Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) climaxes with a packed premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) at Pantages Theatre. The sequence is brilliantly constructed and wonderfully moving. It makes for a great ending to a fine film. The only thing is—well, you see, it never happened. It’s even open to question whether or not Plan 9 played theatrically in Hollywood—at least before the film was “disovered” by lovers of bad cinema. Was Burton following the dictates of Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) and making right in art that which couldn’t be made right in life by giving Wood the moment of glory he never had? Very possibly. But in a bigger sense, it’s simply part of the great Hollywood tradition—on the screen and off—of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.
The truth is that Hollywood itself isn’t so much a place as it’s a state of mind. Hollywood itself isn’t a city. It’s a section of Los Angeles. The only movie studio with a tendency to slap the words, “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A,” on its films was MGM—despite the fact that MGM studios are actually in Culver City. Well, Culver City doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Hollywood is a brand name for “the movies”—and it’s what you might call a self-made myth. Why should we expect anything else from the folks who make the movies?
Hollywood history is filled with the most unlikely stories. Take, for example, the story of Al Jolson’s spontaneous outburst of “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in The Jazz Singer (1927). Those are the words that usher in the talkies. No one will dispute that. And Jolie may have uttered them out of sheer enthusiasm. The story is that no one had thought of recording dialogue at that point, but that this one outburst alerted everyone to the amazing potential of such a concept. Well, maybe, but are we to believe that Jolson continued by asking, “You wanna hear ‘Toot! Toot! Tootsie!’? Alright, hold on. hold on,” and then turned to the band, addressing the leader (presumably musical director Lou Silvers) with the instructions, “Lou, play ‘Toot! Toot! Tootsie!”—three choruses, understand? And in the third chorus, I whistle. Now, give it to ‘em hard and heavy”? This is harder to swallow, but it’s a terrific story that was likely kept alive at first by Jolson himself. True or not, it’s a cultural milestone.
This is not the end of Mr. Jolson’s cockeyed version of events. No story that reflected Jolie in a good light—or even a better light—was ever rejected by him. Consider Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story (1946)—a biopic made with Jolson’s help (and hindrance). In it Jolson’s life story is transformed into a variation on The Jazz Singer—which admittedly had some parallels—with all sorts of pleasing additions that had no basis in reality and what reality there was was had been remonkeyed to present Jolson in an idealized manner. And it was probably as much to placate Jolson as it was to make the movie more of a crowd pleaser (though it accomplished both).
Yes, he really did stand up during Ruby Keeler’s (here renamed Julie Benson and played by Evelyn Keyes) Broadway debut and start singing, but not to because she froze onstrage and needed the boost. Fact was Jolie just wanted the attention. In the film, Jolson “retires” from the movies at the behest of Ruby/Julie. In truth, the movies kind of retired from him. The film’s doting mother was in actuality a very non-doting stepmother and papa Cantor Yoelson (Ludwig Donath) never became the warmly comical showbiz expert he does in the movie. All this was compounded in Henry Levin’s Jolson Sings Again (1949), which recounts the make of The Jolson Story and has Jolson (Larry Parks) arguing that he’s too old to play himself. Actually, Jolson didn’t see it that way at all and lobbied to play the part—even wangling his way into one shot (in blackface) of “Swanee,” on the strength of his assertion that Parks couldn’t get one aspect of his performing style right. Well, he was “the greatest entertainer in the world,” and thought that might be true, he’d be the first tell you. The fact is what the films give us is the story of “the greatest entertainer in the world” in those terms.
Most apocryphal Hollywood tales don’t take on such a monumental stature, but are left to mere stories that might or might not be true. Some of them have long been exploded, some haven’t. Filmmaker James Whale loved to present himself as from Britain’s upper class. The truth is his father was a coal miner and he came from dire poverty, but if movie stars could be re-invented by publicity departments, why couldn’t he? That it was thoroughly—but lovingly—debunked in Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998) is slightly ironic, since that film is itself a cheeky blend of fact, fiction and speculation. And it seems somehow truer to Whale than real life.
Much the same could be said of Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977)—a movie about the greatest Hollywood icon of the 1920s and not an inch of it was shot in the U.S., much less Hollywood. That puts it in the mythifying realm right there, but it goes considerably further. Its climactic sequence is an elaborate boxing match (filmed in the circus arena of Blackpool Tower in Blackpool, England) with Valentino (Rudolph Nureyev) defending his “manhood” against the slurs of a newspaper columnist (Peter Vaughan) in a boxing match. Did this happen? Well, sort of, but not as a public spectacle and certainly not in a gilded boxing arena where formally dressed couples tangoed around the boxing ring. That’s pure Russell, but it works so well, feels so right and is so very Hollywood that it doesn’t matter. A movie about a Hollywood icon ought to feel like Hollywood.
Hollywood made its myths as it went along.True enough that the exotic name Theda Bara is an anagram for “Arab Death,” but the woman who was billed as such was Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati. Everything was fabricated by the studio. It was the first such instance of that. It would hardly be the last. The question arises as to whether or not the public actually bought into any of this, or if they merely went along with it because it was fun to believe this sort of thing. Perhaps they did at first, but Hollywood itself ultimately couldn’t resist unmasking itself and spoofing its star-making approach in movies like Show People (1938), Once in a Lifetime (1932) and A Star Is Born (1937).
In some cases—especially in recent years—late in the day interviews create brand new stories that don’t add up. In the early 1970s director Robert Wise told an interviewer that his only memory of making The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was a sense of great haste. But as the film’s reputation grew over the next few years, Wise remembered all sorts of things about what they were doing and what they were trying to say with the film. Did his memory improve? Or did he simply decide to go with the flow and garner his accolades where he found them? You decide. There’s not much question of the veracity of the often-repeated-at-face-value claim of Elizabeth Russell’s claim that she categorically refused to lie in a coffin in the Bela Lugosi Monogrammer The Corpse Vanishes (1942). Ms. Russell could say what she would and film historians can repeat it without question, but if you’ll look to your right, there she is all cozy in her casket.
Some of our most hallowed Hollywood stories are merely the result of the fine art of raconteurism. Director Raoul Walsh’s story about borrowing John Barrymore’s corpse and taking it over to Errol Flynn’s house—because Flynn had been saying how much he missed Jack—is a terrific story. The punchline—that when Walsh and his friends brought Barrymore back, the undertaker said he’d have put a better suit on the late Mr. Barrymore if he’d known where they were taking him—is even better. Did it happen? Seems not, but it’s become a part of the myth because Walsh never tired of telling it. Who could?
Toward the end of his life, I had a few occasions to “interview” director Curtis Harrington. I put “interview”in quotes, because any interview with Curtis turned into playing audience to him. He made a few notable movies like Night Tide (1961), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) and Ruby (1977), but on a personal level, he was best known as a raconteur without peer. He was born in Los Angeles. He grew up there. He not only lived through the old Hollywood, he was one of the first to take it seriously, befriending James Whale long after Whale’s retirement. (The character played by Jack Plotnick in Gods and Monsters is an unflattering composite of Curtis and avant gardist filmmaker/Hollywood scandal-monger Kenneth Anger. Both almost certainly thought it was supposed to be the other.) His stories were wonderful. My guess is that about half of them were true—and half of that half were wildly embellished.
And so it goes. Was Bela Lugosi really hypnotized for his death scene in Black Friday (1940)? Did Gloria Swanson’s mother really respond to the news that her daughter had married a Marquis with an outburst of horror and astonishment that Gloria had married “one of those things that hangs outside a theater? When “Uncle” Carl Laemmle (founder of Universal Pictures) asked an employee named Julius why their pictures didn’t get the playdates that other studios’ movies did, he was supposedly told, “Mr. Laemmle, the other studios turn out some good pictures, but the truth is most of ours are lousy.” Thinking about this for a moment, Laemmle reportedly reasoned, “Well, Yulius, if you can’t get the quality, you get the wolume.” True? I’d sure like to think so. And life is just better somehow believing that on the set of Lifeboat (1944) Alfred Hitchcock mused over whether it was a problem for hairdressing or make-up upon being apprised that Tallulah Bankhead wasn’t wearing any panties and the camera could see up her skirt.
Movie critics are sometimes even responsible some of the outrages on truth perpetrated in the name of Hollywood. A British critic whose name I’ve forgotten (most critics’ names end up that way, and, yes, I know where that will leave me) once got so carried away with waxing rhapsodic over a running gag involving Ollie falling off the roof in the Laurel and Hardy short Hog Wild (1930) described the final such scene in such a way that made it sound simply remarkable. Trouble is—nothing like what he describes occurs in the film. Oh, well, it was a lovely thought. Of course, some slack can be cut back in those days when it was between hard and impossible to recheck what you thought you saw.
The truth is most of us want to be skeptical of these things, but we don’t want to not believe them if they’re good stories. To bring it all back to the beginning (sort of) all you have to do is watch the Ed Wood classic Bride of the Monster (1955). Over the years, it’s become a legend that Bela Lugosi assures the leading lady that his hulking manservant (Tor Johnson) is “gentle as a kitchen” rather than kitten. Well, since Lugosi may have been the “Master of Horror,” but was never exactly the master of English, there’s a tendency to accept that. Still, in the movie Lugosi very clearly says “kitten.” And you know what? Even some of the people reading this will continue to tell the tale of “gentle as a kitchen.” Great stories don’t have to be true. That’s what movies are all about.