Light & Noir at the Skirball Cultural Center tells a spellbinding story of immigration and innovation, set in Hollywood

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

“Making movies is a little like walking into a dark room,” said legendary director Billy Wilder, who made more than 50 films and won six Academy Awards. “Some people stumble across furniture, others break their legs but some of us see better in the dark than others.”

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

By the time the Austrian-born journalist, screenwriter and director came to America in 1934, he’d seen more than his share of darkness, on screen and off. Wilder left Europe to escape the Nazis; his mother died in Auschwitz.

He joined many other prominent Jewish artists (such as directors Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann, composer Franz Waxman, and writers Salka Viertel and Franz Werfel) as they left their homes and careers in German-speaking countries to build new lives and find work in Hollywood.

Starting on Thursday, Oct. 23, a new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 highlights the experiences of these émigré actors, directors, writers and composers.

They came to California at a pivotal time in the world’s history and in the evolution of the movie-making capital, greatly contributing to Hollywood’s Golden Age and raising the artistic bar for its productions.

In particular, film noir was born when the talents of these European émigrés merged with the hard-boiled stories of American pulp crime fiction and the subtle sensibilities of French Poetic Realism.

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Films, concept drawings, costumes, posters, photographs and memorabilia will help tell the story of Hollywood’s formative era through the émigré lens. Accompanying the show is a plethora of events: film screenings, readings, talks, tours, courses (photography and cooking with a Café Vienne installation), comedy, family programs, a holiday pop-up shop and more.

Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center and co-presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the exhibition will run through March 1, 2015.

Running in conjunction with the show is The Noir Effect, which explores how the film noir genre gave rise to major contemporary trends in American popular culture, art and media. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

Of course, I’m especially looking forward to the impressive lineup of films. On Oct. 30, Jan-Christopher Horak, a German-exile cinema historian and director of the UCLA Film and Television Archives, will describe how Hollywood became the prime employer of European émigré filmmakers as Nazi persecution grew. The lecture will be followed by a screening of Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die!”

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

(Additionally, continuing through April 26, 2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum is Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s. The series explores approximately 25 masterworks of German Expressionist cinema, a national style that had international impact.)

At the Skirball Cultural Center, on Dec. 7, fashion expert Kimberly Truhler will discuss the effect of World War II on film costume design and American fashion in the 1940s. Gabriela Hernandez, founder of Bésame Cosmetics, will share the history of make-up and tips on achieving the film noir look.

And in January, the Skirball Cultural Center will host the film series “The Intriguante: Women of Intrigue in Film Noir,” which will feature: “The Woman in the Window,” “Pitfall,” “Criss Cross,” “The File on Thelma Jordon” and the 2008 documentary “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood.”

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Film noir feast this weekend: ‘Sin City,’ Exile Noir and ‘Pickup’

“Double Indemnity” and “Pitfall” will open UCLA’s Exile Noir series.

“Double Indemnity” and “Pitfall” will open UCLA’s Exile Noir series.

There are several delectable film noir offerings this weekend in Los Angeles. First, a sequel worth seeing! That would be “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” by directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. It’s a follow-up to 2005’s “Sin City.” (Miller adapted both scripts from his graphic novels.)

Sin City 2“Sin City 2” stars Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie opens Friday.

Following closely behind its Hollywood Exiles in Europe series, UCLA is hosting Exile Noir, a lineup that explores the major contribution to film noir by German-speaking émigrés in Hollywood, all of whom were schooled in German expressionist cinema. Exiled from Nazi Germany, Jewish writers and directors brought a dark vision to their work, informed by staggering loss, pain, fear and betrayal.

Their arrival in Los Angeles permanently altered the city’s creative landscape. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, recently told Susan King of the LA Times: “[Their arrival] changed not just the film industry and the kind of films that were being made, it changed the intellectual life. You have people who are not in the film industry but came here because of the weather and perceived opportunities, like [composer] Arnold Schoenberg and [author] Thomas Mann. They changed the intellectual character of Southern California.”

Pitfall poster 214The program, which runs through Sept. 28, kicks off with an impressive double bill: the prototype of the genre, “Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder) and “Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth), starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt. In honor of “Double Indemnity” turning 70 this year, on Valentine’s Day, we compiled a list of 14 reasons we love this flick.

This series is presented in anticipation of the Skirball Cultural Center exhibit, Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, running Oct. 23–March 1, 2015. More on that in the next few weeks.

Also, as I mentioned earlier this week, the Egyptian Theatre is showing Sam Fuller’s film noir masterpiece “Pickup on South Street” and “White Dog.” His daughter Samantha Fuller will introduce the movies.

There’s no doubt: Life is good for noiristas in Los Angeles!

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With thanks and sadness, let’s raise a glass to Kate

I think of my spiritual ancestors as Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Joan Bennett and Bette Davis. Their hard-won independence, their juicy scandals and their irrepressible willful streaks on and off screen laid the groundwork for all of us femmes fatales to call the shots, own our dramas and embrace the concept of high maintenance. Put simply: to be a bitch.

Kate's, at the corner of Wilshire and Doheny, opened in 1987.

Kate’s, at the corner of Wilshire and Doheny, opened in 1987.

That said, there are many other vixens, vamps and troublemakers who, though far less famous, are equally inspirational. One of these role models by extension, as it were, was Kate Mantilini, the namesake of a terrific Beverly Hills restaurant that is closing its doors on June 14, after 27 years in business.

Owner Marilyn Lewis says a recent rent increase prompted her decision.

Kate Mantilini was a feisty woman of the 1940s and the mistress of Marilyn Lewis’ uncle. (Marilyn and her late husband Harry Lewis were also the founders of the enormously popular Hamburger Hamlet chain. Harry died last June; he was 93.)

Says Marilyn Lewis: “My mother wouldn’t let me speak to her, nobody would allow us to mention her name, but she was a very strong woman and I wanted to name my restaurant after her.”

Actors, writers and execs gathered at the famous Beverly Hills restaurant.

Actors, writers and industry execs gathered at the famous Beverly Hills restaurant.

Of Irish and Italian descent, the unconventional Kate reportedly liked to do things her way and one of the things she really liked to do was to run businesses. The restaurant’s boxing mural is a nod to the fact that Kate worked in the male-dominated field of fight promotion.

The first time I went to the famous spot was for a late-night supper after seeing a Murnau double-bill at Lacma’s Bing Theater. I was visiting from Chicago and my friend Mickey Cottrell, a veteran film publicist and top-notch performer, suggested to the little group that had gathered that we nosh there. “Let’s head to Kate’s,” he said, as if Kate were a friend who had missed the movie but invited us to her place afterward.

Kate’s hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1987. Outside, by night, a blazing red neon sign pierces the inky blackness of Wilshire Boulevard. The building sits on the northwest corner of Wilshire and Doheny. Kate’s is walking distance from the Academy; the Weinstein Company is across the street.

Michael Mann shot a scene of "Heat" here.

Michael Mann shot a scene of “Heat” here.

Inside, the long, narrow room pulses with talk and laughter; fleet servers fly by, their crisp white aprons flash against the muted gray and cream walls. Glasses, plates and silverware clink and chime.

“I’m definitely moving here,” I thought to myself as we walked in that night, now long-ago. “This is so much cooler than Chicago.”

Mickey had a regular booth he liked; he suggested I order the sand dabs. Delightful. Our party was delightful too. Boisterous, funny, quick to argue fine points about films.

The kind and generous writer/producer/filmmaker Myron Meisel picked up the tab. Critic Michael Wilmington pointed out that the character actor Wallace Shawn was sitting in another booth.

Kate’s has always been popular with industry folk; celebs like Billy Wilder and Mel Brooks were regulars. Writers too, such as Susan Orlean and Tere Tereba, stopped by. Michael Mann, a master of filming Los Angeles by night, chose Kate’s for the scene in “Heat” (1995) when Al Pacino and Robert De Niro talk about their lives as cop and criminal.

Heat posterHarry Lewis was in the entertainment business before he and his wife became restaurateurs. As a contract player with Warner Bros. in the ’40s; Harry had a part in the film-noir classics “Key Largo” starring Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson as well as in “Gun Crazy” with John Dall and Peggy Cummins.

My friends and I may have been the last ones out that night and I’ve been back many times since. (I moved to Los Angeles in November of 2007.) I celebrated birthdays there, met girlfriends for drinks, marked triumphs big and small, stopped by for a slice of lemon ice-box pie and a cup of coffee after seeing a film at the Wilshire screening room.

It’s tough to think that after next Saturday I won’t be able to go to Kate’s anymore. I was a fan of the food (in particular the Cannes Film Festival salad and the split-pea soup) and the building and the vibe. By vibe I mean a sort of magic that’s absent from lots of trendy new restaurants.

Dessert is a must! Shown: the candy bar ice cream pie.

Dessert is a must! Shown: the candy bar ice cream pie.

You felt when you went to Kate’s that you were truly “in” – you might rub shoulders with Hollywood power brokers – but more importantly you were in for really good food and a really good time. Every time you went.

The Beverly Hills Cultural Heritage Commission is considering the property for landmark status to protect the building in the event that new owners decide to remodel. The land parcel (9101, 9107 and 9111 Wilshire Blvd.) features the work of architects Pereira and Luckman, Maxwell Starkman and Thom Mayne.

I hope that happens. But in the meantime, I’m going to raise a glass to Kate – who liked a good fight – and to the strong women she inspired – who doubtless have healthy appetites and never skip dessert.

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FNB tributes to ‘Double Indemnity’ continue: Look on twitter

In honor of the 70th anniversary of “Double Indemnity,” we at FNB are hosting intermittent tributes. On Valentine’s Day, we compiled  a list of 14 reasons we adore the flick. Yesterday, we started tweeting the novel (by James M. Cain). Not sure how long that will take, but it should be fun. And here we are rerunning a review. Next, we should host a party in the Hollywood Hills. Until then …

Double Indemnity/1944/Paramount/106 min.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck

She’s got a plan, she just needs a man. And that’s a welcome challenge for a femme fatale, especially one with an ankle bracelet.

In Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece, “Double Indemnity,” from 1944 Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) wants out of her marriage to rich, grumpy oldster, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers). Poor Phyllis doesn’t get much love from Dietrichson’s adult daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) either. Fresh-faced and feisty, Lola is hung up on her temperamental boyfriend Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr).

For Phyllis, seducing a new guy to help make hubby disappear is so much more cost-effective than hiring a divorce lawyer. A smart insurance man is even better. Along comes Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) trying to sell a policy, just as Phyllis finishes a session of sunbathing, wearing an ankle bracelet and not much more. That’s about as much bait as Walter needs.

They flirt, fall for each other and eventually arrange to bump off Mr. Dietrichson, making it look like he fell from a train. It’s a one-in-a-million way to go with a huge payoff from a double-indemnity insurance policy issued by Walter’s company. After that, they play it cool and wait for the check. They’ve planned it like a military campaign, so they’re in the clear until Walter starts to suspect that he’s not the only guy who’s been drooling at Phyllis’ ankles.

Edward G. Robinson

Besides his lust for the blonde (and their chemistry truly sizzles), Walter’s real love is the platonic father/son relationship he has with his boss at the insurance company, Barton Keyes, sharp, cynical and married to his job, played brilliantly by Edward G. Robinson.

Critic Richard Schickel says “Double Indemnity” is the first true noir. I disagree – what about 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “Stranger on the Third Floor” from 1940? Or even Fritz Lang‘s “M” from Germany in 1931? But the point is “Double Indemnity” was the standard against which every subsequent noir was measured. It’s a glorious treat visually. John Seitz’s luscious lighting and captivating use of shadow bring to mind Vincent Van Gogh’s observation: “There are no less than 80 shades of black.” The score by Miklos Rozsa works perfectly with the visuals to build and sustain atmosphere.

The performances (Stanwyck, MacMurray and Robinson) are tremendous. Though Stanwyck was nominated for the best actress Oscar and “Double Indemnity” was also nominated in six other categories (picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, sound recording and score), MacMurray and Robinson were not in the running and the film didn’t win any Oscars. In retrospect, their work in this movie is some of the best acting of the decade. MacMurray (who might be most familiar as the father in TV’s “My Three Sons”) is such a natural as the easily tempted yet very likeable Neff, it’s surprising now to learn that the role was a major departure from his usual nice-guy parts.

As James Pallot of “The Movie Guide” writes: “Robinson … beautifully gives the film its heart. His speech about death statistics, rattled off at top speed, is one of the film’s highlights.” When Keyes realizes that Walter has betrayed him, it’s heartbreaking in a way that few other noirs are.

Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler, based on the taut little novel by James M. Cain, published in 1936. (The novel was inspired by the real-life 1927 Snyder-Gray case.) In the book “Double Indemnity,” smitten Walter says of Phyllis’ physical charms, “I wasn’t the only one that knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty.”

The dark, witty script follows the book pretty closely, but Chandler’s contributions are key. For example, check out this bit of simmering dialogue:

Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.

Walter: How fast was I going, Officer?

Phyllis: I’d say around 90.

Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.

Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.

Walter: That tears it…

Chatting things over while Mr. Dietrichson is away.

Now it seems egregious that Wilder (1906-2002) and “Double Indemnity” were snubbed at the Oscars. Born in what is now Poland, Wilder escaped the Nazis, but his mother and other family members perished in a concentration camp. He knew firsthand the dark, sometimes horrific, side of life and that knowledge imbued his work with an unparalleled richness and depth. He was also hilarious. If I could have martinis with any film noir director, living or dead, it would be Billy.

I’ve seen interview footage of him where he punctuated his conversation with deep and frequent laughter. And I’ve heard stories about him playing practical jokes – apparently he when he lost the 1944 best director Oscar to Leo McCarey (who won for “Going My Way” starring Bing Crosby) Billy stuck out his foot and tripped McCarey as he walked down the aisle to pick it up. Maybe if I get that fantasy date with the spirit of Billy, I’ll bring Dick Schickel along too. He might benefit from a girly martini and tagging along with Billy and me.

So, suppose you do yourself a favor and watch “Double Indemnity” the first chance you get. You won’t be sorry.

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Another great time at the TCM Classic Film Fest

Thanks to everyone at the TCM Classic Film Festival. It was a great time: Movies, events, staff and fans were amazing! I’ll be writing a more detailed overview but for now, I just wanted to mention a noir factoid I recently uncovered.

“Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder) was a highlight of the fest. Both Walter’s place (the Bryson Apartments) and Phyllis’ house are still in LA. In the film, Walter reckons the house cost about $30,000; it would now cost more than $1.5 million. Read more about the house here.

Phyllis’ house was and is at 6301 Quebec Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

Phyllis’ house was and is at 6301 Quebec Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

In 1944, Fred MacMurray bought the Bryson building for $600,000. Built in 1913 by real estate developer Hugh W. Bryson, the 10-story Beaux Arts stunner was where MacMurray’s character Walter Neff lived in “Double Indemnity.”

The Bryson building is at 2701 Wilshire Blvd. in the MacArthur Park section of Los Angeles.

The Bryson building is at 2701 Wilshire Blvd. in the MacArthur Park section of Los Angeles.

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On Valentine’s Day: 14 reasons we love ‘Double Indemnity’

Double Indemnity poster

Yes, we’re still gushing about “Double Indemnity,” the film noir classic from 1944. Deal with it. Oh, and happy Valentine‘s weekend, btw!

Billy Wilder‘s great prototype film noir turns 70 this year and yet it never gets old. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, the movie boasts a screenplay that Wilder co-wrote with Raymond Chandler, based on James M. Cain‘s novel, which was inspired by actual events.

Here’s why we hold the picture dear to our hearts, dearies.

14. As film noir historian and author Foster Hirsch put it, at a recent screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, “It’s the quintessential film noir. This is the mother lode, primary source film noir. It’s the basis for every film noir you’ve ever loved.”

13. Someone with the name Walter Neff turns out to be a tough guy.

12. All Walter has to do to escape punishment is sit tight. Yet, his ego drives him toward a final confrontation with his lover/partner in crime.

11. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is a fashion victim. If you need convincing, read the piece below re: her awful wig.

10. The first time Phyllis shows up at Walter’s apartment, she says she is returning his hat (which he supposedly left at her house) but the previous scene clearly shows him taking his hat as he leaves. Still, there’s so much tension between them, who cares?!

9. The door to Walter’s apartment opens the wrong way (it shields Phyllis on one of her visits) but you’re so caught up in the story you hardly notice.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

8. You could buy Phyllis Dietrichson’s house for $30,000, even if that took a lifetime to pay off.

7. You could have a beer at a drive-in restaurant, served by a car-hop, no less.

6. The look of supreme satisfaction on Phyllis’s face at the moment her husband is murdered.

5. Stanwyck and MacMurray both took a risk and played against type.

4. Edward G. Robinson almost steals the show and it’s really a bromance between his character and MacMurray’s Walter Neff.

3. Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance, about 16 minutes into the movie, at Walter’s office building.

2. It’s perfectly paced – you can watch it over and over and it moves along lickety split every time, leaving you wanting more.

1. It truly ranks as a classic flick – it’s as fresh, sexy and funny today as it was in 1944. The writing, acting, directing cinematography, lighting, art direction are matchless.

Do you love “Double Indemnity” as much as we do? Then let us know!

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Prescription for retro glamour: A look back at Schwab’s

Sunset b & wHeading to the West Hollywood Rite-Aid to do a little schmoozing? Not bloody likely. But, in Tinseltown’s golden age, Schwab’s Pharmacy, at 8024 Sunset Blvd., ranked as one of the city’s top spots to meet, greet, mix and mingle.

A program Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre highlighted the pivotal role Schwab’s played in Hollywood networking from the 1930s to the 1960s. Teacher/history buff Marc Chevalier delivered a photo-driven presentation, followed by a short that was filmed at Schwab’s to promote a 1946 bio-pic, “The Jolson Story,” and the exquisite movie “Sunset Blvd.” (1950, Billy Wilder), which features the drugstore in a key scene.

Chevalier started his talk with a cherchez la femme angle. The property – on the south side of Sunset Boulevard, between Laurel Avenue and Crescent Heights – first belonged to Dr. George E. Paddleford and his wife, Genevieve McKinney Toomey Teal Paddleford, a “international adventuress and love pirate,” with a string of duped husbands.

The Sunset Medical Building complex opened its doors in 1931.

The Sunset Medical Building in the 1930s. Schwab’s was to the right of the window awning (far right).

The Paddlefords owned lots 1, 2 and 29 of the Crescent Heights tract and built a mansion on lot 2. Fond of giving Dr. Paddleford’s expensive cuff links and other valuable belongings to her lovers, Genevieve drew her husband’s ire and the couple divorced around 1920. She left for Europe where she continued to live the high life, charm men, court scandal, oh and steal stuff from Ritz-Carlton hotels.

Dr. Paddleford (an associate of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny) sold the property and in 1931 architects Alvan Norstrom and Milton Anderson designed the Sunset Medical Building for developers C.H. Thomsen and W.L. Easley. The year before, for the same developers, Norstrom and Anderson designed a building directly across the street. It’s in use today as the Laugh Factory and Greenblatt’s Deli.

Schwab’s was a place to see and be seen.

Schwab’s was a place to see and be seen.

Despite the prosaic name (it became known as the Crescent Heights Shopping Center and later simply “The Corner”), the new building turned out to be a modern-day palace. Its front and side facades were clad in dark tan marble from Southern France and trimmed in rosso levanto Italian marble. (At the time, the only other commercial structure in Los Angeles that boasted so much marble was downtown’s Merritt Building from 1915.) Inside The Corner, rooms were paneled and floored in mahogany; some had terrazzo marble floors. Doctors’ and dentists’ offices were on the second level. A covered-bridge walkway allowed patients to cross from one wing to another. The back court had a 30-space parking lot.

Nearby was the Spanish-Moorish style Garden of Allah apartment complex, originally owned by actress Alla Nazimova in 1919; the Garden was torn down in 1959. Many residents from this chic residence supported businesses at The Corner.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the notable residents at the Garden of Allah.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the notable residents at the Garden of Allah.

Norstrom and Anderson’s marble stunner housed several merchants on the ground floor, including Richard Talmadge, former actor and stuntman for Douglas Fairbanks, who ran a flower shop, and the owner of the Crescent Heights Market, Ben Ruben, known for insulting his customers at no extra charge. Howard Hughes treated his girlfriends to makeovers at the beauty salon.

In 1932, the Schwab brothers (Bernard, Leon, Jack and Martin) took over a failing drugstore in the complex; they would eventually own six pharmacies. But Schwab’s on Sunset wasn’t just a place to drop off a prescription or buy toiletries. Open from 7 a.m. to midnight, the gathering spot served meals as well as soda-fountain drinks. The store had five phone booths and frequently offered automatic credit. Customers could also buy high-end liquor, tobacco, chocolate, perfume and cosmetics. There was no charge for deliveries.

Billy Wilder filmed the Schwab’s  scene at Paramount.

Billy Wilder filmed the Schwab’s scene at Paramount.

In the movie “Sunset Blvd.,” William Holden’s character, a struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis, tells us the pharmacy is his headquarters, explaining: “That’s the way a lot of us think about Schwab’s. Kind of a combination office, coffee klatch and waiting room. Waiting, waiting for the gravy train.” (Though it would seem the ideal location shoot, Wilder had the interior recreated and filmed on a Paramount lot.)

Arguably, what made Schwab’s the place to network and nosh was the fact that journalist/actor/producer Sidney Skolsky wrote his Photoplay column “From a Stool at Schwab’s” in a second-floor office, by arrangement with the Schwab family.

Sidney Skolsky and Marilyn Monroe attend an industry function.

Sidney Skolsky and Marilyn Monroe attend an industry function.

Among Skolsky’s many talents was a knack for nicknames and he dubbed the drugstore Schwabadero’s, an allusion to the Trocadero nightclub down the street. (Even more famously, in 1934, he was the first journalist to write a story using Oscar to refer to the Academy Award.) As a producer on the 1946 movie “The Jolson Story,” it was Skolsky’s idea to shoot the after-party at Schwab’s and use the footage as a publicity short.

Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mickey Cohen, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, the Marx Brothers, Cesar Romero and Shelley Winters were regular Schwabadero’s customers. Marilyn Monroe, another loyal patron, reportedly left messages for Skolsky, under the name Miss Caswell. Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner stopped in and made their own milkshakes.

Though it’s widely thought that Lana Turner was discovered sipping a soda at Schwab’s, in fact it was at the Top Hat malt shop, several blocks east on Sunset, that in 1937, at age 16, she attracted the attention of Hollywood Reporter publisher William Wilkerson.

Debunking the myth: Lana Turner was discovered at a malt shop down the street from Schwab’s.

Lana Turner was discovered at a malt shop down the street from Schwab’s.

By the time Schwab’s had its closeup in “Sunset Blvd.,” Russian immigrant/Beverly Hills businessman Martin Belousoff owned the property. In 1949, Googie’s coffee shop, designed by architect John Lautner in Space Age/midcentury modern style, was built nearby and served customers such as James Dean, Marlon Brando and beat-generation poets. (Googie’s lasted until 1989.)

Compared with Googie’s, Schwab’s looked passé and in 1955 Belousoff decided to remodel inside and out, commissioning architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis for the job. But not long after Schwab’s updated, new Sunset Strip venues were opening up and gaining popularity with aspiring stars and ’60s hipsters.

Schwab’s, which had been in business for 50 years and earned worldwide fame as a Hollywood hive of activity, closed its doors in 1983 and was torn down in 1988. But it remains Hollyood’s most famous drugstore – a legendary place to sip sodas, schmooze, spot stars and, like many a prospective Lana Turner, strut your stuff.

Schwab's was open from 7 a.m. to midnight.

Schwab’s was open from 7 a.m. to midnight.

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Happy b’day, Babs! FNB joins Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon

Very few actresses truly deserve accolades like stellar, peerless, magnificent and amazing. Barbara Stanwyck, who had a stage, film and TV career spanning more than 50 years, is surely one of that select group. She might have cringed at such lofty praise, however, referring to herself as “a tough old broad from Brooklyn.”

Adjectives aside, Stanwyck stands out for the range of parts she played, her discipline as an artist, and the subtlety and strength of her performances. That’s why I was so pleased when Aubyn at The Girl with the White Parasol let me join this month’s Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, which runs through July 22.

For my contribution, I’m highlighting a fluffy detail from the great “Double Indemnity” (1944): Phyllis Dietrichson’s tawdry blonde wig. The piece also includes some observations from master director Billy Wilder on working with Barbara – born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, and later nicknamed Babs, Missy and The Queen. She still rules today.

A Babs Stanwyck moment for FNB

On Phyllis Dietrichson’s wig: Looking through some photos the other day, I noticed how often I lost the fight with my fine, curly hair and let it go wild (left). Not every day can be a good hair day.

If I ever need assurance that every femme fatale has a styling glitch from time to time, I look at Barbara Stanwyck’s awful wig in “Double Indemnity,” a quintessential noir from 1944, directed by Billy Wilder.

Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva said of the stiff blonde ’do, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”

It also reminded me that it had been ages since I’d looked at my copy of “Conversations with Wilder” by Cameron Crowe, published in 1999. Of course, I flipped right to Wilder’s answer to Crowe’s question about the direction given to Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” for the silent shot on her face while the murder is occurring.

Said Wilder: Sure, that was a highly intelligent actress, Miss Stanwyck. I questioned the wig, but it was proper, because it was a phony wig. It was an obviously phony wig. And the anklet – the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man. They scream for murder.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in “Double Indemnity” from 1944. Both played against type.

Yeah, naturally we rehearsed this thing. But I rehearsed it with her once or twice, that’s the maximum, and it was not that much different from the way she would have done it. She was just an extraordinary woman. She took the script, loved it, right from the word go, didn’t have the agent come and say, “Look, she’s to play a murderess, she must get more money, because she’s never going to work again.”

With Stanwyck, I had absolutely no difficulties at all. And she knew the script, everybody‘s lines. You could wake her up in the middle of the night and she’d know the scene. Never a fault, never a mistake – just a wonderful brain she had.

Crowe asked if the part had been written for Stanwyck. Wilder said: Yeah. And then there there was an actor by the name of Fred MacMurray at Paramount, and he played comedies. Small dramatic parts, big parts in comedies. I let him read it, and he said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Why can’t you?” He said, “It requires acting!” [Laughs.] I said, “Look, you have now arrived in comedy, you’re at a certain point where you either have to stop, or you have to jump over the river and start something new.” He said, “Will you tell me when I’m no good?” [He nods: a partnership is born.] And he was wonderful because it’s odd casting.

Paramount image of “Double Indemnity”

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Noirish ‘Some Like It Hot’ at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane in “Some Like It Hot.”

To celebrate Marilyn Monroe’s birthday, on Saturday, June 1, Cinespia.org will present “Some Like It Hot” (1959, Billy Wilder) at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Though the film is considered one of Tinseltown’s all-time best comedies, Marilyn reportedly objected to the fact that her character, Sugar Kane, actually believed her fellow musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon dressed in drag) were women. No girl is that dumb, she said. Nevertheless, the movie was a hit and her performance is unforgettable. You can read Mike Wilmington’s review here.

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The Noir File: Wilder’s dark favorite is an American nightmare

By Mike Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Ace in the Hole” (1951, Billy Wilder). Friday, May 17, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.).

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a star reporter exiled from his big-city paper.

In the Golden Age of Hollywood and film noir, no one was better than Kirk Douglas at playing anti heroes, heels and villains. In movies like “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “I Walk Alone” and “Out of the Past,” he channeled the amoral climber who knifes you with a smile, or steps on almost everyone on his way to the top. The best (or worst) of all Douglas’s movie heels is Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” – a slick-operator star newspaper reporter who messes up, gets exiled from his big-city paper and is now stuck in Albuquerque, N.M., in a desert dead-end.

When Chuck learns of a local miner named Leo Mimosa trapped in a cave-in in a Native American holy area, he sees a chance to ratchet up the drama and revive his career. A master manipulator, Chuck talks Leo and his rescuers into taking a longer, more dangerous escape route, then plays the story to the hilt, planning to sell it to the big outlets back east. With Leo’s life on the line and the clock ticking, this master of hype and hoopla turns the story into a circus and the circus into a nightmare.

A master manipulator, Chuck ratchets up the drama in an effort to revive his career.

Chuck Tatum, brought to stinging life by Douglas, was the brainchild of Billy Wilder, who had just dissolved his decades-long writing partnership with Charles Brackett after their hit, “Sunset Blvd.” Walter Newman, who later wrote “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “Cat Ballou,” was one of Wilder’s new co-writers and, though they never collaborated again, Wilder must have liked some of what they did.

Many times, Wilder cited “Ace in the Hole” as one of his favorites among his films, “the runt of my litter” as he affectionately called it. The runt is one of the darkest of all Wilder’s films: a portrait of American society, culture and media, a ruthless exposé of Tatum and his fellow opportunists.

The more conservative Brackett (who had refused to work with Wilder on “Double Indemnity”) had been something of a brake on Billy’s cynicism, which is fully unleashed here. Perhaps Brackett had a point. Many critics and audiences in 1951 didn’t much care for the acrid darkness and lacerating social indictment of Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” which was such a flop that it had to be pulled and re-released as “The Big Carnival.”

It didn’t come to be regarded as a classic of American cinema and social criticism until years later. Maybe the picture was just too noir for ’50s moviegoers. But it’s not too noir for us.

Friday, May 17

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Where Danger Lives” (1953, John Farrow). Love on the run, with infatuated Bob Mitchum falling for dangerous Faith Domergue, and the two of them heading for Mexico. A standard but engrossing “femme fatale” noir, from the director of “The Big Clock.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Ace in the Hole” (1951, Billy Wilder). See PICK OF THE WEEK.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Our Man in Havana” (1960, Carol Reed). The third of the three film thriller collaborations between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. (The others are “The Third Man” and “The Fallen Idol.”) It’s also the least admired by critics, and the team’s only comedy, with Alec Guinness playing a British vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba inexplicably involved in a batty spy intrigue. The crack cast also includes Maureen O’Hara, Ralph Richardson, Ernie Kovacs, Noel Coward and Burl Ives.

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson star in “Autumn Leaves.”

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “Autumn Leaves” (1956, Robert Aldrich.) With Joan Crawford, Cliff Robertson and Vera Miles. Reviewed on FNB December 4, 2012.

Sunday, May 19

12 p.m. (9 p.m.): “Johnny O’Clock” (1947, Robert Rossen). Rossen’s directorial debut: a solid noir with a gambling backdrop and a vintage tough Dick Powell performance.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945, John M. Stahl). With Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price. Reviewed on FNB April 18, 2013.

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Night Must Fall” (1937, Richard Thorpe). Emlyn Williams’ famed suspense play about a seductive young psycho (Robert Montgomery) and his rich lady target (Dame May Whitty) is given a plush MGM treatment. With Rosalind Russell. [Read more...]

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