Camp David

CAMP DAVID JUNE 2013: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA GREY?


By • Jun 27th, 2013 •

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Once upon a time in a Hollywood very long ago there was a talent agency known as DELVALLE, FRANKLIN AND LEVINE. During that period one of my very first celebrity clients, actor Calvin Lockhart, used to enjoy telling his friends that one of the reasons he felt comfortable with me as his agent was my mania for film history. He was charmed by it when we first met and felt like I really understood his talent and more importantly just what kinds of parts to send him out for in a Hollywood he had left behind so unceremoniously just a decade before. This mania of mine did not always serve me so well…

When I first arrived in Hollywood I made the rounds of parties and opening nights like most of the other sub-agents at William Morris before me had done during their salad days, yet my goal while looking for clients was also to spot the legends of yesteryear, and of course to chat them up if at all possible—purely from a film historian’s point of view.

One particular incident stands out in my memory, mainly for the way it went so decidedly wrong in a funny way from the first moment I recognized this seasoned professional. The lady in question was Virginia Grey, whose career had literally spanned nearly the beginning of it since she had played “little Eva” in the 1927 version of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN at the age of ten. She was a dependable actress from contract days at MGM and Universal to being part of producer Ross Hunter’s stock company of actors appearing in his most glossy soap operas like BACK STREET and MADAM X, not to mention a lifetime crush on pal Clark Gable of all people, though they were never to be anything more than good friends, as the columns of the period were fond of saying.

You see my comfort zone area of expertise at the time was the Horror genre in all its macabre aspects: classic and camp, trash and sleaze, I knew a little bit about all of it. Now what does this have to do with the lovely Miss Virginia Grey you might well ask? It seems that while she had done so many films by the time I met her at Hermione Baddeley’s charming summer party way back in 1979, the only ones that really came to mind were two genre films produced by the infamous Herman Cohen, TARGET EARTH and, more importantly for the sake of this story, BLACK ZOO.

Now the main reason to make the scene at these clambakes for actresses like Ms. Grey was number one to be recognized by producers and casting directors alike, and then if all goes well this may lead to landing a role on some episodic TV show like the ones Hermione was enjoying at the time – a semi-regular role on MAUDE, with a variety of voice-over jobs and LOVE BOAT appearances.

Imagine then Virginia Grey’s surprise when then-twenty-something David Del Valle in the vested suit with the open collar strides up to her and says, “Oh my God, you’re Virginia Grey, aren’t you? I really loved your work in BLACK ZOO!” For one brief second Virginia Grey and I stood as one outside of time and space as she did her best to understand what had just happened to her. “BLACK ZOO,” she repeated. “Are you fucking nuts? That is the worst film I ever did and you bring that up after all the things I did for Ross Hunter?” And, well, she went off for what seemed like an eternity until I apologized for my indiscretion and tried to make amends by mentioning her work in Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS.

Unfortunately that was not a favorite either and so she went off yet again, accusing me of bringing up her worst films just to make fun of her or something. Now standing next to her was a very distinguished looking gentleman with silver hair who walked over as we were going back and forth and decided to offer his services to a lady in distress. “My goodness, you two seem to be at odds with one another. May I ask what is going on?” And then Virginia Grey began to tell this very well-mannered individual how I brought up these terrible movies just to piss her off, and while she was telling him all this I realized he was Murray Matheson, a rather famous British character actor from stage and screen.

Now as if history would repeat itself I realized all at once that Mr. Matheson was in one of my favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” So I tell him this straight away and he begins to laugh and looks at Virginia with bemusement. “My dear, this boy is a film buff, nothing to get your knickers in a twist over. I get this all the time all over the world as these shows are always being shown somewhere all the time. You must get used to it, my dear.”

Virginia looked at him for a moment and then she looked at me. “Well, maybe Rod Serling gets attention worldwide but not fucking Herman Cohen’s BLACK ZOO. This was made on a dime and never shown anywhere but the drive-in.” Mr. Matheson put his arm around me and said, “Well, let us take our leave and allow this young man to rethink some of your more illustrious films and then perhaps make it up to you later in the evening.” “Well, make sure you do. I am an actress and I get paid to entertain and don’t you forget it, Mr. BLACK ZOO!”

Once we were away from her Mr. Matheson wanted to know all about this dazzling movie title I conjured up by the name of BLACK ZOO, so I proceeded to tell him about this tacky horror film which took place in a Los Angles zoo with a series of grisly murders, and when I mentioned it starred the very British Michael Gough, our Mr. Matheson rolled his eyes heavenward. “Oh, no, Mick Gough is in it, well! No wonder you went off. Mick is the biggest ham in the business and a fine actor when he chooses to behave…I know him myself, you know…He has done some fine work in British films.” At this point I didn’t feel the need to tell our Mr. Matheson that BLACK ZOO was photographed by Floyd Crosby and featured a couple of great set pieces involving the animals in a nocturnal visitation to a graveyard or a wiggy animal cult service complete with a high priest sporting a lion’s head headpiece (also worn by the mad Mr.Gough), or that teen heartthrob Rod Lauren actually does some decent emoting as Gough’s deaf mute son who finally settles his evil dad’s hash in a finale that satisfies the teleplay rather well.

By the time we had finished our chat the party had moved itself into the recreation room area of Hermione’s rented hilltop abode not that far up from Sunset over the hill from the better-known and rather posh George Cukor estate. I noticed Virginia’s co-star from Sam Fulller’s THE NAKED KISS, the ever-sultry Miss Edy Williams, wearing what could only be described as her cocktail nightie, lounging on one of the sofas as everyone took seats for a round of charades. The topic was of course the silver screen and the top hat Hermione provided was filled with movie titles that hopefully would stump the stars in attendance.

The first to go was Bea Author whose caftan was deep purple and very wide indeed. Her film title turned out to be a killer: OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELIN’ SO SAD. Believe it or not it only took ten minutes for Leonard Frey to figure it out using all of his observational skills. Bea always referred to Lennie as “Wendell” and when he blurted out the long title it was to great applause.

Joan Crawford, Virginia Grey,  THE WOMEN, M-G-M, 1939

As we all prepared for the next player Edy got up and, making the most of her ample charms while wearing next to nothing, made her way to the hat and pulled up a title. Virginia Grey was seated almost beside her when Edy made her first try. Two words. First word: pointing to a milk white vase she made it clear this was the opposite of white—black. Then, if you are already seeing where this is going, our resident sex bomb then went over to the wall where two large letters were placed next to one another, an oversized A and then a smaller-case Z. She pointed to the Z and made some gestures that denoted heavy breathing and within minutes the dreaded title of the evening, the one title on a piece of paper I had slipped in earlier in the day when I helped Hermione choose the titles of the films to be acted out so wordlessly… Yes, my friends, it was Virginia Grey’s worst nightmare, BLACK ZOO. And to make matters worse the title was being acted out by the siren who upstaged Virginia in Sam Fuller’s baroque classic. Yes, it was our own Miss Hatcheck Girl herself, Edy Williams. “Oh, it’s BLACK ZOO. I don’t know if I ever saw that one,” Edy exclaimed, just as the now-defeated Virginia Grey headed over to the bar looking at me in the same manner she once looked at Joan Crawford in Cukor’s now-camp classic THE WOMEN, saying loudly, “I suppose he put HOUSE OF HORRORS in there as well!”

All she ever needed to do was look at my face to know the answer to that. Of course I did. After all, Rondo Hatton was in it.

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One Response »

  1. As if anyone put a gun to her head to make BLACK ZOO. Get over yourself, darling!

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