Tag Archives: marilyn monroe

Safety Last! The Life and near-Death of Harold Lloyd

Imagine being one of the biggest film comedians in the business, enjoying immense popularity, while seeing your career head for the stars.

Then visualize yourself waking up the next day to blindness, severe facial burns, a missing thumb and index finger, and the very real possibility that the career you enjoyed hours earlier had disappeared in a fateful instant.

Such was the tragic situation that Harold Lloyd found himself in during late-August, 1919.

Lloyd, silent film’s hilarious “Third Genius,” who stands alongside Chaplin and Keaton in the upper echelon of the medium’s pantomiming funnymen, was in the first week of shooting Haunted Spooks when he posed for a publicity photo with a bomb that he believed to be a fake prop. Seconds after lighting the fuse with a cigarette, the bomb exploded in his hand.

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Fate had visited Lloyd before.

Harold Lloyd was born in Nebraska in 1893 and was raised by his father Foxy Lloyd after his parents divorced. Foxy received a large insurance settlement after being run over by an Omaha beer truck in 1912. The two men decided to use the cash to resettle on the beach, letting fate decide which coast they would aim for with a coin toss. The Lloyds moved to L.A., where Harold’s good looks quickly got him work in the flickers.

Harold soon met a struggling young actor and director named Hal Roach, who was in the process of creating his own studio. Lloyd developed comic characters for Roach based on Chaplin’s Little Tramp character and soon became one of the new mogul’s biggest stars.

Lloyd knew that simply mimicking Chaplin could only take his career so far, so he developed a new bespectacled, straw hat-wearing, boy-next-door character who often landed himself in untenable and comically dangerous situations as the result of trying to win the heart of a lady.

His new “everyman” persona was a sensation, and Lloyd’s career was rocketing skywards when his accident appeared to send it crashing back to earth.

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For several days, Lloyd’s career and quality of life held by a thread until his sight eventually returned and his burns healed. He entered the decade of the 1920’s by returning to the set of Haunted Spooks with a prosthetic glove concealing his hand injury.

Far from being over, Lloyd’s career was just getting started. He became known as the “daredevil comedian,” famous for his thrill sequences, like the famous human-fly scene in 1923’s Safety Last! where he scales the side of a skyscraper and dangles precariously from the hands of a clock – carrying out his stunts with only eight fingers.

Lloyd went on to marry his leading lady, become the highest paid performer of the 1920’s, and to retire in luxury at his palatial estate in Beverly Hills called “Greenacres,” where he became a world-renowned expert in photography (often employing young starlets like Marilyn Monroe and my friend Dixie Evans as models – Dixie, how are you?).

His accident in 1919 also led him to become the leader of the Shriners, an organization that donates millions to the treatment of children suffering from severe burns.

Harold Lloyd died forty years ago today on March 8, 1971, but his story could have ended decades earlier had he not refused to surrender to Fate, defiantly demanding, “Is this the best you’ve got?”

Fate asked the same question of Harold Lloyd in 1919, and he responded with a resounding “No!” by rising phoenix-like from the tragedy to even greater heights than he had ever scaled before. 

(Look for our friend John Bengtson’s new book Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloydcoming soon from Santa Monica Press. Also, I want to thank Leonard Maltin for his wonderful article on ChaplinFest, which Kimi and I helped host last month in Newhall, California. You can see the post here.)

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The “Grim” Fairy Tale

Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio at the start of their nine-month marriage in 1954.

It looked good on paper – or to be more precise, they looked good in the papers – “they” being Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, who were married in San Francisco in a civil ceremony on this date in 1954.

The media dubbed the union as a “fairy tale” marriage, pairing America’s favorite sports hero with its leading female sex symbol.

But just as cruelty lurks in the subtext of all classic fairy tales, the DiMaggio-Monroe pairing turned out to be short-lived and fraught with pain.

This was a couple who should have entered marriage counseling before they were wed, or at the very least, been given Myers-Briggs tests to let them in on what friends of both knew from the start: that the marriage was doomed.

DiMaggio, the recently-retired immortal center fielder for the New York Yankees, was accustomed to hearing the roar of the crowd and resented finding he was no longer the center of attention when he entered a room with his stunning starlet wife on his arm.

Monroe, the uber-extrovert who craved the attention of all, was twelve years younger than Joltin’ Joe, and was at the height of her career.

DiMaggio wanted Monroe to leave Hollywood behind and be his stay-at-home wife; something his new bride refused to consider. An intensely jealous man, DiMaggio bristled every time he saw Monroe play to an audience using the full arsenal of her sensuality.

The straw that broke the marriage’s back landed on September 15th of that same year when DiMaggio was on-hand (along with hundreds of other spectators) to witness his wife’s white dress billow above her shoulders in the famous subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch.

There had already been whispers of spousal abuse, and DiMaggio was said to have swatted his wife like an inside fastball after the filming. They were divorced less than two months later.

But their relationship wasn’t over. Around the time of The Misfits, Monroe’s final completed film, she suffered a complete breakdown and turned to DiMaggio for solace.

After Monroe’s death in 1962, DiMaggio had fresh roses delivered to her crypt at Westwood Cemetery three times a week for twenty years.

It was assumed that DiMaggio’s body would eventually occupy the vacant crypt at Monroe’s side. This rumor proved unfounded, as he was interred in a Catholic cemetery in the Bay Area after his death in 1999 from lung cancer.

(The crypt is now thought to belong to Hugh Hefner, who made Monroe the first Playboy centerfold in 1953.)


Long Live the King! – Part One

Fifty years ago today, a generation of Hollywood royalty watchers awoke to the news that their king was dead.

Clark Gable died on this date in 1960, less than two weeks after completing The Misfits, which was also the final screen appearance of Marilyn Monroe, another iconic movie star.

Gable was born in rural Ohio in 1901 and his mother died of a brain tumor before Clark was a year old. He originally had the name Goebel, which the family changed around World War I because of the anti-German sentiment of the times. He left his father’s farm behind while in high school to work in a tire plant in nearby Akron. It was here that he caught the acting bug, and set out touring the country as a member of several theater stock companies.

Gable eventually found himself working as a tie salesman in Portland, Oregon, when he met acting coach Josephine Dillon, a woman seventeen years his senior. The two became lovers while Dillon set about re-creating Gable from the ground up. He emerged from the makeover with a new set of teeth, a different hair style, a deeper voice, and a more masculine physique. Gable returned the favor by making Dillon his first wife.

The two migrated to Hollywood in 1924 where Gable got parts in several silent films before returning for a time to the stage. He returned to Hollywood in 1930 and tested for the lead in Little Caesar the following year, but Warner Bros. production head Darryl F. Zanuck, in one of his – and Hollywood’s – greatest whiffs, rejected him by commenting that “his ears are too big and he looks like an ape.”

He became a major star a short time later when he was loaned out from MGM (which had him under contract) to “Poverty Row” producer Columbia to star in It Happened One Night, opposite Claudette Colbert. Gable won the Oscar that year for the role, and his mannerisms in the film were said to be the inspiration for Bugs Bunny.

By this time, the philandering Gable had dumped Dillon to marry a Texas socialite. He was again nominated as Best Actor for his role in Mutiny On The Bounty the following year and was nicknamed the “King of Hollywood,” acting opposite (and usually sleeping with) the biggest actresses in Hollywood.

But it was all just prelude to the main feature.

In 1939, Gable had his most-enduring success in the iconic role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, by far the highest-grossing film ever up till that time. The role earned him his third Best Actor nomination and provided him with one of the industry’s most famous lines: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Gable next married actress Carole Lombard and enjoyed the finest years of his personal life at her side. Tragically, she was killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas in 1942 returning to Hollywood from a war bond rally.

Gable and Lombard.

Gable swallowed his grief by joining the Army Air Corps, flying missions over Germany. It was said that Adolf Hitler was a huge fan of Gable and offered a large reward for his capture and safe transport to Berlin.

Gable returned from the war to find Hollywood a changed place and many of his films over the last fifteen years of his life failed at the box office. By the time he made The Misfits, decades of drinking and heavy smoking had taken their toll. His health suffered on the film due to the stifling heat, difficult stunts, and the stress of dealing with Marilyn Monroe’s unprofessionalism. He suffered a major heart attack two days after the production wrapped, and died less than two weeks later.

Gable was almost as famous for his womanizing as for his acting. He went through wives like the real king Henry the VIII (he eventually had five) and had dozens of affairs throughout his life. One long-standing rumor claims that he was in bed with a starlet when he heard the news report of wife Carole Lombard’s death on the radio.

Clark Gable packed a ton of living into only 59 years, leaving behind one of Hollywood’s most enduring legacies.

Hollywood’s king was laid to rest in a crypt in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery alongside Carole Lombard, his favorite queen.


Dying Young: The Smartest Hollywood Career Move?

No one should ever have to die young, but Death is an impartial reaper, culling from all ranks of the human herd, including the rich, famous, and talented.

The premature passings of cinematic icons Rudolph Valentino, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe were certainly great tragedies for the individuals and their fans, but it’s interesting to speculate whether these three would have remained “legends” had they received their entire allotted “threescore and ten” on this earth.

Take, for example, the case of Rudolph Valentino, who died of peritonitis at the age of 31 in 1926. If Valentino was meant to die young, the Fates scheduled the perfect time for it to happen. The Italian-born Valentino had a pronounced accent that would have undoubtedly halted his career within the next several months when “talkies” hit the scene.

Nearly thirty years later, James Dean was killed in a car crash shortly after having completed his third and final film, Giant.

I remember reading a quote describing the legacies of James Dean and Marlon Brando shortly after Brando’s death in 2004. The commenter compared the two Young Turks who rose to fame in the 1950s by saying, “The best thing that ever happened to James Dean’s career was that he died young, and the worst thing for Marlon Brando’s was that he didn’t.”

This may be unduly harsh on Brando’s account, but is it true when speculating about Dean? One thing that Dean had going for him (moreso than either Valentino or Monroe) was talent. Martin Sheen, who I respect deeply as both a man and an actor, is a huge fan of his work. That’s quite an endorsement. But Dean was reportedly not the easiest guy to work with, and had talked about quitting acting shortly before his death to move to the director’s chair. It’s interesting to wonder if his career would have modeled Brando’s or have been more akin to another 1950s contemporary, Paul Newman. Whereas, Brando shot out of the gate, just like Dean, many of his later roles lacked consistency, and he was left with an obituary that made more mention of his obesity and family problems than his body of work. Newman on the other hand had a solid career from start to finish.

I may make some enemies here, but I personally believe that history would have been much less kind to Marilyn Monroe’s legacy had she lived a full lifetime. Marilyn was always more of a movie star than actress, and by the time of her death in 1962, she had worn out her welcome in Hollywood with her diva antics (think Lindsay Lohan). As I wrote yesterday, her personal problems plagued The Misfits in 1961, her last film to be released, and her final film, Something’s Got To Give, was never completed because she was banished from the set halfway through the production. Marilyn was a pretty face, but lots of former screen hotties from that era have been erased out of the public’s memory. (Who out there remembers Diana Dors? Anyone?)

A career label of “has been” is not as sustainable as “what might have been.” While it would definitely suck to have your career in Hollywood snuffed out by an early death, it might just be what the doctor ordered for your legacy.


The Casting Curse

The Misfits, which concluded filming 50 years ago today, must have been a particularly tough shoot.

The filming took place in the blazing Nevada desert where temperatures regularly topped 100. The director was often hung over and had to borrow money from the producers to cover his gambling losses. The leading lady, just months away from her own mysterious death, was strung out on pills and booze, and was in the midst of a breakup with her husband, who just happened to be the film’s writer. Another star was dealing with his own addictions and couldn’t remember his lines, and the leading man – a Hollywood icon – would suffer a heart attack two days after filming concluded and be dead within a week.

The Misfits is a depressing tale about a divorcee, played by Marilyn Monroe, who becomes romantically involved with Clark Gable, who plays an aging cowboy. Gable’s character rounds up wild horses for a living to sell to a dog food company. Montgomery Clift costars as a rodeo rider. The film was directed by John Huston, and written by Arthur Miller, who was Monroe’s husband at the time.

With this list of principles, it would be tempting to assume that The Misfits is a Hollywood classic. While technically a good film, showcasing what is arguably Monroe’s finest screen performance, it’s a tough watch, especially with its very PETA-unfriendly subject matter. The film is only remembered today as the final screen appearance for Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, who would both be dead within months.

Despite all of their personal peccadilloes, Huston was still able to get solid performances out of all of the actors. But the real drama took place off screen.

This “cursed” production seems more a victim of when they cast their leads rather than of who they cast in the roles. Monroe’s life was unraveling in front of everyone’s eyes at the time. She was usually late to the set, when she decided to show up at all, and Huston once had to shut the production down to send her to a rehab hospital. Montgomery Clift, who never fully recovered from the trauma of an automobile accident in 1956, was in a serious decline. He was described by Monroe as, “The only person I know who is in worse shape than I am.” The stress of dealing with Monroe’s unprofessionalism and being overtaxed by performing his own stunts was too much for Gable’s heart. He suffered a massive heart attack on November 6 and was dead only a few days later at the age of 59.

The film also featured the final screen appearance of 1930s Western star Rex Bell, who was the Lt. Governor of the state of Nevada at the time, as well as the husband of former “It” girl Clara Bow. He would also die a few months later – on July 4, 1962 – which is memorable to me personally since it just happens to be the day I was born.

This “war of attrition” claimed its final victim in 1966 when Montgomery Clift was asked by his personal secretary if he wanted to watch The Misfits on television that evening. “Absolutely not!” was his reply, which turned out to be the last words he ever spoke to anyone. He died of a heart attack later that night.


Passing of a “Rebel” – Steffi Sidney 1935-2010

I saw a headline yesterday announcing that Corey Allen, who played James Dean’s nemesis Buzz in the classic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, passed away on Sunday, just two days shy of his 76th birthday. What struck me about the headline was that it labeled Allen as the “Last of the Rebel Without a Cause cast” to pass away.

I really hoped this was not the case because through my Warner Bros. friend Chris Stone, I am only one degree of separation away from another Rebel actor, his aunt Steffi Splaver. Steffi was only nineteen when she appeared in the landmark teenage-angst film under her stage name Steffi Sidney. She had a supporting role as a girl in Buzz’s gang named Mil.

I called Chris hoping that the article was in error, but sadly, this was not the case. He informed me that Steffi passed away in February after a fall. 

Steffi was the daughter of renowned gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, who is famous for coining the nickname “Oscar” for the Academy Award and for helping to make Marilyn Monroe a star. Steffi had a five-year film career in the 50s, and later set up a PR firm with her husband after she retired from film work.

I never met Steffi and only spoke to her once on the phone last year when I was setting up a panel discussion in Newhall, California about James Dean’s last day. She, like Chris, was incredibly nice and apologized for not being able to attend the panel as she was then living in the Seattle area. She then hooked me up with some other cast members who she was still kept in contact with. Our entire conversation lasted just a few minutes, but she ended it by insisting that I call back if I needed any more help with my show, for more thoughts about James Dean, or to learn more about what it was like to be in Rebel. According to Chris, this was typical of Steffi, as she never displayed a haughty attitude that is found far too often in those with a Hollywood peerage, but was always kind and charitable. I often wanted to call her back, but I never did, fearing that I would be bothering her, even though she insisted that I wouldn’t be.

It’s been a tough year for the fans of Rebel with the loss of the final cast members, including Dennis Hopper, who passed away on May 29. But for Chris and his family, the passing of Aunt Steffi is a personal pain.

And I feel sad knowing that a lady who was once so nice to me on the phone is no longer there to call again.