JACK WARNER, NAZIS, AND HOLLYWOOD – By Garry Armstrong, with a bit of inspiration from Marilyn Armstrong

I was usually able to get candid comments from “old Hollywood” people because I didn’t ask the typical questions about favorite co-stars, celebrity perks, or favorite roles. I frequently shared my disdain for the “suits” in my business who tried to interfere with my work. This attitude, along with being a minority,  got me some sympathetic responses from people who normally just gave standard sound bites. It also helped that I was a movie “maven,”  more knowledgable than many so-called ‘entertainment reporters’ famous for fluff questions.

Jack L Warner, 1970. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The topic of Jack Warner came up this morning. Marilyn is reading his biography, a book called “We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Film” by Noah Isenberg. Do NOT buy the book, by the way. It’s written well — and completely wrong about pretty much everything.

Marilyn said the author apparently believes that Jack Warner was a man with a conscience who claimed to go the “extra mile,” slipping anti-Nazi stuff into Warner Brothers films in the late 1930s and early 1940s when it was “dangerous” to speak out against the Nazis.

Much of this country’s population was essentially isolationist.  Businessmen didn’t want to rock the boat,  including many Hollywood moguls concerned more about their overseas markets, especially Germany.

As always,  it was all about the money.

So, here’s a list of a couple of Hollywood legends from Tinseltown’s golden years and their takes on Jack Warner and his “anti-Nazi” stance.

JAMES CAGNEY

Probably Warner Brothers’ most bankable star from 1930 to 1950. In a 1971 conversation with James Cagney (an informal afternoon chat on Martha’s Vineyard),  the star gave full credit to Warner Brothers for giving him his breakthrough roles. Cagney got his “Public Enemy” role when the director switched Cagney’s supporting role with the star,  favoring Cagney’s energy.  Despite his “gangster” popularity, Cagney had to fight the Warners for diversity in roles.

Cagney and his horses on Martha’s Vineyard.

In Hollywood back then it was not uncommon for big studios to keep a tight rein on their stars.

James Cagney with chickens

Cagney was still doing gangster films in 1939 as the Nazis flexed their muscles. In Hollywood, big and small studios were nervous about doing films that might jeopardize their lucrative overseas market. The inside word was: “Don’t antagonize the Nazis in your films.” Germany was a large market for American films.

There was a film waiting to be ‘greenlighted called “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” at Warner Brothers. The director, European expatriate Anatole Litvak, was eager to get started. The project sat for months. The behind-the-scenes arguments between the Brothers Warner could be heard throughout Hollywood. They were the butt of jokes, concern. and anxiety by other studios who wanted to tackle Nazi Germany on film. Someone had to be the first to do it.

Sam and Harry Warner were decidedly in favor of taking it to Adolph Hitler.  They held the keys to the studio’s financial and legal coffers.  Jack was the smiling front in Hollywood, dealing with actors, directors, and writers.  He was the public face. With his big, broad smile, pearly whites who some people likened to those of a great white shark, Jack was regularly bashed by actors and actresses as gross, a sexual predator, a philanderer, and a fraud — which was typical stuff for Hollywood suits.

When “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” came across his desk, Jack Warner blanched and balked. He didn’t want to touch it. The first-generation immigrant mogul didn’t want to risk losing his studio and power to Nazi pressure.  His brothers disagreed saying it was their duty to do the film.

Jack disagreed until a lackey suggested they could do it as a gangster film with underworld bad guys subbing for Nazis.  His brothers refused to do it that way. Jack started leaning on his stable of stars — James Cagney, George Raft, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and others. They surely could pull off the film as a Tommy-gun melodrama.

No one wanted to do that film.

Jack Warner fumed! Meanwhile, Edward G. Robinson, widely admired in Hollywood as a Rennaissance Man of courage way beyond his screen image, lobbied for the film as an out and out warning against Nazism.  He even put up some of his personal earnings to back the script while agreeing to take on the lead role as a Federal Agent ferreting out Nazi spies in the U.S.

Edward G. Robinson

Jack Warner winced. Other prominent actors including George Sanders and Paul Lukas, encouraged by Robinson, agreed to join the film, playing unsympathetic Nazi spy roles. They didn’t care if it jeopardized their careers.  If “Eddie G.” was doing it, that was good enough for them.

Over Jack Warners’ private arguments, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” was made in 1939.  Surprising many insiders, it was a box-office success and nominated for several Oscars.  During the Oscar Ceremony, Jack Warner leapt past the winner to embrace the award and give a big patriotic speech about the courage of fighting Nazis at a dire historic time.

Warner talked humbly about ‘tuning up’ the script to bash the Nazis without endangering the film.  Insiders just smiled.  The cast and crew of the film fumed silently. Thirty years later, James Cagney recalled Jack Warner’s antics. Cagney had a strange smile on his face as he talked about Jack Warner.

“The man had chutzpah,  I’ll give him that. He certainly gave me my chance. But, young fella, he was the epitome of a two-faced, hypocritical ‘suit’.  You think you have worked for bad guys.  Give yourself a few more years.

“Jack Warner took credit for everything he rejected. He loved getting awards. I remember attending award ceremonies. I had to do them.  Part of my job.  The VFW, DAR, Sons Of American Freedom. You name the award ceremony and Jack Warner was there, big teeth and phony smile, to accept the honor.

“He was always ‘umble.  Young fella, I had to hold my stomach and breath around the guy. He loved garlic bread and used to sit close to me.  I was his pet or so he thought.  Jack Warner a hero and anti-Nazi fighter?  No!  He was even a bigger problem when we did “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.  He didn’t want any strong anti-Nazi bias in the film. He said it was just a song and dance film,  nothing more.

“George M. Cohan was around one day and wanted to deck smilin’ Jack. Sorry to drift on about Jack Warner but even in my so call mellow years, the man still angers me.”

That’s an unfiltered remembrance of my conversation with James Cagney.  It was a wide-ranging talk that included his not so fond memories of Jack Warner — years after his final film for the studio.

CHARLTON HESTON

 In 6 or 7 meetings, ranging over a similar number of years, Charlton “Call me Chuck” Heston gave me wide-ranging inside looks at Hollywood. Once he talked about Edward G. Robinson who was one of “Chuck’s” heroes. They made “Soylent Green” together which turned out to be Robinson’s last film.  He died a short time after the film was completed.

The movie “Soylent Green”

Heston talked warmly about Robinson and his gentle “man of the world” presence.  Heston volunteered the information about “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and Edward G. Robinson’s pivotal part in getting the movie made with its strong anti-Nazi message.

Heston relayed stories Robinson shared with him about Jack Warner.  They weren’t flattering. Heston had a few encounters with Warner as a young and rising Hollywood star.

I gave him a look and Heston just smiled, shaking his head.  No words needed.

RUTH DONNELLY

She was a contract player at Warners in the 1930s.  She usually played ditzy friends of lead actresses like Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Olivia DeHavilland, Barbara Stanwyck, and other stars.  Often Donnelly was paired with Eve Arden as a comedy foil in melodramas and romantic comedies.

“A Slight Case of Murder” starring Ruth Donnelly

Donnelly was on the Warners lot when “Confessions of A Nazi Spy” was in production. She remembered, in a 1970 interview,  how Jack Warner used to interrupt scenes being shot. This is a big NO-NO unless you held the money for the film. Warner, Donnelly recalled, was boorish and intimidating. He tried to bully writers on the “Confessions” film, demanding they change their scripts and then feigning ignorance when asked by Anatole Litvak, the director if it was true.  Warner even tried to get the writers fired for the controversy he created.

Ruth Donnelly smiled when I asked what she would say to Jack Warner in 1970.


Also see: What Charlie Chaplin Got Right

AND, THE OSCAR GOES TO … BUT, DO YOU CARE? – Garry Armstrong

I’m part of the new “lost generation”.  I grew up loving movies when there were more stars in Hollywood than in heaven.

I plead guilty to reading fan mags about stars like Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper (Mom named me after “Coop”, her favorite star), Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and many other Tinsel town legends.

I remember “Photoplay” pic layouts of Alan and Sue Carroll Ladd at home. Ladd, with his million-dollar smile, was mowing the lawn, playing with his dogs and hugging the kids, Alan “Laddie” Junior, Alana and David. It was so cool – “Shane” really had a home and family in swanky Beverly Hills.

There was the “Movietone” photo platter with William Holden — home at his ranch with horses and neighbors – smiling and eating hot dogs at their backyard barbecue. It looked so real. A day in the life of Hollywood superstars. I believed it all.

It was the naiveté of a pre-teen movie fan. Yes, I wanted to be a movie star when I grew up. I used to see  – every week –3 double features, cartoons and coming attractions at the local and first-run movie houses near my Jamaica, Queens home in the ’40s and early ’50s.

The Academy Awards were bigger than the World Series even though I was a  true Dodger Blue fan of  Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer.

I started watching the Oscars in black and white with Bob Hope hosting and still in his prime – complaining about being shut out from acting awards by Ronald Coleman, Cary Grant, and James Cagney. It was standard Hollywood humor we all knew, understood, and loved.

During those early 50’s telecasts of the Oscars, it was terrific when the cameras panned the audience to show Greer Garson, Gloria Swanson, Gene Kelly, Spencer Tracy and all the other luminous stars from the golden age of the silver screen.

Previous Oscar-winning movies

Fans used to mull, for weeks, who’d win the major awards. Would Cary Grant finally win after being overlooked for decades? Would newcomers like Paul Newman, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Steve McQueen get more attention than the “old guard.” Who was more exciting? Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas or Clark Gable (Gable had passed away in ’61 but was still hugely popular).

There were the larger than life heroes like John Wayne who’d never received an Oscar despite half a century of stardom. How about Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck?  Were they still TOP stars?  There was the fascination with Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Sophia Loren, Kim Novak, Mamie Van Doren, and Diana Dors. What would they be wearing on Oscar night?  How much would they “reveal?” How much jewelry would Liz Taylor wear?  Could Burton stay sober?

One of my favorite Oscar moments came in the ’60s when Sidney Poitier became the first Black actor to win the coveted “Best Actor” award. Poitier opened the door for Denzel, Wil Smith and so many other minority performers previously relegated to grossly stereotypical roles.

2019 lead Oscar actresses

The Oscar show was must-see viewing for the stars as much as the films and performers vying for the industry’s top awards.  Hollywood pioneers like Cecil B. Demille, Adolph Zukor, Jack Warner, and Darryl Zanuck could still be seen and heard. I especially loved seeing legends from the silent film days like Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton and others who were there when the curtains first raised on “moving pictures”.

There were wonderful impromptu moments like David Niven almost being upstaged by a streaker. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas delighting us with a nifty song and dance number.

Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland — staples from their youth — were still vital and enjoyable to watch and hear.

Where have all the stars gone today (insert “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” melody here). I don’t know most of the folks who are stars unless I’ve seen them on “Facebook” ‘news’ items.

I don’t much about most of the movies up for awards. I know some are about superheroes, trendsetters in new diversity movies and a rash of “coming of age” flicks that draw blanks at this address.

I know about the industry controversies including Harvey Weinstein and the “Me Too” movement. Diversity for all those excluded since the first Oscars — nine decades ago during the prelude to the great depression. I know this year’s Oscar show will be minus a host.

Maybe that’ll be a plus?

The magic is gone — along with the stars who made the magic. The show is far too long with winners taking too long to thank everyone including their dog walker.

All that said, we’ll still watch. Until we doze off.

Why? It’s the stuff dreams are made of …

THE BARRYMORES: AMERICA’S ROYAL FAMILY OF ACTORS

This week, we tuned into Drew Barrymore’s latest show on Netflix. It’s called “The Santa Clarita Diet.” She has, in this story, become a zombie. It’s funny because she’s a very suburban and rather bouncy zombie. She certainly dresses a lot better than any other zombie I’ve seen on the screen.

If you are a huge fan of blood, gore, and massive quantities of vomit, this might be the right show for you.

Garry commented that “It’s probably a matter of personal taste.” That was his way of saying “Ew, disgusting, yuck, I’ll never watch it again.” She’s a Barrymore, so he’s being polite. She has a heritage. If anyone in the movie world could be considered royalty, Drew Barrymore has got to be “it.” Regardless, I don’t think I’ll be watching this show ever. I’m pretty sure this could have been a witty, entertaining show without the massive quantities of vomit, blood, and torn out internal organs.

Probably we’re a bit old-fashioned, but all that stuff does is turn my stomach.

For a few years, Drew Barrymore was working on Turner Classic movies with Robert Osborne, discussing and introducing classic movies. It was a treat listening to her observations. She should know, after all.

Drew Barrymore by David Shankbone

She was on Colbert last week, too. Her face has changed in recent years. Now, she really looks like a Barrymore.

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922
John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922

That’s no small thing because she is this generation’s only representative of what is the longest running act in show business.

Several families have two or three generations of actors and a couple of families have three or more generations of directors. Only one has been on stage and screen for more than 100 years, the royal family of stage and screen, the Barrymores.

As of this writing, Drew Barrymore is her generation’s only working actor. John Drew, Diana, Drew, and John Blyth are the only descendants of John Barrymore who became actors.

Garry and I were trying to guess how many acting dynasties include at least three generations, in which at least one family member in each generation has done something noteworthy as an actor. Not as a director, producer, or writer. Only actors.

dynasties_01

Define “noteworthy” please!

It started when we noticed a Capra listed as a crew member of an NCIS episode. Garry wondered if this was a fourth generation of Capras. There was a Frank Capra I, II and III, so it seemed likely to be members of the same family. The Capras are directors. No actors, so they don’t count for the purposes of this post.

Reality shows do not count. Non-speaking and cameo roles do not count, nor does work as a TV announcer, talk show host, or sportscaster. Mere celebrity does not count. Only acting.

The Barrymore genealogy is complicated because it is extensive. There have many marriages and a slew of children. Most of the men in the family are named John, which doesn’t make it easier to follow the trail.

Other acting families are even more confusing. Actors marry each other, divorce frequently, and have children by many partners. They adopt and raise children from former marriages and from spouses’ former relationships. It’s hard to keep track and sometimes, relationships intertwine to such a degree it’s impossible to say to which family a particular person belongs. Not unlike European royal families.

If you count only acting families — and only family members who have had a real acting careers — the number of entries in the field are manageable. You’ll quite a few 2-generation families. A handful of 3-generation families.

Only one family has four generations of working actors.

The Barrymore family.

Barrymore family tree graphic
A very simplified Barrymore family tree

Drew Barrymore is the family’s current representative.There are many other family members, but none are acting, as of this writing. It doesn’t mean they or their offspring won’t enter the family business in the future. It’s quite a legacy. Talk about family pressure.

If you want to see the other families, or at least most of them, you can look them up. Google “multi-generational acting families“. Wikipedia has a good write-up, but omits significant British families.

This link takes you to an alphabetical list of show business families. The intricacies of the marriages, divorces and resulting complex relationships will make your head spin.

The Barrymore family reigns. No other family comes near the prominence or longevity of this family of actors.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Barrymores includes actors and non-actors. There are quite a few family members who are not in show business. The acting family members are shown in blue.

BRUSHES WITH FAME – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My grandparents, parents and I have crossed paths over the years with some famous people. I grew up hearing stories about people I had heard about in the news and in the popular culture.

For example, at one point, in the early 1900’s, my grandmother lived in a tenement building in the Jewish section of the lower east side of New York City. A cousin of hers lived in the same building. This cousin had a piano. The cousin also had a neighbor whose son was a talented pianist. The problem was that the neighbor didn’t have a piano. So the son, Georgie, would go to my cousin’s apartment to practice piano. Often people gathered at the cousin’s to listen to Georgie play. He was that good. My grandmother went often. Georgie’s full name was George Gershwin.

George Gershwin

In the late 1930’s and early1940’s, my mother pursued a career in the theater in New York City. She studied acting at the Actor’s Studio with people like Karl Malden, Susan Strasberg, Stella Adler, Buddy Epson, Gypsy Rose Lee and her good friend, Judy Holliday. The actors hung out with each other at night, often performing for each other. Many famous comedy routines, like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks’ “2000 Year Old Man” were created and honed at these parties.

My mom particularly remembers watching Zero Mostel, in person, in a living room, perfect his famous imitation of a percolator. He also did imitations of other household appliances. It’s a hilarious bit and I was thrilled to get to see it performed on television after hearing about it from my mom.

Zero Mostel

Judy Holliday was originally Judy Tuvim and my mom was Ethel Tumen. Judy changed her last name to Holliday and mom took Diana Charles as her stage name. Both girls were asked to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Both were told that they had to lose ten pounds because the camera made you look heavier. So to celebrate the test and mourn the diet, they went out for a last malted together. Soon after, my mom got rheumatic fever and was an invalid for two years. After that, she had to give up dancing, tennis and acting. Judy went on to a stellar theater and movie career until her untimely death at 46 of breast cancer.

Judy Holliday

Gypsy Rose Lee was the stripper that the musical “Gypsy” was based on. She was a passionate progressive politically and got my mother involved in protesting on behalf of the nascent labor union movement. One day, when they were picketing for the unions, a fight broke out near them and the police moved in. Gypsy got mom out before people started getting arrested.

Gypsy Rose Lee

Stella Adler was a theater actress who later became a famous acting teacher in New York. She was very well-known within the theater community. I have two quotes from her that are worth repeating. At one point, she was giving my mother advice on how to dress to make an entrance and get attention. She told Mom to “Make sure that you wear the dress and the dress doesn’t wear you!” Great advice for anyone, in any era.

The other Stella Adler quote requires a little explanation. For a time, the Yiddish Theater in New York was dominated by two Jewish families, the Adlers (Stella’s family) and the Abramsons (my family). A famous Adler had an infamous affair with an equally famous Abramson. So when Stella was asked how she knew my mother, she replied, “We’re related by bed!”

Stella Adler

In 1948, Alger Hiss was accused of being a Soviet spy. His indictment and trial was a huge story. Hiss vehemently protested his innocence for the rest of his life and many people believed that he took the fall in order to protect someone else. His case also catapulted an unknown Congressman named Richard Nixon to national fame.

Alger Hiss was my father’s patient. So my father knew the true story – he was protecting his son, who actually was an agent for the Soviets. The son wrote a damning piece of correspondence on his father’s typewriter, and this document became the lynchpin in the State’s case against his father. I checked Wikipedia and this is still considered to be an unsolved mystery, although historians are now tending to believe in Hiss’s guilt.

Alger Hiss

The musician, Artie Shaw, was another famous patient of my father’s. One of Shaw’s claims to fame was that he was married to Ava Gardner after she divorced Frank Sinatra.

Artie Shaw

I’m sure my father told us many of Shaw’s fascinating stories about Hollywood in its heyday. But the only one I remember is purely prurient gossip. Artie Shaw told my father that one of the reasons Ava Gardner left Sinatra after a short-lived marriage, was that Sinatra was not very good in bed. He apparently had trouble getting and maintaining erections and Ava Gardner had no patience for less than stellar performance in the bedroom.

Artie Shaw and Ava Gardner

Another Hollywood connection my parents had was their friendship with a movie and theater producer named Henry Weinstein. He was apparently one of the few people in Hollywood who could work effectively with and ‘handle’ Marilyn Monroe. He was the producer of the movie she was working on at the time of her death, “Something’s Got To Give”.

Marilyn was in a very bad place emotionally when she was working on this movie. To make a bad situation worse, her regular therapist and 24/7 hand holder was out-of-town on vacation for several weeks. Even Henry was having trouble with Marilyn. She would show up to the set late, if at all. She had trouble remembering her lines and required an obscene number of takes for every scene. She required constant TLC to get her through the day.

Henry Weinstein and Marilyn Monroe

Henry was getting desperate. He called my mom, who was a psychologist, and pleaded with her to come out to LA to help Marilyn. My mom refused because she believed that Marilyn was beyond out-patient help.

Marilyn had also recently been banned from seeing anyone in the Kennedy clan. She was feeling isolated, rejected and alone. Henry said that she sought solace in an affair with the script girl on the set. This was her last relationship. Henry had to fire Marilyn from the movie for excessive absenteeism a few weeks before her death.

Henry’s wife, Irena, was staying with us in Connecticut when Marilyn died in August of 1962. Irena got a call from Henry telling her of Marilyn’s death before the news was reported on TV or in the press. The press kept trying to reach Irena at our house in the hopes of getting more information about Marilyn. So we had to say ‘No Comment’ to multiple callers from the news media.

Henry and Marilyn

My own brush with fame came before the person became famous. There was a Black scholarship kid in my high school class named Gil Scott Heron. He was a bright, charming and talented young man who went on to become a well-known soul,d jazz poet, and musician. He was also considered the godfather of rap, specializing in political and social topics.

But when I knew him, he was a mature and rather worldly teenager. He started hanging out with me at school and often called on the phone to talk. One day, in our senior year, he asked me out. I really liked him but I turned him down. This is going to sound silly, but I only wanted to date Jewish boys. So I turned him down, not because he was Black, but because he wasn’t Jewish. So ironic and clearly my loss.

Gil Scott Heron

I also went to elementary and high school with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio executive and film producer. His older sister was my good friend for several years and we all took the same bus to school. Jeffrey was the one kid who always made the whole bus wait for him. He was always late or he would forget something and would have to go back upstairs to get it. Everyone on the bus hated him. He obviously had ADD or ADHD as a kid. He still has it as an adult and I’ve read that his staff have to go to great lengths to work around it.

Jeffrey Katzenberg

My parents were good friends with the mother and step dad of “Saturday Night Live’s” Chevy Chase. I went out on one terrible date with Chevy Chase’s brother and was in therapy with his step father for a while. I was shocked to read Chevy’s autobiography and find out that the gentle, quiet step father who I knew as a friend and a therapist, was actually a brutal, autocratic, abusive sadist! You never know what goes on behind closed doors.

Chevy Chase

My parents were also old friends with the author, Howard Fast and I went out a few times with his son as well. That son went on to marry Erica Jong, for whatever that’s worth!

Howard Fast’s most famous book

So these are some of my family’s brushes with fame. Most of them are pretty minor, but the stories were cherished by the family and retold often. They are part of the family lore. So they get a blog of their own.

HOLLYWOOD SEX AND OTHER DISTASTEFUL STUFF

I’m afraid there won’t be any men left in Hollywood. The way things are going, they will all be out on sexual assault charges. This is not me saying this stuff didn’t happen. I’m positive it did. I always thought it was going on. Everything I knew about people in show business said that powerful men abused women pretty much all the time and got away with it because … they were powerful men.

Some guy I know suggested he had thought that it was a mutual thing. Sort of humorous.

No, it wasn’t. Not mutual nor humorous. Guys who force women to have sex don’t look like a young Robert Redford. Guys who can have any woman by saying “Hey baby … ” and she faints in his arms, don’t need to force anyone to have sex. Okay, well, there are some pretty weird guys out there, so who knows … but overall, I think you’ll find more guys like Harvey Weinstein and fewer really handsome studs.

Date rape — regular old date rape — was so common when I was in college, no one bothered to officially complain about it. I wonder if they still don’t bother?

No one believed in date rape. If you were “out” with a guy, clearly you expected sex, right? I mean — we all know that women never dated men unless they wanted to have sex.

Your girl friends believed you, though. Because they had gone through the same experiences, if not with the same guy, then with guys just like him. The best way to prevent it from happening again was to tell all your girl friends — and have them spread it around — so they would know and not go out with those creeps. Those guys with eight, tentacle-like arms who more or less strangled you in the car and then told their friends that you’d really wanted it, oh yeah!

 

So there was no point in complaining because the cops sure as hell wouldn’t believe you. The school authorities wouldn’t believe it — and mostly, they still don’t. It was entirely possible your own mother wouldn’t believe you, so if you got into one of those scenes, you just got through it, never dated the asshole again and tried to make sure other women knew he was “one of those guys.” It was the least you could do for them.

So it’s really possible that by next year, at least half the guys in Hollywood will be up on charges, behind bars, or simply too embarrassed to be seen in public.

It’s going to put a real hole in the scripts of some yet-to-be-made movies. Somehow, I’ll deal with it.

SEAN MUNGER – SUNN CLASSIC PICTURES: HOW HOLLYWOOD INTRODUCED AMERICA TO FAKE HISTORY

At the end of the 1970s–I was about seven years old–our family was one of the earliest in our area to get cable TV. Cable was quite a luxury in 1979, and it worked very differently than it does today: there were a few basic channels, most of which did not broadcast 24 hours a day; you had your choice of movie service (we got Showtime), and there were no commercials. Showtime was a favorite at our house. They showed a lot of movies that we were unable to see anywhere else–my dad had not yet bought our infamous CED video disc player–and it was really my first foray into the world of film. I vividly remember seeing a film on Showtime back in that era that I found quite fascinating. It was a documentary called In Search of Historic Jesus, and it was released by a strange little company called Sunn Classic Pictures. Though our family was not religious, at age seven I thought In Search of Historic Jesus was gospel (no pun intended) truth.

This was only my first encounter with Sunn Classic Pictures. A couple of years later, when videocassette players started to seep into homes and schools, I remember our social studies teacher showed us a movie to fill up some class time. The film was called The Lincoln Conspiracy and portrayed, as history, a shadowy plot by Edwin Stanton and others to ice the Great Emancipator and set up John Wilkes Booth as a patsy. The Lincoln Conspiracy was also a Sunn Classic release. A few years after that, at an other school, in the school library I found a paperback book that was a tie-in for The Lincoln Conspiracy movie. It seemed that Sunn Classic Pictures was everywhere and had a surprising reach into the classrooms and minds of America’s youth.

THE FULL MOVIE OF THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY IS AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE, BUT JUST WATCH THE FIRST 40 SECONDS. IT WILL TELL YOU EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE FILM.

Sunn Classic was indeed big business in the late 1970s. Perhaps the only example of a film studio owned by a razor company, Sunn was a subsidiary of the Schick company that made shaving razors. Started in 1971 in Salt Lake City by a man named Rayland Jensen, Sunn specialized in family fare, making G-rated pictures for working class families who weren’t habitual moviegoers. More importantly for Sunn’s business model, they exhibited their films through a technique called “four-walling.” That is, Sunn would buy out every seat in a particular theater for a weekend or two–presumably at a discount–and then resell the seats to the public, keeping 100% of the box office take while the theater owner raked in all of the concessions. Four-walling was a fad in the film industry in the 1960s and 1970s–Orson Welles was said to be quite interested in it–and, in small-market places like Oregon and Texas, it got Sunn’s odd little films in front of more hoi polloi eyeballs than would have been possible otherwise.

At least from the standpoint of a historian, though, Sunn Classic’s catalogue proves somewhat problematic. Their first big score was the American release of a European-made documentary, an adaptation of Erich von Däniken’s fraudulent but highly popular 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?, which introduced America to the ludicrous “ancient aliens” hypothesis that has proven as difficult to eradicate as syphilis in a brothel. (In this decade, for example, I have had college students assert “ancient aliens” claims in my class on climate change). Sunn also released several other “ancient aliens” pictures including The Outer Space Connection. While Sunn’s biggest hit, 1974’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, was an inoffensive and charming story about a man and the bear he loves–it even spawned a television series–some of its later releases ventured into theological and religious territory and made a number of spurious historical claims. The title of In Search of Noah’s Ark (1977) is self-explanatory. In Search of Historic Jesus was only slightly less fanciful, but still very far from historically responsible. The unhinged conspiracy theories of The Lincoln Conspiracy are scarcely worth dignifying with a refutation. Yet, in the late 1970s, Sunn basically owned these topics, and were very successful in marketing them.

THE 1979 “DOCUMENTARY” IN SEARCH OF HISTORIC JESUS WAS VERY TYPICAL OF SUNN CLASSIC PICTURES’S FARE.

In a certain sense you can’t blame them. Thinking in terms of American society and the history of the film industry, the late 1970s represented a perfect storm of cultural factors that was keen to be exploited by a company like Sunn. The final years of that decade, especially during the troubled presidency of Jimmy Carter, saw a marked resurgence in the cultural power of evangelical Protestant Christianity. This was the era in which Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, Phyllis Schalfly was canvassing against equal rights for women and Anita Bryant was grinding her ax against the LGBT community. The exact sort of working-class families with young kids that Sunn saw as their target audience were, between 1976 and 1980, the kind of people who responded well to an affirmation of religious values and particularly Christian reinterpretations of history. Incidentally these were also the voters who brought Ronald Reagan to power in 1980–despite the fact that the president who Reagan unseated, Carter, a born-again Southern Baptist from Georgia, was a closer match to their values. This is one of the key stories in recent American history.

Sunn Classic, though, was not in the history business. They were (and evidently still are) in the entertainment business. Selling someone a story about a thrilling chase up the slopes of Mt. Ararat to find petrified timbers that “prove” the literal historicity of the Noah story in Genesis was an attractive business proposition in 1977, however much it may have distorted the historical realities. (There is no historical evidence for the actual existence of an Ark as described in Genesis, despite numerous attempts, most by Christian evangelicals, to find it). Whether historically responsible or not, Sunn Classic Pictures filled a cultural need incipient in its audience. History does sell, but history that validates a particular world-view tends to command a higher price in the marketplace than history done, as academics strive to do it, without as much overt bias.

SEE ORIGINAL POST AT: Sunn Classic Pictures: how Hollywood introduced America to fake history. – SEAN MUNGER

WHEN STARS WERE STARS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s Academy Awards weekend and the buzz is on about the contenders. Who’ll win, who should win, who’s been snubbed, who’ll be wearing what, etc ad nauseam. It used to be an exciting period for me as a life long movie lover. Not any more!

We haven’t seen any of the nominated films this year. I can only judge by word of mouth. I know “La La Land” is everyone’s favorite, with 14 nominations. It’s a hot ticket with Hollywood heavyweights because it pays tribute to the golden age of movies. We should go see it.

Yet, therein lies the rub.

I grew up watching movies from the golden age. Almost all the legends were live and working. I read fan magazines about John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and other iconic figures. Stuff about their home life and upcoming projects. Lux Radio Theater carried adaptations of film hits featuring the likes of Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd and Myrna Loy. Billboards featured Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Clark Gable.

New kids on the Hollywood block included Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman. Sid Caesar made fun of Brando’s method school mumbling on his “Show of Shows” skits. Grownups snickered at Brando, saying “his kind” would never replace greats like Ronald Coleman and Leslie Howard.

My parents refused to buy me the motorcycle jacket and cap Brando wore in “The Wild One”. Geez, they were so cool and I desperately wanted to look cool. I copied John Wayne’s laconic walk and measured speech pattern. It made me feel 6-inches taller.

Movie stars were truly larger than life in those days. You didn’t see them often. Guest appearances on radio and television were special. I recall watching one Oscar telecast. It might have been 1953. The black and white images sparkled with shots of stars in the audience. Everywhere the camera turned, there were famous faces. It was wonderful to see “old” stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Lillian Gish and Mae West. There were the veterans like Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Fredric March, to name a few.

I got a kick when they focused on the newer, more “hip” stars like  Newman, Dean, Brando, Poitier, James Garner, Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron.  My jeans stiffened when I saw closeups of Mamie Van Doren, Edie Williams and Rhonda Fleming. Lordy! Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas did a song and dance act that stole the show. The applause was long and deafening. The smiles from Kirk and Burt could’ve lit up a dozen cities. Bob Hope was funny as usual, joking about being snubbed by Oscar. It never occurred to me that someone other than Bob Hope could host the Academy Awards show.

Mom, my frequent movie date, smiled widely as she watched the stars. I think she was recalling her youth. I might’ve noticed a tinge of sadness but it was fleeting.

All those images are filed away in my sense memory this Oscar awards weekend. I don’t know many of the stars. George Clooney, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are now veterans.

Dare I mention that so many of the “new” celebrities all look alike? My wife says it’s all about plastic surgery. Yet there are plenty of serious  stars. The Streeps, Washingtons, Berrys. The new old timers — Pacino and DeNiro. They’re no younger than we are. Some are older. They aren’t getting big roles, either.

So, rather than disparage the youngest group of stars, I shall simply admit time has left me in the dust.

How did this happen?