Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon

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Kim Novak & Eliot Elisofon (self-portrait; 1958)

When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).

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Discovering John Huston

Earlier today, TCM ran The Asphalt Jungle, the great 1950 noir starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, and an early career making role for Marilyn Monroe.  The movie was directed by John Huston, one of the first directors whose career I chose to discover.  That is, once a became a full-fledged movie fanatic, certain directors (Orson Welles, David Lean, Federico Fellini) took up a special place in my heart and I decided to see as many of their movies as possible.  When I did that with Mr. Huston, the results were spotty at best, eternally frustrating at worst.  To this day, John Huston has one of the most indefinable directorial careers out there.  For someone seeking out consistency, it was a journey frought with peril.

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Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers, and Huston: Revisiting Key Largo

largohustonOne of my courses this semester includes a section on an auteur—that fancy French word for master director. I let my students choose which director to study from a list that included a variety of filmmakers from different eras. To my great surprise and delight, they selected John Huston over more recent and more famous directors.

I began the section on Huston with Key Largo, a crime drama released in 1948. The film stars Huston favorite Humphrey Bogart as WWII veteran Frank McCloud, who visits the Key Largo home of one of the men from his unit. The young man had been killed in combat, and McCloud feels compelled to call on the man’s father and widow, Nora. Nora is played by Lauren Bacall, and the father is portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, who, by this point in his career, was forced to play his roles in a wheelchair because of the crippling effects of arthritis and two hip fractures. Barrymore’s character owns the Hotel Largo, which has been taken over by gangster Johnny Rocco, played with great flair by Edward G. Robinson. While Rocco and his gang wait for an associate, a hurricane hits the Florida Keys and confines all of them inside the Hotel Largo.

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Still Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 3

hwood3lamarr2Back by popular demand is another installment of “Searching for Old Hollywood” based on my recent trek to Hollywood Forever Cemetery looking for clues to uncover some unique or forgotten insight into the lives of big-name stars and other celebrities. The first part focused on the final resting places of lesser-known film industry figures, while the second spotlighted the legendary stars of Old Hollywood’s romantic and often notorious past. As with the first two parts, I wanted to find a thread to tie together the figures for this final installment. I decided to focus on epitaphs and inscriptions.

The grave markers of Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, and John Huston are across the lane from each other. The ghoulish television hostess and legendary director have nothing in common save for their markers, which display imagery that provides clues to their lives. Nurmi hosted her program of old horror movies on KABC-TV for only a year, but she parlayed the publicity into a career, more or less. Vampira became Nurmi’s contribution to popular culture, and her only claim to fame; when Cassandra Peterson came too close to her act with the character Elvira, Nurmi unsuccessfully sued. Nurmi died alone and broke on January 10, 2008, her decomposing body found by an acquaintance. With no named next of kin, red tape prevented her from being interred until February 17, when her cremated remains were buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Loyal fans spent a year throwing fundraisers to secure the money for a gravestone that befitted her image. Erected in July, 2009, it reads “Maila Nurmi, 1922-2008, Vampira, Hollywood Legend,” and includes an etching of her wearing that tattered gothic gown, which showed off her legendary 17-inch waist. In other words, the gravestone features all the signifiers to her image that a fan would want to remember. (On a personal note, I discovered that Nurmi, who was born in Finland, spent her youth in the Finnish community in my hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio.)

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Tracing My Irish Roots Through the Movies

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John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (1942)

When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.

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“The Man with the Immoral Face”

Tomorrow evening, TCM offers five films starring Robert Mitchum: Cape Fear, River of No Return, Night of the Hunter, Rampage, and Going Home. The films represent about a twenty-year span, from 1954 to 1971, and range from an undeniable classic (Night of the Hunter) to a complete misfire (Going Home). Whatever the film, or its reputation, Mitchum will be the most watchable actor in the cast. Famous for underplaying most of his roles, especially when delivering dialogue, the actor exuded a laid-back self-confidence. His sleepy-eyed good lucks and barrel-chested physique gave him a commanding presence that was impossible to ignore, and he used his physicality to attract, seduce, intimidate, and frighten, depending on the role.  Well into his 50s, Mitchum had no qualms about going shirtless onscreen and off, driving both his female fans and his costars to distraction. If Marilyn Monroe was an icon of female sexuality for male viewers during the 1950s, then Robert Mitchum was the male equivalent for women viewers. I wonder why no one writes about that. . . except for me, I guess.

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Goodbye Goddess: Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

Elizabeth Taylor has always been one of my favorite actresses. She was an incredible natural beauty. Arguably the most beautiful actress Hollywood ever produced but she was also a brilliant performer when she wanted to be. She dominated almost every film she ever appeared in even when that film wasn’t particularly worthy of her larger than life presence. Taylor was a complex woman with a rich inner life who enjoyed living and one look into her deep violet eyes told you this. Inside of Taylor there seemed to be a volcanic mountain of pent-up emotion just waiting to explode. Her appetite for life was voracious but her heart was huge, open and warm. These are rare and wonderful qualities that you seldom find in today’s Hollywood stars.

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A Sneak Peak at Telluride Film Festival 2010

The 37th Telluride Film Festival promises to be another memorable event for the lucky attendees at this four-day film mecca that occurs over the Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3-6. Classic movie fans, in particular, will be excited to know that Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale will be one of the honorees with a screening of Valerio Zurlini’s GIRL WITH A SUITCASE (1961). In addition, there will be a retrospective showing of Robert Rossen’s THE HUSTLER (1961) with Paul Newman’s Eddie Felson squaring off against Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats in the pool hall. And, festival-goers will get an early look at two episodes of the new seven part documentary, MOGULS AND MOVIE STARS: A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD, which TCM will premiere on the network beginning Nov. 1st, with each new episode appearing every Monday evening through Dec. 15th.       [...MORE]

Tangential Festival Notes! (Godard, Straub, Cronenberg)

A groggy John Huston welcomes you to today’s equally confused post. He’s an interview subject in Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), an acidic documentary portrait of 1960s Ireland. Lennon wrote a series of articles for The Guardian about how the Catholic Church and their Republican government cronies were choking off the cultural life of his country, and he adapted his polemics to the screen with the help of regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Intimate and barbed, Coutard’s handheld camera nudges its way into bustling pubs, sparsely attended hurling matches (soccer was banned as a “foreign sport”), and the backyards of splenetic Irish authors.  Recently released on DVD by Icarus Films, it’s a unique inverse of the silent “city symphonies” made famous by Walter Ruttmann. Maybe call it a city (and country) evisceration.

So why trot out Huston now? Lennon’s film was the last one screened at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut shut it down to support the general strike which was occurring outside its doors. There’s a short “Making of Rocky Road to Dublin” included on the disc, and there is footage of a Peter Lennon arguing with Godard and Truffaut at the screening to allow the doomed discussion of his film to continue. All of which is a rather long-winded preamble to talk about this year’s Cannes Festival. Of all of the coverage I’ve been reading, by far the most entertaining has been that surrounding Godard’s latest provocation, his new feature FILM SOCIALISME.

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Suckers on the Screen and Suckers in the Audience

After purposely avoiding it for years due to its terrible reputation, my curiosity finally got the best of me when TCM aired TENTACLES (1977), following the stupefying ZAAT (1972) on Friday May 7th, and I finally watched it from start to finish. One of several ill-conceived and pathetic attempts to cash in on the boxoffice success of JAWS, the Italian produced TENTACLES is a perversely entertaining nature run amok thriller that stands out from the other killer shark clones like MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH (1976) and TINTORERA! (1977) by substituting a more elusive title menace – a giant octopus.  What sets TENTACLES’ particular brand of ineptness apart from other run of the mill JAWS ripoffs and makes it hard to stop watching is its almost abstract approach to narrative combined with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me high profile cast that includes John Huston, Shelley Winters, Henry Fonda, Cesare Danova, Claude Akins and Bo Hopkins, who is self-taught in his own peculiar interpretation of Method Acting.        [...MORE]

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