No. 104 | May 26, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Cinematographer: Stefan Czapsky
Yesterday a cheaply made film, today a film that celebrates cheaply made films.
It’s hard to imagine Ed Wood in anything but black-and-white. Ed Wood made black-and-white movies—he seemed to live in a world without color—and Tim Burton’s biopic of the 1950s director was true to its subject.
Today Ed Wood is a beloved figure, in large part because of Burton’s movie and Johnny Depp’s endearing performance. But there was a time when Wood was a subject of mockery, famously the maker of the worst movies ever made. No one now would accuse him of making great movies, but as camp classics his films are entertaining in ways that Wood might not have intended but are achievements nonetheless. There is something to be said for that. The talent to entertain is a rare thing, and Wood’s legacy is greater than that of some other more respectable, but forgettable, filmmakers of his time.
Making a movie is no easy task. It’s not a job for the easily discouraged. It takes a certain amount of optimism. That’s a quality that Wood had in abundance. He seemed utterly blind to the million reasons that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do. He forged ahead regardless. He was the intrepid filmmaker, the artist who couldn’t be stopped, and in some ways a hero to anyone who ever stepped behind the camera, or anyone who dreamed of doing so.
The Tim Burton film follows Wood in his struggles to make a career in Hollywood. He wants to make a movie of Christine Jorgensen’s life, but when he can’t get the rights, he films a fictionalized story about a transvestite called Glen or Glenda. That 1953 movie is a breakthrough of sorts, and Wood makes more movies during the ’50s (the scope of the Burton film), culminating, at the end of the decade, in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Along the way he meets and befriends Béla Lugosi (portrayed, in a memorable, Oscar-winning performance, by Martin Landau). Wood doesn’t provide Lugosi with a career comeback, but he does give the actor work in his final years. Wood also has a chance meeting with his hero, Orson Welles. Wood never gets much closer than the periphery of Hollywood. But most of all, he makes movies, and that’s what counts.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1:18:21)
[Click the pic and give it a minute or two to connect.]
Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
No. 3 | January 5, 2010
Our theme this week
The celluloid heroes of “Celluloid Heroes”
Featured this week
Monday — Greta Garbo
Most of the time here at MAD About Movies I’ll cover a single subject per day, but Ray Davies named more celluloid heroes than we have weekdays, so rather than skip anyone this first week we’ll double up today and tomorrow. Today’s minute features two actors, hardly alike in many ways, though both born in the 19th century, natives of Europe, and émigrés to Hollywood in the early days of film.
Rudolph Valentino looks very much alive
And he looks up ladies’ dresses as they sadly pass him by
Rudolph Valentino was a star of the silent era and never lived to see the advent of talkies. He came from southern Italy and after a stop in Paris he arrived in New York, where he found work as a dancer and friendship with a Chilean heiress that turned out badly when her husband had him arrested. One well-publicized court case and a fatal shooting later, Valentino sought escape from the scandal, traveling west. He soon was making a career doing bit parts in Hollywood films, often cast as the heavy because of his so-called exotic looks and dark complexion. The release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921 brought him stardom. It was a huge success, one of the biggest hits of the silent era, inspiring a craze for the tango and demand for Valentino as the consummate Latin lover. He solidified his image as a romantic lead with The Sheik (1921), the film that he may be best remembered for, playing the role of the Arab who is the abductor and eventual lover of a British socialite. Blood and Sand (1922) was another success, with Valentino as a bullfighter. After a few underperforming films, Valentino gained a measure of critical acclaim, along with a return to box office success, with The Son of the Sheik (1926). It would be his last film. He died six weeks after it opened, the victim of appendicitis and other ailments. He was 31. Valentino’s death was mourned around the world. More than 100,000 people lined the streets of New York for his funeral. Polish actress Pola Negri, claiming to be his fiancée, collapsed at his coffin. In the hysteria that followed his death, riots broke out and suicides of despondent fans were reported.
Beyond the final credits
Rudolph Valentino was buried in Hollywood. As legend has it, he was visited every year on the anniversary of his death by a mysterious “woman in black.” She came in a chauffeur-driven car, laid a bouquet of roses on his tomb, wiped away a tear, and left. There was great intrigue about her identity. Finally, years later, a woman named Ditra Flame came forward to explain that when she was young and very ill in the hospital, Valentino had visited her, telling her that she would recover and eventually outlive him, and he asked that she visit his grave so that he would not be alone. Flame had many imitators, causing her to suspend her annual visits after a time, but she resumed them in her final years, before she died in 1984.
Avoid stepping on Béla Lugosi
‘Cause he’s liable to turn and bite
Béla Lugosi was an actor in Hungary, first on stage and later in films. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, he fled the country for Germany and eventually made his way to the U.S. In addition to some film roles, he acted on Broadway, including a successful run in 1927 as the star of Dracula, which in turn led to work in Hollywood talkies. Lon Chaney Sr. was set to star in the screen adaption of Dracula (1931), but with his death director Tod Browning cast Lugosi to play the vampire. It was an iconic performance, a role for which Lugosi will always be remembered. Lugosi had found success but was also typecast as a horror villain. He appeared in The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and four other films with fellow horror icon Boris Karloff, including Son of Frankenstein (1938), with Lugosi memorably playing the hunchbacked assistant Ygor. In Ninotchka the following year, he played a Russian commissar, a straight, supporting role, but in the 1940s he returned to horror. In 1943 he finally played Frankenstein’s monster in Universal’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (with Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man), and in 1948 he reprised the role of Dracula for the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (with Chaney Jr. again as the Wolf Man). In his later years Lugosi had trouble finding work and trouble with drugs. Ed Wood, a fan of Lugosi’s, hired the actor and gave him star billing again, although Wood’s films were hardly A-pictures. Lugosi appeared in Glen or Glenda (1953), Wood’s docudrama about cross-dressing and transexuality, and Bride of the Monster (1955), in which the actor played a mad scientist who meets his end in an atomic explosion. Lugosi suffered a fatal heart attack in 1956. He was buried wearing a Dracula costume.
Beyond the final credits
Martin Landau played the role of Béla Lugosi in the 1994 film Ed Wood, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It was one of the few occasions that an actor won an Oscar for portraying a real-life actor (Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn is one other example). Lugosi played many memorable roles and is one of the great names in the history of film, but he was never nominated for an Oscar himself.
“But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience—it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.”
— Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)