thehollywoodmuseum.com for upcoming details on the exciting new Jean Harlow Exhibit, opening March 3rd, 2011.

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Excellent interview don't you think? I know I definitely can't wait to read this new book on Harlow and see all the previously unpublished photographs. Now, don't forget to visit The Kitty Packard Pictorial to answer the above question in order to have a chance to win the new Harlow dvd set.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Wedding of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis

Ardis Holden, Ronald & Nancy Reagan, William Holden
Photo from Ronald Reagan Library

This Sunday is not only a big day for football fans who are getting ready to watch the Green Bay Packers take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, but for political junkies and classic film fans it marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Hollywood actor turned President, Ronald Reagan. A year long centennial celebration will be taking place with various events happening all over the globe. Visit the official centennial page for a complete overview.

Prior to making his way to the White House, Reagan was a working actor in Hollywood, making most of his films under contract at Warner Bros. in films like Knute Rockne: All American, Kings Row, Dark Victory and numerous patriotic war films. In 1937, Reagan became a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and by 1946 he was asked to run for president of SAG. Reagan would serve five terms as president. During his time as president of SAG Reagan became increasingly more conservative and more interested in politics. Some have speculated that Reagan's first wife, the more liberal actress Jane Wyman, divorced Reagan due to his increasingly vocal interest in politics. However, there were also allegations that Wyman was having an affair with her Johnny Belinda costar, Lew Ayres. So who knows what the real reasons were - probably a combination of both. 

Ronald Reagan would meet his future wife Nancy Davis in 1951. Nancy had arranged to meet Reagan at La Rue, a Sunset Strip restaurant, to discuss a problem concerning her name being used in an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter. The two began dating and found that they both had a lot in common, particularly an interest in conservative politics. The next year, while having dinner at the Beverly Hills restaurant Chasen's, Reagan asked Davis to marry him.


The Little Brown Church on Coldwater Canyon, Studio City

The wedding, which took place on March 4, 1952, was a very small affair. Reagan's good friend and fellow actor William Holden, would be best man. Holden's wife Ardis was the matron of honor. The Holden's were the only guests. Ardis made the arrangements for a wedding ceremony to be at The Little Brown Church on Coldwater Canyon in Studio City. The name is completely accurate. If you look at the photos above and below you can see that the church is in fact "little" and "brown." It's not some ornate location one would expect a Hollywood couple to be married. The church has been open since 1930 and is still open today, so you too could be married in the same church!

The Little Brown Church, Studio City

After the ceremony at the Little Brown Church the foursome headed to the Holden's home in neighboring Toluca Lake for dinner and a small reception. The photo below shows Reagan and Nancy cutting the cake at the Holden's home.

Ronald & Nancy Reagan, Newlyweds

After the wedding Reagan and Nancy spent the first night of their honeymoon at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California. It was then onto Phoenix, Arizona where the newlyweds visited with Nancy's parents.

A happy birthday to Reagan and to my brother who also celebrates a birthday.

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