Camp David, Film Festivals

CAMP DAVID JANUARY 2009: WELCOME TO THE BREAKFAST SHOW!

By • Jan 16th, 2009 •

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WELCOME TO THE BREAKFAST SHOW!

Dreams have always been a mystery to me. Sometimes I felt like they were private screenings that no one would ever watch outside of myself, deep in sleep. During most of 1983 I helped to research the sequel to Kenneth Anger’s infamous HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, to be titled (what else?) HOLLYWOOD BABYLON II. This endeavor would create many dreams, some of which I will never recall and others I will never forget.

Kenneth was still living in New York at that time and had already started sending me want lists of photographs he was planning to include with the text, as well as early drafts of certain chapters he knew would be of particular interest to me. As an aficionado of the horror genre Ken knew I would want to see what he had uncovered on Lionel Atwill, so that was one of the first he sent, typed with the E.P. Dutton letterhead. In his familiar red penmanship he wrote at the top of the chapter page, “For your eyes only; do not show to my enemies like Curtis [Harrington].” Kenneth was in the midst of yet another feud with his longtime colleague and I was in the middle, being that I was friends with both of them.

Kenneth had planned for years to do a follow-up to his legendary HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, the international success of which made him more infamous than his films ever had. The great obstacle was trying to top the first one in revelations of the private lives of the stars. As time marched on, America became less likely to accommodate the author with shock and awe when pop culture itself was wallowing in scandal and gossip without any help from the Magus of Tinseltown. This situation has only worsened with time and now, nine years into the 21st century, ‘reality shows’ and the INTERNET have made Kenneth’s books, with scandalous tales of stars of a bygone era (however classic), somewhat redundant.

As Kenneth now enters his dotage with the media forever focused on his conduct, however unbecoming, it is important to emphasize what a monumental influence he has had on 20th century pop culture. His experimental films are landmarks of avant-garde and homoerotic cinema. Kenneth Anger is also the father of the music video, having created the format years before anyone really knew what to do with it. Even the Babylon books are now important references for anyone studying film history or simply curious about pop culture.

Kenneth has loved the cinema from childhood, especially as it was in the golden days of the studio system when MGM had more stars than the heavens, and its stars misbehaved not unlike the gods of Mount Olympus at their zenith.

The HOLLYWOOD BABYLON books were meant to draw attention to the futility of Hollywood trying to set a standard for moral authority where none existed. What could be more apropos than to compare Hollywood with ancient Babylon? In the twenties, even Babylon would have had a hard time catching up with characters like Barbara La Marr or Nazimova. The original French edition of HOLLYWOOD BABYLON was more of a coffee-table book, oversized with beautiful reproductions of stills Kenneth spent a lifetime collecting. Anyone who was fortunate enough to own a copy would be disappointed in the American editions, which had none of the glamour of that first notorious edition of 1959.

One of the tragic aspects of the Babylon saga as it unfolded before me that year was the lack of preparation allowed Kenneth for a proper follow-up to the first edition. E.P. Dutton had advanced him a sizable sum which evaporated before he ever got to Hollywood to spend it. A self-confessed spendthrift, advances seldom encouraged results. Ken arrived at my apartment at 9136 Beverly Boulevard with the following items in tow: a white violin trimmed in blue neon – a prop from one of the fabled “Gold Digger” films of the thirties (and it still lit up on its own white pedestal); a six-sheet (81×81) poster from Eddie Cantor’s WHOOPEE! (also from the early thirties (this poster was a hoot as it had multiple images of Cantor’s huge eyes, resulting in a psychedelic montage in dazzling colors on linen); and last, but far from least, a large framed autographed portrait of Valentino. Ken also brought a suitcase and briefcase, but no typewriter.

At this stage of the book’s development I had seen the text of the LIONEL ATWILL chapter which was culled from old movie magazines of the forties which chronicled Atwill’s fall from grace during a sensational trial regarding a Christmas party at his Pacific Palisades abode where two underage girls set the old boy up by telling all to the press. The end result was disgrace and financial ruin for Atwill and a field day for the Hollywood press, who by now had a lot of experience with these Hollywood hound dogs in Hamlet attire. Ken hired me to provide photos and background information from the usual sources like the Academy library and the AFI. He quickly settled on a portrait I had of Atwill in profile from MURDERS IN THE ZOO, a pre-Code film with lots of sadism and cruelty. This particular still had Atwill in the shadow of a mamba, which made the leering actor all the more sinister. Lionel Atwill, for those of you who may not know the name, has been forever immortalized by MEL BROOKS (of all people) in his film, and later the musical based on, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. In the film, actor KENNETH MARS plays an inspector with a wooden arm based entirely on Lionel Atwill’s unforgettable performance in Universal’s last classic Frankenstein with Karloff as the monster: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Lionell Atwill in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN

In today’s world view, what Atwill did in the privacy of his home on that Christmas Eve over half a century ago would not even merit a nod on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, and I mentioned this to Ken at the time. These tales of long ago needed to be really off the charts to make them shocking, even in the 80’s. However, lodged in Kenneth’s imagination was this image of Lionel Atwill as the kink of all kinks in the Hollywood he so admired that he was to have a place in it no matter what anyone might say to the contrary.

As the days went by it became clear to me that Ken had lost his mojo when it came to putting the book to rest. He enjoyed the research and loved looking though stacks of photographs but when it came time to create a narrative, the lawyers at Dutton quickly took the wind out of his sails. He had to depend on the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” For example, he could not come out and say Cary Grant was having a sexual relationship with Randolph Scott, but he could imply it by showing a series of suggestive photos of the two men living together in Hollywood bliss with the boys at breakfast and at play in their very own playhouse.

The “coroner to the stars,” Thomas Noguchi, who was in charge of all the autopsies of the famous for fifteen years became a favored source for many of the more unsavory stills in both editions. Kenneth had made a contact in Noguchi’s office and scored many death shots, some of which remain unpublished. Noguchi loved the limelight and was very aware of Kenneth Anger and his books; whether or not the two ever met is still a mystery. Noguchi was tossed out of office for revealing too much regarding the deaths of both William Holden and John Belushi, which in its own perverse way was very Kenneth Anger, but hey–this is Hollywood after all.

Kenneth became so distraught over the book that he even at one point cooked up a plan to inform his editors in New York that the book would have to be put on hold as he was ill with HIV. It took all my powers of persuasion to talk him out of that one. He had gone so far as to ask around town for a doctor willing to go along with his plan.

Kenneth Anger

At this point I feel the need to explain just how generous a friend Kenneth was at this point in time. We had been good friends for at least five years and he was never anything but a loyal and caring person at all times, in spite of what has been written about him in print. The Kenneth Anger of the 80’s was stubborn, and insensitive to minorities, and yet he would loan money to any of his colleagues if he felt they needed assistance. The fact that he was famous never really meant much to him as this was not something he could take to the bank when the rent was due. I can’t tell you how many times at universities (of all places) he would be approached by a student congratulating him on writing LOOK BACK IN ANGER. If he felt like it he would correct them with, “Sorry, that was John Osborne.” More often than not he would just sigh at the prospect that colleges ceased to teach anything anymore.

It was not easy adjusting to “life with Anger,” and I felt uneasy when I was home because Kenneth would go for hours without saying a word. He would find a corner of the bedroom and just sit there in the dark with his thoughts. I remember one particular morning during his stay when my phone rang way too early in the morning for my taste. When I finally answered, it was Helen Bilke, my neighbor across the courtyard, who rang me up at seven in the morning to find out who that wonderful man was who was staying with me. When I asked why she needed to know–especially at 7am–she replied, “Well, honey, he is on his knees in the courtyard cleaning the wedges between the tiles in the walkway with a TOOTHBRUSH! I mean, your friend has been at it since daybreak and it looks wonderful.” This was my introduction to Ken’s drug habits and had they all been so constructive they might never have been written about at all. When Ken was on speed or uppers he was like a demonic Joan Crawford, and dirt–look out! My mother came to visit during Ken’s stay with me and when she saw my living room after two weeks with Kenneth as a house guest, the first words out of her mouth were, “Marry him. He’s a keeper!” My living room glowed from Pine Sol and window cleaner, every picture frame was so clear they looked transparent, the floors were mirror-like; the whole apartment was a showplace, especially with that neon violin glowing in one corner and WHOOPEE! lit up in another. Now this was Anger management at its best!

One weekend afternoon I took him to the autograph collectors show over at my friend Beverly Garland’s hotel and watched as he worked the room. At one point we ran into an acquaintance of mine, Joe Dante, who, besides directing films, also is a fan at heart and collects like one. I introduced him to Ken, and Joe, who was visibly impressed, told him who he was and Kenneth smiled and said, “Oh, Joe Dante. Yes, I think I’ve seen your magic act in New York.” Joe’s smile quickly went upside down and coldly replied, “I am a film director, not a magician,” to which Kenneth shot back, “Well maybe you should try magic. People might then know your work,” and walked away, leaving Joe extremely pissed off.

Among the things Kenneth could not tolerate with admirers and fans was the mispronunciation of his idol Aleister Crowley; so many people say the last name as if it sounded like ‘cowly’ instead of ‘crow’, like the bird. To do that was grounds for banishment. He also could not stand smoking of any kind and really never had more than a glass of wine. His bête-noir would always be drugs, just like his idol, the great beast Crowley. In the glory days when Ken was house Magus for the Rolling Stones and quite the rage, he ran into a man who introduced himself as “Chemist to Her Majesty, the Queen.” He confided to Ken that the royal family got their prescriptions in giant crystal apothecary jars and the one that contained Cocaine had the instructions on it, “TAKE AS NEEDED.” Ken loved to tell that story to anyone who cared to hear it.

Anger

As the weeks worn on I began to feel some concern regarding Ken’s ability to get the book done. He really wanted it to be successful, and to accomplish that it had to be as daring and scandalous as the first had been in 1959. E.P. Dutton wanted the book to succeed as well, but they simply did not understand what Kenneth was trying to create with his off-kilter vision of Hollywood, at least the Hollywood in his imagination. They wanted tell-alls without the backlash and this was not a task even Kenneth Anger could accomplish without bringing the lawyers down on him (and ultimately the publishing house itself). Looking back, it was providential that the photographs could say what he could not. The final result is a beautiful failure, as the life was taken out early on and even Dr. Frankenstein would have had a hard time resurrecting this Babylon.

One night not long after we did our last round of libraries and bookshops, he wanted to see Marty’s new film–Marty being Scorsese, a longtime admirer of Kenneth’s films. On occasion he lent Ken his editing rooms in New York to work on his projects. Marty’s new film was KING OF COMEDY and so off we went to Westwood with my then-girlfriend Susan in tow. The film was not one of Ken’s favorites but he did respond to the obsession-with-celebrity aspect of the piece. We were all surprised at how well Jerry Lewis responded to Marty’s direction. The film placed Kenneth in an odd frame of mind, and afterwards he treated us to a ride in one of those horse-drawn carriages that used to be available for hire in Westwood to take in the sights around the square. When we arrived back at the apartment I served some wine and Susan and I got a little high and I guess the emotions that I suppressed came out sort of all at once, and I begged him to try and finish the book as it was so very important to his career, etc….Well, as soon as I started talking I knew this was not what he wanted to hear, least of all from me, so after a rather awkward silence he went off to bed and so did we. The next morning we woke up to find that Kenneth had quietly packed all his things and left before daybreak for New York. He left me a note, which said:

“David,

I tried to sleep after your comments last night and I decided that the only way to finish this thing is to go home now and just focus on the work at hand. I am very moved that you care so much about what happens to me. There are not too many people in my life that do. Thank you for all your support and especially for the use of your wonderful photos. I have left you and Susan two signed posters that my friend Page Wood made for LUCIFER RISING…. Oh, by the way, I can’t get that funny story out of my head about your favorite actor, Zucco…may have to do something about it.

Love,

Ken”

George Zucco

The letter, and Ken’s abrupt departure, left me feeling a bit guilty, but hey, if it got him to the place he needed to be to finally get HOLLYWOOD BABYLON II off and running, then so be it. His reference to Zucco–meaning the late character actor GEORGE ZUCCO–was not so surprising as we had a very amusing evening during his stay talking about how roles sometimes stay with an actor and what might happen if an actor should do a RONALD COLMAN, like in A DOUBLE LIFE, and just wig out and become their character.

I showed Kenneth an old VHS copy of a Monogram quickie starring Bela Lugosi called VOODOO MAN, which features my old pal George Zucco as a high priest dressed in a black magician’s robe while wearing the most unfortunate headdress of feathers…Well, it was a sight… The whole film was like an Ed Wood fever-dream with Zucco calling out to the god RAMBOONA for guidance–whoever RAMBOONA might have been…

When the film was over Ken and I had a great time second-guessing what happened to both Lugosi and Zucco after letting themselves go in such an undignified way. I speculated that Zucco probably went a bit off and ran out of Gower Gulch, where Monogram made their little seven-day-wonders, and went screaming down Hollywood Boulevard about the god, RAMBOONA. Lugosi, on the other hand, probably just went to his cigar shop on the boulevard and bought his usual drugs and went home, got happy, and then just crashed.

I now realize only too well to be very careful what you put in other peoples’ psyches, because Kenneth was just desperate enough for copy that he took my little fantasy and went all the way with it, creating out of nowhere a whole scenario where Zucco goes off the deep end and takes his wife and daughter with him to the funny farm. Now, this was bad enough, but not too long after his book came out I discovered that Stella Zucco was not only very much alive but beside herself over what Ken put out there about her loved ones. When I heard about all of this I managed to get a letter to her explaining that I adored her husband’s work and all this was a terrible misunderstanding… I, of course, never got a reply.

The other tale from the book that was way, way off was the one about James Dean. Now, all those tales of passing out in leather bars and having cigarettes put out on him were true–the problem was they happened to MONTGOMERY CLIFT, not JAMES DEAN! My favorite contribution to the book is the photo of Vincent Price sporting fangs for a film not many people ever saw (and that includes his horror following), a British portmanteau known as THE MONSTER CLUB. The image of Vincent smiling through his fangs seems to be in on Kenneth’s cosmic joke that Hollywood is, after all, fabrication on a grand scale. It was Vincent Price himself who told me one afternoon that, “Hollywood is one of the most evil cities on the planet,” and he had personally witnessed enough in his lifetime there not to kid around when it came to this Babylon known as Hollywood.

Not too long after all this went down I had one of my Technicolor dreams and, as luck would have it, I remembered it and always will. In my dream George Zucco was not only alive and kicking, he was also singing and dancing….at the BACKLOT at STUDIO ONE. In my dream George had a cabaret act and I was there, front row center, as he came out in a tux, just like he looked in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, where he shined as Professor Moriarty, giving perhaps a definitive take on the role. Anyway, here was George Zucco with a mike in one hand coming from behind the curtain as the band opened with THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC, which George handled a bit like Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY, with a touch of Fred Astaire. After his opening number he said to the audience, “Welcome to the breakfast show!” After a couple of jokes like, “I just finished a picture over at PRC. The salary is such a comfort as it pays all my postage,” he got a laugh from the industry crowd who knew all too well that PRC paid zip to their talent. This went on in my mind for a while and it was sooo real you just would not believe it. Then, the actor known to his fans as “the man with the neon eyes” pulled up a stool and was hit with a yellowish spotlight. With his eyes in full flood he began to sing in that cat-like purr of his the tune written by Barry Manilow, ‘MANDY.’

I can never forget hearing my favorite character actor from the 40’s singing lyrics like these: “Oh, Mandy you came and you gave without TAKING…”

WELCOME TO THE BREAKFAST SHOW!

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