Monday, October 28, 2013

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) is a charming movie, adapted from the 1915 novel by Harry Leon Wilson which also became a popular Broadway show. Directed by Leo McCarey, a fine director who explored many social issues in his films, this Paramount movie has a superb cast including Charles Laughton, ZaSu Pitts, Mary Boland, Charles Ruggles, Roland Young and Leila Hyams.

This is just the feel-good film that is perfect for lifting ones spirit on a gloomy day. And that's just what this film did for me. These past few weeks have consisted of tightly packed schedules with few breaks and many opportunities for anxiety attacks. When I finally got a break, I needed a film to make me feel good about life and that's just what Ruggles of Red Gap did for me.

Charles Laughton stars as Marmaduke "Bill" Ruggles, a British butler whose superior, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young), lost him in a poker game. The winners of that game were the American Couple Egbert (Charles Ruggles) and Effie Floud (Mary Boland). These nouveau rich country folk from Red Gap, Washington are in Paris to soak up some culture courtesy of their oil fortune. Effie is particularly interested in climbing the social ladder and thinks Ruggles will be a wonderful trophy to show off to her friends back home. Ruggles is uncomfortable working for Americans, breaking the traditions he's worked so hard for years to uphold, and it shows in the sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle facial expressions Laughton gives to the Ruggles character.

"Well, well you old tarantula!"

Something happens to Ruggles when he moves to Red Gap with this new couple. His new superior Mr. Egbert Floud's personality starts to rub off on him. Egbert doesn't have the same appetite for sophistication hat his wife does. He wants only to be his fun-loving cowpoke self.

"Hey, we just met. Squat-ez vous."
When the townsfolk confuse Ruggles for a Colonel of the British Army instead of just a butler, Ruggles finds an opportunity to reinvent himself and live the American dream of freedom, prosperity and success.

"...miraculously there comes a man. A person of importance, however small. A man whose decisions and whose future are  in his own hands." - Ruggles
Ruggles falls for the local spinster Prunella (ZaSu Pitts) and starts to make his own plans for life other than being a butler. All the performances are splendid. I loved Laughton, Pitts, Boland and Ruggles especially. Roland Young and Leila Hyams have interesting supporting roles and I love the character of Belknap-Jackson played by Lucien Littlefield.

"I tell you that Belknap-Jackson is a Boston Cream Puff!"
At one point the film takes a rather strange patriotic turn. There is one scene in which a bunch of guys in a Red Gap tavern are struggling to remember what Lincoln said during his Gettysburg Address but Ruggles knows every word. According to what I found online, this scene was very emotional for Charles Laughton and he remembered it fondly. During filming the British Laughton was considering applying for American citizenship.

This film is a wonderful comedy which is elevated by it's exploration of social issues of class and personal freedom. There are sober moments, times when you laugh out loud at the exploits of the Floud couple and when your heart is touched by tender scenes between Ruggles and Prunella Judson (Pitts). At the end of the film, I found myself crying in the best possible way there is to cry. McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) made me cry hysterically but Ruggles of Red Gap made me cry tears of joy.

Please watch this film if you can. If stories can still move you emotionally and you haven't grown completely numb to them, let this film in. You'll be a better person for it.

Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the many movies Universal acquired from Paramount. It's part of the Universal Vault Series on DVD-R. I rented it from ClassicFlix (they don't have it for sale). There is also a Blu-Ray version. Both DVD and Blu-Rays look to be out of print or their availability is limited. I'm hoping to purchase this one but can't find where I can get a new copy!

ETA: Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings tells me that Universal Vault Series are sold exclusively on Amazon but there is talk of making them available at other retailers in the future.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Twenty Movie Musical Marathon & a Boxed Set Review

While I was at the TCM Classic Film Festival, the lovely folks from Warner Bros. let me chose one of their boxed sets to review. I chose their 20 Film Collection: Musical set because it had a lot of films that I hadn't seen yet. 

The Best of Warner Bros.: 20 Film Collection - Musicals boxed set contains 20 musicals spanning just over 60 years of time from 1927 to 1988. The set has a slipcase and on the back is a list of all the movies inside. There are three sets within which break up the movies into three different time frames: 1927-1951, 1951-1964 and 1967-1988. It's obvious from looking at the discs that they were meant for other DVD packages. Some say "Disc One" so you know there is a Disc Two with extras that lives in another DVD set somewhere. Most of the DVDs in this set have extras anyways so I didn't count this as any great loss.

Inside the set there is also a full color booklet. Each page of the booklet is devoted to a movie and has an image from the film, the title, a paragraph about it and lists Academy Award nominations and/or wins wherever relevant. This is a nice added bonus to this set.

The Jazz Singer (1927) - This was my first time seeing The Jazz Singer and I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. I'm not sure why but I was expecting a creaky clunker with little or no entertainment value but instead I got something quite different. The Jazz Singer is considered to be the very first talkie. It's really a part talkie and was intended to only have synchronized singing but with Al Jolson's ad libs there was some dialogue too. It's based on Al Jolson's own life and follows his rise to become a great entertainer.

The Broadway Melody (1929) - I had seen this film before and enjoyed it but on this viewing I became frustrated with Anita Page's character Queenie and felt compelled to smack her on several occasions. It's not a perfect early musical but definitely one to watch if you are interested in the time period and in the history of early talkies.

42nd Street (1933) - I have seen 42nd Street a few times before and the title song always seems get stuck in my head when I do watch it. The cast is magnificent: Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins, Una Merkel, Guy Kibbee, etc. It's notable especially for the Busby Berkeley choreographed/directed sequences and for the wonderful songs.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) - Oh my, this was quite a long movie wasn't it? This was my first viewing and going in I didn't realize it would clock in at 3 hours! The film is about the life of producer Florenz Ziegfeld and stars the dapper William Powell. His wives are played by Luise Rainier (perhaps the only surviving cast member?) and Myrna Loy, who doesn't appear until half way through the movie. This was a very entertaining film but overly long. I loved seeing a very young Dennis Morgan singing in one of the musical numbers.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) - I have always thought this movie was just plain weird. However, I have had a change of heart and that is primarily because I recently read the L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz earlier this year and fell in love with it. What made me want to read the book? Anne Hathaway did a marvelous reading for an Audible audiobook series. I really wanted to listen to her narration so I ended up reading the book that way. Also, I have been curious about why Dorothy wanted to go back to dreary old Kansas ever since I heard Director John Waters question this in the documentary These Amazing Shadows (2011). You can read my book review and my thoughts on Dorothy's attachment to Kansas here.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) - A new favorite! I can't believe I hadn't seen this film before. Another biopic musical, this time about the life of entertainer, playwright and songwriter George M. Cohan. 
This film reminded me how much I adore both James Cagney and Joan Leslie. Cagney's sister plays the Cohan sister and I found it very amusing that Walter Huston plays the patriarch of the Cohan family. Great film, wonderful musical numbers, great cast, entertaining all around. Will definitely be watching this one again.

An American in Paris (1951) - This movie has always felt a bit flat to me. My opinion didn't really change with this viewing. The visuals are great, Gene Kelly's dance numbers are divine and it is an amusing movie to watch but the story is a bit of a bore and I have little interest in the characters.

Show Boat (1951) - I had never seen this one before and it wasn't high on my list of films to watch. I tried to keep an open mind and watched it. It was meh. I found the musical numbers in the beginning to be entertaining but I found the film to be tiring. I enjoyed Joe E. Brown's performance and I thought Ava Gardner's character was the most interesting part of the film!

Singin' in the Rain (1952) - Pink. That's all I could think of during this viewing. PINK! I was watching a YouTube video in which a popular athlete says that he thought some bridesmaid's dresses his wife was going to chose for their wedding was too 1920s because they were Pepto Bismol pink. Well clearly he was a fan of Singin' in the Rain because there is a lot of pink worn in the film. Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, even Gene Kelly all wear pink in one scene or another. Repeat viewings of favorites always bring something new to the table.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) - This musical is one of my top favorite films so I'm glad to finally own a copy. I think it will look spectacular if it ever gets release on Blu-Ray. On this viewing I paid special attention to the choreography. The barn-raising dance scene is one of the most exquisitely choreographed and well-executed dance numbers ever. The impressive acrobatics just add to the entertainment. Every time I watch this movie I am reminded why I should never watch a wide-screen movie in pan-and-scan. Thanks for that TCM!

A Star is Born (1954) - There are quite a few gaps in my viewing of major motion pictures and I filled one in by watching A Star is Born. Yes, this is Judy Garland’s movie but I was much more fascinated with James Mason’s performance. There are two discs in the set and the version included is the full before 30+ minutes were cut for the theatrical release. About 5 minutes were missing and those were filled in with audio and publicity photographs. The ending almost came as a surprise until I remembered Don Draper in Mad Men talking about it in a scene from the show. Oh well! Not a new favorite and I still found it a bit too long but I appreciated seeing it in full.

The Music Man (1962) -  I was already disposed to not like this film but I was over by two things: the performance of the adorable little Ronny Howard and the film’s glorious ending. The Music Man in question is a traveling con artist and while he tries to swindle the townsfolk of River City out of their hard-earned money, he ends up giving the people something much more valuable in return: hope and a belief in themselves. This touched me greatly and I had a good sob by the film’s end.

Viva Las Vegas (1964) - I’ll watch anything that takes me back to the Las Vegas of the 1960s. If they ever invent time-traveling vacations, I would book a trip to that time and location straight away. I’m not a fan of Elvis but I nonetheless enjoyed this film immensely. I adore Ann-Margret and the music and dance numbers were a lot of fun. The plot is pretty interesting too! Overall this was a very enjoyable film to watch.
Camelot (1967) - Oh boy. I was majorly disappointed in this film and it's hard for me to articulate why It never captivated my imagination or attention and I didn't care for the songs. I was more fascinated by the on-screen and real-life affair between Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero.

Perhaps my previous history with The Wizard of Oz made me a bit wary about this musical adaptation of a children’s book. I’m glad I watched it because what an entertaining film! It was a great study of how greed transforms us and how we should reevaluate what’s truly important to us. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the film as much as I did if it wasn’t for that moral to the story. I was particularly fascinated the curious fact that this is the only film Peter Ostrum, the actor who played Charlie, ever did. What a way to both start and finish an acting career!

Cabaret (1972) - This was my first viewing and I was oddly fascinated by this film. 
This was my first viewing and while I was oddly fascinated by this film at the end I felt dissatisfied. I didn’t care for the vision of the 1930s through 1970s lenses and found myself annoyed by most of the characters. It was an entertaining movie, great plot and wonderfully raunchy musical numbers.

That's Entertainment! (1974) - Let’s just get one thing straight. This is a documentary type film that celebrates MGM. And it’s in a set celebrating Warner Bros. This confused me immensely and while it’s a great addition to a musical boxed set I thought it stuck out like a sore thumb in this set in particular. Lots of folks rave about That’s Entertainment and I had never seen it before. It was a bittersweet experience watching all those stars (Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, etc.) walking around the decrepit and abandoned MGM lot, talking about their glory days. However, even with my MGM-Warner Bros. objection, I think this is a great introduction for people who are not familiar with earlier musicals. I laughed when Frank Sinatra called the show girls from Broadway Melody of 1929 “overweight”. Yeah, okay buddy.

Victor Victoria (1982) - I don’t know why I compare Victor Victoria with Cabaret but I did and I found myself loving the former much more than the latter. Maybe because they were both nostalgic, featured Americans abroad and had gay characters. I have a new appreciation for the divine Julie Andrews after watching this film. The film is only a little campy, has loveable characters and great musical numbers. Enjoyable all around and I can’t wait to watch it again.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986) - I had seen this before but my husband hadn't so I decided we could watch this together. This film is the stuff of nightmares. I think I enjoyed it much more on my second viewing. The songs are wonderful, it's quite a unique story and I do enjoy a good Greek Chorus! Also, certain Family Guy episodes make much more sense after you've seen this film.

Hairspray (1988) - I knew almost nothing about this film when I sat down to watch it which I think was the best way to experience it. Hairspray is more a film with music rather than a musical film. It has John Water's signature touch: it's both bizarre and fun. I love the 1960s nostalgia but my favorite thing about the movie is it's message: don't ever be afraid to be who you are. That alone makes this film a winner.

With the Holidays right around the corner, this boxed set would make a perfect gift!

The Best of Warner Bros.: 20 Film Collection - Musicals
Available at the following online retailers:

Barnes and Noble

Turner Classic Movies Shop
Warner Bros. Online Shop

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Man Who Seduced Hollywood by B. James Gladstone

The Man Who Seduced Hollywood
The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown's Most Powerful Lawyer
by B. James Gladstone
ISBN 9781613745793
Hardcover 352 pages
Chicago Review Press
May 2013

Barnes and Noble

“... Bautzer’s legacy is the way he created a public image in order to advertise his services and the swashbuckling way he practiced law. He planned his life as if it were a movie. He wrote the script, cast himself as the star, and directed it himself.” - Gladstone

I confess that I've never heard of famed Hollywood lawyer Greg Bautzer. Now thanks to B. James Gladstone's book I'm fully informed about this fascinating man. Bautzer was a quintessential charmer who used his people skills to woo beautiful women and win court cases. His list of romantic conquests is as impressive as his list of clients. Bautzer had relationships with actresses Lana Turner, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Dorothy Lamour, Merle Oberon, Jane Wyman, Ann Sheridan, Simone Simon and that's only part of the full list.  Bautzer's clients included Howard Hughes, Marion Davies, Ingrid Berman, Robert Mitchum, Farah Fawcett, Jeanne Crain, Kirk Douglas and more. One of his clients and friends was actor Robert Wagner who wrote the foreword for this book.

Bautzer handled many high-profile Hollywood divorce cases most notably the very complicated one between Ingrid Bergman and her first husband Petter Lindstrom. There was adultery, a pregnancy, child custody issues as well as a morality clause in Bergman's film contract. Bautzer also handled Nancy Sinatra's divorce from Frank Sinatra but still managed to befriend Frank after the fact (that's an accomplishment if there ever was one!). He also handled wills and estates of big tycoons like William Randolph Heart and Howard Hughes as well as financial transactions of major corporations like TWA, CBS, Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount and the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas. He faced notorious gangster Bugsy, got punched by actor George Hamilton and tried to pick a fight Humphrey Bogart. Needless to say, there are countless stories about all the romances, fights, legal battles, friendships and partnerships that Bautzer had in his long life and career. Bautzer wasn’t perfect. He had a short temper, was obsessed with winning and eventually became an alcoholic. He wasn’t very good at monogamy either and didn’t take naturally to fatherhood. However, he was a talented lawyer who wanted loyalty above all else, loved his clients and would do anything for them. He was generous too and even waived legal fees if his clients were in financial straits.

The author B. James Gladstone is the Executive Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs for Lionsgate Entertainment.  In this book, he’s covering the life of a figure who is both a legend and a hero to him. I couldn’t quite tell if Gladstone had ever interactive with Bautzer during his lifetime but he did have a brief friendship with actress Dana Wynters before her death in 2011. Wynters was Bautzer’s third wife, the mother of his only child Mark Bautzer and proved to be an invaluable resource to Gladstone in writing this book.

This book is an endlessly enjoyable read full of interesting stories about a figure who is very captivating. It follows Bautzer’s life story chronologically for the most part but some chapters dip in and out of different time periods. Some chapters focus on big moments, relationships and trial sin Bautzer’s life and career. These chapters profile Bautzer’s relationships with the following key figures: Lana Turner, Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Lamour, Marion Davies/William Randolph Hearst, Robert Evans (Paramount), Kirk Kerkorian (MGM), Dana Wynters, etc.

Bautzer was a key figure in many deals, transactions, divorces and meetings. Because of him certain movies were made and certain careers rose and flourished. While not essential to one’s film history education, I think it’s very interesting to read about the other people who worked Hollywood during it’s golden era. It wasn’t just actors, actresses, directors and producers. Many people in the industry and on the peripheral influenced film history in many ways.

I loved the story of how Bautzer borrowed $5,000 to start his career. He used that money to dress nicely, get the best tables and the best restaurants so he could pique the interest of the Hollywood elite and open doors to both meet them and work with them.

I did find one error in the book. The author recounts a story that Bautzer himself told many times of Marion Davies requesting a black Rolls Royce so she can take it to the 1953 New York wedding of JFK and Jacqueline Bouvier. The wedding was actually in Newport, Rhode Island. I thought maybe it was just a location error until the story also said that Davies had the car waiting for her at Grand Central Station. It's very possible that the story was actually about Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy's New York wedding in 1954. I did a little digging and found out that Davies was a guest at that wedding. Davies might have also gone to the JFK-Bouvier wedding too. I've been told that the author is looking into it and it will be clarified when the paperback is released.

Thank you to Meaghan of IPG for sending me a copy of this book to review!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Interview with Greg Merritt, Author of Room 1219

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Merritt, the author of one of the best books I've read this year: Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood. If you are interested in the topic and haven't read this book already, I implore you to seek out a copy! (Here are some places where you can buy the book: Barnes and NobleIndieBound, Powell's) It's a fascinating, well-written and well-organized book about one of the most important scandals in Hollywood history. You can read my review of the book here. Now on to the interview!

Raquel: What made you decide to write a book about the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal?

Greg Merritt. Photo by Kevin Horton
Greg Merritt: I thought of it as the ultimate Hollywood scandal, but I assumed it had already been covered thoroughly. I started to look into another tragedy that plays a small role in Room 1219, the murder of pioneering director Frances Boggs. That led me to Arbuckle’s story, and I learned how inadequate the previous books were and how frustrated silent film fans were with them. I began doing my own research. Soon I was hooked. The more things I found, the more I knew I had to tell this story.

Raquel: Your book is incredibly well-organized and you go into lots of great detail. How did you decide to organize the book the way you did and how did you keep track of all the information you accumulated?

Greg Merritt: Thanks. At its heart, this is a mystery story. And in order to reach a conclusion about what occurred in room 1219, the reader needs to know not just the facts of the case but also what sort of people Arbuckle and Rappe were. So, much of the book alternates between his and her biographies and the story of the developing case. This allows the reader to gain a greater appreciation for how much Arbuckle and Rappe lost – her life and his reputation and career. The “standard” structure would insert the crime story into Arbuckle’s biography. If so, you wouldn’t get to the case until around the book’s halfway point and then you’d be inundated with it for the next ten chapters. I think my approach makes for a more illuminating and interesting book. Once I had the structure plotted. I’d research a chapter, write its first draft, and then move on to researching and writing the next chapter. So my journey was very similar to the reader’s. Still, I was always finding things that fit in either earlier or later and thus constantly revising earlier chapters and saving things for later chapters. This created a bit more work, but I was engaged with the text throughout the process, as opposed to spending three years researching before even beginning the first chapter.

Raquel:  What was the most surprising thing you discovered when you did the research for this book?

Greg Merritt:  The wealth of information on Virgina Rappe, which I’ll expand upon below.

Raquel: Arbuckle was indirectly linked to a scandal prior to Rappe’s death. Can you tell us a little bit about the Mishawum Manor scandal that you talked about briefly in your book?

Greg Merritt:  There were a lot of stories about Hollywood “orgies” around this time, and most of them were shocking headlines and little else. This one was deserving of its title. In 1917, at the end of a tour celebrating Arbuckle’s signing with Paramount, there was a sort of after-party in a bordello near Boston. Arbuckle wasn’t there. But some Paramount executives were, including Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor, and so were some underage prostitutes. Relatives of the prostitutes came forward shortly thereafter, threatening to bring a civil suit against the film executives. The potential complainants were bought off for a whopping $100,000 in Paramount hush money. Okay, that’s that, right? No. Four years later the story erupted in the national press, uncovered as part of a political scandal. It became known as the “chicken and champagne orgy,” and there were screaming headlines that associated Arbuckle with it even though he was in a Boston hotel room with his wife when it occurred. The story hit the news on July 11, 1921, less than two months before the Labor Day party. So, it primed the tarnished Paramount executives to quickly sever ties with Arbuckle after his arrest. It also fed the press fascination with Hollywood “orgies” and the public outrage with “immoral Hollywood.” All in all, it was bad news (and very bad luck) for Arbuckle.

Raquel: In your book, you devote a chapter to the life of Virginia Rappe. Was it difficult to find information about her and what was the most interesting thing about her you discovered?

Greg Merritt:  Surprisingly, no. Previous writers have offered barely anything about her life other than the worst rumors about her, and yet there was a wealth of information in newspaper databases waiting to be discovered. She was adept at promoting her modeling, fashion design, and acting careers. She was profiled in the Chicago Tribune in 1908 when she was a seventeen-year-old model, and she continued to give interviews or pen her own articles (for example, offering advice to young women) throughout the remainder of her life. One of the most interesting things about her is how innovative her fashions were. For examples, she had a tuxedo coat to win “equal clothes rights with men” and a dovish peace hat to promote pacifism during World War I. In some ways, just as Arbuckle was the archetype male movie star with his partying entourage and ostentatious spending, Rappe was the prototypical Jazz Age woman: an unmarried, outspoken entrepreneur. Both images would later be twisted to sinister meanings.

Raquel: Arbuckle was married three times and was estranged from his first wife Minta Durfee during the scandal. What can we learn about Arbuckle from his marriages?

Greg Merritt:  First, he was attracted to younger brunette actresses. That was true of all three of his wives and the girlfriends we know about. It was also true of Virginia Rappe. Each of his marriages was unique. Arbuckle’s mother died when he was twelve, and Durfee was a matronly influence in his life. When he married for a second time, in 1925, he was struggling with his career and self-image. As a result, that was his most volatile marriage. In 1932, one month after his third marriage began, his film acting career was resuscitated. He was at peace with himself and content being a husband and step-father. Unfortunately, that period was short-lived before his death in 1933.

Raquel: Arbuckle had a close friendship and working relationship with Buster Keaton. Was this a really important relationship in his life and if so, why?

Greg Merritt:  Very much so. They were kindred spirts. Their film characters contrasted, but the actors shared similar senses of humor (much more than simple slapstick). Arbuckle’s best movies were made with Keaton as his co-star on-screen and chief collaborator off-screen. They also both fondly remembered the years of 1917-20 when they hit up the hottest spots in New York City and Southern California as their best. For both, it was an extended adolescence.

Raquel: How did the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal affect Hollywood?

Greg Merritt:  There were four principal ways. First, the studios began instituting morality clauses in the contracts of their talent. Second, whereas before the public could be satisfied with studio-approved puff pieces in fan magazines, suddenly people wanted to know what movie stars were really like. Third, it ended Arbuckle’s silent film acting career in September 1921. The genre of feature-length comedies was just beginning to take shape then. So, we never got to see what great comedies Arbuckle could have made if he was acting the following years, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Finally, as I cover in detail, it led to a wave of censorship which the movie industry countered with self-censorship, leading eventually to the Production Code.

Raquel: I really loved the Labor Day Revisited chapter in your book in which you layout different scenarios of what could have happened. Could you tell us more about how you put all of those scenarios together and how you came to your own conclusion about what happened that day?

Greg Merritt:  I had no preconceptions about this case, and I came to that chapter only after writing the twenty-two that preceded it. Then I started eliminating some of the possible explanations for what happened. Many things, which either the defense or prosecution had focused on extensively, were easy to dismiss. They just weren’t relevant to the central question: How did Rappe’s bladder rupture while she was in room 1219, either for the brief period she was alone or the longer time afterwards when she was there with only Arbuckle? I was left with just a few possibilities of what could have happened to cause her injury, and from there I focused on what most likely occurred. Some long-overlooked coroner’s inquest testimony was particularly illuminating.

Raquel:  What was your favorite part of the process of researching/writing Room 1219?

Greg Merritt:  It was fun to research and writer Chapter 21, “Legends,” which explores all of the salacious things that have been attached to this case over the decades. It was illuminating to see why the myths grew about Arbuckle and Rappe and what supposedly occurred in room 1219.
Thank you Greg Merritt for taking the time to answer my questions and thank to you Meaghan Miller from IPG for arranging the interview!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Safety Last (1923) with Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis

Last Sunday, Carlos, a few friends and I went to the Somerville Theatre to watch Harold Lloyd's Safety Last (1923) on the big screen with live music performed by my favorite accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis has been performing alongside numerous silent films throughout the Summer and Fall for the Somerville Theatre. The last one I went to was Ben Hur (1925) (you can read about that experience here). Jeff's performances are always top-notch and you are guaranteed to have a good time. He honors the silent films by showing them in the best way possible: in their original format if possible, on the big screen in a proper theatre and with live music. It's the way these films should be seen and makes for the most enjoyable experience. Jeff improvises his music paying close attention to what's happening on the screen and how the live audience is reacting to the film. He's a marvel, passionate about what he does and his performances are growing in popularity. I commend the Somerville Theatre for taking a chance and hosting these events.

Before each screening, Jeff Rapsis always plays some music to entertain the audience as they find their seats and wait for the show.

I was so pleasantly surprised as to how many people showed up for this event! Jeff Rapsis always brings in a good crowd but this is the first time I've been to one of his performances where the house was packed. It made me really happy to see this.

I brought friends to this screening. New friend RJ and my film loving friends Kevin and Lisa attended. As I mentioned before, my husband Carlos was there. I can always count on Carlos to support me in pretty much any of my classic film adventures. If he's free, he's willing to go with me no matter what film is showing. I think it's really important to have supportive friends and family who are willing to try something different because they see how much passion you have for it. A big thanks to RJ, Kevin, Lisa and Carlos for attending.

Jeff Rapsis had performed music for other Harold Lloyd films in his series for the Somerville Theatre. The Freshman (1925) screening had been a big hit (I wish I had attended!) and a lot of patrons came back for Safety Last. This screening was introduced by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd (no relation) who is a Harold Lloyd expert and has written a biography on him. She discussed the film and gave people some background on Harold Lloyd and two other stars in the film Bill Strother and Lloyd's wife Mildred Davis. 

Then it was time for the show! It has been quite a few years since I've seen Safety Last (1923) so it almost felt like I was watching it for the first time. And what an experience it was. We all laughed so much. This film is so exquisitely funny, has great comedic timing and I found myself slapping my forehead a few times at some of the hilarious situations the characters get themselves in. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Harold Lloyd plays a young man who is engaged to a girl. He sets out to the city to make a good living so that he can marry his love. He gets stuck in a dead end job at a department store and uses all of the money to send back his girl trinkets to make her think he's doing better than he is. His buddy (Bill Strother) helps him out of a bind when Lloyd has to pull off a big publicity stunt to get his department store lots of new business. The stunt? Climbing the department store's building, freehand! His buddy was supposed to do it for him but was otherwise engaged in a chase with an angry police man with whom he had a previous encounter. There was no other options for Lloyd except to do it himself. And of course, hilarity ensues.

All of my friends enjoyed it and Kevin even told me it was a new favorite film for him. The biggest surprise for me was Carlos who was laughing so hard throughout the whole film. Lloyd's character works in the department that sells fabric to ladies who want to make their own dresses. A lot of hilarious moments in the film come from Lloyd's interaction with his lady customers. Then it hit me! No wonder Carlos is cracking up. He works at a men's clothing shop and also has to deal with customers and their crazy demands. The film was resonating with him because of that connection. Huzzah! This made me so happy.

Carlos trying to mimic Harold Lloyd climbing up a building. Davis Square, Somerville, MA
The music performed by Jeff Rapsis was spectacular as always. There was one scene in which the Department store is having a sale and Harold Lloyd's counter is overwhelmed by frantic customers. A big lady stands in the back and pushes her way through the crowd. Rapsis gave her special music to both complement her and her actions. I laughed! It was so funny. Rapsis told me later that at one point he even stopped playing music for a few second so that the audience could enjoy their laughter. His music was great. It really complements the film and the live experience. I feel like each performance is customized for us but also to glorify the film. At the end, Rapsis got a huge round of applause and he always takes a moment to honor the film and to thank the audience. If you want to learn more about Rapsis' scoring of Safety Last and his previous experiences with the film and its music, check out his blog post.

Rapsis makes time after each screening to talk to any of the audience members one-on-one. He always recognizes me and gives me a big hug when I see him. So many people attend his performances so I feel special that he remembers who I am. He told me about his upcoming Peter Pan (1924) screening in November and I definitely plan to go to that one. It'll be close to my birthday so perhaps I can work it into a birthday celebration of some sort.

A big thank you to Jeff Rapsis and the Somerville Theatre for hosting such a wonderful event!

If you are interested in attending these screenings, check out the Somerville Theatre website or Jeff Rapsis' blog for upcoming shows. They are special event priced at $15 and are a great time!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood

Room 1219
The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood
by Greg Merritt
Hardcover - 440 pages
ISBN 9781613747926
Chicago Review Press
September 2013

Barnes and Noble


"He is forever the life of the party, forever a defendant, forever a villain or a victim or both, forever remembered – when he is remembered – for his tremendous and devastating fall from grace.” – pg 342, Greg Merritt
It was Labor Day 1921. A lively party was happening in Room 1219 of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California. Movie stars Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Lowell Sherman were there, dressed in their pajamas and sipping on cocktails, along with their cohort Fred Fishback. They booked the two adjacent rooms and invited some ladies to join them in some Prohibition-era naughtiness. Young up-and-coming actress Virginia Rappe was one of those ladies. Everyone was having fun when things took a turn for the worse. At one point, Arbuckle and Rappe had sneaked off to be alone. Rappe suddenly began to write in pain. She was in agony, tearing at her clothes and the fellow party goers had no clue how to help her. She was moved to room 1227 where nurses and doctors treated her and eventually she was moved to a local sanitarium. Rappe died on September 9th, 1921 of a ruptured bladder and all fingers pointed to the larger-than-life movie star Fatty Arbuckle as the person to blame for Rappe's untimely death.

Virginia Rappe

The death of Virginia Rappe and the trials against Fatty Arbuckle that followed was a series of events that forever changed film history. A movie star acting badly was one thing but being linked to someone's death was a whole other story. It was a result of the very public Arbuckle case and some other Hollywood scandals that the Hays Code was inevitably written and eventually enforced. Movies and their stars were now seen as a potential bad influence on movie goers and Hollywood had to reign that in quickly if it wanted to prosper. Arbuckle was never convicted of a crime against Rappe but was forever marred by the scandal. His acting career and his flamboyant Hollywood life was essentially over. He went on to direct films and found himself behind the same camera that he had once found so much success in front of.

Greg Merritt's Room 1219 is probably the best book I've read all year. It's incredibly well-organized, insightful, thoughtful, unbiased, thorough, clear and well-written. I was very interested in the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal but was worried that I would be overwhelmed with boring information about the three trials. My experience was quite the opposite. I was enthralled and found myself not wanting to let the book go.

The key to the book's success is Merritt's organization of the chapters. Each chapter alternates from the details of the scandal to biographical chapters on Arbuckle and one on Virginia Rappe. Flipping back and forth gives you a respite from being overwhelmed with too much detail. And this book has a lot of information to take in so the structure really helps. You go from the minute details of the scandal, the case and the three (yes three!) trials to the humanity of the lives and careers of Arbuckle and Rappe.

Even though there is only one chapter devoted to Virginia Rappe I don't feel like she was neglected at all in this book. There isn't much information on her but Merritt does very well with the sometimes conflicting data he acquired. He pieces together her life in a way that we really get a sense of who she was. He also devotes a chapter to Will H. Hays, the man who developed and enforced the Hays Code which restricted what could be shown in films. The Arbuckle-Rappe scandal is one of the major reasons why the Hays Code was put into effect so it's crucial for readers to understand what implications that scandal had for film history. You also learn quite a lot about Arbuckle as a man and as an actor. Arbuckle was married, yet privately separated from his first wife Minta Durfee, and very popular and well-known at the time of the scandal. It really couldn't have come at a worst time in his career. There is a lot of humanizing of Arbuckle. We learn about his three marriages, his troubled relationship with his father, his penchant for buying expensive automobiles and his friendship and working relationship with Buster Keaton. However, Arbuckle is painted not as a martyr but as a man with all his strengths and weakness on display.

Arbuckle and Keaton - Source

My favorite chapter in the book is entitled Labor Day Revisited. In this chapter, Merritt carefully lays out each and every scenario of what happened that evening on Labor Day 1921. Did Arbuckle really kill Rappe or was he a victim of circumstances? Merritt gives us the scenarios presented by the Defense and the Prosecution and examines the strengths and weaknesses of each argument. And with all the information he has collected, Merritt gives us his own conclusion of what happened. What I love about this books is how unbiased it is. Merritt is working off of his research and lets the information speak for itself. It's in stark contrast to all the articles published in many news outlets during the scandal that wanted to paint a story that tantalized and entertained.

Whenever I write a book review I try to present a books strengths and weaknesses. I really couldn't find any fault with Room 1219. If you are not interested in the time period, the context or the people involved then this book might not be for you. However, if you do have an interest in the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal, film history or 1920s history in general, then you need to run out and buy this book immediately! My only very small complaint is that I wanted to learn more about the Mishawum Manor scandal that Arbuckle was indirectly linked to prior to Rappe's death. Merritt dedicates only a few pages to this. My reason for wanting to know more is that this scandal happened in my very own neighborhood! And I had no clue! Thanks to Merritt I have a new research project on my hands.

Greg Merritt is also the author of Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film Making, Film Production: The Complete Uncensored Guide to Filmmaking and Off the Lot: A History of American Independent Film.

Thank you to Meaghan from Independent Publishers Group for sending me a copy of the book for review!

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Filming Locations ~ Part 3 Cambridge Cemetery

After finding the filming locations in Downtown Boston and Beacon Hill for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968),  Carlos and I headed to Cambridge, MA to find the cemetery from the film. Finding specific locations in cemeteries is more difficult than it seems. I personally have tried to find the graves of the author Henry James (Cambridge, MA) and the actress Thelma Todd (Lawrence, MA) with no luck and even though I had photo and location references from the Find-A-Grave website.

You would figure that cemeteries would not change much over time, with the exception of new headstones, but that's just not the case. Weather causes damage, teenagers vandalize and knock over headstones, many gravestones get replaced, plants and trees grow or are taken down, etc. Also, unless you are looking for something in a small cemetery, most cemeteries are complex labyrinths of stone, pavement and plants and are difficult to navigate if you don't know what you are looking for or don't have some guidance.

I went into this particular project with an open mind. Carlos didn't. He thought he could find the exact spots right away but I knew better! Our first mistake was thinking that the cemetery scenes in the film were shot at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. We went there and good thing Carlos asked someone at the visitor center because we were told the actual filming location was the adjacent Cambridge Cemetery and not Mt. Auburn. IMDb clearly states Cambridge Cemetery so I'm still confused why I thought it was Mt. Auburn to begin with!

The well-organized bank heist in the films ends with a money drop off at a cemetery just outside of the city. The bags of money are deposited in a trash can and shortly afterwards Thomas Crown arrives to pick up the loot. There are several shots of the Cambridge Cemetery, before you get to the drop off location, and I picked this one above because it stood out. The sculpture is of four cannons topped off with cannon balls and what look like graves of veterans surrounding it. I figured this one would be the easiest to find. It took some time but I found it.

And here it is! Notice how all the headstones are gone? They were replaced by flat markers. See what I mean about cemeteries changing over time? This part of the cemetery was a Civil War memorial and the graves were of fallen soldiers. It was very sobering to be there.

What the Civil War memorial looks like from the other side
Then we started looking for the money drop off location. I knew this one would be tricky and that we would need to compare screen shots from the movie with the areas and specific headstones we came across. I made an album on Picasa of my screen shots and accessed them on my iPhone. It helped a lot to have the screen shots on hand to compare with what we were seeing in real life.

This is the spot we were looking for!

This is the one screen shot I was most grateful for because it helped me find the exact location of the drop off. Compare the three tombstones in the foreground of the shot with the ones below.

I tried to line up the shot as close as I could to the original, even trying to get that pointed headstone in the bottom left of my picture. Notice how different the tombstones look 45 years later. That one on the right seems to be sliding off some sort of pedestal. The trashcan where Steve McQueen picks up the trash would have been towards the back.

Here are some more shots of the area.

If you watch the film closely, you'll spot these two headstones, the Skelton above and Nourse below. Kudos to Carlos who took the time to note the names.

We looked for this headstone in particular but couldn't find it. It was supposedly next to the Skelton and Nourse headstones but when we were there that spot was empty. There wasn't even a marker. I'm wondering if this was a fake headstone added for effect. "Blessed are the Pure in Heart" is what you see when Steve McQueen drives away with the bank loot.

You might think it's pretty strange of me to visit a cemetery looking for filming locations and photographing graves. That's actually pretty normal for me. Ever since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated with cemeteries and I did a lot of photography work at many of them.

I hope you enjoyed my little series on the filming locations of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Carlos and I plan to find more locations but we may have to wait a while before we have time to do this kind of research again.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Filming Locations ~ Part 2 Beacon Hill

After Carlos and I explored Downtown Boston in search of filming locations for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) (you can see a post about that here), we headed to Beacon Hill where the character Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) lived. Beacon Hill is a district of Boston that has great historical importance for both local history and American history in general. In Beacon Hill you'll find the Massachusetts State House and the African Meeting House, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad,  important writers, politicians and dignitaries have lived and worked there. It's also an aesthetically beautiful neighborhood. It is so sought after that properties there have a very high value and are sold for top dollar. Where else would Thomas Crown, a man whose main goal in life is to seek wealth at any cost, call home?

In the film, we first see Beacon Hill when Thomas Crown drives up Mt. Vernon Street.

What the drive up Mt. Vernon Street looks like today

Thomas Crown's car takes a left and enters the driveway of 85 Mt. Vernon Street.

85 Mt. Vernon Street
The same cobblestone driveway you see in the movie is still there. It's a private residence so we couldn't go in. It looks like some contractors were there hence all the extra cars parked in the driveway.

Source: GlamAmor
In the film, Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway) and Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) attend an auction in Beacon Hill. I wasn't even looking for this location and didn't grab my own screen cap for it. However, Carlos really wanted to find it and we did! 

46 Beacon Street

46 Beacon Street

Vicki Anderson and Thomas Crown have a love affair. Is she trying to use her feminine charms on Thomas Crown to find out if he was responsible for the bank heist or is she falling for him in earnest? The line between business and pleasure starts to get really blurry. In this scene, Thomas Crown is taking Vicki Anderson back to his place. They walk up Acorn Street in Beacon Hill, one of the most photographed streets in America.

Sign for Acorn Street, which is to the right of this picture

Acorn Street, Beacon Hill
Acorn Street is beautiful and if you compare the screen cap from the movie and these pictures, it doesn't seem that much has changed from 1968 to 2013. Acorn Street seems to be frozen in time.

Acorn Street, Beacon Hill
It's a gorgeous little street, perfect for a romantic walk and a discreet kiss.

I hope you enjoyed my second installment in this filming location series on The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Next up, I look for the cemetery featured in the film.

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