Camp David

CAMP DAVID MAY 2007: CURTIS HARRINGTON

By • May 1st, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3

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DREAMING DREAMS NO MORTAL EVER DARED TO DREAM BEFORE

The night before my dear friend Curtis Harrington passed away I dreamt of him for the first time in ages. Curtis was hosting one of those intimate parties in that rambling pink house of his that towered above the Hollywood freeway off Vine way. I seemed to be helping him with small chores, going from room to room looking for objects as he followed close behind advising as to where things belonged. It was an odd dream as Curtis seemed tired and complained that his house would fill up with people he really didn’t seem to know. “My library is full of strangers” he said at one point, and then I woke up.

The next morning I received the news that Curtis Harrington had died during the night in his sleep within the very house I had helped put in order in my dream. During that terrible moment reality as I knew it vanished long enough to release a flood of emotions, allowing forgotten memories to flow like Poe’s “rapid river” through my mind. For nearly thirty years this man had been a witness to my life. Curtis attended every party I ever gave during that time and I was likewise a guest in his home over the years. Both of us shared the same passion for vintage films, making our friendship easy to maintain as we were always running into one another at screenings around town. In fact one of the last events he attended before his death was my photo exhibition “NEVERMORE” at the end of 2006 honoring the Poe films of Roger Corman. Curtis was a lifelong admirer of Poe with Roger as a mentor who, besides hiring Curtis to direct two features during his career, lovingly paid for a day’s location shooting for Curtis’s final film USHER.

It was this sincere passion for film that made Curtis so easy to like. Never once was I compelled to treat him like a celebrity, which he truly was in Hollywood society.
The reason being Curtis was a Movie fan first, last and always. Before he began directing films he spent a lifetime watching them in his home town of Beaumont, near Palm Springs. It was there as a child that he began a love affair with horror films and weird fiction thanks to the town library and a local drug store that was always well stocked with WEIRD TALES and BLACK CAT MYSTERIES.

In the summer of 1973 I was still a junior in college, living in the wilds of San Francisco. One particular evening I happened to be on the look-out for a TV-movie of the week entitled THE CAT CREATURE”, a valiant effort to capture the essence of a Val Lewton film, even to the point of casting veteran actor Kent Smith who had been one of the leads in Lewton’s classic CAT PEOPLE. The director was Curtis Harrington, whose name was already well known to me thanks to many late night viewings of NIGHT TIDE which was his first and perhaps best foray into feature filming making, and also an homage to Val Lewton, with a mermaid filling in for the character of the cat woman. At the time I was preparing a trip to Los Angeles to interview Robert Bloch, always tops in his field, whose contributions to weird fiction and Hitchcock’s legacy were already legendary. Robert had written the screenplay for Harrington’s TV movie, thus setting the stage for my first real taste of “classic Hollywood” and a friendship that would last a lifetime. The Bloch’s lived in the Hollywood hills in one of those houses that you drove past with no sidewalks so it was easy to miss unless you knew where you were going. Robert and his wife “Ellie” were the nicest people you could hope to meet in a town not known for its hospitality. Bob had arranged for me to meet the director of his movie of the week the second day I was in town at a screening for the infamous “Count Dracula Society”. The film we saw that day was Tod Browning’s FREAKS, which turned out to be not only one of Bob’s favorite films, but Curtis’s as well. I was totally unprepared for meeting a film director who was such an ardent movie fan. Curtis was so unassuming and modest in his demeanor that he seemed like an old friend from the moment we met. The first thing I remember Curtis saying to me after the film was “Can you imagine what it was like for stars like Harlow and Gable to see these strange deformed people wandering around the soundstages of MGM in 1932?” This was followed by that great unmistakable laugh of his that I would hear off and on like the bells of Poe’s famous poem for the next thirty years.

I would not spend time with Curtis again until late in 1977. By then I was already living in Beverly Hills and about to start a new career as a theatrical agent. This situation made it possible for me to invite Curtis to parties and screenings for a change, to try and return the many kindnesses he showed me when I was still new to the Hollywood social scene. One of my favorite hang-outs at that time was the Backlot Theater located behind the gay disco STUDIO ONE in West Hollywood. One of my best friends was a silver-haired young man named Steve Applegate who managed the showroom, and it was through him I arranged for Curtis to see such veterans of the silver screen as Geraldine Fitzgerald who was beautifully introduced on her opening night by her co-star Bette Davis. Afterwards we went backstage to see this amazing lady who recalled her days at Warner Bros with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet during the filming of THREE STRANGERS. She was very impressed with Lorre, who she said was a real intellectual, and with what a lady’s man Sidney was in spite of his size: “Sidney was a favorite client at every whorehouse in Hollywood. Those ladies always called him a “gent.””

Curtis Harrington with James Whale

The actress who performed there next was none other than the Bride of Frankenstein, the sublime Elsa Lanchester. Curtis was thrilled to see this eccentric film icon camp her way through an evening of bawdy ballads she made famous in the English music halls of the nineteen twenties. The highlight of the evening however was a special selection of clips from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, followed by some very strange “home movies” of Elsa and her late husband Charles Laughton taken during their early days together in Hollywood. This was a magical night indeed as we went backstage where Curtis shared with Elsa some of the times he had spent with the great director of FRANKESTEIN James Whale. She seemed amazed that anyone would have known Whale after he quit making films in the late thirties. “Charles worked with him on THE OLD DARK HOUSE with Boris before we did THE BRIDE. I seem to recall having James to tea a few times after that, as well as attending some of his parties. Then we just lost touch as one tends to do in this business.” Elsa was a hard one to read, very eccentric, though for that evening she was on her best behavior and, being a trouper, she signed autographs and seemed more than pleased that her fame was assured thanks to a role of a lifetime, rather than just being the Bride of another monster – however sacred – the difficult and brilliant Charles Laughton.

Anger, Del Valle and Harrington

The years from 1977 through 1983 were filled with what now seems like an endless wrap party for DAY OF THE LOCUST, and my friendship with Curtis Harrington was a major factor in all of it… It was during this period that I got to know Shelley Winters who acted for Curtis on two occasions. Curtis would organize parties around her and we would all find ourselves sitting on the floor around this ornate loveseat in his living room as Miss Winters held court from her throne, she loved to be the center of attention at all times and why not, she was a big bad mamma after all. Curtis always got a laugh from the candid observation our mutual friend Barbara Steele made regarding Winters (whom she knew from her time in Hollywood as the second wife of screenwriter James Poe): “Shelley Winters is the kind of woman who would begin a conversation with you, then go to the bathroom and leave the door open.”

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