Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Star Is Not Quite Born

Ho, ho, ho movie lovers! It's that time of year again. Have you finished all your Christmas shopping? I know a lot of you gents out there find it really hard to buy that Special Someone the right gift. Over the years you've tried perfume, jewelry, pen sets and assorted nick-nacks. Of course, sometimes the inspiration well just runs dry. With Christmas only days away, what are you going to do?

Have you thought about buying your sweetie a career on the silver screen?

Don't laugh! Over the decades, both millionaires and moguls have tried to make their respective cuddlemates Hollywood stars. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these efforts flopped, but they left in their wake a treasure trove of hilariously awful movies and lopsided publicity. These misguided campaigns also proved the old adage that love is not only blind, it's frequently deaf and very, very dumb.

Perhaps the most illustrious example of an ill-fated attempt to make one's honey bunch a star is the William Randolph Hearst/Marion Davies saga.

She was a perky chorus girl still in her teens, while he was the filthy rich "Lord of the Press" when they first met. Hearst was also married and about 30 years older. If Mrs. Hearst (Millicent Veronica Wilson, a former chorus girl herself) had given W.R. the divorce he asked for, the newspaper giant surely would have married Marion. But Millicent refused. Therefore, since Hearst couldn't make Marion his wife, he decided to do the next best thing: make her a movie star.

Or at least he tried. Hearst created Cosmopolitan Pictures with the sole purpose of producing Marion's films. Meanwhile, the major Hollywood studios chipped in and happily put Marion under contract. This was unusual, as Marion never had much pull at the box office. But with Davies on the lot, the studio in question could count on the Hearst newspaper empire giving all their films positive reviews--whether they deserved them or not. Thus, accommodating Marion meant good publicity, but bad movies--especially if Marion was in them.

See, because W.R. was paying for everything, he had the final say over what type of movies Marion made. Although Miss Davies had shown a flair for light comedy in such films as "Show People", her sugar daddy insisted that she play noble heroines in weepy epics, parts Marion simply wasn't suited for. Thus, audiences were treated to such fluffy nonsense as "Cecelia of the Pink Roses"(1918), "April Folly" (1920), "When Knighthood Was In Flower" (1922--as Mary Tudor!) and "Polly of the Circus" (1932, where Marion plays a carny who falls in love with minister Clark Gable). Even though Marion churned out 29 films in her career (averaging three a year in her peek) and received an avalanche of Hearst inspired publicity, nearly all her flicks bombed.

Hearst, however, refused to give up. By 1936, Marion's career looked to be about over when W.R. decided to star his sweetie in a splashy musical comedy called "Cain and Mable". This was an opposites-attract-romance between a box named Larry Cain (Clark Gable, Davies' "Polly of the Circus" co-star) and a Broadway diva Mable O'Dare (guess who). The film itself is best remembered today for its wacky, over the top production numbers, where Marion (a former dancer) neither sings nor dances, but merely stands in the center of gigantic sets while platoons of extras sing and tap for dear life. One set piece is especially eye-catching: an enormous organ that has a chorus girl,um, attached to each of its pipes.

No comment.

Davies also modeled a series of elaborate costumes, including a Queen Guinevere get-up that had two pointy cones strapped to her skull from which flowed yards of cloth.

Not until "Satan's Alley", the centerpiece of John Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" sequel "Stayin' Alive", would movie-goers witness such a nutty display of "Broadway" theatrics.

Needless to say, "Cain and Mable" did not revive Marion's career. In fact, she made only two more films before retiring for good. Then came "Citizen Kane" (1941), Orson Welles' thinly disguised bio of Hearst. The character "Susan Alexander" (a talentless singer Kane tries to remake into an opera star) was seen as a riff on Hearst's attempt at star making with Marion and, perhaps, what she is ultimately best known for. When Davies passed away in 1961, Time magazine called her "The Hearstwhile Empress of Hollywood" and marveled at all the time, effort and money lavished on a career that never got off the ground.

Of course, Hearst wasn't the only fellow furiously trying to make his heart's delight famous. Around the same time Marion was laying all her cinematic eggs, one Hope Hampton was also feathering her celluloid nest. A former model and beauty contest winner, Hope had appeared in several silent films, but her career (such as it was) didn't really take-off until she became the cuddlemate (and eventual wife) of Kodak bigwig Jules Brulator.

In return for Universal Studios showcasing Hope in the divorce musical "The Road to Reno" (1937), Jules gave them a sweet deal to purchase film stock. What's more, he even directed the film, in which Hope warbled eight songs. Alas, the flick bombed and earned poor Hampton the nickname "Hopeless Hope" for her obvious lack of talent.

On the plus side, Jules and Hope eventually tied the knot and were very happy together. The Mrs. there after devoted herself to charity work and, in her later years, Hope was known for her love of doing The Twist at the famed Peppermint Lounge.

Moving right along, we have "The Queen of Republic Studios" Vera Hruba Ralston. And who anointed Vera Queen? Herbert Yates, who was coincidentally the head of Republic Studios and Vera's eventual hubby.

Born and raised in Czechoslovakia, Vera was a world class ice skater who famously turned down Hitler's offer to compete for Germany during the 1936 Winter Olympics. After immigrating to the US of A in 1943, Vera signed a contract with Republic in hopes of becoming their version of skating screen queen Sonja Henie. Unfortunately, things didn't work out quite as planned: whatever charm Vera had evaporated once she left the ice.

Vera's debut was in "The Lady and the Monster" opposite Eric Von Strohiem (as a mad scientist, natch) and she was forced to speak her line phonetically. Indeed, Vera's difficulty mastering English, as well as her thick accent, doomed her screen career. Although Vera earned points form her co-stars for working very hard, it was cuddlemate Yates who chose her films and stubbornly ignored her obvious lack of acting talent. "I think she's great!" Herb declared at one point and put all of Republic Studios at her disposal. That lead to studio stock holders suing Yates to keep him from using Republic assets to promote her career. They needn't have bothered. After a string of Vera headlined bombs such as "Hoodlum Empire" (1952), "Fair Wind of Java" (1953) and "Lake Placid Serenade" (1944), Republic Studios was forced to close its doors for good in 1958.

Yates left his wife to be with Vera and the two lived together for about a decade, with Vera's mom as their chaperon. When the first Mrs.Yates passed away, Herb and Vera were free at last to marry, which they did in 1952. When Yates passed away himself in 1966, he reportedly left Vera a $10 million dollar nest egg. But all the money in the world couldn't save Vera's film career or her reputation as a movie miss-fire. In 1980 The Golden Turkey Awards proudly nominated her (along with Candice Bergen, Maime Van Doren and Raquel Welch, the eventual winner) as one of  "The Worst Actress(es) of All Time".

Last but not least in our Grand Tour of Talentless Tootsie-Pies is Pia Zadora.

In a moment that lives on in bad movie infamy, the Golden Globe Awards chose Pia as 1981's "Best New Star" for her film "Butterfly", over the likes of Kathleen Turner and Elizabeth McGovern (a double Oscar nominee and currently trouping on PBS' "Downton Abbey"). The outrage was so loud and sustaining that the Golden Globe people were forced to defend themselves from charges that perish the thought! Pia's money bags hubby Meshulem Riklis (who financed "Butterfly") had bought the award for his pint sized wife.

And thus the Zadora legend began.

Although "Butterfly" was indeed a wretched, shoddy piece of work, it was not the only wretched, shoddy piece of work Pia was associated with. Way back in 1964, Pia made her actual cinematic debut in the beloved Junk Cinema classic "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians". This science fiction yuletide chestnut (shot on location in an abandoned air plane hanger in Long Island) told the heart warming story of Martian soldiers who bring Santa to Mars to cheer up the planet's depressed tots. Sporting green face paint and a look of perpetual stupefaction is Pia, cast as "Girmar", the daughter of the Martian King.

Believe it or not, this flick (a regular on endless "Worst Film" lists) remains the high point of Pia's career.

Although separated by several decades, Marion Davies and Pia Zadora had a lot in common. Both worked on Broadway as youngsters. Both hooked up with older, wealthy men who took an active role in financing their careers. Both had a hard time proving to the public that they were real actresses. But while Hearst wanted Marion to have a pristine, romantic image on screen, Riklis was more than happy to showcase Pia as a simpering sex kitten who was often abused by men.

In "Butterfly", for example, Pia plays a trampy teenager who may or may not be the daughter of the creepy prospector she eventually has sex with. Meanwhile, in "The Lonely Lady" (based on the Harold Robbins novel), Pia is a wide-eyed innocent who wants to be a screenwriter(!) and is forced to wade through a Tinsel Town sewer of alcohol, drugs and scumbags (male and female) in order to reach her goal. She also endures a brutal rape and an impotent husband. When Pia's character ultimately wins "Best Screenplay" at "The Award Presentation Ceremonies", she's moved to declare, " I'm not the only one here who had to f@!&* her way to the top!"

After the failure of "The Lonely Lady", Pia finally gave up her Hollywood aspirations. She and Riklis would have two children together before calling it quits themselves. Although to be fair, Pia did release several albums of pop standards that were reasonably well received  She also made a memorable appearance in "Hairspray", singing the title tune and portraying a weed-smoking beatnik who reads from "Howl".

Besides the folks already mentioned in this post, you can add the name Samuel Insull, who built the Chicago Civic Opera House when his wife failed to get hired by the Met and Harold Fowler McCormick, who spent millions trying to make his second wife Ganna Walska an opera star (she couldn't sing a note, a fact everybody but Ganna and Harold failed to acknowledge).

In conclusion, what life lessons can one learn from these tales of money wasted on Hollywood careers not meant to be?

*Money can finance films and pay for publicity campaigns, but it can't buy talent, taste or ticket buyers.

*Having a Golden Globe--even one purchased by your hubby--isn't all it's cracked up to be.

*It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man, although rich men have more money.

*Only the public can make a star.

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