Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Book: Dark City Dames, by Eddie Muller (2001)

Dames. Good word. And the right one for this excellent book. Muller profiles six actresses best known for their work in film noir: Coleen Gray, Jane Greer, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, Audrey Totter and, be still my beating heart, Marie Windsor. The first half of the book focuses on the actresses during their heyday. Later, Muller catches up with them in fin de si├Ęcle Hollywood and reveals how their lives turned out.

A line from the book had personal resonance for me. “But the rules of Hollywood casting ... were maddeningly simple: woman + dark hair + too tall = villain.” My relationship with Rosemarie suddenly makes a great deal more sense.

DAMES is loaded with gossip on the likes of Howard Hughes and Oscar Levant, and it celebrates the brutal ingenuity of filmmakers like Edgar G. Ulmer. Mainly, it’s a chronicle of the remarkable journeys taken by these women. Jane Greer plays the mother of her character in a remake of OUT OF THE PAST; Coleen Gray goes from the criminally bleak NIGHTMARE ALLEY to the prison ministry of Watergate’s own Charles Colson. Ann Savage spends thirty years working in anonymity as a legal secretary, only to regain a kind of stardom when her incendiary performance in Ulmer’s DETOUR is rediscovered. She and Muller now make frequent appearances around the country, screening a pristine print of the film. It’s a genuine happy ending in a genre not known for them.

One theme running through the book is that the actresses often regretted being typecast in low-budget crime dramas. I can see their point. But I also can’t help thinking of the legions of talented actresses since who didn’t have the careers they deserved and would have flourished under such restraints. Marie Windsor worried that the 1952 version of THE NARROW MARGIN would be forgotten when it was remade, but as Muller observes, “there won’t be a golden anniversary screening of the second NARROW MARGIN in 2040.” I wonder which one Anne Archer wishes she had starred in.

TV: Hollywood Squares

I can’t watch this show. I have too many fond memories of the old version, which taught me all I know about smarm. One of my prized possessions is a copy of Peter Marshall’s book BACKSTAGE WITH THE ORIGINAL HOLLYWOOD SQUARE, complete with CD of zingers from the show. (What I learned from the book: Peter Marshall only took the hosting gig to screw Dan Rowan of LAUGH-IN fame out of a job. And the bottom center square, where boring celebrities were placed, was known as the Carol Lynley box.)

But I watch the opening every week just to see who’s on. The show has either the most diverse demographic in television or a team of schizophrenic bookers; it’s the only place you can catch both Master P and Hal Linden. Also, the celebrities are encouraged to dance over the theme song.

Man, can O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark cut a rug. (Former California gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington, by comparison, opts for a stately Eleanor Roosevelt nod.) You lose the biggest and most public case of your career, and years later you’re invited to flail around to set musician techno. Further proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t know what he was talking about: there are plenty of second acts in American lives.

Elsewhere in the world, evidence that the game show format is far more malleable than previously believed can be found here.