Camp David

CAMP DAVID NOVEMBER 2005

By • Nov 1st, 2005 •

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AUTEUR OF THE AVANT-GARDE

In January of 1978 film director Robert Florey inscribed the following dedication in the front piece of “Hollywood Annees Zero’, his book of memoirs published in French recalling the pioneer years in Hollywood “To David Del Valle This is a story of the heroic period of a Hollywood that no longer exists.” Florey was indeed an artist from another era when Hollywood became the ultimate destination for talented Europeans eager to combine artistic ideas with scenarios for the general public. His was a unique talent that allowed him to keep his vision as an avant-garde filmmaker in a non-commercial sense, only to bring that same sensibility to mainstream Hollywood features.

During the last year of his life I got to know him personally, visiting him several times at his comfortable home filled with the memories of a lifetime in the movies, not to mention a secret worthy of Bluebeard.

Robert Florey with his French posters for Frankenstein

Robert Florey arrived in America in 1921 as a correspondent for Cinemagazine. By 1925 he was directing features culminating in the extraordinary short, LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413 – A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA. He would remake this avant-garde work as a feature in 1936 entitled HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD. He would spend the next fifty years creating over 65 features and 220 television shows, not to mention books, articles and essays about the nature and history of motion pictures as observed first hand from the silent era through the advent of Television.

My admiration for Robert Florey as a director began with my first exposure to his expressionistic horror films of the thirties and forties, especially MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, a Caligari-inspired reworking of Poe with Bela Lugosi as its star… the very same Lugosi who notoriously for refusied FRANKENSTEIN, also scripted by Florey, as it was beneath him to play a role with no dialogue! Universal gave the pair the consolation prize of Poe’s short story, with dialogue by John Huston no less…Surviving scripts indicate how different FRANKENSTEIN would have been – with Florey as its director, creating distorted camera angles with expressionistic décor establishing a truly Germanic nightmare – from what James Whale finally put on the screen.

Florey would befriend as well as direct the great Peter Lorre in two of his best-remembered Hollywood films THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS and FACE BEHIND THE MASK. Peter would correspond with Florey in hand-written letters, usually in French, throughout the forties, always beginning his letters “Mon Cher Robert.” It was obvious the two had enormous respect for each other as artists, especially since their relationship remained until Lorre’s death in 1964.

My most vivid memories of this period with Florey were the afternoon visits at his home shared with his much younger wife Virginia. He was painfully aware of the passage of time, keeping a rather macabre list of fellow directors who arrived in Hollywood the same time as he did. A red line was crossed through each name as death claimed another in this elite list of these Cinema pioneers. One day he showed me the latest update “Look, only King Vidor and William Wyler are left…soon it will be my turn.”

Usually during these visits Florey would bring out some amazing treasure to share with me. A matchbook advertising MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE or a Window card from WOMAN IN RED. One day he brought out four incredible French posters for FRANKENSTEIN, explaining that Universal gave them to him to prove his screenplay credit was on all advertising in France! (After his death I would own for a time the six-sheet for FRANKENSTEIN.)

However, one afternoon Florey changed his routine, inquiring if I enjoyed history and, in particular, Napoleon…. I must have looked a bit bewildered and said ‘yes, I find that period of history most fascinating.” With that Florey took me down a hallway to a large door with a special lock. When he opened the door I was exposed to what had to be the greatest private collection of Napoleon memorabilia you could imagine!! Florey had one of the coats worn by the little corporal in a glass case. There were priceless letters, medals, paintings, even a cannon from one of the myriad battles during the Emperor’s reign before Waterloo. I was completely unprepared for this and it showed. Florey explained that Napoleon was a lifelong obsession and this was the result! He also told me that very few of his admirers were allowed to see this room. I promised to keep his collection a secret and left that afternoon dazed by what I had seen in that locked room in what appeared to be a regular hilltop home for a successful man of his accomplishments.

A year later Robert Florey died, leaving his widow Virginia to sort out this mammoth collection of letters, photos material from a lifetime in the movies, not to mention the Napoleon collection. A few months ago I had dinner with a colleague archivist and film historian Marc Wanamaker who also knew the Florey’s at the same time I did. He explained to me that much younger Virginia had a lover during the last few years with Florey, a cameraman who knew them both as it turned out. The bulk of his letters and memorabilia went to a University in his name but the Napoleon collection was a mystery because Virginia did not really understand its value therefore she did not contact the museums in France or in this country for that matter. The items were sold through auction, which was a shame, as I know he would have wanted the collection to stay intact. Robert Florey was a true gentleman of the Cinema, who lived a long and charmed life, watching the art form he so adored turn decade by decade into what it has become in the 21st Century…

Fast food served here…gourmets need not apply!

AFTER LUNCHING AT BAXTER’S

One of the advantages of being a child of the sixties was the thrill of attending each Saturday matinee to see for the first time films like PIT AND THE PENDULUM and HOUSE OF USHER. The atmosphere that Roger Corman created for these films was aided immeasurably by the music composed for these productions by Les Baxter. I knew nothing of this man’s work beyond his film scores, which would number most of the American International beach party flicks as well as the company’s substantial horror output. For me Les Baxter was the MAN…the musical equivalent for that magic period of films with Price and Poe.

Flash forward to the early eighties when I began tracking down the survivors of those films, doing interviews with not only Roger Corman and Vincent Price but also Daniel Haller and a host of supporting players. It was only after I got to know MGM photographer Ted Allan that Les Baxter would become part of my inner circle of friends during those party days in Beverly Hills.

Ted introduced me to Les with the knowledge that “he was living out in Chatsworth in exile and rather lonely.” One must remember that in the eighties the interest in Lounge music was non-existent, leaving the majority of Les Baxter’s musical catalogue forgotten.

It didn’t take long to see that Baxter was living in a very dark space career-wise, feeling out of touch with ‘Today’s music,’ overly conscious of his age, and carrying a serious weight problem as well.

I recognized this malaise at once as part of the Hollywood obsession with youth affecting everybody in the business… actors, writers and yes, composers as well. Les had once been the darling of Capitol Records until the advent of the Beatles and the British invasion left him feeling out of fashion. Not to mention out of work.

Les became even more isolated living so far out of mainstream Hollywood in the hills surrounding Magic Mountain and Cal-Arts. He was a composer in exile from the show business he loved. The young Turks that ran the music industry had turned their backs on the ‘King of Exotica.’

When I came along, so in awe of his film work, he responded warmly to my attention and we bonded almost on the spot. Les Baxter really needed a friend at this time in his life, and soon we were going to films together as well as many dinners in and around Hollywood, Not to mention those poolside weekends with the mountains surrounding his house making you feel like you could be in Montana! Les loved to garden and raised many prized flowers in his home in Chatsworth, as well as having had a showplace in Hawaii for a number of years. I discovered that Les had a knack for selling his beautiful homes before they went up in value. These losses were just another part of his depression.

He was still composing, even trying his hand at disco with a song entitled “I like Pretty Boys” with lines like “I want to go with Rob Lowe.” Les was so aware of his non ‘hip’ image that he hired a male model to take his music around town, pretending that the model wrote the music…. all of this was way too “Phantom of the Opera” to bear, so I persuaded Les to get an agent to represent his work once more and deal with the age thing without ghosting someone else.

Les Baxter in the blue jacket with legendary MGM photographer Ted Allan

Looking back I wish I had been more aware of the incredible reputation Les Baxter had in the world of Exotic music. And had we but known that lounge music was just a few years away from making him a star all over again. Les had enjoyed so much fame and attention from people like Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme that this current rejection was making him bitter and unhappy. One of the things that apparently set off this negative feeling in the industry was his suing John Williams for lifting some of his music for ET on November 2nd 1982. The case was decided in Williams favor, causing Les to not work on a film for the rest of the 1980’s. During this period Les would invite the Ted Allan’s and myself up to his house, There he would turn off all the lights and play a tape of the score to THE BEAST WITHIN. Needless to say the music was light years away from the film itself which was too grade Z to ever bring Les Baxter into mainstream film music again. All of these variables gave Les little to hold onto as far as the future. He loved the music of Carnival and the sounds of Rio, so for a time Les would work on new music allowing the Brazilian beat to reinvent his image and somewhat restore the Master of exotic sound-scapes to his rightful place once more.

Les Baxter was the kind of man you wanted to shelter from the unpleasant side of show business as his talent made him at once child-like and innocent, as well as destructive and self-pitying. The greatness that resided in Baxter would manifest itself whenever he chose to play his music in public. Many times he would have people over and play the piano, making time stand still as his sound-scapes swept over you, allowing the listener to be a stranger in Paradise at least for an afternoon.

I had not spoken to Les Baxter in several months when I read of his death in the trades. All I could think of was how happy little things like a great meal or a well tended garden could make him. We lost a unique talent that day and one that we will not see the like of again.

NEVER FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR CLIENTS

In past editions of this column I have mentioned my former career as a Hollywood talent agent, which eventually led me back to journalism after three years of toiling in and out of an industry I never much cared for, as it existed in 1979.

The current guild laws regarding sexual harassment are clear and well enforced today, but in 1979 it was very much like it was back in the heyday of agents like Henry Willson. My friend and colleague Robert Hofler has just published a book on Willson, co-incidentally in time for another of Willson’s clients, Tab Hunter, to put out his views on Hollywood and being gay in the fifties.

Robert and I spent a great evening in the bar of the Peninsula hotel discussing Henry Willson for a then-to-be-published expose for Vanity Fair. The text he submitted to them was rejected and rather then give up what amounted to several thousand words Robert turned the essay into a book

My friendship with Henry Willson began one evening at a West Hollywood cocktail lounge known with a nod and a wink to Tennessee Williams as ‘The Garden District’. This nightspot was the favorite watering hole for survivors of the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ as well as the bronze! Hermoine Gingold could be seen in a booth with her fantasy sibling photographer Roy Dean, well established for his male nudes free from hard-ons! of which Roy was very proud! Not to mention older show biz types looking for younger show biz types and so on. It was on one of these Saturday night free for alls that Roy introduced me to the creator of the Adonis factory himself, Henry Willson. Henry was a regular on Saturday nights positioning himself at the bar with a stool left open for the next Tab or Rock or Guy to show up and get famous, or so they thought. Roy had mentioned the fact that Henry was a regular there and now was my opportunity to get some essential pointers from the master agent himself.. I had heard so much negative feedback about Willson from agents who basically did the same thing to their clients without achieving the same results like creating the next Rock Hudson.

Henry was a smooth talker, not to mention a namedropper of epic proportions. His names however were worth dropping since Lana Turner, Joan Fontaine and Natalie Wood were all former clients of his, so bring it on was my motto. We liked each other right away and he did give me some sound advice regarding the promotion of actors as well as publicity and how and when to use it. The one piece of advice that I never forgot and it even found its way into Robert’s book was “Never fall in love with your clients!” When Henry passed this on to me I replied “Henry, with my client list this isn’t a problem!”

Henry Willson had been not only a press agent for Selznick in the good old days, but for a time he was the most powerful agent in Hollywood. His so-called ‘Adonis factory’ had manufactured Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter. It was through his creation of Rock Hudson from the meek lad once known to his mother as Roy Fitzgerald that both men would ascend the heights of Hollywood immortality. Henry loved to dream up butch monikers for his golden boys, and Hollywood laughed behind his back as one after another of these home made hunks would rise and fall in the Hollywood meltdown known as stardom. This was not the case with Rock Hudson…directors like George Stevens and Douglas Sirk would make sure that Hudson’s star stayed bright and glowed on for decades after Henry Willson would fade from view. The tragedy for Henry Willson was that he broke his most cardinal rule and fell in love with his Eliza Doolittle.

I would see Henry at the Garden District every other weekend for around a year and sometimes would take him to screenings if the film interested him at all. However one Saturday came and went with no appearance from the star maker. This happened the following week as well, and some of us grew concerned over Henry’s well being. A mutual friend and actor named John Wyche came in the club with the news that Henry Willson was out at the Woodland Hills motion Picture home. His heavy drinking had led to health problems; age and depression did the rest. I made it a point to see Henry Willson out at the home at least twice a month as did other of his former clients, but never a word from the one that meant the most – the boy who came to him as Roy and walked away a Rock.

PAIN! INJECTION!! EQUALS “BOOM”

The reputations of Tennessee Williams and the wildly extravagant Burtons were tested beyond artistic limits when the trio chose to embark on a screen version of Williams ill received play ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.’ When this play finally limped into New York it lasted for less than 50 performances and closed. The play was blessed or cursed depending on your loyalties, with a star turn by Tallulah Bankhead as Flora Goforth and Tab Hunter as Chris Flanders, the Angel of Death and full time hustler. The director of this disaster was filmmaker Tony Richardson, who should have known better than to try and make sense of a play that was written in cipher, since Flora Goforth was Tennessee on a bum trip…the playwright had long since gone the way of booze and pills and with the death of his partner Frank Menlo. The addition of hustlers pretty much fills in the character. Visconti had long suspected that most of the flamboyant hothouse female leads in Williams work were thinly veiled versions of Tennessee when the celebrated director of Italian décor announced, “Tennessee You are Blanche!” Sadly he was also Flora Goforth as well! Enter Joseph Losey, the great director who changed the face of British Cinema with THE SERVANT and kept raising the mark right up to his conversion to the ‘jet set’ life style of Liz and Dick. Losey fell in love with excess and the couple who led him astray were far too busy buying yachts and world class jewels to care. The film adaptation of ‘Milk Train’ was shot at great expense in Sardinia by Universal with a script by Williams himself! Taylor, who managed a triumph in VIRGINIA WOOLF, knocks herself out trying to be Tennessee in a series of outlandish costumes and wearing her own jewels. Taylor is almost beyond criticism. The Gay aspect is represented by Sir Noel Coward as The Witch of Capri who is also quite beyond description, but then the whole film is a gay something or other, so bring it on…! The role of the muscled blond Adonis who appears at the bedside of rich old queens (read ladies) is now interpreted by Richard Burton, whose hangovers show, as does his waistline…fortunately his voice and personality somewhat make up for this casting faux pas. Had BOOM been made a few years later with an all male cast it might have made a little more sense. I kind of like it this way since the result is so outrageous. BOOM is one of the classic bad films of all time. The Cinematheque, with Outfest, sponsored a screening of BOOM to a full house. I feel the time is right for a DVD presentation of this landmark of Gay Camp. Hopefully Universal will oblige in the very near future. The film has so many unforgettable moments it should be a midnight movie like PINK FLAMINGOS. My personal favorite moments are Liz and Sir Noel having a midnight supper on the terrace of her Island hilltop retreat, not to mention Burton in a black kimono, intoning the title over and over as the waves hit the side of the Island….”Boom…Boom…” Get the picture?

HARD THE FILM

In the last few columns I have tried to profile a new experimental or independent film as I discover them. This time I have come across a low budget film that should have made all the festivals as a factual account of a serial killer who preyed on the gay community and the closeted gay cop that tries to bring him to justice. The co-writer as well the cameraman on this film, John Matkowsky, has created the gritty look of a documentary for this gruesome retelling of a true story based on the book ‘Outside the Badge’ by former policeman Mitch Grobeson. The film is light years away from CRUISING in its realistic approach to the material by new director John Huckert, with acting to match. There is no false note to be heard as this difficult film unfolds its tale of madness and murder made all the more frightening because it is real. The Gay Community was also hard pressed to endorse this film as they cringe from films about serial killers in the gay world, but they exist and so does this film so get used to it.

I must thank John Matkowsky for making this dvd available to Camp David. You can find out more about this film and where to order a copy from www.hardthemovie.com

Fans of detective films and well as the Horror buff will not be disappointed.

Remember until next time, may all your nightmares be in 70mm!

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