March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment
Heather Drive is a winding residential street that runs south off Ledgewood Drive in Hollywoodland. Those who visit Lake Hollywood Park often take it to escape the tourist vans that inch up Ledgewood, as both streets lead to Mulholland Highway. Once on Heather, drivers face a blind uphill curve on a road often narrowed to a single lane by parked cars. Then comes the sharp uphill right turn onto Durand Drive that briefly forces them into the oncoming lane. Mercifully, cross-traffic is sparse.
Heather Drive entered American literature in 1937, in Raymond Chandler’s short story “Take the Girl.” Though he calls it Heather Street, the description is unmistakable:
Heather Street was a gash in the side of a steep flat slope, at the top of Beachwood Drive. It curved around the shoulder enough so that even by daylight you couldn’t have seen much more than half a block of it at one time while you were on it.
As his works make clear, Raymond Chandler was an automotive man, crisscrossing Los Angeles by car. His gumshoe protagonists drive everywhere, traversing the LA Basin from downtown to the San Fernando Valley, Silver Lake to Santa Monica. Unlike Charles Bukowski, who set his books in Hollywood and San Pedro, and John Fante, who specialized in downtown Los Angeles, Chandler claimed all of Los Angeles as his territory. So it’s not surprising that he knew Beachwood Canyon intimately, or that he could perfectly describe a certain style of Hollywoodland house:
The house I wanted was built downward, one of those clinging-vine effects, with a front door below the street level, a patio on the roof, a bedroom or two possibly in the basement, and a garage as easy to drive into as an olive bottle.
Such upside-down houses still dot Heather, mixing charm and risk. In late 2006, a partygoer returning to his car lost his footing and fell down the hill, stopping just short of a 30-foot drop. The resulting rescue involved firefighters and helicopters; the man suffered broken bones but no permanent injuries. (Footage of the rescue, shot by DP Tjardus Greidanus, appears in my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign.”)
But in August of the same year, a far more serious accident occurred on Heather when a bicyclist, resting his foot on the curb at the bend, lost his balance and fell over the side, landing on the patio of a neighboring house. Left a paraplegic, he sued the City for negligence, receiving a $5 million settlement. Although the same stretch had been the site of several car crashes, at least one of them fatal, this apparently marked the first time the City was sued for damages. After the settlement was announced in 2009, yellow hazard signs went up along the curve and plans were announced to build a permanent, vista-blocking barrier.
No such modifications were thought necessary from 1923, when Heather Drive was built, until then. Somehow drivers managed to negotiate Heather Drive (or not) without involving the City. But times have changed. Ironically, the bicyclist was no stranger to the topographical challenges of the neighborhood, as he lived in Hollywoodland.
March 17, 2010 § Leave a comment
Each week without fail, the piece that gets the most hits on my blog is “Howard Hughes, Ginger Rogers and the Property on Cahuenga Peak.” (The most frequent search term leading to this site is invariably “Howard Hughes.”)
With less than a month to go before the April 14th deadline to purchase the Cahuenga Peak parcel from Fox River Financial, the Trust for Public Land has begun an online fundraising campaign. Interested readers can go to www.savehollywoodland.org to learn more about the campaign and to donate.
March 12, 2010 § 1 Comment
Dorothy Arzner was a pioneer director in several respects. Not only was she among the first female film directors of the Silent Era and the first woman to join the DGA; she was also the first woman director of a “talkie” and the inventor of the boom mic. She accomplished the former with “Manhattan Cocktail” in 1928. The following year, when Arzner was at the helm of “The Wild Party,” starring Clara Bow and Frederic March, she accomplished the latter.
Although Clara Bow was only 24 when she made “The Wild Party,” she was a movie veteran with 50 films to her credit. She was also understandably nervous about speaking on film for the first time and unnerved by the microphone. With that in mind, Arzner attached the mic to a fishing pole, which allowed Bow her customary freedom of movement on the set. The boom mic, as it became known, revolutionized filming and has remained an essential piece of equipment in every movie made since.
Arzner, a no-nonsense, openly lesbian director who preferred men’s jackets and neckties to dresses, might have seemed an unlikely ally for an emotionally erratic sex symbol like Bow, the original “It” Girl. But Arzner held Bow in high esteem, calling her a natural actress and praising her electrifying on-screen presence. Significantly, the two had worked together previously, in “Get Your Man,” (1927), during which Bow, after some initial resistance, had come to respect Arzner as a director.
“The Wild Party” opened to mixed reviews but critics and audiences generally agreed that Clara Bow’s voice was good enough for talkies. The actress herself was horrified, however, by the sound of her Brooklyn accent:
Although Dorothy Arzner reassured her, Clara was inconsolable. ‘How can I be in pictures with a voice like that?’ she wailed. Then she burst into tears.
Both their careers survived the advent of “talkies.” Arzner directed features until 1943, when a bout of pneumonia led her to take less stressful jobs–commercials and military training films. She lived until 1979, long enough to be feted as a film pioneer and honored by the DGA. Her personal life was successful as well: Arzner’s 40-year partnership with the choreographer Marian Morgan lasted until Morgan’s death in 1971.
Bow, whom Preferred Pictures chief B.P. Schulberg nicknamed “Crisis-a-Day Clara,” suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931. The following year she married cowboy actor Rex Bell and left acting for family life in 1933. She and Bell had two sons; still Bow remained emotionally fragile, attempting suicide during Bell’s run for Congress in 1944. Despite her myriad health problems, Bow and Bell remained married until his death in 1962. (Bell’s political career also endured; he was Lt. Governor of Nevada from 1955-1962.) Clara Bow returned to Los Angeles, living quietly under a nurse’s care. She died of a heart attack in 1965, at 60.
I am indebted to the following sources: “The Wild Party,” by Kendahl Cruver, “Manipulation vs. Minogomy: Clara and the Sexual Politics in ‘Get Your Man,'” by Jeffrey E. Ford, and Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne (Indiana University Press, 1994).
March 8, 2010 § 3 Comments
Last night I was gratified when the most deserving of this year’s nominated films, “The Hurt Locker” won for Best Picture and Best Director. But rather than excitement, I felt relief–and annoyance that the film industry remains such an inhospitable place for women. Does anyone really believe there aren’t more qualified women directors than the handful working today? The fact is that the average municipal fire department, if only because of affirmative action, is less sexist than Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow won big last night, but it remains to be seen whether her victory will mean anything for the rest of us.
It’s instructive to note that women directors have existed since the medium’s beginnings. The first woman to have directed a film is generally agreed to be Alice Guy-Blache, a contemporary of the Lumiere Brothers whose “La Fee Aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”–my apologies about the lack of accent marks) came out in 1896. In Hollywood, the first woman director with a substantial body of work was probably Lois Weber (1882-1939) who directed 40 films, beginning in 1908. By 1920, she had opened her own studio and headed a group of women directors. She also wrote, produced and acted in many of her films and was by far the highest paid woman director of her time.
Dorothy Arzner (b. 1897) landed her first job at Paramount in 1921 as a script girl, the traditional way for women who weren’t costumers or makeup artists to get on set. An offshoot of secretarial work, script supervision was a crucial but deadend job that never led to the director’s chair. Arzner’s way up was via editing–also a female-dominated job in early Hollywood. Her first film was the Rudolph Valentino hit “Blood and Sand,” which launched her as a successful editor at Paramount. Then in 1927, Arzner threatened to defect to Columbia unless allowed to direct.
Fortunately for Arzner, her first effort, “Fashions for Women,” was a success. She went on to direct 18 more features, becoming an independent director in the 1930s and the first woman member of the newly formed DGA in 1936. Although she stopped directing features in 1943, Arzner stayed busy: in addition to directing Army training films and commercials, she taught film at UCLA until her death in 1979.
Better known than Weber or Arzner was Ida Lupino, an actress (“High Sierra,” “The Hard Way”) who began directing features in 1949. Her films were notable for their exploration of sexuality, freedom and oppression–controversial territory for any director in the 1950s. “Outrage” (1950) was about a rape; “The Bigamist” and “The Hitch-Hiker” depicted the lives of male characters in complex and nuanced fashion.
Although Lupino’s directing career was relatively short, she stayed active as an actress, continuing to work in movies and television. But it was as a director that Lupino attained lasting fame and a posthumous following. Her films are still screened, in part because they have been championed by Martin Scorsese. He wrote of Lupino, ” Her work is resilient, with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.”