September 28, 2009 § 5 Comments
My new 15-minute video on the history of the Hollywood Sign will be featured with Ted VanCleave’s photographs at the Art Institute of California-Hollywood’s new gallery in North Hollywood. The show, which inaugurates AIC-Hollywood’s beautiful LEED Gold building, will run through the end of the year.
AIC-Hollywood/5250 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood, CA 91601
September 14, 2009 § 4 Comments
Few houses in the movies are better known than Barbara Stanwyck’s Spanish Colonial in “Double Indemnity.” The director Billy Wilder first shows it in an establishing shot that highlights not only its architectural features but its distinctive site–a hilly corner lot on a sparsely-built suburban street.
Though the script states the house is in Los Feliz, it is actually located in the Hollywood Dell. I’ve always thought the house beautiful and well-suited to its penninsula-shaped lot, but Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the screenplay, could not have agreed less. Here’s how they introduce it in a voiceover by insurance salesman Walter Neff ( Fred MacMurray):
It was one of those California Spanish houses
everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This
one must have cost someone about 30,000 bucks–
that is, if he ever finished paying for it.
Their opinion of the house plummets when Neff goes inside. Wilder and Chandler describe the interior as:
Spanish craperoo in style…. A wrought-iron staircase
curves down from the second floor….All of this,
architecture, furniture, decorations, etc., is
genuine early Leo Carrillo period.
James M. Cain, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, no doubt concurred because his own description is even more withering:
It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest
of them in California, with white walls, red
tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was
built cock-eyed. The garage was under the
house, the first floor was over that, and the
rest of it was spilled up the hill any way
they could get it in.
Interestingly, Double Indemnity locates the house not in Los Feliz but in Hollywoodland, where Cain himself lived.
Whether Cain’s contempt for the house was based on some hatred of Spanish architecture or the fact that Hollywoodland began as a tract development– albeit an expensive one–is unclear. But it does seem ironic that he should have disparaged the place for spilling up a hillside when his own Norman-style house–five stories’ worth–spilled down another hillside a mile away.
In any case, the Double Indemnity House looks much better today than it did in “Double Indemnity.” Mature landscaping and the presence of other houses have softened its exterior, eliminating the sun-baked starkness that made it a believable setting for adultery and the hatching of a murder plot. And, as shown in a recent spread in the LA Times, the vibrant interiors have come a long way from the white walls and heavy Mission-style furniture featured in the film. In fact, the house radiates prosperity and warmth. At Christmastime, decked in wreaths, garlands and lights, it is among the most beautiful in the neighborhood.
September 1, 2009 § 3 Comments
I discovered Preston Sturges in the early 90’s, when I first saw “The Lady Eve” on video and became a huge fan of his movies. In 1998 I found myself celebrating his centennial at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which put on retrospective of his films. The crowds that showed up for opening night included such comedy luminaries as Paul Rubens and Steve Martin, as well as his widow, Sandy, and their sons. Even Eddie Bracken, star of “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” was there.
It was around that time that I read Preston Sturges’s biography by James Curtis, Between Flops, (Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1982) and learned that he had lived in the Hollywood Dell at 1917 N. Ivar, just north of Franklin. Though Sturges didn’t build the house, he certainly made it grand. In his posthumous memoir, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (Touchstone, 1990), he writes:
“Minutes after Bianca and I and a couple of servants moved in, I had construction started on a swimming pool, a barbeque house and a badminton court for the backyard. The place was in an uproar all the time with the racket of steam shovels, trip hammers, and concrete mixers, not to mention the carpenters and the dogs racing around between their legs, barking at the lot of them. The neighbors didn’t enjoy it and neither did we.”
That was in 1937, when Sturges was among the highest paid screenwriters in town. He was also under contract as a director at Paramount, where he pulled down $2,500 a week and would soon earn much more. Nevertheless he was always strapped for cash, not least because he owned two money-losing businesses, a restaurant on Sunset called Snyder’s and the Sturges Engineering Company, which made a “vibrationless” diesel boat engine for which there was no apparent demand. (Sturges, a keen yachtsman, inherited his avid entrepreneurialism from his mother, a madcap expatriate whose cosmetics business, Maison Desti, was an intermittent success in Paris, Deauville and New York. Mary Desti Dempsey was also famous as Isadora Duncan’s best friend; she not only gave Duncan the silk shawl that, caught in a moving car wheel, would break her neck but designed and manufactured it, too. But that’s another story.)
Although as a money pit the Ivar house would be far surpassed by The Players, Sturges’s future theater/nightclub/restaurant, it was an expensive place for a relentless spender to own. Sturges writes:
“When I hired some tree surgeons to shuffle around the trees in the backyard of my house to make room for the pool, I discovered an even faster way to get rid of money.”
When I learned the address in 2000, I went up Ivar to investigate. What I found was not only no house but a non-existent property: where 1917 should have been, there was a tunnel running under the 101 freeway.
As Curtis’s book doesn’t discuss the fate of the house, I assumed it was torn down when the 101 was built. Then yesterday I read in Sturges’s memoir about the property’s seizure under eminent domain:
“…one day in 1950, the state did indeed condemn the property for the public weal and gave me six months to remove from it my house, the barbeque house, the small garage, the three-car garage with apartment, and some trees, and paid me $130,000.” The following year, “the house, cut into three sections…inched through the streets of Hollywood on the backs of huge flatbed trucks to the new lot Sandy and I had found at Franklin and Vista.”
Although Sturges didn’t give the address of the relocated house, I had read a description of it in Curtis’s book and knew what to look for: a rambling wood frame affair. I assumed it resembled the two shingle houses south of the tunnel on Ivar, one of which is pictured below:
Today I took a camera over to Vista Street. Driving north of Franklin to the edge of Runyon Canyon Park, I saw one shingle house, but it was single-story and newer than the ones on Ivar. Then, heading south, I saw this house on the southeast corner of Franklin and Vista:
Although its shingles are now white and its condition somewhat dilapidated, it matches the Ivar houses in vintage and spirit and is the only one of its kind on the block. I’m certain this is the Sturges house and had never noticed it before, as I always go north off Franklin, rather than south. Preston Sturges, who died 50 years ago last month, seems all the more vivid to me now.
As for the tunnel, a friend who lives on Ivar recently told me a story about it. Without knowing anything about the Sturges connection (or possibly about Sturges), he said the tunnel was so haunted that a few years ago, a certain religious group conducted two exorcisms on behalf of the neighbors. Though first exorcism didn’t work, the second, extra-strength version apparently did the trick.