It’s hard to make a more iconic Halloween movie than Halloween, but that’s not to say that there aren’t legions of other films where Halloween plays a critical role. Much like Christmas, Halloween is such a big holiday in the American imagination that it appears in a number of films that aren’t directly about Halloween, or even horror. Last year, the Post took a look at “The OTHER Classic Christmas Movies,” so it’s only fair that we do the same for Halloween.
10. Batman Forever (1995)
For some reason, the first three modern Batman films all rotated around some kind of holiday celebration. 1989’s Batman featured the Gotham City bicentennial, 1992’s Batman Returns took place at Christmas, and 1995’s Batman Forever landed on Halloween. The holiday doesn’t have a huge impact on the overall plot, but it shows up significantly later in the film. Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and The Riddler (Jim Carrey), having discovered Batman’s secret identity and fool an unusually dim Alfred (Michael Gough) using Halloween costumes. With Alfred’s guard down, the villains and their henchmen invade Wayne Manor, destroying much of the mansion and Batcave while kidnapping Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) and setting up a final showdown between the villains, Batman (Val Kilmer), and his new partner, Robin (Chris O’Donnell).
9. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
EVERYBODY knows that Meet Me in St. Louis is where we got “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But not everyone quite recalls that the movie basically takes place over most of a year from 1903 until the World’s Fair opens in 1904. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Sally Benson, which was originally presented as a string of short stories in The New Yorker. The Halloween sequence represents a pivotal moment in the plot’s central relationship. Esther (Judy Garland) has been in love with John (Tom Drake) from a distance for a while. However, her sister Tootie alleges that John hurt her while Tootie was out for trick-or-treat. Esther attacks John in a rage, but Tootie admits that John actually protected her and sister Agnes from the police after a bungled prank. Esther’s apology to John leads to their first kiss.
8. Mean Girls (2004)
Tina Fey took on a terrifying subject when she adapted Mean Girls from Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabees, and that was the teenage trauma associated with high school cliques. Mean Girls covers a lot of ground when it comes to how young women interact, including social expectations versus reality, the spitefulness that can arise in a compressed setting like a high school, and how kids are often unaware of the damage that words can do. One key scene takes place at a Halloween party; the lead-in starts off light, playing off of the ongoing trend of hyper-sexualized costumes, but it takes a turn when Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is betrayed at the party, setting her on a course that affects the rest of the film.
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
A soul-crushing novel made into a soul-crushing movie, We Need to Talk About Kevin deals with one of the worst possible nightmares for a parent: what do you do when your child is the one who conducts a school massacre? The epistolary novel by Lionel Shriver was made into a haunting film starring Tilda Swinton as Kevin’s mother, Eva. As Eva drives home one night, the demons plaguing her and her family seem to come to life, moving in and out of the shadows as she sees them out her car window. It is, however, only Halloween, but the frightening vista underscores Eva’s own inner turmoil and the tragedy that has played out over the course of Kevin’s life.
6. The Harry Potter Series (2001-2011)
Take a hugely successful book series. Recruit appealing newcomers for the young leads. Add some of the most accomplished adult actors in England. Never stray too far from the books. Spend ten years becoming of the one best loved movie series of all time. We all watched that work for the Harry Potter series. Obviously, the magic-based series lends itself to Halloween. Moreover, since every book roughly covers one school year, it’s easy to slot those scenes in the plot. Each book at least references Halloween. Not all of the films touch on it, although there are recurring references. A running concern is the fact that Voldemort was originally defeated on Halloween Night. Rowling also tied important events to the holiday in the first four books. Easily one of the most memorable Halloween scenes is in the first book and first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. When a Mountain Troll gets into the school, the student body panics. Only Harry and Ron keep their cool to try to find Hermione. Making their way to the girls’ restroom, they find Hermione under attack by the creature. Encouraged by Hermione, Ron performs a spell that uses the troll’s own club to knock him out. Not everyone is pleased (Quirrell is a double-agent, Snape is annoyed), but Professor McGonagall gives the lads points for saving their friend.
5. The Crow (1994)
The supernatural revenge thriller based on the comic book series by James O’Barr found tragedy in the on-set death of leading man Brandon Lee and triumph in the critical and financial success of the film and its soundtrack. The plot turns around October 30th, once known as Devil’s Night in Detroit for a phenomenon of arsons taking place on that date over several decades; on one Devil’s Night, Eric Draven and his fiancée, Shelly, are murdered on the day before their wedding (which would have been Halloween). Draven returns one year later to deal out harsh vengeance on those responsible. The city, already portrayed in a dark and gothic manner by director Alex Proyas, also has the trappings of Halloween, including trick-or-treating children that pass Draven in costume.
4. Watchmen (2009)
Based on the medium-changing comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (seriously; it’s on Time’s list of 100 Best Novels from 1923 onward), Zach Snyder’s Watchmen takes great pains to present an adaptation that’s as close to the page and panel as possible. The story takes place in an alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president and America won the Vietnam War thanks to the intervention of the super-powered Dr. Manhattan. Though the story constantly jumps in time, the main narrative is set in 1985 on the verge of Halloween . . . and nuclear holocaust. Halloween imagery sneaks in at the edges, and several critical plot developments (many of which are horrifying in their own right) occur across October 31 and November 1.
3. The Karate Kid (1984)
One of the more memorable Halloween scenes from any high school-related film happens in The Karate Kid. At a Halloween dance, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) wants to be with Ali (Elisabeth Shue), but he’s been trying avoid the bullying of Johnny and his Cobra Kai buddies. Daniel cleverly dresses in a shower costume to conceal his identity. But when Johnny breaks off from the other Cobra Kais (who are all dressed in matching skeleton costumes and facepaint) to smoke weed in the bathroom, Daniel takes the opportunity to rig up a hose and douse Johnny. The Cobra Kais chase Daniel down and deal him a violent beating until Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) intervenes. Miyagi dismantles the bullies by himself and helps treat Daniel’s injuries. Soon after, Miyagi begins to train Daniel so that he can confront the Kais at the All-Valley Tournament.
2. E.T. (1982)
Is there anyone who doesn’t know E.T.? What you might not recall is that Halloween actually plays a crucial role in advancing the plot. E.T. wants to “phone home” so that his people can come back for him. However, Elliott and his brother Michael need to sneak E.T. and the communication array he’s built to the nearby woods where they’ll have a better chance of making contact. That’s where Halloween comes in. The boys use that most reliable of disguises (from a kid’s point of view): a white sheet ghost costume. They first have to convince their mother that they’re actually taking their little sister, Gertie, out, which works. Although a chance encounter with a kid dressed as Yoda distracts the alien, they are still able to get him to the forest to make his call.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Speaking of important scenes occurring at Halloween . . . the climactic action of To Kill a Mockingbird happens on Halloween night after a pageant where Scout is dressed as a giant ham. As Scout and her brother Jem walk through the woods toward home, they are attacked. Scout can’t see much because of her costume, but she realizes that someone else stopped their attacker. It soon becomes clear that they were attacked by Bob Ewell, whom Atticus had shamed in court. The man who saved them was their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley. As Atticus and Sheriff Tate piece together events, they realize that Boo stabbed Ewell, killing him. However, Tate decides to list it as an accident, sparing Boo the attention and circus of a trial.
Featured image: leolintang / Shutterstock
Today is the centennial of the birth of Mickey Rooney, the once-golden boy of Hollywood with likely the longest-running career of any American (or otherwise) film actor.
After beginning his lifelong stint in show business in a specially-tailored tux in his parents’ vaudeville shows at 15 months old, Rooney landed his first film role at age 6 and didn’t stop until 2014, the year he passed away.
The America of Rooney’s films at the height of his celebrity – when he played the lovably well-intentioned troublemaker Andy Hardy in 16 movies – was The Saturday Evening Post’s America: one with a freshly-ironed moral fabric and joyful endings. In fact, Rooney was a Post boy. As the Post bragged in a short piece in 1942, the actor won a medal at age 13 for selling magazines door-to-door and even at the studios where he made his Mickey McGuire movies: “Andy Hardy, as portrayed by Rooney, more often than not engages in financial enterprises that backfire, but in real life Rooney got away to a fast business start with no adolescent detours.”
The Post’s coverage of Rooney wasn’t always so laudatory, however. By 1962, he was just another example of “moral decay in America” as an editorial shone light on his multiple nasty divorces and thousands in back taxes. “Nothing in this sad story surprises us, Hollywood being the way it is,” the Post printed, “but we remember Andy Hardy.”
The now-familiar arc of the innocent child star becoming a frighteningly flawed adult perhaps began with Rooney’s departure from the saccharine cinema of the Hardy family into the trappings of wealth and fame. But he couldn’t play Andy Hardy forever, and he didn’t want to.
In 1947, the year after Rooney’s last film as Andy Hardy (with the exception of the 1958 revival), the Post published a lengthy profile of the actor called “Hollywood’s Fabulous Brat.” Rooney had spent three years – 1939, ’40, and ’41 – as the biggest box office draw in Hollywood, and he had a reputation for being belligerent, on the set and off. He was also seeking more substantial work.
“I’ll never make another Hardy picture,” he told the Post, incorrectly. “I’m fed up with those dopey, insipid parts. How long can a guy play a jerk kid? I’m 27 years old. I’ve been divorced once and separated from my second wife. I have two boys of my own. I spent almost two years in the Army. It’s time Judge Hardy went out and bought me a double-breasted suit. With long pants.”
Rooney wanted to stretch his wings as he had when he played Puck in Warner Brothers’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935, when The New York Times reviewed his “remarkable performance” as “one of the major delights of the work.” He wanted to enter into a new chapter of complex films like the forthcoming gritty boxing drama Killer McCoy and the Eugene O’Neill-adapted musical Summer Holiday. After the decades-long run of Hardy family movies and musicals with Judy Garland, however, Rooney’s box office draw dwindled.
Since conquering the motion picture industry with nothing but talent and grit, Rooney couldn’t have foreseen a future where he wasn’t at the top. He imagined he could reinvent his career with the same momentum he always had. As Nancy Jo Sales wrote in Vanity Fair after Rooney died in 2014, “his career suffered from his juvenile appearance, and his diminutive height — he wasn’t a boy anymore, and he wasn’t a leading man, so where did he fit in? — but he never gave up.” Rooney kept making films into the 21st century, delivering memorable performances in movies like The Black Stallion and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1979, he took on Broadway in the successful revue Sugar Babies, spawning years of tours.
Rooney’s undeniable talent steered him toward a lifelong commitment to entertainment. Given his start in the demanding realms of vaudeville and the old Hollywood studio system, the performer never hesitated to master new skills, like banjo-playing or crying on demand, to satisfy his audience. This was perhaps never more true than in 1941, when Rooney performed at President Roosevelt’s Inauguration Gala.
Alongside talents like Charlie Chaplin, Ethel Barrymore, and Irving Berlin, Rooney was expected to contribute an act of celebrity impersonations. He had a better idea: he would play his three-movement symphony Melodante on piano instead. As the Post reported, “The audience of 3,844 celebrities laughed when Rooney sat down at the piano that evening and shot his cuffs as he poised his hands over the keyboard.” They thought he was doing a bit. After he played the 19-minute score he had written himself, however, they burst into applause.
For Rooney, the label “triple threat” was an understatement. Starting from a poor broken home, he gave everything he had to build his iconic career, but it never turned out exactly the way he wanted. “People look at me and say, ‘There’s a lucky bum who got all the breaks,’” he said in 1947, “Yeah, I got the breaks — all in the neck.”
Featured image: Gene Lester, The Saturday Evening Post, December 6, 1947
In order to join the private Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society Facebook group, one is required to submit, in writing, their favorite Laurel and Hardy scene, probably to weed out spammers and trolls. But if you want to gain membership to the Sons of the Desert — the most widespread and official club for “connoisseurs” of the comic duo — you’ll need to contact the corresponding secretary and find your local chapter, or “tent.”
For 55 years, the Sons of the Desert have made it their mission to keep Laurel and Hardy’s legacy alive across the globe. There are more than 100 “tents,” most of which are named after Laurel and Hardy’s films. The Way Out West tent is located in Los Angeles, the Boston Brats tent is, of course, in Boston, and the Unaccustomed As We Are tent is the chapter in Jakarta, Indonesia. A tent called Berth Marks meets at the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, England, where Stan Laurel was born 130 years ago today.
Watching Laurel and Hardy’s movies now, particularly Sons of the Desert, is an exercise in discovery for the uninitiated. Their films display the timelessness of good comedy — wit, slapstick, timing — and the universality of maddening frustration over endless incompetence. Sons begins with the pair causing awkward chaos by interrupting a Shriners-type meeting to squeeze their way to two front seats, and it ends with Stan Laurel’s famous line, once they’ve both been caught lying to their wives about attending a national convention in Chicago: “Honesty is the best politics.” Laurel and Hardy were flanked by plenty of other famous, and acclaimed, comedic actors in their time — Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers — but they’ve inspired a uniquely resilient organized fanbase.
When Ron Cooper wrote about the Sons of the Desert in this magazine in 1971, he was impressed to see a sort of Laurel and Hardy revival underway. Since then, the group only appears to have grown, adding dozens of tents around the world and expanding the fanbase for the comic duo of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Cooper noted Stan Laurel’s approval of the “buff club’s” formation, and his contribution to the Greek motto on the group’s insignia: “Two Minds Without a Single Thought.”
In a 1987 documentary about the Sons of the Desert, its founder John McCabe described the group as “a set of odd, charming, curious, misplaced cherubs.” The farcical organization is run in a similarly absurd fashion as the movie it is named after. The chair is named the “Exhausted Ruler,” a malapropism uttered by Laurel when he means to say “exalted ruler,” and the group joins crossed arms to sing their chant: “We are the sons of the desert/ Having the time of our lives … ” At their biennial conventions, members (which include men and women) share memorabilia, play trivia, drink cocktails at every step (as directed by their constitution), and, of course, watch Laurel and Hardy films.
Gary Russeth, of Harlem, Georgia (Hardy’s birthplace) is the “Grand Sheik” of his local tent, and he runs a local museum. He says he grew up watching Laurel and Hardy on a nine-inch 1947 General Electric portable television set. Speaking to the pair’s enduring popularity, he says, “We have lawyers, teachers, blue- and white-collar people in the Sons of the Desert. It’s a variety of many different groups. I would see these little kids come in, and they’re so smart and they love Laurel and Hardy. It’s basic, like a cartoon. It’s just two funny guys that just constantly have one problem after another. And it’s embellished.”
The Sons‘ 2020 convention was scheduled to occur this month in Providence, Rhode Island, but it was delayed until next year. Laurel and Hardy savants need not dismay over the lack of a formal meeting, though; later this month, Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations will be released on Blu-ray.
Featured image: Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
In 1930, Norman Rockwell traveled to California on the advice of his lawyer, who wanted the artist out of his home state of Vermont while he, the lawyer, settled a contract lawsuit with another magazine.
Rockwell stayed with friends who lived near Hollywood. He was fascinated by the extras and out-of-work actors he saw on the streets. Back home, he relied on neighbors for his models. Here, if he needed any type of face or character, he only had to walk around town to find what he wanted.
But when he got the idea for this cover, he asked the friend he was visiting to help him find a cowboy actor. Rockwell was stunned when Paramount Studios offered the services of their mega-star Gary Cooper.
When Cooper showed up for the modeling session, Rockwell later wrote, he filled the doorway, making Rockwell keenly aware of his own “narrow shoulders and puny arms.” But during three days of modeling, Cooper proved to be easy-going, very cooperative, and a practical joker who brought along exploding matches and ash trays that jumped when they were touched.
Probably in gratitude to Paramount, Rockwell put the name of Cooper’s latest movie, The Texan, on the slate in the background. The movie premiered shortly before this issue appeared on the newsstands.
Movie stars weren’t the only people who impressed Rockwell in California. He also met a school teacher there, Mary Barstow, who later returned east with him as his new wife.
Featured image: Norman Rockwell / SEPS
This article is featured in the March/April 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
February brings Valentine’s Day and a plentitude of great romance movies: Wuthering Heights. Now, Voyager. Dark Victory. Casablanca. Not that Hollywood hasn’t had it own great romances. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.
I would add another, which I remember because I’m 93 (94 next month) and a longtime movie buff — Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.
Perhaps, the greatest of them all.
Equally big stars, she was reportedly the highest paid actress in Hollywood and he was so popular he was dubbed “The King.” A beautiful blonde, the equal of any star then (or since), Lombard played dramatic parts but was best known for her roles in the zany comedies of the mid-’30s, the cinematic antidote to The Great Depression. She had a comedic touch perfect for such classics as Nothing Sacred and My Man Godfrey. Gable, who starred in such films as Test Pilot and Boom Town, was the only actor American readers and movie-goers would accept for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.
They co-starred in the film No Man of Her Own in 1932, but no romantic sparks were sparked. Both were married at the time (although that has not stopped a lot of budding romances in Hollywood). A chance meeting at a party four years later — she was now single again and he was separated from his wife — and the spark was struck. His wife did not want to give him a divorce, but he prevailed, and it was finalized in March 1939. Taking advantage of a break Gable had in filming Gone with the Wind, they eloped to Kingman, Arizona.
One of my most vivid memories of movie stars when I was growing up were the photos that appeared not only in the movie magazines of the day but newspapers across the country of them shortly afterward, at his ranch in Encino, California. I can still see them, smiling happily. And later that year, at the world premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta, in formal dress for the occasion, she is on his arm as they arrive, and he pauses at the microphone to address the crowd and nation through the newsreels of the time, saying, “This is Margaret Mitchell’s night.” But I remember Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.
Undoubtedly, there were other photos and stories.
Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt asked the Congress for a Declaration of War. And, like the rest of the nation, Hollywood and its stars mobilized for the coming fight. In mid-January, between pictures, Carole Lombard went back to her native Indiana on a War Bond Tour. Her mother went along, as did Otto Winkler, Gable’s friend and publicist, whom Gable had asked to accompany Carole on the tour. The tour was capped off by a dinner in Indianapolis the night of January 15, 1942. Carole Lombard had raised more than $2 million. Today, that would be more than $32 million.
They were supposed to return home by train, as the government preferred that stars on bond tours not fly. Also, her mother and Winkler were afraid of flying. But Lombard was anxious to get back to her beloved “Pappy,” her name for Gable, and reportedly didn’t want to face three days on the “choo choo train.” They decided to flip a coin. Lombard won. And they booked a flight on a commercial airline. TWA Flight 3, a transcontinental flight out of New York, made a stop in Indianapolis, at or about 3 a.m. It would get them home late that evening.
It should be remembered that commercial flights were in their early years back then — stagecoaches, if you will, compared to today’s flights. No jets. Propeller driven. No pressurized cabins. Passengers huddled under blankets to keep warm. Frequent stops. Not only for passengers to board or depart but to refuel. During the stop at Albuquerque, New Mexico, Carole and her party were almost bumped to make way for military personnel, who took precedence in wartime. But Lombard pleaded her case, and they were allowed to fly on.
What follows has come to be known as “The Mystery of Flight 3.” It’s known that the plane made a refueling stop at Las Vegas, then a small town. It may be that the pilot mistakenly set a course used for takeoff from Boulder, Colorado, which he and the co-pilot had flown recently. Or the pilot mistook a beacon light to the right of the runway as being at its center and flew to the right, instead of going left. Or that beacon lights that would normally have been used had been turned off, due to the war, lest they attract enemy planes.
Never disputed, the pilot did not realize he had not reached the altitude needed to clear the treacherous Mount Potosi. And there were no air traffic controllers to tell him.
The plane flew into the side of the mountain, killing all 22 aboard.
“Gable rushed to the city, first hoping for a miracle,” as the Las Vegas Review Journal put it, looking back on the 75th anniversary of the crash, “and then keeping a grief-stricken vigil until rescue teams recovered his wife’s remains.”
It’s said he never recovered.
Certainly, the loss is plain to see in the photo of The King being sworn in to the U. S. Army Air Force, as a private after enlisting, August 12, 1942. The pain on his face and in his eyes is seared into my memory. Not the pain in TV shows when someone is trying to get someone else to talk, divulge a name or meeting place. The pain that comes from somewhere deep inside — dare I say the soul? — and stays with you the rest of your life.
The Air Force sent Gable to Officer Candidate School, assigned him to a film unit in Hollywood, to which he brought great credentials, then overseas to film “Combat America,” a propaganda film about air gunners. Official records show he flew five combat missions, but fellow veterans say he flew more.
He may be seen in uniform January 15, 1944 — the second anniversary of the dinner capping Carole Lombard’s War Bond Tour — watching actress Irene Dunne break a bottle of champagne against the bow of a Liberty Ship. The ship was christened the Carole Lombard in recognition of her contribution to the war. The Carole Lombard would go on to rescue hundreds of survivors of sunken ships in the Pacific.
Whether officially or unofficially, the mountain on which she died came to be known as Carole Lombard Mountain.
After the war, Clark Gable returned to Hollywood, resumed his career. In his first film he co-starred with Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver), prompting the ad line, “Gable’s back and Garson’s got him.” He would make movies for some 15 years, co-starring in his last, The Misfits, with the new blonde star of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe.
In one of those twists of fate worthy of an O. Henry story or Alfred Hitchcock movie, it would be the last film for both Gable and Monroe. Two days after filming ended, Gable suffered a heart attack, sufficiently serious that he was not only hospitalized but held for further care and observation. There were those in Hollywood who thought it was his frustration with the famed tardiness of Monroe that had driven him to passing the time wrangling the wild mustangs that were part of the film — in the heat of the desert yet — and had brought on the heart attack. And his popularity cast a cloud over Monroe that some say never ended before her death two years later.
Gable suffered a second, fatal heart attack while still hospitalized and died November 16, 1960.
Although he had married twice in the postwar years, and was happily married at the time to a woman about to present him with a son, he chose to be buried alongside Carole Lombard in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
If, unlike Romeo and Juliet, years passed between their passing, their romance may well rank up there with Shakespeare’s classic.
Certainly, the romance has those twists of fate, moments of “what might have been,” thread of tragedy, that make you wonder what The Bard would have done with Clark and Carole.
Featured image: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in a movie still from No Man of Her Own (Wikimedia Commons)
The Saturday Evening Post History Minute: The Love-Hate Relationship between Hollywood and Washington
For more than 100 years, Hollywood has been making movies, and Washington has been trying to regulate them.
See more History Minute videos.
Featured image: Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) surrounded by supporters with signs, as he waits to board an airplane on his way to federal prison (Alamy).
Crime in Hollywood isn’t much different than crime in any other town. That’s an aesthetic communicated in the work of writers like Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy that expose the dark underbelly under the bright lights. However, crimes in Hollywood often seem magnified in the media, particularly when they involve the famous. Sometimes, the cases are salacious and the outcomes ruin careers. When the cases involve stalking or violence, even murder, they sometimes generate enough attention to instigate positive change, despite the horror of the crime itself. Our increased awareness of stalking today forces institutions to make real change, like the decision by Google this week to pull several potentially dangerous “people-tracking Android apps” from its Play Store. 30 years ago, the 1989 slaying of Rebecca Schaeffer drew attention to the issue of stalking; as in the near-fatal stabbing of Theresa Saldana in 1982, the perpetrator was an obsessed fan who used public records to track his target. The fallout of the case and trial would strengthen privacy laws and put a spotlight on the danger associated with stalking.
Schaeffer was born in Oregon and began modelling in her teens. By 1984, she had moved to New York City where she attended Professional Children’s School while she worked. Near the end of that year, she began a six-month run on One Life to Live. She spent some time pursuing work in Japan before coming back to the States; an appearance on the cover of Seventeen led to her casting in My Sister Sam, a CBS sitcom vehicle for former Mork & Mindy star Pam Dawber. Schaeffer played Patti, the younger sister of Dawber’s Sam. A hit out of the gate, My Sister Sam had a strong first season but was cancelled in the second when ratings dropped. Coming out of the show, Schaeffer booked work in a few television and theatrical films.
Arizona native Robert John Bardo had a troubled history. A victim of abuse from a family with a history of mental illness, Bardo himself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He previously stalked child activist and television performer Samantha Smith; Smith gained fame in 1982 when, at age 10, she wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov on the question of peace, and the leader invited her to visit the Soviet Union. Her popularity led to her casting in the short-live Robert Wagner series Lime Street; unfortunately, Smith and her father died in a plane crash in 1985. Bardo’s obsessions shifted, and eventually settled on Schaeffer through her role on My Sister Sam.
Theresa Saldana played herself in the 1984 film about her attack, Victim for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story.
Bardo wrote letters to Schaeffer and even attempted to enter the set of the show. He turned to a detective agency, and they acquired the actress’s home address for Bardo from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Bardo copied the tactic used by Arthur Richard Jackson; in 1982, Jackson hired a private investigator to get information on actress Theresa Saldana, then best-known for her role in Raging Bull. Jackson acquired the phone number of Saldana’s mother and called her claiming to be Bull director Martin Scorsese’s assistant; he said he needed her daughter’s address so that he could reach her about a film opportunity in Europe. Jackson used the address to ambush Saldana, stabbing her ten times. Remarkably, Saldana lived, though she spent four months in the hospital. After the ordeal, she founded Victims for Victims, an organization that would support victims and lobby for stronger laws.
In 1989, Bardo watched the film Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Schaeffer’s love scene in that film sent Bardo into a rage. Having obtained the address from the detective agency, Bardo went to Los Angeles. Upon his first visit to Schaeffer’s home, she opened the door and spoke to him; he showed her a previous letter and autograph he’d received from her, and she ended the conversation by asking him not to return. He returned an hour later. When Schaeffer opened the door, he shot her in the chest. A neighbor called emergency services, but Schaeffer died shortly after she arrives at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Apprehended in Tucson after behaving erratically in public, Bardo confessed. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Earlier this year, ABC’s 20/20 revisited the Rebecca Schaeffer case. (Uploaded to YouTube by ABC News)
The case caught nationwide attention. In the aftermath, the story of how Bardo got the address and its roots in the Saldana case outraged many. Victims for Victims and other organizations joined in a wide-ranging effort to get the laws amended in California. By 1990, California passed the first stalking law; today, all 50 states have a version of the law on the books. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 prohibits the DMV from giving out the addresses of private citizens; the creation and passage of the Act is directly attributed to Saldana and Schaeffer’s stories, as well as harassment directed against abortion providers and patients. The LAPD also has a special unit, the Threat Management Unit, that deals with reports of obsessed fans and stalking; victims in felony stalking cases can now also obtain restraining orders that last up to 10 years.
Stalking hasn’t gone away, particularly in the case of celebrities. Sandra Bullock, Harry Styles, Selena Gomez, and others have dealt with the issue in recent years. Fortunately, there is now greater awareness of the seriousness inherent in the topic and a much greater set of tools for law enforcement to use. Earlier this week, Google’s action against apps that people were using to spy on their “romantic partners,” while tracking their movements, is a positive step, but a reminder that society should remain vigilant. Rebecca Schaeffer’s promising life and career may have been cut short, but there’s a tiny ray of positivity in the notion that many more people have been protected, and possibly saved, as a result of her passing.
Featured Image: Rebecca Schaeffer (Wikimedia Commons)
When the opening night of Meet the People, a musical comedy revue in a Los Angeles playhouse, came in 1939, Virginia O’Brien was scared stiff. The 17-year-old performer had stage fright, and her solo didn’t go as planned. Instead of delivering the bombastic, Ethel Merman-inspired number she had practiced, O’Brien found herself dancing with stiff movements and singing with a frozen stare. Reduced to tears in the wings after her debut that left the audience in laughter, the actress had no idea that her nervous energy would afford her the attention of Louis B. Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and jumpstart her career as a comedic singer in some of the greatest movie musicals of the era.
“Say That We’re Sweethearts Again” from Meet the People (1944)
Within two weeks of that opening night, O’Brien signed a seven-year contract with MGM, and, a few weeks after that, she was on her way to make her Broadway debut in Keep Off the Grass. Throughout the ’40s, O’Brien was featured in the titanic studio’s glossy and expensive musicals alongside stars like Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Red Skelton. The actress’s shtick was unique, though, and especially unusual in Hollywood musicals. Rather than performing with a hyper display of facial expressions and gestures, O’Brien delivered most of her numbers looking directly into the camera with a deadpan stare, and her vocals bounced and stalled unexpectedly. As a comic tour de force with a borderline-rock ’n’ roll style, “Miss Deadpan Frozen Face” was a one-of-a-kind Hollywood girl ahead of her time.
“Lullaby” from the Marx brothers’ The Big Store (1941)
Watching O’Brien’s scenes from films like Panama Hattie, Du Barry Was a Lady, and Ziegfeld Follies is like viewing a number stitched into a classic musical with the comic timing of a later era. The gag was always self-aware: in Panama Hattie, Red Skelton introduces O’Brien’s character as “a face that was set for seven, but it didn’t go off!” and “it looks like Leon Henderson’s freezing everything nowadays!” In turn, she stares through him like she doesn’t get the joke.
Sometimes — as in Meet the People and Ship Ahoy — O’Brien’s cold comic presence is combined with dark pathos as she sings lines like “Our love is great. No love can match it. Darling, please put down that hatchet.” and “Poor you. I’m sorry you’re not me. For you will never know what lovin’ you can be.” Her refrains of unrequited love given with a vacant look brought complex comedy to big box musicals. If Lucille Ball filled the silver screen with vivacity and slapstick, O’Brien countered that with a more focused, obscure energy. O’Brien’s characters often came across as intimidating and mysterious, and her singing was full of technical surprises. Unfortunately, her potential as a movie star was cut short.
“Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Savoy” from Panama Hattie (1942)
The frozen-faced actress was dropped from MGM at the end of her contract in spite of her numerous well-received performances and first-rate work ethic. As she said in a 1992 interview, O’Brien was pregnant while filming The Harvey Girls, and Judy Garland “wasn’t showing up at work.” As O’Brien got bigger, and filming was delayed, her role in the western romp was scaled back and her songs assigned to other actresses. The supporting singer met a similar fate in Till the Clouds Roll By, another huge MGM musical in which she only took part in a few numbers.
“In a Little Spanish Town” from Thousands Cheer (1943)
O’Brien was having her hair done in a beauty parlor when she read in the newspaper that her contract hadn’t been renewed. Although dejected, she didn’t hold any grudges about being cut from the studio. She treasured the time she spent with MGM, saying, in 1984, “MGM was a wonderful place to be. Everything you needed, they had it right there for you. They treated you like kings and queens. I liked Louis B. Mayer. He was a friend of my dad’s.” She expanded her family and took her routine on the road, performing her own shows for decades. Though it was hard work, she said she regained her passion for having a live audience. She appeared on Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Merv Griffin, and in the ’80s she put on a retrospective tour of all of her MGM songs and released an album. O’Brien’s film career may have been cut short by the ruthless practices of the old studios, but the intriguing allure of her niche performance style has aged well.
“Salome” from Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)
Featured Image: Lady Be Good © 1941, Warner Bros.
Published on November 26, 1938
I will tell you this about September. You can have it. September, I give you. While I’m giving things away, I might as well give you Sam Worthman, and if you get Sam Worthman you also get Magno Studios, thirty-one weeks of mother — at two grand a week — and a first option on me. I would like you to have Jerry Morgan, who is our agent, and if you get Jerry, you might as well have Pete Roselli, who handles the publicity. You can have the entire section of Beverly Hills bounded by Santa Monica, Sunset, Doheny and Whittier, and while I’m tossing out land grants, I might as well whip in Malibu, Brentwood, Santa Anita and Arrowhead, reading from left to right. I think you should have the Grove, the Troc, the Derbies, LaMaze and like canteens, caravanserai y posados, and as long as I’ve gone this far, I suppose I should toss in a little agenda, including the Bowl, mufflers, Snow White, lunch and the Goodyear blimp.
I give you lunch advisedly. Everything happens out here over lunch. You dabble with your sole meunière (at the Vendome on Tuesdays. Or is it Thursdays?) and Jerry Morgan sits across from you and tells you that Magno doesn’t want you any more, and that as far as Hollywood is concerned, you might just as well be back on the Orpheum circuit in 1926, following that seal act.
He doesn’t say it that way, of course (“ … don’t think you’re quite the man for the job. They want — Well, frankly, old man, they’re putting Mantino on it. Want that Coward touch. We know what we think of Mantino, so I told them that my property was no bootlicker … ”). But it is said, day after day, week after week, year after year, on Vine or on Sunset or on Wilshire, over lettuce salads and over hamburgers and over corn-beef hash and over lobster thermidor. Mantino on the job. Want that Coward touch. And you can’t give it to ’em. You haven’t got that thing. You can’t give it that umph.
That is a tangent, and I didn’t mean to get out on it. But this is my Hollywood story. Every writer writes a Hollywood story. This is not a Hollywood story to end all Hollywood stories, and it may not end even all of mine, so if I get out on a tangent again, overlook it. It’s in my hair. It dances in the lenses of the dark glasses I wear. It pinches my fingers when I put the top down on the car. It’s in the Scotch they offer me, and the rye they offer me, and the martinis-manhattans they offer me on Christmas and Easter and other religious holidays. It’s at the two-dollar windows at Santa Anita and the fifty-dollar windows at Inglewood. It’s in the spare ribs at Chasen’s and the silver furs tossed over chairs at La Conga. It’s in the air, this air that hangs here between the Tehachapis and Catalina, and it’s what makes the place run, and I give it to you.
It started on the third of September. I was having lunch with Jerry Morgan.
When we went into the place, I waved to my mother, who was with Danny Ketron, the producer; and my sister Lucille, who was with Craig Seaver, the towhead MGM discovered ushering at a track meet last fall; and my brother Zane, who was with Pierre, the designer; and my father, who was with Stella Moon. We slapped six producers on the back, “hi”-d four directors, nodded to two story editors, winked at a makeup girl who had attached herself to an earl, and ordered lunch.
Jerry said, “This looks like a field day for the unlimited Lavondars.”
I said, “The first family of the screen? We get around.”
“What’s your old man doing with Stella Moon?”
I said, “Maybe he’s found something, I don’t know. She’s looking for a leading man.”
Then we got to the point. “Look,” I said, “I can’t do it for five hundred, Jerry.”
“They won’t give us a cent more.”
I said, “We have a swimming pool to think of.”
“How about Lucille?”
“Six weeks at Warners’,” I said. “But that was in 1935.”
“And your brother?”
“He stood next to a horse in The Plainsman. Ten dollars a day. Both days. That paid the light bill.”
“What is this?” I asked. “You ought to know. He had six weeks at Grand. They cut him out with a pair of scissors.”
I said, “Jerry. This isn’t today, this is tomorrow. It’s always tomorrow. Yesterday we ate crab Newburg in a fancy place on Sunset, which is today, and tomorrow we go out and eat ice plant, which is also today which is tomorrow. Get it?”
Jerry said, “I’ve heard of whole families getting along on four thousand a month.”
“Jerry, dear,” I said. “There’s father. There’s mother. There’s Lucille. There’s Zane. Funny thing, they eat. They wear clothes. They turn on lights, and they use water. There’s the swimming pool, and the tennis court, and four cars, and six servants, and eleven rooms, not counting the guest house. There’s a place at Malibu, and the place in the mountains. And then there’s Cousin Harriet in Omaha and her six children, and Aunt Maude in Phoenix and her little brood of five, and mother’s brother Bill in — ”
“O.K.,” said Jerry, “so what?”
“So I can’t do it for five hundred, Jerry.”
Jerry said, “This is a sick world. A sick world.”
I dropped him off at his office, and went home out Sunset in my yellow roadster. Lucille took Seaver to the studio and doubled back on Santa Monica and turned in the driveway, two minutes after me, in her long gray coupe. Dad left Stella Moon off at her apartment, and whipped out Beverly in his green phaeton. Mother had the town car, and she and Ketron went back to the studio and went over the script for Angel in Distress, while Hans, our chauffeur, stood out in the lot and smoked cigarettes at two hundred a month (not including uniforms).
“Well?” Lucille asked, as we stood in the driveway.
“No soap,” I said. “Not a cent over five hundred. How about you?”
“I sparkled until you could count carats, but it didn’t work. Mentally, Seaver’s still selling programs at the track meet. Besides, they’re going to give him Garbo.”
I said, “Who’s she?”
Father skidded in behind us. He had on a pair of my white shoes, one of Zane’s sport coats, one of mother’s mufflers, and Lucille’s beret.
“Hi, you two!”
We said, “Hi.”
“Well, Jake, yes or no?”
I said, “No. Let’s not stand out here on this big wide driveway.”
We went in.
“What’s the trouble?” father asked.
“No trouble,” I said. “I’m just not Noel Coward, that’s all. Simple.”
“Incidentally,” Lucille put in, “how about you and that Moon number?”
There was a letter on that table in the hall — the one Haines found for us at Genoa — and Lucille started to rip it open.
“Did you like it?”
I said, “Fidler will get it. That’s something.”
“That’s all,” said father.
“She wants to do Peter Pan.”
I said, “If she sees fifty again, I’m Seabiscuit.”
“Anyway,” father asked, “how do you think I’d be as Wendy?”
“Guess what?” said Lucille, reading the letter.
“We’re being augmented.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Cousin Harriet’s daughter, Minerva, is — ”
I said, “That’s enough. How old is she?”
“The last time anyone mentioned her, she was five.”
“When does this thing happen to us?”
“Why couldn’t I have been born with two heads,” I said, “and just spent my life in a bottle?”
“That reminds me,” said father, and disappeared.
I was lying on my stomach on a mattress on the loggia, wondering what Noel Coward had that I et cetera, when Fuzzy turned up. It was ten minutes after three, and he was ten minutes late. Usually he hits three on the dot.
“Hi-ya,” said Fuzzy, “where’s Lucille?”
I was almost afraid to look up, for fear it wouldn’t be there, but it was. The nice white letter on the nice red sweater on the broad chest. “S,” for State. Fuzzy is a letter man. He is big. He has big hands and big feet and a lot of white teeth and his hair is like cotton above his brown forehead, and he is h-e-a-l-t-h personified.
He is a D. Tau, and he knows a lot about the damndest things, like what Benny Goodman’s drummer’s hometown is, and who ran the 440 for Ohio State in 1928, and what the name of Li’l Abner’s pig is. I, myself, having been born in a trunk backstage in a New Orleans theater one sultry afternoon in 1908 (profile) didn’t get to college, and it is interesting to note from time to time what “the system” is turning out. I suppose Fuzzy is a product, and Fuzzy may also be indicative of a trend, don’t know. I do know that Fuzzy is lyrical about Lucille — which is euphonious and which I may try to sell to Sam Worthman — and also that he gets in her hair just the way Hollywood —
I said, “She’s someplace on the acreage.”
He said, “Say, d’ja hear what Marvin did?”
I turned over on my back and looked up at the bright California sun through purple glasses. “No, what did Marvin do?”
“Kicked ninety-eight yards!”
“No … ”
“Yeh! Some kick, eh?”
I said, “Boy, I’ll say.”
He said, “Well, guess I’ll go find Lucille.”
I said, “O.K.”
I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes, and started to hum I’ll Follow My Secret Heart. Take Gertrude Lawrence, take a Swiss chalet, take that line from Private Lives about the ear trumpet and the shrimps, take —
Fuzzy stayed for dinner. Remember, this is still the third of September. Mother was in one of her moods, trailing sleeves through things and talking through a lorgnette. Father was a little tight (“So I said to John Drew — Jack, I said — I always called him Jack — Jack, I said … ”). Lucille was rather pale, and quiet, and once when Fuzzy said, “You know what that guy Marvin’s got?” (I said, “No, what has that guy Marvin got?”) and he said, “Guts!” — she choked on something and had to leave the table for a minute.
The next morning, we drew straws on Minerva, and I drew the long one and had to meet her. “Look,” I said, “as long as I have a job, and you’re — well, say ‘at liberty,’ Lucille, I think you might — ” We were having breakfast. Mother had on a pink negligée and was having hot water and the Hollywood Reporter. Father had on a Chinese dressing gown and was having a sedative and Variety. Lucille had on something blue and fluffy that kept getting in her grapefruit. I had two cups of coffee and a headache (“Whenever spring breaks through again … ”).
Lucille said, “I can’t, darling. Not possibly. Larue wants me for some fittings, and — ”
“Buying clothes, dear?”
“Oh, one or two little things.”
“That’s lovely. Something for winter?”
Lucille gave me a look and went back to her grapefruit.
“If I may lapse into the pastiche,” I said, “what are we going to use for money?”
Mother said, “Jake, please!”
I looked at her. “How much longer have you to run?”
She arched. “Thirty-one weeks.”
“At two thousand a week,” father put in quickly.
I said, “That’s sixty-two thousand dollars.”
“It’s a lot of money,” said father.
“It was a lot of money,” I reminded him. “Only it’s spent. Already.”
“Well,” said Lucille, “you can’t expect me to walk down Vine Street naked!”
“No,” said mother, “you certainly can’t!”
“No,” father murmured, “of course not. Naked! Most ridiculous thing.”
I said, “OK. OK. OK.”
Just then Block S came in. “Having breakfast?”
I said, “We’re trying to preserve an illusion.”
“Say,” he said, “hear about Marvin? Pretty tough.”
I said, “What happened to Marvin?”
“Broke his toe. Last night. His kicking toe.”
Lucille looked at him, and then at me, and then at her grapefruit, and then she got up and left. And just then I got an inspiration. Fuzzy, Minerva, station. Just like that.
When I got to the studio I went into the commissary and had a cup of coffee and talked to Witherstein about a treatment he was going to do on Ladies in the Saddle. Then I went up to my office and told Pearl she could go have a cup of coffee, and sat and listened to that buzzing sound you hear up there, and finally went down to Foster’s office and talked about a treatment he was going to do on Mrs. Manners Runs Wild, and went and had a cup of coffee. About one o’clock, Jerry came in and we went over and had a cup of coffee, and at one-thirty I walked into the Vine Street Derby, and was worn out.
I waved to mother, who was with Toby Forrester, and to Lucille, who was with someone quite short and without any neck, and to father, who was with Eva O’Neil (remember Eva?), and to my brother Zane, who was with Pierre, the designer. I slapped six producers, and so forth, and ordered coffee and a telephone, and relaxed.
Sam Worthman had “planed out,” and the studio was tout court, so I went home about three o’clock and spread out on my stomach on a mattress on the loggia. I suppose I had been there about half an hour, when this thing floated before my vision.
I looked up. It had long yellow hair — not Westmore yellow; more on the sun-on-cornfields side — and a very red mouth and a little parade of freckles across something that should have been a nose, and it had on a bright green sunsuit and little green sandals.
“Hello,” I said.
It sat down on the hammock next to the mattress and took a white cigarette case out of the big beach bag it carried. “Smoke?”
I said, “No, thanks. I don’t drink either. I’m Jake.”
“I’m Jake, too, thanks,” it said.
I sat up and pulled my knees up under my arms and said, “Been here long?”
“If you mean do I know my way around, yes.”
Things were happening around us. Cotton clouds floated across the sun for a minute. Something chirped in a tree. Block S darted out of nowhere and slithered into the pool like a seal in white trunks.
I said, “I take it for granted you’re Minerva.”
“Do tell!” it said.
I turned over and spread out on my stomach again, and pretty soon Block S heaved himself out of the pool and came over and dripped on my legs.
“Well,” he said, “I got her, all right, all right.”
I said, “You sure did,” into the crook in my elbow.
I don’t know what would have happened then, if Lucille hadn’t come in. I mean, we might have reached an impasse.
“I’m Lucille,” Lucille said. “I suppose you’re Minerva.”
“I’m Minerva, all right,” said Minerva, “but I thought you’d be so much younger.”
Block S said, “Come on, honey. Two laps,” and Minerva jumped up, and with one swift movement took off her sandals and her glasses, put out her cigarette, pulled on her cap, and was across me in a leap and into the pool.
“Two lapse,” I said.
“Insidious little thing, isn’t she?” said Lucille.
I said, “Particularly for a girl of five.”
Block S stayed for dinner. Jerry Morgan was there (if he doesn’t get his ten percent that way, he gets it another), and the President of the Lavondar Family (“The First Family of the Screen”) Fan Club of Terre Haute — in purple chiffon and a daze, who had won a trip to Hollywood collecting soap coupons — was there. Lucille was there, and Minerva was there in something flowered.
Mother did a Bernhardt, and knocked over a glass of champagne (Salinas, 1938) and father got — shall we say “mellow”? — and Block S demonstrated, with a hard roll, how Marvin broke his toe (“Crunch,” said Block S, “like that”). The P. of the L.F.F.C. of Terre Haute had the jitters, and the only time Minerva opened her mouth was when I said, “Did you have a good trip out?” and she said, “There wasn’t a man under sixty on the whole train.”
On our way out of the dining room — when the Lavondar family moves in a group, the only thing missing is a calliope — mother touched my arm.
“Who is the one in that print?”
I said, “The one in that print is what we drew straws for at breakfast.”
“What was her name again?”
I said, “Her name is Minerva, again. You remember, Cousin Harriet’s error?”
“What’s she doing here?” mother asked.
I said, “She’s visiting.”
“Well I must speak to her.”
I should have known what was going to happen the next morning. I should never have gotten up or, better still, I should have gotten up early and gone out to Santa Monica and walked into the ocean and just kept walking. Then I would have washed up on Marion Davies’ stoop, and The First Family of the Screen would have had one out on second. But oh, no, there was little Jake at the breakfast table, and sure enough, just when I was finishing my coffee, in comes Minerva in mufti.
She said, “Well, I’m ready.”
Mother said, “Father, this is Minerva. Minerva dear, this is father.”
Minerva said, “Whose?”
She had on a blue dress and it was just exactly the color of her eyes. And she had on a blue hat, from which the tail feathers of a Nebraska rooster waved gaily in a morning breeze in California. And she had on white shoes and carried a white bag, and if she looked five, they dug me up someplace in Egypt. (Jake Ankh Ahman.)
I said, “Where you off to?”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m ready to see Hollywood.”
Lucille tried to vanish, but I caught her by one sleeve. “What are you doing today, darling?”
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” said Lucille, “I’m absolutely heartbroken, but — ”
“Skip it,” said Minerva.
“Mother, Minerva — ”
“Oh, yes. Minerva.”
“Mother, could you — ”
“I’m so sorry,” said mother, “but we’re going on location today. To Omsk.”
“Father, Minerva — ”
“That’s all right. Just run along, Minerva. That’s quite all right.”
Minerva looked at me. I said, finally, “O.K. Come on with me, and we’ll run off Birth of a Nation for you.”
When we got to the office, I said, “Pearl, this is Minerva. Minerva has never been on a lot before. In fact, Minerva has never been to Hollywood before.”
Pearl said, “I get it. So what?”
“So take her out and show her what makes it tick.”
I was reading the Racing Form when Pearl came back and came in and sat up on my desk.
“Look,” she said, “I’ve been around Hollywood 29 years and did anyone ever notice me?”
I said, “Bring it out in the open, and I’ll run it down.”
“Did Lou Sardin ever look at me?”
Lou Sardin is the main producer on our lot.
I said, “I don’t know. Did he?”
Pearl got down off the desk and snorted, “No! But just let some Omaha houri — ”
You know that way light comes through. You know that way it falls in a shaft to the floor, with little things dancing in it. Little things began to dance in me. Dawn broke.
I said, “Oh, so that’s it, is it?”
She said, “Did you ever hear of Cinderella?”
And I said, “I wrote it,” and dashed out.
“Look, dear,” I said to Sardin’s secretary. “I have to see Sardin. It’s a matter of life and death. It’s worse than that. It’s vital.”
She said, “Mr. Sardin’s out. He’s at Malibu. He’s in the East. Far East. China. He’s in conference.”
“Honey,” I said, “I’ve been here too long for that one. There hasn’t been a conference on this lot since Booth shot Lincoln.”
“Didn’t see it,” she said. “Who was in it?”
“Look,” I said. I put my hand down on the desk with the palm up — you know — I ran the other hand through my hair. “I have to see Sardin. It is quite important. It is important to me and it is important to the studio and it is important to Mr. Sardin. I found gold on Stage C. I hit oil in my inkwell. Shirley Temple — ”
“You,” she said, “are getting purple in the face.”
Just then Sardin opened the door of his private office and saw me. “Lavondar!” he called. “Just the man I wanted to see! Come in! Come in, Jake, old man!”
“Bah!” I said to his secretary, and went into the square modern room, and there was Minerva.
“What do you mean,” said Sardin, “by letting Miss — Miss — this young lady wander around alone on the lot?”
I said, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. It’s like keeping chipmunks. It’s like keeping some of those little lizards that — ”
He said, “Jake, this is a valuable piece of property. I’m trying to get her to sign up with us.”
I sat down, and luckily there was a chair there. Minerva lit a cigarette and smiled sweetly at me and adjusted things on her shoulders.
I said, “That’s — that’s — ”
He said, “I wish you’d bring a little pressure to bear. You see, she — ”
I said, “I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”
“Oh, but it is,” said Sardin. “The young lady — doesn’t seem to want to — to be in the movies. Shall I put it that way?”
Minerva said, “That way’s as good as any.”
I said, “What?”
Minerva said, “I’m sorry. I — I really don’t want to be in the movies.”
He said, “I can get you a grand a week. On this lot. I — ”
One thousand a week. Forty-two weeks a year. And it wasn’t spent. We already had a swimming pool. We already had the place at Malibu. Forty-two thousand a year. No ten percent. No nothing. Just the money, the rhino, the mopus, the dibs.
“Honey — ” I began.
Minerva said, “On Wednesdays, where’s the place to eat lunch?”
I don’t know what it was, I’ll be damned if I do. Maybe it was something someone sprinkled on us. Maybe a wand waved, off there. Maybe it was just the rooster feathers. But this time there was no slapping producers on the back. Producers were slapping me. On the back. Me. Jake Lavondar. I give it to you.
We drove out Sunset to the beach. “Minerva — ” I started, someplace along the way. I made a picture of it you could have hung in the Louvre. I brought all of them out here — those blondes from Jersey, those brunettes from the cotton states, those redheads from the Rockies. I walked them until there were holes in the soles of their shoes, up Vine, down Gower, out Santa Monica, and then I spread them out in a thin layer over town — hash houses, bars, drive-ins, restaurants, beauty shops, theater exits, glove counters. I gave it glamour, I gave it romance, I gave it heartache. I went into statistics.
Someplace, I stopped the car and said, “Minerva, I don’t do this for everyone. But — ”
“What does he do?”
“Sardin? He’s one of the biggest shots — ”
She got a look, just kind of a simple soft little look. “No, not him.”
I said, “Milt Grosman?” (Milt had wandered in on us at lunch.) “Milt’s one of the hottest — ”
“No,” said Minerva. “Not him.” Now impatience shadowed her words. “That one who’s around your house so much. The one with the letter.”
“Oh?” I said — the road ahead of me rolled dizzily. I whipped my window down and put my head out and breathed in some cold air. “Him?”
“He’s awfully cute,” said Minerva.
When we got back to the house, Block S, The Constant, took over — Minerva said, “Hello, stupid”; I said, “She’s yours, you can have her, I give her to you”; he said, “Thank you, sir. Come on, gorgeous” — and I went out by the pool. I had been thinking. I was older then.
Pretty soon, Lucille wandered in.
I said, “That’s right.”
“Nothing doing at the studio?”
She sank down on the hammock beside me. She took off her little felt hat and ran her hands through her hair, and leaned back, closing her eyes.
“You know,” she said, “sometimes it isn’t funny out here.”
I said, “That’s right.”
Pretty soon she opened her eyes and just looked up at the top of the hammock, and her lower jaw came out and the white teeth in it sort of bit her scarlet upper lip.
“I’m tired out, Jake. I worked on Lenny Deveaux for three hours and forty-seven minutes for a part in Sing to the Sky, but — ”
I said, “I know. It’s lousy.”
“It’s — oh, nuts!”
I said, “Magno wants Minerva at a grand a week.” I said it just like that. I kept my voice on a nice even plane, and I tried to make the words sound pleasant. A hummingbird, of all things, danced along the box hedge beyond the lawn. A swallow tipped the pool in flight. “You remember Minerva.”
“You mean — ”
I said, “Life is a black widow spider. Under the wood in the garage.”
“And she said thanks, but she didn’t want any. She wasn’t interested in pictures. A thousand a week was so much corn meal.”
“You,” said Lucille, standing up and looking at me, “must think I’m an awful fool.” She turned and walked into the house, and I shrugged my shoulders and sat there and grinned, bansheely, at the hummingbird. They found me there, hours later.
The next morning I got up at five o’clock, and went out and drove around until it was time to go to the studio. That way, I avoided taking Minerva with me.
Mother got caught. In a way, it was really terrific. I saw them at lunch — Minerva and mother and A.E. Andrews, the producer at Goliath Studios. A.E. was talking to Minerva, and mother was just sitting there. When I went in, I waved to her, and she gave me kind of a sick little smile. You could tell that A.E. was being very positive about something — as it happened, he was offering Minerva one-fifty a week on a five-year contract and to hell with the New York office — and Minerva was all sort of sweet and cool and dumb, in pink.
They passed me, on the way out.
A.E. said, “Try and pump some sense into this girl, Jake.”
Minerva said, “Oh, Jake, could Fuzzy and I borrow your car this afternoon?”
Mother said, “The moving picture is a peculiar form of art.”
I said, “I am reserving a suite for us at Patton.”
That afternoon I went around to see Jerry. At Magno, I was coming to an end.
“Jake! Just the man I wanted to see!”
I said, “That’s fine. Got something red-hot for me?” That fear that had been gnawing down there, stopped gnawing and sat still for a minute.
“You’ve got something for me,” Jerry said. “Who is this gal Minerva?”
“Oh. Her.” Fear started feeding again. “A cousin from Omaha. Why?”
“The whole town’s after her. Warners’ called. Said they’d heard you knew her. They’ll give us a thousand a — ”
I said, “I know. Jerry, look. Tomorrow is my last day at Magno. I’ll take that five hundred — ”
He said, “Where is she? Why isn’t she here? Why didn’t you bring — ”
“I’ll take that five hundred, Jerry. I’ll come down. I’ll be a good guy.”
Jerry said, “Man, let’s get that dame signed up! That’s a gold mine!”
“Jerry,” I said gently, “it’s no go.”
“Wattdyamean ‘no go’? It’s a sensation! We’ll spread her name from — ”
“Jerry, dear. She doesn’t want to be in pictures.”
“She doesn’t want to be in pictures.”
“Don’t be a fool, Jake. There isn’t a woman in the United States who wouldn’t — ”
I said, “Minerva wouldn’t. I know. Life is a black widow spider. Under your shoes in the closet.”
Jerry said, “Jake, old man, you wouldn’t do this thing to me.”
I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t like it. But it’s the truth. She’s blond. She has blue eyes. She has a neat little figure. And she doesn’t want to be in pictures.”
Jerry sat there shaking his head like one of those little papier-mache dragons you can buy in Chinatown.
“But, Jerry,” I said. “Take me. Now, I am absolutely aching to be — ”
He drew into a shell. “Sorry, Jake. They filled that job.”
“You mean — ?”
“If Shakespeare walked in here now, I couldn’t get him a job. Depression. Recession.”
I said, “Who’s he?” But it wasn’t funny. Fear finished the first course, and went into the entree.
The telegram reached our house the next morning about ten. I was at the studio, cleaning out my desk. People were coming in and saying goodbye and then going over to the commissary. The good old commissary!
Millie, our second girl, read it to me over the phone. I might have known — when they didn’t come back, Fuzzy and Minerva, and when my car didn’t come back. Anyway, it was from Nevada, and it wasn’t a very clever telegram, but somehow you could see those two youngsters standing there at the counter and writing it out, sort of giggling and sort of clean and sort of American. With a capital A. Life goes to a party.
I said, “Thank you, Millie,” and hung up, and told Pearl to get Lucille on the phone, for me. Lucille was in a beauty shop in Westwood.
I said, “You’re back in circulation again.”
She said, “Go on. I’m having a shampoo.”
I said, “Minerva and Fuzzy were married in Reno this morning. Tum, tum, te-ump, tum tum tum.”
For a minute, she didn’t answer. Then she said, “I was going to marry him.” It wasn’t bathos. It was sort of a little complaint. Her voice sounded as if she had soap in her eyes.
I said, “I don’t know what to say to that. I can’t think of any bright cracks.”
She said, “Well, to a certain extent it thins out Hollywood.”
I said, “OK, heartbroken, go back to your basin,” and hung up.
Pearl came in, and I said, “Remember Minerva?”
“At night I wake up and hate her,” said Pearl. “You want your typing paper?”
I said, “Well, you don’t need to hate her any more. She’s married. Yes, I want my typing paper.”
“Look,” said Pearl, “I’ve been in Hollywood twenty-nine years, and am I married?”
I said, “I don’t know, are you?”
“No,” said Pearl.
The line formed at the left, and I paid off. Two hundred to Epstein for that bet on Farr. One-fifty to Movet for that loan in August. Six hundred to Jimmy Nebeker for that night at the Clover Club. Eventually, the office was empty, and I stood there and looked down at the lot through the Venetian blinds, and I felt very bad. Even that buzzing noise was lovable. Pearl came in and wiped tears away and said it had been fun to work with me, and I borrowed three dollars from her for lunch. You have to keep up appearances.
When I got there, I fixed my tie in the car and smoothed down my hair and adjusted my coat. “This is tomorrow,” I said to myself in the rear-view mirror — which was kind of symbolical — and went in. I sat down alone at a table next to the wall and looked at the menu, but I wasn’t very hungry. After the waiter had taken my order, I folded my hands on the cloth and looked around.
Mother was sitting in a corner with someone I didn’t recognize, and father was at one of the center tables with a woman who looked a little bit like Equipoise. Lucille wasn’t there yet, but my brother Zane was there, with Pierre, the designer. When I caught his eye, I waved to him. That ties the story together.
October 20, 1947: Congress challenges Hollywood’s loyalty, and an American Communist makes a discovery.
This all happened back in the days when there were real Communists—not today’s “communists” who want health care reform, but true, card-carrying, loyal-to-Moscow Communists.
In 1947 it became clear that our ally against Nazi Germany had picked up its old habits. Russia was back in the business of overthrowing governments and supporting global revolution. A number of Americans were already acting as agents for the Soviets. One group had stolen plans for our atomic bomb and delivered it to the Russians.
America saw the countries of Europe fall under communist sway that year. It knew that it faced domestic threats, but not who was involved, or who could be trusted. As a result, the response was often overblown. For example, the infiltration of Communists into one labor union brought all unions under suspicion.
In this year, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began a broad investigation of domestic subversion and propaganda. Its first big target? Hollywood. A natural target, Hollywood was the nation’s cultural capital. If subversion and propaganda existed, it would most likely surface within the motion-picture industry.
Another reason for choosing Hollywood was all the Communists who worked there. Communism become fashionable among actors and directors, particularly during the Depression. It attracted idealists who thought communism could make America a better country. It appealed to radicals who supported subversion of any complexion. And it seemed nigh irresistible to eccentrics and contrarians who enjoyed associating with this dangerous ideology, even after the Soviets showed their true nature in the their bloody purges of the 1930s.
The House Committee began its investigation of communism by issuing subpoenas to several writers and directors, and asked “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” They were ordered to reveal everything they knew about communist tendencies in their co-workers.
Ten of these witnesses defied the Committee and refused to answer its questions. They were defending their First-Amendment rights of free speech and association, they said. They were also hoping to save themselves because they were, or had been Communists, and knew that public admission of this fact would end their careers. They had broken no law by being a member of, or sympathizer with, the Communist Party. But communism was now loosely defined and fully criminalized by public opinion. The Ten knew that the studios, bowing to public pressure, would fire them if the fact came out in public. Nor could they be certain the government wouldn’t prosecute them.
For their refusal to cooperate, all Ten were cited for contempt of Congress. Most served time in prison. All were effectively banned from working in the movies.
In 1961 one of the Hollywood Ten, Ring Lardner Jr., wrote an article for the Post on his banishment from the film industry. Lardner says little about communism, or his involvement in it. Instead, he focused on the principle of free speech. He quoted a Supreme Court decision of 1943 that affirmed, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Lardner thought it was his duty to oppose the Committee and its ulterior purpose.
“Forced confessions, or disavowals, were what the committee was clearly demanding, and I felt it was an abuse of the legislative function that needed challenging.” Unfortunately the only legal way to challenge it involved the risk of losing the argument.
“It was clear beyond misunderstanding that there was no proper penance for past political misconduct except the naming of names: big names, little names, token names, names the Committee already had. It was a ritual, but not a meaningless one. To the un-ordained confessors in Washington and Hollywood, it was an act of perfect contrition.”
Looking back 15 years later, the conflict didn’t appear to Lardner as one of communism versus freedom, but his right of free speech versus the political opportunism of the Committee members. The certainty he felt must have been some comfort to him. Unfortunately, it was no comfort to Edward Dmytryk, another of the Hollywood Ten. When the Post interviewed him in 1951, shortly after his release from prison, Dmytryk had been shaken by his second thoughts.
“I was a communist,” he said. “I joined in the spring of 1944 and dropped out of the party late the next fall. And I never broke completely with them until I was in jail. Though I was no longer a party member, I stood with the Ten on my own personal convictions about civil liberties. And when we lost, I couldn’t say anything until after I had served my time. I wouldn’t have wanted it to appear that I was trying to escape any consequences of my original stand.
“I was carried along by a tide—a lot of good people felt that the hearings had been aimed more at blacklisting all Leftists in pictures than at investigating party membership. But they didn’t know what they were backing. I learned more about communism in the three and a half years I was one of the Ten than I ever learned when I was actually a party member. And it’s no good.”
For Dmytryk, there was no distinction between cocktail-party communism and the espionage of Russia’s agents. “No matter how small a fraction of the Party is guilty of espionage, the responsibility is on the whole Party, and anyone who supports it.
“I know it doesn’t add up,” he said slowly, “but everybody goes into communism seeking different things. I thought this was the best country in the world, but that we could still do better. I know it sounds unrealistic—and is—but I was trying to help people as I had been helped. And you just can’t do it alone, or through charity either. I know how I felt about charity myself. So you decide things have to be done on a scientific basis, so that people are really taken care of all the time. So then you begin hearing about systems. With me it was Marxism.”
Dmytryk realized that the Communist Party had little use for him, and his principles. His only value was how the party could use him for anti-American propaganda.
“The hardest thing I had to live with was the realization that they were trying to protect communism in this country by invoking the Constitution and civil liberties, things that wouldn’t last five minutes if the commies ever took over…This was on my conscience constantly.”
Shortly after this interview appeared, Dmytryk returned to Washington and offered the Committee what he knew about the Party’s work in Hollywood.
The Committee on Un-American activities never found evidence of propaganda in American movies. Throughout the war years, and into the 1950s, the movies remained overwhelmingly pro-American and anticommunist, not out of patriotism, but because such messages were economically profitable. The movie studios have remained faithful to democratic ideals because that’s what moviegoers wanted.